All posts by Valerie

About Valerie

I am a designer and sewer and owner of Holland Cox, the home of handcrafted fashion accessories, including seven handbag styles and more than a dozen other cute, fashionable and fun goodies. I love sewing and I want you to love sewing, too.

sneak peek of the new crossbody bag

The newest addition to the evolution collection is a completely new handbag for me, but I think you’ll recognize the bones of it as very much Holland Cox style. You’ll also see plenty of evidence of my love of texture and color!

I wanted to design a casual, pretty bag that you could use everyday. Something a bit smaller than the everyday bags, but not so small that your daily essentials wouldn’t fit. I also wanted a long, cross-body strap that was as good looking as the bag itself!

 

a sneak peek of the new crossbody style bag at Holland Cox

 

I began by expanding the perfect pouch, and then I added pockets – a flat patch pocket on the inside (perfect for your ID cards, a pack of gum, a pen, a pack of tissues), and a welt zip pocket on the outside (the exact size of my iPhone 7 Plus).

Gold hardware and brass zippers were a no-brainer, since I’ve been in love with shiny gold for a while now (not sorry!!!). Ultrasuede zip pulls (with a hand painted bead on the main zip) finish off both zippers, because I love the look of them, and they are a great way to add another little bit of color!

 

the back pocket of the crossbody pouch

 

I’ve decided the back pocket is critical on any handbag I carry! I really like having a place that is instantly accessible, that I can just reach into without removing the straps or opening the bag.

I actually didn’t plan on the pocket being iPhone-sized, I picked a 7″ pocket because that’s what made sense to me, based on the size of the bag (11″ wide and 7″ tall, with a 9″ zipper). But I figure it can only be a good thing if your phone is within easy reach!

 

removable crossbody strap

 

The strap is 48″ long, just long enough for the pouch to sit right on your hip, making it easy to slip your hand inside either zipper.

I know most bags like this have adjustable straps, but I didn’t want to do that for my design, for two reasons. First, I hate buckles (random, but here we are…I actually have an aversion to excessive hardware on handbags…an unpopular opinion, I know).

Part of the reason I don’t like buckles on straps, is that I don’t believe that most people want an adjustable strap; what they want is a strap that is the exact right length for them! 

So you’ll be able to order the strap for your crossbody pouch in a custom size if 48″ isn’t right for you!

 

metallic denim, painted canvas, and stitched ultrasuede

 

In a few weeks, I’ll be introducing a mini-collection of the crossbody pouch (only six of them!), featuring some of my favorite fabrics and motifs from the current collection. Felicity (painted polka dots on natural canvas) will definitely be featured, and of course persephone in red and blue (my favorite abstract petal motif).

I’m also going to be using lots of this delightful dark, midnight-blue denim with gold metallic threads that I am absolutely in love with.

(I’ve already bought up every yard I can get my hands on.)

But at least two of the mini-collection will feature some of the metallic leather I got in NYC recently…I can’t wait to show the finished bags to you!

denim with gold accents, purple metallic leather, gold polka dot suede and metallic denim

Get on the list, because subscribers to the Insiders List always see the new collections first, and they get an exclusive introductory price (which means if you’re an Insider, you never have to pay full price)!

 

 

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DIY domino-style mask

Are you one of those people who has already finished their Halloween costume (handmade, obviously), have already posted multiple Instagram pics, and have already RSVP’d to all the events and parties that will be graced with your presence (and your awesome costume)?

Then this post is not for you!

I made this tutorial and pattern download for people like me…you love the idea of an amazing costume, but somehow it never comes to fruition…

(I can’t tell you how many elaborate plans I’ve made for awesome costumes that never happened…Ursula, Calypso, Bellatrix, Eartha Kitt-style Catwoman…sigh.)

free pdf pattern and tutorial for a domino-style mask

Don’t fret, my friend! Download my domino-style mask pattern and make yourself a costume that is super-simple but also awesome. Just pair your finished mask with simple clothes you already have!

I made mine in an Italian Carnivale style, but the pattern is so simple, you could do pretty much anything with it. You could use primary colors (or solid black) for a super-hero style mask. You could use feathers or fur for some kind of animal costume. Or, if you’re going for creepy and scary rather than shiny and pretty, switch out all the gold trims for spiders, bats, or fake scars.

If you want to make one like mine, there’s only a few steps!

 

step 1: gather fabric & trims

materials to make my domino mask - felt, black ribbon and gold trims

 

I used felt for my mask, but you could use any type of fabric! If your fabric is very flimsy, you might consider a layer of interfacing as well.

My theme was red and gold, so all my trims and decorations are gold: ribbon, ric rac, netting, embroidery floss, metallic thread, and glass beads.

You’ll also want ribbon or elastic to keep your mask in place while you wear it. I chose black ribbon for the ties, since the lining of my mask is also black.

 

step 2: cut 2 masks

front and back of mask in red and black felt

 

I chose black fabric as the back of my mask, but there’s no reason both layers can’t be the same color. Just remember whatever you choose as the lining will be rubbing against your face all night, so choose carefully!

Click here to download the PDF pattern, and remember to set scaling to “none” when you print…otherwise the mask might come out a little too small. The pattern includes a 1″ test square to make sure you get the scaling right!

 

step 3: decorate the front & attach ribbon ties

red felt mask with gold embellishments

 

This is the fun part! Stitch on whatever you’d like to decorate your mask. I used the metallic thread to sew on the gold trims on one half of my mask. For the other side, I used embroidery floss to stitch in little asterisk-style stars, with a little gold bead in the center of each.

Since I wanted a Carnivale look (but I don’t have any feathers), I used gold netting instead. These were tulle circles meant for bridal favors (I have no idea why they are in my stash…these things happen to me sometimes), that I folded into a fan shape.

Remember, anything you want to stick out of the edge of your finished mask has to be stitched so that it is facing inwards:

decorated mask with ribbon ties and tulle accents added

That way, once you sew on the back, and turn the whole thing right-side-out, your ribbon ties and other embellishments will be facing the right way.

Also: remember your seam allowance! Keep all your embellishments away from the edge of the mask, so you don’t risk sewing over them in the next step!

 

step 4: sew front and back together

mask with black lining pinned in place

 

With right sides facing, pin and stitch the front and back of your mask together, all the way around the outside edge, using a 1/4″ seam allowance.

Make sure to back stitch over the ends of your ribbon ties/elastic to reinforce those stress points.

Trim the seam allowance all the way around. Gently turn your mask right side out through one of the eye holes, being careful not to damage any of your fancy embellishments.

 

step 5: finish the eye holes

mask turned right side out, the eye holes don't match!

 

Once you’ve turned your mask right side out, you’ll need to carefully finger-press, and then press with an iron.

You might find that a bit of your lining fabric is showing through the eye holes. No worries! Just baste the edges of the eye holes together, keeping your stitch close to the edge of the front fabric, and then trim the rest off.

 

trimmed eye holes

 

If you like the way this stitch looks, you can leave it at that. In fact, you might want to do this step with a decorative hand-stitch with embroidery floss, depending on the look you’re going for.

I wanted more glitter and shine, so I finished my eye holes with more metallic thread. I used the widest and shortest zig zag stitch on my machine, and stitched two layers, since the metallic thread is so thin.

Your machine might have a satin stitch which achieves essentially the same look. Try out both on a bit of scrap fabric to see which one you like best!

Note: metallic thread is easiest to use when you also have needles especially for metallic thread (they have larger eyes). I cheated though, and used my size 90 universal needle. I figure this is for a costume, it’s not that serious. BUT you will definitely want to slow down while you sew with metallic thread; it can break easily if it is subjected to too much friction!

finished Italian Carnivale style mask in red and gold

There you have it friends, an easy, low-stress way to have a handmade costume, for Halloween or any masquerade event. Happy sewing and trick-or-treating!

 

 

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versatile style: six outfit ideas featuring the cassandra 517 tote

I wear my favorite outfits over and over again because they make me feel happy & confident…they feature my favorite patterns, my favorite colors, and cuts and styles that make me feel good!

That’s the secret to solving your ‘what to wear’ problems forever…falling in love with your favorites and sticking to them. But how can you fall in love with something plain?

Check out these outfits I’ve styled around the cassandra 517 tote, to show you practical does not mean plain. None of these looks would be nearly as great with a plain bag!

 

with a sweater dress

 
the cassandra tote from Holland Cox with a sweater dress
Fall seems like it’s finally here, so you can pull your sweater dresses out of your closet! This one is a perfect match for the cassandra 517 tote, but your sweater dress can be in any color and any pattern.

I designed the cassandra tote as an interesting and bold way to wear neutrals – black and off-white go with everything, but that doesn’t mean they have to be plain. The stitched details and unusual silhouette guarantees it stands out from plain and boring tote bags. I picked the other accessories because they do the same, even though they’re all in neutral colors.

 

with a floral motif

 
the cassandra tote from Holland Cox with florals
This outfit has a floral theme going on – the blouse and jewelry all feature different botanical motifs, that work perfectly together because the colors coordinate. When mixing prints, I always say that stripes + florals are a foolproof way to go (because stripes go with everything)!

Chevron stripes are in fact stripes, even if they’re wavy, like on the cassandra tote. Want more ideas on mixing prints? Subscribe to the Insider’s List and I’ll send you a short series of posts all about style experiments to try!

 

with another chevron print

 
the cassandra tote from Holland Cox with a chevron skirt
The chevron wave motif on the cassandra 517 tote is one of my favorites, and has kind of become my signature. I always start by hand-drawing on the fabric, and then stitching over my drawing with heavy duty thread. It’s a modern and unusual take on the chevron pattern, but it still coordinates perfectly with more traditional chevron stripes!

Imagine this outfit with thick tights, and you’ll definitely be the best dressed at any fall or winter event. Mixing the same print in different scales or colors is a really sophisticated way to style your outfits.

 

with a spot of red

 
the cassandra tote with a circle skirt and black sweater
This is a pretty bold skirt. You might be tempted to think only plain accessories could accompany such a skirt, but I think the opposite: something plain could never be good enough for a skirt as awesome as this one!

Letting bold motifs and accessories play off one another is what turns individual pieces into outfits, and what turns clothes into fashion. When you start with accessories that are bold and bright instead of plain, it practically happens automatically. What’s better than effortless style?

 

with a bit of gold

 
the cassandra tote with a metallic black and gold blouse and jeans
Who doesn’t love a little bit of shine? Metallic accents are very trendy right now, and the black and off-white of the cassandra tote will look amazing with all of them. Warm tones like gold, bronze, and copper will look just as great as the cooler tones of silver or platinum.

The best part is, when you’re tired of the metallic trend, your tote bag will still look amazing with whatever comes next!

 

with the denim dress formula

 
the cassandra tote from Holland Cox with a denim dress
 

The denim dress formula is this: a denim dress + an awesome bag + any shoes = instant awesome outfit. The beauty of the formula is that denim dresses come in so many styles and fabrics these days, you can find one for any occasion!

This one is perfect for the office. A sheath dress with clean lines is all-purpose and all-season, and can be made to work even in a conservative work place. The cassandra 517 tote is sophisticated enough to double as a briefcase, and will surely outshine your colleagues’ plain black and brown bags!

 

Imagine any of these outfits with a plain bag…would they be as eye-catching? Would they make sure all eyes are on you (where they should be)? Could you fall in love with these looks enough to make them your go-to outfits, your favorites that you can depend on, so you don’t have to think so hard about getting dressed in the morning? Click here to see more details of the cassandra 517 tote, and imagine her with your favorite outfits!

 

 

 

 

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six more outfit upgrades with a button scarf

I’ve already shown you how to upgrade your wardrobe basics (like a pencil skirt) with a button scarf. Now that the new collection is out, here are six more outfit ideas for you, proof that accessories as bold and colorful as a button scarf can also be versatile and practical!

 

your date night outfit

the anjelica button scarf with your date night outfit
I feel very confident guessing that your go-to date night outfit includes something black.

(Am I wrong?)

The anjelica scarf in black metallic essex linen is pretty much a guaranteed show-stopper. Pair it with anything black, and suddenly your favorite thing (which you already love) is even better! A little bit of shine and a little bit of style goes a long way.

(Also shown: the felicity small perfect pouch)

 

your favorite dress

the rosetta button scarf with a black and white dress
The button scarves are a great way to add a shot of color, and the rosetta button scarf is a perfect example.

This fabric is actually a very subtle tonal rose print, in shades of red that are intense rather than extremely bright. Picture it with every black-and-white item in your closet, and visualize the instant upgrade!

 

your classic trench coat

the cassandra 517 tote and the cassandra scarf with your classic trench coat
Naturally, the button scarves integrate seamlessly with your outerwear, regardless of the weather.

With a trench coat this classy and stylish, how could you pair it with a plain scarf? The cassandra button scarf (available in winter and autumn versions) is worthy of your designer outerwear, and will instantly upgrade anything else you wear with it.

(Also shown: the cassandra 517 tote)

 

your skinny jeans

black and gold button scarf from Holland Cox with your skinny jeans
The carla button scarf is bold simplicity at it’s finest: a sweet floral print is rendered in metallic gold, on a black background for maximum impact.

Think of every black dress, shirt, and sweater you own, and imagine wearing them with this dose of glamour and style, instead of all alone.

Your skinny jeans and favorite black top will never look the same again!

(Also shown: the phoenix small perfect pouch)

 

your floral blouse

the aida button scarf from Holland Cox with your favorite office outfit
The button scarves are a great way to experiment with mixing prints, especially the aida button scarf, which is in a subtle crosshatch pattern in black and white. It will look amazing with lots of different prints in different scales and colors, because stripes go with everything!

Afraid to mix prints? Afraid to wear even ONE print much less mix them? Get on the Insider’s List…subscribers get a short series of posts from me about how to find your personal style through easy and creative experimentation…click here to sign up!

If you want to experiment with mixing prints but are afraid to jump in, know that black and white stripes (FYI: checks — like on this skirt, and on the aida button scarf — are just stripes in a different shape) literally go with everything. You can’t get this one wrong, so don’t be scared to give it a try!

 

your favorite t-shirt

a gold button scarf with your favorite t-shirt outfit
Just because the button scarves have a very elegant and stylish vibe, does not mean you can’t break one out on the weekend, when you’re wearing your favorite snarky t-shirt! High style doesn’t have to be a lot of work, especially when you have a bold, easy-to-wear accessory like a button scarf.

(Shown here: the nichelle autumn button scarf, and the lola mini perfect pouch)

 

Want some ideas on how to wrap and button up the scarf? So far, I’ve come up with eleven different ways to wear them (check out 7 ways here, plus 4 more ways here), and I can’t wait to show you more! In the mean time, What’s in your closet that could do with an upgrade?

 

 

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upgrade your basics with a button scarf

The button scarf has been the best seller at Holland Cox since I introduced them in February 2016, and it’s easy to see why! They are bold, colorful, easy to wear, and are the perfect capsule wardrobe accessory: they can make anything you already have in your closet look amazing!

Here are some outfit ideas showing how a button scarf can upgrade your wardrobe basics, and create outfits that make you feel happy & confident, and not like you’re fading into the background!

 

your basic black pencil skirt

upgrade your plain black and gray outfits with a dragon print button scarf
You probably have a plain black pencil skirt, because you figured it would “go with everything,” and you’d get lots of wear out of it.

You probably also have lots of plain, solid color tops because of the same reason. Unfortunately, now you have lots of outfits that are just plain. See where I’m going with this? Enter bold and bright accessories to save the day!

I’ve styled this black pencil skirt and plain gray top with the lucille button scarf, which features my absolute favorite dragon print fabric, and bright red flannel.

The trinity everyday bag finishes off the outfit, because a plain black bag would just be too sad at this point.

The lucille button scarf is a perfect example of how black and gray don’t have to be boring…they can be bold and bright as well (when you mix them up just right)!

 

your fall/winter outerwear

blue book marble button scarf with a gray pea coat and a black 517 tote from Holland Cox
Remember that your button scarf can coordinate with your favorite coat and gloves, too! The winter scarves are lined with cotton flannel, so they are warm enough (and stylish enough) to serve as your outerwear scarf and as an accent to your outfit.

The fitzgerald button scarf is all about shades of blue, so will look amazing with a wide variety of coats you probably already have…from the denim jacket and khaki trench coat you wear in the fall, to the  wool pea coat you bring out when real winter arrives!

(Also shown: the sofia 517 tote)

 

your go-to sweater & jeans outfit

purple book marble button scarf with a gray sweater and jeans
Everyone has a cozy sweater and favorite jeans that are the backbone of their fall/winter casual wardrobe. Wouldn’t it be nice to elevate your go-to outfit a bit? Turn it into something that makes you feel confident and stylish, not just comfortable?

The button scarf is designed to do exactly that! This is the natalie button scarf, in a classic book marble print that looks great with all your favorite neutrals: black, navy, gray, even brown and white.

(Also shown: the simone everyday bag)

 

What do you have in your closet that could use a little boost? What favorite outfits of yours could be even better with a little bit more color, and a little bit more style? Check out all the button scarves and imagine how they could elevate your everyday!

 

 

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bad sewing habits that are making your life harder

So much of successful sewing is muscle memory…experience and practice makes all the difference! So you can imagine how repeating bad habits can make your sewing more frustrating than it needs to be.

No matter how long you’ve been sewing, you can improve your work by breaking some bad habits. If you’re still new to the craft, now is the time to develop good habits, so make sure you don’t fall into these traps!

 

bad habit #1: you’re looking at the needle

 

keep your eye on the seam allowance line, not the needle

The absolute bedrock of sewing properly is learning to keep your seam allowances even. Without this skill (which is more than just sewing in a straight line!), whatever you’re making can end up the wrong size or the wrong shape.

If your stitch lines are wobbly, or your seam allowances are not uniform, you might be looking at the needle when you sew, rather than where your eyes should be: on the seam allowance line.

Looking at the needle gives you no information; how can you know what the edge of the fabric is doing, if you’re not looking at it? Your eye should be fixed on the edge of the fabric, right at the front of the presser foot, so you know your fabric is being fed into the needle properly, and at the correct seam allowance.

Use a bit of brightly colored tape to mark your seam allowance, and help your eye stay trained where it should be. Painter’s tape or electrical tape is great for this!

 

bad habit #2: you’re too grabby with your fabric

 

don't be grabby with your fabric!

 

No matter what fabric you’re using, or what you’re making, you should never be pushing the fabric into the needle, or pulling it from the behind the needle.

(Every stitch behind the needle is already done, you can’t change it! Worry about the fabric being fed into the needle.)

You should use the lightest possible touch on your fabric, and only touch it as much as you need to in order to keep everything under control.

Your hands don’t need to be any closer to the needle than shown above, and if you do have to nudge your fabric to the left or right to keep your seam allowance even, you should do so gently and slowly, while you’re still sewing (as in, don’t stop and re-position your fabric, correct while you stitch). In other words: no yanking, no pulling, no pushing, no being grabby with the fabric!

 

bad habit #3: you’re disrespecting the grain

don't disrespect the grain of the fabric

 

Understanding, respecting, and sometimes manipulating the grain of fabric can actually be a fairly complex discussion. Without getting too involved, I can say that at the very least you should be careful of the grain when cutting your fabric!

If you’re using a pattern, it likely has a grain line marked on it, in the form of an arrow. Sometimes these arrows are labeled “grain” or “straight grain,” and sometimes not.

Use this line to orient your pattern properly on your fabric, with the grain line parallel to the selvedge edge. Don’t just eyeball it, though! Get out your trusty clear ruler and make sure it really is straight: line up a line on the ruler with the selvedge, and make sure the grain line on the pattern also lines up with the ruler, and you’ll be good to go.

If you’re not using a pattern, think about what part of the thing you’re making would require the strongest part of the fabric. What part of it would require the fabric to give a little bit? That’s how you can decide what should be cut on the straight grain (parallel to the selvedge and most often the stiffest and strongest fibers), vs the cross-wise grain (perpendicular to the selvedge and often a bit stretchier than the straight grain).

Cutting on the bias (diagonally) produces the most stretch, which in many cases you want to avoid at all costs, but sometimes can actually produce a very cool effect!

If you aren’t paying attention to the grain, however, you can’t effectively control your fabric, and you might be (unpleasantly) surprised by how your fabric behaves, and what your finished product looks like!

 

bad habit #4: you’re being lazy about pressing

before finger-pressing

Nobody likes ironing…but ironing and pressing is critical for sewing success! Ironing your fabric before you start (and sometimes your pattern, too!), pressing seams open, and using heat to shape fabric are just some ways that your iron goes a long way in making your life easier, and your sewing more successful.

But one part of pressing you might not have thought much about is the idea of finger-pressing. It is exactly what it sounds like: using your fingers as if they are little tiny irons, and flattening out seams and such before you apply your hot iron. It makes a huge difference!

The little wallet above has been turned right side out, but I did not do any finger-pressing.  After spending a little time getting the seams open and flat with my fingers, it looks like this:

 

after finger pressing

Even before any heat gets anywhere near it, it’s much flatter already!

The reason finger-pressing is worth it and is in fact critical is that without it, you’ll be pressing in creases you don’t want. You’ll never have sharp corners or even edges without finger-pressing, and it makes your final project look nice, neat, and finished. It also makes sure it ends up the right size and shape.

It only takes a minute, don’t skip this step!

 

bad habit #5: you’re skipping the interfacing

with and without interfacing

 

Of course, not every sewing project ever requires interfacing. But so many do require it, and so many would really benefit from it!

Interfacing is what gives a tote bag it’s shape, keeps collars from looking floppy, keeps waistlines from twisting and stretching out of shape, and many other miracles. It stabilizes fabric and can make it stiffer, stronger, smoother, and easier to sew.

Choosing the right interfacing for your project depends on lots of factors, but the bottom line is to think about what your final product should look like. I chose a lightweight, woven, fusible interfacing for the inside of the little wallet shown above on the right (Pellon SF 101, my favorite), because I want it to be able to sit up by itself, and stand up to repeated use.

The one on the left is actually made with heavier weight fabric, but without interfacing…you see how it won’t stand up by itself, and how it doesn’t have crisp edges, even after pressing.

Skipping interfacing can change the look of your final product, and make the fabric wear out faster!

 

Any other bad habits you’ve formed over the years, or good habits you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

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versatile style: the anjelica 517 tote five different ways

Your most versatile accessories are never the plain ones. Your favorites get worn the most because of how they make you feel. How can you feel happy and confident in something dull? How can you fall in love with something plain?

Do yourself and your wardrobe a favor, and pass by the plain! Here are five different ways you could wear the anjelica 517 tote…proving that practical does not mean plain.

 

with distressed jeans

 

denim 517 tote from Holland Cox with distressed jeans and peasant top

The anjelica tote is all about the classic look of gold stitching on dark blue denim. But it’s also bright red on the back (Click here to see all of anjelica’s details)…don’t think that means you can only wear it with red!

Denim anything can be treated as a neutral (you wear your favorite jeans with practically every color, right?), and the anjelica tote is no different. The windowpane check and gentle curves give it a very classy look, but that doesn’t mean you can’t wear it on the weekends, too, with distressed jeans and a cute tank top!

 

with an embroidered mini skirt

 

denim 517 tote with embroidered mini skirt and tank top

Intricate embroidery is very trendy right now, and depending on what motifs you go for, those items may not last too many seasons into the future.

You don’t have to worry about that with the anjelica tote…there’s no motif more classic than a windowpane check, and classic means it never goes out of style. So break out your trendy miniskirts now, and when you’re tired of them, you’ll still have an awesome bag to wear with whatever comes next!

I’ve also styled this outfit with the small perfect pouch and mini pouch in a vintage black and gold damask, which echoes the embroidery trend (and coordinates with the skirt) without being too matchy.  The perfect pouches are designed to work with the 517 totes to corral your smaller goodies, and look great doing it! Check them all out here.

 

with a ruffly maxi skirt

 

denim 517 tote from Holland Cox with ruffly maxi skirt and blouse

This outfit is all about contrasts. The voluminous skirt and fluffy blouse are very romantic, but the knee-high boots and the anjelica tote are much more modern (I like to think the accessories are a little of both!).

They all work together because each piece is quite dramatic, even if they achieve that drama in very different ways. This is not what a wallflower would wear!

 

with a preppy dress

 

denim 517 tote from Holland Cox with striped sun dress

The anjelica 517 tote is automatically going to look amazing with anything in black and white – denim, red, and gold all set off black and white beautifully, so you can’t lose.

This cute little dress is especially a great fit because of it’s shape. Its A-line skirt and fitted bodice echo the gentle curves on the tote, making them perfect for each other!

Girly accessories like sky-high scarlet heels and a flower for your hair round out this cute and flirty outfit. Check out the matching small perfect pouch as well, to hold all your goodies inside your tote!

 

with tailored trousers

 

the anjelica tote from Holland Cox with tailored red trousers

Finally, the anjelica 517 tote makes an amazing work bag. Miles away from the basic black and boring brown briefcases your colleagues will have, anjelica guarantees all eyes will be on you (which is exactly where they should be).

It’s stylish enough for the C-suite, but practical enough to elegantly haul all your office gear around.

 

Knowing all the other ways you can wear it, what could be more versatile? Can you imagine any of these outfits being as eye-catching and interesting with a plain bag?

 

 

 

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5 sewing tools to upgrade ASAP

Like so many other hobbies, there’s lots of stuff associated with sewing. How do you know you have the right stuff? Is having the wrong stuff making your sewing life harder?

There are so many different tools and notions out there, and anyone who’s been sewing for a while will have plenty of opinions on what’s best, I’m sure. But I believe there is a very short list of stuff you absolutely need as a sewing beginner.

This list is about the five sewing tools I think you’ll need to upgrade right away, as in, as soon as you decide to buy a machine and go for it!

 

upgrade your scissors!

upgrade your sewing scissors!

First of all, whatever you currently use as sewing scissors, I hope you are treating them with reverence! You know you should never use your sewing scissors to cut anything but fabric, right???

Now that we’ve got that IRONCLAD RULE out of the way…your beginner sewing kit probably came with a pair of lightweight scissors that look kind of like the red-handled ones above, yes?

These are not good enough. Time to upgrade! Why? They will not keep a sharp edge well, they get nicks and scratches easily, and they are too lightweight to cut much of anything very well.

Pretty much any company that makes sewing notions will also make scissors, and they will probably be fine. Fiskars and Mundial are both brands I’ve used and loved. Treat them right (and get them sharpened when they need it), and you’ll be good!

(Don’t toss your cheap scissors, keep them around to cut paper and other stuff, and you’ll never be tempted to use your good scissors for something you shouldn’t!)

When you’re ready for another upgrade, you’re going to want to get a pair of Ginghers. What makes them the best? They hold a sharp edge like nothing I’ve ever used before (mine are four years old and have never been sharpened, and they are still sharp enough to cut my finger!), and they are heavy enough to slice through just about anything!

you will need a pair of tiny embroidery scissors or thread nippers, too!

You’re also going to want a pair of tiny embroidery scissors or thread nippers (yes, I have three pairs…don’t judge me). These are essential, not just for cutting thread ends, but for getting into tiny corners and other awkward spots. You will absolutely need a tiny pair of scissors for something like installing a welt zipper.

All sewing scissors come in a variety of styles and lengths, and what’s best is going to be whatever feels best in your hand. The most important thing is to get a good pair that will keep its edge, and then treat them with reverence!

 

upgrade your pins!

upgrade your pins!

Just like the scissors, your sewing kit probably came with a small set that seem perfectly fine. Or maybe you bought your sewing notions separately, not as part of a kit, and you went with the least expensive pins because why not? Aren’t they all the same? Nope.

The pins on the far left above are the cheap ones I started out with.  These are not good enough. Time to upgrade! Why? The cheap pins are too short, too large (they will put large holes in your fabric), and are not very sharp. You’re going to want to immediately upgrade to something with a longer, thinner shaft and a sharper point!

Quilting pins (the ones with bright yellow heads) are the ones I recommend to my students who are new to sewing. They are very long (1 5/8″), have a very strong shaft, and a nicely sharp point. The bright yellow heads mean that you are unlikely to lose them in your fabric or on your sewing table.

The pearlized pins are the ones I use the most, they are a great all-purpose pin! The pretty, shiny heads make them easy to spot, and they are nearly 1.5″ long. Perfect for most fabrics and most projects.

The last three types of pins above are all glass-head pins. The glass heads are heat resistant, so that means you can iron over them/close to them without fear of a meltdown! They are essential when I am making neckties and need to press all those folds in place.

my pin cushion with all my favorite pins

They are also thinner than my regular pins, so I use them on finer fabrics (the blue ones are extra-fine). The blue/white headed ones are the same length (just over 1.25″), and the orange ones are nearly 2″ long.

You can see the four types I regularly use in my pin cushion, above. The pearlized pins get the most use, I use the quilting pins for thick and heavy fabrics, and the glass head pins for thinner fabrics, and when I need to press over something.

You might also want ball-point pins if you work with knits, or silk pins (aka dressmaker pins…the ones without heads) if you use lots of silk or other very finely woven fabrics.

 

 

upgrade your marking tools!

upgrade to tailor's chalk!

 

Your sewing kit probably came with something called a fabric pencil or a fabric marker. Just toss them in the garbage right now, they are not good enough.

Time to upgrade! Why? The awful fabric pencils do not mark on all fabrics (or on anything very well), and they are practically impossible to sharpen without crumbling. The so-called “washable” or “disappearing” markers do not always wash out or fade away like they are supposed to! Also, the markers tend to bleed to the right side of the fabric…boo.

Like most sewing notions, there are seemingly a million options for marking tools. My favorite is the old-fashioned tailor’s chalk – it marks on anything, and it always washes out (or sometimes even brushes away).

The red and gray tools above are Clover brand chaco liners, which have powdered tailor’s chalk inside, and a little gear-like edge that make an incredibly sharp line. I love them.

The blue triangle is your traditional tailor’s chalk, and the white rectangle is wax tailor’s chalk. White wax chalk will easily iron away on most fabrics, so I use it when I want to mark on the right side of fabric (FYI colored wax does not usually iron away)!

 

erasable pen and regular pencil as sewing tools

 

Another great tool is the Pilot brand FriXion pens, which are erasable ink pens. They just so happen to disappear on fabric with a hot iron, so they are also great when you need to mark on the right side of fabric! I use them when I sketch out my favorite chevron wave pattern on fabric too light for the white wax chalk. Beware however, that if the ink sits too long (like overnight), it might not iron away.

Finally, don’t forget the humble graphite pencil. A regular old pencil works wonderfully on lots of different types of fabric, and you can get them incredibly sharp when you need to make very fine marks.

No matter what type of marking tool you use, remember to always mark on the wrong side of the fabric. If you must mark the right side, always test your marking tool on a scrap bit of fabric before you commit.

 

upgrade your measuring tools!

a collection of measuring tools for sewing

 

This is less of an upgrade and more of an addition.  The tape measure and seam gauge your sewing kit came with are essential tools you will use constantly throughout your sewing career.

But, you will find different types of tools make different measuring jobs easier. You might end up with a massive collection of different types of measuring tools, but right off the bat you’re going to need some type of clear ruler.

Drafting patterns, altering patterns, accurately pinning patterns to fabric, cutting fabric with a rotary cutter, and marking fabric are just some of the jobs that are easier with a clear ruler.

These come in a dizzying array of sizes and shapes, but the ones I use the most are the 3″ x 18″ and the 6″ x 24.” I like the Omnigrid brand, because they have the bright yellow markings and the diagonal lines, but there are plenty of options. What’s important is that you can see through the ruler, and that the measurements (at least to the 8th of an inch) are clearly marked.

 

 

upgrade your iron!

upgrade your iron!

Nobody likes to iron…but ironing and pressing is essential to sewing success. You might as well have an iron that makes the job easier!

You might have already owned an awesome iron before you started sewing, in which case you can skip this part! But if you only bought an iron and ironing board since you learned to sew, you might have been tempted to get a cheap one, not knowing why an iron could possibly cost $100, and what difference it could possibly make.

Here’s why the $15 irons aren’t good enough: they are too light weight, they don’t get hot enough, and they don’t get steamy enough. Time to upgrade!

This is why I love my shiny Black & Decker iron shown above. It is incredibly heavy, it gets blazing hot (like really hot), produces lots of steam, and it is less than $30 on Amazon!

The other brand I own and love is Rowenta, but even the nicest Rowenta I’ve ever had is nowhere near as heavy as the Black & Decker (yes I own and use multiple irons!).

The mini irons are not at all essential…but I like having the small one (the one in the middle), when I want to press inside one of my handbags. Mine is from Conair, and it obviously isn’t very heavy, but produces a good amount of steam, considering it’s small size!

(The tiny one doesn’t get that hot, and I honestly don’t use it much, but isn’t it so cute???)

 

I hope you’ve found this useful! Having the right tools makes doing just about anything easier, but especially sewing! Particularly if you are new to sewing, you want to do everything you can to make learning easier and success more likely.

Please share in the comments your favorite tools, or best upgrade to your sewing kit!

 

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how to wear gray, part 2

Most of the time, plain neutrals can be too dull to make you feel happy and confident.

But there is definitely a way to make neutrals amazing, and to wear them without fading away (check out part 1 of how to wear gray)!

Here are a few more ways to wear gray (starring the simone 517 tote) that will make you feel fabulous, not like you’re fading away!

 

choose a contrasting color

 

how to wear gray: with bright red

 

The last thing you want is to look dingy or dull, and gray paired with other neutrals can lead you right down that horrible path.

What you need is something that pops against the gray, and nothing pops like bright red! The simone 517 tote is backed with bright red vinyl, and is lined in red quilted cotton, so clearly red is my favorite color to contrast with gray!

The McQueen tartan suggests gray without matching it exactly, and the peplum top echoes one of my suggestions from the last post about choosing interesting silhouettes.

Wear this outfit to the office, and everyone else wearing black and gray and brown will be the ones fading into the background!

 

play with patterns and shapes

 

how to wear gray: with contrasting prints

 

One of the best things about the 517 tote is its unusual shape – gentle curves instead of straight lines make it a bit more stylish than your average tote bag, and the radiating lines of the simone tote in particular are both eye-catching and oddly demure.

I chose this top (instead of something plain) for this outfit because it achieves the same effect.  Black and white gingham is a subtle but interesting pattern, and the ruffled half-sleeve is an unusual silhouette in a world of three-quarter sleeves and cold-shoulder tops.

This outfit wouldn’t be the same with a plain t-shirt, would it?

 

wear a denim dress

how to wear gray: with denim

 

The whole point of the denim dress formula is to get you thinking about denim dresses the same way you think about your jeans: your go-to thing for effortless dressing.

Since this dress is slim fitting with very clean lines, it compliments the sleekness of the simone tote beautifully!

Classy gold jewelry and red d’orsay heels give this outfit a very ladylike look. But both the dress and the bag would work just as well with more casual accessories…such is the power of a great bag and a denim dress!

 

Check out my Pinterest boards for more outfit ideas on how to wear prints and high style denim!.

 

 

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it’s not the tension: troubleshooting steps to get your sewing back on track

In the last several years, I have taught hundreds (thousands?) of people the basics of sewing, and helped many of them improve their skills beyond the beginner level.

I’ve seen a lot of frustration with bent needles, dull scissors, stubborn fabric, and the myriad other woes that sewers of all experience levels regularly must deal with.

What I have NOT seen a lot of is incorrect tension. Often when something goes wrong, the first thing you want to do is mess with the tension dial. Y’all LOVE to fiddle with that little dial! But guess what: 99% of the time, it’s not the tension.

 

snarled bobbin thread

 

Once you have the tension set properly, you will rarely have to change it. I don’t remember the last time I adjusted the tension on my Viking, and I sew on denim, leather, jersey, shantung, tweed, satin, linen, and so much more.

Next time something goes wrong with your sewing (the stitches look weird…the thread is nesting underneath the fabric…the fabric is bunching up…the machine makes a scary noise…if anything at all goes wrong), I want you to consider these problems first before you even think about messing with the tension!

 

problem #1: your machine is threaded incorrectly

 

Friends, the truth is this: whenever something goes wrong with your sewing machine, it’s probably the threading. In fact, it’s probably the bobbin. I know what you’re thinking.

Valerie, I’m not some kind of *noob* I think I know how to thread a machine!

I know you do. But still: check the threading. Just because it looks right doesn’t mean that the thread is hooked around every little hook, and sliding into every little groove inside the machine. Re-thread the machine, and you will see it’s just like re-booting your computer. Suddenly whatever was wrong is now fixed!

The biggest trouble area is the bobbin. For top loading machines, your bobbin thread should be making a diagonal line across the bobbin like this:

 

correctly threaded top-loading bobbin

 

That diagonal line is how you know you’ve done it right. The same is true for front-loading machines, but of course you can’t see it. Here’s a tutorial for threading a front-loading bobbin.

Additional threading tips:

  • always thread your machine with the presser foot UP
  • always leave a long tail of thread after finishing a stitch (snip threads away from the machine)
  • always lift your bobbin thread through the hole in the throat plate (as seen above)…don’t just pop your bobbin in and start sewing.

Okay, you’ve double and triple-checked the threading path…but are you putting the right type of thread in your machine?

 

problem #2: you are using the wrong thread

 

Patterns and tutorials rarely mention thread. But choosing the right thread is just as important as choosing the right fabric! Your thread, fabric, and needle all have to be working together properly for successful and drama-free sewing!

Like fabric, there are hundreds (thousands?) of different thread types available in various style/fiber/weight combinations. The good news is that all-purpose thread (100% polyester) is in fact all-purpose. You can use it for anything, on any type of fabric, in any machine, and it will always be appropriate!

The bad news is that sometimes, it’s still not that simple.

 

an assortment of common types and brands of thread

 

Using the wrong type of thread can gunk up your machine, cause your thread to break repeatedly, or tangle in your machine, all of which can in turn damage your fabric (and your calm…you might want to throw your sewing machine out the window).

We could be here all day talking about different types of thread, their various properties, and the best time to use each. But for the purposes of this post on machine troubleshooting, let’s focus on what you shouldn’t do. For best results, you should never:

  • use 100% cotton thread on anything but 100% cotton fabric (same for silk thread and silk fabric) in your machine;
  • use machine embroidery thread (that shiny nylon stuff) in your regular sewing machine;
  • use waxed thread (like hand quilting thread) in your machine;
  • use topstitching thread or buttonhole twist for construction seams (unless you’re sewing something really REALLY, REALLY heavyweight…like a sailboat sail – something really heavy);
  • use cheap thread of any type for any reason.

 

Gutermann thread all in a row!

 

I like to pretend I’m not a thread snob…except that I totally am, and you should be, too. If you came to my house and saw my thread collection, you’d see it’s 99% Gutermann.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Coats & Clark or Mettler, and I own and use all three (which are the three brands you’re most likely to see in your local fabric store). Aurifil is another brand you might see. I have never personally used it, but I understand it’s quite lovely, and some people swear by it!

What you need to avoid and be “snobby” about, is that off-brand stuff that comes in emergency sewing kits, bargain bins, and from the dollar store. The frustration of constant breakage is not worth it!

Okay, you’ve threaded your machine flawlessly with your high-quality, appropriate-for-your-project thread, but something is still wrong! Now what?

 

problem #3: you are using the wrong needle

 

Machine needles come in different styles and different sizes. Like the thread, it’s important to make sure you’re using the right needle for your fabric, and also the right needle for your thread.

 

Schmetz needles of different types and sizes

 

Universal needles will probably be fine most of the time. I find it worth it to switch out my needle for some types of fabrics and tasks, however. When I’m working with knits, I’ll switch to a ballpoint needle. Denim needles have a stronger shaft, so they are handy when sewing on stiff, heavyweight fabric, or over very thick seams. When I’m sewing on real leather or suede, sometimes a beveled leather needle is necessary (but not for vinyl or ultrasuede). Decorative topstitching, of course calls for a topstitch needle (and thread!).

The next question is the size. Your machine probably came with 90/14, so I’m guessing that’s what you use the most. It’s worth it to size down to an 80/12 or 75/11 for finer, thinner fabrics, otherwise, you’re going to leave giant holes in your fabric. Imagine the damage you’d do to a fine cotton lawn with an enormous 90/14 needle!

 

Organ brand needles of different sizes

 

The reverse is true, of course. You would want a bigger needle for thicker, heavier fabric. But (and there’s always a but, isn’t there???) sometimes, even with thick, heavyweight fabrics, you’re going to want a skinny, sharp needle instead of a bigger one.

Fabrics that are thick but very soft (e.g. thick tweed, wool felt, cotton webbing, even some denim) actually sew up better with smaller needles. The same is true for thin leathers (think kidskin gloves). A fine universal needle would be a better bet than a leather needle that’s too big.

 

an example scenario

Maybe I have a finely woven silk blend twill for the lining of a bag. I might use a size 80/12 universal to sew up the lining, to avoid leaving huge holes in the fine fabric.

Then the outside of the bag features leather stitched on top of other fabrics, so I size up to a 90/14 leather needle for the bag construction. But the area where the denim straps are attached require me to stitch through 4-8 layers of fabric and interfacing, so I size up again to a 100/16 denim needle just for that step.

All totally worth it for the frustration, broken needles, and damaged fabric it would save me!

 

Beyond the type and size of your needle, consider it’s health. When was the last time you changed the needle in your machine? If you can’t remember, it’s probably time to change it!

Needles that are bent, dull, or have little nicks in the shaft or on the point will wreak all kinds of havoc on your sewing, and these flaws are not necessarily visible. Switching to a new needle is always worth it!

Once you know all your notions and tools are on point, what about your machine settings?

 

#problem 4: you are using the wrong stitch

 

I don’t know what type of machine you have, but I’m willing to bet that the default stitch length is very small. Most of the time, you’ll need to lengthen the stitch, for practically every seam, and every project.

Stitches that are too small can damage your fabric, or cause the thread to tangle or break. If your needle is also too big, and your thread is the wrong type, you can imagine the hot mess you’ll end up with! Get into the habit of lengthening your stitch and you will see how your seams look better on practically everything!

 

a sample of straight stitches of different length

 

The first stitch in the above image is the default stitch on my Viking, which is labeled 2.5. I normally sew at 3.5 for regular sewing, and I’ll move it up to 4.5 for most topstitching, like the surface designs on my latest handbags.detail of the topstitching on the anjelica 517 tote from Holland Cox

 

Thread is a lot stronger than you think it is, and tiny stitches are very rarely better. Test out different stitch lengths on a swatch of fabric to figure out what’s best for your project!

For specialty thread like topstitching or metallics, you will almost always want a longer stitch length than what you usually use.

 

BONUS problem #1: the presser foot pressure is wrong

 

presser foot pressure dial on my Viking

 

This is a bonus because not all machines can even make this adjustment! This is the presser foot pressure dial on my Viking. It controls how hard the presser foot is pressing the fabric against the feed-dogs. You can see that “4” is the default on my machine. Unlike the tension dial (which on my machine is further down to the right), I find myself adjusting this all the time.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for this; I’ve found that experimenting with a swatch of fabric is the best way to figure out where to set this dial. If your machine has this option, sometimes the dial is flat on the left side of the machine. Sometimes instead of a dial, you’ll have a screw on the top of the machine. Consult your manual if you’re not sure!

 

BONUS problem #2: your machine might be dirty!

Believe it or not, regular old dust and oil can be the culprit. You should be regularly cleaning out your bobbin casing, and using a Q-tip or paint brush to clean out the nooks and crannies of your machine. Dust, thread lint, frayed fabric, machine oil, tailor’s chalk, and all kinds of stuff builds up in all kinds of places, and can cause you all kinds of grief if you don’t stay on top of it.

 

topstitching on denim

 

I hope this helps! The bottom line is that the tension only means anything if you’ve already done everything above exactly right! “Tension” in general refers to how the top and bottom threads are being pulled through the machine’s interior mechanisms.  If you don’t have everything threaded right, with the right needle and thread for your project, messing with the tension dial itself will do absolutely nothing.

Moreover, if you DO adjust your tension dial (which I hope I’ve convinced you should be your LAST RESORT), remember to do it with your presser foot DOWN. The machine can only adjust tension with it properly threaded, the needle up, and the presser foot down.

 

Happy sewing, and please share any other troubleshooting tips you’ve found helpful in the comments!

 

 

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