Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My Sewing Back Story: Part 2, Learning to Sew

Sorry that I have no pictures to illustrate this phase! I couldn't even find a photo of my prom dress.


Because I was around sewing so much as a kid, it was inevitable that I would pick up something. As I mentioned, my mom had a little business making nursing tops with a friend when I was a kid. This was her closest friend at the time, and they also had four kids approximately the same ages as us (there are four of us in my family), so we were all best friends and spent a lot of time together.

Starting when I was probably 5 or 6, possibly even younger, me, my sister, and the two older girls from our mirror family claimed our moms' scraps and hand-sewed lots and lots of Barbie clothes. Unfortunately, I don't think any specimens still exist. I suspect we just draped them directly onto the Barbies and had to cut them off; I don't remember putting in closures! Maybe as I got older a few elastic casings or the occasional snap. I'm not sure how other girls played Barbies, but for us the thrill was solely dressing them up and creating elaborate houses (using larger scraps of fabric to represent the floors of different rooms). Once everything was set up there was really nothing to do but take it apart and start over again with new outfits and new mansions.

I then became interested in sewing for myself. At first we made a lot of tube tops and tube skirts, still all hand-sewing. I think all those years of hand-sewing are why I really don't mind doing it these days. I mean, I groan about how long it takes, but the actual physical labor part of it I find pretty soothing.

Sienna Miller in MarchesaI hoarded large fabric scraps (another trait that continues to this day) and made elaborate plans to enlarge my favorite Barbie outfits for myself. My sister had a Day to Night Barbie whose outfit I really coveted. It was a blue satin pencil skirt with a long ruffle attached, and a sequin tube top. You could wrap the ruffle around the skirt to make a peplum and put a jacket on her for day, and then for night give her a dramatic one shoulder look with the ruffle. I really should make this for myself one day, just to have! This is probably the oldest project on my project list--planned for almost 30 years. I can't find an image for it--everyone has the pink suit for Day to Night Barbie, but I swear this ruffle thing was blue and it definitely existed. I was obsessed with the Marchesa dress on the right a couple years ago; it definitely has to do with my fascination for that Barbie gown! (And I never did figure out how the Marchesa worked; I can't find a closure anywhere or any break in the lower ruffles for a closure.) I had a beautiful full length white lace sheath dress with a nude underlay for my Barbie; this was another outfit I wanted to duplicate.

The first sewing lesson I remember my mom giving me was not auspicious. My sister and I had gotten pale blue corduroy pants and, since we are short, they were too long. My mom had us hand-hem our own pants, sitting on the back steps in the California sun. I was probably 7 and my sister 5. It is hard enough for an adult to hand hem through corduroy, but almost impossible for a kid. I couldn't get the needle through the fabric and it hurt my hand. I'm not sure why my mom decided to start here, because I resisted sewing lessons for quite a while after this bad experience.

The next clear sewing memory I have is when I was about 12. My parents were having a party so us kids were upstairs. While my mom was occupied and couldn't yell at me about using the sewing machine I made a nightgown. I cut out a nightgown shape with dolman sleeves--I'm not sure how I came up with the dimensions and I don't recall if I made a pattern or just cut straight into the fabric but it fit so I must have done some measuring--then sewed up the side seams. It was in a pale green knit (it only now occurs to me that my mom might have had something planned for that fabric). My first self-drafted project. When my mom came upstairs I showed it to her. She decided I was ready for patterns.

We did a few formal lessons with patterns. I hated that she required me to finish all edges with a zigzag (to this day she doesn't have a serger, and isn't interested in one) and press every seam. What a drag. I was not convinced about the necessity of interfacing, either. She also taught me gathers with the aphorism "always sew with a relaxed bottom," i.e., the gathers on the underside. This caused me no end of trouble with the fabric getting folded and twisted and caught up. Only a few years ago I accidentally started a seam with the gathers facing up. Rather than stop, clip my thread, and turn it over I just kept sewing. A revelation! It is sooooo much easier and more precise to sew with the gathers up. However, I eventually came around to finishing all my edges (except knits), pressing all my seams as I go, and using appropriate interfacing.

I know I was comfortable enough with patterns by junior high to make the costumes for a production of Julius Caesar one of my classes did. A toga isn't complicated, obviously, but I know I used a pattern and wowed everyone else with my sewing prowess.

High School

I sewed for myself throughout high school, mostly dresses for church. I really wish I could remember or find any of the particular patterns. This was in the late 80s and early 90s and a typical dress would be a large scale pastel floral print with a tie sewed into the side seams that made a bow in the back. I started out putting in zippers by masking taping them in place and sewing over the tape, and eventually moved onto pinning. I got really good at zippers, though now I've been doing invisibles for so long when I have to put in a regular zipper it's a bit of a disaster. I don't think I ever did any buttonholes then.

I definitely enjoyed sewing during this time and spent quite a lot of my free time and my allowance doing it. Once we had driver's licenses, a friend and I took an expedition to the garment district in Dallas. I don't know if anything is there anymore; there wasn't much at the time (around 1991). There were a few warehouse type stores with mill ends. The cutters all spoke Spanish and so it was helpful I was studying it in school! I don't remember what my stash situation was at this time. Maybe I bought for one project at a time, as I had so little disposable income. I don't remember storing any fabric in my room, and my mom has very little stash or storage room.

Halloween 1993(?)I have always loved Halloween and costumes, so I made my costumes in high school. The costume at left is from early college, but you get the idea. I was in the marching band and marched the flag my senior year. I and the few other girls who could sew made all of our costumes for our shows.

One particular dress I loved I made in white with a navy collar as a sailor-style dress. I believe it had princess seams with the center front and center back panels cut in one length for bodice and skirt. The side panels were cut straight for the bodice, and the side skirt panels were pleated and inset. The collar was a single round piece and it had a center back zip. I only got rid of this pattern when I moved into my condo 4 1/2 years ago and I've been kicking myself ever since. I really wish I'd kept it, and/or had any idea what it was so I could find it again.

Prom 1992My biggest project in high school was my prom dress. There was a beautiful polyester satin at Hancock's that was black from some angles and dark green from others; I now know this to be fake cross-woven silk dupioni but I was no fiber snob at that time. It came in many colors and I had coveted it for years; when it was time for prom I knew exactly what I wanted. I had always dreamed of a full length prom gown, but that year (1992) long was completely out. So I made a knee length dress with a sweetheart neckline, fitted bodice, drop waist, and full skirt. I messed up putting in the zipper, accidentally catching in the fabric. When I ripped it out it left a line in my beautiful polyester fabric, so I wore my long hair down to cover it. Prom is still the only time I've had my hair professionally styled! Unfortunately, my dad was pretty sick the day of my prom so all my pictures were taken in the hospital. I didn't have a date; just went with a bunch of girlfriends. I felt great in my dress, and very proud of it.

I was soooooo ready to move away for college, but one of the things I knew I'd miss was access to a sewing machine. I had been well-prepared to leave the nest, in life and in sewing. By this point I knew how to use a pattern and sew at a moderate level of difficulty. I had never made a lined garment or put in a buttonhole (or, more's the pity, a fly front--I wish I'd learned this as a kid so I wouldn't fear it so much now), but I had the tools and confidence to tackle anything I cared to sew.


Elaray said...

Thanks for sharing your backstory. I wish I had a nickel for every sewer that started with Barbie clothes. And Barbie has such an impossible figure!

Kelley said...

I know your prom dress fabric very well! 1992 was when my grandma was teaching me to sew. Together, we made my prom dress that year with the burgundy version of that very fabric. Recently I started sewing again and am so happy to have found your blog.

Beth Conky said...

Enjoying hearing the story of your sewing history. I love the picture of you in the Adams family costume. I made one for my daughter when she was like 6 or 7 years old. If I can find a picture of it I'll put it on my daughters blog. (She's been trying to get me to guest blog) It's weird because in that picture you kind of look like Judy when she was young. Can't wait to read the third installment.

BeeBee said...

I made more than my share of Barbie clothes, as well. And mom used to knit for her. Probably took about 3 inches of yarn.
But Elaray - she never changed size or complained when you stuck her with a pin.
I never understood my mother's insistance on lining up the pattern "on grain", what a waste of time futzing with the fabric, and why everything couldn't be cut on the fold. And I still hate the cutting out part. But I do press my seams and interfacing is my friend - but I use the iron-on kind now.

Lindsay T said...

Interesting! I did the Barbie clothes thing too. Big ole hand stitches were my trademark design feature.