Story ideas are rarely in short supply, but sometimes getting them into a presentable state takes a lot longer than it should. And then…then there are times when I blink and suddenly there are three new projects with my name on them.
The Fiend in the Fog
A disgraced physician, an aspiring alchemist, and a nurse trying to hold her clinic together under siege… All brought together by the Fiend in the Fog.
The Fiend in the Fog is my Pandemic novel. It’s an experiment in theme and form. It’s my first true supernatural story, though the real monster is not what (or who) you might think…
Death by Cupcake
A cupcake sounds so innocent: a bright, sugary confection fit for a children’s party or afternoon tea. But scrape off the frosting, and you might find something quite different underneath, such as a string of overdoses in people who don’t use drugs. An awful lot of suspects for an accidental death. Warm puppies and cold blooded killers. A pet python that knows a jerk when she sees one, and more.
This anthology has been years in the making.
Death by Cupcake, an anthology of cozy mystery shorts from Elm Books, is all the more delicious for having survived the turbulent lives of both the publisher and myself, the economic ups and downs of the publishing industry, and finally, a pandemic.
There are some great stories from some talented authors, and I’m proud that it’s available now.
Dust to Dust
Recent years have given most people a lot to worry about, and one great way to escape from one’s worries is a light, fun story with a favourite character.
Ira Adler was so much fun to write. He’s too busy to give me full novels right now, but he is turning up with some short, lighthearted anecdotes to share. And his best guy Sutter has a few things to say, as well.
Dust to Dust contains:
A long-suffering U.S. Marshal
Ira’s birthday fiasco
A cat that will not be denied
And perhaps even a monster or two
It’s short, sweet, and costs less than the price of a coffee. Dust to Dust is available for pre-order now (on Kindle, too), and will release on October 31, 2021.
There are more in the works, so give it a try.
There were times over the past few years, when it felt like I was spinning my wheels. But it turned out, I was spinning stories, instead. I hope you’ll enjoy them.
This month’s rescue is this t-shirt, which hasn’t been languishing in my drawer, but had been languishing in someone else’s drawer before finding itself in a thrift shop.
I grabbed it immediately because it had an echidna on it, and how often do you find a t-shirt with an echidna? I also liked the colour — sort of a rust tie-dye, though it looks pinkish in some of the photos. I assure you it is not.
I saw the colour, I saw the monotreme, and I saw that it had a reasonable chance of fitting me, so I snagged it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying close enough attention beyond that to see that:
This was a true t-shirt, in the shape of a T, with grown-on (integral) sleeves, and
It wasn’t made from t-shirt material, but of a non-stretch woven fabric, and
The sides were straight up and down, with no stretch
I put it on, and three problems became apparent.
First, the sleeves were really, really wonky — comically long and shaped like stiff bells.
Also, the shirt was too long. This is probably because I’m a shorty.
Finally, being both stiff and straight up and down, it didn’t fit my curves very nicely.
So, time to mod.
My first thought was to cut the sleeves off, move the shoulders, and do some sculpting. But I don’t have a lot of experience doing that, and I would have been really, really sad to ruin my one and only garment featuring a spiny anteater in the name of an experiment.
Then I thought about this shirt:
This is one of my favourite t-shirts, and the model for the other t-shirt mod that was going to be this month’s rescue. I wondered, would it work to simply roll up the sleeves and tack them?
To my delight, it did work, and I’ll explain that process in a bit.
The other task would be to shorten the shirt.
So let’s go.
Yes, it really is that simple.
T-Shirt Mod, Step by Step
This was one of the easiest mods I’ve ever done, and one of the most satisfying so far. That’s because I kept things simple and precise.
Step 1: Plan the Sleeves
Right. So the first order of business was those sleeves, and the best way to figure out how far to roll them up was to put the shirt on and see what looked the best. For me, and for this particular shirt, it meant four rolls.
What does that mean? I’m glad you asked. Precision is important, so I used the existing sleeve hem as a guide.
Step 2: Roll, Iron and Pin
I folded the sleeve hem back on itself once then ironed it flat. I did it again: twice, three times, then a fourth time. Then I pinned it. Finally, I repeated the process on the other side.
Step 3: Tack
I tacked the sleeve in four places: over the shoulder hem, over the underarm hem, and in the centre of each of the sides. Tacking means simply sewing a short, unobtrusive row of stitches then reversing back along those same stitches.
Step 4: Measure the Bottom Hem
Once the sleeves were done, it was time to address the length. I put the shirt back on and folded up the hem to where I wanted it. Then I pinned it. It makes everything easier if you turn the shirt inside out for this step (which I did not).
Step 5: Measure and Measure Again
Even though this is a pretty simple mod, there’s always the opportunity for error. So I took the t-shirt off, laid it on the table, took out the pins, and made sure that the fold-up part measured exactly the same all the way around. Because once you cut, you can’t take it back. Measure twice, cut once.
Step 6: Markthe Cut Line
Here is another opportunity for error. Because we’re hemming the shirt, we have to remember the seam allowance. If we simply cut along the fold, the shirt will be too short.
The original hem of the shirt was half an inch, which meant a one-inch allowance folded over on itself. So I measured my cut line to one inch below the fold.
I used my ruler to draw the line all the way around the bottom of the garment. Note that the line is above the fold, on the wrong side of the shirt.
Step 7: Make the Cut
Now cut along the cut line, all the way around the bottom of the shirt. Again, do not simply start off with a horizontal cut. Instead, cut down from above, then continue along the line, so that you don’t make your new hem higher than you actually want it.
Step 8: The Folded Hem
The original hem was one half-inch folded over twice. Why fix what’s not broken? So, with the shirt inside out, I folded half an inch of fabric back from the hem, so that the raw edge is touching the wrong side of the shirt.
Then I pressed it, folded it over again, and pressed it a second time.
Step 9: Stitch
Finally, I stitched along the top edge of the new hem, all the way around the shirt on the wrong side. If you’ve measured and pressed, the line on the right side of the shirt will be nice and even.
I’ve boosted the colour a bit to better highlight the folded-over hem. The arrow shows where the hem should line up with the markings on the presser foot.
That’s it! It’s done!
And it looks amazing! This is my new favourite shirt.
Sometimes the simplest transformations are the most successful, the most fun, and the most satisfying in the end.
And if you’re more in the mood for a novel, why not pre-order my latest from Bold Strokes Books?
An Interview with Toby Virgo
Recently I had the pleasure of taking the Real Sherlock Holmes walking tour of Edinburgh. If you didn’t know, Edinburgh was Arthur Conan Doyle’s hometown. He lived not far from the town centre, and there’s a plaque at the University of Edinburgh medical school honouring him as the doctor for which he wanted to be remembered.
I’ve always enjoyed the Holmes stories, but the tour gave me a deeper appreciation for Conan Doyle himself. If you’d like to know more, I can recommend Dangerous Work, Conan Doyle’s diary from his time as a ship’s surgeon on an arctic vessel, as well as The Doyle Diary, which focusses on ACD’s father, Charles Altamont Doyle, who illustrated many of the original ACD stories.
But back to the point of this post. Toby Virgo, the knowledgeable and entertaining face behind the Real Sherlock Holmes Walking Tour of Edinburgh has written a work of historical fiction, and it promises to be a cracking good read.
The book, Carter the Cabman, is available in two formats: a lushly illustrated deluxe hardbound edition with artwork by the renowned Daniele Serra, and a Kindle edition. More on this in a bit.
The author has graciously agreed to an interview, so without further delay…
Your book in five words or less. Go!
Fog. Gaslight. Murder. Downfall. Revelation.
The protagonist of your upcoming book, Carter the Cabman, is a cab driver in London in the 1880s. How did you come up with the idea for this character?
I’ve wanted to write a story set in Victorian Britain for many years and have actually started and discarded a few but couldn’t quite hit upon an idea I was truly happy with. I realized I didn’t have a strong enough central character or indeed a sufficiently compelling plot.
Then, in August 2017, I was preparing to go for a week’s holiday in Dartmoor, England, and in preparation for my trip decided to read for the umpteenth time one of my favourite ever books: The Hound of The Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – as you know, a Sherlock Holmes story that is largely set in that wild, beautiful and windswept place in Devon.
There is a very famous passage in the story where Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are walking along Regent Street in London and Holmes suddenly sees that his client, Sir Henry Baskerville, who is a little way ahead of them, is being followed by a man in a hansom cab. Before Holmes can do anything further about it, however, the passenger in the cab realizes that he has been spotted and calls up to the cab driver who quickly speeds off into the busy traffic leaving Holmes and Watson in his wake.
The great detective, though, is not so easily thwarted and has taken note of the cab number, explaining to Watson that whoever was in the cab (though extremely cunning) had put himself at one great disadvantage: ‘He had put himself in the power of the cabman.’
I must have read this passage dozens of times before without it really registering but in that moment I knew that I finally had the central character and (quite literally) the vehicle I had been looking for: a man whose job would naturally take him all around London and who would hear and see all in his rounds of the unforgiving city.
That is fascinating! So, tell us a bit about your cabman, Jeremiah Carter. What makes him tick?
On the face of it Jeremiah Carter is a straightforward and commonplace enough character: a cab driver who works at night in Victorian London (bear in mind that in the year 1888 when the story is set, there were an estimated 15,000 hansom cab drivers working in the capital).
As the story unfolds, however, it soon becomes clear that Carter is a far from ordinary man – indeed, he is clearly a man on a mission, driven in equal measure by some kind of great personal loss he has suffered and a new-found desire to bring the Word of God to the streets of His downtrodden people. As the book unfolds and he shares his story, we learn what that mission may be – and indeed, the exact truth of his own terrible tragedy.
Carter sounds very compelling. From the title, one might expect that his occupation is crucial to the story. Is it? Can you elaborate on that?
It certainly is. Carter works as a cab driver covering the hated ‘curfew shift’ – as the book says: ‘from the Kings Road to within the sound of St-Mary-le-Bow, starting daily at sundown and refusing no fare until dawn’.
The whole backdrop to the story is that he is doing this during the infamous Autumn of Terror in 1888, when London is reeling from a series of horrific murders that would later be known as the Jack-the-Ripper killings. As such, Carter encounters the full spectrum of humanity, from the Good and the Great to the waifs and strays of the greatest city on Earth, navigating the highways and byways of a fog-gripped city that is also a powder-keg ready to explode, all the while musing on the state of Christian civilization, the deeper meaning of these murders…and indeed, who could be responsible.
How would you characterize the story in terms of genre?
I would say that ‘Carter the Cabman’ straddles a few genres: a Victorian gothic thriller that is also part historical fantasy and part magical realism.
I first heard about your book, then in progress, in the course of your truly excellent Real Sherlock Holmes Walking Tour of Edinburgh. I can’t help seeing similarities between leading people around the city on foot, and doing so in a cab.
Did giving historical walking tours have a hand in the development of your character or the story?
Without a doubt.
As you know, The Real Sherlock Holmes Walking Tour covered quite a large part of Edinburgh, and during every tour without fail I would interact with a whole host of interesting and diverse characters – meaning both people who were taking the tour as well different characters we spontaneously happened to encounter.
This provided me with the ‘feel’ of what it was like to deal with and experience a multitude of fleeting encounters with very different personalities whilst also trying to get on with doing my job.
Just as importantly, though, was the knowledge I had to build up to deliver the tour to a high standard. I read and researched widely around the time period covered by the tour (roughly 1820-1920) so that I could make it as interesting as possible, especially for people who were not particularly interested in Sherlock Holmes but who had maybe been dragged along by a partner!
What was really valuable, however, was how much I learned from the people who actually took the took who were often very knowledgeable about the period themselves. I heard all kinds of fascinating things and obscure personal anecdotes, all of which certainly formed the best possible preparation for writing a historical novel, which many people believe is the most difficult literary genre to pull off successfully.
Another question: Why London?
Once I’d had the initial idea about telling the story of a night in the life of a hansom cab driver, it seemed that London was the natural (perhaps only) place to set it.
I also realized that I would probably need something else to really catch people’s attention and really stoke their interest, so setting it during the Autumn of Terror which is something that virtually everyone has heard about and still exercises such fascination, seemed to me a good starting point in widening the book’s commercial appeal without compromising on the story I wanted to tell.
Will we see more from Jeremiah Carter in the future?
Yes. I have plans to write two more ‘Carter’ novels to make a trilogy about the same character, following his journey through London as the times change and he reaches the end of his life.
The second book will be set during the end of the reign of Queen Victoria and the third just before the Great War when the British Empire is collapsing.
I also plan to write some shorter, self-contained ‘Carter’ stories that would be suitable to appear in magazines and other publications, and once I have the time to create it, my own website which will have its own blog.
Are you working on anything new at present?
I have the plots for the second and third ‘Carter’ novels roughly sketched out…so when the dust finally settles on the first I will be starting the second, provisionally titled: ‘Carter the Cabman: Grey Mares’ Tales’
Where can people purchase Carter the Cabman? And what are the available formats?
Currently ‘Carter the Cabman’ is available in two formats: (1) I have just had 250 limited edition hardback copies of the book printed. These first edition books are fully illustrated by the brilliant Italian artist Daniele Serra, who has provided illustrations for Stephen King and Clive Barker amongst many others. Each copy is signed and numbered and contains illustrations that will not appear in any future edition. This is the version of the book as I originally imagined it.
The hardback book is priced at £20 plus postage and packaging. The easiest way to order a copy is to email me directly, and once an order is received the book can be sent out immediately. I have already sold about a third of these books so these copies are available on a first-come, first served basis, and once they’re gone, they’re gone.
(2) Carter the Cabman (release date: August 31, 2021) is also available as an e-book on Amazon Kindle, with the full text of the book but no illustrations.
In the future I will also make the book available as a paperback, again on Amazon.
And where can readers connect with you and your work?
The idea behind my upcoming novel, The Fiend in the Fog, took root many years ago. It was the summer before I entered teacher training, and I was working in a day care centre in Tucson, Arizona. It wasn’t a posh daycare — one of my fellow teachers had an ankle bracelet courtesy of Arizona law enforcement. A few others had tattoos, which, at the time weren’t something that one showed off if one wanted a job working with the public. But the teachers loved the kids and were good at their jobs.
I hadn’t spent a lot of time around small children. It was a learning curve. But I really enjoyed the work. It was a revelation to me, how much of our personalities are present, right there from birth. And every class that I’ve ever taught, from that room full of 18-month-olds to a bilingual class for elderly Russian immigrants studying for the citizenship exam, has had the same archetypes — the loud, usually male leader who pathologically challenges everything the teacher says until some tipping point (such as the teacher giving it right back in his own language, and better); the usually female gigglers at the back of the class, the teacher’s pet who always sits in the front row, and so on.
But the most important lesson those 18-month-olds taught me was that a lot of monsters appear for a reason. They have a job to do. And if you find that job and assign it, not only does the monster not need to be monstrous anymore, but the teacher ends up with one less job to do herself.
D was a handsome, forceful kid with a will of iron. He had the winningest smile, but the foulest temper. His monster loved to announce its presence by pushing the littler kids down. And this would result in lectures and timeouts, which would make the monster even angrier.
The monster itself, I believe, arose as a response to home disruption. D’s family was going through divorce and upheaval, and he probably felt pushed around himself, and lacking control.
The next time it happened, the monster had its timeout. But rather than releasing D back onto the playground, I took him aside and asked if he would like to help me with the little kids. It became his job to help me push the babies on the swings, gently and carefully. He became so protective of the little ones, and was so proud to have a job to do. I never saw him push another kid again, unless he was at my side and they were in the swings.
There are several monsters in The Fiend in the Fog. Each has a message and a job to do. And this is often the case with our own monsters. If we listen to them, rather than punishing or attempting to banish them, we may learn something. And if we find out the job they’ve arrived to fill and assign it, then the monster can be an asset, rather than a liability.
Pre-order The Fiend in the Fog now through your favorite e-tailer!
This top sat in the back of my closet, unjustly, for about three years. I never got rid of it because I like it, but I didn’t wear it because it pinched my pits.
You might think that if a garment is uncomfortable, finding out *why* would be pretty straightforward. But sometimes it’s not. To wit, this shirt fit brilliantly around the bust, around the shoulders, around the arms, and across the back. And yet the bodice just never felt right.
So I did a bit of research.
Dr. Internet suggested that the problem was not enough room in the armpits. Weird, right? A bit more research suggested that adding gussets — basically armpit-shaped expansion pieces — to the armpits might do the trick.
Years ago, I might have thought, “Oh, dear! It looks like I have FAT ARMPITS! Perhaps I should embark upon some sort of STUPID UNSUSTAINABLE DIET.”
Fortunately, for you and for me, I seem to have misplaced the flips I had to give about that sort of thing. Clothing should be altered to fit the body, not the other way around. And I like my armpits as they are, thank you very much.
So today we’re going to add armpit gussets. How do you do that? I’m glad you asked. First, gather your tools.
Because this is a topstitching job, I’m using my regular sewing machine. I have a Necchi 6160, which is a bit of a white elephant, but it’s served me solidly for over a decade, and it’s built like a tank.
The original seams of this top were serged, but I’m just going to finish it off with the regular machine, because I don’t feel like dragging out my serger just to reattach the sleeves.
You will also need a seam ripper to unpick your stitches.
Finally, you’ll need cloth with which to make your gussets. How much? That depends on how big you want your gussets to be. I would imagine you won’t need more than a fat quarter. Some people may need even less than that. I like to use my offcuts, because you never know what you might find in there.
Your gussets don’t have to match your shirt. You might even want something bright and contrasting for a bit of fun.
If you want to have an easy time of it, choose fabric for your gusset that is a similar weight and material as the fabric you’re adding it to.
That’s it? That’s it.
How to Add Underarm Gussets, Step by Step
So, how do you add gussets? It’s actually pretty easy.
The finished gussets will be diamond-shaped, with the widest part right in the centre of the armpit. We’re going to be constructing the diamond from two isosceles triangles sewn together at the base.
Step 1: Unpick
The first thing you’ll have to do is unpick the seams. You’ll be unpicking in several places. Now, see this complicated pattern of stitches? These were made by a serger.
A serger sews with multiple threads using needles to make straight rows of stitches parallel to the fabric edge, and loopers to loop thread around the edges. It may look intimidating to unpick all of that, but I’ll let you in on a secret: if you simply remove the straight lines of stitches, the loops will come away with no work at all.
So, first, you’re going to unpick the seams that connects the sleeves to the bodice.
Now, Just for fun, try the shirt on without the sleeves. Ahhh, doesn’t that feel so much better?
Next, unpick about four inches down the seam of the bodice, and along the seam of the sleeve. How large your gusset will be is up to you. A lot of people make their gusset two inches at the widest point. I made mine with a max width of three inches.
The great thing is that if you go slowly and carefully, you can experiment to get the measurement just right for you.
Step 2: The Gussets
When I was starting out in sewing, without the thousands of instructive errors and failures under my belt that I have now, I would have measured my gusset diamonds and cut them out exactly. Don’t do that. It’s unnecessarily difficult, and leaves you less room for error.
Instead, cut yourself some generous rectangles. Rectangles are easy. Also, big ones will give you the freedom to make your gussets larger or smaller as needed, using the same simple piece.
If you want to make your job even easier, choose a fabric of the same weight and with a similar fibre content to the garment that’s getting the gusset. Interestingly, my top was marketed as being a combination of cotton and hemp. It even says so on the label.
I know for a fact that neither cotton nor hemp melts when ironed with the iron on the cotton setting.
Which is one of the lessons that has taught me not to purchase things from ads on social media.
But I digress.
Step 3: Open, Press, and Pin
So. You’ve cut four rectangles from your gusset cloth. Now open the unpicked seams. Take your iron and press the seam allowance.
Now, lay one of your rectangles across an open seam, so that the right side of the gusset fabric is facing out onto the right side of the sleeve or bodice (your choice). Measure the widest part of the triangle to make sure that the measurement is where you want it.
When you have the measurements the way you want them, pin.
Step 4: Topstitch
Now it’s time to topstitch that bad boy in. At this juncture, I recommend using a nice, wide basting stitch, so that you can take it out and redo if you need to.
I’m still a bit annoyed about this blouse’s fraudulent fabric content. But at least whatever this faux linen synthetic hell-fabric is, it’s dashed forgiving of unpicking and other foolishness, so, small favours.
Step 4: The Other Side of the Diamond
Now it’s time to do the other side of your diamond. That means, if you started with a bodice triangle, do the corresponding sleeve triangle. Follow exactly the same process.
Before you do, it’s a good idea to measure the distance across the base of the triangle to make sure it corresponds to the base of the opposite triangle.
Now, just like you did before, press the seam allowances under, pin, and sew.
Step 5: Sew the Arm back On
Now, sew the arm back on. Notice how you’re finishing one arm instead of going bodice-bodice, sleeve-sleeve? This is so that you can get your measurements exactly the way you want them before doing the other arm.
Here’s another trick. Turn your blouse inside out, but have your sleeve the right way round. Now insert the sleeve through the sleeve hole, so that the right side of the sleeve is inside, and facing the right side of the garment. Now you can sew around the sleeve seams and simply turn the garment the right way round when you’re done.
Again, baste. That way if you need to rip it all out and make your gusset larger, you can do it easily and with minimal damage to the fabric. Ask me how I know.
Now topstitch on the wrong side. Make sure the bases of your triangle match up, and that the holes are exactly the same size.
When you’re finished, turn your garment the right way round.
Step 6: Try it On
Now try your garment on. Does it fit comfortably? If it’s still pinching, that means the gusset isn’t big enough. Lucky you, you basted and used a large rectangle of fabric for the gusset.
If you need to, simply take out your basting stitches and make your gussets as long and wide as you need to.
If your top now fits comfortably, though, it’s time to take out the basting and go over your stitches properly. When you’re done, trim the extra fabric away from the new seams of your gussets.
Step 7: Now Do the Other Side
It should be easy now that you’ve worked out all the bugs.
Here’s what my finished gusset looks like. See how it’s longer on the sleeve side and shorter on the bodice side? That’s because I didn’t want to alter the bust measurement too much. However, the sleeve needed quite a bit more space. Your mileage can and will vary.
Here’s the finished top, now as comfortable and attractive as it looks.
No Chat, Please. Just the Instructions.
What you’ll need:
Step by Step
Unpick the sleeve seams, and a few inches along the sleeve and bodice seams.
Cut four rectangles of fabric for your gussets
Open up triangles along the bodice and sleeve. Press the seam allowances. Measure two inches (a good place to start, but you might want larger or smaller gussets) as the base of the triangle.
Pin the gusset fabric to the inside of one of the triangles (your choice; there are four).
Topstitch the gusset into place. I suggest basting.
Do the same for the corresponding sleeve (if you did the bodice triangle).
Baste the sleeve back into place.
Try on your garment. Make adjustments if necessary, then sew back into place properly.
Do the other side. Trim away any extra bits from the gusset.
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and found it helpful. If you’d like to see more garment rescues, check out this project’s main page.
And if you’ve had enough sew-a-long and are ready for a nice cup of tea and a book, why not try my short, fun Simon Pearce mysteries?
A collection of short mysteries for your reading pleasure. Available from all your favourite e-tailers.
Also, keep an eye out for my new novel, The Fiend in the Fog, coming in August from Bold Strokes Books.
Originally published in Red Herrings, the Newsletter of the Crime Writers Association
The cosy mystery gets a lot of hate these days. Modern cosies tend to be like popcorn: light, tasty, but ultimately insubstantial. The writing can be workmanlike and slapdash. But the most common criticism, in my experience, is that the stories are superficial, and don’t delve into the dark corners of the human psyche like “proper literature” ought to.
Full disclosure: I don’t write cosies. I write gritty historicals. I do love to read cosies, though. For me, and, I believe for a lot of readers, they fulfil a very specific function.
The cosy has its roots in the collective trauma of the first world war. The stock cosy settings — villages, country mansions — offer the reader (and, admittedly, the writer) control over a chaotic world.
In a cosy, it’s often clear from the beginning who will be the victim (they deserve it). The murderer generally isn’t too difficult to identify, either. Many suspects have motives, but most of the time, who actually done it is clear early on.
The clean, controlled, chaos-free environment allows for a low-angst examination of the crime. Following the breadcrumbs of means, motive, and opportunity gives the reader a low-stakes puzzle with a reward at the end.
And the final resolution of a cosy provides a tidy wrap-up to something horrible and untidy. It makes sense of the senseless — a resolution that may elude people who have experienced, or are experiencing stress, or even trauma.
I love cosies because they are tidy. I read them voraciously when I’m stressed. I tore through my particular favourite series, Edith Maxwell’s Quaker Midwife series, during lockdown. Maxwell’s stories not only make sense of the senseless in a small, rural town; they also surround the reader with a cast of characters who are aggressively decent.
Considering the flood of nastiness that pours forth from the internet, television, and newspapers, an hour or two of aggressive decency can be a lifesaver.
I was going to do a Giant Jammies Makeover for April. But then this month got the best of me. Work piled on, and then I had the Fauci Ouchie. I was all prepared for a raft of Horrible Consequences which thankfully didn’t come, though I did feel rough enough the day after to justify skipping the sewing project in favour of sitting in front of the telly and eating a bunch of things I shouldn’t.
Today I was going to do the Giant Jammies first thing in the morning. But this is Scotland, and this time of year the sun comes like an angry god of destruction through all windows about 4am and renders the entire house completely unsuitable for either sleeping or photographs.
And sometimes it snows at the same time.
Today I could avoid it no longer. For this is the day that I have to either sew something or give up my hard-won annexed territory in the dining room — the only room in the place with a table large enough for sewing. And, under normal, non-Springtime circumstances, good photographic light.
It occurred to me that I could not only knock April’s sewing project on the head, but also do something about the 4AM visitation.
Any old paper and writing instrument will do. I like to recycle the editing copies of my manuscripts. Today’s came from chapter seven of The Fiend in the Fog, which is coming August 10 from Bold Strokes Books (did you see what I did there?)
Always match your thread to your fabrics. Naturals with naturals, synthetics with synthetics.
Not a ruler. Your face has curves. A measuring tape will respect that.
I used half-inch elastic because that’s what I had. We don’t have a craft store on every corner, here, and acquiring The Perfect Elastic really won’t make a difference to this project.
You can use any sort of fabric that you like. I chose this thick, faux-fur upholstery fabric over coated canvas. It’s soft on the part that will be touching my face, and it’s thick enough to block out even the strongest unwanted light without batting, or even without a double layer.
If you want to use a thinner fabric, like jersey or quilting cotton, then you’ll definitely need some batting between the layers.
Your Sewing Machine
Because this is a topstitching job, I used my trusty Necchi 6160 sewing machine.
How to Make a Sleep Mask in 7 Easy Steps
Do you have your materials together? Great. Let’s go.
Step 1: Measure Your Face
The first step is to measure your face.
Measure horizontally from about an inch to the side of the outside corner of one eye to the same place on the other side of your face. For the vertical measurement, measure from the top of your eyebrow to the top of your cheekbone.
I know this sounds terribly imprecise, but I didn’t sleep well because of all that damn light, so there you go.
Step 2: Make Your Pattern
Draw a rectangle with the horizontal and vertical measurements. Now fold the paper in half.
Draw a right triangle starting at a bit less than halfway up. This is for your nose.
You can draw your seam allowance onto the paper, or trace it later onto the fabric. Your choice.
Now make the cut.
Step 3: Cut Two Pieces
Step 4: Sew Them Together
Place your pieces right sides together. Sew along the top. Now sew along the bottom. You’ll want to leave part of each side open so that you can (1) turn the piece and (2) add elastic. It will go better for you if you measure and mark, in order that your elastic goes in at the same height on both sides. Ask me how I know.
Step 5: Turn the Finished Piece
You can, of course, buy a special turning tool. Or you can use your fingers.
Step 6: Add Elastic
First, measure your elastic. Some people might suggest measuring your head, then measuring out that much elastic but subtracting a certain percentage from the measurement for a perfect fit.
But part of my religion states that no one should be forced to do mental math in the morning, especially not before coffee, so you can, alternately, wrap the elastic around your head.
It works fine. Just cut a bit extra (half an inch or so) for sewing allowance.
Now, press your seams flat and pin the elastic where it needs to go. You’ll be topstitching, so pins on the front, and mind the directionality.
Step 7: Topstitch to Finish
You know what to do.
There. It looks great, and blocks out the photon storm.
Garments should be made to fit the body, not the other way around.
A lot of mass-produced garments aren’t made to fit the body at all, not to mention a diversity of body shapes. Instead, they’re made to fit the needs of a factory to churn things out quickly and cheaply.
Often this means sheath dresses, which look chic and stunning on models and mannequins but make the rest of us look a bit like sausages trying to escape our casings.
Occasionally one tries to make a simple pattern look more interesting, by, say, adding an unusual hemline. I’m all for interesting hemlines, but some of them work better on certain body types than on others.
And this is the topic of this month’s back-of-the-closet rescue.
Today’s garment rescue is this lovely knit dress from Gudrun Sjoden. I love Gudrun’s use of color, and their designs are both unique and made to look amazing on actual humans. I also love how they use models who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and body type.
Gudrun’s clothes are generally out of my price range, but every now and then the perfect piece will go on sale, and that’s when I pounce.
This is a simple four-piece (two front pieces, two back, with integrated sleeves) dress with a handkerchief hem. I’ve had it for about five years. It doesn’t get worn nearly as much as it deserves. But we’re going to fix that.
There are three problems here.
First, Gudrun tends to make clothes with a lot of extra room in them. On one hand, this is a boon for the ordinary human, who often does not want every flaw outlined and emphasized. On the other hand, if one is also short, too much room in general does one no favors.
Second, that hem.
There are a lot of different skirt shapes, and some look better on some body types than on others. This particular dress has a handkerchief hem. A handkerchief hem is a type of asymmetrical hem that’s shorter in the front and back and longer on the sides.
The handkerchief hem is no friend of the vertically challenged.
Finally, as is the case with so many garments when one is 5’2” in heels, this dress is just plain too long.
(There’s also the matter of the sleeves, which normally would not be my favorite. But because of the extra room, they fall to the middle of my bicep, which is actually just right.)
So, this month’s challenge is to:
Shorten the garment
Endow it with a more complimentary hemline
Make it a skosh more form-fitting
Also, I’m going to attempt a bit of decoration. Gudrun Sjoden is based in Sweden, and I’m a big fan of Nordic Chic, so my decoration will attempt to reflect that.
And truth to tell, my Pfaff and I have become the best of friends.
However! This rescue also involves a teensy bit of topstitching, so I’m using my regular sewing machine, too. I use a Necchi 6160, which is a bit of a white elephant, but it’s served me well for many years.
I’d like to point out a little trick I learned recently.
As you probably know, the spool pins on a serger are made to accommodate both spool thread and cone thread (with adapters). Many serger users prefer cone thread because it’s more cost effective.
But you may not want to buy three or four different cones of the same thread, especially if it’s a color you don’t use very often.
You might wonder, can you transfer cone thread to an empty spool?
Yes, you can! And it’s pretty easy, too.
All you have to do is tape a bobbin to the bottom of an empty spool (if you don’t have any lying around, you can always buy them). Then place the bobbin on your regular sewing machine’s bobbin winder.
Place your thread cone on your spool stand and bring the thread through the bobbin’s thread winding path as usual. Tape the thread end to the spool, and use your bobbin winder to wind yourself a new spool of thread.
It may take a little practice, but it can save you money, and it’s kind of fun, too.
Having a difficult time picturing the process? This video can explain it better.
Now that we have that sorted, let’s get on with the dress.
Hankie Hemline Transformation, Step by Step
We’re starting with a simple garment, and the hemline transformation is pretty straightforward. But, as always, precision is paramount.
Step 1: Measure for Length
Measure from the highest point of your shoulder, over your bust (for busty gals like me, this is important) and down to the point where you want your hemline to hit. Write that number down.
Another hint: don’t use a ruler; use measuring tape. Humans have curves, and a ruler won’t do those curves justice.
Step 2: Measure for Width
Take the following measurements: The largest measurement around your bust, the thinnest part of your waist, and the roundest part of your hips.
Of course I don’t want this dress to be tight. I just want to give it a bit more shape. Specifically, I want it to be shaped a bit more like me.
Fortunately, for once, the bust is *exactly right*. However, I’d like a bit less fullness in the waist and the hips.
Step 3: Measure and Mark Your Pieces
I’m making the following alterations:
Hemline: cutting it straight
I laid the dress out flat, and was glad to see that the middle seams line up in the front and back. This will make things easier.
Also, make sure to line up your side and shoulder seams. The hankie edge doesn’t look like much, but when on a person it’s quite noticeable.
Pin your vertical measurement and mark it. Pin the hem so that you’ll keep things even while you mark and cut.
Step 4: Trim That Hem
Normally, I would cut a strip off of the bottom, being careful to maintain an even width. But that’s the technique to use if you want to preserve the shape of the hem, which I don’t. Instead, I want a straight hem. So I’m cutting straight across.
This fabric rolls up in a lovely way even when you leave it unfinished. I love that, but it means extra work when you’re trying to pin the hems together in an exact way.
Step 5: Try it On
When making anything that you’ll eventually wear, it’s important to try it on as often as is practicable, to make sure that things are exactly as you want them.
As you can see, the dress is a bit better, now, but still sort of dowdy.
Step 6: Oh, look! An Idea!
This is when inspiration struck, as it sometimes does. I saw a place to add some simple detail — simple for me, but still interesting for the viewer. Specifically, I thought to add some grommets and use an Oktoberfest-style detail to take in some of the dress’s fullness, rather than reshaping the side pieces or adding darts.
Step 7: Forming the Bodice Triangles
While wearing the dress, I started thinking about darts. Then I started thinking about external darts. Then I pinched a bit of fabric over the chest on each side, and drew them toward the center. It took a bit of experimentation, but ultimately, I ended up with two evenly-spaced, same-size triangles.
I pinned the triangles, took the dress off, then recreated the effect with the dress lying flat.
I took several measurements. They included:
The length of all three sides of the triangles
The measurement of each triangle’s vertex to the base
The distance between the bases of the two triangles
The distance from the bases of the triangles to the side seam.
I pinned again, more precisely, and tried it on again.
There’s still a bit of a handkerchief edge, but it’s much less and looks considerably better. Also, I can use the extra fullness in my New Detail.
This is where it would come in really, really handy to have a dressmaker’s dummy. Unfortunately I haven’t the room. Alas.
Step 8: Ready, Set, Baste!
Now I basted along the two sides of the triangle that meet at the vertices.
Yes. I’m normally too impatient to baste when it isn’t absolutely necessary. But I’ve been burned my impatience enough times to know that eyeballing and hoping for the best generally isn’t enough. So I basted it.
Step 8: Topstitch
After that I double-measured then topstitched along my basting line about 1/8 inch from the edge. I used my regular sewing machine for this.
Step 9: It’s Hammer Time
Now it’s time to put on the grommets. To be honest, these weren’t the perfect grommets for the job. I’d have loved to have smaller ones. But this isn’t America, and there isn’t a Michael’s on every corner, and besides, the challenge is to use things that I already have. So. Big grommets from the January Hood Rescue it is.
I marked the places for my grommets. White knuckle times, as this is a permanent change that can ruin the garment. Have to tell myself it wasn’t getting a lot of use anyway.
After marking, I made teensy holes with my seam ripper and gently stretched them to accommodate the grommets. Before you do that, depending on your fabric, you might consider ironing on a tiny bit of fusible behind the holes for reinforcement. Ask me why I’m suggesting this.
Not gonna lie, that was terrifying. This was the only part of the operation that can’t be taken back. But it’s over and it’s fine now, so whew!
Step 10: Yet Another Fitting
Now it’s time to lace up and see how it looks. Bring your paracord through the holes in your desired configuration and knot the ends.
Do you like how it looks? Of course you do.
Step 10: A New Hem
The only thing left is to put a pretty rolled hem on the bottom. There’s still a wee bit of a handkerchief thing going on, but it’s good enough and I don’t want to mess with it. I used my serger to do this.
It took me a bit of experimenting to find exactly the right serger stitch for the bottom. If you’re an experienced serger user (full disclosure: I’m not) then you might know right away. But if you’re not, then grab a scrap from your discarded hem and do some investigation.
I thought first to use a narrow rolled hem. It didn’t work. Then I tried a regular 3-thread overlock. Better, but not perfect. A wide three-thread rolled hem turned out to be just the ticket.
Step 11: Final Fitting
Try on your new garment. Do you like the way it looks? I do. In fact, I’ve worn this piece more times in the past few weeks than I had since purchasing it. Just like my new Favorite Green Shirt.
It’s an easy-to-follow illustrated guide to a wide variety of common alterations. If you’ve ever wondered how to turn a garment that just doesn’t fit right into something that looks like it was made for you and you alone, this book can tell you.
This is an otherwise lovely green shirt in a lightweight cotton blend knit. It’s been sitting in my drawer for about three years.
This garment has two problems. First, it’s a California-weight sweater that’s pretty much unwearable on its own in Scotland. And then there are the bat wings.
I can’t do anything about the weight, but I can remove the bat wings, and I will.
To turn The Thing that Came From the ‘80s into a shirt that fits well and looks nice, even if I have to wear it under a sweater.
Fortunately, you don’t need a lot of special equipment for this one. But you will need some patience.
Precision is important, especially since you’ll be making your own pattern. You’ll need to use an iron to make your seams crisp.
Paper and Pencil for Pattern-Making
Writing books can generate a lot of waste paper, so I always have some lying around. I like to re-use it for making patterns.
However, there are some distinct disadvantages to doing this. First, taping the sheets together uses quite a bit of tape, which can be expensive. Also, if you fold your pattern after using it again, then try to iron it, the tape can melt and leave you with another type of mess.
If you’re intending to use your pattern again, you’d do well to invest in proper pattern paper.
Next to an iron, sewing pins are your best friend for precision and stability.
Full disclosure: I often use a pen when I know the marks won’t matter. But when the marks will matter, tailor chalk is another inexpensive frustration-saver.
Your Sewing Machine
Because this is a stretchy knit, I used my Pfaff Hobbylock 2.0 serger.
A serger is a type of sewing machine that does exclusively seams and edges. It uses multiple threads and needles to make secure, closed seams. It’s especially good for securing fabrics like this loose knit, which fray very easily.
Sergers are also made to deal with sometimes-tricky stretch and knit fabrics. This is because of a feature called differential feed, which allows you to increase or decrease the degree to which your machine stretches the fabric during sewing.
This, in turn, can help you to avoid fabric puckering and distortion, and to make perfectly flat, even seams.
So, you don’t want a shirt shaped like that. The question is, what kind of shape do you want?
I took one of my favorite shirts that fits *just right* to use as the model. When choosing your model garment, it’s important to make certain that the shirt you’re altering and your model shirt are made from similar fabrics. Check the following:
Knit vs. Woven
Amount of stretch
Direction of stretch
Is the fabric cut on the bias, grain, or crossgrain?
Although my Purple Shirt is a tighter knit than the Green Batwing Monstrosity, it, too, is a cotton/synthetic blend with a four-way stretch, so we’re good.
Ideally and for maximum precision, one should take the model shirt apart. But I didn’t want to do that. My Purple Shirt has been with me for a very long time, and as much as I love it, I’m not convinced that it would survive deconstruction.
So. I’m doing what a lot of people would probably consider an Inferior Solution. But needs must.
Step 2: Iron and Pin
You’re going to be making a pattern. Precision is paramount. So press those seams crisp and pin them for extra security if you think it’s warranted.
Fold the sleeves back into your model shirt. Press and pin so that you’re looking at the body pieces only. We’ll be dealing with the sleeves in a bit.
Step 3: Trace Your Pattern Pieces
Stop! Take a close look at the front and back pieces of your model shirt. Are they the same size? Are they the same shape? Sometimes they are not, and if you’re not careful, you could end up with a finished product that doesn’t look like you want it to.
Once you’ve finished the body piece(s), it’s time to do the sleeve. Turn the sleeve back out, and trace it as faithfully as you can. This might be a good point to jot down on that pattern piece where the fold will be, and to remind yourself that you’ll be cutting that piece on the fold.
Step 4: Mark Your Seam Allowance and Cut
Now take your ruler and mark the seam allowance on all sides of your pieces. I like to work with a quarter inch seam allowance.
Now cut out your pattern pieces.
Step 5: Press Your Seams
Lay your batwing shirt out and press all of the seams flat.
Step 6: Lay Out Your Pattern Pieces
Take the pattern piece that you made for the body of your new shirt. Line it up with the shoulder seam and collar of your batwing top.
Once you have the pattern where you want it, pin the pieces in place.
Step 7: OMG CUT
This is it. There’s no going back. It might be scary, but you’ve got to make that cut. Take a deep breath and do it. Just do it.
Step 8: Pin and Press
Pin your seam allowance along the cut edges of your top piece. Press.
Step 9: Make Your New Sleeves
Lay your sleeve pattern along the top edge of the sleeve part that you cut away from the main body piece. Don’t forget that you’re cutting on a fold.
If you need to orient your sleeve pattern piece differently on the fabric, pay attention to the direction of stretch.
Step 10: Pre-Stitch Flight Check
Because you’re working with a different shape sleeve and a different shape top piece, they’re not going to fit together in the same way that the old pieces did. It’s important to make sure that your two new pieces fit together well, so trim and shape as necessary, and double-check again.
Step 11: Find the Pinch Point
There a point beneath the arm of every sleeved garment where all of the pieces come together. Find it. Pin it. Repeat on the other side.
Step 12: Pin the Sleeves In
Pin your sleeves in. Start by pinning the top of the shoulder hole to the center of the sleeve fold.
The sleeve piece may be a bit larger around than the arm hole. This isn’t uncommon. Gently stretch the sleeve piece out from the shoulder pin until it fits. Then pin the entire sleeve.
Now repeat on the other side.
Step 13: The Fitting
In Bygone times, ladies would go into their dressmaker for a Fitting. That is, to make certain everything fits correctly before anyone begins stitching.
It’s time to do that now.
Be careful not to pull out your pins or stick yourself. If there are any problems, this is the time to address them.
Step 14: Sew Now What?
Stitching, baby. I sewed around the arm holes first, since these are the most fiddly part. Then I went in a straight line from the inside wrist to the bottom of the waist.
I used a three-thread overlock stitch with an eensy weensy bit of differential feed to accommodate this fabric’s extreme stretch.
Now, please admire the perfectly matching green thread. That was on purpose and carefully planned (*eyeroll*).
Step 15: Done!
Check it out! No more batwings! This is now one of my most worn tops, though it’s usually worn under a thick sweater because Scotland.