Category Archives: sewing

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. =)

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…

Assorted sewing-related sketches and thoughts

I’ve settled into a routine of wearing something home-made every day. I’m looking forward to gradually adding higher-end fabric, and learning how to sew new pieces. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way.

2015-03-22b Decision review - Sewing -- index card #review #sewing #decision

2015-03-22b Decision review – Sewing – index card #review #sewing #decision

Sewing adds a new layer of satisfaction to my everyday life. I enjoy having a background reminder that I can learn how to make things.

2015-03-22c What was different about sewing this time -- index card #delta #sewing #review

2015-03-22c What was different about sewing this time – index card #delta #sewing #review

What was different about sewing this time? I set myself up for happiness and success by picking a super-simple pattern. It turns out that I like the bias binding technique much more than I like the facing technique, since I haven’t figured out how to stop facings from flapping around, and it’s actually pretty fun to use the bias tape maker. New pins made a surprising difference, too – it’s so much easier and less frustrating when your pins just glide through the fabric.

2015-03-13c Improving my sewing experience -- index card #sewing

2015-03-13c Improving my sewing experience – index card #sewing

The sewing machine and the serger are now on the desk full-time, instead of tucked in a closet. My sewing things are in a drawer. I still haven’t set up a system for listening to music or podcasts while I sew, since I use it as quiet time for thinking.

2015-03-13e What would managing my stash well look like -- index card #sewing

2015-03-13e What would managing my stash well look like – index card #sewing

2015-03-13d What are a few useful things I can do with my fabric stash -- index card #sewing

2015-03-13d What are a few useful things I can do with my fabric stash – index card #sewing

I found some stash-busting projects I like. They’re great ways to use up scraps while creating practical things, like little wrappers and liners. I’ve also pieced together larger scraps to create prototypes, which is nice. Maybe I’ll get into quilting or patchwork later on.

2015-03-12c Sewing pre-mortem -- index card #sewing #premortem

2015-03-12c Sewing pre-mortem – index card #sewing #premortem

None of the pre-mortem factors I planned for have kicked in yet. That’s because I’ve been learning deliberately slowly instead of trying to rush my way through things. =) I might spend a little more time getting used to the laser cutter and all that it can do for me; there’s so much to explore.

2015-02-25b What's next for sewing -- index card #sewing

2015-02-25b What’s next for sewing – index card #sewing

I have a bamboo stretch knit just waiting to be turned into loungewear, so I’m looking forward to learning how to self-draft a pattern for that. Extra points if I can do it digitally and then laser-cut the cloth, even if that means figuring out how to register long knits. =)

2015-02-24d Improving my sewing experience -- index card #sewing

2015-02-24d Improving my sewing experience – index card #sewing

Actually, the pipeline probably goes like this:

  • Tuesday at Hacklab:
    • Buy fabric for the next project
    • Cut washed fabric for the current project
  • Wednesday at home, possibly Friday or Saturday as well:
    • Sew and press the current project
  • Sunday at home:
    • Wash fabric for the next project
    • Plan the next next project

I think it would be good to have two (and exactly two) projects on the go at any given time. That way, I don’t end up stashing lots of fabric, and I can make the most of the resources available to me.

2015-02-24a New pattern, or several of one -- index card #sewing

2015-02-24a New pattern, or several of one – index card #sewing

Making many instances of the same pattern has been lots of fun. I still don’t feel an urge to learn about closures or sleeves, so the basic top is fine. I can gradually add more colours and fabrics, though. As for new patterns, I might look into making a few pairs of comfortable pants.

Yep, I think this skill might make its way into my identity… Neat!

Laser cutting update: Marvel version

I cut the Marvel-licensed fabric that I picked up from Affordable Textiles on Queen Street (near Spadina) on the laser cutter. It worked out beautifully. I reused the SVG I tweaked after last week’s experiments. As it turns out, even with a 45″ one-way design, 1.5 yards is enough for a top, enough bias strips to bind the neckline and armholes, and two pairs of liner squares. There will be small scraps that I can use for other projects, too.

2015-04-14 21.52.43

This will be my 12th top, and I have the fabric for a 13th if I wanted to. I’m currently wearing the top that I laser-cut out of 100% Italian cotton. 100% cotton seems much more comfortably breathable than the polyester-cotton blend in the broadcloth that I practised with. Maybe I’ll do a few more tops as I come across colours and patterns that I like, and I’ll also gradually branch out to other patterns as well.

A checklist of things to try, fabric-wise:

  • Cotton
    • Fabric ordered online – maybe this cute Dr. Seuss fabric or something else from Jo-Ann (or maybe this one), to remind me to have fun
    • Something from Etsy
    • Fabric using someone else’s design, maybe off Spoonflower
    • Fabric I design
  • Stretch knit
  • Silk or other slippery fabrics

Mwahahaha. =)

2015-04-14d Laser-cutting fabric is awesome -- index card #laser #hacklab

2015-04-14d Laser-cutting fabric is awesome – index card #laser #hacklab

Thinking about my sewing next steps, particularly with the laser cutter

My laser-cutting experiment went well. I can use Hacklab’s laser to cut pieces of fabric for the plain tops I’ve been making. I sewed one up yesterday, and it was a breeze. The notches lined up, the dart lines were easy to follow, and everything came together neatly. So, what’s next?

  • I can use this new technique to sew a number of additional tops, perhaps in fabrics that are more breathable than the polyester broadcloth I developed my skills on.
  • I can look into decorative elements, maybe using fusible interfacing to stabilize the fabric (ex: Appliqués? Cut-outs? Repeated patterns? I tend to prefer simple clothes, so I may just stick with cutting out the basics.
  • I can start exploring fabrics that were previously more intimidating, such as stretch fabrics (maybe a fitted cotton jersey shirt, or leggings for yoga?) and silk.

I think a few exercise tops or fitted T-shirts (self-drafting instructions) and a few leggings or pants (maybe following this tutorial) would be a good next step. I’ve seen bamboo at Designer Fabrics, so that might be good to work up to.

It’s a little hard to play around with patterns at home. Two of our cats love interfering with anything that involves concentration and flat surfaces, so sketching things on large pieces of paper sounds like an exercise in shooing them off. With the laser cutter, though, I can use Inkscape to draft and tweak the patterns, cut them precisely and reliably, and then sew them up to test the fit. If I’m lucky, I might even be able to use the sewing machine at Hacklab, further shortening the learning period.

It feels like such an odd luxury to pay attention to this instead of, say, spending the time consulting or programming or writing. But I think there might be something to the idea of infusing everyday objects with joy. I like wearing the tops I’ve sewn, as simple as they are. They remind me that:

  • I can learn things (even if I tried before and couldn’t figure things out),
  • I can make things (as simple or as neat as I want – so yes, straightforward curves, but what the heck, let’s French seam everything), and
  • I never have to worry about things being out of style or out of stock again.

The peach one I’ve just sewn – the one from laser-cut pieces – adds even more meaning:

  • I can incorporate new tools into my interests
  • I should remember to test my assumptions. Sometimes there’s a much easier way to do things!
  • I can work on applying technology to everyday life and little luxuries, and other people are interested in this too

There’s something in here about getting more out of each moment, and I’m curious about that. =)

Back to sewing!

I’ve been thinking a lot about clothes lately. This was partly motivated by a dress-up extended family dinner. W- dusted off the suit that he hadn’t worn in years. I realized I wasn’t happy with any of my cold-weather dress options, so we checked out the shops. Dealing with the overwhelming array of choices, none of which I liked, I realized five things:

  • Because it’s difficult for me to find simply-styled, good-fitting clothes in small sizes, I should buy them when I find them, even if they’re at full retail price because the season has just started
  • Likewise, it’s probably worth increasing my clothes budget, considering things even if they’re more than a hundred dollars a piece
  • If I shopped more frequently instead of waiting until I needed something, it might be less stressful
  • Medium-term, I should learn what alterations can do and how much they would add to the price of an item
  • Long-term, I’m probably best served by learning how to sew. Then I can make the basics of my wardrobe in whatever styles and colours I want.

2015-02-10e Shop or sew -- index card #clothing #sewing #shopping

2015-02-10e Shop or sew – index card #clothing #sewing #shopping

2015-02-11d Do I want to invest in clothes or in sewing -- index card #sewing #clothing -- ref 2015-02-10

2015-02-11d Do I want to invest in clothes or in sewing – index card #sewing #clothing – ref 2015-02-10

I ended up wearing my office clothes (a blazer, blouse, and black slacks) to the family event, and that worked out just fine. But I didn’t want to end up in this situation again, so I decided to work on desensitizing myself when it comes to this shopping thing. After all, I remember going from “Waah, this is overwhelming!” to “Actually, this is pretty interesting” in terms of shopping at Home Depot, so maybe I could do that with clothes as well.

While organizing my wardrobe, I realized that I had donated many of the T-shirts that I used to pair with skirts. I had a lot of technical tops, but they didn’t go with slacks or skirts. For example, I didn’t have anything to pair with the purple skirt I’d stored with my other summer things. I added T-shirts to my shopping list. When I saw a nice relaxed-fit pink V-neck shirt at Mark’s Work Warehouse, I figured it would go with the purple skirt, my brown skirts, and my jeans. I also picked up an aqua shirt, a light blue shirt, and some khakis. Still couldn’t find any other items I liked, though.

Although there are quite a few beginner and intermediate sewing classes in Toronto, I decided to see how far I could get by learning on my own. After all, I’d already made a couple of skirts and dresses I was passably happy with. If I got stuck, I could always check Youtube for tutorials or reach out to friends.

I remembered struggling with sewing before. Sometimes I’d do something incorrectly out of impatience or ignorance, and then I got frustrated trying to fix things. It was hard to pay enough attention to details. But I’d noticed myself mellowing out over time. I felt more patient now; I acted more deliberately and spoke more slowly than I used to. Maybe it’s growing older, maybe it’s because of the abundance of time in this 5-year experiment, maybe it’s because I stopped drinking tea… Whatever the reason, maybe sewing might work better for me this time around.

2015-02-11c What were the friction factors for sewing last time, and how can I improve -- index card #sewing #kaizen #reducing-friction

2015-02-11c What were the friction factors for sewing last time, and how can I improve – index card #sewing #kaizen #reducing-friction

I knew I’d enjoy things more if I could start with a small success, so I looked for a simple pattern: cotton, no buttons, no zippers, nothing finicky. None of my stashed sewing patterns met those criteria. I thumbed through the patterns at the Workroom (a small sewing studio near Hacklab), but they were more complex than I wanted to start with.

Eventually I found the free Sorbetto pattern from Colette, which also served as my introduction to downloadable patterns. I printed it, cut out my size, and doubled the pattern with newspaper so that I didn’t have to mess about with folds. I’d previously decluttered my fabric collection, but one of the remnants I’d kept was large enough for the pattern.

I deliberately slowed down while making it. Instead of cutting around the pinned pattern, I chalked the outline of the pattern first, and then I cut that. Instead of cutting on the basement floor (where cats would definitely interfere), I cut on the large square coffee table in the living room. Instead of trying to use the sewing machine’s guidelines for my seams, I chalked all my seam lines. Instead of eyeballing the darts, I chalked the dart lines and the centre lines. I cut and picked out the mistakes I made in staystitching or basting. I neatened the thread tails as I sewed. Instead of using store-bought bias tape, I made bias tape from the same fabric. I zigzagged the other edges instead of using my serger.

2015-02-23 13.48.13It took me a while, but it was a pleasant while, and now I have a top that I’m happy with wearing either on its own or over a blouse. More than that, I have a pattern for as many tops as I want, and the knowledge that that’s one less thing I have to worry about buying when the stores have the right style, the right size, and the right colour.

I think I’ll make this in:

  • black (to pair with a black skirt, if I need to be more formal),
  • white (to pair with everything),
  • red (because that’s fun),
  • and maybe some geeky pattern that’s in line with my interests, to wear to Hacklab and events as a conversation piece? Even better if I could wear it to the office and still blend in as I’m walking through the corridor. Maybe a subtle print? Spoonflower has lots of geeky patterns, but none of them particularly appealed to me because they signal geekiness without actually being my flavour of geekiness.
    • Not really me: chemistry, circuit boards, moustaches, hornrims, calculators, video games
    • More like me: Emacs, tracking, cats, cooking, doodling, blogging, Greek/Roman philosophy

So maybe I’ll stick with solids for now. =)

I turned some scraps into a hair clip, since that felt like a more restrained way to match things than to have a scarf of the same print. Matching things tickles my brain – my mom can tell stories about how I wanted dresses with matching bags when I was a kid. Even now, I like it when people echo colours in their accessories. I’m looking forward to playing around with that through sewing, although maybe with more solids rather than prints.


Related sketches: