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.

Vogue Patterns 8772 Blouse: Short-sleeved Version

Readers,

This has been my summer of blouse-sewing. I cranked out several sleeveless renditions of Vogue Patterns 8772 in June, which I’ve been wearing and enjoying a lot.

Next, I tried a version with sleeves.

The collar, I see, doesn’t cover the neckline seam. Call that a pilot error–it’s not a fault of the pattern. I just didn’t fold the collar down right.

Yes, now I see I didn’t fold the collar down right for the photo.

I was wondering whether I’d need to add a little width to the back pattern piece to allow for a more freedom of movement in the sleeve versions.

In a sleeve version I think I want a little more width in the back pattern piece.

This blouse is perfectly wearable, but next time I’ll try adding 1/4th inch width in the back pattern piece across the shoulder area, giving a total of an extra 1/2 inch in the garment, and compare.

I also put my new blouse to the O-H-I-O test, which is extremely important in the land of the Ohio State University Buckeyes:

“O!”

“H!”

“I!”

“O!”

It passed.

(Photos by Cynthia DeGrand)

Butterick 6026, Blouse by Katherine Tilton

Readers,

I was browsing recently through a lot of photos my photographer had shot in a session last fall and realized I’d never gotten around to writing about this Misses’ top designed by Katherine Tilton that I’d made.

I just looked through my notes to recollect what changes I made. They were the usual ones: folding out a little excess, which raised the underarm, the waist, and the positioning of the pin tucks. I think I narrowed the back piece a little, too.

I’d never made pin tucks before. I knew I had to do these 1/16″ tucks precisely so that the neckline edge would be the right length for properly attaching the collar. My sewing machine manual showed how to use the blind hem attachment–

to make the pin tucks:

You seasoned pin tuckers are probably laughing up your sleeves, but I was amazed that I was able to achieve accurate results easily after just a little practice.

I chose a cross-dye cotton for a practice run.

The fit turned out fine.

But even though I enjoyed making this blouse I don’t have plans for another one.  For one thing, I’m actually not keen on the effect of the pin tucks on me.  I think the lines draw the eye toward this poofy middle, where the viewer may wonder whether I had seconds of everything at the brunch buffet last weekend.

I mentioned this suspicion to a friend, who assured me it was all in my imagination.  Maybe so. I still think there are more flattering looks out there for me, like the Vogue 8772 blouses I sewed a few weeks ago.

Also, I like having a blouse I can choose to wear tucked or untucked.  This blouse is one to wear untucked only, to show off those radiating lines.

Speaking of showing off radiating lines, when I first saw Katherine Tilton’s pattern I was reminded of Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcee.

Now that is a striking effect!

(Photos of me are by Cynthia DeGrand .)

 

Vogue Patterns 8772: Easy Options Blouses

Readers,

Even though summer can be the easiest and most fun season to sew for, I didn’t sew much for summer during our years in Minnesota.  After all, it wasn’t till May that I was finally convinced I could probably go outdoors without a coat, and in September I was bracing myself for the first coworker to make a nasty crack about when the first snowflakes could be expected to fall.

I made this sleeveless blouse but in a shorter version.

To shrink the summer-sewing window of opportunity smaller yet, we often traveled in June, July, or August–sometimes to places with fabric stores selling wonderful cottons and linens for light dresses and sleeveless blouses.  In New York, Chicago, and even Glasgow a citrus-colored handkerchief linen or snappy seersucker would catch my eye and sneak into my suitcase for the trip home–where it would languish desolately in the chill of my basement sewing domain.

Vogue 8772: the muslin

Oh sure, I can hear you say, I could have sewn for summer at another time of year–but that would have required me to, number 1, take off my thermal underwear to try on that dress or blouse, and, number 2, believe that warm weather would ever return.  Ha–I was nobody’s fool!  And so I lived with a serviceable but hardly extensive summer wardrobe for years–not that anybody noticed.

Extra fabric at the waist interferes with a smooth line.

Now that I’m back in central Ohio, I’ve noticed.  In reality and in spirit, summer is definitely here.  The peach trees here are set to produce an unheard-of two crops this season.  Strawberries, corn, tomatoes are all showing up early and in abundance, begging to be used–just like my summer fabric stash.

That gaping armhole must go!

Rummaging through the back of my closet a few weeks ago, I found muslins I’d put away late last August– too late for slowpoke me to fit, alter, and sew those patterns into summer attire. But now, for once, I could consider myself ahead of the game.  I tried on my muslin of Vogue Easy Options 8772, read through my notes from last year, and it really wasn’t long before I had produced a wearable test and three well-fitting sleeveless blouses.

To improve the fit and look called for some simple changes within my very limited but adequate alteration abilities:

  • moving the armhole up a little to avoid annoying gaping
  • raising the bust dart half an inch
  • tucking out an inch or so of excess length in the back waist and shortening the front to match
  • changing the armhole finish from a bias strip to a facing

    Drafting a facing to replace the simple bias strip the pattern called for.

    In the muslin I found the bias-strip facing bulky and I wanted a finish that would distribute the bulk more nicely: a facing.

Wearable test: the armhole gap is still there.

In this drapey linen-rayon the excess at the waist really shows.

Another view of that unsightly, but fixable, ripple of extra fabric in the back.

Could I just fold this out and make it disappear, please?

Next: a seersucker. I do like this blouse, despite my inscrutable expression.

I tucked out about an inch in the back pattern piece. Maybe I could have fussed more with it but I’m happy.

Given my limited fitting skills, I’m fine with this result.

Very important: the armhole passes the volleyball test. (And no, I was not the gym class volleyball star.)

Now I’m happy with the fit. I rifled my stashes to make this version from a cross-dye cotton shirting and handsome black mother of pearl buttons.

Should I take in a little more in the back darts, or would that be overfitting? Possibly the latter.

Pass/fail? It’s a pass. Oh, but what’s going on with that left shoulder?

The armhole passes the hailing-a-taxi test.

Having worked out the fit issues I could confidently cut into a favorite fabric: a summery John Kaldor stretch cotton

Nice.

The–crisp?–feel to this cotton may be due to the spandex, so this fabric doesn’t drape. But the pattern is well suited to this fabric so all is well.

The armhole passes the hailing-a-drone test.

This Vogue Easy Options blouse lives up to its name:  it is easy to sew, and just the sleeveless option by itself is putting variety into my summer wardrobe at a swift pace.

I’ve since sewn a short-sleeved version that was equally successful with a couple of tweaks, which will appear in a future post.

(Photos of me are by Cynthia DeGrand)

More Than What Meets the Eye

Readers,

One morning late last week I piled five jackets, a blouse, and my mannequin Ginger into my nifty red folding utility wagon.  After a two-minute commute I arrived at my sister Cynthia’s studio for our photo shoot.

pajamas_and_mug_1924-460x307

Trying to look “natural”.

Almost as an afterthought I brought my latest creation: mint-green flannel pajamas.

I wasn’t sure at first that I’d even write about these pajamas.  They were so ordinary.  What could I possibly say about them?

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Butterick describes this as “Misses’ top, shorts, and pants.” The word “pajamas” is not used.

I could always write a standard review.

Yawn.

I won’t keep you in suspense. My review is: They’re just fine. Thanks, Butterick.

And the alterations?  I shortened and/or narrowed:

  • the top front and back pieces
  • the facing
  • the pocket pieces
  • the sleeve and sleeve band pieces
  • the pants leg and pants leg band pieces
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Flat piping inserted between the pocket and the pocket band. Next time I’ll plan a contrast piping.

The pattern shows optional piping.  My flannel was so luxuriously thick, self-fabric piping with a filler cord was out of the question.  I tried using the flannel in a flat piping for the pocket and sleeve band.

pajamas_1923-460x307

The flat piping inserted between the sleeve and the band added bulk to the seam, so I skipped piping the front edge and collar. But a lighter, more flexible contrast piping would look nice.

That was still pretty thick and stiff inserted into the seam.  So I skipped piping altogether for the front opening, collar, and pants leg bands.

pajamas_1919-460x307

The ripply collar: a mistake, or a design feature? You choose.

I don’t know how I did it, but I bungled sewing the collar smoothly onto the neckline.  I was in too much of a hurry to get this project done to see whether the problem was at the pattern-drafting stage (Butterick’s fault) or at the pattern piece-cutting stage (my fault).

If I sew these pajamas again I’ll find the source of the rippling problem and fix it before I cut any pieces. This time, though, I’m calling the rippling a “design feature.”

Wow, what a boring review.

But wait! There was something interesting thing about this pajama-sewing project. It really brought home to me that the things I sew are collections of associations I make and stories I tell myself.

Examples:

The fabric. What others see is a nice cotton flannel.  But what I remember is how I found this beefy flannel, in a color I’d never imagined myself in before, priced at $3.00 a yard on the clearance shelf at Sew to Speak‘s new home.  The amount left on the bolt was just what I needed.

I was in a hurry to just choose something and get on with sewing up these pajamas for an upcoming trip, so I took a chance on mint green.

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An ordinary button and an ordinary buttonhole? Hardly.

The buttons.  What others see are ordinary buttons. But what I remember is where I was, and why, when I bought those buttons.

I was at Persiflage, a dealer (no longer there) that sold vintage clothing and trims at Alfie’s Antique Market in London. And I came to Persiflage to deliver a copy of the current Threads magazine (June-July 2012), which contained my article, “Shopping Destination: London, England,” to the shop owner. Only the shop assistant was there, I remember. She received the copy with enthusiastic thanks and assured me the shop owner would be delighted that Persiflage had been included.

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These buttons and fabric were meant for each other!

While in the shop, naturally I had to inspect the jumble of vintage buttons spilling out of a couple dozen little drawers.  I found nothing spectacular. But something drew me to four homely little buttons in a deep mint shade, and they returned to the States with me.

To be honest, later I asked myself why I ever bought them:  I’ve never worn mint green! When would I ever use them? Two and a half years ago, when I was packing up my sewing room for our move to Ohio, I put them with a pile of other buttons to give away–if I could find a taker.

Then I got preoccupied with, oh, about ten thousand other tasks, and forgot about finding foster homes for my orphan buttons.

Then it turned out that those homely, mint-green buttons were exactly what this pajama top called for.pajamas_1900-220x460

The buttonholes.  You could be forgiven for thinking these buttonholes are as ordinary as they come.  But what I see is the Magic Key Buttonhole Worker attachment for my family’s trusty old sewing machine.  And I had always viewed this gadget with suspicion and fear even though it had a reputation for turning out a good result.

But when my sewing machine’s reverse mechanism finally gave up the ghost a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t make buttonholes.  Then I remembered: a block away, at Cynthia’s, was the sewing machine we grew up with and this Magic Key  contraption.  If I was going to finish this pajama top in time I’d have to learn how to use this thing.

And under Cynthia’s tutelage, I did–at least well enough to produce four decent buttonholes!  Having overcome my initial fear with this modest success, now I’m curious to see whether I’d like the keyhole buttonholes this gadget produces.

It was thirty years ago last month that I bought my sewing machine. Certainly the things I’ve sewn on it, including muslins, must number in the many hundreds now. Wearing clothes I’ve made stopped being a novelty long ago (although I always count the bigger successes as minor miracles).

Elasticized waist, capacious pockets--pretty standard.

Elasticized waist, capacious pockets–pretty standard.

But it was these everyday (or everynight?) pajamas that got me thinking how much just one ordinary sewing project can foster a rich network of happy associations.  Think, then, of what a lifetime of sewing projects can yield.

The other day I was flipping through the latest Lands’ End catalogue that had arrived in the day’s mail. When I saw the prices for their pajamas I gloated that mine had cost only a fifth as much.  But then, mine had cost lots more in time to produce. I admit it: I’m a slowpoke.

But in the end, I feel richer making my own clothes, and I don’t mean only, or primarily, in monetary terms, because maybe in that regard I’m only breaking even.

Even when my collar turns out ripply,  I’ve almost certainly enriched my fund of associations, as well as my fund of knowledge, in ways I am still discovering, and benefiting from, thirty years on.

I call that a net gain.

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Mint green may be my new favorite color!