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.

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: 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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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.

 

Quilt: penguins 

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I find that I’m enjoying a great deal the process of laying out a quilt, and then sewing the rows and columns together to make the quilt.  These squares are 5″ to a side for this quilt with a penguin theme. The quilt is going to be much wider than a typical crib quilt, but about the same length.

Unfortunately, the dark blue fabric is polyester and slippery.  I don’t know if this is going to work.  I’ve found conflicting opinions about quilting with polyester fabrics — some people love them, some people hate them.  I’ve decided on a 100% cotton backing fabric, though, so if the baby winds up being sensitive to poly they can always flip it over and display the quilt top to the world and wrap the baby in two layers of cotton away from the artificiality.

Why use poly at all? Do you know how hard it is to find penguin fabric to begin with?  I also didn’t choose the fabric, in this case. This is a custom order, and I’m not sure that we knew it was poly when we ordered it.

In any case, there’s this delightful process that you can see in the third photo, where the rug gradually vanishes behind the fabric as the quilt takes shape. This one should be done later today, or at least it should be done later today.

There’s another thing that I quite like about quilting with these sorts of prints.  When you look at the whole fabric, it’s very hard to admire it — it’s the same pattern repeated over and over again.  It’s mind-numbing in its regularity.  And it’s often dull to look at.

But then something happens when you cut it up.  As the fabric is sliced in two directions, the pattern becomes more randomized. Sometimes it’s the father and mother penguin in the foreground, sometimes it’s in the background, sometimes it’s the large line of penguins in the middle ground that becomes prominent.  The pattern’s regularity becomes irregular, as the rotary blade cuts and slices the repetitive imagery into squares that don’t respect the pattern’s repeat mode.  And so something new emerges.  It’s the original cut-and-paste, in some ways.  Except that with quilting, it’s cut-and-baste.

Quilt: crib squares

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I received a commission for a baby quilt, to go in a certain niece’s crib. The bedroom of his niece has an owl theme, and so my patron scavenged up some owls fabric; I did the cutting and assembly. The assembly of the quilt front is now basically done after a day’s work. The backing is cut, and the batting.
What remains, is the quilting of the three layers together, and the attaching of an edge binding. The quilting will take the morning tomorrow; I can have the binding done by late afternoon.

It bears saying, though: not including the trips to the fabric store, or the discussions with the patron, a “simple” baby quilt is a 10-to-30 hour project. It is akin to a student research paper or a project for the county science fair. It takes as long to make a quilt, as it does to read a book, write several papers about it, and deliver a final oral report.
It’s for this reason that so much of what comes out of school MakerSpaces is, essentially, junk.  It’s rarely beautiful or complete — the child may be able to communicate a lot of truths by building and assembling a model of the thing — but a finished thing usually involves dozens if not hundreds of hours of labor.

Which is part of the reason why the rush to 3D printers and laser cutters and CNC milling machines in schools is so dismaying to me.  All of these sorts of high tech tools do amazing things, of course. But many of them put substantial amount of intermediate work between the student and the finished product —

  1. design a thing
  2. input the design as a vector graphic into a computer
  3. dial in the amount of cutting to be done, layer by layer
  4. Run the finished 3D model or graphic through some sort of confirmation process
  5. print ( CNC carve or laser-cut) the design
  6. Note mistakes
  7. Edit design
  8. Re-print (CNC carve, laser cut) the design again.

So much of that work involves hands-on… the computer.  Not with the materials.  Not with the machine itself. Students are effectively learning to do a small range of things only, which is to transmit designs from their brain to a computer screen, and then edit those computer-compatible designs to a specific range of functions on one type of robot.  Which is fine, if you’re training robot programmers.

And don’t get me wrong. Seymour Papert and Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez are right — computers allow you to do things that you wouldn’t normally be able to do.  So do robots in the classroom.

But a human being is more than a robot — and in schools particularly, we have to privilege human beings above robots.  A human being is more important than a robot, and deserves to be more than simply a tool for transferring human creativity into less than humane designs.

But I’m drifting far from quilting.  A sewing machine makes clothes, makes quilts, makes bags, makes fashion, makes hats, makes accessories, makes banners, makes stuffed animal shells, makes art.

And they require a substantial amount of basic mathematics.  My squares were cut on a rotary cutting mat, to be exactly 5 in.² The seam allowance is 1/4 inch. This means that the square is in the middle have an apparent size of 4 1/2  in.²  So, each square is losing a quarter inch from the top, bottom, left, and right.

The quilt is nine squares across. So, 9×5 = 45. So the materials for the quilt edge are 45 inches long. But every two squares sewn together means a loss of a 1/2″ or 3/4″ along the way… because quilting is not a perfect art.  So if I want a quilt to be such and such a number of inches wide, I have to plan for the loss that accumulates from sewing the squares together.

And so, slowly but surely, the quilt gets assembled from a variety of pieces.  It’s possible to observe the progress of the work from beginning to end. There’s something to put in a bin at the end of the day, and something to take out from a bin at the start of the working day.  The project picks up steam along the way, too, as the work trudges along toward completion.  Little by little, the work gets done.

Which I think is one of the things that I admire and notice about sewing as a form of Making.  Sewing, ideally, produces not junk, but actual and useful things — blankets to keep people warm, clothes to keep them dressed and fashionable, bags to put things in and store them, banners for celebrating all the seasons of our lives, and more.

If your MakerSpace and Maker program doesn’t have a sewing machine and sewing supplies in it… well, what are you waiting for?

Consider this blog post your permission slip (just be aware you need an ironing board, an iron, some scissors for fabric, some rotary cutters, and some rotary cutting matts too — I can help you figure out what tools you need, and I can even come teach your class.  Let me know.

 

What I Do: Vision Statement #makered

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My friend Stephanie challenged me to write a marketing plan for my business (Watermountain Studios), in sonnets.  I don’t know that I can write a marketing plan in sonnets, but I can write two that qualify as a vision statement, I suppose.

The human hand used to shape all our needs
and make all our wants from creche to casket;
the old factory is now choked with weeds,
and we mock those who can make a basket.
Robots build cars, machines sew our raiment
and the sweat of slaves dapples our plastic toys…
our children sit idle, workshops vacant —
we test to exhaustion both girls and boys.
Yet numbers and letters can still be learned
through artisan’s arts of loom, forge, and press.
By hand and eye’s labor are truth discerned
and concrete order made from abstract mess.
Children learn best when their hands learn to make,
for artistry helps our minds to awake.

To start a MakerSpace right now is hard:
we sold off the shop tools and burned the scrap,
put abstract thought on every student’s card,
and put computers in each student’s lap.
We tested for phonics and random facts,
and jumped for joy at every new reform —
yet abstraction has been a kind of trap
to make a man who thinks instead of acts.
Ask me — I’ll guide you through these thickets,
to where your students thrive with tools in hand
making theater props, posters and tickets,
costumes, the stage — instruments for a band.
When children make, they become more adept
at fixing the world that broke while we slept.

 

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