February 18, 2014

Reflections of a part-time seamstress

I often surprise myself with this sewing malarkey.


People ask me if I’ve been sewing since I was a kid: alas not, I’m the product of a not-particularly-crafty (but lovely!) family and a former boys-only school where I was taught woodworking and drafting but not sewing (good for feminism; bad for proto-Jenny). Instead, this obsession began in 2007 (ish?) when my co-worker Karen came to the office in a particularly snazzy stripy pencil skirt. I asked where it was from, and she said “IKEA”.
I was confused.
It turned out that the *fabric* was from IKEA, and she’d made it. This was literally the first time it had ever occurred to me that regular people made clothes – or indeed, that it was even possible. It planted a seed, although it was a few years before I found myself taking a sewing class in an old wooden schoolhouse in Jamaica Plain, part of a hastily hatched plan to get over an ex-boyfriend (spoiler: it worked!). The class didn’t teach me much, but I left being able to thread a sewing machine and sew a straight seam.
Cue a bedsheet set, a no-closures wrap skirt, and lots of baby dresses, which, it turns out, are fabulous for trying new techniques.
For much of my early sewing career, I was scared of one thing after another: zips, buttonholes, interfacing, stretchy fabric…. sergers. To be fair, I’m still scared of things, but a different group: trousers, boning, bras (could it be done?!).

What I couldn’t have predicted is how much I’ve learned from sewing. This sounds mushy, but I live in America now, the land of sentimentality, so please forgive me.

Firstly, patience and the value of enjoying the process. If you know me, you’ll know I’m a classic A-type, goal-oriented, lots-on-the-go type of person. And to begin with, so was my sewing. SEW ALL THE THINGS! AS SOON AS POSSIBLE! But over time I’ve finally understood this whole take your time, do it more carefully thing. Do you really need a shonkily made wrap dress tonight? Or would you rather a really nicely made one in 3 days time? Quite. This comes even more into play when I make mistakes – walking away when I’m frustrated and annoyed with myself and coming fresh the next day makes all the difference. LIFE LESSONS, DEAR JENNY, NOTE THEM.

There’s something in there about perspective as well. You spend so long looking at the thing you’re making and you obsess about all the mistakes, and every time you wear it you just see those wonky seams or that fabric cut that you hastily patched. But you know what? No-one ever notices. No-one. At all. (Unless you point it out to them – note to self, try not to do that any more). No-one sees your flaws like you do.

It also teaches you that to learn something or get better at something you just have to give it a go. This seems obvious and simple, but this was a big lesson for me. I always thought “well I can’t put a zip in, because I’ve never done it before!”. It took me A Long Time to realise that the only way to learn to do it, is to try it for the first time. This was what finally convinced me to make my winter coat – and after all that procrastination, it Β turned out well. So. Perhaps when I’m not sure about things I need to just try and see what happens.

What else? It’s given me a much better appreciation not just of clothes but all sorts of craftsmanship. I tend to live my life in a bit of a whirlwind, but I find myself noticing fine handiwork all over the place now.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is the whole body issue. Like most (OK, virtually all) women, I’ve struggled my whole life with the size, shape and weight of my body. The biggest single difference Β has been adopting Intuitive Eating with my amazing nutritionist over the past year. But after that, it’s sewing. You know when you look in the mirror and think “ugh, I look terrible”? 90% of the time that’s your clothes. They’re too tight, things are bulging, or maybe they’re too loose and boxy. Once you can make clothes to fit, you learn that anyone can look good; no-one needs to bulge. Learning that any clothes can be made in any size is also revelatory. I’m not going to wear a tummy-baring top any time soon, but I certainly have a coat I can breathe in now, tops that don’t show my bra and pencil skirts that skim my stomach. This is perhaps the most liberating thing – I judged my body for not fitting store-bought clothes, and felt terrible much of the time when it came to dressing myself. Now my clothes fit me, suit me, and feel good – and it’s such a relief. To have routinely positive thoughts about what I look like – this skirt looks amazing! – is fantastic. To be regularly taking photos of myself and putting them online and not hiding behind my hands – that’s serious progress, folks.

Katy recently referred to that feeling of “I CAN SEW ANYTHING!” that’s so satisfying. Sure, it comes in waves, but I’m there now, and it’s a nice place to be.

46 thoughts on “Reflections of a part-time seamstress

  1. gMarie says:

    Oh my Jenny – there is so, so much goodness here. I really enjoyed this post and I’m guessing like Carolyn’s Are you the Sewist you want to be? post I’ll be thinking about it for days and composing comments and blog posts in my head.

    thank you for the link to intuitive eating. Change is so hard. baby steps baby steps.

    Thank you for this! g

    1. Jenny says:

      Thanks g, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I can’t say enough about intuitive eating – it’s a simple concept, fairly difficult to do, but entirely worth it – I’m off the diet cycle, forever.

  2. Crab and Bee says:

    Hi Jenny! I’m new to your blog and just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this post. I very much agree that making clothing that fits goes miles towards feeling good in your body – very excited to see what beautiful, flattering garment you make up next!

    1. Jenny says:

      Thanks Morgan, and welcome! Incidentally, my day job is in corporate sustainability so I might blog a bit on that in the future πŸ™‚

    2. Crab and Bee says:

      Please do! I would love to read that.

  3. sew rachel! says:

    Love your post! Lots ring true to me, too. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Jenny says:

      Thanks Rachel! I was feeling reflective on a Tuesday evening πŸ™‚

  4. ElleC says:

    Well said. I love this post.

  5. oonaballoona says:

    i had insomnia last night and read this post at 3 am, didn’t trust my brain to properly comment, but thanks for such a wonderful read!! so much to love here, and truly a beautiful, hot woman to ogle in all of her hand mades as well πŸ™‚

    1. Jenny says:

      Well now you have me blushing Miss Oona πŸ™‚

  6. Gail says:

    What a fantastic post, Jenny! I love to read or hear how others started sewing (or knitting, or doing whatever it is they’re doing). And all your thoughts about how sewing has changed the way you perceive the world and yourself – so on target. I find myself in a similar “I can sew whatever I want” headspace lately – in fact, I wrote about it this morning! Such a great place to be, isn’t it?

    1. Jenny says:

      Thanks Gail! Your jeans are so inspiring – I catch myself thinking ” yeah but I could never make them” but I think I need to take my own advice on that one!

  7. Thanks for putting a link to this post on my blog! I’d read it earlier on the way to work and didn’t have a chance to comment then but I loved this post. Its so well thought out and written and it really touched my creative soul! If you don’t mind, I’d like to link to it in a future blog post!

    1. Jenny says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words Carolyn! I love your blog and would be honoured to get a mention on there πŸ™‚

  8. Linda T says:

    Well said! Unlike you, I ‘grew up’ in the sewing world. My mom even made by dad’s boxers before that was a “cool” thing to do. It came from the fact that $$ was tight. As a child, I didn’t think about $$, I was just happy that I never saw “my dress” at school as it was made just for me–colors, fit, etc. I loved that! So I took up sewing early. That said–Mom was self taught, so there were lots of things she didn’t do – bound buttonholes, tailoring, etc – so I still had lots to learn (and lots to be afraid of). I too, being A-type personality, have learned to slow down and enjoy the process more..what a blessing it is. However, sometimes I have to remind myself to take my time. Keep enjoying your creativity as well as your well fitting clothes!

    1. Jenny says:

      Hi Linda, thanks so much for sharing! I’m sure your years of experience mean you’re quite the seamstress now!

  9. Marjie says:

    I followed GMarie’s link to this post! I have to say that I love your coat. I’ve made a couple of lightweight coats for spring and fall, and they truly are a pleasure to wear, because the fit is just right!

    My grandmother sewed a lot, and was excellent at it (she was also a painter and fabulous cook), but never taught me anything. My mother just muddled around pretending to sew, but I can only remember her making me one dress. I decided I could learn to sew in 10th grade, and have been sewing off and on ever since. It was very handy for my tall and very skinny daughters when they were in grade school: at least their skirts weren’t cheerleader short or way overly baggy.

    I did enjoy the introspection in this post; there are plenty of days when my thinking runs in the same vein! I’ll be back to visit again.

    1. Jenny says:

      Hi Marje, thanks for coming over! I totally have the coat making bug now – there’s something almost unbelievable about wearing one you made yourself! You also have very lucky daughters.. I hope they appreciated having custom couture outfits πŸ™‚

  10. Katy Patzel says:

    I second all of this! I could not have said it better myself.

    1. Jenny says:

      Thanks Katy! And hope you didn’t mind me quoting your little bit of wisdom there πŸ™‚

  11. Hi Jenny, I just discovered your blog (breakfast-&-two-cups-of -coffee-ago)! You’ve certainly captured my thoughts with your insight into the sewing process as a whole vs. the quick product, and the sense of empowerment and reward that can flow from there.

    BTW, I grew up in West Roxbury and I learned a new word today “shonkily”. I will return here for further installments!

    1. Jenny says:

      Thanks for coming over and for your kind comment! I always aim to please my American readers with the occasional British slang term πŸ™‚

  12. EmSewCrazy says:

    Lovely post! You summed up the body image issue so well! Thanks for sharing!

  13. Hi Jenny, this is a great post. Like you I’ve learned to slow down, and take more and more care with what I make. I agree too that well fitting clothes is THE key to feeling fabulous. I look forward to following you! Cheers, Sarah

    1. Jenny says:

      Thanks Sarah!

  14. MaciNic says:

    Thanks Jenny for a lovely post. I am enjoying getting to know your blog and hope you don’t mind, but I nominated you for a Liebster if you’re interested. best regards, Nicole. http://dreamingdashie.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/awards-and-giveaways-more-reasons-to-be.html

    1. Jenny says:

      Thanks very much Nicole – I already wrote a post with my Liebster nominations!

  15. Lady ID says:

    Umm…can you mail me that maxi skirt – I can hear it shouting my name πŸ™‚ And lol at America being the land of sentimentality.

    I do think I’ve become more sentimental living here but maybe it’s just me growing up/feeling more free to be like that. In any case I like it.

    1. Jenny says:

      Hey Lady – first of all, BIG WELL DONE on winning the Colette Albion competition! You coat is fab πŸ™‚ And thanks… sadly the maxi skirt is ALL MINE but you should totally make your own πŸ™‚

  16. Jenny, You know I’m sentimental so you won’t be surprised that I shed a tear or two reading this post. I actually had come over to check your blog to see about places to send a friend fabric shopping in London but instead just read an hour’s worth of posts. As always, thank you for your honesty, your commitment to learning and process, and sharing your progress as a maker. So very proud of all you’ve done. xVirginia

    1. Jenny says:

      Aw, thanks Virginia! As you know, Gather Here was definitely the birthplace of my sewing skills and will always hold a dear place in my heart πŸ™‚

      And I still wear that Archer all the time!

    2. Jenny says:

      Also: London reccos πŸ™‚
      Goldhawk road for lots of cheap fabric and some good finds (if you search)
      Berwick Road in Soho for very high end, beautiful fabrics, esp. silks
      John Lewis on Tottenham Court Road for a medium sized by very well chosen collection
      Liberty for… well, Liberty πŸ™‚

  17. Rose says:

    New to your blog, but will be a regular after this — what a terrific post! Sewing for ourselves is a revolutionary act! I actually think it’s the most feminist thing I do. πŸ™‚

    1. Jenny says:

      I totally agree!

  18. HomeRoamer says:

    Just found your blog via Pinterest and have been reading everything voraciously! I’m new to sewing and have a similar story – not thrilled with my body, fearful of anything with a zipper/dart/lining/interfacing, and those “one hour skirt” tutorials left me in tears many times. I’m starting slowly and just working on finding my proper measurements, going to move on to the Sorbetto top and see how it flows. Thanks for what you write and share, you’ve given me some courage to move forward. Best, Jen

    1. Jenny says:

      Thanks for coming on by Jen! The Sorbetto is a great place to start – let me know how it goes!

  19. Loved this post! I too am v guilty of pointing out what’s wrong with a make I’m wearing as soon as anyone compliments it. It usually goes like this:
    Kindly friend, curious colleague or sometimes stranger: Why, what a lovely dress you’re wearing.
    Me: well, thank you very much. I made it myself actually. *smile* but this seam is wonky/this sleeve is longer than the other one/I totally botched up the zipper.

    But you are right – no one else notices. And PLENTY of RTW clothes have shoddy workmanship on them that you wouldn’t even think to question (unless you are a sewist!), and I don’t point those out to people. Must be more positive about own work.

  20. Kathy says:

    I love your attitude towards your body. I too struggle and I am significantly older than you. I hear the negative nasty comments people have made over the years and …can’t get past them.

    I commend you for a life long benefits you are creating today and everyday.

  21. Lena says:

    I am here via Brigitte.de, a German magazine that had an online feature of you, in case you did not know. Love your site!

    I sewed in junior high. Even made my own quilted backpack. I might get back to it, need anew hobby somehow…

  22. ellen says:

    Great post, and timely: I just finished hacking apart and refitting a gorgeous jeans jacket I got on sale from Beth Ditto. Turned out to be ridiculously huge thru the shoulders. Undaunted, I hacked it apart, narrowed the shoulders, took in the sleeves and sides, put it all back together and had a TOTAL WOW moment. It fits! And is awesome! Empowering is absolutely the right word. So–thanks for your patterns, your inspiring blog posts, CurvySewingCollective, and your general fabulousness!

  23. Miatta says:

    You inspire me Jenny. We can do anything once we set our minds on it and work at it.

Let me know what you think!