Thursday, March 29, 2012


I have been reading a lot online about hand sewing, and doing a bit of it myself on my garb, but I decided to invest a bit in some reference materials and tools.

I bought three pamphlets from Wm. Booth, Draper, The Lady's Guide to Plain Sewing (Book I & II), and The Workman's Guide to Tailoring Stitches and Techniques. I have yet to really delve into them, but I am hopeful.
The little bone implement you see on top of my new pamphlets is a stiletto. It's not a weapon, or a heel type, but a little pointy thing one sticks between threads of a fabric to spread them open for lacing holes. Often people use awls or some such for this enterprise, but since it was so cheap and nice looking, I decided to go for the real thing.

First Contemporary Project
I've decided to start off easy and have my first project be a pair of pajama bottoms. The construction should be fairly simple, and if the results aren't quite to my liking, hardly anyone sees me in my pajamas, anyways.
Also, this printed cotton flannel should be fairly forgiving if my stitches become clumsy. I have already cut the pieces up and started stitching the front and back together, and I am finding that I am very anal retentive about matching up the pattern insomuch as they at least align. I basically measured the widest part of my hips and added a couple inches, thinking I'd just cut two large rectangles that would be come the legs and join at the top for the hips with a gusset in the seat, but now that I have tried it one once, I think I underestimated how much ease I'd like in my thighs. I have a solution in mind for this which is fairly straightforward, and fortunately (as I remarked above) hardly anyone sees me in my pajamas, so some creative solutions are hardly the end of the world at this point.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Dyeing is done with

I tried dyeing with some conventional, non-organic dye last week for a non-By Hand project, and it turned out terribly. I simply don't have enough experience to do it very successfully, and I'm not sure that there's enough time to reach an acceptable level of proficiency for this project. Any attempt to do so would take an effort that would completely overshadow the hand-sewing, so I am changing some of my requirements.

I will still sew everything by hand; that is the priority.

I will still use natural fabrics that are not machine knit (no T-shirt material, like jersey knits).

For reasons of cost, I will allow myself to use polyester blend thread.

But there will be no zippers, or Velcro, or anything like that. Buttons, lacing, hooks and frogs are going to be my approach.

Hopefully this change will set things more in motion, because it has been holding me up considerably.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Purging the closet

It is amazing how attached one can become to clothing. It took some time for me to complete my closet purge, what with the holidays intervening, and all the various day-to-day crises that come up and demand immediate attention, but in the end I had over two full sized garbage bags full of clothes.
The Car Bears pajama bottoms were especially hard to give up. :P
I folded it all up and laid it out on the craft room table so you cane see the full scope of it.
I didn't expect as much pathos as I actually experienced. I had be really cutthroat with myself about it - if I haven't worn it this year, or it was unflattering, or getting too worn, it had to go.
During this purge I also lost about 5-10 lbs, so I had my size to consider. I went from a size 6 to a 3 or 4, depending on the brand. So now the pants that I kept no longer fit, and neither did the ones I got rid of. It's making more and more sense for me to have a new wardrobe!

I'm not showing you the underwear and such that went in the bag, or, alas! the garbage. There are some things that don't need to be immortalized with pictures, and my white cotton granny underwear from my post-partum days are among them.

Next time: What I kept, and why.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Dyeing Dilemma

It is rapidly becoming apparent to me that the hardest part of this adventure is not going to be the hand-sewing, but the dyeing. One could, theoretically, hand sew anything. But finding something in its natural state, or naturally dyed, to hand sew is another matter.

I chose the limitation of using natural fabrics and dyes because I found in architecture school that parameters can often be a help, rather than a hindrance. Having a restriction drives one in a certain direction, and hopefully in the direction one intended to go. I am looking for a thorough understanding of pre-industrial clothing. I think hand-sewing alone would only get me half way to that goal; not using synthetic fabrics and dyes should get me the rest of the way. Although I will miss machine knits, using them would certainly not give me the same quality of experience that linen would. And people in pre-industrial times, no matter the class, certainly couldn't just pick a color for their clothes as if it's all the same, the way we do in a modern fabric store. There were only certain dyestuffs available, and their costs and viability varied.

I am already having that experience. I have 25 yards of unbleached muslin, and about 3 yards of lightweight bleached linen. I have these because of prior interests, so I'm feeling lucky. I view the unbleached muslin as cheap linen substitute on which to royally screw up before I invest in more precious fabric - but it is hardly an exciting color palette. Oatmeal comes to mind. And I do not need to remind myself and others of oatmeal for the next year. I need to dye it.

Dyeing it myself

My immediate options are natural direct dyes. According to my current limited understanding, "direct" dyes are dyes which do not require a mordant to set the dye color in the fabric. The direct dyes I have easy access to are tea, onion skins, and turmeric. I dyed my chemise for the SCA with tea, and it came out a vaguely pinkish tan. (But a couple machine washes later, it is almost white again, which is problematic.) I've seen the results of onion skin dying; it was a kind of warm, honey yellow. And turmeric supposedly results in a color somewhere in the yellow range. Once I get more into this, I might be able to rise up out of the earth tones, but that will take time and practice.

Buying Naturally Dyed Fabric

This is very much more easily said than done. The closest I have come to this is NearSea Naturals, an online store that has a range of undyed organic fabrics and colorgrown fabrics.

What on earth is colorgrown? you may ask. I wondered the same thing. So brace yourself.

It is cotton that grows in colors such as green, brown, and allegedly red.

This blew my mind when I came across it, because I had no idea anything like this existed. It is not some weird modern biotech plant; colored cotton has been around for thousands of years, but because its fiber is short, it has been unsuitable for commercial production. Apparently there is a modern hybrid that solves this problem to a great extent. I'm hoping to acquire some samples soon!

The Next Step

I have purged my closet, but before I rid myself of it all, I want to take an inventory and make an analysis. And get a new memory card for my camera so that I can take copious photos and share it all with you!

Monday, October 10, 2011

My Hand-Crafting Past

Back in the day when I was more impoverished and desperate, when $1.50 represented a whole day of sitting in coffeehouse to avail myself of their delightful modern conveniences, such as a dry, environmentally regulated space and indoor plumbing, I thought nothing of spending long hours making things with my hands. This was a kind of Golden Age of craft and creativity for me, because all I really had was time, and a dogged perseverance that was often mistaken for patience.

At one point I was in Philadelphia, experiencing a full four seasons for the first time in my life. I'm Northern Californian, which means I'm somewhat akin to a duck. My home town gets more rain a year than Seattle, and it never really gets too cold, or too hot. The East Coast was a completely different animal, and adrift as I was out there, and practically penniless, I started taking measures.

I found some red corduroy in a Free Box at a local community center and lined a heavy gray wool cardigan with it. I had never done this before, and I quickly discovered why linings in coats and such are generally silky - every time I put the sweater on, whatever shirt or sweater I was wearing would cling to the corduroy and get bunched up horribly. I had to fight with it every time - even when I was taking it off. But it did cut the wind a bit.

The house I was living in had inadequate heat. (We even had one of our radiators explode!) I got an old wool Army blanket  from the Free Box (that Free Box certainly was a friend of mine!), and since it was unreasonably itchy, I made it into a quilt. I simply grabbed all the clothing I could  from the Free Box that I thought might suit, cut them into pieces, and sewed them into the blanket.
This is my favorite side of the quilt. The blue patches are a rayon dress; the orange is an old '70's style clown suit; the light blue is yet another dress. The burgundy patches are bits of broadcloth polyester fabric, and the remaining pieces are from a hippy-ish patchwork overall.
The less favored side. There is still plenty of clown suit and blue rayon dress, but I also added a Superman sheet of questionable thread count, an orange Hawaiian shirt, the leftovers from the light blue flowery dress, a cotton shirt with clouds, and some random bits of stray fabric (plaid). I still have this quilt - it's about to go up on my wall. I actually had a quilt commissioned because of this beast. I probably made about $.05 and hour, but back then that was good money.

When summer rolled around, with it's foreign humidity, I thought I was going to have a heat stroke. I became very put-out that public nudity wasn't legal. I once again raided the Free Box and came up with some lightweight material that I then hand-sewed into summer dresses.

The first dress was originally a batik skirt. The fabric was very gauzy, and dyed a navy blue and white pattern. I removed the waistband and trimmed it down to make a halter-top dress, making the straps from the waste fabric. It didn't know how to deal with the excess fabric at the back where I had another tie, so I just let it be.

The second dress was a pale, greenish aqua sheet in it's first incarnation. As such, it had very little stretch, and was possibly a polyester blend. I made another halter dress out of this, but since I was a bit more experienced, I added hook-and-eye closures in the back. Where I went wrong with this dress was in the ease; there wasn't enough of it! It was tight. I should have cut on the bias or something.

After that, winter rolled around again and I discovered knitting. I went into knitting the same way I entered into hand sewing - almost completely ad hoc. I got a book on traditional Fair Isle knitting from the library, bought some shish kabobs, sanded them into double pointed needles, varnished them, and grabbed an old burgundy acrylic sweater from the Free Box and unraveled it. I was going to make socks. And I did. I wish I still had them - they wore out several years ago - because I don't recall having a knitting pattern for socks. I only knew how to decrease, increase, cast on and cast off, so I was making it all up as I went. But the socks were wearable. (I came across a hat I knit the person I was seeing at the time from an old black cotton cardigan, and blew my own mind. Apparently I was working at a very small gauge and had a very interesting approach to shaping.)

So you see, I am not completely unfamiliar with taking what most people might consider extremes to accomplish crafting goals. This exploration of hand making clothing should be an adventure, and I hope you enjoy the ride!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

This Modern Life

It’s a rainy autumn afternoon and at the office meeting it has just been announced that because of the recent slow-down in jobs, the office will be technically closed on Fridays to allay costs. This is happening so that the company may remain in the black without laying anyone off. Being the most recent hire, and near the bottom of the design totem pole, I know I’d most likely be the one they let go if it came down to it – unless, of course, they decide they don’t need a receptionist. I already fill in for her, since her job is much simpler than mine.

I spend upwards of ten hours a day on the computer. In good old days, this time would have been spent over a Mayline, and at the end of the day I would have been complaining of graphite on my sleeves and back aches rather than carpel tunnel and eye fatigue. There are people in this firm still who are more comfortable with a computer-free past, which is why they need me. I translate their scribbles into the modern context.
I am very keen on context. Once upon a time when I was filling in an application at a community college I thought that context was architecture. I am artistic by nature, yet technical; the arrangement of space and how things are made fascinates me, but not to the point that I wanted to be an inventor or engineer. That seemed too dry, too mundane. I needed romance. Making larger than life art that serves a function, and has to work  – firmitas, utilitas, venustas - now that seemed the place to be!  
Then I got a job in the industry and learned that in practice, even the most intense design charette with the most steely-eyed, cynical critic will not prepare you for the mind-numbing level of paperwork and technical fussing that actually comprises the lower levels of the architecture profession. I am in the wrong field.
It took me years to hone down my interests into something I could reasonably compartmentalize: the history of technology. But even that is inadequate.
I read books on the evolution of the flushable toilet. I want to know how public sanitation works, in detail, and why, and what it was like before. But I have no desire to be a sanitation engineer.
I research the forms of houses, why we order the rooms the way we do, and what sociotechnical innovations changed these things, and what stayed the same. But I don’t want to be an architectural historian.
I ask questions like, “Why do we use sheets?” and find that it is similar to the question, “Why do we wear underwear?” (A: to keep something more precious than the cheaper sheet/underwear fabric clean.) 
The Why of things runs neck-and-neck with the How to me; I need a reason as well as a method, and I want to see it in practice. I want to truly understand and experience it.
Lately I have been considering some very fundamental aspects of modern life as I know it. My interest in the past and my desire to experience something other than the mundane world has driven me back into the arms of the Society for Creative Anachronism. What began as a simple mission to assemble a seemingly appropriate Medieval outfit has transformed into an exploration of historical sewing processes, dying, and plausible reasoning behind fashion trends. I am enamored.
So what does this all have to do with the aforementioned office meeting, and the potential for my impending unemployment?
All I could think about while my future dangled on this precipice was what it would be like if I had to sew all my clothes by hand. It would completely transform the way I interact with my clothes, and my life, I suspect. Change is obviously in the air, so why not make it a radical change? 
The Exploration Challenge
I want to delve as deeply into the history and practice of clothing production before the advent of the sewing machine and synthetic dyes as I can. The best way I can imagine to do this is to live it.
So here is my proposal:
  • I will purge my closet of non-essential clothing items. I only wear a fraction of what is in my closet, so this shouldn’t be too severe of a hardship.
  •  I will replace the items I am keeping within six months with hand-made items. They can be knit, crocheted, or hand sewn. They will not be synthetically dyed, but they may be machine-loomed or spun because of budget limitations.
  •  I will continue to augment and improve upon the hand-made wardrobe and see how far I can push it. (Will I make shoes? Coats? Underwear?) I will do this for a year… unless I become addicted, or natural disaster strikes.
  • And I will blog it.