Let's Talk Process: blog hop

Otherwise titled: How I Made a Ukulele (and then I made it again, and again, and again...)

Today's post is part of a blog hop with 8 great sewing designers, lead by Wendi at Shiny Happy World about the design process. I picked the Ukulele from my book because I made a lot of funny and frustrating mistakes along the way. Come check out my Plucky Ukulele (and a few less plucky prototypes), or for TLDR, skip to the end for the moral of the story.

I had envisioned a bold matisse-style red ukulele with real strings. I'm an optimistic jump-right-in kinda girl, and so I am notoriously bad about sewing a new project with a fabric I just can't wait to use. This usually means my lovely fabric ends up in the scrap heap. I thought I knew the best way to attach the strings, so I quickly looked over ukulele shapes, sketched out a pattern and started cutting this sturdy red corduroy.

I quickly identified two sorta-big problems. I'll address each issue separately, although in reality I was wrangling these two problems simultaneously.

1. Shape.
I don't know what I was thinking with that square bottom! This uke ended up more cubist than fauvist, to my dismay. I had expected this to be a really simple pattern, so I had just sewn the two shapes directly together. But it wrinkled in funny places and the neck was super skinny. I realized I needed to go ahead and add a boxing strip between the two pieces. A boxing strip is just a long straight rectangle sewn between to flat layers to add depth - like the side of a mattress. This was a great fix for the wrinkling and the skinny-ness.

It took about 6 tries to get the shape of the ukulele right, and I'll admit to using up all of my red corduroy by number 3. It turns out there are a lot of different styles of ukuleles and I was drawn to all the funny shapes. But in the plush form, they just seemed confusing. When I went with a more traditional shape, it read more clearly as a ukulele.

2. The Strings
When I first dreamed up this idea, it seemed so simple! I would just top stitch the ends of my elastic cord to the face of the uke, then cover them with a felt applique, then assemble the ukulele. Easy peasy, right? Ah... no. First of all, the elastic rolled under the foot of my sewing machine, so that it was never quite in the place I wanted it to be. It was really important for the four strings to be parallel - if the elastic moved even and 1/8" it looked awful. So, sewing the elastic in place was a huge pain - but I kept trying until I got it pretty close.

More problematic was the tension. I thought I should pull the elastic just slightly so that they would be taut when the finished ukulele was assembled. I've never seen elastic used on the outside of a project, but I stretch the elastic for almost every other use, so it seemed appropriate. On the first attempt, the elastic was too loose so the strings dangled (see the top photo); on the second attempt they were too tight so that the face of the ukulele bowed inwards (like a harp).

I hoped that when I assembled the ukulele and stuffed it, the firmness of the stuffing would strengthen the body and the elastic would stretch. So I assembled the ukulele (which wasn't easy with the elastic pulling on my pieces), and I started to stuff. I could see that it was still bending, so I stuffed some more. I thought if I could just stuff it firmly enough it would be stronger than the elastic. So I stuffed and stuffed - until I burst a seam. And the elastic was still bending the neck. I wish I had a picture of this to show, but I'm pretty sure I threw it out the window.

I realized with a little trial and error, I might be able to figure out just the right tension, just like I eventually got the strings sewn evenly. But when I did, how would I ever be able to communicate that perfect tension in the written pattern so that others could duplicate my results? This is a really fundamental question for designers.When you're writing a pattern, everything needs to be reproducible. And by ukulele # 4, I knew there were just too many problems here.

The Solution
Ultimately, I decided I was going to have to find a different way of making strings. It was really hard to let go of that original vision, but it was the right thing to do. I decided to simplify and just get the body sewn (remember I was still trying to find the right shape), and then figure out how to add the strings. By taking this new, and simpler, approach the solution was suddenly very clear.

I topstitched the appliques and some buttons onto the body before assembling. Then after the ukulele was neatly stuffed and finished, I was able to tie the elastic on very simply. No slippery elastic under my sewing foot, and no tricky tension - I just looped the elastic around the buttons, tightened just a little and tied it off. This time it really was easy peasy.

The Moral of the Story
So if you're designing something new, especially if you're using materials in an unusual way, be encouraged! Know that you're doing some brave and exciting, you're pushing the boundaries of elastic (or whatever) and thinking outside of the box. Good for you! I've got two bits of hard earned design-wisdom for you:

1. Plan to make mistakes. Since your path isn't laid out for you, expect the process of making something new to be filled with twists and turns - and face those turns with a willingness to change your plans. I had to change shapes, change fabrics, and totally rethink my use of elastic. Especially, if you're a jump-right-in kinda girl like me, embrace the failures, enjoy the process, and maybe remember to use muslin for your first attempt (and second and third).

2. A good design should be interesting without being overly complicated. In my experience, the solution to a challenging design problem is almost always the cleanest, simplest solution - the kind of thing that makes people say, "ah, why didn't I think of that." In this project, I had that aha moment twice: first, when I tried using the classic ukulele shape (rather than one of the funky ones); and then again when I tied the strings on instead of sewing them in. Both were simple, but clearly superior solutions. A designer may enjoy making lots of mistakes (see # 1), but the people buying your pattern won't.

Thanks for tagging along with me through the perils of plush design. Be sure to follow along and check out the rest of the blog hop for more practical and inspiring tips from the other designers!


Betz White said...

Ah, the simplest solutions are the hardest to find, don't you think? Great advice!

Hi! I'm Wendi! said...

Fabulous advice! Especially about simplifying. I'm usually good about starting with a simple shape - but I do love to gussy things up with detailed handwork! I especially love repetitive (I say meditative) handwork - like binding a quilt. An artist friend once told me that tedium is my medium. :-) Sometimes I really have to remind myself that most people do NOT want to settle in with a needle and thread and 8 uninterrupted hours of stitching with Doctor Who.

Diane Gilleland said...

That is a genius solution for the strings! And I loved hearing about your journey from concept to finished product. Absolutely true about making a design reproducible. I'm a huge fan of fiddly, fussy hand-sewing processes, but I keep having to remind myself that not every crafter rolls that way. :-)

Mollie. said...

I love this! When I'm trying to figure out how to sew something new, I always say to myself "How do I write the instructions for this?" If I barely understand it myself, there's no way I'll be able to communicate it to others!

By the way, I LOVE this project, and would have done all the same things you did to start. Thanks for working it out for the rest of us!

Martha said...

So cute...I'd like to make one. I never thought the neck would be such a problem, not the tension of the elastic for the strings. I actually was thinking as the solution to just use regular string. ♥ Thanks for sharing! Now, where are your ukuleles going? A gift for someone??

floating thru fields said...

this is an awesome post!
I have had similar issues interpreting drawings into patterns.
thanks for sharing your process :)