Plus My Favorite Method for Sewing Knit Fabric Straps, and Self-Fabric Binding with Elastic
Last fall, my friend Zuni invited me over for a day of dyeing with natural materials at her house. I have an informal craft exchange going with some of my fiber friends, and it’s fantastic to have Zuni as part of this group. All the mess and calculations for dyeing stay at her house, and we just bring home the colorful finished products. The day in question, one of the dye materials was indigo. Most of the craft exchange members tend to dye yarn. I’m pretty militant about not letting my yarn stash exceed the capacity of one big plastic bin (after, ahem, seeing what happened to my fabric stash), plus I sew more than I knit, and I’ve sewn for longer, so I tend to be the one who shows up with odds and ends of fabric or garments to re-purpose. This time it was a silk long underwear top. I inherited two of these from my grandma’s stash. The fabric is really lovely, but I hardly ever wore the tops, they were kind of baggy for layering, and looked awkwardly like underwear when visible—picture your classic long undies, but maybe a bit looser.
I think I had a class that morning, because I came to the indigo day partway through, at which point we literally just dropped the top into the dye bath. Indigo doesn’t need a mordant, but I learned something important: dyeing something without soaking it in water first leads to splotchy fabric! Funnily enough, a slightly mottled fabric was what I pictured when I envisioned how this would come out … although maybe not quite that spotty! I also think not wetting first may have led to some of the color not being bonded with the fibers, and then rubbing off. This was all an experiment though, and I was just happy to have a dyed piece to work with.
My plan was to cut the top up and make something I would definitely wear: a lovely silk camisole (tank top, vest, whatever you want to call it) for a winter-time first layer. I used the same pattern as for my summer tanks, which after many alterations, bears almost no resemblance to the starting point: Kwik Sew 3524.
Click on any of the pictures for more detail.
A couple of things that came out really well: the straps and the elastic binding at the top. I’ve used this method for straps on a couple of (not blogged) other tanks, and really like it. Basically I just sew a tube of fabric, using a narrow zigzag stitch since it’s knit fabric. I turn the tube with a wire, and then slide a piece of elastic through it, using a bodkin or a safety pin. Then I stitch through all the layers. The added elastic gives the straps more stretch, recovery, and sturdiness than they would have if they were just made from the fabric. This seemed essential when working with practically transparent silk!
For these straps, I used 1/4″ elastic, and cut the fabric strips for the straps 1″ wide. You need a little more than the elastic measurement for the fabric tube to fit around it, especially once the seam allowances are also tucked inside, and a bit for the seam allowances themselves. Sewing through the fabric and the elastic holds everything smoothly in place. I roll all of the seam line to one side of the elastic before sewing, which becomes the bottom of the strap, and the top looks clean.
My favorite thing about these camis (other than the feel of the silk on my skin, or maybe the color) is the way the edging fits at the top. I used another fabric strip, and plain 1/8″ elastic. I didn’t stretch the elastic at all when pinning and sewing it on, and the slight negative ease in the pattern (I checked—it’s about 88% of my body measurement at the upper chest) turns out to make just exactly the amount of stretch I want at the top. It just hugs against my skin, without gaping or digging in.
Below you can see in more detail how the pieces of the binding went together. After sewing through all the layers, I rolled the binding strips to the inside, and sewed again just outside of the first seam. The part at the top with the bronze colored elastic is the built-in shelf bra, which I attached at the same time, in the first seam of the elastic and binding.
For the blue one, I cut the original top completely apart, and used as much of the width of the original hem as possible. I didn’t want the seams to show at the bottom, so I tacked them down by hand.
Not long after I finished the blue cami, Zuni invited as over again, this time to dye cochineal and purple. I’m not that huge a fan of pink, unless it’s cochineal, and then I’m all over it. The particular shades that come from those little bugs really float my boat. So, excited by my first success, and learning from mistakes, I thoroughly soaked the second top in water and brought it over. I was also careful to stir while it was dyeing, and the result was an even, beautiful coat of color!
If I could have, I would have cut both tops wider at the bottom. You can see a little pulling, and stretching in the fabric around the hips. For the pink top, I decided for maximum width, to keep the hem and bottom of the original side seams intact, and taper my new seam in. Below you can see this, as well as the construction of the shelf bra and what the binding looks like from the inside.
With this method of binding, I like sewing the straps in at the end by hand, catching just the inner layers. That way I can try on and adjust them exactly, plus I think it’s more secure and less likely to distort the fabric than trying to catch them in the seam under the binding.
I got some good practice sewing with delicate petals of silk making these, and it seems less intimidating now.
The other fantastic thing about this project is that, when those long undies were just sitting in my drawer, I thought that maybe someday I would dye them and make them into something useful. In the same way that maybe someday I’ll spin enough yarn to knit with, maybe someday my studio will be completely clean and neat … things that I dream about, but may never happen. But this one did! I’m trying to acknowledge and appreciate this as a victory, rather than just rushing right on to the next project, as I am apt to do.
Plus, I just love having these in my closet! In fact, combined with two silk camis I already had (one is an earlier take on the recycled silk shirt idea, and one is the original I used to copy my woven tank pattern), I have just enough to wear one almost every day. That inspired me to pack away most of my summer tanks, shirts and dresses for the first time ever. I always carefully clean and store my winter woolens over the summer (mainly to protect them from the scourge of moths) but putting away the summer clothes never seemed that important, especially when I still used my cotton tanks as winter layers. The silk ones are noticeably warmer though, even as thin as they are. And I love that my summer clothes are getting a break from being on the hanger, and how much more space there is in my winter closet.
Take time to celebrate your victories, people!