Sewing can be an expensive hobby, unless you know these tricks.
One of my earliest memories, around age two, is watching my mother sew. As little as I was, I remember being mesmerized by the whirring machine, the crinkling of pattern tissue, and the glinting of strategically placed pins as she guided fabric under the arm of her pale green Kenmore machine. I was always fascinated. She shooed me out of her way and was full of reasons why I couldn’t help. Fabric is expensive. We couldn’t afford for there to be any mistakes.
Very rarely, my mother would tire of my begging to learn, and hand me some scraps of fabric and a needle with thread. She showed me how to thread a needle and make a knot in the end. The rest I learned from watching, or failing, or through sheer imagination. I taught myself by sneaking the packets of pattern pieces from the off-limits sewing area, and secretly studying the diagrams; reading and re-reading the directions with intense interest. I was sewing in my imagination as I read through the steps of putting together my dream dress.
By the time I was a teenager, I was secretly altering my clothes by hand and cutting up other clothes to use as fabric. I got away with it for a little while, but once I cut up a white sweater, even the vacuum cleaner could not hide my extreme offense. You see, while the family was aware that I had a strong desire to sew, it was not a hobby I was allowed to pursue until my teenage years. After the horrible sweater debacle of 1989, I was given an old sewing machine and a job sewing smocks for a nursing home.
You may be wondering why I was not allowed to pursue my interest in sewing… Well, on its most basic level, my family felt that sewing was too expensive. When people learn to sew, a lot of things go wrong; there is a lot of waste of both fabric and money. To buy fabric for a full sized garment at the the fabric store is often more expensive than buying a ready-made garment at the big box store. It was hard for me to explain that I wasn’t so much interested in the final product, as I was the process. When I asked to get fabric for a dress or skirt, it wasn’t because I wanted the garment, necessarily, it was because I wanted to make the garment. This is still a concept hard to grasp for many people. I like picking the fabric, tweaking the pattern, and puzzling it all together with the steam of the iron pulsing lavender scented starch into the air. It’s a sensory experience.
As I followed my mother through the fabric store, I would rub my fingers over the different textures of fabrics and wonder how each one would fall over the human form. What it would look like if it was pants, or a hat, or a wedding gown. I thought too much about how cutting the fabric this way would make it hang differently than cutting it that way. I am still fascinated by darts, flounces, pleats, and pin tucks. Sewing a garment is like completing a puzzle. I even like the math of sewing. While I like looking at the end product of any project, it is the process that brings me the most joy.
It’s a hobby that I admit is expensive. I was given a new sewing machine at the age of 21, and it was easily the most used gift I ever received. I wasted a lot of money trying to sew clothes for my infant son and curtains for my little apartment. The budget was tight and even though sewing was my hobby for decompression, it was too expensive! I started buying sheets at the thrift store to try a pattern first, so I didn’t destroy expensive fabric. It was my answer to the traditional “muslin” and cost about $3 for a king sized sheet. For that amount of money, I could test patterns to my heart’s content. So I did.
When I began to teach sewing, I utilized the sheet method for students to make garments and practice sewing. With ten students in a class, the $3 per sheet added up! I needed to downsize the projects, but still be able to teach students the basics of garment construction. The idea to teach a doll clothes class was born! For some classes, the students used Barbie dolls (not much fabric, right?) and for others, we used an 18″ doll (American Girl sized).
In both cases, the garment pieces were too small; particularly for the younger sewists, aged 6-12. It was difficult to attach facings, or install hardware. The dolls used by the students were plastic, so the garments could not be made without hardware, unless it was made from stretchy fabric. Stretchy fabric is a really bad choice for beginning sewists. Students were frustrated with the logistics, but still interested in sewing. The challenge was for them to practice their skills without the frustration, but also keeping the costs reasonable. It became my mission to create a plush doll that could be used as a standard model in the sewing classroom.
The doll had to be large enough so pattern pieces could be easily manipulated during construction, but only large enough so that pieces could be cut from old clothing. This would eliminate much of the cost of inevitable mistakes. The doll also had to be plush so that I could teach basic construction without the added frustration of closures. Zippers and button holes can be difficult skills to master. To avoid the frustration, younger sewists will enjoy finishing a garment and quickly squeezing a plush doll into it without the need for closures. Plush dolls are forgiving with fit, and can be encouraging for young sewists who might otherwise become discouraged by the process of fit.
If you have read any of my previous posts, you may be aware that I have a borderline addiction to vintage patterns. I scour shelves and bins at thrift stores and garage sales looking for ancient gems at a quarter a piece. As I did when I was a child, I unfold the large newspaper print directions and entrance myself with the diagrams and directions. I wish I could make them all… just to see if I can.
And I can try, very inexpensively! The pattern pieces are printed on the front page of the directions. When scanned, these images can be enlarged to the size of a… yup, a 22″ doll. I can learn new techniques while practicing classic patterns without spending any money. In my middle age, I am still cutting up clothes to use as fabric. I often will purchase garments at the thrift store for a couple bucks because I like the fabric. For a couple bucks, I can alter it and wear it. When I’m tired of wearing it, or it becomes damaged, I cut it up and test patterns.
It’s my hobby and I love it. As an introvert, I prefer the quiet of home to any social activity. The thinking power required to sew (in my opinion) is equivalent to solving puzzles and keeps the mind sharp. I like to think it’s a combination of problem-solving and math that keep the neuron connections healthy. Like flexing the brain!
So the (over told) story of the doll, in short, is my desire to make clothes without spending a bunch of money. I’m sharing it for any parents who may have a budding fashion designer at home. You may find a sewing machine cheap to get the hobby going, but soon realize how expensive it is to buy fabric that will most likely end up in the trash in a pile of cuts and broken thread. I’m sharing this to give parents and sewing enthusiasts a way to practice this dying art without spending a bunch of money in the process.
Go to local thrift stores and church sales to scope out bags of thread spools and remnants of fabric. I often find yardage at the thrift store for a dollar or two. If there isn’t a fabric section at your local thrift, browse the sheets, pillowcases, curtains, placemats and tablecloths for fabric. Need fur? Look in home décor for throw pillows (wash and use the stuffing, too) or furniture covers. Patterns can be very expensive unless you can find them at thrift stores and garage sales. Keep a flyer for your local fabric store – sometimes there are $1 pattern sales, and it’s worth it to stock up!
It is easy to go overboard on sewing supplies, and there is no shortage of them available. Cutting mats, rotary blades, quilt templates, sergers… I could go on and on. While they all have value, there is nothing better than getting started with the basics and building up to a stash of sophisticated tools. The truth is, it doesn’t require a lot of equipment to get started, and it doesn’t need to cost a fortune to nurture the interest of a budding designer!