Last year, I spent most of my time alone in Europe watching historical costuming YouTube (read: costube). After returning home for good and successfully finishing some knitting and crochet projects for pretty much the first time ever, I’m taking the plunge to get back into sewing.
Like most of my artistic hobbies, I have almost no formal training in sewing or clothes-making. And when I say formal training, I also mean teaching at the hands of a knowledgeable hobbyist, such as a relative. I first learned to hand-sew when I was about 7 – my dad taught me how to thread a needle and sew a button (a method I later learned is not generally accepted as “correct”), and my friend’s mom taught me basic running stitch and back stitch one afternoon. Years later, when I was in high school, I had a sort of apprenticeship in the costume shop of my school’s drama department. I helped make costumes for 3 shows, and in the process learned the very basics of machine sewing, a couple aspects of tailoring, and fabric dyeing. After that, I got my own (very cheap) sewing machine and started making Renaissance Faire costumes at home. By the end of high school, I had a talent for making patterns, but not enough skill to successfully finish most projects, and I still felt incredibly uncomfortable using the machine except when really necessary (like sewing boning channels, which required a lot more precision and consistency than I could do by hand, and at the very least a thimble, which I still don’t use).
My original sewing machine melted its insides while I was in college – it turns out that the difference between a cheap and expensive machine is what the inner mechanisms are made of. Cheap machines have a lot of plastic parts, which means that with a lot of use, the insides can heat up and melt, completely ruining the entire machine. But around that time I started playing around with my grandmother’s machine. My grandmother died when I was 17, and I inherited a few special things from her. She had never been much of a sewer, which was probably why she was still using a machine that, as far as I can tell, was from the 1940s. It’s a very solid electric metal Singer inset into a table, with a knee pedal rather than a foot operation. It folds down to be completely hidden, so my mom has been using it to hold potted plants ever since I moved out and she converted my room into a greenhouse (also an homage to my grandmother, whose living room was 50% plants). I used the machine a bit, but it was in terrible shape, even after I cleaned it. The rubber runner that connected the motor to the needle broke and I couldn’t find a replacement in the same size. The wiring was terrifying and looked like it might start a fire anytime I used it. So for now that machine is a future restoration project.
I got a decent but still fairly cheap machine when I moved to Boston after college, and I set up a little sewing office for myself. I had a secretary desk that I could close the machine up in, with shelves for my fabric and notions. I thought very seriously about starting a small custom-clothing business. I had dropped out of my post-bac program after a month due to a combination of some bad classroom experiences and some family emergencies that led me to burn out. I spent a lot of my time sewing and designing clothing, but I still wasn’t good at finishing garments, so I knew it wasn’t a realistic plan. And then I got into an MA program and all of my hobbies fell by the wayside.
So last year I was sitting alone in my apartment in the rural outskirts of London, lactating and missing my family. There’s only so much time you can spend working or playing video games. I had just taken up crocheting and made myself my perfect winter hat, and embarked on a massive project to make what ended up being two crocheted lace tablecloths. Since I was working from a video pattern on youtube, the algorithm eventually caught wind of my interests and started recommending videos from Bernadette Banner, a dress historian who is committed to historically-accurate construction methods and imbuing modern clothing with Edwardian elements. Banner seems like someone I would have been friends with as a teenager, back when I was hand-sewing circle skirts while watching Beauty and the Beast – and I mean that in the best way possible. Her videos became my companion and my inspiration throughout my months of travel, and I still look forward to watching them over breakfast on Saturday mornings when I’m the only one awake in the house. Bernadette’s videos led me to the world of costube, including Enchanted Rose and Morgan Donner. After a year of watching their videos, I’ve learned from these talented women a lot of the technical elements of clothes-making that I never knew. Things like finishing seams and getting them to lie flat, how to sew buttonholes properly, and how to cut a pattern.
I’m trying to start small(ish) in my new endeavors. I got a new sewing machine (thanks, Mom!) because I had to leave my old one in Boston 5 years ago. It’s a Singer Heavy Duty with the accessory kit that includes a presser foot so I can sew knits. I have some thoughts about a new, historically accurate, Renaissance Faire costume (surprise surprise, it’s a medieval medical practitioner), but for now, I’m making myself a pair of pants. I visited Stonemountain & Daugter Fabrics in Berkeley and got myself 2 yards of Michael Kors wool coating deadstock for 50% off. I made a pattern from my favorite pair of trousers, modified a little to fix the things I don’t like. I still need a lining fabric and a few notions, but I can start cutting and sewing. I’m signing up for a class on tailoring at Better Living Through Sewing in Oakland so I can learn how to fit my creation properly. And we’ll go from there!