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: 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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Jedi robes

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one of my Christmas presents to my cousins this year is a pair of Jedi robe costumes for their male children, who are either my nephews or my first cousins once-removed. I think it’s the latter.

An outline of the kid

This was more difficult to achieve than it sounds. My first task was to create an outline of the kid in question. This was relatively easy, of course. In my family all you have to do is suggest that you’re doing an art project, and kids will help. So, I had two sheets of large poster board paper with me, and one of the kids loaned me a marker, and I traced his outline. He’ll not be the same size next year, but that’s life. This sort of thing happens, and it would be less convenient, of course, if he didn’t change size year to year.

Then it was a matter of taping the two sheets of paper correctly so that I had a rough idea of how high he was from the shoulder to the knee.  And from that outline, I managed to modify a pattern that I had for a Jedi robe sized for a teenager or an adult male.  A boy appears to be about two sizes smaller than an adult XS size, which various websites suggest is about right.  So we’re on track there.

clear fluff from the pins before sewing the seam

The second part of the work was making new pattern pieces out of freezer paper. I used freezer paper, rather than patterner’s paper (which has a lovely grid of dots that you can use to help mark your place and keep your pattern properly sized) because patterner’s paper is expensive, and I don’t know how long I want to keep a boys’ size 8-10 Jedi tunic pattern around; other people might want one, and having the pattern handy just makes it easier for someone to convince you to do it again.

It’s kind of like the Saturn V rocket — Someone decided that project was too expensive, so most of the tools, dies, templates and even plans should wind up in the scrap heap to be melted down.

Voila! No more Saturn V rockets, because who wants do do all that engineering math again at double the expense?

I’ll probably keep the templates, though. It’s too useful not to. In any case, I didn’t take pictures of the cutting room floor. When you’re cutting fabric, one hand is involved in holding or maneuvering scissors, another hand is holding the fabric, and a third hand is holding the fabric tight, and a fourth hand is holding the pattern still. How I do this alone is beyond me, but I manage. It’s helpful to conjure the spirit of a good tailor during this part, even if they complain constantly about your bad cutting technique and your inadequate pinning job.

Then comes the sewing itself.  Each and every piece of fabric must be ironed and pressed, and then pressed again along finished seams, in order to have a really beautiful garment at the end.  I was sloppy with my ironing, though.

Ironing

Ironing with a small travel iron, when what you want is a professional grade steam iron with a dedicated board and a hose to bring in fresh water, is difficult.  I managed OK.

A Jedi tunic is, ideally, seven seams — seven seams for seven liberal arts, seven planets in the original system of the Jedi Order (I made that up), seven virtues, seven truths, seven warnings. (that two).

The front left side and the front right side are both attached to the back, each by one seam.  Each sleeve is attached by one seam to the shoulders.  Each sleeve and garment-side is a single seam running from wrist to waist or knee (depending on garment length).  Then there’s a strip of banding or bias tape attached from the front left side in a ribbon around the neck to the front right side.  Those are the seven seams.  Of course, there is also some hemming (which sort of counts, and sort of doesn’t), running along the back to the side-seam; around each wrist; and across the front left and the front right.  You could make up an entire spiritual mythology around the hemming of Jedi tunic garment; some nerd (me, maybe) already has, probably.

Then a belt.  The belts consist of heavy interfacing between two layers of fabric, and two long ties to wind around the waist.  The interfacing and the two layers of fabric get a quilting, of sorts, to give them some interest and additional detail.  Neither was particularly hard, although judging the roundness of the two boys from the flat pattern provided by one of them, was harder.

Two tunics finished.

And then the cloak.  Turns out that I mis-judged the amount of brown fabric I needed, by about 4 yards. Couldn’t find the bolt of fabric in the store; couldn’t find the slip telling me the inventory number so they could look it up again.

No matter.  Instead of Jedi half-circle or three-quarter cloaks, I made djellabas.  The djellaba is a Arabian garment, consisting of a long rectangle of fabric folded most of the way to the middle from the ends.  Some holes are cut at the neck; I attached the Jedi-style hood to this opening, even though the Djellaba doesn’t normally have a hood.  Hem the hood, hem the inside edges of the fabric and the tail.  I might add some trim along the edges, neaten it up a bit and add some visual interest to the costume.  But basically, it’s a Jedi robe outfit suitable for running around on Suburbia, the backyard planet (as opposed to the Forest Moon, or the Ice Planet, or the Urban Planet or the Swamp Planet…) I’m sure they’ll find plenty of those worlds….

As a kid, I was always taken in by the potential of costumes to transform who we are and how we think of ourselves. When I played Horatio in Hamlet, I wanted to keep my costume after the performance.  The props master said I had to ask the costumer, and the costumer said no.  In retrospect, it was made of the same cheap materials as this costume — but it made me into a student from Wittemberg.

But if we let kids play in plastic Stormtrooper armor, it’s hard to remember to take it off.  Jedi are supposed to be smart, to be agile, to be fearless, yes. But they’re also supposed to be compassionate and caring, committed to justice and the dignity of all beings.

Maybe this too complicated a spell, but it’s my hope that these costumes will help raise my young cousins’ sights to the ideals beyond Star Wars, and think about what it really means to be a man of honor in a less-civilized age.

LittleBits as Planning Tools

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LittleBits as planners

A Stark Future Ahead?

There are these wonderful new (if expensive!) toys called LittleBits. They’re kind of like Legos, but for electronics geeks instead of would-be architects.

And today, inspired by the photo of the guy in MAKE magazine who built a pyro arm, and by my own efforts at making a costume gauntlet, the students in my Monday MakerLab class decided that they wanted to try building their own gauntlets. They pretty much agreed that they couldn’t build a fully-functional pyro-glove in time for Halloween (phew! for me), but the idea of light-up gauntlets was pretty thrilling in and of itself.

None of us are electronics geeks, which is unfortunate.  However, we do have some LittleBits, which we got on sale through an educational discount last year.  So we modeled what it is that we want to do.

Here it is — a battery pack mounted in or around the bicep of the armor-glove/gauntlet thing that we’ll build.  Some wires headed down the arm to a pressure-operated button at the wrist or even better in the palm (so the lights flash when you make a fist).  And a series of LEDs that light up when the pressure switch is active.  If I can work some EL wire in there, that’s perhaps always on or flashing, with shades of TRON or various anime — well.  I don’t think it will be so bad.

Armor-Glove prototype: Trying the glove on

Me, trying on the too-small gauntlet I built…

It doesn’t SEEM very complicated.  It does seem like a very good project to start out a bunch of aspiring builders who take their inspiration from comic books very seriously.    It will involve some soldering, I’m sure; but it will also involve some pretty serious thinking about electronics on the part of some fourth and fifth graders.  And it will not likely look anything like the clean white-and-colorful bits in the LittleBits boxes when they’re done building it.

But I think about how utterly beyond me this would have been six months to a year ago… I would have looked at the drawers and drawers of electronic parts I had, and wondered how, on earth, I could possibly figure out how to build this thing I was expected to build.  Now thanks to Josh, and Frank, and LittleBits, I can see what it is that I’m trying to build: a power pack wired to a pressure-switch wired to a system of LED lights, looping back to the powerpack.

Without having the LittleBits, I would have struggled to understand that much.  All those demos with a battery pack and a lamp and a couple of wires, every couple of years at a Science Fair, wouldn’t have helped me.  Even the EL wire that I bought last year for the Design Lab wouldn’t have helped.  But this collection of components, combined with this collection of kids, combined with this particular desire — build elements of Halloween costumes in four weeks — this I get.  And this I think I can do:  it’s a low-enough bar that it can be achieved, and give our kids a much needed success, and a much-needed success for the program.  But more than that, it’s a beginner project, much like my beginner projects for my sewing and knitting efforts.  It’s a great way to learn how electronics work, and how they’re made.  It has just a little bit of danger, too, with the soldering (eventually).

These things are achievable, believable, controllable and desirable — A, B, C, D.  And more’s to the point, this is exactly why a bunch of electronics geeks invented LittleBits — to help bring a whole new crew of tinkerers into the kind of experimentation that makes their work possible and relevant.  This is why these toys exist.

And today, I got to see them put to that use.  I was very excited.