A Silk Watson Bra

You may have noticed that I’m not big into bandwagons, and if I am going to jump on one, I like to wait until it’s safely parked back in the barn and everyone else has left first … I actually bought a copy of this pattern right when it came out and it seemed like everyone in my sewing-internet-world was talking about it, but then in more my typical style, I decided to think about it for quite a while before actually making it.

 

silk watson bra 1

 

What was/is really exciting to me about the Watson Bra pattern is that someone else already did all the hard work of figuring out the exact curves of each piece to make a smooth cup shape, make it fit into the band, etc. (thanks Amy!), and that it’s specifically designed to be made without underwires, which is exactly what I wanted.

What I was less excited about is the fact that it called for mainly synthetic stretchy stuff; lots of kinds of elastic and power mesh, etc. As you may also have noticed, I’m so over it with all of that, and I’m trying to use all natural materials whenever it’s even remotely feasible. And one of the things that kept popping into my head whenever I looked at all this cashmere felt I have around* was, “this would really be perfect in a bra!” Since you know, it’s substantial but flexible, and insanely soft on the skin. But could I really make a bra using all natural fabrics? Maybe without even elastic?

It turns out the answer is a resounding yes! Not only can it work, but it did work beautifully on the very first try (some luck involved). Using my measurements of approximately 31 ½” underbust and a 1” difference between full and upper bust, I decided to make a size 34A, erring on the side of a slightly smaller size since my materials weren’t super stretchy and I didn’t want it to come out too loose. I made a couple of alterations to the pattern; adding ½” to center front since I knew that would fit my frame better, and straitening out the bottom line of the band to allow for the possibility of using an existing hem when upcycling garments for fabric (although I didn’t do that this time). I also added to the seam allowance in the center of the outer cup pieces, so I could grade it with the inner seam allowance to avoid a noticeable ridge there.

 

silk watson bra 2

 

The grey fabric is from a silk knit top that had worn out around the underarms and cuffs but still had plenty of life in the body. The pink binding is leftover fabric from making these camis (very thin silk knit), cut 1 ½” wide, sewed ¼” from the edges, and turned under. And the inner cups are indeed felted cashmere scraps*—oh yeah! I sewed it all together with a simple zigzag stitch, and sewed the straps on by hand.

According to my notes I made this back in February, which means I can now safely report that it works as well in real life as I’d hoped. The only alterations I’ve made since then are to move the back attachment point of the straps closer to center back (typical for me if the straps are slipping off my shoulders at all), and to tack down the bindings at center front with some tiny hand stitches, since the edges pulled up a bit after a few wears and washings, revealing the cup layers.

 

silk watson bra 3

 

I thought this might be a wearable muslin version, but instead it came out near perfection in fit and function. It does everything a want a “real bra” to do: provide a smooth and socially acceptable silhouette under a single other layer of clothing, and add a little bit of support. It’s also so comfortable I forget I’m wearing it, which is key for me. I thought about making another one (I even have another old silk top or two with some features that might be really fun to incorporate) but the truth is I don’t need it right now. This one, plus my more bralette-type past attempts at upper-body lingerie, are covering all my wardrobe needs. So, I’m officially checking “make real bra” off of my bucket list goals, and moving on!

I’ve been thinking a whole lot about what it means to have “enough” as I get closer to actually filling the gaps in my wardrobe. This post by Felicia has only broadened my sense that this is a really important thing for us all to be thinking about. A whole post about it here is likely coming … I’d love to know your thoughts at any time.

 

Previous makes

 

*Thanks to all the Fiddleheads hats I’ve made over years now, I have an entire giant plastic bin of small bits of luscious felted cashmere knits, which I could never throw out despite the fact that there’s way more than I’ll use in one lifetime (unless maybe, a giant intricate patchwork cashmere blanket—don’t even think about that, self!). Which is why I’ve started sorting them into groups of pleasing colors and offering them to fellow makers in my Etsy shop. I’ll continue to sort and list more batches as they sell. If you’d like some and you have color requests, just give me holler, here or there!

Cheers!

 

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DIY Fabric Shower Curtain

 

fabric-shower-curtain-2

 

Hello everybody, it’s been a little while! I’m a firm believer in blogging whenever you can and feel inspired, not on a pre-ordered schedule, and I also think that most blogging apologies are a waste of time and just make you feel bad. Still, it’s been much longer than I meant it to be, and I’d like to echo Molly’s sentiments on Orangette: if I ever decide to leave this space for good, I’ll tell you so. It seems only fair. The way she puts it at the end of that post is so good.

The first reason for my losing track of online things was one of the better ones: for the second time ever, we hosted our annual family and friends craft retreat at my house last month. The first time we hosted it, two years ago, was when I had an inspiration—the infinite to-do list—that started a big difference in my thinking.

I have to say, I was pretty proud of myself this time. I felt calm and relaxed in the lead-up, and I even slept well before and during at least the first part of the week—proof that I’ve made progress as a human lately, and let go of some anxiety, even the good kind that’s more like excitement. (If you need this too, may I highly recommend the book The Three Marriages by David Whyte, which is full of deep insights about things in general, and came into my life at exactly the right time. You can also listen to a good interview with him from On Being.)

It was one of those times when being calmer and going slower actually ended up meaning that I got more done. We cleaned off the back porch, for instance, which probably hadn’t been done in the two intervening years …

And I made a new shower curtain! Well, “made” might be exaggerating somewhat. I took a length of wide fabric, hemmed it, installed some grommets, and there we go.

 

fabric-shower-curtain-1

 

I’d like to apologize to all of our previous guests for the old shower curtain, a cheap vinyl thing with one ripped eyelet, which someone bought right as we were moving into our house a decade or so ago, and had been there in various states of nastiness ever since. Incidentally, I also figured out that if I actually took the vinyl thing down, soaked it in the tub with vinegar and dish soap, and took a scrub brush to it, it came out clean—enough better that I decided to save it in case I need a waterproof something.

Back to the new curtain though: I’ve been slowly moving more and more away from synthetic materials and towards natural ones for all kinds of reasons. I got another push that way when I found out that polyester and nylon clothes shed tiny synthetic fibers in the wash which eventually find their way into the oceans, enter the food chain when they’re eaten by small critters, and never break down. I first heard about this on Science Friday a while back (but cannot now find the specific program). It came up again recently on Root Simple. This was one of those last-straw moments. I’m convinced, I’m done with that, and I’ve been trying harder not to buy any synthetic fabrics.

So I wanted a natural fiber shower curtain, and as I was looking for one and researching options, it occurred to me that I had in my stash some wide cotton fabric which was basically what I was looking for—lightweight but tightly woven. And with stripes!

I measured the old curtain to figure out what length would work best (a little shorter than standard turns out to be good for my tub) and if one width of the fabric would be enough (it was, but you could always add a seam if not).

I made a deep hem on the bottom, and a narrower one at the top. The hardest part was hammering in the grommets. Typically for me, I liked the “wrong” side of the fabric better since it’s a little more textured and subtle, so I put that on the outside.

 

fabric-shower-curtain-3

 

I had a few questions, but figured it was worth trying to see what would happen. Would plain cotton keep the water inside my shower? Yes it did! Would a deep hem be enough to weigh down the bottom? It was! To be on the safe side as far as mildew, I’ve been wringing the curtain out after I shower, and then spreading it out as much as possible to dry. So far, it’s working really well, and it’s so much nicer to look at than the old one, it’s fairly ridiculous. I also like the idea that I can take this one down, put it in through the washer, and hang it to dry in the sun once a month or so, which should actually be easier than cleaning the vinyl one.

If you wanted a sheer curtain, or a liner for a more decorative fabric on the outside, I suspect that silk organza would be amazing (although I haven’t tried it, not having that much on hand). Something so thin but crisp and tightly woven should dry almost instantly, and look beautiful. Oh printed silk …

Anyway, I hope this give you all some ideas!

It feels good to be writing here, and I intend to do it again soon.

 

fabric-shower-curtain-4

 

Solved: Leggings

 

The best thing about making a pledge or taking a challenge may be that it pushes us to find out what’s possible if we stay within certain boundaries. For example: this winter, I found myself in need of some new warm leggings, and a couple of challenges I had in one form or another meant I needed to be creative about how I got them. The results were so good—almost certainly better than whatever I would have come up with without the challenge.

 

upcycled leggings 1

 

One of my wardrobe goals is to have enough of the right clothes for winter so that I’m cozy (in other words not always cold and therefore slightly grouchy). For the coldest months, it turns out that means wearing an extra warm layer under pants or a long skirt pretty much every day. I’ve already figured out that wool and silk are much warmer than cotton knits (plus I love everything else about wool). I’m still following my fabric-buying pledge from #1year1outfit (until a full year has gone by this summer), which meant I couldn’t hop online and order lovely wool fabrics from New Zealand, even if they are organic. There are a few totally beautiful made-in-USA wool knits out there, but let’s be honest, I also have a budget. I can’t afford to splurge on every project, and I don’t want to for something like this where I frankly don’t care too much what it looks like, as long as it feels good and works well.

I was thinking about going to the thrift store for something else, and somehow I got the idea that maybe if I found a big enough fine-gauge men’s sweater, I could make leggings out of that. Such, such a good idea!

My layout works like this: I cut off the waistband of the sweater, including a little bit above it for seam allowance, and save it for the waistband of the leggings. I flip the sweater inside out and trim off the seams as closely as I can to separate the front from the back. (After making so many hats from reclaimed cashmere, I am an expert at deconstructing sweaters.) Then I remove the sleeves, in this case leaving the sleeve seams intact as much as possible. The front and back often have fairly different shapes (and a lot of times different grainlines) so I separate them completely at the shoulders after the sleeves are off, and cut from them separately. I cut the top potion of the leggings pattern from the front and back of the sweater, however they best fit. The lower leg comes from the sleeves, utilizing the sleeve cuff as the ankle.

 

sweater to leggings drawing

 

I used the same Espresso Leggings pattern as my first custom fit pair—there’s no going back from custom fit! The lower arm of the sweater was actually a little smaller than the original cuff on my pattern, but it stretched to fit over my ankle just fine. I laid the folded leg pattern over the sleeve, and started to cut where the leg became smaller than the sleeve.

For sewing, I joined the lower leg to the upper leg flat, pressed the seam open, and sewed down the seam allowances for a non-bulky join. Just don’t forget to add a seam allowance to the upper and lower leg when you’re cutting.

As I sewed the inside leg seams, I just merged my seamline into the original seam of the sleeve when I got to that point.

 

upcycled leggings 2

 

Working on these, I thought a lot about stretch and recovery in knits. All the sweaters I used had about the same horizontal stretch as the fabric I bought for the very first pair; with 4” stretching to about 7”, or 1.75%, so I could use the same size pattern. The sweaters had almost no vertical stretch though, which made the first pair of sweater-cut leggings feel a bit shorter on top than I wanted, so I slashed the pattern and added ¼” vertically above and below the crotch point.

I ended up cutting the ribbing for waistband much shorter than the top of the leggings, since it could stretch much further. The ribbing alone wasn’t quite enough to hold the leggings up, although I loved how it looked. For the charcoal pair, I added wide elastic on top (it may possibly have come off a pair of Bryan’s boxers with worn fabric). This holds up the leggings no problem. The elastic has the recovery needed, but it actually won’t stretch as far as the ribbing, so I had to cut it a little longer. This can make the waist look a little wrinkly by itself, but it all stretches out smooth on the body.

For the second blue/periwinkle pair, I wanted to see if I could use slightly less wide/firm elastic, so I tried some of the bra-band kind from my stash, which is soft on one side, inside the ribbing. That works too, leggings stay up with no problem.

 

upcycled leggings 3

 

The third green sweater had a narrow hem instead of ribbing at the waist. I decided to use that as a casing for narrow elastic, cutting two sections from the waistband and catching the elastic in the seams. After wearing this pair a couple of times, the jury is still out on whether it could use slightly wider elastic/more pull inside the casing … but if so it would be easy enough to unpick the little vertical seams at the top and sew it in.

 

upcycled leggings 4

 

Overall, I’m super happy with how these turned out! I answered a few leftover questions from the first-ever pair; like would elastic be enough to hold them at the low-waist level I like (a resounding yes!) and would they work in 100% wool (a big yes again!). Despite the fact that the pattern recommends fabrics with Lycra or Spandex, I like the all-wool version much better (the green and grey pairs are Merino, and the periwinkle is cashmere). These float like a warm soft cloud just touching my skin. They feel amazing and don’t bind in any way. If I were dancing on stage in them, I might care that the knees look a little baggy by the end of the day, but since these are under-layers only, I don’t at all.

So I’m officially set on leggings for a few winters at least! We’ll see how these hold up. They should be fairly easy to patch if needed, since I have the pattern and scraps. I consider the used sweaters a sustainable material source, especially since I can utilize ones that have small stains or holes in them (the little stitched leaves on the green pair are covering former holes in the original sweater). Making leggings this way keeps me within my pledge and my budget. Plus they’re awesome.

If you want to try this, go for it! For my fairly-small-but-very-pair-shaped figure, I need to start with a men’s extra-large sweater to cut the pieces as illustrated. Of course, you can patchwork them a little more if needed. The green sweater was in really good shape (except for the holes), so I got it even though it was a little smaller. I ended up piecing in wedges at the inner thigh to make up for not having quite enough width across the sweater body. It worked fine, but it was a little mind-bending to make sure all the pieces had the right shape and seam allowance, so I don’t recommend it for your first try.

Happy stitching!

 

upcycled leggings 5

 

Every Day

 

Here’s what I made with my special natural-dye printed fabric as part of my one Year, one Outfit project: an every day skirt.  In fact I designed the print with this skirt in mind.  Keep reading for some skirt-construction details, as well as thoughts about what I figured out and where I’m going with #1year1outfit after this.

 

1year1outfit skirt 2

 

For the pattern, I copied a skirt my aunt gave me ages ago.  It’s one of those items that I probably would never have picked on my own, but once it was in my wardrobe I wore it non-stop.  I can’t describe it better than to say that it’s the perfect shape for biking in: wide enough for easy movement but not so wide that it flips up in the breeze.

 

me with early plane 2The original skirt at the Udvar-Hazy Center during Me-Made-May ’12 (I made the pink top).

 

This skirt seemed appropriate for practically every activity.  The large-scale, colorful print also seemed to go with everything I owned, and was part of my inspiration while thinking about how to print my fabric.  Maybe needless to say, I’ve worn it so much it’s literally falling apart, and had to be retired after finishing the pattern.

 

mmm'14 day 9Pretty much the only time I document what I’m wearing is during MMM.  Here are the essential elements of the skirt from 2014, when I decided to draw my outfits.  Also pictured: the beginning of this sweater.

 

Although I was pretty sure the pattern would make a wearable skirt on the first try, I knew there would inevitably be some little things I’d want to change.  And I would have to be certifiably nuts to cut into my carefully printed fabric without trying out my new pattern first.  So I made one from stash fabric, green floral linen/cotton blend I bought ages ago and turned out to be great for this.

 

1year1outfit skirt 7

 

And I did in fact have a short laundry list of things to tweak for the second version, including the length.

Judging by the amount I wore this test version before the weather got cold, I’ll wear the snot out of both these. I just have to convince myself not to treat the natural-printed one as too precious. I’m also super curious about how the dye will hold up in real life, so hopefully that will help!

 

1year1outfit skirt 8This is my favorite thing to do with quilting cottons that I apparently couldn’t resist buying in the past.  I quite like these two fabrics together, especially since you can occasionally see the facing when worn.  This project made me consider making a lot more faced hems.

 

Once the pattern was tested, I was confident enough to cut out my printed fabric, but then hit a few delays, mainly in figuring out what other materials to use.  My original plan was to source the fabric as sustainably and “locally” as possible per my pledge, but to worry less about where the notions came from.  I’m a firm believer in one step at a time, in breaking things down so that I move towards my goals without feeling totally overwhelmed by the hugeness of what I’d like to accomplish.  Still, after seeing the beautifully creative ways that Nicki crafted her totally local clothes (she made her own clay to make buttons!) I was inspired to dig a little deeper.

There seems to be just one organic sewing thread on the market, Scanfil, which is made in Holland and available lots of places online.  I’d seen it around the web but hadn’t tried it.  After all, Holland is not exactly local to me, and I assumed it would be more expensive.  In fact, it turns out that it costs barely more per yard than the Mettler thread I normally get.  And that thread is made in Germany … so I got some of the organic stuff to try.  It’s silky smooth and soft.  I think it breaks a little more easily, but I had no problems running it through either sewing machine.  For topstitching I used it doubled (two spools) with a 3mm length, and I really like the results, kind of subtle but shiny.  If you try this, I highly recommend tightening the bobbin thread the way you would for buttonholes.

 

1year1outfit skirt 4

 

I usually just use a thin, firmly-woven fabric for interfacing, and I’ve been looking for a new source since I ran out of the perfect interfacing fabric (origin: total mystery) found in my mom’s stash.  I got a swatch of every fabric I thought might work from Organic Cotton Plus, whether made-in-USA or not, but ended up rejecting them all and using another bit from my stash.

While I was at it, I ordered a zipper made with organic cotton tape.  The only difference I can see is that unusually, the zipper matches my fabric perfectly.

 

1year1outfit skirt 6Guts.  I think I’m finally getting the hang of making the inside fly guard thingy like it’s supposed to be.  This lining fabric is a super soft linen, also from stash.  The cute little pocket applique is due to an unfortunate moment while rotary pinking …

 

I should say that the skirt fabric itself is quite nice (I linked to the fabric I bought in the printing post, but as of today it doesn’t appear on the Organic Cotton Plus site, they must be out).  It has a twill weave.  It’s on the thinner end of what I would consider for this project, and very soft and drapey for a cotton.  It was also crooked when I got it, but easy to pull straight (check out how I do that in this article I wrote for Seamwork), even after printing (phew!).

I had this skirt shape in mind I was printing, and knowing that fabric I print tends to be sparser in design than commercial fabrics, I included a section of dense motifs at the bottom of the yardage, and took full advantage of that to cut all the small pieces for the waistband, etc.

 

1year1outfit skirt 5

 

So there you go, my finished project!  Since I joined the #1year1outfit challenge late, I knew I wouldn’t make a whole outfit by the end of the year, but I really wanted to see how I could integrate making more conscious choices about the new fabrics I buy with what I already do.  And in that sense I succeeded!  I’m wearing my skirt below with things I previously made from secondhand garments (this shirt and this camisole if you’re curious), a scarf woven by my grandma, and mended socks.

 

1year1outfit skirt 1

 

Moving forward, I’ve decided to keep going with my no-new-fabric-unless-sustainable-and-made-in-USA pledge, at least until July, which will make it a full year.  Even though at some point I’d like to add in some of the wonderful artisan fabrics from around the world I found during my fabric research, I do think that being on this materials “diet” is really helpful in encouraging me to be thoughtful in my choices, and creative with what I do with them.  I’ve loved being part of one Year, one Outfit, and it’s really fit in well with a lot of the other things I’ve been thinking about, and helped me move forward in directions I’d like to go in.

I have enough of this delicious wool yarn from Mountain Meadow to knit a sweater, and that is totally next on my list of sustainable/local-ish/slow fashion garments to make.  It will probably be next fall before it’s done, but that’s fine with me.  In the meantime I’ll continue to work from stash, and search for more local fabric options, and I will definitely keep you updated!

 

1year1outfit skirt 3

 

Maybe I’m Over It

Over the purple corduroys, the NYC garment district, the whole thing.

I’ve been to New York City twice ever, both times since I’ve had this blog.  Both times I went to the garment district, and I haven’t written a thing about it either time. The first time, a couple of years ago, it was just crazy and overwhelming. We had the truck with us, and let me just say I will never, ever, drive any vehicle to NYC again if I can possibly help it, much less one that qualifies as quasi-commercial and definitely oversize. The truck is fine in Chicago, but as it turns out, not all at fine in New York.

 

floyd bennett field camping 3Our truck in the parking area for camping at Floyd Bennett Field, by far the most post-apocalyptic National Park Service site I’ve ever been to.  It’s staffed by friendly New Yorkers who, when they find out it’s your first time in the city, will tell you everything, starting with “So there’s five boroughs …” to making sure you have quarters for the bus.  I am not making any of this up!

 

Anyway, we went to NYC again this past winter, along with traveling to an opening of Bryan’s work at the Griffin Museum of Photography outside Boston. I actually have a dear cousin who lives in Brooklyn, so we made a side trip to go and see her (completely vehicle-free, with only the luggage we could carry). I thought it would be much better and I would love it. It was better without worrying about the truck, but I was still overwhelmed. I’m the kind of person who naturally absorbs most of the stimulus coming at me in a given day, and likes to have a while to process it. There is a whole lot of stimulus coming at you all day, every day in New York—before you even get to the shops full of ceiling-high mounds of fabric in every color.

 

nyc street view

 

The garment district, while fascinating, is not geared for a thoughtful experience. It’s fast-paced. There are millions of choices packed together, but not a lot of background on any of them (any, really, beyond the fiber content and maybe a country of origin). I’ve tried to be more conscious about my fabric choices for a while now, but I knew I wanted some fabric to make another pair of pants, and it seemed ridiculous to be surrounded by what felt like all the fabric in the entire world, and go home with nothing for my project. So after some debate, I chose something purple and stripey and soft, brought it home, and a couple of months later, cut it out.

 

over it purple pants 1

 

And I got exactly what I deserved for picking fabric I had no background on, no relationship with, and so no idea what to expect—it behaved terribly. There’s some stretch in this stuff, which I’ve avoided in wovens in the past, and I’m going right back to avoiding it like the plague. It kept stretching as I was sewing it, throwing off my alignment and topstitching, moving the pockets around even though I basted them in place, etc. Plus, it’s weirdly clingier around my bum than the non-stretch fabric I’ve used in this pattern before.

 

over it purple pants 2

 

Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t the worst pants ever.  I like the color, and they fit me reasonably well, which is enough to almost certainly ensure they’ll get wear when the weather gets cool again. And, they have the nicest inside waistband and zipper tab of any pants I’ve made so far, so I learned something there.

 

over it purple pants 3

 

But, the whole experience just brought home what I hadn’t been able to articulate. In my head, before I went there, the garment district was a mythical paradise of fabric. But it turns out; it’s not my Mecca. It may sound a little blasphemous to say so, but I don’t think the garment district even has the fabric I want. I think I’m over it.

So what, exactly, is the fabric I want, you may reasonably ask? Well, what I really want is unreasonable to ask for in our current culture. I want fabric that not only do I know where it comes from, what labor conditions went into it, and how the fiber was cultivated in the environment where it grows, but I want to feel good about the answers to all those questions. I want to buy some fabric now, see it how it wears, and in 5 years, when I like what I find, buy some more of that exact same fabric. I want fewer, but better choices.

 

floyd bennett field camping 2

 

I have tried before to find some fabric closer to these ideals. I went on an online quest for organic wool a couple of winters ago (when I eventually bought this lovely stuff from New Zealand).  I had a few interesting conversations with fabric store owners through email. Mostly what I learned is that they don’t know any more about the origins of their fabrics than I do.  Often times even by writing to their suppliers, the most information we could possibly get was what factory the fabric came from.

At that same time I wrote to Mountain Meadow Wool, an American yarn company I feel really good about supporting, and suggested they think about making some knit fabric out of their American Merino. I got a really nice response back … but since then some blankets and finished knit goods have appeared in their line-up, no fabric yet … I do get it, I see why market research would indicate a much bigger market and profit by skipping the fabric and going right for finished goods.   Imperial Stock Ranch took it one step further and produced a high-fashion collection. But knowing that they are taking high-quality wool, sustainably grown in USA, all the way from sheep to fabric also in-country, and that none of that fabric is available for sewists to buy (that I know of, I’ll write them too, we’ll see)—it makes my fingers itch. I think it’s phenomenal how much single-breed, known-origin, small-farm-type wool yarn is available to knitters right now, and I know there’s a niche for fabrics made from the same materials.

The fabric for my first pair of purple corduroys was organic cotton & hemp, but made in China (under supposedly good working conditions). The biggest problem with it was that it didn’t hold up to wear long enough to be called well-made. How sustainable is anything that has to be replaced every couple of years, or less?

The best news in thinking about all this, is that there are other sewists out there on similar quixotic journeys to find (or make!) sustainable fabrics, and thanks to the magic of the internet, I can find them. And there is a lot going on right now.

I’m throwing my lot in with one Year, one Outfit, a project on this is moonlight to source “fibershed” textiles in your area, and make them into an outfit by the end of the year. Although I may not make a whole outfit by the end of 2015, I’m pledging not to buy any new fabric for (at least) that time, unless it meets (at least!) these minimum requirements: 100% made in the USA, sustainably grown also in USA, and not dyed with synthetic dyes, bleached, or processed in other ways that use toxic chemicals. At the very least, it will be a kick in the bum to do my homework, and some experimenting!

 

one year one outfit logo

 

While I’ve been thinking about this, some other thoughtful bloggers have also been researching and sharing around similar topics. This post of Zoe’s about organic cotton and whether it’s really better got me thinking about the fabric I really want to find. The other bloggers in the one Year, one Outfit project have done some good research. Mari’s post about what she’s found available in the Southeastern US was really interesting, and there are people around the world taking part and sharing what they find, there might be someone near you.  Then just the other day, Ginger posted about a designer making sustainable sweater knits available to home sewers! If you’re curious, I also definitely recommend listening to this 2010 interview with Rebecca from the fibershed project, which I also linked to from one Year, one Outfit.

Phew!  So, do you want in on some crazy back-to-basics fabric hunting? Interested in dyeing/printing your own textiles (because I think that’s going to be a big part of it)?  Stay tuned, updates will definitely be coming!

 

Four Upcycled Winter Tops

In which I think about the difference between fit and flatter, ways to seam knits for a pear shape, and the pros and cons of sewing with recycled sweaters.

 

Last fall, I knew I could use some more long-sleeve cozy tops for the coming winter, and I decided to see if I could find some “fabric” (in the form of large garments) at our local thrift stores, figuring that it would be cheaper than ordering quality wool knit, and I would be more willing to experiment if I wasn’t super attached to the materials.

Many things still take longer than I think they will, so I just finished the last of these a couple of weeks ago … luckily they still work as light sweaters for spring, and I’m now set for next fall/winter. Some people would probably call these light sweaters at any time, but for my winter wardrobe they’re shirts, something soft and warm that goes under a bigger sweater. (If it’s winter, I’m pretty much always cold. Heck, if it’s Texas in Spring but I’m inside and the is AC on, I’m still probably cold.) I’ve switched pretty much exclusively to wool (or cashmere etc.) and silk for winter wear, and I just love it that way, so those were the fibers I was looking for.

One of the biggest problems I’ve found with trying to upcycle tops for me out of existing tops, is that for there to be enough fabric to cut a new garment, the original sweater must be truly huge. Yet in the past, trying to reshape something without treating it as fabric and cutting new shapes has been a recycling nightmare that eats up way more of my time than the results are worth …

The first top I found this time was a women’s size large, with a pretty awful turtleneck, but in a nice brown cashmere. There just wasn’t enough fabric to dramatically reshape it, but it definitely needed a new neckline, and some ease around the hips (not a surprise to my pear-shaped self). I decided to take a wedge of the cable pattern from the old neck, cut a slit at center back, and splice it in.

 

brown winter top alterations

 

This worked—and I learned a few things. Probably the most obvious thing is that the wedge can’t be too large, unless you want it to ripple like a little peplum. I ended up folding in the sides and sewing them down again to make a flat wedge. It doesn’t look perfect, but I was experimenting. If I did this again I’d also add a little more pull-in factor to the neckline, probably with some slightly stretched clear elastic in the neck seam. But the biggest issue with this shirt is that it just isn’t that flattering. It fits OK, but I’m aiming for better. This one found a good use as my new winter sleep shirt.

 

brown winter top on form

 

The next top I found to use was a little bigger, at least big enough to cut out new pieces from it. My favorite part about this one is the fabric; it’s Merino, and just the perfect amount of stretchy, cozy, soft and wooly. If I could buy a bolt of this I probably would. This top came out quite a bit shorter than I’d like (again due to lack of fabric—by the time I cut the old sweater apart and put the pieces for my regular knit top pattern on it, this is what I got), but I’ve been wearing it all the time.

I played with the ribbing on this one a little more, cutting and sewing lengths from the original hem ribbing and treating it more like elastic, stretching it to sew around the neckline. That worked well, the ribbing on these sweaters has a tighter structure, and I suspect some added stretchy fiber that makes it behave quite differently from the rest of the garment. Sewing ribbing on things reminds me of the late 80’s, when my mom would order fabric by mail to make tops for us, along with coordinating ribbing in various colors. I wish I’d had a little more of the matching ribbing for this project, as it is the tiny hem on the bottom has to be encouraged to lie flat as it’s drying, otherwise it will flip up, and I had to baste it on before sewing to keep those little bits in place.

 

tan winter top on form

 

I’d been thinking how, in order to fit my figure better, I really need more seams, even in a knit fabric, than just one at each side. I love princess lines, but I thought that traditional ones would be more structure and more of a closely fitted, formal look than I want in a knit top. I was thinking of making a curved panel at each side, when I realized that I already have a top/sweater like that, it just fits a little looser than I’d want for this. So, I tried it on and pinned out the extra to get a fit I liked, traced a new pattern from the old one following those modifications, and cut it out.

This berry colored top was my most frustrated moment in this batch of upcycling. It came from a men’s XXL sweater in “cotton (90%) cashmere (10%)” which I went for despite the fiber content, going on color and the fact that I could definitely treat this one as a “muslin.” At first I was kind of miffed that even starting with a sweater this big, I couldn’t cut the sleeves long enough and I had to piece the side panels … but as soon as I gave up wanting it to work out “right” and embraced the experimentation and improvisation of working with recycled materials, suddenly it was fun again.

I really like the ribbing on the side panels, but the double sleeve ribbing came out wonky no matter how you look at it, the back neck has too much ease, making it slide off one shoulder sometimes (again with the 80’s), and the whole thing has all the baggy/low-recovery properties of thick cotton knit. However, it’s good to have at least one top that I don’t really care what happens to, and I brought it on the road for that purpose, it’s great to throw on in the truck etc.

 

berry winter top on form

 

I’m also having an ongoing thought process about the difference between fit and flatter. I want things to fit well, as in to harmonize with my shape—but maybe not to hug every curve. Sometimes if I aim for enough ease to really skim my hips it ends up emphasizing my pear shape instead, in a way I don’t find flattering, especially if I don’t also add ease around the bust. Also, if I curve a back seam in enough to fit close around my waist, the amount of curve required to flare it back out again over my hips is not really workable or looks a little crazy.

With that in mind, I cut the last shirt a little less curved in at the waist and out at the hips in back. I also added a side seam, mostly so that I could cut set-in sleeves (doesn’t save as much fabric as I thought it would vs. raglan) and set them in flat, then sew the side seam and underarm in one go, which apparently I like so much better than setting in knit sleeves in the round that I’ll do extra pattern tracing to get it.

I’m so happy with this last top. I dig the length, the slight high-low hemline, the side panels, and even the lighter accents (piecing again). And the bottom ribbing! This is every single millimeter of the ribbing at the hem of a men’s XL cashmere sweater (a bit frightening) and it’s just right. I flipped it over so that the original seam is at the bottom, so if anything it flares out a bit at the hem rather than cupping in. It hugs in just enough to feel cozy without riding up too much—like the dream of what ribbing could be on my figure. I’m still undecided about the extra fabric around the small of my back. It’s definitely a bit baggy there, but is that a bad thing?

 

grey winter top on form

 

Since I had to piece in a little lighter grey scrap at the side panels, I decided I should also add some to at least one arm to make it look purposeful. I also decided, after the berry ribbing, to make a real effort at getting the two knits to play well together, rather than sticking them under the machine together and hoping for the best. I tried sewing with tissue paper under the bottom layer (inside the sleeve) and it actually worked really well. However, I’m not in love with trying to position the paper around the free arm inside the sleeve, or with picking out tiny bits of tissue from the seam, so further experiments are still necessary.

 

grey winter top detail

 

I may have to go for another round of cozy top upcycling at some point, I’m getting kind of fond of the built-in matching ribbing. Although, I think I should resign myself to the need for an extra sweater for every couple finished tops, one to one just doesn’t quite work. And then, since I can’t be nearly as efficient with layout as I could with the same amount of raw fabric, it feels a little wasteful to cut up a shirt which is really perfectly good as it is … unless it has holes in it etc. So there’s a Holy Grail of thrift shopping, as if finding huge sizes in quality fibers wasn’t hard enough, now I need two or three that all coordinate with each other or with another one for extra fabric, preferably damaged! Maybe I’ll just order some nice fabric next time …

 

Some Thoughts About Sewing Leggings

 

I’ve been wearing leggings more these past two winters.  I love how warm they are under my skirts.  The fit though, often leaves something to be desired, so I decided to try making my own.  Good decision!  These are totally the comfiest pair I own.  I’m more than a little behind on sharing them, but the plus side of that is I can already report that I took them with me on our spring and summer travels last year, and they served me really well as a base layer under dressier clothes when the weather at shows was chilly, for hiking, and as PJs when camping in cooler weather.

 

green wooly leggings 4

 

I used the Espresso pattern from Cake.  I love that it’s designed so that you transfer your measurements in both length and width right to the pattern to make your own custom size.  Overall the amount of ease the pattern added worked great for me.  These fit just how I’d like them to: not too tight or constricting, not to loose or wrinkly, but like a second soft wooly skin.  The only problem I had with the way this pattern is drawn out is that it doesn’t allow for curves between the booty and waist.  One look at my body would tell you that a straight vertical line in this area isn’t going to cut it.  After a couple of iterations I ended up taking a huge curving dart out of the center back seam, from the waist down to nothing at the widest point.  But since the fabric is stretchy and I basted the seams together first, it wasn’t hard to do.  (I highly recommend basting the seams if you’re making your first pair.  Long straight stitches are just amazingly easier to pull out than zigzag.  Once I had the fit I wanted, I trimmed the seam allowances to match the new seams, pulled out the basting, and sewed the seams with a narrow zigzag.)

 

green wooly leggings 2

 

Once that was settled, I tried them on and marked with pins where I wanted the waistband to sit.  I just don’t like constriction, especially elastic, around my natural waist, and I tend to cut the waistbands of trousers and skirts so that they sit just below my belly button.  I knew that I wanted the leggings to sit a little below that, so they’d layer well with the rest of my wardrobe.

 

green wooly leggings 3

I would NEVER wear only these in public, or show you my booty in leggings on the internet.  And I just need to get this off my chest, because I keep wanting to say it to young women I see on the street: leggings aren’t pants!  But somehow, I’m OK with you seeing the fit on the dressform, even though the whole point of this dressform is that it’s as close to my actual shape as possible … go figure. 

 

I decided to add a wider waistband, which I hoped would make the top more stable and also give it a little more recovery.  I cut two pieces about an inch less wide than the leggings are at the top, and 3″ deep.  I sewed those pieces together, and then to the inside waist of the leggings, also including clear elastic in the top seam.  Then I flipped the waistband to the outside and zigzagged it in place just over the raw edge, and again at the top just under the seam allowance.  I didn’t want the bulk of another turned-under edge at the bottom, and it’s worked out pretty well, the fabric has fluffed up only slightly around the cut and sewn edge.

But, they didn’t stay up.  To be clear, I don’t blame the pattern at all for this, since I was off on a choose-your-own-waistband adventure by this point in the process, all learning around the waistband issues is my own responsibility.  And I did fix it; after considering taking things apart and/or adding more elastic, I decided to try a thin ribbon drawstring, a trick that’s worked for me in the past on a strapless elastic top.  Since I already had a small channel at the top of the waistband from the topstitching, I cut a tiny hole there at each side of center front on the inside, and reinforced it with a little hand stitching around.

 

green wooly leggings 5

 

Then I used a little safety pin to thread the ribbon around.  When I’m wearing these, I tighten the ribbon to the fit I want, and tie it in a firm bow.  Sometimes by the end of the day, I get ever-so-slightly irritated by the one fairly tight, unmoving place around my hip.  But would I gladly trade that for leggings that stay up all day, exactly where I want them, with no dropping crotch?  Yes, yes I would, quite happily.  And when I make another pair, I may experiment with some stronger elastic at the top.

This fabric is mostly wool, with a little stretchy stuff, from The Fabric Store LA.  They have the best selection of fine wool knits I’ve found (also where I got the lovely stuff for these tops).  It’s a bit vague on the site whether or not their swatching service is up and running, but it totally is, just call them and tell them what you’re looking for.  Last time I got a generous selection of organic wools and leggings-appropriate fabrics.  I went with the pattern recommendation of minimum 5% lycra/spandex added, and chose this green with black, double layer knit.  This is about as thick a fabric as I would use, as you can’t avoid a few wrinkles around the knees, etc., but they’re wonderful to wear!  I love the slightly plush inside of this fabric, it makes the leggings even cozier and comfier.

 

green wooly leggings 6

Putting a little tab of ribbon at the back is another idea of Steph’s I like!

 

I’m definitely a sew-your-own-leggings convert.  A fit this good is hard to argue with.  After years of knowing that the only way to get pants/trousers to fit my legs & booty was to make my own, I’m kind of surprised that it wasn’t more obvious what a difference custom-fit leggings would make … but there you have it.  Plus they only take a yard of fabric (on me), have only one main pattern piece, and once you have the fit down they would make up lightning fast.  What’s not to love?

Update: for what I figured out about elastic at the waist in next versions, and making these from repurposed sweaters, click here.