Thursday, May 31, 2012

How I learned to sew

Steph at 3hourpast recently posted the story of how she learned to sew, which was so like mine in many ways, I decided to share my story also. Funny how many of us go through the same spaces in our lives.
My Mother Jenny, whom we know of here as The Embroidenator, is incredibly creative, and in my childhood I wanted to do what she could do, and she had the patience to let me try, and to teach me. This was the era of Golden Hands magazines, macrame, crafty everything and home sewing was the norm.
My childhood bible...
Even at 8, I was making dolls clothes for my own and my friend's Daisy dolls. By 10, I was laying out patterns for Mum's sewing, which she had to approve before pinning in case I put the fold on the selvage or vice versa.
 Daisy- lacking Barbie's improbable measurements...
By Intermediate, I was making my own clothes, but the finish on the inside was dreadful, and I shudder to think what these clothes looked like. I remember a soft synthetic satin fabric in brown with apricot flowers that I made into a classic 70's dress - gathered off a yoke with deep flounce and back tie. Erk.
The intermediate school I attended in 1976-7 was one of the last to still have sewing and cooking for girls only. It was a revelation to me having to finish seams and redo things under the gimlet eye of Miss Lopdell, who was a cranky old bag. We had to do little samples of french and flat felled and pinked seams for our exercise books. I LOVED all of this, but was very much in the minority. I still remember the fabric - a dusky pink poplin printed in little vintage cars.
 Intermediate: Not my class but same year and I remember some of these guys. Love the uniform! And the world really did have a pinky/brown cast like the photo...
I loved sewing SO much, and as I was a size 14-16 by the time I went to High School, and the clothes in the shops didn't appeal to me nor would they have fitted, I made most of my wardrobe from patterns.
This IS my high school class - me middle of the back row - yes I WAS the tallest person in my class. Hmm, perhaps my ambivalence towards blue started then...
 I did try to draft the odd garment from a magazine picture, with erratic success. A few projects ended up in the bin though..
 It was really making doll's clothes for my bigger dolls that taught me about drafting. I would draw the construction lines onto the doll and then drape the pattern, without knowing that was the word for what I was doing! So on discovering theatre at high school, I started designing and making costumes. Such was my passion for it that my English teacher asked me to make her daughter's wedding dress. So at 17, I made my first wedding dress.
During this time, our next door neighbour Giselle, was an incredibly mentor. Hungarian by birth, she trained in Paris as a couture dressmaker, and taught me so, so much. And she grew the most delicious acidfree tomatoes ever. What a woman!
Starting to sew for others so young, I think I got into the habit and I pretty much made all of my friends' ball, party and wedding dresses, moving onto doing people I didn't know fairly quickly through referrals. Dressmaking financed five years of tertiary study, and I went back to it full time several times, including a surreal 2 years of owning a bridal shop called The Bride Who Took Manhattan (I wanted it to be The Bride Who Ate Manhattan but that was deemed too left of centre!) That was in the early 90's when in NZ the very few shops around made all the gowns, and importing ready made stuff hadn't begun.
I have nothing to show from that time, so here is the first bride related image from a Google search on The Bride who Ate Manhattan!

I won't bore you by going through all of my experiences and trials and tribs, but here I am, around 400 wedding dresses, 1,000 ball gowns, bridesmaids and other formal wear and goodness knows how many costumes later. I have only ever attended one class (tailoring), read very few books about sewing techniques, and never got the chance to sew with other people much. So I am about as self taught as you can be!
I think we all have a different relationship with skills built from childhood up to those learned as an adult. So much more is instinctive as the need to put it into language is not there. I never knew there were terms for adjustments to make clothes fit different body shapes, I just got on with it. So it is simultaneously a bit deflating to find out I have reinvented many wheels, and kind of cool to know that I worked it out for myself hehe.
Anyway, I hope I've not sent anyone to sleep with this long "me fest"! Lastly I just wanted to say that I see sewing mostly as something to do for other people not for myself. I DO sew for myself, but while I enjoy the outcomes, mostly it bores me rigid compared with the fun and challenge of making for another body shape. I can SEE my clothes on others without mirrors or photos needed :) So used to this am I, I had a couple of moments on my wedding day realising that someone was missing - the bride, as I couldn't see her, and it felt quite strange. I loved my dress to bits but felt irrationally cheated of my usual chance to watch it in action, decide what to do differently next time etc, which is how I spend most weddings.
I'm sitting here at 3am in a me made robe, with a me made quilt tucked around my legs which are propped on a me covered ottoman, with a me made cushion behind me. The me made curtains are closed, the me made lamp is unlit, and I realise that in spite of saying I don't sew much for myself, the accumulation of my sewing is all around me. I guess in the end I do get to enjoy the fruits of my own labour!


  1. Dear Mrs. C.,
    What fun! Thoroughly enjoyed your "me" post and found the missing bride portion so, so giggle-worthy. For you, sewing is like breathing. It hardly gets better than that, methinks.

    Very best,

    1. It kind of is like that Natalie! At beginners class the other night, I actually had to sit in front of the sewing machine to find out what position I put my hands in when sewing on it. I had no idea, when I must have spent thousands of hours doing it by now! :)

  2. I liked your post very much. It is kind of satisfying knowing you have figured things out and gleaned information from others that is comparable to a university education. It probably takes longer than a degree would but when I have learned something in this fashion I remember it longer and those "Oh I get it!" moments feel better.

    1. Thank you Wanda! :) I do confess I have always preferred to learn something for myself than being taught, but the combination is pretty powerful too!

  3. Wow, you are so lucky to grow up with sewing in your life! I'm learning from scratch as an adult. I found you through calicostretch. I am finding fellow Wellington/NZ bloggers! In fact, I think I met you the other day when searching in your shop for bias binding!
    So I guess what I'm saying is hi! Nice blog! Haha :)

    1. Hi Johanna! Nice to meet another local sewist, bias binding user and blogger :)

  4. Love the daisy doll dresses. I'd like one of those scaled up to wear.

  5. I love the story of how you learned to sew. I think choosing to sew is challenging, fun and practical makes it very important. What an industrious child you were to sew your own outfits in high school! Bravo!

  6. that really is wonderful, Mrs C, such a mix of serendipity (a Hungarian neighbour, couture trained in Paris, I mean, there can't be many of those about!) and necessity (making your own clothes because you couldn't find any that fit, and acquiring all those skills along the way). Yes, I chuckled about the "missing bride" too. I'm sure you were able to critique your dress in the photos?

  7. Wonderful story Mrs C - I really enjoyed reading about your sewing history - especially with what you've shared over at mine about your adventures in sewing for understanding clients!