Thirty Days of Making: Most of a Shirt

I’m in Day 13 of a short series: Thirty Days of Making. Every day for the next thirty days, I intend to make something, anything, that is in some way connected to school. There won’t always be pictures, and I reserve the right to credit myself for things that I help my kids make. But I’ve decided that I need thirty days of maker success and maker failure under my belt to be a better designer.

I’ve decided that artwork counts, but not writing (unless it’s part of the art, like calligraphy). Digital work counts, but it has to be useful or publishable.

Some days there will be pictures, some days there won’t be. Each blog entry will contain a list of some of the materials and tools, a quick review of the success or failure of the Making, and a reflection on what I think I learned from the endeavor.  (My friend Alicia is beginning a new series along these lines, 12 weeks of the Artist’s Way — I wish her well in her process, go check her out!).

Reason for the Project: “Textile Engineering Class”

On Tuesday afternoons, I run a class that’s called “Textile Engineering, but which is in essence a class in basic sewing.  There are three kids in the class, and frankly if there were any more, I would be completely overwhelmed.  As it is, we’re making a lot of mistakes together, every week, because I can’t look over three shoulders at the same time — kids are working on different projects, and they need different kinds of support in different parts of the process. We also have two kids who are a little more advanced, but in different ways; and one who’s basically a beginner.  So there’s three kids, all in need of varying levels of support and attention, and then there’s me.

Clearly I need more practice.

Process and Result:

A dinner I was hosting had to be postponed tonight, so I went over to school with my cut fabric from a week or so ago, my pattern envelope (Simplicity pattern # 3758), and the instructions.  My colleague S. had talked me through the process of assembling this pattern on Wednesday, and I felt that I was ready.  I laid out the front of the shirt, and started assembling pieces as I’d been directed.  Or more specifically, as I thought I’d been directed last Wednesday.  I should have taken notes.  I should have made a recording of her talking.  I should have made a movie of her interpreting the directions on the pattern.

Sewing experiment
forgot to hem the bottom.

I should have waited until week after next, actually.  Then she could have walked me through the process from beginning to end, and I wouldn’t feel like a moron.

I think I made about sixty-three major mistakes, and numerous mistakes that are minor on the surface, but actually result in me failing to assemble the shirt the way it’s supposed to look.  I kept breaking my gather stitches, for example.  Gather lines are a pair of loosely-sewn-in stitches designed to create those really nice lines of pinches along a seam in a really beautiful shirt or blouse. They’re miniature pleats, in essence.  And they’re made by creating two of these lines of loose stitches, and then pulling them ever so gently to form perfect mini-pleats.  I must have broken about twenty gather lines, damaging the fabric a little more every time I pulled them out.

After about ten times, I gave up.  I thought to myself, “if I never get past the gather lines, I’m never going to learn how to make the whole shirt.  And I’m going to look like a moron to my students.  And I don’t want that, either.”  So I decided I would keep going, regardless, until I had the sleeves on.  Mistakes, errors, stupid placement of the sewing machine needle, whatever.  Keep going.

And I did.  I kept going.  My friend Daniel says, “Build the whole prototype. That way you know what your other serious mistakes are going to be.”  He builds very fancy medical devices that cost thousands of dollars.  I’m trying to assemble a shirt for a halloween costume.  He has months of design time.  I have weeks. Days, really.  I can do this.

I get the gathers assembled.  The yoke of the shirt.  The collar pieces, sewn front to front, with the insides on the outside. Flip the collar inside out.  Wow, attaching a collar to a shirt is hard.  Wow, I’ve made a mess of this… wow. I ripped the yoke of the shirt.

Sleeves. More gathers here.  Oops, looks like I marked my pattern incorrectly the first time.  And the second time.  The assembly dots are in the wrong places.  Ooops.  This sleeve hangs weird.  Ok, now the other sleeve hangs weird in a completely different way.  These sleeves are poofy. They’re not Seinfeld on the Tonight Show poofy, but they’re poofy.  This shirt is not really very flattering to me, is it?  I mean, even if it were assembled properly, it wouldn’t be very flattering.  Sew up the sides.

Done. For now.

Sewing experiment
Look, gathered sleeves and yoke! (Don’t look closely)

So now, I have a shirt. That I made. That looks terrible on me. That can’t really be fixed or improved in its current form, and still needs cuffs for these dumb poofy sleeves. Go me.  It is without doubt the worst shirt I will ever make.

Because the next one will have none of the mistakes of this one.  It will have a completely new set of mistakes.

Reflection on My Learning

I kid, of course, about the next shirt having a completely new set of mistakes. I’m fairly sure I will repeat all of the mistakes of this shirt at least once. But spread over the next three or four sewing projects, rather than all in the same project.

Let’s see, what have I learned?

  • How to gather sleeves and yokes of shirts
  • How to mark a pattern, incorrectly
  • Why a pattern has to be transferred accurately
  • How to transfer a pattern accurately
  • How to cut fabric to leave markers for correct assembly
  • How to read patterns
  • How to unjam the sewing machine
  • How to re-thread the bobbin on three different sewing machines
  • how to replace the needle on three different sewing machines
  • How to pin cloth together for garment sewing
  • What happens when you pin cloth incorrectly
  • What happens when you mis-assemble the collar of a shirt
  • What happens when you try to fix it by pulling (a big rip)
  • How to assemble a sleeve correctly
  • What happens when you don’t
  • How to sew the side-seam of a shirt correctly
  • What happens when you don’t.

See? Learning.

Reflections on General Learning

The fact that I made a LOT of mistakes in the course of assembling this project is actually a boon.  I now have a much better understanding of what my students are going through, and I have a whole host of new techniques that I can use to help them solve their problems.  I understand a good many mistakes that beginning pattern-sewers make, and I have a sense of how to teach people to avoid some of those frustrations in the future.  I’m incredibly excited that I decided to say “Just do it” to this project, and not wait for more experienced hands, eyes, and minds to watch over my shoulder, preventing me from doing stupid things. I NEEDED to do the stupid things in order to be a more effective sewing teacher.

There’s a kind of mathematics knowledge that middle school math teachers gradually acquire. Mathematicians don’t need it, and they would be bemused to know that it exists.  It’s called by its own acronym — MKFT, or Math Knowledge For Teachers.  It’s when the teacher asks, “What’s the answer to problem #5, and everybody says, ’12’ but you and the kid in the back row say ‘7’.  The teacher knows at that point that you both divided in the last step, or didn’t follow PEMDAS rules, or didn’t calculate the exponent properly. The math teacher with MKFT knows what mistake you made because he knows what the answer would be if you made a specific mistake.

And I feel like I acquired some of that knowledge as a beginning tailor today.  I have a better sense of what things go wrong, and how to fix them when they happen.  Woo.

I wish I had a nice shirt I could wear for some event other than an hour or two at Halloween, though.  Given a choice between one and the other, I guess I needed the Sewing Knowledge more for my day job, but I wanted the shirt.


Three out of five stars.  I got a lot of learning out of the project, and I benefitted enormously from the working through of some of the common errors.  Now I know what mistakes to be on guard against in garment sewing, and I know how I’m going to fix this shirt when (if? no, when) I try again to make it.  I’m just glad I didn’t try to make it out of any sort of fancy fabric.  This would have been harder had I known I was going to wind up ruining it in the process of making it.  As it is, I’m now thinking about going as the “Fear of Failure Monster” for Halloween.

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  1. Just a thought: Did you happen to have your sewing mentor look over the pattern and instructions that came with it? I really wonder if there was not something wrong with either the pattern or the instructions? It just does not seem reasonable to me that you would have such trouble with a relatively simple project… not with what I have observed of your skills as recounted in this blog.

    My sister and I were discussing your post and we both think that the people who are now producing sewing patterns may not be expert sewers themselves… or may not be proper teachers of sewing even if they themselves sew (as you know so well yourself, doing and teaching are different.) We both have observed a huge degradation of the quality of things like patterns and instructions for various fabric and needle arts (and lots of other things) in the last 20 years or so. Which prompts me to comment to ask you to consider if the problems you had were really a “nut behind the keys” problem or if it might be a “them” problem?

    • Dear Christine,

      I did have her look over Em, and we agreed that the pattern was probably right. What wasn’t right was how I transferred the notches and dots to my fabric, among other things. So I misassembled the shirt by doing that. I’m also not overly good at gathering, and there are a lot of gathers on a medieval-style shirt.

  2. I hope you don’t think I was criticizing or that I was suggesting that you should have made THIS project out of muslin… I was just adding an observation about sewing in general, albeit for a project a bit more advanced that your current one. And I highly agree that all learning is valuable. I wish I had had a teacher of your dedication and insight when *I* was trapped in what for me was adolescent jail way back when. May you be blessed with a better result next time you tackle a garment!

    • No, no… I knew what you meant; I just didn’t remember if I’d mentioned that I’d made THIS shirt out of muslin, or not.

      I think that everyone I meet and encounter has a similar reaction to me — “I wish I had a teacher like you,” or “I wish my kids had a teacher like you right now.” I’m thankful for the accolades, because it means I’m likely to secure another job at some point. But I think that we could have a lot more teachers like me, first of all, if we redesigned our education program for teachers quite a bit, and respected them more as a profession; and second of all, I’m very much a product of the schools I attended and the schools I’ve taught at. Between those two things, I’m very much the result of a lot of training and a lot of interests… and twenty years ago, for the sake of getting a job, I wouldn’t have been nearly as open about those interests as I am now. 🙂

  3. This is one of the reasons why if you are making something far more complicated than you ever have before, or you are using very expensive fabric, or fabric that’s important for some other reason, you should consider making a mock-up using muslin of a similar weight to your final fabric. It gives you a chance to make your mistakes, or try out a new pattern (pattern makers make mistakes too) and do your final tailoring or alterations before you cut and mark your important fabric.

    Good for you for working so diligently. Sorry your shirt did not turn out as you had wished 🙁

    • I did use muslin for this shirt. I think it’s about $7 in fabric, a donated machine, and about six hours of my time so far… So, at $30 an hour, this shirt cost me $190 or so to make. Badly. 🙂

      But the learning itself is valuable. In design thinking, we say, “what you build with your hands you build in your mind.” I have a much better sense of how to assemble this garment now, all the way through from marking and cutting the pattern to final assembly. And I could guide someone else through the process effectively, too.

      If my goal is to teach sewing, it’s been time well spent.

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