Thursday, October 29, 2009


or, what to do with sick children and an excess of band-aid boxes.

We made little cars that were the perfect size for Little
Playmobil, Legomen and others of that ilk.

What we used:

  • Band-aid (and other generic brand) boxes
  • Scrap cardboard
  • Scissors
  • Craft glue
  • Craft knife and cutting board
  • Markers
  • Stickers and/or construction paper for details

What we did:

Step 1
Opened up the boxes and cut a hole in one of the biggest sides:

This hole is centrally-located for a sedan-style car, but you
can move the hole to either end for a pick-up truck, truck
cab, train, tractor etc.

Step 2
Sealed up the box again, wrong side (i.e. the white side) out.
We like that this made little white cars for the kids to
decorate with their markers.

Cut a door in one side.
Cut scrap cardboard for the roofs of the passenger
compartments, cut front and back windshields out and glued on.

Step 3
Decorated with markers and stickers.
Stuck on (or drew) tyres, hubcaps, front and tail lights,
air-intake vents, license plates etc.

Here are some different styles our woolly
brains managed to think up:

The classic boxy convertible (minus retractable roof -forgot)

The classic boxy sedan-style car, whose roof got sat
on at least thrice before this photo was taken

The hot-pink boxy precursor to the VW Beetle

The boxy precursor to the Morris Minor

and the boxy pickup truck sans wheels
(too tired to care at this point)

We planned to do a little train engine and carriages
next, along with some trucks, but gave up and
moved on to Carville instead.

Step 4
We used 4 equal-sized pieces of cardboard and taped
them together at the back, leaving the front tape-free
for drawing. We marked out some roads and simple
intersections and then had the kids contribute ideas for
other features. It was so much fun to hear their ideas!

A bridge over a lake with ducks to feed
(too tired to make the ducks)

A pumpkin patch and flowers next to it

An apple orchard

A playground, sidewalks, lots of parks, construction etc.

The smooth surface of the cardboard made for very
nice driving/sliding conditions. Look - driving on the
left side of the road like we do in Singapore (and the UK)!

And on the right side of the road like we do here:

We used the little wooden traffic signs we had at home
but when we are up to a bit more high-energy scenarios,
we'll take out our
cardboard traffic signal lights and play accidents.

When the kids were done playing, the playmat/playboard
was folded into quarters and put away. When we get more
cardboard, we might make another playboard with train
tracks and do a short train and a little train station.
Everything goes back into the recycling bin when the girls
get tired of playing of it, or when the cars get sat on
one too many times.

Halloween Lanterns

So we've been sick with the flu this week. Very unpleasant.
Finally we got to a point where we were too well to be
on sofas but still too sick to be dressing
up and having tea parties.

So we did crafts.

Here are some simple paper lanterns we made in

Halloween/fall colors just because.

The photos aren't very exciting and my brain was too

dulled to even think of close-ups. We made two kinds
of lanterns. The first kind were just simple tubes - either
cylindrical or square in cross-section, and layered with a
contrasting color of paper on the outside. The kids cut
fancy edges with my fancy-edge scissors and went
crazy with the hole punchers.

The second kind was made with slits cut into an outer layer
which was then stuck onto an inner tube (black) that was shorter
so the slit part popped out. We used the regular 9" x 12" sheets
of construction paper. We cut the black into three equal strips
3" x 12". We cut the orange into two equal strips 4.5" x 12". On
the orange strips, we marked out a 0.75" band on either edge,
and cut vertical strips about 0.75" apart in the region between
those outer bands. Then we put glue on those outer bands lined
them up with the long edges of a black strip and stuck them on
so the middle region of cut slits popped out.

Here's our materials list:
  • Stapler
  • Glue
  • Hole puncher
  • Scissors
  • Ruler
  • Craft knife
  • String
  • Construction Paper (black, yellow, orange).

Monday, October 26, 2009

Updates and Requests

Hallo everyone!

First, a quick photo-less update on what's been messing up my sewing room recently:

  1. Jenna's birthday present - finished two weeks ago and all blue. If you liked that Princess Pavilion Tent, you'll probably like this too (plus it's all blue, did I mention that yet?). Photos later.
  2. Embellishments for Jenna's birthday present - a lot of hand-sewing, so taking a while.
  3. Emily's fairy Halloween costume - finished.
  4. Jenna's princess Halloween costume - almost finished.
  5. Kate's un-chicken Halloween costume - eeek! Still nowhere in sight.

I've received comments and email from some of you who are making and who have made Christmas presents and dress-up outfits from tutorials you've found here. I can't tell you how big a smile that puts on my face! First, that the instructions are helping you dress some little kids up fancy for the holidays, and second, that the instructions work at all! Hooray! Thank you for thanking me! And thank you for sharing your own stories!

I've also received requests and inquiries about things on the blog that some of you are interested in making for Christmas, like those jam tarts. I of course want to make a thousand things and patterns and tutorials for the whole world but we have only so much time. So to help me prioritize a bit, I've made a short list here of patterns and whatnot to make available in time for Christmas making, based on what people have asked about. Also some new things to expect that no one has asked about, because no one has er, seen them yet:

1 The katybag (out early Nov)
2 The felt peg doll
3 The round craft bag
4 Chicken
5 The weird doll

If anyone has any other requests, please leave a comment to say so, OK? I can't promise anything, but it will help me prioritize at least.

Last note on katybags: sorry I haven't put the ready-made ones in the shop yet. We've had a crazy week. And I've succumbed to whatever germ the kids have! Drat. Mutter mutter mutter mutter. I'll get to them as soon as Halloween is over.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Making Myself Focus

OK, I am done procrastinating. Finished Emily's fairy dress tonight. One down, two to go. I feel machine-like this week. Two children sick (not Kate, fortunately). Every morning the husband and I ask each other how we feel and whether we are getting the symptoms or not. This morning I decided that I don't have the time to get sick. After Halloween and Jenna's birthday maybe I can put some time aside to be sick. But this week- sorry, all the slots are full and double-booked and then some.

No photos of fairy dress for now. Two reasons: one, snow and sunlessness for days and days, and two, I suspect if I even pause to touch the camera, I will start procrastinating again and sew felt toys or a chicken or something.

P.S. I do not like this weird fabric suspiciously known as "Special Occasion Glitter Satin". It is like paper and makes bulgy seams. This is the last time I will be taken in by my children's Please Mom Buy This Pretty Cloth trick.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Giveaway Winners and Pattern For Sale!

Thank you all for playing!
Here are the winning numbers of the giveaway:

MaryAnne (36), kareena (8) and Krissa (12), congratulations!
Please send me an email (my email is in the sidebar) so I can
give you the code for the free pattern. If I don't hear from you
within 24 hours, I will have to pick another winner.

Thanks everyone for the kind and encouraging comments -
here is the pattern for sale! It's $2 and clicking on the
button takes you directly there:

Add to Cart

It is also in the sidebar. I hope you find it easy to use and
enjoy making the tarts. If anyone has any trouble with the
download, please send me an email so I can fix it, OK?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Jam Tarts For Sale!

Recently someone emailed me about the pineapple tarts
I'd made a while back. It got me thinking - what would
happen if I played around with them a little bit -
used different jams, for instance.

Jenna stayed up with me one night as I was finishing them

up, and assigned flavors to the colors: lemon, lime,
raspberry, orange and the original pineapple.

We thought they would make pretty tea-party fare

And of course, the girls wanted a set

but I persuaded them to let me put some in the shop:

So if you'd like this, grab it quick!

And I am also trying something new - a pdf

pattern for sale to make them yourself:

I'll just say that pattern-developing (and writing) is fun,
but it's a fair bit of work. Plus I always struggle to decide
a fair amount to charge for what I make. I hope you will
find this pattern reasonably-priced and easy to use. It is
(unless I've messed up majorly - if so, someone please
shoot me an email) an instant download. In addition to
the templates for tracing, the instructions are fully
illustrated with photos.

But before I put it up for sale, I'd like to give the pattern
away to three of you! I've so enjoyed writing tutorials and
experimenting with new projects and sharing them with you.
Anyway, because I want to get the pattern out for sale soon,
I'm going to do a really short deadline on the giveaway -
so leave a comment on this post by midnight of Wednesday
and I'll pick three winners randomly on Thursday.
Then I'll announce the winners and put the pattern out for sale.

Meanwhile, the box of tarts is already in the shop, and the
katybags should be in there by next week, fingers crossed.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How I Procrastinate

11 days to Halloween, three fancy costumes to sew and -
oh, look! Camel corduroy. Lying there among the fleece in
my fabric store plastic bags. And some more corduroy
with fall-leaves print. Hey, let's make a skirt.

In my defence, I have taken the kids' measurements.
Scribbled it in three columns on some scrap paper. That's
half the job done, right? I like the heavier fabrics of fall
and winter, so while shopping for costume materials recently,
I also casually threw a few bolts of corduroy in my cart.
And fall clothes have those nice tailored lines that
happy summer dresses don't.

Given the brevity of fall in these parts, these fabrics were
becoming obsolete by the minute, so I prioritized in their
favor and drafted a quick A-line skirt for Emily. Also added
some pockets and bias-taped all the raw edges.

Corduroy's bulk sits better with a concealed zipper so I
found one in my notions box and used that. It was a black
zipper and too long, but hey, it's a concealed zipper, so
it worked. Finished the opening with some random
hook-and-eye hand-stitching.

This is fast becoming my favorite way to hem a skirt -
no raw edges, serged or otherwise. I like hiding all the
raw edges if I can - it's like a masochistic game
I sometimes play while sewing.

*Edited to add explanation on how to do this bottom hem:

Essentially, it is like doing a facing on the
outside of the skirt bottom.

  1. Cut a band of fabric (my leaf corduroy one was 4.5" wide including 1/4" seam allowance on the top and bottom) in the same shape as the bottom-most 4" of the skirt. This is not a rectangle. It is easiest if you use the bottom-most 4" of your skirt pattern to cut this band out and add the seam allowance on all four sides. Cut one for the front and one for the back.
  2. Sew up the side seams to join the two pieces into a continuous loop.
  3. Turn the skirt inside out.
  4. Line up the bottom edge of this loop and the bottom edge of the skirt so that the RIGHT side of the band is facing the WRONG side of the skirt i.e. the band is inside the skirt.
  5. Sew 1/4" seam allowance all along the bottom edge, and iron the seam open.
  6. Fold the band out over the right side of the skirt and iron the fold.
  7. Fold in the 1/4" seam allowance at the top of the band, baste or pin.
  8. Top-stitch all along the top of the band.

I wish I could say I knitted E's cardigan, too
(which she has fondly named "Sugar").

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Drafting, Slopers and A Bit About Sewing

Warning: Very long post. And no funny parts, besides.

Here's something I've wanted to post about for a long time. The only reason I haven't yet is that I just didn't know how to approach it. It's this thing called pattern drafting - it's extremely technical compared to, say, sewing a rectangle into a gathered skirt. But it is also extremely useful if you want your sewn garments to actually fit you. As far as I understand it, there are two main ways to make a pattern to fit a person: draping fabric over a person's body and pinning and tucking and making adjustments (like what is done on Project Runway a lot) and drafting a paper pattern based on that person's dimensions and adapting it to make different garments. I have never tried draping - but drafting was something I did a lot of as a younger person.

Some preamble first. I was fortunate to grow up in a family of seamstresses. Or sewing people, whatever they're called. All the women sew. Some of the men, too. My dad, for instance, sews leather accessories for whichever sport he's into at the moment. He's made guitar straps, archery quivers, dart pouches... and I regularly raided his "notions" stash for grommets, eyelets, awls, buckles and whatever else I need for making my bags. Sadly, he and I presently live in different countries so I now have to buy my own hardware, darn it.

Grandma was a tailor. Her assignments included bridal gowns and uniforms for entire marching bands. It was completely normal to have bolt upon bolt of fabric in the house while she worked on mass-producing (see- it's genetic) garments. Auntie Laura is an accomplished quilter, and garment maker. She takes a person's measurements, drafts a basic block that fits like a glove, and then produces amazing clothes. Once when I was on a home visit and Emily was just over a year old, she produced about 10 different dresses for her in less than a week. All she needed was her nifty measuring tape to get Emily's measurements. Plain amazing. Of course she had someone else do the cooking in her house! Mum is herself a fabulous seamstress and we are alike in that we enjoy picking out the especially silly-challenging projects just for the fun of it. "Sew a dress- pah, let's reupholster the entire living room furniture and why not curtains while we're at it" is her motto. To date, my favorite See Mum Push Her Limits project is this huge tablecloth made entirely out of free-motion cutwork (i.e. it's full of holes) embroidery. And she did it simply because grandma said it couldn't be done. When I am next in Singapore I'll get photos. It looks like a huge piece of white lace and is gorgeous but completely insane.

When it came to sewing garments, we'd always draft patterns from a person's measurements. I don't think I'd ever seen a commercial pattern until I came to the US. I honestly didn't know that there was any other way to sew but by drafting a sloper (more on that later) and designing a garment from that. So we'd get our measurements taken, then unroll a huge roll of brown kraft paper, gather our colored pencils, yardsticks and curved rulers and sketch away. Mum had a simple rule for getting started with the right er... foundation - always wear a great bra, and always wear that bra when you take measurements, and wear that same bra when you wear that final completed dress. It made a world of difference.

There was always animated discussion accompanying the making of a pattern - Mum would look over my shoulder and gasp, "Too straight! Armhole needs to be more curved in the front and less in the back. Or it will pull when you wear it." Or we'd argue over why the waistline had to be more roomy (I was foolishly vain) and why we couldn't put princess lines in every garment or why those pesky waist darts had to be curved. And mum would take her pencil and smooth over my bizarre geometric corners and make me redo (oh the injustice!) some of it. When a garment was completed, the highest compliment from any of these sewing goddesses was, "Good fit." "Nice dress" was often a mere afterthought and "I love the fabric!" was hardly ever mentioned. Maybe because we had weird fabric in Singapore, I dunno. If the garment pulled or sagged or looked like it was clearly made for a different body, they would blame the basic block and say, "Throw it away and draft a new one - this one is useless." Such precious lessons. My memory of the process is so faded now, more than 10 years later that I almost have to start from the beginning and relearn drafting the way I did in Homec as a girl.

But that's the sort of sewing environment I grew up in. I thought I'd write a bit about it because some readers have emailed to ask how to learn to sew, and where I myself learnt it. I know the exposure I had is unusual and a gift so that's not very helpful for you all, sorry.

I am also learning how things are done here in the US with commercial patterns - so let's see if I am getting this right - graded patterns come in different sizes on the same sheet, and you trace out the size that's closest to yours and fold up the original carefully and put it away. Then you work with the traced pattern by changing different parts of it to fit your dimensions. That's a good starting point and a neat short cut, but you'd also need to buy different patterns for different kinds of garments. And sift through all the different sizes to find the ones closest to yours. And then alter them.

When mum and I drafted a pattern for a dress, we first drew what we called a basic block, which in the US is called a sloper. It is a snugly (but not tightly)-fitting paper pattern based on a person's unique dimensions. This is not the same as a regular garment pattern. A garment pattern is adapted from the block/sloper to form a particular garment, like a puff-sleeved dress. A pattern can be made to fit different people. A sloper fits only the person it was made for.

We worked with three main kinds of blocks/slopers:
(i) a skirt sloper (like a slim pencil skirt)
(ii) an upper body sloper (like a comfortable leotard which was either sleeveless or with wrist-length fitted sleeves)
(iii) a combination of (i) and (ii) to form a full-body sloper for, say, a gown.

We also did some shorts and trousers but not enough that I remember much of it.

The final fit (after minor adjustments and a mock-up aka muslin) is always awesome - nothing sags, nothing pulls, the shoulders sit squarely, the zipper lies flat and the seams skim the body without bulging. Then we trace this sloper out, keep the original as a template, and adapt the sloper to different garments - flare out a straight skirt to make an Aline one, add sleeves, lower the neckline etc.

I dug out all my old patterns for things I made from as long ago as my teenage days. All these started out as slopers. The White Turtleneck Dress one made me laugh today when I saw it - a turtleneck in sweltering Singapore is... well.... dumb.

My most recent block/sloper is more than 15 years old! Mum drafted this slightly more recent one for me in 2001, which of course is invalid now that I've had 3 children and far too many jars of nutella.

See that curved vertical waist-dart? It fitted like a glove. Mum is a genius.

I am waiting for my post-baby body to settle into something consistent (hahahahahahaha!) before attempting to make a new one. My body has changed so much and so frequently with three children that I don't recognize it anymore, frankly. Two winters ago and in my second trimester with Kate, I needed a dress to wear to a wedding. A winter maternity formal dress! That didn't cost an arm and a leg! So I drafted a pattern and it was hilarious! I remember staring at the shape of the sloper in frustration, wondering why there was no waist. Forgot I had a huge belly! I blame it on a bad case of pregnancy stupids, but I think it was also because I was so rusty at drafting, and missing mum being at my elbow correcting my mistakes. The dress was eventually made and worn all through the pregnancy - it was stretch velvet so it accommodated my changing shape without a zipper - this was me two days before Kate was born.

Back when I was growing up, sewing clothes was synonymous with drafting. In homec textbooks, the chapter on "sewing a skirt" began with drafting a skirt block. Ugh. Those of us (and there were very few, me included) who did not fall into a coma halfway through the course ended up with skirts that fit them perfectly. I got good marks (i.e. a decent grade) for workmanship but failed the fit test - my skirt slipped right over my hips and to my ankles - yes, with the zipper closed.

Reading all the wonderful sewing blogs out there is like a breath of fresh air in many ways because people can now make clothes without rules. A skirt is a kitchen towel with elastic on one edge. A dress is a pillowcase with ribbons. Pants have no zippers. It is liberating and it has given people hope to dress their children in handmade. It has made people buy sewing machines, who had previously thought them the tool of the devil. I love it! I love this movement for what it has encouraged so many people, particularly new mothers and grandmothers, to try (and fall in love with).

And yet I can't help thinking that it's an incomplete picture if it ended there. So many people are motivated to start to sew because, secretly, they want to make clothes. Hardly any one I know claims she bought a sewing machine to get real good at making bean bags. In an ideal sewing world, enthusiastic beginners would start with quick, instant-gratification projects that resulted in beautiful clothes with a lot of ties and elastic and no paper pattern. Very effective, especially for busy folks with small children or full-time jobs, or both.

Then when they sensed a call to something more challenging (or if they spent too much time browsing Hanna Andersson catalogs like I do), they would buy a commercial pattern and try something more "tailored". And tweak it. And tweak it more. And try a different brand. And tweak it some more. And maybe decide, "hey, it doesn't fall off my body when I wear it" and be well with the world. And learn a whole lot about sewing and pattern-making and themselves -like a superhigh level of patience that not even parenting could give them - in the process.

And then, one day, something strange happens - they get their first garment-idea. It is a horrible moment because an entire outfit appears in their minds with no happy connection to Simplicity 8072 or Ottobre 6-2007-4. It can strike a person anytime and anywhere - they see a dress on someone at a wedding and think, "cross those straps in the back and it's my dream LBD (Little Black Dress). But where to get the pattern? Argh!" Or they can be fingering a fabric in a store and they see, in their mind's eye, a cute little girl's pinafore. Or they have this bizarre pre-Halloween conversation with their children:

"Mom, can you make me a Heidi dress - you know, all alpine and lovely?"
"Er, why don't you go as Little Witch, dear? Or Snow White?"
"We've just finished "Heidi Grows Up" in reading group so please can I go as Heidi?"
"Well, if JoAnn doesn't carry a er.. Swiss Miss costume pattern, there's always ebay I guess."

Or they are pregnant and have a dinner to attend in the dead of winter.

On those days, I am thankful for slopers.

So my goal in 2010 is to do some serious drafting again. First, a trip to Singapore to hang out with Mum and Auntie Laura so that their very company will jog my memory of old lessons and old skills. Then some good reference reading (including looking at some better commercial patterns) and practice, practice, practice. And a formal class in drafting would be nice, too, if I could find one. If the opportunity presents itself to you, especially if you've been frustrated with commercial patterns or have an untraditional body shape, sign up!

And maybe I might teach other people to draft again. When they are interested, I mean. Years ago, my poor friend Sam came over to the house to learn to sew a skirt and I made her draft her own skirt block. So cruel. Should've just had her sew a wrap skirt. Maybe she wouldn't have left with her eyes glazing over.

I've sewn for many years, yes, but I don't consider myself an expert sewer by any stretch of the imagination. I've never sewed a fitted blazer. I don't know (yet) how to use a commercial pattern. I can't even name most of the parts of my sewing machine, which, incidentally has only straight and zigzag stiches. I have, however, sewn a lot of ridiculous things. And been mentored by masters. I know that many of you reading this have just begun to sew and wondering what you dare to try and make. Should you stick to beanbags? Dare you try a library tote?

If you've stayed with me this far, maybe you'll let me suggest something: assuming you know how to use your sewing machine already, pick something you really want to make, even if it doesn't seem a logical beginner's project. Something that interests you will keep you at it long enough to finish it. If it's a tote bag when you've just mastered sewing a straight line, go for it. If it's a table tent because you want to make it for your kids, go for it. If it's a dress, go for it. Find a pattern in a store and, if possible, ask someone to teach you. Or take an existing dress you love, lay it on paper and trace out a pattern. Take a class. Go to your favorite clothing store and stare at your dream skirt, turn it inside out and study the sequence of the seam construction. Don't let it be all about the designer fabric you've just spent all your grocery allowance on - start with some cloth you won't mind experimenting with. It is not about the print - it is about the fit.

If this has whetted your interest at all, here and here are some articles that explain everything better than I've just attempted to. And Vegbee at Blueprints explains how to make your own slopers from a commercial pattern if you aren't keen on drafting from scratch. Also I've read that there are sites where you can buy a personal sloper! Like you email somebody/ somecomputer your dimensions and some fancy algorithm produces a best-fit sloper. Fascinating. If anyone has tried these, I'd love to hear about it.

Well, goodnight all! This week I must, must start on the girls' halloween costumes. The eldest wants to be a fairy (of course). The middle wants to be a blue princess (of course). They both want the youngest to be a chicken. Given my appalling lack-of-progress in the poultry department, I think not.