Seventeen things (for maker teachers): sewing

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.

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  1. And darshan matters. … 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 absorbed a lot of sewing know-how from my mother. She hoped I’d enjoy it like she did, but I never got into it. Fast forward 20+ years to when I need to make curtains. I knew what fabric, thread, and needle to get; how to find a pattern; where to find it all in the sewing store; and what to do with it when I got home.

    I noticed I automatically cut fabric the same way, only closing the scissors about 90%. The exoteric reason is that the fabric jumps when you close them that last bit, and you get a raggedy cut. The real reason was it didn’t sound right. When mom cut a pattern on the dining room table, it sounded like “khhhh…. khhhhhh… khhhhhh…” and never ended with a ” khhhSNICK!”

    • I know that khhhh…. khhhh…. khhh… sound already, and I also know that khhhhsnick! sound is a thing to be avoided. I don’t always avoid it, but I know to do so… and now I know why those jagged little edges are present on my projects, too!

  2. And yet, learning on your own has its advantages too. How do you meld the advantages of an apprenticeship with what you might learn on your own?

    Richard Feinman always credited his 3rd grade teacher as his most important influence… for sitting him in a corner with a math book when she found he had already surpassed her. As he worked through the books, she replaced them with ever more advanced texts. He said it gave him a different toolbox than everybody else, which is why, he said, he ended up on the Manhattan Project (as, I believe, the person with the lowest IQ, if memory serves.)

    I agree with you about apprenticeship, but I also believe in “beginner’s mind.”

    What are your thoughts on reconciling the two?

    • It’s a complicated problem of awareness. Let’s guess that there’s essentially seven models of teaching around:

      • Lecture: what we call “sage on stage” — a teacher providing an organized download of information
      • Directed Practice: what we call “guide on the side” — a teacher watching and correcting the action of a student in the moment
      • Examined Practice: a teacher periodically reviewing the work of student to assess flaws and faults, and provide correction. Teacher as tester, if you will.
      • Solitary Practice: teacher as learner. What you called “beginner’s mind”, perhaps? The student learns on their own by gathering and using various resources. Perhaps he or she follows an instruction manual or video, and then develops to the point where he/she discovers his/her own insights; the teacher and the student are the same.
      • Group Practice: the study group. teachers as learners, learners as teachers. A group of students together teach one another the material they need to achieve some goal.
      • Advisor: The student brings some problem to an expert, and the expert helps solve the problem, teaching the student along the way how to solve similar problems.
      • Darshan: a student hangs out in the company of a worker in some trade or endeavor, and gradually absorbs their way of doing things, regardless of whether they’re genuinely interested in learning that set of skills or not.

      To what degree can we consciously shift between models of awareness as teachers? Can we say, “I’m going to lecture for ten minutes, and then I’m going to create opportunities for directed practice for ten minutes, and then we’re going to do group practice with some advisor time.” I’m not sure it’s that simple. A teacher of a martial art can put one of his students in charge of the class for the day; the teacher is doing examined practice on his students, or advisory time; the higher-level student is leading group practice; everyone is getting directed practice… How does one achieve beginner’s mind again?

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