Upskilly & Stuff 1: The Kerchief

What could be a simpler beginning than a kerchief? Cut a square, hem the edges. Job done.

I’ve been meaning to make a brown kerchief for some time, all the more since I bought a dress in brown & cream and had nothing to wear with it that really went. In considering the brown fabrics in my stash, I discovered these:

Would you believe these are all from the same bolt of fabric, and purchased at the same time? At the top is the fabric as it came from the bolt; in the middle is the same fabric made up and lightly worn, and at the bottom is the same fabric made up and heavily worn. What can I say? It was only three dollars (NZ) per metre and I was a poor student.

So I’m not expecting this to hold its colour – but while it does, the middle fabric is a near perfect match for the brown of my dress. For some reason it (the fabric, not my dress) was in the form of a partially cannibalized medieval tunic. Why I made (or indeed wore) a medieval tunic I could not tell you, but there it is, and eminently fit for purpose.

Habito de s francisco
St. Francis of Assisi – patron saint of Make Do & Mend?
The next consideration is size. My head is unusually small, and my smallest kerchief (which I only use for a splash of colour on top of a larger plain one) is 45 x 50cm. So that’s the minimum for me, plus a couple of centimetres each way for the hem.

Suggestion: measure around your head, add maybe 20cm allowance for tying (or more if your fabric is thick) and make that the hypotenuse of your kerchief. Remember: the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the square of the other two sides.

My ex-tunic is about 57cm wide, so I’m going to use that as my base: trim off the old raggedy hem and start afresh, beginning by drawing a thread and cutting it square. (Information on why and how can be found here.)

Jelena Dimitrijevna Polenova 1850-1898 - Zehlirka
Full disclosure: I also got out the iron and pressed the rumpled edges down – despite it being 27*C – because I have reached the age where I like to take my time and do the job properly in all its details. If you’re not fussy about things coming out just so, then feel free to skip that step – just don’t blame me if the results are a little more slapdash than you were anticipating.

So, I’ve squared my edge, I’ve pressed it, and I’ve cut out my square. Now, technically, I already have a kerchief here, but it isn’t finished. There may be some who like the frayed look of an unfinished edge – yes? Raise your hand… and smack yourself firmly round the head with it and promise to reform hereafter. An unfinished edge is not only a fraying and falling apart edge with a short life span ahead of it, it is distressed. What kind of monster wishes to distress the poor fabric? Be kind; finish it properly.Fig. 8. Hemming-stitchNow for the hem. My fabric’s middling thickness, so I’m going to do a simple double-fold hem. If it were thinner, I’d do a rolled/handkerchief hem by hand, but it would be too bulky with this fabric – it’s bulky enough as is, since I’m doing a narrowish hem to keep as much width in the kerchief as possible. Pressing with an iron is an option here, too, but I just use a firm finger-press unless the fabric’s being obstinate, followed by a series of pins.

I was originally planning to sew this by machine (I even oiled the machine specially) but then I discovered I didn’t have any thread which matched closely enough. So I’m doing a blind stitch hem, which comes out almost invisible on both sides – although how invisible remains to be seen when the fabric fades.

Here’s what it looks like on the wrong side:

The background (at top) is the dress  – good match, isn’t it? My apologies for the blurriness – the camera phone doesn’t seem keen on close-ups. Here’s what the right side looks like (and this time, please note, the kerchief is at the top and the dress at the bottom):

The finished kerchief measures 57 x 56cm. Quite how this happened, considering the beginning measurements, I do not know. I assume it has something to do with flattening out the edges (formerly wedged against seams) with the iron.

But finished it is! The first step on the Upskilly & Stuff ladder has been taken; measuring, cutting, pressing, pinning and hemming have all happened, and a wearable garment is complete.

Next month: the apron!
In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you’ve been making – feel free to leave a comment below.

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Introducing Upskilly & Stuff

Imagine the splendid freedom of being able to make your clothes be whatever you wanted. It’s something I’ve wanted to be able to do for ages. But while I’ve made a few ill-fated sorties in that direction, I never really got anywhere, and only recently did I realize why that was.

A Parisian seamstress suffering from anaemia is pale and Wellcome L0032772
The problem, I found, is that most books on sewing (of which I have several) are more or less an archive of techniques. Undeniably useful, but one cannot wear techniques. I needed something which would take me step by step from simple to complex – a road map, if you like.

The library books I browsed which were aimed at beginners sometimes aimed to do just that, but there was still a problem. To put it frankly, I wouldn’t wear anything in those books even if it did come out right.

This isn’t really their fault. I’ve aged out of their target audience, and, more to the point, I’ve never really worn what’s “in”. I don’t want to be mutton dressed up as lamb. I’d rather be hogget dressed up as… er, eccentric.

But most of the clothes I’ve seen in learn-to-sew books seem to mimic as closely as possible what you can get in the shops (sometimes “customized” with random bits sewn on or fraying or other laundry-problematic effects).

Of course, I can’t expect a book to be written for me, tailored to my own wardrobe wishes (as wonderful as that would be). So instead, I sat down and wrote a list of all the things I’d need to learn to do in order to make the kind of garment I want to wear. Seams and sleeves and set-in pockets and what have you.

And then I did a bit of research and figured out what simpler garments use those skills, adding another skill here and another one there.
The result: a list of ten projects to see me through a year from “sew a hem” to “sew a dress.”

Arbo-Syende pike i hagen
She’s confident. Don’t mess with her.
Now, you may not be interested in sewing a dress, but the beauty of the idea is that you can identify your own target garment and make your own skill list. Each month, I’ll announce what I’m planning on making and the skills I expect to learn from it. If that aligns with your skill plan, feel free to join in, or follow along with a different project that works toward your target.

At the end of each month, I’ll report back on what I did, how it went, and what I learned. And I’d love to hear from you, whether in a comment or in a link to your own posts.

Don’t let a paucity of resources stand in your way. Not having the largest budget in the world myself, I’m mostly going to be using what I’ve already got: odd bits of fabric, old clothes, recycled or thrifted sheets, and my trusty cast-iron hand-crank sewing machine (which I must remember to oil before I start).

Alexey Akindinov. Seamstress. 2000
“Seamstress”, Alexey Akindinov, 2000
As far as patterns go, I’m going to be using some I already have, finding some which are free online, and possibly even creating some myself, with the help of an old copy of Pattern Drafting for Dressmaking by Pamela C. Stringer. I may or may not end up buying any – we’ll see how it goes.

Now, some of you are probably wondering what’s with the title of this post (and, indeed this series). The more obvious names were already in use, so I decided I’d go for something rather more eccentric, playing off the culinary phrase “skilly and duff” – skilly being a savoury gruel and duff being a dumpling to boil in it, and the whole being the sort of thing a swashbuckling seafarer would eat.

A pirate wears what she chooses! Yarr…
Moving our skills up the ladder is the means to our end (I loathe the word “upskilling, but somehow “upskilly” is fun), and “stuff” is an old word for fabric used for making clothing. So there you have it: Upskilly & Stuff (US&S for short).

So, starting at the very beginning (a very good place to start, I am reliably informed), in January I will be making a kerchief or bandanna.
Skills: measure, cut, and hem. Bring on the hypotenuse.