To trace or not to trace?

I can’t even count how many years I’ve purchased a commercial pattern, cut out my size from the tissue, then constructed whatever it was that I was making. This pattern tissue-cutting practice worked relatively well for me until at some point my body measurements changed, I learned more about alterations and how to fit a pattern or I wanted to make up the same version for my daughter, a friend or client who may have required a different size. Sometimes a particular pattern I wanted to use again had since gone out of print and was no longer available.

One solution to what I describe above was to alter my previously-cut tissue pattern pieces, adjusting lengths, circumferences etc., sometimes estimating sizing grading to suit the specifications required. I’ve found these modifications and sizing tweaks tended to require a lot of extra pattern work, less than accurate results and considerable wear and tear on the already flimsy, previously cut up tissue paper pieces. To save time, if the pattern is still in print, I could potentially buy a new one and cut out a different size, or utilize an option that I find to be a simpler and sometimes cost-saving solution; tracing pattern pieces and sizes from a pristine, uncut pattern either newly purchased or already in my pattern stash.

To be sure, the practice of tracing patterns and making muslins adds initial prep time prior to cutting my fashion fabric. This said, I’ve found the baseline sizing variables, grading information and ongoing versatility to be gained from tracing uncut patterns to be so satisfying that I’ve continued this practice with all the new patterns I’ve invested in for the last ten years. I love this method and have never looked back.

Several differences in opinion exist within sewing communities throughout the world regarding best practices for sewing construction methods. There are almost as many schools of thought in this same group of people regarding the practice (or necessity) of tracing patterns and preferred medium/methods to use. For example, several “old school”, “couture” professionals prefer the use of wax/carbon paper and a tracing wheel in transferring pattern information from tissue to thicker (butcher grade) pattern paper. I’ve used this method with some degree of success while continuing to experiment using different mediums and methods for transfer of information throughout the years, eventually narrowing things down to three workable alternatives.

The first is a thick, gridded and fibrous transparent paper/fabric made by the Pellon company (similar in weight to the heavy interfacing). The material works reasonably well for copying pattern pieces if you have a steady and accurate hand and are tracing the pattern lines with an indelible marker like a “sharpie” or a ballpoint pen. Colored pencils also work relatively well, but they need to be sharpened often and don’t really erase. I’ve also used a graphite pencil on this type of product which yields cleaner lines but again, if you need to correct a mistake, the lines don’t erase completely and tend to smudge or tear the surface in the process. If you’re using ink, you either have to cross out your mistakes or start anew. The 1″ square printed grid on this particular type of pattern paper/fiber is wonderful for lining up grain and fold lines. I think this product works best as a final pattern preservation solution, when you are confident your pattern pieces have reached a finished state. The approximate price point for this product is $20. for 44″x10 yards.

On the recommendation of a sewing class instructor, I decided to try “Swedish tracing paper”. I found it to be a very user-friendly product to work with. It is a thick, fiberous paper and works well with both ink or pencil. If you’re tracing with graphite pencils, your markings are technically erasable, but the erasing process must be done with a light touch or the lines will smudge. Both the gridded Pellon product and Swedish tracing paper can be sewn on if necessary. They also iron well and sewn-in changes remain intact. The price point for Swedish Tracing paper is approximately $16. for 10 yards x 24″ wide.

After much trial and error, I’ve ultimately landed on a product I really like called “Bee paper”, a tracing paper often used by “old school” architects.
While admittedly not as thick as Swedish Tracing paper, it’s sturdier and more durable than pattern tissue paper. It’s also highly transparent, easily erasable, smudge resistant and irons well. Though smooth to the touch, the paper has just enough surface texture to allow for scotch tape or painter’s tape to adhere to it and stay in place. I’ve found Bee Paper relatively easy to iron, but be careful around taped sections or the tape might melt and gunk up your iron surface. Ask me how I know! It’s 24″ wide and comes in 50 yard rolls for under $20. A great overall value.

Even though the ink from a sharpie pen is more visible, I personally like to trace with a mechanical pencil. It’s precise, doesn’t need sharpening, erases well and is less messy. I also trace patterns using my clear plastic quilting ruler and French Curve. Tracing with pencil doesn’t stain these like permanent markers do and doesn’t create ink-bleed on my fabric or gridded cutting table mat. This said, I do like using sharpies on my fabric muslins. Instead of pins, I like to trace my patterns using fabric weights and often use metal washers for this purpose which are very inexpensive and can be found at your local hardware store.

My personal storage method for my traced patterns is to fold the pieces so they will fit into a gallon-size ziplock bag then place the original pattern envelope/tissue into the same bag. When I want to use the pattern, I carefully iron out (dry iron) my traced pattern pieces prior to cutting out a garment and I’m good to go.

For a more permanent pattern preservation solution, I’ve observed professional tailors and pattern designers making a practice of cutting pattern pieces out of card stock, marking all notches, grain lines and other pertinent information in indelible ink. They punch holes near the ends of the pattern pieces and hang these on hooks, organized by pattern number and stored vertically to avoid creases and the need to iron pieces prior to cutting into the fashion fabric. With tried-and-true patterns and for those fortunate to have the extra vertical storage space, this might be the ultimate way to go.

In closing, though it may take extra time, I personally love the process of tracing a pattern. It’s the point of learning and discovering the potential of each piece, making appropriate alterations without permanently changing the original tissue and envisioning how everything will eventually come together. I also enjoy the ability to share my patterns with people who may want to experiment with a different size and have already cut out a specific size from the tissue of the same pattern. This happened at a sewing workshop I attended last Fall. I had the same pattern one of workshop participants was looking for and she was able to trace out a larger size from my original. The process worked like a charm.

The singer and a Singer

954b35703965236ec3b71c82c64dcf5c As I’ve mentioned previously, I am a professional singer who loves to sew. I also get a kick out of the fact that one of my sewing machines is also a “Singer”, a Singer-66 to be exact. This wonderful gem and family heirloom was made in 1908 and is fitted within a beautiful, quarter-sawn oak cabinet complete with a cast iron treadle mechanism. The original owner of this machine was my maternal great-grandmother, Lydia. I’m not exactly sure what kind of sewing she did with her machine, but I’m guessing Lydia made clothing for her family and various things for her home, including quilts. Similar to my maternal grandmother, Katherine, my great-grandmother, Lydia, was a talented quilter in her own right. Both of their names are hand-embroidered on a (circa 1930-31) “Dresden Plate” quilt my mother passed down to me when she died. Here is Lydia’s “signature” block:Lydia Strain Renshaw's Quilt Block

My mother’s machine of choice was a “Featherweight” Singer sewing machine from the 1950’s and this is what I orginally learned to sew with when I was in Middle School. What a great little invention that machine proved to be; simple to operate and wonderfully portable as well. I created my first sewing “room” in one of the closets in our home and loved having a quiet, designated space where I could sew with the Featherweight and work on my various projects uninterrupted and without having to move everything at the end of each day.

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Around that same time, Lydia’s Singer-66 was passed down to my mother from one of her (Lydia’s) daughters, my great-aunt, Edith. The machine’s original oak treadle cabinet was fifty years old by then and badly in need of refinishing. My parents elected to paint it with an “antique white” finish. “Antiquing” wooden furniture was all the rage in the late 1960s. As I remember it, the technique included applying a base paint color which was followed by brushing on a patina/gloss layer. This second layer was then rubbed off while still wet and the residual gloss pigment remained in the crevices and carved bits of the piece. The finished result reminds me of  what one sees in “shabby chic” decor and surface “distressing” methods currently in vogue today.

As it happened, after the “antiquing”, the treadle cabinet (and Singer-66) was moved into my lime-green with white trim bedroom, a color scheme reflecting my personal taste at the time. I don’t remember any machine cleaning or maintenance done on the 66 at that point, but I know my dad installed a new leather belt to facilitate operating the treadle mechanism and flywheels. Once this was done, I taught myself how use the machine utilizing the treadle action soon following.

A few years later, when my sewing skills improved, I started making my own formals (often out of velvet!) for our High School dances and proms. Right before Christmas, during my Sophomore year, my Mom bought me my first brand-new machine, a Singer “Genie”. It had bright, orange and yellow “flower power” decorations and could sew zig-zag stitches! I had such fun sewing with that machine and enjoyed using it for many years following.

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Back to the Singer-66; I’m sorry to say that this cast-iron, industrial-grade workhorse and model of ingenuity became neglected once I began sewing with newer machines over the years and became increasingly dependent on the various bells and whistles each model would subsequently provide. The old 66 and it’s treadle cabinet stayed in my former lime green room when I went to college, moved into my first apartment, married and eventually became a mother myself. After my Mom died, we moved the then, seldom-used, antique white treadle cabinet and 66 to my home in Southern California where it was stored in our garage until our cross-country move to Minnesota in the early 1990s. It had always been my intention to re-finish the treadle cabinet myself at some point, but after nearly twenty years in our MN basement, I finally bit the bullet and started searching for a local refinishing shop in the Twin Cities. Old Science Restoration in Minneapolis came highly recommended, so in late 2014, the process of bringing this family treasure back to life finally began in earnest.  Here are some before photos:

When the treadle cabinet and cast-iron assembly were being prepared to be striped and stained, I was asked if I was interested in also having the machine restored while it was out of the cabinet. Fortunately, Terry at Old Science had an excellent recommendation for this work, Steve at The Bobbin Doctor in St. Paul. What a find!

Steve is a self-described “old school” craftsman who truly loves working on vintage sewing machines. Not only did he lovingly and carefully bring my 1908 Singer-66 back to life, removing decades of “grint”, soaking, releasing and re-engaging previously frozen parts, and miraculously preserving the machine’s original “lotus” decals, he proved to be an astonishing source historical information about this particular era of machine and its uses. For example, Steve told me that Singer-66 sewing machines were widely used in textile factories in the early part of the 20th Century.  Using New York as an example, the majority of sewing factory employees in that city not only had to provide their own machines, but were also paid by the piece. On a typical work day, these factory employees would carry their sewing machines (weighing approximately 24 lbs each) into work (often on the subways) then take them back home at the end of each day to finish sewing more pieces after hours.

Back to Singer-66 decals; although one can still purchase beautiful replacement decals for Singer-66 machines, I remain grateful to Steve for successfully preserving the orginal “Lotus” decals on my machine. The various machine decals serve as identity markers in association with where a particular machine was manufactured. For instance, the widely- popular “Red Eye” decal is linked to Singer manufacturers located in the United States (Chicago for one). The so-called “Lotus” decal (which looks like more of a thistle to me) indicates that my machine was most-likely manufactured in Clydebank, Scotland near Glasgow. Here are “after” photos:

 

For maintenance, the owner’s manual of the Singer-66 machines advises the user to lightly rub down the outside of the machine with sewing machine oil after each use to prevent rust. (this seems like wise advice as many early home sewing “studios” used to be located in poorly-insulated attics and damp basements). In addition, there are at least twelve different oiling contact points throughout the machine mechanism that one should put a drop of sewing machine oil into just prior to each sewing session (Steve advised it’s a better practice to oil right before sewing instead of after each use because the excess oil one might apply prior to storage may attract dust in the interim between uses).

Apparently, for quilters, nothing sews a straighter line than the Singer-66. I have since pieced some of my grandmother, Katherine’s, previously unfinished quilt blocks using my 66 and it worked wonderfully for this purpose.

As for other uses, in addition to lighter weight fabrics such as cottons, knits, wools, silks, linens etc..it seems that with the right needle and foot, the Singer-66 can also steam right through leather, thick upholstery fabrics and canvas without struggle.

In the age of YouTube, I’ve discovered more videos than I can count regarding how to repair and maintain these types of  sewing machines. There are also numerous tutorials about how to utilize the many foots and amazing assortment of attachments available. Through eBay, I was able to track down and replace many of the missing parts for my machine that had been lost through the years such as a “back clamp” presser foot, specific types of screws and the belt release spring mechanism. While it’s true that many people have seen fit to re-purpose the old treadle cabinets into tables, desks and vanities, discarding the rusty old machines into landfills, there also seems to be a large group of people who treasure the process of restoring both the cabinets an machines as well. There is even an impressively large group of people, male and female, who prefer sewing exclusively with these vintage machines on a regular basis.

In closing, the restoration process of my great-grandmother Lydia’s Singer-66 treadle sewing machine has proven quite an educational odyssey. Even though I don’t use it regularly, it still feels wonderful to respect this particular family heirloom in such a positive way.

The following “Song of the Sewing Machine” seems a fun way to end this blog:

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The Gifts of Finishing

This morning I searched for a beginning knitting tutorial on YouTube and, as if so often the case these days, I found many video options for this topic. It never ceases to amaze me how one can now easily find tutorials online to learn (or, in my case, re-learn) a particular skill or method on almost any subject. Most of my creative textile activity is spent sewing clothes or quilting, but when I saw this particular ball of yarn for a dollar at a estate sale recently, I thought it would make a pretty scarf. So I bought some knitting needles and today I started creating my scarf.

Although I didn’t know the woman who lived at the house where the estate sale took place, judging by what I saw, it was apparent that not only was she a painter (lots of partially completed canvases, tubes of paint, etc..) but she may have also liked to knit. By buying one of her balls of yarn and knitting something with it, it seemed to honor her memory in a way.

I’ve written about a similar subject in one of my blogs on my professional singing and teaching website. In that particular post, I described the rewarding process of bringing music from several centuries past to life. I noted parallels to the strange yet gratifying process of finishing my maternal grandmother’s quilt blocks and quilt tops that had been preserved in a cedar chest ever since she died in the mid 1930s. Quilting around her stitches gave me a tactile connection to her that I wouldn’t have had otherwise since she died decades before I was born. It brought me such joy to complete what she started. Now I will be able to pass on something whole to my daughter from her great grandmother.

To be honest, there have been some projects that I’ve stopped partially the way through when it became obvious that continuing on would prove a futile and ultimate waste of my time (and thread!) But most often I finish what I start and learn from my efforts.

I think many perfectionists in the world (myself included) find the premise of “good enough” difficult to leave as finished. As I’ve stated previously, adopting an “experiment vs. Masterpiece” attitude has proven a healthy way of looking at my own creative endeavors. This said, I still pick out and re-do my less than precise efforts. What can I say? I like clean lines. Back to experimentation, the practice tends to promote curiosity, something I hope I will have for the remainder of my life.

Muslin Madness

This may be “March Madness” in the basketball world, but this week I’m in the throws of self-proclaimed “muslin madness”.

I’ve just returned from New York with several pieces of beautiful new fabric that I want to use. (Thank you B J and Mood Fabrics!) Everything I bought is now pre-laundered and ready to cut but I don’t want to dive in before tweaking my muslins a bit more, particularly my jeans and yoga pant patterns. As my newest and wise sewing friend, Tina, said recently, “the more you know about fit, the pickier you become about sewing your own clothes”. So true; especially when it comes to pants.

While my previous efforts at making jeans and yoga pants have been reasonably successful, I think I can do better with fit, particularly when it comes to the back; hence making more muslins.

So far, the most successful jeans I’ve made have been from the pattern I created, copying my most comfortable pair of GAP boot cut, stretch denim jeans. My previous attempts with making this particular jeans pattern have turned out reasonably well, but I still notice some less than flattering wrinkles in the back thigh area. These same wrinkles are present in my original Gap jeans as well. I now know that for my proportions, I can make jeans that are more flattering in the back by shortening the crotch depth at the hip line by 3/4″, creating a dart at center back and tapering to nothing at the side seams, then adding 1/2 ” to the crotch length at center back where it joins with the yoke, then, using my French Curve ruler, tapering again back to nothing at the side seems. Thank you Peggy Sagers. Now I am taking what I’ve learned from previous trial and error and applying this new information to some other patterns I have, mainly “Lana’s Jeans” and the Three Piece Yoga Pants by Silhouette Patterns.

Lastly, I think there comes a time when one must forge ahead beyond “analysis paralysis” and start sewing. Wish me luck.

As my beloved first music theory professor, Dr. Edie Smith, used to say, “onward”!

Boot Blues

Boot Insert

I would first like to say that I love boots! But I have a bit of a problem, many styles are cut and made to fit taller women with longer legs. The top of many high-style boots(just below the knee) often hit my leg at the widest part of my calf, not where they are designed to be worn. After comparing average female calf measurements, I find that my calf circumference is similar to that of a women five inches taller than I am. Yet, a pair of boots that are comfortable for taller woman to wear, are often tight and hard to pull on or zip up to the top without cutting off circulation to my legs. For years, I thought my boot-fitting issues were due to my calf circumference. Turns out it was a length issue all along.

Putting comfort issues aside for the moment, when I wear a taller boot height, less of my legs are showing when I’m wearing a skirt or dress with the hem at or above the knee. The result? My boots are effectively “cutting me off at the knees”, so to speak. A different and more flattering visual effect is achieved when a taller woman wears these same boots. The tops of her boots are lower in proportion to her knees which visually elongates her legs and creates a more evenly-balanced proportional image, all with the same boot height.

So far my boot circumference challenge work-around up to this point has been to pick out the stitches on the back seams of my boots with my seam ripper down about 4-6” then sewing in (or have a shoe repair craftsman sew in) some color-coordinating extra wide elastic, (horizontally) on the sides and at the base of what has then become a V-shaped opening. (see photo) Then my boots are much more comfortable to wear!

I’ve also tried wearing the so-called “wide-calf” boot varieties and found the wide-calf opening to be excessively wide, with more than an inch gap between the boot and my leg. This effect doesn’t seem particularly visually attractive and they feel too loose while consistently wanting to droop down the entire time I have them on.

It depends on the style, but I wonder if boot manufacturers will ever consider making petite-proportioned boots? Admittedly there are a lot of longer-legged petite women out there for whom this may not be such an issue, but I think boots made about 2-3 inches shorter in length/height might work well for people built like me. The length issue reminds me of what often happens to standard-sized dresses and blouses at the hip level when a petite woman tries them on and pulls the waist or shoulders up about an inch or so; everything begins to drape and fit better. It’s like Peggy Sagers of Silhouette Patterns often says, when working to achieve the best fit, always address “length first”.

Mad About Machine Embroidery

 

Even though I’ve been sewing for forty plus years, I’ve only recently started experimenting with machine embroidery. What a treasure trove of creativity this new skill set has opened up for me!

The process of justifying and ultimately purchasing a new sewing machine with embroidery capabilities was for me, a very gradual odyssey. After all, my little workhorse, Pfaff 6152 “Jeans and Satin” sewing machine, which I acquired in the late 1990s, has held up extremely well over time with NO trouble whatsoever. In addition to the many items of clothing I have made with this dependable model of efficiency, I also learned to do free-motion quilting with it and even machine-quilted two queen-size quilts with no industrial long-arm in sight.

Still, as my patient friends and husband can attest, whenever I would be in the vicinity of machine embroidery displays at Sewing Expos, State Fairs or my local sewing store, I would invariably want to stop, observe, linger and learn more about what these particular types of machines can do. What I noticed at these times was that my imagination would begin to spark, envisioning all sorts of future projects; fabric embellishment, quilting design, collars, cuffs, shirt and jacket yolk, jeans jacket panels and more.

After much research, reading reviews of various machines and trying out the top contenders out at various sewing machine stores, I finally decided on a Pfaff Creative 3.0. It’s not the top of the line, but it is definitely a higher end, professional model with excellent capabilities. I’m still in the learning stages in discovering everything it can do,  but even my first attempts are turning out remarkably well. I will post a photo of a sample I experimented with on stretch denim. I think it’s safe to say I’m hooked.

Lastly, I should say that I decided to hold on to my “Jeans and Satin” machine. I plan to use it for doing top stitching during jeans construction, or quilt piecing when my other machine I set up for another function, like embroidery!

Stretch Denim Sample