Thursday, July 28, 2011

SAAS: Business Clothes on a Budget

I'm adding this to my Sewing at Any Size series, even though there's not a whole lot of sewing necessary.  You can click on the "Sewing" link under Happiness Tools to your left for more projects like this one. 

There was a great post with some also great comments over at The Rotund on the challenges of work attire for us "death fat" women. Especially on a limited budget (i.e. can't afford custom tailoring). I started to write a comment, but it grew long enough that I thought it better to put it out as a post instead.

Unfortunately, I have accepted that as a tall, broad-shouldered, big waisted woman, the reality is that if I want something to look a certain way, I have to develop the skills to make it happen. Which means sewing. But you don't necessarily need a sewing machine to do some basic alterations on a budget.

Your first stop is Goodwill, Salvation Army, or other thrift stores. We said budget, right? These stores almost always have better choices in large men's clothes than women's, but the difference between the two isn't as wide as you think for business wear.

For altering the men's clothing we'll be doing some very basic tricks with elastic.

From the fabric/craft store (and some big box stores with craft sections) You'll need less than a yard each of:

1/4 inch wide elastic

elastic cord or narrow stretch lace (sometimes sold as pyjama or lingerie elastic)

and a yard or more (depending on your waist size) of 1/2 inch elastic.

You'll also need a sewing needle and thread. You might want to wait on buying the thread until after you've picked out your garments, because you'll want to match the color as closely as possible.

For shirt method 2, you'll want some light fabric ribbon or bias tape that either matches or coordinates with your shirt.

You'll need a quilting hoop, which is a large wooden hoop with a second hoop that fits inside it tightly. You place the fabric over the smaller hoop and push the larger hoop onto it, trapping the fabric between (there should be a screw to tighten it). You want one at least a foot and a half diameter, but preferably larger. Our local thrift stores ALWAYS have these for a dollar or two from people cleaning out their hobby room. Make sure they have the tightening screw and both hoops.

The next stop is the thrift shop.

You're looking for men's button-up shirts (short or long sleeve) and a men's suit coat in good condition. If you can find men's slacks that fit you and match the suit coat, bonus!

You should also hit the women's section and look for dresses, which look good under a suit coat for women in a business environment. If they don't have any that fit you, look for dresses of any size with the following criteria:

1. The fabric and color below the waist of the dress coordinate with the suit coat

2. the skirt of the dress flares below the waist

3. There is a point below the dress waist where the skirt will fit around your waist with enough fabric below that to reach your knees, plus two inches.

We'll be chopping off the bottom of the dress and turning it into a very simple elastic-waist skirt.


1. Find a men's suit coat that fits the widest part of your body (i.e. chest) and has some room at your natural waist. You should be able to pinch about 2-3 inches of fabric at the back. Much more than that and it will look odd. Sometimes a coat that's a single size too small can give you a "shrunken jacket" effect that looks feminine all by itself without any alterations. If not, try the steps below for a back gather.

2. Cut a six-inch piece of 1/4 inch elastic

3. Put the coat on inside out and have a friend help you pin the elastic to the fabric at the center of the back at the level of your natural waistline so that the elastic is at rest (not stretched) and enough fabric is gathered between the two ends that the coat looks fitted (but not too tight) from the front. Pin it securely at each end, leaving the middle loose (you may want to use big safety pins).

4. Stretch the fabric and elastic over the smaller half of the quilting hoop so that either the fabric or the elastic is taut. Push the larger hoop over the top, being careful that the fabric is even in all directions. Use the screw to tighten down.

5. On a sewing machine or by hand, sew zig-zag stitches (they look like the letter Z) across each end where you have it pinned.

6. Sew zig-zag stitches down the center of the elastic. If the fabric is loose under the elastic, gather it as you go so that it's puckered evenly down the elastic.

7. Remove the pins, remove the shirt from the frame.

The elastic should gather the coat at the back of your waist, giving the coat a more feminine sillouhuette. You can also use two pieces of elastic to make smaller gathers at the sides for a different look.


Women's jackets are generally shorter than men's. If you're ambitious and a shorter jacket is better for your body type, you should consider shortening the jacket and using darts to shape it. If the hem from shortening looks less than professional, a strip of contrasting satin ribbon or lace sewn along the edge will add a touch of style to the coat and hide mis-stitching.

If you don't like the look of the gather as is, you can mask it by adding a faux-belt for a very classical British look. Hem a piece of fabric to about 2 to 3 inches wide, with each end folded to a point. Secure it to either side of the gather with large flat buttons about the position of your kidneys.


I have despaired of finding a simple, business appropriate cotton button down shirt that fits me in any women's section of any store. They;re either full of "froofera" or they're cut very baggy casual.
The shirt can be gathered at the back with the same steps as outlined for the coat above. The thinner fabric will make a feminine sort of ruffle at the back, which is not at all a bad thing.


This is the tie-back version. Step 1 is the same as above.

2. Start with two pieces of ribbon or bias tape at least a foot long. You can finish the cut ends by knotting, taping, superglue or burning (if acrylic or nylon). For the end stitched onto the shirt you'll want to fold it under neatly.

3. Follow step 3 as above with the shirt right side out, but instead of elastic pin the end of one ribbon at each gather point.

4. Stitch the ribbon onto the shirt at the pin point.

5. Tie the ribbons to gather the shirt at the back and give it shape

You can also stitch the ribbon all the way around the shirt for a more decorative look. Start at the buttons and stitch it to the shirt all the way around until you reach the point where you would have pinned in step 3 (you can use chalk to mark this point).


Another way to feminize the shirt is to change out the buttons to something more decorative. Few people will realize they're technically on the wrong side if they're pretty.

You can add a gather to short sleeves to make the outline more feminine. Using either elastic cord or stretch lace, sew it around the cuff of the sleeve (cord on the underside, lace either under or over). Stretch the elastic slightly and evenly as you sew so that it will hug your arm when it's finished.

Sew a strip of lace to the underside of the buttonhole side of the shirt so that it just peeks out 1/8th inch or so when the shirt is buttoned. It's a very subtle and simple touch. You can use fabric glue or iron-on fusible if you don't trust your stitching. You can continue the lace up along the inside of the collar for an additional touch.


Click on the SAAS (Sewing at Any Size) tag or topic link to find my guide on how to make the easiest of all sewing projects: a gored skirt. You could use the same instructions and matching or coordinating fabric to make a variety of skirts to go with your jacket (pencil, A-line, straight line, etc.)

If you find a dress at the thrift store that doesn't quite fit, but the bottom would go well with your jacket, it's very easy to convert it.

1. Find the level of the skirt below the waistline where it fits around your waist with about 1/2 to 1 inch to spare. This is easy to do by just flipping the dress upside down and pulling the skirt up to your waist until it starts to tighten. If, at that point, you have enough skirt material to reach your knees plus about 2 inches, you have a potential skirt.

2. Cut the skirt off the dress at the point you found before.

3. Pull a piece of 1/2 inch wide elastic around your waist so that it fits snugly but not uncomfortably. Add 1/2 inch and cut the elastic to that length.

4. Fold the cut edge of the skirt over about 1 inch and hem it. Sewing is the best way to accomplish this, but you can certainly use fabric glue or iron-on fusible to do it; they just won't stand up as well to washing. Leave about 2 inches of it unhemmed for now.

5. Thread the elastic through the hem. I use a large safety pin to feed it through, pinning the other end to the fabric so it doesn't get lost.

6. Pull the two ends of elastic out to where you can work with them. Make sure the elastic hasn't twisted inside the hem. You should have a continuous flat loop. Overlap them and stitch very thoroughly so that they hold.

7. Tuck the elastic up into the hem and finish the last few inches of hemming by whatever method you chose.

8. Even out the fabric around the elastic.

Note that a medium to wide belt will easily cover the elastic waistline if you don't like the look of it with the shirt tucked in.

Also note that you can wash a wool suit coat, despite what you've been told.  Personally the idea of wearing a never-washed chemically cleaned used coat is icky.  I washed a thrift store wool tuxedo jacket by soaking it in a few tablespoons of Dawn dish detergent in room temperature water in the sink for a few hours, agitating gently every now and then.  I rinsed it well in the bathtub, rolled it in a towel to squeeze out excess water, and laid it flat to dry (hanging it will distort the fabric).  There wasn't any shrinkage and it really made the fabric look newer.  Make sure the water is room temperature and not warm or cold, and don't use the washing machine.  There may be the occasional coat where this still shrinks or damages it, so consider cost/reward when giving it a try.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Gluten Free Product Review: Cookies

First the standard disclosure that I'm not receiving anything from these companies to review their products, not even free samples.  I'm just sharing my own personal impressions of some of the gluten-free products we're trying out since my partner's diagnosis with Celiac Disease.  It can be quite a complicated treasure hunt! 

The Good:
Kinnickinik brand KinniToos Chocolate Vanilla Sandwich Cookies
Ah, Oreos, how I missed thee....

These Chocolate Vanilla Sandwich Cookies were a passable to good version of the gluteny cookies. The texture was perfect. The filling was sweeter than Oreo's, but they balanced the overall flavor well by putting in a little less. It wouldn't work as a double-stuff, unless you like super-sweet. I would highly recommend putting some in a bag, smushing them a bit, and mixing them with vanilla ice cream if you sorely miss the classic cookies and cream flavor. Of course, they're pretty darn good all on their own. By the way, they're also dairy, nut, yeast and egg free (according to their website) for those who have multiple allergies. They do contain soy.

The Bad:
Glutino Chocolate Dream Cookies
Another oreo-like chocolate cookie with cream filling. The cream filling is similar to Kinnickinik brand and Oreos, but the cookie part falls flat. It has a satisfying crunch, then seems to dissolve into fine wet sand in your mouth. It's the unfortunate curse of the rice flour, which simply doesn't break up well on cooking. After two cookies and a full glass of water to wash down the grit, I think I'm done with these. If there was no other GF chocolate cream sandwich cookie on the market I'd probably grin and bear it because the flavor itself is all right. Unfortunately the texture is a significant fail.

The Ugly:
Jovial brand Vanilla Cream Filled Chocolate Cookies
JD and I pondered for some time over the disgusting-yet-compelling taste and texture of these cookies. The closest I can come to describing them is "crack-filled dog biscuits". The texture and overt flavor of the cookie, which I didn't realize was supposed to be chocolate until I saw the package, is dry, crumbly, and disturbingly close to the aroma of milk bones. The filling taste a little like sweetened condensed milk mixed with corn syrup. There is an odd aftertaste, which somehow made me want to take another bite, just to sort out the conflicting messages I was getting between all my senses. Then another bite, probably just to kill the aftertaste. Then a big glass of water because the cookie had sucked all moisture from my mucous membranes. If these have a marketable use, it's definitely as a desiccant.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Recipe Box: Spicy Cinnamon Swiss Chicken Nachos

The cinnamon gives people pause when talking about savory foods, at least those used to western cooking.  This was an off-the-cuff experiment of mine based on a pre-grocery shopping "what do we have in the house for dinner and how can I make it more interesting" day.  I can see this being a hit at a potluck, especially considering the short cook time and finger food appeal. You also know that everyone else isn't bringing the same thing :-)

This is a sweet/savory dish with a lot of unexpected flavors that worked unexpectedly well together!
Our version was, of course, gluten-free :-)

1 cup shredded swiss cheese
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded muenster, mozzerella or monterey jack cheese
1 bag corn chips
1 large boneless chicken breast

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon chili powder (or more to taste)
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 cloves fresh garlic or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
pinch salt and pepper
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons olive oil

Chop chicken breast into as small pieces as practical (approx 1/4 inch chunks).  You'll shred it further as it cooks. 
Heat oil in pan over medium heat
Add chicken pieces, onion, cinnamon, chili, lime, garlic and salt/pepper
Fry over medium heat, chopping with spatula until finely shredded and cooked through.  Remove from heat.
Mix shredded cheeses together.

You can layer the nachos on a plate for microwaving, or on a foil-lined cookie sheet for oven baking. Either way, do one layer of chips, followed by a sprinkle of chicken, followed by a layer of shredded cheese.  You can do multiple layers if needed.

Bake in oven at 350 for 10 minutes, or microwave on high for 1 minute or until cheese is melted. 

Serve with guacamole, peach-mango salsa, and/or sour cream. Think mild and sweet.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Et tu, Jim Butcher?

I absolutely adore the Dresden Files book series.  I have them all and have been eagerly awaiting the new one coming out next week.  The characters are nicely complex, the dialogue witty, and there are plenty of crack-me-up moments that make the people in the office break room look at me oddly while I'm reading.  So far they've also been relatively free of overt fat-hate.  The medical examiner Butters could have easily been turned into a blatant, comic-relief stereotype, but instead sometimes shows actual character depth, courage, intelligence and authority.  There tends to be a preponderance of leggy sex bombs, but it's entirely characteristic for a noir-style mystery or a fantasy novel and I just enjoy it as a nod to the genres. 

But in the preview for his new book, "Ghost Story," I hit this line in chapter four when describing a character:  "...definitely dropped from self-destructively obese down to merely stout."  Later in the scene that character, stressed, raids a jar of Oreos. 

Seriously?  I wonder if Butcher could supply a medical or psychiatric degree to define or justify the term "self-destructively obese".  It sounds a little like he dredged up some pseudo-Freudian nonsense from the turn of the century about oral fixation to season the ubiquitous pop-culture medical hysteria.  Does he also think the character wants to kill his father and screw his mother because daddy threatened to cut off his penis as a child?  Or was that just not pithy enough to make the editing cut?

At any rate, Butcher may want to consider jabs like that in relation to his audience.  I mean, he's writing for geeks.  Fantasy and mystery geeks.  I've been a geek for most of my life, and let me tell you, a lot of us are fat.  Probably what he's referring to as "self-destructively" fat.  Last I checked, I didn't have a big red button attached to explosives anywhere on me.  Also last I checked, I didn't have any tendencies a real mental health professional would classify as self-destructive.  What I do have is enough self-respect to walk away from an author who's willing to so casually insult me. 

Maybe this is a one-time slip.  I sure hope it is, because I would actually like to continue throwing money and him and his publishers for the rest of the series.  We'll see where it goes.  Please Jim Butcher...don't descend to this particular cheap laugh.  You're a better writer than that.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Gluten-Free: The amazing power of buttermilk

One of the most frequent criticisms of gluten-free foods is a texture thing.  Even home-baked GF recipes tend to be dry and grainy.  Mixes can be especially so.  Unfortunately, GF flours just don't break down like wheat flour, and the "chewy" texture is an effect of gluten.

We've been playing with breakfast foods, using the Gluten Free Bisquick now on the market.  The GF Bisquick pancakes were/are decent, and better after JD added chopped apples, dried fruit and honey to increase the moisture content.  While we were experimenting, we were on a hunt for gluten-free buttermilk to add more flavor.  The only type of powder sold in our local grocery stores was not gluten-free. 

We finally found a GF buttermilk powder with no preservatives or additives at a specialty store (NOW foods brand).  JD made the first batch of buttermilk pancakes by substituting reconstituted buttermilk (at about double concentration) for the milk called for in the recipe.  The results were, as I say, "diabolically good".  They were super-moist, chewy and perfectly flavored.  I honestly don't know if I could tell the difference between them and the regular homemade pancakes.

The only thing that could explain the change was the buttermilk, and I went about testing it.  Betty Crocker has a GF chocolate chip cookie mix that we've used.  The cookies taste perfect but there's the texture issue again.  After they cool they become super crumbly and grainy, even if kept in the fridge.  I added 1/4 cup buttermilk powder and 2 tablespoons milk (always balance wet/dry ingredients) to the mix and otherwise prepared per the box.  The result were super-chewy cookies, even the next day.  There's still a slight after-effect of the rice flour grittiness, but they are significantly chewier and more moist than the mix alone.  The flavor of the buttermilk adds a very tasty tang to the cookie as well.

I did a little digging, and the theory that makes the most sense to me is that the acidity of the buttermilk helps break down the dry ingredients. Some of the GF flours don't absorb moisture very quickly, but adding an acid helps it break down. 

On the other hand, too much acid can affect the levening action of other ingredients.  Pancakes and cookies work beautifully with buttermilk because they don't require that much rising.  My buttermilk cookies were flatter than usual, but more than made up for it in improved flavor and texture.  If you're baking a cake or bread, however, you need to take the Ph balance into account. 

My theory, which awaits testing in a few weeks when I'm free of my despotic psychology professor, is that simply adding more baking soda or powder to counteract the increased Ph of the buttermilk is somewhat counterproductive; if the acid is neutralized it cannot break down the particles of the flour, but if it is too acidic you lose the levening action of the alkaline/acid reaction.  I believe the solution is in the order of mixing ingredients.

I propose that you mix the GF flour and buttermilk first, then let it sit.  If you're proofing yeast for bread you might use the same time for soaking the flour.  Otherwise I'd give it about 5-10 minutes. Mix the remaining dry and wet ingredients in separate batches, then add it to the soaked flour.  This gives the acid time to work before putting together the levening ingredients. 

When you mix the remaining dry ingredients, you'll need to add more base to allow rising.  The general consensus seems to be that for each cup of buttermilk you use in a recipe, you need to subtract two teaspoons of baking powder and add one teaspoon of baking soda.  That would be tough to do in a pre-made mix (you may just need to add the baking soda) but simple for homemade baked goods. 

I'll work on playing with the idea, but in the meantime would love to hear from anyone with first-hand experience on how to perfect the buttermilk swap!