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

 

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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 …

 

Make Your Own Retro Pro-Style Camera Strap

 

dad's camera strap finished 2

 

How to make your own camera strap, using the same hardware and webbing you’d find on one at the photography store, and practically anything you want for the strap!

When I got my new (used) camera, I just carried it around in the crook of my arm for quite a while, because I knew exactly what I wanted for a strap, and I couldn’t find it in any camera shop we visited.   The new camera is heavy (by my standards anyway) and I did not want a thin strap that would dig that weight into my neck all the time, I wanted a wide soft strap that would cup around my shoulder and hold the weight there.  I got this idea from Cat Bordhi (have I mentioned that she’s a mad genius?) specifically from knitting one of her mobius sling bags (in A Second Treasury of Magical Knitting), and it stuck with me.

 

camera strap on

 

You will need

I got the 3/8″ webbing and hardware to go with it from SewingSupplies on Etsy.  She made me a package deal like this one, which includes enough supplies to make two straps (each end of a strap takes one piece of webbing, one slider and one keeper).  I’m assuming that your camera has a ring or loop which 3/8″ webbing will fit through (most do, but some small point-and-shoots don’t.  You might be able to substitute something lighter, I would take your camera to the fabric store and see what you can find).

You will also need sturdy material for ends of the strap, where the strap meets the webbing.  I used Ultrasuede (faux suede leather) for my strap (above), and some scraps of real leather on a strap for my dad (the one at the top of the post).

If you want your strap to be adjustable, you’ll also need one slider and one loop of hardware, in a size that works with your strap material.

My strap is cut from a length of soft cotton textile woven about 2  3/4″ wide, which was in my mom’s stash.  I suspect that my parents brought it back from somewhere in their travels in the 1970’s, but neither of them remembered where, and they both said I could use it, so I did.  Dad’s strap is one his mom (my grandmother the weaver) made, which I put new ends and a slider on.  I found some similar straps by searching for “handwoven band” or “handwoven strap” on Etsy.  You could also start with a belt, or a guitar strap or anything else you like, as long as it’s sturdy enough to hold your camera and thin enough to sew through (which leather belts aren’t.  You might be able to use rivets though …).

 

Prepping the pieces

Cut pieces for the ends from faux leather or leather, a bit wider than your strap (allow extra width if your material is thick, so that it can come together and cover the edges of the strap), continuing that width for about an inch, and then tapering to an end to cover the webbing.  See below to visualize how the ends cover the strap and the webbing.  You will need two leather end pieces for each end of the strap (four total).

 

camera strap transparent

 

Cut a piece of the 3/8″ webbing about 7  1/2″ long for each end of the strap.  If you cut the ends of the webbing on a slant, it will make it easier to thread them through the slots on your camera.  I like to sear the cut edges of the webbing (to keep them from fraying) by passing them quickly through the blue part of a candle flame.

Either figure out where you would like your camera to rest on your body and cut the strap to that length (accounting for the ends and webbing) or plan to make your strap adjustable.  I knew exactly how long I wanted my strap to be (so that the camera would rest on the top of my hip), but I made Dad’s so he could adjust it (keep reading for how to do that).

If your strap fabric is prone to fraying/spreading out all over the place, you may want to stitch over the ends before putting everything together.  You can even use that stitching to gather in the end of the strap a bit, which I did for Dad’s strap.

Heavy duty stitching

Sewing the strap is actually pretty simple, it’s all about how to join two things which you really don’t want to come apart.  My camera is the second-most expensive and precious piece of equipment I own (sewing machine being #1 ) and as I said it’s kind of heavy, so I definitely want some heavy duty stitching here!  Basically you’ll do this by adding extra stitches to reinforce the critical areas.

A good way to attach straps for extra strength is to sew a rectangle-and-X pattern (I just realized I have no idea if there’s an official name for this … but here’s how to do it anyway).  Sew a rectangle just inside the edges of the strap, basically as big as you can inside the area where the strap and end overlap while catching all the layers (illustrated above).  When you get to the point where you started (this is the point with the curved arrow, where the illustrated stitches change from yellow to blue below), sew to the opposite corner.  Keep going, overlapping the stitches on one side, then diagonally back to the other side.  Overlap one side’s stitches again, to come back to where you started.

 

camera strap square and bar tack

Another way you can add stitches to an area that will get stress is to make a bar tack (that is the real name for this one) by using a wide stitch and a short stitch length.  Just keep in mind that every time you make a stitch it also makes a hole in the material, so don’t make the stitches so close together that the holes touch and make a weak place where the material could tear.

I used a mini version of the rectangle-and-X to attach the webbing to the ends.  A bar tack would work well too.  As usual, it’s a good idea to try out your planned techniques on some scraps to see what works.

Once you’ve attached the strap and webbing to the ends, I like to sew around the edge of the ends to keep everything neat.  Bury the thread ends wherever you can, and you’re done.

 

camera strap in progress

 

Leather 

I’m not a leather sewing expert, but I can give you a couple of tips if you decide to use real leather for the ends.  Although it’s more difficult to sew than the faux stuff, it’s wonderfully strong and malleable.  First, you will definitely need a leather needle.  The main difficulty is getting the machine to punch through the leather, and everything that would normally make your machine want to skip stitches (sewing over different thicknesses of materials, etc.) does so even more.  Go slowly, go over skipped stitches again or pick up the foot and go back.  Use the hand wheel if necessary, get the weight of the machine on your side.  Try switching between a regular foot and a zipper foot to sew around the edges of the ends.  I still ended up with some skipped stitches and broken/restarted threads to hide, but I was overall pleased with how my machine handled the leather and all the layers.

 

Adjustable straps

It’s not much harder to make an adjustable strap, you just have to wrap your head around how it works.

I’m such a visual learner, I need to draw it or better yet, lay out all the pieces to see how they’ll go together, as below.  One side is a simple length of strap that goes through the loop and back to the end.  The other side goes from the end, through the slider, through the loop, and back through the slider (inside the first pass).

Sew the strap end down so that there’s a short loop of strap inside the slider, covering the raw edge with the extra suede piece.  You can use the rectangle-and-X method again.

 

 

dad's camera strap layout

 

 

dad's camera strap finished 1

Special thanks to Bryan’s first 35mm camera for modeling.

A note if you’d like the strap to hug your shoulder like mine: I used two lengths of the strap fabric so that I could separate them to either side of my shoulder.  It turns out that it works even if I don’t separate them—I think as long as your strap is fairly wide and soft it will work to wear it on your shoulder.

Make any strap you want!  Nice, right?

 

Start Sewing with my Brand-New E-book!

 

HSM cover small

 

It’s the reveal of the super-secret project I’ve been working on for so long!  And it’s safe to say I’ve never been as excited about a post, or a project, as I am about this one.  Nearly a year ago, I had an idea to make a tutorial that would get people started sewing.  It would assume the reader knew nothing, and explain as clearly and approachably as I could make it, how sewing machines work and how to use them.

Well, it’s here, today!  Hello Sewing Machine is a PDF e-book, available for instant download from my Etsy shop!  I’ve spent the past year dreaming about it, writing it, drawing the illustrations, editing, doing design and layout, and learning so much about all of the above as I went.  It’s kind of unreal to finally see the finished product on a screen in front of me.  

 

HSM in progress

 

So, do you have a sewing machine sitting in your closet?  Would you like to get it out and start sewing?  Do you already sew, but you have someone you’ve been wanting to teach?  Do it today!  This guide will get you going.  It has everything you need to know about how your sewing machine works.  I want Hello Sewing Machine to be a bridge between would-be sewers and all the patterns, sewing blogs, fabric stores, everything that’s out there to help you make whatever you want.  All you have to do is take the first few steps to get started!

 

HSM page 7

 

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, I’m a firm believer in handmade, and that by being makers, we make our lives better in just about every possible way: more connected, more sustainable, more grounded, more satisfied, more joyous.  It’s my hope that this little book will give more people the tools they need to realize those benefits in their own lives.

 

HSM page 13

 

I’ll be celebrating this release with some very relevant beginning sewing posts (including an all new one on hemming jeans) plus some other very exciting things, so watch this space!