Sewing Fundamentals: The Machine

About a year or two after I finished college. I was given a 1960's-70's era second-hand sewing machine that looked like it had never been used. I learned to sew and it changed my life. For the next 20 years I sewed on my trusty White 1099. She was awesome. Every part was metal and every stitch was right.

Not my White...but mine was just like this.
Two years ago my husband bought me my first brand-new sewing machine. Smooth and fancy compared to the old White and she was soon donated to charity. But I still think about her all the time, wondering where she ended up. Hope whoever bought her felt her magic and falls in love with sewing the way I did.

Every serious sewist I know either loves or hates their machine. I was lucky to have fallen in love right at the start. I have not "loved" quite like that since....but things with my Bernina look REALLY, REALLY promising. My new machine has been a very patient companion so far.

When you are first starting out, simple is better. I think that's why my vintage sewing machine with very few bells and whistles was perfect for me. So when shopping for your first machine, keep it simple. You can always upgrade later. Stick with good brands, maybe even try a reconditioned older machine like I had. Like I've said before, it's amazing how many things I was able to make on that old machine with the thimbleful of knowledge I had.

The first thing I am going to tell you is to READ YOUR MANUAL. Cover to cover. Even if you don't understand it all. Just read it. You will refer back to this booklet over and over again. Give yourself some base knowledge before you start trying to thread it. Sewing machines can be frustrating, so knowledge is power. What I am explaining in this series is for the new learner so I am trying not to make it needlessly complicated.

You too can keep the home fires burning.
Let's get into the mechanics of the machine for a minute. There is a wonderful animated graphic here (created by Swiss Miss) that illustrates how the top thread and the bottom thread create the lockstitch. The top thread is fed by a spool positioned at the top of your machine. This is where you run your thread through the mechanisms (where your manual tells you) winding up at the eye of the needle. The bobbin feeds the lower thread.You fill the bobbin (using your machine's winder function) and pop it in it's place beneath the needle, threading it where your manual directs. All machines have a bobbin, and they all thread a little differently so you really need to make your manual your best friend. Here is a nice video detailing the basics of threading, all machines are different but similar enough to help you get the gist:

Learn a little something about the mechanics and threading today...and then next time we can move on to feet and needles!


Friday Finds: Pay It Forward

There's a person in Madison, commonly known as The Muffin Man, who makes homemade muffins every day. He then hands them out to anyone who is willing to commit to doing something "good" in return. He even carries around suggestions of things you can do to earn a muffin - like, "shovel your neighbor's driveway with no expectation of thanks" or "stop using your credit card for the weekend." This is a guy who's knows for "drive by good-works" - he'll stay in a town for a few months doing something good, then move on and do something similar somewhere else.

Then, today, I saw this:

It's brilliant in its simplicity.

Finally, I was reminded yesterday about a Facebook "game" where you promise to hand-make something for a small group of responders. For example, "the first five people who respond to this post will receive one hand-made item from me within the next twelve months." The catch being that, in order to receive your hand-made item, you have to post the same offer to your friends.

Lately, the idea of "paying it forward" has been coming up a lot. I believe that, if the Universe puts something in front of you over and over, you're supposed to act upon it in some way. I'm not sure what that means right now but, hopefully, all these "reminders" will inspire me to do something nice that I can encourage the next person to pass on.

Do something good today and ask someone to do the same.

- Alex

Pattern Review: "Smuggler" Sweater

Now that we are well into January, it's high time to review the pattern I used for the boys' holiday sweaters...

This year I ended up knitting a free pattern from Ravelry called "Smuggler" by Sublime Yarns. In my hours of searching, this one really stood out in the crowd. I love the stripes, the boat neck, the drape of the DK weight cotton. It all works together beautifully. And, the pattern has the added bonus of being free...although I would have gladly paid for it.

On a scale of 1-5 stars I give this pattern a 5, seriously. I can't really say anything bad about it. Directions were clear, pattern was uncomplicated, and the finished product is gorgeous. It might have been nice to have been able to knit the body in the round instead of two pieces like it is written, but that is splitting hairs. And frankly, if I were more ambitious, I'm sure I could have figured out how to make that happen on my own.

Luckily I had most of the yarn (Rowan Milk Cotton DK) for these sweaters in my stash..."yea me!" for being sensible! Since I only needed to order a few more colors to make these sweaters happen, I headed out online to WEBS to see if I liked any of the other available colors of Rowan Milk Cotton DK to complement what I already had on hand. And then a shocking discovery... I don't know what's going on, but it seems like the folks over at Rowan might be discontinuing this magical yarn. Everything is on closeout.

I am a pretty calm chick but this ruffled my feathers a bit. I love this yarn and have used it for many projects. Then I discovered Viking of Norway Milk & Honey. Same sh*t, different label. Awesome. Ordered what I needed at only $5.29/skein and got on my way. If you've never knit with milk yarn, I suggest you give it a try. It is so soft and the drape is stunning. It can be a tad bit splitty and I suggest knotting your ends because they will not stay woven in, but that is the price you pay for it's softness. If Viking of Norway stops producing this line I will wear a black armband for a year.

I finished the second sweater Christmas Eve, on the way to our family gathering. Yeah, I am a master procrastinator. But all was well in the end so I can justify it!


PLEASE NOTE: The official ravelry link to this pattern doesn't seem to be working. We have posted a copy of it here:

Friday Finds: Evil-Cute Crochet

I can't remember where I saw the first piece of Shove Mink's art - it was probably on Twitter - but I can tell you that, as soon as I visited her Etsy store, I wanted EVERYTHING she's ever made.

She calls her work "anti-gurumi". It's evil, a little twisted, and only "cute" because it's mainly made with yarn. Her store is called "Croshame", which is funny in and of itself, and her work is nothing short of brilliant. Please note that, while these may look like dolls, they are not for children and are priced accordingly.

I often complain that people don't view "craft" as "art" and, as a result, don't value it more. However, this stuff can't be categorized as craft in any way, shape, or form. The attention to detail and the skill is just too fantastic.

So, for your enjoyment, I give you my two favorite pieces of Croshame art - The Krampus* and The Exorcist Playset:

* The Krampus will be mine at some point in the near future. I'm just sayin'.

Adventures with Technology

I am somewhat a technophobe. Oh, I know, you can find me deftly working on a computer all day long. But that's on my mac. The good folks at Apple have made sure that creative folks, like myself, have such a plug and play user experience that your G5 becomes your best friend. But there is other technology lurking out there -technology that's not so user-friendly and requires lots of manuals. You actually have to learn "why" and "how" before you can be successful.

I am not a Luddite like Tasha Tudor, but I'm still pretty bad.

For instance, long ago when I was in art school I took one photography class. I loved the final product but hated the process. Back in dark ages we didn't have digital cameras. I had to learn about f-stops and lenses on my Cannon AE-1 as well as complicated developing/printing. I was bogged down in the technical and I didn't like it.

I regret that I didn't bother to fight the "left-brain vs right-brain" war and power through the technicalities of photography. It would be wonderful to have skill to create the photographs I imagine when I look through the viewfinder.

"So advanced it's simple..." Yeah, right.

The one positive thing that came out of this failure is that I grew from it. I know now, as a grown woman, that if I can get through the yukky learning-curve, I can come out on the other side with mad skills. And this brings me to my latest Bernina 820.

I will give Bernina credit. The Bernina 820 has a touch screen and lots of graphics that make it easy to navigate. It is a "sewing computer" - as they like to refer to it in the manual. I'm sure I won't have trouble with the software (seems user-friendly enough), once I figure out the other stuff. And, by "other stuff" I mean the stuff I probably should already know from my basic sewing machine experience. Stuff like thread tensions, feed dogs up, feed dogs down, stitch length, the mystery stitches (other than straight or zigzag). And more. Lots, lots more.

It's amazing how many things I have actually sewn successfully with the limited knowledge I have. But much like cheating in school, it always catches up with you. My new wonderful sewing machine computer asks me questions that make me scratch my head. I have been working on my first small project (car lap quilts for the kids) and everything was going along just fine...until the actual quilting started. I am just quilting squares across the entire thing. I quilted one direction without drama, but the overlapping quilting from the other direction has me stumped. I'm getting a little bunching before the seams that, according to what I've read in my (confusing) Bernina manual, can be mitigated by adjusting the upper thread tension. Huh, wha? You mean monkey around with the standard settings? Yeah, my misspent sewing youth is all coming back on me now.

I will know you in-and-out...I will!

 I'm taking a deep breath and stepping back a few paces. I am going to suck it up and learn the sewing "hard stuff". From the beginning. I really want to use this Bernina to it's full potential. I don't want to miss out like I did with photography. Be prepared, I will be sharing this info as I learn it. I suspect some of you are in my same boat, hopefully we can both learn something here.


FREE! Hat Pattern

It's winter. We all need hats. Thought you might like to whip one up from this pattern I designed. It came out pretty cute, if I do say so myself. (My arm just cracked from patting myself on the back.)

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I created a "Poodle Hat" to go with my niece's Christmas present, the infamous "Poodle Scarf."  It's only poodle-y because it's got pom-pons and is pink. Make it in some other fun colors and it could just be a super-cool snowboarding hat or "I'm a fun person and not boring" hat. Frankly, once I'm done with some obligatory gift knitting, I'm making one of these for myself.

The pattern can be found on our "Free Downloads!" page or by clicking here. I hope you all enjoy it. If you find any errata, please, please, please let me know so I can fix the pattern accordingly. It's pretty simple so hopefully there's nothing seriously wrong with it.


- Alex

Friday Finds: Random Tutorial Generator

Hi crafty people! I have 3 words for you that will change your life:

Random Tutorial Generator does what it says on the tin. Random hits on cool stuff to make. You want a tute for anything specific? I bet you can find it with their search function. This is the best thing since sliced bread.


(Note from Alex: This is worse than Pinterest... I'm just sayin')

Beans, Beans, the Musical Fruit...

Yes, I'm ten years old.
Last weekend I had dinner at a friend's house. She is also of Southern Italian heritage and I always enjoy comparing our cooking. We have many recipes in common but often with a familial twist that make her's her's and mine, mine. Saturday night she made lentil soup. It tasted nearly identical to mine and reminded me of my great-grandmother's kitchen.

For those of you unfamiliar with lentils, they are a legume but are generally very small and shaped like a lens. They come in a variety of colors - brown, green, red, yellow - depending on the geographic origin of the original plant. I prefer the standard brown lentils but only because that's what my family always used.

Thirty percent of the lentil's calories come from protein - making them third highest in protein behind soy and hemp - so, really, the tastiest protein you can have. Also, because they're a legume, they've got a good bit of fiber in them. All in all, they're really good for you. And did I mention tasty??

When I was REALLY poor, lentils were a staple in my house. It also helped that a pot of lentil soup simmering on the stove reminded me (still reminds me) of my family so it provided emotional comfort as well as cheap nutrition.

So, my gift to you on this soon-to-be-cold day (our temps are supposed to drop 30 degrees in the next twelve hours) is my great-grandma's lentil soup recipe. In the spirit of full disclosure I'll admit that nearly all lentil soup recipes are the same - with small variations based on family preferences. This is something you can have on the table in less than an hour and will fill your bellies and your souls with comfort.

Buon Appetito!

- Alex

Agostina's Lentil Soup

1 lb (16oz) bag of lentils (brown, preferably)
1 medium onion - coarsely chopped
2 small or 1 large clove garlic - diced
2 or 3 carrots - coarsely chopped
2 large celery stalks - chopped
8 cups water or vegetable broth
2 bay leaves
Olive oil
A dash of balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper

Lightly sautee the onions, garlic, carrot, and celery in olive oil. When the onion is a bit soft, add the lentil and stir to mix well. Add water or broth. Add bay leaves. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook for about 30-45 minutes, stirring often. (Keep your eyes on it because the beans may suddenly expand.) Add more cooking water/broth if necessary to achieve your preferred consistency. The lentils will thicken the broth and make a dense soup. Once the lentils and vegetables are cooked through, add balsamic vinegar, salt, black pepper, and olive oil to taste.

Variations - Chicken or beef broth both add a different flavor to the finished soup. Also, the addition of either ham hocks or Italian sausage can make the soup even heartier than it is already. Experiment!!

Variation also - some people like to use a stick blender and "puree" the soup to a smoother consistency. I like it "bean-y".

Friday Finds: Vintage Sewing

Today's Friday Find is all about fashion sewing patterns from Wearing History for those who love vintage style. Particularly 1930's and 1940's. They are so much fun. And a lot of the styles they have chosen to write up as patterns are quite practical by today's standards. There is definitely 2012 appropriate sport and party wear in the mix. I don't mind the inappropriate myself, but that's just me (Alex doesn't like "costumey").

This is the pattern that initially sucked me in.
I have been wanting to make an apron for some time. This is the one it's going to be.

I would most certainly suggest that you follow the blog and "like" them on Facebook. They are always posting links to other blogs sharing vintage knitting patterns, tailoring tips, customer finished projects, make-up and hairstyle how-to's, etc. I have really gotten some good information this way.

Who doesn't LOVE lounging pajamas!!
If you adore vintage style as much as I do...check it out!


It's An Obsession

I hate having leftover yarn. Those bits of skeins that are too large to throw away but too small to do anything with drive me mad. As a result, I tend to keep knitting and knitting until a skein is gone (or small enough that I don't feel guilty about just throwing it out.)

Many of you are now chomping at the bit to give me your favorite "scrap yarn" project. The Beekeepers' Quilt seems to be a current favorite among Ravelers (which, btw, shows that I'm not the only one with tons of these bits laying about.) I'll be happy to take any suggestions/patterns/thoughts on the subject - seriously - but I will mention that I also have a bit of an issue with "mixing" yarn types. I'm so OCD sometimes.

Making 400 of these doesn't really appeal to me.
Anywhoooo... the point of this tirade is that I finished my niece's scarf just in the nick of time. I was, quite literally, knitting the last bit of the tail two hours before it had to be in the mail to make it there in time for Christmas. But, because I modified the pattern and made it quite a bit smaller, I had a TON of pink acrylic yarn left over. Pink.Acrylic. There was nothing to do but to keep knitting for my niece because, honestly, what else am I going to do with 3/4 skein of pink acrylic? I just finished a hat to go with the scarf and found myself with more than enough of this stuff left to make a pair (or three) of mittens so those are in the works too.

I'm pretty proud of this hat.

Look how much of this is left!

The finished scarf ended up 100 rows shorter (seriously) with legs and tail about 1/2 the length the pattern called for and ears that are about 2/3 the length called for. Regardless of it being short and stumpy, I think it still looks pretty good. At one point, when I was obsessing about the fact that I wasn't following the pattern and I was convinced it was going to look really jacked-up, Cassandra said "remember your audience" and truer words were never spoken. My niece didn't know that the scarf was short and stumpy and she was thrilled with the final product. I just hope she likes the hat and mittens as well.

My intention is to write up the hat pattern this week - before I forget what I did - and post it here for you all to download for free. I started the mittens without a pattern but Cassandra handed off a pretty good one that she's making for one of the Things so I can't claim that as an "original Alex design." LOL

If y'all want to send me some favorite scrap patterns, I'll be happy to add them to my binder. I'm one of those folks who hates to waste stuff so throwing out yarn - even the smallest amount - just feels wrong to me.

Hope you had a GREAT New Year's Eve.

- Alex

Reflections on 2011

Today I started navel-gazing, inspired by a post made by Anna Maria Horner. Here are some things I learned this year:
  • To be thankful for my opportunities.
  • Life needs to be simple to be enjoyable.
  • Things can surprise you with how much they hurt.
  • Shifting gears as a mom to preschoolers and a mom to a college student is challenging.
  • I don't hoard yarn.
  • I do hoard fabric.
  • I love designing more than I like mass-producing product.
  • Swatching isn't so bad.
Swatching for one of our upcoming designs.
  • My state political climate can shift disturbingly quickly.
  • I had boxes upon boxes of items to donate (and never be missed) in my basement before the great purge. I'm so ashamed of that.
  • When said basement was cleared, I had room for the studio space I have been craving.
  • Home-made pizza is really the best.
  • Napping is nothing to feel guilty about.
  • I am really a Dark Shadows geek. (get the will be too!)
  • I watch way too much reality TV.
  • I missed going antiquing.
  • My family is there for me. 
  • My husband is the most generous man ever.
  • I procrastinate.
Seaming a holiday sweater on the way to the celebration.
  • It's okay being on the other side of 40.
  • My Great-Grandmother is my true hero. (more about her later)
  • Magic is real.
  • I love blogging.
  • I love, love, love, making.
It's amazing what you can find in your navel!
– Cassandra