I am a paid up member of the re-skilling movement. Well, I would be if it were a formal movement and a membership fee were levied. Instead, like many others around the globe, I am (re)acquainting myself with skills my parents, grandparents, great grandparents… mastered, or at least felt confident enough to try their hand at.
I have never shied away from needle and thread. As machine stitched buttons fall off and hems come down within weeks, I usually hand stitch them as soon as I get an item home. And as I practically live in cardigans, I darn my knitwear to within an inch of its life.* Despite this instinct to mend, it had not occurred me to try my hand at sewing my own clothes, until this year that is.
First steps in dressmaking
In recent years I have been frustrated in equal measures by the declining quality of fabrics and the challenge of finding elegant clothes that have been ethically made from sustainable materials. Tidying out my wardrobe over the summer I realised that most of my outfits involve a simple dress – often the ever-so-forgiving wrap dress – or an A-line skirt, styles that are well within the capabilities of someone with reasonable sewing skills. So I bought an easy pattern and a couple of yards of organic cotton and set to work. With the help of a YouTube clip I worked out how to fit a zip and before long I had something that looked unmistakably like a skirt. However, my body is that of a real woman rather than a stylised one with optimal proportions. I needed to learn how to tweak a commercial pattern to suit my body!
Undaunted I signed up for a dressmaking workshop at The Make Lounge. Over two evenings, our chirpy teacher Lauren guided me and three other ladies through the process of converting a standard pattern into a dress that fitted our body shapes, advising on how to shrink the waist or lengthen the dress to a style that suits. I also mastered invisible zips – a breeze compared to the old-fashioned one I had previously struggled with – and fitted my first ever lining. The result, an organic cotton shift dress, will get more wear in the summer but is loose enough to be worn with a long sleeve T-shirt in autumn and spring.
Amazed at how accessible dressmaking is and how a few hours of guidance can set me up with the confidence and skill needed to tackle other projects, I promptly signed up for a Wrap Dress workshop. Learning how to work with jersey would be essential if I wanted to make my wardrobe staple in bamboo or organic cotton jersey. During the first session we focussed on the time-consuming art of pattern cutting in jersey and were introduced to stitching this type of fabric. The second evening we assembled the garment, steadily improving our jersey stitching skills.
Sitting in front of a sewing machine, fitted with a ball point needle, and gently feeding the fabric through, I was reminded of my father’s advice when he was teaching me to work with wood: “You don’t need fancy equipment. Just make sure you have the right blade and drill head. Work with the grain of the wood, and let the tool do the work.” The same most definitely applies to sewing. There is no need for expensive digital machines or complex overlockers. A simple, sturdy mechanical sewing machine fitted with the right needle will cover most domestic sewing jobs. Similarly, getting to know the grain and drape of the cloth whilst pinning and cutting is time well spent and pays dividends when assembling and stitching a garment.
Since embarking on a few dressmaking projects, I have found myself scrutinising the clothes in my wardrobe to identify good and poor cutting and workmanship, as well as work out how more complex items are put together (but more on that in another post!). Although I shall not be producing tailored suits any time soon, it is nice to know that as and when my skirts and dresses wear out, I can replace them with ones in a fabric, colour and length of my choice. Moreover, my efforts to expand my sewing skills have also reminded me of what I ‘knew’ as a child: grown ups can turn their hands to much more than their day jobs, something ‘re-skillers’ around the world are enjoying discovering!