Tuesday, May 22, 2018

I Made 32 Fish, or The Art (and Science) of Mass Production

If you've been reading this blog awhile, you might know that a lot of mass-producing happens in Chez Ikatbag.

And if you're newly-visiting, well . . . [embarrassed chuckle] now you know. 

When the holidays and teacher appreciation season roll around, for instance, I sew lunch buckets and marker pouches by the dozen.

Then there are the toys. 

Which may not be limited to fabric.

And each time we have a birthday party, I hand-make multiples of party favors, game props, treasure hunt prizes, and take-home goodies.

And lest you think it's only me, let me share that my kids do it, too. In the summer, they crank out wands and ribbon sticks and other toys to sell at craft fairs. 

Mass-producing is every bit as manic as it sounds, to say the least.

And oddly addictive, as those of us who do it by choice might testify.

But not nearly as productive as the term suggests, considering that all we have to show for the effort is just one thing (albeit in bewildering multiples thereof).

Over the many years of making things en masse, I've evolved a sort-of system. Or maybe it's more of a philosophy. See, while the execution may vary with different media - fabric, wood, cardboard, paper, clay - the principles are the same: easiest possible layout, chunking construction sequences, minimizing details.

Today, I thought I'd share my most recent mass-production project, along with some tips. 

This here is a drawstring fish pouch. 
It's about the size of a roomy pencil case. 

Some weeks ago, I made about 30 of them for a children's craft session.

I adapted it from sources like this and this. The crafting-purpose of ours dictated that at least part of the pouch had to be plain so that the kids could personalize and decorate it.  Ideally, the entire pouch should be plain and generic so that it could be 100% personalized by each kid. But where would be the fun in that? From the seamstress's perspective, I mean? 

So let's linger awhile in the early planning stages of the project and introduce

Tip#1: Add some color.

In fact, add enough different colors so that you don't get bored. Because while you might be making 30 pouches, it doesn't have to feel like you're making 30 pouches. Instead, you want to feel like you're making 6 blue pouches, 6 yellow pouches, 6 green pouches, 6 rainbow pouches and 6 teal pouches. 

See? Doesn't that sound infinitely more exciting?


If you further permutate each of those color categories into subcategories of color elsewhere, you'll get even more variety. To illustrate, take the 6 blue-headed pouches and give 2 of them dark blue tails, 2 light blue tails and 2 teal tails.

Suddenly, you're not sweat-shopping 30 identical pouches but creating 18 uniquely-colored projects! What variety! What different interestingness!

Now, there is a (very miniscule) downside to having a school of fish in a myriad of hues: you will have to change thread colors about one million times. I may be alone on this, but I'm not crazy about repeatedly unthreading and re-threading my machine. Someday someone needs to invent SmartThreadTM, which automatically senses the color of fabric it's passing through and changes color accordingly to match. It will revolutionize sewing, let me tell you. And if this is any indication, we might be on our way to getting our wish.

But until that happens, we have two alternatives:

Tip #2a: Use invisible thread. 
It's apparently the quilting person's best friend. With just that one spool, you can sew through fabrics in any number of colors and that thread will coordinate perfectly with every single one, because it's invisible! And if you sewed a crooked line or mess up the upper/lower tension of the stitches, it isn't glaringly obvious.

There is a downside, though: it's . .  . well, invisible thread. Like fishing line on a diet. And with just as great a propensity for tangling and misbehaving off the spool. And should you mis-sew a seam, unpicking invisible stitches is Not Fun At All. 


Tip #2b: Chunk similar colors
Group together all the bits of sewing that use thread of one color and sew them all before moving on to a section that needs thread of a different color. So plan ahead and sew all the yellows at once, then the blues, and so on. But you probably already know and do this with your other non-mass-produced projects, so this is old news. 

Let's move on from the Planning phase to Drafting-And-Layout and introduce

Tip#3: Where possible, cut straight lines

Here are the template shapes for the Head and Body of this fish pouch:

30 pouches (with front and back sides) translate to 60 Head squares and 60 Body funnel shapes. The Head squares have straight sides and are a cinch to cut out: measure and mark along your fabric and then go it with your rotary cutter. The weirdly-shaped Body bits, on the other hand, would have to be template-traced and then cut out laboriously by hand. Even stacked together, you'd probably feel every manual second of cutting out those 60 shapes.


You could approximate the funnel thing to a straight-sided shape (in this case, a square), 

in which case both the Head and Body are squares,

and you can slice them out of your fabric, and then trim all the Body ones to shape. 

I did that. 
I rotary-cut out 120 squares and trimmed 60 of them to shape using the template. Much, much faster.

By the by, did anyone notice that the dimensions of my templates were an even 6"?

Because this brings us to 

Tip #4: Round your numbers
When you're making a single item, you can afford the luxury that is custom-fit. For instance, if you were making a case for your iPhone, you could cut your fabric to the nearest 1/32" and have it snuggle your device with nary an angstrom of superfluous ease. 

However, when you're measuring and cutting out dozens of the same item, especially if you're measuring directly on the fabric rather than using a funkily-shaped template, it's much easier to mark off multiples of 6" than 6 5/32". Unless, of course, you're big on multitasking mental arithmetic while trying not to slice off your own finger with the rotary. More power to you.

Want to know another way I make the numbers work for me? I let the dimensions of my piece of fabric dictate the size of my template. For this fish pouch, for instance, I was trying to decide between a 6" and 7" square (and fractions thereof). Then I measured the width of my duckcloth, which was 54" after cutting off the selvedges, and 6" was the clear winner, because I could fit 9 complete squares along that width with zero wastage.

Tip #5: Where feasible, omit the lining
I should be the last person telling you this. 

See, I aim to line everything I sew because it's good tailoring and comfortable against the skin and it is "properly finished that way" and a whole host of other reasons. But let's be honest: a lining is essentially a second project sewn into the first. Everything you do - layout, cutting, marking sewing points, pressing, basting etc. - to the main outer layer is repeated with the lining layer. This means that when you're making 30 pouches, you're actually cutting-and-sewing 60.

Now, some projects need a lining. Like a bridal gown. Or a tailored jacket. Or a fashion handbag. It is non-negotiable. But then, most people in their right minds aren't likely to mass-produce these projects in their homes. Unless you were the costume coordinator of your school play or the hired seamstress for a choir. In which case you'd have given yourself ample time and an army of helpers, and at the end of the day, you'll know that the effort is commensurate with the type and function of the project. 

This, however, is a pouch. For a children's craft that will last 20 minutes. Ergo lining-unnecessary.

In lieu of the lining, 
  1. do not use interfacing (which will need to be hidden behind a lining, duh), and
  2. therefore, use a sturdier fabric. I used duckcloth for the body of the fish. The kids would be gluing and coloring in this section of the pouch and duckcloth is robust enough to hold its form without stabilizer and doesn't let ink or glue bleed through;
  3. use a serger if you have one. The seam allowances are now visible on the WS, and have to be finished neatly. If yours is a 4- or 5- spool overlocker, use both needles and seam-safety-stitch as you finish the edges. It saves you the step of sewing the seam on your regular machine beforehand.
Here is my serger in action, cutting, seam-stitching and finishing in one step, at assembly-line speed.

Tip 6# Skip the topstitching and edgestitching
When I sew my bags, I take the time to edgestitch and topstitch. These flatten bulk at the seams while strengthening those seams and are pretty, besides. 
Here's a shot of the fish pouch as a WIP, showing the places where I'd have edge-stitched were I making only one or two of them.

For 30, though, I skipped those additional lines of stitching. Instead, I pressed the seams flat and called it a day.

Tip #7: The iron is your best friend
The iron is our best friend even when we're not mass-producing, but especially when we are. Remember this: whenever you finger-flatten a seam or manually fold a hem as you feed it under the presser foot, you're taking precious seconds to straighten and align the layers. Multiply that by each time you pause-and-lift the presser foot along the whole length of your project, and those seconds add up quickly. Imagine if you'd also taken the time beforehand to pin or Wonderclip every one of those seams and hems.  


You could press those seams flat, those hems in place, those seam allowances under those other layers. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, especially if you're the sort who rationalizes that it takes longer to set up the ironing board than to fingernail-scratch a seam open (why, yes, I do that, too), but when you're sewing 30 pouches' worth of hems and seams, it's totally worth it. 

Especially around the fish's mouth, where the hem of drawstring channel is:

You would've pinned it, right?

I didn't use any pins. Just the iron. Right before speeding through 30 cylindrical mouth openings. At which I didn't need to stop mid-way to reposition anything. Yup.

Tip # 8: Stick tape on your sewing machine as distance guides
There are points in the construction process when you'll need to mark certain distances or boundaries for a seam. If you've seen sewing instructions like "Stop stitching 2.5" from the edge of the fabric and backstitch" you'll know what I'm talking about. When I sew single items, I dutifully measure this distance, mark it on the fabric and use it as a guide as I stitch.

When you're making one million okay 30! of those same items, you're probably thinking that there has to be a better way to observe those boundaries than ruler-marking points on all those pieces of fabric.

Here comes another ubiquitous tip: the tape-on-the-machine trick. Essentially, the first of your multiple project items is your guinea pig. You mark this especial sewing point on it, slide it under the presser foot, and stitch away. When the needle arrives at that reference point, you pause, note the position of the far edge, or near edge or whatever edge of the fabric on the machine bed, and stick pieces of tape (some of us just grab a marker and draw more precise lines on the tape, too) to indicate where that edge rests, which corresponds to the point at which the needle needs to stop. Then for subsequent projects of the same kind, you'll only need to stitch until that far edge/near edge/whatever hits the piece of tape, and you'll know you've reached the elusive Needle Stopping Point. 

People have stuck tape all over the machine where it's useful, but the most common places are the Throat Plate (metal thing under the needle that is irremovable and has seam width lines on it), the Bed Slide (the other metal thing next to it that slides open to reveal the Bobbin Cave, and the actual Bed, which is the entire platform upon which your fabric rests as you sew.

Tip #9: Bubble Cut Double Layers
Anytime you work with identical layers of material, you face the challenge of aligning all their sides together in a neat stack and stitching through everything without missing a layer or edges shifting out of place. Nothing is more disheartening than ploughing through, say, four layers of vinyl only to discover after turning the stack over that your perfect edgestitching topside has left a hideously uneven border of fabric on the underside and permanent needle-holes in all the wrong places.

We who have been-there-and-done-that on enough exasperating occasions now perform the slightly-cheating maneuver called The Bubble Cut. This is a term I learned from my children, who apprenticed this skill in preschool. 

Essentially, when you are working with two or more layers, you only cut one of those layers (usually the outer/top layer) to shape. All the other layers are cut much bigger so that there is ample allowance/border all around. After sewing all the layers together in whatever configuration is called for, you trim the other layers to match that first, accurate layer. Voila! 

This is very useful for situations involving batting, interfacing, and double-layered felt sewn WS together. But it is especially useful when those layers are separated by a larger layer that obscures the outlines of the ones beneath. You'll see this in Steps 7 and 8 of the tutorial.

Tip #10: Chunk The Same Tasks Together
Finally, our last tip, which is really part common sense and part All The Other Tips Thrown Together. Let me postulate upfront that this tip doesn't actually save time as much as it saves sanity. See, when you're mass-producing, you're really aiming for efficiency. Nobody, unless they're true newbies, would ever sew a project from start to finish and then repeat that same linear process 49 times to make 50 identical ones. At some point, everyone would reach the conclusion that if they sewed all the 50 straight seams first, followed by all the 50 zippers, then serged all the similar seam allowances, and finally hand-stitched all the buttons, they'd feel like they were actually moving toward the finish line without simultaneously taking a million steps backward.

The beauty of this strategy is that there's no formula. Sometimes, Chunking The Same Tasks Together (CTSTT) = sewing all the yellow parts so you don't have to keep switching thread colors. Sometimes CTSTT = serging half the seams and then sewing all the hems and then returning to the serger to finish the remaining seams. And sometimes CTSTT =  aligning and pinning everything before even sitting down at the sewing machine.

The point is this: CTSTT is whatever makes the actual sewing fastest. Even if it doesn't save you any time overall (you're still doing the same tasks to the same 50 items, only in a different, non-linear order), each task, performed multiple consecutive times, will feel faster and after repeating it even 10 times, you'll actually be doing it faster from all that involuntary practice!

And of course, there's the satisfaction of coming to the very last stage in the construction process wherein you're tossing out pouch after pouch (or skirt, or toy) in rapid succession as you thread drawstrings through channels or glue eyes onto faces. 

"Wow," you'll say in wonder, "I finished 100 bags today!"

(And who cares if you'd already forgotten the 10 days prior in which you ploughed through all the earlier stages?)

Oh, the sweet triumph :)

And now, let's speed through the Tutorial!

First, download the template if you need it. Click on the sentence below the picture, not on the picture itself. Also check out the pretty heading - Emily has gotten into lettering recently and I'm hereby hiring her to do all my headings.

Here's what you'll need for ONE pouch: 

  • Two 6" squares of cotton fabric for the Head.
  • Two 6" squares of duckcloth for the Body, trimmed to shape using the Body template.
  • Two pieces of felt for the Tail, one cut to shape using the Tail template and the other cut much larger so there is a rough border around the template. In the picture below, the two pieces are in different colors for visibility but you can use just a single color. 
  • Two white felt circles for eyes. Mine were a little over 1" in diameter.
  • Two black felt circles for eyes. Mine were about 1/2" in diameter.
  • 1 yard of cord or ribbon, cut into two lengths of 18", for drawstrings.

Step 1: Lay the RS of one Head and one Body piece together as shown. Choose the edge of the Body that is opposite the narrow end. Sew along the stitching line to attach the pieces together. Let's call this Head-Body thing 'one side of the pouch'.

Step 2:  Repeat Step 1 with the other Head and Body pieces to make the other side of the pouch. Press the seam open and finish all the edges (you may skip the small narrow end as it will be enclosed in the Tail) - I used a serger. 

Step 3:  Place the RS of both sides of the pouch together as shown. Measure and mark a point 2" below the top edge of the fabric. Sew a seam from that point down to the narrow end of the pouch. Flatten out the pouch as best you can and press open the seam as far down to the narrow end of the pouch as you are able. 

Step 4:  On both sides of the pouch, measure 1" from the top edge of the fabric and fold the fabric to the WS. Press the fold. This is the channel for the drawstring.

Here is the WS.

Here is the RS.

Step 5:  Bring the RS of the two sides of the pouch together again. Repeat Step 3 along the other, open side of the pouch to sew the second side seam.

Step 6:  Turn the pouch RS out and fold down the top hem along the fold you'd pressed in Step 4. Working from the WS as shown in the photo below, sew all around the opening of the pouch, stitching close to the edge of the fabric of the hem, to create a channel just under 1" wide. I sewed right over the serger stitches.

 This creates a channel that goes all around the opening of the pouch,

with insertion points for the drawcord on opposite sides of the opening.

Step 7:  Pick one side of the pouch an designate that the 'front'. With the 'front' side facing up on your work surface, position the smaller Tail piece over the narrow bottom end of the pouch. You can see the dashed lines showing the section of the Body under the Tail - ensure that the bottom end of the Body does not protrude below the Tail. Pin the Tail piece in place.

This is the back view.

With the 'front' side facing up, slide the larger Tail piece behind the entire pouch, so that the smaller Tail piece lies within the boundaries of the larger Tail piece. Pin the larger piece in place. 

Step 8:  With the 'front' side facing up, slide the Tail under the presser foot and edge-stitch all around the Tail, through all layers.

Here is the back view - you can see that the stitches have outlined the shape of the front Tail piece.

Step 9:  Using the edges of the front Tail piece as a guide, carefully trim  the back Tail piece around the stitching line. In the section over the Body where you cannot use the front Tail as a guide, keep the width of the border the same.

Here are front and back views of the Tail - perfectly edgestitched on both sides.

Glue on the eyes. Thread the drawcords through opposite openings in the channel, and pull tight to cinch the 'mouth' shut. If you haven't threaded a drawcord channel before, this tutorial might be helpful.


The shape of the Tail can be changed easily to something more angular, if you find that easier to cut out en masse. Here are a couple of fish pouches with different tails.

Here are some easy no-sew ways to dress up the Body of the fish: glue felt shapes on with tacky glue or fabric glue,

and draw-and-color with fabric markers.

I personalized this one in block letters for a friend, but on the day of the craft, Emily wrote the kids' names (for those who'd wanted it) on their fish pouches in her beautiful penmanship.


  1. Oh my goodness, Step 7 & 8 are pure genius. No wonder my layers of felt sewing always look wonky. What a fantastic technique.

  2. Thanks once again for sharing ! Every time you post I learn something new and it is much appreciated.

  3. These are super cute and I totally have to make a few (not as many as you though) for my youngest child and her friends. One thing, the local quilt store that services my machine says that invisible thread should be used sparingly. It can scratch the bottom of your pressure feet. I rarely comment but I have to tell you that I love(!!!) your blog and the crafts you write about.

  4. How did you know I was hosting a fishing theme birthday party this weekend?? Thank you!

  5. Thank you SO MUCH for taking the time to write this fish pouch tutorial!! Not that I am going to make one, I never do, I just like to read about how someone else makes them. I love to read, and often your instructions are like small novels, little bits of humor thrown in here and there. I've especially enjoyed the menagerie stories.

  6. First, Emily, your lettering is beautiful. It is so much fun to watch you grow up into your own gifted person! I look forward to seeing more of your art in the future.
    Next, the fish itself. I have a nephew, just turned 3; fish obsessed. He knows all the types of sharks, can give a lecture on the midnight zone ("it is the deep deep deepest part of the sea that the light can't reach") as well as the creatures dwelling there and what they eat. amazing. I can't wait to make him some fish pouches because as smart as he is, he is still 3! Thank you for sharing your amazing skills and talents and knowledge with us so freely. I'm thinking to make some plankton out of felt to feed them (they are "tiny creatures that whales eat") as well as whatever I can to help him demonstrate to less knowledgeable people the meaning of symbiosis...("two creatures living together that help each other") . Yes, he knows this. and will share it.. if he can get his potty seat unstuck from around his neck.
    Anyway, thank you

  7. Thank you Lier, you are a doll. Thank you for always sharing your creative knowledge and sparing us many failures. Yep, we need to learn from mistakes and trust me, I DO.
    I would love to try to make a fishie for my 3 year old grand daughter. She might like it, or she might just fling it across the room. As always, your blog is a joy to read.

  8. Once again, I'm sitting here reading and punching the air, yelling "YEAH!" and learning something new. I can make one, I can make twenty. As long as I can keep the parts in order (parts boxes and baking sheet trays on bakers racks at the old job; tray-like cardboard boxes at home).
    You are a gift.

  9. I am not much of a mass production person, but I LOVE your tips in the post! Super helpful, particularly the bubble cut layers one. How did I never think of that?

  10. I've followed your blog for years. I make dance costumes and do so en masse! Unfortunately dancers come in different sizes so I group my costume by size. I find when assembly line sewing, it helps to changes tasks occasionally to keep from getting stiff and bored! Love your fish.


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