Sew how: 10,000 hours? Victoria's a queen with merely 5,000. July 24, 2012 01:30 8 Comments

Vic 1st tank dres
Victoria's  blog, Ten Thousand Hours of Sewing, is inspired by Malcolm Gladwell's theory that tthat it takes 10,000 hours to become  expert at a skill.  If you read her blog, I'm sure you'll agree she's already at the head of the class. She is. Totally. And she's taken an hour or sew from refining her stitching to share how she learned.

How long have you been sewing?

I’ve been sewing since 2004. I NEVER anticipated being a sewer. SERIOUSLY!!!  I’ve been crocheting and knitting since I taught myself as a little girl.

What inspired you to learn?

It was my grandmother-In-law’s legacy that inspired me to sew. She was such a loving and wonderful woman. To me, it was a means of keeping her memories alive in my heart. It wasn’t until I visited her home after she passed that I was able to see all of the things she’d made. She sewed everything from clothes to curtains. She was really gifted.

Did your mother or grandmother sew?

No, no one in my immediate family sewed.

How did you learn? A class? Your mom? Home ec?

In high school, I took a home ec  class and remember making a pillow. Lord, that was like over fifteen years ago. But after acquiring my GIL’s sewing machine, I took classes at my local Hancock fabrics for around 6 months to learn the basics. I think classes were $5 and were taught twice a week. I loved my teacher Mrs. Helen ‐ she was a seasoned sewing veteran who was very nurturing and encouraging. Strangely enough, I remember clearly how FOREIGN everything was back then. I remember the first time I looked at a guidesheet — it was completely unfamiliar. But it didn’t take me long to begin catching on. I’m a quick learner, so I picked up the basics fast and sorta outgrew the basic classes quickly, and when my teacher had to have knee surgery, I ventured on my own. I was pretty much self-taught from then on. I remember going months checking out every sewing book I could get my hands on from my local libraries. I’m a HUGE book learner, so I loaded myself up on resources. Once I exhausted those, then Ebay and became my best friend. I have a pretty exhaustive library (something I’m proud of) — books ranging from the basic how-to’s, to patternmaking, draping, pattern manipulation, fitting, etc. These resources have been invaluable, especially since I’m not formally taught/trained. I try my best to stay current of the resources on the market. I’m a firm believer that just one added piece of information can radically transform your sewing. So I see buying books and DVDs as huge investments!

What was the first garment that you made?

Wow, that was so long ago and I barely remember. My memory is a little foggy, but I think it was a drawstring skirt. I think I may have worn it a few times. It was really basic — nothing special about it. Can’t you tell it wasn’t that significant! LOL! The one major first project I distinctly remember making was my first Valentine’s Day dress. I was still taking classes at Hancock at the time, and we got to the point where we all finished a group project and could pick out an individual project. I decided to tackle my very first gown. It was Butterick 6533. I made this formal dress out of red and white crepe-back satin and put a red and pink flower pin on it. I used the shiny side on the dress. I was pretty proud that I took on this project and tackled an invisible zipper as a newbie. It wasn’t that painful — believe it or not (ignorance is bliss) — probably beginner’s luck — and they’re actually one of my favorite notions to sew. This dress is definitely not the prettiest thing on the market but it sure did make me proud! The hem was probably the worst hack job ever — LOL!!! And as long as you didn’t look underneath the dress you wouldn’t have known it.

Here’s the dress then: 

Vic Valentine dress past
Here’s it now:

Vic Valentine dress Now
I thought I’d try it on for kicks and giggles since it’s been about seven years since I’ve worn it. I can’t actually believe it still fits. And although it’s a bit too flashy for my taste now, I guess it actually doesn’t look that bad.

Did you wear it?

Of course I wore it and I wore it with PRIDE! I got a lot of compliments on that night!!! I can’t tell you how rewarding it felt to say I made it myself. But of course, if you’re a sewer you already know that feeling.

How long did it take for you to get the basics down?

It didn’t take too long to get the basics down. Learning the how-to’s on inserting a zipper or sewing curved seams or doing hems was accomplished within a reasonable time. I would say that after about 6-8 months I felt pretty OK with basic garment construction. But then that’s when I hit a brick wall and became extremely frustrated with my sewing. I was churning out projects left and right but none of them were fitting properly. That’s when, thorough tons of reading and research, that I realized that SEWING and FITTING were two different things. This realization was a big eye opener for me. If I remember correctly, it was at that time that I took off a few months from sewing to spend time studying the concept of fit. When I felt I had a slightly better understanding of it I took the long adventure of trying to learn how to do it. I’m still on that adventure, but I feel SO much more comfortable with how to fit my body. Plus, sewing for others has expanded my understanding on fitting as well. I’m still working on perfectly fitting pants on myself. My high derriere and swayback makes that a little tricky but I hope to master that real soon!!!

How long did it take you to feel confident of your dressmaking skills?

I’ll say that I became somewhat confident with my dressmaking skills when I started taking on clients. Heck, you better have some confidence if you venture out into that arena. I started my sewing business in 2006, I believe, and that was only due to the encouragement of my Dad. I wrote a post about that.

I literally did cry the entire first month. I felt so insecure, scared and inexperienced.  I mean, seriously, I was a fledgling seamstress. What did I know? The truth is you don’t have to know all there is about your craft to still be good and offer a service to others. I had to learn to only accept work based on my skill level and what I knew I could provide my clients. As my skill level increased so did the types of projects I took on. Sometimes I’ve taken on project slightly over my head, and they’ve helped me grow my skills (besides I like things to be a bit challenging — within reason, of course). Every project has helped increase my confidence. I don’t think you’ll ever feel like you’ve arrived or you’ve mastered your craft. I think you just build enough past experience to make good decisions going forward as much as possible. Isn’t that the very essence of wisdom! I have to mention that fear can be a major confidence zapper. The reality is that it never really goes away for good — it pops up from time to time. I recently took on a client who wanted me to make a dress for her daughter. I’ve sewn a bunch of kids clothing and after discussing the details and determining it was doable I was more than happy to take on the project. And, of course, you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach and your mind gets to racing fearing the worst.  I simply tune it out and keep on moving. For me, fear heightens my awareness and makes me more careful, but I refuse to let the fear of failure stop me. You just learn to prepare well and push past any intrepidation. Some of my best experiences and memorable lessons have been sewing for clients. I really have them to thank for helping me grow in confidence.

Do you still make things that you simply won't wear?

Yes, will that ever stop!!! LOL! But luckily it seldom happens nowadays.  When you’ve got a list as long as I do of things to sew, I don’t have time to waste by sewing a lot of things that have a low success rate. Too many failed projects would FRUSTRATE me!!! For that reason, I’m very calculating about what I choose to sew. I research the pattern beforehand and look at fellow sewer reviews. In the past, I used to make a lot of thing I wouldn’t wear after while. When I first began sewing, I wasn’t conscious of my wardrobe so I’d make a lot of stand-alone pieces. That drove me MAD!!! In recent years, I think more about the bigger picture and the longevity of the garments in my closet. For instance, I LOVE to sew fabrics with colorful patterns, but I’m even toning that down a bit and opting for more solids. I’m motivated to have a no-fuss wardrobe and effortless style that can go the distance.  With that said, there are days that maybe I feel like doing some experimenting and I may take on a risky project. If failure results then those will be the garments I definitely won’t wear, but at the same time they’re the ones that help me learn as well so there’s a trade-off.

How many hours a week do you sew?

Oh goodness, as you probably know by now, I have an entire blog dedicated to my maintaining discipline with my sewing.  On average, I like to devote 10-20 hours a week sewing. When I can slip extra in, trust me, I do. I particularly love getting up at 6am-ish on a Saturday (I’m an early bird) and sewing until noon or so. I can get a lot of sewing in, and it still leaves me with the rest of my day to do other things. If I had my way, I’d sew a lot more, but with being a wife, mommyhood, having a full-time job, business on the side, church involvement and a bunch of other stuff, I’m happy to have my sewing! Trust me, sewing isn’t an option — for me it’s a necessity. It keeps me SANE!!!! LOL!

What are your five favorite sewing books?

1. Palmer and Pletsch Fit for Real People — the pants and jacket versions are great, too!

2. Fitting and Pattern Alterations by Liechty, Pottberg, Rasband. Love this one because it takes a multimethod approach to fitting issues.

3. The entire Singer Sewing Books (I think there’s thirty-plus books in the collection ranging over every sewing topic imaginable; I have just a little over 30 of them. Three of my favorites are The Perfect Fit, Tailoring and Sewing Pants that Fit. Love the older books — they are so detailed. During a time when people heavily sewed, they had to be. FYI: These volumes were condensed and became the Singer Complete Photo Guide of Sewing.

4. Patternmaking for Fashion Design by Helen Joseph-Armstrong

5. Vogue Fitting. It’s a classic and an excellent book!

Are there any sewing DVDs that you like? If so, which ones?

Oh, I live for DVDs!!! I’m an extremely visual person, so there’s nothing like a good DVD to help ramp up my learning. I also like to get them since I occasionally teach sewing classes and know they could be a good resource for my students.  I own a good deal of videos. Some of my favorites are Peggy Sager’s Silhouette videos — I love the one on muslins, sewing sheers, etc. I own a bunch of her DVDs. I also have a bunch of the Palmer Pletsch DVDs. The Fit for Real People and Pants for Real People are great companions to the book.  I have a couple of Connie Crawford’s as well. I love sewing DVDs!!!

If you're a fan of free online tutorials, name five for the beginning sewer, please.

I don’t really hunt down any online tutorials. I’ve got quite the arsenal of info with my book and DVD library. I also love the Threads Magazine DVD-ROM, with 100-plus issues, it’s pretty informative. But one of my favorite online tutorials is Sandra Betzina’s fly front tutorial that you can find on the Threads site! She make the process SO easy!!! I also just discovered that Peggy Sager’s does webcast and stores them on her blog. They’re quite informative!!!

What garment would you suggest that a newbie make first?

That’s a tricky one. It just depends on their level of comfort and skill. I’ve had students who’ve struggled with sewing a straight line and others who were quicker learners. For the really green newbies,  I’d recommend making something that doesn’t require too much fitting. A loose tunic or an apron — you know something that can get them to focus on the skill of sewing without the added stress and discouragement of perfecting the fit. Trust me. there will be plenty of time ahead for working on perfecting a garment's fit. It has been my experience that there’s a huge misconception about sewing. People tend to underestimate that amount of skill that it takes even for really simple projects. I say take on something simple so you can learn the proper techniques and then move on up from there. To me, the proper sewing technique is the most important thing any newbie can learn. Every new seamstress needs a good foundation to build off of.


Something a tad bit more challenging then their first projectJ!

Vic Favorite dress
What is the favorite of all the garments you have made?

Ohhhhhhh . . . that’s a bit hard! I’ve made several gowns for myself and fancy dresses for my daughter. But I have to admit my favorite dress still is Vogue DKNY 1027. I LOVE the style of this dress. For me, the final dress was a perfect marriage of fabric and pattern. The fabric is an ohhhh-so-comfortable Lycra in this lovely mixture of bright blue flowers, gold, maroon and white. It’s my instant pick-me-up dress. I just so feel happy wearing it!!!

Vic Blue Gala dress
What was the first item you sewed that made you beam with pride?

Of course, the Valentine Day dress I mentioned above would have been the first just because it was my first major project as a newbie. But the one that REALLY made me feel accomplished was sewing my 2011 Gala gown (can’t you tell I have a thing for formal gowns)!!! I absolutely loved this dress!

Name your five top tips for beginners, please.

1. Practice, Practice, Practice (it’s the ONLY way you’re going to get good at sewing). And keep practicing until you get it right. There was a time that sewing in a sleeve made me so nervous. Researching various methods of doing so and really coming to understand the anatomy of a sleeve and practicing nonstop helped me overcome those nerves. Now, setting in a sleeve is a piece of cake for the most part.

2. Come to understand the way you learn and use that info to really explore the ins and outs of sewing. I’m a visual learner, and as I mentioned before, I have lots of resources that cater to how I learn. I try not to take on a project without thinking about every aspect of it. Each project consists of a formula. You have to have the right fabric, right pattern, right techniques, right fit, etc. to create a phenomenal end product. Keep in mind it’s that knowledge that improves your success rate with every project!

3. Mistakes will be your best teacher!!! Trust me,  you don’t have to go looking for them — they will find you. They’re just inevitable. You learn your lesson and move on. I used to be so heartbroken about the sewing mistakes I made when I was a newbie. Then I realized it’s just fabric (unless it’s a rare piece — that’s always hard) and focused on the next thing. Trust me, your mistakes will get less and less the more you progress and get good. And if they do happen, you get better at hiding them. I’ve heard it said that the definition for craftsmanship is being able to hide your mistakes or rebound from them (wink)!

 4. Don’t always settle for what’s easy. Challenge yourself a bit! Sometimes, you’ve just got to go out on a limb. What’s the worst that can happen? I bombed a dress the other day because I was curious what the results would be if I gave it a go. I had a gut feeling it wouldn’t work but tried it anyway. In 15 minutes, I got my answer — lesson learned. Now, I’ll find a way to find use for the cut-up fabric. As I mentioned above, I don’t do that often, but I do like to give myself the opportunity for exploration. Often, good ideas are found that way!!!

5. Be disciplined. Of course the degree depends on your goals. I like to take a break from sewing like the next person, but for the most part, I intentionally push myself. I know that if I really want to be an expert seamstress then it will require me to push past my feelings and show some real effort. Heck, I’m sure there are days that even Michael Phelps doesn’t want to get up at 4 a.m. and jump in the pool. But obviously, his success shows his discipline. Don’t underestimate the power of being disciplined — especially if you have specific goals!!!! Your hard work will pay off, I promise!!!

And one added tip: Get to know and uncover your inner designer. With every project, there’s a reason you like what you like or sew what you sew. Explore that. If you do, you’ll soon discover your own point of view with fashion. I believe all of us are gifted with perspective — and you can grow and cultivate that perspective. Don’t try to be like anyone else. Trust me, if you’re true to your own aesthetic, you’ll begin to evolve and grow in your sewing. I read a lot of sewing blogs like most of you, and I love observing other’s unique style and perspective. That’s the very thing that diversifies and yet unites us as sewers!!!  

What's the last garment that you made and are you pleased with it?

Well since it’s the summer I’ve been on my summer dress kick and recently finished my second version of McCalls 6559 tank dress! You betcha I was pleased with it!!! Just 2 pattern pieces and a feminine and sleek style. I’m all over that!!! Everyone’s been sewing this one up lately. I’m sure I’ll knock out a couple of more. They’re just great “go-to” dresses. Perfect for when need to something fast and cute to wear

Vic 2nd tank dress
Have you sewn with unprinted vintage patterns? If so, please share pointers for newbies who might want to try them.

No, I haven’t.

How long does it take to get to the Vogue "Plus Difficile" rated pattern?  (I can dream, can't I?)

I don’t think it takes long. I think the rating is based more on the number of steps and types of techniques being utilized.  These patterns are rated as such because they often require an array of sewing skills and know-how and often a lot of time. For me, it’s not often the issue of whether I can sew one of these, it’s the question of if I want to devote the time to doing so. I don’t usually wear very intricate garments (aside from special occasions) so I’m not often interested. I have to admit sewing a garment with 60-plus steps (OK, I’m a exaggerating a bit — but that’s true in some cases) is outside my realm of patience. But if I wanted it bad enough I definitely would!

Vic Black Gala Dress
Share your funniest sewing adventure, please.

You know, I just think I drew a blank. Hmmmmm  . . .  I think I got it. Well, it’s not really funny, but looking back, it kinda is and kinda sweet all at the same time (sorry, sometimes I have a twisted sense of humor). In April, I made a gown for a gala I attended.  Here it is:

I literally threw it together in just a few short days. I blogged about it here.

Fortunately, I had the aid of a custom-made dress form to help me perfect the fit. I literally was shocked at how fast I sewed and fit the dress — of course it was so easy with my body double. But I remember standing in my living room looking at the dress nearly finished on the form and without warning I just broke down crying. OK, it was just a few tears, but I was literally overcome by emotions. What in the world??? I promise you I haven’t been the same since having my daughter almost 5 years ago. There really is something weird that happens to you after you have a baby! LOL!!! To be serious for a moment, I was just so moved that I had the ability to make something beautiful with my hands.  Looking back at that moment although sweet now seems a little humorous J — told ya I had a twisted sense of humor — LOL! But at the same time, it really showed me that sewing really satisfies a big place in my heart, and I’m seriously passionate about it. The thought of that makes me smile.

Vic Julia Louis DreyfusAnd your most exasperating or difficult.

I actually never blogged about this, or at least I can’t remember, but about seven years ago I had a client who saw my business card at a local Hancock’s Fabric and wanted me to make a Narciso Rodriguez dress she saw Julia Louis-Dreyfus wear to an award show.

Hey, I was still pretty wet behind the ears but eager to take on the project and felt I could step up to the challenge (as I said before ignorance is bliss). Well, the dress wasn’t difficult to construct. I picked a basic strapless dress pattern and took the upper bodice apart to add in the black band and create the diamond shape on the side. I think the back of the dress also had a black band. So that went incredibly well. I made a mock-up dress in muslin, and the fit was good. So I moved ahead with constructing the dress which went relatively smooth. But the project became exasperating when I decided to take on the job of hand beading the black band area on the dress since the NR version appeared to be beaded. Well, if anyone has done bead work on a dress, you’ll know that even the smallest section takes FOREVER!!!!! In a week I think I spent something like 12 hours on the beading alone. It was insane!!! I ended up doing only three rows to outline the top and bottom of the black satin areas. She came by to pay for the dress and have the final fitting. We ran into a huge snafu when I discovered that she bought a new bra, and it totally changed the shape of her bust and how it appeared in this dress. That was a HUGE lesson for me. She loved the dress and would just use another bra with it. In the end, she wore it to a conference social event and she got lots of compliments. I was so happy to be done with that project that I don’t even have finished pictures of it. I mean I literally stood by the door and gladly watched it be carried out! LOL! No photos are a bummer, but I’m happy all ended well. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. I learned A LOT!!!

Vic Princess seam dresses
What's your favorite pattern ever to sew, if you remember?

Well, I judge my favorite pattern by the number of times I’ve sewn it and if I’ve interfaced it to preserve the pattern (wink). I have a few that I’ve sewn five-plus times, but the one I really love is  a  OOP McCall’s princess seam dress pattern (can’t remember the number). It’s such a classic and feminine design that worked every time. Here’s a pic of two of the five dresses I’ve made with it. They’re both a linen blend with Asian characters and flowers on them.

Do you sew vintage patterns?

I haven’t, but I’m increasingly becoming interested. I really LOVE a lot of the styles!!! I’ve acquired a handful and look forward to giving them a try.

Do you find instructions easier to follow on vintage patterns?

Well, until just now I’d never looked at a vintage pattern guidesheet. I have to say that it looks almost like a newspaper comic page. The instructions are incredibly clear and the drawing the same. They are definitely detailed — there are lots of notes for each step. Interesting. 

How many hours of sewing do you think it takes for the average person to become proficient?

Good question!!! Well, if you’re a follower of my blog, you know that I’m on an adventure to try and figure that out! I really appreciate the “10,000 Hours” chapter in Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers. If anything, it gives me a goal to reach for, which is great. I’m already half the way in and look forward to the remainder of the adventure.  I’ll let you know my answer once I’ve made it to the finish line. I look forward to it!!!

If you'd like to learn more about how Victoria learned to sew — and who wouldn't? — you must read this post on her blog. A loud yet respectful round of applause to Victoria. Thank you for sharing. Which dress do you like best?