Getting Things Sewn
Designing a wardrobe, a workspace, and more
After stalling for weeks on a couple of sewing projects I am back on track again, thanks to a recent fitting appointment I had with Gail Kelley at Sewing Hive, here in Columbus. I was blown away by what we accomplished in under an hour. After some simple pattern alterations I will start sewing wearable tests. Hooray!
I felt so lucky to have an hour, in person, with a fit expert and wanted to make every minute count. It occurred to me to bring my laptop to our meeting, and I’m so glad I did. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then my eight pictures we looked at together saved us 8,000 words and no small amount of time and frustration.
Since my pants pattern-fitting project a couple of years ago it’s become my routine to set the self-timer on the camera and take front, back, and side views of myself in muslins. A few months ago I learned how to add text to my photos. Now it’s no big deal for me to zoom in on a fitting problem and record my observations right on the image. I’m not a fitting genius, but I can spot a drag line or wrinkle. Over time, using books and videos, I have been able to make some fit improvements on my own.
But with this New Look top and Vogue jacket I’d gotten to the point where I was making changes but no improvements. When Sewing Hive was able to reopen under under the current health and safety guidelines I was excited to book an hour with Gail to crack these fit puzzles.
I reviewed my project notes, pressed and tried on each muslin, and took a new set of pictures. I was able to add text to the pictures of the top but ran out of time with the jacket.
Not more than five minutes into our meeting, Gail and I were looking together at the pictures of the top and zooming in on fit problems. This was such an improvement over what I’d done in years past in sewing classes and fitting sessions. Typically, I would be wearing the muslin and straining to see and understand the problem with the back that the teacher was pointing out . I might make the pattern alteration but not understand why.
Looking at the photos I’d taken at home, I could say to Gail, “This looks too roomy here, but if I took out that space I could be overfitting,” and she could give me her perspective.
The photos I brought were a good orientation and conversation-starter. The next step was to take a close look at each muslin on the living, breathing, moving me. Gail pinned out some excess fabric. Then she asked if I’d like pictures of the changes–she could use her iPad. Great idea!
With the “before” picture up on my laptop and the “after” picture on Gail’s iPad, I could clearly see improvements in the fit of each muslin and understand the reasoning, which was very gratifying. After our meeting Gail sent me the photos to add to my project notes.
For both student and teacher, photos are powerful tools for documenting, communicating, and solving fit problems. The format of our meeting turned out to be one I’d happily repeat endlessly, for being so engaging and results-oriented. Handling fit, I’ve always felt a vast, unbridgeable gap in understanding between myself and the teacher or fit expert. Now I feel I can contribute something important on my end to help myself and the expert, and the expert is then in a better position to help me.
At last, looking at the same screen, I feel like we’re on the same page.
I got such a thoughtful comment recently, on my post Spinning Plates Instead of Spinning My Wheels. Somehow I deleted the comment by mistake from the website but thankfully it was still in my e-mail. M-C wrote,
Congratulations on improving the project management, it’s always good to cultivate a bird’s eye view of anything you’re working on. I find it a bit puzzling, though. Do you really need these 9 projects to all be worked on in parallel? You could have all 9 in your queue, but be working on a couple at a time, according to priority. Or whatever number would keep you from getting bored, no problem with flexibility there.
Thanks, M-C–what good questions! I wish I could supply answers, but I’ve been sitting here with furrowed brow for minutes on end and all that’s been coming to mind are observations, so they will have to do for now.
- I started the Project Management Daily Challenge as an experiment and kept an open mind about what I’d be able to accomplish. (But I was optimistic, of course!)
- Nine patterns was a lot, granted, given that so many needed to be fitted. However, I was confident I could get through the fitting phase because I’d be able to book time at Sewing Hive, here in Columbus, for help when I ran into problems.
- Also, nine patterns was a lot less than two or three dozen! (At least it was a single digit!)
- I wanted to see how far I could go with two simple but powerful rules and no exceptions–otherwise I would be prone to overthink or suffer from decision fatigue. Those rules were:
- Every day I will work on at least one of these patterns.
- I have to work on each pattern at least once every 14 days.
- My efforts were strongly affected by the shutdowns of businesses and the stay-at-home order starting in mid-March. Under normal conditions I would have been able to get individual fitting and pattern alteration help and gone on to sew garments.
- On the other hand, most of my work could be done at home and only by me, and the structures I’d set up six weeks earlier held up well. When so many other people were coping with drastically changed circumstances and setting up new expectations and routines, I was grateful for the work I could continue to do at home.
- I brought very few sewing projects to completion–just two knit tops and two pairs of pants–and that was disappointing. But under normal circumstances I would have had all my patterns fitted and gone on to complete many more garments, no question.
- The silver lining was that relying on my own resourcefulness did build my fitting reasoning more.
- Nevertheless, I got to a point with several projects where fitting problems exceeded my ability to diagnose and solve them. As happened with my long pants-fitting project, I found I was changing but not improving fit. (Jack heard of my travails so often that he coined a word: fit-tigue.)
- Occasionally my 14-day rule would work against me, and this is where I think M-C was questioning this system. I would have momentum going with one project, but another project was at the end of its 14-day “rest” period and I’d have to turn my attention back to it, reluctantly, to keep meeting the requirements of my rule. But it was helpful to notice when my reluctance to change horses was happening, so I could adjust the number of projects in the future.
- I changed out the flared skirt pattern once, a sleeveless top pattern a couple of times, and entirely dropped the dress plan for a while to concentrate on separates. So I did thin out the herd from nine to eight patterns.
- I did have a lot of projects, but a benefit of this challenge was seeing how much they had in common. A fitting lesson I learned in one project was sometimes applicable to another project, so I would reinforce the concept. However, several projects might have the same problem, and I would come to the same frustrating stopping point and need outside help.
I hope these observations help at least a little to answer M-C’s questions. I think the experiment helped me gauge how much breadth and how much depth I want and can handle. It’s hard to say in advance how many projects will be too many–you just start in, see what happens, and adjust. I hadn’t anticipated a worldwide health crisis having an effect on my sewing productivity.
I wasn’t planning to stop the experiment after a set number of days, but it so happened that Pattern Review was going to run Sarah Veblen’s popular Understanding Knit Fabrics class again in late May, and I wanted to take it. Then I thought, to get the most out of it I should concentrate on the lessons and videos and do the exercises. Then I had a chance to take the t-shirt class at Sewing Hive, here in Columbus, and I was craving some interaction with other human beings as well as hands-on help. And then I thought, let’s turn this into a knits-themed learning unit. This may be an example of balancing breadth and depth.
I was a little sad to say goodbye to the project rotation of the Daily Challenge, but I couldn’t make much more progress until Sewing Hive would be available again for fitting consultations.
And now, in recent days it happens I am working in depth. I’ve been devoting all my attention to one project, sewing a dress that was fitted on me for practice. Now I’m keeping my end of the bargain, sewing a test garment that’s looking like it could be a keeper. So, as M-C might point out, sometimes you want to put one project on priority and see it through.
One hundred and forty days of project rotation has helped me see the benefits, drawbacks, and tradeoffs of the structure I set up and to expand my bag of project tricks for future planning. I can design a themed project around a wardrobe capsule, or learning a technique, or using a piece of equipment.
Something, too, about officially naming a project or choosing a theme helps me see beyond the difficulties of the particular day to the greater goal. I need both the right kind of inspiration and creative limitations to focus my energy.
Because without the inspiration, creative limitations, and focus, seeing my many ideas through to completion will be as successful as herding cats.
Just a few weeks ago I had a sudden realization. Over many years I had sewn Jack many shirts–maybe 30?–but had never sewn him a t-shirt!
It had never even crossed my mind to sew him a t-shirt.
I suppose the reason was a combination of being inexperienced sewing knits, not wearing t-shirts very much myself, and being used to thinking of t-shirts as items that enter your life as gifts or freebies–not as clothing you actually shop for, let alone plan sewing projects around.
But when I proposed this novel idea of sewing t-shirts to Jack, his eyes lit up with an “I thought you’d never ask” look. Who knew? Jack had secretly suffered for years from ill-fitting t-shirts and I had been blind to his tribulations.
I told Jack that if I was going to sew t-shirts for him (my ambitions quickly grew from one t-shirt to a t-shirt wardrobe, of course!) I’d need to know his preferences. Neckline depth, neckline shape, sleeve length, sleeve circumference, armhole size, shirt length, shirt circumference.
Phew–another realization. Even the simple t-shirt has a lot of fit considerations.
Not to mention fabric considerations. Some knits are substantial and feel springy in the hand; others feel skimpy and limp. Some knits are 100% cotton with moderate give when you stretch them; some are cotton-spandex blends that bounce back.
What fabric would feel nice to put on in the morning and wear all day? What would be pleasant to sew? What would hold up after dozens of washings?
Once I suggested to Jack that I could take over the production of his t-shirt wardrobe and that he would never have to depend on ready-to-wear again there was no turning back. I had unleased a torrent of enthusiasm neither of us had known existed. Pulling out shirt after shirt from his dresser, Jack identified Tall-sized t-shirts that assumed a barrel-chested, Paul Bunyan physique and t-shirts with ragged necklines as major annoyances. I spotted unbecoming drooping shoulder seams and voluminous sleeves.
There were also a few t-shirts with a pretty decent fit. They would be models for Jack’s new standard t-shirt, now in the pattern development stage.
In the last month I have taken the Understanding Knit Fabrics online class taught by Sarah Veblen on PatternReview.com, the t-shirt-sewing class at Sewing Hive here in Columbus, and sourced cotton interlocks for The Great T-Shirt Upgrade Project.
I sewed a wearable test Jack wore for a whole day to be sure the fit and style were to his liking. I want to tweak the neckline fit, and then I think I’ll be good to go into t-shirt production.
The more I thought about t-shirts the more I realized that a well-fitting t-shirt, like well-fitting, comfortable jeans, is a garment everyone has an opinion about. Even people who say they don’t care about fashion at all probably do have a favorite t-shirt they will wear till it falls apart.
So I’m thinking that a stack of custom-made t-shirts, all in fabrics and colors the wearer loves, would be a gift almost anybody would enjoy. It would be a much appreciated improvement in daily life, like a good cup of coffee or a good loaf of bread.
I wasn’t planning on a detour into the world of knits and t-shirt-sewing at the moment, but now that I’ve started I’m quite absorbed in the process. I just may be as proud of the t-shirts I make for Jack as of those many shirts I’ve sewn for him. (On second thought, nah–the flamingo shirt retains its place in my sewing hall of fame.)
T-shirt-sewing mastery could be the next notch on my belt, but it was seeing Jack’s enthusiasm that made me push aside my wardrobe projects for a little while.
So if I am not sporting new summer frocks as soon as expected, the explanation is simple: t-shirts have risen to the top of the sewing roster.
After all, who could say no to a face like this? Certainly not me!
Photographs by Cynthia DeGrand
About a month and a half ago I had another of those moments when I looked at the sewing room and did not like what I saw. Clutter. Disorder. Half-finished projects. How can a person get work done in here? Who’s responsible for this mess?
(Oh, right–I am.)
Add to this exasperation a touch of cabin fever from the governor’s stay-at-home order and I was ripe for–you guessed it–moving furniture.
I had gotten accustomed to a certain layout and then realized it wasn’t working for me and that I could make it a lot better. The experimenting began, and in a surprisingly short time I had a much more functional room.
Here are three recent changes that have improved accessibility and order for only moderate outlays of time and money:
Before: Printer stand, desk, shelf unit, chair.
After: A set of steel shelving units to join the first set for improved efficiency and adaptability.
- Use generic, adaptable equipment whenever possible.
- Specialized storage may be unused storage.
- One chair in the sewing room is enough.
- Consistency in materials can help create a sense of order.
One day I realized this student desk set I’d bought at a garage sale a few years back had stopped earning its keep. It had become a dumping ground for things that had no assigned home and was no longer where I liked to write. The divided storage spaces of the shelf unit and the stand for the printer were unadaptable. Plus, I had two office chairs when all I needed was one.
It dawned on me that all I had to do was reimagine jobs for furnishings we already had. Up from the basement came two steel and particle board shelving units and down to the basement went the desk, shelf unit, and printer stand to hold supplies for gift wrap, packing, and shipping. The chair also found a new work assignment in the basement.
We bought several sets of the steel shelving, the 72-inch high, 34-inch wide Edsal Muscle Rack, a couple of years ago at our local Ace Hardware when they were on sale. The shelves can be used in one vertical stack or in two lower stacks to provide handy work surfaces. That is such a great feature of these shelves.
Before: Pieces of pressing equipment piled so that whatever I needed was usually on the bottom. (Funny how that happens.)
After: Everything at hand on a rolling shelf unit next to the ironing board.
Cost: About $25 for the plastic shelving I bought to take the place of this metal shelving unit.
- Whenever possible store items at the point of use.
- Store things so they’re easy to take out and put back.
Again, my storage solution was close at hand. Two or three years ago I’d bought this nice-looking set of rolling shelves on clearance to store cleaning supplies in a closet. All I had to do was measure my pressing equipment, the available floor space, and these shelves, and I realized I could make this work. I easily found inexpensive plastic stacking shelves to put back into the closet to hold the cleaning supplies
Before: Items waiting to be ironed or mended in a disgraceful pile on an Ikea file cart
After: Ironing and mending are now arranged on a rolling clothes rack. The file cart is stowed under a work table. The rack will also be great for planning outfits and capsules.
Cost: About $50.
- Sometimes I can solve a pesky problem and get a bonus.
What had stopped me from shopping for a clothes rack before was not having the floor space for it. Then I saw that I could handily stow the file cart under my work tables for the time being. On the Bed, Bath, and Beyond website I found the Whitmor Multi-Functional Garment Rack. Not only did it have a garment rod, it had shelves, holders for eight pairs of shoes, and even “integrated accessory hooks for belts, ties, and scarves.” Great! It was a perfect fit for the space and exceeded my expectations for functionality.
Whether I’m planning outfits and capsules for home or for trips I can use this rack to organize clothes and accessories and plan coordinates to sew or buy.
So, in surprisingly quick and inexpensive ways I’ve built a new level of orderliness into the layout of my sewing room. I got used to these new, intuitive little systems so quickly that I almost forgot to mention them here.
I know, there is more weeding and organizing to do, but once in a while I make progress almost in spite of myself.
Recently I’ve been spending a little time every day taking PatternReview.com’s online class Understanding Knit Fabrics, taught by Sarah Veblen. I’ve sewn acres of woven fabrics but only about a patio-sized amount of knits. I am a knits novice.
I’ve wanted to learn about knits for years, but apparently not so much that I was willing to set aside six dozen other activities to give knits-sewing top priority. But recently I realized that it was kind of ridiculous that I’d tailored jackets, sewn about 30 shirts for Jack over the years, and made roomfuls of draperies but cowered at the thought of making t-shirts. Really? It was time to conquer this silly apprehension I had about sewing knits.
So when I saw Pattern Review’s announcement that Understanding Knit Fabrics was being offered again I signed up. The class has PDFs you can read online (or print out and mark up) and videos that demonstrate evaluating knits for stretch and recovery, using a serger, and using a conventional sewing machine. Students have access to the PDFs and videos forever. For a limited time Sarah is available to answer students’ questions in the online classroom.
And then there’s the fat padded envelope that arrived in the mail a few days after I registered. I opened it to find 20 swatches of various knits to finger and stretch, a mini-t-shirt pattern, knits with very different degrees of stretch to sew into the t-shirts as an educational exercise, and sample needles, interfacings, and stabilizers.
It was fun to lay out all the swatches and attach their identification numbers and descriptions (#1, double knit; #12, stretch velvet, etc.) to them.
I have done so much hit-and-miss self-tutoring in recent years that having a class like this feels luxurious. I feel like I am settling into a comfy seat on a tour bus with an experienced guide. However, as I well know, I can look out the window, let my mind wander, and realize as the tour bus returns that I didn’t pay attention to anything our guide said.
So I am making several efforts to build a modest but serviceable fund of knowledge as a springboard to confident knits-sewing.
First off, I’ve cut down the territory. I don’t have to Know Everything About Knits. Knowing how to sew nice t-shirts for Jack is a worthy, achieveable, and fun goal.
Second, I’ve been watching the videos, reading the handouts, and doing the exercises as Sarah directs. No shortcuts–just do the lessons as the teacher laid them out. It’s been a lot of fun, actually, to tug on each swatch and observe the amount of stretch, and examine it closely under a magnifying glass. I’m planning to do the mini t-shirt exercise, which shows you the fit difference between an interlock, which has moderate give, and a rib knit, which has much more give.
Also, I took the t-shirt class last weekend at Sewing Hive, here in Columbus, which gave me hands-on experience with the friendly guidance of instructor Jamie Hevener. I learned the important parts, about judging and laying out the fabric, binding the neckline, and hemming with a double needle. I know, these steps are elementary when you know how, but dealing with stretch takes some practice.
I searched high and low online and found some very nice interlocks from the Etsy shop of Ginny’s Fine Fabrics in Rochester, Minnesota for t-shirts for Jack. The fabrics arrived in today’s mail and feel wonderful. Jack’s t-shirt wardrobe is due for an upgrade, and once I’ve accustomed him to higher quality there will be no turning back!
And of course, I have this blog as a major accountability device!
So, using the push of classes and this blog and the pull of mastering a new area and making nice t-shirts for Jack, I think I’ve got the bases covered. Watch this space for further developments!
Barbara Sher, the author of the single most influential book I’ve ever read, died last month. She wrote Refuse to Choose! A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything That You Love. My copy is heavily underlined, flagged, and dog-eared. It has also survived a rainstorm.
Refuse to Choose is so important to me that If our house were on fire I would seriously consider running back in to fetch it!
Why is this so? Because it was Barbara Sher who identified people like me as scanners.
What is a scanner? Barbara first used this term in her book I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was:
Scanners want to taste everything. They love to learn about the structure of a flower, and they love to learn about the theory of music. And the adventures of travel. And the tangle of politics. To scanners, the universe is a treasure house full of a million works of art, and life is hardly long enough to see them all…
We’re trained to believe that we only get one choice in our lives. But to scanners, one choice sounds like someone’s saying, ‘You can have a coloring book or you can have crayons, but you can’t have both,’ and they’re onto something. Scanners know that life is not stingy. If anything, life is too generous. The choices are dizzying. But there’s a way to manage the riches. (p. 102)
Two big problems for scanners, Barbara went on to say, were finding ways to do all the things they wanted to do and be all the things they wanted to be, and finding work that matched their abilities and interests.
But the biggest problem for scanners was thinking that the way they naturally were was a problem. Barbara emphatically disagreed.
If you’re a scanner, don’t do a thing to change yourself. Instead of designing yourself to fit the world, you can design a life to fit your abundant gifts. (I Could Do Anything…, p. 107)
Yes, but how? Barbara went on to recommend practical ways scanners could structure their lives to realize their dreams, whether in short or long stretches of time, whether simultaneously or sequentially.
In just a few pages of I Could Do Anything, published in 1994, Barbara introduced the concept of scanners, but clearly it needed a full-length book of its own. Refuse to Choose was that book and was published in 2006. At the time I was a book and audiobook selector in my library system. Publishers’ catalogues and Publishers Weekly were routed to me and I learned about the publication of this title months in advance, which filled me with anticipation. I remember relishing receiving my copy and wanting both to devour every word and pace myself so I wouldn’t finish it too soon.
In Refuse to Choose Barbara not only defined scanners in general, she defined ten types, with practical advice for project and time management tailored to each type. True to form, I couldn’t decide which type I was and saw a bit of myself in each one. Was I a Serial Specialist? Or could I be a Sybil? Or a Plate Spinner? In any case, it was exhilarating to read about how many practical ways I could leverage and navigate opportunities to custom-build, over time, a life expansive enough to encompass my abilities and interests.
[N]o one can do everything…But everyone can do many, many things. (Refuse to Choose, p. 78)
I’d had a very scannerly kind of work and learning background that included a college co-op job in Washington, DC; teaching English with Jack in Wuhan, China; training as a baker in Vermont and San Francisco; earning my master’s in library science; and eventually becoming the only librarian in the Minneapolis system trained on every branch and central library reference desk. In the pages of Refuse to Choose I enjoyed the rare experience of being considered ordinary rather than an oddity who couldn’t settle down and choose only one thing to do or be.
But more than that, I learned so many practical (I know–that word again) steps for organizing my time, priorities, and surroundings to make dreams into goals, into plans, into projects, into project steps. Fine training, I would say, for running the three-ring circus known as a sewing blog!
Something else Barbara Sher profoundly believed in was community. Dreams can be powerful, but without support, they can wither and die. In I Could Do Everything If Only I Knew What It Was she wrote,
I’m going to make a suggestion now that could change your view of what’s possible in this world for the rest of your life. I’m going to suggest that you get yourself the one thing that can surely help you surmount obstacles, the one thing that is the secret to all success.
Your own Success Team.
Isolation is the dream killer.
In 1976 Barbara started her own success team with a group of friends:
“…[I] said to them, ‘You’ll tell me your wishes, and I’ll tell you mine. And I’ll help you and nag you until you’ve gotten your wish, and you’ll help me and nag me until I’ve got mine.’ A Success Team is just a buddy system in which everyone helps each other go after their dream.” (I Could Do Everything…, p. 208)
If reading Barbara Sher’s books was heartening and encouraging, what would it be like to be in a big room filled with enthusiastic scanners, all yearning to fulfill their dreams and eager to help each other? I didn’t have to imagine how wonderful it would be, because I experienced it for myself.
In June 2010, entirely by chance, I learned Barbara would be leading one last event in New York, which she was calling the Big Cheap Weekend–in just a couple of weeks! No two ways about it, I wanted to be there. We had a nephew I could stay with, and the trip was doable. And so in July 2010 I flew from Minneapolis to New York, to sit in a big ballroom in the Hotel Pennsylvania, and clutch my well-thumbed copy of Refuse to Choose along with hundreds of other scanners to get–and give–encouragement and practical advice.
Barbara was just like her books–down-to-earth, plain-spoken, funny, a little grumpy (she told us what she thought of motivational speakers like Tony Robbins), and a little nagging the way a friend can be who wants the best for you. She had us imagine an “ideal moment,” because, I quoted her in my notes, “A moment is the only way anything ever happens to you. We experience everything moment to moment.”
Barbara asked us to break into small groups and describe a wish and an obstacle to the rest of the group. What is something you want, and what’s in the way? Some people explained their wishes and obstacles to the whole audience. One woman said her obstacle was she wasn’t “qualified” to do what she wanted to do. Aha–the old “I don’t have the right credentials” maneuver! In my notes I scribbled Barbara’s shooting down that rationalization: “Don’t be so fast to go to school. Find out the parts you love, then get training for the parts you love (as opposed to signing up for a whole graduate program). I think you have to start doing what you want to do before putting a name on it too soon.”
In the small groups I found my training as a reference librarian was handy helping other participants clarify and define what they were going after and some ways they could make progress.
Like many other attendees I waited in line to meet Barbara and get my book signed. When it was my turn I came up to the table and showed her my heavily used copy of Refuse to Choose. Speaking of moments, what a nice moment it was to express my thanks to Barbara Sher in person.
The day after the Big, Cheap Weekend it was time to fly home. I caught a bus to LaGuardia Airport in a downpour that left me wringing wet. As I hopped off the bus at my destination I couldn’t avoid stepping into a giant puddle that inundated my shoes. I remember taking off my shoes in the ladies’ room and holding them under the stream of hot air from the hand dryer. LaGuardia was noisy and extra crowded due to cancellations of flights during the rainstorms. My flight had been cancelled, and I think the next two I was assigned to were also cancelled. Sitting at a noisy gate in wet clothes waiting to get on a plane home, I was curiously unbothered. A song was running through my mind and I was too busy thinking up lyrics to be annoyed.
The song was “Cheek to Cheek” which Fred Astaire sings to Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.* I became utterly engrossed in writing lyrics about being a scanner. I had never written lyrics before, but here I was, doing it. What a scannerly thing to do!
Scanner, I’m a scanner,
And I have so many interests I could shriek,
And I used to think my discipline was weak,
Till I read what Barbara said that I’m unique.
Scanner, I’m a scanner,
And I often thought that I was up a creek,
And that all my possibilites were bleak,
Scattered, half-done projects made me utter “Eek!”
“Oh, I’d love to pen a novel!
And to study ancient Greek!
And apprentice to a tailor, so
To clothe my sleek physique!”
I was overwhelmed and anxious,
I was in a fit of pique,
Till the day I read Refuse to Choose
And then I cried “Eureke!”
“Yes, that’s me!” I hollered,
“I don’t have to choose!
I’m over my blues
And ready to cruise to heaven.”
Thanks to Barbara,
I averted a disaster très tragique.
Now I live a life that’s simply magnifique
As I schedule all my projects week to week.
I always knew I wanted to write a tribute in my blog to Barbara Sher. I thought that July, on the tenth anniversary of the Big Cheap Weekend, would be a good time to publish it. I’m sorry Barbara won’t be reading this, but the real tribute to her work is the millions of people whose lives she touched. Thank you, Barbara Sher!
*Here is the song Cheek to Cheek, sung first by Fred Astaire and then by Ginger Rogers:
Isn’t it uplifting to read a post where a knotty question is presented in the beginning, followed by a few colorful missteps in the middle, leading to a predictable, satisfying conclusion?
Whatever prompted me recently to yearning for Getting Things Sewn, the Agatha Christie cozy mystery edition? Hint: I’ve been confronting my fabric stash–again.
It’s a familiar scene: me, pulling fabrics off shelves, unfurling them on tables, and fanning out the color swatches of the palettes from my color consultations. Squinting close up or standing back and judging fabrics for the right degree of warmth, depth, and mutedness to complement my coloring and level of contrast. Imagining various combinations of fabrics with patterns, fabrics with clothes, fabrics with accessories, fabrics with other fabrics. The possibilities are dazzling and almost endless!
The flip side of this coin, however, is that the probabilities are shrinking that I’ll realize even a tenth of the possibilities, which is a very unpleasant prospect. That is what sent me back to this vexatious task of editing my fabrics even though I never have been satisfied with the result. What result? I stop not because I am done but because I’m mentally exhausted.
I don’t lack for imagination–remember, the possibilities are dazzling. But they are also bedeviling. If ever I’m going to have a fabric collection that serves me, I have to use my imagination in a different way. Because I think this old imagination of mine has driven me right into a ditch called sunk-cost thinking.
Are you familiar with this concept? Read on.
The Doom Loop of Sunk-Cost Thinking, Sewers’ Version
- At the fabric store:
- “I don’t know what I’ll do with this fabric, but I couldn’t pass it up!”
- In the sewing room:
- “This fabric’s not perfect, but how could I get rid of it? It was such a bargain!”
- “So the garment isn’t perfect, but I used that fabric!”
- Looking into closet:
- “That’s a perfectly good garment. I just need to make some coordinates.”
- Back in the sewing room:
- Rifling through fabric stash: “I think these will do.”
- “So the garments aren’t perfect, but I did sew down my stash! And now I have coordinates for that first garment!”
- Looking into closet again:
- “I hate my clothes!”
- “I have nothing to wear!”
- “I can’t get rid of those clothes–I made them.! And the fabrics were such bargains!”
- At the fabric store:
- “I don’t know what I’ll do with this fabric, but I couldn’t pass it up!”
At one time or another I’ve said each of these things to myself. A relatively small initial investment snowballs into more and more good money–or time, attention, or energy–thrown after bad.
My sewing teacher Edith told me, “Avoid compounding errors.” She didn’t say you can avoid errors entirely, but if you recognize them early enough you could correct the error or minimize the damage. At the time she was talking about accuracy in patternmaking, but I haven’t found a situation yet where this approach doesn’t work.
There is another kind of compounded error I plead guilty to: buying fabrics that are right in several important ways but not right in one particular way that does matter, and holding onto fabrics that may have been right at the time for my coloring, taste, or lifestyle but probably are not right anymore. These fabrics are like job applicants who are called in for the interview but never offered the position: good without ever being good enough.
Here’s another category of fabric that is occupying space on my shelves and in my mind: ones I’ve bought before having the skills to turn them into garments. I’m thinking specifically of knits; silky, drapey fabrics; and a raincoat fabric that’s sort of stiff and will not ease much into an armhole. They won’t budge until I budget the time and attention to learn how to work with their characteristics.
So how do I get myself out of the ditch of sunk-cost thinking? Since I can’t just call a AAA tow-truck I’ll have to harness this mischievous imagination of mine for the traction I need.
First, I must stop focusing so much on the individual fabric and more on the individual–me, or whoever else I’m sewing for. What are this person’s coloring, tastes, preferences, now and in the near future? The fabrics must serve the wearers, not the other way around.
Second, I must focus less on individual fabrics and more on relationships of these fabrics within outfits that suit their wearers.
I’m hopeful that this reset of priorities will transform my fabric-editing process from a static mystery with one solution to a dynamic puzzle suggesting many solutions. What more could a fevered imagination ask for?
It’s been almost four months since a fateful day in late January when I began an experiment to dramatically improve my sewing productivity. I gave this experiment a grandiose name: the Getting Things Sewn Project Management Improvement Daily Challenge. You can read about it here.
More than a hundred days into this experiment, I have learned so much about my work habits, learning style, strengths, and limitations that will forever affect how I design projects. Here is one lesson of many that the day-in, day-out experience of this challenge has taught me:
Documenting what I’m doing, consistently, in a searchable format, is worth the time it takes in the moment–and saves time and sanity in the end.
I used to think I was pretty good at recording notes for projects. Well, the Daily Challenge destroyed that illusion. Monitoring nine sewing projects made me aware like never before how inconsistent I had been in documenting what I was doing and why. It is no fun to wade through handwritten loose-leaf pages of fragmented notes. No, it’s worse than no fun– keeping poor documentation discourages me from continuing.
The Daily Challenge prompted me to record all of my sewing project notes in OneNote. This has helped me in many ways:
- I easily find previous notes searching by keyword.
- I can highlight important information and reminders to myself.
- Constructing a table to collect measurements or make comparisons is a snap.
- I record links to helpful online sources like YouTube videos that could be useful for future projects, too.
- I insert text-added photos of myself in muslins into the running record.
- I record where I have to make judgment calls before taking the next step. Should I check fitting books or videos? Review a construction technique? If I stop or change course I know why.
- I can record “I’m not sure what to do next.” Not knowing doesn’t mean I’m giving up but does mean I need to refresh my brain and approach the problem creatively another time.
- I’ve established the habit of writing Next Time instructions to myself so I can pick up right where I left off.
This Next Time instruction-writing routine has been just invaluable. In order to do this big favor to myself–leave the project in good order for my return–I’ve had to budget enough time, energy, and attention to do this vital little job well. I now relish the moments spent writing out my Next Time instructions. Sometimes the message is “Carry on,” but other times it’s basically “You won’t want to hear this, but it’s what you have to do. Yeah, you’re welcome.”
And more benefits of writing out Next Time instructions just occurred to me.
- Even just writing the words “Next Time” reinforces the habit of returning until I declare the job done.
- Having to write down next steps to take means I have to think about what those next steps could possibly be. Will I be coming back to a fitting conundrum? Then my next step might be to scrutinize the photos I’d taken of myself in the muslin. Or maybe it will be comparing solutions in several fitting books. At any rate, I will write out my prescription for next time–and then relax.
- I notice when I’m hesitating to take the next step. Have I learned everything possible from the muslin but still don’t want to cut into the fashion fabric? It would probably be wise to do an interim step of sacrificing a lower-status stash fabric for a test garment first. I may roll my eyes at the extra work, but a week or two later I’m usually fine with the decision. For me, it’s the not-deciding that ultimately siphons away time and enthusiasm and that leads to unfinished projects.
Documenting systematically, I’m realizing, is anything but passive, dutiful recording.
When I write my project notes I’m in a constant state of experimenting, observing, comparing, weighing, reviewing.
And I am deciding.
Through the Project Management Improvement Daily Challenge I am actively shaping the way I do the work and shaping my attitudes toward the work. I’m thinking inside one project in one day’s session and thinking across projects over weeks and now months.
All I did on that January day was tack some patterns on a bulletin board and create two rules to follow faithfully, but what I’ve gained has far exceeded my expectations. My closet has yet to burgeon with new clothes, but the groundwork is being laid. Will I stay this course? You bet–it’s written down in my Next Time notes!
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 have to 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.
I recently reached a sewing milestone: pants I like in every way. The impossible dream has come true!
I like the fabric–Nevada linen, from Stonemountain & Daughter Fabrics, and the color, Nectarine. It’s a warm, medium-deep coral-terra cotta color that’s summery but wouldn’t look out of place in the warm days of early fall.
McCall’s 6901 was the starting point, but I dispatched with the waistband and did a waist facing. I like to face the facing for a clean finish.
I also skipped the fly front zipper application, which I’ve never been able to do very well, and did an invisible zipper back closure.
When I finished these pants I thought what a debt of gratitude I owed many types of people:
- patternmakers, fitting experts, style consultants,
- sewing construction experts, fabric and notions suppliers,
- video and still photographers, editors, and instruction writers,
- bloggers and fellow sewers in discussion forums,
- sewing teachers.
I also thought about the fantastic resources I was able to tap into:
- Many books, including Pants for Real People by Pati Palmer and Marta Alto and Sewing Pants That Fit in the Singer Sewing Reference Library
- Sarah Veblen’s online class “Fun with Fitting Pants” on PatternReview.com. A handout for this class, “A Quick Reference Guide to the Ten Most Common Fitting Problems for Pants” gets special commendation.
- Imogen Lamport’s blog Inside Out Style and her 7 Steps to Style program for advice on figure type, coloring, and most flattering lines
- Threads magazine articles, and on the Threads website Kenneth King’s video demonstrating installing an invisible zipper without tears
- In-person technical help (and morale support!) from my sewing teachers Edith Gazzuolo in Minneapolis and Gail Kelley of Sewing Hive here in Columbus.
By now I risk sounding like an Academy Award-winner who has to be dragged offstage for taking up too much time thanking everybody, but you see my point.
In my world of getting things sewn, these are my essential services, and I’d be lost without them!
Thanks to Cynthia DeGrand for these wonderful photos.