Monday, 23 March 2015

Alabama Chanin Samplers

At the end of last year/start of this year I picked up the Alabama Chanin books after thinking about them for quite a while. There were quite a few bloggers doing AC type clothes and other projects last year and I thought it might be interesting. I first used the templates back in December to make a couple of embellished woven tote bags, just as a trial of the ideas (although all the AC book projects and recommendations involve using knits, so I used slightly different techniques for the reverse appliqué).

At the moment, I am not keen to embark on any actual AC style garment sewing. This is not because I dislike the sewing part of it -- except for that squares appliqué, see below, which drove me bonkers -- but for two reasons: first, I have to admit to a reluctance to make anything takes a really long time to make when my weight is changeable. I am all for sewing for the body you are in right now and not delaying sewing things until you're some mythical "right size" to make something you want. Plus, even when my weight is in flux, it doesn't swing too hugely. In the normal course of things, therefore, when most garments only take a week or maybe two at most to finish, I don't let my changeable weight worry me too much when I am sewing (though it does deter me from sewing much more than a few weeks ahead of the next season). However, given that there seems to be an overall direction to my current changeableness, starting something that takes ages that will fit when I start and might not remotely fit when I finish seems pointless.

The other reason I am hesitant about making an actual garment at the moment though, is that I am undecided about the Alabama Chanin thing overall as a look. I have loads of AC stuff pinned on my Alabama Chanin Pinterest board, and every time I go through the pins I find the garments I've chosen to save really appealing and desirable. But then I think about the actual clothes I wear on a daily basis and the overall aesthetic I like to present the most... and I'm not really sure how the AC clothes would fit in at all. Sometimes the AC thing looks kind of "suburban art teacher living up to a mild reputation as an eccentric" which apart from the suburban part is so very not me. I feel like I still need to work out what it is about the things I've saved that I find so interesting and appealing, and then, I guess, try to spin it into something I would actually wear.

In the meantime, however, I wanted to have a go at some of the the actual sewing, all my doubts and queries notwithstanding. The books suggest making samplers of some of the techniques using scraps of appropriate jersey fabric, and since I had a couple of pieces of cotton jersey in my pile of scraps, I did precisely that. I made a long list of the techniques, ideas, whatever that are in the AC books and also that are represented in other photos of AC clothing/accessories that I've seen, and I planned out five different samplers, pictured below along with some of the garments/inspiration photos that I used to help me pick out samplers to try.
Classic reverse appliqué using "Falling Leaves" template
The first sampler is kind of classic Alabama Chanin and therefore not really all that interesting. The Falling Leaves template is one of the least complex in the books, and it's done here in reverse appliqué, with running and backstitch in various different colours. This was quicker to stitch than I expected, but the cutting away of the inner pieces was more awkward and fiddly than I anticipated (and resulted in me forking out for a proper, pointy and very sharp pair of embroidery scissors later on). My main discovery from this was that I prefer the low contrast stitching to the high contrast, and that mixing high and low contrast stitching makes it hard to see the actual stencil pattern -- your eye is drawn to try to make sense of a pattern in the similarly outlined leaves (there isn't one) rather than seeing the shape of the stencil.

On the left: an AC polka dot blanket from their website; on the right, my sampler of the same technique using the Medium Polka Dot template
The polka dot template is very basic (and it comes in three printable sizes on the AC website). The AC books call this particular look "3D appliqué" because it mixes classic appliqué (on my sampler second row down), reverse appliqué (1st and 4th row) and stitching on the flat (3rd row). To do this properly you should use a stencil and paint the fabric as well (as you can see in the image on the right, where the grey circles are), but I did not. It would definitely have been more interesting if I had. I actually quite like how this looks, but again, cutting away the reverse appliqué neatly proved to be difficult (as you can tell from the photo!). I definitely feel like more interesting colour choices plus the stencilling would improve the outcome, and I'd kind of like a massive polka dot blanket for my bed.

A photo of a coat in the AC shop (stolen from somebody on Pinterest, sorry for the lack of attribution); my sampler of the same square appliqué
The next one wasn't in the books but it was pretty clear from the various photos I found on Pinterest, what the basic approach was to make this appliqué with a million tiny squares. Again, my own version is considerably less visually interesting because it has no colour contrast or variation. I tried two different methods of attaching the squares as you can see. Both methods are painfully slow and tedious, and I was profoundly aggravated throughout by my inability to (a) cut perfect squares out of cotton jersey; (b) sew them into anything like straight lines; and (c) prevent the corners from curling. It looks awful close up as in this photo, but it also, to be fair, looks pretty dire in the close-ups of authentic AC garments as well -- I am not the only person who can't cut squares perfectly or sew them in perfectly straight lines (though of course the actual AC garments are much better than my sampler!). However, it actually looks surprisingly good from a distance. My willingness to ever make anything with this particular appliqué method though is pretty limited. I cannot even begin to describe to you how boring and fiddly it is to appliqué even this relatively small numbers of squares.

Image from AC website of ruffle stripe wrap; my stripes sampler
One of my favourite items in the books is a cream-on-cream wrap with strips of fabric appliquéd into place with what the books call the "random ruffle" method. I also really like a couple of other garments I found through Pinterest that have been embellished with simple stripes. I had a go at a few of the different methods of attaching the stripes on my sampler -- two different stitches for attaching it (bottom and second from top), plus the "random ruffle" (second from bottom, harder than it looks!), twisted stripe (middle stripe, also harder than it looks and probably more interesting if, as the book suggests, you use two different colours on top and bottom so the twist has a colour contrast), and a gathered ruffle (top) which surprisingly I decided I liked most in the end. This whole sampler was quick and easy to stitch once I got the hang of the embroidery stitches used to attach the stripes.

Relief appliqué: on the left, a garment from the AC website; on the left my sampler using the Anna's Garden template
The last sampler I did, which too the longest time for me to finish for some reason, was the relief appliqué. This is classic appliqué, but the pieces you cut are 15% larger than the spaces they are intended to fill, so you sort of squish and pinch the extra fabric as you appliqué it into place, creating the 3D effect. From a purely tactile perspective, this is the nicest and most interesting of the classic applique I did. I am not sure it's enormously attractive though, having squished up little shapes sewn on to your clothes. After I made this I also wondered if it would look better if the individual applique pieces were larger (the Anna's Garden template has a lot of relatively small elements).

All the versions I've seen used very low contrast or the same colour for the applique as for the base fabric, so perhaps that is why it doesn't look too good in my contrasting blue fabrics. This highlighted another thing I learned from this sampling: how important picking the colours is going to be. I never liked either of these two fabrics all that much from a colour perspective, which is why they were still lurking in my scrap bag, most likely. As I was stitching the relief sampler, I really noticed how much I didn't like the contrast between the two fabrics, and wished I had done a same-fabric applique as in the inspiration photo. Based on my pins, I tend to prefer AC garments that are either subtle tone-on-tone or same-colour (especially white-on-white) garments or else really vividly high contrast (like black on white or vice versa) mixes. My less subtle blue-on-blue really didn't do much for me at all.

In conclusion: I am mulling over what to do next. I don't think I will be producing my own wardrobe of AC garments any time soon (though I am lost in admiration for CoreCouture, who is doing precisely that for SWAP 2015). However, I'm not ruling out making one or more garments later in the year when (if) my weight settles down and I think of something I really want. In the meantime, I'm going to move on from this to a bit of embroidery for my on-going hand-sewing project.


  1. sigh ... I love your blog.

    I bought one of her books after seeing the tote bags you made. I'm wrestling with some of the same questions yet I still want some of her garments. I'm thinking of making a midi skirt with some reverse applique (I'll do it tone on tone most likely) in just one section like the lower left hem.

    It will give me a chance to play with the looks even if I end up with a garment I just wear around the house. I think I'll enjoy wearing it and if I do, I may branch out more.

    1. I feel kind of the same -- even with all my doubts, whenever I go through my Pinterest board I am like, no, I want ALL of these garments, why have I not made one yet?! So it's just a case of working out how to make it work for me I think. Once my weight settles a little I want to try making something relatively straightforward and see how it goes. I sort of feel like it is OK to decide I am really not into her ENTIRE aesthetic, as I can't see myself leaving anything totally unhemmed etc as the authentic AC clothes.

      I'll be really interested to see how you get on with making things!