Sew What?

Garment-making is not for dabblers.

When I was a child, every container was a potential treasure chest — a trove of hidden sweets, playthings, and other mind-boggling gewgaws. There was the Honey Bear cookie jar my grandmother kept stocked with Oreos, the jewelry box in our curio cabinet that played a haunting, nameless tune whenever it was opened, and — of course — my mother’s purse, that bottomless cache of lipsticks, breath mints, loose coins and other odds and ends. While all of these containers hold a great deal of memories, only one has retained a spark of the magic and wonder it once possessed: the Singer sewing tin.

It’s been in our family for some time, or at least that’s what my mother tells me. It certainly looks old, with its Art Nouveau-style arabesques and faded silver roses printed on black, all of it marred by various scratches and dents. Nevertheless, its allure has always rested not in its history but in the possibilities it represents. At age five, at 10, at 15, I would pop off the lid and pore over its contents, daydreaming up ideas for the new wardrobe I was going to create for myself.

If I had actually known how to sew back then, things might’ve been different. I picked up a few tricks here and there (needle-threading techniques, the whipstitch and backstitch, the ability to fasten a button), but I was still just a dabbler. And that’s really the story of my life. I am a chronic dabbler, drawn into various hobbies by their colorful materials, their flashy equipment, and the fantasy of my assured genius and prolificacy in any medium — my imagined ability to churn out masterpiece after masterpiece while the world gapes on in awe (though not the sort of paralyzing awe that would render them unable to reach into their pockets and hand over some well-deserved cash to finance my endeavors). Needless to say, I have never stuck with one hobby for long.

I’ve stuffed my closet with countless relics of my abandoned whims. I have given up on painting, origami, latch hook, and jewelry-making. I quit ballet and violin lessons almost as quickly as I started them. I begged my parents for months to get me a guitar for my birthday, then picked it up only once before relegating it, too, to the back of the closet. Sewing was one step up from these only because it occasionally came in handy. Even with my limited abilities, I could repair ripped pockets and tiny tears in my clothing, a necessary skill when your parents are raising four kids and all you have are hand-me-downs of hand-me-downs.

It wasn’t until my high school home economics class, however, that I began to take sewing seriously. As a grade-driven nerd, I didn’t have much of a choice. Home ec marked my introduction to the sewing machine and to the realization that I would probably never measure up as a domestic goddess. If you have never worked with a sewing machine, you can’t possibly understand what a complicated, temperamental beast it can be. Simply threading the machine, guiding the strand through the various slots and hooks of the contraption, is intimidating enough. Throw bobbins and tension and different kinds of presser feet into the mix and it’s a wonder that sewing machines work at all. Very often they don’t.

Our final project for the class was to make a pair of boxer shorts following a pattern. We were required to bring in our own fabric and thread, and lacking my own cash and transportation, I had to rely on my mother to pick out something during her lunch break from work. I ended up with the most hideous fabric in the history of textiles: a stiff, pastel green cotton plastered with fat pink, blue, and yellow tulips. Obviously I had angered her somehow in the days leading up to the purchase. I have never been able to come up with another reasonable explanation.

And thus my memories of home ec are ones of struggle: me versus the machine, me versus the fabric, me versus my overwhelming embarrassment. The other girls in class were working with flannel patterns, polka dots, and cute cartoon prints. Whenever someone would peek over my shoulder, all I could do was shrug and offer some halfhearted excuse for the fashion monstrosity I was creating.

To make matters worse, it all just seemed to come naturally for the rest of my classmates. Their seams were straight, their patterns were perfectly aligned, and their shorts actually fit when they were finished. I was definitely out of place, the only runt among a pack of alpha females. I passed the class, but it was with one of the lowest grades of my high school career. I felt so dejected about the whole thing that I tossed the shorts and forgot about sewing for ten years.

And then came Project Runway.

Project Runway is a reality show that follows aspiring fashion designers as they compete for a chance to show their collection at Olympus Fashion Week. I have been following it ever since the first episode in November 2004. On each show, the designers are challenged to create a garment within a limited time; the individual with the weakest design is eliminated at the end of the episode. Some of the more memorable challenges were to make a party dress out of items bought from a grocery store, an outfit out of the clothes off their backs, and a swimsuit that could double as evening wear.

The appeal of Project Runway, and what distinguishes it from other such shows, is its focus on the talent and creativity of its participants, rather than their sex appeal or personal drama (though it’s had its share of villains, including backstabber Wendy Pepper from the first season). For me, the real draw is witnessing each designer’s creative process — watching as each one sketches out ideas, selects fabrics, and carries out a vision. Viewers also see how the designers react when a sewing machine breaks, when the wrong colored fabric is purchased, or when a model goes M.I.A.

Witnessing the evolution of these garments from a pile of fabric and trim to a beautiful dress fit for the red carpet made the whole mystery behind their creation a little less … mysterious. Designing, pattern-making, and sewing started to seem like something even I could do, if I would just put in a little time and a lot of patience. In this spirit, I decided to give sewing another try.

When I asked for a sewing machine for my birthday, my family was understandably wary: would I use the thing at all, or would it be another $200 down the tubes? Being the loving and supportive people they are, however, they banded together and bought me one. They also bought me books, fancy sewing scissors, and gift certificates to fabric stores. I think they thought if they invested enough into my new hobby, I would feel too guilty not to follow through with it. Indeed, their plan worked. I broke out the old Singer sewing tin and set to work.

Blame Canada!I was quite tentative the first time I approached the new machine, frightened of threading the bobbin incorrectly or wasting my new fabric. It was easier than I remembered, though. And instead of diving into the world of Butterick and Simplicity patterns, I started with T-shirt deconstruction. Deconstruction involves taking apart existing pieces and sewing them back together in innovative ways. My first project was to transform a plain blue T-shirt into a V-necked shrug — a piece I eventually dubbed the “ill-fitting shrug.” The lesson I learned here: collars are not your friends! Collars are hard. They like to stand up when you want them to fall flat and fall flat when you want them to stand up.

Still, I forged ahead and tried something even more ambitious. I started purchasing T-shirts from Goodwill and the Salvation Army strictly for my sewing experiments. One such purchase was the Canada T-shirt. It was oversized and not especially interesting. Using a bit of green quilting material and another old T-shirt, I created another objet d’art, which I have affectionately entitled “Blame Canada.” Lesson #2: sleeves are even harder than collars.

Judy Jetson meets Little House on the PrairieMore recently I decided to go with a pattern. I selected a short-sleeved number from Butterick’s “Fast and Easy” collection, “fast” and “easy” being two qualities I was looking for in a project. I really didn’t know what I was doing, so I took extra care not to rip the delicate tissue paper blueprints that were supposed to guide my creation. I took even longer to cut all of my fabric pieces and get everything pinned in place. It paid off: the shoulder and side seams came together without a hitch. The sleeves were a different story, however. Despite my efforts, the fabric kept bunching up in odd places. When I finally did get one on in what I thought was a satisfactory manner, the armhole turned out to be entirely too small. There was nothing I could do but rip it all out and try to rig up something easier.

This leads me to the third lesson I have learned in my sewing adventures: you can use almost any mistake to your advantage. I couldn’t avoid the bunching, so I worked with it — pinning the fabric strategically to create puffy princess sleeves. I even added little epaulette-like strips as a further embellishment. The finished product is very Judy Jetson-meets-Little House on the Prairie, but it’s the closest I’ve come to creating something wearable.

I wouldn’t call any of these garments a success, but making them has been a lot of fun, and I am looking forward to my next undertaking: turning another old T-shirt into a skirt. I’ve finally graduated from being a mere dabbler.

Which is fortunate, because there’s no room in the back of my closet for the sewing machine.

Article © 2006 by Sarah David