January 2012


For Christmas this year I made David a purple sweater:

and he got me two sewing machines:

Really, it was the other way around.  He got me two sewing machines, and I used them to make his sweater.  

Can I tell you how much I love these machines?

I adore these machines.

I have been thinking for a long time about getting a serger.  I would look at them online for a while, search for used ones on Ebay, decide that I didn’t want to fight with a machine that might or might not work, figure that the zig-zag function on my regular sewing machine worked well enough, try to do a twin needle hem and fail (the twin needle never works well on my machine— it jams and skips stitches, I have no idea why), then repeat the whole process of searching and musing about a coverstitch.

So David went out and got them.  He made me get the better coverstitch machine too.

I’m really glad to have these machines, and I’m also really happy I waited till I had been sewing for 3 years before getting them.  Here are some of the things I know now that make me appreciate having a serger and a coverstitch.

  • My favorite things to sew and wear are mostly knits.  Knits handle so much better on the serger— no stretching and bunching.  And the seams have plenty of give.
  • My least favorite part of sewing is finishing seam allowances.  The serger make this easy by seaming, trimming, and finishing in one step.  I haven’t used it yet to finish seam allowances on wovens but I think it will still go faster because I won’t have to trim the allowances by hand.
  • After three years of sewing I’ve come to appreciate having a garment look professionally finished on the inside.  But…I always thought it was my lack of skill that made my garments look home-made.  Now I think I was just missing the right tools.  A serged seam covers a multitude of sins.

Here are some details on the sweater.  I love the way the contrasting thread came out:

And here it is in situ:

I also used these machines to sew my sister’s top, and my last two Burda wraps.  So that makes four garments in January alone!  The same number I sewed between September and December of last year!  Here’s to re-using the same pattern.

I’m still getting the hang of using the coverstitch to do hems.  In theory it is supposed to hem and finish the edge at the same time.  But I find that if the raw edge of the hem falls between the two lines of stitching then the fabric bunches up and gets distorted.  I’ve experimented with first finishing the edge on the serger, then turning it under and hemming with the coverstitch, and I’ve also tried hemming first then trimming the raw edge with the serger.  Does anyone with more experience know the best way to go about this?

Oh, here’s a picture of my teal wool Burda wrap.  It looks so different in the more drapey fabric!  At first I wasn’t as crazy about this version but I wore it today and now again I feel like I need to make a few more of these.  I think this and the Burda raglan t-shirt from 02-2010 are going to be my go-to top patterns for a while.

Thank you sweetie! I love the gifts!


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You should go make this top right now

Every fall, I keep hoping someone will come out with a really cool drapey cowlneck top that will give me something to do with the immense number of fall/winter knits I’ve accumulated.  By far and away my most-used pattern is the cowlneck top from Simplicity 3634, which I have used with various neckline variations and lengths probably a dozen times.  Truth be told, though, I’m getting  a little tired of this pattern, and— lacking the imagination to come up with something better myself— I keep hoping one of the pattern companies will do it for me.

Then this year Burda did:

(Burdastyle 11-2011-114)

It’s a wrap, but drapes like a cowl.  It’s tunic length, has a nifty back yoke cut as part of the fronts.  It’s designed with sleeves but looks great without them as well.  And it even comes with decent instructions, as the “sewing lesson” for the month.  I sent the picture to my sister to see what she thought and heard back within a few minutes:

AMAZING.  That is my IDEAL shirt.   Seriously.   Somewhere in Plato’s cave they are sitting around right now looking at shadows and imagining THIS SHIRT.

I’ve made four of them already.  One for me in black poly-lycra jersey, one for my sister in pale blue rayon jersey, one from a piece of very fine, sheer teal wool knit that I’ve been puzzling what to do with for years, and a sleeveless dress version that I’m hoping to wear for a long-anticipated “date-night” next month.  OK, the last two aren’t hemmed yet, but still.

A couple of quick notes: I took about an inch out of the torso based on holding the traced pattern up to myself in the mirror and noting where the arms ended and the hip began.  Seriously, Burda patterns always make me feel like a pygmy.  Also, the look and fit can vary a lot depending on how stretchy a fabric you use.  One that I cut as a “top” could probably be worn as a dress with thick enough leggings.  The pattern calls for “only fine knitted fabrics.”  Personally I liked the way it looked in somewhat less stretchy fabrics.

I’m thinking that four of these might be enough.  For now.  Although I could still see doing one more in a wide gray and black stripe:

(image from www.gorgeousfabrics.com)

Or maybe a bold geometric print.  Or another cozy wool.  Ahem.

If you don’t have the magazine you can still get the pattern here or here.

Then show me your version.  Or don’t, because then I will spend the entire year making copies of this one pattern.  And how would that make all those other patterns in my stash feel?


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Work and play

A couple of recent posts have gotten me thinking about work and play.  One was Elizabeth’s post on why she decided not to pursue an Etsy store for her sewing.  The other was Myrna’s post on starting her new jewelry business.

At the moment, I work as a scientist, and sew and paint in my spare time.  I don’t think I am more or less passionate about any of these activities, but I treat them very differently, because one is a job and the others are hobbies.

At work, I am extremely product-oriented.  I approach science as a business, where the end product is a paper and the most valuable resource is time.  Like Myrna, I work backwards from the product to figure out my schedule.  If I want to publish a paper in two years, what kinds of experiments can I realistically get done in that time?  How many recordings will I need to do to answer this particular question?  What equipment will I need and how long will it take to get that up and running?  Like an artist, I don’t know exactly what the end product will look like.  Also like an artist I need to leave room for learning and play.  But my play is very focussed: I will budget a week to goof around and try out new stimuli.  Or maybe a month to develop and test a new system of delivering odors.  And I recognize that— as much as I pour myself into work— the paper at the end doesn’t belong only to me.  What I choose to work on is a negotiation between what the field is interested in, what the lab works on, what’s fundable, and my own interests.  Every science project is in some sense a collaboration: between student and advisor, between authors and reviewers.  I often tell students that data doesn’t become science until other people know about it and understand it.  Science is a social endeavour.  And that’s a good thing.

In my hobbies, in contrast, I can be as selfish as I want to be.  I make things because I want to.  Because they strike me as beautiful.  Because I want to learn something.  It’s pleasing and gratifying when people like what I’ve made but that’s not what motivates me.  I am the only judge I care about, and if that means making three muslins none of which become garments, or spending an evening staring at a half-done painting before finally putting it away for several months, or abandoning a medium I’ve become good at because it’s no longer exciting to me, so be it.  It’s my time and I can spend it how I want.

For a long while I thought about trying to make art into a career.  I did some some illustration work which was very enjoyable: I got to treat art as a collaboration for a change and to try to come up with visual solutions that fit both my clients’ wishes and my own sense of design.  But in the end I decided that that wasn’t for me.  I didn’t want to spend my free time promoting my art.  I didn’t want to tailor my paintings to fit the market.  I didn’t want to turn art into a form of production, rather than a form of discovery.  So while I still do an art show each year and I love it when one my paintings finds a good home, I don’t treat art as a business.  And that works for me.  (At least for now.)

I also learned that selfish time is important.  It is my prozac, my exercise.  It is what allows me to be the kind of wife and mother and scientist I want to be.  I thought maybe that would end when Joey was born.  Every so often I tell myself it’s time to “get serious” and start devoting every spare minute to reading the science literature or working on analysis.  But I don’t think that’s going to happen.  I need to be selfish at times so I can be generous the rest of the day.  Blessedly, I have a husband who understood this before I did.

At the same time, becoming a professional scientist also made me a better artist.  It taught me how to plan a project that might take years to complete.  It taught me how to break ambitious goals into manageable pieces.  It taught me how to give and receive criticism with grace.  It taught me that I can teach myself any skill and gave me the patience to let those skills mature.  It let me know just how long it takes to actually get anything done.

So I feel happy (and lucky!) to be able to both work and play.  For me it seems to work best if these are separate activities.  But I know that for other people they are the same thing.  May everyone find the balance that works for them in the new year!




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This cityscape was the most ambitious painting I worked on during our fall vacation.  It also marks an end to a goal I set myself two years ago: to do a series of 12 city paintings, 3 each from four different cities.  The cities were Boston, New York, Chicago, and (ahem) Wardsboro, Vermont (population: 909).  The finished series is here, plus a few extra paintings that made their way in.

The original goal was to finish the series by May 2010, in time for the open studio that year.  Stuff came up.  I lost momentum and figured it would never get done.  And then at one point I put down my brushes and realized that I had accomplished my goal without really noticing.  I find that a lot of my goals are like that: overly ambitious, not finished in the time frame I initially set.  And then sometime later I find that I’ve met them in spite of myself.

Sometimes these goals are explicit, like the painting series.  And sometimes I don’t really know I’ve set them.  It’s only recently, for example, that I realized I had long ago set myself the goal of dressing better.  I think I can pinpoint too when this idea first entered my head.  It was in college, when I did a study-abroad quarter in Italy.  It happened that the “color of the year” that year was…gray.  I was smitten.  I’d never paid the least attention to fashion and suddenly I got that clothing could be an art form and a means of visual expression.  It’s only taken me 13 years to figure out what to do with that insight.

Setting goals for the new year is my favorite part of the holiday season.  I’m feeling good this winter because I have many projects I’m looking forward to, and no sense yet of how limited my free time actually is.  Here’s what’s on my to-so list for 2012:

  • First up is a new series of abstract paintings.  This was inspired in part by Elizabeth’s question about what talents we wish we had.  I wish I could write music.  I love listening to music and I played piano as a kid.  But I never had much patience for practicing and I don’t have the ear to write down melodies.  So I thought: maybe I can do a series of paintings inspired by the idea of a musical composition.  More on this soon.
  • I’d also like to keep painting cityscapes.  I find cities endlessly inspiring: to walk through, live in, and paint.  This year I’d like to try playing with different palettes.  Not that I’m going to stop painting rainy days.  But sunshine is its own challenge, and I think I’m up for it.
  • Also inspired by Elizabeth, I’d like to post some online painting lessons.  I picked up some acrylic paints recently and that seems like a good excuse to do some basic exercises.  Anything you’d like to see a post about?
  • In a similar vein I’d like to write more science posts.  Not so much the content of science as the process.  For me the practice of science and the practice of art are closely related.  I have no idea if anyone cares to hear about this but it’s something I’d like to think and write more about.
  • On the sewing front, my next goal is to sew a bunch of knit dresses.  It’s dark.  It’s cold.  It’s time for some cheerful prints that can be worn with wool tights and the cardigans I conveniently made this fall.  Also for some stretchy fabric that can accommodate my love of mochas and David’s willingness to make them for me.
  • For spring I’d like to sew a shirt-dress (or two).  This has been on my todo list for ages and I hope this will be the year.  I loved Carolyn’s military-style long shirt.  I’d also like to make a plaid drawstring-waist shirtdress.  Being ahead of the game I’ve already picked out fabric for both 🙂
  • For next fall, I’d like to sew something in leather.  Ideally a jacket.  More likely a bag.  Maybe this hobo bag which looks pretty straightforward.  We’ll see.
  • Also on my list for fall is a basic black blazer.  I’ve been meaning to make this Kwik-sew one for ages and (again) have the fabric and lining all picked out.  The truth is that blazers have always made me feel like a little girl playing dress up, and I really couldn’t think of an excuse to wear one.  Except maybe this year, because we’re hoping to
  • Apply for jobs.  Wait a minute, don’t we have jobs?  Well, yes and no.  We have post-docs, which are jobs in the sense that they pay us and withhold taxes, and are not jobs in the sense that they are by definition temporary and that we are still considered overgrown students.  At 33, I’m ready to stop being a student.  To be honest, this mythical job has been haunting me for a long time…10 years is a long time to be in training for a job you might not want when you get there.  This year in particular I fell into the trap of seeing everything I did in light of the upcoming job search:  Am I working hard enough?  Am I putting in enough hours?  How can I afford to spend time on things other than work in the current economic climate?  Will they still take me seriously as a scientist if they find out I spend my free time sewing my own clothes?  I know it sounds crazy to stress out about a job that I haven’t even applied for yet, but there it is.  This year the goal is to stress less and just apply.  What happens, happens.  Wish us luck.
What’s on your todo list this year?


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