Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Sewing (and Shopping) Before The World Wide Web

Thank you for your comments on my last post! I enjoyed reading them and am so glad that many of you are still blogging. Blog on! As several of you said, much as we like our information quick and succinct, there will always be a place in social media for blogs as long as we love stories and appreciate robust explorations of topics close to our hearts. I am a fan of one of my favorite blogs, the King Arthur Flour baking blog, for precisely that reason. More than just wonderful (and very often fool-proof) recipes, the writers dissect, analyze and experiment with the multitude of variables that influence their success. And share them. Not just as tinkly-music videos, either - I love that we can choose to watch live action demos or read the play-by-plays alongside gorgeous still photos. Besides, anyone who makes it their goal to explain the whys along with the hows gets my vote. Bravo!

Some updates on my end: I've been working on the Pop Pouch pattern all last week and into this. The  testing team has sent in their feedback and photos and it's my turn now to put nose to grindstone to get everything ready for the pattern launch. The templates are tweaked, the instructions edited and I've just finished one final sample to test everything before it goes live. Working with testers is always fascinating and invaluable, especially if they aren't your sewing buddies who might feel obliged to say nice things to you. Some of the best feedback I've received in the past is from people who've said, with discernible frustration, "I gave up halfway because it looked like a beginner's project and you said it was easy."

I've always believed that a challenge to stretch oneself is a good thing, but this time it appeared that  I'd dragged someone - albeit unwittingly - way out of their depth. I felt bad, of course, but it made me rethink my default categorization of sewing skill levels. Evidently, I had a different understanding of "beginner" than had other people. Or what qualified as "easy". Maybe - contrary to what I'd initially thought - there was actually no correlation between "beginner" and "easy". It could be that to anyone who's sewn a quilt, everything thereafter is "easy". Or perhaps a "beginner" is someone who's never even set eyes on a needle, rather than the one who's only sewn flat pencil cases but not yet tried a fully-lined guitar gig bag. So many considerations. So many nuances. And because much of my sewing experience has been in an environment (and with materials) somewhat different than the typical readers of my blog and users of my patterns, I'd needed to learn from other eyes and other hands where the boundary lines were between old and new, easy and hard, familiar and foreign.

One of the outcomes of working with this wonderful team of Pop Pouch testers was rethinking the ways sewing people obtain and use their materials. More than just how we purchase new fabric, it was also about the kinds of fabrics we instinctively choose when we start a project, the unconscious rules we use to decide whether those are suitable, and even which kinds make it into our stashes for keeps. In a sense, our stashes are a commentary on the kinds of projects we've done, loved, and harbor intentions of undertaking in the foreseeable future, aren't they? While they may begin as Let Us Hoard Whatever Fabric We Can Find, over time we find them evolving into something that says something about ourselves as unique and particular seamstresses. This is especially so when we've sewn for a number of years, or have had to move house, or run out of space in general. When we cull our stashes, our decisions to save or toss, and our resolve to buy more of this and less of that, can be as diagnostic as a personality test, and just as surprising.

Looking back over the years I've enjoyed sewing, I distinctly remember there being a difference in the projects that motivated me to start sewing and the ones that kept me interested in improving my sewing abilities. I also remember what it was like to develop those interests and abilities in an era before the convenience of the world wide web.

Game for a story? Then read on.

My first independent sewing projects were hand-stitched stuffed animals and dolls. I was in primary school at the time and bored with the cross-stitch/embroidery/macrame - type projects we were made to do in Art & Craft class. Not because those skills were lame (far from it); one simply couldn't play or interact with an embellished tea-towel or knotted pot hanger (or ubiquitous macrame owl) the way one could with a toy. So I forged out on my own at home, dipping into Grandma's stash of good felt, learned the blanket stitch and rejected any other embroidery stitch that wasn't directly useful in producing a tiny face or paws.

In secondary school, I began Homec. lessons. Again, wretched embroidered home items like a hair-cutting cape and a shapeless cotton blouse, on which the focus was - regrettably - not the fit but instead smocking or some other cross-stitch decoration. Fortunately, the curriculum also included drafting and while I wasn't thrilled about learning to do it (I was 13 and obtuse), it was something with the potential for application to real life. Hurrah.

Sadly, the focus again was not on fit or even experimenting with fabrics (we were told to buy so many yards of such-and-such a fabric) but on perfect slip-hemming, perfect zipper installation and perfect blanket-stitching around the ridiculous hooks-and-eyes. My tetron-cotton skirt, the construction of which was dragged out over half a semester, fell to the floor when I zipped it up because I had added way too much ease in all the wrong places. If I had been the teacher, I'd have failed myself on the spot but as it was, I received an almost perfect score because all the years spent meticulously stitching tiny stuffed animals paid off in my apparently impeccable workmanship. On a garment that DID NOT FIT. Clearly, any drafting skill I possess now is to the credit of my mother, aunt and grandmother and not the Homec. curriculum.

I continued to draft and sew alongside my mother all through my teen years. Some of the garments we made were very ambitious, including formalwear and lacework and foundation garments reinforced with boning. While I had a lot of help, I also remember being fearlessly gung-ho - as only teenagers can be - about trying things that were supposedly far beyond my skill level. The downside was making a lot of mistakes. The upside was becoming more confident about recovering from those mistakes. And - eventually - actually getting better at sewing itself. Over time, I could install zippers without asking to be shown how. I could tell how much ease to take in at a seam or dart without being told. I could look at a dress in a magazine (or a real-life sample) and deconstruct it at some simplistic level - maybe not adequately to draft the pattern on my own, but certainly enough to instinctively know the starting point.

Sometime in my late teens, I discovered bag making. Although it really began as pencil-case-making: a small fabric container with a zipper. Which evolved into attempting utility cases, pouches and then full-blown bags. Bags with straps. Bags with drawstring cords. Bags with clasps and zippers and buckles. Bags with fabric blocks. Bags with hand-painted personalization. Bags with darts and gussets and pockets. Bags with lining and stabilizers. Bags which I began selling not long after, which turned into my first sewing business.

I still drafted and sewed garments on the side. But however garment making might have been the measure of one's skill with the needle (and a thus associated seamstressy status), it did not excite me nearly as much as bag making. While I dutifully plodded away at dresses and skirts and button-down shirts, some of which I wore with real pleasure, they felt like practice, not accomplishment.  Completing a bag, on the other hand, was cause for celebration. There was usually much showing-off to Mum, accompanied by a detailed report of the difficulties resolutely faced and triumphantly overcome, and an account of the number of needles broken and fingers pierced. We used treadle sewing machines then, and garment needles - fine, fragile splinters better suited for cotton and silk than the tough upholstery and utility fabrics often favored in bag making. Specialized needles for leather and jeans and knit were not easily accessible to the local home seamstress then, nor the options for the non-garment stabilizers that are now available to crafters in a dazzling variety.

In those days, I knew very little about what things were called, only how to use them. For instance, I was aware of the intricate workings of a treadle machine: how to thread it, how to replace the leather belting when it wore out, and how to maintain everything in generally good working order through regular dusting, oiling and fiddling with the various parts (although not also their names). I learned not from a manual with written instructions but by watching my mother take apart the innards and put them back again, each screw in its place - and then do it myself later from memory. If I needed guidance, she'd come over and prompt, "This goes here and moves against that," or "watch. Like this. No, not like that."

It was similar with the materials we used. As earlier mentioned, my grandmother had a large collection of wool felt into which I dipped to make my stuffed animals. I didn't know there were other, cheaper, pill-able kinds until I wandered into fabric stores in the US and laid hands on the colorful bolts of acrylic felt. They had a weird sheen, I thought, and felt oddly porous. They were nothing at all like the felt I'd used as a child - these reminded me of handmade paper, lumped and pressed and accidentally textured. Were they even the same kind of fabric? Labels meant little to me because I'd only ever known fabric by touch.

By the time I was old enough to decide that I liked bag making just a tad more than garment making, I was also old enough to independently shop for the materials I needed. Which was just as well since my mother's and grandmother's stashes (they were entirely garment-makers, with the occasional curtain or accent pillow sewn as and when needed) were no longer adequate sources of fabric. In the course of observing, designing and making them, I'd become aware of how bags, unlike clothes, held their shape even when empty. Sometimes it was multiple layers of fabric that gave them this structure (and made it very difficult to stitch through). Other times it was the fabric itself: different weights and thicknesses, different weaves, different drape, different coatings that added resistance to shearing, water, rips and stains.

But how did one decide what fabric was suitable for a particular bag (or category thereof)? There were encyclopedias of fashion and garment-making courses from which one might gather the equivalent information for a dress, a shirt, a leotard. And I could (and did) ask the sewing women in my family, who told me all they knew about chiffon, jersey, cotton, drill, wool and so many other materials from which to make garments. But bags?

No, my best resource were Other Bags. And so Touch-and-Deduce became my modus operandi. I investigated backpacks, saddle bags, purses, wallets, handbags, totes, athletic gear sacks and made mental notes of what they felt like, along with generalizations between fabric and strength, durability, and function.

Then I embarked on my quest to procure these materials. Where did one go to buy such fabrics? Certainly not the common haberdashery places and open-air markets that catered mainly to apparel seamstresses. And if not, how did one even begin to look for stores that might stock what I was looking for? 

The Yellow Pages became my best friend. Do you remember paper phone directories? Weren't they quaint? Didn't they feel like a universe's worth of information squished into a single book? The Yellow Pages were amazing, yes, but they still only produced leads, potential sources (at best) of elusive textiles I hoped I might recognize by mere feel. So I hopped on bus after bus to visit shops. Real brick and mortar stores. In person. With only indomitable optimism and a few fabric swatches in lieu of names I didn't have.

I found them.

And learned their names. In Mandarin, because these were the wholesale front offices handling bulk orders from industrial warehouses in China. I bought yardage straight off the sample bolts stacked against the walls of dusty shophouses and army surplus stores. I asked (in faltering Mandarin) not only what these fabrics were called, but why some felt thicker, if there were others like them, where I might find hardware, bindings, webbing and the other paraphernalia of bagcraft.

From these soft-spoken, non-English-speaking reception clerks I learned about zippers - that they came with different-sized coils or teeth, that you could order them in ridiculous lengths (should you, say, want to make a covering for a truck), that you could have them be single-pull or double-pull. I learned that packcloth (the woven material used in backpacks) is distinguished by weight in deniers (the unit of measurement), and there's polyester and nylon, coated or uncoated. I learned that the slippery fabric I'd previously referred to as "that parachute cloth" was called ripstop and also comes in different thicknesses and strength. And I learned that it's entirely possible to flunk Chinese lessons in school and still communicate in truly important situations in real life.

I thought you guys might get a kick from seeing an actual receipt from one of those shopping trips 27 years ago. The item description is in part Chinese and English: 1 yd of 600 denier polyester packcloth, 60" wide; and 15 meters of polypropylene webbing. I still have the receipt not because I'm a first-rate pack rat (OK, there's that, too) but because I was running my first sewing business at the time and trying to keep decent accounts. Unsurprisingly, this wonderful shop is no longer at this address; the entire row of shophouses (the Singapore equivalent of a strip mall) - of which Tai On Loong was one - was demolished decades ago to make way for malls and other modern buildings. So tragic.

In 2001, I moved to Minnesota, first as a grad student and then 4 years later as an immigrant. The first few years thereafter were a haze of morning sickness, diapers and potty training i.e. no time to sew, let alone run a business. When I eventually I felt ready again for more creative pursuits, I found myself back at square one: where did one go to find fabric of the sort I was used to? And in a brand new country infinitely more enormous than Singapore and whose highways and byways were still nothing short of a mystery to me?

Hello, world wide web. There was just Safari and Firefox then (and the early, evil, crashing versions of Internet Explorer), but they were enough to throw out a few possible store names and phone numbers when I searched for "600D packcloth". I still had to punch the numbers into the handset of my landline. I still had to converse with a human being in unnecessarily technical language (but this time in sweet, blessed English). I still had to print out a map and directions (this was before GPS was an everyman thing, people), get in my car and make the 1-hour journey to the warehouse to meet my fabric in person.

And I still remember the feeling of touching a roll of packcloth in that warehouse. It was like coming home, except home was the whole world shrunk down to a single bolt. With only the echoes of partly-forgotten conversations in Mandarin to guide me, I had quested in a land halfway across the world and somehow found my roots, as it were, among bales of utility fabric.  What irony: in my home country, I'd had to learn the words in a tongue that was foreign to me, while I was now standing in that warehouse, a stranger on an entirely different continent, speaking those same words in the language I wish I could've used then.

Regardless, I felt invincible. And infinitely grateful for the internet.

Now, almost two decades later, it's even more different. Last week, I was thinking about the comments my testers had made about the challenge of finding ripstop nylon where they lived and how thin was it actually and were the issues with bulk they'd experienced possibly the result of using a substitute that while similarly water-resistant, might still be too thick?

Excellent questions, and certainly worth addressing before sending the pattern out to you guys. So I opened my laptop, Googled "ripstop nylon varieties"; read an article (with photos) about the weave of the nylon threads that gave ripstop its particular strength and how it took to dye differently than polyester; Googled "ripstop nylon Etsy" and discovered vendors selling a particular weight of ripstop; wondered if that weight were the same as what I'd been buying at JoAnn Fabrics, Googled "JoAnn Fabrics ripstop nylon" and found nothing helpful; Googled "ripstop nylon online retail" next, found a company that stocked several weights and colors, perused their expansive catalog and thumbnails of hues and thread patterns, ordered 4 yards of different colors and weights, and paid with Paypal. All within 45 minutes while sitting on the sofa in my PJs an hour before midnight. I didn't even have to get up to locate my wallet, let alone handle a single banknote.

Five days later, in my snow-covered mailbox was the package in which were those 4 yards of beautiful ripstop nylon, sent from a store more than a thousand miles away.

And their website itself? Abounding in tutorials on working with ripstop (and other outdoor fabrics, some of which you and I will probably never meet in our lives). Also: posts explaining their differences in strength, appearance, manufacturing methods and applications in hammocks, tents, sleeping bags, clothes, quilts, backpacks, kites and -yes - parachutes.


All that information literally at one's fingertips. All those resources waiting to be discovered, tapped, purchased. That younger LiEr, brandishing her fabric swatches and trying valiantly to speak technical Mandarin with wholesale importers, would've never dreamed of a day when shopping and sewing could be like this.

I am indebted to the world wide web for giving this to us. Am I resentful of the effort I made to learn and buy what I needed back in the day? Of course not. Will I hereafter never enter a physical fabric store again? Pffft. Don't be ridiculous. (Fact: I spent last Sunday afternoon in SR Harris buying even more ripstop nylon.) We will always be needing fabric and inspiration and directions, and what a gift the internet is to allow us so many new ways to find help. So don't stop asking questions, friends, because the learning is boundless, and the answers abundant and free (not to mention translatable into any language you could want).


  1. *sigh* I know I say this all the time but I do love your writing - you are such a wonderful writer/storyteller! It was brilliantlearnibg more about your sewing...journey? History? Alongside all the changes that came with it. I'm in the garmet making/fitting/mistakes phase and hope to move on to fabric experiments in the next two or three years.

  2. It is absolutely incredible to think about all of the changes that have occurred just over the past 20 years

  3. I am so jealous of your home ec classes, indequate as they may have been. I was offered music and drama in school (hooray!), but never had options to spend time doing things with my hands.

    I went to a creative industry conference earlier this month, full of workshops to learn different skills. Most were very structured. One offered a basic idea and then we were free to take it where we wanted. So rewarding!

    Just from seeing the photos, I wouldn't describe the pouches as beginner projects, but I also know that you are brilliant at explaining things.

  4. I find it a resonant and true idea that the things we learn early, with touch and failure, become hard-wired into us. And that these things - sometimes seemingly random collections of knowledges - become fundamental to who we are (more than any academic certification) when our mirrored self is lost through relocation. The flash connections I encounter when I take a sketch into a hardware store are lovely; the recognition of a questing mind by another is very affirming, particularly when migration leads you to feel like nothing is firm.

  5. So much goodness! So much thankfulness on my part! You've brought back many memories and a touch of jealousy (I wish MY mom had shown me how to maintain a sewing machine - the way my dad taught me how to care for the table saw I still own).
    I was enlarging the ship return address (or the zip code) to see if you were mentioning the store I am blessed to call my closest fabric store, and realizing that you weren't, and that community of sewists who make stuff from "furnishing" or "working" fabrics has many satellites of this sort. People who just want more people to love doing the stuff they do. I have more specific data on weights and weaves, but nothing will surpass just walking down the tables, touching fabric. The day I can't do that, I will hang this up for good. Or maybe when I run out of the stash.

    Jet Pens has a pencil cup with a FAUX FUR CUFF. In pink. Dang.

    As always, thank you for sharing you and your brain and your family.

    1. SJ Kurtz: The store is Ripstop by the Roll, and the link is in the second paragraph above the photo. It's in NC!

  6. Another lovely post! I admit my favorite stores to visit while traveling are the hole in the wall fabric sorts! My husband not so much, kids can sometimes wander on a scavenger hunt - if it looks safe enough! Thanks for brightening the world!

  7. I found this blog through your excellent bags tutorial. Wanted to let people know that Seattle Fabrics actually sells packets of different outdoor fabrics for just a few dollars including nylon. I plan to create my own library so I can refer to them in the future for projects. That way I won’t have to guess anymore. Thanks for such a great blog!


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