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!
16 thoughts on “The Holistic Seamstress: Part 1”
What a journey! I can commiserate and celebrate along with you. i’ve experienced so many of the same ups and downs. We’ve traveled a lot of the same paths through our adventures in the sewing world. We’re self-taught but with so many teachers! You’re so right. Thanks for sharing.
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Yes, you and I have floated in the same sewing circles. It’s amazing to me how much we all (sewers who learn from the world of knowledge) have in common without having met in person or taken the same sewing class. I appreciate your comment.
Seeing how you’ve embraced custom drafted pattern sewing using Lekala has always inspired me.
I have all of your books save the Metric Cutting and Linen and Cotton. Clair Schaffer’s book no longer holds together from using it so much. It really needs to be rebound or put in a binder with page protectors. Living in the Bay Area gives you access to classes from Lynda Maynard and Sandra Betzina. There are several colleges that have fashion design departments and I’ve attended the one in Redwood City. Fantastic teachers and courses.
By joining the American Sewing Guild (ASG) in San Jose began my journey as a garment sewer. Besides learning about sewing resources such as classes and stores, the members were extremely helpful and it was a joy to find like minded souls. I did not know another garment sewer until joining the ASG. The ASG also brought national sewing teachers in to hold workshops and lectures. This made learning from the experts reasonable as the events were charged as a group fee. You have Sarah Veblen just outside of Baltimore who we have brought in to teach several times. She is a wonderful teacher.
Online bloggers and communities keep me enthused about this art. Pattern Review was the first online community I joined. My latest community joined is the Curvy Sewing Collective. The internet brings many more discussions and classes to your door. Currently I’m buying out Craftsy on their garment sewing classes. Many new approaches and ideas to try have come through there.
All in all, I enjoy almost any format to learn and continue growing my skills.
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My Susan Khalje book is in the same state as your Claire Schaeffer. I nearly cried when pages started falling out. Someone on Instagram suggested I take it to a copy shop and have it spiral bound – I am very tempted to do that!
I really need to get involved with my local ASG again. I just haven’t found/made the time for face to face sewing fellowships since my daughter was born. The handful of ASG events I participated in were SO inspiring and supportive.
All of the online communities you mention are great teachers! I just realized I have been a lurking member of Pattern Review since 2006! Everyone there is a saint!
Thanks for sharing your experiences Susan. I am moving back to Northern California in the next year or two. Sooner if I get my house on the market next spring. I can’t wait to have easier access to Ms. Betzina! She has saved my life many times with the techniques in her books and that fabulous show on HGTV she had for a while.
Before I leave the D.C. area, I’ve gotta meet (and learn from) Sarah Veblen and Susan Khalje (I have such a sewing crush on her!). I get emails about their classes in the Baltimore area, but finding the cash and the time is always hard. Now, I have a reason to hurry .
When I get back to Cali, we’ll hang out and you can show me where the cool sewing kids go ;-).
Love love love this post! Thanks so much for sharing your interesting sewing journey and I’m overjoyed to be a part of it! I felt a little teary when I read that last part about your carefully chosen teacher. I love the famous saying about how it took your whole life to get you where you are right here right now. I’m honored to be able to work with you in my online skirt course! I think this is the beginning of something special…
Thanks, Brooks Ann. I am definitely grateful for the scenic route I’ve taken to get where I am now. It brought me to your class and having a teacher for five weeks straight is a party for me!
I have similar skirt woes! Well it’s just my waist, really. It’s a funny shape and changes so much between standing and sitting that I am just about in despair about fitting it. Even in dresses! Maybe I’ll just switch to sewing waist-less sacks….
I have a lot of the same books, although slightly less of the advanced ones. I know the next step for me is to get in depth with fitting and drafting but I haven’t gotten up the oomph yet. I actually found the P&P book a bit of a let down, because most of the fitting things in it I had already worked out I needed to do, and how, using the internet. There was almost nothing in there that got me further, and I find it doesn’t go into enough depth for the things I DO need. Although I do use it as a very handy reference when I can’t be bothered to google!
I have a couple of block drafting craftsy classes waiting for me, and I did previously do an in-person class but then my shape changed so drastically I never used my blocks. I think that’s my next step – any books you would recommend for that, specifically? I would like to buy some but they’re so expensive and it’s overwhelming trying to choose the right ones. I’d love to take an in-person fitting help course but can’t find anything in my area, so I’ll go back to the internet and books, my traditional pals!
Thanks for sharing, Kate! FFRP let me down a bit too in the end. That’s why I ended up with a textbook for pattern alteration. The five week course I’m taking now is online and so far, it’s the best approach to pattern drafting (and couture sewing) I’ve ever seen. Go to http://skirtskills.com and check out the details. If the current session is closed, you can get on the mailing list and get notified when Brooks Ann opens up the spring session for registration. Because the class has a limited number of students, the support is much more intimate than say, a Craftsy class (which can feel like one of those big auditorium college classes).
Wow – what a journey! I still have lots to learn, and a lot I want to learn, but I find myself getting a bit lazy as I pretty much fit into commercial pattern sizes (asides from the need to add length!). My first and only pair of self drafted pants seemed like such a triumph, it really is so much more rewarding to make something you’ve worked hard for. x Allison http://www.thetallmamastyle.blogspot.com
Wow, self-drafted pants is a kick-ass accomplishment, Allison! If you fit into commercial patterns with only length adjustments, that is wonderful luck. I think there is room for both methods in a sewists life. Commercial patterns can get you where you want to go a bit faster (if you don’t have too many alterations), but I’m realizing that learning to draft patterns isn’t that much harder than learning pattern alterations. Ultimately, I’ll be using custom drafted blocks to design new patterns and using them as 2-D dress forms to help me fit purchased patterns.
I really love this. I am a beginner taking online and in-person classes and reading blogs like yours. So inspirarional and cudos to you for striking out in so many ways.
Hey, Iris! So glad you stopped by and said hello. Knowing that this place inspires you is EVERYTHING to me! Let’s keep inspiring each other. Sewing is hard as hell sometimes. But, then it’s also the most wonderful, empowering connection a woman can have with her body and talents. I want to tell that truth. Thank you for sharing it with me.
This might seem strange to most people but I have never read a sewing book. My mother, grandmother and all of my aunts sewed and I just assumed I would one day just start sewing and it would be a simple as that and mostly it has been. I’ve learned by doing. Recently I’ve looked up how to do a few things on YouTube but I figured out all the basics long before the Internet.
That is FASCINATING, Lynn!!! I can’t even imagine learning to sew organically. It sounds so peaceful. Some people learn to be musicians from their parents that way. Wow, knowing that about you, that learning to sew by watching and doing is possible makes me want that for my daughter. Thank you for sharing. It’s good to be reminded that we all come to this craft in different ways.
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