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Merging Old and New

March 21, 2011

I had so much fun yesterday as I spent the better part of a day sewing with my niece. She’s a novice with a sewing machine, and I’m experienced enough to know how much there is left to learn. Our project was to make a tank top dress for which she had found directions. Her goal was to complete a dress before she left for the day; mine was to guide without belaboring her with the volumes of information crammed in my mind about sewing. I’ve learned to watch for that glazed over look that means something between I can’t even understand what you’re saying, and why are you still talking? I’m getting better, and she’s quite gracious so the day turned out well.

She showed up with fabric, tank tops, and the knowledge of where the directions were online. We got a bit waylaid because we still needed to wash the fabric – news to her; and prep the old sewing machine. That turned out badly. Apparently I forgot that the issues that drove me to buy a new one were never resolved. No problem. She now had the luxury of driving the new sewing machine. Without experiencing the old one, she’ll never know…

The directions she pulled for making a tank top dress were sufficient, but written by someone with limited sewing experience. This provided the opportunity for me to both add value and learn when to stop. Good lessons were in store for both of us.

DIY Directions (DIY). Supplies: A tank top, 2 yards or so of patterned fabric, scraps of a coordinating fabric for pockets, matching thread, disappearing fabric pen or chalk. (DG: I love that the fabric pen is described as disappearing. Mine usually do this at the exact moment I need them.) So far, so good. The measurements section was clear, indicating you should measure at your natural waistline, and also measure your desired finished length. It states to add 1″ to this for 1/2″ seam allowances. I added that standard US commercial patterns are 5/8″ requiring we would add 1-1/4″ in that case. My niece is an exacting person so she calculated everything with the 5/8″ seam allowances. More math, good training. The DIY also called for putting on the tank top and marking where you want the skirt to start. No cutting at this point.

Cutting: The DIY says to measure and cut two pieces 30″x23″, but does not reference the measurements taken in the first step. This should read, …two pieces that are the same as your waist measurement by your length plus seam allowances. If your waist is 30″, your desired length 22″, and your seam allowances 1/2″, then the two pieces should be 30″ x 23″. Being a novice at this, my niece would have just cut out pieces to those stated measurements. But you get the picture so far. Additionally, I had the opportunity to share what grain lines are. No belaboring, just a fact.

DIY mentions a resource for a pocket pattern and includes a DIY method for drawing your own. If you have never made something with pockets, look for a pattern. My niece first drew hers on tissue paper for a pattern piece, and then we matched it to a commercial pattern to see we were way off on size and direction. I would point out that it is natural to draw your pocket almost perpendicular to a side seam, when in fact, your arm runs down your side and therefore your pocket should be downward facing. Additionally, if you have a flap of fabric jutting out from your side seam, it will surely droop down and cause a rumple in your stilskin! And I refrained from belaboring this point. We just used the pattern piece.

This was a great moment to also share the idea of design prerogatives as well. I showed her how fun it was to use a complementary print in places such as the pocket and as a hem facing (alternative). I shared that in couture sewing it’s the little surprises that are the icing on the cake. Being the artist she is she loved this, dove into my stash and found the best option for a very cool pocket and 3″ hem facing. We both loved it immediately and the end result was adorable and fashionable.

Now it was time to begin pinning and sewing. I shared that the standard process is to pin baste, and that most people will pin perpendicular to the seam. I recommend pinning inside the seam allowance with the pins running parallel to the seam. This allows you to avoid stitching an unseen pin, and to sew non-stop while pulling your pins. My niece diligently attempted this advanced motion from her very first seam. It was a noble attempt! I had warned her that there would be no sewing over pins. I also shared at this point that in couture sewing, basting is always done, and is always done by hand sewing and usually with silk thread. I use a contrasting color to aid in removal once final stitching is in place.

She sewed the pockets in place, and then the side seams, and now it was time for gathering the top/waistline. We discussed the options of traditional gathering using two rows of long machine stitches cinched up to create gathers, and using the differential feed on the serger to create a gathered edge. We tried both on for size and determined that the standard method provided the best reduction in length. I was impressed with her unflappable fortitude during her moment with the serger considering how rapid and loud it is. She drove it like a pro even though she declined using it for her final construction.

As she was constructing the garment we talked about the importance of pressing – every piece, every seam, every finished edge. I promise I did not belabor the point, but I wanted her piece to be awesome. She pressed everything along the way, including melding the seams and then pressing them open.

She was wearing thin at this point, but determined to finish her dress in one sitting. She plowed through the whole process of gathering a skirt waist and attaching it to knit top. Here is where we talked about marking and matching quarter points on the skirt and top, and then how the weaker fabric should be on top when sewing. In this case, we wanted to gently stretch the edge of the knit top to match the corresponding skirt segment without stretching the skirt. Not an easy task for anyone, and especially a new sewer. She is a meticulous person, so getting all those gathers straight and keeping poofs of fabric from traveling under the needle were easy for her to focus on. She slowly sewed the longest 30″ waist band ever. I was very impressed with her work.

The crowning moment was when, after sewing all afternoon and evening, stopping for dinner, and having a glass of wine to relieve her tense body due to concentration, she put her new dress on and we snapped a picture for the world to see – via FB. Cute, cute, cute. Check out the pictures included. She has three more to make, and already has design modifications in mind. What a fun day!

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