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Dust Off your Sewing Machine

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My trip to the dentist helped to restore the dying art of sewing. What can you do to help?

A masked woman is picking away at my teeth and says, “My friend is one of those people who sew everything. She makes her kids clothes, her own clothes, sews for the church bazaar, and has holiday specific slipcovers for her furniture. Me? I used to sew. Back when I was in high school. Then I got married, had kids, got a job—who has time to sew?”

She turns around to get another monkey wrench to put in my mouth, and I have a chance to reply, “I was nine when I started sewing and never thought I’d make a living at it, but now I realize how many times it has saved my life. I think of it as a life skill.” She dives back into my mouth with suction tubes, water sprays, and chisels. “Well, I realized I just don’t have the patience for it. I don’t want to have to make everything perfect.” A few minutes later she turns around again and I am able to continue, “I think you’re patient, you spend your days inside the tiny world of a person’s mouth. Unlike the days when you were back in home-ec class, the unfinished, deconstructed styles today are the perfect answer for imperfect sewing.” She’s coming at me with what looks like a drill—but first I have to say. “You know, I make my living as an editor for a sewing magazine. I meet experts from all over the world and learn their techniques. But even more important is the whole sewing community and the genuine support they give each other.” This time the whizzing polishers interrupt me, buffing my clean teeth to a high shine—more hosing and sucking. Oh, she wants to take some x-rays; she drops a sandbag on top of me and shoves little squares of plastic in my mouth.

As we walk to the door she hands me a new toothbrush and says, “You know, I’m going to dig out my sewing machine and start sewing again, you’re right, it is a life skill.”  I drop the latest copy of Threads on the stack of waiting room magazines and walk out the door. So many sewers, so little time.

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  1. patticake50 | | #1

    I really agree that it was in my mothers day a life skill. My mother, Irene,sewed. When I see capri's, or short sleeved blouses I think of all the sewing she did for us. Home decor, clothes, even barbie clothes! I sew, I don't think I am that great but then My best friend couldn't even sew a straight seam. I can make clothes and home items. Handbags and now my grandson is here and I love to sew pajamas for him. I have made him stuffed toys too! Now my daughter wants a sewing machine...I see a gift coming up for a birthday soon!

  2. Bonniedoo | | #2

    I have sewed from the age of 12 years....I made as many of my clothes and my children's as I could and only slowed down when I went back to work in my mid forties. I am now retired and I discovered that I love to make handbags. But, somehow my daughter never wanted to sew and still doesn't...so I will sew for my granddaughters as long as they want me to. There is a ray of hope out there...one granddaughter would like to learn to sew...wish I lived close to them.

  3. Iabou | | #3

    I learned to sew because my mom said to me "you want that barbie dress? try making one first". I then learned to sew means to be able to create what ever barbie wants to wear. I casually sewed costumes in highschool, because the store ones were so cheap.... when I discovered 'fitting' patterns, I think my life changed!

    Now if a week goes by without sewing in it I feel like I let myself down.

    everyone tells me they were frustrated or impatient and thats why they didnt continue sewing. You really have to want a final project in order to sew. SO many girls think if you mess up a seam, its done for. I probably redo more seams in an important project to get them just right, than it takes for a new sewer to give up.

    We are all taught that failure is wrong. My mom taught me that if it doesnt go right, try it a different way. I think thats what helped me. in fact my mom laughs now that I sew things that she never taught me how to do, and has no idea how to do them herself.

    If anything, sewing teaches you to never give up! its a good trait. One outfit took 100+ different needle and thread combinations to sew one seam. (really tight weave polyester) I didnt see the trial and error as a failure at all. I saw it as a time to learn about all these types of threads and needles. In fact, when I look at that dress it means more to me than most would guess because I know the blood sweat and learnign that went into it!

  4. alimay | | #4

    I have sewn for 45 years and now run my own sewing school. About 25% of my students are returning to update their skills and learn how to fit their "new shape". The rest are enthusiastic new sewers, keen to learn and explore their own creativity and experience the satisfaction of knowing they have made their own one-off original. Quite a number of my students are aged 11 to 19 years - how wonderful to know that regardless of what we hear, sewing is not a dying art!

  5. rsew | | #5

    I have been sewing for 47 years and still have the passion.
    Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be still be sewing after my 7th grade home ec. apron catastrophe! Currently, my 13 year niece is experiencing the joys/sorrow and passion for sewing also. Sewing for me is therapy-I listen to audio tapes from our local library. I love to have a story read to me while working in my studio-so I create;enjoy a book and escape into a non-stressful period of time. Sewing rocks. Thank you Mrs. Garrihty my 7th grade home ec teacher!

  6. OhioMary | | #6

    I'm 72 years old and learned to sew doll clothes out of printed feedsacks on a treadle sewing machine...(would LOVE to have both the feedsacks and treadle machine today...). I sewed clothing while the kids were little, switched to quilting, and am now returning to clothing for a change of pace. My 13-year old granddaughter has asked me to help her sew but I can only help her a couple times a year when we visit. Fortunately, she is teaching herself (after one semester of sewing at school). I think the American Sewing Guild organization is helping to re-ignite an interest in sewing. If you have a chapter nearby, give them a visit. It's always fun to "show and tell" what you've just made.

  7. FrancesGrimble | | #7

    I really hate to say this, but I think sewing has been a dying art since the 1970s, at least. Yes, sewing is fun and creative, but most women are busy with full-time jobs and have little time for hobbies. Of course, earlier generations of women were busy too--but then sewing saved money. Now it doesn't--people can easily buy cheap clothes manufactured in third-world countries and they have been trained not to care if these are low quality. As an author of books on making historic clothing, I see many people plunging into learning sewing, but it's because they need clothing for historic reenactment and living history that they can't buy off the rack. On general sewing e-lists, I primarily see people who sew because they are unusually difficult to fit.

  8. User avater
    SewJoe | | #8

    Sewing has definitely skipped a couple generations, but is not a dying art. Part of it is a numbers game, there are those who will sew even if mom didn't teach them or schools don't offer it anymore. Then there are those who are "gonna do it someday", "waiting for someone to teach them" and "I am just not good at it". Thanks to Project Runway there has been an exciting new life for that machine in the closet and people of all ages have taken steps to create fashion and accessories. I own a sewing store in South Pasasdena, CA and classes this summer were filled by eager teenagers learning the skill. I watch them realize the potential this art form offers and I love the pride on their faces when their projects are done. Even if those of you who take a few sewing classes never go on to make a designer wool coat or a couture gown, sewing as a life skill will be there for a quick hem or Halloween costume. Remember, if you want to take up sewing, every time you sew, your work looks better. And if you're one of those who will fall in love with sewing, you will easily fit it into your schedule.

  9. AlexMackenzie | | #9

    My Mum has a sewing machine, but only once do I remember her actually sewing. She made me a blue dress for a party. I was about nine. She probably did other things before that - everybody did - but they didn't catch my imagination and they certainly weren't done with any enthusiasm. After that dress she simply didn't get anywhere near the sewing machine. Not that she minded, she doesn't sew. She says that she isn't creative, but she knits, she bakes, she decorates cakes.

    Sewing, for me, is more than a life skill. Its part of who I am. I love making my own clothes and, although I'm at best only an average sewer, I love knowing that what I'm wearing no one else has.

    So, don't despair if your daughter doesn't sew, maybe her daughter will. At least that's what I tell myself when my teenage daughter refuses to do anything other than play with the different stiches on my sewing machine.

  10. sewfool | | #10

    Sewing is a dying art. It's also getting harder to find fabric in the stores as everyone seems to be going crafty or quilting.

  11. SimpleGirl | | #11

    Sewfool - you are so right. For those of us who grew up sewing, the fabric stores today are just craft stores. That is great for crafters - but not for skilled seamstresses. I look to magazines for inspiration and to further the art of sewing - there are so few.

  12. CoastalSeams | | #12

    Hello! I'm 56 and have loved sewing since pre-teen, in spite of being primarily an outdoors girl / woman my entire life. Meaning, sewing is one of the few things I consider worth being inside for (along with working, as I've always been grateful to work.)

    Sewing is a lively, thriving and useful art that takes many forms ... in other words, something for everyone! I don't think we should ever refer to it as a "dying art" because that's just not true.

    And ... because if people with curiosity (regardless of age and gender) see that too often, they might get discouraged and lose interest. We want to encourage interest obviously, as all of you here do. I love making everything from lingerie to outdoors gear, it's all fun :-)

  13. User avater
    Burbri | | #13

    My mother taught me how to sew and the first project was a skirt and from this day 18 years (I was 11 then)! She now tells me that how do I have so much patience and eagerness to sew these clothes :). At the time when i was high school then I did not want people to know that some clothes were self made, because I felt embarrassed that we did not have enough money to buy everything from stores.
    Now I'm proud to tell anybody who asks where did I get this skirt or dress or jacket that I made it. Now I'm not sewing because I can't afford buying, but because of fun, creation and quality. Of course the skills have improved during the years (also thanks to Threads Magazine :)) but also equipment available has improved. If I'm comparing the sewing machine that I used 18 years ago or the one I just bought then the difference is huge! New one basically sews itself! :)
    But i don't think that sewing is dying art - it more seems like wakening art. Due to the difficult times around the world then old skills and traditions are coming into fashion and honor. At least that's what I see and believe :)

  14. rn_robles | | #14

    I love sewing too, when I was in grade school I see my mom sew and I got inspired but I learned to sew in high school in my home eco subject. When I was in high school, I have sewn curtains for our house and when I was working I have sewn my office skirts which I have designed and some blouses too. Since I'm not working anymore, now I sew things for the house. I love decorating the house so I get to sew a new set of curtains every Christmas to go with my yearly Christmas theme decor. I just love the feeling when I finish a project which I have designed and sewn. I also enjoy recycling fabrics from old clothes. I hope to inspire my daughter too, I love it when she shows interest in my sewing.

    I hope to be able to buy an embroidery machine someday, so I can have more nice project to work on.:)

  15. rn_robles | | #15

    I love sewing too, when I was in grade school I see my mom sew and I got inspired but I learned to sew in high school in my home eco subject. When I was in high school, I have sewn curtains for our house and when I was working I have sewn my office skirts which I have designed and some blouses too. Since I'm not working anymore, now I sew things for the house. I love decorating the house so I get to sew a new set of curtains every Christmas to go with my yearly Christmas theme decor. I just love the feeling when I finish a project which I have designed and sewn. I also enjoy recycling fabrics from old clothes. I hope to inspire my daughter too, I love it when she shows interest in my sewing.

    I hope to be able to buy an embroidery machine someday, so I can have more nice project to work on.:)

  16. User avater
    sewinggal1 | | #16

    I've been sewing for about four decades. My mom sews, my grandmother sewed, and now my daughter sews, although not as often as I'd like to see. Now that she's expecting her first child, I think she'll probably sew more, since sewing for babies and kids is so fun and doesn't require a lot of fabric.

    The main problem I have is finding good fabric for garments. We only have one fabric store here and they carry a lot of polyester junk, not much in cotton, linen, silk or rayon. Hardly any natural fibers at all, which are the only kind I can wear (allergies).

    I wish we had a really good fabric store, a good book store and a proper art supply center.

  17. dormery | | #17

    I'm 73 years old and have been sewing since I was ten. My mother made all my dresses from feedsacks and trimmed them with her wonderful handmade tatting. My grandmother made all her own dresses and my grandfather's shirts. The only B that I made in high school was in Home Ec, because I tried to show the teacher better ways to sew clothing. My mother, also a teacher, told me that if that B kept me from being valedictorian I had no one to blame but myself for being a smart aleck.

    Even during the years when I had a very stressful career in and around the Pentagon, I still made most of my own clothes. Since the age of about 14, almost everything I've made has used a Vogue designer pattern (many of which I still have from the Jackie Kennedy/Audrey Hepburn years in the 1960s. They haven't fit me for the past 20 years, but suddenly I'm able to use them again.)

    I also make a lot of clothes for my daughter, who is definitely a fashionista, and all her friends are jealous.

    As many other comments have noted, it's hard to find good fabric locally. We are now retired and living in a rural area in WV, and for a long time I drove back to G Street Fabrics in Washington to buy. But once I got online, those trips ended permanently. Most of my best fabric buys come from http://www.fashionfabricsclub.com. They take orders without requiring that you pay their low membership fee, but you get great discounts if you do become a member, as well as getting envelopes full of fabric samples regularly. The "hand" of a fabric is important to me, so I especially like the samples. There are many other online fabric sites, of course, and that is the solution for those of you who are having trouble finding good fabric at a reasonable price.

    I can't imagine a life without sewing, and Threads is a wonderful source for techniques that beginning sewers can learn from--as well as advanced seamstresses.

  18. wisconsinsewist | | #18

    Funny, that's nearly the mission statement of American Sewing Guild "Advancing Sewing as an Art and Life Skill". 20,000+ members who love to sew! Sewing relaxes you, releases your creativity in a world that can supress it, and has been proven to lower blood pressure and increase happiness.

    My granddaughters are all Fashionistas and so far have not been able to out-design me, although they try. I sew for myself, for my daughter, for my grandkids, for my friends and the people I care for. I make quilts and bags and all manner of garments.

    My only rule is no ugly fabric unless it's cut in tiny unrecognizable pieces on a quilt or garment, when it can add just the right color or texture.

    With the popularity of shows that promote reusing, redesigning, remaking, maybe people will get back to learning life skills.

    And nothing, I mean nothing in the world, beats sewing with friends of ANY age who help, encourage and support your creativity!

    Sew something!

  19. Welshgirl | | #19

    I am addicted to sewing! These days it is mainly quilting. I have been sewing since I was about 7 years old and I am now 64. I made most of my own garments when I was younger, from my wedding dress and bridesmaid dresses to the children's clothes and even an outdoor coat for my husband..we were poor university students at the time! I get very bad tempered if I am not able to get to my beloved Bernina for at least a few stitches a day. I have a spare machine at out vacation house too. Our daughter does not sew but I gave her a lovely sewing machine for her birthday a couple of years ago...you never know the bug may bite some day. My 5 year old grand daughter has already been initiated into the wondrous world of fabrics and threads and has had driving lessons on Gramma's sewing machine..we made a small quilt together then embroidered her 'signature' and the date on the border. Just last week she and I were discussing Halloween costumes, she wants to dress up as a puppy and she quipped that " ..we just cut it like this and sew a big straight line up the back". I have a very sweet and tolerant husband who visits fabric stores with me and will often suggest projects. He understands the 'need' for a sewing space, time and all the tools required.
    In my world sewing soothes the soul.

  20. judymorency | | #20

    I also have been sewing since I was in grade school. Although I have never taken a sewing lesson, I have mastered sewing. When I travel, I like to collect fabric that is native to the country I am visiting. I have collected some extraordinary fabrics over the years. While many women spend their time in department stores, I head for the fabric stores. Paris still ranks as my all time favorite city for fabrics. An entire section of the city is one fabulous fabric store after another. They are divided into separate types of fabrics; one will be all drapery and upholstery while the next one is all bridal. One hundred twenty inch fabric is rare here but I found buildings full of it in Paris. The beaded fabric from Saudi Arabia blew me away. Completely beaded silk fabric was priced the same as denim here in the states. With two jobs that keep me wound up, sewing is my outlet to relax. I figure, since I have to alter every store bought item, I might was well start from scratch and make my garments original and the perfect fit.

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