Wednesday, 14 April 2010

learning to sew (or expect these problems plus more)

I was chatting with a friend the other day and the conversation went the same way as these things often do when we started talking about making clothes.

I really want to but I can't get going. I want to make things I'm not really skilled enough to make so I get really frustrated. I wish I could do what you do.

I always want to respond that it isn't that hard, but the truth is that learning to sew is hard, it just doesn't seem hard to me because I've already learned a lot and it's easier for me to recognise and put up with the frustration of learning new bits. There's no doubt my already won skills help me through those new skill hard bits faster and easier, but over time I have also adjusted my expectations and I tend to think this is the critical bit for learning.

All this thinking started a little list in my head about the critical lessons for me as I've learnt to sew.
  1. Anything new you do requires you to learn something and learning is rarely painless. Whether it's coping with confusion, making and fixing mistakes, feeling overwhelmed, getting a poor finish, getting exhausted...these are all symptoms of learning. They are normal and they pass. The payoff makes the temporary pain worth while, and it does get easier.
  2. Learning to sew isn't a single unified set of skills that come as a package. Effective use of a sewing machine, choosing fabrics, interpreting patterns, fitting garments, manipulating fabric for construction and professional finishing are all quite separate skills. It isn't a learn one get the rest free system! Don't try and tackle them all at once and be OK about not knowing lots (in fact the more you learn the more you realise there is out there yet to be learned...).
  3. Most frustrations come from choosing inappropriate projects. By inappropriate I mean not what you want at a particular time. A hunger to achieve an output, a desire for speed and no bumps in the road call for a simple project using already practised skills. A thirst for a challenge, some extra time and no pressure mean a more complicated project can make it onto the table. Take the time to try and get in touch with what you really want and save yourself the heartache.
  4. Mistakes, rework, poor decisions and wrong turns are not a waste of time. Everything you do - whether it gives you a pleasing result or extra fodder for the rag bag - teaches you how to do something, or how not to do something. Mistakes, and picking up the pieces afterwards most definitely make your sewing skills more robust and versatile than simply learning by numbers.
  5. There is no singular 'right' way to do things. Conventions and techniques tell you a lot about what most people think will work most of the time and generally give you a good result, but there are always exceptions and often more than one way to achieve the same end. Never let an orthodoxy stand in the way of progress - if it really is the very best way, you'll come to it in your own time.
  6. The process of learning is ongoing. It's important not to see every project as the judgement of your capacities, and expect everything to be exactly right. When it comes to clothes you buy, for example, you rarely pick up a garment in a store and feel it is perfect in every way and it's the same with the things you make. Learning to celebrate the bits that go right, rather than fret over the bits that went wrong will motivate you and help you get closer to the outcome you are hoping for. There's always next time.
  7. Good tools and materials count for a lot. That's not to say everyone needs the flashest machine (indeed mine is the bottom of the range domestic!) or the most expensive fabric and there is absolutely a place for cheapies and experiments, but quality makes things easier. This is especially true if you are working on something really complicated or using fabric that's notoriously hard to sew. Buy the best you can afford and if it seems expensive, compare it to what you would be paying for a finished item. Making it yourself really is better value. If cost is a major issue consider reusing good quality thrifted fabric or repurposing something rather than trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
  8. There is a world of difference between good enough and really good. You can spend days sewing a finely tailored well fitting summer dress, or a few hours knocking out a sundress and while we may desire both in our wardrobe don't think that you will get couture for the time and cost of the chain store version. What counts is understanding the difference between them and choosing the project you really want and are really interested in making. There is no shame in skipping the couture for low rent projects and saving your pennies for bought high end items. Being able to throw together PJs for your kids or calico market bags is still a creative and thrilling venture and requires a lot less of an investment in skill development. By the same token heading straight for the really hard stuff is fine so long as you are realistic about the degree of difficulty and have the patience to hike up a very steep learning curve.
  9. Skills are maintained and improved through practice. These days I need not the slightest encouragement to seize any opportunity to sew, but in the past I have gone for long stretches without sewing. The longer the gap the harder it is to feel confident to tackle a new project.
  10. Get back on the horse (closely related to the above). Disasters of even monumental proportions do not dictate the end of a sewing career, but failure can loom larger than it needs to when left to fester. The best cure for failure is success so a simple and fast project with a very high likelihood of success is the best way to dispel the sewing mozz.
  11. There is no substitute for real people. There are a lot of great books, blogs and videos out there and they can all teach you a lot, but nothing will push you along faster than being able to ask someone for help and letting them show you what they mean. Classes can be expensive but they are absolutely invaluable, and communities you join or create let you get and give help in a way that solidifies what you know and teaches you more. The old fashioned sewing circle and its many modern guises also add a social side to the 'work' of sewing that really tips the balance in favour of wanting more.
  12. Following a pattern to the letter removes a lot of decision making and figuring stuff out, which makes things faster and in some ways easier. But when a pattern isn't exactly what you want, or doesn't make intuitive sense, depart from it. [It astonishes me how often students or friends will fuss for hours trying to work out exactly what the pattern means rather than just trying out what they think. When I say why don't you just do X they say can I? Like they need permission!] And every now and then just for the thrill and lessons you'll learn try and make something without any pattern at all.
  13. It is pretty much a loser's game to try and alter an existing pattern if you don't really understand how the pattern was made and thus how it works. This was the single biggest watershed in my sewing life because all of a sudden so many other things made sense. Once I learned how to draft patterns my error rate dropped dramatically. It is a skill best learned in the old school classroom way with a degree of rigour and precision, even if you disregard it later, so it is a commitment, but it will do more for your sewing than anything else.


trash said...

If I win the Lottery this weekend will you come and be my perosnal tutor? Please??

Eleanor said...

I'm going to print this out and stick it into my screenwriting folder. Metaphorically, each of these points is exactly what I'm learning at the moment.

Violet and Rose said...

I have volunteered to teach 12 children at my girls school, ranging from prep to grade 6. My group are going to make little felt dolls. Kids are generally better learners than adults though because some of them haven't yet adopted that "I'm no good at his" attitude. Or at least I'm hoping not ....

Violet and Rose said...

that should read this and not his. because that is just weird.

meg said...

I think I literally screamed every time I sewed when I first started. I picked hard patterns and crappy fabric and wanted to wear it that night. It all went to hell of course.

This is an amazing post and I will print out and tape to my studio door because I need to read it before I start anything. thank you.

Kate said...

I keep hearing about the post in other people's posts! Clearly what a lot of people need to hear.

I am glad I took pattern drafting, even though it sort of helped stall me. Because I feel like I should use my blocks and not patterns. But I think I need a pattern to tell me what to do, while I get my feet wet.

BUT having done the pattern drafting course, it is far more obvious to me how things fit together to make a garment, and how just small alterations in the basic pattern are needed to make different things. Pencil skirt, teired skirt, A line - all from the same basic information. I think that's such a valuable thing.

Now if only I would get off my butt and DO something! :P I'm goign to attempt to uncover my crafty materials this weekend...

sooz said...

Trash - you supply the fare, I'm there.
Eleanor - isn't it funny how life has to teach us the same lessons over and over?
V&R - Also much more prepared to break rules. Love 'em.
Meg - you and so so many others! So long as you keep coming back for more though :-)
Kate, I know what you mean about the pressure to use blocks, but I've actually started using patterns much more recently and I have a new found respect for letting someone else do most of the work for me! And which posts?!

eeloh said...

I agree on the sewing classes. I've been going for a bit over a year - my Mum is a wonderful seamstress but we always argued when she tried to teach me. I'm so glad I bit the bullet. AS you say, you don't know how vast this craft/art is until you really get into it. I leave complex adult garments for the class and at home I do children's clothes (far fewer issues with fit) which reap the skills I've learned in class; and I do projects like baby slings, nappy stackers and bags from free tutorials on line. I'm not very creative beyond my choice of fabric- the number of projects I have on the go just following instructions someone else has done is huge ... but from time to time I do find those skills have synthesised ... I find myself looking at someone's pattern/instructions and going, "nah, there's a better way and I know how to do it!"
I'd add that I wouldn't bother with sewing unless you really really enjoy it. I don't know that I save money on clothes but I certainly do on gifts!
Great post Soozs

MildlyCrafty said...

I especially agree with point 4. Whenever I really screw something up I say to myself "well now I know that's not a good idea, let's not do that again". Helps me feel less annoyed too :)

sooz said...

Eeloh I don't think you save money sewing clothes, but I think it's better value - for the same price you get better quality fabric and generally better made and fit. Assuming you don't count your time and you can pay off the machine investment over a long time. But I'd stick to my guns on this point, and I'd go example to example any day!

Ruth said...

Well said, Sooz!
Also, I posted some 'sooz-inspired' sewing on my blog this morning!

Kate said...

The one I was thinking of was on Apples and Tangerines, and I know i've seen at least two more, but I don't remember where :P

jean said...

You are a wise woman!!!!

mon ami said...

Thank you for the reminder of how far I have come (with a lot of hair pulling along the way) and how far I still have to go with my skills. It is such a process and I will revisit this list many times again to help me get through it.

Thanks for sharing

Daphne said...

Found the link to this on elsie marley today and I'm so glad I did! What great advice, thank you so much!

I'm quite the opposite about patterns (something I learned from my mother, I think), I don't ever use a pattern. Things just get made up as I go. I'm sure a lot of projects would turn out better/be less frustrating if I used a pattern, they scare me though.

Anyway, Thank You!

molly said...

I am so deeply grateful for this post. I haven't sewn since I was seven (30 years, eep!), avoided it like the plague, actually. Am kicking and prodding myself to pick it up again, and with two made-up simple trousers for my two littlest under my belt, have done just enough toe-dipping for every. last. word. you said to resonate, deeply. Although I'm still all nerves and impatience, I am appreciating the process, the adventure, the failures as much as the successes. Maybe more. Sorry to windbag, only wanted to say, thanks so very much for gathering these thoughts all under one umbrella. I will be reviewing them often, for sustenance (and laughs!).