Puns N Needles

Dispatches from my adventures: sewing, knitting, and otherwise.

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Christmas in July

No, I’m not in the southern hemisphere where it’s currently winter. But I woke up one morning a few weeks ago with excitement and anticipation rivaling that for a kid on Christmas morning. I got out of bed knowing that I had just about 90 minutes left before I was completely finished working on a project that had my attention for several weeks.

It started with a text from a friend that went something like “My dad is looking for someone to sew 10 leather cushions for his office. Are you interested?” The answer was easily yes, though I didn’t know exactly what it would entail. That led to an email from her dad, which led to him dropping by my new workplace with a piece of leather and a sample cushion that he’d made in cheap denim and foam. And finally, this morning, it was done.

Setting snaps, a final step.

The project was pretty straightforward: sew up 10 matching cushions in black upholstery leather (provided by friend’s dad); procure foam and make the cushion inserts. Even with the piping/welt and zippers, it was not a technically challenging sewing project. However, I was terrified.


The client provided the leather,  which he purchased at a local Mennonite harness shop. We met in the parking lot of my workplace to move it from his vehicle to mine, and once I got it to my sewing room, it sat for a few days. I was kind of afraid to touch it.

The hides were so large that I did most layout and cutting on my sewing room floor.

Leather isn’t cheap. I assume he was charged a fair price for the material which is quite durable, but definitely more expensive than say, canvas. And, unlike canvas, it’s not very forgiving because each time a needle punches through leather, it leaves a permanent hole. There aren’t really do-overs when sewing leather.

Preparing the seat cushions, foam and dacron.

Finally, I was just plain scared that I’d screw something up. I was being hired to provide 10 leather cushions for a classy conference room, using material that was given to me, and I dare not mess up.

And guess what? I did mess up. About midway through the project, with (mostly self-imposed) deadlines approaching, I realized that I had put together some pieces backwards. It was really frustrating. I didn’t know if I had ruined material (spoiler alert: I didn’t). I wasn’t sure if I should have been doing this project at all. It was upsetting, because like I wrote a few paragraphs back, it was not a technically challenging project for me. So smart man that my husband is, he suggested I stop working and come back to the cushions the next day.

Some of the thread removed when I had to take some pieces apart.

I’m glad I took his advice because the next day, when I was re-doing multiple hours’ of work that I had lost to my foggy brain, I realized something. I could do this. Yes, I always knew that I knew how to create these cushions but I had a lot of uncertainty about how I was going to do the job. And while I struggled to overcome my mistakes, I gained quite a bit of confidence.  There are several hours of my life that I’ll never get back, but I do know that I can tackle another project like this again.

Delivering the cushions. I’ll miss their smell.



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MeMadeMay + a little bit of June

In my last free time to sew on the last day of May, I thought I was going to make another Ann Carolyn Smock. It’s one of my favorite patterns, with raglan sleeves and a yoke front, with different length options. But instead, I decided to try this new-to-me vintage pattern than I found at the Habitat Re-Store while on a little trip several months ago. The price was right—what can I say?

Vintage pattern. Early 1980s?

I didn’t bother with a muslin this time. It’s a pretty forgiving style, and the pattern front and back widths are comparable to Ann Carolyn’s. The size Large was cut already (my size in this top — hoorah!) except for the sleeve for the view I chose, so I traced that off the original.

Results of first cutting session

I went back to my stash and selected this yellow linen. I bought it on a whim with no real plans for it—I love linen and it was a good price—and I could use a solid colored top in my work wardrobe. I was able to cut all the small pieces, fuse the interfacing to the front and back neck facings, and prepare the sleeve cuffs before my sewing time in May ran out.


Though I was racing against the clock to make a second garment before the end of May, I was still working to embrace “slow sewing.” I want to be more deliberate about what I make—to carefully choose the patterns that I make (so they reflect the kinds of clothes that I want and need, and are comfortable), and to make them carefully (so they will continue to look good and feel good for years into the future). I also want to continue to become a better sewist.

  • I worked on my marking methods. I usually use wax paper and a tracing wheel but sometimes it doesn’t work great. This time I practiced tailor’s tacks. They are quick and really useful.
  • I carefully followed the instructions for reinforcing seams and, something I used to hate, understitching. This helps keep a facing from showing to the outside and I am a huge believer in understitching now.
  • I noticed some different assembly and finishing methods in this vintage pattern. This one recommends the “stitch and pink” finishing method (I used my serger), and, it instructs the maker to press parts of some seams to the back and another part of the seam open. It also had me hand-hem the split in the sleeves, which was pretty fiddly but I don’t know how else it would have been done.
  • I forgot to trace a mark onto my copy of the sleeve pattern. I was ready to attach the neck band, and I very carefully matched up markings and seams, but something didn’t work. I tried matching the band to the body twice before going back to look for missing marks. Once I found the missing dots, it fit together perfectly.
  • Fitting the neck band into the shirt front was really challenging and ended in me handstitching it into place. The pattern also includes a “Time-Saving Shortcut ™” which is to stitch in the ditch  to attach the neckband facing — I handstitched that because I knew it would be easier for me, it would be satisfying, and I have a new porch swing that was calling.

Porch swing sewing

Other than the finishing treatments that I don’t see as often in the contemporary patterns that I use, this top went together very smoothly. Since it’s got raglan sleeves, there are really only six seams. When I first tried it on before it was finished, I thought about adjusting the fit and making it a little smaller. It felt like I had put on a XXL men’s t-shirt. I thought about what belt I could wear with it, and figured that if I didn’t like it once it’s done, I could take in the side seams.

Relaxed style

But once I installed the buttonholes and buttons, I decided that it’s not a style that I typically wear (because it’s the year 2017 and the pattern’s from the 1970s or ’80s?) but I like it.


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Sailing toward my dream pants

I’ve wanted “sailor” pants for a long time, and I really like the shorts I made with this pattern last year.
So several months ago, I cut out the pants version of the pattern in some mystery canvas as a trial run. The pieces sat for months while other projects took priority, and the size I cut is now too big. As in, I almost can’t wear the shorts from last summer. That’s why my promise to make two new pieces of work clothes in May had a rocky start.

I don’t like wasting materials, so I wanted to use what I’d already cut for a muslin. I had to re-print and assemble the PDF pattern because last time, I cut up the original (which was a giant piece of 48 letter size pieces of paper taped together). Hindsight being 20/20, for this version, I traced the pieces. Then, I laid the newly-cut pattern pieces over what I’d already cut, and thankfully, most of the pieces could be re-used.

Happily, I only had to re-cut one pattern piece and then it went together pretty quickly. I had to make a small adjustment, letting out the inside front piece

Seam let out/small wedge added to right of slash pocket opening

but otherwise was really happy with how the pants fit.

Linen swatches
From my stash, I decided on this Robert Kaufman Essex Washer Linen yarn dyed (a linen/cotton blend) in a charcoal color for the “real” pants. I love this fabric, and really like the two tops I made from it, so I’m pretty sure it’ll make good pants. Grey is my favorite neutral, so I expect I’ll wear them a lot. The other two are blended with rayon and will make nice dresses, tops, or jackets.

The pattern says that 1.7 yards are required for my size range, though I barely squeezed it out with 2 ¼ yards. I couldn’t find a recommended pattern layout but can’t see where I could have re-arranged the pieces and had any more leftover. I used a novelty print quilt cotton for the pockets and waistband. 


I chose the “Darling” view (not “Sailor) and followed the instructions exactly, except for the button loops, which are very narrow. They’re so narrow that when I sewed tubes, it was impossible to turn them right side out, so I improvised by folding and then top stitching. The legs are much wider than the pants I’m used to wearing, but in linen fabric they will be great for the summer. Later on, I want to make the Sailor view, and maybe try leg width variations since the waist, hips and behind fit so comfortably. I love them.

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Sewing vintage

This week I did something new when I sewed a garment from a vintage pattern. I’ve written before about my fondness for vintage sewing stuff like buttons, trims, and fabric, never mind sewing machines, but I’ve also been collecting patterns.

My pattern filing cabinet, decommissioned from a fabric store and bought off Craigslist, had been filling up with vintage patterns. I wasn’t trying very hard, or looking for any particular pattern or even those from a certain decade. But, when I encountered an older pattern (think thrift stores, antique malls, yard sales)  that seemed close to my size and was cheap, I would snap it up. Often, these patterns came by the grocery bag sized lot or box-full. And just as often, they’re not my size and would require a lot of adaptation to make them work for me. But still I persisted, and before my recent cleaning and purging of my sewing room contents, that pattern cabinet had two drawers nearly full of vintage patterns. Now, that I’ve sort of gone “Kondo” on my sewing room and supplies, I’ve got a carefully chosen selection of vintage patterns in styles with some possibility of me actually wearing, and in sizes that won’t require any more adaptation to fit me than a new sewing pattern will.

And that group included my newest top: this tunic-length smock.


I’d spent many hours over the past few weeks cleaning and organizing my sewing room, and while it’s not quite finished, I was ready to start a new sewing project. But what to make? I spent some time thinking about what I could use, and it seems I can always use more long tops. Then I looked around my fabric stash and decided to use this linen blend which has been kicking around for about a year. Time to sew it up?

Kaufman Essex Linen Blend Yarn Dyed Rust

Robert Kaufman Essex linen blend yarn dyed, “Rust.”

Then I had to choose a pattern. I looked through my new and vintage patterns but this one rose to the top. I’d had my eye on it for a long time—similar to other smocks or blouses with yokes that I’ve made before, this is different because it’s from 1973. It’s from the days when women wore dresses that short. Well, if you spend any time around very young adults (college campuses, anyone?) you might say those days are back. But not for me. This will be worn over pants or leggings.


I did have to do some minor adjustments for style and materials; one was accomplished before I cut the fabric, and I did the other during construction. First, I wanted to take some width out of the front and back. The fabric is a little heavier than what the pattern recommends, and by looking at the samples on the cover, I could tell that my fabric would likely stand straight out from the gathers.



I used two different methods to adjust the pattern so I could remove 1 1/2″ on the fold of the front and back pieces.

I used my rulers, my guess-timator, and my experience to figure out how much width to remove. I knew how wide the smock’s front would be if I followed the pattern and instructions, and I compared it to a top that I made from the same fabric (different color). The pattern produced a 30” front and 30” back, and my other top (which I love and wear a lot) has a 24” front and back, but it’s only hip-length, and I figured it would be comfortable and look right with some more room around my bottom and hips. I decided to make the front and back of this smock 27”, removing 3” altogether—or, 1 ½” on the fold.


The construction of the smock was straightforward. Butterick calls this an easy pattern. I did some of the steps out of order relative to the instructions, because my way was slightly more logical for me. There were some terminology differences from today’s modern patterns, but overall, it went together pretty nicely.

And then I basted on the sleeves. I “forgot” to get a picture, but just look closer at the pattern here, and you’ll see what I was dealing with.


IMG_1937Way too much “poof” for my liking. I knew enough about sleeve drafting to be dangerous. LOL. I found some online tutorials for changing the amount of ease in a sleeve cap, and it was pretty clear what I had to do: measure the length of the seam around the sleeve, on the sleeve, and on the smock’s armhole. I had a difference of 7 inches. No wonder the sleeve was so poofy! I needed about 2 inches to allow for movement, so I wanted to remove 5” of ease. Look  at the fabric I cut off the top of each sleeve!


IMG_1934I used my blind hem stitch for the smock’s hem, and my serger for most of the inside seams. And I pressed pearl snaps in to the cuff. I love my snap and rivet press!


IMG_1935I’m quite happy with the smock!
What do you think? Have you sewn from vintage patterns before?


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The Pants – The Beginning

I do have a new pair of pants, and if public opinion counts for anything, they were a successful make. But we’ll get back to that. I want to share the process that took me from thinking about making pants, to doing it.

Naturally, it started with a skirt.  I’m working with McCall’s pattern 6361 which includes shorts, capris and a skirt. Since I’ve already worked out the fit of an a-line skirt, I decided to use this silhouette to try out a fly zipper (new to me). Mostly following the directions in the pattern insert, I also searched the internet and found a tutorial on Melissa Mora’s blog. I considered this one a wearable muslin, as I made it in a home decorating cotton fabric of indeterminate age that came from a local estate sale.

First sample "jean" skirt on left. Self-drafted a-line skirt on right. Both made with estate sale home decorating cotton.

First sample “jean” skirt on left. Self-drafted a-line skirt on right. Both made with estate sale home decorating cotton.

Not content to quit with one practice garment, and also wanting to enlarge my pockets (I have big hands) and practice belt loops, I made another one. OK, making another skirt delayed the inevitable challenge of fitting my new trousers.

Golden corduroy (ooh, so soft) a-line "jean" skirt with pockets and belt loops

Golden corduroy (ooh, so soft) a-line “jean” skirt with pockets and belt loops

With two skirts under my belt, I decided the next step toward well-fitting pants would be well-fitting shorts. I cut out the shorts pattern in a vertical stripe fabric which was leftover from… shorts I made a couple years ago. They actually turned out pretty well, and I was really pleased with the fit until I considered how much stretch is in this mystery fabric. I could wear the original shorts once before they stretched out to be too big to stay up on their own. This didn’t bode well for pants made in a non-stretch fabric, so it was back to the drawing board.

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I bet that when you got dressed today you buttoned something: your pants, a shirt, maybe a cardigan or jacket. Most of us wear clothes that button.  And, when we buy new clothes, they often come with a spare button or two.  Some of you probably even have a garment or accessory with decorative buttons, like our neighbor, who dropped by last night wearing a t-shirt with buttons sewn around the neck. My mom surprised me with a sash and purse that she had bejewelled with buttons in shades of white for my wedding.

Wedding purse covered in buttons by mom. Brinn Willis photo

Wedding purse covered in buttons by mom. Brinn Willis photo

And many of us sewists have a jar or chocolate box full of the spare buttons that came with our clothes. I wear a uniform to work, and a couple years back when the uniform changed, I acquired a bag full of plain shirt buttons. Many of us sewists are also familiar with the experience of searching for the perfect set of buttons for our make. And sometimes that is mighty stressful.

A few years ago, I decided I needed a yellow coat. I was in graduate school in Boston at the time and bought some lovely wool at one of my all-time favorite fabric stores: Winmil Fabrics. My mom helped me to modify the pattern which didn’t include a lining, and then it was time for buttons. I needed four large buttons and decided I wanted bold black ones. Living in suburban southeastern Massachusetts, the best option for buttons was JoAnn — and I did find four bold black buttons. But they cost an arm and a leg. I remember $20 – but that might be an exaggeration. I was so disgusted that I had to spend that much for buttons that aren’t especially nice or special or well-made.

Never again. I’ve been buying buttons at the kind of places I source zippers – antique malls and yard sales. I have them mostly organized by color, and I probably won’t have to go out searching for buttons for a particular project for a while — one of my favorite spots to buy them is at Duke’s Antique Mall in Lexington. One of the vendors has a great variety of buttons and other sewing notions.

The Machinist scouring the racks for good buttons

The Machinist scouring the racks for good buttons

The Machinist came with me last weekend to replenish my supply of bias tape, and help pick out some buttons. I spent $36 on buttons, and called him an enabler, and suggested I’d spend less if I didn’t take him with me.  But he had an excellent point: how many buttons would I have gotten for $36 at JoAnn or my current favorite fabric store, Ragtime?  Probably not this many.

Basketfull of buttons at the antique mall

Basketfull of buttons at the antique mall

When she was younger, my mother-in-law sewed all of her own clothes, and she told me the other day that she would start with the buttons, then choose fabric, then choose a pattern.  I usually start with the fabric, and having amassed such a selection of buttons, find a set in my stash to finish up the garment.  Just last night I hemmed a new shirt on which I’d sewn buttons on Monday. I think they are perfect:

I'm calling this shirt "spring in Virginia." It's flannel and the print looks like dogwood blooms and cardinals.

I’m calling this shirt “spring in Virginia.” It’s flannel and the print looks like dogwood blooms and cardinals.

I’ve been loving the look of yoke tops lately – this one is from the pattern Esme by Sew Liberated.


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Matching plaids

My mom gave me this fabric several months ago. It’s a really nice cotton (think your favorite PJs) and I decided to make my third Rooibos dress.

Plaid dress, foggy day

I got a lot of satisfaction (and maybe some enjoyment) in matching the plaids, but my bust darts can use some work.  I sewed it mostly with my old Necchi, but did a blind-stitched hem on my new (to me) Viking 6030.

I love a good blind hem stitch!