First why, then how

I get a lot of questions about how to sew. How can you make a skirt, a dress, a blouse? Where can you learn, is there a book, a class, what sewing machine do you need, etc.

I answer these questions cheerfully and in excruciating detail, of course, but sometimes I think that people are asking the wrong question. Before you ask HOW to do anything, you should always ask WHY.

My answer to "why", I realized, is not JUST because I'm a raging control freak who needs to be personally responsible for everything I put on my body, either in terms of creation or collation, but also because I love the way it feels to sew.

That's right. Sewing feels good. It feels good in the same sensual, atavistic way that holding a just-bathed baby feels good, and it feels good in the same disembodied, intellectual way that writing a computer program feels good.

There's the way the fabric feels before you wash it, and the way it feels after, and the way it feels when you're smoothing it with your hands, and the way it feels when you're smoothing it with a hot iron. There's the aha! moment when you have finally placed all the pattern pieces on the yardage, with nothing left out and everything on grain and square as it should be. There's the satisfying feel of of the sharp scissors biting through the warp and weft threads, the feel of those threads as they snap between the blades. There's the feel of slipping the pins through the layers, and the feel of taking them out.

There's the feel of the muscle tension in your hands as you guide the material through the machine, and the vibration of the machine, and the deep humming sound, like a cave full of bees, and the slightly burnt smell of machine oil and fabric dust. There's the release as the last stitch ends, and the sudden heaviness as the fabric is no longer supported on the table. There's the iron-feel again, as you press the seams flat. There's the way the fabric changes drape as it turns from flat yardage into a shaped garment.

There's the feel of the seam ripper stumbling through undoing what you've just done — sometimes that can be a very satisfying, spiteful feeling, an "I'll show YOU who's boss! feeling — and the feeling when the half-made dress goes on over your head the first time, when you're in front of the mirror, deciding if you have made all the right choices of fabric and pattern and construction that make fabric and pattern and construction into an actual DRESS.

There's the feeling, even, of putting everything away, the patterns in their boxes and the scissors on their hooks, and the two-step of turning off and unplugging the iron (belt and suspenders, belt and suspenders), clicking off the light above the machine and the light on the machine, feeling the potential energy of all the yards of fabric and patterns yet unfolded as they wait their turns.

That's how sewing feels.

(This pattern is B36 and only $5 at More of Macojero's Sewing Patterns!)

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0 thoughts on “First why, then how

  1. YES!that’s all I can say. Yes. All of that. And the smells. The smell of the hot cloth under the iron, of the starch, of the machine oil. The satisfaction as you hand stitch a hem, of seeing all those tiny little dots, perfectly spaced. The tug of the thread, the bite of the needle going through the cloth.The cloth itself: textured, smooth, silky, slinky, nubby, rough. (In a fight between a manicure and real silk, the silk will always win.)The colors that only fiber can hold: those rich jewel tones, that seem to glow from within. Super saturated colors, natural colors of wheat and ivory and ecru and beige and greens. Sigh. It doesn’t matter sometimes if you sew or if you just collect the fabric and patterns and consider it a conceptual art form.

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  2. I find I study the fabric of my garment more when I’m sewing it myself. It’s like the textile is under the zoom lens in a downloaded pdf file. I see the texture, the weave, and the colors at 200 percent magnification just looking at them with the naked eyes (ok, not quite nude: I wear contacts). I recently finished sewing up a multi-hued top that had me thinking of coordinating eyeshadows, blushes, earrrings, etc. I don’t do that with ready-to-wear as much. It’s like, “I’ve got my garb, let’s hit the check-out and get out of here!”

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  3. I agree about the smells of it as well as the touch and sight.The smell of cotton in a hot wash to preshrink it is one of my favourites, and although I hate ironing in general I love the smell when I’m pressing each seam down (and the magic an iron can do making a seam look better!).

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  4. I’ve been lurking here for a few weeks now. When I read this post, I had a “Eureka!” moment. I have always kept it to myself — the sensual pleasure of sewing — which you described in such dead-on detail. I didn’t dare tell anyone. It’s almost like a fetish. I thought it was just me.

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  5. Oh, and don’t forget biting the thread off at the end of a bit of handsewing when you can’t quickly locate the scissors. Your mother told you not to (oh, taboo!), but you do it anyway. The small twinge as the strand tightens against your gums, the animal power of your eye teeth and the thrill if you cut it cleanly without shredding the thread, close to the garment gently brushing your cheek….

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  6. This might be my very favorite Dress a Day post, ever. What you’ve described is the way I *want* to feel about sewing, the way I’m trying to teach myself to be. I’m not there yet because I have no patience; I am Instant Gratification Girl. I don’t want to spend time enjoying the process of sewing, I want the garment to appear magically before me!But I know that’s not possible. So I’m slowly, slowly learning to revel in the process of creating clothing. I may print out this post and keep it in my sewing box, so I can re-read it and remind myself what I’m striving toward.

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  7. Fabulous post, Erin. Your description is spot-on. My favorite part of sewing is the pressing (yep, I’m crazy!) and the sound my machine makes when I’m winding the bobbin or sewing straight seams. It’s good for zoning.

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  8. Theres composition; the visceral delight in colours and textures, and finding the fabrics that want to be with each other. Theres listening to the fabric, and trying to really hear what it wants to be. Theres creation: something exists because of you, marking your time on earth. And theres rage. When your blood is on fire and your head is pounding and about to explode, its the perfect time to sew, because fighting with the fabric, and the fit, and the process of construction is going to make you berserk anyway, so you might as well put your fury to good use.

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  9. That says it all! Sewing has been my stress reliever since the age of five when my grandmother (born 1898) patiently showed my how to sew a french seam. I was sitting on her kitchen floor in tears because I had accidently sewn the pre-printed doll dress wrong side together. I still prefer to sew by hand because I can carry it with me…it’s something to do with my hands and keeps me serene in a stressful world…and I’ve yet to see a “no sewing” sign in a public place. I have a machine but it gathers dust because I have more pressing work to do when I’m at home and just don’t have time to sit at it…so it only gets occasional use to whip up curtains and make quick repairs.

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  10. Hmmm. That’s interesting, Lisa. (And Lisa.) You sew to relieve stress? Sewing makes you serene? Well, uh, good. I’m happy for you, and it’s important to have that kind of outlet in life, and God knows I could use one myself, but sewing doesn’t relieve my stress. Sewing makes me berserk. I’ll sew when I’m angry because I figure I’ve already got a headstart on the turmoil.

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  11. Uh yeah, but then hand sewing is a slower, more forgiving process than machine sewing…you’re less likely to make mistakes….and it has the addictive, rythmic thing going for it…like knitting. Also, lots of basting makes the work go smoother and minimises the need for pins and pressing (making it more portable)….sounds like a huge amount of work, but not when you consider it can be done in odd moments while doing other stuff…waiting for appointments, watching kids from the back porch, visiting, or just sitting on the couch with your feet propped up after an exhausting day. Yes..relaxation!

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  12. Lisa, I do know; I do hand work as well as machine work. It is, I think, a Wicked Sewing Faery Curse: I get berserk during a project, yet I actually get all agitated if I’m sitting somewhere and I can’t stitch. I’ve toted everything from Wedding Dress Parts to frock coats to trapunto dinosaurs on the bus, to the doctor’s office, and while visiting. (A Visit from Sis automatically means an appearance from the firm of Needle, Thread, Thimble & Scissors.)

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  13. oh la belladonna…I feel that way about my job! I have my own business and love it but it drives me beserk! When I’m working I’m nuts…when I’m not working, THAT drives me nuts. Sewing and collecting dresses, on the other hand, are calming to me. I have so many dresses I tell people it’s a sickness. Every once in a while I feel that same contentment in my work and think “why can’t it always be like this?” CAN WE SWAP FAERIES??!!

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  14. And then there’s putting in a zipper three times to make it look right, and putting in sleeves, and fighting with a collar, and innerfacing and ugh, the whole miserable process.I am happy to leave home sewing to those who like to do it. As for me–NO

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