The clothes we wear

Posted in Crafts at 13:21

I’ve been working on a cotton velvet dress for a couple of months now. It’s about 10% finished; I haven’t felt like sewing much. No particular reason, other than a lot of things going on, and it’s a dress for colder weather, so while it was hot, motivation to finish it flagged.

Last night I thought I might work on hand topstitching the sleeves. It needs to be done before I finish putting together the bodice – topstitching through closed sleeves is trickier than when they’re still open. Time passed this morning, I played a few games, watered the plants, admired my year-old orchid that’s bursting happily out of its pot in the humid, northern light of my patio. Checked my email, news sites, others. Came across an article titled “I got hired at a Bangladesh sweatshop. Meet my 9-year-old boss”. My heart sank. The Rana Plaza tragedy had finally spurred to action a few fashion chains, who signed a legally-binding agreement for fire safety and building improvements in their Bangladesh factories. Like the journalist who was hired, I did not realize that children younger than twelve were working in Bangladesh.

Meem, nine years old, works 12 hours a day, seated on a concrete floor, with no cushion or back rest. There are no windows in her building, the entrance serves as their only exit, and the washroom has a hole in the floor for a toilet. In and of itself, a hole in the floor, also known as a squat toilet, is not necessarily a bad thing; you can still find this type of toilet in France. However, no matter what kind of toilet is available, if there is only one for 45 people, and it is rarely cleaned, it is not sanitary.

Meem and the sewing helpers were paid the least, earning about $26 Canadian a month if they worked from 9 to 5 every day or about $32 if they worked overtime and stayed until 9 p.m. Most did. There were no weekends, except for a half-day every Friday, no sick leave, no holidays.

If a worker took a day off, it came off the paycheque.

Still, in a country where so many live in grinding poverty, Meem’s was a prized job, even though the minimum wage at this factory was between $30 and $38 a month.

“When I become a sewing operator, I will make very good shirts,” Meem promised. “No one will yell at me.”

That’s how big she dreamed: to graduate to a sewing operator one day.

I used to boycott name brands, until some of them finally signed on to the safety agreement. I only shop at those who have signed, but obviously, there is still a great deal of improvement that desperately needs to be done. Bangladesh textile workers do need these jobs; they pay well compared to others in their country, and allow women financial freedom that was rare before. Improving their wages and lowering their working hours would increase the cost of clothing items by only pennies. Industriall is a global union working towards sustainable industrial policy, and was one of the union signataries to the fire and building safety accord. You can see all signatories here. Hopefully it goes without saying that child labor should not be allowed – if wages were raised and hours lowered, adults would have the resources to care for children at home.

Les vacances

Posted in Cats, La France at 20:56

Kanoko and Susu

C’est les vacances ! Three weeks of vacation started for me on Monday, following a brief health scare that sent me to the emergency room (on recommendation of my GP) the week before. I’m fine now, and for anyone curious about the logistics of it – I didn’t need to pay anything and haven’t received any bills. I did go to a private clinic, since the public hospital was overflowing (I waited there for an hour and only saw two people registered, while 20 others waited in front of me), so I do feel the need to use a qualifier just in case: it was probably fully reimbursed. Especially as I haven’t received any bills two weeks later. I’ll know for certain when the detail of reimbursements comes in the mail, and plan to write a post on it since this is only my second time in a French ER, and my first in a private clinic here.

As for my vacation, it’s going very well! It started off with a lot of vintage patterns arriving in the mail, as well as a couple of books I’ve since read. One blue maxi dress has been finished, a vintage dress started, and plans for visiting the area with friends have been made.

I haven’t yet gotten a bat house; instead I plan to make one, if I can find the right type of wood, which would be a hardwood rather than soft pine. Meanwhile, the cats are kept under surveillance when outside. I also started using a video editor, Kdenlive (I’m currently running FreeBSD with KDE), so that clips of the two furballs are hopefully a bit more interesting. No fancy effects, just snipping unnecessary bits and adding music. Behold, my very first video project, starring Kanoko the Water-Loving Maine Coon.

Math is your friend

Posted in Crafts, Journal at 22:02

You may have heard of the intersection between theoretical mathematics, knitting and crocheting, but as any seamstress or tailor could tell you, there’s also quite a bit of math in clothesmaking. Not just measurements, but pattern layout. This is a simple example, but it’s a good illustration of how a little familiarity with math can make creation easier.

A few weeks ago, I fell in love with this fabric, and hoped to make a border print dress with it – a flower border on top (the bodice) and another on the bottom hem.

When I received the fabric, I noticed that the center “stripe” of darker flowers was twice as wide as the selvedge stripes, with white space between the selvedge stripes and the center one. It wouldn’t work for a dress that had a natural waist seam, but just might for a dress with a higher waist. I looked to math to help out.

The fabric was, essentially, divided into sixths: 1/6 selvedge pattern, 1/6 white area, 2/6 (1/3) center pattern, 1/6 white area, and the opposite 1/6 selvedge pattern. Its full width was 110cm. I had a dress pattern I thought might work: Butterick B5369. It met the following requirements, based on the fabric: it had a gored skirt (in sections), meaning that no one skirt piece had a particularly large curve to it. With too pronounced a curve, the skirt would have delved into white space and turned out with an unbalanced appearance. The pattern also had an empire (high) waist, and measured 90cm from bodice top to bottom hem, meaning, on a practical level, that the dress was essentially… divided into fifths related to my fabric! One-sixth of 110cm is 18.33cm, and 110 – 18 = 92cm. As for the dress’ proportions, it would mean 1/5 bodice, 1/5 top waist, 1/5 lower waist, and 2/5 bottom skirt. I could do 1/5 + 1/5 dark stripe for the bodice and top waist, to balance the proportions with the 2/5 stripe on the bottom.

In this case, in sewing, all you have to do is “subtract”, i.e. not use, one of the sixths, which has the bonus of making that extra sixth available for use elsewhere. You do have to be careful to cut everything properly, not accidentally cutting a 1/5 part in a 2/5 section, for instance. That all probably sounds confusing to non-sewists, so I used my stellar Gimp skills to create this über-high-tech illustration of pattern layout. In reality, I cut the skirt pieces much closer together, so as not to waste fabric.:

The long pieces are the waist + skirt gores, while the small bits are bodice pieces (not all of them). You can see a straight line on each bodice piece: they’re meant to be cut on a fold, as was the front center skirt gore, while all other pieces are cut in pairs. (There are exceptions depending on patterns, but this dress happened to have a 7-gore skirt and a 4-piece bodice, though I made the back bodice as a single piece, taking it down to a 3-piece bodice, because I wanted to put a zipper in the side rather than in the center back. Everyone still following? Heh. The bodice changes are tangential to the math bits.)

You may have noticed another interesting side of math’s friendliness: the skirt gore pieces line up very nicely on the selvedge! Indeed, it was a piece of cake to match the stripes, because all I had to do was place the skirt pattern piece’s top (bodice seam line) edges along the selvedge, and make sure they were straight with the cross-grain (skirt length). It also helped that the fabric is not an exact “stripe”, so that the piecing ended up being a nice echo to the motif’s scattered blossoms. The finished proportions ended up like so – I put in a darker line where the bodice seam attaches a sixth to another sixth:

And, naturally, the finished dress! Five cheers for math!

Flower dress - B5639

Feline-inspired crafts

Posted in Cats, Crafts at 11:49

Fabrics for small sewing book Sewing book, open

Miss Susu the soot sprite, now almost 8 months old, still lives up to the mischief in her name. I’ve long kept my most-used sewing essentials in a handmade fabric box on a roll-out shelf beneath my sewing machine. Kanoko never thought to get into it, but once Susu noticed how the shelf pulled out and the top came off the box, well, she taught herself how to do the same. After coming home to pins and needles strewn about my living room, I put them into a tin, but still kept my small scissors and some thread cases in the fabric box. Susu kept getting into it and tossing everything around the apartment, so over the Easter weekend I decided I’d better find a kitten-proof solution.

Cheap plastic microwave containers are great for threads, so I found a set of those. But I use my scissors, thread cutter, needle threader and seam ripper often enough that it’s better when they’re easy to get at – a microwave container can be a little fussier than needed.

Thus this sewing “book” I designed and sewed by hand. Here’s the how-to:

Sewing book progress

1. Pick the tools you use most and measure them. Be sure to take your tools’ thicknesses into account. I used grid paper to make this step easier.
2. Play with layouts using the tool sizes. I decided on a “book” to be folded in thirds. Add enough spacing between tools for folds.
3. Add seam allowances to the drafted pieces that will hold each tool. I added a half-centimeter (about 1/4″) allowance since I knew I would be hemming the pieces by hand. Then cut out the pieces on your fabric. I chose a fun pink print with birds and birdhouses, and placed the pieces so that birdhouses would hold my longer tools, and birds for the wider ones. I also added a rectangular piece of black chirimen (silk) as a needle holder.
4. Add seam allowances to the main “book” pieces as well, then cut out the lining fabric and outer fabric. Here I used a Provençal print for the lining, and an upholstery-weight bird print on a brown background for the outside.
5. Hem pieces and attach them to your lining. For thick tools, remember to sew in some pleats on their fabric pieces so that the tools will slide in easily, rather than tugging on the lining. You can see two pleats for my seam ripper and smaller gathers for my needle threader in this finished photo. Handsewing is great for this sort of project, as you can hem first and then attach the pieces using appliqué techniques.
6. Attach the outer piece and lining as you prefer. I hemmed them first by hand for attractive stitching, then attached them with an invisible stitch. You could also put right sides together and stitch around the edges while leaving an opening to be able to turn the pieces right sides out. Once turned right sides out, you then make sure the edges are straight (ironing is usually needed) and close up the hole with an invisible hand-stitch.
7. Enjoy! Mine folds up small enough that I can hide it on my sewing machine, out of sight thanks to the machine cover when not in use. Kitten-safe!

Sewing book, closed

Solstice street find

Posted in Crafts, La France at 21:12


Here’s something I never dreamt I’d find in the trash one day: a vintage sewing machine. But find it I did, this morning, just before the truck came! It reminds me of my mother’s Bernina 830 I grew up using, although this machine is simpler and heavier-duty. Made by New York Sewing Machine Co. (not to be confused with New York Sewing Machines Inc. who replied to my query to say they never made this machine), its model number is 408, and that’s about all I know. It has an external motor built by French company Luxor, but I doubt it’s a retrofit since the motor is anchored by screws:


It is missing the foot pedal to control the motor, but that’s not a problem with this sort of machine. The large stitching wheel still moves smoothly by hand. The previous owner took very good care of this machine; nothing is rusted, everything internal is oiled and impeccably clean, the machine still works! But it had indeed been abandoned: as well as being in the designated trash pickup area, it was very dirty on its surfaces. But as you can see, it came threaded.

Why would someone throw away a working sewing machine? Unfortunately it’s probably easily explained: it’s a simple machine, with just straight and zigzag stitches, nothing more. Modern-day sewing machine manufacturers tend to tout fancy embroidery machines with any number of stitches, but all you really need are the two basic stitches and a way to control their length, width, and tension. This machine is built like a tank, entirely made of steel, apart from the heavy-duty plastic base (which hinges away to access the bobbin mechanism). That also probably worked against it for whoever decided to toss the machine: it’s big, not exactly the latest fashion, and weighs a ton. But it will probably outlast the home sewer’s Pfaff hobby 1030 that I have. I’m looking forward to trying it out seriously this weekend. I love its simple design lines.


Bientôt l’opéra

Posted in Crafts, Journal at 22:38

Following my Masters degree, I’ve been enjoying my newly rediscovered free time by preparing for the next big thing: my subscription to the Opéra Monte Carlo (Monaco) that will begin in November with Boito’s “Mefistofele“. It’s based on the legend of Faust. In Boito’s version, Faust barters with the Devil: his soul in exchange for worldly bliss. Faust then seduces trusting young women, is betrayed by the Devil, sees the death of one of the women he seduced, and nonetheless continues to seek out worldly pleasures and seduction. Neither world nor illusion satisfy him.

There will be five operas in all, so I’ve been using it as a nice reason to add some home-sewn items to my wardrobe. Currently I’m working on a capelet that will be made of black silk burnout velvet patterned with roses, and lined with a soft black cotton velvet. The pattern is McCall’s 3033 (M3033), view F with the stand-up collar. It will be perfect for keeping off the November Riviera chill.

Shopping with a sewer’s eyes

Posted in Crafts, Sewing at 14:46


Hand-stitched jacket

Today I went to H&M to look for a cardigan. While there, I noticed that they were now carrying suit separates, and that the jackets had what looked like hand-sewn topstitching, the likes you usually see on tailored jackets. I looked more closely, and indeed, it was done by hand. (No machine can do this – it’s a single thread.) Then I looked at the price: 39.95 EUR. Dumbstruck, I shot this photo with my mobile phone, returned the cardigans I’d wanted to try to their racks, and walked out of the store. I won’t be shopping at H&M again.

The root of my reaction is that there is simply no way that the seamstresses were paid a decent wage. At 40 euros retail, knowing that these stores have a markup that is 2 to 3 times what they paid for an item, that makes this jacket’s manufacturing cost – assuming there were no other intermediaries between the manufacturer and H&M – about 14-20 euros. I reached the conclusion that this cost is unacceptably low based on a modicum of sewing experience; fundamental knowledge that you too can use to evaluate clothes.

At its very basics, an item of clothing goes through the following steps: pattern selection, fabric selection, pattern and fabric cutting, and sewing. Depending on what is being made, there will also be ironing steps at certain points. Modern manufacturers are able to automate pattern and fabric cutout, ironing and sewing, except for certain types of stitches, such as the hand topstitching shown here. A jacket is quite complex – where it is feasible that a t-shirt could be manufactured for 5 euros, since it can be almost entirely automated (you still need machine operators), and has very few pattern pieces (4 total: front, back, and sleeves), this is not the case for a jacket.

We’ll take an example from a modern-day patternmaker, Butterick, and their jacket pattern in the wardrobe set here (B5687). Since I’m adapting the example for a manufacturer, we’ll ignore the price of the pattern itself; once you make thousands of mass-produced items, the pattern price is practically negligeable.

We’ve still got the following costs, however – I’ll use the yardages for size 12. You’ll notice that patternmaking sizes still follow rational sizing, unlike stores that pretend to have size 0 and such.
– Jacket fabric: 2 1/4 yards (2.1 meters)
– Jacket interfacing (keeps the collar and hemlines stiff): 1 3/8 yards (1.3 meters)
– Jacket lining: 1 1/2 yards (1.4 meters)
For a total of 5.125 yards, which we’ll round down to 5, despite the fact that this jacket is smaller and better-fit than the one sold at H&M.

That’s already quite a bit of fabric. If you buy decent-quality cotton, not suit fabric or linings, and as an individual (non-wholesale), you can find some for between 8-15 USD/euros per yard/meter. Were we an individual, we’d already have reached 40 euros before sewing anything. But of course, we are considering the mass manufacturer, who gets heavy discounts; around 2-3 USD/euros per yard/meter. This would mean we’re still at a minimum of 10 euros for a jacket that hasn’t been cut out or sewn yet.

To keep to the manufacturing price of 14-20 euros, we’ll hypothesize that H&M buys fabric for 1 USD/euro a yard/meter. The hypothesis is realistic: there are serious questions about what mass clothing manufacturers pay their fabric suppliers. This price would bring the fabric cost for a single lined jacket to 5 USD/euros. Which leaves 9-15 for paying the people who operate the cutting machines, irons, and sewing machines… and for this jacket, the seamstresses who do the hand topstitching.

The Butterick pattern looks to have about 17 main pattern pieces minimum for the jacket (not counting the pockets), probably at least 5 interface pieces (lapels, collar, shoulders), and 7 or 9 lining pieces, depending on how they’re sewn. That’s a minimum of 29 pattern pieces to cut out – and for the seamstress on a sewing machine to keep track of and assemble properly. For those of you who have never sewn before, this is not a minor consideration since a properly-constructed item of clothing needs to have the fabric facing the right way – you can’t just sew things together any which way; fabrics have right sides and wrong sides, and pattern pieces also have to match up at certain points (seams, darts, pockets, lapels, collars) in order for them to look right.

We can pretend that the cutting costs are negligeable, which they aren’t, but you’ll soon see why I’m pretending this drastic reduction. We can also estimate that it takes two hours for a manufacturing line of seamstresses, each doing a different section or sections, to assemble a jacket. (I am purposefully overlooking investments in thread, scissors/blades, lights, oil, and needles to simplify.) A theoretical 4 minutes per piece, without rest breaks, without making any mistakes, without any needle or thread breakage, without any machine troubles. As seen earlier, we had 9-15 USD/euros remaining – that works out to 4.50 to 7.50 USD/EUR an hour. US federal minimum wage is 7.25 USD/hour. We’re not doing too badly, if H&M paid 20 per jacket, and apart from all the assumptions of bare minima.

Except there hasn’t been any hand topstitching yet. This jacket had topstitching all around the front hems, from bottom side seam, around the lapels, to bottom side seam. We’ll really theorize now, and assume it took half an hour for a single seamstress to do, which is realistically quick.

While things may still seem borderline decent, in fact, I didn’t point out earlier that the H&M jacket also has decorative orange-red tape around the lining sewn in, and that the jacket has clearly been ironed. We didn’t figure in the extra cost of that orange-red tape, sewing it in, and, additionally, the time to iron in the interfacing while that was being put in, which is to say, before the finished product was ironed. We can imagine that the finished jacket was steam-ironed, but interfacing can’t be ironed that way; it needs direct contact from a heavy, flat, hot iron. Hopefully readers have also noticed another missing bit – buttons and buttonholes.

As you can see, it just doesn’t add up. Someone, probably several people, were not paid fair wages in order to create this jacket, no matter which country they live in.

A styling pair

Posted in Crafts at 20:45

A-line tartan skirt

I’ve been on vacation this week, using it to rest, sew, and write. Our sudden summery weather in Nice, coupled with favorable fashion winds, combined to spark my desire to sew. I’ll also admit… I love the TV series “Mad Men“. It’s been nice to see designers follow the trend; even sewing pattern publishers are linking some of their vintage designs to the show. On Tuesday, while shopping for buttons in a mercerie (crafting notions specialty store), I noticed they had posted a large ad on the side of a counter in the middle of the shop, for this Butterick pattern (B5557), with the woman in the red dress, and a caption along the lines of “Mad for style”. It’s something of a windfall for me, since I don’t get along so well with contemporary styles that seem to be in a race for tightest fit and sheerest fabrics. Conveniently for clothing manufacturers, that means less fabric used, and the fabric itself is often cheaper. Before the advent of fabrics with stretch, clothes were tailored with ease, a sewing term for allowance added to body measurements in order to make a garment wearable. Tight clothes such as sheath dresses, when made of non-stretch fabrics, often require special undergarments, such as corsets and girdles, in order to keep a stable foundation so that seams don’t pull or tear.

As for the Mad Men-like pattern, I had already ordered the same a few days earlier! I also got the two other patterns shown with it in the photo below:

Retro patterns

The wrap dress on the left was Butterick’s most popular pattern in the 1950s: dress 6015. “Sales of the pattern were so great, that at one point manufacturing of all other patterns ceased, and only the ‘walk-away’ dress was produced until all back-orders for this dress could be filled.”

Before those patterns arrived yesterday afternoon, I finished a few Burda magazine (now called “burda style”) patterns, including the simple A-line skirt in the top photo. Kanoko was adorable, as usual, and mimicked my pose for the camera. Others include a purple shirt dress and a flowery seersucker empire dress. I’m working on a pair of pants from the same tartan fabric as the skirt (practical for wearing to the office), and plan to start on one of the retro dresses tomorrow. It will probably be the walk-away dress, so named because you could start it in the morning and “walk away” in it for lunch.

A novel approach to couture

Posted in Cats, Crafts at 16:26

A novel approach to couture

Yesterday I bought the latest Burda sewing magazine, as it had a few dress, coat, shirt and blouse patterns that caught my eye. One shirtdress pattern in particular was precisely what I’ve wanted for a while (their version of it sewn). I’ve had a beautiful light lavender check stretch fabric for years now that I couldn’t fit with a pattern, but this shirtdress will be great in it (I won’t be putting in any pockets, however). I’m also completely in love with this simple Empire dress, which I plan to make in a floral too.

I started tracing the pattern pieces yesterday afternoon. Kanoko, as can be seen in that photo, was drowsy and so merely kept an eye on my progress. Today, however, as I laid out the pattern pieces on the fabric, he decided to take things into his own paws… and mouth, as shown above! I probably won’t finish the dress today since I have other errands, but hopefully it will be ready to wear to work in another week.

For readers curious about my mentally ill neighbor, I’m still waiting to hear from “Francine” and so don’t yet know how things went with the judge. Rest assured that I’ll post as soon as I do.