This summer, my life-long hatred of clothes shopping finally hit the limit, and I decided I would solve my shopping problem once and for all by simply making my own damn clothes. I resolved after more than a decade of failed attempts to really and truly take up sewing. Other, more normal people in my life have pointed out that this is an extreme approach to dealing with my clothes shopping problems. Maybe it is. My idea of what is easy or reasonable to make is clearly skewed.
My past sewing attempts have not been great. In high school, I managed to make a basic denim pencil skirt, featuring a functional zipper fly, a shiny black patterned denim that looked like it had eyes all over (tres chic!), and seams that I made no effort to finish. I think I wore it once or twice before I threw it in the back of my closet and then promptly gave up on sewing for the moment. In college, I decided it was time to try again so I bought fabric to make pajama pants for Aidan and myself. I finished Aidan’s pants, but they were at least a size too big with a tie-waist that didn’t really do the trick. I repeated the too-big problem when I set out to make sun dresses for my two youngest sisters but got discouraged when the first dress didn’t even come close to fitting. I never even got around to cutting the second dress out.
Despite my sewing history, I thought this time around I would be able to draw on my experience as a seasoned knitter to try to control the learning process in such a way that I could maybe, possibly, hopefully avoid a long and awkward period of producing things that you wear once or twice (to the horror of your loved ones and close friends) before tossing them out. The quality and wearability of my knitting benefitted hugely from lots of research and careful planning, so I reasoned that applying the same principles to sewing would result in a quick path to sewing non-shameful garments. So I bought a handful of really good, well-reputed books on sewing technique and pattern fitting and I did lots of reading.
I realized my controlled, research-based approach was seriously lacking the first time I sat down in front of my sewing machine this summer, intent on finally finishing the pair of PJs I started seven years ago. (I thought finishing that project would be enough to sharpen my sewing skills and get me going seriously—Ha!) I couldn’t get the tension on my machine balanced and after 90 tedious minutes of messing around with my machine, I realized I had just threaded the damn thing wrong. And even that episode wasn’t enough to keep me from making the same threading mistake about four more times. Here I was thinking I was at the starting line, and I hadn’t even figured out how to tie my shoe laces yet. But I dug in and kept going. I managed to finish those PJs and they haven’t fallen apart in the wash yet. I also made two pairs of bike shorts, refashioned some of our old T-shirts into a toddler-sized shirt and a few pairs of underwear, made a cover for my sewing machine, and successfully hemmed a new pair of jeans. I even took a pair of scissors the pajama pants I had made for Aidan long ago—I resized them, attached a new elastic waistband, and cut them off at the knee (at his request) and now he has a pair of summer lounge shorts that have already seen a lot of wear.
I had a stumbling moment when I decided it was time to leave all those “busy” projects behind and get serious about making those well-planned, carefully executed garments that had always been my goal. I decided to try my hand at a simple woven tank top pattern, and it was a fantastic flop. I didn’t even bother to finish it. I think the only thing that stopped me from giving up on sewing again was finding out that a friend was pregnant and deciding to use my super-amateur sewing skills to make her a baby gift. Baby sewing yanked me out of my inflated expectations and led me back to low-stakes projects with simple steps and a quick turn-around time. I planned a couple of more easy sewing projects and started using the fabric scraps I’d accumulated for quick projects like a pincushion and a coffee sleeve. These little crafty projects are not at all what I had in mind when I decided to start sewing, but they have been seriously satisfying and I’m learning a lot from each project, no matter how small.
A few days ago, I read a blog post on Grad Hacker summarizing the 10 principles of Rapid Skill Acquisition explained by Josh Kaufman in his book The First Twenty Hours. (I haven’t read the book—just the post about the book.) The post was interesting, although not all of the principles apply to my efforts to learn to sew, especially since I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to learn to sew as fast as I can—it’s a leisure activity for me, after all. But I was especially struck by the last principle, which is to “emphasize quantity and speed.” The idea is to give up on the idea of achieving perfection and instead just do as much as you can. In general, I’m a big proponent of doing things well rather than fast. But my clumsy start to sewing has definitely shown me the value of putting quality on the back-burner for a bit and just diving in, making things quickly, and being happy with “done” and “good enough.” So have I made a bunch of crafty things over the past five months that were never part of my sewing goals? Yes. And have I made a bunch of things that are, on the whole, pretty crappy? Hell yes. Do I anticipate more sewing disappointments? Of course. But I also know that I’m getting more confident and a little less amateur with each quick project, and that’s no small thing.