New Sewing Studio

Every hobby sewist, and probably professionals too, started with a sewing machine on the kitchen or dining table, or some equally multi-purpose place that required cleaning everything away frequently, if not every time they sewed a stitch.

I have vivid memories of cutting out on the floor of the living room, with kids and animals having fun with the tissue paper, me cursing inwardly every step of the way. I had fantasies of a ‘cutting out service’, or of paying a friend. Needless to say the friend hated cutting out as much as I did and there was no such thing as a cutting out service. Desperate to save sanity and my knees, if not my back, I graduated to cutting out on my bed, only a marginal improvement which came to an abrupt halt after I accidentally cut into the sheet. Ouch!

Then rotary cutters and self-healing cutting boards arrived in my life and cutting out on a table became quick and simple, no longer the most hated task of the whole sewing process.

And thankfully things kept on improving, when in the last 10 years or so I actually had a spare bedroom which could be used as a sewing room. Yay! Except that the sewing room in the last house was a black hole, full of surplus furniture and other junk, which left very little room to move once my sewing gear was installed. On top of that I am super messy when I create, much too much in a hurry to bother to stop to clean up after myself. Some people say they can’t start a new project until they have cleaned up after the last one. Well, I certainly can.

But things are looking up. We bought a new house early this year and it has a self contained granny flat attached which we don’t actually need except for holiday times when we have a house full of visiting family. The kitchen and eating space of the granny flat is ideal for a sewing studio. I don’t even have to move anything out when people are staying, because we cook and eat together in the main part of the house. Outside visiting times I have the whole space to myself. Perfect, isn’t it?

I put a fair bit of thought into my new studio before we moved in. The kitchen area with its many drawers and cupboards is ideal for storage of sewing stuff, fabrics, art materials, my jewellery making equipment and a thousand odds and ends creatively inclined people tend to collect.

The breakfast bench is great for my machines, with the added bonus of a big window that lets in lots of light. Because it is kitchen counter height it is too high for a normal chair, but that is easily fixed with a drafting chair and a foot stool for the sewing machine pedal.

The drafting chair has the added bonus of wheels, which lets me roll back and forth from my sewing machine to the overlocker or to the drawers on the other side, as needed.

I have three overlockers (thank you Aldi!), threaded in black, white and grey, which do most of my garments. To change colour, I unplug the overlocker on the bench, take the one with the appropriate colour out of the cupboard, and plug it in on the bench. They are all the same model, re-badged Janome, so I don’t need to change the power cord or foot pedal.

The other side of the room contains my cutting table and a newly installed built-in for my fabrics and anything else that does not fit into the kitchen cupboards.

Having got to really appreciate the benefits of drawers when we renovated the kitchen in the last house, I opted for lots of drawers in the built-in. Unfortunately they only make sense up to a certain height, once you can no longer look down into the drawer you need to revert to shelves. Being a short person is a disadvantage there, but it balances out because normal table height is fine for my cutting table without giving me a back ache. Win some, lose some, as they say.

I keep my PDF sewing patterns, clipped together, on the bottom of the built-in, below the first drawer/basket. So far that works fine, because I use only a small number of TNT patterns, so don’t have a lot I need to store with easy access. Any I use only infrequently can be folded and put into a drawer.

The glass fronts and open baskets make finding a specific fabric easier.

And the view is fabulous, what a bonus!

An Oldie but a Goodie

I made this Vogue 8659 a few times when it first came out around 2012. — Gosh, is it really 8 years old? Well, I still like it a lot and hope it doesn’t look too dated, even though it is now very OOP. It is still around on Etsy though, so someone must think it is still worth buying and therefore making.

My early versions have now passed on to the great wardrobe in the sky and I feel ready for a couple more. It is a particularly good pattern for semi sheer fabrics if worn with pants underneath and I have some silk/cotton voile which is too transparent on its own. I suppose I could make it into a lined dress but this maxi dress/tunic idea appeals much more to my quirky taste.

I am also always on the lookout for a back drop for my fabric printing and it ticks that box too. That said, I had some trouble with my colour combination initially, thinking for some weird reason that light olive green would pair well with a mid grey. Well, it didn’t. I knew this as soon as I pulled the block off my first print, but at that point I felt I was committted and couldn’t change to black, which would have looked so much better. Ever heard the Einstein quote that the definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing over and over and think you are going to get a different outcome?

>Blush<. Not sure how many leaf prints are on that garment, but with every one I kept hoping that somehow, when it was all done, it would magically turn from an ugly olive-grey duckling into a swan.

Well, it didn’t.

So it languished in my wardrobe, waiting for my next bright idea. Which was a long time coming, a couple of years to be exact. At one stage I made a half-hearted attempt to overprint the grey with black and that was a bad idea too.

But I don’t give up easily, especially not on expensive fabric, and in the end I decided that a darker background colour would suit the grey prints much better. Fortunately the screen printing ink I used to block print does not take the dye at all, and the colour of the leaf motifs would be unaffected while the rest of the fabric would take the dye. So off it went to the dye pot, to go from a light olive to a dark blue-ish green.

And would you believe, it worked, and now looks so much better!

Adventures with Seaweed

I have been stencilling for a while now using screen printing inks. All good, except that these inks are totally opaque, and they don’t blend or flow. So they are not that suitable when you want to do something like this.

Screen printing inks are also expensive. My fibre reactive dyes (Procion, Drimarene K) go a lot further for the same outlay, produce vibrant colours, plus they are transparent if thinly applied and flow into each other for soft transitions. The problem is how to stop them from flowing in an uncontrolled fashion like a drop of ink on blotting paper. To achieve this the dye needs to be thickened with guar gum or some such. I have lots of xanthan on hand, which is a similar seaweed based food grade thickener (very suitable for a seaweed stencil, haha, although it works for everything), so I used this to experiment with.

My initial recipe to thicken the dye was 500ml of water, a splash of methylated spirits and a level teaspoon of xanthan. Both xanthan and guar gum lump like crazy, so I used my blender. It worked well and the food grade thickeners won’t poison me. (The meths will hopefully wash off my blender well enough not to send me blind.) In any case, I think meths is probably not needed when using a blender, and was only recommended to paste the thickener before adding water, so the mix won’t get as lumpy.

My idea was to mix up a batch of thickener, keep it in the fridge and mix it with dye when needed. Fibre reactive dyes also need a fixer like soda ash solution to bind the dye to the fabric. But once you mix the soda ash with the dye it deteriorates really quickly. After 20 minutes it loses potency and by 60 minutes it is pretty much gone. That is not enough time for stencilling, so the soda ash can’t be mixed with the dye before painting but needs to be applied to the fabric before hitting it with the dye. The fabric needs to be at least damp with the soda ash solution for the fixing reaction to take place.

I used one of Matisse’s cutout shapes for my stencil. Possibly it was meant to be a plant, but it fits my idea of seaweed pretty well.

Coming from a block printing mindset, I am always tempted to cut a single motif stencil and build up a pattern one by one. But a larger stencil with several motifs speeds up the process, because the stencil does not need to be re-placed as often. So I cut a triple on clear acetate. There is also a opaque white stencil medium you can buy, but when building up a pattern I need to see what I am doing.

I tried out the stencil on paper first, which is a good idea because you get to see the finished pattern. If you barge ahead on your fabric and then discover that you need to make changes once you see the result, like placing things further apart or closer together, it is way too late to rescue your fabric. I like to use linen and spoiling it hurts. A lot.

Below is my paper trial, with also a small sample on the linen I intended to use. I set accents with more concentrated, darker dye on some of the shapes once I had pulled the stencil off. I like the result, but when I started printing for real on my linen I liked the plain stencilled shapes as well. I can always do these accents later if I want. Leave well enough alone, I say.

Once the pattern started to emerge on my fabric I soon got impatient and slapped on the dye quite heavily with my stencil brush, which is a thick, stubby brush capable of picking up a lot of paint. This resulted in a fair bit of bleeding under the stencil line in some places, but with such a wibbly-wobbly organic shape it didn’t matter. If I wanted a clear outline I would have to be more careful and I would also probably need to increase the amount of xanthan in the thickener mix to make my dye less runny. Runny dye is faster to paint with, so there are trade-offs.

I always cut out my garments before printing, as printing the uncut fabric is a lot of extra work. When you have all the pieces of a garment cut out, you also have more control where your prints will be once the garment is sewn up. Below are some photos of the garment pieces drying on my lawn after printing.

I was absolutely champing at the bit to wash the fabric after printing to see how it would turn out, but was worried the loosely woven linen would distort in the wash. So I sewed up most of this shirt except for the collar (the most time consuming part) and put it through the machine and dryer. It turned out so well, I was really thrilled!

So here is the finished shirt. I will write up the sewing process in PatternReview asap.

Could to with darker accents, but not too bad for a start.

Stencilling notes

  • Drimarene K fibre reactive dye, thickened with Xanthan paste
  • Soda ash solution for fixing the dye
  • acetate wet mixed medium stencil, cut with fine tipped soldering iron
  • Stencil brush, short, thick
  • Linen, pre-washed
  • Metal ruler, 1m, or anything that can be used as a stencil guide
  • Newspaper to protect my cutting table
  • Cut stencil with hotknife or soldering iron. Many repeated shapes on one stencil require less re-placing thereof, making building up a pattern easier, but large stencil is harder to handle, especially once wet with dye. Fewer shapes result in a smaller, easier to handle stencil, but it is harder to get an even pattern. I used a triple shape as in photo above.
  • Cut out garment pieces and lay each flat onto printing surface. It may be necessary to iron fabric and newspaper to lie completely flat, otherwise bleeding under stencil outline may occur where the fabric is not completely flat under the stencil.
  • Lay ruler across fabric, evenly from bottom of each garment piece being printed. Butt bottom of stencil against ruler and slide along as you print. This will produce a straight line of the pencilled shapes, parallel to hem line.
  • Get dye ready, mix with thickener.
  • Fill soda ash solution into spray bottle.
  • Wet fabric with soda ash where you intend to stencil. You have the choice of only wetting the shape itself, spraying through the stencil. This will leave a lot of the soda ash on top of your acetate which needs to be wiped off. But the advantage is that any dye smudges/drips on dry fabric may wash out (which may be a fond hope). Alternatively spray fabric before placing stencil.
  • Start stencilling, using only 2 out of the three shapes cut, namely top and right bottom. Leave the left bottom shape clean to act as registration mark by placing it carefully over the previously painted right-bottom shape. Careful not to transfer dye where you don’t want it by doing this, blot with paper towel if necessary.
  • Fill in stencilled motifs with dye on stencil brush, brushing carefully not to go under outlines. A sponge could also be used? Must try next time.
  • When one double row is finished (upper and lower motif of triple are stencilled together, producing 2 rows), measure carefully where to place the ruler for the next double line. Stencil next line and so on.
  • Fill in any holes with a single shape, masking the stencil shapes with paper where you don’t want to print.
  • Spray finished garment piece with more soda ash and lay flat to dry.
  • Repeat with next piece until all pieces are done.

Leaves, Frogs and Lightbulb Moments

This tee is a departure from the usual in a couple of ways. First I used a different pattern, the Love Notions Laundry Day Tee, which has a different shape to the classical tee pattern I normally use, the Burda Lydia, a very old pattern that now seems to have disappeared from both the German and English-speaking websites. Probably time to move on, and I rather like the more defined waist and swing hem of the Laundry Day Tee.

The LDT has a lot of variations, and the details of which version I picked and how I modified it are on PatternReview.

The more exciting innovation is that I tried a new block printing technique after coming across ApartmentTherapies ‘How to block print the easy way’. What a great idea!. Instead of carving the block out of Easycarve (a medium similar to the white erasers used to erase pencil), you cut your shape from an adhesive-backed foam sheet. You can use a craft knife like she did, but for simple shapes it is even faster to use a pair of scissors to cut around the outline, stick it to a backing — and done! Below is an example I found to illustrate what I mean.

Wow, that idea was a lightbulb! In my case I started with a leaf outline and perspex as a backing. You can cut a simple shape in a jiffy because instead of digging away all the superfluous medium with your carving implement you simply cut around the outline with scissors. So much easier! And printing is fast too.

The perspex is great as a backing because you can see where you place your motif on the fabric. I beg my perspex pieces from a a friendly business acquaintance who is left with small scrap pieces in the course of his work, which I am only too happy to take off his hands. Nothing like a win-win!

The second improvement was that I finally started to use a brayer, as recommended in the ApartmentTherapy blog. This is a hard rubber roller like this:

Previously I used a foam roller, which deposits less ink on the block, but has the advantage of not clogging up intricate lines. Horses for courses. If there are no intricate lines a brayer works much better, because the ink sits on the surface of the rubber and after rolling the ink on the block there is a thicker layer and therefore a better print.

After my first try with the leaves I made one discovery, however: it is quite difficult to get the ink evenly on every bit of your printing block, but nothing on the backing. You have to be so careful, and sooner or later there will be an oopsie or two which will spoil things. Darn! There are a few right on the front of this shirt.

Using the foam shape without a backing is not really an option, it is too soft, and neither is cutting the perspex around the outside of the shape, it is too hard. So finally I decided that instead of cutting one shape of the foam, I would cut three and stick one on top of the other. That makes it easier for inking and doesn’t take too much work cutting out. The lower layers don’t have to be too precise, just enough to lift the top layer higher off the backing.

I was also very careful to wipe any extra ink off the backing with a cloth before printing each motif.

So here is the result, my froggy shirt. Ribbip!

Making a Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear

Well, sometimes it works… possibly often enough for me to keep trying. Intermittent reinforcement, as they say.

This wool double knit was ordered on the interwebs and shipped at great expense from the US, only to find that I really hated the colour. Don’t ask me why. Sometime you just do. I tried to dye it, but found that it must be a wool mix, as some bits dyed and others didn’t, which meant the dyed version wasn’t much of an improvement.

So after much wrinkling of brow and using words best not repeated, I decided to make a jumper and print it with a combination of abstract paintings I found online. It looks like a burnt landscape (quite topical for bush fire ravaged Oz in the middle of an epidemic) with a moon, or sun, or whatever. I didn’t manage to get the heavenly body quite in the right place on the front (b*gger!). That’s what happens when you print it before the rest of the stuff, which unfortunately is necessary if you want it behind the burnt timbers.

Much better placement on the back.

So here are some more pics. You decide if Operation Silk Purse was a success. 🙂

For the print I combined two abstract paintings. This is the first one. Unfortunately the artist was not mentioned on Pinterest, only that it was from Thepaintart.

I turned this upside down to reassemble charred logs and cut a stencil which i printed on the back of the top. I like starting on the back when I print, because I can learn from any oopsies and avoid them on the front, plus they don’t stare me in the face every time I look in the mirror.

The colours seemed a bit dour after the first print, so I added a white circle. Then I thought the top still needed more black to dominate the brown and some extra trees would be nice, so I overprinted with a stencil cut from this painting. Again no artist, only that it is sold by CZ Art Design.

I used to ink my stencils with a foam roller, but found that a bit cut from a cheap plastic sponge works better. I use waterbased Permaset screen printing ink and work from the edges of the stencil towards the middle to avoid getting leakage outside the stencil lines. Usually I need to let it dry and do a second coat, especially if the fabric is not perfectly smooth and quite thick like this wool double knit. A hair dryer helps to speed the drying process.

The pattern I used for the top is the Tessuti Mandy, which has proven to be such a great canvas for my printing. This time I kept the long sleeves. The sewing details are on PatternReview.

Herringbone Shirt

Yes, I can do a proper sleeve placket. But it is time consuming and by the time I get to the end of the sleeve in my sewing process I am almost finished. Spending another hour faffing around with a minor detail does not appeal. Besides, this is MY hobby and I do what I want, so if the sewing police should turn up to drag me off to sewing jail I will tell them politely where to get off.

Lately I have been making the Tessuti Jac shirt, which has a 3/4 sleeve with a notched cuff. This can be folded down to reach the wrist when worn under a jumper. (For some reason WordPress does not let me make a normal link, so I have to insert the address.)

But I thought I would have a go at a more conventional shirt pattern as I wanted to repurpose something that doesn’t have quite enough fabric for the Jac. So I dug out an old Burda pattern, Burda 8367. I also wanted long sleeves to wear this shirt under jumpers. Unfortunately the pattern is OOP, but still around on the interwebs.

The fabric came from a repurposed set of cot sheets which had plenty of holes, which meant I had to use two different prints to have enough for the shirt. If you look closely you can see the smaller and larger herringbone pattern on the front pieces and sleeves.

This pattern is a nice, quick sew, economical with fabric and I like the roomy collar. Sewing details of the collar and faux shirt cuffs are on PatternReview.

Textured Stencil Print

Somehow with my textile printing, I have always subconsciously aimed at the flat solid colour areas achieved with screen printing. Consequently I have been frustrated when my block printing and stencilling has not produced the same thick and even ink application. But I have started to realise that both techniques not only have a charm of their own, but have possibilities that screen printing does not have. So it’s horses for courses I suppose.

Specifically it has finally dawned on me (slow learner!), that I can make a textured, or even a textured multi coloured print with a stencil. I have not tried the latter yet, but here is my first mono coloured textured print. I am rather pleased with the effect.

The fabric is a cotton viscose mix with a slight sheen, a repurposed Ikea sheet, and I have copied a painting by Australian artist Kristina Sostarko, modified to suit my purpose. I hope she doesn’t mind, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.

The pattern used is yet another Tessuti Mandy hack, with the armscyes widened to accommodate a woven fabric and piecing on the sleeves to accommodate a lack of fabric.

The skirt is a variation of the Kaliyana skirt in a previous post. This time I used elastic in the hem instead of gathering and applying a hem band. I think I prefer the hem band, but alas, no more fabric. Not a bad yield for a single flat sheet in any case, so no complaints.

I crushed the skirt by twisting it into a bundle for storage, instead of keeping it on a hanger. To do this you bunch up the waistband and hem into each hand, pull the skirt tight, then twist it as hard as you can. Without letting go, allow the skirt to twist into a bundle, tuck in the hem end and nestle in a draw amongst other clothes to stop it from unraveling. I crush some of my scarves and other garments that way, and you can steam the bundle to set the creases in more permanently. Usually I crush without steaming first to see if I like the effect, then steam if I do.

In this case I think I prefer the skirt uncrushed, to match the top. This means ironing but hopefully not too much or too often. I also took down the height of the cowl by half and widened the neck opening a little. Picture below.

How to Get Better Photos for Your Sewing Blog

Having a fabulous setting when you photograph your sewing creations is great. But…

Having to recruit someone to take the photos, hoping for good weather and braving other people’s stares is not so great. I sew quite a lot and at times I blog relatively often. You can’t blog without photos, and if I had to go through a major production every time I would never get around to it. Even taking photos in your own garden is a bit embarrassing, in case the neighbours are watching and wondering what sort of vain idiot is posing for selfies all the time.

Inside the house, where it is private, taking photos can be another sort of problem. You need to find a neutral background without pesky furniture and pictures in the way, somewhere where you can sit the camera at the right distance and height and where there is good light. I don’t want to have to do a complicated set up each time, moving stuff, setting up lights and generally faffing around.

So I have designated picture taking spot in my house.

Plain background. Check.

Convenient window sill for the camera? Check.

Good bright light? Check.


Doesn’t that look great? Maybe not.

Ok, so clearly bit of a tidy up is called for: Hellooo Photoshop!

I use Photoshop Elements, which is much cheaper than the full version and just a good for my purposes. It really is an excellent investment if you want nice photos. But if you prefer to hang onto your cash, there is a free image editing software called gimp. Plus a gazillion apps you can get for very little, which do at least some of what Photoshop does, such as cropping and lightening. I can’t help you with any of the latter, although there would be lots of online tutorials if you search a little.

What I do is take my photos with the timer and flash, load them on my PC and open them in Photoshop.

First I crop the photo.

Because my photo was not taken in a proper studio with professional equipment, I need to lighten it up, by going to the Enhance menu and clicking on Auto Levels.

I even lighten it up further on the Enhance menu by selecting Adjust Lighting>Brightness/Contrast. Lighten up your photo with the brightness slider until you are satisfied with the result.

Next I use the eraser on 100% opacity to get rid of the outer edges of the photo.

Then I turn the eraser slider at the bottom to 60% opacity and go around the edges multiple times until I have faded out most of the remaining background.

And voila, here is the finished photo. You may also notice that compared to the earlier photo I have smoothed my face out a bit to get rid of the worst of my wrinkles. (I use the blur tool, and there is lots more you can do, but that is a whole other tute.)

For now, I just reduce the size of the image. The bigger the image, the clearer your face will be with every little line and blemish on display. You don’t need any of this to show off your garment and give readers a good idea of what it looks like. I reduce the size of my photos to 40% of the original, sometimes even smaller.

Go to the Image menu >Resize

Set it to 40%.

Save your finished image and select the file size. A low resolution means a small file size, but this will still display just fine on a screen. However, if you think you may want to print the image or do something else with it later, you may want to select a higher resolution. I usually go for medium.

There are ways of removing the background completely and I used to do that with my photos, but found it far too time consuming. If you are interested, the are lots of tutorials on the web on how to remove the background in Photoshop. For my purposes the vignette style with the faded edges is just as good and much faster.

Good luck with your own photos!

Boule Skirt Inspired by Kaliyana

Seems I am going to mop up quite a few ideas that have been languishing in my imaginary sewing queue for years, if not decades, while at home during this pandemic. I have been a fan of the Canadian designer Kaliyana for a long time, but I could never afford her creations and even if I could, the proportions would be all wrong for me. At 161cm and now 67kg (thank you, home isolation), I am a long way from the models who look so fabulous in her fashion shots. That doesn’t mean that I can’t wear this type of thing, but it has to be adapted for my height and figure in terms of ease and proportions. Very doable when sewing even if impossible with RTW.

This skirt has been on my to-do list since forever.

I have used a dark grey striped jacquard of unknown fibre content which reminds me a bit of nylon taffeta, although not as shiny, not as stiff and not as noisy. Maybe a nylon mix of some sort? It is a nice quality, but at best only part natural fibre.

The skirt consists of 2 straight fabric rectangles, 150x75cm each and sewn into the round. Then I made 8 deep box pleats at the top to absorb the fabric volume over the hips and a gathered hem at the bottom 1:2 with a band to finish it off. The circumference at the hem is about 1.5m, much less than the original Kaliyana skirt, but that huge amount of volume would swamp me. The top of the skirt is pleated to a circumference that just fits over my hips and a waistband is added with elastic inside. Sewing details are on PatternReview.

The fabric is not as light weight as the original and I didn’t crush it (other than to sit on it) because the self stripe looks nice. Still pretty happy with the result and will be fun to wear with my Doc Martin boots for winter. (Note the super elegant ughs for the photo shoot. 🙂

Surely Not Plaid!

I’m not a great lover of plaid, I have to admit. So why on earth did I make a plaid winter coat? This is one of the deep mysteries of buying fabric online. I saw black and white wool, I thought of a jacket I once owned and loved with a black and white pattern (not plaid!), I bought the fabric and then I was stuck with it. The covid bug came, I was bored, and so here we are, with a plaid coat.

That said, I find that I probably like black and white buffalo plaid better than any other, with the possible exception of black watch tartan. So the coat might actually get some wear. Hope springs eternal.

The pattern I used is Marcy Tilton V8934, which I bought principally for the bubble shape.

But perverse as I am, once I got to the hem I decided to skip the darts and leave the coat as a classic a-line. And being even more perverse, I am now considering putting them in after all. Of course I have removed all the markings, which will make doing this much more difficult. Serves me right. 🙂

The sewing details are on PatternReview.