Notes from a shirt-making 

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I started with a pattern, and a queen sized sheet. Getting all of the pieces out of this particular she was a bit of a challenge. It involved folding and refolding the fabric in several different directions to get the sleeves, the front,  and the back. The yoke of the shirt also gave me some trouble.My initial layout, shown here, did not work.

As I said there was quite a lot of folding and bending of the sheet in order to get all of the parts in the right size. One of the yoke pieces was a little bit off.

After the folding and bending, came the cutting and then the ironing.  It’s a used sheet, not particularly bad you understand; it’s just the top sheet where the bottom sheet had become unusable — the elastic all stretched and ripped, and a couple of the corner seams popped.  The top sheet is still fine.

Ironing a high-quality cotton sheet is a bit of an exercise.  You want it to have some water in it, but not so much water in places that you have to hold the iron on some areas to dry them out, while the rest of the shirt scorches. You want to convert the water on the shirt into steam, to even out the wrinkles.

Then comes the business of reading the pattern, comparing it with the photograph of the shirt assembled by a professional, and wondering “what the heck did I get myself into, here?”

The pattern calls for sewing the arms to the front and the back of the shirt, and then gathering the whole shirt under the two pieces that form a vague oval called a ‘yoke’.  It’s a real yoke… I mean, JOKE, because I can either see the dots that are supposed to line up, or I can see that the gathers are evenly distributed… but not both. It’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in action — I can see how fast the sewing has to go (before the gathering threads break or the pseudo-pleats are misaligned or the pins slip), or I can get everything properly positioned, but not at the same time.  This shirt is annoying.

The pattern does not always match the image. Clearly someone knew how to take some shortcuts. How is it that the seams of the reinforcing yoke around the neck-hole of the shirt do not show on the front of pattern D (upper left)?

How is it that the seams of the shoulders are perfectly aligned on the the model’s shoulders, but not on mine? Why does the left sleeve hang differently than the right?

I’m working through this pattern, by the way, Simplicity 3915 size A.  There are many things I like about this shirt and pattern, but assembling it is not one of them.

There was a saying in my father’s line of work, that there are four stages to any business deal:

  1. enthusiasm for the clever, e.g., “what a great deal you’ve put together, let’s do it!”
  2. search for the guilty: “who the heck got us into this deal?”
  3. punishment of the innocent: “Find out who got us into this deal, and fire them!”
  4. promotion of the uninvolved: “We owe Jeff a huge round of thanks for the success of this deal, and we’re pleased to announce we’ve made him a partner.” “why is Jeff getting promoted?” “shhhhh, they’ll hear you.”

This shirt makes me feel all four of these stages at once.  I’m finding that I’m enjoying the cleverness of the design, angry that I got myself into this mess, eager to quit, and hopeful that the final shirt will not be quite as terrible as I believe… on someone else.

I am glad that I added four inches to to the lower hem of this shirt, front and back, because it would be way too short without those four extra inches.

This photo shows the assembly of the sleeves to the front and back of the shirt in a messy, ugly way. I don’t even think they’re attached yet, actually in this photo — and it’s already an ugly shirt.  Too boxy.  Maybe it will improve.  Somehow I doubt it, at least at this point in the process.

The Industrial Revolution made it possible to produce hundreds of thousands of yards of thread, and thousands of yards of cloth, at a time.  It was an extraordinary achievement.  Instead of having one or two new garments a year, it was now possible to have four, or five new garments a year.  Or ten, or twenty.  Gordon’s meditation on visiting the home of Permaculture in Australia reminds me that clothing in a permaculture world is likely going to look rather different than it does today, because the clothing options that we have right now are not really permacultural.  Clothing may wind up looking a lot more ninth or tenth century AD than 21st century AD, at least in part because some of it will be assembled out of local materials by local people — and this particular design is entirely too annoying and fussy to be an efficient way of constructing clothes.  Square and triangles, not elaborate curves and fussy bits of folding and gathering and pleating, are a lot easier to structure. Hmmm.

The next photo shows a different stage in the construction.  At this point, I’m assembling the gathers (a form of pseudo-pleating) and pinning them to the yoke. This will be the most difficult sewing operation of the assembly of the shirt — trying to lay out the gathers evenly around four pieces of fabric so that they can be pinned to a pair of pieces of fabric which hare themselves sewn together into a dome shape.  SURPRISE! I got this wrong.

I won’t know that I got this wrong until the shirt is another six or eight steps down the line — one of which is a completely irreversible cut into the largest and most-irreplaceable piece of fabric.  This is, like, the perfect example of a bad design.  You can’t really make a beautiful garment if you can’t check the sizing a few times during the initial steps — and if the design requires you to wait until certain things are irreversible to try it on, maybe the design should be reconsidered.

Also, the sleeves are huge.
Someone suggests that I replace the cuffs (which will require both a button hole and a button, and — you guessed it, more gathering to create those lovely pseudo-pleats) with elastic and leave it at that. It would save me hours of fussing.  I know that one of the key rules of design is this: Always build the complete prototype so you know where the mistakes are...

One of the mistakes is making the cuffs, and then trying to assemble them.  I managed to get one of them done before I ran out of thread.  Aiee.  I didn’t find more thread right away, but I AM trying to use thread all of the same color so it doesn’t stand out too much against the shirt.

There’s problems with the sewing machine. The tension, probably the upper tension, isn’t quite right.  It’s a little too loose.  My efforts at adjustment are not working quite right, and they’re making things worse.  This shirt may survive a few hundred wearings, or it may come apart the first three or four times it’s worn.  Poor design, and poor tailoring on my part.

Still, progress.  A few important notes:

  • a single queen-sized bed sheet contains the makings of a very nice shirt in one of several patterns (most of which are easier than this.
  • a recycled bed sheet makes a good work shirt or ‘formal’ shirt, probably in a less fussy pattern than this.
  • This holds true for a (pretty large) man’s shirt, so you might get 1-3 women or children’s shirt’s out of the same cloth area.
  • Flannel sheets would produce warmer clothes; silk or satin for inner layers/fancier wear.
  • Solid colors would work better than patterns (harder to match patterns when there’s so much folding and working from different sides of the sheet to begin with.

 

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Tricorne

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Suppose it’s the case that you’re going to a dress-up party tonight for Halloween season, and you’re playing a pirate.

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But you don’t have a hat.  And it’s becoming an issue that you don’t have a hat to go with the rest of your costume.  You need a hat.
How do you solve that problem?

Well, you could go to a Halloween Spirit store, and buy one.  But the chances are pretty good that whatever hat you find isn’t going to be as good as the rest of your costume.  You have a shirt that was professionally made, and a pirate coat-thing you made yourself, and a pair of pants, and a pair of boots, that are all wonderfully pirate-like… But you don’t have a hat, and any sort of hat you buy elsewhere is going to be cruddy or crummy or expensive.  What do you do?

You look through your collection of spells sewing patterns.  You find the hat pattern that’s part of Butterick 3072.  And you make one in a few hours.

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Bend the wire cleverly hidden in the brim…

It’s not a particularly difficult pattern. I did mess up a little bit on the inside, of course; the red lining is supposed to be attached in a slightly different order than I actually did it, and the result is a lining that isn’t quite as clean or clever as I’d like. But this is not a durable, heavy-duty hat for the rain — it’s a costume piece. And like any costume piece, it’s a relatively simple pattern that can be modified and adapted — a wider brim, a stiffer interior hat-band, a pointier crown… none of these things are impossible to add or modify from the original pattern.

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Tricorne hat!

There’s some debate about which coat to wear it with. I think it’s a better match for the “poet’s coat” I finished up recently that goes with this bag that I had to repair; my girlfriend thinks its a better match for the Scarlet Doublet.

No matter.  I can build a hat.  And if I can sew a hat, there’s a pretty good chance that I can sew anything at all.

There is, if you will, an underlying logic.  Further up in this post, I crossed out the word ‘spell’ because I think there’s a relevance here.  The average pattern in a pattern package that you buy from the fabric store is a set of guidelines; there are recommended fabrics, trim, and  materials — but those are essentially guidelines.  Those patterns have a grammar, if you will, of language to help you understand what it is that you’re doing. There’s an underlying order and methodology; alter the methodology, and you alter the results; stick with the methodology, and you’ll get exactly what the pattern-maker intended for you to get.  But each time you go through this process — each time you make a hat or a coat or a cheese or a tool chest or a book or a bookshelf — you’ll discover that you have a new set of tools for solving problems and building and creating things: food, clothing, furniture, even houses.   This touches on what I said to Will Richardson — that a school’s purpose is to teach measurement, in part so that the questions of what to make, and how to make it, become easier and simpler as we grow older. 

That teaching, that knowledge of how, is never undone.  It stays with us forever, this side of dementia or death.  The underlying thought processes remain eternal, and grow deeper with each project completed.  Even if the first hat is slightly too small… you know how to make it again.

Sewing: Tudor Doublet

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I joked on Gordon’s post about divination recently that I’d finally had a weird sync with him, because I was making a “broidered coat of scarlet, blue, and gold.” But I was doing so.  I’d decided, on the advice of several seamstresses and tailors I know, to go ahead with a project that I’d already done and didn’t like.  That project didn’t turn out well, but my friend Jen commented that muslin was the wrong kind of fabric for this project, and that I hadn’t put in a lining, and those were probably the reasons that it didn’t hang right.  She’s probably not wrong. More

Magic: Neglect Not The Robe

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A fellow magician contacted me today, and asked whether he (she? they? I’m not clear on pronouns) could simply buy some fabric, and take it to a tailor to have a magical robe professionally made.  And the answer is “yes, you can do that.” But if you’re serious about making your magical practice real and meaningful in ways that you couldn’t have imagined, I would ask that you not do that.

Make your robe, don’t have it made for you.

Now, to be sure, there are many parts of making a magical robe which are inconvenient or difficult.  If you don’t know how to sew, or don’t have a sewing machine, for example, you have a skill-set that you must learn before you can do anything else; or an expensive and complicated machine to buy, which then requires training to learn to use properly.  At the least, you must purchase a great deal of fabric, and then figure out how to cut and shape it to be sort-of vaguely robe-like.

But there are three reasons why you should make your robe.  And then, at the end, I’m going to point you to some resources on how to make your robe, and provide some pointers. More

Thirty Days of Making: Most of a Shirt

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I’m in Day 13 of a short series: Thirty Days of Making. Every day for the next thirty days, I intend to make something, anything, that is in some way connected to school. There won’t always be pictures, and I reserve the right to credit myself for things that I help my kids make. But I’ve decided that I need thirty days of maker success and maker failure under my belt to be a better designer.

I’ve decided that artwork counts, but not writing (unless it’s part of the art, like calligraphy). Digital work counts, but it has to be useful or publishable.

Some days there will be pictures, some days there won’t be. Each blog entry will contain a list of some of the materials and tools, a quick review of the success or failure of the Making, and a reflection on what I think I learned from the endeavor.  (My friend Alicia is beginning a new series along these lines, 12 weeks of the Artist’s Way — I wish her well in her process, go check her out!).

Reason for the Project: “Textile Engineering Class”

On Tuesday afternoons, I run a class that’s called “Textile Engineering, but which is in essence a class in basic sewing.  There are three kids in the class, and frankly if there were any more, I would be completely overwhelmed.  As it is, we’re making a lot of mistakes together, every week, because I can’t look over three shoulders at the same time — kids are working on different projects, and they need different kinds of support in different parts of the process. We also have two kids who are a little more advanced, but in different ways; and one who’s basically a beginner.  So there’s three kids, all in need of varying levels of support and attention, and then there’s me.

Clearly I need more practice.

Process and Result:

A dinner I was hosting had to be postponed tonight, so I went over to school with my cut fabric from a week or so ago, my pattern envelope (Simplicity pattern # 3758), and the instructions.  My colleague S. had talked me through the process of assembling this pattern on Wednesday, and I felt that I was ready.  I laid out the front of the shirt, and started assembling pieces as I’d been directed.  Or more specifically, as I thought I’d been directed last Wednesday.  I should have taken notes.  I should have made a recording of her talking.  I should have made a movie of her interpreting the directions on the pattern.

Sewing experiment

forgot to hem the bottom.

I should have waited until week after next, actually.  Then she could have walked me through the process from beginning to end, and I wouldn’t feel like a moron.

I think I made about sixty-three major mistakes, and numerous mistakes that are minor on the surface, but actually result in me failing to assemble the shirt the way it’s supposed to look.  I kept breaking my gather stitches, for example.  Gather lines are a pair of loosely-sewn-in stitches designed to create those really nice lines of pinches along a seam in a really beautiful shirt or blouse. They’re miniature pleats, in essence.  And they’re made by creating two of these lines of loose stitches, and then pulling them ever so gently to form perfect mini-pleats.  I must have broken about twenty gather lines, damaging the fabric a little more every time I pulled them out.

After about ten times, I gave up.  I thought to myself, “if I never get past the gather lines, I’m never going to learn how to make the whole shirt.  And I’m going to look like a moron to my students.  And I don’t want that, either.”  So I decided I would keep going, regardless, until I had the sleeves on.  Mistakes, errors, stupid placement of the sewing machine needle, whatever.  Keep going.

And I did.  I kept going.  My friend Daniel says, “Build the whole prototype. That way you know what your other serious mistakes are going to be.”  He builds very fancy medical devices that cost thousands of dollars.  I’m trying to assemble a shirt for a halloween costume.  He has months of design time.  I have weeks. Days, really.  I can do this.

I get the gathers assembled.  The yoke of the shirt.  The collar pieces, sewn front to front, with the insides on the outside. Flip the collar inside out.  Wow, attaching a collar to a shirt is hard.  Wow, I’ve made a mess of this… wow. I ripped the yoke of the shirt.

Sleeves. More gathers here.  Oops, looks like I marked my pattern incorrectly the first time.  And the second time.  The assembly dots are in the wrong places.  Ooops.  This sleeve hangs weird.  Ok, now the other sleeve hangs weird in a completely different way.  These sleeves are poofy. They’re not Seinfeld on the Tonight Show poofy, but they’re poofy.  This shirt is not really very flattering to me, is it?  I mean, even if it were assembled properly, it wouldn’t be very flattering.  Sew up the sides.

Done. For now.

Sewing experiment

Look, gathered sleeves and yoke! (Don’t look closely)

So now, I have a shirt. That I made. That looks terrible on me. That can’t really be fixed or improved in its current form, and still needs cuffs for these dumb poofy sleeves. Go me.  It is without doubt the worst shirt I will ever make.

Because the next one will have none of the mistakes of this one.  It will have a completely new set of mistakes.

Reflection on My Learning

I kid, of course, about the next shirt having a completely new set of mistakes. I’m fairly sure I will repeat all of the mistakes of this shirt at least once. But spread over the next three or four sewing projects, rather than all in the same project.

Let’s see, what have I learned?

  • How to gather sleeves and yokes of shirts
  • How to mark a pattern, incorrectly
  • Why a pattern has to be transferred accurately
  • How to transfer a pattern accurately
  • How to cut fabric to leave markers for correct assembly
  • How to read patterns
  • How to unjam the sewing machine
  • How to re-thread the bobbin on three different sewing machines
  • how to replace the needle on three different sewing machines
  • How to pin cloth together for garment sewing
  • What happens when you pin cloth incorrectly
  • What happens when you mis-assemble the collar of a shirt
  • What happens when you try to fix it by pulling (a big rip)
  • How to assemble a sleeve correctly
  • What happens when you don’t
  • How to sew the side-seam of a shirt correctly
  • What happens when you don’t.

See? Learning.

Reflections on General Learning

The fact that I made a LOT of mistakes in the course of assembling this project is actually a boon.  I now have a much better understanding of what my students are going through, and I have a whole host of new techniques that I can use to help them solve their problems.  I understand a good many mistakes that beginning pattern-sewers make, and I have a sense of how to teach people to avoid some of those frustrations in the future.  I’m incredibly excited that I decided to say “Just do it” to this project, and not wait for more experienced hands, eyes, and minds to watch over my shoulder, preventing me from doing stupid things. I NEEDED to do the stupid things in order to be a more effective sewing teacher.

There’s a kind of mathematics knowledge that middle school math teachers gradually acquire. Mathematicians don’t need it, and they would be bemused to know that it exists.  It’s called by its own acronym — MKFT, or Math Knowledge For Teachers.  It’s when the teacher asks, “What’s the answer to problem #5, and everybody says, ’12’ but you and the kid in the back row say ‘7’.  The teacher knows at that point that you both divided in the last step, or didn’t follow PEMDAS rules, or didn’t calculate the exponent properly. The math teacher with MKFT knows what mistake you made because he knows what the answer would be if you made a specific mistake.

And I feel like I acquired some of that knowledge as a beginning tailor today.  I have a better sense of what things go wrong, and how to fix them when they happen.  Woo.

I wish I had a nice shirt I could wear for some event other than an hour or two at Halloween, though.  Given a choice between one and the other, I guess I needed the Sewing Knowledge more for my day job, but I wanted the shirt.

Rating:

Three out of five stars.  I got a lot of learning out of the project, and I benefitted enormously from the working through of some of the common errors.  Now I know what mistakes to be on guard against in garment sewing, and I know how I’m going to fix this shirt when (if? no, when) I try again to make it.  I’m just glad I didn’t try to make it out of any sort of fancy fabric.  This would have been harder had I known I was going to wind up ruining it in the process of making it.  As it is, I’m now thinking about going as the “Fear of Failure Monster” for Halloween.

Dressing for Halloween?

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I found this while trying to get inspired about dressing up tomorrow. I’m still not inspired (though I’m very hyped up on coffee), but I thought maybe some of you would find this helpful for your own preparations…