The other day, I began work on a new sewing project. I’m really into sewing garments (or costumes, at least) these days. As a child, my mother made Halloween costumes for me; as I grew older, I grew larger and taller, and no store-bought costumes fit any more. At some point, I started making Halloween costumes out of ordinary clothes, and then eventually I gave up dressing up for Halloween.
And now I’m sewing them myself. First the Jedi tunic (someone gave me a set of matching hakama pants last night, actually! Yay!), now this.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I took some sewing classes this summer at Beehive Sewing in Northampton, MA. I thought it was an important part of the work that I needed to be doing in the Design Lab at my school. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed learning through this work is that it doesn’t take much to learn to get good enough to sew costumes. I’m sure that suits and formal shirts are a long ways down the line for me, of course. Draping and tailoring are arts that I haven’t learned yet, and am unlikely to learn anytime soon.
On the other hand, it turns out that costumery is not particularly challenging. Mostly it requires learning to sew straight seams and cut fabric patiently while moving around on a hardwood floor on your knees with a pair of fabric scissors.
In terms of hours of work, this was about eight hours: half an hour at the fabric store, where in retrospect I wish I’d spent more time doing a better job selecting fabric for this project (and reading labels). This stuff looks like lightweight wool, but it turns out to be a mostly-polyester/wool blend. I also spent about 15 minutes online looking for some Celtic-style trim, which I wound up buying from Cloak and Dagger Creations (the same people who made my winter cloak).
Then I spent two hours laying out fabric in my office, and positioning the pattern pieces on top of the fabric, and an hour cutting. That’s photographs #1 and 2, above and to the right. I’d say that measuring and cutting fabric is, by far, the hardest part of any sewing project I’ve yet encountered. It just never goes quite as smoothly as one would want, and by the end, one’s knees are usually tired from crawling around. There’s also a lot of ironing to do, to get the pieces to lay flat once they’re cut; and you also have to iron the tissue paper so that you can get really crisply-shaped pieces of fabric. By that point, it was 11:00pm this past Wednesday, and time to go to bed. I cleaned up the office, and put away the cut pieces for another night. But I was excited to begin stitching.
The trim arrived in the post on Thursday. I thought I’d ordered one kind of trim, but this narrow blue and silver trim with Celtic beasts showed up instead. Cool — it actually is the right trim to match the trim on my big black cloak! Yes! A possible accidental delivery winds up serving the overall goal of having cool pieces to wear to parties and functions and events…
Thursday night rolled around. After a function in the early evening, and some grading, I assembled the two front panels, added on the decorative trim, and then sewed the two long front panels to the back panel. The result was picture #3. I wish I’d taken more photographs during this part of the process — all the pinning and measuring (Pinterest has nothing on this kind of pinning, really). The result was a long, sleeveless coat or jacket. In a nice silken brocade, this would be a very fancy garment indeed, even without sleeves.
But, my friend Daniel says, “Build the whole prototype. You never know what mistakes you’re going to make until you’ve built the whole thing.” So I also made the sleeves. This involves folding the roughly-tombstone shaped sleeves in half, and then sewing one edge together, and then sewing the hems on the sleeves. I think if I were to make this again, I’d add cuffs of some kind to the sleeves — but then I have to learn how to make cuffs properly. I also think I mis-attached the sleeves: I think the left sleeve is on the right arm-hole, and the right sleeve is on the left arm-hole. But I’m not sure, and I want to finish the whole coat before I go about messing with it too much. It may wind up being better to count it as DONE, chalk it up to a learning process, and move on to the next project.
What’s learned from a project like this?
Well, one of the things I learn from this is that I should take more process photos of my work in progress. I wish I’d taken more photographs of the process of assembling sleeves, or the process of sewing on the trim, or the process of cutting out pieces. But then there are two processes at work simultaneously, and they’re at odds with one another — one is the process of setting up photographic shots and creating instructive but beautiful photographs; the other is the process of making the garment. And the garment-manufacturing process is — at the moment — more interesting.
But I learn something from the process of explaining and communicating and reflecting on the garment construction process. So the photos and the sewing go — sort of — hand in hand. I need both, but in unequal measures.
It’s also clear to me that sewing is a lot like cooking: If you start with poor ingredients, like polyester fabric, you wind up with poor quality results. Yet the more objects you make, the more challenges you overcome, the greater the range of problems you know how to solve in the future. The real benefit comes not from fixing the same garment obsessively, but learning to make some things quite well, and learning to create variations on a theme. And, as always, time is an essential ingredient. I remarked to my lady that the difference between this garment as a ‘costume’ and this garment as an ‘article of clothing’ appears to be that if it had a lining, if I hemmed it appropriately, if I added in rich detail work along the shoulder seams (and attached the sleeves to the right holes!) like gathers, if I adjusted the pattern to create a yoke across the back, if I built in some pockets, if I tailored the waist a bit, or if I added in ‘tails’. These are all experiments I can take with this basic design, and which I may attempt at some point. Each of them will teach me things about sewing that I don’t currently know.
In the meantime, though, I think it’s important that I finish this garment. Which means consulting with some of my other sewing friends, and learning exactly how to attach the facing as recommended in the original pattern’s instructions.
Because, as with cooking, it’s important to learn the recipe as written, before beginning to experiment.