Lately I’ve received an exciting commission–a dress for the coordinator of the San Francisco TED talks.  She’s also the MC for the event, so not only will she be onstage several times during the day, she’ll be on video.  DUH IT HAS TO BE PERFECT.

The contour fitting dress is made from a heathery grey wool blend ponte knit with deep aquamarine suede contrast piping in the seams.  Yesterday afternoon she came over for a fitting, and Va Va Voom!!!!  I wish I could show you pictures, but you’re just going to have to wait until after the event to see it.  But here’s my practice sample so you can get an idea of what’s going on:

sew leather piping

I don’t work much with leather.  It has some properties that make working with it a very different experience than working with most fabrics, and I’m only remotely familiar with some of the techniques.

There’s no way to pin it all together because of the leather–any pin or needle holes will be permanent.  You can use paperclips or bulldog clips, but I don’t have any of those.  Nor do I have any double sided tape to fold the piping in half and keep it that way.  Additionally, this method necessitates silicone needle lube to keep the needle from gumming up when it pierces the tape inside the piping–don’t have any of that either.  Nor do I have a walking foot for my machine, and if you have ever sewn on leather you know how much it stretches and moves–a walking foot keeps this migration from occurring.

My client was coming over the following day, so I needed to come up with a solution.  Something I tell my students regularly is that sewing isn’t always about knowing the proper technique–it is about problem solving.  You really do have to puzzle it out for yourself sometimes.

Here’s what I came up with.

You will need:
Teflon presser foot
wax pencil
leather needle

Step 1: Determine the Width of your Piping
Figure out the width of your piping.  Add the width of your seam allowance to the desired width of your piping.  Then double that.

 For instance, my seam allowance is 3/8″.  I want a small piping of 1/8″.   3/8″+1/8″ = 1/2″.
1/2″x 2 = 1″  so my piping should be 1″ wide.

HOWEVER.  I am going to add another 1/8″ to my 1″ total to compensate for the fold.  If I were working with a thin crisp easily ironable fabric such as shantung or muslin, I might skip this step, but not for leather.  So the final width on my piping will be 1&1/8″.

Step 2: Cut your Piping
I use a rotary cutter and clear plastic quilting guide.
I also like to draw an arrow onto the hide with a wax pencil.  Leather has a grain.  It isn’t like fabric grain, but I’m working with suede.  I want all the piping to be on the same grain (pointing up or down) on the dress.  Otherwise the coloration could be off.  Kind of like when you stroke velvet one way and it looks one color–stroke it the other way and the color changes.

leather grain

As soon as I finish cutting one piece of piping, I mark the arrow on the next one.  When I sew the garment, I make sure that all the arrows are facing either up or down.

Step 3:  Stitch Piping on to one side of the fabric.
Compared to most knit fabrics, the ponte knit that we are using is fairly structured.  A wool, lycra, and something else (poly I think) blend.  A less firm fabric will probably not work very well.

Use a teflon presser foot so that the foot doesn’t pull and stretch the leather.  This is one of the main challenges when working with leather on a home machine, so this part is really important.  This also means that you don’t have to use baby powder on your leather, which can be messy.

teflon presser foot

The fabric needs to be on the bottom touching the feeddogs.  The leather will be on top touching the teflon foot.  Make sure everything is right sides together.

Also use a leather needle.  These have a tiny blade in addition to the needle point to help slice through the leather rather than just puncturing it.

Last, your needle position should be a click towards the edge.  So if my seam allowance is 3/8″, I line up the edges of the fabric and leather with the 3/8″ groove on the throat plate, but I adjust the needle position so that it is slightly right of center (or left of center if your raw edge is on the left).  Your machine might not have as many needle position options as mine, so you might need to compensate with the position of your fabric rather than the position of your needle.

needle position

Step 4: Mark your Notches
See that little tiny clip by my finger?  That’s the notch.  You might be used to seeing something that looks more like this if you are used to commercial patterns instead of industry.

professional sewing notch

Your notches MUST line up.  To achieve this, find the notch and use your wax pencil or crayon to mark its location.  Then directly across from that make another mark.  The notch on the other piece of fabric will align here.   Repeat this for each notch on the seam, and also the top and bottom.

leather notch

Step 5: Stitch Piping to the other piece
Line up the notches on the piping with the notches on the matching piece.  Sew the piping to the fabric in the same way as step 3, with the piping on the top and the fabric on the bottom.

Step 6: Complete the Seam
On the wrong side, fold the piping in half so that the notches meet.  Sew seam at your proper seam allowace.  Don’t forget to readjust your needle position back to center.

control seam bubbling

See the bubbling next to the foot?  If your fabric starts to do this as a result of being pushed by the presser foot, you can control this with a pin like so:

control seam bubbling

Step 7: Steam the seam to the correct side
I didn’t place the iron directly on my fabric with any pressure, but I did use steam to push my seams towards the center front and center back respectively.

That’s it!  I hope this is helpful!  If you have any questions, or if it seems like I left something out or need to expand any explanations please let me know.


For years now I have been terrified of the production process.  I’ve read books, taken classes, and developed numerous designs that I would like to have made.  I’ve also heard horror story after nightmare regarding the pitfalls of manufacturing.  ESPECIALLY for naive beginners.  

Why am I even saying that?  Betsey Johnson recently declared bankruptcy, and that was AFTER Steve Madden, who acquired the brand in 2010, excused a $48 MILLION DOLLAR LOAN.  

Did you hear me?  

If people with this many years of experience and this much money are failing…  well, clearly the prospect is more than intimidating.


I am a brave lady who does not like to shy away from challenges.  And so when my dear friend Dusty (also a production virgin) said that she was going to be manufacturing a small run of gorgeous stretch velvet super bootie skirts, I asked if I could jump on her bandwagon.  
super bootie skirt

One of the biggest advantages of this is that we can split the fabric cost.  Dusty’s skirts take up a lot of fabric.  My tops  need very little.  In fact, in the cutting layout (called a marker), my tops fit very neatly in between her skirts, so they actually took up no extra room, fitting in what would have been the scraps had she done this by herself. 

Also, having someone else to go through this with made the process less daunting.  And Dusty is what I would call GOOD COMPANY.   

Mistake #1
Our cutter told us that we needed to order our fabric before he would create the marker.  Presumably this is because he didn’t believe us when we said that our useable width was 58″.  So we estimated our fabric needs based on making one garment.  We knew that we’d have economy of scale but no realistic idea of how much.  
The result is that we ended up with way more fabric than we needed.   This ended up not being a terrible thing because we had enough to do another run, but that is another story.

Lesson #1
GET YOUR MARKER MADE BEFORE YOU ORDER YOUR FABRIC.  Is this always the way to do it?  I can’t say–I am sure there are reasons to order the fabric first, but not in our case, which is a very small run.  
Mistake #2
The fabric, all 224 yards and 7 colors of it, was delivered to her house, wrapped in opaque protective plastic.  Did we at least cut open a little window to check the colors like smart little girls?  NO.  NO WE DID NOT.  So when we picked up our leftover fabric  from the cutter, all the colors that we ordered were there except for one.  Instead of the olive green velvet that we had ordered, we had a taupe, very much like a raw umber Crayola–remember those?

Lesson #2
Check your inventory as soon as you receive it.  Our source would certainly have let us exchange it.  Luckily we liked the color, and it sold well.  But what if we’d gotten canary yellow or something?  

Another problem that I had was that my top has a contrasting fabric band around the bottom.  My top is a pull-over.  Which means that all the fabric has to stretch enough  to get over the shoulders.  Just because a fabric has elasticity does not mean that it has equal stretch on the straight grain and the cross grain (horizontally and vertically).  This is just one reason that you need grainlines on your pattern pieces, which I did.  

However, when I got my sewn tops back, the band was very tight.  You can still get the tops on, thank goodness, but they do not have the right stretch–the cutter cut them on the cross-grain instead of the straight grain.  I asked my sewer why she didn’t call me, and she said it was because there was still stretch–she would have if there was no stretch.  

Mistake #3
I did look at the plotted pattern pieces after the cutter had digitized and graded (made the different sizes) them, but I didn’t look carefully enough.  Had I done so, I would have seen that the grainline was erroneous.  

Lesson #3a
Check your plots carefully.
Lesson #3b
Draw your grainline with a black sharpie.  Make it so that nobody with half a brain could miss it.  Not that my grainline wasn’t legible in the first place.  This is incontrovertibly the cutter’s fault. But I am finding that everything must be crystal clear, or you can expect problems.  Nay–you can depend on them.

Would you like to see the fruits of our labor?  
You can purchase the tops here and the skirts here, and we’re offering a deal if you want to buy a matching set–details are in the listings.
asian costume

chinese costume

asian top
chinese top
chinoiserie costume
opium den costume


Black Swan Tutu

One of the perks to being an instructor at Academy of Art University is that I get to take a free class every semester.  So far I’ve taken knitwear 1 in which I learned basics knitting machine techniques, and at present I’m taking Intro to Apparel Manufacturing online.  I am dying to take the entire series of knitwear courses but haven’t yet been able to take level 2 because it has conflicted with my teaching schedule.

A new course was offered in Spring 2010–The Classical Tutu.  This may have been one of the most rewarding classes I have ever taken in my my entire life.  Jean Lamprell teaches it, and I have to say, it is a gift to the world that she does this.  There are very few people in the world who know how to do it and do it well, and there are fewer as time marches on.

The bodice is a base layer of cotton coutil covered in polyester satin.  The tutu itself is made from 10 layers of special tutu netting which is hand pleated, not gathered, to knickers made from cotton bobbin net.  It took the whole semester to build the tutu, and even then I wasn’t finished.  I still had to decorate it.

sewing classical tutu

I used a black chantilly for the edging, sequin trim to outline the the swan’s bill, and the black dot and black sequin stripe is just cheap stuff from the local fabric store.  Here’s the bodice before I decided how to orient the lace–these were my two choices.  I ended up going with the first:

classical tutu bodice

The buttons are vintage glass, and they have a smooth center that is surrounded by tiny little divits.   At the suggestion of Miss Rhinestone Queen herself, I found point-back rhinestones that fit into the hollows perfectly, which is how I made the eyes and the little button bridge across the top of the bill.

tutu decoration

Sandi also helped me decide what color rhinestone to use on the costume.  I had originally though I was going to use jet black rhinestones, but when I bought a package and laid them out on the tutu, there just wasn’t enough sparkle.  They just kind of blended in and didn’t differentiate enough from the black shine of the sequin trim or sequin fabric.  But the clear crystal rhinestones were too contrasty.  She suggested the black diamond color, which are a smoky grey.

I’m telling you, it was like sparkle magic.  They were the perfect blend of subtle and POP!!!  From some angles, you can’t even tell that they’re there, and then the light hits them from another angle, and it is like tiny water droplets on a swan’s feathers.  At least, that’s what I think 🙂

Black Lotus Christina, who is also part of Salome’s Suitcase  had the smarts to create a little photo setup backstage at Shadowdance, and she took this picture as well as the one at the top:

Black Swan Costume

As soon as we get the other photos and video from the fashion show, I’ll post the second part of this.  And I can’t wait to see Black Swan 🙂