I’ve cut out a new dress today. I fell for the colours. They remind me of summer days in my teens. The turquoise/cyan in particular. I remember my sister making a skirt and top in the same colour, one year.
I bought the fabric with a different dress in mind, but when the moment came to prepare the fabric for cutting, I knew it wouldn’t work. Plan B. A different dress pattern.
This often happens to me. I buy fabric for one project and then have second thoughts once I get home. Realisation hits that it would work better in a different style. Then starts the challenge. Is there enough fabric for the alternative dress pattern?
This time it needed less fabric. Me being me, still rolled up my sleeves to make something out of very little. I had the chance to eek out enough for a second sewing project. Two for the price of one. My kind of bargain.
So how do I squeeze more out of my fabrics? No. It’s not a question of persuading the children to play tug of war with it, although I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t take much persuading for them to give it a go. Nor do I go on a crash diet, or breathe in the whole time I’m wearing the outfit.
Want to know how I do it? These are dressmaking tips you won’t find in the pattern instructions.
Steps to saving fabric
Step 1: Don’t follow the cutting plan.
Every dressmaking pattern comes with diagrams, showing you how to position the paper patterns on your fabric. Ignore it.
To be honest, I seldom cut fabric out as the instructions suggest. As long as I line up the grainline (that big double headed arrow, in case you’re wondering) and respect the direction of the print (I need the fishes swimming in the same direction, right?), anything else is up for interpretation.
For instance, in this latest fabric cutting, I changed the foldline of the fabric when I cut out the front of the dress. It left me with a big rectangle of fabric that I could cut the sleeves from. Feels like free fabric.
If I’d followed the instructions and lined up the selvedges, as suggested, the front of the dress would have been cut out of the middle of the fabric, leaving two thin rectangles of fabric on each side. No use to man or beast. On the printed plan this was mostly left as waste fabric. Madness when you stop to think about it.
Be creative. Find a way to free up large areas of the fabric, rather than being left with lots of small pieces.
Warning: Don’t cut anything out until all the pattern pieces have been positioned on the fabric.
Step 2: Use contrasting fabrics for yokes, hems, etc
Most patterns assume you are going to use the same fabric throughout the project. Some allow a contrast for one part, like the collar, but not all. There is nothing to say you have to stick to one fabric for all the other parts. Yokes, sleeves, pockets, hems – they can be different.
confession story best illustrates this one. Last year I bought fabric to make a blouse for my daughter. Such cute fabric she had selected. In my excitement, I completely forgot that I needed more fabric to match up the cars at the front of the blouse. My bad. It looked like I couldn’t avoid slicing cars in half at the button-up front, if I wanted to make the blouse out of this fabric.
If I’m going to spend time hand making a garment, I want it to look good at the end. No half cars, please.
I put my thinking cap on. After pattern matching the front of the blouse, there was no fabric left for the back yoke, so I used a coordinating blue fabric for it, that I found in my scrap bag.
Result: a fun blouse that looked better than I had originally imagined. I still used the fabulous fabric to good effect, but the blue made it pop out even more.
Step 3: Patchwork fabric
Carrying on with the same blouse, I didn’t have enough fabric for the back either. Crazy, I know. Anyone wondering why I didn’t give up on this project? I am.
So, what did I do? I got creative with my cutting. I sliced the back paper piece in two and positioned the halves on the fabric, allowing for a small seam allowance, so that the car patterns would match. Once it was sewn up, from a distance, it looks like one piece of fabric. Mission accomplished.
There is nothing in the rule book to say fabric cannot be patched together. In fact, I’ve read of haute couture houses cutting up stripes to make the perfect zigzag fabric, when needed.
Step 4: Use different fabric for facings that don’t show.
If the fabric isn’t going to show, then use a different one. Pockets tucked in the seams will not show. Save fabric by using a similar fabric. I made four polar bear pyjamas. Each pair has pockets made from different brushed cotton fabric from previous projects.
This is my brown, cord dress. (Eek! I still haven’t shared photos of this dress here.) In the instructions, it listed the neck facing to be cut from the same fabric as the rest of the dress. I had lots of fabric, but I’m always looking to save it. Also I didn’t much fancy the black cord rubbing against my neck.
So I dived into my recycling pile and pulled out a silk shirt of my husband. I loved that shirt, but he didn’t. I cut it up and used it as the neck facing. It gave the structure required, but with the added silky, softness, and I have enough brown fabric left for a skirt.
Step 5: Change lengths or shape
My rose dress used a lot of fabric. It is a fit and flare. I didn’t really have quite enough fabric. I overlapped the pattern slightly on seams and hem allowance. I shortened the sleeve length slightly. These little tweaks made all the difference.
On one or two garments, I’ve reduced the seam allowance. I always neaten seams. I want my garments to look good on the inside too. Using fabric tape, I can still ensure the fabric won’t fray and unravel when there’s less fabric.
Break the rules
I’m using the term “rules” in a very loose way. There are no design police who turn up and put you straight if you ignore the instructions.
I know the handmade projects that have caused the most problems, have turned out to be my favourites, because I’ve not been able to follow the rules. My daughter’s blouse certainly gave me a few head scratching moments, and I love the touch of green in my brown dress.
I’ve not used any indie design patterns. I have no idea how prescriptive their instructions tend to be or how easy they can be modified. I do love using sewing patterns from the so-called Big Four (Simplicity, Vogue, McCalls, Butterick) but I like to make them my own. Using the instructions as suggestions rather than anything else.
By mixing and matching, I think it makes a handmade garment that little bit more special. More of a designed feel. Saving fabric at the same time. Not something to be sniffed at.
Have you any tips to make your fabric go that little bit further?
Other frugal dressmaking tips:
As sure as eggs are eggs, plants need water. The ones I grow in our kitchen garden, are no exception. Some are more greedy than the rest, like cucumbers and squashes. I can’t miss a day watering them if I want a decent crop and my hard work to pay off.
But water is precious. Some years, even in the wet UK, we don’t have enough rain. If rainfall is down in the winter, we can take bets on which water company will be first to issue a hosepipe ban.
To add to the issue, using the chemically treated tap water is a less than ideal option. For those in the UK with a water meter, it adds to the household bills, but also the cost of the treatment is an unnecessary expense to shower on our plants. We all pay in the end. Better to use rainwater as it costs nothing and is as nature intended.
How we water the garden is an issue.
When I first started gardening on a bigger scale, there was an annual licence to use sprinklers. I don’t know anyone that actually paid it. A quick look at the advice given by different water companies, seems to suggest that this still happens, but only during droughts. They’d rather you conserved water by manning hoses and had a trigger gun on it.
A quote from Southern Water:
“A sprinkler uses as much water in one hour as a family of four in a day. Outdoor taps use about 15 litres of water each minute with a hosepipe In hot spells, garden watering uses up to 70 per cent of a home’s water use”
I’d add that a sprinkler is also likely to water more than the intended ground, which seems an inefficient way to water.
A good alternative is a drip hose. Our neighbour has a brilliant system of drip hoses and timers on the tap. They have a number of greenhouses and this works fantastically for them. It is something I would love to set up in our garden, at some point. Maybe with a hose from one of my bigger water butts.
In the meantime, here are the ways I currently save water:
1. Water butts
We have lots of water butts around the garden, catching the rainwater. The bigger, the better. Everytime I see an offer, I buy a batch more. It is worth keeping an eye on the water companies as they have great deals occasionally.
2. Watering cans
I have a number of watering cans around the garden. I keep filled watering cans in the green house. Three reasons:
a. It makes more room in the water butts for the next downpour.
b. It warms the water up to the temperature of the greenhouse and is less of a shock to the plants when watered.
c. On a hot day, it evaporates and helps to control the greenfly, by making it humid.
3. Water pump
I have a water pump, that I can use to transfer water from full water butts to others. The ones on the house collect more, so it makes sense to transfer water to the water butts attached to smaller buildings, if they are empty and closer to my latest plantings.
I could use it to empty baths, but in the summer we tend to have showers anyway, which uses way less water.
4. Individual plant reservoirs
When I plant, I use plastic bottles and pots to create an individual water reservoir for each plant. While the plants are settling in, they are given more water. I can focus the water in the area of the plant and it releases the water slowly.
I have a collection of 1 and 2 litre plastic drink bottles, with the bottoms cut off. I’ve collected them over the years. When I plant the tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in the green house, I sink a bottle, neck first, into the ground beside it. Preferably up hill from the plants. I put a bean pole in the bottle and push it firmly into the ground. The plant is then tied to the pole. Each evening, I use a watering can to fill the bottles a few times.
Two advantages. The water is focused on the plant. Its roots will naturally grow in the direction of the bottle and I don’t end up watering the path or optimistic weeds. Secondly, it doesn’t encourage the snails, as the top soil is dry.
For plants outside, such as lettuce and squashes, I sink a pot beside them, when first planted. I can water them in the same way as the others, until they are established.
Which leads on to my next tip…
5. Limit watering
If I continued to water each outdoor plant its roots would grow near the surface, missing out on the moist soil below. Once established, unless we have a very dry spell, I don’t water. This way, I encourage the roots to grow down and not rely on me.
6. Plant in the ground
I plant as much as possible in the ground, rather than pots. The plants grow bigger and better, and can tap more water in the ground. Especially good if I have a few days away. All my plants in the greenhouse are planted straight in the borders. No pots or grow bags, and I’ve found my harvest is more successful that way.
7. Grow your own ground cover
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know I use the three sister planting method: bean, corn and squash. I cannot recommend this method enough. My crops have improved. In terms of water conservation, the squash plants grow through the corn and beans providing ground cover and reducing water evaporation.
They don’t compete for soil resources. The squash plants are planted a few feet away from anything else.
I also grow fast cropping plants like lettuce between plants, for the same reason. Mainly in my raised beds which can get a bit baked. Provides cover and I have a useful crop to harvest.
(Yes, that is a slow worm, but that is another story)
8. Plant through sheeting
There are various ways you can do it. I have friends that use cardboard between their plants to reduce weeds and water loss, but there are other choices. My neighbour uses layers of straw, which is chopped up and mixed with the soil to improve moisture retention for the next year.
One year, we had building work going on. As the builders left, I rescued some of the black plastic woven sheeting they were about to throw out. That year, I covered the kitchen garden with it, which surpressed the weeds. I then planted my potatoes through it. No need to earth them up. No need to water lots. I had a great crop.
9. Improve soil
Last but not least, improving the soil can improve the water retention. We added a foot or more of rotted horse manure to the kitchen garden, one year. We dig in our composted kitchen waste into the raised beds. Theory is that if the soil holds more water, then less extra watering is required. It works for us.
Right. There are my nine tips. It may be raining today, but there is no better time to sort out the watering for your garden, I think.
I’d love to hear if you have any other ways to optimize water usage in your garden. Preferably low cost. Any tried and tested methods that you’d like to share?