Edge finishing with bias (Part 1 of a 2 Part series)

If you buy a modern sewing pattern, odds are good that it will include a facing pattern piece for a neckline or, if the garment is sleeveless, for the armhole. In the SCA I see people use facings to finish off necklines especially for tunics.

I, personally, am not a fan of this kind of facing. Often they flip to the outside, or result in a bulky looking edge. So today I want to offer up an alternative: bias binding. Now, from what I’ve read, you don’t see actual bias-cut strips used in extant medieval clothing, so in my next post I’ll talk about the use of ribbon, tape, and straight-grain strips. But self-fabric bias is easy and produces a nice finish for any type of garment, so I want to let you know about it.

Before we talk about the bias strip itself, let’s consider the problem it’s solving. In any circle or curve, the inside edge is shorter than the outside edge. This means that if when you fold the edge of, say, circular neckline to the inside, the wider the fold the more the neckline will buckle and bunch. This makes sense, because you’re trying to make a shorter edge match a longer distance. Sewing a second piece of fabric allows you to minimize that difference in distance by using a seam allowance that’s small. (In truth, this is the case for any kind of facing.)

With that in mind, the thinner the bias tape strip, the easier it will be to work with. My recommendation is to use a 1/4 seam allowance. True bias (cut at 45 deg) will have the most stretch, but you don’t need to cut that. You can look at your fabric leftovers and cut at the angle that will let you get the necessary strip length. In the following pictures I sewed the strip on right side to right side, then turned the strip to the inside and then used a hem stitch to make the stitches show as little as possible on the outside.

This is how bias looks on the inside.
This is how it looks on the outside.

There’s another way to use bias binding, and that’s to cover an edge that’s too thick to fold. In the SCA I think this is more common for 16th C clothes. This time you can either sew the tape on the right side and then fold the tape up and over the edge and hand stick on the inside catching only the inner layer of fabric. (Note: there is a technique to machine sew bias from the outside called stitch-in-the-ditch but I don’t recommend it in this case.)

Another way is to fold up your bias, place it over the edge, and sew through all the layers at once. Believe me, I love to use my machine, but you’ll have an easier time and get better looking results if you do this by hand.

Binding on a 16th c kirtle.

There’s a good online class on bias finishing called Sewing on the Edge on Craftsy.com but I think Craftsy May be called Blueprint now.

I hope you find this technique useful. Part 2 won’t be until next Saturday at the earliest since I’ll be on the Road next week.


Setting Yourself Up for Sewing Success – Part 3

Here’s the last part of my Setting Yourself Up for Sewing Success class outline: Stitch Length, Helping your fabric move through your machine, Troubleshooting, and Final Thoughts.

Stitch Length

  • Default stitch length on many machines is 2.5 mm
  • The thicker the fabric, the longer the stitch
  • A stitch that is too long can cause puckers.
    • Use a shorter stitch length on silks and fine fabrics.

Test stitch length before you start sewing your garment!

Helping your fabric move through your machine: Feed Dogs, Pressure Foot Pressure, Walking Feet, and Straight Stitch Plates

Feed Dogs: The serrated bars that move the fabric through the machine, under the pressure foot and needle.

Tip: Try sewing the piece of fabric you are easing with that piece next to the feed dogs. The feed dogs move the fabric they touch a bit faster than the top fabric, so that will help with easing.

Pressure Foot Pressure: The higher the number, the more pressure the foot exerts downward.

  • Many machines allow you to adjust the pressure foot pressure up and down. Thicker fabrics may require less pressure. Test!

Walking Foot: A walking foot is basically a set of feed dogs for the top of the fabric. A walking foot can help feed the top and bottom fabrics through your machine evenly.

  • A walking foot is a good investment for the SCA sewist.
    • Good with sewing velvet
    • Good with thick layers.
    • Good for matching design motifs (stripes, brocade patterns) on fabrics.

Straight Stitch Needle Plate: A needle plate with a small hole, allowing for only a straight stitch. This type of plate provides extra support under the fabric to help the needle move through the fabric. Good for fabrics that are very heavy (helps needle punch through) and very fine (helps prevent needle from pushing fabric into the bobbin area).

  • Make sure you remember that you are using a straight stitch plate and not try to sew any stitches with width (e.g. zig-zag stitches).

Troubleshooting: What to try first when things go wrong

  • Change your needle
    • Make sure you’re using the right kind of needle for your thread & fabric
  • Re-thread your machine (top thread and bottom)
    • Make sure your bobbin is in correctly
  • Clean your bobbin area
  • Check your thread (Is it old? Poor quality? Too thick or thin?)
  • Check how your thread is coming off its spool. Is it coming off easily or getting caught on something? Remember to use the correct size spool cap. Alternatively, try using a threadstand.
  • Check your pressure foot pressure
  • Make sure your first stitch is on fabric.
  • Consider using a different foot or needleplate.
  • Try adjusting your machine’s tension if the stitches look off

If none of this solves your problem, take your machine in for servicing.

Remember that too much forcing or pulling your fabric through your machine can throw the machine’s timing off.

Final Thoughts:

  • Take classes if you can. Read books.
    • Online classes are available (e.g. Craftsy.com)
    • Non-historical sewing classes can help you become a better historical sewer/costumer
    • Consider going to Costume College (late July/early August, held in the Los Angeles area)
    • Traditional tailoring techniques can help you with more structured garments, such as 16th C clothing.
  • Invest in the best tools, thread, & fabric you can afford
    • Bad tools = frustration
  • Test First:
    • Garment mock-up
    • Stitch samples
  • Pre-treat/wash all your fabric if necessary
    • If you are going to wash your garment, wash the fabric and trims, if any.
    • Consider dry cleaning your fabric if you will be dry cleaning your garment
  • Be patient and methodical. Neatness counts!
  • Think ahead before you sew. What are your next steps?
  • Don’t sew when you are tired. 
  • If you want to buy a new machine:
    • Shop at authorized dealers who will support you. Avoid big-box stores or online
    • Authorized Dealers who do repairs in house, rather than sending out
    • If you feel pressured at a dealer, walk out.
    • Think about what you want in a machine. Needle up/down? Freearm? Automatic Buttonholes? Eyelets? Max. Speed? Kneelift? What are your deal-breakers?
    • Try a bunch of different machines and machine brands
    • Bring a bunch of the types of fabric you will be sewing and try out machines.
    • Ask your friends for recommendations (machines and dealers)
    • Consider high-quality used machines
    • Research the machines you are interested in online. Search for reviews and problems.
  • Get your machine service at least once a year
  • Maintain your machine. Clean. Oil if necessary.
  • Read your machine manual. It’s worth your time.
  • Sew with friends when you can. You can really learn a lot from each other!
  • We learn by doing.
  • Done is Beautiful.

Setting Yourself Up for Sewing Success – Part 2

A continuation of yesterday’s class outline post. There should be one or two more parts. Part 2 covers Fabric Grain & Bias, Ease & Easing, Seamlines & Seam Allowances, and Pins & Pinning.

Fabric Grain & Bias

Warp & Weft

Warp: The set of lengthwise threads that are held in tension on a frame or loom.

Weft: The thread that is inserted over and under the warp threads.

Warp = Grain

“On Grain” or “Grainline”: The direction of the warp threads.

  • Fabric is strongest in this direction.
  • In general, your garment should be cut “on grain” for it to hang on your body properly.

“Crossgrain” = weft

  • Less stable than the grainline; tends to stretch more  

Bias

Bias: The diagonal direction on the fabric. True Bias is 45 degrees to warp and/or weft.

The most important feature of bias is that it stretches!

  • True bias stretches the most.

Essentially, when fabric is cut on the bias the weft threads tend to fan out, causing the cut edge to stretch.

Note that anytime fabric is cut at an angle or curve, at least part of it is on the bias. This includes necklines.

Ease & Easing

“Ease” can be either a noun or a verb:

Garment Ease: The amount of fabric added to the body measurement that allows a garment to fit around the body according to the garment’s design.

  • Fitting Ease is the amount of fabric required to make a garment not skin-tight.
  • Design Ease is the amount of fabric required to not just make a garment fit over the body, but to make the garment look like the design. For example, a tight sheath has a lot less ease than a loose peasant blouse.

Easing, or “to ease”: To make a longer piece of fabric fit onto a shorter piece of fabric without gathers or pleats.

  • Example: Matching bias pieces that have stretched to on-grain pattern pieces (e.g. sewing in a triangular gore).

Ease can also be used to mold fabric into 3D shapes.

  • Sleeve caps
  • “Princess-line” bodice fronts

The thinner and looser-weave the fabric, the more you can ease it. The thicker and stiffer the fabric, the less you will be able to ease it.

Approach – Divide and Conquer!

  • Match and pin ends
  • Pin middle
  • Pin quarters
  • Manipulate/stretch fabric to fit and pin.

Seamlines and Seam Allowances

Seamline: The line where you will be stitching

Seam allowance: The amount of fabric to the outside of the seamline, on the opposite side of the garment body.

  • Common seam allowances: 1/4”, ½”, 5/8”

For any pattern, make sure you know what the seam allowance is!

Pattern piece edge = the outside edge of the seam allowance

Always match seamlines, not pattern piece edges

Pins & Pinning

  • Use the right size/type pins on your fabric to prevent damage to your fabric.
  • Think about how your fabric will move through your machine and pin accordingly.
  • Never sew over pins! Hitting pins will not only break your needle, but you can seriously damage your machine.

Setting Yourself Up for Sewing Success – Part 1

A couple of years ago I put together a class in response to seeing many sewists struggle because they didn’t know the things I’m about to talk about. Even if someone took a sewing class, more often than not things like thread weight, needle types, bias and ease weren’t covered. If you don’t know this stuff odds are your setting yourself and your project up for trouble if not failure.

I do think it’s better when this outline is accompanied by my talking it over, but in the interest of getting this information out there I’ll post my outline here. Because it’s long (8 pages) I’ll do it in parts. The following is the first part (Intro, Thread, and Needles):

Introduction

Who is this class for?

  • Self-taught sewists
  • Beginner sewists
  • Anyone who ever had something go wrong while sewing and couldn’t figure out what was causing the problem.

Class Goal:

  • Students should walk out of this class understanding basic sewing concepts that will set them up for success in their future projects.

This class assumes you will be using a sewing machine. However, many of the concepts covered in this class also apply to hand sewing.

This class deals with woven fabrics only – no knits.

Thread

Thickness & Weight

            The higher the number, the thinner the thread.

Most of the threads you will use for garment sewing use weight (wt) to refer to thread thickness. Thread weight is determined by the number of kilometers of thread that it takes to weigh 1 kilogram.

Common thread weights:

  • 60 wt. Often marketed for fine sewing or as bobbin thread for machine embroidery.
  • 50 wt. This is basic sewing thread. This is the thread you will use the most.
  • 40 wt. A thicker thread. Often used for decorative stitching, machine embroidery and machine button holes. If you need to sew canvas consider using this weight thread.
  • 30 wt. This is often sold as top stitching thread. You could also use this thread weight on tent canvas.
  • 12 wt. Often sold as decorative topstitching thread.

In addition, there is 100 wt. thread (I’ve only seen this in silk), that can be used for sewing fine silk, voile, or lawn fabrics.

When you are buying thread for your project, pay attention to the weight/thickness of the thread, not just the color.

  • You may need to buy 2 types of thread for your project ( e.g. one for the seams and one for buttonholes).

Thread Quality

Lint: A non-obvious consideration when buying thread is how fuzzy the thread is and how much lint it will throw off as it flows through your machine. Check out this article showing threads under a microscope: http://owensolivia.blogspot.com/2012/10/your-sewing-thread-under-microscope.html .

  • If you find that your machine is getting gummed up with lint quickly, thread is tangling in the bobbin area (i.e.“birdnests”), thread breaks, stitches are not forming correctly, you may want to switch to a smoother, less-fuzzy thread.

Clean your bobbin area frequently. Lint buildup can cause problems with your stitching and can eventually damage your machine.

Deterioration: Thread does not age well! Air and sunlight will cause thread to rot. Thread should be stored inside some sort of container (at least a drawer) and away from sunlight. Old thread may break or cause you trouble. Think before you use thread of a questionable age, and test.

When threading your machine, always do so with the pressure foot up.

  • When the pressure foot is in the raised position the tension disks are loosened, allowing for you thread to pass through the machine correctly.

Needles

Parts of the Needle

In general, needles are characterized by 3 factors:

  • The thickness of the needle,
  • The size of the eye (the hole through which the thread passes), and
  • The shape of the needle point.

In general:

  • The thicker the fabric, the thicker the needle
  • The thicker the thread, the larger the eye

Needle Types

Needle type is determined by the shape of the point and the size/shape of the eye.

Common needle types for sewing seams on woven fabrics:

  • Universal – has slightly rounded point
  • Sharp – sharp point; good for silks
  • Jeans – sharp point and larger eye; good for thick fabrics and threads, or quilting
  • Topstitching – Larger eye

If you want to use a 40 wt machine embroidery thread for decorative stitching, try using an Embroidery needle. A topstitching needle can work as well.

Size

            The higher the number, the thicker the needle.

For most of your sewing, you will use a size 80 needle. A size 80 is good for medium to heavy weight linens, all but coat-weight wools, light to medium weight cottons, etc.

However, there is a general rule of thumb that you should try to use the smallest needle size possible. This is because you don’t want to poke unnecessarily big holes or damage your fabric.

Try using a 70 or even a 60 sized needle for sewing fine silks, linens, or cottons, such as handkerchief-weight linen, voile, lawn, organza, or batiste. Remember to use a finer thread, such as 60 wt. cotton or 100 wt. silk.

Consider using a 90 or larger size needle on heavy canvas, twills, and coat-weight wools.

If your needle breaks, try moving to a bigger needle. If your thread shreds, try a larger-eyed needle.

            Using the correct combination of thread and needle is one key to sewing success!

How to test thread/needle combos: Needle Slide test:

  • Cut about 18 in of the thread you plan to use. Take the needle you want to try out of its package and thread it with the thread you just cut.
  • Hold the thread up, one end in each hand. Tip the thread at a 45 degree angle.
    • If the needle slides smoothly, then the eye of that needle is big enough for your thread.
    • If the needle hesitates at all to slide, then the eye is too small for your thread.

Start each new project with a new needle. If something goes wrong, the first fix to try is to change your needle.

Crittersmock!

This is a post I wrote back in 2017 on another blog site.

Crittersmock! And musings on historical compromise.

Ever since I learned about the early-17th C smock in the V&A with the (now faded) pink animals and flowers embroidered on it*, I’ve wanted to make one for myself. The snails are soooo cute! The designs seem to mostly come from the Scholehause School for the Needle, which I have a copy of, and I actually like to do hand embroidery.

But I was never able or willing to put in the time and effort to make it happen. Even if the embroidery technique used is simple, there’s a lot of it. I never thought I could commit the time to make it happen.

But now I have technology! I own machine embroidery (ME)-capable sewing machines! And low and behold, the designs used on the smock had been digitized for ME and were available for purchase!** I even had a deadline-excuse: as part of my 30-year-a-Laurel celebration I plan to have an Elizabethan Underwear Party.

Now, because I’m me and I’m a Laurel in the SCA for costuming, I found myself wondering about the “ethics” (for lack of a better term) of creating a copy/version of this extant historical garment using machine embroidery. I actually thought a lot about it. Since most of you who are reading this are in the SCA and/or also like to make historical clothing, I thought I’d share my conclusions and approach to making this smock:

1) First and foremost, if I wasn’t going to use ME I wouldn’t have made this smock at all. I just don’t have the bandwidth. Given all the other demands on my life I’ve got limited time for sewing. Add to that, I’ve got other sewing projects on my plate, including commitments to sew for other people. Having the option of doing all of the embroidery by machine kicked this project into the realm of Doable In My Lifetime. And once this project got labeled Doable in my brain I was able to get the time scheduled and gather the materials to make it a reality. 

2) I accepted that this smock was going to be a work of compromise. My reasoning went as follows:

  • I was going to copy the original smock as much as I could, but I was going to use my machine(s) when I thought it would not be obvious and would save the time necessary to keep the project Doable.
  • I was going to be wearing this at SCA events. I was not ever going to wear this smock to work at a more “rigorous” historical re-creation event, such as Kentwell in the UK.
  • Most of these SCA events would be camping, so the smock had to be made sturdily and be machine-washable.

Alright, how did this all play out?

Sewing approach:

  • I copied the construction of the original smock to the extent my fabric allowed.
  • All the seams are flat-felled like the original. The felled-seams are wider than the original, but they turned out to be something between under 1/2″ but more than 1/4″. To be specific, I folded on side up and the other side down and then interlocked the sides and stitched them down. I got a good look at the pics of the original and matched which side got folded up and down.
  • All of the seam stitching from the top to below the waste is hand-done, including the sleeves, cuffs, and collar. I didn’t want any machine seam stitching visible when I was having a conversation with someone. I had been sick through most of this process, so sitting and hand stitching while binge-watching Netflix shows was the perfect thing to do. I used what I believe is called a slip stitch on the top side and something like a blind hem stitch when working on the inside.
  • All the seam stitching below the waist/hip–including the hem–is machine done. I just didn’t have time to hand-sew all the seams, especially because of the way I had to assemble the side gussets. And, remember, there’s 2 lines of stitching for each seam because they’re flat-felled. But to minimize the visibility of the machine seams I used a very tiny zig-zag stitch. This works very well, folks–much less noticeable than a straight seam. I used this zig-zag for the hem as well because I knew that if I hand-hemmed it would be less sturdy (camping, remember?). I figured machine seams wouldn’t be seen from a distance, or when I was having a conversation, so it was an acceptable compromise to same time.
  • On the original, the underarm gusset squares are sewn onto the side gusset, rather than the front and back rectangles. I copied this approach. The original’s side gusset is split to accept the underarm gusset (rather than there being a side seam that would create side front and back gusset). This makes sense to me from the standpoint of minimize the amount of hand sewing. In other words, for us in the modern world we find it easier to run a long side seam from the wrist, down the sleeve, then down to the hem, rather than set the point of an inset gusset. But when you’re hand-sewing that’s a lot of stitching, so faster just to set in the gusset.The way my fabric worked out, I had to piece my side gussets differently than the original. I had to use 3 triangles, top to bottom. The original had additional triangles only at the bottom to make up the full triangle of the gusset. See Patterns of Fashion 4 if you want a clearer picture of what I’m talking about.
  • On the original, there is nothing indicating if or how the neck was closed at the center front. Since I want to be able to wear this smock with the neckband closed, I added buttonhole-stitched bars on the inside collar so that I could run a tape through for a tie. I didn’t want to use an eyelet because that was not used on the original. For the cuff closures I hand-sewed eyelets. My eyelets are farther in from the edge compared to the original, due to the fact that I didn’t check the original’s images first. (What can I say; it was late at night and I wanted to finish. You know the struggle, I’m sure. 😉 ).

Embroidery/ Decorative Stitching notes Notes:

  • The original was done in a now-faded pink silk. I chose Floriani Polyester 40 wt ME thread, color PF1120, a nice, darker carnation-shade of pink. Polyester embroidery thread is very strong and color-fast. Floriani is shiny, and so has a nice sheen when used in these imitation-split-stitch designs. This is a good thread-choice for something that’s going to be thrown into a washing machine.

[Side note for those of you who have a ME capability: Polyester ME thread got a bad wrap because when things were starting out is was crappy. But the currently, brands like Floriani and Isacord are really good. And they are color fast, whereas Rayon ME thread is not.].

  • The original smock decorated the main felled-seams with “X”s, worked in the same pink silk as the designs. These Xs had small spaces between them. I’m assuming that these stitches had both a decorative and a functional, seam-reenforcing reason for being. I wanted to include that decorative element but was not willing to stitch them by hand. I found that my Bernina 750 had a continuous X decorative stitch so I decided to use that. I think it looks good. The stitching is not perfect in places, but it looks plausibly hand-done. Again, I used the Floriani Poly PF1120 thread.
  • I looked long and hard at all the pictures I could of the original. I figured out that, looking at the designs in columns, there was a repeating pattern of 4. These 4 alternated between flora and fauna. Rows alternated as well, so that flowers always had an animal/bug next to it, and vice-versa. The super-cute double snail with Lily design, however, counted as a flower.
  • I used a 3-inch square grid to lay out my pattern. This was the best I could do to replicate the original, although I don’t think it’s exact. I had a good pic of the front half of one sleeve, so I was able to match that sequence. On the back half of the sleeve I just made it up per what I liked. I embroidered both sleeves exactly the same, so that the front halves of the right and left show different designs. For the chest sections, I wanted the double snails–my favorite design–to figure prominently, so I set that and sequenced the other designs around it. No attempt to copy the original, except to have the same number of rows.
  • In order to get a good sense of what things would look like when I laid out the design, I stitched out all of the designs using a strong cut-away stabilizer. I used a basting box around each design, using my machine’s built in capability. Then I cut them out and used them as templates. This test also allowing me to test a couple of shades of pink before settling on the one I wanted. It’s surprising how different thread can look on the cone compared to stitched out. Usually it comes out lighter than you’d think. 
  • More grid notes: I used my gridded pattern paper to create a pattern for the sleeves and center front. at the center of each 3-in square I punched a hole. I also wrote the name of the design to be used in each square. I then used the grid to mark the centers on the linen. I am keeping these patterns just in case I ever decide to do this again (not likely in the foreseeable future).
  • When hooping up, I was sure to align the vertical axis so I knew I could start each design on the marked center dots and know that they would be correctly on that axis. I am keeping these patterns just in case I ever decide to do this again (not likely in the foreseeable future).
  • I decided that the most time-efficient way to stitch this out was just to use my 12 x 8 inch hoop, sit at my machine, and choose/stitch each design one at a time. Since each design stitched out pretty darn quickly, I decided that that approach would be quicker than me going into my digitizing software and laying out multiple designs to be stitched at a time. If you have a ME capability you probably know what I’m talking about. 🙂
  • I did use my digitizing software to do one thing, though. The original stag design had an arrow in it. Hunting was big with those people, :-/ . Well, no animals are going to be harmed on anything I’m going to wear!*** It was pretty easy to take out that arrow in my software, so I did.
  • Another change in the designs was that I increased the size of the dog and the stag. For whatever reason, those design as purchased were really small and didn’t look good next to the other designs. I used the Increase Size function in my machine to make these 2 designs bigger. I’m unclear as to how big those designs were in the original(s).****
  • One of the designs that was on the original cuff was not available. So when I laid out the designs for the color and cuffs I just used what I liked.
  • I found one photo of the back of the original. There is no embroidery on the back body; makes sense, really. So my smock has no embroidery on the back body piece as well. I won’t be using this as any sort of partlet in consequence. But like the original this smock is pretty wide and so is better suited as a stand-alone-under-a-loose-gown garment anyway.
  • All the machine embroidery was done on my Baby Lock Ellisimo II Gold. The decorative and machine stitching was done on my Bernina 750 (which has a built-in dual feed, which was nice for the bia-on-straight-grain elements of the seams and their thickness.)
  • I used a ton of wash-away stabilizer. 2 layers under the embroidery, and one-layer strips under all the decorative seams.

Lace:

  • The original smock has bobbin lace around the cuffs and collar and down the center-front neck slit. I had some simple machine-made, store-bought white bobbin lace in my stash that I thought was an acceptable match to the original, so I used it. Now, I know that it’s becoming popular to make your own lace in Elizabethan costuming circles, and I say More Power To Them. But that LOE fell victim to my Make It Doable Compromise-approach.

Overall, I’m very happy with how it turned out. In terms of time, I know it took a good solid 2 weeks to do all of the assembly, and that’s with Big Blocks Of Time available because I was too sick to leave the house. The Embroidery took several weekends, but there was a break between doing that and the assembly. I’ll have to go back to my notes to get a more realistic sense of the time. I know, however, that if I were to charge for all the time I put into this smock no one could afford to pay for it. 

*Pictures of this are available in a variety of sources. See Patterns of Fashion 4 and Fashion in Detail- Seventeenth and 18th Century. 

**https://www.etsy.com/listing/264356162/elizabethan-blackwork-floral-designs?ref=shop_home_active_39
and
https://www.etsy.com/listing/258534818/elizabethan-blackwork-fauna-embroidery?ref=shop_home_active_41

***OK, I’m not a vegan and I do wear leather. Don’t think too much about this, OK?

**** These dog and stag designs come from a different 17th C smock. But I liked them and wanted to use them. Deal with it America.