Our sewing space is not very large or fancy, but it is heavily used and well cared for. We live in a very small apartment, so the majority of sewing work takes place at the little wooden desk seen above, which takes up a portion of wall in our bedroom. The sewing machine is covered by one of my grandmother’s old tapestries when not in use to protect it from dust, but in case anyone is curious, it is a Singer heavy duty model, almost six years old now. When I am sewing, I pin the pattern instructions on the bulletin board above the sewing machine, so they are easy to refer to and not in the way. The mushroom box on the desk has thread, fasteners, scissors, thimbles, needles, and any other small sewing notions stored away in it. The box was my mother-in-law’s. She gave it to my husband a while ago when we helped her clean out some of her cupboards. The drawers of the desk hold more thread, zippers, boxes of buttons, lace, ribbons, and other small items. There is a small wicker wastebasket next to the desk for threads and scraps. We keep our ironing board in our closet and set it up on the other side of the desk when we need it. There is a full length mirror on the wall behind the door for fittings. Our fabric, which we acquire mostly on thrifting expeditions and occasional visits to the fabric district in Los Angeles, and interfacing are folded on shelves in our single hall closet, where we also keep our iron and ironing supplies.
We keep the pattern envelopes in binders on our bookshelf so they can easily be looked over to plan new projects and the pattern tissues and instructions sorted by number in plastic ziploc bags in a large box in the closet. When it is time to cut out a pattern, we do it on the floor of our main room, which doubles as our living room and my art studio, using small cans from the kitchen pantry as pattern weights. After work is done for the day, everything is put back in its place, and we go on living in our little space with little mess. I hope our methods might be useful or encouraging for anyone else who doesn’t have much space, much less a whole room, to devote to their sewing—you can get a great deal done in a small space if you are organized.
This is my summer wardrobe. Most of it is handmade, the rest is from various thrift stores. I am trying to work my way through photographing and writing about the garments I've made. I've been sewing much longer than I've been documenting my sewing, so it will take a while. And sadly, there is the occasional loss in the meantime----one of my blue dresses got a stain on it while I was visiting my family earlier in the month, and despite trying to wash it several times, the stain wouldn't come out. I hadn't photographed it yet, so that dress will never be posted about, except the tiny bit of its shoulder that you can see here.
Our anniversary was last month and I wanted to make Mr. Rat a personal token to go with his other gifts. I thought of making him a handkerchief embroidered with his initials, since he often borrows mine. After consultation about the style and color, he chose a cursive script in cobalt blue. It took me only one Sunday afternoon to embroider his initials after I had drawn them carefully with pen on the white cotton scrap I had left over from one of my shirt sewing projects, and only another afternoon after that to hand-stitch a rolled-hem around the edges. He was very pleased with his present.
My routine is very simple. My main tasks every week are making art, cooking, baking, cleaning, sewing, teaching and playing the piano, walking Gia, going to the library, going to church, and the occasional visit to family or a museum. Such a routine requires clothes that are easy to wash, easy to walk in, and easy to wear.
I’ve been feeling the need for more work dresses. Having a need leads to thoughts about how to best fulfill that need, so I have been thinking about what makes a good work dress. I prefer cotton and linen for most of my clothes in the spring, summer, and autumn, because the climate tends to be hot in California. When I am inside, it is usually without air conditioning, and when I am outside, I need long sleeves to protect my arms from sunburn and long hem-lines so the wind doesn't blow my skirts and dresses up. Full skirts or loose dresses make walking easier, and give me a full range of movement to sit with my dog on my lap, for instance, or be able to climb on a chair to put dishes away in the top of the cabinets. The last consideration for a good work dress is color: a medium or dark color tends to hide any smudges from cleaning or painting or Gia's hair clinging to me. So most of my clothes tend towards brown, blue, navy, black and occasionally olive green, while some of my dressier clothes are white, cream, tan, and pale blue.
With my ideas of what a good work dress should consist of, I thought that a vintage pattern from the 1990s that I acquired recently, Simplicity 9343, looked promising. I made it up in a length of thin brown cotton that I bought at the thrift store. I’m pleased with the result. The sewing machine was giving me some trouble while I sewed it (although I think I found the stray thread causing the trouble since then---the machine seems to be behaving itself for now, at least), so the seams may not be perfectly edge-stitched when seen up close, but the dress is very comfortable and easy to wear, so I am satisfied. In fact, I like it so much I have already chosen some black cotton to cut out a second dress. My only adjustment was to add cuffs instead of using elastic at the wrists of the sleeves. I sewed the dress in a size 8 and found the fit to be forgiving and the instructions very easy. I’ve seen similar smock dresses online from British designers like Egg and Cabbages and Roses. The great advantage of making a dress yourself (other than that it is much less expensive) is that you can choose your color and material to suit your own tastes. And you can make it as often as you like.
I’m especially fond of vintage patterns from the 1970s, because I can almost always rely on a size 8 to fit well with little to no adjustments. Carefree McCalls 6209 is pleasantly no exception. The only change I made was to switch the original skirt pattern for a long, full, rectangular dirndl-style skirt with a bias binding waist stay. This dress is a combination between views E and A, made out of a king-size striped one hundred percent cotton sheet I bought at the thrift store a few months ago. Sheets are an economical way of getting a large amount of cotton for much less than buying yardage at the fabric store, and they tend to be a thicker weight. This particular sheet was especially tightly woven, which gives the dress a lot of crispness. It is very light and cool on hot summer days, and I’m pleased with how well it fits and how comfortable it is to wear. I also like the bishop sleeves a great deal; they give the dress a slightly Victorian look. Given that I feel that my life to be rather Victorian at times, I don’t mind looking it. The past and present are rarely so far apart.
1980s era patterns are very hit or miss for me. Sometimes the sizing works out well, other times there is so much ease and in such odd places that I struggle to make my garment fit in any kind of nice way. This blouse was a luckily easy success for fit. The pattern, Simplicity 8496, attracted me because of its curious sleeves, which give it an interesting and unusual wing-like shape. I made the blouse out of bleached muslin from JoAnn fabric stores, which has softened as it has been washed so that the folds have a gentle drape. I made view 6 in a size 8, with no adjustments. The buttons I used were cut off of an old shirt that was stained and ready to be made into a cleaning rag. I keep a folder with little bags for buttons, and when a garment from my side of the closet or my husband’s gets to a state where it isn’t wearable, mendable, or re-usable, I cut off the buttons and save them for re-use in future sewing projects. There is so much more variety in buttons off of used shirts, dresses, vests, and coats than what I can find in the single aisle devoted to buttons at the local JoAnns. I’ve also found some beautiful buttons in the big grab-bags of them that are sometimes sold at thrift stores, including metal buttons, big buttons, tiny buttons, mother-of-pearl buttons, and all kinds of curious and pretty varieties of plastic buttons.
As an aside, I am wearing my Simplicity 8496 blouse with another version of my favorite Simplicity 7880 skirt pattern----this one is made up in black poly-cotton broadcloth, and although you can’t see the hem in these photos, it goes down to about mid-calf.
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew.