All I Really Need to Know I Learned From My Sewing Teacher

Readers,

I wanted to sew vintage patterns, like this dress from 1955.

I wanted to sew vintage patterns, like this dress from 1955.

This month marks the tenth anniversary of meeting my fabulous sewing teacher and fairy godmother, Edith Gazzuolo.

I have learned so much from her–and I don’t mean about sewing construction.  And  I definitely don’t mean about fitting or pattern-drafting, both of which still strike me as arcane arts.

No, what I’ve learned from Edith has to do with mastery.

But first, how we met:

Ten years ago I was ironing in the sewing domain and watching an Oprah show, one of those where Oprah was making viewers’ dreams come true.  At least, material dreams, in the form of a car, even a house.

I had material dreams of a different kind.  I wanted very badly to know how to sew up the beautiful vintage patterns I was buying on eBay.   But the language of patterns of the 1930s to ’50s was beyond me.  And so were those fragile, unprinted pattern pieces with just some holes and notches punched in them.  I could not unlock their secrets on my own.

The usual sewing class was not going to match my requirements or satisfy my yearning. I needed a teacher–the right teacher–to show me the way.

I’d made some stabs at finding a teacher but without success.  It was very frustrating.

After Oprah, I said to Jack, “If I could have Oprah make my dream come true, it would be to have a sewing teacher who makes house calls.”

The next day Jack e-mailed the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.  He said “My wife is a serious sewer.  Would anyone in your department be interested in taking on a student for private lessons?”

Edith, who was teaching classes for a professor on sabbatical, wrote back.

On the phone, we talked about when and where to meet.  She said, “Of course, I’ll come to your house.”

How thrilling!

One Sunday morning soon after, Edith was sitting at my kitchen table. We looked at the catalog of vintage patterns I’d compiled.  We went down to the basement sewing domain and looked at my fabrics.

Edith asked, “What would you like to make?”  I picked out a pattern I thought was doable, not that it was my dream pattern.  But Edith persisted.  “What do you want to make?”  She leafed through my catalog.  “How about this one?”

This 1936 pattern was our first project together.

This 1936 pattern was our first project together.

I’d really wanted–yearned–to sew this 1936 McCall jacket, but it seemed so complicated, beyond my abilities.  Edith was unfazed.

So our first project together was this jacket.

The process of fitting (three muslins!), pattern alteration, and construction took me to a new level of both knowledge and self-knowledge.  It was exciting, frustrating, humbling, and character-building.

I wanted to do it again.

And so we have.

This 1941 "Misses' Mannish Jacket" was another project.

This 1941 “Misses’ Mannish Jacket” was another project.

Over the decade Edith’s spent many a Sunday morning in the sewing domain analyzing the fit of another muslin, transferring  changes to pattern pieces, brainstorming over fabrics and buttons from my stashes, and leaving me with directions for my homework.

I often forget some specific direction and have to call to clarify.

But I always remember the sayings Edith sprinkles into every session to explain some method of patternmaking, fitting, or sewing.

I’ve found these sayings apply far beyond my sewing domain.  They’ve become guiding principles.

Here are my favorites:

What do you want to accomplish?  Know what result you want to achieve.  It will inform the materials and methods you choose.

Eliminate bulk.  When you make garments, trim or grade seams so they’re flat, not lumpy.  In general, too, look to get rid of inessentials.

Avoid compounding errors.   Make the pattern as accurate as possible.   If that’s off, and you’re even a little off in the cutting, pinning and stitching, those inaccuracies can snowball into a big problem.

Don’t be a neurotic sewer.  Know when accuracy’s important and when you’re going overboard.  Perfectionism can interfere with excellence.

Do what the fabric wants to do.  Know the characteristics of your medium and work with them.  Don’t fight them.

Don’t overfit. Allow for the body to move.

Don’t take the pattern instructions literally. They might be wrong, or incomplete. They might be wrong for the materials you’re using. You might want to achieve a different effect.  There are lots of ways to accomplish the same thing.

Do it over. You’ll feel better. Have standards and live up to them. Take the time to do it better when it counts.

Use good materials.  In patternmaking, use specialized rulers, tracing wheels and a pattern notcher.  Sew with good fabric and thread.  Your time and effort deserve the best you can afford.

Step back.  A detail person, I need to be reminded to see things in a larger context.

My goal is for you to be able to do it yourself.  The ultimate goal isn’t to complete one project; it’s creative freedom.

Paradoxically, the more Edith insists on helping me do things myself, the more I want to work with her.  I don’t need to work with Edith.  But I want to.  We keep each other on our challenge edges.

Here’s the difference I’ve experienced in the last ten years:

Some classes, books, and articles have helped me sew better. But working with a great teacher–like Edith–has made me a better sewer.

(To see pictures of my 1936 jackets, see here and here.)

Readers, have you had any great sewing teachers? Do you have one now?  Are you a great sewing teacher to someone else?

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2 thoughts on “All I Really Need to Know I Learned From My Sewing Teacher

  1. Wow! Paula, I am speechless! You have given me so much more than I could ever give you in return. Thank you so much for this blog post. I will try very hard to fill just a little bit of the gigantic space you have drawn for me.

  2. I love this piece about you and Edith. My mother was/is my color, style and sewing muse. Whenever I am tempted to not redo a mistake or leave a lumpy seam, I hear her from wherever she is in the universe saying “now Judy don’ t do a half-assed job! I will see it”.

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