All posts by June

The spinning of Pepé Le Pew

Five years ago, I bought a 4-oz bump of 70/30 Shetland wool and tussah silk blend. I spun a tiny bit of it on a spindle and then life, etc, twins born, blah blah, until I pulled it out again a month ago, when I received the unexpected gift of daily spinning time.

My first grader moved into a new reading level at the end of February. Her previous daily reading assignment consisted of us reading a short book together every afternoon, but in this new level, now she reads part of a chapter book aloud to me for 30 minutes daily. I no longer need to hover over each page and correct myriad mistakes, I just listen and question obvious errors. I’ve been learning a lot about magic treehouses, sigh.

On the plus side, one can actually get quite a bit of spinning done in 30 minutes per day. 😉 This is more spinning than I’ve done in a year, probably.

I made medium-weight singles and 3-plied them to make a bouncy worsted weight yarn. It feels good to squeeze.

I didn’t have a project in mind and thus didn’t bother with measuring yardage. I have no project planned because the yarn itself is not great. The Shetland fiber was distressingly full of short, wiry kemp. Had it been a fleece, I would have rejected it. As expected, the kemp is shedding out like mad.

Sadly, the yarn is too coarse for next-to-skin items, which rules out small projects like scarf, mitts, hat, etc. I was idly considering a Zoom Loom, but what would I do with 4 oz of scratchy, hairy, shedding squares? So this skein will go to the stash bucket to marinate, waiting for inspiration to strike.

Spam musubi & an unexpected multitasker

Canned meat (Spam, corned beef, tuna) wasn’t unusual in my house when I was growing up. However, when I was in college and began cooking for myself, I succumbed to food snobbery and eschewed Spam in all its forms.

Fast forward about 17 years, I’m in SoCal visiting family and immersed in this horrific travel experience that involves a looong flight with 3 screaming children (they were 1 and 3 years old at the time), only 1 crib at the hotel despite reserving 2, problems with the car rental, kids constantly wailing, etc; in the middle of this adventure (Matt is swearing we won’t take another family vacation for at least 10 years), my cousin takes us to a Japanese food festival. I hadn’t been to one of these since I was a kid in Chicago. I’m a wreck from the stress, and my cousin takes pity on me and brings me some food so I don’t have to get up.

He hands me a paper bag with a drink and 2 Spam musubi – for those of you unfamiliar, this is a seaweed-wrapped rice ball with a big slab of Spam in the middle – I am starving, so I cram half of one into my mouth at once, and it’s like angels are suddenly humming. OMG, it is so salty and chewy and substantial and carbalicious. It’s hits me like a childhood comfort food, and I feel so unexpectedly happier with this in my tummy.

So naturally, I come home to MN and am craving Spam after not eating it for nearly 2 decades. I browse web sites with musubi recipes, and darn if everyone isn’t using a wire slicer and musubi press. No one makes these freehand? Did they ever? I mail order the equipment via ebay from some Asian grocer in California. (It’s funny, I live not too far from Austin – home of Hormel Foods, the maker of Spam – yet nowhere in MN can I find a wire Spam slicer).

I make mine by pan-frying the slices (low sodium, please – and for the love of god, do not try the turkey Spam, so hard and jerky-like after frying) and patting off the grease with paper towels. I place the musubi mold over a sheet of nori (seaweed), press in the first bit of rice, sprinkle furikake generously (hence the lo-Na Spam), add Spam slices, top with rice, press again, unmold, and wrap with nori. I let it sit for a few minutes for the nori to adhere and then slice with a wet knife.

Shockingly, my kids love musubi. I can’t explain it.

The wire meat slicer takes up a lot of drawer space. I was unhappy about having such a big unitasker and set about finding other ways to make it useful. Once I started thinking about it, though, it wasn’t hard to come up with other ideas.

Serving its original purpose – it makes 9 slices of the exact same width, something I could never do freehand:

Avocado slices for a tacos, salads, or even California rolls:

Chopped eggs for egg salad, much faster than with a knife:

Btw – foolproof hard-boiled egg recipe here.

Sliced strawberries for strawberry shortcake or to top yogurt, cereal, or ice cream:

It would probably work for softer cheese and butter, too, if you like thick slices.

FO: The best and easiest sleeve cap you’ll ever draft

Let me introduce another round of t-shirt tweaks! I was saving this fabric for something good, it’s a fascinating digital print of Times Square on a rayon/lycra blend, reminds me of Desigual shirts. I purchased this yardage from the always-fabulous Ginny’s Fine Fabrics and Support Group. So wonderful to be able to browse there during a lunch break!

I did the easiest alteration first – moved the shoulder seam forward by 2 cm. The original pattern had almost identical armhole seam lengths for the front and back bodice, which didn’t make sense to me. Now the seam doesn’t feel like it’s sliding down my backside!

Remove seam allowances, abut 2 edges, redraw seam line, cut apart, add back seam allowances. Here, I’m also truing the shoulder apex.

Seems like I spend a lot of my free time mulling over sleeves… I’d been using a pattern based on a sleeve that I’d draped on myself last year. It was OK but not great, despite endless rounds of tinkering. Meanwhile, I’d made a holy grail out of getting striped set-in sleeves to match a striped bodice. Imagine my delight when I saw on Cloning Couture’s blog that it was indeed possible! I won’t lie, I immediately ordered the Allemong drafting book that she used to draft her sleeve.

So the book arrived and OMG it is 38 superdetailed measurements before you can do any actual drafting. Whoa. Now Matt is actually pretty good humored about helping me with this sort of thing – over the years, he has patiently and lovingly covered me in duct tape, measured me for Wild Ginger Pattern Master software, for Cochenille Garment Designer software, for Custom Fit sweater knitting software… (Can you see I’m crushing on custom pattern software?) But the Allemong sloper seems like another beast altogether, I hesitated to ask him again and I have no sewing girlfriends.

Still, drafting the sleeve cap requires just 3 measurements, of which only 1 is a body measurement (bicep; the others are flat-pattern measurements of the bodice front armhole and back armhole). The rest of the cap is drafted with simple math, eg, bisect this line, divide this other line into quarters, draw a line connecting 2 dots and divide the new line by a third to generate a new point that you connect to a preexisting line… Taken 1 step at a time, it’s simple to follow and quickly generates a primitive cap.

The magical part occurs when Allemong instructs you to slap down a French curve to flow from one set of dots to the next. Add seam allowances and whoa! Personalized, anatomically correct sleeve cap?!? I measured the seam lines, and the whole sleeve cap seam line is only 1.7 cm longer than the corresponding bodice seam line. Very cool!!!

Next, I spent a long time agonizing over pattern placement for the cutting layout. I didn’t want to have a bright patch highlighting the wrong part of my body, if you know what I mean. I laid the entire piece on the floor, circled the approximate bust point on the pattern, and tried as many layouts as I could. This fabric was expensive, so I had only a little over a yard and no room for error. I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out, especially with the vertical line running down the center front.

This time, I set the sleeves in flat, something I rarely do. I angled the right shoulder seam downward a little to match my shoulder slope, so the right sleeve cap had more distance to ease in, but it still looks OK. I eventually will make a full pattern piece with different shoulders and different corresponding sleeve caps.

It’s hard for me to understand how the Allemong formula works when I think of the myriad different shapes of an arm, and yet… It seems to work great! See for yourself!

I lightened the color a lot so you can see the details. To me, this looks darn near perfect – smooth cap with no drag lines, puckers, or excess fabric.

This shirt also underscored some of the challenges of working with knit fabrics because the varying stretch and drape among jerseys. This material is a rayon-lycra blend, whereas the prior shirts I’d made were polyester/lycra ITY and cotton/lycra. I made the same size 10-12 hybrid as I did previously, but it was embarrassingly tight; I had to let out the seams by 1/4″ from the waist downward to gain an inch of circumference. It’s probably not a bad idea to make wider seam allowances in the future and just shave them down during fitting.

Remarkably, the pattern was printed meticulously on grain. Very surprised and pleased to see that. Do you see what I did with the neckband?

I cut it so that it would repeat the motifs of the shirt right below it. It’s not a precise match, but I’m not sure it could have lined up exactly anyway. It’s good enough. I did completely mess up my calculation for where to cut the neckband edges, though, the seam was supposed to match the shoulder seam. Oops. Hopefully, that’s mostly invisible.

Side and back views, lightened for detail

I again gathered the side seam at the bust and left the back plain; adding darts is still on my list of future changes. Curiously, the back bagginess seems different with this fabric, funny how rayon hangs differently than poly. (Looks like part of the back got caught on my pants for the photo, those diagonal lines aren’t usually there.)

Are you sick of these t-shirts yet? Don’t be! I’m working on a new muslin with French darts, back darts, and shorter sleeves. Thanks for hanging in there with me.

FO: Morphing Renfrews

When I last posted about adjusting the Renfrew t-shirt, I’d made a couple of muslins and reviewed some of the adjustments necessary to improve fit. I’ve now sewn 3 more versions, let’s review! I was in a huge hurry to take these photos before my daughter came home from school, sorry that they’re a little fuzzy (no time to reshoot!).

First up is a shirt sewn from ITY polyester, purchased a few years ago from Gorgeous Fabrics. Per the muslin version from before, I cut a size 12 at the shoulder and expanded to size 14 at the bust downward. Let’s see what’s going on…

I see a slight pucker at right sleeve cap, oops, but I’m assuming no one will ever notice because of the fabric. I skipped the neckband pattern piece and followed Sarah Veblen’s neckband tutorial, which I’ve used before to great success. With this shirt, however, I first cut the neckband too short, which caused everything around the neck opening to gather weirdly. That neckband was picked off and a new one was sewn on. I also cut slightly too much off at the hem.

I gave up trying to ease 1 inch of extra front length into 5 inches of the back and just gathered it at the side bust; I’m calling that a legitimate design choice.

Note that the excess fabric in back is reduced but not wholly gone. The fit seems a lot looser than what I saw in the muslin; I attribute that change to the thin, drapey ITY fabric (very different from “Beefy T” cotton).

I realize you can’t really see anything going on with the patterned fabric (not a coincidence), so I made a version in a solid color to get a better idea of how to improve the fit.

This is sewn from a cotton mystery blend (maybe with a little lycra in it?) from the now-closed Mill End Textiles. This is a strange fabric, it sticks to itself and even slightly to my skin. I added a 3-needle reverse coverstitch to the neckline and hems to make the top a little more interesting.

I lowered the neckline by 1″ on this version. My caution in ensuring that the neckband was not too tight resulted in the pendulum swinging the other way, this neckline is slightly too loose and doesn’t hug the body. 🙁 The neckband is also too wide and folds over. You don’t see it here because I actually ironed this shirt for the photos, and holy cats, life is too short to iron t-shirts on a regular basis.

What else? I see wrinkles on right shoulder only, which I think is pointing to asymmetrically sloped shoulders. The same wrinkles are evident in the floral tee above (but invisible in the photos here because they are masked by the patterned fabric). The shoulder seam is too far back and needs to be brought to the actual top of my shoulder. I made long sleeves without the banded hem; I did take a half inch off the length but could probably stand to take off a little more.

The side bust gathers are not doing anything to stop the deep folds from forming under the bust. The shirt also is just hanging straight down from the bust, but maybe a little underbust shaping wouldn’t be a bad thing. I don’t favor the common strategy of negative ease throughout because that would only highlight my lady belly, so I’m ready to explore French darts.

You can see my differently sloping shoulders pretty clearly in the back view. Also, I have little “wings” of fabric in the back sleeve cap that can be shaved down. The length of the back is good, but the bagginess at the lower back will not go away without darts.

The fit still seems kind of loose, even in this thicker fabric. Given the tightness of the very first muslin, I was not expecting 1 size up to feel so floppy.

OK, here’s the third and last iteration for this update. I went back down a size (10 at shoulders, 12 at bust and below) and used an even thinner and drapier ITY polyester knit than the floral one (also purchased a few years ago from Gorgeous Fabrics). I was afraid that this shirt would be too tight, so I went with the cowl view to distract the eye upward.

I did not have enough fabric and had to piece the cowl. Other than going back to the smaller size and adding the cowl, I made no other changes. I’m not crazy about the loose turtleneck style; in this near-liquid fabric, it feels simultaneously heavy and flopsy.

Size-wise, this seems OK (or possibly borderline too tight?). Maybe I’m just being self-conscious. What do you think?

All 3 shirts feel pretty comfortable, and I’m happy about wearing them out and about.

Here’s the to-do list for the next round of changes:

  • Move shoulder seam forward by 2 cm
  • Angle shoulder seam downward on right side only
  • Shave excess fabric off the back sleeve cap
  • Shorten the long sleeve length by another half inch
  • Decrease height of neckband
  • Add French darts to front
  • Add vertical fisheye darts to back

I feel oddly satisfied with this process of making incremental changes. It’s not unlike optimizing a laboratory protocol; you tweak just a couple elements at a time and see how those changes affect the culture conditions, assay reproducibility, etc. It is a slow process and perhaps a little boring (sorry), but I’m learning and hopefully improving as I go.

No sheep were hurt in the making of this video

My mother spotted this video and forwarded it to me. It’s like the intersection between a somewhat surreal knitterly fantasy and commerce in normal life. Love it!

The caption translates (roughly, via Google) to “If you thought traffic was complicated in your city, wait till you see this video.”

Recycled crayons

Our elementary school discourages (or prohibits, depending on whom you talk to) bringing in food for celebrations because of the potential for triggering severe food-related allergies, so I was hunting for something that we could add to Meredith’s Valentine’s cards that would be inedible and not too expensive.

I looked at dollar store pencils, stickers, and other trinkets but decided to go with crazy crayons. Yes, I did have to buy candy molds to do this project, so it wasn’t as inexpensive as I’d hoped, but the molds are adorable and can be reused. (I’d bet with some really careful scrubbing, they could even be used for food someday.) We did have a huge bucket of broken crayons, though, the raw materials were at the ready.

With my MIL’s help, we peeled crayons, chopped them into bits, and filled 3 silicone candy trays. After the wax was melted, the trays went into the freezer. The girls were able to pop the frozen crayons out of the flexible trays without my help.

Hints we gathered on the interwebs or figured out ourselves:

  • The labels peel off easily if the crayons are soaked in water.
  • Reported baking temperatures range from 150-250F. I used 200F, and it took probably 20 min to melt.
  • The final crayons look better if made from a mix light and dark colors.
  • Avoid a) washable crayons and b) Melissa and Doug crayons. The former will dissolve during label soak off, and the latter do not melt!
  • Overcooking results in a layer of white wax as the pigments settle. It looks cool but is no good for coloring.

All in all, it was a fast and relatively easy project.

I’m sure we’ll be doing this again!

Renfrew (t-shirt) muslins

In my various e-mail conversations with Mrs Mole over the past year, we have talked at great length about sleeves and sleeve cap height. To reinforce what I’m learning from her, she periodically sends me photos from random sewing blogs, and I am quizzed on what I think the problem is and how it might be corrected. She’ll then send an annotated version of the photo with arrows and notes on what the drag lines mean. (Seriously, she is an awesome teacher.) She neatly summarized how to recognize and fix sleeve cap problems here and here.

Thus “armed” (ha) with new knowledge about sleeve caps, I wanted to give the Renfrew tee a try because I saw many striped ones around the sewing blogosphere with good-looking sleeves, ie, the stripes were running pretty horizontal (parallel with the floor). Sixteen bucks is a lot of money for a t-shirt pattern, no 2 ways about it, but I have learned from Tasia’s blog and wanted to support her. Also, I was curious to see how my customized pattern compared with the Renfrew draft.

Renfrew’s sleeve cap is considerably higher than mine (the pencil points to the apex for the corresponding size). Also, it’s symmetric from front to back, whereas my draft accounts for arms that swing forward.

Using my measurements and customized Jalie pattern as a guide, I traced a size 10 at the shoulders and widened to a size 12 at the bust and below. I added an extra inch to the front at the bust level (which prevent the front edge from riding up). I added 2 inches to the front and back at the shorten/lengthen line because I did not want the banded hem specified in the pattern. I kept the height of the sleeve cap but changed the shape to follow the asymmetric cap that I drafted last year.

Muslin source – free mens XL shirt from work

I think I’ve heard Mrs Mole say more than once that darts will practically drape themselves, if you let them.

Please forgive the unflattering photos. But let’s do this for science!

That seems to be the case here – I left part of the side seam open (skipped the side easing part), and you can see how the fabric is pulling deep folds under the bust, like it’s begging to turn into a dart. I used stickers (again!) to locate the bust apex, drew the approximate location on the pattern (and included what Mrs Mole calls “the no-fly zone” – a 3-inch circle around the apex that the dart legs must not enter), and pinched out a French dart. I didn’t have enough seam allowance to make it too deep, but you can see that even a shallow one help reduce the folds considerably. I made a mental note to purchase a t-shirt pattern with French darts.

The fit seems mostly OK but overall uncomfortably tight, I am seriously sucking in my gut in that photo. The back side shows some excess wrinkling at the level of my elbows.

On the plus side, I liked that I did not have to shorten the height of the armhole (a common alteration for 5’4″ me), the sleeve cap seemed smooth, and the sleeve allowed good freedom of motion.

I retraced the pattern again, this time making a size 12 above the bust and a size 14 below, plus the same adjustments as described above. I cut up a thrifted men’s t-shirt for the muslin and didn’t bother with making a second sleeve.

I didn’t feel so sausage-like in this shirt, yay. I closed the whole side seam this time but didn’t bother with easing the extra fabric at the bust. Note the deep drag lines around the bust again.

This shirt clearly confirms too much extra fabric in the lower back, time for a 0.5″ swayback alteration.

All right, 2 trial garments are finished and I’m feeling OK with how things look. Even better, I think I know what minor adjustments remain. Let’s move on to making this up in nicer fabric!

Final list of pattern changes:

  • Size 12 above bust, size 14 at bust and below.
  • Front lengthened by 3″ (1″ @ bust, 2″ @ shorten/lengthen line); excess bust length is eased in over 5″
  • Back lengthened by 2″ (@ shorten/lengthen line)
  • Swayback adjustment 0.5″
  • No bottom hem cuff
  • Made sleeve cap shape asymmetric from front to back

FO: Balaclava

Winter has been astonishingly mild this year, although we have had a few bitterly cold days. I am in charge of the snowblower at our house, and protecting my face while I clear the drive and walkway is a serious matter. At wind chill temps of -30F, exposed skin can get frostbite in <30 min, and if blowing snow hits my cheeks and melts, the cold wind quickly makes it painful. I used to have an old black balaclava (purchased while I was living in Boston), but it seems to have recently disappeared. It was a stretchy fleece hood with a cutaway for the eyes, nothing fancy. I could make a new one, right? Save the $20 or whatever? After a little googling, I found a free balaclava pattern.

The medium size seemed appropriate for my head measurement. Note that the pattern does NOT include seam allowances! I made a trial out of thin white fleece, leftovers from my diaper-making days.

The circumference feels good, snug but not too tight. Obviously, the eye hole on the pattern is completely wrong for my face. It starts too low and goes too far down, leaving most of my face exposed. If I pull the eye hole up to the appropriate level…

Ha ha ha! Now it gives the unfortunate impression of having a “reservoir tip.” But at least I know what to do next, which is the whole point of a fitting muslin, right?

I made a second one with some nice Polartec fleece. This time, I did not cut out any eye hole.

I thought about using a chalk pen or similar to mark the eye locations, but dot stickers proved to be handier (and safer).

Fumbling in the dark

Then it was simply a matter of cutting around the stickers…

And enlarging the opening to the right size. Sorry if I look a little scary here.

I used black foldover elastic on the lower edge and a strip of “fleece binding” (nylon lycra strip) around the eyes. I should have stretched the binding tighter when going around the curves of the eye opening, but it’s not a big deal.

Obligatory side and back views.

Now I’m ready for the next snowfall!

Pattern review is here.

Baby cheesecakes

Last week, I developed a hella craving for cheesecake. I was reminiscing about the good old steakhouse days (before we had children, Matt and I occasionally would treat ourselves to a big steak dinner and polish off a generous slice of cheesecake afterward), and the next thing you know, I was dreaming about crunchy graham cracker crusts and clouds of sweet cheese.

One of the top hits on my blog is a recipe for NY style cheesecake. Funny how something I posted 7 years ago still has relevance today. It makes a great cake, and I still bake it for dinner parties, it’s really a fantastic recipe. However, last weekend, I wanted something smaller and faster for a family dinner. I ended up adapting a recipe from Kraft, of all places.

1 c graham cracker crumbs
2 T sugar
3 T butter, melted

2 x 8 oz cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 c sugar
1 t vanilla extract
2 large eggs

Heat the oven to 325F. Line a muffin pan with paper baking cups. Mix the crust ingredients together. Spoon into 12 equal portions.

I used an empty spice bottle to pack the crumbs tightly down into the pan. No need to bake the crust ahead of adding the filling. Note: This makes a pretty thick base, but I love a lot of crust on my cheesecakes. I could probably eat it alone as a cookie, mmm…. Reduce the crust ingredients by 1/3 if you prefer less crust.

Beat the cream cheese until light, then add sugar and beat some more. Add vanilla and 1 egg, beat, add the second egg, beat some more. I have a rubber-tipped blade on my mixer that scrapes the bowl as it beats, which I find very helpful for cheesecake. If you have a regular beater, use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides and beater in between adding ingredients.

Spoon filling into the baking cups. You’ll have enough leftover batter to satisfy even the greediest of bowl lickers.

Bake the cheesecakes for ~25 minutes or until the internal temp reaches 150F (mine went a little past that, whoops, to 158F). The center will still look a little jiggly when you take it out of the oven. Let it cool in the fridge for a few hours before eating.


FO: Excessively handmade teacher gift

Meredith and I decided it would be nice to give a little holiday gift to her teacher this year. At first, it was going to just be a couple bottles of baking spices. And then I thought it might be nice to present them in a gift bag. A cloth gift bag… with a handpainted stencil. Hey, might as well make it a handsewn gift bag with a complicated handpainted stencil. OMG, how does it go from a 5-minute errand into a couple hours’ work over the course of a few days?

I found snowflake clipart and had Meredith trace it onto freezer paper. I cut it out and ironed it onto some unwashed cotton muslin. We painted it together using a Martha Stewart glittery craft paint.

The bag was made following the dimensions of the spice bottles, and I serged edges and mitered the corners and everything. Actually, we sort of did it together. Meredith had no experience with the sewing machines, so I had her practice using the serger a little bit, and then we made the seams with me guiding her hands to make sure the fabric was fed fairly straight.

The foldover part was improvised to make a casing offset from the edge of the bag. I’d describe it, but I’m not really sure of what I did. In any case, should you be similarly inspired, this free Craftsy class teaches how to make a (lined?) drawstring bag, and ikatbag shows variations on drawstrings.

Add a little matching tissue paper and it’s done! Meredith even received a lovely thank you card from the teacher the very same day.