A self-taught seamstress doesn’t have one teacher, she has hundreds. Every sewing book, blog, magazine, website, or video promising to de-mystify a technique or show how something is made from start to finish is a righteous guru to the budding sewist. She believes that all of the knowledge to sew beautiful things is out there, if she can just follow the directions. This is the myth that guided my first ten years of learning to sew.
In Part 1 of The Holistic Seamstress, I am going to reflect on how I accumulated my skills over the years by considering the pivotal books in my sewing library that took the place of flesh and blood teachers. Out of the five Wardrobe Sewing Elements, Skills is the only element that starts off in our control. It has taken me around ten years to feel back in control of mine.
Before the librarian arrives, I’d like to acknowledge the elephant in my sewing room: I sew full skirts all the time not just because I love how they swish, but because I can’t figure out how to fit my hips! And it’s not for lack of trying. I spent years figuring out why my DD chest wouldn’t fit in a sewing pattern drafted for a B cup. Solving that mystery felt like winning an Oscar for Best Seamstress in an Ill-Fitting Top. But, my first attempt at sewing an a-line skirt using vintage reproduction Vogue 1019 was evidence that fitting my lower half was going to require some new skills.
In 2012, I made (and laughed at) the pink version of Vogue 1019 below. The only thing that worked out in this skirt was the old school snap placket at the side seam. That feature will get repeated one day in a skirt that is worthy of all that hand sewing. After checking a few books (and probably Googling the fit problem, cause you never know) for the right alterations, I sewed two more muslins that were improved, but the fit was still not quite right. I walked away from the pattern and my plans for a fitted skirt. For three years.
I picked up the pattern again this year thinking my skills were finally “ready for this jelly” I had going on with my backside. And they were! With help from my sexy sewing assistant and three skinny darts at the back high hip, my fourth V1019 muslin was the best yet. So, I sewed up another one in a wearable quilting cotton and basted on the waistband to check the fit. It STILL wasn’t right. I’d dealt with my butt, but now the waist didn’t fit.
That is how I taught myself to sew. Through the suffering and joys of trial, error, and error.
No matter how many failed attempts at sewing wearable garments I had, there was always hope within the pages of the right sewing book.
I can trace the growth of my sewing knowledge and tactical skills through the books I acquired (somewhat desperately) over the years. From quilting and craft books that got me comfortable with my with machine, to beginner garment sewing books that navigated me through the overwhelming world of fabric and sewing patterns, to books on pattern alteration and design that exposed me to skills I thought were for experts. If there was a book about sewing out there I wanted it.
My lust for reading and book collecting likely came from the job I had in high school working at the very first Barnes and Noble bookstore ever built in Silicon Valley. I loved that job. I got a great discount. It was the coolest hangout in town. And, there was a coffee bar smack dab in the middle of the many aisles of beautiful books. It paid well, too. Too bad my paycheck was perpetually doomed. Back then, I was into science fiction and Stephen King books. No one would’ve guessed how my reading tastes would change.
- When I grew up, moved to the East Coast, and got a corporate job, I took a quilting class at G Street Fabrics to “stay in touch with my creative side” and bought my first sewing book, The Art of Classic Quiltmaking. I didn’t even have a sewing machine. The quilt top I pieced together in the class was ugly and I never finished it.
- I bought my first house with my fiancé (now husband) in 2003. We binge-watched cable home improvement shows and DIY’d all over before moving our stuff in. I finally had a reason to buy a sewing machine! A cheap $100 mechanical one. I made a pair of lined curtains using the tutorials in Curtains for Beginners — my first spiral-bound craft book (a marketing tactic I would continue to fall for in the coming years). The curtains were uneven and the tulip print got old real quick, but we were proud enough to hang them in our bedroom anyway.
- About a year after I got married, I started getting the itch to sew clothes. This was right around the time they revised and updated the classic, Vogue Sewing book. I would sit and read that book like an encyclopedia, opening it up to any page, excited to learn whatever it wanted to teach me. It was around this time I discovered Wendy Mullin’s Sew U book. It was the first garment sewing project book I’d ever seen and from what I remember, all of the sewists congregating in places like Craftster.org (where I spent hours and hours hungrily scrolling through user-submitted tutorials and projects) were trying out the projects and all of the design variations it taught. I couldn’t get any of the patterns to fit me properly even though I followed the size chart. Sadly, In those days, I knew nothing about length, width, or depth adjustments. The book proved to be an excellent primer for learning design, though.
- After a few more disappointing experiences with Big 4 sewing patterns, and a handful of other trendy project books, I put garment sewing on the back burner for a while in 2007 to spend time making kitschy-cutesy gifts, bags, the occasional scarf or apron, and more home decor. The rise in popularity of fabric artists like Amy Butler and Anna Maria Horner made books like In Stitches and Seams to Me irresistible to a woman like me who just wanted to make something that had no risk of sucking.
- In 2008, my world changed with one purchase. Palmer & Pletsch’s Fit for Real People was a cool drink of water in a hot desert of muslins going nowhere. I learned how to measure, mark, and slash my first full bust adjustment. You would’ve thought I’d just learn how to split an atom. I learned that three dart technique for addressing a fleshy high hip curve. I saw the most eye-opening diagram that demonstrated exactly how a petite person’s body is different from an average-height person. It was the most considerate, inclusive sewing book I had ever read. I just KNEW it would be THE answer to all of my fitting woes. It wasn’t.
- When I wasn’t reading books about sewing, watching cable shows about sewing, or socializing on the Internets about sewing, I was going to sewing conventions. Living so close to Dulles airport means all the cool hobby conventions come through town. I met Judith Rasband, co-author of a $100 textbook called Fitting and Pattern Alteration: A Multi-Method Approach to the Art of Style Selection, Fitting, and Alteration at a big sewing convention in 2009. The class she taught woke me up from a coma of ignorance about fitting and I bought her book right on the spot. It has diagrams illustrating every possible commercial pattern fitting challenge and four different methods for altering them. It is gold. As long as you have the patience to try them. There are about 8 post-it notes in my book highlighting the pages where my fitting challenges are covered. It’s a badass reference book, but doing all of that work to alter a pattern originally drafted for someone else’s body began to feel, well, silly.
- By 2011, I was tired of tinkering with fit. I’d been dabbling and poking about in garment sewing for five years with nothing wearable to show for it. I picked up one of the multi-cup size patterns in my already huge stash of patterns (every new one I bought was “the one” that was gonna work for me) and sewed it up with only length adjustments since the D-cup pattern option took care of the depth changes I’d need. It was a sleeveless tunic. I didn’t trust the pattern, so I made it in quilting cotton (a useful strategy I still employ to help me get rid of beginner fabric stash). The success of that tunic got me excited about dressmaking again. After months and years of struggling with my sewing skills, having a handmade wardrobe finally felt like a real possibility for me. I immediately bought the Colette Patterns Sewing Handbook (my love for indy pattern companies began that year), started drinking in everything I could on BurdaStyle.com, and started reading reviews about every pattern in my stash on PatternReview.com.
- In January of 2012, I signed up to be a contributor to The Sew Weekly blog which was basically Project Runway with a one week deadline (every week for a year!) where the designer is also the model. I had only sewn one wearable garment in my life. What was I thinking!? I’ll tell you. I wasn’t. I was desperate to make clothes and throwing myself in the deep end seemed like the only way to get some momentum. I went into my first challenge armed with skills I’d learned nerding out on another over-priced textbook, Patternmaking for Fashion Design.
- I’ve told the story of what distracted me from sticking with the challenge for the whole year before. But the truth is, sewing at that pace wasn’t helping me grow my skills mindfully. When I came back to sewing (on my terms) in 2014, I had a new appreciation for couture sewing and sought out teachings from Susan Khalje and Claire Schaeffer. Claire’s book Couture Sewing Techniques no longer reads like Klingon to me. Not only have my skills matured, but my patience for quality sewing has grown too. The 32 hours I spent making my very first lined dress was one of the happiest four days I’d ever spent doing anything.
This is the heart of my sewing library today. I am a better student now and no longer need hundreds of teachers.
In fact, just one teacher— carefully chosen for all the right reasons, can make years of frustration seem like a bad dream I can wake up from purely with the power of a measuring tape and pencil.
Take THAT Vogue 1019!
Which of the books in my historical sewing library have you read? What events, books, teachers, or patterns have shaped your sewing skills? What was your first sewing book?
Join me in the comments for some dialogue!