Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Style, wardrobe planning

Cozying up to fall and winter: Sewing up comfort

If you live in the northern hemisphere, you’re looking straight down the barrel of autumn into winter. In my neck of the woods, though, that autumnal barrel feels curiously summer-like. The recent temperatures here in Toronto feel more like summer than fall, and even the leaves are slow to change this year. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. An early fall and winter mean a long winter, and no one wants that. Really. No one wants that. The point is that it makes designing and sewing a cozy winter wardrobe less appealing. *sigh* Yet it is time. So, cue the air conditioning and off I go.

When I first started thinking about this year’s wardrobe additions, I was drawn to that Scandinavian concept of hygge. The Visit Denmark website defines hygge this way:

…hygge means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people. The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Cozying up with a loved one for a movie – that’s hygge, too. And there’s nothing more hygge than sitting around with friends and family…[1]

So, I’m looking for cozy and comfortable. When I began to consider what inspired this in me, I remember seeing Audrey Hepburn’s après ski look in the movie Charade. It felt comfortable, cozy and oh-so-chic and sophisticated. That seems like the right combination of feeling to me!

Audrey in the movie Charade…in the Alps!

These days, several high-end brands evoke a similar kind of feeling. And when I spied this Totême sweater, I thought, that looks like the Vogue pattern I have in mind for this season.

Totême is a Swedish cult brand that offers timeless styling running fairly high-end. For example, this sweater is $952 CDN ($770 USD) today. Okay, it’s fabricated from a “yak and wool blend,” and I have no intention of yakking a wool blend for my own personal comfort, but I think we can get the feeling. Here’s what I made.

Vogue 1635 drew me in because of both the neckline and the zipper design detail. I knew I’d make it in some kind of a knit. Thus the clean finish―absolutely no visible stitching―was interesting. Most knit patterns have topstitching and machine-stitched hems, which is fine if that’s the look you want. I thought a clean finish might be nice for a change.

I ordered this “jogging fleece” (although it reads far more like medium weight French terry to me on arrival) online from Fabricville back in early September and put it away for this project. It’s 50% polyester / 50% cotton, so it isn’t quite the yak and wool thing, but it’s soft and comfortable, and I expect far less scratchy!

The design also requires a very long zipper―30 inches to be exact (although you can’t know the precise length until you have it measured to your own arm and shoulder length). It seems that 30-inch zippers in your specific colour requirement are hard to come by, so I ordered a duvet zipper. Problem solved. Well, almost solved. I’ll tell you about the zipper. Stay with me.

So I began to cut and sew. The pattern is provided entirely as single-sided pieces, so I cut it out in a single layer. Not a problem. The style is simple enough―anyone with any experience sewing with knits ought to be able to accomplish it with good results. I ran into my first snag when I began to work with the zipper. Now, this is a zipper that won’t actually ever be undone all the way down to the end of the sleeve. There is no need for it, and if you look at the photos of the finished product on the envelope, it’s clear that this is a design detail only. It might be nice to open it as far as the shoulder edge for ease of donning the piece. So, it should have been simple enough.

I began by ironing the stay tape to the edges of the split sleeve, then finished the edges. Then I attached the two sides (front and back) to the front and back of the bodice.

As I read the instructions for putting in this zipper so that the stitching is hidden while the zipper teeth remain exposed (that design detail), I was perplexed. If you look at the instructions, doesn’t it look to you like they expect this to be a separating zipper?

Well, there was nothing on the envelope to suggest this. Notions required: a 30-inch zipper accompanied by a photo of a non-separating zipper. *sigh* Anyway, that was only the first issue, but it was a fixable one.

The second boo-boo I made was not finishing the edges of the shoulder seam before attaching the sleeves. So, out came the seam ripper and a slight detour to the serger. The biggest zipper snafu was yet to come.

I pinned on the zipper to determine the length I needed, then cut it to length. Voila! Not so fast. I cut the closed zipper, which left the zipper pull at the top―attached to the part of the zipper I didn’t need. *slaps head*

I first tried to get the zipper pull to go on the top edge, which naturally didn’t work. My husband came to the rescue with needle-nosed pliers to hold the zipper edges while we did it the right way: putting the zipper pull on from the bottom. That worked. Lesson learned. Open the zipper to below where I want it to end before cutting it!

One of the things I did do right was to fit the sleeve length carefully before starting. I shortened them a half an inch at the tissue paper stage and then tried them on for length before inserting the zipper. Once that sucker is inserted, there’s no going back. The length has to be right.

Since this garment is designed to have a completely clean finish, the hems are hand-stitched. This seems like an oddity for a knit garment, but I fused the hems with hem tape them hand-finished them. I do love how it looks.

I do love the finished product, and with a bit of photo magic courtesy of my talented husband, I can imagine it on a ski slope (something we gave up years ago while standing on the top of Mont Ste. Anne in Quebec with the freezing wind whipping our faces, asking one another, “What the hell are we doing up here when we should be on a beach under a palm tree?”). I can also imagine it in a casual office environment. One piece of hygge-worthy winter clothing done. Now on to the next!


[1] What is hygge? https://www.visitdenmark.com/denmark/highlights/hygge/what-hygge

Posted in fabrics, sewing, sewing patterns, wardrobe planning

Choosing fabrics for a fall wardrobe (there may have been a trip to Montréal involved!)

Who among us hasn’t longed for a wee bit of a travel escape over the past eighteen months? Sure, staying close to home has afforded those of us who sew some extra time to escape into that happy place we call our sewing space, but if you love to travel, a little getaway sounds nice, n’est ce pas?

Montreal begins to look like autumn.

If you’ve been following my fashion, sewing and creativity journey for a while, you’ll know that my husband and I enjoy travel so much that we’ve been sharing our travels on our travel blog for years (www.thediscerningtravelers.com). Since we returned from our winter getaway in March 2020, that’s been on hold. But last week, ooh-la-la, we went to Montréal. Why Montréal, you may ask? Two reasons: it’s a reasonable distance for a three-night trip, and it has a fabric/garment district that I’d been longing to visit.

So, last week, we hopped on a ViaRail Canada train at Union Station in Downtown Toronto. Five hours later, we were in downtown Montréal checking into the Chateau Champlain Marriott Hotel. The fact that we could eat indoors (after showing our vaccine certificates, of course), have someone else pour our drinks and wander in Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) was such a treat. Then we took an Uber to St. Hubert Street, and I was in heaven.

As you may recall, my fall wardrobe sewing/shopping plans include a blue-grey-black-red colour scheme, soft fabrics and lots of comfortable tops that I can wear with jeans, an approach to dressing that suits my current lifestyle―I walk 5-7 kms a day and sit in front of a computer writing books.

My F/W 2021-22 colour scheme

Another thing I’ve learned through this pandemic, though, is related to the quantity and quality of the clothes I wear.

For months last year, we were in lockdown, and I couldn’t shop for clothing. Yes, I know there is always online shopping (and I did a minimum amount of that), but I couldn’t feel the fabrics and try on the clothing without the hassle of having to send things back. So, I waited. And when I was finally able to shop again, I found myself wanting less but wanting better. This is now my overall approach. Just this past weekend, we took three large garbage bags stuffed full of clothing we rarely (if ever) wear any longer to our local donation bin. And it feels so good to have that space around us in our closets. I had this in mind when I opened the door at Tissus St. Hubert in Montreal and stepped into a world filled with high-quality Italian fabrics. I thought I’d died and gone to fabric heaven. (FYI, tissus means fabric in French.)

Unlike many downtown fabric stores, this one was well-organized, bright and airy―yet it was chock full of beautiful fabrics, primarily silks and wools. There wasn’t a synthetic to be seen!

When I walked in, I was immediately drawn to a piece of blue fabric that looked and felt like a wool jersey. But I moved on to the silks lest I miss anything. When I found a few pieces of silk that I thought looked interesting, the young man (obviously one of the proprietors) came to help.

I liked these beautiful silks, but they weren’t really what I was looking for.

He was only too happy to open each bolt that interested me so I could get the full effect. It’s really the only way to see what you’re buying. He was so helpful and even said that high-quality fabrics (with high-end prices) required high-quality service. I got that and more.

I considered several pieces of silk and settled on one that is reminiscent of animal print but in a more subtle way.

It feels magnificent, and I can’t wait to work with it. Note the colour fits into my current palette (although I may well make this blouse (Butterick 6765), view C with the short sleeves to take on our winter holiday (that’s winter clothing, isn’t it??).

I then circled back to the blue fabric that had caught my eye, and just like my husband always used to say about choosing Christmas trees: you always buy the first one you looked at (I did the same thing with my wedding gown! I’m reminded of this because our anniversary is next weekend!).

The young man told me that it was, in fact, a fine wool jersey. Since he had recently bought up the stock from another well-known Montreal fabric store whose proprietor was retiring, he did a burn test to assure us―and himself―that the fabric content was indeed correct. My husband was fascinated with this, and the young proprietor was very knowledgeable.

I found these terrific charts on Domestic Geek Girl[1] , and if you’re interested in more detail on how to check your own fabrics for content, the link at the bottom takes you to the excellent article on it.

Anyway, it was pure wool jersey, so I naturally bought what he had left on the bolt. (BTW, the price on the bold was $189.00 a metre!! He sold it to me for $60.00 a metre, which is more like it!). Then it was on to Goodman’s down the street to peruse the cheaper contributions.

Goodman’s was more like the crowded shops I frequent in Toronto.

I bought a lovely, soft synthetic (black, of course―the best colour for synthetics. I’ll use it to test out the pattern I plan to use for that blue wool jersey. I’m looking at the Jalie “Charlotte” cardigan. It seems appropriate since it’s named after my favourite heroine Charlotte “Charlie” Hudson! (From all three of my most recent books). This design will be a great layering piece.

I also did a bit of shopping at a small shop called Ultratext, which is packed to the brim with sewing notions. Then it was time to get back downtown for dinner.

While I was in Montréal, I also bought a few RTW pieces that I’ll need. This included a terrific pair of Frank Lyman black jeans with a bit of embellishment. I think my new tops will be perfect with these. (I also bought a St. James Breton shirt since they’re not so easy to find, and I’ve wanted one for a long time.)

This is the one I bought, although they didn’t have stock in, and I’m still waiting for it to arrive from Montréal. (Note the red heart-shaped patches on the sleeves that make it part of my colour scheme. Well…)

Back in Toronto, I found myself still needing a bit of red to add to the mix, so I went to Chu Shing Textiles―my current favourite shop―on Queen St. West and found the perfect, medium-weight bamboo jersey. It’s the perfect red for me and the ideal addition to my greys and blacks.

I haven’t completely worked out which fabrics I will make into which of the designs, but I’m getting there.


[1] https://domesticgeekgirl.com/uncategorized/fabric-burn-test-identify-fabric-pyro-way/

Posted in Fashion, sewing, Style

Fall Wardrobe Planning Take 2: A Mood Board & Some Fabrics

Fall is upon us―at least according to the calendar. But if I were to judge it from our weather, I’d have to say that summer is hanging gon. All the better to give me more time to complete planning and produce some additions to my fall and winter wardrobe.

Since I last wrote, I’ve been in the throes of preparation for launching my new book, so I have not had as much time as I’d like to contemplate sewing. But that’s getting “sewn up” so I can get back to wardrobe issues.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the planning and have developed a mood board (as I mentioned I might do) based on the ideas I mentioned in my last post.

I’m inspired by Olivia’s at-home wardrobe in Scandal, as I mentioned in my last post. This style plays so well into that high-end comfort I’m going for. I’ve made two fabric purchases so far: one for the Simplicity 8601 top that I made before in rayon for summer wear. I also bought the French terry you see on the mood board for the Vogue top. It’s a simple top, but it has an interesting zipper detail. I’ve purchased a duvet zipper that I’ll have to shorten to make it work for this one.

I’ve also been enjoying the live Instagram feed that Freda’s here in Toronto does twice a week, showcasing their wide-ranging selection of medium to high-end wardrobe pieces. I think I’ll buy the rayon blouse instead of making it.

My current issue is that I have yet to choose fabrics for the pieces I want to make. But I think I may have that covered.

Today, my husband and I travel to Montréal, where I will be combing the fabric district on St. Hubert street to see what I can find. I’ve never shopped for fabrics in Montreal before, but I know they still have some semblance of a garment district (nothing like it used to be, sadly), and I’ve done a bit of research. I’ll report back!

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to our first long-distance post-COVID travel (if five hours on the train can be considered long-distance. We usually drive, but have decided on a new adventure since we haven’t been on a train for over a decade!).

Next post: what I find in Montreal!

Montreal, here I come!
Posted in fabrics, Fashion, sewing, sewing patterns, Style

In search of a wearable print: Sewing prints and looking like a sofa

Prints have been on my mind lately. Suddenly it’s summer here, and everywhere I look, I see prints in the windows. Just two blocks from where I live, the Gucci shop has a window display full of them. Dior’s windows are the same.

Here’s a new Gucci[1] print for the season. I can truly not think of a single person I’d like to see wearing this dress, especially not me. (And with a price tag of $6500, I could buy an awful lot of Eileen Fisher black tunics!).

And then there’s this Dior.[2]

Seriously, doesn’t this just say grama’s living room sofa to you? It does to me. (Dior doesn’t put their prices online. Wonder why. Hmmm.)

The truth is that I don’t see many of the fashion-forward women on the streets around here wearing them (maybe they’re for nightclubbing, although they don’t really scream or even whisper evening attire to me). Here in Toronto, the tendency on the street is more toward neutrals―unrelenting black in the winter and some mixture of beige and beige with a bit of white thrown in for contrast in the summer. Perhaps when the stores open and lockdown is over (maybe in ten days!), the prints will make their way out of window displays and onto the street. I’d enjoy seeing that. What I don’t so much enjoy seeing is prints on me.

Some people can carry them off so well, and I love to see them, especially on young women in summer dresses. But for me? NO.

I’ve tried them in the past. From first-year university to two years ago, every once in a while I’ll think it’s a good idea. Ireally loved that gown on me with all that hair , and the Lopi sweater – that counts, doesnt’ it? (That was my knitting period). And how about that red floral on black at a friend’s birthday party a year or two ago? I did feel a bit like upholstered furniture.

The spring and summer runways this year were full of them. And so many of them are florals, or so it seems to someone as print-challenges as I am. I mean, just take a look at my closet.

My winter closet (on the right) is devoid of all but the tiniest nod to print fabrics (see that Brook’s Brother’s shirt with the white collar? I like to wear it with a plain black cashmere sweater over it so you can see only the white collar and a hint of the print at the bottom. You know what I mean?). Now that I take a close look at my summer closet, I do seem to be getting a bit adventurous with prints, don’t you think? Okay, most of them are stripes (stripes do count), but there are a few others there. Generally, though, if the print is geometric in design, I might try it.

So, I thought I’d give geometric prints another try this year. I began with a vintage pattern for a sheath dress, my absolute favourite silhouette. I’d wanted to try out this pattern, McCall’s 2401 from 1999, and although I love the plain sheath, I thought it might work in a border-pattern rayon knit I happened to have bought recently.

I love the V-neck version and the long sleeves, but I love boat necks even better and had been figuring out my perfect boat neck. Add onto that the fact that I really only wear dresses when we’re on vacation in the winter (at least I expect to be in the Caribbean next winter, the pandemic gods willing) and what I’m left with is selecting the boat neck with the short sleeves and I’m off to the races.

It was interesting to be reminded of aspects of older patterns. The pattern paper is slightly stronger and the design a bit different. Of course, I had to shorten it to a length that flatters me better, but I also noticed something funky about the set-in sleeves. They had too much ease. I didn’t think about this before I cut it out (shame on me, I didn’t make a muslin first), so I had to work very hard to avoid puckers when I set in the sleeves. If course, I used a stable knit and the pattern was designed for a woven fabric. It would likely not have been a problem if I’d used wool crepe since it’s more malleable. Before I make it again I will reduce the ease in the sleeve head in any case.

Of course, the dress was easy to fit and sew, with the border print placed along the hemline and the sleeve hems. But can we talk about the print itself?

Take a look―take a close look. What does this conjure up for you? Well, my husband laughed his head off when he saw it. Then, when our son came for dinner last week, my husband said to him, “Go in and look at your mother’s new sewing project,” which Gloria junior (my mannequin) was proudly sporting. Our son emerged back into the dining room, laughing his head off as well.

“It’s a QR code,” he said through his gales of laughter. My husband completely agreed. Well, I did have to admit the resemblance. They both then wondered what would happen if someone pointed their phone camera or QR code reader at it. Enough already!

What do you think? (You can try the QR code and see where it takes you!)

So, it’s a pattern. Will I wear it? It is a flattering style on me, and I do love the neckline and the sleeve length. I will certainly make this dress again (in a plain fabric), but wear it? Perhaps I’ll roll it up in a ball and tuck it in my suitcase next February when I get on the plane bound for Barbados. I’ll take a few pics of it in action if I dare to appear in public in it!


[1] https://www.gucci.com/ca/en/pr/women/ready-to-wear-for-women/dresses-for-women/long-dresses-midi-dresses-for-women/one-of-a-kind-ken-scott-silk-dress-p-643432ZAGH35334

[2] https://www.dior.com/en_int/products/couture-121R45A7664_X1884-short-dress-beige-linen-with-dior-jardin-motif

Posted in sewing

The down-sized sewist: Finding the right sewing space

For some people who sew, their sewing space is sacrosanct―a place where they enter, close the door behind them and lose themselves in a physical space that they claim for only one function―sewing. Others consider that to be a luxury. Those are the people who don’t have the space to set aside a room, or even part of a room, solely for sewing. Then there are the rest of us.

This last group is the group that genuinely doesn’t need a separate space for our sewing. The sewing is what we escape into―not the physical space. The process of sewing and all that it entails is all the space we need. Sometimes we arrive at this realization out of necessity, sometimes by choice. Mine was a bit of both, and I hope that this might be interesting for any of you who don’t have dedicated space for your sewing (I might have a few tips). I also hope it might help those of you who are at a point in your lives where you might be considering downsizing your living space (or right-sizing as my husband and I like to think of it), and you fear that you won’t be able to make the smaller space work for your sewing projects. This concern about a smaller space was my consideration a few years back when we sold our spacious house on the ocean for a downtown condo which we absolutely love. The question was, however, could I happily sew in a more restricted space?

You’ve seen them. All those sewing rooms that people splash across Instagram. They resemble sewing studios where sewing is taught.

Here are a few sewing rooms that somewhatsimple.com thinks are terrific.[1]

You might think so, too, but I couldn’t work in any of them. These rooms all have one thing in common: they are too busy, too fussy―in my mind, too messy. Although they look tidy, I could never sew in a space with all my fabrics, notions and accessories on full view any more than I could write in an office with pens and papers and books all in full view, or cook in a kitchen with open shelving where pots, pans and crockery are on full view―even if they all have lovely holders. Maybe that makes me odd, but I suspect there are others out there like me.

Here’s what I like in a work or play space:

  • It should look sleek.
  • It should encourage me to clean up completely at the end of each session―not just the end of each project (or, god forbid, never).
  • It should have an appropriate storage receptacle for everything.
  • When stored, all receptacles should be out of sight.
  • When I begin each day, it should be with a clean slate.

When we moved from a house with four-plus bedrooms (the plus room was what I had turned into a meditation/yoga space) and a music room and a family room to a downtown condo with two bedrooms, one of which would be an office/guestroom, I knew I would have to be innovative.

My overriding theme is to ensure multi-use of the space I have. For example, our kitchen (which, by the way, does, in fact, always look like this when no one is cooking in it at the time) has a huge island. (Great for entertaining, great for sewing!)

Since it’s at counter-level, it is ideal for cutting out fabric. I can lay out two meters at a time and not hurt my back when doing it. See below?

We had custom storage built into our office space, resulting in my ability to have shelves (with doors) that house everything I need for sewing in clearly labelled plastic boxes. If I’m drafting patterns or marking fabric, I have a single plastic box with everything I need in it. I simply pull it off the shelf and, when I’m finished, put everything back in its box and back in the cupboard.

Below, you can see my shelving and that empty space? It for the bin that holds everything that goes along with a current project. If I’m not working on an actual sewing project, it has its space on the shelf…then I close the door!

My sewing machine sits on a fold-away sewing table at one end of our large main bedroom. My husband actually loves it when it’s in residence, and Gloria Junior (my mannequin!) is wearing a new outfit. But sometimes, I spend weeks on pattern-drafting projects, so that’s when I put it all away in a storage room.

My serger sits right inside a closet door next to my sewing machine with a pull-out shelf holding interfacing, muslin fabric and a box containing my machine feet.  

As for slopers and fabrics? They have a special closet space next to my computer in my office where I write.

And fabric? Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I absolutely hate the idea of “stashing” fabric. Whenever my small pile grows to more than a few lengths in it, I have to figure out what to make with them immediately. The idea of having fabric stashed around―even if it’s as tidy as in the sample photos above―gives me palpitations. I believe that fabric is meant to be used, not stacked neatly to look at. But that’s just me.

I’ve done pattern-drafting with this arrangement, made Chanel-style jackets, learned traditional tailoring, sewed up dresses and tops. You name it, and I can do it in my right-sized sewing space.

So, if you have limited space, get some of those plastic boxes (they are cheap) and a marking pen and start organizing everything into groups. (P.S. the ironing board? I put it up when I need to use it, then put it away at the end of each session. When I tell her to, Alexa turns it on and off for me while I’m sitting at the machine.)

Before you know it, you’ll have a hidden sewing space that you recreate quickly every time you want to lose yourself in sewing.


[1] https://www.somewhatsimple.com/sewing-room-ideas/

Posted in fabrics, sewing, sewing patterns, Style

Trendy and Stylish: Sewing Bamboo into Stripes

Coco Chanel said it: “Fashion changes―style remains.” I’ve always hoped that I’ve been able to develop a kind of style that is ageless and timeless at this point in my life, but that doesn’t mean I can’t love some of the new trends, does it? Well, let’s figure it out.

What’s in style for spring and summer 2021?

First, there are florals. Then there are wide-legged jeans. And oversized shirts.

Well, I think it’s safe to say I look like I’m wearing a 1970s-era sofa if I wear florals. As for wide-legged jeans? Not happening in my world. And as a tailored style woman who loves a tailored shirt, I am offended by the idea that I would even consider wearing those enormous bags that the fashionistas are trying to pass off as somehow flattering. Not. But then there are stripes.

A runway version of 2021 stripes

There are some “trends” that never leave us, which is what puts them in the style category. One of those is stripes. Yes, stripes are in this year.

This season, I decided to add a striped jersey top to my spring wardrobe. I landed on the perfect style for me with Burda 6427. Now all I needed was some fabric.

I’m a lover of natural fabrics, and I’m especially in love with bamboo. I ordered this lovely blend from Fabricville online, and it didn’t disappoint. So luxuriously soft and fine (66% rayon from bamboo, 28% organic cotton, 6% spandex).

I love working with bamboo (I’ve written about this before), but it can be tricky if it’s lightweight. First, the consensus is that you shouldn’t wash bamboo jersey vigorously―that is, in a machine. In my experience, though, it can be washed and dried as usual but holds its shape better if it’s washed in the machine and laid flat to dry. I cut two 4-inch samples and did my laundry test.

The pictures don’t lie. One sample was machine-dried. The other wasn’t. There was no contest! I decided I’d prepare the fabric length by washing and hanging it to dry. It came out beautifully. Now it was time to cut it out.

Cutting out this fine jersey begs to be done in a single layer. I’d recommend this for two reasons. First, getting two halves of the fabric on the straight of grain is a challenge. Second, it’s easier to control the stretch as you cut if it’s single-layer. However, as usual, the main bodice pattern pieces are only halves. I created mirror images of each and taped them together for a complete front and back. I simply re-laid the sleeve, flipping it over for the second sleeve.

Single-layer requires a bit more work, but it’s worth it.

As with jerseys in general, this fabric has a definite right and wrong side. When stretched, the fabric curls to the right side. To make it even easier, it has stripes that look slightly different on the wrong side.

Many sewists use a rotary cutter for fabrics like this knit, but I’m not a fan, so I used my finest shears, and it worked very well.

Working with this bamboo is a dream. With a new stretch needle, polyester thread and my trusty walking foot, this pattern was a breeze to create. I did shorten the ties by an inch-and-a-half since I didn’t like the proportion of the overly long ties. I finished all the interior seam allowances on the serger.

[insert photo 4 – grid 1]

The fabric is perfect for any pattern with a drapey feature, like side shirring or, as in this case, a tie that pulls the fabric to one side. As for wearing comfort: it cannot be beaten!

And just so you can see that stripes belong near the water…(well, we can dream!)

[A version of this post appeared on the spring 2021 Fabricville blog.]

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Style

Could Custom-sized PDF Sewing Patterns be the Way of the Future? Trying out Lekala

Do you ever look something up online and find yourself stumbling onto a site that grabs your attention and pulls it away from whatever you were searching for in the first place? It happens all the time to me―especially when I’m researching a new book. But it also happens sometimes when I’m looking for sewing-related “stuff”―patterns, technical advice, new equipment. I recently stumbled on the Lekala patterns site (a Russian company, as it turns out) when I searched for shrug and bolero patterns. And, like Alice in Wonderland, I found myself falling deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole! What an interesting site…and what an interesting concept!

Some interesting patterns on the Lekala site

Anyone who reads my pieces more or less regularly knows that I’m not a fan of pdf patterns, particularly those produced by the numerous indie pattern companies around these days. That being said, they do have a few selling points: the moment you pay for them, you have them.

  • No waiting for them to arrive in the mail.
  • They are usually cheaper than printed patterns.
  •  They are…

…well, that’s usually about it for me. I often find the indie patterns underdesigned and possessed of odd ticks (like 28 sizes on one pattern or weird seam allowances). Then, if they’re pdf patterns on top of that, there is all that printing and taping together and then transferring onto paper you can see through blah, blah, blah. Finally, there is the matter of the often odd sizing. So, why in the world would I be captivated by Lekala patterns?

There is one main reason: they are custom-fitted to my (and your) personal body measurements. Yes, that’s right. When you select a design you like (and there do seem to be a few I like), and you note their price (very cheap), you then input your body measurements and order the pattern based on those. They send you an email confirming all of this, then, and only then you are invited to pay so that you can download your personalized pattern.

Of course, then you’re left with the hateful job of putting said pdf pattern together…but, it’s almost worth it. And here’s my story.

I was looking for a pattern to use up pieces of leftover knit fabric. These were medium-weight stable knits. I actually found several on the Lekala site I liked and settled on Lekala 4885. This would be a test―a test of whether the sizing could be as accurate as it promised.

Lekala 4885

I put in my body measurements, ordered the pattern, put it together and cut it out.

I suggest you put your own markings on the pattern pieces since they are scarce on the one provided.

But first, I had to choose which pattern scraps to use.

As I began to sew it together, I decided that I’d not try it on at all until it was finished, just to see if it really was customized for me. Along the way, I made a couple of observations about the pattern that leads me to a bit of advice if you decide to follow me down that particular rabbit hole.

They offer the option of ordering the pattern with or without seam allowances for an extra fifty cents (USD). That seemed to me to be a small price to pay for the convenience of not having to add them. Forget about it. The seam allowances they added were far too small and, in any case, inconsistent. In some places, they were 3/8-inch seam allowances. In other places, they were ¼-inch. To make matters worse, I found two seam allowances that were supposed to join with one another that were different. In the end, I had to fix some of them. Then, I don’t know about you, but when I make a piece of clothing, I don’t’ think of myself as a sweatshop worker in Sri Lanka where there is a need to save even the smallest tidbit of fabric. I can have larger seam allowances to work with. If they’re ¼-inch or even 3/8, if you must know, I can’t serge them perfectly. I hate that. (PS maybe you can, but it’s a bridge too far for me!)

So, was I able to hold myself back from trying it on until it was finished? Almost. When I had it hanging on Gloria junior, I thought I could see that it would make quite a nice colour-blocked summer top with drop shoulders and no sleeves. If I were to make that kind of adjustment, I’d have to narrow those armhole openings a bit. I couldn’t figure out how much without trying it on. So, I clipped the side seams together and tried it on. I was tickled by how well it did fit. These over-sized pieces are often so tent-like that they don’t really flatter anyone, especially me. This one fit! And I was able to determine that if I were to narrow the sleeve opening by 2 inches, 4-7/8 inches from the neckline, I could rework the pattern for summer.

Well,  I was so happy with the fit that I ordered another pattern (for only $3.49, you cannot go wrong, I figured).

I also wondered if Lekala might consider doing one of my designs, so I got in touch with them. Within a day, they got back to me to tell me how to propose a new design and to invite me to use their online computer-assisted pattern design software.

Here are the designs I proposed…

I am interested in CAD design, so I surfed on over. Oh. My. God. It’s complicated. But eventually, when I have lots of time (perhaps the next pandemic? Oh, no, let’s not go there!), I’ll watch their video and really get into it. In the meantime, I’m going to get started on my new piece for the Fabricville spring blog. See you there!

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Style

The Shrug: Could it be the most useful piece of clothing ever?

I think that the shrug might just be the most useful piece of clothing a woman could own. They are so small, so light, so packable. Well, most of them are. The shrug. Sometimes referred to as a bolero. But are they the same thing? I’ll get to that, but let me begin by introducing you to the shrug.

I’d like you to meet a few shrugs I’ve known and loved in my life.

[FYI: I used McCall’s 7289, which now seems to be out of print ―for good reason in my view―for the white and black shrug shown on the veranda of a cruise ship suite, but it was so humongous and funky, I had to make a significant number of changes to the pattern.]


So, how exactly do you define a shrug?

Well, the English language is a funny bird, isn’t it? The Merriam-Webster dictionary says to shrug means “to raise or draw in the shoulders especially to express aloofness, indifference, or uncertainty.”[1] And a shrug is the act of shrugging.

Ah, the English language. A shrug is also a piece of clothing. No wonder so many people have difficulty learning the language!

Wikipedia, the arbiter of all things, says, “A shrug is a cropped, cardigan-like garment with short or long sleeves cut in one with the body, typically knitted, for women.”[2] Hmm…that doesn’t seem quite right. It seems too narrow. In fact, many online definitions on supposed style sites suggest that they are knitted garments, and when they are embellished, they are boleros. However, that doesn’t make sense to me, given the origin of the bolero and shrug.

If we look at the evolution of fashion historically, it seems that the bolero jacket evolved from a military garment called a Zouave jacket, a garment that is not, in any way, knitted. It was widely used in uniforms during the nineteenth century and even earlier, especially during the American Civil War.

A Civil-War era Zouave jacket

If you think about the fashions in Gone with the Wind, for example, and consider the jackets often worn over those voluminous dresses, you are seeing the evolution of the Zouave jacket into what we now refer to as a bolero, which has Spanish origins. Think bullfighter. So, the two similar garments come together to give us what we see today as bolero jackets. But are these shrugs?

I’ve concluded that I have to have my own definition that arises from all of this, so here’s what I’m going with.

A shrug is a short, cropped jacket that is worn open over the bodice of a dress, top or T-shirt.

A shrug sweater is a knitted shrug.

A bolero jacket is a shrug that may or may not be slightly longer but that always has a closure at the front.

How’s that? Anyway, those are my definitions and I’m sticking with them. Now that we have that out of the way, why would you even need one (or a dozen) shrugs? Here are my reasons:

  • Shrugs flatter every body type.
  • A shrug can change the look of any dress, top or T-shirt.
  • You can wear a shrug to a soccer game or a black-tie event.
  • A shrug can make one dress or top endlessly versatile.
  • Taking three little, tiny shrugs on vacation can make one dress have four looks! (Includes the look without a shrug.)
The transformative nature of a shrug.

It also seems that people have been sewing shrugs for decades. One of the vintage patterns I was drawn to and had to own is McCall’s 5337 from 1960. I haven’t made this one yet, but I will.

And here are a few more from the 1940s and 1950s.

Lest you think that shrug/bloero patterns are only an historical artifact, there are oodles of current patterns for these nifty little items. Here are a few to consider:

Recently, I had a piece of leftover ottoman ribbed bamboo fabric that I knew I should use. I paid twenty or twenty-five dollars a metre for it, so I had to use it. But what could I make? What did I have enough of it to make was the more important question.

Last year I made a knit jacket from McCall’s 7254. It has a view that when you leave off the collar and front, you’re left with a tiny shrug. It was perfect, and I managed to squeeze out enough fabric to make it. Of course, it was dead simple to make. In fact, it took so little time, I was disappointed, given my penchant for slow sewing! There was only so slowly I could go.

Now, I have a new shrug to pair with a simple white T-shirt in the spring, or perhaps even over a little dress. Although the process was quick, during it, I also discovered something interesting.

One indie pattern company that seemed to have several interesting designs for shrugs and bolero jackets was Lekala. The next time I post, I’ll tell you about my experience of falling down that particular rabbit hole.

Do you own shrugs?

FYI

I found lots of free shrug/bolero patterns online―many were hopeless.  Here are three that might work:

http://so-sew-easy.com/free-shrug-pattern-simple/#_a5y_p=3122814

https://www.sewmag.co.uk/free-sewing-patterns/floral-bolero-jackethttps://www.moodfabrics.com/blog/the-gordonia-hoodie-free-sewing-pattern/


[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shrug

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shrug_(clothing)

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Style

The Battle of the Indie Patterns―Part 2: In which I find two I don’t hate as much as usual

I ended my last post with a brief mention of some of the things I hate about indie patterns. So far, I’ve noted my annoyance with the gargantuan size of the pattern “envelopes” (really just cellophane thingies) and the heavyish paper on which they are printed. I also mentioned that I am generally unimpressed with the companies’ lack of design innovation. Just for fun, I surfed through a couple of the websites of indie pattern companies that are purported to be among the best. Here are some examples of the kind of design I think isn’t worth anyone’s money (unless, perhaps, this is the first time you’ve ever sewn a garment―in that case, these are for you).

See what I mean about the one-size-fits-all, which means little in the way of fit at all. They remind me of the first pattern I designed using Garment Designer software, which makes me wonder if this is how those indie pattern designers do it―just figure out what a computer program can do and do it. (If you want to read more about my foray into using software to create patterns, here’s a blog piece I wrote a couple of years ago.)

And what about those cutesy names? I’ll take a numbering system any day over the Zadie, Adrienne, Kielo and the Yukons and Hinterlands any day. My particular selections are the Renée and the Esme. Geesh! 

Okay, I’ve gotten that rant off my chest. Let’s get on with the battle and see if I have learned to love anything about them.

First, the Jalie pattern—the Renée pants. I’ve been searching for a dupe for Eileen Fisher stretch-crepe pants forever. This pattern was favourably reviewed by a person whose sewing skills I admire (but my one caveat is that our styles are different). They also looked like they might be the right shape: fitted through the hips and thigh and only a slight cigarette shape, fabricated in a stable knit. I chose a ponte with a whisker pattern that I thought was vertical but turned out to be horizontal—one of the downsides to purchasing online these days! Anyway, I made it work and went ahead with the pattern.  

Jalie boasts about including 28 sizes on one pattern. Well, as far as I’m concerned, it’s nothing to brag about―just another element of indie patterns to make me grit my teeth. Just look at that mess of lines. What a nightmare! I had planned to trace it off, but in the end, it was so mesmerizing, I just said the hell with it and cut out my size from the pattern as presented. It’s not like I’ll be using it for anyone else. Oh, and they have their own sizing, so you have to be very careful of what size you cut.

And, what about their instructions? Well, I don’t suppose I really needed instructions to make a pair of elastic-waist pants so, I did it my way. When I make pants (which I rarely do), I do it the way I was taught years ago since it seems to me to be the best way to fit them as you go. This pattern tells you to put each side together, then put one inside the other and sew the crotch. Perhaps they could tell me how I would test the waist and hip fit before completing the crotch? It can’t be done that way. So, I put the two front legs together at the front crotch seam, do the same with the back, try them on, testing the crotch length, waist and hip, then complete the inseams.

Small design detail: an inset at the front hip. I would use a contrasting fabric if I ever do these again.

Then there is the seam allowance. Can I tell you how much I hate narrow seam allowances?  (Add this to the list of things I hate about indie patterns.) I don’t make my own clothes so that they resemble cheap knitwear from a Sri Lankan sweatshop. My preference would be for them to resemble designer knitwear from a Parisian couturier—well, that may be a stretch, but you know what I mean. They have only a 3/8-inch seam allowance, which is insufficient for any adjustments and a serged finish. I realize that this saves fabric (see my comment about cheap sweatshop clothing), but I always buy extra anyway. Before I make this again, I will trace off the pattern with 5/8-inch seam allowances for sure.

I also used 2-inch elastic, which I won’t do the next time. I’ll use the 1½-inch as recommended (it’s what I had on hand). You can see in the photo below that the wide elastic got wavy since I really needed to have it tighter.

And, by the way, I will make these again. They turned out to be a surprisingly good fit, after all! So, that’s something to love about this indie pattern. Are they a dupe for the Eileen Fisher pants? They are close, so I’ll look for her type of fabric and try them again. I don’t love paying $200 for pull-on pants!

Now, on to the StyleArc Esme “designer” pattern. What in the world makes it a “designer” pattern? The fact that is it resembles any number of other pieces (perhaps a bit like Eileen Fisher, but that’s another story about tent-like fashion I sometimes like!).

Anyway, this one, too, comes in an enormous cellophane bag with an instruction sheet as long as my arm (literally). To their credit, unlike the 28 sizes in one pattern for the Jalie, this one has only eight. I have to admit that I made this one last year for the first time. However, I made it in a scuba fabric (which I never intended to buy) that was mislabeled online at Fabricville, and I could never wear it owing to the way the seams dug into me. This was partly because of those damn 3/8-inch seam allowances. I’ve learned my lesson there. Oh, but the neckline seam allowance is only ¼-inch, so I don’t know how you’re supposed to serge-finish the edges with no fabric there at all. *sigh*

Not as many sizes on this pattern piece!
This instruction/pattern sheet isn’t anywhere close to being fully unfolded!

Since there wasn’t an overwhelming number of size lines in this one (as there were in the Jalie pattern), I did trace it off onto pattern paper and cut it out of an ottoman ribbed bamboo fabric I fell in love with when I last ventured into a real fabric store before all this lock-down stuff.

Once I had it cut out, I had to remind myself how to do the back of the collar. I had to re-read the instructions several times to get it through my head. The instructions are printed on the gargantuan sheet on which the pattern pieces themselves are also printed. This means you have to have a  massive space in which to unfold them. Did I mention I hate this about indie patterns??

As usual for me, the arms are far too wide―even for a dolman-type sleeve. I altered them a bit, but in the end, they were still relatively large.

This top has such a nice neckline―one that particularly appeals to my style. So, I have to say that StyleArc wins the award for the best-design lines I’ve seen in a shapeless, one-size-fits-most kind of top. Will I ever make this one again? Maybe. The next time I’m in lock-down and looking for nothing but comfort in my clothes, which I hope is never again, I’ll revisit this pattern. The Jalie pants fit the way these negative-ease pants should, but they aren’t anything innovative in design, that’s for sure!

The bottom-line for me in this attempt at learning to love indie patterns? My take-away from all this are as follows:

  • If you are a newbie sewist but have already learned a few things about patterns in general, the design lines are simple and that’s a plus. On the downside for new sewers is the fact that you have to be oh-so-careful about things like seam allowances (inconsistent) and cutting the correct size (once you have found it on the damn pattern pieces!). You have to read everything very carefully. You will also want to take the extra step of tracing the pattern out onto more transparent paper so that you have at least a fighting chance of seeing the fabric below (this can be very helpful when doing things like trying to avoid the dreaded target-on-boob faux pas when laying out patterned fabric).
  • If you are an experienced sewist who craves high fashion, you might as well step away right this minute. Apart from Marfy (which I don’t consider indie―I consider them a designer category all on their own). There is nothing of-the-moment or particularly stylish about any of the styles on offer. That being said, StyleArc does have a few terrific designs if you get away from their designs for knits.
  • If you’re looking for athletic-wear patterns, Jalie might be one to try.
  • If you want all your patterns to fit nicely into a pattern box or drawer that accommodates 6 ½ X 8-inch envelopes, you might as well forget about it. To be fair, though, some Vogue patterns these days arrive in larger envelopes than I like. This seems to be a function of which designer it is, but there doesn’t seem to be any functional reason for it.

What are your experiences with indie patterns?

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns

The Battle of the Indie Patterns – Part 1: In which we take a look at their history

The history of sewing patterns in the 19th and 20th centuries—and even into the 21st—says a lot about what we sew and how we sew it. And, for me, their evolution hasn’t been an entirely happy experience. But, before I get to that, let’s take a look back as I like to do.

Sewing patterns have a long history extending at least as far back as the 16th century, where they originated in tailoring manuals. According to Joy Emery in her book A History of the Paper Pattern Industry, the earliest surviving sewing pattern was published in Spain around 1589 as part of a book. “The book’s purpose was to instruct tailors on methods of cutting out pattern pieces so as to get the most garment from the least amount of fabric,”[1] not unlike the current focus on zero-waste sewing. As the centuries progressed, most pattern-related publications continued to be for tailors rather than home sewers.  

A page spread from the 1589 book “Libro Geometria Practica y Traca”. You can clearly see the attempt to save fabric in the layout!

Before patterns were available to home dressmakers, only the rich could afford to have clothing made-to-measure. Anyone else who sewed did so without the benefit of a pattern, focusing mainly on the functionality of the garments needed simply for life.

Patterns contributed in no small way to the democratization of fashion by allowing anyone who could sew (or learn to sew) to reproduce stylish garments that might even reflect the work of the famous couturiers. Eventually, however, sewing patterns were made available in pamphlets or ladies’ magazines and could now be accessed by larger and larger numbers of people. At this point, it was necessary to copy and enlarge a pattern from a magazine or pamphlet. Everything changed, however, in the late 19th century. 

In 1860, a woman named Ellen Louise Demorest and her husband William launched a new approach to sewing when they began holding home fashion shows and offered for sale the paper patterns Ellen created for the garments. 

The fact that Mme Demorest’s patterns were full-sized was the key marketing feature and the way of the future.

She was followed in quick succession by others whose names are familiar to anyone who sews to this day. (Lest you think I’ve forgotten that home sewers needed sewing machines, Isaac Singer—another familiar name, no?—patented what was called the “rigid arm” sewing machine and the presser foot in 1851 and by 1890, Singer sewing machines made up 90% of the world’s sewing machine sales, paving the way for home seamstresses everywhere.) In any case, those familiar names are these… 

  • Ebenezer Butterick launched the Butterick Publishing company in 1863. His Butterick patterns first started including a folded instruction sheet in the late 1910s—a great innovation, in my view!
  • James McCall, a Scottish tailor, established the McCall pattern company in New York City in 1873 and began the trend for putting full-colour illustrations on the pattern envelopes in 1932. Before that time, all the illustrations were black and white drawings. [If you do a little online digging, you’ll discover that there were other pattern companies who dabbled in coloured images five years before this.]
  • Vogue magazine created a spinoff pattern company that it launched in 1899 to complement their weekly pattern feature. Eventually, in 1914, media mogul Condé Nast bought Vogue then began selling their patterns in department stores two years later.
  • The Simplicity pattern company was formed in 1927 with a focus on easy, lower-priced patterns.

Those are the so-called “big-four” that remain (in one form or another) to this day. Recently, however, there have been rumours of their impending demise. I hope not—and in any case, that’s a story for another day (but I will get to it eventually). Oh, and I haven’t forgotten groups like the German company Burdastyle. They, too are a player, albeit a smaller one.

Apart from those main four companies, there have been others through the years. For example, I particularly remember Style patterns from the late 1960s through the 1970s (I even used one for my first wedding dress—again, a story for another day!). There were also DuBarry patterns in the 1930s and ‘40’s, Advance patterns in the1930s, the New York pattern company from 1932 until the 1950s, and the Hollywood Pattern company that used film stars on their pattern envelopes from 1932 until the end of the second world war.  

What happened then? According to some of the sewing bloggers I read, home sewers in the 1970s moved away from garment sewing to quilts-making. Now, as far as I’m concerned, this is a gross oversimplification of the issue—a conclusion for which I’ve seen no concrete evidence. No one has done a study. For example, I, for one, would never have done this since (a) I began sewing in the 1960s because I loved clothes and it was a way to produce nice pieces for less money, and (b) I hate quilts (no offence to anyone who loves them—we’re all different). The reason I stopped sewing in the late 1970s was simple: I had more money. I was still in love with fashion, but I no longer needed to sew my own garments to have stylish clothes. I could afford to buy them. I was also busy—career evolution, husband, son, travel, writing books. I simply bought what I wanted.  

Fast forward to the 21st century. Many of us have returned to sewing, and younger people (not just women) have begun to see that there is satisfaction in creating one’s own wardrobe. So, what do we use for patterns?  

For me, the big four are still the best syles and the best value. Despite the moaning and complaining people do about the cost of patterns, when you think about the design and production work that goes into them and the number of times (infinite) that you can use them, it’s hardly a stretch to pay even $20 for a pattern. However, I realize most of us buy them when they’re on sale. That is where the whole cottage industry of indie pattern makers stepped in.  

When I returned to sewing six or so years ago (I sewed only Halloween costumes and costumes for stage plays for my son in the interim!) I had no idea that so many new pattern makers had emerged. I had also never heard of PDF patterns (dear god, I wish I hadn’t!). So, I began to explore them. Several sewing bloggers sang the praises of brands like Jalie, Deer and Doe, Paper Theory and a whole lot more (I found a really good list of some 32 such companies at https://sewingbeginner.com/pattern-stores/ ).

But, somehow, I couldn’t get around the fact that so many of them were under-designed bags that were “one-size-fits-most.,” which alternatively means “one-size-fits-no-one-very-well.” I will admit that some of them have come a long way in the past few years, but for someone like me, whose style is more tailored and classic, there’s not much on offer. Whenever anyone says an indie pattern fits well, I usually find that it’s not the pattern-drafting that’s so good. It’s a style that need not fit so well. Tents, anyone? 

But, it’s always important to keep an open mind. To that end, I decided to do a battle of the indie pattern companies with two patterns I asked for and received for Christmas—one is from StyleArc, an Australian company whose designs actually have some style to them.

The StyleArc Esme top pattern

The second one is from Montreal-based Jalie, most of whose designs seem to be for athletic wear crafted in knits. Neither of them is a pdf—I’ll do a post on my adventures in pdf patterns in the future. 

First, can we talk about the patterns themselves? Why do they have to be so enormous? I mean, the “envelopes” (which aren’t envelopes; instead, they are cellophane bags) are 12 ½ inches long by 9-10 inches wide. Dear god. Where are you supposed to store them? I guess a filing cabinet built for that purpose. Of course, they have to be that big to hold the gargantuan piece of heavyish paper on which the patterns are printed. I’ve heard sewists complain about tissue pattern paper. However, that tissue paper is acid-free and lasts for decades and can be copied off—which, by the way, is what most people do with these new indie patterns because they are so damn difficult to use directly on fabric. 

Whenever I encounter these indie patterns or *choke* a pdf pattern, I long for the time when all patterns were single-sized and printed on acid-free tissue paper. Single size, you say? Well, in my next post: “The Battle of the Indie Patterns – Part 2: In which I find two I don’t hate as much as usual,” I’ll elaborate on the things I hate about them—multiple sizing among them—and what I have been unexpectedly happy about! Keep sewing!


[1] Joy Emery. A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution. Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. [Joy is Professor Emerita of Theatre and the Curator of The Commercial Pattern Archive at the University of Rhode Island in the U.S.]