What we’ve got here…is a giant indigo vat. Isn’t it beautiful? I’d love to tell you that I’ve started dyeing my own denim, and that the above indigo vat is mine, but I have to confess that it isn’t. This pot of bubbly indigo goodness belongs to Drew from DIY Vat.
Earlier this year Drew got in touch about doing a collaboration project. He offered to send me some natural colored selvedge denim that he would overdye in his indigo vat, and I would get to make something for myself with the overdyed denim. Pretty awesome deal right? How many opportunities do you have to get to work with custom hand dyed fabric?
I’ve developed a love for indigo dyed garments and fabrics since I started working with denim, which goes back to the beginning of the blog. Although I’ve never worked with indigo dye, I’m fascinated with the fabric dyeing process in general. So obviously I said yes to Drew’s generous offer and I am really excited about the collaboration. He is still dyeing the denim, but offered to do a little interview explaining the process, indigo, and dye vats.
Taylor: Could you tell us a little about yourself and your blog?
Drew: I’m a father of two and I live with my wife in Topanga Canyon, CA. I teach at a local university and I work as an interpreter in the Los Angeles area. DIY Vat is not focused on one thing exclusively. A little bit style blog, little bit daddy blog, little bit maker blog. I also occasionally get on my soapbox about the virtues of knowing who makes your clothes and how those workers are treated — but I try not to be too self righteous about it.
Taylor: What inspired you to start dyeing with indigo?
Drew: I had read quite a lot about the process around the time my obsession with jeans began. When my wife and I were getting married we did a lot of things ourselves including the invitations. We started a little vat in our back yard and dyed a bunch of watercolor paper — watching the oxidization process fascinated us. I started playing around with the paper, trying a bunch of different techniques and marveling at the results. We’ve had a vat going since then.
Taylor: What exactly is a dye vat?
Drew: In essence, it’s a vat of deoxygenated water with the PH altered a little. Under these conditions, the pigment undergoes some molecular changes that makes it cling to organic material. There is also quite a lot of history, folklore, and cultural significance behind indigo dyeing. I make absolutely no claim to be an expert on the topic — much of what I know I’ve learned from the book Indigo: From Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans by Jenny Balfour-Paul.
Taylor: Are there different types of indigo?
Drew: Yes! You can find the pigment in a handful of plants that grow all around the world — the shade of blue you can achieve from this natural indigo depends on the species. Most things we see that are indigo dyed are made with synthetic indigo. Synthesized in a lab, it is chemically purer than what you can get strictly from harvesting from nature. It’s like the Walter White extra pure blue meth, but for making jeans. Natural indigo, as you might expect, has the higher status of the two.
Taylor: Could you briefly describe the dyeing process?
Drew: If you’re using natural dye, the process can take months. Growing and harvesting the plants and composting their leaves is one thing, but the vat has to ferment for a while before the indigo will take to anything. I’ve only ever used synthetic indigo so the natural process eludes me, but I imagine there are some parallels with home brewing. Synthetic indigo comes in a crystalized form which dissolves more readily. All you need is a large enough container full of warm water and a kit you can get at many art supply stores. Janome makes a box kit that can have you up and running in just a few hours.
Once it’s ready, the basic technique is to get your fabric wet, wring out any excess water, and put it in the vat. The next steps require a little more finesse — after you remove the fabric, you have to hang it open and make sure there are no folds or creases. Anywhere that doesn’t touch air won’t oxidize well and, thus, wont turn as blue as it can.
Taylor: What are your future goals and plans for your blog and dyeing projects?
Drew: My goals for the blog are not grand. I committed to a three day a week posting schedule a few months ago and have done well. The challenge now is to make sure the quality doesn’t drop. I also want to network with other bloggers with similar interests. I’d like to collaborate with others on projects like the one you and I are working on. I’m also kicking around the idea of a clothing swap project.
As for dyeing, we’re going strong with indigo. For my wife’s birthday we’re inviting some friends and their children over for a dye party. I am, however, itching to experiment with other natural dyes — weld specifically, so I can make Lincoln Green (interesting read here).
All images provided by Drew.
This backpack is roughly the same dimensions as the first pack I posted earlier this summer, but I changed the pattern and construction to allow for some different options for pockets and shape.
- Simple roll top design
- Made from heavy cotton duck canvas
- Bottom portion brushed with latex for durability
- Cotton webbing, with snap hook closures
- Billow style front pockets are slightly expandable
- Added side pockets
- Fully lined, with removable back foam insert (for more or less padding/structure)
- Carry-on size, fits in overhead bin storage, and under the seat on airplanes.
I am really happy with the way this turned out. Before sewing a single stitch, I tried to think through the entire construction process. My goal was to keep the construction as simple as possible: no button holes, no basting, no pinning, no changing sewing machine feet, and no pressing. I wanted simple, efficient, no nonsense sewing, and I was able to do just that.
Obviously that approach won’t work for every project, and I’m certainly not knocking basting or pressing when they are necessary, but I tried to factor the need for those practices into the design to eliminate their necessity from the beginning.
I want to get back to making clothing soon, but right now I’m having too much fun with backpacks!
I have a thing for backpacks. Actually, I like all sorts of bags as long as they are useful and serve a purpose. Maybe it’s their utility, maybe there is some nostalgic, deep rooted tie to my school days. After all, a properly packed backpack that had the right books, homework, and lunch for the day ahead meant the difference between having a great day and a crummy day at school. The backpack in many ways is a survival tool, and I love that there are seemingly endless variations on the same concept.
As a result of my obsession, I’ve decided to spend some time working out the design for a new pack. I had a great time making my waxed canvas backpack a while back, but as always, there is room for improvement.
This is a basic roll top design made with reverse denim. I had lots of denim scraps lying around, which is really the only reason I used denim for this prototype. The next version will probably be made with heavy canvas instead. It features several exterior pockets as well as a few simple interior pockets for small items. The backpack is fully lined with another layer of reverse denim. All of the webbing is cotton.
Most of the pockets need to be re-evaluated. The loop/button closure on the outside isn’t ideal, but I was simply using supplies and materials that I had on hand for this first version. There are SO many things to think about in terms of webbing placement, weight distribution, finishing seams, pocket closures, etc. I actually love this challenge, and have already starting making plans for the next version.
I recently had a chance to “field test” the pack on a quick trip to Philadelphia and the surrounding area. It makes a great carry-on, and has enough space for three, possibly four nights worth of clothing depending on how you pack.
A few iPhone shots from the road. The upper left is Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed. I truly enjoyed seeing this historic building and being in the same room where history was made.
The bottom right is the Reading Terminal Market, home of DiNiC’s, which won Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America in 2012. It’s a roasted pork sandwich, with a broccoli rabe topping and sharp provolone cheese. Serious business. It was only 10:00 in the morning, but I had to have one. If there is one thing I like better than backpacks, it’s a well crafted sandwich
I’ve never seen any other fabric elicit the type of passion and dedication from people that denim does. There are entire websites, online forums, and numerous books all dedicated to denim. New boutique denim brands seem to appear out of nowhere on a monthly basis.
Even though I haven’t made anything with denim in a while, it is still by far my favorite fabric to work with, and is really what got me interested in learning how to make my own clothes. My interest in making shirts, chinos, backpacks, etc. all started with a pair of jeans.
So I was thrilled when Matt Wilson, from the online lifestyle magazine Denim Hunters, contacted me and wanted to do an interview about my sewing projects and work with denim. The magazine focuses on denim and jeans, but also has articles about other well crafted products, and denim related events and stores. Matt did a wonderful job with the piece. You can read the interview here.
While summer in Tennessee can be beautiful, the weather is usually hot, humid, and sticky. When I first moved here from a drier climate about six years ago, I used to joke that I needed a snorkel to go outside. The air was that thick, or so it seemed to me at the time. My body has acclimated somewhat, but when the temperature reaches 70 degrees I start sweating. At 90 degrees I am ready to pass out.
In an effort to stay cool during the summer months, I decided to make some lightweight spring/summer pants, or pantaloons, chinos, trousers, breeches, slacks…whatever you want to call them. On a side note, I think all the different names we have for “pants” are sort of funny. I’m sure there are some historical and cultural reasons behind the different words, and I bet that there are people willing to argue the finer points that distinguish pantaloons from trousers. If you are a pants expert, let me know.
I found a really nice summer weight twill for the project. The fabric, which was originally off-white, is an organic cotton/hemp blend. Like my t-shirts, I decided to dye it for some variety. This time around though, I dyed the fabric first before cutting and sewing, rather than the completed garment. The dyeing process is always a gamble as far as the final color goes, but I am happy with the way these colors turned out.
The main change I made to my pattern was adding a cut-on waistband. So rather than a separate waistband piece, I extended my pattern at the top of my pants by the height of my original waistband. Then I finished it off with a facing that was sewn to the top, folded to the inside, and top-stitched down. This didn’t change the fit at all, but I wanted to try and see if the construction was a little easier than attaching a regular waistband. I’m not completely sure which method is actually easier. They both have some tricky areas, but I think the cut-on version might be a little faster.
My plan is to work on some basic “polo” shirts next. I already have the fabric, but need to work on the pattern and choose some dye colors.
These shirts are made from an organic cotton/hemp blend jersey, which gives them a slightly “heathered” look, and adds a little bit of visual texture.
Yes, there is hemp in this fabric. No, I can’t smoke my t-shirts. I tried. It doesn’t work. Just kidding (kidding about trying to smoke them of course!). There are lots of misconceptions about hemp, and I didn’t intend on bringing this up, but I had several comments from people along those lines while making these shirts, and feel like I need to say something about it.
Put simply, industrial hemp, the plant grown for its fibers, which can be used for fabric, yarn, rope, webbing, etc., is different from the stuff that people smoke, or bake with, or….you get the idea. The plant produces a really strong fiber that can be made into a wide variety of textile products, and fortunately for me, it is relatively easy to dye.
I have a ridiculously hard time finding fabric for my projects, and I am always looking for the perfect combination: the right fabric for the garment, the right color, and the right price. So when I found this organic cotton/hemp blend jersey and it was reasonably priced, I decided to buy some. The only problem was that originally, the fabric was sort of an off white yellow-ish hue, which isn’t really my thing.
Although I enjoy the dying process, it does consume a lot of water, and I’m guessing that the dye and fixative aren’t the best thing for the envrionment. These two concerns probably cancel out any “eco-friendly” benefits of using organic cotton and hemp. My original plan was to use natural dyes, but it appears that they aren’t always more environmentally friendly, and you still have to use harsh chemicals to make them set.
The fit isn’t quite perfect, but it will work for now. I might want to revisit the pattern and see if I can clear up some of the bunching in the arm pit area. I based the pattern off of a t-shirt I wear all the time, and after examining several ready to wear t-shirts I have, they all bunch like this on me in the under arm/chest area. While technically a V-Neck, the “V” is so shallow that these fit more like a crew neck t-shirt, which is fine by me. I wanted the center front to come to a point, but didn’t want a plunging neckline.
Arms can be so awkward. Thankfully my jeans have pockets. Also, I’m awful at posing for photos.
This was my first time sewing with knits, and it really wasn’t as difficult as I expected it to be. I used my serger for all of the construction, but used a zig zag stitch on a regular sewing machine to baste the neckband in place before serging, and a double needle on the same machine to top-stitch the sleeve and bottom hems. I completed the shirts (except for the hems) first before dying them. Since polyester thread does not absorb the type of dye I used, I saved any top-stitching for after the dying process to make matching the thread color easier.
My plan is to work on some lightweight summer pants next. Shirts and pants, shirts and pants, shirts and pants…
I pretty much stick to what I think of as basic wardrobe staples for all of my projects. Other than jeans, it doesn’t get any more basic than a pair of khaki chinos. Creating a closet full of garments that work together, that can be mixed and matched, has been my mission from the very beginning; and khakis go with just about everything I own.
Most of my projects so far have been men’s shirts and pants, and going forward (fair warning), you can probably expect a lot more posts about shirts and pants. Because that’s what I wear. Shirts and pants.
I realize that this approach might be a little on the boring side, especially for those who enjoy bright colors and loud prints, but I spend too much time on each piece of clothing for any one item to not work with at least part of my wardrobe. Plus, I’m not sure if I can really pull off bright and loud the way some people can.
I love the versatility. They can be dressed up a little, or made to look more casual if I choose. The picture on the left was taken in San Francisco at an amazing little bookstore called Omnivore Books that sells nothing but cookbooks. How cool is that? Wall-to-wall cookbooks. My wife Lindsay and I were there promoting our book in February.
This isn’t my first time making this style of pant. While my first pair was fine at the time, I wanted to make a few improvements. In the process of trying to alter the pattern, I ended up with some unexpected leg twist. I’m not completely sure if the twist is due to cutting out the pattern off grain a little bit, or if my pattern adjustments simply altered the fit in ways I didn’t realize.
The next time I make these I have to fix the twist at the side seams of course, but I’m also going to experiment with a cut-on waistband and some really light weight fabric. I need some pants that can be comfortably worn in the summer in Tennessee without feeling like I’m going to melt, or dye, or sweat to death.
Speaking of warm weather clothes, my plan is to tackle t-shirts next.
I’ve been holding on to this piece of shirting fabric for nearly a year and finally got around to using it. The pattern and fit is nearly identical to the last shirt I finished, which was made from a light blue oxford cloth. This fabric is a small check white and gray gingham that is tightly woven and very crisp. The weight is a little heavier than I would prefer (I find that I like lighter and lighter weight shirtings regardless of season), but I’m sure it will soften with repeated washings.
The only pattern adjustment I made was to the length of the collar. I actually need to trim it a little more because it is overlapping just a little too much at center front. The only time this would be a problem is if I want to wear a tie, which happens once, maybe twice a year.
So I could have posed in my living room for a proper fit picture, but I tend to like candid shots better even if they are blurry, grainy, low light iPhone pictures. This is me hanging out in between giant pallets of beer at Good People Brewing in Birmingham, AL. If you are ever in the Birmingham area and like beer, definitely make a stop at Good People. I highly recommend the Snake Handler double IPA.
Speaking of beer, I happen to do a little brewing from time to time. I’ve decided to create a section on the blog for all of my brewing adventures. This is mostly a way for me to keep track of my brew sessions, recipes, and tasting notes, but for anyone who is interested in small batch all-grain brewing, there is a link in top menu. I realize that a lot of people have zero interest in beer on a sewing/clothing blog, so I’ll try to keep the beer related posts on this separate page.
Cheers, happy sewing!
There is no denying that my posts are few and far between. I do have a good excuse though. When I’m not sitting at my sewing machine or at work, you can usually find me in the kitchen. My wife and I love to cook. So much so that we decided to write a cookbook together. We did all of the recipe development, testing, and photography ourselves, and I’m extremely proud of the finished product, even if it meant I had little time to sew during the last twelve months.
So…here it is. Breakfast for Dinner! Doesn’t that phrase just bring a smile to your face? I mean, who doesn’t like breakfast for dinner?
We are giving away five signed copies at my wife’s amazing food blog Love and Olive Oil. She did a pretty cool behind the scenes post about it too, complete with messy kitchen shots, me doing dishes with silly faces, and all kinds of cat shenanigans.
The book is available for pre-order at Amazon currently, and will be hitting the shelves of book stores on February 12th. Also, if you happen to be in Tennessee or the San Francisco bay area, we will be doing a few book signing events soon. Come out and see us. We would love to meet you!
From time to time I get e-mails from readers who are interested in learning how to make their own clothing. Those who get in touch are usually looking for a starting place or advice on which sewing machine they should buy. Since TaylorTailor is three years old this month, I thought I would try to share my thoughts on the topic. This is mainly intended for those who have never sewn anything before and is in no way comprehensive. You might be disappointed if you are looking for technical advice or a step-by-step guide; buy this model of sewing machine, buy this special book, turn to page 9, and BOOM, you will have a pair of jeans. Instead, what follows are basically the steps I went through to get started. Hopefully it is helpful to others who might be thinking about learning how to sew.
I am in no way an expert, or have any formal training with pattern making or sewing. While I do have an amazingly helpful mentor/teacher here in Nashville, I’ve learned quite a bit on my own as well as from other blogs and websites. I may not do things the way a professional pattern maker or commercial sewing factory would do them, but I do what works for me with the knowledge and equipment I have on hand.
My first bit of advice is that you CAN do this. Don’t let lack of knowledge stop you from trying something new. I had no idea what a bobbin is or what seam allowances are when I started. With that said, making a piece of clothing that looks like it came from a store, that you are proud to wear in public, is hard work. Don’t expect to complete a shirt in a Saturday afternoon or quickly throw together a pair of jeans. This stuff takes time, lots of it, especially if you’ve never sewn before. I don’t mean that last part as discouragement. If your expectations are aligned properly going in, you won’t be disappointed when you’ve spent several weeks on the same project and it still isn’t finished. Take your time, learn as you go, and enjoy the process however long it may be.
1. First, decide what types of garments/accessories you want to make, and try to gauge how committed you are going to be to learning something new. This will have an effect on how much you budget for your first sewing machine and which type of machine you decide to buy.
2. Get a sewing machine. Choosing the right machine really comes down to budget, personal preferences, and in some cases, the types of things you want to make. Here are the machines I use. I can’t make a specific recommendation for a machine that will work for every beginner, especially if I’ve never used it myself. Sewing machines generally fall into two categories, those made for “domestic” or “household” use, and industrial sewing machines.
- Pros of household/domestic sewing machines: portable, take up little space, most can do a variety of stitch types, they are versatile.
- Cons of household/domestic sewing machines: lack power and speed, not ideal for really heavy materials, they can be less durable, although I’m sure a good household machine that is properly cared for can last quite a few years.
- Pros of industrial sewing machines: powerful, retain power even at low speeds, ability to sew very fast, heavy duty (note: this doesn’t mean that they can all sew heavy duty materials. Depending on the machine, they can be set up for light or heavy work), made to do one task (such as a straight lockstitch) and do it really well.
- Cons of industrial sewing machines: uni-taskers – generally they can only do one type of stitch, need different machines to do different types of stitches (straight, zig zag, bar tack, etc.) not portable, weigh a lot, need dedicated place to put them.
I’ve never had any problems with my industrial machine. The thing just works, and it works every time I turn it on. No fuss, no babying it, no mechanical issues. All other things being equal, if you have the space and the budget (a simple industrial can be cheaper than a complicated domestic) I would recommend an industrial sewing machine. Again, this is a personal preference, and after researching machines you might come to a different conclusion.
3. Learn how to use your machine. If you don’t have a friend or relative to show you the basics, I would suggest checking out a local fabric/sewing supply store. If they don’t offer classes for beginners, they are likely to know someone who offers private lessons who can get you started. Once you know a few basic things like how to adjust the thread tension, how to wind a bobbin, how to back tack, and how to change a needle, you are ready to start with your first project.
4. Keep it simple for your first couple of projects. I wanted to start with a three piece suit when I first got interested in sewing. My wife talked me down and convinced me to start with an apron. I’m glad she did. I’ve been sewing for three years and I’m still not ready to tackle something like a mens suit. There are lots of commercial patterns available for beginners. With these simple projects you will develop your sewing skills, continue to learn the quirks of your machine, and get a feel for what you like and don’t like to sew.
5. After “suffering” though a few aprons or pairs of pajamas, choose a project that is a little more complicated, something that might eventually turn into a piece of clothing you wear in public. For me, this was a pair of jeans. You might find a commercial pattern for this project, or you might want to make your own pattern. Besides having a genuine interest in learning how to design and make my own patterns, I also decided to do so out of necessity. The commercial pattern business really seems to focus a lot more on women’s clothing, which makes sense given that most of their customers are women. But, for a guy who is interested in making his own clothes this left me with few options for patterns, and I’m extremely picky in terms of fit and style. The book I use to make patterns can be found here.
6. Once you’ve decided on a project and have a pattern in hand, make a test garment, or two, or three. For every new pattern I draft, I make at least two or three test garments out of cheap practice muslin before cutting into nice fabric. With each test garment, I make adjustments to the pattern and modify the fit as needed. There is no sense in ruining a nice piece of fabric with a pattern that doesn’t fit the way you want it to.
As far as learning construction techniques goes, there are TONS of sewing books on the market. Here are the two that I use the most often for shirts and pants: David Coffin- Shirtmaking, David Coffin- Making Trousers for Men and Women. Another great way to learn construction techniques and some pattern making is to inspect store bought clothing. You can learn a lot by turning clothes inside out and inspecting seams, pockets, etc. Then there is good old fashion experience. The more you sew, the more you learn, the more the construction part will become intuitive.
Here are the tools I use the most often:
- Iron/Ironing board- If you are just starting out, the iron/ironing board you currently have is probably fine. At some point though, you will want to invest in a decent quality iron and a nice ironing board. For many projects, you will spend more time pressing than at your sewing machine.
- Chalk wheels(s)- For marking positions on fabric.
- Seam ripper- This will be your best friend when you make a mistake.
- Point turner- Not always essential, but can be helpful turning various kinds of points.
- Rulers/curves- For pattern drafting and measuring during construction.
- Tracing paper- For pattern drafting and modification.
- Pattern weights- I like to use large round washers.
- Rotary cutter and cutting mat- When used with pattern weights, the best way to cut fabric in my opinion.
- Shears/scissors- for trimming seam allowances and other cuts, have a pair for fabric only, no paper, cardboard, or other materials which dull the blades quicker.
- Flexible tape measure- Great for making fit adjustments.
- Pins- To temporarily hold fabric pieces together before sewing. Pins tend to distort fabric, so use them sparingly and only when absolutely necessary.
With the beginning of a new year approaching, this might be the perfect time to start a new hobby and learn how to make your own clothing. As always, feel free to get in touch if I can help in any way.