Underwear

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My collection of jersey remnants was getting large, and my collection of underwear in good repair was getting small, so yesterday I spent a couple of hours correcting that situation with the help of some stretch lace.

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I made a pattern by pulling apart my favorite pair of worn out undies and tracing them onto newspaper. I pieced together some pairs, when my fabric wasn’t conveniently shaped, and covered the extra seams with appliquéd stretch lace. I finished all edges with stretch lace or lingerie elastic. In the past I’ve talked about finishing edges with the lingerie stitch on a serger, but I don’t have a serger here. Besides, I’ve mostly been wearing dresses lately and I find that serged edges ride up unless they have pants to hold them in place. Stretch lace is my current favorite way to finish underwear. To use it, just lay it over the unfinished edge and topstitch with a wide zig zag. Make sure your thread matches the lace.

For more on making your own underwear, check out my past posts on the subject here and and on Kristin’s blog.

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Natural dyeing: tea and coffee

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This is the final post about the natural dyeing I did at my parents’ house over Christmas. While I was dyeing, my sister came in and made herself tea. As tea is one of the best natural dyes – nicely colored, reasonably fast, and in this case already prepared – I took the dregs of her pot and dropped in a swatch. A bit later, I did the same with my husband’s coffee.

Tea and coffee both produce lovely soft shades of brown. Tea gives a slightly warmer color, but on the whole they’re pretty similar.

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Natural dyeing: madder root

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Unlike the other materials I tried dyeing with, madder doesn’t grow wild around my parents’ house and isn’t used in the kitchen. You can purchase the root whole from dye suppliers, but as long as I was buying the material, that seemed like unnecessary work. Instead I bought powdered madder root from A Verb for Keeping Warm, mixed it up with warm water, and started dyeing.

Madder produces some of my favorite fabric colors. It’s also relatively lightfast, and working with the powder was as easy as using synthetic dyes. But unlike synthetic dye, I didn’t have to mix in other dyes to get a color I like. Every shade it makes is just lovely. I don’t think I’ll buy synthetic red again.

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Madder is pH sensitive, ranging from yellow in acidic conditions to purple in a base. I used cream of tartar to move towards yellow and baking soda to move towards purple. I found my favorite shades were between the orangey red of neutral tap water and the wine red of a more alkaline solution.

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Green skirt

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I’m pretty sure this fabric was intended for upholstery. It’s heavy, slightly textured, and has that sort of pattern. I don’t really have anything to upholster, but the fabric was on sale and it’s some of my favorite colors. So I bought half a yard and made this short pencil skirt. I faced the hem and waist in a light weight black cotton and put an invisible zip in one side seam.

Also: my skirt matches the diamonds on my mom’s kitchen cabinet and the green pottery in it.

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Thanks Rosalie for taking photos!

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Natural dyeing: red cabbage

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The best part of dyeing with cabbage is watching the color change in the dye cups as you adjust the pH. Like the indicator in litmus paper, cabbage gradually changes color from red to blue as the pH increases. This makes it quite a versatile dye. It’s not very stable, but for as long as the color lasts (a few months if you keep it out of the sun), it gives you clean pinks and purples that are otherwise hard to get from natural dyes.

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To make a cabbage dye, chop up a head of red cabbage into 1/2″ pieces. Put them into a pot, and fill with water until the cabbage is very nearly covered. Bring the water to a gentle simmer, then turn the heat low. Keep the cabbage warm for half an hour, then pour the water into your dye containers. I like to separate it into three or four containers and adjust them to get different colors. The dye liquid will start out purple. To turn it pink, add an acid, such as cream of tartar or vinegar. To turn it blue, as a base, such as baking soda. Play around with amounts – you can get anywhere from a dusty blue to turquoise to a pale green on linen.

This is also a great way to dye Easter eggs. Cabbage produces the perfect range of pastel colors for the purpose.

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Prima came by near the end of these experiments and we dyed a set of old linen napkins, mordanted in aluminum acetate.

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Natural dyeing: onion skins

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Onion skins might be my favorite dye. They’re always around when you want them, easy to extract, and make a beautiful array of colors. After Prima and my eucalyptus dyeing experiments, I turned to this reliably lovely dye. I started with a small batch of dye from the skins at the bottom of my mom’s onion drawer. We used a lot of shallots in Christmas dinner, so shallot skins made up a substantial portion of the mix, along with yellow onion skins, one medium sized fragment of red onion skin, and a few garlic skins which probably didn’t contribute to the color. I brought the skins to a simmer, threw a couple of test swatches into the pot, and went to bed. In the morning my swatches were a gorgeous mottled pink and yellow (top left and center of the swatches bellow). I tried a couple of other swatches (top right, and later bottom right and center), but it had been a small batch of dye and the color was quickly exhausted.

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For the second batch (bottom left swatch above), I stopped by the grocery store and gathered up the skins from the bottom of the onion bins. I ended up with 30 grams of yellow onion skins and 20 grams of red onion skins. When I threw in my first test swatch, a linen which had soaked over night in aluminum acetate, it came out bright green! My first thought was that the shallots must have been responsible for the peachy pink of the first batch, and the large proportion of red onions for the new green color, but further experimentation suggested that the aluminum mordant changed the color from peach to green. Potassium aluminum sulfate (alum) had a similar effect (bottom right). After all this swatching, I dyed a square of unmordanted silk peach with white resist stitched lines, and half an old linen table cloth to a yellow green much like the linen swatches above.

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Silver spots

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This skirt came out a lot puffier than I’d intended. It’s my third project using double gauze, and I thought I had a feel for the way it drapes, but apparently not. I think the painted silver polka dots make this one a bit stiffer than the double gauze I’ve sewn with in the past. But whatever the reason, instead of the full, soft skirt I was picturing, the skirt ended up having strong tutu tendencies. I still like it. The fabric is really soft to touch, and I like the subtle shine of the dots. But it’s a bit dressier than I had originally envisioned and I doubt I’ll ever wear it to work.

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The skirt is a combination of two approaches: the skirt is gathered into the waistband in front and in back the skirt and waistband both gather with an elastic waistband. This makes it easy to put on, but gives a more flattering flat band in front. It’s slightly harder than making the whole skirt one way, but not much so. Just make two half skirts, one in each style, then sew them together. Instead of putting a casing in back, I stretched the elastic as far as it could go and sewed that to the fabric. The gathers are a bit more even this way, but it’s a more work than a casing and a different look. I like it for the back of a skirt, but I wouldn’t do it all the way around.

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Natural dyeing: eucalyptus leaves

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When I was a child, we lived next door to a grove of towering blue gum eucalyptus trees. The Grove, as we always referred to it, was central to our lives. We built forts around the trunks and in the forks of the trees; we gathered the nuts for good luck, for doll hats, for a sort of currency; one hollow tree was the entrance to a secret underground house Amelia and I spent hours designing; and most of all The Grove was my escape, a quiet place to be alone.

For Christmas I gave Prima The Modern Natural Dyer. The book is full of helpful tips on preparing fabric to dye, mordants, different types of fibers, and other aspects of dyeing, and I might have bought it just for the beautiful swatch pages showing dyes with different concentrations, fabrics, and additives. But we were most excited to learn that you can use eucalyptus leaves as a dye.

Natural dyeing combines so many of my favorite things. Gathering the materials involved running around outside, climbing trees, and throwing leaves at Prima. Extracting the dye is all chemistry and experimentation: careful measurements, slight adjustments, unexpected results. And seeing the beautiful colors emerge has all the fun of a good textile project.

Eucalyptus dye swatches

We dyed 880 grams of old linen fabric (and a few scraps of other things). We left the fabric to soak overnight in a mordant solution containing 36 grams of aluminum acetate. For the dye, we gathered 450 grams of eucalyptus globulus leaves, simmered them in 16 cups water for an hour, then left them to soak over night.

The dye reached a boil at one point while we were simmering the leaves, and I was worried that might affect the color, so for comparison I made a second smaller batch and was careful not to let it boil. It didn’t cook as long, or soak over night and the color was much less intense but fundamentally the same (2nd row, far right of the swatches above). It is fine to boil your eucalyptus leaves, at least for a moment.

Our eucalyptus makes a subtle gold when cold processed (top tow) and has a slightly greener tone when simmered (second row, left and center), both of which I think are quite pretty. The Modern Natural Dyer suggests dipping the dyed fabric in an iron bath to change the color, so we borrowed a rusty iron pot from a neighbor and filled it up with boiling water. The book recommends soaking your rusty iron in vinegar for a couple of weeks, but we found the boiling water became quite rusty. It gives the fabric an uneven warm gray tone (bottom row), which I didn’t like as much but might make an interesting contrast for some projects.

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Fennel

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In May I went bicycling around Sicily with my friends Susan and Matt. The wildflowers were blooming and the countryside was just gorgeous. The fennel was particularly impressive, with flowerheads as big as dinner plates, and Susan kept stopping by the side of the road to photograph the prettiest fennel yet. So for Susan and Matt’s Christmas present, I embroidered this linen table runner with fennel flowers in one corner and fennel leaves opposite. The flowers are in three shades of yellow and brown: light yellow french knots for the buds, a yellow-brown for the stalks, and a dark brown shadow along the main stalk. The leaves are done in green, with a brown shadow on the central stalk. I wish I’d ironed it before taking photos.

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Holiday Party

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My husband works at a big tech company, which takes holiday parties very seriously. When we lived in San Francisco that meant cocktails in interesting places, but in New York everyone really dresses up. Last year I saw a lot of sequined hems skimming the floor. Which is wonderful, because it gives me an excuse to bring out this dress, made from the most beautiful fabric I’ve ever sewn with. Like all silk charmeuse, this fabric was slippery and difficult to work with, but it’s so soft and has the loveliest drape.

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I originally made this dress for my aunt’s wedding many years ago. It was one of the few times I have successfully followed a sewing pattern. I used a Vogue pattern, long since discontinued. I made a muslin out of a light blue poly satin with a similar weight and drape, which I gave to my sister (creating an awkward situation where we have two evening dresses that can’t be worn to the same event). Bias cut dresses like this are very forgiving, and I made no adjustments to the fit. My only change was to omit a zipper at the back. The stretch across the bias was more than enough to let me put on the dress, and I had not yet learned the secret of putting in flat zippers (baste carefully: stretching the fabric makes the zipper buckle).

I think this is my oldest project still in use. In part because it doesn’t get out much, so it’s still in good condition, but mostly because I made it around the time I really got the hang of sewing. The conceptually similar dress I made myself for prom in high school is stored at my mom’s house for sentimental reasons, but it was my first attempt at working with bias cut silk and while I sensibly designed it with very few seams, every seam it does have is slightly wobbly. There are things I like about my prom dress, but it also makes me cringe a little. On the other hand, this green dress is still one of my favorite creations, thanks to the wonderful fabric and the fact that, perhaps for the first time in my sewing career, nothing went wrong.

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I had a brief moment of panic while getting dressed, when I remembered that I currently have pink hair, which doesn’t go with everything. But I’m content with the way it looks with this dress. And I knew this dress would be perfect to show off my eucalyptus leaf, even though the dress predates the tattoo by at least eight years. I got the tattoo in July, but I believe this is its first appearance here (although I’ve rejected other photos that show it).

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