Baste the Waves

I finished my drafting experiment in curved darts. But only after letting my mind marinate on the construction steps for several nights.

Muslin mockup of asymmetrical curved darts mini skirt

The aha! moment was TINY SEAM ALLOWANCES. To sew the curves accurately, I couldn’t treat them like typical waist or bodice darts by folding in the intake. I had to treat them like seams.

And since there wouldn’t be enough room for my usual 1-inch (2.5 cm) seam allowance, I marked the allowance that fit each dart – in some places it was as small as 1 cm.

Muslin mockup of asymmetrical curved darts mini skirt

In my original draft, I slashed and spread the skirt back so it could be gathered into an elastic waistband. When I got ready to cut it out of muslin, there was too much volume in the pattern piece. I realized I meant to add the volume to a full front piece, so I re-drafted the back and cut it out.

To complete my basted fitting sans waistband (which will be straight and cut-on, with interfacing in the front and elastic in the back), I gathered the back with 3 rows of stitches in the seam allowance that met in the center.

Muslin mockup of asymmetrical curved darts mini skirt

I tried on the skirt mockup in a hurry before work. I put it on backwards, pulling the six bobbin threads to cinch in the gathers, then turned the skirt around properly to check the fit at the side seams and evaluate the short hemline.

All were just right.

Muslin mockup of asymmetrical curved darts mini skirt

To contain my excitement for the success of this drafting experiment, I have decided to procrastinate on fabric selection. I think this skirt is asking for a solid woven with some body, but nothing too drapey. In my collection are a few solid linens, a black silk dupioni, a couple of gabardines, and a silk/cotton blend.

I will try to choose one of those to start, but I’d love to get recommendations from you.

 

Paisley Park

 

Handmade knit tank top and dirndl skirt / Wanna Be Sewing Something Blog

One afro, two elbows, and a UFO walk into a park…

The start of a curious joke? Or the list of accessories for the paisley knit tank top I made?

It’s the latter, of course. Though a suitable punchline for my setup is still a goal.

With help from a quirky, patchwork paisley printed stretch knit, I executed the binding technique I wrote about in July to sew a companion for a chambray dirndl skirt that waited a year to be hemmed.

Handmade knit tank top

Even though I still have to draft new sleeves for it, my beloved fitted t-shirt pattern (debuted here last winter) is officially operating as a block now that I’ve got the shoulders and armholes fitting just right. I traced it to create a tank top pattern with a lower neckline.

Unfamiliar with drafting for knits, I referenced my Helen Joseph Armstrong book. The section on patterning kids clothes made with knit fabric covers how to measure and plot a lowered neckline.

Had I attempted it on my own, I wouldn’t have accounted for the bit of contouring that seems to build in just the right amount of negative ease at the chest.

Handmade knit tank top and denim dirndl skirt separates

The position of the neckline on this tank top is EXACTLY where I want it. Plenty of skin showing to give the eyes a place — other than the obvious one — to land. With a shape that isn’t too scooped…but soft and rounded. Like my hair. Which I styled carefully for a look in the middle of the spectrum between Angela Davis and Pam Grier.

Examining the symbiotic link between neckline and hair shape… is for another blog post.

Let’s enjoy a photo collage tribute to binding construction instead.

Knit binding with mitered seams

From left to right: (a) When I sew wovens, I cut patterns from a single layer of fabric. For this pattern, I folded in the selvedges to the middle and used my rotary cutter. (b) The 45 degree line on the grid of my cutting mat and chalk-marked stitchlines kept the mitered seams of my binding looking sharp. (c) I know it’s overkill, but a steamy iron and my tailor board got in on the action. (d) I always get a little nervous before attaching freshly cut bindings. Did I get the ratios right? I can usually tell if I’m off by laying the seams next to each other.

knit tank top, chambray dirndl skirt

About the skirt. My usual dirndl. It’s origin story is ancient.

95% of it was sewn over a year ago!

I even lined the skirt and the pocket and Instagrammed my results to the world before noticing there wasn’t enough fabric for the waistband.

A small tear was shed before I hung it up in a corner to display it as an unfinished object (UFO) in distress.

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Lined denim pocket or smiling muppet mouth.

A post shared by Najah (@wannabesewingsomething) on

 

I picked it up a few months later after I learned a machine sewn technique for interfacing a waistband with petersham in my Skirt Skills class.

I tried it out on a straight waistband cut from bottom weight denim that happened to match my chambray.

 

Handmade knit tank top and denim dirndl skirt separates

After admiring the results, I abandoned the dirndl AGAIN so I could use the denim to sew that game-changing pencil skirt.

By the time I returned to finally hem and fasten the chambray dirndl (last week), it was three seasons later and I was ten pounds lighter.

If its muppet mouth could speak, it would’ve cursed me out.

Handmade denim dirndl skirt: waistband, lining

Even though the waistband was a bit thicker than I’m used to, and the hook placement had to be sewn an inch deeper, the peterhsam interfacing performed like a champ.

My waistline did not grow like it did in the un-stabilized, chocolate linen maxi version of this skirt.

After a day of wearing and eating, and through the weight of keys and phones in pockets, my waistband was a solider.

Handmade knit tank top and denim dirndl skirt separates

These separates are a uniform silhouette for me that leave me feeling comfortable and confident. I may not be able to craft a swift punchline for a joke, but I can certainly craft a slow, wonderfully wearable outfit for my body.

The Holistic Seamstress: Part 2

In part 2 of The Holistic Seamstress, I return to the series —after a rejuvenating break and reality check on my original writing schedule — to consider the most fundamental element of wardrobe sewing, the body. Mine to be exact. I will reflect on the impact wearing ill-fitting clothes has had on my body perception, how I learned to use numbers to tell the truth about my body, and how that awareness is transforming the way I make clothes.

Wardrobe Sewing Element: Body

Body Beautiful

Through the years, I worked against the grain to accept and eventually love the realities of my brown skin, full lips, kinky hair, and short, thick, curvy frame that will never fit a standard height/weight chart. The world would have me believe my body is awkward, alien, and in need of improvement, but I boycott those lies like I did that California Denny’s restaurant that refused to serve my friends because they were black. I look in the mirror at all of the features that Maya Angelou tells us are “phenomenal” and I don’t doubt for a minute it’s true.

Even if I wanted to believe I was less than a goddess, when I moved to Washington DC in my twenties, the gentlemen of Chocolate City wouldn’t let me. From the moment, I stepped off the plane, you could almost hear Carl Carlton’s “She’s a Bad Mama Jama” playing as my personal soundtrack. Strangers whistled at me from across the street, cabs would show up without me hailing them, all manner of compliments from all manner of fellas who expressed an appreciation for parts of my physiology that my young, media-influenced brain tried to Photoshop away. Becoming date-able just by moving across the country gave me a chance to identify with the “eye of the beholder”, and recognize my own beauty as it is. Eating delicious, free meals at restaurants all over the city was a nostalgic bonus.

Personal Croquis All_Sides

However, there is one place on the planet that has the power to completely annihilate my body-positive attitude.

A dressing room.

It doesn’t matter which store. I have probably shed tears in all of their booths of shame.

You see, even though I am only five feet tall, in my mind, I’m an NBA point guard. I only started referring to myself as petite when I started to sew and learned about body measurements. Folks around me indulged my vertical delusions by sparing me too many short jokes, letting me boss them around, and every now and then looking over at me in an elevator, as if waking up from years under a spell, and saying “Damn, I didn’t realize you were so short”.

Under this delusion of grandeur, I shopped for clothes.

It went something like this….

I grab a size 12 for the bottom and a size 14 for the top and enter a dressing room with enough faith to fill a church. The one pair of jeans I own that fit decently hit the floor with abandon and I immediately start to imagine all of the hugging and skimming my chosen outfit will perform on my hips. The one of two well-worn tops I own that doesn’t make my boobs look like a buffet is yanked off in anticipation of its superior successor. I am standing in my underwear in a mirrored box filled with promise. I have even given myself a five-garment buffer from pessimism so I don’t give up on the process too quickly. If the clothes on the hanger knew the pressure they were under to please me, they would’ve animated like a Disney movie and slithered under the door to escape.

The clothes I picked out to try on would mostly fit my circumferences, but would neglect the depth of my curves and ignore the length of my proportions. I was doomed before the zipper zipped.

Clothes that almost fit, but didn’t in the worst way possible — sleeves that are not only too long, but hang off the shoulder like drunken loiterers, gaping necklines that expose my bra, waistlines that sit nowhere near mine, pools of fabric at the hips, bunching up at the crotch and knees and dragging on the floor — stared back at me and for the 120 seconds I could bear my reflection, I felt like I had the unluckiest body in the world.

How was I supposed to be the badass I was born to be if I looked like a frumpy, hot mess every time I got dressed?

Before I knew how to stitch a seam, crying on the floor of a department store dressing room was a regular thing for me.

While bumbling my way through sewing books and websites trying to learn the skills that would help me avoid dressing rooms for the rest of my life, I ultimately found a few petite-friendly places to shop with off the rack styles that respected my proportions and required no therapy sessions. There’s still a significant disregard for the unique needs of my curves in ready-to-wear clothes sized for petites, but those designers have never met me. Nor are they trying to. They are designing for someone else’s petite body. In fact, they are hoping their clothes will fit EVERY woman under 5 foot 4 inches. My expectation that they fit THIS woman is unreasonable.

No matter what number is printed on the tag or what section of a store I buy my clothes, none will ever be sized for Me. Making my own clothes with my body in mind would become my scenic route to badassdom.

Body Map

During the last two months of my life, I learned to speak another language.

I used to tell people that I am bilingual because I can communicate in both English and Ebonics. As true and entertaining at parties as that is, my dopest experience learning a new language involved NUMBERS not linguistics. Instead of a set of headphones and a date with Rosetta Stone, I used my measuring tape like a United Nations interpreter to understand the things my body has been trying to tell me about its architecture.

Starting with the southern hemisphere of my five foot landscape, I learned how to measure, draft, and fit a custom skirt block pattern from my new, Personal Wizard and Couture De-mystifier, Brooks Ann Camper. Her 5-week Skirt Skills course was the tallest, coolest, most refreshing drink of sewing education I have ever tasted. I have found my Jedi Master. Now that I have levitated through the Forest of Righteous Circumference, solved the Mystery of Back Dart Intake, and prevailed during the Battle of Waistline Positioning, the force within me is stronger than ever. I still carry my self-taught seamstress badge with pride, but I am now living with the epic level of satisfaction that comes from investing time (my most elusive commodity) and money (saved ferociously) to learn a skill that has systematically blown my mind into a million tiny pieces of creative possibility.

Personal Croquis All Sides with Annotated Measurements

When I saw a combination square with level on the supplies list for my couture skirtmaking course, I asked my husband what the hell it was and if he had one. I was a little intimidated by the tool’s sorcery and my general air-headedness about measuring things with regular tools (I learned how to read the 1/8″ tick marks on a standard ruler as recently as 3 years ago!), so Matt and his vintage combo square was recruited to assist me in yet another muslin-covered sewing adventure. Assigned to the task of accurately measuring his wife during the blessed two hours our toddler napped, my husband’s devoted contribution was the lynchpin to my pattern drafting success. With me standing in one place for more than five minutes, following his directions in my underwear, the measuring experience also gave two distracted parents an unexpected moment to flirt and be vulnerable together.

Armed with a solid set of bottom-half measurements, affectionately recorded by my better half, I followed Brooks Ann’s buttery smooth methods for drafting a 2-D map of my silhouette in the shape of a darted, waist-to-knee cylinder. The whole process gave me a crafty high I’ve never known before.

Using a blend of numbers and pencil strokes, my unique verticals, arcs, angles, and curves began to take on a voice I had been waiting to hear my whole life. It’s as if my body has been trying to introduce itself to me through all of my years of fiddling about trying to fit commercial patterns and I couldn’t hear it. It waited patiently for the time in my life I would finally choose a teacher, admit I prefer centimeters over inches, and dare to discover what it has to say. I like to imagine it singing to me in the voice of a young, John Mayer, seducing me to design for it with “Your body is a wonderland” lyrics on repeat.

Made to measure clothes give my body a voice to speak its true shape or reshape its truth. When I wear ill-fitting clothes, my body’s voice is drowned out with noise, going tragically unheard or at worst being mis-represented. Exhibit A: The collective DNA of my tears on the floors of dressing rooms across America.

After two days and two nail-biting muslin mock-ups later, I celebrated the completion of my custom skirt block pattern with some you-go-girls from my classmates, a Big Gulp-sized glass of wine, and an obscene amount of domestic high-fiving with my man. For the first time in weeks, our husband and wife couture-crime fighting team finally had something besides “Pee-Pee on the Potty!” to yell across the house to each other.

When my sisters flew in town to visit for Thanksgiving last week, the story of our collaborative accomplishment was retold with the same sentence-finishing enthusiasm as our honeymoon story. The afterglow from that trip to Amsterdam was just as bright. Forget couples yoga or cooking classes, pattern drafting is the new date night.

Custom Skirt Block on Wall

When I was pulling my hair out trying to get Vogue 1019 to fit my hips, I knew I’d eventually figure out how to fit the pattern — maybe after a seventh or eighth muslin. I could never have predicted that in less time than it took me to do that, I could learn how to draw a one-of-a-kind skirt that also gives me the capacity to create ANY skirt.

Body of Work

Given that I’d never worn a well-fitting skirt before, the promise of getting one at the end of class was the chocolate-covered carrot that teased me through each week of the Skirt Skills course. I practiced the basic drafting skills I needed to design flared and straight skirt styles with my custom block and obsessively began sketching ideas and gathering inspiration images. But, before inviting Tim Gunn over for tea and a design critique of my new one-woman collection, I wanted to make a simple straight skirt using my block — because, after all, I’d never had one that fit my body properly.  Based on the results of my couture-infused mockups, I knew this one did.

Straight Basic Skirt Sketch

With some African wax print cotton, hand-marked and hand-basted stitchlines, some double-fold bias binding, and an invisible zipper, I crafted the best-fitting skirt I have ever worn in my life.

African Straight Skirt Custom_Block - 1

When I wore the skirt, it didn’t shift on my hips, ride up, wrinkle up, or look anything but awesome on my body all day.

African Straight Skirt Custom Block , back view

I didn’t know how to behave! I kept smoothing my hips and checking my reflection expecting to see something wrong. All I saw was ME in a badass, well-fitting skirt!!!

African Straight Skirt Custom Block, side view

I have more in the works!

That denim pencil skirt I dreamed out loud about is underway, as well as a khaki skirt with a secret-weapon pleat. All patterns custom designed by me – for my body.

I am eternally grateful to Brooks Ann for her wizardly, thimble-wielding techniques. She has mountains of patience for cocky advanced beginners like me who try to hurry through lessons before settling into the steady rhythm of slow, deliberate making.

This is the sweet spot of handmade wardrobe building I have fantasized about. Knowing how to design and sew for my unique body means having the power to speak its beautiful, native language through mindfully-created garments that live to echo or enhance my silhouette.

I’m going to call this the sacred art of being a bad mama jama!

I’d love to hear your body-awareness story. How has your perception of your body’s shape or size evolved? Does your history with fitting or buying clothes include any tears or triumphs? If you’ve discovered the accessible magic of pattern drafting, do you feel as heroic as I do?

Thanks for hanging with the series. I’ll see you in the comments.

Washi Doing?

Version 2

Yesterday, I got fed up with always having to manually compare my measurements to a pattern and finally started marking up my cheap ass dress form. The same one I bought with a coupon back in the day — before I knew what to do with it and eons before sewing blogs took off and all the editorial sewists we love to stalk started hugging wolves. As affordably ugly as it is, my dress form has always been an untapped resource for faster fitting. Until now.

Washi Doing? - 2 of 5

I took the dress that fits me best, put it on the form, and chalk-marked the key areas I’m always double-checking when preparing to sew a new pattern. Then, I applied skinny masking tape to the chalked lines. After using the set up to test and correct a final version of the BHL Anna bodice — which I would’ve sorted out in the first muslin had this reference point for my preferred empire waistline been in my life —I rewarded my win with some Washi Tape embellishing.

Washi Doing? - 3 of 5

The tape won’t last forever. I like to think of it as the temporary tattoo I designed to give my fitting assistant a makeover. My headless, fuzzy fitting assistant that looks like a set prop in a muppet horror movie (the only reason I need not to creep myself out further by giving it a name). Instead of fading after a few showers, this tattoo will curl at the edges and slowly peel off in the sun.

I am thrilled that the usefulness of my dress form has evolved beyond my first quasi-customization of 38DD animal print bra stuffed with batting (my lazy attempt at customizing it after the 2006 duct tape dress form I made with some strangers in a library at my first ever sewing club meeting, met an accident on the subway ride home). It’s now sporting the demarcation lines I’ve been missing all this time:

  1. My most flattering v-neck line with a flower to mark my that cleavage point-of-no return-spot.
  2. My armhole. Particularly the shoulder and underarm lines of my preferred sleeveless silhouette.
  3. My side seam length. I am short-waisted, but the depth of my bust eats up so much length, that it’s often hard to tell wear my waistline should sit. The top of the two pink strips indicates my empire and natural waistlines (three fingers above my belly button).
  4. The back neckline of my go-to bodice. If I was draping a new bodice or preparing to fit a pattern with a collar, I’d probably mark the high neckline with a necklace just like I do when recording my real body measurements.

Washi Doing? - 4 of 5

Looking at it now, it’s seems like an obvious hack. I won’t be googling it or anything, but I suspect I am not the first person to pimp out her dress form with Washi tape. It’s like the sticky crack of the craft world! I use the stuff to tape ridiculous things like grocery lists. When I do, I swear that I remember all the things on the list even when I show up to the market without it. There’s something about making the mundane pretty that boosts its benefit.

Washi Doing? - 5 of 5

My fitting process — which, in a time-lapse video would look like a violent struggle with hot flashes— still involves getting naked at my sewing machine to try on the 1.0 and 2.0 versions of my garments. But these Washi tape lines have really helped me to stop underestimating the silent, linty Sleepy Hollow character that also tries on my clothes. My next step is to verify the waistline with a level and tape-mark my preferred untucked and tucked blouse hemlines (at high and low hip).

How do you use your dress form for fitting? Or, if you don’t have one, what solo fitting techniques have you mastered?

Mise en place

I took French in high school, but without that summer immersion trip to Paris, I can barely order from the local bistro without translating appetizers on my iPhone. One of the French phrases that managed to stick with me is mise en place or “putting in place”. Bringing order to things brings me more joy than candy, so it’s not a mystery why my french-speaking skills are limited to practicing feng shui. This past weekend, I spent a few hours setting up my sewing space with efficiency in mind.

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I got fed up with losing tools in the middle of a project or having to get up from my chair to go across the room to reach for them. I needed to bring some gracefulness into my sewing so I could get through a sewing session without self sabotage.

When I learned that chefs will spend twice as much time preparing as they do cooking, I felt even more empowered to think tactically about the corner of my sewing room where all the action happens. When I sit down to sew, I need a pair of snips, a place to grab and stick pins and needles, and I need to be within arms reach (or closer) of machine tools and a seam ripper.

Since there’s a curious toddler in the house, I’d be asking for trouble if I wore a pair of snips around my neck while I sewed (which inevitably involves interruptions that result in me reaching into the oven while wearing a wrist pincushion), so a tiny cup next to my machine keeps all of those critical things within my reach, but out of hers. The brown shag carpet we haven’t gotten around to replacing since we moved in is always a potential land mine of pins, so my daughter only enters my sewing room while being carried or moments after its been vacuumed – a state which I’ve learned is too short-lived to properly appreciate.

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Supplies and notions have lived in the shelves and bins inside my sewing table for years, but I took the time to organize them a bit better, stacking the frequently used notions like zippers and elastics on top and organizing the bins on the door with other must-haves like bobbins and machine needles.

The ironing board got a new home next to my sewing table. I used to take about five steps to get to it on the other side of the room. With all of the pressing-after-seaming that goes on, I was probably walking close to a mile every project. Well, a brown shag carpet mile, anyway. Now, if I swivel from my sewing machine, it’s right there. For serious press n’ sew jobs, I’ll lower the iron to the height of my sewing table and scooch it right next to my chair.

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To simplify seam pressing even more, I pulled out my mini craft iron. It came out while sewing Barbie clothes for my niece and because of its tiny, hot maneuverability, it is now a permanent part of the landscape.

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Setting up my space in the same way every time I sew will be an important anchor for my sewing process. It’s no different than when I mise-en-place my desk and computer at the office in the morning. That mental checklist of things gets me ready for work and prepared for any surprises. And, that’s all any seamstress wants really….to be ready-Freddy for whatever her garment throws at her. Hopefully, it’s nothing sharp.

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What things do you do to mise-en-place your sewing space? Or life?