The ramblings of a working, knitting, writing wife and mother.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Adventures in Sewing

It comes as a big shock to most people. Just like when I have to explain time and again that just because I am an English major, it does not mean that I am a teacher (really, why is that the only thing an English major can do?), I also have to explain that just because I am a knitter, it does not mean that I know how to sew.

It’s remarkable how many people don’t understand the difference between these things. Thinking I can sew just because I knit is rather like thinking I can speak Italian just because I took Spanish in high school. Similar, sure, but just because some of the words are the same in both languages and you might be able to understand a smattering doesn’t mean you can just write a novella in Italian. You know?

In fact, I’m rather against sewing. Maybe because everyone thinks I should be good at it, but I honestly don’t like it. I like knitting – no, I love knitting. I love the simple movements and the endless variety of yarn. I love how portable it is. How I can haul off and quit in the middle of a row if I want to. I don’t need to lug around much equipment. A little skein of sock yarn and a long circular needle, easily tucked into a bag, are all I need for hours and hours of entertainment.

Sewing, on the other hand, isn’t like that. There are too many steps requiring too many pieces. You need pattern pieces, pins, a huge machine, different threads, etc. And probably the biggest obstacle to my wanting to ever do it – you need a workspace. That machine has to go somewhere, be plugged in, and then there is the space you need to lay out fabric so you can cut it. You can’t curl up on the couch with your sewing like you can with your shawl. I can knit a sleeve without even looking at it. You don’t look at your sewing and you’re likely to put the needle through your finger.

So I don’t sew. Why have more than one expensive hobby, right? But no good story ever started "once upon a time there was a knitter who did nothing to further her skills" so we have a different beginning that started a little before Thanksgiving when I took my daughters to an Elves’ Fair at a Waldorf School. It was so charming; we had so much fun, right up until it started pouring in the early afternoon. Lots of people went home, but my girls and I went into the doll room.

I instantly regretted my decision. The room was filled with long tables covered in gauze and silks and miniature benches made from branches and twine. Fortunately, as it was later in the day, most of the dolls were gone, purchased by other fair goers. Yet there were a few remaining. Ezri gravitated immediately to a bunting style doll wearing a purple cotton velour nightgown and cap. He had a dark brown face. She picked him up and carried him around the room even though he weighed more than three pounds (weighted down with lavender-scented millet). She even marched up to one of the workers in the doll room and asked, very politely, “Excuse me, can I have this please?”

I caught the worker’s eye and shook my head, but she knelt down next to my daughter and said, “You should ask your mom.” Thanks!

Ezri trotted back over to me and showed me the doll, again asking if she could have it. Now, when I had seen children wandering the fair grounds with dolls all day, I had a moment where I considered getting her one. I’m all about handmade stuff (see above about the knitting), and her birthday was coming up soon. But then I looked at the price tag on this little bunting and had to change my mind. It was priced just right for a lovely, organic, hand-sewn item, but unfortunately, it was a little too high for my budget. So then I told my sweet girl that this particular doll would have to stay here in the doll room and take a nap, but I thought that we could make another one that would live with her.

She accepted this with an amount of grace that other girls much older than her do not have and put the doll away, kissing him goodnight. Then she went around to all the other bunting dolls (there were three left) and kissed all of them too. And then we went home.

When I told Rich about our adventure to the Elves’ Fair, he asked me how I was going to make a replica doll of the one she had found. I responded that I was hoping to maybe get one second-hand from the Internet. That I had seen other Waldorf dolls on ebay for $12 - $30, much closer to my chosen price range. We started a research session, seeing immediately that a heavy bunting baby like the one Ezri loved wasn’t available on ebay. In fact, I couldn’t even find the same Waldorf bunting doll that she had looked at. It didn’t look good.

As we were clicking around in despair, I finally managed to find an image just like the doll we had snuggled earlier. I showed Rich what we had been looking at, and then we noticed that this doll was available in a kit from Dream Pixie. We really could make our own and at a price that I could get away with. I asked Rich if his mother would be willing to help me as she is a fabulous seamstress and I am. .in case you missed it before. . . a KNITTER. We chatted about it, and in the end I purchased two doll kits – one purple like the one Ezri had and the other a raspberry.

The kits showed up at my house looking beautiful. The fabric was folded neatly and resting on a cloud of carded sheep’s wool. When I had been researching these dolls, I wasn’t exactly put-off by all the talk of natural materials, but it wasn’t a big selling point either. I mean, I’ve made hundreds of toys and stuffed them with the widely available, cheap polyester fiberfill. I never thought twice about it. But just LOOK at the Difference!


See? See how pretty the wool is? And it smells divine and even had little tiny pieces of plants still stuck in it. Being the lover of sheep and wool that I am, how could I not be charmed by that? I let Ezri see the kits and asked her which color she liked best. As predicted, she picked the purple. We both cuddled the bags, basking in their perfect potential, and then I tucked them into a closet to wait for my mother-in-law to come at Christmas to help me with them.

Except I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I looked up tutorials on the Internet and read the instructions about twenty times in the next few days. It didn’t look that hard. The directions were straightforward; there was nothing extraordinarily tricky about what they were asking me to do to get a sweet dolly. I’d made so many dolls before, painstakingly knitting each wee stitch and embroidering so many faces. This, amazingly, seemed easier.

Before I knew it, I was spreading out the big pieces of paper with the pattern printed on them. Another minute and I had a pair of scissors in my hand. I paused then, not really wanting to start. If I started then there was the very real potential that I was going to ruin the kit. It was so perfect in its bag – that neatly folded fabric, that beautiful cloud of carded wool, that lovely cardboard wrapped with floss, button thread, ribbon, and elastic. One wrong move with my inexperienced hand could wreck the whole thing. I should put the scissors away – what was I thinking! I don’t sew.

I was going to put them away, really, but then I picked them up and, without any warning, I was carefully, oh my goodness so carefully, cutting the pattern pieces out. After all, this wasn’t sewing. This was cutting, and last time I checked, I’ve been pretty good at cutting since, um, kindergarten. Besides, it would save some time when my MIL came to help me. I wasn’t going to waste her valuable time having her hold my hand while Cutting Paper. Ridiculous.

When I had all the pattern pieces, I put them neatly into the bag again and put it away, satisfied. Well, not really. It took another two days of constant thinking and flip-flopping before I found myself again with the bag and a shivery feeling.

What harm could I do just tracing the patterns on to the fabric? No, really, it’s a water-soluble marker. If I mess up, I can just wash it right out. No permanent damage here. So I took my marker and with the concentration and precision of a surgeon, I traced along my pieces. Whew. Nothing exploded either. I wandered around the house on a creative high, and when I woke up I was standing next to the fabric with pins and scissors in my hand again.

First up, I wondered where the pins had come from. Knitters don’t really need pins, especially knitters like me who are so against sewing that they choose patterns specifically that don’t have seams of any kind. Socks are great for this – no sewing at ALL, just one big, complicated knot from start to finish. Shawls are also awesome for only requiring a needle to weave in the starting and stopping points, and even then it’s a big needle, blunt and easily threaded by the blind.

And yet, I had pins and apparently I even knew where they were so I could put my hands on them at a moment’s notice. How’s that for being a good Girl Scout? I put them in my fabric around the lines I’d just traced and, after only a moment’s hesitation, I Took the Scissors and Cut the Fabric!

The only reason I didn’t hyperventilate was because, honestly, that would have probably resulted in a disaster that I couldn’t really afford to fix. These pieces, now that I’d started, must come out well. In knitting, there is a technique called the steek. It’s when you knit a beautiful sweater (or vest) usually in a colorwork pattern in a tube and then CUT the armholes, cardigan line, and sometimes the neck after you’ve finished. I’ve heard the sound that scissors make when you cut things like this and it makes me sort of woozy. For some reason, I believe that things just fall apart when you cut them, and not just in to the two expected pieces either. And yet, here I was snipping up the velour almost as if I didn’t even care what happened to it. In no time at all, even though during some of the individual moments when I was doing the oval shaped bunting time did seem to stop, I had all the pieces I needed.

I took another break. After all, I had definitely reached the end of what prep work I could do without help. I cut out the pattern and the pieces. The only thing left to do was actually start sewing them, and, well, that would just be too hard.

But then my darling husband took Ezri away with him on a day trip, leaving the new baby and me to myself for a whole morning. I hurried through some necessary chores that are easier to do without three-year-old assistance and gleefully took up the little baby sweater I’ve been trying to make for a friend ever since I found out she was pregnant (she’s due in February).

Merry slept beside me, and the sunlight was perfect and bright in our living room. Everything was so quiet and beautiful, and yet, I was discontent. This sweater, why was I so excited about it? I mean, I love the girl I’m knitting it for, but I’ve done this pattern three times now and I’m at that dull bit where I just have to knit in a circle for row after tedious row. Why on earth would I waste the beautiful daylight I have right now, this quiet alone time in the sun, with a project that I can do in complete darkness?

That’s what I thought! That’s not very effective time management now is it? No, definitely not. Then it came to me. The head! The doll’s head doesn’t require any sewing! But it does need some toddler-free time investment. I got my well-worn bag out of the closet again with the instructions and proceeded to see if I could make a doll head.

All my doll heads up to this point have been pretty basic and repetitive. You make a circular formed piece of whatever and stuff it. That’s it. A Waldorf head is different; it’s what makes them special and easily recognized. It’s a shaped head. I eagerly turned to the directions and got out my big puffy block of wool.

I squeezed it and shaped it and rolled it and followed the directions to the letter. I made a big mess:

Ground zero

But in the end I got something that looked like it might be right:

Nice and smooth

Just to be sure, I doubled checked using a real-life adorable model:

Who's a doll?

Yep! You can barely tell the two apart. Then I broke a few craft threads and made another big mess, but by the time my husband and older daughter were due to come home, I had finished the head.

That actually looks right

Then I quit. Really. No, I put everything away and left it alone.

Or at least, I wanted to.

Before long, I had reasoned with myself that so far this project had been a total success. Also, why did I need a sewing machine? Did I think that the Waldorf people who started creating these dolls in Europe back in the dark ages had sewing machines? Not likely! And yet they made lots of beautiful things with only their two hands and a tiny needle. I had a tiny needle! I took out my hand pieces and my thread and lovingly started the first seam, thinking peaceful thoughts about creating and doing it the same way as it had been done for hundreds of years. Me and my sewing. Together. Making something beautiful.


The hands are made with four layers of cotton held together. My needle, poor thing, wouldn’t go through all the layers.

(poor bent needle)

I had to stop what with my needle being turned into a fishhook, but I did so reluctantly. I wanted to sew this together. I wanted to see the finished piece. I wanted to bask in my accomplishment, of doing something that I had no experience in doing and no idea how to start, and actually making it work.

I’m going to write a novella in Italian!!

That weekend, Rich took Ezri with him on a scouting campout. I was giddy with anticipation. They would be gone all night and all the next day. I kissed them good-bye and spent the afternoon cleaning. (Yeah, bet you didn’t see that coming.) I was cleaning because I was making a space perfect for, you guessed it, a sewing machine! I cleaned some other stuff too because nothing really takes the buzz out of crafting like having Other Things You Should Be Doing With Your Time looming over your head. I wasn’t about to let guilt ruin my experience.

One of my coworkers said that she had a machine that she wasn’t using at the moment when I told her that I was getting obsessed about this project and probably wouldn’t be able to have a conversation not involving cotton velour and back stitching and too thick fabric again until I had resolved my issues, conquered the task, and finished it. She’s a good friend (and I’m sure she likes to talk about other stuff), so she said I could come pick it up that Friday night.

So even though I had no idea how to work it, and she didn’t really know how either, I took the machine with me bursting at the seams with confidence that somehow I could figure it out. I have a degree, right? It’s just a machine, right?

I brought everything home, put the darling baby to bed, and then set the beast up on my kitchen table.

The beast

Once upon a time when I was in seventh or eighth grade, I took a required home economics class. They taught me how to iron, how to make an omelet, and the poor woman in charge tried to teach me how to sew. I remember picking a horrible pink fabric and cutting two pieces out of it that sort of resembled a teddy bear. I also remember sewing without thread on a piece of paper, taking care to make sure that the needle punctured only on the lines that were drawn on it. That was a crooked little teddy bear, and I don’t even think I own it anymore (I think I threw it out in embarrassment). But the point is that I did have, at one time, some sort of knowledge that allowed me to thread a machine. And I knew that just threading it at the top wasn’t enough. That sewing machines, genius little contraptions, work great because they have thread coming from the top and bottom. They have


Complicated, intimidating monstrosities that are inappropriately (because it is such a sweet, cute word) named bobbins. Oooh, look at the wee bobbin! It exists to vex me! Look at it sticking its tongue out at me.

However, even though I have only the most basic knowledge of how a sewing machine works, I am pretty good at finding things on the Internet. Within a few minutes, I had found the Operator’s Manual of my borrowed machine and was reading away on how to get the beast to bend to my will and sew me a seam.

I took a long time threading the bobbin and the upper needle. Then I spent some more time figuring out why it wasn’t working, and more time wondering if I should just quit before I did something stupid like breaking the machine or hurting my fabric. At long last, everything seemed to be in order to function without spontaneously combusting. I positioned my fabric carefully under the foot. I remembered that it was a good idea to sew a little, then sew backwards to make a sort of knot that wouldn’t come out. I made sure my light was good, double checked the whole thing again, took a deep breath, and ever so gently put pressure on the foot pedal.


The noise that came out of that machine knocked me backward. I ripped my foot off the pedal, leaped from my chair, and had to take a little walk around the kitchen, staring at the sewing machine to make sure it wasn’t going to suddenly sprout fangs.

Knitting is almost silent. You can knit right next to a sleeping baby’s head and she will not be disturbed in the least. There is a gentle clicking of needles as they come together to form a stitch. There is a light sweep of yarn across the surface. There is the occasional moment where you are so at peace with this meditation that you start humming softly just from the joy, but that’s it. Practically inaudible.

Once my heart rate had returned to normal and the machine had not yet made its move to bite me, I sat back down and thought about trying again. Of course it’s going to make noise. Things are moving. It’s using power. It’s not out to get me. I positioned everything once more and tried again.

After some more furious starts and stops, I made my way (sloooooowly) around the outside of the doll’s hand. Did you know that a needle has to be moving at a certain velocity before it can puncture through whatever you are sewing? Did you know that this speed is faster than my comfort cruising pace? There were so many times that I was so intent on where my fabric was and where that needle was going and, hey watch out that you don’t break your needle on a pin, that I narrowly missed putting my own finger through it. Luckily, I did not injure myself. When I was done, I pulled the hand out from under the needle. I held it up to the light and smiled the smile of a conquistador. I had sewed a (crooked, wonky) seam and lo, it was good.

No, really, a hand

(sorry the picture is blurry. It was late and I might have been a little excited. Why? Because that there, my friends, is a SEAM that I made a machine sew for me. The adrenaline was making me shaky.)

I did the other hand. It seemed to be done in an instant. I sewed the seams for the doll’s bunting body. I sewed the head. Look how quickly that machine can sew things! This would have taken me hours and hours. I was intoxicated with the power.

I sewed a SEAM!

And I probably would have kept going if it hadn’t been midnight and my darling baby didn’t want a snack. Nursing an infant is a great sleep aid. It’s almost impossible to hold a warm, cuddly, sleeping baby without wanting to nod off, even if you’re hopped up on sewing machine fumes and caffeine. When it came time to put the baby back to bed, I went right along with her. Triumphant.

The best part was that the next morning I had all to myself. I got all my stuff from the night before and relocated to the couch to finish the doll body. Of course, I made sure that I had correct supervision:

I don't know, Mom, looks wonky

The body of this doll is supposed to be filled with lavender-scented millet. Millet, for those who don’t know, is a grain. It makes the doll all-natural and good smelling. A lot of people really like the idea of dolls like this. I can get behind that. A doll made from all the best that the earth has to offer. . . stuffed with sheep’s wool, assembled from organic cotton and muslin, then filled with calming essential oil soaked grain. It’s a great idea, romantic and pleasant.

Until you start thinking about what a body stuffed with grain really entails. What if it gets wet and sprouts? Hmm? What if your beautiful doll, as sometimes happens with beautiful things, is a magnet for disaster? You know what I’m talking about, dear mothers. It’s when you make a blessing dress for your daughter and do everything you can to make sure that it’s clean for pictures. You feed her early and burp her every ten minutes until picture time. You do not put the dress on her until thirty seconds before it actually needs to be on her person. And even though she has not spit up for ninety minutes and hasn’t eaten for longer than that, she inexplicably spits up her entire day’s consumption all over the dress the moment you pull it over her head.

You know, hypothetically speaking.

And worse! You know what else loves millet besides nature-loving, organically minded creative pattern-making Waldorf moms? MICE! MOTHS! Yuck! What if your daughter doesn’t actually keep the doll with her every single second of every single day until she gets married, even though you have it planned that way in your imagination? What if she puts it on a shelf or in a closet, thinking perhaps to “keep it nice” and by the very act of preservation leaves it prone in the darkness for vermin to find and destroy?

Basically, I didn’t want to stuff my heirloom doll body with rat food. Even though you do bake the millet first to discourage that kind of behavior – there was a warning on the pattern that put me off. I want my doll to endure. And if I’m going to sew something, it being the Process that it is, I want it to last FOREVER. I do not want to have to keep replacing millet or fixing holes. No. I do it once and then never again.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to weight a doll besides grain. There are polyester beads. Ugh. I just typed that and now all of a sudden I feel like a betrayal to the whole Waldorf principle of giving your children natural toys to play with. Let’s just skip ahead before I go buy 25 pounds of millet.

I spent the morning sewing hands into wrist openings, turning down the edges of the body and hand sewing raglan lines. For the record? I do not know how people hand sew at this point. That needle is small and very difficult to get through the fabric. If I hadn’t had this little guy

Saving grace

to give me some friction, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it. That, my dears, is a little piece of something that quilters use to pull their needles. I got it, oh you’re going to love this, from a Young Women’s activity when we made two tied quilts for Project Linus. I volunteered to do the finishing when we couldn’t get them done on the actual night and I got to keep that little circle. I don’t know what it’s made of, but I think I should get some points for keeping it and knowing where to find it when I realized that, wow, after all these years it really IS going to come in handy for something. (Hoarders unite!)

I had to use a funnel and a measuring cup to get the right amount of poly beads into the arms and body. Which means that I’ve used more than a dozen items that I’ve never used while crafting before and yet still had easily accessible in my house. I want to think that means that I am just prepared and not that I have too much stuff.

Items you do not need to knit

In the end, I managed it. A full recognizable doll.

It actually looks like I know what I'm doing

She weighed in around three pounds at sixteen inches high. I put her next to Merry for inspection. I carried her around the living room, noticing that the dear souls who make these dolls for therapy are one hundred percent correct – you really can’t help but pull this doll in close. This isn’t a dolly you dangle by one wrist like a Raggedy Ann (not that those aren’t charming too). This is a newborn snuggler. The weight and size trigger some instinct to cuddle it close on your shoulder and pat it on the back. The wool inside its chest makes it huggable. The longer you hold it, the warmer it gets.

Congratulations! You have a heavy baby

I had one more major sewing expedition with the machine where I sewed the cotton velour into the bunting nightgown (it happened so fast I didn’t even get pictures. Sewing is weird like that. It’s like a roller coaster. You take a deep breath, climb in, hang on with white knuckles all the while it’s happening, then wish you had a photo of the experience after it’s all over and you’re standing with rapidly beating heart in the next line). I embroidered the face with the help of a seven-inch long needle. I tied a ribbon around the hat. I put elastic in the sleeves and neck. And the last thing I did to the doll before I kissed her complete was rouge her cheeks with a beeswax crayon. The night I finished her, which was a few days before my daughter’s birthday (how cool is that?) I stayed up way too late just admiring my work.

I couldn’t really believe that it had happened. I took that kit bag and used everything in it and got something that looked right. I read directions and interpreted them correctly enough that I had something tangible and recognizable. This was a thousand times better than my home ec teddy bear. I was so pleased with how things had worked out. It was so weird.

Weird? Yes. Because I make things all the time. Since high school I have had a constant project going that ended up in a moment like this. I’ve made afghans, bags, mittens, sweaters, toys, scarves, socks, vests, hats . . . and even that one time that I was paid to knit costumes for a movie. So many finished things. And yeah, I get little buzzes after finishing those things too, but for some reason this was different. This one was even more special. Probably because it was the first time I’d ever sewed something that I liked. Maybe because I did it without help. I’m not for sure, but I do know that even though I have knit Ezri little toys before, and even though I once took a half mile of silk so fine it resembled dental floss and made a complicated knot that someone bought for enough money I could have purchased all three of the organic, already completed dolls at the fair:


this was a Big Deal. My daughter saw something she wanted and I was able to make it for her even though I didn’t know how and I managed to get it done with minimal time investment. That shawl up there? Yeah, that took a whole month of constant work. This doll? Off and on commitment for a week or so. And bonus. It was So Much Fun!

I wrapped the doll and gave it to Ezri for her third birthday (funny enough, I also received a handmade doll for my third birthday, made for me by my older sister. I still have her, in pristine condition). Ezri opened the box and recognized the doll immediately. She turned to me and smiled, “You bought this at the Elves’ Fair!”

And I was pretty thrilled. I was so happy about it that I starting thinking that I wanted to do it again.

Oh wait. I have two daughters. I bought two kits. Where are my scissors?

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