Friday, 30 January 2015

January Projects Post, plus February plans

I have been rather dilatory about blog posts for the second half of January. This is mainly due to the fact that my time for anything enjoyable, including sewing, in the second half of the month has been much reduced by (more of the same old) illness. When I did feel well enough to sew or knit, a lot of what I have been doing has been slow going and/or part of a bigger project, or else a not-very-interesting pattern repeat. Thus, this post, which I plan to do each month this year just as a catch-all of things that don't deserve a post all of their own.

Garments: I didn't make much in the way of clothes this month. However, I did manage to knock out a couple of easy pattern repeats:

Burda 11-2005-127 and Ottobre 02-2013-02, both very easy pattern repeats

On the left, a pair of Burda 11-2005-127 yoga pants in blue, a pattern I made up previously in December 2014. I have nothing to say about the pattern beyond: A+, would sew again, just like last time. These are very unphotogenic yoga pants, though. They look much better in person.

On the right, yes, that is yet another Ottobre 02-2013-02 "Summer Basics" tee. That is my 11th use of that pattern. It wasn't my first choice for this fabric at all. I bought this border print as a "panel", and I had a plan in mind for it thinking I was getting a 1m piece. What actually arrived was a scant and badly cut 85cm piece. I was not thrilled, and I am still not clear to what extent this was as a result of me misunderstanding of the fabric description and how much is the fault of the vendor (the very uneven cut, at least, was entirely their fault). At any rate, my original plan was out, and as I was feeling grumpy about the whole thing I flung this pattern on it and cut it out as it was all I could think to do with such a small piece. I kind of regret this decision because once I got over my grump I realized it would have made an interesting contrast piece in a Grainline Linden sweatshirt or similar but, eh, too late now. As it turns out though, the biggest problem with this top is that the fabric is very itch inducing, so I'm not sure the way I used the fabric in the end matters when thinking about garment longevity -- I just can't stand itchy clothes.

My February garment sewing plans are a bit vague at the moment, even though I have a whole huge list of things to make in my sewing queue. The problem is that I find it hard to think about sewing for spring when we've actually got snow on the ground at the moment, but I really don't need much more in the way of winter clothes. Plus, quite a few of my favourite and most enticing projects are at the more difficult and labour intensive end of the scale, and thus the whole continuing-illness thing becomes a stumbling block. I'll have to see how I get on, I guess.

Quilted quilt blocks ready to be sewn together with sashing
Quilt: Since my mid-month update, I've been quilting the individual blocks in dribs and drabs and then trimming off the excess batting/backing. It's actually been a nice project while I've been feeling ill because it's a perfect project to sew in very short bursts. Each block only takes a couple of minutes to quilt and a couple of minutes to trim, and thus even if I only felt up to venturing into my sewing room for 10-15 minutes I was usually able to get a couple of blocks done in a day. I was also able to do a bunch of different shapes when I was quilting: some I stitched in the ditch, some have just lines across the block, and a half a dozen are quilted with big concentric circles. That said, I have to admit I was totally over the quilting process long before I'd done all 36 blocks and was glad when I finished them up. At this point, there are really only two more tasks left: putting the blocks together with sashing and then binding the outer edges. Thus, I'm hoping that the World's Slowest Quilt will become my first finished quilt during February.

Alabama Chanin style "Bloomer" stencil on knit, testing out different threads and stitches
Hand-sewing/embroidery: I'm still pursuing the Alabama Chanin and hand-embroidery thing. I decided a useful way to spend some time was to make some samples of AC-style embellishment using knits. I dug out a couple of large-ish scraps of knit in two shades of blue (left over from a raglan tee I made in October 2013) for which I had no other use, made a list of "samplers" I wanted to make, and got started. You can see my first finished sampler above, which was a test first and foremost of this method on knit (I had previously only used the stencils with wovens when I made a couple of little calico bags) and of some different weight and colour threads. It turned out very ugly as a result of the mix of thread colours! I'll be carrying on with my samplers for a little while, mainly because I'm still percolating a much bigger plan for where I want to take this next. More on this soon.

My Nurmilintu scarf. You'll have to take my word for the existence of the lace section, since I couldn't get it to come out in the photo
Knitting: This is my Nurmilintu scarf (Ravelry link) in progress - it's about 40% done, I guess. I'm really enjoying knitting this even though my first lace section, one of three in the pattern, turned out really badly. I was fine (as you would hope) on the long pointy bit of garter stitch, but as soon as I started out the lace section I had to rip back the first three rows 4 times. Mostly, this was because I didn't understand how to read the chart, which meant I got the pattern all wrong initially. After consulting a more knowledgeable friend, I at least understand now what I should be doing, although I don't always seem to manage to actually do it. As I got further into the lace pattern, I realized I had I made multiple mistakes in several rows that didn't seem fixable short of wholesale ripping back, which I kind of couldn't face. In the end, I decided I could live with my mistakes and kept going. Thus my first "lace pattern" section is perhaps more properly described as "a section with some randomly spaced holes". Still, I love the yarn, the colour and I've decided I can live with the imperfection, especially since, as the image above demonstrates, the lace isn't really all that visible. I am a pretty slow knitter, so I suspect most, if not all, of February will be taken up with finishing this project.

A pile of pompoms

Random: For sick-and-insomnia-ridden-and-in-charge-of-a-credit card reasons, I recently bought a 99p (with free postage) pack of pompom makers from an eBay vendor in China. Pompom makers + an assortment of cheap, nasty and brightly coloured yarn I once obtained from the front of a knitting magazine = one afternoon spent gleefully and pointlessly making pompoms. I made some in plain green (on the right, idk why they look like they're glowing) and then experimented with various ways to make them multicoloured (green and white halves on the left, and then mixing two or three colours in the rest). I like the giant pink and purple one (bottom left) best, though I have no idea what to do with any of them now I've made them.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Bits and pieces

1. I finished knitting yet another cowl. I know, I know, I am the most boring knitter in the world, even more boring than my sewing.

Yet another Gap-tastic cowl, this time in vintage burgundy bouclé and DK held together
I am on a mission to substantially reduce the size of my (thankfully, not very large to begin with) yarn stash this year. When I first started knitting at the very end of 2012/start of 2013, the impetus was being given a huge box full of my maternal grandmother's knitting accoutrements, untouched these last twenty or thirty years. I recently discarded much of what I acquired in the box because it was mostly remnants of cheap, unpleasant yarn, and I sold some other yarn. However, I kept two things: a pile of burgundy DK 25g skeins (13 of them, to be exact) and a similar tone of burgundy bouclé yarn that I tried but failed to knit once before. It's actually more red and less brown than this photo makes it appear.

I adore how this turned out. It's hard to tell from the photo, but the bouclé totally obscures the stitch so the cowl is just a gorgeous nobbly texture, and the interweaving of the two shades of burgundy looks so gorgeous in real life. So, even though this is really uninteresting because it's just Yet Another Cowl, I consider it a raging success, hurray!

Meanwhile, I am also plodding along knitting the shawl I started. It's going well so far, but then I haven't hit the lace pattern yet. Updates from the field soon.

2. Quilt progress: Back on 22nd December I cleared up all my WIPs and made sure that the only thing I carried into 2015 was the World's Slowest Quilt, which I originally started in April 2012. Since then I've: bought the remaining quilt top fabrics I needed; cut out all the pieces; made 36 quilt top blocks; organized the blocks/batting/backing sandwiches (I am making a quilt-as-you-go quilt, so I have to assemble each block separately); and started quilting. My quilting so far is really REALLY basic, I've just been outline quilting along the seam-lines of the blocks. I plan to try to get fancier with my quilting, including possibly trying out my free motion foot that came with the machine, as I progress further into my pile of blocks. (So far I have quilted 3 of 36, so I have time!)

Blocks waiting to be quilted (the very large pile) and already quilted (the very small pile)
I'm not disliking the experience of quilting -- there was something very satisfying about making all those lovely straight lines of stitches and pressing the seams open. However, I can't say I'm a massive quilting convert so far. Plus, to be honest I keep looking at the part where I have to connect all the blocks together at the end and going D: However, forward momentum has been achieved!

3. Partly momentum has been achieved because I am dragging my feet on my next garment project. Well, next but one -- first I have to make a boring but necessary pair of yoga pants, but then I am going to make a new shirt or two. However, in order to make it I have to muslin it and eh, I have a case of the don'twannas about the whole thing.

Here is the pattern, Vogue 9906 from about 1978-9 (ish), which I picked up from eBay in my mad pattern buying spree at the end of last year. I shan't be wearing a beret to accompany my version, but I am planning to make view B.

Vintage Vogue 9906
There are several reasons I have to muslin this blouse -- mainly that the bust fullness is provided by shoulder gathers rather than a dart so I can't do what I did with my previous shirtmaking attempts and slap a darted sloper over the top as a comparison. Also, the shoulder is forward and I always have to adjust, sometimes quite dramatically, for square shoulders, and I am not entirely certain how to do that with this pattern -- stick a wedge in it somehow, is all I know for sure.

4. Meanwhile, my sewing-related reading at the moment is dominated by tailoring books and the Alabama Chanin books (not intended for use together). I am still obsessed with making a jacket (although if I have the don'twannas about muslining/fitting a shirt, you can't imagine the extent to which I am digging in my feet over fitting a coat or jacket) and also, separately, with the whole embellishment/embroidery/slow sewing thing at the moment. I keep sort of marrying up all kinds of other, sometimes long-held obsessions with both of these things, with the end result that I have Grand And Epic Plans, in my head at least, for things to make and do in the future. Alas, I fear my ambitions and my abilities are, as always, separated by several miles, but Grand and Epic Plans are always the most fun in the creation stage.

5. And finally, since a numbered post is not a proper post unless it has 5 things in it, a minor personal update. Long-time readers may recall that since I have been quite seriously ill off and on for almost two years now, which culminated in me having to leave my job and return to the UK last summer. I was actually starting to feel tons better in the autumn, almost back to normal even, but then I relapsed spectacularly in mid-November and I've been miserably ill ever since. However, last week some new and different progress was finally made after I went to a long-awaited appointment with the Most Special Of All Specialists down in London. Among other things, the Most Special Specialists FINALLY gave me a diagnosis (except it has the word idiopathic in the name, which basically means: haha, we don't really know why this is happening to you! but never mind). There are several more hoops to jump through before I actually get the new treatment they prescribed, but I am very hopeful that things are looking up already health-wise for 2015. :D :D :D

Unfortunately, I then celebrated by buying 5m of fabric, but let's not focus on that. /o\

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

In which I embroider (and review a Craftsy embroidery class)

Over the last few weeks I've finished a few small projects that involved some element of simple embroidery, mainly just tote bags. The more I did, the more I realized that actually, I have no real idea what I am doing with embroidery beyond the absolute basics and a couple of tiny sashiko projects that I made at the end of 2013.

I considered buying a book to help fill in my knowledge gaps -- and I probably still will, in fact, buy one or more embroidery books -- but in the meantime I had another resource available to me. In my round-up of my 2014 spending on craft projects, I mentioned that over the last few years I have bought but never used several Craftsy classes and, as I had concluded that they were poor value for money, I had sworn off buying any more. The last one I bought before I made this decision was "Design It, Stitch It: Hand Embroidery" presented by Jessica Marquez, which I had never even started. From memory, I saw this reviewed extensively on someone's blog (probably someone who got paid by Craftsy for the doing so) and because this whole embellishment/embroidery thing has been rumbling along on my wish list of things to try for quite a long time, I bought it when it next came up cheap in one of Craftsy's (many) sales. (I should add that I am in no way affiliated, paid by, or even a fan of Craftsy. I'm not going to link to Craftsy/the class directly so that there's no question about this.)
My set of ineptly embroidered samplers
At any rate, when I decided I needed to try out some embroidery stitches this last week or so, this seemed like a good chance to get some use from the class. I therefore spent a few days making like a ye olden days schoolgirl and doing some simple samplers according to a template provided by the Craftsy class, making extensive use of the videos.

Sampler 1: Flat stitches (I really liked the multicoloured stitches in the middle)

The class is divided into five lessons, each of which deals with a group of stitches and has a sampler attached, plus a class on designing your own simple embroidery templates. The stitches are (from left to right) flat/straight stitches, chain stitches, knitted stitches, cross stitches and fill stitches. You're encouraged at the end to turn your samplers into a tiny mini quilt thing for framing but, uh, no.

Sampler 2: Chain stitches (I really liked the couching stitch and the bottom and the daisies)
I used plain unbleached calico as my base and alternated between stitching with polyester embroidery thread on a spool (the lilac thread) that I erroneously bought a couple of years ago and various random skeins of embroidery thread left over from a cross-stitch kit gifted to me when I was 11. Since I turn 40 this year, this latter will tell you something about (a) my level of hoardery, but also (b) my level of organization, since I was immediately able to put my hands on the small tin box in which I stored said skeins of embroidery thread at least 25 years ago when I finally abandoned the half-finished cross-stitch thing. I also had a wooden embroidery frame left over from that same project that I used. I also had some embroidery needles that came in a box of assorted needles when I first started sewing. So my overall costs for trying this out were very low just because I happened to have hoarded carefully preserved so many hitherto useless pieces of equipment and thread.

Sampler 3: Knotted Stitches (I like how some of these look, but omg, I hated doing them)
 Overall, I found the samplers straight forward to use and quite entertaining to try. There are several stitches I immediately loved, especially some of the chain stitches, couching and some of the cross stitch variations. I liked the knotted stitches least as they were time consuming and went wrong all the time, and were impossible to fix once they had gone wrong. The fill stitches (satin stitch and the like) were also time consuming but look really good when you're finished (except my Cretan stitch, which is at the bottom of the sampler on the far right, which went so very wrong and I hated it).

Sampler 4: Cross stitches. (I liked the stars and the multi-coloured stitch best)

As far as the Craftsy class itself is concerned, I found that the presenter was actually very good. She's very clear and gets a good balance between showing what she is doing and talking about it. She also makes mistakes/fumbles a bit in places but what's good is that she talks about how to fix the little problems that come up as you embroider (like the skein working loose, or thread getting pulled in from the back). I actually found her soothing to watch because she seems much more comfortable with being silent than many Craftsy presenters, who seem to feel the need to fill the empty air with a lot of useless words. She does shill for her book quite a bit, though, and she needed to find new words other than graphic and textural since she says both about a million times.

Sampler 5, Fill Stitches (with terrible, TERRIBLE Cretan stitch at the bottom in blue)
As I was stitching the samplers I found myself weighing up the difference between the class and buying an embroidery book. With a book, I'd have had a more permanent and accessible record of how to do each type of stitch, and for the price I paid for it I could have bought a much more comprehensive guide to embroidery stitches. That said, it was definitely easier sometimes to see someone doing the stitch than look at diagrams, especially when you're first starting out with something like chain stitch, which I had not done before. Every subsequent variation on a theme is much easier when you've seen the first, basic stitch demonstrated.

I am not really walking back from my original position that Craftsy classes have mostly been a waste of money for me, given that I made such limited use of the classes I've bought. However, I am actually pretty happy with this particular class and how I was able to use it. I don't doubt I could have replicated the content with various free YouTube videos, but the pre-packaged content of the class and sampler templates was very convenient and easy to follow. I think the big problem with the YouTube approach is that you have to know what it is you don't know in order to look for the content. Since I was starting from scratch, this was far easier.

In the end, my conclusion is rather specific: if you can get the class in one of the Craftsy sales, you have very little embroidery experience and don't really know where to start, I actually consider this particular class to offer decent value, not least because the presenter is clear and her presentation style is easy to watch.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Made: Gift cowl and more embroidered tote bags

I have started 2015 doing exactly the same things I was doing at the end of 2014, for basically the same reasons. I'm currently unwell again (still) and so I am mainly limited to projects that I can do while sitting on my sofa in my PJs or close equivalent. I started to try to pin a pattern onto fabric for something more complicated today but, ugh, no, not happening. Hence my crafty endeavours seem to be limited at present to long blog posts about wardrobe planning, knitting and inept embroidery on little tote bags and may be for a couple more weeks.
"Gap-tastic cowl" in Sirdar Click Chunky, colourway Flock

This is my third Gap-tastic Cowl (Ravelry link) and I may just cast on a fourth in the next couple of days. This particular version is a gift for my mum. I was knitting my blue and grey version and chatting to her about her birthday coming up later this month. When I asked what she'd like as a present, she said actually, she'd quite like a cowl like I was knitting. After deliberation, her yarn choice was this oatmeal with black flecks, called Flock, from the Sirdar Click Chunky range. I really like Sirdar Click. It's not a very expensive or fancy yarn and it's only 30% wool, but it's lovely to knit, stays soft in wear and doesn't bobble, and it comes in a nice variety of colours. I am quite happy with this cowl -- at this point, I am thoroughly competent at moss stitch and the cowl knitted up very quickly and easily. I'm pleased to have got this done for her well ahead of her birthday!

In addition to a plan to make a couple more cowls (one double-stranded with a vintage bouclé yarn to this pattern and one in a totally different pattern, just for a bit of diversity), I also intended to make another pair of socks and started to cast them on last night. However, the yarn I had bought, Debbie Bliss Fine Donegal Tweed, is weirdly lumpy and uneven, and even as I was just casting on I could see that I was going to struggle with it on toothpick width 2.25mm needles. Thus: a change of plan. Inspired by Today's Agenda, and despite the fact that she is self-evidently extremely accomplished as a knitter whereas I am at the level of being happy that I can do moss stitch without making a mistake, I decided I would use my weird nobbly yarn and make a Nurmilintu scarf (Ravelry link), which I had already queued on Ravelry but didn't really think I was ready to start knitting. However, I need a lightweight project to take with me to many forthcoming occasions when I will be sitting, bored, in waiting rooms, and nothing else really grabbed me.

Embroidered tote bags
Meanwhile, I possibly need to stop making these little tote bags now before I vanish under a tidal wave of them. I do enjoy making them though, and it's a way to practice these embellishment techniques while (a) the actual quality of the outcome is kind of irrelevant since it's just a tote bag and yet (b) the stuff I make in the process still has some use.

At any rate, whereas the last couple of bags I made for my own use used reverse appliqué, these two are simply embroidered. On the left, the roses are outlined in running stitch to a design adapted from a stencil in a book I acquired just after Christmas called Printing By Hand. (Which is a beautiful book, though I can't really review it with any conviction as I've not tried anything from it yet nor even read the instructions for anything properly.) The bag is lined in a mottled green inside, so it's quite sweet really. The blue bag on the right (which has a blue lining) uses another Alabama Chanin stencil, this one called Facets (this is the placement version, there's a larger stencil as well). I decided to do that one as a practice at backstitch and, no surprise, I am shockingly bad at it! My "straight" lines are wonky as hell. It looks OK if you stand a good distance away and squint though, I guess.

In the background, I have also made tons of progress on the World's Slowest Quilt. I ordered, and received with excellent promptness, various fat quarters of fabric. I've cut those out and I'm just waiting for one more piece of fabric to arrive and then I will have everything ready to begin stitching. The design I've picked is so incredibly simple that the actual piecing together of the quilt blocks shouldn't take long at all.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Wardrobe Planning IIIa: The numbers game

The story so far of my Wardrobe Planning efforts:

I: Why I started thinking about it at all.
II: The role starting to sew has played in developing my ideas about the wardrobe plan

At the end of the Wardrobe Planning last post I said that this next entry would be about how I want to dress, but actually, as the title should suggest, it turned out to be only tangentially about that. Instead, I'm going to talk a little bit about wardrobe planning as a numbers game. It will surprise nobody who has read this blog at all regularly that I was strongly attracted from the very outset to doing some kind of numerical analysis of both my existing and my planned wardrobe. That's just my nature and my training. Thus one of the starting points for me in my whole wardrobe planning thought process was a simple question:

How many items of clothing do I really need?

You can imagine this question being asked plaintively (with suspicious undertones that however many that number was, it was a different number to the amount I had in front of me in my closet when I asked) and also curiously, because as soon as I asked it I found myself floundering about trying to articulate all kinds of hitherto tacit assumptions I was making about the number I needed. As soon as I started to make any kind of decision about numbers, I found myself having to articulate those assumptions, and the risks I saw in challenging them.

For this post, part IIIa, I am going to talk about the numbers game from the initial broad perspective, and in part b, about my own wardrobe by the numbers and the directions thinking about my wardrobe in this way has taken me. (It's in two parts because, as always, I am Wordy McWorderson.)

The plentiful and limited wardrobe paradigms

In the wild world of the internet, if you go wandering in search of information about how many items of clothing you "should" have, you immediately encounter two clashing paradigms.

The plentiful wardrobe

The first is the overwhelming but mostly tacit paradigm of the western world: the maxim of plenty, born of a society where seemingly one of our chief roles as citizens of industrialized nations is to consume. In the world of clothing, this is fuelled by the rhetoric of fashion, which encourages us to regard still-wearable but older clothing as having no value, and new items of clothing as essential, all because of product differences that are, in the grand scheme of things, marginal at best.

The work of building the plentiful wardrobe is accumulation and the acquisition of novelty. You must be constantly out there, looking for things to add to your wardrobe that are new and different from what you already own. In the worst excesses of this paradigm, you literally cannot own enough and nothing you purchase is durable. There are always new micro-trends to pursue and always tiny differentiations among products that make new acquisitions essential; there is always constant novelty to seek out and purchase. We are encouraged towards a faster and faster pace of acquisition by "fast fashion", which not only turns over those meagrely differentiated products more quickly than ever, but which offer clothes they openly admit are not constructed to last much past a few wears (Zara, for example, and their 10-washes-and-it's-done design policy). Celebrities, never knowingly photographed twice wearing the same clothes twice, are the public face of this sort of consumption. Those few people in the public eye that do not fully conform to this constant parade of novelty, the Duchess of Cambridge being the strangest and most interesting of the semi-holdouts, are either slammed, or, in the Duchess' case, scrutinized minutely for the subtle political statements she must surely be making by wearing the same distinctive item of clothing a second time. Even if we don't aspire to the excesses of Hollywood, we are constantly being sold an image of glamour and beauty that depends in part on novelty and plentifulness.

I am going to guess nobody reading my blog is fully bought in to the idea of mindless, endless consumption as portrayed by celebrities who are, after all, mostly getting their wardrobes given them to free by designers and whose livelihoods depend on their appearance. In fact, I would guess the opposite, that many people reading this might like to think they are above being influenced by the messages shown to us by the media, which is almost never as true as one might like it to be. However, I would tend to argue that those of us who live lives far from the media spotlight that drives some of the most extreme consumption behaviours are still heavily influenced by the same forces, although often dressed up in more practical guises.

For example, I remember having a conversation with a friend about what she should pack for a lengthy business trip, who told me she would never wear exactly the same outfit to work two days in a row, especially if it were something highly distinctive. At the time I nodded and agreed without much thought, because at that moment her statement simply seemed self-evident: nor would I, generally, in the places I have worked. The last time I did so was probably when I wore school uniform, and as soon as I got to sixth form (grade 12) and was expected to wear "dress code" rather than specific garments I would make some minor effort not to wear the same clothes on consecutive days. I would think that outside of jobs where you wear a uniform of some description (scrubs, for example, or a full uniform or corporate polo t-shirt) many women would generally not choose to wear the same outfit two days running. Certainly women in serious professional roles in the public eye (politicians, for example) do not generally seem do so, in my (limited) observation. We are accustomed, particularly in white collar, office environments, to a norm in which women wear something visibly different pretty much every day of the week.

As soon as you start thinking about how this applies to your own life in any detail, though, it seems entirely ridiculous. I work in a non-media-facing, physically undemanding white collar job where I suspect most people I encounter would be hard-pushed to recall major physical details about my appearance, let alone what I wore yesterday (unless I had waltzed in to teach a class in a space suit or something equally outlandish). Yet, even though my clothes are unmarked by any kind of demanding labour and my clothing choices have typically been fairly circumspect, I have always felt quite compelled to ring the changes in my outfits all week, every week. Even now, after thinking about the underlying issues extensively, I probably would still feel vaguely uncomfortable if I turned up for work at the office in the same clothes I had worn the day before. Why do I feel obliged to do this? What, and whose, purpose am I serving by wearing slightly different variations on a theme of "suitably dressed female academic" every day?

The reality is that the maxim of wardrobe plenty bears down on us less obviously than on celebrities but still powerfully. I tried to think of the worst construction that could be made on turning up at work in the same clothes two days running and came up with: "I didn't go home last night" (thus calling my morals into question); "I don't value cleanliness" (and since western societies strongly correlate cleanliness and moral rectitude, much else about my character comes immediately into question); "I don't own enough clothes to change mine every day, so I must be poor, or I must be spending the salary I am known to receive on other, inappropriate things"; "I am not spending "enough" time on my appearance commensurate to my age/role/money/influence, and therefore I can't be trusted to allocate my time appropriately in other ways", and so on. If we believe that there are ranks of invisible critics just waiting to make these sorts of judgements based on what we are wearing, then self-evidently it's much easier to drag on a different pair of pants in the morning than risk that these are the messages I am sending. And then, if the first bit of variety is good and silences those voices, then more variety is better, and massive variety is better still... and in this direction, clearly, is a path towards a larger and larger wardrobe. (Except then, at some invisible tipping point and because life isn't fair, you have too many clothes for those invisible critics, and your judgement is called into question because clearly nobody has enough space in her head for both fashion AND whatever sorts of higher brain activity her life involves: coding, or caring for her children or curing cancer.)

On top of this drive to plenty from fear of judgement, you then have to layer the complication of different occasions and people in our lives requiring us to adopt different dress codes, and thus to own different clothes to meet the requirements of each. This does not just mean the obvious extremes of not wearing yoga pants to church or evening wear to meet a friend for coffee, but the impact of tiny gradations like "smart casual" versus "business casual" and needing some portion of your wardrobe to fit in each category. You have to remember as well that we are immersed in a media and retail environment that constantly reinforces the idea of shifting "fashion" and thus requires us continually "update" our wardrobes. "10 Hot New Trends For Spring 2015!" every magazine is screaming right now, as if there will be, or should be, something special and different about 2015 compared to all the preceding springs that requires us to dress in clothes we did not own last year. Throw in too, for women in particular, the engrained sense that when we get dressed we do so as much to provide entertainment and interest for others as for utility: that we have a duty not only to be as attractive as possible, but to do so in a way that is somehow provides a pleasingly novel interest in the landscape for the people around us.

Suddenly, when you consider all these pressures, even for ordinary women in ordinary jobs and leading ordinary lives, "large" does not seem to undesirable as a wardrobe size. Very large starts to seem like it might be quite fun, actually, the sort of thing you might do for yourself if your lottery numbers came up.  Plentifulness seems the easiest answer to the problem of dealing with all these demands on what you wear: the invisible ranks of critics just waiting to use my clothes as an excuse to slander my character will surely find no purchase if I just own a large enough wardrobe. If you own enough things, surely, surely you must have something suitable available for every conceivable dress code situation in which you might find yourself.

My once-upon ideal wardrobe
When I think back to the wardrobe I rather desperately aspired to, back in my pre-sewing, pre-weight loss, miserable-job days, if I had a mental image of an ideal wardrobe it was precisely one that conformed to this idea of plenty. I imagined a walk-in wardrobe (a scarcity in British homes and unlikely to ever be something I have in a home within my budget) with carefully spaced, neatly ranked racks of clothes offering me near limitless choice. As far as my clothing size, space and cheapskate frugal nature allowed, that was in fact what I attempted to recreate. Whenever I read wardrobe planning posts elsewhere on the web, I am struck by the same undercurrent in many other people's lives: we are pushed to plentifulness as the easy answer to all the pressures that getting dressed comprises, not least because it suits the fashion and retail industries very well for us to be unquestioning of the drive to consumption that this creates. I am sure there are women, perhaps even many or a majority of women, who enjoy this plentifulness and who manage it more or less successfully, and if they do, that is A-OK with me. For me, personally, however, what I ended up with when I pursued the plentiful wardrobe ideal was a closet full of a great many clothes of largely indifferent quality. Rather than having limitless choice that reduced my overall concern that I could dress well, I wore a limited subset of clothes over and over, and was no happier for owning the excess that lay unused in drawers and hung unwanted on hangers. 

The limited wardrobe

The other extreme of course, is a consciously limited wardrobe, where you own precisely some number of clothes, suitable for your particular purposes, and no more. There are many, many people looking to sell you some variation on a model of how this should work (and I say "sell" because very often these come with a book or some other purchasable object attached). I am going to mention a few that I have personally spent time thinking about, not out of any desire to endorse them or because I believe they are intrinsically better than the alternatives, but because those happen to be the articulations of the limited wardrobe that most caught my attention and interest.

The ways to implement a wardrobe goal of just enough are actually quite fragmented in approach because of the differences in the underlying goals of those writing about it. These goals include everything from reducing the environmental and ethical footprint of their wardrobe, to aesthetic minimalism, to money-saving, to (most weirdly to me) aping some allegedly unique "French" approach to fashion and dress. Despite these differences, there are some fairly common themes: a focus on versatility and usefulness; a concern with how buying is executed, though with different emphases (environmentally friendly or thrift-focussed, for example, vs. purchasing high quality and only once); and the idea of curation as the on-going work of this wardrobe rather than accumulation. The underlying numbers of garments in these wardrobes also vary, from the tiny (12-15) to the more generous (30-50), to the unspecified, potentially large wardrobe that is nevertheless closely curated (often one-in-one-out).

The most interesting difference to me between the various limited wardrobes I've considered is the extent to which they reject or embrace the same pressures that create the environment in which the plentiful wardrobe has become the norm. On the one hand, you have what I would call the stylish but limited wardrobe and do more with less side of the limited wardrobe debate. They do not reject the pressures that create the drive to plentifulness, they just recognize where the worst excesses come from and try to mitigate and to some extent subvert them.

In the stylish but limited wardrobe, the idea is that you do adopt trends, but you do so in a highly thoughtful, structured and planned way. In practice, this means doing a tremendous upfront work to determine what the current trends are, which of them you like and suit you in various ways, when and where you are going to buy constituent components and how they will work with everything else you own. The best example I have run across of this is You Look Fab's wardrobe planning section and overall blog approach. In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit I find the overall tenor of this blog vaguely repellent and can't bear to read it with any degree of regularity. However, it, and the forums attached to it, do demonstrate that just because you are actively planning your wardrobe and rejecting the pure accumulative model, you do not necessarily have to have a small wardrobe, nor do you have to eschew fashion and novelty. I think this is likely to be a highly attractive halfway house for many people, and particularly people with a strong interest in fashion and trends who also want to be more measured and structured in their approach.

The do more with less brigade are more focussed on numerical limitation and creating an illusion of plenty within constraints. In these models, there is therefore a lot of time spent discussing "remixing", concluding mainly that a smaller number of garments consisting of both versatile basics and a few distinctive garments still contains a huge number of possible combinations, including options that you might not have considered without the constraint of wardrobe scarcity. These articulations of the limited wardrobe also tend to rely heavily on accessories as a way to ring the changes in outfits so that you don't look like you're wearing the same thing several days running (even if you are).

This is, in fact, a fairly straightforward subversion of the plentiful wardrobe: make your limited wardrobe seem plentiful, even though it's not! A good example of this is The Vivienne Files. This blog author explores multiple ways to build a small, easily "remixed" wardrobe in the middle range of sizes (30+ garments), with a great deal of discussion and examples of combinations that can be worn and the use of accessories.  Project 333 is another example, although the motivations behind this model seem rather murky and catch-all to me, as it appears to try to appeal to declutterers, aesthetic minimalists and anti-consumerists all at the same time. However, both of these models are much more about developing a personal style and look that is less dependent on trend than the larger "stylish wardrobe" alternative.

The most radical point of view is much rarer. It starts from the premise that the number of clothes you own is far less important than our prevailing culture asks us to believe, and encourages you to pare down to a very limited just enough wardrobe. An example of this is The Daily Connoisseur, who has a very limited day-to-day wardrobe (about 20 garments), some of which are quite distinctive. She emphasises, in addition to paring down the numbers within your wardrobe, a need to make sure that all constituent components are of quality level to survive frequent wear and wash, and are intrinsically attractive enough to you that you are going to want to wear them a great many times. Her argument seems to be that if it's suitable for the occasion and beautiful, it is no less suitable or beautiful the fiftieth time you wear it as the first, assuming proper laundry care. You can see her actual wardrobe roundups on her YouTube channel (to save you trawling her actual blog, which is full of paid-for product reviews etc). If you watch her other, non-wardrobe v-logs at all, you'll note that she does legitimately seem to wears the same (expensive/high-quality, sometimes designer, a high proportion high-maintenance e.g. silk) clothes daily. (The big down side of TDC, in my opinion, is that she couches her whole argument in a Francophile "because this is what Parisians do, omg" gimmick, which I find baffling and off-putting.)

When I first saw TDC's 20 item wardrobe, and despite my general feeling that the drive to plenty is a manufactured pressure designed to make us consume, my knee-jerk reaction was that this is risky. However, I think that reaction stems from precisely the set of assumptions that make the plentiful wardrobe so attractive, the unthinking first choice that didn't work at all well for me, and thus it is worth re-examining at least some of those assumptions.

One of the big problems for me personally, particularly after my experiences with my dreadful boss, was my concern about the response of other people to what I wear. I do still believe that people notice what we wear and make judgements. My own experience was that those judgements can trend towards the negative and it can, legitimately or not, affect your career. If my wardrobe was tiny, it seemed to me I'd be risking a slew of such negative responses. Twenty (or so) garments is certainly enough clothes that you wouldn't have to wear the same thing every day, but over a season you'd be repeating a great deal more frequently than "the norm" and it's quite possible that something quite distinctive would be noticed if you wore it often enough. Would people be secretly noticing that I wore the same thing over and over and wondering if I was gambling away my salary or not doing my laundry?

On the other hand, I think we might also be legitimately cynical about the existence of the invisible ranks of critics mentioned previously. How much do people, who are, let's admit it, mostly much more concerned with themselves and their own appearance, really notice about what you wear? Even assuming a profoundly judgemental audience, do we really, truly believe that that people in ordinary, non-fashion-focussed workplaces are tracking how often we wear certain garments? Could you really say, with any degree of certainty, how often even BFF wears the same outfit? I doubt I could. Personally, even when I think about the people I considered my closest friends or my best-dressed co-workers at previous workplaces, I can't say I ever took conscious note of what specific garments they wore. I don't know that I would have noticed if they wore the same 20 garments for an entire season at work, or even whether they wore the same outfit two days running.

Increasingly, I'm inclined to think that people mostly receive impressions of what we're wearing and don't notice the details, and that most of their judgements are happening well below the level of conscious thought: they might recall that you looked suitably professional, without being aware of any details about the particular outfit you were wearing that day. People notice inconsistency too, hence the nightmare of everyone in the office asking if you are going to an interview if you turn up one day at work looking more dressed up than usual. Thus, if I wore 20 garments of consistent quality, fit and style to work that were wholly suitable for the environment I worked in, would anyone actually notice that there were only 20 of them? I suspect the answer is closer to "no" in more workplaces than "yes".

You can unpick the questions about whether you need to follow trends or pay attention to what is fashionable; to conform to perceived tiny differences in dress code rather than simply the major ones; or to conform to the unstated expectation that you are responsible for making the landscape interestingly novel for people who have to look at you every day in much the same way. In doing so, you begin to realize first, how perniciously unquestioned many of these assumptions have been in your life, and second, that the model of plentifulness is rather tawdry and obviously serving someone else's interests than your own, especially if you personally have only a limited interest in fashion and clothes as a means of self-expression. I would have to say, personally, that though sewing has awakened an interest in choosing how I dress, it's never going to be my biggest interest. I am interested in finding a style and a look that suits me, but ultimately I also want getting dressed to be simple and easy many days. The very limited wardrobe does look quite appealing on these grounds.

In one of her FAQ vlogs, which I cannot locate, The Daily Connoisseur also answers the other question about novelty that I imagine she gets all the time: do you not get bored with your tiny wardrobe? Her answer is that she chooses not to make clothes be a thing she gets bored about. I would also note that this is another thing we are being sold by the vested interests of fashion and retail: this idea that buying something new is desirable for all sorts of reason that have nothing to do with actually needing or wanting the actual article of clothing, and everything to do with feeding a constant need for novelty in our lives. If you choose not to buy into that, then the frequency with which you are wearing your clothes becomes much less problematic -- you are not bored by your wardrobe because you are not concerned with how frequently you wear things. I don't think this is as easily said as done for some people. I think most people can train themselves to recognize when they are seeking novelty due to exogenous pressures rather than inherent interest, but I also think some people are just more novelty-seeking as a personality trait. Moreover, if you are highly accustomed to using clothing as a vibrant means of self-expression, this wardrobe plan would seem stifling, and it would indeed take a major principled commitment to live in this manner.

And this to me is the sticking point of the just enough wardrobe. Although I think the tiny wardrobe approach is probably much less risky than it initially appeared to me, I can't imagine myself fully embracing it. In fact, I think many women would struggle with a sense that somehow, in frequently repeating the same outfits, they were not doing this getting-dressed-in-the-morning thing right, because, despite how trivial it must seem, it is a weirdly counter-cultural thing to do. You have to really want to live like that, in other words, because everything in our media and retail environment is going to try to push you in the other direction, towards the boundless consumption of the plentiful wardrobe. The tiny wardrobe approach needs a degree of principled commitment to the ideas that underpin it, and a willingness to experiment with something that, irrespective of the truth of it, does appear to contain more risk than almost any other wardrobe alternative. (On a more pragmatic note, I also think many people would struggle initially to figure out what specific 20 garments they could live with for a whole season would be, and it would take, again, a commitment to constant review and curation to get this right in the first period in which you lived like this.)

In conclusion...

So where then did all this thought and discussion leave me on the fundamental "by the numbers" question: how many items of clothing do I need?

I am very much closer, after all this thought, to embracing the limited wardrobe models than the plentiful wardrobe paradigm. One thing that appeals to me thoroughly from the limited wardrobe approach is the idea that all the clothes I own should be of high quality, high durability, high versatility and, above all, my wardrobe should contain only things that I actively like and want to wear. I feel that if I had a wardrobe full of clothes of this type, it would naturally and without any real difficulty lead to me own fewer clothes overall and to be much happier with what I do own. On the other hand, I find a lot of the "endless variety by employing judicious use of scarves!" stuff on the remixing side of the discussion rather tedious and unhelpful.

I have to admit though that I'm probably not passionately committed enough to the small wardrobe/small footprint/anti-consumerism principles of the truly tiny wardrobe to really make it stick over the long-term. I am interested enough in these ideas to make them important parts of my wardrobe planning process, but not enough to take the plunge into the most radical extremes.

In the next post I will therefore talk about my own wardrobe by the numbers, and where reworking these numbers has taken me over the last eighteen months, towards a sort of middling ground of wardrobe size and planning.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy New Year! And a little discussion of the inevitable Goals For The Year

Happy New Year! Hope everyone isn't too hung over today. :D

This is my very last post with any kind of reflection on 2014, I promise. However, I did set some goals for 2014 (and updated mid-year) that I'll just whizz through before talking about 2015:
  • Stick to a budget for all my sewing/knitting/related endeavours. Result: A+ budgeting, self.  :D \o/
  • Use more fabric than I bought. Result: I bought a lot of fabric in 2014 (over 70m) but I also used a lot of fabric (and gave a little bit away) so I managed to finish the year overall with just about 18.5m less in stash that I started with. Not the biggest reduction, but a reduction all the same. \o/
  • Make bags. Result: Nope. I mean, yes, I made various tote bags, but nothing like the nifty, complex bags I had in mind at the beginning of the year. No real reason for this, my bag project plans just never made it to the top of the sewing queue.
  • Make a collared blouse. Result: Yes, two of them, and one of them is my favourite thing I made in 2014 (my chambray shirt). \o/
  • Develop a TNT woven dress. Result: Nope. Some of this is about my continued ambivalence about wearing dresses, some of it about how my lifestyle changed mid-year and a related lack of need for a formal work wardrobe.
  • Make a lined jacket or coat. Result: Nope. I planned this in over and over, and as late as October I really thought I would get to work on it through the last six to eight weeks of the year. However, in the end for most of this year I wasn't well enough for a long enough period to really get going on this rather daunting project.
  • Make a pair of trousers. Result: I'm going to give myself a sort of qualified \o/ for this. I did not make the kind of woven, fly-fronted, formal trousers that I meant when I set this goal. However, I did try out an awful lot of the constituent parts of making them, and always with the thought in mind that it was practice for making woven trousers. I made two fly-fronted skirts. I fitted and then made some woven shorts. I made multiple pairs of knit full-length trousers. I've done many of the pieces of this, in other words, and next year I just need to bring them all together.
  • Finish 6 knitted objects. Result: I finished 8 knitted objects. \o/
  • Other. I also wanted to work on the World's Slowest Quilt (Result: I made a tiny amount of progress at the very last minute in December); improve my photographs on this blog (Result: probably not MUCH of an improvement, but I did make an effort not to post anything actively blurry or too horribly dark this year); and to work on my wardrobe plan (Result: I definitely did!) Overall, I'm going to call it a \o/.
And now, thinking ahead to 2015:

GOALS
  • Stick to my 2015 budget. This includes a resolution to spend less on patterns as a % of total than in 2014.
  • Use more fabric that I buy, and reduce my overall garment stash by 50m and my bag stash by 20m by the end of the year.
  • Reduce my yarn stash by at least half.
  • Maintain and stick to my wardrobe plan, which, practically speaking, means continuing to aim to sew clothes in the right colours, proportions and styles to match my "ideal wardrobe" and which will get a suitable amount of wear.
AMBITIONS 

If I have an over-arching ambition for 2015 it is to increase the complexity of my sewing. I really enjoyed sewing the clothes that I made in 2014 and I did wear a great many of them on a regular basis. I definitely consider that a great outcome from a year of sewing. However, from a sewing skill perspective I fully admit that at least 90% of them were very simple garments even by my undemanding "advanced beginner" standards, with very few pattern pieces or sewing processes involved.

On the one hand, I definitely still want/need to make simple garments like knit tops because I want them in my wardrobe and wear them all the time, so I'm certainly not looking to swing the pendulum all the way in the opposite direction. On the other hand, I've always worn a lot of structured, tailored clothes because that's my aesthetic preference, especially in work attire. If I'm going to develop the wardrobe I want for work in particular (and I am determinedly assuming I am going to get well and go back to work this year) I'm going to need to start making those more complicated sorts of clothes as well.

This year, therefore, I'm aiming to shift the balance a little towards more complex, time-consuming and slow-to-make projects. A lot of my ambitions are therefore about making more complicated garments and/or trying out some more complicated details on clothes.

My other over-arching ambition is just to continue to find sewing, knitting and blogging about it fun and entertaining. Life is too short and complicated already for my hobbies to be a source of stress rather than pleasure.

Some more specific ambitions, subject to change:
  • Make 2-3 complex, awesome bags for my own use.
  • Make at least one Alabama Chanin style embellished garment.
  • Make at least one fitted woven dress.
  • Make at least one pair of woven, fly-fronted formal trousers.
  • Make a piece of outerwear.
  • Make a lined, tailored blazer.
  • Try out/improve on the following sewing techniques: welt pocket; fly-front (again); bound button-hole; make something with contrast top stitching.
I also want to:
  • Finish the Slowest Quilt In The World.
  • Make 6 knitted items (1 sock = 1 item) and increase the complexity of patterns I'm using (but in baby steps)
A couple of little blog plans:
  • Continue to try to improve my photos.
  • Finish the wardrobe planning series of posts.

And finally, I am planning to kick off 2015 with exactly the sort of mix I want to pursue this year. In my plan for January: some quick things, mainly easy knit garments to fill some deepest-winter layering wardrobe gaps; a muslin and hopefully a first proper version of an older (late 70s) Vogue shirt pattern with some fun little details; ordering some quilting fabric and getting started on the World's Slowest Quilt; casting on my first knitting project of the year; and last but not least, finishing up writing/editing my next Wardrobe Planning post. Phew. Just a bit going on then!

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Made: Embellished tote bags and quick knits

I have finished up my sewing/knitting year with a pile of little hand-sewing and knitting projects, probably because they're all the kind of thing you can do while sitting on the sofa watching Christmas TV and hanging out with family.

There's been a bit of a trend in some of the (many) blogs I read of people trying out the Alabama Chanin books and methods this year. Normally I'm not very excited by a lot of embroidery or embellishment, but something about the AC garments I've seen appeals to me and I really wanted to make something similar. I ordered one of the books just recently, but while I was waiting for it to arrive I decided to take a detour from the actual AC project suggestions from the books (which mainly use knits and involve hand stitching the whole project) and try out some simple reverse appliqué by hand on a woven fabric that I then constructed (by machine) into a tote bag.

Tote bag embellished with "Bloomer" stencil reverse applique and running stitch
For the first bag, I slightly modified one of the simpler stencils that I downloaded from the Alabama Chanin website (this stencil is "Bloomer") and then added in a circular "frame" in running stitch. The bag is a very simple box bottom tote bag with a separate lining (so where the reverse appliqué is there are three layers of fabric -- calico outer, mustard appliqué layer, mustard lining). From a distance I really like how this bag turned out, but the close up view of my hand-stitching/reverse appliqué is, alas, extremely unimpressive. It was immediately obvious why the AC projects tend to use knits, because it is definitely much harder to do reverse appliqué when you have to worry about turning under the fraying edges as you do the appliqué. Getting the edge turned over properly at any kind of point or corner turned out to be pretty much beyond my skill level.

Book bag embellished with Alabama Chanin "Anna's Garden" stencil

Nevertheless, I decided to make a second calico bag using the same technique but with a different, more complicated stencil ("Anna's Garden"). I left this one as a book bag (also lined, in the same green sateen as I used for the reverse appliqué) rather than a boxed base so that I could fill the whole of one side of the bag with the stencil. However, I realized almost as soon as I started stitching the stencilled section that some of the shapes in the stencil were just totally outside of my ability level with reverse appliqué if I was going to turn the edges under. I decided therefore to just outline many of the smaller and more complicated shapes in running stitch. The kindest thing I can say about the quality of the actual reverse appliqué bits is that I was probably slightly better at it by the end than I was at the beginning of making this. Very slightly.

Overall, I feel like the second bag did not live up to the image in my head at all, mainly because of the amount of running stitch I ended up doing. If I were to do it again, I'd probably do something different with the parts I couldn't appliqué and/or try to get a different balance of reverse appliqué vs. stitching for a better outcome. However, you know, it's a tote bag that cost me about £1 to make in materials, I am not going to cry over it not turning out quite as well as I hoped.

In conclusion, although my outcomes from these Alabama Chanin inspired projects were not very good from a technical point of view, I found the process of stitching these bags very enjoyable and I do like the outcomes aesthetically. I definitely want to have a go with (hopefully much more forgiving!) knits in the very near future.

Yoyo bags: version 1 with lines of yoyos; the interior with dancing hippes; version 2 with a heart and silver beads
The third and fourth bags I could possibly have included in my recent finishing-up-WIPs post as they're partly made from a very old project. However, that would suggest that I have any idea whatsoever why I (a) originally made 50 red and white yoyos back in 2011 and then (b) put them in a sealed plastic bag, inside another bag, inside a box where they then stayed for two and a half years. I am pretty sure I had some sort of plan, but whatever that plan was I evidently didn't follow through and it didn't stick in my memory; when I found them again the other day, I honestly couldn't bring to mind a single clue what it was I thought I was going to do with them. Lacking any specific purpose for them, I decided that I might as well sew them onto some basic white cotton twill tote bags that I made. The lining in each bag is Dancing Hippos from Ikea. I'll probably fling these onto my Etsy shop eventually.

Gap-tastic Cowl in blue and grey aran weight
I have also been knitting furiously and over the last couple of weeks I've made two easy cowls. The first is another Gap-Tastic cowl (Ravelry link) which I previously made in September 2013. This time I used two very light aran weight yarns held together in two different colours, which is the first time I've tried this technique. The yarn is Aldi's 'Rustic Aran', which I got several enormous skeins of while I was living in Ireland. The pattern actually called for chunky (bulky) weight and working with two light aran yarns made for a very dense knit. I ended up finishing up about 10cm short of full pattern width because it was turning out so very heavy. I do like the finished product though, especially the grey/blue colour mix from using the two yarns. I'd like to make a hat to go with it but I am struggling for the perfect slouchy hat pattern for this yarn weight. In the meantime, my mum has requested a cowl of her own to this pattern for her birthday (in January) so I have more yarn on order for that already.

Seriously Chunky Christmas Day Cowl
The second cowl is in cheap and cheerful Cygnet Seriously Chunky (in the Nightjar colourway). I just did a very simple 18-stitch wide moss stitch scarf on giant 15mm needles and then seamed it together at the end as I have done before with similar yarn from Aldi. I started knitting this on Christmas morning after we had all settled down post-present opening in the morning, and I finished it up in the early evening just before I went home, to the amazement of my little niece. She was quite taken by the idea of knitting. I actually got her started for herself with a stocking stuffer gift that my mum had coincidentally bought her, a knitting dolly (also called a knitting nancy, or spool knitting or French knitting). She did also ask if she could have my scarf when I finished it, but I am sorry to say I told her no as I wanted it for myself!