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Red leather, yellow leather SHOES!

After Cashmerette posted a really great overview of her sandal making class on her blog, I felt inspired to join in the fun. I think it’s really exciting and motivating to see more and more people dipping their toes into the furthest corners of the DIY-osphere, and it’s also nice for me to document my own stuff so that I can see my personal growth in the arena. I have posted before about general shoe making here, but for this post I am going to do a photo heavy step-by-step show-and tell so that you can see each individual part of my process. This is not a shoe-making tutorial- it’s not meant to guide you through making your own shoes- but rather it’s meant to be a kind of visual synopsis so that you can see the steps involved chronologically and have a better understanding of what is involved in case it’s something you feel like learning more about yourself. Sometimes certain projects seem daunting when I only see it in it’s finished form, but when you see the steps laid out separately it can seem a little more manageable. One important note here is that there are a LOT of different ways to make shoes, and for the most part, none of them are inherently right or wrong; I am still figuring out my own preferences for my process from the information that I have gathered from reading books and taking classes. Ideally I would like to learn how to make shoes the old school way by hand sewing the leather pieces together, using shoe tacks, and using way less toxic cement glue, but for now I am still trying to get more familiar with lasting and understanding how leather works before I move onto sewing them by hand.

The last pair of shoes I made were a pair of brown leather ballet flats and they were the first pair that were both functional and a great fit for the shape and size of my foot. Once they were finished, I was simultaneously thrilled with how they turned out and itching to make another pair to fix all the things that I wanted to change about them.

The construction method I had been working from tells you to leave the edge of your lining as-is while lasting the shoe (meaning not to turn the edge under) and have about 5mm peeking out past the upper. Once the shoe is complete and you’re ready to take the shoe off the last, you are supposed to use a sharp knife to trim the edge of the lining off of the shoe. This, in my experience, is a TERRIBLE idea. For one thing, your knife has to be super duper super sharp to slice the edges smoothly, but you have to cut carefully so that you don’t slice into the upper of your shoe. You also end up digging into your shoe last with your knife, carving out a huge and unsightly circle around the last. I consider myself to be fairly dexterous, but on each pair of shoes I used this method on, my results were disastrous. The upper leather is butchered with tiny slices dug into it from my knife, and the lining edge underneath isn’t cut smoothly at all- it peeks out in some places, is cut down to the inside of the shoe in others, and is generally raggedy looking. For the next pair I made, I wanted to fold down the edge of my lining and sew the upper and the lining together around the mouth of the shoe so that I wouldn’t have a raw edge that needed to be cut later.

The other thing I needed to change about the shoe was my tight grip during the lasting process. Lasting means pulling and securing the lining and the upper around the shoe mold, aka last, and if you pull the leather too tight, you risk shortening the rise of your shoe. And finally, I wanted to finesse the look of my sole. In my leather working book I read about burnishing the edges of the leather so that it looks smooth and clean and it doesn’t have the rough fibers of the leather poking out anywhere, so I was excited to apply this technique to my next pair.

Now that my latest pair of shoes are done, I can see exactly what worked and didn’t. Pretty much everything I wanted to fix from my last pair was successful: the rise is perfect on these and they fit on my feet without feeling like they are going to fall off. The lining edge is sewn under and looks clean and smooth next to the upper. The soles look great with their burnished edges. I put in some small arch supports so that the shoes wouldn’t be so flat. I added a small heel made of one layer of leather and one of rubber (I might add rubber to the sole of the rest of the shoe but I wanted to wear them first to see if they were necessary. The only thing that I messed up was forgetting to skiv the seams of the shoe. With my last pair, the leather was pretty thin and didn’t create much bulk at the seams at all, but this leather was much thicker, and forgetting to thin those edges was a total oversight on my part. As a result, the seams are super bulky. I think the shoes still look great, but I wish I had paid better attention to that. My only other issue, and this is a small one, is figuring out how to keep light-colored leather looking great while turning them into shoes. The process gets a bit messy, especially with the cement glue, and once they were all finished I kept finding tiny spots of dirt and gunk on the yellow leather. I could probably treat the leather before making the shoes so that dirt and grime will wipe off easily once they are complete.

Now, onto the steps of construction (from here on out, captions will be placed below the accompanying photo)!

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I used some scrap felt material and small nails to play around with the design of the shoe before cutting out my leather. I have a few cool ideas for shoes with cut outs and interesting design features, but I want to get good at making a simple slip-on first. This style basically looks like a pair of TOM’s.

 

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Once I figured out my pattern from the felt template, I cut out the pieces from my leather. The yellow leather is for my upper (or the outer part of the shoe) and the dark blue is a lighter weight leather that I use for the lining and the inner soles. There are two pieces to the pattern aside from the insole: one U shaped for the toe area, and a longer piece which will make up the sides and back of the shoe. The pieces are sewn together on my sewing machine.

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Before sewing the two pieces of the pattern together, I used cement glue to tack them into place. It is important to let this dry before using your sewing machine to sew the pieces together, otherwise your needle will get gunky with glue.

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Cutting the inner sole shapes out of foamboard.

 

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Totally forgot to turn over one inner sole pattern piece when cutting out of my foam board so I had two left feet!

 

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I bought some gel arch inserts for my insoles to give me a little support in the shoe and they worked out very well! I just glued them onto the foam board in the proper place before I attached my lining leather .

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Lining leather is cut out in the shape of the insoles with extra room around all edges to fold over to the underside. Both surfaces must be coated in a thin layer of glue, left to dry til it’s barely tacky, then pressed together so that the cement can properly adhere.

 

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The inner curve of the insole leather gets little snips cut into it so that it can be folded smoothly around the edges.

 

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Insoles are temporarily attached to the bottom of the lasts with either tape or nails- I don’t have a preference, because sometimes tiny nail holes are left in visible places on the top of the insole, and other times the tape is hard to get off once the upper and lining has been lasted.

 

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The upper leather and lining leather get a bit of glue around all the edges where it will be folded over and later stitched- here is where I should have remembered to skiv the leather to thin it out and make it less bulky. I think I forgot to take a picture for the next couple of steps in this process so I will just explain it. After the edges of the upper and lining have been glued under, I put the lining and the upper leather pattern pieces together so that wrong sides are facing and I sew them together around the mouth of the shoe. The bottom parts of the leather are left as-is. I also separately sew up the back seams (they are not connected here). You see the little V-shape cut out in the photo above? That gets sewn together with about 5 mm seam allowance and creates a little curve in the shoe where the heel of your foot rests.

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Next I cut out pattern pieces for my toe boxes and counters. A toe box is a piece of firm material that covers your toe area and keeps your toes from poking through the upper fabric (in case you have wildly sharp toenails or something??) and also keeps your toe shape from distorting the upper material. A counter firms up the back of the shoe so that it retains it’s shape throughout wear. Check out a pair of shoes that you have, flats or heels- you might not have noticed it before but if you feel around the shoe, you will find a firmer material in the back area and most likely the toe area, too.

I seem to be missing another important photo here! UGH! I know that in support of the maker blogger community I’m not supposed to be ablogogizing anymore, so ummm. I guess, deal with it? HA! Anyways, here is what is missing: I placed my upper and lining leather that I had sewn together in a previous step onto the last. Then I pulled JUST the lining leather around the last and onto the bottom of the shoe (the upper leather is connected to the lining leather only at the top, remember?), and then I glued the lining in place by connecting it to the bottom of the insole that I had temporarily attached to the last. I will be doing this step again with the upper leather and I have pics of it later on in this post, so just imagine that happening with the lining leather first. After the lining has been lasted, the toe area and back area where the counter will go is covered with a thin layer of glue.

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Once my lining leather is in place, it’s time to adhere the toe box and counter. These are made of a heat activated material with a sticky glue on one side (this part goes onto the lining) that I warm up in the oven just to get pliable. Then I use my heat gun to warm it up even more and finish applying it. When this material cools it hardens, so you have to work fast while also taking care not to burn your fingers on the hot material. You want to cover the toe area with the toe box and and bring all the extra material to the underside while making sure it doesn’t have creases or ridges on the top of the shoe. This part is tricky, but I am getting better at it, and you can always re-heat the material to make it soft and pliable again if you mess it up.

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Here is what the last looks like once the toe box and counter have been applied. You can see my lining leather folded around the last and glued onto the underside of the insole/foamboard, and the upper leather is unattached except at the mouth of the shoe.

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Here is one of the most important parts of shoe making, and it also happens to be the most tiresome and time-sucking! It is called skivving (I mentioned it earlier), and it essentially involves using a sharp blade to trim and thin out the bulky area of your shoes. In the above photo I am using a special tool which helps keep your fingers safe while skiving, which is nice because it’s easy to cut yourself in this step- you want a very sharp blade but you also need to use a good amount of strength to shave off the most material in thick areas. I have found that using a sanding attachment on my Dremel helps with a lot with reducing bulk, but you have to go SO slowly and carefully or you might sand off some of the leather on the sides of the shoe (which I have done. Many, many times).

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Here is a photo of one shoe that has the toe box skivved and one that doesn’t. Some of the folds of the lining leather have also been trimmed to minimize bulk.

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Once the toe box and counters have been skived down, it’s time to last the outer/upper of the shoe. Glue gets applied liberally on the inside of the outer leather and on the bottom of the shoe- this type of glue only adheres to itself, so it must be applies to everything that needs to stick together.

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Once the glue on both areas is slightly dry, you can start folding your leather onto the bottom of the shoe. The goal is to pull the leather around tightly and uniformly so that it doesn’t crease and gather in folds on the visible parts of the shoe, but you also don’t want to pull so much that the shoe loses it’s shape on the top of the last (this is how my previous pair of flats are so low around the foot- I pulled the leather too tightly). The thicker your leather is, the more difficult it is to get the toe area completely smooth- I didn’t perfect it on this pair of shoes but it’s not very visible unless you are looking at the shoes from the bottom.

yellowshoes_blog22Here is what the shoe looks like once its been fully lasted with glue, and now it’s time to skiv the crap out of it and reduce all that bulk.

yellowshoes_blog27I drew a faint line around the edge above the line of where the sole will go to show me where I couldn’t skiv past.

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The shoe bottom is now skived, and it also needs to be sanded so that the soling leather will adhere to it properly. I have traced an outline of my finished shoe onto the leather I am using for the soles (it’s 12 oz and much thicker than the lining and upper leather). I keep forgetting to cut the soles out slightly larger than the actual shoe, particularly around the toe area! DOH!

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As I mentioned, I recently read about a technique called “burnishing” that finishes the edges of your leather, and I used it on this pair of shoes and am thrilled with the results! To burnish leather, you first use a tool called a beveler to smooth the rough edges, and it worked fine, but I think my tool was slightly smaller than what I needed, so I ended up mostly using my Dremel to sand and even out the edge of the soling leather. Next I used a simple solution of mod podge and water (my book recommends something called “paper gum” which I could not find for purchase anywhere on google and which ultimately just seemed like elmer’s craft glue diluted with water) which I applied to the outside edges of the sole, and then I used a piece of canvas fabric to vigorously rub the edge of the sole with the glue solution on it. According to my book, the friction of the rubbing creates heat which binds the fibers of the leather together and then the watery glue holds it in, giving the edge a clean look. Above, you can see the burnished leather on the left and the non-burnished on the right- it makes a big difference!

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The bottom of the shoe and the inside bottom of the soling leather get coated with glue which is left to dry for at least a half hour and up to a full day, making the bond even stronger.

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To activate the glue once it has completely dried, you can heat it up with your heat gun, which is helpful because it allows you to work area by area, making sure that your sole is attaching to the shoe bottom in just the right places.

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I press the sole onto the bottom of the shoe for several seconds with as much strength as I can muster, but because I don’t have a fancy shoe press like the ones in factories, I came up with another idea.

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Not fancy, but it gets the job done! I used some clips from my woodshop to keep a tight grip on the sole and shoe as the glue dried, and I used extra bits of rubber to keep the clips from leaving marks on the leather.

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yellowshoes_blog31I wanted to see what it was like to make flats with a small heel after I saw a blog post on pinterest of a shoemaker making a stacked heel out of leather (SO COOL!), so I cut out a piece of soling leather and an accompanying piece of sole rubber to glue together and stick onto the bottom of my shoe.

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Once everything has been glued together and is completely dry, you can carefully pull your last out of the shoe and try it on! I’m not gonna lie, I always do this step way before everything is dry because the anticipation of trying the shoe on after all your hard work is just too great!

 

Here are some comparison photos of the previous flats I made and the new yellow shoes:

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You can’t really tell from these photos but the sides are much higher (and therefore better fitting) on the yellow shoes than the brown ones. You can see how sloppy the edges of the mouth look on the brown ones look compared to the yellow ones, and you can also see how bulky the seams on the yellow ones look. They are not uncomfortable at all, they just don’t look as streamlined as the seams on the brown ones- again, this is because I totally forgot to skiv the seams of the leather before I attached the pieces together at the seams.

 

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The actual sole of the yellow shoe looks great, but the toe area is a little bulky and not very smooth where I pulled it around the last.

yellowshoes_blog34You can see the detail of how much better the lining leather looks on the yellow (bottom) shoe when I folded and sewed the lining and outer leather together instead of leaving the lining leather free and cutting around it with a knife as I was instructed to do on the brown pair.

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I’m not sold on the soling rubber on the heel as of right now. I used it to protect the soling leather from getting so scuffed up, but the rubber feels kind of sticky on the ground and sometimes makes me trip a bit- not so much that I fall or anything, but something about it doesn’t feel quite right. I might see if I can pull the rubber pieces off cause I know they will feel fine without them.

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I have worn my new leather shoes several times since I finished them and I absolutely adore them- the color is amazing, they are comfortable and I like having a simple design style like a TOM’s shoe without having to actually wear TOM’s. As you can see, there are a lot of steps involves in making shoes, but they don’t actually take that long- you can definitely start and finish a pair in a day with the exception of the glue-drying time. The trickiest part of shoe making is gathering all the various tools and materials that you will need, and for shoes like the kind I make, finding the last is the hardest part of the battle. You need a different last for each size of shoe you make and for each style, in addition to whether or not you want a flat or a heel, and if you want a heel, you need a different last for each heel height. Because different companies have different sizing in their lasts (in the same way that trying an 8.5 size shoe in one brand might feel totally different in another brand), my best method of finding a good last is going by measurement in inches from toe to heel. I have had the most success finding vintage lasts on eBay, but there are specific companies that sell new lasts online, and etsy also has shops that sell plastic and wood lasts. I don’t have a preference between plastic and wood myself- I have used both and they yielded great results, although I suppose that wood lasts are more aesthetically pleasing.

Some additional resources for you to check out:

This is the book that got me started on this journey a couple of years ago! It is an excellent book with great illustrations, articulate instructions, and info on making your own lasts and shoes out of found materials. It is super informative and all the information I have gathered from classes and courses in the past couple of years has had similar methods to what Loomis writes about in her book.

I CAN MAKE SHOES is an online source I have relied on, and they also offer classes in-person in certain areas (I think they are located in the UK). They have some great materials for purchase in their shop and their shoe making kits are a great starting point for people who are interested in dipping their toes in the shoe-making waters without having to fully commit to buying all the supplies and tools necessary.

Prescott & McKay is another good source for taking classes in shoe-making, and although they are based in the UK, they come to the states and offer satellite sources several times a year. I took their one-day shoe making course, and although I thought it was fun and helpful, I think that their 2+ day seminars are probably better. One day just doesn’t seem to be enough time to learn all the complicated bits and pieces of shoe making from scratch while also paying attention to design. I think this course would have been amazing if they had given us less freedom in designing the shoe and instead focused more on functionality- I would much rather have had less choice in how my resulting shoe looked as long as it ended up being wearable, which it wasn’t, because we didn’t have enough time to learn about strap placement and buckles, etc.

Shoedo is an online store that sells various shoe components that are normally difficult to find if you are not buying wholesale, and I am so excited to have stumbled across them. I bought my foam board, several pairs of heels and some lasts from this site, in addition to other bits and pieces that I needed to stock up on.

This of course is just a tiny little snippet of all the resources available to amateur shoemakers- etsy, craigslist and eBay have lots of more options on where to buy the components you need, and there are a surprising number of blogs out there by bespoke shoe makers who write about their process and share tutorials on how to do what they do. Although I have learned a lot in the past couple of years, I am excited to continue my journey of learning even more. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I am super excited to learn how to handsew leather shoes as opposed to just gluing the pieces together, and I am also looking forward to taking a leather sandal making class this Spring that is coming to Los Angeles. The method they teach doesn’t involve using a last and is instead based on the measurements of your individual foot. I can’t wait to see how that works! Hopefully it will be successful enough that I can share everything about it here on the blog, so stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tim Gunning It

Results are in= stabilo markers > colored pencils. Also I am DYING to make this @namedclothing Kielo wrap dress again…

A photo posted by Jasika Nicole (@trycuriousblog) on

I made an absolutely beautiful Kielo Wrap Dress a while back and blogged about it here, and, as seen in my 2016 New Year post, another version of the dress was added to my To-Make list. I loved how Named Clothing used a simple striped fabric to create a bold look with the design, so I thought I would take some inspiration from their blog and make a replica. I chose a medium-weight super soft striped knit jersey from organiccottonplus.com in an earthtone shade, and I even used my new croquis book by Gertie to sketch out the idea of the dress. The additional sleeve pattern hack that Named provided on their blog and accompanying instructions were definitely lacking, but I figured it out like a champ and managed to complete the dress, from start to finish, in one day.

Here was the result.

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I don’t even know where to start with everything that looks terrible about this dress, and if I am totally honest, I am still not sure exactly what went wrong. I know it’s not the pattern, because I made the dress before to much success. So I am blaming it on my fabric choice. Why is my fabric choice so wrong, you ask? I don’t know. Sometimes the universe provides you with questions but no answers. Honestly it’s probably a whole combination of weird reasons, and I could sit here and speculate forever about it, but I wont. I’ll just focus on what is terrible instead of trying to figure out why it’s terrible. Here we go.

Reasons This Dress Is Terrible:

-It looks huge on me. And I don’t know why. This dress is actually a smaller size than the original one I made!

-It doesn’t retain it’s shape or any of the design features. As you can see in the Named Clothing blog photo below, the folds on the sides look crisp and defined and the wrap holds it’s shape.

Not so with my version. Mine looks like a three-day old soggy burrito wrap.

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-Also do you see how uneven my darts are? I have no idea why they were in separate places and in different lengths; you would think I had never sewn a dart before in my life! This fabric was posessed I tell you.

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-When I tried to hem the sleeves, the bottom of the dress, and the neckline, my fabric went berserk on me and stretched out to twice it’s size like this.turrible2blog

I did everything I could to keep this from happening. I switched from a twin needle to a single needle. I switched from ironing the folds of the seam allowance to simply pinning them down, just in case my iron was inadvertently stretching the fabric out. I steamed the hems to see if they would shrink back to their initial lengths. I used my walking foot to keep the knit fabric from getting stretched out under my needle. Nothing really seemed to do the trick.

Simply put, this fabric and design, for whatever reason, did not go well together. Which was a shame, because I had been dreaming about this dress for MONTHS! Every time I walked by this fabric draped over my couch in the craft room, I would wipe a bit of drool off my face and think to myself, I am gonna look SO DAMN FLY when this is finished!

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As you can see from the pitiful look on my face, I don’t feel fly at all. I even tried to pair it with different shoes, hoping with all my heart that it wasn’t the DRESS that was a mess, that it just needed to be styled in the perfect way (as you can see, no styling could fix this thing). I contemplated cutting off the ties and having it be one of those baggy sack dresses that tall girls in NYC always seem to get away with looking chic in. But I was only fooling myself. This dress needed either a dramatic makeover or it needed to go in the Butthole Bin. I hated the thought of wasting this beautiful fabric on a pattern that it was just not meant to be paired with, so after laughing with Claire for a VERY long time and taking these horror movie-like photos (I look like a fashion forward version of that girl in The Ring, right?), I took the dress off and plotted what I could possibly do to save it.

I am now pleased to present to you one of my most successful Tim Gunnings to date!

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OK, so as I mentioned, the major issues with the dress were…well, the whole thing. It was too big, with too much material to make the cute wrap-tie feature work, and all the hems were wonky. To start, I carefully took out the stitching for the awful baggy neckline and I tried to apply a length of seam binding instead, hoping it would shrink up the stretched-out opening. That ended up looking even worse than when it was just folded over and sewed down. Because I had serged the neck binding, I considered it too much work to unpick all those stitches, since I wasn’t even positive that I could save the dress, so I cut the binding off, leaving the neck opening even WIDER. As a last resort, I slowly and ever so carefully sewed a tiny 1/4 inch hem around the neck, using my walking foot and a single needle and barely touching the material as it went through the feed dogs. The end result is…passable. Not perfect, but a far cry better than what I had started out with. The boat neck is so wide that I can’t wear the dress with a regular bra cause the straps will show, so I have to wear a strapless bra underneath instead. Not pleased about that, but it’s better than having to throw the whole thing away. The sleeve hems were thankfully a much easier  fix- I cut out some fabric for bands a bit smaller than the sleeve opening, and they were inserted without any problem; they actually ended up looking really cute. Lastly I cut off the bottom of the dress because it was several inches too long, and I carefully sewed a very small hem with my walking foot; it turned out much less wavy than before.

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Now for the actual body of the dress. This wasn’t too tricky since it is a knit fabric and pretty forgiving. I fixed the funky darts on the front so that they were a bit more even, I cut the wrap and ties off the sides, then I put the dress on my dressform and pinned the sides in so that they hugged the curves of the form instead of sagging around it. I reattached the ties right under the arms as the original design calls for and then I serged the seams from bottom to top. There were a couple of small adjustments I made to keep the side seams even and flattering around my hips, but other than that, this was probably the easiest thing to fix.

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And there you have it; I Tim Gunned it! I made it work! If I could do the re-design all over again, I probably would have moved the ties down just a bit so they were more at waist level instead of right under the bust, and I would also bring in the side seams just a teensy bit more so that it is a little less roomy overall. But even as-is I am happy with this garment! I managed to wear it to some Behind The Scenes footage for our movie Suicide Kale (did I tell y’all about the movie I produced with my friends? This topic is waiting to be turned into a blog post titled TryCurious gets BEHIND the camera, but until then, you can find out more about the film here)! Thankfully the dress held up well and I felt great in it! Maybe I am not at the caliber of SO DAMN FLY that I was initially opting for when I envisioned this dress, but I am pretty close to it, and honestly, saving a #sewingfail from the garbage can kind of increases the intellectual FLY factor when you lay it all out on the table, right?

I recently wrote a two-part article for one of my favorite sites, autostraddle.com, about sewing. There is probably nothing new in it for you seasoned sewists out there, but for beginners and people who think they might be interested in getting started with sewing but have never done it before, you might find some valuable information! You can check out Part I which is all about sewing machines here, and Part II, about fabric, patterns, resources and inspiration, right here!

Living a Try Curious Lifestyle

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It dawned on me recently that my interest in creating things was big enough to merit it’s own little world here on my website. Technically this site is supposed to put me in the ranks of modern actors who update their pages with information on upcoming performances and showcases and classes and resumes, but if I am honest, I have never felt quite “in the ranks” of modernity with my job anyways. My life as an actor is, in my opinion, the least interesting thing about me; I am not the most talented person in my field, and there are plenty of people with my job who are much more well known than I am. But what does make me special is my fascination with creating things with my hands, the incredible amount of patience I have with myself, my trust that there is little in this world that I cannot accomplish. So I (re)introduce to you TRY CURIOUS BLOG, a space dedicated to sharing in the delights of living a try curious lifestyle! I have Claire to thank for this fantastic title, which seems at once fitting and silly and inspiring, while giving a nice little nod to my own queer identity. So far my life in creative curiosity has acquainted me with power tools, shoes lasts, boom mics, vintage sewing machines, onigiri molds and bentonite clay, and I feel a thrill every time I have another opportunity to expand my world. The older I get, the more enthusiasm I have for the process as opposed to the final product, and this has diversified my artistic endeavors tremendously. Thanks so much for being a reader of this blog and for showing your support with comments and likes.

Here’s to living a Try Curious lifestyle together 😉

Ode to JNCOs By Way of A Birthday Suit

oh, hi!When I was in college, I finally came into my own with my sense of fashion. Not that it was a good sense, but it was my sense. I went to school a full 8 hours and 3 states away from the confines of my hometown, finally free to explore all the inner workings of my closeted fashionista without fear of judgement from my peers. That’s not to say that I didn’t make some pretty bizarre wardrobe choices in high school, but my outfits were generally tame; I lived in a mostly white neighborhood, so I didn’t intentionally try to stand out any more than necessary. In college, however, all bets were off. I was inspired by/obsessed with the girls in the Delia’s catalogs. I wanted to add sparkles and glitter to my body lotion to compliment my braces. I wanted to wear my hair wild and free in it’s naturally curly state instead of straightening it every week like I did in high school. I began to embrace an alternative look that seemed funky and cool, and very unlike the cookie cutter GAP riddled southern belles that I grew up with.
Enter JNCOs.

 

this is so embarrassing.

Okay, I never actually owned a pair of authentic JNCOs because I couldn’t afford them, but I definitely bought knock-offs simulating that wide legged shape. I loved the way guys looked in them with their requisite flavor-savors, hackey-sacks and pierced ears. I don’t say this with a sense of pride, but rather in hopeful solidarity with you readers….? Surely I am not the only teenager who fell into the JNCOs-adorned boy trap in the late 90’s. Right? I was so obsessed with the look that some of my earliest fashion-inspired sketches in my drawing diary featured boys and girls in those giant legged silhouettes. The only thing better looking to me than a slouchy, scruffy boy in a tight-fitting t shirt and sleeping bags for pants was ME in the same ensemble. My favorite “going out” outfit my sophomore year of college was my beloved pair of khaki colored JNCO wannabes, a belly-button grazing white cotton bandeau top with a ruffle on the edge, and my black Steve Madden chunky heeled ankle boots, big enough to make me several inches taller but small enough to stay inside the walls of my huge pants legs, giving me that coveted no feet look that permeated the early 2000’s. To top it off I would stuff my curly hair into Princess Leia-style buns, coat my eyelids in a some ice-blue shadow, and be ready to PARTY (fyi: for me at the time, party meant ALL dancing/NO alcohol/NO drugs. Interestingly, my idea of partying seems to have morphed into the direct inverse of this equation as I’ve gotten older. Go figure.)

Vogue 9075 (with sleeves)

I graduated from my JNCOs look pretty quickly- my junior year in college was comprised of mostly stretch knit leopard prints, feeble attempts at cleavage, and non-prescription eye glasses. By the time my senior year rolled around, I was taking so many dance and choreography courses that I pretty much lived in footless tights and leotards, and once I moved to NYC, my appreciation for a vintage aesthetic slowly started to form. But I guess my penchant for wide legged culottes never quite left me, because when I saw Erica B’s version  of the culotte jumpsuit pattern by Vogue (9075) several months ago, I was entranced! It was JNCOs all grown up! A midi length to update the silhouette, beautiful flowy fabric to soften the look, and a fitted, structured bodice to balance out the wide legs. AHHH, PERFECTION! Dare I try this look on me, 15 years after the JNCOs promptly entered and exited their way through my life? I am notorious for nixing certain shapes and design features that I don’t think will work well on my frame, and normally this jumper would be one of them (I always worry that short, wide legs will overwhelm my frame), but I couldn’t get the garment out of my mind. Eventually I decided that it was worth a try to sew it up and see how it worked on me- if it was hideous I would only be out the price of a few yards of fabric and the time it took me to make it.

pleat detailI bought a lovely navy viscose twill (not pictured in this post) from Michael Levine’s; it was my first time working with this type of fabric and I absolutely fell in love with it. It has a soft hand and beautiful drape while still giving the garment a bit of body. The end result of this fabric paired with this garment was not wonderful, though. And for some reason I forgot to buy fabric to line the jumper, so I used this cheap rayon stuff I had in my stash which was ALL WRONG ALL WRONG ALL WRONG. The colors were a terrible combo, it shed weird shimmery fibers all over my dark blue twill, and it had too much stretch so it got misshapen when paired with the bodice. All in all the design of the jumper had a lot of issues (on my body); the waistline was lower than I prefer, the crotch was WAY too high and giving me serious camel toe whenever I tried to sit down, the front middle of the bodice tugged down in this weird way, creating a tiny V that would extend below the belt I tried to wear with the jumper, the bodice was funky because the shaping didn’t really match my bust line, and the gold lining kept peeking out from underneath the bodice even though I understitched it. It wasn’t the best thing I had ever made, but, like any obsessed seamster, I was convinced it had GOOD BONES. After wearing my JNCOs Jumper to a dinner party and futzing with it all night long (and discovering that viscose twill wrinkles pretty easily), I decided that the garment would be my muslin and that it was definitely worth making again with some adjustments.
2Since my birthday was coming up, I splurged on a double gauze by Cotton & Steele and bought enough to make the jumper and the lining from the same fabric. I shortened the bodice, bringing it up to my natural waist. I took in all the bodice seams about 1/4 inch, I dropped the crotch of the pants about half an inch (although the end result is somehow several inches below my crotch). I took in the front edge of the armhole so that it wouldn’t stick out as much as it did on the first make. After making it, I realized I forgot to lengthen the pattern pieces for the pocket to match the longer length of the pants, so the pockets are usable but definitely too short for my taste. I honestly never thought that much about pockets before, so this was a nice reminder of how everything is connected- if an adjustment happens somewhere in a pattern, I need to run a checklist to make sure it doesn’t affect any other parts of the piece.

 

back detailMy favorite thing about this garment is that it looks like a dress when I am standing still and then just kind of magically transforms into pants when I start walking. The cotton gauze is beautiful and soft, and it (sort of) survived a laundry mishap when Claire’s cheap basketball jersey bled dye all over it in the washing machine. I had to do an emergency dye-removal wash with that weird smelling powder stuff but it worked well enough- the fabric is no longer as vivid as it once was but it doesn’t have as many purple splotches on it anymore. The double gauze is a little thicker than fabric I would make for this pattern in the future, but it is still one of my favorite things to wear. I completed this jumper right in time for my birthday this past April, and it was the first time that I had dedicated time and effort into making myself a birthday outfit. I don’t know why it took me so long, because I LOVE birthday celebrations (especially my own); making a special outfit to celebrate in seems right up my alley.

 

full frontal

I figured that to fully pay homage to College-Age-Jasika, I could at LEAST recreate my Princess Leia buns for these photos…

I had a great time on my birthday- it was filled with surprises from the moment I was rudely (but purposefully) awakened at 6:30 am that morning til my wife and I took an uber home from The Museum of Natural History later that night, covered in sweat from dancing to DJ Anthony Valadez at First Friday. We were running late to the event and worried that the party was going to end before we got on the dance floor, so we walked right past the bar and immediately planted ourselves in front of the speakers, dancing non-stop until the last song finished playing. All dancing/NO alcohol/NO drugs. I guess everything really does come back in style eventually.

 

Shoe Makery

Around Christmas time last year I was deep in the rabbit hole of sewing blogs and reading the personal musings of strangers ad nauseam when I stumbled across a post about DIY shoe making. I don’t remember the name of the girl or her blog, but I did make sure to pin all the information she shared. I was immediately intrigued by the idea of making my own shoes, and more than a little shocked- I didn’t think that cobbling shoes would have ever evolved (or devolved, depending on where you stand on the subject) into something a person could do on their own without major machinery and decades of experience under their belts. I was so excited about the prospect that my heart started to race fast and I couldn’t google search fast enough! For something I had never before even conceived as a reality, there sure was a fair amount of information about it on the internets. There are so many schools of thought regarding the best ways to DIY your own shoes, and the finished projects run the gamut from super simplistic felted slippers to high heeled shoes with leather soles and buckles. I am still weeding my way through all the information I am finding, and hopefully I will get to a place where I can keep the ideas and techniques that work for what I want to create and discard all the other stuff, melding a bunch of steps from different schools of thought into a method that works best for me. That sounds really optimistic and I realize that I may never have the chance to see this through, but the process has proven to be SUPER fun and challenging so far.

The first avenue I went down on the road to shoe-making was to buy this book by Mary Wales Loomis, which I had learned about in that blog I stumbled upon. Mary Wales Loomis is an entrepreneur who published Make Your Own Shoes, a book about the technique she developed for building her own shoes after she essentially took one of her favorite shoes apart to see how it was made and then replicated it using inexpensive and found materials. Her story is incredibly inspiring because she never took “no” for an answer (the art of cobbling seems to have a lot of gatekeepers in place to ensure that no one ever gets the idea that shoemaking can be done for FUN and CHEAPLY), and she researched and asked professionals and experimented on her own for a long time until she was finally able to successfully make her first wearable pair of shoes. I am about mid-way through my first pair of shoes using the steps in her book, and I also made a pair of lasts per her instructions.

vintage shoes from Goodwill filled with plaster of paris.

vintage shoes from Goodwill filled with plaster of paris.

For those unfamiliar, lasts are molds that mimic the general shape and curves of a foot, and you build your shoe around it. They are made either out of wood or durable plastic, and you need a different last for each of your feet. Lasts also differ for size, heel height and each toe shape (like oval, square, pointy or round). If you know where to look, you can buy affordable vintage lasts online or new ones from specialty shoe component stores, but you can also make them out of an old pair of shoes and plaster of paris, which is how I made my first pair. The con of making your own lasts is that you can’t bend or fold the last once your components are put together on it, so you have to use different steps when molding the shoe upper and attaching the insole. The pro is that they are super cheap to make and you can cater them to your own specific needs, like if you have a bunion or one foot that is a different size than the other, or extremely narrow feet.

 

The other direction I went down in my quest to learn to make shoes was to seek out ready-made shoe kits with all the components necessary to make a pair of shoes. This is where I discovered a company called I Can Make Shoes based out of London that offers classes in addition to their kits to give you hands-on training in making shoes. Although the idea of the kit is innovative and oh-so tempting, I opted to hold off on buying one to do a little more researching on my own instead- for a little more than the price of a kit, I could spend money on tools and components and have enough material to make a FEW pairs of shoes instead of just one. I Can Make Shoes also offers PDFs for purchase on shoe design and shoe making, so I might just buy some of that material to add to my ever expanding pile of research.

After finding the I Can Make Shoes brand, I discovered yet another make-your-own-shoes organization called Prescott & Mackay, also based out of London, that offered 1 day, 2 day, and 5 day courses in everything from leather bags to high heeled shoes to sandals to accessories. I was really interested in this company because I saw that a couple times a year they offered a course in Berkley, CA, and traveling up to the Bay area seemed a lot easier than flying to London for a week. The next course they were offering in the states was for a 5 day heel making class in Berkley that was to take place in the middle of April, which was already turning out to be a busy month for me; I decided I couldn’t make it happen then and would instead try and sign up for the class they would be offering in the Fall. But lo and behold, a few days later I received a newsletter from P&M saying they were offering their first ever course in Los Angeles, a 1 day sandal making class, and it happened to be on a day when I was free. It seemed too serendipitous to pass up.

 

Shoe components

Shoe components

The class was taught by Melissa of P&M who was very knowledgeable and efficient in her teaching skills, and just generally a lovely person to learn from. She was able to rent the space of a furniture store in Mid-City to hold the class, and myself and four other women all sat at a big table with all the tools and components necessary for the sandals placed in front of us and got to learn the basics of shoe making together. The mood was lively and easy-going, but 8 hours to make a pair of sandals from scratch is hardly enough time if you have never done it before (some of us had more experience than others). I appreciated the “1 day” aspect of the course, but it was really only enough time to physically make the shoes- we could have used a few more hours to talk about design, functionality and wear-ability of our sandals. The other unfortunate thing about our class was that there were no machines to sew straps or tidy up leather edges or press our soles on, since it was a pop-up class in an environment that didn’t have the conveniences of their London school. So we were a bit limited in what we could do with our shoes. But this is in no way a complaint- I was very happy with the course, I learned a ton from Melissa and from the other people in the class, and it was a perfect companion to Loomis’ Make Your Own Shoes book, which I had already read cover to cover.

paper lining pattern + leather lining (pigskin)

paper lining pattern + leather lining (pigskin)

this insole is made special for sandals so that you can place the straps in the little nooks on the bottom.

this insole is made special for sandals so that you can place the straps in the little nooks on the bottom. here the insole is nailed to the bottom of the last to keep it steady.

fitting the leather onto the insole by clipping curves, just like in sewing!

fitting the leather onto the insole by clipping curves, just like in sewing!

finished leather insoles.

finished leather insoles.

I learned a few really key things in the P&M class that have me very excited to continue the process of DIY shoe making. The first is this: leather is, from my vantage point, the most ideal material to make shoes from, and I am very excited to learn more about leather crafting. I bought myself a couple of introductory books into leather making last year, the most useful of which is called The Leatherworking Handbook, which gives a very detailed overview of the different types of leather, what you can make with it, and how to work with it and sew it. Having a better understanding of leather and how to manipulate it is going to aid me a lot in being able to make the kinds of shoes that I envision in my head, and I never realized this before. When I first started making shoes from the steps provided in Make Your Own Shoes, I tried to start with plain fabric material since I was just learning. Regular fabric is definitely a fine material to use, but it requires so much to make it sturdy and pliable- using a good leather of the proper weight takes less work, less material, and creates beautiful results. Becoming more knowledgeable about leather crafting will make this book more helpful to me, too (I am dying to make a pair of cute Mary Janes using the guidelines from this document).

very pretty but barely wearable.

very pretty but barely wearable.

Another thing that I learned in class was that you must be as thoughtful about the design of your shoe as you are about the process of making it. As I wrote earlier, our class did not allow us much time to contemplate the blueprint of what we were creating, which makes perfect sense given the constraints of the course. In my head I was intending to make a wedge sandal with leather straps across the top of the shoe and a leather back that had straps or a buckle to tie around the ankle. By the time I was ready to plan out how the back of my shoe would look, we had already moved on to the next phase of gluing our shoe pieces together, which required some time limitations, so if I wanted to have a completed shoe by the end of the class, I needed to alter my design, sans shoe back. My last minute decision was to add some skinnier straps to criss-cross over the shoe from the inner toe edge to the opposite heel edge, which looked  pretty, but I knew it wasn’t going to be sturdy enough to keep the shoe on the foot, and I was totally right. At the end of class when our shoes had all been glued together, I tried mine on, and as soon as I took a step in it it just kind of slid around and then OFF of my foot; in addition to inefficient strap placement, the last that I used to make my shoes was also one size too big, so that didn’t do anything to help them stay on my feet. If I had had enough time (and the equipment necessary) to make a back to the shoes, they might have actually been wearable, but I wasn’t too disappointed- I learned a lot and I definitely feel more confident in making more sandals for the future, and that’s really all I wanted from the course. By listening to the other ladies in class chat, I also learned of the best place in LA to get beautiful, affordable leather (it’s called SAVE MOR and it’s incredible!) and I learned of some new sources to buy shoe components and lasts- I am keeping my eyes out for a flat ladies last with a slightly rounded toe in my size- if you find one, holler at me.

top view looks cute as long as I am stationary.

top view looks cute as long as I am stationary.

 

side view- you can see the I didn't do a great job with gluing the soles to the bottom, but there wasn't enough time in class to re-glue, and I already knew they weren't going to function so I didn't want to waste my time.

side view- you can see that I didn’t do a great job with gluing the soles to the bottom, but there wasn’t enough time in class to re-glue and re-attach, and I already knew the shoes weren’t going to function so I didn’t want to waste my time.

More, more, more

A few days after this last new year I came up with some goals with which I wanted to challenge myself. I am not a big proponent of inventing New Year’s Resolutions just for the hell of it, but after a busy holiday season spent creating elaborate homemade gifts for every single person on our Christmas list, I was left feeling overwhelmed and depleted when the new year rolled around. I had to ask myself why I had done so much. Why was I investing so much of my time and effort when no one expected that much of me? I had come up with a simple, manageable idea for homemade presents, but at some point I kept adding more, more, more to the packages til plastic tubs and tins and cardboard boxes covered the floor of our office and required an assembly line to get everything ready to mail out.

I recognized that this “more more more” mentality had seeped into my life in other ways, too, and I wasn’t proud of it, so I decided to challenge myself to stop spending money on what I referred to as “non-essential items” in an attempt to dissect this weird shopping habit I had acquired over the past several years. My wife joined me in the challenge, and for the month of January, we limited our spending only to necessary items like food, toiletries, bills and gas. I was interested to see how much I actually needed in my life, and interested to see when the urge would hit me to start my daily perusal of searching on amazon prime for…any and everything. I had a feeling that my spending, though unconscious, was probably an attempt to occupy my time and brain space; it was filler. It was buying into the notion that things could make me happy and satisfy me, even though that “satisfaction” was temporary and not very fulfilling. January’s goal was achieved successfully, so we set another, more long term goal: to give our personal spending a budget that would allow us the space to purchase the things we wanted, while also giving us the opportunity to be more mindful of how and why we spent.

And it was at this point that I realized how big a presence fabric was in my life.
FAAAAAABRIIIIC!
It’s weird- in all my years of knitting, I have never been a yarn hoarder. I only go to yarn stores when I have a specific project in mind to make. I don’t fall in love with a skein of yarn and then buy it to keep in my stash just to have it, and I never buy several skeins of yarn in the hopes that it will be perfect for some future project I have yet to choose. If I don’t know exactly how many skeins I am gonna be needing for a project, then I wont spend my money on it. In fact, my yarn stash is only comprised of leftovers from projects I have already completed, or single skeins I have gotten as gifts (which I have never used because there aren’t any one-skein projects I am interested in knitting up). I would have expected this yarn-purchasing mentality to carry over into my sewing with fabric, but somehow it didn’t. And I blame it all on sewing blogs!
Okay, not really, but I think that in my excitement to become a part of the online sewing community, I started taking on some of the habits that everyone would write about in their blogs; visiting their favorite fabric stores a few times a month to see what new items had been stocked, falling in love with a beautiful fabric and buying a few yards of it just in case they found the perfect project for it later on, purchasing the last few yards of a textile that they new they would never come across again, even though they had no idea what they would use it for. There is something so romantic about this relationship between sewers and fabric, and reading about it in blogger’s posts, it seemed like a love affair. People would be drawn to a particular textile, and whether or not they knew if the fabric was going to work out, they would succumb to it anyways, in the hopes that love would prevail and they would create something beautiful. In all honesty I think the majority of these bloggers do find love with the fabric they store in their stash, keeping a mental count of all the fabric they have purchased and cross referencing it with every new (or old) pattern they come across. For many, this is a very efficient way to sew. But I don’t think it works for me. I followed the lead of all these amazing sewing bloggers and found myself waist-deep in so much fabric that I didn’t know which way was up. I would go to my favorite local fabric store frequently, sometimes twice in one week if they announced a last minute sale, and I would buy a couple of yards of everything that caught my eye, with only a hazy strategy of how I would use the fabric. Maybe this might make a cute blouse for that perfect pattern I have yet to find? Or, this would be great for that dream skirt I want to learn to drape! And my favorite, surely two yards of this will be enough for something beautiful, which it almost never is. My intentions are good, and occasionally I have created a successful garment with a fabric that I bought on a whim, but generally my sewing projects come out best when I know exactly what I am shopping for and I have a pattern in my hand of precisely the thing I want to make. I wish I was more flexible like the bloggers I admire so much who make gorgeous garments with fabric they bought five years ago and patterns they stumbled across at flea markets. But I can’t make myself into the kind of seamster I want to be, I can only embrace the kind of seamster I actually am, which is the kind who is tired of being wasteful on merchandise that meets only some of her criteria.

  • JASIKA’S FABRIC CRITERIA:
  1. The fabric must be beautiful.
  2. The fabric must feel good/comfortable to the touch.
  3. I must know how to sew with the material.
  4. I must know what I am going to sew with the material.
  5. The material must be at a price point worthy of the finished garment.

Which brings me to my other goal for 2015: no purchasing of any fabric that doesn’t meet all 5 points of criteria! I have discarded too many beautiful yards of fabric by not adhering to these 5 rules, and although one can’t expand their knowledge in sewing without pushing themselves out of their comfort zone, I still think I can find a balance in the middle, somewhere between more, more, more fabric and the  strict scrutinization of every last detail of my sewing process. And to get me prepped for this goal, my current challenge to myself is to not buy any more fabric until all the fabric I have purchased in the past several months is utilized, ensuring that I forge all the way through my sewing queue. When I pulled out all the yards of fabric I had accumulated over the past many months, I was surprisingly enthusiastic about the task. I hadn’t put all that fabric on the back burner because I wasn’t excited to make things with it- I had put it on the back burner because I kept buying new fabric that made me forget about the stuff I had already bought. And I am happy to report that in the short time I have dedicated myself to this challenge, I have gotten SO MUCH ACCOMPLISHED!

creamarcherI finished an Archer shirt for Claire that was meant to be a Christmas present last year.

clairepinuppinupsweaters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I fixed the too-tight sleeves and bottom hems on a Pin-up sweater that I also made her for Christmas, and I sewed two more knit Pin-up Sweaters that were in my queue, one for Claire and one for myself, although her wool sweater (the one in the middle in the right side picture, made of 100% New Zealand wool) accidentally got washed with the rest of the laundry over the weekend and has now morphed into a very wide and unwearable crop top 🙁

fullgolddress cropgolddress

I transformed a problematic, frustrating dress I made that weirdly came out too short into a blouse that I will probably never wear…but at least I can make an attempt at it! I also let out the zipper in a pink wool crepe skirt I made that was a teensy bit too tight (not pictured).

polkadots4I (correctly) made another pair of cigarette pants after I accidentally cut my Jaquard Print fabric on the wrong grain and couldn’t pull them up over my booty cause the stretch was length-wise instead of width-wise.

 

valerievonsobel2

I sewed a snap into a long silk dress I made last year so that I could wear it for the first time to an art exhibit. It’s not really my normal style preference- I think it’s a little too full and overwhelming for my frame, which tends to get dwarfed by long dresses that aren’t fitted, but it’s nice to step outside your comfort zone sometimes and shake it up a bit. The fabric is breezy and lightweight, and kind of perfect for beach weather.

pajamapants

I can’t believe I bothered to take a picture of these old rinky dink pajama pants.

I fixed the elastic waist band in a pair of pajama pants I made for Claire.

waxprinthackAnd I made a successful pattern hack of Gertie’s (flared skirt + fitted bodice) out of a gorgeous wax-print-inspired cotton I found at The Fabric Store (one of my only successful impulsive fabric purchases in recent memory). And I have completed these projects all in the last two weeks! And I guess this is the real goal of my attempt to buy less fabric and add less stuff to my queue; without so much piled up fabric to work with, I am forced to deal with the stuff I already have- the piles of projects that were mostly complete but still needed a little altering. The fabric that I loved but hadn’t taken the time to work out what I could actually make with it. The pieces that needed re-working to be wearable. The garments that sat on hangers in my craft room feeling unloved and uncared for til I spent the 30 minutes necessary to bring them to life again. Without taking time out from buying more stuff, who knows when I would have sat down to tie up all these loose ends. And that’s the crux of it, I guess- by buying less, I bought myself time to add more to my wardrobe (and Claire’s, too).

fabricpile1
And with the remainder of my pile of unused fabric, I have selected patterns/plans  for everything else in my project queue, as seen above. Not pictured is the stretch denim I have on deck to make another pair of Ginger Jeans, but I can’t make those til I replace my broken heavy-duty sewing machine, and in the spirit of no more more more, more, I am making myself wait til my birthday in April for that purchase.

The only fault I have in my stash is a pile of fabrics I bought online that I intended to make yoga pants out of, but the material ended up being more suitable for swimsuits.

swimsuitpile

 

I have a swimsuit pattern to use for this fabric, but making swimwear is not really a priority right now since it’s February. Once I get through the pile above, I might consider that to be the end of my queue and will be able to start buying more, more, more fabric again. As thrilled as I am to be whittling away at my current line-up of projects, I have to admit that I cannot WAIT to start planning for new stuff with new fabric again…adhering to my budget and criteria of course 😉

 

A Walk Down Knittory Lane

I got into knitting almost 10 years ago when I was playing the title role in a musical called Chasing Nicolette at the Prince Music Theatre in Philly. Some time before I was cast in the show, I had been gifted a hardcover knitting book called Weekend Knitting, and I was immediately drawn to the gorgeous photos inside. There were close-up shots of textured, furry wools and shiny wooden needles with loops of squishy yarn lined all the way down to the tips. The models in the photos were beautiful and diverse, and they just looked so happy, like the only thing they wanted in the whole wide world at that moment was to be wearing a meticulously knitted garment while smiling at a camera. There was a really sweet (albeit completely unrealistic) shot of a woman soaking in a huge clawfoot tub while working on a long thin scarf that piled up on the floor next to her (I know this activity is unrealistic because I tried it, and steam from a hot bath makes woolen fibers feel sticky on moist fingers, especially with the added effect of fine condensation that collects on the needles; for me, tub knitting was totally weird/gross/unweildy, but the photograph was inspiring enough for me to give it a try). When packing for my nearly three month long stint at the Prince, I decided on a whim to bring the book with me, even though I didn’t know how to knit. I figured that once we were done with rehearsals and were in full performances, I would have time to learn (I ended up buying a copy of Stitch N’Bitch to aid me in the process) and time to make one of the seemingly simple and beautiful patterns from the book. I wanted to wear my own knitted things that would turn out looking just as exquisite as the projects in Weekend Knitting, and I would be so very happy, smiley, and proud of myself, and I would also be, of course, very warm, which was important when I was living in the northeast.

It was quite the rude awakening to realize, after successfully teaching myself  how to knit and purl on two straight bamboo needles, that jumping from garter stitch straight into a fingerless mitt pattern was going to be very, very difficult. I worked on my project for weeks, taking the stitches out and starting over so many times that my merlot-colored yarn became garbled and knotted and stringy. I threw my glove and needles across the room. I insisted that something was wrong with the pattern, that it was full of mistakes since it made absolutely no sense to me. I am pretty sure I shed some frustrated tears at least once. I flipped through my Stitch N’Bitch book over and over again, re-reading the same passages and trying to apply the clear steps in the pictures to the confusing instructions in the pattern.
But I didn’t give up.
I took breaks, and I got angry with myself, but I didn’t give up.
Eventually I finished my first glove. I was simultaneously elated by my success and devastated that I had to start the whole process over again to make a second one. But I did it. The glove on one hand was smooth and pretty because it was the second one I made, and the glove for the other hand was twisted and warped and imperfect, but I didn’t mind. I could see my learning curve spelled out across my palms, and it was proof that my patience with myself, however stilted, was worthwhile.

It didn’t take long for my knits and purls to become very uniform and consistent, but I was pretty stumped at figuring out how to read patterns so I just stuck to making the same 6 foot long scarves over and over. Years passed before my next attempt at trying another pattern, and interestingly enough, the impetus to dive in again came in the familiar form of a gifted book. This time, our friend Rahul had opened up an amazon package that sat unclaimed in his building’s foyer for months, and he gave it to me, his crafty-ist friend, thinking that I would make good use out of it. It was Stefanie Japel’s Fitted Knits, and, like before, I was immediately entranced by the photos in the book. I chose what looked like the simplest pattern in the book to tackle, a top down V-neck sweater in the round in stockinette stitch with knit2 purl2 ribbing at the edges. I bought my first pair of circular needles and a bright blue soft wool with a bit of shine that didn’t itch my skin. And I just dove in.
And I threw it across the room at a wall several times.
And I know I cried more than once.
And I convinced myself yet again that the pattern directions had major flaws in them, since they didn’t make sense to me.
And I wondered furiously why pattern writers insisted on using so many abbreviations. WHAT WAS WRONG WITH FULL SENTENCES?!?! And I stuffed the project in a bag deep into our closet a couple of times, waiting weeks before my fury had dissipated enough to trick me into picking it up again. But I did pick it up again. And my time away from the project worked. And at some point during this off-time, I had my first aha! moment, where suddenly the pattern instructions were understandable, and I knew how to get past the place where I had been stuck (increasing at the yoke to make room for the shoulders and sleeves had me so stumped my first time through), and I kept knitting and kept knitting, and I actually (finally!) successfully finished knitting my first sweater! I couldn’t believe it! I was so, so proud of myself! Once it was finished, I wore it all the time, with all it’s dropped stitches and wonky uneven seaming at the sleeves, and tension that zig-zagged all throughout the garment, depending on the level of frustration I was experiencing at the time of knitting. But honestly, no one could see how many flaws it had, and my friends were impressed that I had seen the project through to the end. But nobody was more impressed than me. And maybe Claire, who stifled her laughter at my rage and instead offered consolatory hugs and affirming pats on the back after each battle I lost with the sweater.

first knitted sweater, and a baby face

first knitted sweater, and a baby face

At the time, I had no friends who knit and there weren’t as many tutorials online as there are these days, so figuring out how to read a knitting pattern was a solitary, aggravating job. But it wasn’t impossible. It took hunkering down and fierce-dedication-bordering-on-obsession to figure it out, and more than a little patience with myself, and trust that not every single pattern was completely wrong and full of typos and miscounts. But it was absolutely achievable. After the success of the V-neck sweater, I made another one for Claire, to get the kinks out and right all the wrongs I had made in my own sweater, and it came out GORGEOUS, and is a sweater she still wears seven years later. Next I started going through all the patterns in Stefanie Japel’s book, choosing more ambitious projects each time, learning new techniques and challenging my burgeoning skills. And then I had another aha! moment; not all knitting patterns are created equal. This seams so obvious now that I have been knitting for so many years, but after making 6 sweaters in a row that were knitted fairly well, yet still came out kind of weird and ill-fitting, I understood that fit was just as important an element in sweater making as learning how to read the patterns. So was yarn choice. So was making swatches. Just because a sweater looked beautiful in a photograph didn’t mean that it would look beautiful on me in the yarn I bought in the size I made with my particular stitching personality. So the learning curve continued. After some online research, I realized that the talented knitwear designer was quite a bit more buxom than I was, and therefore her patterns, with the exception of the V-Neck sweater which had a tighter fit, left way too much room in the chest area on me. I wasn’t adept enough yet to know how to adapt patterns to my own measurements, so I decided to branch out and discover patterns by different knitwear designers, and then a fateful conversation with a knitting makeup artist from the first season of Fringe led me to ravelry.com, and the rest is history (I am HYMagic on ravelry in case anyone wants to follow).

I thought it would be fun to walk down knittory lane (that is so corny and I am sorry) and take a look at some of my earliest sweater knitting projects. I would never call them failures because it’s only a fail if you learn absolutely nothing from it, and that has never been the case with anything I have knitted…although it has definitely taken me several attempts at the exact same mistake to finally learn the things I am supposed to learn.

Here, we have the Puff-Sleeved Cardigan, a really cute sweater that made me look kind of like a marshmallow when I put it on. It’s too baggy in the chest and under the arms, the silhouette is frumpy, and the peplum is too short and lays down funny. My buttons were so bomb, though. I should have used smaller needles to get a tigher fit, and perhaps a different kind of yarn, because I wanted the look to be fuzzier and look more like fabric rather than a garment where you can see the distinct stitch definition.

Puff-Sleeved Cardigan

Puff-Sleeved Cardigan (I realize that this picture/angle doesn’t look all that terrible, but I never ever wore this sweater after spending months on it, so just trust me that I didn’t feel confident in it AT ALL.

This Back-to-School U-Neck Vest was another one that fit poorly- again, much to loose in the chest area and the arms, and also just kind of baggy all around. I loved the color of this yarn, and the details within the pattern were really cool, but it needed to be much smaller. I usually knit the smallest sizes available for a pattern, and it was around the time of making this sweater that I started to learn (it took many more projects to fully comprehend this lesson) that my personal tension, though very even, is pretty loose. By going down one or two needle sizes, I get the correct gauge.

Back to School U Neck, baggy-style

Back to School U Neck, baggy-style

From Stefanie Japel’s other book, Glam Knits, I fell in love with this BoHo Blouse, knitted it up quickly in a chunky wool, and was immediately disappointed. Too big. Again. Frumpy. Again. I wasn’t sold on this yarn choice either, but in my early knitting days, I found it difficult to envision what a garment would look like in different colors and yarn choices, so I tried to stay within the ballpark of what the photograph showed, in this choice using a heathered wool with different flecks of color in it. Look at how it sags so much in the back and drapes down in the shoulder area. For a better fit I should have gone down in needle size, but in general, I have learned that flowy blouses are just not my thing, and a sweater that conceals my shape on top doesn’t really suit my style. This sweater, like the first one, was never worn and was gifted to my sister-in-law.

ugh.

ugh.

blergh.

blergh.

Okay, I think this sweater is the very first one I made that wasn’t a Stefanie Japel pattern (and for the record, I don’t want this post to seem like I am Stefanie bashing- I LOVE her vintage inspired designs; she is clearly VERY talented, and without her book, I would never have been inspired to try and tackle knitting my own sweaters! One of the sad truths about making your own clothing is that not every pattern is meant for every figure unless you are willing to put in the work to adapt the patterns, and Stefanie Japel’s work was how I learned to pay attention to my personal needs and preferences regarding knitwear designs). The Minimalist Cardigan was the first sweater I made that wasn’t knit in one piece, and although it is a very straight forward and simple pattern to make in all-over moss stitch with the lapel bands in stockinette, there was STILL room for learning. I am so embarrassed to admit this, but once the whole thing was knitted up and blocked and I was supposed to sew all the pieces together, I went to the store, bought matching green thread, and I USED MY SEWING MACHINE…

greensweater_web

greencardi_web…TO SEW THE PIECES TOGETHER!!!! I didn’t realize my mistake until I tried the garment on and stood in the mirror with a puzzled look on my face. Why were the shoulders so bulky?? Why didn’t the seams lay flat like they did in the photos for the pattern? I don’t know how or why I figured it out, but as some point I realized that I was supposed to hand sew the pieces together with yarn and a thick sewing needle made for knitwear. DUH. So embarrassing. Let me tell you, ripping sewing thread out of a knitted garment is painstaking. But once I figured out the right way to do it, the garment fit beautifully, and it is currently my oldest sweater that I have made (I threw out my first blue sweater once I got better at knitting and knew that I didn’t have to wear with holes and knots in them, and all the other garments I made in between were eventually gifted to friends/family).

Almost all the sweaters/knitted items I made after this one are wearable and still in rotation. I still had a lot to learn about my personal relationship to knitted garments and what kind of things I liked knitting the most, but I finally found my knitting groove. I learned to either go down in needle size or make swatches before every new project. I learned that I prefer neutral colored, unfussy wools to bright, funky colors and wild textures. I learned that I like simple stitches with minimal details, and laces only knitted up in flat hues. I learned that I am not crazy about tweed yarn. I learned that I don’t like sweaters with bust and waist shaping, and that I really love working with cables. I hate fuzzy yarn. Knitting socks is my worst nightmare. I prefer the Magic Loop Method to DPNs. And so on and so on.

This has been a ridiculously long post that took days for me to put together, but I get a lot of questions on tumblr about my history with knitting, so now I have a post to link people to should they have any specific questions about how I got into the craft. Oh, and the sweater in the picture used at the head of this post? It’s one of my favorite sweaters that I have ever made, even though I never really wore it much cause it has some fitting issues. I wish I had used a thinner yarn, and had made the sweater longer, and decreased the neckline stitches even more so that the neckline wasn’t quite so wide. This was the first lace repeat I ever used in a pattern, and it took me a long time to get the hang of it, but the result was stunning. I hardly ever wear this garment because it doesn’t work well with a regular bra and is a little too wide in the body, but another thing I have learned over my years of knitting is that sometimes a garment is worth fighting for; I am learning to ignore imperfections and focus on the beautiful qualities of my work more often, like the soft texture and the warm shade of the wool, and how delicate the lace pattern is coupled with the solid look of the neckline ribbing . This sweater works best with a belt and a strapless bra, and it looks really cute over skinny jeans or a pencil skirt, so I am dedicating myself to wearing it more often, despite the changes I wish I had made to it. I forgot how satisfying it is to wear my learning curve, spelled out across my shoulders.

©Robin Roemer

©Robin Roemer

Pants: A Pain in My Ass

After making some very cute mid-to-high waisted shorts from a vintage Simplicity pattern a spring or two ago, my interest in making pants sky-rocketed. I have always hated shorts on myself; I felt like my legs were too short and curvy for them to be flattering, which looks even dumber written out on my computer screen than it sounds in my head (there is no such thing as “too” anything when it comes to bodies, but whatever, body dismorphia strikes again, etc., blah blah blah). But the simple, non-pocketed silhouette and high rise of the shorts made me feel like my body was proportionate in them and I became pretty infatuated with the look, leading me to believe that I might be able to make the perfect fitting pants for myself that I never seemed able to find in stores. I generally don’t like pants. Skirts and dresses are my go-to, and now that I live in Los Angeles I can almost get away with hardly ever having to wear pants except on the chilliest of winter days (think 50 degree-age, which is about as low as it gets in the day time). That said, I have come to appreciate the ease and functionality of wearing pants more often now that I have a dog that needs walking three times a day. It took me years to finally cave in and invest in some skinny jeans, and even then I wouldn’t consider a pair unless they had a good stretch content and a high waist (the low rise, butt-crack threatening, boot-cut fit of the late 90’s and early 2000’s was a real travesty). But sometimes I don’t want to wear jeans! Sometimes I want to wear bottoms that are a little more classic, that don’t leave seam lines up and down the sides of my legs after several hours of wear, that feel comfortable AND slimming, but don’t leave a 3 inch gap in the waist area from the difference in size between my waist (small) and my booty (not as small). Perfecting the Simplicity shorts pattern was the first inkling I had that I could make an awesome pair of pants for myself that would fit well and make me feel like I looked great, but I didn’t actually take action til Gertie’s second book came out. In it was a pattern for a pair of slim fitting cigarette pants, which I think is pretty similar to a pattern she released through Simplicity before her second book was available. I adore Gertie’s patterns, and have been hooked on her work ever since I got her first book of vintage patterns a few years ago. Hers was the first set of patterns I used that seemed to fit my body right out the gate- they required little to no adjusting, unlike the patterns from the big companies which always seemed to run at least a size too large and never fit my proportions very well. Gertie’s waist-to-booty ratio was a dream come true for me (her pencil skirt pattern fit me so beautifully I think I teared up when I first tried on my wearable muslin), so I had high hopes for her pants pattern to work well for me, too. Fortunately, it did not disappoint. The fit was incredible, and I didn’t have to grade between sizes or anything. That, however, was only the beginning of my pants learning curve.

Cue dramatic music.

The first muslin I made was out of some leftover wool herringbone with a slight stretch, and I was secretly

these don't look nearly as bad as they feel

these don’t look nearly as bad as they feel

hoping they would be wearable, cause the material was great, and who doesn’t love a wearable muslin?! I finished the pants, held my breath while I tried them on, and squealed cause they fit so beautifully- no gap at the waistband! comfortable! slimming! go, team! But holy shit, they were itchy as all get-out. Which is no surprise since they were made out of WOOL. ‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘no big deal, I will just line the pants with a silky type fabric and I will be good to go!’ I bought some inexpensive lining material and looked up some tutorials on how to line a pair of pants. But umm…lining slim fitting cigarette pants isn’t actually a “thing”. photo 5

Like, maybe people have done it with success, and kudos to them, but for me, it just wasn’t happening. Nevermind the fact that my lining wasn’t the right kind of material and didn’t have enough give in the right directions to fit comfortably over my legs, but they also just kind of bunched up inside the wool and twisted around and got caught in all the wrong places, even when tacked down to the wool pants’ seams. It was kind of like trying to wear a slip under a pair of tights; the pants were too slim fitting to allow room for what was essentially an entirely new pair of pants.So the wearable muslin was obviously not gonna work (and no, I was not the least bit interested in wearing pantyhose underneath my pants to reduce the itch factor- what am I, my mother??) but at least I knew that the pattern fit perfectly.

I decided to try the pants in a better fabric, this time a high quality stretch denim, which worked much better, except that now, with a thinner material than the wool, I started to obsessively over-fit the legs of the pants, taking them in more and more, over and over again, so that when I finally finished them, they were so tight that not only could I BARELY stuff a foot through the leg opening, I could also barely bend over. The calves of these pants looked like they were painted on. Which perhaps is fine for a photoshoot or something, but not very realistic or functional for every day life.

admittedly weird choice in zipper color.

admittedly weird choice in zipper color.

I’m not sure if these jeans are wearable cause I haven’t worked up the energy to spend the 5 minutes it takes to put them on, I am guessing no. I am considering cutting them off below the knee to turn them into a 50’s style capri, and maybe the fit will be better then, but so far they are still folded on a hanger, mocking me in the corner of my craft room.

Okay, so THIRD pair of cigarette pants! Moved onto to a green stretch cotton twill, kept the pockets (although I hate pockets on trousers) and this was my very first success, except for one weird adjustment that needs to be made: the front seam

no idea why the color looks messed up in the photos- in person you can't see it, i swear!

no idea why the color looks messed up in the photos- in person you can’t see it, i swear!

dips down a bit, and rides on my waist slightly below the sides and back, so I am going to add just a touch more material to the front seam allowance to see if that helps at all- it’s not the rise or crotch cause everything fits perfectly everywhere else, and if the crotch were any higher I would feel like I was wearing a front thong. Otherwise, the pants are perfect!photo 7

With the success of this pair, I decided to try another in a fabric with the same amount of stretch made with a beautiful paisley pattern. I fall in love with pants like this all the time at JCrew, but their bottoms consistently fit me so terribly that I stopped even trying them on years ago. Anyways, by this point I was an old pro at making this pattern, and I was super excited to add these perfected pants to my wardrobe, so in only a few hours over a couple of days during the Christmas holidays I was able to sew them up and give them a try. I waited to attach the waistband to make sure there were no fit issues and…I…couldn’t…even…pull them up…over my KNEES! In horror, I stretched and ripped the pants to try and pull them at least up to my waist, but I couldn’t even get them past this here booty, despite the fact that I had made this pattern several times by this point and I knew that the sizing was perfect. And then I realized my (HUGE) mistake…in my haste to get this pattern started, I didn’t pay attention to the direction of stretch in the fabric, which just happened to run perpendicular to the selvage as opposed to parallel to it, the way most knit fabrics I have worked with run. So my pants could stretch real long from top to bottom, but there was practically no give whatsoever to go around my legs, meaning it was nearly impossible to pull them up over the widest parts of my body.

see?

see?

Oh, was I mortified! But also kinda sorta happy to have learned a valuable lesson in all of it- ALWAYS CHECK TO SEE WHICH DIRECTION YOUR STRETCH GOES WHEN SEWING WITH KNITS. Perhaps, dear reader, this can be a lesson to you (if you haven’t learned it already, which you probably have, because NO, DUH) so you wont have to waste some beautiful fabric on a really silly oversight like I did. I should have KNOWN something big and terrible was about to happen with this garment. In hindsight, I realize that I have a tendency to make lots of little mistakes before I make big ones. Case in point: with this one pair of pants which, as I mentioned, I had already made SEVERAL times, I managed to sew the back of the pants to the front of the pants with the wrong sides together, AND THEN, once I took out all my stitching, I managed to sew the two front legs together at the inseam, effectively created a long, very ugly denim skirt. Quick and fast sewing is just not really my forte, and the bigger of a hurry I am in, the more mistakes I am apt to make. Coincidentally, the more mistakes I make, the less likely it is that the garment will actually be wearable. It’s all in the math, I guess.

So. In total, we have one pair of jacquard pants ruined, one (possible capri) denim that I most likely wont be able to sit down in without getting a yeast infection, one perfect, pocketed pant in green khaki, and an itchy herringbone wool w lining that, having tried on again so many months later with new eyes, I’m thinking might actually be salvageable. The lining inside is too tight around the calves, making the fabric pull when I walk, but I think I might have enough seam allowance left in them to take them out just a bit more. If I can get them to *comfortable* status, I will definitely wear them, because the fit is great and not as funky looking as I remember them being (although this last try-on has further convinced me that I need to take the zipper in just a touch). WOW! Another lesson learned! All garments thrown into the BUTTHOLE BIN should be tried on no less than seven weeks later to reassess fit, functionality and likability. This wont be the first time I reacquainted myself with a discarded unfinished garment, only to find out that it was indeed worth rescuing. I like doing that. Cause I HAAAATE throwing disasters into the BUTTHOLE BIN.

Oooh, that’s a really great idea for a future post, eh? Taking a walk down BUTTHOLE BIN lane?

DIYing It Up

Thanks to a blog post I read in November of 2012, I was introduced to a new book that had just come out, called The Handbuilt Home, by Ana White. It was purported to  be a book that gave easy, comprehensive instructions to make furniture, no matter your experience level. On a whim I put the book on my Christmas list, and on the plane ride from Florida, where we spent the holidays with my family, back to Los Angeles where me and my partner had just moved, I read the book cover to cover and was penning a list of all the things we needed to buy at Home Depot on a drink napkin. Since putting all our stuff in storage in New York and spending 4 years in furnished rentals in Vancouver, we had no furniture to speak of, and more than anything, we needed a table and some places to sit; our first days in our LA rental found us in one primary spot in the house: a mattress in the middle of the living room floor, where we slept, ate, watched tv, read and cuddled. It took hardly any time at all for the coziness factor to wear off.

Anyways, my logic was this: we could either spend over a thousand dollars on a finished beautiful dining room table, or we could spend half that money on tools and materials and build one ourselves. Then, if we found the process to be fun and worthwhile, we could KEEP building furniture, making the investment of tools more cost effective with each project. Unfortunately, after our first two projects (a Farmhouse style dining room table and a matching bench), Claire’s interest had waned, but mine grew, and over the past year and some change I have continued to build furniture by myself, becoming more competent and taking on more challenging tasks. So far we have built the aforementioned dining room table and bench together, and I have worked solo on a coffee table, bookcase, printer console, upholstered vanity stool, and a rolling kitchen island, along with a slew of other smaller woodworking projects.

I wanted to share my latest furniture DIY creation here on my blog, because it is my most ambitious project to date. We recently got a master bathroom renovation to turn our tiny, barely functional hallway bath into an en suite with much more space and efficiency. In trying to make the most of our budget, I decided to take on the task of building our vanity, which, if purchased in the style and materials we wanted, would run us no less than $1500. With some free plans from Ana White’s website and a bit of advice from our contractor, I built the tile topped vanity from scratch and tiled the surrounding backsplash for $490, and it was custom built to fit the exact measurements inside our new bathroom. The project took about 11 days from start to finish, and the most difficult part of the whole project was the tiling. I had never tiled before and it was WAY more intense than I anticipated- I sprouted stress-induced fever blisters within hours after all the grouting was complete. I don’t think you can put a price on fever blisters, but all in all, the project came out beautifully and I am very very proud of it!

vanity1

I built the wood part of the vanity in my garage and when it was ready for the next steps, our reno crew moved it to the inside of the bathroom.

IMG_0379

I had to space out the tiles to get an idea of placement and figure out which ones I needed to cut.

vanity6

I had no idea that tiling was such an intricate process and that there were so many PIECES involved! Edge tiles, corner tiles, border tiles…the list went on and on! Thankfully we used a simple subway style tile for our vanity so our local hardware stores always had what I needed.

vanity5

After adhering the tiles to the surface and edge of the vanity, they need to be taped so that gravity doesn’t pull them down and the edge pieces fall off.

vanity4

It took a while to find the perfect knobs and hinge hardware for these cabinet doors, but we eventually found some pretty crystal knobs that elevated the Tiffany blue color of the vanity (which was spray painted for a smoother finish).

vanity2

Tiling is complete here and the sink was installed by the reno crew. The sink was purchased at the Habitat Rehab store for only $20, and it was like brand new!

vanity3

Finished vanity with tiling, and you can spy the gorgeous black and white penny tile underneath (a tiling project that I did NOT undertake- I left that to the professionals!)