Poem/Song: Being a Tailor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dice Bags: Vikings!


What does one do if one has cute fabric suggestive of viking warriors on a rampage, but not very much of such fabric?

Make Dice Bags?

I mean, I suppose they could be bags for a set of runes.  There are 26 runes, or something like that, that are used in the mostly-modern divination sets that people use for a heathen-themed form of fortune-telling or divination.

I had enough fabric for three.  And maybe a half. I’m going to have to be clever with some other fabric to make the other half useful — Maybe I can find some “castle wall” fabric so that the warriors look like they’re standing behind a wall, defending the tower that they’re on top of.  Otherwise, I have a strip of fabric that’s too thin to do anything with.

It wound up being a production day, for the most part.  I produced enough fabric squares in 10″, 8″, 7″, and 4 1/2″ sizes to make three quilts.  I made one of those quilts, beginning to end. Then I found this fabric, and made these three RPG dice-bags, plus the bodies of three other komebukuro.   In list form, that’s:

  • Three dice bags
  • Three komebukuro
  • The squares for three quilts; and
  • finishing one of those quilts

I think I’ll be able to finish at least one other quilt before the weekend; the third will have to wait until next week.  I’ll be showing off both in a post early next week, I think, but a lot depends on the weather and on other aspects of my life coming together.

A fair bit of measuring went into the original design of this bag, but after that it was mostly just straight sewing on the sewing machine. There was a lot of pinning, and a few buttonholes… Buttonholes, man.  I did my first one yesterday — there will be a post about that tomorrow or the next day — and now I’ve done close to twenty.  I still can’t do them very well, but I’m getting better at them.

Komebukuro variant

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The Komebukuro form lends itself well to a lot of variation. The squares can be made into rectangles, as here, to create a longer or rather taller bag. As shown here, the Japanese rice bag is simply two sets of vie squares — a base and four sides. The bag sides are sewn to the base, four straight stitches. Then you sew the four sides to each other, one edge at a time. the result is sort of a box or five-sixths of a cube; you could add a zipper and a lid fairly easily to this design, really.

In the photographs here, I’ve shown as best I can what I’m talking about. The gray fabric in the middle is the BASE of the bag, while the floral print in gray are the sides of the bag. I’ve laid out the fabric of the liner in all floral print, while the outside of the bag has a single white panel where I can write my name, or the name of the person the bag is for.  Embroidery could be done here, for someone who was particularly ambitious.

Seven inches appears to be a good size for the Komebukuro. You can get a lot larger than that, of course.  You can also get a lot smaller, but there’s a point of diminishing returns under about five inches on a side for the squares that make up the base and sides of the bag.  I also don’t tank I’d want to go much larger than a foot on a side.  More than that would be unwieldy, and you’d be better off with two or more bags.

Back to construction…

Once the two boxes of the inner and outer bag are made, they are nested, and the top edges are folded down and in between the two bags. We then top-stitch the seam between them. As ive discussed elsewhere, the last step as the sewing of the eight buttonholes.

There’s a picture, here, of the outer shell of the bag already assembled, but still inside-out. This is to show inside-out construction. When building a bag, the fabrics are sewn right sides together. This puts the seam on what will eventually be the inside or in-between space of the bag, between the liner and the shell.

Then you sew in the button holes.  Each side of the bag is now two panels of fabric, the shell and the liner. Each of those panels takes two buttonholes, which are maybe 3/4″ down from the top edge of the bag, and evenly spaced on the bag’s walls, about a try of the way in from the corner.  The corners of the bag’s open top should be fairly visible.  Threading a cord or a ribbon through the buttonholes creates the closure mechanism, but also creates a carrying strap.

My sense of this is that it’s fairly easy to vary the size of the squares into rectangles. But the square that forms the bottom or base is fairly rigid. You can’t alter that from a square too much without unbalancing the bag as a whole, I think.

This would look stunning in indigo-dyed fabrics, or with Japanese embroidery patterns done on the outside of the bag (doing them on the liner would create all sorts of things for your keys or other objects inside to get hung up on; stick to the outside).  Many of those patterns are based in triangular geometry, so there is some real potential for elaborate, hands-on mathematics here.

My mother has made several of these bags, without the button holes or cording, to use as trash cans for her art studio. Paper and beads and parts that can be recycled go in one of the bags; while trash goes in another. They’re prettier than regular trash cans, and collapsible. She can fold them up and put them away when they’re not in use.

I may have to make some of my own for that.

All in all, I think I’m going to make a lot of these, both with with and without cording, in a number of sizes.  They’re a good size for kids’ lunch bags, for example, or for an art kit for the car, or for portable storage of related items while camping. I think I’m going to try making some in 10″ and maybe 14″ sizes, but I think that a shoulder bag or something like that will work better as another project for teaching sewing for school books.


Costume: Jedi, sorta


I made two Jedi costumes before Christmas-time, as Christmas presents for my cousin’s kids.  I also made a couple of books of secrets that also serve as journals for the older children.  I thought it was a nice division, between silly costume stuff and serious secret stuff.  It should have been a nice division, right?

img_2763Turns out, one of the kids that got a book, wanted a Jedi knight costume too.

So, I spent today with my patterns out, and some white fabric, making another Jedi tunic in a size XXS, and working up another djellaba-style cloak to go with it, both out of fairly simple cotton fabric.  Easy.

The Jedi Tunic is part of the costume pattern set that comes with Simplicity 5840.  They don’t call it A Jedi tunic, but from the way that the characters stand, and the accessories (shoulder armor, cloaks), it’s kind of clear that they’re supposed to be Jedi without violating trademarks and copyrights.

This is not a particularly difficult pattern to make. The ‘front’ is two panels, the back is one panel, each sleeve is one piece.  And then there’s a band around the neck and front and back that is two slips of fabric sewn into one long strip, and then double-folded.  None of the sewing is anything more complicated than straight-seam sewing.  Even the hemming is not difficult with a sewing machine.


The belt is five pieces, including a strip of interfacing.   I added some decorative stitching to the front panel of the belt.

The cloak pattern with Simplicity 5840 is fabric-heavy, though.  Takes seven to eight yards to assemble properly. That’s a lot of fabric to ask a kid to haul around for playtime.  And it winds up being expensive, too.  So I made some adjustments.

The first adjustment I made was to switch from a European cloak pattern to a more-Middle Eastern pattern which in some forms is called a djellaba.  My grandfather came back from a business trip to Saudi in the 1950s or early 1960s wearing a djellaba, which I now own — a bit of ancestor work every time I put it on.

The djellaba is either a very wide piece of fabric with both ends folded into the center, and sewn along one edge; or folding the fabric end to end, cutting a hole in the middle for the neck and head, slicing down the middle of one side to create the open front, and sewing the selvages shut except for wrist holes.  Which is what I did here — it uses less fabric, it’s less weighty and elaborate than a full-circle European cloak with sleeves, and it’s probably more useful for playtime for kids.

31DoM: Use a poppet


Today in the 31 Days of Magic (an outgrowth of the strategic sorcery community around Jason Miller) we’re supposed to use a poppet.  This is fundamentally different than jewelry or clothing, because those are the sorts of magic one does to present one’s self in a particular way. They’re glamoury of a sort, as Deb could tell you in detail.  But poppets and dolls are something else, because it’s creating something specifically to affect someone else.  And in general this is not the sort of magic that I do.  I’m much more interested in doing magic that helps people; and poppets have always struck me as magic for causing harm or difficulty or trouble.

But it’s the magic of the day.  I’ve been thinking about how to do this within my own code of ethics around magic for days.  And I finally hit on a solution.
31 Days of Magic: Poppet I’ve said before that one of my purposes in doing these 31 Days of Magic is to find people who will be co-workers and colleagues in the mission of teaching children to be Makers and creators, and bring more hands-on skills into the school.

And so I made this poppet.  It’s got yellow ‘skin’, and blue jeans, and a black t-shirt, all made of felt.  I started out by rummaging around in the fabric bin, and finding some scrap felt. All of the fabric was scrap from the MakerSpace at my school — it’s ‘consecrated’ or energized for the purpose I have in mind; this is fabric that has been cut up and used by a variety of students in my school who are having a great time Making things, and enjoying the creative processes which I’m trying to teach.  It’s sewn together with a polyester-cotton blended thread… and as I sewed this poppet, I spoke words of blessing and consecration over the parts and thread.
31 Days of Magic: Poppet

As the poppet came together, it looked more and more real and complete. Actually, it didn’t look more real and complete. It was more real and complete.  I mean, Look At It.  It is a real thing, isn’t it? Regardless of whether it’s a powerful and magical object, it’s a real object.

You want to know how real it is?

It’s so real that a colleague of mine saw me making it, and said, “Are you making a VOODOO DOLL??”  

And of course, I said “yes.”

This person’s eyes bugged out of their head.  “Who is it of?”  I smiled, and said, “nobody in particular.  Potentially anybody.”

This person said, “why are you making it??”

31 Days of Magic: PoppetI said, “It’s a magical doll, sure. Not exactly voodoo… I mean, I’m not going to stick pins in it or anything. But it’s suggestive of a set of powers. Cutting and sewing.  And it will sit in the MakerSpace with a bunch of similar objects.  And sooner or later, one of our colleagues will look at it, and think I could make that with my students. It doesn’t look so hard.  It actually looks pretty easy.”  

I finished sewing the poppet as she watched and listened.  “And then,” I said, “that means that someone else will take up the work of teaching kids how to make something with their hands. Someone else will take up the work of teaching kids to sew.  I can’t do it all, but I can do some of it.  And now this little magical poppet will sit in the MakerSpace project library, beckoning to all who see it, You could make something like me, and make it better, and it would be a lot of fun to learn how.” 

I cut the last thread.

And now, this little fellow sits in the MakerSpace project library, exactly where I said he would be. And now… don’t you want to make one too? Don’t you think you could make a better one?

Thirty Days of Making: Lunch Bag

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I’m in Day 17 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:

My sewing class students are finally starting to be able to work on their own.  And as a result, on Tuesday, I was able to cut fabric for a project of my own.  I’d noticed that a lot of kids had difficulty bringing their lunches to school — plastic bags, cloth bags, impromptu lunch containers, plastic tupperware, traditional lunch boxes.  Me too.  I have an ad hoc system myself, usually of three plastic hard-sided containers, and a loose round object like an avocado or an apple. Sometimes I have a thermos of coffee, too.  Time to end this mess.  I made myself a bag for my lunch.

Process and Result:

This project has been made over several days, and finished this morning (I needed to put lunch in it, right??).  Tuesday, my sewing kids were sufficiently self-sufficient that I was able to cut fabric for my project.  It’s a nice blue paisley fabric in an upholstery weight, with some ribbing on the back to help hold it together.  Yesterday, I had a chance to sew some of it, and this morning, I strung a drawstring ribbon through the top of the bag.

Thirty days of making: knots

from bottom: square knot, double-coin knot (or garrick bend), upper right bowline, upper left figure-eight knot.

It turns out that I have the perfect tool for doing this part, the ribbon for the drawstring, in my sewing kit.  It’s a little pair of tweezers with a pair of grabby hands at the ends, and a ring around the body of the tweezers for holding the grabby bits closed.  But I needed a skill in knot-tying to come together, and as it so happens there was a moment of serendipity recently that brought these skills to my attention.

Last Sunday night, I had a dream.  In the dream, I was teaching a child to sail. Once we were on a safe course, I was teaching this child knots: the square knot, the bowline, the double-coin knot (also called a Garrick bend), a figure eight knot, a half-hitch, a lark’s head with a toggle, and so on.  The kid was interested and a quick study.  Only, I woke and I realized I didn’t know those knots.  So I’ve been teaching them to myself using a book and some various videos online.   To string this drawstring, I used a bowline knot on the end of these locking tweezers, and I strung the tweezers through the tube of the drawstring around the top of the bag.  Then, I attached the ribbon to the tweezers’ business end, and pulled the thread wit the bowline in it back through the tube. The tweezers traveled back through the tube, back to the other end of the drawstring opening; and the bag was strung.  So I happened to be practicing

Thirty days of making: lunch bag I was in a bit of a rush this morning, so I forgot to take any process photographs. But the lunch bag served me quite well today on the table in the faculty room, where, as you can see, I fed myself with two plastic containers of veggies, an apple, and an avocado. There may have been some smoked salmon in there, too.

Just off the photo, on the right, is a set of bamboo flatware for eating lunch, that I’ve put into the bag.  I didn’t make the bag they came in; I just happened to own it already, and it fit with the bag quite nicely.  Now everything is together in the right place.

Reflection on my Learning

I’ve made other bags in this thirty days of learning: one for a crystal ball, and a whole series of smaller and larger ones for various purposes.

This one, though the making of it was spread over several days, involved using the same tools as the other bags: fabric, iron, ironing board, fabric scissors, thread, sewing machine.  But it took ten minutes, instead of over an hour. When I look at the amount of time that I spent genuinely working on this project, that’s what I think it took.  The course of working through the challenges of my shirt, I think, gave me a skill-boost.  In D&D terms, I had to make about sixty skill-checks to make my shirt.  To make this bag took one.  I spent more time unjamming the sewing machine half-way through the making, than I did in making the bag.  I spent more time fussing with the bowline knot on the tweezers than in pulling the drawstring through.

I genuinely think I’m getting more confident at problem-solving through this thirty days of making project.  Because I’m working on a lot of different kinds of problems, and then returning to my earlier work, the earlier work becomes easier.

Reflection on General Learning

How do I harness the power of the Thirty Days of Making challenge for my students?  How do I get them to make something every day for thirty days? It’s interrupted my homework-grading schedule.  It’s disrupted my life in unexpected, if not exactly undesirable, ways.  I’ve given this stuff priority at odd times when I should have been paying attention to other things.  And yet my own design process makes considerably more sense to me after running through it as many times as I have.

You need to make a lot of stuff, and finish a lot of projects, before the mindset of being a designer becomes both obvious and internalized.


Three of five stars.  I’ve done this before.  I’ve done it enough that it’s become easy.  There’s a level of mastery here, and a degree of confidence, that exists once one has done this kind of work often enough.  Call it a hundred hours of work with a sewing machine and other sewing tools? Probably not that much.  Once I make a shirt or two more, and maybe a pair of pants, this will be even easier.  In the meantime, bags are now apparently easy as pie.  Even the drawstring is a cinch.

Thirty Days of Making: Most of a Shirt


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.


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.

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