Double caftan magic

How to sew a Fen caftan

The weekend before last, I sewed myself what I thought was the best summer frock I’d ever owned: a blurple caftan made with Merchant & Mills Indian Ink linen and some simple mods to the Fen top (details below). In addition to the color being completely amazing — rich and shifty — the fabric has an incredible heft to it and is a joy to wear. So when it came time to cut my next piece of linen this past Saturday — M&M’s Bonita stripe this time, which I’d bought from Fancy Tiger with pants in mind — I couldn’t stop picturing it as another caftan just like ol’ blurple. Only I had no idea how much more magnificent it would be. I’m thrilled with them both, but the striped one is pure magic.

How to sew a Fen caftan

The challenge of this fabric is that it’s an asymmetrical repeat — two multi-stripes, then one wide blank stripe, repeat — and I had debates with myself and among friends about how best to position it on the dress. After they pleaded for symmetry, I decided to place the wide blank stripe dead center, so my inverted pleats (front and back) would simply pull the two black stripes closer and then it’d fan out below the pleat, with the multi-stripes on either side. What I could not possibly have planned for even if I had tried was that this left the hip pockets I had mapped out on the blurple version perfectly centered over the multi-stripes, with the next set of multi-stripes (at the edges of the front and back) meeting perfectly in the center so they create a double-wide multi-stripe at the side seam. Cutting it out — flat, on the living room floor, so I could make sure I had every single stripe straight and identically positioned — was a job. But from the minute I began sewing, it started revealing all the other magic it had cooked up without me, and I was completely under its spell.

It might be the single best experience of my sewing life, and I’m madly in love with it. Hence the million photos.

How to sew a Fen caftan

Here’s how I made them, and how you can too:

Start with Fancy Tiger’s Fen top and dress pattern — you just need the two pieces for the top: front and back. Pick a size that’s a lot or a little big on you. I’m wearing this with a ton of positive ease, but I think it would look even better on a fuller figure with a bit less ease. All of this also applies to my black tunic version that preceded the dresses, by the way.

1) For the front pattern piece, trace the round neck (I might have raised it a bit when I first traced off this pattern a few years ago) and shoulder, around the sleeve, and down the side to the widest part of the curve. Then draw a line straight down from there to your desired length plus hem allowance. Mine is cut at 52″ from the highest point of the shoulder, at the neck edge. I’m about 5’8″ for reference. Do the same for the back pattern piece.
(I traced the size 18 shoulder line out to the size 20 sleeve edge, and the rest is size 20 down to the hip flare. That makes it 14″ wide from the hip down.)

2) Cut both pieces on the fold as marked and keep them folded, with right sides together. On the front piece, draw a line 1″ in from the fold (parallel with the fold, in other words) from the neck edge down 11″ and same thing on the back from the neck edge down 5″. Stitch along that line, then press the fold open on the wrong side to create the inverted pleat. Top-stitch in place.

How to sew a Fen caftan

3) Cut pockets as desired. My hip pockets are 8″x10″ (the size of a piece of chipboard I had handy!) pressed to 7″x7.5″ — half inch on the sides and bottom, and an inch twice at the top. And my chest pocket is 5.5″x7″ pressed to 4.5″x5″ — half inch all the way around plus another inch on top. Hip pockets are placed 2.5″ from the Center Front and 15.5″ from the neck edge. Chest pocket is placed 1.75″ from CF and 5″ from the neck edge. Top-stitch in place.

4) Sew the shoulder seams together as indicated/desired. Sew the underarm/side seams together as indicated/desired, leaving a split hem if desired. Both of these have split hems on both sides, measured 17″ (blurple) and 15.5″ (stripe) from the bottom edge. Finish seam allowances however you prefer. I French seamed the blurple one down to the split, clipped the seam allowance at that spot, then pressed the split hem open and under before stitching down. Same for the striped one except it’s serged instead of frenched.

5) Finish the sleeves, hem and neck edges as indicated/desired. I did a visible bias facing on blurple and the Fen neckband on the stripe.

For this length, using 60″ wide linen and the size 20 pattern pieces, I was able to get all of the dress and pocket pieces out of three yards, or that plus a pair of pants out of 4 yards. Yes, I now have pants cut from both of these fabrics! And can probably still squeeze a little tank out of the blurple scraps. Which means Linenpalooza ain’t over yet!

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PREVIOUSLY in sewing: How to sew a kangaroo pocket

This is summer me.

This outfit feels like a tiny personal triumph, so there are two quick things I want to tell you about it:

1) I’ve wandered onto the warm side of the color wheel for the first time in years, and it feels surprisingly great. This is the plum-colored tee I scored at Elizabeth Suzann’s sample sale in December (from their erstwhile Alabama Chanin collab), paired with this weekend’s rendition of my go-to modified Robbie Pants, this time in “Pomelo” linen from Merchant & Mills. I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten a pomelo so can’t say for sure how accurate it is, but I would have named this color after an heirloom tomato — it’s exactly that sort of barely pinkish red. Together, these garments are the accomplishment of a goal: a summer-appropriate outfit that feels like me. In fact, I don’t remember the last time an outfit made me feel this satisfied. (And yet I couldn’t be bothered to do better than a mirror selfie!)

2) I’ve gone up one size in the pants. All of the canvas and denim versions I’ve made were size Small (with some very slight tweaks), based on my wish for there to be as little gathering as possible at the elastic waist. So I chose the size that would just barely slip on over my hips with the elastic fully stretched. After I made them in linen for the first time, by contrast, I was vaguely wishing the fabric had more of an opportunity to swish and drape. This red pair is a Medium and I am in absolute love with the fit. There’s not a huge difference in the sizing, but just enough to transform the way they feel and move.

I might be getting this summer dressing thing figured out. Only took me six summers …

p.s. One of the things I’m loving about making these pants out of assorted 60″-wide linens is they take less than a yard and a half of fabric!

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PREVIOUSLY in Finished Objects: Linen pants! Plus Fen tunic, take two

Linen pants! Plus Fen tunic, take two

Linen pants! Plus Fen tunic, take two

This weekend I sewed myself a pair of linen pants, and I was so excited Monday morning to have two whole pairs of seasonally appropriate pants to choose from that I was asking myself why on earth it took me so long to make such a thing?! They’re the same modified Robbie pants I’ve made several times before (always in heavy canvas or denim), and then I remembered, oh right, that was the hold-up. I’ve made several pairs of pants, and I have this shirt shortage, so I forbade myself to make any more pants till I solved the other problem. Meanwhile, I’ve suffered through jeans and canvas pants all summer for several years running! While somehow not even solving the shirt problem.

Well. Now I have linen pants (bonus: that aren’t black!) and will be making a couple more as quickly as possible.

I also finished off another variation on the Fen mods I’ve been working on, another top, and this one is black. It’s a test run for the follow-up to my yellow Fen dress — I wanted to try out a few tweaks first and have quite a lot of black linen in my stash, bought at Elizabeth Suzann’s garage sale a couple years ago for $2/lb. While it’s a test for a dress, I didn’t want a black dress, plus, y’know, the aforementioned shirt problem, so now I have another linen top as well! And it cost me under a dollar to make. For this one, I sized down to an 18 in the shoulders and sleeve, blending that into the size 20 body and hemming it at hip length. You’ll have to take my word for all this since it’s impossible to see, but in addition to a single breast pocket, it has the same 5″ center-back pleat as ol’ yella, along with an 11″ center-front pleat, and I think this combo is going to make a most excellent dress. I have fabric washed and ready.

My goal is to sew one garment per week for the next few weeks, catching my closet up with my seasonal needs while I’ve got this burst of sewing mojo working for me and a solid plan to follow. So it’s full speed ahead at the moment!

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PREVIOUSLY in Finished Objects: Linen Fen dress, take one

Queue Check — Midsummer 2019

Queue Check — Midsummer 2019

I know some of you are thinking “midsummer?!” We’re moments away from kids going back to school; there was a football game last night; the stores are already putting out their pumpkin-flavored-everything displays. But I still have a good 2.5 months of heat to deal with and can’t afford to start dreaming of fall. Although — even as I tell myself it’s ok to make clothes that don’t work in every season, that that’s the only way to really address clothes for hot weather — I can’t help thinking about how the things I make now will both travel and transition. That’s what I’m loving so much about the color palette I shared yesterday, which is also reflected above: It’s a palette for all seasons. And with the focus on garments with sleeves, I’m dealing with those in-between times I truly am unequipped for.

The only thing that’s happened to my toffee cable sweater since late June is I finished the first sleeve and cuff. I hope to knit the other sleeve this weekend and get back to the body, wrapping it up soon, because I need to get serious about my fall travel project. You can see I’ve got that skein of green wool-mohair out again, and can’t stop petting it. I’ve decided the very simple everyday stockinette pullover I’ve been planning to knit in navy will be preempted by a cheerful green version, and this Andorra is the precise shade of green I want. Sadly, it’s a warmer blend than I should really knit it in, so I’m pondering that while I finish the toffee sweater.

Meanwhile, I’m all about Linen Quest 2019, as seen in the sketches above — dresses plus mix-and-match separates on the horizon. Sketches 1 and 7 are the Fen dress and tunic mods and I’ve posted in the past week, and sketch 2 is the next variation I’m after. Even more caftany. (Likely making that this weekend!) Sketches 3 and 6, shirtdress and shirt, are slight mods on Liesl Gibson’s Gallery tunic/dress that I’ve sewn and loved before. Sketch 4 is my Hemlock mod from a few years ago, the wool gauze that got away, and I don’t know why I never thought to make it in linen. Sketch 5 is a tweaked Scout tee — a pattern I’ve had for some time and have yet to sew. I want to shape it like the rust one on yesterday’s mood board. And the last two are my pleat-neck tee idea and my beloved modified Robbie pants I’ve made a handful of times but all in heavy fabrics. Time for some linen!

It feels good to have a plan, and to have dusted off my machine. We’ll see what I can accomplish before it wants to go back into hibernation again.

So that’s what I’ll be doing this weekend! I’d love to hear what you’re up to —

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PREVIOUSLY in Queue Check: June 2019

Wardrobe Planning: Latter 2019 (mood/palette)

Wardrobe Planning: Latter 2019 (mood/palette)

So how does a color-shy minimalist like me factor in significant color, as I’m itching to do? That’s what I’m trying to figure out as I pause for the first time this year to think about what I have and what I want/need to make between now and the year-end. As I alluded to before and will talk more about, I’m focused on the most potent needs right now: a Venn diagram of sleeves, dresses and linen, plus addressing the imbalance in my stack of pants, which are almost entirely heavy cotton/canvas and next to no linen or summer-weight anything.

The challenge of working with linen is it means mostly solids. It’s like a box of crayons. And whereas I have no problem combining solid neutrals (and the occasional stripe), it’s taken some thinking to figure out how to work with crayons in a way that still feels like me. I’ve determined that the secret lies in the specifics of the palette and in combining colors in offbeat ways. What got emphasized when I went to put this into a 2019 Mood board was that it also means tonal dressing, maybe even more than mix-and-mismatch, which again I totally get! I’m just used to doing it with neutrals. But now that I’m seeing it that way, it seems like a no-brainer.

What it comes down to in terms of the palette is augmenting my existing blues and camels and stripes with rusty-pinky-melon tones, yellow, and a hit of spearmint green.

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PREVIOUSLY in Wardrobe Planning: Me-Made May data

Linen Fen dress, take one

Linen Fen dress, take one

My weekend was all about making that Fen dress idea from last week come to life and I am exceedingly pleased with this first pass at the concept! You may recall the only thing I wanted to change from the tunic version was to bring the neck width in considerably, as I don’t like wide necklines on me. But I also had two design details in mind for the dress-length version that wound up being relevant to the neck situation: A center-front seam in order to have a front slit, and center-back pleat to keep the back of this thing from just being one big flat sheet. In planning the execution of those two details, I realized they were actually the solution to the neck width.

Rather than moving the neckline inwards to make it narrower, the back pleat is sewn 1″ in from the center-back fold, which removes 2″ total from the back neck width but leaves the width of the lower body unchanged. The front pieces were cut along the selvage instead of on the fold, and the seam is likewise sewn 1″ from the edge. This removed a matching 2″ from the front neck width, but also makes the entire front of the dress 2″ narrower. Because it’s a sack, that has no real effect on the fit, and that all made the neckhole exactly right — it fits perfectly over my head. Not wanting to lose even a quarter of an inch in neck circumference, I attached the bias facing in visible fashion rather than folding the whole thing to the inside.

And I totally and utterly love this. I have plans to make assorted variations in other colors — more on that to come!

The only other thing I’ll note about this one for now is that it’s made from some Roma lightweight linen I bought from Fancy Tiger and, although it’s perhaps a teeny tiny bit sheer for a dress if you’re concerned about that, it was an absolute joy to sew with and is a dream to wear. And this shade of yellow is exquisite — it’s neither bright nor muddy, and shifts beautifully with the light. Thankfully, they tell me they’ll get more, because I want a little linen tee in the same color.

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PREVIOUSLY in Finished Objects: Linen Fen tunic, take one

Linen Fen tunic, take one

Linen Fen tunic

It’s a funny paradox when your clothes are basically (or literally) pajamas and yet you feel overly dressy for your warehouse way of life. But that’s where I’m at!

The simple fact is I need more linen clothes for Nashville’s swamp season than the scant few I own. Everything else in my closet is unbearable in this humidity, and what I want is five or six linen sack dresses I can just wear on repeat, but what I have is the black linen pants I have worn nearly to tatters in only two years of nonstop hot-weather wear, and the natural linen-cotton Carolyn pants I sewed last September. So I’m trying to figure out how best to add more linen to my wardrobe and how to make any of it feel like me.

I had an idea for a slit-front sack dress with a kangaroo pocket (a mash-up of assorted other things I’ve seen and loved lately) and decided to test the top part of it using the Fen pattern I already own and some bright cyan linen that’s been in my stash for a few years to make a tunic that could be worn with pants and jeans. I’m quite happy with it comfort-wise — it’s probably as close as linen can get to that slouchy, cut-up sweatshirt vibe — but this particular outfit still feels like I’m wearing someone else’s clothes.

I’d made the Fen top in sizes 8 and 12 before, and for this one all I did is make the size 20, drawing out a straight hemline from the bottom edge of the original shirttail hem, and make a big kangaroo pocket for the front. This is the same neckline tweak I’d done before but somehow it seems bigger here, so on the next one (there will be a next one for sure), I’ll bring the whole neckline in and possibly shorten the sleeves a tiny bit, although I’m liking them rolled like I have them in the photo above.

But what I’m most eager to do is cut a dress-length version. So stand by for that.

SHOP NEWS: Speaking of linen, there’s a new Bento Bag in town: Eggplant! It’s stunning. We also have a new mini-scissor in the lineup, called Joji, and we’re retiring the Porter Bin in black — when our current stack is gone, that’s it for black. It will still be available in natural, army and butterscotch.

Happy weekend, everyone!

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PREVIOUSLY in FOs: Smock vest with pocket