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.

Shirt-making notes 2

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This is a continuation of my effort to document some of the errors and challenges I faced while making a particular pattern. The first part of it is here.

I recalled that I had tried making this shirt before.  But I was wrong; it’s a different pattern in that first effort. This is the first time I’ve tried making this shirt; I’m not sure that I like it any better than that one, I admit.  But that’s not why I tried making a shirt.

Buttons and trim

One of the challenges of any shirt pattern is that the key details — buttons and buttonholes, trim on the collar — all come at the end. Any mistake is glaring and obvious. You can ruin the work of two days (or a few hours, for a real professional) just by getting a buttonhole wrong. Fortunately for me, I’ve already made three significant mistakes. I don’t care if I get some details wrong at this point — I want to know the other mistakes I’m likely to make.

I finish the body of the shirt: front, back, two sleeves, placket, two cuffs (three pieces each). Now it’s all detail work.

The first photo shows the trim around the neckline and the two buttons on the cuffs. Last step: two buttonholes.

A buttonhole on a shirt is a date with death. You can’t do it until the very end; it’s a one-time activity; once it’s cut, there’s no going back.

Shirt body complete

I get the first buttonhole done.  It looks like it’s the right size. It measures correctly. Is it, though? There’s something I’ve forgotten but I can’t remember. Something about the height of the button being relevant. I don’t look it up. Button holes already frighten me. I have to face this fear. The garment is already somewhat damaged. One more mistake isn’t going to kill it.

Cut a button hole with a seam ripper. They’re more precise than a blaster, a weapon for a more elegant age. It takes several cuts with the tiny blade in the bottom of the seam ripper to open the hole.

Wrong

It takes a couple of seconds of fiddling to get the button to fit. This is not ideal; it shoild be a smooth thing, not fussy. I will heed advice, but mostly I need more practice.

Some of it is having the right tool to mark the fabric.  I only have white chalk to mark my lines on fabric; against the pale blue background, the white tailor’s chalk is largely invisible in the light of my studio.  I can’t really see what I’m doing.  I’m also, probably, rushing.

Button in hole

The first button fits the hole quite well although accidentally… It’s a little tight and I should lengthen the next button hole.  The process of putting in the button hole stretches the cuff a little.  I hear a tearing sound.  Is that fabric, or interfacing between the two layers of fabric inside the cuff.  No obvious tears, so probably interfacing.  Is the integrity of the shirt damaged? No more than it was before, I suspect. And the shirt’s integrity is already damaged in a couple of places; the gathers around the sleeves and cuffs for one; the placement of the interior placket for another.

What next? A second button hole, of course. I’m going to try to get this one exactly right. I get it wrong of course. Instead of a nice narrow rectangle it’s more of a triangular shape. I meant to do that. Right? Right. But the button fits. Not well, maybe, but it fits.The next challenge is hemming the bottom edge. I discover that I have a hemming foot in a case of feet for my low-shank sewing machine, and I try it out. It works — not perfectly, and some of it will require practice. But it works.

In the end, I have a serviceable shirt.  It’s roomy inside this shirt, and it’s long.  Three inches extra would probably have been enough, but now I can belt it like a Anglo-Saxon nobleman, although it’s unlikely that an Anglo-Saxon nobleman would have had a shirt of pima cotton with a 400-thread count, or trim as lovely as this.

Photo on 6-11-17 at 3.32 PM.jpg

man and shirt — with a bit of gathered cuff poking out

So, a summary of mistakes:

  1. The gathering at shoulders and across the front has to be right.
  2. Reinforce the yoke shoulder seam; reinforce the place where the gathers attach to the yoke.
  3. Pin the cuffs, sew the outside, then sew the inside.
  4. Trim and finishing after.
  5. Maybe do buttons and buttonholes before attaching cuffs? Tricky.
  6. Get the point of the trim correct.

All in all, a successful first effort at this pattern.  I look forward to trying it again, the next time I find myself in possession of a top sheet that can be sliced and shredded in six different ways to make a shirt.

 

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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Knitting: Second Hat

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I had some time this weekend, and I was in the mountains where it was cold and rainy over the weekend.  So I spent a fair number of hours working on my second hat.  I finished it on Sunday. And a good thing, too, because I needed it on Monday, when it was again cold and rainy and ugly.

The hat is a little bit on the large side for me. I was trying to scale it up from the “Adult L” size to my extra-large head, and I made it a little too big, I guess.

All the same, there’s a couple of things here that I managed to get right:

  • Ribbing to create a frame for the hat
  • knitting in the round on a circular needle
  • knitting in the round on four double-pointed needles
  • managing decreases (knit2 together)

So, all in all, a successful second hat was made. By me. To wear. Right away. I’m eager to make another one, but this time I think I’ll keep it at the Adult L size, rather than trying to add in another 18 or so stitches to make it conform to what I ‘think’ is the correct size.  This kind of thing only gets easier with practice.

The next challenges?  Socks and mittens.  Then gloves.

Geometry book: end of prep 

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I’ve been working on this hand-written book of geometry since at least 2013… maybe since 2011. There’s a total of fifty pages or leaves in it, although it’s an accordion-style Japanese album from Moleskine.  I recently started working on it again due to some recent geometry work in my life, and I’ve put in a few longish days.  The work itself is a manuscript to teach myself the material from Andrew Sutton’s book, Ruler and Compass, available from Wooden Books Press (a division of Bloomsbury).

Several years ago, it might have been early 2014, I laid out most of the remaining pages — the margins of each panel, the lines for the text, and the two or three geometry figures for each page.  For reasons passing understanding at this late juncture, I failed to lay out the last six pages of the book, or plan for the inside front cover.  The result was that I created a milestone, of sorts, in this project — the end of already-laid-out pages, six pages before the end, when I’d have to plan the remaining six pages and finish the inside front cover.

I’m now at that point.  My goal was to get here by Memorial Day weekend, and I’ve achieved that goal a bit earlier than expected.  I probably won’t be able to get back into this work until after the weekend, but I’ve made good progress.

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