PSA: Support Your Local Sewing Shop — and Get Away From It All

Our cat is ancient — she’ll be 20 this March. Cats, being desert creatures, are uniquely adapted to preserve their bodily fluids. The downside of this parsimonious use of water is that when their kidneys fail, they fail comprehensively and fast. If nothing else gets a cat first, her kidneys will probably be her major point of failure.

Given that Angel is so old, but mostly healthy other than her kidneys (and the fact that she’s clever and getting senile, which is a bad combination), when we heard of a stem-cell study ongoing at Colorado State University, I figured that she would be useful for science. Worst case, we would not be shortening her life; best case, we’d be improving her quality of life. If we can get stem cells working to repair feline kidneys, there’s a good chance we can do the same for human kidneys, and if that’s the case, then dialysis can go away and the need for transplants will drop.

This means that every other week, I get up at OMG It’s Early and shove the cat in her carrier, then drive an hour with her howling to be LET OUT RIGHT THE HELL NOW AND LET ME DRIVE. She spends several hours at the CSU Vet teaching hospital, and I spend those hours working. I can’t take my professional work, but I can sew, and I’m finding that I can sew better when I’m not home.

Typical sewing experience at Mama Said Sew
10:10 a.m.: Arrive, open sewing box, remove current project, scissors, pins, pencil. Turn on iron. Unpack scissors, thread machine. Queue up current audiobook or podcast.
10:15: Get to work. Sew seams, trim, iron, pin. Repeat until finished or time runs out.
Noon: check out new arrivals, pay for my time and anything I can’t live without. Pick up the cat. Drive home with cat trying to chew her way out of the carrier.

Contrast that to typical sewing time at home:
Pick up current project. Turn on iron. Email pings.
Answer email. Shake iron because it has turned itself off. Sew seam.
Shake iron because it has turned itself off. Press.
Phone rings. Check caller ID, ignore or answer.
Shake iron because it has turned itself off. Remember what comes next in garment. Pin. Email pings.
Delete email, get distracted with a Youtube video.
Shake iron because it has turned itself off. Sew seam. Press.
Take off headphones and ask husband to repeat himself. Nod vaguely about World of Warcraft politics or gameplay. Check that he didn’t have anything he actually wanted from me. Shake iron because it has turned itself off.
Remove headphones again because hubs has remembered what it was he actually wanted to ask me about. Have mental indexing fail regarding whereabouts of $MissingItem, look in three possible places and find in fourth.
Shake iron because it has turned itself off.
Figure out what came next.
Email pings.
Delete email.
Cat yowls like her lungs are being pulled out through her nostrils. Go in search of cat.
Find cat, who is sitting on bed, looking innocent. Cat notices attention from servant, mews gently and flops on side, presenting cute belly for rake attack trap. Do mental calculus that cat will not be with us much longer, pet kitty belly, get lightly gnawed on and kicked, make kitty happy for five minutes.
Thank all the drug companies there ever were that I don’t have kids, because if I did, I’d never get any seams sewn, or that iron shaken.

Yes, I could fix this by a) turning off wi-fi, b) turning off phone, c) ignoring attention-seeking behavior of cat and/or d) ignoring hubs, but those are bad precedents to be starting. I could also buy an iron without an auto-shutoff, but then I’d probably burn down the house. Truly, it’s easier to just pack my crap in a box and take it elsewhere for a few hours.

Local Sewing Shops are incredible resources — they have a curated selection of fabrics, machines, notions, and knowledge that the Big Boxes don’t. I NEVER have to worry that what I’ve bought from MSM or Elfride’s is not actually what the label says — they’ve done their research, they know their manufacturers, and they’ve done the burn tests. If Angela or Elfride says fabric is cotton, or linen, or silk, it IS.

This is not true of the Big Box that starts with J or the Big Box that starts with H. More than once, I’ve bought fabric from a bolt labeled 100% cotton, or cotton-linen blend, or wool, and gotten home and found that the fabric melts. That means synthetics — natural fibers don’t melt, blogga. It’s not the fault of the retail clerks — most are not sewists when they start working there. It’s not even the fault of the Big Box corporate buyers — they’re required by the Federal Trade Commission to state content, and they can be fined heavily if their products are other than what is labeled.

But the Big Boxes get buffaloed by their suppliers. Raw cotton has been running around .80 USD per pound, but polyester fiber runs about .04 USD per pound. An unscrupulous supplier need not and cannot substitute all of the cotton with poly, but 35-50% is hard to detect without a burn test of every bolt. That’s completely impractical when daily imports are in the tons. The chances of getting caught are so low and the potential profits so high compared to the potential fines that it’s a good way to increase income. It doesn’t even have to be dishonesty — if a supplier is weaving ten thousand tons of fabric a year, there will be mistakes. The Big Box suppliers will also make mistakes because that’s the nature of volume.

Local sewing shops also offer respite from distraction that is precious in this world. The best part of the pre-free wifi at Starbucks was having to think hard about whether I wanted to be connected. (I’ve never been a Starbucks coffee fan. I like their teas, though.) The best thing about Peet’s is still the absence of wifi, but I can’t take a sewing machine there.

Half of the reason I do almost everything on my iPad now is because it makes me focus — I can only have one application open at a time. There are ten thousand things demanding my very precious attention at any moment, and the mental spoons to curate that is demanding. A Local Sewing Shop that provides that distraction-free space is worth every cent I spend there.

The Waterloo Project: Looks Shifty Part 1

Costuming is not period clothing. This makes me a terrible cosplayer — even though that’s what reenactment is, just for history, not fiction — because comics, TV and film never shows me what’s underneath the visible garments. A costume is an externalized depiction or representation of an idea, while clothing is much more mundane and the product of invisible technology. Example: the modern hemispherical or teardrop shaped boob is the product of the invention of lycra, moldable sheet foam, a nylon fabric called powernet, and cheap steel. When steel was expensive, so were underwires. It’s also the product of changing social mores that allow for things like visible nipples. The old style torpedo-bullet-pointy bra effectively masked temperature or hormonal nipples in stiff decorative stitching. (Modern visibility of this: in Mad Men, Joan will never have anything remotely like a visible nipple — her undergarments won’t allow it. Peggy might, especially as the seasons move forward — her black and white gingham dress does show this. Peggy’s friend Joyce, being on the far end of the counter-culture, has shown nippage.)

I learned the hard way in my dim college days of medieval re-creation that what goes next to skin matters a lot more for comfort and look than any amount of technique, and thus, I have to build my wardrobes from the skin out. No matter how perfect a houpelande looks, if it’s worn over a push-up bra and tights, it’s gonna look weird. This is actually good, since I can practice technique on clothing less visible and less expensive, but at first, it felt truly boring and wasted effort to spend days or weeks on something nobody but me and a lover would see. It took me a long time to realize that foundation garments really are the foundation for the entire look, and for appropriate movement. One can run in a properly fitted corset or stays — and I’ve done so whilst serving as field medic — but one cannot slouch.

The modern body type and the modern silhouette are incredibly recent inventions. Look at The Bletchley Circle or Call the Midwife — these are both modern dramas, but the costumes are point perfect. Bras used to make boobs look all pointy and stabby, and in the context of the time, that was beautiful and appropriate. These programs depict a recent time — the 1950’s. Step back to Downton Abbey and the silhouette changes again (and in the course of the series so far.) Note that in Season 1, all of the women still wear corsets on late Victorian lines. By the current season, the only ones still corseted are the Dowager Countess and Mrs. Hughes, who are both personally conservative and extremely confident in their personal world views. They fixed their fashion choices and won’t stray from them. (Also, given their ages, it’s likely that they lack the core muscles to maintain their posture without assistance.) Even Mrs. Crawley has dumped the hard lines of the corset by S2. Move further backwards in time (Bleak House, then Wives and Daughters, then Sense & Sensibility) and the silhouettes change further.

The Napoleonic Wars era is almost unique in clothing history because it breaks with a running pattern of emphasizing the female waist to hip ratio in favor of a smooth, columnar line with high, widely separated and emphasized boobage. This doesn’t mean women just stopped wearing corsetry for twenty years — the older ones had the core muscle issue, and the younger ones had just as many body variations as we have today — one breast larger or more droopy, a tummy that wants to pooch or uneven hips. The difference between a set of stays and Spanx is not qualitative.

The greatest difference between clothing then and clothing now is not one of fabric or construction or line, but of infrastructure. Specifically, running water and washing machines. Before running water, every drop had to be either pumped or drawn from a well or surface water source, and had to be heated without the aid of machinery more sophisticated than a boiler. Hand washing is heavy labor — a three or four day task for most households, and for large households or institutions, a never ending one. There are extremely convincing economic arguments that the invention and mass production of the washing machine is as important to equal opportunity for women as birth control. In Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter, even wealthy women aren’t using the scarce labor and fuel to bathe and have clothing washed daily. While their standards of clean were more flexible, most people in the pre-industrial world were not slovenly. They had senses — greasy skin felt greasy to the people of the past, too. There were slobs — but we have slobs today, and it is not necessarily a mark of either ignorance or poverty, nor was it then.

They dealt with cleanliness with basin baths – which do work fine – and regular changes of undergarments, and using their undergarments as a sort of full-body dress shield. Which means the shift, or chemise.

A shift is the most simple sewn garment. In base form, it’s two big rectangles, two medium rectangles and two squares. The big rectangles are the front and back, the medium ones are sleeves, and the squares are gussets under the arm for shaping and ease of movement. They’re always made of the most durable, undyed, local fabric and they’re always washable. Shifts have existed since shortly after weaving.

For most of the western world, the local, undyed, washable fabric is linen. While cotton becomes more common through the 18th and 19th centuries, it had to be imported from India, Egypt, or the southern US, and that made it more costly than the local linen. Further, a cotton fiber is short and fine — 3 to 8 inches, depending on variety — while a flax (linen) fiber is 2-3 feet long. It’s much easier to spin linen thread than cotton, and it took a while for Northern Europe to learn how to spin cotton. (In the 18th century, most cotton fabric produced in England was made from thread spun in India — where they knew cotton well — and shipped several thousand miles.) Experienced linen spinners could produce thread as fine as modern sewing thread from flax fiber, so it was not the bulky, coarse fabric that most of us associate with modern linen. Thread counts from extant garments show fabrics with 150 to 300 threads per inch — quite respectable and comparable to modern natural fiber fabrics.

The other major textile technology difference is loom size. Until the mechanized looms of the late 18th century, a loom was about a yard wide, because any wider, and it becomes difficult for one person to work it. Humans were just as prone to repetitive stress injuries then as now. That meant that all fabric came in 22-36 inch widths, so they took advantage of those qualities. It’s much easier to butt two selvedges together with a whip stitch and get a nearly flat seam than to make French seams on handmade garments. It just so happens that two pieces of 30 inch wide fabric sewn into a tube will fit most people with generous wearing ease. Even carpet was woven on narrow looms and sewn together rather than trying to broad-loom.

Thread-banging, Head-banging Entropy

I’ve been quietly working (okay, reality is I’ve been roundly cursing, but let’s try for a modicum of dignity) on several projects as time permits. I’m nearly finished with the first chemise (about a foot more stitching on the neckline casing, then the hems) and have a workaround for underarm gussets I’m planning to document on the next go-round. I’ve run several dye experiments, on both cotton yarn and an incredible linen-cotton blend fabric that I found at Mama Said Sew in Fort Collins the last time I took the cat-child for her medical experiment. (More on that when I have time to write it up.) I altered the glove pattern and built a pair on the altered pattern out of a lovely, soft wool, and I have built a muff base (following on Katherine’s muff base) that is stuffed with silk batting.

I’ve also woven some of that same dyed cotton on my rigid heddle loom, but truly, that was a practice piece that is not at all ready for prime-time, or even day-time UHF (what is the equivalent now? Daytime basic cable? Having gone to TV by interwebz in about 2000, and having been without cable since I was 16, I’ve kinda forgotten or never knew.) I’ve managed to forget to snap pictures during daylight every time, despite having cameras on practically every device I own (and a pretty good digital) because seriously, I’m GenX. For me, pictures were expensive, between the film and the developing, and there were books that I needed a lot more than more scraps of paper to be packed or tossed whenever we moved. By the time I remember to take a pic, the light is gone, and my other half is home, and he’s as camera-shy as the Amish. Also, he’s happier in the dark.

And in between all of this, and work, and just dealing with the fact that the country as a whole seems to be one missed dose of thorazine from a full psychotic break, and goofing off on the Intertubez and reading and the other forms of cat-vacuuming known as sustaining life and fending off local entropy, I’ve been winding various hanks of spun fiber into useable balls or onto spools. A couple years ago, I managed to score ten hanks each of Araucania Ulmo cotton yarn in the most gorgeous violet and red. I had intentions of crocheting it, but my crochet projects have to be short attention span theater. Weaving turns out to be just active enough that I don’t get bored, while crochet is just too slow for me. (I cannot knit. Yes, I’ve tried. No, it doesn’t work for me. I’m glad you do, and I’ll admire your efforts, but no, I can’t be taught.) This stuff is soft and delicate and small vat dyed, so it has this incredible, subtle marbling. It is going to weave into beautiful fabric. It’s also the most consistently tangled skein of yarn I have ever encountered. I can wind a ball of Cascade or Simply Caron in about 10 minutes (no swift, no winder) but every skein of Ulmo takes at least a half hour, despite being stretched on warping pegs and carefully handled. All knots, all the time.

Tonight, I’m winding floche, which is fancy-schmancy embroidery thread. (Ah, the exciting life of a pure geek.) It’s not stranded, like regular DMC floss, and it’s a little more delicate than either perle cotton or floss, but it’s the stuff for period embroidery. It’s soft and smooth and gorgeous long-staple cotton. I expect it to be brilliant to work with. And I know now why it’s rare and nobody uses it anymore. It tangles. OMGWTFBBQ does it tangle, despite warping pegs and careful handling.

If you’ve come to this post via googling on tangled thread, here’s the advice:

1. If you’re hand-sewing, make sure your thread is no more than 18 inches long. Yes, you’ll be rethreading the needle a lot, but shorter threads tangle less, are less likely to break under pressure, and shorter thread makes for better control of smaller and neater stitches.
2. Though it’s tempting to double the thread and knot both ends together, don’t. This will cause more tangles as the two halves of the thread try to double-helix around each other, plus the eye of the needle will wear a weak spot in the thread. Knot one end, if you must, and slowly adjust the tail end so that you’re always sewing with about 3 inches of single thread.
3. Lubricate the thread. Traditionally, this is done by running the thread over a block of beeswax, but in a pinch, you can use a dab of beeswax based clear lip balm on your fingers, or a hand or body lotion. Just use a very, very light touch and try to stay away from the petroleum based balms and lotions. Yes, Chapstick works. No, I don’t recommend it, because it does make oily stains. If that’s not an issue, have at.
4. For embroidery floss, take the two tubes of paper off the ends and stretch out the skein between your hands so the skein is flat and unkinked. If you have a handy comrade you trust with sharp objects, have your comrade make one cut with sharp scissors through all of the threads in the skein. (If not, lay the skein on a table and do the snip yourself. If you don’t trust yourself with sharp objects, please call your doctor or your local mental health emergency help line. End PSA.) This will produce about a gazillion 18 inch lengths of 6 strand floss (assuming DMC or equivalent), which is the right size for needlework and hand-sewing. Loosely slip knot the strands around something so they both stay together and don’t tangle up. The something can be anything from a pencil to a spare embroidery hoop to a set of disused circular knitting needles.