Saturday, July 19, 2014

Essential Tools: Sewing

Sewing is something I do at least a few times a week now, but it's far from being something that comes to me naturally. Well, let me take that back - sewing by hand, using a needle and thread, comes very naturally to me. It's when you get machines and pattern-drafting into the mix that my head starts to spin a little bit.

But, since my artwork is 50% fabric, sewing becomes a necessary skill. I've never taken any classes (though I still think I will at some point, as I know I have a lot to learn), so any abilities I have in this arena have been entirely self-taught through trial and much error.  It's honestly not a skill I ever thought I would learn, despite being very interested in costuming and fashion in my younger years...I'm still far from the point where I can make clothes for myself, but I can whip up ruffly petticoats and collars for Dust Bunnies, no problem!

Keep reading below for a quick tour of my sewing tools...this is more of an overview than anything specific - if I were to get into the nitty gritty of all my sewing tools and techniques, it could cover many blog posts!

My Vesta VS III, made in Germany by the L.O. Dietrich company, most likely in the 1920's.

I have two sewing machines. The first is a manual, hand-cranked cast-iron beauty from the 1920's. Though it is ornate and decorative, and a lovely addition to my studio decor, it's a workhorse and has seen me through many gallery shows. I have probably stitched hundreds of dolls, ruffles, capes, and accessories on my Vesta III.  It's main attraction is the fact that it's entirely mechanical and does not use electricity. And it has an almost magical quality to the way the feed dogs guide the fabric through - one guiding hand is lost to working the crank on the machine, but it allows you to guide the cloth so smoothly and easily with the other hand, sometimes it feels like it instinctively knows which way you want it to go. I think a lot of it is due to how "loose" the machine feels, in both the light touch of the presser foot and how the foot actually can move and flex while sewing. This looseness might not give me the straightest or most perfect stitches, but I do have incredible control and stability with it, and if the electricity goes out or I take it to someplace that doesn't have electricity, I can still use it!

The Vesta III is one of my most prized possessions, and if at all possible throughout my life, I will never part with it!

The whole machine is covered in artistic details, from the gold floral motifs on them machine, to
a velvet-covered excelsior pincushion on the toolbox lid, and wooden inlay rulers on the base.

Accessories that came with my Vesta - extra presser feet, a bobbin, a bobbin shuttle,
and a wicked pair of little scissors.

My second machine exists on the opposite side of the spectrum - a fully computerized Singer electronic machine (The Quantum Stylist 9970).  In fact, this one is brand new and I'm still getting to know it, but the best way I can describe it is that it's like driving a big Buick sedan; big and ugly, but with every luxury there for your comfort. This thing sews like a dream. Quiet and fast and smooth. And it has a button that you press to cut the thread automatically. That feature alone is amazing to me, after so many years on the Vesta, which has one function: "stitch". And that's before we even talk about all the decorative embroidery functions - this thing is 100% going to revolutionize how I use fabric in my work. It was definitely an investment, but I can already see that it's going to be a constant companion in my work routine.

The future is here, and it is 600 stitches, automatic thread-cutting, and pedal-free stitching.

I hate making patterns.  There, I said it. I really only have a few shapes for things that I end up using, because pattern-drafting is such a royal pain to my brain.  Once I do figure out a good pattern though, I commit them to plastic (I use transparent quilting mylar) and use them over and over again. Fortunately, I've designed all of my Dust Bunnies to have basically the same overall body shape, so while I can vary ears, arms, and proportions, they can all be in the same shape family.  This is definitely a place where I have a lot of room for improvement, and I hope in the future I can muster up the courage to just figure out more shapes!

Bodies await stuffing, staining, and finishing.

Fabric choice is essential in my work. The right fabric can make a piece amazing, and the wrong fabric can totally undermine what my original goal was with the piece entirely.  I've been at this for a while now, so I'm getting pretty good at determining what fabrics work best for me. I almost always use natural fabrics (cotton and linen being my favorites), because they take distressing well, and re-shape nicely when wet. A crucial step in my distressing process is to completely drench the stuffed doll body with a solution of water and pigments, and I've found that linen especially tends to constrict in often very interesting ways when it gets wet, changing the overall shape and posture of the finished piece.  Another reason I choose natural fabrics is that they absorb light and aren't shiny or reflective. A huge part of my aesthetic is drawn from my appreciation of folk art and handmade items from times gone by, and including obviously modern, synthetic fabrics in the mix just doesn't look right, doesn't feel right, and doesn't photograph right.  I often use vintage fabrics when I can, which is even better, as I am literally sewing a little bit of history into my work!

Hand Tools:
I have a number of items in close proximity to my work table, that I reach for every time I sew. I have two pairs of razor-sharp Gingher scissors.  I've cut myself with the small ones and didn't even realize it until the blood started flowing! These scissors are reserved for fabric and thread only, so I can preserve their edge between sharpenings.  Hemostats/locking forceps are another favorite tool of mine, as they are just so handy for gripping! Every craft studio should have a few pairs of these - I especially like them for turning sewn things right-side-out, and using them as an extra set of hands when I need small things held in place or gripped more tightly than my own hands can handle.  The big ones are also great for picking stuff up off the floor when you're feeling too lazy to bend down and get it.

Tools of a seamstress or psychotic killer?

Sewing is definitely an ongoing personal process for me. Every time I make something, I learn how to do it better, and month by month, I'm really increasing my skill level. Despite having made so many dolls, I still don't consider myself a "seamstress" by any stretch of the imagination! Like everything else, there are so many opportunities for improvement, and I'm proud of how far I have come in just a handful of years, being that I started from scratch and taught myself almost everything! I'm not a master yet, and may not ever be, but I've enjoyed getting as far as I have gotten, and look forward to learning still more and more.

So...what's your favorite sewing tool?  Other than the little stuff I left out (thread nippers, seam rippers, needles, etc.), am I totally missing out on anything revolutionary and life-changing??


  1. JerrianneJuly 20, 2014

    I love your antique machine. I own a Singer featherweight that I inherited and I feel the same way about it. One of my favorite tools that I use in doll making and for many other sewing projects are the little clips by Clover. Think they are called Wonder Clips. I use them instead of pins for a lot of things. They are like mini plastic clothes pins with grips. Fantastic! Love your work. So imaginative and magical. :)

    1. Oh yes, the legendary Featherweight! I hear a lot about them, and can't help but look them over when I see them at antique stores! I'll have to check out those Clover clips, because they sound exactly like the kind of labor-saving device I could use. Thank you for the suggestion!

  2. Draping is just a trial and error thing. You have to mentally take apart other peoples creations and work out the shapes. I started making doll clothes that way. But not before I got my feet wet with a little monster making. I still prefer the simpler patterns (my fave being a rounded rectangle with arms and legs), but every so often, I want to make something that stands on its own. That takes gussets, darts and seemingly oddly placed cut outs. I'm no expert and rely heavily on my plushie making books, but I've only ever made another persons pattern twice (a chubby hedgehog and a pointy kitty). It was enough to figure out the inner workings of 3+ piece projects. I say go for it. When you have time that is. :)

  3. When I make my dolls/critters I love to use faux fur. Sometimes the fur gets stuck under the hand stitching or in between seams, so I use a small nail brush to comb it back out. My friend bought me a little nail brush that's in the shape of a hedgehog and I don't do a fur project without it. It's adorable and I'm super excited when it comes time to use it (I'm a total dork, haha!). Pattern making is a pain, but the more you do it the more you can look at something 3D and immediately begin to dissect the basic shapes and edges : )


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