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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  1. Esther says:

    Awesome job! I have trained operators and one of the more difficult things to master is the speed of the machine. Many people are intimidated by an industrial because of the potential speed and lack of finger guards (an annoyance on home machines). The truth is that it is all about that heavy foot on the pedal. How did Eric do with that?

  2. Heather says:

    I read this and thought green meant “eco” green. Kept reading and reading waiting for the eco part to kick in. Finally dawned on me that green meant untrained. That’s what I get for reading sans coffee.
    Wonderful results, it’s nice to see that training can be done in this way.

  3. Sandra B says:

    I am so unbelievably impressed. I find it easier to teach beginners, and I let them do whatever project they want because I figure the main difference between easy and hard is number of processes. I’ve had some great successes, but now I feel like an amateur. Thank you for raising the bar for me yet again!

  4. Jess Latham says:

    That welt pocket looks sharp!

    I noticed Eric is using one foot on the machine pedal and that got me thinking about how I use two feet on the pedal. Does anyone else sew like this on an industrial machine? I’ve always been made fun of for it, but it feels completely natural to me.

  5. Eric H says:

    A more complete set of comments is upcoming as a post, but …

    Esther – The machine was not a problem. You are absolutely right about the speed depending on the foot heaviness. One time I started it out and then relaxed and mashed the pedal full force. Wow. We got to practice pulling stitches out. But otherwise, the speed is very easy to control and I had few or no concerns about the lack of a fingerguard.

    Jess – I started out with two feet because I figured there must be a reason for the pedal to be that wide. It didn’t feel “natural”, but Kathleen told me I didn’t have to, which I thought was her way of telling me not to, so I went back to one foot.

    Stephanie – Do not feed, taunt, dope-slap, or pinch the nerds.

  6. Eloise Grey says:

    Like Heather, I read this post because of the ‘green’ – thinking ‘eco’. Maybe there is more to say about ‘eco’ practices in the workroom. Inspiring post nonetheless.

  7. Timo Rissanen says:

    “I’ve already learned you can’t talk your way through it and 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.”

    The above sentences apply to so much of what we do, whether sewing, patterns and the et ceteras. Thanks, am printing this post out, like all my favourites. A waste of paper, maybe, but they go in a folder much loved.

    What a fantastic result! I’m particularly envious of the welt pockets; mine too often look like ‘made in Australia, under duress’.

    Happy new year, Kathleen, and everyone here!

  8. Timo Rissanen says:

    “I keep forgetting to change my seam allowance for it”

    It’s bits like these that I love, for the humanity of them. I forget much bigger things on occasion… If only my clients were readers of the book and here (no, I really mean that!); I’d be happier (and my clients more prosperous) if people other than just myself kept an eye on the actual work I do.

    [Yes, am reading the post in more detail for a second time. So very impressed with the process and the result!)

  9. katyrenee says:

    I too went towards green meaning “eco.” I am thoroughly impressed. Thanks for the great post. When is you next pattern-making training? Promise I won’t say but, so and so told me this was okay!

  10. Pat says:

    Thanks for a great post. I sew as a hobby and find lots of wonderful information in your blog. A couple of comments in this post made me curious. You have a photo of your ‘student’ using ‘proper form’ to cut the fabric. Later you note that you don’t use pins when cutting. Do you have a previous entry on the proper way to cut fabric? It never occurred to me that there is a better way to do it. Thanks.

  11. Lisa B. says:

    WOW, Eric!!! Amazing job!!! It looks great!

    I’ve been wanting to teach people to sew, too, when I have more space and all my machines have been serviced (and any missing parts replaced), because a ton of people don’t even know how to sew a button back on their shirt, stitch a torn out seam, or sew a hem that came out. But also to teach them a lot more than that.

    I’ve been sewing for 20 of my 35 years but that doesn’t mean I’m perfect yet. I learned a lot on this site. I think I need someone to actually show me how to bag a jacket lining, as I’m still not getting it.

  12. Kathleen says:

    You have a photo of your ‘student’ using ‘proper form’ to cut the fabric. Later you note that you don’t use pins when cutting. Do you have a previous entry on the proper way to cut fabric?

    Before I forget, see this entry on cutting and marking for illustrations.

    I show him cutting paper patterns. With fabric, the issue isn’t so much cutting as it is transferring the pattern shapes to the fabric. In home sewing, this is done by pinning tissue paper to the fabric and then you cut. In industry, we trace the patterns onto fabric. It is nearly impossible to trace the tissue paper shapes onto fabric so you’re kind of stuck.

    An option is to use embroidery adhesive rather than pins but then that can become a nightmare, the tissue can’t handle it and will ball up after using it. Embroidery adhesive may be an option if you attach fusible interfacing to those tissue patterns. After use, you’ll have to let them hang to “dry” (for the adhesive to evaporate, it will).

    Most of this is too much work for enthusiasts who only need to make one unit from one pattern. In such cases, use pins sparingly, as few as possible. You could also -after cutting- take all the pins out, pat the fabric flat (never run your hand over it, pulling it) and re-lay the pattern piece on top of it and trim off any recalcitrant ends.

  13. J C Sprowls says:

    Way to go, Eric! I’m very interested to hear from your side of the learning experience, too.

    After you’ve had a few of these under your belt, I’d encourage Kathleen to set you loose on a commercial pattern – just 20 minutes or so [EG]. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that! Your being an engineer is icing on the cake – the comparison would be very insightful for developing training programs.

    RE: cutting. Cutting fabric and cutting patterns are similar in that your shears [*should*] never leave the surface of the table. “Proper” tailor’s shears have a foot which keeps them absolutely perpendicular to the table. I posted a picture in the forum of my shears as an example.

    With pattern paper, you turn it into the shears as they cleave. Coordinating the two hands is the challenge that requires a lot of practice. But, this is how smooth curves are achieved – notice how Eric’s left hand is curling the waste material away as he’s liberating the pattern piece from the paper?

    With fabric, you travel around the garment piece, also keeping the shears against the surface of the table – liberating the garment piece from the cloth. (I know, it’s a strange turn of phrase. But, it’s how I was taught. It’s what made sense and it’s also what stuck!)

    In both cases, the passive hand is removing the cutaway material and that effort is coordinated with the cutting hand. The process is a little different depending on the cutting device. But, that is, again, a whole other story.

  14. Alyssa says:

    Of course the welts look fabulous, because your welt-pocket tutorial (which I’m sure follows how you teach in person) is fabulous!

    I used it to do my first ever welt pocket, and I was extremely pleased with the result.

  15. Suzanne says:

    Wow, lucky Eric! I keep telling myself if I were so lucky I would give no lip and be obedient. Fabulous post and what a great looking man and jacket! A+ on all counts.

  16. Kathleen says:

    Why does the pocket bag need to extend beyond the boundaries of the CF and hem?

    For the same sorts of reasons that a garment lining is larger/longer than the garment it sews into, as must a pocket bag be larger than the area into which are it is intended. Think of it. You stick your hand in there, it moves around, not always efficiently. You have keys in there, a cell phone, weighting it down. Your hand moves in, *around* those items, fishing through them.

    Consider this. You’re looking at a pocket bag as flat, basically two dimensions, but that’s not how the pocket bag is *used*. It’s like a garment. Garments need three dimensional space (like a pocket bag, rather than a hand, a body is stuck in there and it must move too) so if a garment were exactly the same size as a body, you wouldn’t be able to move in it. Making the pocket bag larger -this can only be done by extending it beyond CF and the hem- makes it more usable. It’s easy enough to test. Baste in a line to limit the pocket bag to the CF/Hem dimensions and try using it as you would under normal conditions. Then it’d feel chintzy. I rest my case :).

  17. Babette says:

    Great post. Very timely. I’ve just started teaching a girlfriend’s daughter to sew. She’s 11. She’s not new to fabric but she is to garment cutting and construction. You’ve made me carefully consider that I must not teach her bad home sewing techniques.

    The additional things I have to contend with are:
    – she’s quite short so I’ve had to lower the ironing board which is a killer for my back;
    – she has small hands and all of the cutting scissors available seem much too big for her hands and she can’t control the full length of the blade. I’m going to try to improve cutting by having her cut on a bench that I have which is lower than my cutting table. That will at least limit the reach problems.
    -fine motor skills are not yet fully developed so we need all the aids and other assists we can find like magnetic seam guides. I’d appreciate any suggestions especially for heavy foot on the accelerator pedal (we using a domestic but it’s still a bit quick for her at this stage). I’m considering a piece of the rough side of velcro inside her shoe but that might be unkind.

  18. Beverly says:

    My husband wants to study industrial sewing. Do you know of a school for upholstery or industrial sewing machine operator training?

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