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.

 

Basting: Thread Magic

 

new backstitch 1

 

I kind of feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t like basting, or thinks they don’t.  It’s a like a magic wand for your sewing.  It keeps things exactly in place for exactly as long as you need it, doesn’t distort your final sewing, doesn’t need to be removed as you go, and can be pulled out when you’re done, leaving no mark behind.

I fell in love with basting many moons ago, while sewing a collar onto a button-down shirt.  I had all the layers of shirt and collar scrunched together ready to sew, and no matter how many pins I put in, the fabric kept shifting under the sewing machine as I went and getting terribly uneven, and/or folding over and catching pieces of the shirt I didn’t want in the seam.  After ripping it all out and starting over two or three times, I decided to baste it in by hand and see if that was any better.  Held by the basting, the shirt and collar seam went through the machine without a hitch, as nice as I could ask for, on the first try.

 

basting stripes

 

Basting just means any kind of temporary stitching, meant to hold fabric in place until you can get the final stitching done.  The advantage is that the basting doesn’t have to be neat and even, or strong enough to hold up with wear, so you can concentrate just on the fabric while you’re basting, and then just on stitching when you’re sewing the final seam.

If I’m in a situation where I want basting, usually it’s because I need more precise control over the fabric, so I baste by hand.  To baste, simply sew running stitches (illustrated at the top).  The stitches can be pretty big and uneven—concentrate on the placement of the fabric layers with each stitch, rather than the stitches themselves.  I like to begin and end with a backstitch, just to keep the basting from pulling apart until I’m done.

Some good places to use basting are: when you want things to align exactly (like matching stripes), when there are a lot of shifty layers (like the collar seam), or any other time when you want to make sure some part of your project will stay in place while you sew it.  For the soft bra below, I knew there was no way the lace would stay in the folds I wanted against the fabric if it was held only by pins.  Plus, basting allowed me to put everything together on my dress form, seeing exactly how the lace would work on a body, and then take the whole thing off the form and sew it.

 

basting lace on form

 

finished soft bra lace

 

It worked great!  When you’re done with the final seam, you can remove the basting easily.  Pick out the backstitches at the ends and grab one thread tail, then you can often pull out a long basting thread with one pull.  Unless of course you sewed over it in the final stitching, but no worries, that happens.  Just pull out what you can at once, you may have to cut and pick out a few small thread bits.

Although it may sound like a technique for more advanced sewing, I definitely recommend basting for beginners too.  When you’re just starting out, learning how your machine handles fabric, especially in tricky situations, isn’t easy.  You can baste practically anything that you just can not get to stay in place while sewing on the machine, get much better results, and save yourself a lot of frustration.  According to The Mary Frances Sewing Book, back when most garments were sewn by hand, it was more efficient to baste a seam first, and then sew it, than to sew the final stitches while trying to keep the fabric layers in place.

Best of luck with your sewing!

 

Summer Spark Batik Dress

 

I finished this dress on time!  Just barely.  I know that sewing on a deadline is not my friend, but in this case I had backed myself into corner, since I really wanted to finish in time for my annual family and friends women’s craft retreat.  You see, last year at the same event we batiked fabric (which was ridiculously fun) and I dyed this panel with this sundress in mind.  I should at least be able to sew one dress in one year, right?  Well, sure, but a whole lot of other projects of various types jumped ahead of it in line throughout the year, until I found myself headed to retreat 2012 with the mostly-finished dress and my hand sewing kit.  I finished the hem in the car on the way over.

 

 

When I got there I tried it on again.  Although I had carefully tested out this pattern in a previous version, I decided that the darts from that version were a little out of hand.  Although I liked the fit, the darts just took up a lot of the bodice, and I thought that they might not look so good with the sparser print of my batik fabric.  So I decided to convert the darts to gathers.  Lesson 1 from this project: darts and gathers are not the same thing!  Although they both take up excess fabric and fit it into a smaller area, darts control the release of the excess up to a certain point, while gathers release it all right away.  Although I liked the gathers at center front, the ones under the bust were clearly not working, they created a big poof of fabric right under (definitely not at) the fullest point of my bust.  There’s no picture of this, it looked ridiculous.

 

 

Since I had already sewn the gathers, and my sewing machine was hundreds of miles away by this time, my idea was to hand sew a few of the gathers closed, essentially creating a few small darts to release the extra fabric where I wanted it, which hopefully would not look too jarring.  I tried it out by basting the darts in place.  Have I mentioned I love basting?  It’s just a collection of fairly loose, impermanent stitches, but it’s one of the sewing world’s most perfect tools.  I truly don’t understand why anyone complains about it, it’s so wonderfully precise and useful, and you can see exactly how something is going to come out before you commit to sew it, without the distortion of pins or clips.

 

 

Anyway, I basted my new tiny darts in place, using the places where the gathers naturally wanted to make a deeper fold.  I tried on again, then hand sewed them in place.  I used all tiny backstitches, which was probably overkill, but for such a small seam it didn’t slow me down very much, and I wanted a similar look to the rest of the machine-sewn seams on the dress.  If I was at home with my machine, I could also have taken out the gathers, planned and measured for the darts, sewed them in place and stitched the bodice down again.  To be honest I’m not sure it would look much better, although it would look more precise and even on each side.  However, I have been comfortable with this dress having a handmade, not-so-perfect look ever since the very first flower I drew in wax (note the splotches/wax drips).

 

 

Checking out the final result, I am overall thrilled.  Probably what makes me the happiest is that I was able to plan the print on the fabric in a way that worked how I envisioned when I went to sew the dress!  It also makes me happy to look at the little bits of hand stitching on the inside, for some reason I can’t explain I love that look, when I worked at a museum I used to spend much longer than necessary checking out hand stitching on antique garments.  I will tweak the bodice a little more in further versions of this dress, it still has a funny wrinkle or two, but as I said this project was not meant to be a showpiece and I think it looks cute.  I wore it all day, on a retreat field trip to the fiber festival at El Rancho de las Golodrinas and then out to dinner with the whole group.  One of my favorite things about custom-fit clothing is how comfortable it is – I could easily have also worn this dress to sleep in, but restrained myself, after all it was pretty dusty out, and the dress doesn’t need that wear and tear.

 

 

 

I realize as I’m working on this post that some of these pictures have quite a different color cast, some are from my iPhone on the trip which may explain it.  If you are curious, the laundry line picture is probably the closest to the real colors.

Although I don’t have a specific project like this to be ready for next summer, I am so hoping I have learned my lesson about timing and leaving things until the last minute.  We shall see.

Fix a Ripped Out Button (or Other Small Hole)

 

 

This is a sweater/jacket I picked up at the thrift store the other day, I thought it would be good for our upcoming ski trip to Bend (and also because I’m cold basically all winter long).  Only one or two small problems, the original buttons are some crazy unique things, more like a snap with one large flared button side and a flat back, and two of them are missing, leaving holes where they ripped out.

But small holes like that are pretty easy to fix, especially since the result will be covered by a new button.

The fabric here is a sturdy (not very stretchy) knit.  I happen to have some sturdy black knit fabric to cut little circles from, but if I didn’t I would use a woven rather than something too thin or stretchy.  The fixed place is going to have lots of stitches in it and not be very stretchy anyway.

The easiest way to get the patches to stay where you want them is to baste them in.  (Basting just means stitching that’s not permanent, but meant to hold something in place while you sew.)

 


 

Because I want this spot to be super sturdy, I put one small patch directly behind the hole and another one on top to back a larger area (both on the wrong side of the jacket).  I used contrasting thread for basting, but you may want to try matching, it will make pulling out the smaller stitches later not as necessary.

Next, smooth the sides of the hole down and as much back where they came from as possible, and sew using your machine.  If the fabric has a distinct color on each side, you can use different color top and bobbin thread – I used cream on top and black in the bobbin.  (A picture of me sewing this would show nothing, since it’s all under the foot!)  I used a short stitch length and went back and forth over the hole, mainly in the same direction as the knit ribs of the fabric, and then a bit side to side.  Make sure to catch all the raveling edges.  When you’re done it should look something like this:

 

 

Pull out the basting threads, bury the sewing thread ends, and you’re done!  Next week: how to sew on the button.

One final note, only one of these cuffs had the button come off.  But as you can see, the other one is about to go.  And besides, it will look more natural if they’re symmetrical.  Sometimes it just feels good to pull something off with pliers – rawr!

 


 

Got something you would like to fix?  Not sure how?  Leave a comment!