Pencil Me In…Denim

153 days ago, I told you about my jones for a custom, pencil skirt made of denim.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so deadly serious about sewing something into existence. I learned how to draft a skirt block, rebooted my whole sewing process, and survived my first battle with topstitching thread to self-grant my wish.

And. It. Was. ALL. WORTH IT!

Custom-Drafted Denim Pencil Skirt

Draft Pick

Every bit of this road trip was worth the wait.

I even risked sitting wrinkles while waiting out the rain that tried to cancel my photoshoot. When your lipstick is like BOOM and you’re heels are like BAM and your skirt is like…BONJOUR!! there’s no weather forecast that can withstand that kind of readiness.

I’m not saying that my denim pencil skirt has the power to stop the rain or anything…

Denim pencil skirt, front view

…but I did bring it to life wielding a pencil and thimble. That’s all the proof I need that there may be a little magic in these hands.

The custom sewing e-course I took in October that rocked my bobbin-winding world, also infected me with a hearty passion for flat patterning. Before earning my Skirt Skills badge, I enjoyed hacking the style of a commercial pattern every now and then. I’d get a small thrill of vandalism and even a little pride out of being a silent co-designer when I drafted new lines on something ready-to-sew. Doing it from scratch though… is a whole other, lovely beast.

Crafting a garment pattern from top to bottom, deciding all the features, figuring out how to construct them, truing up all the lines, meticulously labeling all the pieces…all of this BEFORE I cut into any fabric. That. Is. WORK, y’all. Not sweat-generating work, but solid concentration of the lip-biting kind.

Denim Pencil Skirt Pattern Pieces

I had grand ideas for this skirt right out of the gate. I wanted to try out all kinds of drafting techniques, I wanted all the fancy seams and WOW factors I could get. I sketched and pinned like a fiend. Then, I remembered I was a student. A fresh and delicate newbie with all of the success-sensitive emotions that go along with it. And, newbies gotta slow their roll.

So, the second skirt made from my block would have three, simple design changes: a shaped waistband, a tapered hem, and a slit for walking ease. I’d never sewn or worn a well-fitting contoured waistband before. I’d never worn or sewn a tapered skirt, nor had I ever sewn a slit (or even a vent) into anything before. The whole experience was so new to me, I wondered if I should be designing diapers!

Denim Pencil Skirt, front view

I took my time through everything. The skirt drafting process had my right and left brain on fire. I loved it. Sorting out how to communicate to myself on my pattern pieces so I’d know what to do with them when it was time to cut was one of the most interesting parts of the experience. There are no seam allowances on my final pattern pieces so that I can mark stitchlines and cutlines directly onto my unfolded fabric. This means I have to remember to flip my pattern pieces over at the center front and center back “fold”. Instead of remembering to do it (which I didn’t a few times), I just noted it is as a flip instead of a fold. Clipping notches, drawing grainlines, including landmarks for the seamstress who’d be lost without them (me!) ….this is the work of pattern drafters I took for granted all these years.

And, now I’m doing it.

If they weren’t basted by hand before stitching…if the waistband facing wasn’t understitched with surgical accuracy…if my zipper wasn’t topstitched with ferocity…

…my seams would be bursting with pride.

Denim Pencil Skirt, side view

All About That Baste

The pre-construction phase was the most illuminating for me. I learned about hand-basted fittings in Brooks Ann’s course and used the method to try on my skirt for the first time after cutting it out.

When my pattern, my body, my fabric, and my preferences were introduced to each other during my basted-fitting, I was surprised to learn I needed 4 cm less circumference to get the snug fit I was after.

This meant my final pattern was tested and fitted for a bottom-weight twill fabric and if I wanted to sew it up in something different in the future -say, a wool suiting- I’d be better off drafting a new pencil skirt from my block and baste-fitting the suiting fabric skirt to see how it cooperated.

Hand-basted denim pencil skirt

A 4 cm reduction at the side seams was all I had to do to tweak the fit of my denim skirt and correct the paper pattern. Even though that tiny tweak surprised me (I wrongly assumed the stability of denim was similar to that of the muslin fabric I used to fit my skirt block), I am beyond ecstatic at a sewing future with little to no pattern alterations.

Fabulous Finish

When I was finally ready to sew permanent seams, I gave myself several more days of room to contemplate, sample sew, and finalize my construction methods and sequence. If I’d bought this skirt pattern, it would’ve come with all of those decisions made and illustrated for me. This custom skirt didn’t come with a manual.

I considered how to stabilize my waistband by examining the ready-to-wear jeans in my closet and by sewing samples. I figured out that my shaped waistband would be stable enough leveraging the untrimmed bottom seam allowance of the facing and the topstitching. I spent considerable time deciding whether or not to topstitch at all, ultimately choosing to go with topstitching, and then losing (and later finding) my mind over the act of topstitching. In hindsight…all good times I wouldn’t trade for a $500 skirt off the rack.

Back view, denim pencil skirt

On the subject of my backside (my daughter has named that part of anatomy the booty butt)…NEVER has it looked this good in a skirt before. The four darts shaping my hips are WERKING IT back there!

When I doubted for a moment whether or not I could get used to the small limitation in my walking range, my husband (who was a fan since the basted-fitting), instructed me to go look in the mirror again and said, “So WHAT you can’t take giant strides in it…Have you SEEN yourself in this skirt!!?” I spent some more time looking and loving my silhouette. After all, it had never been introduced to the world in its true form. I didn’t even know that walking in a tapered pencil skirt is SUPPOSED to involve some wiggle.

I am on board with my foxy ladyness now. Move over little black dress. The denim pencil skirt is here to challenge you to an LBD vs. DPS deathmatch for the Foxy Lady championship!

I am also a certified fan of simple seam finishes.

Insides. Denim Pencil Skirt

Not only did I keep the selvedge so I wouldn’t have to finish the center back seam, but I talked myself out of a hong kong finish and simply stitched and pinked the side seam allowances. The double fold, topstitched hem was a sweet finale to THE MOST satisfying make of my sewing career.

When Good Girls Sew Bad(ly)


I collected every discarded strand into an ugly yellow tumbleweed so that I could take a moment to honor my hard work….with laughter.

One doesn’t set out to spend a weekend topstitching the same center back zipper over and over again, but when the comedy of errors is choreographed just right, it’s best just to sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the show.

  1. Before going for it on my denim skirt, I consulted Sandra Betzina’s Fabric Savvy book to read her profile on sewing heavyweight denim. Then, after a few tries, I sewed the most perfect centered zipper sample using a large swatch of my fabric, a twin version of my final zipper, jeans topstitching thread from an American company (*sigh*…made in Mexico), a 100/16 needle, stitch length at 4.5, and thread tension at around 7.
  2. I carried that sample around in my purse for a week while I worked on the Sarah shirt. I’d pull it out and lay it on my desk to stroke the stitches during conference calls. I was so proud of how they descended along the zipper opening so evenly, making the 90-est degree turns at the bottom. The fantasy of my finished skirt’s award-winning, topstitched zipper was burning a proverbial hole in my bag, putting my keys and lip gloss at risk. My alarm to sew was going off and the snooze button was disabled.
  3. So, I cleaned up my work space, picked up my custom drafted skirt pieces — still hand-basted together after my final fitting — and sewed the center back seam with a combination of basting and permanent stitches. Then, my daughter woke up. And, Saturday morning life began.
  4. The sun was out that afternoon, but my family’s needs for winter Vitamin D were not my priority. I just wanted to sew the best zipper ever. I kept my plans to eventually go to the park quiet, plopped Josephine in front of a 4-inch stack of cotton fabric swatches, instructed her to “sort them for Mommmy”, and proceeded to baste in place, topstitch and IMMEDIATELY RIP OUT my first attempt. It was a hot mess. OK. No, problem. Just a little rusty. Perhaps distracted by parenting. Let’s try this again. Later. When the kid is out of the room and outside the blast radius of an f-bomb from Mommy.
  5. After dinner, I snuck away for a second and third failed attempt. The stitches were inconsistent on top, looked drunk on the bobbin side, and veered off from straight in various places. Double-You-Tee-Eff! What’s a girl gotta do to repeat her own success around here? Oh, wait-a-minute….what’s this? I still had the 80/12 needle in the machine I used to sew the center back seam!
  6. The 100/16 needle is in. Denim Topstitching, take 4….slow, steady, not too much foot on the gas…good…careful around the corners…OK, done. Let’s see…What!? Mutha…It’s at this point in the story we must apply some censorship. When the thread hits the fan for me, I become the Samuel L. Jackson of sewing. So, I’ll deal with my sailor mouth here in the same way they over-dub Mr. Jackson when his movies get adapted for television. I don’t watch cable or broadcast TV anymore, but when I did back in the day, I saw them take Sam Jackson’s famous line from the comedy-horror, Snakes on a Plane, and dub it into the best alternative I’ve ever heard.  His rated-R line, “I’m tired of these mutha-bleepin’ snakes on this mutha-bleepin’ plane!” was dubbed over for television audiences to “I’m tired of these monkey-fightin’ snakes on this Monday-to-Friday plane!” Let’s continue …with a touch of silly censoring. The ends of the zipper tape folded and got caught in the stitching during the 4th attempt. While unpicking the bobbin thread, I noticed it was sitting slack. Cheese and rice! The tension is off! Was it off the whole time!? I don’t even care anymore. I’m going to bed.
  7. Sunday morning arrives. Finally. It’s Mama’s holy day for full-attention sewing. I make quiche to fill the bellies of man and child, dump a pile of Legos on the living room floor, and return to the Zipper That Won’t Stitch. I increase the tension just a smidgen and put my foot on the pedal. I stop mid-way to check the bobbin thread and it’s looking good. As I get closer to the top….I realize that the stitch lines aren’t even on one side! No monkey-fighting way! I stared at the carnage of yellow thread on the floor for a solid five minutes.
  8. After shaking off the trauma, I unpick again. Getting faster at it this time. I impress and disgust myself when I can remove the top thread in one magical pull. After saying some encouraging words to my machine, I proceed to topstitch my poor, serially stabbed skirt for a sixth time. I’m breathing in and out, my machine and I are one. Up. Down. In. Out. Good, girl. You got it. Let’s take a look. Stitch length is even, stitch line is 1/4″ away from the opening on BOTH sides this time…but, cod n’ salmon! Why are there three rogue stitches near the bottom that look like they’re trying to go AWOL!? Is this a conspiracy? Is this my punishment for supporting an American thread company that outsources all the work to Mexico? Why, Lord, why is topstitching perfection alluding me? I did it once before. I’ll give up coffee for a month if you let me get this right.
  9. At this point, I’d just lied to God. Things had reached Shakespearean levels of drama. I had to get out of the house for a couple hours to stop the “to sew or not to sew” monologues in my head trying to bring me down. The break did me good. I moved into the acceptance stage of grief and carried out topstitch job number seven: 90% perfect. The problem (this time) was with my basting. It was holding the zipper in place, but doing a crap job of keeping the fabric from shifting under my machine’s clunky zipper foot. I re-basted the zipper in blood red thread (as if it was war paint), checking for balance with a ruler along the way.
  10. I only had to fight monkeys three more times before my topstitching performance was 98% perfect. An acceptable end to a long battle with fate and stupidity. I’m not fracking with it ANY. MORE.

That last, stubborn 2% of fail will give the skirt character. I even wrote myself a topstitching checklist for next time. With my sense of humor still in tact and a new reverence for the simple tasks that can (and do) go horribly wrong, I carried on with making…humbled and entertained by my tumbleweed souvenir.

Now, it’s your turn. What was your last sewing fumble? Did you prevail or wadder-out? Got any curse word alternatives to contribute? Seriously, share your worst. Your stories will be my sewcial therapy ;-).