DIY Fabric Shower Curtain

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Origins, Materials, and Connections

 

This spring, I explored cotton growing in the US—I interviewed organic farmers in Texas, read some fascinating history, and pulled seeds out of a cotton boll to try spinning them myself. Most of that research went into an article for Seamwork, which comes out today. It also ties in well with what I’ve been thinking about around the one Year, one Outfit project, which was the reason I bought local(ish) cotton fabric in the first place, and got curious about where it came from. I’m coming up on a full year since I jumped into that project, and I’d like to talk a little more personally here about what I’ve gotten out of it so far.

For #1year1outfit I pledged to buy new fabric only if it was made in the US, and the fiber was organically grown or otherwise considered sustainable. It’s easy to see a choice like that as restrictive, claustrophobic, or even self-righteous. But like a lot of similar times, I found that I was more creative because of the limitations I had set. I learned a lot, because the project encouraged me to look more deeply into everything from the environmental impacts of textile production to what it’s like to be a cotton farmer. But the best thing I got out of it was a feeling of connectedness and participation with the people, plants and animals that make what I do possible.

 

TOCMC cotton 1

I’d like to sincerely thank Kelly Pepper of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, who was so helpful in connecting me with farmers, answering questions, and also lent me the use of more great photos of cotton growing than I could use for the article. All photos in this post are courtesy of TOCMC.

 

I read Environmental Impact of Textiles by Keith Slater (borrowed through interlibrary loan). It was full of statistics and graphs as I expected, but also contained insights about the contrast between processing fibers by hand and by machine that I didn’t expect at all. Slater points out that tools for turning fiber into fabric by hand are relatively easy to make, and often operate on human power, burning little or no carbon in the process. Selecting the best quality fibers by hand takes more time and so is more costly, but it results in a better product, less waste, and less energy used. In contrast, the machinery needed to process fibers (“millions of tiny particles of flexible units”) at the speed necessary to satisfy demand must be “massive, complex, and expensive,” use huge amounts of energy, be environmentally costly to make, and concentrate the impacts of production (from noise to waste) in one place.

I learned that one of the most environmentally problematic areas in textile production is dyeing and printing (as well as other chemicals used in manufacturing and finishing fabrics). Most of these substances are toxic and/or carcinogenic, especially the first synthetic dyes developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, and used to be released freely into waste water. Thankfully, at least in the developed world, we now have regulations to protect our water and our textile workers, as well as some less-harmful dyes that have been developed more recently.

Textile production is a relatively small part of worldwide manufacturing and resulting environmental impacts, totaling less than 1% according to Slater, including transportation, machinery, and everything else he could find to calculate. Still it’s an area where we, the consumers, have a lot choice in what we buy, and I believe, we can have a big impact.

Ultimately, what I took away is that nothing comes from “the store,” or goes “away” when we’re done with it, even though our consumer culture very much wants us to believe that it does. Everything has an origin, and is part of a cycle of people and things that includes us, whether we’re aware of the rest of it or not. I want to know my place in that cycle, and respect the other participants in it—both the humans and the animals and plants, the communities and soils that make my life possible.

 

TOCMC cotton 2

 

I just finished reading an amazing book by Robin Wall Kimmerer called Braiding Sweetgrass. It’s kind of heartbreaking, actually, since she spells out what we in the Western world and in the US specifically have done to both the native peoples and the native landscape, and it’s inescapably tragic. But, she also offers a lot of hope, and a vision of how the world could be if we behaved as though we were part of it, participating in and nurturing the ecosystems around us, instead of pretending that we’re somehow separate from the rest of the universe. Of all the beautiful, powerful, potentially life-changing books I’ve read in the last year or two, this is the one I most wish everyone would read, the one that I think might be have the most potential to move hearts into action.

Braiding Sweetgrass reinforced my belief that our choices matter, the little things matter, and also that so very often when we do the best we can for the world around us, it ends up being the best thing for us too, bringing more joy and connectedness to our lives. I believe that a big part of the satisfaction which many of us feel is missing from our lives comes from a lack of participation with the world around us, and that part of how we can bring ourselves into a healthy relationship with the universe we belong to is to participate in its natural cycles as makers and creators. To me, this is the best part of using local and traceable materials; I can visualize the system I’m part of, the fields and farmers who grew the fiber that I’m now sewing and wearing.

 

TOCMC cotton 3

 

After this experience, I can’t go back to using anonymous, supposedly source-less materials—it would just feel so hollow. My year of #1year1outfit is over, but I’ve been changed by this project, by realizing the deeper connections that are possible. Although I may want to work with fabrics or yarns that no one is making near me (or even in the US), I can’t see myself choosing anything that I don’t know how and where it was made, that I can’t picture how it connects me to other hands, and fields, and creatures.

When I started this project, figuring out where my materials came from and tracing things back to the source seemed daunting and confusing. And it’s still true that taking any finished product (even fabric) and figuring out who made it can be nearly impossible. At this point, I’m looking at it more from the other side: what do I know is being made well, and what can I do with it? I’m looking for materials available with origins I trust, and they seem like more than enough to fuel my creativity for quite a while.

 

A few more Resources:

Through TOCMC I found out about Adele Stafford who is doing amazing work hand-weaving and making garments with US fibers, and writing so poetically about it at Voices of Industry.

Sally Fox has been experimenting with growing naturally colored cotton and biodynamic agriculture since the 1980s. She has fabric and yarn at FoxFibre, and pictures on Instagram.

My list of sources for sustainable fabrics is here.

The fabric I printed for one Year, one Outfit is here, the skirt I made from it is here.

 

No Wardrobe is an Island

Thoughts on MMM’16

I wanted to give myself a real challenge this Me-Made-May, and I succeeded! I decided to endeavour (love that British usage) to wear only clothes I’ve made for the month, with a few exceptions noted at the beginning: socks, jackets, and raincoat. Trying to follow through with this plan made for my most thought provoking MMM in several years.

At the beginning, I felt liberated. Even though I’ve pledged to wear mostly me-made the last couple of Mays, getting by on only MM stuff felt like cutting a cord (despite the deliberate exceptions). I was not just making do with scraps thrown my way, but existing on only what I had made from whole cloth.

It also occurred to me that wearing clothes I didn’t make is anonymous—it’s not satisfying, but sometimes it’s a welcome cloak of invisibility.

As May began and the weather stayed cold at home, I found I missed some fairly ridiculous parts of my non-MM wardrobe—notably the big shapeless thrifted wool sweater I’d been throwing on over my PJs for tea and yoga first thing in the morning. I guess some kind of large, warm, not at all precious, natural-fiber layer is now an essential wardrobe component for me in cool weather …

On the 5th I realized that my plan had totally failed to account for days when I really needed to just wear grubby work clothes. Although an oversight, because my life definitely does have those days, I didn’t feel bad about it. It’s conceivable that one day my clean-the-truck clothes might be all old me-mades … but that day is not here yet, and that’s fine with me.

 

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I did make two of these items …

We hit the road for two art shows in the DC area about a week in, as we have done for the last few years. This time, it was cold (like record-setting, 25 degrees colder than normal cold) and rainy practically the whole time we were there. I had enough me-made layers, I just wore them over and over …

 

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A typical show-day outfit. I’m wearing my favorite cashmere top, the upcycled sweater, a jacket, and a raincoat. I was going to roll up one pant leg so you could see that I’m also wearing wool leggings underneath, but I forgot.

 

Then after travel and the first show, I totally ran out of clean pants. I discovered I would rather break my pledge and wear an old pair of Bryan’s than freeze in a skirt, especially since we were going for a walk in Rock Creek Park. I also discovered that I am really used to custom fit, especially in waistbands. Any places that rub or sit wrong seem totally unacceptable. This is probably a sign that I could not go back to ready to wear—even if I wanted to.

I wore the “Me-Made-May” badge on my bag or clothing almost every day—and didn’t get asked about it once. But still I hope that some folks saw it and were curious. I also wore the “I MADE this” badge a few times (attached to something I made and was wearing). That one is more direct, and when I wore it I got comments and/or questions from friends, acquaintances, and waitresses, which was great! But I also discovered that I’m just not up for being the face of the handmade movement whenever I’m out in public. I’m naturally a shy person, and with the added stresses of travel, being in strange places, and dealing with whatever came up, a lot of days it was just not happening. While, for whatever reason, having the MMM one on felt fine.

 

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If you made a badge and didn’t see a comment from me about it, please leave me a message here or tag me on Instagram—I’d love to see them, and I was in no way keeping up with all the hashtags last month!

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how making my own choices is wonderful, but it’s not enough. I also need to find ways to share more of those choices with larger communities. (Some things that are pushing my thoughts that way: this post from Jess on Wardrobe Ecology, and this amazing interview with Rebecca Solnit from On Being.) I’d like to continue to explore ways I can make a more public statement, without feeling like I’m “on stage” too much of the time. And I’d still like to wear the “I MADE this” badge from time to time … we’ll see what happens!

Overall, as the month went on, I realized another important thing: I don’t really want to make my whole wardrobe. Don’t get me wrong—I’d like to be capable of making whatever I need to wear. But as far as the actual content of my closet at any given time, I don’t want that to exist in a vacuum of only self-made, any more than I think any of us can really live a good life without friends and community to belong to. I know it’s vital to have friends along the way—people who give us a place to rest our heads, deep conversations and connections, and sometimes a place to dry out our tents in their back yard. I want to celebrate that as the joy and blessing it is. In sort of a similar way, I also want to celebrate the special parts of my wardrobe that I didn’t make, especially those made or given to me by folks I love.

 

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The last day of #mmm16, with our irises having a great year.

 

So, a lot to think about! As always I’m grateful to Zoe for putting this on, and for all her encouragement! It really is a great time to pause and reexamine life through the lens of what we make and wear, and I’m glad it happens every year because I wouldn’t go to the trouble all by myself! Between now and next May, I’ll be thinking about more ways to share my love of handmade without freaking myself out, and how to celebrate my mostly-me-made wardrobe with a pledge that reflects where I’d like it to go.

How about you? Anyone who hasn’t already shared their thoughts from MMM on a myriad of other platforms is welcome to do so here … In the meantime I hope you’re all enjoying the start of summer! (It went from cold straight to hot for us, but, I’ll take it!)

 

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.

 

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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

 

Natural Dye Printed Fabric

 

This is the fabric I made for my one Year, one Outfit project.  Well, I didn’t make it as in weave it, it was manufactured in Texas (from US grown organic cotton, as per my pledge for the project) and I bought it through Organic Cotton Plus online (it’s this one).  But I printed it myself, using natural dyes.

 

natural dye print fabric

 

Here’s what happened: I knew that coloring/printing fabric would be a major component of this project for me.  I do love the native colors that come from color-grown cottons and the fleece of colored sheep, but that’s not all I want to wear.  Most people feel the same, and have for thousands of years.  So I thought that getting color & design onto ethical, locally-sourced fabrics (which are often available in very limited colors) would be a good thing to tackle.

I had already promised to teach screen printing with dye (rather than with fabric paints designed for printing, which are fun too, but leave a bit of stiffness on the fabric) at our annual family craft retreat.  The time for the retreat was getting closer as I decided to join up with #1year1outfit.  At first I thought I would just take this fabric and print on it with the fiber reactive dyes that most crafters use for cotton.  These dyes may not be the best thing for the environment, but I would apply them myself, in extremely limited quantities, and do the cleanup responsibly.  I was sort of wrestling with these ideas, and reading Printing on Fabric by Jen Swearington.  This is an excellent book, I learned a lot from it.  And I appreciate, among other things, that she’s realistic about safety.  I was reading the part about steam-setting fabric you’ve printed with dye, in which she recommends wearing a respirator and/or having good ventilation … for whatever reason that was my “I’m done” moment.  I don’t need to be using toxic stuff, and I don’t want to be exposing myself, or my family (some of whom are small kiddos) to it.

 

natural dye print fabric 2

 

So what next?  I tried looking for less-toxic dyes, and I found some cotton clothing and fabrics dyed with metal-free or low-impact dyes, but I couldn’t find any of the dyes themselves available to the average person.  (Unlike if you want to dye protein fibers like wool, then you can buy Greener Shades dyes.)

That pretty much left natural dyes.  I love their colors, but they have a reputation of being less easy to use on cellulose fibers like cotton.  From the bits and pieces I read (and the fact that there were printed fabrics long before there were synthetic dyes) I knew it could be done, I just didn’t yet know how to put it all together.

As much as I value balance in life, sometimes it just feels so good to throw my whole self and all the energy I can muster at a single project.  With the retreat coming up fast, that’s what I did; reading everything I could find about using natural dyes on cotton, printing with dye, and the very little out there about putting the two together, and experimenting all the time on my own.  By the time the retreat came, I felt confident enough to share what I’d learned so far, and continue learning along with everybody else.  At the end of it, I took over an entire now-vacant worktable, and printed my fabric in two sections (before collapsing from whatever virus got a bunch of us that week).

A few details:

  • The dyes were: cochineal, osage orange, madder, and black tea (and combinations of those).
  • We thickened them into a paste using sodium alginate.
  • We scoured the fabric (using soda ash and textile detergent), then mordanted it with aluminum acetate to bond with the dye.
  • We applied the dye using small printing screens made from embroidery hoops.  For my designs, each motif had its own hoop for each color (not the most efficient way to do it, but very flexible design-wise).
  • I wanted a hand-printed look, so I came up with a vague plan, then eyeballed the placement of the first motifs, and made little registration marks to line up the hoops for subsequent colors.
  • After drying/curing, we steamed the fabric to heat-set the colors, then washed to remove the thickener.  The dye remains, and the fabric has the same hand it did before printing.

If you want to get more technical than that, email me! I have so many notes …

 

natural dye print fabric 3

 

Somewhat needless to say, I’m pretty stoked with how this came out.  And I’m looking forward to seeing how the colors wear, and doing more experiments with natural dyes!

A few more resources if you’d like to experiment too:

  • The Modern Natural Dyer came out after I made this project, but it has good basic natural dye info (and totally gorgeous photography).
  • This PDF from Maiwa is also a good overview, I used it heavily as a reference while I was figuring out what to do.
  • This online article is pretty technical, but it gave me a lot of confidence that natural dyes and cotton can play well together.  It also helped that I think I’d be happy to use only the color palette in that first photo forever …
  • The book Printing on Fabric, which I mentioned above, is not about natural dye but covers a bunch of other useful stuff, like how to make designs for screen printing, registering multi-colored and repeating patterns, and steam-setting fabric.

Stay tuned to see what I made from the fabric!

 

Blocking Knitting Without Special Equipment

When I mention blocking your knitting, I get a lot of blank looks from my students, and concern about how to do it and what they need to make it happen. Although it can be a magical transformation, it doesn’t need to be mysterious. And although there are a bunch of gadgets (special mats and pins, forms, blocking wires etc.) sold specifically for blocking, you don’t need to use any of those to get good results.  Some pins and a place to hold them will do, and sometimes you don’t even need that.

 
lupine cowl blocking

 

What does blocking mean anyway?

Blocking is actually a simple concept.  It just means using water and/or steam to set the final shape of something after you knit it.  As you knit, you make a new structure—a fabric—with your yarn. When the fabric gets wet, the yarn has a chance to settle into its new shape.  Sometimes it can change quite a bit, expanding or relaxing in response to the tensions (or lack of) that are now on it.

In blocking we take advantage of the fact that the yarn can form new shapes, and influence those shapes in the direction we want.  This can be as simple as gently stretching and patting a sweater so that it looks good flat, and leaving it to dry.  Sometimes more dramatic blocking is part of what makes a pattern shine, like stretching lace as much as possible to make the most of the open areas in the pattern.

Essentially, blocking is getting your knitting wet, shaping it how you want it to be, and holding it in that shape until it dries.

 

Why wet?

Yarns, especially wool ones, can change shape much more easily when they’re wet.  This is because of the structure of the fibers themselves.  (If you’re curious about the science of wool and haven’t seen the wool article I wrote for this month’s Seamwork, check it out!)

You can also stretch/shape your object while it’s dry, and then steam it to set the shape.  In general, I prefer the wet method for a few reasons.  It’s gentler on the fibers, and gives them a chance to relax before being under tension. It also gives a good idea of what your finished project will be like when it’s washed later.  A damp yarn object is easier to shape.  And when you finish knitting something, it may have been dragged all over hither and yon and have oils from your hands (or sticky stuff from your toddler) on it, and washing it is probably not a bad idea anyway.  (Hey—my favorite method for hand-washing is in that wool article too—good timing!)  (And speaking of good timing, Karen posted an eloquent argument this morning about why you should wash/block a swatch before embarking on a big project.  This is especially important when you’re making something like a sweater, where the final size/fit/drape is crucial to success.)

 

Does everything need blocking?

Not really.  I do wash all my finished knitting projects, shape them gently with my hands, and then leave them to dry.  But not everything needs to be pinned out, or to dry in an exact shape.  Socks, for example, are meant to be a little smaller than my foot, and to take on the exact shape of my foot when I wear them, so I don’t see much point in carefully shaping them before wearing.

 

How do I block something without special gadgets?

Everyone should have sewing pins, they’re useful for all kinds of things.  I’m not counting them as special equipment, but, it’s worth getting some with large, easy-to-see heads if you don’t have them already.  I like plain flat-head pins for sewing, but they get lost in the structure of hand knits.

The only other thing you need is a surface where your knits can dry that you can pin into.  A lot of times I use the same folded piece of flannel that I iron on.  An ironing board or a couch cushion covered with a towel are good choices for small projects.  For big items I stretch an old sheet over my bed (see below).

 

blocking shawl 1I tuck a doubled-over old sheet in tight over the bed covers.  That provides enough tension to hold in place when I pin onto it.  Plus it protects the covers from pin marks or any dye transfer from the yarn.  (Forgive the weird indoor lighting.  I wanted to show how I actually do this, but our bedroom is not ideal for photos …)

 
When your finished project is clean and damp, it’s ready to block.  Stretch and shape it with your hands, patting wrinkled areas out, smoothing ridges parallel, etc.  Pin in place any pieces that try to shrink back, away from the shape you want.

 

blocking shawl 2For this shawl, I pinned it at regular intervals along the straight edge, and intermittently along the other two edges.  You may have to move the pins as you smooth out the whole project, and that’s fine.  (This is my Indigo Boomerang, made with handspun.  More details are on Ravelry, and pictures of it worn are also in this post on slowness.)

 
For the cowl at the top of the post, I wanted to stretch the lace sections, but not the plain knitting in between.  I could have blocked it flat, a couple of sections at a time, and that would probably have worked fine, especially if I steamed it.  Instead I decided to experiment with different sizes of rolled up towels, and found a combo which was the right size to block it around.  I opened up the lace with my fingers while it was damp, and pinned the two edges parallel.

When your blocked knitting is dry, take out the pins and check out the shape.  If there are any parts you’re not happy with, or little pulled areas from the pins, those are great places to steam.  Hold your iron over the part you want to adjust (don’t flatten it) and fill it with steam.  Then take the iron away and reshape it with your fingers.

 

Will I have to block my knitting every time I wash it?

Probably not.  The most dramatic change takes place the first time the yarn gets wet in its new knitted shape.  Unless something extreme happens to it, it will stay more or less how you blocked it, with the additional influence of how it’s worn.  Lace may need to be re-blocked to look its crispest, but it won’t go all the way back to how it looked before you blocked it the first time.  For most items, a quick smoothing/stretching with your hands, before letting them dry flat is enough.  I like to drape bigger things like the shawl over the top of a wooden drying rack, using lower bars of the rack to hold the ends so that no part gets too stretched by gravity, or too folded and wrinkly, while it’s drying.

If your project does dry with wrinkles, a little steam will fix that right up.

I hope this helps demystify blocking for you!  The more we can all understand what’s going on with our yarn at various stages and why, the more we can get the results we want.  Happy knitting!

 

Sustainable, American-Made Garment Fabric — I Found Some …

A big announcement, and a list of sources:

Hello dear fellow makers! I’m actually not sure where to start with this … I’m either feeling deadly calm or like I might jump out of my skin. So here goes—sometimes, you just ask the right question to the right person, and then there you are. Remember when I was fed up with the NYC garment district, joined up with One Year, One Outfit, and vowed to contact Imperial Stock Ranch* because they had made a fashion collection using fabrics from wool grown on their ranch and entirely made in USA? Well. I did. Jeanne Carver, who owns the ranch along with her husband, wrote me back. She had some fabric left from the collection (!!). She offered to sell it to me, so I could offer it to you (!!!). Big bolts of two of these fabrics, basically the wool of my dreams, are in a huge box in my studio, and on offer to the whole online sewing community via my Etsy shop, starting today (!!!!). All the details about the fabrics are there.

*The story of the ranch is really amazing, and way too much to tell here.  Check out this article if you’re interested, which also has some nice pictures of Jeanne and her sheep.

 

striped imperial fabric 1My idea was to photograph these fabrics in a way that was fresh and felt personal, giving you an idea of what is would be like to wear them, and also conveying how lovely they are and how fabric like this might be all we need.  But yes, I am wearing clothes underneath …

 

I can’t believe it! Can we jump up and down now?! I’m trying to be calm for another minute or so, because this may in fact not be the most exciting part. The MOST exciting part is that, according to Jeanne, even though only about 7% of the American textile industry that once was remains today, we can still make any kind of fabric we want here in the USA. So, the most important thing you can do to make more fabrics like this a reality (other than, obviously, tell everyone you know, and buy some if you can!) is to tell us what you most want. If we make another run of fabric (a lot of just a few types) with Imperial wool, what would you buy? What would you want to make—a coat? A dress? A suit?! What are the qualities that make a wool fabric special to you?

 

black imperial fabric 1The black fabric is hard to show here but truly lovely.  Check out the listing for more detail photos.

Since Karen asked, and since I feel like we’re really on the cusp of something here—a growing interest in how our fabrics are made and where they come from which I very much want to be a part of—I’m also going to list the other suppliers of traceable, sustainable fabrics I’ve found so far below. I did a lot of this research while looking for fabrics for my One Year, One Outfit project, and I also love how much discussion is going on around this as a result of Slow Fashion October, so here you go:

 

Fabrics Made in USA

Organic Cotton Plus is probably the most comprehensive source I have so far. They have a big “Made in USA” section of organic cotton fabrics grown and processed here. They carry lots of undyed and colorgrown fabrics, both knit and woven.

Alabama Chanin is just all kids of cool, sustainable, and handmade, and they sell American made organic cotton jersey in 50 colors! I haven’t tried it myself yet, but since it’s the same fabric used in their collections it should be awesome.

Vreseis is the shop of Sally Fox, the pioneer of colorgrown cotton in the US. Everything she does is done with so much thoughtfulness. She’s now raising sheep and wheat to make a true biodynamic farm. Her shop offers a few fabrics, as well as yarns and fiber.

O! Jolly! is a newer, smaller, knit-fabric-making operation. Her commitment to sustainability comes through a little more in this interview on Ginger Makes (where I found her) than on her website, but she does offer colorgrown cottons, and lists origins and knitting locations for some of the fabrics, including some new wool knits which list the breed of sheep and that they’re American raised—yahoo!

Honey Be Good also specializes in organic fabrics and has a “Made in USA” section, which as of writing has mostly wooden buttons, and some printed jersey.

 

Fabrics Made Elsewhere

Simplifi Fabric (which I found through Sew Pomona’s list) has a fairly big section of fabrics made in Canada (and a few in the USA).

Hell Gate Fabrics is a new venture from Sonja of Ginger Makes, bringing us fabrics made mostly in Japan, where labor and environmental practices are much better than in many other countries producing textiles.  She plans to expand her selection of organic fabrics as her suppliers do.

The Fabric Store is where I found the organic merino jersey (from New Zealand) I used to make these tops.  It’s holding up well so far!  This store has locations in Australia, NZ, and Los Angeles.  Although they don’t have a full-service website, they do have a very friendly and comprehensive swatch service if you tell them what you’re looking for.

Offset Warehouse carries fabrics from all over, and they are quite transparent about where each fabric comes from and how it was made, if it is certified organic or sustainable, etc. They carry some truly beautiful and low-carbon handwoven/handprinted fabrics from around the world.

Many of the participants in One Year, One Outfit have been doing their own research and listing resources near them. You can find them listed here.

If you’re a nerd like me you can also browse the GOTS listings to find businesses making all kinds of things certified under Global Organic Textile Standards wherever you live. I haven’t made any amazing discoveries by doing this yet, but you never know …

 

black imperial fabric 2Bryan kept coming up with slogans like “fall in love with fabric again” as we were shooting these photos.  I like this one because it feels true, and it reminds me that doing something you feel great about can also be fun.

 

Really, the list of sustainable fabric sources is not as sparse as I thought it would be going in. One thing is clear to me: we make a difference when we choose to buy our materials with some thought and care as to how they’re made! The more demand there is for sustainable fabric, the more of it there can be. So, who’s with me? What’s your dream fabric?! Maybe we can make it happen!