May the Pants be with you

When you make a personal pledge in a public forum to draft, design, and sew a pair of trousers in a month’s time and actually accomplish it, the sun shines a little brighter and your short legs look a little longer.

Najah Carroll's Self-Drafted Linen Trousers (front view)

A few days after writing about my custom denim pencil skirt, I found out that Brooks Ann Camper, my favorite long distance sewing teacher, had developed a pants drafting system with NO standard sizes or pre-defined measurements (unlike the ones in my pattern drafting textbooks filled with “lower by 1/4-inch “or “check the size chart” kind of guidance). The drafting method uses the skirt block I crafted in her original class and a new set of body measurements for bifurcation. She invited her Skirt Skills students to participate in the first run of her Smarty Pants e-Course and I jumped in with both feet.

In fact, the course is still going on now! We’re in the last week of things, learning the finishing steps for TWO pair of custom pants drafted from blocks: trousers and yes….jeans. Since the course can be both self-paced and real-time, I chose to make my trousers in pace with the 6-week lessons and will start on my jeans block and fitting afterward.

So, this story about making linen trousers from the ground up will be told with a little less word count and more hyperlinks than usual. Besides, you may already know the story if you’ve been following my “Me Made May” 31-day micro-blogging marathon on Instagram under the hashtag #wannabesewingpants.

#wannabesewing pants on Instagram

Every First Draft is Perfect

Drafting my way to a garment pattern has been surprisingly less stressful than dealing with the ambiguity of opening the envelope of a purchased pattern or assembling a downloadable one.

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In custom sewing class, we’re reminded of the inherent perfection of the first drafting work that happens with a block pattern. It’s job in pantsmaking is to represent a map of my lower body and legs. Once drafted into existence, it is a perfect resource of information for whatever pants style I want to design.

Knowing that my final garment will be based directly on information from MY BODY (not some “ideal” body I must compare mine to) is like getting a hug and a dozen roses from your best friend before going on stage. It’s the best kind of self-administered sewing support.

To understand how well my two-dimensional waist-to-ankle map corresponded to my three-dimensional body, I spent some time evaluating a muslin mockup up of my wide legged trouser block. The process put me in the role of Sewing Detective as I considered how to give a bit more room for my body at the crotch area. I sketched out a theory on my croquis so I could understand the impact the pattern correction would have on the fit of my trouser block, and spent a few days getting lost on the way to executing it. Ultimately I re-learned the value of slowing down during construction.

Design in the Trenches

I only had a rough idea of what kind of pants I’d make when I declared my intentions to all of the #Sewcialists. I wanted to see what specific inspiration would strike once my block was ready, so I pinned all the pins in a sartorial tribute to Katherine Hepburn’s iconic trousers-wearing and raided my fabric collection for options suitable for the wide-leg style I had in mind. The timeframe I had to work in, the warm season, my patience, and skill level (yep, still hovering somewhere on the spectrum between advanced beginner and intermediate seamstress) were also a part of the Committee for Real Life Sewing that influenced my design process.

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By day 20, I’d worked out a sketch of a simple design for a pair of linen trousers with familiar construction features to prevent first-timer fumbles (thinking back to the topstitching drama of my denim pencil skirt) that could trigger my inner Samuel L. Jackson and jeopardize my momentum:

  1. A straight/wide leg, drafted 3cm narrower then my trouser block pattern that sits at my natural waist
  2. A hip-length waistline facing for tummy control
  3. An invisible side zipper
  4. 3 patch pockets – 1 in front, 2 in back

I really enjoyed the pattern work that solidified my original sketch and was glad I didn’t design more features than I could handle. With jeans as my next mission, there would be plenty of patterning, construction work, and even more topstitching (Bring it on!) to feed my appetite for design play.

11th-Hour Finish

I highly recommend timing your major construction work over a three-day holiday weekend. I may have missed out on all the Memorial Day happenings around town, but I did take a break from sewing for a highly-anticipated face to face meetup with Brooks Ann where she answered my final construction question (hell yes to twill tape along the waistline stay stitching) and let me get all “fan girl” for a while and go on about sewing for way longer than my husband can tolerate at home.

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With the power of The Force still with me, I returned to my project and followed the custom sewing techniques I learned in class to semi-baste together my flax linen trousers (shout out to the lovely, UK fabric store that sent me 3 meters of Robert Kaufmann Essex Wide Flax cotton/linen in the hopes I’d make something fabulous with it one day that might reach my UK readers looking to support an independent business trying to branch out into garment-weight fabrics), try them on, adjust the fit and pass on the changes to my final garment pattern.

For this pattern in the heavy-bodied, almost bottom weight linen-cotton blend fabric I’d chosen, I took in the side seams by 4 cm, tapering from the waist to the thigh. I’m curious how a linen with more drape would respond to the design. When I’m done with the course, I may follow my curiosity to another pair of linen trousers.

When I returned to work after the holiday break, the big analytics project I’d kicked off earlier in the month had picked up steam and time-sucked me into a thousand meetings that made me get that hallway-stretching horror movie feeling that I was never gonna get out of here and back to my sewing room. I ultimately escaped. It was day 31 and I had only hours until midnight to finish my trousers in time to meet my self-imposed deadline.

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With only a handful of “monkey-fighting” moments —I do admit to banning my family from my presence long enough to install, remove, and re-install (with the right foot this time) an invisible zipper without interruption — I finished my trousers around midnight and proceeded to sleep like a baby. When Baby woke up the next day, she wore the cutest trousers and the biggest smile to the office.

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Thank you, to the #Sewcialists of Instagram who followed and encouraged me with likes and you-can-do-its along the way. Sharing my goal with such a big audience helped me see it through to the end. A month-long, public marathon of making was pretty intense, so I’ll probably keep my attempts to once a year.

With this latest dive into custom sewing, however, I learned so much (besides the ass-kicking skill of self-drafting pants) from the experience…like how to get the most of the small chunks of time available to me, how to create a garment plan to guide my approach, and how to trust my fitting and design instincts to make me enormously proud of what I can produce with my mind and hands.

Pencil Me In…Denim

153 days ago, I told you about my jones for a custom, pencil skirt made of denim.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so deadly serious about sewing something into existence. I learned how to draft a skirt block, rebooted my whole sewing process, and survived my first battle with topstitching thread to self-grant my wish.

And. It. Was. ALL. WORTH IT!

Custom-Drafted Denim Pencil Skirt

Draft Pick

Every bit of this road trip was worth the wait.

I even risked sitting wrinkles while waiting out the rain that tried to cancel my photoshoot. When your lipstick is like BOOM and you’re heels are like BAM and your skirt is like…BONJOUR!! there’s no weather forecast that can withstand that kind of readiness.

I’m not saying that my denim pencil skirt has the power to stop the rain or anything…

Denim pencil skirt, front view

…but I did bring it to life wielding a pencil and thimble. That’s all the proof I need that there may be a little magic in these hands.

The custom sewing e-course I took in October that rocked my bobbin-winding world, also infected me with a hearty passion for flat patterning. Before earning my Skirt Skills badge, I enjoyed hacking the style of a commercial pattern every now and then. I’d get a small thrill of vandalism and even a little pride out of being a silent co-designer when I drafted new lines on something ready-to-sew. Doing it from scratch though… is a whole other, lovely beast.

Crafting a garment pattern from top to bottom, deciding all the features, figuring out how to construct them, truing up all the lines, meticulously labeling all the pieces…all of this BEFORE I cut into any fabric. That. Is. WORK, y’all. Not sweat-generating work, but solid concentration of the lip-biting kind.

Denim Pencil Skirt Pattern Pieces

I had grand ideas for this skirt right out of the gate. I wanted to try out all kinds of drafting techniques, I wanted all the fancy seams and WOW factors I could get. I sketched and pinned like a fiend. Then, I remembered I was a student. A fresh and delicate newbie with all of the success-sensitive emotions that go along with it. And, newbies gotta slow their roll.

So, the second skirt made from my block would have three, simple design changes: a shaped waistband, a tapered hem, and a slit for walking ease. I’d never sewn or worn a well-fitting contoured waistband before. I’d never worn or sewn a tapered skirt, nor had I ever sewn a slit (or even a vent) into anything before. The whole experience was so new to me, I wondered if I should be designing diapers!

Denim Pencil Skirt, front view

I took my time through everything. The skirt drafting process had my right and left brain on fire. I loved it. Sorting out how to communicate to myself on my pattern pieces so I’d know what to do with them when it was time to cut was one of the most interesting parts of the experience. There are no seam allowances on my final pattern pieces so that I can mark stitchlines and cutlines directly onto my unfolded fabric. This means I have to remember to flip my pattern pieces over at the center front and center back “fold”. Instead of remembering to do it (which I didn’t a few times), I just noted it is as a flip instead of a fold. Clipping notches, drawing grainlines, including landmarks for the seamstress who’d be lost without them (me!) ….this is the work of pattern drafters I took for granted all these years.

And, now I’m doing it.

If they weren’t basted by hand before stitching…if the waistband facing wasn’t understitched with surgical accuracy…if my zipper wasn’t topstitched with ferocity…

…my seams would be bursting with pride.

Denim Pencil Skirt, side view

All About That Baste

The pre-construction phase was the most illuminating for me. I learned about hand-basted fittings in Brooks Ann’s course and used the method to try on my skirt for the first time after cutting it out.

When my pattern, my body, my fabric, and my preferences were introduced to each other during my basted-fitting, I was surprised to learn I needed 4 cm less circumference to get the snug fit I was after.

This meant my final pattern was tested and fitted for a bottom-weight twill fabric and if I wanted to sew it up in something different in the future -say, a wool suiting- I’d be better off drafting a new pencil skirt from my block and baste-fitting the suiting fabric skirt to see how it cooperated.

Hand-basted denim pencil skirt

A 4 cm reduction at the side seams was all I had to do to tweak the fit of my denim skirt and correct the paper pattern. Even though that tiny tweak surprised me (I wrongly assumed the stability of denim was similar to that of the muslin fabric I used to fit my skirt block), I am beyond ecstatic at a sewing future with little to no pattern alterations.

Fabulous Finish

When I was finally ready to sew permanent seams, I gave myself several more days of room to contemplate, sample sew, and finalize my construction methods and sequence. If I’d bought this skirt pattern, it would’ve come with all of those decisions made and illustrated for me. This custom skirt didn’t come with a manual.

I considered how to stabilize my waistband by examining the ready-to-wear jeans in my closet and by sewing samples. I figured out that my shaped waistband would be stable enough leveraging the untrimmed bottom seam allowance of the facing and the topstitching. I spent considerable time deciding whether or not to topstitch at all, ultimately choosing to go with topstitching, and then losing (and later finding) my mind over the act of topstitching. In hindsight…all good times I wouldn’t trade for a $500 skirt off the rack.

Back view, denim pencil skirt

On the subject of my backside (my daughter has named that part of anatomy the booty butt)…NEVER has it looked this good in a skirt before. The four darts shaping my hips are WERKING IT back there!

When I doubted for a moment whether or not I could get used to the small limitation in my walking range, my husband (who was a fan since the basted-fitting), instructed me to go look in the mirror again and said, “So WHAT you can’t take giant strides in it…Have you SEEN yourself in this skirt!!?” I spent some more time looking and loving my silhouette. After all, it had never been introduced to the world in its true form. I didn’t even know that walking in a tapered pencil skirt is SUPPOSED to involve some wiggle.

I am on board with my foxy ladyness now. Move over little black dress. The denim pencil skirt is here to challenge you to an LBD vs. DPS deathmatch for the Foxy Lady championship!

I am also a certified fan of simple seam finishes.

Insides. Denim Pencil Skirt

Not only did I keep the selvedge so I wouldn’t have to finish the center back seam, but I talked myself out of a hong kong finish and simply stitched and pinked the side seam allowances. The double fold, topstitched hem was a sweet finale to THE MOST satisfying make of my sewing career.

When Good Girls Sew Bad(ly)

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I collected every discarded strand into an ugly yellow tumbleweed so that I could take a moment to honor my hard work….with laughter.

One doesn’t set out to spend a weekend topstitching the same center back zipper over and over again, but when the comedy of errors is choreographed just right, it’s best just to sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the show.

  1. Before going for it on my denim skirt, I consulted Sandra Betzina’s Fabric Savvy book to read her profile on sewing heavyweight denim. Then, after a few tries, I sewed the most perfect centered zipper sample using a large swatch of my fabric, a twin version of my final zipper, jeans topstitching thread from an American company (*sigh*…made in Mexico), a 100/16 needle, stitch length at 4.5, and thread tension at around 7.
  2. I carried that sample around in my purse for a week while I worked on the Sarah shirt. I’d pull it out and lay it on my desk to stroke the stitches during conference calls. I was so proud of how they descended along the zipper opening so evenly, making the 90-est degree turns at the bottom. The fantasy of my finished skirt’s award-winning, topstitched zipper was burning a proverbial hole in my bag, putting my keys and lip gloss at risk. My alarm to sew was going off and the snooze button was disabled.
  3. So, I cleaned up my work space, picked up my custom drafted skirt pieces — still hand-basted together after my final fitting — and sewed the center back seam with a combination of basting and permanent stitches. Then, my daughter woke up. And, Saturday morning life began.
  4. The sun was out that afternoon, but my family’s needs for winter Vitamin D were not my priority. I just wanted to sew the best zipper ever. I kept my plans to eventually go to the park quiet, plopped Josephine in front of a 4-inch stack of cotton fabric swatches, instructed her to “sort them for Mommmy”, and proceeded to baste in place, topstitch and IMMEDIATELY RIP OUT my first attempt. It was a hot mess. OK. No, problem. Just a little rusty. Perhaps distracted by parenting. Let’s try this again. Later. When the kid is out of the room and outside the blast radius of an f-bomb from Mommy.
  5. After dinner, I snuck away for a second and third failed attempt. The stitches were inconsistent on top, looked drunk on the bobbin side, and veered off from straight in various places. Double-You-Tee-Eff! What’s a girl gotta do to repeat her own success around here? Oh, wait-a-minute….what’s this? I still had the 80/12 needle in the machine I used to sew the center back seam!
  6. The 100/16 needle is in. Denim Topstitching, take 4….slow, steady, not too much foot on the gas…good…careful around the corners…OK, done. Let’s see…What!? Mutha…It’s at this point in the story we must apply some censorship. When the thread hits the fan for me, I become the Samuel L. Jackson of sewing. So, I’ll deal with my sailor mouth here in the same way they over-dub Mr. Jackson when his movies get adapted for television. I don’t watch cable or broadcast TV anymore, but when I did back in the day, I saw them take Sam Jackson’s famous line from the comedy-horror, Snakes on a Plane, and dub it into the best alternative I’ve ever heard.  His rated-R line, “I’m tired of these mutha-bleepin’ snakes on this mutha-bleepin’ plane!” was dubbed over for television audiences to “I’m tired of these monkey-fightin’ snakes on this Monday-to-Friday plane!” Let’s continue …with a touch of silly censoring. The ends of the zipper tape folded and got caught in the stitching during the 4th attempt. While unpicking the bobbin thread, I noticed it was sitting slack. Cheese and rice! The tension is off! Was it off the whole time!? I don’t even care anymore. I’m going to bed.
  7. Sunday morning arrives. Finally. It’s Mama’s holy day for full-attention sewing. I make quiche to fill the bellies of man and child, dump a pile of Legos on the living room floor, and return to the Zipper That Won’t Stitch. I increase the tension just a smidgen and put my foot on the pedal. I stop mid-way to check the bobbin thread and it’s looking good. As I get closer to the top….I realize that the stitch lines aren’t even on one side! No monkey-fighting way! I stared at the carnage of yellow thread on the floor for a solid five minutes.
  8. After shaking off the trauma, I unpick again. Getting faster at it this time. I impress and disgust myself when I can remove the top thread in one magical pull. After saying some encouraging words to my machine, I proceed to topstitch my poor, serially stabbed skirt for a sixth time. I’m breathing in and out, my machine and I are one. Up. Down. In. Out. Good, girl. You got it. Let’s take a look. Stitch length is even, stitch line is 1/4″ away from the opening on BOTH sides this time…but, cod n’ salmon! Why are there three rogue stitches near the bottom that look like they’re trying to go AWOL!? Is this a conspiracy? Is this my punishment for supporting an American thread company that outsources all the work to Mexico? Why, Lord, why is topstitching perfection alluding me? I did it once before. I’ll give up coffee for a month if you let me get this right.
  9. At this point, I’d just lied to God. Things had reached Shakespearean levels of drama. I had to get out of the house for a couple hours to stop the “to sew or not to sew” monologues in my head trying to bring me down. The break did me good. I moved into the acceptance stage of grief and carried out topstitch job number seven: 90% perfect. The problem (this time) was with my basting. It was holding the zipper in place, but doing a crap job of keeping the fabric from shifting under my machine’s clunky zipper foot. I re-basted the zipper in blood red thread (as if it was war paint), checking for balance with a ruler along the way.
  10. I only had to fight monkeys three more times before my topstitching performance was 98% perfect. An acceptable end to a long battle with fate and stupidity. I’m not fracking with it ANY. MORE.

That last, stubborn 2% of fail will give the skirt character. I even wrote myself a topstitching checklist for next time. With my sense of humor still in tact and a new reverence for the simple tasks that can (and do) go horribly wrong, I carried on with making…humbled and entertained by my tumbleweed souvenir.


Now, it’s your turn. What was your last sewing fumble? Did you prevail or wadder-out? Got any curse word alternatives to contribute? Seriously, share your worst. Your stories will be my sewcial therapy ;-).

Winter Blooms (on Me!)

Floral T-Shirt Collage

My sewing time has been sporadic and unfocused lately, so those grandiose plans I had to fill the gaps in my freshly purged closet kind of froze up with the ridiculous layers of snow on the ground. In these last weeks of winter, my impatience for spring has my mind trapped in fantasies of picnics, twirly frocks, and other reasons for shaved legs.

Much of that daydreaming happened in my Polyvore app (which posted a few inspiration sets here inadvertently last week, doh!), but by the 5th winter weather advisory, my creativity was on the couch watching Netflix.

My mojo has recently been rejuvenated, however, by one simple little sewing pattern: Butterick 5215. A basic, knit t-shirt that fit me straight out of the pattern thanks to its Jedi designer, Connie Crawford. She claims its made “especially to fit the needs of today’s woman.”B5125 in Black Floral

Indeed, I am a woman on this earth today with needs. Among them is the need for a well-fitting t-shirt. A near impossibility for the short and curvy woman who buys off the earthly rack. Armholes are too long, there’s either too much or not enough room for the girls, sleeves never sit at my shoulder point, and the length between the waist and the hem is never right for my proportions. I have NEVER owned a knit t-shirt I loved.

That is until Ms. Crawford’s envelope of wrinkled tissue came into my life.

The pattern comes already adjusted for a narrow shoulder and fuller bust. There’s a petite adjustment line below the bust. I used it and made no other changes to the fit. I did lengthen the sleeves though. I made view A, the fitted tee with cap sleeves. The other two styles were semi-fitted and relaxed with short sleeves, so I borrowed the long sleeve of another pattern for the shaping and used my shoulder to wrist measurement to draft the right length.

B5215 in Black Floral

I don’t have any experience with success out of the pattern envelope (my peacock print woven tee was close, but even that required clever size blending). So, I stood in the mirror for several minutes trying to fathom the awesome fit I was witnessing on my original test garment. This rayon floral stretch jersey had been begging me to be a t-shirt, but allowing my torso to be engulfed in a vortex of bright floral meant the fit had to be spot on. And, dear, dear Connie hooked a seamstress up!

B5215 in Black Floral

My favorite thing about this pattern is how the side seams curve at the bustline. It’s the best drafting I’ve ever seen on a knit pattern. It’s like a built-in FBA. And, the way it curves at the waist is just art. With the petite adjustment, the waistline and hip curve ends up sitting in just the right spot for me. I’ve already started using it as a fit sloper to improve the fit of other knit patterns.

Cutting out B5215

The speed with which I can make this t-shirt is somewhere between quick as hell and lightning fast. This one took a week because I was fooling around, but with focus, I think I could cut, coverstitch, and serge another one in a few hours – maybe less if I’m making it while my daughter’s napping and get that added boost of beat-the-clock adrenaline.

Speaking of construction, I need to mention that I did all of my hemming with the garment flat vs. after sewing the side or sleeve seams. This is mostly because I have a convertible serger/coverstitch machine and try to streamline things to avoid more than one conversion. It’s also because I’m too lazy to perfect my coverstitching in the round (the overlap stitching hardly ever matches and I don’t quite have that pull-the-threads-to-the back trick down yet.)

I also used this genius method for neckline binding on YouTube that doesn’t require any measuring. Because, really…who has time for that?

B5215 in Black Floral

So, let’s see. We have the best fitting t-shirt pattern EVER, construction shortcuts, and my torso dipped in flowers. I think that’s everything I need to warm up my mojo for spring sewing. Now if some of that warmth would just reach the Eastern United States.

Does the weather ever affect your creativity?

Gather Around

When time travel is invented, I will return to the past with advice for myself the moment before I learned to sew. I will tell me to build up my skills sewing dartless tops and skirts with elastic waistbands (that will become inevitable and welcomed after having children). I will also warn me about the horror of sewing machine needle piercing pinky finger.

Darts on the full-busted are ridiculously huge. There’s this Pac-Man wedge of fabric that’s supposed to shape my curves but it sews up bulky and pointy unless I get all couture-y (which I rarely have patience for). Strangely, I had enough patience to learn dart rotation so I can disappear the damn things altogether.

Back in the day, I first sewed this basic tank pattern into the Devil Wears Floral Top and made plans to change it up with neckline gathers.

Croquis Sketch, Simplicity 2599

Fast forward to now. I grab my beat up copy of Patternmaking for Fashion Design to learn the basics of dart rotation. Then, a little googling leads me to this tutorial which hooks me up with a step-by-step lesson on rotating a side bust dart into the neckline to create gathers. The EXACT thing I was trying to do with my pattern.

This is the result, tested out as a crop top (in attempt not to waste the fabric if my experiment failed) in polka-dotted rayon challis.

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The whole procedure feels like sorcery until you sew it up and your mind is like, “Oh, that’s all it is!” The one thing I didn’t anticipate was having to abandon my usual 1/2″ bias tape facing application for a more suitable visible binding. The linen bias binding is leftover from the Driving Men Mad Dress, but the next time I sew this top (likely as a dress), I’ll make bias binding from matching fabric.

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Right up there with dartless tops are elastic waistbands on skirts. And, the holy grail of elastic waistbands is the extra wide elastic waistband that is sewn right to the fabric in no time flat and worn on the outside for all to see.

My go-to dirndle pattern with pockets was sewn in a flowy print to 3″ stretch elastic from my stash. I love how the wide elastic makes the gathers less bulky. Ignoring that it needs to be hemmed shorter (midi length isn’t the best on me) and that this elastic is too awesome to have ever spent time as “stash”, I am liking this situation and will certainly repeat it. Say hello to the Waist No Time Skirt.

The Waist No Time Skirt

I am glad to report that after sitting at a desk most of the day and chasing a one year old around in the evening, the elastic held up nicely. No weird creases or rolling about. Perfect for those days when someone suggests the Indian buffet for lunch.

As for my time travelling plans, I don’t think I’ll risk the effects to the timeline just for selfish sewing advice. Maybe for selfish celebrity meet-cutes with Idris Elba, instead.

What about you? What might you travel back in time to say to your younger self about sewing or fashion?