Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Long weekend in Albania

Before we moved to Germany, I never thought about visiting Albania, or any of the other Balkan countries for that matter. I didn't know much about Albania - the turmoil in the 90's apparently didn't make our newspapers and during their years of communism (1944-1991), they were closed off, behind the iron curtain. Today the country is struggling to catch up, and from what I observed, they have a long way to go.

We spent a few days in Tirana, the capital, and took a day trip to Durres, a beach resort and port town on the Adriatic Sea. Albania is the poorest country I've visited and I felt sad for the people. The buildings, roads and sidewalks are crumbling and in great need of repair. Many of the sewer grates and manholes are missing, leaving dangerous open holes that are not blocked off or marked in any way. You really have to watch where you walk.

There are new buildings under construction around the city, but work on them didn't appear very active. The only active work we saw were people painting at the police station and construction work on what will be the largest mosque in the Balkans. Unfortunately there are many vacant, concrete hulks of buildings where it doesn't look like any restoration effort is taking place.

Pyramid of Tirana - built in 1988 but now mostly empty except for the radio station's towers

But it's not all ugly.
Outdoor dining in the park

Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Mural on the National History Museum

The country may look poor, but everyone is not. We did see some well dressed people and more than a few Range Rovers and shiny new Mercedes. The airport is nice and modern, there's a Sheraton Hotel (we stayed there), and there are many decent restaurants to choose from (I recommend Viking). There are two small shopping malls in the city and one very large one outside the city. However, the sad fact is that there is a lot of poverty. There are many people selling things on the street, from new items to used items, from cigarettes and cell phone chargers to pantyhose (not even in a package) and second- (or third-) hand clothes and shoes. Prices are a bargain for tourists and the people driving the Range Rovers: a morning coffee costs 40 Lek (30 cents), a scoop of ice cream 50 Lek (38 cents), and a cookie in a coffee shop was 50 Lek. We spent less than $40 a day on breakfast, lunch and dinner combined. But there's a lot of unemployment and obviously a lot of people without money, otherwise there would not be so many people selling things on the streets. The Sheraton provided an Albanian English-language newspaper and the articles were primarily about the corruption in the parliament or the fact that many Albanians are "fleeing the country" for places like Germany, where they hope to find work. There's also a lot of organized crime and together with the government corruption, it must be difficult to run a legitimate business in Albania. There were also a lot of security guards - every cell phone store and bank had one - so theft is evidently a problem.

Despite the apparent need for security guards, I did not feel unsafe in Albania. I'm sure we stood out as tourists, mostly because there didn't seem to be many. Still, we were unsure if there could be a problem, so we took precautions and left our wallets in the room safe. We also didn't have our camera out all the time, snapping pictures. I felt awkward taking pictures anyway - even if the people in Tirana seem oblivious numb to the state of disrepair of their sidewalks and buildings, I didn't want to appear to be recording it for my own enjoyment, so I took very few pictures. Some things I was just too horrified about, like the river that is terribly polluted with garbage, beyond the usual plastic bottles and wrappers - I saw a baby doll, numerous shoes and who knows what clogging up the mocha-colored river that runs through the city. But I digress. Regarding safety, I felt less safe (pickpocket-wise) in Rome or Buenos Aires than I did in Tirana. There are people begging on the street but except for in Durres, where Romani children badger diners and passersby, they don't appear to harass people.

Most of our weekend was spent walking around, taking in the vibe of the city and exploring. We had planned to go to Kruja to see a castle but couldn't get transportation. We did make it to Durres, where we saw the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, market and bathhouse...with emphasis on ruins. Otherwise we spent much time enjoying a coffee or beer at an outdoor table and watching the Albanian world go by.

An Albanian beer and the Adriatic Sea (don't pay attention to the Paulaner glass - it was just the glass!)

Getting to Durres was an interesting little adventure. Our trip to Kruja didn't happen because we didn't know the system until it was too late in the day to ensure we could find transportation back, but we succeeded to get to (more popular) Durres. There is no train anymore - they took out the tracks and closed down the station in September 2013. There is no formal bus station either, instead a myriad of buses and minivans gather at different locations around the city to ferry people to nearby towns. A sign in the window tells you where the bus is going, you get on and they collect the 130 Lek (about $1) during the ride. The buses are older coaches from previous tour companies but they are relatively comfortable and have air conditioning. The buses leave when they are full, but that only takes about 30 minutes. Many locals seem to rely on these buses to get around. Both traveling to and from Durres, the bus stopped along the way to let people on or off - with no indication that there was an actual bus stop anywhere.

If you're reading my blog because you're a sewer or knitter - and you got this far - I do have a story about fabric and yarn shopping. I saw three fabric shops during our walks about town - but they were all really tiny. Not knowing how to say anything in Albanian except yes (po) and no (jo), I hesitated to go in. One shop was located near the center of the city but it looked to be mostly home dec or lux fabrics, perhaps for your interior designer or dressmaker to purchase. I did check out one shop that had rolls of fabric propped up outside the store, although it was mostly polyester fabric and nothing interested me enough to attempt to buy any (no prices listed). But perhaps the main reason I didn't buy anything was that I didn't feel welcome at all. After I looked at and felt the fabric - as you do - the older woman minding the store fussed and straightened each roll. She followed me around doing this and never once made any attempt to communicate with me, let alone greet me. Though perhaps I was in the wrong by not verbally greeting her when I first came in the store, but I do recall looking at her and acknowledging her with a smile when I entered. Oh well. As far as yarn, I only saw a few skeins of acrylic yarn and some really filthy cones of some sort of yarn in the same outdoor market where they have mountains of used clothing and shoes for sale. The booths selling the yarn also had odd assortments of zippers, elastic and other sewing notions. Not much.

I did buy some fiber-related souvenirs, however they are finished products:

Albanian wool rugs and a few other items

The small rugs were bought especially for our cats:

I spent 90 Lek (70 cents) on the "Sweet Pleasure" cookies (from Macedonia) and two candy bars, which despite the name "Albeni" sounding like "Albania", they are imported from Turkey. Most of their cookies and candies are from Italy, Turkey, Greece or other surrounding countries. Side note, and an insight into how crazy their economy is, we passed a shop that had a dress displayed with the Tchibo packaging pinned to it and a sticker showing a price of 6000 Lek ($46). Tchibo is a German chain that sells coffee and also fairly cheaply made household items and clothing. That dress, which was a very basic, short-sleeved cotton number, would sell for no more than half of that price in Germany. And it was ugly.

The booklet with the cats on it is a children's book. The title is "Seven Kittens". It just makes me smile!

We couldn't resist the silly kittens on the cover and the inside was just as delightfully amusing. I took pictures of the whole thing and posted them to an album on Facebook -  this link is supposed to let you view the album, even if you don't have a Facebook account.

Our next trip is a 180 degree change from Albania: we're going to Stockholm, Sweden. I know that we will not be eating for less than $40 a day!

In the meantime, I need to get back to the sewing room!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

TNT - it's dynamite!

Actually, TNT isn't dynamite, but in the sewing community it does stand for "tried 'n true" for a pattern that you use over and over because it works for you. I have such a pattern for a long sleeve t-shirt. I made it the first time last year as a muslin for the dress version of this pattern. The pattern is from Sabrina Woman, a German sewing pattern magazine. There's nothing special about the pattern that distinguishes it from the many, many other t-shirt patterns out there, but it works for me...after grading from a smaller size shoulders and upper chest to a larger waist and hips, which is a usual alteration for me.

Here is my latest rendition:

The fabric is of unknown origin. It's a polyester knit but I can't remember where I got it. The polyester is the type that is slippery and  "cool to the touch", if you know what I mean, so I suspect it will not be very breathable. That's why this is a long sleeve shirt and not something to wear in the summer. The real downside to this fabric is that a snag is very damaging to the fabric (note to self - do not pick up a cat while wearing it). When I laid out the fabric I found an area about 4 inches in diameter that was all puckered and pilled. It was right in the middle of where I almost cut out one of the pieces, but fortunately I had plenty of fabric and could work around the damaged area. I did wonder if one of my cats "attacked" it but they're pretty good about leaving my fabric and other fiber alone, other than using it as a bed.

The good thing about a TNT pattern is that you can get comfortable enough with it that you can make little changes and still enjoy the bones of the pattern that make it a TNT. For this shirt I made the neckline lower and bound the neck edge instead of just turning it under. For the binding, I cut a 3.5 cm wide strip in the crosswise direction, not on the bias because the knit has a lot of stretch. The length of the strip is 85% of the neckline measurement. I seam the strip at the short end and then pin it right sides together along the neck edge, so that it's roughly 1:1 along the back neck but then evenly distributed along the front neck. I then fold the strip over the seam allowance (I use 1 cm seam allowances throughout) and stitch it down with a coverstitch, although you could use a twin needle on the sewing machine too.

On this version, I attempted to do a FBA (full bust adjustment) but it didn't quite work out for me. I'd never done one before, so I researched it online. Most tutorials I found are for the traditional FBA, where you modify the front pattern piece by adding darts. That method is necessary for woven fabric, but with knits you can add some extra fullness without darts, using a method called vertical FBA. To do a vertical FBA, you basically mark on the front pattern piece where your bust apex is and then draw a horizontal line across the entire pattern. Cut the pattern along the line and separate it evenly across by the amount you want to add. The extra would then be eased in when sewing the side seams - only in the area where you added to the pattern. However, the extra I added seemed to have gotten lost somewhere because my side seams matched too well without much, if any, excess fabric to ease. I cut out most knits single-sided, but perhaps I had stretched the fabric out a bit when I laid it out or its slipperiness caused the fabric to shift. I'll try again with the next one and perhaps add some notches to ensure that I match the side seams accurately.

A non-sewer might question why I'd spend time making a t-shirt, just like a non-knitter wonders about sock knitting. The fit, for one. I hate long sleeve t-shirts where the sleeves are a bit too short or the bottom hem doesn't come down low enough. When I make my t-shirts, not only are those problems taken care of, but I can also make sure that the shoulder seams hit at the right place and the shirt isn't too tight across my waist and hips, and once I get the FBA correct it will fit properly across my bust too. With a (nearly perfect) TNT pattern, I can then focus on the second reason I sew the fabric. I'm more often drawn to a fabric in search of a pattern rather than the other way around. Now the fabrics in my stash that make me think "t-shirt" have a better chance of actually being made...and worn.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Finally sewing again

I've had longer breaks from sewing but this time even though I thought about sewing I just couldn't get myself moving to do it. I thought about sewing when I'd buy Burda or Ottobre or Sabrina or Meine N√§hmode or Fait Main or any other addiction-fueled pattern magazine purchase. I thought about sewing something right before the Stoffmarkt (fabric market) came to town because I felt wrong buying more fabric when I haven't used any of the fabric I bought at the last two markets. As the day of the market drew near I got as far as pulling some of that fabric out to make a shirt but then I got bogged down searching for the right pattern. The day of the fabric market arrived and I walked down there, toting my wheeled grocery cart with me, prepared to buy some fabric even thought I hadn't sewn anything. It was SO crowded, thanks in part to the car show and Easter market going on near by, but oh my goodness I was impressed by the numbers of women (and some men) buying fabric. I almost left because it was so crowded. Almost. But I didn't leave and instead went to some less crowded booths and the shopping commenced.

Clockwise from bottom left the fabrics are: a gray and white plush cotton knit that will make a snuggly pullover, a blue sweatshirt knit, black and white jersey for a top or dress, a crinkly textured olive green cotton for which I envision a loose top, dark green and traditional blue denims, half meter cuts of blue and white striped and white cotton knit for a top, half meter cuts of brown and beige cotton knit with a coordinating striped ribbing for a top, and a black and white cotton with an interesting pucker texture for a short sleeved blouse. On the right are notions: two packages of interfacing, snaps, and zippers.

I know...that's a lot of fabric. Add it to some travel fabric I picked up in Madrid in early March:

Blue and white rayon for a short sleeved blouse and a colorful knit for a top or dress.

Whew! I better get my sewing mojo back 100%!

Alas, my knitting and spinning fiber addiction was also fed thanks to the Easter market downtown:

I couldn't pass up the angora fiber for 4 Euros (package says 100 grams but I weighed it and it's more like 135 grams). The lovely alpaca yarn also jumped into my hands. Even though I wasn't sewing, I was knitting. I'm just about finished knitting a sweater and will reveal it when it's done. Hopefully that won't be next fall.

So back to the top I sewed. It's an Ottobre pattern from spring 2013 that is super easy with just two pieces and binding strips for the neck and arm hems. The shape has a bit of an exaggerated curve over the hips and it's a bit long so that the bottom hem sits on your high hip and the extra fabric pools at the waist.

I wanted to make a top out of t-shirt knit and liked the look of this pattern but decided to make it first out a flowing rayon knit I had on hand. I'm glad I did because the rayon fabric is much more suited to this pattern.

Since this was my first Ottobre pattern I've ever made, I traced off the pattern exactly according to my measurements. I cut between a 44-46 for the bust and graded out to a 48 in the hips. I have to be honest and tell you I didn't like those numbers because they're bigger than I wear in German sizing (I have no idea about Finnish sizes), but then I'm used to that with U.S. pattern companies. We all know that a size 12 in those patterns is much smaller than a size 12 in manufactured clothing. I wear a 42/44 in German sizing and that's actually what I end up using for Burda patterns, so I was tempted to do the same with Ottobre. With Burda, when I go with my measurements the results are too large. Ottobre seems to be accurate to their measurements, at least for me anyway.

I like the way the top fits and may make more, but now I need to find a different pattern for the t-shirt knit. I think it will be another Ottobre pattern because I really like the look of their clothes and the fact they show them on models with bodies closer to the average size woman. They also include the size and height of the model too.

Happy Easter!

I saw this book in a downtown craft supply shop and the urge to crochet hit me.

Yes, it's in German. I figured since I was learning to crochet I might as well learn in German, and it's been a fun way to learn the German words for animals too.