Poem/Song: Being a Tailor

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This spring (or early winter, really), I learned a new song from the folks in a band called Windbourne.  It’s called “Being a Pirate is All Fun and Games…” by Don Freed. (Words here, and him singing it is here.)

I love making up words to songs. And tonight as I worked on a sewing project, I kept losing tools. The pin cushion, the scissors, the tailor’s chalk, and so on.  I wound up composing a song to the tune of “Being a Pirate”.

Being a tailor is all fun and games, until somebody loses his chalk.
He hunts high; he hunts low, “ye gods! where did it go?!
the house elves are planning to balk!”
There is fabric to mark, there are seams still to sew,
Now Facebook is starting to talk!
Being a tailor is all fun and games until somebody loses his chalk.

Being a tailor is all fun and games, until somebody loses the pins.
He throws up his hands, all in ruins his plans,
he debates drinking all of the gins.
He scans all the tables, he cries to the gables,
“this is punishing all of my sins!”
Being a tailor is all fun and games until somebody loses the pins.

But… it’s …
all part of being a tailor, (a tailor! A tailor!)
you can’t be a tailor with all of your to–oo–lls!
It’s all part of being a tailor; (a tailor! A tailor!)
you can’t be a tailor with all of your tools!

Being a tailor is all fun and games, until somebody loses the shears.
He sighs to the roof and he feels like a goof,
and it grows his collection of tears.
He checks all around him and then it astounds him:
like magic, the scissor appears!
Being a tailor is all fun and games until somebody loses the shears.

Feel free to sing it while you’re waltzing around your sewing room.

Sewing: cut the pattern

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For a while now, this blog has concentrated on sewing as a specific form of creativity.  It’s a challenging one, because it involves converting flat, two-dimension surfaces into three-dimensional objects that can be worn.  When first starting out sewing, it’s a good idea to concentrate on smaller projects, of course. But sometimes, we have to take a leap.

So I’m going to work through a specific pattern, for a men’s costume, a sort of 18th century pastiche Pirates of the Caribbean coat, matching(-ish) pants, a shirt, and a vest.  I don’t know that I’m going to build the whole pattern, actually.  But I’m going to try to work through the whole pattern, and all of its instructions.

Why?

Well, sewing is complicated. It’s a skill that takes a good amount of time to learn to do reasonably well. It takes a good deal of time to master its vagaries.  It presents a range of challenges that are different from those of most materials — after all, when you cut wood or metal or plastic, it does have a tendency to retain that particular shape, for better or worse.  Fabric doesn’t.

But more than that — this set consists of a jacket, a vest, a pair of pants, and a shirt.  That’s a complicated amount of design work — and a lot of steps.  It’s at least four types of fabric, too — something stiffer, heavier, that can bear being sat upon, for the pants.  Something lighter and more breathable for the shirt.  Something thought-provoking or unusual or brocaded for the vest.  Something a little heavier for the coat.  Layers, in other words.

But first things first:  Cut out the pattern pieces.  This took me most of the morning.

One particular issue to be aware of. Some pattern pieces are cut “On the Fold.” These are marked by a long line with arrows at either end.  The fabric is folded so that half of the fabric is on either side; the pattern piece is pinned to the fabric so that the fold and the arrows line up, and only cut after you confirm that there’s enough fabric for a fabric piece that’s twice as wide as the pattern piece.  The fold helps create the necessary symmetry in the garment.  It is useful, as a reminder, to leave some extra tissue paper on the side of pattern pieces with the fold marking.

This is what I mean when I say that sewing teaches 2d to 3d thinking quite well.  Student make this mistake: they cut half the piece they need, because they don’t know that the “fold markers” matter. This has to be explicitly taught — and a student may still forget until he has to do it; or until she can’t make the garment that she wants.  Later on we’ll talk about conservation of fabric, but that’s a lesson for another time.

When you buy a pattern for a garment or any sewing project, chances are that it arrives in several sheets of tissue paper, each of which can contain two to eleven pieces of the overall pattern. These have to be cut up into their individual pieces.  Garments for small individuals use the S pattern; garments for big fellows like me use the XL pattern.  When cutting out pattern pieces, it’s important to save all the possible pattern lines. Just because you’re a size M doesn’t mean that you should cut out the M line, and lose some of the S and all of the L and XL size.  You might want to make the garment again in a different size for someone else, and then you’d have to guess.

Then read the instructions.  All the instructions.  Based on this, you’re going to choose which piece of the pattern you’re ready to try making first.  Based on my reading, I’m going to try to make the pants — breeches, really — because all the other projects look a little intimidating.

Then sort the pattern pieces into rough categories.  The categories for this project:

  • Cravat (always wanted a cravat)
  • Vest
  • Coat
  • Pants
  • Shirt

This means that when you go to assemble the pattern, you’ll be able to draw out the parts easily that go with your specific project: you don’t have to hunt and dig and unfold all 27 parts to the pattern to find the three pieces you want.

Then you’re going to put away all the pattern pieces for the sub-projects you’re NOT doing right now.  Don’t cut out the parts for a vest, a coat, a pair of pants, and a shirt, and then leave them sitting around. Do them one at a time, to be the sort of amateur tailor most likely to succeed.

Once you know which pieces you need, you’re going to turn your iron on very low, and without using water or steam, you’re going to iron all of the wrinkles and folds out of the pattern pieces you have.  The results are better when you do that.

Sewing: hood separate

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I didn’t take any process photographs, for a change.

I had read about this hood design as a result of some investigation of medieval cosplay and SCA authenticity.  And it seemed complicated, but — what do I know? I knitted a first hat that had resembled a frisbee-cozy (you need a nicely knitted cozy for your frisbee, right?), and I knitted a second hat (much better) specifically because I’ve spent entirely too much time at outdoor events this spring where it was cold.  

But… I also noticed that a number of people were wearing cloaks that were too warm, and coats that were too warm, when really all you needed was something to keep the rain off.

Medieval hood.  This one is based on a find in London, combined with one from a Viking site. Loosely based, in both cases.  More a case of conflation. I didn’t get my measurements right for historic accuracy and purity, so this must be labeled a modern take on the design: The lining is cotton, and the stitching is all machine work, and  the bib in the front is smaller than in the back.  I read the story of a woman who uses a hood like this for bicycling in bad weather.  Seems reasonable.

Things I’ll do differently next time.

  • I used a 12×12″ as my pattern base.  To get a wider face-hole for me, and to cover my shoulders, I’ll have to use a 15×15″ grid, I think .
  • Trim the lining pieces and the shell pieces to the same size.  All of the challenges, from hemming to first assembly, can be traced back to pieces not being the same size.

The major insight — absolutely critical — is that the there’s a slice through the body of the fabric to make the hole for the face, which should be immediately stitched to the same hole in the lining. This means that the cuts don’t have a chance to become misaligned: cut both, sew both.  Then the lining has to be pulled through that hole to turn the garment.  But then, the lining and the shell are assembled as mirror images of one another, as if the face-hole of the hood were pressed against a mirror.

Not much to look at…

The design has some challenges to it, but it’s within the range of skills a beginner-to-intermediate student would want to have. the biggest challenge is the face-to-face construction of the lining and the shell. That challenge could be avoided simply by assembling the shell and lining separately, and then only marrying them during the hemming process.  You just have to remember to reverse the construction so that the hems of the lining will wind up pressed against the hems of the shell on the inside of the two layers.  

Seems like it could work… and it uses less fabric than the Jedi robe.  Does it go with anything else I’ve made? Not sure yet, I’ll have to consult someone instead of just a mirror.  Does it look good on me? Comments below.

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Noble coat

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Time for another project. I lost a jacket in Oregon.  It was a puke green color, and first-generation fleece, and not particularly beautiful, but it kept me warm on cool nights in spring and autumn, and on a river.  I am not in a position to craft a fitted jacket like that, but I am going to be on a mountain in the middle of summer fairly soon, and a beautiful over-garment of some kind that is also warm would be useful. I think I look good in the Jedi tunic pattern I have from Simplicity. It can also be altered fairly easily for a lining, as I did on the Poet’s Coat — but the poet’s coat is a little heavy for mid-July.

(I’m surprised to discover that there’s no entry for the poet’s coat, I must not have called it that in the entry; but the red tunic is a variant of the same pattern).

A friend gave me access to a bunch of wool material.  Wool is warm, even if the wind is blowing through it, and it tends to remain warm even when wet. It might get wet on top of a mountain in July.  So, I made the shell of this coat or jacket out of some of that wool.  The result is a very plain looking garment that is unfortunately quite itchy on the skin.

So it needed a lining.

And if it needs a lining, then it might as well have fancy cuffs, and some beautiful trim.  Which I did put on the coat.  Getting the hems right was tricky. Next time, I’m going to sew the fabric on to the cuffs, then sew the trim on the cuffs… and then make the cuffs and the sleeve simultaneously.  It’s often the case that we learn our working procedures for the future, by making the mistakes of the present.
The cuffs still turned out mostly OK. One of the things that I’ve learned from a designer-engineer friend of mine, is that you should “make the whole prototype so that you learn where the mistakes are, and you have a better chance of getting them right the next time around.” It’s good advice, especially in the Maker movement or in a maker program. The learning in this sort of work comes from the mistakes, not from the perfectly-executed plan.

One of my critical pieces of learning from the last project, the green gown, was to do more pinning and more pressing.  I learned something similar from the shirt-making process.  So, I did more pinning this time around, and more pressing (ironing, really) before and after sewing different steps in the project.

The result was a much more finished-looking product. I still suck at lower-edge hems of garments, though, especially on costume pieces like this one.  Still, the gold trim flashes nicely in the light (it came from Cloak and Dagger Productions, which is fairly local to me).  The grid-like pattern that forms the cuffs appears to be the underlying grid for a tile pattern, and references my own recent obsessions with geometry.

Though not quite finished, the coat has an unusual lining. I had intended to line it with linen, but I turned out not to have enough linen for the project. So I searched around among my fabric scraps and came up with what felt like an inspired idea.  From the outside the coat is very plain and severe — black wool fabric, with trim based on geometric and floral designs.  It’s very orderly and regular, and not very showy despite the gold trim.

It’s very me, in that sense.  The coat has pretty clean lines and a very plain form — not quite shapeless, but not really a modern garment either.  It needs a belt, and I don’t know if I’m going to make a belt and attach it; or make belt loops for a belt and leave the belt for another day.  Either way, pretty plain, right?

However, the interior of the coat is constructed around a piece of tie-dyed fabric that someone gifted to me. I think they thought I would use it as an altar cloth, or a wall hanging. If that was its exclusive intention, I’m sorry. It’s now something else — probably irreversibly, at least until someone cuts this up and makes it into something else, which I hope they’ll do when I’m done with it.

There’s something wonderful about this coat, plain and severe on the outside, almost Saturnian, concealing a riot of color in its lining.  It’s possible the garment will now be too hot for its intended purpose.  I’m sorry if that’s the case. There are still a number of mistakes and problems with it, but it’s a lot better than anything similar that I’ve constructed (and this is now the sixth or seventh time through this pattern). Each time I make this, I make more variations and changes than I did the time before.

The result is that I can now say with some confidence that this is a great pattern for teaching young people the basics of sewing.  Some of the other pieces in the collection are likely not worth the effort — the ‘fake’ undertunic or dickie is a little silly, and the outer cloak requires a LOT of fabric for a first-time sewing student’s starter project, and the shoulder tabards/armor are not well thought out for my taste.

But this tunic/coat has a lot of potential in it, and it can be made to do a variety of cool things.  It’s worth a look in a school MakerSpace that’s trying to build up a sewing program.

Sewing: Completed Long Gown

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Photo on 6-19-17 at 4.53 PM #4 2.jpgThe camera is of poor capabilities and operating at an odd angle on an uneven timer in a room recently darkened by the approach of thunderstorms. But I’ve managed to finish this gown or long coat that I wrote about in the previous entry.

I’ve already noted what I’m dismayed about.  Now that I see it on me, I can add disappointment about the shoulder lines to the list.  I can’t figure out what’s pulling incorrectly to make the left shoulder (on the right side of your picture) so lumpy. And the sleeves are weird.

But it’s done.  My mother the artist follows Elizabeth Gilbert here; her interpretation is that “done is sometimes better than almost finished but nearly perfect.”

Sewing: long gown

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Some time ago, I made this pattern, which I also wrote about here. It’s called Simplicity 203, and it’s costumes inspired by The Hobbit films on the dwarves.  I wasn’t happy with it, as you may recall; I looked like some Celtic reconstructionist Civil War general. On the losing side, no less.  So I wasn’t happy with it, and I rarely wore it, and ultimately it’s taken up room in my closet for no good reason.

Perfect reason to try again, right?? So I did. I found this green and gold metallic-feeling fabric that I really liked on sale in the 60% off pile. It had these round circles of yellow on a pale olive green background.  It was the right amount of fabric for this project, and I figured, why not?  I also found this fabric that looks like an Islamic tiled floor pattern in a different bargain bin. They stayed in my stash for a while, and then it seemed like it was time to use them.  SO, green and gold shell, islamic tile pattern lining… what could go wrong?  Plenty, unfortunately, but I’m a big believer in making your own things; even if there’s some reason the robe is optional, sometimes a little glamour is important, and you should also not neglect the making of some tools of your work.

(How do we know when it’s time to use up fabric? When the fabric we have is preventing us from buying more fabric that we like better).  Here we go…  In general, I don’t take enough time with my sewing work. But in this case, I tried to do everything right:

  • I pinned the patterns to the fabric.
  • I pinned pieces
  • I cut very carefully and I tried not to enlarge pieces as I cut them on the fly to account for my XXL size.
  • I did make some modifications to the pattern
    • I chose the sleeved version
    • I added cuffs to the sleeves
    • I used narrower tape on the front placket.
  • I followed similar directions for the lining, but
    • The pattern does not allow/isn’t designed for lining, so
    • I sort of made up a lining pattern on the fly…
    • which didn’t work too well.

The cutout process and the initial assembly went pretty well. THat’s never the hard part; the devil is always in the details of this kind of of work.  Let’s see, what went right?
I managed to get the trim on the front of the coat so that they were both aligned with the same seam, and both strips of trim were pointing the right way (the golden vines pattern crawls up the coat and not down. I almost did it the wrong way, but I fixed it before I sewed it in place.  I did figure out how to put a lining in a garment where the pattern doesn’t really call for or allow for one.  So that was a boost to my skills — modifying a garment pattern on the fly.  I also attached the sleeves and cuffs correctly, getting the front of the sleeve attached to the front of the garment’s torso, and the right end of the cuff on both left and right sides to match, for the eventual buttons.  I think I attached the mandarin collar correctly, shown in the photo below, although I have a bit of hand-sewing yet to do.
What do I still need to do?

There’s the hemming of the interior lining begun but not finished, first of all. The second thing I need to finish is the hemming of the exterior shell, which is a different length than the hem of the lining (as is often done in a long coat or gown like this.  I think that maybe the sleeves need some more of this black and gold vine-leaf trim on them, but maybe that’s overkill.  I need to finish the hand-sewing on the collar.  If  can figure out how to adjust the front placket on the left-hand side, that would be worth doing, too.

I think that’s the big stuff.

Some takeaways or lessons:

Pinning is much more important than I think it should be or want it to be. IT takes away time from the important thing, which is sewing.  On the other hand, taking those extra five or ten or twelve minutes to pin on every project, every seam, results in a higher quality garment overall. The three seams I’m least happy with are… of course… the seams that are the least beautiful.

Another way of saying this is, don’t just assume that the entities are going to sit there and let you do to them as you please; bind them in place first.

The second is to learn to identify which patterns can take a lining and which ones can’t.  This pattern isn’t really designed well for this stiff brocade-like fabric, and I’m not a skilled lining-designer.  Usually linings are a mirror image of the exterior of the garment, sewn into place in reverse, and the two fabrics sit well against one another. Part of the lining of this garment, though, is made of the same fabric as the shell, and that was integral to the pattern.  Many of my errors seemed to arise from that challenge of matching one fabric with the other in the inner workings of the garment.

Ultimately, though, this garment fails the same tests I applied to the first trial of this pattern: I don’t think I look good in it.  It’s big, it’s clunky, it’s shapeless, and frankly too hot to wear this close to midsummer. The shell fabric doesn’t breathe at all.  Next time, I think, in cotton or something looser… and maybe I won’t bother with a lining.

IMG_5374.JPGAlas, when I put on the finished garment, I feel rather like a Romulan from the third season of Star Trek The Next Generation.  Some part of me is amused, though, to think about some variant of the future where the raiment of priests and magicians is based on the available costume patterns inspired by movies and TV shows.

It also makes me wonder about the availability of good patterns for men’s clothes and costumes? Many of them are clunky to assemble, poorly conceived in finishing details,  often don’t hang right in larger sizes.  I know the principles of how to make patterns, but I haven’t actually made one of my own.  I might have to change that.

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#teachwriting project: how-to writing

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Twitter user Ben Kuhlman and I had a brief talk about the #10summerblogs project, and I offered to write 10 blog posts this summer on the theme/hashtag #teachwriting — I think the goal is to create a body of shared knowledge on teaching writing. There are a lot of good people involved, and I figured I’d add my pieces to the puzzle of teaching writing.

I’ve certainly written about writing and teaching writing before — on sonnets (and its follow-up) and other formal poetry for example — but the topic that’s dear to my heart these days is how-to writing. By which I mean, writing that explains how to do something. Such writing is usually accompanied by diagrams or pictures. It would be hard to avoid such things, really: a five thousand word article with five pictures is really 10,000 words!

Let me say that another way: the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is not a casual joke.  Rather, the effort that goes into one ‘simple picture’ is easily the same as the effort that goes into four pages of writing — I use the “standard 12-point type, double spaced, is 250 words” estimate here. A well-executed drawing of a pyramid or a section of the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the creation of an illustration for an illuminated manuscript is thinking on display. The artist has thought very carefully about what she has drawn, and made a set of visual ideas manifest.

In this context, writing about how to do some thing is thus revolutionary: bake a cake, perform a martial arts move, dance, build a wooden box, construct an electric circuit, dig a row of fence post holes, cut down a tree safely, weld steel plates together, build a bridge.

Yet writing about how things are built or made is often seen as a curious side show to the main business of teaching students to write essays. Most such essays are vague clouds of abstractions — Latinate and Graecist verbiage thrown onto the page in an effort to impress with $1.00 foreign loan words instead.

The challenge is always to find the right line between clear language, and technical jargon. But the really elegant thing about writing how to do something — is that you have to have done it. Mastery of this kind of descriptive writing is a serious challenge. I think Chris Schwarz, formerly of Popular Woodworking, and now of Lost Art Press (this piece against perfection is lovely) is a master of this kind of writing, for example. He conveys ideas about woodworking with simplicity and grace, and a pared-down vocabulary of technical terms known only to the cabinetmaker or carpenter. Esther K. Smith writes about bookbinding in the same way. So does Sachiko Umoto — and though I read her in translation, her books have the advantage of teaching drawing alongside how-to writing!

We live in an era when children are being overly tested —so much so that I have encountered fifth and seventh graders who don’t know how to read or use a ruler in a project. The hands-on logic of the tool escapes them because they have never used the tool. 

Yet I hope this blog has shown, over and over and over again, that mathematics suffused and underlies the entire work of Making —  carpentry, sewing, bookbinding, illustration, graphic design, cooking, papercraft— are all suffused with so much mathematics that it is small wonder that it was easy for medieval and ancient people so see God as the architect and the geometer.

So, some guidelines for how-to writing:

  1. Write description and command. Do this to have that result. 
  2. Write with numbers that have measurement units. Combine these two ingredients in this ratio. 
  3. Write with time. Whip the ingredients together until soft peaks are formed. 
  4. Write as if a reader were a computer, with if-then statements. If the potato is green under the skin, then do not eat it. 
  5. Include tests of progress. Stop every few minutes of planing to check that the board is square and flat.

There will be more on this subject over the next few months.  I think that I’ll be talking about some of the elements of design thinking that go into a piece of writing, next.

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