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.

Growing Up with Sarah

I am transforming the way I sew, becoming a beginner again. In the middle of this re-birth, I get an email from Elisalex of By Hand London asking me to test their unreleased shirt pattern. They named it Sarah. Equally honored and daunted by the offer, I took a shot at making a shirt on a two-week deadline using a pattern I had never seen before.

Three yards of floral challis later, Sarah and I got to know each other pretty well. And with this double test drive, I got a chance to use the Jedi sewing moves I learned in the fall from the incomparable Brooks Ann Camper.

Sarah Shirt, Modeled - Front

Make It Differently

Learning pattern drafting and adopting basic couture techniques has been like a baptism for my sewing process, giving it new life and focus. Interrupting work on my own designs to sew someone else’s pattern was a strange decision to be faced with. At that moment, I had to decide what kind of seamstress I wanted to be. Now that I’m into custom drafting, does that mean all of my purchased patterns collect dust? Can what I learned even be applied to clothes I choose to make with patterns drafted for standard sizes?

These are the seven methods that anchor my sewing process now:

  1. Work from custom-drafted patterns that do not include seam allowances.
  2. Layout patterns on a single layer of fabric.
  3. Mark stitch lines and cut lines by hand directly onto fabric.
    • Mark 1″ wide allowances for seams
    • Mark 2” wide allowances for hems
  4. Thread mark neck, waist, and hem lines by hand.
  5. Hand-baste all interfacings and underlinings to fashion fabric.
  6. Hand-baste select seams and all hems for a pre-construction “basted fitting”.
  7. Machine-sew permanent seams by pre-basting with pins or thread along the stitch line before sewing directly on it (instead of using the cut edge as a guide).

I answered NO and YES, respectively to the questions about my sewing future and went on to successfully prove my hypothesis while crafting a beta version of By Hand London’s downloadable Sarah Shirt pattern.

By Hand London Sarah Shirt - Technical DrawingBHL Sarah Shirt in Challis

In a future post about a different garment, I will describe how methods 2 through 7 go down for me. For now, I’ll tell you what I did to customize the shirt pattern to fit my proportions after printing and assembling the PDF pages.

Make it Work

I started out annotating the pattern’s measurement chart to note where my body measurements land – which is typically all over the map. Luckily, the drapey fit and flared hem of the shirt made my circumference check pass with ease (pun intended, as always). But without any reference to center back length or a fit model’s height, I couldn’t tell whether or not the shirt and sleeves would be too long for me. Since my height barely qualifies me for amusement park rides, this omission in multi-size patterns never surprises me.

I suppose it is a safe assumption for a pattern drafter to make that most women are much taller than five feet. So it was also safe for me to assume that the pattern had a total of 2 to 3 inches of length I didn’t need in various places. My job was to figure out the best way to find it, then remove or bypass it.

When I made a woven tee a while back from a multi-sized McCall’s pattern, I had good results blending sizes from the sleeve cap to the underarm point to bypass the extra length I’d have to remove if I’d used the sleeve size that matched my bicep circumference. This small-to-large size blending also works for bypassing extra shoulder width and chest length. So, I set out do this for the shirt’s relevant pattern pieces.

BHL Sarah Shirt, Annotated Measurement Chart

First, I had to find the shoulder point somewhere on the yoke.

There were two notches on the yoke, but neither was marked as such and with my beginner’s mind engaged, I didn’t want to guess. This was my opportunity to compare my 2-D body to the pattern using the bodice block I have been tinkering with. To prepare for this and my eventual removal of the seam and hem allowances, I marked the hidden stitching lines on the main pattern pieces (following the lines that corresponded to the sizes that best match my shape) and taped the front and back pieces to the yoke pattern as it would be sewn.

Finding Shoulder Line on BHL Sarah Shirt

By lining up my front bodice block pattern to the center front of the shirt pattern and sliding it up to meet the top of the shirt neckline/yoke, I was able to mark the spot along the yoke where a shoulder seam would go on a shirt drafted without a yoke. From there, I did a double-check comparison to make sure the shirt’s stitch lines landed in the right place compared to my block. Where they didn’t, I found lines that did and blended them accordingly. I did the same for the yoke, back, and sleeve. This step wasn’t photographed, but here is a diagram borrowed from a Threads Magazine article that illustrates the comparison process.

Threads_Mag_Sloper_Fitting_Example

Because the shirt sleeve was drafted to be gathered at the sleeve cap, it was hard to tell if there’d be too little or too much ease for me. I was also nervous about the fit at the underarm, that critical point where bust circumference, armhole height, and the ability to move your arm comfortably join forces. I wanted to ensure harmony in that area, so – after cutting off all of the seam allowances I’d drawn onto the pattern pieces – I marked, cut and hand-basted a one-sleeved mockup of the shirt sans collar, cuff, and placket.

The toile helped me discover that there was too much ease in the sleeve cap. I eliminated it by blending to a smaller size sleeve cap on the paper pattern and confirming those changes by transferring them to my muslin sleeve and re-basting it in for a final test. There was also way too much fabric at the underarm that I didn’t catch with my bodice block comparison because I was too lazy to rotate the bodice block’s bust dart to the shoulder for an apples to apples comparison. Lesson. Learned. For next time.

With confidence in the pattern’s fit, I moved on to fabric.

Make It Beautiful

Sewing with accuracy and more control. That is the result I am enjoying from adopting the seven methods I listed above. The way I’d been sewing left me guessing at so many things, that for the first time ever, I feel like I know what the hell I’m doing. More importantly, when something goes wrong, I trust myself to figure out how to un-screw it up because I have everything I need to know about what I’m making marked, checked, tested, and prepped.
 BHL Sarah Shirt, Dressform Back Pleat

I didn’t start sewing the shirt at the start of the two weeks I was given, I spent a few days deciding if the distraction was a good idea. Once I convinced myself that it was and got going, all of that handwork I would’ve scoffed at doing in the past, got done like it was a normal part of my life. Which, I think it is now. There was no hurry because every “slow motion” task was an investment in precision.

Sewing the old way feels foreign.

With the time constraint, I chose to finish the shirt’s seams with my overlocker. And, as of this writing, the shirt is missing buttonholes. To get some photos over to Elisalex in time for her pattern launch, I cleverly placed safety pins in the faux-pearl shank buttons I’m auditioning. Once Sarah is buttoned up for real, she’ll resurface here in a proper outfit. My semi-couture work on this shirt and the confidence I had during its making lets me appreciate how much my sewing has grown up.

BHL Sarah Shirt - Back Swing
The Sarah shirt was expertly drafted. The style fits my aesthetic and the swishy hem that won’t stay put during windy photoshoots is versatile enough to be tucked into the custom-designed pencil skirt I am also finishing.

I am grateful to By Hand London for the gifted pattern and the invitation to make something beautiful.

 

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.

Wanna Be Sewing: Pencil Skirts

Later this week there’ll be more sewing soul contemplation. Today, I am taking you on a quick, mid-week scroll through my current fixation on pencil skirts. Specifically, denim ones. A custom-fit, deep indigo skirt, tapered at the knee. (1) Curve-hugging enough to distract my husband from a computer game, (2) conservative enough to run an all-day tech company meeting, and (3) durable enough for changing a flat tire on my pickup truck…or a small child covered in mud.

I want this skirt in my life so badly, I hired a couturier to teach me how to make one from scratch this fall. I’ll share more about that experience down the line. For now, let’s peak at a few of the high-end ready-to-wear skirts I’m inspired by and maybe even “pencil in” how they might look on me.

Starting with this simple one from Citizens of Humanity.

Citizens Of Humanity Denim Pencil Skirt

A high, contour waistband and a center front seam, this basic skirt is also showing some quiet rebellion with its boldly angled pockets. It’s like that front panel starts off wanting to be a middle gore in a three gore skirt, but then changes its mind when the center seam shows up, maps out a smooth exit, and juts off to the side seam in creative protest.

Story of my life.
Denim Pencil Skirt Design Inspiration 01

This Burberry beauty is a bit deceiving on the curve-hugging front because its made of stretch denim. But, those style lines are what caught my eye.

Burberry Brit Stretch-denim pencil skirt

A classic, sporty denim skirt with all of the expected features until your eye is lured down the thighs by a hypnotic pair of double-topstitched, flat-felled seams.

Yes and yes.

Denim Pencil Skirt Design Inspiration Sketch 02

Now, what about the collar-and-a-peplum-had-a-baby feature of this $500 Moschino skirt? Bringing that kind of attention to my waist might not be the best decision. Or, it could be the missing link.
Moschino Buttoned stretch-denim pencil skirt

As long as I never find myself transported to the 1980s where I might get the urge to “pop” the collar, the style might have a chance on me.

Denim Pencil Skirt Design Inspiration Sketch 03

Look out for more inspiration sketches on Instagram, the dumping ground for my design impulses. Seriously, though, I am physically restraining myself from sketching and sharing more right now. A sign that it’s time to head back to real life where our fingers are crossed that no truck tires or tiny muddy people need my help today.

The Holistic Seamstress

The Holistic Seamstress Logo

Wardrobe sewing is personal lifestyle choice. If I was a scientist, I might even hypothesize that it’s coded in our DNA. Whatever its origins, making clothes puts a seamstress at the intersection of her physical body, skills, available time, tools & materials, and even her personality. These five elements come together in a unique way for every sewist, leading to a handmade wardrobe that is not only a reflection of individual style, but a wearable record of personal growth. In an effort to understand the relationship between these elements and how they influence my approach to clothes making (and life), I am going to explore these topics in a multi-part series.


Background

After writing about how sewing has shaped my self-esteem, a whole new world of navel gazing about my craft opened up for me. I started connecting dots that I know will bring a balanced awareness to my sewing that I’ve been missing. Discovering my core style and preferred silhouettes through the Wardrobe Architect challenge was a great tactical exercise, but making my own clothes is a lifetime commitment that has more layers to it than just choosing what I want to sew. Every garment I make says something about WHO I am, WHERE I’ve been, WHAT I know (and don’t), HOW I sew, and WHERE I am going. I want those stories stitched into every seam.

The 5 Elements of Wardrobe Sewing

To live holistically means living in balance with ourselves and our environment by understanding and honoring the interconnectedness of all things. When I say stuff like that my friends call me a hippie and make jokes about my crunchy granola lifestyle —it doesn’t help that large batches of granola are actually baked twice a month in my kitchen —but, I don’t mind the teasing because I’m secure in my hippiehood and embrace it. In fact, most makers are part hippie, part nerd, and part artist. The best sewists leverage all of these traits while navigating what I like to think of as the Periodic Table of Wardrobe Sewing Elements.

Periodic Table of Wardrobe Sewing Elements

I believe that examining what’s true for me about these five elements —skills, body, supplies, time, and personality—will elevate my sewing experience, molding it to fit my reality. Too often I have looked to books, experts, other bloggers, or even sewing patterns to help me make sense of my sewing journey, when the truth I seek comes from the same place as Dorothy’s power to leave Oz and return home. It comes from inside. Knowing my constraints, what I’m bringing to the table, and what motivates me. I have a feeling that making those connections will change everything about the way I sew.

The Schedule

I am usually pretty casual about when I blog. A breadwinning mom with a toddler in the final stages of potty training gets a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to following the rules of blogging consistency. But, writing about this feels so right, it can’t be wrong. Nor can it wait for the time when life slows down (by my estimate, that will be in the year 2031). So in the continued spirit of sharing the start of projects that equally scare and thrill me, here is the schedule for The Holistic Seamstress blog series. If the stars align, new makes will be shared in between:

  • Part 1: Skills (Week of October 12th)
  • Part 2: Body (Week of November 30th)
  • Part 3: Supplies (TBD)
  • Part 4: Time (TBD)
  • Part 5: Personality (TBD)

Thanks in advance for sticking with me through what I think will be a close-up look at a seamstress’ attempt at sewing enlightenment.

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?