Friday, 18 December 2015

2016 Will Be The Year I Sew for Me

So, I read about it, I really want to, I’ve even given it a try. But something isn’t quite right. Ah! yes, that would be the fact that I have read just about every book I can find and am now left with only one thing to do: start sewing, right now!

But even now I am hesitating. I just can't seem to make it work for me. Why not? Well, maybe it is just too difficult for me to do, maybe I will never get the hang of it. Those books either make it seem really, really difficult or so easy a toddler could do it. Maybe I should just give up.

No! Wait! That won't do! What do I really need to now before I start to make my own clothes? Well, thinking back, because of all that prevaricating reading I have realised that I don’t need that much to get started. I have most of it already. I have a sewing machine and a good iron, a table to work at and a bit of space to store everything. But for anyone reading this who wants to avoid spending a few months reading and a few pounds spending money on unnecessary stuff, this is what I came up with:

The Barest Minimum

Tape measure – preferably with cm and inches. A standard 150cm/60” length is fine for all but the most tall.
Pins – dressmakers steel pins that are reasonably thin and long. I have some with pink glass heads and others with plastic flowers. The glass headed ones can be ironed over but the ones with plastic heads probably wouldn’t survive that!
Sewing needles – a packet of mixed hand sewing needles is all you need. I also have a packet of embroidery/crewel needles too. Then I can also sew up any accessories I think of.
Scissors – I would recommend three pairs:
1. Dressmakers shears, to only be used or cutting fabric. These should be kept out of sight as non-sewers seem to be drawn to them and cutting paper blunts them really quickly.
2. Cheap scissors for cutting out paper patterns. My Nana told me to keep a pair of cheaper scissors with my dressmaker’s shears so that I’m never, ever tempted to use the shears for cutting paper.

3. Finally a pair of small sharp scissors for cutting thread. I have recently been introduced to snips. If you can guarantee no little hands can find them I would recommend them as they are so easy to use (they are really cheap too).

Don’t feel that you have to buy expensive scissors. It is all well and good for the professionals to say you should always buy the best you can afford, but until you know whether or not you’re going to enjoy dressmaking, I’d say just buy a pair that is comfortable to use and not too expensive. It is worth handling a few pairs and not settling on the very cheapest, but about £20 should get you a pair that will last a long time.

Remember, to guard your dressmaking scissors jealously. Let others approach them with caution. Threaten the direst of consequences to any and all who so much as look at them! This threat should be doubled, trebled if you do decided to invest in an expensive pair of shears.
Oh! Pinking shears! Those crinkle cut chip scissors! Yes, they are nice to have, but as they can be quite expensive they are not essential. 
Tailor’s chalk or pencils – pencils are probably easiest to mark the fabric with but I do love that round triangle shape. There are all sorts of chalk wheels, vanishing pens and other clever versions of the chalk out there. Buy whatever suits your pocket and remember to buy at least 2, pink or blue for light material and white for darker materials.
Ruler, pencil and rubber – for making alterations to patterns. Yes, you will be doing that, from the very start, honest!
Iron and ironing board – even if you are a non-ironing household you will have to be an ironing dressmaker, sorry. If you do not iron all fabric and patterns, not forgetting seams and darts, you will find that all your makes look odd. The idea is to look handmade and chic rather than homemade and, erm, make do? For this an iron is essential. A good steam iron is essential, though it does not have to cost much.
Sewing machine – of course you could hand sew everything! But my great grandmother had a second hand treadle machine way back in the twenties. Singer went electric about then, so she bought a cheap and amazingly heavy machine complete with its table. Great grandma’s treadle machine died a death when I was about 8 years old. Like my mum and Nana before me, I learned to sew on it, peddling with one foot, perched on the very edge of a kitchen chair. 

Again like my mum and Nana before me I bought an electric machine when I set up my own home. I have a 1980s heavy plastic machine, despite having spent most of its life in a box under the bed, it has been well kept, regularly cleaned and serviced and I have never had an excuse to go out and buy a newer model.

There are many places selling machines these days. I would recommend finding your local shop and asking to try a couple, maybe even considering a reconditioned machine. You could upgrade if you find you need a more sophisticated machine, so don’t be seduced by 200 different stitches and other bells and whistles.
Pincushion and a magnet – no, really! The magnet will soon become essential as you realise just how good pins and needles are at hiding in carpets. You can always make your own pincushion, or maybe 4 or 5 different ones. I find you can't have too many pincushions.
Needlebook – for keeping needles in. Needles don’t have heads, unlike pins. They love to hid in the centre of pincushions, lurking, waiting for the unwary hand to squeeze the pin cushion and find the needles. To spoil their fun always keep your needles in a needle book.
Seam ripper – these are probably the most unloved but most essential items to have. They are very cheap and very handy for fixing mistakes. Every sewist uses them, a lot. If a dressmaker tells you otherwise you can be certain of one thing… they are fibbing!
Extra bobbins for sewing machine – this is something you need to check before you buy. It is possible to buy plastic bobbins really cheaply. But you may find that your machine is really fussy. Mine hates the readily available ones that look, to me, to be identical to the ones that came with the machine. You can avoid tears and prolonged sulking if you check that the bobbins you buy are suitable for your machine. One you find a reputable supplier buy a pack or two (or ten) of plastic bobbins to fit your machine and then you can more easily change thread colours as you sew.
Pressing cloth – this may sound odd, but you need a pressing cloth to prevent shine on fabric when ironing, and to prevent interfacing from sticking to your iron. Happily you can use a tea towel.

But, I hear you cry, where do you buy all this stuff?

You can buy all the basic supplies in your local sewing shop, if you are lucky enough to have one. Maybe you live near a John Lewis? These are also the best places to look at sewing machines. Do you have art or crafts shops nearby? Sometimes they have a limited range of sewing things. Home shops like Dunelm or The Range also carry some good staples.

But you might prefer to trawl second-hand and charity shops. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend buying second hand scissors, unless you can check them for sharpness, I love trawling my local charity shops and buying buttons, elastic and all sorts of other sewing finds (more on that later). I found 2 pairs of those heron shaped snipping scissors, my sister now has one of them. They remind us both of learning to sew with Grandma, where hers went no-one knows. Somehow having someone elses Grandma’s snips makes us very happy, I harbour a secret hope that someone out there has, and loves, the pair I used as a child.

A favourite online shop is Fred Aldous: they can supply pins, needles, tape measure, seam ripper, dressmaker’s shears and small scissors. One hint: have a list to hand or shopping here could become extremely expensive!
What else can you buy?
Well, if you really want to buy more there are lots of goodies you can buy. Some become essential, others can remain on the ‘I Want’ list forever.
Pattern weights  - these are weighted 'things' that often double as pincushions. The idea is that if you are cutting a single layer or are drawing around a template you may not want/need to use pins. This can be really useful if your fabric shows up pinholes, e.g. very fine fabrics or leather. Pattern weights hold down the pattern, keeping it in place whilst you cut. You could use tins, baked bean or otherwise, but sometimes these too can mark your fabric. Pattern weights are simple to make - as I shall show you!
Dressmakers dummy – this is really useful for fitting blouses and shirts, but they are not cheap. This can remain on the ‘I Want’ list forever and a day. You can amuse yourself looking on Youtube for the DIY dress dummy tutorials. Trust me, you will not need to put yourself through those indignities!
Extra feet for your sewing machine – most machines come with a few different feet but you may need to replace lost ones. The only one I would recommend would be a zipper foot for ordinary and concealed zips. But only if you are going to be putting zips in your clothes. Apparently they are not hard! I'll let you know!
Storage and organisational things – hold on a moment! It is so very easy to go mad here. Special, pretty racks and boxes for threads and bobbins, clear boxes for fabric, clever spindles things for ribbons, tricksy little compartments for all those findings, and haberdashery. If you go to your local craft shop you will find all sorts of goodies. But hold back for a moment! If you go to your local DIY shed you will find all sorts of boxes: toolboxes, organisers for screws and other fixings. They cost about 1/3 the price of the pretty craft versions and are usually far more robust too.

I have 3 toolboxes, 1 multi compartment, lidded tray and a rucksack filled with stackable trays. All made for electricians and other tradesmen and far cheaper than the sewing/craft equivalent. OK, they are black and grey rather than pretty pastel colours, but they are robust enough to survive being used daily, thrown in the boot of the car and generally being treated roughly. 
More specialist ironing equipment, sorry – a proper pressing cloth, a tailor’s ham for pressing curved seams and sleeve board. I do have a sleeve board as I hate the pressed ‘seam’ on sleeves. But I have never bought a proper pressing cloth. I have a tea towel and a square of muslin that was originally intended for jam making. I will be making myself a ham and will post a quick tutorial when I have succeeded.
Pattern making stuff – oh, I so wanted the special Swedish paper I saw on the Sewing Bee. But common sense kicked in and I ‘make do’ with a roll of brown packing paper I bought cheaply*. It has to be said that any paper will do really, though. French or bendy curves for making patterns sound good. I have a blue bendy curve that I found in an art room at school! I had to track down a metre rule online though. I am told it makes checking skirt lengths very easy. 
Anything else you have seen or heard of may well be nice to have but, until someone points out ‘the one really obvious thing’ that I have forgotten, I think that the above list really is it!
OK! So where on earth do I put it all?
It really helps if you can find a space in your home somewhere to put your ironing board up near the table you will use for cutting out and sewing on and to store your stuff under. You are much more likely to sew more if you can get to your equipment quickly and easily. It is also extremely helpful if you can safely abandon a make to deal with all those other things that need to be done like cooking, collecting kids from school, going to work, sleeping, etc. However if you can’t magic up a dedicated sewing corner/room you could use any table to sew at and you can cut fabric out on the floor. 
For some reason I never manage to sew in the same room as I iron. So I waste time popping in and out to the ironing board. Having said that it does mean I get to move every now and then, this prevents me ‘setting’ in the same position. I have found that I set more as I get older!
You want more?

Good, as I will keep on blogging about my mishaps makes. I will also review books, patterns, talk about courses and tutorials, fabrics, fittings and where to find inspiration.

*I gave in and bought some, this was the cheapest and widest I could find it in the UK