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All the little things

So, I touched on this concept a bit with my students the last few classes I taught, and I realized it was a subject worthy of going into depth with.

All the Little Things…

The nitty gritty, ‘gee, no one ever mentioned that part to me before’, steps I take when I start a project. This is that grey area after getting the pattern and fabric and the actual sewing of the project.

So I’m home from the fabric store with pattern and yardage in hand, yay!

  1. If it’s the kind of project & fabric that should be washed first, I start that laundry right away.
  2. The next thing I have to do is clean my cutting table. So I spend usually more than an hour putting away all the things that have been accumulating since the last project. I actually clean the surface when I get down to it, a little 409 and a paper towel picks up stray pencil marks, dust, and fluff. If I’m really on point, I’ll do this step before I go buy the fabric and pattern, but more often than not it happens in this order. Sometimes, this is as far as I get on my ‘first sewing day’ of a given project. My table gets pretty deep in stuff, I’ve spent entire days just clearing the table.
  3. Next I take everything out of the pattern envelope. I look over the pattern pieces to make sure they are all there and I read through all the instructions. Yes, even with 30 years experience under my belt, I still read the instructions. Someone might have come up with a new and better way of assembling this specific thing. Or I might think it’s dumb, but either way, I now know what the designer intended. This usually takes no more than an hour, often much less, but it really depends on the project.
  4. Next I address the pattern itself. “Hello Pattern!” (If you got that joke, you’re old like me. We will be corny over in the corner together) Part of addressing the pattern is making changes you know need to be carried out. In my case this is often shortening the crotch length, increasing the hip and increasing the arm width. This is the “shorten or lengthen here” part of the process you see printed on commercial patterns. Making those adjustments is a different post, for now just know that this is when you do them.If it’s a commercial pattern and I’m using a standard size, this step is as simple as cutting apart the paper pieces from the printed sheet and putting away the ones I don’t need.

    If it’s a PDF pattern, it tape and scissors time. I’m making sure I printed correctly, taping all the sections together, then separating the pattern pieces.

    I’ve done a number of patterns that came in magazines. These are often printed in an overlapping manner with the intent that you trace out your size and make a separate set from the pre-printed ones. This of course is rather time consuming, but worth it if you like the design enough.

  5. Pin and cut! This part has probably been covered for you before, in numerous places. So I’ll assume you don’t need a lot of detail here. Use the cutting layout, fabric right sides together along any folds prompted, don’t forget the points, markings, etc. Keep a couple scraps. Sometimes this step is a couple of hours all by itself, it just depends on the project.
  6. Finally we move to the machine, but wait, it’s isn’t time to sew just yet! Next I clean my sewing machine. I unthread it,remove the sole plate, remove the bobbin and bobbin race, clean thoroughly and carefully, oil if it seems to need it, and even wipe down all the upper surfaces and table top with a rag that has cleaning solution on it. [NOTE I do not spray my machine directly, partly because it’s computerized, but also I don’t want to remove the oil I just put in it or get moisture down in the gearing]. Reassemble everything that was disassembled for cleaning.
  7. Next I do a tension test and observe if my needle needs to be changed using scraps of the fabric from my project. Sometimes a different type of needle is needed for the fabric, like a ball point or denim needle, but they also get dull and just need changing from time to time. The tension test is vital to ensuring the tension is right for that specific project. The cleaning and tension test takes me 20-30 minutes, but I’m well practiced. A beginner can safely expect to spend an hour on this.
  8. I spin a bobbin or several, depending on the size of the project.

FINALLY I’m ready to sew my project! Depending on the project size, complexity, how messy my space is, and what my last project was, these eight steps might take anywhere from 2 to 10 hours. Yes, I really do go through all this on every single project.

To recap: laundry, clean the work space, read the pattern, address the pattern, pin and cut the fabric, clean the machine, test the machine, make bobbins. Now, go sew something!


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ADDENDA: Stuff I see beginners doing

It has been mentioned I pin ‘backwards’, i.e. the pin heads to the left. I pull pins with my left hand. Many right handers are not comfortable doing that and therefore pin with the heads to the right. This is totally ok, the point being that the pins are perpendicular to the edge being sewn. I just like not having anything where it will catch when it approaches the foot while sewing.

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Stuff I see beginners doing…

Stuff I see beginners do…

So I’ve got a summer worth of Beginner Sewing camps and classes under my belt, and there are a few really common things I see beginners doing. These are really small things, that in the grand scale don’t seem to make much difference, but can lead to frustration for them. So this is really:

How to build good habits from the very beginning.

Focus on the machine.

I see fear, a lot of fear. Women who drive full sized SUV’s in big city traffic while drinking coffee and having a conversation with three kids at once sit in front of that little machine afraid to touch the power switch. I get that it’s unfamiliar, but it’s small! No lives will be lost of you screw up! This isn’t a Ferrari, it isn’t going to be expensive to ‘take it around the block’.

The absolute worst thing you can do, which everyone seems to think is a constant threat when it isn’t, is sew through your finger. I’ve seen it happen once* in a business where sewing was what they did full time. That business at the time had been open for twelve years (as of this writing they are still going strong at 17 years) and that was the first and only time since that an employee did that. Lets do the math on that, shall we? Three machines running eight hours a day, five days a week, 49 weeks a year (small business, they take vacations). 5880 sewing hours per year, times 17 years = 99,960 hours of sewing time to accumulate ONE sewn finger incident. That’s a .00001% chance of sewing through your finger. Keep your eyes and mind focused on the sewing and you won’t have to worry about this. The employee in question admitted to looking up at someone who was talking to her without taking her foot off the pedal. She was unfocused.

For the love of Pete buy some decent scissors.

Okay, this isn’t a habit but a tool. But a critically important tool most beginners don’t realize just how important it is. I fully admit to being a scissor snob, I do not require that of my students. If you are using cheap ‘craft’ scissors, you are going to produce ragged, frayed, not-nearly-accurate-to-the-pattern pieces. This in turn makes the actual sewing of those pieces even harder. I have watched children and adults struggle to cut fabric, even hearing “I can’t cut anything”, handed them good, sharp fabric shears, then watched as the frustration melted away to be replaced by a smile and an “oh!”. Walmart sells Fiscars, MSRP of $19.99, which are good quality without the hefty price tag of my beloved Heinkles. If you get a coupon, you can buy them at Michael’s, Jo Ann or Hobby Lobby even cheaper. Melita and Gingher are also really nice and fall in between price wise. [Random: you may notice, all of these are German products. Germany produces some of the best blade steel in the world, followed by Japan. So, there’s a thing you know now.]

“Titanium” scissors are coated with a microscopically thin titanium layer. So long as this layer remains intact, they are fair, but they cannot be sharpened (as that would remove the titanium layer) and any nicks are a death knell. I have some I use for paper and cardboard.

Handing fabric: you are ‘the boss’

It’s a catch-phrase we use in our classes “you are the boss of your fabric” yet some people have a hard time learning that. Two long straight edges to be sewn don’t lay lined up perfectly? Make them line up. Use pins, this is your first tool in controlling the fabric. “Pinning is winning” is another of our catchy slogans. You aren’t going to hurt it’s feelings, it doesn’t have any. There are a lot of times in garment construction where a piece with a curve is sewn to a piece with a straight edge or less curve. Only by being the boss will your crotch seam or sleeve get sewn the way it needs to.

porcupine! No!

ah! much better, no stabbing fingers…

Pins: both friend and enemy

For beginners, I recommend two qualities in the pins they buy and use: first, ones with big colorful heads. Second: not quilters pins, which are very long. These can be tempting in one may think it gives them more to work with, but it’s using a sword when a kitchen knife will do. Unless your first project is actually a quilt, get ordinary pins. The colorful heads help visually both in knowing where your pins are, but also I intentionally use contrasting colors in order to keep track of them in my projects.

You will poke or scratch yourself with a pin stuck in the fabric. I do it about once per project (which can accumulate to a few a day when I’m really on a roll). Those pins need to be there to control the fabric, so here are a few specific images to help you.

All the pins face the edge to be sewn. This simplifies things mentally as that edge is getting all the ‘action’.

All the pins are not hanging over the raw edge. Porcupines stick their sharp points out there on purpose.

Keep it tidy: 1) put the pins in something

It’s really important to develop the habit of always having your pins in something. Try hard to keep a pincushion near your sewing machine close enough to put those pins in it as you remove them from the thing you are sewing. They are round, they will roll off the table. You are already paused to pull the pin, the half second to stab it into your pincushion will save a toe from injury and your vacuum cleaner hose from being perforated. I have a magnetic pincushion, I like being able to drop them in the general vicinity without worry.

Keep it tidy: 2) trim and toss those threads

I see beginners sew their practice seams, pull out the long tails as recommended, cut them off right at the machine, then leave these long tails hanging off their fabric. Then as they begin the next seam the thread pulls out of the machine and isn’t sewing. This is frustrating. Once the fabric is sewn, it doesn’t need all that extra thread, cut those threads right at the fabric, leave the long tail on the machine.

Then go to the starting point of your sewing and cut off that thread tail and put it in the trash. I see beginners leave all the long tails and say “Oh, I’ll do that all at the end”. I asked several students why they left those long tails until one was able to articulate their thoughts. She said “I guess I’m afraid it will come apart if I cut them off”. Now in our classes we emphasize back-stitching, every start and and finish. Even if you don’t back-stitch, it isn’t going to just fall apart, you have to pull on it, fairly firmly. So don’t let that set in your mind. Cut those tails off, do it every time you stop sewing. Those tails will grab and tangle and twist. They will get sucked down into the machine and cause mechanical problems. Don’t leave them on your table either, they can still cause problem, get them in the trash can. Nothing ruins a vacuum cleaner faster than a couple yards of thread wrapped around the brush. Also, it looks prettier. You feel more accomplished when the half-way stage looks tidy. Boost your self esteem the easy way.

Keep it tidy: 3) keep the coffee at arms reach.

That’s a fully extended arm, arms reach. In our kids classes, they aren’t allowed any liquids on the machine tables at all. Adults are allowed closed type cups (travel mugs) but even then we try to keep them at least 12” away from the machine in all directions. You will be moving your hands and projects through that space, don’t risk your project or your machine with a spill. I personally keep my drink on the table next to my machine, not on the same table.

iced tea, note the 4″ gap between the sewing machine table and where my drink is!

Trust the pattern/ instructions. Actually follow them and don’t add, skip, or change it up.

Understanding comes from doing, particularly when it comes to assembling three dimensional forms. This is engineering in action, it’s not going to come naturally except to a tiny percentage of people. Trust that they already did the complicated thinking and math for you. It doesn’t have to make sense for you to follow it to the letter the first time. Do you really want a geometry lesson? Or just to know that if you line up all the points it will fit over your shoulder?

We do a lined zippered tote in our beginner classes. It’s small, uses plain squares, and gets a variety of techniques under their belts in a fairly short time frame. Once the pieces are sewn to the zipper there is a tendency to think “this isn’t working. I laid it on the table and these squares are all over”.

freshly ironed, but looks wonky

Then they break ranks and grab scissors and start cutting. Don’t do that! Did the instructions tell you to? No they didn’t! Remember that “be the boss” thing? You are still the boss, you can make these pieces line up without cutting a section off.

pinned where it needs to be.

Second, even if you did start with a ragged cut, once it’s turned to the inside, no one is going to see it ever again. Cutting your seam allowance tiny only weakens the seam. Leave it be.

oh hey! that turned out pretty good! 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

I can’t tell you how many times I give instructions on a step, and all but one person starts doing that step. The one just sits there staring at the fabric or the machine. Speak up! If you are flying solo, find an internet forum and post your question. I’ve found sewing forums and bloggers actually some of the nicest around and most will answer your questions several ways to help you understand the step or procedure. Videos and tutorials are good, but feedback is critically important to learning to do it well.

Good luck! I’ll be here saying “Practice, practice, practice”


*Just in case you were wondering: She was taken to the ER, they removed the broken needle tip, gave her a tetanus shot, glued the hole (punctures rarely need stitches), splinted her finger and she was back to work that afternoon. She wore the finger splint for about a week and was tender for two weeks beyond that. Unpleasant, but far from life threatening.

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August 23, 2017 · 3:54 pm

Dear Mr. Gunn, Thank you…

I just finished reading Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible. While I already knew 85% of the fashion history tidbits he so eloquently assembled into the least boring history book I’ve read in quite a while, it’s the effect I had upon looking at myself in the mirror that struck me the most.

First, I relished his attitudes about shape and size, namely; there is no such thing as ‘normal’, and everyone looks good in clothes that fit. When I was young, I had a great figure. Bearing children and middle age put me in a place of struggle physically. When you permanently outgrow your favorite things, it can be daunting to find new favorites that make you feel just as good. He made me realize it is worth the effort to find my new ‘favorites’.

Second, his discussion on jeans made me understand part of why I’ve been so unhappy in the job I’ve had for the last three years that I’ll be leaving soon. While in title, my job is customer oriented, in reality it is very much physical labor. I ruined three pairs of khaki pants before they relaxed the dress code to allow jeans. While thankful that I could wear jeans which would hold up to my job better, I realized being so dressed down conveyed a distinct lack of professionalism. It’s hard to get customers to take me seriously selling expensive products when I’m wearing the same thing as the high school kid who is just a cashier. It’s hard to feel like a professional when there is no distinction. My first boss in my department wore button downs or dress shirts far more often than he wore polos, now I understand why.

I, too, was raised in a very traditional household when it came to presenting ones self publicly, I can honestly say I don’t live in my yoga pants. In high school (pre-yoga pants era) I was horrified by my friends who put on sweat pants the second they got home, and worse, would leave the house in them for activities outside of sports.  If your clothes fit, then they should be comfortable enough to wear all day. I usually only change clothes mid-day if I’m doing a particularly messy task, like gardening or painting. It’s okay to go to the garden center covered in dirt and wearing a sun hat, but I wouldn’t stop at the grocery store on the way home dressed like that. Every time I see someone shopping in a store dressed in work out gear I think “are you counting this leisurely stroll as exercise?”. My inner voice is pretty snarky. I admit I’ve intentionally not brushed saw dust off of myself when heading to the big box home improvement store in order to dissuade the sales people from being condescending. As a matter of fact I do know what I need, I don’t need the third degree from you, dude. I’m the one who owned all the tools when we got married, not my husband. ( He’s handy, just wasn’t raised with the D.I.Y. Everything aesthetic I was). And when I’m there I mentally question the guys who wear shorts to work, unless they are outside in the gardening area. His book made me realize these judgement came from clothing choices.

I’d already decided to leave that job before I picked up the book, but I’m glad I read it when I did because now I’m working on my wardrobe for my new job. My new job is very casual in atmosphere too, but the labor is such that I can wear summer dresses or other comfortable clothes that are not jeans and tee shirts without fear of ruining them. I’m sure I’ll wear jeans to my new job when winter rolls around, but with boots and sweaters I’ve knit for myself, accessorized and dressed up. But now, while it’s hot? I’m sewing like a mad woman to look and feel like the pro I know I am. And I feel pretty, something I’ve never felt in my current job.

Last, he is fiercely in touch with the fact that the average American isn’t buying couture, we can’t afford that. While I’ve developed strong sewing skills over my lifetime I’m very aware that it is not cheaper to sew for oneself as opposed to buying off the rack. The difference is fit and having full control over color and fiber content. So for things like jeans and tee shirts, I absolutely buy them, at Walmart no less. But for dresses and other ‘serious’ clothes, I’m going to make for myself a whole lot more than I have in the last several years.

So, Dear Mr. Gunn: Thank you for renewing my love of clothing. Thank you for reminding me that I can look good in clothes at this size I’m just now getting used to. Thank you for having faith that we aren’t all living in yoga pants. And most of all, thank you for being a voice of reason and encouragement to every woman in America that they can be beautiful and comfortable at the same time.

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The physical work of making things

I love making things. I draw, I paint, I sew both by hand and with a machine, I knit, I crochet, I use power tools to carve stone and cut wood, I do fine finish work on both with chisels, files and sandpaper. All of these things require a lot of the soft tissues in my hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. After decades of hard use, these things are taking their toll. Getting old sucks. I had a physical therapist say to me “I haven’t seen an elbow this bad since that professional baseball player I treated”. I am forced to pace myself and have learned some stretches and exercises that help me be happy in my work as well as allow me to continue to make things with my hands. Most importantly, I’ve learned that making the work space favor me is vital.

  1. Warm Up. Just like an athlete, get the muscles you are going to be using warm before starting on the work. For big things like sanding, carving, and painting I do shoulder stretches, toe touches, neck rolls and my small hand warm ups. Sanding something five feet long requires your whole body, warm it all up. There are a bunch of stretches and warm ups for hands suitable for all kinds of small work warm up. I do these every time:
  2. Set up the work space for the most comfort, When I’m doing hand work like sewing or knitting, all I need is the couch, a light, and a foot stool (I’m short). If I’m drawing or painting pictures I sit at a large work table with an adjustable height stool. I use the same table when cutting sewing patterns, but I stand. If I’m painting large things, especially spray painting, I work outside with drop cloths. I have blocks of wood, old buckets, and bricks to pull things up off the ground, this reduces my need to bend over. I use my pebble filled socks and clamps to position the work so I don’t have to touch it while painting (which also contributes to a good paint job). For carving and power tool use I’m out in the back yard with a outdoor work table, saw horses, clamps, my pebble filled socks for bracing work, my sun hat, and closed toes shoes. Trying to work in a space not well suited for the mess at hand brings stress into the project before you even start that new-to-you technique. The only crafting I have ever done in my kitchen required the stove or toaster oven. I’ve worked on projects at the kitchen table, but it’s not great. Your average dining table is too low to work at standing, and too high to work at sitting. Make the space suit the work at hand instead of trying to force the project into the space. This might mean investing in an adjustable height stool, making risers for your kitchen table, or buying some ugly but really good work lights.  A sculptors stand is awesome if your are skilled enough to build one or have the funds to buy one, they are useful for far more than clay sculptors.–European-Beechwood–Adjustable-Height-MP-35141-001-i1014778.utrecht?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cse&utm_term=35141-1001&country=US&currency=USD&gclid=Cj0KEQjwk-jGBRCbxoPLld_bp-IBEiQAgJaftUg8zqF3FeTqiX3MxEbQfwc9ftTkz0UGelfPYfDzkBgaAoUO8P8HAQ These little guys are magnificent for small table top work: And also: good light, good light, good light. While Ott lights are awesome, they aren’t always necessary, but getting light on the work is. A couple cheap adjustable task lights can make a huge difference in your work comfort.
  3. Position your body comfortably. This means good posture: sitting or standing up straight, shoulders down and back, head up. If you are working standing: bend from the hips, plant your feet wide, keep your knees slightly bent. Move frequently. Walk around the work or turn the work to yourself, don’t stick in one spot straining to reach or twisting and crouching. When working seated, the good posture guideline still applies. When I’m drawing or sewing, I adjust my chair so that I can get close to my work without hunching my back, which usually means placing it slightly above hip level and pushing back from the table. This way I’m leaning my whole upper body from my hips in towards the machine instead of hunching my back or craning my neck. When I’m sewing, knitting or crocheting, I find sitting up straight and bringing the work up to my sight line is best. It’s tiring to the arms, but not painful unless you work past your limits. I know knitters and crocheters talented enough to sit up straight and work with their arms relaxed and their hands in their lap because they don’t have to look at what they are doing, but I’m not one of them. I even know one who is so skilled and coordinated she knits socks on her daily exercise walk around her neighborhood. This is Michael Jordan level body awareness and talent folks!
  4. Know your limits. When applicable, build strength to extend those limits. As previously mentioned, I’ve worn out a lot of soft tissues in my body, the worst damage resides in my elbows. When I start to get the pins-and-needles feeling in my pinkie, I know it’s time to stop, stretch, shake it out, and relax a bit. If I don’t, I’ll soon have a sharp stabbing pain in my elbow that ibuprofen only slightly lessens but does not alleviate completely. I find the vibration of power tools difficult to deal with. I have some shock absorbing gloves I wear, but even then I can rarely work for even an hour at a stretch. I take ibuprofen ahead of heavy work to allow me to work longer. Talk to your doctor about using even over the counter drugs like this. For me, this is a carefully monitored quantity approved by my doctor, a limited number of times per week. I do exercises with small weights to build strength in my hands and arms that has helped reduce my need for therapy and drugs. I also have taken yoga, which has taught me how to really relax my body as well. All these things combine to allow me to keep making art. I cannot slack though, I must exercise and stretch to stay in ‘maker’ shape. That said, I also know makers who never learned how to listen to their own bodies. They worked so much that they did serious damage to the point where the pain is constant and cannot be stopped without surgery. This is often compounded by depression as the inability to make when the desire is strong, is heart-breaking.
  5. Allow yourself to recover. Our swimming pool got really green. The weather snuck up on us this year and I didn’t get out there soon enough to keep it from turning into a scary swap in a time frame that felt like over night. Oh well, I’ve got a lot of scrubbing in the next week. That said, the little bit I did Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon is still with me on Tuesday. I’m pacing myself, but it’s hard work. I’ve got the chemicals in and the scrubbing will be just as effective if it’s done a section at a time or all in one day. It won’t harm to pool to spread out the work. It will hurt me if I try to do it all in one day. Today I’m going to go vacuum the gunge I scrubbed off over the weekend. Tomorrow I’ll scrub new sections. This recovery time is critical to my general well being.

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Hand washing: not a lost art

So, several years ago I wrote up these instructions on and sort of forgot/ lost them. Someone else dug them up because it’s perpetually a pertinent question and I was reminded of my original text. So, for posteritys’ sake, here’s the low down on hand washing.


– choose a washing basin appropriate to the size of your costume: a bit of room to move is best. A large kitchen bowl or sink is fine for most pants or skirts, a bathtub is necessary for ballgowns.

– make sure the basin you are using is clean. it doesn’t have to sparkle but be sure it is free of other soap/ detergent, dirt, or food particles if you use the kitchen sink.

– cold or at least tepid water. I live where it’s really hot, in the summer the water out of the tap is probably about 83 degrees, this is fine. anything cooler than body temperature will not do harm.

– put your detergent in the water and swish it around. Detergent specifically for delicate garments is best, Woolite is the old stand by.

– unfold or spread out the garment, place it in the water as un-mushed-up as possible. Push it down to squeeze out air pockets so the garment is fully immersed.

– Let the garment soak. How long depends on how dirty it is. 30 minutes is usually sufficient to remove sweat and ambient smells like smoke and food. I set a timer, otherwise I forget and wind up rushing through the next steps at bed time because the children need a bath.
= this is where you learn how colorfast your garment is. you will see the color in the water if it’s bleeding. shorten your soak if that is the case.

– after the soak, I go in and carefully inspect the areas most likely or known to have accumulated dirt: hems, cuffs, front center of the chest. I scrub the fabric against itself or use a soft scrub brush (like a nail brush) and more detergent to work these spots. rinse in the soak water and repeat as necessary.
= this is where working in a large basin in the kitchen is more pleasant, sitting on your knees in the bathroom is. not. fun.

– if you are satisfied with the cleanliness, drain your basin and rinse your garment in clear running water. squeeze but do not wring to get the soap out. Some fabrics hold a lot of water and therefore soap, be patient, just keep squeezing til no more bubbles are produced.

– if you drain the basin and it still seems grungy, repeat with a fresh basin of water and soap, letting it soak longer if possible.

– stretchy (spandex, lycra, etc) and knitted/ crocheted/ lace garments should be dried laid on a flat surface. hanging a wet leotard is a good way to stretch it permanently out of shape. Spread a couple bath towels out on a large flat surface (dining room tables are a popular choice) and spread out the garment. don’t fold it over itself, if possible. Lay arms and legs smooth, not wrinkled or twisted.
= [credit to Nathan Carter for the following. I do this but didn’t write it in my original post] After squeezing (not wringing) most of the water out of your garment, lay it out on your biggest colorfast beach towel or bath towel. Roll it up like a jelly roll, and squeeze it (don’t wring it). Sit on it, kneel on it. Then unroll it, block it out to dry on a flat surface or drying rack, and smooth out any wrinkles introduced by the squeezing.
I wouldn’t do this on any garment with a lot of built-in structure that will be crushed out of shape by the squeezing. But on things like sweaters and bodysuits it works well.
-non-stretch materials can be hung to dry. An old wire hangar bent into an oval (or other circular light weight item like a beach ball) can be propped inside the layers of a skirt at about the waist or hips to help speed the drying process for bulky garments like ballgowns by spreading out the fabrics and allowing better air circulation.

– always give yourself at least 24 hours between washing and packing it for travel or putting it away for the next time you wear it. mildew is nasty and does permanent damage to fabric and can happen amazingly fast if even a slightly damp item is packed tightly out of sight. Some fibers hold moisture better than others. I have a hand knit cotton sweater. it takes about 3 days to dry in the AC cooled house.

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Shepherds, Angels and Wise Men…oh my! Church Costuming for the uninitiated.

It’s almost that time of year. When the Four-Year-Olds Sunday School class is asked to all dress as little sheep and the middle school girls are trying to be as pious as possible in order to be cast as Mary. The middle school boys are all slinking to the back praying to be just Shepherds instead of Kings or, worst of all, Joseph. When the pastor is eyeballing all the newborns to see if this year there is a good candidate for a live Baby Jesus. And everyone else gets to be an angel.

It can be a ton of fun or an abject disaster.

I’ve costumed numerous Nativity pageants, in my own church, in friends churches, as well as a professional costumer through a rental company and as commission work. I’ve learned quite a bit about making costumes that last and can be used on different people from year to year. These never go out of print:  No need to reinvent the wheel, they are good-enough patterns, use them. There’s a good chance someone in your church already has a set in their stash. If you are making more than one set from scratch “stack and whack” is a great system. Stack as many layers as you can cut at one time. Thus instead of cutting out one robe, you’ve cut three or four.

Lesson One: Make everything machine wash and dry.

Acetate lining fabric is tempting; it’s shiny, it’s cheap, and it comes in tons of colors. It also frays like mad and melts in the dryer when accidentally placed there by a well meaning volunteer. Stick with polyester cotton broadcloth for all of the basic angel and shepherd robes.

Lesson Two: don’t make sized costumes, especially for animal suits.

It’s sweet that grandma made and donated that sheep suit from this pattern:  But you know what? the chances of some other little kid fitting into it next year are slim at best. And it’s hot. These are far superior for churches: All the classic stable animals can be made including donkeys and camels when done in the right colors. Paired with sweatshirts and leggings it works, the kids are comfortable and the costume parts get used every year. And they take up less room in the closet in between pageant seasons.

For the robed characters like shepherds and angels, go big. Make everything XL Tall. You can belt the skinny guys and hem long robes for shorter players, but starting with big robes gives you the most options for the most people. If your church is large, say more than twenty costumed persons, you can break down the sizes some, say a 50/50 split of Large and XL.

Lesson Three: have a little more than you need.

The three wise men actually need about five or six robes to choose from. In many churches these same robes double as Pontius Pilot and the caliphates at Easter, variety is good. Same simple pattern as the shepherds and angels, just fancier fabrics. Maybe a brocade or a flashy stripe. Otherwise the same three guys get stuck being the wise men every year. Good headgear is also a nice way to differentiate a wise man from a shepherd  from Roman officials a few months later. A recycled Shriner fez (with the name taken off and plastic gems added), a purchased turban (along these lines works nicely, add some jewelry: )  and a fancy keffiyeh make them stand out appropriately from the crowd of shepherds and angels. For the Easter Passion Romans of course the laurel wreaths and the caliph head pieces are very unique and should never double as your Kings headgear.

“Today, a majority of the Arab men wear keffiyeh, also called shemagh. It is basically a traditional square cotton scarf which is placed on the head and secured with an igal. Different tribes, countries and even neighborhoods have their own traditional colors for the keffiyeh.” – Arab News

Lesson Four: Basic robes, fancy shawls and drapes.

If you need 12 shepherds robes, do four each of plain solid colors, maybe a beige, a soft green, and a mustard yellow. Avoid going too dark on any of your basic robe colors, no forest greens or chocolate browns. Then make the draped sashes or over vests from broad stripes or heavily textured fabrics. This is what catches the eye and conveys the idea of ‘biblical shepherd’ to your audience. For younger children as shepherds, doing the simple open vest instead of the drape is easier for them to wear. This reduces fidgeting mid-service.

Get some loosely woven fabrics, cut into one yard+ squares, and get a group of girls to spend the time fraying the edges to make fringed shawls. Having [half or] a dozen un-assigned any-character shawls is always useful. They can be shepherd headgear one year, ladies wraps the next, and baby Jesus swaddling the following year.

Oh, on the belts? Spend the money on good cotton decorative rope from the upholstery section. Get a couple Boy Scouts to put pretty knots in the ends so they don’t fray. And don’t scrimp on length! Kids belts should be two yards long, adult belts three and four yards long! A man in a common 34 waist pants can’t even tie a one-yard robe belt around his waist!

Lesson Five: Angel wings.

I personally an not a fan of ready made wings like these:  For one they look more butterfly  than angelic, but also they tend to be floppy and get bent out of shape way too easily.

If your church has a big budget for real feather angel wings, cool, but don’t waste that money by storing them improperly. Bag them in dry cleaners bags and hang them in a temperature controlled closet. Don’t stack them on the floor, don’t put them in a box in the attic, and definitely don’t leave them in an outdoor shed. It’s cheaper and easier to replace a stretched out elastic loop than the whole set of wings.

Speaking of elastic: don’t. ribbon ties hold better and last longer than elastic loops, plus they adjust to different sized wearers easiest.

For folks who don’t have that kind of budget there are still a lot of options. Some of the prettiest angels I’ve seen used a white fabric cape and gold glitter tee shirt paint; the wings were drawn on the cape in great detail and the kids loved wearing them. Another option that is budget friendly is foam core.

Last Lesson: feet & shoes.

You know what most shepherds wore on their feet in biblical times? nothing! Shepherds were generally pretty poor, shoes were a luxury. Nothing ruins the appearance of your Joseph faster than a pair of Nikes. A lot of people feel weird going barefoot in church, but it’s less out of place in a nativity performance than cowboy boots on your kings and sneakers on your shepherds. A lot of people wear sandals, but a pair of running Tevas is almost as bad as wearing Reeboks. One of the best shoe options for the barefoot phobic types is mens bedroom slippers. The less-than-ten-bucks-at-Walmart kind:  plus they are quiet, no hard soles to clonk and make excessive noise.

A fun little tidbit: Why do we always dress Mary in blue?

Because it has long been recorded that St. Luke painted a portrait of Mary, and in it she was wearing blue. This portrait hung in the Vatican for centuries, DaVinci and Michaelangelo used it as a reference when they did their depictions of Mary. Being on public display, it did not survive, but similar era works closed up in tombs have survived to give us insight to the amount of detail and realism of the time. Some can be seen here:

Good luck and Merry Christmas!

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