Style Crisis: Getting back in the sewing saddle

Sewing saddle blog header

Even when you see the storm coming, you never quite know how hard it’s going to blow. Is it worth putting up an umbrella, only to risk having it blown away? Is there time to dash for shelter? Do you plod on, head down and determined, trying to ignore the rain soaking through layers or clothing? Or do you embrace it, raise your arms to the sky and challenge the dark clouds to bring it on?

Weathering the storm

I tried the ’embrace the storm’ approach, cycling home from work through London one evening years ago. I was wearing a 1950s fitted white cotton poplin top filched from my mother’s ‘don’t go rummaging in there’ clothes chest. It was quite a thick poplin and since it was a June heatwave I may not have been wearing anything underneath. The heavens opened, hosing down gallons of water on each square inch of tarmac and pavement. There was nothing to be done except accept it and grin. Which I did, to the chap in the car that drew up alongside me at the traffic lights. It was only when I got home that I realised that the smile he returned probably had little do to with the weather and more to do with – well – I’ll leave that to your imagination.

My recent (figurative) storm began with the frenetic run-up to Christmas. It accumulated nervous anticipation as we waited for the call to summon me north to our eldest daughter as she waited to go into labour in January. Work had to be completed in advance of this moveable but inevitable deadline – it than had to be caught up with again between subsequent visits. In the middle of all this, fabrics had to be selected, delivered, photographed and described. The Sewing Bee was due to start. We needed to clear out our winter stock in a remnant sale – and on it went. All while battling this winter’s favourite bug that at one point saw me working my way through a box of tissues a day for what seemed like weeks. (And you wondered why there weren’t any blog pictures…)

We all have our personal version of times like this. There’s usually a day or time we identify which marks an end-point in our minds. A Friday night when everything is finished – or an entirely free weekend to catch up and potter around. However every time my end-point drew closer, something else landed. A family commitment, an extra meeting, the coffee machine’s broken and ‘Oh my lord – that new food really doesn’t agree with the dog’s digestion, does it?’

None of which proved devastating or impossible to handle – but they piled up and kept coming. Eventually I threw up my arms to the sky and invited the clouds to open.

Throw it all at me, why don’t you. Let’s get it over with. I give in…

Of course we always get through, one way or another. Fabulous colleagues, a supportive family, joyous occasions in the midst of all the turmoil and friends who are going through similarly torrid times and who are therefore forgiving. (Thank you!) However those precious days that I’d hoped to reserve over the Christmas break for sewing, reading, seeking out inspiration – those days just disappeared. I mentioned in my last post that an attempt to sew up a piece of fabric from my stash failed miserably. It set me wondering why that project had been such an outright disaster.

What would it take to get back in the swing of things and rediscover the pleasure of a successful sewing project?

What went wrong?

I’ve had enough sewing disasters in my time to know that there’s usually a reason for a project that goes belly-up. I sat myself down and made a list of reasons why I thought I’d produced my ‘wadder’. This is what I came up with:

  • Although the pattern was familiar, I’d embarked on an adaptation without any testing or research. (In this case, adding a roll-neck to a round-necked tunic).
  • I hadn’t worked with this ribbed jersey before
  • I’d attempted to get the project done and dusted in a limited time, late one Sunday afternoon
  • It was the first time I’d had the opportunity to do any sewing since November – i.e. over 2 months away from my machine
  • Although I’ve done a few jersey garments over the last few years, it’s not a fabric type I ‘grew up’ with – I still feel like a bit of a learner in the knit sewing department.
  • Finally, however determined I felt, I was also quite tired.

Remembering why I sew

It was about now that I had an email from Karen at DidYouMakeThat – telling me about her Little Book of Sewing to be published in April. Congratulations Karen!

Karen Little book of sewing

Among the subjects it will touch on are the mental health benefits of sewing. The relationship between the practical arts (sport, too) and mental wellbeing are increasingly recognised and well-established. The positive impact arises from being ‘in the zone’, ‘mindful’ or ‘in a flow state’ (pick your terminology and bear in mind I’m no psychologist) when playing a musical instrument, painting, gardening, knitting or indeed, sewing. You can’t practice properly without allowing your mind to focus on the activity in question – thereby tearing it away from to-do lists, technology and other sources of stress.

A timely reminder then, of why I love sewing so much. For a period of time I get to define my space, send people away (Joe, Patrick and Esme wouldn’t get a look-in). I forget time pressures and focus on a single thing. The penny dropped that my disastrous sewing project had become one more thing on a growing to-do list. Instead of enjoying the process of testing my pattern adaptation, practicing working with a new fabric and allowing myself time to ease into the habit of sewing again, I’d tried to just ‘get it done’. Which might have worked in 1982 just before a night out in in a darkened room where safety pins wouldn’t be noticed. But which failed to acknowledge a big part of the reason of why I love to sew. Most importantly after a two month hiatus, I simply needed to practice sewing again.

I’d set my project up to fail.

Easing myself back into the sewing saddle

Determined to turn things around, I cleared out a full day and a half the following weekend and set myself the simple goal of enjoying the process of creating a successful garment. I have an ongoing slow-sew project in the form of a checked jacket that I’d love to finish.

Jacket in progress not for sewing saddle

However I really didn’t trust myself not to undo all the good work that has gone into that so far; besides, it would never be completed in the time available. I decided to make a list of things that might help ensure success. This is what I came up with.

  • Treating myself to a fabric that I loved and that I was confident about working with (our Itajime ivory & navy blue printed foulard fabric won the day)
  • Choosing a pattern I’d used before and not doing anything to it that wasn’t tried and tested (The winner? Vogue 9204 from our Slinky Shirt Kit, naturally. I’d worn my original sample all through Christmas and madly fancied another version)
  • Setting aside more time than I could possibly need
  • Putting on music that I can work to (For the record my favourite sewing album is currently Ben Watt’s Fever Dream This week, at least…)
  • The essential household chores were done, there was food in the house and everyone knew to let me just be…

And the result?

D’you know what? It worked.

I took my sweet time. I went gently – on myself, as well as my sewing. I stopped to relish each stage and didn’t cut a single corner. I did everything as beautifully as I could, stopped to look at what I’d accomplished and took the time to be a bit proud of myself.

Naturally, I still cocked things up; notably sewing the side seams wrong-sides together. Yes, really. I forgot to turn my blouse inside out having stay-stitched the neckline. But even that turned into a labour of love. I unpicked and re-pressed meticulously and everything was right as rain.

I didn’t get to do the hand-stitching on the sleeve cuffs and hemline until a week later – but when I returned to it, I was amazed. I threaded my needle, put in a couple of stitches to start slip-stitching the hem and I swear I felt my breathing slow and my heart rate drop.

This is the result.

Shirt portrait for sewing saddle

Next up?

Actually I think I’m going to hit the sofa for the weekend. I have a pile of magazines to work through for inspiration and I’m looking forward to planning for the spring. However I’m determined not to forget what I’ve learned in the last couple of weeks. It’s easy to watch the Sewing Bee and forget that we don’t have to sew to that frenetic timetable – any more than I’m sure those brave sewers on TV do once they get home.

In the meantime thank you all for sticking with me as I weathered my storm. The sun has come out and I’m almost caught up (a few emails still to go…) I’d love to know how you’ve managed to carve out time and space to sew under pressure. Or perhaps you’ve also returned to sewing after a break – possibly far longer than my two month dry spell. How have you eased yourself back into the sewing saddle? And generally – what works (or really doesn’t work) for you when you’re embarking on a new project? We know lots of returning sewers at ClothSpot – any advice or encouragement would be appreciated I’m sure.

Have a lovely weekend!

Sewing saddle shirt sofa

18 thoughts on “Style Crisis: Getting back in the sewing saddle

  1. Sarah Skinner says:

    Ooh that looks amazing, Alice. I love the chartreuse background as well ! All very good advice. Sewing with a nice cotton or linen is my advice when I am feeling a bit wobbly ( I should take my own advice more often though ….she says as she *wanders off * to go and look at this satin foulard…) x

    • aliceclothspot says:

      High praise indeed, Sarah – thank you very much! Glad you like the background (FYI it’s ‘Citrine’ from Little Greene – found its way into my office as well as a wall in the ClothSpot workroom 🙂
      I completely agree that satin was probably not the best choice for a return to sewing – it’s really good advice to go for cotton – you’re quite right. I just couldn’t help myself… I did use a spray starch on it before I cut it out though – and that helped with working on it considerably. (I was a bit wary when I first sprayed it *gulp* but the marks disappeared as they were pressed and dried!)

  2. Di says:

    Hi Alice, that looks lovely. I like the sheen and colour of the fabric. As a returner to sewing, I know how distressing it is when a project goes ‘pear shaped! Personally I like to leave plenty of time for sewing. I haven’t worked with satin in years, since I made an error and had to cover it up with beads so you couldn’t see the stitch marks! Hey ho ………

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Thanks very much indeed, Di – I’m glad you like the fabric choice. I’d been itching to have a go with it. I agree that leaving plenty of time (preferably without an end-point) helps enormously. I always used to sew up against a deadline but hadn’t realised how much of the pleasure that removed.
      I did my share of unpicking with this satin and it was fine (the pattern probably helped… 🙂

  3. Marion George says:

    What can I say, it’s just elegant. I bought this fabric to make my forth slinky blouse but then decided I might have too many. Too many? Imposssible! In in the meantime I bought some of La Cirque and a new pattern ( work in progress) and thought I would make the Itajime up in the same. But now I’ve seen it on you I’ve changed my mind. Did someone say that plagiarism was the highest form of flattery? By the way, thepattern on the Itajime remines me of buttons and razor blades. It takes all sorts.

    I had a fall last summer and injured my neck and couldn’t sew for three months. My fingers were inching but the rest of me wouldn’t play. I’ve always been in a tearing hurry to sew but last year taught me to take my time and enjoy. GBSB may sew at brake neck speed but I like a couple of days to contemplate and fit a pattern and another half a day to just cut it out. Just call me Snail. Glad to hear you are out the other side of everything pressing.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Oh Marion – thank you! I’m thrilled that you (and others too) have found that multiple ‘Slinky Shirts’ have become wardrobe staples. Plagiarise away – we all add our own touches anyway. I must say that the pattern’s a bit of a winner – no particularly demanding fiddly bits and it’s easy to wear, too.
      The ‘Buttons & Razors’ is a new perspective. Inevitably now I can’t ‘un-see’ that interpretation. Thank you… ?
      I’m so sorry to hear you had a fall last year – it sounds as if it must have been quite serious to have kept you away from your machine. However if it prompted you to slow it all down a bit and enjoy the process, then perhaps it was indeed a blessing in disguise, even if we wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I find I get slower at new things, but mind less – so it’s not a problem!

  4. Jacqueline says:

    Alice you wrote me a very kind email a couple of years ago after I sent some fabric back because it was well out of my league! My sewing gap lasted almost 35 years. I made psychedelic flared mini dresses with trumpet sleeves in the 60’s – made to dance on Top of the Pops; elegant Vogue shift dresses in the 70’s and my daughter’s romper suits and dresses in Liberty cottons. And the GBSB tonight reminded me of an empire line maxi dress I made to wear at a wedding, where I had made all the bridesmaids dresses out of Laura Ashley cotton.
    Somewhere children and career took over but when GBSB was first aired I went and bought a similar machine and made a linen cotton flared dress which I actually wore! However since then there have been a lot of wadders. Although I have made dresses for my grand daughter and even one for my daughter as a birthday present. But my confidence ain’t great and I find it difficult to match patterns and fabrics. And I can’t seem to buy crimplene anymore ?!

    But reading your post was extremely helpful and I am going to clear some proper time. And take my time too. – I always rush at things even in so called retirement! I love the ‘buttons and razors” fabric . It spoke to me the first time I saw it and i will send for some to make a simple top. And get some spray starch!

    PS Last year I had an urge for colour in my all white house. So Citrine features on two walls downstairs and everyone who comes round comments how great it is. (I can recommend LG Dark Rolling Fog to set off a white bathroom)

    Enjoy being a granny!

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Hello Jacqueline – I’m so pleased that the post was encouraging and helpful to you ? Thank you very much for letting me know – and for your kind wishes too. We never mind fabric returns – I do remember your apologetic email – we would much rather have a happy and confident band of sewers out there than an unhappy customer. It sounds as if you’ve had stacks of sewing experience in the past and to reiterate a sentiment of my post: ‘Go gently on yourself’! You obviously have oodles of experience and skills – and it’s amazing how a little bit of gentle practice will help you recall them.
      We often hear about the difficulty in matching a fabric to a pattern which is why we’ve launched our kits. However we *always* love a project – and if you ever need to discuss what fabric might work for a particular project then don’t hesitate to give us a call or send an email. Your confidence will return once you’ve got a few successes under your belt – but bear in mind we all have moments when we doubt ourselves – especially after a disaster or two!
      And the crimplene? Whisper it ? some of our heavier structured ponte Roma jersey fabrics have similar properties – we’ll be happy to point you at the right ones ?
      Finally thank you for the paint suggestion! My family roll their eyes when I get the paint charts out (and I’ve even had customers on the phone try to describe the colour of fabric they’re after according to a paint chart. Dead trout jacket, anyone? ?)

  5. Fiona says:

    Beautiful! A lovely combination of pattern and fabric.
    And a really interesting blog post. All sewing failures I’ve had are generally when I’ve put myself under too much pressure, not allowed myself time to enjoy the process and generally not thought things through. The time we give to the process of sewing and getting absorbed in it is what it is all about for me!

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Fiona I couldn’t agree more about the ‘absorption’ and I know that we’ve spoken before about how important that is for our enjoyment of the process of creation (as well as the wearing, eventually!) Thank you very much for the positive feedback – it’s very kind of you. I’m about to post about a *successful* polo neck top so my ‘learning experience’ will not have been in vain, I’m relieved to report 🙂

  6. Di says:

    Lovely blouse Alice. Looks elegant and comfortable. This is the pattern I should have used, instead of the SA Parker tunic, for the fabric (jumpsuit?) I bought from you last Autumn.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Thank you, Di – if you’re declaring that I have achieved a state of ‘elegance’ then I am truly home and dry – thank you for letting me know!

  7. Odette says:

    Great blouse. I have been eyeing up that fabric and you have made it look every bit as good as I thought it might be.
    Whenever I produce a wadder, and sometimes after a successful but complex project, I usually turn to a tried and tested and simple project. I have heard it described as a palate cleanser, which works for me. In my case, it’s often a t shirt from my beloved Ann by Style Arc.
    I really like that you unpacked why the roll neck project didn’t work instead of just shrugging it off. That made it much better than a write off and made me reflect on how I decide what to sew when my schedule is rammed and I’m snatching some time.
    Those times are often when I whack out a potentially wearable muslin. I am using cheap fabric and make up the pattern as-is, or with very basic alterations. This is how I decide whether the design suits me at all and what might be needed to fine tune fit and design. If it’s good, I usually plan to make again with higher investment in fabric and attention to detail. If the muslin is wearable, that’s a bonus and I get to learn any wearability snags before committing to the remake. Even if the muslin isn’t wearable, useful lessons are learned. An win-win outcome in a situation where I suspect I’m not going to do my best sewing.
    Lovely to have you back and congratulations on becoming a grandmother.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Hello Odette – first many apologies for the belated reply to your lovely post! I absolutely *adore* your notion of a sewing ‘palate cleanser’ – I think it’s a brilliant idea to have a pattern that will get you back in the swing of things.
      I have an update on the roll neck project which is about to be revealed in my next post. Coincidentally it, too, is a very simple Style Arc pattern and I’m relieved to report that it worked a treat (in my opinion at least!) It may turn out to be my own palate cleanser since having completed it, I’m feeling much better about going back to my neglected jacket project.
      I’ve heard a few people talk about ‘wearable muslins’ which is a great solution to a new pattern and has the advantage of allowing you to try a garment out in ‘real life’ before deciding whether the style or the fit needs further work. I shall bear it in mind, especially for a summer dress project I have in mind.
      Meantime – thank you very much indeed for your kind wishes – it’s great to be back in harness despite the attractions of this particular distraction!

  8. Pat says:

    So where do you lovely folk source material for muslins? I’m running out of old bedsheets and the remains of the calico we were given when I did a sewing course, 15 years ago.
    I’ve yet to see a fabric store with a section labelled ideal for toiles/ muslins. ( autocorrect turned muslin into muslim so caution needed. Interesting though that it turned toiles into “toiled”. And toil I did with those trousers!).

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Hello Pat – we just have a stash of off-cuts and remnants of fabrics no longer on the site – as you might imagine ? However the idea of putting up a section of ‘Fabrics for muslins & toiles’ is a super one – we’ll put our minds to that, thank you very much indeed! We do have calico but that’s really for formal blocks rather than actual trial garments. On the list and much appreciated.

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