8.13.2014

Musing On My Return to Sewing After A Decades-Long Hiatus

My mother once called me an assembly line artist. I suppose this was due to the fact that I worked quickly and was able to produce a lot of whatever I was making in a short amount of time. It seems like I was always in a hurry back then, with meals to make, children to care for, a house to clean, and, usually, a job to get to. I had little time for sewing, so had to make the most of it and could usually sew a dress from start to finish in a day (as long as there were leftovers for dinner and the kids were in school). If I had a blog back then (if blogs had existed) I could have called it "Slapdash Seamstress" because that would have been the perfect description of my style of sewing: "done hurriedly and carelessly".

During the 80's and 90's I used my slapdash, hurry-up-and-get-it-done approach to make most of my clothes. This was the period when puffed sleeves, lace collars, petticoats, dropped waists, ruffles, and cabbage rose prints were trendy (and white hose. I wore white or cream colored hose back then with everything. I'm almost certain I even wore them under my pants.) My style was inspired by Victoria Magazine, the Anne of Green Gables movies, Laura Ashley, Jessica McClintock, and the Princess of Wales (the pattern for my bridesmaids' dresses was based on her wedding gown).


She was so lovely.
This look didn't require much in the way of fitting skills, which was fortunate for me because I had none. The most I could do was add 6" to the bottom of my skirts and dresses to compensate for my height. I can't count how many versions of these dresses I made, all of them in cheap cotton prints. If you were to turn up the hem of one of my handmade garments, you would have found unfinished seams, uneven hand stitches, hanging threads, and shoddy workmanship in general. I had very little training in garment construction and it showed.

I quit sewing for a few reasons, but mainly because I was tired of spending time and money on something that didn't fit well. I also didn't want to dress like Pollyanna any more. At some point, it dawned on me that I was a grown woman walking around dressed like a little girl and the look no longer appealed to me. I moved on to ready made clothing, a more classic silhouette, and lots more time for other things (this was when I picked up quilting and then later knitting). I figured my home-sewn wardrobe days were over.

But, in the intervening years, the internet happened. I eventually found sewing blogs (I think Gertie's was my first), online tutorials, even online classes taught by professionals. My kids grew up and left home, I was no longer able to work, and I found myself with plenty of time to learn the right way to do this.

I'm sure that I have spent more time reading and learning about sewing than I have actually spent making clothes. During the past couple of years especially, I've really started to focus on learning good fit and construction. I figured out that I have very narrow shoulders (often narrower than the smallest size on a multi-sized pattern), forward shoulders, a full bust, and a swayback. I began by studying how to adjust a pattern for each of these fit issues, but had only moderate success with the actual process. There's something about morphing a narrow shoulder into a full bust that creates problems at the armhole which I could never fully address on my own and this is where the sloper classes on Craftsy came to the rescue.


My woven bodice sloper. I'm terribly proud of it.
I now have a customized woven skirt sloper and both woven and knit bodice slopers hanging in my closet. The process of getting to this point has taken longer than I expected, but the results were worth it. As I sewed and then altered each successive muslin, I learned more about the particular fit needs of my body and how to turn a piece of fabric into something that really does look like it was made for me.

Now I have moved on to the pattern drafting stage and, once again, have found that it takes a little more time than I anticipated. Each new pattern needs to be tested in a mock-up (or two) of cheap fabric before I commit to cutting into the good stuff and I suppose that, even then, every pattern will go through a series of tweaks with each successive garment sewn from it until I finally arrive at the one that says "this is it".

Right now I have an A line skirt halfway through the construction phase and a T shirt pattern that is finally ready to cut from the jersey I planned to use way back in May. I'm fine with the delay in starting my summer wardrobe. I'll make less pieces this year so that I can be sure that I'm doing things right. For the first time in my life, I'm enjoying the making of my clothes, rather than plowing through it like an odious task that just needs to be over and done.

(That's my skirt fabric on the left. It's a stretch cotton twill from Mood. I'm adding some piping made from black poplin and will line it with stretch silk charmeuse too add some opacity).

I'm hoping that my garment-making will speed up a bit once I've nailed down my patterns and gotten used to using them. The next one to draft will be a *sleeveless fitted shirt. I'm toying with my design options: princess seams vs darts, yoke vs none, what type of collar, which size button, etc., because all of those options will affect the pattern in some way. It's pretty cool, actually, that I can have that much control over the clothes that I'll make and wear.

While sewing my Alabama Chanin skirts last year, I discovered that I actually enjoyed the slowness of hand stitching each piece. There was a meditative quality to it that I found to be relaxing and rewarding. Although my machine sewn clothes will be finished more quickly, I've found that appreciation for the process has carried over into this as well. It's somewhat like encountering an old friend I hadn't thought of in years and suddenly realizing just how much I had missed them. I don't know if it's the newly acquired skills or the luxury of having extra time or just the appreciation for things that comes with maturity, but sewing doesn't feel like a chore any more and I'm actually having fun this time.

*Edited to add: the fitted shirt pattern is nearly done, all it needs is a collar (and yay! Suzy Furrer's Sleeves and Collar classes are now available on Craftsy!)

Also edited to add: I'm not employed by Craftsy. Just a very pleased customer.







7.24.2014

I Know I Said That I Was Done, But This Time I Mean It


Since I've acquired five vintage Singer machines over the past couple of years, I've begun to think that maybe I should get rid of my computerized Viking. The one thing that has kept me from putting the Lily up for sale is the fact that it's the only machine I've ever used to sew knit fabrics. I'm still rather new to sewing knits and had felt it best to hang on to the Lily-at least until I could figure out if knits could be sewn with the 401. So, sometime during the winter, I sat down  to see if I could get comfortable sewing knits with it. After testing several stitch/needle/tension combinations, I concluded that a narrow zigzag (stitch width about 1.5), a stretch needle, and a walking foot would give me an acceptable seam.

Then, I decided to really get to know my Singer zigzag machine by taking it apart, cleaning it, and putting it back together. I have done this with my 201 and both of my Featherweights and have had no problems, though I should add that I never go so far as to remove gears or shafts and will only remove a hook if it's absolutely necessary. I figured that the zigzag machine would be a bit more challenging, but there's always Google, so how hard could it be? It actually didn't end up being that difficult and I felt I got a better understanding of how this machine works and feel much less intimidated when I open up the top and look at the cam stack.

However, it quickly became apparent that something was different now. The 401 began to skip stitches. The thread kept either breaking or jamming in the bobbin area. I turned to Google again and followed all of the advice and troubleshooting that I could find. I re-threaded the machine. I wound new bobbins. I tried different bobbins (plastic, metal reproductions, orignal metal). I tried different needles, different fabrics, different threads. I pulled out the bobbin case to check for lint or thread underneath (there was none). I inspected the needle plate, hook, and upper thread path for burrs (none). I took off the tension, took it apart, put it back together, and installed it again, but the stitches kept skipping and the thread kept jamming and breaking.

After several long sessions of trying to figure this out, one afternoon I happened to glance at my 201 which was sitting just a few feet away and I noticed that there was something very different about its tension assembly. It dawned on me that the take up-spring guard on the 401 was incorrectly positioned behind the tension discs rather than in front of them. I had done this, not just once when I cleaned the machine, but again for a second time when I removed and re-installed the tension while troubleshooting. This, despite the fact that at least 2 other machines with the exact same part (correctly installed) were sitting within a few feet of me the entire time.

So, obviously, all I had to do was remove the tension assembly one more time and put it back on in the correct order, right?

Wrong. This time I dropped the teeny, tiny set screw that goes into the nut on the front of the assembly. Without it, it's impossible to adjust the tension, so it had to be found. I've dropped set screws before. They usually roll to the same spot behind my desk where I can easily find them. Not this time. There was no screw to be found anywhere. I swept the floor repeatedly. I dust mopped. I moved furniture. I lay on my belly on the floor and and peered with a flashlight into air vents, small cracks, and the slots in the walls where the pocket doors go. Nothing. After several days of searching, I gave up and decided to just buy another tension assembly.

Except, they are no longer being made. I found a vintage machine dealer online who had one for sale but the price was much more than I wanted to pay for a tension assembly. So I headed to Ebay and searched for "Singer 401 for parts" and "as is".  I ended up finding one that was just $20 more than the asking price for the tension assembly and its only missing parts were the slide plate and top lid-both of which I don't anticipate losing.

But wait, there is another sewing machine in the above photo. While looking for the 401 parts machine, I also found a 201 that was missing the spool pin plate. My husband offered to buy it for me (he was about to leave town and I think he felt badly about leaving me behind again), so of course I accepted.

Although some of the parts on both machines can be replaced with new ones, most of them can only be gotten by stripping another vintage machine and the individual parts don't come cheap (I bought a motor for my mom's 15-91 a few months ago and paid about $50 for it). Now I have a complete set of parts for both my favorite straight stitch and zig zag machines and won't have to spend time hunting for them when the time comes that they're needed.

So I spent the last few weeks taking apart, cleaning, and putting back together these 2 new lovelies. I even pulled the hook out of the 401. I have no idea if it needs to be timed, but it doesn't matter since I'm not going to sew on it. 

With the addition of these parts machines, I now own seven vintage Singers.  It's probably time to stop looking at any more (my brother-in-law called from a thrift store again a few days ago; fortunately it was a plastic Singer so it was easy to say "no"), unless, of course, I found something dirt cheap. Or with really pretty decals. I'm a sucker for pretty decals and think that the Gingerbread/Tiffany ones are especially pretty.

Now it's time to get back to sewing. I stitched together my sloper muslin yesterday and need to get some photographs to upload to the class for feedback. It's almost ready and, once it is, I'll be moving on to drafting some sleeveless shirts (both woven and knit). I also have an A line skirt pattern that is finished and ready to be cut from fashion fabric. The lining arrived in the mail this week, so I hope to put that together next week. And Suzy Furrer has a new class on Craftsy for drafting sleeves and I'm eager to get started with that so that I can sew some T-shirts on my now complete Singer 401.

7.05.2014

Patternmaking Class Moulage: Finished!

Well, it took one month longer than I had planned, but my moulage for the Craftsy pattern making class is done. I have been working on this (albeit not on a daily basis) since late November/early December. I completely set it aside a couple of times to focus on other things, but it was always near the top of my to-do list.

The process of creating my custom moulage has been a fantastic learning experience. The first thing I learned was that I needed a lot of practice at taking my own measurements. It's either that or my size kept changing, because I got a lot of very different sets of numbers initially. Between my husband, my sister, and me taking them frequently over a period of several weeks, I finally ended up with a set of numbers that, if not exactly precise, got me close enough for the muslin.

I also found that I was not a very accurate drafter. A few of my muslins were so obviously flawed that they were trashed before anyone but me saw them, though 4 of them made it all the way to being photographed and uploaded to the Craftsy class platform for instructor feedback. My drafting skills did improve over the weeks and months spent correcting errors or refining the fit. I also feel that I got better at analyzing muslins; with the last 2 versions especially, I was able to spot some of the issues and correct them before they were photographed. However, there is no substitute for the experienced eye of a professional. I'm incredibly impressed that Suzy Furrer can look at a photo and know exactly what needs to be done-down to an 1/8" difference.

One major eye opener was seeing myself in muslin photos for the first time. I thought I had a pretty good idea of how I looked in my clothes, but like they say, the camera doesn't lie (I'm also clinging to the axiom that it adds 10 pounds). I knew that I had forward shoulders, a belly, and the start of some kyphosis, but seeing it in full color really brought home to me the need to start working on my alignment (or at least stop slumping). I also discovered-as evidenced by the photos-that I apparently have difficulty standing up straight. I swear that no alcohol was consumed during the photographic sessions, though there might have been some Benadryl on board at least once. Finally, I saw that, even when wearing something as unflattering as a muslin moulage, every figure looks much better when it is properly fitted.

And so, without further ado, I hereby swallow my pride and present my muslin pics:

First, the front views:




Moulage #1 had a major drafting/measuring error that resulted in the armhole sitting too high. The front neck is also too high. There is extra fullness between bust and waist. And my left shoulder appears lower than my right, though I blamed my very crooked house for it.

In moulage #2, the armhole has been deepened, though there are still some drag lines angling from the mid shoulder and it's still loose between bust and waist. My left shoulder looks lower than my right again. At this point I concluded that my body was more asymmetrical than I had realized. 

Moulage #3: But wait. Now my right shoulder is lower. I'm standing in a different area of my house as well, so maybe it is the house. I just can't believe that I could be so floppy and weak that I can't hold myself upright. As far as the moulage goes, this is better. The armhole is deep enough now, but it's still loose below the bust as well as above it. I also noted that the waist seam was sitting too low at center front.

Moulage #4: I chose a different spot in the house for this set of photos and suddenly I don't look like I'm swaying in the breeze. (Note to self: stand in this spot for all future muslin photos). The muslin is tight as a glove, (as it should be). Bowing out the darts above and below the bust tightened up those areas, as did shortening the front length. Now the waist seam is level all the way around. Best of all, Suzy says it looks good.


And the back views:




Moulage #1: my sister did her best to pin me into this, but clearly she hasn't spent a lot of time pinning things (I love you anyway!). I got smart after this one and moved the opening to the front. Here, the cross back is too wide and the base of the armhole too high. The center back seam is also too long, which is why I have so much horizontal wrinkling above the waist.

Moulage #2: The back length is better, but still too long. The cross back and armhole depth are slightly improved.

Moulage #3: Back length is still too long (I blame the swayback), but it's getting closer. 

Moulage #4:  I tried taking out another 1/4" from the back length, but this moved the waist seam above my true waist and that horizontal wrinkle was still there, so I let it out again. Suzy thinks that adding wearing ease will allow that wrinkle to drop out, so I'm leaving it as is. 

I've already done a review of this class, but I must say once again how valuable this experience has been. The instruction is excellent (precise, detailed, and easy to understand), but the biggest benefit has been the access to Suzy Furrer. Receiving individualized attention from a patternmaking professional was something I would never have dreamed of affording. The fact that I could work at my own pace, didn't have to travel, and can continue to review the lessons/ask more questions for as long as I need are all just added bonuses.

So, next week I'll be creating my bodice slopers (both woven and knit) and then will move on to drafting and sewing some summer clothes (my skirt sloper is done too!).



5.20.2014

Summer Sewing for 2014: Knits

I'm still plugging away on the moulage and am getting very close. I hope to have both woven and knit slopers done by the end of the month (11 days!). They would probably already be done if I hadn't gotten distracted by the treadle sewing machine-the rehabilitation of which is still a work in progress.

Once the slopers are ready, I'll start making my new clothes. I'm going to start with knits
because they tend to be quick sews and also travel well. I have just a little over a month to pull together enough clothes for a one week vacation. I know that doesn't seem like much, but  since I've been living in pajamas all winter (and my weight has gone down, then up, then down again), I'm not left with a lot of options when I leave the house these days.

I have a LOT of knits in my sewing closet/pile. In an attempt to reign myself in (as opposed to attempting to sew everything in my stash), I'm limiting myself to black, white, and red for my summer sewing-for both knits and wovens. At least things will coordinate this way. 

I plan on starting with t shirts. The last time I tried to make a t-shirt I wasn't happy with the results. I'm hoping that my personalized knit sloper will make a difference. I'll use a few patterns for inspiration, but will draft the final pattern myself.

Then I'll finally sew a Tiramisu dress. I nearly had the fit of this pattern perfected last Fall, but will still use my sloper to check it before sewing one last muslin of the bodice. And then I want to make a maxi dress. I'm hoping I can draft this myself. I'm still not sure about what kind of bodice I'd like it to have, but have time to look at examples before I need to decide.

The wrap dresses probably won't happen until after vacation, but I really like the idea of that Donna Karan pattern made up in my black dot rayon jersey and am thinking that the red/black paisley might be better suited for Fall in a wrap dress with elbow length sleeves. I love the fuller skirt on this one from Anthropologie.


Knits

Knits by jenniestro 
Photo credits:
Elementary V Neck Anthropologie
Briar sweater and t-shirt sewing pattern Megan Nielsen
Tiramisu dress pattern SewingCake 
Black knit patio dress Banana Republic
DKNY dress pattern Vogue
Revelations dress Anthropologie



5.13.2014

Singer Red Eye Treadle

Oh boy. Just when I thought I owned enough vintage Singers, my brother-in-law sent me this photo, taken at a thrift shop:



He said it was in a cabinet with a treadle. I know the price seems high, but it's actually good for this area. That price tag, however, was attached with a big piece of tape right on top of the delicate decals. This is how it looked once the price tag was removed so that the machine could be paid for:



All of the color was lost. The remaining colored decals-and everything else-were covered with a thick, amber-colored layer of something that resembled old varnish.


That's not rust on the end cover plate. It's nicotine.
The smell of stale cigarettes became quite obvious in the enclosed space of my dining room, and I soon discovered that years of nicotine had coated everything, both inside and out: the machine, the cabinet, and the treadle base. The only area that was not stained with it was the tiny section of needle still in the needle clamp. It was shiny clean, which told me that this machine hadn't been used in a long time. There were also some rusted areas.

So I'm looking at a machine rescue project. Why can't I ever find a machine in pristine condition for $25 at a garage sale? Does this ever really happen, or is it just an urban legend?

I started with cleaning the machine. I wore protective gear (respirator, gloves, long sleeves) and worked outside to prevent an exposure that might trigger one of my immune reactions. I was in such a hurry to get the smell out of the machine that I didn't even take the time to see if it could make a stitch. That will have to wait until later.

Here are a few more before photos:


The back cover plate was corroded and rusted in place.


This is what I found under the bobbin case. 

Look! More nicotine! This knob should be chrome.
Behind the end plate

When I began to clean the body of the machine, I discovered that the clear coat was in rough shape and, in some areas, non-existent. I did my research and was very careful, but this is what happened after a very light cleaning with TR3:





The pretty decals came off. I think that the only thing that had been protecting them was the nicotine. There's still a thick coat of it on the areas that have not been cleaned and I I can't have the odor of it in my home. My health is more important than keeping the original finish (or what's left of it). The wooden cabinet also still reeks after repeated scrubbing, rinsing, and wiping. I haven't even touched the treadle yet.

I've already decided that the cabinet will have to be painted after it is sealed with an odor blocking primer. I'm hoping that cleaning the treadle base with TR3 will be sufficient, since there are no decals on it (and, I assume, no clear coat to worry about either). As for the machine, I'm leaning towards a re-paint with fresh decals. I can't use it as it is, so I might as well learn something new. I know that this machine will stitch just as well with nothing but a plain black coat, but I really like the Red Eye decals and have found someone who is making replacements for them. I guess the question now is whether to attempt this restoration myself or take it to a body shop.





Singer Cabinet Facelift: Done!




The cabinet has been painted and reassembled and the 201 installed in its new home. I attached the leaves this morning:


The color is just a tad deeper than it appears in these photos. I used a Sherwin Williams shade called Aquatint, but had it tinted at 50%, so it's lighter than the color on the paint chip card. I like it. A lot.

It doesn't really take up that much extra space when it's closed.

I was glad for the multitude of photos that I took when I dismantled the mechanisms inside. Everything went back into place and works as it should.

The bracket in the right section of the drawer is for an oil can.

My only regret is that the cabinet only has this one small drawer. It's just big enough for the power cord, an Altoids box full of bobbins, and a lint brush. I can always use more storage in my sewing room.

I suppose that I could get back to work on my fitting sloper, if it weren't for the fact that my brother-in-law found this at a thrift store last week:


Look! More drawers!

4.27.2014

A Confession, A Cabinet, & That Craftsy Sloper

I really need to get back to making clothes. I hate to confess this, but during the colder months I fell into a bit of a slump in which I wore pajamas all day, every day (with the optional sweat pants when leaving the house). As usual, my energy level has begun to slowly increase with the warmer weather. This spring I seem to have also recovered  my self respect (well, almost. I'm in pajamas right now and it's nearly 5:00 p.m.). I have decided that I would like to start acting and looking like a normal (not sick) person. Besides, it's too warm now for flannel.

I have more than enough fabric to sew a new wardrobe and plenty of ideas about what I want to make. The only thing keeping me from starting my fabulous new handmade wardrobe adventure is the need to finish my Craftsy bodice sloper course so that I can draft my custom-fitted patterns.


I meant to sew my 3rd (and hopefully final) moulage last week, but was sidetracked by other projects in the sewing room. I had almost finished cleaning and servicing the Singer 201 and was thinking about where I would store it when it was not in use. It didn't come with a carrying case and it's so heavy that I wouldn't want to be lifting it onto my desk anyway. The logical solution was to find a cabinet that would fit it. 

After a bit of research, I spotted a good deal on a Singer model 40 cabinet on Ebay. The seller had it packed and shipped within 24 hours and it arrived at my door only a few days later:



It's a solidly built, good looking cabinet that was specifically made for the 201. There are two leaves on the top that open to reveal the work surface:


That open area is where the machine will sit. The 2 key shaped objects at the back are the hinges that will support the machine and that black section on the right is a spring loaded lift that helps support and raise the machine from its stored position. There is an arm that swings out automatically to support the larger leaf on the left when it is opened and a knee control that folds down from underneath on the right. There's even a metal clip inside the drawer for storing an oil can:


The cabinet itself needed a light cleaning to remove dust. The veneer-especially on the front of the cabinet-was lifting in several places. The left leaf support didn't swing back into place under the top when the leaves were closed. Some of the mechanical parts had a bit of rust here and there. I decided to approach the cabinet like I would a machine: take it apart, clean everything, repair as needed, then put it back together. I took photos of each step as I disassembled the cabinet as well as notes on how the various mechanisms were installed (length and number of screws, location in the cabinet, etc).

The damage to the veneer turned out to be more extensive than it first appeared. One large section completely fell off, another was badly warped, and several other pieces broke off or splintered when I wiped the surface with a rag. After I glued and clamped down all of the pieces that could be salvaged, I used wood putty to fill in the gaps.

While I was removing the mechanical parts from the inside, I discovered that some of the screw holes in the wood were too loose, so puttied those as well. The screw hole under one of the machine mounting hinges was also loose, but since these hinges will support the machine, I knew that the screws needed to fit in place very tightly. Instead of using wood putty here, I mixed up some epoxy, scooped it into a syringe, and shot it directly into the hole in the wood.  (Thankfully, the weather was nice so I could do this outside to avoid smelling the fumes. My mask and gloves came in handy too). I'll drill a small pilot hole later-before I install the hinge.

I had originally planned to have the existing finish touched up with some tung oil, but the the damage to the veneer (and subsequent extensive use of putty) led me to conclude that painting would be simpler. Besides, with the exception of 2 chairs, every piece of furniture in my house is painted, so the cabinet will better fit into my home this way.

Here's the cabinet ready for its first coat of primer:



It has since been painted and is sitting in the garage so that paint can cure to a hard finish and off-gas any vapors. I hope to have it back into the sewing room within a week. In the meantime, I suppose I could sew up that moulage.