2018: A Pants Odyssey

Readers,

Almost five months after my first report about my pants pattern-fitting journey I’m back with an update.

Surrounded by some (not all!) of the pants muslins I’ve made on this pants odyssey.

In my previous report I said that despite my concerted efforts to understand fitting principles and fit myself I needed in-person, expert help.  Since writing that post I did find help.

I checked the class listings of a small, local fabric store and noticed for the first time that individual lessons with some of the teachers could be arranged.  I called, explained my dilemma, and was told I should come in and talk to one teacher in particular.

And that’s how I met Madame X.

Madame X may be famous for being painted by John Singer Sargent, but she also fits pants patterns!

I explained to Madame X that I had gone as far as I could go on my own and was now just doing variations of different, but not better. Madame X explained that while she was experienced she wouldn’t claim she was an expert. If I was willing to be a good sport, she’d see what she could do.

It turned out she could do quite a lot.

What a relief it was to put on a muslin and have someone else examine the fit!  I could skip my time-consuming rigamarole:  setting the camera on a tripod on time delay, taking very unflattering pictures of myself, downloading the photos, printing some, and writing copious notes critiquing every wrinkle (in the muslin, that is).

After two, maybe three muslins Madame X had worked out quite a nice fit for me.  I was very encouraged.

The next step was a wearable test.  To sew it I used an oyster gray wool blend with a weight and drape similar to what I’d want in wool trousers. Here’s the result:

A little extra fullness needs to be removed, but a much better overall drape in the back than I was able to achieve on my own.

The waistband is being pulled down a bit, but the darts and hip line are nice.

How much wrinkling and extra fabric is fine and how much can be eliminated? It’s a fine line and I’m still learning.

I had mixed feelings about this cut of pants.  The big plus was the way they hung smoothly seen from the side and the back. I was concerned, though, whether the volume in the backs of the legs was too much and could be reduced while preserving the hang.  In the fittings Madame X and I went back and forth about this.  In my own fitting attempts my perennial problem was long diagonal wrinkles in the backs of the legs.  When Madame X allowed for more volume in the back, as in classic trousers, the wrinkles went away and I had a nice, smooth line.

But was that line in scale with my figure? That was the question.   At 5 feet 1 inch tall I’m always thinking proportion, proportion, proportion.  Would this pattern draft give me the best proportion for my figure?

I packed Madame X’s pants draft and the oyster gray wearable test for my trip in September back to Minnesota to see Edith, my fairy godmother sewing teacher.

I put on the pants. “They’re hanging from the hips,” Edith said. “They should hang from the waist.” She pulled the waistband up and then pinned it in place snugly. She subtracted 4 whole inches from the waist, put more curve into the hipline, generously scooped the back crotch curve, and slightly narrowed the legs.  Before long I was trying on the muslin made from her pattern alteration. It fit nicely, and it definitely hung from the waist.

Home again and back in the sewing room, I sewed a wearable test from Edith’s pattern.  This tweedy gray is a wool blend, lighter in weight than the oyster gray but also drapey and nice for trousers. Here is the result:

I think the amount of wrinkling is okay.

There’s much to like about these tweedy gray pants. They do hang nicely from the waist. However, is the waist emphasis okay, or too much?

I tried a second wearable test. I added back about 1 inch in the waist. The fabric was a linen-rayon blend that’s a nice weight and drape for spring and summer.  Here’s the result:

Not the most graceful pose.


Hmm–I think the wrinkles in the left leg indicate my uneven stance.


I can’t see much difference in the appearance of the waist with 1 inch space added back in.  I think one reason is the in-seam pockets I sewed in this pair are gaping open and adding to the curve in the hip. This is not flattering. I’ll research other pocket options.

I continued to wonder whether I really needed this much room in the back of this pants pattern:


I was suffering from pants-fitting fatigue (can you blame me?), but I thought I should try another muslin.  I added back yet another inch to the waist, and  subtracted just 1/4 inch each from the inseam and outseam of the back and front pieces to eliminate a total of 1 inch from the leg circumference.

Here is the unflattering result of that experiment:

The dreaded drag lines have returned! Ugh!

This is pretty much what the backs of my pants muslins looked like when I was working on my own, pre-Madame X.  These wrinkles were the big puzzle I hadn’t solved and which Madame X did. It seemed like the insides of my knees were the source of the wrinkles. I don’t fit the classic knock-knees scenario, but it seemed like I needed a knock-knees solution.  At any rate, Madame X came up with a solution that gave me a smoother line, and Edith, with her decades of pattern-fitting experience, was able to subtract design ease without messing with the fitting ease.

Then I crossed a line and messed up the fitting ease.

Sigh.

Then I went to a week-long Buddhist retreat and learned how to detach myself from–

–No, I didn’t!

I tried on the tweedy gray wearable test one more time. I tried folding the waistband under and envisioning the pants with just a faced waist. The look would be more streamlined.  That would work.

And in the coming fall and winter months I could sew lined wool trousers from my existing pattern and see how I liked them.

In other words, I decided to declare a partial victory. The fit is good enough, and now I’ll turn my attention to perfecting construction details.  Along the way I’ll read more, learn more, work more with Madame X, understand a few more bits and pieces, and eventually try fitting more pants.

And who knows–maybe jeans, too.

Gather round, muslins! Have I got a story for you!

All studio photos are by Cynthia DeGrand, Photographer.  (The “dreaded drag lines” muslin photo is by Jack Miller, Husband.)

Cut From the Same Cloth

Readers,

The summery striped linen I snatched up in 2014 at The World’s Largest Textile Garage Sale has been turned into not one, but two garments.

I had long eyed this piece for a blouse for myself, using Vogue 8772, which I’ve now sewn half a dozen times at least. Now it really is a trusty, tried and true (or “TNT”) pattern for me.  I spent quite a lot of time–I am a slowpoke–figuring out where to position certain stripes in this unbalanced stripe.  “Preview windows” I cut from paper helped me visualize the fronts, back, and collar before I committed to cutting the actual pieces.

After I finished my blouse I had oh, about half an acre of this beautiful linen, which sewed and pressed like a dream, left for another project. Would a striped skirt be good? I wasn’t so sure.

I can’t believe how long it took me to realize this linen was destined to be a summer shirt for Jack. He had watched my blouse coming together and admired the result, and when I asked him whether he would like a shirt, he said “Yes!”

I think it hadn’t dawned on me before to make a shirt for Jack from this fabric because we would be risking the uncool look of a couple wearing matching monogrammed golf jackets. But we could choose to wear our shirts at different times–if we remember to notice what the other person is wearing.

(A couple of weeks ago we were mildly horrified to discover as we walked into the grocery store  that we were both wearing shirts I’d made from the same unusual seersucker. Luckily I was wearing a cardigan, which I buttoned up so that only the collar peeked out, and we avoided eye contact with other shoppers as we wheeled our cart up and down the aisles. We escaped without a single remark about being a cute couple, but it was a close call.)

When I cut out the pieces for Jack’s shirt I did anticipate a repeat of the grocery store incident and vowed to position the stripes differently.

You will notice that the pink and purple bars on my blouse are at center front but are halfway between the neckline and shoulder seam on Jack’s shirt.

You will also notice that the buttons on my blouse are purplish. Jack’s are your standard white shirt buttons. (Call me lazy–it was the best choice in the button stash.)

Another difference between these two garments is that Jack’s has a label.

Also, Jack’s shirt has a yoke–which shows off the stripes horizontally–and sleeves. 

So you see, our shirts do not match.

But they are cut from the same cloth–much like their wearers.

(Thanks to Cynthia DeGrand for photos of Jack and me.)

My Latest “I’m Glad I Sew!” Moment

Readers,

If you sew, you’ll know just what I mean.

I’ll pop into a clothing store and, after checking out the shoes and accessories, browse the racks, admittedly without enthusiasm.

The usual comments run through my mind like a news crawl:
Too big. Wrong color. Too trendy. Boring. Huge armholes! What is this weird fabric? They want how much for this?

Minutes later I’ll walk out, shaking my head.

Then Jack and I will have our usual conversation:

“Find anything?”

“I’m glad I sew!”

My latest “I’m glad I sew!” moment came last Friday morning when I accompanied my sister on a jaunt to the salvage store and outlet store of a famous outdoorsy clothing brand searching for plain, black, rugged, classic shorts for her. Oh, and with back pockets . That’s not asking for too much, right?

Wrong. Nothing ticked all these basic boxes.

We moved on to a discount department store chain, where she fared somewhat better. We left that store with two pairs of shorts, with a top thrown in for good measure. But the purchases were not made with any sense of satisfaction, let alone excitement.

The faces of the women I saw entering and exiting the fitting rooms expressed a grim reality : depending on ready-to-wear to meet all your wardrobe needs is an iffy proposition. And pretty much forget about meeting your wardrobe dreams.

It was already on my to-do list to sew pants and shorts for my sister once we’d gotten a pattern fitted for her, but after that morning’s rounds I was downright adamant. Having clothes that dependably fit and flatter despite the vagaries of fashion isn’t just a wardrobe upgrade–it’s a life upgrade.

Being able to sew my own clothes has given me a sense of agency that being a ready-to-wear shopper never did and never will.  Even though I still don’t have a full complement of sewing skills or a core collection of fitted patterns (both of which I am actively working toward) I’m still benefiting greatly from what I do know how to do.

If you sew, I think again you’ll know what I mean. Sewing is not just the production of a tangible result: a garment, draperies, a tent. It’s a process of aesthetic and technical judgment calls that is often profoundly satisfying.

I remember years ago as a pastry intern at the Campton Place Hotel in San Francisco saying to the head pastry chef, “Now I see what your job is all day long: making decisions,” and he agreed. Cooking and baking from scratch, as well as sewing from scratch, are processes that depend on a body of knowledge that can be very rewarding to build over a lifetime.

That Friday afternoon was about as different an experience as possible from my morning of rummaging through dozens of rumpled pairs of pants and shorts piled in bins at the salvage store. I spent it in my sewing room, mulling over which color stripes I wanted to accentuate in the blouse I was going to sew.

I made “preview windows” of the front, back, collar, and collar band pattern pieces to help me imagine my blouse before I made a single cut into the fabric.

I had already sewn Vogue 8772 many times before, and the fit and construction were close to perfect. Now I could concentrate on how I could play up certain colors and contrast to flatter my own coloring and contrast.

I pulled colors from my palette to consider for sewing coordinating skirts, jackets, cardigans, and pants.

I thought about buttons. The best ones I had were kind of purplish-pinkish-grayish imitation mother-of-pearl. They decided me on placing the purple and pink stripes at the right center front.

What color should the buttonholes be?

This was an unbalanced stripe, which made me think about whether I wanted to have the stripe pattern on the two fronts as mirror images or have the stripe continue in one direction around the body.  The back was one piece cut on the fold.  I could have made the back with a center seam and done mirror images on the back, too, allowing me match the stripes at the shoulder seam, which would have been a cool effect.

Do I want the prominent stripes positioned like this?

Or have the stripes like this?

I didn’t think about that at the time, and even if I had, I might have been too lazy to do the extra work of matching.

The whole afternoon I moved at the placid pace of fish in a dentist’s aquarium, shifting my preview windows around and contemplating various possibilities.

Finally, I cut the right front. That dictated the cut of the left front.

Then I decided where to place the prominent color bars on the back.

Later, I pondered the colors I wanted on the collar, right next to my face.  I cut the collar. Then the band. (Armhole facings, too, but I didn’t do any matching.)

Over the next few days I sewed the blouse. Tuesday evening I sewed on the last button.

I like my new blouse.

On a different day I may have chosen differently. I could have put a green stripe on center front and looked for green buttons, or matched the shoulder seams, or done some other effect. But I’m happy with what I did.

I’m happy not just with the result, but with this absorbing process.

Is it any wonder, then, that I’m glad I sew?

Sur la Table: Quilted Placemats

Readers,

After months of pants pattern-fitting and muslin-making without much to show for my efforts (yet), what do you suppose perked up my sewing spirits again recently?

An easy project using existing skills, with virtually guaranteed success,  requiring no fitting:

Placemats.

It’s ridiculous how long it took me to make placemats from this cotton print. We bought the yardage traveling through France in 1997. I loved the gutsy mustard-yellow background. (Could this be called an ocher yellow?)

I hemmed this yardage and used it as a tablecloth a couple of times, but then returned it to my stash. We don’t use that table anymore, and even for me, this was a large dose of color and pattern.

Plus, I just like placemats more.  One spill on a tablecloth, I have to wash and iron the whole tablecloth. Placemats are easier to clean and return to use and can dress up a table without looking fussy.

When I got to a stopping point in my pants-fitting saga, my eyes landed on my stack of table linens and yardage waiting to be converted to placemats. This was just the sewing break I needed.

Years ago I had made placemats from another fabric bought at the little fabric store in France in 1997.  I liked the cheery print–

–but my hamhanded efforts at applying the bias binding annoyed me every time.

And over the years the binding faded while the print remained vivid through dozens of washings. I wanted to ensure my next design would avoid these blunders.

It turns out all I had to do was search “How to make quilted placemats” to find a nifty method disposing of binding altogether. Thank you, Deborah Moebes of Whipstitch for providing the inspiration.

Here’s how I made my placemats:

I liked the size and shape of this commercially made placemat, which is 17 by 13 inches. It became my template.

Just to be sure this would be a good size for eight placemats, I traced the placemat onto newspaper,

and laid my pretend mats on the table.

(Reminder to self: finish that chair-painting project before planning dinner for 8!)

Yes, I liked that size.

I cut my rectangle and rounded the corners using my dandy pocket curve template.  (I love it when I can think of another way to use a gadget.)

I cut my placemat template from sturdy tracing paper and drew intersecting lines on it for aligning the pattern.

For the first three placemats I used the same fabric front and back.  I realized I’d want the quilting lines to appear in the same place on both sides, which would require the print motifs on the underside to be in the same location as on top. I did my best to match the motifs:



The printing was done well on the straight of grain and cross grain, so the quilting lines did line up in the same place on both sides.

When I saw that I wouldn’t have enough yardage for eight reversible mats I switched to an old linen tablecloth to supply the remaining reverse sides.

I am 90 percent sure I used The Warm Company’s Soft & Bright polyester batting to create my placemat “sandwich.” I laid the two fabrics right sides together with the batting on the wrong side of one fabric.

I sewed a 1/4″ seam, leaving an opening at the bottom of the placemat for turning it right side out.

I don’t know whether it was strictly necessary, but with my tailoring experience how could I not trim the excess batting and notch the rounded corners?

I drafted a trusty old–clean!–wooden kitchen tool to slide between the layers of the placemat to press open the seams.

The next step was turning the placemat to the right side and slipstitching the opening closed.

I topstitched the placemat 1/4 inch in all around using my standard presser foot.

For the quilting I switched to my walking foot (aka an even feed foot).  Here was another item that had long languished in my sewing room waiting to be used. I must have bought it after reading (and ignoring!) multiple recommendations to use one to match plaid seams.

The contraption always looked daunting to me, but I am easily daunted.

The instructions for installing this thing were somewhat confusing. I needed a demo.

YouTube to the rescue!

All I really needed to see was how to position the lever over the needle clamp screw. Then I was good to go.

Okay, I confess I stuck the finished placemat under the needle to get this picture, as you can see from the line of stitching in front of the foot.

The quilting went really smoothly for my placemats using the French fabric on both sides.  But for the first mat using the soft and more loosely woven linen on the underside I had too much play in the fabric. Even using the walking foot I had a problem with the linen bunching up as I stitched more and more lines of quilting.

The soft and floppy linen on the underside sometimes bunched up as I quilted the printed cotton on top.

For my second try I cut the linen slightly smaller than the print, and pinned the raw edges together which reduced the play and created a little surface tension on the linen side. I also pinned ahead of my lines of stitching at close intervals to distribute the remaining play. This solved the bunching problem well enough to satisfy me.  The linen side of the placemats will never be visible on the table.

My second try, which worked better.

Cutting the linen smaller and stitching the linen and cotton together with raw edges matching caused the cotton to favor to the underside subtly. I did this so that all the placemats would look similar from the top–not some with two layers of the ocher cotton print and others with this little line of pale mint green linen showing. (It’s just a small thing, but something else I applied from my experience with tailoring and shirtmaking.)

Yes, I managed to make my five (so far) placemats more labor-intensive than your average whip-it-up-in-an-afternoon project, but I had such fun using souvenir fabric from France, learning to use a new sewing machine attachment, and applying my knowledge and experience to produce things we’ll enjoy in our everyday life.

It was such a welcome change from (groan) sewing pants muslins!

There was one instruction on the slip of paper that came with the walking foot that I thoroughly understood. In fact, it made me smile.

5. Place the fabric between the Walking foot and the feed dogs; sew as normal.

Yes–sew as normal! I had almost forgotten what that was like!

Voilà!

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