29 November 2012

Five Things I’ve Learnt About Professional Sewing

As a home stitcher, do you ever ponder how professional sewing techniques differ to those we are accustomed to? How someone sewing for a living will construct a garment in a different way to what patterns and books teach us?

I’ve just finished my Professional Sewing Techniques course at the London College of Fashion, a course I chose precisely because I was curious about the difference between home and industry practice. I once had a particularly mean-spirited comment on this blog along the lines of, “Us professionals laugh at you home sewists haha”. Now, while I certainly don’t want to give that commenter the satisfaction of thinking that their malicious words left their mark (because frankly it was just a bizarre thing to say for so many reasons), I must admit that it made me curious as to the differences in conventions between those who get paid to churn out clothing and home seamsters doing it for the love. Not that one is better than the other of course – they’re just different.

So what kinds of differences did I discover on my course?

1) Professionals rarely bother with pins
On a nine week course, I can count the number of times I used pins on one hand. Thinking about it, this isn’t surprising – professionals need to sew quickly, particularly if they’re making ready-to-wear clothing, and pinning creates an additional step. But I must admit it was a complete eye-opener.

Let’s take inserting a regular (non-invisible) zipper as an example. When I first started sewing, I was taught to pin the opening, baste the opening, pin the zipper, baste the zipper, stitch the zipper, unpick the zipper basting, and unpick the opening basting. Phew! On this course we simply stitched the zipper directly into the opening. No pinning, no basting – pure eye-balling. And guess what? It turned out fine.

The same cannot be said about my set-in sleeve, however. Pin, baste, stitch, then unpick the basting? Nope - we just sewed the sleeve straight in. I’m sure if I were working in a sweatshop I’d get much better at this. But I’m not working in a sweatshop! I’m sewing at home for pleasure. So I’ll stick to pinning and basting, thank you very much.

2) The steam iron is your friend
Your iron can help you with more than just pressing seams open. I knew that a hearty dose of steam can help shape darts and the like. What I didn’t realise before is that you can use just the steam – without touching the iron to the garment – to manipulate fabric. If you’re rolling the underside of a collar out of view, for example, if you hold your iron just above the piece and shoot out a cloud of steam it can help soften the fabric before coaxing it with your fingers.

3) Snip and knot only when absolutely necessary
When you finish sewing a seam, what do you do? Previously, I would cut the threads, either before or after hand knotting or back tacking (depending on what I was sewing). Waste of time, it turns out. Professionals will sew one seam, then put the next seam under the presser foot straight afterwards and keep on sewing, continuing like that until they really do need to stop – then snip all the threads in one go. If a line of stitching really needs securing, they’ll back tack it, but if they’re going to sew over the end of stitching anyway they won’t bother.

Okay, so admittedly this is only really going to save you a few seconds of sewing time. And if you’re sewing for pleasure, that’s not necessarily going to be a concern. But it looks so cool if you do it this way!! Check out this little video by Jen from Grainline. Doesn’t she look the coolest?!

4) A simple crease line can act as a valuable guide
A very simple trick that our teacher used a lot was to pinch or fold a quick crease into a piece of fabric to mark centre points, seam lines, end points of stitching… It may not work on all types of fabric, but is incredibly useful when it does work.

And the number one thing I learnt?

5) There is no single “correct” way of doing things
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll already know that I already knew this. I can’t abide overly dogmatic instructions or people telling me I’m doing something “wrong” – I’m a firm believer in innovating and doing what’s right for you, and as a trainer I know that this is how people learn. I was therefore a little apprehensive that a course entitled “Professional Sewing Techniques” would attempt to convince me of the “proper” way of doing things. Happily it did just the opposite. The teacher kept reiterating the point that we should always experiment with techniques, make our own decisions, and go with whatever way was easiest for us personally. Hooray!

How about you – have you ever been surprised by the differences between home and professional sewing techniques? Do you use any particularly "professional" techniques or do you prefer home sewing methods?

If you missed it first time, check out this other totally awesome thing I learnt on my course...

[Soundtrack: 'I Should be Proud' by Martha Reeves & the Vandellas]

26 November 2012

A Day in the Life of Christine Haynes

I can't quite decide how to describe Christine Haynes. Designer? Teacher? Author? Fabric shop manager? All those things, yes, and more - perhaps all-round sewing queen would be a better description! You may have taken her Craftsy class, or donated to her Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund her business, or maybe you're just plain curious as to how she manages to juggle so many jobs. And what kind of pyjamas she wears, of course. Let's find out in this month's A Day in the Life...


"When people ask me what I do, it always takes a long time to answer since I wear many hats. They are all related, but there’s no one answer, there are many! So here’s what I do: I write for various magazines like Sew Stylish and Sew News, I authored a book called Chic & Simple Sewing, I teach sewing classes in Los Angeles, I have a class on Craftsy called the Sassy Librarian Blouse, I launched my own line of sewing patterns this past spring, and I work a “day job” as the manager at Sew L.A., a fabric store and classroom in Los Angeles. I also participate or teach at the occasional event, like the Craftcation Conference, the Renegade Craft Fair, and the American Sewing Guild Conference.


Like many of the other people that have been featured in this lovely series, my days are full of endless tasks and “office hours” are loose, as are “days off” or “weekends”! Ha! But I digress. My daily routine depends on if I’m in the shop, in the studio, or teaching. So I thought I’d break down what each of those look like, since they are all a bit different. Here goes!

A Day in the Life: Studio/Teaching (AKA, days “off”)

My studio is really my dining room in my apartment, and I love it. I had a “real” studio in the garment district in downtown LA, surrounded by real life sweatshops and racks of clothes being wheeled out onto trucks all day long. I met some contacts that I still use today and it was great to have access to a freight elevator for my industrial machines. But once I stopped sewing ready-to-wear collections and turned to teaching and writing, I didn’t need that much space and that level of equipment. So I sold my industrial machines and I moved all the rest into my home. Now I can sew at any time of day and in my jammies! (Which consists of an obscenely large collection of 1950’s and 1960’s nighties, in case you were picturing footed pajamas!) I know many people who prefer a separation of their work and living spaces, but I love having it all integrated into my home life. I usually have 2 days a week where I’m working in my home studio and one day where I’m in my studio for part of the day and teaching in the evening. They are my favorite days of the week, and here’s how those usually go down.

Morning: My cats don’t let me sleep much later than 8am, so I’m usually up in that ballpark, but on these days I DO NOT set an alarm. Absolutely forbidden! I immediately feed the cats and make a giant cup of black tea, which is usually Kusmi Tea or Mariage Frères, both from France. Though I did just pick up a box of PG Tips from England which is great when I’m feeling lazy and don’t want to deal with loose tea.

I open my laptop and check email, Facebook, Instagram, and my Google Reader feed. I also check in at least three times a week on my Craftsy class, answering questions and offering encouragement to the 2,500+ students I have enrolled in my class. Because I’m on West Coast time zone, most of the world has been up and active for a while by the time I get up, so there’s usually a lot of activity right at 8am. Breakfast is prepared, which is usually a fruit and yogurt, or toast and a soft-boiled egg.

Then I get to work in my studio. What I’m doing in there depends on what deadlines I have looming. I’m nearly done with my newest pattern, so lately it’s been all about that, in addition to some other projects I’m not at liberty to discuss… yet! There’s sewing, writing, and pattern drafting all happening, pretty equally. I usually listen to music when I’m in my studio during the day, which is usually our local NPR station KCRW from 8am-12pm, and then I switch to streaming the station FIP from Paris on my iPhone, or I play records, as I have a pretty nice collection of vintage vinyl.

Afternoon: Lunch is usually a salad or veggie and hummus wrap (I’m a vegetarian). I try to eat in the early afternoon so that it’s digested enough to make it to an afternoon yoga class. The class I like to hit is at 2:30pm, so I switch to my yoga outfit and go to class. If I have to run errands, I drive and do them afterwards on my way home. I try to do any driving all at once. I mean, this is LA and driving can take up your whole day if you’re not careful! If I have no other errands to run, I walk or ride my bike to yoga. I love this break in the day to center my body and mind. I used to go to yoga all the time, and then fell out of practice, but am now back at it. It changes everything for me and keeps me centered.

Evening: There are some days when I stop at this point and do something fun with my man, like going record shopping or lounging followed by dinner and a match of backgammon or Scrabble. If not, after yoga I usually check in with the world again on email, Facebook, and the like. I try not to get up from my sewing machine every time I want to see what’s happening on the web and set specific times for the computer, or else I’ll lose hours or complete days to the internet! I then usually put on some TV or a film and work in my studio until dinner.

On days when I’m teaching, I’ll have a small snack after yoga and teach at Sew L.A. and then eat a real dinner after class. Teaching is awesome and I love my students! They are a constant reminder that sewing is supposed to be fun! I’m always very aware that this is NOT their job and that they have paid good money to be present and to do this in their free time. This should be a fun learning experience and I think most of the time I succeed in that goal. Later in the evening I usually do any computer work I need to, like blogging, invoicing, etc until around 10 or 11pm, at which time I make myself stop and begin to quiet my mind with a book or magazine or sketch in my sketchbook. Lately I’ve been reading up on London since I’m planning to visit during my springtime trip to Paris! My man calls it a pilgrimage to the mother ship, AKA, the Liberty of London store! I’m usually passed out sometime between 11:30pm-1am, depending on how early I have to get up the next day.

A Day in the Life: Shop

I am the manager of the local shop and classroom called Sew L.A. This fall was our 5-year anniversary and we have tons of great fabrics and classes. This is also where I teach, but some days I’m just the shop girl/manager and not a teacher. I know a lot of people have the goal to quit their “day job” but I love that this job keeps me connected to the world, keeps my income stable, and please, I get to work with fabric and sewing all day! It’s not like my day job is in a cubical, so I can hardly complain! We get to do fun things like throw parties for Oona and Colette Patterns, and twice a year I get to go to Quilt Market and order fabric for the shop. It’s really a great gig. This is what a day at the shop looks like.

Morning: If I’m working at Sew L.A. I set my alarm for 7:30am. I don’t have to be at the shop until around 10:30am, so this is a lot of time in the morning. But I really prefer to have a relaxed morning to waken my mind and do all those things I’d do if I were working from my home studio. So it’s much the same: a big cup of tea, breakfast, followed by a shower and dressing. (I can’t wear my vintage nighties to work!) I try to pack a lunch, which is again usually a salad or veggie wrap, but sometimes I don’t and get myself a veggie burrito or veggie crepe at one of the local restaurants.

Afternoon: I open the shop at 11am and help customers in the shop as they pick out fabrics and notions for their projects. Usually it’s a fun job, and I’m very lucky to adore my co-workers and boss. Once I week I do all the ordering for the shop, for notions, patterns, and such. In the late afternoon I set up the classroom for the evening class and help the students get their supplies as they arrive. Once the class is going and everyone’s settled, I close up the shop and head home.

Christine with Sarai Mitnick from Colette Patterns; and with Oona Balloona

Evening: On rare occasions, I’m teaching the class after being the shop all day, so on those days, I set up the class and then teach until 9:30pm. Afterwards I clean up the classroom and head home about 12 hours after arriving in the morning. On those days, I pretty much come home, have a snack, and collapse! If I’m not teaching the evening class, I head home and make dinner. After dinner my night looks much like it does on my studio days, sewing for a while, working on the computer, then reading before bed around 11:30pm-1am.

Working for yourself can be incredibly difficult, but I’ve been running various incarnations of my little business now for nearly 9 years, so clearly I’m still doing it because I love it. This isn’t for the faint of heart, but it can be incredibly rewarding. I work very hard and love every minute… most of the time!"


Woah! I'm kinda exhausted just reading that, but also very jealous that Christine's whole life pretty much revolves around sewing. Thank you for giving us a peek into your world, Christine!

22 November 2012

What's On My Sewing Table...

Do you remember that sewing pattern splurge I had a few weeks ago? Well, you'll be pleased to know I've cracked open at least one of them! I originally planned to use a double knit for New Look 6000 after seeing Jane's drop-dead gorgeous - and snuggly - gorgeous and snuggly version. But then the Fabric Godmother (aka Josie) waved her magic wand and sent me this super duper navy polka dot stretch cotton which, let's face it, is rather up my street. So I'm making version E in that, a rather nice, simple shift dress with three quarter length sleeves and turned up cuffs. 

The question is, what colour buttons should I stitch onto the cuffs? Usually I'd go for red with navy, but I've been overdosing on that colour combo recently so wouldn't mind choosing something different. Not white, that would look a bit weird with the white spots in a different size. Mustard yellow? Would that restrict what colour tights and necklace I wear with it? Should I keep them matching or leave them off altogether? Thoughts, please!

And yes, I'm now sewing this dress 15 minutes at a time! It really is turning out to be a manageable (potentially life-changing?!) approach.

As ever, please let me know what's on your sewing table - I'm nosy like that. Oh and if you're reading from the US, happy Thanksgiving!

[Soundtrack: 'Night of the Swallow' by Kate Bush]

19 November 2012

Sewing for 15 minutes

How long do you tend to sew for in one sitting? Long periods of time or small chunks? Yesterday's awesome Sewing Social Twitter chat focused on how to fit sewing into a busy lifestyle. A few people mentioned that their strategy was to sew for about 15 minutes. Every day. My approach in the past was to save sewing for days when I knew I had hours of free time ahead to get stuck into it. Yet those days so rarely come that I often feel frustrated that I'm not sewing more often. So I think I'm going to give the 15 minutes per day strategy a whirl.

The genius of this approach is fourfold:

1) There are 1,440 minutes in a day, so setting aside just 15 of those minutes to do something you love shouldn't be too challenging. You have no excuse not to, basically!

2) While the enormity of a sewing project can sometimes seem overwhelming, breaking it down into bitesize chunks makes it much more digestible.

3) If you stop sewing after 15 minutes, it leaves you wanting to come back for more. Those of you use the Pomodoro technique for working or studying will know how limiting activity to short bursts can keep you motivated.

4) Sewing for a small period of time every day means that sewing becomes part of your regular lifestyle. Hooray!

So I'm going to give this a go for a week, sewing for 15 minutes every day. Obviously I don't want to have to spend five of those minutes setting up my sewing table, so I'll keep everything organised so I can whip it out quickly. I also keep a note of the next actions of any sewing project, which really helps me to get started quickly. And when it comes to fitting, I'll give it longer than 15 minutes - I like to get all the boring fitting perfected early on, so I can get on and sew. Delayed gratification :)

Here's to sewing in short bursts! Who's with me?

PS. Thank you to the 40+ lovely stitchers who joined in the Sewing Social. It was so awesome to chat in real time to likeminded people! You really gave me a boost. And thank you to Inna for hosting the Asia Pacific version. There's a Tweetdoc here of the discussion, although our tweets exceeded Tweetdoc's limit of 500 so it's only documented half of the conversation...

[Soundtrack: 'Dynamo' by Si Cranstoun]

15 November 2012

Sewing Social no. 3

Who wants to have a Sewing Social Twitter chat on Sunday? The last two chats have been a great way of interacting in real time with a group of likeminded people passionate about all things stitchy. And did I mention that we were trending higher than #Euro2012 football?! Join us!

Sunday 18th November 2012
8 - 9pm London / 3 - 4pm New York / 12 - 1pm LA etc

What if you live in Australia/Asia and will be asleep at that time?
The lovely Inna from Thewallina and Other Creatures is again coordinating a branch of the Sewing Social especially for Asia Pacific residents who would like a time more convenient to them. Hooray! Those times are:
2 - 3pm Tokyo / 12 - 1am South East Asia / 10.30 - 11.30am India / 4 - 5pm Sydney / 6 - 7pm Auckland
We'll then link it all up and share results.

On Twitter using the hashtag #sewingsocial
My Twitter name is @TillyVanilly if you want to follow me ready for kick off, and Inna's is @thewallinna
Tip: Tweetchat is a really useful platform for following hashtag threads without having to refresh the page

What shall we talk about?
The theme for this Sewing Social is fitting sewing into a busy life. So often I hear people say that they’d love to sew but they’re too busy. In fact, I often say this to myself too! Yeah, we’re all busy – work, children, social lives, life changes, admin, housework, second jobs... But if you really want to do something you can make time for it. There are lots of strategies to help make sewing part of everyday life. What are your top tips for staying motivated and sewing regularly? Let’s discuss on Sunday!

Please help spread the word about the Sewing Social!

12 November 2012

How to Shape a Sharp Corner

Wanna know a really cool tip I learnt for creating sharp, sturdy corners that hold their shape? After stitching a corner on a collar, facing etc, home sewing patterns usually tell us to snip across the corner seams before turning, in order to eliminate bulk which could distort the the shape. There is, however, another (arguably better?) way of doing it, which I learnt on my Professional Sewing Techniques course at the London College of Fashion.

(Before I continue, I feel I should qualify the use of the word "cool" in the above paragraph. If you are reading this because you are crackers about sewing, you'll probably deem the use of the word "cool" appropriate. If, on the other hand, you are reading this because you are my friend Doug, you probably won't consider this particularly cool. But I digress...)

Where was I? Oh yes, corners. With this method, instead of considering the seams a nuisance to be cut off, instead you're working with them as a support mechanism for the corner. Particularly if one side is interfaced, that extra fabric will form a nice, sturdy structure to hold the corner out and help it keep its shape. Plus it's much less likely to develop a hole. Sound good? Here we go:

1. Stitch your corner as normal, right sides together. But do not cut the corner at all.

2. Fold one set of seams towards one side of the garment fabric. If one piece of fabric has interfacing on it and the other doesn't, fold the seams towards the non-interfaced side, as the interfacing on top will help with creating a sharp corner. Holding them there, do the same with the other set of seams.

3. Holding the seams firmly in place, turn the garment through to the right side. You can use the finger or thumb that is holding the seams to start forming the corner shape. Now use a pin on the right side of the garment to gently pull the corner through and coax it into a nice, sharp point. (Obviously watch out you don't poke a hole in the fabric with the pin.)

And that's it! A really sturdy corner that will hold itself up. Have you used this technique before?

[Soundtrack: 'Bring it on Home to Me' by Sam Cooke]

8 November 2012

What's On My Sewing Table...

I'm currently developing a new pattern. I've been through the design and development phase and am now making up the first garment. It's coming together nicely - don't you just love it when that happens? Alas, I can only give you a sneaky peek for now because I'm designing it for a magazine... how exciting is that?! All being well, it'll be published early next year.

Oh go on then, I'll show you another mystery detail of work in progress...

What's on your sewing table, please?

[Soundtrack: 'Loop Garoo' by Dr. John]

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5 November 2012

Fabric Shopping Splurge

Erm... so I bought quite a lot of fabric this weekend. Alas, I couldn't make it to Birmingham for Marie's Rag Market meet-up, but Handmade Jane and I nipped down to Goldhawk Road for a couple of hours. It's only the second time I've been, and it was a great opportunity to stock up on a wonderful selection of reasonably priced fabrics. In particular, I purchased a few drapey poly fabrics, which can be tricky to find in central London or online. I returned with a LOT of stuff but all great value and no random purchases - I know what I want to do with every single piece...

In every shop we went into, I kept gravitating towards polka dots, red, kelly green and monochrome. We made a joke out of it, but actually I think it's a really positive sign - to be confident about your "signature style" and stick to it, rather than returning home with a random selection of colours and prints. So I make no apologies about the fact that over the next few months you'll probably see a lot of navy and red polka dots, or monochrome pairings; nor will I feel embarrassed that there are three different types of chocolate brown polka dots in my fabric stash!

Do you have a signature style that guides you when fabric shopping? Or do you prefer to see sewing your own clothes as an opportunity to experiment with colour and print? Do tell!

Thanks Jane!

[Soundtrack: 'Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)' by The Shangri-Las]

1 November 2012

Tilly vs. the Industrial Sewing Machine

If you ever thought threading a sewing machine for the first time was complicated, try threading an industrial model! I'm currently taking a course in Professional Sewing Techniques at the London College of Fashion and these are the machines we are using. The threading route appears to have been engineered by a frustrated labyrinth designer. Up, down, through that, round the back and through again, down-up-down-up-down, through there, ooh don't forget that bit, round there and down the hatch... I could go on... Just when you think you've got it, you realise you've missed out three steps. Seriously. I've threaded it quite a few times now and still manage to miss out at least three holes or hooks each time.

Learning to thread an industrial machine reminded me what it's like learning to thread a domestic sewing machine. Which if you don't yet know or can't remember how, I promise isn't nearly as tricky! I've written a step-by-step guide to threading a sewing machine here. I'm sure I'll soon get the hang of the industrial model and it'll become second nature. Not that I'm planning to use one much after this course, you understand.

I'll report back fully on the course at the end of term for anyone who is interested. Most of the stuff on the curriculum I already know, but there are enough new techniques there to keep me stimulated. It's also proving a great opportunity to consolidate and reinforce my self-taught knowledge and to pick up tips from a seasoned professional. The course isn't cheap and I'm determined to get as much value from it as I can - I've already firmly secured my reputation as the Annoying Question Person! There's always one...

Have you taken any good sewing courses recently?

[Soundtrack: 'Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer' by Bessie Smith]

PS. Sending lots of positive vibes to those of you affected by Hurricane Sandy, hoping you're okay.