Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Emily made this ball. I am so proud.

My kids make a lot of things. The vast majority don't end up being shared on this blog because I can barely keep up with photodocumenting the process and outcomes, let alone writing prose about them.  But, funnily enough, these girls enjoy seeing the work of their hands on Mom's blog. They think it's a big deal. And I am proud to share them. But there is a part of me that still (naively) believes there you can have a craft life outside the internet, outside blogs, outside instagram and Facebook - you know, like in the old days when you crafted simply because you enjoyed the making, and didn't give two hoots about the validation? 

Sometimes I deliberately keep crafts off the blog just to feel that again, just so I can say, "These crafts are ours, and we made them together one rainy afternoon and they are too precious a family memory to let the internet turn them into some stranger's goal on Pinterest."

It's a funny thing, the internet. It brings people together like nothing else, and delivers information that would otherwise take years to find, let alone consolidate into an hour's worth of reading. But it has no boundaries. And it's like one of those two-way mirrors in the line-up rooms at police stations: you never know who's reading what you wrote, and what they're thinking about it. 

Scully put it best when she said, "The internet's not good for you, Mulder!"
Ain't that the truth? Gotta love the X-Files. 

But this project of Emily's - she's made five already - I want to share it today because I looked at these little patchwork balls and I saw evolution.

It's no secret that my hope for my children is that they will want to learn to sew, and that they will learn to sew without patterns. By that, I don't mean that they should end up exactly like me, and not even know how to use a commercial pattern. I do mean that I hope they will not be dependent on commercial patterns, without which they'd feel unable to make stuff. Sewing, after all, is a means to an end - the end being the ability to not just make, not just adapt, but create. 

While thinking about how to teach my kids to sew, I wondered about the sequence and approach: skills first? Visualization first? Hands-on first? Machine first? Hand-sewing first? Project-based? Patternmaking-based? Drafting vs. draping? Teacher-oriented? Learner-driven?

(Most of you guys probably don't get quite that didactic, and good on you, but I've spent too many years in education, and they are shackles I now cannot throw off. It's very sad.)

I can't count the number of times I've found myself thinking, "Er, we have a free afternoon. Nobody's doing anything. I should probably initiate a sewing lesson. Maybe one of the girls would like to hand-stitch a flower (or something dead easy)." Then the moment passes because someone suddenly shouts, "Let's play Village!" or "I'm going over to the Johnsons' now, Mom!" And off they run, and I wonder if I'd just let another opportunity slip by.


I've found that children live by a different timeline than adults. When the time is wrong, nothing we do can make them learn. But when the time is right, it's like they never needed a teacher - they pull it out from inside themselves, all the things they've observed and listened to when you thought they weren't aware you were even on the planet, let alone trying to tell them things.

I'm writing this overly-flowery post today to share this with you, friends: be prepared to be surprised by your children, and by the power of their creativity. Let them go, and don't teach them too much. When they're ready, they'll floor you.

So, these balls. 

My Emily - she's eleven - is a dabbler. She tries everything (except squid, although we plan to rectify that in Singapore soon). And if she finds a friend who dabbles in similar things, they are soul mates. Recently, she made a new friend in class who sews, which thrilled her to no end. This friend, she said, has made a patchwork ball from odd-shaped scraps; can she do the same with our scraps? 

Well, duh! True, I wasn't entirely convinced that odd-shaped scraps could successfully become a sphere, but perfect geometry was not the point in this particular exercise.

Some hours later, we had Prototype 1, an adorable little peapod of a ball. I have no photos of that for you because, as we said earlier, some things are precious and we want to keep them that way. Emily used the whipstitch - apart from the running stitch, it was the only hand-stitch she knew at the time. There were very few seams to sew, because she used very few pieces of scraps, not fully visualizing at the time that more scraps = larger internal volume = more likely to approximate a fully symmetrical sphere.

Most pertinent was this takeaway from Prototype 1: Emily figured out that by turning the finished ball (pre-stuffing) inside out, so that the whipstitched seams were now on the inside, the seams looked neater. She then decided that the inside of the ball was now going to be the more polished-looking outside of the ball. Suddenly, and without me drilling stuff into her head, she'd discovered the significance of RS and WS, and how to place pieces together in a seam to assign one surface as one or the other.

Then in my random web browsing, I discovered Abby Glassenberg's lovely pentagon patchwork ball tutorial. I loved that it perpetuated from a polygon - a ready-made bona fide geometrical DIY pattern, with all-straight sides, something Emily could totally generate herself. 


Children at this age don't like to be told what to do, see. Creatively, I mean. They are on a roll and the universe is one huge endless inventive possibility to them. They do not need mothers to tell them how else to do things that they're already enjoying perfectly well, thank you very much.

This mother, however, loves spheres more than any other shape in the world (because they are superior, period), and makes it her personal mission to educate other people on their supreme perfection.

So we made her a kit. Jenna did, actually. 

And it sat in the pile of What Fun Christmas Gifts I Got This Year.

"Mom," said Emily, "can you teach me the blanket stitch too?"

I did, and we used the pentagon pieces from that kit. 

And Emily sewed them all together with blanket-stitch, painstakingly joining the seams from corner to corner, until she had a ball. She turned everything RS (or WS, depending on what your reference surface was) out, leaving the blanket-stitched raised seams on the inside, and stuffed her finished project.  

Behold Protoype 2:

I wish I could've captured the look on her face when she realized she had a ball, and that it looked this good, and that she'd produced it by assiduously stitching and not giving up. 

Then, suddenly perplexed, she said, "But when I sew up the opening after stuffing, we'll see the blanket stitches again! Is there another kind of stitch that we can use that's neater?"

Enter ladder stitch.

Two stitches in one project. None of which I initiated the teaching - or even the suggestion - of, as if I were the Guru of Most Appropriate Stitches For Any Given Situation.

But wait, it gets even better.

"I love this so much!" Emily declared. "I want to keep making more! And give them to my friends! And my kindergarten teacher is having a baby and I can give her one!"

Ah yes, mass producing mania. Our family is genetically predisposed to that condition.

"But!" Emily continued, "it will take too long. I want to use the machine."

The machine?
But there are corners in those balls!
120 degree obtuse angled corners that somehow need to meet at neat tri-colored junctions!
We haven't covered that in our SuperAmbitious Homeschool Sewing Curriculum!
Nor threading a sewing machine or winding a bobbin or troubleshooting tension or sewing with knit fabrics and stretch direction or anything like that yet, either!

Good thing I was too busy preparing supper to voice those thoughts and be a wet blanket that night, because the girl dragged the IKEA sewing machine upstairs, figured out how to thread it, and sewed a ball. 

Prototype 3, friends: those two in the front -

I let her run with it - her colors, her fabrics (she attempted fake fur knit and survived), unpicking bad seams, incorrect threading, bobbin case insufficiently pushed into its socket, what happens when we run out of thread in the bobbin, seam easing, loose lightbulb, accidentally-disconnected machine cord ("the machine's not working anymore, Mom!!!!"), unsuitable stitch length, the whole hog. If she needed help, she called for it; if not, I let her be. She knew how to put together the different pieces of this patchwork ball with a sewing machine because hand-stitching the first version helped her visualize how the RS and WS and corners worked. She knew how to troubleshoot the sewing process because she ran into all kinds of funky and we fought those fires when they happened.

I didn't teach.
I didn't have a curriculum.
She asked; I answered.
Simple as that.

Hilarious moment, just minutes into sewing her first few seams: Emily announces, "I think the machine's broken, Mom. It's making a really strange sound."
We both listen, and then I fight back a laugh.
"It's not broken. That, Emily, is the sound of a $60 machine when you've been used to a $600 one."
We both guffaw.

I think I know what to get her for her 12th birthday. Not because it would be a Useful Thing For Every Child To Have, but because she's outgrown the one she's already using.

Long story just to show a few pictures of patchwork balls, huh? Funny.

Every time I think I am so on top of things as far as crafting with my kids goes, something like this comes along and reminds me of how little I know about how kids learn. And how little I really need to instruct. I'm relieved! Are you relieved, too? It's not as daunting as you think, friends - teaching your kid to sew, to make a pattern, to create. I'm proud of what my kids make, yes. But I'm prouder of how they teach themselves to do it. And I am proudest when they get to that moment when they can visualize what they want to make, and sync their hands with their minds to make it happen. That is creating. It's all about the pathways between dreaming and translating. And once they know the pathways, the world is truly limitless.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Zip A Bag Chapter 13: Collapsible Drum

The next few posts are of a new category of bag zipper configuration - the zippered gusset.
Zippers can be inserted into gussets in many ways. Here are four (clockwise from top left):
  • central, with fabric stop
  • offset (side) with fabric stop
  • zipper-as-gusset, externally bound
  • offset, seam-to-seam

While they look different, their construction is similar, and once you've learned the concept, you'll be able to make all kinds of zippered gussets. They're easier than they look!

Today's bag is one of my favorites.

For one, it's ROUND, which is the best shape in the world, 

and has these straps that you can play around with

 to carry the bag in different ways,

like this:

This is the particular configuration that inspired its name.

For another, its construction sequence makes me happy because it appeals to the part of me that likes puzzles and method and logic. It's the kind of sequence that gives you a fully-lined interior for both the main body and lid,

with all the seam allowances hidden between lining and outer layers. 

And did I mention that it has a zippered base,

(whose SA are also all hidden away)

that, when unzipped,

lets this bag collapse

and fold completely flat?

Bags like these are why I put up with Math and Science lessons in school when I really would've preferred to be reading or writing or - better yet - swimming or hanging out at the beach. 
(Not much has changed.)

Anyway, let's talk about this bag. This is a simple bucket tote. It has a hinged lid. Which is zippered. Not a big deal.

Now, if were were sewing it the commercial way i.e. sewing both outer and lining together as a single layer, with all the SAs exposed on the inside of the bag, which are then bound with bias tape or trim, it could absolutely be a Beginner Level kind of sewing project. In the next post, we'll be making a pouch with that exact method, for completion's sake.

In this post, however, we'll be making this lidded bucket tote the More Elegant Way - with invisible SA. The construction process isn't quite as linear, which might bump it up into the Intermediate Level category and require a little more visualization. But I took lots of pictures, so hopefully we won't lose anyone along the way.

Some notes:
  1. The zippered base is constructed exactly the same way as the one in the last post. We always install the zipper along the longest dimension of the base. In a square or rectangle, this is its diagonal. In a circle, this is the diameter.
  2. Beside the outer and lining, there are layers of stabilizers to provide support, including a heavy sew-in interfacing for the lining and headliner (or the more pricey Flex-Foam) for the outer.
  3. The outer body is Jessica Jones' Timewarp Navy Ripple barkcloth pieced with with a textured sand upholstery vinyl, which I also used for the straps. The outer base and piping are a navy canvas and twill, respectively. The lining is some chrome yellow quilting cotton whose designer I've forgotten (sorry!) paired with a natural canvas base.

STAGE 1: Make the straps
These are normal Truly-Reversible Closed-Ended straps,  

into which are incorporated lobster-claw-type snap hooks. See this post for how to make them.

They snap together to create a long shoulder strap.

Because this joint can be annoying digging into your shoulder, I made a sliding sleeve,

like so:

Four short strap anchors with D-rings are inserted into the main mid-body seam,

for the straps to latch onto.

STAGE 2: Make the base
The circular base is cut as two semicircles (with appropriate SA) for each layer (outer, inner, and the applicable stabilizers). Face the zipper the usual way. I began with the base lining,

then layering the base outer fabric over that,

on top of which I added some stabilizer (headliner) - even with the two layers of canvas, I felt the base needed some structure.

Repeat to face the other side of the zipper tape. so you get a complete circle. Topstitch/edge-stitch on either side of the zipper to finish. Note that the zipper is deliberately sewn so that its zipper pull is on the lining side of the base (i.e. the WS of the completed base sandwich) - this is because we want to access it from the inside of the bag.

Here is the completed base sandwich. I basted along its circumference to hold all the layers together.

STAGE 3: Assemble the body
In this stage, we'll be making two cylinders, one for the outer body, and the other for the lining. If you want to pipe the base, add piping to the bottom edge of the outer body cylinder now. To draft a body cylinder, see this post and this post

Now, we'll attach the base sandwich. This part is a bit funky if you're not used to spatial visualizing, but this is what we're aiming for - the bottom circumferences of both cylinders attached to the base, which then sits between them.

This tutorial might help you. 
Essentially, this is the sequence:
  1. Attach the base to the bottom opening of the lining body. The lining body's RS should be touching the lining side of the base sandwich.
  2. Attach the base to the bottom opening of the other cylinder (i.e. the outer). The outer body's RS should be touching the outer side of the base sandwich. In theory, you'll be sewing on the same stitching line as before, because you're attaching both cylinders around the same circumference of the same base sandwich. You'll also have to push the first cylinder into the middle of the circle to be out of the way of the base's circular edge while you attach this second cylinder. Fortunately, this bag has that zipper in the base, so you can unzip it and shove the lining through it:

Turn everything RS out to check.

Done correctly, the outer side of the bag will look like this:

And the inside of the bag should look like this. See: no SA visible around the base outline; they're all tucked between the layers.

The ickiest part of constructing this bag is done. Pats on the back!

STAGE 4: Prep the main zipper
This is the same thing as you do to any zipper that needs fabric stops. Except that this fabric stop is extra long, and attaches to the zipper at both ends to make a zipper loop. This loop must fit the circumference of the cylinder and lid EXACTLY, so measure your zipper and fabric stop lengths accurately. If you're insecure about getting it exactly right in the cutting stage, cut the fabric stop pieces longer than you need - you can always trim them down later.

So go ahead and prep one end of the zipper.

Now sandwich the other end of the zipper between the remaining short ends (RS together) of the fabric stop, and sew the seam that secures it in place. In the photo above, you can see a light blue mark on the tan vinyl where I've measured the exact position of the seam. There might be a bit of twisting of the fabric stops to make this happen, but they're long enough for you to maneuver them relatively easily. 

Done correctly, the final prepped zipper should look like this, complete with topstitching.

STAGE 5: Construct the lid
Here's an overview photo to show the layers of the lid- they're the same as for the body cylinder. Don't sew all these layers together at once - separate them into the outer layer(s) and the lining layer(s).

We're now going to attach the zipper loop to the lid. If you were planning on piping the lid, attach the piping now to the zipper.

A note about piping: at a seam between a straight edge and a curved edge, we always attach piping to the straight edge first, and then ease that straight edge around the curved edge. So when attaching a cylinder to a circular base, we attach the piping to the opening of the cylinder (straight edge) and then curve that opening around the circumference of the circular base (curved edge).

So, too, with this lid. The zipper tape is the straight edge, so the piping goes on that first.

Here's the big-picture plan:
And now we'll attach that piped-zipper-tape around the circumference of the outer lid -

one side of the zipper tape sewn on, and the other side left free, to attach to the body later.

Now coil that free zipper tape back into the middle of the lid so it's out of the way and layer on the lining layer(s). Sew all around, leaving a gap for turning out.

Hand-stitch that gap shut. 

You will now have a perfectly lined zippered lid, with no SAs visible on the lining side

or the outside.

STAGE 6: Attach zipper to body

Sew the free side of the zipper tape to the top rim of the lining body, so that
  • the coils point downwards
  • the WS of the zipper tape (i.e. the lining side of its fabric stop) is in contact with the lining body
  • the fabric stop is directly above either the head or tail end of the base zipper.

Here is the view from the other side of the cylinder.

STAGE 7: Bring the layers together

Here is the sequence for this last stage.

First, fold down the SA of the lining cylinder to its WS as shown. This will flip the coils of the zipper tape up. 

Next, flip the outer cylinder up over the WS of the lining cylinder, to bring their top  openings together. Their WS are now in contact, and the bag looks almost finished. Fold the SA of the outer cylinder down to its WS, as shown.

Topstitch/edge-stitch all around the opening of the bag, through both the lining and outer layers, to attach them together. If you use the stitching line from Stage 6 as your guide, 

you should be able to stitch on the outer side of the bag

and neatly and uniformly "catch" the lining fold on the inside.

The bag is now finished!