tea dyeing

In the olden days, folks used all sorts of things to dye fabric . . . plants . . . minerals . . . and even crushed insects, although for bug crushing instructions you’ll have to look elsewhere. The Old School will not be covering that.

For eggshell and tan colors, using tea is simple and quick.

Sprog #1’s wife (sprog-in-law?) wanted to make a slip with antique lace edging, but her lace was eye-blazing white. Tea to the rescue.

What do you want to tea dye? Natural fibers will take the dye best.

Choose a pot big enough to comfortably hold your dyeing project and heat water in it. Add 4 or 5 chamomile tea bags (use black tea such as Earl Grey for a darker end result).

Loose tea is pesky because it can stick to the fabric, so bag that. Let it boil for about 5 minutes for an eggshell/very light color, longer for darker.

Remove the tea bags and add the thing you’re dyeing. Poke it around until it is well submerged and soaked, then walk away.

After 5 minutes, check the color by lifting the object out with tongs.

When it has achieved the color you like (with chamomile, it will probably take 30 minutes or so), remove from the tea, blot with an old towel and let it dry.

Rinse with cold water, and you’re done.

If you’d like a more uneven look, put the steeped tea in a spray bottle and spray the dry object. The Damsel sincerely advises you test this spray method first, on something other than the quilt top you’ve spent hours weeks on.

Bonus: your house will smell delicious and cozy.

Ironing a shirt

How to iron a shirt: buy permanent press, and take it out of the dryer while it’s still hot. There.

But if you have an old school 100% cotton shirt, here’s the way to iron it. The Damsel uses the “Good Enough” method. It’s traditional to use this order:

First heat the iron nice and hot, and use steam or a spray bottle. Spread the shirt out on the ironing board, flattening out the collar. Press the collar from the points inward. The Good Enough method says just look at the other side and see if it looks “Good Enough.”

Iron the cuffs a bit and then the sleeves. The Damsel likes to make hard pressed lines along its edges, because if she’s going to all the trouble to iron a shirt she’d like people to take note. Look at the back side of the sleeve. Have you ironed any creases in? If so, iron them out. If not, maybe it’s Good Enough and you can go on to the other sleeve.

Pull the sleeve onto the end of the ironing board, so that the shoulder is at the end. This should make the yoke of the shirt sort of flat so you can iron that. Then put the other shoulder on the end of the board and repeat, so you can get all of the yoke.

Now iron the back of the shirt. The Damsel tries not to obsess about the bottom hem that often is all crumply. The Good Enough method says that part will be tucked into someone’s pants, so don’t stress.

Now do the front side that has buttonholes.

Last is the front side with buttons. Nose the iron around the buttons, but don’t iron over them, or they might break. All done! Look it over…is it Good Enough?

This is Good Enough for the Damsel, especially since this is the ten-year-old sprog’s shirt. Five seconds after he puts it on it will be wrinkly and dripped with ketchup.

patching jeans–“cute” method

Here are two ways for patching jeans when the objective is “cute” rather than “wow, you can hardly tell.”

The first is a type of applique, which is a fancy French word for “sewing a piece of material on top of another.” You can put a patch on just for decoration, or to actually cover up a real hole.

Cut a shape from some scrap fabric. Use pinking shears if you have them, but don’t stress if you don’t. Nothing terrible will happen.

If you’re covering a hole, use strateegery to position the shape over the hole. Or if the patch is for decoration, put it wherever you’d like. Are you the kind that likes straight lines? Or are you the type to put your patch at a rakish angle? Pin the patch to hold it in place.

Sew the patch on by covering the cut edge with zigzag stitching. The Damsel likes to set the sewing machine to a relaxed satin stitch. For this, you set the zigzag wide and the stitch length short. The shorter the stitch length, the closer the zigs and zags will be to each other, and thus will be more satin-stitch-like. Please leave a comment if you need help figuring that out. Or if you just want to chat about zigzag stitches. It’s a fascinating topic.

The hardest part is maneuvering the item under the sewing machine. If it’s a pants leg, it can be hard to reach all the way around the patch. The Damsel sewed half way around and then started back at the top to do the other side. Some items will be impossible to do on the machine and would have to be patched by hand. The Damsel quails at the thought.

The second method is the similar, except that it is “reverse applique,” which means you have a larger piece underneath the hole, and the hole itself is cut into the decorative shape instead of the patch.

Draw a shape around the offending hole, and cut out. Don’t stress. We’re going for the “rustic look.”

Cut out a rectangle of scrap fabric that is plenty bigger than the cutout and pin it in place behind the cutout. The jeans are right side out at this point.

Zigzag the cut edge as before. Take that pin out before you run over it, Sally!

Turn to the wrong side, and trim the extra scrap fabric outside the sewing line.

Aw, now, who doesn’t want a giant heart on their knee?

Extra points to the reader who notices that the “reverse applique” patch is essentially the same method that was used here, except the hole wasn’t cut into a decorative shape, but was just zigzagged all over for strength.

Mending 101

It’s sad but true that mending has become a lost art. A little hole that was no big deal for Grandma, can now spell death for a favorite garment.

The Damsel understands. She used to keep a basket of things that needed mending, which she took periodically to Grandma. But now the Damsel must do her own mending, and it’s a shame she didn’t pay better attention.

We’ll take this step by step. For today’s lesson, the Damsel will tackle the easiest type of mending—a seam that has become unsewed.

The first step is analyzation, with the goal to restore the garment to its previous condition. So you need to examine how the seam was originally made, and then restore it.

Here we have a ratty old tee-shirt, belonging to Sprog #4. The seam along the side has come unsewed. The Damsel doesn’t ask why. Some things are better left unsaid.

Turn the shirt inside out and look at the seam. By continuing the seam where it broke off, the mend can be made easily. For a mend like this, it’s simple to use a sewing machine, since the affected area is easily accessible.

If the garment is worth the trouble, choose thread that matches what was used originally. For a ratty tee-shirt, the Damsel uses whatever is in the machine at the time, and tells the tee-shirt in no uncertain terms that it was an inch from the ragbag. Don’t worry too much about the Damsel talking to tee-shirts. It was only just this once.

Position the sewing machine an inch or two before the broken seam. Select a stitch type that resembles what was used before. Pin if you like. The Damsel doesn’t like. Backtack and sew the seam to just past the point where the seam came unsewed, or in this case, to the end. Backtack again.

Clip the threads, and turn to the right side. Sometimes you’ll need to give the new seam a press with an iron to get things looking cozy again. The Damsel can’t bring herself to iron a ratty tee-shirt. She just can’t. That’s one step too far.

Homework: Do you have something with a little hole in a seam? Don’t be scared. Try mending it and report back.

the whys and wherefores of needle threading

Why is it so cotton-pickin’ hard to thread a needle?

Some things never change. It was hard to thread a needle in the olden days, and it still is. They even use it in the Bible as a metaphor for “hard.”

It’s hard for a couple of reasons. It’s hard to hold a thin little thing like a needle super still, and it’s tough to see if you’re guiding the thread accurately through such a small space. So there’s a couple of things you can do to simplify the process.

Choose the right needle for the task. There’s a wide range of needle sizes, and you have to ask yourself what thread or yarn you’ll be using, and the heavyness of the fabric you’ll be sewing. Some needles are purposely made teeny-tiny thin and flexible, some are fat and stiff. You can’t sew through denim with the thin one (it will break) and you can’t sew tricot with the fat one (it will make holes). So choose the right needle…making sure that at least the hole in the needle is bigger than the thread you’re using.

One of the reasons threading needles is so hard is because the end of the thread is frayed, sometimes so microscopically that we can’t even see that it is. The little frayed ends stick out this way and that, and catch on the eye of the needle. So most needle-threading tricks have to do with lessening the frayedness of the thread.

Sometimes it helps to cut an inch or two off the end, very cleanly and with sharp scissors. But not always.

Sometimes, if you double the thread over the shaft of the needle, squeezing it tight against the needle with your thumb, you can manage to create a bend in the thread that will go through the eye easier than the end. This method dodges the frayed end problem by inserting the bent edge instead.

There’s a method involving cutting a little piece of paper, folding the paper around the thread, and inserting the paper through the eye, carrying the thread through with it. The Damsel doesn’t want to hurt your feelings if you like this method, but she thinks little of it. She’s way too impatient to fool around with paper, scissors, and trying to cut that small. Phooey on the paper method.

You can buy little needle threaders. The Damsel’s has the head of what looks like it might be a Greek god stamped on it. This is apparently because threading a needle is so tricky you have to intimidate the thread through, by using symbols of power.

To use one of these, you insert the little wire thing through the eye of the needle (much easier than inserting thread because it’s stiff and smooth). Then you insert the thread through the wire thing sticking out of the eye (easier because the opening in the wire thing is so much bigger than the eye) and then…

pull it through.

Grandma’s favorite way was to just wet the end of the thread in her mouth for a second. This smooths the little frayed ends and gives the thread a tiny bit of stiffness.

One additional tip: don’t hold the thread too far from the end when trying to put it through the eye, because that will give it more chance to flop. Hold it pretty darn close to the end, and get ready to pinch the thread quickly when it emerges from the eye.

The Damsel has also observed that swearing will scare the thread into the eye. Eventually.

unraveling a sweater

The Damsel is bemused by the word “unravel.” So what’s “ravel” then? They seem to mean the same thing–to untwist, pull or rip out some yarn work. (by the way, the current term for pulling out knitting is “frogging” because you rip-it, rip-it, rip-it. Don’t be a hater. The Damsel did not make this up.)

Why would you want to unravel a sweater?

Grandma might have for a number of reasons. Maybe the sweater didn’t fit any more, and she wouldn’t want to waste the yarn. So she’d pull out all that hard work and re-knit it into something else. Waste not want not and so on. Maybe there was a man’s sweater that could become two kids’ sweaters. You get the idea.

Nowadays, three things have come together, like an alignment of the planets, to make unraveling a sweater something worth doing.

1. Yarn work has become more and more popular, even among young folks.

2.  Purchasing nice yarn is so expensive, but who wants to spend hours on a project that uses crappy yarn?

3. Sweaters made of expensive materials can be bought CHEAP at thrift stores.

When the Damsel first heard about doing this, she got excited because she loves yarn and it sounded easy. And it is easy, but there are a couple of tricks to it.

First, choose the right sweater. (of course it doesn’t have to be a sweater…any knitted/crocheted thingy) Look at the tag. If it’s made of 100% acrylic, it’s probably not worth it. You can buy that kind of yarn very cheaply, brand new. Is it made of a nice natural fiber (wools, cashmere, silk blends, alpaca, etc.) ? This kind of yarn can cost $20/skein and up, and there will be multiple skeins in one sweater. Good deal!

Now examine the seams. Are the pieces sewed together the way a hand knitter would, or are they serged? Here’s what that means:

With a regular seam, you’ll be able to part the two edges. This is the kind you’re looking for. This means the sweater was knit in individual pieces and then assembled, the way a hand-knitter would. That doesn’t mean the sweater was hand-knit, or that it needs to be. It means the yarn will unravel in one long piece.

This is a serged seam. The Damsel drew an arrow and little black lines over the serging hoping you could see it better on this crazy yarn. You’ve seen this stitching a hundred times on tee-shirts, etc.

Here’s how serging looks on a tee-shirt, so you can clearly see the kind of looping stitches we’re talking about. If the sweater is put together with this kind of stitching, you can’t unravel it, because it was made from one huge piece of knitted fabric and then serged together…a process that cuts and sews at the same time. If you try to unravel a serged sweater, you’ll end up with hundreds of pieces of yarn a couple of feet long. Not worth it.

Now once you have the right kind of sweater, you have to take the pieces apart. Pull the seam apart and look for the thread that was used to sew it together. It’s sometimes hard to see…often the exact color of the yarn…but usually thinner, more thread-like.

Cut this thread with a seam ripper, being careful not to cut the knitting itself. Take all the pieces apart, including any ribbing that has been sewed on, rather than knitted as part of the piece.

Once all the pieces are apart, the fun starts. Snip the yarn in a corner of one piece and see if the yarn will pull. If it simply knots, you are at the wrong end. Go to the opposite side and try again. Most sweaters are knit from the top down, so they will pull out from the top down in most cases.

Once you get the yarn pulling out freely, away you go. You can roll it into a ball as you go or loosely pile it and then roll. Pile method not recommended if there are sprog or pets about.

The yarn will be crinkly. That’s okay…the crinkles won’t show when it’s reknit. Many unravelers like to wrap it around upside-down chair rungs or something, make the yarn into hanks, and then wash it…and sometimes dye it. Washing the yarn after unraveling it will often make it nice and fluffy and non-crinkly. Warning: Wash the yarn the same way you’d wash something knitted from it. For example, don’t wash wool yarn in hot water with a lot of agitation; use cool water and gentle swishes.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, the Damsel highly recommends the Yahoo group Recycledyarn. The people there are very nice and knowledgeable about recycling yarn.

Old School field trip–sewing machines

Today we’re going on an Old School field trip. Occasionally the class will do this to learn about some fascinating thingy that makes old skills easier.

So, today’s class is on the invention of the sewing machine.

From the time people were running around in loincloths, there’s been such a thing as sewing. But for centuries, it was a time-intensive process. You know the drill…you put thread through the eye of a needle, and then draw the needle through layers of material, up and down, joining the material with the thread.

Tailors and young ladies alike worked hard to sew tiny, even stitches. But you can imagine that even the best, fastest seamstresses (The Damsel was going to coin the word “seamsters” in an effort to be PC but no. Just no.) couldn’t sew very fast.

In the 1800’s lots of inventions were being made, and several people tried to make a mechanical thingy for sewing. None of them worked very well. One sort of worked, and the inventor was almost killed by wild, angry tailors who feared he’d put them all out of work. He gave up.

Inventing sewing machines can be a deadly business. Tailors have all sorts of pointed things, sharp things. Just picturing wild, angry tailors gives the Damsel the shivers.

Along came Elias Howe. He worked and worked on a machine, but it just wouldn’t work right. The Damsel thinks he was pretty much crazy from all the trying because one night he dreamed he was being boiled by cannibals. They danced around the cookpot, brandishing strange spears with small holes in their tips.

When he woke up, the answer suddenly dawned on him. Instead of having the thread hole in the end, like it had always been, the hole needed to be in the pointed tip. Like the spears.


Finally, the machine worked, and wow, what a difference in the time it takes to create a garment.

The Damsel is grateful because she looks terrible in a loincloth.