Smart Ways to Think about Sewing

When friends from Europe or South America visit me, they always comment on how inexpensive clothing is here compared to back home. Levi jeans that cost us $30, for example, cost around $100 in Paris. Well, if clothing is that cheap here in the United States, why would people sew, especially if they are busier than ever?

Here’s one answer: We have moved away from sewing the necessities of life and have started to sew life’s little luxuries.


Luxury is a hand-embroidered tablecloth that took Grandma months to cross-stitch.

Luxury is the fine hand-sewn buttonhole of a designer dress. Luxury is the monogram on the bath towel or the shirt cuff.

It used to be if you wanted luxury you had two choices: develop the skill to produce the luxury yourself or pay someone big bucks to do it for you.

How about you? Do you have the money to buy these luxuries or are you saving for your child’s college tuition? Do you have the skill to make your own lace or to hand-sew your buttonholes? And if you have the skill, do you have the time to do these things?

Sewing machines to the rescue! A modern sewing machine can put a lot of luxury into your life very quickly. You can buy a set of rather ordinary napkins and automatically and exquisitely monogram them in a few hours with a sewing machine’s embroidery feature. Buy a set of bath towels or a silk blouse and monogram them. Buy a linen suit and embroider your own design on the pocket.

Suddenly the utilitarian sewing machine that made a school uniform, mended a torn blue jean, and made a slipcover for the bedroom chair is now more than ever a versatile tool in the hands of a fabric artist.

As the chart below shows, the world of sewing is changing fast. What will the next trend be? Will quilting continue to be the rage? Will sewing for the home increase as we cocoon? Will a new fabric like Polar fleece change the sewing scene?

Before I discuss choosing and buying a sewing machine, ask yourself which of the following kinds of sewing you do or would like to do. The answers may save you from making a bad choice and wasting a lot of money.

Sewing to save money

Although their number is dwindling, many people still sew to save money, especially if they are sewing upscale clothing. For example, you probably wouldn’t save money sewing your own sweat suit because the pattern, fabric, and time would cost you more than buying a good one on sale in any department store. But if you wanted a designer evening dress or a wedding dress, you could probably save a lot of money by making it yourself. You can also save on children’s clothing because you need little fabric, and you can build in “growth” hems that allow the child to wear the garment longer.

Designing a unique look

My Aunt Jane makes her own clothes because she likes to have control over how she looks. She chooses the fabric, notions, and styles that please her, and she doesn't limit herself to the choices she finds in department stores. Constructing fine garments from scratch or significantly modifying a pattern requires accomplished sewing and tailoring skills and lots of practice and time. But you’ll never find yourself wearing the same dress as the hostess!

Sewing special-fit clothing

Mr. and Ms. Perfect America are the models you see in the advertisement section of the Sunday paper or in the windows of your favorite department stores: The men all have broad shoulders and 30-in. waists, and the women all have perfect figures. Let’s face it (and sour grapes be damned): These models are chosen for those ads because they represent what’s “average.” Well, there are many of us out there with one shoulder higher than the other who know that we don’t fit that mold. And that's why we make our own clothes.


It used to be that people saved money by mending their clothes. When I was in grade school, my grandmother taught me how to reverse my worn and yellowed school-shirt collars to extend the life of the shirt. Nowadays, I don’t mend shirts, jeans, or sweats to save money; I mend them because I love them and don’t want to throw them out.


More and more people are turning to sewing to embellish and personalize items they construct as well as items they purchase. What used to take Grandma hours of handwork to accomplish can now be done in a flash with the new household computerized sewing and embroidery machines.

Sewing for the home

Sewing well-made drapes and slipcovers is a skill that often requires industrial sewing equipment, special sewing notions (twill tape, rivets, hooks, and rods), and lots of cutting and ironing space. Nonetheless, today homeowners are venturing beyond place mats and napkins to tackle these tricky items as well. There are plenty of books on the market to show you how to make swags, valances, poofs, and Roman shades. And fabric stores have growing departments for home- decor notions.


I once worked with a secretary who loved to make rabbit dolls. She spent countless hours creating heirloom outfits for these stuffed creatures, and if you were lucky enough to be in her office at the right time you could buy one of these bunnies for a song and take it home. Other sewers have taken to sewing family crests, seasonal banners to hang from the front porch, wall hangings to hold jewelry, and myriad other items.

Sewing for relaxation

After a difficult day at home or the office, it’s nice to lose yourself in a hobby that produces concrete, tangible results. As one woman once told me, “I clean the house all day, but there isn’t much to show for it. The family just expects it to be clean, and it always is. But when I sew, I produce something that I can hold on to, that the family is quick to compliment, and that gives me lasting satisfaction. That is why I like to sew.”

Some people sew just to relax. They don’t quite care what they make, or even if they finish anything, as long as they are sewing. While this may seem pointless to some, these sewers may have discovered an important key to a happy life: Studies have shown that sewing reduces stress.


The popularity of quilting has fueled American sewing-machine sales for quite a few years, and now Europeans are catching the quilting bug as well. I’m lucky to be invited to teach a course in international business at a public university in France every year so I get to keep one eye on the sewing world in Europe. Imagine how astonished I was last year to discover that Le Patchwork has taken France by storm; every French city has a patchwork store and a patchwork club. It’s trés a la mode.

Sewing gifts

Calico tops for jam jars, gift bags for bottles of vintage wine, purses, Polar fleece moccasins and gloves, hats, tablecloths, napkins, and ties are all the rage as people turn to personalizing ho-hum gifts. And things are getting pretty personal, too: It seems like the pattern companies can’t keep up with the demand from people wanting to sew and give boxer shorts.

Sewing as a business

Micro - sewing studios are springing up all over the country. These aren’t businesses that hem pants and skirts and take in seams; they’re studios that create, sew, and sell small quantities of unique clothing items. Shoppers are screaming for something different than what is hanging on the racks of every mall in America. The original results of these studios—often sewn on ordinary household machines—are sold at upscale boutiques, art fairs, and church bazaars.


No matter the category, the kinds of sewing you do and do well have a lot to do with your sewing temperament. For example, do you have the patience and skill it takes to do tailoring? Can you stand the repetitive work required by quilting?

Have you ever thought about your sewing temperament? Over the years, I have informally collected observations of my sewing friends, and I find that they fall into several categories. These descriptions are more astrology than science, but you may find that something in them rings true for you. These portraits are intended to get you thinking about your own preferences.

The perfectionist

You are a person who revels in getting things just right and is ready to spend the time it takes to do just that. You love and strive for perfection in your sewing. You like to sew finely tailored and designer clothing, shirts, blouses, and elaborately pieced quilts that all require attention to detail and fine execution.

Your sewing room is a model of efficiency. You buy nothing but the best thread and fabric. You carefully plan your projects and take your time finishing them. When you make a mistake, no matter how small, you undo, rip out, and start again. You are a “foot” person because you understand that precision sewing depends on using the right presser foot. You are skeptical of sergers because they remind you of mass-produced clothing. You will probably never sew the alphabet on your machine. You hand-sew your buttonholes.

You are a fanatic about changing your needle and oiling your machine. Your sewing machine is a high-quality, mechanical, European model with few bells and whistles. You are a good candidate for a commercial machine, which offers speed and many precision feet. You demand perfect straight stitching and consider other stitches concessions to technique.

Like a skilled carpenter, you measure twice and cut once.

Your sewing idol is David Page Coffin.

The quickster

You are emotional, with very little patience and a quick rotary cutter. You always buy much more yardage than you should need because you always seem to need it all. You cut twice and measure once, even though a lot of the time you measure accurately. But since you can’t believe you got it right, you cut a second piece just in case.

You have a certain amount of creativity, but you have a hard time managing the relationship between creativity and skill. You have started many projects, but for one reason or another they always wind up as something other than what they started out to be. Some of your projects have been sitting around for a long time, and you are beginning to cannibalize them to use as those little cutout circles for the tops of your homemade jams and jellies.

Your sewing machine must have variable speed control since your impatience can cause you speedy but poor-quality sewing.

You have limited time so you depend on shortcuts and tricks to make what you want. Your best friends are the rotary cutter and the glue stick. You make unlined jackets, use iron-on interfacing, and like to make sarongs because they require only one pattern piece. You are in love with your serger and use it almost to the exclusion of your sewing machine. However, you turn to the latter when you have to do automatically repeated buttonholes—although deep down you swear you can get away with using Velcro instead of buttons.

You have a high-end sewing machine with all the bells and whistles just in case. Each stitch has its own button. You have no time for embroidery, and your quilts are limited to wall decorations or paper pattern piecing. Your sewing space, if you can find it, is limited and probably located in your kitchen.

Your sewing idol is Martha Stewart.


Understanding Your Preferences—My Bambi Story

When I was seven, my brother and I begged my mother to buy us the then-wildly popular paint-by-number sets. I’ll never forget the trip to the local hobby shop where, much to my displeasure, my brother selected and received a huge kit consisting of large Bambi-in-the woods scenes, 50 colors, and single-hair brushes for the fine detail work Bambi’s eyelashes demanded. I, on the other hand, was limited to much smaller and simpler pictures that required seven or eight colors and two big brushes—not a Bambiesque nuance in sight!

My mother knew me then, as she knows me now, when she said, “You know how you are with these things. You will get them home and finish them in an hour looking to go on to your next project. I’m not going to spend that kind of money on something you won’t finish.”

Well, she was wrong. Very wrong! I finished those three little pictures of snow-covered wooden bridges in Vermont in 45 minutes, not an hour, and I didn’t have any trouble staying within the lines because I completely ignored them. When I was done, my little paint-by-number abstract expressionist works pleased me tremendously, but they only confirmed my mother’s assessment of her child’s temperament. As she tried to find those little covered bridges hiding in my brilliant paint strokes, she said, “I just don’t understand why you won’t make them look like the pictures on the box.”

Of course, my brother’s Bambi master piece took three years to complete, and for that fact alone it deserved the beautiful frame my mother bought. It looked exactly like the picture on the box. (I was promised a similar frame “when you can settle down and follow the instructions.”)

That was a long time ago, and my mother is still waiting for me to settle down. But I understand the difference in the temperament between people like my brother and me.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I can paint giant Bambi pictures just like the ones on the box, but it bores me to do so. For work and pleasure, I must and do perform tasks that require precision and care, but I much more prefer the creative thinking and experimentation that precedes those events. (Recently, I showed some experimental slashed- fabric swatches to a friend who liked them but had to ask, “What are you going to do with them?” For me, making the swatches was an end in itself. For her, they were just the beginning of a project.)

Understanding your preferences is crucial to achieving success. It helps you to understand and tolerate your limitations, to schedule your time, to reward yourself, and to pick projects and tools that will complement your sewing temperament.


The creative soul

You are a free spirit with lots of ideas—many, many more than you can sew. You have a large bulletin board covered with clippings. You keep everything because you never know when you’ll need it. You are a quilter for sure because the quilt is your canvas; fabric and thread are your media. Since you are incapable of categorizing anything because everything belongs in more than one category, your sewing space appears to be dysfunctional to everyone but you.

Commercial patterns leave you cold, but the Bonfit system that allows you to “design your own” appeals to you. You collect fabric because you love to experiment. In fact, you are currently working on six projects just to see what will happen. You enjoy giving these experiments to others even if they are half finished because you are bored with them.

You are definitely a top-of-the- line bells and whistles person. You have every sewing tool imaginable and are a multiple-machine person. You need to jump from project to project, machine to machine, just to keep stimulated. You love all kinds of machines from treadle types to high-end models, and you’ve got some of your best fabrics folded in piles on top of them. You fall in love with the embellishment possibilities of embroidery machines, but you quickly tire of the prepackaged designs and the hands-off nature of it all. That’s not a problem for you because you create your own designs on your computer and sew them out on your top-of-the-line machine.

Your sewing idol is John Giordano.

The cheap and easy-does-it

You have a lot of things on your mind, so any pattern with more than three or four pieces generates confusion. You subscribe to many magazines with the words “Quick and Easy” in their titles. You are not too sure of your sewing skills, but that’s all right because you’d rather use glue. You love to make small projects for others. You buy cheap thread. You have been known to put staples in the hems of your dresses and curtains.

Your sewing space is orderly since you have few gadgets—they always break because they are poor quality—and you keep everything in a shoe box. You are addicted to glue guns, iron-on items, pinking shears, and felt.

Your sewing machine was made 20 years ago and is of questionable value. You can’t remember when you cleaned it last. When your machine stops functioning you will go to a discount store and replace it with the least expensive model you can find.

You are definitely a candidate for sewing in groups where the coffee and conversation keep you working on your project.

Your sewing idol is.. .What sewing idol?

Did you see yourself in my sewers’ horoscope? I’ve had fun with these fortune-cookie-like stereotypes, but there is a gram of truth in every fortune cookie. I see bits of myself in all of them, but the creative soul fits me the best. Knowing this, I pick my projects carefully and aim for success and satisfaction instead of frustration and disappointment.

It’s important to remember that even if you have a tendency to be like one of the stereotypes I’ve created, you don’t have to be boxed in by it, The thoughtful perfectionist can learn to get a bit wild with a sewing project, and the quickster can complete a big, complicated project if she tackles it in small parts.

When you think about buying a sewing machine, you should take your sewing temperament into account: Do you want a machine that matches your temperament or one that challenges it? Do you want a machine that makes you better at what you already do or one that allows you to add something new to your menu of sewing skills?

And finally, does your budget match your sewing temperament? For example, if you are a perfectionist but only have $300 to spend, what kind of machine should you buy?

What you want to sew should be compatible with what kind of sewer you are.
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Wednesday, 2013-06-05 15:03