How I Learned To Sew- Sharey Time!

The other day, someone left a comment that ended with:  “I see the mistake often in blogs by self-taught sewists, which is why I was surprised to see it here.”

Ahem.

Pardon me?  What’s wrong with being a self-taught sewist?  Besides, I am a self-taught sewist.  Sure, I picked some things up here and there, but no one taught me to do what I do.  Then I realized I never blogged about how I learned to sew.

Well- settle in, and I’ll spin you a story…

I was unschooled from 4th grade until 11th.  That means I was home schooled without using a structured curriculum.  My parents placed a strong emphasis on independence, critical thinking skills, and creativity.  I am grateful.  One method of learning involved “immersion” in a subject.  That meant when I studied English Medieval history, we cooked food from the time, played medieval games, I read Chaucer and biographies on Eleanor of Aquitaine, William the Conqueror and anything else I could get my hands on about the period.  I made gowns and headdresses, and we went to the Medieval Faire.  I ate, slept, drank and dreamt Medieval England.

In some ways, it was awesome.  The jousting was my favorite, I’ll never forget those enormous hooves thundering across the pitch.  I digress…

That’s when I remember starting to sew- to supplement my imagination and to make history “more real.”  I was a kid, so the materials were cheap and nasty polyester/acetate blends, but that didn’t matter to me then.

When I was 10, my mother (who does not sew) bought me a second-hand Kenmore from the 70’s.  I immediately made myself a yellow rayon shifty dress thing to wear to church, and when I think about the construction values I shudder.  But I was thrilled- I made it myself!  I wore it proudly and after the service a very kind lady whispered in my ear “You have to lower the presser foot when you sew.”  What a revelation- I had sewn the entire dress with the presser foot up!

I sewed doll clothes, quilt blocks, historical garments, Easter dresses, learned to embroider by hand, whatever came into my mind.  I had plenty of time and no television.  Eventually, I started competing with my garments in 4-H fashion shows but never won more than the second or third tier rounds of competition.  My taste was probably too weird.  I would make and model a black and gold boned Elizabethan gown with a cone-shaped farthingale and the other girls would model prom wear.

Later, I moved to Texas and went to a very large and well-funded public highschool.  There were 969 other students in my graduating class.  The theatre department attracted me and I worked under more senior costume designers.  Sure, it was highschool, but we were big and serious.  I learned to rip old gowns apart and bewitch them into completely new gowns, perfectly suited for the role and the wearer.  I saw the more senior costume designers work from sketches, and conjure a dream out of thin air- it’s possible!  I learned that an uncomfortable costume is worse than no costume at all, and how to critically analyze a performance to discover what the actor needed from the garment.

I also taught “stitch camps” for the younger girls who came in knowing nothing about sewing, so we could hand off boring piecework to them without stopping to explain how to sew on a snap.

At the University of Texas, I spent two semesters as a stitch hand under the Master Tailor in the theatre department. (I studied politics and language, sewing was my job.)  I was her bitch, which worked for me.  Once I had to make three perfectly identical red and white striped tailcoats.  I was so proud of them, all pretty and identical.  Then the Master Tailor told me to distress two of them.   It physically hurt to rip the new coats to shreds and smear them with mud.  At UT, I learned a little draping from the graduate student designers in our workroom and how to run a variety of industrial sewing machines.  Never lessons, just “go and do this” and I would.  If they didn’t like what I did, I was sent back to do it again until they liked my work.

After the state cut funding to the theatre department, I found a job making “Urban Reconstruction” garments at a local vintage clothing store.  It didn’t pay much and I’m pretty sure my boss was on some kind of drugs but I had fun cutting apart ugly old clothes and refashioning them into stuff people actually bought and wore.  I even saw my work walking around in Austin.  Twice.  It was thrilling.

Then I didn’t sew for a few years.  I wanted to do something besides sewing, I kind of hated how I kept getting “sucked into” sewing.  I sewed my wedding dress after I arrived in Australia, but it was solely out of desperation.  Search as I may, no stores anywhere carried the simple white full skirted knee length dress I had in my head.  So I made it myself.

Later on, after Lila was born and I was in the middle of a body-image/identity crisis something clicked in my brain as I watched Miss Marple with my husband.  “Stephen, I’m going to sew dresses like those and wear them.  All the time.”  Big, crazy gorgeous, 1950’s dresses.

“If that’s what you want to do, I think you should.”

“I’ll do it.”

“I have no doubt you will.  Do it if it makes you happy, I’m not going to stop you.”

At the time I had no sewing machine, no threads, nothing.  Very soon thereafter, I got a job at a sewing shop around the corner from my house.  I hadn’t sewn for years, and with my years of theatrical/historical sewing I felt myself very superior to those “professionals” and their fancy machines and gadgets and feet.  *I* didn’t need anything but a needle.  Oh yes, very prideful.  I belligerently bought a very low-level sewing machine despite wise advice otherwise (then 6 months later upgraded to my beloved Janome 4900- I do indeed use all the bells and whistles.).

But you know what- I was wrong.  I learned to use all those fancy gizmos and whats-its.  Sometimes I was actually taught, but more often I was told to go play with a cording foot until I liked it, or to make samples of knit binding.  I realized that while some gadgetry is bunk,  the vast majority of these tools and aids actually cleaned up my sewing.  I could wear a garment without covering up the bad bits.  I didn’t care if something went through the wash.  Best of all- my sewing time sped up incredibly.

That’s also where I started teaching in earnest.  My classes varied from one or two a week to as many as five, depending on the season.  I loved teaching people to sew because I realized it’s more than just sticking together bits of fabric, it’s more than just making clothes.  I could pass on the same thrill of creation that I get every time I sew: the incredible feeling of imagining a garment and then calling it into being.  I finally started to value the sewing, after years of trying to run away from it.

My students became more sophisticated, and as a result I had to start pushing myself to figure out the best way to bind a knit neckline, the simplest way to insert an invisible zipper, and eventually they pushed me into learning how to fit all kinds of shapes and sizes and to make patterns.

Now, you all do the pushing, and I love it.  Contributing to the online sewing community has become an important and rewarding part of my life.  A big reason I started blogging earnestly is because I wanted to help other self-taught sewists improve their work.  Someone has a problem, I know how to solve it, I write a blog post.  Who am I to hoard my skills?

I think spreading knowledge and information about our craft is incredibly important, and I have a LOT of respect for all the self-taught sewists out there. Especially those of you who are isolated.  It’s hard.  It’s even harder when other people arbitrarily decide which way to sew is “right” and which way is bad or wrong and put you down about what you do.  You don’t have to take that.  You worked hard for your skills.

The most important thing I’ve learned are that if a garment fits, if the wearer likes it and if it holds together then it is “right.” The rest is academic, there are many ways to sew.   Curiosity, an open mind and a willingness to try new things will always serve a sewist well.  Snobbery is a waste of time.

How did you learn to sew?


119 comments

  1. I settled in and ENJOYED your learn-to-sew story! LOVE your (what comes across to me anyway) fierce independence!

    My own story is more humdrum…mother was a tailor who worked in London for one of the fashion houses – so I was surrounded by ‘the right way’ to do things, always. But truly learned the basics in 7th grade sewing class – proudly wore my red double knit polyester pants (with the drooping hem) to school until I out grew them!!

    Now, I hope to get past my aversion to fitting, get some basic patterns sorted and return to sewing for me.

    Thanks for your patterns and hacks!

    • Oh- heh… Thanks. I tend to think of myself as pig-headed, but independent is better. ;)

      How beautiful, how lovely that your mother worked in a London fashion house. :)

  2. Great post, interesting reading, thank you! We can be very grateful to sewers before and around us, but in the end it’s all about being creative and inventive enough ourselves to find solutions that work for us in a particular situation, right? I was taught in high school for a few years, but see myself mainly as self-taught, and anything I can get my hands on is “training” for me. Love the internet sewing community for it! So, I suppose there are no real WRONG ways to do things, just different and maybe just not nice/efficient/effective enough as we’d like at the point. What do they say about Edison and the light bulb and learning a thousand ways NOT to make one…?

    • Yes! That’s exactly what I mean… And for some reason it doesn’t bother me much to figure out the 1000 ways that don’t work, if it means I can share the one that does. :)

  3. I arrived in Oz 18mths ago! My husband had bought me a pfaff so I could turn up hems & ‘maybe’ try making curtains! I’m hooked! I make clothes for my 6 & 4yo daughters & 2yo son. I’ve made school, play,sports & swimwear & jackets! love sewing – it calms me! And yes I am self taught mostly, but with advise from people like you, who are willing to share on your blogs! thank you. x

  4. I have been asking myself this question a lot lately. I do remember Mum teaching me how to knit and handsew when I was about five, but she wouldn’t let me near the sewing machine, which was a  Veglia-Borletti from the 1970s inside a cabinet. I think she hated how big and bulky it was, and she did have a fear of the electrics of it.
    In my early 20s I moved into a little house with a tatty sofabed and decided to make a cover for it using blue fabric from Ikea with printed elephants. It was then that Mum finally showed me what to do -threading and lowering the presser foot and how to use the wheel.
    The sofa cover was never finished and I didn’t think at all about sewing machines (not sewing, I’ll explain in moment) until 2009.
    I have been an avid knitter since age five, and that year I read all of Elizabeth Zimmermann’s books, foreswore straight needles forever and decided that I wanted to try steeking.
    A mere few weeks later the husband-and-wife team of builders who were renovating our house asked me to knit something for their three daughter for an upcoming wedding. They put up the materials and gave me a new-ish Brother XL2230 for my time.
    The machine came with me during several house moves but I never got round to steek anything on it. Just before my last move a couple of months ago I decided to check that the foot pedal, presser foot and accessories were still there, and as soon as I was settled into my current house I got out an old tablecloth and zigzagged it to death!
    Since then it’s been an exciting few weeks! I made a skirt, a dress, various householdy things and ended up selling the Brother to buy a 1971 Singer and a slightly newer Jones (I am told UK Jones are completely unrelated to US Jones).
    I am still learning everything and whilst I am not isolated I still get a fair amount of stick for my passion. Then again, ten years ago people sniggered at my knitting, and now I can’t move for knitting magazines. Give it ten years and I’ll be showing everyone how to thread a sewing machine!
    There is a lot I love about sewing, but my favourite thing (after the knowledge on the Internet!) is how the learning curve is massive, and yet I can still find my own way to do something, that works for me right now. I just regret not starting earlier, but I’m catching up as fast as I can!

    • Oh cool, that was interesting to read. :) I hear you about people sniggering… For a while I sort of kept it on the down-low that I sewed, and a few years ago it was like… sorta cool… Among more people than old ladies (who I revere as a class). I think the internet has a lot to do with that, and I hope more people take up the needle. That’s why it pisses me off so much when people get all “sewing police” and exclusive. :)

  5. Your history is fascinating! We all go through many tunnels to get to the same place. I started sewing Barbie clothes when I was 10 by hand and using knitting techniques taught by my grandmother. By the time I was 12 my mother said I was done making doll clothes and had to make my own clothes. I made simple things all through high school but by the time I was 20 I was sewing for others when I was wasn’t working as an x-ray tech running a angiography suite in the hospital.
    My 4 children were born, I sewed for them and clients and also took classes in draping and pattern making from local sources as I moved to Canada from So Cal and back again.
    Eventually, the kids were in school full time, I was 38 and I decided I needed a piece of paper to say I was a real seamstress so I went to college to earn a degree in Fashion Design. Five years later I got it along with a 6 month apprenticeship in a Bridal salon sewing every day as part of the course. I discovered that pattern making and draping were my great love and that sewing, no matter on what level of machine was secondary. Proper fitting was the ultimate goal otherwise the resulting garment was a waste of stitching time. Then I moved to England for 8 years and attended another local college to gain a further insight into European sewing styles and more draping and pattern work before returning to the US.
    Now after over 40 years of producing garments for folks I am still doing it every day. My sewing workshop is packed with bridal gowns and bridesmaids gowns and all manner of general sewing. I make custom clothes from scratch and still adore when I can get a day to concentrate on pattern making and copying RTW and improving the fit. I have taught many years for the local ASG and at one time a few years back I had 13 students (aged 7-70) who came to my home for private lessons. Last year I worked on 26 bridal gowns and 26 bridesmaids along with over 100 other clients.
    Construction is my passion, good fit is the prize. My blog shares tips and tricks and the weirdest clients who find their way to my door.
    http://fitforaqueen.wordpress.com/

    • Thanks for sharing, MrsM- that’s so interesting! Wow. You know, I really kick myself for not studying design when I was at university, but what you’re saying is it’s never a bad time to do that. Thank you for that. :)

      and this “Proper fitting was the ultimate goal otherwise the resulting garment was a waste of stitching time. ” <—- Yes. That is how I've come to feel about sewing, unless I'm stitching primarily to "learn" a new fabric or a technique… I'm pretty obsessed with fitting, but I guess you already knew that one… But at the same time, I have to balance that with pragmatism.. It's interesting. :)

  6. This was honestly an inspiration to read.

    I’m pretty much self-taught, have only been sewing for five years for fashion courses, and seriously for myself a few months, and I’ve been getting down on the quality of my work recently – but this was quite a pick-me-up!!

    • Thanks, Melody, I’m glad. :) Keep on with it! The sewing part gets easier with practice, that’s all it is. Practice and tenacity. You can do it. :)

  7. Well your opening line was enough to make me go back a few blog posts and have a read. Thanks for the giggle – binding / banding – who care really as long as it works and looks good!

    As for learning to sew – school – 6yrs of it at high school. Back in the “good old days” when they actually used to teach Textiles and Design as school in Australia. Sadly I think its a dying part of the curriculum – I’m happy to be corrected.

    I then diverted off to 20yrs of Uni / Career / Corporate ladder – you know the one :D

    But the arrival of a child and I’m back sewing and have now started my own little businesses making kids clothes – mostly using knit fabrics! And yes most of what I know about sewing knit fabrics is self taught.

    Now onto the issue of plain cotton jersey (I read the comments in the other post!) you need to get some samples of ‘Stella’ from Standard Universal. Its a 90% cotton 10% spandex 220gms cotton jersey – great for basics. Made in Sydney but you can get if from their Brisbane office – wholesale (min 5m per colour). If you want to buy it retail them go to craftymamas.com.au. And yes the white dyes up a treat! They have some other cotton jerseys in different weights so its worth having a chat and getting some samples.

    • Yeah, it’s pretty funny. I wouldn’t have mentioned it but that sentence has stuck in my brain for the past few days…

      Thanks for the tip! :)

  8. Really enjoyed your post. There are some out there that seem to think we must all sew couture. I personally don’ have people inspecting the inner workings of my products. I enjoy what I wear because I have altered it to fit, I liked the fabric, the item was a fashion I enjoy. It is funny to think of all the people that talk about ‘home made’ clothes like it is a bad thing, with their snobbery. I watched my mom and grandmas sew, I loved that my grandma let me play at her old treadle singer, never once did she tell me I did anything wrong as my barbies were clothed. I went on to take a couple of sewing classes at the public school, but they were so darn picky about things instead of living and enjoying the process. I have learned so much more from sharing with others via the internet, and taking pride in my ‘me made’ products!

    • Couture is cool but it’s not at all the only way to sew well. It’s kind of like how karate is a mental discipline as well as a way to fight, but it’s not the only way to fight…

      When I worked at the sewing shop, my stuff *had* to be well made because I worked with a large group of insanely talented and sharp-eyed sewists, quilters and embroiderers. I liked that, I was constantly encouraged to “up my game.”

      Great comment, you’re exactly right. :)

  9. Oh my, you have had an interesting life. At least compared to mine.

    I am almost completely a self taught sewist, I am a voracious reader so that helped tremendously. I have a lot of sewing books and I read them like people read novels. Now with the internet we can learn from videos (like your binding foot video), and great blogs. It is a great time to be sewing.

    • Oh dear… Maybe. heh.

      I could not agree more- it is an absolutely fabulous time to be sewing, or really anything that requires a bit of learning and information sharing. It’s a new renaissance, no hyperbole….

  10. Well your opening line had me scurrying to find and read the comments about us terrible self taught sewists who make all these errors… Mercy! but caused me to giggle!

    I learnt to sew at school – back in the ‘good old day’ when they taught sewing (textiles and design) as school. I managed 6 years of it. In the final 2yrs there was only 4 of us in the class. Sadly I think this was the beginning of the demise of sewing in schools in Australia – an assumption on which I’m happy to be corrected.

    I then did the uni / career / corporate ladder thing for 20yrs but the arrival of a child sent me back sewing. It was my sanity breaker.

    Started out sewing for my little one, then family, then friends, then friends of friends. So then decided to make them pay for my sewing so now have my own little business, mostly sewing knit fabrics. And yes I’m self taught with that – but fortunately the education system teaches us to read and thats a great way to learn!

    On the topic of plain cotton jersey I’ll send you an email…

    • re sewing in schools here in Australia – I wanted to take textiles as one of my electives when I was at highschool (finished 2000) but despite the best efforts of the time table co-ordinator, I had to choose between textiles, or physics. I figured I could get mum to teach me sewing, so I took physics. But our school was fairly well stocked (not sure about staffed) in the textiles department.. we had about 15 sewing machines, as well as overlockers, and 3 of the machines were memorycrafts. My sister was one of the few people in the school allowed to use them – we had one at home so she was trusted with the Big Fancy Super Expensive Machine that the teacher didn’t know how to work. And that seems to be the big problem, but its circular. Less interest in learning means less qualified teachers, but less qualified teachers means less interested students, because whats the point if you already know more than the teacher? (And there were a few girls from my year who went through to HSC with textiles. They all made their own formal dresses and we were all jealous.)

      • Such a shame… And I’ve had many many beginner students who *wanted* to learn to sew, but were terrified from horrid home ec teachers/classes/experiences… Some of the stories I’ve heard are just crazy! I know it must be super super hard to teach a subject like that to teenagers, but seriously…

        Luckily, the sewing is our friend and isn’t scary at all. ;)

  11. I am currently learning how to sew, or perhaps I should say that I have just started to learn how to sew since I’ll probably be learning until the day I stop sewing, anyway, I feel that the term ‘mistake’ is perhaps a strong one to use in a (kinda) artistic medium like sewing.

    I can only explain it with knitting which I learned from my grandma when I was 6 years old. She would drill the way you hold your yarn to ensure equal tension into me like you wouldn’t believe. Nothing short of perfect would do. Nowadays, I see a lot of people who have taught themselves how to knit and no they don’t hold the yarn that way, but they are still knitting and producing nice and amazing things and I am not sure whether you can tell at the end how they held the yarn. Perhaps if you look really closely or something, but we are human beings not machines so things naturally vary.

    I view sewing very much the same way. Yes, proper technique means a lot to some people (but who decides what is proper anyway), but so does holding the yarn properly. What makes sewing (and knitting and all the other arty crafty things) so interesting is the variety of the end products. For some people couture method and clothing matter, but I really like what people create out of remnants and bed sheets and weird off cuts etc. etc.

    Anyway, I shall step down from my soap box now :-)

    BTW it is nice to see a fellow Brisbanite here

    • Howdy neighbor. :)

      I can see the point you’re making, definitely. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that there’s value in learning and perfecting what I think of as “technique.” Because in order to break the rules, it’s helpful to understand them. So I don’t disregard technique entirely, but I also don’t act like it’s a sacred path… Know what I mean?

      Wax on, wax off. ;)

  12. Ha, the best thing I learned about sewing is what my mother always said: “if you can read, you can sew”. She meant “because you can follow a pattern”, but these days reading stuff on the internets is also handy!

    Speaking of which, I would love to see a roundup of different seam finishing and Hemming techniques – Hong Kong, French, bias binding, serging, rolled, topstitched- how to do them, when to use them. All I’ve ever done is a zigzag stitch and a basic hem. Any resources you can recommend?

    • Yes! I like that. “If you can read, you can sew.” Absolutely.

      I don’t know of any resource that has those in one place, I have some paper notes around here along exactly those lines though… I’ll see if I can dig them out of my computer and make a blog post from them. If anyone else knows of a good page/post roundup of those seam finishes, please feel free to post it here!

  13. I’m afraid that this is a very widespread frame of mind, and it really dictates the way we sew (or knit or do anything). I’m sometimes worried that the sewing police is going to arrest me because I didn’t do something the right way. Then I have to stop and say to myself: there is no right way, but there might be a more efficient one, or a prettier one. And I also have to be nice to myself and acknowledge the fact that my sewing will get better with pratice and that I should try to be proud of what I already know!
    Thanks for this uplifting post!

    • Hehehe. There are no sewing police. I know because they’d have surely locked me up by now.

      That’s such a great attitude to bring to your sewing! And I think your work looks pretty darn good. :)

    • Thanks, Karin. I can’t believe I never posted about it before, probably because it ran so long I wasn’t sure anyone would read it. hehe.

  14. Really enjoyed your post. It’s nice to see that I’m not alone in mostly figuring things out myself without formal classes.

    Is it weird to say that I don’t remember not knowing how? When I was three my grandmother (who was a professional seamstress) put a needle in my hand and taught me to make stitches. By the time I was five, I was making doll clothes. By fourteen, it was people clothes. I had a long hiatus in college, until I contracted lymphedema and that made me *have* to sew if I didn’t want to be naked. At the time, I only owned three dresses, and the compression bandaging made it impossible to wear any of the pants I had, because they wouldn’t fit over my legs. Wide legged homemade pants are now the norm to me, because they fit over my oversized legs and still fit everywhere else.

    When Gracie and Rickie, my niece and nephew, were born, I learned to quilt, and then I started to majorly sew to make Gracie, and now her little sister Nikki clothes. I’ve made a few for Rickie and his little sister Lizzy, but Gracie and Nikki get the majority of my efforts these days. I still make clothes for me and the rest of my family, and the occasional quilt, with toys thrown in here and there for the kiddos. (They get a minimum of one handmade toy a year from Auntie Laura.)

    I’ve picked up a few things here and there, and gotten bits an pieces of advice, but for the most part I’ve figured things out the hard way–through trial and error. Heck, I never even owned a sewing book until about two years ago! It’s a bit surreal, though, to find out that the things I figured out a long time ago are actually taught in classes and featured in books….

    • How interesting… Thanks, Laura. One of the things I like about sewing is how it is an expression and a result of the life lived around it- like you mention learning to sew because you were sick and it was a necessity.

      And also for fun! Like the quilting- but again, an expression of the new lives now sharing your own life. Beautiful.

  15. I envy your schooling, I still have nightmares about school.

    Anyway.
    My mother has always sewn. Apart from underwear and the occasional dress or jeans, I didn’t have anything but clothes she had sewn until I was about 10 – including my school uniforms. She made her own wedding dress. She made gowns for black tie dinners. She made the wedding dress and 7 bridesmaid dresses for her friend’s wedding. She made all the costumes at the ballet school my sister and I went to. Between my sister and I she made 5 formal dresses in 4 years. So sewing was always something that was around.

    She tried to teach me when I was young, but my perfectionism got in the way and I gave it up. Fast forward to my early 20s, and my son taking a ridiculous amount of time to toilet train.. I didn’t want to keep cleaning the floors and beds and chairs dozens of times a day and couldn’t afford to keep buying nappies, so I cut up some of the old terry squares and sewed them into his undies. Then I cut up an old sheet and made myself a skirt when I decided I couldn’t handle the flash factor with pants anymore. I had to figure out how to work the machine, how to change the feet and reload the bobin all by myself. And once I did, I started making more clothes for me and then for the kids, made cushion covers and kids toys, and now I just can’t stop :)

    • Well… I am not sure that unschooling is for everyone, and while I’ll do immersion things because I can’t help it, I’ll be sending my own daughter to school. Probably.

      Wow! Your mom sounds like superwoman. :) It’s funny how perfectionism can be a roadblock more than a helper.

      Very cool, very very cool. :) Keep going! And don’t let perfectionism get in your way, but learn to harness her… http://3hourspast.com/2011/01/12/perfection-is-a-bitch-goddess/

      • Not for everyone, no, but I’ve been out of school for 11 years and still literally have nightmares about it. Which is why I keep a close eye on my son at school and make sure he’s happy. Which meant pulling him out of a public school a 2 minute walk away and sending him to a private school we can barely afford so he doesnt cry every morning and claim to be unwell so he can get out of going somewhere he hates.

        When you have a child who will rub holes in paper erasing things over and over and over (because the letters were not formed properly, or the drawing was just that little bit wrong), getting them to accept not-quite-matching seamlines, or a slightly wonky buttonhole is far beyond impossible. I’m impressed my mother tried to teach me for as long as she did. (And it means I often throw my hands up at the machine and resort to hand sewing because I can control the fabric better.)

        • That sounds so awful for you, and let me say I completely commiserate. I was not a normal kid, which is why I was unschooled. My own girlie just started going to preschool, and I’m just amazed at how well she does. I’m really glad she’s not like I was. I never knew how to play with the other kids, they just kind of got on my nerves and I’m sure it showed. But she just jumps in and everyone loves her. So fingers crossed she’ll continue to do well, but I’m keeping a sharp eye out just in case. Your son is lucky to have a mom who cares so much. :)

  16. I’m not self taught, my mom and grandma taught me how to sew, but I am isolated from other sewers as far as I know. Most people that sew around here are quilters or just dabble in sewing a little, so the online community has opened up so many new ideas that I never would have thought about before. I probably wouldn’t enjoy sewing so much if I didn’t discover burdastyle and through them the world of sewing blogs.
    I admit I don’t read every post you write, but that’s another magical part of blogging, you don’t have to! Sometimes I just want to scroll through quickly and turn of the computer so I can get to some real creativity of my own.

    • I love the generational passing on of knowledge. It’s so *right.* :)

      Definitely. Sometimes I have to choose between reading blogs or sewing, and I have to say the sewing almost always wins. I totally get that. Thanks for commenting. :)

    • Well- I should think anyone who sews has a great story of how they learned to sew… I can only imagine the ones my old beginner students might spin… “Once there was this sewing shop, and I learned to sew there from this crazy American lady in victory rolls and 50s dresses… I never knew if she was serious or not, but darn it, I can sew!” ;) Something like that… Everyone’s experience is worthwhile, because it says something about who we are and the work we do. :)

  17. I laughed my head off with the comment about “put the presser foot down”. I was blessed with a grandma who showed me how to sew a seam on her old treddle sewing machine (presser foot down). I think I had two terms of sewing in high school but I don’t remember much interaction with the teacher. It was basically scheduled class time to learn on my own. The only thing I remember was the teacher explaining to the class how to read the back of the pattern so you came to class with the right fabric and notions.

    I like the self taught method. Somehow, when I was young I had less fear. I made a replica of my great grand mothers dress and had no fear because I had no hot clue (because I had no teacher telling me) that I should have had a dress form, lessons on draping, a pattern and knowledge on how to fit that pattern, basic knowledge of Victorian sewing techniques and Victorian materials. The more you know, the more you know what you don’t know. And knowing you lack knowlege gives you fear.

    I also like Laura’s comment here about homemade needing to look like haute couture before it is excepted. Except in the most brutal sense (ex basting passed off as sewing a seam) most people are unaware that something looks like crap on the inside and there is a slightly wonky seam. Most people only look at the external. Only, the best sewists and the one who made the item will know what the mistakes are. And the best sewists likely remember making the same mistake in their journey.

    • You are exactly right- mostly, other people won’t notice. I think that’s a really important thing to grasp, because then it means you’re doing beautiful sewing for yourself and not for the benefit of other judgmental people. I like that.

      Yes to everything! :)

  18. Such an inspirational post, Steph! Thanks for sharing your story. The truth is we all learn here there and everywhere, and I agree that it’s absurd to attach value to “proper” education. I graduated from a similar hs in Texas too.

    I’ve loved fabric and color my whole life. I always sewed by hand because my Mom had a super traumatic junior high experience in home ec and was and is terrified of the sewing machine–even after I got a true lemon of a Brother in junior high myself, I was more efficient and neater and less frustrated when I sewed by hand. I made mostly costumes for my stuffed animals and some dolls as well. There was one memorable vest I made with pieced fronts made out of yoyos. I drafted the pattern from a vest that fit me and it fit well, but I feared looking too weird in junior high…probably a valid fear at the well-to-do school I went to. I was already different enough being a smart kid who nearly slept with her violin.

    I was always frustrated by not being able to find clothes that fit me and more importantly for me had about zero color. I still wore things with what I would describe as soul-less color, but I wasn’t happy about it. I discovered J. Crew in college and was entranced by their candy colors, but I couldn’t afford any of it and it fit me horribly anyway…but there was a time that I tried to copy their style in what I could afford.

    When I got married, we had a first floor apartment in serious need of curtains. I didn’t find a print that I liked, so I created a design and hand stamped 4 yards of cotton broadcloth. And I sewed all of those 4 yards into a curtain…by hand. It was kind of a project, but it’s beautiful, and it’s me, and I was no longer afraid to be me. After that, I realized that I could be a lot more efficient if I had a machine. I did a lot of research and ended up walking into a Janome dealer which has to be one of the best around. They are so helpful and I’ve loved every minute of my Janome.

    But the kicker for me was when I was pregnant with our first son. What the heck is it with big, gross maternity clothes in dark, sad colors? Even the best maternity brands are all about black, grey, and brown. I’m not that kind of person, and wearing those kinds of colors makes me physically sad. So though I vowed not to make clothes when I bought my machine, I was not going to wear sad dark colors at such a special time in my life. So I made a couple of things. And they weren’t all that great. But I kept going. I kept trying. I read books, watched videos, read blogs, and sewed a lot. I started blogging just to see my progress and so that the teacher in me could have an outlet. And now I’m to a point where I can see something I like and know how it’s made and reproduce it if I want. I wish I could tell the younger me that it was okay to wear that funky vest because things would get better. And I keep blogging and reviewing patterns so that I can tell others that it can get better too.

    • Oooh! Big rich Texas school? They’re a very peculiar sort of place, aren’t they? Where did you go? Or.. Maybe I should email you…

      I love that you hand-stamped the fabric because you couldn’t find what you wanted. I really admire that. And what you say about color resonates with me, the saddest years of my life I wore black and neutrals all the time… An unofficial mourning or something. I feel much more alive when I’m wearing something outlandishly vivid. ;)

      Isn’t that a great feeling ? Knowing that you have the skillz to make something up if that’s what you want? It’s amazing. And I think blogging about the processes also refines my sewing, too. It forces me to think through logically the techniques and etc that come more intuitively…. If that makes sense…

      :)

  19. Great post. I learnt to sew at school because my mother use to staple our school hems up and I got sick of the sharp staples poking into my legs.
    Then after I had my first child I discovered how much i loved the fact I could make her a new outfit each night for her the next day, that was unique and cost me next to nothing.
    Fast forward 19 years I am learning to sew again, bit like learning to ride a bike again. This time round it is because again I want to sew clothes for my son who was born in December 2011.

    • Your mom used to staple your hems– LOL! That sounds uncomfortable! I remember my sister’s friend styling my hair into elaborate braids and then stapling my hair instead of using bobby pins or rubber bands– she was convinced that staples worked better and I was too dumb to stop her!

    • Heh, when I was a teenager, I used to staple or duct tape my hems. :D Heck, I watched my Mom tape up her pants this past weekend! (She wouldn’t let me hem them when I offered.) I’m glad we’re not the only ones who cheated! lol

    • Julie, that’s a great reason to learn to sew. ;) Congratulations on your son! Do go look at Oliver + S patterns, they are just fantastic clothes for little kids.

      Ginger! I LAUGHED so hard when I read that, and for half a second I thought “Oh hey, that might work.” Hehehe.

      Oh Heather… Tape? I know it happens, but ouch. The Pain! ;)

  20. Love this story! :) I too am self-taught. The sewing communitiy online is just so great! I just do things the way that makes sense to me. And the more I get into vintage sewing and techniques, the more I see that the “right” way to do things has really changed over the years!

    • Yes, it really has. I’m a pretty big fan of “making it work,” but I also enjoy sort of perfecting arcane sewing skills… So I get out my old old dressmaking books sometimes and play with a technique… And very often those older ways get mixed with modern stuff and that’s what I use in my sewing. It’s really fun.

  21. Your story is an inspiration to me. I have a similar history; taught myself to sew due to wanting to blend in at a local renaissance faire, moved on to theater costume for my high school, college and community groups I belonged to. Made a little money in a minor opera companies workshop, and then let sewing go once I started teaching in a school district. I am now home with my first child and have decided I need to return to sewing AND learn how to do things like fitting garments and use my decorative stitching. Hence I found the sewing blog world for advice and inspiration. Thank you so much for this post.

    • Hehehe. Yes, I think I have spent most of my life sewing to “blend in” with the weirdest people I could find. hehee.

      I’m really pleased you like my post. Thank you.

  22. That was a long post to read because I found all the comments to be a wonderful extention of your post.

    I’ve always had sewing around me. My mom sewed the quilt I slept under growing up (I still have it), she sewed some of her own clothing and clothes for myself and my brothers when we were little. Money was pretty tight in our house and my mom paid for extras like swimming lessons and camp by sewing. In making it a business, she stopped sewing clothing and shifted to things that did not require fitting – table runners, bibs, crib sets (sheets, quilts, bumper pads etc), tea cozies, now luggage tags and wedding garters. Over time, what she sews shifts with what sells, but I learned to sell her sewing when I was 11 or so.

    That said, I don’t remember getting an actual sewing lesson. As she was doing things, she would occasionally explain why (like clipping corners on a curve, top stitching her bibs) or get me to turn bibs inside out for her so I saw the construction, but it was never really a full out sewing lesson and I generally wasn’t the one sewing. So it feels like I learned through osmosis and nothing about fit. Sure, there was a sewing component to my Grade 7/8 home ec classes, but there was also welding. The sewing portion was more by hand (stuffed animals, which I liked) than by machine (one black skirt that was too bulky and I didn’t like it).

    • I actually took Home Ec in Junior High (age 12-13). I wasn’t very good – but I will say this for my instructor, we all *learned* to sew curves and corners. We were *made* to sew curves until we mastered it. (We used line pictures of cats, as I remember, and the sewing needle as a punch – didn’t touch fabric until our cats looked good).

      But she didn’t teach us any fitting – pillows don’t require fitting, and neither do sweatshirts.

      My mom sewed – she made me clothes all the time growing up… until I started having curves. She sewed a few things after that, but she didn’t do fitting. I have some very amusing pictures involving “we’ll just make the sixteen and then take it in when we’re done” only we never had time to take it in… I had a bubble skirt to below my knees!

      So a sewing machine was just another thing that every good home had in the corner, something for kids’ clothes and curtains. I think the only thing I sewed after my classes and before I made curtains for my first home was a set of dust covers for my parents’ computers. I was so proud – I designed the pattern myself.

      After that? It’s been all self-taught. Excepting the junior college fashion courses, there aren’t lessons to be had here for garment sewing. I just got back from a trek to the LA fashion district – I didn’t hear one other person on that bus mention *garment* sewing – and I asked around. :(

      Thank heavens for the internet!

    • I know! I’m having a good time going through and reading everything, too. Your mom sounds like such a cool lady, I love it. Thanks for sharing… :)

      Hearthie- I love that detail about the cats! How lovely! :) And yes, thank heavens for the internets and the free flow of information.

  23. It’s so fun to hear your story! Thanks for sharing! My mom tried to teach me how to sew (and quilt… and crochet… and knit… and cross-stitch… and embroider… I swear if you looked, you could still find unfinished projects from my childhood buried in my mom’s house), but I was an active, impatient tomboy and none of those things ever stuck. I even did a year of sewing in 4-H with disastrous results. One of my friends showed me the basics of knitting a couple of years ago, and I guess I was finally ready to learn, because I devoured YouTube videos and basically taught myself everything with the aid of the internet. A year ago a friend convinced me to take a beginning sewing workshop with her, which I reluctantly agreed to, remembering how much I had hated sewing. It was a two-hour class that went over the verrrrrry basics– how to thread a machine, how to wind a bobbin, etc.– and it was so easy that I felt completely empowered to start sewing. There were so many interesting sewing blogs and online tutorials that I’ve been able to find answers for every problem I’ve encountered from you lovelies in the online sewing community!

    • I think that readiness is important, but it does seem like a lot of people reach a point where they *want* to make something with their hands. It’s such a human impulse, and a wonderful one.

      Your knitting projects are lovely lovely. You should be very proud of your handwork. :)

  24. I really enjoyed this post! You certainly have an interesting education. I love the idea of immersing yourself in medieval history! I’m also really enjoying reading everyone else’s sewing history.

    I had originally wrote up this big long comment, and was just starting to think about how I could include pictures when I realized that this would make a fun blog entry. Sorry to steal your topic! Here it is here:
    http://sewingonpins.blogspot.ca/2012/05/how-i-learned-to-sew.html

    Thanks for the inspiration! :)

    • I loved your post, Heather! I well remember that wardrobe challenge…. I did two of them on PR and I learned SO SO SO much doing them. It was an amazing experience. I’m kind of wanting to do another one now you mention it…

      We did all kinds of historical periods, and would also go through science experiments that were tied to scientific discoveries of the era… Great fun. I still do that Immersion thing, I really can’t help myself. I’m a hard-wired unschooler.

      • I can imagine you’d learn the topic you’re immersed in. I mean, most of the time we’d move onto another topic well before I figured out what the heck we were supposed to get out of the previous one. Oh my little science geek brain is just filled with the type of science experiments you could’ve done when not in a class with 30-40 students! *mourns*

        • Don’t mourn too hard! It was fun and interesting, but it made me a… different… person. Kind of socially awkward, prone to acting out by wearing weird clothes, don’t pick up pop culture cues because I still don’t watch much tv… That kind of thing. There’s good and bad to everything. :)

  25. LOVE this!

    I first “sewed” with tape and safety pins when I was a kid ;) I really learned to sew from my cousin, by hand at first, making doll clothes and Renaissance costumes when I was quite young. My great aunt tried to teach me to make a basic skirt or blouse once, but it was like a big puzzle to me with all the pattern markings. I didn’t have a clue about seam allowances, etc, until I took some quilting classes with my mom and then everything “clicked”. We had sewing as part of Home Ec in middle school, but I don’t remember really learning much of anything other than how to sew a pillowcase. After that I was pretty much self taught with garment making, and was actively sewing until I got to fashion school in college. We had one quarter long sewing class and I ended up having to help teach the other students (based on my own self-taught skills and the book), since most other students had never sat behind a sewing machine, let alone an industrial machine. The majority of my fashion degree was spent on patternmaking, design, etc, since they figured you didn’t have to sew to be a designer- sewing it was supposed to be someone else’s job (which I still think is ridiculous- I ardently believe that in order to design something you have to have SOME concept of how it goes together). I took a few classes at Costume College on corsetry, etc, a class on Heirloom Sewing, and afterwards got a job as a stitcher at the San Diego opera where I worked for maybe four years, alternating under the tailor and milliner, principally, and learned a bunch from them. But other than that, mostly self-taught, too. I never had “formal” one on one or even group sewing lessons for garment construction, aside from that one class in college which covered basics, and by then I mostly learned what I needed to know on my own. No shame in being self-taught, I say!

    • How interesting, Lauren!

      And yes- we are of exactly the same mind- The very best of the best designers had a deep and intuitive understanding of the fabric and the sewing. Chanel. Dior. Worth. Schiap. The ones who we remember 50, 100 years later- the ones who changed fashion- they also knew the sewing.

      Once I ended up having an entire TAFE (technical school, sort of) fashion class going through my beginner’s sewing class… First just one student, then the next cycle everyone in my class was from there… For exactly the reasons you mentioned.

      No shame at all. :) And no “shame” in learning from someone, either. The sewing is the main thing.

  26. Thanks for sharing your journey, Steph! That sounds like an amazing experience. Also, I appreciate your affirmation of us self-taught sewists, as I have always wondered if I was doing things the “right” way.

    My mom was a seamstress in HK and taught me to use the sewing machine, and let me putter around on it to make my own projects, but she never taught me to make clothing. It wasn’t until I moved away and my husband bought me a machine for Christmas that I decided to try making clothing for myself, and it’s just all internet all the time since then as I try to teach myself. Thankfully, I love researching and reading, and other sewing bloggers have been so generous with their knowledge.

    • Your mom sounds like such a super lady. I have to say, I really enjoyed your post about her the other day…

      The internet is what will keep our sewing from dying. And besides all the knowledge and skills, I think there’s something really important happening with sewists and the way we view beauty and style. Something very important indeed…

  27. learnt sewing the hard way – with 16 in a leathergarment-factory.
    after 26 years of sewing for money, a fashiondesigner-grade and try&error with own business i´m only sew for myself and very good friends – just for fun.

    • Cool! I love all the different paths we take to sewing. :) And you have so much knowledge, I can tell you have a LOT of experience.

      I don’t sew things for other people unless I really, really like them and I *want* to do it. Otherwise… It’s hard to be paid adequately for sewing time, and i don’t really see that changing soon, so for me it’s not a viable option… You know? :)

      • oh yes – for this reason i quitt my business 2 years ago. now i have only one “klient”, a chansonette – she´s actually a friend – who likes to dress up daily and understand how much work and experience go´s in one dress.
        when you read old storys/fairytails – the tailor/sewist is always the poorest person……

        • Beate, that comment about fairytales is so true! It really made me think.
          I can see it from a knitter’s point of view: when people did not make fun of my knitting, they’d be asking for me to make something.
          I would then ask them to pick a knitted garment they liked and estimate how many hours they think it would take me (always a low estimate, and I knit fast!). Then I would ask them what prices they’d put on that.

          Needless to say, I wasn’t hankering for commissions, I simply wanted them to realise it’s much harder than their idea of it, which is true of a lot of skills.

          I love knitting for others, but I don’t really want anything back. I have made hats /scarves/blankets for friends and friends’ kids because I had something in my stash that I no longer like, or knew it didn’t suit me.

          The only time I accepted something for my knitting was when I bartered the time for my first sewing machine! Barter can be good.

  28. I’ve really been enjoying your blog, Steph, though this is the first time I’ve commented. Thanks for all the great info you post, because I’m a self-taught sewist too. I’ve learned all I know from books, You Tube, blogs, and best of all trial and error. It was fun to find out you were homeschooled. I homeschool my three teenage daughters and teach sewing in our homeschool co-op. I so agree with you that it’s a joy to see the light in a student’s eyes when they see they can make real what they imagine. I’m so with you on the idea that there are many ways to accomplish sewing tasks, not just the “right” way. Getting over the fear of making mistakes is the greatest hurdle for my students and was for me too in the beginning. I always tell them that I’ve been wearing my clothes full of mistakes for years and nobody has ever come up and called me on it. (I had to laugh about the “next time put the presser foot down” comment!)

    • Hehehe. How cool that you homeschool, too. :) I found there’s two kinds of beginner sewists- the ones who are terrified of making mistakes (and need to be taught it’s ok) and the ones who blaze in and rush into the deep end and make a hundred mistakes (and need to be taught to take a breath and learn to execute a technique well before rushing along…). There’s a balance I think…

      She was so so kind about it, but I think about that now and just roll my eyes… How could i have not realized?? ;)

      • Haha you just described the opposing sewing methods of my buddy Heather (yes, we have the same name) and I. She refuses to use up fabric until she know’s for sure she can make a piece without any mistakes (to the point where she barely sews), whereas I tend to blaze in without much thought at all (to the point where I often make very poor and barely thought out decisions). Both sides have their advantages and disadvantages, but a blending of the two would be better. But it’s alright because I push her to just do it already and she pushes me to think a bit more (mostly by encouraging me to blather her ear off about whatever I”m working on). :D

  29. I find it odious when other sewists act in a hoity toity manner towards self-taught sewists. I feel that regardless of one’s level of “education,” at the core of every sewist exists a determination to learn more and a “do better” attitude. For me, seeing the hand work on some couture caliber clothing in a local (Philadealphia) collection was a revelation: stitches, which near perfect, were NOT perfect.

    My own journey to sewing my own clothing is far less exciting than yours. I learned to sew at my mother’s knee. A prolific quilter, she started my sisters and I off with simple quilt squares. From there, I started making clothing for my dolls (really just tubes with straps sewn on) and then kind of let sewing fall to the wayside in my teens. My grandmother gifted me her Singer Sewing Machine when I graduated college and moved to Boston, MA. It got very little use (I believe I made one set of place mats and a matching table cloth for one of my apartments). I moved back to Ithaca, NY and my sewing machine got packed away for the next three years. Then I went to India and fell in love with all the gorgeous cotton fabrics… and brought back a large suitcase full! When I got back to the USA from living abroad for a year, I was really depressed about the state of my wardrobe and the fact that nothing, and I mean NOTHING, in the stores fit the way I wanted. So I vowed not to buy any new clothing. And I didn’t, for a full year. But I didn’t sew either. Then this year I not only renewed that vow, but decided it was high time I had some new clothing. So I’m sewing all my clothing and attempting to teach myself some new tricks. I read a lot of books about finishing techniques and what not, and I think that it serves me well as do the blogs (including this one) which I look to for real-life guidance.

    So from one self-taught sewist to another, thank you!

    • Yeah that’s right- a “do better” or “We can do it” type attitude… It’s fantastic.

      You know, Valentino came through here a few years ago and it had much the same effect on me… I mean, those side zippers were lapped and BULKY. I thought “Pfft. Give me the same fabric and wearer and mine would look cleaner. This is couture?” I know more goes into couture than the zips, and from the other videos and etc in the exhibit I got the idea that the designer was more a sculptor and less an engineer, if you know what I mean…

      I haven’t bought clothes for a long, long time except maybe the odd layering piece. I don’t even know where to shop, when I need lingerie or stockings I get Enid to guide me because I’m that clueless about where to buy things…

  30. if it works, then you did it right. that’s all there is.

    this post, and the responses you are getting, really show the value of the internet sewing community. so many of us are self-taught, and learning things from each other brings an entirely new level of pleasure to the game.

    • Yes! A new level of pleasure, but also I think a new way of thinking about sewing, and also raising the standards… Not like “oh we all have to sew couture” but like “OH wow! She had a great idea and I’m totally going to have to try that” And then I try it, it works, and my sewing is better. :)

    • Definitely. My mother, who reminisces about sewing but procrastinates, thinks I’m nuts when I tell her to to check out sewing on the internet! It’s been a motivator for me and it’s great to see what other people–at all levels– are working at. Beginning sewers sometimes have really interesting ideas and I love to see that…
      ~Jen

  31. Great post, and I’m loving the comments. My mum hand made a lot of our clothes and her own, so I grew up with sewing going on in the background. This was a small rural town in Devon in the 1970s, so I think she sewed to give us – and her – the clothes she wanted. We didn’t have many sewing lessons at school – I was in the so-called “academic” stream, so didn’t learn to sew or to type. As a teenager on the outskirts of Nottingham, I started to sew on my Gran’s mid-‘50s black & gold electric Singer. I wanted clothes that were unique, not what everyone else wore – and to make my money go further. I didn’t work from patterns, just copied clothes I liked (fearless! & sometimes with terrible results) and the first actual pattern was a Brooke Shields pair of trousers I ran up in cheap polyester linen-substitute. I lived in those trousers at university! Mum occasionally stepped in & helped, but mostly I just tanked ahead. My holiday job when home from uni was in a machine embroidery factory, one of the last gasps of the UK rag trade that employed so many tens of thousands of women & which is now outsourced to other parts of the world.

    I was without a sewing machine for several years in my 20s but once I got my Singer 9012 in the mid 90s I became a very keen sewist, learning from my own mistakes and from magazines, making almost everything I stood up in and many things for my partner too.

    Then life overtook me and I had 8-9 years when I did other things. Career, caring commitments, a dog, trying to write novels … but I missed making clothes. Prompted by the Edinburgh sewing scene, suddenly I’m sewing again. The internet resources and community for sewers is wonderful. 15 years ago, as fabric shops shut down in the UK, it felt like I was at the end of wave. If you read Barbara Burman’s book “The Culture of Sewing: Gender, Consumption and Homedressmaking” (1997) there’s a real end-of-an-era feel. I’m so pleased that sewing’s on the rise again.

    My sister has Gran’s old Singer now. Just yesterday I was hearing how my 9 year old niece is keen to learn how to sew and I’m already thinking about how we might teach her …

    • Cool, I’m really enjoying reading all these amazing comments, too. I have my cuppa and I’m still wearing my housecoat… ;)

      I know what you mean about being at the “end of a wave.” I felt the same way, I think that had a lot to do with my own attitude towards my sewing… Like… If it’s some weird unnecessary thing to do with my time, then I should be finding something else to do… But I really don’t see it that way anymore…

      OH! You live in Edinburgh? I’m so jealous, the sewing scene there (not to mention the amazing thrift store fabric finds) seems so happening… :) Do you know Debi?

      • I met Debi at the Materialise opening shindig – she was wearing the lovely MId-century Madness frock. Suspect our paths might cross again at a Stitch Lounge event …

  32. Steph, apart froma few details, our stories are so similar, including our attitudes and how they have changed, it is hilarious! I may have to go over to mine and write my story too. :) I just knew we had more in common than good taste in friends! ;-)

  33. Wow – where to start? This post is a cross between autobiography, philosophy, advice and a rant – brilliant! Keep them coming…..
    I took up sewing again ’cause I couldn’t find what I wanted in the shops. My mother sewed, we were taught at school but I’ve learnt more in the last 12 months from the online community than anywhere else. Thanks everyone!

    • Hehehe. I do like a good rant, but try to keep them to a minimum…. ;)

      I think the online sewing world challenged my ideas about “right” and also opened me up to all kinds of different fabrics and perspectives… Except I used to get really steamed when I read blog posts about techniques I *knew* were too fiddly or tough to master for a beginner/intermediate, but my blogging skills weren’t up to the challenge of making my own posts on the subject… Blogging is hard work!

  34. A friend shared this on fb, so as a self-taught craftser I came to read! I’m glad I am self-taught (sewing and knitting) as I am not aware of limitations and unlike my mum, I will find novel ways to solve problems. The internet is an amazing resource and I have better knitting skills than my mum! I reckon I could benefit from classes (I don’t make myself clothes as I’m scared of fit) but I do ok muddling along and my kids get compliments on their funky clothes!

    • Oh cool. :) Thanks for dropping in. I think there’s a lot that comes through trial and error, but at the same time a teacher has their place. If nothing else, it’s just easier. So I guess there’s a balance between recognizing the place and role of teachers (of course) but not getting caught up in only doing things the “right” way… Make sense? :)

      I bet your kids will look back fondly on their outfits…

  35. Yay – thanks for sharing this journey! I, too, am completely self-taught – until taking my first-ever course (Gertie’s online Bombshell dress course through the Crafsty website). I watched my mom sew, and although she was good at it and a high school teacher, really left me to my own devices. But she steered me in the direction of Vogue patterns (which she said were the best) and I learned to sew from sewing pattern after pattern after pattern. I’m sewing more now than I ever have, and I am really really happy to be doing so. There is no stress/love-hate thing happening with the sewing like there was with my previous life. Your university years sound really fun – it’s something I would love to have done through mine. And I’d like to have a stint in a costume department before my adventures are done…. :)

    • Cool cool, I do love taking others’ classes, haven’t done that in a while… :)

      I think if nothing else, it’s just really great to put your hands in something and mess around. The desire to create is very hard-wired into the human mind, and it brings satisfaction like nothing else.

      I loved working in theatre… It was truly magical, I especially loved working as a backstage dresser- quick, clean costume changes off stage, helping a nervous actor run through their lines, slipping through the shadows wearing “blacks.” I know several plays by heart just from doing that… You could probably very very easily get on as a low-paid stitch hand at any local theatre. I’m guessing. In theatre, if you can sew, you should be able to find a place. But it’s not very glamorous.

  36. I did 1 term of sewing & needlecraft in grade 10(30yrs ago) and all I did was take my school uniform in & up and as a consequence could not bend nor breathe heavily in it, haha.. You would think that having a Great Aunt who was a seamstress/patternmaker for Vogue & Mother & Grandmother who were expert sewers/crafters that I have been interested since I was small.. No not the case!! I only discovered my love of sewing 5 mths before my first child was born, I would have a go at just about anything, I had more disaster than success. then I found you Steph and you challenged me and graciously shared your vast knowledge, you were very patient and kind to me as well as all the others who attended your classes and I walked away from each class feeling much more confident in my abilities to tackle any pattern or idea that took my fancy.
    In essence you taught me to love sewing and for that a big huge “thank you” and I look forward to more classes with you in the near future.. Hxx

    • Heidi! You teenage minx, you. ;) :)

      Aw thanks, Heidi. I loved having you in classes, you are always very very easy to talk to and to teach. :) I look forward to upcoming classes, too. (Shh!)

  37. Thank you. Not just sewing, but in many areas there’s a tendency by some to look down on “self-taught.” Frankly, it’s often a perspective coming from insecurities–a person who does not trust his/her own instincts and who looks to others for validation.

    Really, learning is always “self-taught” on some level, perhaps at the highest levels. My “real” background is visual art, but I went back to school to study one of the professions. After graduating into one of the worst job markets ever, I had to either work for myself or give up altogether. I’m working solo, and despite school, I had to learn how to do my work, by myself, in the real world. it wasn’t easy. I’m a lawyer now, and believe me this was a scary and difficult process. However it confirmed my beliefs, that nearly anything can be accomplished with creativity and persistence. Art and law are the same thing in a different box. It’s the same with sewing — the process is about figuring out problems and how to resolve them. It really doesn’t matter if someone else did it that way or not, so long as it works (or so long as it leads to something else that works!).
    ~Jen

    • I think you are correct. Absolutely- about snobbery stemming from insecurity and also about how learning is self-taught on one level or the other. A person has to want to learn, and has to show initiative or the teaching is a waste of time anyway.

      But yes, yes, yes, to everything you said. Except the law stuff. I don’t know, I didn’t go to law school. But, respect. :)

      • Just an oddity in my life; I’m definitely not a “regular” lawyer in any way. The experience has made me think about process a lot & your post kind hit on something I’ve been thinking about. Learning is kind of like healing. That is, we think that the medicine is what makes us get better, but really, the medicine just helps the body so that the body can heal itself. Does that make sense?
        BTW I take sewing breaks when I’m working on a tedious legal-ish project at home. It’s a needed mental health break for me. I was initially taught to sew by my grandmother & my mom. That was the starting point, from there on it’s all been “self taught”…

  38. By my calculations, you must be close to 50 years old, you have packed so much into your life!

    • You know, I often feel that way. :) Always. I have more 55 year old+ friends than ones my own age… It just seems to happen that way.

  39. Let me see… When I was just a kid, my grandmother taught me how to embroider. She had a house full (and I mean FULL) of blankets and quilts, pillows and pictures…pretty much every type of embroidered objects you could think of. It wasn’t until I was in high school (I think) that I started to sew a dress from an old Halloween costume. I had always wanted to try, so I turned the Grim Reaper into an evening gown made out of the most horrid fabric anyone could ever think of. Oh, and it was too small for anyone to wear, to boot.

    Not long after that, I started sewing doll clothes, Starting with wrapping and sewing fabric together to actually draping and cutting things. I actually just finished (as far as I can finish it, anyway, until I go to the store) a very loose, breezy shirt for a friend to wear over a brace. I’m still not happy with it, but the outside looks okay, so I’m going to try and put it out of my mind. I haven’t actually ever used a sewing machine, but one day I shall. I can’t wait to so I can finish a huge 1860s ruffled petticoat. I hand sewed one ruffle that went from 45′ wide to about four inches. I was not happy. One day, though, I will finish it. That’s my story!

  40. When I was 6 I made my sisters bikinis out of the scraps of checked uniform fabric, held together by pins I believe. Ouch. No wonder they never wore them.
    When I was 12, my Mum for the first time for some reason, made me a golden Ra Ra skirt and matching Ra top and a pair of shorts and a reversible vest. I loved them. And I loved my mum even more for making them. It was fascinating to watch.
    Home Economics in year 8 was making a pillow slip, which was utterly boring. Yet it gave me the basics to use my Mum’s machine.
    When all the other teenage kids were getting drunk and high on Saturday nights I stayed home and taught myself how to read patterns and make clothes. I would brazenly trace pants or skirts I owned and make myself a wonky version. I wasn’t into fashion of the 90’s, I preferred op shop clothes (they were the golden years of op shops!) and my wonky bright creations.
    I kept using my brother throughout my 20’s, for repair and alterations for my friends and I.
    When I had my babies, I realised so many clothes were ugly and poorly made so 5 years ago I started making alot of their clothes and maternity clothes, home furnishings, hats, bags, whatever I could really.
    Now, I find sewing is a really viable creative outlet when you have children as it is easy to put down and come back too when Mummy is needed and domestically it works to sew clothes for my family.
    I have to say my skills and my expectations of myself have gotten better from reading blogs like yours. So thanks.
    Oh and your story is great. What an interesting woman you are.

  41. I’ve been pondering on this post before replying. I learned to sew from books with a little help from my mother when I was in my early teens. It was necessity being the mother of invention as a) we were broke and b) I was really overweight and couldn’t get very many things to fit me. We had some sewing lessons in school but they weren’t particulalry encouraging although they did lay some foundation stones.

    Over the years I’ve dabbled with sewing but my ambitions have very much outstripped my skills and it’s only since I’ve returned home to the North of England and started my life here with my husband that I’ve paid sewing any real attention.

    So I really feel that although technically I’m not a beginner, I am when it comes to technically correct sewing. Althought the wardrobe is still bare, I’m slowing down and trying to create garments that are fit well and sewn well and work with my lifestyle.

    I think all three are critical to the finished garment, but without good fit the other two don’t really stand a chance. Fit for me is the holy grail and I’m blessed that Ma sews and The Husband has a bent for things crafty (he has the makings of a great potter) so I have two people to help me with the pins when I’m fitting. But it’s still a work in process…learning how to fit myself as well as what constitutes good fit.

    I long to undertake a more formal course of studying in patterncutting and sewing. But for now I think there is enough information on the interwebs and books for us all to work slowly but surely to learn for out mistakes and improve our skills one stitch at a time.

    In my opinion this is a valid way to become a better seamstress and we should celebrate our ability to sew at whatever level we are at now, and our ability to challange and improve our skills every time we pick up fabric, pattern, scissors, needle and thread. We are creative women and we should be proud.

  42. Great post.
    My mom used to sew but I never had an interest until I finished college. I would however sometimes sit and watch. I got one of those cheap toy machines and made arm warmers. After that I decided that would not do, so bought an JCPenny sewing machine off of ebay.This was possibly 8-9 years ago. I did not take sewing classes until the about two years ago, which was after taking a pattern-making class. My favorite sewing teacher always tells us that there are many ways to do something in sewing, there is never a right or wrong way.

  43. Deary me, the “this is right, that is wrong” brigade (and they’re there in every past-time/community/profession) need to get a life. Haha they’d have a field day with my sewing. I’m totally self-taught and I learn as I go along…..you could probably say I’m learning to sew by doing Sew Weekly this year…..I decide I want to do something and then I go off an research how to do it from books from the library or looking on Internet. I try to push myself to do something new every week or so, whether it’s learning and using a new technique or a new style……but you’ll notice I haven’t progressed to trousers yet, they’re coming but I know I’m going to have fun with my shape (especially my belly, bum and crotch) so I’m building up to that one and reading as much as I can from those ahead of me on this journey. There’s tons of stuff I read on Sew Weekly or other sewing blogs that sounds like other sewers are talking a foreign language to me, but I take what’s being said and go off and find out what these things mean. I’m not selling any of my stuff (yet) I’m just making things that I love or that teach me new things so anyone who wants to criticise my lack of ‘correct’ technique can waste their breath and give themslves frown lines whilst I’m having fun twirling in a new wacky floaty skirt or being silly with my kids on a photoshoot and working on my laughter lines.

  44. Awesome post, a great story and very well-written. I love your drive. My sewing history is so much more laid-back. I pretty much taught myself—I think my mom showed me how to thread the machine, and I had watched her sew so I did know basics like putting down the presser foot ;). I made Barbie clothes, and later dance costumes, but nothing really for everyday wear. Finally about two and a half years ago, I was getting frustrated making costumes I no longer had anywhere to wear… so I decided I wanted to learn to *really* sew. I picked up a copy of Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing, read it cover to cover, bought a few patterns and scrounged some fabric, and made jackets for my kids. And I was off. :)

  45. Loved reading your story – very interesting. It is fascinating seeing how so many people have come to sewing from so many directions.

    I didn’t learn to sew until my first child was born, and I wanted to make him some clothes. Then, I became enthused, and went to night classes for a year to learn pattern cutting. Even did a few Kniwit classes (back in the days when they were Australia-wide). But other than that, everything I learnt came out of books and trial and error (plus the internet now!).

    I really got into sewing evening wear in the late eighties, when it was all taffeta and satin and lame. Those fabrics certainly challenged me. I taught myself to put in a zip by hand during this stage (because it looked better in a satin dress) and then refused to put in zips any other way for the next ten years because I was convinced machine sewing them was too hard! A more advanced sewing machine, invisible zippers, and appropriate zipper foots helped to change my mind though.

    I think part of sewing is learning to reflect your own personality in a way shop bought clothes can never do. Not to mention, that once you learn to fit, they are a lot more flattering as well.

    I enjoy reading this column very much. Not everything is always applicable to me, but you never know when it might come in handy. And it is great that this community of people who share a common passion is evolving.

  46. I had done a little of patchwork quilting with my mum when I was younger but as the youngest of three girls mum I seemed to have got forgotten when it came to teaching me how to sew clothes etc. so for my wedding present my mum bought me a sewing machine and then after a few years of still only sewing quilts (straight lines) my mum bought me lessons with you! And I have never looked back. I only wish I had discovered my love for sewing much earlier on!
    I love wearing what I make and my friends commenting on it and even impressing my mother with my ability! I sewed my first pair of pants about a month ago which included the first time putting in a fly and pockets! My mother was quite impressed.
    I love that the more patterns you read and the more outfits you sew, the sewing “lingo” makes more sense!
    Now I’ve self-taught myself to knit and am considering teaching myself embroidery…anything’s possible!

  47. I am very much a self taught sewer. My first piece was at age 7, a hand sewn Christmas stocking for my Grandmother as a present. I now have it as a keepsake. No one in my family could sew, knit, crochet or anything crafty as they were all very skilled in the garden. So for many years I taught myself through reading books and trial and error and the basic stitch lessons I received in Grade 5 here in Brisbane. But the most interesting thing to me is that as being adopted, I recently found my birth mother, and her and the females in the family are highly skilled crafters. My birth mother even owning her own sewing business. We even have the same Singer Lotus treadle machine (1926)! So can it be in the genes or just pure coincidence. I had often wondered and now I know. I wonder if anyone else has had an experience like this?

  48. As a baby boomer growing up in the US in the 60’s, lots of people made their own clothes. My mother certainly did. She taught all of us, my brothers included, how to sew with a needle and thread, how to use the sewing machine, how to do a few crewel embroidery stitches, basic knitting and crochet.

    At first I did a lot of hand sewing, making little pillows for Barbie or doll clothes or whatever. Then, when I was 12, my mom helped me to cut out my first pattern and to sew it on the machine. It was a romper, and I wore it on the last day of school that year.

    That summer, my best friend’s mother signed us both up for a sewing class given by a lady in her home. We both made simple dresses.

    I kept sewing patterns, and my parents were very supportive. I could always buy patterns and cloth, and use the sewing machine. In 9th grade, I made a peasant top that was very successful. I made some other tops that weren’t so successful. Shorts for gym class, pants of all kinds, summer clothes.

    Later in high school I took a sewing class. We had to make a notebook with samples of the hand stitches we had to learn. We also had to make a dress with sleeves and a zipper opening. The dress I made I wore for my senior portrait. That class taught me a lot of things that I still use, and I’m really glad I took it.

    I continued to challenge myself with my sewing projects. Two years after high school graduation, I made my own wedding gown. Somehow I always knew I would do that. The hardest part was finding a good place to lay out so much fabric. The second hardest part was turning a very narrow tube. I didn’t have a special tool for it, and it was very frustrating, but somehow I managed.

    Sewed a lot when my first two children were small. They kept each other occupied, I guess. I made a lot of their clothes and a lot of mine. Made coats, luggage and wallets from kits, men’s pants and shirts, skirts, dresses, hats, pillows, Halloween costumes, etc. The only thing I really haven’t done is tailoring, and I don’t really have a need to do that.

    One thing I have always had is a good book to refer to for basic techniques. I still use it. Mine happens to be a Simplicity Sewing Book. I also like to get Vogue Pattern magazine and Threads. They cover advanced techniques.

    However you have come to sewing, those of us who have been at it a while are glad you are here. We don’t want to be the end of a wave. We want it to go on and on. Because, yes, making things is a part of being human, and it makes us happy. We need to do what makes us happy. So keep on doing it!

  49. I love your story, Steph, thanks for sharing! The episode of the woman whispering presser foot advice is just too much! I really appreciate blogs like yours, written by people who’ve learned the craft from lots of different angles. Couture techniques are useful, industry insider tips beneficial to the home sewist, and costuming is of value as well. There are many ways to skin a cat, to state a cliche. When were you at UT? Working in the theatre dept sounds awesome!!! I would love to do that, as a great way to hone skills.

    My mom worked as a seamstress in a small industrial shop in my tiny hometown. Their contracts ranged from technical cycling gear, stylish maternity wear, fleece outdoor jackets, to casual knit wear, and I know I’ve forgotten more. She also sewed garments for me & other family members, and made Raggedy Ann dolls and home dec items to sell. Even though I was surrounded by sewing, I wasn’t keen on learning too much. I’d hang out in the sewing room, maybe learn a thing or two, but mainly act as client. What a brat! In high school, I started refashioning thrifted clothing, and made satchels out of neckties to sell at a local hippy shop. But I still just kind of winged everything. During college (a photo major), I took a quilting elective just for the hell of it, and it resulted in lots of midnight phone calls, asking for advice from my mom. After school, I made a few random things here & there, still winging it. In Austin in the early-mid aughts, I decided I wanted to finally learn how to sew “properly”, and took a couple classes at a new sewing studio. It has stuck, and my mom is so proud that I’ve finally been sucked in :) My mission over the past few years has been to learn the “right” way to do things, and this year I’m trying to focus on fit and more advanced techniques. But in the last few months, I’ve also been employing some of my “lazy/quick/wrong” methods. I say, if it works, it works.

  50. Wow. Not only was this a great post (and I think it’s so valuable to be reminded that it is a creative process not the 10 commandments) but the stream of stories it inspired has just been so fun to read. Thanks!

  51. I am a Longhorn, too! I tried sewing for money a little bit while at college. It sucked. For me, sewing is like making love. I will only do it for love, not money. I did work at Cloth World while there though and it cost me more than I earned. (Tempataion)

  52. I really enjoyed this post, and reading all these other learning to sew stories and comments, I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t sew or knit, I’ve handsewn curtains when I didn’t have a sewing machine, and knitted tons of clothes for the children when they were little. But until recently I didn’t sew clothes, I tried a couple of times when I was younger with very poor results. But I’ve plucked up courage to have another go, thanks to Steph and this fabulous blog!!!

  53. Wasn’t the first sewist, um, self-taught? Hehe. Anyway, differing on semantics has nothing to do with how one learned to sew.

    My mom taught me the basics. I can remember sitting under her antique sewing table as a toddler while she stitched away. So I made a lot of things of questionable beauty. But she’s a perfectionist; I’m not. Very different ways of approaching life. So her work is impeccable whereas I just make a ton of things… because I avidly think I can do anything. I guess my work gets closer to perfect over time instead of at the outset. Anyway, as far as clothes sewing, I was not very impressed with the “home-sewn” look I noticed people often got from the average commercial pattern sewn from maybe the wrong fabric, or with no fitting changes. Many of the boxy samples I saw hanging up in fabric stores didn’t help either. It wasn’t until I discovered first Burda Style (back when their patterns were free) and then sewing blogs that I realized people could sew great looking clothing that didn’t shout “homemade”!

    I was hooked. And beyond that, self-taught. I tend to think it’s a learning style?? Some learn well from lectures and textbooks. I must think weird, because I don’t do well translating other peoples’ thoughts into my thoughts so I can understand. I really understand something when I have “figured it out”. I prefer to have a deeper relationship with the fly zipper because I have mentally agonized over its ins and outs, than to have someone tell me the right way to do it and never think about it again.

    BTW – I really enjoyed reading your story – more of a life story than just sewing.


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