Today, February 10th, marks what I consider my “official” sewing anniversary, and this year will make 15 years of sewing. It’s mind-boggling to me that I’m old enough to have done anything for 15 years, but here we are nevertheless. The reason I call it my official anniversary is this: I had already learned to operate a sewing machine and sew pajama pants by this point. I learned from both my mom and from my bestie’s mom in church youth group. But in those cases I didn’t have a hunger to do more than that. It seemed like a useful skill that I just wasn’t interested in. (This was the same teenage me that was “allergic to pink” and had no interest in stereotypically feminine hobbies, so it’s not surprising.)
However, one day I was trawling Livejournal, as was the custom in those days, and ran across a tutorial for making a little plushie cat backpack. The tutorial looked much more approachable than a standard sewing pattern (also keep in mind this was before indie patterns had really caught on) and I decided I absolutely must have a plushie cat backpack. So I hied to Joanns for supplies, pulled out my mom’s cranky old Kenmore machine, asked her to remind me how it worked exactly, and set off. And then I made a plushie cat backback—a finished creation, from my own two hands, just by following some instructions and pictures.
That was when I couldn’t get enough.
The second project was similarly from a Livejournal tutorial, except it was how to make a dress out of quilting cotton. My middle sister and I decided to tackle it together and make our own dresses on a day my mom happened to be away. The magic of making all those tiny perfect machine stitches, and then pressing the seams, and then somehow having an entire garment that I could wear out in the world the next day was just as heady, if not more, than with the cat backpack.
From there it took me some time to come back to commercial patterns. I used informal tutorials whenever I could and tried to tackle self-drafting basic shapes, only to learn some lessons the hard way (like that you can’t evenly divide bust fullness around the entire torso, because boobs only exist in the front.) I bought my first sewing machine with my high school graduation money. I was incredibly fortunate to have a 2-bedroom apartment to myself in college, and I turned my second bedroom into a studio. Before long I bought a refurbished serger… and then several years later, a destashed coverstitch machine, and then a computerized machine, and, well… now I own 6 machines, including a huge fancy embroidery machine.
Indie patterns were starting to appear, and I remember making a lot of Sewaholic patterns (many of which I still love and wear regularly), and eventually, Closet Core Patterns. Occasionally I tackled Big 4 patterns, and they began to make more sense to me. I took a Susan Khalje couture sewing class and learned that “couture sewing” didn’t mean what I thought it did (it’s about taking absolute care in how a garment is constructed, not about fashion design), but I did make a beautiful raw silk dress with a hand-dyed panel for my college graduation. I sewed jeans. I sewed a plaid blazer, messed up the plaid-matching on the back panel twice, and had to secretly piece a new panel together to make it work (but you absolutely can’t tell unless I show it to you up-close.)
In 2018, ten years after I started sewing, I made my own wedding dress. I designed the ensemble (separates, actually),made several bodice mockups, dyed the silk for the skirt, hemmed 27 yards of super-fine silk, and walked down the aisle to marry my amazing partner in a masterpiece of my own making.
In 2020 I decided I wanted to start learning about historical costuming. My 1860s Zelda project took me about a year and a half starting in 2021 and served as a launching point for what will be many future historical pieces.
I remember when “Me Made May,” which is a challenge to wear something handmade every day in May, first popped up. The first few years after I became aware of it, I remember wishing fervently that one day I’d have enough handmade garments to participate. Then it seemed like overnight, I went from “I have nothing handmade to wear” to “I wear handmade clothing every day of every month.” I don’t remember MMM being a challenge; I remember it being an impossibility and then suddenly a thing I could take for granted. (What helped was my love of making t-shirts, which are easy, fast, and feature prominently in my wardrobe.)
So I’ve definitely come a long way in my sewing journey and I look forward to many more years! I thought I’d compile a few things I’ve learned in the past 15 years about how my sewing practice is different now than it used to be, or about things I’ve learned really help me out.
Experience Breeds Efficiency
These days I am a fast sewist when I want to be. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that I am familiar with most of the techniques I encounter, whether it’s “how to install a waistband” or “how to do a flat-felled seam” or “how and when to clip curves,” which means I don’t have to look them up or troubleshoot when they’re needed. I’m also familiar with the process of clothing construction in general, which means I typically don’t need to look up pattern instructions for items constructed in a standard way, such as buttondown shirts or pants or t-shirts. The second reason is I know which shortcuts to take and when. I rarely pin, for example, and I often sew multiple seams before going to the ironing board and pressing. The third reason is that I make fewer mistakes than when I first started out, which means I spend less time fixing them, and I also spend less time trying to figure out what the hell I messed up in the first place.
Taking the Long Way
In opposition to the above, I also know when it makes more sense to use the slow method rather than the quick and dirty way. Sometimes going slowly or taking extra precautions saves time, like hand-basting a shifty seam on a plaid fabric I want to match up perfectly. Sometimes it just looks and works better, like hand-sewing something in place. I recently made patches for the armscyes of my partner’s well-loved vest and hand-stitched them in place. It looks way better than if I’d machine-stitched them. Sometimes taking a bit longer adds efficiency in other ways. For example, I typically cut fabric flat on a single layer, or I make folds the size of individual pattern pieces to cut something out double. I’m usually able to save at least half a yard of fabric that way, with less waste. Lastly, sometimes I take more time because I like the result better. I have a serger, but I don’t usually use it to finish seams on woven fabrics. I much prefer the look of a flat-felled or bias-bound seam, and so I often take the time to do those seam finishes. They’re beautiful even if they take longer.
I Am Not Immune to Dumb Mistakes
“I know how to do this” is a mindset that leads to autopilot sometimes. And on occasion, being on autopilot backfires. (Please see the 1890s combinations post for a great example of how I spaced out on multiple aspects of a single garment.) Experience doesn’t mean I don’t mess up sometimes. I’ve managed to screw up pajama pants, literally the first things I ever learned to sew, as recently as 2020, leading to them being completely unfixable. I’ve melted some of the polyester on my Zelda gown because I am hopelessly reckless with my iron’s temperature settings. There are plenty of dumb mistakes on the road ahead of me, too.
Good Tools and Good Workspaces
I’ve been fortunate enough in my life, and have made it a priority, to have a dedicated sewing workspace everywhere I’ve lived. In some cases it was as small and simple as a sewing machine set up on a desk in a corner of my bedroom or living room, but it was there. My sewing practice has benefited enormously from not needing to set up and put away the sewing machine every time I want to use it. It’s so much easier to go sew for a bit, even when I’m not feeling motivated to do more than a couple of seams, because I don’t have to overcome the hurdle of inertia. It’s been even more helpful when I’ve had spaces with a door I could shut (or cats I could trust), because I can leave projects out mid-construction too. Right now my studio space is a basement room that doubles as my partner’s exercise room and the laundry/utility area, but it has enough room to hold two sewing tables with three machines set up at a time. One day I dream of having a huge, sunny studio with room for a cutting table and all of my machines set up at once.
Good tools are also incredibly important to me. “Sturdy” (and sometimes “sharp”) are far more important than “expensive,” but sometimes the right tool for the job does require an outlay of cash. You can do amazing things with a cheap machine and dull scissors, if you know the workarounds to do so, but it’s so much easier when you have a machine that can properly handle your fabric (and yes, in my opinion this means a serger for knits) and sharp scissors. I don’t remotely have a top-of-the-line machine, so don’t get me wrong there (my main one cost about $500 back in 2015) but it works a lot better than the “economy” lowest-priced machine I started with. It’s also made a lot of difference in my t-shirts to have both a serger and a coverstitch machine rather than trying to make do with substitutions that I don’t think work as well. Good fabric makes a difference—poor-quality fabric can be off-grain, might not press well, might not drape well, and might not be comfortable to wear. Good lighting makes a difference. A good steam iron makes a difference. (I have an extra-wide ironing board I got at Target and I love it so much more than a standard-width one.) A variety of quality cutting implements (good shears—I love my Kai shears—thread snips, pinking shears, duckbill scissors, tailors points, a rotary cutter) makes life so much easier.
(Also, make sure to get your machines serviced regularly and your scissors sharpened when needed.)
Spending Longer on Fewer Pieces
Since I have a pretty full handmade wardrobe (and no way to upgrade closet space right now), I don’t try to churn out garments as fast as I can anymore. I don’t have many gaps in my closet, and what I own I try to make last. It’s no coincidence that this stage of my life is when historical costuming decided to jump in. Historical clothing takes longer to make and tends to do best when made with higher-quality, natural fiber fabrics. Making fewer items more slowly allows me to budget for more expensive fabric when I need it. I get to enjoy all the processes of making clothing without overwhelming my day-to-day closet. (I do wish I had room for a costume closet, though.)
So that’s my fifteen-year wrapup! I’ve got a lot of projects to tackle on the horizon and many more I haven’t even thought of yet. I’m looking forward to many more years of this fabulous hobby and spending time with the fabulous community as well.