Category Archives: sewing

Denim jacket yoke leads to a new obsession

I mentioned last June that I’d bought a vintage denim jacket that proved to be in worse condition than I’d thought, so it became an excuse for my first sashiko stitching project. As Wikipedia says, this is traditionally done using white thread on blue fabric, although the truly daring use red thread for decorative effect. I thought it would be interesting to go beyond daring into eccentricity and use the stitch grid as a basis for changing colours. Of course there had to be a skull somewhere too.

This is what it looked like when I showed it to you in June.JeansJacket1

This is what it looks like now.

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I am rather pleased with this. The stitching is far from geometric perfection – the old denim has stretched and as a twill fabric it moves – but it has life. I extended the stitching onto the front left shoulder (see the photo at the end of this post) when I realised how thin that fabric was; this wear, taken with the visible wear on the seams on the left side leads me to think that someone who owned this jacket carried a shoulder bag on their left shoulder.

purplecornerThis shows the details but the colours are dark and lifeless thanks to the dim British winter light.

I didn’t plan the colour changes before I began work, just decided I’d move from a relatively pale blue on the left shoulder to purple/red on the top of the right shoulder, and picked colours on the spur of the moment to effect the changes as I stitched from left to right.

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I laid out a grid of stitches for the skull. Each grid square contains 6×6 fabric threads and is true to the grain of the fabric. The skull is counted cross-stitch calculated to fit on the area of the internal label, 4 stitches per grid square, worked with a single strand of embroidery floss. I don’t know whether to be flattered or annoyed that most people who see it, even local Guild members, assume it’s painted with fabric paint until they look very, very closely. I intended to leave the grid in place as background to the skull – I like organic shapes set in visible opposition to geometry – but the more I looked at it the more the ‘busy-ness’ of the grid+twill lines detracted from the skull. So I cut the threads and pulled the grid out, thread by thread. skullfinished

I confess I find this sadly exciting. I can paint with thread! In January I attended an Opus Anglicanum workshop at Hand & Lock in London. Working from 10am until 4pm with 30 minutes for lunch I managed to cover about 2cm^2 with stitches… but what stitches! The tiny patch of underside couching at bottom left was a revelation (I can live without pearls). opusang

We started with embroidery floss to establish the technique and finished with gold. I loved it. Tiny stitches requiring precision (and magnifying glasses), exactly what I love. Then Helen McCook (the hare, look at the hare in her header!), the tutor, mentioned Or Nue: tiny stitches requiring precision, painting with colour on gold so the density of stitches influences both colour and shine…  I MUST TRY THIS. LOOK AT IT!
I have acquired an Elbesee ‘sit on it’ hoop stand and hoop (that I have to wrap), I’m stitching a cotton square to mask the areas of embroidery I’m not working on. I’ve ordered gold thread for a trial design, a pack each of gold and silver thread for my first real projects. I know what I want to do but I’ve learned patience: I will start by working something very simple to test my understanding of the technique. And before that I must get some paying work done.

If anyone reading this knows what type of transfer paper might have been used to copy what looks like a laser printer image onto the fabric, I’d really like to know. It’s slightly stiffer than the fabric around it, but there’s no thick layer of plastic as I’ve seen on other transfers.

And of course I get to wear my jacket. First rock concert of the year is in May. I will practice using a wallet so my backpack/purse does not obscure and eventually damage it.

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A handspun, handwoven, mostly hand sewn jacket. Eventually.

In April 2014 I decided to spin and weave fabric a fabric from singles (unplied yarns) for my first planned garment. I bought black (‘black’ in this context means very dark brown) Shetland for the weft, above top left. It was a bit boring when spun from the top, so I carded bats including some slivers of multi-coloured silk. I thought Black Massam (the other two images) would make a good warp: the offspring of a Teeswater ram put to Dalebred or Swaledale ewes, the fibres should be longer, a bit coarser, and have more sheen than the Shetland. In the event neither of the tops were quite as I expected: the Shetland had a lot of kemp (very coarse flattened hairs) and more hair mixed in with the wool, and the Massam was shorter and very variable in thickness. Nonetheless I persevered. Once spun the warp was steamed to set the twist then sized to make it easier to manage; the weft was steamed (otherwise it can twist into little pigtails after the shuttle is thrown and before it’s locked into place by the changed shed).

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The sized warp dries under light tension.

I warped and threaded my Baby Wolf loom for an 8-shaft broken diamond twill at 30 epi. The yarns behaved reasonably well on the loom although I had more breakages than I like, mainly where I’d made quick-and-dirty joins while spinning, laying the spun end from the orifice onto the fibre instead of opening up the spun end to join fuzz-to-fuzz. I wasted far more time protecting fraying joins with hair gel than I’d have done making them properly in the first place! The quick joins are fine for yarn to be plied, but they’re disasters waiting to happen if you’re weaving singles.14410873262_a0ab954361_c

I can’t remember how much fabric I had when I finished, but I do remember the wonderful feel of it washed (zig-zag stitch the ends, throw in the washing machine wool wash cycle, remember to clean the filter afterward!) finished (hot iron both sides, no cloth) and the satisfying weight of the roll. But what should I make? Laying out modern pattern pieces on my narrow fabric would be wasteful, and I’m not a tailored jacket sort of person. I decided on a jacket based on Pattern 23, ‘Man’s coat, Afghanistan’ from Dorothy Burnham’s extremely useful Cut My Cote. Never having made anything other than commercial patterns, and never having made anything that actually FIT me, I was a bit unsure of how to start from the sketches of the pattern pieces laid out on the fabric width.

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I enrolled in one of Alison Smith‘s ‘Three Day Own Choice’ workshops and – amazingly – emerged having learned to translate the sketch to paper pattern pieces, use these to make a toile, adjust the pattern, cut my fabric, overlock/serger all the edges, sew the jacket AND insert a mandarin collar into the existing collar band. I can’t recommend Alison too highly! I returned home with a lightweight unlined jacket, on which my exposed selvedges are a decorative detail. (Alison’s suggestion, she liked them. All weavers may now pick up their jaws up from the ground and replace them.)

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The lack of internal seam finish annoyed me. I decided to weave lengths of inkle band to cover the seam allowances but, several months and about 8m of band later, concluded this was a bad idea: the decorative bands were too bright and, worse, made the seams too stiff. The jacket went into time out (also known as a plastic bag in the closet).

Imagine the flickering calendar pages of time passing…

After seeing one of the reconstructed Herjolfsnes garments at the Ship Museum in Roskilde earlier this year, I started thinking about making some of the dresses for myself, first in a commercial fabric and then in handspun handwoven. Reading about the garments and sewing techniques in Medieval Garments Reconstructed, I remembered the abandoned jacket: I could rip off the inkle bands and practice medieval sewing techniques!

In order to sew, I had to have thread. Handspun thread. Not being able to carefully select the best hairs from my fleeces after washing and shearing my double-coated sheep, I dug through my stash to find the remaining twist of Shetland from the weft. The mix of kemp, hair and wool means it’s far from perfect, but it works.

Top left, singles spun on a light spindle; Below, my plying spindle and mugs;
Right, the final 2-ply thread.

I take pride in my ability to wind fine spun singles into balls without using a core but it is easier to ply from the balls if they don’t bounce around: using a pebble as a core adds weight, and putting each ball into a mug and wrapping the singles around the handle before taking it to the spindle makes it much easier to control. The plied yarn is well within the parameters of those used on the Herjolfsnes originals.

The book mentions the possibility that the threads were finished with something, perhaps beeswax, before sewing. I found quite a lot of information about thread finishes, something that I – a non-sewer – knew nothing about, on the internet. I decided to try running the thread across beeswax before using it, and now I’m a convert, at least for handspun wool thread.

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The wax stiffens the thread, making it easier to thread the needle. Being slightly sticky it pulls off some of the fuzz from the thread (see the hairs left in the wax), which makes the thread much easier to work with. And it smells lovely.

Three or four inches at a time, I’m trimming the overlocked finish off the raw edges and binding them down to the garment.

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Pebbles from California on which to wind thread, the snips I use to trim the fabric, and the bowl in which for some reason I’ve kept ALL the edges I’ve so far trimmed off the seam allowances.
I think it’s time I threw that lot away.

Before sewing, the raw edges on the Herjolfsnes garments were stabilised by ‘singling’: a fine thread was sewn to and fro into the thickness of the fabric, in from the edge, not stabbed up and down through the fabric. I haven’t enough raw edge on the seam allowances to do that, so I’m taking pains to run the needle in and out of the fabric for additional stabilising as I sew one way, then I take it back over the fabric to the starting point. A picture is worth a thousand words:

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I’m trying to stitch every 2mm or a little less. You can see the waxy whiteness of the beeswax on those recent stitches, but it soon disappears as the garment is handled.

I think the end result looks good, is appropriate for a handspun, handwoven fabric, and will allow me to tell people about the astonishing finds at Herjolfsnes.

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Some of the internal seams. The stitches are not generally this visible: I chose the light angle to highlight them.

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Seams as they appear on the outside of the garment. The stitches pick up a thread or two of the fabric at both ends, so create a subtle and decorative ridge.

Once I finish all the internal seams (as you can see from the pattern, there are more than a few), I will try my hand (and foot) at fut-slyinging, incorporating a foot-tensioned tablet-woven decorative band along the hems. I think all this handspun thread, hand sewn and woven really should outweigh the fact that the garment seams are machine-sewn!

Also, some of those seams were even sewn with an appropriate needle. Bone.

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The less time I have, the more I want to do

When work is busy, I find myself dreaming up more projects for what little leisure time remains. The less time I have, the more I want to read, make, travel, buy. I’ve begun to suspect that some of this is a form of promising myself that I WILL be able to do these things at some unspecified time in the future, when I am at leisure to devote my leisure to the things I want to do. [Mostly. I don’t want to clean the bathroom, but I’ll still have to do it or risk our early deaths from disgust, embarrassment or horrible diseases.] There was a time when I could not resist a nice handspinning fleece – and didn’t bother trying. I just promised myself that there would be a time when I had time to spend sorting, washing, drying, combing or carding, spinning and then using that fleece. Fortunately a summer spent washing and drying and starting to comb some of the hoard taught me a lesson: I already have a lifetime’s supply of wool to spin. Not to mention cotton, silk and flax.

More productive and more fun than buying promises to myself is devoting some of my precious spare time to artistic mending. A couple of years ago I found an umpteenth-hand denim jacket in a flea market. It had a peculiar odour and was covered with a fine red-brown dust, but it fitted me: I bought it. I wore it a couple of times before washing it, which was just as well because I had time to start to love it before the washing machine revealed patches of incipient disintegration.

The yoke is in the worst condition, possibly due to exposure to the sun. I decided to learn sashiko [not sashimi, stupid computer] stitching by using it to attach a lining to the yoke, with embroidery thread shading from blue to red because colour can be fun. I tacked the lining to the yoke with a grid of white sewing cotton and began stitching. When I reached the first badly damaged area where only the white weft of the denim remains, I realised that sashiko alone would not be enough to take the strain, so decided to further reinforce those areas. I duplicate-stitched the twill furrows in various shades of blue; the more I did, the more my technique improved. I really like the finished effect (it’s better from a distance when you can’t see all the imperfections as below).

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The rectangular area marking the position of the label on the inside of the yoke posed a problem. I could try to stitch through or skim the label and continue the sashiko across it, or I could use it to define a feature, which is what I did. I designed a motif suitable for cross-stitch, picked 6 shades from my ancient hoard of embroidery thread, donned my most powerful magnifying glasses, laid out a 6×6 thread grid, and started counting and stitching. Then stopped, counted, ripped out, and counted again before stitching again. Clearly I need practice at both counting AND stitching.

At this point I reserve judgement as to whether a motif was the right decision. Looking at the back of the jacket in its entirety, I think I’d have done better to continue the sashiko. But, with more work on the motif than in the photo above, it’s working and I like it. Even if variations in the thread thickness of the soft, worn denim mean that the stitching lacks precision: to paraphrase Tara, it loses precision but it gains life.

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I could rip out the motif and the grid, re-do it elsewhere on the jacket, and continue the sashiko to cover the yoke. And I think I want to expand the sashiko beyond the yoke, too. After all, it’s only time. I should use the time I have to do my best. Who knows, this jacket may long outlive me. I do sometimes imagine people decades or centuries from now looking at something I made and wondering about me and my life, as I wonder about those who made  the antique textiles I look at today.

Speaking of which, who wants to see some antique lace?

 

 

 

Fridays are for fixing.

Some time ago someone started a ‘Fridays are for Fixing’ thread in one of my Ravelry hangouts. It seemed a good idea – I have lots of fibre-ish things that need repairing – but I couldn’t bring myself to commit to the work. Last Friday evening found me sitting on the couch happily fixing something I love; I’d had a tiny lightbulb moment I’d like to share.

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These are my tabi. Japanese sock/slippers, with a gap between the big toe and the rest so the owner can comfortably wear zori, which resemble UK flip-flops or what I called thongs in my Canadian childhood. It’s perfectly possible to ram feet wearing ordinary socks into a pair of flip-flops, but it’s very unkind to the socks. I like tabi. They’re comfortable.

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The ankle opening is closed by interesting fasteners, faster than buttons: metal tabs that neatly slide over and behind threads, like hooks and eyes, but larger and very much more … Japanese. Elegant.

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Sadly I haven’t been wearing my tabi because they’re broken: they weren’t very well made and the snug fit that makes them comfortable and safe to wear has pulled the material of the sole out of its seam in several places on both.

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They’ve been sitting in the bag of things to do for almost a year because I was intimidated by the damage. I felt it should be repaired to be ‘as good as new’, and I couldn’t think of a good way to do that; there’s simply not enough fabric to mend that seam. I could handstitch entirely new soles, but for the work involved I might as well buy a new pair. Or make my own, which is on my short list of projects, but I’m waiting until I have some special fabric for that. Last week the solution became instantly obvious as I cut up an old pair of my husband’s trousers for scrap fabric to test slipper patterns, stacking the pieces next to my sashiko project bag. Sashiko is the Japanese art – it IS art – of repairing, reinforcing and embellishing fabric with simple stitches. I’m fascinated by it, and by boro, the textiles (usually indigo-dyed ‘country cloths’) that have been patched and mended using these stitches. Personal revelation: I didn’t have to make my tabi as good as new. I just had to make them function as they should. I didn’t have to use indigo cotton and white thread, I could use whatever I had, which is true to the tradition of clothing repair. What I have is pieces of trouser leg and a box of embroidery threads, some of which are over 40 years old.

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I tested the patches before I started and no, I can’t feel that overlap. The repair might not last a long time – the embroidery thread is probably a bit too fragile – but it should last long enough for me to make my own slippers.

I’m not a seamstress. I’ve done my best to avoid sewing for most of my life. But I’m beginning to enjoy it as part of the process of bringing real things into existence. I hope I’ll get better at it. I think I will.

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After all, practice makes perfect and I’ll get more practice now that I know perfection is not the goal. Fridays are indeed for fixing.