Marking fabric, on the cheap

TL;DR: don’t use ordinary colored pencils in place of tailor’s chalk pencils, but children’s washable markers work really well!

When I started sewing a lot, I dug up some tailor’s chalk pencils from the bottom of my sewing bag. Until then, it had just been for the random alteration and I’d used pins to mark everything. It took me a couple of weeks of regular project work to grind the four that I found into little nubbins.

They worked generally well. Aside from the fact that the lead (chalk, I guess) inside broke somewhat regularly, they marked well and I never had a problem removing marks from fabric. Getting to the shorter end of the last one, I went online to buy more.

That didn’t work out well. Even with a little searching at all the places where I usually buy discount supplies, the cheapest one I could find was well over a dollar. Even at my local retailers, everything rang in over a dollar with coupons and sales. I started to look for other solutions, things that would work even better.

My first stop was water-soluble markers. The sewin g varieties are supposed to be pretty good, although I had read that sometimes they don’t come off perfectly if you press over them. I press a lot and I don’t want to have that problem. Even without that, those were even more expensive: the cheapest I could find was over $3 retail. I know markers aren’t very durable with felt tips and I don’t expect that these would last very long.

So I looked somewhere else. Going by association, the tailor’s pencils looked just like regular colored pencils. The first package I bought was at the dollar store, brand name, Crayola, 10 in a package for exactly one dollar (plus tax). I didn’t even bother testing them, I just went ahead and used them. The only project I was working on at the time was a muslin pattern.

Somewhere in here I was at Wal-Mart for another inevitable fabric-buying bender (the prices are so low!) and I decided to take a peek at the school supplies aisle. My goal was to see if I could get colored pencils for the same price at the dollar store — I could — but I discovered something even more interesting: children’s washable markers. I remember using these as a kid, I guess my mother didn’t want me getting real marker all over my clothing. This struck me as a coincidence, that they’re specifically designed to wash out of clothing and other things that children are likely to draw on. Best of all, they’re a dollar for a pack of 10.

The Field Test

Yup, I’m still an engineer. Check. Here I was with all these pencils and now some washable markers, questioning whether or not these were adequate replacements for the real (expensive) deal. How hard could this be to test? Surely, not much. I set about to design the test.

First, I do a lot of work both on cotton fabrics and on synthetics. I wasn’t in the mood to be too precise, so I selected a large swatch of some nameless stretchy synthetic I had a lot of and a decent swatch of my pattern muslin. I figured those would be the things I was most likely to make into patterns anyway. I did need layers — part of the benefit of fabric markers is the ability to bleed a mark through a single layer or multiple layers to mark a single spot — and I was going to have to wash this whole deal. Washing muslin means the edges definitely need to be finished, otherwise the stuff shreds in the dryer.

After a little bit of hemming, I had these:

stretchy synthetic
white muslin

This didn’t take long. The synthetic would have been so much better if I’d attached some stabilizer to it but this was just a test. That didn’t really need finishing either, which was good because I found out that I’m still not very good at sewing a single layer of that stuff without stabilizer. The synthetic is 3 layers thick and the muslin is 4 layers thick. I added a single seam down the long end of each of the test platforms, just a bare stitch (the serger stitch imitation that my machine does) on the synthetic and a straight foldover hem with a turnover ribbon finish on the muslin.

Here’s some more detail:

four finished layers
three layers with a sad attempt to finish the edges of the center

Now the fun part: scribble all over them! Actually, this is not fun for me, I’m fairly obsessive and there’s nothing that tickles my fancy better than fresh, clean, pressed fabric. In white, no less. But that wouldn’t really test anything.

I didn’t wash anything before I started. I figured that there may be something in some of the detergent I use that helps to prevent stains. I made sure to hold the markers on the fabric good and long in at least some of the scribbles, ensuring I had solid, dark marks through all the layers. I used a few different colors, thinking that there may be some variability in the permanence of different colors. I tried both the colored pencils and the markers. Then I decided to put a small mark from the tailor’s chalk pencil as well, as a control. Good experiments need control. Finally, before washing, I (dry) pressed everything good and hot, as hot as I dared with the fabric — that’s maximum temperature for the muslin and a notch and a half lower for the synthetic — for a good long time, 20 seconds with steady pressure.

What I ended up with looked like some awful abstract art:

the test pattern

Now into the wash. It was delicates day, which means cold wash with Oxy-Clean on a handwash cycle, followed by low heat in the dryer until everything’s dry. Luckily, I had plenty of other work that day so I didn’t sit by the machine waiting for the cycle to complete.

Results

First and foremost: the markers didn’t even wait to start to fade. The marks started getting duller as I was pressing them. I can’t say that they were so light that I’d worry, but they weren’t as vivid or strong. They faded more on the synthetic than the cotton, making me glad that I’d done a test with both fabrics.

Next, the colored pencils. This was the biggest disappointment. Those marks didn’t really wash off at all. I’d marked every layer of both fabrics and the marks looked remarkably similar pre-wash and post-wash. Conclusion: don’t use ordinary colored pencils in place of tailor’s chalk pencils.

Then came the coup: the washable markers were exactly what they were billed to be, completely washable. No color, no bleed and no stain survived the wash. Even the top layer, that had gotten the heaviest application of marker (in order to get it to bleed to the lower layers), washed out completely. If I’d not had pictures of the marker scribbles, I wouldn’t have ever known they’d existed. Conclusion: children’s washable markers make fantastic fabric marking devices.

Of most interest, however, was the tailor’s chalk marks. They dulled significantly through the wash, but they didn’t come out completely. I would imagine that successive washes may remove more, but I was expecting them to wash out completely. Conclusion: be careful with tailor’s chalk pencils, they don’t wash out completely on the first wash.

For those who require photographic evidence:

post-wash results

And so there you have it. A 10-cent washable marker seems to be the best fabric marking device. They come in wide or fine point and plenty of colors. The only significant problem I can see here is that they don’t come in white, so I’m going to have to resort back to the conventional tailor’s chalk pencils when I do projects with black fabric.

 

Nalgene PALS pouch, part 1

This post outlines the design approach for a pouch to hold a Nalgene water bottle.

Requirements

I want this to be compatible with regular PALS. I don’t normally use Speed Clips or anything like that, the pouch should have straps to attach itself. This is fairly normal for this sort of pouch. There should be two straps, spaced to work in consecutive single-wide PALS grid spaces. This is a light-duty pouch so I’ll use Velcro or similar on the straps. Heavy duty 5/8″ snaps are normal but that’s overkill for my application.

The bottle is a Nalgene wide-mouth 32-oz. Tritan. It’s a pretty standard bottle, not the one with the easy-drinking mouth. I don’t use the spill protector and I haven’t made changed to the bottle from the standard factory configuration. The bottle should fit snugly but it should be relatively easy to get it in and out.

I don’t need any PALS grid, pockets or attachments on the outside of the pouch. This design is not for tactical use so none of that is necessary.

The pouch needs to be lined and insulated all around to keep the contents of the Nalgene bottle at temperature for as long as possible. I don’t need padding other than what’s necessary for the insulation.

Materials

The primary fabric I’m going to be using is 500D uncoated Cordura knock-off. This will be the fabric for the outside of the pouch. The lining will be 1/4″ grid lightweight ripstop, which has the same properties as slightly heavier-weight Cordura.

I don’t have a good source for the correct 5038 webbing yet. I do have plenty of nylon webbing though, which is much thicker. It’s been serving me well for the last few pouches I made and I’ve learned to work around its limitations. I have matching non-Velcro hook & loop in 1″ and 2″ widths, although I expect to need only 1″ for this project. I will use matching 7/8″ grosgrain ribbon as seam tape where necessary.

For insulation, I have a few options, each of which will likely be made into a prototype:

  • Fairfield Solarize, a material made specifically for this sort of application. It’s sold by the yard at the fabric store.
  • An ordinary space blanket, cut up. Mine is a leftover from a marathon that I ran a while back. By, “a while back,” I mean close to a decade ago. The stuff is in good condition so I’m confident that it’ll hold up for another decade. If you don’t have leftovers of this sort, you can buy a space blanket in the camping goods section of Wal-Mart or similar.
  • Chocolate wrappers. Kit Kat, most likely, to be specific. Completely recycled. I have several since I don’t know yet how much fabric (if you can call it that) I’ll need. I ran them through a delicate cycle in the wash to clean off the excess chocolate.

Materials Research

With different insulation options, none of which seem perfect, I’ve got a research project on my hands. Specifically, I’m concerned about the workability of each of the options. Here’s how the different options stack up:

  • The Solarize looks like it’s going to be easy to use. The directions recommend fusing it to fabric and using a layer of batting. I have some lightweight cotton batting that should work well. Across the grain, the Solarize doesn’t stretch at all. With the grain, it’s got this strange stretch, you have to pull a little to start it, it stretches, then it returns to normal, but slowly. I haven’t tried to stretch it very far because it looks like it’ll act plastic and the insulating coating may not return to normal if I do. I have doubts as to how well it’s going to insulate, I think it’ll fall near the bottom of the list.
  • The space blanket is thin and doesn’t stretch at all. I don’t know how easy it’s going to be to sew with it and I suspect that I may have to glue it to something. The Intertubez say that it can be glued with contact cement. I’m probably going to have to glue it to the batting. It may need support as well, I’m likely to try precycled Tyvek and ordinary stabilizer. I’ve used this material as a blanket before though and it works ridiculously well. I suspect this will be one of the best options.
  • I think that everything that holds true for the space blanket will hold true for the candy wrappers as well. The major difference, I think, is that they’re even thinner than the space blanket. I may just glue them directly to Tyvek. I estimate that these will work better than the Solarize and not as well as the space blanket.

My standard for insulation is sufficiently low that I’m not going to concern myself with any heat exchange that will happen through the seams. I’m looking for something that’ll keep a Nalgene bottle full of ice cold for about 2 hours on a Texas summer day in direct sunlight. I’m fine if the ice melts — I prefer that, actually — but I want the water to be cold or at least cool. If the ice doesn’t melt in 4 hours, that’s too much insulation. If the ice melts and the water gets warm in under an hour, that’s too little insulation. I’m not using a thermometer so my range is wide. The threshold for, “melted ice,” is anything that involves turning ordinary freezer ice cubes into little floating bits. The threshold for, “cold water,” is something that’s at least cool when I drink it. In terms of thermal mass, my standard is that about 2/3 of the bottle has to be filled with ice and water, because I’m going to have to drink some water to gauge it’s apparent temperature.

I’m looking at Tyvek for backing on the thinner materials because it’s breathable yet waterproof. I have concerns about the pouch getting wet from the bottle sweating, then the wetness causing mold or mildew on the lining of the pouch. I have anti-microbial lining material as well but that seems like it’s outside the design tolerances that I have in my head, both in terms of price and thickness of the finished piece.

The materials research that I’ll get from trying out these options will likely be reusable, so I will cover the specific tests in a separate post. I don’t expect to be able to test the insulative value of each of the options until I’ve completed 3 prototypes and can test this live in the hot summer sun.

Pattern

While I don’t have a published pattern for this — I’ll be developing it as I go — I do have a finished model to work from. This is a Rothco pouch made specifically for Nalgene bottles.

To start with, my pattern will be different in several ways:

  • I will have a smooth, flat external surface. My design will have no PALS grid, no D-rings and no zippered pocket.
  • This pouch is designed for what seems like a different-sized Nalgene bottle than what I’m using. Specifically, it’s about 3″ too tall. Maybe there are different kinds of Nalgene bottles that are taller but this is not a concern for me.
  • The top of this pouch has a zipper. I would prefer a, “hat,” that slips over the bottom section with Velcro around, and a pull tab to open it.
  • The attachment straps on this pouch are a doubled-over design with snaps. The cover of the snaps are on tabs that extend from near the bottom of the pouch. This looks like a good design but I think it’s too complex for my application.
  • You can’t see it in the picture here, but it’s got a Velcro-closed slip-through flap at the top, probably for a straw or hydration tube. I don’t need this in my design and I will not include that.
  • Also not vitible in this picture is a grommet at the bottom of the pouch. I assume this was added for drainage and possibly to assist in air pressure relief when inserting a bottle into the bag. I would rather gain the additional insulation of an interrupted bottom panel. I also plan to make my pouch slightly larger and less padded so I don’t believe air pressure will be an issue.

The starting dimensions of the main space are 13-1/2″ in circumference and 8″ tall. I’ll add 1/2″ to the circumference and subtract 3″ from the height, giving me 14″ in circumference and 5″ tall. The hat portion looks about right at 2″, but I’m going to add 1″ to cover the space I need for my Velcro closure, for 3″. Given a 14″ circumference, a simple calculation yields a diameter of roughly 4-1/2″, to less than my presumed design tolerance of 1/8″.

I’m designing with a 1/2″ seam allowance to make everything easy. Given that, I need the following pieces for the primary chamber:

  • The main body is a rectangle, 15″ x 6″.
  • The hat band is a strip, 15″ x 4″.
  • The top and bottom are circles, 5-1/2″ in diameter.

I’ll cut both the top edge of the main body and the bottom edge of the hat 1/4″ long. Between the seam allowance and that extra 1/4″, I’ll be able to do a double-turn or French seam finish instead of a taped seam so that there isn’t extra bulk.

I’ll cut the insulation padding 1/4″ short on all sides so that it sits inside the seam allowance of the outer fabric and the lining. I expect to attach it to the lining. This should help to prevent bulk in the seams. If the piece is cut and assembled correctly, the extra space will likely get taken up by the seams so there will be no gap in the insulation.

Fully adjusted and laid out, I’ll need the following pieces:

  1. The main body outer fabric, 15″ x 6″ of Cordura.
  2. The hat strip outer fabric, 15″ x 4-1/4″ of Cordura. I added some width to allow for a 1/4″ double-turn finish and length so that there’s a little breathing room for the Velcro. I could probably get away with less width, eating into the seam allowance, but I’d rather over-cut and trim excess later.
  3. The bottom outer fabric, a 5-1/2″ diameter circle of Cordura.
  4. The top outer fabric, a 5-1/2″ diameter circle of Cordura.
  5. The main body lining, 15-1/2″ x 4-1/2″ of ripstop.
  6. The hat strip lining, 15-1/2″ x 4-1/2″ of ripstop.
  7. The bottom lining, a 5-1/2″ circle of ripstop.
  8. The top lining, a 5-1/2″ circle of ripstop.
  9. The main body padding, 15″ x 5″ of insulation material.
  10. The hat padding, 15″ x 4″ of insulation material.
  11. The bottom padding, a 5″ circle of insulation material.
  12. The top padding, a 5″ circle of insulation material.

Given standard PALS grid spacing and with a 5″ main body height, I’ll have only 1/2″ of body to attach the PALS strips with their fasteners if I make the strips 2 spaces tall. I think the best option is to attach the straps to the top, because there’s plenty of space there. The finished piece will sit slightly out of alignment with the PALS host on which it’s attached. Horizontally, there will be 1″ of space between the straps, which will be used at the top to form the joint between the body and the hat.

The main seam, forming a cylinder out of the body and hat, and the seams around the top and bottom, will be finished with 7/8″ ribbon. This is approximately the same as the construction of the model, pictured above, turned inside-out. From that picture, you can deduce the order of construction: the body was attached into a cylinder before the top and bottom were attached. This means we’re going to construct the piece predominantly inside-out then turn it when completed.

In the next post in this series, I’ll cover the order of construction for the piece.

Novice PALS first impressions

My goal with this is to create a PALS pouch to attach to my swim bag. I use aluminum hard wallets to hold my cards and my pool pass normally lives in the one I usually carry around. This pouch will hold my wallet and phone while I’m swimming. My phone is waterproof but I don’t use a screen protector or case so I want something relatively soft and very smooth (no rough edges) so that my phone screen doesn’t get scratched. Both the wallet and the phone need to be held in place securely. This is more of an admin panel than a pouch but I’ll continue to call it a pouch for consistency.

I’m very new to creating this sort of thing. Realistically, I’m relatively new to sewing; I’ve done a good amount of sewing in my life but never any production work. Many of the lessons from this project are things that I’d probably know if I had been making lots of gear out of technical materials for the last 10 years. I’m also not using any patterns because one of my ancillary goals is to learn to make patterns for this kind of thing from scratch. So I’m learning the hard way, through practice and experience. Maybe someone can benefit from my lessons.

I’m still working on the pictures for this post.

UPDATE, about a week later: after some more research and trying everything out, I realized that I’m doing the PALS grid wrong on both sides. My design had a 1/2″ space between rows, which is incorrect. The correct spacing should be 1″ and it should be on the generous side. The grid on the back of the pouch needs to get woven with whatever is holding it — my swim bag in this case — for everything to hold properly. I’m working on a better and clearer description in a separate post. More than likely, I’ll be rebuilding this piece, using the lessons learned from having done it three times already.

Materials

Just about everything I’m using for this project was from Jo-Ann Fabrics and/or Wal-Mart. I’ve found that Wal-Mart has lower prices (even after prodigious coupon use at Jo-Ann) but significantly smaller selection. Be careful at Wal-Mart as well: most things in the fabric section tend to be very poorly labeled, if at all. Some of the notions were ordered on eBay, mostly just to achieve a better color match. If you’re building this in black, everything seems to be readily available, except maybe, and strangely enough, the major fabric. There are lots of moving parts to this design, so I’ll break it down in detail.

  • The major fabric, the base fabric, is coated synthetic weave. I bought this at Wal-Mart for around $5/yard. I don’t think it’s brand Cordura at this price but I’m going to call it Cordura anyway. As best I can tell, it’s PVC-coated 500D. It doesn’t feel like 1000D but it was cheap and I’m using it for prototypes so I’m comfortable using it.
  • I lined all the internal pockets with lightweight generic ripstop. Once again, it was a discount purchase at Wal-Mart so I’m left guessing as to specifics. My best guess is 10D, which is pretty light. It’s translucent, more so than two pieces of tracing paper. This doesn’t matter to me as it’s only for my lining.
  • Two prototypes were made with fleece lining instead of the ripstop. It’s mid-weight generic stuff, probably Blizzard. It’s also listed as anti-pill but given how cheap it is I’d doubt how well that would work. Once again, it’s only lining for this project so as long as it holds up well. I stopped using it for two reasons, first that it added too much bulk, especially in the wrong places, and second because it is very squirrely. My seams, and therefore my finished product, did not come out the way I liked with fleece.
  • All the seams in this project are external and finished with matching 7/8″ ribbed polyester ribbon. This is cheap $1.50/roll hair ribbon from Wal-Mart but it’s worked really well so far, albeit through light use.
  • I did use some stabilizer, a mid-weight sew-in. For the places where I needed the stabilizer to sit in place while attaching through it, I used Pellon Wonderweb. This is the only fusible web I’ve seen available to date, although I’m sure there are others in other parts of the world and through other suppliers. Where necessary, I used an ordinary glue stick that I bought at the dollar store in a 3-pack. I bet that stuff is dirty so I try not to sew through it with the machine.
  • The PALS features were plain 1″ polypropylene webbing. This is also the generic stuff that you can get anywhere; I got mine well ahead of time from somewhere on the Internet.
  • The attachment hardware is ordinary knock-off Velcro (hook & loop). I only had matching colors in 2″ wide but that worked well when cut into 1″ pieces.
  • The first prototype used metal snaps instead of Velcro for attachment. These are 5/8″ and they’re called heavy duty. They’re very secure, probably too secure for this project, which is why I stopped using them after the first prototype. They’re also pretty expensive, to the order of $1 per set, and I’m using 2 per pouch. This may be the most expensive part of the project. Finally, they don’t seem to be easily available in many colors, just black, brass and silver. I’m going to have to tune this material in the future but using Velcro seems to work pretty well for now.
  • The thread is ordinary Gütermann Sew-All. I don’t know exactly what weight it is but it’s 100% polyester and seems to perform extremely well both in (keeping it together) and out (removing when the seam ripper comes out). It comes in every color I could possibly want at this stage in my work.
  • The first prototype also had a single piece of 1/8″ flat elastic inside the finish on the small pocket. After the first prototype, I felt like it added nothing of value so I stopped using it.

Although this is tactical gear, my need is non-tactical. I decided to use bright colors and, being a Mets fan, went with bright blue and orange. The first two prototypes were all blue, mostly because I had everything — Cordura, fleece lining, tape, Velcro, and thread — in a close match. After the first two, I decided to use orange ripstop for the lining and contrasting orange thread. These are also my favorite colors.

Equipment

Right now, I don’t have a lot of equipment. I use a Singer Classic machine, which is labeled as heavy duty. It’s way too fast for me so I’m almost always using very little pressure on the foot pedal. This entire project was built with a single presser foot, the generic one that comes with the machine, and an ordinary universal needle. I believe that it’s best to learn with equipment that’s adequate but not extravagant.

One upgrade over basic equipment that I use is a 45mm Fiskars rotary cutter. Since trying the rotary cutter I haven’t used scissors to cut fabric. I use a small mat, it’s labeled through 16″ x 4″, self-healing. I make cuts along a metal ruler that I bought from a big-box office supply store and mark with white or blue sewing pencils. Sometimes I’ll use an ordinary colored pencil (it says Crayola on the box) or just a plain HB/#2 pencil.

My seam ripper got a good amount of use, as did a pair of ordinary utility scissors that sit by my machine. I didn’t use pins too much for this project due to bulky fabrics but when I did they were ordinary ones with large plastic heads. I find those easier to remove while I’m sewing and I don’t usually sew or iron over pins.

Speaking of ironing, when I’m working a sewing project I keep the ironing board out and the iron on. My iron cost me $4 at Goodwill and it does a fantastic job. For this project, I kept it at the medium setting since everything was synthetic. There’s a plain old spray bottle with water sitting on my ironing board. It got a lot of use in this project, especially pressing the Cordura. It did not work well for the polyester seam tape at all and by the end of the project I tended to fold the seam tape by hand to feed under the foot as I went.

I do keep a lighter next to my machine when working with synthetics, to seal ends. Half-way through this project I dug out a candle so I didn’t have to keep thumbing the lighter. The candle is stable and has a tall flame. Sealing the ends of the seam tape and webbing was much easier with this. More than likely, this will remain a permanent fixture in my sewing area.

Stitches

My stitch selection evolved greatly from start to finish. Probably the only thing that stayed the same was a 3.5mm straight stitch that I used on the outside of the seam tape as the display stitches. I also like 1mm/1mm zig-zag to hold the PALS rig in place and I feel like it’s very suitable for that.

Unless otherwise specified, stitch parameters are length/width. I don’t yet know of a better standard. All of my straight stitching is 0 width, so straight stitches have only a length dimension. I try to stick to square measurements with the same length and width, mostly because of compulsion to symmetry. My engineering intuition tells me that squares tend to be stronger than other rectangles, which may influence this. I did learn from reading a lot of sewing advice to use mostly straight stitches, which I stuck to loosely. I did feel the need to use a good deal of zig-zag for added strength.

The machine I have won’t stitch longer than 4mm, which is what I used for my construction stitches after a few mistakes. When I was less sure about construction, I would baste without backstitching then observe the result. A 4mm straight stitch is the easiest to remove in the whole repertoire that my machine has. Ease of removal means the highest chance of carefully removing wrong stitches without destroying fabric or (especially) webbing. When I was happy with the basted seam, I would simply run along it with a zig-zag for strength, which settled to 2.5mm/2.5mm. Where webbing ran through an external seam, like the sides of the pouch, I usually stitched over the bits with the webbing with 1mm/1mm zig-zag for added strength.

I learned early on that it’s best to move from either bottom to top or top to bottom for the whole project, with ruthless consistency. I couldn’t use pins as much as I ordinarily do in less layered projects so my fabric drifted more than I would have liked. By stitching in the same direction always, at least the drift will all be in the same direction, which means things are more likely to line up from one end to the other.

I also learned to do construction in small pieces. There seems to be a very low cost to stitching over the same place repeatedly. The thread I used for this project is thin so even 4 co-linear runs of dense zig-zag didn’t add significant bulk.it also helped to use double seam allowances, basting roughly near the edges with less precision for straight lines, for construction. More details on finishing later, but the extra seams all ended up getting cut off.

Pattern

I’m writing instructions on the pattern after the fact. Between some luck and the fact that I built three nearly identical versions of the same piece, I ended up with a finished piece with excellent working dimensions. This was part of my plan, to develop a pattern, even though I have little knowledge of how to make this sort of pattern.

First, the dimensions of what I’m trying to hold:

  • My wallet is 4-1/4″ long, 3″ wide and 3/4″ thick. I expect to fit it in a vertical orientation (this would be, “portrait,” if it was a printer job), so the pouch needs to be 3″ wide and close to 4″ tall. I’m okay with some of the wallet sticking out but I had initial concerns about the thickness causing problems. I added the thickness to the short dimension, giving me a flat equivalent of roughly a 4″ square. I rounded to the nearest width that falls within easy PALS dimensions, 5-1/2″.
  • My phone is about 3″ wide, 5-1/2″ tall and 1/4″ thick. I’m not married to the phone for what I expect to be the lifetime of this pouch but I do figure it is about representative of whatever next phone I’m likely to have. It’s thin enough that I didn’t worry about altering the dimension for that. The height is obviously significantly different than the wallet and, unlike the wallet, I wanted the full height encased in the pouch. I rounded to the nearest height that falls within easy PALS dimensions, 7″.
  • As an added touch and since my dimensions easily exceeded the required size, I attached a hook-side piece of Velcro to the front as a patch panel. I find it’s better to have the patch panel and not use it than the other way around. This is 2″ x 3″, or a 3″ length from a roll of 2″-wide Velcro.

These requirements led me to a design with an overall size of 5-1/2″ wide by 7″ tall with a 4″ pocket on the front. I added a full inch of seam allowance to everything except the front piece for the small pocket at the top seam. Conceptually, I broke down the required pieces as such:

  • Major panel 1, the backing, that holds the PALS grid. This is Cordura and measures 7-1/2″ wide by 9″ tall to cut.
  • Major panel 2, the front. This is also Cordura and has the same dimensions as the other major panel.
  • A minor panel, the front of the small pocket. This is also Cordura and measures 7-1/2″ wide by 5″ tall to cut.
  • Lining panels 1 and 2 (these started out in fleece but I used ripstop for the third prototype) have the same dimensions as the major panels.
  • Lining panels 3 and 4 are of the same material as the other lining panels and have the same dimensions as the minor panel.

On my first prototype, I cut an extra major panel that ended up wrong-side-to-wrong-side with major panel 1. This provided absolutely no benefit, especially since I was using fleece as lining for this. I even left this out on the third prototype with the ripstop lining to absolutely no detriment.

As part of my pattern, I used some excess fabric to trial the seams. The plan calls for a good number of seams with a single layer of Cordura and a single layer of lining, finished. Since I was trying the first prototype with an extra Cordura layer, I tried that as well, two back-to-back Cordura layers with a lining on one side. The inner lining (the lining on the side closer to the PALS grid) of the small pocket also requires construction stitching of the finish on the lining alone (the finish is through a layer of Cordura as well). Then I tried the main stack for the side and bottom seam, as follows: webbing, Cordura, Cordura, lining, lining, Cordura, lining, lining, Cordura. Counting the webbing as a layer, that’s a total of 9 layers. With adequate tension, my machine seemed to struggle a little but make it over this. I didn’t consider the ribbon to be a significant layer as it’s much thinner than most of the rest of the construction. If I’d started with ripstop as the lining (instead of fleece), I probably wouldn’t have regarded that either since it’s only inner layers of the sandwich. My experience with ripstop is that it doesn’t slide or pull as long as it’s sandwiched between something at least a little less slippery.

Finish

I wanted to make sure I had a good method for finish before construction so I decided to test this first. This is the general process for using single-fold bias tape, even though the ribbon I was using isn’t pre-folded. I have a bias tape folder but the ribbon didn’t seem to hold seams well when pressed so I modified the process slightly.

This project required no wrong-side stitching and turning. The synthetic material I used didn’t press very well so I used straight seam tape with a single-double turn. I developed this process:

  1. Determine the line of the seam to be stitched (trace if necessary).
  2. Cut the ribbon longer than the seam by at least 1/4″ on each side. Since it was cheap, I tended to cut long.
  3. Singe the ends of the ribbon to keep them from fraying.
  4. On the right or finish side, pin or hold the ribbon (7/8″) with the edge a few mm outside the seam (into the seam allowance). The remainder of the ribbon is on the side opposite the seam.
  5. Baste stitch along the seam line with no backstitching.
  6. Observe the opposite side of the piece to ensure that the seam follows the correct line throughout the piece. Rip and re-seam if necessary.
  7. Seam over the basting with a 2.5mm/2.5mm zig-zag (backstitched).
  8. If there is webbing involved in the seam, seam over the basting and zig-zag with 1mm/1mm zig-zag where the webbing is involved.
  9. Trim all excess fabric on the outside of the seam. This is essentially the entire seam allowance. The rotary cutter is very useful for this.
  10. If any seams were nicked or cut in the trim, re-seam over them.
  11. Fold the ribbon across the entire seam. Depending on the thickness of the seam, center both ends if there is slack. Leave some space if not.
  12. From the right or finish side, stitch a 3.5mm straight stitch down the middle of the folded ribbon.
  13. Trim the excess ribbon on all seams that aren’t to be covered by another finish.
  14. Singe the cut ends of the ribbon to keep them from fraying.

The zig-zag over the baste is for hold, just like the extra stitching at webbing involvement points. Trimming long ends of the ribbon is necessary only in the final finish piece as the adjacent edge trim will take care of this. The closer the trim gets to the ribbon line, the easier the fold is. Pressing this fold didn’t seem to work very well, with steam or without.

The smaller pocket on the front requires a dummy finish down the middle (approximately) of the front main panel. This is a finish of the lining material alone, with the final straight stitch through the primary fabric panel in addition to the ribbon and lining.

Construction

The pouch is essentially a series of like-sized pieces of fabric, except for the small pocket and its lining. One back layer, wrong side up, holds the PALS attachment points. A layer of lining, right side up, sits above that. These back to layers are finished together at the top. Another layer of lining, wrong side up, then another layer of primary fabric, right side up, sits atop that. A small lining piece sits on top of that, right side up. These can all be finished, together. Another small lining piece, wrong side up, sits atop that, then the final small primary fabric piece, right side up. Those last two layers can be finished together.

Construction progressed in this order:

  1. Rule out and attach the entire PALS system to the right side of back layer. I used stabilizer under the snaps when I used those.
  2. Attach a loop (fuzzy) Velcro piece to the small primary fabric right side.
  3. Seam the small piece of lining, involving the untouched large primary fabric piece in the final straight-stitch seam.
  4. Finish the lining and the PALS piece.
  5. Finish the lining on the small pocket.
  6. Finish the lining on the large pocket.
  7. Seam the bottom of the piece. (The top was finished already, in two pieces.)
  8. Seam each side.

Sewing a PALS grid is a specific task that I’ll outline in another post. The straps are a little more specific. To be clear, these are the straps that run from top to bottom, over the PALS grid, for attachment to the supporting PALS grid. They’re optional, if you have and are planning on using the plastic retainers, you don’t need them at all. They’re basically a single length of webbing that runs most of the height of the pouch. The top end of the straps live inside the top back seam. The bottom ends are loose, finished with a 1″ x 1″ square of hook Velcro that attaches to a mating loop piece sewn just below the PALS grid. Make sure to heat-seal the lower end, the Velcro end, so that it doesn’t fray.

Troubleshooting

This was a very instructive project. In addition to all the notes mentioned previously, there were several lessons that were learned and reinforced. I’ve tried to categorize them to help myself or anyone who may read this to work better.

Accuracy

Accuracy is critical. This sort of project has several layers of fabric which have to line up well. On previous garment projects, I’d stuck with a notional tolerance of about 1/4″ but for this it’s lower, probably just under 1/8″. I’ve got several thoughts about this.

  • I’m going to have to look into using a walking foot and learn more about all of the tensioning settings. I don’t know how they all work yet and I don’t have a clear idea of how to set them. This is something that’s going to take more research. The result of this is that some of the stitching isn’t even. I don’t mean so much that the lines aren’t straight — they aren’t all — but specifically that my machine didn’t feed the piece at an even rate so the 3.5mm finishing stitches aren’t all 3.5mm down the entire length of a seam.
  • I need to mark more. Most of the stitches in this project were free, which means I was guessing where to stitch and feed pieces into the presser foot. I’m going to need more marking devices.
  • Along those lines, marking the finishing ribbon, the seam tape, is probably most important. Marking the inside is easy, I could probably use a Sharpie for that. Marking the outside, for the display stitch down the middle of the tape, will require some sort of disappearing mark.

What was not off, in terms of how the finished product looks, is the grain on the fabric. I did not pay much attention to that and it came out just fine from what I can tell. I didn’t use a print that requires very careful alignment. The dense weave of the Cordura primary fabric seems to give a lot of tolerance to the grain being slightly off kilter. I’m sure the lining is off kilter but it’s even harder to tell with something on the inside of a pocket.

Another great revelation from this project was the ease, efficiency and quality result that I got from leaving large seam allowances. These were cut off during the finishing process, after the tape was tacked on but before it was finished. I’m no seasoned pro at managing multiple layers of different and difficult fabric through a machine. Having a half inch or more to press fabric flat through the machine was very helpful to getting solid results.

Construction

The biggest collection of lessons from this project came from the construction. Specifically, the method that I used to build everything was revealing. My process changed somewhat through the prototyping of the first two pieces so I’ll try to capture everything I learned.

  • I really didn’t use pins very much. I felt like they didn’t help much. If I had to, I tried to stick to pinning just one or two layers of fabric together, spacing pins wider than usual and pulling out the pins early, when the presser foot was farther from the pinned site. So these pins gave a little bit of hold, more useful for aligning thing on the far side. I did have a seam ripper experience on the third prototype when I pinned through the whole piece on one side (there was no space in the middle available because of the patch panel Velcro and the PALS rig on the back) and a side seam drifted unevenly. The pin was supposed to stop the drift, instead it caused it.
  • The attachment straps, the two straps on the back that hold the pouch to the rig on whatever holds it up, got in the way. They need to be attached early in the process so that the copious stitching required to hold them on well isn’t visible. I did this in matching, not contrasting, thread, even on the final piece where I used contrasting thread for most of the work. I wanted the contrast to show off the display stitching, not so much construction details. Anyhow, as I was stitching the sides of the piece, they got in the way. I ended up tucking them into the PALS rig on the backing of the piece, but two things happened: first, the turns in the straps to get them out of the way added bulk to the piece, making it harder to keep flat through the machine; second, I had to be really careful to fold the straps without pulling on the stitches holding them on. Pulling on the stitches pulls the fabric under it, which changes the alignment of everything. I may have been able to force everything together with pins, but too much forcing doesn’t seem to make life easier.
  • Using ribbon as seam tape worked very well. Holding the ribbon taut while running a construction stitch down the sides provided an excellent line. Having a guideline on the ribbon would have made this even easier.
  • Having a lit candle to finish off synthetic ends of ribbon and webbing was useful. At first, I was worried that having that in my workspace would lead to something melting or burning but I got through most of this project without that happening.
  • During the first prototype, I tried to make the attachment straps using two layers of webbing with stabilizer sewn in the middle. This was a waste of time. For the load and duty that I’m expecting this piece to withstand, that’s way overkill on the straps. Also, the prongs of the snap couldn’t even make it all the way through that sandwich.
  • I don’t usually do this while I’m sewing garments but I doubled the seam allowances on the major seams (top, bottom and sides) then cut off the scrap after sewing the construction stitch on the finish. The short version of what this caused is that everything lined up better. There was less pulling and shifting with extra fabric on the outside of the seam.
  • The sandwich for this project is thick. Along the edges, when passing over the PALS grid webbing, my machine took a slight stutter. It wasn’t enough to tangle the thread or cause the machine to catch but it was enough to change the stitch length as the machine caught up. This is irrelevant except for the final display stitches up the side, which are the last step. A walking foot would probably help in this. In the past, I’ve also done the following that worked (I didn’t think of it in time for this project): in the two stitches before the snag — the webbing, in this case — increase the tension by one per stitch. After the snag, reduce it the same. This also makes walking the machine by hand the better way to go, which probably would have helped with this problem.
  • Always sew in the same direction. On the first prototype, I sewed the side construction seams (under the finish) in a natural way that allowed me to feed the piece from the same side. This means up one side and down the other. Especially without a lot of pins and tugging, this causes some shifting, which, in this case, caused the front pocket to sit crooked across the piece. One side drifted up and the other down, so the sum of difference was twice the drift, almost 3/8″ in this case. It’s visible and solved easily. If I was trying to be extremely precise, I would have started the bottom finish construction seam in the middle and sewed one half at a time towards the outside, where the seam allowances would have been cut off. Lessons for next time.
  • The patch panel Velcro on the front didn’t come out aligned. This means nothing other than that I did a poor job deducing where to attach it. It may have drifted during the initial stitching as well. In retrospect, a small piece of fusible web may have done well to hold it in place while stitching.
  • I did try to incorporate a piece of elastic into the middle seam of the front pocket. This was awkward to stitch on and doesn’t seem to have made a bit of difference. I avoided that completely in the second two prototypes, with no loss at all.
  • Using the snaps in the first prototype required a stabilizer. Since I was attaching stabilizer, I attached some under the PALS straps bind points as well. I used firm stabilizer — not the thickest or most stable but very much more stable than I generally use in any project — and the snap retainer still warped the fabric. I can’t think of a lesson here other than to spend a lot more time with snaps until I can figure out exactly how to make them work perfectly, or avoid them altogether. I did the latter on the second two prototypes.

Pattern

I didn’t start with a pattern but by the time I was done with three pieces, I had figured out how to draw one.

  • PALS pouches that have the PALS grid on the back should come in a short set of sizes. The height of the unfinished fabric should be twice the seam allowance + 2-1/2″ + 1-1/2″ + an additional 1-1/2″ per row (after the first) of grid + fudge factor for height. The width should be twice the seam allowance + 1/2″ + 1-1/2″ + an additional 1-1/2″ per column (after the first) of grid + fudge factor for width. I’ll explain this in much more detail in another post.
  • That having been said, pouches, like the admin panel I’m building in this project, shouldn’t have dense grid on the back. They’re probably fine with tacks on 3″ across the width and fewer rows down the height. How many fewer? I’d say probably for anything shorter (having less height) than about 6″, a single row down the middle is fine. For something in the 6″-10″ range, two rows with twice the spacing — that is, skip one full row between, space and all — are probably enough. I expect that should be covered in another post.
  • I could also probably get away with one center PALS strap instead of the two. If going with two, probably best place them closer to center, which would greatly ease construction by allowing the piece to sit flatter on the sewing machine deck.
  • I will be happier with some sort of personalization or logo somewhere on each piece. I’m looking into a good logo and how to make it work for pieces like this. That’ll be the subject of an upcoming article.

Materials

Materials in short runs are hard. At 10,000 yd, you can probably order exactly what you want and someone will make it for you. At 10 yd — which is a lot for one or two projects — you may have a hard time finding the thing you want at all. I did the best I could with what I could get easily but this is definitely part of the learning process.

  • I’m using the wrong webbing for these projects. The stuff I could find is woven and heavy, over 1/32″ thick. The stuff I want is less than 1/32″ thick. I think one difference is that one is nylon and the other is polypropylene but the major problem is that the filament used to weave this webbing is a larger size than I want. The stuff I have isn’t labeled so I don’t have a reference. I’ll have to do more research and post on that separately.
  • The PVC-coated Cordura is, on the other hand, exactly the right thing. I think 1000D would have come out too thick and something in the range of 200D-300D wouldn’t have held shape as well.
  • The lining for the first two prototypes was fleece. That didn’t work very well. Aside from the fact that fleece is relatively difficult to work with, especially in combination with other fabrics, it turned out to be way too bulky. In future projects when I need that soft feel for a lining, I’m going to look into flannel as an alternative.
  • The polyester ribbon I used for the finish behaved much better than I’d expected it to. The look of the ribbon is very similar to that of gear I have made by Blackhawk and Maxpedition. It was also very easy to work with.
  • For light duty gear, I’m very comfortable with Velcro instead of snaps on the PALS straps. I haven’t had a chance to field-test this piece much yet but I’ve thrown it around the house a little and it seems like it’ll hold up. I didn’t stitch through the Velcro, just around the edges, and it seems to have a comparable force required to open it as the snaps. I’m even more confident with the shear strength of the connection, more than I would be with snaps, and I believe that’s the most important measure. The force necessary to open or close the connection isn’t as important, I think, as the ability of the connection to withstand pulling across it, or shear strength.

Summary

Overall, I’m very satisfied with the results. It is far from perfect but all the imperfections seem to be visual. The day after I finished the piece, it became a workhorse, attached to my swim bag. It hasn’t been very long but so far it exceeds expectations on performance.