Skill Building


Numerous young students have said to me, wistfully, “I wish I could get more sewing experience.” I inevitably reply, “Do you sew at home?” Most of them say that they have a machine and they want to use it more, but, stuff and other stuff and excuses. I tell them all the same thing: If you don’t live and breathe sewing, you won’t get better at it. I didn’t wake up one morning to find that the Sewing Fairy had finally come and granted me mad skills. I started sewing when I was 20 years old, and I made some appalling stuff. I kept doing it, though, and that was before you could google any technique in the world and find a tutorial, a blog, a youtube that would show you how to do it. Was there a corduroy dress that had the nap going opposite directions and un-interfaced lumpy collar and cuffs? There sure was. But I kept going.

I never took a formal sewing class, but my job for the past four years has been like getting paid to go to sewing university. The fact that I am not on contract in the summer doesn’t mean that I stop, either. I love to sew. Each summer I set myself a goal in terms of skill-building. The first summer was patterning. I patterned and built a 3/4 length fitted coat with curved design lines and contrast fabrics and I built it without any instructions, willing myself to figure it out. I wear that coat several times a year, and it is stunning.

The next summer was the summer of knit fabrics, and I designed, patterned and built myself a swimsuit. I made a dress, a skirt and vest and some tops. Last summer was the summer of zippers, and I put invisible zippers into everything and made lapped zippers and zipped the hell out of anything I could. This summer, I have pledged to take a series of Craftsy classes.

I have just finished the first one, the Sew Better, Sew Faster Jacket Express taught by Janet Pray of Islander Sewing Systems (ISS). I always struggle with formal classes, because I never like the project, but I vowed to do it as instructed so as to hopefully learn some new skills, or, as our instructor promised, “Some really nice tips.” OH THE TIPS. There is a fussiness to some sewing instructors that I find very off-putting. In particular, this class had a lot of disapproving references to the “Home Sewing Industry”. I’m not sure why, since ISS patterns are not marketed to manufacturers, they are marketed to home stitchers.

The approach I would have preferred would have been less smarmy and more in the vein of acknowledging how poorly many commercial patterns are designed and how they cut corners that result in garments that look “home made” in a negative way. Many times my coworker and I have examined a pattern’s instructions and been dismayed by them. If ISS patterns are better, then I am glad to know that, but they are not a category separated from home sewing.

The things I did get from class included perfectly-executed welt pockets, some techniques that eliminate hand-sewing when constructing collars, cuffs and faced-yokes and more topstitching than I thought possible, and I really *like* top stitching. I privately named the class “Topstitch The Shit Out Of It” because it crossed the line a few times where technique for the sake of technique conquered design requirements (why you would ever topstitch around a welt pocket when the whole point of a welt pocket is its understated-ness is beyond me).

The issue now is that I have very well-constructed jacket made from vintage, hand-stamped bark cloth with vintage buttons that I doubt I’ll ever wear. So there’s that to contend with.

Jacket Express 1       Jacket Express 2

Maybe I’ll offer it up for a silent auction fundraiser or something.  Next up is a commission for a private client, so I can really work on my fitting skills and fine sewing, as it will be a Dupioni silk with silk charmeuse lining for an evening wedding that my client is attending in Kansas City. I’m looking forward to it.

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