Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Why I Sew

For Christmas, my husband got me a softbox.  More on that later.  Here's my first successful softbox photo, of me wearing my brown silk charmeuse version of the 1935 Vionnet dress.
I've spoken at length about the construction details of that dress at length before (see here, here, here, and here), and I'm not going to make a post about the softbox until I have a good idea of its capabilities.  So, I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk about why I sew.

It's not to save money.  That was my original justification for taking up sewing, to be sure.  But it doesn't hold up now for several reasons.

At this point, several years in, I have three large boxes of unused fabric, which probably amounts to over a thousand dollars spent on fabric I don't have a hope of using in the near future.  If I'd spent that money on clothes instead, at least they'd be getting worn instead of sitting in a closet indefinitely.

Plus, when I do buy clothes, I generally buy them from thrift and consignment stores.  I spend somewhere between $10 and $30 per item.  The materials costs for my sewing projects are higher than that, not to mention the value of my time.  If I spent the time I spend sewing taking on extra paying work, I could afford whatever clothes I wanted.

It's also not the case that I sew because I can't buy the clothes I need.  I'm close to a standard size in ready-to-wear, so it's not hard to find clothes that fit me.  The sorts of clothes that don't fit me tend to be suit jackets, which I don't have any interest in sewing anyway.

To take a broader view, any consideration of practicality doesn't make sense when you think about what I actually sew.  It's mainly sundresses and evening dresses.  At this point, I have a closet full of sundresses and evening dresses.  It's not like I really need that twelfth swanky evening dress.

Instead, I think it comes down to two reasons.

First, I'm driven to understand how things work and how to do them myself.  The impulse to make my own clothing is the same impulse that led me to build my own computer, learn to cook a wide range of cuisines, build a trebuchet, carry out any number of home improvement projects, and, of course, become an academic researcher.  Learning the nuts and bolts of whatever I'm interested in is my most fundamental way of interacting with the world.

Second, it's very important to me to express my creativity.  Advertisements constantly push the idea that I should consume, consume, consume.  I want to produce.  I have an artistic vision and I want to bring it to fruition.  The fact that I can do so gives me power-- the power of self-expression, the power to show off my intelligence, my skills, and my hard work, and the power to present myself in the way I want to be seen.

In the end, it may not be the best dress, or the best photo, but it's mine and I made it and it's exactly the way I wanted it to be, and I draw strength from that. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Hem Tape Mystery

What's happened to Wrights hem tape?

I was working on a dress and used up an old package, so I opened a new one.

They are clearly not the same product:

The old stuff is silky smooth, like ribbon.  The new stuff is plastickly and papery and generally pretty yucky.  I'm ashamed to be using it, but I can't run out for more right now.

What happened?  Have you guys noticed this, too?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Quick sewing tip

I often use pins to spell out an "F" or "B" on pattern pieces to distinguish the front from the back:
This helps prevent situations where your dress consists of two nearly-identical pattern pieces, one for the front and one for the back, and you cut the front out, get distracted, go to bed, wake up the next morning, and cut out another front instead of cutting out the back.  Which, incidentally, has never happened to me.  Nope, not at all.  Move along, nothing to see here...

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Self-drafted pattern: rhino-print gathered skirt

Here's another one of my projects from long ago, a gathered skirt made from Echino rhino-print fabric.
The fabric is a lightweight to mid-weight cotton/linen blend.  It has a soft and slightly fuzzy texture, like flannel.  It's a great skirt for cool fall days.
Plus, who doesn't love the cute rhinos?
There's not much to say in terms of the construction and sewing-- I used my standard method of making a gathered skirt. 
First, I cut two rectangles of fabric each as wide as the width of the fabric and each as long as I wanted the skirt to be.  I cut a rectangle for a waistband the circumference of my waist, plus a little extra.  Then, I gathered each of the rectangles of fabric and stitched the gathering to grosgrain ribbon, to stabilize it. 
I sewed up the side seams, inserting a zipper at one of them.  Then, I sewed the waistband to the skirt and hemmed the skirt. 
I should make a tutorial with photos at some point. 

Anyway, it's a quick and easy project for a very versatile skirt, and I highly recommend it!
OK, one more photo of me swanning around in my rhino skirt and fedora!

Saturday, December 5, 2015


I titled this post "I am a WIZARD."  You probably came here thinking I was going to tell you some brilliant sewing tips, didn't you?

Nope.  I meant it literally.
Let's review the series of steps that led me here.

I wanted a really warm winter dress.  I had this brilliant blue wool boucle in sort of a terrycloth-like texture.  Since the boucle was so thick, I figured it probably couldn't take much in the way of fine detail, so I selected this pattern:
I made a muslin.  It was way too large in the bust (Really, pattern?  I'm a 33 bust, and you're for a 31 1/2 bust?) and way too small in the hips.  In the course of altering the bust, I got rid of the gathering at the neckline because it was easier to fit that way.  I also made the dress longer, because it would be warmer, and I lengthened the sleeves because I intended to gather them later, also because that's warmer.

The end result?

So very wizard.
My friends were decidedly unsupportive.  Some select quotes:

"Hello, Harry."

"You should buy a hat to go along with that."

"You should applique some yellow stars and planets on it and wear a wizard hat."

Anyway, I'm going to see what I can do to un-wizard this dress.  One of my friends suggested that I just embrace the wizard and add lots of pockets in unexpected places a la Kvothe from The Name of the Wind, you know, so I can magically produce items at dramatic moments.  This is actually not a half bad idea.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Vogue 1174-- my first corselet!

I have grand aspirations to make a fantastic strapless ball gown.  I began by making a corselet.  It seemed like the best place to start because the corselet forms the support structure, and so I'd need to design the lining and the fashion fabric around it.  For a pattern, I used the corselet from Vogue 1174, a strapless cocktail dress. 
I completely ignored the instructions that came with the pattern, and instead used a modified version of the instructions for making a corselet from Claire Schaeffer's Couture Sewing Techniques.  The corselet is constructed from two layers of mid-weight linen.  The layer closer to the body cut on the straight grain, while the layer on the outside is cut on the bias.  I ran lines of stitching to create boning channels between the two layers.  I added one boning channel per seamline.  The corselet closes at the side with hook-and-eye tape.

For boning, I used a combination of plastic boning (for the slightly curved seams) and extra-long heavy-duty cable ties.  Some Threads article suggested using nylon cable ties as boning, and I decided to try it because it's way easier for me to get to a hardware store than to get to a sewing store.  So far, the nylon cable ties have worked out fine.  I know spiral steel boning would have better.  But, any clothing I sew has to be machine-washable, and spiral steel boning would rust.

Amazingly, the corselet fit right off the bat with no small bust adjustment required.
I wore the corselet around the house for a couple of hours, and it's reasonably comfortable, breathes well, and doesn't try to fall down. I'm going to call that a success.

On the other hand, it doesn't seem like this corselet will work for the evening dress I had in mind.  My original idea was to make a slim-fitting dress with a skirt that would flare out below mid-thigh.  I made a mock-up with the lining fabric, pinned it to the corselet, and then decided that this was a bad idea.  The corselet adds a significant amount of bulk to my waist.  If the dress went straight into a full skirt at the waist, that would be fine.  But, as it was, it more or less eliminated my waist.  Bad bad bad.  So, I'm going to do something different, probably using the skirt from Vogue 2239

Anyway, I'm happy that the corselet has worked out so well so far, and I can't wait to figure out what kind of an evening dress I'm going to make out of it!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

More thoughts on camera gear: lenses are awesome!

Continuing my series of posts on camera equipment for sewing bloggers (here, here, and here), I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on lenses for DSLRs.
Gratuitous opening photo-- a camera lens!
If you're casually interested in photography, lenses are probably not something you'd think about at all.  The DSLR came with a lens and it works just fine, so why consider using anything else?  But, the more deeply you explore photography, the more crucial the choice of lens becomes.  It's probably fair to say that most serious photographers put more money and energy into lenses than camera bodies, and it's not uncommon for photographers to have lenses that cost as much, or even three or four times as much, as their camera bodies.  Don't let this scare you, though, because there are a number of relatively inexpensive lens options out there that will help you take better photographs.

So, what does a better lens get you?  A few things, which may not all be true at the same time:

-- More sharpness.  Enough said.

-- Better build quality.  Ditto.

-- Larger maximum aperture.  This has two major benefits.  First, it gathers more light, which is better for low-light environments, like your sewing room (probably) or museums (almost definitely).  The second is that it allows you to use a creamy, out-of-focus background blur, as you can see in the two photos below.  Lower numbers mean a larger maximum aperture; for instance, an f/1.8 lens has a wider aperture (is a 'faster') than an f/4.0 lens.

 -- Wider/narrower field of view.  The kit lens which comes bundled with DSLRs typically has a focal length range of 18-55 (for APS-C) or 24-70 (for full-frame).  But you can buy lenses which give you a wider or narrower field of view.  For instance, I have a 55-300mm lens for its mighty zoom powers, which excel at photographing tiny birds far away, and a 15mm ultra wide angle lens for sweeping landscapes.

-- Smaller size/more portability.  It's possible to buy so-called pancake lenses, which are hardly bigger than your camera's body cap.  If you want to be able to throw your camera in your purse and carry it around with you all day, these are for you.

Note that some of these qualities are mutually exclusive.  There's no way that you can make a super long 300mm f/1.8 lens and have it be the size of a body cap.  That's physically impossible.  I got to use my friend's 100-300mm f/4.0 lens once, and that lens was bigger than my tripod.  It's like having a small telescope mounted to the front of your camera.  The lens was so big I had to support it in the crook of my arm, and when I wanted to change lenses, I had to take the camera body off the lens, not the lens off the camera body.  Generally there will be a tradeoff between size and maximum aperture, where lenses with a larger maximum aperture tend to be bigger, and between size and focal length, where lenses that have a longer focal length tend to be bigger.

Note also that I haven't listed "larger zoom range" as one of the advantages of better lenses.  This is because the larger the zoom range, the worse the optical qualities of the lens tend to be.  It's really hard to make a lens that has long zoom range, say, 18-270mm, and is still sharp, and it's impossible to make one that has a long zoom range and has a wide maximum aperture.  If you absolutely need all that zoom range and cannot carry an extra lens or change lenses, then go for it, but it's hard to recommend superzooms under any other circumstances.

The fastest, sharpest, and smallest lenses tend to be fixed focal length or prime lenses-- lenses that don't zoom at all.  Most of my lenses are prime lenses for exactly this reason.

Enough with the theory.  What are the general categories of lenses that are out there that you might consider?  (The following categories are for APS-C sized sensors, which is what you probably have.  If you have a full frame camera, you probably know enough that this discussion isn't all that useful.)

Kit Lens (usually an 18-55 f/3.5-f/5.6 zoom lens)
It's common for DSLRs to come with an 18-55mm kit lens.  This is not my favorite lens.  First, since it's the most entry-level of all the entry-level lenses, the image quality often isn't that great.  Second, since it doesn't have a very wide maximum aperture (usually f/3.5-f/5.6), it's not good in low light, and it doesn't give very good background blur.  If you already have one and don't want to buy another lens, it'll be fine, but I wouldn't recommend buying one.

Wide-to-Normal or Wide-to-Short-Telephoto Zoom Lens ({16-20}-{35-55}mm)
These lenses have a similar zoom range to the standard kit lens, but typically are a step up in terms of either optics, build quality, widest angle, or maximum aperture.  

One really remarkable offering in this category is the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8, which is, from all reports, fantastic from an optical standpoint, often even better optically than the best prime lenses.  On the other hand, some people have reported intractable problems with the autofocus.  Read a lot of reviews and user reports for this lens for your camera system if you're thinking of buying one. 

Fast Normal Lens (prime lens between 30mm and 40mm, f/2.8 or faster)
Lenses of this range of focal lengths are known as "normal" lenses because they have a field of view which is comparable to the human eye.  To me, this is the little black dress of lenses-- appropriate for every situation, not necessarily flashy, but quietly competent.  Quietly fabulous.  Great for full-body shots, great for pictures of construction details, fine for headshots, great for landscapes, great for dimly-lit museum photos.  This is the type of lens I use for most of my photoshoots.  If I had to live with only one lens, this would be it.   
I have two lenses in this category, a 31mm f/1.8 and a 40mm f/2.8.  There are a wide variety of 30mm and 35mm prime lenses from the major camera manufacturers, as well as third-party lens makers like Sigma.  Technically a normal lens should run anywhere from 30mm to 40mm, but I prefer wider to narrower.  It's better for full-body shots in tight spaces like my sewing room, and more useful for landscapes. 

Wide-Angle or Ultra Wide Angle Lens (~25mm or wider)
As one might expect from the name, wide-angle lenses have a field of view which is wider than the field of view of the human eye.  They typically are not very fast due to the physical constraints of designing wide-angle lenses.  Fast wide-angle lenses do exist, but they are typically very expensive, or they are manual-focus only to drive the price down.  Rokinon/Samyang/Bower (multiple names for the same lens manufacturer) has some great, relatively inexpensive, fast manual-focus wide-angle lenses.
This is another category of lens that I use very frequently.  They're great for full-body shots if you want to grab some of the background, they're great for landscapes, and they're wide enough to take a picture of a room, and some of them are not so wide that the perspective distortion ruins close-ups. 
I have...three...wide angle lenses now, which is a little excessive-- a 21mm f/3.2, a 15mm f/4.0, and a 14mm f/2.8.  The latter is very large and quite heavy, and it's manual-focus only, so I only use it for astrophotography; otherwise I use the 15mm f/4.0 instead.  All of the above photos were taken with the 21mm f/3.2.  The 15mm f/4.0 is generally too wide for outfit photos, and has too much perspective distortion for indoor shots.  The only outfit photo I've taken with it is the one below.  It sees heavy use for hiking and landscape photography, though.

Fast Short Telephoto Lens (prime or zoom lens between 50mm and 85mm, f/2.8 or faster)
This focal length is somewhat narrower than the field of view of the human eye.  Fashion and portrait photographers love fast short telephoto lenses because they can produce a wonderful, creamy out-of-focus background blur.  I have one lens in this range, a 77mm f/1.8.

Even though fast short telephoto lenses are the bread-and-butter of portrait photographers, I have tried them for outfit photos, and they just do not work for me.  I've tried my 77mm f/1.8, which has three major problems for outfit photos-- the field of view so narrow it's hard to make sure that I'm in the frame, I have to set the tripod up such a long way away from me I'm afraid someone will knock it over or steal it, and I can't use it for indoor shots because none of the rooms in my place are big enough. 

I've also borrowed and tried two different 50mm lenses, which still have the above problems, but also irritated me because I felt the field of view was too wide for detail shots but too narrow for landscape shots.  This is probably just an idiosyncrasy on my part, since plenty of people swear by their 50mm f/1.8 lenses, and they are one of the most popular types of lenses of all time, even for APS-C sized sensors.

So.  I think a fast short telephoto lens could be great if someone else is taking photos of you and you can work outside, but they may or may not work for the tripod self-portrait approach.  They're great for museums and shots of items in my sewing room, though.

Fast Long Telephoto Lenses (prime or zoom lens 100mm and above, f/2.8 and faster)
Another category of lens that portrait photographers love, again because of the creamy, blurred-out background that it can produce.  This is the sort of lens that the blogs Wardrobe Oxygen and Already Pretty use for their outfit photos, as far as I can tell from the image EXIF data.  I don't own one-- I almost never photograph other people-- but they have the same advantages and disadvantages of short telephoto lenses, only more so.

Macro Lens
'Macro' refers not to a range of focal lengths, but whether the lens is capable of doing extreme close-ups.  Most camera manufacturers and third-party lens makers have macro lenses somewhere in the 50-100mm range; I prefer the longer end, because it allows you to hold the camera further away from the subject you're photographing.
I have a 100mm f/4.0, an old all-manual lens from the 1970's.  I use this lens for one thing, and one thing only-- taking very sharp photographs of very tiny objects.  Still, it sees a lot of use because, seriously, how cool is it to be able to take pictures of a tiny patch of fabric and enlarge it to poster size?  Totally cool, that's how! 

Pancake Lens
This is another category that doesn't refer to a range of focal lengths, but to the physical properties of the lens.  Pancake lenses are tiny and flat.  If the fast normal lens was a little black dress, a pancake lens is a pair of designer blue jeans.  They don't have quite the same range of excellence as my 31mm f/1.8 lens-- since they're so small, they're typically not as fast as larger lenses-- but they're still fine for most applications, and they're so small that I can throw one on my DSLR and take it anywhere.  Seriously, the lens barely sticks out from my camera body.  If I'm going out, I'll generally take my camera with either one of my pancake lenses, the 21mm f/3.2 or the 40mm f/2.8.    
Most lens manufacturers don't make a wide range of pancake lenses, but it's common to find a 40mm f/2.8 pancake.  Besides Pentax, I think Fuji has a relatively wide range of pancake lenses.  Here's a useful discussion from B&H, and then DigitalRev TV has a lighthearted video photographing pancakes with pancake lenses.

So, that was a lot to take in.  The TL;DR version is that a lens (either a prime or a zoom) with a focal length between 30mm and 40mm which is faster than f/2.8 will serve you very well for photographing outfits, museums, and construction details in your sewing room.  Depending on your setup, you might want to consider a wide-angle lens or a short telephoto like a 50mm f/1.8 as well.

Now, if you're shopping for a new lens, what research should you do?  First, check lens reviews.  They'll fill you in on factors like sharpness, build quality, autofocus, and how a given lens stacks up against its competitors.  My favorite lens review sites are, slrgear, and also has lens reviews, but they tend to be pitched more towards real gearheads, and also, for whatever reason, their site tends to crash my browser.  There are also camera-system-specific review sites out there.  The one I'm familiar with is Pentax Forums, but I'm sure there's a lot out there for Canon and Nikon users.

Next, and most importantly, find and look through photos that have been taken with that lens.  My favorite source for such photos is Flickr groups dedicated to a given lens.  Check the rendering, the image quality, and the quality of the out-of-focus background blur.  These are arguably the most important artistic qualities of the lens, and it's easy to get bogged down in the technical specifications and miss the subjective qualities of the lens.  Think of it less like buying a laptop and more like buying fabric-- yes, there are obvious objective differences in quality, like the fiber or the tightness of the weave, but ultimately it comes down to the intangible qualities and how well you connect with it on an emotional level.

There are lenses that are objectively better than some of the lenses that I own, but I would not be able to work with them nearly as well due to other factors.  All of my lenses have a certain point of view on the world due to their handling, their technical specifications, and their rendering, and that point of view shapes the sorts of photographs I go out and take.

But those are just my thoughts-- your mileage may vary, of course.  If you disagree with me, or have something else to add, feel free to let me know in the comments!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Vogue 7910: Wool Tweed Flared Skirt

This pattern, Vogue 7910 (OOP but still available) is my absolute favorite skirt pattern.  In fact, it's the first pattern I ever made when I started sewing clothes, which must have been something like eight years ago.
It has a waistband and is fitted through the waist and hips, but then flares to a circle skirt at the knees, at least in the version I always make, Version A.
Since it's so full, I always buy around three yards of fabric for it.
The pattern pieces have an interesting and unexpected shape-- like little space capsules!
For the fabric, I used this fantastic forest green/white wool tweed shot through with fuchsia, mustard yellow, and lime green.
I lined it with mid-weight white silk charmeuse, and hemmed the skirt with white hem tape.  Best lining ever!
I hand-stitched the inside of the waistband down with such tiny stitches you can barely see them.  It took about three hours, but I did it while playing the turn-based strategy game Battle for Wesnoth with a friend of mine who always takes a looooonnnngggg time with his turns, so it was all good.
Anyway, it's such a delightful skirt to wear.  I much prefer full skirts over pencil skirts and A-line skirts because of the extra freedom of movement they give me and how warm they are in the winter.  I like how this one is fitted through the waist and hips, which reduces bulk if you're using a mid- or heavy-weight fabric.
Plus, it goes swish when I walk!
Have any other favorite full skirt patterns to recommend?  Winter is coming, my stash is full of wool, and I'd love to have more variety!