Today's post is in response to email and comments I've received on the subject of learning to sew. Over the years, I've been asked how I learned to sew, how to learn to sew with books, how to sew without books, how to sew with classes, how to sew without classes, how to sew for children, how to sew without children, how to sew alongside children, how to sew with children monopolizing one's time . . . ah, all combinations, really.
I've tried addressing some of those questions here on the blog, in posts like this, this, this and this.
But - in addition to the fact that they were about teaching kids to sew - those posts were just conceptual and philosophical, you know? Meant to encourage frightened and intimidated people to Go Forth And Forge Your Path, No Matter What Other People Say Is The Correct Direction To Pin Your Fabric. I wrote them because I saw a lot of sewing trends in the blogosphere and trends are powerful in how they can both motivate and paralyze. They can also steer people towards bad habits, but that's also true for things other than sewing, and anyway, it's another rant for another day.
Some time ago, I thought I would teach myself to play the violin. So funny, right? As if I don't have enough things to do. My father-in-law gave us his old violin and I strangled out "Mary Had A Little Lamb" on it the first time I touched it. Hideous. Then, I heard Taylor Davis play this and I thought, "That's not very hard, wot. Once I actually get the strings to stop screaming, it'll be a piece of cake!"
I'm so silly.
Anyway, while perusing Ms Davis's website, I found this post on how to start to play the violin. Now, I don't know what sort of authority Ms Davis is on the subject since I know squat about violins, let alone enough to assess her words. However, I found that post fascinating because it reminded me of so many sewing posts I'd read on other people's blogs with lists like "10 Sewing Wondertools Beginners Should Own" or "10 Skills Every Beginning Seamstress Must Know". I love lists like those because they always reveal that I am sorely lacking in some area or other, in spite of having been sewing for decades. Just the other day, I discovered that, apparently, I need to own a bamboo turner and flat flower-head pins which can be sewn over. Reflected in shame on my own fat chopstick and ball-head pins, most of which are bent and which I regularly fail to sew over. Immediately, my sewing self-esteem plummeted.
Forgive my flippancy. I do in fact like Ms Davis's violin playing. And I myself have written sewing lists just like the ones I satired above. My point is this: were I a true beginner, I wouldn't know what I didn't know about sewing. I'd believe everything I read. I'd be desperate for direction, any direction. And I'd be continually overwhelmed, maybe vacillating between acute interest and despondent panic at how much I'd like to be able to do while not having a clue as to how to even start to learn how to do it. I'd probably have caught the sewing fever from having seen something online that I really want to make, or overhearing fellow moms trading sewing project ideas, or remembering my own mother or aunt sewing up a storm when I was a little girl, and wishing I knew how to sew. Just like them. Just like that baby blanket in that magazine. Or that stuffed giraffe on so-and-so's blog. Or that adorable dress on that little girl that I know is handmade because I saw that same fabric in Hobby Lobby.
True beginners - folks who are at that point in their desperate desire to sew- are not the same as the "beginner level seamstresses" who are the target audience of the simplest of commercial patterns, or coffee-table craft books filled with flat coasters, crayon rolls and tote bags.
Let me try to explain the differences.
When you are already a seamstress, even if you consider yourself still a "beginner", you will probably be sufficiently discerning as to what kind of book or project or skill you would enjoy or need at any point in your sewing career. This is because you already have a foundation of sewing knowledge - however small or large - including sewing terms, techniques, project categories, and immediate learning goals i.e. you will have had some exposure, context and reference points with which to define what you do and don't know.
True beginners, on the other hand, are different. All they have is a keen interest to make stuff like they have seen elsewhere. All they know is that they don't know anything but need to know everything, and how pretty the fabric is, and how much they hope everything is as easy as everyone promises it is. They will need to be told what they must do first, what they need to buy first, what they need to expect first, because they will not know themselves (yet). They may or may not have a sewing machine, and if not, often even the prospect of deciding which one to buy is daunting. True beginners also don't know what qualifies as a "simple" or "beginning" sewing project or skill set - is it the size of the item? The inclusion or omission of additional bits and bobs like buttons and zippers? The number of seams? The straight vs curved seam ratio? The kind of fabric used? The category of project - garment? Bag? Placemat? Scarf? Quilt? They have no basis on which to reliably judge anything.
Let me digress with some backstory, which I've told many times on this blog (sorry). As you all know, my main sewing resources as a very early seamstress were Mum, Grandma and my Homec. teachers. And, as you also know, I started hand-sewing at about 9, and machine-sewing at about 12 or 13. I also started both drafting and sewing (including zippers) at exactly the same time as I'd begun machine-sewing- at age 12/13 - because that's how we did things back in our family/country then. It was only some years later that I began to sew craft projects, and made my first bag. So tailoring first, then craft-sewing, would be how I'd describe my sewing journey. Apart from my Homec. textbooks, which provided a sort of framework for basic sloper/block drafting, I had no books, blogs, seminars, magazines or patterns. Everything I knew came from my human mentors, and years of mistakes.
In this modern sewing age, however, the sequence of the sewing journey is very often reversed. Many people's first projects are flat, rectangular, straight-seamed cotton craft items: coasters, burp cloths, placemats, simple quilts, tote bags, pillowcases. Then, they may move onto things with curved seams, like bibs, aprons, balls, stuffed toys and bags with gussets and rounded corners. At this point, they may feel ready to tackle garments, so they may buy a commercial pattern or read a sewing blog (or book) and make their first untailored, unfitted piece of clothing - something forgiving and adaptable like a gathered skirt or PJ pants. Some time later, they learn how to adapt more precisely-fitted clothing patterns to their own dimensions and might or might not make the jump to drafting their own. Some go the design-and-piece quilting route instead of the draft-and-design clothing route; some do both.
Unlike during my own childhood, sewing books, blogs, magazines and seminars are now everywhere - affordable, accessible and literally tailored to almost every skill level. There has never been a generation of seamstresses as lucky as this one. You have a veritable buffet of resources at your disposal, from which you can pick whatever you need at whichever entry point you need it. However, as with all things in abundance and variety, there is also considerable opportunity for frustration at incomplete or unsystematic instruction, a paralyzing sense of feeling overwhelmed by vast amounts of unfiltered information, and a danger of unknowingly adopting inefficient habits that may sabotage future progress or success.
And above all that is the one thing that most sets this distance-learning generation apart from the apprenticeshippy ones of old: the lack of immediate feedback in the learning process. Nothing quite beats the immediacy and accessibility of print and online sewing resources (sew a last-minute teacher gift at 3 am, anyone?). Thank heavens for Google! On the other hand, nothing also beats having a real human walk you through a technique, point out where you messed up, or teach you a good habit. Or, in the case of a true beginner, pick that first direction in which to walk, and that first project on which to work.
I will always, always, always advocate a human sewing mentor over ANY print or online resource, no matter how formidable and advanced that resource may be. Along that same vein, I will also always, always recommend buying your first sewing machine (or serger, in my case) from a dealer rather than amazon.com or Costco, so that you can quiz the dealer (a human) on how it works and how to troubleshoot. I know this is not usually possible, but if you can find someone to teach you something (and yes, human-interaction seminars count!), choose that over a book or static blog post any day. Feedback can make or break your sewing journey. And if that teacher is kind as well as willing, it's a bonus. Buy them dinner and mow their lawns or something. There aren't enough sweet and gracious older sewing teachers left in the world.
Therein lies the problem - a lack of actual humans who are available to pass on the legacy of sewing, drafting, quilting and whatnot, to the generations after them. So I also totally appreciate that a human mentor is not a realistic option for many people. And I feel very bad when readers ask me how I learned to sew because I know that my answer (learned from older family members as a small child) will be utterly unhelpful for them. Therefore, I am very glad that there exist all those alternative non-human sewing resources. In the next post, I will share with you a book for beginning seamstresses that I like. The remainder of this post will be a kind of framework for thinking about how to begin a sewing journey in general. Here are three things to consider.
I think the very first thing to do after deciding you want to learn to sew is to get excited, but realistic. Sewing is a marathon rather than a sprint. You will be able to churn out projects within hours of learning to use your sewing machine but it will take you months and years of experience before you will get to the point where you'll feel confident enough to tell people, "Yeah, I sew." This is not because sewing is difficult; it is because women (and I'm assuming many of you reading this are women) tend to be hard on ourselves and on other women. Resist the urge to slap a label on yourself - you know, "beginner sewist" or "adventurous beginner" or "intermediate-advanced", stuff like that. If the need arises to define yourself, pick something that's not arbitrary. For example, if you join a sewing group and have to introduce yourself and state your "sewing level (I hate that term to death)", say, "Hello, I'm Princess Amidala. I've been sewing on-and-off for the past 3 years and I work with mostly cottons and I've tried zippers and I'm excited to learn how to use a serger." Or, if you're looking for a sewing pattern to buy, ignore the "For Advanced Level Seamstresses!" on the front and instead look at the list of prerequisite skills you will need in order to be comfortable working with it.
Summary: you may be better or not-as-skilled at sewing than you think you are. So what! You don't need to know how good you are or not, to keep learning and sewing.
The next helpful thing to do is decide what kind of sewing you'd like to do first.
|The Strawberry+Chocolate+Vanilla collection|
|Dress-up costume and wig|
Further, it is also helpful to focus on a category of sewing projects, if only because the techniques, fabric handling, notions and construction sequences might be quite different among different kinds. Some examples of categories:
- Quilts and patchwork
- General crafts including home-decor items, toys and baby items
- Garment-making - but not tailoring (i.e. the fit is not generally important)
The way I eventually realized this was in noticing that sewing blogs were divided very distinctly into categories according to their sewing focus. For instance, blogs devoted to tailoring (including pattern alteration and drafting and draping) had a completely different vocabulary, style and target audience than those devoted to quilts, home-decor or baby items. Even with ikatbag, which is a sad melting pot of completely random pursuits, I have to mentally shift gears between writing a drafting post and one on sewing my kids' latest toy or sundress (it gets even funnier when I cross over to cardboard and electronics).
The point is not to limit yourself to one category forever. Rather, it is to be aware that the kinds of projects you can sew are sufficiently diverse that you might need different skill sets and vocabularies - and not just more hours of practice per se - to feel comfortable with them. Having those realistic expectations may, hopefully, prevent frustration that something seemingly easy (e.g. making a Tshirt) actually felt much trickier than something else that seemed more challenging (e.g. putting piping on your outdoor cushions). It's all relative, but different.
Look for resources. This is sort of self-explanatory, isn't it? However, the prospect of research can be very daunting when you aren't sure which direction you'd like to go first. Typing, "how to sew+ tutorials" into Google is likely to overwhelm you and be less helpful than streamlining your focus to, say, typing "blogs+girls' dresses" or "tutorial+ tote bag".
In addition to the internet, which is a wonderful and almost unlimited resource for anything these days, there are also sewing books (which I will talk about in the next post), periodicals and sewing magazines both for inspiration and instruction, courses and lessons, seminars, sewing groups and guilds. There are advantages and disadvantages to all of them, which means that the more different resources you use, the more complete your research and learning will be.
Books have the potential to provide the most linear, systematic and comprehensive instruction on broad and specific topics (e.g. Sewing 101 vs Darts & Pleats). Courses and lessons have the advantage of immediate and feedback and two-way interaction, plus real-time visual instruction. Seminars and conferences are wonderful for networking and getting aligned with current trends. Sewing groups and guilds support you locally and get you in touch with even more local resources.
And then there are blogs. Blogs are great - they aren't necessarily complete sources of sewing education, but they're inspirational and written by real people you can get to know. Plus they're right where you want them at 3 am while you nurse those babies. Hard to beat. Here's just one example: Liz and Elizabeth, the ladies behind Simple Simon and Co., ran a month-long feature on beginning sewing, called "What I Wish I'd Known When I Started Sewing" in January 2014. I enjoyed it so much. Go check it out.
In closing, I'm going out on a limb to guess that most people want to sew because they secretly want to make garments. I mean, I don't know a whole lot of folks whose real, ultimate goals in getting their sewing machines, were to sew cushion covers or baby bibs. Everyone I've talked to who's been interested in sewing at some level, has said something like this, "Honestly? I wish I could sew clothes. I saw this-or-that on a little girl/boy in the park/in a catalog, and I wished I knew how to sew. I think it would be amazing to even someday sew something for myself that fit. But I got my sewing machine to sew little things, you know - little pouches, a toy for my daughter, some blankets for gifts, maybe pillow covers and curtains someday. I'm not even going to think about clothes... yet."
Bravo! Bravo that you are starting somewhere, even if it is just practice until you muster the courage to sew what you really hope to. It's okay to improve faster than you thought you would. It's okay to get stuck from time to time. It's okay to sew the same things over and over again because you like it and because you like feeling confident at it. It's okay to thirst for different things even if you don't do as well outside your comfort zone as within. It's okay to feel overwhelmed. It's okay to be ambitious and aim high, or not. It's okay to ask. It's okay to learn. It's okay to unlearn and relearn. It's okay to sew differently from other people. It's okay not to have to defend how you sew. It's okay to decide, "I don't sew as well as so-and-so" (or "better than", if you're honest) and be perfectly content. It's okay to learn from your mother, from a professional dressmaking course, from a book, from someone's blog, from trial and error, from your kid's homec. notes. It's your sewing adventure, after all.
Over to you now: how did you learn to sew, and what advice do you have for beginning adult seamstresses?