On beginnings

I recently had a chance to revisit, up close, my early sewing skills when I pulled out the second thing I made in my adult sewing life to take apart and remake. While I had dabbled as a kid and teen in sewing, it wasn’t until my first year in Minnesota that I took it up seriously. My first project was a beautiful circle skirt that I still wear, and the second was a Colette Laurel out of a lovely thick flanneled wool tartan (the same I used for my McQueen kilt!).

Shannon standing indoors wearing a dark tartan shift dress and a chunky brown leather and brass necklace.
The original iteration

I wore it quite a bit! I loved the easy, throw-on shape and the gorgeous fabric. I went on the tweak the pattern and make a few more, one of which I also still wear.

Shannon standing facing away from the camera, showing the back of the dress with an exposed brass zipper.

I didn’t really know how to do an invisible zip, so instead I sewed in an improvised exposed zipper, using — LORD past me — a heavy, metal separating zipper, like you’d use on a coat. Not a terrible choice given the heft of my fabric, but not great. It had style! However, I’ve gotten bigger since I made it, and the polyester lining that just fit when I made it no longer allowed me movement. But the exterior fabric is so lovely that I couldn’t leave it!

Shannon, in a more recent photo, standing wearing the same dress. It fits about the same though her body is bigger.

I carefully unpicked and removed the lining and zipper, then unpicked all the seams. To add more room, I restitched the side and back seam at 1/4″ rather than 5/8″ and let out the hem, pressing it up more narrowly to give a little more length.

In the original, I’d cut a straight size 18 and done a clumsy full bicep adjustment by adding straight amounts of width down the center and sides of the sleeve piece. You might be able to see in the original photos the way the sleeve puffs at the shoulder — evidence that I didn’t know how to set in a sleeve, so they always ended up with pleats at the top of the shoulder!

I needed more arm room in this remake, and without extra fabric to recut the sleeves I simple scavenged from the bare scraps I had to add small strips underneath each arm. I then trimmed down and slightly reshaped the armscyth to add width and bring the shoulders in a little. With some gathering stitches, the sleeves set in perfectly — no pleats at all!

Shannon, standing closer to the camera, with one hand on her hip as she grins at the camera.

I cut and added a new lining in rayon bemberg, understitching at the neckline and tacking using a short thread chain at the hem to keep it in place. I omitted the back zipper entirely as I can pull the dress over my head.

Shannon facing away from the camera, showing the dress without a zipper now.

I’m really pleased with the remade dress and have already worn it a few time! More than that, though, I really valued the experience of reflecting on the growth in my process.

I was recently a guest on the (fantastic) Clothes Making Mavens podcast, and had a chance to comment on this act of remaking and reflecting on my history as a sewist. As I spent multiple nights unpicking, I noticed both the things I did great — pattern matching across all body seams! — and those that looked a little gnarly — unfinished seams on the lining that shed loose threads with every wear. I didn’t know what understitching was, so I just did a narrow topstitch around the neckline. I had no idea how to insert a zipper, especially with a lining, but somehow I got it in and looking decent from the outside.

If I were to make this pattern today, I’d do an FBA to avoid those too-wide shoulders, and I’d amend the sleeves more systematically. I’d probably make it a little longer, because my tastes run that way. But it’s still not only a wearable garment but one I take pleasure in!

Shannon smiling at the camera, wearing her completed dress.

All of this got me thinking about being a beginner. I’m passionate about introducing folks to sewing, but I’m very bad at giving advice on how to be a beginner. I had a major leg up having had both informal and formal instruction in sewing as a kid; that meant when I picked it back up, I knew how to run a machine, how to read and use a pattern, and the basics of garment construction. While there were plenty of terms I encountered at the beginning that I didn’t know, or didn’t know how to apply — see above on understitching — I still could make a wearable garment.

As an absolute beginner, learning those basics can seem like an impossible hurdle. However, I’m of the opinion that those initial mechanics — how to thread your machine, to choose stitches, to stitch a straight line and a curve; how to read and use a pattern — are actually the easiest parts to learn, and are really the only ones you can explicitly be taught by someone else, rather than learning through experience.

Once you know how to run your machine and cut your pattern pieces, every single thing from there is a matter of experimenting and deciding for yourself how closely you’ll hew to the “rules.” Do you want to look up what understitching is, or are you fine with going with something you already know and are comfortable with? Do you follow the fabric suggestions precisely, or experiment with the knowledge that you might risk not liking the final product? What kind of fit is a good fit for you, and how can that change as you learn more?

The thing about being a beginner is that you don’t know what you don’t know. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there in the world — around fitting, techniques, fabrics, patterns — and you can’t predict what solutions folks have come up for problems you haven’t yet dreamed of. You can either let that hinder you, delay you as you try to learn each and every thing, or you can forge ahead and do every step to the best of your current ability and knowledge.

Venturing into any new hobby, but especially a new hobby as an adult, requires a lot of humility and plenty of patience. Once you have the barest of bare minimum knowledge, the only way you can learn is to give it a try, to take note of those things you struggle with, to see what you’re happy and unhappy with in the final product, and start to adjust accordingly. You’re going to spend a long time adjusting, friends. Giving things a try, then adjusting accordingly describes most lifelong sewing practices. But at some point you just might rip apart a garment five years later and see how far you’ve come, and how much you’ve learned, and all the ways you’ve learned to make your own choices for your own sewing practice.

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6 thoughts on “On beginnings

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  1. Love this post! And what you describe about learning some core basics and then adjusting / adapting really rings true for me about all sorts of things. Keep writing! Keep sewing!

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  2. I’m so impressed that you were able to remake this- and make it fit! I have a few things things that I really need to alter, but I keep putting it off. This wool was definitely worth saving!

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  3. Diving into well loved early makes to repurpose them for today is fascinating. I took a much loved linen blend tunic apart last summer. The sleeves were too tight and majorly pleated in, I think sleeves are the toughest part for beginners, but I’d piped all major design details! Now it is a sleeveless vest with finished seams. Beginners do some amazing things and figure out a way to keep the garment together. Looking back is a great way to see how far you’ve grown.

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  4. What a brilliant post. It’s lovely that this dress, in both of its iterations, has been a part of your wardrobe & regularly worn. I’ve gone back and made (small) alterations over time to some past makes where the fabric was good quality. It’s definitely a lesson for me in using decent fabric as I’ve recently got rid of a number of others, as I didn’t have a desire to remake & keep wearing them as the fabric wasn’t enjoyable to wear.

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  5. Thanks so much for this – it’s just what I needed to hear. I have just started, tentatively, to sew, and I’m always scared of screwing up because I don’t know enough. But reading this gives me a different perspective – that I can take diffwrwnt steps than a more experienced sewist would, but I need to take those steps! May I ask – did the Laurel pattern come with instructions for a lining, or did you self-draft it?

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    1. I’m so glad it resonated! There are a lot of terms and techniques in sewing, and I’ve found that trying to master all of them at once is never going to work. So definitely try to work through patterns as well as you can with the knowledge you have, and it’s okay to skip or modify things! The Laurel didn’t come with instructions for a lining, but it’s pretty simple to put in, especially if you omit the zipper in the back. Basically, you just make a second Laurel out of lining fabric, hem the bottom and sleeve hems a bit shorter, then stitch it to the neck of the outer part and turn! You can then use little thread chains to tack the lining down at the hem and sleeves, connecting it to the seam allowance so it’s invisible. The Colette blog has a good tutorial on thread chains!

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