Sunday, January 30, 2011

V1C2 The Sewing Machine,The Iron, Needle, Thimble, Thread: Part 2 of 3--THE STEAM IRON

These irons were used --before electricity.  The one on the left was heated with natural gas.  On the right is a "self heater" into which hot coals were placed, the conventional "iron" that was placed on the stove--many households had a few of those so one would heat while the other was in use; at the bottom are a brass iron that had a metal core that was heated separately in a stove and an early 20th century one in which the handle detaches whilst the iron heats.  I can only imagine the burns as I am pretty clumsy.  However, in light of going green, these irons may prove useful in a post-peak world.   There could be a market.....

The history of the iron is pretty much a horror story.   There were the irons that were heated on a stove, ones that used gas or coals placed inside.  I don't believe there was much in the way of heat regulation.   I cannot imagine using the irons of the past.  I can only imagine the burns women would suffer while ironing.  Considering everything was pressed and startched in the 18th and 19th century.... the modern steam iron, the dryer and permanent press fabrics are wildly liberating technology.  

A good quality steam iron is integral to constructing quality made garments.  You can find one at a department store; you usually cannot go wrong with an iron from the price point of about $35 and up. Sometimes they can be found on sale.  I purchased my Conair from Big Lots for about $20.  Conversely, there are gravity feed steam irons and semi-professional hand steam irons that cost $300 and up.

The issue with modern irons and modern fabrics is to really pay attention to the heat, especially when working with synthetics and synthetic/natural blends.    The best course of action is to use pressing cloths and experiment with scraps.  Start by setting the iron a little lower in temperature than is recommended to allow for variation among different brands and models of irons.  Newer fabrics and chemical finishes can melt or become warped when given too much heat.  Also, pay attention to interfacing. There are low heat varieties available if you are sewing with poly heat sensitive fabric.

When you think about sewing, you may as well think about pressing.   You use the iron from the very beginning and throughout the entire sewing process. First you press out wrinkles in the pattern (don't use steam!); then pressing the yardage before you lay the pattern pieces out.  After cutting, you are using the iron to fuse interfacing.  Once you start to sew, pressing seams, steaming areas eased, darts and hems -- you go from the sewing machine to the iron back and forth.  You may as well have them next to each other if time is of the essence.  The iron is integral in the construction of a garment, you use it to give it shape and provide clean lines.  The difference between a garment constructed with pressing and without is stark.  It makes all the difference.

For a great treatise on the importance of pressing and the amazing difference it makes in your sewing please read: Gorgeous Things' Blog: And Now, a Word from the Pressinatrix 

For ideas on how to incorporate the pressing in with the sewing see Gertie's New Blog for Better Sewing

It is important to use the appropriate technique of pressing.  Ironing is when you drag or slide the hot iron along the fabric-- a long gliding movement you don't want to go backwards or you might put in wrinkles.  I use this technique when pressing yardage before laying it out. 

Pressing is when you press the iron straight up and down with even pressure.  I use this to press seams and apply interfacings.  

Detail pressing is when you use the point of the iron only and your hands to press confined spaces. I use this technque with collars when pressing open seams on a point presser, when pressing cuffs on a shirt and when pressing hems before sewing.  Don't forget to use pressing cloths to avoid damaging the fabrics.  It is good to test.  A variety of press cloths are necessary for different fabrics.  I keep a silk organza, a thick cotton, and a medium cotton as well as cheesecloth and vary them depending on the fabric of my project.  

Some other tools you may want to use while ironing are hams, ham holder, point presser, clapper, arm board or sleeve seam board, pant seam board, velvet or needle board.  We will talk about the use of these tools later in the series.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

V1C2 The Sewing Machine,The Iron, Needle, Thimble, Thread: Part 1 of 3

Historically, a seamstress may have a basket holding at minimum a thimble, pincushion, needle box with sewing and darning needles, a measure tape and a box to hold spools of cotton thread.

Today things are a bit more complicated.   While we all have our favorite notions and what a selection of notions can be found; the essentials are still as easy to select.

The 60 inch tape measure in fiberglass that has inches on one side and centimeters on the other;
The 2 inch by 18 inch clear plastic ruler, yardstick and metal seam gauge;
Pressing cloths, sleeve board and ham;
Sharp shears to cut fabric, smaller ones for buttonholes, trimming and snipping threads ...... I think we have run out of room in that sewing basket!

Most of our time though is spent going back and forth between the sewing machine and the steam iron; the main tools of construction.

The sewing machine of today can be a very basic mechanical machine handed down from a relative or found at a garage sale for a few dollars or a technological marvel hosting its own software, firmware and motherboard rivaling the cost of a subcompact vehicle.  Most every seamstress has a strong opinion on the most effective machine, it is really a matter of personal preference.  The chapter discusses the history of the invention of the sewing machine.

 The book informs mostly about American inventors from Walter Hunt to Elias Howe to Isaac Singer.  I prefer a more global view enumerated here: Who invented the sewing machine?  Wouldn't you know, the savvy marketer and not the innovative inventor stole the thunder.

When selecting a machine, the author recommendations are:

 1. The ability to sew a straight and zigzag stitch,
2. Includes a zigzag foot, straight stitch foot, buttonhole foot or attachment, zipper foot. 
3. The choice of a heavier machine (!) as they should perform better than light ones that may move about the table during use.  --I don't know if that is still an issue.  Maybe some with ultralight machines may wish to weigh in?
4.  Choose a machine a little beyond your skills so you have room to grow. 

Whatever machine you choose, the most important thing is to learn to use it.  In light of the year these books were published, I plan to use a vintage Kenmore that was popular at the time.  Like with any machine, before use, review the manual; you can even label the knobs on your machine until you become used to it.

The photos of the book show a Singer Touch and Sew.   It is in black and white so I cannot tell which model but it may be a Golden.

Needle size:  size 14 standard for woven,  if sewing on knits use a size 14 ballpoint needle.

Thread--No. 50 mercerized cotton or polyester.  Use cotton with natural fabrics and polyester with man made fabrics.

Stitch Length: Set the machine to sew at 12 stitches per inch for a basic seam. For basting set the machine at 6 stitches per inch.

 Your machine may not have spi (stitches per inch) measures.  The machine I used had numbers for stitch length 1-2-3-4-- shortest to longest.  It is helpful to sample and  measure the stitches so you know what your machine stitches.

Preparing To Sew:  Of course, when these books were written, there were no computerized machines available so this would really only apply to a mechanical like the one shown.  Turn the hand wheel until both the needle and the thread take up lever are at their highest positions (In order to prevent the thread from escaping the needle).  Pull out 6 inches of thread from the needle and the bobbin.  Lower the feed dogs and place the needle down into the fabric.  After sewing raise the take up lever to the highest position, raise the presser foot and pull out the fabric.

Needle and take up lever at highest level.  Before starting and removing material. I wheel the needle down before stepping on the foot pedal.

Use the thread cutter on the back of the machine, or scissors to cut needle and bobbin threads.  If the threads are on the same side (like after sewing a dart) tie a knot close the the stitching and trim.  If they are on separate sides (like after sewing a seam), tug the lower thread to pull down a loop from the upper thread; using a pin, capture it, pull to the other side and knot, trim.

Pulling the thread from the top to the bottom and tying off.

 *  I always start with needle down to prevent jamming and bobbin nests.  I usually back stitch at the ends of seams and clip the threads.  On darts, I don't knot, I bring it back, stitch on the seam allowance so there is a little loop at the inside of the dart which helps prevent puckers when I press.  There are many updated sewing techniques that are easily accessed.

Sewing a Straight Seam:
For a permanent seam, lower the needle 1/2 inch from the beginning edge of the seam.  Lower the presser foot, reverse the machine and sew backward to the edge. ( If basting, begin at the edge and do not backstitch.)

Sew forward from the edge over the backstitches and continue along the tracing wheel markings.

Do not pull or push fabric, allow the machine's feed dogs to feet the fabric, only guide and control to keep seam line aligned with needle.

Sew to the edge of the seam, back stitch 2 or 3 stitches.  Remove the fabric and cut thread as described above.

Sewing Angles:
 Right angle: sew to the point of the angle, put needle down, raise pressure foot and turn fabric 90 degrees; drop pressure foot and proceed sewing.

For an Acute Angle: sew to within one stitch of the point; put the needle down, pressure foot up and pivot the fabric half way, lower pressure foot and make one diagonal stitch and leave needle down.  Raise pressure foot and pivot again to sew along the seam line.

Sewing Curves:
Curves need to be reinforced so they do not stretch out.  Stay stitch (which just means to stitch on one layer of fabric)-- regular length stitches 1/16 inch into the seam line (outside the seam markings).  When you sew the curved seam, make the stitch length smaller -- about 15 stitches per inch -- and sew slowly using your hands to guide the fabric.

Stay stitch the unstabilized fabric (usually the public side) and then sew.

Eased seams:  While sewing an eased seam, use a seam ripper or awl to flatten out puckers just before it passes under the needle, go slowly.

Edge stitching-- The pictures feature the straight stitch foot that is commonly used with singer straight stitch machines.  As you can see, one side is very thin, and the other is thick.  The author recommends that you use the inside edge of the short toe.  If using an all-purpose foot, use the right toe.  This is a nice stitch on a collar.  To turn a corner, put needle down at the point, raise the pressure foot and pivot the fabric as for the sharp angled seam.  Use an awl or seam ripper to push the point under the pressure foot.

Topstitching--Use the numbered lines on the throat plate as a guide to top stitch a straight line more than 1/4 inch from the fabric edge.  Use a nearby seam as a guide for any line of stitching more than 3/4 inch from fabric edge.  You can even just measure it yourself and put a homemade seamguide if you don't see the markings that well.  Some machines don't have very obvious measures. There are also top stitching or quilter guides that come as an accessory to your machine.

As you can see, my edge and top stitching need a little more finesse.  Practice many samples on your machine to get more proficient with the different techniques.

Sewing Zippers-- when sewing on a zipper use the zipper foot that allows you to move the foot to the left and the right of the needle so you can stitch close to the zipper teeth and avoid the pull and the teeth from interfering with the stitching.

Ripping out a Line of Stitching (yes, we all have to do it).
On one side of the seam, use your seam ripper to cut stitches at one inch intervals.  On the other side, pull out the thread.  Make sure to pick out any thread bits leftover.
Zipper sewn in upside down!

Sewing Knits--  Bear this in mind--This book was written before home sergers or overlock machines became available for the home sewer.

The early 1970s saw the Stretch and Sew technique.  AT this time the polyesters and double knits became more available and women were cranking out mini-dresses, dress vests and pantsuits like there was no tomorrow. By the mid 1970's it was disco shirts,disco skirts and leisure jackets.

This is how they did it:  After the first stitch, use one hand to pull the knit fabric taut in front of the needle while the other hand is pulling the threads in back. As more fabric becomes available in back, grasp it with the thread holding hand and stretch the fabric taut as you sew.  When sewing a curved seam, reinforce it by sewing a row of small stitches (15 stitches per inch) on the stitch line and then sew a second row 1/16th inch from the sewn seam in the seam allowance.

To rip out, spread the seam and cut the thread, repeat until seam is apart.  Finish raw seam edges with a zigzag 1/2 inch in from the seam, trim.

 My demonstrations are on a mid 1970's machine, following the directions in the book. We will cover knits by and by in a future volume. I don't sew my knits like this normally! If you are sewing knits, it is not necessary to finish the seam allowances on the inside as knits do not ravel.  However, most use an overlock which does finish them as it seams the fabric.

It is wise to review your sewing machine manual and practice all the functions on scraps to get a good idea of how your machine runs and good practice.  I think today's knits would not recover well with the 1970s method.

Stay tuned for Part 2:  The Steam Iron!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Classic Techniques (V1): Introduction

1. Introduction to the Classic Techniques
Enduring Styles: Understated and Adaptable

 The introduction discusses fashion and what constitutes a classic look.

Fashion changes constantly reflecting the mercurial nature of society. One can look at a style and name the decade it comes from as it captures the zeitgeist of the time.

I think that is true.  If you look closely, popular culture bears this out.  The clothing on the television series Madmen and Boardwalk Empire not only reveal the culture and spirit of the times they portray but they also inform and inspires today's designers such as Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs.
Michael Kors from
Marc Jacobs from

Broad popular social movements, prosperity, rebelliousness against the government's prohibition and the liberation from the corset informed the fashions of the day in the 1920's where licentiousness and gaity were reflected in film and literature.  Despite the suffragette's fight for the right to vote, women were still very much kept dependent, unable to open bank accounts without their husband's signature and despite the "It Girl" Clara Bow's bobbed hair popularity, the Mary Pickford/Lillian Gish ideal was still popular (long ringlets) depicting women's beauty in appearing like a young girl.
Clara Bow from

Lillian Gish from

The television series Mad Men reflects the early 1960's in which women, while not corseted, are quite tightly upholstered in girdles and brassieres.  Society's fashion and beauty ideals looked to the elegance of  Jacqueline Kennedy and the vulnerable sexiness of Marilyn Monroe.  The series displays the changes that occur as the country appears to transition from a childhood to a more cynical and limit-testing adolescence after the assassination of President Kennedy.  The girdles come off, the hemlines rise as they did in the 1920's and women demand more equal rights.  In a journey of independence from Sex and The Single Girl to The Feminine Mystique half the population wakes up and their clothes reflect this awakening.

Jackie Kennedy from

Marilyn Monroe from

Back to the book... The signature of a  Classic is the quality of  having permanence of shape and proportion that have endured over time.

What makes a Classic design?
1. Simplicity and adaptability.
2. Excellence in cut and proportion to maintain an essential shape.
3. Conservative color-- neutrals--black, white, grey, beige, navy.
4. Fabric--quality; inconspicuous and soft.  Think flannel, gabardine, plain weaves, thick weaves, jersey knits.  Subdued textures and pattern: herringbone, small check, subdued polka dot, pinstripes.

The Mother of the Classic Look in Modern Fashion:  Coco Chanel.   Her signatures looks were synonymous with comfort, function and minimal decorative touches.  Read more about her here:

Coco Chanel from

She made tanning popular too, which might also make her the Melanoma Momma as well.

Roots of the classic clothing are found in antiquities-- the skirt, the shirt/chemise, the tunic/sheath--over the years these basic garments were reinvented over and over again.

Evolution of the tunic from Ancient Egypt to Today.,,,,

    Simple designs demand quality of materials and construction to achieve a classic garment, one that stands out; that makes the difference between fashion from "just clothes." There are subtle differences in design and construction the maker institutes that causes the wearer to emphasize their best qualities and downplay unflattering features.  They make adjustments in hem, pleats or neckline that give the efffect of elegance rather than dumpiness.

    The ingredients for producing a classic garment are:
    1. The design of the pattern.
    2. Fabric thickness and texture.
    3. Fabric pattern and print scale and color.
    4. Quality of construction.

    While we might feel that our control extends only to #4-- quality of construction; the home sewer truly has control of it all.  In the fashion world, there are many people who work as a team to produce a collection. There is the designer who creates a design, hands it to a patternmaker who drapes or fabricates a pattern based upon the interpretation of the design.  There there is a sewer who zips a muslin together puts it on the fit model which is inspected once again by the designer who may make changes and that is repeated to their satisfaction until the final pattern is agreed upon.  The samples are made, it is shown by salesmen or showcase and orders are made, it is graded and then cut, then stitched by machine operators, sent to be pressed and then sent to the retail stores.

    Here we are, one person in our sewing room. There are hundreds of pattern designs available for our selection.  We have infinite and unlimited ability to make changes to these patterns.  We choose what fiber and type fabric to use, what colors, what prints, what reinforcement materials.  Then we fit our fit model-- whether is ourselves, our children or maybe even a customer.  We do the cutting, marking, sewing, pressing and the decorative details.  We choose the buttons, the zipper, the braid, the embroidery, what buttonhole type.  So yes, you are a one woman industry.

    While many people are intimidated by sewing, it is really probably easier than they think. Sewing is very logical.  Every elements of constructing a garment has a rationale that is easy to determine.  Darts clearly function to attractively fit fabric over the curves of a body.    For example, the armscye in which the shoulder is eased and the underarm curves are trimmed allow for the free movement of your arms and shoulders.  The logic of sewing construction in relation to movement and form makes fitting understandable as you work backward from which seam is causing an issue once you determine what that seam is supposed to accomplish.

    This first volume provides explanation of classic techniques that are used with every garment from setting a zipper, sewing a successful curved seam, to setting a waistband.

    The classic shapes include with variations: The Blouse/Dress; the Skirt, the Pant and the Coat/Dress/Jacket.

    Photo credits: Michael Kors design photp
    Marc Jacobs image
    Clara Bow photo
     Lillian Gish photo
    Jackie Kennedy pic
    Marilyn Monroe photo
    Coco Chanel photo
    Egyptian tunic
    Blue tunic
    lace 1800s dress
    1920's dress
    pink sheath dress

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    Starting the Series

    These are some scans from the promotional materials.  They had some different fabrics and applied them differently to the covers on separate volumes.  Look how the Shortcuts to Elegance book has the fabric with the stripes going horizontally.  The Traditional Favorites was either in a different colorway or just faded over the years.  The volume called Using Novel Materials is also in a different fabric.  These pictures have to be from the first run as this was a promotional brochure that was mailed to women who probably subscribed to women's magazines.

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    The Challenge

    It is my pleasure and edification to read, review and implement the lessons from The Art of Sewing Collection by Time Life Books; copyrights from 1973-1976.  
    There are 16 volumes:
    1. The Classic Techniques
    2. The Custom Look
    3. Shortcuts to Elegance
    4. Traditional Favorites
    5. The Personal Touch
    6. Basic Tailoring
    7. Exotic Styling
    8. Novel Materials
    9. Delicate Wear
    10. Creative Design
    11. The Sporting Scene
    12. Boutique Attire
    13. Making Home Furnishings
    14. Separates That Travel
    15. Decorative Techniques
    16. Restyling Your Wardrobe

    and of course, an Index.

    I will be starting with Volume 1: The Classic Techniques.  If anyone would like to join me, I'm certain volumes can be had rather cheaply via Ebay or Abe's Books. (

    My German grandmother had a set of these books.  I remember them very clearly when my mom brought them home with her Pfaff after her death.  My Oma lived in Ohio and I did not see her very often.  My mother worked full time so no one taught me to sew.  I could not figure out the Pfaff machine.  I think my mom sold it or gave it away.  It wasn't until I was grown and had a family of my own did I learn to sew.  However, I often daydreamed of making clothes and home items while growing up. It is a pity as my Oma was very talented.

    So these books found their way back into my life after finding a volume at a thrift store.  I immediately recognized it and then searched on ebay, finding a lovely full set.  

    The promotional materials state: 
    Whether you have only dreamed of creating beautiful thigs, or your're an expert at sewing and other needlecraft, you will discover hundreds of inspiring ideas and professional instruction in this beautiful, practical, comprehensive new series of books.

    Not until now has there been so complete a source of creative ideas for machine and hand sewing, knitting, crocheting, needlepoint, embroidery, macrame', applique' . . . every kind of stitchery you can think of . . . with step by step instructions to show you how.

    This unique new series of books will be as beautiful to look at as they are practical to use--from the elegant fabric covers to the large full-color photographs, and the thoroughly detailed directions within.

    The step-by-step instructions, acccompanied by crystal-clear, photographs, drawings and diagrams teach you exactly how to master all the basic methods and fine points of sewing and needlecraft used by professionals--to get really exciting results for your time and effort . . . the best results you could wish for . . . the results you want without spending a fortune.

    The covers are very cool, all fabric covered somewhat topical to their subject.  The first volume is covered in a hot pink, black, white mod patterned twill.