Thursday, August 29, 2013

Finished: A Tulip for My Niece

Tulip baby sweater

Here's the little sweater I finished just in time for the baby shower for my niece-to-be, a lucky little girl who will be living on my brother's farm in Maine*, picking lots of blueberries, going camping and kayaking and wearing lots of soft snuggly woolen things.

The pattern: Tulips, a Colorful Cardigan for Baby, 9 month size. (Available as a PDF, or as part of a kit).

The yarn: Dream in Color Classy, bought as a kit with eight colors from Eat. Sleep. Knit.

Time taken: A bit over a month (but I was knitting and making lots of other things at the same time).

The exhaustive Ravelry details: Here.


This sweater was so fun and pretty to knit I almost felt guilty — going from stripe to stripe with the little seed stitch, fondling the pretty soft colors, making the little I-cord edge and ties. It was very well received by my brother and sister-in-law and all the baby shower guests. Here's a closeup:

Tulip baby sweater

My amazing mom of course made some really gorgeous decorations and tasty treats for the baby shower. My favorite were these allergy-free (for my daughter) chocolate cake pops, with no dairy, eggs, or nuts:

The completed allergy free chocolate cake pops at the baby shower for my niece to be. No dairy, eggs or nuts!

Little Z wore her Oliver + S wax-print dress, and I wore my Cake Patterns Tiramisu. Luckily neither fell victim to the chocolate frosting:


I can't wait to meet my niece!

*My brother is actually a civil rights lawyer, not a farmer, but he lives on a 40-acre farm in rural Maine in a house he and his wife designed themselves with a big garden and lots of ducks, chickens and cats. It's super awesome.

Quoted: When Clothing Was As Precious as Metal and Stones

Detail of a silk dress from the 1830s, from the American Textile History Museum in Lowell

"In the West, apparel has been expensive to produce and has therefore been a high-priced and valuable commodity for centuries. Once fashioned, garments had long and varied lives. A dress or jacket might be born as special occasion wear, then become a garment for indoor sociability, and eventually be worn (and worn out) while doing domestic chores... In some households, garments were turned into quilting squares... A piece of clothing might end its useful life as a rag, and literally turn to dust.

... From the seventeenth century through the mid-nineteenth century, apparel was a primary medium of exchange, second only to metals and precious stones."
--Economist Juliet Schor, in Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.

I came across this quote today in a book I was reading, and thought it tied in perfectly with our lively discussion and poll yesterday about the price—and value—of sewing today.

In contrast to the history of apparel, we have today's sad reality:

Bales of used clothing waiting to be turned into rags
"This history puts the nearly free gently worn garments of the early twenty-first century into sharp relief. The United States has been piling up mountains of clothing that have virtually no value... The production system drives businesses to use natural resources at hyperspeed, and the consumer system makes the resulting products redundant almost as fast. It's a recipe for disaster."

Plenitude (aka True Wealth) is not specifically about the fashion industry (for that, I'd recommend Overdressed), but Schor uses fast fashion and its devastating effects on workers and the environment as a case study for what has gone so wrong in our "business as usual" economy.

As a solution she presents her philosophy of plenitude, downshifting and sustainable living, which is in a large part about creating instead of consuming:

"The second principal of plenitude... is to diversify from the business-as-usual market and "self-provision", or make, grow or do things for oneself... Plenitude aspires to transform self-provisioning from a marginal craft movement into something economically significant."

I haven't finished the book yet, but I've always loved Schor's ideas—she was briefly my college women's studies advisor (before I switched majors to social anthropology and visual arts) and taught one of the most fun, engaging and thought-provoking classes I've ever taken, "Shop Til You Drop: Gender and Class in Consumer Culture."

I think I'll be grabbing those old wornout clothes and sheets I was going to take to be recycled and tearing them to use instead of paper towels!

So what do you think — now that clothing has been so devalued in our society, is there anything we can do to recover that value and respect for our garments? Is apparel doomed to lie on the dollar-a-pound pile of history? Will it ever again be precious as stones?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Does Sewing Save You Money—Or Bust Your Budget? (With Poll)

Does sewing save your money? Polka Dot Overload Poll.
Is sewing a frugal tool for looking fashionable on a budget... or just a hungry hobby demanding to be fed with pricey fabric and gadgets?

I know sewing could actually save me money. It's a basic tenet of most frugal philosophies that making is better than consuming. In theory. I could make quality clothes (and home items) for my family for way less than retail, scrounge for fabric at flea markets and swaps, repair and upcycle and alter and just generally defy the ready-to-wear retail lifestyle.

But in practice... whenever I am actually immersed in thinking about sewing and knitting, in reading all my favorite blogs and paging through Pinterest and Ravelry and picking up copies of Threads or Interweave Knits ... I start to feel like I NEED more sewing and knitting STUFF. Maybe a new presser foot for piping or bias binding. A bright floral knit in just THAT shade that I don't have in my already bulging stash drawers.

Another knitting needle set. A different weight of yarn.

A different kind of measuring tape. Striped elastic—the really soft kind!

Or maybe a bra-making kit—I could save so much MONEY by making my own bras! I just have to buy some specialty elastics... and lace... and...


I'm trying to change that, and I'm starting by listing the ways sewing HAS and HASN'T saved me money in the past. But first, I'd like to hear your experience. Please take the poll below and let me know: does sewing save YOU money?

And now...

Ways I have sewn on the CHEAP and SAVED money with sewing

  • By getting my machines used/secondhand. My serger was a gift left to me by my late grandmother, and I bought my Husqvarna Viking sewing machine used (for 50% of retail) with additional money she left me. (If I hadn't lucked into an inherited machine, I could have bought a vintage used machine.)
  • By swapping patterns and fabric with friends.
  • By sewing from the stash and choosing projects that work with my existing fabric and existing yarn.
  • By refashioning old clothes into new ones.
  • By mending my family's existing clothes — fixing tears, replacing lost buttons, hemming, replacing worn linings, even darning socks.
  • By altering the fit and style of old clothes to make them feel new again.
  • By making awesome Halloween costumes and then selling them on eBay right before Halloween the next year.
  • By making curtains and other soft household items.

Ways I have BUSTED the BUDGET and WASTED money with sewing

  • By buying way too many ill-fitting items at the thrift store with "potential" and planning to upcycle/refashion them... but never getting around to it.
  • By choosing sewing projects that require new fabric and can't be made from the stash.
  • By acquiring way too many "inexpensive" little gadgets and notions that really add up... special presser feet, special needles, special sewing lamps, special elastic, what a special headache.
  • By buying way more materials than my actual rate of sewing/knitting warrants—as much as 5 or 10 times as much as I could actually sew or knit in a given month.
  • By buying new when I could have bought used with a little more effort and creativity.
  • By subscribing to too many sewing magazines and buying too many sewing books and Craftsy classes (some of them unread/unwatched).

Going forward, I'm going to thing hard about all the above and work from a fixed sewing/knitting budget each month with the help of the YNAB budgeting software I mentioned previously (that sewing/knitting budget is currently $0, but I have a BIG stash, so that's hardly a hardship!).

So, take the poll and do tell in the comments: are you a frugal sewing god(dess) or a fancy sewing or knitting supplies fanatic? (And no shame, please... if you have the budget and the time to spend on a creative hobby you love, where's the guilt in that?)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Follow me on Instagram (or how I cut my cell phone bill AND got a smart phone)

Because I know you want to see blurry photos of me knitting baby sweaters on a bus.

For a long time I was a smartphone holdout simply because it just seemed anti-frugal. I already resented paying $95/month to Verizon for two flip phones on the cheapest plan available, and I wasn't about to let that dollar figure budge upwards.

But as part of my recent intense budgeting obsession I discovered we could switch to a no-contract provider, save $1,000+ over the next two years AND have smartphones. So my husband and I bought three-year-old refurbished Android phones on eBay and activated them with Ting (my $25 coupon referral code is here if you want it).

And now I can take pictures. Wherever. Whenever. And sort of pretend they are like Polaroids and put them on Instagram. Here are a few from the last few days...

A family history quilt my amazing mom sewed in 1974, focused on her grandparents from Pickwick, Tennessee. Note the sewing machine—of course:

A few of the baby shoes my mom has sewn for my niece-to-be:

My mom showing Z how she makes the slippers:

And non-sewing, but still making: baking allergy-free chocolate chip oatmeal cookies (no dairy, no eggs, no nuts):

So yes. Follow me on Instagram (and on my Facebook page, if you like).

P.S. Also: am I the last sewing blogger to get a smartphone? Are any of you other thrifty types still rocking flip phones or candy bars? As much as I love the camera and other capabilities, it still doesn't seem like a proper PHONE to me... but I'm sure I'll get use to it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Tutorial: Super Quick No-Elastic Knit Half Circle Skirt!

Super Quick No-Elastic Knit Skirt Tutorial by Polka Dot Overload

This skirt was so quick and easy it barely deserved a blog post, but then I thought I'd try my hand at making a Pinterest-friendly tutorial illustration for it. It truly took me just 15 minutes to sew — it has just five seams, after all.

15-minute polka dot skirt

I wasn't going to hem it at all, but it initially turned out 4 inches too long and a bit dowdy.

Skirt back

So I decided to hem it with a twin needle ... and my walking foot really chomped on the hem. Then when I was trimming off the excess I managed to stab three additional holes in the hem and had to hand-sew them shut. So no hem closeups this time!

And yes, I know I'm a black-&-white-&-polka-dot broken record. But I have a lot of this black & white ITY jersey in my stash, and I had already drafted the half-circle skirt for this dress that I wear constantly, using Patty the Snug Bug's handy calculator.

McCall's 6070 polka dot dress

This no-elastic waistband treatment is pretty common in ready-to-wear skirts—it's kind of like a yoga pants waistband. The key is giving it just the right amount of negative ease, or it will sag and bag around your midriff.

If you do give it a try, please leave a comment, I'd love to see your version!

P.S. If you don't want to draft the skirt yourself, just use a purchased half-circle skirt pattern like the Cake Patterns Tiramisu instead of the self-drafted skirt! Even EASIER.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Non-Toxic Beauty Routine Makeover #1: Safer Lipstick? (EDITED)

Urgent update folks: A super-smart commenter noted that the Colorganics brand I had researched a few years ago and had thought to be lead-free was in fact on the FDA's 2012 expanded survey list of products that did contain some lead. SO! I am after all going to need to do my research again, and go lipstick-free for a time. I will also contact the company about this.

The other brand I mentioned, Zuzu Luxe, states they test their products and are committed to selling lipsticks without lead contamination but I see some of their products on that survey list as well. So STAY TUNED.

Polka Dot Overload: Non-Toxic Lipstick Makeover before and after

Before: Turns out my L'Oreal lipstick was full of lead; After: Colorganics Hemp Organic lipsticks (shown here in Ruby) are made from hemp and beeswax and are allergen-free—but what about lead?

I'm giving my beauty routine a serious green makeover.

I've been going through all the personal care products my family uses one by one — from baby shampoo and eczema lotion to sun block to makeup and nail polish — and replacing them with non-toxic, allergy-free, organic and/or more sustainable alternatives.

These things can be challenging to find, so I'd thought I'd share my research — and some of my new favorite non-toxic beauty products and sources! Today's featured find: safe lipstick.

How this all started: A few years ago when I was pregnant — and extra-worried about what I was putting in or on my body — I watched this eye-opening short animated video, "The Story of Cosmetics: The Ugly Truth of Toxins In, Toxics Out".

So I took a close look at all the products in my medicine cabinet (with some help from the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database)... and immediately tossed most of them out. For a while I didn't have ANY makeup to wear (not good for a vintage-inspired look!), and I was washing my hair with organic baby shampoo.

Why the freak-out? Beauty and personal care products don't HAVE to be poisonous. But many mainstream makeup and bath products are loaded with toxic chemicals, carcinogens and nasty irritants ... and even serious toxins NOT listed on their ingredient labels, like lead.

A warning: Don't trust "natural" labeling. Words like "natural" and "eco" are pretty much meaningless and unregulated, and many brands practice "greenwashing"–marketing their products as safe or sustainable when they are anything but. (And if you are dealing with serious allergens—like we are in my house—many crunchy and natural companies fill their products with nut and sesame oils.)

Luckily there are a growing number of small cosmetics and personal care brands and companies that DO make safety and sustainability a priority. And some of those products are even allergen-free. So without further ado...

Found: Safer, Allergen-Free Lipstick?

Hemp Organics lipstick by Colorganics in Coral: made with hemp, beeswax, and other organic, allergen-free and GMO-free ingredients.

The problem: FDA testing has found many lipsticks are packed with deadly contaminants and carcinogens like lead and cadmium. These aren't ingredients listed on the label, but companies are not required to test their products for contamination — and most don't bother to. And take note — one of the top 20 offenders was a lip shimmer sold by "natural" favorite Burt's Bees.

My before lipsticks: I mostly used long-wearing lipsticks from Revlon and L'Oreal. Both brands featured heavily in the top 20 lead-containing lipsticks, so I just went lipstick-free until I found something safer.

The hunt: I prefer to test out lipstick shades in person, so I started with the Whole Foods Whole Body store near my office. But all the natural and organic lipsticks they stocked contained things my daughter was allergic too — like sesame or walnuts — and I wasn't about to stop covering her little cheeks in kisses just to look pretty.

I finally found what I was looking for at the beauty counter at Perelandra, a fantastic natural foods store in Brooklyn.

My after lipstick: Hemp Organics lipstick by Colorganics.

Here I am in the Ruby:

Cake Patterns Tiramisu Knit Dress in Candy Stripes -closeup

If you're not avoiding nuts or sesame like I am, your safe lipstick options are much wider. Another good option (for the non-sesame allergic) is Zuzu Luxe lipsticks (sold at Whole Foods Whole Body, Amazon or the company's own website). They even have some gluten-free options. I like this bright red shade, Starlet:

Edited to add: Gabriel Cosmetics (the makers of Zuzu) says they test for lead contamination—yet they appear on that expanded survey list as well. On their website FAQ, they indicate:

Q. Are your products lead free?
A. Yes. We have tight quality control policies and can assure that each product is tested during and after manufacturing for pH values, viscosity, microorganisms or any other contaminants.

I hope this post was helpful, rather than scary—everyone has to decide what level of risk they are comfortable with of course, and there's no way to make your life totally toxin free... but I think personal care products are a great place to start, since we slather so many of them directly on our skin each day, and well... lipstick gets in your mouth, too!

Recommended further reading, viewing, and action-taking

So, do you have a favorite non-toxic lipstick? Are you as frustrated as I am by how hard these things are to hunt down... and as angry that companies are selling us poisonous beauty products?

And what's with all the new "luxury organic" lipsticks that actually contain awful ingredients when you look into them more closely? BLECH.

Happy safe lipstick hunting! (Next time: safe nail polish.)

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for (and quite likely spent on yarn or fabric to be blogged here!).

Friday, August 2, 2013

A (Baby) Dress a Day + New Habits

Baby dresses by my amazing mom

So while I have been dithering over four unfinished objects in various stages of slow progress, I thought I'd share what my amazing mom has been sewing in the last... well, week. (Not jealous, not jealous, not jealous. Phew!)

Long-time readers may recall the time she sat down and sewed 67 cloth diapers while I was pregnant with her first grandchild. Those will be going to my soon-to-be niece along with some new wardrobe pieces.

Here's what my mom has to say about her new daily baby sewing habit:

I'm trying to stick to my fabric stash that I've been collecting since Z. A lot of the fabrics were from when I was making diapers for her.

Second, I'm using free patterns I found from this site: Sew Things for Babies.

Third, the fact that I'm using stashed fabric and free patterns which are piled up on my sewing table allows a little freedom as I go. I've also been limiting myself to one outfit a day.. so I enjoy it as I make it and don't get burnt out doing it.


This little baby is going to be living on my brother's farm up in Maine, hence the need for some snuggly swaddle wraps!

I think my favorites are the kimono-style dress above, and of course the polka dot dress. I think it might be leftovers from this little dress I made for Z...

FO: Aqua & Brown Polka Dot Baby Dress

So. Anyway, more stuff for you soon, but speaking of habits... I've been a bit busy the last few weeks working on developing some new habits of my own and returning to some old ones. Mainly:

  • Moving around. I have been ridiculously sedentary for the last, oh, four years. Sitting on the couch knitting is NOT exercise and was starting to feel kind of... yucky. So. I joined the NYC bike-sharing program and I've been commuting home from work. I was scared at first but I've found some good routes and now I'm addicted to it. I've also been doing more active play with my daughter on evenings and weekends. I feel... awesome. It's so weird!
  • Trying new recipes. I used to make so many things from scratch - pasta, bread, soups, desserts, even homemade cheese. But after we discovered my daughter's food allergies, we got into a rut working with limited time and ingredients ... and we've been cooking the same few allergy-safe meals OVER and OVER and OVER.

    So my husband and I have both made it a priority to plan meals ahead of time, try new recipes and adapt them for our restricted no-dairy, no-eggs, no-nuts, no-mustard and no-sesame household. We even got a slow-cooker and have been experimenting with soups and stews (not always successfully, I'm afraid).

  • Packing lunch. Every day. Eating deli sandwiches or soups for lunch isn't just expensive, it's kind of gross. I've packed my lunch in the evening (usually leftovers plus fresh fruit and veggies) every day for the last two weeks and I SO look forward to opening my PlanetBox every afternoon at lunchtime!
  • Keeping to a very tight budget. I'd been living under the delusion that we had already sliced our expenses to the bone, but when we really took a hard look, it just wasn't true. Money has just been flying out the window in little dribs and drabs — a movie here, a takeout meal there, a fabric purchase here. So we're using YNAB ($6 off referral code here) to do a total budget makeover... but until we can have more wiggle room, I'll be sewing and knitting from the stash ONLY. Which is not exactly a hardship, considering the size of my stash...

Phew! More soon. Have a lovely weekend, all!

P.S. I've set up a Facebook page for Polka Dot Overload if you prefer to read your blogs that way... come over and Like me if you like!