Fabric won’t bite

April 20, 2008 at 9:48 am 2 comments

Seeing as I am making such good progress with my antique sewing machine and my new suit, it seemed like a perfect time to lecture you all on why making clothes is really, really easy and everyone should do it. =)

Blogging is an odd fish. I can spend ages constructing a post about the moral case for fighting climate change and nobody says anything, and then I can scribble a few lines about my greasy hair and provoke a flurry of comments. You’re an odd lot, you lot. 😉

The thing that has provoked most interest and comments has been my dressmaking course, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest (given that this was how I felt) that it’s because it’s the kind of thing that everybody really wants to do (cos it’s useful and you get to play around with pretty fabrics and have clothes that fit you) but that seems horrendously complicated and nobody thinks they can do. My granny used to ‘manfully’ make clothes for my mum and auntie (as my mum put it), but never really enjoyed it, and my mum presumably learnt some things at school, but her dressmaking skills extend as far as sewing on buttons and (after much pleading) taking up my trousers. The most useful thing she passed on in that regard was that sellotape is a foolproof alternative to that invisible hemming.

So my maternal lineage singularly failed to teach me anything of much use in the sewing department and my school was even worse: my mum had been told at 13 that she was ‘too bright’ to do domestic science to O Level and made to take Greek instead. This seems to be the way education has gone, and my academic hothouse of a school didn’t even bother to try to teach me anything useful. We were the first year group to have cookery replaced by IT (no room for both), but that was okay, because we were all going to get 10 GCSEs, 4 A Levels, a place at a top university and a decent job, so we could just pay other people to grow and prepare our food, mend our clothes, repair our electronics and clean our houses.

Ah well, peak oil kinda b*ggered that plan. Never mind.

I’m also a funny shape. Having an immensely robust sense of self, I’ve decided that I’m actually quite a healthy shape. I don’t have any problem with my hips or my chest, I quite like them, in fact – I have issues with my knees, and I think my arms are too skinny, but overall, my problem is with the fashion industry that says we shouldn’t have breasts and hips. Or that if we do, we shouldn’t be short. Seriously, after years of finding that any trousers that fit around the hips are several inches too long or that any shirt that closes is too baggy around the shoulders and tummy, I just cracked. I will not be dictated to by corporate fashion houses about what shape I should be. For anybody who rolls their eyes and asks if our grandmothers chained ourselves to the railings outside Parliament only for me to start baking bread and making clothes, I say this is an act of defiance and empowerment in the face of disposable fashion, the sickening attitudes towards women’s bodies you see in the media and our culture of dependence on corporate giants who want to tell us what shape we should be, what we should wear and think it’s okay for 9-year-old Bangladeshi girls to make it for us.

Whoa, okay, that was a big side-track. Where was I? Yes, you lot were interested in my battles against 23 years of ignorance and a sewing machine.

I even had a specific request for help. Natalia wrote (way back in March, sorry Natalia – it was on an old post and I’m afraid I didn’t notice it for a while):


Hi everybody 🙂
I’m trying to find a place here in New York City to take some sewing classes. I could go to FIT or Parsons and take some CE, but I have two problems: 1. I’m learning english, all those words are new for me and 2. it gives me panic that somebody shouts me again because I can’t understand what they are trying to tell me, trust me! I had an experience of: Don’t you understand me? once and I felt like… terrible… Some suggestion to begin? as soon as I feel confidence about what I’m doing I’ll go straight to FIT with a big smile. Please 🙂

Now, I’m a very long way from New York City, so I can’t really help you on finding a class or a teacher, but I can tell you, and everybody else who seemed impressed and faintly awed that I was learning to make clothes (you know who you are 😉 )

don’t be scared.

There, I’ve even written it in a non-threatening colour.

Firstly, I’m English, have a degree in linguistics and have worked as an English teacher, and all those sewing words were totally new to me too. When I got my sewing machine, I got some books on dressmaking out of the library, even quite promisingly titled books such as ‘Dressmaking Made Easy’, and was totally baffled, it seemed like a foreign language – selvage? darts? yoke?

I thought maybe I could handle curtains (they’re square and they don’t have hips or breasts or anything), so I got some more books out of the library, again called things like, ‘Soft Furnishing for People who Really Haven’t a Clue.’ Yeah, right. I couldn’t mitre corners when I started reading, and I couldn’t when I finished. In fact, I only have a hazy understanding of what mitred corners are and I still hang blankets over my windows at night.

Books, people, are not the way to go. While I contend that a moderately intelligent and extremely patient person could probably teach themselves to knit with a good book of beginner patterns and the videos on Knitting Help, I think if you want to learn how to use a sewing machine to actually make things, you really need somebody to show you what to do. I know that I was incredibly lucky that my teacher was so enthusiastic and inspiring. My mum said to me, ‘Well, you’ll probably make a cushion cover, and then an apron, and then an a-line skirt,’ which sounds to me like a 1960s home ec course, and it was nothing like that at all! Right from the off, we were told to make things that we wanted to make. One girl had done the course the previous term, had never sewn before that and had designed a jacket from just a picture in the People Tree catalogue finished it a few weeks ago. It looked amazing!

I know that having a teacher you don’t get on with is really scary, but I think that in this day and age, most people who have ‘traditional’ skills (like making clothes, knitting, home-brewing…) are just very pleased when someone shows an interest in learning from them. They’re probably quite used to the fact that most people haven’t got a clue what any of the words mean. Well, in my experience anyway. Granted, some teachers might seem a bit jaded after years of being incarcerated with ungrateful brats and following a dictatorial curriculum, but most people who teach evening classes generally do it because they’re really passionate about whatever it is and are keen to help others.

So – don’t be frightened to take classes. I really think it’s the best way to learn how to sew, and it would be a shame if you let one impatient teacher put you off learning for life.

One thing I would suggest is not buying a commercial pattern. Not to start with, anyway. Seriously, you’ll open this envelope and get loads and loads of tissue paper, which you cut into shapes that don’t look like they’d fit together in any way, then you’ll pin them to the fabric and they’ll tear and they’ve got all these little symbols and marks on them that are supposed to be some kind of code for how to make it fit over your individual lumps and bumps….. If you have someone who can explain what it all means and when some of the things they recommend in the instructions are unnecessary it makes it a lot easier.

To start with, I’d suggest getting a selection of clothes out of your wardrobe. Basically, all clothes are made up of a number of ‘panels’ of fabric, with about 1.5cm extra around the sides which are the bits you stitch together (the seam allowance). You draw these panels on paper (or get a commercial pattern where they’ve done that for you), then pin the paper to the fabric and cut them out. This isn’t particularly complex – the trick is in being really careful. I’m a particularly neurotic person, so I was good at this part. =) Oh, and have a separate pair of scissors for cutting fabric – if you cut paper with them, you’ll blunt them.

Go to your wardrobe and dig out a selection of clothes. Find some jeans and some tailored trousers and compare the backs. You’ll probably notice that jeans have two long panels for the legs and an extra piece between the tops of the legs and the waistband. That is the yoke. Tailored trousers will probably have some darts in (seams that don’t hold bits of fabric together but are just there for shaping).

Look at a variety of skirts and notice which ones are more complicated. The pink skirt I made was very simple – big panel at the front, big panel at the back (both the same size) and short bands to line the waist. More fitted skirts might have more panels or a separate waistband.

Once you start really examining your clothes in detail to see how they fit together, it might all seem clearer. If you like, I’ll post some pictures of this later in the week and see if I can find some way of showing it all visually, as it’s much easier to grasp then, but the bf is currently asleep in the bedroom so going and digging around for clothes might be a bit mean.

One easy way to make patterns is to find an item of clothing that already fits. Once you’ve identified the panels, get yourself a tracing wheel

and some paper (preferably ‘dots and crosses’ paper, but any tracing paper would probably do)

and draw round the panels, using a pencil for the edges of the garment and the tracing wheel to trace the other seams. I promise it won’t destroy your fabric (though maybe best not to use it on silk or something). Hey presto, lots of bits of paper that you can use as a pattern for making something! (If you’re really brave, you can now go and buy designer clothing, copy it, make it yourself and then take it back.)

If none of this makes any sense, why not try looking at this blog. Not only will it make you really enthusiastic about making clothes, but she also did a great series of videos entitled ‘Things to know before you sew’ that you will find if you search her blog for ‘things to know’.

And, Natalia, she’s even based in New York. Maybe she could recommend a class or a teacher.

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Entry filed under: crafts, dressmaking course, sewing machine.

Civilisation Things I have been reading lately

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Everyday Sewist  |  April 20, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    Great post. I totally agree that you should make something you want to make, not an apron if you don’t wear aprons. I think attitude has more to do with sewing success than anything else. If you are excited about the project, and patient with yourself, you can make almost anything.

    I have say that your teacher is very unique and sadly, most sewing courses don’t allow for that kind of flexibility. (And many sewing teachers can’t sew without a commercial pattern.)

    I’m self-taught from books, but like you, I made my first several patterns–copying and draping doll clothes as a child, and much later, following book instructions to drape and cut a sofa cover. I think it took away the fear of cutting and fitting commercial patterns when I started to make my own clothes. I have seen some great clothing made by people who don’t know how to use commercial patterns.

    I also think that sewing is much more enjoyable if you view it as an art form rather than a chore. Unfortunately in schools, cooking and sewing are too often treated as “chore training for women” rather than something for self-expression. That’s why I chose not to take homemaking classes, even though I wanted to learn dressmaking.

    Reply
  • 2. N. & J.  |  April 21, 2008 at 2:33 am

    I have to say I don’t have a huge amount of interest in making my own clothes. I can see things like sheets or curtains but I don’t think I have the design acumen to make clothes that I would like to wear. I’d rather scour the thrift stores, craigslist, friends closets and Ebay to create my “green” wardrobe.

    That said I think that classes are the way to go for any new skill you are trying to learn and if you are looking for sewing classes where ever you live your best bet is to go to a fabric store. Large stores probably offer some classes or may have sewing machines you can use but if you find a small personally owned shop you may be able to get one on one classes.

    Reply

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