Monday, February 25, 2013

Where I Am Today


Sorry for the food photo, but fear not - this will not be a recipe post. I made nutella chocolate chip cookies today. We're back home after two weeks in Singapore and we are dreadfully jetlagged. I know this is normal and it, too, shall pass, but I miss being able to tell night from day. So, to cope, I went out and bought a jar of nutella. I've been off nutella for some years now, because too much of a good thing -even nutella - can be bad. Now, though, is the perfect time to re-addict myself- nutella is not really chocolate and it's not really candy and it can be incorporated into every baked confection to make it even sweeter and sillier. The ultimate unhealthy sweet fix comfort food, in other words. 

Hence these nutella-infused chocolate chip cookies. Friends, they look better than they taste, okay? I love dark chocolate and any chocolate-flavored thing I eat has to be deeply chocolate, preferably ebony-dark. I am sad to say that nutella has the opposite effect - it makes the chocolate flavor of dark chocolate chip cookies shallower and sweeter, not chocolatey-er. Boo. Hiss. They're not bad by any stretch of the imagination; just not chocolatey. Still, it feels as if I've totally ruined a good batch of dark chocolate chip cookies by nutellaing them. I'm sure I can find someone in the house who will eat them, though. Hopefully. So no, I'm not sharing the recipe. Stick to real chocolate when you make chocolate chip cookies, friends. Leave the nutella in its IV drip and enjoy it uncompromised. 

Okay, so back to where I am today- talking about settling back into normal life after a whirlwind trip back home. I don't consider a trip to Singapore a true vacation. It's mentally exhausting, in addition to being physically so. Sure, I swim in the sunshine and eat curry but I'm constantly torn between feeling fully at home there when I actually miss my house in MN. It's a bizarre state of limbo. Then there are the wonderful friends in Singapore, some of whom I've known since I was a kid. When we hang out together so our kids can play together, I am struck by how I've known the mothers longer than the children. Here in MN, every single playdate-mom friendship is the result of our children meeting in school or church; between us, the mothers ourselves, though, there is no shared history beyond, say, the last 4 years. No complaints - I love meeting and making new friends as well as keeping old ones, but it's hard not to notice the difference. 

Shoppingwise, I didn't buy as much as in previous years - annual Singapore trips mean that I don't need to stock up quite so desperately each time. These linen fabric and trim were from a tiny independent knick-knack shop in Bras Basah Complex. 

I made my usual pilgrimage to the Textile Centre at the corner of Jalan Sultan and North Bridge Road, and bought a bunch of utility notions - white thread,

ric-rac, twill tape, spotty bias tape, buttons, various chalk markers and refills,

ribbon and velcro,

and a couple of random Japanese books.

That left book is more licensed-characterish than I'd like, but it was for Emily, and it contains Hello Kitty in various manifestations,

along with Little Twin Stars, which I adored as a child,

as well as other characters I don't recognize, but which will be fun to stitch.

The Cotton Friend pattern magazine, of which I have an earlier issue, is full of fun things to make. In this issue, I found two well-drafted outfits - this sweater on the cover

and this mandarin-collar shirt.

Other garments, sadly, were misses. I know this next one is probably a deliberate fashion style but - whoa  - it doesn't fit, period.

And this one needs help, too:

A couple of bags - backpacks

and a waist pouch/fanny pack.

And waiting for me at home in MN, were new catalogs of my favorite kid stores! These are what I read for sewing inspiration and to keep abreast of kid fashion - more accurate than reading sewing blogs for design trends, at any rate!

So quite a bit of sewing inspiration! But before I act on any of it, I must sleeeeeeeeeeeeep. I need sleep so badly. The kids have been keeping us awake at nights while their bodies adjust to MN time - they wander around the house at 3 am and attempt to hold conversations with us. Bad! Bad! Go away! Grrr! 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Photos from this side of the world

Some photos of the sights we've been enjoying on our visit to Singapore this year. These are the concrete-metal-and-real-plants supertrees that are a part of the Gardens By The Bay - a horticultural exhibit that we've only seen a small fraction of so far.

A view of part of the city skyline, from the window of a moving cab.

The girls at a neighborhood mall - we came to this mall to buy cupcakes for Jenna but also ended up in the rooftop garden's play area. 

It's been a lovely homecoming this time, as usual. Different from the years before but nice in all new and old ways. The weather is appalling, though - overcast, unpredictably rainy, with only smatterings of swim-and-beach-worthy sunshine interspersed. I've only swum in the sunshine once. Just once! Unacceptable. Next year we are coming back when it's good and sunny. I did get to hang out with some girlfriends yesterday, pigging out on dimsum downtown and stocking up on notions and Japanese sewing books at the Textile Centre. It was the first time in years that I'd taken a bus and walked my old routes through this haberdashery district - I felt as if I was 19 years old again and carrying a roll of nylon packcloth on my shoulder like an oversized bazooka, buying supplies for my first sewing business. It hasn't changed much, this part of town. Next year when I do this again, I'm taking the long cut along Arab Street to photograph the mosques and silks and lace and baskets and embroidery. 

Now, though, I have three children and they want me home to take them swimming and ice-cream-eating and shopping for origami paper and fancy markers. So I take only quick time-outs from being Mother to wander down memory lane before cabbing back to them at Mum's. Any more reminescing will have to wait till next year, then!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Make a Bag: Epilogue

Last chapter in the epic Make A Bag series! And by "epic", I don't mean "longer than is sane", although that may be true, too. I mean "extolling her heroic attempts to write posts about fabric sacks while the rest of the house fell apart around her and everyone ate takeout pizza and oh, while she was also packing the entire family's summer wardrobe and enough gifts for half the civilized world in preparation for her trip to Singapore to see family, where she's now been soaking up the sun for the past 8 days already but nobody knew because she didn't even have the time to blog about it."

Yep - epic.

So... let's finish off with some questions that I think you might have. I like trying to read your minds because it reminds me of when I was a teacher and some of my lessons produced more glazed eyes than usual. When that happened, I always had to think of creative ways to get my students to first regain consciousness and then lose the awkwardness that came from suspecting they had a "stupid" question to ask. There is no such thing, by the way. As a stupid question, I mean. Here then are my

AFQs (Anticipated Frequent Questions):

Q  Why no zippers? I thought you would be talking about how to install zippers! I can already sew bags in my sleep but I can't do a zipper without stitching my own finger!
A  Um, there are a lot of tutorials on the internet related to bagmaking and zipper installation. I don't like to reinvent the wheel because I feel that it takes credit away from the folks who put in all that effort to originally invent it. Go put your googling fingers to work.

Q  Why no pockets? You didn't put any pockets in your bags. When I make bags, I need a pocket for each shade of lipstick I carry. And my lactation-expression device. Plus a secret stash of Marks & Spencer's rich tea biscuits.
A  You want pockets? I'll give you pockets. See here and here.
Specifically, these are two pockets I use a lot in bags:
Lined patch pockets (not usually tulip-shaped, though)

Then there is the cargo pocket, like this one on Jenna's backpack or this one on Emily's, which is the bag pocket I get most asked about. I didn't include it in my 25? 26? pocket series above because it isn't a pocket I use for clothes. And because the cargo pocket isn't a technically exciting pocket the way the welt-pocket-with-flap one was, so I wasn't interested in doing a tutorial for it. It's essentially a narrow-width gusseted (Jenna's pocket) or darted (Emily's pocket) pouch with one whole face missing, sewn onto the actual bag. Depending on the sort of opening you want for your cargo pocket, you might include a zipper, a flap with velcro/buttons/snaps or just leave the top edge open.

Q  What sort of details can you put on bags? I'm new to bagmaking. Well, okay, I made a simple tote bag using some free blog tutorial and I'm thinking I'd like to spice it up a bit because it's quite plain.
A  Bearing in mind that many of these embellishments are more comfortably added BEFORE sewing the bag up along its seams i.e. while the pieces are still separate and flat, here are common things people add to basic bags without actually needing to change the structure too much:
  • Pockets
  • Extra fabric combinations e.g. patchwork
  • Applique
  • Reverse Applique
  • Embroidery
  • The manipulation of fabric for texture vs volume - pleats, gathers/ruffles, smocking
  • Trim
  • Hardware
  • Rigid handles - wood, bone, tortoiseshell, plastic
  • Piping

Q Speaking of piping- why no piping how-tos?  You go on and on about piping and you never show us how it's done!
A: That's what bag patterns are for. Good patterns don't just give you a template and a few steps on how to sew straight seams and add a fabric flower. They teach you bagmaking techniques. Some of these are unique to bagmaking - installing a recessed zipper, for instance. Some are general (meaning that they feature in other sewing genres, too, like garment-making) - e.g. piping, how to add interfacing so you sew only in the SA, for instance. However - and only because it's already been written - you might enjoy this tutorial I did for Sew Mama Sew. Lots of obvious piping instructions there.

Q  It seems like there could be a lot of layers to sew through when making a bag. And some fabrics are themselves thick, on top of that. Can my sewing machine handle thick fabrics?
A  The short answer is: if you are serious about bagmaking, get an industrial machine. A regular lockstitch one. Industrial machines have long arms so you can manipulate bulky bag parts more easily on the sewing machine bed. Also more powerful motors. I've wanted one since I was 19 but never had the space in the house for one. Even now. Read my rant here. Otherwise, some tips:
  • Use a denim/jeans needle. It's good for sewing through thick layers without skipping stitches.
  • Get a walking foot.
  • Find out if your sewing machine has a mid-position lever for your presser foot to accommodate thick layers. I've been sewing with my machine for yonks and only just discovered mine last year. Read about it here.

Q  Where to buy interfacing? Fabric? Hardware?
A  In shops. I'm serious! Go to physical stores if you can, so you touch these items and judge for yourself whether the weight or size or feel is right. An added advantage of going to physical stores is bringing in an actual sample of something you want and asking the salesperson for it. I do it all the time, even with large objects that I can't hide in my purse. This way, I don't actually have to learn the names of the things I want and can continue to blissfully refer to them as "plastic spaceshuttle looking thingies", "crumply parachute cloth" and "buckram but not really for clothes stiffy thingamabob" before actually coming into possession of them. If you can't get to an actual shop, try online, which saves you walking time and petrol, er, I mean gas. The downside is you'll have to actually learn the names of the kinds of fabric or hardware- good luck with that.

Q  What's the most challenging bag you've made?
A  Ooooh, we're getting to personal self-disclosure now. Well, I'll tell you. Surprisingly, it wasn't a bag that was huge and unwieldy. It wasn't even a bag made of many layers of thick fabric and interfacing that led to broken needles and the occasional bleeding/impaled finger. It wasn't even one of a particularly complicated design. It was this one (read about it here):

It's just a duffle I made for Emily some years back.

Apart from it being pink, there was nothing about it that was outside my comfort zone,

except that I wanted to see if I could make it without any exposed seam allowances, so that every single part of it, including the pockets, was lined.

It was just some daft personal challenge thing. I did it, by turning it RS out through multiple holes in the linings of various sections of the bag in sequence. If I'd done it the commercial way - sew the layers together and then bind the seam allowances with bias tape on the WS of the bag, it would've counted as an Easy Project. But then, where'd have been the fun be in that? To this day, I'm very proud of this bag because of how I didn't give up while making it. Most people wouldn't think it to look at it, because it doesn't appear particularly challenging technically to make; only I (and whoever I brag about it to) know what actually went into it, which makes it all the more satisfying to be privately proud about. 

Q  Why still buy bag patterns?
A  Because you want to (not because you have to). Look, I may have written this entire tutorial series on the concepts of bagmaking that may or many not have been helpful for the average home seamstress. It certainly was never my intention to write bag designers out of their business (as if I could, anyway). But let's be honest - we are of all types: some of us enjoy following a pattern, some of us hate following a pattern, some of us have access to patterns, some of us have no access to patterns, some of us relish the creating, some of us prefer just the making. In other words, at the end of the day, some of us still want to buy patterns rather than design their own. Many many, many reasons  - here are just a few:
  1. For the dimensions and the guarantee (one hopes) that the templates are tested to fit each other and are the right curviness etc. You're paying for the hard work that the pattern designer puts into fine-tuning the accuracy and precision of the templates. Parts need to match, numerical computations need to be right, proportions have to look good - all these are the behind-the-scenes elements of writing a pattern that have nothing to do with the pretty fabric the beauty shots eventually showcase. You'd buy a pattern just so you don't have to do the Math, wouldn't you?  Hey, I'd buy a pattern just so I don't have to do the Math.
  2. For the special features - a fancy closure, straps that you've never seen before, the incorporation of bag hardware that are new to you, the magic pleats that transform the bag into a mermaid tail or whatever. You want to know how that magic happens so you buy the pattern. 
  3. For the new techniques - piping, interfacing, waterproofing, mitering corners, zippers. These can be transferable to other sewing projects- garments, toys, slipcovers etc. You've always wanted to know how to reverse-applique, so you pay for a pattern that promises instructions for particular techniques. This way, you get to make the project and add a transferable skill to your sewing repertoire for future projects.
  4. For the design and adaptations. Some bags are just gorgeous. You'd never be able to design it yourself even if you had an IV infusion of molten nutella shooting straight into your frontal lobe, so you buy the pattern. QED. 

Q  Why make bag patterns?
A   Because there will always be people who want to buy them, duh. My plea to bag pattern designers, though: raise the bar. Please (and I include myself in that appeal). Respect your buyers - know that they are discerning and that they have seen many tutorials and patterns out there in their search for the Next Great Handmade Gift For Christmas. They're comparing prices and features and reviews. When you make a bag pattern, you invest a ridiculous amount of time and energy into producing it. You will not want to sell it for $1 because that would have been a waste of your time and an insult to your integrity. But you cannot sell it for $10 if it's just a pattern for a plain flat tote bag. People will not want to buy it even if it's $1 because they can just as easily find a free tutorial online for it. It has to be more unique than that. And no, just because you showcase it in designer fabric does not make it more unique. More regular people make bag patterns than clothing patterns because they don't have to worry about size grading and fit. That's another way of saying that it's a buyer's market out there as far as bag patterns go, so make yours count.

Q   So which do you think is easier- garment sewing or bag sewing?
A   Because I learned to sew as a process of first drafting, then sewing (I never learned to use commercial patterns- so fail), I have to answer this in two parts. I'm also going to answer this in reference to the kinds of garments and bags I've made. A person who's made different kinds of garments and bags may obviously have a different opinion.
As far as pattern drafting goes, garment pattern drafting is much more involved than bag pattern drafting. There are a lot of issues in garment drafting that are thankfully absent in bag drafting - fit, drape, ease, curves, movement, for instance. Bag pattern drafting is for the most part just geometric shapes that fit stiffly together. Sizing up or down a bag pattern is as straightforward as proportionally increasing its lateral dimensions - you might even be able to do this on a copier machine!
As far as the actual stitching goes, however, I think garment sewing is actually easier than bag sewing. In saying this, I am excluding specialty garments (like multi-layered coats). Thus, in general, garments involve easier fabrics to manipulate, many are unlined (making it easier and faster to finish), most are completed with standard straight stitches and fewer fiddly details or add-ons. Bags, on the other hand, often involve heavier-weight fabrics, layers of stabilizer, hardware, multiple pockets, zippers in different styles of installation, inserts, piping and linings. All these require patient and skillful manipulation under and manoeuvring around the presser foot, especially if the layers are bulky and the overall structure is inflexible.

Q   Are you going to post tutorials or share patterns for the various bags you made in this series? Like that bucket tote?
A     No. Maybe you've just joined us from a pinterest or facebook link and missed the introduction in which I said I would not be posting step-by-steps, in which case go here to read it, or else you weren't paying attention, in which case go there to read it again. Actually, here's a screenshot of that particular section in the introductory chapter:

See? Remember - the point of the series was to enable you to make your own patterns.

And now, the answers to yesterday's quizes:

(L-R, First Row):
  1. Leather Pouch Bag: Bucket (the base is a separate piece)
  2. Colourblock Bag: Gusset
  3. Colourpop: Darted
  4. Oilcloth Tote: Bucket (the base is a separate piece) 
  5. Mini Saddle Bag: Gusset
(L-R, Second Row):
  1. Leather Folded Clutch: Flat
  2. Oil Cloth Shopper: Bucket (the base is a separate piece)
  3. Oil Cloth Pocket Bag: Flat
  4. Foldaway Shopper: Bucket
  5. Chelsea Bag: Blocked (or Bucket)

  1. Monochromatic Log Cabin Leather Tote: Flat
  2. Canvas Doggie Tote: Flat, with pleated bottom
  3. Tote Topper: either Flat or slightly Darted (see 3rd picture)
  4. Quilted Silk Drawstring Bag: Flat
  5. Patterned Circle Tote: Flat (or Flat, with rectangular base)
  6. Felt Shopping Tote: Flat
  7. Button Bag: Flat (brown) and Flat (orange)
  8. Mesh Bag: Flat
  9. Reversible purse: Flat
  10. Beach Towel Bag: Flat, with flap
  11. Pretty Plastic Bag Tote: Flat, with elasticized bottom
  12. Felt Tote Bag: Flat
  13. Bias-tape Tote Bag: Flat
  14. Handmade Beach Bag: Darted (see instruction step 7).
  15. Easy Denim Tote with Floral Brooches: Flat
  16. Heart-Felt Bag: Darted (see instruction step 7).
  17. Removable Tote Organizer: Flat, with pleated bottom
  18. Pillowcase Tote: Flat
  19. Beach Towel Tote: Flat
  20. Kid Towel Tote: Flat
  21. Canvas Tote With Pockets: Flat and Darted
Whoa! Did you notice the obvious trend? Let me say that while I love handmade, based on the results of these two quizes, I have to say that the commercial bags are just more fun. 
The Make A Bag series is now over! Class is ended. Are your eyes unveiled? Do you see darts and gussets and bucket bases everywhere? If so, you now have The Sight. Well done! Go forth, design, sew and fill the earth with bags overflowing!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Make A Bag Chapter 14: Quiz

Exam time!!!
Are you ready for a quiz?
Stop fainting, people. It's very easy - all you need to do is identify bag types!

I thought about how to do a roundup of bags for you to analyze and didn't feel at all comfortable trawling the internet for DIY bag tutorials. Nobody likes their handmade stuff pigeonholed into boring bag categories, right? We all want to think our handmade bags are supremely unique and magical. This is why I've only analyzed my own handmade bags in this series for you - I don't care if you scrutinize my bags along with me and label or deconstruct them in your heads. That way I don't have to write tutorials on how to actually make them because you'll already know how to make them!

So instead, I picked a commercial bag catalog - Boden's women's bags, specifically. I like Boden. I shamelessly covet their coats. But the bags are lovely, too. 

So here's how it works. If you are so inclined, go to Boden's women's bag page here and try to categorize each of those 10 bags into the seven categories we discussed in our Make A Bag series:
1 Flat (lined or unlined)
2 Darted (includes boxed totes)
3 Gusseted
4 Wrapped
5 Bucket
6 Blocked
7 Pleated

You may not find a bag for each category; some will share the same category. Don't forget to click on all the views of each bag, for better scrutinizing.

If you want something more handmade, may I suggest Martha Stewart? Nobody does handmade more glamorously than Martha. Here is her 21-bag roundup. 

For extra credit, go categorize her 21 bags. Again, don't forget to click on the How To links to access more photos of each bag and even templates and instructions. A heads-up: you might be surprised at your results! Or maybe not - afterall, Martha is the queen of beautiful details (you're welcome for the big hint).

Answers tomorrow. No prizes, other than the satisfaction of knowing that, now, no bag is a stranger to you.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Make A Bag Chapter 13: The Seventh Bag - Pleats and Folds

We're in the homestretch now that we've reconstructed the six main categories of bags. Do you remember what they are? Here - as a recap:

  1. The Flat Tote
  2. The Darted Tote
  3. The Gusseted Tote
  4. The Wrapped Tote
  5. The Bucket Tote
  6. The Blocked Tote

In a much earlier post, I mentioned that there are some bags that don't fit into these six categories. I'm going to introduce a seventh category today that's very different from those earlier six. Unlike those six, this seventh kind cannot be easily analyzed as a single schematic diagram and construction sequence. They are incredibly varied in how they look, for one, even in their most basic shape without any fancy details. However, they are recognizable by their one defining concept, which they share with this ubiquitous kitchen staple:

That's right - it's a cupcake liner!
Everybody's seen these, right? 
They're three-dimensional baking receptacles.

From what shape do they originate, though?

A flat circle.

A one-dimensional, single piece of paper with no volume,
no glued darts (like a grocery bag) and no seams.

So how did it get its bucket-ness? 
Its capacity to hold stuff within?

Answer: pleats.

Get ready for my earth-shattering announcement:
there exist some bags that get their volume entirely from pleats.

Here, let me share a semi-example.
This is a store-bought bag with a pleated bottom.
Very common - you surely must have seen them around.

That triangular thing looks a bit like a dart, kinda.
But let's take a look at the inside of the bag:

No, no dart. It's just a big fold in the bottom whose ends are sewn into the side seams.
That pleat gives the bag volume and depth in its base.

That bag, as I said, is only a semi-example. It has a pleated bottom rather than a bona fide base but it would still be a bag (in this case, a regular Unlined Flat Tote) without that pleat

Here's a bag I made last year and forgot all about (happens all the time with me). It's loosely based on a friend's bag that I saw. By the time I was ready to make it, I couldn't remember the half of it, even with email correspondence with said friend to attempt to help me visualize it. I remembered the concept and that's about it - no details at all. So this is my version:

Let me unfold it for you -

Those pleats are what give the bag its volume. Apart from them, it's literally - as far as containing stuff goes - a flat piece of uselessness.

Same concept as that hammock I made for Bearaby last summer:

Now, I realize that mentioning pleats might cause some of you to jump out of your seats, hands raised, exclaiming, "I've made a pleated bag before! They're so pretty! You can get free patterns on the internet. You just cut out the bag shape wider than usual, fold the fabric into pleats, iron them, sew up the side seams and you get a pleated bag. So pretty! I luuuurve them! I want to make a gazillion for all my girlfriends and my kids' teachers for Christmas!"

Um, no. Thank you, but please sit down.

Those aren't the kinds of pleated bags I mean. Those are first and foremost some other kind of bag -flat totes or darted totes, for instance, that have pleats (or their un-ironed cousins, gathers) added to their outer layer as a pretty embellishment, often tucked into a yoked hem at the top of the bag. The pleats in those bags are just the fabric being manipulated for texture. In other words, those pleated bags would still be bags -albeit a bit blander - without the pleats. How do I know this? Because those bags have seams. Side seams, base seams, top seams. The pleats are extra.

The kinds of pleated bags I mean owe their lives to pleats. For them, the fabric is manipulated for volume. Without the pleats, those bags would be reduced to flat pieces of fabric. Here are a couple of examples:
There are others, of course, but I was too lazy to draw them. Plus, I'm not actually even supposed to be here - I'm in Singapore now. I've actually been here about a week, swimming, pigging out, being with family. Whoo! The autoposting program is your substitute teacher. 

But back to the point of these pleated bags. The concept is simple: you take a flat piece of fabric and make folds (pleats) in some parts to introduce depth. Those pleats are secured in some way - ribbon ties, buttonholes, a drawcord threaded through grommets, zippers, or tucked into end sleeves like my hammock and hammock-inspired bag above. There are no side seams or darts or gussets or base pieces. 

And because pleats can be formed in a zillion different configurations, there is really no limit to how these bags can be designed, or how many of them there can be. There is also no single schematic plan by which to represent their structure or construction sequence, which is why I didn't include them among the six other bag types with their neat, formulaic designs. I'm happy to leave them unanalyzed as the enigmas they are. Besides, I like the idea of there being a zillion bags out there that I haven't wrapped my mind around. It's one of the things that keep me interested in bag making and bag designing :)

We have only two more chapters left of this series - there's a quiz next (did you think I'd forgotten? Hah!) and an AFQ (Anticipated Frequent Questions) section next. We're almost done!