#aggressivelyambitious and the Handmade Wardrobe

I did a personality profile recently.  Not like an online quiz kind of thing, but like a detailed personality assessment with a 39-page analysis and a person-to-person de-brief with the consultant.

It was so, so fun.birkman pages

I mean that completely un-ironically.  I LOVE test-taking.  LOVE IT.  Always have.  I would get all a-twitter on days when we had standardized testing, I thought it was like a treat, like Christmas coming early and ALL FOR ME.  I thought the PSAT was a PARTY.  (Side note: I am not normal.  I embrace and delight in this.  My personality profile told me so.)

The point of all this is that for the most part, my personality profile was RIGHT ON.  It really gave me big insight into how I function under stressful conditions, and how others can speak to and direct me to greatest advantage.  It was angled toward workplace interactions, and included a “cheat sheet” for how supervisors could successfully meet my needs and get the most efficiency from me–how to structure assignments, how to provide feedback, how to reward effectively.  It has also proved to be really useful for me and my husband, who also took it, offering us unexpected tools for how to understand one another when we’re having trouble communicating.

I did have one beef with the results, though.  During the de-brief, most of what I heard was unsurprising.  But the analysis characterized me as “aggressively competitive,” which isn’t how I think of myself.  I tried to embrace it, half-jokingly, for a few weeks after, but then I had an epiphany.

teddy roosevelet quote

I am competitive, I don’t have an issue with that.  I don’t think women should apologize for being competitive or wanting things–I am mildly offended that women, historically, have been encouraged to be passive, and all the talent and drive that has been wasted by that particular social pressure.  What I realized as a result of my resistance to the label, though, is that I’m not competitive with OTHERS.  I’m competitive with ME.  I want to win, but not at your expense–I think we can ALL win, and it’s not important for me to beat you so much as for me to achieve objectively.  I know I will push myself to win, but not by pushing you out of the way; I push only because I really, really like to succeed.  As I said to the consultant, “I don’t have to be perfect.  I just like to be reeeeaaallllly excellent.”

Winners compare their achievements with their goals, while losers compare their achievements with those of other people.  –Nido Qubein

So I’ve begun to think of myself as aggressively AMBITIOUS.  I like to set giant goals and then see how close I can get to them.  It’s exciting.  It’s why I like tests to start with: I want to see how I measure up, not against YOU, but against an objective standard.  I’d love it if you and I could cross that finish line together and celebrate side-by-side, because I completely believe that there’s room enough for all of us–but make no mistake: I fully intend to cross that finish line.  I won’t sweep your leg or anything, but I’m here because I have Stuff To Do.

olga korbut quote

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about sewing clothing, specifically about mastering the art of FIT.  It’s been a rejuvenation of sorts, largely inspired by the League of Adventurous Dressmakers and the lessons we’ve been exploring together this year.  I’ve been so inspired and excited to make things for MYSELF, for FUN, and it has gotten me really going on making a new wardrobe that makes sense.  (I wrote more about it here.)

ambitious wardrobe all

These are the fabrics I’ve selected.  Yeah.  That’s a LOT of fabric.  It’s ambitious, yes?  I was thinking of it as a summer wardrobe, until I realized that I’m making an ACTUAL wardrobe.  An everyday wardrobe.  My whole wardrobe.  My ENTIRE wardrobe–because there is way too much here for just the summer months.


bo jackson quote

The trick is to balance that ambition and vision with my own issues with greed.  I have also discovered, less through the personality profile and more through observation of my own behavior, that I really struggle with wanting MORE.  We already have a lot.  (Truth check: if you live in the Western World, you ARE the 1% compared to everyone else on the planet, so no matter how little you feel like you have, you are blisteringly rich.)  I don’t want my days and my life to be driven by consumption, and take a very dim view of those who blindly acquire with no recognition of where those goods come from or what cost they have beyond the dollar price–and if that’s the case, then I have to also be honest with myself when I look in the mirror, and at my fabric stash, and at my closet.

So the next logical question is: do I NEED all this stuff?  Yes, it’s great that I want to explore the idea of fit, and that I want to build this wardrobe, and that I’m setting this goal for myself and seeking to achieve something so ambitious.  But do I NEED it?  Have I just replaced mindless spending with mindless sewing?

dieter rams quote

I think about this again and again.  And it derails my plans, over and over.  In fact, those stacks of fabric have been right where they are today for weeks (granted, I was out of town for four of those weeks, but I don’t doubt that all those fabrics would have remained there regardless).

Of course I don’t need all this stuff.  Be serious: for thousands of years, people have gotten by with one or two sets of clothing.  All these garments are a mark of status and wealth, not a necessity.  But how do I find harmony between “need” and “want” in a modern age?  I mean, we’re NOT living thousands of years ago, and we DON’T get by with one or two sets of clothing.  So how much is enough?  When does need cross the line to want and then become greed?  And in the space between meeting needs and avoiding greed, how much room is there for artistic expression and creative outlet?

abitious wardrobe above

I don’t have an answer, y’all.  I’m just working all this stuff through, and hoping to gain something that resembles a working solution.  Today, looking at these piles of fabric, what I can get my brain around is this:

  • there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have nice things
  • having more things than you can reasonably use is the line between “want” and “greed”
  • handmade is only better than store-bought if it continues to allow me to get closer to the ideal of sustainable garments that generate pleasure in the making and the wearing
  • thrift store garments can meet the same goal, and are often quicker than sewing, but can still exhibit inferior fit or poor workmanship from factory production
  • too many handmade garments is as wasteful as too many store-bought ones (although I appreciate the fact that at least handmade removes mass-production from the equation)

In the short term, then, until I can develop some kind of over-arching Comprehensive Theory of Garment Making, my answer is that for every garment that comes into my wardrobe (or off my sewing machine), it must function in two ways:

  1. Any garment must fit into a niche in my wardrobe that fulfills a need and is aesthetically pleasing–that is, it must be both functional and beautiful
  2. Each garment must either replace an existing garment or fill an empty “slot,” keeping the total volume of garments relatively low and creating a selective environment in which pieces are heavily edited to keep only the best

ambitious wardrobe close up

I find these requirements very satisfying.  I don’t THINK I’ve drafted them specifically to allow me to still make EVERY garment I have planned with these fabrics, but I can’t promise that.  The human ability to rationalize is legendary, and there’s every possibility that I’ll look back on this post and shake my head in horror at my own naïveté.  But for now, with the amount of perspective I can gain, this is what I have.

I hope to be #aggressivelyambitious about making beautiful clothes, for my own pleasure and without greed, about placing QUALITY over QUANTITY, about working slowly to make lovely things I’m proud to keep for years.  I think I can have a mostly handmade wardrobe without having an ENORMOUS wardrobe, keeping the very best pieces and investing in fabric & construction techniques that will give me pleasure when the piece is created as well as when it’s worn.  I’m guessing it’ll be just as much fun as sewing massive quantities of stuff, but vastly more fulfilling.

What about you?  Has your sewing met a crossroads with your personality or your values at some point?  We’re all figuring it out, and I’d love to figure this out together with you.

Supertote Backpack with Leather Handles

super tote

I have never made a bag I liked nearly as much as this bag.  It is possible I have never OWNED a bag I like nearly as much as this bag–and I am deeply emotionally attached to my yellow full-grain pebbled leather Ralph Lauren satchel with brass hardware, so that’s saying something.  This is the Supertote pattern from Anna of Noodlehead, which I originally bought thinking it would be a great shape for a ballet bag for my girls (spoiler: it will be), but then realized would also make a great backpack for me for our upcoming family travels.  BOOM.

above supertote

The pattern has a recessed zipper, which is technically optional, but why would you not use it?  While the instructions have you cut it with the lining fabric, I wanted it to blend with the exterior, so I cut the recessed zipper and the upper part of the lining of the same fabric as the front and back of the bag–Anna’s genius design makes that super easy to do, simply by cutting the same pattern pieces of different prints.  No adjustments or fiddling with adding seam allowances, just swap out your fabrics!  SO GREAT.

front pocket supertote

I spent a ton of time thinking about this bag before sewing it.  One of the things I keep yammering on about with my League of Adventurous Dressmakers is how revolutionary it is to make the leap from “I want to sew ALL THE THINGS!” to “I want all the things I sew to be SPECIAL!”  That bleeds over into every area of your sewing, and you end up make a LOT fewer projects, but the ones you do make are really, really wonderful.  And I suspect that over time, you get faster at doing a great job on great projects, just as you would doing a quick job on mediocre projects, you know?

Anyway, so I spent a lot of time scrolling through the #supertote and #supertotepattern hastags, looking at how folks had combined their fabrics.  And I read through the instructions (whaaaaat!) multiple times, to really understand where each piece when and what it would look like at the end.  So when it came time to cut the front pocket and the bag front, I dumped my original fabric selection and chose this Field Study linen/cotton blend by Anna Maria Horner instead–but NOT for the bag front.  Since the bag front pattern piece is technically BEHIND the outer pocket, I used a mid-weight herringbone twill in tomato for that, along with cutting a full lining for the front pocket.  With the fabric I saved, I was able to fussy cut the upper bag front and the front pocket to make the print across that segment seamless–so it looks like the pocket front is one with the bag front, and you just get a peek of the tomato lining.

The front pocket is piped with purchased piping that I had on hand, and there’s a magnetic snap on the pocket upper edge–again, Anna makes that optional in the instructions, but mag snaps are EASY once you figure out how to install them, and they make everything look so professional.


PROFESSIONAL is the big word here–I really wanted this bag to look like it was made professionally.  Not run-of-the-mill store bought, but really well-made.  I decided to cut into a hoarded piece of leather that I bought a few years ago from Leather Unlimited (which is near us in Georgia but ships all over).  This isn’t an expensive or fancy piece of leather–it’s real cow hide, but it’s split grain, which means it was split through the center of the hide to make it thinner, and then embossed with an ostrich (??) pebbling.  Bing thinner made it very easy to work with, and gives it a weight like a heavy canvas.  I still interfaced it, though, and I don’t know if that’s legit–I used the same Shape Flex woven interfacing as I used for the remainder of the bag on the leather, which gives it nice shape and stiffness but still allows it to feel supple, like real hide.

I loooooove the leather.  It raises the results of this bag to a whole ‘nother level, and makes me feel like a zillion dollars when I carry it.  I chose NOT to use the leather for the strap, since I knew I’d be carrying this on our travels and wanted something super soft and padded, but did use it for as many accents as I could.  So simple to work with–I used the same needle (I would have switched to a leather needle for full-grain, but this was thin enough that I didn’t need it) and changed to a matching thread every time I sewed the leather.  I changed thread a LOT for this bag, and IT WAS SO WORTH IT.  I can’t encourage you to take the extra 4 seconds to switch your thread strongly enough–it totally raises your game.

leather supertote handles

The rest of the bag is interfaced with ByAnnie’s Soft and Stable.  It’s expensive, I admit, but the shaping and softness combined with ease of sewing really can’t be beat.  This whole bag stands on its own with no trouble whatsoever, but is soft and pliable and was a snap to sew, even through all the layers.  I really needed that support for the weight of the leather, and don’t regret the $15ish I spent on the product–of which I only used about $5 worth, because I have loads leftover for another bag.

The handles are leather, too, adding to the weight but taking the visual impact to WHOA.  I shortened them significantly from the pattern, which calls for a 10″ drop–I like to hang my bag on my elbow, so I wanted a shorter drop for that, and I don’t want the handles to droop when I carry it as a crossbody or a backpack, so a shorter handle was in order.  I cut these to 15″ length and spaced them 4″ apart instead of 4.5″ as in the pattern, which gives about a 6″ drop.  It’s perfect.  It won’t go over my shoulder, but fits fabulously on my elbow, and the handles don’t stab me in the back of the neck when I wear the bag as a backpack.

making leather handles

To make the handles, I stuffed in some 3/8″ piping along 7″ of the leather, centered, and then sewed along the edge.  Because leather doesn’t fray, I didn’t need to turn under the edges, which makes it SO EASY to work with–but in this case, I did turn under 3/8″ along one side to avoid having the raw edges bite into my hands too much.  I wanted it as comfortable as I could get it.  I sewed along the edge to trap the piping, then angled the seam off a little at the raw piping edges to make sure it doesn’t slip or shift.  The lower edge of the handle was left flat to insert into the front and back of the bag.

leather supertote

To add the strap and make this a convertible bag, I added D-rings at both gussets, right over the pleat.  Just a small flat square of leather for these, with an X stitched through the center.  The hooks are from Hancock, which is going out of business.  I added the rings BEFORE the lining so I could work with fewer layers and get them really centered, then followed Anna’s suggestion to stitch a bar tack at the lower edge of the pleat THROUGH the lining to anchor it in place. Worked like a charm.

supertote backpack

I also added a D-ring at center back and two more, one at each lower curved corner, so I can carry this as a backpack.  I’ve seen a few different folks post this idea, and particularly eyed the placement used by Bumblebee Bliss Bags for the lower rings.  Everyone I saw put their upper ring really low, which I was worried would make the bag sag too much, so mine’s a little higher.  I will say that if I have a single disappointment, it’s that it STILL sags a bit, and if I did it over, I’d put the upper ring in the seam between the bag front and the lining, which would pull the front UP and support the weight of the backpack a little better.

supertote Liberty lining

The lining itself is Liberty of London lawn.  Yep.  LIBERTY LINING.  Because I am done hoarding my favorite fabrics.  I want to use them and see them ALL THE TIME.  So I busted out the very last of my favorite Liberty print for this project and I AM SO GLAD I DID.  It’s amazing, and I get to see it every day for the rest of my life because I AM NEVER PUTTING THIS BAG DOWN.

covered zipper pull

The only other major change I made to the pattern was to install a number of pockets before I started sewing.  All of these went into the individual pieces after they’d been cut but BEFORE assembly began.  This one is on the back of the bag, and is designed to be a hidden passport pocket, where we can keep important documents in a way that’s un-pickpocketable.  Because it’s on the back, I didn’t want to get stabbed with the zipper pull, so I added a little cover at one end of the inset zipper opening to tuck the pull inside when the zipper is closed.  It’s just a small square of folded fabric tucked behind the opening before the zipper is topstitched in place.  I love how it takes the look up a level!

supertote interior pocket

There’s another hidden zipper on the interior.  This one didn’t need to be hidden necessarily, but it’s super high up and hides behind the recessed zipper fabric a bit.  I did that deliberately because the Liberty is so lightweight and I didn’t want it to sag when things were in it–so I needed the upper edge to be caught in the seam above it.  I could have cut a bigger pocket for behind the zipper, but instead I just made the pocket really high up.  I like that I can put my coin purse in here and it would be tough to lose or have fall out or misplace.

hidden zip pocket supertote

The final zipper seems to be everyone’s favorite–and it’s totally mine.  It’s another inset zipper (made the same way I make them in my Pockets e-Book), but instead of just covering the zipper pull, I covered the whole thing.  And I cut the fabric that covers it carefully to match the pattern exactly, so this one’s nearly invisible.  I got the idea because I didn’t want to break up the pattern on the fabric of the front pocket, but I really wanted a zippered pocket here.  So I thought I could do a VERTICAL pocket with a zipper, and put it off to the side.  The hidden part came after I covered the other zipper pull, and is SO FUN.

hidden zipper

The lining on this pocket is also the same as the front pocket, this great tomato herringbone twill. Yum!  It’s easy to access and I like that it goes sideways.  It’s just the right size for gum or keys.

I failed to follow all of Anna’s directions, but it actually worked out for the pockets.  I fused all my Shape Flex to my pieces, but then didn’t see that I was supposed to baste my Soft and Stable–and then when I got ready to add the gusset, was all, “Um, when do I use my fancy interfacing?”  I added it AFTER the pockets, but that worked out because it supports the pockets from behind without interfering with them.  Boom!

front pocket support

I also took the time to baste the upper edge of my vertical pocket to the front pocket piece, so it won’t sag inside, either.  I really hate when the weight of what I put IN my bag makes my bag less pretty, and this step took so little time.  Totally worth it.

supertote strap

The strap was made of a 50″ piece of the fabric from the body of the bag, and has another piece of Soft and Stable inside to make it padded and a little stiffer.  It still slides through the buckle just fine, but it’s really comfortable.  I left the bottom 4-5″ on each end with NO interfacing, so they were easier to sew around the hooks.

super tote

Watch my IG for notes on how this bag performs on the road!!  I’m already carrying it everywhere and have used it in every configuration except backpack.  I can’t wait to take it all over on our walking tours and be totally comfortable.  Thank you, Anna, for an awesome pattern–one of the few I can honestly say I see myself making multiple times again!

Note: I paid for this pattern and was not asked to write a review.  This is just how gushy I get when instructions are super clearly written, a design is cleverly thought through, and all the pattern pieces are cleanly drafted.  One of the best bag patterns I have ever used–you’ll love it!

Jen Aniston tailors her tees: Fit is Fabulous

jersey rosettes on bamboo tee

One of the most revolutionary “Hollywood secrets of the stars” I’ve ever read (well, maybe the ONLY one) was the interview where Jennifer Aniston was asked where she gets such flattering tee shirts. Instead of directing people to a $300 tee (like Gwyneth, bless her heart), probably made by an 8yo in China who wasn’t getting an education, Aniston admitted, “The trick to t-shirts is I that I usually tailor them. Which is silly, but it works.”

What the WHAAAA?!? SHE HAS SOMEONE MAKE THEM LOOK JUST RIGHT FOR HER. Like, a regular tee shirt, just MADE BETTER. But for whatever reason, making the leap from understanding that, and actually DOING IT FOR MYSELF has been really hard.

I hadn’t thought about this in a long while until I wrote recently about that moment when hand-making ALL your clothing becomes the new normal.  My mother left a comment about how even when she buys off the rack now, she chops and snips and adjusts to make the thing she found in the store be THE thing she wants to wear all the time.  As she put it, “It’s a little daunting to wield those scissors the first time. But when you see that now you have a garment you’ll actually WEAR, you become courageous.”

I’m sure the delay in my getting this idea from my head all the way into my gut, from an idea that I embrace conceptually to a deep part of me that is a reflex and a foundation for other ideas as I grow, has been some kind of self-worth/getting older/blah blah blah thing.  I recognize now that I frequently saw my own hand-made things as LESS: less worthy, less valuable, less special, more easily replaced, not as needing of care.  The transition isn’t that suddenly now I know that I can alter clothing or patterns to make something JUST for me–it’s finally seeing the items that I made with my hands as being as good and worthy as something bought at a store.  It has also been a process of letting go of some designer’s idea of how long/tight/short/whatever that particular garment ought to be, and knowing (like Audrey always knew) what looks best on MY form. And that what looks best on me IS right.

I have become, in recent months, obsessive about fit.  I still love the nit-picky details of construction, and the immediate biochemical feedback I get when I nerdily master a new sewing technique.  I doubt–I hope!–that never goes away.  But I have found the same reward, now, in exploring the idea of FIT in the garments I’m making.  I feel like I’m excavating a whole new layer, and it’s exciting in a way I didn’t expect.  I want every item in my closet to FIT ME, to flatter me, to be something I look forward to wearing.  And if that means that I have fewer items in my closet, then so be it.  I’d rather have a few things that fit FABULOUSLY than a zillion that I skip over while looking for something better.

Even when it’s not completely handmade, everything we wear can be made JUST FOR US.  With patience and with a willingness to take a little extra time to alter and tweak and refine, everything can be tailored to our shapes. The same is true for every pattern you make: it’s a template for making a garment, not a definition of the garment to be made.  You can use that template to adapt the fabric to your own form.  It’s not about how GREAT you are at the machine.  It’s about the value you put on the things you are creating, and your desire to make it BEAUTIFUL.

That feels like a shift in paradigm.  I don’t think it is.  It’s not new, I’m sure of that.  But it sure does feel like a shift to solid ground.  It feels courageous.


Come Sew With Me at QuiltCon in Savannah!


Hooray!!  Yesterday, the schedule for next spring’s QuiltCon was finally released.  Yay, yay!!  I can hardly believe how fast it’s coming at us, and that it’s already time to register!

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Stephanie Kwolek: A Great Woman In Sewing

stephanie kwolek

Stephanie Kwolek isn’t the first name that springs to mind when you think “famous seamstress.”  But her scientific contributions have made more impact on our world that you might think–and it all started with a sewing machine.

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When Making Your Own Clothes Becomes the New Normal

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 11.45.34 AM

And then one day you catch yourself thinking, “Well, sure.  Of course I’m going to make my own underwear.  I mean, why didn’t I think of that sooner??”

But let’s back up a bit.

I came to sewing as someone who makes clothing.  I didn’t start out making quilts or bags or even really home decor.  I thought sewing WAS making clothing, for a big chunk of my life.  All the other stuff came later.  But even as someone who came into sewing making clothing, it never occurred to me to make…ALL my clothing.  ALL of it?  Like, ALL all??

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Knitted Ballet Legwarmers and the Magic Loop

handknitted leg warmers

I finished my first sweater and cast on stitches for a second sweater.  I know!  Not only that, but this second one is TO GIVE AWAY.

ballet leg warmers

So the standard is a little higher.  I really, really want this second sweater to be gift-worthy.  When I made the Agnes Sweater, I flew to Pasadena and knitted most of the body along the way.  I was juuuuust about ready to knit the sleeves on the flight home, and didn’t know how to use double-point needles.  I asked Jaime of Fancy Tiger at a knitting-and-coffee session she hosted, and she said she NEVER uses double points since the learned the Magic Loop.

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In the Ring: Rowenta vs the Gravity Feed Iron

For nearly ten years, I have used and strongly endorsed Rowenta irons.  They’re heavy, which is a good thing when you’re sewing and seeking to press rather than iron.  They have a steel sole plate, which heats quickly and evenly for good results on the fabric.  And they have a solid steam function that really shoots steam into your projects.

But in the past two or three years, Rowenta has really been leaving me cold, if you’ll pardon the pun.  The issue: leaks.  Oh, the LEAKS!!  I have absolutely had it with my leaking iron.  That water is HOT, y’all, so not only is it splashing and sputtering all over my project when it’s on the ironing board, but it’s dropping on my feet and scalding me.  My feet!  Unacceptable.

So a couple weeks ago, I’d finally had enough and decided to put the suggestions I’ve received to the test.  Instead of getting another Rowenta to replace my leaky iron, or even another brand of iron, I upgraded to the gravity feed iron, in hopes that I’d never have to carry a pitcher of water from my kitchen to refill my reservoir ever again.

Today, then, in the ring: the Rowenta versus the Gravity Feed Iron.whipstitch asks which iron is best

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Finished: First Sweater!

I finished!!!

first sweater

My very first knitted sweater is all done.  Well, mostly done.

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Rosa Parks: A Great Woman In Sewing


I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama.  The earliest school memories I have celebrated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March from Selma, and the Civil Rights movement in a very personal and immediate way.  We drove past the sites of these historic events on a daily basis, and it was an ever-present part of my childhood–both the vestiges of racial tension and the legacy of the changes in our social fabric wrought by Civil Rights leaders short decades before I was born.

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