How to sew faster pt.1

I’ve been pondering the question of how to sew faster for a few weeks now. I approached the task with gusto and started to develop a long list of things to do. As I developed my list -which included many things I’ve mentioned before- I began to hesitate. If the vast body of my previous advice was met with resistance, how would a new entry improve things? It was then I realized that the issue isn’t “how to sew faster”. The question should be re-framed according to what people really mean -let’s be honest. Here are some possible subtexts to the question of “how to sew faster” along with the short list of answers with 1, 2 and 5 bearing further discussion:

  1. How can I bypass or reduce the tasks I dislike to get to the stuff I do like?
  • Several things: hire it out, re-prioritize, analyze your ROI on unpleasant tasks to determine their value.
  1. How can I do less work but get the same result as if I had done the long way?
  • There are options here that will require reorganization and dedication -no short cut there!
  1. How can I do things the way I’ve always done things but get a better result?
  • If you can’t make your way work for you, I can’t either.
  1. How can I get better results without having to learn something new?
  • It can be psychically exhausting having to learn continuously. Take a break or don’t be so demanding of yourself. Until then, hire it out.
  1. Just give me the short cuts dammit. We all know industry has them.
  • It’s a fallacy that industry uses short cuts. If anything, they do things the long way. Surprised?

I think what everybody really wants is number 5 so let’s deal with that one today. For the purposes of our discussion, we won’t discuss tacky RTW sewing shortcuts because those are not worth emulating. Besides, tacky methods are transparent; a casual examination reveals how it was done. If it’s not obvious, it’s usually not tacky either. True or true?

The fallacy of industry sewing shortcuts
Urban or common myth holds that industry uses short cuts to great advantage but it’s not really true. If anything, it’s usually enthusiasts who take short cuts. Using a rotary cutter is a good example. If you’re sewing from home, laying the pattern down and using a rotary cutter means you’ve done a mental cost benefit analysis and determined that the benefits of a fast job on a one time use pattern is the best expenditure of your time. I won’t argue with you either. However, no one who intends to remain in business will do this -or should do this. No, they will have to take the long way of creating the pattern, cutting it on oaktag, tracing it out with wax pencil -after which they may cut it out with a rotary cutter or not. Higher quality companies do not. They take the long way and use scissors which are more precise. And yes, a quality manufacturer will even go to the trouble of doing this for a prototype, “wasting” the time and materials to cut the tag board pattern at the outset, before the appeal of the style is demonstrated in a first mock up.

Another example is also in marking which started in the pattern process. We make guides, separate pattern pieces to mark the placement of design details like pockets. If these can’t be marked with drill holes, it’s done manually, piece by piece, a very labor intensive process. Speaking of making guides, another long cut used in industry is to make separate pattern piece for each fusible. At home, most people will cut an exact duplicate of a facing (or whatever) in fusible and call it good. Making separate fusible pieces is more time and money up and down the process stream. Adding more pieces to a pattern means increasing the cost of grading and marking. Another way industry takes the long road is allowing the fabric to rest. It’s spread in advance and allowed to rest for 24 hours. One last recent example that cropped up recently was the use of tissue paper. Manufacturers will go to the extra work of laying plies of tissue paper between fabric layers to control shading and make it easier to cut. If manufacturers are notorious cheap skates, why would they go to the bother of spending money on labor and materials?

I think what people want is the easy part of both worlds. They want to skip doing the up front labor intensive work which is what creates direct uniform quality and consistency and they want fast sewing. The point I’ve tried to make continually is that you can’t get consistency in sewing if you’ve taken short cuts before then. If you haven’t walked your pattern (purchased or made) or cut it out precisely or any of the things I listed above, your sewing is going to be more laborious and time consuming.

What it really boils down to is a cost benefit analysis and return on investment (ROI). If you’re only making one item and your investment in it is minimal (a casual summer top), then feel free to take short cuts. I certainly would and do. However, if the piece is an investment item and you intend to make use of it for years, I think you know the answer. You’ll have to go through the bother of cutting a muslin, fitting it, correcting the pattern etc. It’s no fun. The point is, assuming manufacturers are professionals and you aren’t, you can’t expect to take home sewing short cuts in the process prior to sewing and expect a good result. The only way it’s “fair” is if you do all the work we do, the results speak for themselves. Each extra added step to the process is not a panacea or magic wand that is the one thing making the dramatic difference. Rather, it is the aggregate of sound consistent practices that add panache to the final product.

Now that I’ve answered the last question, I open the floor for consideration of the remaining items. Essentially, these boil down to processes and people which leads me back to the TWI post pt.2. If I haven’t bored you silly yet, I’ll write about those next.

How to sew faster pt.1
How to sew faster pt.2
How to sew faster pt.2b
How to sew faster pt.3
How to sew faster pt.4

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  1. Babette says:

    Thank you Kathleen.

    I was the voice of doom at the college where I worked. Often heard to say “you can’t cut out pattern problems and you can’t sew in better cutting”

  2. Wacky Hermit says:

    One thing that’s helped me in my crocheting (and the result can be generalized to any craft or discipline) is to sit and think about what happens when I switch from one task to another. For example when making a pair of cowboy booties. I can sit and make one pair at a time start-to-finish or I can make a bunch of pairs one step at a time, assembly line style, switching colors as necessary. I found that it took me more time to do each step if it was different from the one before it, because of the mental effort it took to “switch gears”, and that this was more than the amount of time/effort it took to switch yarn colors. So now I do booties in batches of the same size, one step at a time (soles only, then uppers only, etc.) and switch colors as needed.

    It’s a stupid little thing and it saves me about 0.5% of the amount of time and effort I’d save by just sending my kids to someone else’s house, but the principle is valid and every little bit helps.

  3. Dawn B says:

    Well, rats. And here I thought there were all these secrets and if I just lurked long enough I’d find them.

    Your point about the upfront work is well taken.

  4. Frida says:

    This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about recently! But I do still feel like it takes my way to long to sew a garment… But thanks for making me feel better about not wanting to take shortcuts.

  5. ioanna says:

    For me lately it’s mostly been questions 1 and 3. Although I enjoy the learning (ok, I’m addicted to the learning) sometimes I get so tired and need a break from it. I’m still working on how to do #1 well, mostly let go of some tasks and hire it out. It’s hard relinquishing control and/or finding the right people to do it for you.

  6. Sue T. says:

    Great post and I will be thinking over those questions in my (non-production) work life.

    This brings to mind one of my favorite sayings: “How are you going to find the time to do it over when you didn’t have the time to do it right in the first place?” In other words – learn to determine when a shortcut is a true timesaver and when it is just sheer laziness.

  7. Connie says:

    I will testify that developing accurate patterns and sewing accurately (and not taking shortcuts) will improve both quality and speed as well as enjoyment and pride in the finished product. I loved Kathleen’s comparison of pattern “engineering” and construction of clothing to flat-pack furniture construction. It was a light bulb moment for me.

    I’ve also learned that making a few muslins and taking time on a practice garment makes making the final product that much easier and enjoyable to make. All the kinks have been worked out, I’m very familiar with the workings of the pattern and the end result is really satisfying. I’ve also used Kathleen’s advice to make slight style changes to a pattern that I like to come up with a different looks. Once I’ve done all the hard work of fitting, making 2 or 3 “theme and variation” garments in different colours and different fabrics with simple changes like collar design or sleeve length makes them seem like different patterns.

    My Dad always told us “take your time to do it right the first time”.

  8. kristin says:

    Thanks for the article. Yeah I figured there was no easy way. I thought a Rotary would help but I love my scissors, Big #12.

    But I also could never sew the same piece, so outsourcing it is!

  9. intransigentia says:

    I think your premise extends across pretty much all disciplines. The product you get out depends so, so much on going in with all the prep work done, and done well. Every shortcut you take in the design and planning phase, will take at least ten times more work to correct if you find out it doesn’t work later on in the process, than it would have taken to do it the long way in the beginning.

  10. Debby Spence says:

    I am curious that you say that scissors, or shears, are more accurate than a rotary cutter. I always considered a rotary cutter more accurate because they don’t lift the fabric up off the table and don’t leave a jagged edge like shears can. And you can usually go aroung curves better with a rotary cutter. I suppose it wouldn’t be as much of an issue if you are drawing the pattern onto the cloth, rather than pinning or laying a paper pattern on the fabric.

  11. Kerryn says:

    It’s been my goal for the last year to do exactly the opposite. I’m resolved to sew slower. Much slower….
    Because I work in “the industry” I used to take shortcuts in my home studio, eager to see the results… I’d mark patterns directly on fabric and start stitching without the right equipment and fake and work around details. This led to chaos in my studio, I thought I’d remember seam allowances on patterns later, thought I’d remember how to sew a complicated lining off the top of my head, I thought I’d never want to keep a pattern of something I was whipping up to wear that weekend so why bother making one?
    Spending the last year researching new construction details, making production ready patterns and detailed notes on all of my projects I have learned so much, become a better machinist and have a great wardrobe of designs that I can pull patterns for from my closet and make again for myself or clients. In short, I’m treating my home sewing like I would any design I work on in my day job – professionally.

  12. vee says:

    First you must have organization, a place for threads, pins, needles, scissors, rotary cutters, blades, chalk, etc.
    Secondly,I read over the patterns that I want to use and write short notes to I hate cutting out fabrics so I gather my materials, with patterns on top, spend one day cutting out all the paper patterns and fabrics along with tracing darts,etc. I limit myself to 6 pieces of outfits.
    The next day, I set up shop by sewing, pressing and sewing until the outfits are ready.
    Another example, I designed a pattern for fleece hats and had to make twenty scarves and twenty hats for this bazaar I was vendoring. I arranged my schedule for the first day to cut out all the hats and scarves. The second day I sew everything up. The third day I was ready to sell at the bazaar.

    Organization is the key but my problem is management of my time but I am working on it. I retired last year from teaching and it took me an entire year to get that time of stress out of my system.

  13. Al says:

    I just have to say this article series has alleviated some internal strife I’ve been having at a current internship. The feedback I’ve been getting is that I cut and sew too slow. Actually, that anything I do is wasting time. It’s difficult because their methods are alarming: no tracing patterns, no cutting patterns to size, minimal pinning if any. Fabric isn’t pressed before cut. Grainlines are ignored if the “fabric pattern looks the same either way”. Basically, I lay a pattern on fabric and cut around it. If there’s a drill hole or notch, I’m often told to ignore it. For some reason a lot of things “don’t matter” there.

    In the beginning I thought I should be cutting perfectly without tracing or pinning or weighing my pattern. The business is successful, after all. But being exact isn’t their objective, making money is. So if the seams don’t match up when sewn, or even pieces don’t match when cut, it’s okay in their eyes because they can trim the uneven allowance to match afterwards. As soon as I learned that their standards are much lower than what I was accustomed to, I got (internally) angry, because I was being criticized for doing things the “hard way” when it’s really the “accurate way.”

    Now it’s difficult for me because, trying to do things their way, the pieces I cut and the seams I sew look almost as bad as when I took my first sewing class in high school. Jagged lines, unmatched seams. I even avoid pressing if I can because I was told it “wasn’t necessary until the end” and of course, wastes time. I don’t want to come off as “all-knowing” or stubborn, as I’m grateful to be an intern. I’ve learned a lot but as it goes I’m learning things that aren’t skill based but good experience/advice for the future.

    The problem is that their short cut methods are rooted in home sewing. And it’s slowing me down, tremendously. I can’t possibly sew something accurately that isn’t cut accurately, so I’ve just learned let it all go. To strive for their equation of what’s ‘acceptable’. At times it gets to me and I wonder if I’m being too careful (slow) and I feel crazy and I just wanted to say THANK YOU! For writing this and informing others that industrial or professional sewing doesn’t mean “easy” and it definitely doesn’t mean fast. It means it’s more work, it takes a lot of time, and it’s definitely not based on short cuts.

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