Muslining a Sleeveless Summer Top

My favorite summer top is, without a doubt, Express’s sleeveless Portofino shirt. It’s 100% polyester, but it’s semi-sheer, floaty, and relaxed enough through the waist and hip that it lightly skims the body, which is good news when it’s in the 90s Fahrenheit (30s Celsius). The polyester doesn’t make me sweat, the heat and humidity do, and if I’m going to be soggy anyway I’d rather not feel the cling of spandex or the weight of cotton.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I work in a pretty casual office—despite a nominally business casual dress code, jeans, leggings, and all manner of fashion and athletic shoes have taken over swaths of the company without any pushback from management—so I can wear my sleeveless Portofinos at work with or without a coverup (though I usually throw on a cardigan to stave off the summer AC). Since they transition so easily from office to home for me, they were a logical jumping off point to expand my summer top options.

During a trip to JoAnn last summer, I picked up four top patterns that shared some similarity with my beloved Portofinos:

  • McCall’s 7324, a sleeveless popover top/tunic pattern with a (buttonless) half placket
  • New Look 6345, a sleeveless v-neck tunic with a relaxed fit around the hips (but a more defined waist)
  • New Look 6414, another A-line, v-neck top/tunic, with the option for a keyhole neckline and sleeve variations
  • New Look 6450, an A-line top that sort of looks like a pillowcase dress, but with fixed neckband and more sharply cutaway armholes

I decided to tackle the McCall’s pattern first because I was relatively fresh from the Archer making class with Lladybird and wanted to take advantage of the things I’d learned and lock those tips into my mind. I hadn’t made any woven shirt patterns from McCall’s, just a dress with a very different fit, so I thought it wise to make a muslin before cutting into a more precious fabric I already had in my stash.

The fabric is this 57″ White Dots on Navy from JoAnn. It’s listed as a cotton shirting, but after washing and drying it didn’t soften up much, and the crispness makes it feel more like a quilting cotton than a shirting to me. I wouldn’t use it again for a shirt.

The front of a woman's sleeveless summer top with a half placket and curved hem

The back of a woman's sleeveless summer top with gathers at the neckline and curved hem

As you can probably guess from these dress form photos, this muslin didn’t turn out wearable. I chose View A and cut out a size 6 based on the finished garment measurements and the width of one of my sleeveless Portofinos at the bust. The key difference between the McCall’s pattern and my ready-to-wear garment is that the latter has bust darts. Looking at the pattern, I had reasoned that the gathers at the shoulder were just bust darts that had been rotated into the shoulder and then converted to gathers. I further assumed that most of the room in the bust came from the gathers, and not from the width of the garment. I was incorrect about this, and the whole thing ended up too snug in the shoulders and bust, and not exactly relaxed in the hip either. I also found the shoulders too wide and the armholes too high for my frame; I made a note of those things for the next incarnation, but didn’t fret over them, since they’re easy to fix on a sleeveless garment.

A close-up of the armhole and side seam of a woman's sleeveless summer top

I made one other mistake, a completely brainless one that I should have been able to avoid. While tracing off the pattern, I felt the high-low hem was a little too pronounced, so I decided to shorten it to prevent walking around with a ridiculous butt flap. I did this by shortening just the back pattern piece by two inches—at the lengthen/shorten line. Cue my surprise when I go to sew up the side seams and realize that, surprise! the side seams don’t line up any more, and I have an accidental split hem:

A close-up of the hem of a woman's sleeveless summer top, showing how the front and back curves don't meet up correctly

I don’t remember now whether I sewed up the side seams first or sewed the hem first. At some point in the process I decided I wanted to finish the side seams by turning under the seam allowance and then stitching it down, rather than serging, so that made fixing the issue more annoying (and then the fitting failure made it irrelevant).

A close-up of a woman's sleeveless summer top turned inside-out, showing how the side seam is stitched down

I did, however, serge the shoulder seams (though why I dragged the machine out for just that, I don’t know) and then stitch then down as well for a mock flat felled seam.

A close-up of a woman's sleeveless summer top turned inside-out, showing how the shoulder seam was serged and then stitched down

With all of those little details covered, let’s get to my real gripes: the intersection of design choices, construction, and instructions.

What I didn’t notice when I bought the pattern, and what you almost certainly can’t see because the fabric is so dark, is the vertical pleat coming off the bottom of the placket. On the pattern piece, the placket opening is double the necessary width so that you can hot-dog fold the front of the blouse to create that pleat. It’s unnecessary from a construction standpoint, it doesn’t add anything to the look of the garment, and I hate it. Is that an irrationally strong feeling? Yes. Did I resolve to move heaven and earth to engineer that pleat out on my next version? Also yes.

Constructing the placket was way more challenging than it needed to be, though it’s probably fair to say that’s partially my fault. After preparing and applying the bands for the placket, I could not make sense at all of this instruction: “On inside, lap left front band over right. Stitch lower edge of bands to end of opening.” Or more precisely, I understood that it was supposed to look like this…

A close-up of a woman's sleeveless summer top turned inside-out, showing the completed partial placket

…but I could not get the bands and the opening to cooperate. After reading through Allie’s clearly written and photographed tutorial on sewing partial plackets, I finally figured out I hadn’t made the angled cuts into the corners of the opening. This step should definitely be in bold type, because if you don’t do this correctly (or at all), the origami WILL NOT work.

While we’re staring at the inside of the placket, I’d like to take a moment to complain about the unfinished ends (is this normal in RTW? I don’t have any partial placket shirts I can check) and the weird fold that results where the placket meets that stupid pleat.

A close-up of a woman's sleeveless summer top turned inside-out, showing how the placket intersects with the front pleat

On to the gathers! There are gathers around the curve of the neckline between the placket and the shoulder seam, along the shoulder seam between the neck and armhole, and around the back neck.

A close-up of a woman's sleeveless summer top, showing the gathers at the front neckline and shoulder

As near as I can tell, the gathers between the placket and the shoulder exist solely to pull the V of the placket open, otherwise the bands would neatly overlap each other like a normal (hidden) button placket. The area to gather is quite small, which made it difficult for me to gather evenly and ended up looking like unintentional puckers. In addition, since these gathers are at a roughly 45 degree angle to the ones coming off the shoulder seam, it results in a weird, bunchy, wrinkly mess in that area. Ugh. As with the pleat, I resolved to eliminate the gathers around the front neckline on the next iteration.

The gathering on the back neckline is fine design-wise, although I didn’t execute it well.

A close-up of a woman's sleeveless summer top, showing the gathers at the back neckline

It’s a shame that everything about this was a flop, but I really am glad that I figured out all of my the pattern’s issues before I cut into the fabric I really wanted to use, especially since my real-deal fabric was thin and slithery. It certainly didn’t hurt to practice a few techniques, either: my topstitching remains dodgy, but I’d like to think it’s just improving in very small increments.

Fast (Re)Fashion: Polo Shirts to Polo Dress

During the first quarter of 2017, Justin was let go from his office job and was put in a position where he needed to take temporary work for a time. Options were sparse, however, and he ended up in a more a physical job than he expected, one that had him on his feet all day handling things that were frequently sharp, greasy, or caustic. There wasn’t a strict dress code, so for the first couple of months he kept wearing his favorite t-shirts and polo shirts to work. His motive was understandable: faced with mindless tasks he didn’t enjoy in the sub-basement of a company that didn’t value him as an (expendable, temporary) employee, he clung to the one thing that made him feel like a person. Who can blame him?

Unfortunately, several of his shirts quickly sprouted holes, grease stains, and bleach marks. One of those shirts was a particularly nice polo from Ralph Lauren, in a flattering shade of green, that he’d received as a gift for Christmas.

The stain was too large and too prominent to cover up discreetly, but I was loath to throw away a good shirt that was otherwise in pretty decent condition. After eyeballing it several times and then trying it on (it was a men’s XL), I decided I could salvage it by turning it into a dress for me. I knew the dress had to have princess seams to avoid the stain, and I didn’t have anything in my pattern stash like that.

After flipping through both online and in-store pattern books, I settled on New Look 6567.

It’s designed for wovens, but it was the only pattern I could readily find that had the style lines I was looking for. I ignored the various neckline options and the back zipper, since I planned to preserve the original collar and placket and leave the dress a pull-on affair.

I cut the shirt apart at the side seams and removed the sleeves, but left the front and back attached at the shoulder and left the bottom hem intact. Based on my measurements and what I thought was an acceptable amount of ease, I traced a size 6, and then proceeded to shift the pattern pieces around on top of the shirt until the grainline was parallel with the center front and the slope of the shoulder on the pattern roughly aligned with that of the shirt. I had to dodge the bleach stain, and I also wanted to preserve the logo embroidery if possible—I liked the contrast of orange on green.

As soon as I started playing pattern-piece-Tetris, I realized there was a problem: although the shirt was plenty wide enough on me, I wasn’t able to fit the side front and side back pieces on the shirt and respect the grainline without losing a significant amount of length from the bottom. (I wish I had a photo showing this, but I forgot to take one.)

I briefly despaired, then raided Justin’s closet and dug out another polo shirt that was destined for the refashioning pile. This one was a different brand with a different cut, and it was white. The shape didn’t matter so much since I was cutting the pieces out of the middle, but I decided the white was too stark a contrast, so I over-dyed it navy using Rit liquid dye leftover from a Halloween costume project a few years ago. As with my other dyeing experiments, I used the stovetop method and it worked a treat.

With these cutting hurdles behind me, the dress sewed up quickly. I basted everything on my regular sewing machine and then sent it through the serger to seam and finish the edges. The logo just narrowly avoided being eaten by the seam.

Perhaps the only thing that would give away the secret of this dress’s origins are the teeny, tiny seams near the back underarm, which were the part of the shoulder seams on the white-shirt-turned-blue-shirt.

A split hem seemed a like a classic design choice. The back of the dress ended up several inches longer than the front, so I ended up cutting off the excess and re-hemming the back in coordinating thread for each panel.

Overall I like the way the dress turned out—it looks pretty much exactly like I envisioned it—but it’s just a little too snug and a little too short to feel comfortable walking around in. (These dress form shots are a bit deceiving, since it hasn’t been padded out to my measurements yet.) I can see that I overestimated how much the pique would stretch horizontally when choosing a size, and what felt long enough in a baggy cast-off is different from what feels long enough in a more figure-skimming silhouette. If I do a refashion like this again—I’m definitely interested in trying, I’d just need to thrift a couple more shirts—I’ll size up in both pattern and shirt so that I can get the fit I’m looking for.

Since I don’t know anyone smaller than me, this dress is headed to the thrift store, but at least that’s better than heading to a landfill, right?

FO: Vanilla

Before I post my (overdue) reflections on Me-Made-May, I wanted to catch up my records by sharing the projects I completed during the month. The first is below; the others will be combined in another post.

When I was a teenager my parents paid for my clothing, and because they allowed me a fair amount of latitude in picking out what I wanted to wear, I didn’t have much impetus to buy clothing myself. The first time I can distinctly recall paying for a garment that I wanted with my own money was in high school. I don’t remember now what I’d originally gone to the mall to buy—I wasn’t the type to shop recreationally—but I ended up bringing home a white cotton gauze A-line skirt that had been on sale for only $10. It hit around knee-length and had an elastic waist and slightly stretchy lining, all of which made it wonderfully comfortable and allowed me to sit crossed legged without flashing anyone. From a design standpoint it was nothing special, but in my eyes it was pretty much perfect, and I adored it.

I wore the skirt through high school and then college; I don’t remember the exact reason that I eventually got rid of it, but the only reason I would have parted with it was that a) it had acquired an indelible stain, or b) it had completely fallen apart from endless wearing and washing. I’ve wanted to replace it ever since, but somehow never mustered up the gumption to actually do so.

As the weather warmed up throughout May, however, I finally pulled out a crinkled poly-cotton I scored at Hancock’s going-out-of-business sale and Simplicity 1662 and set to work.

This pattern doesn’t really mimic the shape of the inspiration skirt that well, nor is it a great match for the fabric, but I had it in stash already and it has an elastic waist—arguably my favorite feature of the original—so I went with it to avoid the perils of trying draft something myself. (I know that an A-line skirt should be about the easiest thing to draft after a dirndl or a circle skirt, but I have an exceptional ability to over-complicate the drafting process, so I decided not to chance it. I wanted something easy.)

I traced view C, but rather than have it rise in the front and dip in the back, I cut it straight across at the side seam, perpendicular to the center front/center back. I cut a size small based on my waist measurement, with the intention of stretching it to sit at the top of my hip bones.

I prepped the fabric by washing it in cold water and tumbling dry on low heat, which caused its already crinkly surface to pull in even further, making it much too narrow for the pattern pieces. After consulting a few discussion threads online, the only advice I could find was to relax the fabric with steam. I was dubious—wouldn’t it ruin the very thing about the fabric that attracted me to it in the first place?—but after aggressively steaming the yardage and even gently tugging/prodding it until the selvages were straight again, it was wide enough to use and still had those characteristic crinkles, albeit less deeply furrowed. Like the gauze of the original, this fabric is sheer when the light hits it, so I decided to line the skirt with leftover white cotton sateen I had in stash from lining my Garden Party Dress.

I attached the lining by serging it to the shell and the waistband, simultaneously securing the lining, creating the casing for the elastic, and finishing the edge. The serging is invisible because it ends up sandwiched between the shell and lining when everything is turned right-sides-out.

After the success of my super simple tartan scarf, I decided to finish the skirt hem with my rolled hem foot. The act of pulling the stretchy material taut to feed it through the foot led to the lettuce edging, which I should have expected but ended up pleasantly surprised by. It will take a little practice to achieve a consistently ruffled edge, but I’m happy with the outcome.

The lining was turned up 3/4″, then turned up again 1″ and edgestitched, for a deep hem and a clean finish.

For the elastic waist, I ended up changing the length of the elastic to get a snug fit, but I forgot to write down by how much. Whoops. I did follow the tip included in the instructions to use little strips of fusible interfacing to glue down the side seam allowances within the waistband, to make it easier to thread the elastic through the casing, and it worked a treat.

At this point, you may well be wondering why there are no modeled shots, especially given the attention to detail in both the sewing and the posting. The truth is, after wearing it one time for Me-Made-May, I realized that something is wrong with the waist. Instead of lying smoothly when stretched the way its predecessor did, it has this weird puffiness right below the elastic that stubbornly refuses flatten out. Maybe it’s because the fabric is slightly gathered, or maybe it just has more body than my beloved older skirt did, but in any case, it looks horrible under the fitted and semi-fitted shirts I prefer. Maybe it would look okay under a boxy, drapy tee, but that’s not a combination I see myself wearing. So it’s probably destined for the donation pile, in the hopes that someone else will love it when I can’t, and I’m back to the drawing board for the perfect summer skirt.

What’s your perfect summer skirt look like? Is it something you own already, or are you still on the hunt for it?

FO: CustomFit Courant

Have you ever had a project that was so fraught with problems and frustrations that, when it was finally finished, you weren’t sure if you even wanted the thing anymore? This sweater was a little bit lot like that.

2015-12-29_1_CustomFit-Courant

The yarn, Tanis Fiber Arts Yellow Label DK, was a souvenir from the Purple Purl in Toronto, Ontario. I visited during a day trip while on a longer vacation to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls to celebrate my fifth wedding anniversary, and I went in with the explicit purpose of purchasing a sweater quantity. I chose the color because it’s similar to a long-gone favorite sweater (a casualty of threadbare elbows and, eventually, a too-short hem). I specifically bought enough to complete Amy Herzog’s Courant, a pattern similar to another favorite sweater that needs to be retired (it also succumbed to threadbare elbows, as well as shadowy underarm discoloration that won’t wash out).

2015-12-29_2_CustomFit-Courant

Just after I returned from that trip, Amy announced the Maker program for CustomFit. CustomFit is a Web-based application that uses your body measurements and your gauge to generate a custom sweater pattern. Anyone can create a CustomFit account for free to store body measurements and gauge information; you only pay when you generate a custom sweater pattern. The Maker program is a subscription option for CustomFit that allows you to pay a small monthly fee to receive sweater credits on predetermined dates throughout the year that can be redeemed for patterns, rather than paying per pattern. The Maker program has basic and premium subscriptions, and both offer significant cost savings over the pay-as-you-go option if you knit more than six sweaters a year.

I’m not that prolific (yet), but I was intrigued by the concept and wanted to support this alternative approach to pattern sales. Plus, I was already preparing to cancel another subscription service that I no longer used, and it coincidentally had the same annual cost, so I decided to trade one subscription for another to get a service that I would actually use without increasing my monthly spending. Win-win.

2015-12-29_3_CustomFit-Courant

With Justin’s help I took comprehensive body measurements. I knit a gauge swatch. Because Courant is one of the patterns built into CustomFit, all I had to do was plug my numbers into a simple form and hey presto! I had a perfectly fitting sweater pattern at my fingertips.

In a flurry of excitement I cast on and knit all of the pieces in about ten days, helped along by a four-day weekend and a very understanding husband. Then I blocked and sewed up all of the pieces, and suddenly I realized that this sweater was not going to fit. It was too big all over, but especially in the armholes and bust.

I wept. I wailed. I gnashed my teeth. I questioned whether I was the only person in all of knittingdom for whom the magical fitting formula simply did not work. I prophesied a lifetime of ill-fitting hand-knit sweaters and despair.

I…may have overreacted.

But can you blame me? Promised the sublime joy of a perfectly fitting sweater without on-the-fly modifications or frogging, is it any wonder that my hopes went soaring among the rafters? Or that, when this elusive prize failed to materialize, they would come crashing down with such noise?

2015-12-29_4_CustomFit-Courant

When I finally pulled myself together, I contacted the CustomFit help desk, where I was connected with none other than Amy herself to discuss my knitting and fitting woes. We determined that the most likely culprit was a combination of a too-small swatch and superwash yarn, which has a tendency to grow under its own weight more than a non-superwash yarn in larger items, with a dash of mis-measuring thrown in. She counseled me to give in to my tight knitting tendencies, as a firmer fabric can counteract superwash stretching shenanigans. She also provided more insight into the different amounts of ease in various parts of my schematic.

2015-12-29_5_CustomFit-Courant

Eventually I mustered the energy to frog all of the pieces, de-kink and re-wind the yarn, and knit several new swatches. I generated a fresh pattern at a tighter gauge, provided to me for free courtesy of the lovely folks on the CustomFit team.

It took a lot longer to re-knit the sweater than it did to knit it, partly because of the gauge and partly because I wasn’t feeling particularly charitable toward the project. The bazillion ends created from re-working already-cut yarn certainly didn’t help matters. And if that weren’t enough, I decided that the original cowl-neck wouldn’t work with my yarn (no natural drape), so I redesigned it to have a split that would allow it to lie flat across my shoulders.

2015-12-29_6_CustomFit-Courant

I finally completed the sweater at the end of May. When I tried it on, I wasn’t in love. Some of the problems are my own doing. The sleeve cuffs are a little snugger than I’d like, but I narrowed the sleeves compared to the original pattern, and my tubular cast on ironically turned out to be tighter than my normal long-tail cast on even though by all accounts it should be stretchier. I also think the fabric I created is too stiff: while not quite bulletproof, it still lacks some of the flexibility and recovery you would expect from a plied 100% wool yarn.

Some of the problems are, I think, a result of a conflict between my fit preferences and the fit philosophy underlying CustomFit. When I chose a close fit, I imagined it would hug my back curve more closely, and I didn’t anticipate so much excess fabric under the bust. (In case you’re looking at the photo above and thinking that I’m full of lies, I should mention that I’m holding my breath in that picture. No, I don’t know why, although caramels and homemade Chex Mix are delicious easy scapegoats.) I also understood that the purpose of negative ease at the hips is to better anchor the sweater, but when I raise my arms, a healthy sliver of midriff appears.

2015-12-29_10_CustomFit-Courant

Basically, I expected a close fit to better conform to my shape, instead of completely hiding what little waist definition I have and making me look like a rectangle. But, since it was too warm to wear anyway, I decided to stuff the entire thing in a drawer and re-evaluate my feelings in colder weather.

I pulled it back out to wear while Christmas tree hunting on the one of the few below-freezing days this month, and I can confirm that it is at least warm. I don’t dislike it quite as much as I did during the first try-on–I’m no longer entertaining the absolutely ridiculous notion of frogging the whole thing a second time to make a different sweater–but it will never be my favorite sweater.

2015-12-29_Collage_CustomFit-Courant

Despite my lukewarm feelings, I’m going to give CustomFit another try. If I can’t find a way to make it work for me, then I can always spend my credits making sweaters for Justin now that CustomFit has options for straight sweaters.

(Sort Of) FO Fail: Cowl Conspiracy

Once I discovered what went wrong with my original Purl Soho Bandana Cowl, it wasn’t difficult to fix: I ripped everything out, cast on, and followed the instructions for the short rows to the letter. I also corrected a mistake I’d made while knitting the decreases toward the top of the piece that allow it to snuggle up against the chin. It only took two days to re-work the whole thing. The result is a finished cowl that looks exactly like the picture on the tin.

2015-02-16_1_Purl_Soho_Bandana_Cowl

Pattern: Purl Soho Bandana Cowl
Yarn: Berroco® Vintage® Chunky, 6181 Black Cherry

Since my yarn lacks the alpaca content of the original sample, it’s not quite as slouchy. It also seems like it’s not quite deep and wide enough, but I chalk that up to personal preference. In any case, it looks miles better than the first iteration. Here’s a little before-and-after action to really highlight the difference the short row changes makes. (The angle’s not the same, but you get the idea.)

2015-02-16_2_Purl_Soho_Bandana_Cowl

So why, if everything came out so much better, am I calling this a conspiracy? Well, yesterday I was looking at the yarn I still had left after knitting the earflap hat and this cowl. I’d seriously overbought on the yarn, but I’d had it too long to return it. I’m unlikely to buy this yarn base again, so I was determined to use up every little bit now rather than have it linger in my stash (I don’t like to stash anything I don’t have plans for). I’d barely dipped into the third and last skein, so I figured I had enough leftover for a hat. Nothing fancy, just a simple watch cap with a deep band of 1×1 rib I could fold up for extra wind protection and a body of 3×1 rib for interest.

After knitting the band during a series of car rides, I came home, took one look at the dwindling ball, and realized that if I kept going I’d end up in a game of yarn chicken that I couldn’t possibly win. I felt my heart sink a little. What to do? I definitely don’t want to buy any more of this yarn, and I don’t have any more bulky to mix it up with.

I let the matter rest overnight, and this morning I came to the obvious conclusion: I’d have to frog again. Not just the hat, but probably the cowl too. Of course, that would send me right back to the question of what to knit with almost two whole skeins of this yarn. So much frogging seemed like a sign.

Then it hit me: the yarn is rebelling. Clearly, it disapproves of my selfish desire to use up the leftovers on myself. (I don’t blame it, as I’m not sure I’ve really given it much love. It’s not the most sumptuous yarn I have to hand—that would be the Tanis Fiber Arts Yellow Label DK I’m using for my current sweater). I think what it wants is to be reunited with its sister skein, where it will be properly appreciated.

The way forward is clear. I’m off to do a bit more selfless knitting. There’s snow falling here, which certainly lends itself to an evening on the couch with a cocoa and the big squishy knitting project I’ve got planned now. I won’t get a snow day tomorrow unless we lose power, but there’s a good chance I’ll be working from home. If it’s snowing where you are, I hope you’re safe and warm and have a hot beverage nearby.