Sunday, August 24, 2008

Learning to Sew and Manipulate Patterns - Basics

Once I had decided that I need to learn to sew, I made the rounds of the fabric/sewing stores in town and purchased a sewing machine. I bought a Brother XL-3500, a basic machine, for about 150$. I didn't want a more sophisticate sewing machine - I used to have one and found it difficult to learn to use. In those days I was less motivated to learn to sew, but still, I decided to go for a basic machine and upgrade eventually if I needed to. Overall, however, I'm very happy with the machine. It does what it needs to do.

Next, I looked around on the internet for "how to" sites on sewing and on pattern manipulation. I also looked at Amazon for books on pattern cutting. I took a chance on the Hollen and Kundal book, which was clearly a textbook. When the book first arrived I was a little daunted by the complex looking figures and diagrams, but I've found that although they look complex, they are well done and extremely useful when one is actually working on patterns and clothes. The book has been a very useful guide. I've recently acquired some additional books on pattern cutting, including "Metric Pattern Cutting" by Winifred Aldrich and "Make Your Own Dress Patterns" by Adele Margolis, both excellent books that were recommended to me. I find all three books to be complementary references - there is some overlap, but a lot of the material in each book is substantially different from the others.

I found two extremely useful websites. The first of these is a collection of video tutorials made available by the Brigham Young University Family Life programme. These exceptional videos present a whole range of sewing and draping tutorials, some of them quite long (the one for the two part collar is an hour and forty-five minutes in length). These tutorials, made with video closeups on the sewing machine itself and the hands as they manipulate the fabric and the patterns, are chock full of tips, information about traps, and careful step-by-step advice on doing jobs that are often considered to be difficult (such as sewing in a zipper or button holes, sewing a collar, manipulating darts, etc.).

The second website, very different in style to the first, is the BurdaStyle site. Promoted as the first "Open Source Sewing" website, it offers a community of sewers from all over the world who are sharing ideas, techniques, problem-solving, expertise and, of course, patterns. In addition, the site is managed and supported by staff from Burda, the pattern manufacturer. This means that no one is left "hanging" for long before an answer is forthcoming, and some of the best advice around on the web can be found through the site. The site includes a wikipedia-style glossary of terms, community-uploading of patterns, how-tos, and photographs of creations, an extensive set of forums and a blog updated on a nearly daily basis. Notice that although the site has been open only since the spring of 2007, as of this moment it already incorporates 100 000 members!

Equipped with a collection of "how-to" video tutorials, access to a community-based web site for additional advice, a book on flat pattern cutting, a commercial dress form and a sewing machine, I set about making one of each of the basic garment types - a blouse, a skirt, a dress, a shirt and a pair of pants. For each project, I began with a basic "sloper" (the name given to a basic pattern) and a set of ambitions. I wasn't particularly interested in making "demo clothes" - I wanted to make, even at this stage, real clothes that would be worn. So I identified a recipient for each effort, measured them and adapted the patterns and adjusted the fit as a consequence.


  1. Hi Geoffrey! my name is karen, also known at burdastyle as karencilla. I saw your blog at the forum. I gotta say it is quite interesting and instructive!. Great job so far.... btw I was going to order that book, Make your own patterns by Adele. But I wasn't quite sure if it is really helpful.. what's your opinion about the book? thanks!

  2. Hello Karen,

    Thanks for your feedback!

    The Margolis book is really good - it gives lots and lots of examples of how to modify the slopers to get different design features. The drawings are very nicely done, too. The styles portrayed are a bit old-fashioned, but these things go in cycles anyway. Overall, I consider the book very useful, although it probably won't be the only book in your library.