On Becoming a Sewist

I’ve been sewing for about two years now.

Garment sewing has been a wonderful journey for me. I started sewing for two related reasons. First, my wardrobe was starting to reflect a New York monochrome palette. I missed wearing loud colors and silly prints. Secondly, and more distressingly, I had trouble buying clothes that fit. I’ve been gradually recovering from a chronic illness, and as I do so, I’ve been gaining weight. I’m now in that awkward size range of not-quite-plus-size. Going clothes shopping was often a distressing and demoralizing experience.

Sewing my own clothes changed that. I am limited only by what fabrics I can buy, and my own skills. I can add color into my wardrobe. I can draft a button-up shirt that doesn’t gape at the chest! I can have skirts with pockets!

Linen pants for summer. I like pockets, and I like being comfortable.

This is a strong contrast with my experience of buying my own clothes. In stores, I’m often at the top of the size range. I struggle to find affordable, durable clothing that actually fits me, let alone that fits my style. I always feel like I’m the wrong shape — too much of this or that.

Plantain T-Shirt from Deer & Doe, a handknit cowl, and storebought leggings & skirt.

In many ways I am still a novice. I approach sewing like I approach many crafts – with the enthusiasm of a dedicated amateur. I can point to many deficiencies in my techniques, gaps in my knowledge, mistakes left unmended in my garments.

Deer & Doe Agave Skirt, storebought shirt. There are lots of mistakes in this skirt – the buttonholes didn’t come out very well – but I still wear it. Because foxes, duh.

Still, even though I have plenty to learn, I have accomplished so much! My closet is now full of clothes that I’ve made myself. I’d guess that about 30-50% of my clothing is self-sewn. I’ve re-introduced colors and prints to my closet, more of my clothes have pockets, and – most importantly – my clothes fit.

I’ve never owned a one-shoulder dress before, because I could never find one that actually fit me. This dress is self-drafted, using “Sew Many Dresses, Sew Little Time” as a starting point.

I am not an outstandingly good sewist, or a tailor. But here’s the secret: you don’t have to be. Something I didn’t fully appreciate until I started sewing was how bad most ready-to-wear clothing is. A lot of the clothes I was buying before were from fabrics I didn’t love. Worse, they didn’t fit me at all: if something fit in the shoulders, it definitely wouldn’t fit my bust, waist, or hips. So I accepted that all of my clothes would hang awkwardly, and wrote off some styles as just “not suited” for my body type. But when you make your own clothes, well, if you span several sizes, you just connect the dots on the pattern. That’s it! There’s no magic.

If you’re interested in sewing garments, here’s what I would recommend:

  • First, learn to use a sewing machine. Sew some straight lines. Tote bags or zipper pouches can be fun first projects. Probably get someone to teach you this IRL – it’s much easier with an in-person teacher.
  • Consider getting a basic dressmaking book – you can check one out of your local library, since most libraries seem to have pretty robust sewing resources. I have The Beginner’s Guide to Dressmaking by Wendy Ward. Yes, there are a bajillion internet tutorials, but that’s part of the problem; it’s easy to get lost and disoriented when you’re just starting out and don’t know what you need to know. A good beginning sewing book will be concise while also introducing all of the essential basics, and you can use it as a reference.
  • Sew a basic woven pattern from an “indie” designer who offers in-depth beginner-friendly instructions. These are often called “sew alongs”. I started with the Hollyburn Skirt (pattern link, sewalong) and the Scout Tee.
  • Sew a basic knit pattern, again from a designer who offers in-depth tutorials. I like the book Stretch! by Tilly Walnes, which I borrowed from my library. Sewing knits requires a new set of skills, but it’s so valuable – most of our daily clothes are knits, right? Personally, I love this free t-shirt pattern.
  • Have fun, buy some pretty fabrics, and try to make some shit!

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