Costuming · Life · Sewing

Sewing camp!

Last Sunday I got home from a very cool new experience in my life: sewing summer camp.

Well, the “summer” part is certainly debatable, given the weather was chilly and damp across all five days. But “sewing camp” is certainly accurate! I went to this year’s Camp Workroom Social Wardrobe Week for the first time, joining a group of about 65% returnees, which tells you about how well-loved it is. After attending the first time, I can confidently say it won’t be my last.

What is sewing camp, you may ask? Well, it’s where a bunch of grown-ass adults gather at Frost Valley to hang out with other sewists, learn new things, and just sew for hours and hours of the day. My goal going into it was to sew a lot (check) and foster sewing friendships (check). The latter part was just as easy as the first part for me; I’ve always found it a joy to socialize with other people who are as intensely into the same interests as me. (One of my first solo trips as an adult out of college was to Abby Franquemont’s spinning retreat Stringtopia—I went knowing absolutely zero people ahead of time and still felt zero awkwardness hanging out with all of the fiber people and making new friends.)

My journey started very early Wednesday morning. I took Amtrak for the first time. I live close enough to DC for that to be an easy enough station to reach, and the station in New York City was super close to both the garment district and the shuttle bus meetup point. (It also cost me less than $100 in fare and gave me more room to stretch out than an airplane seat.)

Cross stitch while looking out a train window

Once in New York City, I had a few hours to kill, so I walked a few blocks to reach the famed Mood Fabrics.

[brief interlude begins]

I had never been to Mood in person before, but of course I had seen it as the featured fabric supplier for Project Runway. It’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed in there!

Hundreds of rolls of fabric in an aisle labeled "silk shantung"
(Hint: it’s very easy to miss that there is a lower floor, but that’s where all the normal everyday fabrics live, while the upper floor is very heavy on the silks and special occasions fabrics.)

I found some buttons there for my 1890s shirtwaist and picked out some trim for a future historical project, but I wasn’t specifically looking for fabric. That said, I had begun to consider that the fabric I needed for my Edwardian Espeon (coming sometime after 1890s Umbreon is done) would be challenging to find, because I’d need something lightweight, a little sheer, with good drape, and the right shade of lavender. I wandered down the aisle of cotton voiles and shirtings, and when I came to the end of the shirting section I saw It. I saw The Fabric.

Sheer, shiny lavender fabric on a roll next to a roll of brown fabric
a light came from the heavens and the angels sang.

It’s a cotton batiste with a beautiful sheen and a gorgeous drape. I bought eight yards and still felt a little pang I didn’t get ten, even though eight should be plenty. (It’s not on their website so if I needed more, I’d have to call them and hope for the best. But I have a budget. So I’m not going to call them. Eight should be plenty.)

Prizes in hand, I grabbed a bagel sandwich and a cookie from nearby and headed back to the station to meet the shuttle bus.

[Interlude ends]

It was a beautiful drive to Frost Valley. The progress of spring was several weeks behind where we were in Virginia, with the daffodils blooming and the forsythia only just beginning to explode in sunny yellow. Day 1 was just about getting settled in to our sleep space and sewing space. I stayed in a cabin with six bunk beds and one other person (the best roommate. Theresa—you rock).

A bunk bed with a handmade Christmas quilt on the lower bed
Is it weird that I felt bad stealing MY Christmas quilt from my cat Nadja who loves to lay on it?

Most of my luggage was sewing-related, despite not bringing my own sewing machine, so that took a little longer to set up. Then we listened to a cool lecture about cultivating personal style and did some socializing/getting to know you stuff.

THEN THE SEWING BEGAN. We were split up into smaller groups each with our own instructor, who was available to answer questions, provide advice, and generally keep the cats herded. There was a lot of variation in skill and experience levels, from relative newbies to experienced sewists who just wanted to bang out project after project. I’ve been time-tracking my projects lately, so I can tell you I spent 8.5 hours sewing on the first full day of camp, and that excludes significant breaks and mealtimes. In fact, I got so caught up in sewing on day 1 that I meant to take a snack break for over an hour before I was interrupted by lunchtime. On day 2 I spent almost 8.5 hours, and day 3 when we had to pack up early I still sewed for 5.5 hours.

On Day 1 I mainly worked on my 1890s shirtwaist (full post coming soon.) I had already mostly constructed it before camp, but I wasn’t able to finish it due to some fitting problems. The pattern is from McCalls and it, frankly, sucked. Fortunately my instructor, Diana, helped me fit the sleeves and armscyes, which I’d already manipulated a lot at the muslin stage but which still needed more work. When I got sick of working on the McCalls pattern, I bounced over to working on my 1890s vest, using a pattern from Black Snail.

Author trying on a muslin of the 1890s vest
The pattern fit almost perfectly straight out of the envelope. What a relief.

One thing I liked about the camp environment was that doing muslins didn’t feel like a drag like it normally does. I think this was a combination of having a lot of time available, having instructors there to help with fit issues, and generally having a supportive, sewing-literate environment. I saw a lot of people making muslins of their projects before starting them, and I think it was probably a higher percentage than if those people were starting those projects at home.

A black tool pouch on a blue plastic chair
I bought this super-neat tool belt / scissor holster at the trading post.

On Day 2 I finished the McCalls shirtwaist and put in a lot of work on the Black Snail vest. (Post also coming soon.) I also started muslining what I termed Weird Pants, which were my Regency-era fall-front breeches (also a Black Snail pattern). Those were designed to have an… unflattering… fit, so my goal was to get them to fit in a way that made my booty look decent. It was a good thing I made the muslin, because I also got a chance to learn how the pants go together. They’re very weird.

Author wearing a linen shirt with ruffles and a stupid-looking pants mockup
Weird Pants: they look even more questionable with a shirt tucked into them that’s about twelve sizes too large. This photo truly does not show how horrendously they fit at first.

I stayed up until like… 9:30pm sewing, which is very late for me. (I was once a night owl but after working night shifts for years, having to closely manage my insomnia, and wanting to be awake during daylight hours, I am an earlier bird these days.)

A forest at night with the moon

Day 3 was the last sewing day, and because we all had to be out of our spaces early the next morning, we had to pack everything up at 5pm. On Day 3 I finished my vest, including all 11 buttonholes and buttons. I got my Weird Pants muslin to an acceptable fit and got the pattern cut out in the final fabric. And last, I got the first several steps puzzled out and completed on the aforementioned Weird Pants before it was finally time to pack up.

Over the course of the sewing days, the various instructors would do lectures or workshops on topics in their specialty, and people could attend or not as they pleased. I admit I only went to one, having major FOMO on getting enough sewing time. (Did I mention I sewed over 21 hours over 3 days?) I did attend one led by my group’s instructor, Diana, on visible mending and embroidery, and I learned how to do satin stitch. I’m going to finish this little sample someday.

An embroidery sample

Camp wrapped up, more or less, on Saturday night with a social hour called “main character hour,” with the idea being that you dress “like you’re the main character in your own life.” I wore a favorite fancy outfit of mine: my wedding skirt, my black corset, and my Doc Martens. (Two out of those three were handmade.) There was ice cream and a little photobooth.

Sunday morning dawned and it was time to pack up the last of my stuff. We had a few more activities available, though it mostly felt like a bit of a waiting game until it was time for the shuttle bus to leave, and then at last it was time to say goodbye (or “good night”, which is what you’re supposed to say at camp, because of course you’ll see everyone again.) We arrived back in Manhattan in the pouring rain, and I took the train home.

Overall? I had an amazing time. I loved the chance to be super-focused on my projects AND have people around who could chat, cheer, and commiserate. The camp atmosphere was beautiful, albeit not the most luxurious, but I’d happily take bunk beds in a cabin over a more luxe but expensive experience if it meant more focus on the actual sewing. The weather could have been nicer, but at least I wasn’t particularly tempted to go outside! Getting back into my usual routine means mourning the hours upon hours of dedicated project time, and I’m already missing it as I get back into my life of distractions and interruptions.

A group of 9 women and/or femme-presenting people
Diana’s group. Diana is third in from the left.

Up next: I need to write the entire post on my 1890s shirtwaist and vest from scratch, but I have the 1860s Zelda underskirt post pretty much done! Friday is the release day for the new Zelda game, Tears of the Kingdom, so I suspect I won’t be sparing much time for anything else. 🙂 

Life · Sewing

Reflections on 15 Years of Sewing

Today, February 10th, marks what I consider my “official” sewing anniversary, and this year will make 15 years of sewing. It’s mind-boggling to me that I’m old enough to have done anything for 15 years, but here we are nevertheless. The reason I call it my official anniversary is this: I had already learned to operate a sewing machine and sew pajama pants by this point. I learned from both my mom and from my bestie’s mom in church youth group. But in those cases I didn’t have a hunger to do more than that. It seemed like a useful skill that I just wasn’t interested in. (This was the same teenage me that was “allergic to pink” and had no interest in stereotypically feminine hobbies, so it’s not surprising.)

However, one day I was trawling Livejournal, as was the custom in those days, and ran across a tutorial for making a little plushie cat backpack. The tutorial looked much more approachable than a standard sewing pattern (also keep in mind this was before indie patterns had really caught on) and I decided I absolutely must have a plushie cat backpack. So I hied to Joanns for supplies, pulled out my mom’s cranky old Kenmore machine, asked her to remind me how it worked exactly, and set off. And then I made a plushie cat backback—a finished creation, from my own two hands, just by following some instructions and pictures.

That was when I couldn’t get enough.

The second project was similarly from a Livejournal tutorial, except it was how to make a dress out of quilting cotton. My middle sister and I decided to tackle it together and make our own dresses on a day my mom happened to be away. The magic of making all those tiny perfect machine stitches, and then pressing the seams, and then somehow having an entire garment that I could wear out in the world the next day was just as heady, if not more, than with the cat backpack.

Author wearing a red quilting cotton jumper-style dress
I had to crop out most of my horribly messy room.

From there it took me some time to come back to commercial patterns. I used informal tutorials whenever I could and tried to tackle self-drafting basic shapes, only to learn some lessons the hard way (like that you can’t evenly divide bust fullness around the entire torso, because boobs only exist in the front.) I bought my first sewing machine with my high school graduation money. I was incredibly fortunate to have a 2-bedroom apartment to myself in college, and I turned my second bedroom into a studio. Before long I bought a refurbished serger… and then several years later, a destashed coverstitch machine, and then a computerized machine, and, well… now I own 6 machines, including a huge fancy embroidery machine.

Indie patterns were starting to appear, and I remember making a lot of Sewaholic patterns (many of which I still love and wear regularly), and eventually, Closet Core Patterns. Occasionally I tackled Big 4 patterns, and they began to make more sense to me. I took a Susan Khalje couture sewing class and learned that “couture sewing” didn’t mean what I thought it did (it’s about taking absolute care in how a garment is constructed, not about fashion design), but I did make a beautiful raw silk dress with a hand-dyed panel for my college graduation. I sewed jeans. I sewed a plaid blazer, messed up the plaid-matching on the back panel twice, and had to secretly piece a new panel together to make it work (but you absolutely can’t tell unless I show it to you up-close.)

In 2018, ten years after I started sewing, I made my own wedding dress. I designed the ensemble (separates, actually),made several bodice mockups, dyed the silk for the skirt, hemmed 27 yards of super-fine silk, and walked down the aisle to marry my amazing partner in a masterpiece of my own making.

In 2020 I decided I wanted to start learning about historical costuming. My 1860s Zelda project took me about a year and a half starting in 2021 and served as a launching point for what will be many future historical pieces.

Blonde woman with elf ears wearing blue 1860s-style dress, parasol, and fan

I remember when “Me Made May,” which is a challenge to wear something handmade every day in May, first popped up. The first few years after I became aware of it, I remember wishing fervently that one day I’d have enough handmade garments to participate. Then it seemed like overnight, I went from “I have nothing handmade to wear” to “I wear handmade clothing every day of every month.” I don’t remember MMM being a challenge; I remember it being an impossibility and then suddenly a thing I could take for granted. (What helped was my love of making t-shirts, which are easy, fast, and feature prominently in my wardrobe.)

So I’ve definitely come a long way in my sewing journey and I look forward to many more years! I thought I’d compile a few things I’ve learned in the past 15 years about how my sewing practice is different now than it used to be, or about things I’ve learned really help me out.

Experience Breeds Efficiency

These days I am a fast sewist when I want to be. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that I am familiar with most of the techniques I encounter, whether it’s “how to install a waistband” or “how to do a flat-felled seam” or “how and when to clip curves,” which means I don’t have to look them up or troubleshoot when they’re needed. I’m also familiar with the process of clothing construction in general, which means I typically don’t need to look up pattern instructions for items constructed in a standard way, such as buttondown shirts or pants or t-shirts. The second reason is I know which shortcuts to take and when. I rarely pin, for example, and I often sew multiple seams before going to the ironing board and pressing. The third reason is that I make fewer mistakes than when I first started out, which means I spend less time fixing them, and I also spend less time trying to figure out what the hell I messed up in the first place.

Taking the Long Way

In opposition to the above, I also know when it makes more sense to use the slow method rather than the quick and dirty way. Sometimes going slowly or taking extra precautions saves time, like hand-basting a shifty seam on a plaid fabric I want to match up perfectly. Sometimes it just looks and works better, like hand-sewing something in place. I recently made patches for the armscyes of my partner’s well-loved vest and hand-stitched them in place. It looks way better than if I’d machine-stitched them. Sometimes taking a bit longer adds efficiency in other ways. For example, I typically cut fabric flat on a single layer, or I make folds the size of individual pattern pieces to cut something out double. I’m usually able to save at least half a yard of fabric that way, with less waste. Lastly, sometimes I take more time because I like the result better. I have a serger, but I don’t usually use it to finish seams on woven fabrics. I much prefer the look of a flat-felled or bias-bound seam, and so I often take the time to do those seam finishes. They’re beautiful even if they take longer.

I Am Not Immune to Dumb Mistakes

“I know how to do this” is a mindset that leads to autopilot sometimes. And on occasion, being on autopilot backfires. (Please see the 1890s combinations post for a great example of how I spaced out on multiple aspects of a single garment.) Experience doesn’t mean I don’t mess up sometimes. I’ve managed to screw up pajama pants, literally the first things I ever learned to sew, as recently as 2020, leading to them being completely unfixable. I’ve melted some of the polyester on my Zelda gown because I am hopelessly reckless with my iron’s temperature settings. There are plenty of dumb mistakes on the road ahead of me, too.

Good Tools and Good Workspaces

I’ve been fortunate enough in my life, and have made it a priority, to have a dedicated sewing workspace everywhere I’ve lived. In some cases it was as small and simple as a sewing machine set up on a desk in a corner of my bedroom or living room, but it was there. My sewing practice has benefited enormously from not needing to set up and put away the sewing machine every time I want to use it. It’s so much easier to go sew for a bit, even when I’m not feeling motivated to do more than a couple of seams, because I don’t have to overcome the hurdle of inertia. It’s been even more helpful when I’ve had spaces with a door I could shut (or cats I could trust), because I can leave projects out mid-construction too. Right now my studio space is a basement room that doubles as my partner’s exercise room and the laundry/utility area, but it has enough room to hold two sewing tables with three machines set up at a time. One day I dream of having a huge, sunny studio with room for a cutting table and all of my machines set up at once.

A room with blue walls and two tables on which three sewing machines are set up. The walls also hold a pegboard, thread racks, and a string of photos.
My current studio space… there’s almost always a bit of mess.

Good tools are also incredibly important to me. “Sturdy” (and sometimes “sharp”) are far more important than “expensive,” but sometimes the right tool for the job does require an outlay of cash. You can do amazing things with a cheap machine and dull scissors, if you know the workarounds to do so, but it’s so much easier when you have a machine that can properly handle your fabric (and yes, in my opinion this means a serger for knits) and sharp scissors. I don’t remotely have a top-of-the-line machine, so don’t get me wrong there (my main one cost about $500 back in 2015) but it works a lot better than the “economy” lowest-priced machine I started with. It’s also made a lot of difference in my t-shirts to have both a serger and a coverstitch machine rather than trying to make do with substitutions that I don’t think work as well. Good fabric makes a difference—poor-quality fabric can be off-grain, might not press well, might not drape well, and might not be comfortable to wear. Good lighting makes a difference. A good steam iron makes a difference. (I have an extra-wide ironing board I got at Target and I love it so much more than a standard-width one.) A variety of quality cutting implements (good shears—I love my Kai shears—thread snips, pinking shears, duckbill scissors, tailors points, a rotary cutter) makes life so much easier.

(Also, make sure to get your machines serviced regularly and your scissors sharpened when needed.)

Spending Longer on Fewer Pieces

Since I have a pretty full handmade wardrobe (and no way to upgrade closet space right now), I don’t try to churn out garments as fast as I can anymore. I don’t have many gaps in my closet, and what I own I try to make last. It’s no coincidence that this stage of my life is when historical costuming decided to jump in. Historical clothing takes longer to make and tends to do best when made with higher-quality, natural fiber fabrics. Making fewer items more slowly allows me to budget for more expensive fabric when I need it. I get to enjoy all the processes of making clothing without overwhelming my day-to-day closet. (I do wish I had room for a costume closet, though.)

So that’s my fifteen-year wrapup! I’ve got a lot of projects to tackle on the horizon and many more I haven’t even thought of yet. I’m looking forward to many more years of this fabulous hobby and spending time with the fabulous community as well.

Costuming · Life

Happy New Year and Winter Zelda Photoshoot

Well, we’ve made it through another year. For me, 2022 had some nice moments, but on the whole… it was not a great year for me. It peaked around April, when my family took a week-long vacation to Hawaii, which was really lovely. The rest of April into May was a really challenging time: my 20-year-old orange tuxedo cat, Tigger, passed away; we adopted the 3 Chaos Gremlin kitties; I was a bridesmaid in a friend’s absolutely beautiful wedding (in Disneyland!); I got sick; my responsibilities at work exploded; my partner’s responsibilities at work exploded; and there were some additional upsetting events that affected me and the people around me quite a lot.

1860s Zelda black and white looking from gazebo to woods

I remember two main things about the summer: the weather and my first bout with COVID. The weather was actually much more pleasant than Virginia summers tend to be, with frequent rains that kept the temperatures down and the plants watered. I love summer, I live for summer, so this part was definitely a positive. My garden flourished. In August I went to a Lady Gaga concert, which was fantastic and outdoors but very crowded, and as a result, I came down with COVID. To make matters worse, my bestie and her oldest child flew in just before I started showing symptoms for a week-long visit, and… I infected them too. That visit certainly wasn’t intended to be a week of feeling like death, but… that’s how it worked out.

1860s Zelda wearing a cloak in the woods

I tried to make the best of fall. I traveled a lot—a work trip, traveling for my cousin’s wedding, and a quick jaunt out to see a concert—and the latter two were lovely. Unfortunately, my job started to go downhill very rapidly in terms of stress and the effect on my mental health, and additionally I had a sad reason for one last trip of the year after my maternal grandmother passed away. Winter rolled in. It is my least favorite season; I hate being cold, I hate the darkness, and I tend to get pretty bad seasonal affective disorder. We got the dogs, which was both delightful and stressful, since they need a lot of watching as they adjust to living with cats. At the end of the year, I finally l finagled myself a 10.5-day break from work. My theme for next year will be “restoring balance” and “putting out the fires that burned me out so badly.” I really hope I’ll be able to stick with that.

1860s Zelda in a gazebo looking toward the woods

In conclusion, 2023 can come in quietly and not touch anything.

This is mostly a crafting blog, so I’ll mention a few of my crafting goals as well. I’d love to be able to finish or at least make substantial progress on my 1890s Umbreon costume and my men’s Regency wardrobe. I’d like to finish knitting the sweater I currently have on the needles (the “Unicorn Cathedral” sweater) and spin some yarn out of the fiber I bought recently. I’d like to sew some competition shirts for horse shows. I want to continue to let my hobbies be a source of joy for me, not a source of stress.

1860s Zelda looking wistfully out the gazebo

In celebration of the newly-renewed light after the winter solstice, please enjoy these photos of a chilly autumnal day with 1860s Zelda, taken by my awesome photographer sister Cassidy (on Instagram @steelestewartphotography). They feature my newly-finished winter cloak, which is just a circle with a hood, sewn from deep stash (it previously lived in a box labeled “10 lbs of wool coating”) and my new day blouse, which is the Truly Victorian TV441 Garibaldi blouse sewn with Antoinette dotted cotton voile from Renaissance Fabrics. (That fabric is LOVELY. But it’s also sheer enough I need a corset cover, so that’s on the project list now too.)

1860s Zelda in front of a gazebo in a white fluffy day blouse

Back view of dark blue cloak

1860s Zelda in the woods extending a hand toward a Korok (forest spirit)

Plushie Korok (a Zelda forest spirit that looks like a twig with a leaf face)
While out in the woods, Zelda encountered a Korok, or forest spirit, and had to say hello.

1860s Zelda in a cloak looking into the distance in golden evening light

Happy New Year, everyone.


December Pupdate

We shall pause the recounting of the 1860s Zelda project so I can catch up on a few other things. First, and most importantly, my partner and I got a brand new pair of projects. Meet Cookie Dough and Tater Tot.

We were not planning to look for a dog quite yet; that was going to be an undertaking for spring. However, we were “soft-launching” our search, you could say, by being open to the right dog if it crossed our paths. We adopted the kitties, Brie, Nadja, and Jellybean, in April, and our goal was to let them get settled and really own the house before bringing a dog into it. (Note how I keep referring to “a dog” in the singular.) Then we were going to look for “a small, chill dog.” A dog to go on walks with and cuddle. Not a puppy.

What happened was my office hosted a fundraising/awareness event for animal charities, several of which brought in dogs (and one cat) to lure people to the conference room where the event was happening. I have always been in favor of Morale Puppies, and so of course I made time to go pet all the dogs and boop the cat. While there, I was rather taken with a little pup named Cookie Dough (a Maltese/Yorkie; she’s very soft). The rescue told me she and Tater Tot (a Chiweenie) had been together their whole lives, they were 9, oh and by the way, they were looking for a good home.

In consultation with my partner, we put in an application with the rescue that evening. The next day the rescue called me after they had contacted our references and approved our application, and said “We’d really like to keep them together. You’re sure you’ll take both? Okay, do you want to pick them up today or tomorrow?”

To be honest, despite the intention of getting one dog only, I can’t bring myself to break up a bonded pair. Or trio, in the case of the cats—Brie was sort of an “extra” to the babies, but they got along well and she didn’t have anywhere else lined up, so we said “screw it, throw her in too”. This urge of mine has now resulted in us having three cats and two dogs, as opposed to the original intention of two cats and one dog. (And a horse.) I’m not a hoarder, I swear.

Anyway, the dogs are settling in pretty well. We’ve had them a little more than two weeks and they still get really excited about seeing the cats, and we’ve got some work to do with training, but they’ve already come a long way in those two weeks. I do wish I knew their previous situation, but the rescue didn’t have any more insight. They’re great walkers (as long as they don’t see any other dogs) and cuddlers.

Dog in a sweater under a quilt
Tater Tot, AKA Tato, AKA Potato Baby, is a great helper with things like quilts.
Dog in a sweater on her back under a quilt
Dog in a sweater on her back under a quilt
A GREAT helper.

Also, that quilt? Will be the focus of my next post.

Two dogs on a quilt