Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching and Sewing Confessions

That is exactly what it looks like: a neon pink
leopard-print nightgown (fabric donated to me, then gladly
re-donated to her, because when would I ever use it?) She
loves it though -- wears it every night, according to mom.
So I've been going over to Small Human Being's home almost every Wednesday since the beginning of the year, and it has definitely been a learning experience for all concerned: SHB, of course, SHB's mom, SHB's younger brother, and me! This is the longest series of sewing lessons I've ever given -- before I left San Diego, I held a biweekly sewing club with some friends of mine, but we only ever made non-apparel items over a couple of months. With SHB, her young age, and her goal of "being a fashion designer," I've had to think more carefully about how to approach sewing with her. We started out with making up our own simple patterns based on her pre-existing clothes, which works pretty well since she's a SHB, and therefore mostly cylindrical without the sticky-outy bits that we grown women must put in darts for.

Anyway, after several sessions involving a pillow (non-fitted), a purse (non-fitted), a muumuu (non-fitted), curtains for her room (non-fitted), a gathered knit skirt with an elastic waist (non-fitted), and a nightgown (non-fitted: are you seeing a trend here?), we have finally moved onto something that is not elastic or slip-on: Butterick 5443, an actual zippered dress. Thankfully, it is also something that I excel at: the sleeveless fitted bodice and full skirt look! This project is actually more of a me + SHB's mom kind of project right now, as she has expressed a desire to learn how to use patterns. I think my sketch-a-rough-pattern-on-wrapping-paper-and-think-apart-how-it-might-go-together approach scares her. As we started going over how to decipher the yardage charts on the back of the envelope, the layout diagrams in the instructions, and the pinning and cutting, I realized that I am not a very disciplined sewist.

See, despite having a science background, when it comes to my sewing, I'm very fly-by-the-seat-of-those-pants-that-I-have-never-made. I'm all about fudging things when I can, considering the measurements to be mere suggestions (much like lane markings in rural Taiwan), and making very, very good friends with my seam ripper. Tim Gunn's "make it work" is my mantra not because I try complicated things, but because I wasn't paying attention to the recommendations in the first place. You know all my Pattern Review reviews? They all say "I didn't use them" as the answer to the question about the clarity of the instructions. I think that's why I'm so hesitant to tackle sleeves and pants: those things require meticulous measuring and marking and cutting and following directions. Anyway, all those issues came to the forefront when I tried to explain things like matching the grainline arrow on the paper pattern to the fabric, or making sure to pin before cutting. I had to remember not to just eyeball it; I want other sewists to learn good habits from me, which they can then discard later if they choose.

So here are my sewing sins, as were brought to light through teaching; please don't judge me too harshly!
  • I usually don't pay attention to grainline. I usually eyeball it and try to get close, but when one uses old sheets as yardage, cutting layouts usually don't apply.
  • Okay, let's face it, I never look at the cutting layouts, even when I do have standard-sized yardage. I think today was the first time I did so seriously, and even then I managed to screw up on one piece. 
  • I don't pin before I cut. I just arrange things more or less right, and then cut carefully with a couple of books as pattern-weights, and hope things don't shift too much. 
  • I'm really bad at marking my changes on patterns I plan on making multiple times: every time I've sewn M5845, I've had to bring in the top of the back bodice when inserting the zipper...I guess I have a narrow upper back? Anyway, I was sewing yet another version of it yesterday night, and I guess it's been awhile and I forgot about that, because I had to rip out my zipper eight times to get it right. Also, my knit tee block invariable ends up too loose at the waist, which is an easy fix, but it's still a little silly to have to redo the side seams every. freaking. time. At least now I've documented these changes, so hopefully I won't have to make these mistakes again?
  • I never used to finish my seam allowances, but I've tried to change that since seeing Neeno's and Leimomi's glowing examples. It's still a bit of pick and choose, though, when I use seam binding and when I just pink, but at least I'm thinking about it? My consolation is that I've seen blouses from the 30s that survived just fine with pinking only, so I'll just wash my things carefully...
  • I don't trace my patterns. Not even the vintage ones. I cut them out, but I will say that I don't make changes to the pattern tissue. Those changes all happen as I'm sewing on the actual garment, which might explain why I don't have any of them documented for the future. 
See? Just pinked! And it's survive
I conclude my sewing confessions by saying (hopefully, knock on wood) that none of my garments have turned out terribly despite the grainline ignorance (well, minus a couple of slightly wonky knit tees that didn't matter), and nothing has fallen apart in the wash yet, but I suppose I should really try harder to be careful, especially now that I'm teaching others the art of dressmaking. It's kind of like the one time that a student walked in on me prepping for lab without my goggles on (my excuse being that it was all in the fume hood and the partition was almost all the way down). I will say that the one area I never skimp in is ironing. I always press my seams flat, to the sides, and then open from both sides. But then, that might just be because pressing is what saves my garment from looking as terrible as the fudged meaurements/cuts/seams would have predicted.

Do you have any sewing confessions? Or are you all just super-duper angelic sewasaurus rexes?

See, that's all of you perfect little sewasaurus rexes over there in your clique, with your pattern instructions and pins and tracing wheel and cutting diagrams, while I'm the awkward one in the corner cutting up vintage patterns and eating Fray Check.

And finally, one of my favorite poems about teaching: 

Did I Miss Anything? by Tom Wayman

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 percent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring the good news to all people on earth.

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human experience
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered

but it was one place

And you weren’t here


  1. I'm a bit of a goody two shoes and always pin, always follow instructions and always trace my patterns. But then most of my sewing is for my kids and they have a pesky habit of growing, so cutting rather than tracing would be a bit daft. I guess I always follow instructions because I'm not that confident in my own skillz, and the people who write the patterns put the instructions in to help you do it right, right? Although I've found 'right' doesn't always mean 'easiest' :)

    1. I guess I'm just not very trusting of the pattern-writers then!

  2. I am just like that!
    I've been sewing for a decade or so now, and to be fair most kids/teens aren't that precise and I was mostly self-taught. But, I think my biggest reason to completely ignore pattern instructions and make most patterns myself is that I KNOW commercial patterns won't fit-- that's a big reason I sew, because nothing fits. It's pretty easy to justify crappy seam finishings when you're blazing new terrain and all that. Pfft, experts.

    1. I am self-taught too, but I think the main reason for me being lazy and skimping on seam finishing is that I'm just in a hurry to finish so I can try on my finished (except not!) garment.

  3. Love the drawing :-). I think I fall somewhere in between. I often eyeball the grainline (though, in my defense, when I do double-check with a ruler, I'm usually pretty close), ignore most dots and notches, and I never read the instructions or use the cutting layout. On the other hand, I do use a tracing wheel for darts and whatnot, use plenty of weights when cutting, transfer corrections to the pattern, and I do finish my seams, even if the garment is lined. So yeah, I'm the Rex holding a tracing wheel whose halo has long since fallen off.

    1. Glad you liked the drawing! I think as I progress as a seamstress, I realize I need to reach more of a happy medium. Grain line hasn't come back to bite me yet, but I do always mark my darts, albeit not notches.

  4. yeah, but you are the one that looks like you are having the most fun in the drawing :-)

    when i started sewing, i was sort of obsessive about things like seam finishes and pinning. but, like so many things, as i got the hang of the rhythm and the steps involved, my own shortcuts emerged. (this is why, whenever possible, i bribe my sister into measuring and cutting pattern pieces for me--she has no patience for my fly-by-night approach). in the end, it's all about what you want to get out of the garment. there is a whole gamut of choices out there! do what makes you happy!

    1. Ooh, I wish I could bribe my sister into doing that for me! Lucky you. I think you're right about figuring out what works for you...when I am super obsessive it ends up being less slapdash, but I have less fun. I guess there's something to be said for sitting in the corner eating Fray Check.

  5. Ooh boy, I'm really glad I'm not the only one with some of these habits. For Tilly's OWOP, I made five or six versions of the same pattern but I never marked the changes I needed to make on the actual pattern. I just altered each one once I cut everything out. Pretty dumb. And grainline? Eh, eyeball it. I only recently started tracing my patterns but I still never make muslins. I just start with a more generous size and take it in as needed. I don't even mark buttonholes. Or measure hems. Maybe one day I'll have the patience to make a perfect, instead of "good enough," garment... if it's like a winter coat or ball gown or something. But cotton skirts? Whatever.

    1. Haha I, too, am glad to hear of someone else who makes things work with bad habits! Yeah, one day when I make a non-sundress I will break out the real dressmaking skills.

  6. i'll just say, we have so much in common it's scary.

    i just showed ruggy your cartoon. he is quite pleased.

    and i read that poem four times! loved it.

    1. Thank Ruggy again for me for coming up with such a brilliant term! And I seriously cannot wait to meet you.

  7. I love that you use pattern instructions as suggestions. Personally, I stopped using patterns a while ago when I realised that they never fit me well enough without having to make big adjustments (all of which I forget to do to the paper copies). Now I just make things by cutting out some rough cotton in the rough sort of shape and pinning it to my dressform then marking in darts - I've actually started to think that if I use a pattern and don't change it, it's cheating! I think I have far too many bad sewing habits to count...

    1. See, but to me, that sounds awesome...I want to be able to just drape like that! I know what you mean, though, about feeling like just using a pattern as is feels like cheating.

  8. Your cartoon is hilarious! I just snorted in my cube. I use the pattern instructions pretty faithfully if I am trying out a new garment, but as time goes on, I'm more assertive: "You want me to put the sleeve in that way? That makes no sense. I'm going to do it the way I know." And that usually works out for me, but sometimes it doesn't and I end up back with the instructions.

    1. I am so proud that I made you snort in your cube! That is probably my greatest achievement to date.

      I do skim the pattern instructions before I start to see if I need them, but I usually decide otherwise and make out just fine.

  9. I know nothing about patterns, but I feel similarly about recipes -- unless it's baking (which I don't do much of), I mostly read the recipe and then do something that maybe somewhat resembles it. Maybe.

    Also, that's one of my favorite poems! When I taught last summer, I read it to my class!

    1. I have noticed that about your comments in your blog recipes! And I think you're the one who told me about that poem!

  10. There are at least 5 different ways to do everything when you are sewing - those who tell you there's only ONE way just have a favorite way and want to control others. =)

    I am the Queen of Eeking - I eek out my pieces from yardage that is far too small by cheating the grainlines and seam allowances all the time. And guess what? I do it professionally (and I'm not the only one)!

    And no one uses instructions in a costume shop because we make everything up as we go - you just have to know what the pieces are so you can put them together correctly. Projects are a group effort and brainstorming sessions are always necessary in a shop. If the garment fits and looks like what the designer wants in the end, who can say you did it wrong?

    You need a serger! Solves all kinds of seam finishing dilemmas. =)

    1. I've been wanting a serger, but just don't have it in my budget (or space on my sewing table) right now. So reassuring to know, though, that professionals do their own share of fudging!

  11. I don't pin my patterns to my fabric, because a) it makes stupid holes in the pattern paper, which then tears, b) it's less precise than laying the pattern down on the fabric, weighing it down and tracing, removing the pattern and then cutting, c) I don't follow pattern layouts either - I often find them unnecessarily wasteful of the fabric; so I never lay my pattern pieces on fold (the most wasteful feature of pattern layouts, IMHO), which makes the pinning unnecessary and the b) approach perfectly OK.
    I thought my reasoning might help you with yours. :-)

    In other areas, I'm something in between. I can't say I follow instructions; it's been a long time since I last sewed with a commercial pattern (come to think of it, have I ever? I always altered them...), so most of the time I just figure it out as I go... I think it's the same approach I apply all the time: read up as much as I can about it beforehand and then distill my own procedure out of it. Works for me! I suppose the sort of thing you should give your student(s) is supplying them with that starting knowledge that they can eventually distill their own procedures from - and knowing myself, I can imagine how hard it can be for someone who has such noncomformist habits herself. :-)

    1. I feel the same way about pinning! My compromise is to use a cutting mat and rotary cutter do I don't have to trace, because tracing drives me crazy. And yes, inefficient layout diagrams! I will definitely let SHB's mom know that instructions din't have to be followed to a T!

    2. Well, if you're using patterns with seam allowances included, you can totally use a rottary cutter, I guess (although you may be cutting into your pattern pieces that way). I'm European, and used to patterns without seam allowances, and adding those myself according to current whims and the fabric.

    3. Yeah, I've only ever worked with patterns that already had seam allowances included, nor have I ever had issues with cutting into my pattern pieces, so a rotary cutter works for me!

  12. I love your illustration so much, I chortled!

  13. Muahaha! Ok, totally slapdash was my approach to sewing for the first, oh, twenty years. Seam finishing? What is this seam finishing you speak of? (I did press, although not as thoroughly as you.)

    On the one hand, I like the slapdash approach for the fun and freewheeling aspect---I think it really lets you feel in charge of your sewing, and be more creative.

    Eventually, though, I reached a point (around the time I started blogging, actually) where I realized that paying more attention to things like precise cutting made for a better finished product. I started actually (for the first time) reading about how one is *supposed* to sew, instead of just winging it and thinking things through. And, not surprisingly, the quality of what I was producing improved quite a bit, not to mention those sewing headaches when seams don't line up etc. lessened immensely.

    I think it's important to have both, if you want a good final product but to still enjoy what you're doing. On the other hand, for a kid, I tend to feel like sewing should be like other kids' crafts---focus on the fun, freewheeling aspects. Time enough to worry about precision and technique after the seeds of joy have been planted and sprouted wildly.

    Which probably won't help you with SHB's mom, of course. :)

  14. Yeah, SHB's mom is a very by the book kind of person, so I showed her the correct way to do everything. With SHB herself things were definitely less structured, more "you want to do that? Sure! Let's do it!"

    I think I've gotten better at being disciplined in my sewing, but it's still not my first instinct.

  15. Hello I just found your blog :]

    I'm a little sloppy with my sewing, although I pin my fabric before I cut it I still don't cut it nicely. I'm also bad about transferring markings onto the fabric especially altering the pattern. Then when I need to use it again I'm caught having to figure out what change I had made before!


    1. Join the club, Nadja! :) Yeah, it takes discipline to do all the tedious marking...I'm getting better at it, though!

  16. Haha! I have tons of sewing sins! I've just been sewing for long enough to (usually) know which ones I can get away with. I also protest categorizing not following a pattern or a pattern layout as sewing sins - those are simply indications that you are capable of independent though!

    And I totally advocate pinking as the best solution for some seaming - it's totally true that lots of 1930s clothes used it, because any other finish would be too bulky. I use it on most of my own 1930sish evening dresses.

    As for perfect seams, I simply don't show off my garments with less than pristine seam finishes ;-)

  17. your cartoon made me laugh out loud, frightening everyone around me. love it.


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