Training green sewing operators

This entry includes a vest sewing tutorial following the preamble. Also see my trainee’s comments on the experience.

Well, I’ve done another first -for me- in training a totally green sewing operator. I never thought I could be persuaded to do it but I did this weekend. As you can imagine, a lot of people have asked me to teach them to sew but I turn nearly all of them down. I’m not the most patient with beginners because I want to get to the good stuff, rather than get stuck explaining what a bodice is. Surprisingly, more advanced sewers can be difficult to teach because I have to unteach a lot of what they know as we go along before I can get them to move forward so they take more time than their experience should warrant. I am a very compromising person and prefer to work through persuasion but when it comes to stitching, I’ve already learned you can’t talk your way through it. You can’t provide a lot of theory; the operator has to do it. Once they do it, then they understand why it has to be done that way.

Anyway, I agreed to take on this student with an eye towards experimenting with training because I hope to hire stitchers in the future and I’d be reluctant to hire only experienced people. It doesn’t seem fair to pass on someone who may be perfectly suited for the work but has no experience. Also, I’ve read enough about training sewing operators to know it’s possible to train the total newbie but I wasn’t sure how it’d go. Cutting to the chase, I am beyond words, I am thrilled! My student constructed and bagged a zip front fully lined vest with welt pockets -nearly flawlessly (the welt pockets were flawless). Keep in mind, his total sewing experience until now had been hand lacing a wallet in elementary school. He’d never used a home sewing machine, much less an industrial. Heck, he even figured out the utility of some electronic buttons I’d been ignoring until now and we used those to great effect. Cutting to the chase, here’s a photo of the finished result.

Normally he’s much more smiley but the one with him smiling didn’t show the vest as well. There is also a better closeup of this vest under item #15 below

You may have guessed by now that my student was my husband Eric. He’d been making noises about learning to sew which I ignored, thinking if he got really insistent, I send him to the local Pfaff dealership for beginning lessons but I didn’t take it seriously for a minute. I thought he was just trying to be supportive, he’s always such a trooper. Still he persisted and in a weak moment, I agreed (he can be charming). The first step was to select a project. I think the traditional first project is a pillow or an apron but those really annoy me. Those aren’t things that most people will really use, or gain a sense of accomplishment, and a feeling of mastery is essential to encourage further progress. So, I decided we’d make a vest. I realize this seems a bit ambitious for a first project but the only thing tricky about it really, is managing all of the different pieces and instruction as to the process of operations. These are two separate skills, operating vs project management. In a factory environment, an operator never has to worry about putting the whole thing together (most don’t even sew outside of work) so if I were there to expedite, there was no reason he couldn’t do it. It was all basic skills. In some respects it was easy because he had no expectations. He didn’t know how “hard” it is do a welt pocket so he had no anxiety about it. The only critical operation in a welt pocket is sewing two lines of exactly the same length, a half inch apart and he’d already practiced that and done it well enough.

The first thing I had him do was to sew parallel lines, starting and stopping at given points (I also taught him how to mark the lines correctly). He bored with that soon enough so I moved him onto sewing curved lines which were a bit trickier.

Then we started his project by cutting a crude “muslin” vest out of some red wool I had lying around (the red wool is not the same red fabric of the vest collar and facing, that was canvas). I had him sew that up, two shoulder seams and two side seams.

I did a fast fit from that and recut the pattern to suit. As I was finishing up the main pieces, I had him practice rudimentary pattern skills like how to cut. Below he’s shown using the proper form.

I also taught him how to make the fusible pieces (pgs 179-180 in my book) and had him practice cutting those out. I even made him draft his own back lining pattern (pg 154-157), demonstrating how to do it with the front lining. His back lining was done perfectly. In the process, he got an orientation to production pattern standards and practices (176-180) much of which he’d remembered from reading the book. He’ll definitely need more practice cutting out paper. I find that most (if not all) people dramatically underestimate the difficulty of cutting patterns correctly as well as the skill and proficiency required, It takes a lot of practice. By comparison, sewing lines is easier. Really.

Sewing seemed fairly easy for him except for sewing linings (the goods weren’t the best). Even more challenging was joining disparate goods/weights together (shell to lining). Below he’s concentrating on joining the front facing and front lining. Perhaps compounding his effort, the lining had a half inch of ease. He did it perfectly though!

Below he is sewing the lining on the overlock since he needed to learn how to operate that one too. You’ll notice in subsequent photos that mine is a five thread with a safety stitch. This seam takes 1/2″ seam allowance rather than the 3/8″ that I’m used to and I keep forgetting to change my seam allowance for it, so he had to sew those seams aligning to the edge of the knife to avoid trimming anything off.

I’m still sorting all I learned from the training but I did figure out some exercises I could develop to deal with some difficulties he did have. Those problems seemed to be related to:

  1. Joining straight pieces to curved edges (collar to neckline)
  2. Sewing disparate types and weights of goods together (lining and shell)
  3. Joining a second piece to butterflied seams
  4. Combination of the above, namely joining a straight length of shell (collar) to a curved neckline of lining, while managing the butterflied shoulder seams.
  5. Taking the full seam allowance, his were a little smaller than specified. Maybe the guide was off (we taped a guide to the sewing machine plate)

Regarding sewing (after everything has been fused and marked), here are some photos illustrating the process:

1. Fiddle with the front (whatever needs to be done, in this case make welt pockets).

2. Finish pocket bags. You will note the pocket bag extends beyond the boundaries of the CF and hem. This is deliberate! I learned the hard way that these should not match up in size.

Before you proceed further, pull the pocket bag out and keep it there through out the following stages. Pin it if you have to. Three guesses as to why and the first two don’t count. It is beyond annoying when you have to unstitch things like this, slowing you down over something that doesn’t even matter.

3. Join shell front to back at shoulder.

4. Sew on top collar (the zipper runs through the collar edge, see first photo)

5. Repeat all the above for the lining side, including contrasting under collar.

6. Sew on the zipper, matching the edge of the tape exactly to the CF edge.

The zipper tape I sewed came out evenly, Eric’s didn’t so he had to restitch it. We think it boils down to handling differences. One key thing we noticed regarding handling in general. He was trying to hold the layers together, some 5-6 inches from the needle. I use my fingers to keep these layers separate until the last inch just before it goes under the needle. Fabric layers grab and hold each other, one layer can stretch. This is why we don’t use pins. Pins can actually cause puckering and uneven feeding rather than what is intended. In cutting, pins cause even more problems. All of that in and out (the humps creating an inner dimension and an outer dimension) of cutting an identical piece out of two of more layers guarantees that one piece will be longer than the other. It’s better to cut them by tracing the pattern piece onto the fabric.

7. Bagging. Sew the front facing to the CF, sandwiching the zipper, matching edges exactly (ibid).

8. Fold the CF at the notch (over the zipper), and stitch the collar edge.

9. Repeat the above at the bottom hem but stop stitching a couple inches shy of the side seam.

10. Join armholes of the shell and lining, stopping a couple inches shy of the side seam.

11. Turn it right side out.

12. Sew shell side seams.

13. Reach in and sew one side seam of the lining. On the remaining lining side, sew a couple of inches down from the top (at armhole) and stop. Come up from the hem and sew a bit, leaving a large portion in the middle of the seam open.

14. Finish sewing the armholes (you’ll have to reach in from that open lining side).

15. Poke out any corners and you’re done. All that’s left is to close that open side seam in the lining. Below is a closer view of the finished product. A still larger version (344kb) is here. It doesn’t look any differently than anything I would have sewn.

Returning to the topic of training, stray notes:
I don’t know what Eric will report (his post on the session) but I know he will say that cheap lining is not worth it. The problem of handling inexpensive lining came up over and over again. We used a scrap of acetate I had lying around. I do not like acetate usually. Although man-made, acetate is a natural fiber constructed of cotton remainders (lintner) and it can shrink like crazy. These particular goods were too lightweight, with a less than stable grain. I prefer heavier stuff usually bridal satin for linings or even brocades if they’re slippery enough and not prone to snagging (some weaves are unsuitable depending on the floats).

In summary, I could not be more pleased with Eric’s finished project. Although he’s never sewn anything before, I think it’s safe to say he’s sewn a project much more advanced and with much more success than people who’ve been sewing a lot longer. I think his being an engineer is an advantage. He has innate understanding of the necessity of precision in the work process. It also helped that he had no preconceived ideas or prejudices. He just did what I told him, as I told him and didn’t worry about the whys of it, having faith that the process would lead him to an understanding of the utility of what he was learning. And it did. My experience says that the way to reinforce this learning would be to do it all over again, a couple of times, as soon as possible. I always insist that my students return home and sew another jacket just like the one they made here, as soon as they possibly can. Immediately if not sooner.

He did mention he was surprised at the number of processes and pieces as well as the costs of them in a production environment. I explained the issue of value with regard to number of processes. While it is doubtful we could make money sewing basic canvas vests like this one, we could if we used better materials (leather) and added some design details. It’s basically the same amount of work but you get more for it. Also regarding value, there is very little difference between sewing a fully lined vest and a jacket or a coat but the value of a jacket is a lot higher than that of a vest. Anyway, I look forward to putting him to other jobs. Probably a coat next time.
Amended: Eric’s comments are here.

Training sewing machine operators pt 1
Training sewing machine operators pt 2
Training sewing machine operators pt 3
Training the green sewing operator
Comments from the sewing trainee
Training new sewing operator pt.3

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