Thursday, April 26, 2012

2011 In Review -- Part 5: Gifts

I'm not quite sure why I've had such a mental block on writing this post, but I've started it several times, only to leave it unfinished.  So here it is the end of April and I still haven't wrapped up my 2011 year in review posts.  Part of the delay is that my health is suddenly once again requiring nearly every waking moment of my time (I'm assembling a new team of doctors, oh joy), but part of it is good old fashioned procrastination.  But at this point it's keeping me from writing other blog posts, keeping me from getting productive sewing done, and more or less blocking up all the creative pipes.  So let's crank this puppy out.

On the topic at hand, I probably don't do as much gift sewing as I should, but there are a couple of reasons for that.  First off, I have this strangely strong desire to avoid giving any sort of "Becky Home Ecky" (in the immortal words of Michael Kors) style gifts.  I hold the gifts I make to an even higher standard than I hold my clothing and costumes to, especially because once the gift is given, I'll likely never have it on my sewing table again, so it needs to be free of any sort of issues that would require repair or adjustment.  I want the giftee to like the gift, find it beautiful, and be able to put it to real use.  If a gift doesn't meet any of those criteria, chances are I won't give it.

The second reason I don't do as much gift sewing as maybe I should is that I am pretty selfish with my sewing time, in all honesty.  Even simple projects can take way too long to finish, between my illness and all the other demands on my time.  I always have a long, long list of sewing I want to do for myself -- I counted off the top of my head, and there are at least twenty-eight different pieces on my To Sew list right now, almost all of which I could put immediately into regular use, and some of those are actually urgently needed.  My sewing can't seem to keep pace with my designs, so I have to prioritize, and if the gift doesn't meet the above three criteria (beautiful, useful, and liked), I scrap the idea and figure out a better gift for the giftee.

And third, December is my biggest gift giving month, between Christmas, MB's birthday, and my mom's birthday in early January.  Everything else tends to be crazy that time of year too, cutting down on my sewing time, and I worry about having to find an emergency last-minute gift if I'm not able to finish the handmade gift in time.  To say nothing of the fact that my health tends to be worse once cold-and-flu season starts.  All of that adds up to: I'm pretty picky about what gift sewing I do.

So with that said, I actually made three handcrafted gifts in 2011, two for my mom and one for my sister Jezunya, all given at Christmas.  In both cases I had to guess at what each of them would want for Christmas, but the gifts seem to have been well-received.

The first gift I sewed for my mom was a set of rice warming pillows, inspired by this tutorial (and using this one for additional tips).  Rice pillows are little pillows full of rice (as the name implies, lol) that you stick in the microwave for a few seconds, and then use like a hot water bottle or a heating pad.  The rice retains heat better than water does, and obviously they're more portable than a heating pad, and the weight of the rice can be an added bonus too.  They're great for sore muscles, cold hands and feet, and general relaxation.

For my mom's set, I started with basic muslin fabric for the inner pillow, and then used classic unbleached linen to make a washable pillowcase.  I was aiming for rustic chic with the whole thing, playing up the handmade quality rather than trying to make it look store-bought.  I decided to make three pillows: one large pillow for sore neck muscles, and two very small pillows that can be heated up and put inside a pair of mittens, boots, etc.

For the largest pillow, I started with a piece of muslin about 60cm x 24cm.  I folded this in half width-wise (so now 60cm x 12cm) and seamed up the sides and the folded edge with a short stitch-length, leaving the long cut edge open.  I then flipped this inside out and sewed those same edges again in a French seam sort of way, to make sure the seams won't bust open over time, and the rice won't find a way to wiggle out.  I then split the pillow into five sections, each about 12cm wide, by sewing seams from the cut edge to the folded edge, back-stitching liberally, again to keep the rice from escaping.  Splitting the pillow into five sections also keeps the rice from all shifting to one end of the pillow.

With the pillow divided into five subsections, I folded both of the unsewn top edges under and sewed small sections down, leaving an inch or so unsewn in each of the five sections.  For the filling, I used a mix of rice and dried lavender, with a bit of lavender oil thrown in for good measure.  I whipped up a quick funnel from a piece of paper, and slowly fed the rice mixture into each of the five sections, a quarter cup at a time, until each section was about 75% full.  Then I pinned the open edges closed and sewed the whole thing up, going over the seams a couple of times to make sure the rice stays put.  The smaller pillows were a similar process, but each had only one 12x12cm section.

With the pillows done, I turned to the exterior pillow case -- the idea being that if the pillow gets dirty, the case can be washed when the main pillow part itself can't.  I used pre-washed, unbleached linen for the cases, using this tutorial to make pillow cases that open at the back, like European pillow shams.  I knew I also wanted to have writing of some sort on the exterior pillow case, to dress up the wide open expanse of unadorned linen.  I went through a bunch of quote sites looking for just the right quote for my mom, but in the end I went with one of my own devising:

I did the stamp work before sewing the pillow pieces together, using an alphabet set of stamps I found at JoAnn's (possibly this one) and some brown fabric paint.  I drew lines with a wash-off fabric pencil, but otherwise just free-handed the stamp placement, to play up the home-made quality.  I also embroidered a pair of lavender stocks at the bottom of the larger pillow case, using embroidery thread and a by-the-seat-of-my-pants style of hand embroidery, lol.  Once the stamping and embroidery was done, I sewed the pillow cases together following the tutorial linked above, put the rice pillows in their cases, and called it done.  They smelled soooo good too, and felt so nice when warmed up, that I decided I needed to make myself one too, after the holidays were over.

The second part of the gift for my mom was a footrest like the one I made for myself and wrote about in my last post.  My mom is a bit taller than I am and keeps her desk chair slightly lower (according to covert measurements taken by Jezunya during her Thanksgiving visit, anyway), so I made the footrest for her a bit shorter, out of two foam pads instead of three like mine is.  I used a garnet red (Mom's favorite color) velvet-ish upholstery fabric for the exterior, and a matching garnet red fleece for the inside pocket.  Using what I'd learned making my own footrest, it all went together pretty quickly, with fewer mistakes.  Unfortunately I only have one rather blurry picture of my mom opening it on Christmas morning, looking slightly confused:

But I am told the footrest has made the move to my parents' new house, and sits proudly under Mom's desk.  I included a heating pad with it too, since Mom's feet get at least as cold as mine do, and as she's a middle school teacher, she spends a lot of time at that desk grading papers and the like.  I need to follow up with her and make sure it's being as useful and liked as I hoped, heh.

The third and final gift project was a skirt for Jez -- a surprise, of course, so one I didn't post about on Twitter, unlike most of my sewing, since Jez would undoubtedly have seen it there if I had mentioned it.  As I was nearing the eighth anniversary of when my joint pain and instability started up, my younger sister was just starting her own saga with joint pain -- a fact that has us both now looking towards genetic causes, as this seems to run in our family, with each of our other four sibling experiencing it to some level or another -- and while I was giving up pants altogether last fall, Jez was just starting to transition her non-Army uniform (she's active service currently) clothing towards more joint-friendly pieces.  To this end, she mentioned that she would love a full, fluffy skirt, maybe a bit bohemian, maybe in blues or greens.  She mentioned this as offhandedly as anyone can in the run up to gift giving, but I took the hint and the wheels started turning in my head.

I had a skirt in my closet that was just taking up space, that instantly sprang to mind.  It's a floor-length, tiered, gathered skirt made of 13 yards of unbleached muslin, that I made a few years ago when I was taking lessons in American Tribal Style Belly Dance.  It's wonderfully fluffy, and at $2/yard, it wasn't too expensive to make (though once again, I really, really need to get a gathering foot).  The bottom tier is 26 yards long, using the selvage edge of the fabric, to avoid hemming.  In addition to wearing it to ATS classes and performances, it also made an appearance as the base layer in my sea nymph ren faire outfit from a couple of years ago:

But 13 yards of anything is huge.  Way too big to take to DragonCon, too big to store well in my closet, too big to do much of anything with, except wear for fluffy long skirt occasions.  When I had to stop dancing because of my joints, the skirt just sat in my closet, taking up too much space.  So when Jess said she wanted a fluffy, knee-length, tiered skirt, my brain went ah ha!

After giving it a good washing, the first thing I did was cut the skirt in half width wise, resulting in two tiered half-skirts that each had a 13-yard-long bottom tier.  I set one half aside (still under my sewing table as I type this) and focused on the other half.  I pulled out another (much less fluffy) gathered tiered skirt I made years ago and used that as a template to shorten the half skirt to knee-length.  I wanted the previous floor-skimming tier to end just below knee-length, so I measured up from the bottom, cutting off the top tier to make the skirt shorter, and angling the waist so it's slightly higher in back than in front.  I then sewed the cut edges to each other, and turned under a bit at the top to form an elastic casing, resulting in a knee-length, fluffy, off-white skirt.

This is where it got fun.  I've experimented with dyeing fabrics off and on the last few years, and I really love it.  I love being able to personalize the color of a fabric in addition to sewing it.  For this project I wanted to experiment with ombré dyeing, using two colors, going from lighter at the top to darker at the hem.  Using liquid Rit Dye in Teal and Navy Blue, I started by dyeing the whole skirt teal in my washing machine, then slowly added Navy Blue to the mix, pulling the skirt out of the washing machine little by little.

I rigged up a bit of rope over my washing machine, and strung the skirt up by string and safety pins.  The whole thing went really well, considering, but I did run into one snag: If the water doesn't stay hot enough (as in a washing machine standing open for an hour or more), Navy Blue dye tends to go more purple.  So the first pass at the skirt ended up with teal at the top, fading to dark purple at the bottom, and the two together looked a bit... odd.  So back to JoAnn's for more dye, this time in green, to give the whole skirt a more blue-green tint.  This worked out much better, and turned the darkest color to a more evergreen blue.

After dyeing it, I ran the skirt through the washer and dryer and then tried it on.  And almost didn't want to take it off.  It's fluffy, spiny, girly, and all around wonderful, and I had to remind myself that 1. I love Jez and she deserves a great skirt as a present; and 2. I still have the other half of the original skirt left over to make myself one.  Those two things were the only reasons I was able to talk myself into giving this as a gift instead of keeping it for myself, lol.  But Jez seemed to like it:

I really do need to make the second half into a wearable skirt for myself.  Jez and I are very much BFFs (in addition to being full-blooded sisters, each other's editors and beta readers, and now joint-pain-twins), and I love the idea of half a skirt for each of us, like those Best Friend necklaces I remember from my childhood.  And thankfully 13 yards is more than enough to make two super fluffy skirts.  Here's another shot of Jez's skirt, with the colors a bit blown out to show the detail:

If I were sewing this from scratch, I probably wouldn't have made the tiers nearly that tall, but for a re-purposed skirt, I am crazy proud of it.  Jez seems to love it too, and will randomly tell me that she's wearing it on the weekend, with cowboy boots or cute wedges or whatever.  Having worn the skirt for even just a few minutes, I'm very envious.

But the other half is still sitting under my sewing table, so the only question I have now is: What color should I dye my half?  Blues?  Greens?  Blue-green to match Jez's?  Something totally different?  Ombré or not?  What do you guys think?

Next up: what I've been working on so far in 2012, what I'm dying to sew, and costume planning for DragonCon!