Deconstructing a sewing class

I mentioned on Saturday that I was taking a class for home sewers for research purposes. My idea being, one can forget what people don’t know. Gaining insight to what people don’t know can only help me explain better to anyone regardless of skill.

Continuing with where I left off (see the comments to the previous entry), our instructor (Leslie) started with a list of what she called the seven deadly sins of a home-made garment. I’m not going to list those specifically because that’s how she derives income but suffice to say I agree for the most part. Leslie’s list of sins spanned three categories.

  1. Design
  2. Pattern
  3. Execution
    Note: she didn’t sort them like this, this is how I analyzed the various types of sewing sins she identified.

The list in this context -spanning design through execution- was a bit unexpected in the context of my role as a product development person. On our end, the three areas are mostly separate with accountability for each clearly defined -not one person in charge of it. Leslie’s format differed because home stitchers are whole garment makers from project inception and planning, through execution (and of course, they’re also fitting to the individual rather than a fit profile) so it stands to reason the sins wouldn’t be separated by function or the separate individuals who do those jobs.

Here’s one example I would categorize as design: what Leslie described as badly designed bust darts (falling within a prescribed circumference range). In many cases, this can be a design element; there are reasons a designer may want X effect and it is mostly not appropriate for a pattern maker to question design elements with a designer (can get you in hot water) unless it’s a new designer (DE) who actively solicits one’s help.

Another example she used that I would call a design decision was selection of linings. In an established firm, linings that perform consistently and in keeping with one’s price points are generally known and a company buys the same stuff or even carries an established inventory of set colorways in stock. Obviously this is not so typical in new or smaller firms which would be akin to single project sewing done by home sewers.

What I’m trying to say in a round about way is that for me, a sewing class is all about execution. I now think I understand why some people will ask me design type questions. Previously, it struck me as bizarre. And if they pressed the matter, it made me wonder if this was their way to get me to do their jobs for them. That the job is foisted off on me isn’t a problem because I think it’s not my job or they should do their own work. It’s a problem because I become responsible and accountable for recommendations without the commensurate decision making “power” to make it happen a given way. You know, all the of the responsibility for failure but no power to make it happen. But I digress.

An example of pattern problems in the list of Leslie’s seven deadly sins would be appropriate seam type and finish for whichever operation. For us though and as you know, in some larger firms, the sewing process is predetermined by specs and the pattern maker’s task is to generate the pattern based on the seam types etc. -Which also as you know, can be frustrating to bounce it back to the TD (technical designer) to request a better advised change but that’s another story. Point is, all of these things are determined in the product development phase, well before we cut a prototype. For home sewers, they’re necessarily and mostly doing it on the fly.

The other thing that was -from my perspective- unusual or rather, different from us was that Leslie’s solutions were designed to compensate for failures in those 4 areas with workarounds specifically designed to overcome limitations of:
1. bad pattern
2. bad equipment
3. bad processes (not refined)
4. bad planning

Here are examples of each kind of work around:
Bad pattern workaround: the suggestion to cut back or trim seam allowances after the seam had been completed. In industry -and at a good company- this can get a stitcher fired. The only thing a stitcher is allowed to cut is clipping on curves or the corner at a 90 degree turn. If an otherwise experienced stitcher needs to do more than that, the problem preceded them and the pattern needs to be fixed. For what it’s worth, it is very typical (more common than not) for new designers to blame stitchers for problems generated by a bad pattern. Point is, the seam allowance problem should be fixed before cutting but not during sewing.

Bad equipment workaround #1: Advice to be mindful to put X piece on top when feeding through the machine because “it won’t come out right”; the workaround solves the problem of uneven feeding on home machines. Which is not to say ours don’t mis-feed but we solve it by adjusting the machine rather than during sewing. We don’t expect the operator to modify their handling to solve a machine problem.

Bad equipment workaround #2: this is an example of something so typical that most kindred don’t see it anymore (okay, I don’t). Specifically, needing a pressing cloth to apply interfacings. Completely blind to the need of a press cloth, I ended up with interfacing stuck to the bottom of the iron. Such a mess. A teflon shoe will solve this problem for ever and ever. Why not just be done with it and get one? Then again, some home irons are so high profile and oddly shaped (sexed up to sell them?) that there probably isn’t a shoe to fit them. While it’s not an ideal solution for every workroom, a gravity feed iron is much better than a fabric store Rowenta or Black and Decker iron.

Bad process workaround #1: One of Leslie’s examples of a sin that I would call a process workaround was the example of poorly placed buttonholes. In industry, we make a button guide -as part of the pattern process- and are so marked but home sewers are doing it on the fly, in part necessitated by their varying fit requirements -although in my opinion, button placement along the center front shouldn’t vary so widely. If it does, you have a fitting problem because they should never gape regardless of where you put them. Leslie said my shirt with vertical buttonholes was a bad example and to never do it that way.

Bad process workaround #2: (this post has been edited) I neglected to include the most obvious one that I discussed in depth in the previous entry, that of the bound buttonhole process Leslie taught us. The cut to the chase summary is process makes perfect; her method was the traditional “couture” method taught in home sewing and my first one came out marginal. I did my second buttonhole like I make welt pockets and Leslie complimented me on it not knowing I didn’t use her process. You can find photos of all I’m talking about at the above link.

Bad planning workaround examples were many and fell in the areas of design, pattern and execution. For example was the instruction on how to press collars so the seam would fall to the underside. The way Leslie showed how to do it was what a presser would do in a lower value product. A contemporary or better quality product would have the turn of cloth feature built into the pattern and executed by stitchers before it got anywhere near the pressers. My point is this: a work around is defined by workers having to bail out a failure in a process upstream from them. Since the collar example is so easily defined, I have written an entry (also pt.2) about this to explain more fully.

Two conclusions:
The first is the difficulty of training “experts”. I know this is true and I’ve said it so often but I was struck anew at how difficult it would be to train an expert home sewer. It was disorienting to see how quickly given decisions were made with little analysis and few alternatives considered. It is very likely a home sewer wouldn’t consult the instructions for things they would consider routine (unless they were given an emphatic heads up to read directions because they are generally very good about that sort of thing) but that I would do very differently. Like I said earlier, I will write a separate entry on the collar because I think it is a good example of rote processing. I had the impression that if I wanted to retrain an expert, I would have to direct each step of the process -micro managing along the way. Perhaps contrary to your impression, this is the polar opposite of my management style and find it repugnant. My conclusion is it would be time consuming and likely wearying for both parties. If I had to write pattern instruction for enthusiasts, I would have to back up a lot of steps I would not have thought necessary. In industry this level of detail isn’t necessary for two reasons. In part, one is a shared knowledge base and two, the stitchers often have a sew-by (finished sample) to work from. Home sewers don’t have a sample for comparison and only have a pattern -meaning their work is closer to that of a sample maker only they don’t have the advantages of better equipment and confidence in their own and the sewing line’s skill repertoire.

My second conclusion is more of an impression that I found humorous. The idea I got was the instructor’s assumption that because I work in industry, I wouldn’t necessarily know the right way to do things, find them necessary to do, care about doing them properly or would probably not do them based on needing to be “cost effective”. Unless of course I worked in a “couture” environment. That sentence is too general; obviously the instructor would not say to me that I do not care about doing a job well but she probably believes that “industry” in general or individuals within the industry do not care.

I was not the least bit offended by the frequent and offhand derogatory remarks about the RTW industry, I’ve learned long ago that most people don’t examine the logical conclusions of what they believe -particularly in an area they “know well”- and if confronted with contradictory evidence, will make frequent exception for nonconforming examples (“couture”).

I definitely got my money’s worth from the class with respect to research but I’m overwhelmed by the conclusions of it. I find myself on the fence as to whether it is easier to teach someone who knows they know nothing or someone who knows a lot. The solution for both is the same, step by step guidance with no presumed shared knowledge. I suppose the truth of it is my disappointment in that I can’t reduce my workload by taking advantage of things an expert knows but the truth of it is that they would need to be taught nearly identically as someone who is green.

My thinking has evolved in some ways. If I were ever to do a class like this for home sewers, we would use the same pattern in the same size and in the same fabric with no variations at all. As horridly rigid as this is, the point is to create a learning exercise in making prototypes to remove direct gain of being able to wear the work -in the same way that most of us cannot wear the things we make but still must do them well. Anyway, as with uniforms, with identical fabric and pattern, any anomalies will stand out immediately with no variations of fabric or pattern changes to muck up the process of analyzing results. In this way, probably more than a few class participants could troubleshoot inconsistent results attained by another party which is the point of it all. A distinct advantage of doing this is two fold. One, I could teach the greenest of stitchers alongside the adept. Secondly, our first project could be very advanced. Perhaps attaining a successful outcome with a very advanced project would mitigate the distastefulness of not being able to customize the item to one’s self. Successful outcome attained with the first project, there would be much less difficulty in customizing subsequent projects.


  1. crescentaluna says:

    In defense of home sewers ^_^ — sure, it’s an Internet meme, “RTW is crap,” but in real life, what I hear home sewers say all the time is “RTW doesn’t fit me well.” Because we are short, or uneven, or unusually proportioned. Many, many of us want to learn from industry people – that’s why we lurk on FI. We want to benefit from hearing what the pros do, but we also love our hobby and we will never BE pros. I just want to put that out there, because at times I feel … well, contemptuous vibes coming my way as a home sewer, and I don’t feel that is deserved.Report

  2. Kathleen G says:

    I tried to take a certification course offered in my area by a private school. I enrolled in Level 1 sewing and Level 1 Pattern Making. The instructor, upon finding that I had experience sewing communicated some dismay. She could not produce a syllabus for me. She decided I must choose a jacket pattern and then proceeded to really teach nothing. I just went ahead in what I normally would do and she spent most of her time in her office. That first class (in which I was given no list of what to bring), I found I was the only student. I also suggested that although I had sewn for some years, I would welcome a skills drill sewing samples of seams etc. which she rejected. She billed herself as having a program similar to FIT. I pointed out that her class length was much shorter than a college semester and the use of “industry standards” and “couturier method” were confusing. The pattern-making course was a little better except I was given already drafted size 8 blocks to trace from instead of starting with a pencil and a ruler with the pattern paper/board. I chose not to continue for obvious reasons.Report

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