Monday, 30 September 2013

The Design Process

New Dress!

It was really sunny out there when we took these pictures, and I kept squinting!
I worked from the basic tank dress to create this design. It has a few new features, including capped sleeves, a keyhole neckline, gathers under the bust and a shaped waistband. I will go into detail about how I did that in a later post. I've also bound the neck and sleeves, which worked out really well and I will do another post about that too. I'm about 95% happy with it, which is pretty good for me.

Someone asked the other day - how do you design? I didn't really know how to answer that in 25 words or less. But I do worry that people think that the design process is something some people can do and others can't. Perhaps they might think that if their ideas don't work out straight away, they aren't any good at it. For the record, that's not the case at all.

Here's the back story. I made this dress, or various versions of it, 3 times over before I was happy. It probably took me the equivalent of 3 days work. Initially, I had plans for a different style of skirt. It took a couple of goes to get the new shape right, and then I admitted I probably wasn't going to be able to pull it off on my figure. So I scrapped that idea altogether. I should really follow my own advice and baste first, because unpicking stretch stitch is a huge pain in the butt.

Sometimes my ideas work out first go. Which is delightful. But honestly, that isn't what I expect. Usually, there's a lot of fussing about and re-evaluating at each step. Often I have to start from scratch. The ones that do work out, work out largely because of the things I've learned from previous errors. It does get easier. And then, I push up to the next challenge.

What I'm trying to say is, don't be scared. If you want to try it, jump in. And remember not to worry if it doesn't work out the first time. Look for the bits that work, and run with it. 

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Working With Stretch Fabric - Needles

Stretch fabric is knitted, rather than woven. You can get some woven fabrics with elastic fibres, like stretch denim or stretch poplin - these have minimal stretch and can be treated like a standard woven. For now I'm focusing on t-shirt fabric, ponti and really stretchy lycra/spandex stuff.

Because of the difference in construction, you usually need a ball point, rather than a universal needle. This allows the needle to push between the gaps in the knit, rather than piercing it. In a woven fabric, you want to pierce a hole so you don't snag a thread and create a pull in your work. In a knit, if you break the strand, you get holes. Ballpoint needles may be sold as ballpoint, jersey or stretch needles. To the best of my knowledge, jersey and ball point are the same, but stretch needles have a slightly different shape/eye which makes them more suitable for super stretchy stuff like lycra. Get those if you're doing swimwear.

Pointy for woven fabric, rounded for stretch fabric.
Like universal needles, ballpoint needles come in a range of shaft sizes (I've seen 70/10 - 100/16) with the smaller numbers being suited to the lighter, finer fabrics, and the larger numbers for the heavier denser fabric. The number will be printed on the shank. Some brands have a built in magnifier on their cases to help you see it (I think Schmetz does, but looking at the Prym pack in front of me I can't see one).

Sometimes you can get away with a universal needle on stretch fabric. Its easy to test. Before you sew your garment, grab a scrap of your fabric and do a test run. Pull it out and hold it up to the light. If you're seeing any holes forming around the seam / stitches, you need a ball point needle. Change it now, save yourself the disappointment. These little holes have the potential to run - just like a snag in a pair of stockings or a knitted sweater.
It's not going to get better.
Potentially you might also want to use a twin needle for hemming (although not for construction). Personally, I don't like them. The idea behind them is that you will get a similar effect to the standard hem finish (coverstitch) on stretch wear. I find the tension is always a problem, and am happy to leave the whole twin needle thing for decorative stuff on regular fabric. But if you want to have a go and mess with your tension until it comes up satisfactorily, go nuts. And then, please, tell me how you did it. Because I love you, here's a link to some people at the sewing org who seem to have the twin needle thing, err, all sewn up. It should give you a row of double stitching on the front, and a zigzag on the back.

If you are wondering about coverstitch, just to go on a tangent here, it is this stitch:

Which you will have no doubt encountered on the bottom of every t-shirt/pair of leggings you own.

Sadly, that's not a stitch you can do on a regular domestic machine. For that, you require a specialised coverstitch machine, or an overlocker with a coverstitch function. It's a bit fussy to work with (because if you sew without fabric in there, even one itty bitty stitch on the handwheel, the whole thing jams up) BUT I think worth the trouble. Unfortunately, my overlocker/coverstitch machine is sitting in storage on the other side of the planet. Bummer.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Working With Stretch Fabric - Fitting Pieces of Different Sizes Together


This post is in response to a question on Facebook (Claire - I hope this is helpful!?)

How do you get a smooth seam with two different sized pieces of stretch fabric?

This is an approach you would use for something like a crew neck (which is smaller than the hole to make it sit flat) or other banded neckline. It is also useful for fitting other parts of the garment together where there is *a bit* of stretch.

Here I am fitting a waistband to a skirt. They're both quite strange shapes - I am trying a new design here! The waistband is slightly smaller than the skirt, because I would like a snug fit around the waist.

The method you would use on a woven fabric would be to gather the skirt to fit the waistband. And you can do that. But here's what I do.

I've quartered them and pinned vertically. - I find the quarter marks by folding in half, and then in half again.

I then pin together the quarter marks and the edges. You can see here that they are close, but not an exact fit.

Then I sew. As I sew, I put the shorter length on the top, and pull it out just enough to match up with the lower layer. There are three pieces here because my waistband is double thickness.
I would like to remark at this point that a) it is difficult to do this while taking a photo with your left hand, and b) please excuse the mess behind the machine.

When it is all finished, it looks like this: (From above and the side).

Which is perfectly acceptable for what I'm doing.

I think there is a limit to how much extra fabric you can get in here though - And where. On a neckline you can have a lot of pull, but on something like a sleeve cuff, I wouldn't want the tension.
Here's another example.

Here the larger size is twice as long as the shorter size.

Which means a lot of looseness.
And a lot more pulling - in this case causing a bit of a roll.
The tension is obvious in the finished seam.

I wouldn't be happy with that. So in a case like that, I would revert to a traditional gather.

I hope this has been useful!

Sunday, 22 September 2013


Yesterday, my copy of "To Die For - Is Fashion Wearing Out The World?" By Lucy Siegle arrived in the post.

I got a voucher with it.
Well done, Amazon. :)

As it happens, I am a big fan of such books. Thank you Helen, for pointing me towards this one.

I proceeded to read it cover to cover, hogging the best part of the sofa, and stopping only for tea and comfort breaks.

There's nothing particularly new here for me - I read a lot of non-fiction, and have already worked my way through other consumer-culture commentaries including 'Affluenza' by Oliver James, 'Affluenza' by John De Graaf, and 'Affluenza' by Clive Hamilton. You might spot a theme. I've also gotten through 'Excess' by Kim Humphrey (which provided a new perspective for me), 'Not Buying It' by Judith Levine, 'Growth Fetish' also by Clive Hamilton and  pretty much anything of that type which I could get my hands on. My ex did rather uncharitably point out that there was a degree of irony in my purchasing a bunch of books about the importance of purchasing less stuff. My compelling and well researched counter argument is essentially an Ad hominem response.

I read heaps online, watched 'The Story of Stuff' more times than I could count, and looked into groups like 'The Compact'.  So this was familiar territory in that sense. Also, some of the back story of production lines was revealed when I was doing my CIT courses, revealing far more people involved than I had ever even thought to consider. Some of the conditions of workers in the garment industry were discussed - but not with the detail in this book.

All of this reading quietly changes my understanding of the world, and my perspective shifts accordingly. On our first occasion of heading into a clothing shop together, Jon commented that he'd "...never met a woman who hates shopping as much as [I] do." And while elements of that are due to bad fit, and an instant recognition of poor quality work that I've developed with my sewing skill set, a lot of it has to do with attitudes to consumption.

It's along a similar vein to watching Supersize Me. After that, I'm not going to smell fast food and just think about how yummy that smells. I'm also going to think about obesity epidemics and crematoriums which smell just like fried chicken. Which means I'm not so hungry anymore. Similarly, knowing about the horrendous practices in the fashion industry takes the shine off stuff, real fast.

I think this book really does shed light on the scale of the unethical and dangerous practices of fast fashion. And I'll probably be going through it again, armed with post it notes and a highlighter.

But onto the focus of the blog.

In the face of all of the themes raised, it seems it's hard to make good consumer choices. The way I see it, home sewing is an excellent response to the garment industry.

Granted, all products have an impact. And I do still buy fabric, and frankly I don't know it's origins. I don't think I've even asked. Perhaps I should.

In the meantime, here are six reasons I feel better about doing my own thing.

1. Sewing for myself means I understand the value of my clothes. I hold onto them for longer, and take care of them better. I love my creations. I keep them for ages. Slowing the cycle decreases the demand for fast fashion.

2. Sewing for myself means I am not exploiting garment workers in the Developing World. I am taking my vote (albeit a tiny one) out of the economic system which presses for less than minimum wages, and unsafe working conditions in sweat shops (I can't do a great deal about fabric and fiber production).

3. Sewing for myself means I acquire clothing at a slower rate. Granted, it's always possible to out -stash your lifespan, and many of us do. But if I'm honest, even if I'm really making an effort, work commitments and social commitments and the need to sleep mean I'm flat out making more than one item per fortnight. Which funnily enough, is still far more than I actually require. Compare that to walking into Top Shop or New Look and coming home with a bag full of stuff.

4. Sewing for myself means I can convert or modify something that is 'almost' right, or needs updating, rather than throwing it out. In my experience, sometimes that's as straightforward as removing an offending embellishment. And plenty of people who don't have these skills would buy a whole new garment. I am more satisfied with my stuff because even if I make a mistake, I have the power to change it.

5. Consequently, sewing for myself means less stuff making its way to landfill in record time.

6. Sewing for myself means I don't even want a lot of the stuff I see out there - I know it isn't well made (because I know what well made means) and I know it doesn't fit well. I walk past it with confidence, rather than responding to emotional triggers advertisers exploit. That stuff is made for a fictional 'standard' figure in a carefully researched demographic. Not for me.

These are the advantages which occur to me purely in light of reading this book. I'm not including other obvious stuff like power over style choices.

What about you? Are you sewing in response to unethical fashion practices? Or purely for the fun of it? What are your best reasons for, or advantages to, sewing your own stuff?

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Cheap And Nasty Remake - Stripey Top.

Being able to sew is like having super powers.

I found this hideous top today.

Isn't it nasty? It's a big rectangle with a hole cut in for the head.

One size fits nobody. But don't worry - It may not have any shape but I'm sure this tie thingy will help.
Now it's heaps sexy!

Here's a close up of some quality construction:

That tie thingy goes through an unfinished hole someone has thoughtfully stabbed through the side. Not even a buttonhole! Obviously a lot of care went into this. 

So, as a service to the world, I took it upon myself to make something respectable out of it. In part because despite its obvious and numerous flaws, I kinda liked the stripes.

I chopped it up, and faffed about trying to figure out whether it was possible to match up the stripes. Originally, the stripes went up the front in one direction, and down the back in the other. That was bugging me a bit. It was quite a challenge and really limited the amount of usable fabric.

See, I had this idea.

I'd seen this top in East a while ago. And I wanted it. But I didn't even try it on. I rarely do. Because their sizes look a bit crazy big for my pint sized body. But I thought I could create something a bit similar. 

Obviously not enough fabric for long sleeves, but I think I can still get the same effect.
I started by tacking where the hems would go, and putting the back together.

And then cutting the top of the back level.

Then I hemmed the inner edge, and folded the strips at right angles. I had to make sure they were even. I also slipped it over my hear to make sure it was long enough for front and back. 

I tacked the cross-over at the front:
And trimmed the edge.
This wasn't perfectly level, I pinned it on and found that it actually needed a bit of a curve.

For the bottom half, I cut out the tank top pattern from below the bustline. I then brought them in by several centimetres, because it was very stretchy and I wanted it to fit closely. I had to put a centre back seam in, because the neckline scooped too low, and made a big chunk of the front piece unusable. Fortunately, the top of the front piece was wide enough to use the pieces on either side of the neckline. I sewed them together first, and then cut the back out, lining up the centre back with the seam.

I basted everything and tried it on, fiddled with the front a bit, and then sewed it together properly.

Ta Da!! 

Now it feels like something I would actually be willing to wear in public. Yay!
Quick before and after:

Umm. Yeah, that's an improvement.

There's a whole bunch of issues behind cheap clothing. Working conditions of those making them, the environmental impact of the waste, the poor quality results. It's so crazy to be making things like this. The quality of fabrics themselves are poor too, so it will have a more limited lifespan than an item of clothing made from better quality fabric. Arguably, in purchasing this item, I have contributed to that cycle.

I will also tell you remaking this simple shirt took 6 hours. Granted, efficiency of mass production should reduce that time frame somewhat, and if it were made from scratch it would require less fiddling around to make the most of the fabric. But it still doesn't make sense that you can buy a shirt for £4.00, between producing materials, labour, transport, storefront running costs and everything else that goes into the process. Something in this equation has gone wrong.

 But I hope if nothing else, this shirt's journey to landfill will be a bit slower now.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Working With Stretch Fabric - Cutting Out

Ok first tip for stretch fabric!

It might seem a bit obvious, but I've made this mistake more than once.
When you are cutting out stretch fabric, you need to be aware that it can distort.
So if your fabric needs to be laid flat, relaxed AND be supported.

If you let it fall off the side of the table, you may end up cutting your pieces a bit small or wonky.
You can see the stretch as it falls off the corner!

Here I have laid out the fabric flat, and then carefully put the extra fabric on the side of the table. I made sure the stripes were straight before I cut, don't worry!

You want to make sure that any fabric which does not fit on the table is lifted up so that it isn't pulling. I have a very small table to cut out on, so I need to work piece by piece to ensure the fabric isn't going to distort. I plan things out on the carpet to make the most of my fabric, working from the edge or the corner, but ultimately, I find I have to go piece by piece. Also, if you pin on your pieces and then let them fall off the sides, it is very likely your pieces will tear.

Of course, if you're lucky enough to have a big cutting table, same rule applies - get the extra fabric on the table so the fabric is flat and relaxed.


Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Australia, Patterns, and Treasures

Long post coming up here. No offence taken if you skip over the reading and just check the pictures.

So in August, I went back to Australia. Essentially, the most expensive 'meet the parents' ever, my chance to introduce Jon to family and friends, his chance to go somewhere he would probably never have had any compelling reason to go to if he didn't have such a deep appreciation for my love of bad puns and my ravishingly good looks . Plus, it was a chance to touch base with the best things about Australia, like Golden Gaytimes because they're not available in the UK, along with Cherry Ripes. People, you are missing out.
Cherry Ripe Bar
Somehow or other, I think I gained a little weight on this trip. 

It was brilliant. We got to catch up with some of my favouritest people in the world ever, see the coast, feed the birds, spot whales and frantically buzz about. I got to go to the Hollywood Costume Exhibition in Melbourne which was great because I missed it when it was on in London (I'm only saying that because it makes me feel very jet-set, and I also get that a large proportion of my current readership has heard this joke already. Sorry guys. I think I'm done using it now). It went insanely quickly. I would have happily spent another week in Melbourne alone.

None of this is exactly the point of this post because I'm getting off track, but hey, it's my blog and I'll ramble if I want to. (Please come back soon, I promise to stay focused next time.)

One of my jobs while I was there was supposed to be to sort out my stash of stuff at mum and dad's place. I have a lot of 'stuff' in a lot of boxes which has just been sitting around since I went away. I completely failed in this goal, I think I managed to throw out about 5 things, and then bought some new plastic boxes and put the things in new boxes. That's efficiency, right there.

Of course there were a few bits and bobs I wanted to pull out and take back to the UK with me, and of course I didn't have quite the amount of baggage allowance required to take all of my favourite treasures home like I wanted.

In those boxes were my collection of old patterns. Vintage, if you like. Or Retro. Or junk. It's open to interpretation.

A couple of years ago, I started doing a bit of research on the history of commercial patterns. Nothing formal, just reading bits here and there, and boring friends senseless with my discoveries. I am fascinated by the evolution of the pattern, and the changes in the expected skill level of the home dressmaker. I really get my sewing geek on, and end up finding all sorts of things about the different social, economic and cultural influences which came into play with that as well, and the changes in fashions as a reflection of so many other facets of life. I even went down to the National Library and spent hours on looking at old books on dressmaking - or scans rather, because my connection at home struggled with the download size. (Incidentally, their bag check in desk somehow seems more thorough, impersonal and unpleasant than the security checks at Heathrow. Just sayin'.)

Because I rambled on about it incessantly, people started giving me old stuff. Like a great little school needlework book, a bunch of patterns, and this gem:

Merle, you are frigging awesome.

So that came back with me. I'd been remembering to bring that back for months now.

Imagine how stoked I was when mum said casually 'Oh I found an old drafting book you might like,' and presented me with volume 3. I squealed with delight so loudly when I first saw it, that poor Jon jumped about a foot and spun around worried that I had seriously injured myself. He probably thought I'd been bitten by a spider. Because Aussie spiders are scary.

They have more legs than this though.
I also had a look through my patterns, and although I really only had room for about 5 of them in my suitcase, I did take a bunch of photos.

Some of the lovely things I have include:

Patterns which have no markings, and are pre-cut with small holes to indicate placement of darts / tucks etc.

The patterns which people would send for by mail. My favourite has this envelope, on the front of which someone has carefully glued on the picture presumably from the magazine in which it was advertised. Underneath this I can just see the edge of a typed address, and I'm so curious, but I don't want to damage it! So it remains firmly stuck on.

I also found a photograph in one of the children's patterns. It has the name 'Gail' on the back.

And some newspaper where someone has re-drafted one of the pattern pieces. No date, but some clues in there:

Some old style instruction sheets - these were often the same for different patterns. It was pretty much up to you to figure it out.

Although more minimalist versions included the instructions on the back of the envelope:
I love the way the illustrations are obviously painstakingly hand drawn.
Instruction sheets got more detailed over time. And I imagine this was probably more due to the fact that it became easier and more economical to produce instruction sheets, than the diminishing skill of home dressmakers. Although it probably plays a part too. Most of the patterns I've used have between 4 and 6 sheets with heaps of illustrations.

This is my highly treasured Australian Home Journal Magazine and pattern. I bought this one. The patterns are included inside the magazine.

I loved the styles of these dresses! If you're a fan of 40's - 50's style, you can check out an online archive of Australian Home Journal here. Obviously, the patterns aren't available on the archive, but there are some gorgeous designs and little notes and style illustrations in the magazine. And even without that, it's worth checking out just for the advertising. :)


This one didn't have an envelope. The shoulder reminds me of the Ceylon dress by Colette. Which I also have in my stash.

And then a whole collection of children's patterns. Generally in one size only, by age.

As an anecdote to go with that, when I was in primary school, my mum rang up to order me a school uniform. The lady on the other end said "How old is she?"
To which mum replied "Er, well that's not really relevant."
"Oh," said the lady on the other end of the phone. "You must be Zoe's mum."

You've been so cool sticking with me on this one. Have an awesome day!