Sew how? Robin was inspired because she wanted more clothes.

Robin may only admit to A Little Sewing, but the quality of her garments belies that. She makes so many gorgeous clothes. And they fit! She's skilled. She's generous. So. Read on to find out how she learned to sew.

How long have you been sewing?

I have been sewing clothes for myself since I was a teenager.  I'd rather not do the math.  (If that's OK.)

What inspired you to learn?

Wanting new clothes was the primary motivation.  My mother was reluctant to buy me a lot of new clothes, but I noticed she opened the wallet any time I asked for fabric, patterns or notions.  I took the path of least resistance and asked for fabric.  Also, she wanted to sew clothes for me, and that was a PROBLEM.  She did NOT know what was cool nor my taste, so I had to stop her from sewing anything else after a certain kelly green dress in 7th grade.  That was the end of letting her sew for me. :D

How did you learn?

Fortunately, Home Ec. was still a required class when I was in junior high school, so I was forced to learn good solid techniques.  I was around sewing all my life, and I played with fabric scraps. (Barbie dolls need clothes!)  My mom helped with tricky parts, and she was especially good at saving wadders.  She patiently picked apart my messes and fixed things.  When I jammed the machine, she took it to the shop without a lot of complaining (and I did sew recklessly!).  At one point, she bought me my own Kenmore so I would stop messing up hers.  I sewed a little more carefully on my own new machine.  My mom was very supportive of my sewing.

CPO-jacket What was the first garment that you made? There was a popular style of unlined wool plaid jacket in the '70s called a CPO jacket.  I sewed one in a Burberry-style plaid, along with a camel-colored wool A-line skirt.  I had no idea that it was hard to match plaids.  I just did it.  I don't recall for sure, but I probably had my mother take a look before I cut into the fabric, and it's likely she saved me from making a mess.

Did you wear it?

I wore it to death!  I was so proud of that outfit!  That's when I got hooked on the cycle: desire >create >wear >enjoy!  It can be pretty habit-forming.

1986 me and Bryant
And have you been sewing steadily since then?

No, there were some long dry spells in my sewing.  Like a lot of people, I stopped sewing in the 1980s for a number of reasons.  My new career demanded very long hours, and the dress code was very formal.  I was still slim enough that I could shop ready-to-wear and get away with the fit.  The exception came when I needed professional maternity clothes in 1986.  They did not exist!  I sewed dresses, and I was able to find an old photo of one of my favorites.  In fact, casual maternity clothes were pretty ugly back then, too.  I sewed a few quilts for my new baby when she was born.  Baby quilts aren't too big, and sewing little squares together was about all I could manage given the sleep deprivation of that very magical time in my life.

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

Oh yes!  I made a significant error on a recent white shirt, and I did not notice until it was completely finished.  I may pick it apart and fix it, but it will be time-consuming. 

How many hours a week do you sew?

I sew about 10 hours a week, often more, seldom less.

What are your five favorite sewing books?

I really like the Singer series, which has many more than five volumes.  There are books on basic sewing techniques, fitting, tailoring, sewing with knits and many more.  I buy them when I see a good deal, and I have most of them now.  There are many other very good books by Sandra Betzina, Nancy Zieman, Kenneth King, Claire Schaffer, Susan Khalje, Connie Long, Palmer & Pletsch, and others.  They are all good!  Most sewing techniques are generic, but teachers bring it to life.  Check them out and see which ones inspire you.  There are newer books by fabric designers like Amy Butler and Heather Ross.  I enjoy those books, and they provide great beginner's projects.  If you are attracted to the aesthetic, and it inspires you ­- it is a good book.

Are there any sewing DVDs that you like?

If so, which ones?  I love Claire Shaeffer's Couture Techniques Workshop.

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

I love all the free tutorials online.  I particularly appreciate that Sigrid has gathered and linked many tutorials on her blog, Sigrid - Sewing Projects.

What garment would you suggest that a newbie make first?

One good thing might be to take a class and work on the same project as everyone in the class - pajama pants would be pretty easy or maybe an apron.

If you are teaching yourself, then sew the thing you really want.  Leverage the desire to push yourself.  Also, a costume would be a good opportunity to tackle something interesting. 


Sew something with a new technique.  Perhaps a zipper?  One thing I'd recommend is to sew with stable fabrics in the beginning.  Cotton quilting fabric might be limited (an apron? pajama pants?) but it will be easy to work with.  A nice shirting is easy to sew.  Some knits can be easy (like a double knit) and others can be hard (like a jersey).  Stick with easier fabrics in the beginning.

What is the favorite of all the garments you have made?

My favorite is the skirt and blouse I sewed for my wedding.  I spent a lot of time in the fancy section of local fabric stores.  There was still a lot I did not know, but I was in love, and that certainly enhanced the sewing experience.  The final result was gorgeous - until a last-minute impulsive decision to have a corset custom-made for me.  Folks, pick your foundations first, then sew!  The corset was amazing, and it looked totally hot, on its own, with the skirt.  However, it was way too hot for this blushing (46-year-old) bride, so I wore the wrap top I'd made, over the corset.  When I look back at the pictures now, I crack up because I look like a flat-chested board, thanks to the corset.  But, you know what, I had fun!  When else can you justify the procurement of a corset?  I rest my case!  It was worth it!

Wedding outfit
Name your five top tips for beginners, please.

1. Take apart a garment.  Find a well-loved but worn-out favorite - sit down with a seam ripper and good light, and just take it apart. You'll see how it was constructed and then you can use it as a pattern.  I have learned so much from taking apart RTW clothing.  Plus you can tweak the fit and make it better!

5. Don't hate hand-sewing (LOL).  Just decide to like it and master it.  It will really help you in the long run.  

2. Use sharp scissors.

3. Apply beeswax to thread  it minimizes tangling when hand-sewing

4. Go for it!  This isn't like skydiving, you won't get hurt, I promise!

Have you sewn with unprinted vintage patterns?

If so, please share pointers for newbies who might want to try them. Yes - read the instructions and pay careful attention to the markings.  Trace the original tissue onto sturdier pattern paper with a pencil and mark all the holes.  If you need it, take the time to make any other markings (like stitching lines, straight grain) with your pencil.  This will give you your bearings.

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

Read the pattern instructions to see if anything seems impossible.  If you break it down, you can do it.  Just take your time, and stop to appreciate progress as you complete each step.  I made an advanced Vogue tuxedo when I was about 20, and I just took it one step at a time.  Fortunately, the instructions were very good, and it came out beautifully. 

Share with me your funniest sewing adventure, please. 

It's hard to be funny on demand :) but I am still amused by the cat door I sewed.  At first, I tried to build my own cat door with hinges and a small piece of wood.  (The hole was already in the door, although I have no idea what the previous homeowner intended, because it was not a standard size).  After my carpentry failure, I went to JoAnn's and bought a piece of vinyl meant for tablecloths.  I just sewed a square, turned it right side out and stapled it to the door.  It worked fine!  

And your most exasperating or difficult?

Oh, that darn white shirt I made recently - I made the collar stand and collar too big and finished the whole darn thing before I noticed.  It is just enough wrong that it sticks out very awkwardly.  I need to pick it apart and fix it somehow.

What's your favorite pattern ever to sew, if you remember?

I'd have to go all the way back to my teens and recall some of the formal dresses I made.  I needed black dresses for playing concerts, and I made a cute halter maxidress that got a lot of wear.  I cannot remember pattern numbers, though!

Do you sew vintage patterns?

I have a beautiful 1940s Butterick coat pattern that I will sew for winter 2011.  I've done the pattern alterations, and I look forward to sewing it.  It will be a big project, just because of all the fabric, so it will take about a month. 

Do you find instructions easier to follow on vintage patterns?

Absolutely.  They made more effort back then to provide very specific and helpful instructions.  On the down side, they did not have a lot of the interfacing options we have today or sergers.  It's up to you whether you follow the vintage instructions or go ahead and use modern methods.  At least you know the vintage techniques will produce great results!

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

That must vary quite a bit.  I still learn from every project, and I think that is normal.  I don't think sewing would be fun unless there was challenge, so one could argue it's an ongoing pursuit of proficiency.  My answer is about 10 hours a week, sometimes more, seldom less. :) 

It's been nice chatting with you, Denise!  Thank you for showcasing sewing rooms and sewing stories of others.  I enjoy this feature!

Isn't her wedding ensemble delicious? It is. The color is so elegant. So sophisticated. Love it. I do.