on expertise

Sewing 1850 style: Probably two gifted women sewing late into the night for fun, no?

Two hundred years ago, any woman alive would been able to produce a hand-stitched garment that fit anyone in her family. It might have included smocking, monograms, top- and edge-stitching, and other decorative and fitting details as a matter of course. While a woman who could sew exceptionally well might have been admired within her local community, every woman was expected to have enough facility with a thread and needle to be able to produce wearable garments. Not to mention linens, bedspreads, etc.

The reference escapes me at the moment, but until relatively recently in historical terms, it was considered a good investment for a middle-class family to spend a small fortune on a complete set of silk embroidery flosses for their daughters, to learn how to embroider well with quality products.*

Nowadays, if you sew yourself a skirt composed of two gathered rectangles and a waistband and the hem turns out even, you are considered talented.

If those little fingers can manage it, I’m sure ours can (19th cent.)

People tell me this fairly often: “You’re so talented, Andrea!” And I think it’s kind of funny. I’m not. I’m moderately good because I’ve invested a lot of time in a learnable skill. Anything that every woman alive did as a matter of course just 200 years ago has not suddenly become a mysterious and rare Gift visited on a chosen few, particularly not with the advent of sewing machines with specialized feet, zippers, automatic buttonholes, printed patterns, sergers and the like.

Sewing is like cooking. At first, you burn the pasta. Eventually, if you put in the time and attention, you learn to make a bolognese from scratch, when to use the buffalo mozzarella and when to use the pizza mozzarella, why it’s better to use full-fat milk in the bechemel sauce but that 1% will do in a pinch, and that, my god, margarine is not a food. (Sorry for the snobbish moment there.) Maybe because most of us do still spend some time feeding ourselves, we recognize cooking for what it is: a skill.

We no longer clothe ourselves, so we no longer think of sewing as a skill. But even your factory-made clothing was almost certainly assembled by women sitting at sewing machines. Are they gifted? Probably not. Most likely they were poor and desperate and this was the best job on offer, and now having sewn those seams approximately 3,000 times, they’re pretty good at it.

The other thing is that I recognize that I’m actually not that good.

I’m ok at it. You know, I can wear something I’ve made out of the house and not be totally embarrassed. I can make things that fit me better than what I can find in a store. I can make things for Frances that fit her pretty well, and that are comfortable and she will wear. Hurray! Yes?

…or maybe this is just an excuse to post some adorable pictures. (19th cent.). Hey, do you suppose mom is charging for that tutorial?

There’s a lot I can’t do, though.

My handmade buttonholes are a joke (thank god for the automatic buttonholes on the machine). My blind hems are not as blind as they should be. I still have no real clue how to fit raglan sleeves properly. Sometimes my darts are uneven, and I still struggle with adjusting patterns to fit my high waist. Belt loops are a work in progress.

But that’s all ok, because one of the things I love about sewing is how much there still is for me to learn. It’s fantastic! I could sew for the rest of my life and still have new skills and techniques to master.

This year, I have finally mastered how to make Frances a shirt and dress bodice that fits. Thanks to her health issues, this is not a simple task, but I did it. Go me! When I made her Princess Frances dress a few years back for a cousin’s wedding, I learned how to orient pattern pieces on ombre fabric to ensure a consistent gradation to the entire garment. But the back placket was poor, the sashes weren’t flat, the front bodice was tight, and the tulle was uneven under the skirt hem. I knew this, even though everyone raved about the dress. (It’s a nice dress, but it’s not perfect.) Her grad dress won’t have the ombre trickery, but I can already tell that the dress as a whole will be a better garment: the sleeves are even, the neckline lies flat and is symmetrical, and the waistband lies straight and goes directly across her stomach. And it will fit her. (And it is also the softest rayon ever woven–I keep petting it.)

I enjoy participating (peripherally) in the sewing community because it is fun. People make stuff, sometimes it’s crap, they post pictures of what they made, get some congratulations. My take is that no one really cares if you’re making stuff well, so long as you are making stuff. Glorious mistakes, and all.**

Thank goodness, because if there were a quality barrier to entry, I’m not sure I’d qualify.

But as much as I enjoy this “let’s all make crap together” spirit, I admit to giving the side-eye to the “and since I make marginally better crap than you do, let me tell you how it’s done” corollary. A well-timed “this is how I did it” is always nice, even when how you did it isn’t all that great. A tutorial on How To Do It when you’re not doing it right rubs me the wrong way, particularly when there’s a monetary charge for the tutorial or an associated pattern attached.

Particularly when you are publicly advertising yourself as an expert.

People are entitled to make and sell tutorials and patterns all day and night, if that’s what they want to do, and other people are entitled to buy and use them, regardless of whether or not it’s any good. And then the people who don’t like them are also entitled to say that they don’t like them. This is how it goes.

Like movies. People can make good movies, and bad movies. People can get paid for the movies they make, regardless, and other people can pay to see them. And then they can talk about which movies they love and which movies they hate. Publicly, even. If you’re going to make movies, you’re going to get panned.

The minute money is introduced, the relationship changes from social to commercial. Yes, sometimes people have social and commercial relationships simultaneously, but no commercial entity has social relationships with all of its customers. It’s the difference between your grandmother teaching you how to make pancakes (criticism=tacky), and buying a cookbook with a crappy pancake recipe that doesn’t rise properly (tell the world about it via Amazon).

(This extended diatribe brought to you via a controversy in the sewosphere whereby an accomplished seamstress took issue with a number of self-identified sewing experts online and the advice that they offer, and some of the said self-identified sewing experts themselves took issue with being taken issue with, and kaboom.)

To sum up:

  • I like to sew
  • Sometimes I don’t sew so well
  • I still talk about it publicly
  • But this is ok, because I’m neither calling myself an expert nor charging for it
  • I love sewing blogs, even the ones where people don’t sew so well, because it’s great to see people challenge themselves and learn
  • And let’s face it, many of us don’t have a local in-the-flesh sewing community to sew with
  • Hurray internet!
  • But if you’re going to ask me for my money in exchange for your expertise, whether it’s pattern-making or technique-related, you’d better be sure that you have some to sell
  • And if you don’t, I consider myself and other people perfectly within their right to say so

In related news, the bodice and sleeves of Frances’s grad dress are all done. I need to do the skirt and zipper, and then embellish. I can’t wait!


* Not advocating a return to the days where all women were required to sew, but the historical context does make it pretty apparent how far this particular skill set has declined in the developed world. Also, given the human rights abuses and rampant consumerism associated with today’s industrialized fashion landscape, we might all be better off if all of us–men and women both–took more personal responsibility for and active participation in the production of our own clothing. /soapbox

** Personally,ย I want to keep making new mistakes. Making mistakes is fine, it’s how we learn and progress; but getting stuck in the same mistakes means you’re not learning. Not making mistakes means you’re not taking risksย or doing anything new. Mistakes are great! But I wouldn’t want anyone emulating my mistakes.


Am I going to regret having posted this? Oh, hell…

12 thoughts on “on expertise

  1. Yes. To all of this. I do a fair number of “needlework” things that are relatively useful and to me, not terribly difficult. Needing of practice and experience, yes. The number of people who comment they could never do it, and oh, how amazing am I! It’s actually kinda scary to me. As you say, I don’t want a return to a time when that’s all women could do or be known for, but jeez, it’s like any other skill. Time and patience and practice. Not to mention the value in working with one’s hands.

    Also, margarine is most definitely NOT a food. ICK.

    1. Yes yes yes. I love to be able to produce a tangible thing, after sitting at a computer all day.

      I would love to see more of your needlework projects, though. Do you post them anywhere?

  2. This is a great post! Really! I have seen lots of controversy in the quilting world as well. So it’s not just for clothing sewists.
    In other news I was called intelligent because I make quilts. Um not one doesn’t need intelligence to make quilts. Yes I am intelligent but not because I can sew. Geesh!

    1. It doesn’t surprise me that this happens in the quilting world too. I can only imagine that there must be folks who make one or two quilts, by themselves a couple of jelly-rolls, and then set themselves up as Quilt Designers because they tweaked a classic block of some sort, and charge money for it.

      Which, you know, if they want to do that and other people want to buy it, yay! But then, people are going to criticize you sometimes.

      And yes, you are smart, for far more reasons than your lovely quilts. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. I have insisted since I was five that margarine isn’t food. And I am exceptionally talented but I still make the odd mistake, it’s called learning. If you stop learning you are either dead or exceptionally stupid/ arrogant

    1. Hi Opus. Thanks for commenting. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I’d have to agree with your talented comment–I love the goldwork embroidery you just posted on your blog. Goldwork is one of those things I have on my to-learn list.

      1. I’m dead modest as well. Don’t know if you’re on the uk or not, but if you are I run workshops now and then, there’s one on opus Anglicanum work at the ashmolean later this year, and there will also be a magazine project with a female version of the little head sometime later this year( I’ve only just started working on though so don’t hold your breath)

  4. The spirit of Grandma Pearl lives on in you!
    I think she retreated to her sewing machine to keep her sanity while Grandpa Lou was busy knocking down walls and working on his do-it-yourself renovations. They each created beauty in their own way…and isn’t that what life is all about?
    Create and enjoy!

  5. How did I miss this?

    The blurring of the lines between amateur, authority, and expert in recent years is really, truly jarring. I was going to write about it around the release of—I literally just typed the book title and backspaced it—a well-received, blogger-written book. Hypocrite, party of one. Even with cooking or news, for which we have blogs now, people seem to cherry pick instances where they’d like to be considered “just like you!” and when they’d like to be taken seriously. (Have you seen the recent fashion blogger kerfuffle about Rewards Style commission and disclosures? “I’m not a journalist! Except for when I need to get into shows!”) I think that establishing a business identity online requires a forfeiture of your social identity within that sphere. (I am an extremist, naturally.)

    I am all about making mistakes and putting them on display as mistakes. (See: My fitting adventures.) Okay, I’ve started writing a book. Time to wrap it up. The online sewing community seems to have released the tempest from the teapot, lately. I’m surprised by how the self-proclaimed experts reacted to the accomplished sewer’s post, that you referenced. If a small-but-substantial business like, say, Purl or Fabric Mart or something reacted that way, I wonder what the community response would look like.

    1. Ha. Well, I can think of a couple of well-received, blogger-written sewing books lately that could apply very well. One I bought–it was good, not as advanced as I’d have liked, and could have benefited from a professional editor. The other I refuse to buy. I would look like a stuffed potato in her patterns and I don’t need another beginning sewing book.

      I didn’t see the fashion blog kerfuffle, no, but it doesn’t surprise me. There was a similar vibe with mommyblogging before the Big Implosion. “We’re all friends! We’re such good friends that I’m going to package up our friendship and take it to several enormous corporate sponsors so I never have to work again! Enjoy these sponsored but totally genuine posts. Thank you so much for your support! Your friendship is so valuable to me.”

      I don’t think your POV is extremist. It’s possible to retain social connections with customers–there are small business owners that I support and consider to be acquaintances/friends. But certainly you at least need to be prepared for people to see you as a corporate entity rather than a person, and act accordingly. If people continue to grant you a social identity, at that point, it’s a gift, not a right or expectation.

      I thought the accomplished sewer’s posts was pretty tame. Yes, I would have been unhappy to see my own work referenced in it, but I’m not offering myself as a model or expert. The response was so over the top, and completely missed the point. Who said they shouldn’t sew, or enjoy sewing, or make mistakes, or put their mistakes online? No one! They were simply criticized for charging people for work that was poor.

      And thanks for commenting. ๐Ÿ™‚

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