Bias can be a good thing, Darling.

Those beautiful gowns that everyone thinks of when you say “Hollywood Glamour”?  Or if you’ve heard of the fashion designer Madeline Vionnet?  Or maybe you sew, and you’ve heard it should be your biggest fear?

They all have something marvelous in common; bias cut fabric.

So what does that mean?  And why might it be scary?  Bias cut means that your fabric is cut on the diagonal compared to the woven edges of the fabric.  The “true bias” is at a 45 degree angle from the warp and weft of the fabric, but anything cut on the diagonal is considered bias.

In the 1920s, Madeline Vionnet began cutting her dresses on the bias.  Bias cut fabrics had been used previously, but Mme. Vionnet took bias to a whole new level.  Her graceful and elegant designs became the iconic look of the 1930s, particularly for evening wear.

Cutting the fabric on the bias created a softly draping silhouette that stretched and moved with the wearer, providing comfort and ease of wear that had been unheard of prior to Mme. Vionnet’s designs.  The dresses were unlined so as to prevent unsightly bunching or seamlines, and rumor has it that some actresses of the era got into trouble because the dresses could be scandalously see-through.

If you’ve ever worn a close fitting knit or bias-cut garment with underwear, you know that the seams for your undies, as well as the elastic and any wrinkles will show right through slinky, clingy garments.   One would think that such garments would also show every tiny flaw of your body, but in my experience, that’s not even a little bit true.

Mme. Vionnet’s dresses were often cut from beautiful silk crepe, georgette and charmeuse.  Rayon was also used.  These fabrics were very popular for bias cuts because they drape so beautifully, but that same property is what makes them so terrifying to work with.  If you want to strike fear into the heart of your sewist friends, ask them to sew with bias cut silk.  It’s slinky, slippery, stretchy, and likely to fray.  It’s tricky, to say the least.

But it doesn’t have to be!  Mme. Vionnet kept her garment seams on-grain as much as possible, leading to so beautiful, graceful diagonal lines and chevrons in the seaming.  If your seam isn’t on-grain, then marking your pattern piece with chalk and sewing your stay-stitching BEFORE you cut will prevent warping, and cutting with pinking shears or a pinking blade on your rotary cutter(my preferred method) will control fraying and provide a period correct seam finish in one fell swoop.  Stay stitching, hand basting, and judicious pinning (be sure to remove your pins before you sew over them, getting one caught under your needle will cause disastrous runs in your fabric!) will help control unruly fabric.

Fitting your bias garment is also a snap, because bias stretches, providing a very forgiving and comfortable fit.  Fabrics with beautiful drape will fall close to the body and skim curves, creating that stunning Hollywood look.

If you’re worried about slinky, shiny fabrics like charmeuse drawing attention to aspects that you maybe would prefer not to draw attention to, bias gowns out of silk georgette are less sheer than crepe, and have an elegant matte finish.  Georgette also practically refuses to wrinkle, so garments of it are excellent for travel.

I have now made three dresses out of bias cut silk, one out of georgette, one out of stretch silk charmeuse, and one out of regular silk charmeuse.  Each one had it’s own trials, and I learned valuable lessons from each.   I also learned that I completely adore wearing bias silk, anywhere and everywhere that I can get away with.  The first gown is floor length, and a beautiful stormy gray, and now that I’ve worn it to its intended event, I have been wearing it most evenings as lounge wear because it’s just so luxurious and comfortable.  The stretch silk slip gets worn similarly.  The third dress will probably join the rotation once the holiday party season is over.

Seriously.  Get ye a pattern for a bias cut dress.  Either draft it yourself, or go find a simple slip pattern somewhere.  It’s scary, and it can be challenging, but it is SO utterly worth it once you learn to sew on the bias.  The result is a beautiful, comfortable and classy garment that you’ll love for years.

Gloves

You know the saying “it fits like a glove”?  I’ve never had gloves that I would apply that to.  I’d be willing to bet that you haven’t, either.  I wanted to fix that, because I really like gloves, particularly unexpected and loud gloves.

Years ago, I decided to make a corset for myself.  I couldn’t find any information on it.  I spent months researching, and finally tracked down a couple of suppliers where I could get metal boning, and a pattern, but the internet failed me when it came to troubleshooting, or fitting, or even pictures of other people’s work.  Now, though, there’s information all over the place.  It’s fairly easy to find directions for drafting your own pattern, and information about what corset goes with what period, etc.

Gloves seem to be in that first phase.  I have found a very small amount of information about making gloves, and most of it is… bad.  The best I’ve found is what appears to be a transcription of directions to draft your own gloves from someone’s aunt, and the diagram that goes with it appears to have the thumb backwards.  It is… frustrating.  Also, because I’m working with leather, it’s terrifying in a whole different way; I’ve never worked with leather before, and leather is EXPENSIVE.  And unforgiving.  Once you sew it, there’s no going back and ripping things out; you’ve got permanent holes.

So, here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Tracing your hand doesn’t work.  It seems like it kind of might, but it doesn’t.  Your hand and fingers are a lot deeper than you think.

Fourchettes (the bit of glove on the sides of your fingers) can be either cut per finger and sewn together at the base, or cut as one piece.  Cut them as one piece, that is not a place you want a seam, and sewing the tiny bits together is a pain in the ass.

The thumb is both the most complicated bit, and the most important.  If your thumb hole and thumb piece are wrong, the whole glove will sit wrong.

If you’re going to sew leather, use the right tools.  Get a walking foot, and leather needles, and some scrap leather to check your tension on.  Also, make sure you’re using the right leather for the job; upholstery weight leather does not make good clothes, and there is special leather to make gloves from (it’s more stretchy than the regular kind, apparently).

If you’re going to sew gloves, make sure you have good lighting, and an awl.  The awl is not to punch holes.  It’s to help you control teeeeeeeny tiny pieces of glove while you’re sewing without risking sewing over your fingers.  Seriously.  The pieces are LITTLE.  And the spaces you’re working in are tight.

There are a lot of teeny corners in a glove.  Practice sewing your square seams.

Practically speaking, I might have done better to just buy a glove pattern, but I’m me, and I’m sure I can manage to draft my own, damnit.  I mean, really, how hard can it be!?  Well, if round one was any indication, pretty hard.  The first pattern was so tiny it would barely go over my hand, and the fingers were not even a little bit going to work.  The thumb piece did actually work, though the thumb hole on the gloves was facing the wrong way and slightly too small.  The fourchettes were irritating, but I expected that.  Thank god the seams are mostly straight; sewing in such tight spaces on curvy or odd seams would be hellish.

You don’t get a picture of round one of the pattern, because I did manage to get the glove on my hand, and then I couldn’t get it off and had to cut it free.  I’m saving the bits to use as decoration on later attempts, though, because I’m using some rather lovely green leather who’s only crime was being the cheapest and largest skin I could find.

Round two will go better, I hope.

Do one thing, every day, that scares you.

What scares you?  I, and probably everyone I know, suffer from Impostor Syndrome.  This is the fancy name for the feeling that you’re not good enough, and the only reason they haven’t hauled you out of your job for incompetence is because somehow nobody’s noticed yet.  And so one of the scariest things for me is to say “I’m a professional sewist, I can make that for you,” or to otherwise put myself out there as knowing what I’m doing.

I *do* know what I’m doing.  I’ve been sewing in earnest for nearly 15 years at this point, and I dabbled before that.  I tackle projects that others feel are quite advanced, and I find them easy, like corsets.  I tackle things like gloves that others refuse to even try, though I will admit that I’m terrified of cutting the glove pattern I’ve now drafted; I have no way of telling if what I’ve done is correct until I cut it out and sew it.  There’s just not much information out there on making and fitting gloves.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to say to someone “yes, I know what I”m doing.

Buttons

I have a bit of an obsession with buttons.  I have a mason jar full of miscellaneous buttons from my mother and a variety of other sources; for example, I can’t let a shirt go in the rag bin without cutting off and keeping all of its buttons.  I might need them!  Also, they’re little, they don’t take up much space!  Also, because nostalgia.

When I was a kid, Mom had a tin full of loose buttons.  Sometimes she’d let me pour them out and play with them, and it was so awesome!  There were all kind of buttons; glass, plastic, shell, metal, some of them even had rhinestones in them.  I loved the feel of them pouring through my fingers, and the sound they made clinking back into their tin.  I *still* love those things, and it’s part of why I keep my own jar of buttons.

Yesterday, I completed a new pair of pants for myself.  I drafted the pattern, and took my time fitting it so that they were perfect.  The fabric is wonderfully loud, and I have plans and fabric for a beautiful yellow blouse to go with them.  One thing I failed to do, though, was to get a button for the fly front!  I remembered to acquire a zipper, but completely forgot a button.  Boo!

I immediately reached for my trouser hooks.  My trouser hooks happen to live in another mason jar, next to my buttons, and while reaching for them, I figured I might as well go through the buttons to see if I had anything suitable.  It was unlikely; the pants are navy blue and white in a very large print, and I didn’t think a metal button would go well.

As I poured buttons out onto my work table, a blue flash caught my eye!  And lo!  I have four buttons, each white with a blue triangle on them.  Utterly perfect for the print on these pants.  And it’s even the right blue.  I apologize for the terrible picture, but I wanted to show the button clearly without prematurely showing off the pants.

This is why you keep things.
Serendipity!

Beautiful failure

I was told, once, by a teacher that we practice so that our body won’t get in the way of what our soul wants to express.

I believe this saying in mostly the same way I believe you can’t compare apples to oranges.  I understand what it’s trying to say with my intellect, but not so much with my heart.  It sort of makes sense, if you think about it.

But some days, I have a great need to Create.  Some days, I see visions of the things I might make, if only my body were skilled enough, and then I understand my teacher with my heart and my head.  On these days, days like today, I often avoid trying to Create, because I strongly suspect that I will fail.

But what’s a little failure?  If I try, and fail, I will have learned something, and next time I will do better.  Each time I fail, I knock down one more barrier, my path is a little easier next time.  Maybe, by the time I’m old, I will have knocked down enough to have a clear path.  If I don’t try, at the end of my life, the forest of obstacles will still be there.

If I don’t try, I won’t fail, but I will also never succeed.  I would like to see the visions I have come to life.  I want to see them dance through the sun, and to share them with my loved ones.  I want you to see what I see when I put my hand on the lovely vintage lace, or when I lose myself in my studio for days.

A few times, I’ve come close.  I have made one dress that was so nearly perfect to my vision that it made me want to cry with pride.  I have made another dress that was perfect to my vision, because I started by falling in love with the pattern for it.  Years ago, I painted what I saw, and it was good enough that I could admit it.

Now, after years and years of practice, my creations are closer and closer to my vision.  I’m learning skills and techniques and they’re becoming part of me; no longer things I need to think about, they are simply things my hands do for me when it’s appropriate.  The most important thing I’ve learned, though, is how to fail well.

I give it my all.  I use the beautiful fabric, I waste the nice leather, the good tools.  I ruin the vintage lace.  It’s heartbreaking, but if I do not try, I cannot succeed, and I’m not trying if I’m using second rate supplies or running on no sleep.  I have learned to fail with all my heart, and to smile when I’m done, and love the creation for its flaws and for what I learned.  These days, I often also love it because it is beautiful, if not exactly what I had in mind.

We all fail.  Repeatedly.  Horribly.  Fail joyfully, knowing that you gave it everything you have, because anything less will never ever create what you wanted anyway.  Fail spectacularly, gleefully, messily.  Create with a vengeance.  If you keep at it, and get lucky, your body will learn to get out of your soul’s way.

Spindles.

Russian style spindle from Pumpkin Hill Farm
Russian style spindle from Pumpkin Hill Farm

So I promised a post on spindles a week or so ago, and I thought it would be a fitting first blog post over here, given that spindles are quite new to me.

First things first; what is a spindle?  What’s it for?

Well, a spindle is a tool used to create yarn from loose fiber, like sheep’s wool or cotton fluff.  The cream colored blob that the spindle above is resting on is undyed wool.  You make yarn by pulling a long thin strand of your fluff-of-choice, called roving, and twisting it to make it stay together.  Rope is made in a similar way, just on a larger scale.  This pulling and twisting is called “spinning”.

A spindle is basically a stick with a weight, or whorl, near one end.  Today, we often see drop spindles with either a top or bottom whorl, and a hook to help keep your yarn in check.

We’ve been spinning yarn using various methods since neolithic times.  We’ve been using weighted spindles like the one above for nearly as long.  Somewhat unsurprisingly, this results in quite a number of different spindles and spinning methods across various cultures.  Well, I suppose, it *should* have been unsurprising, but it wasn’t.  I mean, I’ve seen drop spindles before, and there’s top whorl and bottom whorl, and that’s all well and good… but there’s so many more than that!

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine mentioned that he’d seen someone spinning yarn by hand in San Francisco.  I asked him what kind of spindle, and he replied that it had seemed like the person was using a crack on the deck to support the spindle and keep it upright.  I had never heard of such a thing!  So I started looking.  Mostly, I was looking at pricing for drop spindles; I had owned one previously and remembered them being fairly inexpensive.  I just wanted to verify that thought before I suggested my friend acquire one.  But as I was looking at spindles, I started seeing oddly shaped ones; they were neither top whorl nor bottom whorl, and there was no hook!  How would the spindle not fall to the ground?

I found several types of these odd spindles including Russian, Tibetan, and Indian, called Takli.  The information I found about them called them “supported spindles” or “support spindles”.  And there was my answer.  The spindle isn’t suspended in the air the way a drop spindle is (and suddenly I knew why we call them drop spindles instead of just spindles), it’s spun supported in a bowl, or cup, or, apparently, a crack in the deck.  There are special bowls that you can buy to support your spindle, including ones with a long handle that is held between the thighs and which looks like the cup portion of those cup and ball games.  I’ve also seen people using little condiment bowls, or teacups.  I’m currently using a candlestick with a conveniently shaped bottom.

So why the different types of spindle?  Well, a drop spindle is suspended in the air by the fiber you’re spinning.  If you’re spinning short fibers, like cotton or some kinds of wool, or if you’re spinning very fine yarn, you risk breaking your yarn with the weight of your spindle.  It’s better, then, to have the spindle supported and you can choose how much tension to put into your yarn.  Drop spindles are better for thicker yarn; the added weight allows for more twist to be added to the heavier yarn, making it stronger.

In addition to the top whorl and bottom whorl drop spindles, there’s Turkish spindles, which can be folded down flat. There’s also kick spindles, which differ from spinning wheels, but I don’t know how because I’ve never used either one.

Adventures in Sewing and textile nerdery