Category Archives: life

From dreams to experiments

Since my childhood, my parents have always told me to follow my dreams. It wasn’t just the usual maxim passed on from books and the child-raising culture of the time. I had proof of the power of dreams in the adventures of my father.

I talked to my parents last weekend. They’re a little worried about me during this amorphous 5-year experiment with semi-retirement. Am I doing okay? Am I following my dreams?

At that moment, I realized that I’d found something that resonates with me even more than dreams do. I’m not following my dreams. I’m doing something stranger and more exciting to me. I’m experimenting.

2015-05-10e Plans, dreams, and experiments -- index card #experiment #mindset

2015-05-10e Plans, dreams, and experiments – index card #experiment #mindset

I’d reflected on the difference between plans and experiments, and dreams are like that too. A plan has a certain end. A dream is a plan with passion and maybe a long-term story: “I’ve always wanted to…”. There’s that sense of certainty when you’re following your dream. You know where you want to go, and you know what progress you’re making towards it. You can feel it in every fibre.

I want something else.

I want the experiment. Uncertainty. Learning. I seek out in myself where the vision is still uncertain, where there’s not enough data from other people’s lives.

It’s neat being able to trace my growth over time. In 2012, I became more comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” In 2013, I started letting go of the need for certainty, for clearly defined passions. In 2014, I found a metaphor that resonated with me: exploration. Now I know that I want this more than I want to check off boxes. I find myself the most curious about the things that are hardest to explain, going further away from common experience.

I could not have dreamed what I’m learning now. I’m well into territory that my younger self couldn’t have imagined. I didn’t know it was possible, then. Even now, I don’t know the full range of possibilities. I’m not entirely clear on what awesomeness would look like. But I’m curious, and exploring is its own adventure. Wherever I end up, I’m sure it will be somewhere my present self can’t picture.

I don’t dream of being happy, and it’s not something I pursue. That’s is because I am happy. I see happiness as a deliberate response to the world: a steadfast focus on what’s good about life.

If I strive for anything, it’s equanimity. But even that is in my grasp as soon as I want it. Equanimity isn’t a destination to arrive at. It’s something to practice. Only time and trial can tell.

Aside from equanimity, what else is there to want? I’m as comfortable as I could be: roof, food, resources, tools, community, access to knowledge. Even those things are not essential. People have lived greater lives with less.

I don’t dream of mansions or influence or fame. I don’t need to wait for these things. Knowing that makes me free to appreciate and make the most of my current life.

I want a mind that takes everything as fuel. I want to turn both victories and obstacles into springboards. A thought: How can I intensify this experiment? How can I get better at learning?

  • Reading and re-reading can help me identify role models, build on other people’s wisdom, find the words to describe what I’m thinking, and combine interesting ideas.
  • Developing practical skills increases my independence and enjoyment. Sewing, electronics, and woodworking might be good candidates to focus on.
  • Writing and drawing might help me find people who resonate with these ideas. If I’m lucky, we might even explore them together.
  • With self-care as a solid foundation, I can slowly grow outwards to encompass more within my circle of influence.
  • To do that, I’m learning more about playing with the world: negotiating changes, developing relationships, applying energy and enthusiasm. We’ll see how it turns out!

It’s odd – I’m still not a big fan of uncertainty when it comes to physical space. Spur-of-the-moment road trips? That would drive me up the wall. I like having autonomy and being able to manage my levels of stimulation. But there are some kinds of uncertainty in life that have a different flavour to them, and that’s what I want to explore.

Is this, then, my dream? It seems so different from the usual dreams that it’s understandably hard for other people to understand. It feels constantly novel and evolving, instead of being a fixed North Pole for my journey. It is what it is, I guess, and I’ll explore it while I have the space to do so.

Laser-cutting bias tape in off-cut regions

I have a few more tops to do. As an experiment, I cut my bias strips from the offcuts surrounding the peach top I was working on. That took a bit more work than cutting a 10″ square and following the continuous bias tape tutorial from Colette, but it was satisfying to use the oddly-shaped offcuts for something useful.

To make this easier in the future, I modified my basic top laser-cutting template to include bias strips (and a few other circles and 2″ rectangles) in the off-cuts. I’ll be able to use it for the Kaufman cotton lawn that I haven’t started working on yet, and I’m looking forward to giving this tweaked pattern a try.

This is what it looks like in Inkscape:

2015-05-08 22_40_17-2015-05-08-top.svg - Inkscape.png 2015-05-08 22_40_17-2015-05-08-top.svg - Inkscape

The perpendicular seams waste a little more fabric and are a little bulkier compared to 45-degree seams, like this:

2015-05-08 22_03_29-2015-05-07-top.svg - Inkscape.png2015-05-08 22_03_29-2015-05-07-top.svg - Inkscape

but I find perpendicular seams easier to sew, since I don’t have to worry about the pointy ends getting misaligned.

How to draw the diagonal lines:

  1. Use the pen tool to draw a long diagonal line, using the Ctrl key to constrain it to a 45-degree angle.
  2. Use Ctrl-D to duplicate it many times.
  3. Select all the duplicates.
  4. Use Object > Arrange to arrange the lines in one row (uncheck the checkbox for equal width and height). For 1″ bias strips, set the X offset to 1.414 – the diagonal line’s width. This will be a negative number. Set the Y offset to 0. Arrange the items.
  5. Combine the arranged lines and move them into position.
  6. Duplicate your main pattern with Ctrl-D.
  7. Select that and the combined diagonal lines. Use Path > Cut Path to cut the diagonal lines where they intersect with your main pattern.
  8. Delete the lines you don’t need.

Here’s one way to draw the horizontal or perpendicular lines in Inkscape:

  1. Use the pen tool to draw a line at the desired degree, using the Ctrl key to constrain the angle.
  2. Change the width (and height, for diagonal ones) in the toolbar to make it exactly fit between the lines.
  3. Select the seam line, then select a diagonal line. Use the alignment tools to align it to the top of the diagonal line and align the right edge to the left edge of the diagonal line. (Play around with the alignment tools until you figure out what works.)

2015-05-08 22_47_36-2015-05-08-top.svg - Inkscape2015-05-08 22_47_36-2015-05-08-top.svg - Inkscape.png

Now I just have to figure out what to do with these bias tape bits that are piling up. This patchwork string tutorial looks promising. In addition to using the bias tape for binding, I can use them for straps, strings, and ribbons. Hmm…

Here’s the file: https://github.com/sachac/laser/blob/master/2015-05-08-top.svg

Quantified Self: The numbers on sewing

Some people love shopping. That’s why “retail therapy” is a thing. Other people hate shopping, and try to do it as little as possible. It’s hard to find anything I like, even after I talk myself into being okay with buying things at full retail price, and even after adjusting my price range higher and higher.

I tried desensitizing myself by going out shopping without a particular goal in mind, just familiarizing myself with the colours and styles, and being open to buying something if it appealed to me. Several weekends of this turned up a few pairs of pants and T-shirts, but no epiphanies.

I started looking into alternatives. It seems wardrobe stylists work on commission, so you should plan to spend a good chunk of money – maybe $500 or $1000, which was more than I wanted to do at that moment. The custom dressmakers I asked quoted me rates around $250 for a single garment (although I didn’t ask if they’d reduce it for a super-simple pattern). Online tailors had very mixed reviews.

I figured it would be worth giving sewing a try. I didn’t need anything fancy, after all. I spent a few hours looking around for the simplest free pattern for a top, and I settled on the Colette Sorbetto pattern. I sewed a few, and then simplified the pattern further by removing the pleat. I sewed a few more. When I learned how to use the laser cutter, I used the laser to quickly and accurately cut even more pieces for sewing.

Let’s talk numbers.

The typical shirts I like cost between $40 and $120 at the store, but take hours and hours to shop for. It’s also a tiring and frustrating experience.

Broadcloth costs $2 a yard. Quilting fabric and cotton shirting tend to be around $12 to $14 a yard. The fanciest cotton I can get (in terms of fabric, not just design) seems to be Liberty cotton lawn, at $24 a yard. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it, but it is nicely breathable, so maybe. I typically buy 1.5 yards per top, although this leaves me with lots of excess fabric. I could probably fit a top in 1 yard.

I’ve spent about $130 for the 16 tops I’ve made so far, or an average of $8 per top. I expect future tops to cost between $15 to $40, depending on fabric quality and whether the design is one-way.

The bulk of the cost is really time. Since I started in February, I’ve spent 105 hours sewing: picking out fabric, cutting, sewing, thinking about patterns and plans. This is an average of 7 hours per top, which feels a bit on the high side. I think most of it is indecisiveness about fabric. =) Prepping and cutting the fabric on the laser takes maybe 20 minutes total, and once that’s done, I can sew a top in about 2 hours.

You can analyze time trade-offs by assigning an arbitrary value to them. You might use minimum wage, or the replacement cost of hiring someone to take on some of your lower-value activities for you. For example, you might use $15/hour as a replacement cost, since that seems to be the going rate for a housekeeper in Toronto. If so, then my tops have cost an average of $110 or so. I expect future tops to use nicer fabric but require less time, so the estimated cost will likely be $75-100 per top.

Alternatively, you could use a higher rate – say, my consulting rate – since I could theoretically be working instead of sewing. But I don’t particularly feel like working more. If I did, there would be other activities I would cut back on first, like playing video games, or reading fiction.

Where did the time come from? It’s hard to say, since I was changing some of my other routines too. Anyway, I analyzed a weekly summary of my time records, correlating different categories with the time I tracked under sewing.

Category Correlational coefficient
Business – Build – Learn -0.94
Business – Build – Quantified Awesome -0.92
Discretionary – Productive – Japanese -0.82
Business – Build – Drawing -0.64
Discretionary – Play – Read – Fiction -0.61

I shifted away from learning, coding, and Japanese review, and I reduced my drawing and reading time. They’re all discretionary activities, so it’s not like I was working less or sleeping less in order to sew. (I actually worked a little more than I did before.)

I’ve come to think of sewing as fun, so I might consider the time as “free.” In fact, it might even have a positive effect. Making things myself helps me develop skills and enables imagination, so it’s like education. Cost-wise, it feels like spending on fabric and time is a definite win compared to, say, buying fast fashion tops that may or may not be ethically sourced.

What did I learn?

I learned that it takes surprisingly little time and money to develop a comfortable level of skill when repeating the same sewing pattern. I started sewing on Feb 11. On Feb 23, after about six hours total, I wore my first top. Here you can see DIY taking over the clothes I wear:

Week starting Sat Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri
Feb 7 x x x x x x x
Feb 14 x x x x x x x
Feb 21 x x mine x x mine x
Feb 28 x x x mine x x x
Mar 7 x x x mine mine mine mine
Mar 14 mine x mine mine mine mine mine
Mar 21 mine mine mine mine mine mine mine
Mar 28 x mine mine mine x mine mine
Apr 4 x x mine mine x mine mine
Apr 11 x mine mine mine mine mine mine
Apr 18 mine mine mine mine mine mine mine
Apr 25 mine mine mine mine mine mine mine
May 2 x x mine mine mine mine mine

I learned that I really enjoy the things you can’t buy with money. There’s this feeling of freedom that comes with knowing that I don’t have to rely on manufacturers and retailers to make things I like. I might even be able to come up with things that I wouldn’t be able to find in stores. If things wear out, I can repair or replace them.

I have two more tops on the go, so that should bring me to a total of eleven cotton/polyester tops and seven 100% cotton ones. I think I’ll hold off on sewing more tops after that. Maybe I’ll sew containers and bags to use up my scraps, and then I’ll think about sewing other things I wear. I’m not interested in sewing things for anyone else (aside from family, maybe), so don’t bother asking me. <laugh>

Anyway, it was a pleasant surprise to find out that it was easy to reduce the high-stress, low-value activity of shopping with something I enjoy much more. =)

Quiet afternoons and weeks

I work about one day a week, sometimes less: enough to keep interesting things on the go at my consulting client, and with plenty of space for other things in my life.

2015-04-23e Working once a week -- index card #consulting #pace #experiment

2015-04-23e Working once a week – index card #consulting #pace #experiment

It’s been a little tricky working once a week, since the communication gaps are much wider than they were with a twice-a-week schedule. I could probably not work, but I like the team and the work we do. My client would be happy to have me work more hours, but I like the rest of my week, too.

2015-04-14c Work vs Explore -- index card #self-direction #experiment

2015-04-14c Work vs Explore – index card #self-direction #experiment

Still, it’s not quite like the extra-long weekend that W- sometimes jokes about. At home, I’m not sure if I’m using my day the best I could, but I’m also not keen on cramming it just because I can. There’s something to be said about being patient and working through my mediocrity as I learn the skills for self-direction. Exploring is not as clear-cut as working, but I hope it will still be useful.

2015-05-03b Shifting visions of success -- index card #experiment #success

2015-05-03b Shifting visions of success – index card #experiment #success

It’s hard to want anything too different from what I have now. My quiet, flexible life is more tempting than, say, entrepreneurial success.

2015-05-03c Tracing evolution of wild success -- index card #experiment #success

2015-05-03c Tracing evolution of wild success – index card #experiment #success

I know that I hadn’t always wanted this, but I think that was mostly because I hadn’t even considered it a possibility. In university and grad school, I wanted to teach, catalyzing students’ enthusiasm and learning. As a consultant, I enjoyed working with great people on awesome things. Work-life balance and happiness was already on my radar, though. And now that this is here, and this is a possibility… I like it. I would like it to continue. I would like to figure out how to get really good at it, although I’m not quite sure what “good” and “it” and “really” are in this case.

2015-05-04a More than quiet afternoons -- index card #experiment #pace

2015-05-04a More than quiet afternoons – index card #experiment #pace

But there’s still a little bit of restlessness, especially when I feel fuzzy. There’s still that urge to check something off a list, the desire to feel momentum, that feeling of wanting validation, even after three years of trying to get used to self-direction. I think it would be good for me to keep getting used to this, relaxing into it. There might be something interesting there, in between ambition and a narrowly-circumscribed life…

Planning the next things I want to sew

I spent an hour at Designer Fabrics thinking about patterns and what I might want to sew next. I didn’t see anything I particularly wanted there, but I did pick up a yard and a half of Kaufman London Calling Lawn Abstract Stripe (like this) from The Workroom just so that I have something to work on. =)

2015-05-05a What kinds of patterns do I want to play with -- index card #sewing #patterns

2015-05-05a What kinds of patterns do I want to play with – index card #sewing #patterns

Anyway, top-wise, it might be interesting to break out of my comfort zone: not just florals, but also more black-and-white patterns and more geometric prints.

2015-05-04b Thoughts on fabric for summer -- index card #sewing #fabric

2015-05-04b Thoughts on fabric for summer – index card #sewing #fabric

The cotton lawn feels nice, but I think the shirting cottons are okay too, and the quilting cotton is actually pretty okay once you wash the sizing out of it.

2015-04-23d Imagining my sewing, a year from now -- index card #sewing #future #imagining

2015-04-23d Imagining my sewing, a year from now – index card #sewing #future #imagining

I might actually have sewn enough tops now, though, especially after I finish the four I have in progress. That’s enough to spend a week in 100% cotton, which will be better than the cotton/poly broadcloth blends I started with, and maybe 2-3 weeks in between delicate laundry batches.

So, time to figure out: what next? There’s a little temptation to complete things I’m tempted to try to take on more types of garments. (Get to the point, perhaps, where every stitch I wear is mine? Shoes might be tough, though. Moccasins?) On the other hand, when I started this sewing thing again this year, I said I’d pace myself by trying to replace only one category of things per year. That way, I could reduce the risk of burnout.

2015-04-30e Sewing plans -- index card #sewing

2015-04-30e Sewing plans – index card #sewing

2015-05-05b Rethinking next steps for sewing -- index card #sewing

2015-05-05b Rethinking next steps for sewing – index card #sewing

I considered upgrading the broadcloth tops to the nicest cottons I can find – probably Liberty fabric, or some of the other cotton lawns. On the other hand, that might be well in the neighbourhood of diminishing returns, so maybe it’s better to wait.

I looked into sewing with stretch knits too, making a pair of leggings. I might make yoga pants at some point, but I don’t feel a pressing need for them, so I might wait too.

Stash-clearing, then. Ideally, making various containers and household things. Maybe I can make a patchwork garment bag to use up some of my scraps and protect my winter coats. Maybe I can make bags and zippered pouches. Maybe I can make things neater and more organized.

2015-05-02b Lined pouch -- index card #sewing

2015-05-02b Lined pouch – index card #sewing

I made a lined pouch with some of my scraps: the Marvel fabric on the outside, a yellow broadcloth inside, and a red zipper. It was fun. I haven’t figured out what to put into it, though. I’m sure something will come up.

2015-05-02c Containers -- index card #sewing

2015-05-02c Containers – index card #sewing

There are all sorts of containers I can learn how to make, and so many things that I can contain within them.

2015-05-02d Rough edges I could smooth -- index card #sewing

2015-05-02d Rough edges I could smooth – index card #sewing

2015-05-05c Containers and organizers - pain points -- index card #sewing

2015-05-05c Containers and organizers – pain points – index card #sewing

It might be good to start with the things that annoy me the most, like my disorganized sewing drawer. Mmm. Yes. Skills that improve themselves.

2015-04-28e Scrap ideas -- index card #sewing #scraps #repurposing

2015-04-28e Scrap ideas – index card #sewing #scraps #repurposing

Besides, it would be nice to get through more of those scraps. The boot shaper I made took a surprising volume of scraps for stuffing, so I’m looking forward to collecting more and making the one for the other boot. Then more little projects…

Tech and the kitchen

I think I spend most of my time in the kitchen: cooking, tidying up, or simply hanging out. It’s the room with the most light in the house, so it’s easy to just pull up a chair and write or draw at the kitchen table.

There’s been decades of buzz around smarter kitchens – fridges that track and reorder groceries, gadgets that enable new cooking methods. Still, it’s been a little easier for me to imagine tech’s application to sewing than to cooking (at least in our household. I think it’s because we deliberately try to avoid cluttering our kitchen with the endless stream of gadgets sold in stores, on television, and now the Internet: from the “It slices! It dices! It even juliennes!” mandoline, to spiral slicers, to even workhorses like the slow cooker.

2015-04-28c Gadget trade-offs in the kitchen -- index card #tech-and-home #technodomesticity #tradeoffs #gadgets #kitchen #cooking #decision

2015-04-28c Gadget trade-offs in the kitchen – index card #tech-and-home #technodomesticity #tradeoffs #gadgets #kitchen #cooking #decision

It seems that innovations in tech and the home tend to cluster around:

  • the kitchen: cooking, eating, organizing, stocking
  • entertainment
  • automation, sensing, and control: thermostats, lights, energy consumption
  • sleep, health, exercise
  • working from home

Mmm. In terms of the kitchen, where do I want to explore? This might not overlap with where most of the startups are focusing on. Divergence can be quite interesting.

2015-04-28b Tech and the kitchen -- index card #tech-and-home #technodomesticity #kitchen #cooking

2015-04-28b Tech and the kitchen – index card #tech-and-home #technodomesticity #kitchen #cooking

Hmm… There’s a lot of interest around meal planning, but maybe I can play with the specifics of it. I’ve been working on building more variety by focusing on five colours and five ways, following a thread I found in a few Japanese cookbooks. (And five tastes – that’s another level I want to figure out =) ) It might be interesting to graph several of our favourite combinations, and then cycle through them as I add more variety.

2015-04-27e Imagining meal planning -- index card #cooking #planning #variety

2015-04-27e Imagining meal planning – index card #cooking #planning #variety

I wonder how I can build a tool to help me visualize and plan these things… I could probably get Emacs to display an Org Mode table with the current selections, previous meals, and possibilities, or I could do something more graphical with a web page and SVGs or Javascript. First I need to think of how I want to see it…