Quick–What image comes to mind when you think of a sewer? Don’t think long–just answer.
Betcha it was somebody running fabric through a sewing machine. Me too–and it’s a perfectly natural response.
But a blinding glimpse of the obvious I had a few weeks ago went a long way to explaining just how inadequate this picture is of a sewer sitting at a machine, to convey the rich and complex process of getting things sewn.
When I rewrote my About page a couple of months ago I wanted to get across the multifaceted aspect of sewing that I think is greatly overlooked and underreported. And then something crystallized for me recently that made this unwieldy topic easier to get a handle on for myself and to explain to others.
I found myself thinking, “You know, getting things sewn is so much more than knowing how to read pattern instructions or how to use a sewing machine or an iron. There are whole areas of knowledge you must have to produce a beautiful, functional result.”
Looking back at both the successes and duds in my sewing career, I came up with five knowledge bases I’ve found over time to be essential to getting things sewn:
1. Technical knowledge
In the technical knowledge area I place such activities as
- machine-sewing and hand-sewing
- pattern-drafting and pattern-altering
- evaluating and preparing fabrics and other supplies
- designing garments, home furnishings, accessories, and other sewn-textile products for functionality
and let’s not forget:
- designing workspaces
- designing workflow
The tools of the technical knowledge area include sewing machines, pressing and cutting equipment, measuring tools–and lots of great gadgets.
Without some technical knowledge you can’t get things sewn at all. No facility with a needle, whether hand or machine? Sorry–a glue stick won’t get you very far!
2. Aesthetic knowledge
In the aesthetic knowledge area of getting things sewn I place activities like:
- studying the qualities of colors such as warmth or coolness, light or darkness, and brightness or mutedness
- identifying and coordinating colors, shapes, and patterns
- using scale and proportion
- designing clothing, outfits, and soft furnishings using relationships in colors, patterns, and shapes
The tools of the aesthetic knowledge area include
- classic rules of scale and proportion,
- the color wheel
- commercial tools like Pantone color fan decks and the 3-in-1 Color Tool
- books, magazines, and online sources on fashion, art, and interior design
- some kinds of fashion and style advice
3. Personal knowledge
In the personal knowledge area of getting things sewn I place activities like
- identifying your personality and style as related to your wardrobe or your home
- identifying your figure type, coloring, and degree of contrast
- taking into consideration your physical characteristics so your clothing can help
- Do you get cold or hot easily?
- Do you use a wheelchair?
- Is buttoning difficult and a zipper a better choice?
- identifying the settings you’re in and roles you play now or see yourself moving into
- identifying the settings and roles you aspire to and want to dress for
Also, often overlooked:
- your work and learning styles
- How do you like to run projects?
- Do you like group or individualized learning settings?
- Do you like teaching yourself?
- What are your high-energy times of day?
- Your aptitudes
- Can you visualize 3-dimensional objects easily? (I can’t.)
- Do you like working with your hands and small tools? (Me: yes.)
- How are you in inductive and deductive reasoning skills?
Some tools in the area of personal knowledge are
- image consultation tools for determining your coloring, contrast, and figure type
- programs like Imogen Lamport’s 7 Steps to Style that provide both factual information and exercises to help you determine coloring, figure type, and your personal style
- various informal questionnaires and professionally administered tests to identify and measure personal qualities and preferences
- tons of books, magazines, blogs, and discussion boards
4. Cultural knowledge
In the cultural knowledge area of getting things sewn I place many influences:
- Settings–so many and varied!
- Schools, offices, military bases, conventions, houses of worship, markets, building sites, sports events, homes, campuses, medical facilities, libraries, courthouses, jails, streets and parks, stores, transportation, farms, mountains, oceans. Even the moon.
- Teachers and students, coaches and players, business owners and employees, advocates and protesters, parents and children, hosts and guests, upholders and rebels, gatekeepers and gatecrashers–the list goes on.
- Ceremonies and occasions
- Weddings, funerals, religious ceremonies, graduations, parades, birthdays, award ceremonies, anniversaries, and more
- Moods of the occasions
- Somber, happy, victorious, fun, focused, tense–tell me what I’ve missed.
- Historical, ethnic, and national contexts
- From elaborate protocols for monarchs to playful and momentary fashion interpretations
What are some tools of cultural knowledge? In bygone days I would have listed dress codes and etiquette and some style books, but now rules and even guidelines are out of fashion . Still, most of us, most of the time, operate within some widely recognized norms. (Whole books have been devoted to this subject but I find I don’t read them.)
5. Social knowledge
Social knowledge now strikes me as a crucial element of getting things sewn. None of us knows everything, and even if you’re a very experienced, patient, self-motivated learner you will probably want a second pair of eyes or hands along the way.
For those of us who despair of ever learning the finer points of, say, fitting, or altering patterns, there’s a ray of hope. Concede defeat in fitting and altering for now at least, and cultivate social skills:
- Skills in finding help
- Finding a pro like a sewing teacher, sewing machine dealer, fabric store owner, or image consultant
- Enlisting a friend willing to take your measurements for a pattern or critique the fit or style of a garment
- Skills in working with experts
- Being willing to take direction and follow through
- Being proactive in asking questions and getting feedback
- Skills as a participant in a class or discussion, in person or online
- Contributing to a feeling of community and mutual aid
- Skills in offering help and encouragement
Some tools in the area of social knowledge are:
- Online discussion boards like PatternReview.com
- Your own personal network–maybe you can set up a sew-along. You might find an enthusiast with a skill he or she is willing to tutor you in.
- Local sewing classes–if there are any where you live
- Sewing community get-togethers like sewing blogger Peter Lappin’s annual Male Pattern Boldness Day
- Online sewing classes that include discussion among the teacher and students
- Sewing expos
- Homemade biscotti. (I am not kidding.)
Why do I think these areas of knowledge are so important to be aware of? I’ll tell you.
- I have made beautiful garments–as I look up from this computer I am seeing a painfully recent example–that rate high for technical knowledge but woefully low in personal knowledge. Jackets disproportionately long or in unflattering colors, a winter coat that won’t button up to the neck against a biting wind–these are all pilot errors of the personal knowledge type.
- Before I understood my aptitudes I struggled to master technical skills that make my brain hurt. Now, if I have the opportunity, I farm out such work to people whose brains love that kind of puzzle. Or else I keep my expectations low and work slowly–or I switch to another pattern.
- Before I understood my warm, deep, muted coloring (aesthetic knowledge and personal knowledge), I bought many pieces of fabric that were beautiful but not flattering on me. Now I make better choices in colors, patterns, textures–and sewing and outfit-planning has gotten to be a lot more fun.
- The cultural knowledge area can help paint a richer, more complete picture of what a satisfactory result would be. When someone says, “I need to sew something for the wedding I’m going to” do you notice how some people start right in with suggestions? I want to say, “Tell me more!
- What role are you playing? Work colleague? Doting aunt? Evil stepmother?
- Is the wedding in a synagogue? On a mountaintop? (Or is it a virtual wedding on Zoom?)”
- In other words, give me some contexts–they could influence your choices. Where is the overlap between the cultural contexts and your personal needs and style? Can you design something in that overlap?
Now that I’ve sorted an unruly mess of information into five areas of knowledge I’m noticing many more advantages and opportunities I can capitalize on, and not just challenges I have to face.
Getting things sewn typically involves a sewing machine, it’s true. But let’s not forget the infinite variety of other tools at our disposal to fuel our creativity.