Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Printing on Fabric

Hello and happy Advent, everyone!

I hope Thanksgiving was lovely (if you celebrated it, I mean). We didn't have snow, which in these parts is a gift. But it was cold, which in these parts is a given, so I shouldn't complain - or even be surprised, I guess. We have our Christmas tree up now, the cats have happily claimed the tree skirt as their own, the oldest child has returned to the Uni, the two younger children are transitioning to a new semester and its accompanying new teachers, and that's where we are now. Speaking of transitioning, I never feel as if I'm ready for the Great Whiteout. Winterizing the house and yard aside, there's also the mental and emotional adjustment to the shorter days and earlier sunsets, the extra hours I seem to spend driving in the dark on even the simplest of errands, the turning inward and indoor-ward, the subconscious focus on food and feeding those at home (particularly as the holidays draw nigh). It's just the natural cycle of things, I tell myself; it's supposed to feel unfamiliar. After all, I didn't grow up experiencing the four seasons; in Singapore we only ever had the consistent humidity, and the monsoons when the old year surrendered to the new.

Still, it is always lovely to leave behind the mania of summer and all its frenetic  activity, especially since also means returning indoors to more making and creating. Late in the summer, as I was preparing to send Emily off to college, I sensed a familiar restlessness - the sort that comes upon you when you're transitioning and feel a tad lost and are then overcome with the ridiculous desire to reinvent yourself by learning something new. So I started Spanish "lessons" on an app. Dad and I had always loved the musicality of the language, and he'd begun learning it from CDs decades earlier, so I figured I'd continue doing that. I also started looking into learning to print on fabric - what fun, I thought, to be able to introduce detail to fabric that wasn't piecing or texture. When Emily heard about it, she wanted to learn it, too, so I found a class and signed us both up. And in the days after she'd left home, I found myself looking forward to it on two counts: one, because learning is always exciting, and two, to reconnect with my daughter to do something artistic together in the midst of all that was changing.

So here we are - both of us super-exhausted after a full day of classes at Uni (her) and the running of a household of still-at-home-teenagers (me). 

The class was held at the Textile Center in downtown Minneapolis. Katrina, our instructor, taught us systematically how to lay the wooden blocks on cotton fabric stretched taut with pins, 


then add borders, 

and color fills. 

She provided all the supplies - the wooden blocks were her own, and the inks were silkscreen paint watered to a workable consistency.

I will say that I'd been hoping to learn the woodcarving aspect as well, because the point had been to be able to design my own prints at home eventually, but it wasn't the focus of the class. The blocks, our instructor explained, were hand-carved in India, where she'd learned the craft. At the top left corner of the next photo are four Scandinavian-style flower blocks I'd immediately fallen in love with, which made  appearances in almost all my projects.

We worked for 3 hours, at the end of which we each chose a project to showcase all the things we'd learned. I picked a bag (of course I did).

When you've worked with prints and colors long enough, you become somewhat particular about shades and combinations because some part of your brain has rules for what color goes with what and what looks off, even if it's just a smidgen too cool, or too warm. In this tote, for instance, let's just say that I loved some of the colors together more than others, and when it was finished, I stood there, aghast, but it was too late to redo the whole thing so I let it be. 

Katrina let us bring our own things to print on if we wanted to, so in the last 5 minutes of the class, I worked on some canvas bag pieces I'd cut out the night before. Emily did a border print on the straps. I loved this color combination much more than the previous one.

And I finally assembled it all a few weeks ago.

Here it is, inside-out, to show you the lining.

It was so much fun to make, and I foresee many more print-and-sew projects in the near future.

But I would love for this beautiful bag to find a new home, so I've (finally!) put it the shop. Please stop by to check it out there.

I have one more post planned before Christmas - a game I made for my 3-year-old nephew. Fingers crossed that I'll find the time to squeeze it in before then, but in case I don't, let me wish you all now: a lovely, restful, joyful Christmas and new year!

Friday, November 17, 2023

Homecoming dress

I'm playing catch-up with all these posts sitting on my dashboard!  This one was from homecoming night in early October. Jenna and Kate got together with some friends to attend the dance and Emily drove home from the Uni to take photos with me of everyone dressed up. She also had corsage orders to deliver to the local high school students - her newest small business - so it was a busy and fun weekend.

I did not sew Jenna's blue dress, incidentally - this was bought, primarily because I was in Singapore until a few days before homecoming, and decided the less sewing I needed to do, the better. We successfully found something online that Jenna liked, so that was a win. Kate had something specific in mind that she wanted, so we agreed to custom-make that based on a design she had in her head.

I just have two things to say about this dress, process-wise.

The first is that it is sometimes frustrating for me as a dressmaker to know what fabrics are needed for a particular design to work but be unable to find those fabrics to buy, and have to end up making do. In this case, Kate requested sparkly fabrics, and a cut that was drapey and flowy. Now, this is a completely feasible combination, provided we lived in a world where we could customize exact fabric along with the fit and design of made-to-measure tailoring. Unfortunately, the fabric is sometimes the one thing you don't have control of, because stores stock what they will, when they will. On this occasion, therefore, we had to choose between drapey or sparkly, but not both. I count ourselves lucky that Kate at least chose black, for which there were more options of fabric bolts than any other color (except blue, maybe), and that homecoming was close enough to Halloween that the stores carried adequate cosplay materials of the sparkly variety; Emily, with her dreams of a forest-green prom dress in the middle of May, was not quite so fortunate.

Long story short, we compromised: plain chiffon sleeves which were flowy but not shimmery, and a bodice and skirt that were sparkly but a bit boxier than we saw in our mind.

The second is those sleeves. A long time ago, Emily had needed a formal concert gown and asked for sleeves similar to these: chiffon (translation: visible seams), over-the-shoulder raglan-cut, but without elastic (translation: invisible darting, pleating and/or some other shaping magic). I'd made muslin after muslin, consulted with my friend Jen, returned to first principles, even used a store-bought dress with close-enough sleeves as a reference - essentially pulled every drafting trick I was aware of, but under the time crunch, I simply wasn't able to deliver. We eventually conceded and I gave her classic set-in sleeves. The dress was still beautiful, and she still gets compliments on it whenever she wears it at concerts, but it's never stopped bugging me not having been able to Make That Dang Sleeve.

And then this fall, wouldn't you know it - Kate asked for That There Dang Sleeve. Black. Chiffon. Time crunch (trip to Singapore in imminent future) and all. Did I roll my eyes? I did. Did I break out in cold sweat? You bet I did. But even I could recognize a second chance when I saw it. And somehow this time it all came together. Yes, there were multiple muslins, and yes, elastic was allowed this time around, but I remember looking at the final draft and thinking, "Huh. This is not the monster I remembered fighting back then." I guess my mind was clearer now. Or I didn't care about failing, having done it so spectacularly once before. I didn't finish the dress before getting on the plane, but I did adjust the final muslin to the point where I had the peace of mind that this dress was going to work. I laid and cut out all the pieces in the expensive, sparkly fabric, labeled everything, left myself copious notes, and flew to Singapore. And when I got back to the US 10 days later, it was almost like working with a craft kit: thread and notions all purchased and set out, diagrammed instructions to follow, and all those pre-cut pieces ready to assemble. I'd never sewn a dress like this - it was loads of fun and came together in a couple of days with such ease that one could almost forget the tracing and fiddling and wasted practice yardage, and the remeasuring and redrafting of the weeks prior. If only all custom garments were made this way! 

Here's the front of the dress,

and the back, which has a strap tied into a bow.

and three sisters together again - a homecoming in the purest sense of the word, no?

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

A tiny new bag

Hello, friends! 

It's November! Somehow, summer happened and I don't remember a whole lot of it, honestly. So much has happened this year. Emily graduated from high school, and I sewed a prom dress and threw a grad party and got all emotional. Kate started a new late-summer job at the water park. The high school swim and dive season resumed in August and our days were non-stop shuttling to and from the pool and daily mounds of towels in the laundry. And we moved Emily into her new place at her Uni which, funnily enough, was the same apartment I stayed at when I first came to Minnesota 21 years ago to go to grad school. Very full-circle. 

It surprised me how physical it was, moving and setting up new digs, even if it was just a fraction of the size of a regular house and just 30 mins from home. We did a late night grocery run to stock her fridge after a quiet dinner together at the end of the day. You know the kind - you're working hard and you forget the time and suddenly the sun's set and you realize you should probably have dinner, so you drive out into an unfamiliar neighborhood and find a random sandwich place and it's only after you've sat down to eat that you feel the weight of the day and the looming goodbye settle on you. I bawled all the way home but I was so proud of my kid for doing this on her own, and so grateful that she was excited for instead of petrified of the transition. 

And just like that, the house was quieter and there was more bathroom counter space and we had to reorganize the laundry roster and learn to cook less food because there were just four of us now. I'm not an empty nester by any means, but it was an adjustment, nonetheless. My neighbor, who herself sent off three kids to college, said, "The first one is the hardest because it's the one that makes your family no longer intact." I also know of many other moms who'd beg to differ, and who'd swear that it's the youngest that's the most devastating because it's the last one that strips you of those those caretaking responsibilities which have been your identity for so many years. And there will be yet others who will say it's the second one, or the fourth, because that's the one who was the kindest to the dog, or the one who always remembered to buy the milk, or the one who tended to check in regularly so you never had to guess where they were. At the end of the day, we all agree on this: it's momentous when a kid leaves home. Particularly when it's not something you've grown up being used to - nobody leaves home at 18 in Singapore. Where would they go? It's a tiny island with a very finite number of tertiary institutions and everyone transitions from childhood to adulthood alongside their parents, and the caregiving shifts direction ever so subtly and evolves organically and in-person.

But I survived. And we're creating new patterns and logistics in how we continue to love each other. And what a blessing that she's only 30 minutes away and there are always convenient reasons to come home every other weekend, or stop by the apartment or campus. Any continuity from her old life helps, too. Like her music: earlier this month, my husband and I attended a couple of concerts to hear her play - new stage, new orchestra- and band-mates, but same kid, same trombone, and the same music that had always brought her so much joy. She was back home for homecoming to help take pictures of her sisters, stopped in at Sections last week to watch Kate swim, and two weekends ago, all three girls and I went to a rock concert. There were other random occasions, too - a week after she'd moved out,  we attended a fabric printing class together, just for fun. There's a separate post about that coming, but I wanted to mention that here because we'd signed up for that before she'd left home so we could have something artsy to look forward to after.

Which brings me to this bag (at last, I hear you say). I needed a new bag for so many reasons. For one, I'd had my old bag for more than six years and thought I should downsize, now that I no longer need to cart around all kinds of Motherphernalia. For another, I wanted to sew bags again. I should clarify: I always want to sew bags, but my kid had just left home and where other people might, say, eat a pint of Ben & Jerry's to cope, I sew receptacles. Summary: I was subconsciously looking for a reinvention, and my old bag was on its way out. Voila.

So here it is - my new much-smaller shoulder bag. Still upholstery suede, though, because that fabric lasts forever and doesn't show wear at all. That six-year-old bag I was telling you about? Still looks new on the outside, although the cotton lining is definitely worn.

I'm still sewing my straps the borderline-obsessive way.

Here's the strap anchor. It's a bit of work to attach externally instead of in-seam between the outer and lining layers of the bag, but I wanted to be fancy, so serves me right.

Here it is, inside-out. The lining is some real South-East Asian batik, probably Indonesian. 

While we're on the subject, I've always thought the tie-dye batiks we get here in American fabric stores were too fadey. In fact, I almost didn't believe they were batiks when I first came here to the US, because growing up in Singapore, batiks had been synonymous with vibrant fabrics like these. 

End of detour. This is the strap with a lobster claw, which I put in all my shoulder bags, to which to attach key rings. Saves me the trouble of digging for mine amongst all the other junk in my bags - I just feel for the strap instead, and pull out the keys.

An inside shot to show you one of the two inner pockets. You can see them more clearly in the first batik-side-out picture above. 

A couple of WIP shots next. You can see the pocket laying across the middle seam of the project - it's kinda like one of those spot-the-hidden-object pictures. Also wanted to show you that my fabric edges don't always line up in the construction process - see the two unmatching lower edges for what I mean. What's more critical (to me, anyway) is how the fabric piecing aligns at the seam, and sometimes, precision in other places has to give. All that irregularity disappears into the base seam anyway, so it's still all good.

What was the point of this next picture? No clue, sorry. This is what happens when you take photos and don't post them till months after. Maybe it was to show that curvy seam and the edge-stitching? Huh. Let's say that's it. Moving on, now!

Final shot of Fleur modeling the bag to give you an idea of its size. Okay, it's not really tiny like the title claims - it's just more compact and current than my old one was. Fleur does a lot of modeling for me these days now that the kids are hardly home to pose for me. And I am horrible at selfies and finding appropriate mirrors for taking selfies. So it's a good thing I have a body double. Plus, unlike the kids, she never fidgets.

I might have a couple of these bags to put in the store for the holidays. One of them is a fun variation - will share pictures in the next post. 

Early wishes for a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone! Feast with abandon, enjoy your loved ones, and -id you're traveling - be safe on the roads (and air)!

Friday, July 14, 2023

The Green Prom Dress

It's been a long time, I know. I've missed you guys! 

Thank you to everyone who left comments and wrote emails to check in with me. It felt good to be in your thoughts. I've been doing okay, just really BUSY - we had a senior graduate from high school this spring! Those of you who've celebrated your own HS seniors will probably get it; I certainly had no idea how much there was to take in and do in the weeks even before graduation.

I'd say it started as far back as January with the last jazz concert of the year. You know how that is - even though the snow was still on the ground and we were nowhere even near the end of the semester, it suddenly hits you that this was the first of the "lasts". And in spite of swearing not to be That Mom, you subconsciously start the countdown anyway, and slap titles on each subsequent deeply poignant experience: The Last Wind Ensemble Concert With This Sister, The Last Time She'll Play In This Orchestra, The Last Time We'll Hear Her Horn In The Pit, The Last Fight Song For Which She'll Conduct The Marching Band, The Last Solo, The Last Note, The Last Whatever and Whoosit and Thingamajig. It was ridiculous - and exhausting.

I know now, of course, that I was trying to comprehend that something massively wonderful was happening. And parsing each of those lasts was how my brain made sense of the emotional weight of the sum of them. Yes, you read that right: my brain did the emotional math. Because my heart couldn't quite handle it, and was instead just a big soft marshmallow cloud of bewilderment. I mean, what a trip, from the thrilling highs of pride and wonder to the simmering lows of relief and gratitude, as if all four years of high school - if not all thirteen since kindergarten - were distilled into the closing months of senior year and shot into one's metaphorical veins. It was hard to catch my breath; it was harder even to stay present and not let my mind race to the future when it would "all be over" and college would be the new normal, whatever that looked like. I tried, though. Remain NOW, I constantly reminded myself. Feel everything. Listen to every note. Go on that car ride. Say yes when the friends want to stay till midnight to chat, and order pizza, even. Buy the tickets to watch the performance for the fourth, fifth, sixth time.  Bring the giant camera to take the good pictures even though the children roll their eyes. Was it all good? Absolutely. Did I believe I was bonkers? Heck, yeah. Did I cry? For months prior, in the shower and car and my therapist's office and at inconveniently random and unrelated moments everywhere else. And yet on graduation day, as I glanced around me at the sea of parents, I saw that same look on so many other faces: the soaring delight, yes, but also the disorientation of inexplicably having arrived at this moment, mixed with the misguided determination to somehow hold it all together. Apparently, I wasn't the only one. Huh.

That is all I will say about my experience of the weeks leading up to graduation. A part of me is still recovering, but in a good way. I'm excited about Uni and independence and all the good things that follow graduation, because my oldest child is ready. Her sisters still have some years left at the high school, so there will be their concerts and football games and swim and dive meets to attend. There is comfort in that continuity as well.

And in the ebb of that emotional wave, I feel able to document and process my favorite moments of the past couple of months. Here, for instance, is Emily's prom dress. Now, because we were also in the throes of planning her grad party, the original plan was to purchase something online and simply have me make any necessary alterations to it. So we bought one . . . and it didn't work. Not a terrible dress per se, just not something one would wear to a formal. We returned it, and found ourselves back at square one, except a couple weeks closer to the deadline than before. 

Handmade, then. This is usually what happens anyway, right? You'd think I'd have learned that by now.

So we went fabric shopping - first online (faster, we thought, but everything would arrive too late), then in-person, but that failed abysmally, too. Because there we were, standing dismayed in the aisles of SR Harris - that ostensibly uber-reliable dressmaking fabric mecca - a week before prom, and with nothing but a fantasy shade of green that didn't seem to exist anywhere in the cosmos.

You know how some people give you a home-made loaf of bread and you're like, "Oh, this is so cool - did you use a bread machine or a brotform in your oven?" And they tell you they baked it on a hot stone out back using the wheat, barley and rye which they'd been growing on their acres of farmland and hand-ground into flour just minutes before adding it to their great-grandmother's ever-effervescent sourdough starter.

You see where this is going, right? See, there was nowhere left but that level of DIY. And isn't it funny how, once you've resolved to do something, no matter how impractical, even the insane begins to look viable?

We bought a yard of the only green-ish lace we could find - it looked like a patch of weed - and randomly dyed it. I say "randomly" because the bottle said "dark green" but there was no way to tell what we'd actually get when we were starting out with the shade we had (and how long do you let the thing sit in the dye anyway?). We gave it our best guess and rationalized it thus: anything would be prettier than wearing a dress of marijuana.    

Then I made the underlayer. This we didn't have to dye, thankfully - it was the only green satin thing any of the stores stocked, so we decided it would have to do. The design was pretty straightforward: a spaghetti-strap bodice connected to a semi-circular skirt with pockets, and a thigh slit. Here is a sad photo of it on Fleur so I could place and pin the lace overlay. I'd forgotten till I was doing this how much lace shifts as you drape it - gravity and the contours of the garment itself made it sag and pull in different ways than if it were lying flat on a work surface. Incidentally and totally unrelated, you might notice my Menagerie animals in the background.  Initially, I'd set them up in my sewing room for inspiration, like a cheering squad for all my unfinished WIPs. This time, though, as they watched me drop pins and curse as I stepped on them, their unblinking gaze seemed judgy instead - all except for maybe that purple dragon, and only because he still doesn't have eyes (they live in the vase in the living room where I'd set them 8 years ago).

Moving on now. More of the layout process next. A multitude of pins. All that lace hand to be stitched on by hand. I listened to a LOT of podcasts that week!

Because we wanted clean lines, the poky ends of the lace were folded over the edge of the main dress and stitched to the backside. And then all the stray cutwork bits had to be trimmed away.

Here is the finished dress on Emily.

Here's the back, her favorite part of the dress. Designing a dress entirely from scratch sometimes means trying to figure out how to best secure it on the body in ways that don't tug or squeeze or otherwise hurt. We brainstormed the usual suspects: halter-style ties at the nape, straps around the back of the shoulders, corset-style lacing all across the back . . . and decided that this bow was probably a whole lot more fun. 

If I remember right, the main dress (plus its accompanying muslin) was finished in a couple of days, although the lacework took the rest of the week. So worth it, though. I so, so love the texture of this dress,

to say nothing of the zany personality of the beautiful girl wearing it (or the fact that I still get to sew her clothes)!!