Sewing Hell

Sewing Hell… have you ever been there?  Oh, this is not my first visit!  I’m talking about being involved in a sewing project that gave you anxiety, maybe from an impossible deadline?  Or the person who wants the end product is a nightmare personality to work with?  Or just the sheer magnitude of the yardage running through your sewing machine?  Or a new technique that must be mastered in a short window of time?  Or all of the above and then some….

The joy of finishing! A stack of three completed engineer vests.

Tis the season, yes?  I always try to leave a bit of wiggle room in my sewing schedule, to do fun Christmas themed projects as the holiday season approaches.  Beginning in October, I started some adorable triangular-shaped bunting (pennants) and was ready for full-brown production mode, when my older brother’s timeline kicked in and forced me off track (or is that off needle?)

This bunting was what I had in mind to show you for the sewing season.

Sean and his can-do spouse, Melissa, run a Christmas tree farm in the central valley town of Reedley, California.  They have built Hillcrest into a formidable working farm and machine tooling shop, attracting train enthusiasts from far & wide.  Back in April, Sean first asked me about making serious train conductor vests from black fabric.  He lamented over the poor commercial choices and was looking for an elegant, perhaps old-fashioned upscale look for his operators.  Of course I could make them (I always think I can make anything) but I do have a design degree and logged many hours making clothing patterns by hand and computer, for Disney, Gap, Baby Guess and smaller manufacturers.  Typical of my family, when they asked, it means they need them in a week.   October’s pumpkin patch time was the deadline established and monthly I would inquire about sizes, fabrics, quantity, but always learning it was a distance away, not to worry (in garment industry speak that means you should worry!)

Inside view of a vest under construction. Note the size scrawled on the pockets - just so I don't mix parts up!

Our oldest brother, Mark had a picture perfect wedding at Hillcrest in late September, and again I discussed the vest making scheme.  Sean took me into his office and we did an Internet search for “conductor vests.”  He was correct, most looked like grown versions of Thomas The Tank Engine.  He still didn’t confirm any deadline, so I casually looked into purchasing some 10oz. black denim fabric, from a source in downtown L.A.  Previously, I sent photos of fabric swatches, but didn’t hear back from him, later learning that the same day, a swarm of Disney train folk were at Hillcrest, inspecting the #4 Disneyland engine that Sean and his team were rebuilding.

Stitching lining to outer shell at armholes, narrowly missing the pockets.

Our next opportunity to meet was our mom’s 90th birthday party in mid-November.  I brought a basted together prototype & Sean tried it on in her kitchen.  “Perfect,” he said, and made some comments about more pockets (4 welt pockets in all) and antique brass buttons, and all cotton fabric to avoid fire hazards, and, yes, we have a deadline.  Friday, December 7th was his first Pajama Party evening & could I have six of them finished by then?  Yikes, full production mode, after Thanksgiving break.  I drafted the pattern from a commercial base for a man’s vest.  One of the sizes is an XXXL – that’s 60″ around!  Running that fabric thru my trusty Bernina was quite a feat.

Top-stitching around the entire perimeter - almost done (I say that to myself after every step)!!

Now, if that weren’t enough, I had deferred my jury duty obligation to December, thinking “no one wants to go to trial during the holiday season.”  Boy was I wrong again.  After phoning in each night, from Sunday through Wednesday, I got the message to report at 8:30 Thursday morning.  UGH!  I really though I dodged a bullet, escaping 3 days already.  I had to appear in court, (no phoning in) then beg to be given yet another extension.  Waking up with fear and dread, I could be put on a trial that extended into the following week – no way.  More importantly, I felt I was letting Sean down.  As brother’s go, he’s OK, but this project brought back long buried not-so-pleasant memories.  I was thinking how I easily seemed to follow what ever he asked.  Case in point:  I was pre-kindergarten, summertime, and dressed for swimming.  Sean concocted a trap and I fell right into it.  He had taken our play table, placed it upside down in our front yard.  Next, he put a small chalkboard on top and placed a large beach rock at one end.  He brought me over & convinced me to jump on the board.  When I asked what would happen to the rock, he said it would “go up in the air.”  I moved back, got a running start & jumped on the board.  The rock flew in the air and hit me in the forehead, sending be backwards.  I still remember the dots of blood on our linoleum floor, as I entered the house to find my mother.  We rushed to the air force base hospital, about 2 miles away, for stitches.  These memories are indelible:  I am wearing a red & white checked one piece swimsuit with posterior ruffles and I am in an operating room, with a heavy drape over me.  There is a huge Saturn-shaped light pulled down close and the doctor also had a head lamp.  No swimming for me that day!

Spacing the buttonholes just so, with the Simflex accordion buttonhole marking device.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.  I postponed my jury duty until mid-April.  Drove like a bat out of hell back home & fired up my trusty Bernina.  One thing led to another, and in assembly-line fashion, I finished the vests in time for the 8pm cut off at FedEx.  Sean would have his vests and I could sleep at night.  I still haven’t heard how they fit, or if they were even worn, but the 2nd set of 3 vests were much faster to finish.  I even had time to lunch with friends after, and make the 4:30pm shipping deadline.

Making corded buttonholes. It's like a symphony when they go in without a hitch.

When I have time to sew and create, I do enjoy learning new techniques.  But when I am under the gun (or the tracks, in this case) the language that emits from my mouth is appalling!  Good thing I am mostly home alone, while working with cloth.  Here it took three types and numerous tries, to make a working buttonhole.  There was the thickness of the fabric to consider, the tight diagonal weave, the needle size, button size, ease of use – ugh.  I really wanted to put in the keyhole-shaped buttonholes.  You know the ones with a bubble at the end to accommodate a  thick button shank?  This was nearly impossible to get right each time (horrible productivity) and I don’t even have a round-ended buttonhole cutter.

Pull the ends of the cord to complete the buttonhole.

As things work out for a reason, making corded buttonholes became a fast and efficient method.  You set up the cord around the stitch foot.  Bernina’s automatic buttonhole stitch just glides over the cord.  After taking the garment free from the machine, you pull the ends of the cording, knot them and bring to the inside with a sharp needle.  The cord around the front end of the buttonhole provides extra strength from distorting the hole and looks very clean & neat.

Long-ago holiday sewing project: canvas stockings with our hand & foot prints - some so tiny and cute!

Try to avoid the pitfalls (or hells) of sewing by establishing a workable timeline, getting plenty of rest and exercise and taking much needed sanity breaks.  I still love to sew and will continue to take on these big projects, but I will also adjust my seasonal expectations.  Seasons Greetings to all – Happy New (Sewing) Year, too.