Happy national Sewing Month to all of my American readers! Are you doing anything special this month to celebrate the special place that sewing has in your life? I think I will. . . sew some more. And spend some reflecting on my gratitude that my mom taught me this useful and relevant skill when I was still a child.
I am dipping my toes back into the water of Instagram. I'm not sure how often I will post there, and it won't affect that I will still post here regularly. But I thought it might be another way to connect with other people, and share some of my drawings alongside my sewing projects. My new Instagram handle is @littlemrsrat, in case you want to follow along or chat with me there.
I've been seeing the hashtag #secondhandseptember around, so I looked it up and found that it is a 30 day pledge started by the British non-profit Oxfam. If you are also curious about it, you can follow this link to their website, where you can sign up for the pledge, if you wish. September has often been seen as a major retail month for clothing---a time when wardrobes are refreshed, the enormous "September issue" of Vogue is released, international fashion weeks are held, and many students go back to school. Much like Fashion Revolution, Oxfam seeks to educate people about the destructive influence of the fashion industry on the environment, and to encourage more people to buy second-hand instead of new. As sewers, sustainability is not a new topic for us, but it is always a relevant one. I've found thrift stores to be a rich resource for second-hand fabrics and notions which make my sewing practice both cheaper and less of a burden on our world's resources. Because this is already my habit, I probably won't officially sign this pledge----but I'm happy that clothing sustainability is becoming a bigger topic in the media and online.
Similarly, I've followed along some of the online debate about cultural appropriation via clothing. It's a complicated subject, and certainly there are designers who are not respectful to the traditions and heritage of the cultures they borrow from. But historically, fashion has always freely borrowed from other time periods and other cultures---it is part of the creative renewal that keeps it a fluid and changing medium of meaning and expression. While western fashion has borrowed inspiration from other cultures for centuries, other cultures have also adopted and adapted western dress styles for their own uses over the same period of time. I thought that this article from the Atlantic was an interesting and more historically grounded look at "cultural appropriation." Hopefully articles like this one might bring some balance to a conversation that is complex because it includes such sprawling and difficult subjects as history, race, culture, ethics, and creativity.
What have you been reading about or thinking about lately?
Before I get into reviewing this pattern, please let me first thank all of you who left kind and supportive comments on my last post from the bottom of my heart. I really appreciate the advice, the sympathy, and the solidarity. And I also want to mention that I was (and still am, a bit) worried about posting about the challenges I am sorting through this year. It is a hard balance between sharing real struggles, over-sharing personal details on the internet, and maybe worst of all---coming across as ungrateful and complaining when I think there are surely readers who are facing far worse challenges with health, finances, loss, grief, heart-break, or any number of terrible burdens. I know that I have much to be grateful for, and I am grateful for the good things and good people in my life---even as I simultaneously struggle with a sense of helplessness and discouragement about the things and people that are not good or whom I have lost, the slow pace of positive change in my own life, and how much I yearn for many things that are not available to me right now. I think those feelings are something that anyone who is struggling can relate to, and that was why I chose to post about some of my current struggles here (at least those not related to family or friends, as I wouldn't feel comfortable posting about problems in a public forum like this that involve other people other than Mr R and myself). I hope that you will forgive me if I was at all insensitive in my last post.
Sewing does play a role in facing and coping with hard feelings because sewing can offer small changes, and dignity, and self-expression. I value all of those things, and I value the conversation that I have with all of you, and want to thank you again for being here. As this hard year progresses, I am trying to using sewing's good qualities to keep bringing small, good changes into my life.
Now I will write a short review of my latest summer blouse. I often cut out sewing projects in batches, as cutting out fabric on the floor isn't my favorite part of the sewing process, and then I can sew several projects in a row without having to stop and do that step again. So I've had this peasant-style blouse cut from 1970s era Simplicity 8305 for a little while. I decided after a few sewing flops earlier this summer that I should focus on the simpler projects: ones that I am pretty sure that I will wear and like. This pattern reminded me a lot of a black gauze peasant blouse that I had for several years in California before it wore out. I've never found another one at the thrift store, so I thought that I should finally make my own and hopefully fill that long-standing hole in my closet.
I'm glad that I did, because this blouse turned out well. It is surprisingly generously cut, which gives it a flowing look, and also gives me no qualms about any possible size-changes in the future necessitating its removal from my closet (as I mentioned in my last post has happened to a lot of my more fitted clothes over the past few months). The lightweight brown cotton voile has a raised pattern of dots that give it a little bit of interest, and made it a little more challenging to sew, as my machine foot and needle didn't like getting over the dots very well. But my old Singer is very sturdy and managed, and the voile is very light on hot days. The slit down the front was too low when I finished the blouse, so I sewed it up a bit by hand and it still fits over my head just fine, as the neckline is relatively wide in the first place. The fabric was a remnant I picked up very cheaply in the LA fabric district a few years ago, so I'm glad that I finally used it, and that now it is a versatile summer blouse that I will wear often in the heat.
After such a positive review, it may be surprising that I don't plan on using the pattern again. But about a month ago I found an almost-the-same 1970s pattern at the thrift store that had a skirt and vest pattern with it that I liked better than this current one----and it has a draw-string neckline, which would make the blouse a little more adjustable. So I plan to keep the new, thrifted pattern, and send this one back to the thrift store for its turn to get chosen and used by someone else. If you ever come across a copy, I would still recommend it as a simple, elegant blouse, with clear instructions, and not too difficult for even a patient beginner to make.
In these photos that I took on our front patio with our sunflowers, I am wearing my new blouse with a brown skirt that I made almost two years ago, and new brown clogs that I found at a recent trip to the thrift store with my mom. It was a great find, as my over-five year old black clogs just got too uneven on the bottoms to wear anymore.
Please look forward to a new post from Mr Rat soon! I took some photos with him of his most recent sewing project and I'm excited that he will share them here as soon as he has time to sit down and write a review of his own.
It’s probably apparent that Mr Rat and I have been struggling to keep up with this blog. We’ve both been facing---some new, some old----challenges in the past year and a half since we moved from California to Utah. I thought that it might be useful to look at a few of those challenges here, both to help me sort them out and make plans to hopefully adjust to or overcome some of these problems, but also to offer support to those of you readers out there who are facing similar or different challenges. Sometimes we need a reminder that behind the photos of the beautiful things that we wish to highlight and remember and share on the internet, there is a continuum of daily living that includes many real struggles that also need to be considered and acknowledged.
A few of the challenges that Mr Rat and I are facing that relate to our ability to sew, photograph, and share about our sewing here on the blog include:
Right now, I am trying to solve the sewing problems in a few ways:
I know that this was a lengthy post, and probably more for my own benefit to be able to write things down and think about them, but what do you readers think about these issues? How do you deal with changes to your body as you slowly sew a workable wardrobe? How do you deal with sewing for different climates when you move states (or countries)? Does your sewing act therapeutically for you when you are stressed or sad or depressed? Or does it become another burden when things aren't working out on your sewing table or away from it? How does your self-image and the way that it changes over time as you get older and more experienced change the things that you want to sew or the way that you present yourself on the internet or in person to the rest of the world? How do you balance sewing with the many other demands on your time and energy---especially during difficult times when you might be care-taking for a loved one who is sick, or helping a friend in need, or feeling overwhelmed with the demands of work or church or family or just getting from day to day?
How do you like to make sewing plans?
My own process tends to be simple: I sit down in front of our sewing cupboard, take out my book of patterns and flip through them while looking at our folded stacks of fabric. If I think of a combination that I like, then I sketch it in a small notebook, noting any changes or adjustments that I want to make, and look to see if I have all the notions, thread, and trimmings to complete the project that I envision. Then I cut the fabric out and put it in a basket next to my sewing machine, so I can sew it within the next few weeks or months.
But I do sometimes do a little bit more in the planning process, which I will share here:
- Sometimes I like to poke around Pinterest looking for inspiring clothing. While I rarely fully imitate something that I see, I don't think it is a bad thing to make a copy of a garment that you love, so long as it is for personal wear and not to sell (since I think that would be disrespectful to the original designer). But so often, there is something you want to or have to change---whether it is the fabric, the color choices, the trims, or the hem length. Still, when you are stuck and can't think of what you want to make, looking at photos for inspiration can stimulate new ideas. You can also search on Instagram, Etsy, or the Met website, for instance. Do you have any other favorite places to look for inspiration when you are planning out new projects?
-It's also very helpful to check PatternReview, especially if you are trying out a pattern for the first time. Sometimes someone else has made it, and it can be very useful to see what they thought of the pattern, its instructions, construction, etc.
-The other thing that I find helpful when I'm planning out projects is to spend some time pondering my wardrobe, my needs, and my preferences. The best way that I've found to do this is to go through the questions in Colette's Wardrobe Architect at least once a year. Having a page of notes of personal preferences, colors, shapes, and favorite patterns and details is perfect if you want to challenge yourself to sew a capsule wardrobe, or just focus your regular sewing on the practical things that you need and want to wear. Participating in Me-Made-May has always been helpful as well, since I after I complete my yearly challenge I have a month's worth of photos to look at to see which silhouettes and colors I wear most often, what gaps in my wardrobe I still need to fill, and which patterns I should sew again.
What tools and techniques do you use when you are planning out your sewing projects?
Out of the 75 or so garments that I own, only 11 are not homemade. Those 11 items include 6 thrifted items (2 excercise t-shirts, 1 winter coat--which I hope to replace with a homemade one this year, and 3 sweaters), 3 free gifts (my exercise hoody and jacket, which were gifts to my husband, and a turtleneck sweater that I got years ago at a non-profit where I taught drawing classes), and 2 store-bought items (my exercise leggings and an old black t-shirt that I wear under sweaters in the winter time).
That means that 85 percent of my wardrobe is homemade. If you don't include exercise wear, then 92 percent of my daily wardrobe is homemade. I'm slowly learning to crochet, so I hope that as my current sweaters wear out that I will be able to replace them with homemade, too.
The numbers in my closet are pretty similar to last year's. Every year that I've done a wardrobe evaluation, I look at those numbers and think to myself: "I could have a totally homemade wardrobe---I am so close! Maybe by next year it would all be homemade if I replace this or that thrifted item..." But when I'm totally honest with myself, I don't particularly want to sew my own exercise clothes (not to mention that my 1940s Singer doesn't have a zig-zag stitch, so sewing knits is not something I can do easily even if I did want to) or my underthings. I like some of the things that I've found at the thrift store, like the Nordic folk coat decorated with bands of colorful ribbons that I wore all through this past winter. It's okay to not have a wholly handmade wardrobe. Maybe someday I will, but then again, maybe my closet numbers will stay the same from year to year, and that's okay too (so long as my clothes all fit comfortably in my closet).
A closet is a changing thing----shifting to meet new needs, growing for new events, and hopefully, gradually becoming more personal, useful, practical and beautiful over time. Most things that I make get made and worn all the time, but there are still a few that hang wistfully in the corner, not getting used. Those are the ones that I hope to re-purpose or donate. I do this once or twice a year, which is another reason why even though I sew a lot, my closet numbers stay relatively constant.
I'm still working towards that goal of a well-loved closet, full of clothes that last. It's surprising to me sometimes how challenging that goal is---how shifting needs and desires and changes to our bodies and age and lives change the clothes that are needed and wanted. But some things do stay steady: a fondness for certain silhouettes and colors, certain items of jewelry. And that steadiness is reassuring, because even though things do flow and change, our closets remind us that all those clothes are just facets of one's own personality. Sometimes one facet shines in the light, and sometimes another one, but they are all sides of the same thing that we know intimately even as we discover more about it: that is to say, oneself.
Do you do a yearly closet review? What does your review tell you? Do you make goals based on what you know about the numbers in your closet?
Simple, lovely, white peter-pan collar blouse, I made you three years ago when we lived in Santa Clara, California. We were so poor then, and I sewed often to help myself feel clothed in dignity while I walked everywhere because we couldn’t afford a car. I bought your pattern quite cheaply online, only to be disappointed that a piece of the matching jumper tissue was missing. But you were all there, blouse! And I was happy to try you, and liked you so much when I first put you on. You were my ideal blouse: simple, feminine, with a slightly puffed sleeve, pretty cuffs, and a nice round collar. You fit so well, with enough ease to be comfortable, and shoulders that were narrow enough for my small frame. I remember taking my time working on you, even though you were made from an old, thrifted cotton sheet. I used shell buttons I’d harvested from an old shirt, and sewed up all the insides of the seams by hand to make them neat, and made my button-holes slowly and painstakingly by hand, too. I wanted you to be crisp and perfect----to make me feel good. And you did. And you still do, every time that I put you on. I’ve worn you to church and to the library, to family photos (you looked better in them than I did, blouse), to the park, to museums. I’ve worn you in sunshine and rain and snow. And I hope to keep wearing you wherever I go. I also hope to make some more sister-blouses from your pattern. Blouse, you don’t let me down: you are formal, you are informal----you can and do go everywhere. I’m grateful for you.
All sewers face the dilemma of what to do with the fabric scraps left over at the end of a project. Most of us have boxes or bags or baskets of scraps taking up valuable space in our sewing storage. Finding ways to use those scraps makes our sewing pursuits more sustainable, environmentally friendly, and thrifty, too. Using scraps is a practice with historical roots: from the crazy quilts of the English Victorians to the boro patchwork or tiny fabric gifts called “omiyage” of the Japanese, who had a saying that if a scrap of fabric was large enough to hold three beans that it was large enough to keep and reuse. Fabric waste is a growing problem around the world with terrible environmental effects. Using up even the little scraps left over shows that we value the resources that went into the creation of the fabric that we use and the people who made it. When we re-use and re-cycle, we are doing our part to help make this world a little bit better place.
In honor of Earth Day and Fashion Revolution Week, I’ve put together a list of ways to use up scraps. Probably you’ve thought of many of these same ideas yourself, but maybe some of them are new to you, and hopefully all of them are interesting enough to inspire.
Do you have any other ideas or methods that you’ve used to use up fabric scraps?
This week marks the sixth anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,138 people and injured 2,500 more, making it the fourth largest industrial disaster in history. Every year, the organization Fashion Revolution has marked that week with regret and respect by drawing attention to the dangers of the fashion industry, and prompting people everywhere to ask the question: “who made my clothes?”
And not just that question, but the many more that come afterwards: were they paid well? Where do they work? How did the fabric of my clothes get made, and where is it from? Are my clothes harming other people or this Earth?
There are lots of interesting resources on the Fashion Revolution website, if you take a look. They have fan-zines, events all over the world, and ways to participate by (among other things) asking brands, manufacturers, and policy-makers for more transparency and change in the way fashion is produced.
Reading about the current state of fashion is shocking: According to the Fashion Revolution website, in the USA alone, 10.5 millions tons of clothing are sent to landfills every year. That’s about 30 times as heavy as the Empire State Building. When you add facts about how much water and other resources it takes to create new fabric, how little clothing makers are compensated for the work they do in very poor conditions, and many other mind-boggling statistics----suddenly it is easy to comprehend how high the cost truly is for cheap, fast fashion.
Since we as sewers and seamstresses have the skills to make our own clothes, there are many things that we can do to reduce our own participation in the cruel cycle of fashion, and to hopefully help raise more awareness of the value of the clothes that we make and wear----and the great value of sewing, even in this modern, post-industrial world.
Since Fashion Revolution week, Earth Day, and Arbor Day all overlap this year, I thought that I would celebrate them in a small way by putting up a post every day. So, starting tomorrow, here are the posts coming up this week:
1.Ways to Use Up Fabric Scraps
2.Loved Clothes Last: A Love Letter to my Homemade Blouse
3. Yearly Closet Review
4. Making Sewing Plans
5. Inspiration: Patchwork
I stumbled across this illustration that Feodor Rojankovsky made in 1955 for Froggy Went A-Courtin' recently and thought----oh! It's a picture of me! Mrs Rat sewing at her vintage Singer, complete with glasses and long skirt and funny little necklace-brooch. I don't think I've seen a more charming picture of sewing in a long, long time. (And it gives me goals for how I want to dress---maybe a ruffled orangish blouse and bright blue skirt are in order. It wouldn't hurt to add more color to my life.)
I found 1970s-era Simplicity 7100 at the thrift store and immediately thought that it would make a great cleaning dress. As a housewife-artist, a significant amount of my time every week is spent cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, baking, gardening, and doing messy tasks in the studio like gessoing new canvases, sanding panels, or washing brushes. I don't mind cleaning---in fact, I find that it helps me focus my mind and dissipate my anxiety. Bringing a little order to my surroundings can help me feel like I am bringing a little more order to my head and heart. But I get tired easily---I'm not sure if that is an effect of my depression or a different health problem, and I have to admit that there is something discouraging about the endlessness of cleaning. No sooner do I finish my mundane tasks than it feels like I must start them all over again. Routine can be calming, but it can also be stultifying and sometimes exhausting.
One way I've learned to deal with the harder aspects of cleaning is to dress up for it. This might sound counter-intuitive, since you don't want to get your nice clothes dirty, and cleaning is by nature a dirty task. But I've found that having a few items of clothing that I've made especially for cleaning out of durable materials like cotton, twill, and denim, and also setting aside some older dresses that I've retired from wearing outside the house, means that I can clean without feeling frumpy and messy and unattractive. Feeling at least moderately pretty and neat while I clean means that the large amount of time I spend doing it doesn't feel so burdensome. It also lifts my mood to wear something that I like, and a simple necklace or earrings, too. I don't have to worry about the way that I look if someone knocks on the door, and I feel more dignified in general, which is very helpful when doing tasks (like scrubbing out sinks) that can feel very undignified.
So when I see an interesting smock pattern, or in this case, jumper dress, I often consider its qualities as a cleaning outfit. This pattern looked like a great cleaning dress. And I already had about 5 yards or so of heavy dark brown cotton twill that I found at the thrift store for $9 last fall, that I thought would work perfectly with the simple lines of the flared A-line jumper. Twill would make my new jumper nice and durable for all kinds of indoor and outdoor tasks. The loose shape and the larger size (10, when I usually sew an 8) also meant that it would be very comfortable. The pattern is sized for maternity, but I asked my mom whether she thought it would work for a non-pregnant body, and she said she thought it would. Her experience sewing her own maternity clothes was that they were cut looser, but were otherwise not very different from regular patterns. So I bought the pattern for 50 cents, took it home and noticed that the only thing different about it was that there was a little extra length drafted into the center front of the dress, so I lined it up with the back and trimmed that extra amount off. I did add about two inches to the bottom of the dress when I was cutting it out because I wanted to make sure that it would hit my legs below my knees.
The rest of construction was easy: I was careful to finish all the seams with faux-flat fell stitching to keep them neat and from fraying (I've found in the past that twill tends to fray badly). I sewed in the zipper by hand and added a hook and eye at the top of the zipper to help keep the neckline closed. I folded and stitched a narrow machine-hem. The neckline facing is also folded and machine-stitched, and I top-stitched the neckline and arm-holes.
Because the dress is so loose, it sometimes slips a little backwards on my shoulders, which can make the hem look a little off from the side. But it is a minor issue for a dress that turned out the way I had hoped: perfect for cleaning, for tough jobs, for getting dirty, for being comfortable.
In these photos I'm wearing my new jumper with a very old t-shirt (my one and only, since I usually wear button-up shirts and blouses), my trusty old Lotta From Stockholm clogs, and a necklace that I made myself from leftover beads from other projects. And please pardon my unruly hair! It's getting to that length where sometimes it curls under and sometimes out, and I can never tell what it will do in the morning.
Do you ever sew anything with very specific tasks in mind? Have you ever made an outfit just for cleaning in?
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew.