Sunday, May 17, 2009

Seat of the Pants

I'm not all that fussy about appearances, and my house is furnished in "Early American Hand-Me-Down, Kids-and-Hobbies". However, I had to do something about the dining room chairs when their covers started ripping from long wear. The table-and-chairs set was left to us by an old housemate when he moved out, and he had bought them at a garage sale before that. They are perfect for our casual lifestyle of feet on the furniture, food spilling, painting, leather working and sewing at the kitchen table. So they were already ugly, but the rips made them uncomfortable too.

In keeping with my waste-not-want-not leanings, and because my friends are still giving me their worn-out jeans (Yay! Keep it up!), the perfect material was obvious: recycled denim! I had also recently bought a book at a silent auction, "The New Sampler Quilt" by Diana Leone, and making sampler blocks for the chair covers seemed like a project I might be able to finish in a reasonable time (where "reasonable" is defined as "less time than the still-unfinished Jeans Circle Quilt from Hell").

The Jeans

For my six chairs, I used the legs of 10 pairs of adult jeans. Four pairs of varying colors (black, dark blue, medium blue, light blue) went to form the quilt blocks. Then I used one pair of legs for the surrounding sections on each chair.

The jeans pocket sections went to the middle school for a group making bags for a school project.

Finding the Grain

Quilt tops work better if the pieces are cut on the grain of the fabric. The grain of reused jeans isn't always obvious because of the diagonal pattern of the denim weave, so I found the grain by pulling off thread after thread (fraying the denim) until I had a straight edge I could work from. Fortunately I had plenty of excess on the jeans legs.

The Squares

Each chair has a different classic quilt square design. I did Wheel, Spools, Ohio Star, Monkey Wrench, King's X, and Card Trick (the hands-down favorite of the household--it's the one behind the dog).

I made templates from the patterns in the sampler book, traced with kids' washable markers and cut them out, and machine pieced them following the instructions in the book.

Once the squares were pieced, I sewed on the fabric from a pair of legs around the square to make the background. I washed the covers after that to get rid of the washable marker.


I used batting left over from a previous project. For the quilt backing, I reused six small flannel receiving blankets (complete with Pooh or teddy bear pictures!) that I had left from when my two kids were newborn babies. This would never be visible, but it wouldn't hurt to have something sturdy but soft wrapped around the padding and the wooden seat bases.

I machine quilted the three layers "in the ditch" along the seam lines between the square design pieces so the sewing wouldn't be very visible.

House of Foam

Padding matters. I got a couple of different "chair-sized" pieces of padding at the local fabric/crafts store. These were two inches thick. One was Airtex High Density Foam. The other was Poly-Fil NU-Foam, which is a compressed polyester fiber pad. Unfortunately they were too small for my chairs, but my family sat on them for a week or so to try them out. I found they were too thick to fit well under the backs of the chairs, but they weren't firm enough. When we sat on them, we'd go right down to the wood surface beneath.

I went to a place called House of Foam in Palo Alto, CA. The proprietor suggested 1" thick high resilience (HR) foam, which he said is the usual one he sells for dining room chairs. It cost about $12 per chair (just slightly more than the same amount of the other padding types would have cost), but as his website says, "Generally the firmer the foam, the longer its firmness will last, and the more expensive it is." However, what I got from House of Foam was definitely the right stuff. They even cut it to shape and glued it onto the the chair seats for me while I ate lunch across the street, making it well worth it for me to go to such a specialty shop.

Putting It Together

I cut off the excess from the quilted covers, then I sprayed the covers with a coat of Scotchgard in the (probably vain) hope that the covers would stay cleaner longer. I used a staple gun to attach the cover over the foam and around to the bottom of the wooden seat pieces. Each seat was then attached to the chair legs and back with four screws, so that part was easy.

Here is the finished set of chairs.

New Beginning and the End

Interestingly, when I removed the previous covers from the wood, I found that these chairs had been recovered at least twice before (old staples and tacks, shreds of two other fabrics). It feels kind of nice to be carrying on a tradition of reuse, and not just throwing something away because it was old. I did, however, grit my teeth and throw out the old cotton padding and fabric covers. They had done their share of service.

Gratuitous Dog Pictures

I managed to sneak in one or two blog entries without dog pictures, but this entry required a lot of pictures, and Lacey now comes running if she even hears the camera turn on.

She's a big help!

She looks like this chair is made for her.

After all, since I have to let my kids sit on these chairs, why not the dog? The kids are often messier!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Shoe Mania, Part 4: They're Multiplying!

I was so pleased and excited by the results of my first pair of sandals that I immediately started on three more pairs. I had another design that I wanted to make for myself, and of course both of my daughters wanted some too.

Younger Daughter's Pair: Fancy Thong Sandals with Horse Head Conchos

My younger daughter flipped through the "Sandal Making" book and selected a thong style. Of course she wanted a small modification to the style to make it just what she wanted. She wanted a horse head decoration in the middle of the shoe. Tandy had some matched right- and left-facing horse head conchos that were just the thing.

I cut out the bottom soles and heels for her shoes. Her shoe size is about a kids' size 2, and it took about a square foot of saddle skirting leather.

It's easy to make a long oblong slot for a wide strap even if you don't have a big enough punch. Simply punch a second (or third) time, overlapping the ends of the hole, as in the following picture.

The colors and dyeing process were pretty similar to what I did with my first pair. With her pair, however, she wanted the sole to be black. No problem. After dyeing, I cleaned the pieces with Lexol and treated them with carnauba creme (wax). Since I was going to be gluing the straps to the soles, I didn't treat the whole pieces with the wax. I used the tape to show where I didn't need wax.

Fitting her shoes took repeated efforts, since I had to align the toe straps with the conchos and the riveting and make it fit around her foot properly. I did a fair amount of skiving on both the soles and the strap ends for her shoes so she wouldn't have huge lumps where the double layer of straps went under her (lack of) arch (I marked the skived areas with chalk in the picture below). I didn't bother with padding.

For my first pair I had used nails to reinforce the connections between the straps and the soles after I had glued them with Tandy's contact cement. For this new pair, I used rivets and cement. I also skived the straps, shaving off some of the blue and green dyed layers, so they wouldn't have such noticeable edges under the foot.

Next, I glued on the sole, avoiding putting cement on the back strap, which is supposed to slide.

For this pair of sandals, I wanted to try stitching around the edges of the sandals instead of nailing on the sole. The stitching gives a neater, more finished look to the sandals. The first step is to mark a dotted line of dents using an overstitcher that gives 5 stitches per inch.

I then used a Number 51 drill bit (just smaller than 1/16th of an inch) to drill holes through the soles. I was using a hand-held corded drill. It took 40 minutes for me to drill all around the two child-sized sandals, and my hands and arms were aching by the time I finished. Unfortunately, it was hard to drill straight down through the soles, so the bottom line of holes (and the resulting stitch line) wavered quite a bit. I drilled right through the heels as well.

We used two-needle stitching (my daughters both did some). I found helpful information on this on the web, particularly on the Back Room Leather website. I used waxed nylon sewing awl thread from Tandy. The stitching took about three hours.

We tried various methods to smooth the edges of the sole. Here my younger daughter is using sandpaper wrapped around a small block of wood to sand the edges of her sandals. She is using a "lacing pony" to hold the sandal while she works. The sandpaper-around-wood worked, but it was very slow, and it didn't work on parts that curved inward (the arch area). I also used coarse sandpaper cylinders attached to a mandrel on my drill. That worked better.

Once the stitching and trimming steps were done, I dyed the edges black to match the inner sole.

I don't want the shoes to be slippery, and I want to protect the stitching from wear, so I put a layer of SoleTech 3.5 on both the heels and the main part of the soles.

I had learned my lesson from the first pair of sandals, so I cut the SoleTech pieces a bit large and then trimmed them off after gluing the pieces to the sandals.

Here are the finished sandals:

Here is the front view:

I think the horse head conchos were an inspired piece of design on my daughter's part. She gets comments all the time about how cool they are. I hope she doesn't outgrow them in a month, but if she does, I can always make her another pair!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Polyester and Cotton

I recently got a question on my review of the Tulip tie-dye kit as to why everyone recommends 100% cotton items for tie-dyeing.

The reason for the 100% rule (down to 80% cotton usually works fine too) is that polyester fibers are, when you get right down to it, plastic. Think about the polyester fleece now made from recycled soda bottles (such as that in Patagonia products), and you have the idea. The Procion dyes used in the Tulip kits (as well as Dharma and Jaquard) wash right off of plastic (gloves, table covers, etc.). So that's what happens with your shirts. If you look closely at the cotton/poly, you should be able to see white fibers after washing the excess dye out. That's the polyester.

Here are some examples. The following picture shows a rag I use to clean up my dye spills (thus the mottled colors). It's a piece of thermal underwear that is a cotton/poly blend.

Here is a closeup of the same piece. The white threads are the polyester. The cotton has taken the dye.

It's almost impossible to find pure cotton socks, since synthetics such as polyester and nylon help the socks wear much better. Also, any elastic used in the socks will be non-cotton itself and probably covered in polyester or nylon. The trick is to find socks that hide the polyester or other synthetics as well as possible. Usually you will have to try dyeing a pair to see how they work, since it's impossible to tell the difference when the socks are still white.

This sock shows a lot of synthetic content in the foot, but less in the folded-down cuff. If you like the heathery mismatched look, it's fine.

This sock dyes quite well. The foot is only a little heathery, and the outside of the slouch cuff hardly shows white at all.

Here is the closeup. Note that the elastic around the cuff is fairly well hidden on the inside. You can see the white flecks in the foot area.

Here are two turtlenecks I dyed. The one on the left is 100% cotton, and the one on the right is 60%cotton/40%polyester. The turquoise and navy shades are supposed to be the same in both shirts.

You can't quite see the white threads here because they are so fine and well interspersed with the cotton, but it's definitely the polyester making this shirt so faded looking.

This is where the turtleneck attaches to the poly-blend shirt. The turtleneck is a somewhat different blend from the shirt body, and it contains 10% spandex. It is also a different weight and knit from the body. Note that the two different blues are the different fabrics' reaction to the same dye color. There is no way I could have intentionally dyed these different shades with such a clean line between them!

The following is the 100% cotton shirt. Note that in both this and the previous shirts, the stitching is pure white. It's polyester. For most shirts, nobody would notice, or if they did, they would think that it's intentional contrast stitching. However, this is why Dharma notes on almost all of their garment blanks whether they are stitched with polyester thread (they often say "Not cotton thread"). For some garments, visible white stitching would be an unwelcome surprise.

Dyeing Polyester

Dyeing polyester requires different types of colorants, since most fabric dyes just wash off the fiber. Dharma offers one type of dye for polyester but it requires hot water, and it usually needs to be simmered on the stove. Since I'm more of a natural fiber fan, and I'm too lazy to use anything other than the cold-water Procion dyes, I haven't tried it myself.

Respect the Blends

Keep in mind that you can get interesting effects using the cotton/poly blend fabrics, such as the patterned effect on the thermal underwear knit. I've seen tops in stores recently where the fabric is knit in stripes or patterns of cotton followed by polyester blend, providing a very cool arrangement of strong and pale colors. Also, if you like pale pastels, blended fabrics give you an easy way to do it.