monkey pants hat

I got a pair of pants from America's Thrift that were really nice for less than $2. They're a small welt corduroy and have some details and interesting hardware that made me think they were expensive at one time. They were a 32x30 which is both too wide and too short for me so as I bought them I was thinking shorts.

I don't much like making men's short pants. They take all the same effort as a pair of pants if not more with all the pockets and detail work. Men's shorts are cheap to begin with new and very cheap used, not to mention that they don't change from year to year. I wear my shorts until I can't hold them together with mending anymore which means they usually last five years or more.

I am getting low on shorts at the moment which is why I was shopping the pants rack. Pants make the best shorts sometimes and finding a 30 waist without regard for length is much easier than finding the same waist with a 35" inseam.

This is all beside the point because the point is actually the hat I made from my pant's cut off legs. I had to piece together a few scraps to get large enough pieces and I used my cool monkey fabric on inside. I also put a little monkey on the outside. I like this idea of adding a bit of interest to the outside, I'm not sure if it's cute or dorky in this instance however. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

The hat itself is unfortunately not wearable, not be me anyway. Since the Kwik Sew 2935 uses 1/4" seam allowances I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to try to serge most of this project. This would have worked out great except in my over confidence I neglected to mark the round pieces with quarter markings. So you can see the results of this with the twisted inside lining and wrinkly brim where it attaches to the hat band in some areas. I can somewhat get away with this using the sewing machine since the pieces are easier to ease in but obviously not with the serger.

Rocketeer update


So in one of those flashes of inspiration I figured out how to use the heavy thread with the Singer 500a. Like I mentioned before the problem is getting enough tension on the top thread to pull the bobbin thread loop up into the fabric.

This machine has duel tension disks for use when using two threads, lot of machines have these. My inspiration came when I thought about running the super thick thread through both disks, effectively doubling the tension. After some adjustments to both upper and lower tension I was able to attain perfect stitches with thick thread on heavy denim!

Now that I've done some additional stitching with this machine using some various fabrics and threads I have to say I'm even more impressed. While the motor does not seem particularly strong what the gearing does give it is torque, this translates to good piercing power at the needle end.

Something else I've noticed is that it is almost impossible to skip a stitch with this machine. This might be due to it's being a rotary hook instead of oscillating but I can't be sure since this is my first rotary hook machine. Either way it stitches over elevation transitions beautifully and has no problem with stretchy rayon Lycra blends.

I still am not fond of the sound this machine makes, it's somewhat intrusive compared to all my belt driven models. Also the lower tension adjustment screw is not easy to manupulate and I feel like eventually I'll wear it out. Seems best to choose what weight thread this machine will use most often and leave it set for that.

American sewing expo entry

There was only one men's pattern to choose from in the top pattern contest making the Kwik Sew 2935 Men's Shirt & Hat the obvious choice. Kwik Sew puts out

some nice patterns, they're printed on regular paper, have good basic styles, and great
instructions. One especially
nice touch is the use of 1/4" seam allowances where appropriate.

I was on the fence.... I had never sewn this style of shirt because to me this style of shirt reminds me of stuff they sell to tourists priced 3 for $10. It's missing the collar stand and the front button plackets are not sewn closed. After I was done sewing it I admit I had a bit more appreciation for the simplistic design and easy construction. It's a great shirt to sew for someone who isn't picky about such things and may never noitce

The design lends itself well to Hawaiian style
shirts so that was my loose theme. Since this is such a simple shirt pattern being submitted alongside much more elaborate women's wear patterns I wanted to make it bright and noticeable. I figure I could get points in creative or even judges choice.

A few weekends back I picked up this pink sheet at Amercia's Thrift. I'm attracted to this fun vintage sheet because it was
only a few bucks and I already own the same print in different colors. I've bought the orange twice now but blue and pink have only come
around once.
I figured I'd use pink as the main color and splash around the other colors where appropriate.

The surprise in this sewing entry for me was
the hat that's also included with the pattern. What fun it was sewing a hat, I had no idea! You cut all these circles of fabric, interface them and start sewing in circles. Eventually you end
up with something like an inside out ball with the brim inside, magically as you pull it right side out through an open slit your hat appears! I've made three now and I'm not stopping.

Notice the buttons match the white flower on the sheets. I picked these up a while back at a Daphne Fabric & Lace where they have a whole wa ll of new old notions. After picking the fabric I started looking through my button collections for something appropriate and these were the only
choice. You can access the gallery with larger photos here, or play the slide show below.

my first feature length sewing video

So here you have it, my first attempt at a full length instructional sewing video. This is absolutely a low budget film. I did my best to squeeze every last bit of quality from my extremely simple equipment and I think I did a fairly good job.
I've never done any type of video editing before and this proved to take up most of the time. I used a trial version of Pinnacle Studio and found the program easy and fun to work with. I shot the video twice, once for each camera position so in the end I ended up with two garments and an hour of footage for each. Getting this cut down to under 30 minutes was my goal but I wanted to show each step without assuming someone would know to do the other side the same as the first.
I'll be interested to see what the reaction is? I've already got some ideas for my next attempt and I'm thinking of adding an additional camera so I can capture both camera angles at once.
I'm always grateful for critique, suggestions, requests, and anything else you want to toss my direction.

You can also access all my YouTube videos here:
Part 1

Part 2
Part 3

Singer Slant-O-Matic 500a the "Rocketeer"


I was just telling Peter, my sewing buddy and fellow vintage sewing machine aficionado, that the next machine I'd like to add to my collection was a Slant-O-Matic. This surprised him since I am not the biggest Singer fan and Peter absolutely knows this.
The Rocketeer is an assault on even my eclectic taste. It is strange breed of machine and that's exactly why I needed one. First attraction came when I discovered these Slant-O-Matic machines are fully gear driven, which means no belt. In theory gears sound much stronger and study than belts but considering that almost all sewing machines still utilize belts I have to wonder. Researching further I discovered that the machine also included another of my must have features, needle position setting. That sold it.
I check craigslist every day for sewing machines because I'd rather buy local then pay to ship heavy stuff around. This area does not have a strong showing in the vintage sewing machine

department and I assume it's because most of them are still in use. Wouldn't you know it, today I find the listing for my Rocketeer and it's within a 20 minute drive. The gentleman was selling the machine for his grandmother and she wanted $100. This barn find has been sitting in the original owners home with little or no use for years since she had given up sewing ages ago due to failing health. The bobbin I found in the machine tells the story. It was wound with two different colors of thread and what you see in this photo is how it was wound all the way down to the core. While unwinding the thread the direction switched multiple times, no wonder she threw in the towel. I think when we start winding bobbins like this it might be time to tell more stories of sewing than sewing itself. Either way I'm glad she finally decided to part with her beloved Rocketeer.
My first explorations were curious as I carefully unscrewed the top lid and opened the bottom panel. The machine was either hardly ever used or it had been serviced before being put away for the last time. There wasn't a speck of lint or thread fragment anywhere in the machine. It also did not have the build up of varnish that comes with years of oiling. A very clean machine, if not a bit musty smelling.
First off a lock stitch is a lock stitch and it would be impossible for someone to determine what specific machine it was stitched on by looking at just the stitches after the fact. Sewing machines create these stitches the same way but the execution can be different between manufactures. This is why some machines have a following and some do not.
This machine has some functional elements that set it apart from any of my other machines and makes it somewhat unique. I'm not sure if these features are worth paying inflated ebay prices for or not.
  • Gear driven, it's interesting I'll give you that. Stronger or better, no. The motor itself is not particularly strong in this machine.
  • Darning, on the Rocketeer you don't drop the feed dogs, you raise the needle plate. This is a bit strange but I don't see any disadvantage to this system besides the uneven machine bed surface with the plate raised.
  • Zigzag stitch uses a cam on the permanent cam stack instead of the usual levers inside the machine. It works for embroidery stitches on other machines, why not zigzag?
Embroidery stitching on Slant-O-Matic 500 is also a somewhat unique setup. Inside the machine are seven metal cams with one of those being the zigzag function and the ability to add another removable cam on top of the stack. The stitch selector knob on the front of the machine has two parts so you can make selections on the left and the right simultaneously.

The top part of the stitch selector knob moves a metal finger to the desired cam and as the cam turns the bumps and dips in the surface are transmitted through the finger to the needle bar moving it back and forth. That part functions the same as most other cam operated machines from this era. What I find unique is the addition of the second selector on the main stitch design knob. It allows you to choose another cam to be used simultaneously with the first giving you an even more varied embroidery stitch. Now you have to remember that the cams on this machine only control the stitch width function so all your embroidery designs are variations of a zigzag stitch. It can only get so fancy. Still it's unique to me.

The test this machine failed on is one that few machines I've come across can manage. It's the really thick thread test. The needle thread creating the top stitching looked fine but the bobbin thread was too loose. I've discovered that the trick to being able to use super thick thread is upper thread tension. It takes a LOT of tension to pull the bobbin thread up into the fabric layers. This machine just didn't have it and that's ok. The stitching with standard weight thread was beautiful and consistent so that's just fine. This machine also has a drop in bobbin which is not convenient when you need to adjust your lower tension often like I do when i switch thread weights. Having seperate bobbin cases with tension adjusted for different threads is much easier.

Sewing with the Rocketeer feels and sounds much more machine like than most of my other sewing machines. I assume it's the gears but the sound it makes is that whining machine sound. It reminds me of a radio controlled toy car. Unlike other machines I own, especially the Japanese made variety, the Slant-O-Matic has very little momentum as you're sewing, when you take your foot of the pedal the machine stops almost instantly. This does make it easy to control your needle up/down by tapping the foot pedal to advance the machine half a stitch.

Something else I really appreciate about this machine is that it is steady at any stitching speed. I have a few machines that at certain speeds bounce all over the place. The Singer doesn't vibrate at any speed.

All in all it's a wonderful addition to my collection and I'm excited to sew a few projects with it. I'm now on the search for a Pfaff 332 and a vintage green Elna of some sort. Of course I'm always on the look out for a Dressmaker with needle position selector, these are fantastic machines.

homemade spray starch


Yes, my frugality has come to new levels as I now cook up my own spray starch. Using spray starch while you're sewing is great because getting sharp creases is essential to getting perfect stitching. I have the standard can of heavy starch and that's great for most quick and easy starching.

Sometimes I would find myself applying layers of starch to get the stiffness I needed, this usually caused flaking and scorched starch on the iron. So I admit that it's more than being frugal that has led me down this path.

Researching how to get a stiff press without all the layers I found many references to liquid starch and homemade starch. Liquid starch can be bought in the grocery, look up at the top shelf where they have all the old time laundry solutions. Liquid starch, liquid bluing, fels naptha, etc.. Sure I could buy it premixed but that seemed a bit boring. I wanted to make it myself. After all what does a box of corn starch cost right?

The methods to making your own spray starch fall into two categories, the raw and the cooked. Wasn't that an FYC album? It seems that many people use the raw method and it works fine for them. This is a simple procedure of mixing raw corn starch with water. It can't get much simpler than that! This method has the drawback of needing to be shaken before use since the starch will tend to settle. I have not tried the raw method so I can't say how the starch itself performs compared to the cooked method.

The cooked method has many variations and this is probably because it's hard to mess up. The most basic recipe involves mixing about half a cup of corn starch with a few cups of water and cooking it for at least 20 minutes. This will create a concentrate that you further dilute with additional water. The idea for me being what's the heaviest starch I can make while still being able to spray it in some form of mist. Cooked starch stays suspended and does not require shaking before use.

I'm being a bit vague with the directions here because I think it's best to experiment and find the best method that works for you. I do have some insights! If you fail to stir your starch enough while you cook it then it will create a thick mass at the bottom of your pan. I made this mistake and fixed it by running it through the blender until it was perfectly smooth as chunks will clog your sprayer. Speaking of spray bottles, if you want to spray heavy starch get a heavy duty sprayer that's not going to break down.

Many of the older recipes I found call for the addition of borax.
Since many of us see borax in the laundry section of the grocery we assume it's a detergent but in actuality it's a mineral, and a salt of boric acid. In detergent it's used as a water softener and laundry sweetener. I've started using it again in the laundry and I do like it's effects.

Why use borax in spray starch?

Well the old recipes mention that it has the affect of creating shine or modifying the finish of the starch. However after doing more research on borax I think it's actually due to it being a preservative, both an anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agent. Your homemade starch will go bad without the addition of a preservative, borax is a cheap and effective choice. I added a tablespoon to my recipe but I'm experimenting with using less.

Another ingredient you may want to consider adding is alum. Alum supposedly makes your starch whiter and helps create a crisper finish. More importantly it has good antibacterial properties will will also keep your starch from going bad. I used about a tablespoon of alum in my recipe. The best source for alum I've found is the Asian grocery where alum can be bought in bags very inexpensively. Alum changes the physical properties of the starch making it more viscous allowing you to spray heavier starch then if you didn't use alum in your recipe.

Homemade spray starch is different than what you buy in the aerosol can and how you use it depends on how dilute you made your starch to begin with. Like I said I made my starch as thick as possible but still sprayable. This starch is wet. It reminds me of getting my hair cut as a kid and getting sprayed down with the spray bottle. If you think you're going to use it while you're sewing think again! It will drench your fabric and your ironing board with slimy starch slurry and you'll be wondering why you signed up for this homemade stuff to begin with.

I found the best way to use this type of starch is by doing it ahead of time. When clothing or fabric is wet from the washer take it outside and spray it down with starch. If you have a clothes line this is ideal for fabric and hangers will work for shirts. Then let it dry. When you iron use enough steam to soften the starch but not enough to make it sticky or slimy. I have also sprayed dry fabric with great results, the advantage being able to see where you've sprayed and the fabric sucking up more starch.

So there you have it, homemade spray starch. It won't replace the aerosol can in my sewing room but it sure is a welcome addition. I'd love to hear some specific recipes people use or other liquid starch techniques. I've heard of actually dipping fabric in starch which sounds like some extremely stiff fabric. I also saw some recipes using rice flour instead of corn starch.

RTW/Designer KnockOff Large

So there you have it, I won the contest for my Levi's 514 knockoff jeans. You can read more about it by clicking the logo.

I've got quite a few items on my plate coming up in the next few weeks. I've been working on making some semi-professional instructional movies which has been sucking up almost all my time. Working with everything from lighting to movie editing software there is so many new tools and techniques to learn. The first movie is more practice then anything else since I made a lot of mistakes. I need to get some titles and transitions in it tomorrow and I should have it posted and playable by Monday.

Something else I'd like to do is a homegrown weekly sewing show. Less formal then an instructional video, I'd like to create a time where I can talk about my week in sewing. New notions I've discovered, sewing projects, some quick techniques, etc. I'm sure the format will morph on it's own once I get started.

I finally got my Organ 125/20 sharp needle in the mail. Wow, they are huge and quite sharp. Interestingly I noticed that the eye is smaller then the Schmetz universal 120/19 Nancy shared with me. I can't tell if the groove is the same size or if one is bigger. Speaking of looking at needles.... For the life of me I cannot see the sizes printed on sewing needles. It might as well be invisible! It's time for me to invest in a magnifying glass because I have a pile of half used needles that could be used up if I knew what they were.

Well I am very happy to win the contest. It is quite an honor to be recognized by the same people whom I was in awe of only a year ago. I have received some very generous public praise and even some private kudos in my message box. Thanks!

Today, let's talk needles.

In the beginning most new sewists choose a universal needle. The point on a universal needle is something between a regular and ball point offering decent stitch quality under a wide range of sewing conditions.

There are better options, however.

The range of sewing needle choices beyond universal is boggling at first: there are sharps, ball point, twin, jeans, stretch, wing, leather, and more.

Skipped stitches on fabric with Lycra content was what prompted my first exploration into choosing different needle styles.

Courtesy of Threads Magazine November 6th, 2008

It is a common misconception that you should choose your needle size based on your fabric. In reality, you should choose your needle size based on thread thickness. The thread must fit in the front groove of the needle; when checked it should not be too loose (which causes skipped stitches) or so tight the thread sticks out, causing the needle to get stuck in the fabric as it withdraws.

Just because the thread fits through the eye does not mean it will fit the groove. Refer the the needle diagram at the left. Since you choose the thread thickness based on your fabric -- thick for jeans, thin for dress shirts, etc. -- your needle will correspond to your thread and will somewhat match your fabric. However if you were to sew heavy denim with an all purpose thread, then a 75/11 could work just fine. A thinner needle actually penetrates thick materials easier due to its sharper point and thinner shaft.

Needles are marked with two sizes, European and American. The larger European number refers to the needle's diameter, and the smaller number (after the slash) refers to it's American equivalent. The American number is an indicator of needle size but does not actually reflect any true measurement.

When you're new to sewing, there are so many techniques and skills you're building that choosing the right needle seems less important. There will come a point on your quest for perfect stitches, however, when all the other variables in stitch quality have been fine tuned: you can no longer make any adjustments to your machine, use any better thread, or improve your technique. The only variable will be your needle.

You will now be able to explore how different needle styles affect stitch quality.

I order my needles from a professional dry cleaning catalog ( I choose Organ needles, an excellent brand available at a reasonable price. Organ needles are available only in sharps (regular) and ball point because professionals generally use one or the other. If I'm sewing something with Lycra Spandex then I choose a ball point; for everything else I use a sharp.

Schmetz is a brand that caters to the home sewist and offers some additional (and welcome) choices. They have a sharp that goes down to a 60/8, which is an extremely delicate needle good for tiny stitches with fine thread. I also have a Schmetz universal 120/19 that has been working better for me then the 110/18 jeans needle. I also just discovered an Organ 125/20 sharp that should allow me to use extremely thick thread more easily.

I'd like to stress how important it is to change your needle frequently. If you take a new sharp and a ball point of the same size, I'll bet you cannot tell which it is which just by feeling the point. Damage and wear to the needle point is microscopic. As you sew, the needle point will penetrate the fabric thousands of times, wearing down the point and affecting the way the needle sews. If the needle point at any time lightly hits your needle plate or presser foot, it's ruined. As it is difficult to judge actual sewing time on a specific needle, one, or at most two projects, depending on your stitch length and fabric, is a good measure of needle's (ideal) lifespan.

Don't be penny-wise, pound-foolish: change your needles frequently!

How NOT to wind a bobbin

I see this mentioned in from time to time in sewing books, but I don't think it's given the importance it deserves:

How you wind your bobbins will affect your stitch quality, and not in a small way.

When you've been sewing for a while, you will start to refine your skills. One skill you will probably work on is your stitch quality, or what I like to call "the quest for perfect stitches."

You may find yourself with a magnifying glass examining your top and bottom stitches, looking for flaws or inconsistencies. Perfect stitches define your skill as a sewist to others. Style and taste will vary, but stitch quality is universal across all fabrics, threads, and sewing projects; you can't fake it. Show your project even to a novice with limited sewing skill and the first thing they'll do is scope out your stitches.

Perfect stitches are achieved by manipulating the delicate balance of tension between the top and lower thread. Any number of seemingly insignificant changes can disrupt this balance. If you've chosen the right needle for your thread and wound a proper bobbin, you need to set the bobbin tension for your lower thread weight and than adjust your upper tension to find the perfect balance. Sewing through different layers of fabric will require tension adjustments, as will changing the stitch length.

Remember, these techniques will help you to perfect your stitches; this may not be your top priority.

If your machine uses a bobbin case rather than a drop in bobbin, then the tension spring can affect how the thread feeds. If when you pull your thread straight out from the case it feels jerky, that can degrade your stitch quality. You might try switching to a different bobbin case or a smoother thread with less fuzz, as it's the fuzz that's catching on the metal edge of the spring that's the cause.

The proper winding of a bobbin requires patience and skill. The instructions are simple: wind your bobbins slow and even. This takes more time and attention but the results are well worth it. I often challenge myself to see how slow I can go while maintaining even speed. It's harder than you'd think!

To understand why slow is good, we need to consider why fast is bad. Winding a bobbin fast is fun; people are always talking about how fast their machine can wind a bobbin. There's something about putting an empty bobbin on the winder, mashing the pedal to the metal and watching the thread fly onto the bobbin in 5.4 seconds! I'm sure it's the same part of our brain that enjoys knowing 0 to 60 mph of vehicles. The reason why this is bad is because high speed stretches the thread. The polyester thread most of use sew with has stretch capacity, which makes stitches stronger and resistant to breaking. When the bobbin is filled at full speed it puts tension on the thread, stretching it as it winds. This stretching is not permanent however: the thread shrinks back when you unwind it.

This recoiling to the original length takes place as you sew, pulling the bottom thread tension tighter. What's more, the speed you wind determines the stretch, so if you press the foot pedal up and down, changing speed as you wind, you will end up with areas of more stretch and less stretch on the same bobbin. This causes tension issues that cannot easily be compensated for -- a nightmare.

The way to be sure that you're not creating inconsistent bobbin tension is by winding the bobbin very slowly. The first time you do this it will seem to take forever (maybe all of a minute!), but the satisfaction of perfect stitches is well worth it. You will notice that by winding bobbins slowly you cannot pack as much thread on the same bobbin, so you may have to wind more bobbins as you work on your project. If you touch the thread on the bobbin, it should feel slightly squishy. This squishiness is the sign of a properly wound bobbin.

A perfectly wound bobbin is just step toward achieving perfect stitches. Take time to enjoy the process, knowing that while other sewing skills might be more challenging, you are mastering a fundamental skill many advanced sewists lack.

Let's look at bobbin cases

I want to shed some light on a sewing machine part that's rarely discussed though critical to successful sewing: bobbin cases.

A common lock stitch sewing machine (like the one you probably use at home) uses two threads that "lock" in the fabric to produce a stitch. One thread is fed over the top of the machine, through tension disks, thread guides, and pickup levers, before reaching the eye of the needle.

It's this top thread most of us pay the most attention to since it's what's visible on the outside of our fabric and it's also right in front of us as we sew. But the top thread is only half the stitch. The bobbin or bottom thread makes the stitch complete.

The bobbin thread is wound on a metal or plastic bobbin, placed into a bobbin case and inserted into the bottom of our machine. Most home machines use what's called a class 15 bobbin and unless you have a drop-in bobbin system, the bobbin is inserted into a bobbin case before being inserted into the lower thread hook area.

Most of us hardly ever think about this bobbin area until it's empty of thread or there's a problem with our stitch quality. If the problem is the bobbin thread tension, this is adjusted by tightening or loosening the little screw on the outside of the bobbin case.

While there is definitely a manufacturing standard when it comes to a class 15 bobbin cases (or they wouldn't be as universal as they are), one clear difference is the tension spring design. This is the area where the class 15 standard allows a manufacture some leeway in design -- in fact, it seems each one is different. I think of thiis little tension spring as the business end of the whole bobbin case: it regulates the feed of the lower bobbin thread -- the other half of the perfect stitch equation.

When you pull the thread from the bobbin case you can feel how evenly the thread feeds. Remember that the bobbin thread is fed straight up at a 90 degree angle from the tension spring. At that angle the thread rubs aggressively on the edge of the tension spring. How does it feel to pull the thread at this angle from your case? Ideally it should offer smooth resistance without much catching.

Some tension springs have a rough edge that seems to catch the thread as it pulls, creating uneven catching and drag. This causes uneven stitch quality, as some stitches are formed when the bobbin thread gets caught and others not. It's difficult to compensate for this.

Other case designs start out with proper tension but the faster you pull the thread the lighter the tension becomes. While sewing slowly all seems fine but the faster you go the more your stitches are pulled to the top of your fabric -- not good.

Some cases also have a larger or smaller hole in the center for fitting over the hook shaft. If the hole is too big it can cause the bobbin case to shift around excessively, causing a racket but not affecting stitch quality. If the hole is too small it may not even fit on your machine's hook or just be difficult to slide on and off.

In the video below I explore a range of bobbin case designs and point out some of their differences. If you're doing everything right and your stitches still are not coming out perfect, examine your bobbin case and consider trying another one.

The top thread is only half the story.

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