Portrait of a Crafter in the Gray Days of February

I’ve been sewing steadily through my stack of cut  and prepped projects. This past weekend, I finished up another version of McCalls 6844. Since then, I’ve been slowly working on a version of the Jalie Scarf Top and am nearly finished—I just need to figure out how I want to hem the sleeves and the bottom. The next few weeks are exceptionally busy for me, so I’m not sure when I’ll get the chance to take pictures, but I’ll post about both eventually.

Asymmetrical Hoodie from Ottobre Woman 5/2014

Asymmetrical Hoodie from Ottobre Woman 5/2014

The other projects I’ve got cut and ready to go are pretty simple and, actually, most of what remains in the pile is gift sewing. I’m already looking ahead and planning what I’ll work on when I get through those projects, and I’ve got two particular patterns on the brain. First, I’m planning to make up the asymmetrical hoodie pattern from the 2014 Fall/Winter issue of Ottobre Woman. I’m going to keep it pretty basic and use some black sweatshirt fleece I bought from Girl Charlee recently. Then I’m going to try the Camas Blouse from Thread Theory in a lightweight gray cotton blend jersey. I tried making McCall’s 7018 last fall, but I ended up not liking the style or the fit of that pattern so I didn’t bother finishing it. I think the style of the Camas Blouse (especially the v-neck) will suit me better.

Thread Theory Camas Blouse

While sewing has been going pretty well for me, my knitting has felt like a bit of a drag lately. I have a gift in progress that was actually quite fun to knit, but I’m now in the throes of some tedious finishing work that I just don’t have the energy to push through at the moment. But the biggest thing that has me feeling stalled on my knitting is an unfortunate sleeve problem with the basic gray pullover I’ve been working on for a few months. I knit the first sleeve, which felt like it took forever, only to discover that it was way too long and that I didn’t have enough yarn to knit a second full sleeve, even if the sleeves were shortened to a reasonable length.

Jet Pullover in Progress

I came up with a plan to do some sweater surgery on the first sleeve so I could turn it into a 3/4 sleeve without re-knitting the whole thing. And then I did nothing. And since then, I’ve just felt kind of haunted by that crappy sleeve. I recently realized that while my sweater surgery plan is workable, it won’t yield the result I really want and the only way to get satisfying sleeves with the yarn I have left is to redo the first sleeve completely. I actually feel better about the sweater since realizing this, but I’m also not currently up to ripping out a sleeve that took a million years to knit. In short, knitting and I are on the outs because it keeps demanding more focus and emotional energy than I have to give right now. It’s okay. I am sure we will make up later.

On a more upbeat note, I’m really excited that the Great British Sewing Bee is back. You have to do a bit of digging to find a way to watch it if you’re in the U.S., but there are a couple of different extensions/programs that will allow you to stream it on the BBC iPlayer. (I use this one. There’s a small monthly fee after you stream a certain amount of data, but I think it’s worth it.) I love this show—it’s fun to watch and I find it very inspiring. Plus, the show challenges are helping me keep my own current stressors in perspective. Watching a group of people struggle to transform a denim shirt into an entirely different garment in 90 minutes while being filmed and then publicly judged on their work? I figure, if they can make it out of the sewing room alive and in tact, I’ll be okay too.

How is February going for you so far?

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!

Chevron Camisole: A Birgitte Basic Tee Pattern Hack

Awhile ago, I ordered a small piece of fabric intending to make underwear but the seller contacted me after I placed the order to say they were actually out of stock. She asked me if I wanted to substitute something else, so I impulsively picked another jersey print, which I started to regret after it had been shipped because it didn’t really seem like me. But once I got the fabric, I actually liked it—just not for underwear. It’s a cotton/rayon/spandex blend that is very stretchy and drapey. Out of curiosity (and probably a bit of mid-day procrastination and general weirdness), I draped it around my body and started toying with the idea of turning it into a tank top for layering under cardigans.

Proof of my weirdness.

 The fabric was a half yard cut from Girl Charlee—they sell what are basically remnants that they promise are somewhere between 1/2 and 3/4 a yard for ~$3. This particular piece was closer to 2/3 of a yard, which was not quite long enough for an actual tank top but more than enough for a camisole. Rather than seek out an actual camisole pattern, I decided to hack the Birgitte Tee pattern since I already knew from making my gray long-sleeved tee that I liked the fit through the body. For the back, I just traced the back Brigitte pattern piece and drew a straight line right across the back from armhole to armhole. For the front, I used a French curve to extend the lines of the armhole and neckline until the intersected at a slight, curved point. There was no real science to modifying the front. I just played around with the lines until I had a shape that pleased me. I also added 3/8” to the front neckline because I didn’t want the neckline to be too low and since there would’t be a neckband to add any height to the pattern.

Camisole pattern hack via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

The actual sewing was quick and easy. I’m not a fast sewist by any means and only use a standard machine (I don’t have a serger) and this took me about an hour and a half to sew up. I sewed up the side seams, attached the elastic to the top, and then turned the bottom up 1” and hemmed with a stretch twin needle. To apply the elastic, I followed the basic construction method outlined by Zoe in her free vest/singlet/camisole pattern, by attaching the elastic around the back and sides first and then attaching it to the front, with extra length for the straps. (The pattern itself doesn’t come in my size or I would have saved myself a bit of trouble and used it, but the instructions were still really useful.) However, I prefer to attach my fold-over elastic in two steps (as outlined here) rather than one step like Zoe does. It might mean a bit more time at the machine, but I feel like it gives me more control over the stretch and positioning of the elastic.

In her instructions, Zoe recommends gently stretching as you sew, but I wanted to be a bit more precise to make sure I was stretching the elastic evenly. So I measured the back and the sides and cut my elastic 10% shorter than the back measurement. I used a few pins to equally distribute the elastic around the back and sides and to give me a guideline for stretching the elastic as I sewed. After that, I tried the camisole on and threw a tape measure over my shoulder to get a sense of how long the straps would need to be. The tape measure told me I’d need 15” straps, and I added an inch of discretionary length, so I calculated each strap as 16” long. I then measured across the front of the camisole, and again subtracted 10% from this measurement to get the correct length of elastic needed across the front. I added this measurement to the 32” needed for the straps to figure out the total amount needed for the front and straps combined. I pinned the elastic to the front so that I had 16” of excess elastic hanging off of each side for the straps and then stretched the remaining elastic in the middle evenly across the front. I then pinned the straps to the back to double check the fit, and tacked them in place with a satin stitch so they are very secure. In the end, I used about 2.25 yards of 5/8″ fold-over elastic to make this camisole.

The resulting fit is just what I wanted. The body is fitted but comfortable, and the elastic keeps the back and neckline snug against my body without binding. Since I will only wear this under a cardigan, I didn’t bother trying to match the pattern at the side seams. The pattern would have been a major pain to match, and I didn’t have enough fabric to attempt it. However, I did make sure to balance/center the print at both the front and the back—obviously, I learned something from watching The Great British Sewing Bee.

I wasn’t going to post a picture of myself in this without a cardigan over it, largely because it would reveal so much of my shimmering vampire skin. But then I remembered that I’m a body-positive feminist teacher/researcher writing a dissertation that’s essentially about power and body shaming. So here you go—my non-academic exercise in body positivity and proof that I managed a good fit, all wrapped in one!

By the way, have you seen this interview with Dixie from Dixie DIY? Her answer to the last question about the way feminism influences her approach to sewing is brilliant, and made me proud to be a crafty feminist. If you haven’t checked the interview out yet, you should. And feel free to share your favorite body positive/feminist crafting resources in the comments!

Story of a Sweater: How I Started Knitting Sweaters That Fit

I started trying to knit sweaters almost as soon as I learned to knit. I say “try” because my attempts rarely yielded something wearable. I struggled to get a sweater to fit well and struggled to choose patterns that suited my style. Over the course of about seven years, I knit thirteen sweaters for myself. Of these sweaters, five were either unraveled or donated before they were even worn. Another five got worn two or three times before they were donated. One pullover was way too big when I finished it and sat in a drawer for at least a year before I happened to gain some weight. Of this first crop of sweaters, only two were worn frequently from the beginning, and only one of these still sees regular wear. Of course, this only accounts for sweaters I finished–I can’t begin to count the number of sweaters I started and abandoned  before they were done.

The cream of the 13 sweater crop–my Girl Friday cardigan.

You’d think that would be enough to get me to give up on sweater knitting. And I did, indeed, get seriously discouraged about sweater knitting for a couple of years. In 2010, right in the middle of my period of sweater disillusionment, Amy Herzog started her original Fit to Flatter series. I read and studied her tutorials thoroughly, and there are a handful of important sweater knitting lessons I took away from the series:

  1. I could and should become less dependent on a pattern as written and instead actively work to make the pattern suit me
  2. There are more shaping methods available than simply increasing and decreasing at the sides of a garment
  3. The shaping at the front and the back of the garment doesn’t need to be same, and probably shouldn’t be
  4. I would be better off choosing a sweater size based on my high-bust measurement and modifying the rest of the sweater to fit
  5. I should pay close attention to the stylistic features that I most like in clothing and work to reproduce them in my knitting

The famous Gisela Ramirez F*ck Flattering shirt, which is sold out at the moment.

I find the concept of dressing to flatter problematic for a number of reason, not the least of which is the fact that rules about what “flatters” and what women “should” or rather “should not” wear are frequently used to police and shame fat bodies. I appreciate that Amy, both on her blog and in her book, says that she’s not interested in giving women a set of rules for getting dressed in a What Not to Wear fashion, but that she is rather trying to give women a language for articulating what they do or do not like in a particular garment. She also encourages women to appreciate their bodies as they are and to not see fit issues as a result of bodily flaws. These are important ideas when it comes to talking about clothes. Unfortunately, it seems that any discussion of what is “flattering” has a tendency to be taken up by some in ways that fixate on shoulds or should-nots, and people can get too caught up fretting about their bodies and trying to heed recommendations even when they clash with personal preferences.

Extracted from the language of “flattering,” my last take-away point—that I should be mindful of what I like and what makes me feel good—has been really important for me. I’ve realized, for instance, that the list of stylistic features that I like includes deep necklines, sleeves that aren’t flared in any way, clean lines, a close fit, and a more limited color palette that reflects the colors I actually like wearing. While there might be areas of overlap, this list isn’t based on other people’s recommendations about what will flatter my body, but rather reflects what makes me feel comfortable and confident. Generating this list of my preferred style features changed the way that I looked at sweater patterns–it helped me winnow down what patterns would make sense in my life and helped me envision possible pattern modifications.

The palette of colors I like to wear

In addition to the Fit to Flatter series, I started doing some research on vertical and horizontal bust darts. I learned a lot in my research, but I also started to feel overwhelmed. I wasn’t exactly sure how to manage multiple modifications, and I couldn’t visualize how to incorporate different kinds of shaping into a pattern. Ultimately, I decided that I needed to stop researching and start trying to actually experiment with some of the principles I’d been learning about. What I wanted was to knit something along the lines of a sloper in sewing—a basic pattern, fitted to my measurements, that could function as a guide for future sweaters.

I chose a very simple pullover pattern that I could work with–specifically, the Perfect Sweater pattern by Mandy Moore and Ann Shayne. There are a lot of basic, blank slate sweater patterns available, but I picked the Perfect Sweater pattern because it makes use of my preferred sweater construction method—that is, a seamed sweater with set-in sleeves. I’ve experimented with lots of different sweater construction methods, and I’ve consistently had a better fit with set-in sleeves. And while a lot of people like it, I find knitting an adult-sized sweater in one piece incredibly tedious. I decided to use some yarn that I’d had sitting around for awhile because it was a color that I didn’t really care for. The benefit of using yarn that I didn’t particularly like was that I didn’t have to be anxious about investing prized materials into a project that was largely experimental.

From there, I made what I think of as a body map. I took a bunch of measurements: high bust, full bust, waist, high hip, bicep, sweater length, length from underarm to waist, length from underarm to fullest part of the bust, and crossback. I measured sweaters I liked for sleeve length, different neckline depths, and armhole depth. Finally, I measured the length from the top of my shoulder to my high hip, both for my back and my front. The difference between these last measurements helped me determine how much length to add to the front of the sweater using horizontal bust darts. I marked all of the measurements that I took on a very rough diagram of my body to keep as a reference. From this point, I wrote out a modified version of the Perfect Sweater pattern, adding bust and waist shaping where I thought it needed to be added.

My final version of the Perfect Sweater.

My final version of the Perfect Sweater.

And then I started knitting. Based on my first modified version of the pattern, I knit up the front and back of the sweater. I then basted the two pieces together and tried them on. With this fitting, I was able to pinpoint changes that I needed to make—for example, I was able to see that I had knit the sweater with too much ease and had placed the bust shaping too low. I updated the pattern with my changes, unraveled the pieces I had knit, and reknit the front and back of the sweater. At the second fitting, everything looked great. I knit the first sleeve twice as well, which helped me figure out once and for all how much ease I like in a sleeve. Even though it was a lot of work, at the end, I had a sweater that fit better than anything I had knit before and a basic fitting map that I could continue to tweak.

The specific fitting details and modifications are listed here on Ravelry.

The specific fitting details and modifications are listed here on Ravelry.

As I’ve continued knitting sweaters, I’ve continued tweaking. I’ve changed the placement of my horizontal bust darts, changed the way I work my waist shaping a bit, and slightly adjusted the amounts of ease I like at different parts of the sweater. It sounds like a lot, but having worked though the first fitted sweater makes it all more manageable. And knowing that my sweater template will produce a reasonably-fitting sweater means that I can gradually tweak my approach as I work through different projects with very little risk. Now that I’m several sweaters in, I have four pieces of advice for people looking to knit a sweater that fits well. First, keep your calculator close and don’t be intimidated by the math. Second, keep a notebook with you as you knit and document all of your shaping mods—it will become an invaluable resource. Third, don’t get fixated on a perfect fit. Good is good enough. Better will come with time. And finally, at some point, you just have to dive in and figure it out. Sometimes, knitters want to wait to tackle a sweater until they can be assured that it will turn out perfectly. But when it comes to craft, there is no substitute for trying to work through problems with your own hands.

One of my most recent sweaters–The Granville hoodie

This is just a quick gloss of my process to improve the fit of my sweaters, but I am eager to talk about these topics more. So what part of the sweater knitting and fitting process do you want to hear more about? In your experience, what is the key to getting a good sweater fit?