My neighborhood is full of pedestrians. It surprised me when we moved in, more than ten years ago, because we have numerous steep hills that can deter casual walkers. And yet we have a regular stable of people bent on morning exercise.

It’s a nice neighbor hood, they all wave a little greeting as you drive by, unless you are driving too fast. Most carry something to deter loose dogs or wild animals. Being on the edge of the suburbs bordering unincorporated county brings a lot of wild life to our area, not all of which shies from humans. Being a not-developer-planned neighborhood, it has it’s quirks, both architecturally as well as the residents. And we are quite a cast of characters…

‘Coach’ is a vigorous walker, and reliable. He’s out there rain or shine in his polyester coaches shorts, football themed shirt, and baseball cap. He lacks the whistle around his neck but I can visualize it bouncing on his chest as powers up those hills. I’ve actually spoken to him a few times. Like me, he is inclined to stop and pick up interesting natural things he finds on his daily walk. He gave me the shed antler he found by our mailbox. I’ve seen him carrying a shed snakeskin of frightening size. Coach varies his Critter Deterrent tool. He has several walking sticks, a hiking (ski?) pole and an old putter. Today was the wooden knobby walking stick day.

The Lions Club ladies always walk together. They are both white haired and short and amble very slowly but offer big smiles and waves to everyone driving by and personal greetings to every person and pet they meet. Once a year they come door to door selling tickets for the annual BBQ plate fundraiser. I try to buy every time, they do some serious BBQ chicken. The taller one caries whatever random stick or branch she finds. It’s different every time. I’ve wondered if she just tosses it somewhere of if she’s just very slowly building up a stack of firewood for that annual cook out. The shorter one has an assortment of bright colored and very out of fashion floppy sun hats. They never match what shes wearing.

Judgey HOA Lady, while a bit on the sour side, is a welcome eye on the neighborhood. She’s the one who sends out the email if suspicious vehicles are seen, keeps in touch with our councilman, and gives welcome baskets to new residents. She rants regularly about people driving too fast, un-tethered dogs, and the construction on the highway nearest us. She carries a Big Bertha driver. She doesn’t mess around when confronted with unwelcome wildlife.

Runs In Business Clothes Lady is a conundrum. I’ve never seen her in exercise clothes save for the running shoes themselves. And she actually runs, not just jogs on occasion or walks like the others. She does two laps around the whole neighborhood, 6.2 miles total, at least once a week in khaki pants and button up shirts suitable for and business casual office. Does she not sweat? Does she work weird hours so this morning run is after work? Does she just hate tee shirts? I’m baffled. Maybe someday I’ll meet her at the barbeque but she runs too fast to strike up a casual conversation in passing. She carries a pepper spray key ring, but I suspect her speed makes her unattractive to aggressive critters.

While RIBC Lady is an anomaly, the older Indian couple seem perfectly suited walking in their everyday clothes. He wears light colored pants and those short sleeved embroidered shirts similar to the Mexican Guyaberra shirts. She wear a full sari, often very elaborate ones with lots of gold in the border detail. She likes red and hot pink. They are probably the oldest of all the walkers, I would guess both in their 80’s. I only ever see them walking on their own street. They make me exceptionally happy because they always hold hands. Always. Neither carries any Critter Deterrent.

Then there is Big Black Dude With a Tiny White Dog. This guy is maybe a little past middle aged, easily 6’4”, and broad. I have nicknamed him Heimdal after Idris Elba’s portrayal in the movies. His bearing is that of a warrior, he brings to mind heroes in fantasy films, the stern determined soldier leading his men bravely to certain death. He’s a little scary, in a good way. He carries no Critter Deterrent. I’m pretty sure he could run off a whole pack of coyotes by simply glaring at them. He faithfully walks the tiny white puffball dog for it’s morning-sniff-and-pee. The dog is of unknown variety, maybe a Malti-poo? Pure white, long haired and no bigger than a soccer ball at the outer limits of its hair which is always well groomed with occasional bows on the ears. I doubt the dog weighs more than 5 or 6 pounds. I’m not sure if his stride is simply too much for the tiny dog, if the dog is old, or maybe he just likes to carry it, but the return trip home he always carries the dog who sits up pertly in one giant hand extended slightly ahead of himself. I cannot tell if he lacks affection for the dog or if it is the opposite, giving the tiny creature the best view for the trip. Most people carrying a dog tuck it along an arm, snug up close to the body, comfortable for both carried and carrier. Not Heimdal. The little fluff gets a wide world view, eagerly looking around with tongue hanging out. I’ve never crossed paths with him outside of the morning walk-wave. I’m terribly curious if this tiny fluff is his sweet baby or if there is a significant other who tasks him with this daily chore. I’ve never seen him with anyone nor the dog being walked by anyone else.

Once every other week we get the entire BHS Cross Country team. They complain bitterly about the hills but the coaches route-of-torture has paid off, they just advanced to Regionals. They actually zig-zag through the center of the neighborhood, going up and down all the steepest hills. I yearn for their youthful energy, they barely huff and puff running up those hills while carrying on conversations or singing along with headphoned music.

These people are, as Mister Rodgers so aptly sung, “are the people in your neighborhood”. I have enjoyed their regularity and variety for many years now. But a new player has entered the game.

I feel crass naming him Eye Candy, but, oh my… he is. I’m not sure if he is new to the neighborhood or has been here, is active duty and due for his PT test soon. All I know is that he has been running daily for the last two weeks, wearing classic running shorts (not the long basketball shorts trendy with teens an college kids) and no shirt. He is maybe in his twenties, no younger, could easily be in his thirties, fit people always look young. He is Chippendale dancer sort of muscled, not steroid-fuled-gym-rat lumpy. His stride is long and graceful. He doesn’t wear headphones or carry anything. His hair is short, curly, and conservatively cut. I cannot tell if he is black, Hispanic, or some other interesting mix, but “handsome” fits all of him. It’s enough to make a married woman embarrassed for looking.


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When to splurge and when to save: a setting up your stuff guide

Like any hobby, sewing can get expensive fast, and it’s easy to get carried away. Buying specialty tools is a rabbit hole easily fallen down when you don’t know what you need. So I’m going to clear it up for you.

The good news is it does not have to be an expensive hobby, it can get that way, particularly if you find yourself gravitating toward designer fabrics, but it doesn’t have to. You can get the basics to complete a small project like a tote bag for somewhere in the neighborhood of $25.

Things you need to sew fall into two groups: tools and consumables. Tools are the buy-it-once things and consumables are of course the things that get used up, like thread. I will list in sections then elaborate on each.

“Spend” means just that, be prepared to spend more than the cheapest price you see, because for this item the quality really matters.

“Save” means feel free to buy the cheapest priced one you can find.

“RSM” means Recycle, Salvage or Make. These are things you don’t necessarily have to buy new retail.

Things You Must Have.


Scissors                                 spend

pins                                        save

hand sewing needles            save

a place for pins & needles RSM


thread                                 spend

fabric                                 save/ RSM

Scissors: ah my precious…. :ahem: sorry. You really only need one pair, large shears, to get started. But if you’ve got money to spend, or there are packaged sets on sale the second pair should be some tiny embroidery scissor or even a pair of nippers. Big shears first, embroidery or nippers only if you’ve got money to spend, okay? Good. Do not try to compromise and get those sorta-half-way 5” long size, get big ones and tiny ones or just big ones. Why spend money on scissors? Because if you get good ones, and don’t loose them, you’ll have them for the rest of your life. Really. I have a pair that I have owned for slightly over 30 years and they are still just as good as the day I got them.

What you should look for and be willing to spend on scissors:

forged steel if it doesn’t say so on the scissors or the package, they probably aren’t. Skip those.

a screw or other tightening mechanism at the hinging area

do they feel good in your hand?

If you want brand names, look for Fiskars, Melita, Gingher, and Heinkles. Those were listed least expensive to most expensive but not necessarily in order of recommendation. USE A COUPON! Michael’s, Hobby Lobby and JoAnn’s constantly have coupons available and all three retailers carry those brands and more. With a coupon you might be able to spend as little as $10 on good scissors. Without a coupon $20-30 is not unreasonable. Note I said good scissors. Yes, all three retailers have garbage ‘craft’ scissors as low as a buck a pair. Those are for use on poster board and Christmas wrap, not for sewing. Are you pondering some other brand? Open them and try flexing the blade, if it bends, they are stamped metal and not forged, avoid them. Are they “titanium”? Only a microscopic layer of Titanium dust is applied to the blade actually, and therefore cannot be sharpened, so again, I’d avoid these.

Pins are pins are pins are pins, for the most part. I like the big colorful heads. I like standard length (as opposed to quilters pins which are really long). I really like the glass head type because I can iron over them. One package or box is usually about 80 to 100 pins which is more than sufficient for most beginner projects. Through loss and damage I’ll buy a new package about once every five years or so. These cost $3 to 7 bucks depending on what you set yourself up with.

Hand Sewing Needles are nearly always sold in largeish packages of assorted sizes. Save money and get the least expensive big multi pack. Once you’ve done enough sewing to know that you desire specific sizes and types, you can buy the smaller packages of just that size.

A place to put your pins & needles is most commonly a pin cushion. But, it could be: an old gift box of the jewelry size, a magnet, and of course one of your first projects can be to make your own pin cushion. Besides, everyone has a red tomato pin cushion, that’s just… boring 😉

Thread is usually bought by color, but beware the bins of really cheap stuff, because it’s awful. Also beware the sewing kits that contain several tiny spools of common colors, those too are very low quality. Actually most sewing kits are pretty junky and not worth the price.

Thread brands to look for: Coats (or sometimes it’s Coats and Clark, depending on the age and type of spool) and Hobby Lobby’s house brand Sewology are going to be your everyday type threads. If you do some quilting you’ll start wandering over to the skinny spools of Gutermann, Mettler, and Sulky. All of these are nice stuff. Avoid the shiny ones and metallic threads until you know what you are doing.

If it’s a brand you don’t see listed, hold the spool up to really good light. Gently rub a finger up and down the wrapped thread. Do you see fine fuzzies sticking out where you rubbed it? If not, it’s good, buy it. If it’s fuzzy (and I’ve seen thread I didn’t need to touch to see the fuzz) don’t buy it, it’s poor quality.

Fabric is where most beginners get overwhelmed. I get it, there’s just so much to choose from… the think tank types call this paralysis of choice. So the easiest way to pick something for your first project is to go where there is less to choose from. So yes, really, don’t go to JoAnn’s (on you first trip out). Don’t get me wrong, I like the store, but if you are doing a pair of pajama pants or maybe a tote bag, save yourself the stress and go to Walmart. Its one aisle, maybe two, the prices are low, and the fabrics are cute enough for a trial run. Once you’ve gotten your feet wet and decided to do the same thing in another color for your best friend, then go to JoAnn’s and get a pretty Amy Butler print, or Hoffman, or Michael Miller, or Moda…

Fabric for ‘messing around’ when there isn’t a project in mind, can be got even cheaper. Recycle something from your closet that doesn’t fit any more. Hit the thrift store. Men’s name brand dress shirts are very high quality fabric, at JoAnn’s it’s the $16-20 a yard stuff. Recycle some Ralph Lauren shirts into new stuff for yourself.

Second Group: Stuff that is really nice to have, which happen to be all tools

A sewing machine               save

EDIT: Iron                                save

rotary cutter                         save

cutting mat                         spend

quilters ruler(s)                 save

a dedicated space               save/ RSM

Sewing machines … You may notice I put this in the second group. The sewing machine didn’t exist until the 1860’s, it was the forerunner of the industrial revolution. Think about every painting and portrait depicting the elaborate clothing worn by the wealthy and powerful up to that point… That stuff was made all. by. hand. Let’s let that sink in for a minute. Ok, now we can appreciate the glorious piece of machinery that the sewing machine is!

Sewing machines do not have to be a big expense. I nearly always recommend that ones first machine be a basic model without too many bells and whistles. I’m a big advocate of used machines as well. They are often heavier than new, but made so much better than the plastic stuff. Even used, there’s a bottom end for pricing which is generally about $45 complete and functional. New the most basic models can be bought for around $80. Beware the new $25 machine! I’ve seen these under several names commonly associated more with kitchen appliances than sewing and they are absolute garbage. While technically they do in fact sew, they are so basic as to not even have adjustable tension. It’s like getting a Power Wheels instead of a real car. The top end prices of course are as high as the market will bear. Yes, I’ve seen used sewing machines the subject of bidding wars, upwards of $300 for a vintage Singer Featherweight and $500 for a Bernina embroidery capable machine (which was a steal, new they start at about $2000).

What to look for in a new machine: all newer models will have a straight stitch, zigzag stitch and a hand full of others. Make sure at least one of those others is a stretch or knits stitch. Also look for a buttonhole function. A machine that comes with a zipper foot, a buttonhole foot and a zigzag or applique foot is nearly always standard, but look at what’s included to be sure. I prefer a machine where the stitch width and length are something I can set myself. Some basic models have three different zigzag sizes and no way to alter them, if you don’t want the ones available you are just out of luck. You may find the simplicity of options more suited to your needs, that’s okay too. If you have a little more money to spend: a fully automatic buttonhole function is really nice, and an automatic needle threader is a godsend for those who struggle with seeing tiny things. Make sure you can lift and carry it easily.

Many new machines have fifteen or more stitches of varying fanciness. Don’t be fooled, you won’t use the Christmas Tree stitch but once in a blue moon. Some new machines come with covers, this is also fluff. These are ugly plastic and should be replaced with your own made one as soon as possible. Some new machines come with hard plastic travel cases, again, not as great as they sound. They tend to be cumbersome, there’s no room for much else besides the machine, and a purchased separately wheeled case will always be better. You’ll find Brother, Janome and Singer with models in this bottom tier range. Those companies are Chinese, Japanese and (as of approximately 1990) Chinese, manufactured in said countries. Brother is also manufactured in Taiwan and Vietnam. I find this information helps me in my decision making.

What to look for in a used machine: First, do your homework, have a few models and brands in mind when you hit the auction sites and your local thrift stores. Also know which ones you want to avoid. Next is power. Plug it in an turn it on. Some older models either have no light or the light has a separate switch, you may have to hunt around a bit. Do not assume it doesn’t work if no light comes on, the bulb may be burned out. Inspect the power cord and foot pedal cord: look for breaks, tears, fraying, and rust or corrosion. Old machines were built to last, but this part is what wears out fastest with the passage of time. The good news is many replacement parts are sold as well as it being reasonably easy for an experienced electronics person to replace old wires. A cracked or frayed power cord may work well enough to see if the rest of the machine suits you, just pay attention and unplug it as soon as you are done.

(unthread the needle and remove the bobbin if it happens to be threaded for this phase of testing)

Manually turn the hand wheel and see if it cycles freely, turn continuously through several stitch cycles, it should move freely without any clicking or scraping noises. A hitch or slowdown in one phase of the wheels turning is bad news, move on from that machine.

Push the power pedal and see how it runs. I find many people are surprised by how quiet those old machines can be, they are a whisper in comparison to modern machines! Again, clicking or scraping noises can be an indication something isn’t quite right, but doesn’t mean it’s irreparable. Run it for a full minute, if the noises die down or stop all together it was simply dry and the oil has redistributed to where it belongs. Conversely if noises get louder this can indicate serious problems. It’s up to you whether the specific machine you are checking out seems worth the effort to take to a professional for repair. Grinding noises and any failure to move through the motions smoothly, like a significant pause somewhere, are indications of serious damage, avoid this machine.

Does this machine require a separate accessory piece to change stitch types? Usually these are disc shaped pieces or look like a toothpaste cap with a big flange. These usually will have numbers and often pictures of the type of stitch they produce on them. If so, you want to be sure you are getting straight and zigzag with the machine. There is no guarantee you’ll find them elsewhere, ever. Many machines made with this separate disc/ gear system date from the 1940’s and those discs were made in Bakelite, Celuloid, and early plastics. When exposed to the sun they became very brittle and Celuloid is actually flammable. So if it has no discs and requires them, move on.

Last, open any compartments or doors not requiring a screwdriver and turn it on it’s back and look underneath. Look for rust or other corrosion. Oily lint is to be expected, but dry dirt may indicate it was stored outdoors where heat dried up the oil leaving crusty dirt behind or even submerged. It’s always a treat to open an old machine to find it clean and well oiled. Yellowed oil globs are normal, this only means it’s been sitting unused for quite a while.

Used machines will nearly always need the tension adjusted and a good cleaning and oiling, don’t let these dissuade you from a good deal.

A manual is mighty handy, but unlikely to be still in the region of an older machine. The good news is every major manufacturer has reproduced their manuals on-line in PDF format, many are free (every Singer manual) but some require a couple bucks to buy it. Get the manual, even if you have to buy it. Some minor brands or foreign manufactured machines not commonly found in the US may be harder to get parts or manuals for, think about this in your research before buying.

Extra feet, bobbins and other accessories are sort of a crap shoot on used machines, take anything offered with it but do not assume they actually fit that machine! Particularly in thrift stores they tend to get mixed up and jumbled.

Last, if you select an older machine, look for owner clubs and forums for your machine. Singer Featherweight machines are still popular with quilters and the 50’s era Singer “Slant-O-Matic” machines have user/ collector clubs too. Bernina hosts all era owner websites. Bernina requires registration, but that’s to be expected when it’s manufacturer supported.

Major manufacturers you are likely to come across in used machines and where they are made:

Singer up until approximately 1990            USA

Kenmore          “ “                                           actually Singer, USA

Singer after 1990                                           China

Kenmore after 1990                                       either Janome or Husqvarna

New Home                                                       actually Janome, Japan

Janome                                                            Japan

White                                                                  connected to Baby Lock, Japan

Baby Lock                                                       Japan

Pfaff                                                                 Germany

Husqvarna                                                    Sweden

Viking                                                              connected to Husqvarna, Sweden, China

Shark                                                                   “                  “                              “

Bernina                                                      Germany

Juki                                                               Japan

Necchi                                                           Italy

Morse                                                        Japan

If you know you will be taking your machine with you to sew different places (classes, a friends house, church) invest in a wheeled case. Fifteen pounds of a newer model machine doesn’t seem like much putting it in the cart at the store but hauling it up the stairs at church or across a parking lot with the cords dragging and three bags of project fabric loaded on your shoulders will change your mind fast.


EDIT: How on earth did I forget about irons?!?!


Irons don’t need to be fancy. Several years ago Consumer Reports tested them. The top model was a $150 Rowenta, the next best, only a fraction of a star lower, was a $15 Black & Decker. Basically as long as the thermostat works, you are good to go. And while you need something to not ruin other surfaces while ironing, those little fold up ironing mats you see on sale with the dorm stuff at back to school time are great. If you are following nearly any pattern or tutorial “turn and press” “press seams open” etc will be there over and over and over. And yes, you really do need to iron as part of the process. Getting more life from your iron: I keep mine dry and keep water in a separate spray bottle. No matter how good or fancy or expensive your iron, they all eventually leak. Easier to avoid the problem all together.

Rotary cutter, cutting mat & quilters ruler

I often see these sold in sets, because you do not want to use a rotary cutter without a good cutting mat, but I often find the pre-packaged sets inadequate in one area or another.

Rotary Cutter

Every scissor manufacturer makes rotary cutters too. Like with scissors, use a coupon and select one that fits your hand nicely. The bigger blade ones are most common and easiest to get replacement blades for. Do not purchase this without also purchasing a quilters ruler or other guides and a cutting mat. Rotary cutters are essentially razor blades. Used without the proper accompanying tools they will destroy your table top, and if you aren’t careful, fingertips too.

Cutting Mat

Buy the expensive Olfa (green) one, in the biggest size you can afford and store properly. Why? Olfa holds the patent on the magical material that makes the self healing mats, all others are mediocre copies and do not last anywhere as long. Also be sure to care for it and store it properly. Do not iron anywhere near it! Heat ruins them quickly and permanently. Do not roll or store it on its side, keep it flat or hang it (but not from just one hook! Two or more to keep it flat). Once wavy, it will always be wavy. You can use any sharp blade tools on these, exacto knives, lino cutters, etc. it’s a great surface protector.

Quilters Ruler

This doesn’t have to be used only with your rotary cutter, they are awesome rulers period. But you want to only use one, not any random skinny ruler, when you do use your rotary cutter, because it’s the safest way to use that sharp tool. Again, use a coupon, and get the biggest one you can comfortably store.

Last, a dedicated space…

If you are lucky enough to have a spare bedroom or finished basement that you can turn into a dedicated sewing room, woo hoo! You lucky dog! Very few beginners have that option.

Most beginners have a corner of a bedroom or maybe a cabinet in the dining room that can be cleared and dedicated to their sewing stuff. Think about it and make an effort to keep it all in one place together.

If the only space you can dedicate are a folding table and an under bed plastic tote, and they both have to be under the bed when not in use, so be it. But think about it when you are buying your stuff for those first projects. Make an effort to keep your tools tidy and organized.

This may be my longest post to date, but I felt the need to have all this information together in one spot. Happy Hunting!

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All the little things

So, I touched on this concept a bit with my students the last few classes I taught, and I realized it was a subject worthy of going into depth with.

All the Little Things…

The nitty gritty, ‘gee, no one ever mentioned that part to me before’, steps I take when I start a project. This is that grey area after getting the pattern and fabric and the actual sewing of the project.

So I’m home from the fabric store with pattern and yardage in hand, yay!

  1. If it’s the kind of project & fabric that should be washed first, I start that laundry right away.
  2. The next thing I have to do is clean my cutting table. So I spend usually more than an hour putting away all the things that have been accumulating since the last project. I actually clean the surface when I get down to it, a little 409 and a paper towel picks up stray pencil marks, dust, and fluff. If I’m really on point, I’ll do this step before I go buy the fabric and pattern, but more often than not it happens in this order. Sometimes, this is as far as I get on my ‘first sewing day’ of a given project. My table gets pretty deep in stuff, I’ve spent entire days just clearing the table.
  3. Next I take everything out of the pattern envelope. I look over the pattern pieces to make sure they are all there and I read through all the instructions. Yes, even with 30 years experience under my belt, I still read the instructions. Someone might have come up with a new and better way of assembling this specific thing. Or I might think it’s dumb, but either way, I now know what the designer intended. This usually takes no more than an hour, often much less, but it really depends on the project.
  4. Next I address the pattern itself. “Hello Pattern!” (If you got that joke, you’re old like me. We will be corny over in the corner together) Part of addressing the pattern is making changes you know need to be carried out. In my case this is often shortening the crotch length, increasing the hip and increasing the arm width. This is the “shorten or lengthen here” part of the process you see printed on commercial patterns. Making those adjustments is a different post, for now just know that this is when you do them.If it’s a commercial pattern and I’m using a standard size, this step is as simple as cutting apart the paper pieces from the printed sheet and putting away the ones I don’t need.

    If it’s a PDF pattern, it tape and scissors time. I’m making sure I printed correctly, taping all the sections together, then separating the pattern pieces.

    I’ve done a number of patterns that came in magazines. These are often printed in an overlapping manner with the intent that you trace out your size and make a separate set from the pre-printed ones. This of course is rather time consuming, but worth it if you like the design enough.

  5. Pin and cut! This part has probably been covered for you before, in numerous places. So I’ll assume you don’t need a lot of detail here. Use the cutting layout, fabric right sides together along any folds prompted, don’t forget the points, markings, etc. Keep a couple scraps. Sometimes this step is a couple of hours all by itself, it just depends on the project.
  6. Finally we move to the machine, but wait, it’s isn’t time to sew just yet! Next I clean my sewing machine. I unthread it,remove the sole plate, remove the bobbin and bobbin race, clean thoroughly and carefully, oil if it seems to need it, and even wipe down all the upper surfaces and table top with a rag that has cleaning solution on it. [NOTE I do not spray my machine directly, partly because it’s computerized, but also I don’t want to remove the oil I just put in it or get moisture down in the gearing]. Reassemble everything that was disassembled for cleaning.
  7. Next I do a tension test and observe if my needle needs to be changed using scraps of the fabric from my project. Sometimes a different type of needle is needed for the fabric, like a ball point or denim needle, but they also get dull and just need changing from time to time. The tension test is vital to ensuring the tension is right for that specific project. The cleaning and tension test takes me 20-30 minutes, but I’m well practiced. A beginner can safely expect to spend an hour on this.
  8. I spin a bobbin or several, depending on the size of the project.

FINALLY I’m ready to sew my project! Depending on the project size, complexity, how messy my space is, and what my last project was, these eight steps might take anywhere from 2 to 10 hours. Yes, I really do go through all this on every single project.

To recap: laundry, clean the work space, read the pattern, address the pattern, pin and cut the fabric, clean the machine, test the machine, make bobbins. Now, go sew something!

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ADDENDA: Stuff I see beginners doing

It has been mentioned I pin ‘backwards’, i.e. the pin heads to the left. I pull pins with my left hand. Many right handers are not comfortable doing that and therefore pin with the heads to the right. This is totally ok, the point being that the pins are perpendicular to the edge being sewn. I just like not having anything where it will catch when it approaches the foot while sewing.

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Stuff I see beginners doing…

Stuff I see beginners do…

So I’ve got a summer worth of Beginner Sewing camps and classes under my belt, and there are a few really common things I see beginners doing. These are really small things, that in the grand scale don’t seem to make much difference, but can lead to frustration for them. So this is really:

How to build good habits from the very beginning.

Focus on the machine.

I see fear, a lot of fear. Women who drive full sized SUV’s in big city traffic while drinking coffee and having a conversation with three kids at once sit in front of that little machine afraid to touch the power switch. I get that it’s unfamiliar, but it’s small! No lives will be lost of you screw up! This isn’t a Ferrari, it isn’t going to be expensive to ‘take it around the block’.

The absolute worst thing you can do, which everyone seems to think is a constant threat when it isn’t, is sew through your finger. I’ve seen it happen once* in a business where sewing was what they did full time. That business at the time had been open for twelve years (as of this writing they are still going strong at 17 years) and that was the first and only time since that an employee did that. Lets do the math on that, shall we? Three machines running eight hours a day, five days a week, 49 weeks a year (small business, they take vacations). 5880 sewing hours per year, times 17 years = 99,960 hours of sewing time to accumulate ONE sewn finger incident. That’s a .00001% chance of sewing through your finger. Keep your eyes and mind focused on the sewing and you won’t have to worry about this. The employee in question admitted to looking up at someone who was talking to her without taking her foot off the pedal. She was unfocused.

For the love of Pete buy some decent scissors.

Okay, this isn’t a habit but a tool. But a critically important tool most beginners don’t realize just how important it is. I fully admit to being a scissor snob, I do not require that of my students. If you are using cheap ‘craft’ scissors, you are going to produce ragged, frayed, not-nearly-accurate-to-the-pattern pieces. This in turn makes the actual sewing of those pieces even harder. I have watched children and adults struggle to cut fabric, even hearing “I can’t cut anything”, handed them good, sharp fabric shears, then watched as the frustration melted away to be replaced by a smile and an “oh!”. Walmart sells Fiscars, MSRP of $19.99, which are good quality without the hefty price tag of my beloved Heinkles. If you get a coupon, you can buy them at Michael’s, Jo Ann or Hobby Lobby even cheaper. Melita and Gingher are also really nice and fall in between price wise. [Random: you may notice, all of these are German products. Germany produces some of the best blade steel in the world, followed by Japan. So, there’s a thing you know now.]

“Titanium” scissors are coated with a microscopically thin titanium layer. So long as this layer remains intact, they are fair, but they cannot be sharpened (as that would remove the titanium layer) and any nicks are a death knell. I have some I use for paper and cardboard.

Handing fabric: you are ‘the boss’

It’s a catch-phrase we use in our classes “you are the boss of your fabric” yet some people have a hard time learning that. Two long straight edges to be sewn don’t lay lined up perfectly? Make them line up. Use pins, this is your first tool in controlling the fabric. “Pinning is winning” is another of our catchy slogans. You aren’t going to hurt it’s feelings, it doesn’t have any. There are a lot of times in garment construction where a piece with a curve is sewn to a piece with a straight edge or less curve. Only by being the boss will your crotch seam or sleeve get sewn the way it needs to.

porcupine! No!

ah! much better, no stabbing fingers…

Pins: both friend and enemy

For beginners, I recommend two qualities in the pins they buy and use: first, ones with big colorful heads. Second: not quilters pins, which are very long. These can be tempting in one may think it gives them more to work with, but it’s using a sword when a kitchen knife will do. Unless your first project is actually a quilt, get ordinary pins. The colorful heads help visually both in knowing where your pins are, but also I intentionally use contrasting colors in order to keep track of them in my projects.

You will poke or scratch yourself with a pin stuck in the fabric. I do it about once per project (which can accumulate to a few a day when I’m really on a roll). Those pins need to be there to control the fabric, so here are a few specific images to help you.

All the pins face the edge to be sewn. This simplifies things mentally as that edge is getting all the ‘action’.

All the pins are not hanging over the raw edge. Porcupines stick their sharp points out there on purpose.

Keep it tidy: 1) put the pins in something

It’s really important to develop the habit of always having your pins in something. Try hard to keep a pincushion near your sewing machine close enough to put those pins in it as you remove them from the thing you are sewing. They are round, they will roll off the table. You are already paused to pull the pin, the half second to stab it into your pincushion will save a toe from injury and your vacuum cleaner hose from being perforated. I have a magnetic pincushion, I like being able to drop them in the general vicinity without worry.

Keep it tidy: 2) trim and toss those threads

I see beginners sew their practice seams, pull out the long tails as recommended, cut them off right at the machine, then leave these long tails hanging off their fabric. Then as they begin the next seam the thread pulls out of the machine and isn’t sewing. This is frustrating. Once the fabric is sewn, it doesn’t need all that extra thread, cut those threads right at the fabric, leave the long tail on the machine.

Then go to the starting point of your sewing and cut off that thread tail and put it in the trash. I see beginners leave all the long tails and say “Oh, I’ll do that all at the end”. I asked several students why they left those long tails until one was able to articulate their thoughts. She said “I guess I’m afraid it will come apart if I cut them off”. Now in our classes we emphasize back-stitching, every start and and finish. Even if you don’t back-stitch, it isn’t going to just fall apart, you have to pull on it, fairly firmly. So don’t let that set in your mind. Cut those tails off, do it every time you stop sewing. Those tails will grab and tangle and twist. They will get sucked down into the machine and cause mechanical problems. Don’t leave them on your table either, they can still cause problem, get them in the trash can. Nothing ruins a vacuum cleaner faster than a couple yards of thread wrapped around the brush. Also, it looks prettier. You feel more accomplished when the half-way stage looks tidy. Boost your self esteem the easy way.

Keep it tidy: 3) keep the coffee at arms reach.

That’s a fully extended arm, arms reach. In our kids classes, they aren’t allowed any liquids on the machine tables at all. Adults are allowed closed type cups (travel mugs) but even then we try to keep them at least 12” away from the machine in all directions. You will be moving your hands and projects through that space, don’t risk your project or your machine with a spill. I personally keep my drink on the table next to my machine, not on the same table.

iced tea, note the 4″ gap between the sewing machine table and where my drink is!

Trust the pattern/ instructions. Actually follow them and don’t add, skip, or change it up.

Understanding comes from doing, particularly when it comes to assembling three dimensional forms. This is engineering in action, it’s not going to come naturally except to a tiny percentage of people. Trust that they already did the complicated thinking and math for you. It doesn’t have to make sense for you to follow it to the letter the first time. Do you really want a geometry lesson? Or just to know that if you line up all the points it will fit over your shoulder?

We do a lined zippered tote in our beginner classes. It’s small, uses plain squares, and gets a variety of techniques under their belts in a fairly short time frame. Once the pieces are sewn to the zipper there is a tendency to think “this isn’t working. I laid it on the table and these squares are all over”.

freshly ironed, but looks wonky

Then they break ranks and grab scissors and start cutting. Don’t do that! Did the instructions tell you to? No they didn’t! Remember that “be the boss” thing? You are still the boss, you can make these pieces line up without cutting a section off.

pinned where it needs to be.

Second, even if you did start with a ragged cut, once it’s turned to the inside, no one is going to see it ever again. Cutting your seam allowance tiny only weakens the seam. Leave it be.

oh hey! that turned out pretty good! 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

I can’t tell you how many times I give instructions on a step, and all but one person starts doing that step. The one just sits there staring at the fabric or the machine. Speak up! If you are flying solo, find an internet forum and post your question. I’ve found sewing forums and bloggers actually some of the nicest around and most will answer your questions several ways to help you understand the step or procedure. Videos and tutorials are good, but feedback is critically important to learning to do it well.

Good luck! I’ll be here saying “Practice, practice, practice”


*Just in case you were wondering: She was taken to the ER, they removed the broken needle tip, gave her a tetanus shot, glued the hole (punctures rarely need stitches), splinted her finger and she was back to work that afternoon. She wore the finger splint for about a week and was tender for two weeks beyond that. Unpleasant, but far from life threatening.

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August 23, 2017 · 3:54 pm

Dear Mr. Gunn, Thank you…

I just finished reading Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible. While I already knew 85% of the fashion history tidbits he so eloquently assembled into the least boring history book I’ve read in quite a while, it’s the effect I had upon looking at myself in the mirror that struck me the most.

First, I relished his attitudes about shape and size, namely; there is no such thing as ‘normal’, and everyone looks good in clothes that fit. When I was young, I had a great figure. Bearing children and middle age put me in a place of struggle physically. When you permanently outgrow your favorite things, it can be daunting to find new favorites that make you feel just as good. He made me realize it is worth the effort to find my new ‘favorites’.

Second, his discussion on jeans made me understand part of why I’ve been so unhappy in the job I’ve had for the last three years that I’ll be leaving soon. While in title, my job is customer oriented, in reality it is very much physical labor. I ruined three pairs of khaki pants before they relaxed the dress code to allow jeans. While thankful that I could wear jeans which would hold up to my job better, I realized being so dressed down conveyed a distinct lack of professionalism. It’s hard to get customers to take me seriously selling expensive products when I’m wearing the same thing as the high school kid who is just a cashier. It’s hard to feel like a professional when there is no distinction. My first boss in my department wore button downs or dress shirts far more often than he wore polos, now I understand why.

I, too, was raised in a very traditional household when it came to presenting ones self publicly, I can honestly say I don’t live in my yoga pants. In high school (pre-yoga pants era) I was horrified by my friends who put on sweat pants the second they got home, and worse, would leave the house in them for activities outside of sports.  If your clothes fit, then they should be comfortable enough to wear all day. I usually only change clothes mid-day if I’m doing a particularly messy task, like gardening or painting. It’s okay to go to the garden center covered in dirt and wearing a sun hat, but I wouldn’t stop at the grocery store on the way home dressed like that. Every time I see someone shopping in a store dressed in work out gear I think “are you counting this leisurely stroll as exercise?”. My inner voice is pretty snarky. I admit I’ve intentionally not brushed saw dust off of myself when heading to the big box home improvement store in order to dissuade the sales people from being condescending. As a matter of fact I do know what I need, I don’t need the third degree from you, dude. I’m the one who owned all the tools when we got married, not my husband. ( He’s handy, just wasn’t raised with the D.I.Y. Everything aesthetic I was). And when I’m there I mentally question the guys who wear shorts to work, unless they are outside in the gardening area. His book made me realize these judgement came from clothing choices.

I’d already decided to leave that job before I picked up the book, but I’m glad I read it when I did because now I’m working on my wardrobe for my new job. My new job is very casual in atmosphere too, but the labor is such that I can wear summer dresses or other comfortable clothes that are not jeans and tee shirts without fear of ruining them. I’m sure I’ll wear jeans to my new job when winter rolls around, but with boots and sweaters I’ve knit for myself, accessorized and dressed up. But now, while it’s hot? I’m sewing like a mad woman to look and feel like the pro I know I am. And I feel pretty, something I’ve never felt in my current job.

Last, he is fiercely in touch with the fact that the average American isn’t buying couture, we can’t afford that. While I’ve developed strong sewing skills over my lifetime I’m very aware that it is not cheaper to sew for oneself as opposed to buying off the rack. The difference is fit and having full control over color and fiber content. So for things like jeans and tee shirts, I absolutely buy them, at Walmart no less. But for dresses and other ‘serious’ clothes, I’m going to make for myself a whole lot more than I have in the last several years.

So, Dear Mr. Gunn: Thank you for renewing my love of clothing. Thank you for reminding me that I can look good in clothes at this size I’m just now getting used to. Thank you for having faith that we aren’t all living in yoga pants. And most of all, thank you for being a voice of reason and encouragement to every woman in America that they can be beautiful and comfortable at the same time.

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The physical work of making things

I love making things. I draw, I paint, I sew both by hand and with a machine, I knit, I crochet, I use power tools to carve stone and cut wood, I do fine finish work on both with chisels, files and sandpaper. All of these things require a lot of the soft tissues in my hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. After decades of hard use, these things are taking their toll. Getting old sucks. I had a physical therapist say to me “I haven’t seen an elbow this bad since that professional baseball player I treated”. I am forced to pace myself and have learned some stretches and exercises that help me be happy in my work as well as allow me to continue to make things with my hands. Most importantly, I’ve learned that making the work space favor me is vital.

  1. Warm Up. Just like an athlete, get the muscles you are going to be using warm before starting on the work. For big things like sanding, carving, and painting I do shoulder stretches, toe touches, neck rolls and my small hand warm ups. Sanding something five feet long requires your whole body, warm it all up. There are a bunch of stretches and warm ups for hands suitable for all kinds of small work warm up. I do these every time:
  2. Set up the work space for the most comfort, When I’m doing hand work like sewing or knitting, all I need is the couch, a light, and a foot stool (I’m short). If I’m drawing or painting pictures I sit at a large work table with an adjustable height stool. I use the same table when cutting sewing patterns, but I stand. If I’m painting large things, especially spray painting, I work outside with drop cloths. I have blocks of wood, old buckets, and bricks to pull things up off the ground, this reduces my need to bend over. I use my pebble filled socks and clamps to position the work so I don’t have to touch it while painting (which also contributes to a good paint job). For carving and power tool use I’m out in the back yard with a outdoor work table, saw horses, clamps, my pebble filled socks for bracing work, my sun hat, and closed toes shoes. Trying to work in a space not well suited for the mess at hand brings stress into the project before you even start that new-to-you technique. The only crafting I have ever done in my kitchen required the stove or toaster oven. I’ve worked on projects at the kitchen table, but it’s not great. Your average dining table is too low to work at standing, and too high to work at sitting. Make the space suit the work at hand instead of trying to force the project into the space. This might mean investing in an adjustable height stool, making risers for your kitchen table, or buying some ugly but really good work lights.  A sculptors stand is awesome if your are skilled enough to build one or have the funds to buy one, they are useful for far more than clay sculptors.–European-Beechwood–Adjustable-Height-MP-35141-001-i1014778.utrecht?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cse&utm_term=35141-1001&country=US&currency=USD&gclid=Cj0KEQjwk-jGBRCbxoPLld_bp-IBEiQAgJaftUg8zqF3FeTqiX3MxEbQfwc9ftTkz0UGelfPYfDzkBgaAoUO8P8HAQ These little guys are magnificent for small table top work: And also: good light, good light, good light. While Ott lights are awesome, they aren’t always necessary, but getting light on the work is. A couple cheap adjustable task lights can make a huge difference in your work comfort.
  3. Position your body comfortably. This means good posture: sitting or standing up straight, shoulders down and back, head up. If you are working standing: bend from the hips, plant your feet wide, keep your knees slightly bent. Move frequently. Walk around the work or turn the work to yourself, don’t stick in one spot straining to reach or twisting and crouching. When working seated, the good posture guideline still applies. When I’m drawing or sewing, I adjust my chair so that I can get close to my work without hunching my back, which usually means placing it slightly above hip level and pushing back from the table. This way I’m leaning my whole upper body from my hips in towards the machine instead of hunching my back or craning my neck. When I’m sewing, knitting or crocheting, I find sitting up straight and bringing the work up to my sight line is best. It’s tiring to the arms, but not painful unless you work past your limits. I know knitters and crocheters talented enough to sit up straight and work with their arms relaxed and their hands in their lap because they don’t have to look at what they are doing, but I’m not one of them. I even know one who is so skilled and coordinated she knits socks on her daily exercise walk around her neighborhood. This is Michael Jordan level body awareness and talent folks!
  4. Know your limits. When applicable, build strength to extend those limits. As previously mentioned, I’ve worn out a lot of soft tissues in my body, the worst damage resides in my elbows. When I start to get the pins-and-needles feeling in my pinkie, I know it’s time to stop, stretch, shake it out, and relax a bit. If I don’t, I’ll soon have a sharp stabbing pain in my elbow that ibuprofen only slightly lessens but does not alleviate completely. I find the vibration of power tools difficult to deal with. I have some shock absorbing gloves I wear, but even then I can rarely work for even an hour at a stretch. I take ibuprofen ahead of heavy work to allow me to work longer. Talk to your doctor about using even over the counter drugs like this. For me, this is a carefully monitored quantity approved by my doctor, a limited number of times per week. I do exercises with small weights to build strength in my hands and arms that has helped reduce my need for therapy and drugs. I also have taken yoga, which has taught me how to really relax my body as well. All these things combine to allow me to keep making art. I cannot slack though, I must exercise and stretch to stay in ‘maker’ shape. That said, I also know makers who never learned how to listen to their own bodies. They worked so much that they did serious damage to the point where the pain is constant and cannot be stopped without surgery. This is often compounded by depression as the inability to make when the desire is strong, is heart-breaking.
  5. Allow yourself to recover. Our swimming pool got really green. The weather snuck up on us this year and I didn’t get out there soon enough to keep it from turning into a scary swap in a time frame that felt like over night. Oh well, I’ve got a lot of scrubbing in the next week. That said, the little bit I did Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon is still with me on Tuesday. I’m pacing myself, but it’s hard work. I’ve got the chemicals in and the scrubbing will be just as effective if it’s done a section at a time or all in one day. It won’t harm to pool to spread out the work. It will hurt me if I try to do it all in one day. Today I’m going to go vacuum the gunge I scrubbed off over the weekend. Tomorrow I’ll scrub new sections. This recovery time is critical to my general well being.

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