Monday, June 29, 2015

Taking Pictures that Don't Suck: OneLight 2.0 Review

Your job as a photographer is to take pictures that don't suck.
                                       --Zack Arrias, OneLight 2.0

I've been a big fan of photographer Zack Arrias ever since I saw his appearance on the Pro Tog, Cheap Camera challenge run by DigitalRev TV.  Given a flash and a dinky point and shoot camera, he was tasked with taking portraits of people on the streets of Hong Kong.  And he doesn't speak Cantonese.  Obviously, his photographs were brilliant, but what really impressed me was his ability to communicate with people.  So, naturally, when I learned Zack had made a video course on photographic lighting, OneLight 2.0 (trailer here), I was incredibly excited.  Its premise is simple-- what can you do with a single flash?  As it so happens, I had recently bought a single flash and wanted to learn how to use it, so this was fortuitous.  I have now watched the entire seven-hour-long course, and here is my report!

The first two lessons cover gear-- flashes, strobes, light stands, hardware for mounting a flash on a flash stand, flash triggers, and modifiers like umbrellas, softboxes, and grids.  Unless you're the consummate gearhead, this topic isn't the most thrilling, but it's crucial information, covered thoroughly and clearly, with hands-on demonstrations.  I particularly enjoyed the section on lighting modifiers.  Zach doesn't just show you what the modifiers are, but what they can do.  He uses a mannequin to give demonstrations of different modifiers and what sorts of effects they can produce: everything from soft, even lighting to dramatic silhouettes.

The third and fourth lessons cover exposure, in other words, how to take photos in manual mode so that they don't turn out too light or too dark.  He discusses the elements that go into making the proper exposure: aperture, shutter speed, flash power, flash-to-subject distance, and ISO.  You might think this would be the dry, technical part, but I really enjoyed the math and science of it.  Zack's demonstrations with Carl the stuffed squirrel showed not only the technical consequences of varying the different settings, but also what creative and artistic effects you could achieve with them.  I was already familiar with some of these effects, like using the flash to control the brightness of the subject while using exposure time to control the brightness of the background, but I still found plenty of new ideas.  I hadn't thought to take it one step farther and move the camera to cause the background to streak-- Carl in Space! 

The next six lessons show examples of live photo shoots, one with a female model in a studio, one with a male model on location, and one with a band both in the studio and on location.  I found this to be a treasure trove of great creative ideas, as well as an insightful window into a working photographer's problem-solving process.

The eleventh lesson is a review of the photos Zack had taken during the photoshoots, as well as other images in his portfolio.  This serves partly as a critique, and partly as a lesson in how to read and reverse-engineer lighting from photos.  I found this last part particularly eye-opening, since it had never occurred to me to look at a photo and think through what lighting setup had been used. 

The final lesson serves as a wrap-up, and closes with a very reassuring message-- as long as you understand the technical foundations and work hard and thoughtfully, you'll do fine.

In conclusion, I highly recommend OneLight 2.0 if you already have some experience with a DSLR or mirrorless camera and you're interested in learning how to take better photos with off-camera flash.  It is fantastic.  Zack is a clear and relateable teacher, the theory and technical aspects are presented in a very understandable way, and it is packed full of interesting examples.   I appreciate Zack's teaching philosophy-- we're here to learn and understand technique in the service of art, not to learn technical details just to cram our heads full of information, or to produce art haphazardly or without the technical foundation to support it.  I also appreciate Zack's philosophy on buying gear-- only upgrade your gear once you've learned to work within the limitations of your current gear, and when you're constantly bumping up against these limitations.  It's a thoughtful and measured approach to photography.

It might seem odd for me to spend time reviewing a photography instructional video on a sewing blog, and to spend so much time on photography in general.  But, presumably, if you sew, you're already taking photos to show off your completed projects.  Why not have some fun with it?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Tutorial: How to insert a hand-picked side zipper the Sewing Faille way

I always hand-pick my zippers.  I enjoy hand sewing, and I could never get good results inserting zippers by machine.  I also like side zippers-- unlike with back zippers, you have none of this business of flailing around not being able to grab the zipper pull. 

On the other hand, dress construction instructions would usually have me assemble the bodice, assemble the skirt, sew the skirt to the bodice, and then insert the zipper.  That construction method never give me good results with side zippers, because it didn't give my hands enough room to work.   

So, I've devised this alternative dress construction method which makes it easy to do a hand-picked side zipper.  It has some flaws, which I'll point out below, so you probably shouldn't use it if you're not doing a hand-picked side zipper.  On the other hand, if you want to do a hand-picked side zipper and haven't had good results before, give this a try.  The basic philosophy is to assemble the dress front and dress back, sew up the side seam on the zipper side, insert the zipper, and then sew up the other side seam.  That way, you're inserting the zipper at a stage where you have plenty of room to work.

Also, I'm not going to clutter up the instructions by telling you to press after every step, so I'm just going to make a blanket statement here.  PRESS AFTER EVERY STEP.  DO IT.  JUST DO IT.  I shouldn't even have to say this.

(1)  Assemble the bodice front and bodice back
Assemble the bodice front and bodice back, and sew any darts.  You might as well do the bodice front and back lining at this stage as well.
(2)  Assemble the skirt front and back; baste the skirt and lining together
Assemble the skirt front and skirt back; do the same for the lining.  Then, with wrong sides together, baste the skirt front to the skirt front lining, and the skirt back to the skirt back lining at the waist seams.
(3)  Sew the bodice to the skirt
Sew the bodice front to the skirt front, and sew the bodice back to the skirt back.  At this point, you should have two huge pieces, the dress front and the dress back.
(4)  Baste/sew the dress front and dress back together at the side seam that gets the zipper
Usually patterns tell you to use put the zipper in the left side seam, but I say, use the side seam of your non-dominant hand.  If you're right handed, put it in the left side seam.  If you're left handed, put it in the right side seam.  You're making this dress for yourself, and you get to put the zipper wherever it's the most comfortable for you.

Figure out how long your zipper is, and make sure you baste the seam together for the part where you'll be inserting the zipper.  Otherwise, you will have to unpick a lot of stitches and you will be deeply unhappy.  I usually mark the place where I need to switch from stitching to basting with two pins close together.
Now, this part is very important.  You must only stitch the shell fabric together, not the skirt lining fabric.  Therefore, you have to break the stitching across the waist seam.  That is, when you reach the waist seam, you must stop stitching, secure the thread, cut the thread, pick up your presser foot, move to the other side of the waist seam, make sure your stitching isn't going to catch the skirt lining, and start stitching again. 
This brings me to one of the flaws with this approach:  you end up with a tiny hole in the waist seam because you can't execute this with complete precision.  On the other hand, you can fix it later with some hand sewing.

(5)  Pin the zipper on the seam
Press your zipper flat.  Pin the zipper on the seam, making sure to keep the zipper centered on the seam.  
(6)  Sew the zipper in by hand
I like to baste the zipper to hold it in place, then sew it in with tiny pickstitches.  If I don't baste the zipper first, it's hard to do the tiny pickstitches because the pins keep poking me and the stiffness of the pins keeps the fabric and the zipper from bending.  My basting consists of widely spaced pickstitches, so as long as I use thread in a matching color, there's no need to rip out the zipper basting later.  When the zipper is in, rip out the basting that was used to hold the side seam together.
(7)  Sew the dress together at the side seam that does not get the zipper
Just as in Step (4), you'll need to break the stitching across the waist seam to avoid snagging the skirt lining.
(8)  Baste/Sew the skirt lining together on the zipper side
Baste the seam for the extent of the zipper, and then stitch the rest.  As in the previous step, I use two pins close together to mark the switch between stitching and basting.  You're probably going to have to wrangle the skirt lining some to get it untangled from the main dress fabric and so that the right sides are together.
(9)  Hand-sew the skirt lining to the zipper opening
Make sure you've pressed the skirt lining side seam open.  Rip out the basting, pin skirt lining around the zipper opening, and hand-sew it in place.
(10)  Sew the skirt lining together on the non-zipper side
Again, you'll probably have to wrangle the lining to get it free of the skirt fabric.  You probably won't want to stitch the lining fabric all the way up to the shell fabric, so this will leave a little hole at the waist seam, but you can fix this with hand sewing if you want.
(11)  Add a waist stay
The skirt and lining turned out to be much heavier than the bodice could control on its own, so I added a grosgrain ribbon waist stay.  I pinned 5/8" grosgrain ribbon to the waist seam, and stitched it down. 
You'll need to break stitching at the two side seams.
(12)  Baste/stitch together the bodice lining
Join the bodice front lining to the bodice back lining at the side seams, basting where the bodice lining will lie over the zipper, and stitching otherwise.
(13)  Pin the straps to the bodice
Make sure you do a lot of thinking first to make sure you won't be sewing the straps to the bodice in the wrong direction. 

Usually I'd wait until the end to stitch the straps on, so that I could check the length and the fit.  This time, since I plan to tie the straps together at the shoulders, the length and fit don't matter, so I decided to include the straps at this stage. 
(14)  Sew the bodice lining to the bodice
With right sides together, pin the bodice lining to the bodice, and stitch. 
(15)  Turn the bodice lining to the inside and press
Depending on a pattern, it might help to make little slits in the seam allowance to help it lay flat.  People often recommend understitching the lining to help it lay flat, but I have trouble keeping the understitching from going all the places it shouldn't, so I usually tack the lining down with tiny pickstitches instead.
(16)  Hand-stitch the bodice lining down at the zipper opening and waist
It usually takes me a lot of fiddling around to get the lining turned under just right at the waist seam, but once I've done that, the hand sewing is pretty straightforward.

And though I didn't mention it in the instructions, I added a couple of hanging loops to the waist stay so that I could hang up the dress by the skirt, and not have the bodice constantly bearing the weight of the skirt.
(17)  Do any other finishing work, hem the skirt, etc.
At this point, all of the major work is taken care of, so do whatever finishing work you still need to do.  As for me, I used a circle skirt pattern, so I'm going to let the dress hang for a couple of days before I hem it.  I also need to finish the waist stay.

Anyway, that's it for the tutorial!  I hope it was useful, but if you have strong feelings one way or the other, or have suggestions for how the tutorial could be improved, please let me know in the comments!  I'll post pictures of the finished dress at some point.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Pattern Review: 1935 Madeline Vionnet Dress

Ta-da!  A copy of a dress by the great Madeline Vionnet.

The pattern for this dress comes from the Japanese pattern book on Madeline Vionnet, which I reviewed earlier here.  The present post is just a brief pattern review-- I made a muslin and it turned out well enough to write about-- but I'll post a full review later, when I make the final dress.
I had long admired this dress for its simplicity and elegance.  I was thrilled when the Japanese Vionnet book had a pattern for it, so of course I had to try it first.

I'm planning to make the final dress out of four-ply silk crepe, which is very expensive.  I needed to make a muslin first, but since this design relies to heavily on the drape of the fabric for its final form, I couldn't use regular muslin.   So, I dug through my stash and found some drapey fabric I that I didn't like.  This brownish stretch silk crepe de chine fit the bill.  When I first ordered it, I didn't expect it to be this color, which somehow alternates between awesome and awful.  I also didn't expect it to be stretch fabric, which I generally hate working with.  The drape and the handling characteristics of stretch silk crepe de chine are very different from the non-stretch variety. 

This pattern is very unusual.  It consists of three pieces, one which comprises most of the dress and is stitched together in the front, and two gussets inserted into the back bodice, which helps form the casing for the strap.  The piece which comprises most of the dress was too large to fit on 45" wide fabric, so I had to cut it from two separate pieces, then sew it together.

The pattern was very simple to assemble.  You insert the gussets, sew the main pattern piece up the front, sew a casing for the strap, hem the edges,'re done.  The pattern originally called for a buckle to hold together the fullness at the center front.  I don't keep such buckles on hand, and if I used one I wouldn't be able to throw the dress in the wash, so I just sewed up the front a little.  If you were bustier than me, you might need to be able to unbuckle it to have enough fullness to take the dress on and off, but for me, it's fine.  I also didn't have any matching ribbon for the strap, so I just used white grosgrain ribbon.  I'll replace this with better ribbon when I have the chance.

The pattern instructions were in Japanese, so I had to go by the pictures, which didn't illustrate all the necessary steps.  I'll see if I can write a full set of instructions when I make the final dress.
All told, I really like this pattern.  It goes together quickly and easily, it looks great, and it feels amazing.  It's a very forgiving pattern if you haven't sewn a bias-cut dress before, thanks to the small number of seams.  One important thing to note is that the back is so low it can't be worn with a standard strapless bra.  The fabric is clingy enough that you really can't go braless, at least not with fabric this thin.  On the other hand, even if you feel like you couldn't wear it in public, it makes an amazing dress to wear around the house.  That's how I plan to use this version!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Self-Drafted Pattern: 1930's-Style Bias-Cut Silk Crepe de Chine Evening Dress

Many years ago, when I was relatively new to sewing, I fell in love with a 1930's evening dress by Lucien Lelong.  I can't find the picture any more, but I can tell you that what I found so fascinating about the dress was the diagonal seaming and diamond-shaped insets.  I had to have one of my own.  In red.  I searched for patterns, but couldn't find anything that quite matched what I wanted.  So, I drafted my own.  It was a difficult undertaking, but I think it was a great success!
The dress is made from dark red silk crepe de chine, and it's lined with black silk habotai.  If you're not interested in the drafting and construction details, skip down to the bottom for more pictures!

Successfully drafting the pattern took a major conceptual breakthrough, and it was this.  Fabric cut on the bias distorts under its own weight-- it stretches out in the direction of the pull of gravity.  The diamond-shaped inserts in the Lucien Lelong dress were taller than they were wide, so it was probable that they had originally been squares when the dress was first assembled.  Sewing squares cut on the diagonal is trivial with the bias cut.  In fact, it is the easiest way to sew seams, because it means that you're sewing on the straight grain, not the bias.  Seams on the bias tend to stretch out and distort as you sew them, which is a pain.  So consider this close-up of the dress bodice:
The center piece, the diamond, was originally cut as a square, with the grain running parallel to the sides of the square.  In fact, all of the angles in this picture were originally right angles (with the exception of the non-topstitched seam joining the two bodice pieces).  As the dress has spent time on the hanger, the fabric has lengthened under the pull of gravity, and the angles have altered.

So, here is the seaming in the bodice:
And the seaming in the back is nearly identical:
The skirt front and back are simply a quarter-circle of fabric each. 

The jumping-off point for this pattern is the basic strapless sheath dress pattern I more or less use as my sloper.  I should really write a blog post about that pattern one of these days.  I traced the pattern out onto some paper, and then took a large ruler and L-square and used them to draw straight diagonal lines across the paper pattern.  When I had something I was happy with, I'd cut apart the pieces, add seam allowances and draw out new pattern pieces, mock it up in muslin, see what I liked and didn't like, and make adjustments.  I repeated this process numerous times.  It took months.

Assembling the dress was very tricky.  I opted to topstitch all the diagonal seams, first because it would help the seaming show up better, and second because it's the best way I know to handle difficult corners such as these. 

Figuring out which order to sew the pieces together was a mental puzzle.  I'll spare you the details, but I more or less tried to sew them together in such an order that I would minimize the number of tricky corners I had to sew, and to make sure that I was working with the smallest possible groups of pieces for as long as possible, because they were easier to control in the sewing machine.

The dress is made out of silk crepe de chine and silk habotai, and let me tell you, sewing topstitched seams in those two fabrics is very difficult.  It's hard to cut them out precisely to begin with, and then the pieces tend to slip around and distort.  The best method I came up with was to take the piece to be stitched on top, fold the seam allowance under and press it, arrange that piece on top of the other piece and pin it, and then topstitch it down with the machine.  Still, it takes a lot of control with the sewing machine.  Despite my best efforts, the topstitching still didn't come out quite as even as I would have liked.  On the other hand, most people probably wouldn't notice when I'm wearing the dress.
As I mentioned, the dress is lined with silk habotai, but I didn't want the black silk habotai to show through at the front and back necklines, so I cut doubles of the upper bodice pieces as a sort of facing.  The lining is constructed in exactly the same way as the outside of the dress.
The hem is just a narrow hem. 
Enough with the construction details.  Onwards, to the dress pictures!
The seaming isn't as obvious as I'd like, but it still turned out beautifully, and the fit is fantastic.
You can't see it here, but the armholes stretched out quite a bit.  Next time, I'd reinforce them with a line of stitching as soon as I cut the pattern pieces out.
I wanted the back to be low-cut, but I wasn't expecting that it would turn out quite this low-cut.  It's still possible to wear it with a standard strapless bra, but just barely.
The bias cut really does a good job of molding itself to my curves.
This dress actually has a pretty full skirt.
The same in the back.

In conclusion, I love this dress and I am very, very proud of it!  I don't think I'd make this particular pattern again, but I would definitely consider drafting another pattern along the same lines.  I would not recommend such a project to beginners, but if you have a lot patience and a lot of experience with slippery silks and sewing on the bias, you should definitely consider giving it a go.

Also, this post was brought to you by my new light stand, or as I like to call it, the "fiance replacement."  No longer does my sweetie have to stand there holding the flash while I take a kazillion pictures of myself!  Horray for the flash stand!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Pattern Review: V8789, 1950's dress

This is a dress made with awesome fabric and one of my favorite patterns!
Last spring, I visited Japan and returned with much fabulous fabric, including this pink cherry blossom print Japanese cotton:
It has an interesting weave, with a nubby texture like silk dupioni.
I thought this print would make a lovely 1950's dress, and I wanted a pattern that I had made successfully before, so I made V8789, a 1950's dress pattern reissued by Vogue.
I made view A, the one with the V-neck.  The bodice is fitted with darts, and the skirt is a rectangle of fabric gathered like a dirndl skirt.  I sewed a size 6 and made my normal fitting adjustments, letting out the darts to deal with the fact that I'm an A cup and the pattern was drafted for a B cup.
The neckline and armholes are finished with facing. 
The bodice is cut on the bias, so that the grain runs parallel to the neckline.  This design decision has a lot of nice consequences-- you don't have to worry about the neckline stretching out on the bias, the bodice seam allowances won't ravel badly because they're cut on the bias, and the bodice has far more give than you'd expect from a non-stretch woven.

I didn't use the skirt pattern piece, opting instead to just cut two rectangles of fabric from selvedge to selvedge.  I stitched grosgrain ribbon to the raw edge at the top of the skirt, partly for extra support for all that gathering, and partly because it helps hide the raw edges.
I turned the hem under and stitched it, then turned it under again about an inch and hemmed it.
I'd comment on the quality of the instructions, but I don't think I read them.  Even if I did read them, I don't remember them-- I made this dress about a year ago.

Enough about the construction.  Onward to the pictures!
Another really nice feature of the bias-cut bodice is that the fabric molds itself to your shoulders.
The back has more or less the same design, even though my hair is hiding the back neckline.  I bought that awesome hair clip in Japan as well.
I also like that the front neckline is high enough that even if it gapes a little as you move around, it's not revealing.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this pattern.  It's versatile, it's well-designed, I found it easy to fit and easy to sew, and it's fun to wear.  I'm probably going to flood my closet with different versions of this dress.  Enjoy!