23 November 2008

Blast from the Past

In a previous post, I wrote about my belief that every good sewist must be willing to take risks. I feel this is especially important for many beginners. Very often, on discussion boards, new sewists will ask advice on the best first project. Typically, suggestions to make pillow cases, very simple aprons or other non-challenging articles abound. For some people, this may be exactly where they should start. Success on a simple project will likely create a sense of accomplishment and inspire the sewist onward.

For others, this inauspicious start may result in boredom and a desire to pack it in and look for a different, more satisfying hobby. I fall firmly in the latter category.

My first foray into sewing was in grade 7 home ec class. First, we were all lectured on the safety rules associated with operating a sewing machine - which although not fun to listen to as a child, I agree is a necessity. Then the real tragedy ensued (at least for a kid like me). We spent days "sewing", sans thread, on pieces of paper that had simple shapes drawn on them. Our goal was to have a neat line of needle holes on top of each shape, which was supposed to help in the mastery of sewing straight lines, curved lines and turning 90 degreee angles. This was pure torture for me. I wanted to sew something real.

As a teacher and a self-proclaimed anal retentive, obsessive compulsive freak, believe me, I know that structure and learning the basics is the best way to teach a new concept. At least in the beginning, when your student is a clean slate. Once they begin to show an apptitude for the skill and express an interest in moving forward, it is time to provide more freedom and latitude. I never got that chance in grade 7 home ec. So, I didn't show an interest in sewing again until grade 12.

Fast forward 5 years. It was the 1988 Prom season and I had spent days trying on dresses and coming up empty. Anything that was reasonable in price was not what I was looking to wear. That was when I expressed an interest in creating my own dress. To mother's credit, she didn't even blink an eye. She set me up on her sewing machine, bought me the pattern of choice (Simplicity 8006* to which I added a "shawl" that attached at the front bodice) and took me to a wonderful independent fabric shop and helped me pick out fabric and notions. I cut out the pattern and made one quick trial dress. Ironically, back then I didn't even know that the word "muslin" existed, I just knew it would be a good idea to check the fit before cutting into the good stuff. Content with the fit, I proceeded onto the actual Prom dress. At no point did I even consider that maybe this was too difficult for a first project and thankfully, neither did anyone else.

In my opinion, my dress turned out pretty darn good. I got a ton of compliments from my friends, my boyfriend thought I looked great, I saved a bunch of money and I learned a valuable skill. The vision of the perfect dress that resided in my head was turned into a reality. I am thankful that I was allowed free reign and that I was only given advice when I requested it. Had I been told to take the safe route and sew a pillowcase first, I can't imagine I would enjoy sewing as much as I do today.

So, for anyone that teaches beginner sewing, whether formally in a classroom or informally in your home to a friend or family member, please let the students determine your curriculum (at least to an extent) based on their interests and capabilities. Provide knowledge of the basics, but then back off and let them blossom. It's amazing what can be accomplished when creativity is allowed to run free.

* I have long since lost/given way/disposed of this pattern, so I was tickled to find that it is available at Out of the Ashes Collectibles.


Myra said...

You know, I am self-taught with a mom, grandma & aunts all knowing how to sew, mostly self-taught, but they always did a great job & had a knack for it. I am one of those who did a few simple items then patchwork, then on to garments. I still fight with things for myself, but have accomplished things for the kids easily enough. I agree, let the student try somethings on their own, kind of like letting someone read what they want (within reason) when they are struggling with it. My brother was one and car magazines and owners manuals were his salvation.

Sigrid said...

You certainly had a gorgeous prom dress, unbelievable that it was your first project. You had a feeling for it from the start.

Vicki said...

Amazing! I started directly on garments teaching myself too, but nothing as grand as that.

Anonymous said...

It's funny that you post this. I'm eagerly awaiting the gift of my first sewing machine for my 23rd birthday (the Saturday after U.S. Thanksgiving!) but my first sewing project was in high school -- I made myself an entire outfit (sans leather bodice) for the renaissance festival here in Michigan. I look back and realize that I must have been flipping insane to decide to do a first project which used an almost overwhelming fabric yardage and I won't lie and say it was easy or I didn't make mistakes, but it was incredibly satisfying! I still have it and I still think that my cuffs on the chemise were incredibly well done :)

The J said...

I make the same recommendation to everyone asking for "beginner" knitting projects. If you want it bad enough, the frustrations don't matter. No one told me cables were hard, so they weren't. I did stumble on colourwork, but that was one project out of a hundred, and another beginner might find it easy-peasy! (or worth the fight with gauge!)

With sewing I lucked out: my initial forays were in the 80's, all oversized cotton ;). I did rather jump into my prom dress though (polyester satin with puffed sleeves out of black organza), but that was because I thought my mom was going to do most of it! She pulled the same trick with my wedding dress (chiffon!!) - I think she didn't want to be the instrument of my disappointment, so she made me do it. They both turned out great.

I think most people want skills for something. Some like to build up a strong foundation so they can be confident going ahead, but I think few people can keep the goal in mind for very long, unless they've got a burning passion for it. I think the very best way would probably being an "apprentice" in the process, where you get to learn the skills with the "master" doing the hard bits until you are ready - but you still get input on the Big Project. But life isn't set up that way anymore, so I'm all for jumping in!

Marji said...

What a great find, getting that pattern back. I've purchased vintage patterns for the exact same reason - I made it way back when.
Thanks for the reminder that a beginner should be given reign to tackle what they want. Maybe I should let my dsd start that coat she wants to make.
on the paper sewing though - great first intro to the sewing machine when you've got a class full of 7 and 8 year olds. Silly when you've got a class full of 12-13 year olds.

Digs said...

What a great story! I identify completely with it - I only re-started sewing about a year ago, after literally decades of doing practically nothing except the occasional juvenile pattern pillowcase for my children... Just like you, I found myself needing a gown for a formal, and nothing in stores appealed. So I decided to make it. And haven't stopped sewing since. However, the kernel of truth in your post is that interest is key to obtaining new skills. My young son has been asking me for a beret just like one I made for myself - you know what, I think I'll teach him to make it instead. Thanks so much for the lesson, Shannon!

Summerset said...

Great "first" project! I agree, once the basics are established, there will be some students with more innate talent and aptitude than others - it pays to watch for these and suggests different projects.

Anonymous said...

From personal experience, it was hard not to just dive in. While yes, an apron was my first project, that really was more to practice sewing & the fabric was ultimately recycled into another piece. Though it may have taken a couple of tries to end up with something I consistently wear, I'm really glad I moved on to other things--even if the first attempts weren't quite as I pictured.

Anonymous said...

We spent weeks, endless weeks, sewing a "soft sculpture" (a fabric Adidas shoe) in our only sewing class at school.
So dull. I could have dashed it off in a couple of days.
It was so uninspiring.
I had this "need" inside me to sew, it surfaced when I was 15 and couldn't afford to buy fashionable clothes, then again when I was 20 and needed a hobby.

2BSewing: said...

I enjoyed your post. It brought back memories when I first learned to sew...also in home ec. My mother tried to teach me, but she wasn't very patient nor a very good teacher. Fast forward to almost 4 years ago (and 30+ years later), I started sewing clothes for myself. Self-taught and learning as much as I could.

Your last comment is very true. I am now a sewing educator and teach beginning sewing. I have had the pleasure to teach in a classroom and also private lessons at the student's home. There's a huge different in approach and I have found the students have more enjoyment in private lessons and they get to choose the projects they want to sew.

The less restrictions (and negativity) you put on yourself (and others), the better sewers we become. Thank you for a wonderful post...Susan