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Conversational Threads

teaching sewing to stylish beginners

sewanista | Posted in General Discussion on

I’ve been teaching sewing for 4 years. The large Aussie chain I subcontract to is becoming less and less interested in running the classes, and my classes have been cut to one a week, and seeing as that one is at an awkward time (first thing Monday morning) it doesn’t suit most of the people who are interested, being, mostly, young working women. They didn’t do sewing at school because they took the academic track rather than the vocational, they now have some money of their own with few committments, and they’re looking for a hobby. One weekend class I ran had an accountant, an IT specialist, two nurses and a medical researcher with a PhD. All under 30 years old.

The other group of students is young mums. They tend to be intelligent women, looking for something to keep their brains going while they get through the baby and toddler years of low adult interaction and repetetive days. (I know this, I’m one myself)

Neither group is really sewing to save money, but so much of the promotion (certainly the promotion my particular chain does, anyway) uses this idea to sell sewing. I think this is a mistake. It devalues sewing, suggesting it’s a necessary family chore rather than an outlet for creativity and personal growth. However, I do agree that the sewing machine cost is daunting, because it’s a big obvious cost, not like the little costs that add up by stealth as one starts a stash and pattern collection, much of which will mature nicely rather than get used. (again, personal experience)

So the interest is definitely there, and, as other posts have discussed, I think that the homesewing fraternity (sorority?) needs to catch up, with more stylish patterns, better information regarding how they’ll fit, and easier, more modern sewing techniques. (Actually, it must be a fraternity, because areas dominated by women such as this forum and PatternReview, are in fact trying to meet our needs.)
My problem now is that I need to find premises and start promoting my classes independently. I’m looking forward to it because I will relish the freedom, but I know that it will be tricky and unstable for a while. I want some advice on such things as good, stylish very first patterns. Burda’s one seam pant (3216) is a definite because it’s so easy and fits well, and looks rather nice despite the appalling catalogue picture. I’d like a knit top, a woven top and a skirt pattern. For the more fashion forward student, I like Vogue’s Issey Miyake 2814 sleeveless top, because it’s so easy to sew, (4 seams and no edge finishing!) but I know there’s a compromise involved because they won’t learn much about how pattern shapes relate to the body. I think teenagers would enjoy this one more than older women who want to understand things rather than take great leaps of faith.
I’d love any suggestions, about all aspects of starting classes independently.
regards, sandra


  1. jandheurle | | #1

    Hi Sewanista, It is all very well to learn to sew but even fine skills, a chic pattern and wonderful fabric can't make up for a good fit. Many people give up sewing because they don't know how to adjust a pattern to their particular bodies. I'd start out with something simple that is easy to fit and then teach a class on constructing a basic fitting pattern and how to use that to alter commercial patterns to fit. To my mind, this is fundamental. Most people seem to do this backwards: they learn to sew, realize something is wrong with their perfectly constructed garment and begin to discover the mysteries of a good fit. I also think that many people turn to sewing because they can't get RTW to fit properly. And then there are many people who don't even realize that their clothes don't fit. (Just look around.) They need to have their consciousness raised about this issue. I've noticed that sort of approach with brassiere advertising, so why not for clothes? Jan

    1. sewanista | | #2

      Hi Jandheurle,
      I agree with you completely about the importance of fit, but I have found that for the first little while, most brand new beginners get a buzz out of making anything wearable, and if it fits like something ready to wear, all the better. They don't want to fuss with a fitting shell. They also have so little experience recognising the 3D form in the 2D shape that the frustration of trying to fine tune before they can interpret a shape is highly offputting. Some years ago I taught several basic fitting shell classes, and the only students who had any real success were the experienced sewers. I'm a trained and RTW experienced pattern maker with a particular interest in fit, but I now use the "compare the pattern measurements to a finished garment you like" method, which works well at this stage. In an ideal world, I'd have enough time with each student to teach them to draft, but people want fast results now, and as the teacher, I'll only keep them interested if I can deliver that.

      1. jandheurle | | #3

        Doubtless you are right; I guess I live in an idealistic dream world here shut up in my sewing room. But, still, as promotion for a class I think the hope of a better fitting garment would work as a lure; anyway, it's better than that of saving money. Most people on this list and others don't really think that they are saving money sewing their own clothes, but I think that they are getting much better value for the money and time they are investing than RTW. I mean they get to choose the fabric, the style and the fit; it's almost impossible to find all three things present in any one garment in RTW and people always end up settling for less. And all this is not even mentioning the satisfaction of creative accomplishment which, as we all know, is a real high (addictive too). Jan

      2. Josefly | | #5

        I think you're right that new sewers would be overwhelmed with having to start by fitting a pattern to themselves. Much better to start with a pattern that doesn't need much fitting.

        I started sewing about 50 years ago for a 4H project. My mom started me on a simple draw-string apron! I progressed to gathered skirts and circle skirts, which seem to be all the rage right now, decorated and stitched as they are now in all kinds of fabulous ways with raw-edge trims and ribbon and rick-rack, just like clothes were back in the 50's( except for the raw-edge stuff, which would have been sneered at back then). Then I moved on to simple dresses with gathered skirts, straight skirts, and shorts. Cotton fabrics, which we used a lot of in Florida, were easy to work with for a beginner, and inexpensive and plentiful. Since my mom sewed also, for herself and for me, she shared her enjoyment of fabric combinations and manipulations with me through the years. She was quite good at it, and I still enjoy memories of some beautiful outfits she made. Of course the world of fashion has changed along with everything else, and people don't wear cotton dresses much for "every-day" anymore, at least where I live.I agree also that sewing is no longer really cheaper than buying clothes, unless it's something really special, since everyday clothes are made so cheaply these days. (I don't see how they can be made for such low prices, even where labor is cheap, when we can't even find fabrics inexpensively anymore!) Besides better fit, I like to sew because of the ability to have one-of-a-kind, creative clothes that really have ME in them--I like to combine fabrics and colors and trims in imaginative ways--and the fact that sewing in itself is a creative way to spend time, as you mentioned concerning your students. Fabrics draw me -- and all sewers, I guess, since so many of us talk about having huge stashes of fabrics we cannot possibly use in our lifetimes-- and I usually take inspiration from the fabrics themselves, looking for a pattern to do justice to the fabric rather than vice-versa. Another reason I like to sew, is that practice makes better, and it feels good to gain experience in something so practical and creative at the same time, and to look at commercially made garments and know just how they were done, or at least to be able to puzzle it out. Then to progress to the fitting techniques and tailoring techniques that make clothes so wonderful is an exciting growth.Don't know if any of these ideas help you "sell" your class, but I hope so. I'm glad you're making the effort.I just helped my daughter make the "chic, flowing skirt" demonstrated in the last issue of Threads, and she, a fairly new seamer, had a ball doing it. (With the slippery fabrics she used, four hands were useful doing the pleating.) She hasn't done the zipper yet, and it will be her first; but the fabric selection, the cutting and sewing and pleating, were fun and exciting for her. She got to try out her decorative stitches on her new machine, too, for the stitching around the yoke of the skirt. Beautiful

        Edited 8/21/2005 2:16 pm ET by Josefly

        1. sewanista | | #12

          Everyone's given me such good ideas! It's so interesting to find what has motivated people to start sewing themselves. I love the chic flowing skirt from Threads, and your comment reminded me that commercial patterns are not the be all and end all. I know I didn't use commercial patterns at first either. I made a circle skirt, and then a Burda dress, and soon I was cutting up newspaper for patterns in my bedroom and horrifying my mother with my tie dyed calico(muslin) tube skirts. (Does anyone else remember Haysee Fantaysee or the Thompson Twins? I think there was a definite "fashion moment best forgotten" back in 1982.) However, freeform stuff is all the go again now, so I should channel my inner teenager and see what I can come up with!

          1. aliceb | | #13

            I've been reading this thread with interest because as I've begun to sew more the past couple years people have suggested I must save A LOT of $$.  I always tell them that really isn't so but am met with disbelieving comments.  I am currently working on a pair of wool/lycra dress slacks, a fairly simple project ($50 fabric) self drafted pattern ($0) but then I decide I really need a lining.  Ambiance ($30) AND I must remove the waist band adding considerable time to this project.  In this area a pair of lined dress trousers run $120+ if I cost out my time this has become one EXPENSIVE pair of pants.  When I learned to sew as a child 40+ years ago I could save money but really I could make what I wanted.  I knocked off what I viewed as a very stylish outfit when in the 7th grade.  The REAL reason I sew is because I can get what I want and like NOT simply accept what is in stores AND as I become more accomplished I can make garments which fit me.   I also make special little items for my daughter who gets great pleasure from saying my mom made this for me.  DD appreciates having unique items which fit perfectly. 

          2. SewNancy | | #14

            I think that you are underestimating what a really well made pair of pants costs these days. Designer pants run several hundred dollars for simple well tailered wool pants. Take a look at some of the Sept. fashion magazines. Also, I don't know about you, but I find it very hard to find pants that really fit in rtw.

          3. aliceb | | #15


            Yes, you really are right about the cost of rtw pants.... I was thinking about slacks such as JonesNY or Liz Clairborn quality not designer when I quoted $$.  Like you I absolutely positively cannot buy rtw slacks which fit so I've been sewing these a bit longer than other garments.  Lately I've branched out into blouses and tops as well as Jackets.  My rtw has mostly been from Landsend because I am about the laziest shopper ever.  Lately I am tired of my Landsend look and I am boring myself with my clothes much less anyone who has to look at it so I've been trying to add more interest with texture and style.  I love my linens!!!! all washable since I pre-wash, linen only gets better with age like a fine wine.   Today I wore a Loes Hinse Casablanca blouse in butter yellow linen, it felt good.


          4. SewNancy | | #16

            My 19 year old was home from school and complimented me on my Buda WOF twist top (the one everyone on Pattern review has made) and asked if I'd gotten it from a local pricey boutique. She always compliments me on pants that I've made and when I say I made them she says, no wonder they fit. Great compliments.

          5. SherryG | | #17

            Amen. I can never find what I am looking for in the stores when I go clothes shopping.  Even if it is in style.  I usually have problems with the color selections.  Warm is very in right now, and I especially hate orange and lime green.  So I sew to do what I want.  Style, colort and embellishment.  Then there is the fit.  I don't usually fit well into the store bought clothes.



          6. Elisabeth | | #18

            Oh gosh, the color selections! All those Fischer Price colors, what is going on. I just wanted some tee shirts and ended up getting grey because the colors were blinding. Now I will surely bore myself and everyone else looking too.

  2. mimi | | #4

    Sewanista:  I applaud your ambition to continue to teach sewing!  I would love to do that too; I have taught individuals how to sew but never a whole class.  It is always a problem when you work out of someones shop, as their priorities aren't always the same as ours.  Perhaps a church or a comunity center would fit your needs better?

    I learned to sew when I was 10, at a Singer store; my project was a wrap-around skirt.  I agree that most people who want to learn want to walk away with a tangible result that they can wear and show off.  Aprons (my first home-ec project in school) just don't cut it anymore!  Perhaps these patterns will offer more stylish enticements:  Vogue 8082 and 8083, skirts with flippy hems that everyone was wearing this summer, and Vogue 8077 and 7934, two different tops.  Both are easy to make, with a minimim number of fastenings.  I have used almost all of the major pattern companies, but I keep coming back to Vogue because of the clear, concise directions.

    Good luck and don't give up :)



  3. mem | | #6

    hello where are you in Aus ? I am wanting to find sewing classes for my niece .I think that its really important to demystify sewing . So many people who sew are so superior about it and that is a major turn off to those who would have a go but have awful memories of ritual humiliation at the hands of their sewing teacher.Everyone has to leave their lesson feeling successful and feeling like " yes I can do this "

     I think you are very right about the business of making the cost saving as a marketing tool as being a mistake . The creativity , the sensory gratification of the beautiful fabric and colour as well as the use of imagination are the things which keep me in there.

    I am teaching my 10 year old niece to sew whenever I have the chance and I am careful not to get too tough about the standard of her sewing but at the same  I am making her take pleasure in a job well done by noticing her lines of straight stitching and the fact that she has matched her cotton to the fabric so well.. Perfectionism is also a big problem " Cant do it perfectly therefore I wont try it at all".I really think that sewing is very good for mental health and that the need to persist , to delay gratification, plan and take time for oneself are all really great life skills .

    Anyway good luck and you are doing really good and important work.

    1. sewanista | | #10

      Hi Mem, I'm in Perth, which if you're like most of the Australian population, is probably too far to drive. LOL. I love teaching kids to sew, although I mostly teach adults. I've taught flute to kids for a long time, and I love their energy and fearlessness. I wish I could bottle it. At the same time I believe it's just as easy to to learn to do something well as it is to do something adequately - kids and adults - so my students tend to sew to a fairly high standard right from the start. If you're in Perth, please contact me, but if not, try the Australian Sewing Guild, whom I'm sure will be able to help you find someone.

  4. kjp | | #7

    Sandra - what about using the recent knitting craze as a guideline.  Most of my fashionable suburban mom friends have learned to knit to make scarves & felted handbags - then move on to spend more to make a sweater than they ever would spend if they bought it!  I've had people interested in sewing cute bags.  Also, clothes for the kids are enticing.  Also, ruboffs - copying a garment from a favorite well-fitting garment would be fun and popular.

    I definitely agree that selling sewing to save money is a huge mistake!  Creativity & fit are the way to go!  You might want to search for a freelance pr person to help in your promotion.  Check with some good local businesses and chamber of commerce.  A good pr person can get human interest articles in the paper about you and your new venture. 

    1. theOracle | | #8

      I learned to sew the year the movie Charade was released. I was in high school. The idea, at least my Dad's idea, was to save money. He showed me our charge bills for my clothing--I loved fashion--and was having a conniption. So I made a deal: if I stopped buying clothes and made all my clothes, would there be no limit on my budget for fabric, notions, presser feet, etc.? He agreed. He had no idea how many things a daughter with a White sewing machine, a wife with a degree in dressmaking, not much else to do that summer, Charade's Givency wardrobe published in Vogue patterns, and a New York phone book to fabric warehouses could do. I really learned how to sew.

      By the end of the summer, my girl friend came over to see where I had been and what I had been doing. I showed her my large walk-in closet, with rows of shorts, pants, skirts, blouses, Courreges knock-offs and the now-famous Givencys. She said, "Where did you get all these clothes?"

      I told her about the deal with my Dad, who was just getting all the bills from New York.

      She had seven brothers and sisters. I realized what she had in mind by the look on her face as she walked out the door. OMG, what have I done?

      Sewing does save money, but then again it doesn't.

      1. kjp | | #9

        You brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye.  Your story reminds me of my dad's years of patience with our sewing expenses! 

        I do actually save money by sewing.  I love high quality fabrics and construction.  But, I probably spend more on fabric that is part of my stash then I would on clothes.  The benefit is that when we have to cut back, I have piles of fabric to work from - so I can still get new clothes.  :)

      2. sewanista | | #11

        I find that my bought clothing budget is mentally separate from my sewing budget, and I am a cheapskate when it comes to buying, but sewing stuff is pretty much unchecked. We all get fed and bills get paid, but I know that I have about $100 of unfinished jacket sitting on my dummy waiting for an input of enthusiasm, whereas I'd feel guilty about $100 of unworn bought stuff. My husband is so tolerant, and I never question his art spending, which I'm sure is just as extravagant!

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