One of my impulse fabric buys from Fiddlehead Artisan Supply during my trip to Maine this summer was a fat eighth roll of Dupioni silk, in gorgeous blues and greens collectively named “Water” (which is exactly what it makes me think of Of course, I had no real plan for these silks, they were just too beautiful to leave in the store. I ultimately decided that instead of making yet another pillow or tote bag, I would sew them lengthwise into a skirt for my youngest daughter.
There are six silk pieces in all, each 9″ x 22″. I didn’t waste or cut any of the fabric – just sewed them all together lengthwise, then a small hem and a small roll for an elastic waistband.
Then, of course, she needed something to wear with the skirt . . . this tank is a modified child-size version of Athens, knit with two skeins (437 yds/ea) of Alpha B yarn’s Single Silk B (70% superwash merino / 30% silk) in color Hey Sailor. I wanted a yarn with some silk, to produce a sheen that echoed the fabric of the skirt, and I thought the the deep navy color went best with all of the “water” colors of the skirt. The tank is knit on US 4s.
For the past few months, I have been inspired by several maker blogs that focus on apparel sewing. I had been thinking for some time about sewing my own clothes, but often felt too frustrated and intimidated by the process. However, the posts of other bloggers, particularly Karen Templer of Fringe Association, really made me think about some crucial issues, as well as the concept of honing down my wardrobe to several basic, well-made pieces that all worked together. What a relief it would be to go to my closet and have only a few pieces – but beautiful, well-made pieces – to pick and choose from! That might seem like a strange thing to say, but it feels like the more clothes I have, the less I appreciate each piece, and the more overwhelming it is to figure out what to wear each day. In any case, I just end up wearing the same core pieces over and over, so why do I have a closet full?
I did know how to sew, and I’d sewed clothes for my daughters, but I’d never successfully sewed my own clothes – at least, not pieces that I ended up liking in terms of fit. I was worried that if I tried it again, I’d have the same frustrating results, so I decided to buy a few private lessons at Modern Domestic, a great sewing/fabric store in Portland, and see if I could learn some tips that would get me started.
I began the lessons in late July, and since then I’ve sewn an Everyday Skirt (Leisl + Co), two Scout Tees (Grainline), two Tiny Pocket Tanks (Grainline), a Zinnia Skirt (Colette), two Aster Shirts (Colette), two tank dresses that my instructor and I hacked from a store-bought dress, the Tofino Pants (Sewaholic), and I’m currently working on the Moss Skirt and Lark Tee (both Grainline). I feel like I’ve learned so much through this process, not just in terms of technical sewing knowledge, but even more, what it takes to try to sew a wardrobe that I will actually wear. I sat down and put to paper some of those thoughts:
Lesson One: Fabric Matters I guess I should have already known this, given what I know about the importance of choosing the right yarn for a knitting project, but I think it might be even more crucial with sewing apparel projects. Unfortunately, while a knitting pattern will have a recommended yarn – whatever the sample was knit in – the same is not true with sewing patterns. Instead, the pattern lists only broad categories: cotton, lawn, etc. A good pattern might give some further recommendations about how light or heavy the fabric should be, the drape of the fabric, etc., but most of the time, all you’ve got to go on is “cotton.” Of course, that’s like listing the yarn for a knitting pattern as “wool.” What weight, gauge, hand, drape, and a million other descriptive terms? My most successful sewing projects were sewn with the exact fabric that my instructor recommended – and, I found, it’s much easier to buy a pattern you like and then find a good fabric to sew it in, rather than picking out a fabric you love, and then trying to match it to a pattern. Sometimes I was steered away from fabrics I really liked and agreed to choose something I wasn’t as crazy about, but I always liked the end result better than when I plowed ahead with a fabric I was drawn to, even if it wasn’t ideal for the pattern I was working on. The moral of this story: choose your pattern, then get help from knowledgeable experts in a fabric store to choose the best possible fabric for your particular project.
Lesson Two: The Right Tools Make All The Difference As in so many handcrafting hobbies, I found that a few crucial tools made a world of difference. First amongst these were sewing machine feet – I quickly acquired an overcast foot, an edgestitching foot, a foot with a seam guide, and several others. Even though they’re a little expensive, they’re well worth in if you plan to keep sewing clothes. The reason: they allow your sewing to be more precise, especially the stitches that you will see when the project is done, and it is the preciseness of these lines that makes your project look professional. A straight and even seam line goes a long way to making a project look well done! Sewing feet and other tools take a lot of the guesswork and struggle out of the project. Some of my favorites (all under $10): a seam guide, Wonder Tape (for adhering buttons so they stay in place while you’re sewing them on), a chalk marker, and Swedish tracing paper (for tracing and customizing your patterns – this might be more like $15).
Lesson Three: Get Help! When I began this journey, I already knew how to sew – I’d sewed many quilts, blankets, tote bags, curtains, pillows, etc – all things that didn’t require much fitting! I had also sewed a lot of cute dresses for my three daughters. But once they got old enough that they didn’t want to wear what I sewed for them, I wanted to try sewing my own clothes. The problem: every time I sewed something for myself, I felt like it fit poorly. I was following the directions, so what was I doing wrong? I decided that there must be some tricks of the trade that I didn’t know about, so I signed up for a series of private lessons with a sewing instructor at one of Portland’s great sewing and fabric stores. This was immensely helpful, not only in teaching me important techniques, but also in teaching me little tricks and tips that are never in the published sewing patterns, and in increasing my overall confidence.
Lesson Four: Be Prepared to Sew a Pattern More Than Once I almost never knit the same pattern more than once, especially if it’s a sweater – let’s face it, a lot of time and yarn money go into one sweater! Sewing a piece of clothing takes less time than knitting, although it doesn’t go as quickly as you might think when reading the pattern because set-up (pressing and pinning in a hem, for instance) often takes as much as 3-4 times as long as the actual sewing. Nonetheless, for me it was much more feasible to sew a pattern twice than it has been to knit a pattern twice. Which is a good thing, because I think you have to sew each item you make at least twice in order to achieve a good fit. Once I accepted this – and looked at it as an opportunity to try out different fabrics – I was a lot happier with my finished products. I will likely wear the “first run” items I sewed, but it’s the tops and skirts that I sewed a second, or even third or fourth time around, that I like the most. I think this is especially true with tops, because the fit tends to be much more exacting than with a skirt (unless the skirt is form-fitting- most of mine had some gathering, so the fit wasn’t so exact).
Lesson Five: Fabrics Cut on the Bias Can Help With a Flattering Fit My greatest success was when my instructor and I took a factory-sewn dress that I liked the style and fit of, and hacked a pattern straight from the dress. It was extremely easy – no sleeves – but the final result was beautiful, so much so that I sewed two of the dresses, and I’m working on a third. While working on this project, I learned a lot about cutting fabric on the bias – how it is much more difficult and expensive, since it requires a lot more fabric, but how it also can result in a much more flattering fit, because fabric cut on the bias stretches and drapes in a way that helps positively accentuate your form. I now look for patterns where at least part of the apparel piece is sewn on the bias, because I think it’s much more likely that the result will be a flattering fit.
Lesson Six: Sewing Bias Tape is an Essential Skill I discovered that of the most essential – and difficult parts of sewing any kind of shirt or top that looks like it fits well is how it fits around the neck (and armholes, if it’s sleeveless). By and large, this is a matter of how well you sew (and edgestitch) the bias tape. One great trick I learned: if the neckline seems to gap or hang open, it means that you need to tighten up the bias tape a little. In other words, when you’re pinning the bias tape to the neckline, pull on it – just a little. It’s very stretchy (of course, since it’s cut on the bias) so you don’t want to overdo it, but by increasing the tension on the bias tape, you’ll help tighten the neckline a little, to prevent gapping. Good pressing will help too, but it won’t completely solve the problem of a neckline that gaps or hangs open.
Lesson Seven: Choose Your Patterns Carefully I have found that I prefer the patterns published by independent designers much more than the traditional patterns (McCalls, Butterick, etc). However, the independent patterns are much more uneven in terms of a good fit, clear directions, etc. For that reason, once I find a designer that I like, I’m inclined to buy more of that line of patterns. For instance, I’ve found Grainline patterns to be explained clearly and to actually fit a wide variety of “real” women’s shapes. Because a pattern often doesn’t have a single photograph of the actual item, being worn by an actual person, I found it very helpful to use Pinterest and Instagram to see how the finished product was being sewn – and worn – by real women. If I saw a variety of women in different shapes and sizes, all able to wear the piece and have it look flattering on them, then I knew that it was the pattern for me!
In the next couple of weeks, I will post photos of me wearing my newly sewn wardrobe – I think you get a much better feel for how the pieces look and fit when someone is wearing them, but it’s a lot more time-consuming to put together that kind of a photo shoot
No pattern for this one – I just wanted to find a simple way to showcase this beautiful fabric from Kokka that I bought for Bella last Christmas. I used Kona Cotton solid fabric in a corresponding color of maroon as a bottom ruffle and a waistband. The construction was simple:
1. I cut the Kokka fabric in two pieces width-wise and then sewed them together lengthwise.
2. I cut three strips of the Kona fabric (45″ long and 9″ wide) and sewed them together lengthwise, then ran a gathering stitch, gathered the Kona along its top edge, and sewed it to the bottom of the Kokka piece, ironed the seam, and topstitched it onto the Kokka fabric.
3. I sewed two 45″ x 4.5″ pieces of Kona together lengthwise, and then sewed that piece to the top of the Kokka fabric.
4. I sewed the entire skirt together along the back seam, to make a complete circle.
5. I sewed a placket into the top Kona piece and then ran a 1/2 elastic strip through the placket, fitted it to Bella, then cut the elastic to the right length, sewed the two ends of the elastic together, and finished sewing down the placket.
6. I hemmed the skirt with a 1.5″ hem.
I actually had to repeat several of these steps, because when I first had the skirt almost completed and tried it on Bella, it was just too big around – even though the elastic could pull the waist tight enough, it was gathered so densely that it didn’t look good. I ripped out the back seam and cut off at least 15″, then re-sewed the back seam and refitted the skirt. I also wanted to give it a deeper hem, but because it was gathered at the top, I couldn’t get any larger hem to lay flat, so I settled with what I could manage. It’s a little long on Bella now, but it should last her for a long time.
When I learned that Bella’s dance class needed poodle skirts for the upcoming recital, but couldn’t find what they were looking for, I volunteered to sew the skirts for the seven dancers. I found a great on-line tutorial here, and bought the shiny satin fabric (I tried them first in pink felt, but the skirt was too stiff for dancing), white and black felt for the poodles, rhinestones for the eyes and ribbon for the leashes at the local fabric store.
In order to fit all of the girls’ different sizes, I used velcro strips along the waistband, so that they would be adjustable. I glued and then sewed on the poodle, ribbon and eye, and because these skirts likely won’t see a lot of use, I didn’t worry about any of the nice finishing details. They actually came together pretty quickly, and looked wonderful at the recital!
I saw a sewn sample of this A-line trench jacket at Hollyhill Quilt Shoppe, and asked my mom for the pattern – and technical assistance – for my birthday this year. Surprisingly, I was able to sew the entire trench with minimal assistance, but I did need her expertise in fashioning the lining, which wasn’t part of the pattern. I can follow a sewing pattern, but improvising – either by changing up or adding to what’s written – is definitely not my strong suit.
The pattern is Indygo Junction Midtown Trench IJ866 – I sewed View A in size Large. The fabric is Martinque, by 3 Sisters for Moda, in color Coral. Although the pattern calls for interfacing only in the collar, because my fabric was just cotton weight, I also interfaced all of the major pieces (fronts, sides, and back).
The result was heavyweight enough to be called a jacket (I think that without the additional interfacing and lining, it would fit and feel more like a big shirt, unless you used a more heavyweight fabric than cotton).
I sewed the layered skirt version of the pattern – if you look closely, you can see that the skirt is made in four layers of the same fabric, with the raw edges exposed, so that they will eventually fray and give the skirt an interesting look. I’d like to try this again, with either different fabrics for each of the layers, or a heavier-weight cotton (so that the fraying effect would be more noticeable).
The skirt is very quick and easy to sew, with the exception being the invisible zipper (which requires a specialized foot for the sewing machine). Even the zipper was quick once I figured out how to pin it in, but it was tricky getting the seam closed where the bottom of the zipper meets the back seam of the skirt. Amazingly, the fit was spot-on and didn’t require any adjustment of the side seams or any more of a hem than the pattern called for.
This week’s sewing club project is to sew a very simple little girl’s summer skirt. Instead of working off of a pattern, I designed my own. My girls had a great time picking the fabrics they wanted to use, and I shot the photos in front of my veggie garden (which would grow a lot faster if the sun ever came out!)
Here are step-by-step directions (use a 1/2” seam unless otherwise directed):
1. Cut fabric:
Size 6 – one 42” x 13” piece (for the skirt top) and two 42” x 9” pieces (for the skirt bottom)
Size 8 – one 42” x 15” piece (for the skirt top) and two 42” x 10” pieces (for the skirt bottom)
Note: The bottom piece can be cut wider than 9” or 10” if you’d like a longer skirt
2. Sew two bottom pieces together lengthwise, to make one piece 83” long
3. Along one length of the bottom piece, iron a 1/4” hem, then roll the hem up another 1/4” and iron. Sew in hem.
4. Sew a gathering stitch 1/4 from the top of the bottom piece – pull the threads to gather the fabric.
5.Stretch out the top piece on a counter, and pin the gathered end of the bottom piece to the top piece, right sides together, adjusting gathers so that the ends of the two pieces match up. Sew pinned pieces together.
6.Press seam toward top piece and top stitch 1/4” above the seam line.
7.Fold the skirt width-wise, right sides together – pin and sew, matching up the seams, so that you have a circle. Press open the seam.
8.At the top of the top piece, press in a 1/4” hem, then roll and press in a 1 1/4” waistband – sew, leaving a 2-3” gap to insert the elastic in.
9.Insert a length of elastic with a safety pin at the end to help pull it through the waistband, gathering the waistband of the skirt as you go. Measure on your daughter to get the correct tightness, then sew the ends of the elastic together and cut off the excess. Tuck the waistband opening closed and sew.
I finished this skirt in just over an hour – it was that simple to make, and without any pattern. I knew that my middle daughter would love the kitty cats print, so when I saw this fabric at the Pine Needle, I figured I could find something to make out of it. I bought the complementary polka dots fabric to add a second tier to the skirt (my daughter said they look like peas, so I suppose that the skirt should be called Cat Peas – hmmm . . .)
I cut both fabrics lengthwise and sewed them end to end — two lengths for the kitties, three lengths together for the peas. Then I sewed a hem in the bottom of the peas and a gathering stitch in the top, pinned it on and sewed it to the bottom of the kitties. I sewed a 1 1/4” placket into the top of the kitties and inserted a 1” elastic band, then sewed the entire thing together to make a circle – done!
My mom and I made these fun skirts for my two youngest daughters this Christmas – I’ve used this pattern before, but they grow so fast I have to keep making new skirts! This is one of my favorite patterns because you can choose any fabrics you want, as many as you want, and it comes out looking different every time. It’s very simple sewing, but it can be time-consuming because of the gathering that is required with each level of the skirt. This time, we discovered a “magic tape” at Joanns that creates the gathers (so you don’t have to run a basting stitch) and that helped.
The pattern is Portabellopixie – the Gracie sewing pattern, which we found (along with all the fabrics) at Hollyhill Quilt Shoppe in Willamette. There are so many color combinations to put together, I could keep making these skirts forever (if it wasn’t for all the gathering . . .) This summer, I want to try making a patchwork version – see if I can use up some of my fabric stash – by piecing together each of the four layers out of different fabrics, then sewing them all together.
The cherries skirt (for my youngest daughter) went really well with leg warmers I knitted last year (green and white striped with a strand of green mohair knitted throughout). I’ve also made the sun dress (version B) on the pattern – it takes a little more work because you have to sew the bodice and the sleeves (well, not really sleeves, more like sleeve caps), but it comes out very cute, as well. When I make new dresses this summer, I’m going to pick fabrics to go with the incredible buttons I found here – it may seem odd to base an entire outfit on a button, but you’ll understand if you take a look at how amazing these are!