2018, Seen in a New Light

Readers,

Pants-fitting: a weighty topic in 2018.

There is something Jack and I say to each other at dinnertime some nights, when we’ve cooked something that’s filled the kitchen with a delicious smell most of the afternoon, like a potato, leek and cabbage soup that feels perfect for a snowy January evening.

As we ladle soup into our bowls with rising anticipation of a satisfying meal, one of us may say,

“This will never make it onto the magazine cover.”

Which means, This may smell good, taste good, and nourish both body and soul, but it’s lacking in the looks department, so many people will pass this up. The joke is on them. Look at what they’re missing out on!

I thought of this little scenario as I contemplated this past year of getting things sewn:  2018 will never make it onto the magazine cover.

No way.

Because it was a very potato-soup kind of year:

Spectacular? No.

But nourishing? Yes.

For me, 2018 was hardly a stellar year for sewing production. From January to November I sewed all of three sleeveless blouses, from the same TNT pattern, for myself (and posted about only one); one shirt for Jack; and…I think ten placemats.

Woohoo.

And yet–developing a TNT blouse pattern so I could concentrate on improving my construction was progress.

Designing a shirt for Jack from the same yardage as my blouse , but different from my blouse, was a fun design challenge.

And figuring out how to make beautiful, useful placemats from my irreplaceable souvenir fabric was very satisfying.

2018 was the year of sewing pants muslins. I lost count of how many I sewed. If you save the fronts of a pants muslin, rip out the backs, and cut and sew on new backs, is that a new muslin, or not? By anyone’s count, I made a lot of muslins from January through September.  Dozens.

Then I took lots of photos of myself in these muslins–front, sides, back–printed out the photos, scrutinized every drag line, read lots of pants-fitting advice, and tested methods of improving the fit. Sometimes I did make progress but never got to a satisfactory result on my own.

In 2018 I spent hundreds of hours studying, experimenting with, and documenting pants-fitting. This morning I pulled the binder of notes I kept, curious about how much it weighed: more than 2 1/2 pounds!

If only there were a direct relationship between the number of hours spent and the quality of the result, I should be able to claim a high level of expertise and sport a closetful of beautifully fitted pants. I did make three wearable tests with varying degrees of success after meetings with two sewing and fitting experts, as I wrote about in November.  Then I took a break from pants–

–and sewed something completely different: living room draperies.  November into early December the sewing room was a drapery workroom.  What a wonderful project.  I will write about it soon.

2018 was the year of the Goodbye Valentino Ready-to-Wear Fast, in which I was one of about a thousand participants.  I steadfastly refrained from buying any ready-to-wear, which was not that difficult for me because most ready-to-wear clothes don’t fit anyway, so it was hardly a sacrifice.

However, merely stopping browsing and buying clothing did not turn me into a clothes-making maniac.

First of all, I had decided it was time to confront my bête noire, pants-fitting. That kept me occupied for months.  I kept thinking I was awfully close to a decent fit and that soon I’d be fitting a handful of other carefully selected core-collection patterns for wardrobe capsules for every season. You know the rest of that story.

The RTW Fast was a way to nudge sewers toward realizing their clothes-sewing dreams, and many sewers did just that in 2018. Me? The value I gained was considerable, but not, as Jack and I would say, something that would rate magazine cover status.

Over the course of the year I wore the same clothes (plus the three summer blouses I made) again and again. And again.

In 2018 I gave myself no recourse to a temporary fix from one of my favorite consignment stores to tide me over till I had something I really liked. The results of limiting myself were:

  • I wore more of what was in my closet, out of necessity.
  • I created new outfits, out of necessity, and realized that some clothes were more versatile than I’d thought.
  • I wore things I didn’t much like, just to avoid total boredom.
  • I understood better than ever before what I didn’t like.
  • I began editing down my wardrobe more decisively than ever before, based on condition, comfort, or style.
  • I resolved never to have certain wardrobe items, like scratchy wool sweaters, ever again.  I would just have to come up with alternatives that suited me.
  • I noticed more than ever how certain colors were downright unflattering, or fell short of flattering, and decided to replace them only with colors that work for me and work with each other.
  • I recognized even more I had put a great deal of effort into sewing garments that were technically good but wrong in proportion, color, pattern, or style and had created wardrobe orphans. This had to stop.

Over the course of the year my wardrobe grew more sparse, and much of what remained were simply placeholders till the day I sewed or bought things I liked and that went together.

But–what do I like? What does look good on me? What things do work well together in outfits and capsules?  2018 was a year I puzzled over these questions afresh.

2018 was also a year I thought a great deal about designing and managing projects.  In January I wrote about Jon Acuff’s book Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done.  I am not as sure as the author is that it’s perfectionism that stops people from finishing their projects.

I was probably still trying to figure out a better explanation than perfectionism when, in February, I wrote a behemoth of a post listing every factor I could think of that went into project design. It turns out there are a lot!

I am convinced there’s no one-size-fits-all process for getting things sewn because different people have different talents, experience, work styles, learning styles, aversions, and ambitions. Each of us has to work out our own path–possibly strewn with dozens of pants muslins–to determine the processes that work best for us. It may take longer than imagined, but it’s time well spent.

That conclusion might not get approved by the magazine cover committee–but they don’t know what they’re missing, do they?

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!