Tag Archives: sewing

Where’s my atelier?

Some frustrations in recent years have revolved around an intense desire to make beautiful things running into a lack of skill or time to make them combined with a lack of available skilled people to pay to do them for us. Several friends and I have formed an unofficial ‘atelier’ (the common Brazilian-via-French term for an artist’s studio) where we do all sorts of little projects. The atelier isn’t even in a fixed location, though we sometimes work at each others’ houses and we share materials.

Some recent projects have included: experimenting with making arrangements of artificial flowers, painted gold, in imitation of the metal flowers found on baroque Brazilian altars; making rosaries; designing embroidery for altar linens or chasubles; sewing altar frontals; redoing the decoration on old chasubles; and making robes and dresses for religious statues.

Some of the work has been partially outsourced to shops, but there we frequently run into our own problem. The professionals are so overburdened and behind schedule that it can take many months just to hear that they haven’t yet started on your project…

Most of the professionals are family businesses, with a mom or dad being the main artisan, and the kids and spouse helping out with simpler tasks, accounting or deliveries. In other words, there’s really just one person doing all the work, and they don’t want to turn away anyone who wants work done. There’s also a tendency here to give priority to higher status people or people with urgent deadlines (ordinations, for instance) so the line is constantly being jumped by priority clients, leaving others in a never-ending tail end. Thus the desire to do it my darn self…

I then realize my own line is just as slow that of the pros. In a fantasy life I’d have a workshop full of diligent elves making all my ideas to order. It feels a bit of a shame to have a head so full of ideas and not enough hands or skill to make them.

Wearing old clothes

This video reminded me of some anecdotes, which I have jotted after the video.

  1. I briefly competed in carriage driving, at pleasure shows that took place on historical properties around New York and Connecticut. The appropriate clothing for this activity included: boots, stockings, long skirt, long sleeved blouse, driving apron (a sort of heavy fabric apron tied over your clothing to protect it from the dirt kicked up by the horses), leather gloves, and a large straw hat. One of the first things I noticed was that I didn’t need any sunscreen or bug repellent. In fact, I felt surprisingly comfortable, despite the summer heat. I had my own private shade pod!
  2. My mother remembers that she began making all her own clothes when she was a young teen, and that in high school she had 3 skirts that lasted the whole four years. She hemmed them liberally so that the hem could be raised or lowered each year to match the current trends. As Abby Cox mentions in the video above, there’s something special about using clothing you make yourself. It fits you, you can adjust it to your changing body shape, and you decide what you want to wear.
  3. Abby Cox also mentions the bodily privacy that the full clothing of the past or in some other cultures offers, particularly to women. She mentions how modern clothing is usually so tight fitting and small that every detail of a person’s physique is on display. I thought that was a very interesting perspective. It brought to mind the one time I tried on a burqa that an acquaintance had brought back from a trip to Bahrain. It was immensely cozy. The sense of privacy was truly refreshing. I only tried it on, but that brief experience was enough to make me aware of the existence of that sense of privacy, which I only otherwise experienced if wearing a costume of some kind.

God willing I will begin making my own dresses this year. I’ve ordered my first two patterns and am buying fabric…. I am confident in my hand sewing skills after spending a year embroidering and making clothing for saint’s statues. News to follow!

Ongoing angels

The angel I began embroidering is still underway. The text “Gloria” got done and redone several times as I experimented with stitches for the lettering. The wings are currently on their third revision, as there needs to be the right sort of layout of feathers to please my eye, and I had only sketched it loosely. I took out the second try, drew a design more clearly, and am now re-addressing that. Not sure how I might vary the colors. I like the multicolored wings found in many depictions of angels:

Red and white wings for Saint Michael
Red, green and peacock-eyed wings on a Gothic painting of Saint Michael
Blue, gold and Peacock wings on this Saint Michael
Rose and slate gray/blue wings on an Eastern icon of Saint Michael.

There’s an enormous variation in the styles and colors of wings. Mine’s going for green and gold at the moment:

Experimenting with shading, metallic thread, pencil drawing, lettering and hands and faces.

On another note: I’d like to thank Sarah Homfray for her excellent, encouraging and calming series of embroidery videos which I watch repeatedly. And also Steve Young, a horse trainer whose long, real-time videos with chatty commentary are also great company while I stitch.

I really miss being around horses. Today my former trainer sent me a video of my elderly mare. She looks great for her age!!


I’ve spent the last couple years looking at a lot of old liturgical embroidery (in books, online), studying how faces are done. I’d helped a friend plan a machine embroidery of two angels a couple years ago and it was a lot of work getting the features just right. We worked with a professional embroidery machine programmer, and though she did a lovely job it was challenging learning how to communicate what we wanted. So they turned out well enough, but it was enormously time consuming. Then again, embroidering things by hand is time consuming. But sometimes doing something yourself is a time saver over explaining it to someone else.

So I had started practicing simplified ‘cartoon’ faces based on romanesque and gothic art, using Adobe Illustrator, thinking that if I could give the programmer vector art instead of paper sketches that might help a lot. But though I enjoy that process to some degree, I really enjoy working with tangible materials, and the other day decided to just pick a simple design and embroider it and see ‘where the shoe pinches’, as my voice teacher used to say. Doing reveals problems and challenges to work on in a way thinking about it never does.

I chose a simple angel in stained glass with heavy outlines and little detail, traced it with a pencil on a piece of white cotton (gently! so as not to damage my laptop screen!) Were I at home I would have printed it out and taped it to a window and then traced it using the window as a light box. But I am traveling, so very gentle pencil tracing is the solution. Since the main point was to just to practice, I didn’t worry about the exactness of the tracing.

Anyway, I started out outlining the head and features in dark brown, then filled in with a couple shades of pale pink. I’m not sure yet whether the heavy outline around the head was necessary, but given that these images will be seen from a distance, I think the heavy and simple features and outlines are helpful. I would like the fill to seem smoother, which might be possible with more careful stitching using my magnifier (which I don’t have with me).

Then I did the hair, starting with a dark ochre, then a medium ochre, and finally a pale yellow for highlights. I thought that turned out rather well, though here and there the direction of the hair got a bit random, as I ‘painted myself into a corner.’

Then I filled in the neck, and I will wait to see later if the ‘shading’ on the side of the neck looks okay or would be better done in another color or not done at all.

And then I thought I’d try some metallic thread I found on the trip. I started with three strands, which was not easy to work with. The thread is springy and stiff, and sometimes the three strands didn’t lay smoothly together and once one strand somehow fell out of the needle and got left behind for a few stitches. After a while I switched to using just one strand and repeating each stitch three times to give the weight and thickness I wanted. That was much easier. I started filling in the halo between the rays, making a contrasting direction with horizontal stitches using only one strand (with no repetition).

The metallic color is not exactly what I would prefer – a warmer gold is more to my taste – but it’s good practice, and a good way to get to know that kind of thread. All the thread is DMC. I’m using a piece of cotton like that found in bedsheets – it has a nice smooth surface and tight weave and stays put in the embroidery hoop without stretching or bagging too much.

We’ll see how this goes! I do hope you find these examples encouraging for trying your own projects.

Our Lady of Aparecida’s blue mantle

I did finally finish a blue mantle for Our Lady. The combination is really lovely, I think.

The fabric was a rather heavy knit with a touch of stretch but lovely drape. Too difficult to fold and hem, so I used the trim to cover the loose edge. It doesn’t seem particularly prone to fraying, but I can add a ribbon to the inside to cover the edge when I have time.
Here I am trying it on. I marked both the mantilla and the mantle with an embroidered circle where the crown pin will go through the fabric so that I use the same spot each time and don’t damage the fabric randomly.
And then I remembered I had a pin from the original cape to hold it shut, and found that, and ta-da, all done. A future iteration could have embroidered floral/vine sort of patterns around the border. But this fabric is not necessarily the one to take embroidery. I’ll experiment later.

One thing I wanted to try is making a different dress for underneath. I have a lovely cherry/rose sort of colored satin that is light and drapey. I want to see how that would work for a different style of dress. The original image has a carved drapey gown. Not sure I can duplicate the look, but it would be interesting to experiment.

Mantilla detour

The blue mantle is still underway, as I got sidetracked making a lovely lace mantilla… made from the remnant lace I scrounged at a couple of shops in Barcelona:

It was fun learning to sew the embroidered laces (for now tacked together gently without any knots, so they can be undone and redone if necessary), and it seemed quite possible that it’s not too difficult to embroider on netting to make one’s own designs. I used a piece of sheer gold-white organza underneath as a support, though I’m not sure that’s necessary.

Dress success!

I’m pleased enough with this gold underdress with red overdress! The gold underdress was a challenge, but today I set about adding lace and that improved it quite a bit:

I’m starting to agree with a friend of mine who joked that we’d all be better off if we just decorated the entire world with ribbons and lace. I’m thinking lace collars need to make a comeback. We used to dress is such elaborate clothing. How dull our modern tendency to sportswear, tee-shirts, jeans and so on.
All the lace on…
I tacked down the white lace so that the hands are visible.
I trimmed the red overdress and added a hook and eye to hold it shut and snaps to hold back the corners so the underdress shows.
There ya go! Tomorrow I’ll start on the blue mantle!

The struggle dress

The gold underdress proved to be a struggle. I did a range of mock-ups with a light cotton, trying to get the fit I wanted: ‘A frame’ as it were, with the hands visible and the right amount of extension around the ankles. Multiple tries with modified rectangles and semi-circles didn’t work at all.

This single-sheet wrap sewn up the front ended up having a weird pointy skirt instead of the A shape I was looking for.
Finally I tried math: marking a measurement every half inch along the height of the statue, using the measuring tape to make a circle in the air around the statue where I imagined I’d like the dress to be (thus touching the body at the top, but extending out a few inches at the bottom hem).
The math. However, after cutting this from a single piece I realized I really needed a ‘sandwich’ – a front triangle and back triangle sewn up the sides, not unlike some of the dresses I myself wear.
The two pieces…
Loosely pinned on to check the fit.

Doing the sewing in the gold satin was a bit hampered by the lack of an iron in the airbnb where I am staying. I discover (duh) that fabric that doesn’t wrinkle easily also doesn’t iron easily. Some fabrics will ‘cold press’ if left under a heavy book overnight. Not this one. So, this will have to be a “please don’t look at the back!” dress for now. Another time I’ll make a tidier one. Nonetheless I think it’s going to work well with the red overdress.

The final basic gold dress (ornament to come).
With the red overdress – now I can start adding lace and other details.

The red dress

So the rough idea for the red overdress is like this. Off we go to see how it works out!

I folded red silk over the cotton model to give it more body (this red ‘silk’ (polyester) is quite mobile and soft.

I stitched the finished overdress shut just below the hands to try it on.

So it’s going in the general direction I would like. I folded the corners of the red dress back to reveal more of the gold skirt. I’d like the gold skirt to be a little less buoyant. And the red dress is about an inch too long. I will probably shorten the red overdress first, and see again how it hangs, before possibly re-doing the gold underskirt. Once the length is correct, I also want to narrow the red dress at the top (and possibly belt it) to make it less like a cape.

When I lie awake at night I enjoy brainstorming what I will do to resolve this or that problem. I did try folding and pleating the gold underskirt in various ways but I don’t like the result at all. I think it might be better if it were simply narrower altogether. I will probably cut a new one entirely, as the existing one is quite cool and might have a good use in a different context.

Here’s the red overdress without the skirt:

I put two pins in to mark the new length I’m going to try (I might just fold it up and tack it first, to see if I like it shorter. Fold more, pin more, cut less is a good strategy in the beginning, to try out different shapes.

First layer: the underskirt

So I began sewing the first layer of clothing for Our Lady of Aparecida. Here’s how it went.

First I cut a square of handkerchief cotton, then trimmed it into a circle, cut the center opening, and tried it on the statue. I trimmed away excess until it was a good fit, then lightly tacked a simple lace to the perimeter, with the idea that it would serve as a kind of underskirt for the satin skirt. Anything that doesn’t work can be redone!
Next I pinned the cotton to the back side of the gold satin and trimmed the satin to be just a little larger than the cotton. Now I was figuring that the cotton would serve as a kind of lining and support for the satin (as it may yet be decorated with trim or embroidery, and the cotton helps keep everything smooth).
After some pondering I turned the satin under so that just the bit of lace showed around the edge, pinned it, and did my best small tidy stitches to hem it. I left the top undone for the moment, as I still wasn’t sure exactly what I would do up there.
Here you can see the half-hemmed satin, right side up, in front of the statue.
I decided to sew a ribbon to the waist opening to let the skirt be tied on securely. I hemmed the inner edges, folding the satin over the cotton, and did a whip stitch around the waist opening before going back and sewing on the ribbon. Since the ribbon needs to run on a curve I had to hold the waist-opening edge vertically as I sewed.
The ribbon gets tied like this for now.
I put a little shawl of lace around her shoulders, sewed it shut below her hands so it would stay in place, and then tied the skirt over it. I may do some rather drastic modification of this underskirt after I finish the red overdress, because it’s not yet clear how they will interact. The stiff width of this gold skirt may be problematic – in which case I can reduce the size of it, add gathers or pleats, or take out the cotton lining. On the other hand it might turn out to be most excellent, since both the overdress and mantle are likely to be rather stiff, too. The red dress fabric is the most drapey, but I will probably build it on a cotton lining as I did this skirt, and may additionally line it with another satin. I also intend to decorate this underskirt, which will add weight and change the way it hangs, but I’m waiting to get the red dress done before doing any decorating, so that I can coordinate the trims I use.

So there you go – experimenting in progress!