A Little Handmade Christmas, Part 1

‘Tis the season for overdue 2017 project posts! On this, the one month anniversary of Christmas, I have a few holiday-inspired projects to share. Today I’ll share two things I made for us at home, and tomorrow I’ll be back with two gifts that I made for family.

The first things I made were new, matching Christmas stockings for Justin and me. My own childhood stocking is very dear to me because it was sewn by my mom, but it’s often too small for the things intended to go in it: it doesn’t fit a paperback book well, which is a perennial favorite filling. Justin’s stocking, which he got after we were married—his childhood stocking still lives at his parents’ house—is larger but store-bought.

I’d wanted to make new stockings for several years, but each time I ran out of time or energy and had to let go of the idea. This season, however, I was overflowing with holiday spirit, and I was determined not to let it go to waste.

I polled Justin on what he thought the stockings ought to look like, and he was overwhelmingly in favor of tartan bodies with a fur or fuzzy cuff. He ended up picking out both fabrics from JoAnn: a crimson and evergreen snuggle flannel (which has a printed rather than woven design) and a faux lambswool (because the faux wolf fur that he wanted was laughably far outside the budget, even for this small project). I chose to line the stockings in leftover white cotton sateen from my stash.

For the pattern, I traced Justin’s stocking and fine-tuned the shape until I’d achieved what I believe to be the Platonic ideal of stockings. I have strong feelings about the proportion of shaft length to width and the angle of the toe, and I was vocal about my opinions while browsing inspiration online—high-end and charmingly homemade stockings alike suffered my scathing opinions. It’s really no surprise I needed to make my own to get what I want.

I was pretty sure I’d figured out how to assemble everything to get a clean finish and include a hanging loop, but just to be safe I referenced this tutorial from Cluck Cluck Sew to make sure I didn’t have to tear anything apart and sew it again.

The result is exactly what we’d both envisioned, and they served wonderfully to hold this year’s goodies from Santa.

Next up is a bit of holiday decor inspired by these adorable tiny sweaters that we bought at the Container Store last year. They’re sold as gift box adornments and tree ornaments, but we hung them straight on the wall by our front door last year.

This year, I wanted to give them a little more weight and make them feel like an intentional part of the decor, so I mounted and framed them—quite inexpensively, too!

To determine roughly what size frame I was looking for, I laid out the four sweaters on the floor, spacing them comfortably, and took measurements of the minimum length and width I’d need. Then I popped into our local thrift store and perused the framed art section until I found a decent-sized frame that I liked. I think it cost me $6–$7? It held a print of a floral still life.

I removed the staples holding the cardboard backing in place, then separated the layers: glass, frame, and matted print. I set the glass aside and spray painted the frame with three coats of cherry red paint. I turned the print over so that the back was now the front and wrapped it—matte and all—in a linen-look fabric from JoAnn, stapling it in place with regular-duty office staples as close to the edge as possible.

I didn’t want to go out and buy a package of gold push pins, so I took plain white ones and painted them with a little gold acrylic craft paint I had lying around. (It took a couple of coats and was kind of a pain, but it was effectively free for this project.) When they were dry, I dabbed a little Gorilla glue (again, what I had lying around) on the flat underside of the pin that would be against the fabric and pushed them straight through the fabric-wrapped print. The points stuck out too far in the back, so I tried bending them down with needle-nose pliers, but that didn’t really work; I resorted to using the pliers to snip the tips off, and that seemed to work just fine.

Once the glue tried and the pins were firmly in place, I placed the wrapped print in the frame. To secure it, I followed the advice on Decor Adventures to use glazing points (also called glaziers points), which I purchased at Lowe’s. From there, it was a simple matter to move the sawtooth hanger to convert the frame from portrait to landscape orientation, tap a picture hanging brad in the wall, and hang both the frame and sweaters. The sweaters aren’t permanently attached to the pins, so if I ever change my mind I can easily use them in a different way.

I’m ridiculously pleased with the outcome of this little piece of art—it’s still hanging up, and it makes me happy every time I come in the house.

FO: Slant of Light

If it weren’t for the metadata attached to these photos, as well as a recently developed habit of scribbling dates on the paper copies of my patterns, I never would have been able to recall when I started or finished this project. Clearly at least a season ago, judging by the outfit. As it turns out, I knit up this shawl between the end of July and the beginning of August—nearly half a year ago.

The project didn’t begin with the knitting, though. No, it all started with the yarn, which began its life as the leftovers from my So In Love cardigan (Ravelry link), which apparently pre-dates this blog by a year. I had an entire skein still in my stash, the perfect amount for a shawl. But I didn’t really want another item in the exact same shade of pink, and I wasn’t sure that the slightly cooler tone would be particularly flattering near my face either. It was the perfect candidate for a little over-dyeing experiment. My goal was a warm, orangey-pink coral, which I hoped to achieve using Rit liquid dye and the stovetop method.

For my first attempt, I referenced the Favorite Rit Dye Colors handout and followed the recipe for Coral, which calls for 1/2 cup Petal Pink and 2 tbsp of Tangerine. (Interestingly, there’s another color with the same liquid dye decipe, called Sea Coral (Pink). They have different powder dye recipes, which, combined with my own results, leads me to believe that the Sea Coral one is a misprint.) The result was a saturated hue that was almost neon in its intensity, and more orange than I expected to boot.

Despite its undeniable cheerfulness and perfectly even color, I didn’t love it. Since I considered the leftover yarn a bonus, I decided to gamble and try dyeing it again. But since I ultimately wanted a lighter color, I needed to strip the dye first. (Actually, I needed to untangle the yarn first, then remove the color. Long story short, I didn’t tie off the hank in enough places before dyeing, and my enthusiastic stirring yielded a rat’s nest that took the better part of a Saturday to unravel. Do yourself a favor and tie off the hank twice—three times!—as many times as you think you need before dropping it in the pot.)

I picked up a package of Rit Color Remover, which worked shockingly well—and fast. As soon as the yarn touched the water, it bleached to a natural cream color. I followed the directions for soaking, again using the stovetop method, and then rinsing. I honestly don’t recall if I also washed the yarn afterward as instructed, but if I did I would have used Eucalan as my detergent.

Sidebar: I suspect the wool content in Cascade Heritage Silk is made into a superwash yarn using a method that glues the scales down, rather than removing them, because after bleaching the yarn seemed a lot grippier, like a non-superwash wool would be. I think the bleach dissolved the glue. I’d be interested to know if anyone can confirm or reject this hypothesis.

For my second attempt, I used the same amount of Petal Pink dye, but reduced the Tangerine to either 1 tablespoon or 2 teaspoons. (I know, I know, I should have written it down. I had planned to blog about it right away, and I did remember it for several weeks while mentally composing the post.)

As you can probably tell from the pictures, the dye didn’t take evenly on the second pass. Instead, it produced this lovely semi-solid color, which I quite like: it looks hand-dyed now.

Compared to producing a satisfying color, choosing a pattern was a breeze. Not only had Marisa Hernandez’s Crooked Cathedral been in my favorites for ages, but my yarn turned out nearly the same color as one of her samples! Details on the knitting itself are on my Ravelry project page.

It’s been bitterly cold the last few days, far too cold for such a lightweight neck covering, but seeing seeing it shine in my closet, like the light slanting through a stained glass window in late afternoon, warms my spirit.

FO: Toasted Marshmallow

When I was a kid, campfires were a summertime affair. We had them on camping trips, of course, whether taken with family or with the Girl Scouts every other summer or so. But sometimes we were treated to them in our own neighborhood, if a neighbor was willing to sacrifice a corner of their backyard to an impromptu fire pit, hastily dug, maybe ringed with leftover landscape pavers.

On our little suburban street, houses on one side of the street backed up against a strip of woods; houses on the other didn’t. Ours was one of the houses that didn’t, so we had to plead to our friends’ parents to give us a campfire. If the mood and the weather were right, we’d get our wish.

Sometimes, if one of the adults had thought ahead, or the kids begged enough, there would be s’mores, but we were more likely to have only marshmallows, and just as likely as that to have popsicles (there was always a box in someone’s freezer, and you never had to worry they’d gone stale, like graham crackers always do).

Like any kid, I sampled marshmallows every way, from barely warmed in the shimmering air above the flames to fire-caught, charred, and molten on the inside; I’m partial to a tawny exterior and gooey-soft interior, the kind of marshmallow that takes patience to create.

As an adult, camping has lost much of its allure—I enjoy my creature comforts, my soft bed and hot showers—and I don’t often crave marshmallows, but I still enjoy a fire. Perhaps even more now than before.

Then, campfires were a thing for muggy twilit hours, a treat that could be granted or withheld, presided over by adults who didn’t want you to get too close and wouldn’t let you prod a burning log with your toasting stick, to see if you could coax a bigger, brighter flame.

Now? Now I’m the adult, with a house, with a fireplace and a yard of my own. I can have a fire when I choose. Instead of the end of a stretched summer day, I choose cool autumn evenings and chilly winter nights, a time when thoughts are sharpened like the cold edges of the air.

I build the fires, I tend them, and I’ve discovered to my surprise that my secret wish came true—I’m good at it.

I sit as close as I want, feeling the skin on my cheeks tighten and shine with the heat, letting woodsmoke cling to my clothes, tangle in my hair. Knowing that, even days later, a shock of warm water will set the smoke billowing free again.

I didn’t knit this scarf by a fire, though I thought often—and wistfully—of campfires while I knit it. How could I not? It’s the color of a perfectly toasted marshmallow.

It would make for good fireside knitting too, albeit of the indoor variety, as the placement of the eyelets is too unpredictable to trust to memory and demands a decent light to check the charts.

The pattern, Alicia Plummer’s Campside, calls for DK yarn; I used Meadowcroft Dyeworks Cross Creek Sock, a fingering-weight yarn. The yarn was a souvenir skein from Gate City Yarns in Greensboro, North Carolina. If you’re ever that way, do stop in—the staff are some of the nicest I’ve ever met.

Because of yardage differences, I only knit 19 of the 24 rows of the last chart and ended with 5 rows of garter stitch instead of the deep ribbed border. I hope to knit this pattern again, but as designed, for an even warmer, weightier scarf for truly cold weather.

As summer finally surrenders to autumn and the temperatures fall, I’m ready for the season of crackling red-orange fires and toasty woolen accessories.

Concept and Iteration

How did I arrive at a point in my life where I didn’t own a solid white or a solid black t-shirt? It’s certainly not because my wardrobe is dominated by prints—easily 90% of my clothes are solids. It’s also not because I eschew basics—I tend to buy staples like v-neck sweaters and button-up shirts in multiples, and I own few, if any, pieces I would consider “statements.” And yet here I was, lacking in the most basic of everyday garments (after underwear, of course).

The last few times I’ve tried to buy plain white and black tees, either short- or long-sleeved, I was deeply disappointed by the options available. I’m sure you’re all-too-familiar with the scene: racks of tissue-thin shirts that cling unflatteringly, bind up around the arms, and fall apart in three washes or fewer. No thanks.

I had plenty of white and black cotton/spandex blend in my stash, as well as a PDF copy of the free Tonic T-Shirt pattern from SBCC Patterns. I’d attempted the pattern before and wasn’t happy with the results, but I was determined to get it to work so that I’d have a well-fitting pattern at my disposal whenever I wanted/needed to whip up a new tee. (I also really want SBCC Patterns to work for me, because they’re specifically drafted for petites and I’d love to be able to support someone pitching my niche.)

As it turns out, my issue with the fit of the first attempt came down almost entirely to size selection. I’d sewn a small because I didn’t want the shirt to be too snug in the waist or hips, but that meant the finished bust was 1″ larger than my actual bust. Also, I must have taken my waist measurement on a day when I was bloated or something, because I’ve since re-measured at a slightly smaller size. These measurement issues, combined with a fabric that wants to mold rather than drape, made for an ill-fitting shirt that went straight into the recycling heap.

This time around, I cut out an extra-small (in white) in order to get negative ease at the bust and was much happier. To concentrate on neat, even sewing with no puckers or wavy seams, I basted everything with a zig-zag stitch on my sewing machine and then went back over everything with my serger. It takes twice as long, but it’s the only way for me to get a good finish. Maybe one day I’ll be able to zip everything through the serger without putting holes through the middle of the fabric, but today’s not that day, and tomorrow’s not looking good either.

I prefer to install my knit bands in the round rather than in the flat because I feel like I get a cleaner finish that way, and I had to cut off 1″ of the band in order to have a loop that was smaller than the neck opening. (I also prefer to sew my seams and then turn up and topstitch my hems for the same reason. So, I basically ignored the instructions and used the alternative method for every step. It worked out fine.)

With the proportions sorted out, I noticed two things: the hem has a tendency to ride up, most likely due to the amount of negative ease through the body, and the neckband was difficult to serge and topstitch down evenly due to its narrowness.

I immediately cut out another shirt (also in white), but lengthened the bottom hem straight down by 1.5″ and doubled the height of the neckband. I chose to add length at the bottom rather than at the lengthen/shorten line because the narrowest part of the shirt does seem to be hitting the narrowest part of my waist. This worked exactly as I planned, but for someone long-waisted, the lengthen/shorten line is the way to go.

I like the double-height neckband—it somehow has a more casual feel—but even with the previous alteration of shortening it by 1″ it was a little too long, and even after pressing it’s noticeably wavy. It’s no worse than you’d find in some ready-to-wear, but it’s something I wanted to fix on future versions.

With that in mind, I cut out a third and fourth shirt, both in black. For this iteration, I cut an XXS neckband instead of an XS and reduced the height of the neckband to 2 1/8″. This new neckband is now taller than the original but shorter than the doubled version, and it just might be perfect. I could probably shave a tiny bit more of the length off to get the band to lay completely flat, but I’m not sweating it.

At this point, I also lengthened my topstitch from 2.5 mm to 3.5 mm, which made the stitches a little more visible without being sloppy.

Below are the three version to give you an idea of what the differences look like in context. Black and white do not like to be photographed together like this, so the exposure/contrast is absolutely awful, but I hope it gets the point across.

Here’s a look at the necklines up close, so you can see the differences in neckband height:

One last thing I’d like to mention is that Steam-a-Seam 2 is the not the same as Dritz Wash Away™ Wonder Tape. At some point I had rolls of both in my notions collection, but I must have used up the latter on a previous project. I grabbed the Steam-a-Seam 2 thinking that it was designed for the same purpose and painstakingly applied it to the sleeve hems and bottom hem of my first t-shirt, only to realize after heat-setting it that it’s much stiffer than Wonder Tape. It seems to have softened a bit after a couple of washes, but I definitely wouldn’t use it again for stabilizing a knit hem while sewing. Steam-a-Seam 2 Lite might work for that purpose (I haven’t tried it myself), but I think I’ll stick with Wonder Tape.

I’m so glad to have these shirts in my closet. They aren’t glamorous, but they’re comfortable, and it’s nice to feel like even on an ordinary day I have something handmade to wear.

FO: Oxidation

With the leftovers from Justin’s cabled hat and my own, I had exactly enough yarn to create a third hat. I’d hoped for as much when I bought the yarns—just ask Rebecca at Warm ‘n Fuzzy—but it was a huge relief when my little yarn scale confirmed it.

Rather than knit more stripes, because I’ve had enough of stripes for a while, I decided that there was no better time than now to try my hand at stranded knitting. Since I knew my yarn was limited, I didn’t bother trying to find a pattern, and instead improvised based on my most recent hat and some guidance from Ann Budd’s The Knitter’s Handy Book of Patterns.

I’ll admit I felt a bit of trepidation, which is silly, because I didn’t feel a single flutter of anxiety when I first tried cables. Maybe it’s because my very first knitting project was cabled, and I didn’t know enough to have the slightest idea what to worry about. Now that I’ve knit a while, I know what to fret about: Tension. Color dominance. Insufficient contrast.

There was nothing I could do about the combination of colors, since I was already committed to using up the yarn, and tension would only be solved with  practice and patience, so the only thing left was color dominance, which I was aware of and could easily look up online. Ysolda has a great introduction to the theory of color dominance on her blog, but the one thing she neglects to mention is the more practical question of how to carry the yarns so that the dominant and subordinate colors aren’t switched accidentally. Enter Dianna of Paper Tiger, who helpfully explains which yarn is dominant when knitting with one color held in each hand, both colors held in one hand, and with one color at a time. Thanks Dianna!

I knit continental, and I was tempted to hold both yarns in my left hand to keep things familiar. But I’ve heard that, once you get used to it, holding one yarn in each hand is quite speedy and prevents the yarn from getting twisted or tangled, so it seemed like it would be worth the effort to learn to do it that way.

It was pretty awkward. As expected, I struggled to keep the tension even. My tight-knitting tendencies are so strong that the blue stitches, which should be dominant/larger, are in several places dwarfed by the background copper stitches. Every time I started to get into the rhythm of alternating hands, I’d notice that things were moving a little more smoothly and promptly lose focus and knit the wrong color or drop the yarn.

But wouldn’t you know, it flew off the needles anyway. Anyone who’s ever said that there’s an addictive quality to knitting colorwork was definitely on to something. Before I knew it, I’d run out of blue yarn and it was time to decrease the crown and cinch it up.

If you’re curious about the knitting specifics, you can check out the notes on my project in Ravelry. The only thing of note is the crown, which has eight sections instead of the typical six. This was purely down to the number of stitches I’d cast on at the beginning. It does work, but I think there’s a good reason that six sections is the norm: this crown doesn’t lie down as smoothly, and it has a tendency to make the whole hat ride up a smidge, which you can see in the close-up above and the two pictures below.

The scarf I’m wearing is also me-made. It’s a lovely, drapey 100% rayon in a pattern and colors that I love that I snagged from Jo-Ann several months ago. Sadly, I should have purchased a longer piece than I did, because the woman at the counter did a poor job cutting it, so I lost a fair amount straightening up the edges. Once the corners were squared, though, it was a simple matter of rolled hemming the long edges, zig-zag stitching the short edges, and then removing weft threads to create a fringe on the ends.

There are several suggestions online for sewing a rolled hem. Grainline Studio recommends sewing a line of stitching to use as a guide for pressing, stitching, and trimming before pressing and stitching a second time. Craftsy suggests using a teeny tiny strip of interfacing to encourage the first several inches of the fabric to roll properly. I chose to take Megan Nielsen’s advice, which is to sew a few stitches without feeding it through the rolled hem foot, pull the fabric free without cutting the threads, and then use the thread to guide the fabric into the foot and sew.

I can confidently say that, after sewing the edges of this scarf, I am about two iotas better at using the rolled hem foot. Megan’s advice certainly helped to get things started, but keeping the hem even as you go along seems to come down to firm and steady tension applied to the fabric and a keen eye to keep it from veering too far into or out of the foot. So, practice.

Luckily, I got a to try my hand at it again on my next make, coming up next week. Today, I’ll leave you with my favorite photo from this shoot: