Costuming · Sewing

McCall’s 8231 1890s shirtwaist

I was going to do two patterns in one post, and then as usual, I ended up being too verbose again. So! This post and the next one will be an exercise in compare and contrast. Both of the patterns I used are for the same ultimate end, but one of them I hated from beginning to end, and the other one I loved. Let’s dive in to the one I didn’t like.

A woman wearing an orange-and-white striped shirtwaist with an angled yoke, an orange-full length skirt, and an orange hat.

McCalls 8231 is a terrible pattern. It is a pattern designed by Angela Clayton, whose work is absolutely stunning. I’ve been a fan of hers for years. I’ll be up front that I do not blame Angela Clayton for how bad this pattern is. The design is extremely cute and I highly doubt that she drafted the pattern itself or wrote the instructions. My assumption is that McCalls’s in-house patternmakers and staff did the drafting and instruction-writing per their in-house standards. So I will be blaming them unless I hear otherwise.

For my 1890s Umbreon project, my plan was to make a shirtwaist, vest, and walking skirt. I looked at a lot of shirtwaist patterns but I decided I liked the style lines on this one the best. How cute is that angled yoke? It won’t be visible if I wear the vest over it, but I can totally wear it on its own.

I started with a mockup. (Side note: this pattern only comes as a printed tissue pattern, and I loathe pattern tissue. Give me PDFs any day.) The first and most obvious problem was the fit of the sleeve. The armscye is incredibly low, and it restricts range of motion. I could barely lift my arm. You might think that an armscye being too low, or too large, would give you more room, but it does not! (Think of hammer pants as an example of how a seam being too low restricts how well you can move.) I have no idea what kind of arms McCalls drafts for, but it sure wasn’t mine.

I did a few things to deal with the armscye. First, I took the side seam in at the top by about 1.5-2″. That helped by making the armscye smaller, but it didn’t solve everything. Then I shortened the yoke pieces by 2” by taking a straight horizontal tuck out of both front and back. This raised the bottom of the armscye. Lastly, I opened up the armscye seam and patched in a bit of extra fabric—like a gusset, except it would eventually be integrated into the flat pattern instead of being a separate piece.

Author showing mockup with fully raised arm. Underarm seam has been partially ripped to make room.
I added fabric into the area where I ripped the seam as a faux-gusset.

On my first muslin, the sleeve didn’t have enough puff, in my opinion. This was an easy fix. While I was making the armscye smaller, I did not make any changes to the sleeve. That meant the sleeve was proportionately larger to the armscye, so I could gather it significantly more in order to make it fit, and that gave me the classic 1890s poof I was looking for. I originally planned to convert the 2-piece sleeve into a 1-piece sleeve, but the seams added shaping, so I decided not to in the end.

One other issue I had with the first muslin: the button band ended up too short for the length of the front. I don’t know if that was my error or a pattern error.

Once the muslin was fitted to my satisfaction, I cut the muslin apart, trimmed off the seam allowances, and traced it off to make new pattern pieces. I find the standard ⅝” seam allowance too big, so I intended to convert it to a ½” seam allowance. Unfortunately I screwed up and ended up with a ⅜”, which was okay but made flat-felled seams feel a little bit trickier.

After my muslin, I stalled, because the next step was dyeing my fabric. I wanted a lightweight, woven-in striped fabric for this shirtwaist, but the fabrics that fit my idea of what I wanted for the weave were all white. So I bought this really nice white fabric and used Dharma Trading Co’s “hot black” dye to turn it black so it would fit the 1890s Umbreon vision. It took about 2 hours and in the end, I got what could be termed “light black” at best. Dyeing it was annoying the first time around, though, so I didn’t bother to do it a second time.

I barely squeezed the pattern out of 2 yards of 45”-wide fabric. I almost completely ignored the instructions that came with the pattern and just constructed it like a normal shirt. The pattern has very weird instructions for the button band, for example, so I had to widen the pattern piece so I could attach it like normal.

Putting in the back yoke was pretty tricky with those opposing angles. It was even trickier because I was attaching both inner and outer yoke pieces, like a typical shirt yoke, when the instructions actually tell you to hand-stitch the inner yoke pieces down after you’ve constructed the shirt. In retrospect, I’m not really happy with the point at the back. It only occurred to me later that the better way to put it in would have been to cut the back piece with a center back seam instead of on the fold, then attach the yoke pieces before seaming up the back. So I’ll have to do that next time.

Partially constructed shirt, showing front yokes coming together as an inverted V at center front.

Couple other fit notes: raising the armscye meant my final sleeve was too short. The cuff pieces were meant to be folded in half, which decreases the height by half, so I ended up keeping the cuff full-width and cutting extra cuff pieces for the inner cuffs. My armscye was also a little too tight after my adjustments, so I had to take the sleeves off, cut the armscye ½” deeper at the bottom, and reattach them.

Author with shirtwaist on, sans collar.
Mid-construction, pre-collar. I felt like this had a real Lady Gaga vibe.

Also, the collar is a completely straight rectangle, which I really did not like. A curved collar band would have fit much more nicely. Since I didn’t have enough fabric to draft a new collar and cut it from my fabric, I added some darts to my collar piece instead. It’s okay but I don’t love it.

Additional construction details: all the seams are flat-felled except for the second sleeve seam, which is done with a French seam, and the armscye, which is serged because life is short. My buttons are shell buttons from Mood. I didn’t add anything to the sleeves to help support the structur of the poof, they just do that on their own.

A note for anyone trying to install a tower placket into a two-piece sleeve: this is apparently a thing no one on the internet has ever done, but for once McCalls’s instructions helped. What you have to do is sew the sleeve seam up to the point your placket slit opens. Finish the seam above that however you like; I flat-felled mine. Cut away the seam allowance on one side. You now have a flat piece of fabric with a slit in it; put your placket piece on top and install as normal.

The back has a little section that’s gathered and held in place with a rectangular tab sewn to the inside, as per the instructions in Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques. I omitted the recommended waist ties because I didn’t want to make them.

Author wearing shirtwaist underneath fitted black vest, black leggings, and Doc Marten boots.
Apparently I just didn’t take very many pictures of the final version! I finished it at sewing camp so I was occupied with other things.

Overall verdict: the result is pretty close to what I wanted, but it took a lot more work than I expected to get there. I’ll probably make this again, with a few more tweaks as noted above.

Pattern: McCalls 8231

Fabric: “Kitty” cotton dimity from Renaissance Fabrics, dyed

Notions: Cotton organdy and black knit tricot as interfacing, buttons from Mood.

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. 🙂 

Costuming · Sewing

1860s Zelda: Garibaldi Blouse and Revere Bodice

Even though I haven’t caught up on my retrospective look at the 1860s Zelda costume enough to have documented the ballgown bodice, I’m going to skip ahead in time to talk about two pieces that I finished more recently. These are my Garibaldi blouse and Revere bodice/jacket (both from Truly Victorian patterns), which collectively make up my Zelda day bodice, thus enabling me to have the much-envied capacity to “go from day to night.”

Author sitting on grass next to Korok plushie

And yes, this is a thing! Having multiple bodices to go with the same skirt gives an outfit that much more versatility and was fairly common at the time. It was also quite the done thing to have these all made up in the same fabric—Victorians love a matchy-matchy set. I did plan on eventually making a jacket once I had finished the ballgown look, so I bought extra fabric right at the beginning so I wouldn’t have to worry about finding more.

1860s Link and Zelda standing in a garden

First let’s talk about the blouse. The Garibaldi blouse, named for an Italian folk hero named Giuseppe Garibaldi, originally caught on in women’s fashion as a red wool shirt with military-style trimmings, mirrored after the uniforms Garibaldi’s followers wore in their fight for Italian independence from the Austrians in 1860. Over time, variations appeared, including in white fabric as seen in my version. Eventually this style would lead to the shirtwaist and blouse of the later Victorian period. Before this, “separates” were not really a thing—dresses may have frequently had separate components, but worn together were meant to look like a single ensemble, rather than having a “mix-and-match” look.

Another blouse shot with gazebo

I made mine last fall out of a gorgeous cotton voile from Renaissance Fabrics. It’s lightweight and a bit sheer, so it will be nice for the summer months especially. The pattern has a lot of gathers, and the voile gathered beautifully.

I don’t have much to say about the pattern itself! I made the long version without a waistband, meant to be tucked into the skirt. It went together like any other button-down woven shirt. I had no issues with the instructions, but I’m also pretty familiar with how to put together a button-down shirt, so it’s possible it may be trickier for inexperienced sewists. I found it interesting that the cuffs and button bands were not interfaced. Interfacing wasn’t really used historically, as best I can tell, so this would be period-accurate, but modern sewists may be surprised by its lack. It does mean the cuffs and button bands are somewhat floppy in the sheer fabric, but I haven’t found this to be an issue.

Author wearing blouse, back side

I did discover the voile is sheer enough that I need to wear a corset cover underneath it to prevent my corset from showing through. So I had to make one. My corset cover is a quick and dirty project; I took a lot of shortcuts, like serging the seams instead of using nicer seam finishes like a flat-fell. I didn’t want to buy a pattern, so I used a suggestion I found on Youtube, which was to use an existing bodice pattern and adapt it. Basically what I did was took my ballgown bodice pattern, cut it off at the waist, added button bands and a waistband, and ran a ribbon through the top binding. I would have liked to add lace to the top, but I didn’t have any in my stash that I liked for that application, so I didn’t.

Corset cover worn over corset and tshirt
It does the job. The job is “covering my corset.”

On to the jacket! I wasn’t planning on getting around to this right away—I was planning on focusing my spring/summer on 1890s Umbreon—but two things changed my plans. The first was a friend pointing out that, with the new Zelda game coming out May 12th, more Zelda content would probably be very well-received by fellow Zelda fans. The second was my plan to attend my first-ever historical costuming meetup, where I decided I’d really love to have my full day look completed.

Back view of dress with jacket, author standing in garden
You know what’s fun? Walking through crowded Washington D.C. streets and confusing people by dressing like, well, this.

The pattern is the Revere bodice/jacket from Truly Victorian. “Revere” in this case is the term for those folded-back corners. In some examples, Victorians would sew faux folded-back sections directly on top of the garment, but in this case, they are actually sewn on as facings and folded back.

I made a quick mockup before cutting out my fabric, and made two adjustments. The first is that I shortened the sleeves an inch so that my poofy blouse sleeves would show more. The second was letting out one of the darts to give myself a bit more ease. This turned out to be insufficient—with the additional underlining layer in the real thing, the jacket was still really tight, and I ended up letting out the other dart too. Fortunately this was really easy to do even after everything was assembled, because the jacket is underlined (fabrics treated as one) rather than lined (two separate layers.)

Jacket muslin with one sleeve
I probably was too generous thinking this would have enough ease.

I found the construction mostly straightforward. There were a few places the instructions could have been better. The sleeve was too large to be eased as per the directions, so I did had to gather it instead, but only after I’d futzed with it long enough to get frustrated. (I skipped the armscye piping, which is not shown in the illustration anyway.)

Additionally, the instructions on attaching the hem piping were unclear; it has you “match” the hem and tail facings, then sew the piping, then sew the facings, but you need to attach the piping before the facings come into play at all. Also, I’m not sure I like that the boning in the darts stops at the waist. When wearing the jacket, I found that created a distinct wrinkle and a possible pressure point where the boning might try to poke through.

I skipped making real buttonholes on the sleeve and tail reveres and just sewed the buttons directly in place instead, but I did make buttonholes for the lapels (because I thought I might need them unbuttoned at some point???). I also used my serger to finish seams instead of doing a period-correct finish, because it was faster and the taffeta really wanted to fray if I so much as breathed on it.

I did add a waist tape for support, which turned out to be less necessary after I let the darts out for ease.

Inside of jacket, showing boning and waist tape
The waist tape is tacked down at the side back seams and hangs loose otherwise. It fastens in the front with hooks and eyes and helps take the strain off a tight bodice.

Overall I LOVE the results. The look is really cute and feels very tailored—I might like it even better than the ballgown bodice! And it has a lot of versatility, too. One of the bonuses is that I can almost entirely get dressed by myself in this look—I do need a little help with the skirt hooks and eyes—whereas the evening bodice definitely requires some assistance.

Still to come—posts about the underskirt, overskirt, and evening bodice!


Pattern: TV441 1861 Garibaldi blouse

Fabric: Antoinette cotton dotted voile from Renaissance Fabrics

Notions: buttons from my stash

Time: didn’t track

Corset cover

Pattern: bodice from Simplicity 5724

Fabric: 118″ Kona premium cotton from Dharma Trading Co. (leftover from petticoats)

Notions: buttons from my stash

Time: 3 hours


Pattern: TV449 1861 Revere bodice

Fabric: polyester taffeta from Mood Fabrics, cotton sateen from Renaissance Fabrics

Notions: gold buttons from Joanns

Time: 14 hours

Author sitting on grass next to Korok plushie
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.


2022 Christmas Crafting

I am not a fan of winter.

December gets a tiny bit of a pass, because people put fairy lights up and there’s celebrations and the solstice comes and goes and we all just try to get through the darkness as best we can. For reasons that elude me, though, we then take??? down??? the lights??? in January and February, when everything is dark and dreary and cold and wet and gray. Regardless, my goal in winter is to stay warm (I get cold easily and I’m solar-powered) and stay cozy.

In 2020 my local yarn and fabric shop received a new quilting fabric collection, as they are wont to do, and I was sewing a lot of masks, because it was 2020. And I really liked the fabric from that collection. Two yards was enough for two masks, two placemats, and two coasters, and lo, they were pleasing to me. It was a good amount of visibility and use for that fabric I loved. But it was not enough. So I bought the entire collection as a 10″ layer cake (precut squares) and additional yardage in plain red. I then added enough of my favorite print to serve as the backing. In flannel.

If it surprises you that the stash had to age a bit before I could sew it up, then you don’t know me very well. But eventually, in October-ish of this year, I got to work. I picked a fairly simple pattern because a) I don’t quilt much and I didn’t want a lot of fuss and b) I wanted to show off the fabrics. The pattern is the Salt Air Lattice Quilt by Mommy by Day, Crafter by Night. The top went together easily, although not perfectly, and my seamlines didn’t always meet where they should have. I’m pretty sure I misunderstood the instructions somewhere, but it doesn’t matter. This is for Cozy, not for Show.

I always get intimidated by putting together the “quilt sandwich” of top, batting, and backing. This is mainly because most of the instructions assume you have a large, hard-floored space to do it on. It’s very important to get the quilt sandwich smoothed out of any wrinkles; it’s this step where you baste it (temporarily attach the layers with either pins or spray adhesive) before quilting. I’ve got a sufficiently-sized floor area, but it’s on carpet. I’ve basted quilts on a wall before, but I couldn’t find my painters tape. Eventually I decided just to do it on the carpet anyway. I had to work around a wonky section of the carpet, but in the end it worked just fine. I used spray adhesive because pins are really annoying.

Quilting was very straightforward. I used my walking foot and followed the seamlines. Again, the quilting lines are not perfect, and again, it doesn’t matter. I used a green flannel for the binding and hand-stitched it down. I also embroidered a label and hand-stitched that down.

Close up of sewing machine and quilt

The quilt has since been undergoing a very rigorous testing process.

Gray cat on quilt
Two gray cats on quilt
Cat on quilt on lap
Two dogs on quilt with Christmas tree in background

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some cozy-ing to do.

P.S. I also knitted these tiny Weasley sweater ornaments for all the new pets this year. I’ve been doing these for family members and very close friends since 2011, and these five will bring me up to a lifetime total of 39 tiny sweaters. They take me about 45 minutes to make and I knit them out of either City Tweed DK or Wool of the Andes Tweed from Knitpicks, then duplicate-stitch the initials. The pattern/instructions I use are here (Ravelry link—please contact me if you would like the pattern without going to Ravelry.)

Five tiny sweater ornaments with initials on them
Brie, Nadja, Jellybean, Cookie Dough, and Tater Tot