Christmas Pajamas: the Ultimate in Deadline Sewing

I wasn’t going to sew Christmas pajamas two years ago.  Until my children heard about it.  They were actually speechless.  Aghast.  Appalled.  Couldn’t IMAGINE a world in which they didn’t launch into bed on Christmas Eve wearing new handmade pajamas.

We work hard not to go (too far) overboard for Christmas, to the point that we only get our children two gifts each.  We stuff their stockings full, though, and I personally love the tradition of wrapping new pajamas and opening them on Christmas Eve.  It makes for a nice preview, and for snappier Christmas-morning photographs.  Side benefit: since we have grown even more fond recently of giving gifts that are experiences over items–our children have gotten tickets for family trips the past three years, and will again this December 25–they can take their jammies with them when we travel, and have a little home comfort while we’re away.

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Which left me, three days before leaving town for a three day trip the week before Christmas that year, when I knew we’d be pulling into the driveway at supper time on Christmas Eve, ironing and cutting out PJs that I didn’t really have much hope of getting done.  Christmas sewing really is the ULTIMATE in deadline sewing.

But their faces!!  Their delight!!  Their wordless devotion to the tradition and warm sense of home that comes from handmade pajamas on Christmas morning:

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This year, I have fabric on hand leftover from…well, past years, let’s not be dishonest.  But!  Score!  I also have a fully completed pair for myself, which I made as part of the Carolyn Pajamas sewalong for the League of Dressmakers last year.


(You can see a slightly-outdated list of pajama patterns here, and find the always-timeless Carolyn Pajamas pattern here.)


I haven’t even cut out the ones for my husband or our children yet.  It’s getting down to the wire–ten days before Christmas is reeeeaaaaaallly close for a sewing project.  That handmade piping from last year’s jammies won’t be making a reappearance this year, which will save me some time, but honestly I found that it made the tops too stiff and the cuffs on the pants bell out in a way that allowed cold air to come in, so I might’ve skipped the piping regardless.


What I won’t skip are the tags.  Those Grumpy Cat jammies on our daughter?  Our son wears them now, and he’s just about to outgrow them.  Our youngest can’t wait for her turn to wear them (“In memoriam, Mommy. Because Grumpy Cat died.”).  I love, love that our kids hand down these handmades, and that when they’re finished wearing them, we can donate them to Goodwill and some other family will know what size they are, and maybe pass them along to their kids, one after another.



There’s a warmth to handmade.  Literal flannel, fuzzy warmth.  And metaphorical, family tradition, heart warmth.  It may require me to sew under-the-gun, up against the clock.  I don’t mind.  I’m investing, in me and in them and maybe in someone I’ll never meet, who needs the warmth.  Both kinds.


I want to share that same investment with you, too. Did you know that we have a vibrant community of makers that solve crime and sew quilts? And a League of Dressmakers where we sew adventurously to create a wardrobe we can feel confident and proud wearing?  None of us have to wait or imagine the investment of our hands–we can see it happening, in real time, and benefit from it today as we build the future one stitch at a time, and we can do that surrounded by others who want to build alongside us.

The year ahead is an open space to establish your own traditions, so that when the holidays roll back around you can reminisce about what you’ve learned, how you’ve grown, and friends you’ve discovered who offered you connection.  My time with these communities has given me that in ways I could never have predicted, and I would love to share the same warmth and encouragement with you!  I hope you’ll come sew with us!

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Solve Crime in the Ancient Pyramids in 2020!

Quilting club heads to Egypt

When I dreamed up the Murder Mystery Quilt, I never imagined even for an instant all the places it would take me.  Around the world, it turns out.

The short origin story of the Murder Mystery Quilt, when I tell it at cocktail parties to people who don’t sew and who think quilts are something they dig out of Gramma’s closet or see in a museum display, goes more or less like this: there’s a product in the world of quilting where portions of the quilt are sewn without ever seeing the finished design, like making a puzzle without the box top lid, but the word “mystery” always made me think, “If I’m going to make a quilt and not know how it’ll turn out, I should at least be solving a MURDER mystery!”  And thus I developed the idea of sewing a quilt to solve a crime.

Murder Mystery Quilt 2020

I launched the project in late 2015, and I don’t really know what my expectations were.  Pretty low, if I’m being honest, but that may have been a little fear-of-failure talking, because I’ve always thought it was a clever, whimsical idea, and I know there are LOTS of clever, whimsical people who sew and love to read books.  I have found the very best of them through this quilting club, and it has grown beyond anything I envisioned, becoming not just a monthly subscription, but also a deep, kind, warm, welcoming, generous community that makes every member feel supported and encouraged as the year goes along.


The comments members send are an unexpected balm for my heart some days.  I did not plan for this group to mean as much as it does to so many of us, but it has made for better quilters, and also for better neighbors and better families and better friends.


In 2018, when the wildfires hit California, the Murder Mystery Quilters banded together to re-make the blocks that three of our members lost when their homes were destroyed.  When they ran out of blocks to sew, they kept sewing, for weeks–eventually making nearly 100 quilts to donate to the local schools for distribution to children who had lost their homes and their daily lives.  It was completely amazing to be part of a community where individuals felt so bound to one another that they cheerfully pushed aside their own schedules in order to do something kind for others–and thanked the group for giving them the chance to do it.


I also didn’t know what a tremendous boost the MMQ would give me creatively.  I get the chance not only to dream up quilt designs, but to create an entire fictional world populated by imagined people, and then link the two.  It’s challenging and engaging in a way that I haven’t found in many other places, and it makes me proud and happy and humbled and excited when I get to share it.

That first year, the mystery I wrote to accompany the quilt design was set just north of where we live in Atlanta, at a place called the Hike Inn.  It’s remote and you can only get there by hiking (hence the name), and was the perfect serene but possibly-spooky setting for a “tea cozy mystery,” which has a limited number of possible suspects and where a detective can get suckered into solving crime, even when she’s not really qualified–a description that suited both my protagonist and me at the time.


The next year, we ventured further along the Georgia coast, to a barrier island called Cumberland Island.  You can only get there by ferry twice a day, and the ruined buildings of the ultra-rich from a hundred years ago spill across a sandy beachscape populated by wild horses.  It was a delectable place to visit and research for the purposes of writing a murder mystery.


The third year, the novel and quilt were set in Jamestown.  Since my protagonist is an archaeobotanist–the area of archaeology in which I specialized when I was in graduate school–it was fun to travel to one of the most famous American archaeological sites and imagine how a small group of professionals might find themselves in very hot water there.  Layer in our damaged heroine’s proclivity for picking locks on the most unlikely doors, and Jamestown was a rich world to mine for story material and quilt design.


This year, we have been on the island of Maui.  The colors and textures of the islands make for an absolute dream for any quilt designer, and have allowed me to create a puzzle quilt for our members that has been a true joy to witness unfolding.  Traveling to Maui to see the volcano and the flora up close was inspiring and surprising and uplifting in ways that translated directly to the emotion of the story and the quilt that goes along with it.


Next year, we will be taking the Murder Mystery Quilt to a place that six-year-old me dreamed of but never really believed would be a reality for me–maybe a little bit like grown-up me felt about the MMQ to begin with: we are headed to Egypt.  We spent ten days in the land of the ancients last summer researching the landscape, the colors, the textures, the flavors, the scents and the peoples of the desert, and it was spectacular.


Researching these quilts is magic.  In Egypt, we explored the Cairo Museum and we crawled through the Great Pyramid and we leaned our heads way, way back to look up to the tops of the columns in Karnak Temple.  But we also had long conversations with locals who understand more about Egypt than just the Ancient Egyptians, we visited the mosque and learned about modern Islamic Cairo, we spent time touring with an Egyptian Egyptologist and discovered that the entire country is basically one massive excavation waiting to be opened up.  All of that ended up in the story, in one way or another–not just the place, but the people.  And it shows up in the quilt, not just the colors but the vistas.


I am so grateful for the chance to see parts of the world that fascinate me, and to translate those into quilts that every member can make their own as they sew along with us each year.  The community we have built together is filled with smart, thoughtful, funny people who are eager to help one another and to form friendships over reading and sewing–it’s just my dream group, and I feel absolutely honored to be launching it again for another year!
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You can learn more about the Murder Mystery Quilt on our site, and you can JOIN TODAY.  We start our first quilt block for 2020 on January 11, so you have plenty of time to sign up and collect your fabrics, meet new friends, and get excited about spending the year solving crime with us.  I can’t wait to sew with you!

Recursive Sewing

I have a clear memory of a single conversation that changed the way I see the world.  The initial memory is of feeling frustrated and defensive.  Then the scene skips to a moment when my husband, before he was my husband, says something that grabs my ears and won’t let go, something that makes my brain skitter just a bit, causes me to hold my breath and experience a sensation that I can only describe as twisting a kaleidoscope and suddenly seeing that what was chaos and jumbled color as geometric shape and order.  Pieces falling into place and making things clear.  A sensation of peace and conviction and the absurd obviousness of a solution I’d struggled to find landing squarely in my lap.

That revelation was an important moment for me, both because of the content of that particular conversation specifically, but also because the insight I had that day is an experience that every human shares: sometimes, it takes seeing things from a new angle, which can take only a breath or a syllable, to change how we view the entire world.


There is an on-going conversation about how social media reflects the highlight reels of our lives.  And it is easy to experience envy or even shame–that sense of worthlessness when compared to others–because what we are sewing isn’t as excellent as what is being showcased on someone else’s grid.  The woman in Austin you look up to busts out the perfect summer top in under an hour.  The dressmaker in Los Angeles parades past in flawlessly fitted handmade jeans.  We beat ourselves up because we don’t think we measure up.

Creativity, though, isn’t about making something once and moving on.  It frequently requires re-making, visiting the same idea again and again to edit, to refine, to eliminate elements until only the core is retained.  A garment isn’t complete because you finished sewing it; a garment is complete when wearing it sparks a sense of elation, when it provides you with congruity because it allows your insides to match your outsides.  That doesn’t happen quick-and-dirty.  That happens when an iterative cycle of making-and-making-again takes place, establishing a foundation then riffing on the melody to build to a crescendo.  When we twist the kaleidoscope and see the act of making things in a new way: FAILURE IS GOOD, because it creates the solid ground on which we plant fresh seeds.


In mathematics or programming, this is called a RECURSIVE exercise.  It’s a shape that forms as an equation is carried out over multiple repeats, an increasing mirroring of a predictable pattern, headed away from the center or toward the baseline.  It can be a spiral or a fractal or the branches of a tree, a root system or the symmetry of a musical composition.  Each new repeat leads in a more focused direction, carrying the pattern forward, more refined with each reprise.  These initial attempts, though smaller, are essential to build the geometric form on which the larger, more obvious repetition is constructed.  The least visible portion of the pattern becomes the foundation.

It takes effort to remember that those fabulous, showcased garments weren’t first tries–in fact, one of my favorite phenomena in sewing is the “tried and true” or “TNT’ pattern: a pattern made by one maker over and over again until it requires no refining or finesse to create another spectacular finish in a fraction of the time. I love that those makers have INVESTED IN FAILURES in order to build for themselves a personalized, curated collection of designs that they know will fit them and please them every time, by making garments that DID NOT FIT, where refining was necessary and required analysis and objectivity and self-compassion and grit.


We, from the outside, see how quickly they made that pair of jeans or that spectacular dress.  What we don’t see are the versions in the garbage can because the darts were too low, or that were Frankensteined because they were too big in the bust but too small in the hips, and they gaped around the waist.  We don’t see the expensive fabric they destroyed because they didn’t make a test version first.  We ONLY SEE the finished product, the larger impact of the design once complete.

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Around and around is a good thing, despite the fact that it looks like we aren’t making progress.  I have repeatedly told students that the first time they try ANYTHING it will feel excruciating.  My ice skating lessons were a dismal failure, almost entirely because they made my inner thighs ache, so I quit rather than experience that discomfort.  My gymnastics classes did NOT result in my immediate transformation into Mary Lou Retton, due largely to my desperate fear of going upside down.  I wanted the immediacy of results that can only, ever be achieved with effort OVER TIME, by pushing through discomfort and into new territory, by risking failure as we reach toward satisfaction.

Doctors tell their patients: bad things happen fast, good things take time.  A train wreck is a matter of minutes, and the recovery is a matter of months & years.  I’d rather take the slow, with the promise it holds, than the fast, with the destruction it carries.  Wouldn’t you?  Which is more excruciating: the waiting? or the recovery?

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The world around us is filled, almost beyond measure, with examples of recursive geometry.  Nature appreciates that in order to achieve a lasting shape, a lasting result, a stable structure, we must build upon ourselves again and again.  Oliver Wendell Holmes got it–he knew that “as the spiral grew, he left the past year’s dwelling for the new.”  We can’t grow unless we leave behind what was before, but we can’t leave it behind UNTIL WE LIVE THROUGH IT.

Sewing is about sewing, y’all, but it’s also about who we are and who we want to be, and seeing the literal and figurative patterns that will get us closer to our desires.

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There is an element of fear in all endeavors.  And I am guilty, maybe more so than the next person, of avoiding trying things without the certainty that I will be successful.  I mean, THAT’S JUST LOGIC.  Why would I try it if I KNEW I was going to fail??  But I am seeing now, with more failures behind me, that we will always fail, and that our successes are never guaranteed.  We will never see the next horizon without leaving the last one behind, and if you think that’s a stretch for a sewing blog and that philosophy has no place here, you have never stayed up well past midnight ripping out stitches on the same mistake for the fourth time and discovered that you are caught in a mental loop of self-doubt that threatens to swallow you so completely that you couldn’t have staggered to your bed if there was a road map.

Keep sewing–it’ll happen to you, too.  But you have to keep sewing to break through that wall.

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Make it wrong, you guys.  MAKE CRAPPY CLOTHES.  Only by doing that will you learn where to take in the side seams and where to lower the darts, where to raise the hem and where to change the button placement.  Only by doing that will you learn what YOU like, what suits you, what makes your heart beat in jubilee.  Only by doing that will you understand why some projects fail, or don’t measure up to the idea(l) in your head.  You will learn how to see your insides match up with your outsides by trying and trying again to sew them into alignment.  AFTER that, with all those miles behind you on the same pattern in different fabrics, THEN you’ll get that Insta-worthy garment–and so much knowledge, confidence, satisfaction, and wisdom.

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Oliver Wendell Holmes again: “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul…Till thou at length art free.”

Those “great” seamstresses?  They aren’t better than you.  They’ve just been doing it longer.  Talent doesn’t count for jack out there, Jack.  It’s tenacity, perseverance, stick-with-it-ness that wins the prize.  BE GUTSY.  Going around in circles isn’t a waste of time: it’s an exploration of the route that shows the best road to take to get to your destination.  Don’t discount the tremendous value of learning the same lesson two or three or four (dozen) times.  That last one will be the time that shifts the kaleidoscope and offers you an entirely new vision of the world and your place in it, as a maker.

Sewing and Self-Compassion

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Years ago, I was teaching a sewing class to brand-new seamstresses.  It was an introductory class, and there were six women there.  I gave my usual second-day-of-class pep talk, and then outlined instructions for the next project we would tackle together before sending them off to the cutting tables with their fabric to work independently while I circulated and offered individual help.  It was a relaxed evening, and everyone was in good spirits and excited to try something new.

When all the other students got up and left the table, one woman remained.  She sat with her hands in her lap, under the table, her head bowed low to look at them.  She was very, very still.  Now, I’m not terribly gifted at reading other people’s body language, but even I couldn’t miss that this was a woman exhibiting signs of distress.

I sat next to her and in my best cheerful, please-let-this-be-nothing-because-I-lack-skills-here tone, said, “What’s up?”

And she says, her voice extremely quiet and filled with tears, “It’s just that I’ve been trying for three years to have a baby and I can’t get pregnant, and I just can’t have this be one more thing I’m a failure at.”



That is heavy stuff.  She was hurting, and her pain was very real and very deep.  It wasn’t about sewing, but it was also about sewing. You know?

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Quilt and Solve Crime in 2019!

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Four years ago, I had a wild idea.  I didn’t really think anyone would go along with it, if I’m being honest: who on earth would think a MURDER mystery quilt was a fun idea?

Not just me, it turns out.

Mystery quilts have been around forever, of course.  The idea that you’re building a quilt block by block, but without knowing for sure what the end result will be, is exciting and challenging in equal measure.  It asks us to trust the designer, trust the process, and maybe surrender a little of the perfectionism and second-guessing that plague anyone who works to create something new and beautiful.

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For a long time, I would ask, sort of as a gag, “Why make a mystery quilt when you can make a MURDER mystery quilt??”  In my head, in ways I didn’t really confess to others (because I haven’t always gotten good results out of wearing my heart on my sleeve, and this seemed like one of those times when sewing was about MORE than sewing), I liked the idea that not only would we then be surrendering the gremlins in our heads that poke insecurity and uncertainty into our creative endeavors, but that also the pieces could go together to answer questions.  It’s all for fun, it’s all pretend, but y’all: there are days when I will hitch my wagon to ANY illusion of certainty and control in this unsteady world.  Are you picking up what I’m putting down?

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Personalizing with Patches


I have self-diagnosed as having a massive patch problem.  I am a patch addict.

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I’ve written about the satchel-style backpacks I made for our children who vigorously pursue the Junior Ranger program at every National Park we visit.  They love these backpacks, and so do I (especially now we’ve upgraded them with an interior zipper to give it more structure and prevent their treasures from falling out).  But they have rapidly run out of space for new patches–we have taken trips to Southern California, Colorado, Kentucky, and Virginia in the past 14 months, and visited a stack of National Park destinations in each, so in addition to seeing the properties nearest to where we live here in Atlanta, we’ve added a couple dozen more park patches, and suddenly find we have no remaining backpack real estate on which to put them!

Compounding the problem is that there are so many great organizations supporting the National Parks since the centenary, and many of them produce patches of their own.  One is Every Kid In A Park, an initiative founded in 2015 under former President Obama to fund a program allowing every family in the US with a fourth grader to receive a free access pass to all the national parks for the year (that program runs through August 2018, and there is some question as to whether it will be renewed, so if you have a fourth grader this coming school year, jump on it while you have the chance! the program also applies to homeschool families with a ten-year-old this school year).

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Emerson Shorts in moss linen

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When our family took a trip to Maui this spring, I started packing pretty late in the game, for me: only a week ahead.  Because, for real, I get SO EXCITED when we travel that I am honestly thinking about packing weeks in advance, and have to hold myself back to only start putting things in the suitcase seven days before the wheels come up on the plane.

And the thought of spending a week on Maui in the last days of winter, with my family??  SIGN ME UP.

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Lost Project: Beatrix Top in Liberty Cotton

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This is the Beatrix Top from Made By Rae, which I made up in Liberty lawn before ever making a muslin, and learned a valuable lesson.

The pattern itself is really excellent—I love the sleeve styling and length, and the buttons up the back (mine are faux, see below).  The pattern also includes adjustments for various cup sizes, which is great if you’re someone who always needs a full bust adjustment every time you sew up a new pattern.  Here’s where I went wrong, though: the bust adjustment used most frequently doesn’t work for me.  So I made up a “muslin” version of this top in the final fabric and didn’t take into account that I wasn’t sure the shaping would work for me.  #sadtrombone

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Lost Project: Liberty Lawn Tuxedo Tank Top


This particular Lost Project actually got a lot of screen time, just not publicly: I originally drafted this pattern for my League of Dressmakers, and we worked with it in various capacities for a few months in 2016, and then re-visited it in 2017.  I used one of my all-time favorite Liberty of London lawn prints to sew this up, and honestly, if my budget allowed it I would probably have an entire closet filled with nothing but Liberty, linen, rayon and jeans.  I might be 95% serious about that.

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Florence Kimono in rayon–with cherries!


I have a truly absurd number of garments hiding in my closet.  Things that I’ve made, for myself, over the past few years that have never been shared or blogged about.  Or more accurately, have made it on to my Instagram feed, but have never been written about at length in a format where I can actually archive them and make them searchable, like here.  I’ve been calling them Lost Projects.

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