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.”
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.
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?