Category Archives: burrow & sing

WIP Wednesday: Farmers Wife Quilt-a-Long(s)

bloggish-3You know how I said that you should stand before you stagger before you walk before you run?

Yes, well. I took on a few learn-to-quilt projects, and then decided to join a couple of farmers’ wife quilt-alongs. Which is something like jogging around the block a few times, deciding this isn’t so painful, and signing up for a marathon the next day. I can run for 26 miles without stopping! Why not? Eh? How hard could it be?

The Farmers’ Wife Sampler Quilt is a book that has been enormously popular in the quilting world since it was published in 2009–and almost equally reviled, and sometimes by the same people. The quilt itself is gorgeous, a sampler quilt of many, many fiddly little blocks with many beautiful little bits. The book is charming, publishing as it does a number of 1920s letters from farmers’ wives in America, writing about why they would choose the life of a farmer’s wife for their own daughters. And the instructions are pretty much terrible.

The whole thing is based on templates. There are no rotary cutting instructions. Not only that, but the templates come on an accompanying cd (which is especially fun if you have a super-new laptop without a cd drive), and each one–as in, each type of little block–is published on a separate pdf page, so that printing them all out is a 115-sheet proposition of click-print-click-print-click-print. I’ve printed out about 50 of them so far. And I have also measured any of the ones that are squares, rectangles and triangles so I can bloody do rotary cutting if I want to, then wrote the measurements into the book beside the block numbers, so I don’t need to refer to the templates for those blocks in the future–and if some of those measurements happen to find their way into pictures of my finished blocks, oh well.

At any rate, Needlework (my favourite local fabric store) is doing their first quilt-along this year, based on the Farmers’ Wife Sampler Quilt book. They’re running at a quite civilized pace of one block per month, and starting with something nice and easy: the Friendship Star, composed of five squares and eight half-square triangles (pictured above). And if you use fabric bought at Needlework, you are entered into a draw for a $10 gift card!

I don’t kid myself. I know full well that if I win that $10 gift card, I’ll use it to excuse a $100 fabric purchase. Still, what fun! Since my patchwork skills are still so patchy (haha), I thought I’d start off by making 2-4 of each square, assuming that the first one is guaranteed to be a mess but after having put a few together, I might actually have gotten it right. And if more than one works, then by the end of the year, I might have enough blocks to assemble a lap quilt (each block is meant to be 6.5″ square–apparently, this isn’t stated in the book, but I’ve seen it in the online reviews; and it makes sense with the measurements, since each square is 2.5″, and there are three of them so 7.5″, subtracting two seams of 0.25″x2 each, equals 6.5″. See? And then once they are sewn together with 1/4″ seams, they’ll all be 6″ square. No? Nevermind. The point is that the squares are pretty small, so 12 of them sewn together is going to be an itty bitty doll-sized quilt.)

bloggish-15In the middle of all this, lovely Laura proposed her own quilt-along based on the same book. Fabulous idea! Double the blocks=double the fun! You pick the first square, Laura! said I. And she did. A beautiful block called the flower basket, composed of three small blocks, two large half-square triangles, four small half-square triangles, and a curved handle to be appliquéd on by hand. A titch more of a challenge.

…How on earth does a post about sewing a bunch of quilt blocks become this long? I apologize, Dear Readers. There’s really no excuse. And I’m still not done.

So: two types of blocks over the month, 2-4 of each, and by the end I should be pretty good at them=The Plan.

Four of each type of block over one weekend and the first five not 6.5″ square=The Execution.

All four of the Friendship Star blocks you see at the top came out at about 6.25″ square, which is only a 1/4″ difference, but when you multiply that over a quilt–and also when you are trying to match up seams and sides for sashing and borders–that 1/4″ can become pretty important. And then the first square of the Flower Basket was also 6.25″ square (without the appliquéd handle. Baby steps. I still have three weeks.)

Only one thing for it: make all of the seams less than 1/4″. This saved the remaining three flower baskets, all of which were (with my new eyeballed seam allowance) just over 6.5″ square, allowing for a bit of trimming and neatening up. And the points match and everything!

friendship star-2I then cut out two new Friendship Star blocks in different fabrics (this time from Needlework), sewed them up, and they too came out at just over 6.5″ square. Phew.

This (for anyone who is keeping track) comes out to ten blocks sewn up in total, five of which can be used in the final project(s). Hopefully my ratios improve. And I still have some excellent opportunities to bungle my remaining Flower Baskets with that appliquéd handle.

What to do with the four friendship stars and one flower basket that are not quite big enough is my next decision.

Dragon Central (part I)

Frances does like to sew, but her first love is clay; and if, at any point, you see her working with clay, she’s probably making a dragon.

bloggish-8Apparently there is a book for younger kids that became the basis for a whole series of books for older kids in which a lady and her daughter make dragons out of clay, do some kind of magic using a Christmas snowball, and the dragon comes alive–but only people who really believe can see them. So she’s been building up her dragon collection, and this Christmas she made her snowball; no luck yet with the dragons coming alive, but as I am not yet allowed to throw out the snowball, I don’t think she’s quite given up hope.

Anyway. Frances has asked me to share her dragons with my friends, which, as I am always looking for excuses to talk about Frances, is fine by me. I hope you like these adorable dragons as much as I do, because believe me I have more to share. “And tell them that if they like them, I’d be happy to make them one too,” she said. For a Girl Guides badge right now she is drawing up a business plan for a little stall named Dragon Central, selling homemade clay dragons, so she might even mean it.

Above we have Fireball (left) and Danielle (right). Fireball is a fire dragon, and Danielle is a Security dragon (hence the fancy collar and badge, and the clay hat in the foreground which has a little camera hidden inside). Neither are for sale, I am sure, since these two are Frances’s favourite homemade dragons ever.

Building up the Someday Shelf

McCalls, Butterick and Vogue had one of their regular dirt-cheap-patterns sales, ending yesterday. I ended up ordering nine patterns, and paid–taxes and shipping included–around $50. Considering that a single Vogue pattern can retail for $30 at a sewing store, that is a very good deal. Not that I will sew any of them any time soon, but I will be able to look at them on my shelf of sewing patterns, and begin collecting fabrics and notions.

This suit is one of the patterns currently making its way to me by post. The neckline details on the blouse are neat (though I think I’d want to slim it down) and the pants have a waist. Pants With Waists are one of my main motivations for sewing. I hate low-waisted pants, and I particularly hate being unable to find pants to wear to work that allow me to sit in my work chair without constantly pulling my shirt down over my butt.

Shirts With Buttons That Fit are another big reason I sew clothes for myself. It’s always frustrated me that while men have shirts that can vary by  neck width, length, sleeve length, and torso size, women generally can choose between small, medium and large. As if women’s bodies, above the waist, all expanded volumetrically in identical ways. Speaking only for myself, if I find a button-up shirt in a store that fits reasonably well across both the bust and the waist, it’s a minor miracle; and even then, the back will be all bunched up and the darts are sure to be in the wrong place. Did you know that almost every clothing manufacturer sizes their clothes to fit a b-cup?

Anyway, so I ordered a bunch of shirt patterns, including this one. $4, and it came with a bunch of options  for collars and cuffs and sleeves. I could sew a whole wardrobe’s worth of Shirts With Buttons with this one pattern (once I figure out how to adjust it to fit properly, at any rate).

Then there is the  Sewing for Frances sub-shelf, wherein I try to make her clothing that is comfortable, doesn’t drag behind her on the ground, and which she will actually wear. Unfortunately, sewing patterns for kids consist of approximately 95% fancy dresses, and 3% fancy tops and pants with ridiculously enormous frills and ruffles on them. Frances prefers jogging pants to almost any other item of clothing on the planet. So there’s a disconnect.

I ordered this: a bat-wing t-shirt with gathers, and leggings. (And a bunch of other tops, too, but the bat-wing one gets my vote.) Frances is also excited about the possibility of a bat-wing top, which helps. Plus, a pattern for boys’ pants (of five total patterns for boys across all three brands) which, if I take off the cargo pockets, might make a decent corduroy pattern.

I also added to the natural dyeing Someday Shelf with a sale purchase of some undyed fabric–but more on that when I’m ready to try it all out. I have the kitchen scale, the stainless steel stock pots, the mordants, the dyes, and the fabric is coming…. Now all I need is a hot plate.

What am I going to do with my home-dyed fabric, you ask?

No idea. What’s your point?

WIP Wednesday: Where I run and fall flat on my face.

bloggish-12So I like to crochet, eh? But I’m not an expert by any means. Still, I buy crochet magazines and have a set of crochet hooks and a little inexpensive yarn stash (mostly Michaels), and like to crochet scarves and cowls and other mostly flat, mostly square or rectangular objects.

Then I went to my local knitting shop, HandKnit, while I was already downtown looking at the local fabric shop. So dangerous when they are so close! And I sat in a puddle of my own saliva on the bench looking at all of the wonderful fibres. Merinos, cottons, alpacas, silks, linens, blends! In lace weights, fingering weights, worsted weights, chunky weights! Corals, oranges, blues, purples, heathers, lemons, scarlets! Oh my. I was not capable of leaving without a few skeins of yarn.

Well, I might have been capable, but I decided not to test that theory. I bought some yarn. Two lovely skeins of blue alpaca chunky yarn for a cowl and ear-warmer for Frances, and some gorgeous lace-weight fuzzy angora-silk yarn in a beautiful bright coral red, for the stash. Wouldn’t that make for a beautiful crocheted lacey cardigan? I thought. Something for spring.

Wouldn’t you know it, but in all my crochet books and magazines I found no patterns for beautiful lacy cardigans suitable for spring. Scarves, doilies, snowflakes, trims, ear-warmers, hot plates, disch-cloths, girls’ clothes, and the occasional sweater, yes. Lovely lacey spring-y cardigans, no. Drat.

Clearly, I needed more patterns.

Also clearly, I needed more yarn, so I could crochet a project pattern I had on hand. (Frances’s ear-warmer and cowl did get made up and turned out rather well, I think, though the ear-warmer could stand some tightening as it is a bit loose.)

What I really wanted, I decided, was a sweater I could wear with my red skinny jeans.

These red skinny jeans are incredibly comfortable, fit very well, are a beautiful shade, and are a continual fashion challenge. Maybe not for the vast majority of modern-day North Americans who tend to fill their closets with varying shades of black, grey, and beige, but I actively avoid purchasing black, grey, and beige, which means that all of my nice bright shirts clash rather vocally with my nice bright jeans. I have a lovely, ivory, very fragile sweater that I can wear with them, and which rips every time I wash it. (Argh.) But it would be nice to have other options. Why–you know the refrain by now–buy something when I could make it myself? Surely in one of my crochet magazines I would find a sweater pattern I liked, and then I could go back to the yarn store and get some lovely yarn and make a sweater to wear with my red skinny jeans.

sweater picture
From last year’s Crochet! winter issue. Sorry for the crappy scan.

I found one. One sweater pattern, in all of my magazines, which did not look boxy and weird, and which provided adequate coverage so that it could be worn on its own, rather than on top of something else. I bought additional magazines, but they yielded no new sweater patterns. I bought a book about crocheted sweaters, but nothing in it was really great for a warm winter sweater that could be worn on its own. (Though it did furnish inspiration for future crochet sweater projects.)

The pattern was rated as “moderately challenging.” Well … just because I haven’t crocheted a sweater before doesn’t mean I can’t do it … right? Especially if I go very slowly and am prepared to rip out many stitches on the way … and it’s not like the photo from the magazine will be pinned to the back of the sweater so if it doesn’t come out quite right, who will know? It just has to be good enough to wear.

Not-so-brief Aside about Colour Theory:

Really, nothing clashes. I know what I said above, but that is more a nod to social convention on my part than an actual conviction that yellow-and-red or pink-and-orange don’t belong together. There are only colours that our eyes have been trained to see together, and colours that they have not. What colours your eyes have been trained to see together has more to do with your physical environment than anything intrinsic about the colour wheel. It is my personal conviction that the reason that so many people are afraid to wear colours, and wear so much black grey and beige in the belief that they and they alone “go with everything,” is the logical result of a heavily urbanized society, in which we spend our days surrounded by asphalt, concrete, and glass. Our eyes are no longer trained to see colours together. But if you go anywhere outside of the city limits, or even to the local botanical garden or park, you will see lots of colours in happy juxtaposition and your eyes will probably quite enjoy it.

The true neutrals are blue and green, for the simple reason that blue and green exist in almost every environment around the entire planet, so our eyes are trained to see them with everything. Black, grey, and beige are not frequent colours anywhere but in human cities (and other deserts). No matter what you are trying to match, there is a shade of blue or green that will look splendid with it, even to modern-day North Americans. Give it a try.

I found a sort of muted seafoam yarn. Greenish-blueish, not too bright (pictured above). Very pretty. Alpaca-wool-silk blend, super soft, a bit nubby in texture, and the right weight. And I calculated that I would need 18 skeins.

They had ten, so I left an order for another eight.

This used to be several skeins of yarn. Now it is a single hunk of yarn, in a different shape. One day, god willing, it will be a sweater.
This used to be several skeins of yarn. Now it is a single hunk of yarn, in a different shape. One day, god willing, it will be a sweater.

I started crocheting the sweater in early December, and I’ve so far completed the waist-band-to-bottom-hem portion, with some progress above the waistband. I’ve done the waistband itself three times and am still not completely happy with it–it certainly doesn’t look like the photo, but once done and properly blocked it will be pretty regardless, I think. Also, the nubby texture of the yarn hides any number of stitching sins. Once I got the remaining eight skeins, the dye lot turned out to be ever so subtly different (one is a bit greener, and the other a bit bluer) which really showed up in the actual garment, so I cobbled together a way of switching back and forth between skeins of different dye lots to make it look like it’s just sort of variegated. The waistband, however, is quite noticeably bluer than the rest of the sweater. Oops. God help me if I run out of yarn and need to get another skein or two to finish it.

Of course, when I was back at the yarn store picking up the eight skeins, I fell in love with a soft merino blend in fingering weight, a lovely marigold yellow. This winter has been about the coldest and greyest I can remember, and apparently my subconscious has decided to address this through the application of a sunny orangey-yellow in as many places as it can be managed, including this yarn and a few metres of quilting cottons to be turned into cushions and couch throws. Four skeins of the yellow, I reasoned, should be enough to make a short-sleeved shirt perfect for spring. A library book had the perfect-seeming pattern, which means I’ll have to buy the book, because I won’t finish the sweater in three weeks.


I think when I started this post it was about how sometimes, trying something out of reach of your current skill level can be fun and good, as long as you have low expectations for success and a lot of patience to correct errors. This sweater is definitely a staggering-around-bashing-into-things learning project. Hopefully I can wear it when it’s done, particularly since it involved buying 18 skeins of alpaca-wool-silk blend yarn that is so soft it would be criminal to waste. And then led to the purchase of extra magazines, an additional book and four skeins of yarn. Which, since the new yarn isn’t quite right for the project that requires 4 skeins, means I might have to go back to get a few more. And there’s only one thing that can lead to.

You see how this making-stuff-yourself thing can get out of hand. People think making your own clothes is cost-effective. Ha! No amount of economizing on your part will ever make up for the economies of scale of mass clothing producers and dirt-cheap third-world sweatshop labour (but would you really want it to?). Factor in the impulse purchases, the new projects, the botched projects, and the sheer time involved in making something you would actually want to wear, and anything you make yourself is bound to be more expensive.

But then, you get to make it yourself. And spending an evening in the comfy chair crocheting while Frances tells me about her day and we discuss our weekend plans is a ton of fun.

Review: Embellish Me: How to Print, Dye, and Decorate Your Fabric

Embellish Me: How to Print, Dye, and Decorate Your Fabric
Embellish Me: How to Print, Dye, and Decorate Your Fabric by Laurie Wisbrun
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you want to fill your head with cool ideas of things to try, this is a great book. If you want a beautifully put-together treasure trove of great project photographs, interesting interviews, and introductions to various kinds of embellishment techniques for fabrics, this is a fabulous book.

If you are looking for serious instruction in any of the techniques contained in this book, chances are you will be at least somewhat unsatisfied. Speaking as a lifelong embroiderer, for instance, the embroidery section–spanning a couple of pages–spent more time on instructions for transferring patterns to fabric than the actual embroidery. Transferring patterns is very important, yes, but so is the difference between a running stitch, a back stitch, a french knot, satin stitch, split stitch, and chain stitch. Yet oddly, instructions on different kinds of stitches are not there.

So a 5/5 for brainstorming and inspiration. A 2/5 for technique and skills-instruction. It has given me some wonderful ideas for dyeing fabrics and making my own patterned fabric, but I’m thinking I’ll need further details from other sources on the actual execution.

View all my reviews

Staggering is Fun. Eventually.

Poor shirt. So botched it didn’t even deserve to be taken out of the closet for the photo.

Speaking only for myself, I was an absolutely terrible beginning sewist, and remained a pretty terrible sewist for the first few decades of my life. If I was born with anything, it wasn’t sewing talent–it was a bad case of why-would-I-buy-that-when-I-can-make-it-myself-itis. The progression of this disease is deadly and, if left untreated too long, quite expensive.

Most people, I’ve noticed, are born with the reverse why-would-I-make-that-when-it’s-cheaper-and-easier-to-buy-it-itis. This is sensible. If you are one of those people, however, you’re not reading this.

My first clothing project was in middle school, home ec, just like everyone else. And just like everyone else, it was horrible. A pink fleece miniskirt. I never wore it. I passed the course, though. For years afterwards I remained convinced that I could sew, even though I couldn’t manage to thread the machine without looking up the manual and couldn’t distinguish a shirting from a coating fabric to save my life. I did a bunch of hand-sewing, in particular thanks to an aunt who gave me a make-your-own-tiny-teddy-bear kit for Christmas one year. I made the tiny teddy bears in the kit. I then bought more felt and made more tiny teddy bears–and more and more. If you are related to me, it’s nearly certain that at some point, I gave you a tiny felt teddy bear.

In high school, I picked up cross-stitching. To this very day I can’t for the life of me tell you why. Other kids would be, oh I don’t know, playing cards or reading a book or out in the front of the school smoking illicit cigarettes on their lunch breaks. I would be cross-stitching. I was a happy kit-and-pattern cross-stitcher for many years. Someone needs a present? Why, I should cross-stitch them something! Ten free minutes in the doctor’s office? Good thing I brought my cross-stitch! First efforts were terrible; I missed stitches and entire rows and my diagonals didn’t match. Kindly, no one ever pointed this out to me.

I made myself a couple of dark red velvet skirts in highschool. They were fun, and I wore them a bunch. Then came the grad dress.

“Why would I buy a dress,” I thought, “When I can make it myself?” Cue disaster music.

I ventured to the Fabricland for the first time in many years and found a pattern for a halter-top dress with a fitted top and a full skirt, and a few metres of a very soft teal silk (the teal fetish is an obsession of long-standing). And I botched it.

Totally botched it.

Could not, for the life of me, figure out the pattern.

I wailed. I cried. I slammed doors in frustration. This, by the way, is perhaps why you would want to buy something instead of making it yourself. Though you’ll notice in my case that the cure did not take.

I was eventually rescued by my mother, and the dress turned out very well, particularly with the addition of a nice crinoline. And this was the last time I attempted to sew clothing for many, many years. Or at any rate a decade, when I started making clothes for myself for work, and made a few key mistakes then as well–though with rather less wailing and slamming of doors. I recall in particular a blouse I made out of a fabric much too heavy to be a blouse, with a zipper at the back that buckled because the stiff fabric wouldn’t drape properly. I wore it anyway.

It basically took me about two decades to become proficient enough with a sewing machine to make things that didn’t embarrass me or the people I give things to. I’m sure, if you start as an adult, it won’t take two decades for you–but it won’t take two minutes, either, or even two weeks. Buy a lot of cheap fabric and try out some basic projects with few pieces and lots of long, straight seamlines. Nothing too tailored, too fussy or fiddly, or that requires careful hidden stitching. Accept that you will have botched projects and spend some time wailing, crying, and/or slamming doors. You may want to throw the sewing machine out the window, or bash it in with a hammer. And then one day, you’ll make something that doesn’t suck, and you won’t hate it.

What you need to have, in order to learn how to sew well, isn’t talent. It isn’t even necessary strictly speaking to find sewing appealing, though it is very useful. If you enter a trance in a fabric store, and wander the aisles fingering all of the bolts and admiring their drape and sheen, it’s almost inevitable that you will try to learn how to sew. But you don’t need this. What you need are two basic traits.

You need to have a case of why-would-I-buy-that-when-I-can-make-it-myself-itis. It doesn’t need to be as pronounced as mine, but if you enjoy shopping for stuff and like the things you can get in the stores, you’re unlikely to ever get to the point where a sheer need for cushions on the couch or curtains for the window drives you at last into tackling those projects you’ve got stacked up on a shelf. The Someday Shelf. If you have a Someday Shelf, you’re halfway there.

(I’ve lived in my house for 1 1/2 years, and I still don’t have curtains. I need curtains. One day, I will sew the curtains because, well–why buy them if I can make them?)

Look at all of those points not matching up. Yeesh. Also: what am I going to make out of this? I haven’t got a clue.

And you need to have the ability to consistently suck at something for a long period of time on your way to becoming reasonably proficient.

Strictly speaking, the second trait will do on its own if you don’t have the first.

People trying to be kind will say, “Don’t run before you can walk.” This is way too optimistic, as any baby will tell you. Before you can walk, it’s important to master standing. Standing is, on its own, pretty fantastic. Have you ever seen a baby who has just learned how to stand? Standing is the Best Thing Ever! Oh my god! They’re finally doing something with those weird things on the ends of their legs! In fact they were never meant to go into mouths at all! You can balance on them! And bounce! You’re like twice as high as you were yesterday! Woohoo!

When standing loses its thrill, there comes the even more exciting stage of staggering. Babies’ wobbly steps could not be characterized as successful, purposeful walking by any adult measure. But that baby is the happiest baby who ever lived because not only are feet useful for bouncing on, they can take you places. And you’ll only fall down fifteen or twenty times on your way there.

No baby ever goes from rolling around on its back to running across the room in one day, although to their parents it may feel like it.

Learning how to sew well is much like that. I would characterize myself as a fast walker or slow jogger. I’ve got a lot of practice left before I will really master running.

If you want to learn how to sew well, accept that there is going to be a period where even staggering about drunkenly and falling on your face a lot on your way to eventually getting close to where you wanted to go is beyond your reach. It won’t last, but there’s no way around it.

Before you can stagger, you must stand.