December 24, 2015

Undies of Desperation

I'm heading into year 5 of the No Buying Clothes challenge, and my underwear drawer is beyond shameful. I really want to make it through at least 5 years, but I've almost reached the end of the runway on undies.

As the years have ticked past, my standards on when a pair of underwear are "worn out" have shifted drastically. Here is my current bar for retiring a set:

They are almost more of an idea than a physically useful object. Biking almost 40km round trip to work most days is hell on the crotch and lower bum area. And hundreds of washing cycles. It's actually impressive how long a decent pair of boughten underwear will last.

I am currently of the mindset that undies are best executed in stretch knit fabric, though Peter Lappin made some really sharp vintage style drawers out of woven fabric that I might like to try sometime.

Some soy/cotton undyed fabric was brought in from Dharma Trading, which I hoped to turn into underthings. One sweet thing about jersey knit is that it mostly doesn't fray at the edges, so they don't necessarily need special attention for finishing.

Not taking the time find and make a pattern from a draft, I cut up some of my worn out boxer briefs.

I tried cutting the model worn out garments apart in two ways; one with two identical but mirrored pattern pieces (below), the other using one large wraparound piece and a smaller front panel (above).

sketched out some pattern pieces, then cut some trial pieces from the blend fabric.

To make things more challenging and rewarding, when I resolved to stop buying clothes for as long as possible I also phased out my modern sewing equipment and moved to 100% human powered antique machinery, which presents some challenges for sewing knits. The two machines I have working at the moment are my Wheeler and Wilson D9 treadle, and a handcrank Singer 99. Both are straight stitchers, and do a wonderful job on wovens. There is a Necchi Supernova BU lurking in the closed but I need to make an adapter plate to get it to integrate to my W&W treadle table, which I've not done yet. It is one of the first zigzag machines and would probably do a great job on the knits, but I tried to make things work with the other machines first.

Through the Treadle On list, I learned of a mechanical zigzag attachment which could be installed on the Singer 99. One was duly acquired through ebay, and it is very cute. It is driven with the needle bar motion, and actually grabs the fabric and sways it back and forth under the straight stitching needle.

With the W&W D9, there is no zigzag attachment that can be conveniently mounted, so the idea is to sew the stretch fabric in the expanded state with a straight stitch, so there is compliance in the seam when it is finished.

The very first pair of new undies was done with the zigzag attachment on the Singer 99. It was tough going; with enough pressure on the foot to allow the attachment to successfully sway the fabric around, it got inconsistently but extensively stretched out while passing under the needle. The layers wanted to shift as well, with the bottom strongly pulling ahead of the top. While I could also get a walking foot attachment to help with this, the topside feed and zigzag attachments can't both be installed at the same time. I finished the pair, but they are pretty ugly.

Nonetheless I put them into service, and quickly discovered some shortcomings that needed to be addressed. For one thing, I didn't put a special elastic band at the top, figuring the stretch fabric should do the job ok if folded over twice and zigzagged in place. This may have worked but in any case the top was too loose as I made it, so the undies kind of fall down inside my pants under certain circumstances. Which results in me doing a special little dance with my hands in my pockets to surreptitiously pull my droopy drawers back up. Another issue is that the fabric is pretty thin, and in a single layer doesn't do much to soften the curves of the junk pile in the front. I guess that is one reason why most commercial underwear has a double layer of fabric up in that section! So not ideal, but probably wearable if I put in some kind of drawstring or waistband, or am willing to do the panty-hitching shuffle throughout the day.

After fighting with the zigzag attachment, I decided to try the next easiest method, stretched fabric straight stitch on the W&W. For round two, I used the construction with a separate fabric panel in the front to serve as a junk smoother. For this I rounded up some scraps of cider cloth. Am I the first man to make underwear from used cider press cloth? Probably not, but it is fun to imagine I am breaking ground in the name of humankind here.

I also extended the waistline up a little and made it tighter and with more substantial foldovers for the top edge. Another sewing tool I used for the first time which helped tremendously with the tricky stretch fabric was a garment making temporary spray adhesive. This was great for keeping the seams together while sewing and hemming, and I will certainly be making more use of it in future.

The seaming itself went far easier on the treadle, and the action of the feed dogs stretched the fabric quite a bit going through such that there was some compliance in the seam afterwards.

But it wasn't enough, especially with the brought in waistline. Stretching them enough at the top edge to comfortably get them on results in popping the thread on the waistline hem seam.

The leg holes were also a little tight and awkward where they joined when sewn this way.

They had been more comfortable in the previous pair hemmed with zigzag.

I flat felled the cider cloth front panel so the edges won't fray.

This panel turned out pretty nice I thought, but my family burst out laughing when they saw it since they felt it was too close to my skin tone and at first glance it looked like I had on some ridiculous crotchless clown panties. Yes, I'm going to embarrass you with a photo.

Where else on the internet can you find pictures of overweight, bald, middle aged dads in their underwear, right? I'm actually not embarrassed, though my threshold seems to be higher than average!

But you can bet I'm going to rock these clown panties on a weekly basis. It helps that this is the alternative:

Yeah, its amazing how your standards on how good something is depend so much on what is on offer as an alternative.

Being close to a reasonable underwear design, I immediately made another pair but with an attempted modification to make the legs slightly longer and looser. It didn't really pan out and ended up a bit worse than the first pair.

On the whole, I think if I stay with knits I need to go back to zigzag; it is just too hard to build in enough stretch to the straight seam to do the trick. Probably the best thing would be to get the Necchi set up, but I've got a few things to try with the attachment on the 99 first.

My sense of the biggest issue with the basic approach using the attachment is the level of stretch and the fact that it is imbalanced, imposed by the feed dogs on the bottom and the attachment foot on top. So the adhesive will help with keeping the layers together and work to even the stretch out. Another idea is to put some temporary sizing on the fabric to inhibit stretch during assembly, or to use a temporary layer of stabilizer to accomplish the same goal. I made up some starch solution by boiling 1 tsp corn starch in 1 cup of water, but have not tried it yet. Pretty sure there is some Sulky water soluble stabilizer in one of my sewing drawers too, and I've read that paper works well but can be annoying to extract afterwards.

The jersey knit I used is rather thin, and I doubt it's service life will be very long in the intense wear environment that is the everyday reality inside my pants. We'll see how long these three pair hold up. I'll surely have to redo the waist and leg hems with zigzag at a minimum as the straight stiching pops loose. While not yet the embodiment of ultimate custom panty perfection, these are good enough to use and they are without a doubt better than the ones they are replacing.


BarbaraShowell said...

Wonderful post! I don't think your underwear photo is embarrassing at all, but those shredded drawers!!! What if you got hit by a bus and needed to go to the ER??? I think your necchi is your best bet for knits though with practice it can be done on the straight stitch. Good luck, underwear are small enough to keep slogging through till you get really good at them.

SJ Kurtz said...

This may be your best essay yet. A head scratcher surely. Virtually all the stretch undie patterns are synthetic in one form or another, or use a zig zag or coverstitch. Or both.

Jersey fabric handling is much improved by a quick dip in the starch solution, wringing it out, blocking it out and letting it dry (small batches work better). The drawstring is a great idea at the waist.

Thinking about preventing 'ride up' issues; possibly cut them longer in the leg, with a double hem? Unsure if that is useful for bike shorts or not (Biker Boy says only if they go pretty far down, to your knees, like cut down tights). Hair snagging issues develop. Biker Boy and I are going to discuss this further.

As ever, looking forward to future iterations. Always a pleasure to read your thinking. And the happiest of holidays (all of them) to you and your fine family.

SunGold said...

I used a treadle for all my sewing back in the 70s when we did the back-to-the-land thing. Log house, no running water, electricity, phone. Some amazing clothing came out of that machine.

Here's a tip for the feed dog/ uneven fabric feed issue: try a layer of tissue paper under your fabric. I use the gift-wrap type tissue from the local $$ store. Works fine, as all I'm doing is tearing it off.

A teflon presser foot may do the trip, also, allowing a smoother slide on top.

Good luck!