How I learned to sew

Christmas 1985 with my mom and brother

My brother, Mom, and me (1985)

I have been sewing and crafting for as long as I can remember.  I very distinctly remember being consumed by all sorts of sewing and crafting projects as a kid, from making potholders out of nylon loops to devouring latch hook kits to decorating t-shirts with neon-colored puff paint.  Some of my fondest childhood memories are of sitting in my room by myself, working on craft projects.  Clearly I was an introvert – and crafting fanatic – from birth.  🙂

Me with my brother circa 1986

My brother and me (circa 1986)

I know I learned basic hand sewing very early on (maybe by 5 years old?), but I can’t remember if my mother or grandmother taught me.  What I do remember is that sewing skipped a generation in my family: my grandmother was a professional seamstress, and my mother hated sewing and all things domestic.  The consequence of this was that whenever a button would fall off my mom’s clothes (and she had many, many closets full of clothes), I had to sew it back on for her.  I remember learning to thread a needle and tie a knot, and the rest was history.  I must have sewed on many dozens of buttons over the years!

Just as button replacement became one of my chores around the house, so did the “sewing bee.”  Before you get excited, let me assure you this was not a fun occurrence.  The sewing bee consisted of me sitting on the living room floor and mending a huge braided rug, something like this:

Braided rug

Just looking at this rug brings back memories!

The braids would inevitably come apart since the living room was such a high traffic area, and since my family didn’t have a lot of money, buying a new rug was not an option!  So, I did my job, and I sat and mended.  One day my mom suggested that I invite a friend over to the sewing bee to get more mending done.  Can you imagine the look on my face?  And yet, I had one friend in particular that would actually come over for the sewing bee.  My mom must have been thrilled that she was putting us both to work – for free, no less!

Nancy Zieman

Sewing goddess Nancy Zieman

Somewhere around my 13th birthday, I discovered sewing and quilting shows on public television.  I was in awe.  I would come home from school everyday and immediately turn on Sewing with Nancy or Quilt in a Day with Eleanor Burns.  These women taught me how to sew.  Not long afterward I requested a sewing machine and got one… although I think I may have actually paid for it myself with babysitting money.  It was an inexpensive machine but got the job done, and thus my obsession with quilting began.

Teenage Carolyn in 1996

Me with my (much cooler) brother (1996)

Unlike most teenagers who like to go out with friends and get into trouble, I liked to stay home by myself and quilt.  I was extremely unpopular and didn’t care because I was enjoying myself!  I continued watching quilting shows on TV and got to the point where I was furiously taking notes during each episode, copying down patterns, noting seam allowance widths, number of pieces to cut, fabric color suggestions, tips and techniques, the works.  I was *not* to be interrupted during my sewing shows.  This was before the internet had caught on, so if I didn’t get the information during the show, it was gone!  Quilting became serious business for me.

I did a LOT of babysitting as a teenager, and since I never went out with friends and spent money on movies and junk food, I actually had a decent amount of disposable income to spend on fabric and sewing/quilting books.  My dad would dutifully drive me to the local discount fabric store (“Fabric Bonanza”), and I would take home huge hauls of goodies and sew them up into pillows and wall hangings.  I was in heaven.

College graduation

College graduation (2002)

Unfortunately going away to college put the kibosh on my sewing and crafting activities since I barely had time to eat and sleep, let alone spend time on my hobbies.  I started to get back into the swing of things at the end of my senior year when my workload finally started to let up.  I saw someone crocheting a scarf on a bus and was absolutely mesmerized, as I had never seen such a thing in my life.  I immediately picked up some yarn and a crochet hook and taught myself to crochet in my dorm room.  Hilariously, I distinctly remember turning down friends at my door who invited me to go out to parties in favor of staying in and crocheting.  Ha!

Little did I know it, but this kicked off a love affair with knitting that lasted about 10 years.  During my master’s degree, my two primary craft projects were working on my first full-sized quilt and teaching myself to knit.  Since I’m left-handed, I downloaded instructional images online and flipped them on my computer so that the left needle was doing the knitting.  It took me a long time to figure out how to make the basic stitches with no one to recognize and correct my (frequent) mistakes, but I got there in the end.

Carolyn with handknit scarf

Showing off a handknit scarf (circa 2011)

I worked for six years at my first job after graduating, and I think it’s safe to say that I was absolutely obsessed with knitting the entire time.  This was in the mid 2000s when knitting really exploded and there were articles in the news about celebrities like Julia Roberts knitting on movie sets.  Yarn stores were opening all over the place, and my hard-earned paychecks were being funneled into beautiful and heart-breakingly expensive yarns.  (Why is yarn so expensive, anyway??)

It wasn’t until 2012 that I started thinking about sewing again.  I had moved to Boston and started my PhD by then, and I had recently discovered Gather Here, my now-favorite local fabric and yarn shop.  Getting a new sewing machine had been in the back of my mind for many years, and having a shop full of beautiful fabrics just a short walk from home was the push I needed to go for it.  As a present to myself for passing my qualifying exam, I bought my Bernina.

Sewing machine

My new Bernina! (2012)

At first I jumped back into quilting, working on my Tulip Quilt that had been sitting abandoned for 8 years.  Then one day at work I was talking to a colleague who had also recently discovered Gather Here and asked if I would be interested in taking a sewing class with her.  A garment sewing class.

In all the years that I had been sewing, it never once occurred to me that I could sew my own clothes.  I was absolutely fascinated with this idea, signed up for the class, and became completely obsessed with my new hobby.  And to top it all off, now I had so many more projects for my new sewing machine!  I took a week off after my exam, holed myself up in my apartment, and sewed for a week straight.  The first sewing-related posts on this blog were created during that time.  Ah, memories.  🙂

04 Red polka dot dress - finished 2

My first garment, a Butterick pattern in quilting cotton

As they say, the rest is history!  Now garment sewing is my primary hobby/obsession, documented here on this little slice of the web.  And to think it all started with obligatory button sewing and rug mending!

How did you learn to sew?  Leave a comment for us all to read, or better yet, write a post on your blog and leave me a link.  I’d love to read your stories.  🙂

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31 thoughts on “How I learned to sew

  1. I learned to sew sitting next to my mother at her treadle sewing machine when I was about 7. At first she’d let me work the treadle while she guided the fabric. She’d yell “stop” when she got to the end of the seam, and sometimes I wouldn’t stop in time, and she’d sew too far. I’m sure it was frustrating for her. I only really remember my mother using the sewing machine for mending and crafts, so when I decided to sew a dress, I just learned by following the directions in the pattern. I was devastated when my grandmother told me the top of my sleeve caps weren’t supposed to have wrinkles in them. I had thought easing was the same as gathering, just with less fabric. It must be so nice to learn to sew now, when a quick internet search will answer just about any sewing question you have.

    • Thanks for sharing, Leila! That’s hilarious about you operating the treadle while your mother sewed – she must have been very patient. 🙂 I also learned to sew garments just by following the directions and making mistakes, and the internet is definitely a great resource for identifying mistakes and learning how to fix them.

  2. I learned to sew 4 years ago. I needed a new project as I’d just finished doing a masters part-time while working full time and had too much time on my hands and was bored. I’d watched my mother-in-law sewing her own clothes and thought it looked fun. Then bit by bit I got more and more obsessed to the point that we’re now saving up to convert the loft to give me my own sewing space.

    I’m always jealous of people who learned to sew or knit when young as they’ve had so many more years of joy than me. All those years we had a sewing machine in the house but it never occurred to me that I could make clothes on it!

    • How wonderful that you’ll soon be getting a dedicated sewing space! In some ways that sentiment of losing years of joy makes me sad, but how great to have discovered this new passion now instead of much further down the road. 🙂

  3. Loved your story! And I like that red polka dot dress, too.

    Me, I used to sew with my mom and learned to use a sewing machine (a Sears Kenmore) as a kid. Then I did nothing for decades and finally took it up again about 8 years ago – when I finally accepted the fact that nothing in the RTW stores fits me. Now, I would say approx 75% of my wardrobe is handmade. I’m a bit of a lazy sewer and just like to make simple things, but I do wear them daily.
    🙂 Chris

    • Nothing wrong with that! I think you should sew clothes that you’ll wear, whatever those may be for each individual person. I sew a lot of basics too, and like you, I wear them everyday. I love that your mother taught you to sew at such a young age. What wonderful memories!

  4. I did “Home Economics” at school & learnt to sew despite it. I made a gathered skirt, a smocked toddlers dress and then did pattern drafting on a mini bodice block. I improved by sewing ever more complex patterns.

    Still doing that some 35 years later, but have upgraded or replaced my equipment since. The real turning point came when I stopped buying cheap fabric “to try” and just cut straight into the good stuff. I rarely bother with a muslin still. I tissue fit then refine as I go.

    I’m hoping my daughters decide sewing is a good idea, but, that the moment it’s them choosing, me buying & sewing.

    • Haha!! I love that you learned to sew “despite” your formal lessons at school. In high school while I was taking calculus and physics, I secretly wished I could take Home Ec and sew all day. 🙂 I’m amazed that you can get away without making muslins – something that surely comes with years of experience. I hope to get there one day!

  5. Thanks for sharing your story, it was lovely to read. It’s amazing how all the little things in life point us in different directions and makes us who we are 😳

  6. Loved your story! I learned in junior high school home economics…then sewed most of my clothes, even formals, on my mom’s 1970’s version Bernina. This continued through college (a boyfriend gave me a new – but far inferior – sewing machine) but by the time I married and had a family, it was long gone, as was my sewing habit. Just beginning again (on a new Bernina!) and finding it difficult to start each time. I must be afraid of ruining either fabric or machine? So many stories out there, wouldn’t it be an interesting study project? hmmmmm, that is just right up my alley.

    • Haha! That would make a great dissertation. 🙂 I knew you were new to sewing but didn’t realize you used to sew a while back. I bet those skills are still hanging around in the back of your mind, waiting to be coaxed back out! I would say just take your time and dive in. We all make mistakes along the way and wind up with a few garments that don’t work out – it’s all part of the journey.

  7. Thanks for sharing! My mom sewed a lot when I was young, so even though she didn’t sit down and teach me (ZERO interest at the time… haha!) I watched her and somehow picked up a lot of knowledge. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I became slightly more interested and tried a couple projects on my own. Hilariously enough, I made two pairs of pants as my first project because I was tall, and hardly any stores carried dress pants in long lengths! I know I eventually sent both pairs off to goodwill, but I really wish I could go back and see what they looked like! Anyways, I didn’t start sewing in earnest until after having kids, being a SAHM, and needing a hobby. I would make some kids clothes, then at some point I realized I could make my own clothes, and here we are today!

    • Thanks for sharing your story too! I love that you dove right in with pants. It’s so true that some things aren’t difficult until someone tells you they’re supposed to be. Ignorance is bliss, I guess! 🙂

  8. I’m a lefty, too! I learned to sew from my mom when I was young. I just started typing world’s longest comment and decided that maybe I will do a blog post similar to yours instead. I need to see if I can find pictures of some of my old projects– it will be a fun walk down memory lane!

    • I’ll be looking forward to your post, if you decide to write one. How great that you learned to sew from your mother… and that you’re a fellow lefty! Now we can complain about how the world is designed for right-handed people, LOL. 🙂

  9. My mom is a lefty and so it her mom, I think they are mildly disappointed that I’m not.
    I barely did knitting or sewing growing up. But if I wanted my mother to sew something, it was my job to trace and cut! It was a good deal for all 🙂
    When I met my husband, his hobbies (drumming, fish, cars) made me realize that there was something missing. I knit in grad school (excellent stress-reduction). I decided to start sewing because of him! My mom was all too happy to help, sending me an old machine, books, notions, fabric, etc. The first time my dad visited, he met Ryan, and took me shopping for important things, like larger cutting mats!
    In less than 3 years, I’ve gone from knowing the concepts to having a mostly me-made wardrobe. I’m still scamming fabric, notions and patterns from my mom (thank you mom!).
    I love that you started so young and with quilting. Your tulip quilt is gorgeous!
    Blogs like yours have really helped me as I sew, from inspiration to tutorials 🙂

    • Aww, thanks Chris! And thanks for sharing your sewing story. I absolutely love that your mom put you to work by tracing and cutting. I can only imagine how much knowledge you must have absorbed from those times, whether you realized it at the time or not. 🙂

      • There is still so much to learn, but pattern tracing and cutting are soothing to me. I had no clue that some people actually cut patterns out instead of tracing them until a few years ago. I make the same deal with my friends now, I’ll teach them how to sew, but they start with tracing the pattern they want and cutting their fabric out 🙂

  10. I learned to sew almost 3 years ago, my mother always used to sew but not clothes, it was after my niece was born that she started to sew for her and once she asked me to find info in the web about how she could make a circle skirt for my niece, I was amazed discovering the world of garment sewing with all the patterns and blogs out there, the bug got me and as you say the rest is history. in the contrary I know how to knit since I can remember myself as my mother is an avid knitter but I did it only randomly and was never as excited about it as I am about sewing, I actually like the idea of knitting but I don’t have the patient to knit smth bigger than a scarf.

    • I totally agree – the online sewing community is huge, and I was so surprised (and delighted) to discover it! I’m almost sad that I didn’t discover it sooner. I wonder what I missed out on! I agree about knitting too – these days I just don’t have the patience for it, but it’s definitely a great way to relax and unwind at the end of a long day.

  11. Thank you for sharing your story! In my case sewing also jumped a generation, as my grandmother was also a professional seamstress but my mum can’t sew a button to save her life.

    • Haha, how funny! I’m sure my mom *could* sew on a button if she wanted to, but she absolutely refuses, LOL. Did your grandmother teach you to sew? Looking back, I can’t believe I never asked my grandmother to teach me, and now she’s too old. I do have her old sewing sample books though, which are treasures. 🙂

  12. Love this story!!!! Also, you look just like your mom, and you’re both so pretty! So funny what skips generations. I’m definitely getting a giggle out of child you sitting on the floor fixing a rug…hilarious. Parents manage to get all sort of random tasks out of their children–I refused to cook, so my job was prep work: chopping, washing, etc.

    As for sewing, in my pre-teen years my mother tried to teach me to sew by having me make a hideously baggy dress; I also designed a dress for my first school dance that was horribly re-interpreted, again resulting in a hideous, humongous, shapeless dress. Despite these scarring events, AND after I gained 100 pounds in my late teens early 20s, I still had a desire for pretty clothes. I tried off and on from 2005 until 2009 or 2010 to make clothes, always unsuccessfully. Then I took a workshop at Stitch House, bought a decent machine, and stumbled along to my first garment success: M6078. Whew! I guess I was a crafty kid, but honestly I was more of a clothing designer–I obsessively read and examined the JC Penney twice-annual catalog, and wrote stories full of elaborate descriptions of…outfits. I also designed that mangled dress at age 13, and another dress at 17, and bought a sketchbook for designing clothes when I quit school back in 2002.

    • I love this story too! How funny that you would write stories about outfits!! You are definitely a born clothing designer, and I’m so glad you’re pursuing it as a career. 🙂

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