Why I’m (Finally) Learning To Sew

I’ve taken to sewing. That’s right, the crime writer, activist and ‘action woman’, as some people have known me, now also sews. This is part of a solid promise made to myself earlier this year, and so far, it has been more rewarding than I could have imagined.

Why did I make a promise to myself to (finally) learn the practical skill of sewing? The reason is simple. I wanted to be more self-sufficient. Scratch that, I needed to be.

Over the years it became clear to me that it was well and truly time to learn how to mend my own clothing, fix a busted seam before it rendered a garment unwearable, and sew buttons on in a way that didn’t immediately make them fall off again. I also wanted to be able to make clothing and cosplay outfits from scratch and from recycled materials, but I had no skills whatsoever in either respect (even the sewing on of buttons was a mystery to me), having never been taught any sewing or mending skills, and having never put time into learning.

My inability to mend my own things had become distinctly unhelpful to me, particularly considering my love of vintage and the tendency for even the best made vintage clothing to come apart at the seams, thanks to ageing, 60-year-old thread. It also occurred to me that I’d downplayed the importance of these skills in my younger years in part because sewing, mending and dressmaking have been considered ‘feminised skills’. In the 90s, you see, the image of a strong, empowered woman was Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, all muscles and machine guns. So while I rode my motorcycles and did action stunts for my crime research, associating myself with traditionally ‘masculine’ endeavours, I avoided things like learning to sew. My younger self would almost have been embarrassed to be seen with a sewing needle, and that’s a shame. The fact is, it’s okay to like both traditionally ‘masculine’ and traditionally ‘feminine’ pastimes. Indeed, to be fully functional humans, most of us need to learn a broad range of skills, many of which will have once been considered the exclusive domain of one gender or another (take nurturing and feeding ourselves and others, or leadership, money-earning and basic building, as just a few examples). It is ironic, in a way, that a feminist woman would avoid things precisely because they are considered feminine, and in doing so, become less self-sufficient. In time this imbalance became impractical, and though I took a while to recognise it, recognise it I did.

‘When I went away to college, she (my mother) gave me a sewing machine, a typewriter and a suitcase.’
Alice Walker.

It was time to balance up my skill set.

In addition to the practical and economical skills of mending, (many WWII-era ‘make do and mend’ skills are now becoming lost, which is doing nothing for the environment or our bank books) there are other reasons why sewing makes good sense in my case, even though I am a busy person. The fact that I am six feet tall and have a 14″ hip to waist ratio, neither of which are considered standard and are therefore not accommodated for in off-the-rack clothing, means that most ready made garments do not quite fit me, with the exception of a couple of brands that happen to cut in my general shape. If the hips are big enough, the waist is off. If the waist fits, it is too tight elsewhere. This, and other multiple variations of fit issues are familiar to many people. Hemlines are pretty much impossible to find at the intended length when you are very tall, as I am, or very short. This being the case, I have farmed out alterations hundreds of times over the decades – to fix sleeve lengths and hems or change the position of buttons, and more – and like many of us, I also had plenty of ‘almost’ pieces of clothing in my wardrobe that seemed okay in the dressing room, but would collect dust for years, never quite fitting, only to eventually be given away. Further, while quality and standards vary enormously between brands, many commercially made clothes are simply not built to last the way they once were. When you make your own things you can make them more sustainably, and make them to last. Plus, you can do it on a budget.

I am a newbie with much left to learn, but in the past few months I have discovered a great deal about what goes into making the kinds of material objects I for decades took too much for granted. Fabric quality. Stitching techniques. The construction of garments and the hours of work that goes into even the simplest item. I look at things differently, more carefully considering the making of an item and what its life might be, how it might be repaired, and whether I’d happily wear it in 5 years or 50. In the past two months I have also successfully altered 4 of my skirts, saving those ‘almost’ pieces of clothing from being wasted. (Some of the detail in those earlier alterations is a little sloppy, but if someone is staring at a button hole edge at the back of my skirt, frankly they are looking far too closely.) I’ve saved an ageing teddy bear with a few choice stitches, much to the delight of my daughter, and also completed a few simple, and some less-simple sewing projects, including a ruffled Victorian skirt, fox backpack for my daughter, a basic cushion, a circle skirt with butted zip, a jacket for my girl using her favourite recycled buttons, and now my first pencil skirt, complete with red kick pleat, lap zip and decorative button detail. This last one feels like my first blog worthy creation.

This pencil skirt is graded from the original pencil skirt pattern to account for my smaller waist and wider hip, hence the 8 darts I’ve put in, 4 in front and 4 in back. As recommended, I went with the pattern size for my largest measurement – my hips. She’s fresh out of the craft room. Here are some images:

buttons

kickpleat1

skirt1

Once I made a real commitment to learning to sew, I enlisted the help of Lorna of The Tailor’s Apprentice to help with some lessons, and I started a sewing bee with my friends (shown below). I also needed a proper sewing machine. Less than 24hrs after I ordered my first sewing machine (a Bernina 350 PE), the old, very inexpensive Brother my husband bought years ago broke. Completely. It just gave up in a hot tangled mess while I tried to sew a strap on my girl’s backpack. Even I’m surprised it died that quickly when put to regular use. Now that I have a suitable sewing machine, with internal metal parts and a manual, I will continue to build my skills.

My next projects include a bolero from a vintage pattern, and my first attempt at a classic Victorian corset. You can see the beginnings of the toile (using recycled scrap material) for that one below.

Thanks to those of you who have been so encouraging, including my friends and my readers. Here are some shots of my sewing progress over the past two months, from my Instagram:

The Dressmakers. (Well technically, the pencil skirt makers.) #sewingbee #diy #patternadjustments #sewing

A post shared by Tara Moss (@taramossauthor) on

 

A big thank you to Loretta of Bluebelle Vintage Clothing for the pencil skirt pattern and the expertise. And thank you, as always, to my husband Berndt for the photographs (and the coffees to keep me going through my time at the sewing machine.)

Happy sewing!

UPDATE: My first corset worked out beautifully. Thank you to Lowana from Vanyanis for your excellent tutelage. I will be blogging on that experience soon.

  • Photographs by Berndt Sellheim.
  • Words (and sewing projects) by Tara Moss, AKA Victory Lamour.

 

11 Comments

  1. Louise

    I have been sewing since I was about 6or 7, taught basics by both grandmother and mother, and I don’t understand how anyone can not sew. There are so many things that can be saved with “a stitch in time”.
    Although I will not replace a zip in pants.

  2. Victory

    Thanks Louise. Yes, it is a vital skill. I have fixed so many sweaters and stuffed animal toys in the past week. A stitch in time, indeed.

  3. Alicia

    Hey Victory (Tara),
    I’m with you – it is a skill that I have not learned as a now 38 year old woman until last year when I used a sewing machine for the first time to make my own 1930s skirt. My Mum and Grandma are excellent sewers, quilters, knitters and I always figured they would be around to do the fixing things I need. However when I was challenged to make something from the 1930s as a craft project, I was quite excited to use Mum’s machine and wear my own skirt. Keep up the practice!

  4. well done, that pencil skirt is so fabulous…. a lot of my sewing was adding extra darts to skirts and trousers for me and my sis to accommodate smaller waists! looking forward to seeing your other makes

  5. Tara, thank you so much for affirming that home sewing is a life skill just like home cooking! It is so exciting to read about your learning journey and see you bringing such style to what is often perceived as homespun. You have touched all the buttons I’ve been speaking about with my purposeful work, the 2014 Sew it Again project and Textile Beat. More power to you 🙂

  6. Lex MG

    Absolutely perfect.This is my favourite look from the “retro” series. It suits your figure perfectly, you have done the skirt brilliantly, so BRAVO. On top of it all, i hold a special affinity for red sweaters in general. Have a brilliant day.

  7. I’m so happy to discover this site Tara!!! I also discovered decades ago the pure joy of learning how to sew my own creations and of having custom fitting clothes.

    Now that I’m retired and have time for FUN stuff again, I want to get back to it again.

    p.s. and I’m going to check out corsets again – used to only wear stockings and french knickers for comfort.

    For many years I thought I was supposed to be too old and fat for all that ‘nonsense’ – but I guess life doesn’t stop in your fifties after all!

  8. Wow! I LOVE your pencil skirt, what lovely fabric and buttons. I also just started to learn to sew a few months ago and I had no idea I would enjoy it so much. Getting the perfect fit is my main aim, as like you, I always find it a struggle to get ready to wear to fit.

  9. Wonderful to see an admired writer, feminist and spokesperson for all things good speaking out about sewing. Love your skirt – your creative skills apply to more than the pen!

  10. My cousin, while learning to do very manly things when he was in the army, also learned to sew. It was essential to be able to mend your own kit when out on patrol etc. Either that or carry a seamstress in your backpack.

  11. Lovely job on the skirt. I too and am vintage seamstress and writer. My fictional characters are seamstresses or learn to sew in the narrative of my novels. I’m so happy to find your blog. I cannot wait to explore more of your site and your writings.

    You are a stunning icon of vintage style!

    http://www.girlinthejitterbugdress.com

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