Adding Variety to My Favorite Knit Top

One of the great hands-on workshops I attended at last summer’s ASG Conference was Jennifer Stern-Hasemann’s half-day class called “Beyond the Boatneck.” Jen is a great teacher as well as an excellent designer and patternmaker. She sets a low-key, no-stress tone in her classes and is a joy to learn from.

The class description talked about pattern variations for her Tee pattern, but it actually was a pattern drafting class. I look at her approach as akin to a mom with young children sneaking veggies into a casserole. So many sewists – even experienced ones – are intimidated by the thought of patternmaking, but routinely make pattern adjustments. Whatever works, right?

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The class materials included a booklet that has color photos and step-by-step instructions for drafting six new necklines and converting the tee into a tank top. Jen sells the book on her website, which is almost as good as having her patient guidance in class.

Most of the neckline changes can be achieved by swapping out a single pattern piece. As I explained in an earlier post, the Tee achieves its flattering shape with seams that form upper and lower parts of the front and back and an upper side front panel that acts as a dart.

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The neckline variations are made by making a new upper front pattern piece. If the neckline is narrower than the original boatneck, the back piece needs to be widened at the shoulder to correspond to the combination of the upper front and side front pieces.

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I was excited to make patterns for the variations in the book. Here are my patterns for the scoop neck (yellow in the upper left), v-neck (lower left) and crossover (right).

At the same time, I was struck with an idea that wasn’t in the book – a draped neck. I attended the workshop with my dear friend and Partner in Crime, Steph King. As soon as I had the words “drape neck” out of my mouth, Steph started tracing her center front piece and cutting strips for slashing and spreading it into a draped neckline. I waited until I got home to do mine.

My first draped pattern piece looks like this. The shoulder is at the upper right of the picture and the horizontal seam that connects the upper front to the lower front is now curved.

Drape Version 1

I cut two of these on the fold so I could use one as a facing, which is what I do most of the time with this pattern. The result was a seam at the neckline, which is okay but not fabulous.

Faced Drape Neck

I love this drapey rayon knit from Marcy Tilton’s web site. It has all my colors in it and feels like a warm weather print, so I made this top with short sleeves. it looks great on the dress form, especially after I’ve futzed with it so the seam doesn’t show. When I’m wearing it, I’m not static like my dress form and movement will make the neck seam visible from time to time.

After seeing that eliminating the seam in the front neckline would have given me more of the effect I was going for, I decided to set aside my fears about dealing with what I think is a very strange-looking pattern piece when a drape neck forms its own facing by folding over. In thinking it through, I realized that drafting this type of pattern piece doesn’t require mastery of any mysterious geometrical gymnastics. It’s just a matter of tracing the pattern piece I’d drafted by slashing and spreading and flipping that over to make a mirror image, then overlapping them so that the two halves of the new piece meet in a straight line that the fabric can be folded over there and sewn in place. It ends up looking like this:

Put togetherIt’s not marked in this picture, but the straight line on the left is Center Front, which is cut on the fold of the fabric. That “V” at the shoulder was the bit I had found intimidating. From a patternmaking point of view. it’s really no big deal. It’s what forms naturally when melding the two pieces together. Construction – especially on a serger – can be a little tricky.

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I didn’t take any pictures of construction, but as you can see from the labeled picture above, the tricky bit is sewing that V-shaped front shoulder seam onto a straight back shoulder seam and making sure none of the fabric scooches away when under the presser foot and leaves a hole. This is especially tricky with slippery and drapey fabric like the rayon-Lycra knits I want to use for this type of garment. Add to that the fact that it’s a knit and I want to serge it together and I start to wonder whether this was such a great idea after all.

After clipping into the V as far as humanly possible, I tried serging the pieces together and got a hole the first time. Unstitching a serged seam is such an unpleasant experience, I decided to do whatever it takes to avoid doing that a second time. My solution was to baste the shoulder seams by hand. Before you groan and say “hand basting a knit, are you crazy?” remember that (1) these are very, very short seams. We’re talking just a few inches. And, (2) I did a lot of hand stitching on my Miss Fisher top, which is a knit. Besides, hand basting takes a lot less time and is way less frustrating that unstitching a serged seam over and over again.

The basting did the trick and I was able to complete construction with no problem.

This approach is definitely a keeper.

Next, I got it into my head that I wanted to try adding a collar. It’s been a few years since I’ve been wanting to try this particular collar. My lovely friend Marie wore a top made of McCall’s 6796 to a sewing group meeting once and I immediately bought the pattern.

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The neckline on the pattern is pretty high and for that reason I took the pattern out and put it away several times. But last month I decided to try this collar with the J. Stern Tee and the scoop neck variation. After walking the neck seam on the tee and the collar, I did a bunch of slashing and spreading that gave me the little extra I needed in the back and the lots of extra I needed in the front.

img_0189-1  After trying a mock-up with the scoop variation from the workshop, I decided the neckline had to be a little bit less scoopy. So I made a modified scoop neck pattern piece and adjusted the collar accordingly. I tried it out in this great rayon-Lycra knit from Sawyer Brook in a color they called Bluebonnet, but didn’t think it worked well. So, I made the top with the modified scoop neck but no collar.

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It’s okay, but I had this picture in my head and this wasn’t it.

The thing is, I had bought enough of this fabric to make a twinset and so I had plenty left over to try the top with the collar again. In a mentoring session with Sarah Veblen, she said she thought the neckline needed to be higher for the collar and I said i thought it needed to be a bit narrower. She agreed and, with her help, we came up with the modifications I needed to make a slightly higher, slightly narrower semi-scoop pattern piece. With the somewhat narrower neckline, I had to make a new back piece as well. Instead of making the collar smaller, I decided to see what it would look like with some overlap. I then draped the collar onto the assembled  front, side and back panels on the dress form and liked what I saw.

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With this sewn, I then added the facing assembly and finished construction. Unfortunately, I got confused about which was the fashion fabric and which was the facing in the top panels and the finished product has the collar opening on the left instead of the right with the front overlapping the back. Sigh. The next time I do this I won’t take off my painter’s tape labels until after the whole thing is assembled. Another live and learn moment. Still, I’m pretty happy with the result.

Bluebonnet with Collar

A Big, Bold Departure from My Norm

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This is a dress that really surprised me. After the Haute Couture Club of Chicago fashion show I was mentally and physically exhausted, but I still had another huge project ahead of me. I had taken on the task of designing and editing a cookbook for a bride-to-be and co-hosting her bridal shower, which was six days after the show in New York. I was feeling good about the fact that my dress for the wedding was pretty much done and really looking forward to sewing without a deadline for a while when I learned I was going to be invited to the rehearsal dinner. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but the only thing I could think of was that I had no idea what to sew and was fresh out of inspiration.

Not that it matters, but I didn’t want to wear the same silhouette to both events. Then there was the question of fabric. I didn’t really want to do black again, although I have a very nice black eyelet that would have been perfectly fine for a summer evening dinner party on the patio of a hip Brooklyn bistro. With all those negatives floating around in my head, is it any wonder I was uninspired?

The one thought that did develop was that I wanted a print in silk or linen, but I couldn’t find anything that appealed to me.  Clearly, I needed a mentoring session with Sarah Veblen to get me on track. Over FaceTime, I went through a pile of fabrics I have in my collection that could work, and we discussed each one. Most of the fabrics I have that could be made into cocktail or evening wear would work in any season other than summer. Other fabrics failed to spark any enthusiasm.

In discussing other possibilities I mentioned how much I liked this blue and green leaf print from Sawyer Brook and then quickly explained that I’d dismissed it because it was a large scale print with bold colors which brought it outside my comfort zone and the fabrication was wrong  —cotton sateen with stretch. Cotton can be a perfectly lovely fabric for a summer dress that’s a little bit dressy, but I’m not a fan of Lycra in woven fabrics. It interferes with the drape and makes the fabric overly heavy. It also makes the fabric uncomfortably warm, destroying its ability to breathe.

Once Sarah saw the print, she insisted that I order the fabric. Her answer to the fabrication objections was that I should underline the dress in cotton batiste and not line it.

With the fabric selected, it was time to develop a pattern. I wanted a full skirt, which was achieved by slashing and spreading copies of my basic armscye princess dress pattern pieces. Instead of a waist seam that would cut me in half and add bulk where I’m plenty bulky enough, I wanted to achieve the transition from a fitted bodice to the full skirt with fairly generous release pleats. I also wanted a wide, gently curved neckline and a rolled collar that had overlapping ends on one shoulder.

I was scheduled to share a day with my friend Steph King from Siouxigirl Designs working privately with Sarah Veblen before attending her class Exploring Fashion Design—Design I in mid-May. Steph brought several muslins and I had planned to do the same when we originally scheduled the session. But, with the leaf print dress project that needed to be completed before June 10, that became the only thing I was going to have time to work on that day. Grouse, grouse grouse!

Before flying to Baltimore, I drafted the pattern and mocked it up in muslin. I left the release pleats for Sarah to place and drape on me. We decided the dress needed a third pleat on each side at the front princess seam. That required angling the princess seam outward from above the waist to the hem. It also required some working out of the construction process, which ended up to be sewing the princess seam first and then pressing and clean finishing the seam allowances. The next step was to sew the release pleat, which started at the seam and branched out below.

We took a critical look at the collar and ultimately decided to eliminate the overlap at the shoulder. Instead, I connected it at center back. Sarah suggested a silk dupioni undercollar, which I interfaced with soft stretch fusible. The upper collar is underlined like the rest of the dress.

Sarah had told me to bring the fabric with me so she could help me lay out the pattern. Because of the scale and complexity of the print, I ordered lots of extra fabric. Ordinarily, I order three yards of fabric for a dress and I have plenty left over. I ordered five yards and don’t have much of anything usable left over. I knew that strategic placement of the pattern would require full pattern pieces for the front and back as well as the collar, because each piece had to be laid out on a single layer of fabric.

Sarah walked me through her thought process in placing pattern pieces. One of the primary goals was to break up the white areas. Next, it was important to avoid having the print march across the dress. This is not a print where we wanted to match motifs at seamlines, but we wanted transitions that weren’t jarring. If I had been left to my own devices on this step, I would have spent a lot of time wondering and questioning my decisions. Instead, Sarah guided me in placing each piece. She left me to pin and cut and then come up with an idea of where the adjacent piece should be placed while she worked with Steph or did something else.  I’m pretty sure all the placements I suggested were changed, but each time the reason for the adjustment made sense.

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The last decision to make was where to place the collar. We rejected having black at center front and knew we wanted to avoid white there. We opted for that pretty blue and found an orientation that worked. It took hours to get this thing placed and cut!

After hand basting the batiste to the fashion fabric, construction was fairly straightforward. I mentioned the process we worked out for the princess seam release pleat earlier. The other four release pleats (two on each side front panel) start and stop in the middle of the fabric with the starting points staggered. For these, I started with a locking stitch, then sewed for about an inch with very short stitches (1.1 on my machine). I then switched to a regular stitch length, returning to the short stitches an inch before the end. At the end, I used a locking stitch, stopped with needle down, raised the presser foot and pivoted then stitched over the last inch with the same short stitches.

The cotton batiste underlining really makes this dress work. It controls the stretch in the fashion fabric, which was the primary reason for adding it, but it also makes the skirt in the area below the release pleats fall in nice soft folds.

This is the first garment I’ve made in a long time that isn’t lined. Because it’s a summer dress and it already has that extra layer of underlining, Sarah advised me to not line it. The seam allowances are serge-finished. The side seams are pressed open and were serged before stitching. The princess seams were serged together after stitching, pressing and clipping the curves where necessary. Those seam allowances are pressed toward the center.

When working on the design, Sarah advised me to make a facing with the cotton batiste I used for underlining. I drafted an all-in-one facing for the neck and armholes and interfaced the batiste with soft stretch fusible. In drafting the facing, I was overly timid about its depth. For next time, I’ll draft a facing pattern that is more generous. In this one, I made sure I anchored the bottom edges by hand sewing them to the underlining. I also anchored the pleat intake the same way.

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I was able to attach the facing to the neck seam and armscyes completely by machine. I first attached the facing at the neck on the outside of the dress, with the collar sandwiched in between. With the underlined fashion fabric, interfaced undercollar and interfaced facing, there was a pretty hefty stack of layers to deal with and even more when sewing over the shoulder seams.

After stitching, pressing and clipping the curves where needed, I understitched all around. The key to understitching is to make sure the seam allowance and facing (or lining) are flat on the bed of the sewing machine and any clips to allow for curves are spread out so they can do their job. And it’s really important to make sure that the only things under the presser foot are the seam allowances and facing. In another project, I kept catching bits of the collar and decided I needed to take a break.

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To attach the collar, attach the facing and understitch, I used directional stitching. That is, I started at the shoulder seam and sewed to the center front, then sewed from the opposite shoulder to center front and repeated the process in the back.

The facings are drafted with ¼ inch subtracted at the armscye from the shoulder, tapering back to the original seamline at the princess seams. This encourages the facing to stay hidden. To attach the facing at the armscyes, the facing is already turned to the inside of the dress, but by doing this step before the side seams were sewn, I was able to attach the lower part of the facing to the lower parts of the arsmscyes without any fancy gymnastics.

 

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Things get pretty weird looking when you get toward the shoulder seams. You have to reach in between the fashion fabric and facing and pull the work down through the opening at the bottom of the facing to pin and sew the rest of the seam. The way to avoid having to redo this step is to make sure that anything that isn’t supposed to be sewn stays tucked into the tube and the only layers under the presser foot are the underlined fashion fabric and the interfaced facing. Frequent stops with the needle down to feel for that ridge of excess fabric and readjust as needed prevents having to spend quality time with the seam ripper.

The way to make this process go smoothly is to pin and sew one side (front or back) to the shoulder seam, then pin and sew the opposite side. When pinning the second side, the work can slide out easily and because it’s sewn in place it stays where it belongs and creates a path that shows where the new stitching is supposed to end up.

When done, it looks like a fabric sausage.

After turning it out, it had to be pressed with favoring so the facing remains hidden. I understitched as far as possible and pressed again.

Every sewing project gives me grief at one point or another and this time it was the zipper. It’s an invisible zipper at the side seam, which I’ve done before and shouldn’t have been a big deal.

As much as I love the print and enjoy wearing the finished product, I’m still not a fan of stretch wovens. When the fabric arrived, it had some stubborn creases that resisted steaming and pressing and could only be removed with a vinegar and water solution and additional thorough pressing. The finished dress also developed quite a few creases in my suitcase and required thorough pressing before I could wear it. It’s pretty difficult to avoid woven fabrics with stretch these days, so I may just have to learn to live with these annoyances.

In the end, I think that overcoming the lack of inspiration, lack of enthusiasm for the fabrication and hesitation about wearing a big, bold print turned out to be worthwhile. I love the swishiness of the skirt and will keep this silhouette in my repertoire.

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My Little Black Dress

IMG_0230I needed a dress for an evening wedding in New York this month and, for once, I started early.  I brought a muslin, the fabric I wanted to use and the embellishment I was thinking of using to the You Choose Your Focus workshop Sarah Veblen taught here in Chicago in February.  The details of that workshop and the design of the dress are here.

With the pattern work done, the next step was to cut and then hand baste the silk organza underlining to the black silk and wool matelassé fashion fabric. This step seemed to take forever. The fashion fabric was pretty wiggly and underlining was still a new process for me. I found myself pulling out stitches and repinning organza to fashion fabric until I thought I’d lose my mind. It didn’t help that the clock was ticking on the fashion show I was co-chairing and work got really crazy. What I now know can be a relaxing, almost meditative part of sewing was none of the above for this project.

In addition to the underlining, the bias collar is supported by soft stretch fusible interfacing, which I fused to the silk organza before basting it to the fashion fabric. The dress is lined to the edge in silk charmeuse, so I also fused interfacing to the  the area around the neck and armscyes in the shape of what would have been a facing.

Once the fabric was underlined, I loved the hand of the combination and the way it behaved. The princess seams in the bodice went together beautifully. Once those were done, I was sure the skirt seams would be a breeze. I was wrong. More about that in a bit.

The collar/neckline seam always requires directional stitching and on this dress I was concerned about getting the point at center back right. This was a bit more challenging than usual because there is no center back seam in the dress. I followed Sarah’s instructions that included careful marking of the point and machine basting then checking the placement. Once I was satisfied that things were where they needed to be, I went back over the machine basting with a normal 2.5 stitch length. After checking it again to be sure it was right, the final step was to sew at 1.1 stitch length from about an inch away from the point, stop with the needle down and pivot and then continue for about an inch on the other side.

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With the part I was worried about behind me, I proceeded to sew the skirt pieces together. That’s when the trouble began. The first seam was off by more than 1/4″ by the time I got to the end, so I unstitched, steamed the pieces and made sure they matched when I repinned them. I stitched again after adjusting the tension on my machine and the same thing happened. I knew that if I couldn’t get the vertical seams to match there was no way I was going to be able to get the four-way intersections of vertical seams and Empire seams to come together. I was in a panic. All I could think to do was hand baste the seams before sewing them on the machine. I did this with one seam, saw that it worked and called it a night.

A couple of people suggested using a walking foot and Sarah confirmed that that should solve the problem. I’ve used a walking foot before and I don’t know why I resisted at first. Turns out that was the perfect solution. The walking foot is my new best friend. Here is how those four-way intersecting seams turned out.

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This made me think about those new machines that have built-in even feed and I had to push those thoughts out of my head! This is not the year for a new machine

The next dilemma was the zipper. You can’t install an invisible zipper with a walking foot. That’s where hand basting was necessary. I sewed the first side of the zipper into the side seam as usual with the invisible zipper foot. I then hand basted the second side and made sure the Empire seam was aligned before sewing that side on the machine.  Here is the result.

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Whew!

The next step was to attach the lovely trim from Soutache. Sarah had demonstrated how to clip the net backing until it fit the shape of the neckline seam. I clipped the rest of the netting and pinned the embellishment on the dress form so the placement would conform to the dress with a body inside instead of a flat surface.

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There are a LOT of beads and buttons in this trim!  I tried to sew each one before the fashion show, but I ran out of time. That’s why I needed my friends to rescue me with hemming and temporary stitching of the lining at the neck seam. After the show, I finished stitching every bead and every button to the dress and trimmed away the last of the stray netting at the edges. I then reattached the lining at the neck edge and understitched.

The dress is now ready to wear to the wedding. I’m also going to get another chance to model it in the ASG National Conference fashion show. This will be my first time in a fashion show at Conference. It should be fun.

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The Fussy Bits

I know much of my sewing is fussy, but what I think of as the fussy bits are those fine details that can make the difference between a garment I am proud to wear and one that falls under the Five Foot Rule – they look okay but only from at least five feet away. And nobody, but nobody, gets to look inside. Here are some ways I’ve found to avoid the dreaded Five Foot Rule.

Hooks and Eyes

One of the most valuable resources I’ve stumbled upon in my online research for sewing techniques is a series of papers published by the Cooperative Extension of the University of Kentucky. These well-illustrated guides often answer the nagging questions I have that nobody addresses in classes or books and that makes me feel dumb for not knowing the answer. For example, there are plenty of resources that tell us how to sew on a hook and eye but nobody really gets into exactly where they should be placed or when you should use the round eyes, as opposed to the straight eyes that come in the packages. And when you have pieces that meet instead of overlap, which way do the hook prongs point, out or in? In “Hooks, Eyes, Snaps, and Tape Fasteners,” Professor Nadine Hacker answers these and other questions about the nitty gritty details of closures.  So, now I know that the straight eye is used when the garment pieces overlap, as they do on waistbands and at the top of lapped zippers, and the round eye is used when the pieces meet, as they do in this bias collar.

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This is still a work in progress. It needs a good pressing, but you get the idea. 

Following the instructions, I set the round eye so that it just barely extends beyond the edge of the collar. 

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I have a lot of trouble getting the hook to line up with the eye, so I engage the two pieces to and sew the hook on while it is attached to the eye. Oh, and the prongs point away from the fabric on which the hook is sewn. 

To get the hook to stay put while I’m sewing the first few stitches, I use a Clover fork pin.  More about these handy little tools in a moment. 

Here are two of the hooks and eyes sewn in. Perfection is still an elusive goal, but these are a lot better than what I was doing before.  

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Strategic Snap Placement

Another fussy bit that was tripping me up was snap placement. In this asymmetrical jacket, I had to put in a pin to keep the underlapped front from hanging below the overlap at the hem.

Blue Asymmetric Jacket

I tried adding extra snaps at the neckline, but it didn’t fix the problem. Finally, I asked Sarah Veblen what to do. Her solution was ridiculously easy: add just one more snap, but place it where the problem was occurring. 

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Sarah demonstrated this in a workshop by adding the plastic snap just above the hem at the edge of the underlap side. It works like a charm. I’ve also come around to preferring plastic snaps to metal ones.

Aligning Intersecting Seams

For intersecting seams, I rely on the Clover Fork Pins I mentioned earlier. Susan Khaljie recommends these clever quilting tools for matching stripes and plaids in fabrics that have a lot of play in them and are resistant to staying put with ordinary pins. They hold the fabric exactly where you need it and they work wonders when matching intersecting seams. I use them to align the seam of my two-piece sleeve to my shoulder seam and to align the princess seams on the bodice and skirt of an Empire waist dress.

The connected end slants upward and the prongs lay flat so you sew right over it.

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Mitered Corners

Corners are another area that can get really messy. Turning sewn corners will be the subject of a tutorial down the road, but for now I’d like to go over mitered corners. Specifically, using a miter for the corner formed by the hem and vent of a pencil skirt. This is a fussy bit that’s actually fun to do and the results are nice and tidy. 

The first step is to mark or press the corner, in this case the hem and the vent extension. I’ve marked where the creases intersect with pins. Next, you make a diagonal fold where the two creases meet and press lightly, taking care not to stretch anything out. The pins are lying directly on top of the creases.

You then bring those two pins together, and create an odd-looking point. I always have to remind myself that I’m now working with right sides together, whereas the creases were made working from the wrong side.

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The diagonal fold line is where you need to stitch. 

At this point, I test out what I have by turning the corner. This test run is important because the next step is to trim, which cannot be corrected easily. Ask me how I know.

The rough turn test shows that the miters are in the right place and the only thing keeping these puppies from looking good is all that extra fabric inside. So I turn them back and trim off the ends to get rid of the little dolphin noses.

IMG_0185Now they are ready to press, turn and impress.