Monday, October 30, 2017

Project 56: Tartan Dress

True confession time: It was supposed to be a long jacket over a black flowing skirt and blouse, but things happened.

For many years, Penny and I co-directed the Gaelic music program for Slighe nan Gaidheal. A couple of years ago I decided to retire and she took over on her own. This last year, they took on the project of assembling a four-part choir to compete in Scotland at the Royal National Mòd.

Penny came to me about six months ago and asked for an outfit to wear while conducting the choir. I had an immediate vision of a knee-length tartan jacket over a black silk blouse and flowing black skirt.

She gave me a list of the tartan designs that would be acceptable in descending order, and very luckily, I was able to find the second choice in sufficient supply of poly-viscose fabric at Fabricana in Richmond for a fraction of what wool tartan would cost in Scotland.

After producing several unsuccessful muslins, I finally got enough of the geometry right to proceed in fabric. The original design had just one button in front and functioned as a jacket, but I wasn't entirely pleased with the overall silhouette, so I gave it a serious think.

The solution that presented itself to me was to button all the way down the front, lose the skirt, and treat the jacket as a dress.

The only aspect of the original vision that I question is insisting on doing all the contour shaping at the side seams to avoid disruption to the tartan pattern in the front. I think I could have made it slightly more flattering if I had let myself add contour seams to the front at least.

Anyway, she got lots of compliments, so I feel good about the final product.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

How I Make Patterns

figure 1: draft design in Garment Designer
When I woke up today I knew that I was going to spend this Sunday making a pattern for a new project. I've recently had some questions about my pattern-making technique, so I decided to document my work today and share what I've learned.

When I first started sewing in 2008, I bought commercial patterns and just tried to follow the instructions, not knowing that you have to know how to sew to follow them. When I read a word I didn't know, like "baste" or "edge stitch" or "ease" I would just use Google and YouTube and muddle my way along. It worked pretty well for me!

After many seasons of watching Project Runway, though, commercial patterns started to feel like cheating. Why couldn't I just make my own designs? Luckily, I didn't know that you can go to school for four years and earn a damn college degree in pattern making otherwise I never would have tried.

figure 2: sliding glass door light table
Cochenille Design Studio makes a Mac / Windows software product called Garment Designer, which is deceptively easy to get started with, but actually requires you to understand quite a bit about garment construction and pattern drafting. Garment construction I had down, but the geometry of pattern drafting was a money pit of trial and error. Luckily, the company also offers online training. Several webinars later, I have a much better handle on all kinds of topics like sleeve fitting, crotch geometry, and a host of other things.

So, you can see in figure 1 that I have my first draft ready of a flared jacket which I'm making for the conductor of the Gaelic choir I sing in as we are taking a trip to Scotland in October to compete in the Royal National Mòd. I will execute the final garment in her family's tartan, but this time it will be cheap polyester suiting!

figure 3: lining up registration marks
Once I was happy with the basics, I printed out 58 pages and started taping them together. I like to use my sliding glass door because the light coming through allows me to line up the registration marks more easily. In the Winter, I usually use a glass-top table and a strategically placed light bulb. For long pieces like this jacket, though, it's better to use the glass door.

figure 4: paper tiling is done
Once all the paper pieces are assembled, I use the brilliant idea given to me by my sewing Mentrix, Paula Lalish. I lay transparent plastic sheeting over the paper pattern pieces and trace them with a Sharpie. That gives me durable plastic pattern pieces that are easy to store and re-use. Most importantly, though, I can see the fabric through the pattern piece while cutting.

figure 5: The most important sewing
supply you can find at the hardware store
When matching patterns for a patch pocket on printed fabric, or just getting the grain line right on jeans, this is like having a damn super power!

figure 6: Trace with Sharpie
Once you have your plastic pattern pieces done, you can start cutting. The first time I use a pattern, I cut through both the pattern and the fabric, but I haven't noticed and significant decrease in the lifespan of my rotary cutter blades, so maybe it's not like cutting paper with fabric scissors.

Another great benefit of the registration marks on the tiled paper pieces is that you can use them to make horizontal and vertical grain lines on your plastic pattern pieces. Very helpful when working in tartan, let me tell you!

figure 7: Ready to start cutting
No matter what fabric you are working with, the ability to see it through your pattern pieces is transformative in terms of your relationship to the cutting process. We all hate cutting, but with the right techniques, it can be much less of a pain.

figure 8: Visibility matters
And there are my grain line marks giving me total confidence that when the final garment is done that all the vertical lines will remain vertical and all the horizontal ones horizontal.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Project 55: Hunks of Twilight Aloha Shirt

Part sewing project and part social experiment, this aloha shirt is the first one that I developed the pattern for myself. After taking Sharon Lazear's webinar on the first twenty things you learn about pattern making, I felt a lot more confident using Garment Designer.

Now, a little about the fabric: I found this delightful print when I was shopping for sassy pocket material for my black velvet jacket and fell in love with the cheesy / sexy goodness and knew that it was going to have to get a star turn of its own. I also really like the colours. The designer, Alexander Henry, has quite a few naughty prints in case you ever need one.

It's not actually a licensed Twilight franchise product, so I wonder how Alexander Henry is getting away with it, but I'm glad he is. I honestly wasn't expecting to find anything when I did a Google search for "hunky shirtless men print fabric" but voila!

I'm waiting for reactions to start coming in. I've seen plenty of aloha and other mens' shirts with pinup girls on them, so turnabout really should be fair play, but you know how boys can be!

There are a couple minor issues with the pattern that I will adjust before doing a production run of four or five of them. The collar band needs to narrow as it approaches center front and there is a little too much easing to do at the sleeve caps. Also, the sleeve length was an experiment that doesn't please me too well. Looks a little too much like a smock.

Pattern matching for the pockets and center front meant that I consumed a vast amount of fabric for just one shirt, but my oh my those boys look good.

I call him Mr. Pocket
P.S. I've never seen any Twilight movies or read any books. I just picked the fabric for the hot guys, bats, wolves, and the Moon.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Project 54: Las Vegas Jackets

Now, you would not be the first to wonder why on Earth a person would work through the night to make jackets for a trip to Las Vegas in April, when temperatures were predicted to reach into the 80s. But remember, we spend most of our Vegas time in air conditioned casinos paying for the air conditioning. I wanted to have a black and gray denim jacket for day time, and use up the last of my black flocked velvet for an evening look.

Now, you wouldn't be the first to wonder why I thought that I would likely be able to tell the difference between day and evening from a casino gaming floor. Oh, screw it. I wanted them so I made them.

I'm particularly happy with the denim one. The black has already started to fade to indigo a bit, but it still blends with a black outfit really well. Same design as the previous jacket and some of the same issues with the damn welt pockets. Grrrr.

Sassy pocket theme: treble clefs!

Moving on to the evening wear version; since I wasn't color blocking, I had just one seam at the yoke, which is barely visible but still, I think, adds some sophistication to the lines. I'm very happy with the effect I got with the silver capped snaps working in concert with the silver zipper to illuminate the otherwise sea of black.

These sassy pockets, though, are the most sassy ever. That's right; it's the supernatural twinks of Twilight. I so fell in love with these boys that I went back to the fabric store and bought out the rest of the bolt. I'm going to make something really, really transgressive with it. Stay tuned.

It looks more blue in this light.


Supernaturally sassy!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Project 53: Denim Jacket

After my Pirate of Mens Pants project I had quite a few denim remnants left and I decided to try my hand at a denim jacket. I first used up the black and grey fabric and got a prototype together that I liked fairly well but it had a few fit issues and the sleeve cap geometry was a little awkward.

This is the second version of the pattern and I'm quite happy with the fit. The cuff bands were supposed to be the dark color, but I screwed them up the first time and only had the medium blue fabric left. I still think they look pretty good.

The welt pockets were exceptionally uncooperative this time for reasons known only to themselves. I think I just have to make them a hundred times in order to figure out every trick of getting them to come out perfectly.

For my sassy pockets fabric, I chose chubby baby mermaids. Doesn't that just make you feel better reading those words? Chubby Baby Mermaids!

Now that I'm quite happy with the pattern I'm going to make another black and grey one like my prototype, then make a third with a quilted lining for the winter.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Breakfast Casserole: An Instant Pot Story

If you happened to give the Shrimp Boil a try and had a few tasty sea bugs left over, here's something fun you can do with them. I originally found a recipe for oeufs an cocotte, which I tried but found a bit bland. Starting from there, though, we gave it the ol' Barr-Gagne "what if we" treatment and arrived here.

Breakfast Casserole

  • 1 teaspoon grease (bacon, butter, lard, etc.)
  • 2 cups baby spinach leaves
  • 1/2 cup diced cooked shrimp
  • 4 slices bacon cooked and crumbled
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 cup grated cheese
  • 6 eggs
  • Old Bay seasoning to taste
  • Fresh ground pepper to taste
  • 1 cup water
Grease two ramekins that will fit inside your Instant Pot. We have the smallest model, so we only have room for two which suits us fine. If you're cooking for a family, you could use one or two larger ones in a larger Instant Pot and serve them family style.

Put a layer of spinach leaves down. They will be compressed by the layers on top of them and cook down, so don't worry if it looks like you're out of space with the first ingredient.

Next, add the diced shrimp, bacon, and garlic. This is the layer where improvisation is most workable. The classic recipe calls for diced ham, which I don't like.

Then a layer of shredded cheese. Probably best to do a little manual compression at this point to be sure that there are room for your eggs.

Crack your eggs, three at a time, into bowls to make sure there are no shell pieces, then pour over the cheese. Smoosh around to ensure good coverage. Sprinkle with Old Bay and pepper and they're ready to go in the Instant Pot.

Place your steamer rack and about a cup of water in the pot. Place the first ramekin in, then using four bamboo skewers cut to appropriate lengths, MacGyver up a scaffold (see photo) and place the second ramekin on top.

Close and seal the lid and set your Instant Pot for eight minutes on low pressure. Do a quick release at the end, et voilà!
1. Grease ramekins

2. Add spinach

3. Add shrimp, bacon, and garlic

4. Add cheese

5. Add eggs

6. Sprinkle seasonings

7. Build scaffold

8. Feel proud of scaffold

9. Program Instant Pot

10. The scaffold worked!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Shrimp Boil: An Instant Pot Story

Prepared ingredients for the recipe on a cutting board

Completed dish in the pressure cooker.
That was easy
I have no earthly idea why I have reached fifty years of age having never heard of a shrimp boil, but it happened. Let me save you the embarrassment in case you're in the same boat I was last week.

The shrimp boil is a staple of social life in the South, particularly on the Gulf coast. The term really refers to the activity rather than a particular set of ingredients or cooking techniques. Descriptions in various places make it sound like the social equivalent of the church spaghetti dinner; an easy way to make massive quantities of food so large groups can eat together and usually raise money.

I've never been a good enough cook to attempt much seafood since it requires such careful attention during the cooking process. Instant Pot to the rescue! I've made this dish four or five times now and the shrimp have come out perfectly every time.

Shrimp Boil Sheumais

Ingredients are listed in quantities per person for a generously fed full-sized gay

1/2 lb raw shrimp in shell, de-veined
1/2 large smoked sausage
1/2 onion roughly cut
1 ear of corn cut in thirds
4 baby potatoes
2 mushrooms
1 12 ounce can of beer
1/2 tablespoon Old Bay
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic
Red chili flakes to taste

Ready for these complicated instructions? Put everything into the Instant Pot and set it to cook on high pressure for four minutes. When done, release the pressure. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a serving dish or plates. Put an empty bowl nearby for the shrimp shells.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Chicken Pot Pie Stew: An Instant Pot Story

Takes me right back!
The diet that we enjoyed on my parents' farm growing up would be the envy of many foodies today. We grew most of our own vegetables, apples, pears, plums, and many herbs. We raised chickens, so our eggs were always warm-from-the-chicken-butt fresh. We raised beef cattle, grew the hay they lived on in the winter, and grazed them on our own land the rest of the year. Our water came from our own well, and our mushrooms grew among the fragrant piles of cow poo in our own pastures. My Mom was a very good cook, so you put all those things together and it's no wonder I have a passionate relationship with food.

Every once in a while though, Mom wouldn't feel up to cooking, so we would get something from the frozen food aisle. My favourite was Swanson's Chicken Pot Pies. I don't know what it was about them - probably the excessive salt - that made me love them so much.

Limiting my carbohydrates to keep my diabetes in remission means I probably wouldn't splurge on one of those pot pie crusts (36 freaking grams!!), but I have found a way to have something very much like the pot pie experience using the fabulous Instant Pot.

Chicken Instant Pot Pie Stew

  • 1 diced onion
  • 2-3 tablespoons oil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 5-6 boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 16 ounce package of mixed frozen vegetables (Just do it once; you'll understand)
  • 2 cups half and half
  • 3 tablespoons flour or corn starch
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Turn the Instant Pot to sauté and wait for the display to say “HOT”. Add the cold oil and onions, stirring occasionally for 2 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for a further minute.

Hit the cancel button and add the stock and chicken thighs. Stir to deglaze the bottom of the pot. Put the lid on, set the vent control to “SEALING” and press the poultry button.

When the cycle is done, hit the cancel button and turn the vent control to do a quick release of pressure. Use a slotted spoon to remove the chicken pieces and set aside in a bowl.

Press the sauté button to bring the stock and onions back up to boiling.

Use two forks to shred the chicken.

Whisk the flour or cornstarch into the half and half.

When the stock in the pot is boiling, add the frozen vegetables and let them cook for 5 minutes. Pour in the dairy and starch mixture and stir until thickened.

Return the chicken to the pot to heat back up and serve!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Boxing Day Butter Chicken: An Instant Pot Story

It's even better the next day
Due to the Great Thanksgiving Flood of 2016, I was staying at the Marriott Residence Inn while my condo was being repaired over the holidays. I decided that I needed to do something to mark them, even though displaced. In 2016, Christmas fell on a Sunday, so the official observed Federal holiday was Monday the 26th. Being of British background and citizenship, I call that day Boxing Day and it is customarily when you visit with friends because you're sick of your family by that point.

I decided to have a Boxing Day Indian Buffet at my hotel room. I had never cooked Indian food before, but the Instant Pot seemed the ideal tool for it and indeed I found many, many Instant Pot recipes for my favourite dishes, including my absolute number one: Butter Chicken.

I looked through a dozen or so recipes to get a consensus idea of the spice profile and cardinal ingredients. This recipe is the result of my research and several increasingly fabulous experiments.

Boxing Day Butter Chicken

  • 1 diced onion
  • 2-3 tablespoons ghee
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • ~1.5 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 tablespoon garam masala
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon toasted ground mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin seed
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1-4 hot peppers to taste
  • 6 roma tomatoes pureed
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup melted unsalted butter
  • 1 big pinch of fenugreek leaves

Before you start:

  1. Dice your onion
  2. Cut the chicken into bite-sized chunks
  3. Measure your garlic and ginger and put in a small bowl
  4. Measure your dry spices into a small bowl
  5. Toast your ground mustard seeds in a frying pan
  6. Puree tomatoes and peppers
Turn on the Instant Pot to the sauté setting. When the display reads "HOT" add the cold ghee. When it melts, add the onions. Sauté the onions until the edges start to turn brown. Add the ginger and garlic and continue to sauté for another minute or so.

Add the chicken and stir until all the pink is gone. Add the dry spices and stir until well combined.

Hit the cancel button, then add the tomato / pepper puree and stir to deglaze the bottom of the pot.

Put the lid in place, making sure the vent control is set to "SEALING." Hit the poultry button.

When the cycle is done, use the vent control to do a quick pressure release. Use a slotted spoon to remove the chicken and set aside.

Either use an immersion blender to puree the sauce or remove it to blend separately. Never mind. Just go get an immersion blender. You deserve it.

Stir in the whipping cream and butter, and re-add the chicken and fenugreek leaves. Turn the Instant Pot on to the sauté setting to get everything back piping hot.

Serve with rice or naan, but not both! You don't need all those carbohydrates.