Tag Archives: ottobre

Selfless? Selfish? Self-agnostic? Sewing: Gift Bags for Xmas

In our house, there are two types of Christmas wrapping: presents from Santa, which come wrapped in paper with store bought tags, and presents from Mom, which comes in handmade fabric gift bags. When Frances was younger and sold on Santa, this was a great bit of holiday magic: *obviously* Santa was real, because otherwise where did the paper wrapping come from? Mom would *never* use paper wrapping. Now it’s just tradition (also I still have two rolls of pretty xmas wrapping to use up).

Everyone else gets a gift either in a previously received paper gift bag still in good condition, or a handmade fabric gift bag. There’s a hierarchy, I won’t lie: a fabric gift bag is a mark of trust. It’s saying, I know you will appreciate the time and effort that went into making this bag and keep it in circulation for the rest of time to displace the use of more wasteful wrapping types. It’s saying, if you leave this sitting in a heap in your basement storage area or god forbid *throw it out* I will come back from beyond the grave and haunt you with my fabric scissors and needlebook. And if you use this bag for trapping snakes, as happened to one friend’s handmade gift bags, you will spend eternity in a hell full of rusty fabric scissor blades with bent pins all over the floor. It’s saying, but I know you would never ever do such a thing.

But it is also kind of selfish sewing, because every year I sew four or five new bags, and half I use for gifts for friends, but the other half I use for Frances. Which makes clean-up on xmas morning super easy. Yes there’s paper to tidy up from the Santa gifts … but most of it is just fabric bags, and all I need to do is pick them up, stuff them all inside the largest bag, and put it in the closet. Hey presto, tidy floor. No recycling or garbage. Next year, the wrapping is basically taken care of, and there’s little easier than stuffing something in a drawstring bag and pulling it closed. I even reuse the tags; since they’re handmade they tend to be pretty robust.

This year’s new drawstring bags.

Most of the bags are simple drawstring bags: french seams, to keep the insides tidy and thread-free; occasionally serged if I’m running out of time; double fold at the top to make a channel for the ribbon, which doubles as a draw-string and as gift decoration (I make the ribbon quite long so that there’s lots to tie around the gift). It takes about an hour. There’s no pattern; I improvise the size I need for the gifts I’m wrapping that year. If the print is directional, as some of the ones above are, I cut the fabric in half lengthwise and sometimes add a matching width of a non-directional print at the bottom.

This year I decided to drastically complicate my gift bag sewing experience by turning some holiday cross stitch projects into quilted patchwork gift bags with handles. It took a lot more than an hour.

The cross stitch owls came from the November 2013 issue of Cross Stitcher magazine, which I think I’ve mentioned before is my favourite cross stitch magazine and I wish it were more easily available here. These owls are freaking adorable, and I cross stitched two of them, but had no idea what to do with the finished pieces until I got what seemed like a brilliant idea: gift bags!

The patchwork is an improvised sort of log cabin pattern; the fabrics came from Needlework, and the one bag is mostly leftover from this season’s other overly-ambitious holiday project: a new tree skirt. The insides are lined with leftovers from Fabricland. One bag has twill tape handles, and the other matching cotton handles.

The first bag is quilted. I know, what was I thinking? The process was:

1. Assemble the patchwork front and cut a back in a matching size.
2. Baste batting to the reverse of each with a 1/2″ seam allowance, and trim away the batting within that seam allowance.
3. Sew the front and back together; press seams open.
4. Trim a 2″ wedge from the bottom corners, and sew together to make a boxy shape.
5. Cut, sew, and trim a lining in a matching size, omitting the batting.
6. Baste handles to the bag exterior.
7. Sew lining to exterior, right side to right side, leaving a gap on the back bag to pull them through.
8. Pull through, press lining to the inside of the bag.
9. Edgestitch all around the bag top to close the opening in the bag back.
10. Insert a small cutting board into the bag, and safety pin the front quilt sandwich, being careful to make sure there are no folds or puckers in the lining and that both layers are flat and smooth.
11. Stitch in the ditch along the patchwork lines in the front to quilt.

I gave myself a break on the second bag and didn’t use batting or quilt it; it’s just lined patchwork. And it took forever, but it’s so pretty I have a hard time convincing myself not to make another one. Maybe a cushion cover next time?

The current gift bag stash


Of course, people who regularly sew gifts or decorations etc. for Christmas know that you don’t start in December, because if you do, you won’t finish in time. So there’s a pile of holiday sewing that doesn’t count, including the tree skirt:

A couple of tree ornaments made with scraps, which is a great scrappy project if you’re looking for something–and I don’t think it needs to be holiday fabric. This pattern is M3777:

Gifts in progress for Jenn
A finished bird–that we kept

Some of these were even made up completely during December. I traced the pieces out onto oak tag so I could reuse them endlessly without them falling apart.

A few new cross-stitch tree ornaments, Because:

And some cross-stitch gift tags, also Because:

A pair of ponte leggings for Frances, and a pair of cotton jersey leggings and a couple of t-shirts, and her annual Christmas Eve Pajamas:

Bought the tags at Needlework. They are, objectively, the best.

The leggings are modified from an Ottobre pattern to get the front-leg seam and waistband, and match some Old Navy leggings Frances wears to death. The pajamas are B5572; bottoms are Robert Kaufman flannel and the top is a bamboo jersey, so it’s extremely soft and comfortable. I ventured into fabric painting for the reindeer that Frances specifically requested for her xmas pjs this year. That was an interesting process.

Also made her holiday dress from red and white striped bamboo jersey, OOP pattern M7160. I didn’t want her to look like a candy cane, and what I like about this pattern is it gives options for juxtaposing stripes in different directions, which has a side benefit of reducing the need for stripe matching–though the bodice was a bit finicky.

Also! Cushion covers.

One with flannel scraps from Frances’s xmas pjs, in a simple star pattern, because this fabric is too delicious for the scraps to go to waste and it seemed perfect for snuggling up in bed with while making art or writing stories. It’s quilted, because, apparently, I have a seasonal incapacity to correctly assess available time. It wasn’t quite ready for Christmas, but I’m still counting it.

And this rainbow chenille pillow, backed also with flannel scraps. My favourite gay teenager is all about rainbows these days, and this is a particularly fuzzy rainbow, which is even better.

Welp. I feel like that’s enough.

Frances’s Fancy Pants

Making pants for Frances that fit is one of the reasons I got into sewing clothes.

It’s also one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever worked on.

I’ve tried so many patterns and so many alterations, and most of them, Frances couldn’t wear. They were too tight here or too loose there or too low-cut or fit on the legs weird. So in the meantime we bought a lot of very loose blue jeans in bigger sizes and hemmed them shorter.

Frances does not want her image shared online without her permission so the photos will not be modeled.

Frances’s body grows differently; it’s part of her genetic condition. Her bones are a lot shorter, the joints are a slightly different shape, her back is quite curved, her ribs (and therefore torso) are bigger. Relative to other kids her age, she needs pants with a bigger waist, a snugger back, shorter legs; and then of course she likes things to be in her own style, which at this point in her life means “casual.”

It’s been an incredibly long project to get a set of alterations that fit her well and she enjoys wearing. But by George, we’ve finally done it.

Theses are the first pair of proper blue jeans I’ve made for her that she actually wears, and that fit.

They are not perfect. My sewing machine was incredibly unhappy about sewing through all the layers of denim and interfacing on the waistband and at the seams, so the topstitching is crap. One of the belt loops was sewed on a bit crooked.

Otherwise. I LOVE THESE. And so does Frances.

The pattern is a custom hodge-podge of Jalie stretch jeans, an Ottobre denim shorts pattern, and a trace-off of Frances’s favourite Old Navy Jeans, all with her alterations. The denim is very heavy, 97% cotton 3% spandex, from European textiles on Ottawa St N in Hamilton. $9/m, I think, so they were overall cheaper than Old Navy jeans. Nice metal jeans zipper. The pockets are quilting cotton with an adorable fox pattern on them, because Frances loves foxes.

I rigged up a buttonhole-and-button setup on the inner back waistband so we could get some buttonhole elastic and ensure that the back waistband is as snug as she wants it to be. It’s not as tidy as I would have liked, but it is functional.

My sewing machine went on strike over the buttonhole at the front: too many layers of fabric. I tried four buttonholes and ripped out three; the last one only completed halfway. So half of the buttonhole is by machine and the other half is by hand. It turned out pretty neatly, I think.

They fit her well (YAY!) but I have a list of small tweaks for the next one:

  1. take some length and depth out of the front crotch curve
  2. angle in the back yoke a bit more to make the waist a bit snugger back there.
  3. add maybe half an inch to the back rise
  4. lower the front pocket curve by about 3/8″
  5. deepen the front pockets by an inch
  6. and use angled pockets for the back rather than the rounded ones that came with the Ottobre pattern.

I can’t emphasize this enough, Dear Readers: rounded back patch pockets in thick fabric with contrast topstitcing are the devil. The fabric doesn’t want to fold in nicely to match the curve, even with gathering stitches to help; and the sewing machine has no interest in moving smoothly around that curve while topstitching afterwards. Angled pockets. They’re the way to go.

Exhibit A. These are not the back pockets to use on jeans.

The important thing is that now we are a hair’s breadth from having a perfect pants block for Frances. So I can make her pants that she can wear, hallelujah.

Also hallelujah: Frances has decided that the next pair of pants she wants, is leggings. That should be a much faster and easier project than blue jeans, even having to trace and alter a new pattern. (And in fact they’re already done, traced out and sewn up in a single day. Thank goodness.)

But after that: more jeans. More leggings. Fancy pants to wear when she needs to dress up and doesn’t want to wear a dress. Pants forever.

I cannot wait to make All The Pants for Frances. Frances now has a lifetime Pants Avalanche coming her way.

The Water Day Declaration and The Swearsuit

Frances: Tomorrow is Water Day.

Me: Water Day? What’s that?

Frances: We’ll spend a couple of periods doing water games and things.

Me: Oh! That sounds like fun.

Frances: Yeah, so I’ll need you to finish that swimsuit for me.


Me: And you couldn’t have shared this with me before?

Frances: Well, I could have, but I forgot.


I made a swimsuit.


Of a fashion.

The pattern came from the summer 2015 issue of Ottobre–the one piece, with modifications for fit. The fabric was a mystery blend on discount from Fabricland, bought to make a cheap experimental version before the “real” one.

The pattern was fantastic, which I’ve come to expect from Ottobre; the fabric was fine; the whole thing sewed up well and I was pretty gobsmacked at how well the modifications worked. Frances hasn’t had a swimsuit that fits well for many years–the ones in the stores do not work for her at all, which is why I was making one in the first place.

I made a few tweaks to the cut of the legs, and that’s where it stood until the Water Day Declaration. All I had left to do was the hemming.

Instructions: “Sew 1/4″ clear elastic to the openings, then turn to the inside and coverstitch.”

1/4″ clear elastic sewn to the openings: check. Took maybe 25 minutes.

Coverstitch: …

… Houston, we have a problem.


The looper stitches were a disaster. Nothing caught. The second line of stitching completely unraveled at the first touch on the two hems I first sewed, leaving little blue loops in the inside and an incredibly snug first line of stitching that had to be ripped out, one by one, taking forever.

Now, one of the things I love about having friends who sew, is when they share gems like this on social media (this one courtesy of Laura):


This gives you a pretty good idea of what it was like in my dining room that night. Only more colourful. There may have been hitting of the coverstitch machine (I hear that helps).

I undid the stitches; reset the threads; the lower looper unthreaded itself and I’d go a whole seam without stitches. Or none of the second line of stitching would catch at all and I’d have a really ugly line of chainstitches.

I spent more time ripping out the fucked-up coverstitches than I had spent to that point making the suit in its entirety.

Eventually, I picked up the machine and removed it to the laundry room before I gave in to the mounting impulse to toss it into the backyard. (Dew also helps, I’ve been told.)

Ripped out all the stitches again, thus stretching out the spandex along the edges something fierce, and hemmed it using the zig-zag stitch on my sewing machine.

Took 25 minutes. And it doesn’t look as nice as it would have if it had been coverstitched properly, but since proper cover-stitching was clearly impossible, it looks a hell of a lot better than the available alternatives.

Of course, with the hems all stretched out from the repeated sew-and-rip, I had to perform emergency tweaks to the seams to tug them back in a bit. No idea if it worked or not as Frances was asleep by that point (swearing at and pounding sewing machines helps children fall asleep–try it!) and she had to bring it to school the next morning. Since then it’s also accompanied her on a camping trip, but I still haven’t seen her wearing it; she says it’s “fine.” She is 12. These days, everything is “fine.”

Also, my coverstitch machine is likely going to be taking a trip back to the dealer, accompanied by some strong words, to see if they can figure out what in god’s name is wrong with the damned looper.

The Dragon Mistress needs a dress

One cannot be the Dragon Mistress at the Dragon Ball without a dress to wear.

A headless Dragon Mistress. Her head was not lost to a dragon--no need for alarm. She just didn't want me to post anything recognizable.
A headless Dragon Mistress. Her head was not lost to a dragon–no need for alarm. She just didn’t want me to post anything recognizable.

Well. One can. We are all about the feminism and free choice in clothing options at Casa McDowell, and I can frequently be found pleading with Frances to just try on the boy’s jeans, or let me try a boy’s jeans pattern for her. “But you like them!” I say. “They’re baggy and loose and that’s just what you like! All of the girls’ jeans are skinnies! You HATE skinnies.”

“They’re boy pants, Mom,” she says, and that’s that.

So one can be the Dragon Mistress at the Dragon Ball while wearing bermuda shorts and a caftan, if that is what one wants to wear, but when one wants a dress, well then, the Dragon Mistress needs a dress.

Even when said Dragon Mistress decides she needs that dress a mere week before the Ball in question, and she happens to be spending that week at her  Dad’s house, and when her seamstress is in the midst of assembling a small army of dragon t-shirts.

Fortunately for me, I found this lovely cotton print at Fabricland for $4/m. And even more fortunately, Frances has recently decided that she is perhaps not completely opposed to all prints–that it may be acceptable, from time to time, to wear something not a solid.

So a $4/m print in one of her favourite colours was an easy decision.

The pattern came out of the Summer 2015 Ottobre magazine–the Daisy dress, so I’d already paid for it. I have about a metre of the print leftover. That makes the effective cost of this dress about $10.

The dress on the right.

Here she is, presiding over her dragonish domain, and looking pretty fabulous if I do say so myself.

dragon ball-190-2
MCing the Dragon Ball Talent Show, along with her Deputy

The dress was lined with white voile left over from the Math Skirt.

The dress pattern was easy-peasy. Three pleats, yoke and skirt pieces, lining, bam, done. The instructions were clear and followed a logical order. I used a combination of sewing and serging to put it together, and the hems were first serged (to make them even) and then stitched up once with a very narrow top-stitch.

If you hadn’t guessed already, you’ll be seeing more Ottobre projects here in the future.

Dragon Ball and a heap of dragon t-shirts

Once upon a time, a highschool friend, Frances and I made up something called the Dragon Tea Society. It was very simple: get dressed up; go to a fancy place that serves afternoon tea; bring a stuffed dragon; consume. The trickiest part was getting to the restaurant, which invariably was in downtown Toronto.

Guests of Honour
Guests of Honour

My Aunt Sue, when I was describing this to her a couple of years ago, thought this sounded like the best thing ever, except that it didn’t go nearly far enough. So last year, Frances and I headed down to Ottawa and, together with Aunt Sue and Uncle John and cousin Shauna and her children and Mary, a family friend, we had a Dragon Tea Society weekend. It involved stuffed dragons, tea and little sandwiches, of course, served at a historic mill by a river; it also involved dragon cupcakes and handmade dragon jewelery.

When my Aunt Sue was describing this to my Aunt Heather last year, Aunt Heather thought this sounded like the best thing ever, except that it didn’t go nearly far enough. So this year, Frances and I headed down to Aunt Heather’s cottage where–together with Aunt Heather, Uncle Brian, Aunt Sue, Uncle John, cousin Sarah and her family, cousin Shauna and her kids, and my brother Matthew and his family–we had a Dragon Ball, involving Dragon Egg hunts, dragon crafts, a talent show, contests and prizes, tents, feasts, a dance party, an unbelievable multi-person dragon costume (I wish I had a picture that did it justice), and my main contribution to this enterprise: a small stack of dragon scale t-shirts.

The Masked Mischief-Makers
The Masked Mischief-Makers


The dragon scale fabric was the main inspiration; once it had been seen, it could not be unseen, and it demanded to be made into something appropriate for young children loose in the woods on a dragon-themed weekend. It came from Glimmericks‘ shop on Spoonflower, and I bought it on the organic cotton jersey. A few fabric notes:

1. It is thick. A very beefy knit; just a layer of fuzz removed from sweatshirt jersey.
2. It has a decent but not overly generous amount of stretch.
3. It’s very soft.
4. I’m glad I ordered swatches. Some of the prints didn’t print as well and were quite pixel-y (the ones I ended up going with are tree dragon and sparkle blue ice metal dragon). All were run through the washing machine and the dryer to test for fade, and both of these passed nicely.

My serger absolutely hated this cotton. Don’t ask me why. I had to turn the tension dials all the way to 8 to prevent an unbelievable amount of grin-through; it was like every seam had teeth.

The head of the dragon costume, which should give you some idea. It lights up.
The head of the dragon costume, which should give you some idea. It lights up.

The original idea was to make Frances dragon-y pajamas, because this is a girl who adores dragons in every incarnation you can picture. She has a small mountain of stuffed dragons. She has every remotely child-appropriate dragon novel ever published. She has a small collection of dragon movies. She has a bazillion dragon figurines. She makes dragons out of polymer clay; we have about ten and the family is constantly growing. And so clearly she needed to have dragon-scale pajamas, so that she could be a dragon while sleeping or lounging around the house. Right?

And then dragon-scale pajamas for the Dragon Mistress became dragon-scale t-shirts for child attendees of the Dragon Ball, or at least, for those whose parents cooperated with my request for height and waist measurements. This totalled four.

Second cousins, being dragons.
Second cousins, being dragons.

I used three patterns, all from Ottobre magazine.

Ottobre is a quarterly magazine of patterns for children’s clothing, made in Denmark but published in several languages, including English. Their clothing styles are simple, modern, comfortable, and stylish. No dresses or pants loaded down with five pounds of ruffles, and no weird quilting cotton monstrosities. Just good basics, mostly out of knits. The magazines themselves are a good quality, with good photographs and good (if short) instructions on assembly. The sizes cover newborns to teens and there’s something in every issue for every size range. There is a fair amount of pattern tracing, but it’s totally worth it.

With the five issues of the magazine I have already, there were lots of t-shirt patterns in a variety of sizes to choose from. Two of them I’d already used to make Frances all of the (non-dragon) t-shirts she needed this summer, both with and without sleeves, and they needed only minor tweaks to the sleeves to get a good, comfortable fit (plus the standard fitting adjustments we make to every pattern).

– widened and lengthened the sleeves
– slightly enlarged the armhole on the sleeveless shirt (but not enough, per the recipient. Rats. Sorry, Dani!)

I added the seam binding, too, and embroidered each kid’s first initial onto it so that I could tell them apart when we got there.

The boys got black ribbed trimming at the neck, and black cotton jersey sleeves, for a bit of colour-block style and a touch of added toughness (not that dragon-scale really cries out for street cred–right?–or would that be cave cred?). And also to preserve the very expensive spoonflower fabric. (Shhh.)

The smallest recipient was shorter than the size range of the patterns I’d used before, so I experimented with a smaller drop-shoulder t-shirt pattern. It seemed to work.

A very frightening mini-dragon. Her secret weapon is glitter.
A very frightening mini-dragon. Her secret weapon is glitter.

I ended up grabbing measurements for the last two kids at the camp, so I’ve got two dragon t-shirts left to make.  And then most of a year to figure out what we’re going to do for next summer!