Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Unraveling Knit Garments

Any knitter knows that creating your own garments and accessories can be quite rewarding.  Any knitter also knows, however, that knitting can be an expensive hobby.  Quality yarns often leave new knitters with sticker shock, especially when coupled with the cost of purchasing the requisite needles and instructional books.  Fortunately, thrift stores are full of knit garments that can yield skeins of useable yarn if you know what to look for.  Also, your own closet may yield garments suitable for unraveling; my great aunt recently gave me a knit skirt she had that turned out to be perfect for it.  A little note on the lingo: knitters call the practice of unraveling, or ripping the stitches out of, knit fabric "frogging" (rip-it, rip-it) and the pile of sweaters you will inevitably accumulate to be ripped is the "frog pond."

Any second hand store will have racks of sweaters, but they are not all appropriate for frogging.  I like to check the tags for fiber content.  I generally don't buy any acrylic sweaters, since acrylic yarn is cheap enough to buy new and I rarely knit with it anyway.  I try to find knit items that are mostly comprised of natural fibers (wool, cotton, silk) -- they are often blended with manmade materials (rayon, nylon) for durability, which I don't mind.  I think of this as an opportunity to find yarns that I couldn't afford otherwise, so I try to stay disciplined when shopping.  Also, it is important that the knit fabric has not been felted; make sure that the individual stitches are visible.  The most important thing to look for in an item for unraveling is the type of seams the garment has.  If there is zig-zag stitching or serging covering the edges of the seams, this is NOT a good sweater for unraveling (see top photo).  It means the pieces of the garment were cut from a larger piece of knit fabric and the edges were stitched over to keep them from unraveling.  This type of garment would yield only short lengths of yarn, rather than one continuous piece.  Instead, choose garments that have slightly rolled, bound edges; this means the pieces were knit individually to size, then seamed together (see bottom photo).  Often, even on the "good" garments, collars or cuffs will be sewn on with zig-zag stitching or serging, but as long as the main body of the garment is comprised of individually knit pieces it should yield useable yarn.

To begin, I studied the way the garment was put together.  From a knit skirt, I removed the waistband (if it was a sweater, I would remove the collar and sleeves).  Good eyesight helps here, to make sure that you are cutting the thread that grafted to the garment pieces together, not the threads in the pieces themselves.  Along the side seam, I pulled the edges of the front and back sides of the skirt apart, revealing stitches between them that looked like the rungs of a ladder.  Using cuticle scissors, I snipped the first "rung" of this thread.  This is the thread that is holding the garment together along the sides.  I noticed that if you start cutting the side seam from the top of the skirt (or at the armpit in a sweater), you can sometimes pull that laddered thread and it will easily rip out all along the seam.  In other areas, I just used the cuticle scissors to cut the thread if it did not pull out easily.  Once I had separated the front and back sides of the skirt, I started at the top and pulled on the uppermost horizontal running thread.  Several short pieces may come off, but eventually the thread will be one long continuous piece.  As I ripped, I wound the yarn into a ball.  Once the ball weighed 50 g, I would cut the yarn and start a new ball.  The skirt yielded a little over 200 g, 4 balls.

I think I will knit socks from the fine yarn of the skirt.  I have seen several tutorials on unraveling knit garments.  Some suggest loosely winding the yarn around a rectangle of cardboard as it comes off the garment, then slipping it off the cardboard, wetting it, and hanging it up to dry to remove the kinks from the yarn.  For now, I'm going to try knitting the yarn as-is, without the hassle of straightening it.  This is a great way to start knitting with beautiful yarns on a budget.  Be creative and enjoy!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Mushroom and Onion Crostini with Gruyere Cheese

This year, my husband and I spent New Year's Eve with my sister and her family.  Rather than preparing a full meal, we met later in the evening and had finger foods.  I created these crostini for the evening.  They are simply made, but elegant enough for a cocktail party.

Mushroom and Onion Crostinin:
1 1/2 Tbsp. butter, 1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. (16 oz.) mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 medium-large onion, half chopped, half sliced into thin strips
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
2 oz. gruyere cheese, shredded
1/2 baguette, sliced (slight bias)

First I heated the butter and olive oil in a skillet over medium heat.  I added the onions and a generous pinch of salt.  After the onions had softened for several minutes, I added in the garlic and mushrooms.  I added another pinch of salt with the mushrooms.  This will cause them to put off quite a bit of water.  I allowed the mixture to cook, uncovered, until the moisture had evaporated and the mushrooms and onions began to caramelize.  While the mushrooms were cooking, I placed the baguette slices on a baking sheet and toasted them at 400 degrees for about 5 minutes, flipping them halfway through.  I placed a generous spoonfull of the mushroom mixture on each toasted bread slice, then topped it with the shredded gruyere.  I placed the slices under the broiler until the cheese was melted and beginning to brown.

These crostini would be great with a layer of goat cheese beneath the mushrooms.  I was also thinking that the mushroom/onion mixture would be a great filling for paninis (maybe with mozzarella and sliced grilled chicken).  Fresh herbs, such as thyme or tarragon, could be added to the topping as it cooks down.  Be creative and enjoy!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Blackwatch Plaid Tote Bag & Request For Advice

My husband has a deep and abiding love for blackwatch plaid, a residual effect of being employed by Brooks Brothers for two years, I think. Whenever I'm thrifting, I keep an eye out for anything in this distinct pattern. Our first day back in St. Louis after the holidays, I went to one of my favorite second-hand shops for their half-off sale. I found a long, wool skirt in blackwatch. The skirt itself was a bit dated, but I thought the fabric would be great for some project. After I made the suede wallet (see previous post), I decided to make a tote bag with the blackwatch material and trim it with my leftover leather.

I love totes, both making and using them. Being short, however, means totes often seem too large and sloppy when I carry them. I scaled my design down enough that it was in better proportion to my body but still large enough to accommodate my school folders. I cut a rectangle about 16" by 32" from the fabric. I attached interfacing to the fabric to stabilize it. I did the same with a rectangle of lining fabric. Then I folded the stabilized rectangles in half widthwise with the interfacing outward and, with the fold on the bottom, stitched along the vertical sides, leaving the top open. I made a rectangular pocket to affix to the lining material so I would have a pouch for my cell phone inside the tote. I stitched the pocket to the lining, then folded the lining fabric in half and sewed along the edges as described above. I cut a 2" by 2" square from the bottom corners of both rectangles (measuring from the folded bottom and the side SEAM, not the edge of the fabric, see photo).

This part is a little tricky to explain and will take some visualization on the part of the reader. I matched one of the side seams to the bottom fold of the rectangle, flattening the sides of the bag. This turned the cuttout square into a straight line with the side seam perpendicular to the line (and centered on it). Then I stitched along this straight line, sewing over the side seam in the middle. This is what creates the bottom of the tote bag, so it is not just two flat pieces of fabric sewn together; it gives the bag dimension. The bottom of the bag will be twice as wide as one side of the cut square (since my squares were 2"/side, the bottom of my bag is 4" wide). Once the two corner cuttouts on both rectangles were sewn shut, I put the lining inside the exterior of the bag (wrong sides together). To finish the tote, I topstitched a band of suede around the upper edge of the bag, covering the raw edges of both the lining and exterior fabric. I added two suede straps also (about 24" long each).

I opted to leave the top of my bag open, but you could easily add a zipper or other closure to the tote. I also created an insert from cardboard covered with leftover leather to place in the bottom of the bag so the bottom is flat and rigid. Totes are incredibly easy to make (essentially they are just modified rectangles); this project could be modified to suit any tastes. Use a decorative pillowcase, printed vinyl shower curtain, or other conventional material to create a unique and inexpensive tote bag. Be creative and enjoy!

Help Needed: A recent glitch with my sewing machine got me thinking about upgrading my equipment. It will be a long while before I'll be able to buy a new machine, so I have plenty of time to research. I am looking for something that would not have trouble with several layers of heavier fabrics (denim, canvas, light leathers). I've read several online forums, and people seem to favor Bernina or Viking. Also, for sewing with heavier fabrics, many posters preferred older machines (made of metal rather than plastic) and suggested buying used. Any advice on this topic would be greatly appreciated!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Old Leather Pants, New Leather Wallet

My wallet is a repository for junk: receipts so old they are tissue-paper thin, used bookstore credit slips, punch cards from now defunct stores. Rather than clean my wallet out (like a sane person would do), I decided to make a new wallet. A larger wallet. A wallet worthy of carrying my various sub shop coupons and the few dollars I have to my name. My old wallet also folded into thirds in a way that left annoying creases in any paper money or receipts in it. I wanted a long wallet that would not require its contents to be folded. When we were back in Michigan for the holidays, my sister and I went to my favorite Salvation Army stores. I hit the jackpot when I found a pair of black suede pants on sale for $1.50!

The pants had a lining tacked to the bottom hem of the pants. I carefully cut the lining away and pushed it up the leg and out of my way. I cut the body of the wallet from the bottom of one of the legs, two rectangles about 13.5" long by 8.5" wide. The wallet would fold into thirds lengthwise, with the closed wallet measuring about 4.5" by 8.5" (minus seam allowance). I decided to put a pocket on each of the three segments of the interior of the wallet. One would be for cash, with a smaller pocket for coins. One pocket would be for receipts. One would be for miscellaneous papers and the front of that pocket would have spaces for credit cards and my driver's license. I completed the pockets before I put the full wallet together. I cut three rectangles, 4" by 8.5", from the suede. Then I cut three identical rectangles from a lining fabric.

The "receipt pocket" was really basic: leather and lining, right sides together, sewn around three sides, flipped right sides out and topstitched closed. The "cash pocket" was exactly the same, except I added a coin pouch. I cut a square around the zipper fly and stitched under all of the raw edges (see photo at right). Then I sewed this square (including the zipper) to the exterior side of the "cash pocket." The third pocket was a little more complicated. I cut four rectangles 4" by 1.75" for credit card slits, then I sewed these smaller rectangles to the 4" by 8.5" leather rectangle. I placed the first rectangle about 3/4" in from the right-hand side. Then I stitched along the left edge of the small rectangle, attaching it to the larger rectangle below. Then I overlapped the right edge of the next rectangle (staggering it about 1/2"), essentially placing them like shingles and stitching down the hidden edge (see photo at left). Then, using a piece of clear vinyl I had leftover from the mani/pedi kits (see first post), I created a pocket for my driver's license and stitched it to the 4: by 8.5" rectangle. To finish this pocket, I attached the lining as described for the other two pockets.

Once all three pockets were completed, I topstitched them to the right side of one of the 13.5" by 8.5" rectangles. Then I placed the other leather rectangle, right side down, on top of the pockets and stitched along the two long sides. I turned the wallet right sides out and finished the short edges by enclosing them in strips of leather folded in half (like bias tape). I added a loop and button as a closure. My wallet was finished and ready to be filled!

A leather wallet could be made much more simply, maybe just folding in half instead of thirds. Also, for people with a reasonable amount of stuff, fewer pockets would suffice. Thrift stores are full of leather goods: jackets, skirts, pants, bags. Buying used is a great way to create beautitul leather goods without the expense of purchasing new leather. I saw a wide variety of suede garments, dyed in bold colors. They could be used to make purses, slippers, or even jewelry. Be creative and enjoy!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Reversible Headband

(Note: My beautiful sister graciously agreed to model the finished headband for me). While visiting our family over the holidays, a relative (my second cousin-in-law to be precise) told me about reversible headbands she had seen. She explained that the headbands are made of fabric strips, attached at the ends with elastic hairbands. I have always had a tough time keeping scarves and bands in my hair (maybe my head is strangely shaped or something), and I thought the elastic would improve the headband's staying power. I was definitely intrigued by this project because, well, frankly, I'm a little bit lazy when it comes to my hair. Between attending classes, writing a law review note, and generally trying to maintain my sanity, there is little time left for primping. On the more practical side, I've been needing something to keep the bangs out of my face while I'm cooking and I think these headbands will be perfect.

To construct the bands, I purchased 100% cotton fabric in a variety of prints. I tried to buy the patterns in sets of two so that each headband would have corresponding, but not matching, sides (two black and white fabrics, two brown and blue fabrics . . .). The shortest length the fabric store would cut is 1/8 yard, which is more than enough material to make several headbands. I cut two strips of material that were 16" long by 2 1/4" wide in the center, slightly tapering at the ends (see photo). With the right sides together, I stitched along the two long edges of the strips, with a 1/4" seam allowance. Using the flat end of a spare knitting needle, I turned the tube right side out, then ran the pointed end of the needle along the interior seams.

For the elastic, I chose thin, metal-free ponytail holders. I looped together two elastic hairbands by placing one over the other (like a Venn diagram), then pulling the overlapping center edges outward. I ended up with essentially a figure-eight of elastic with a knot in the middle. I turned in the raw edges of one end of the fabric tube, then inserted one of the elastic loops. Then I topstitched over the both layers of fabric, securing the elastic (see photo). I repeated this process with the second end. At this point, the headband could be pressed flat (although this is not really necessary). I tried several different techniques for attaching the elastic and this was really the easiest and most effective. I will probably be making headbands in every color now that I have the method worked out and I look forward to feeling a little less guilty about throwing my hair in a ponytail (at least I'll be accessorizing, right?). Shorter, narrower headbands in bright colors would be perfect for younger girls. Attach a loopy ribbon bow, or large artificial gerber daisy for a cute children's accessory. Be creative and enjoy!