Sunday, October 21, 2012

Making it Work

Last week I took out a lovely piece of dreamy batik fabric I'd saved for a couple of months for the right project. I'd come up with a new design idea that only required two fat quarters of fabric and some bias binding to make a cute little quilted bag. I could see it perfectly in my head; my lovely fabric paired with some icy silver satin would work great. Off I went to the fabric shop to get the rest of the materials I needed.

I did the cutting first, at which point I discovered the satin I'd purchased didn't like me. I'd chosen it because it was sinfully soft to the touch, but that quality also made it slither all over my cutting mat. No fabric gets the better of me, however, so I pinned and repinned it until I got it sandwiched with my lovely batik, batted it and sewed it up. And I was so focused on taming the satin that I didn't bother to actually measure the batik; I simply matched it to the sides of the satin piece.

When I took everything to the ironing board to press it after sewing, I forgot to check the setting on my iron and promptly scorched a nice big hole in the unruly satin. Not a problem; I could make it work. I got out the seam ripper, took the piece apart and did it over a second time with a fresh piece of the slithery satin. I then hand-quilted and beaded the piece for two days, during which time I discovered my lovely batik was stiff as hell while the slithery satin really didn't want to be quilted or beaded when it could fray, pucker or pull. Both fabrics fought me every stitch of the way. I was sure I could force them to work, though, so I kept at it until the quilting and beading were done and the piece was ready to be stitched into a bag.

At this point my friend Jill came over to borrow my spare sewing machine and sat with me while I assembled the tote. "Why are you using bias binding for the sides?" she asked.

"It's a new idea I had," I told her as I fought to pin down the binding, which both fabrics naturally hated. "Simple and elegant."

Jill waited as I stitched up one side and then surveyed the results with me. "Interesting," was her first observation. "What are you going to do about the inside seams?"

I hadn't thought about that. "I'll zig-zag them."

"You'll have to do it by hand, they're too bulky.  That's going to be a major pain." She took the bag from me and held it up. "It's a half-inch short on this side, too. Did you square this before you sewed?"

"It's not short." I snatched it from her, and saw that I was short -- and no, I hadn't squared it because I'd been too involved with the satin. "I'll put in a dart." I put in the dart, and that created a pucker. I put in the other side and darted that to make a matching pucker, which looked about as awful as it sounds -- but not as bad as the bulky inside seams did.

I looked at Jill. Jill looked up at the ceiling.

I had too much time invested in this bag to give up now. "Okay, scratch the binding." I reached for my seam ripper.

While I ripped and ripped and ripped some more, Jill examined the strap I'd made for the tote out of the last bit of fabric. "Uh, this is going to be too wide now."

I glanced at it and saw it was too wide now, but it had taken me an hour to pin and sew together and I wasn't taking it apart again -- I had at least a couple of hours to spend reworking my design. "It'll be comfortable."

"It'll be clunky-looking." She saw my expression. "You could fold it in half, maybe. Sew the sides together. Have you got a denim needle?"

I didn't have a denim needle, but I could make it work. "I'll ribbon-braid it later."

"Why are you talking through your teeth?" Jill wanted to know.

"I'm not," I assured her (once I'd unclenched my teeth.) "I'm fine. This is going to be fine. A fine, simple, elegant little bag."

"Uh-huh." She didn't sound convinced. "By the way, you'll need to pad that beadwork from the inside, too. It's way too heavy for that satin to support. You could cover that with a pocket." She saw my face. "I'm leaving now."

Jill left, and I went back to work at making it work. I ripped out the binding, reassembled the bag, fixed the gap, padded the beadwork from inside, made a pocket to cover the padding, and ribbon-braided the tote strap. All that and cleaning up all the little mistakes the fixes caused cost me another day, but at last it was done.

 I took it with me to Jill's the next day to show her the completed project. "See?" I waved it in her face. "Finished."

Nice." She frowned at the front of my tote. "What are you going to do about the blood?"

I stopped smirking. "What blood?"

She pointed to a tiny dark spot on the front of the bag. "That blood."

"It's a shadow." I held the bag under a light. No, it was blood. At some point while doing the finishing hand-stitching I must have poked my finger with the needle and bled on the damn bag. "I'll spot clean it."

"You'll never get it out," Jill called after me as I stomped out, went home, and spot cleaned the blood, which of course didn't come out. But I wasn't letting a tiny stain defeat me, oh, no. I went back to the fabric store, bought some decorative lace that matched the batik and sewed that over the spot.

And then -- THEN -- I was done.

I studied my simple, elegant tote. I'd made it work, but after all my fixes it didn't really seem simple or elegant anymore. Despite my ribbon-braiding the tote strap still looked clunky. The decorative lace covering up the bloodstain made the whole bag look too busy. The lovely batik was riddled with tiny holes from all the seam ripping I'd done, and the slithery soft satin looked as wilted and exhausted as I felt. One last bonus from hell: while fixing the other problems I must have pulled a stitch on the snowflake beading, one branch of which was now slightly askew. The only way to fix that would be to rebead that section of the bag. After I removed the pocket and the padding. Which would probably screw up something else.

Much as I was tempted, I didn't rip the tote to pieces or burn it in the backyard. I took it to my closet and carefully tucked it away in one of my fabric storage bins. Which I'm ready to try that idea again, I'll take out the bag and study it.  I'll remember all the things I'd done to make it work.  Then I'll find another lovely piece of fabric and try again, and be sure to use all of what I learned from making what surely has to be The Tote from Hell so that I don't make the same mistakes twice.

What does all this sewing have to do with writing?  That I will leave you to ponder. 


  1. Oh, yes. Sometimes it really is best to admit that what you have invested in is a learning experience and start over.

  2. Sometimes stubbornly fighting to make a thing work is--later, much later--really funny. Why we don't stop, recognizing this project could be a mistake and needs rethinking, I just don't know.

    On my last project I wasn't paying attention to the small details because I was so determined to make my idea work. This resulted in ironing my plastic tape measure to the right side of the fabric. One end of the tape, draped around my neck, had somehow gotten between the ironing board and the material. My lovely, expensive, creamy brown suede not only had a wide red and white stripe of melted goo dead center on the front, but was firmly attached to my ironing board cover. Sigh...

  3. The drop of blood cracked me up, because I have been there. I have *so* been there.

    I am finishing a batik on batik applique quilt for my brother--I've been working on it for years. Back then, I learned an incorrect method for applique, but up until now I hadn't been able to let it go. I'd work on it, break a couple needles, set it aside, pick it up again, flail, repeat. Happily, I finally accepted that breaking needles on my machine was A Sign. (Bits of metal flying past my face--yes, it took several for me to grumblingly cede defeat.)

    A couple months ago, I set aside most of the unusable work, switched to the new method a kind fellow quilter showed me, and I think I will be done by Christmas. (Unfortunately, because of my disabled leg, I can't quilt full-sized quilts anymore, so I'm sending it to be machine quilted. I feel sort of guilty about this, in a craft kind of way, but I'm trying to get over it. My family doesn't get the difference and the machine quilter I use does a wonderful job.)

    It makes me so relieved to know I'm not alone in going down a wrong path and then stubborning myself into trouble. I am going to bookmark this page for Nano--if I run into an intractable problem, I'm not going to cling to just insisting, but step back, consider, and approach it again.

  4. Oh dear. Your tote adventure sounds like my last attempt to tame my trilogy. It may sit in the closet for another ten years before I can face it again.

  5. You know, I have a couple pieces like that tucked away for a day when I want to travel down my memory lane of defeat. And sometimes, there's a little piece on one of them I can incorporate into a shiny new thing.

    I have a couple stories like that too. Only I'm still not objective enough to see how I can change/delete/rearrange things to make them work and I SO want to make them work because underneath the problems, I think there's a damn good story there. Maybe I'll figure it out eventually. I hope so. They're always on the back burner of my mind...

  6. As ye sew, so shall ye rip. The lessons of a seamstress.

  7. Oh dear, I do feel your pain. I have that same problem with not being able to admit defeat when the project starts rolling downhill!

  8. Ohhhh I feel your pain. I have an acrobat's circus vest in a box somewhere, waiting for me to have the mental fortitude to seam rip out about one meeeelion yards of crooked trim that I did with a standard sewing machine, late at night, because I was too prideful to accept defeat. It had to be done by hand or with a free-arm machine I don't possess. So after I finished and saw just how very horrible it looked (actually the acrobat had to point it out because I was blinded by 'this dang thing BETTER be done' I stuck it in a box and started completely over again, and did the decorative knotwork by hand. The piece I finished has been seen by millions of people and was on national TV, but yet that stupid first vest continues to taunt me from its box of shame. I'm gonna kick its butt some day soon! Really.