Saturday, 28 January 2012

A Day in the Life of Fiona Douglas - Oh Sew Brixton

What's it like to run a stitching school? "And what does one wear when doing so?", you ask. Read this month's A Day in the Life and all will be revealed. Oh Sew Brixton holds a very special place in my heart because... well, if you haven't already guessed, I'll let you read to the end of Fiona's honest and hilarious account of her life as a sewing tutor to find out...

******



"Like I suspect many of the self-employed, my day starts with breakfast and a couple of hours on the email and doing general admin stuff. Before you know it, it is 11 o’clock and I am still in my dressing gown. I feel both pleased and guilty about this, pleased that I am my own boss and can get away with this and guilty for being so slovenly. Oh yes and as this is a sewing blog, I feel that the dressing gown deserves a special mention. It’s a Vogue pattern which I bought probably around 30 years ago. I have made it up in uncool but very comfy velour and worn it to destruction three times over.


Lunch is usually home made soup and a sandwich, I tend to eat it at home and then hit the studio some time in the afternoon. The studio is comfortable and feels like my second home, but I can’t be there all day, all night and all weekend too. Occasionally I will meet a friend for lunch - I really enjoy being ‘a lady who lunches’ as I work so much in the evenings.

Afternoons are usually more about sewing or planning classes. I have a beautiful, spacious, sunny studio which I am able to mess up completely in about half an hour flat. I realised very quickly that actual step-by-step samples work ten times better than handouts, but these are very time consuming to sew. I often get asked whether I make all my own clothes and my answer is that I don’t really have time any more and miss my hobby dreadfully.

  

We specialise in beginners dressmaking and our challenge is to get people new to sewing into a wearable dress in 6 sessions. Managing people’s different expectations and abilities, not to mention body shapes and fabric choices is really really difficult. Three years down the line, I think I’m doing pretty well, but I’m beginning to wonder about whether commercial patterns are the best way forward – they rarely fit that well and no-one except me can make head or tail of the instructions.

What am I working on at the moment? Still struggling to find a foolproof way of getting around those double G cups that keep on walking into my classes. I’ve about mastered the Palmer Pletch Full Bust Adjustment, but I’m not keen on the ‘tissue fitting’ stage (sellotaping the pattern together) as think this only works on a more relaxed fit. I’ve got a couple of software packages which are really interesting but I need to try them out on lots of different body shapes. And I’m saving up for a 3D body scanner – only £40,000 so I’m told!

Although I have sewn since the age of 12, before I set up Oh Sew Brixton I had a different career in marketing, specifically market research and strategic planning. I worked freelance for the last 15 years of this part of my life and also owned a couple of clothing shops (in Brixton and then Camden) which catered to my creative side. For my first year of trading at Oh Sew Brixton, I worked all day, all night and all weekend, I didn’t stop and I didn’t do anything else. My business background stood me in very good stead, but you also need a slightly obsessive compulsive personality to get a new business up and running. I didn’t set out to make a fortune from the school and it really isn’t possible to make more than a modest living, particularly with London rents.



Most of my students are professional women in their late 20s and early 30s, although I currently have an 11 year old in one of my classes and a 60 year old in another, so I remain true to my ‘everyone is welcome’ policy. Yes, the odd man passes through – they come often because they have something they want to make (usually something top secret made out of outdoor fabric), or have an interest in fashion, but my favourite student was an ‘occasional cross-dresser’ who was signed up by his wife. He was a little shy starting the class but when he confessed he was there to make dresses, his fellow students (bless them) all squealed with excitement!

What have I learned about myself? I have learned to rein back my naturally rather dry humour, encouragement and enthusiasm are much more productive, although ‘Do you really want to sew your armholes together?’ does very occasionally still pass my lips. Rather surprisingly, I have developed infinite amounts of patience. The point of teaching is to teach and if people don’t get it, it’s your fault for not explaining it clearly enough. So if you have to go over something three different ways, that’s absolutely fine. Lastly, I know I need to be Mrs Calm in all circumstances, as this is by far the best way to deal with high flying city bankers getting frustrated when all doesn’t go to plan.



If I’ve run an evening class, I drag myself across the road for the 5 minute bus journey back home. I eat something light and healthy for supper as I know I should, and then fill up on far too many biscuits. I have a HD recorder which means I can watch Home and Away at 10 o’clock at night which embarrassingly seems to be the perfect wind down viewing for me. I go to bed somewhere between 11pm and 12am, but know that I don’t have to use my alarm clock any more – one small advantage of my current lifestyle is that my earliest start is 10am and my studio is only 10 minutes away from my house.

Dressmaking is more difficult than people anticipate and not everyone gets it, or will make time for it in the future. But when you see that you have started someone on a hobby that will be with them for the rest of their life, it’s hugely satisfying. Oh and did I mention that I was the one who taught Tilly to sew?"

*****

Yes indeed, my friends - Oh Sew Brixton was the very place I first got behind a sewing machine... and miraculously ended up with a wearable dress! Err... and I was one of those students Fiona had to advise not to sew their armholes up...

Saturday, 21 January 2012

How Do You Store Your Vintage Sewing Patterns?


Where are your vintage sewing patterns right now? Are they carefully ordered and stored away in a box or filing system? Or are they out on display?

Why am I asking? Well, I've been doing a little reordering at home and was looking for some pictures to put up on a bare wall or two. It suddenly struck me that I LOVE ogling and swooning over my vintage sewing pattern collection, so why not put some of them up on my wall?

Eek! I can hear some of you gasping in shock! 

There seem to be two schools of thought on keeping vintage sewing patterns:


1) The Preservationists
These people cherish their vintage sewing patterns and look after them very carefully. They are precious historical artefacts, after all, often in a very delicate condition with paper that can be torn easily and images that are starting to fade. To preserve them for posterity, this camp keeps them in controlled conditions - acid-free envelopes and a covered storage container at the very least, dehumidifiers and treatment sprays for the more serious storage fiends. They sew with the patterns, yes, but trace a copy off first so they don't damage the original.

Image courtesy of A Beautiful Mess

2) The Users
These people cherish their vintage sewing patterns too, but would rather enjoy them now than keep them for posterity. In fact, it may not even have occurred to them to make an effort to look after their patterns... or maybe they have debated the issue at length and concluded that the patterns are there to be used. Their patterns are piled up on their sewing table, or even pinned up on their wall.

 

Of course I am totally stereotyping here, and you may not recognise yourself in either description, but the duality helped me think about how my attitude has started to shift recently from Preservationist to User. I would absolutely love to be able to pass on my vintage sewing pattern collection to a child or grandchild, but I'd also love to get as much pleasure out of them as I can myself (after all, the child or grandchild may not be interested!), and that means being able to see them every day. They bring me real aesthetic pleasure, plus having them on show may well inspire me to sew more. At the moment my patterns are stored in a covered box under my sewing table. But I plan to let them see the light of day - yay!


So now I've got to decide how best to display them, while also making sure I don't completely let them deteriorate. Initially I was thinking of framing them individually, but I'm not sure I want to separate the instructions and pattern pieces from the cover... hmm. Another idea is to get one of those wall-mountable perspex brochure holders that you see in hotels displaying leaflets for Viking museums and the like. That way I can flick through them when needed and keep my current favourites or next-to-sew at the front of the rack.

Knowing you lot, I'm sure you've got ideas and opinions on the matter. How do you keep your vintage sewing patterns? Are you a Preservationist, a User or something else entirely? Do you have any ideas for how I should display my patterns? If you've got any creative ideas or images of your own uniques storage or display system, do share!

[Soundtrack: 'I'd Rather Go Blind' by Etta James - RIP]

Saturday, 14 January 2012

What's On My Sewing Table... and a Tip for Slippery Fabric!





Pin It
I'm currently working on a third button-back blouse from my self-drafted pattern (the first was my lace refashion, the second my teal blouse). This version will have tucks on the yoke and simple bound neckline. I'm making it in a dreamy chocolate brown polka dot poly blend scored for about tuppence ha'penny from Walthamstow market. I found these gorgeous vintage pearl-effect buttons on a work trip to Nottingham (a girl's gotta take the occasional break!). I think they were about 30p a pack, whereas in London they would have been more like £30 a pack. It seems a shame to use them as they look so pretty on the card, but I have three sets of three buttons so should be able to keep one set intact. Do you feel the same dilemma about using your vintage notions?


Onto the aforementioned tip. Constructing the button stand on such a slippery fabric was proving a bit difficult, even having spray starched the fabric to death! Trying to press in two neat, straight, parallel folds is no mean feat. So I cut out a strip of card in the width of the button stand, folded the fabric round it and pressed it in place. Very easy and it turned out extremely neat!

What's on your sewing table?

[Soundtrack: 'Wild Honey' by The Beach Boys]

Pin It

PS. I know I'm a little late to the party, but is anyone else obsessed with Pinterest? Just experimenting with the "Pin It" buttons above - not quite sure the best way of using them in a blog post - anyone got any experience to share?

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Easy Sewing Projects for Beginners


So you've got to grips with your sewing machine, and you're itching to make something. Which sewing patterns are easy enough for beginners? I've gathered together a few suggestions for things you might want to try, but first a few tips for choosing an easy project. I'm a big advocate of diving into sewing fearlessly, but for your very first project you might want to ease yourself in gently:

* While you're still making friends with your sewing machine, it's advisable to choose a project with simple straight lines. You may want to avoid curved lines, gathering, pleating etc for now.

* Zippers and buttonholes are a little tricky at first, so go for a project that doesn't need a fastening, and save the fun for another day!

* When buying fabric, a medium-weight woven cotton would be good for a first project as it lies flat, presses well and won't slip and slide all over your machine. There are lots of lovely printed cottons available in department stores, haberdasheries and online fabric shops.

* Patterned fabric not only looks pretty but can hide dodgy stitching!

* Read through the pattern or tutorial instructions in advance to ensure you have all the materials you need to hand - not only the fabric, but matching (or contrast) thread, sewing tools, plus any extras that the project may need, such as elastic, buttons or interfacing.

* You might also want to consider whether you can see yourself making up the same pattern a few times. Once you've completed your first project, it's worth going through it again to remind yourself what you learnt... and so you can feel you've made progress with your second try!

Right, onto my suggestions for beginner projects:

UPDATE! Since I first wrote this post, in response to the shortage of easy patterns for beginners, I designed some and wrote a book!


Miette Skirt
No zippers, no buttons, no fuss! Just scope to practise your straight stitching and learn the basics of garment construction. This seventies-inspired skirt is super simple to fit with the adjustable waist ties. The pattern instructions include a jargon buster and photos of each step to take the head scratching out of sewing. A rare beginner project that's actually wearably stylish!


Margot Pyjama Bottoms
PJs are a great first garment project as they're easy to sew and super forgiving. Plus, you'll only wear them round the house so you don't need to worry about dodgy stitching! The pattern for these Margot pyjamas is included in my book, Love at First Stitch, which takes you from stitching novice to having a whole wardrobe full of clothes you'll be proud to say you made yourself. You can get it on Amazon, in all good bookshops, or order a copy from my shop and I'll sign it for you.



One-Hour Skirt
A delightful video tutorial by Brett Bara author of Sewing in a Straight Line. This skirt is so easy, it doesn't require a pattern - just your own waist and hip measurements - nor a zipper as it's elasticated at the waistband. A great project for using the prettiest or wackiest fabric you can find.



Cushion Cover
This cushion cover is an "envelope back", so it requires no zips, buttons or topstitching... plus it's easy to take the cushion out if you spill wine on the cover! This tutorial is very clearly explained, so it should be simple for a beginner to follow. The only potentially tricky part is when it comes to hemming, which requires precision stitching - practise on some calico first until you feel comfortable trying it on your nice fabric.



Brigitte Scarf
The first project in my book is the ridiculously easy Brigitte scarf - this extract on my blog shows you how to make it. Channel Riviera Chic by tying it around your head or neck.


Lavender Bag
Is this the easiest project ever? Could be! Handmade Jane's tutorial only uses a small amount of fabric so you can make lots of them to practise.


Bow Belt
Another project from Love at First Stitch is this gorgeous bow belt, also featured here. All you need is fabric, matching thread, two hooks and eyes (or velcro), and some interfacing, which you iron on the fabric to act as a stiffener. This project is a great way of snazzing up an outfit - get some inspiration from bow belts that have already been made by other people here and here.


Shopping Bag
Karen from the brilliant blog Did You Make That? talks us through making a simple tote. A bag is really easy for beginners to practise sewing straight lines and corners, and you don't need to worry about it fitting your body. You can use a medium-weight cotton - choose a lovely print or go for plain calico and try out the fancy topstitching settings on your machine to decorate it.

If you've sewn before, what was the first thing you made and how did it go? If you've got any suggestions of your own for first sewing projects, do leave a link in the comments.

Like this? Read more Learn to Sew posts and check out my book!

Friday, 6 January 2012

How to Stitch: Part 2

This post is part of the Learn to Sew series aimed at beginners.

If you've read the previous posts, you'll know how to set up your sewing machine, thread it and start stitching. Now practise stitching straight lines, curved lines and corners.

Stitching a straight line


Once you’ve got the hang of stitching willy-nilly, you’ll want to practise sewing in a straight line. To get started, try drawing a straight line directly onto your fabric as a guide. You can also use the guidelines on the needle plate (that metal bit under the presser foot), which tell you how many cm or inches the edge of your fabric is from the needle. Take a bit of time getting used to controlling how the fabric goes through the machine, until you’re happy with your straight lines.

Stitching a curved line


Once you’ve mastered stitching in a straight line, how about trying a curve or two? Draw a wavy line onto your fabric, keeping the bends of the curve nice and large for now (you can narrow them as your stitching gets more precise). Place the fabric onto your machine so the presser foot is lined up in the direction of the first bit of the curve.

When you stitch, you’ll want to gently guide the fabric with your hands, keeping the presser foot lined up with the direction of the upcoming part of the curve. Go slow, taking as many pauses as you need to keep up with the twists and turns. It does take practice to get the hang of this, so have a few goes until your stitching line is following the drawn line.

Turning corners


Draw a right angled corner onto your fabric to practise. Start machine stitching along one line until you reach the corner. You want the needle to be pushed down through the fabric right at the point of the corner, so you could use your hand wheel to help you get to the exact point precisely.


Raise your presser foot so you can pivot the fabric so the next line to stitch is in front of you and parallel to the guidelines on the needle plate.


Lower your presser foot again when it’s in the right place, and continue stitching. Voila!

Want more? Read Easy Sewing Projects for Beginners
Catch up on other Learn to Sew posts

Thursday, 5 January 2012

How to Stitch: Part 1


This post is part of the Learn to Sew series aimed at beginners.

Set up your machine? Check. Threaded it up? Check. Now comes the fun part!

Using a sewing machine for the first time can be a little daunting but just relax, take your time and have some fun with it. Practise stitching on some calico (unbleached cotton) or plain medium-weight cotton - basically you want something that’s cheap and not slippery. Pick out some brightly coloured thread that stands out against the fabric so you can monitor your stitches … and marvel at how your accuracy improves with practice!

I've divided this 'How to Stitch' post up into two parts as it was getting quite long. In this first post I'll show you how to start and finish stitching, and in part two you'll get some practise in sewing straight lines, curved lines and corners.

Preparing to stitch



Check your machine is on the basic stitch setting and that it’s threaded up correctly (see How to Thread Your Sewing Machine). You want to have pulled out about four inches or so of “spare” thread to prevent it from unthreading itself from the machine – it also helps to hold onto the threads when you make your first stitches.

Place your fabric under the presser foot with the area you want to stitch in front of the machine, and lower the presser foot to hold it in place. NB. Lowering your presser foot is essential to help keep the fabric in place (unless you’re doing some freestyle advanced machine embroidery) but is easy to forget – you might want to make your sewing mantra “lower your presser foot” for a while…

The upper/spool thread should be under the presser foot but on top of the fabric, and the lower/bobbin thread underneath the fabric. Both threads should be sticking out towards the back so you don’t sew over them and tie them in knots.

Before you start any new line of stitching, check that the needle is lifted as high as it can go (turn the handwheel to adjust it). This helps to avoid the frustrations of stuck or unravelling thread.

Go!


Turn your machine on. Place both hands lightly on the fabric either side of the presser foot to help guide it as you’re stitching - but don’t push or pull. Needless to say (arf!), keep your fingers out of the way of the needle! Gently lower your foot onto the pedal to start stitching…

Wooooooooooooooooooo!

Fun, isn’t it? Right, I’ll let you enjoy that for a little while…

Okay, back to business. Some machines have speed setting buttons, so you can start slow and build up speed as you throw caution to the wind. If, like me, your machine doesn’t have this luxury, you’ll have to learn to control the speed by how much pressure you apply to the pedal. Apparently this is like driving a car, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t drive.

Using the handwheel



If you want to stitch reeeeeally sloooowwwly – or maybe just move forward by one or two stitches for added precision – you can use the handwheel at the side of your machine. Turn it towards you to basically perform the same function as the pedal but manually. I sometimes use the handwheel to make the first stitch into the fabric to avoid the thread coming loose and to ensure the needle goes exactly where I want it to go.

Cutting loose


When you’ve finished stitching, raise your presser foot so you can pull your fabric out a little. The needle will need to be raised – you can use the hand wheel to move it up slightly until the thread gives enough for you to move the fabric. You can snip the threads with small scissors (embroidery or nail scissors are fine).


Alternatively – and pretty awesomely – your machine might have a little blade on the left hand side that you can use in one uber-slick manoeuvre.

Securing your stitches

When you’re sewing for real, unless your stitches are temporary, you’ll want to secure them in place. You can do this one of two ways:


1) Hold down the reverse (or back) stitch lever or button on your machine to sew backwards (or "back tack") two or three stitches over the end of your stitching, then forwards again to secure. Snip the threads close to the fabric. This is the method you will probably use the most.


2) If you’ve sewn off the end of the fabric, you can just tie the two ends of thread together in a double knot and snip close to the knot. This is usually done on darts or other tricky spots where you don’t want the extra bulk of reverse stitches.

You can sew! Hurrah!

Up next: How to Stitch: Part 2 - straight lines, curved lines and corners. 
Liked this? Read more Learn to Sew posts.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

How to Thread Your Sewing Machine

This post is part of the Learn to Sew series aimed at beginners.

Threading your sewing machine is a quick and easy process once you know how. This post may look long, but practise it a few times and you'll soon be threading up in seconds, I promise.

Machines vary, so some of the parts on my machine (a Janome J3-18) may be in different positions to yours, but nothing will be that different that you won't be able to work it out.

Ready to sew? Let's go!

1) Wind the bobbin

A sewing machine uses two sources of thread – the spool (or reel) of thread that sits on top of the machine and the bobbin of thread that comes up from below. You buy the spools of thread in the shops and the bobbins come empty – so before threading the machine, you need to get some of your chosen thread off the spool and onto the bobbin.


Place the spool of thread onto the spool pin (the prong sticking out the top of your machine). Some spool pins stick upwards, others stick out towards the left and have a plastic cover to hold the spool in place. The thread should be coming out from behind towards the left. Unravel a few inches of thread, pull it to the left and wrap it round the front of the little nubbin sticking out on top of your machine. Thread a little up through the tiny hole in the top of the bobbin and wrap it round a few times so it’s coming out round the back and towards the left. Place the bobbin on the bobbin winder and flick this towards the right to secure it in place.

On many machines, if you pull the handwheel out you can wind the bobbin without the needle going up and down. Switch your machine on and, holding the thread sticking out of the bobbin for the first few seconds, press your foot down on the pedal to start the thread winding from the spool onto the bobbin. If the thread ends up on the bobbin winder rather than on the bobbin itself, you may need to switch the direction the thread is being wrapped. Keep winding until the bobbin is full of thread (or as much as you need).

Snip the thread to separate the spool and bobbin, before flicking the bobbin winder to the left to remove the bobbin. Now turn your machine off so you don't accidentally sew over your hand doing the next part.

2) Thread the spool

Now you need to thread your machine – you start with the spool thread from the top and do the bobbin thread after that.



The thread should be coming out from behind the spool towards the left. Now you need to guide the thread down to the needle - your machine will probably have arrows directing you so you can’t go too wrong. Pull it round to the left of the first hook, then down through the first ditch (1), up the second ditch to the left (2), round the second hook (3), and back down the second ditch again (4).


Then you need to secure the thread behind the two hooks, one at the front of the machine and one next to the needle. Now thread it through the front of the needle. This will be easier if you snip the thread so it has a clean end. If your needle is down in the ditch, turn the hand wheel (the knob on the right of the machine) to move it up into a position so you can thread it easily.

3) Thread the bobbin


The bobbin thread goes in the bottom of the machine. On some machines it's positioned horizontally directly under the needle – flip off the little plastic lid and insert the bobbin. My machine is front loaded, meaning the bobbin is positioned vertically - you need to remove the arm on the front left of the machine and flip down the cover to reveal the bobbin holder.


Take the bobbin case out – this is the silver thing in the middle. Place the bobbin of thread inside it - the above left photo shows the way it's supposed to go in (although another school of thought is that it doesn't make a difference). Pull a few inches of thread down the tiny slit and and out through the side, before placing the case back in the machine.


Now you need to get the bobbin thread up to the surface of the machine, using the spool (upper) thread to fish it out. Holding the spool thread in your left hand, turn the hand wheel with your right hand for one rotation to move the needle down and up again. Now gently tug on the upper thread with your left hand and a loop of the bobbin (lower) thread should emerge to the surface with it. Use small scissors or a pen to pull out the loop of lower thread. Close the cover, put the arm back on your machine... et voilĂ !

You’re ready to sew!

Before you do that, it’d be a good idea to pull your thread out from whence it came and practise rethreading a couple more times. I promise that, once you do that, you’ll realise that it’s actually a quick and easy procedure, and not as complicated or time consuming as this long tutorial makes it seem!

Now read How to Stitch: Part 1
Like this? Read more Learn to Sew posts

Monday, 2 January 2012

How to Set Up Your Sewing Machine


This post is part of the Learn to Sew series aimed at beginners.

First time in front of a sewing machine? Stitched before but need a refresher?

This post will walk you through the basic steps to set up your sewing machine.

I've labelled some of the most important parts of the machine in the diagram above. You don't need to learn all the proper names for the different parts of your machine - "that twiddly knob" is fine if you're just talking to yourself - but it's useful to know what all the parts are for at least. Machines vary, so some of the parts on my machine (a Janome J3-18) may be in different positions to yours, but nothing will be that different that you won't be able to work it out.

Ready to sew? Let's go!

1) Plug it in!



Plug the cable into your machine and the power socket. Position the pedal on the floor where you can comfortably reach it with your foot while sitting comfortably. (Note: You don't need to turn your machine on for any of the steps in this post - it's advisable to leave it off so you don't accidentally sew over your hand!)

2) Attach the needle


The needle may already be in place, in which case you can ignore this part if you like. But it's useful to know how to change it in case it snaps (eek!), if you want a different sized one (a thick one for thick material, a fine one for fine fabric, ballpoint for jersey...), or if you just want to change to a fresh, sharp one every so often.

To remove the needle, twist the little knob to its right a couple of turns - this will loosen the needle so you can pull it out. To insert the needle, just push it up into the hole and tighten the knob again. The top of the needle is rounded on the front side and flat on the back side so you should be able to tell which way to fit it.

3) Attach the presser foot


The presser foot is used to hold the fabric down and to guide the needle when stitching. You can get different kinds of feet designed for different stitches and notions, but you don't need to worry about that yet - a standard presser foot will get you far. The presser foot sits on the end of the bar behind the needle. There's a lever on the right which you can use to raise and lower it when you need to.


Some feet are attached with screws. My machine is a "snap on" - raise the bar using the lever on the right, position the foot directly underneath, then lower the lever to click the foot into place. You may need to shuffle it about a little to get it in the right position. Lift the lever again to raise it up. To remove the foot, flick up the other little lever at the back of the bar and the foot will drop right off.

Now read: How to Thread Your Sewing Machine
Like this? Read more Learn to Sew posts.