*In the most polite sense
My first sewing machine, and why it’ll be my last.
It was my 21st birthday and I knew exactly how I wanted to mark the the momentous milestone. Armed with birthday money from my parents I went to my local sewing machine shop. It was a small independent business no bigger than an average living room, shelves stocked high with machines. I had walked past it everyday for the past 6 months on my way to university and I knew that one day I’d buy a sewing machine and start making my own clothes.
It seemed a simple equation in my head. Girl + sewing machine = dressmaker. I’d cut out clothing shaped fabric and the machine would do the rest. Wouldn’t it? I chose a sewing machine almost at random. I was dazzled by the options had no idea what I actually needed. What on earth would one do with 200+ stitch patterns? There were automatic button hole functions, integrated needle threading, touch screen digital displays. Even to this day I’m confused by the mysterious “free-arm” which is by no means a modern advancement.
It has been 13 years since I proudly carried home my heavy Toyota sewing machine. Shamefully in all that time I can only remember one or two successful dress making projects. I always put my lack of success down to not having a fancy enough sewing machine. My machine didn’t have a digital screen or a button sewing option. Surely these machines were created to take the burden from me as a fallible human.
There was a time about a year ago that I thought all my sewing problems might be solved by buying an overlocker. Everyone seemed to agree that an overlocker gave a “professional finish” to the inside of garments. I’d always used a zig-zag stitch on my raw edges and never been happy with them. Although this was probably more due to my lack of skills sewing in a straight line and penchant for tricky, slippy fabrics. I’m so glad I went off the idea because the last few months have revolutionised my sewing completely. My sewing machine sits on a shelf. I could use it to make clothes, but I don’t have to.
The YouTube Epiphany
I’d been watching Bernadette Banner’s historical sewing escapades for some months before the realisation occurred to me to abandon my sewing machine. Miss Banner has a modern sewing machine, as well as a working antique Singer, but in general she hand sews – and she enjoys it.
Why didn’t I hand sew my projects? I already invested a lot of time into knitting projects so why didn’t I do the same with sewing? Although describing this realisation as an epiphany is a very polite way of saying that Occam’s Razor came and punched me in the face. The simple way is often the best. (Apologies for my terrible summation of a complex philosophical theory). I’d been thinking about this the wrong way. I needed to learn to sew before I would go back to using a sewing machine.
In my tiny flat the only area big enough for dress making is the living room. If I wanted to do some sewing I’d have to wait till my other-half was out of the house for a significant length of time. I could then unpack the sewing machine, ironing board, pins fabric and cutting equipment and generally make a complete mess of the flat, Do some frantic sewing and pack up again before he came home. This wasn’t fun.
By switching to hand sewing I have made a complete change to how I create with fabric.
Reasons to sew by hand:
- I can sew while watching Netflix, TV, YouTube, while cooking, waiting for the postman, listening to an audiobook, etc. etc. ad nauseam. Without a sewing machine rattling away like a panzer tank I can listen to music. Without a sewing machine gripping my fabric, I can stow my needle, wrap up my fabric at any time and put it away without disturbing the seam in progress. Without a sewing machine I can take my work anywhere with me to idle away the time on a train.
- I can learn real sewing skills. My sewing machine had a buttonhole function, so why would I ever need to learn how to do them by hand? When there is a wide stitch function why would I hand-sew a basting stitch? Buying a sewing machine at the start of my dress-making journey meant I skipped over so many basic skills that I needed to learn. I thought the machine would do it all for me and guess what? It didn’t. My sewing was really sloppy and I didn’t know how to fix it except that by buying a “better” machine would help.
- Hand-felled seams are so much neater than overlocked seams and add strength and security to the clothing. I sometimes feel the urge to pull open the neckline of my dress to show off how lovely the hand-felled seams are. Which is probably an urge I should fight in public for a number of reasons. No-one knows or cares how my internal seams are finished – except me. It gives me such a good feeling to not see any frayed edges or threads. It’s not a coincidence that high-end couture fashion houses use hand finishing techniques where as fast fashion uses overlockers as a quick fix.
- Hand-sewing tricky shapes is easier. I will happily admit that if I wanted to make a jacket for a cuboid robot a sewing machine would be perfect. Humans however have clothes with armholes that are round-ish. I always hated sewing sleeves on a machine because it always felt like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Or to be more accurate, put a complex curved shape with multiple layers of fabric each with it’s own tension, under a flat machine foot and stitching at speed. By stitching by hand I can take it slowly, turn the work over to stitch at a different angle, check my work, unpick a few stitches to correct, abandon half way through, come back when I’ve finished screaming into the void, and complete to my satisfaction.
- I have much more confidence in my sewing. I have quite a stash of fabric. Quite a lot of it I had great plans for but I knew I didn’t have the skills to achieve. With almost all my sewing projects I’d cut out the fabric and run it through the sewing machine and … well it was rubbish.
So what will I do with my sewing machine? It will stay on my shelf for now. There are still lots of sewing projects I can use it for but I’m not going to let it be a silver bullet for skills I haven’t learnt yet.