Feb 26, 2009

DIY Mei Tai!

There is nothing like the magic of a baby wrap or carrier. Your little one has been fussing for what feels like (or has been) hours on end, when you finally think to strap her into her carrier. Walk around the block or bounce on your birth ball, and voila: sweet, sleeping baby. Some people use washing machines, strollers or a drive in the car for the same effect, but I love the cuddly closeness of the carrier. Plus we live in New York City and don't have a car or a washing machine, and use our stroller sparingly due to the MTA's spotty elevator service.

My husband and I have relied for months on our Action Baby carrier (which Ryan always says makes it sound like our daughter is a spy or something). It's a soft, structured carrier that can be worn on the front or the back, baby facing inward. But at seven months old, Lucy is getting heavy and I wanted to try a Mei Tai. Also I thought the classic Chinese fabric carrier would be cute in the right print. Since I carry her so much, I deserve a back-up, right? The Mei Tai is simple: a rectangle of fabric with four straps, two for your waist and two to cross over your shoulders and tie around your waist. Soooo....how hard could it be to make one?

It turns out, not hard at all! Even someone with the most basic of sewing skills can make one easily. Though you will be carrying your baby in this, so I would advise against hand sewing. And like my dad, a sailor, always says, "If you can't tie a knot, tie a lot," i.e. sew the crap out of your mei tai, reinforcing it and then reinforcing it some more. You want this thing to be sturdy. After all, you'll be putting your baby in it!

My new Mei Tai is so comfy, and my seven-month-old, 18-pound daughter feels very well supported, hugged on all sides by the soft cotton fabric. While a Mei Tai looks a little like a four-legged fabric octopus when it's not on, I found it very easy to strap Lucy to my front — easier in fact, than our Action Baby Carrier, which requires reaching up behind yourself to adjust a buckle across your back. The only drawback is the straps are so long they dangle on the floor, gathering dust while you adjust it.

To get started, you need:

2 yards of heavy cotton broadcloth, twill, denim, etc.
1/4 yard each of cotton in a print you'd like wearing often (optional)
1/2 yard polyester batting for extra-soft straps
1/2 yard interfacing (optional)
Matching thread

In designing this Mei Tai, I thought about how a wide bra strap provides better support. Following that principle, I wanted to make my mei tai's straps nice and wide, distributing the weight of my baby across my back, shoulders, and hips.

Just as I don't always follow recipes to the letter, I'd advise you to consider how long you need your straps to be and amend this pattern based on that. I'm short but have wide-ish hips, so my straps are all quite long. If you're really tall or larger through the shoulders, you might want to lengthen them in your pattern. Better to make them too long. You can always shorten them later. I pinned a tape measure at my shoulder and wrapped it across my back and around my waist to determine how long I needed my straps to be.

Getting ready:

From your broadcloth/main fabric, you will cut out the following pieces:
-2 shoulder straps, each 8 inches by 72 inches or longer (you will be folding the straps in half lengthwise, so they will only be 3.5 inches wide in the end)
-2 waist straps, each 8 inches by 42 inches (again, you will be folding the straps in half lengthwise, so they will only be 3.5 inches wide in the end)
-1 waist band, 10 inches by 36 inches (waist band will also be folded in half lengthwise, giving you a 4-inch-high waistband)
-1 body panel, 17 inches by 15 inches (or bigger)

Fold your fabric and cut pieces along the fold like this:

To mark the pieces for cutting, you can use masking tape to create straight lines along your measurements. Or cut pattern pieces first from pattern paper, newsprint, or old wrapping paper. Pin, and cut. (But always do like carpenters do: measure twice, cut once!!)

I wanted my Mei Tai to be pretty as well as functional — and reversible. So I cut out two more panels slightly longer than the body panel cut in the broadcloth: 20" by 15". Cut two slightly smaller pieces of interfacing — about 19" by 14". We will come back to these pieces at the end.

Lastly, cut out three pieces of batting to add extra squishy softness to your shoulder straps and waistband:

-2 shoulder strap pieces, each 7 & 1/2" by 33"
-1 waistband piece, 7 & 1/2" by 34"

The thickness of the batting I bought meant I needed to fold it in half to get a nice soft strap. If your batting is thicker, you may choose to cut pieces 3.5 inches wide instead.

NOW, I worked on all my straps first, so they would be ready to attach to the main body as needed. Moving along....

Making the waist straps:

For the waist straps, simply fold in half lengthwise, right sides facing. Iron and pin. Sew together, giving yourself 1/2-inch seam allowance. Use your pinking shears on the edges so you won't worry about fraying.

To create a tapered end, sew to the edge from the top corner at an angle. Trim along seam with pinking shears.

Turn right side out and iron. Set aside for now.

Making the shoulder straps:

The shoulder straps are slightly more complicated than the waist straps because you will be lining part of each strap with batting to make them softer at the point where they cross over your shoulders. Mmmm, comfy.

First, fold each strap in half lengthwise, right sides facing, and iron. Sew together half way along the length. Turn right side out and press, folding in edges of unsewn strap, like so:

Fold your batting in half lengthwise and sandwich it between the two layers of broadcloth. Fold edges in, press, pin and topstitch.

At the end of the strap opposite the batting, turn in the edges and top stitch. Set aside for now.

The body panel:

If you're lucky enough to have a serger, serge all around your body panel to finish the edges. Otherwise, turn all edges under, press and sew.

Attaching the body panel to the waistband:

Fold the waistband in half lengthwise, wrong sides facing, and iron. Unfold and press in 1/2-inch on top and bottom. Now fold your piece of batting in half lengthwise, and sandwich it between the two layers of broadcloth.

Fold edges under a 1/2 inch, lining them up. But before you pin together, lay your body panel down on the waistband at the midpoint. Layer the batting and top of waistband on top, then pin. Topstitch, reinforcing at edges.

Attaching waist straps to waistband:

Turn in open edges of waistband. Iron. Now tuck the waist strap 3-4 inches into the opening, and pin. Top stitch, and reinforce by sewing a rectangle with an X in the middle like this:

Repeat on the other side.

Attaching shoulder straps:

Turn down top corners of body panel a couple inches and press. Lay bottom end of shoulder strap (the end with the batting) on top of the folded-down corner. Make sure the strap overlaps the body panel by about 3.5-4 inches. You want a lot of overlap so that you can reinforce, and then reinforce some more. This part of your Mei Tai needs to be strong!

Pin and topstitch, again making a box with an X in the middle. This creates a really strong attachment (like you and your baby in this carrier! Aww....).

Reinforcing body panel with your printed fabric:

OK. You could stop here and have a perfectly fine Mei Tai. But if you go the extra mile here, you will have a pretty and reversible Mei Tai! Who doesn't want that?

Attach your interfacing to the wrong side of the printed panels, following the manufacturer's instructions. I always use fusible interfacing — just lay a damp washcloth on top and press at highest temperature. You could skip the interfacing if you don't have it or think it's needed. I like to use it because the interfacing makes the fabric a little stiffer and more sturdy, also less see-through.

Press the bottom edge of the panel under 1/2 inch, then press sides under 1/2 inch, up to where the straps are attached to the main body panel. Lay one printed panel right side down, and lay the main panel of your Mei Tai on top. Now lay your other printed panel on top of that, and line up the three edges. You may need to re-press some edges to make it all line up properly. Pin and topstitch all three sides, reinforcing at corners. Fold under top corners and topstitch all around.

After I started working on my mei tai and this tutorial, I realized there are numerous other patterns out there on other blogs. Sometimes reinventing the wheel is satisfying. But here are a few others at Jan Andrea, Make Baby Stuff.com, Walter and Veronica.

Use common sense and test your carrier each time before you put your child in it, tugging on the straps and testing the body for holes, pulls, broken stitches, etc. Give yourself generous seam allowances and use pinking shears (or your serger) around all edges to help avoid fraying at the seams. And if you wash your mei tai in the washer, double-check afterward to make sure it's still safe.

Mei Tai done!

Have I mentioned my baby is a model? Not just as seen here modeling the new Mei Tai I finished sewing today. She's also in this month's Parents magazine. Page 139.

So this Mei Tai is awesome if I do so say myself. Nice thick, padded straps, just perfect for chewing on (so I am told by my daughter).

I'm working on a tutorial, which I should hopefully post in a day or two. It's already mostly written, but some things need to be amended, as I found some easier ways to do things with my 2nd, now almost done!

I hear my model waking up, so gotta run.

Feb 19, 2009

Extremely frugal and Extreme Frugality

So I was listening to the WNYC today as I often do when feeding the baby, and Leonard Lopate was talking to a writer from Maine who is blogging for Gourmet magazine on the topic of Extreme Frugality — a topic to which I can relate. I know, I was like, "Wah? This topic seems incongruous with Gourmet magazine," but a big part of being extremely frugal is feeding your family on the cheap so I guess it fits.

Anyway, the writer, W. Hodding Carter, says he decided it was time for his family to start living within their means (after years of accruing credit card debt to live a lifestyle which they could not afford). And with humble means that means shopping at discount food stores, baking all their own bread and no eating out.

I'm hoping a book deal is in the works for him, in the vein of A Year of Living Biblically. I'm not sure which is harder: following the hundreds of wacky tenets in the Bible, or trying to feed, clothe and house a family of six on $41,000 a year while trying to pay off significant credit card debt. Hmmm...makes me feel a little bit better about our situation.

So among the things we have done to kickstart our extreme frugality — begun last summer after Lucienne's birth, which coincided unfortunately with the recession — are:
-We switched to store-brand everything. Whole Foods' brand is really cheap and still good. Target brand diapers are way cheap. (Sorry environment, but we share our laundry with a couple hundred other people and I just can't put poopy diapers in there. Bad karma.)
-I box-die my hair now.
-And get my hair cut by an apprentice stylist. (He's so awesome though I have to tip like I'm paying much more for my cut.)
-No eating out. Ever.
-I drink Cafe Bustelo. The best and cheapest espresso at $2 a can.
-We started eating greens after my friend Marcy showed me how to cook them. I can't believe it took me 30 years to get into kale, collard greens and chard. Greens are cheap yet so nutritious.
-Blogspot blog = free!
-We got baby photos at Olan Mills photography studio for free with coupon!
-I make soup to use up every last piece of fresh produce we buy. I like to play it like a game called The Mother Hubbard Challenge: Use up everything, all of it, in some dish.
-No more magazine subscriptions.
-No more Netflix.
-No more new clothes, shoes or anything we already have one of.
-We joined a listserve for neighbourhood parents who swap baby stuff.
-A purse works fine as a diaper bag.
-A blanket works well as a changing pad.
-Baby socks do double-duty as mittens.
-And "Dry-clean only" really means hand wash and hang to dry.

Our biggest extravagance is DVR. I don't know if I could go back to watching normal TV — even upon threat of starvation.

In his radio interview, Carter mentioned a NY Times recipe for No-Knead bread, which he makes every day (I guess with four kids you go through a loaf a day). I found the recipe here, where one blogger proved a four-year-old can make it. The secret is time — lots of it — and you don't have to get your hands dirty. There's not much I hate more than kneading, so I am going to give this a try.

Feb 13, 2009

No. Sleeves. 'Til Brooklyn....

Is it just me, or do Americans get served jury duty way more often than we do in Canada? My husband has served once already and received a notice today in the mail. At our mommy-daddy-baby group several of the moms talked about also serving recently. But I have never heard of anyone I know ever being called to serve jury duty in Canada. Nor have I ever done so.

Anyway, I'm working on a bunch of spring/summer dresses for my upcoming launch of an Etsy store. Today was supposed to be sleeve day (I hate sleeves!) but I unexpectedly ran out of thread so am spending my baby's naptime cleaning up my sewing room (I can't cook without creating a disaster in the kitchen, and I can't sew without strewing thread all through the apartment).

That picture above is of a hawk in Tompkins Square Park (Lower East Side) on Monday.

Feb 12, 2009

Sleepsack Tutorial!

It is true that you use a lot of blankets when you have a baby. And some maybe need more than others. A little blanket can act as a changing surface, a nursing cover, a spit-up cloth, and ....oh yeah, a blanket. Some are fuzzy and perfect for putting under a still-naked baby fresh from the tub. Some are really pretty. And one was even handknit — that one we will save forever.
But we got so many before my daughter was born, we didn't even have room for them all.

Most of them weren't big enough for swaddling, and, hello, you're totally not supposed to put a blanket on a little baby while she's sleeping anyway, for fears of suffocation/SIDS. And now my seven-month-old is far too mobile to stay correctly placed atop a blanket.

For months I tried to figure out what to do with them all. I finally figured they were the perfect size to be made into sleep sacks, the little zip-up wearable blankets that are touted as a SIDS-safe sleeping option. (Maybe it was a late-night Snuggy commercial that gave me the idea?)

I used two small flannel receiving blankets to make the sleep sack my daughter is wearing in the above picture. It was so easy, I made it in one nap time:

• First iron your blanket and lay it out. Measure the blanket and your baby to make sure she will fit!

Cut two 12-inch by 1-inch pieces of fusible interfacing (Picture 1). Use your iron to fuse one piece of interfacing along the outside edge of the WRONG side of the fabric about two inches from the top of the blanket. Do the same to the other side of the blanket, again on the WRONG side of the fabric.

Let cool, then fold over the blanket about an inch along the edge where the interfacing is and iron and pin (Pict. 2).

Straight stitch both sides down, about 3/4 of an inch away from the edge of the blanket. (You will be putting snaps, buttons or a zipper along this edge, so you don't want the seam running through the middle).

• Now lay your blanket down and fold in your interfaced edges so that they overlap about an inch at the center line.

Pin the edges together about 1/3 of the way up from the bottom, where your baby's feet will go. Topstitch together along the outside edge of the top piece. Pin together the edges the rest of the way up. Later you will attach snaps, buttons or a zipper, but for now the pins will help you keep everything in the right place for the next few steps.

Lay your blanket back down and draw a neck hole along the top edge of the blanket. Use a pair of pyjamas that your baby wears as a guide to make sure it's big enough. It's not important that the hole fit exactly right because your baby will be wearing pyjamas underneath anyway.

Now draw arm holes (Pict.3). I used one end of my French curve for this, but again you can just freehand draw it because the baby will be wearing PJs underneath and a loose armhole won't matter.

Turn inside out, and iron under 3/8 of an inch all the way around the neck and arm holes. Iron and pin, then top stitch so your neck and arm holes are nicely finished. It's starting to look like a sleepsack now, right? Pin together the shoulders and sew with 1/2-inch seam allowance (Pict. 4).

OK, so my daughter likes to kick and roll and needs lots of room for her long legs (I do not know from whom she inherited those). So I added some extra space for her with panels cut from yet another flannel blanket (Pict. 5). To do so, I laid the sleep sack out flat, and cut an 11-inch slit in each outside edge. I folded the 2nd blanket and cut 11-inch high triangles for the panel pieces.

Then turn the blanket back inside out, and pin the panels along the edge of the slits you cut. Sew and clip.

You are almost done! With the sleep sack inside out, just sew along the bottom edge of the bag.

Now attach your favourite fasteners -- I prefer snaps -- and you're done.

Feb 10, 2009

One red kilt

Nora Ephron has a new play being staged in New York City right now. Called Love, Loss and What I Wore, it's actually a "reading" at this point and will benefit a not-for-profit that provides nice clothes to low-income women for job interviews. I heard Ephron, who wrote the play with her sister, talking about it on public radio this afternoon while I was feeding Lucy homemade applesauce for lunch.

It's a series of monologues about clothes and memories and how, for women anyway, they intertwine (complete with celebrity readers like Joy Behar, a la Vagina Monologues). On WNYC, Ephron talked about how one common thread among the many stories gathered for the production was that every woman could remember one special coveted item of clothing that they were denied as a child. For her, it was a muff. Poor girl, her mother just laughed in her face and said no without even considering what joy a muff could bring her baby girl.

For me, it was a red plaid kilt. Christmas, I think when I was in Grade 3 or 4. I didn't get it. I got a doll instead. I don't know if my mom forgot or thought I would lose interest immediately anyway. Or, maybe, that I needed to be taught the lesson that you can't always get what you want. An important lesson, true. But it's also nice to get what you want sometimes.

Later, there were lots of things, of course, at that age when fashion becomes important and girls can be cruel if you don't have the right shoes. I remember a girl (whose name I will never forget) in my Grade 7 tallying up the dollar value of my outfit out loud in class to shame me for having a mom who shopped the Sears catalogue and not somewhere cooler.

I hope when Lucy is old enough to care about such things, I will remember what it was like and try to accommodate her fashion requests within reason. I don't want to spoil her, but want to teach that when you can't get what you want (because, say, your mom can't afford it), you can find some way to reach a compromise; if she wants a muff, maybe we can make one or spend a Saturday searching second-hand shops.

Because I'd rather that chapter in her memoir describe how her mom made her
a kilt out of a tablecloth...maybe it was too ugly to wear out of the house, but at least we'll have tried.

Feb 7, 2009

Every Last Scrap, pt. 1

Baby Einstein can suck it. Seriously. (So can those ridiculous education systems for teaching your baby while still in the womb). Babies need no entertainment more stimulating than a pretty mobile above their crib or change table. TV, definitely not, according to a new U.S. study that has indicated TV time for babies actually delays language development. (Like my husband always says, you can find a study to prove just about anything — and of course it's possible those babies who were plunked in front of Baby Einstein were getting less stimulation from their parents in the long run, which would be detrimental to development, but any research that means we can feel good about buying less crap for our children is fine by me).

This mobile that hangs above my daughter's changing table (seen here over my husband on diaper duty) was the most difficult thing I have ever made. Modeled after this one on the Spool sewing blog, I used up the last scraps from a few metres of the classic flowered "Unikko" Marimekko fabric in lime and yellow. I covered two kitchen chairs and made a swingy summer skirt. The leftover pieces were pretty small, so they were perfect for the birds, each of which only required 10-inch-square pieces.

When I buy pretty, expensive fabric, I have this obsession with using every last piece I've made baby bibs, headbands, bias tape, and handkerchiefs for my eternally sweaty husband — all pretty simple projects.

It turns out balancing a mobile is really, really hard. Every piece has an effect on every other piece, and if one slides a little to the left...everything else if off kilter. It's all trial and error...and error....and error some more. It has made me appreciate Alexander Calder's mobiles, many of which are on display at MoMA, and are totally worth taking your baby to see. Go on Friday night when it's free.


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