Slow Sewing


Monday I was going to finish my jacket.  Yup, grand finale. Get it done with a flourish, take pictures, congratulate self, write post. Move on.

Here’s the reality.  No upper collar, no lining, no buttons, no hems.

My 1930s jacket: moving along--slowly.

My 1930s jacket: moving along–slowly.

Admittedly, I have made progress.

Look! Sleeves!

Sleeve heads!

A sleeve head fills out the sleeve cap.

A sleeve head fills out the sleeve cap.

Shoulder pads!

Shoulder pads made to measure

Shoulder pads made to measure.

Lining pieces drafted and cut! The red flat piping inserted accurately between the facing and the lining!

That zippy red flat piping really stands out against the understated pale blue.

That zippy red flat piping really stands out against the understated pale blue.

But–done? Not even close.

And then today’s post was going to be about Jack’s and my volunteering this morning helping to take in donations for the Textile Center’s annual Garage Sale that takes place Saturday.

And then this happened.  Flight cancellations, the light rail down, spinouts.

Jack shoveling out our walks from an April snowstorm.

Jack shoveling out our walks from an April snowstorm.

And I did not unload cars of fabric, yarn, and other sewing paraphernalia today. So that post idea has been scrapped.

Both of these occurrences got me thinking about making course corrections, and about slow sewing.

Sewing slow (or slowly) is what I’ve always done. I’m a slowpoke.

But “slow sewing,” as described by Patricia Keay in the February/March 2011 issue of Threads magazine, isn’t a speed but an approach:

With time on your side, the sewing improves as you become more confident and competent. By slow-sewing test samples and experimenting with techniques, you front-load future projects and keep the learning curve from becoming an obstacle. By overcoming the challenges, you release your creativity and, in the end, you have something exquisite to show for it.

Like the Slow Food Movement, which Keay cited as an inspiration, slow sewing values quality over quantity and the experience of production at least as much as the result. Readers responded strongly and positively in a slew of letters to the editor. I think they felt that Keay had captured something essential they’d been feeling–and missing.

Like Moliere’s bourgeois gentleman, who was delighted to discover he had been speaking prose without realizing it, it appears that I’ve been unwittingly practicing slow sewing.

It’s not as if I could quickly sew the vintage patterns I dreamed about but out of some higher principle I sewed them slowly. No, my choice was between sewing slowly and–giving up.

Some choice.

But Patricia Keay’s article made me think about the virtues of embracing slow sewing. I’m 80 percent of the way there already. Consciously choosing slow sewing will, I think, relieve me of self-imposed obligations to produce results in a preset length of time or number of blog posts. I’d also enjoy my projects even more than I do now.

I would guess that every sewer defines slow sewing a little differently. Here is what slow sewing is (and isn’t) for me.

What Slow Sewing Isn’t

Slow sewing isn’t fussy. It’s not neurotic.

Slow sewing doesn’t use an old technique simply because it’s old.

Slow sewing doesn’t reject new methods, equipment, fabrics, or designs simply because they’re new.

Slow sewing isn’t procrastination or evasion.

Slow sewing isn’t inefficient.

Slow sewing isn’t about making extra work.

Slow sewing isn’t necessarily hand-sewing.

Slow sewing isn’t about technical excellence alone.

Slow sewing isn’t even only sewing.

Unrealistic expectations can fuel disappointment. This pattern is NOT easy!

Unrealistic expectations can fuel disappointment. This pattern is NOT easy!

The Realities

Much of my sewing slowly has stemmed from poor or incomplete directions.

Then there have been times I’ve needed an expert’s advice and have had to wait for an appointment with my teacher or a class.

There’s the probability that I’ll never sew so many notched collars, or linings, or coats, for example, ever to be fast at those things.

Lots of times I’ve had other things to do–like go to my job–that have taken me away from sewing.

I have a somewhat low aptitude for structural visualization. So pattern-altering is a trial, not a fun challenge.

All of this can lead to moving through sewing projects at a snail’s pace. I try to minimize these frustrations.

What Slow Sewing Is

Slow sewing recognizes a superior result and pursues ways to attain it. It has standards and aspires to mastery.

Slow sewing requires investing time, money, space and abilities, but the reward is exceptional quality.

Slow sewing takes nothing for granted. It understands materials and processes, but always asks questions, tests, analyzes, and problem-solves for particular figures, patterns, and fabrics.

The Benefits

Having Edith Gazzuolo as my garment-sewing teacher and Shelly Isaacson as my soft furnishings teacher  has made me a practitioner of slow sewing methods whether I knew it or not.

The draperies I sewed from Shelly's designs and hands-on instruction are exquisite and one-of-a-kind.

The draperies and valances I sewed from Shelly’s designs and hands-on instruction are exquisite and one-of-a-kind.

How has that benefited me?

I have an ever-growing fund of sewing knowledge of methods (good) and problem-solving (even better). And what started out being difficult, like making bound buttonholes or sewing notched collars, has become doable.

The more knowledge I have of materials and principles–not just in my head but in my eyes and fingers–the more creativity and control I can exercise, and the more success I experience.  Pattern instructions are more like suggestions I can take or leave.

I’m willing to invest in learning demanding techniques that I could use many times.  I love jackets and coats and am willing to pay the price of admission: learning tailoring. In slow sewing this is not a big deal.  It’s what you do, and it’s worth it.

More and more, I can do justice to beautiful materials. I can buy vintage buttons, or a French label tape from the 1950s with my initials, knowing I can make beautiful clothes incorporating them.

By a stroke of luck I found this French label tape with my initials at a vintage fashion fair in London. How shall I use it?

By a stroke of luck I found this French label tape with my initials at a vintage fashion fair in London. How shall I use it?

Not only knowing I can, but I will.

Many practices of slow sewing cross over into the rest of my life:

  • choosing deliberately rather than acting impulsively
  • taking time to learn to do it right
  • investing in quality rather than quantity
  • testing and analyzing
  • understanding what went wrong
  • savoring successes

Maybe best of all, slow sewing–and now blogging–keep me in action mode. I’m not spinning my wheels dreaming and yearning.

I’m dreaming, doing–and learning.

Notes from my 1930s jacket project a few days ago.

Notes from my 1930s jacket project a few days ago. (I almost never use smiley faces.)

(Note: I’m going to start tagging some projects and posts “slow sewing.”  And since every project has its own timeline, and stages without exciting visible results, I’m going to chronicle several projects at a time and move among them.)

Project: McCall’s 8814, Coat (1952), part 2


Sewing is knowledge work.

Don’t leave anyone with the wrong impression that sewing is just about stitching things together.IMG_1973 (460x345)

Sewing involves a lot–a lot–of decisionmaking.

I thought this yesterday as I pondered interfacings for my coat. There’s only so much advice in sewing books and magazines that I can follow without further reflection.  I still have to determine what  I want to accomplish, test the advice, examine the result, and see if I like the effect.

I usually have to practice the new technique, too, to get it right.

This all takes time.

I thought this, too, yesterday–that testing and perfecting techniques take time–as I saw my ambitions for coat progress dwindle over the course of the day.

Of course, it also takes time to document my process–write notes and take photos–in order to blog about it.

On top of that, I’m a deliberative person.  I even have the test results to prove it.

“Craftsmanship,” writes Matthew Crawford in his book Shop Class as Soul Craft, “means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right.”

That’s just what I did yesterday.  I went deeply into making those lined pockets with the tabs and bound buttonholes.

IMG_1968 (460x345)

The first pocket: a respectable “B.”

I wanted to get them right.  They’re the highlight of the coat.  But even more, there’s something in me that exults in the process of getting the rightness.

The first pocket is pretty good, a solid “B.”  It will look better after a final press and topstitching. I followed the directions; even improved on them.

The second pocket is better. I learned from doing the first one.  The bound buttonhole is better.

And here’s something else that’s better about pocket 2: it has more dimensionality than pocket 1. It’s subtle but definitely there.  Really.

Here, look at this.

With pocket 1, I sewed on the button very close to the mark indicated on the pattern tissue.  And when I slid the button through the tab, that tab was pulled down and flattened.  It looked like it was straining to do its job.

Pocket 1: flattened tab. Sad.

Pocket 1: flattened tab. Sad.

Looking at the pattern illustration closely, I saw curves in the pocket that distinguish the design.

The illustration shows nice curves in the top pocket edge.

The illustration shows nice curves in the top pocket edge.

But in following the pattern piece for placing the button, I’d destroyed the character of the nice curves.

I didn’t notice all this till I’d made pocket 2. I saw how, if I moved the button placement a good inch, I could preserve the curves, and create a dimensionality. The tab wouldn’t be flattened. It, too, would have a subtle, pleasing curve of its own. The button could secure it without having it in a stranglehold. Tab and button in happy coexistence.

Pocket 2. The tab is not constrained. Happy.

Pocket 2. The tab is not constrained. Happy.

Two of Edith’s sayings come to mind: “What do you want to accomplish?” and “Don’t take the pattern instructions literally.”

In sewing you’re constantly making judgments and decisions depending on what you want to accomplish.  And the more you observe and understand, the more freedom you have, not just to do something right, but to achieve rightness.

And that is why sewing is knowledge work.

Pocket 2 (right) still needs a little hand-stitching. Both need a final press and topstitching. All in good time.

Pocket 2 (on right) still needs a little hand-stitching. Both need a final press and topstitching. All in good time.

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?

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.

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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.