My apologies for the apology

One thing I have learned from reading about SBC blogs (as opposed to the blogs themselves) is that some people get awfully annoyed when bloggers post excuses about why they haven’t been sewing lately. To the effect of:

No one cares if you’re busy! Sew when you can, post when you can, forget the stupid schedule!

That’s not an actual quote, but I think it’s a fair summary, and it’s also a fair point. Dear Readers, if this describes you, avert your eyes. (Except for the last two paragraphs.)

It isn’t so much that I’ve been busy as that my dining table aka sewing space has been booked with actual, like, dinners. As in, I had guests for two weekends in a row, meaning that the dining table had to stay empty and the room fairly neat. Horrors!

Though, actually, it was pretty fantastic. This Thanksgiving I had several friends over, one of whom is new to Canada, and it was so lovely. I now want to do this every year. Plus, I got to use my fancy dessert plates and tea cups, which doesn’t happen often enough.

And then the following weekend was another meeting of the Dragon Tea Society, wherein some aunts and uncles came down, and we ate little sandwiches and pastries and drank tea. I won’t bore you with the details, but my Aunt Sue wrote about it on her blog, for those of you who may be interested. Frances got out her collection of hand-sculpted oven-bake clay dragons and her mounts of dragon stuffies and reveled in her role of Dragon Mistress. And who wouldn’t.

At any rate, it’s all been fantastic and so much fun, but I am itching to cover the dining table with fabric and cutting mats and patterns and the serger once again. This weekend!

In the meantime, I offer you this non-sewing related link: a Sci Am article about the importance of negative emotions.

Why? Because the more I think about this in my dotage (ahem), the more it seems to me that all of our emotions–positive and “negative”–would only exist if they had served an evolutionary purpose. Nature isn’t in the habit of giving us traits that get in the way of survival and reproduction. It bugs me (negative emotion) when I see people trying to wash away every trace of anger, dislike, irritation, fear, etc., because they’re “not good for you,” “irrational,” “dangerous,” “negative” or what have you. No. No, they are not. If they weren’t good for us, we wouldn’t have them. I say, be negative–and apparently, so do the experts.

Negative emotions also most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention, Adler points out. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. In a 2009 study psychologist David J. Kavanagh of Queensland University of Technology in Australia and his colleagues asked people in treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction to complete a questionnaire that assessed their drinking-related urges and cravings, as well as any attempts to suppress thoughts related to booze over the previous 24 hours. They found that those who often fought against intrusive alcohol-related thoughts actually harbored more of them. Similar findings from a 2010 study suggested that pushing back negative emotions could spawn more emotional overeating than simply recognizing that you were, say, upset, agitated or blue.

(This scholarly paper digs a bit more into the various theories of the evolutionary psychology of emotions.)

Review: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural HistoryI may have mentioned that 2013 was a steamroller of a year, and that Hibernation 2014 was basically me burying my head in the sands of sewing until I felt like I could look at the world again. After about nine months of denial, I thought I might be ready to test the waters of environmental catastrophe again–and I was right!

Have no fear. We are still mostly sewing here. But also, I read a book about one of the Ends of the World, and I survived, and I think I can even write about it.  So I will.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with all of Elizabeth Kolbert’s writing, it is beautifully written, compelling, meticulously researched, well structured, and absolutely terrifying.

The Sixth Extinction (which is happening now–you can be forgiven for not knowing that, since it is so abysmally reported on) is the tale of the many and varied ways humans are causing this latest mass extinction event. They’re all here: prehistorical and modern-day overhunting; transmission of invasive species; habitat fragmentation; climate change; ocean acidification. In keeping with the evidence, though very much against the preferences of human psychology, the book ends on a despairing note. While humans do expend a great deal of energy in identifying and saving particular endangered species when they are particularly beautiful or otherwise beloved, that is in no way up to the scale of what’s required, and it is very difficult to see how this could be turned around.

From page 214: “‘As a brief aside,’ he went on, ‘I read this news story the other day. A place called the Vermont Center for Ecostudies has set up this Web site. People can take a photo of any and all organisms in Vermont and get them registered on this site. If I had read that a few years ago, I would have laughed. I would have said, “You’re going to have people sending in a picture of a pine tree?” And now, after what’s happened with the little browns [bats], I just wish they had done it earlier.” (This after a chapter describing the collapse of bat populations from White Nose Syndrome, and bat researchers revisiting former caves where bats numbered in the hundreds of thousands, now not able to find any, walking through the empty caverns on a carpet of bat carcasses.)

I wish everyone would read this, or at least become more informed about it; not because there’s anything we can do by becoming more informed (there almost certainly isn’t:  many, and likely most, species will simply cease to exist). But because an event of this significance and caused by us deserves to be marked and mourned while it is happening. A biotic Holocaust is underway all around us, every day, species and families of species being shoved into gas ovens as fast as we can manage it; and outside, we celebrate sporting victories and royal babies and new gizmos to buy. I can think of no more severe condemnation of human nature.

That's a toad, eh?
That’s a toad, eh? Look at those itty bitty fingers!

Frances and I like to catch baby toads in the spring. They are itty-bitty, and they hatch en masse, so if you go to the right place at the right time of year, you will find dozens or hundreds of housefly-sized frogs springing all over the place like rubbery crickets. They’re adorable, and fairly easy to catch, and most children are entranced at the sight of these tiny little froggy things. You can have one perched on a fingernail.

According to The Sixth Extinction, this may not last. Amphibians are the most endangered class of animals globally, right now, due to chytrid fungus, spread from the use of the African Clawed Frog as an early pregnancy test, as well as habitat loss and fragmentation, water quality issues, climate change, etc. Over thirty per cent of amphibian species are at risk of extinction today, and the extinction rate for amphibians right now is 211 times the background rate as a conservative estimate. These are animals that have survived every mass extinction event since before the dinosaurs, but they may not survive us.

When I’m not sewing, or embroidering, or reading (or working or cleaning the house or making dinner or whatever), sometimes I do papercrafting. Not scrapbooking, per se, but it could be altered books or altered photos or painting  or calligraphy or some kind of multimedia project. When I was feeling particularly down about environmental issues last year (occupational hazard when you work in the environmental field), I made this.


At the time I thought I was exaggerating.

But apparently not.

And now maybe we need even more happy sewing talk than before.

View all my reviews

Be Polarizing

For those of you who’ve read and loved Learning to Love Criticism (and for those of you who haven’t, until just now), here’s a related idea: learning to love being hated, by at least some people some of the time: The Curse of Meh.

It is a simple mathematical reality that there are two ways of getting an average rating — either most people give you an average rating, or some people rate you really high and others rate you really low, yielding a cumulative middle ground. In mathematics, this concept is known as variance — the more spread out a set of numbers, the greater the variance.

What Rudder and his team found was that not all averages are created equal in terms of actual romantic opportunities — greater variance means greater opportunity. Based on the data on heterosexual females, women who were rated average overall but arrived there via polarizing rankings — lots of 1’s, lots of 5’s — got exponentially more messages (“the precursor to outcomes like in-depth conversations, the exchange of contact information, and eventually in-person meetings”) than women whom most men rated a 3.

Cool, eh? But what about those of you who aren’t interested in dating sites?

Indeed, the implications extend far beyond online dating and touch on the broader trap of public opinion. To play to public opinion or seek to please everyone is to aim at precisely that uncontested average, the undisputed and indisputable 3, obtaining which is a matter of being extra-ordinary rather than extraordinary. As soon as you aspire to be truly extraordinary, you begin aiming for those extremes of opinion, the coveted 5’s, and implicitly invite the opposite extremes, the burning 1’s — you make a tacit contract to be polarizing and must bear that cross.

The bitter irony of the human experience is that while most of us celebrate nonconformity, we tend to conform even in our nonconformity. In order to succeed in a mass-market business — perhaps the ultimate enterprise of catering to popular opinion — we’re encouraged to be “ambiverts,” smack in the middle of the introversion-extraversion spectrum.

I’m just going to repeat my favourite bit, there:

As soon as you aspire to be truly extraordinary, you begin aiming for those extremes of opinion, the coveted 5’s, and implicitly invite the opposite extremes, the burning 1’s–you make a tacit contract to be polarizing and must bear that cross.

Wow. I love that. And if you take a moment to think about any business, organization, cause, or person who has sincered and insanely devoted fans, it’s true, isn’t it, that they all have troves of haters as well?

I like data, and most of the time I prefer to come to my conclusions after careful consideration of all the evidence, giving it plenty of time to percolate. This time, hats to the wind: after one read of a pop-psychology internet piece whose references I have not reviewed, I’ll aim to be polarizing. Because, what fun!

Jalie Stretch Jeans for Frances, Theoretically

So I mentioned a few posts back about how Frances now wants to be wearing jeans again, and if you follow me on Instagram, you’ll have seen the picture of the jeans I started making, realized were the wrong size for her, and ripped apart.

And here is part 2 of that saga. I’m hoping it’s the second part of a trilogy, as I’d hate to have Jeans for Frances turning into a Wheel-of-Time-esque fourteen-volume epic fantasy. But time will tell. At any rate, it’s not done yet.

On the recommendation of some online sewing friends, I decided to give Jalie’s Stretch Jeans pattern a try. Jalie is a french Canadian company, and what’s more, there’s a small fabric store in Hamilton that sells their patterns, so hurray for no shipping fees. Also, their patterns have absolutely crazy multi-sizing: they start at about a girl’s size 5 and go all the way up to a woman’s size 3XL or so. All in one envelope.

In fact, all on one piece of paper.

This makes them very cost-effective, but it introduces its own challenges: for one, all of the nested pattern lines can be difficult to follow; this I solved by first tracing the size lines I wanted in a dark Sharpie pen so that I could then trace it onto pattern paper more easily. (It worked, if you’re looking for a solution yourself.) Also, the pattern pieces–some of them, at least–come kind of in a jigsaw-puzzle style, with for instance the top of the front leg on one piece and the bottom of the front leg on another piece, and you have to put them together before cutting out the fabric. It’s doable and laid out well, but it does take more time.

Proper metal blue-jeans button, pounded in with a hammer and everything.

I have no one to blame but myself and the dozens of nested pattern size lines for this goof, but: I accidentally traced and cut out the low-rise view.

It took me a while to figure this out, though, and by then I was already invested in them, emotionally and physically, in the form of cut-out denim pieces partially sewn together with front pockets and everything. But I’m getting ahead of myself:

I do like how the back looks. Too bad they're too low.
I do like how the back looks. Too bad they’re too low.

So, to deal with my bunny-girl’s sizing issues, I went with a straight size-7 for the back pieces, and at the front graded out a fair bit, as I usually do with knit pants and dresses (and it works well there). For these, it did not work. I’d assembled the front pieces and back pieces, done the top-stitching along the seams, and joined them up along the inseam, when I held them up to see how they’d fit. The front pieces seemed fine, but the back pieces were a good inch too short on each side.

Thus followed the very tedious process of ripping out the double top-stitching on the inseam and the serging.

I was lucky to have just barely enough of the denim left to cut out another set of back leg pieces and back yokes in a wider size (this was when I realized I’d accidentally cut out the low-rise versions of both the front and back, but I didn’t have enough to cut out new high-rise versions for the whole jeans, so I cut the low-rise again).

You can see why this project took forever.

Anyway. Sewed them up, did the double top-stitching again, assembled the front-fly, and basted the front and backs together and …

…it was too big. Not much, but too big.


Serged it down a bit on the sides for the final seams and back-tacked the side seams at the hips. It was also becoming clear that the low-rise version was not going to be high enough, but I wouldn’t know for sure until I got the waistband on, so I made up the belt loops, and put the last of it together, with a proper metal blue-jeans button and everything. And yes, it is too low.

It’s also too big. As in too loose. Which it really shouldn’t be, given all the trying-on we did while I was putting it together. But it’s the first time I’ve made blue jeans, so I expected some goofs and learning experiences.

blog-4-1Because they’re too loose and too low and I know Frances won’t wear them, I’ve decided not to finish the hem. I’ll just cannibalize them for denim scraps over time, and get some more stretch denim when I have the chance, and try again: high-rise; snugger in the waist.

The good news is that the rest of it went together pretty well and I got some decent practice on the contrast top-stitching and the assembly of the belt loops and waistbands and pockets etc. So the next pair will hopefully not just fit, but also look better. These ones were a bit messier than I’d like.

It’ll have to wait until I get more denim, though.

And hey, maybe after the conclusion of the Frances Jeans trilogy, I can make my own!

Photo Experiment Updates

One thing I thought would be fun with my experiment on blog photos would be a riff of the “working woman” stock photo. You know, she with the briefcase and heels, climbing ladders with a smile on her face.

(Such nice tall ladders.) And I still will probably do that. But first, a brief moment of WTFery for the ridiculous creature that is the Working Woman stock photo.

Yep. I totally go to work like this all the time.

Oh for sure. Babies are so cooperative.

Every day man. Dark suit. Hair up. Smile.

“Hi. I want this job so badly, I wore my nicest suit and exposed my breasts. Nice to meet you.”

To be fair, the fourth–dark suit girl–is the most typical shot: a young, slim, very attractive woman with a dark suit and a big smile. Because yes, in point of fact, we all do grin like idiots while we’re working. And our desks are as lovely as our faces, with no inconvenient traces of actual work to be seen.

I wondered, though. What would I get if I looked for Working Man stock photos?

For one thing, they’re older and they don’t smile so much.


For another, sometimes they’re women.

Very masculine.

ETA: How could I have forgotten the most important difference! The stock photos of Working Men don’t have babies in them. (Carry on.)

Trapped on the Island of Muslins

Well … trapped might be a strong word. But you know what I mean.

I have big sewing plans (for me) this season. There’s that suit, which means pants and a jacket. I want to make jeans, for me and for Frances. There’s the leather skirt. I’ve got fabric for some nice button-up shirts that I’m dying to sew, and another pair or two of knit pants for Frances, plus maybe a long-sleeved t. And maybe a couple of knit shirts for me, if I still have time after all of this insanity.

The thing is, it all requires muslins. Suits need to be fairly precise to be wearable; I’ve got the jacket pieces cut out, but need to find an appropriate lining (nothing too pricey; it’s just for practice) and get that cut out too. I’ve done up a test for the suit pants, and they’re ok, but they need some fitting adjustments. I’ve got a muslin sewed up for the leather skirt, and it’s pretty decent; but I want to be absolutely sure before I cut into that divine leather, so I want to finick over it a bit more and do some test sewing on some edge pieces to see what kind of seam would work best before I cut it out.

Figures I’d pick the $600 shirt–but if I make something like this, it’ll cost me >$50, notions included. Not bad, eh?

I sewed up a few muslins for some new shirt patterns. They fit pretty well, actually, so now there are cut-out pieces of the shirts in silk-cutton and double-gauze. Nice, yes? But I’m waiting for a Guaranteed Not To Shrink Interfacing to arrive before I can do much with it. Also, I want to do some embroidery on one of them, so there is much paging through of embroidery books and googleing of inspiration images to see what might look good to do. (Summary: colourful embroidery on a white shirt seems always to look very Western, which is not a look I’m going for, so I’m leaning towards whitework.)

I cut out and sewed up the front and back legs and crotch seam of a pair of jeans for Frances, then held them up to see if it would fit, and found out I’d badly misjudged the needed size of the back pieces, and spent many tedious hours ripping out the double topstitching and the serging, and re-measuring and cutting new pieces of denim.

I made her another pair of the Nature Walk Pants, sized better to her preferences. She loves them now.

Quiltalongs are quilting along. But yeah, how many of you want to see Farmers’ Wife Quilt Blocks? That’s what I thought. (Quick update: I’ve got like 40 blocks done! That’s almost enough for a quilt! Hurray!) (Quick further update: you know, patchwork is a fantastic lesson in precision sewing. I recommend it for anyone who’s looking to bone up on their details.)

And there was the dyeing with cochineal post, which both went on forever and managed to say nothing of interest to anyone but me. Right? Right. (You can still anticipate a nearly-identical post about woad at some point in the future. Don’t say you weren’t warned!)

The point being, I’m still sewing a ton, but I have no sewing that’s really blog-worthy. Like, as tedious as that cochineal post was (and I know it, you don’t have to spare my feelings), imagine how much more tedious half a dozen “hey so I’m making this but it’s not done yet and I can’t show you any pictures because I had to rip it apart before it was done enough that it could be modeled, so yeah, here’s a pile of stuff that might become a thing” posts.

So I have condensed them all into this handy summary post: So many muslins! All stuck in various stages of finishing! Nothing finished! Bah.

I do apologize. I know my wordy rambling about non-project related matters is of little interest to most of you. But project posts will return, someday soon. And there will be ridiculous photos of me wearing things I made that are not imperfect but that I’m still willing to take credit for in public. In the meantime, I offer you these wordy ramblings as a sign of my commitment to future picture-y ramblings. TYIA

Blog Psychology Pt 5: Susceptibility to Normative Influence

And at last the marketers enter the picture; or more specifically, what the marketers make out of this social psychology research, and their own research into social marketing.

Here’s what we have so far:

1. People don’t know why they do what they do nor why they believe what they believe. Oh, sure, we all think we do.  And sometimes we may even be right. But there is no relationship between certainty and the actual likelihood that your beliefs are true (I LOVE that research finding)–certainty is just a feeling, like anxiety or adoration, and it can be completely irrational and unfounded.

2. People’s memories of what they used to believe are basically crap. Just because someone remembers thinking that Product X was terrific before they were given one, or that Service Y was dreamworthy before they experienced it, doesn’t mean that they actually thought that way. We are all unreliable narrators.

3. The mere act of owning or having been given a product or item will cause most people’s opinions of that product or item to improve. And before you say, “Yes, MOST people; but I/my favourite sponsored blogger is/am an exception,” keep in mind that 75% of adult drivers think that they drive better than the average person, a clear mathematical impossibility. Most of us over-evaluate ourselves and think that we are exceptions to this kind of thing. But probably, almost certainly, you’re not.

4. And peer pressure is a real thing with deep roots that makes it very difficult for people to disagree with a group. A solid majority of us will change what we say to go along with a group at least some of the time.

So if you were a marketer in this brave new internet era, maybe you’d like to take some of your products and services and give them to bloggers for review. The act of having received the item or service will cause the blogger to have a higher opinion of it than they would otherwise–an honest higher opinion; they might even revise their memories of their previous opinions–and they will then share that opinion with their readers. Get enough influential bloggers to do this at the same time, and you create the impression of an online majority who all like your product or service, bringing conformity imperatives into play. However, this internet marketer might want some proof that this advertising will work.

And as it turns out, marketers have been researching this very question for a long time now: who pays attention to testimonials (which is what sponsored posts are, after all)?

The answer is found in something called Susceptibility to Normative Influence (aka, one’s “readiness to conform to others’ expectations regarding purchases, and the need to identify with others, or enhance one’s image by acquiring products or brands (Bearden, Netemeyer, and Teel 1989)” (Martin et al, 2008 )).

You can get your own SNI score here. My  SNI, if you are interested, is very very low: I got 1.1 on valuing others’ opinions, which means I don’t give a flying fuck what other people think about my purchases. The average for happy people is 1.8, and the average for unhappy people is 2.2. Which means, in other words, that caring about what other people think about what you buy is going to make you less happy. Or that it’s mostly unhappy people who do this. In either case, it’s something to avoid.

Honestly, until I came across this, it would not have occurred to me in a thousand lifetimes that someone might go around buying things because they think it will make other people like them more. What insanity is this? Anyone who’s going to like you more because of your jacket/magazine/sewing machine/dining room table isn’t someone you want in your life anyway.

Regardless, it all comes together like this:

1. Companies buy a lot of sponsored posts with a number of influential bloggers, for the cost of a bunch of books or free patterns and a few metres of fabric, plus postage.

2. The influential bloggers, thanks to the Endowment Effect etc., shift their opinions of the products and services in a positive direction, and then write about it.

3. This creates the impression of an in-group who all like the same thing.

4. The impression of an in-group who all like the same thing influences the purchasing behaviour of their followers or fans, particularly the ones who are highly susceptible to normative influence.

I mean, think about it for a minute: companies hire Social Media directors for, on average, $45,000 CDN. Over the course of a year they will spend even more on freebies and postage. Why are they doing this? To be nice? Of course not. They do this in the expectation that they will make back at least the salary + benefits + training costs + marketing and material costs in additional sales. Companies exist to make money, period.

But, you might say, isn’t it possible that all this social media marketing is just to increase awareness of the product or service?  But if that’s all you want, you’d just buy an ad. You wouldn’t risk a negative review by sending out the free stuff and giving the blogger free reign to write something damning–unless there were, in fact, not much risk of that happening at all.

Is it really realistic that of all the sponsorship arrangements currently in place, all of the compensated posts out there, that so few would be negative just by chance?

This isn’t the first time I’ve made these arguments, so I anticipate that some people will think (and not say) that I must be against free enterprise, capitalism, and women being paid for their labour. Not so. One of the things that most irritates me about these arrangements is how cheap they are. In sewing blogs, for instance, women will quite frequently spend $60+ of their own money on fabric and notions and hours of their own time to sew up a “free” pattern they received in exchange for the blog post, which constitutes marketing for the company in question.

What would make me happier is two things:

1) Bloggers being paid fairly for the actual work that goes into their end of the sponsorship agreement, and,

2) Being honest about its likely influence on the content of their posts, whether conscious or not, and allowing for the critical questioning of their readers.

Egos need to rise far enough on the one side that we (you–it’s unlikely I’ll ever get sponsorship, given my perspectives on it) demand fair pay for the work, and on the other side, need to bend enough to allow that it’s not a personal attack for someone to believe and state that the sponsorship deal might actually have shifted our opinions.

It’s ok to be questioned. It won’t kill you.

A long, mostly boring, very pointless, story about dyeing with cochineal

Lots and lots of cactus bugs.
Lots and lots of cactus bugs.

Last fall, almost exactly one year ago, I took an introductory class in natural dyeing.

It was a little disorganized, but I enjoyed it overall. We dyed linen, cotton, a cotton-hemp blend, and wool, using onion skins, cochineal, logwood and black walnuts.

Black walnuts made for some very pretty browns. Logwood (seriously just wood chips from the logwood tree) made brilliant indigos and purples. Onion skins made this amazing marigold yellow. And cochineal made fuchsias and pinks.

Cochineal, if you’re wondering, is the female of a beetle species that lives on the prickly pear cactus. Not to be overly specific, eh? Do you wonder how exactly this dye was discovered? I do. “Say, Bo: what happens if we dry out these bugs, grind them up into a fine powder, and disolve them in boiling water? Do you suppose they might dye our fabrics red?” “They might, Sep. But just to be sure we know what we’re doing, let’s separate out the male from female bugs.”

I mean, how would they even know which were the males vs. females?*

And they say that our ancestors weren’t scientific. What is this, I ask you, but science and experimentation?

Anyway, cochineal was the world’s foremost source of bright red dye prior to chemical dyestuffs. It still is used very commonly as a food colouring and as a dye for cosmetics. This apparently has caused big problems for some cafes and restaurants, because vegan customers would order bright red foods or beverages, apparently under the misconception that bright red=artificial. But no. Bright red=beetles. And actually all that bright red food your child is eating that you think is making them hyper? Probably bugs, not Mystery Chemical #9 or whatever.

Because cochineal is made out of ground-up lady beetles on one particular cactus species from one particular corner of the world, it was very rare and very expensive, and it still is.

Last year for Christmas, Santa** ordered me my very own jar of lady beetles.

Then I needed to set up my dyeing studio. I needed a burner for the basement, to boil the dyestuffs well away from my food. I needed cheap large pots to boil and soak things in.

I needed washing soda, to scour the fabric. Mordanting chemicals, to allow the dyes to bond with the textiles. Chalk (!!!) to bond the mordanting chemicals to the fabrics. Textiles to dye. Sieves and strainers, to drain things. Rubber gloves, to handle dyes and dyed fabrics and mordanting things without hurting myself or turning my hands pink.

All of these things I slowly collected over a few months, as the budget allowed. Washing soda I found most easily procured at the local health and organic food store. Mordanting chemicals I purchased through the internet (potassium sulfate and aluminum sulfate). Chalk is … well, chalk. You know where to get chalk. Textiles dye better when they aren’t already bleached or dyed, so I bought a few metres each of undyed linen and cotton off of Maiwa.

And then, bit by bit, I plugged away at each step of the dyeing process in the free time not already dedicated to sewing.

Scouring. No retouching on the photo--all that brown gunk came out of my nice clean textiles.
Scouring. No retouching on the photo–all that brown gunk came out of my nice clean textiles.

First, scouring: boiling your fabrics in large pots with dish soap and washing soda, and being pleasantly disgusted at all of the dark brown gunk you’ve dislodged from your pristine and never-used fabrics. Yuck.

Scouring them another time or two to make sure that no more dark brown gunk is hiding in them.

Mordanting: boiling them again, if you’re using potassium sulfate, in a large pot for an extended period of time, and hanging them up to dry. Or soaking them in a not-boiling pot with aluminum sulfate, if you’d rather, allowing them to dry and then soaking them again in chalky water to get the aluminum sulfate to stick.

(Fans of the BBC’s Victorian Christmas shows will be relieved to know that stale urine is no longer a part of the natural dye-er’s process. Instead, we have these lovely sulfates.)

And then you have fabrics you can actually dye.

Ground-up lady beetles, with my fancy-pants mortar and pestle (aka old teaspoon and small bowl)
Ground-up lady beetles, with my fancy-pants mortar and pestle (aka old teaspoon and small bowl)

Choosing the first dye to experiment with was not easy. They’re all so much fun, yet so time-consuming. Sigh. I decided to start with the pink-reds of cochineal, and set to grinding myself some lady beetles. (The amount of lady beetles to grind to powder is determined by the weight of the fibres you plan to dye, or WOF. You want about 3-8% of WOF in ground-up lady beetles.) Then dissolved them in boiling water, added the dissolved lady beetles (absolutely a brilliant red at this point) to a big pot full of water, set it to simmer, and added some fabric swatches and a few of my great aunt Annette’s doilies.

bug juice
bug juice
The original linen on the left, the dyed linen on the right. Subtle but you can see it.
The original linen on the left, the dyed linen on the right. Subtle but you can see it.

And they turned pink! But not pink enough, so I tried it again with a higher concentration of ground-up lady beetles. The shade of pink was better, but not as good as I would have liked. I think this is because both the doilies and some of the swatches were previously bleached (cotton and linen, respectively). The undyed linen swatches turned out a darker pink the second time.

I’m also wondering if the mordanting didn’t take the way it should.

This first time, I used potassium sulfate, which doesn’t bond with plant fibres as well as it does with animal fibres. To address this, you’re supposed to use tannin before the sulfate; but I didn’t, because I didn’t remember doing that at the class I took and that turned out pretty well so I thought maybe I could skip it. Then the dyed products were weaker than I expected, so … maybe that was it?

So I mordanted another set of fabric with aluminum sulfate, not supposed to need pre-tannining. But you do need to after-bond it with chalk. My goodness. How people used to do this in the days before chemistry degrees is beyond me.

I mean, who was the first person to think, “Say. You know what I should do, if I want these ground-up beetles (or chunks of wood, or dried skins of onions, or fermented woad leaves) to make my leathers and textiles a brighter colour? I should store my pee for long enough that it goes stale and stinks to high heaven. Then I should soak the textiles in that. THEN I should dye them. That’ll work!”

Anyway. The dyed bleached linen was for a particular project, so I’m not going to re-do that; but I am looking forward to some dyeing experiments with unbleached and properly mordanted fibres to see how punchy the colours can get. Stay tuned!


*Now having looked at the Wikipedia article, the differences between the males and females are rather striking.

**One of the most interesting parts of single motherhood, is that you have to be your own Santa. So in this case Santa=me. At least he always gets me exactly what I want, even if I do have to pay for it.

Blog Psychology Pt 4: Peer Pressure

So social psychologists have conducted a number of interesting experiments on the influence of groups on individuals. In one of my favourites, they had a group of people at a table and asked them a very simple question: which line on the right matches the line on the left?

A number of groups were assembled, and asked the same set of 18 questions, similar to the above. In each group, one person was a research subject, unaware of the experiment, and all of the others were plants or research participants. The research participants were instructed to give the same wrong answer most of the time, so that the research subject would have to choose between giving the right answer against the group, or going with the group and giving the same wrong answer everyone else did.

In the control condition, there were no groups: a single research subject was asked the same set of questions. These subjects got less than 1% of the questions wrong.

In the groups, the research subjects were far more likely to give the wrong answer. 75% of them changed their answer to the wrong answer at least once. Morevoer, some of them actually come to believe the incorrect answer was correct. It wasn’t just that they gave the wrong answer to go along with the group, but that their minds actually changed to accept the incorrect answer.

People don’t just go along with something they know is wrong, when a large group surrounding them claims it is true.

They may come to actually believe it.

You’re not an exception–something we’ll come back to in Part 5–and neither am I. By objective measures (and yes, there are objective measures–we’ll get to those in part 5 too) I’m less susceptible to peer pressure than most people. But it still happens. When it seems like everyone around us is singing from the same song sheet, it can be very hard to sing your own song. It’s easier to either stay quiet or sing along with the rest. But it’s precisely because peer pressure is so influential (and well beyond middle school) that it’s so important to try to speak the truth, or your own truth, especially when the majority says otherwise.

In order for the conversation to change, someone has to say it first.

For most of our evolutionary history, being accepted as part of the tribe was key to our survival. Despite many centuries of western Individualist tradition, no man is an island; and even the staunchest libertarian could not actually accomplish all of the tasks needed for survival without assistance. We’re super-social highly cooperative other-oriented tribal primates, basically, and feeling like we belong is a key psychological need. So of course it feels like shit to be the one person in a group to stand up and say, “Actually, I think women are men’s equals,” and “No, racism isn’t funny,” and “I do support gay marriage” and “I’ve had an abortion,” and yes even, “actually, I think that latest indie pattern/sewing book/fabric line kind of sucks.”

Unlike the first four examples (potentially), standing up in the SBC isn’t going to kill you. So you may as well practice it.

And bloggers, you may want to drop the claim that you aren’t being influenced by your sponsorship arrangements or that it’s a personal attack for anyone to question you or your sponsors. We’ve got to start embracing the idea that it’s ok to have public conflict and disagreement, because this is how things change–when people know that it’s safe to disagree with the group without exclusion or expulsion, then they will.

That was oddly hyperbolic for a series on sponsored blogging, I’ll admit, but I’m going to let it stand.

Oliver + S Nature Walk pants: pajamas for school

Ah, back to school. That time of year when a whole wardrobe full of comfortable, clean, cute clothes is discovered, in the course of the first two weeks of September, to be completely inappropriate and unwearable.

“MOM! I have no shorts to wear today!”

What are you talking about? I just did the laundry two days ago. You have a whole drawer full of shorts.

“They’re too short!”

? What? You wore them all summer and they were fine!

“But I can’t wear them to SCHOOL!”

Ah. Well, what do you want to wear? I’m not buying you a new pair of shorts in the next ten minutes, and you need to get dressed.


It’s a new school and she’s in grade 6 and of course both of those things means she wants to make a good impression on a whole new group of people, and not look like a little kid (she’s small for her age). So I get it.

For her whole life to this point, she has been a knits girl: knit shorts and t-shirts in the summer, jogging pants and t-shirts in the winter. For medical reason, anything with a non-stretchy waistband hurts, so she hasn’t worn blue jeans in many, many years. That’s fine by me. My priority is that she is able to learn at school, and being in pain because of your blue jeans isn’t conducive to that, so jogging pants it is.

She refused to put her book down. Wonder where she got that from?
She refused to put her book down. Wonder where she got that from?

So I spent the last few weeks of August hunting down patterns for knit pants that would be as comfortable as jogging pants but not look like jogging pants. Something a little neater and more stylish, but with lovely stretchy waistbands. I picked up the Oliver & S Nature Walk pattern and some navy blue french terry, and this is the result.

Standard modifications apply: used a size 7/8 everywhere but the front waistband, where I graded up both the front curve on the legs and the length of the front yoke to match her waist measurements.

(This is one of those practice things. For the years I’ve been sewing for her, I tended to grade up everywhere to her largest measurement and then just hack off the length, which didn’t really work. Last winter it just kind of clicked. Now I’m much more selective about which seams I grade up and by how much and where, and it works a lot better. Everyone looks better in clothes that fit them well; some of us just have to work harder than others to get that.)

Inner seams were serged. The left-needle thread was navy, but the rest were grey. I stitched the serged seams down with navy thread afterwards to prevent too much grin-through. Hems were standard–knit-hem fusible tape, turned over. Blind stitch at the bottom. Inner waistband seam done by hand with a stretch stitch to keep it comfy and neat. The exterior back stitches were done in the ditch–the main seam and the topstitch seam.

Not bad, eh? Totally respectable for a grade 6 girl on the cusp of puberty who wants to fit in at her new school. They’re a bit low-cut for her tastes, so next time I’m adding some depth to the crotch seam and widening the waistband.

Fun fact: this year she totally got into picking her “look” for the new year. I asked her what colours she’d like (so I could buy fabrics that she would wear). Blue and white, she said. Blue and white? I replied. That’s it? It sounds like it’s going to get boring after a while.

So she pored through those seasonal colour guides In Style puts out and eventually wrote me down a whole list of colours: navy blue. medium blue. sky blue. any blue really. teal. white. ivory. cream. and keep those separate, please. light grey. heather grey. light heather grey. dove grey. silver. and marigold yellow.

At least she will not have trouble putting together a matching outfit in the morning.

Although she has decided that she wants to wear blue jeans again, and I’m sure this is related, too. So my next fun tailoring task will be blue jeans for my bunny. Boot cut, dark stretch denim, nice jeans styling with all the right pockets and everything. Should be a fun challenge.

dispatches from the Greater Toronto Bioregion

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a local source for exquisite European fabrics

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crab & bee

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two sisters and their handmade adventures

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a sewing blog without the sewing

Dresses & Me

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