My favorite kind of cookbook is the kind that gives you general instructions on how to make something, like angel food cake, or cornbread, or chili, and then provides variations on a theme. Add jalapeños. Replace the oil with mayonnaise. Try with almond extract instead of lemon, or add cinnamon.
I've always been looking for a sewing how-to book that worked like my favorite cookbooks–a book that would give good, wearable general projects with real variations, and, more importantly, wouldn't be either overwhelming in the amount of detail given or hand-wavingly vague about exactly HOW you are supposed to follow an instruction like "insert zipper." (And it would be nice, too, if all the projects weren't made of coral-colored cotton-poly broadcloth.)
Finally (thanks to Caroline!) I think I've found it — 's .
Sew U fulfills all my requirements for a "how-to-sew" book. It doesn't assume you have a couple of grand to drop on equipment, right off the bat — or that you have more space than can be found on top of your mattress (in fact, Wendy did a lot of her early sewing in a New York City apartment, and if you can make things there, you can make them anywhere, as the song goes). There's enough information given about tools and fabrics and techniques that you can get started, but not so much that your brain fries from information overload.
However, the best part of Sew U, (and one that will get it to #1 on my "recommended sewing books" list is that) not only does it include three patterns (skirt, shirt, pants), Wendy spends a great deal of the book explaining how to alter those three patterns to end up with any number of different effects. In other words, instead of "add jalapeños," it's "make a pointed collar round" and "change skinny-leg pants to boot-cut". It's a sewing cookbook!
Even though I've been sewing now for more than twenty years, I certainly don't feel as if I know everything there is to know, and I took away several great hints from Sew U: probably the best one is to do a "project ticket" for each garment. I'm always trying to figure out what I did the last time I made a particular pattern, and even when I make little pencilled notes on the envelope or the pattern pieces, they're not always intelligible (especially months or years later). So the idea of having a standard form (for you to fill out, attach a swatch & spare button to, and file) appeals to me greatly–and makes me wonder why I never thought of it! Wendy helpfully provides a few you can photocopy, but I'll probably design my own to allow for notes on where I got the fabric and pattern, as well as what I did with them.
In addition, Wendy understands that your reach might exceed your grasp–that you might be able to design something your sewing skills can't stretch to. So she has a short chapter on how to work with a tailor to get exactly what you want.
The book itself is very handsome, with a lay-flat spiral binding and lovely clear illustrations. The patterns are in a pocket in the back that is bound into the book.
In short, I recommend Sew U highly to anyone who ever thought they'd like to start sewing but felt intimidated by the learning curve. It would be perfect, in fact, except for one thing: the patterns included only go up to a 38 1/2 inch bust. Nearly all of the suggestions can be applied to any simple commercial pattern; it's just disappointing that fashion-industry sizing was applied to something that is otherwise so DIY-friendly.