We all know the feelings of pride and accomplishment when we try something new and it works out well. It squashes any niggling feelings of doubt we had about ourselves – thoughts about whether we were up to the task or good enough to perform it successfully, and inspires us to keep up the momentum and continue the cycle of learning and development by trying yet more new things. I love seeing people’s blogs and posts about garments that they have sewed and are proud of – their beaming smiles are full of pride and encouragement for others to try too.
However this isn’t always the outcome. Sometimes, you put your heart and soul into something and when you eagerly step back to evaluate the results, you’re disappointed. Your smile fades and the sparkle in your eye extinguishes. You wonder why you bothered to try in the first place. You see every single tiny mistake. You think about the money you wasted on the materials, and all the time you wasted making such a mess of it. Confidence gets crushed and the workspace gets packed away to gather dust while you head to the freezer to get the Ben and Jerry’s.
Sewing, like every single other skill in the world, is a learning curve. To get good at it requires practice, time, and patience. No one is born with ready-made mad sewing skillz. Not even the couturiers started out by making the garments you see today. There is no one, literally NO ONE out there in the world that has never made a garment that needed improvement. And that’s the key word here – improvement. Everything you attempt to make has aspects about it that were good, even if you can’t immediately see them. Zip wonky? Oh well, at least you managed to get all the right sides of the fabric facing outwards. Win. Collar isn’t central? Never mind, the sleeve seam looks pretty good . Result. What all these garments do is highlight to you what you’re good at, and what you need to practice. And everyone is different. Some people can sew in a zip with their eyes closed while reciting you on-demand poems in Elvish from Lord of The Rings. Others avoid garments with buttonholes like Superman avoids kryptonite.
Rather than just blogging about the items I’ve made that have turned out really well, I want to give the full picture of what it’s really like to learn to sew and make things – to encourage the beginners out there to try, make mistakes, and learn from them. And understand that it’s ok to get things wrong. Because we all do it. This is how we improve. Regardless of how shiny-shiny and polished someone’s finished projects look, there’s always a black sheep lurking. These items shouldn’t be hidden away in shame, but instead, valued for the learning that they provided – each subsequent item that you make is only as good as the skills you learned from all the projects that came before it.
It just so happens that my last two projects that I blogged about were coats, and they actually turned out pretty well. However, just a few months back I made my very first coat. First. Ever. I must admit I don’t wear it too often (however I actually got a positive comment from a stranger last time it ventured out), but I wanted to give it it’s moment in the spotlight to reflect on the things that it taught me, and to highlight where I went wrong and what I’ve done to improve in the hope that it will help other sewists out there along their journey.
The pattern I used was Burda 6772, and this was the very first Burda pattern I had used. Prior to this I had only used patterns from the ‘big four’ (Vogue, McCalls, Butterick and Simplicity). I knew nothing about Burda patterns but liked the style of the coat. That was enough for me. What I know now, that I didn’t know at the time, is that Burda patterns have a bit of a reputation for having poor instructions. In hindsight, this probably wasn’t the best pattern to choose, because I remember spending a fair bit of time trying to decipher what the instructions were asking me to do.
Whilst I love the colours and design of the fabric, I bought it when I didn’t really know too much about what fabrics are suitable for what. It’s 100% polyester jacquard, it feels funny, it smells funny (even after washing) and in all honesty it is probably upholstery fabric. I just knew that I liked the colours and pattern, so went ahead and bought it.
Lesson learned: Don’t buy fabric solely based on how pretty it is (although, ok, this definitely matters). Is it even suitable for making something to wear from? Is it for waterproof bags rather than a shirt? What’s the fibre content? Read the back of the pattern envelope for the fabric suggestions – these will give you a guideline of what sort of thing you are looking for. While obviously you don’t have to limit yourself to just the fabrics listed, it will give you a general idea of whether you are looking for something lightweight, or with stretch etc.
At the time of making this coat I was still using scissors to cut out fabric. And they weren’t that sharp. I now use a rotary cutter and have a specific pair of Edward-Scissorhands-stylee-super-sharp-fabric-only scissors for cutting. As this fabric was so thick, I couldn’t cut it double thickness as the pattern cutting layout suggested. So I laid it out single thickness on the cutting mat on the squishy uneven carpet (I now use the flat, solid dining room tabletop instead) and proceeded to cut with my (blunt) scissors. Turns out they ask you to cut double thickness for a reason, and you can see this reason on the top two halves of the back of the coat – the pattern isn’t symmetrical OR level across the two halves. Sigh.
Lesson learned: if you are disregarding the instructions, make sure you know damn well the implications of what you’re doing. In my case, match those patterns.
I bought leopard print satin for the lining, because, well, it’s animal print and it was cheap. I tried to cut this double thickness with my scissors. The layers slid all over the place and the pieces I ended up with didn’t really resemble the pattern template. Never mind, I thought, that was hard work which I wasn’t doing again so I carried on regardless with my deformed army of fabric shapes. I now know that there are other lining fabrics to choose from out there, and that I won’t buy cheap satin again. It plucks really easy, and it frays so quickly at the cut edges that seams are in genuine danger of being pulled out if you don’t finish the edges with an overlocker (serger) or similar. Needless to say, when I had finished piecing the lining together, the overall shape of the lining did not match the shape of the coat. Seams are in totally the wrong place and do not match up with those of the coat.
Lesson learned: accurate cutting is SO important. For slippery fabrics spray them with starch and iron the fabric before cutting, which reduces the movement on the cutting table. Also use weights to weigh the fabric down. I find that a rotary cutter is much easier to cut with than scissors, because you don’t have to lift the fabric to slide the blade underneath.
The buttons I wanted for the coat were slightly bigger than the pattern recommended, but I loved the buttons and was having them no matter what the pattern said. It was MY coat after all, and I’d make it how I damn well wanted it. I followed the pattern instructions like a good girl and marked the buttonhole placement on the front of the coat, and proceeded to make the holes. Excitedly I sewed the corresponding buttons on and did up the coat to see how they looked. Ah. So you know I mentioned that my buttons were a different size to what was recommended? This meant that I should have altered the buttonhole placement to be further away from the edge of the coat. Why? Because when the coat is fastened, the buttons are now too close to the edge and overhang the edge of the front.
Lesson learned: The pattern markings are intended to match certain dimensions. If you’re changing these dimensions, such as button sizes or length of zip, you will need to make amendments. You can always practice a buttonhole on a scrap piece of fabric first, to make sure it looks ok size-wise and placement-wise.
There are some things that the pattern instructions don’t tell you, which will help make your life easier. One thing is to trim seam allowances and corners after stitching to reduce bulk. This, I now realise, was especially important with thick fabric such as this around the collar area. Although it doesn’t look too bad from a distance, the collar is actually a little bulky and doesn’t lie how it should. I lost count of how many layers I was stitching through and I struggled to run it through the machine. To help manipulate the bulk I should have trimmed all the seam allowances and corners as far as they would go, and also used a magical item called a tailors clapper to help flatten things out. When I made this coat, I didn’t even know such a thing existed – but essentially it’s just a block of wood that you use to flatten fabric which has just been pressed/steamed. I can’t tell you how useful this actually is, and how fabulous it makes seams look. I use it on every single garment I make now.
Lesson learned: There are some things that you just can’t learn from the instructions, like, what tools there are that will help you and tricks that will make things easier. Read magazines, and forums, go to the craft shows. Get on Facebook or Instagram, and see what other people are making and how they are going about it. We are all learning together.
Although this coat isn’t one of the items I’m most proud of, the two coats I subsequently made wouldn’t look the way I did if I hadn’t made this one first. I’m calling it the trial run, the guinea pig, the very elaborate toile. And that’s ok. Learning from mistakes, trial and error, is the best way to learn. There will be wonky seamlines, mismatched seams, misaligned patterns. Lines of stitching won’t meet where they should. Buttonholes will be too close to the edge. The top two buttonholes will be 1cm closer than all the others. You’ll cut where you’re not supposed to cut. Fabric will get caught up in seams that it’s not supposed to. Your ‘great idea’ won’t work out so great. You’ll unpick. Or not. It happens to all of us. Beginners and seasoned sewists alike.
So for anyone out there who is hesitant to try something a little more challenging, or even to take that first step of threading the needle, my advice is to go for it, and jump – embrace the failings, and celebrate the things that go well. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.