Hand-Dyed Lace and Where Crazy Ideas Begin

**If you’re only interested in the hand-dyed lace tutorial and not all my babbling, scroll to where the photos begin!**

The process for most of the custom roller skating outfits I make is fairly simple: coach has an idea in March, we settle on a plan in early April, dress is finished by early to mid May.  Boom.  Done.

However, the process for my daughter’s annual dress is usually a long, drawn out ordeal: idea in September, dream about the mechanics and engineering of it for months, keep an eye open for fabrics and embellishments all year, settle on a plan in February, put off making it until everyone else’s is finished, then work like hell to hurry up and get it done by late June, usually stoning it in the hotel room the night before she has to skate.

This year started out in exactly the same manner — idea in the fall, long thought process, and I even cut it out and put the most technically challenging part together in April.  But it wasn’t special; it was great, and the pieces I did finish are cool, but it was predictable, a little boring, and something practically anyone else could have imagined and made.  Nothing unique, nothing striking.

Then one day in April (because goodness knows this couldn’t have happened last September, because that would have been too easy) I ran across an old photo I’d saved years earlier of a dress neckline I liked.  That’s the only reason I saved the picture, and I discovered it quite by accident while searching my photo database for inspiration for someone else’s dress.  That’s how this whole thing started, and it organically snowballed into something super cool, super memorable, and so damn simple that it’s embarrassing to admit to people just how easy it was.

The dress is made entirely of nude mesh (gratuitous plug here: my company hand dyes 17 different shades of skintone mesh to match any skin color, so the dress really disappears on her.  She’s a “chai,” by the way; I think she was hoping to be “cupcake” or “graham cracker,” but then Disneyland happened and that slight tan pushed her into “chai” territory), with a double layer of nude mesh on the skirt. Underneath the mesh (because this isn’t THAT kind of sport) is a strapless bra and underlayer of nude spandex, which covers just the parts that need to be covered to stay tasteful and costuming-rules-legal.  I made the dress in its entirety, including sewing on the skirt, before I started adding anything else.  So basically for a few days she had a nudie dress, which totally freaked out my husband one day as he came around the corner and there she was in her perfectly matched skintone dress, looking pretty much buck naked with a skirt…

Anyway, then came the fun (?) part: the lace.  I’ll add the tutorial to the end of this post; I wasn’t going to take the time to do it, but so far no one believes me when I tell them how easy it was to actually make this dress, so I feel the need to prove I’m not a liar…

This process and the results taught me a couple of things.  First, it’s ok to start over if something better pops into your head, even if you’ve had your heart set on something for nearly a year.  It takes a good designer to know when it’s time to change course or just throw something out the window entirely.  Second, don’t dismiss the value of revisiting things you once found intriguing. Had I not glanced at that old neckline photo, the rest of this never would have entered my brain, ever.  Third, sometimes all it takes to create something spectacular (and honestly, this is the first piece I’ve ever made, after 20+ years, that I would call “spectacular”) is one tiny kernel of an idea…then the rest just falls into place.  And finally, don’t assume you can’t do something until you mess it up for yourself.  Initially I was extremely skeptical that what was in my head would ever end up on her body.  It took hours and hours of research to figure out how to accomplish exactly what I wanted the end product to be, and honestly, the only reason I even attempted it was because I had that other dress nearly finished already, just in case.  I could afford to screw this one up, and that’s what gave me the courage to follow that hare-brained idea in the first place.


Ok.  Now for the tutorial.  If you skipped all that musing and are just now joining us, welcome.

1. Finding the lace and dye materials

This part was easy.  I decided right away that I didn’t want to use paint. How did I know this?  Because I once made an absolutely hideous dress with painted poppies. I mean, the idea was terrific, and the poppies weren’t all that bad, but I hated (and still hate) the textured, 3-D effect that paint gives you; I wanted to be able to see the actual fibers of the lace because I wanted more of an embroidered look.  The only way to achieve this is with dye, not paint.  Paint sits on top of fibers, dye adheres directly to fibers.  And the best place EVER to purchase dye is from Dharma Trading.  I loved their acid dyes already, so this was a no-brainer.

But before I could order the dye, I needed to know the fiber content of the lace I’d be using.  After much research, I figure out that rayon lace was the way to go.  Coincidentally, my favorite lace supplier, Mary Not Martha (sold on Etsy), carries TONS of rayon lace, so the hardest part was figuring out which pieces I liked best.

After ordering my lace, I researched rayon dyeing techniques.  Dharma already has a fabulous tutorial here, so I won’t go into everything needed before you even begin dye painting; but I ended up needing several different chemicals on top of the eight colors of dye I ordered.  Be sure to read their tutorials FIRST so that you order everything you need at once to save on shipping!

2. Prepping the lace

Before doing anything, I washed the pieces in textile detergent (synthropol, also available on the Dharma website).  This gets rid of not only dirt, but invisible acids and grease from your fingers and anything else the lace may have touched, which inevitably would affect how the dye adheres to the lace fibers.  Then I cut the lace appliques into small, individual pieces, since I didn’t want the dress to look like I’d slapped a few big appliques on it and called it a day.


Soaking the lace in Earl Grey

As I learned two years prior (revisit that post here), all white lace is not created equal.  Before the lace even arrived, I knew I’d have to figure out some way to fix the variations of “white,” or eliminate them altogether.  Since the dress was nude, I decided I wanted the edges of the lace to blend into the dress — so I decided to tea stain the lace.  In the past I’ve tea stained lace for an hour, but since I only wanted a slight tanning, I opted for a 15-minute soak. If you’ve never done this before, it’s embarrassingly easy; place five or six black tea bags (ok, all I had was loose leaf Early Grey with Lavender tea…so my lace smells slightly of lavender) in a bowl.  Cover with hot water.  Let sit for a few minutes, then add the lace or fabric or whatever.  When it’s a little darker than desired, remove it and rinse in cold water.  Done.  Don’t drink the tea in the bowl, because that would be gross.

3. Prepping the dyes


Sodium alginate, urea, soda ash. Not the lime.

Again, Dharma covers this on their website. I mixed the urea and sodium alginate together, put them in a tupperware container in the fridge, and slapped a “don’t throw me away and don’t drink me!” sign to the top — because hey, I live with teenage boys…

Two days later, I mixed six shades of burgundy/pink and six shades of green by mixing various combinations of the eight procion dyes I’d ordered.  I found a terrific little bead organizer in a little acrylic box, which worked perfectly for dyes — the lids screwed tightly onto the little jars, which kept them from spilling/getting lost on my work table.  Plus, I could put the entire box into the refrigerator (which extends the life of the dye, I’ve learned) and I didn’t have to worry about twelve little jars ending up in twelve separate places in my bottomless pit of a fridge.

By the way, I initiated a discussion in some dyeing communities on Facebook because I was mixing techniques (procion dyeing and tea staining) and I wasn’t sure how to proceed, and together we decided that the best way to proceed was to tea stain the stuff FIRST, and keep the soda ash (a necessary compound in hand dyeing with procion dyes — it helps the dye to adhere to the fibers of the lace.  Keep reading to find out what happens when you skip this step) out of the dyes and to soak the lace in the soda ash separately.  This is why I only mixed up the urea, sodium alginate, and dye.

4. Prepping the lace, part 2


Soaking in soda ash. Notice that I only placed about a dozen pieces in the soda ash at a time; you don’t want soda ash sitting on your lace fibers longer than necessary.

I couldn’t help but think about the old saying about painting — how 70% is prep, 25% is clean up, and only 5% is actually painting.  Same holds true for this process — I needed to prep the lace yet again, and prep the painting surfaces as well.  The tea stained lace soaked for about 10 minutes in a soda ash solution (and believe me, I was very relieved that the soda ash didn’t change the color of the tea staining, though the soda ash did turn slightly beige…so obviously I hadn’t rinsed the lace enough).  I pinned pieces to a plastic wrap covered piece of cardboard, small enough to fit into a 2-gallon size ziploc bag (more on why this is important later), and then, FINALLY, I was ready to start painting.  Word of warning here: I tried using leftover dye on another dress, but I forgot to pre-soak it in soda ash. I figured what the heck, it’s just a practice dress…uh, no.  An hour later all my carefully painted flowers and leaves had turned to one giant, mushy mess, and two hours later every color had bled into every other color, so now it looked like I spilled burgundy dye on the fabric had tried to rub it off here and there.  HIDEOUS.  So don’t skip the soda ash step.  Of course, this may have happened because of the fiber content of the fabric, but still, why risk it?).

Now, by this time I was completely freaked out, because I’d already spent sooo much time prepping everything and I was positive it would be for nothing since I wasn’t very optimistic that I could actually paint very well.  If there’s one thing I hate, it’s wasting time or investing a lot of useless effort into something for nothing.  So after I cried from worrying that I would totally suck at this (yes, I cried over something this stupid), it was finally time to take the pieces out of the soda ash and get busy.

5. Finally, painting!


Finished pieces, sitting in plastic.

And what do you know?  This was the easiest part of all!  It was FAST, too…the dye, when applied with a watercolor brush, actually behaves like watercolors…touch the brush to the fibers, and the fibers drink in the dye.  I mixed up my dyes with very, very little actual dye itself, so they were rather transparent.  This worked perfectly, because unlike regular fabric paint, you can control the actual hue of the dye simply by layering it; one layer is lighter, but each additional layer darkens the color.  I started with my lightest colors and added darker colors gradually.  It was quick, it was fun, and it pissed me off because I’d worried so much about it not working.

6. Resting/rinsing

After painting the pinned lace pieces, I placed the cardboard inside 2-gallon ziploc bags and sealed them.  This is necessary because you want to slow the drying process for about 12 hours, which allows the dye molecules to really bond with the lace fibers (I’ll spare you the chemical explanation here, because frankly I’ve forgotten it by now anyway). 12 hours later, I removed the cardboard and washed the lace in cold water for what seemed like days.  Really, it took a good hour for the lace to stop bleeding excess dye.


Rinsing, and rinsing, and rinsing.

One important thought here — as the lace dries, it gets darker.  Like, really darker.  I hadn’t read anything about this, so it really worried me, because all my carefully designed, color graduated painting basically disappeared and my flowers just looked like one shade of dark burgundy and my leaves looked like Hefty garbage bag green.  But when you start rinsing, all these color variations magically reappear.


Lace getting darker as it sits. Freaked me out.

7. Drying

OMG I still had more to do before I could even begin using these things…


Drying lace, day 2. I stopped pinning it by this point.

The drying process took several days, to be honest.  This was also something I hadn’t anticipated.  I wrapped cardboard fabric bolt inserts with thick bath towels and carefully pinned each lace piece flat (because I didn’t want curly edges, which is what happens when you wash lace — see below).  But after 24 hours, they were still damp…so I blotted, flipped them over, and waited.  And waited.  Multiple blottings later, they were finally dry and ready to use.


The reason I pinned the lace to paint it and dry it — curly edges, yuck.

One additional word of caution here — don’t use towels you care about.  Even after an hour of rinsing, my lace pieces still bled a little bit onto the towels.

8. Placing

Close up of lace pieces

Close up of lace pieces

I sprayed the back of each piece with quilt basting spray, and with her in the dress, I slapped these pieces onto her fairly quickly, Tetris-style.  I did pin them as well, but using basting spray helps the edges stay perfectly in place so I only needed one pin per piece rather than several.  This saved her lots of standing-perfectly-still time, and saved me lots of pin-pricked fingers.  Plus, the last time I pinned so much lace to a dress I had to cover up several little blood spots with stones…but not this time.


Pieces being glued down. Note the awesome stretcher frame? Available at Firefly Fabrics!

9. Adhering

Notice I didn’t say “sewing?”  Nope…I didn’t sew these on this time.  E6000 to the rescue, and it worked beautifully.  I used to sew lace onto dresses, but I learned my lesson (read about it here).  Of course, my work table looked super creepy for a while, but it was worth it.


Mannequin arm to the rescue!

Notice the waxed paper?  This dress was made entirely of mesh, and I didn’t want the glue to seep through and accidentally glue arm holes shut, or glue the front to the back.  I lined the entire dress in waxed paper, which then pulled off pretty easily once the glue was nearly dry.

10. Stoning

Most fun part of all.  I used seven different sizes of crystal AB’s to give a graduated look, as well as every random green and purple/burgundy/pink stone I had laying around the studio.  You know — when a dress doesn’t use up a full gross of stones so I had 4 leftover here, maybe 15 leftover there, etc. — but you can’t ever throw stones away, yet how do you use fewer than a dozen of any one color?  I had saved up stones in weird sizes and weird colors, which was perfect for this dress.  I also used about a gross each of burgundy, light burgundy, and light burgundy AB stones.  I scattered 12ss, 16ss, and 20ss crystal AB stones all around the bottom of the skirt and around the neck and back openings, too — initially we were going to leave these openings without elastic and without stones, but this fabric matched her skin (at the time) waaaaay too closely, and she really did look naked with some flowers carefully clinging to her boobs and butt.  A little too Adam-And-Eve for me, so the finished edges and scattered stones really helped it look more like a dress and less like a naked forest nymph getup.

And this is it — the finished product.  Totally different than anything at all on the floor this year, which is exactly what we wanted.



And this was the finished result!  Heading to the US National Championships in two weeks, where hopefully hopefully hopefully this dress (and the kid inside it) will qualify for a trip to Italy for the World Championships in September.  Stay tuned!



PS: Added August 15, 2016: THE DRESS MADE IT TO ITALY! Emma placed 8th in the world…to read more about that experience, visit http://www.EmmaGoFigure.com.



Tips & Tricks Tuesday: Travel Kit

Since, until like two days ago, my studio was a complete and utter hellhole (see my last post: So Much Room for Activities!), I usually traveled for fittings. Unfortunately, this meant carrying tons of stuff with me, and I usually ended up searching for it all, throwing it into a bag, and running to the car ten minutes before the fitting was to occur.  Not anymore.

A few months ago I stumbled upon these great little black nylon organizer bags at Ulta. Originally meant for stowing hairdryers, curling irons, and various other hair-related paraphernalia, they looked like they would work perfectly for travel fittings (plus they were full of random hair product samples, so kid #4 was super thrilled). I didn’t want to spend a lot on a travel bag, because it would end up very used and abused and basically destroyed before too much time had passed…so the $3.33 pricetag was absolutely perfect — and I bought the last three I could find.

Getting rid of the Ulta logo was easy — I still had a yard of Spoonflower fabric that I had intended to turn into small garment tags but, in my haste to order, I accidentally made the logo much too large so I had to re-order them anyway.  Rather than throw away the mistake, I used about 3/4 yard of it to make an ironing board (more on that project later), and the other 1/4 yard became logo tags — the perfect size for covering the Ulta logo.

I also picked up a really terrific zippered vinyl bag at a thrift store because it was the exact chartreuse color of my logo. I had no clue how to use it (I think it was originally meant as a little lunch sack?) but in the end it became a great way to transport stones and other slightly-delicate, don’t-want-them-to-get-banged-around materials and supplies.

I painted a couple Altoids tins the same shade of chartreuse green. One is filled with pins, and the other houses my Square card reader and rhinestone sample cards.

A third tin, the origin of which I can’t recall (maybe kid #2’s Christmas present wallet?), was also painted green and houses a travel sewing/fittings kit, which includes a tiny tube of E6000, soap markers, thread, needles, sewing machine needles, safety pins, chalk, measuring tapes, a seam ripper (of course), a small vinyl pad for stoning, and a skewer for stoning.

All the tins include a logo magnet on the cover. Also in the bag is a great little LED light (which comes in handy when you have to finish 5 ballroom dresses in a Prius in the parking lot at night…long story, for another post), a calculator, paper, pen, scissors, business cards, and a roll of colored pencils.  Everything is chartreuse green, not because I’m particularly strange, but because in my brain, color coding things means they’ll end up back where they belong. It’s a very left-handed system, but it works for me.

Under the cutting table -- my travel fitting bag and my sizing leotards bag.

On the left is my travel bag — with room for garments and anything else I need to add at the last minute.

The traveling fitting bag, exploded...includes samples of rhinestones and everything I need for a remote fitting. Obsessively weird about that chartreuse green thing, I know...but once I started I just couldn't stop!

The traveling fitting bag, exploded…includes samples of rhinestones and everything I need for a remote fitting. Obsessively weird about that chartreuse green thing, I know…

So why should you care? Because if you’re reading this, then I assume you’re marginally interested in sewing, in some way or another — either the process or the product. And after 20 years of trying to figure out what I need when I’m not at home, I think I’ve finally worked out the kinks in my system and I no longer carry excess crap unnecessarily, and I no longer get somewhere and wish I had something I inadvertently left at home.

I get a lot of messages from sewist around the country asking about fittings, since apparently the desire for home sewn items is growing by leaps and bounds, but the desire to learn how to create such items is seriously lacking…so the people who do know how to sew are busier than ever. My advice to you is to keep a travel bag packed at all times, ready to grab and go whenever you need it; it’s worth the cost of duplicating some of your supplies (and, if you’ve got a kid like my #4 at home, then it’ll give you an awesome excuse to go to Ulta…).

Tips & Tricks Tuesday: Stoning Frame

I get frustrated easily, I admit. I want (expect) projects to run smoothly, and I assume that the hardest part of a project is going to be related to my own lack of experience or knowledge, nothing else.

So when something is tedious, time-consuming, or difficult — and it feels like it shouldn’t be any of these things — I obsess over it. Constantly. Sometimes I go to thrift stores or hardware stores, just to browse the aisles looking for some clue, some random way to fix whatever problem I’m having by using something in a way for which it wasn’t originally created. Sometimes this works; I have some really great, albeit weird, tools now because of this habit. Sometimes it takes many, many trips, and more trial and error messes than I care to admit. But eventually, a solution usually presents itself.

This is one of my favorite and definitely most time-cutting, mess-inhibiting, frustration-avoiding creations — stoning stretcher bars.  The concept is simple, really — they’re just PVC pipes cut to various lengths, connected with PVC elbow joints. The frame fits inside whatever it is you happen to be stoning, and it keeps the garment or project perfectly flat while you work. When you’re finished, take it apart, string your joints together and throw a rubber band around your pipes — and the whole thing stores in a drawer or corner of your work area until the next time you need it.stoning frame

Depending on the size of your frame, you can stretch the fabric or not — depending on the needs of your project. One side benefit of using this frame is that it doubles as a carrying handle so that I can stone the front, flip it over, stone the back, and stand it up/stack it/move it/whatever without the risk of not-quite-dry glue ending up somewhere it shouldn’t. You can’t do this with those cardboard t-shirt inserts that some people use — not only does the cardboard bend, but since there is no space between the fabric and the board, often you’ll discover that you’ve successfully glued your garment to the cardboard. The PVC pipes keep the front away from the back with a small channel of air between them, which not only avoids the whole “cardboard pieces are now stuck to my garment” thing, but it also helps the garment to dry much faster thanks to the additional air circulation to both sides of the fabric. And as your subject grows, and kids annoyingly do, your cardboard can’t grow with her — but the PVC frame can.

I even have sleeve forms which attach to each side of the frame with additional PVC fittings, for the times when I want a sleeve to lay flat while I stone it…but usually, I put together a simple frame and insert it in the garment, as shown below.


I keep multiple lengths of pipe on hand, to accommodate all sizes of garments; but if you’re only stoning for one person (and therefore one size), this isn’t necessary. In the course of a project, I’ll leave the garment on the frame and insert the entire frame into a thick gauge garment bag with a ziploc seal at the top (details next Tuesday!). This way, I can stack a dozen or more garments in-progress, keeping each clean, unwrinkled, and ready to be stoned again.

Maybe the best part of this solution is the price — PVC is ridiculously cheap.  Plus, even someone with my rudimentary hardware/construction skills had no problem cutting the pipes without the assistance of my resident handyman/construction wizard.

Creating a Watermark

No, I’m not stupid. I know there are lots of tutorials out there explaining how to watermark pictures. However, as of today, there doesn’t seem to be one that is both a) up to date, and b) written for people who honestly don’t care much about photography and who don’t understand/care to take the the time to learn about all the weird jargon and lingo associated with photography. I don’t know what kind of camera we have…just that it is in a tan and green camera case. So for all of you, here’s a nice, quick explanation of how to create a watermark the very easy way…one that can be used over and over again on blogs where the main point is something other than your own (maybe not so) amazingly wonderful photography.

Why watermark? I never really cared, until I recently came across MY PHOTO, of food I designed and created, posted on a very large, very public, very Pisses-Me-Off-Now food site. No credit, no nothing, and they’re using it on Pinterest, too. (It’s Foodie.com, in case you’re interested in likewise un-following them). The photo isn’t great (I’m no photographer, but that pumpkin fondue was killer amazing), and I don’t care that they used it, but no credit for what’s in the photo itself is what bothers me. I used to think a watermark was mainly for great photos – but I now know that it’s important to protect what’s featured in those photos, regardless of the photographic quality.

So here it is — Watermarking for Sewists (because hey, we’re not Dummies)

1. Download this free program. It’s called Gimp, and it’s the faster, easier, free version of adobe photoshop. No need to learn a whole new vocabulary…though the program does a lot of cool stuff, it’s streamlined enough so that you can create a quick, easy logo without a lot of excess hassle.

2. Create your logo by doing the following:


a. Open Gimp.

b. Go to File>Create>Logos.  Choose your style from the dozens listed, fill in your text in the uppermost dialog box, then hit Create.

c. If you chose a style that allows for a transparent background but you ended up with a white one instead, go to Layer>Transparency>Add Alpha Channel. OR, go to Layer>Transparency>Color to Alpha.

d. Save your creation AS A .PNG file.  A .jpg will come out pure white because flattened .jpg’s can’t handle transparencies.


a. Open Gimp.

b. Go to File>New. Add your text, add a logo, whatever you choose. You may import just about any file into Gimp, too. I won’t go into detail here because the tutorials on the Gimp site are great, but you can easily change the color of a logo you already have, say from black to white, with a couple clicks.

c. Save your creation AS A .PNG file.  A .jpg will come out pure white because flattened .jpg’s can’t handle transparencies.



3. Go to PicMonkey.  This is the free online photo editing site that works beautifully with Gimp.

4. Open the photo you wish to mark.  Edit it if needed (change color, contrast, add frames, whatever…)

5. Click the butterfly icon on the left, then click the “Your Own” box at the top. A dialog box will open, where you may choose the file you just saved in Gimp.

6. A new box will open and your artwork/logo will appear on top of your photo. You may play with the blend modes, but you may also just go to the Fade bar and set it at 40% to begin…your logo is now semi-transparent. Play with your fade until it’s just right, and you’re finished!

Here’s a quick sample, with a watermark close-up:


watermark closeup

Sure, there are slicker, fancier ways to do this, but each minute I spend perfecting my photos is another minute spent away from the shop…and when I’m not there to supervise, I swear the fabric piles multiply on their own. So I’ll leave the obsessive photo-perfecting to my photo-blogging friends, and I’ll get back to sewing for their kids…




Tips & Tricks Tuesday: Ode to E6000

I recently read a friend’s Facebook post where she was unhappily (and slightly unsuccessfully) sewing her daughter’s Girl Scout badges to her vest, and various other friends were chiming in and debating the virtues of glue vs. needle and thread.  It made me realize that 99% of the world’s population is blissfully clueless about the wonder creation E6000, so here’s a brief overview and manifesto on “Why E6000 is the Greatest Invention on the Planet.”

1. STONES: Nothing, and I mean nothing, works on stones and other beadwork like E6000.  Don’t even bother with “bead glue” or other expensive garbage, including E6000 Jewelry and Bead glue.  Stones (aka “A Performer’s Portfolio” because goodness knows we invest more money in them than any decent person will publicly admit) won’t fall off until you want them to come off — see #2.

2. REMOVAL: When it’s time to retire the garment but reuse the stones, all you have to do is sew the garment into a pillowcase, take it to most any dry cleaner, and tell them you used E6000.  They’ll know exactly which chemical to use to dissolve the glue, and if they don’t, take it somewhere else.  When you pick up your garment and open the pillowcase, you’ll find all the stones safely at the bottom, silver backs intact, and no residue left on the fabric at all.  Purely miraculous. Just make sure your pillowcase isn’t sporting a hole, or you’ll lose all your stones and the dry cleaning lady will yell at you (no, it didn’t happen to me personally, but the friend who experienced this expensive humiliation swears she still has flashbacks).

3. FABRIC: Not to give away trade secrets or anything, but we use E6000 for more applique work than we’d like to admit.  In the photos below, all the piecework was done with E6000 and not a sewing machine.


49 separate tiny appliques here. 49. I’ll say it again. 49.


Super fast and easy dress, thanks to the wonders of E6000, two glasses of wine, and a poolside workspace in Florida…

See?  I was serious.

See? I was serious.

pink dress pinkdressback

In fact, Pink Dress above was started in the hotel room 36 hours before the wearer had to compete, and yes, it was fully stoned and finished with about 6 hours to spare. Every single appliqué on that dress was glued on, not sewn, so there were no buckles, bulges, pulls, stretches, or anything that otherwise would have occurred had I tried to wrestle the bulky thing in circles on my machine.  E6000 stretches with the fabric, so when the leotard/main bodice fabric stretches, so do the appliqués. Plus, no seamlines. I would have had to stock (and remember to pack, and then carry up two flights of stairs while carrying the machine, Peg the Mannequin, and my then-4-year-old sleeping child, and then keep away from the other three kids who wanted to use them as prisoners on their Fisher Price pirate ship that somehow made its way into the car even after I told them they had to leave it at home) seven different shades of pink for this dress alone, but by using E6000, I could layer and move from one color to the next without any lost or wasted time. Try THAT with a machine.

Purists might condescendingly say this is cheating; but these are the same folks who refuse to rely on the magic of a single safety pin too, so they’ve obviously never been in the Ready Area with a 12-year old boy whose outfit fit perfectly 9 days ago but who, through the wonders of biology, now is taller and skinnier than he was a week and a half ago (don’t believe me? Raise three boys and see for yourself); so frankly their opinions don’t count. At all. Get over yourselves and admit that just because you’re skilled enough to sew it doesn’t mean that’s always the best option.

Anyway, just when I had everything figured out, the heavens opened and Eclectic Products sent us E6000 spray. I’ll save that hint for later, as I’ll be using it for a particularly intricate design I’m working on this month, and I’ll photo the whole process.

Eclectic Products also released a .18oz tube of E6000, and I have 40 on their way to my shop as I type this. They fit perfectly into these little emergency fix-it travel kits, which also contain a stone setting stick, safety pins, tiny scissors, a sewing kit, Hollywood Tape, and several small compartments for various replacement stones. I actually have one for each dress that goes with us on our travels, and I had no problem going through TSA security with the tiny tube of E6000. You can buy the travel kits here or with the one-click button in the footer.

Next Tuesday we’ll go over several ways to set stones…so you have a week to stock up on E6000…

Tips & Tricks Tuesday: Buying Fabric

I just returned from my first and definitely not my last (sorry, Bill) trip to the textile district in downtown Los Angeles.  Actually, to be honest it wasn’t my very first trip; while at UCLA I used to buy formalwear fabric there to sew into the multitude of dresses I needed for various sorority functions.  But never before had I ventured into Spandex-Land, the holy block in the textile/garment district populated nearly exclusively by wholesalers carrying stretch fabric.  It was heaven, or hell, depending on how you look at it (heaven’s-worth of fun, but on a budget, the torture of not buying absolutely everything was hell).

I was able to set up three wholesale accounts with two amazingly wonderful vendors and one not-so-wonderful guy who unfortunately is the exclusive importer of some of the best skatewear and dancewear fabric I’ve seen.  In his defense, it had just started raining, and if you’ve ever been to the textile district, you know that a good portion of most wholesalers’ stock is situated outside their actual buildings; so he was more focused on saving his foiled spandex than dealing with me.

I did purchase quite a bit of stock for my store, but the main goal of the trip was to make contacts, set up accounts, and see what’s new in the industry.  Bad news, I bought more than I could carry (of course), but good news, my favorite importer (who, by this time, had become quite friendly with me, because thanks to the ever-so-protective nature of my bank’s automated security system, my out of town fabric purchases were being blocked…so I spent over an hour in his shop on the phone with the bank, working to convince them that yes, it really is me dropping $500 to a Palestinian address for spandex) carried it for me to a special “secret” shipping company that provides ridiculously cheap shipping for retailers just like me who make multiple purchases from all over the textile district — the wholesale importers hand-deliver my purchases to this shipping warehouse, and when they’ve all been collected, they send them to me in one huge, super cheap box.  So awesome, and now I know why there were lots of guys running around wheeling bags and bins of fabric into the depths of this creepy-looking building.

Anyway, while walking as quickly as possible through the rain (going out of my way to avoid skid row between Central and Alameda and through the produce warehouse district, yet another lovely section of downtown LA) back to the bus station (long story), I started thinking about how difficult a trip like this might be to someone who has an idea of what he or she wants but isn’t quite sure.  The selection could have been completely overwhelming and confusing, had I not known exactly what I wanted and had I not been able to very quickly discern the good stuff from the garbage.  I also witnessed more than one vendor quote very different, much higher prices to shoppers who seemed clueless.

One tiny corner of my favorite textile district shop. The "aisle" is about three inches wide, and the only way to get around is to literally climb over bolts of fabric.  Like an awesome seamstress jungle gym.

One tiny corner of my favorite textile district shop. The “aisle” is about three inches wide, and the only way to get around is to literally climb over bolts of fabric. Like an awesome seamstress jungle gym.

So here’s a quick outline you can use when purchasing stretch fabric.  But first, a quick primer on stretch lingo:


You may see “spandex” and “Lycra” used interchangeably; however, if you want to appear knowledgeable (and therefore get the best prices), “Lycra” is actually a brand name created by the DuPont company, later becoming Invista, and finally sold to the ever-infamous Koch Industries.  Sort of like Kleenex or Band-aid…which we all use interchangeably with “tissues” or “adhesive bandage.”  Spandex is simply the fiber used in the fabric, which, just to be confusing, was created and coined by a guy working for DuPont anyway.  Trivia time, “spandex” comes from rearranging the letters in “expands.”  Now you’re an expert.

The difference between 2-way, 4-way and 6-way stretch fabric

    1. Lay your fabric on a flat surface.  Picture a compass, and try stretching the fabric in all directions.
    2. Can you stretch your fabric either the East-West direction or the North-South direction, but not both?  If so, you have 2-way stretch fabric.
    3. Can you stretch in both directions?  If so, you have 4-way stretch fabric.
    4. Can you also stretch it diagonally (NE-SW or NW-SE)?  If so, you have 6-way stretch fabric.

From easiest to hardest to use:

  • Medium weight 6-way spandex.  If you hold up a piece and blow on it, it moves slowly.
  • Medium weight 4-way spandex. Ditto the blowing method above.
  • 6-way stretch velvet
  • 4-way stretch velvet
  • Lightweight 4-way or 6-way spandex.  If you hold up a piece and blow on it, it moves freely and rapidly.
  • Heavyweight 4-way or 6-way spandex.  If you hold up a piece and blow on it, it barely moves at all.
  • 4-way or 6-way illusion or mesh.  This includes “nude” fabrics.  Illusion is actually easy to sew, but to make seams and elastic look best it involves additional steps — French seams, double turned elastic, etc.  Not difficult at all if you know the tricks involved, but for a basic practice outfit where visible elastic and seam allowances don’t matter, illusion falls ahead of lightweight spandex in the “easiest to hardest” list.
  • Rough spandex.  This includes spandex with a texture to it, but not beaded spandex.  Heavily glittered fabrics fall here and not up with regular 4-way or 6-way spandex only because they tend to make a huge mess (glitter, glitter, everywhere!) and can often clog up your machine.  However, the glitter does help the fabric stay together when sewing, and they’re huge timesavers because they don’t need much in the way of stoning or other decoration later.
  • 2-way spandex or velvet. This includes panne-style velvet, or crushed velvet.  Most crushed velvet is only 2-way stretch, but if you find better quality crushed velvet with a 4-way or 6-way stretch, it may be treated just like regular stretch velvet.
  • Slinky. This fabric lays beautifully and flows better than velvet or spandex, but it can be very frustrating to work with unless you know the tricks to dealing with it.  Mistakes can rarely be remedied without tearing holes in the fabric.  If you are a novice sewer, stay away from slinky.
  • Beaded and sequined stretch fabric.  Great to use in smaller quantities, but crazy-making if you don’t have a good sewing machine.  You must first remove beads from seam allowances, though strong machines may sew through sequins just fine.  Beads and sequins still need to be removed from seam allowances at some point or they’ll scratch the wearer.  If you don’t mind breaking a few needles, pre-beaded stretch fabrics are a huge time saver.
  • Pre-stoned fabric.  Yes, we all try to save money by reusing stones at some point or another – and the fabric left can often be turned into a different dress.  However, E6000 residue is impossible for most machine needles to sew through, and inevitably your machine will find the one stone you forgot to remove, breaking the needle and most likely sending shards of stone and needle everywhere.  Fabric with stones is best hand-sewn only.
  • Non-stretch fabric.  This includes decorative satins and anything that would require a zipper to achieve a close fit.  Not impossible to use, but for skating or dancing, really not worth the extra effort and ensuing lack of easy movement on the part of the wearer.  Fine for quick show costumes as it’s usually pretty cheap, but very difficult to get a good fit without significant pattern drafting experience.

Additional stretch information

Look at the spot where you stretched your fabric.  Can you see your stretch marks?  Did it leave a wavy spot on the fabric or did the fabric not return to its normal position?  If so, put it back…it’s lousy fabric and it won’t last. “rebound,” “return,” “recovery” — these are all words used to describe the fabric’s ability to maintain its original shape.  Fabric without recovery will make you nuts.

Make note of which direction has the greatest degree of stretch – the biggest stretch should go around the skater horizontally, not vertically.  Figuring this out at the fabric store is important when buying expensive fabric where every 1/8 yard counts!  If the best stretch runs the length of the fabric rather than the width, you may not need as much fabric as a bolt where the best stretch runs the width of the fabric.

Remember…You get what you pay for.  While it might seem silly to spend $15/yard on really good fabric, the ease of sewing and the final product will more than make up for what you end up spending.  $5/yard spandex from JoAnn’s is fine for a practice dress, but it doesn’t always hold stone glue well, it doesn’t launder well, the color will most likely run, and the fabric “pills” and snags like crazy.

Also, if you did not spend more than $200 on a sewing machine, you will likely become frustrated when sewing on poor quality stretch fabric.  Many times, sewing difficulties and issues lie with the machine and fabric, NOT with your technique!  It’s much more economical to spend an extra few dollars per yard on nice fabric than to trash your cheap machine to purchase one that will handle cheap stretch fabric without causing it to run, get stuck in your bobbin casing, mess up your tension, etc.

But again, if traveling to the Los Angeles garment district isn’t an option, you can always buy your fabric here and have me do it for you…I’d love an excuse to go back!

Tips & Tricks Tuesday: Use What You’ve Got

Pins. I hate pins. Mainly because they inevitably end up on the floor, in my foot, or in my dog’s mouth. There are occasions when straight pins are necessary: attaching skirts to figure skating dresses or ballroom gowns, getting an inset bra placement just right, keeping ridiculously slippery and delicate fabric in exactly the right place despite the best efforts of your feed dog, etc. But generally, pins are overrated.

I started using pattern weights when I made my first wedding gown ages and ages ago, because the fabric was so curmudgeonly that it showed every tiny little pin hole. Besides — at this point I don’t have the time to sit and pin paper patterns to fabric. All of my stock ready-to-wear patterns are made out of vinyl anyway, so pins are out of the question.

But pattern weights are expensive. And ugly. So I looked around my shop to see what I had that could be repurposed. And what does every skating coach and skating parent have in spades? Old wheels. I realized I have an embarrassing collection of them, so I figured I had two options: throw them away or re-imagine them. Since the good sets cost more than $100 each, throwing them away seemed like such a waste.

So instead, I turned a set of eight old wheels into a quirky, cute, and extremely useful set of pattern weights. Since I wanted them as heavy as possible, I filled the inside cavity with fishing weights (after removing the bearings, because keeping extra sets of bearings is an entirely different type of anal retentiveness), wrapped each one in a small piece of spandex, and secured it with two rubber bands. They look nice enough to leave out on the cutting table, and they don’t roll around (no pun intended) or move like regular pattern weights do thanks to their larger surface area.

"Free" pattern weights

“Free” pattern weights

If you don’t happen to have old roller skating wheels sitting around, you’re bound to have something from a past mania that you couldn’t bear to ditch. Also, the dollar store carries sets of very small food storage containers that would work well filled with sand and with the lids glued down. Firefly Fabrics sells these pattern weights in a variety of colors if you’re more inclined to purchase them than make them. The fabric can be removed in case they need to be cleaned (how you would get pattern weights dirty is sort of a mystery to me, but I remember sewing with four kids under seven, so really, I’m sure there’s a way), and since they’re gathered with rubber bands, they can be reconstructed simply and quickly.

Buy them at the bottom of the page!