Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What took me so long?! (Procrastination Analysis, part 1)

This weekend, we experienced our third annual winter plumbing crisis.  (Actually, they used to be bi-annual, but I guess this old house didn't want us to leave without a parting gift by way of spilled sewage.  Second sidenote, before I get too carried away with parenthesis: for those of you who were keeping track, 2011 was the sewage in the basement crisis, 2013 was the frozen/exploding pipes and leak before the main water shut-off valve, and this year was a sewage back-up outside (caused by tree roots and one errant cloth diaper wipe that accidentally got flushed a few months ago) that turned our vent pipe into a sewage sprinkler (thankfully discovered because we decided to go for a walk on the one day the weather was above 30 degrees!)  In all three crises, we learned just how quickly you can go from happy homeowner to essentially camping in your home without the ability to use running water or sewage disposal, and also how grimy you feel after 48+ hours without showers (bonus grime earned from snaking the sewage pipes which, yes, I helped with).  Justin claims I have an "annoying" habit of being peppy and optimistic afterwards and relaying all of the things that could have been worse, and all of the things we learned from the experience, and while I won't go into that now (I do have several I could list if you were interested), I will note our mutual improvement in handling said plumbing crises.  In fact, I think we even laughed before this one was over.  Anyway, the pipe outside was mostly spewing clean-ish water, since we were simultaneously running the dishwasher and the laundry machine, so there's a silver lining for ya).  We did discover in retrospect that probably a little of the water backed up into the downstairs shower as well.  And that brings me to the point of today's post.  I was beating myself up today about how I still haven't cleaned out the shower (24+ hours after having returned to modern plumbing conveniences) despite the fact that, you know, sewage was in it over the weekend.  Granted, we don't use that shower (unless we have guests), so it's not like our actual showering has been counter-productive.  But it still feels pretty gross to know that it's in there.

But then, the reality of it hit me.  Unless I were to make my tired pregnant self do it after 9 pm (after baby is in bed and dinner dishes are washed and I've checked two or ten blogs), it really couldn't have gotten done today.  Anna didn't nap.  She usually likes to hide in the shower behind the curtain (it's one of the walk-in ones, not a regular bathtub) while I'm doing laundry in that room.  And I need to use bleach.  I couldn't close the door and leave her elsewhere, and I couldn't leave the door open without her coming in to do a dance performance in the half-sewaged, half-bleached shower.

I guess all of this is to say that I walk the fine line between wanting to meet my own high expectations, and realizing that some of them are just unrealistically high.

Between motivating myself to do what I should, and not being frustrated about not doing what I can't.

Between writing a lot of posts like this:  Advice from a Singer Sewing Manual 

And living a lot of days like this:

(Not pictured: my camp-out on the other side of the sofa where I sat (probably in pajamas, breaking every other helpful lesson I listed in that previous post).  Also not pictured, probably at least one meal's worth of dishes on the table).

There's plenty that I don't get done because of my own laziness and my own distractions and willingness to leave a mess in one room and go hide in another, but there's also plenty I don't get done because I'm primarily taking care of a busy 1 year old who often necessitates the quick exit from a room to be saved from a precarious new climbing location, or because she has a diaper issue and we fix that and get distracted by 10 other things before we come back to put away the breakfast cereal.

Most of the time, I write posts like this because it's reassuring and helpful for myself to analyze my life and identify the things that I can change and the things that I can't, to challenge myself to deal with the ones in the first category and stop beating myself up over the ones in the second.  But I also recognize - in the isolating modern world of stay-at-home-moms - that reading about how other people are dealing with the challenges and rising to the occasion has been incredibly helpful to me, and so I write things like this for my mom friends as a sort of solidarity/sisterhood of "yeah, me too."  Although I'm probably the only one with lingering effects of sewage back-up in my shower.

This started out as an introduction to a post about the reasons I procrastinate on house projects (after so many "what took me so long" comments to myself, I finally sat down and figured out what did take me so long to do a bunch of things, and the reasons were pretty enlightening (at least to me)).  I'm going to call it a day now, but look forward to that riveting installment of my "why I procrastinate" series.  You know, whenever I get around to it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Anna's new shirt! (and various ramblings thereupon)

Just popping in to share Anna's new shirt (in a blurry cell phone picture, which ended up being the best I have, even after a photo shoot with the good camera):

Frequently asked questions:

I'm due October 1, so I'm about 8 weeks along now.  I'm feeling, well, like I'm 8 weeks pregnant, which is marked most notably by the extreme exhaustion that plagued my first trimester with Anna.  I'm a bit more sick this time around (I basically wasn't at all with her), but much less dizzy.  Last time it felt like a light switch was switched and I had my energy back the day my second trimester started (I felt so much better I thought, hey, I bet that second trimester is coming up, so I looked at the calendar and literally the day I felt better was the first day of the second trimester) so I'm hoping that will happen again this time, especially since we'll be putting the house up on the market right around that time!  (Translation, my housekeeping will have to step it up a notch from my current lounge-around-eating-Rice-Chex-with-Anna-all-day standards.  You can tell how tired I was in a day by how many crumbs I let her leave on the couch/bed/other random places where food is usually a big no-no!)  

Speaking of moving, all of the biggest changes (house sale / packing / moving) will occur when I'm in the (energetic!) second trimester, and we should be settled in time to be set-up in time for Justin's semester to start (in his new role as professor!) and to get ready for baby #2.  The pregnancy has made me (surprisingly) far more calm about the whole moving thing, and much less sappy/emotional about leaving our house.  I think having a new little someone to look forward to has made me realize that this chapter (while a very sweet chapter) was only one in our book of life, and - God willing - we have lots more to come for our family.  With my limited energy, I've found myself allotting it more practically to a to-do list of preparations (and napping) and less to all of the associated emotions.  

We plan to find out the gender again as soon as we can, although our Italian neighbor and her (remarkable 11 for 11 prediction record) says that it's a boy.  Last time I had a strong (and obviously correct) feeling that it was a girl, and this time I think boy, but with less conviction than I had about Anna (although my thoughts are probably heavily influenced by aforementioned gender predictions from across the street).  We've been tossing around names and have pretty much settled on a boy's name and have 3 or 4 favorites for a girl.  We'll probably chose around the time of the 20-week ultrasound again and begin referring (publicly) to the child by name.  I have to admit, I thought that idea was totally weird the first time I heard someone doing it, but it felt natural and made sense to us with Anna - and I think it was a reflection of our strongly-held pro-life belief that the baby is a baby from the moment of conception, and doesn't become one at birth.  I respect that not everyone wants to share their chosen name before the baby's birth, but it just works for us.  Calling her by name gave me such a connection to Anna as a little person even before she was born, and I find it really weird to now be back at the stage of pregnancy where there's a little someone inside but I don't know who it is (or really how to refer to him or her besides "baby," which feels awfully impersonal for a beloved child).

Speaking of baby (isn't that what this is all about!?), we had an ultrasound on Monday, and saw the little heart beating away.  The awesomeness of that just blows my mind - there is a tiny little person (about 1/2 inch from those measurements) who has been alive for only 6 weeks AND HAS A BEATING HEART.  Amazing.  Amazing.  Yay God.

The kiddos will be 2 years and 1 month apart (perhaps exactly, if this one is a few days late like big sister).  We think Anna is primed to be a loving and helpful sister, if her behavior with her dolls is a good indicator (with the exception of the vigor with which she tosses them out of the crib to climb in herself, but a taller crib for a real human ought to solve that one ;))  I don't think she "gets" that there's a baby in Mommy's belly, but we talk about it enough for her to remember that we say so.  If she's so inclined, she'll come over and give the baby kisses (very sweet), or will look down my shirt (and sometimes her own) if we ask her where the baby is (slightly awkward, but still cute).

My blogging will probably continue to be very sporadic (not that you've come to expect anything less!) but you (and I) never know when I might get on a roll again.  Until then...we'd appreciate your prayers for continued health for our littlest member!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

So, you want to sew...Beginner Lessons Part 3 (Basic Stitches)

Here we go - at long last, part 3 of my beginner sewing lessons!  I can't promise that it will be worth the wait, but I hope it will be helpful!  If you're just joining in, check out Part 1 (Supplies) and Part 2 (Choosing a Project).


I'm going to start with the basic assumption that you have threaded your machine and you're ready to make your first stitches.  I think it might be impossible to write a generic tutorial for how to thread a machine - the process is basically the same, but there are nuances to each make and model.  Follow your manual (carefully!  precisely!), or if it's an old machine that came sans manual, try searching for it online.  Once you're all threaded up and ready to go, come back here :)

OK, so your machine is threaded, and your bobbin is in place (and your bobbin thread is up through the hole in the throat plate - your threading instructions should include this, but if it didn't, the basic gist is that you need to hold your top thread still (so it doesn't pull back up through your needle) then turn the hand wheel (on the right side of the machine) one full turn - this will (magically!) catch your bobbin thread and you can gently tug on the top thread to pull the bobbin loop up completely).

As you're starting, things should look like this:

Both threads are ready - a few inches of a tail on each - and it's a good idea to pull them off to the side so that they don't make a tangle when you start.

For practice, we can just make some stitches in the middle of a fabric scrap (cotton calico is the best!)

BEFORE YOU START SEWING, LOWER THE PRESSER FOOT AND PUT THE NEEDLE IN THE FABRIC.  There is a lever (near the needle shank, to the back or to the right) to lower the presser foot, and you can lower the needle with the hand crank.  Do not EVER start sewing without these two steps.  This is like putting your car in drive and taking off the emergency break.  Do it every time before you start.

One more time for emphasis:  Pre-stitching check: presser foot down?  needle down?  Ok.  We're good to go!

You can begin sewing by pushing on the foot pedal (given that most people reading this tutorial can drive, there's likely to be a smaller learning curve than the SPPPEEEEDY/herky-jerky stops and starts that came when 5-year-old me was learning, but it's still like driving a different car when you're used to - you need to familiarize yourself with the amount of pressure needed).  Especially as you're starting out, don't sew too fast!  (And don't drive too fast; safety first!)

I needed a third hand to take a picture, but your hands should be in position like this (left hand as shown, right hand in a similar position on the right side).  You can gently guide your fabric, but you should not be pushing or pulling it at all.  There are feed dogs (yes, that's the technical term) under the fabric that are moving it along at a nice even pace.  You just want to make sure that it's not getting off course (aka, you're sewing where you want to be sewing).  Also, watch where your fingers are, and do not put them under the needle (it sounds obvious, huh?)

Practice stitching straight lines until you feel comfortable.  For this practice round, just "eye-ball" your straight lines - don't worry about following any specific lines.  (Although you could, if you wanted, buy striped fabric and practice going up and down the lines).


Next, you can move onto curves and points.

The best way to practice this is to draw some curves on another piece of scrap fabric (I just used a Sharpie, since this is practice.  There are obviously more correct ways to mark fabric if you're doing anything besides practicing!)

Then follow your line with machine stitching, carefully guiding the fabric as you stitch (again, remember no pushing or pulling, just gentle corrections - I generally keep both hands palm down as you saw in the pictures above, and apply gentle downward pressure (while moving slightly to the right or left) to the fabric - almost like you're slowly brushing or wiping the table top with the fabric).

If I were a better photographer, you would see that this line now has stitching on it.  But alas, you came here to learn to sew, not to learn to photograph!

It will likely take some practice to be able to keep the stitching right on the line.  Chances are, you'll be tempted to just skip this and move onto a real project - but you'll be less frustrated if you master your basics first!

After curves, you can do pivots.  If you need to pivot for any reason (for example, maybe you're sewing a pillow case and you come to the corner), slow down with your stitches so that you can carefully guide your last few stitches and end with the needle down right at (in?) the point of the pivot.  It's sometimes difficult to have this much control with the foot pedal, so you can make these last few stitches by using the hand crank.

When the needle is in place (DOWN!), then lift the presser foot and adjust the fabric.  It will easily pivot on the needle.  Do not attempt to pivot unless the needle is down, otherwise your fabric can completely move free and you'll end up with (at best) a long stitch, or possibly a loop of thread, or just generally undesirable results.  Once the fabric is situated in the new direction, put the presser foot back down and continue sewing (also, don't forget to put it back down before you start again; I've also done that in some distracted moments).

Approach point slowly, stop with needle down in point.

Lift presser foot, pivot fabric to new direction.

Put presser foot back down and continue sewing.

Practice makes perfect!


Now - to start connecting pieces of fabric!

For this practice exercise, start with two blocks of calico that are the same size.  Line them up so that the right sides of the fabric are touching.  The "right side" is the more brightly printed side, the side that should be shown on your finished project (as opposed to the "wrong side," which will be the back or the inside that won't be seen).  You will almost always make seams with the right sides together - when you stitch, you are looking at the wrong side of the fabric, so the seam (and the raw edges of the fabric) will then be hidden on the back when you turn it around.  Sometimes keeping track of which is the right and wrong side and why it should be that way can be confusing, especially if you're not spatially oriented - but once you practice a bit, it will start to make sense!

Particularly if it's a long or curvy seam, or if your fabric is silky (it should be none of the above for this practice round!), you will want to pin it.  I prefer to place my pins perpendicular to the seam, with the pinhead sticking out to the right.  (This arrangement makes them easy to remove while sewing and minimizes the unfortunate pin-with-needle collisions, although they'll still likely occur from time to time).

OK, now to start a seam, you will start sewing between a quarter of an inch and a half of an inch from the top edge of the seam (the side perpendicular to where your seam will be).  On the right side (right as opposed to left, not right as opposed to wrong sides of the fabric), you will line it up with the measuring guide on the face plate of your machine.  The distance you choose (from the edge of the fabric to the needle) is called the seam allowance.  The standard seam allowance for most patterns (particularly clothing) is 5/8 of an inch.  I've seen a lot of online tutorials and newer patterns use 1/2 inch.  The standard for quilting (and often baby or kids clothes) is 1/4 inch.  The pattern you are using will tell you.  For this practice, I recommend 5/8".

Line up your fabric and put your needle down & presser foot down once the right is aligned with your seam guide.  Remember again - not too close to the top edge.  If you don't leave a little space at the beginning, the feed dogs won't "catch" the fabric, and you will end up with a knot and frustration.  Believe me.

Start sewing slowly, making 3 or 4 stitches.  Then, push your reverse button or lever and sew (now backwards!) until you reach the top edge of the fabric (but again, don't go completely over).  Then, release the reverse button and start sewing normally again for the length of the seam.  Use the same method for guiding the fabric that we talked about above.  Be careful to keep the right edge aligned with the appropriate seam guide on the machine

As you come to them, you can remove the pins with your right hand.

When you reach the end of the seam, again push the reverse button, sew backwards for 5 or 6 stitches, and then sew forwards until you go off the end of the fabric.  This back and forth at the beginning and end of seams is called "back-tacking" and it locks the stitches so that your seam doesn't unravel.

back tack
A finished seam
 After finishing the seam, be sure to trim your loose threads (the photo above is a bad example).  My mom always taught me that loose threads on a project were the mark of carelessness or unprofessional work - so clip them and make her proud!


Although most people won't see the inside of your garment or project, there are still cases where you want the raw edges of the seam to look more finished.  There are also practical reasons for this; for example, if it's a piece of clothing that will be machine-washed, if you don't finish your raw edges, they will get really ratty really fast in the washing machine (although the seam will be in place, the fabric in the seam allowance will start to unravel and those strings will knot, and, in short, look like a big mess).

The fastest/easiest method (provided you have the right equipment) is to serge the edges.  This requires a serger/overlock machine, which is a special kind of sewing machine that simultaneously cuts the raw edge and stitches over it to keep it from unraveling.  If you look inside almost any store-bought garment, those seams will be serged.

A serged seam (see stitching on top edge)
If you don't have a serger (and honestly, I wouldn't recommend it if you're just learning to sew - worry about one machine at a time!!), you can zig zag over the edge to achieve a similar result.

You can follow your machine guide on how to set your zig-zag settings.  You should have two choices - how wide the stitch is (the width of the Z), and how far apart the stitches are (imagine a regular Z versus a Z that was stepped on from the top).  This explanation probably makes more sense if you see the stitches.

Anyway, if you're going to zig-zag the edge, line up your presser foot so that when the needle comes down to the left it hits your fabric, and when it comes down on the right (as it goes back and forth in the zig-zag) it goes off the right edge.  If you have a newer machine, you might even have a little arrow on your zig-zag foot that shows where the edge of the fabric should line up.

Two important notes: make sure you check your machine guide for the proper presser foot needed to zig-zag (I've broken many a needle by switching to zig-zag settings and forgetting to change the foot from a straight stitch foot), and also check whether or not you need to change the little plate under the needle (my older machine has a reversible plate with a small pin-point hole for the needle to go down when you're doing straight stitching (the needle is only going up and down) and a wider space for the needle when it's going both up and down and back and forth.

Zig-Zag edge (see top edge)

If you want a relatively simple way to have your seams completely finished (no raw edges showing) without zig-zap or serging, try a french seam.

French seam
To make a French seam, you will first put your fabrics together wrong sides together, and stitch the seam with a small seam allowance (say, 1/4").  

Then, carefully turn the fabrics so that the right sides are together (the seam you want to sew will already be together, with the raw edges of the seam allowance between the two layers of fabric). Now, stitch the seam again - this time with a larger seam allowance.  Your raw edges will be completely encased in the new seam.  Keep in mind that if you're doing this on a pattern, you have to adjust for the 1/4" you already used in the first seam - so if you're making a French seam on a pattern that calls for 5/8" seam allowances, you'd make the first pass at 1/4" and the second one at 3/8" (5/8" minus 1/4").  If you forget to subtract out the seam width you already used, you'll be eating in to the actual garment or pattern piece instead of just the allotted seam allowance.

Top stitching

Top stitching is honestly my favorite type of machine sewing.  I'm not sure why, since it's also the most visible (and therefore potentially nerve-wracking), but I always get excited when I get to that step on a project.

Top stitching isn't used for a seam construction, but can be used to keep a facing in place, or for a narrow hem.  It's typically stitching done very close to a folded edge, and the stitching is visible on the finished project.

Top stitching

You can see here how close the needle should be to the edge.  My presser foot has a little gap that should line up with the edge of the fabric.  Depending on what your presser feet look like, you may have to experiment for a bit to determine what part of the foot you should use as a guide to get the appropriate distance (approximately 1/8").  Most often, you'll stitch with the right side of the project facing you (the top stitches usually look slightly nicer than the bottom stitches, and it's nice to see exactly what it will look like as you sew).

Like before with your straight seams practice, continue doing some top stitching practice until you're comfortable with guiding the fabric through the machine and you're happy with your results.

Another application of top stitching is for a hem.  From the bottom (raw) edge of a garment, you would first iron up a 1/4", and then fold and iron again to create your desired hem length.  The raw edge of the material is now completely hidden.  On the inside of the garment, you can top stitch along the folded edge, keeping in mind that the bottom threads will be visible on the outside of your garment when it is finished.

Using top-stitching to sew a hem

Finished hem (wrong side / inside of garment)

Decorative Stitches

Finally, you can have fun with some of the decorative stitches on your machine.  What is offered and how to set them is varied by machine, so you'll definitely need to consult your manual.  My only advice is to remember to use a zig-zag presser foot when you're doing these types of stitches.

I honestly don't use decorative stitches very often, but they are fun to play with if you figure out where you'd like to use them!  It can be a fun little addition to a pillow case edge or to the hem of a little girl's skirt!

Straight seam (left) plus two decorative stitches.

WHEW!  Months after I promised it, there's my run-down on basic sewing stitches.  I'm sure there are parts of this that can be better explained, so please leave comments when you need clarification or have questions.  And if you can think of other sewing questions, let me know - I'll collect the answers for a part four of the series :)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Advice from a Singer Sewing Manual

If we're friends on facebook, then chances are you've seen this, as multiple friends have come across it and thought I would appreciate it (which, of course, I do!)

I think it's circulating with a sort of "hey, listen how ridiculous this is" sort of mentality, but I think there's a few lessons in it for the modern seamstress (and, more broadly, for the modern woman):

Take, of course, all comments with a grain of salt, since it's not uncommon for my sewing table to look like this - or worse

Lesson 1: Society is changing, fast.  In 65 years, we went from this sort of advice to a culture where women rarely "put on a clean dress" or "have [their] hair in order, powder and lipstick put on" (literally or figuratively) even to go in public or to go to church. I continue to be shocked at how quickly these norms have shifted.

Lesson 2: Looking good makes a difference. I'm sure that plenty of people think it's good all of the requirements of formalities in dress have loosened - after all isn't it just an external and artificial construct?  Yes, the clothes are external, but what they represent affects our attitude - who hasn't experienced that fresh outlook after a long-overdue shower and change into clean clothes?  Feeling put together makes you feel more confident and capable and makes the task at hand seem more important (read, worthy of your time) and valuable.  I've certainly found this to be true in the daily grind, so it makes sense to me that it would be advised for someone undertaking a new hobby wrought with potential careless mistakes and frustrations.

Lesson 3: Your environment matters, too.  Just like our attire, I feel confident that we are subconsciously affected by our surroundings.  Whether or not we allow ourselves to recognize it, sitting in a messy room starts to make us feel stressed, overwhelmed, and unfocused.  It's so easy to slip into that state as the norm, but I notice I'm so much more relaxed when things are tidy - an inner calm mirrors the outer calm.  I took the extra 10 minutes to clean up all of Anna's toys and other miscellaneous items she'd strewn here today before sitting down to write this post (of course I'd have felt far too hypocritical not to), but it proved my point.  I'm relaxed, and more mentally focused than I would be on the evenings when I just plop onto the couch amid toys and discarded baby socks.

Lesson 4: We've lost the delineation between work and play.  "When there are urgent housekeeping chores, do those first..."  Of course, I'm not sure we socially recognize anything as "urgent housekeeping chores" these days, but perhaps that's part of the problem.  I think one of the biggest challenges of being a stay-at-home-mom is that the line is always blurred: if you work at home, you also live at work.  Focusing on the task at hand isn't difficult just because the toddler climbs and needs rescued at the exact moment you've stuck your hands in the bowl of meat to form meatballs, or because they have a sixth sense that causes them to wake as soon as you sit down for your lunch during nap time.  There's all sorts of distractions and temptations at home (actually, most of them - namely, the Internet - are distractions for the employed, too) that make it difficult to just focus on working when it's time to work*.  So naturally, when it comes time to play, we're less able to enjoy it because we've been stealing snippets of it throughout the day, and those snippets have taken away from the amount of time we have to do work, and there's therefore work undone that is hanging over our heads.  I'm convinced that the discipline of having a time for everything - and actually doing each thing when it's time - makes each experience more rich and meaningful, and both playtime and work time more peaceful because they're purely one and not a harried mix of both.

(*As a side note, I'll add here a very insightful blog post that I've saved in my email inbox for some time, waiting to share it because I think it's so telling: Matthew Warner, "What's Your Idle?")

As I've thought through all of this, it makes more sense that I enjoy my Sunday afternoon sewing time much more than any late-night sessions I happen to sneak in after Anna's bedtime.  I've set the time apart from chores (and for the most part have significant things completed during the week, so there's not a nagging feeling).  I'm often still in my Sunday best, and - because it's not after 9 pm, I'm mentally more sharp and focused.  No surprise, then, that my seams are straighter and my finished products more satisfying.  The whole sewing example is just an allegory for home life in general - taking time to do things properly when it's time for them to be done always has better results.

I'm sure you'll continue to find me from time to time with sewing table a mess (a representation of my full day's housekeeping, I'm sure), burning the midnight oil to finish some project - in my pajamas and with a messy hairdo - but there is something compelling about these lessons and their results, and a growing part of me craves that as the better way.

So, what do you think, am I the crazy one who should just start looking for a time machine to take me back?  Anyone else see the wisdom in these old tips?

P.S. Speaking of sewing, I dusted off Part 3 of my sewing lessons posts (which has been neglected as a draft for several months now).  It's getting pretty close to finished - please bug me if it's not up in the next week (hey, public expectations worked well with the whale dress!)