Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Tote Bag Teen Sewalong

Last summer, one of Emily's good friends spent some time sewing at our house. She came on random afternoons whenever she was available, and stayed half a day at a time to work on projects. Emily and her friend, who are both 14, have both been sewing for many years, mostly by hand but occasionally and with some guidance, with the machine. Her friend asked me if she could learn to sew together, and listed out some types of projects she was particularly interested in, and we got to work. 

Our first project was a lined zippered pencil case, which I unfortunately have no photos of. This was the method we used, and we drafted our pattern from random measurements we thought would look good as a receptacle for writing instruments. We cut and sewed our pencil cases in one afternoon, and it was an enjoyable instant-gratification piece.

Our second project was a tote bag. We talked about the easier unlined kinds which would have taken us half the time to construct, but decided that for the purposes Emily and her friend intended for their new bags (carrying library books and items for sleepovers), a lined bag might be more durable.

On the first day we got together, we went shopping for fabric. It was just as well that we decided to line the bags because it was hard to choose just one fabric from the mind-boggling variety in the store. Each girl picked a home-dec weight fabric for the outer layer and a quilting-weight cotton for the lining, and planned to use one of the many solid duckcloths from my stash for the straps and base.  Then we returned to the house and drafted our pattern, again based on dimensions we thought would produce a bag of useful finished size. The girls also cut out all the fabric and interfacing pieces, and ironed them. We pieced and sewed the remnants into a patch pocket. There was no time to do anything else beyond that, so we called it a day.

Several weeks later we were able to get together again, and the girls sewed their bags. The sewing techniques were simple (straight lines, side seams, a simple corner dart) but because of the layers and band detail around the base (which involved edge-stitching), it took us the entire day. 

The outcome, though, was fantastic. The bags are a good size - maybe 16" across, if I remember right. The straps are made with the same coordinating fabric as the base panel.

This is the inside of Emily's bag, with the little patch pocket on the inside, made from remnant scraps.

This is the inside of the bag Emily's friend made.

Emily and her friend have both used their totes many, many times since making them. I'm certain that a large part of the motivation is having sewn the bags themselves. That said, I'm also certain that custom-making a bag with dimensions to accommodate specific needs is also a huge factor in final usability. After all, some of my favorite bags are the ones which are "a good size" for whatever I need them for. And I often hear similar feedback in many reviews of bags and sewing patterns for bags. For instance, hardly anyone says, "the fabric I chose is so amazing and matches everything I wear!" Rather, they tend to say, "the bag is a good size, so I use it all the time."

If you're interested in working with a young seamstress, I highly recommend a project like this, because the sense of accomplishment at the end is so encouraging and the end product very practical and useful. Some specific thoughts:

One, this is not an independent sewing project for beginners, however. They will need guidance, especially in selecting fabric to produce something like they're used to seeing in stores. The firmer structures of commercial bags compared to home-made ones tend to be the result of interfacing combined with more robust fabrics, which in turn, require different techniques for making, say, the straps (you wouldn't be able to turn out a double-seamed reinforced canvas strap as easily as a cotton one, for instance). 

Two, depending on the details added (or omitted) the level of difficulty of a tote bag can be varied to fit the skill and attention level of the seamstress. Including a lining is a simple addition - although it requires additional time to make this second layer, it is essentially an identical structure to the main (outer) bag and involves the same techniques to construct. It does, however, change the method of installing straps. See this post for more explanation.

Adding a pocket can increase the challenge level - depending on the kind of pocket. A patch pocket is the simplest variety, while zippered pockets can range from medium- to higher-fiddliness, especially if you include a welt opening in its design. For inspiration and instruction on different kinds of pockets, you might find my pocket tutorial series helpful, in particular the classic (unlined) patch pocket and zippered welt pocket.

Three, sewing a tote bag will probably require more time than you'd initially imagined you needed. At its simplest, a tote bag is a double-layered rectangle with three closed sides and straps attached, which could be completed in a couple of hours. However, a lining, pockets, color-blocking, a reinforced base, interfacing and the separate construction of the straps (as opposed to using ready-made webbing) will all add time to the process, as will drafting the pattern from scratch and/or including fabric shopping in the sewing experience. So plan for at least two sessions, maybe three if your young seamstress is also new at using a machine and would benefit from some familiarization with it.

Happy sewing!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Cardboard Cat Tower

There's something about cats and cardboard, I've heard. 

Take scratching toys, for instance. Until I had cats, I had no idea there were such things as corrugated cardboard scratching recliners and scratching hangers. And then when I first heard about them, I couldn't decide if I was thrilled or offended. I mean, it seemed exceedingly disrespectful to cardboard that something be made from it with the sole function of being clawed to death.

Then it came to my attention that in some cases, cats actually preferred these cardboard scratching things over the more traditional ropey or carpety ones. 

And I wondered if instead of the feral monsters with a nasty penchant for willful destruction, maybe cats were discerning creatures with taste, after all. Which was later confirmed with the arrival of a truckload of amazon shipping crates (as so often happens during the Advent season): after they were divested of their contents, the kittens spent many happy hours energetically jumping into and hiding in the empty boxes. 

"Ah", thought I with deep contentment as I watched them, "we are knit together in soul, for we love similarly."

Then, later, having purchased our litter boxes and finding ourselves one short, we sacrificed one of those amazon cardboard boxes to fill in (literally). Well, of course weren't foolish enough to just dump litter in as is - we had more respect for cardboard than that! We lined it with packing tape first to waterproof it and then dumped the litter in it.

Guess what? The kittens did not use it. 

And my esteem for cats as a species shot through the roof. 

Because clearly, these marvelous animals not only appreciated cardboard as a superior entity in itself but also knew innately to reserve it for only the noblest uses. 

It is an evolutionary triumph in no uncertain terms.

Thus inspired, I set forth to construct for them an Emergency Climbing Toy.

The progress of which I shall share in excruciating detail, but first, some preamble.

I am not a cat expert. I have close to zero experience with cats, but I have received helpful advice about Climbing and Scratching and Claw Sheaths and Muscle Stretching and Elevated Vantage Points, all of which pointed to the need for some kind of thing for kittens to sink their tiny little talons into and clamber up and down. It was either that, the internet said, or we say goodbye to our furniture. I quite like our furniture, so I was sold. That said, cat towers are enormous and our house isn't set up to easily accommodate anything of that size. Plus they're pricey. And being barely weeks to Christmas, we weren't ready to do the research to find a tolerable non-behemoth with decent reviews.

So we bought sisal cord with the intention of wrapping a trashcan to turn into a decorative and functional planter that might also serve as a scratcher. Clever improvisation, we thought.

Then the kittens grew overnight and before we knew it, were themselves taller than the trashcan.

While all around me, the closer we drew to Christmas, the mountain of cardboard and cardboard boxes grew. 

Obviously, it was a sign. 

So I did the only thing I could. 

I began to build. 

It took a while, because I had to devise ways to make the structure strong enough to support not only the weight of two growing kittens, but also be stable enough under the forces of their motion and play while on it. 

And grow they did, incidentally. I had to enlarge the arched opening at least twice during the build. 

This is the lower of the two platforms which rests on a pair of narrow tubes. 

Incidentally, Maisy and Milo would come and visit every time I sat down to work. Not only on this project, but every other one, really - and they are little rascals, it turned out. The surface of my measuring tape is now pocked with little teeth marks, and they will insist on slinking by and sitting exactly where I need to draw a seamline on my drafting paper. Above all, if having toddlers around glue guns and scissors was a hazard before, it's nothing compared to kittens. Infinite safety considerations. And so much fur to get stuck on masking tape. Yet they are so delightfully curious about everything, and so easily impressed by even the least interesting scrappy bits of randomness. It's like being alive for the first time just to watch them.

But let's move on. 

The platform itself is a thick flat rectangle of cardboard wrapped around with fleece. The supporting posts are two wrapping paper tubes wrapped in upholstery fabric that has a short pile, like a very bald carpet. Maisy, it later turned out, loved scratching them.

Here is a view of the underside showing the supporting beam between the posts.

The posts extend to the bottom of the structure and are held in place with two side flaps and an inverted corner. Even without glue, this combination produces a really effective and snug hold. Plus, it's so easy. First, fold down the natural top flaps of the box so they lie against the inside of the box. Slice about 1.5" through the fold at the corner of the box to enable you to bend about 1.5" of the flap back on either side of the corner. This makes two side flaps as shown, between which you can shove the tube. The natural tension of the cardboard will make the side flaps want to straighten out, which grips the tube between them.

That inverted corner is simply two horizontal slits cut into the corner of the box and pushed inward to create a square collar into which the tube fits. The tubes I had on hand were not as long as I needed, so I propped them up with that cube of thick cardboard which added a good 2" to their height.

Here is the view from the outside of the box - you can see the two slits that created the inverted corner on either side. You can also see where the blue fabric-covered posts insert into the box, the rough edges where the fold of the box flaps has been cut to create the side flaps.

Now let's dissect the higher platform. This one has a backrest and the sisal tower underneath, which had to be secured with an inset joint (i.e. I cut a cavity in the underside of the platform so the top 3/4" of the tower could be recessed into it) and four tabs through the top of the platform, which are visible in the photo. Also visible in the photo is a black shadow which is Milo. This platform, like the earlier one, would later be padded with stuffing and covered in fleece for traction (cardboard is slippery!)

This is the sisal climbing tower. It's sisal cord wrapped around and glued to a rigid cardboard mailing tube.

The under-support was the most complicated part of the structure to get right. First, the flat supporting platform on which the sisal tower sits was made from the natural flap of the box reinforced with thicker cardboard underneath. This extra thickness allowed me to cut out another circular cavity into which to recess the bottom end of the sisal tower. Supporting everything were three mailing tubes 

held in place against the walls with more collars.

Here is the finished Cat Tower. I took these pictures last week, after the kittens have been at it for over a month. The black fleece is a bit beat up, and in some of the later pictures you can see glue that dried on the backrest of the upper platform where I spilled it. 

When I next remember, I must stick some fabric on the cardboard surface beside the base of the sisal tower - when the kittens jump onto it, it's a little slippery.

Here are the cats playing on it.

Already they're outgrowing it, but it was nice to be able to customize a smaller structure for them while they're littler, and then toss it out when they've outgrown it. The roll of sisal cord was only $12, of which I used about 1/4, and everything else was already in the house for free.

Another nice thing about customizing a cat tower is adding dangly things to entice the kittens to come and play. During Christmastime, it was curling ribbon.

Other non-holiday items included pompoms 


and random ribbons

It's held up to a lot of goofing off and roughhousing

You might notice in the pictures that there are two heavy books on the bottom flaps of the box. Having the flaps splayed outward on the floor is an aid to stability but as the kittens get bigger and heavier, they needed the added weight of the books to steady the entire structure.

And what of the surplus sisal cord? 

I turned some of it into cat toys.

They're simply sisal cord wrapped around a skinny cardboard inner tube, with feathers glued to the ends.

The cats liked them for a while.

But I suspect they secretly prefer chewing on random cardboard scraps left over from the build. Who wouldn't, really?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Milo & Maisy

Meet Maisy

and Milo.

The kids have been wanting a pet for forever. We knew pets are wonderful (when I was growing up, I had a dog and ten turtles - yes, all at the same time) but for many years and many reasons, we said no. We talked about why and revisited the conversation many, many times as we considered the typical options - puppies, rabbits, guinea pigs, fish, even hedgehogs  - but it was always a dead end. 

The kids could not fathom why anyone wouldn't adore (and therefore want) a pet. I assured them it had nothing to do with adoration and everything to do with intruders messing up the unique organization of my sewing room. Translation: Mother would have to get her act together and keep the piles of fabric off the floor henceforth.

One does not enter into a relationship with pets casually, in other words.

Last year, we found a way to say yes. It was a little of the kids being older, a little of deciding that the benefits finally outweighed the practical challenges, and a little of friends demonstrating how they themselves were making it work in ways that left their lives mostly intact and sane.

Anyway, we said yes to Maisy and Milo. Maisy and Milo are littermates born on a farm. Milo was named after one of Emily's (and my) favorite Singaporean beverages. Maisy was named after the little mouse all the kids loved. They thought it was ironic that in the stories, Maisy was a mouse whose pet was a little black cat just like Milo.

When we brought them home last November, they were about 7 weeks old.

They were sooo tiny!

And soooo busy

and soooo sleepy.

The first weeks as cat parents were insane. We were overwhelmed by all the things they needed: food, food dishes, mats, litter boxes, toys, blankets (so many blankets!), a vet, vaccinations, microchips, training aids, scratching posts . . . everything came in about a zillion options from a zillion stores with their accompanying spectrums of reviews.

At some point, we decided to simplify and pick up stuff gradually instead of amassing everything at once. We began with the basics. Just so the kittens would have somewhere to snuggle on their first night home, Kate very kindly donated the communal bunny bed we'd made for her baby bunnies some years ago.  It seemed huge for a litter of bunnies,

but not quite so spacious for a kitten (even a tiny one)

and even less so for two.

We knew the kittens would grow - and estimated that we'd have one, maybe two weeks (max), before they would need an upgrade. Making a bed would be cheaper and quicker than shopping for one, so I enlarged the original bunny bed pattern and put it together from fleece in my stash. 

Much roomier. Initially, it seemed the kittens were swimming in it.

Now, though, not so much.

It's crazy how fast kittens grow. They're so much bigger than in this picture from just two months ago:

Here's Maisy, who was a ball of fluff just a month ago in early December,

and now, all sleek and chill.

And both kittens still have a lot more growing to do, obviously. I fully expect that even this new bed will be tossed out before long, so I'm glad that I didn't invest in a fancy, expensive thing from the pet store. When I make the next one, I'm leaving out the cutaway opening and constructing it a little differently so I can stuff the walls and line them with something furrier. 

I don't have the pattern, but here are the dimensions of this larger bed:
the oval base is 18" x 14" and the walls are 5" high. The instructions can be found in this tutorial. It holds up nicely in the wash.

P.S. And yes, the sewing room is pristine. No fabric anywhere to be seen. Cardboard, however, is joyfully and tastefully strewn about the floor. I am happy to report that cats esteem cardboard almost as highly as I do.