Thursday, 8 September 2016

Packed full of potential

Once upon a time, when I was less confident in my dress-making skills, and less frustrated by ineffective clothes shopping trips, I used to make myself bags. Drawstring bags as gifts for friends; zipped washbags for hens on a hend do; project bags for me and the knitters around me; lavender bags for older relatives; the odd hand-bag for myself... nothing very complicated, and nothing very ambitious or accomplished.

And since I'd been making these for ages, when I wanted a new bag to carry my laptop and A4 folders on occasional trips out to make progress in environments safe from distractions, I rummaged through my old Burda World of Fashion issues and found this baby-kit bag.

Pockets seemed a good idea - a zipper top and flap similarly so. A couple of adjustments were needed to be sure my laptop would actually fit, and I added a layer of wadding to the internal divider in the hope that it would provide a little extra protection against knocks.

Fabric choice was straightforward and out of stash - I think I originally planned some cord trousers from this, but decided that the wale was too wide, and combined it with a length of cotton from the quilting stash for linings and details.

I'd definitely recommend this sort of sewing to anyone learning to sew, wanting to improve their finishing skills, or simply building on their techniques and understanding - it gives you the opportunity to focus on those skills in combination with straight seams, and without the added complications of fit.

The final result is big.Bigger than I had anticipated from the two-dimensional measurements I had been looking at. The depth of this bag makes a lot of difference, and while I do use it regularly, it doesn't quite play the role I had hoped. Rather than allowing me to take my laptop into work with me if I need to complete something at lunchtime or afterwards, and fit my lunch and wallet and knitting, this is the 'overnight with projects' carryall.

For example, if I'm off to work one day, I can pack my lunch, glasses, wallet and site pass alongside my washbag, pyjamas, change of clothes, notebooks, reference book, project folder, novel, Kindle, brolly, knitting and spare knitting, chargers, and laptop. And then it takes me from work, through a train journey to an evening with a good friend to the next day, which I can spend out and about working solidly, before heading to the theatre and back on that same train home and to bed. It's big but it's presentable, and if I'm a little careful about the balance (I really must cut back the number of notebooks I carry), isn't too heavy.

What I still need to find is the perfect bag for my original need - I'd like to be able to carry my laptop and charger in a bag with my keys, phone, wallet, lunch and sock project. I've recently started following Emmaline Bags on Instagram, and certainly feel there's more of this sort of making in my future.

Monday, 29 August 2016

It's all coming up - Babies

Why do buses all come along at once?

I'm not sure this is a particularly useful question, but in terms of life events, I've certainly hit a 'certain' age: by which I mean that while I'm not yet that woman of that age (whatever age that actually is), I am a woman of child-bearing years, and since our social circles are formed of those of an age with us, I now find myself regularly encountering people wearing slightly larger, more empire-line outfits, quietly taking half-days off to attend doctors' appointments, and finally declaring the start date of their maternity leave.

Unsurprisingly, I've also now gathered around me a small selection of favoured baby knits - simple patterns for effective garments in little sizes, which I can rustle up according to the preferences of the parents. I'm even considering taking this a step further, and beginning a full-on baby trousseau - not for me, but so that I am always ready for a surprise announcement. While I decide whether that smacks a little too much of madness, I'll share my favourites, in case you find yourself in a similar predicament.

For the classic baby set

Stephanie Purl-McPhee's Nouveau-ne comes in one size - newborn; but should that be viable for your climate and the time of birth of the baby concerned, it is an excellent pattern. It includes hat, cardigan, and bootees, all of which share the same classic lines and striking unisex pattern.

It hadn't previously occurred to me to look for a set, but I've knit the bootees and cardigan once already in a pastel green, and am planning a second (white) set for a particularly traditional family.

For an interesting and versatile knit

Ysolda Teague's Envelope Sweater is one of the first baby knits I knit. Knit first from cuff to cuff, and then from the yoke edge down, this will keep your interest throughout, and result in a cushy, warm, garter stitch hug for the baby lucky enough to receive it. It is one of very few patterns for this useful neckline, too, which makes it more unusual than you might expect.


 For a quick garter stitch solution

Stephanie Purl-McPhee's Cutest Baby Bootees are effectively made like tiny socks - which means that they are not only a quick knit for that friend you see all-too-rarely, and whose news reaches you only just in time to whip them up, but you can also make them in the most wonderful range of colours as a stash-busting project!

They also combine well with other garter stitch projects, for those times when bootees alone are not quite enough - I've made them from the same yarn as a Baby Surprise Jacket (wonderful pattern all of its own, of course) and found myself with a modern and stylish set; and held the yarn with another 4-ply/fingering weight for the Purl Soho Garter Hat for a top-to-toe gift.

For simple contemporary style

The range of patterns available from TinCanKnits for babies and children is simply brilliant, and they all reverberate with strong modern lines and contemporary style. My current go-to pattern (in progress) is a Flax - for a little boy due in October, and I think it's a perfectly simple and effective. A little of me really wants to make the i heart rainbows jumper, but I fear my colourwork is not yet good enough to pull it off, and it really needs to be done right.

And a final note for the seamstresses out there:

I've also been stitching for the little ones recently, and can definitely recommend Boutique Casuals for Boys and Girls by Sue Kim. I happened to pick up the issue of Sew Magazine that included this adorable little dress, and after a little wrangling with the pattern pieces (via download etc), and a little googling of details regarding sizing, spent a lovely couple of evenings sewing it up. I'm wondering if the next rabbit hole may not after all be building a trousseau of sewn items with matching knits... there's a lovely little cardigan in What to Knit - The Toddler Years that would look brilliant with one of these.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Thinking about Identities

Woman, daughter, wife, worker... the ways we negotiate the complex web of identities that comes from any participation in society and the structures of the family are a perennial favourite in feature columns for women's magazines and Saturday supplements, to which I'm not all that interested in adding. What has struck me recently however is how closely our more specific and self-defined identities are related to the contexts in which we developed that personality; played that role; assumed that identity.

To some friends, I am a linguist, an academic, a reader; and they expect me to understand the finer points of eighteenth-century narrative fiction, or the progression of theatrical representation during the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. To others, I am a crafter of some experience; and I'll weigh in quite happily to discussions of tension and cable charts, swatches and steeks; dress-making cheats, hand vs. machine quilting; good sources for paper-craft supplies; recipes for tray-bakes; measuring drop for curtains. In yet another circle I am the competent administrator; fond of an excel formula, useful fact checker and proof-reader for anything to do with my current area of expertise, and the person most likely to write an email that is a tad too long and complex for the readership.

These roles are masks we don, and in general terms, we swap between them quite easily - who isn't a slightly more confident person in their friendship group to the workplace, or more likely to swear with one group of friends than with another? Accents, registers, posture, all vary based on the context for that identity, and as human chameleons, we maintain them all. Of course, there's the occasional moment of doubt; when you see people out of context, or bring different friendship groups together, but as a rule, we wear our disguises lightly.

Lightly, that is, until a something happens to make you see the difference between who you may be in one place and at one time, and who you are now... For me, the first such experience for a long time came when I was looking after my parents' house when they were away. I was home alone, and had carefully ensured that there was enough sewing (the dog being rather to participatory when it comes to knitting) to keep me occupied. In the interests of keeping myself moving, however, I had also brought along my running gear, with the intention of heading out for a jog a couple of times over the long weekend. I had not counted on the sudden doubt, discomfort and extreme self-consiousness that struck me when I came to set out.

Let me say it again - I was alone. The dog had no strong opinion on my ability to jog around the block, and my sister (who had popped in briefly), had assured me that it was quite possible. It is a rural area, and the one set of neighbours who would recognise me would not think it remarkable. Yet I had that gut-renching sense of exposure that you get when you're about to step into a studio class for the first time; or present to a new group of people. I got over it, and it was fine, but it took me some time to work out where that feeling had come from. I was wearing the wrong mask. When I lived there, I was the bookish child; the one whose school shirt on her last day had SWOT written across the back as a badge of honour; the one whose only sporting prowess was the left-handers' knack for winning half-rounders by being difficult to bowl at; I walked, and I read as I walked, but I did not do exercise. Now, four years after starting an office job and deciding that some habits needed to change, I am, in my home life, a person who has a gym membership; I go to classes two or three (or four or five) times a week, depending on work and other commitments. But that person is not the person who goes back to look after that dog. There's a shift that happens (possibly on Preston station), that ensures that once I'm there, the mask I'm wearing is the most appropriate for the context. But sometimes contexts need to change, and when what was a good habit to get into has become a part of your identity, then I think it's time to incorporate that change into the identity you're wearing.

Tied into these clashes of context and role are the ways in which our social media presence, and the algorithms behind these outlets, reinforce the single identity on each platform. I use Instagram largely to capture my crafting progress, or the natural world around me and so Instagram shows me other people who share photos of yarn, of patchwork, of makers making and the creative process; of those reflecting the beauty of nature in their work and lives. It doesn't show me (at least at the moment), those who may disagree with me politically, or whose lives are full of animals, or football, or Big Brother. Twitter is a little broader - more likely to include commentary on the worlds of arts, culture, language study, politics, geekery, writing - but still it shows me the world according to my preferences: reflecting the things I post, the world I have said I am interested in, encouraging me, if I want to fit in with the world I have asked it to show me, to present myself in those ways.

How would it respond to a post out of character, off-message? Seamlessly, no doubt, but as I've noticed some around me starting additional profiles to allow them to post certain things to some followers, and keep other elements separate, it has made me wonder why it is that in encouraging us to connect, these technologies drive us towards a more two-dimensional and pigeon-holed existence. Certainly there have been those who have questioned openly how our interactions through such media have affected responses to political debate: in both the general election last year and the EU Referendum, the reinforcement circle of seeing only the viewpoints you will agree with presented to you seems to me to explain at least in part the shock and surprise of some at the outcome. Like privilege, which ensures that those who have are sheltered from the travails of those who have not, and have to consciously seek exposure to other ways of living and of thinking, social media places us in increasingly siloed environments, while at the same time giving us the illusion of connecting more widely.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Making Lemonade; or Hay while the Sun Shines

Every once in a while I am summoned North to ensure our somewhat mad golden retriever is fed, watered and exercised while the usual inhabitants of the house are elsewhere. This tends to involve lengthy train journeys and using up some annual leave, but what I need to remember is that actually, it is also a series of days of freedom in a beautiful setting, with no other demands on my time than those of the dog's routine.
In fact, my most recent visit has been particularly revealing in terms of how a negative could be turned into a positive, and how looking on the bright side can really transform an experience.

Problem the first: the dog and knitting do not work very well together. She likes to be fussed, and in particular sees the times in which the humans are in soft chairs as times for putting her head in your lap and licking / investigating whatever you may be holding.

Solution: Pack a sewing machine. It might seem a little crazy, but actually, my sewing machine does fit in my suitcase, and I'm (thankfully) strong enough to carry heavy things.

Problem the second: the planned project I had thought I could whip through on this long weekend has a significant decision outstanding on it, and was not ready to bring.

Solution: Let's start all the things! I have a fabric and pattern stash for exactly this sort of eventuality, and in fact very rarely buy that fabric without a pattern / project in mind for it (otherwise I end up with the wrong amounts of stuff), so out came the box of fabric, and the box of patterns, and with a quick notions check - I have a zip stash too, and a collection of thread, I was all set.

Problem the third: I forgot to pack my dress-making shears.

Solution: turns out I'm in a house where I can put my hand on shears, and tape measures, without much difficulty!

Problem the fourth: I had checked that the Burda pattern 'envelopes' I pulled out included the pattern pieces, but not the precise details, and found that waistband and facings were missing when I opened them. I also had forgotten that being Burda Style magazine patterns, the traced pieces would be all that was in the packet - so no instructions.

Solution: after 15 years of sewing experience (but not considering myself particularly accomplished - I make it work, and the first 5 years were characterised by student theatre, where if it will last the week of the show, and pass muster from the auditorium, you're golden), I discovered that I can actually draft waistband pieces and neckline facings without much difficulty. I can also sew a skirt and dress without instructions. Woot!

Pins travelled surprisingly well in their pincushion, and cutting out was straightforward - barring the fact that my knees don't like the floor as much as the pins and scissors do. Sewing up was actually very enjoyable, and the dog seemed quite content to remain under the table while the work was being done above it!

So at the end of the weekend, what do I have to show for it? A new Belcarra top for work, which fits and will hopefully serve me well if summer has in fact actually arrived; the front (with pockets) and two back pieces of a skirt from Burda style, which needs the waistband interfacing and lining, an invisible zip and a hem (turns out the zip I found in the right colour and length was not an invisible one, and for this pattern, it would make a difference); and a third iteration of my trusty Burda style dress, to refresh the Kaffe Fassett model which I'm shocked to discover I made 5 years ago, and as a more colourful, breathable alternative to my black 'office' version.

Not bad, when considering it was combined with at least 3 hours of walking per day, and a tiny bit of knitting did also get done!

Now to address the question I don't yet have a definite answer to: why do I have to travel 300 miles to get any sewing done? Yes, knitting is easier to turn to in odd moments at home, but I do have occasional stretches of time, and weekends are just as prevalent in the Midlands as the North... I need to tidy. My sewing table is well set up, but it gets used to put things on, and I really need to remember that I need that space clear if I'm to get a project out, work on it, and put it away again.