Why I never get anywhere with my sewing

On the plus side, when I’ve got this smock made, it will work for any time and place I choose to portray, from the earliest use of sewn textiles right on up into the Tudor period. Heck, in some parts of the world, they’re still using patterns much like this even to this very day, not as a part of historical reenactment or historical authenticity or anything like that, but because That’s Just How You Do Clothes.

The almost-all-times-and-places smock is made with rectangular construction. Rectangular construction is some pretty cool stuff. Rectangular construction is some pretty cool stuff. It allows one to fit any body type, and what’s more, you’ll do it using far less fabric than wasteful modern methods of fabric cutting and construction. When you hand-spin every single thread that goes into woven fabric, hand-weave that thread into fabric, hand-spin every thread you’re going to sew with, and then hand-sew that garment, you want to use as little as possible and get as much out of it as you can. This is even more true if you or your family also had to raise the flax and turn it into linen fiber, or raise the sheep and sheer the wool and turn it into usable wool fiber. Look up those processes sometime, if you’re not already impressed with the idea of all this. On top of all that, if that weren’t enough to recommend the process, it lets you do all this while seldom or never cutting or sewing in a curve. This is all rectangles and triangles. Easy-peay math, easy-peasy cutting, easy-peasy sewing.

Those are the pluses to rectangular construction. The minuses, at least for me, are that I can’t cut a straight line to save my life.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say that you know how I should do it. But before you do, let me explain that I’ve already tried your method and it doesn’t work for me.

These are the methods I’ve tried:

Eyeball it. This doesn’t work for most people, I find, but I’m including it because there’s someone out there who will say “I just eyeball it,” as if it’s that easy. It’s not. The thing about rectangles is that there are two elements to them: the straight lines, and the 90-degree angles. Even if I could make one of those things happen, I darned sure can’t make the other one happen, not by eyeballing.

Snap a chalk line. This also doesn’t work for me, probably for the same reason that eyeballing it doesn’t work. First you have to get that 90-degree angle right, so you know where to put that chalk line. Second, you have to snap correctly. My father and my stepfather are both really good at construction, and my grandfather was a total whiz at it, but no amount of teaching on their part could get a straight chalk line out of me. Every snap created a curve, not a straight line. No, I don’t know why. They didn’t either.

Fold, crease, and cut. The reason this doesn’t work is that putting in a crease by hand or by hot iron causes the fabric to distort slightly. Even though folds are inherently straight, the fabric’s distortion will cause them to become curves during the pressing.

Use a ruler. Yes. Using a nice straight edge should work, shouldn’t it? Alas, you still have to get that 90-degree angle at the corner. Alas #2, you have to place the ruler on the straight-of-grain. I don’t know about your eyes, but mine aren’t actually good enough to see that straight grain. Alas #3, if the ruler isn’t as long as the line you need to draw, you have to place it correctly twice. Alas #4, if you place the ruler correctly, you have to use something to make a mark along that edge, and anything that will make a mark in fabric that’s not heavy and tough — smocks, by the way, are made with light, gauzy fabrics — is going to distort the threads’ relationship to one another, just like with folding.

Use a ruler and a rotary cutter. This ought to work, but somehow it doesn’t. I always end up cutting the ruler instead of the fabric, making it no longer a straight edge, if I try to press up against the ruler. If I don’t, I wind up veering away from the ruler, and cutting a curve.

Tear on the grain. This actually does work, kind of, with thinner, plainwoven cotton. But I don’t use cotton for my historical garments. I use linen, and linen doesn’t actually want to tear on the grain. Linen fibers want to hang onto one another because of the lignin that coats each strand, and they’ll do anything to avoid being pulled apart. “Anything” in this instance means distortion, and to a far more severe degree than the distortions caused by pencil-markings, chalk-markings, or folding. Also, if any of the threads is weaker than another, the tear will happen along that weak thread, so you’ll get an off-grain tear, which means a big turn on your edge.

Thread-pulling. Ah, the holy grail of fabric cutting. It will be possible to do this on every plainwoven fabric. Here’s how you accomplish it. First, you pick out a thread that’s a bit away from the edge of your fabric, in case the edge was cut at a wonky angle. Then you take a pin or needle, work its tip under a single thread, and pull. You might need tweezers for the first pull, and possibly for others, but most of them should be okay with just your fingertips. When that thread breaks, find its end within the fabric and go about a centimeter away from it, catch the thread with your pin, and pull it up again. Keep going until there’s a single thread missing from the weave across the entire stretch of fabric. You’ll be able to see it clearly, and so it will be easier to cut along the space where that thread used to be. Straight line, right?

Not if my experiences are anything to go by, that’s for sure.

There, you see? That “straight line” which some people have sworn will always be perfectly straight, is not a straight line.

But sure, please, tell me your never-fail method for getting a straight line in fabric. If it’s none of the above, I’ll try it out and report back.

Now, as usual, I am stuck on the first step of a process that’s supposed to be super easy. And this is why I never get anywhere with my sewing, and why I still have nothing to wear but hand-me-down garb. It’s beautiful garb, but as pretty as it is, it’s not something that I get to be proud of, because other people own the sense of accomplishment on all of it.

10 replies on “Why I never get anywhere with my sewing”

  1. You know what? I can think of a single sewer I know that gets a 100% true straight grain cut at 90 degrees.

    Close is good enough in this case. The only place it matters being less than 1/2″ off would be smaller pieces, or quilting. Garments like this, not so much.

    The straight line in your last picture is not fully straight because the fabric on the roll is pulled off grain. That can be straightened after you cut what you need.

    I would advise the rotary cutter and ruler, but I have no idea how you managed to cut the ruler itself. Those are 1/4″ think plastic. Long cuts I also curve out at the ends. I usually fold and make cuts shorter than 24″, but that is not quite as accurate.

    So yeah, this is me with all my experience telling you that close enough will indeed be good enough. Being even an inch off grain on one side will not matter over this much fabric. Really. Not for your first garment.

    1. It’s not my first garment, but I really wanted it to be the first one that worked well for its intended purpose. The others have all fit me or Hakim in a very wonky way, and I was hoping this one wouldn’t.

      1. As long as you are not drastically off, it’s not going to matter.

        The wonky fit issues on the previous garments could very well be fitting issues, not cutting ones.

  2. I use a metal straight-edge to solve the cutting-the-ruler problem, which I also have when I use wooden yardsticks. It’s 4 feet long, and I’ve no idea where it came from.

    As the above commenter said, if you follow a thread and don’t get a straight line, the fabric was distorted on the bolt. If you follow another thread, to make a rectangle, it ought to turn into a rectangle over time. If you’re going to cut it into a triangle, you do need to make it rectangular first. I haven’t tried this, but in your shoes what I would try is pulling threads to get distorted rectangles, and then blocking them (like you block a sweater – getting them wet, pulling them into the shape you want, and then letting them dry in that shape.) With machine-made fabric, I think it would work. If it’s hand woven, it’d depend on how regular the weaver was. However, I’m not sure that this will work if you’ve fray-checked it. That might check the straightening too.

    I consistently get straight lines tearing linen, and have a couple things to say about that which might possibly help. Though they might not, too. 🙂 One is, you need to pull quickly and deliberately to help it follow the grain all the way. If you’re being careful, it’s much less likely to work. The second is, the distortion caused by tearing, while impressive to look at, can also be fixed with water, at least enough so it doesn’t bother me. It might still bother you. I tend to follow the grain when I’m sewing, if I really care, so what the edge beyond the seam is doing seems less crucial.

    Good luck figuring something out that works for you!

    1. With a wooden straightedge, the rotary cutter cuts the edge and makes it no longer straight. Yes. However, with a metal straightedge, the rotary cutter blunts itself on the metal, thus ruining its ability to cut.

      The fabric was *definitely* distorted on the bolt. Yes. That is indeed the actual problem.

      Blocking doesn’t seem like it’ll work, if the edges will fray from the stress placed on them by the blocking pins. And if Fray-checking will stop the edges from fraying, but will make the blocking not work, I think we’ve found another obstacle to a solution. I’m trying to maintain a positive mood today, so let’s say that it’s a good thing to find the 9,999 ways that don’t work, because the 10,000th way is sure to work.

      Pulling this particular linen is what I tried, that pretty much wasted the first 3 yards from the bolt as I tried over and over to get it right. I rip FAST and DECISIVELY, and when it veers off into a nice curve, I know it’s not my own doing. You can watch me sometime if you like, not that I’m actually willing to waste another 3 yards of my own fabric/money, but if you like, I’ll come to your house and rip your linen to demonstrate that I am, in fact, doing exactly what I’ve been shown how to do multiple times. Including once when someone who makes a living at sewing came to my home in Chicago, showed me how, stood back and let me try it, and said “Damn, it’s like you were born to rip fabric.” (And then I never seemed to make it back into her schedule again, so who knows what all I could’ve learned from her.)

      1. I usually just pat the fabric into shape, rather than really pull on it, and therefore don’t use pins. I probably shouldn’t have used the word blocking, but I don’t know whether there’s another word for ‘laying it out flat in the shape you want and it stays there because you’re not stretching it and it’s pretty limp when it’s wet.’ At most I might put something heavy and flat on it for a while.

        I wish I had more of the 9,999 things to suggest! (Or even better, that last one.)

  3. So I was squaring up a quilt last night and realized a couple things. There’s no rotary cutting mat in the picture. And from a reply above, I see you don’t have one of the rulers either.

    No wonder you had problems!

    The mat has a grid on it. I line up the selvedge edge along one side and the center fold on the other. Then I use the ruler to line up a straight cut.

    Alternatively, lining up the selvedge edge against the edge of your table would work to get it square. Even if you had to tape it down to stop it from moving. Then once it was lined up along the edges of the table, you could use any ruler to square up a line to trace along the cut edge.

    Darn, wish i could show you what I meant…

    1. I can sort of ‘see’ what you mean, but the thing is, that assumes a straight selvedge. These things are wobbly as all get-out. FOR SURE these were stored on the bolt wonky, but I’ve been thinking that they might not be terribly well woven, either. And there’s more thickness variation in each individual thread than I, personally, would be comfortable with as a spinner. It’s supposed to be a very good fabric supplier, so I honestly don’t know what’s going on with it, but I kind of thing I want to become a woodworker instead. Except that’d mean more (expensive) tools. 😛 Ain’t this a bitch.

      What I really really want is to take a class. An all-day, most-days class, with a teacher who knows their stuff, who could come over and say “Yeah, you’re doing that right” or “Here, lemme just show you, watch” and then maybe I’d learn what was and wasn’t a normal, acceptable level of variation in stuff. I’m not comfortable with any variations.

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