July 18, 2014

Stays Cording Tutorial

These stays are certainly the most complex cording project I've done, so I wanted to share how I've been going about it!  First off, I'm using a totally different cording method than the ones shown in my Making a Corded Petticoat post.  In both methods shown in that tutorial, the cord was put in place first and its channel was sewn around it.  Those methods work just fine for a corded petticoat, but won't work very well for these stays.  Instead, I'm sewing channels into the fabric first, then inserting the cording afterwards.  As a reminder, this is the pattern I'm working with:

Fabric Prep

Since the criss-cross cording is the most difficult part of these stays, that's what we'll focus on.  Each of the squares that make up the criss-cross pattern are only 0.25" wide, so they're very small and difficult to sew accurately.  The space between each square forms the channel that the cord threads through.  I'm using a green shot cotton as the pretty outer fashion layer of the stays, with two layers of thin but tightly woven white cotton as the strength layers.  My stitches will go through all three layers of fabric, but the cording will be run between the two white layers of cotton.

The first challenge was figuring out how to mark the stitching guidelines on the fabric.  I could have made all the markings on the back of each piece, but I find that the top side of my stitching often looks a bit more precise than the back, so I needed a way to mark the green fabric so that I could stitch accurately, but not have the markings visible later.

Squares marked with water soluble pen, with a penny for scale.

At first I tried using a water soluble fabric marker that had a relatively fine tip.  It showed up very well on the fabric, but since it is a marker and the fabric wicked the ink out a bit, the line it left was fairly thick.  The thicker line made it very hard to see where exactly to stitch.  Some of my test squares were more parallelogram than square, and the width of the squares varied between 5/16" and 3/16" wide.  It may seem like I'm being overly picky, but that is a difference of 1/8", which means I was off in some areas by the width of half of a square!  When working at such a small scale, even a little bit of deviation becomes extremely obvious.

Wibbly wobbly stitching due to wide fabric marker guidelines.

I considered using a fine mechanical pencil to draw more precise, accurate lines, but there were two potential issues.  One, I was worried it wouldn't wash off well, leaving me with pencil lines all over my stays.  Two, it's actually pretty hard to draw an accurate line on this fabric with a mechanical pencil, as the pressure of the lead warps and distorts the fabric as you're trying to draw.

Can't draw a straight line b/c the pressure of the lead warps the fabric.

Luckily, I was able to solve both issues at once with my favorite secret weapon:

Mah super-sekrit weapon.  Shh, don't tell!

Starch has saved my butt on many a sewing project.  Here, it serves two purposes.  First, it stiffens the fabric so that it is almost paper-like, so now I can easily draw on it using the mechanical pencil without the fabric distorting.  Now I can get perfectly straight, thin, highly accurate stitching lines!

With starched fabric, no distortion!

Comparison of marker lines vs mechanical pencil lines.

Second, thanks to Lifeofglamour's various experiments with tinting starch for use on ruffs, I know that very often, pigments and dirt that are mixed in with or sitting on top of starch wash out without staining the fabric.  When I tested this theory on my fabric, washing the starch out washed the pencil marks down the drain too!  You can buy spray on starch or the liquid kind you dip your fabric into from the store, but thanks to Frolicking Frocks (dude, check out those petticoats!) I'm a convert to making my own out of cornstarch. 

My test stitching proves much more straight and accurate with the pencil
guidelines, and after washing all evidence of the pencil lead is gone!

Now that I've got that settled, the last step before stitching is to use a lightbox to trace my design onto the fabric.


My original plan was to hand-stitch the stays, but I came to my senses after attempting a sample.  I tried using my modern sewing machine, but it's very hard to stitch a line precisely 0.25" and stop in exactly the right place using the pedal control, so I pulled out the little Singer 99 hand crank machine I refurbished a few years ago instead.

Remember this one?  Isn't she pretty?

With a hand crank, it's really easy to stop right at the exact number of stitches you want.  A lot of fiddling and several tests later, I settled on a stitch length calibrated to precisely 1/16 of an inch, giving me squares that were 4 stitches wide on each side.  Getting the correct stitch size is no mean feat on these old machines, since you set the length by screwing an unlabeled knob in or out as needed.

That knob is the stitch length regulator.  Notice the distinct
lack of numbers or any useful markings of any sort?

Now that I've got the length set, sewing each square is now as easy as starting the needle in the right place, sewing 4 stitches, sinking the needle on the 4th stitch, raising the presser foot, turning the fabric, putting the foot down again, sewing 4 more stitches, etc, all the way around the square.

This leaves a bunch of thread tails all over the place.  Of course I can't just trim them because the stitching would come out, so the loose threads are pulled to the back and tied off.  Since I'm a bit paranoid about the knots coming undone, I put a dot of Fray-Check on each to prevent unraveling.  Remember to test the Fray-Check on an inconspicuous spot first!  My layers are thin, and on the first few knots I used too much and it soaked through to the front.

Threads pulled to the back for tying.

At first I was tying the threads after each square, but it's more efficient to sew several squares, then flip to the back and start pulling through/tying off.  The problem with doing it that way is that those loose tails get in the way of stitching, and if you sew through the tail of a square a few rows down it's a mess to untangle.  Luckily, I'm owned by two exceedingly furry felines, and thus have a clothing de-furring brush that doubles as a way to clear all my loose threads off to one side with a single swipe.  Guess the fuzzbeasts are good for something.

There's something like 200 tiny squares on just ONE front panel, plus more on each side panel, so you can see why this has been taking me a while!


After washing the starch out, drying, and pressing each piece, it's FINALLY time to stuff some cord in there.  I'm using the same Sugar n' Cream cotton cord that I used in my corded petticoat.  You'll want a cord of a width that fits fairly snugly in your channels, so choose accordingly, or stitch your channels to accommodate the cord you wish to use.

I'm using a thick, blunt needle with a wide eye.  Tapestry needles are perfect.  The eye should be large enough that the cord just fits through it, but not so big that the needle won't fit through your channels with the now doubled cord in tow.  I also have a pair needle nose pliers, because despite my best efforts, the eye of my needle still gets stuck in the fabric sometimes.

When I made my last pair of corded stays, I broke the only good needle I had and swapped to one that was nearly the same, only sharp instead of blunt.  It sorta worked, but the sharp tip kept shredding the fabric on both sides, and those scrapes later unraveled into larger holes, allowing the cord to poke out.  I wouldn't have minded if they were all on the inside, but most of them were on the pretty outside!  If all you can get is a sharp needle, grind the tip down.

Holes in channels caused by sharp needle shredding fabric.
Sadly, these are on the front, so they show when I wear it.

On the backside of the stays, I poke the needle through just one layer of fabric right at the start of a channel.  Since the needle is blunt, with some fabrics an awl is needed to start the hole.  It takes a bit of practice to get the tip to go through just one layer of fabric, but practice makes perfect, right? 

Using an awl to start the hole.

Threading the needle into the channel.

Once inside, the needle is pushed down the length of the channel, dragging the cord behind it.  It's tight, and I have to moosh (super technical term) and manipulate the fabric around the needle to move it along.  Sometimes the pliers are necessary to pull the needle through the channel too.

The eye is stuck at the entry to the channel, so I use pliers to help it along.

At the opposite end, I poke the tip of the needle back out through the back fabric and pull it out, taking care to not pull all the cording out with it!  The pliers are also super useful here, as the eye of the needle generally gets stuck on the way out.  All the pushing and pulling on the needle is pretty rough on my fingers; using the pliers instead solves that problem.  The downside is that I'm more likely to break a needle when pulling on it with the pliers.

It's easier on my fingers to just use the pliers to pull the needle out.

I don't trim the cord close to the fabric just yet; instead I cut it so there's about 1" still hanging out, then move on to the other channels.  The places where the cords cross are a bit tricky to get through, but it's doable.  Eventually I end up with a small forest of cord ends growing out of the back of the stays.

Well that's a right mess.

Once I've got a whole section done, I start trimming the stray tails.  I cut the cord pretty close to the fabric, but not right flush with it.  There are till some tiny tails hanging out.

Trimmed close, with just a little bit hanging out.

Then, without holding onto the cord, I tug on both ends of the channel, stretching the fabric slightly.  Most of the tails pop back into their holes and disappear.  A few are still sticking out a bit, but this is the inside of the garment, so I don't care overmuch.  

Gently stretching each channel.

There are still holes at the start and end of each channel, but again, it's the inside, and they close up a little with time anyways.

No more tails!
Wow, that got lengthy!  If any part of this tutorial isn't clear, let me know and I'll try to unmuddy it a bit.  If you've got a cool cording project you're working on, show us in the comments!  I've still got a few panels to go, so I'm off to the sewing table again for another late night. 

July 13, 2014

Stays Update

I'm still plugging away at the stays!  I've avoided posting updates on them so far, mostly because your feed would end up looking like this:

 Finished another 20 little squares.  Hooray!

 Finished another 5 little squares.  Dammit.

 Finished another 35 little squares.  Have a hand cramp.  Send tequila.

... and so on.

However, I've gotten several requests for a tutorial on how I'm cording these, so I wanted to let you know that I should have one up by midweek!  I've learned a lot of nifty tricks to make this process go smoother, so even if you're a cording pro you might learn a new thing or two. 

In the meantime, I've got another bagazillion little squares to stitch, so see you soon!

July 5, 2014

Quick and Easy Way to Mark Cartridge Pleats (On Some Fabrics)

It's not every day that a mistake turns in to a Eureka! moment, but luckily yesterday was that kind of a day.

Petticoat cartridge pleated to waistband.
If you need a neat, historically accurate way to cram 5+ yards of fabric into a teeny tiny waistband, cartridge pleating is your insane but awesome friend.  I LOVE the look and extra volume cartridge pleats give skirts and petticoats, but they are labor intensive and take forever and a day to do.  If this type of pleat is a new thing to you, check out Historical Sewing's tutorial on how to make cartridge pleats here, and you'll see what I mean about how time consuming they are!

Since I wanted as much floof and poof as possible for my 1830's tucked petticoat, cartridge pleats were really the only way to go.  I pulled out the partially finished petticoat and resigned myself to spending an hour or more painstakingly marking out the usual dotted guides for stitching.  Only then did I notice that I had made the silly mistake of flat felling the back seam all the way up to the top, leaving no opening for getting in and out of the petticoat.  Curses!  Out came the seamripper, and out came the stitches.  But look what they left behind on my nicely starched fabric...

Usually this is a bad thing.

Extremely clear needle marks that could possibly act as stitching guides.  Of course, the holes left by the two separate lines of stitching don't match up, but what if I used a double needle and stitched two rows of marks at the same time?

Now with twice the stabbing power!

I've got a pretty big double needle meant for topstitching jeans that was left over from a failed pintucking experiment.  The needles are spaced about 1/4" apart, which is a little close for cartridge pleating, but totally workable.  Since the double needle is meant for heavy denim, the needles are quite thick and sturdy, which means they'll leave pretty clear holes on certain types of fabric.

I popped the double needle in my sewing machine and set the stitch length to the longest possible stitch.  I only wanted the marks left by the needle, so I took the bobbin out and unthreaded the machine, then stitched all the way around the top of the petticoat, keeping the right needle about 1/4" away from the edge of the fabric.

It worked!  Clear, even marks that are perfectly aligned, and it only took a minute or two to do the whole top edge of the petticoat! 

The largest stitch my machine can make is about 1/8" long, which was a bit small for what I had in mind.  However, it's really quite simple to skip every other dot, or more for wider pleats.  I've stitched a sample with red thread so that it's easier to see, though of course you'd use a matching color.

Sadly, this method won't work for all fabrics; only those that will show the marks left by the needle will do, so YMMV.  The marks are extra clear on my cotton petticoat fabric because it's been starched within an inch of its life and is practically paper-like.  I tried a sample of wool fabric, but the holes closed right back up.

Wool experiment fail.

However, silk taffeta worked splendidly, as did various types of crisp cottons.

Silk taffeta works!

I still have another hour or so of hand-sewing each individual pleat to the waistband ahead of me, but using this trick shaved off more than a third of the total time it takes me to complete cartridge pleats, so I'd call it a win!