I’ve taken a few sewing classes recently. There’s a workshop in Northampton, Massachusetts, called Beehive Sewing. For $40 you can take a beginners’ class, and for $11 an hour you can rent the use of the studio, which includes access to shears, rotary cutters, cutting table, a pattern library, a sewing machine and a serger (autocorrect wants to make that word “server” but it shows you how computer-centric our world has become). Tess Poe the studio owner, or one of her assistants, will guide you through the process of running the machines and through the intricacies of your chosen projects.
It turns out that sewing, at least basic stuff, isn’t particularly difficult. Put two pieces of fabric together; match the edges; run a stitch half-an-inch from that edge; fold back and press with an iron.
The devil is in the details.
The stitch needs to be this wide if you’re building a bag, but this wide if you’re constructing a shirt. Sew the wrong sides of the fabric together, then turn them inside out. Ink the intended line on the tissue pattern. Cut the pattern out of the tissue paper, then pin to the fabric — follow the same line of cut ALL the way around the pattern. Use fabric of the correct width, and weight. Ordinary fabric on the domestic sewing machine. Stretchy fabric on the overlock machine (serger)… Ladder stitching by hand to finish attaching the lining to a bag.
Make a prototype using muslin — a simple, lightweight fabric — and a basting stitch — a particularly long seam setting on the sewing machine that can be easily disassembled. Older sewing machines are generally better than newer ones; they’re intended to be workhorses. Replace needles frequently.
It took me two hours to make a little “eye pillow” stuffed with lavender. It took me closer to six, to make a stole for a friend getting ordained to the diaconate. I expect that this shirt pattern for my Halloween costume will be something like 10 hours: cutting at home, sewing at Beehive Sewing, and finishing stitches at home again.
But, when I noted to the owner of Beehive Sewing, Tess Poe, that I’d never expected it to take so long, she smiled, “maybe. But we’re not making sewing projects: we’re making sewers.”
It’s a very MakerLab or Design Lab thing to say; we aren’t out to make projects; we’re out to make Makers and Designers. And it’s clear that “fabric engineering” is a marvelous route to Making enthusiasm.
But I recommend not going it alone. Find someone to teach you. Find your Tess.
Because this is one of the things that has become clear to me about Making and designing: these are things that are learned through original apprenticeship, not from parallel mastery. What I mean is, the skills I learned as a carpenter don’t apply as much as I might like to fabric. Knowing how to operate a scroll saw doesn’t make me a skilled sewing machine driver. I have to start the apprenticeship again, and learn a completely new set of skills.
And darshan matters. I’ve learned more about sewing, and best practices, from my five hours in the studio, than in the other five hours trying to figure this out in the design lab or at home. Being in the presence of a good teacher — you absorb a little of their energy, a little of their way of doing things — and you get better, faster. I’m looking forward to learning more of this art: I have a Halloween costume I’d like to build.