26 August 2011

Quilting with Cardboard

I'm always looking for new ways to decorate and re-imagine the fabrics I work with, so when I started sewing a bag last week, naturally I tried to find a way to integrate quilting and patchwork into the design.

quilting and patchwork with cardboard
The problem was that while I'm a big fan of patchwork (since it's an effective way to make new textiles out of old) I tend to hesitate about using polyester-stuffed quilting. The great thing about quilting is that it adds body and structure to your textile, but less appealing is the way quilted cotton can look old-fashioned and a little frumpy.

Because I didn't like the puffy and puckered seams of quilts stuffed with polyester batting, I decided to quilt with a different material: thin cardboard. I mass-cut individual tiles with an exacto blade, then slid them into pre-sewn fabric pockets, sealing the pockets as I added more tiles. The result is light, angular, and really quite sleek--it's an effect I like a lot better than the look of standard quilted craft bags, and one I'm hoping to use in more of my projects.

angular quilted seams

13 August 2011

Free-motion machine embroidery

Sorry for the long break since the last post; the reason for the delay isn't so much that I haven't been completing projects, but that none of them were projects I could write about, except to say how pleased I was with the results. During the last week or so, however, I've decided to once again try my hand at free-motion embroidery, a fabric-embellishment technique that I've been using to decorate my homemade fabric boxes.

In general I tend to stay away from classic machine embroidery or appliqué--the kind which uses satin-zigzag stitch. This is in part because I don't like the look of thick lines of thread (I avoid heavy embroidery flosses for the same reason), and in part because it's nearly impossible to create a delicate image with dense zigzag stitch lines.
red straight-stitch embroidery

My dislike for the satin-zigzag stitch aside, I do love embellishing fabrics, and for that I use my family sewing machine's straight stitch in free motion. Done properly, and with a little practice, the effect of straight-stitch embroidery can range from playful and cartoonish to elegant and delicate. When beads, wire thread, or a touch of hand embroidery are added, the fabric becomes downright ornate. This versatility is mostly a result of the intuitive nature of free-motion embroidery; the process is a lot like sketching, except that the pencil is suspended in mid-air and you move the paper underneath it. Even better, every sewing machine has a basic straight stitch option and so can be used to do free-motion embroidery. There are only a few rules to keep in mind before you begin:

1) Remember to drop the feed dogs, remove the presser foot, and (just to be safe) move the presser foot presser to "0". During normal sewing, these three tools are used to guide your fabric in a straight, even line. During free-motion stitching, they only get in the way.

straight stitch embroidery flowers
2) Check the needle thread tension; it's usually a good idea to use a higher needle thread tension than you normally do, especially if you're planning to embroider a lot of tight curves. Always use the same thread for both the needle and bobbin.

3) Stretch the fabric you want to embroider over an embroidery hoop, and place it under the needle so that the rim faces upward and the fabric is flat against the throat plate. It's very important to stretch the fabric as tightly as possible. Because the presser foot has been removed and the feed dogs lowered, there is nothing left to hold the fabric flat under the needle. If the cloth hasn't been stretched tightly over the embroidery frame, then every time the needle digs in and out of the cloth it will pull the fabric down and up. This will make the fabric hard to control, and will also cause the stitches to become loose, so that loops of thread will stick out of the fabric on both sides.

4) Use fabrics with a firm, close weave, to avoid puckering, and to avoid distortion of the cloth when it is stretched. The white cloth here (photo pending) is a light muslin, and the stitches have caused puckering throughout. In contrast, the thicker beige cotton pictured above is smooth underneath the embroidered leaves. Twill fabrics, especially, are a good choice for free-motion embroidery, while very light fabrics like chiffon will show heavy distortion and puckering. Knits should probably never be used.

Finally, remember that there's a 3/4-inch border in which you won't be able to embroider because of the raised rim of the embroidery loop. Give yourself a lot of space to work with, and don't hesitate to layer colours, or improvise lines as you sew--machine embroidery is a versatile technique, and one that can be adjusted for all sorts of projects.

09 June 2011

The Problem of Pants, Part Two...

...that is to say, I've got the list of four main differences between store-bought jeans and pants based on sewing patterns. Here it is.

1) Tight fit

I'll start with a rather obvious point, and state what seems to be the general philosophy of jeans makers: "Why bother with properly fitting pants when we can just force your legs into overly tight jeans?". I mean really, how many (offensive) dieting commercials have you seen where the girl struggles to fit herself into a pair of jeans? All she's doing there is forcing her lower body fat into a denim mould--the jeans aren't fitting around her, she's fitting herself into them.

But while this might work fine for commercially-manufactured jeans, it clearly doesn't work for pattern-based pants, since by definition those try to take actual fitting into account. However, a pair of pattern-based pants usually can't act as a tight-fitting mould for another reason.

2) Spandex and heavy fabric

Part of the reason jeans make, as I said, the perfect mould, is because of the composition and weight of their fabric. The standard 3% spandex to 97% denim ratio ensures that the pants can be tight without being overly uncomfortable. As well, the denim is usually heavy enough that it can keep its shape even when the fit is imperfect, instead of being distorted by unexpected curves or planes.

However, most suiting fabrics sold at fabric stores (cotton twills, linens, and even denims) are lighter than those used in ready-to-wear jeans, and don't necessarily contain any amount of spandex. This lack of elasticity means the pants can't be as tight-fitting; it also means that no matter how loose the pants, there's less room for leeway when sewing, and as a result, usually less room for comfortable movement when the pants are worn.

3) The crotch curve

When it comes to comfortable fit and movement, the curve of the crotch seam (the seam that joins the two legs) is easily the most important aspect of fitting the pants. It'll be simpler to just show the difference between the crotch curve as found on store-bought jeans, and the curve on home-sewing patterns, before I explain why and how these curves change the fit.
Crotch curve of jeans               Crotch curve of pattern
The jeans have a deep and even exaggerated crotch curve, which follows the actual curves of the stomach and hips. On the other hand, the shallow dip along the crotch curve of the home-sewing pattern means that the seat of the pants will likely be too close-fitting. As well, the back crotch section on the jeans has a convex curve near the top (the area in red), which means that the pants will adhere properly to the concavity at the small of the back. On the sewing pattern, the straight edge along the top of the back crotch curve (also in red) means that the pants will instead leave a gap between skin and cloth.
Front crotch curve on both jeans and pattern

The lack of curving along the top of the front crotch curve on the sewing pattern also means that it doesn't take the possibility of a rounded stomach into account (which, really, it probably should). It's true that the jeans aren't curved along the top of the front crotch section either, but points (1) and (2) (that is, the tight mould-like fit and fabric composition) make that curve mostly unnecessary.

Jeans inseam
 4) The inseam curve and the sewing along the crotch seam

The issue with the inseam curves is mostly the same as the issue of the crotch curve. The storebought pants have an inseam which has a sharp curve at the very top, whereas the sewing pattern's inseam has a longer, shallower curve. This means that the jeans will start following the curve of the inner thigh higher up on the pants leg, which obviously leads to better fit.

Trousers inseam
As well, the actual crotch seam is sewn differently in jeans, when compared to normal trousers. Topstitching along the crotch seam of jeans forces the two legs to automatically curve smoothly away from each other and then down. The trousers are sewn with a normal reinforced seam, which allows the two legs to simply hang down on either side of the crotch seam, instead of automatically following the shape of the actual crotch and legs.

Of course, while these four points differentiate jeans from homesewing patterns, they can also be used to improve the fit of pants that are based on those patterns. The crotch and seam curves can be adjusted directly on the pattern tissue, and the problem of fabric composition can be solved before even starting the sewing process. I'm actually starting on a third pair of pants this week, and I'm adjusting my drawings based on what I've learned about the fit of jeans. Hopefully they'll turn out better fitted than my previous pairs.

08 June 2011

The Problem of Pants, Part One

This is going to be a bit of a long, two-part post, but it's something that's been stewing in my head for a while. I recently sewed a couple of pairs of pants, based off of home-sewing patterns from McCall's and VoguePatterns. The first pair were supposed to be extremely loose cargo pants, so I didn't mind that they looked pretty unflattering when I wore them. The second pair, however, seemed to fit well at least around the crotch area, and so I was surprised by how they looked when I put on the finished product. I don't know whether their ...unusual fit has to do with the fact that they are, as I mentioned in my last post, "wearable art". I do know that the only way they look in any way like "art" is if I stand in a permanent and faux-casual artistic slouch, with my pelvis and knees jutting about a quarter meter in front of my torso. Once I actually try walking in them, they bunch up and look generally hideous. (Yes I'm exaggerating, but not as much as you probably think).

As I've said before, when sewing clothes I tend to stick to shirts, and I'm usually pretty successful. Because of this, despite having heard about the terrors of pants-sewing, I wasn't really prepared for complete failure. I'm beginning to realize that pants introduce a whole new level of sewing and fitting. The crotch, the thighs, and the hips must be fitted carefully for good pants, but this is made difficult by the fact that these body parts are all in constant movement; every time the hips or thighs move, they change their shape and therefore their fit. The only comparable parts of a shirt are the armholes, since the arms also move, but most underarms and shoulders seem easy to fita stick attached to a bony corner? simple!when compared to the complicated roundness of moving thighs and hips. (Because of that roundness, pants are also more interesting and exciting to fit, but I'll save the bony-vs-fat comparison for another day.)

Now I know that two failed pairs of pants, while unfortunate, aren't exactly enough to cause despair. That said, I am still interested in figuring out what exactly is up with these pants patterns. I'm sure it can't be entirely my lack of pants-sewing experience, though that must be part of the reason. To that end, I've come up with a list of differences I can spot between the pants that I ownfitted, store bought, ready-to-wear jeansand my several home-sewing patterns for trousers. I'm planning to post that list of differences later today, as the second half of my "The Problem of Pants" entry.

26 May 2011

Wild summer sewing

When classes are in session, I tend to stick to standard sewing projects, usually things like shirts and handbags. Now that school's out (for the summer!), however, I'm trying to get a little more adventurous in the world of fiber crafts. In terms of actual projects, that includes a brown-and-orange paneled, paisley-patterned cover for the living room sofa (yes it does look good, thanks), a pair of "wearable art" pants, and a macramé-decorated sheer vest.

Though the macramé vest is currently on hold, it's the project I've been most excited about, in part because the macramé netting consists of half-inch sailor's knots. When I was little, I always felt that learning how to make sailor's and bowline knots would be an essential part of any adventure. It's true that characters like Frodo Baggins and Artemis Fowl never had much need for sturdy knots on their adventures, but that seemed to me more a result of authorial oversight.1 (And I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks so: the Dangerous Book for Boys includes the bowline knot in a list of 5 knots that every kid should know.)

My vest, however, doesn't quite exude the spirit of hardy adventure that I used to associate with the term "sailor's knot". The loops are made of finely coiled Egyptian cotton thread, and the delicate (yes, delicate) brown netting has a distinctly lustrous sheen to it.

macrame sailor's knots egyptian cotton thread

That said, I'm pretty happy with how my chocolate-coloured Egyptian Cotton is turning out, and hopefully I'll have a picture of the finished vest to post on here soon. In the meantime, though, I'll be using this blog to record my other summer sewing adventures.

1. Actually, in The Lord of the Rings Sam Gamgee does make use of strong knots as he, Frodo, and Gollum belay down the various cliffs near Mordor, but the types of knot aren't specified.