Speaking only for myself, I was an absolutely terrible beginning sewist, and remained a pretty terrible sewist for the first few decades of my life. If I was born with anything, it wasn’t sewing talent–it was a bad case of why-would-I-buy-that-when-I-can-make-it-myself-itis. The progression of this disease is deadly and, if left untreated too long, quite expensive.
Most people, I’ve noticed, are born with the reverse why-would-I-make-that-when-it’s-cheaper-and-easier-to-buy-it-itis. This is sensible. If you are one of those people, however, you’re not reading this.
My first clothing project was in middle school, home ec, just like everyone else. And just like everyone else, it was horrible. A pink fleece miniskirt. I never wore it. I passed the course, though. For years afterwards I remained convinced that I could sew, even though I couldn’t manage to thread the machine without looking up the manual and couldn’t distinguish a shirting from a coating fabric to save my life. I did a bunch of hand-sewing, in particular thanks to an aunt who gave me a make-your-own-tiny-teddy-bear kit for Christmas one year. I made the tiny teddy bears in the kit. I then bought more felt and made more tiny teddy bears–and more and more. If you are related to me, it’s nearly certain that at some point, I gave you a tiny felt teddy bear.
In high school, I picked up cross-stitching. To this very day I can’t for the life of me tell you why. Other kids would be, oh I don’t know, playing cards or reading a book or out in the front of the school smoking illicit cigarettes on their lunch breaks. I would be cross-stitching. I was a happy kit-and-pattern cross-stitcher for many years. Someone needs a present? Why, I should cross-stitch them something! Ten free minutes in the doctor’s office? Good thing I brought my cross-stitch! First efforts were terrible; I missed stitches and entire rows and my diagonals didn’t match. Kindly, no one ever pointed this out to me.
I made myself a couple of dark red velvet skirts in highschool. They were fun, and I wore them a bunch. Then came the grad dress.
“Why would I buy a dress,” I thought, “When I can make it myself?” Cue disaster music.
I ventured to the Fabricland for the first time in many years and found a pattern for a halter-top dress with a fitted top and a full skirt, and a few metres of a very soft teal silk (the teal fetish is an obsession of long-standing). And I botched it.
Totally botched it.
Could not, for the life of me, figure out the pattern.
I wailed. I cried. I slammed doors in frustration. This, by the way, is perhaps why you would want to buy something instead of making it yourself. Though you’ll notice in my case that the cure did not take.
I was eventually rescued by my mother, and the dress turned out very well, particularly with the addition of a nice crinoline. And this was the last time I attempted to sew clothing for many, many years. Or at any rate a decade, when I started making clothes for myself for work, and made a few key mistakes then as well–though with rather less wailing and slamming of doors. I recall in particular a blouse I made out of a fabric much too heavy to be a blouse, with a zipper at the back that buckled because the stiff fabric wouldn’t drape properly. I wore it anyway.
It basically took me about two decades to become proficient enough with a sewing machine to make things that didn’t embarrass me or the people I give things to. I’m sure, if you start as an adult, it won’t take two decades for you–but it won’t take two minutes, either, or even two weeks. Buy a lot of cheap fabric and try out some basic projects with few pieces and lots of long, straight seamlines. Nothing too tailored, too fussy or fiddly, or that requires careful hidden stitching. Accept that you will have botched projects and spend some time wailing, crying, and/or slamming doors. You may want to throw the sewing machine out the window, or bash it in with a hammer. And then one day, you’ll make something that doesn’t suck, and you won’t hate it.
What you need to have, in order to learn how to sew well, isn’t talent. It isn’t even necessary strictly speaking to find sewing appealing, though it is very useful. If you enter a trance in a fabric store, and wander the aisles fingering all of the bolts and admiring their drape and sheen, it’s almost inevitable that you will try to learn how to sew. But you don’t need this. What you need are two basic traits.
You need to have a case of why-would-I-buy-that-when-I-can-make-it-myself-itis. It doesn’t need to be as pronounced as mine, but if you enjoy shopping for stuff and like the things you can get in the stores, you’re unlikely to ever get to the point where a sheer need for cushions on the couch or curtains for the window drives you at last into tackling those projects you’ve got stacked up on a shelf. The Someday Shelf. If you have a Someday Shelf, you’re halfway there.
(I’ve lived in my house for 1 1/2 years, and I still don’t have curtains. I need curtains. One day, I will sew the curtains because, well–why buy them if I can make them?)
And you need to have the ability to consistently suck at something for a long period of time on your way to becoming reasonably proficient.
Strictly speaking, the second trait will do on its own if you don’t have the first.
People trying to be kind will say, “Don’t run before you can walk.” This is way too optimistic, as any baby will tell you. Before you can walk, it’s important to master standing. Standing is, on its own, pretty fantastic. Have you ever seen a baby who has just learned how to stand? Standing is the Best Thing Ever! Oh my god! They’re finally doing something with those weird things on the ends of their legs! In fact they were never meant to go into mouths at all! You can balance on them! And bounce! You’re like twice as high as you were yesterday! Woohoo!
When standing loses its thrill, there comes the even more exciting stage of staggering. Babies’ wobbly steps could not be characterized as successful, purposeful walking by any adult measure. But that baby is the happiest baby who ever lived because not only are feet useful for bouncing on, they can take you places. And you’ll only fall down fifteen or twenty times on your way there.
No baby ever goes from rolling around on its back to running across the room in one day, although to their parents it may feel like it.
Learning how to sew well is much like that. I would characterize myself as a fast walker or slow jogger. I’ve got a lot of practice left before I will really master running.
If you want to learn how to sew well, accept that there is going to be a period where even staggering about drunkenly and falling on your face a lot on your way to eventually getting close to where you wanted to go is beyond your reach. It won’t last, but there’s no way around it.
Before you can stagger, you must stand.