Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Crafting outside my comfort zone

So I am old enough at this point, and I know myself well enough, not to take custom orders for items I am not already making. Please know, I love to customize the colors or size of an existing product to suit a buyer's request, no problem! But after years of regretting taking on projects outside my purview or skill set or even interest level, I have perfected the polite refusal. Except once in a while something slips past my carefully guarded perimeter and I find myself in over my head, avoiding a sure pay-day in the form of a custom request I have no idea if I can complete. This project was one of those clever monsters.

Years ago I had an idea to full old wool sweaters, cut them into squares and needle felt them together at the joins to form a scarf. No sewing! I made exactly two of these scarves before I realized that the labor involved in the needle felting alone was going to make a finished piece so costly, the market wouldn't bear it (still mortified at how much I had to charge a friend who requested one).

While I was still deciding this, I had the prototype scarf on display in my studio. A local guy saw it and loved it, especially the piece I showed him on the scarf that was cashmere, mmm, soft. He volunteered that he had some old cashmere sweaters that he would love to give me for crafty pursuits. Hell yes I said!

Probably a year passed before the gentleman showed up at October Open Studios with two gorgeous but stained or punctured cashmere sweaters. Somehow, I'm not sure what happened, by the time he left I was consigned to making him a scarf with them. Oops.

Not only had I discovered by then that I didn't think the needle felting project was a good idea, I also learned that while cashmere turns soft and lovely once washed and dried in machines, it does not full or felt. I realized I would be sewing this scarf together and my sewing knowledge is only basic to be sure. We hadn't discussed design, price, anything. A custom order specifics FAIL.

It was almost the holiday show season and I had to put the project aside to concentrate on getting ready for shows. Come January though, the project was still waiting for me so I started thinking about it again.

Fortuitously, soon after I started designing the scarf in my head, I found myself at a crafty meet-up with the brilliant human-wiki-of-wool-sewing, Mimi Kirchner. I asked her a few questions about sewing cashmere into scarves and she generously showed me (on the handmade cashmere sweater scrap scarf she happened to be wearing!!) how she made the seams and edged the finished scarf. I knew I had my information and there was no more putting off the task.

Here's a drawing I made of the seam Mimi described to me:

I laid out the sweaters and, heart pounding, cut them apart with a rotary trimmer and a straight edge.

Until I had a nice stack of pieces.

I figured out the tension needed on my machine to make the stitches work and started piecing squares together.

After I sewed the flat seams I trimmed the excess, the cut edge side would be the front.

I figured I would do a test run with smaller scraps, but the block turned out so well I decided to use it as the beginning piece.

I sewed all the seams as Mimi had shown me, and the piece started to come together. It was looking really sharp and I started to think I might be pulling this stunt off.

However, when it came time to edge the scarf I ran into big problems. My Singer loved sewing two and three thicknesses of cashmere together but doing a binding seam on the single layer at the edge was not working out. The tension was wrong and no matter what I tried the edge looked terrible. I found out later from a helpful sewer that my difficulty was probably from using a dull needle in the machine. But while still muddling along I tried at least three different edging methods, eventually tearing them all out.

Sitting with a pile of ragged threads and an almost finished scarf in my lap, I decided to hand sew a blanket stitch along the edge. At this point, I knew the labor I had put into it was well beyond what the finished product would be worth, I was working for free now. I just wanted to give my customer a finished piece he would love and that I could be proud of. I started the blanket stitch by hand but I didn't like the irregularity of it. It had a folksy quality I didn't think went with the sleek, DIY hipster vibe the scarf had going for it so far.

That's when I had my light bulb moment. I ran over to Lush Beads across the hall and bought the tiniest crochet hook Liz had which is normally used for bead crochet. The hook was so small and pointy I could easily push it through the cashmere. I tried it and it worked so I ended up crocheting the entire edge of the scarf!

Yes it took forever, but man I love crocheting and I enjoyed the work. Because I crochet much more than I hand sew, I was able to make the stitches very uniform and neat, also loose enough so the edge didn't ruffle and remained manly.

I finished the scarf and fondled it triumphantly. I was proud of it, I was pretty sure he was going to love it, and after weeks of agony, I had solved a puzzle that threatened to defeat me. At the same time I discovered that I love crocheting into cashmere or wool, a technique I am incorporating into new products right now.

It was February when I emailed my customer who showed up at the very next Open Studios. Months after dropping off his cashmere, he was worried too! He told me later he had decided that if he didn't like what I had come up with he was going to tell me no harm, no foul, keep the scarf and the sweater scraps and it was worth a try, no hard feelings.

But he LOVED it! And it looked great on him. Success! I would end this story with a vow of never again, but I have to go finish a drawing I promised someone. Even though I don't normally do custom portraits. Yeah, I know.


  1. You had me on the edge of my seat there for a while. I'm glad you worked out a solution that will lead to new products. Gotta love that!

  2. Wow, the scarf is gorgeous!

    I agree with you on accepting custom orders. I've said no to many because I simply didn't have my heart in the design or changes that were being asked of me. But, it is that occasional 'challange' that comes my way that produces something wonderful like your scarf! Never say never, right?!

  3. Your scarf is just beautiful! I'm not a big fan of scarves--just one more thing to lose--but your project produced such a lovely result, I may have to change my mind about them. That scarf is an accessory and a half!

  4. Been there, done that, with custom orders too. I will never make a diaper bag again! hehe :D But sometimes great little moments happen and can be a great sources of inspiration. Brilliant! Thank so much for sharing your awe-inspiring crafting journey :D:D:D Can't wait to see what you do with crocheting into cashmere :)

  5. Hi Liz -- This read like a detective story. I loved how you tried different ideas until you found one that worked. Beautiful ending product!

  6. I agree - there's something about custom orders that suck the fun out of the job before it even begins - I think it's the anxiety as to whether your expectations/preferences and the client's are one in the same. But then there's that occasional client who surprises you by loving everything you do! Nice job.

  7. Great tutorial! You drew out the stitching perfectly. Nothing better then a happy customer and some new ideas to pursue :-)
    and, Thanks for the new Mimi name- maybe I should get myself a nametag!

  8. Boy do I love that scarf!! I am a crocheter too, and I DID know how to sew years ago, but I don't like to machine sew at all!!! I'm impressed with your 'stick-to-ativeness!'

  9. This blog post is a rare gem. I was in your studio when the scarf was picked up, and I saw the delighted smile on the face of the client, and the huge grin of relief on yours.