Dress Diary: Mardi Gras Italian – Putting It All Together

The basic pieces of the dress are done: the underskirt is all pinned into the completed skirt, the bodice is all ready with the waist seam allowance ironed under, and to have a wearable thing, I just need to attach them. If you are doing attached sleeves, attach them to the bodice before you sew the pieces together. I’m doing tie on sleeves because they’re period, and I hate sewing sleeves. Plus, I just have to make one really fancy reversible pair to be forever a Super Fancy Lady. I had wanted to do obnoxious shoulder loopy things, but this is war sewing, and I am already behind schedule.

Before you attach the skirt and bodice, put on the bodice and tug it roughly into the right place, then put on the skirt and check yourself out in the mirror. This is your last chance to easily add or remove any details, like ribbons or edgings. The pieces are really easy to work with separately, and kind of like wrestling a drunken octopus once you’ve put them together. Make sure your look is balanced and that any design choices you made look balanced on YOUR body. If you’re busty, pin those bodice details on and check them before you sew them down since that’s the biggest culprit for things on paintings of Italian dresses that inadvertently make you look weird in real life. (Ok, holding the severed head of John the Baptist would make you look weirder, but badly placed velvet boob rectangles are a close second.)

In my case, I took off the gold ribbons I had planned to run up the front of the purple split front and up the bodice. They weren’t very visible from a distance because it was shiny on shiny, it looked a little off balance over my bust without also having the neckline edged in the same ribbon (oh HELL no not doing that at this point) and sewing them was going to add more time than is worth it for a detail that doesn’t make much impact.

Pro tips for attaching skirt to bodice (you’re almost finished!!!):

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1. Change to a heavy duty needle and some serious business thread before you sew through layers of pleats and bodice and linings since it’s easy to have MANY layers of fabric in there. Machine quilting thread or upholstery thread isn’t a bad idea.

For example, where the line goes through this, there are 8 layers of pleat to go through, plus 2 for the bodice, which is ten. Only those raw edges have been serged at the edge and folded in to reduce satin’s notorious fraying. It’s a very, very thin fabric, so the machine will do it, but the actual count on layers at the thickest points is 26, including the ribbon that the skirt is anchored to. My pleats are positioned so that’s kept to a minimum (more like 20), but this is a sewing expedition your machine should be equipped for. This is an extreme number of layers, and my simple linen Italian working class dresses are maybe 8-10 layers.

2. Sew slowly and patiently so you don’t break a bunch of needles in the process or do a bad thing to the innards of your sewing machine. This is like driving up the mountain in second gear. It’s why after breaking a couple of the under-$100 machines doing mighty sewing, I saved up some and sought out a used machine with metal gears instead of plastic. And I learned to slow down and use the right thing for the job.

3. This is often a place where pins don’t really work for holding everything in place. There’s too much fabric, so they warp and bend and can easily cause problems with the seam laying right when you’re done. It’s easier to be patient and hold things where you want them with your fingers, bit by bit. When I was sewing these together, I needed a couple of pins to get it started, and even then had to be careful about them making everything lie awkwardly.

4. Absolutely take the time to turn under the raw edges at the bottom of your bodice and iron them towards the inside with a generous seam allowance before you start. That way you KNOW the waist will look nice and straight, and there’s a lot less effort when you’re actually sewing them skirt into it. You can just sew the skirt to the bodice without turning, but it creates a big, bulky ridge of skirt that is now pointing perpendicularly at your belly. You’ll wind up having to fix that with top stitching, which is quick. However, it never ever looks as good as it would have if you’d spent five minutes with an iron.

 

Dress Diary: Mardi Gras Italian Skirt

photo 2-fixedThe skirt was just going to be a simple knife pleated affair with the rest of the purple fabric. There’s a lot of this fabric, and it’s too tall to just run around with one selvage in the bodice and one as the hem. So once I cut it down and sewed the pieces together, I wound up with five yards of skirt. Clearly, I’m a very fancy lady of means. *hair toss*

THESE THINGS HAPPEN WHEN YOU’RE NATURALLY JUST FABULOUS, OK? Ok.

This is not my first pleating rodeo. I have learned hard, sad lessons. Measure a sturdy piece of 1″ grosgrain ribbon the same circumference as your bodice. Mark the halfway point on your ribbon and pin the halfway point of your skirt to this spot. Now you start pinning your pleats to the ribbon. It’s a stable method of attaching them and inserting them into the bodice. It also makes it really easy to adjust how big they are or how they’re spaced because you’ll know if there’s an issue before you get to the end of the skirt. It’s easy to hold up your ribbon and make sure you like how the pleats fall on your body, too. It usually takes me more than one try to get the pleats right, and this time, I got all five yards just perfect on the second try.

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See this fancy lady? Those dark stripes are called guards, and they’re usually velvet. Velvet is expensive and evil and requires handwork to look right. One day I will buy velvet, make strips and lovingly stitch them on with my hands. Today is not that day. I had intended to do satin ribbon stripes, but then I did all the pleating without thinking about that part. Italian skirts are rectangles, so adding these stripes is absurdly easy, IF you remember to do it BEFORE you pleat anything. I never remember. The guards are actually helpful in weighing the skirts down, giving nice drape, and in being some fabric reinforcement in the bodice over where you put your lacing rings. A big solid one at the bottom is an easy way to either fix where you didn’t have enough fabric to make the skirt full enough and long enough or to refresh old dresses whose hems have spent too much time on the ground.

I resigned myself to a plain skirt and a plan to tie on some existing gold sleeves to make the thing all Mardi Gras. But then I remembered some cream polysilk embroidered with gold fleurs-des-lys that I had in the stash. The drape is horrid, there’s only enough for half a skirt (or sleeves?), and ohmywordy’all – now it’s a split front Italian with a fancy underskirt with bands of gold satin ribbons carefully placed between the rows of fleurs. Woo! Maybe it’s wrong to put such a French motif on an Italian dress, but I don’t really care. It’s going to be pretty, and I’m finally using up a bunch of stash yardage.

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I’ve decided to run the gold ribbon up the split edges of the skirt and up the bodice. Here are a couple of paintings* from the first half of the 16th century showing two common treatments with a split bodice and a split skirt edged in contrasting fabric. Googling Renaissance portraits of Italian women will show you every variation on this you can think of. Anything I do is arguably “correct 16th c. Italian”. Whether the effect is worth the effort is the main question. And the fact of the matter is that I had planned to knock out a dress in maybe a maximum of three hours, but this plan is deteriorating rapidly (we’re well past the three hour mark) in the face of all the cool stuff I could do to make this the fanciest of all the dresses.

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Bottom line – I need to tie more green into the dress for it to be properly Mardi Gras. Adding green velveteen ribbon strips into the mix is an option, but I think too many ribbons will do unflattering things over the bodice. Or worse, I’ll wind up looking weirdly like 70’s supergraphics paint effects have taken possession of me. My guess is that it would all together wind up being a solid band of alternating gold and green vertical stripes 6″ wide across the whole bodice. I’m a big, curvy girl and can pull off some bold things, but that might be too much for anyone to pull off. I certainly don’t see any examples of a chest full of crazy ribbons in paintings.

I think keeping the vertical ribbons simple and working the green into the sleeves and maybe a necklace is probably the best and easiest way to manage my time and up the Mardi Gras factor.

*The lady in gold and red is Raffaelo Sanzi, c1505: Lady with a Unicorn. The lady in all green is an unknown Venetian from around 1520.Plus there’s the part where I’m lazy and don’t want to hand-sew on or carefully line up

Dress Diary: Mardi Gras Italian Bodice

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With all the travel I’ve been doing for the current reign, a trip abroad and a cross-country move in the summer, and the general instability of not knowing when I’ll get a job in Savannah, we’re trying to be really smart with money. So war sewing is almost entirely from old bits of things in the stash. Maybe the yardages are weird. Mostly, they’re fabrics that are pretty but made from dead dinosaurs, purchased at breath-taking discounts when I started playing and knew less than I do now.

There are some rolls of fabric in the back of the studio closet, and one of them is a beautiful polysilk dupioni satin bought the week after my first event. It’s heavy, drapes beautifully, and the wrong side of it has just the right texture and sheen amount to be almost indistinguishable from real silk. Better still, it’s a shade of purple that I KNOW I can get with natural dyes in a couple of different ways. The photos below are a true representation of the color. It’s perfect for an Italian (my pattern is at the bottom of this post). And a nice Florentine dress is perfect for war sewing because it’s fast and really flexible and forgiving on how much yardage you have to work with. I planned to whip something out in an evening, trim it with some gold ribbon I have left over from the wedding, and move on to even more sewing.

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HA! A friend is making a purple and gold entari, some jokes about making Mardi Gras garb ensued, and now it’s become A Thing Which Is Happening For War. I modified the bodice pattern to add some fabric around the inside of the neck opening a little so there’s less chance of bra straps showing and more room and stability to tie on sleeves.

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photo 4And – a totally new thing for me – I decided to use the lightweight interfacing I have in my stash for some reason. The gold one I did is lined in a really heavy fabric, and I love how secure it is and how much it allows me to have the right shaping and smoothness I see in portraits. The more experience I get, the more I find that there’s a good reason people tell you to do things, like use similar fabric weights together, or take the time to line garments, or to pick the right needle, thread, and stitch for the fabric and seam type.

So the interfacing is an experiment. The internet made it seem like it might be a good idea, and looking at the layers inside the bodice of my wedding gown backed up that guess. A Laurel I trust said I probably wouldn’t like it and that a heavier lining would be a better choice. I’d already fused it on by the time she said that, so now it’s going to get field tested!

It’s a fusible interfacing, so you just put down a damp cloth and iron that sucker in place. A previous experience with Heat n’ Bond has made me wary of things that fuse with irons not holding up to the first washing. I’m really scared it’s going to unstick and get all bunchy and awful inside the bodice.  Let’s hope it stays put…

Put up or shut up

8fd81a4380630c7ca796ff1be6725b98I can complain all I want about the lack of Burgundian out there in the wild, but I have to be the change I want to see in the world. Now, I think I know how… I’m going to make a Burgundian for war. A practical Burgundian, if you will. I have the pieces for it, I have a fitted dress pattern that works, I just have to pull it all together. I believe that it MUST be possible since I’ve seen photos of them on actual humans who do reenactment in Europe. Pray to the costuming gods for me, ok? I may be doing a horrible thing that will result in me having insufficient clothes to make it through the war. What I really want is Miss Isabella of Portugal over there with her ridiculous Hat of Glory and embroidered goldwork under dress and bejewelled everything. What I’m shooting for is maybe not looking like I tried to make a bathrobe out of some curtains, belted it, and passed it off as a dress. It’s good to have reasonable goals.

A costuming Laurel helped me troubleshoot my cotehardie pattern a couple of weekends ago at Kingdom A&S. This happens to be a Laurel who has gorgeous clothes and is the only person I’ve seen wearing anything from the era of Burgundian gowns. She casually was talking about the layers of under-things, construction options, and how they work really well as maternity and nursing gear if you make them the period way (i.e. laced at the front or sides). I already knew that part from some effigy portraits and a little bit of thinking through how much time you spend pregnant or nursing if you don’t have birth control and only some of your children will make it through to adulthood. That fitted clothing is fitted because it’s laced tight or belted, not because the patterning is absurdly precise and complex.

She says that once you get a kirtle pattern that really fits you well and make it up in a couple of layers of fabric that is of a sturdy, fine weave with no give on the grain (think shirting or high thread count sheets), it can serve as a basis for just about anything if you add a little extra room to let it skim over your layers. You know, like her Burgundian stuff. And with the neckline like that, you can just kind of pull in a shoulder, wiggle it down a little, and have easy access for nursing. I stood there gawping like an idiot for a second. Everything started clicking into place in my head for how the shapes work, how the clothes work, and how the ability to make a few styles of dress with similar fit characteristics from one core pattern makes the most sense of all. Occam’s Razor applies to dresses, apparently… I’m trying not to feel dumb about it.

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I’ve had some discount fabric slated for something along these lines for some time now. It’s blue and gold with diamonds and quatrefoil flowers inside each. I think I have about 8 yards of it at 60″ wide. Not exactly drapey, but not as stiff as most brocade woven decorating fabric tends to be. I think this will be the perfect experiment since I’ve held onto it for a few years now and haven’t used it, plus it was cheap and is synthetic, so I’m not holding it dear like I would silk or velvet or something pricey. My original intent was a houppelande, but in all my research, I wind up really disliking the ones people do out of poly decor fabrics because the drape isn’t there, even on the bias. It takes all the grace out of the thing and makes people look really bulky. I still want one, but it’s worth finding a nice wool gab or light suiting on sale. Back on topic… The train on this particular example is absurd, mostly because I need clothes to go to Gulf War. And also because I do not have a handy manservant to tote my dress around. A wedding dress with a train was bad enough to manage around other people, so I can’t imagine what to do with 15 feet of train while camping.

The absolute worst case scenario is that I’m pretty sure I could pull off something like this from Christine de Pisan, which is still 15th century, but less of a departure from the basic shape of a cotehardie. Plus, it has flappy sleeves! They could be lined in something obnoxious and fancy, which I’m all about. Plus, I could wear it over existing stuff when it gets chilly at night or for court.

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Burgundian – why doesn’t anyone around here wear it?

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For the number of manuscripts and portraits out there featuring Burgundian gowns, it always surprises me that I see so few of them on people at events. They have the princess hats, they’re kind of the official mental picture of what medieval ladies wore, and they seem like they shouldn’t be that hard to put together. Maybe it’s just Ansteorra and our logical objections to wearing so many layers.

Maybe there’s a big secret I don’t know about why they’re awful – a friend did suggest that nobody wears them because they’re tied up with the post-plague aesthetic for making sure women look like they could be pregnant. However, people wear bliaut dresses with the belts doubled over, and that definitely makes all but the very thinnest among us look pregnant. My best guess is that we’re not entirely sure how they go together, so wearing them is fraught with “I’m doing it wrong and look dumb” anxiety. I get that – I look pretty dumb in this picture, but it’s from my first year, and people let me slide a lot on things. Although, that hennin is made with an Ikea lampshade, and some women were just thrilled with it. I felt good at the time, but now I’m embarrassed by it.

Fabric is a big deal when it comes to the 15th century. It looks like people live in clouds of fabric and have dresses so long you wonder how they walk anywhere. Maybe people get intimidated by the fact that fabric drape matters an awful lot for something like this and it’s a higher yardage count than many other styles of dress. Why does it matter so much? Just check out this picture of me in a hand-me-down Burgundian… It’s upholstery fabric, which has no real drape, so it creates unnecessary bulk. I’m cool with looking a little bit pregnant, but I’m not ok with looking like a circus tent. In all fairness, I’m not wearing the right stuff under it, I used the wrong thing for lacing rings, and they all popped open and ran away by the end of the night, and I think the belt would have helped a little. But… This would have worked far better in a nice mid-weight wool that could gather and drape without being bulky. The wisdom of experience!

These questions bother me a lot because it’s the style I’m most drawn to when I look through art. I really love the idea of pursuing a full wardrobe and set of skills for the time and place of my persona, but I don’t do that because I get daunted by making Burgundian gowns. Same goes for houppelandes for almost the exact same reason. Nobody wants to splurge on fabric when they’re reasonably sure they’re going to wind up not looking as good as they could have if they’d stuck with something simpler.

N8470041_JPEG_25_25DM - cropToday, I found this tree full of people, and it made me notice some things that would remove some barriers that keep people from making the gowns – namely the one where the materials used are silk and velvet and fur. Just look at the variety in this tree full of women dressed in the Burgundian style (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 202, fol. 9r). There are six hat styles, two varieties of dresses, and some interesting details re: the dress linings, collars, and the triangle parts across the bust. A couple look to be lined in fur, a couple in a contrasting fabric. Some have the plain black placket across the bust, but one has a red one with gold spiral lacing across it. Some backs look to be scooped lower than others.

Cursory research will show you a lot of conflict over each of these details, and while each argument has merit, I think they make for a lot of unnecessary worry about making the dress. While there are plenty of examples of these dresses being absurdly luxurious (heavy silk lined entirely in fur!), we have plenty more examples of them being worn by women of all social classes with a fair bit of variety. A placket pinned across the bust would account for all of those nearly identical necklines, but so would a dress underneath (ah, the kirtle… you make everything make sense).

It’s a dress that evolved from the houppelande, and you need to understand that for things to start clicking and stop worrying. What I’m talking about here is making clothes to wear, not making them for A&S projects. You’re on your own for A&S, kids. You should read Mistress Mathilde Bourette’s amazing presentation, Discovering the 15th Century V-Neck Gown: The Sexiest Bathrobe You’ll Ever Wear. She takes a lot of the mystery out of construction, has a ton of pictures, and is funny.

Having read through that, I feel like I could make myself a nice gown in something like wool, line it in a nice, heavy linen, and try starting out wearing 15th century styles for cooler weather or indoor events. They’re dramatic and romantic, even if they’re not exactly the most practical things to pack up and take to war. Maybe if I wear them, other people will start wearing them too.

Appliqué coats for two – a tutorial, now revised! and expanded!

ED NOTE: We just went to the event, and this got passed around the internet some beforehand. I had people stop me all weekend about it. There are some questions answered down below and additional notes and photos based on what I kept getting asked about and what I learned from more experienced people.

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We needed new coats, and the big, cold November event was coming fast. I’ve never made one for Kevin, my cloak is kind of falling apart, and an actual coat seems more practical than a big cloak that’s always open in the front. There was a grand sale on wool at JoAnn’s. I might have bought by the bolt. So basically? It’s like the Universe is telling me that it wants me to make us really great Norse coats.

A friend does SPECTACULAR Norse. Enviable Norse. When she was impressed with my purple Greenland gown I was over the moon. I’m always jealous of her fabulous appliqued animals but thought they would be way too hard, till I asked, and she looked at me like I was crazy. Turns out this is really easy, and while not a half hour project, it’s something I could knock out in a day. That’s much quicker than embroidering something of the same size. It’s dramatic, colorful, and adds texture and depth.

This is my coat (almost done!) on the left. Those stags are about 8″ high if not more. I think it’s taken me a couple hours of tv watching to affix each and about an afternoon to put all the green on the white. Luckily, I have fine wool yarn galore in lots of colors from that crewelwork deer project I was doing. Some quick running stitch around all the seams, slap on some deer, and I’m going to be one fancy lady at BAM!

Here I am being a fancy lady at BAM (or War of the Rams II or whatever it is now) reporting in court with their Excellencies Bordermarch. I ran a charter design competition for scribal glory, fame, and goodie baskets. I ran out of time before I got to do white stitching along the gores, but it will be even better when that happens. The coat is comfy cozy and was pretty easy!

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The Tutorial Part!

Want to be a fancy Norse person, too? It’s easy! All you need is a printer, some heavy thread or embroidery floss, a big needle, and some wool blend felt (by the yard at a fabric store or online where they sell supplies for needle felting). If you have an especially large or complex design, you’re going to want a little fabric-safe glue, like Elmer’s or Tacky Glue or quilting spray to stick those pieces together while you stitch them down.

1. Blow up the thing you want to applique to the right size and figure out what parts of the design will be the base color and what will be the accent. A lot of Norse, Celtic, Pictish, and Rus designs make this easy. There are a bunch that could work or inspire you in my Pinterest board on garb embellishments and embroidery. If you have to draw your own lines onto a silhouette, just make them a little swirly and call it a day. Make sure your pieces are wide enough to tack down. I print an extra and color it to make sure I like the way it looks.

2. Attach your accent colored pieces to your base piece. For this bird, I cut out the accent color and attached it to the base, then stitched it down since that defined the shape of the entire piece. For the deer, I cut out a whole deer, then traced it plus an allowance of about 1/4-1/3 of an inch onto the base fabric. Stitch on the accent all around. Add on details you want, like the eye.

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3. Next, cut out the whole thing and trim any jagged or pointy bits or anywhere that your tracing pen shows. Repeat with the design reversed if you want animals that face each other on either side of the coat.

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4. Add any embroidered details you want BEFORE you put it on the coat so that you’re not trying to sew through lots of layers unnecessarily. I added wing and feather details to the raven. This is a good solution for details that are too small to do as pieces of felt but add a lot to the design by being there.

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5. Pin your applique in place on the garment. TRY IT ON. Make sure you like the placement and that it doesn’t do something weird like trail into your armpit or give a man the illusion of having boobs. Once you’re happy, pin or glue it in place, then stitch all around it in a contrasting color. Make sure to pick a thread with enough weight and tenacity to stand up to the garment you’re putting it onto. My coat is all wool, and the wool thread was a breeze. Kevin’s coat is linen canvas lined in polar fleece because he’s SO hard on his clothes. It would have destroyed the wool, so I used cotton pearl thread and took lots of breaks to rest my hands, and I have vowed to never hand-sew on polar fleece again.

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6. Wear it and graciously accept your compliments. Expect to be petted.

Brilliant Tips for Success –

1. Wool and wool-blend felt is an easy choice because it won’t unravel or fray. It would be a little heavy to put on most linen but perfect for wool clothing and other heavy materials, like canvas weight linen. Even though it won’t unravel, make sure your stitches go in far enough to anchor it well and won’t pull out.

2. If I were doing mid-weight linen applique, I would use a finer thread, make much smaller stitches, and be careful to research which stitches would be best to help bind the edges. Most people do a narrow, rolled hem through a serger before doing normal woven fabrics for applique. I hate sergers, so I’ll do it the hard way…

2-a. I got to meet up with Miriel from the comments. She showed me a stunning applique’d linen tunic she was entering in the A&S contest and told me that you use fray check on the edges of all the pieces, then still use small stitches to make sure the edges are well bound so that it stands the test of time and repeated washing.

3. If you’re going to do very much of this, it’s worth looking into buying wool felt online for projects. The color range is spectacular and the prices are better than the really thick sheets for needle felting.

4. 100% wool that’s not superwash can be felted in your washing machine at home, in case you find the perfect color or REALLY want to give yourself extra work. Toss it in a zippered pillow cover. HOT HOT HOT water, a tiny bit of detergent and a couple of towels. Let it agitate for at least half an hour.

5. You want to use a crewel needle since it has a large eye and sharp point. They’re in the embroidery aisle with the other needles.

6. For a dimensional effect, combine wool blend felt that’s sold by the yard with needle felting wool, which is sold by the 12″x12″ sheet. Needle felting wool is 2-3x thicker and not so tightly felted, and it makes for a cool 3D look since it’s puffy. Your color choices on it are limited, but if you get the white/natural kind, you can easily dye it at home in the microwave or pan with Kool-Aid, RIT, or any number of other choices.

7. For BIG designs – you or your graphic designer friend can make a big design in Photoshop or Illustrator, and you can have it printed out on a large format printer or plotter at Kinko’s. You can also get your printer to do it in sections that you tape together like tiles, then cut out. Or you can use a projector. Or you can be the bravest crafter of them all and free-hand that bad boy.

I’ve got miles and miles of silk trim

The more I learn about construction methods, materials, and embellishment of Norse clothing, the more I fall in love with it. I think it’s the first style of clothing where I really enjoy the patterning and sewing process. I got a big stack of books from UT’s fine arts library and have been learning a lot.

Like that they used silk to trim garments rather than for whole cloth construction. They’d even unravel fabric for the fibers to weave trim! I have a fair bit of silk in rich, earthy colors left over from making fancy pillows for my mom. Not enough to make anything with, but too much to toss out. Turns out it’s perfect for cutting into endless strips to trim out the array of Norse clothes I’m churning out for our cold weather eventing season. Look at how gorgeous this coat is! Simple construction, simple running top stitch over the seams, but that silk makes it really special. I am all about garments with fast, simple construction that you can make look really stellar with an easy improvement.

 

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This seemed like a really good idea before I thought through how much measuring, cutting, and sewing it’s going to be for the husband’s new coat (he’s 6’8″). Or for the full skirts I favor. Blergh. It’s easier than weaving, though! And a heck of a lot cheaper than buying trim. We’ll see how the bias cut bits do after my little bias tape maker nozzle things come from Amazon.

Last night, I stitched some of the straight cut strips together to start binding the raw seams on Kevin’s coat. UGH you guys. This polar fleece lining is going to be the death of me. It was way too much for the silk to deal with and the strips were too narrow, and it took me over an hour to seam rip out one side of the coat front to get the silk off. The fleece is hell to sew through and puffy, so where the silk was too tightly stretched, it ripped like paper. Plain hems it is for that mess.

I’m going to try using them on the wool coat I made for myself. It’s much less bulky and evil. I definitely know that they’ll work well on linen and lighter wool. The main thing I learned is that I really need to not make a whole bunch of tiny stitches close together like a sewing machine makes since that essentially makes a perforated line for easy tearing. The tension shouldn’t be too tight either. It’s definitely something where I will try a scrap of silk and a scrap of ground fabric and adjust the settings on my machine before beginning on the garment.