Getting Things Sewn
Designing a wardrobe, a workspace, and more
Do you subscribe to swatching services from fabric vendors?
If you do, do you buy much fabric or use the matching service for coordinating thread, linings, interfacings or buttons? Do you spend enough to qualify for discounts on future purchases or earn a free extension of your subscription?
Do you find that the services seem to know your coloring, tastes, and lifestyle, simplify your shopping, and help you move straight to sewing items for the coming season’s wardrobe?
And then do you follow through and sew those clothes?
I’ve been thinking lately about swatching services, because I subscribe to two: Sawyer Brook’s Distinctive Touch and Vogue Fabrics by Mail. My six-month Distinctive Touch subscription just ended, as a friendly notice recently reminded me:
Distinctive Touch’s more or less monthly envelopes of 20 swatches have been a bright spot among the bills and flyers in our postal haul.
Likewise, Vogue Fabrics by Mail’s appearance in our mailbox six times a year is cause for a little celebration. Each mailing brings about 50 swatches to be pasted, taped, or stapled into a catalogue designed around a theme. Vogue’s fall swatch collection theme was pirates–female pirates, to be precise.
(Don’t ask me to explain what pirates have to do with bottom-weight stretch wovens; I really don’t know.)
Swatches automatically prompt thoughts of possibility, and now I’m thinking that has been their greatest virtue for me.
Being in a city–no, an entire state!–without a comprehensive fashion-fabric store is far from ideal, especially after I was spoiled for choice for 25 years at the fabulous Treadle Yard Goods in St. Paul, Minnesota. Now that going to a fabric store is a rare treat I find it’s easier to succumb to the enticements of swatching services.
But the fact of the matter is, in the 4 1/2 years I’ve been living in this fabric desert I haven’t bought anything from a swatching service. Possibilities are fine, daydreams are fine, but nothing has fired my imagination to the point where I actually placed an order.
So I started thinking more about swatching.
How did various little bits of fabric arrive in my sewing room, anyway?
And how many of those samples led to a purchase and eventually to realizing an idea? This was very interesting to think about.
I reacquainted myself with the contents of my two boxes of swatches. And I came up with a fresh perspective on swatching.
I’m not going to renew my subscriptions to these swatching services, and now I know why. When I think of all the factors that have to combine to make a fabric right for me, it’s increasingly unlikely that a preselected assortment will yield many winners.
Every fabric has a multitude of characteristics:
- color contrast
- color brightness or mutedness
- fiber content
- weave or knit
The main characteristic that knocks so many fabrics out of the running for me is color. Warm colors look better on me, eliminating almost all the cool colors right from the get-go. Black looks harsh on me now, so fabrics with more than a little black in them are out.
The next big eliminator is probably contrast. If the contrast is much more or less than my contrast, it’s not a good match.
Next is probably pattern, which includes the elements of color, shape, and scale. Most patterns fall by the wayside because one of these factors is not a good fit.
And so on: I admire a fabric for its color–but wish it were a different weight. I like the texture–but wish it didn’t have scratchy wool fibers in it.
Once in a while a fabric does tick all the boxes but I don’t love it enough to commit to learning to work with it, or I don’t have coordinates for it.
Till now I hadn’t realized how out of sorts this winnowing process leaves me. I feel like a finicky cat turning up my nose at every tempting morsel. I’m dissatisfied with the swatches, but equally dissatisfied with myself for being dissatisfied!
With this scenario repeating itself month after month, you’d think I’d finally get the message:
If I want fabrics that suit me, the starting point can’t be an average of thousands of customers and what the fabric vendors think they can sell in enough quantities to make their service profitable. The starting point has to be me.
And so I’m better off inventing my own swatch service for my one and only customer: myself.
I could track this customer’s preferences for colors and patterns; fibers and textures; and what fabrics, buttons, and patterns she wants to combine for which seasons and occasions. I would alert her to fabrics only when I found any that met all of her specifications.
I’d watch for interesting fabrics that might fall outside her present requirements but pull her forward–maybe even toward dusting off her serger and learning to use it!
On behalf of my only customer I wouldn’t hesitate to pay what most online vendors charge for individual swatching.
And on my travels I’d browse fabric stores, finger the yardage, and swatch for my customer in person.
Prepackaged swatch catalogues, it turns out, just don’t work for this persnickety customer of mine. So I will let her subscriptions lapse and reallocate the money for online individual swatch requests.
But if ever a fashion fabric store opens again in central Ohio, guess who will be vying to be first in the door.
On New Year’s Day 2018 I wrote about the wonderful calendar my sister Cynthia, a professional photographer, had created for our sister Donna. It was filled with gorgeous pictures of glass, jewelry, and beautifully designed everyday objects Donna stocks in her Etsy store, Timmees. When I saw that calendar I immediately wanted a calendar of my own for 2019.
And I got it!
Here it is:
January: Some of my vintage buttons, set off by colorful Fiestaware plates, spelling out the initials of Getting Things Sewn.
February: From a post from 2013, featuring a handcrafted scarf that looked wonderful in the store but not so great on me. I never got the hang of wearing it.
March: Some of my vintage buttons, many of which I bought at vintage fashion fairs or the Portobello Road market in London.
April: Fun with thought balloons: “Paula with her thinking cap on…’I wonder what I’ll do today…Maybe I’ll go through my stash…or maybe I’ll finish that jacket I’ve been putting off…!”
May: Vintage buttons and my favorite freebies–paint store samples.
June: Two jackets I sewed from McCall 4065: the “Misses’ Mannish Jacket” from 1941. I used this same pattern to teach myself Kenneth King’s tailoring techniques in a big project in 2015.
July: More fun with vintage buttons.
August: Making the case that the shirts I sewed for Jack and me were not the same.
September: My field trip to The Alley Vintage and Costume in 2015.
October: The prop in the shoot of the mint-colored flannel pajamas I made in 2016 sports my favorite dog breed.
November: Posing in my sewing room with my mannequin, Ginger, who is wearing the jacket you see on my homepage.
And December: I’m wearing the wearable test of a swing coat pattern from, I think, 1950. Either I was waiting for Cynthia to finish testing her lighting setup or she had given me a prompt and I was wondering what to do. Professional models, your jobs are safe!
This calendar was a wonderful gift and a great compliment to me that took a lot of time and thought to produce. Cynthia dipped into her photo archive but also set up new shots. I got to see not only my work in print but also Cynthia’s work. That made this calendar even more special.
The 2019 Getting Things Sewn calendar has reminded where I’ve been and how far I’ve come.
- Those two jackets, sewn about fifteen years ago, represent a watershed moment in my tailoring skills–but 27″ is much too long for my 5″ 1″ height. Sadly, these jackets are wardrobe orphans.
- That swing coat is too full and long for me and the patch pockets are too big and placed too low. A couple of years after that photo was taken, I brought the coat to a patternmaking teacher who took the excess fullness out of the pattern while retaining the swingy feel, scaled to my proportions. The revised pattern awaits testing.
- My striped linen blouse is nicely sewn, but now I see how cool and light colors should not be the basis for my wardrobe. Warm, deep colors are better on me.
As I look ahead to a 2020 calendar I’m thinking about what would be very satisfying to see represented. Beautiful outfits? Rooms graced by home dec sewing successes? An improved sewing room with a project in progress? All sound good.
A calendar can be a good way to reflect on past accomplishments and also provide inspiration for the coming year.
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.
Because it was a very potato-soup kind of year:
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.
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?
Almost five months after my first report about my pants pattern-fitting journey I’m back with an update.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
All studio photos are by Cynthia DeGrand, Photographer. (The “dreaded drag lines” muslin photo is by Jack Miller, Husband.)
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.
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.)
Of all the great things my sewing teacher Edith has told me, the one that has made the biggest impression is “Avoid compounding errors.”
At the time she was talking about the need to be precise in patternmaking, but I have thought of her principle dozens–no, hundreds!–of times over the years and have never found a situation where it couldn’t be applied.
The last time “Avoid compounding errors” came to my rescue was yesterday, when I was mulling over the Fall Teaser selection from my Sawyer Brook Distinctive Fabrics swatch subscription.
Sawyer Brook had notified its subscribers that the latest batch of swatches had been mailed out Monday and would be arriving soon in our mailboxes. To whet our appetites even more, Sawyer Brook linked us to photos of all the fabrics we’d have exclusive access to for a limited time, so we could start planning our sewing projects.
I was especially taken by the vivid colors and high contrast of the photos of “Cameron – Red”:
A softly combed cotton fabric in a beautiful red coral, gray, navy, and an off-white plaid pattern. This fabric is lightweight and has a soft hand. This fabric is lightweight and has a soft hand. Pattern vertical repeat is 4 inches. Suitable for shirts, skirts, and dresses.
So yesterday, when the envelope arrived I was expecting to see something bright and high-contrast. Instead, I saw this. It was drab.
Was my computer monitor off so much?
It took me awhile to realize that my sample didn’t include the brightest shade of this red coral. Now, did I right away think to e-mail Sawyer Brook to request another sample that included the bright coral red so I could make a sound decision?
Because I was too busy trying to find matches in my fabric and button stashes, my wardrobe, and even in another swatch subscription service. A gray linen-cotton blend from Vogue Fabrics perfectly complemented this plaid. Woohoo!
Or was I heading for “Boohoo”?
Because I was getting dangerously close to committing a fabric-purchasing mistake I’d made numerous times in the past.
Sure, this plaid swatch worked beautifully with the gray linen blend, which I think would be a good pants weight. But did I want to build a capsule around gray–one of my least favorite colors?
I hadn’t found one stash fabric or wardrobe item to coordinate with this plaid for early to mid-fall. Was I confident then that this fabric could be the basis of a new capsule? Would it be worth designing around? Worth investing the time, money, and effort in?
I couldn’t give a definitive yes to any of these questions.
Also, I noticed uneasily that my main enthusiasm was centering on justifying the cost of my swatch subscriptions. “If I buy this plaid from Sawyer Brook, and this coordinating solid from Vogue, I can earn this or that privilege…” popped into my mind. Discounts, credits, free extensions of swatching services should be only nice bonuses–not reasons to buy fabric.
I had been down this road before: allowed enthusiasm, insufficient reasoning, and misapplied logic to overrule common sense.. I was in danger of making one error–buying fabric too speculatively–which was likely to compound over time.
I would start by buying this yardage that I hadn’t confirmed was right for me, although it wouldn’t be bad–I’d just have to find the right coordinates to bring out its best qualities. After its taking up space in my stash for several years, occasionally being unfolded and folded again, I might buy a coordinating fabric to keep the first one company. In the meantime my tastes, activities, or coloring might change.
In any case, this fabric would never be quite right, never be worth investing effort in–and never get sewn.
I eventually acknowledged that I was up to my old tricks and stepped away from those tempting swatches for a cooling-off period. It was close, but I managed to avoid buying fabric for the wrong reasons.
Funny enough, though, also yesterday I did swoon over a fabric and I did buy it, and I had only online photos to judge from. I was paying my daily visit to Emma One Sock to check its latest additions and came across a blouse-weight striped cotton in summery tones:
The description ran:
From an unnamed NY designer, this is a wonderful semi-opaque linen/cotton gauze novelty weave with a beautiful stripey (vertically oriented) design in shades of tangerine, orange, sorbet and greenish gray (PANTONE 18-1629, 15-1247,15-1318, etc.). Casual and light with lovely drape and gauzey texture, delightful coloring, make a fabulous blouse, top, tunic, shirt, dress, skirt, etc. Hand wash cold, hang or lay flat to dry (please test first!).
My reaction was swift and sure. I loved the colors, contrast, the unbalanced stripe pattern. I saw myself wearing this, in another rendition of the Vogue 8772 sleeveless blouse I have now sewn many times. I could see real possibilities for coordinates that I really would buy or sew and wear–soon. This could be a blouse for August heat or for warm September days.
I pondered requesting a swatch first, but yardage was limited, so I took the plunge last night and ordered a couple of yards. I noticed this morning the fabric was sold out.
Although my decision was quick it didn’t feel reckless. I think I had enough information to go on–not only from the seller but from myself. I know enough about my coloring, contrast, style preferences and silhouette. I have a fitted pattern I enjoy sewing, and know what coordinates go well with it.
In other words, I am beginning–at long last!–to experience the satisfactions of frictionless wardrobe-planning. This process, which has taken me far too long to recognize and develop, is the opposite of compounding errors. It identifies benefits and builds on them over time.
By the way, it eventually occurred to me to drop a line to Sawyer Brook requesting another swatch of the Cameron plaid, in both the Red and Pink versions. I had pulled all the possible coordinating colors from my palette for each plaid and am seeing some intriguing possibilities.
(Note: My palette, “Enigmatic,” seen above, is part of a color analysis system developed by image consultant Imogen Lamport and is one of the benefits of her 7 Steps to Style program, which is described here in case you’re interested.)
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:
“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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is it any wonder, then, that I’m glad I sew?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
In case you’ve been wondering where I’ve spent much of the last six months, it’s been down a very deep rabbit hole called Fitting a Pants Pattern.
More accurately, this particular rabbit hole should be called Not Fitting Several Pants Patterns.
Does this need further explanation?
For most sewers, a well-fitting pants pattern is like…gold. At any rate, something rare, valuable, and coveted. And that is because pants patterns are devilishly difficult to fit.
However, pants are not hard to make. Their construction is well within the capabilities of most sewers and will repay the outlay of effort many times over.
Pants are a staple in almost every woman’s work and leisure wardrobe.
Pants are not fun to shop for: many women, including me, routinely find nothing that meets fit, style, and comfort requirements all in the same garment, at any price.
So for custom fit, style, comfort, and convenience (no more fruitless shopping!), making your own pants seems like the way to go. It’s just that they are a pain in the neck to fit.
Much like a new diet, a new pattern, article, book, DVD, online class, or workshop devoted to pants-fitting offers a new possibility of success. And some sewers really do succeed using each of these tools or learning aids, which have been created by very skilled, experienced, thoughtful experts in their field.
But what applies to diets also applies to pants-fitting methods:
Results may vary.
Even though I know from the battery of aptitude tests I took some years back that my spatial abilities are below average, I took the plunge last November to try fitting a pants pattern.
As a beginner.
It’s not as if I’d had much of a choice. No fitting experts came running to pound on my door, pleading to let them help, only to hear me say No! As usual, I had to figure out how I might get to my goal on my own.
I had made admittedly feeble attempts to learn pants-fitting as far back as 1989, as the date penciled in my–autographed!–copy of Singer’s Sewing Pants That Fit shows. My sewing library boasted fitting books, DVDs, and the full run of Threads magazines. I belonged to Pattern Review and bought Sarah Veblen’s and Angela Wolf’s online classes, which included student forums. My Craftsy library included pants-fitting classes. My pattern files held the Palmer-Pletsch McCall’s 6901 and Pamela Leggett’s Pants…Perfected! pattern with DVD.
I even drafted a pattern to my measurements in a class taught by a patternmaker, with two muslins I’d sewn, with her recommendations for further alterations.
All that did not guarantee the pants wardrobe of my dreams. All these wonderful learning tools went unused as I turned my attention to other sewing projects, weakly promising myself that I would get to pants–someday.
But last year there was this coming together of several factors that laid the groundwork that triggered my pants-fitting project:
An increasingly clear vision
The first factor was that my membership in Imogen Lamport’s 7 Steps to Style program was really beginning to help me pull together information about myself to help me design my wardrobe. I had expert feedback on my coloring, contrast, figure type, and most flattering silhouettes, and guidelines for creating my own “style recipe.” To create the outfits and capsules I dreamed of wearing, my current pants would have to go, replaced by ones I would be excited to make.
Saying no to the mediocre
The second factor was pledging not to buy any ready-to-wear clothes for a year as part of the Goodbye Valentino 2018 RTW Fast. I hadn’t been buying much ready-to-wear anyway, so it was easy to join this challenge. But interestingly, stopping even browsing racks of pants made me realize just how much I had been compromising my fit and style requirements. Once I became aware of this habit of settling for less, I wanted to do better–permanently.
A new world of fitting resources
The third factor was innovations in conveying fitting know-how:
- PatternReview.com forums and member critiques of thousands of specific patterns.
- PatternReview.com and Craftsy online classes with video, printed materials, students’ questions and instructors’ answers.
- Sewing blogs.
- Fitting DVDs.
- YouTube videos.
- Threads magazine website’s Insider articles and videos.
- All these new means of conveying information, in addition to excellent new books and revised classics.
- Not to mention the expansion of Palmer-Pletsch workshop sites around the U.S.
Fitting is the bugbear of many sewers, and there are many talented people trying to serve a broad audience hungry to solve their fitting issues. So I wondered which of these teaching tools could bridge my knowledge gap and lead me to a well-fitting pants pattern.
I’d been dissatisfied with ready-to-wear pants fit and styles for…my whole life, actually. But it was only when these new circumstances came together that the scales were tipped: I found myself with
- a creative limitation keeping me from going back
- a vision helping me move forward
- tools holding the promise of realizing my dream
So I started. During a six-month period my sewing and fitting focus was entirely pants.
Here are some things that happened and things I learned:
I learned how to battle a strong aversion to reading the fitting literature and watching fitting videos. They were really boring for my brain, and in the past I had always bailed out. This time I hung in there.
Why did I stay the course this time?
- I defined the reward to be compelling enough.
- I defined not getting the reward to be disappointing enough.
- I recognized that I couldn’t overcome my aversion but I could work with it.
- I gave my brain breaks.
- I gave my brain stuff to do that it knew how to do. For example, I transcribed–yes, word for word–several of the videos in Sarah Veblen’s Fun With Fitting Pants class on PatternReview.com. It took a long time, and it was tedious (sorry, Sarah–not your fault!) but it was kind of like taking dictation in a foreign language class and slowly absorbing the grammar and vocabulary.
Much to my surprise, once I got some traction understanding fitting concepts–like what crotch depth and crotch length are–and had a muslin of my own to experiment on, I got absorbed in the topic. I read every Threads magazine article, every chapter in my books, scrutinized photos and illustrations, watched DVDs and online classes repeatedly, read Pattern Review discussions, and kept discovering nuances that had escaped me before. Incredibly, fitting books and articles even became my bedtime reading.
I began seeing philosophies of fitting. I thought–to use the foreign language comparison again–that there were fitting “grammar books,” like Sarah Veblen’s Complete Photo Guide to Perfect Fitting that stress foundational concepts, and fitting “phrasebooks,” like Sandra Betzina’s Fast Fit, that diagnose specific problems and give specific solutions. Both are useful.
I tried tissue-fitting with McCall’s 6901 and Pamela Leggett’s Pants…Perfected! patterns. I tried Fitography’s Chloe pants pattern, based on my measurements and produced with software I downloaded from the company. Fitography deserves its own post someday. I also tried fitting the custom-drafted pants pattern I made in class. I moved among patterns and methods, but stayed long enough to delve deep. Pages of Sarah Veblen’s trouble-shooting guide from her online class are underlined and creased from frequent use.
I learned more about experimenting and problem-solving in sewing than I ever have before. I used Sarah’s grid method to examine the hang of pants. I tried to figure out how much I could learn from one muslin before proceeding to the next. If the front was fine, I’d keep it, rip out the back and cut just a new back.
I learned to set up a tripod and put the camera on 10-second delay to take pictures of myself in muslins from front, sides, and back. Then I printed out the pictures and evaluated every wrinkle and drag line. I learned to be more observant.
I learned to look at terrible pictures of myself in muslins without flinching!
I really had no intention of spending this long on pants-fitting. I was going to participate in a Pattern Review sewing challenge in February and March with pants being part of the outfits. But no–I was nowhere near meeting my goal. I had to set aside every other sewing and wardrobe goal to concentrate on pants-fitting. Partly because I have this low spatial ability, and also because as a blogger I was methodically recording everything–I have voluminous notes–my project took longer. Also because I’m a beginner and a slowpoke.
I ended up overfitting one pattern and then another. My muslins would be too baggy; I’d experiment with taking them in at the inseam, back crotch, outseam…and then go too far. Also, excess fabric under the seat plagued me for weeks and I never completely solved that problem. There seem to be many causes and as many solutions. I got some advice from Angela Wolf through her Altering Pants class on Pattern Review about what to do and count it as one of my greater life accomplishments that I completely understood what she meant.
It was when I was fiddling with small changes that were only different, not improvements, that I thought I really couldn’t get any further on my own. So it was back to looking for an expert willing to help me. That’s where I am now.
I’ve learned a lot about fitting concepts and techniques that I’d never had the desire, patience, or fortitude to learn before. I learned to experiment and was excited to see when I’d made the right judgment call.
But I’ve also learned–again–what my limitations are. As Sarah Veblen says in one of her PatternReview.com videos in Fun With Fitting Pants, it is possible to fit yourself. But for me, the odds are just too long.
What makes pants-fitting difficult is achieving a delicate, unique balance of all the interrelated parts to make them comfortable, functional, and attractive. To get my things sewn I need to achieve my own balance: when I can rely on my strengths and experience and consult experts’ books and videos, and when I need to acknowledge my weaknesses and inexperience and rely on in-person expertise, on a regular basis, to make up the difference.
I have had access to such expertise sometimes, but now I really think it is a cornerstone of getting things sewn. I will continue to think about how to access the in-person expertise I need. I am more convinced than ever that it’s essential and worth working hard to get–and preserve.
I bought it in an eBay auction about fifteen years ago, and while I don’t remember what I paid, it couldn’t have been more than $10.
Maybe the right shoulder pads would remedy the problem. (Or is that wishful thinking?)
Whenever I happen upon this illustration, rifling through my pattern stash or leafing through my pattern catalogue, I imagine myself in this chic ensemble. It’s funny–I just realized that when I look at many of my other patterns I look at them more objectively as projects, as construction challenges, as units in outfits and capsules.
Best of all, I always imagine feeling wonderful in this outfit.
I can’t explain why, but this design captured something special for me when I saw the pattern, and it still does.
That’s staying power.