Tag Archives: sewing

B5354 again: once more, with feeling

Detail shot of the beading: navy, light blue and light purple beads, with the star-stitch and french knot in grey and black blending filament. The straight stitch at the top got stitched over during construction, so you won't see it again.
Detail shot of the beading: navy, light blue and light purple beads, with the star-stitch and french knot in grey and black blending filament. The straight stitch at the top got stitched over during construction, so you won’t see it again.

One of the most fun things about making your own clothes, to me, is being able to dress them up or down, however you like. It’s not shopping. You are not limited to the presentation on the pattern envelope.

So, I decided to jazz up one of my favourite t-shirt patterns with a bit of beading, worked into the pleats and tucks on the neckline.

This was made with fabric remnants after using the light grey cotton jersey to make two shirts for Frances, so there wasn’t enough left to cut my pattern out with full-length sleeves. I added a bit of width to the shoulders and bust point to deal with the snugness on the short-sleeved yellow one I made in the summer, and shortened the waist by 1.5″. Otherwise it was the same as before.

The finished neckline, plus the top of Simba, who has never yet met a lap he didn't own.
The finished neckline, plus the top of Simba, who has never yet met a lap he didn’t own.

After marking out the pleat spacing on the neckline, I added bits of Sulky iron-on stabilizer to the reverse side so it could support the beading. Then I just got out my beads and kind of messed around to find an arrangement that seemed like it would work with the fabric and spacing: I wanted something that would be a little bit sparkly but subdued overall so I could wear it with whatever colour I wanted on the bottom.

Once I had an arrangement that seemed like it would work, I marked the centre of each upper pleat, down through the middle in a straight line, marked 3/4″ of an inch from the cut edge (to account for sewing on the facing plus turn-of-cloth), and then marked in the lines for the long beads and the spots for the seed beads. They were sewn down using a single strand of gray cotton embroidery floss to match the shirt. Afterwards, using a single strand of the grey floss again plus a strand of kreinik blending filament in black, I added a star stitch and a french knot to each motif.

At least you get a front view. Plus a dog.
At least you get a front view. Plus a dog.

Altogether, from measuring to finishing, the beading probably added about four hours to the shirt construction time. But it worked out pretty well, and it’s now a light grey goes-with-anything shirt that manages to be a little bit special at the same time, plus one-of-a-kind.

Next time I decide I want to bead a neckline, I’ll start it more then 3/4″ from the edge. The seam is awfully close to the beads in a few places. (I sewed the facing to the front with a zipper foot so I could get super close without crushing or sewing through them–they’re all glass.) And if you are looking for any bead embellishment inspiration, this is the book I pulled out to get ideas: Bead Embroidery Stitch Samples.

Not a lot of photos on this post. I figure you got the 360 view last time I sewed this one up, and the only thing that’s really changed is that this one is a bit looser, and has beads on the front. So.

The sleeves have a few draglines going on; I think the armhole is possibly a bit on the low side, which drags up the whole sleeve as soon as I bend my shoulder or elbow. It doesn’t bother me enough to keep me from wearing it, though.

Sorry for the complete lack of eye contact in this post. It wasn’t intentional.

comic relief this post provided by Simba, who spiked the photo shoot with a howling session. Yes, I look ridiculous. And so would you, if a 7 lb wolflet started baying on your lap.
comic relief this post provided by Simba, who spiked the photo shoot with a howling session. Yes, I look ridiculous. And so would you, if a 7 lb wolflet started baying on your lap.

Shirt Making Adventures II

Which begins with restocking the thread, and ends with running out of buttons.

The sleeves is underlined; the cuff is interfaced; the ruffle is neither. You can see the colour variations of each.
The sleeves is underlined; the cuff is interfaced; the ruffle is neither. You can see the colour variations of each.

My daughter had a girl guides field trip last week which was a 30 minute drive from our home, and only ran for 1 1/2 hours. Rather than drive home to sit down for 30 minutes, stand up and drive back again, I figured I would do what any sane, sensible person would, and I hung out in the closest Fabricland instead. I’m very proud of myself: I bought the thread I needed and 1m of xmas tree fabric for making gift bags, and that was it.

Thursday, I prepped the sleeves for underlining.

Friday, I underlined one sleeve.

Saturday morning, I underlined the other sleeve, and then in the afternoon I assembled the cuffs, ruffles, and sleeves.

Then I experimented with sleeve length. See, along with this strangely short torso of mine, I also have strangely short arms. So I’d cut out the size 16 of the sleeves, and figured that would give me some wiggle room to shorten them. I pin-basted the sleeves to the blouse, tried it on and yep, too long. You could see the ends of my fingers under the ruffle, but that was it. So I cut off about 1 1/2″ from the sleeve head, retraced the curve, and re-cut the notches. They’re still a bit on the long side but really not bad.

Then they were attached to the bodice with a french seam.

And then I realized that I had no buttons the right size and the right shade of off-white. It is done now, but I’ve had no chances to get photos of me in the blouse, so that will be post #3. In the meantime, a few details:

Inside of the blouse showing the front placket and the narrow hem, along with the inside of the reverse fell seam.
Inside of the blouse showing the front placket and the narrow hem, along with the inside of the reverse fell seam. It is a bizarrely tidy shirt on the inside.
The slightly messed up collar. The alterations I have to make to the shoulders and back to make it fit always make the neck opening longer, so even though I cut out the largest size of collar, it wasn't quite large enough and I had to fiddle with joining it to the shirt. I've noted that I should just lengthen it by 1.5" past the size 16 for next time.
The slightly messed up collar. The alterations I have to make to the shoulders and back to make it fit always make the neck opening longer, so even though I cut out the largest size of collar, it wasn’t quite large enough and I had to fiddle with joining it to the shirt. I’ve noted that I should just lengthen it by 1.5″ past the size 16 for next time.
And the outside of one of the french seams, just for completeness' sake, edgestitched so it stays flat.
And the outside of one of the french seams, just for completeness’ sake, edgestitched so it stays flat.
Here's the outside of the reverse fell seam over the bust curve. Nice and neat and flat and not bulky at all. Definitely the right choice.
Here’s the outside of the reverse fell seam over the bust curve. Nice and neat and flat and not bulky at all. Definitely the right choice.

Another thing to feel guilty about.

Via Treehugger: Say! Did you know that laundering your synthetic clothing may be contributing to ocean pollution?

Apparently studies have found that washing releases up to 1900 microfibres from each piece of synthetic clothing per wash. These bits of plastic are too small to be removed by conventional filtres and water treatment, so the plastic washes out to sea, where it (along with microbeads) contributes to a serious ocean pollution problem.

This strikes me as one of those rare pieces of environmental news that has direct relevance to home sewers. While I prefer natural fibres myself, sometimes they’re just not available locally at a price that is reasonable. And sometimes they’re plain not available locally. I searched high and low for stretch cotton twill for my recent Jasmine pants, but in the end the only stretch twill I could find had a substantial poly content.

I’m in general opposed to lifestyle-scale solutions for global-scale problems, so I’m not going to tell you what kind of fabric you should buy. As the article itself notes, given how much sheddable synthetic clothing is already in circulation, that likely wouldn’t address the problem anyway, and what we really need are better filtration systems (though this raises the question of what to do with all those bits of plastic that would be flushed out of our domestic sewage systems).

Still, as home sewers, we have managed to create (or at least increase) a reasonable supply or organic and local fabrics; maybe, if there were enough demand, less easily shed synthetics would be created and sold.

In the meantime, this may be another good argument for laundering clothing less frequently. In addition to the waste of water and electricity and the pollution of water from soaps and detergents, we’re plasticizing the oceans. Fantastic. So how about we only wash our clothes when they’re dirty?

Shirt Making Adventures I

I know the fabric is busy, but the shirt’s lines are actually quite good. And princess seams are super adjustable for those of us without standard-issue upper bodies.

I gave up on off-the-racks button-up shirts a long time ago. Probably around the time that, wearing a light purple button-up blouse at a work meeting for my old job at CN Rail, I looked down to see that the third button (yes, THAT button) had popped open.

Clothing manufacturers typically base their products on a b-cup. Some of them will base their models on a c-cup. Generally, if you’re talking about a knit t-shirt or a top without front closures, you can work with what’s in the stores without embarrassing yourself; but the farther over the b-cup line you go, the more you will be risking with any shirt that has buttons.

A few years ago I thought I’d struck gold with a coral-red blouse. It had lovely long sleeves with lattice smocking stitches at the top. It was soft, and had a defined waist. Best of all, it buttoned up, and stayed buttoned up! Then I got more and more into sewing my clothes and realized that the front darts were so much higher than they were supposed to be, that we might as well call them shoulder darts. Or maybe armpit darts. Bust darts, they were not. Bother.

(It’s amazing how much these previously-missed details become obvious when you start paying attention to the fit of the clothes you make yourself.)

So a current sewing priority is button-up shirts I can wear to work that will stay closed without safety pins or glue. The yellow one from the summer worked pretty well, but it’s getting colder now, and I’d like to have some long-sleeved options.

See? Very work friendly. This is the view I am making: I thought the floral would look cute ruffled up at the end of the sleeves.

Enter the silk-cotton voile I bought 50% off this summer, and a stash pattern from Vogue. I muslined it in a blue poly a month or two ago, just enough to see that the fit was pretty good, but could use some more space in the bust. (sigh) So I added another half-inch to the side-front pieces at the bust point, and graded back to the 14-line at the shoulders and the 12-line at the waist. I shortened the back-waist length by 1.5″ all the way around, broadened the shoulders by 1/2″ on each side, and widened the hips. It’s basically a melange of 12-16+ at this point, with a bit of Size 4 Petite thrown in for good measure for the length. My torso is weird.

The main fabric--already underlined, but you can see what it looks like. Honestly it's got so many colours in it I'm not sure I could clash with it if I tried. Either that or it's self-clashing.
The main fabric–already underlined, but you can see what it looks like. Honestly it’s got so many colours in it I’m not sure I could clash with it if I tried. Either that or it’s self-clashing. In person, the colours are not so opaque.

This weekend’s challenge, though, was underlining.

Yes, underlining.

I bought two colours of the voile in the summer. One was this lovely off-white floral watercolour painterly print that I thought was just gorgeous, and I got 1.5m of it. And then I got 3m of a white, both to underline the floral print if needed, and to make a separate white shirt. The voile was incredibly sheer. Soft, gorgeous, drapey, and wonderful, but sheer.

I wasn’t entirely sure I would use the white for underlining the floral, though, until I interfaced the cuff, collar and placket pieces. The white interfacing completely changed the brightness of the print, making the background much whiter, not to mention changing the opacity. There was no way I could put those together with the sheer off-white fabric. So underlining it was.

White on the reverse, showing the underlining stitches. And also the sheerness of the fabrics. They have good opacity when put together, though.
White on the reverse, showing the underlining stitches. And also the sheerness of the fabrics. They have good opacity when put together, though.

This is, to put it mildly, an incredibly tedious process for a princess-seamed blouse. There are nine pieces to underline: three on the back, four on the front, and two sleeves. Each piece was cut out twice, once in floral and once in white; they were placed together and pressed, then a hand-basted line in the middle in silk thread held them together. Each piece was then smoothed around a magazine, the edges pinned in place, then hand-basted along the edges. It took about six hours altogether, just for the body pieces (I haven’t yet done the sleeves).

BUT. The floral is now brighter, a better match with the interfaced pieces, and no longer sheer. The layers are behaving very well together and now have the weight of a fairly drapey shirting fabric. And are still incredibly soft.

Look at those colours!
Look at those colours!

The second challenge was assembling the shirt, now that there were four layers (of very lightweight fabric, but still) in each seam.

The pattern calls for french seams, which if you are sewing-uninitiated, means that you sew the seam very narrowly the wrong way, trim down the seam allowance, flip it around, press it, and then sew it again the right way at the seam line. I’m not sure how easy that is to visualize, but basically you end up with a garment inside with very neatly encased seams–no edges. It’s a fabulous finish for lightweight fabrics, but with four layers–even of lightweight fabrics–which then becomes 8 layers through the magic of french seams–I know from experience, it makes a rigid seam line that stands up underneath the garment. This is especially unattractive on the princess seam over the bust (also learned from experience).

So I did some experimenting: a french seam; a clipped french seam; a classic felled seam; a faux-french seam (in which you sew the pieces together the normal way, turn the seam allowances in on the inside and press, then sew the seam allowances together). All made with scrap fabric in a fairly drastic curve to see what would be softest, most comfortable and most attractive.

From left to right: french seam, clipped french seam, felled seam, faux-french seam
From left to right: french seam, clipped french seam, felled seam, faux-french seam

The french seam turned out bubbly and rigid, as I expected. The clipped french seam performed better, but I wasn’t convinced the clipping wouldn’t fray the fabric over time, and it was still fairly rigid.

The felled seam was the softest and the least rigid, but all of the folding and pressing made for something pretty ugly on the outside. The faux-french seam would have done better if I could have managed the sewing inside the test-bit with a better curve, but I didn’t; it was still fairly rigid. But I reasoned it was probably the best bet and I’d just have to wrestle with sewing the curves.

Until I turned them inside out, and saw that the reverse of the felled seam was actually fantastic. Neat, soft, good curve, little bulk.

reverse of felled seam on the left, reverse of faux-french seam on the right
reverse of felled seam on the left, reverse of faux-french seam on the right. Which one would you rather wear?

The front seams have now been put together with a reverse felled seam, and it’s so pretty, and behaves very well. The rest of the seams are classic french seams, then pressed down and edge-stitched to keep them flat. I’ve also finished the collar and the hem, but this is getting long enough (or too long), so I’ll save that for the next post.

Which will have to wait until I get a chance to restock on thread. French seams + edgestitching = lots and lots of thread required. I’ve used a whole spool and I haven’t even gotten to the sleeves yet.

I swear, if this shirt isn’t wearable when it’s finished, I’m going to be pissed. But so far all signs point to yes.

Another StyleArc Jasmine pair of pants: more pajamas for work

I have so many pieces cut out for so many projects … but instead I made myself another pair of Jasmine pants. Why?

Because I love the first ones I made. Super comfortable. Wearable and works for work.

Because also the first ones I made are red.

I love red. Red is a good colour. But when you realize, in front of the closet in the morning, that most of your shirts are red and pink and nearly all of your shoes are … well. Those extremely comfortable red pants become a little bit less easy. I have some shirts in the works that can be worn with red pants, but the red shoes are a bit more of a trick, and I would frankly rather sew up more pants than go shoe shopping.

No, I never did watch Sex and the City. Why do you ask?

Super shiny bemberg lining!
Super shiny bemberg lining! So shiny that you can’t actually see the colour of the pants. Fun! But still. It’s a nice fly. Right?

Anyway, so I made another pair in a camel colour. I made one–and just one–modification: extended the rise from hip to waist by 1.5″. Everything else was the same (including the fly pieces, which, woops. I had to re-cut them out while I was sewing them together because I forgot that, of course, they would need to be extended too). I suppose making a facing for the pocket from the pants fabric and assembling the pockets from bemberg lining scraps might be considered a modification, but every other pattern piece was used as it was before.

The clouds parted and the angels sang, Dear Readers, when I tried them on.

Here is me, climbing the corporate ladder in my snazzy new pants.
Here is me, climbing the corporate ladder in my snazzy new pants. Also: I match the wall! 

They go up to my waist, and there is plenty of room at the hips and in the rear. They were almost a perfect length; I hemmed them by 2″ instead of 1″. The waist is more comfortable now that it is at my actual waist, instead of at my hips.

I’m a little unhappy with the topstitching on the crotch seam; I used the lightning stitch and it caused the fabric to bubble slightly at the back. (I always top-stitch crotch seams when I use my serger to prevent the dreaded grin-through, even when I use matching thread.) One of the pocket facings likewise is less than perfectly flat. And the fly could have been a little neater, though you can’t tell from the outside. Also, given that it’s now at my waist, it could stand to be taken in by maybe 1/2″ all the way around; it’s a smidge on the loose side. Actually, it’s  a bit too loose after a day of wear, so I may take them apart at the side waists and snug them in a bit.

Short ladder, meet non-glass ceiling. Guess I'm not climbing any higher.
Short ladder, meet non-glass ceiling. Guess I’m not climbing any higher.

Otherwise, these are just about the most comfortable pants I’ve ever worn. I can (and have) scrunch myself into a little ball without feeling constricted in the slightest. I could do the splits, if I were capable of doing the splits. And all the while in a pair of pants that look for all the world like a pair of well-fitted khakhi business casual pants.

And now I’ve got enough comfy business casual pants to get me through almost an entire workweek. Hurrah!

If you can't beat 'em, sit down and have a cup of tea, I always say.
If you can’t beat ’em, sit down and have a cup of tea, I always say.


Today’s photos riffing on She of the Smiling Ladder Climb

Can’t help but notice she has a nice tall ladder and no ceiling. Also, she is climbing a ladder in a pencil skirt and heels. Aren’t there workplace health and safety regs against that kind of thing?

Anyway. I tried for the white background but my dinky little house was not having any of it, in terms of finding a wall I could cover with a sheet or something. So you get to see my basement instead.

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!

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

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.