Sunday, December 11, 2011

4 Ways to Feel Good About Sewing Again
Originally published November 5, 2011 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

My completed duct tape dress form.
This column is for those of you who, like me, used to sew clothes. But somewhere along the way you became disenchanted with the process due to one or more of the following:
1) lack of style in commercial patterns
2) low quality of readily available fabrics
3) bad fit of clothes you made, which always looked like you had made them
4) high cost of patterns and fabrics.

Mrs. Woods taught me to sew in her home economics class in junior high and I made lots of my own clothes throughout my teens and 20s. In college, I distinctly remember the dank basement sewing room in the girls’ dorm, where I spent Saturday nights sewing and listening to Elton John sing about a much crazier kind of Saturday Night. When I graduated from college, my parents bought me a really nice, indestructible Necchi sewing machine—which I still use to hem pants and occasionally make quilts.

My husband applies the 3 layers of duct tape.
But gradually my enthusiasm faded as I realized that I could buy clothes for less than I could make them, in fabrics and styles that were trendy. And I didn’t have to buy anything that didn’t fit right—or at least could be easily altered when I got home. So, this summer when I got a fabric store coupon for five patterns for $5, and I needed a cocktail dress for a wedding reception, and I didn’t want to spend a lot for a potential one-use dress, I decided to flip through the pattern books and roam through the fabric aisles, like I used to.

I did end up buying five Simplicity patterns for $1 each (I saved $80?!), but no fabric. When I got home, I put the patterns away for another day, and borrowed an appropriate dress from a friend for the wedding. Sewing still seemed like it had too much potential for disappointment.

But I am reminded of how much I used to love sewing every time I watch Project Runway. As a devoted fan and fantasy-league fashion designer, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a bulging envelope of money to spend at a high-rise New York City fabric emporium? (How challenging it must be to spend $500 just to make one dress!) Wouldn’t it be dreamy to drape fabric on a dress form, to lay-out and cut fabric on a huge table in a spacious workroom, and sew on a powerful machine like an 8-spool serger? The spin-off show I would love to see--“Project Sewing Secrets”—would, unfortunately, lack the interpersonal drama demanded for prime time.

Perhaps due to the popularity of Project Runway, there has been a renewed interest in sewing and clothing design. In September, the annual runway event, Santa Cruz FashionArt, thrilled a sold-out crowd at the Civic Auditorium, debuting avant-garde fashions for both men and women. Nationally, applications for fashion design colleges have increased steadily over the last ten years. And, as further proof, a burst of books on repurposing, fitting, and sewing techniques have displaced some of the abundant knitting and quilting books on the shelves of libraries and bookshops.

This renewed interest in clothing design has prompted remarkable improvements in the home sewing realm as well. For example, commercial patterns have become more customizable, each one including four or more sizes. And even if Butterick or McCalls don’t have the style you’d like, many patterns now include tips on fitting which make it much easier to modify a pattern and make improvements. In addition, books on sewing techniques are now available on very specific topics, such as fit, adapting patterns, and couture design. And the internet—which didn’t exist when I first learned to sew—is full of free sewing tips and products, including printable patterns and YouTube sewing tutorials. The Web also provides unlimited sources for finding the fabric you want at a price that’s affordable. (You can even bid on fabric on eBay.)

Here are a few more reasons to feel good about sewing again:

  1. A new line of dress patterns created by Simplicity called “Amazing Fit,” actually walks you through the process of altering a pattern to make it fit your own unique body, step by step. The process involves taking accurate measurements of your body and using those to select individual pattern pieces before cutting fabric. Seam allowances are larger and machine basted until there is enough dress to try on and check for fit. Once adjustments are made, seams are permanently sewn and trimmed to 5/8-inch. It’s a longer process, but by the end you will know your body dimensions and exactly how future patterns need to be adjusted before cutting and sewing.
  1. There are lots of books about making clothes that fit and flatter. One that I found easy to follow is, “How to Use, Adapt, and Design Sewing Patterns” by Lee Hollahan, which walks you through altering commercial patterns and designing your own patterns. I learned useful techniques such as how to line up the grain correctly, how to download patterns and print them on 8 ½ x 11 inch paper, and how to measure a body accurately. This book also names and discusses body shapes and what styles complement a “top-heavy triangle, a circle, an oval, a narrow rectangle, an hourglass, or a bottom-heavy triangle” body type.
  1. Websites can also offer sewing tips and free patterns. Check out: – for free printable patterns for classic styles – for instructions on making a duct tape dress-form (also papier-mâché or paper tape)  - for styling practice by dragging and dropping a variety of separates and fabrics to a model to see how they look together. The monthly blog also contains fashion design tools for making or selecting clothes that flatter different body types.

  1. “Little Green Dresses” by Tina Sparkles, offers a new take on fashion repurposing. Instead of being another book on how to turn jeans into skirts or tee-shirts into shrugs, this one is about actually drafting new patterns and creating very polished finished pieces of clothing. It encourages the use of thrift store and garage sale clothes and linens that will have the yardage necessary to completely remake them into something very wearable. After roaming the aisles of Jo-Ann Fabrics and seeing lots of Prop 65 signs warning about the formaldehyde content in an unspecified number of their fabrics, I’m more sold than ever on reusing thrift shop apparel that may have already been washed a number of times. (You’ll be relieved to know that I haven’t seen these warnings signs at any of the fabric stores in Santa Cruz County.) There’s also a good chance you’ll find higher quality fabrics at a very reasonable price at the thrift shop. I recently purchased nine long dresses with enough fabric to sew nine tops, for about $30 at Salvation Army.
 So dust off the ol’ Singer and give sewing another try.  Dank basement and Elton John are optional.

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