Friday, July 31, 2009

A New Tote: Part 2

Done! Two days of waiting at home for air conditioning repair gave me some extra time to fiddle with and sew on the binding and straps.

First, can I say that I love love love the Echino fabric? I used it before when I made a pillow for the newly finished den, but I had forgotten how wonderful the fabric is. It is a 50/50 linen cotton blend; the linen makes it soft but durable and the cotton holds the warp and weft together so it doesn't shift like most linen fabrics. It is a dream to cut and sew with.

I woke up on Tuesday and realized that I had enough exterior fabric (the Echino) if I pieced the bias strips for the straps. I wasn't thrilled about putting a seam line through the middle of the straps, but I figured it wouldn't show much, as it would only be on one side. Piecing also allowed me to use what I had, which saved me money and shipping time.

Since the extra gathers made the peak distance on my bag shorter than the instructions, I knew I needed to reduce the length of the binding. From measuring the pattern piece, it looked like the binding was 2 inches longer than the peak distance. I made mine 3 inches longer just to be safe, and that turned out to be wise since my binding ended up being only 1/4 inch too long. The distance between the peaks on my bag was 9.5 inches, and the resulting binding measured 12.25 inches.

I received a comment on my blog from Limabean + 4, and she said she also gathered her bag more but felt the pattern's strap length was too long with the gathered bag. I cut my straps the same length as the pattern, and checked them by pining everything in place before sewing. I was happy with where the bag fell while on my shoulders, so I left the strap length alone.
The main problem I had with my straps is that they got very bulky at the side seams of the bag. My sewing machine had trouble sewing through the layers and there wasn't quite enough room for all the fabric to pass under the foot. This was all my fault since I used decor weight fabrics for both sides of the straps. While it didn't matter for the bag body, it did make a difference on the straps. Next time, I'll either use a lightweight fabric for the interior of the handles, or still use decor weight but make the interior strip shorter than the exterior, so there aren't as many layers where the ends of the straps meet up. I ended up trimming off about 1/4 inch of the lining fabric from both ends to reduce the number of layers - everything came together nicely and I had no trouble moving the bag under the presser foot.

From other blogs and the flickr group, I knew some people had trouble understanding how to sew on the straps. It took me a couple of reads - I was a little confused at first - but I followed them and found the instructions to be right on. I wish Heather also included measurements for any square or rectangular pattern pieces, as I'd rather use my ruler and rotary blade to cut them out, instead of tracing the pattern, cutting out the pattern pieces, chalking the outline, then cutting out the fabric. There is a lot less room for error by me using the ruler and rotary blade.

I adore this bag. I love the fabrics I chose, and the look of the bag. It may not completely replace the black tote, but I know I'm going to use it a lot and I see myself making more, especially as gifts. I'm also glad I finally made a bag with a curved top and bias strips for the handles, because I've been intimidated by that technique and Alicia's Tanglewood Bag kit and pattern have been sitting untouched on the shelf in my sewing nook for far too long.

Life Without a Serger

I do not own a serger. When I made these bags, I finished the inside edges with a "fake serge" stitch on my Janome 6125 QC sewing machine. I've been asked by another Janome user exactly what this stitch is and how I do it. The specifics below will apply only to my machine, but I'll try to be general too so you can apply it to your machine.

I found out about the "fake serge" in my sewing machine's manual under the utility stitches section. It wasn't called that and didn't say that the stitch could be used in place of a serger, but the description sounded promising as it was to "finish a raw edge of the fabric to prevent fraying." My machine came with an overcasting foot (foot c), which looks a lot like a 1/4 inch foot with the metal guide at one end but with wires running through the middle. There are two stitches that use this foot, overcast (which is just the zig zag stitch #3 using the overcasting foot) and overedge (stitch #19 which you only use with the overcasting foot). Both allow you to finish raw edges, but the overedge also seams so it probably acts more like a serger. I prefer the overcast because you can adjust the width and length slightly, though I prefer the shorter length to the longer one, as you end up with stitches closer together and less fabric showing. The overedge stitch, which looks a lot like a blanket stitch, has a fixed width and length. When you use the overcast foot, be sure the stitch width is wider than the wires, otherwise your needle will hit those wires and either bend, break or damage the foot. I've found that both of these stitches work and look better on two layers of fabric than a single layer, so sew your seam first then overcast or overedge.

It is good to read (or reread) you manual from time to time, and to experiment with feet and stitches on scraps of fabric. Even though I use the same stitch and foot 98% of the time, sometimes those fancy stitches and weird looking feet are be useful. And label those fabric scraps! I have a whole pile next to my machine with the stitch number, foot name, stitch width, and length. Whenever I need to decide how a zig zag stitch should look, I pull out the scraps, find the perfect one, and plug the numbers into my machine.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Garden Notes, End of July

It's been 3 months since our plants went into the ground, and we've been able to harvest tomatoes for about 2 weeks now and okra for maybe 3 weeks. This has been the strangest July. Usually it is beastly hot (upper 90s or even 100) and the last two summers have seen us in a severe drought by this time, but this year we get rain at least 2-3 times a week and the temps have been in the 70s and 80s for almost a month. I am definitely not complaining! All the rain has kept everything growing so well, and it's been nice to see green instead of brown.

Both Will and I regret not planting more okra, as each plant has about one pod ready to pick at a time. This has made it hard for us to cook the okra immediately, and we've been letting the pods collect in the fridge for a few days to give us a larger serving. Our favorite way to prepare the pods is to cut them crosswise about 1/2 inch thick, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and a handful of cornmeal, then saute them in a skillet with a little olive oil until they are golden brown. This is my mother-in-law's "fried okra" and it is delicious. I think the super fresh pods make it even tastier than usual, and I've noticed that the okra from our garden are completely slime-free. Roasting, grilling, sauteing, or frying okra usually gets rid of any sliminess, but our pods have been different than what I've had before, even the fresh okra I've gotten from our CSA or the organic farmer's market. We try to pick the okra small, about 3 inches in length, but even when we accidentally let them get past that point, they have still been very tender. We planted a second batch of seeds about 4-6 weeks after the first, so we are hoping our production increases soon so we are able to blanch and freeze some.

The tomatoes have all come from the same plant, the Hawaiian Currant. All of our other plants (the heirlooms and the volunteers) have lots of green fruit, and we are not-so-patiently waiting for them. The currant tomatoes are grape sized and so tasty and sweet. The plant literally has thousands of fruit ripening, and it's been a chore to stay on top of them. We've picked some at the dark orange stage instead of leaving them to reach the red stage, and the orange tomatoes have been just as good as the slightly more ripe, red ones. A bunch of these get eaten in the garden, but mostly I've been putting them in a bowl with some tiny balls of fresh mozzarella cheese and drizzling them with tiny bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper, then scattering basil chiffon over everything. I would be happy if this was my entire lunch or dinner. The only negative thing about this tomato plant is that it is huge! It grew the fastest, and quickly got bigger than all the other varieties of tomato. Now it is growing on top of everything else in the garden, so there are Hawaiian Currant branches on all sides, and I'm afraid it is choking out the other tomatoes and okra. Next year, this plant will get a wide birth.

We've also been getting a few yellow pear tomatoes from the plant at the office. They are coming in a few at a time, so I haven't eaten enough to report on them yet.

A few other thoughts at the end of July:

- we definitely planted too many things in our little garden plot; when the plants are tiny, it is hard to realize how big they are going to get; next year the plot will have to get much bigger to match our eagerness

-all of the tomato plants need to be planted further apart; while I read that 18 inches is permissible, 2+ feet would have been much better for us

-okra gets huge and the leaves get huge! we needed the maximum spacing specified on the seed packet; Will actually tells me he pretty much ignored the specified spacing altogether so that might be part of the problem

- the Florida weave tomato trellis method has worked great; you must stay on top of it, but it wasn't hard for us to do that since our plot was small; the only negative I see with this method is that the plants become very dense which makes picking the tomatoes in the interior of the plant harder; I think spacing the tomatoes further apart next year will also help with this problem

I'm curious what my end of August report will say. With a garden, so much happens in four weeks.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ely and Julia

My four year old son is obsessed with Julia Child. It's all my fault, really.

While I wouldn't call myself a huge Julia fan, I do like her. A lot. When I lived in Alabama, I picked up a remaindered copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking for $2 at the place where we liked to buy new but slightly damaged books. In Austin, before I had kids, I would spend the morning shopping at Central Market and the afternoon cooking coq au vin and the special mushrooms and onions Julia says you must serve with the dish. After my mother recalled how my brother and I loved the French hamburgers she used to make us from MTAFC, I tried them myself and quickly found a new family favorite. Nowadays, I'm happy if I only spend 30 minutes a few times a week making dinner for us, as it's not too much fun with the baby hanging on your legs, and the four year old chasing the dog in circles around you, as you try not to get yourself or anyone else burned by the hot stove.

One of the best food nights is Sunday, as we usually go to my parents' house for dinner. They always cook a feast with cheese and wine beforehand, to keep us coming back with their grandchildren, and to give them leftovers to eat for the week. A few weeks ago, I was perusing my parents' bookshelves while eating grilled figs drizzled with honey and cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto and drinking our favorite prosecco when I spotted My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'Homme. I didn't realize my parents (actually my Dad I think) owned this book. I seemed to recall that several of my friends had read it and loved it. I also knew the upcoming movie Julia and Julie was based on Julia Child's memoir as well as Julie Powell's book and blog of the same title, both of which I had already read a few years ago. I quickly put My Life in France in my bag to bring home.

I finished the book in four days. It was that good. My Life in France is the type of book you hate to finish because you worry there aren't any other books out there as good as this one, but you also can't put it down because the voice is so perfect and you have to know what happens next in the story. I knew a little of Julia's life before I started, but I hadn't realized all the hard work and determination and luck and support by her husband that made her life and love of cooking possible.

Of course she talks about her tv series, The French Chef. I can remember watching it as reruns on PBS as a kid, but I don't think I'd seen her cook in 15 or 20 years. I checked Netflix and sure enough there are two series of The French Chef on dvd. My local library had the first, so I requested it immediately. I know I mentioned before that my son and I like play games after his rest time is over but while the baby is still sleeping, but once The French Chef dvds were at our house, we started watching Julia make onion soup gratinee, roasted chicken on a spit, tarte tatin, french fries, and many many other dishes. Ely was entranced. He loved to watch her show off Big Bertha, a 45 pound lobster covered in seaweed she has on "The Lobster Show", that takes a good 45 minutes to cook. He began to tell me the difference between a roaster chicken and a fryer, or what Julia uses to make sausage casing (lamb intestines). He would wake up in the morning and ask for Julia. He would want to watch Julia after lunchtime, and of course once he was up after rest time. If I let him watch Julia while I was trying to get dinner together, I had one less kiddo (possibly two) in the kitchen. I finally had to put my foot down at more than two episodes per day, and a few tears were shed when the dvds had to go back to the library.

What I realized myself, is that so many of her dishes aren't the complicated, all day affairs I thought they were, that most of her bases and sauces are made from simple, easy-to-memorize formulas, and while Julia knows all the traditional methods she would rather - just like most people - beat her eggs whites with an electric mixer than by hand in a copper bowl. While I don't see myself making tripes a la mode or pate de campagne any time soon - if ever! - I definitely want to make a cheese souffle, and sandwich bread, and a spinach tart, and mousse au chocolat, and I haven't even finished watching the second series yet. When I make these dishes, I know I'll have a special four year old sous-chef helping me out. I guess I'd better start sewing him an apron.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A New Tote: Part 1

I had to throw away my favorite tote bag last week. It was over 10 years old, black, and I used it for everything in the last decade - a school bag, a briefcase/satchel for interviews, a teacher's bag, a camera bag, a purse, a knitting bag, an airplane carry-on bag, a snack bag for car travel and lastly a diaper bag. It was sturdy and roomy with a flat bottom, and had a zippered pocket so I could have a place for valuables if I didn't want to carry a separate bag. Finally the coating on the outside just disintegrated, and there was nothing that could be done except give it a final resting place.

I decided to use my new Echino bird on line fabric to make the Everything Tote from Heather Ross's Weekend Sewing. I had seen some cute Echino ones in the flickr group, and when I suddenly needed a new tote bag, this project jumped to the top of my sewing list. I wasn't sure I could every replace the beloved black tote bag, but I figured a cute Echino one would help.

I think most people know that there is a mistake in the materials list, and you need 1 yard of both an exterior and interior fabric. Since the Echino print is directional and I didn't want upside down birds, I had to cut out 2 individual pieces for the outside, adding 1/2 inch to the bottom of each for a seam allowance. Heather uses 3/8 inch seam allowances for the sides of the bag, but it made me feel better to have a slightly larger and hopefully stronger seam allowance for the bottom. If your print is not directional, you fold your fabric in half, and place the lower edge of the pattern piece on the fold which becomes the bottom of the bag. On Saturday, I went to the last day of my local fabric store's sale and came away with a gray and blue polka dot print from Denyse Schmidt's Country Fair line for my interior fabric. After 3 weeks of 50% off, the store was picked clean but I was happy with what I ended up with. Heather calls for a lightweight fabric for the lining, but I figured a decor weight fabric should work just well even though the bag would be slightly heavier and bulkier. I was also hoping the decor weight interior would allow me to cram more stuff into the bag.

Making the body of the tote bag was pretty straightforward. I saw another mistake in the instructions when they called for using a 3/8 inch edgestitch to attach the pocket to the lining. This didn't make any sense, as you've turned the edges of the fabric for the pocket over 1/4 inch to the wrong side and a line of stitching 3/8 inch would not catch the edge of the fabric and also usually when you make pockets, you sew right along the edge to attach them. I figured the measurement should be 1/8 inch and changed it on the instructions and drawing in the book with a sharpie. I knew my fat blackberry would never fit into the skinny side of the pocket you create by sewing a line straight down 1/3 of the way from the side, so I moved it over by a couple of inches. Close to bedtime, I started making the gathers between the points and found another mistake when I realized the distance from point to point was already 12 inches which is the measurement Heather says to arrive at once you create your gathers. I measured the pattern piece, and sure enough the distance from point to point was just slightly over 12 inches. I looked at a couple of photos of completed totes (again found in the flickr group) and saw that most bags had gathers, so I made mine until I thought it looked good and found the points were now 9.5 inches apart. I did the same on the other side. By this point it was bedtime, so the straps had to wait until morning.

Today, I woke up, fed the kids, got them playing with legos (please Agnes, don't swallow any!), and laid out my fabric to cut the straps. They are cut on the bias as the bag edges are curved which means you need more fabric than if the straps were cut on grain. The straps from the interior fabric worked out just fine as I had 1/2 yard remaining. Remember how I had to cut out 2 different pieces for the exterior? Well, I didn't have enough fabric remaining to cut out the straps on the bias. In retrospect, I should have laid out the pattern pieces for the exterior at opposite corners of my big piece of fabric, because I could have fit the straps diagonally between them. But, I didn't. From now on, I will always lay out all the pattern pieces at once in case I have to rearrange to get them to fit. I know the local fabric store has no more of this fabric left (I looked on Saturday), so now I have to order more from somewhere online to finish this bag.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Dress Tale

The story is always the same...once I have some new fabric, I want to sew.

I thought the Far Far Away unicorns would make a cute dress for Agnes using the smocked sundress pattern from Weekend Sewing by Heather Ross. The pattern is simple and easy to follow, and Heather has great illustrations in her book for almost ever step. Heather was also on The Martha Stewart Show in May, and she showed Martha how to make the sundress. The 13 minute segment is available for viewing, so I with the additional visual instructions, I figured this project would go smoothly.*

The Far Far Away fabric was a little difficult to true up and cut to size. I don't know if it is me, or if the patterns on most fabrics are printed slightly off, but I found the unicorns were not even close to being perpendicular to the selvedges. I ignored this problem, since I didn't want to waste any of my precious unicorns. The linen-cotton double gauze also likes to shift and unravel much more than quilter's cotton.

The dress came together easily. At one point my bobbin loaded with elastic thread acted up, so I had to sew over one of my smocking rows. I originally started to rip out the row, but the double gauze did not like me removing stitches, and I figured it would be better just to sew over the row than to tear the delicate fabric. I also had to ziz zag the interior seam where the back of the dress comes together twice, as the single row of stitches ripped through the fabric slightly. I think this is a problem with the double gauze fabric and not with the pattern, but I was glad I chose cotton thread to sew with instead of poly as the ripping would have been worse.

For the straps, I made my own folded bias tape. I've tried those bias tape makers, but they always make me swear and I've never been able to figure out how wide my fabric should be to achieve the desired tape width. I use my own bias tape all the time, especially for bag straps and apron ties. While pressing the bottom hem of the sundress, I realized my dressmaker's tape was the perfect width for the straps at 5/8th of an inch. I multiplied this by 4 (the basic formula for making your own folded bias tape), and found I needed to cut my strips 2.5 inches wide. With my iron, I pressed each strip in half to mark a center line with a crease. Then I unfolded the strip and folded each long edge to that center line, pressing in place with my iron. Once both sides were done, I folded the whole strip in half (this is easy since on one side you have your creased line and on the other you have the "line" created by the two edges meeting) and pressed with the iron again. On one end of each strip, I tucked the short edge inside before the last fold for a clean edge. To finish off the strips and close the open side, I topstitched along both long edges 1/8th inch. For bag straps, I'll offen do several lines 1/8 inch apart as this makes the bias tape much sturdier.

Placing the straps evenly and edge stitching the top was a little fiddly, especially since the double gauze does not like to keep a crisp edge. I think next time, I'm going to sew the top hem before I do the smocked rows, then just sew the straps to the inside of the dress which wouldn't look too different. I suppose I could also cut open the stitching in four places, insert the straps, then sew over the line again securing the straps in place. Heather actually has you make the top hem before doing the smocking on her adult version of this sundress, the Mendocino Sundress.

Soon after I finished the dress, Agnes woke up from her nap and started clapping when she saw it laying on my bed. She wore it over to her grandparents' house, and enjoyed showing off her new dress to Papa, Grandmaman, Uncle Josh, and Mu cat. The green colorway was the only color my local fabric store had, but it looks so perfect on Agnes and I'm happy now I didn't end up with the magenta. The only thing this outfit needs is a matching diaper cover, and I think the Ruby's Bloomers pattern from Weekend Sewing will be perfect. Though, I'm going to try it first with other fabric to check the sizing before I use my last precious scant half yard of unicorns.

*I actually started another smocked sundress a few months ago, using a vintage floral tablecloth from my collection. This particular tablecloth has several large holes, so I was happy to repurpose it. Once the smocking was done, I realized this dress was going to be much too long for Agnes's current height. Since I didn't want to lose any of the pattern from the tablecloth, it seemed to be a better idea to set the dress aside until she is older than to trim the fabric down.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Most Wonderful Day of the Year

This year, that would be July 6, the first day of my local fabric store's 50% off, two week long, Summer sale. I like to show up to the sale on the first day 15 or 20 minutes before the store opens, because often they let people in early and I've found if you wait until later in the day, the fabric you want is already gone. Last year, I (stupidly) forgot my list of Anna Maria's Drawing Room fabric for her Birdcage on a Chain quilt and I decided to come back in the afternoon to purchase everything instead of the few yards I could remember by sight. Of course by then, several of the fabrics were gone and I could only get a handful of the ones I needed. Natalie Chanin visited the fabric store in May, and was impressed with all the trims and buttons.

This past weekend was all about plans being thwarted. On Saturday evening, we were supposed to go to the local minor league baseball game and fireworks. I had babysitters (aka grandparents) lined up for the girl, because 16 month olds and stadiums do not mix. About 15 minutes before we needed to leave, the rain started and didn't let up until the morning. It hadn't rained here in over a week but had to start the evening of the 4th. And last night, we decided to go to the latin jazz concert and have a picnic supper on the grounds of the plantation beforehand. A couple of hours before the concert, a huge storm blew in and the torrents didn't stop until later in the evening. I was thankful no tickets for either event were purchased ahead of time.

Today, instead of being at the fabric store at 9:45am, I was on the way to the doctor's office for well visits for the kids. What rotten scheduling! I was so tempted to try and reschedule the visits, but I didn't want to put them off for another month, especially when I need to send updated vax forms into school soon. I managed to make it to the store a little after 11am (though toting two children to the fabric store is usually not my idea of fun), and the fabric I wanted was still around. The minimum cut for the sale price is one yard, so I picked up a yard of Far Far Away unicorns and an Echino bird print. Textile Fabric just started carrying Liberty Tania Lawn, and I really really wanted a yard of it, but even on sale it will cost me around $27 so I decided against the purchase.

We'll see how strong my willpower is next week...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Busy and Growing

I keep meaning to make it over here, but life is in the way. The kids and I have been having fun together, and my only real Summer challenge is keeping Ely quiet enough so Agnes can nap as long as she wants. Between learning to walk, cutting 4 new teeth, and growing, Agnes wants (and I believe needs!) to sleep for three hours every afternoon. It's been too hot to go outside much after mid-morning, so once Ely's rest time is over, he and I play lots of board games on my bed until Agnes wakes up. I think my favorite game right now is Go Fish. Candy Land is kind of dumb, the matching game gets a little boring, and Ely doesn't quite get the bingo game yet.

Besides the baby growing, our garden has taken off. The last photo I took of the garden was only 10 days before this one and everything has tripled in size:
We have loads of green Hawaiian Currant tomatoes on the vine, and our Black Zebras, Mule Team, and Brandywines are starting to fruit from the flowers. We also have some unknowns - volunteers from our compost - and are hoping to be able to identify them at some point. Currently the biggest of the unknown tomatoes look like long, skinny teardrops. A pear? A Roma? The squash/pumpkin patch grows in feet everyday, and so many of the vines have green or yellowish fruit. They were also volunteers from the compost we have no idea what they are exactly. So far, we think the largest ones are either pumpkins or acorn squash. And the okra are starting! I haven't seen any flowers blooming yet, but I've found a few on the ground and seen the new okra forming, which look just like penises on a fat baby boy.
July is usually beastly hot around here, but I'm hoping once the homegrown tomatoes ripen, they will be so good that I'll forget all about the heat and humidity.