Category Archives: Sewing

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.

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.

FO: T-shirt revised yet again

I finished a new t-shirt! I took the last pattern iteration and made it just a tiny bit better, and I’m pretty happy with how it fits now, despite the drag lines under the bust. (Something to work on for the next time!)

Pardon the indoor nighttime shots, it’s winter in Minnesota and likely will remain so for the next few years.

The major changes were at the upper chest and sleeve. I slashed a fisheye opening across the chest and add another half inch of length at the bust level so the shirt does not ride up in front. I also widened the sleeves by about 1/4 inch.

Actually, I originally made the shirt with 3/4 sleeves. But it was just Too Much Stripey.

Not impressed

So I hacked them off and was happier.

Obligatory back view:

Coverstitching around the neckband, still very much in awe of how well the Babylock machine (BLCS-2) performs.

But there’s something about the shirt overall that bugs me… Here, let me show you what I mean:

You see where I’m going with this? Ha! What was I thinking?

This summer, I was inspired by SunnyGal Beth’s cheerful striped shirt, so much so that I immediately popped over to the vendor and ordered a couple yards. Except – I unintentionally purchased completely different fabric! Wah-wah!

I thought I could make it work… but the stripes are all wrong and even Meredith (my precocious 6-year-old) studied me and said I looked like I should be selling popcorn. Argh…

FO: Flirt Skirt

As I’ve gotten older (lazier), I’ve come to appreciate crafting kits. Someone’s picked out a pattern and found the right fabric to go along with it? Terrific!

I’ve always loved maxi skirts, even as they came in and went out and came back into fashion (mmm, gettin’ old), but I especially love maxis with a little something extra. Last February, I splurged on Craftsy’s Flirt Skirt sew-a-long kit. This maxi, with its fishtail back, is a winner! It’s a simple pull-on skirt with an elasticated waist. The kit has been discontinued, but the pattern alone is here (NAYY). The fabric that came with the kit was Kaufman Essex Linen, a cotton/linen blend.

It is a little wrinkly here (after wearing all day at work, sorry), and it looks like I’m bending my knees weirdly under the skirt when I’m not. Never noticed that until the pictures, though.

The .pdf pattern was 13 pages to be cut and taped… Screw that nonsense, my time is better spent sewing, so I used Inkscape to stitch the .pdf back together into a giant sheet and had it printed at a local printers for another $10.

I actually made a toile of this pattern, included horizontal balance lines and everything. From that, I made 2 main changes to the pattern. The original pattern calls for the front to be cut on the fold, but I decided to add a center seam, redraw the grainline, and cut the front as 2 pieces. Also, 5-foot-4-inch me actually had to lengthen the skirt by 2 inches (I know!) for it to extend appropriately to almost-the-floor. I cut the pattern approximately in thirds and added an inch at each cut, blending the seams to a straight line.

One minor change – I made a low-bulk waistband following Pam Erny’s tutorial here. It’s not the most beautiful thing, but to my eye, it looks a little better than a full casing.

I’m not entirely sold on the pull-on skirt concept because the waist has to be the same size as the hips for it to work… Before I made this, I thought that the straight shape would look decent on someone like me (waist:hip ratio of >0.8), but now that I see it, I think it would look better with darts, a real waistband, and an invisible zipper on the side. Hm. Or maybe it could be made up in fabric with a little lycra in it, so that it can stretch over the hips and still snug up at the waist. Tuck those thoughts away for a future iteration, I guess.


I love walking in this skirt – it has a little swishy drama going on back there, but the best feature of the fishtail is actually that it doesn’t hamper my walking stride at all. Not that I take enormous steps or anything, but I hate feeling constrained by clothing, so I especially appreciate being able to walk freely in a long skirt.

Because maxis cover the shoes, I tend to wear boring flats with these kinds of skirts, but these specific shoes are worth mentioning because they are barefoot shoes – like the Vibram 5-finger type, only less freaky looking. Here’s a better view.

It feels sooo strange to walk in these, I can feel every pebble and cigarette butt on the sidewalk, I am extremely aware of how hard my heels pound when I walk, I feel bumps in the lawn and not only hear but also feel leaves crunching underfoot, etc. This particular pair is made of “vegan leather,” which traps moisture, plus the back bites into my Achilles tendon slightly, so I can’t wholeheartedly endorse these shoes; still, I like them overall. I suppose I won’t wear them when it gets very cold out, I don’t think I’d enjoy walking barefoot on icy sidewalks!

That’s all I have to say! Go make yourself one of these fun skirts! The full review is here.

Clothing labels

These are the labels that I now use in many of the clothes that I sew.

The red mark is made with a Japanese hanko that I bought via ebay from an American living in Japan. (It is my name, if that wasn’t obvious.) Clothing size is printed using a metal stamp set that I think is intended to be used for stamping metal jewelry. My set is like this but also came with numbers.

The ink is set by the heat of an iron and seems pretty washfast. The cotton tape frays like mad if the ends aren’t tucked under or sealed.

I know I could have custom labels woven (um, if I really wanted 1,000 of them), but I really like the look of a hand-stamped label, it reminds me of old-school typewriters.

FO: Geranium dresses in triplicate

I finished the girls’ summer dresses last week! Aren’t they adorable?

The pattern is the Geranium dress by Made by Rae. The girls and I went to Joann Fabrics late last summer, they unanimously agreed on a popsicle print (a now-discontinued Lisette poplin in 100% cotton), even though I begged them to each pick out a different fabric.

I cut the pieces in August, but summer ended before I could sew anything up. I had somewhat anticipated the delay, so I cut size 4 dresses for Jordan and Casey and a size 6 for Meredith. (Yep, had to buy both versions of the patterns to get both sizes.) I am not experienced at pattern matching, so I tried to ensure only that I lined everything up horizontally.

Thanks to Deepika’s reviews of the dress (here and here), I knew I wanted to change the back to an invisible zipper. I followed the tutorial she recommended and cross-checked it against this tutorial, but I ended up with a weird bubble at the top of the zipper.

OK, I said I didn’t really attempt to match the pattern, but can you see how beautifully it accidentally lined up across the invisible zipper?

You can see it better if you look down from the top.

When the zipper is open, the 2 dress halves lay flat, so I knew it had to be the width of zipper pull itself that was forcing the fabric to buckle.

I checked in with Mrs Mole, who advised lowering the zipper and adding a hook-and-eye closure at the top, a standard solution that I have seen many times in RTW (I have a few dresses with that myself!). I mulled that suggestion over but could not force myself to do it because I have an intense (and admittedly irrational) hatred of hooks and eyes. I sought and found a different solution here. (Aside – I am so sad that Sherry no longer updates her blog. I learn so much from her tutorials!)

Yes, the zipper insertion process was time consuming, but I am very happy with the results! It’s not 100% perfect, but it’s a huge improvement over the earlier iteration.

Different dress than the one from above. See, popsicles not matching vertically at all. Think anyone will notice?

Now it will lay flat against the back neck.

Here’s a view of the inside.

Aside from changing the back of the dress, I also did a minor modification of the hem. Instead of machine stitching across, I pulled out my blindhemmer and put in an invisible hem. You can’t see it here, but the hem has a lot of skipped stitches. I ordered some new needles, hopefully that will fix the problem.

OK, the girls loved their dresses (and bragged that their mom made them to anyone who would listen) but were unhappy about posing for pictures.

But then I promised them jelly beans (on a Sunday morning, before breakfast!) if they would do a silly dance for me.

Candy bribes FTW!

The full pattern review is here.

FO: Nature walk yoga pants

I love denim, I love jeans, and I think little girls are just adorable in jeans, but sadly, none of my daughters agree. They absolutely refuse to wear jeans because they find them too restrictive, too heavy, and too bunchy around the waist. Having been clothed in elasticated jersey pants since birth, they see absolutely no reason to give up such comfy pants and will even refuse to wear chinos or other softer wovens. Not to mention, woven pants have pesky buttons and zippers that make solo bathroom trips nearly impossible for the younger crew.

You won’t find me arguing for style over comfort, but herein lies the problem – Meredith is very tall for her age (she’s the size of an 8-year-old), and most 8-year-olds eschew “baby clothes” for more grown-up styles, so we have trouble finding RTW pants that will fit her and aren’t pajamas or gym clothes. She wears a lot of knit skirts or dresses over leggings in the winter because of our first-world pants shortage problems.

This pattern is from Oliver + S, the Nature Walk yoga pants pattern. It’s a very straightforward sew and easy to execute. I was eager to compare it with the Ananda yoga pants, and I selected the size by overlaying the well-fitting Ananda pattern and picking the identical width at the widest point. I also lengthened the inseam to match Meredith’s long limbs.

Comfy for criss-cross applesauce

The crazier and brighter the fabric, the more Meredith loves it, so this was a good marriage of fabric and wearer’s taste. It is a 100% cotton interlock, a Patty-Young-for-Michael-Miller designer fabric called Aromatherapy (berry colorway) that is probably discontinued now. I’d previously had a lousy experience with cheapo Joann interlock (a t-shirt that grew in width by a whopping 9 inches while shrinking in length by some unconscionable amount), so I splurged on some higher-quality goods and hoped for better.

Stretchy enough to “kick” her sister

Turns out, this fabric s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d like crazy, too. Not quite as bad as the other, but I still had to create side seams to remove 3 inches of width from each leg to make it fit. I was very careful about not letting the fabric hang off the edge of a table, folding it before carrying it from one place to another, not pulling with the iron, etc, and it still grew. Disappointing. With this experience, I think I quit interlock.

With Jordan, also clad in not-wovens

After having the sides lopped off, the pants fit well and Meredith likes them. I may have made the waistband a wee too tight, I’m not sure. The instructions suggest using a length of elastic 1″ shorter than the child’s waist and then overlapping by 0.5″, and it just seems like a lot to take out when the kid’s waist is only 22″ anyway.

Teaching baby sis to dance

How does it compare to the Ananda pants? While the Nature Walk yoke is interesting, I think I actually prefer the Ananda pants (foldover waist, no elastic) for its ease of assembly, no requirement for elastic, and more forgiving waist. Still, I’m glad I tried the Oliver + S pattern, and I will probably revisit it next winter, when M is 6 inches taller and needing new pants again.


At the feet of a master

Toward the end of last year, Mrs Mole, custom clothier and genius creator of bridal alterations, e-mailed me out of the blue to offer to show me how to fix the rising hemline of this shirt. Having read her blog for some time, I was unabashedly impressed by her abilities and thus jumped at the chance to learn from her. As luck would have it, I had a lot of vacation time to burn up in November and December, so she and I worked long-distance on fitting a woven top and then a knit one.

Fitting is tricky. Most books on fitting require you to recognize “drag lines” – wrinkles, essentially – as the first step in deducing how to alter a piece of flat fabric to curve over a 3-dimensional shape. In principle, the line should point to the problem area, eg, a sloped shoulder has drag lines pointing to the shoulder. In practice, recognizing drag lines takes a lot of experience. I’m terrible at seeing the lines, first of all, and when I do see one, I have no idea what it means. Is the line pointing to my shoulder or to my bust or both? Does it indicate that a piece is too wide or too tall or too sloped or is the dart in the wrong place or not the right width or has the fabric stretched or WTF is going on here?

So every week, I would sew stuff up, send her pictures of me wearing a toile, she would use a drawing program to painstakingly trace over important drag lines and then send the photos back to me with instructions on what to slash, spread, overlap, nip in, widen, rotate, etc. It was amazing, I just wanted to suck in every bit of knowledge that she offered. All too soon, however, my vacation days were used up and sewing had to be relegated to the back burner.

I feel like I learned a lot during that time and even made 6 toiles through the lessons, but I felt sad that I never got a publicly presentable shirt out of the whole thing before my time was up. Still, I didn’t give up. It took me 4 months of sewing 15 minutes here, 10 minutes there, to make this shirt. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to date.


This is Jalie 2805. Mrs Mole and I had worked on altering a different pattern to include bust darts and a center back seam, but after 6 toiles, I started to think that maybe a t-shirt shouldn’t have so many seams. Still, it was important to try to get a good fit at the bust and account for some of the swayback. I sort of started from scratch but tried to be faithful to all the lessons she’d taught.

1) Swayback alteration. Instead of using a center seam, I followed the tutorial here to remove 1/2″ from the lower back.

2) Bust adjustment. Instead of sewing bust darts, I added 1/2″ of length and 1/4″ width to the bust (following a tip in Sandra Betzina’s Power Sewing). Look to the right side of the image below, and you can see the slender “D-shape” of extra fabric.

This curved part is eased back in so that the front and back pieces are the same length. When I photograph the back of the shirt, you can see the front is slightly wider than the back at the bust.

3) Sleeves – oh my, I had so much trouble with sleeves. I can’t even begin to describe how many sleeve pictures I sent to Mrs Mole. What I eventually did was to make sure the bodice fit well around the arm, and then I draped and pinned a sleeve onto my own arm to develop the pattern. Yes, it was as awkward as it sounds.

I was a little alarmed by the asymmetry for a while, but then I saw posts like this, which reassured me that my body wasn’t freakishly unbalanced.

4) Length – shortened the shirt at the hem by 1″. This was not surprising, given my height (5’4″ on a good day).

5) A note on sizing. Jalie’s measurement chart assumes the wearer prefers a lot of negative ease. I measured existing shirts to figure out the approximate size that I wanted.

I’ve gotten pretty good at inserting round neckbands into t-shirts. The Jalie pattern called for a crossover band, which was new to me. I did have to do a little handstitching at the point because I couldn’t get the machine to catch all layers but I think it came out all right.

I bought a Babylock coverstitch (BLCS) machine last year. I lurve that little machine. (I used to have a Janome Coverpro that was a POS. Never knew how good a coverstitcher could be until I got the Babylock.)

Here’s a close-up of the neckband, you can see I somehow managed to top stitch with the coverstitcher around the corner point, and it looks… pretty damn nice, actually!

Things to do differently next time:

1) You can see from the side view above that the hem is still riding up a tiny bit in front. I think I’d like to add little more length, maybe another 1/2″, but I’m not sure where. I’ll have to chalk some horizontal balance lines onto the shirt to determine where exactly it is riding up.

2) The sleeves are a wee snug. I think if I had even a scant 1/2″ more ease (circumference), then all would be well. I’d like to make a long-sleeve version, too.

Overall, I’m pleased with this shirt, and I’m really grateful to Mrs Mole for her patience and generosity in sharing her knowledge. I have a ton of books on sewing, fitting, and patternmaking, but there’s nothing like real live help from someone looking at your personal fitting issues, diagnosing drag lines, and knowing how to fix them all. She was a fantastic mentor! She said I could come back to her again, too, so the next time I have a swath of vacation days saved up, I am totally hoping to do something like this again.

OK, you made it this far! Thanks for reading!


FO: Knockoff and socks

In my head, the title for this entry sounds like “Knock your socks off” – but then it has nothing to do with the rest of the post and is a joke that is funny only to me. This reminds me of one of my favorite jokes from one of my favorite people from college.

Q: What is the difference between a duck?
A: One of its legs is the same!

Get it? Get it? Ah, never mind.

Meredith recently informed me: “Mommy, your jokes aren’t really funny.” Ha ha, kiddo, wait until my mere presence is enough to make you feel embarrassed in public.

Speaking of college, I had a very bizarre run-in at work a while ago. I was breezing through the employee cafeteria one morning (thinking deep thoughts like do I want egg whites for breakfast? Or an omelet?) when some random stranger guy stopped me to ask where and when I’d gone to college. (And lordy, I couldn’t immediately remember what year I’d graduated, tee hee, OLD.) But it turns out he recognized me, almost 2 decades later, because we’d shared an undergraduate major and probably a lot of biology classes; moreover, when I mentioned Matt (another biology major back in the day), it turns out that he’d lived in the same dorm as Matt and his sister and even remembered their names. Phenomenal recall. And now he’s a doctor at Mayo, LOL.

I have two recently finished projects to share.

First – another pair of generic socks. To know the pattern is to love the pattern. I never tire of it.

The yarn is Berroco Ultra Alpaca Fine (Berry Pie Mix). This is 50% wool, 30% nylon, and 20% alpaca (all machine washable).

Second – a knockoff of a beloved twirly dress for Meredith.

I used Jalie 2805 as the base pattern for the bodice and sleeves, size M. Never go by their recommended sizing, always use an existing garment and take flat pattern measurements to decide size. I used another dress to determine the total dress length and then divided by 4 to determine the height of the tiers. I multiplied the length of each tier by 1.5 to determine the length of the subsequent tier.

I ruffle-edged each upper edge (the gaps in the rolled hem make me want to upgrade my serger) in contrasting wooly nylon and gathered it to fit the portion above. I used 3 lines of gathering stitches to make it very even. I set the sleeves in flat and then sewed the side seams.

The fabric was actually cotton/poly t-shirts from JoAnn fabrics, I think we cut up 3 size XL shirts. The dyed-to-match ribbed neckband is actually just one of the original t-shirt neckbands, just cut to fit and attached following this technique. Shoulders were stabilized with clear elastic. Seam allowances were serged. Hems were coverstitched.

Twirly, twirly

This was not a difficult project, but it was time consuming (and dare I say – slightly boring). By the time I got to the third tier, it felt like miles of ruffles and gathering. But my girl is thrilled in her new dress.

I just want you to know that she chose her own coordinating clothes (an underdress and Ananda yoga pants) and did her own hair. And whenever I asked her to pose, she always did something like this first: