When Good Girls Sew Bad(ly)


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.

photo 1

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.

photo 4

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?