My Method for Learning to Sew

I’ve fallen into a bit of a routine or a system for acquiring new sewing skills and sewing confidence. While I’ve sewn a few specific patterns that I’m not likely to repeat a million times over, I’ve been mostly concentrating on picking a particular kind of garment and then sewing it multiple times (and sometimes trying a couple of different patterns) until I get to a place where I’m really happy with what I produce. This isn’t a process that I decided on consciously—I didn’t sit down before I started sewing and map out a specific plan to sew the same thing over and over again. Rather, when I finished a project, I found myself wanting to go back and do it again so I could tweak and refine and improve. The drive to do it all over again might come from wanting to get a cleaner finish, or it might come from wearing the item once or twice and recognizing fit issues I didn’t see before.

My most recent version of Jalie 2568

One of my first ongoing projects was, of course, underwear. I made something like 8 different pairs before I got to a place where I was happy with the construction and the fit of the final product. And from there, I’ve continued to hone my sense of what fabric will work best. Right now, I’ve been sewing a lot of basic t-shirts and pajama pants, refining fit and working on better construction techniques. I’m also still slowly working to fit a basic button-down shirt for myself and planning to try fitting a basic pair of pants in the near future.

The first pair of socks I made when I got serious about knitting (on the left) and, 8 pairs later, the first really excellent pair I made. The pink ones are five years old and still in rotation.

The first pair of socks I made when I got serious about knitting (on the left) and, 8 pairs later, the first really excellent pair I made. The pink ones are five years old and still in rotation.

Looking back, I can see that I’ve basically done the same thing with knitting. My knitting (including not just my range of techniques, but also my knowledge of yarn, and my confidence working with patterns) took a dramatic jump in quality when I started knitting almost nothing but socks back to back. A couple of years later, when I decided to focus my attention on getting a good fit with my sweaters, I spent an entire year knitting sweaters that might have had different design details, but used the same basic construction and allowed for the same shaping methods. And when two of those sweaters didn’t turn out, I ripped them out and started over again. I finessed the fit with each attempt until I’ve reached a point where I not only feel comfortable adapting the fit on a basic, pieced sweater pattern, but feel confident enough to play around with fitting and shaping in other sweater styles. It’s not as though I’ve reached a place where I think I have nothing left to learn or where I think I’m an expert–but I am at a place where I feel confident that I can get a reasonably good result and where I can focus on learning higher-level skills.

My first serious and successful experiment with sweater fit. I wrote more about this project here.

My first serious and successful experiment with sweater fit. I wrote more about this project here.

People have lots of different methods for acquiring new crafting skills. Things that appeal to other people like taking a beginner’s class or the “add a new skill with each project” approach described recently on the Colette blog don’t necessarily appeal to me, and I’m sure there are a lot of people who would think that what I’m doing is boring. But it’s an approach that fits my personality. I’m a creature of habit, and I like to approach things methodically. I’m definitely a perfectionist, and while I try to keep my perfectionism in check so it doesn’t completely suck the joy out of life, I’m still always on the lookout for ways of doing things better. I also have very simple, minimalist taste in clothing, so it makes sense to me to spend time on getting a good fit and refining techniques. There’s also a very tangible sense of accomplishment that comes from making the same thing over and over again when each repeat just gets better and better.

Several sweaters after my first experiment, I made another basic pullover with an even better fit. More on my Blank Canvas pullover here.

Several sweaters after my first experiment, I made another basic pullover with an even better fit. More on my Blank Canvas pullover here.

It’s been helpful to realize that there is a kind of method to my craft madness and to recognize the positive effects that method has had on my skill level in the past. I spent a good chunk of time at the end of June working on fitting McCalls 6035 but lost momentum when I needed to do a second muslin. The loss of interest was less because I didn’t want to do the second muslin and more because I started thinking: What if I put all this time in and it turns out to be not that great? Or when I would think about working on the muslin, I’d think: Why bother? I’m just going to screw it up. But now that I’ve been reflecting on my process, I feel more at ease. With the fitting I’ve been doing, the chances that I’ll produce a wearable shirt are relatively good. Will it be a great shirt? Probably not. But it will likely motivate me to sew two or three more, and at some point, I’m going to hit on something that is looking pretty damn good.

The way I approach things like knitting and sewing might not make for the most thrilling blog material, but hopefully my attempts to document my trials, errors, and realizations are still useful to someone!

Catching Up

I went on vacation, had a great time, and came back with absolutely no desire to blog. So now I’ve got a lot of projects, both finished and in progress, to catch you all up on.

Things Recently Finished:

Before we left for our vacation, I made up two more Birgitte tees, including this black and white striped one. I used rayon blend jerseys for both, and while the fabric is stretchy enough for the pattern, it’s less stretchy than the spandex-rayon blend I used for my long-sleeved gray tee. The less stretchy fabric has revealed some fit issues at the shoulder and armscye. I think I’ve figured out how to fix the problem, and I’m planning to post about it more detail once I’ve made up a modified version.

As part of our vacation preparations, I also stopped at JoAnn’s and picked up some sock yarn for some basically brainless leisure knitting. I haven’t really felt like knitting, but once I got going on these, the urge to knit came rushing back—and just in time for the summer humidity. The yarn is Patons Kroy FX in the Celestial colorway. I didn’t use a pattern. These days, 95% of the socks I make are improvised based on lots of sock-knitting experience and what I can remember from the basic top-down sock recipe in Stephanie Pearl-McPhee’s book Knitting Rules.

Horse Pajama Shorts

Post-vacation, I went on a little pajama bender, starting with two pairs of PJ shorts made for my youngest sisters, who are 12 and 14. The horse fabric was the inspiration for this project—when I saw it, I immediately thought of my 14 year old sister who is creative, artsy, goofy, and a die-hard horse lover. I knew I had to make her something with this fabric, and I decided that PJ shorts would be easy, economical in terms of fabric yardage, and easy to fit from afar (my sisters live in Wisconsin). The horse fabric is a light-weight cotton jersey I bought from Girl Charlee. This fabric would be fine for a t-shirt, but I thought it was too light for shorts so I sacrificed two of Aidan’s older undershirts to use as an underlining. With the underlining, they are a perfect weight and should be really comfortable.

Lightening Bolt Pajamas

For the 12 year old, I used a medium-weight cotton-lycra blend, also from Girl Charlee, with some hot pink lightening bolts that remind me of the new Ms. Marvel. For both pairs of shorts, I used this free pattern from Liesl Made. The pattern is intended for wovens (and includes a nice tutorial for making them up with french seams if that is of interest to you). But since some have complained that the sizes run a bit small, I figured it would probably work out all right with stretchy fabrics. Based purely on the size sweatpants they were wearing when I called my dad on Easter, I used the size L for the horse pjs and the size M for the lightening bolts. I added a fake drawstring to each, mostly so they can easily differentiate the front from the back.

I also made a pair of pajama shorts for Aidan, but I’ll probably write up a dedicated blog post on those. As a spoiler, I can tell you that they were made with this awesome fabric.

Chambray Izzy Top - Front View

Izzy Top - Back View

After making all those PJs, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to make next. When I saw the free pattern for the Izzy Top pop up on Pinterest, I decided on a complete dissertation-procrastinating whim to make one up in the fabric leftover from my failed chambray shirt project. The gathering is uneven, especially in the back—the pattern uses a 3/8” seam allowance, which wasn’t wide enough to sew two rows of gathering stitches, and it was hard to gather the fabric with a single line of gathering stitches given how light the fabric is. Regardless, it was a quick project that turned out to be really cute. I made up the 18 mos size, which is as small as the pattern goes. The only thing is that I don’t actually know any girl children who would fit into this little shirt. Luckily, kids have a way of continually appearing in the world, so I think it’s safe to that I’ll eventually find someone to gift this to.

Things Currently In Progress:

apres

When I read Amy Herzog’s blog post about the Custom Fit Summer Sweater Knit Along, I got inspired to knit up a lightweight sweater. So I ordered some Valley Yarns Charlemont in Dusk and started making up the Apres Surf Hoodie pattern from the 2008 Summer issue of Interweave Knits. I’m not actually participating in the CustomFit KAL—I thought about giving CustomFit a go, but instead decided to just do my own math. We’ll see how all of my modifications work out. So far I’ve finished the back and about 75% of the front.

McCalls 6035 and Soft White Cotton Couture Broadcloth

On the sewing front, I’m working on fitting McCall’s 6035. It’s going to be a multi-muslin affair, but I’m optimistic, and the time put into fitting makes sense to me given that this is a pattern I could see myself making several times. Once I’ve got the fitting worked out, I’m planning to sew up View C (with the rolled 3/4 sleeves) in some white Michael Miller Cotton Couture Broadcloth. Even though it’s the end of the month, I’m still claiming this as my June Make A Garment A Month project. I can’t imagine I’ll finish it by the end of the month, but I like to interpret the end of the month as more of a soft deadline.

So that’s my big project update. I hope your summer is off to a great start!

Beach Robes

I’ve been sewing for small people! I made up some beach robes for our nephew and our godson–both boys are 3, and I’m sure they’ll both be eager to do a lot of swimming this summer.

Beach Robes via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

I’m not sure what possessed me to take on this project, other than that these are pretty cute and they seem useful. In my experience, little kids will play in the water until they are shivering and their lips are blue, but that doesn’t mean you can get them to sit still wrapped up in a towel long enough to really warm up. Plus, a lot of parents have made these and like them so that seems like a good sign. After planning out this project and gathering all of my supplies, I actually started to get kind of intimidated by the idea of sewing these robes. I was a little nervous about sewing terrycloth and even more nervous about all of the bias binding these robes require. For whatever reason, I was also imagining that it would take me weeks of work to get these done. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were not difficult and that they come together a lot more quickly than I had anticipated.

Beach Robe via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

This is the Beach Robe pattern from MADE, which is a PDF pattern. It comes in three different sizes that seem like they’ll fit most kids in the infant-to-kindergartener crowd and has several different design options: short or long sleeves, lined or unlined hood, and full or partial ties. The robe itself is just a handful of pattern pieces that are very simple to sew together, and then the whole shebang is bound in bias tape for a punchy little contrast finish. The purple robe is the Large (4T+) size and is cut from two 30×54” towels from Kohl’s (they were called BIG towels—I think it’s a store brand?). The red robe is the Medium (18mos-3T) size and is cut from two 30×54” quick dry towels from Target. For each robe, I used 3 packages of pre-made bias tape to bind the edges of both robes and used 1/2 yard of fabric from the nursery print section of JoAnn’s for the hood linings.

Beach Robe Hood Close Up via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

Like I said–these are pretty simple to sew and the pattern has very clear instructions. But here are a couple of additional tips for tackling this project:

  • If you use two towels lay them both out at once and map out the layout for all your pattern pieces before you start cutting. This will reduce the likelihood that you A) screw up the nap from one towel to the next and B) forget to cut out the hood piece and find yourself having to piece the hood together from scraps. Not that I have firsthand experience, or anything…
  • Use a heavyweight needle. I used a 110/18 needle, which I worried would be overkill, but it made it easy to power through the bulky seams.
  • Also use a longer stitch length. I set my stitch length to 3mm.

Beach Robe via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

  • Unless you are a Level 4 Bias Binding Wizard, consider attaching the binding in two steps, as outlined in this tutorial. The pattern tells you to just sandwich the fabric edge between the binding folds and sew it on in one pass, but a lot of people who have made this commented on the difficulty of getting the binding evenly attached using this method. Attaching it in two steps requires a second pass through the sewing machine, but it’s a trade off for the various heartaches and anxieties  and messiness that can result from trying to cut a corner. Given that each one of these robes required about 8 yards of binding, I say go with the method that’s more of a sure bet.
  • Accept that the ends of the ties are going to look a little f’d. That’s a tight corner to get your binding around. Remember that it is for a small child to wear to the pool/beach and that no one really cares. (I’m mostly consoling myself with this tip.)

Beach robe hood close up via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

  • Attach the sleeves flat. Dana included an update about using this method in this blog post. As drafted, the sleeves fit into the armscye nicely if you set them in as described in the pattern. However, they are tiny child’s armholes that can be a bit of a struggle to sew around depending on the size of your sewing machine’s free arm.
  • Consider top-stitching the seam allowances to one side after you finish them. You might not be able to top-stitch the sleeve seams if you do the long-sleeved version, but it’s worth doing where you can. It helps to manage the bulk of the seams. Plus, if you don’t have a serger to finish the seams, it adds another level of anti-fray protection on top of zigzagging the seam allowances and helps give the inside a clean finish.

My finished seams (zigzagged and top-stitched). Looking pretty clean inside!

I had a lot of fun sewing these. My stitching is far from perfect but these turned out so cute, I don’t care. When Aidan asked our godson how he felt about his robe, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “It looks all right.” I’m counting that as a win.

Beach Robes via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

 

Long-Term Wearability Report

I haven’t been participating in Me-Made-May (my limited handmade wardrobe is as much a disincentive as the thought of taking pictures of myself everyday), but I have been following the various Me-Made-May hashtags on Instagram and was inspired to reflect a bit on the garments I’ve made so far this year. The enthusiasm that comes with having finished a new piece of clothing doesn’t always last beyond the first wear and blog photos can’t always capture how well a piece fits or how well it wears once you get into the business of daily life. So here are some brief thoughts about how well the things I’ve made in the first part of 2014 are working out for me. And since I was deep in grading mode when I started drafting this post, I’ve even given each item a score for overall wearability out of 5 points. Teachers know how to make everything fun!

Knitting:

Squared Cardigan – 3/5: I like this cardigan but it’s low neckline limits what I can wear with it. It looks best closed and I like it with a collared shirt, but that gives me few styling options so I only wear it every once in awhile.

Audrey Cardigan – 2/5: I’ve worn this a few times, but I don’t feel good wearing it. It’s just a smidge too big—not enough to make it unwearable, but big enough that I feel a little dowdy in it. I need to make a decision about what to do with this one. I either want to rip it out and make something new or try some sweater surgery to bring it in at the sides. Right now, I’m leaning towards the latter.

 

Blank Canvas – 4/5: I love the way this pullover fits, and I like having a basic pullover sweater in my closet. It’s very comfortable and easy to wear, and I would totally knit this pattern again. My only complaint about this particular sweater is the color. I think I like this shade of blue more in the world than I like it on me.

 

Sewing:

Kwik Sew T-Shirt – 1/5: I only wear this around the house, and even then I only wear it when all of my other lounge-type shirts are dirty. It has lots of problems ranging from a neckline that doesn’t lay flat to really crappy hems and I just don’t love the pattern. Plus, I hate the fabric. The silver lining with this project is that it’s made me a lot more discerning in my knit fabric choices–I’ve had much better luck since I started avoiding polyester-blend jerseys.

Gray M6844 Cardigan – 4/5: The sleeves on this were a bit too long and the hems were rather inelastic. I ended up cutting off the existing sleeve hem, turning the sleeves up by 5/8” and re-hemming the sleeves using a narrow zig-zag. This quick alteration has significantly improved the wearability of this cardigan since it feels a little less sloppy with the shortened sleeve length and since I can easily push the sleeves up (something I do a lot with my clothes). Overall, this is very comfortable and very easy to wear. The polyester content in the fabric makes it warmer than I expected from such a light-weight knit and the fabric is starting to pill, but I really like this style and will definitely be making this pattern again in the fall.

 

Day-to-Night Drape Top - 4/5: I ended up not liking the hem bands I used on this shirt, and I still think that the elastic across the back neckline is too short and the shoulders too narrow, so I feel a bit self-conscious about how the shirt lays across my shoulders.  But I still wear it quite a bit since I love the color of the fabric. I also like that this is basically just a T-shirt, but makes me feel more put-together.

 

Underwear – 5/5: I absolutely love these. I’d wear my handmade underwear everyday if I had enough to get me through from laundry day to laundry day, and I have plans for a few more pairs to help me reach that goal. I’m especially pleased with the way that the enclosed gusset is working out. Overall, I prefer the pairs that have some spandex content in them, since they have better recovery throughout the day. The ones without spandex are comfortable, but they do tend to stretch out as the day goes on.

 

Gray Birgitte Long-Sleeve Tee – 4.5/5: I love this shirt so much I have very little to say about it. I do wish that I had slimmed the sleeves a bit, but otherwise it’s nearly perfect. I’ve already finished a short-sleeve version of this pattern and have another in progress.

 

Black and White Chevron camisole - 3.5/5: I’m struck by how comfortable this is, probably because every other camisole I’ve owned in my life has felt a bit like a sausage casing. The next time around, I’ll use the plush side of the fold-over elastic since I’m finding the shiny side a little itchy. This is another piece that is limited by the fact that I have very little to wear with it. I’ll probably end up making a few more of these in more basic colors to wear with cardigans.

 

So that’s the run-down so far. All in all, I’m pleased with the things that I’ve managed to make so far this year, and I end up wearing something that I’ve made almost everyday. It’s a good feeling and a great motivator to keep sewing.

Outside of challenges like Me-Made-May, how often do you wear your handmade garments?

Vogue 8951: Return of the Black Hoodie

Continuing my trend of impossible-to-photograph projects, I’ve finished my May MAGAM project—a black hooded pullover with a contrast hood lining. I know hoods aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I love them. When I was a broody, angry teenager, I wore a black hoodie almost every day. I wouldn’t describe myself as angry or brooding anymore, but there is still something comforting about having a piece of clothing that reminds me of a younger me. Now that the semester is over and it’s just me and my dissertation hanging out all day long, I feel like this hoodie is helping me channel some of my adolescent moxie.

Vogue 8951

To make this, I used Vogue 8951, view B, which has a lined hood and a kangaroo pocket. The main fabric is a medium-weight cotton interlock and the hood lining is a lighter-weight cotton/Spandex jersey blend, both purchased from Fabric.com. The pattern has a self-lined hood, so adding a contrast lining is just a matter of cutting the lining pieces from a different fabric rather than from the main fabric. This is the first time I’ve worked with an interlock and I can see why people recommend it for those new to sewing with knits—it definitely behaves more like a woven than a less stable knit, making it not only easy to sew, but easy to cut as well. I started with a size XL at the shoulder and graded out to the XXL at the armscye. In addition to adding the constrast hood lining, I removed the weird extra flap of fabric at the back hem and folded out 1” of length at the hip. I also narrowed the shoulder 3/8” and should have narrowed it even more.

Vogue 8951

This is an easy pattern, but it still stretched my newbie sewing skills. This was the first time I’ve attached a pocket to anything, worked with facings, worked a buttonhole, done a split hem, or done any significant amount of top-stitching on a garment. Thankfully, the pattern instructions were pretty clear and easy-to-follow. I got tripped up trying to figure out the weird pocket origami, but I think that was mostly reader-error. Otherwise, I took my time and kept my seam ripper close by, and things turned out pretty well in the end.

Vogue 8951

I’d like to make a less loungey version of this pattern in the future, especially since I really like the hood and the split neck with this pattern. All of the other versions of this pattern I’ve seen have been made up in a sweater knit, and I think I’d get a lot of wear out of a sweater-knit hooded pullover. When I make it again, I would cut a straight XL and do an FBA to get a more fitted look through the bust. I’d also narrow the shoulder a bit more and take out some of the excess width from the upper back. I’d also like the sleeves to be a bit more narrow.

Vogue 8951 Hood Detail

I have a couple of heavier, slouchy cardigans that I wear around the house all the time during winter but I wanted something lighter weight for spring. And I think Aidan wanted me to stop wearing his hoodies. Given this goal, I’m really happy with how this turned out. The fit is relaxed and very comfortable, the fabric is just the right weight for cooler spring days, and the hood is useful for hiding from the world when the writing is especially trying.

If you’ve got any tips about successfully photographing a black garment that don’t involve washed out, over-exposed photos, I’m eager to hear them!

May MAGAM Plan

So I’ve already made two garments for myself this month (my gray Birgitte tee and my chevron camisole), but I’m still planning something different as my official Make A Garment A Month project for May. I’ve been wanting a light-weight hoodie for awhile and have actually been wearing one of Aidan’s around the house lately. So this month, I’m going to try my hand at Vogue 8951. I’m planning to make view B with the hood and kangaroo pocket. I’ve got a black cotton interlock for the main fabric, but I’ll be adding a contrast hood lining using this red, gray, and black chevron jersey.

You might notice from the pattern envelope that this pattern is drafted so that the back is a good 4″ longer than the front. I think this is a really weird design feature–it reminds me of a mud flap. I assure you I have already hacked that extra length off of the back pattern piece. I haven’t seen very many versions of this made up yet (it’s a relatively new pattern), but the few people who have posted about this pattern have similarly done away with the weird butt flap.

This is a “Very Easy Vogue” pattern so hopefully it works out better than my April failure. Onward with the sewing!

Magine

I finished this project a long time ago—sometime last summer. But I let it sit on a shelf for ten months before I finally got around to blocking the damn thing. To put that into perspective for you, between the moment I bound off the final stitches and the moment I put the scarf into a bath of warm water, I could have created an entire human being.

So what took me so long? Pins. As in, I knew I would need to stretch and pin the lace pattern during blocking and that seemed like enough of a PITA to keep me from getting around to it. So it goes.

The pattern is Magine from Ambah O’Brien, and it’s a shaped scarf  that is widest at the middle and tapers to a point at each end. The pattern has two different sizes, a “small” size that makes a more traditional scarf size and a “large” size that is wider, more along the lines of a wrap. My finished scarf (which probably stretched out a wee bit too much but I was being sort of quick/lazy about blocking) ended up being about 9″ wide at it’s deepest point and about 90″ long. This was a quick and fun pattern to knit (from what I can remember), and my only complaint about it at the time I did the actual knitting was that it wasn’t charted. I find it a lot easier to follow charted lace and cable patterns and it took me awhile to get into the groove of reading the lace pattern as it was written out, line by line. But, wouldn’t you know, in the eternity that has elapsed since I finished this, the pattern has been updated to include charts!

The yarn I used is Dream in Color Smooshy in Lost in Plum. It’s a springy yarn with good stitch definition and great color saturation. I’m always looking for yarn in this particular shade of purple, but I feel like it’s hard to find. I have another scarf made out of Smooshy and it wears really well—it’s comfortable to wear against the skin, but not so soft that it pills up immediately. Unfortunately, this yarn turned out to be really difficult to photograph. The photo below is really the most accurate indication of the color.

Now I’ve finished this scarf at the tail-end of this year’s unusually long scarf season so I probably won’t get to wear this for a few months. Knitting sometimes has it’s own timeline. I also have another scarf that I finished around the same time but haven’t blocked yet. It’s the Windward scarf from Heidi Kirrmaier knit up in a solid light gray. I like the pattern and the yarn is soft, but I’ve realized I don’t want a light gray scarf. It might be different if the yarn were more silver-ish, but it’s not—it has a bit of a warm undertone to it that just doesn’t look good wrapped around my neck. I thought about ripping it out and using the yarn for something else but I like the pattern so I’m thinking of dyeing it. Anyone have any experience over-dyeing something? The yarn is a merino/nylon superwash blend, and I was thinking I might try to dye it blue. I’ll take any tips you’ve got!