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My mother is fond of saying she’s tired of doing things “the hard way”.  She usually says this as she’s about to take us out to dinner or purchase something disposable instead of reusable.  It’s as if her whole life she’s been needlessly complicating things and she’s ready to sit back, relax, and call a gardener.  Well, she’s only half right.

Maybe she has been doing things the hard way, but there’s no stopping her now.  Yesterday, for example, she and my father drove up to his brother’s house in a suburb of Boston to pick up my sister’s former vehicle, a 1990-ish Honda Del Sol.  It’s been sitting in my uncle’s garage since my sister realized the downfall of her teenage fantasy that she wouldn’t have to schlep anybody around if she had a convertible with no back seat; she now has to regularly schlep people around for her job as a case worker.  So her little car went to my uncle’s garage.  He never drove much – just to pick up groceries an cat litter, and doesn’t seem to drive anymore, so his garage was just waiting for a car my family had no use for, but couldn’t part with.  Last week, my parents stopped by my uncle’s house and checked on the car.  My dad thought its clutch was shot, and figured that if the disuse had done it harm, it might be time to sell the little car.  Mom called the insurance company, and found out that for about “a dollar a day,” they could add it to their policy.  They have no need for the Del Sol.  Mom already has 2 useless cars taking up space in their garage: a 1973 MGB, and my brother’s former car, a 1989 Honda Prelude.  My brother ditched his car when he became Metro and Urban, and discovered the MBTA.   So if they need a convertible, they’re covered.  And if they need ridiculous sound systems that eat up trunk space and make the car impossible to ride in (the amp takes up frivolous space where seat padding might have once been), they’re covered.  Why not bring home another useless car?

That strikes me as doing things “the hard way” – perseverating on keeping, insuring, and maintaining cars they have no use for, rather than selling them, banking $2K for each, and reclaiming garage space. 

While I try to eschew their kind of craziness and logically flawed stratagems, I also find myself undertaking ventures that, while noble in theory, end up needlessly complicating everyday tasks. 

Am I Handy?  Is Mr. Apron?  Then why do we attempt home improvement tasks, only to get frustrated with each other and dissatisfied with the results?  Though we successfully (with my father’s initiative and guidance) installed cork flooring in the kitchen, I see the flaws we left behind, and the unfinished trim we have yet to install.  We are not professionals, yet we undertake jobs better suited for guys named Bob or Frank wearing paint-stained coveralls. 

It’s not just grunt work I try to do myself.  It’s also crafts.  There’s a new spirit of DIY that is infiltrating the Interwebs and my generation.  It’s an amalgam of a new Arts & Crafts movement (a turn of the last century movement which sought to rebel against mass produced industrial labor) and a “recessionista” frugality brought on by the current economic woes.  Though I myself haven’t started doing any crafting specifically because the stock market tanked and unemployment exploded, it’s finally considered au courant to be thrifty.  People are embracing my mentality at last.  If only this had happened when I was in middle school, I might have stood a chance at being cool (Who am I kidding?  It would have taken a continental shift for me to be cool back then.). 

On craftster.org, a website and online community dedicated to do-it-yourself crafts and inspiration, you can often read posts beginning like this: “Well, I saw it in a store, and I thought, I could make that myself!”  So we go home and do it, often cheaper, often with higher quality materials, and often customized in a way that isn’t available commercially. 

But sometimes it’s not quite the same, because we don’t have access to commercial grommet machines or industrial sewing machines, or the right kind of stretch lace.  We’re not electricians, yet we insist on wiring light fixtures.  We’re not apprenticed wood-workers, yet we convince ourselves we can build shelves and cabinets.  We’re not pastry chefs, yet we try our hand at profiteroles and custards, and bacon-flavored Jell-O.  We try fondant and upholstering and tailoring and book-binding and silver-smithing, all in the name of craft and the DIY spirit. 

Where did this come from?  Where did the drive to turn our craft rooms into mini-factories originate?  Why aren’t we still tatting doilies for the dining room table and making needlepoint canvas tissue box covers with clever sayings by Jesus? 

For me, personally, the DIY spirit has many origins.  From a young age, I saw my mother sewing.  I saw she could make clothing unavailable in stores.  I loved the yearly birthday suits she would make me in my childhood, and it was only natural I learned to sew.  Both sets of my grandparents struggled through the Depression, and while it affected each of them in different ways, I believe I did not escape uninfluenced.  From my father’s parents, I inherited that noble value of home maintenance and being Handy.  My grandfather was a notorious skin flint, who would go miles out of his way to avoid the nickel toll on the Massachusetts Turnpike.  Their house was furnished simply, and there was nothing frivolous to be found.  My father, too, is cheap.  He’s an embarrassingly bad tipper at restaurants, and never met a project he couldn’t get into, from shelves to desks to bookcases to coat racks.  He’s not so much into details, having ADD, but he generally does good work (the bookcase he built me for my 8th birthday to house my paperbacks now hangs sturdily in our living room and hides our DVDs.).  He never cleans up the sawdust, but he’s definitely competent.  My mother’s parents, having survived the Depression, started collecting “valuables”: clocks, National Geographics, pianos, shoes, stuffed animals, dolls, you name it.  While I’m sure they had unearthed many unbelievable garage sale finds in their lifetimes, the result now is my attitude that I’ll make myself find a use for the extraneous crap in my life.  Mailing envelopes are reused until they disintegrate, take-out Tupperware finds myriad new lives storing food, sewing supplies, and seedlings.  While I’m not a hoarder, I do try to see a new life in many things others would throw away.

Now that we’re done blaming my family and the 1930s economy, we can address the difficulty with my insistence on doing things myself.  If I want to paint the bedroom, reupholster the dining room chairs, make new window coverings, wire a pendant lamp out of a colander, and sew new baby gifts for all my pregnant friends, it’s going to take longer than just going to the store, hiring an interior decorator, or calling a handyman.  With the glut of cheap products from China, it might end up actually costing more; it certainly costs more in my time and energy.  When I’m done, non-professional upholsterer/electrician/seamstress that I am, I see only the inevitable flaws that result from my hack-job.  Even if I am a fairly competent human, with the skills necessary to measure, design, and create, I have to balance the control I gain when I do something myself, with the predictable short comings that result from my inexperience or lack of expertise.   More than that, I’m realizing I have to balance my desire to have complete control over my home furnishings with my desire to have my home completely furnished.  If I wait for myself to conceive, create, and finish projects, it will be a long time till we can finally have a house-warming party.  Which of course I would insist on catering myself.

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Looks like you get another break from brain surgery today, as I need a chance to unload about today’s events, and a certain family member.  I’ll likely return to brain surgery tomorrow, but for today, I leave you this tidbit about my sister-in-law.  Welcome to the family. 

Oh, how people whistle a different tune when they want something out of you!  ‘Twas not so long ago that Mr. Apron’s sister, whom I will call “Bianca” spotted Mr. Apron wearing a silk bowtie given to him in memoriam by his allergist’s widow.  It’s a long story, but, briefly, Dr. Greene collapsed and died a few years ago, in the prime of his life.  Mr. Apron, who had had a close relationship with his allergist, being an allergic, sniffling Jew with chronic post-nasal drip, was deeply moved and wrote a tribute, which eventually found its way to Mrs. Greene’s mailbox.  She was so touched by the essay that she chose one of the doctor’s distinctive bowties and gave it to Mr. Apron because she knew he’d appreciate and wear it.  It’s due to Dr. Greene that Mr. Apron started wearing bowties in the first place.  So on this particular day Mr. Apron was wearing the prized tie in question, and Bianca remarked, snidely, “That looks like something Mrs. Apron would make.”

To us crafters, that can either be the ultimate compliment, or it can send us reeling back to high school when no one appreciated what we sewed, knit, collaged, or crafted, and thought we were just freaks, crudely copying fashion trends we were too cheap/poor/uncool to buy at the mall.  Guess which way Bianca meant it?

Fast-forward.  Bianca is now 7 months pregnant with her boyfriend’s child.  After a freak-out session at Babies ‘R Us where she and the boyfriend were send into shock by all of the baby swag, she promptly texted Mr. Apron and asked him if I, alleged creator of knock-off schlock and assorted kitsch smacking of home-made, would do her the honor of making her a diaper bag.  Dear friends, how could I refuse?

So tonight we journeyed down to the fabric store where I dropped $50 on materials to make her a custom diaper bag out of some admittedly really cool fabric.  As we’re driving back to where she left her car, Mr. Apron asks how long she’s planning on working until she goes out on maternity leave.  She casually mentions the due date, September 7, and the planned C-section, which will be scheduled the 39th week of gestational age, assuming the baby’s not ahead of schedule, which it looks like he might be because he was pretty big during the last ultrasound, etc.  She’ll be out of work till late October when she’s planning on going back 2 days/week and just doing light-duty paperwork for a while.  It’s not like she’ll be unloading stock with the lifting restrictions and pain.  Though she’s such a champ with pain, who knows? 

I’m sorry, planned C-section?  I checked with Mr. Apron after we dropped her off at her car. 

“Is there any medical reason she’s having a C-section?” 

“Nope.  Apparently Dr. Kim tried to talk her out of it, but you know Bianca.”

I quoted Mr. Apron’s father/mother/sister/self: “Nobody can tell Bianca nothing.”

Well, I’m sure Dr. Kim did her darndest, and then wrote the cover-your-ass note in her file: “Pt counseled on risks and benefits of elective C-section.  Pt. verbalized understanding of all risks, but insisted on scheduled C-section vs. vaginal delivery.”  I’m sure that’s how it read.  It strikes me as odd that someone who admittedly doesn’t like kids and “wasn’t trying” to get pregnant in the first place, yet now is so gung-ho about becoming a mother, might have considered that whole Get-it-out-of-me dilemma before getting knocked up.  I guess this was her solution.  And, to quote the senior Mr. Apron once again, “Once Bianca gets an idea in her head…” 

“You know,” I countered, “she won’t be able to pick up her own baby or lift more than 5 pounds?”  Mr. Apron also tried to talk her out of it.  Want to guess how that went?

So for all her tough talk about how great she is with pain and how the only discomfort she’s had during the pregnancy is having a bulbous belly – no swelling, no fatigue, no weird cravings, no feet turning into flippers – she’d rather have her abdomen sliced open and have to recover from a C-section than suffer the normal childbirth pains (or not – hello?  Epidural?) from a regular vaginal delivery.  

Mr. Apron hit the nail on the head, though.  This way, it’ll be on her terms.  And that’s the theme, folks, on her terms.  She can schedule the birth, schedule the pain and time off of work.  She can control when and if she likes my home-made items, and whether home-made is a good thing.  All I can say is, she’d better decide she likes the diaper bag she picked out come September.

Probably the last thing I should be doing right now is sitting down in an office chair in front of a computer screen to blog.  I’ve been sitting in 10″ high molded plastic or wood veneer chairs all morning, followed by an afternoon of sitting in an office chair that someone else’s butt broke in already.  Now I’m seated in a wheelie chair (fun!) that unfortunately has lost all its padding (not fun) in the six years I’ve owned it.  Has Oprah done an exposé on when you should replace your office chair?  She should.  Her masses will listen.  Then I spent the last couple of hours alternatively crouched over a mini-ironing board that’s definitely the wrong height for ironing, and a sewing machine that’s definitely the wrong height for sewing.  Or maybe the non-sewing chair I was sitting in is the culprit.  I’d hate to blame my new toy

I’m making some more I Spy Bags for some friends and customers, a task I had not been looking forward to.  I’d cut out all the pieces, assembled all the toys, and purchased the PVC pellets I use to fill them.  Yet they sat unassembled on my sewing machine because of vinyl.  Sewing vinyl is a torturous task.  I will try to describe it in a way that non-sewers can understand.  Remember the vinyl seats in my parents’ 1978 Buick station wagon?  Of course you don’t, but you had a car with vinyl seats, or you sat in a rental truck that had them, or you sat at a diner with a vinyl booth once.  And I know you’ve ridden a school bus.  Cue the vinyl.  Now cue summer time.  And you’re wearing shorts.  It’s hot and sticky because the rental truck didn’t come with A/C or the A/C in the Buick doesn’t reach the “way back” (as we called the 3rd row), or because someone driving feels that having the windows open is better.  But you’re trapped.  And so are your thighs.  Channel that friction between your naked skin and the sticky PVC (aka vinyl) as you peel your thighs up from the seat they’ve somehow glued themselves to.  Now imagine trying to glide your school bus seat through the gears of  a sewing machine.  It’s like pretending your car seat is a slip-n-slide.  It’s just not working.  It’s a no-go.  Until now, I’ve churned out I-Spy bags using an arduous process my mother taught me: tissue paper.  So I used to save scraps of tissue paper and use them to sandwich the vinyl between layers so it never actually touched the sewing machine.  Afterward I had to carefully tear the tissue away and cut myself another scrap to do the next seam.  Others on craftster have suggested using Vaseline, dropping down the presser foot, or buying a Teflon foot. 

Being cheap, I never even looked to see if my old machine had an accessory Teflon foot I could buy.  But my new machine came with a plastic foot with a magical surface on the bottom I can only assume is the famed Teflon.  All I can say, after churning out two I Spy bags tonight as if I were sewing regular cotton, is that I’m throwing the tissue paper out.  And it’s very hard for me to throw anything out; just ask Mr. Apron.  I’m a complete convert.  I told my machine I was sewing leather/vinyl (seriously, there’s a button), and it automatically sets the stitch length for me and suggests a foot and a needle.  I took the extra time to put in the heavy duty needle and the new foot, and it was magic.  Like switching to Corinthian leather seats on my rental car.  I hope you’re a convert, too.

 I got a new toy today.  It arrived in a big box from my uncle in Colorado, taped to the gills, as usual.  I opened it, too impatient to wait for Mr. Apron to come home, and was greeted with a curved expanse of white plastic, not unlike this:

Was it a bread machine?  A laminating machine?  ( I do love the smell of melting plastic)  Something else ending in machine?  When Mr. Apron came home, we barely had time to eat dinner before I had to dash off to go tutor, but he did spy a manual of sorts visible from behind the miles of bubble wrap.  Words such as “needle” “thread” and “bobbin” jumped off the page.  A new sewing machine!!!

But not just any machine.  It’s a Viking Husqvarna Platinum 735 Royal.  I don’t know what any of that means.  I do know that we used Vikings in 8th grade home ec to learn how to sew (even though my mom taught me the summer before), and that they had lovely smooth action.  I also know that during the summer before moving out to Philly to be with Mr. Apron (shhh, I also had job prospects, but he was my primary motivation.  It’s a big secret.  shhh), when I worked ever-so-briefly as a seamstress for an Egyptian man  who owned a dry cleaning establishment, I had the pleasure of working on a Husqvarna, and damn! if that didn’t make my piece of shit $99 special from Ames’ going out of business sale feel inferior. 

I have always advised my sewing students, when they look for a machine to learn on, that all they really needed was forwards, backwards, and zig-zag.  I still feel that way, to some extent.  You can learn the basics of sewing from such a machine.  And now the beginner models are coming with all sorts of gimmicks and doo-dads — they’re like the Hyundais of the sewing world.  When I got home from tutoring, I waited politely for Mr. Apron to finish his blog, and then ran downstairs to rip open the box.  Taking off the stormtrooper helmet, we found this beauty:

I am so stoked.  I have already figured out how to thread it, a feat made easier by the drop-in loading of the bobbin (like on a film camera), and the automatic needle threader (I have yet to figure this part out).  I have found the bobbin holding tray, designed by brilliant Norwegians to keep threads from tangling (like they did on the trip from Colorado).  I have drooled over the decorative stitching.  I am in love.  I have no idea how to use 3/4 of the features this machine offers, and yet I will not know how I ever sewed without it.  Pretty brazen, you say?  Well, it is an odd house-warming gift, especially from one’s uncle, but one that will be used and appreciated more than a chafing dish or a salsa platter.