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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sewing with Oilcloth


(Oilcloth camera or gadget cases available at my shop,

Who doesn't love oilcloth- the colorful, water-proof vinyl table covering material that so many people remember from their mother's or grandmother's kitchen table. 40 years ago, women would re-cover the table once or twice year; it was a thrifty way to spruce up the kitchen. There has been an oilcloth revival in the past couple of years and you can find it for sale in lots of shops and websites. Sewing it is a challenge and should not be attempted by inexperienced stitchers. I will give you some tips that have helped me.
(Oilcloth makeup bags available at my shop

Oilcloth is available in a wide variety of colors and prints. I prefer Oilcloth brand product because it is heavy and durable and comes in vintage prints that are actually from the 50s and 60s. There also are a lot of knockoff oilcloth brands popping up; I dislike some of them because they have a thinner, cheaper feel to the fabric, but others have really cute patterns that are tempting.

One thing you should realize about oilcloth is that even if you order several types from the same company, they may not all feel the same, and therefore will not sew the same. When I began making my oilcloth bags I bought several colors, and discovered that some felt rubbery, and stretched when I made efforts to sew them, making my job way more difficult- I now avoid those particular prints. Other prints were thinner and more plastic-y and sew up fairly easily.(Oilcloth camera or gadget case available at my shop

I am going to walk you through the process of sewing oilcloth on a sewing machine:
1. Change your machine needle to a leather needle. You may be able to make due with a denim needle, but a leather needle is better because it is shaped like a triangle and punches a hole each time it hits the oilcloth. This helps your machine feed the fabric smoothly- you have to remember, you are going to be sewing on slick plastic which is fairly thick and tough.
2. Raise your thread tension. I raise mine by about 1- in other words if my tension is normally 5, I make it a 6. This may not be necessary- you will just have to experiment on a scrap until your stitches look good. In other words, the top thread and bobbin thread should stay on their own respective sides of the fabric (especially important if you use a different color thread and bobbin thread).
3. When sewing oilcloth it is VERY important to use pins to hold the work together. If the pieces are not well-pinned together (and even sometimes when they are) they will slide, stretch, or crease. If you use a walking foot on your machine this will also help. If you use cheap pins, as I sometimes do, you may notice that as you pull out the pins, they are breaking because the oilcloth clings to the metal so hard that the head comes off in your hand. This is annoying but unavoidable and will likely spur you to spend a little more next time for quality pins.
4. So you have cut and pinned your pieces, set up your machine, and you are ready to sew. Begin slowly, and if it doesn't want to feed right away, you may have to backstitch and pull on the thread ends to get the piece started feeding. Leave the pins in until they have almost reached the foot- no need to pull them out earlier than you absolutely have to. Now even if you are super careful, the fabric may start to buckle or bubble. If this starts to happen, especially if you find yourself "chasing" a bubble on one piece that keeps growing as you go, it is time to STOP and go back. Once a bubble starts it only gets worse, trust me. So if you seen a sign that the pieces are sliding or stretching you need to stop right away, rip out stitches, re-pin, and try again. A lot of time it really helps to stitch from the other side, if that is possible. In a worst case scenario you could always hand-baste the pieces together and then stitch them on the machine.
5. Pressing oilcloth? Not with the iron, unless you want a melted mess of plastic on your hands. You do have some options though. Your secret weapon is your blow-dryer (for hair). Hit a seam with a blast of hot air from the blow-dryer for just a few seconds, to soften it so that you can press it open. You can also use your steam iron to do this, just be careful to never touch your iron to the fabric or it will leave a nasty mark. If you need a seam to be pressed super-flat, you have one more option- lay out the fabric piece flat on your ironing board and cover the area to be pressed with a piece of heavy cardstock or a manila folder. With your iron on "synthetic" or "silk" setting, put iron on top of cardstock for several seconds and it will press through to the oilcloth without marring it. Do not leave your iron in one position for more than 10 seconds.
6. When you complete your oilcloth item you may notice the pins have left a few tiny holes in the fabric. Usually a blast of steam from the iron will make these holes shrink up and disappear.
7. Step back and enjoy your oilcloth creation! It may have cost you some sweat and tears, and a little bit of your sanity, but it was worth it right? And now you can say you know how to sew oilcloth.
(Oilcloth makeup bag available at my shop

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Romeo and Juliet's costumes

My husband, a theater teacher, wrote and directed a show called Arts Evolved for a local youth center. I volunteered my time to make all the costumes.
[Above, I took this photo from backstage of Ode to Shakespeare]
One part of the show was a wonderful short skit called "Ode to Shakespeare" which was a parody of Romeo and Juliet. The "Chorus" was made up of children of all ages dressed in black clothing, performing the memorable opening lines of Romeo and Juliet..."Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean...etc.", when Romeo and Juliet happen to walk by and hear them, and decide their romance is not such a good idea. Juliet leaves saying,"It's not so romantic anymore, don't call, Romeo." It was only a five minute skit so I felt a little silly making elaborate costumes for Romeo and Juliet, but they only had a short time to make an impact, so I felt they needed to be really over-the-top and make a strong statement.
[Romeo and Juliet, above, obviously thrilled beyond belief with their costumes]

Juliet's dress was based on a pattern from the 70s, a fairly plain empire waist-ed dress with long sleeves. I had a hard time picking the many things to think about. Durability, for one thing- the kids are not gentle with their costumes. Stain resistance. Stage impact, large print pattern was needed. I finally settled on an ivory decorating fabric with a large print of jade green vines and leaves and red and pink and blue flowers, butterflies, and birds, which I think has a sort of Medieval look to it. It is heavy cotton with some kind of stain-repellent surface, major plus. I made the dress and sleeves full-length.

When the actress tried it on in the first fitting, she said it was hot, and I was disappointed with the entire effect of the dress. I took it home and thought about what I need to change. I wanted the skirt to be fuller, but how? Gussets...I had never done gussets before though! So that was an adventure. I used a dark green satin for contrast, and because it seemed smart to use a fluid fabric. I had to rip out stitches a couple times, but the gussets were not too hard. I added one to each side and two to the back and front. I finished the top of each gusset with a bow of silver ribbon.
I shortened the sleeves and instead added some wide white lace with gold accents to make a 3/4 length sleeve. Elastic in the sleeves helped give them some shape. Then I finished each sleeve with a pink velvet bow on the elbow. I added a couple of small darts to the neckline because it was a little wide on the actress the first time. I finished the neckline with pink bias tape, and two velvet ribbons to tie in a bow at the neck. White invisible zipper up the back. I made a wide belt with a scrap of purple lightweight crepe wool, which was the perfect color accent and also a good weight fabric to tie and drape nicely.
The finishing touch was a beautiful scalloped lace around the bottom. I was very happy with the final result. The lesson I took from it was, sometimes you really can just add more and more frills to something until it looks good! At least in costumes....especially for a character like Juliet who is very rich, pampered and feminine.

Romeo's costume was possibly even more fun to make. I started by making his jacket. I laid a child's t-shirt on a piece of cream-colored velvet and traced the body shape, stopping at the sleeves, and marking the width that the arm holes and neck hole ought to be. That became the back piece. I cut out an identical piece which I cut in half to be the fronts of the jacket. I shaped them into the style I wanted. Then I sewed the fronts to the backs. I cute two long, wide rectangles of off-white muslin to make the sleeves, gathered at the top, and gathered to an elastic self-casing at the wrist. I decided after trying the jacket on that it might be a bit tight and I added a triangular piece of the same fabric I had used for Juliet's dress. The jacket was completed with some gold and silver ribbon trim.
I made a matching hat from the same velvet by cutting some circles out and stitching them together, trimmed with two colors of rickrack twisted together and a cool button. I ended up lining it because it was shedding little velvet pills from the raw seams on the inside. It came out very cute, I think.

Then I made Romeo's tunic. I used a small tunic pattern I had from doing Macbeth costumes last year. I cut out only about the top 12 inches of the tunic from white muslin, for the yoke of the tunic. Then I cut out a rectangle of the right size for the back and a very long rectangle for the front of his tunic, because I needed extra fabric to put pleats in the front. I made the tunic long enough that the actor would feel a bit more comfortable with wearing tights. And actually I got him leggings, not tights, so I think he was lucky there. There was a lot of anticipation from the little girls there of seeing Romeo in his tights. I helped him put on his "boots" in the dressing room before he came out for everyone to see, and the entire cast gathered outside the dressing room waiting for him to appear. It was pretty funny.
I made Romeo's boots out of the sleeves of an old leather jacket. I cut off the sleeves and seam-ripped the side seam open. Then I cut them to be about the shape I wanted. I made a small piece to go over the top of each foot which I sewed to the ankle. I put blue bias tape over the side edges of the boots, and installed eyelets. I laced them up with some narrow white twill tape. Then I sewed on elastic straps to the feet to hold them on. The first night he wore shoes under them, which worked, but the second night he wore them barefoot and it did look better.
They were my favorite costumes to make for sure. I love doing Medieval costumes!

Art Evolved

My husband is a theater teacher and in the summer he does a theater camp for kids and teens. The camp ends with a show; this year it was called "Arts Evolved", and would be best described as an arts variety show. I volunteered my time to make all the costumes and had a blast doing it. I also helped backstage getting the kids dressed and doing hair and makeup.
The show begins with a tour guide leading a group through art the kids created during camp, and then to live "paintings" and sculptures- the kids were the artwork. Then the statues came to life and danced, it was beautiful.
[Tour guide unveiling one of the three live paintings, the titles having been pulled randomly from a basket by audience members, from left to right, Flock of Birds, A Train, and Monkeys at the Zoo]
Then there was music by a very talented young musician named Sairah, followed by the main part of the show, a piece my husband wrote called "Rescuing the Muses". The story is about a little girl's dream that a two-headed king has kidnapped the world's three muses, holding them captive until they give him inspiration. The set goes through many changes, beginning in the main character Emily's bedroom, then into her dream, on a boat, with the walls of her room becoming the boat, and also the kings' boat and court room. There are amazing puppets for the two-headed king and also a giant bird puppet. Here are some photos I took from backstage.

[foreground, one of the muses, background, Emily and the captain]

[foreground, the kids who did the voices for the two headed king, background is the king puppet...body is made up of two children under fabric who each have one arm and one leg sticking out. Heads were operated from behind the throne by my husband. The whole throne wheels onto stage.]

[This is a backstage view of my husband Chris operating the puppet's mouth's, and in green, the MC]

[Mrs.Bird, a giant puppet operated by two people with flapping wings and moving mouth, and on the left is the Oracle in white]

[the three muses waiting in the wings for their cue to enter]

The muses' costumes were simply fabric and scarves wrapped and tied, with a tied belt on the waist and some colorful jewelry, and those great little hair-headbands I found at the dollar store.

[Local newspaper coverage of the show, Bottom R shows Emily and the captain in costume]
The captain's outfit was a red button up shirt I found at the thrift shop with some extra buttons sewn on and I also added a brown felt mandarin collar, for a bit of a Sargent Pepper's look. I also made the captain a brown and black felt pirate's hat, which is basically a soft hat with a circular rim which is then rolled up in three places and stitched to the crown. I made another pirate's hat for one of the boat's crew, out of colorful wool scraps. The First Mate's costume was a blue t-shirt which I appliqued with a yellow anchor and some naval "awards" on one side.

[ABOVE: "Emily"]
Emily's dress.... Chris told me he wanted "Alice in Wonderland/Dorothy of Oz dress, but more psychedelic" (it is a dream after all). I started by finding a jumper pattern to guide me on the shape of the top of the dress. I knew the skirt would be a simple gathered skirt and i wouldn't need a pattern for that. I used this great Matchbox jumper pattern from..the 60's? Anyway it's really cute. I then assembled some pieces of silk and costume fabrics into patchwork and cut out the pieces for the top of the dress. But, what I had forgotten to do was to reshape the waist of the pattern to be more fitted- after all the original pattern is an A-line. So instead I put in a bunch of tiny darts, I don't know how many. But the waist finally got to the right size. I finished the facings and straps but left the back open for fitting the costume.
[Emily's dress, made completely from scraps of costume fabric and silk]
I put together two long pieces of patchwork for the skirt and basted them together, then put in gathering stitches. The skirt started out being almost 3 yards long and I gathered it to 25 inches! I almost thought I had gone too far- I gathered it as tightly as I could and it actually could have gone to a 23" waist, but there was not much room for error! Came out just perfect though. When the little girl tried it on and it fit perfectly I could not have been happier. Then I took it home and finished the hems, put on buttons, and added the black satin ribbon belt. I originally intended for it to be worn over a shirt but the actress wore it over a skin-color leotard and it covered fine and was very cute. She loved it so much she wanted to keep it. Lots of grown women have also told me they want an "Emily dress". It was the hit costume of the show.