Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Sewing (and Shopping) Before The World Wide Web

Thank you for your comments on my last post! I enjoyed reading them and am so glad that many of you are still blogging. Blog on! As several of you said, much as we like our information quick and succinct, there will always be a place in social media for blogs as long as we love stories and appreciate robust explorations of topics close to our hearts. I am a fan of one of my favorite blogs, the King Arthur Flour baking blog, for precisely that reason. More than just wonderful (and very often fool-proof) recipes, the writers dissect, analyze and experiment with the multitude of variables that influence their success. And share them. Not just as tinkly-music videos, either - I love that we can choose to watch live action demos or read the play-by-plays alongside gorgeous still photos. Besides, anyone who makes it their goal to explain the whys along with the hows gets my vote. Bravo!

Some updates on my end: I've been working on the Pop Pouch pattern all last week and into this. The  testing team has sent in their feedback and photos and it's my turn now to put nose to grindstone to get everything ready for the pattern launch. The templates are tweaked, the instructions edited and I've just finished one final sample to test everything before it goes live. Working with testers is always fascinating and invaluable, especially if they aren't your sewing buddies who might feel obliged to say nice things to you. Some of the best feedback I've received in the past is from people who've said, with discernible frustration, "I gave up halfway because it looked like a beginner's project and you said it was easy."

I've always believed that a challenge to stretch oneself is a good thing, but this time it appeared that  I'd dragged someone - albeit unwittingly - way out of their depth. I felt bad, of course, but it made me rethink my default categorization of sewing skill levels. Evidently, I had a different understanding of "beginner" than had other people. Or what qualified as "easy". Maybe - contrary to what I'd initially thought - there was actually no correlation between "beginner" and "easy". It could be that to anyone who's sewn a quilt, everything thereafter is "easy". Or perhaps a "beginner" is someone who's never even set eyes on a needle, rather than the one who's only sewn flat pencil cases but not yet tried a fully-lined guitar gig bag. So many considerations. So many nuances. And because much of my sewing experience has been in an environment (and with materials) somewhat different than the typical readers of my blog and users of my patterns, I'd needed to learn from other eyes and other hands where the boundary lines were between old and new, easy and hard, familiar and foreign.

One of the outcomes of working with this wonderful team of Pop Pouch testers was rethinking the ways sewing people obtain and use their materials. More than just how we purchase new fabric, it was also about the kinds of fabrics we instinctively choose when we start a project, the unconscious rules we use to decide whether those are suitable, and even which kinds make it into our stashes for keeps. In a sense, our stashes are a commentary on the kinds of projects we've done, loved, and harbor intentions of undertaking in the foreseeable future, aren't they? While they may begin as Let Us Hoard Whatever Fabric We Can Find, over time we find them evolving into something that says something about ourselves as unique and particular seamstresses. This is especially so when we've sewn for a number of years, or have had to move house, or run out of space in general. When we cull our stashes, our decisions to save or toss, and our resolve to buy more of this and less of that, can be as diagnostic as a personality test, and just as surprising.

Looking back over the years I've enjoyed sewing, I distinctly remember there being a difference in the projects that motivated me to start sewing and the ones that kept me interested in improving my sewing abilities. I also remember what it was like to develop those interests and abilities in an era before the convenience of the world wide web.

Game for a story? Then read on.

My first independent sewing projects were hand-stitched stuffed animals and dolls. I was in primary school at the time and bored with the cross-stitch/embroidery/macrame - type projects we were made to do in Art & Craft class. Not because those skills were lame (far from it); one simply couldn't play or interact with an embellished tea-towel or knotted pot hanger (or ubiquitous macrame owl) the way one could with a toy. So I forged out on my own at home, dipping into Grandma's stash of good felt, learned the blanket stitch and rejected any other embroidery stitch that wasn't directly useful in producing a tiny face or paws.

In secondary school, I began Homec. lessons. Again, wretched embroidered home items like a hair-cutting cape and a shapeless cotton blouse, on which the focus was - regrettably - not the fit but instead smocking or some other cross-stitch decoration. Fortunately, the curriculum also included drafting and while I wasn't thrilled about learning to do it (I was 13 and obtuse), it was something with the potential for application to real life. Hurrah.

Sadly, the focus again was not on fit or even experimenting with fabrics (we were told to buy so many yards of such-and-such a fabric) but on perfect slip-hemming, perfect zipper installation and perfect blanket-stitching around the ridiculous hooks-and-eyes. My tetron-cotton skirt, the construction of which was dragged out over half a semester, fell to the floor when I zipped it up because I had added way too much ease in all the wrong places. If I had been the teacher, I'd have failed myself on the spot but as it was, I received an almost perfect score because all the years spent meticulously stitching tiny stuffed animals paid off in my apparently impeccable workmanship. On a garment that DID NOT FIT. Clearly, any drafting skill I possess now is to the credit of my mother, aunt and grandmother and not the Homec. curriculum.

I continued to draft and sew alongside my mother all through my teen years. Some of the garments we made were very ambitious, including formalwear and lacework and foundation garments reinforced with boning. While I had a lot of help, I also remember being fearlessly gung-ho - as only teenagers can be - about trying things that were supposedly far beyond my skill level. The downside was making a lot of mistakes. The upside was becoming more confident about recovering from those mistakes. And - eventually - actually getting better at sewing itself. Over time, I could install zippers without asking to be shown how. I could tell how much ease to take in at a seam or dart without being told. I could look at a dress in a magazine (or a real-life sample) and deconstruct it at some simplistic level - maybe not adequately to draft the pattern on my own, but certainly enough to instinctively know the starting point.

Sometime in my late teens, I discovered bag making. Although it really began as pencil-case-making: a small fabric container with a zipper. Which evolved into attempting utility cases, pouches and then full-blown bags. Bags with straps. Bags with drawstring cords. Bags with clasps and zippers and buckles. Bags with fabric blocks. Bags with hand-painted personalization. Bags with darts and gussets and pockets. Bags with lining and stabilizers. Bags which I began selling not long after, which turned into my first sewing business.

I still drafted and sewed garments on the side. But however garment making might have been the measure of one's skill with the needle (and a thus associated seamstressy status), it did not excite me nearly as much as bag making. While I dutifully plodded away at dresses and skirts and button-down shirts, some of which I wore with real pleasure, they felt like practice, not accomplishment.  Completing a bag, on the other hand, was cause for celebration. There was usually much showing-off to Mum, accompanied by a detailed report of the difficulties resolutely faced and triumphantly overcome, and an account of the number of needles broken and fingers pierced. We used treadle sewing machines then, and garment needles - fine, fragile splinters better suited for cotton and silk than the tough upholstery and utility fabrics often favored in bag making. Specialized needles for leather and jeans and knit were not easily accessible to the local home seamstress then, nor the options for the non-garment stabilizers that are now available to crafters in a dazzling variety.

In those days, I knew very little about what things were called, only how to use them. For instance, I was aware of the intricate workings of a treadle machine: how to thread it, how to replace the leather belting when it wore out, and how to maintain everything in generally good working order through regular dusting, oiling and fiddling with the various parts (although not also their names). I learned not from a manual with written instructions but by watching my mother take apart the innards and put them back again, each screw in its place - and then do it myself later from memory. If I needed guidance, she'd come over and prompt, "This goes here and moves against that," or "watch. Like this. No, not like that."

It was similar with the materials we used. As earlier mentioned, my grandmother had a large collection of wool felt into which I dipped to make my stuffed animals. I didn't know there were other, cheaper, pill-able kinds until I wandered into fabric stores in the US and laid hands on the colorful bolts of acrylic felt. They had a weird sheen, I thought, and felt oddly porous. They were nothing at all like the felt I'd used as a child - these reminded me of handmade paper, lumped and pressed and accidentally textured. Were they even the same kind of fabric? Labels meant little to me because I'd only ever known fabric by touch.

By the time I was old enough to decide that I liked bag making just a tad more than garment making, I was also old enough to independently shop for the materials I needed. Which was just as well since my mother's and grandmother's stashes (they were entirely garment-makers, with the occasional curtain or accent pillow sewn as and when needed) were no longer adequate sources of fabric. In the course of observing, designing and making them, I'd become aware of how bags, unlike clothes, held their shape even when empty. Sometimes it was multiple layers of fabric that gave them this structure (and made it very difficult to stitch through). Other times it was the fabric itself: different weights and thicknesses, different weaves, different drape, different coatings that added resistance to shearing, water, rips and stains.

But how did one decide what fabric was suitable for a particular bag (or category thereof)? There were encyclopedias of fashion and garment-making courses from which one might gather the equivalent information for a dress, a shirt, a leotard. And I could (and did) ask the sewing women in my family, who told me all they knew about chiffon, jersey, cotton, drill, wool and so many other materials from which to make garments. But bags?

No, my best resource were Other Bags. And so Touch-and-Deduce became my modus operandi. I investigated backpacks, saddle bags, purses, wallets, handbags, totes, athletic gear sacks and made mental notes of what they felt like, along with generalizations between fabric and strength, durability, and function.

Then I embarked on my quest to procure these materials. Where did one go to buy such fabrics? Certainly not the common haberdashery places and open-air markets that catered mainly to apparel seamstresses. And if not, how did one even begin to look for stores that might stock what I was looking for? 

The Yellow Pages became my best friend. Do you remember paper phone directories? Weren't they quaint? Didn't they feel like a universe's worth of information squished into a single book? The Yellow Pages were amazing, yes, but they still only produced leads, potential sources (at best) of elusive textiles I hoped I might recognize by mere feel. So I hopped on bus after bus to visit shops. Real brick and mortar stores. In person. With only indomitable optimism and a few fabric swatches in lieu of names I didn't have.

I found them.

And learned their names. In Mandarin, because these were the wholesale front offices handling bulk orders from industrial warehouses in China. I bought yardage straight off the sample bolts stacked against the walls of dusty shophouses and army surplus stores. I asked (in faltering Mandarin) not only what these fabrics were called, but why some felt thicker, if there were others like them, where I might find hardware, bindings, webbing and the other paraphernalia of bagcraft.

From these soft-spoken, non-English-speaking reception clerks I learned about zippers - that they came with different-sized coils or teeth, that you could order them in ridiculous lengths (should you, say, want to make a covering for a truck), that you could have them be single-pull or double-pull. I learned that packcloth (the woven material used in backpacks) is distinguished by weight in deniers (the unit of measurement), and there's polyester and nylon, coated or uncoated. I learned that the slippery fabric I'd previously referred to as "that parachute cloth" was called ripstop and also comes in different thicknesses and strength. And I learned that it's entirely possible to flunk Chinese lessons in school and still communicate in truly important situations in real life.

I thought you guys might get a kick from seeing an actual receipt from one of those shopping trips 27 years ago. The item description is in part Chinese and English: 1 yd of 600 denier polyester packcloth, 60" wide; and 15 meters of polypropylene webbing. I still have the receipt not because I'm a first-rate pack rat (OK, there's that, too) but because I was running my first sewing business at the time and trying to keep decent accounts. Unsurprisingly, this wonderful shop is no longer at this address; the entire row of shophouses (the Singapore equivalent of a strip mall) - of which Tai On Loong was one - was demolished decades ago to make way for malls and other modern buildings. So tragic.

In 2001, I moved to Minnesota, first as a grad student and then 4 years later as an immigrant. The first few years thereafter were a haze of morning sickness, diapers and potty training i.e. no time to sew, let alone run a business. When I eventually I felt ready again for more creative pursuits, I found myself back at square one: where did one go to find fabric of the sort I was used to? And in a brand new country infinitely more enormous than Singapore and whose highways and byways were still nothing short of a mystery to me?

Hello, world wide web. There was just Safari and Firefox then (and the early, evil, crashing versions of Internet Explorer), but they were enough to throw out a few possible store names and phone numbers when I searched for "600D packcloth". I still had to punch the numbers into the handset of my landline. I still had to converse with a human being in unnecessarily technical language (but this time in sweet, blessed English). I still had to print out a map and directions (this was before GPS was an everyman thing, people), get in my car and make the 1-hour journey to the warehouse to meet my fabric in person.

And I still remember the feeling of touching a roll of packcloth in that warehouse. It was like coming home, except home was the whole world shrunk down to a single bolt. With only the echoes of partly-forgotten conversations in Mandarin to guide me, I had quested in a land halfway across the world and somehow found my roots, as it were, among bales of utility fabric.  What irony: in my home country, I'd had to learn the words in a tongue that was foreign to me, while I was now standing in that warehouse, a stranger on an entirely different continent, speaking those same words in the language I wish I could've used then.

Regardless, I felt invincible. And infinitely grateful for the internet.

Now, almost two decades later, it's even more different. Last week, I was thinking about the comments my testers had made about the challenge of finding ripstop nylon where they lived and how thin was it actually and were the issues with bulk they'd experienced possibly the result of using a substitute that while similarly water-resistant, might still be too thick?

Excellent questions, and certainly worth addressing before sending the pattern out to you guys. So I opened my laptop, Googled "ripstop nylon varieties"; read an article (with photos) about the weave of the nylon threads that gave ripstop its particular strength and how it took to dye differently than polyester; Googled "ripstop nylon Etsy" and discovered vendors selling a particular weight of ripstop; wondered if that weight were the same as what I'd been buying at JoAnn Fabrics, Googled "JoAnn Fabrics ripstop nylon" and found nothing helpful; Googled "ripstop nylon online retail" next, found a company that stocked several weights and colors, perused their expansive catalog and thumbnails of hues and thread patterns, ordered 4 yards of different colors and weights, and paid with Paypal. All within 45 minutes while sitting on the sofa in my PJs an hour before midnight. I didn't even have to get up to locate my wallet, let alone handle a single banknote.

Five days later, in my snow-covered mailbox was the package in which were those 4 yards of beautiful ripstop nylon, sent from a store more than a thousand miles away.

And their website itself? Abounding in tutorials on working with ripstop (and other outdoor fabrics, some of which you and I will probably never meet in our lives). Also: posts explaining their differences in strength, appearance, manufacturing methods and applications in hammocks, tents, sleeping bags, clothes, quilts, backpacks, kites and -yes - parachutes.


All that information literally at one's fingertips. All those resources waiting to be discovered, tapped, purchased. That younger LiEr, brandishing her fabric swatches and trying valiantly to speak technical Mandarin with wholesale importers, would've never dreamed of a day when shopping and sewing could be like this.

I am indebted to the world wide web for giving this to us. Am I resentful of the effort I made to learn and buy what I needed back in the day? Of course not. Will I hereafter never enter a physical fabric store again? Pffft. Don't be ridiculous. (Fact: I spent last Sunday afternoon in SR Harris buying even more ripstop nylon.) We will always be needing fabric and inspiration and directions, and what a gift the internet is to allow us so many new ways to find help. So don't stop asking questions, friends, because the learning is boundless, and the answers abundant and free (not to mention translatable into any language you could want).

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Sometimes I cheat-draft

Now that the snow is all gone (hurrah), how is everyone doing?

I have so missed being here on this old blog!

Just last night, as I was mentally composing this post, I wondered, "Does anyone even write blogs anymore, or is that just too old school?" 

After all, it's all Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest these days - it sorta feels like if we can't say what we want to say in a witty hashtag or via single snapshot, no one's going to take the time to read it, doesn't it?

Blogging, I realized with dawning horror, could thus well be obsolete.

I mean, who has the attention span to digest entire paragraphs? Or peruse a tutorial that isn't a videoclip with tinkly music and all the real-time (i.e. slow) bits edited out?

Regardless, I shall blog on. First, because I have old school genes, and second, because I don't do succinct very well. Sad fact.

But you might be wondering about that random panda-face photo. And maybe even that weird title.

Let us begin by saying that my children are older now than they were when I began writing this blog. I remember sewing a lot of child-needed things then, like clothes and costumes and gifts and toys. Those were the glory days of handmade everythings, at least in our family. Inspiration was frantic and abundant and I had both the time and desperate need to turn idea into reality (and then shamelessly brag-blog about it).

As many of my long-time readers might know, I don't use commercial patterns, for reasons that are largely cultural (if so inclined, you can read about it here). In the context of sewing clothes for my kids, this translated to drafting from scratch whatever I needed to make. And as my kids kept growing and needing new clothes every few months or so, that meant a lot of drafting. 

Loads of fun, it turned out. For one thing, it was liberating to be able to make something wearable out of literally just numbers. For another, there was a comforting method to it: locate a child, measure the child, draft her sloper (typically valid for one year, or until the next growth spurt), adapt that into specific garment patterns, sew clothes. 

As needed, I still draft my kids' clothes now, but it's harder because the kids in question are seldom at home to measure and fit. Which is a disappointing inconvenience particularly around a deadline. And then there are those weird occasions when you want to make an outfit for a secret gift but don't want the recipients wise to your intentions. Obviously, dragging a measuring tape up and down their body would be a dead giveaway.

In such situations, I cheat-draft. This means different things to different people but to me it means I take an existing garment my child owns and which she miraculously has not yet outgrown and use that as a starting point in place of actual body measurements. I have her put this garment on and then note which parts fit well, which parts don't, and the exact numerical changes that need to happen to those sub-par parts. Then I trace out on paper the various sections (front, back, sleeve, etc.) of that existing garment and adjust the seamlines, hems and other features to reflect those numerical changes to make the new, custom pattern. I think of this as a first muslin, one which I didn't actually have to sew but which I'm butchering anyway in order to perfect the fit.

Interestingly, drafting this way isn't necessarily faster than drafting from scratch, much as it may so sound. The tracing, for instance, easily goes awry - it is challenging to lay an assembled 3-D garment flat enough to replicate accurate seam lines on paper, let alone isolate the various sections so they don't accidentally overlap. I often find myself re-tracing and re-plotting and re-measuring. Unspeakably inefficient, but we do what we can - ultimately, it's still better than guessing (which I've sometimes also had to do)!

Today, I thought I'd share a recent instance of such cheat-drafting at chez ikatbag. Quick digression first: there are times when I've scrolled through other sewing blogs and marveled at the technical language and almost architectural precision with which a clothing pattern is drafted. Having some drafting experience myself but having it not come from reading modern drafting books, I might get the gist of it but most of it typically goes way over my head. I also find myself asking, "yes, that's a formulaically-faithful rendering of seam-lines and adjustments but what does it look like and feel like on an actual wearer's body? Are they comfortable? Can they freely move their limbs?" 

Then I think about my own drafting posts and how confusing they might be for my readers. Consider: not everyone deconstructs things in their heads the way I do. Or gets excited about the conceptual relationship between a curve on a paper pattern and the distribution of flesh around someone's armpit. Maybe what I consider layman's terms (which I regularly make up) like "seam shaping" and "darting the hollows" sound to other people like I'm throwing around technical jargon, too. And remember that series on women's slopers? The one in which we converted one kind of sloper to another without ever producing an actual garment pattern at the end of it? Summa y'alls must've been, "What is this even."

So: cheat-drafting today, okay? No jargon, but we'll still discuss fit, because fit is the essence of any kind of good and useful drafting. Think of it as a short cut, an everyman's (or woman's) approach to garment making. 

A few years ago, Kate decided she liked onesie PJs, particularly the sort that doubled as an animal disguise. I believe it began as a Halloween costume idea (finally one of the more sensible styles for a Minnesotan-temperatured Halloween). You guys might remember this hilarious and charming ensemble of human-as-animal and animal-as-vegetable

I drafted this outfit from Kate's then-dimensions. I don't remember much about the process other than what a fun change it was to draft something that didn't require a to-the-skin fit. Obviously it had to sit well on Kate's frame without inappropriate and uncomfortable sagging or pulling, 

but it was forgiving enough to have been worn by any other similarly-sized child.

Note that the legs and sleeves end in simple hems, which are congruent with the clean lines of this outfit. Later iterations of this onesie design (which we'll see in the coming photos) swop in cuffs for hems.

Fast forward 3 years to Halloween 2018, when Kate reprised her animal onesie costume theme and asked to be a deer.

Obviously, the draft from 2015 was no longer viable, so I started from scratch. And in grand Halloween tradition, I procrastinated, so that by the time I was ready to draft the outfit, Kate was in school and unavailable for measuring.  No numbers to work with and no model to fit. Curses!

Enter cheat-drafting. At the time, Kate owned a thin store-bought unicorn onesie that she was on the brink of outgrowing: not sloper-tight, but still sufficiently close-fitting that it provided a good representation of her natural dimensions. I dragged the thing onto huge sheets of drafting paper, laboriously traced out the seams of each part (without unpicking any) and then set to adjusting the overall fit. I made it a little bigger - not only because Kate had grown since, but also because she'd requested it be suitable for accommodating cartwheels and other acrobatic acts (as deer must surely perform in their natural habitats), and the fact that it had to be worn over regular clothes. So more give in the leg-to-crotch length, as well as a roomier girth, plus cuffs at the wrists and ankles to keep the limbs from riding up when she was upside down. 

Still relatively clean lines, apart from the puddling at the ankles and wrists because of the cuffs.

Two months later, one of Kate's sisters floated the idea of another bunny suit for a Christmas gift. After all, we reasoned together, the 2015 bunny suit was too small now, but while it did fit, it was much loved, and extensively used. It would be a quick sew - I'd use the deer pattern and simply give it bunny features. 

Alas, I'd tossed out the deer draft. 

Since I usually just whip up new drafts from the kids' most current measurements whenever I need them, I seldom save paper patterns. Especially when I don't foresee making the same outfit a second time (who does that?)

Curses again.

More cheat-drafting, then - for reasons of secrecy, this time. Decided to trace the deer suit itself, since it fit. Besides, how much could a child grow in 2 months?

The child, it turns out, not so much. The pattern, on the other hand . . .  

When you cheat-draft a pattern from a previous cheat-draft, quite a bit gets lost in the translation, as it were. Note that armhole seam, for instance - already jutting beyond Kate's natural shoulder point in the deer onesie (first generation cheat-draft), it had in this bunny suit (second-generation cheat draft) slid unceremoniously down her bicep. 

Which, had I the opportunity to actually fit Kate before completing the garment, I'd have shrieked at and immediately corrected. Sadly, the first time I beheld it on Kate was on Christmas morning after she'd unwrapped it. 

And because Kate was thrilled, I forced my inner (cringing) seamstress into reticent submission and chose instead to celebrate her joy.

Better voluminous than too tight, I further rationalized. Especially for PJs.

Weep not, friends - redemption forthcometh. Read on!

Bizarre shoulders notwithstanding, I saved the paper pattern this time - a fortuitous decision because this past weekend, Kate turned 11 and announced, "For my birthday, I would like a panda suit next," as if there existed a bucket list of animal outfits she were checking off with each milestone celebration.

I gleefully obliged because - whoo hoo - I had the pattern all ready to lay out!

Until I googled "panda" and observed the distinct black and white color blocking on a panda's body. Apparently, while its limbs are black against an otherwise white torso, the black of its arms continues over its shoulders and into a band over its upper back. 

Raglan sleeves it was, then. The original set-in sleeves, with their mysteriously-migrating sleeve caps, needed a major overhaul anyway.

A quick armscye conversion later, we had those black panda arms-and-shoulders.

And here is Kate in her panda onesie. Again, no opportunity to fit her beforehand because it was a secret gift. And while it's still voluminous,

(the better to represent the fullness of real-life panda bodies, one might say)

it's all good for the obligatory calisthenics.

And now you know the story behind that panda face - 

and its moral: while it is liberatingly okay and sometimes even advantageous to cheat-draft, repeated and cascading cheat-drafting is like taking a photo of a photo of a photo: if you squint hard enough, you might just about make out what the original looked like.

Still, as there is no doubt that this is merely one of many more animals Kate will add to her list, I declare this method adequate and - because I saved that pattern - time-saving :)