Friday, January 31, 2014

Happy New Year!

First day of the lunar new year today. Back home, we call it Chinese New Year, although it's more than just Chinese folks who observe it. There are some pretty standard things we associate with CNY, like red packets filled with money, mandarin oranges exchanged in pairs (even numbers are auspicious; odd numbers aren't, not that I care much about auspiciousness), and new clothes (another custom at which I usually fail). In Singapore and Malaysia, there are also pineapple tarts. 

These are buttery, melt-in-the-mouth cookies filled with pineapple jam that's made from scratch. So yes, we buy a couple of Costco pineapples, then skin, core, de-eye, chop them up and cook them into a jam. 

The girls all helped make them. 

Some of us remembered to make appropriately-sized ones for special friends.
Like Bunny (of course).

This is not a food blog, so I'm just going to show you pictures - those were especially for fellow Southeast Asian readers who might be feeling slightly homesick now - and then move on, okay?

In the spirit of the new year, I thought I'd do my bit and share Asian culture with you. Specifically, traditional and modernized Chinese garments from the girls' own closets (that were store-bought). First, because I don't see this much on blogs, and it's always exciting to see the unusual, right? Second, because Asian-inspired design can be uber hip if one dares to go beyond the extremely old-fashioned while preserving its more charming elements. Third, because it's pure fun to dissect genres and discover both the variations and common elements within as a way to fully understand them (so as to be able to replicate and, later, adapt them).

So, first, some traditional Chinese garments in equally-traditional brocade (and these are all kid-sized) !

These are the blouse-halves of the blouse-and-pants suit called the "sam-fu" to which I introduced you in the last post. They are not closely fitted like the qipao top I sewed; these have darts to lightly shape the waist but otherwise sit loose in the chest and around the hips, like a short tunic. The sleeves are regular set-in shirt sleeves. They have a front wrap panel that fastens at one side seam along a snap/press-stud placket rather than with a zipper. The bottom hem is angular, with side slits.

In addition to the edges being bias-bound, there is also an accent hem facing around the sleeves, bottom edge and collar, extending along the edge of the wrap front. 

Here is another variation on the loose top - it has three-quarter slight-bell sleeves, 

an asymmetrical vertical overlap wrap front and its bottom hem is curved, as are the sleeve hems. Instead of accent faced hems, this one has a double row of bias tape (the inner row is simply topstitched on).

Some real qipaos now - full dresses (with impeccable workmanship, incidentally). These are made of cotton rather than the traditional brocade, which immediately modernizes the look without changing any of the traditional style elements. 

Anyway, I love this little dress - it's a size 2T/3T and just the cutest thing ever, especially on Kate when she was tiny enough to squeeze into it. Again, because it is for a child, it was cut loose in an A-line style. It has piping (be still, my heart) rather than bias binding, and a faced invisible zipper down the back. So the faux front wrap panel and frog buttons are entirely decorative.

Another qipao. Except for the shape of the bottom hem,

the style is the same as the one before.

Slightly different style - fitted waist and slightly flared skirt, 

with half-cap sleeves.

So quite a few variations on the classic Chinese top. But also quite a few common features - and these are the ones that make it the classic Chinese garment, after all - the stand collar, the curved front wrap panel (it is straight in men's tops), the frog buttons, the slits (or curves) in the bottom hem. This is to say that if you want to introduce Asian style elements in your garments, just incorporate these features. Easy, right?

Now let's talk about frogs.

Again, don't be fooled by the simple loopy thingamajigs you can buy off the notions wall in JoAnn Fabrics. Frog buttons come in an insane variety, and are made from all kinds of materials, including cotton bias tape, satin bias tape, woven trim, cord and piping. The most important thing to remember is that frogs come in pairs -

one half has a loop, and the other has a knot that fits in the loop.

This is the knot - it is very similar to a Turk's Head knot. It is always this ball knot. 

Beyond the knot-and-loop tips are the "frogs"- the non-essential but pretty part of the clasp.

Here's what I mean by "non-essential" - the one below is as simple as a "frog" button gets - in fact, I hesitate to even call it a frog because there isn't any frog part- it's just the knot-and-loop system. Men's shirts use this style of button a lot, because it isn't especially feminine or pretty.

Here is another simple style - just swirls of satin tape.

Here is another design - swirls again, with a fancy flat knot. Incidentally, that is also the same knot as the ball knot is, except flattened out.

This is a simple variation with loops and a contrasting double-strand of woven trim,

the same kind I used in my frogs:

A variation in cord:

and some in satin bias tape - swirls and loops;

and rose buds. 

When we meet again, I'll be deconstructing the qipao draft and then we'll learn how to make these frogs. And if you're suddenly inspired to sew a Chinese-style dress for your kid, my friend Jen has a pattern for a cute little dress for sale on her blog here.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014



First, let me clarify that this is not really a qipao (pronounced chi-pow). A true qipao is a gown. This is more like a sam-fu, which is a blouse-and-pants sort of suit, with the "sam" (pronounced "sum") being the top and the "fu" (pronounced "foo") being the pants. However, the sam-fu is a more casual, everyday outfit, whereas this is more a special-occasion garment. Besides, imagine if I'd titled this post "Sam", no one would know what I was talking about, right?

So . . .  let's just rationalize the slightly misleading name by explaining that it is half a qipao. And that a true qipao would be drafted and sewn in exactly the same way, except with the hem extended downward into a skirt to become a full dress. Okay?


Right, so we've finally got pictures. Here are my frogs.
And my three bust darts, the crazy things.

Emily took photos of me actually wearing the thing.

Which I thought were not half-bad, considering it was her first time behind the lens.

And just as well, because look what sort of stuff I shot when I tried to do it myself.

Cute, but idiotic.

Much better with someone else doing the shooting, so I could concentrate on making faces.

Like this smirk.

"Zoom in on these buttons, Emily."
"What's 'zoom in'?"

She learns fast . . .  and well.

My turn now - with Fleur. 

Here's the front of the blouse. Notice how those sleeves stick out. 

I'll deconstruct this draft later but since we're looking at this shot, let me say that
  1. brocade is a bit like paper. It's cool and silky and hangs nicely but it drapes like paper. Actually, more like cardstock.
  2. the angle of those sleeves is what makes the shoulders sit the way they do even when I'm capering about. Did you know that you can draft sleeves to stick out from the armscyes at different angles? Coat sleeves, for instance, are drafted to hang more vertically, because that's how one's arms are usually oriented when wearing coats - still and hanging vertically next to the body. T-shirt sleeves, on the other hand, stick out more horizontally, because we wear T-shirts to move our arms about a lot. But I'm meandering; let's come back to that in another post.
Moving on now - here's the back:

The separating zipper

that allows the entire front panel to separate for dressing and undressing (this is a fitted garment after all).

And the frogs, of course. Notice there are also supplementary snaps (aka press-studs). They are always present, because the frogs, being partly decorative, are very seldom sufficient in number and spacing to secure the opening.

I'm planning to do a couple of follow-up posts next. One is to deconstruct the qipao top for you, since I'm guessing that this is a more unusual garment for most. Then we can talk about sleeves and angles and curved darts and asymmetry and whatever else I think might be interesting to dissect. The second is to teach you to make the frogs. If you have any particular requests, leave a comment to let me know.

P.S. Because I know you might ask, the fabric is from JoAnn. See - JoAnn has some good stuff, right? 

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Gentle Lesson in Culture

Hello friends!

I am in a good place today. By that, I mean that while it's another frigid day out there (school has been canceled for the fourth day this winter) and the kids are at home with me, which means high levels of fun but low (if at all) levels of personal productivity, I've finished that Chinese blouse. AT LAST. Without losing my mind. Well, not all of it, anyway.

Unfortunately, it is too cold to model the thing and take photos. It is too cold to even send Fleur out in my place to model the thing and take photos. And my house has dungeon lighting that will not do justice to all those hours of work. So, everyone: pray for Spring so we can all see the blouse, okay?

Culturally exotic as that blouse sounds, it is not the subject of today's post. Today's post is about a recent comment I received. I've said in the past that I get all kinds of comments to my posts. The ridiculous spam ones aside, there are, literally, all kinds - questions about topics or a particular post, requests for recommendations of shops at which to buy specialty materials, a lovely story about your kids, an account of your sewing evolution, a shared link to a gorgeous cardboard exhibition, an expression of gratitude for a free pattern, a kind pointing-out of a typo, a passionate rebuttal of one of my views. And then, there was this one that came a couple of days ago, in response to this post:

At first, I thought I'd politely and discreetly delete it so as to avoid embarrassing the writer, but then I thought it was too good not to share, especially since the person's convenient anonymity offers him/her some level of immunity to said embarrassment. 

Gentle lesson #1:
It depends on which side of the pond it is from which one hails, friend.
(Although the whole world does agree that "learned" is the form of the word used to describe a highly educated person.) Perhaps this link might be helpful for further enlightenment.

Gentle lesson #2:
One should perhaps have written:
"... it is "learned", not "learnt"..."
Those double quotation marks (not to mention commas) can be tricky to place, can't they?

Ah, culture. That nebulous thing of which we are all the product, and usually unconsciously so.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Plugging Away

I am still sewing that garment.

Vast amounts of hand-basting. Vast, I tell you.

My current garment progress rate is approximately one seam every three days + one dart every month. Let's play Count The Darts in the picture below! All together now: one waist dart + one french dart + one armscye dart = THREE! 

Per side! SIX for the front alone! (My patience dried up four darts ago.)

And my frog button progress rate is approximately 2" every 2 weeks.

So maybe "progress" is kind of an exaggeration.
Which is not good news, given that Chinese New Year is in ten days. 

But I'm not panicking. 
The way I figure it, I adopt this exact leisurely sewing speed (often even slower) every Halloween, right? 
And the children still miraculously have costumes to wear, right?
(Sometimes even in time for Halloween itself.)

And I can always fall back on Plan B, which is to conveniently pretend I'm not really Asian and eat lutefisk or something.  

But I would like my needle back, because that's the only hand-stitching needle I have in the house that isn't bent, meant for upholstery, cauterized at the tip (sometimes I use needles to remove wood slivers from feet) or plastic, that came with some kid's yarn art kit. 

And I can't have it back if it's trapped in mid-frog, can I?

So I guess I might as well finish the garment.