Wednesday, January 14, 2009

An Ode to Ugly Fabric

I love ugly fabric. First and foremost because it's the underdog. It just sits there, in the store or at home, on a shelf, being pathetic and catching dust. It can be hard to believe that someone somewhere actually took the time to dream it up, design it, and then manufacture it. The Faux Patchwork in Primary Colors. The Pink and Green Tiger Stripe Courduroy. The Peter Max Exploded on Polyester Double Knit.

It comes from all over; if you sew, you know that Ugly Fabric will find you. Sometimes it arrives in a bag along with a person who just knows "you'll use this." Sometimes it sneaks its way into your cart at the fabric store (it will make an interesting tote bag). Sometimes, honestly, it's just too cheap to leave behind. But however it got there, now it's staring at you and you have no idea what on earth to do with it.

Make friends with your Ugly Fabric. First of all, you know you can't make it worse. Really. Is there one thing that you just never got the hang of? Sacrifice your UF for the greater good. Make a placket. Learn welted pockets. Install five styles of zippers. Break out the decorative stitches that you never use on that fancy machine. Learn the machine blind hem. Teach yourself the art of fiber determination (that one's fun!). Let your friendly neighborhood Budding Crafter learn the art of Sock Monkeys.

Ugly Fabric can make a great interfacing. Or stabilizer. Or jacket lining. I have found more than one UF that turned out to be Fun and Funky when cut into bias strips and used as piping or seam binding; those awful daisies become abstract color blotches when you take them out of context.

In short, Ugly Fabric will never let you down. Silks, satins, chiffon; they have all promised you amazing outcomes but in the end have been a tangled heap in the bottom of your to-do pile. Ugly Fabric promises nothing but can give you amazing results. So play with it! Learn from it! What do you have to loose? It's already Ugly!

Zippers: a Field Guide

Ah, the Zipper. It is a wonderful invention, and makes life oh so much easier. From skirts to coats to purses, it is simply an amazing convenience. And yet there are those who curse its name. Why, do you ask? Is it those times when the metal teeth bite at the knuckles? Is it the errant jeans zipper that refuses to remain up? No, it's not that.

The Zipper is maligned because it can be difficult to coax this contraption into a garment without loosing one's mind. I have wrestled with this dilema, and come out on top. There are just a few simple things to remember when tackling a zipper insertion.

Use a zipper foot. It should be adjustable so that you can sew on either the right or left side without having to flip the garment around. Some are skinny, some are T-Shaped. If yours annoys you, find one that you like. No sense in trying to befriend something that aggravates.

Follow the seam allowance recommendations. There are times to be footloose and fancy free, this isn't one of them. Too little allowance and your jeans look like a Rolling Stone album cover. Too much and you end up playing Where's my Zipper Pull when all you want is to pay the check and get back to work before you're late.

When possible, follow the instructions. Read them all before you begin, out loud. You don't want any surprises. If you are working without instructions, dig around for a pattern that has a similar zipper placement and use those. This might just be for me, but I am a very visual learner and this is no time for heroics.

If you find a technique that you love, staplegun it to the wall. You can always cover those holes with paint when you move and the landlord will never know. If you find a technique that you hate, cross it out with a big black marker so that you never go down that path again. *okay, those last two tips apply to all sewing instructions. Especially pockets.

Make sure your zipper is being placed on the straight of grain. This will help prevent that awful puckering that screams Look At ME! I'm wonky! No one wants a wavy zipper. If your fabric is lightweight, consider using some interfacing. If you are putting in an invisible zipper, buy the plastic zipper foot sold by the manufacturer. This will save you hours of aggravation.

First make a sampler. Then, remember to put the zipper in before you sew the rest of the seam. I know it sounds odd, but if you don't, you will end up with an odd little bubble below your zipper. And that kinda kills the point of an Invisible Zipper, doesn't it? *Invisible zippers are almost always sewn on a curved seam. They get to be the exception to the straight of grain rule.*

And in the end, if you find that no amount of coaxing gets that darn Zipper into place, take a deep breath. Get some ugly fabric and play with different methods. You'll find one that works for you.

Always Name Your Machine

I have had several sewing machines in my life. The first machine I used was my mother's, and it had been passed to her from someone before. We weren't allowed to use her machine but I honestly preferred the old black machine with its gold scrollwork and sense of history. If a belt came off, you just put it back on. I could figure out how all of the mechanisms worked at the ripe old age of 10. There was no great mystery to how it worked, and that instilled a feeling of creativity. If something went wrong, I could fix it. But it wasn't my machine; I shared it with two of my sisters.

Since then I have been through a Necchi, a White, and currently own an Elna. It never occured to me that I would name a machine until I met my friend Melissa. Her machine, by the way, is named Solange. At first I thought it odd, but it really isn't. People name cars, after all. My Gram Driver was always urging Betsy (her VW bug) to make it up a hill. More importantly, your sewing machine is your essential partner in your sewing endeavor. If it (he/she) isn't feeling so well, you won't have as good of an end result. If your machine is well cared for and understood, you will amaze yourself with what you can do.

But before you name your machine, you have to get to know it. Every machine is different both in model and in temperament. My first machine worked just fine but I never really knew it. If there was ever a problem with it I would often walk away for weeks before trying again. Oiling does not fix everything. At one point I was convinced it was nothing more than a doorstop, when it simply required rethreading. It was retired after three years. My next machine and I got off on a much better foot. I read the manual (think of it as a personal ad) before opening the box. If it resisted something I tried to make it do, I would ease back a bit. There was the one time I burned out a foot pedal, but there was a deadline involved. As we worked together, I came to appreciate the steady, sure nature of my new partner. She was christened Beatrice and worked well for many years.

Here are the things you should know about your machine:-how many stitches does it have? more importantly, how many of those stitches do you use?-how fast does your machine run? is it easy to control the speed through pedal pressure?-what kind of buttonhole attachment do you have?-how quickly or easily can you thread your machine?-does the placement of the adjustment knobs/dials/buttons make sense to you?There is no one perfect machine, just as there is no one perfect bottle of wine, car, or person. Find a machine that works for you, works with you, and compliments your style. Play with it. Work with it. Get to know it.

the zen of sewing

There are very few absolutes in sewing. This is why I love it so much; there is so much room to play and have fun. However, as we learned so long ago in the sandbox, in order for everyone to have fun there are a handful of basic rules that we all must regard.

First rule: Keep with your grain. It doesn't matter which way you go, just keep going that way. If you make an entire garment upside down or sideways, as long as it matches itself everything will be fine. But if you try to make a sharp turn halfway through everyone will know that something is wonky. Now, if you want everyone to notice that you were daring enough to change course halfway through, go for it. Think of it like this; if you're an art major and show up for honors physics, people will notice. If you can do both, great! You go, girl. But make sure you know what you're doing because if not everyone will be paying attention when you bail.

Second Rule: Never loose your center. Ever. Mark it. Write down where you put it. Because you will some day find yourself happily pleating or trimming over on the side bodice, not a care in the world, when you realise that your beautiful accent doesn't match the other side. All the floof in the world can't cover up the fact that you forgot where you going because you were having so much fun getting there. It's not the 80's, nobody is going to believe that you just really like assymetrical blouses. So every once in a while, stop what you're doing, get your bearings, check your notes, and locate your center. Because, like in life, not everything is available for a do-over.

Third Rule: In the end, you're going to need closure. Now, there are many styles of getting there and most of them are not wrong. Just know what it is that you are getting into before you start in that direction. Some of the most satisfying closures require that you plan far in advance. Bound buttonholes, for example, have to go in first. Invisible zippers too. So if you want to impress you have to make a plan. Now, if you're the type that likes to live on the edge, there are all sorts of fun possibilities for you as well. Buttons, snaps, hooks, ties, zippers, can all go in at the last minute. I'm not saying what kind of closure is best for you, I'm just saying that eventually you're going to be looking for it, so you may as well keep that in mind before you start. Or you could just wear a belt.