Posted in fabrics, sewing patterns, Style

The pleasures of a cozy cardigan: Sewing up comfort

What a fall season this has been! So much has been going on in our lives that I have had much less time to create my winter wardrobe than I had planned! We just returned from a holiday to the east coast to visit family (including my 98-year-old mother), whom we had not seen since before the pandemic hit. It was a whirlwind of visiting family and friends, not to mention our first foray onto an airplane in almost two years. That’s so hard for us to believe―my husband and I used to be on a plane going somewhere every six weeks!

But I have all that cozy fabric and patterns chosen, so it’s time to get back at it. First up (second really, but who’s counting!) is a cardigan. If you’ll recall from a previous story about my visit to Montreal (by train) earlier this fall, I found a fantastic piece of beautiful blue, Italian fine wool jersey.

After much thought, I figured it might make a lovely little cardigan. You know, the kind you can wear all day for warmth without feeling all bulked up. Well, my decision may have to be reconsidered. Here’s my story.

What comes to mind when you think about cardigans? Do you think about Mr. Rogers and your grandfather? Or does it conjure an image of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in Scandal, sipping red wine in her massively expensive Ralph Lauren cable knit sweater on her ivory couch while contemplating how to save the world?

I prefer the second image, thank you very much! But Olivia’s sweaters might be a tad too bulky for my taste, so I had to find a design that works in a finer fabric. That exercise was easier said than done―but I’m getting ahead of myself. Cardigans can be workhorses in a winter wardrobe. But beware! As we get older, cardigans can also be a minefield of dowdiness if done wrong, which is part of the reason it was so difficult to find the right style. Before we get to that, you know I’m a writer, and I love a great story, so let’s start with the story of the cardigan.

A cardigan is “a knitted sweater with a buttoned or zipped front, with a V or round neck, with or without a collar.” Or so says Leimomi Oakes, a textile and fashion historian in her excellent blog The Dreamstress.[1] Basically, cardigans are knitted garments that open down the front. Well, already you can see my problem: I’m not planning to knit anything (dear god, I haven’t held knitting needles since back in the 1980s when Lopi sweaters were all the rage. Yes, I knitted my share of sweaters.) Yes, that’s me and I made that sweater in the 1980s!

I might have to expand that definition slightly to include being sewn from machine-created knit fabric. See? I fixed it already. But I digress from the cardigan’s specific story.

Cardigans have been with us since the nineteenth century, based as they are on the knitted worsted wool waistcoats of British Army officers during the Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 to 1856. According to most sources, James Thomas Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan, wore such a garment, and you can see where it got its name. So, the first thing to know about cardigans is that they were originally garments for men (weren’t all comfortable clothes? But let’s not go there today.)

Cardigans were then first worn as warming layers for working-class people and sailors. Until recently, I had thought that knit clothing for women didn’t become popular until after Coco Chanel developed her first jersey clothing in the early twentieth century, but it seems that hand-knit sweaters were part of fashionable women’s garments long before that for wearing when bicycling, playing tennis and other such athletic pursuits that were considered suitable for women back in the day.

In the 1920s, Coco Chanel began to show cardigans in her collection as she began experimenting with using jersey fabrics that had, until then, been used only for men’s clothing. Evidently, she didn’t like having to pull sweaters over her hair, this messing up her ‘do. The early cardigans were cardigan-jackets shown with matching skirts.

In the US, by the 1940s, college women began to bristle at the thought of having to wear corsets and other restrictive clothing that was deemed lady-like and began rebelling by doffing their corsets and starting to wear oversized, sloppy cardigans to class.[2] I love the idea that wearing a cardigan might well be a feminist statement!

These days, the cardigan is almost an essential part of any wardrobe for a climate that has winter. Even in warmer weather, a light cardigan can be oh so useful for those cool evenings. But as we get older, finding cardigans that work in terms of both form and function (being both useful and stylish) is a bit more complicated. So I began to search for an appropriate pattern.

I combed through patterns from the regular so-called “big four (or five) companies. Then moved on to the indies. Most patterns were nothing styles―no interesting detail, just bags, a must-to-avoid for older women in my view. I finally examined Stylearc and Jalie, the companies I hate the least of the indies. I finally settled on the Jalie “Charlotte” model(because it’s named after my main character, Charlotte “Charlie” Hudson, I introduced in The Year I Made 12 Dresses (LOL), and it has a bit of design detail.

Since I don’t want to make a mistake in my choice of style for my expensive fabric, I pulled out the cheaper fabric I bought in Montreal and decided to make a black, cropped cardi.

Well, as usual with indie patterns, the first thing I’m faced with is 26 sizes in one pattern. *sigh*

So, I dutifully find the size I’m looking for, cut it out (I’m never using this sucker for any other size in the future, that’s for sure) and trace out a pattern I can use. Now that I’m cross-eyed, I think I’ll go have a drink.

Next time, I’ll tell you how it worked out.

In case you’re interested:

40 free cardigan sewing patterns (in case you find one here you like): https://so-sew-easy.com/40-free-cardigan-sewing-patterns-staying-warm/


[1] https://thedreamstress.com/2016/04/terminology-the-history-of-the-cardigan/

[2] https://theweek.com/articles/878112/feminist-history-cardigan

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?