Open sewing*

Do you ever get stuck with your sewing?

Just get to a place where you can’t figure out how to set in those sleeves, or why the waist just won’t sit right, or how to do bound buttonholes or a side zip?

Or you’re trying to turn a design into a reality, and can’t figure out how many gores the skirt should have (or should you cut it as a circle?), or if the jacket needs flat lining or not, or if it will work in a tissue, or if you really should buy a crepe chiffon after all?

I do this all the time.  It used to be about not knowing the techniques, but now it’s about knowing too much – getting stuck in my head because there are so many options.

The Waterlily dress, circa 2002

The solution to this is a sewing community.  These days I am indebted to you, dear readers, to local sewing friends like Mrs C and the Baha’i seamstresses, to the fashion experts at Massey university, and to wider sewing-blogging friends like Steph.  They let me bounce ideas off them, and bounce ideas in return, and we share tips and tricks and all learn from each other.  And that’s fabulous.

Most often though, I still go back to my original sewing resources – to the amazing drapers and tailors and seamstresses that all worked, at one time or another, in a little costume shop in Oakland California, and to the wonderful sewers and textile lovers I grew up with in Hawaii.

Mid-Victorian capes & jackets & bonnets, 2004

I was so privileged with my early sewing, and my ‘real’ in-depth training during university, to have such a great group of people to draw on, and to teach me.  I think the most important thing that shaped my sewing, and my ability to create, is that I quickly got to move beyond basic classes to doing my own thing. I got to work on whatever I was interested in, but every time I got stuck, there was someone there to look at it, to make suggestions, to provide resources and inspiration.

That, really, is what has made me as a seamstress, and has given me the confidence to try things, to go way beyond basic patterns and sewing standards.  And that’s fabulous.

The 'Gilded Lily', circa 2004

I think this sort of training and support is so important.  It doesn’t matter what level your sewing is – having someone to help and teach you outside of a really formal sewing class is invaluable.

This is why I’m offering ‘Open Sewing‘ as one of my sessions at Made Marion.

It’s a time for any sewer, of any level, to have me at their disposal for whatever project they are working on.

I’m hoping for absolute beginners who just want to learn at their own pace, and with the patterns and ideas that interest them most, for very advanced sewers working on elaborate tailored jackets, for crazy costumers doing historical garments and fantastical engineered things.  It gives me a space to teach things that there isn’t enough demand for to do an entire class on, but which someone wants to learn.

What do you think?  How did you learn to sew?  Formal classes?  A family member?  Self taught from books and the internet?  How did you make the jump from set patterns and simply following instructions to making whatever you could imagine?  Are you still waiting to take that jump?

And (most exciting of all!), have some of you already lined up the projects you are bringing to get me to help with?

'Marina' circa 2004

*this post is illustrated with photos of my early-ish sewing that are only tangentially related to the post, but which I thought you might find fun.



  1. Stella says

    My mum taught me the basics, and some ways of fitting things. I taught myself pattern drafting because a) my tastes are more exotic than what the commercial patterns tend to cater for; b) I’m a weird shape so it’s often easier for me to draft a pattern from scratch than to alter one to fit; c) I’m too tight to pay for what I can make myself; and d) pattern drafting is fun.

    I find the best way for me to learn is to get stuck in and figure it out as I go along. That’s why I think your Open Sewing evenings are absolutely wonderful. Many sewing classes involve making a set piece, which is great (I can’t wait for the 30s capelet class), but often doesn’t provide a forum to address specific issues the student wants help with. Finance permitting*, I’d like to book in for one or more of your classes.

    *Like Mr. Blackadder, I feel like a pelican ATM. Whichever way I turn I have an enormous bill in front of me.

  2. Ah another brilliant idea 🙂 Would be so excellent to have you ‘on hand’ to help out!

    As for where I’ve learned from – the internet! Hehe. And yourself – the only proper tuition I’ve taken on sewing. Mum knows her stuff quite a bit too but she’s in Tassie so can only help me out over FaceTime (the first time I’ve used it and it’s handy indeed!).

    • The internet is an amazing resource! It wasn’t really around when I started sewing, but I sure use it a lot these days.

  3. I am just learning to sew and I am completely faking it. A bit of asking friends, some book, looking at tutorials online. Plus applying some of the things I’ve learned in knitting, about garment construction, and hoping for the best.

    So far the hardest part is cutting a straight line when I need to, but I’ve always been crap at straight lines. So probably that’s just me.

    • I don’t knit at all, but I suspect knitting garment construction would be quite applicable. Cutting is very important though – sometimes it seems to me that half my time in a project is spent in cutting!

  4. Oh that I lived close enough to go to these… Ah well.

    I’m self taught via trial and error thanks to the interwebs. I do buy patterns, but never follow the instructions as I mostly work through instinct. I do use tutorials if I find them adaptable, as I’m quite short and nearly impossible to find patterns/tutorials already suitable without major alteration.


  5. My mom taught me the basics of how to use a sewing machine, but almost nothing about the actual sewing process, and definitely not making clothes! Everything I know has been self-taught through a combination of reading voraciously on the internet, thrifted sewing books, trial and error, and just this year, helpful sewing bloggers. I agree with Stella; too often formal sewing classes involve making a set piece like pajama pants or a dress, but what I really need is something more like your class, almost like the open study halls (but sewing hall) I run for my students where they just work until they have an issue, then I’m available to help. Can I say again I really, really wish there was someone like you and your classes here?

    • Oh, I love your comparison to study hall! It perfectly describes it! It would make the perfect title, but unfortunately, I don’t think they do study hall here in NZ, so it might not make sense.

      And thank you for your kind words. I really wish I lived close to you too (but not in LA – sorry!).

  6. Lynne says

    I had a very capable mother. I was roped in as a dart-presser, fabric folder, pinner and tacker at an early age, but was not encouraged to actually sew – that was my mother’s thing. There were some lessons at primary school (embroider a handerchief for mother, hand-sew a peasant skirt, make button holes – I can still make an ace bound button hole – and sew and embroider the apron and cap to wear for cooking aka manual training in years seven and eight) and that was it. Then my mother became ill when I was seventeen and off to university, with really, really nothing to wear, so I started sewing for myself. I stuck to Vogue patterns – they seemed to be my then shape, and got better and better.

    My great break through was when I was in my thirties and started being the wardrobe person for school plays. Suddenly, I learnt that I could alter patterns radically, and make things up! So liberating! I had the techniques by then, mind you.

    I do think your classes are such a good thing, and I hope that as many unsupported sewists in Wellington as possible can take advantage of these. Sooo valuable to have someone to ask why on earth this project has gone so pear-shaped! Everyone makes mistakes – I remember my mother’s telling me that when she was a professional dressmaker, someone came to her with a dressmaking problem – the woman had unwittingly sewn the edge of a sleeve piece to the lower edge of a skirt piece!!

    • Gosh, sewing projects in school were so much more elaborate and demanding in your day than mine. The projects that my fellow students took in Home Ec were pitiful – aprons that they didn’t even sew, just cut out. I got exempted from Home Ec because I was sewing so many of my own clothes and cooking full meals for the family and I think the teachers were afraid of me 😉

  7. Elise says

    I learned the basics from my mum, and how to alter patterns. I think my imagination and desire to escape into things forced me to broaden abilities. I have none of the advanced skills that you ladies do–just enough to follow along with this blog!

    So funny that most of the commenters so far are really digging this Montessori approach to sewing–doing your own thing at your own pace! Sounds neat.

    I remember the Canadian term ‘study hall’ was the equivalent of US ‘detention’. I wonder what the NZ terms are…

    • Ergh. Don’t call it Montessori! I hate labels!

      Interesting that study hall meant detention in Canada. I wonder if that is an overall thing – or just one school. My high school actually didn’t have study hall, but I never thought of it as having negative connotations.

      • Elise says

        Me neither. I was glad when a teacher gave me a study hall–until I learned what it meant.

        Ok. Not Montessori. Sounds like a wonderful time, and in the spirit of it all, everyone can call it what they want. Have fun!

  8. My mother taught me how to use her sewing machine, but everything else I learned by reading about it, or by doing.

    Mom herself was self-taught; she worked in a dress factory, but a dress factory only teaches you how to do certain parts of the sewing process, again and again (like sewing buttons on a garment, or hemming) until you can do it very quickly, because in a factory like the ones she worked at you were paid according to how many garments you completed your operation on. Mom’s specialty was sewing buttons, and she was very quick and good at it, but when it came to sewing up a garment from a pattern, she was starting out pretty much at the same place I was. She had done other sewing operations, and she’d seen garments being made from scratch, so she could read a pattern a bit more intelligently than I could at the beginning.

  9. Where I learned–someone taught me to cross-stitch, and we had a basic sewing course in home-ec (we did actually use a machine, but I already knew how to do that), but the rest was trial and error and more error and a few errors thrown in. I started tweaking patterns pretty early–because how else do you learn how things really go together (or, um, how else do you make awesomely gigantic errors)? And now my style is a mismatch of patterns and diagrams and scrutinizing finished pieces and draping–and I still don’t think I *really* know what I’m doing 🙂 An open sewing class sounds like a great way to get beginners started–not only at their own pace, but with their own learning and sewing style. Not everyone sews the same way, and I think that’s fabulous 🙂

  10. I think that sounds like a great idea! It’s not entirely unlike how I learnt to sew, as my mother was around if I got into trouble but never dictated projects or actual lessons. That being said, I mostly preferred to bull through it on my own…

  11. Fernanda says

    My grandmother taught me. But i’m so lazy y didn’t learn.
    So i started to do things by myself. right now i’m doing that gold exotic corset in the Corsets by Jill salen book. But i’m not good enough.
    I wish you were here so i could beg you to teach me xD

  12. That sounds like a brilliant idea for a class. I’d definitely like to do something like that, if I could only find the time!

    I’m self-taught from books and the internet, though my mum has shown me some things over the years (mainly how to take up trousers as I’m so short, they never fit) and I did take a class a friend ran next year, which was more decorative textiles based, so we got to play with felting and experiment with fabric manipulation and that sort of thing.

    I’m working on being able to make whatever I can imagine – I have a couple of books about pattern drafting, but I want to improve my sewing skills and try out some more advanced techniques first.

  13. Black Tulip says

    Sewing classes at my school were incredibly tedious – all about sewing perfectly straight lines, rather than making anything you’d actually want to wear. It wasn’t just my my school either, I’ve since taught a couple of friends who were put off sewing for life by sewing lessons!

    Thankfully I had my mum to teach me, and encourage my interest. She was taught by her mum, and gran by hers, so I tend to think of it as generations of experience being passed on.

    • That’s so sad that your school experience for you and your friends was such a turn off. I really want to make sure that my classes are empowering and fun and interesting – so that people want to sew, and feel they can.

Comments are closed.