Monday, June 1, 2020

Hand-stitching update

A few weeks ago I showed you a small piece in progress, a fabric collage made from kimono scraps and densely hand-stitched.   I got on a roll, and have now finished that one and three more in a similar vein, using scraps of old silk, linen and cotton.  I still haven't decided how to mount them for display; probably on stretched canvases, covered in either burlap or some other solid color fabric.

The one I showed you earlier; I added the red fireworks burst at top right because three shapes are generally better than two.

This one is stitched onto a scrap of a very old quilt, with the batting visible in some places through tears and disintegration of the cotton.  Lots of french knots, and a silk yoyo.

A linen support, with bits of silk and cotton.  The beige scrap at top right had a pre-existing machine-stitched seam which I echoed with three new lines of machine stitching.  I left long thread tails at each end of each line so I could make little french knot dots.

This piece has by far the most intricate, time-consuming stitching, and yet it's probably the least successful of the four.  I used a scrap of an old linen tablecloth that had been cross-stitched in tan, and put the teal blue webbing on top.  I have no idea what this stuff was supposed to be; it's made from some silky thread -- was it perhaps stitched onto a piece of Solvy to make a web?

I have no idea where I got it, but it called out to me.  I sewed it down with a lot of beads and french knots, added some silk shapes at the bottom, and then decided I didn't like what I saw.  Spent many, many hours with additional stitching and some yoyos to try to salvage the piece; not sure I did.

But they're finished!!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

More bad DIY fashion ideas

Today is Thursday, which means it's time for another well-meaning article in the New York Times Designer DIY feature, in which big names in fashion share silly ideas for people to try at home.  I neglected to bring you up to date on last week's feature, so that one first...

Emily Bode, a young luxury menswear designer who "expresses a sentimentality for the past through the study of personal narratives and historical techniques... with female-centric traditions of quilting, mending and applique," teaches us how to fix up a white T shirt to give to your sweetie.  First find some thread.  "This is a great time to use all of the pre-threaded needles from those miniature hotel mending kits," she says.

Now stitch (loosely, so the shirt can stretch when he puts it on) around the edges of the cuffs, collar and hem.  Add a cute heart and writing, if you want.  "There's no experience in sewing necessary.  The more homemade and messy, the better," she advises.

illustration: New York Times Thursday Styles section

Well, not to worry, I suspect every single shirt made from these directions will be messy.  Starting with the choice of thread. Two strands of sewing thread, stitched loosely around the neckline, are really going to make a statement.  (And unless you were in the habit of spending five night a week on the road in your pre-pandemic job, lifting hotel mending kits right and left, what are you going to use when you run out of them?)

I particularly liked the fact that they illustrated step 5:  wash your T shirt to remove the pencil marks.  Without that picture, I would have been lost.

illustration: New York Times Thursday Styles section

But enough kvetching about last week's project.  Today's project uses a T shirt again, but this time to tie-dye it.  Our designer-guide is Hillary Taymour, who treats "sustainability as something everyone can practice every day."  We're told she has been using tie-dye in her collections for two years, but I would bet money that she doesn't do it the way she advises the readers -- to use beets and turmeric as the dyestuffs.

I checked out what some highly googled websites had to say about using beets for dyeing.  What I discovered was that the amateur and mass-media craft sites love them -- beautiful color!!! -- but the people who know a lot about dyeing don't, because the color is notoriously fugitive.  In fact, because of that, beets made the list of  "Top Five Plants to Never Use for Natural Dyes" on Wearing Woad, a site that reeks of technical competence.  Turmeric's reputation isn't much better.  But that shouldn't stop our stir-crazy quarantined readers, because they'll add "a splash" of vinegar to the beets to "help your dye hold pigment."

photo: New York Times Thursday Styles section
Interesting to note that in this fifth installment in the Designer D.I.Y series, the Times has switched from gauzy watercolor or pencil illustrations to actual photos.  One shows you how to cut up the beets.  Six of them show you how to fold the shirt into a rectangular package, one shows how to bundle it with rubber bands.  Then you spoon on the yellow dye, and dunk into the red dye.

photo: New York Times Thursday Styles section

Let the bundle sit for ten minutes before opening, then lay it flat to dry, and "it'll be ready for you to wear the next morning."

Smelling of vinegar.

And kind of wrinkly.

I hope everybody who makes this T shirt enjoys wearing it once or twice.  Maybe they'll hit a sweet spot after one or two washes, when the vinegar smell will have disappeared, and the dye won't have disappeared quite yet.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Plague diary May 26 -- leave me alone

Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the official kickoff to summer.  People have picnics and ballgames, and afterwards you can correctly wear white shoes, but only till Labor Day.  Across the country the pandemic has not put much of a crimp into these traditional activities, except maybe the shoes.  I think it's way too soon, but all weekend we've seen scary photos of mostly non-masked people, obviously starved for human society, crammed into restaurants and bars and beaches and all sorts of public places.  I suppose in two weeks we'll see the spike in coronavirus cases, because death rarely takes holidays the way we stupid people do.

But just as a lot of people are eager to take their pandemic response to a new level, I find myself moving in the other direction.  I'm kind of tired of reaching out to other people for social contact.  I've spent many an hour on the phone with friends and family and neighbors talking about what we're doing in seclusion; little of those conversations has been stimulating, affirmative, optimistic, amusing or even very interesting. 

I hear the same words coming out of my mouth when talking to my sister-in-law that came out of my mouth days before talking to my art pal.  I search for something different to talk about, but don't have the energy to launch into a discussion of the book I just read or the art project I'm working on.  I just want to hang up the phone and go into the studio by myself.

I had two more zoom meetings last week, and though the technology is getting a little bit easier, I still don't like it, and certainly don't crave it.  I have found that alcohol helps.

I wrote last month about two different art exchanges that I signed up for in the early days of lockdown, when it seemed like a good idea to connect with others and swap work.  One was among four of us who regularly get together in person but haven't had a meeting since March.  The other was among strangers, a few of whom are several levels above me in the art world food chain, and I sent my work to them with some trepidation.

Just this week I sent off the last two projects in these exchanges, and while I've had a lot of fun making and receiving things, I am glad this is over.  It allowed me to work on some little sculptures

as studies in technique for ideas that have been brewing for a while.  In particular, I would like to make a bunch of the clay heads and display them in some kind of larger array.

Of all the pieces I sent and received in the stranger artist exchange, here's my favorite, a three-step exquisite corpse exercise.  I had step one, and sent this off, leaving plenty of room for additions:


The next artist in the chain added the drawing of the woman, and finally the third added pale beige stitching to put more "pictures" on the wall.  (Hard to see in this screen grab, but you can find a better image on instagram.)

But now playtime is over, and I am relieved.  I responded to the invitations because early in the pandemic, connection seemed important; now less so, at least for me.

I hope this new phase of withdrawal isn't going to send me into a funk.  I need to get down in the studio and make art.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Last week on Art With a Needle

Last week began with my son's 12th wedding anniversary and ended with our 50th.  No celebration on the first one, and certainly not much of a celebration for the big one!  We had planned a driveway dinner party, much like the one we had earlier in the month for the three-year-old birthday, with each family socially distanced at its own table...

...but even that modest plan turned out to be impossible when the heavens opened up in a downpour ten minutes before H-Hour.  So we quickly set up socially distanced card tables in the living room and ate inside instead.  We even let the grandchildren come close for ceremonial photography.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

How not to embroider your socks

I've complained in earlier posts about the way non-sewists in the news media often write or talk about sewing and fabric in the most laughably ignorant way.  I saw it when non-sewists were trying to show us how to sew masks -- I even wrote the New York Times about their mask pattern, in which a 3/4-inch wide strip of fabric was supposed to be folded three times to make a tie -- heck, might as well use a piece of string, because that's what you would come up with if you were even able to sew the damn thing together.  The corrections desk thanked me for my letter but printed the directions again without change.

This ignorance is not new with the pandemic, but I'm seeing more of it lately as people turn to craft projects to while away the quarantined hours.  The Times has been running a weekly feature called Designer D.I.Y. in which famous fashion types tell us how to do something questionably useful.  Last week's feature, for instance, was how to cut a slit halfway up into the middle of a blanket to make a coat/cape/ruana -- very timely as we head into a globally-warmed summer.

Today's feature is how to fancy up your socks, courtesy of Simone Rocha, a young Irish designer whose work has been described as "often toeing the line between pretty and perverse."  And here's how to personalize those toes, illustrated with yummy watercolored sketches instead of boring old photos.

First, you get your stuff together.  I wonder what kind of "embroidery thread" comes on a spool?  Are people supposed to use plain old sewing thread?

Maybe they will google "embroidery thread" and zip past those first four offerings of embroidery floss, heading for the machine embroidery thread at right because it's the only one that remotely looks like the picture in the newspaper.  That will make great sock decoration, folks.  (By the way, you, as a knowledgeable sewist, might be tempted by the third offering on this screen, 450 skeins of DMC floss for $25, from 

Now that you have your thread, start sewing!!  After you write your name on the sock as a stitching guide, you may find it easier to put it in an embroidery hoop, as in the helpful drawing.

Hmmm.  That's all the directions say.  I wonder how many people will proudly taken their embroidered sock out of the hoop and discover they have sewed the back to the front.

Thank you, Designer D.I.Y.!

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The good old days of bias tape

In the course of making lots and lots of face masks I had occasion to delve into my stash of sewing notions from the previous century, all of which have been carefully saved because you never know when you might need them.  Indeed, for 30 years I have found no use for inch-wide bias binding, or "quilt binding" as some of it was labeled, because if I wanted to put binding on a quilt I would use actual fabric, and if I wanted to face a hem (as the wider bias was labeled) I would use nylon seam binding (of which I also have a boatload).  But who knew it would be perfect for the ties on face masks!

As I surveyed the whole box full, I noted how the price has gone up over the years, while the quantity in the packet has gone down.  Not all the packets have dates, but the pink one is 1966, the second from the left is 1969 and the yellow one at the right is 1986.  Meanwhile the quality has changed too -- from 100% cotton to 50/50 poly/cotton.   

Surprisingly enough, there has been a whole lot less price inflation in the last 34 years than in the 20 years between the four packs in the photo.

Between 1966 and 1986 the price went up from 6 cents a yard to 63 cents -- a 950% increase!  But from 1986 till today, it's only gone up 57%.  Today the fabric is 55% polyester, which I wouldn't worry about, since poly blends are much more wrinkle resistant than 100% cotton.

As the price was going up, the width of the binding was going down.  The pink stuff from 1966 was a full inch wide, the yellow looked to be about 1/16" narrower, and according to the JoAnn Fabrics website, today's binding, which costs $2.99 for three yards, is only 7/8" wide.

Probably today's bias tape would work just as well for face masks as my wonderful stuff from the past.  But it wouldn't give me the immense satisfaction of using things I bought more than 50 years ago and are still the perfect solution.

And some of it was even on sale!!