Valancing Act

Readers,

What did it take to go from this:

A very sad valance accompanying spindly mini-blinds in the kitchen of our 1958 house when we bought it.

To this:

The sad valance is gone, thankfully–but what window treatment would be best?  Not a lace cafe curtain, that’s for sure.

To this?

Got a minute?  I’ll tell you.

I’m a fabric person, so I wasn’t thrilled to conclude that the best window treatment for our kitchen was a blind. Not floor-length draperies (obviously), or little cafe curtains, which would leave too much hard, dark, shiny window glass exposed before sunrise and after sunset when days are short.

No, for what we wanted–to be able to watch the passing neighborhood scene or shut it out, according to inclination–a blind was just the thing. Back in February I called the blind and curtain company Smith & Noble to send a designer over. She walked me through the whole process of choosing the widths and colors of slats and twill tape, did the measuring and the ordering, and in a couple of weeks our blind was installed.  It looked and worked great.

I lived with the blind very happily, but it wasn’t long before I returned to the matter of adding more colors, patterns, and shapes by way of fabric into the view of our kitchen window wall.  I knew which fabric I wanted to use, too: a printed cotton from the legendary French fabric producer Souleiado.If you have ever seen Pierre Deux’s French Country: A Style and Source Book you may recall the gorgeous fabrics chapter showcasing Souleiado.

My well-thumbed copy, which I bought in 1985.

I had found this faded but still vibrant Provencal print at my favorite store in the world, Grandview Mercantile (right here in Columbus, Ohio), covering a little homemade comforter. I was immediately taken by the unusual combination of mustardy yellow, spicy brown, and vivid turquoise balanced by a terracotta pink. These weren’t conventionally pretty colors, but I found them arresting. I bought the little comforter for $35.

Months later, I took out my seam ripper and carefully undid the stitching of the comforter. That’s when I discovered this enchanting pattern was made by Souleiado. That was as exciting for me as it would be for someone else discovering that a lamp picked up at a garage sale was made by Tiffany.

I wanted to use this fabric where I could enjoy it every day, but I didn’t want to ruin it. That was a quandary so familiar to me as a clothing sewer: longing to use a fabric but fearing cutting into it before being certain the fit and the style of the garment were right.

How could I get to the point of being brave enough to cut into my precious, perhaps irreplaceable, fabric?

I thought, okay–I’ll just have to do a lot of mockups. Instead of thinking I would never know enough to be able to cut into my fabric, I thought about how many easy, cheap or free, reversible experiments I could run.

How about tracing the outlines of the kitchen window wall from a photo? After I did, I thought, “Everything but the faucet is a right angle! I want to mix in some curves!”

Here’s the photo…

…and here’s the tracing. It was when I traced the basic outlines of the wall that I noticed they were all right angles. How about adding some curves to this view?

Paper is cheap. How about testing shapes and sizes of valances in paper?

Better yet, how about color-photocopying my fabric at our local library for 50 cents a sheet? Tape the pages together and hang them to get a sense of the impact of the colors and patterns mixed with the existing colors and patterns on the window wall?

I also thought to try finding more of this fabric and set up a daily search on the word “Souleiado” on eBay. After a couple of months, a three-yard piece turned up, in perfect condition–a very lucky find.

I set up a Pinterest board to collect valance and cornice pictures. (I mostly found designs I didn‘t want.)

I used a scrap of the furring strip to balance the staple gun. Jack held the mount steady while I stapled down the Velcro.

I wanted a valance I knew could be machine-washed if it got dusty and dull-looking. That definitely meant I had to create my own construction plan to guarantee washability. But the instructions for the Zigzag Pelmet/Valance from the book Curtains and Blinds by Lucinda Ganderton and Ali Watkinson turned out to be very helpful.

I had two main questions to answer about the shape of this valance: the depth, and the bottom edge. I studied pictures to get a sense of what looked proportionate–not skimpy, and not like a hat that’s too big for its wearer. Then I tried paper mockups.

The mount was attached to the wall with angle irons.

I realized after trying out some curves in paper mockups that determining the right size is not as easy as it seems.   It was only after studying the print for awhile that I noticed the unbroken lengthwise curve that supplied the obvious shape of the border. I cut my photocopy along the curve–another cheap, easy, risk-free test–and had my answer.

On the taped-together photocopies I cut along the curve in the print. Would this curve make a nice border? Yes.

A closeup of the mount

The lining for the valance was another question. It had to be machine-washable and the right weight and drape. In my stash was a white cotton flannel sheet I had been saving for interlining coats that turned out to work very well.

All during this project I wished I could get a few minutes’ input from a designer for aesthetic guidance and from a window furnishings maker about construction techniques. That would have boosted my confidence and saved me time.

My idea of using separate pieces of Velcro for the returns helped to create crisp turns around the corners.

Instead, I dithered about the size and shape of the valance, questioned the completeness and accuracy of the instructions I was more or less following, and worried about drilling holes in the wall in addition to worrying about chopping into my fabric.

I had a lengthy conversation with the hardware store clerk about the right size of angle irons and wall anchors to buy as well as the dimensions of the furring strip for the valance mount.

The instructions I used did not call for pressing in a crease at the turns. A crease gave a much better look than the original floppy ends.

In the absence of professional advice I did learn a lot along the way, and I applied knowledge from curtain- and garment-making to create a pretty nicely finished, proportionate–machine-washable, even!–valance from a beautiful fabric.

Monday afternoon I finished the stitching and pressing, and Jack installed the valance on its Velcro’ed mount.

The lining can be glimpsed from the front, so I’m glad the flannel I used didn’t have a cute print!

What works, what doesn’t?

What works is, I’m satisfied with the construction.  With my level of knowledge as a home sewer of mostly garments, I don’t think I could have done better.

What doesn’t work? The best way I can put it is, I think this burst of color, shape and pattern will work better when the eye can travel around the room and pick up on other bursts of colors, shapes, and patterns that will set up an intriguing rhythm.

Putting objects in a room is just the first step. Creating relationships among the objects is where a lot of the fun is going to be. I have more of this beautiful print and am thinking about how I can use it to delight the eye.

A few of my favorite things

What Instructions Will Never Tell You

Readers,

I don’t think it’s emphasized nearly enough how much this thing we call “sewing” is a process of formulating questions, cracking puzzles, experimenting, course-correcting, and adjusting expectations.

From idea to finished product can be a pretty circuitous route, and I am still surprised how many decisions are required along the way.

Take the shower curtain I made over the weekend.

Clamping a remnant over the curtain rod: Would this be a good shower curtain?

I’d been meaning for months to make one for our remodeled bathroom but had been shying away from actually committing to the project.

The bathroom when we bought the house: Hello 1958!

The remodeled bathroom, in need of a nice-looking shower curtain.

I have dozens of potential projects competing for my attention, and how any one of them finally breaks away from the pack and gets chosen would make a good research project. (I’ll put that on my project list…)

The dining room before we bought the house. We think the couch was placed to prevent innocent househunters from walking out the sliding door and tumbling 15 inches onto the brick patio.

The dining room now, with draperies I made with a Craftsy class taught by Susan Woodcock. Would leftover yardage work for a shower curtain?

Out of curiosity last week I Googled “how to sew a shower curtain” and looked at a couple of sets of free instructions, from Craftsy and from Good Housekeeping magazine.  I’d say the best thing about such instructions is their infectious cheeriness. “It’s easy!” they practically shout, and, in a way, they’re right:

  • Use the curtain liner as your starting point for measurements.
  • Use one extra-wide piece of fabric or seam together two regular widths.
  • Hem all sides.
  • Install grommets or sew buttonholes
  • Hang the curtain.
  • Stand back and admire your handiwork. Aren’t you clever!

In Instruction Land, making a shower curtain is a simple linear process, with one step logically following another till you’re done.

But in Getting Things Sewn Land, making a shower curtain is…well, anything but linear. And I think this is a big reason for my procrastinating on starting practically every project, however straightforward it may appear at the outset.

There’s the image of the dream at the beginning, and the reality of the finished object at the end–and between is the murky middle where I have to figure out what questions even to ask, let alone how to answer them.

I wanted the curtain to extend a little beyond the plastic liner. A pesky detail: How much beyond? Where shall I position my buttonholes?

In Instruction Land it’s assumed that all technical and aesthetic questions have already been settled. What’s left is a simple matter of assembling the parts.

How high or low can I hang the curtain? How much clearance does the rod need?

But in Getting Things Sewn Land I find myself asking technical and aesthetic questions right down to the finish line.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for the clarity and optimism of Instruction Land. I just have to keep reminding myself, though, that step-by-step, linear instructions represent only part of the process of getting things sewn.

The curtain top reaches the top of the ring: is that okay? Make a sample and check it out.

In my experience real sewing projects are almost always better represented by a diagram starting with a central node with many nodes linking to it to capture ideas and questions first, then decisions and experiments, then more decisions turned into steps.

The curtain sample looks crowded against the rod and inside the ring. Moisture could accumulate and cause a mildew problem.

Part of my hesitation was over whether yardage left from the dining room drapery project would be a good choice for a shower curtain.  (By the way, this is Buffalo Check by P Kaufmann in the colorway Biscuit and it’s 100% cotton.) As I discovered laundering and pressing a sizable remnant, Buffalo Check didn’t retain its crispness and stayed a little wrinkly.  So, not an ideal candidate for a shower curtain.

The buttonholes are positioned closer to the top in the actual curtain.

However, the curtain would not get a great deal of use being slid back and forth on the rod or being splashed, since this shower and tub are backups we use only when we surrender the upstairs bathroom to overnight guests.  The curtain would be functional, but from day to day would be just decorative.

I decided to match the check by hand-slipstitching and then machine-stitching my two remnants. Then I would cut the length of the shower curtain.

Speaking of decorative,I also wondered about the color, pattern, and scale of this fabric working in this scheme.  It can be tempting to use remnants because it’s economical and convenient and can make you feel inventive, but the materials should fit naturally into the visual context, too.

Slipstitching the check for a perfect (I hoped) match.

The colors in the bathroom are cool, but I thought it would be interesting to introduce a warm counterpoint.

When I pressed under the edge of one length, the cotton shrank a little compared to the other length–hence, the puckering.

I was lucky to buy Buffalo Check on clearance for under $6 a yard, so my financial investment would be minimal. I was also hankering to make a little home improvement. So the two 3-yard cuts of Buffalo Check wrapped around the cardboard tube got their work assignment.

Machine-stitching along my hand-basted line.

I made samples to check the size and positioning of the buttonholes and whether my sewing machine would balk at stitching through two double hems overlapping at the upper corners.

I figured out my finished and cut widths and lengths.

I don’t know what went wrong matching the checks. I decided to slipstitch the two remnant lengths together and then machine-stitch the seam.  Okay, so it’s time I learned to use my walking foot to match the checks vertically perfectly.

My pattern-matching left something to be desired!

But whatever caused that horrible slant at the bottom of my curtain? I’ve never made such a big sewing blunder without understanding my mistake. (I still don’t know what happened. Was one cut off-grain?)

The frustrating reality. This is my worst off-grain problem ever.

This is where I had to weigh my options, and Instruction Land was not going to be a big help. I was on my own, making judgment calls in Getting Things Sewn Land.

I debated whether the mistake would be less glaring at the bottom or at the top of the curtain.  I draped the panel over the rod and guessed the bottom.

No, I don’t like this result, but the curtain will be pushed to the side 99% of the time, minimizing my embarrassment.

It was somewhat consoling to realize

  • the curtain would be pulled to one side almost all the time.
  • when it was closed there would be only one person–the one taking a shower–witnessing the error.
  • the witness would almost always be only Jack or me.

So I brought the panel back to the sewing room and finished hemming it Sunday evening without very much satisfaction.

Monday I hung the curtain and steamed most of the wrinkles out with my garment steamer.

The finished curtain. We are not amused.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but even when the curtain is arranged to one side I feel as if I can see that slant, and it  bothers me. So I don’t know how long it will stay in its place. It could be a year or two.  Or ten.

After all, I have a lot of other projects competing for my attention.

The completed curtain in place. I’m okay with it–for now. Just barely.

Takeaways from New York

Readers,

Jack and I returned last Thursday from our week in New York.  It was an all-you-can-eat buffet of museum-visiting, Garment District-shopping, and long-distance walking. Here’s a day-by-day sampling of my souvenirs from my trip:

Friday, August 11

  • I bought a lovely scarf at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden shop.

Saturday, August 12

  • I was taken by this sleeveless jacket in the window of Mariana Antinori on Madison Avenue.

    Once in a long while I’ll see a jacket without sleeves and think such a garment might give me the balance of style and practicality I’m looking for.

I like jackets a lot but for my daily life, which includes fixing meals and washing dishes, wearing a regular jacket certainly isn’t practical. Now, if I could have the practicality of a vest but the wider range of styles of a jacket, that would be a sleeveless jacket.  One of these days I’m going to make one.

  • I caught up with attendees of sewing blogger Peter Lappin’s Male Pattern Boldness Day at the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum’s exhibit, Force of Nature. The show illustrated clothes and accessories using nature–sometimes uncomfortably literally–as inspiration.  This alligator handbag–

    From the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Force of Nature exhibit, a handbag from around 1938 using a very real alligator.

    –reminded me of the alligator handbag I saw on my field trip to The Alley Vintage and Costume a couple of years ago:

    Looking for the ultimate alligator purse? Meet Percival, mascot of The Alley Vintage and Costume in Columbus, Ohio.

  • I joined fellow fans of Male Pattern Boldness at nearby Panera for lunch and the much anticipated annual pattern swap.  I put half a dozen choice vintage patterns into the growing pile, but didn’t take any out.  Bonus: couturier and master sewing teacher/author Kenneth King crashed the party, and you can’t get better than that at a sewing get-together. He was mobbed, of course.
  • I spent the afternoon in one of the roving bands of Male Pattern Boldness readers ranging all over the Garment District in search of fabrics and trims.  Kyle Dana Burkhardt of the blog Vacuuming the Lawn led our group.  I wanted the chance to see stores I’d never been in before, and I did.  They were amazing
  • Our first stop was Metro Textile Corp. at 265 West 37th St., Suite 908.  The owner, Kashi, had opened his store on a Saturday just for us Male Pattern Boldness Day participants, and I think he was rewarded for his efforts.

    Customers kept Kashi busy unfurling yardage to cut in a frenzy of buying. (Thanks to attendee Venka for taking this photo.)

    My mission was not necessarily to buy anything that afternoon but to take a good look at fabrics to go with the unusual reds and browns in my cactus-print skirt or with the subtle yellows of my Pendleton jacket.

    A photocopy I brought of part of my skirt print helped me identify fabrics to coordinate with these colors from a 1940s-’50s palette.

    I brought the jacket with me, and a decent color photocopy of the skirt’s print, not to mention swatches on index cards of my fabric stash and a small knapsack for wallet, camera, and water bottle. The threat of showers (that never materialized) made me carry a windbreaker, which I tied around my waist.

    All of this impedimenta required managing, as I shifted my bags from hand to hand or shoulder to shoulder while navigating my way around my fellow attendees toward a particular bolt that caught my eye.  Everybody was friendly and helpful, though, and we all did our best to make space for each other. I pulled out my ring of card blanks and Kashi’s law-student son, drafted to be a helper that afternoon, swatched two beautiful linen shirtings for me. I promised to return Monday to have yardage cut.

  • Next was French Couture Fabrics, at 222 West 37th Street, 2nd floor, which proclaims on its website that “our buyers work to get the best fabrics from French Couture Houses like Celine, Sonia Rykiel, Chloe, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton.”  Others in my group might have been eyeing the leathers or the silks, but I couldn’t tear myself away from the gorgeous $12/yard cottons, wondering how many hundreds (thousands?) of dollars customers were willing to fork over for the readymade garments. I had a couple of swatches cut, but actually wanted many more.

    Swatches from Metro Textiles, French Couture Fabrics, Gray Line Linens, and Mood Fabrics gathered Saturday and Monday of my visit.

  • Our next stops were Daytona Trimmings, 251 West 39th Street; and Pacific Trimming, 220 West 38th Street.  In all my past visits to the Garment District I’d never stopped in these stores, thinking they sold mostly ribbons, tassels, and cords, which I almost never have occasion to use–but was I ever wrong. Trim stores sell every kind of hardware , zippers, buttons galore, and other findings and embellishments for clothes and accessories.

    Only a part of Pacific Trimming’s vast selection of buttons.

    Blouse and shirt buttons at Pacific Trimming. I already want to go back!

    Pacific Trimming: hooks and eyes of such variety as I had never imagined. I’m hooked!

I had remembered to bring the slider for my vintage Harris tweed hat to look for a replacement, and at both stores there was a wide selection, although nothing exactly right.

My hot iron damaged the original slider, and my Bakelite substitute was a little too eye-catching. Could I find a replacement in the Garment District?

I liked these sliders but thought they weren’t quite right to replace my damaged one. Having a knowledgeable salesperson help me look was wonderful.

  • Around 4:00 our group wended our way to Bryant Park to rejoin our fellow Male Pattern Boldness Day attendees to brag about our discoveries and envy admire other people’s purchases.  Although I had only swatches to show, my afternoon had been a success, too.  I had the luxury of returning Monday to look at fabrics again at my leisure.

The best part of Male Pattern Boldness Day is meeting members of a special community brought together by the humor, wit, and skill of Peter Lappin.

In Bryant Park with Peter Lappin, creator of the incomparable Male Pattern Boldness.

Sunday, August 13

  • Jack and I met our friend Rosa at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we took in the Rei Kawakubo show.  The museum literature says “Her fashions…resist definition and confound interpretation,” and I couldn’t have said it better.  We roamed from one astounding–artwork? garment?–to the next just taking it all in.  I think I was smiling the whole time.  Although I’m sure Rei Kawakubo takes her work seriously, that’s not to say there isn’t a great deal of humor in it.

    With our friend Rosa at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Rei Kawakubo show. We imagined students’ reactions if Jack showed up for his first day of teaching this semester in this suit.

  • In another part of the museum, while Jack and Rosa looked at posters from World War I, I browsed a book called 101 Things to Learn in Art School by Pratt Institute professor Kit White. Number 85 was “Your studio is more than a place to work: it is a state of mind.”  That got me thinking: What state of mind would I like my sewing room to foster?
  • In Central Park after our museum visit I looked at my new swatches and swatches from my stash in the natural light.

    In Central Park, comparing swatches from my stash back home with what I’d just swatched in the Garment District. For evaluating colors, natural light sure beats store lighting.

    Monday, August 14

  • Back to the Garment District.

    I’m ready to return to the Garment District, wearing my weskit with big pockets for holding–swatches, of course.

  • At Gray Lines Linen I admired–everything, really.  I love the colors and weights of their linens for shirts and swatched a stripe and a plaid (seen on the swatch card above) for Jack to think about.  For myself, I admired some of Gray Lines’ yarn dye handkerchief linens for blouses and realized that they are all regularly stocked and on the sample card I’d bought last year.
    Back to Metro Textile Corp. to buy the two fabrics I’d had swatched on Saturday’s visit.  Kashi looked surprised–and pleased–that I had come back as promised.  After cutting the two linen blouse fabrics for me he scanned his stock for coordinates and pointed to a terra cotta-colored rayon knit that I agreed was beautiful.  I needed no further convincing that it would be a very nice addition, and took two yards, although now, I said, I’d have to buckle down and learn to sew knits.  “You can do it,” Kashi replied, “Just go slower.”  As I left with my new purchases Kashi encouraged me to come back leading a group.  Maybe I will!

    A plaid linen from Metro Textile.

    A kind of brick red-brown and white cross-dye linen from Metro Textile.

    The cross-dye doesn’t match any specific color in my cactus print skirt, but it still coordinates nicely with all the colors.

    Terra cotta-colored rayon knit from Metro Textile.

Onward to try again to replace the damaged slider for my Harris tweed hat.  I stopped in at Lauren Trimming, 247 West 37th Street, and found one that was fine, for a dollar.

The original slider, which I damaged with a hot iron, and its replacement that I found at Lauren Trimming.

My Harris tweed hat with its new slider.

My last visit in the Garment District was to Mood Fabrics. I knew I’d have to surrender my bags at the store entrance, but I was prepared with big pockets to hold a notebook and swatch cards. It was actually very nice to be free of my bags for awhile.

That morning the aisles were full of kids enrolled in Mood U sewing classes choosing fabrics for their projects and then bringing their choices to the cutting tables.  I sidled past them and began to absorb the breadth and depth of Mood’s collections.  On previous visits I’ve always been dazzled and then overwhelmed by the thousands of bolts and left with nothing more than swatches and shirt buttons.  On this visit, sticking to my “decide nothing in haste” experiment, I enjoyed browsing wools, cottons, linens, knits, and notions as if I were strolling through a gorgeous botanical garden. I had a nice conversation with a salesperson in the Cotton Twill section about raincoat fabrics, and had one swatch cut.  Done.

  • After seeing the Neue Galerie’s Austrian Masterworks exhibition we enjoyed Viennese-style hot chocolate and  cake in its Cafe Sabarsky.

    After viewing Austrian masterworks, some Klimt torte mit schlag.

    At the Museum of the City of New York in the exhibition A City Seen: Todd Webb’s Postwar New York, 1945-1960 we were struck by this photo:

  • 123rd Street, Harlem. 1946.

Tuesday, August 15

  • I was wondering what home decorating fabrics I could see without having to have a designer in tow, which brought me to Zarin Fabrics at 69 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. I’ve made draperies for our living room and dining room and am “planning” (“planning to plan,” at this point, would be more accurate) to sew Roman shades, sheers, valances, and a shower curtain–right after I master pants-sewing and my serger.

    Zarin Fabrics

    Zarin’s selection is certainly big, but I concluded that actually my local home decorating fabric resources at Fabric Farms and Calico are awfully good and only a short drive away.

    An upholstery weight at Zarin Fabrics. Do I have a place for this in our house? Maybe not, but I like it.

  • In nearby Soho I chanced to see Crosby Street, which reminded me that I’d wanted to see the Crosby Street Hotel, one of two hotels in the U.S. designed by Kit Kemp.  She uses color, texture, scale, fabric and soft furnishings are like no other designer I know of. When we walked into the hotel I explained to the concierge that I was very interested in Kit Kemp’s work, and we were immediately invited to look at the lobby, bar, and meeting rooms as we wished.

    Kit Kemp’s typical exuberant combinations of pattern and color on display at the Crosby Street Hotel

    I’m so taken by handmade fabric lampshades–I’m very tempted to try learning to make my own. Have you ever seen the prices for shades like these? Incredible!

    I’m not looking to duplicate Kemp’s hotel style in our own house, but as a sewer I’m fascinated by how much importance she places on textiles. Search her name on Pinterest and see for yourself.

    Wednesday, August 16

  • I visited the Kangol hat store at 196 Columbus Avenue.  I’ve been a fan of Kangol hats for close to 30 years, and on the rare occasions when I can see a wide selection I can’t resist looking.  With help from Kangol salesperson Steve I walked out the door with a new trilby.

    Nothing makes my day quite like a new hat.

    Back at the hotel, I packed my fabrics and scarf and carefully folded my new Kangol to tuck into my suitcase for the next day’s flight home.