Tension from Scratch?

Baking is hard

One of the best pieces of advice my mom ever gave me in regard to baking was to buy a box of white cake mix and blend in whatever flavor of cake I wanted to make. It’s proven effective for banana cake and coconut cake, and I’m interested in trying an orange cake later on down the road. The problem with the strategy though is that I never really learned the more elaborate way to make those cakes, if you consider it a problem. I mean, the cakes taste fine, so what does it matter if Pillsbury was involved?

I find myself having a similar conundrum now that it’s potentially approaching the right time for me to buy a new sewing machine. Which, by the way, isn’t the easiest step for me. I’m a creature of habit and comfort, guys — to the point where making myself watch a new movie might be a challenge. So buying a new sewing machine? Not necessarily an experience I excitedly dive into!

Decisions, decisions.

It also doesn’t help matters that I can be a cheap frugal person, so my #1 criterion in the past might have been, “Which one is cheapest???” Well, now that I have different goals in mind for the sewing machine other than just a hobby, I’m thinking I might want to expand my ideas a bit to make a more complex decision. That decision though has led me into the Pillsbury version of a sewing problem — should I learn more from scratch, or rely on modern conveniences?+

Let me explain that reasoning!

The truth of the matter is that I’m nowhere near a sewing expert, and there are details about the process and machinery that still leave me metaphorically scratching my head. I’ve come some distance in the things that I did learn and have practiced with, but there’s still so much left to find out and excel at. One of those things — something that I haven’t quite gotten the hang of yet — is tension, which can be SUCH A BIG DEAL with sewing by machine. As one source said, “[n]o matter what stitch you are sewing, it will look terrible if the tension if off” (Lawson, 2011, “Tension” section).

That’s a hefty amount of pressure to put on any one specific aspect of a sewing machine. Basically, I could do everything else perfectly and still have a horrible final product because I missed the mark on the tension detail. I kid you not when I say that my experience and understanding of tension might be laughable to a number of more advanced sewing enthusiasts, so logically, finding a machine that can make that detail easier would be a good idea for me, like one that automatically adjusts the tension.

Or would it?

That question moves into the Pillsbury section of territory for the sewing concept. Should I get a machine that will automatically adjust it for me, like Pillsbury assists me with cakes? Is that the best strategy in the long-run?

The lazy part of my brain screams, “YES!” and can back up that idea with coconut and banana memories of simple, scrumptious treats. But the other part of my mind — the one that realizes technology has definitely eased up sewing (and baking) to the point that my grandmother would probably be disappointed — says, “Uh, no.”

Can you picture someone casually sewing on one of these now?

Can you picture someone casually sewing on one of these now?

Honestly, when I think about the history of sewing and how few tools used to be available for the process, it’s potentially hard not to be a tad bit ashamed if I lean too much on technology to do the work for me. Even after sewing machines became a thing, there were still real differences to what we now have.

The struggle is real

It’s just like the notion that my Pillsbury-based cakes lack a certain impressive quality in comparison to a tasty baked-from-scratch cake. Sure, they’re good, but they aren’t that level of remarkable.

It’s a struggle between wanting an easy route and wanting a more challenging route, and at this point, I’m not 100% sure which way the decision will go. I could buy a machine that does the tension for me, and I could end up with wonderful projects without ever fully getting a handle on how to do tension for different crafts. Or I could make things harder on me for the moment, then come away from the experience as a more advanced quilter/sewing enthusiast.

Should I Pillsbury-cheat, or go the distance? Decisions, decisions, guys!

What do you think? It is worth it to learn how to do these things by hand and my own skills, with limited technology, so I can have a better grasp on the issue? Or do you think it doesn’t matter so long as the end products are good?

Lawson, S. (2011, August 17). “Sewing Back-to-School: Stiches & Tension.” Sew Sweetness. (2016, November 10). Retrieved from http://sewsweetness.com/2011/08/sewing-back-to-school-stitches-tension.html
Shopping in the New York City Garment District

Fabric Shopping in the New York City Garment District

Shopping in the New York City Garment DistrictWhen I first moved to NYC a lifetime ago, I worked for very little money as an assistant to a crazy hat designer in the heart of the garment district. The only upside to the job was that I spent a good part of every day out on the streets gathering fabric swatches and button and trim samples. There was another assistant who had been there for almost a year already and she took me around with her and introduced me to all the people and stores. The two of us had a great time digging through bins of buttons, wandering deep into the back corner of NY Elegant Fabrics, and convincing the nice people at Mood to let us into their “secret” warehouse (it really does exist).

I only stayed at that job for about a month, though it felt like a year, and the other assistant (who has since moved back to Korea to head up a fashion company there) and I still keep in touch. I don’t go to the garment district as often as I once did but I do have a list of must visit favorite places.

Mood – 225 West 37th Street

I’ll get this one out of the way first since most people at this point have heard of Mood which lucked into some amazing advertising when it became the fabric store featured on Project Runway. One of the coolest things about Mood is the building its in and the old elevator, still manned by an actual man, that you have to take up to the 3rd floor. Once up there, the rows and rows of fabric reach from floor to ceiling. Things are pretty well organized, the selection is large, and most bolts have swatches already cut and attached to the ends that you can take.

One little note about swatching in most all the stores in New York City: If someone asks if you are a student, say no. They’re asking because most stores have specific hours for student swatching and won’t allow you to do so if its not during those hours.

Also of note: Mood has a public restroom in the back right corner. 😉

NY Elegant – 222 West 40th Street

I love NY Elegant for its selection of light weight cottons, organdies, and batistes. NY Elegant is a family run store and is the last standing fabric store on 40th St. They also get a lot novelty fabrics – fake furs and things with glitter and sparkly threads.

Paron Fabrics – 257 West 39th Street

This is one of my absolute favorite family run fabric stores in the city. Sadly, they closed their doors for good just last month. I’m only including it to remind everyone to try and support their local fabric stores and if, you have the chance, come to NYC and shop in the garment district. You really can find almost any kind of fabric there by visiting the larger stores and just wandering down 39th street and stopping in to the small stores that still remain.

B & J Fabrics – 525 7th Ave #2

B & J is your best bet for high end linens, lace, and silks. The store is extremely well organized and always seems extraordinarily well lit in comparison to other garment stores. They are a little pricier than some of the other stores but the quality of the fabrics they stock is superb.

Lou Lou Buttons – 69 West 38th St

Lou Lou Buttons sells only buttons. They have bins and drawers and barrels full of buttons. They have wood buttons, shell buttons, mother of pearl buttons, and every funky, unique kind of button you could imagine. The people who work there are helpful and friendly and don’t seem to mind if you spend hours looking.

M & J Trimming – 1008 6th Ave

There are a lot of small trim stores in the garment district with beautiful things but M & J has by far the largest selection of trims in the city. And, unlike a lot of the garment district stores, they’re open on Sunday (you know, for those weekend trim emergencies.)

Tinsel Trading – 828 Lexington Ave

Shopping in the New York City Garment DistrictTinsel Trading recently moved out of the garment district to this new location on Lexington. They stock the most amazing unique vintage and new trims you’ll find (unless you’re shopping in India or Southeast Asia). Their stuff is expensive but much of it really is one of a kind. If you like metallic thread, fabrics, and fringes, this is the place to go.

If you’ve never had the chance to shop for fabric in New York City, I encourage you to plan a trip if possible – you won’t regret it. And, if you come during the month of December, you can also go visit the holiday windows at the retail stores along 5th Avenue – Bergdorf’s (always my favorite), Saks, etc.

How to Exercise Self-Control in the Fabric Shop

How to Exercise Self-Control in the Fabric Shop

How to Exercise Self-Control in the Fabric ShopWith so many beautiful colors and textures, it can be really hard to resist buying up ALL the fabric in the store. Things like budget, project specifics, and potential use fly away in the midst of gorgeous bolts. If you’re like most people, though, buying every bolt of fabric isn’t actually feasible. Following these tips will help you stay in control of your bolt buying and your bank account.

Bring Your Pattern

Bring your pattern with you, even if you know how much fabric you need. Having it physically in your hands – in the way of grabbing endless bolts – helps you remember why you’re in the fabric shop and actually prevents you from grabbing every bolt you see. It’s a way to ground yourself in the heaven of the fabric store.

Don’t Drop In

It may be tempting when out running other errands to simply drop in to the fabric shop for a break. Don’t do this. Without a specific project in mind, it’s far too easy to buy reams and reams of fabric that will only wind up in your stash supply and may falter there for years without being used. Instead, schedule your fabric shop trips to coincide with specific projects.

Make Fabric Shopping an Event

Instead of making fabric shopping a stop on the tour de errands, make it a special event. Allow yourself lots of time to luxuriate in the bolts of fabric before you have to make a purchase. The more time you spend, the fewer “must have” fabrics will leap off the shelves and tables at you. When you’ve narrowed the selection down, it’ll be much easier to choose just the right one for your project without bringing home a bunch of other options too.

Bring Your Budget

Although it’s not possible to bring your bank or an ATM, you can bring other physical reminders of your budget. Even a piece of paper with a number on it would be sufficient. The goal is the same as with bringing your pattern – having something to hold on to helps you remember you can’t buy every bolt in the store and also keeps your hands busy so they can’t grab every bit of fabric in sight.

What else do you do to control yourself in the fabric shop?

Finding the Fabrics

Finding the Fabrics

Sometimes, little decisions can make big impacts. Details that are minute and all but brushed aside as secondary could really have an effect on a life. Or in this case, a project! I’ve said before on this very blog that quilting is not baking, and it’s true! While I can guesstimate with my baking ingredients, specifics can be a serious deal when partaking in a sewing-related hobby. I’ve already covered that general topic, but for this blog post, I’d like to funnel that idea to one particular concept. That detail is picking out your fabrics for a project that requires more than one design of material.

In the world of sewing, matching isn’t the goal. Complementing is.

Now, I’m not saying that people don’t take this consideration seriously. I’m saying that in a world where you can find all kinds of free patterns online for sewing projects, this step is worth considering just as much as finding that right pattern, and that maybe there’s less help in regards to learning how to select a fabric set than—for instance— learning how to operate your sewing machine. After all, your fabric might not come with instructions or a series of recommendations for other fabrics to blend together into one project!

Gail Kesser helps you pick our your fabrics in her Craftsy series.

Gail Kesser helps you pick our your fabrics in her Craftsy series.

Luckily though, you don’t have to be completely alone in the matter! There are certain options for help—like asking friends, particularly ones who are involved with sewing. Likewise, you can find assistance online. Some of the best advice I’ve gotten in regards to picking out quilting fabrics came from a free class on Craftsy.com. The class was called “Piece, Patch, Quilt: Basic Quiltmaking Skills,” and in it, Gail Kesser—the instructor—has an entire section based on fabric selections called “Choosing Your Fabrics.”

In that lesson, Kesser advises the virtual student to choose a “mommy fabric” (Kesser, n.d., Lesson #3), then “walk it around the store” (Kesser, n.d., Lesson #3) to find fabrics that work well with the initial choice. Honestly, I don’t know that there’s better advice when it comes to putting together an entire quilt—or any other project with multiple types of fabric—but I’d like to expand on the overall idea just a bit. Maybe someone reading this post can look at the mentioned video for help, and possibly get a pointer or two from me as well 🙂

So, here are some thoughts to chew on!

Picking out a series of fabrics to use in one cohesive work isn’t about making sure they match in the traditional sense. The situation isn’t like you’re planning an outfit to wear. When deciding on your clothes for the day, you might consider a list of details to make sure everything works together because the result is supposed to match. In the world of sewing, matching isn’t the goal. Complementing is. That idea of complementing can come in the form of sticking with similar colors, or even embracing an overall theme your pieces all agree with, so to speak. As long as it’s a unified idea or connected imagery throughout, you’re good to go!

The quilting-for-kids project my niece got for her birthday.

The quilting-for-kids project my niece got for her birthday.

Don’t believe me? Even the people who created this quilting-for-kids project my niece got for her birthday knew that sometimes it isn’t about matching. This design is about complementing, or holding on to one specific theme—like the collection of different colors that my niece can put together!

This concept might seem unimportant, but it isn’t since the distinction is so clear. Think of it this way. If you were picking out an outfit for a typical day, you might not go with a floral pattern top and a polka dot bottom, even if both of them are pink. Why? Because while pink might match pink, the designs don’t match. That disconnect isn’t necessarily okay when putting together an outfit, but when sewing? All you need to do is check out a set of pre-cut shapes to find evidence that the same guidelines don’t apply to the hobby of sewing. All in all, it doesn’t matter if your fabrics match like your outfit would. They can vary in design, and even color, so long as they complement one another in some way.

And that aspect of the situation, my friends, leaves a whole lot of room for exploration and gives you plenty of room to make a design that’s all your own. To be truthful, that detail might be one of my favorite things about quilting and sewing. Whatever I come up with, it’s my design, I made it myself, and no one else likely has one like it. That feeling… That’s an okay thing!

This image is based off of Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks, but I didn’t stop with socks! This fox is my “(Dressed Up) Fox in Socks” that was made by taking a general idea, and putting a hat and red attire on him.

This image is based off of Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks, but I didn’t stop with socks! This fox is my “(Dressed Up) Fox in Socks” that was made by taking a general idea, and putting a hat and red attire on him.

Anyway, a sewer or a quilter should really take charge in this detail, and maybe push it to unique, individual places. As an example, consider the work of art I created on the Paint program that came with my computer. This image is based off of Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks, but I didn’t stop with socks! This fox is my “(Dressed Up) Fox in Socks” that was made by taking a general idea, and putting a hat and red attire on him. It started off simple—just socks from the story—and imagination took it further. Disclaimer: I’m not saying this Paint project is actually impressive—just that it shows how a theme can grow with some thought and creativity!

That’s the kind of pushing I’m referring to when picking out fabrics. Consider what you’re going for, find that beginning fabric, and think outside of the box enough to choose those complementary fabrics to create a breathtaking piece of art. Don’t stay with the easy options all the time! Push yourself, because sometimes the unexpected and the outside-of-the-box things can be a whole lot of fun!

This post might be more centered around quilting, but it could be applied to different areas of sewing (or crocheting, or knitting…) that involve material. A purse that’s going to have more than one fabric, for example, could be planned out with the same guidelines. Any time you’re blending fabrics together, think it through to come up with a cohesive, beautiful work. Complement those designs and colors, or stick to a theme from start to finish. Either way, your work would come out cohesive with your final product being a one-of-a-kind gem that’s beautiful and looks just as put together as a well-planned outfit—just with different rules!

Kesser, G. (n.d.) “Piece, Patch, Quilt: Basic Quiltmaking Skills.” Craftsy.com. Retrieved from www.craftsy.com/project/course/piece-patch-quilt-quiltmaking-skills/369