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


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?

Getting to the Peaceful Place


If you’ve been in any bookstore with a business section in the last twelve years, especially one in an airport, you’ve undoubtedly seen David Allen’s phenomenal bestseller from 2001, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. At the time I learned about him, though, his book was a manuscript in the hands of his editor.

It was late 2000.  I was surfing the Web one day while working on the Sociology, Religion and Sports desk at Minneapolis Public Library. In a lull between helping patrons I happened upon the home page of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO). It just fascinated me that people could earn a living organizing other people’s stuff.



I browsed a list of recorded talks and panel discussions for sale from past NAPO conferences.  And one was the keynote speech from the 1999 NAPO annual conference and organizing expo called “The New Time Management: Staying on the Peaceful Edge,” by David Allen.  I ordered the audiocassette.  When it arrived, I listened with rapt attention.

And still, more than a decade later, maybe once a year while I’m puttering in the sewing domain, I’ll think to pop the cassette back into the player and see if I can hear Allen’s pizzazz-charged speech one more time before the tape finally breaks.

Just like a child who loves to hear a favorite bedtime story told exactly the same way every time, I love to hear Allen say “I want to let you know that one of my outstanding credentials to talk about this material is that you are looking at probably the laziest person you have ever met.”

What a brilliant opening.

“The last person in the world you’d ever want to study anything about personal productivity or organization from is somebody who’s addicted to working hard,” he continues. “‘Cause they’re not gonna be like me, where I have absolutely gone out to the furthest edges of the universe to test the mettle and to research with how little effort you can make something happen.”

Allen goes on to describe how he’s helped his executive clientele, besieged by hundreds of e-mails pouring in daily, to be both productive and relaxed by following the Getting Things Done workflow diagram.

And while I’m no executive, sometimes my flow of ideas feels like hundreds of e-mails pouring into my mind, pestering me for attention and action.  It’s no coincidence that I’m always in the sewing domain when it occurs to me to listen to Allen’s speech.  It’s where I have the most ideas, most projects, most open loops, and most need for an organizing structure.

So I think Allen is talking to me when he says, “Most of you are run by your creative process.  It’s a fabulous servant, but a terrible master.”

“Most people are thinking about how they ought to be thinking about what they think they ought to be thinking about…and never finish the drill.”

I know that feeling.

Allen goes on, “…I call a project any open loop you can’t finish with just one action that you’re committed to do. The way you get them off your mind is not necessarily by finishing them. As a matter of fact, you can finish some things and they can still be on your mind.”

Huh?” I always ask at this point, even though I know what’s coming.

“There are just two very simple questions you need to ask and answer about every single thing that’s on your mind and put these answers into a system that you trust. Here’s the zeros and ones.”

“‘Hi. What is your intention with this thing? What is the loop that is open here? What is the commitment? What is the project? What’s the successful outcome? What’s the next step?'”

Allen has given us six questions, not two–but who’s counting?

“See, what this does is, when you really ask and answer these questions about everything, is it transmutes ‘stuff.’ You all know what ‘stuff’ is? My definition of ‘stuff’ is anything that has landed into your psychological ten acres that you don’t think belongs there for all eternity. So there’s something that needs to be different, or changed, or moved, or something about it, you just haven’t quite decided exactly what that is or how to do it, so it’s still sitting there…What is your agreement with yourself about what this thing is and what to do with it? And if you haven’t made that decision, it’s still ‘stuff.'”

“You no longer have the edges to your job that the entire culture used to have forty years ago. And so you have to define your own edges. Unfortunately, with no edges there are so many things that could be relevant to what you’re doing. And that’s why they call it information overload–because you just opened a valve and said ‘Come on in, because all of you just might be relevant.'”

At this point I’m imagining the fabrics, patterns, buttons, books, and projects I’ve let in with no agreement with myself and no defined edges.  “Stuff” galore.

“You don’t just rearrange ‘stuff.’ You can, but it won’t solve anything, ” Allen says.  “Don’t keep not deciding and putting it back in the “in” basket.”

Or, I add to myself, the fabric shelf, the pattern file, or the button box.

So as I continue to evaluate my wardrobe, my sewing projects and supplies, and my workspace, I’m going to ask myself

  • What’s my intention?
  • What’s the open loop?
  • What’s the commitment?
  • What’s the project?
  • What’s the successful outcome?
  • What’s the next step?

And I’ll see how my answers guide me to a more productive–and peaceful–place.

The Who and the Why

There once was a sewer who underwent pain
Whenever she entered her sewing domain.

What met her were unfinished projects on racks
And patterns and fabrics in stacks upon stacks.

IMG_1614 (350x263)

When will these beauties ever get sewn?

Of buttons and books she had in such plenty
Her mind was embarked on the road to dementy.


Are they doomed to stay on their cards?

Now here’s what’s ironic: she was no barbarian;
She’d long earned her bread as a reference librarian,
Selected books, too, in Collection Management!
These transgressions surely would merit her banishment.

Business card

Senior Librarian!

For, who better than she was to cut to the chase,
To research a question in a database,
Or flip through the pages in books with more ease?
Her colleagues all hailed her profound expertise.

A heroine she was to her thousands of patrons,
But alas, in her sewing she’d overlooked maintenance.

Now, mind you, she’d had her fair share of successes,
In tailoring jackets, and coats, and nice dresses,
Stitching luxurious cushions and draperies,


A glorious mix of patterns and colors

And even some occasional naperies.

Threads pubbed her London piece to some acclaim


Best research project ever!

And Reader’s Closet brought no little fame.

So, what was the problem? What restless soul
Within her churned? What was her goal?
She wasn’t sure, and this distressed her,
Thoroughly baffled and depressed her.

She only knew she wanted more
Of something not in any store,
Or on eBay, in books galore,
Or databases by the score.

She yearned to use her ideas and passions
To make yet more beguiling fashions,
And feel the incomparable sense of flow
Whenever she commenced to sew

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book captures that feeling of total engagement in an activity.

And bring more dreams to full fruition:
That seemed to be her life’s ambition.

“It must be time I lack,” she ventured,
“To full-time work am I indentured.

When I have time, I’ll organize
And sort my buttons all by size,
Catalogue each fabric and pattern!
No one will dare call me a slattern!”

“When I have time…” she promised herself–
And sadly replaced her dreams on the shelf.

She stayed in this mistaken vein
To purposefully check the pain
Or tell herself it “didn’t matter,”
And other idle, senseless chatter.

The truth remained: she yearned and yearned.
Her dreams in multitudes still burned
To be expressed more than before–
For she was an…ideaphore!

Johnson O'Connor test results

A high score in ideaphoria (flow of ideas)! Now what?

Johnson O’Connor so declarified.
From hours of aptitude testing they verified
She was a fire hose of notions
And threatened to produce commotions
If she’d no outlets for her talents.
Her happiness hung in the balance.

“Moreover,” said the tester, “She
Has a subjective personality.
Which means that she’s a stubborn dame
And managing others just isn’t her game.

She scores high in dexterity,


She scored high in both dexterity tests.

And language is her cup of tea.
Communication is her theme;
She’s passionate in the extreme.

Her life’s egg’s scrambled, not hb,
Which means she integrates, you see.
Her life’s not compartmentalized;
Her library’s not departmentalized.

Her foresight score is high, and so
She needs a mission, a row to hoe,
And seeds of dreams to ever sow.”
Thus spake the tester at Johnson O’.

Once this sewer heard this news
And heard her husband say “It’s true!”
She knew, she knew, she knew, she knew
Her hero’s quest would start anew.

Although her path lacked clarity,
Her ideas and dexterity
And foresight and communication
Combined would serve as her salvation.

Experienced in research and selection,
She’d chart herself a new direction.


Her heavily used copy of Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star

She wouldn’t simply organize,
But use her skills to synthesize
Each part of life into a whole:
This was her overarching goal.

Returning to her sewing space,
She felt a surging sense of grace.
And, exercising every day
In view of her fabrics, her mind would play,

Scheming how to assemble clothes
That matched personality, body and roles,
Occasions, activities, weather conditions,
Personal and professional ambitions,
Silhouette, style, best colors, and moods,
And what she was moving–and growing–into.

And then how to put all the clothes together
Into her own wardrobe, like birds of a feather,

And how to plan ready-to-wear selecting,
Fabric- and pattern- and button-collecting,
To gather together all that’s inspiring
To sew the joys of her desiring.

And then her workspace could be designed
To create the wardrobe she had in mind.

Each piece of the puzzle had found its place,
Linked to each other, not floating in space.


How to design a wardrobe? Could this chart solve the puzzle?

And the basis, she saw, of this model she wrought
Was the who and the why, as well they ought.

Sewing books deal with the what and the how,


What to sew? How to sew it? Look here!

And magazines handle whatever’s hot now.

But sewers must figure the why and the who
If unto themselves they resolve to be true.

And as she burnished this microcosm,
Her happiness began to blossom.

Long story short: she chose to leave
Her line of work, though it made her grieve.
She talked to her bosses and colleagues sublime,
Then checked off the box on the form: “I resign.”

HR called and informed her, “You cannot resign.
You must do all the papers again and re-sign!”

And so it came to pass that she
Became a library retiree.

And quickly she learned ’twas not time that she lacked,
So much as the knowledge and courage to act.

Finishing projects isn’t enough
To show to the world your very best stuff.
And it’s not loss of money, or fabric, or time,
But wasted potential’s the ultimate crime.

So now it’s her mission to test and to test
Her model until she can make it its best
And from her diligent application
Encourage a Getting Things Sewn nation!

Readers, that sewer–’twas I, have you guessed?
And by my verses were you impressed?
If so, would you join me, my blog posts peruse:

Girl, situation, jeopardy:
Hilarity ensues.