I have finally finished the Alabama Chanin School of Making (ACSoM) cardigan.
It’s been a total labour of love. I started it in July 2019 and finished it in March of this year. I’ve been waiting to photograph it because, after all that work, it was a wardrobe orphan. But I’ve now got a Cashmerette Springfield top that works perfectly*, so here we go.
This project started because I’d seen a post on the ACSoM website. They were discussing how you could set up a sewing group and work through a project together. So my friend Julia and I decided to do so. Although, life and a global pandemic got in the way of us making much progress together.
I took pictures throughout the whole process and I’m going to document what I did. I’ve also got thoughts about what I’d do differently the next time. It’s going to be a long post so do feel free to skip through and just look at the finished pictures if you’re not interested in the minutiae. If you are interested….grab a brew and read on!
First up is the stencil. I chose the Magdalena Stencil by Alabama Chanin, simply because it’s so stunning. It’s probably quite a complicated choice fora first project. But, I was committed to making a large project in the cardigan, so I just decided to go for it.
To keep costs down I decided to purchase the pdf stencil pattern, and print and cut it at home. The PDF is $8, the physical is $112 + shipping + UK handling and taxes.
I bought the stencil for $8, some mylar sheets for about £5 and a piece of cheap felt to cut onto for a couple of £. The required craft knife and mats were already in my workroom, so didn’t have the expense of purchasing them.
You print and stick together the PDF as you would a sewing pattern, with the mylar sheets taped together to match.
My first piece of advice to anyone who can afford it is to buy the physical stencil. It was beyond my budget, but I spent a lot of the time cutting out my stencil and muttering about how whoever cuts stencils at the ACSoM earns every penny. It’s a slog doing it yourself, especially with a blade.
If (when) I do another project, which I suspect I shall, I shall buy one of those lovely little heated stencil cutter thingies.
Even so, it wasn’t the most heinous job in the world. I did it in sections over a few days and felt a huge sense of satisfaction that I did actually do it myself. It really contributed to the whole experience of completely hand making this garment.
Next I cut out the two layers of fabric and stencilled them, before layering them and basting (tacking) all the layers together. I stencilled the fronts, backs and sleeves of the lighter of the blue fabrics, leaving the bands plain. I opted not to put the pockets on this time.
My second piece of advice is to layer the fabrics, draw round each piece and then tack the seam lines before stencilling and cutting out, leaving a larger seam allowance. Rather as you would if you were making a classic Chanel style jacket. This would enable me to ensure that none of the reverse appliqué sat within the seam allowances, making for a neater finish when seaming.
Once you have the pieces stencilled, cut and layered, it’s all about the stitching. And there’s no rushing that. Which is absolutely the joy of this project.
Because you’re only working on one piece at a time it’s a very portable project. Because it’s simple stitching, it’s something you can do when chatting or watching tv.
And there is that feeling of connection. Connection to the seamstresses at Alabama Chanin. To other women across the world who are using the same process to make entirely individual garments. The ACSoM community is such a glorious place. And to generations of women who have sewn by hand. Although I’m acknowledging that they did it because they had to. I have the magnificent privilege of choice.
I used Coats Dual Duty Plus thread, used double throughout, for the stitching. Good advice, part three, is that I would probably use a different thread for the next project. I’ve got lots of minuscule loops where I didn’t keep the threads even and they pulled through at different rates.
Also I found my stitch tension a bit tight with this thread. My finished result isn’t as smooth as the sample pieces you see at Alabama Chanin. The finished garment has a slightly quilted look to it. I’m not remotely bothered about that!
Once all the are pieces sewn, I snipped out the centre parts of the design to reveal the layer below. In this case a very dark midnight blue jersey. I cannot tell you how stressful that first cut is. It’s terrifying. But by the end you’re entirely more relaxed. Because you’ve done it what feels like a bajillionty times.
Seaming is a joy after that. The construction of the cardigan is exactly the same as if I was sewing on serger/overlocker. However in this case, each seam is stitched together using a straight stitch to create the seam (sewing right sides together). I then topstitched a faux felled seam, also using straight stitch, to make a lovely topstitched finish.
Top tip number 4 is to use a template to make sure your topstitching is even. I used the one in the The Geometry of Hand-Sewing, using a soft pencil to mark the dots. It made sewing that final step an absolute delight. And the finished effect so very lovely.
All basting stitches were removed, and a quick wash and dry later (I had prewashed and dried the fabric prior to sewing) and I have what is, without doubt, the nicest piece of clothing I have ever made, or, for that matter, owned.
It’s just glorious. Despite the imperfections, I can’t stop smiling when I wear it. And it’s the ultimate in secret pyjamas. I’m planning a trip to Betty’s of Harrogate and this is top of the list to wear on that day. It’s certainly stylish enough, but also comfortable enough to wear on the hour or so drive each way.
This is the ultimate in slow, sustainable sewing. It’s an indulgent project because you’re not going to put this much time into cheap fabric, and the cost of time is significant too. But it’s an investment piece for your wardrobe and therefore worth every single stitch.
Would I make another Alabama Chanin project? Absolutely. I really want to make a dress for those occasions where you want to make an effort and yet still be supremely comfortable. But first I still have a pile of fabric in the stash that needs to be sewn.
*I’ve a whole post coming about the Cashmerette Springfield tops soon.