Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Sewing Origins

As a cartoonist I'm partial to origin stories. Here's mine--it's a bit long, but skip to the photos if that suits you.

25 weeks pregnant red pencil skirt remix!

Mikhaela here. I'm a (political) cartoonist and graphic designer, extremely pregnant (26 weeks!) and I recently recaptured my love of sewing with a vengeance after a five-year hiatus.

My grandmother's serger.

It all started with my grandmother's serger. Cartoonist Husband (also known as Masheka, see the painting in the background) and I were instituting a ruthless purge of our smallish Brooklyn apartment in preparation for Cartoonist Baby, and I came upon the Kenmore 2/3/4-thread serger that had sat unloved in a box in the closet since my beloved grandmother Melba died and left it to me.

I realize this is a heinous sewing crime, considering how many sewists yearn for a serger--but, dear imaginary readers, I was afraid. I had only used it once or twice under my grandmother's eye, and the manual and all those looper threads frightened me. Besides, she had also left me the money to buy a conventional sewing machine, and I had purchased a used Husqvarna Viking Platinum 730 and a handy compact Horn sewing cabinet which I could squeeze into the corner of my living room. This machine I understood--even if in recent years, she had only been used for hemming and assorted Halloween costumes.

Two Face from head to toeJulia (1984) and Teen Wolf IIIHalloween: Masheka as S. Jones from Reno 911, Mikhaela as Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica

1998: The "See & Sew" Era.

Now, I come from a family of sewists, quilters and knitters. My mother is an expert seamstress (teacher by day) who began making all her own clothes at the age of 10; she later made almost all of my and my brother's clothes for quite some time.

She started teaching me to sew at a young age, but I didn't go beyond the very basics until I found myself taking a semester off from Harvard, living at home, and working part-time loading packages onto trailer trucks at a UPS shipping hub. My friends were off at school, my parents were at work, and I had my hard-earned UPS dollars and access to my mother's Viking and a car. The sewing stars were aligned!

I remember clearly what I stitched up in the fall of 1998, though most of it has long since gone to Goodwill:

  • An ill-fitting (first FBA attempt!) princess-seamed green polyester gabardine "See & Sew" sheath dress.
  • A black tank top with poorly-stitched pink armhole trim.
  • An unwearable elastic-waist "2-hour skirt."
  • An unflattering pair of elastic-waist "2-hour pants."
  • A size 12 fitting sloper in gingham check--I made it, fitted it perfectly according to the instructions... but had no idea what it was actually for, except that all my sewing and fitting books said I should make one.
  • Finally, triumph--a fully-lined, well-fitting spaghetti-strapped surplice-neckline rayon challis ankle-length dress... in 90s-appropriate tiny floral print.
  • But the only survivor from this sewing era that I still have and wear frequently is my McCall's 1950s-style apron, with pockets--it's still my go-to kitchen apron (modeled below in 2005):
1950s-style sewing apron

Most of the patterns I purchased back then are gone as well, but my taste wasn't ALL bad--the below gems have made it through a multitude of pattern purges. One is still even in print. Maybe I'll even sew them someday!

Vogue 9668 Vogue 2316 Easy Options Dress

In the winter, I spent a week in Georgia with my grandmother Melba and we spent the whole week sewing and talking about sewing. She gave me serger lessons and lots of pointers and shortcuts, and we pored over her favorite notions and thread catalogs (and the 99-cent pattern assortment at her only local fabric source, Wal-Mart). I was DEEP into sewing obsession--until I went back to college sans sewing machine.

2004: Return of the (Husqvarna) Viking For the next six years, sewing was not on the radar--I finished up at Harvard, moved to Manhattan (then Brooklyn), and was seriously sewing-machine deprived. Then Melba died (cartoon remembrance here), leaving me her serger and money to buy a sewing machine. How could I NOT get back into sewing? My grandmother (and, with her, I imagined, her mother and her mother's mother...) was counting on me!

I resubscribed to Threads, took a class at Sew Fast, Sew Easy, began exploring the Garment District (Mood! Paron's! Daytona!) joined PatternReview, dug out my old patterns, fabric and books and began acquiring new ones at an alarming rate. I even subscribed to Burda World of Fashion, though I never got up the guts to actually trace anything.

Highlights from this period include:

  • The $2/yard polyester gored polkadot skirt. Thrifty remix 8_15_06
  • The lazy unhemmed no-elastic Simplicity chartreuse cotton lycra skirt. Simplicity 4672 skirt front view
  • The aqua and chartreuse New Look 6429 knit dress (again with the raw hems, due to fear of twin needles). Aqua and green jersey knit wrap dress
  • Finally, the real achievement: a fully-lined, perfectly-fitted blue wool tweed pencil skirt with hidden petersham waistband, invisible zipper and hand-sewn hem! (sorry I don't have a closeup, but I haven't fit into this lovely thing in a few years): Blue Wool Tweed Pencil Skirt (sewn from Sew Fast, Sew East computer fit pattern)

The Yarn Years

Mikhaela's Mixed Up Monkey Socks

But sewing without sewing friends can be a lonely pursuit, and cartooning is already solitary enough. Just as my stitchery was getting into proper gear, I joined a fabulous knitting group or two, made some amazing friends and Lost My Way. Knitting was so social, so portable (hello subway commute!), and so suddenly popular! My sewing cabinet began to gather dust and yarn began to displace fabric in my drawers. I read Interweave Knits instead of Threads and added dozens of knitting blogs to my RSS reader. I joined Ravelry and progressed quickly from scarves to hats to socks to sweaters to colorwork to... carpal tunnel.

Severe physical-therapy-requiring carpal tunnel. I had to cut back to knitting only the one or two hours per week in knitting group, but it didn't even occur to me that perhaps it was a sign I had been giving my precious few hours of free time to the Wrong Craft.

2010: Back in Sewing Love

And so back to the present day, and that neglected serger. Our apartment purging rule was "use it or lose it" and I decided to use it. I hauled it in for servicing to Sew Right in Queens via a 1.5 hour subway/bus ride, took a one-day serger class, made a really ugly sweatshirt and a simple baby onesie... then a skirt, then a top...

And here I am a month and a half later, completely and totally obsessed and wondering how I ever could have stopped. In the next few days I'll be posting my recent pattern reviews, but for now my mother and I are off to the fabric store.

Update! My mother went into her Mikhaela archives and found my first skirt!

My first skirt!

Full details here.


  1. You MUST sew the vogue 9668. Can not say enough good things about it.

  2. Oh I SO will... when I'm not pregnant anymore. I thought about trying to adapt it for maternity (here's a sketch) but I'll probably just wait!

  3. Great story Mikhaela! I've been seduced by many other crafts but it always comes back to sewing...

  4. This is a terrific story. What a chic pregnant woman you are in that top photo! (I wish I'd found something that looked that good on me when I was 27 weeks pregnant...) And I actually bought that McCall's apron dress pattern really recently. It takes like 4 yards of fabric, if I'm not mistaken. Looks great on you - hope it's not too difficult to put together...

  5. Hi Mikhaela, I've just found your blog and added it to my reading list. I love your colourful (sic - I'm British) taste in clothes and hope that if I become pregnant I'll be as stylish as you. I love your cartoons too - in particular 'Gay marriage drove us to divorce'!


I'd love to hear from you! But no ads please--I'll just have to delete them.