It was the best of shirts, it was the worst of shirts
At the end of Summer 2019 I finally sewed my first wearable garment. I'd been challenged to complete a shirt by a given date.
The project was a New Look 6197 camp shirt and I'd chosen a beautiful brown and cream gingham linen bought from Gorgeous Fabrics (hi Ann!). The collar rolled a little and the flat felled seams were… flat-ish but it fit! I loved it despite the finish issues on the inside and the horizontal orientation of the button holes and the too-large buttons I'd used. My husband has a term for when the buttons are out of proportion with the garment - Button Forward. :)
On the day we'd set to meet, I was still sewing. In fact, I'd sewed the last button, put the shirt on, then dashed to the car to drive to our meeting.
I was excited enough about this shirt to post it on Instagram. My Instagram shows this shirt as the first post. I still wear the shirt today and will for years to come.
Contrast that with the last shirt I made. Another camp shirt, this one a Merchant & Mills All State. I love the fit on this shirt and the topstitching detail. I used a blue linen bought a few years ago at Beckenstein's in Manhattan.
For this shirt I used a light, high-quality interfacing for a better collar "roll" and there are no flat felled seams. All the seam allowances are finished and miraculously, I only had to sew the collar once. This shirt went together quickly with no major issues. This is a shirt that feels elevated enough that I can wear to a casual cook-out or to brunch at a nice restaurant and will be in Summer rotation for years.
I've worn both of these shirts recently. And I got to thinking about how much I've learned in the past three years. Certainly, my sewing skills have improved. But as we all know, sitting at the machine and sewing seams is a small part of sewing.
I think about sewing as a list of skills falling into roughly four categories: Tools, Techniques, Fabric, and Fit. Every skill we learn helps us build or support other skills. Developing these skills is iterative. You learn to thread your machine (Tool), then sew a straight line (Technique). You learn to read a pattern (Tool), then learn to understitch (Technique).
You might start with cotton (fabric) then learn to work with linen (fabric). You get to see that sewing a seam with cotton is different that sewing with silk. Each skill in each bucket teaches us something that allows us to grow in our sewing practice.
I left Fit for last because it can be the most difficult set of skills to learn. Ironically, it is the reason so many of us started sewing our clothes in the first place! But until we master the basic sewing techniques, adjustments (like the full belly adjustment) won't be as successful. It may be the hardest but, when understood and applied, take our garments to new levels.
I've learned so much since that first completed shirt. I've learned that I prefer French seams to flat felled seams, even on dress shirts. I've learned to read a pattern and select the closest size to fit my body. I've learned to grade between sizes on a commercial pattern to get the correct chest size and the correct neck measurement.
Most of all, I've learned that my sewing practice is a process. And progress is not linear. I can feel like I've mastered sewing a button placket only to use a new pattern and see a new technique that throws me for a loop. But getting to the other side returns so much: confidence, experience, and more techniques in my bucket that can be applied and adapted.
I've learned to accept (or even love) my mistakes because of what they teach me. And I've learned to love the less than perfect garments as a reflection of where I've been. They remind me of the courage it takes to learn anything new and to be the one who has no answers, only questions.
And they remind me of the constant challenge of sewing when all the tools were not designed for me. The tools were designed for two-handed people. I was born with my left hand, but not my right. So all of the lessons I've learned have been an adaptation from the standard. This is good in a way because I not only have to understand the pattern instructions or my sewing machine features, I have to translate them to my body and my needs. And this makes me focus and really understand. The lessons run deep and pull on all of my experience adapting to the world around me.
One of my favorite tools (besides my Juki TL-2010Q) is a homemade stump cover I made from plastic wrap and duct tape. It is messy and strange looking. It protects me from steam burns when I'm pressing and from cuts when I'm using a rotary cutter. It is unique to me and allows me to sew more safely.
The stump cover is tailored to my unique body and my needs, just like the perfectly tailored shirt I aspire to create for myself.
While my specific needs are unique they are not singular. Gill from the most recent series of Sewing Bee sews with one hand, as does Ryan Rix in Wales. And learning to sew to meet one's particular needs is very common. I always listen with interest when sewists describe their journey as one of necessity. "I couldn't find clothes in shops that fit my…" is a common origin story for sewists.
It cannot be overstated how much confidence there is in wearing clothes that not only fit, but work with your body and your needs. And I'm lucky to have friends like Kelly Hogaboom and Maggie Green who know and model this daily through their creative businesses.
I never understood this until I started to sew for myself. And this is probably why I will buy VERY few commercial garments going forward. I'll either make them or have them made for me. This is something I would NEVER have considered before.
All of the garments are part of me and a snapshot of who I've been and a reminder of who I am now. The best and worst of my skills not just in sewing, but in life.