Testing for Doneness


When is a sewing project done?

I kept thinking the shoulder pads were just a little too big.

I kept thinking the shoulder pads were just a little too big.

Is it when I’ve made the last stitch? Pulled out the last tailor tack? Given it a final press?

Cleared my worktables and vacuumed up the trimmings?

Modeled the garment and written about it for the blog?

When I’ve worn it once? Hung it in the closet?

This bread is done. But when is a sewing project done

This bread is done. But when is a sewing project done?

When does that magical moment occur that a sewing project becomes a garment?

I often think that in this regard–testing for doneness–cooking is easier than sewing.

Wouldn’t it be great if pattern instructions said, “Roast skirt to a temperature of 130 degrees for medium rare”?

Or, “Bake jacket until top is golden and center is springy to the touch. Cool on a rack”?

I mean, you know whether a cake is a blob of batter in a pan or something you can put birthday candles into and serve.

But do you know when your sewing project stops being a construction project and starts being a new home to move into?

Yes, you say?

Well, then tell me!

A little surgery. The jacket made a full recovery.

A little surgery. The jacket made a full recovery.

At the risk of being labeled a neurotic sewer, I’m continuing to mull over the 1930s Butterick jacket. I said that the shoulders were a little too padded, which bothered me.  I resolved to follow through on my dissatisfaction. In a little outpatient surgery I would open up the jacket, do a shoulder pad reduction, stitch her up again and have her back on her feet in no time.

I had Jack take pictures of me for the “before” version, in preparation for the improved “after” version that was sure to follow.

Then I undid only enough stitches from the lining to turn part of the jacket inside out and remove one pad.  Hmm. It was actually pretty thin.

Opening up the shoulder pad, I saw there were just two thin layers of batting basted together. I teased one layer out.

I removed one wafer-thin layer of batting. Is this bordering on obsessive-compulsive?

I removed one wafer-thin layer of batting. Is this bordering on obsessive-compulsive?

Was this bordering on insanity? I got this far; I might as well follow through and see if absolutely minimal padding would do the trick. No padding at all left the shoulders looking a little crestfallen.

I reinstalled the newly minimized shoulder pads. Yes, slightly better–like moving from a B to a B+.


I like the shoulder definition of McCall's pattern 4065 from 1941.

I like the shoulder definition of McCall’s pattern 4065 from 1941.

For comparison I tried on one of my “misses’ mannish jackets,” McCall’s 4065 from 1941. Ah, the forties: the era of defined shoulders. This jacket felt like an old friend. It might not be apparent to anyone else, but to me, this jacket got the shoulders just right. I felt…understood.

From 1941, the "Misses' Mannish Jacket."

From 1941, the “Misses’ Mannish Jacket.”

Back to the 1930s jacket. Now I think it’s the cut that’s just a little off for me. Forgive me if I sound too particular, but having sewn a lot of garments for myself, I know the difference between the many that fit fine and the few that go beyond and have…I can only call it chemistry.

When I pull on a jacket or coat I’ve sewn and feel a smile spreading across my face, that’s chemistry.

Usually, “chemistry” refers to something between two people. So how can I experience chemistry with…a coat? The best way I can explain it is, when the garment-wearer me feels completely understood by the sewer-me who took the time and had the interest in getting it right, that’s chemistry.

Or magic.

Or nailing it.

However you want to call it.

For those garments where I’ve nailed it, like the “mannish” jacket, I don’t find myself asking, “Is this done?” or “Am I done?”

That suggests that doneness is not only a matter of stitching the last stitch or pressing the last press.

It’s achieving a state of well-being where the background chatter about construction and fit has melted away.

When I feel that rightness, that’s when I know I’m really done.

With thinner shoulder pads, I'm raising the grade from a B to a B+.

With thinner shoulder pads, I’m raising the grade from a B to a B+.

I’m happy with my 1930s jacket, for the most part. I’m annoyed that I placed the top bound buttonhole above the roll line, but happy with the rest of the construction. I’m noticing, though, that I’m still seeing this as a project. Will it move to being a summer wardrobe staple? We’ll see.

Right now, it’s just important to notice this back-and-forth in my mind. I’ve invested so much time and effort in this jacket, I want it to be right–and it’s worth taking a little more time to experiment and fine-tune.  But I owe it to myself to answer the ultimate question truthfully: “Is this done?”

If I keep asking, then I’m not done.

When I stop asking, then I know I am.

If only sewing could be so predictable.

If only sewing could be so predictable.

This entry was posted in Process and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 thoughts on “Testing for Doneness

  1. Great post, good analogy. That is how I think in analogies, it creates a less emotional observation, I think. From looking at your pictures there are several variables that could have you feeling less chemistry with the 30’s than the 40’s. Both are beautiful, from my perspective by the way. Is one linen or a linen blend and the other wool or a wool blend? Curious to know.. wool is a special fiber with a memory. It is very resilient and holds its shape. Linen is the MOST FORGETFUL of fabrics, it has no memory or elasticity whatsoever. That is why a crisp linen off the bolt can sometimes look a bit disheveled by the time it is ‘done’. There is some stretching that goes on. Also, is the shoulder slope of the 30’s pattern different than the shoulder slope of the 40’s pattern? This could just be inherent in the line and style from decade to decade. (sorry, didn’t mean to write a whole blog post here)

    • That is such an interesting point you bring up, Shelly, because when I put on the wool jacket I really appreciated that it was wool! The jacket that’s on the header of this blog is made from a 1936 pattern that I’ve sewn in cotton seersucker as well as wool, and I love both renditions. I do like linen a lot but have more experience with it as shirts than as jackets. I underlined the jacket in question with silk organza to help “remember” the crispness that the linen would “forget.” Yes, it would be very instructive to compare shoulder slopes. The more observant I can be of the subtleties of line and design, the better (except that I might find even more things that bother me!).

      • I love linen but almost never sew w it anymore for all the reasons Shelley mentioned. It neverlooks or wears like I want it to. Amd O tend to be “done ” w garments more quickly tham you are. If it doesn’t look like I want it too, I am done w it and the pattern or my design. Better jackets around tje next bend

        • Oh, I used to be done with sewing projects faster, too (which sometimes meant leaving the poor things to decay), but now I’m testing my assumptions and clarifying all those vague bits I was too “busy” to pursue in the past. Poor old linen is taking a beating today! I just finished pressing a linen skirt I made that I couldn’t be happier with, so save your breath, linen anti-defamation league members!

  2. Comfort is a very big deal to me and that includes psychological/emotional comfort. It is truly amazing how two garments made from the same pattern can be so different in how they make you feel when you wear them. Your photo of your wool jacket even feels comfortable to me as a viewer of a photo on the Internet. I love your resolve to figure it all out, but I do think that some qualities are so ephemeral they defy logical analysis. Yes, chemistry says it all!

Comments are closed.