What are the core skills of sewing?

What are the core skills of sewing that can be defined as standards of desired skill acquisition? I am deliberately setting aside -for the moment- the related mechanical positioning, rhythm, tempo, fluidity of sewing (in a continual process) things largely comprised of experience, practice and the development of muscle memory. Once these are defined, it’s easier to teach the specified tasks. Which processes are simpler and which are more complex? Here’s a rough outline and not necessarily in order of difficulty or complexity:

1. Sewing a straight line along a given edge with uniform stitching from the edge of the goods.
2. As above but with two layers of goods.

#2 may seem overly simplistic but consider two equal lengths of bias cut goods. If one does not position the two layers of bias goods evenly, the goods “grow” in length the further along the seam one goes. Sewing a 1/4 or 3/8 seam is much more difficult than sewing a 1″ seam allowance as there is greater grain stability the farther in from the cut edge that one sews. This applies to bias goods only! Goods on the straight of grain are more easily sewn with smaller seam allowances. This is not to say that I don’t think one can develop the skill of sewing small seam allowances on bias. I usually use 1/4″ particularly when dot-to-dot skill (sewing a gusset, see #5 below) is required.

If one were to think of it, one could add the concept of sewing two edges of striped or plaid fabrics together so that the stripes are matched evenly across the seam as another example of a core sewing skill but this is not a sewing skill per se, regardless that the seam is actualized at that time. Having sewing operators to sew stripes neatly is rarely a concern in a good factory because the required controls -the accurate cutting of the goods- was done well before it got near the sewing line. In the factory, the seam quality of matched stripes is not governed by stitchers! It is designed into the pattern (a precise match stripe is drafted and marked on the pattern piece) and the matching of the seam is dependent upon the pattern grader following that match point, then the marker maker who must communicate the lay-out of fabric repeat to the cutting department etc. etc. Sewing operators have little to no control over how the goods are cut; it’s unfair to blame them for errors in the process that preceded them. Just because they had it last, and the proof is easily demonstrable then, doesn’t mean they are to blame.

3. Sewing a simple line with 2 layers of goods of different fabrics, i.e. a shell fabric and a lining fabric. This is more difficult to do on home sewing machines as they lack the pressure of industrial machines to keep the goods aligned. Similarly, it’s more difficult to sew the tape of zippers to lengths of dress-weight goods and for the same reasons. This is less challenging in industrial environments as the dressweight goods are usually stabilized with a fusible interfacing in the zipper inset area. In other words, successfully sewing a zipper is dependent upon processes prior to the initiation of sewing; a good result is dependent on what happened to the goods before a stitcher got anywhere near the goods. A pattern for the fusible had to have been made beforehand, graded, cut, paired with the commensurate shell pieces, fused and then resorted into bundles appropriate to the sewing process order.

4. The skill of sewing from one fixed point to another, dot-to-dot, along a defined edge.
5. As above but with two layers of goods.
6. As above but with two layers of differing goods. An example would be that of the back “V” -at garment edge- on a back vest waist. Not only must the dot-to-dot points be precise but the differing weights of the shell of the vest and the lining must be managed.

7. The skill of sewing from one fixed point to another, dot-to-dot, on the interior of a piece, say along the placement lines of a welt pocket. It’s more difficult to sew evenly on the inside of a body of goods -rather than a seam allowance edge- as more skill is needed for the work to lie flat and correctly aligned.
8. As above but with two layers of goods, the dot of each end sewing point of one layer to be correctly aligned with the dots of the underlying layer.
9. As above but with two layers of differing fabrics. Say a welt leather pocket on a wool coat.

Notes on 7-9: again, a commercial environment manages this differently and well before it gets near a sewing operator. As in welt pockets, the shell is fused from the underside (wrong side of goods) at least one inch away from the area to be sewn all the way around. The entire area is stabilized prior to stitching. Considering the constant pressure to avoid waste, the additional use of goods and process -fusing for one- means that successful completion of the job (the welt pocket) requires stabilization and is worthy of increased cost of goods (more interfacing), design (pattern) and additional processes and steps (fusing and doing so within a precise target area). Being able to do the latter consistently isn’t well known or understood to anyone who hasn’t worked in a factory. This usually requires a placement guide made by the pattern maker before hand. The concept of guides -a pattern piece not used to cut out goods but designed to mark them– is largely unknown today.

Part two: Core Sewing Skills

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  1. kathleen says:

    This is a compilation and crude importation of all the comments posted at the original site for this document. Feel free to add your comments.

    2/13/2005 02:28:01 PM Eric said:
    What!? This is the worst blog I have ever read. Fortunately the cat and her owner are cute! Oh, and I haven’t actually grokked the content.

    In other words, this is a test comment.

  2. Kathleen skips over the skills that–once I developed them– changed sewing from an awful chore necessary for the realization of an idea to a bearable (if a little boring) excercise. Namely: “mechanical positioning, rhythym, tempo, fluidity of sewing…” In fact, when I teach complete beginners how to sew, I always go over these concepts, and see immediate improvement (in both the sewing and attitude of the sewing student).

    I would add a few more core skills in THIS vein:

    1) Letting the machine do the sewing.
    Most beginners (including myself, for the first 10 years or so) think they need to do the sewing. HAH! And ’cause I resent those 10 years of frustration (what a control freak I was), I teach this, and have had good results convincing beginners to let the machine do it’s job, and just present the fabric to it, Vanna White-like.

    2) Separating your fingers from your feet.
    It’s apparently hard to make your feet be nice even pedal pushers while your fingers do all sorts of fun things. for the uncoordinated among us, it pays to do excercises where that’s the only thing you’re practising. (and yes, I do talk about hand strength to beginners–maybe it’s my dance background, but I encourage them to do strengthening excercises to build up their finger muscles/coordination. Students really get that “oh!?!?” look on their face when I insist that sewing is a physical skill)

    3) Thinking like fabric. I mean, once you understand that fabric is just an agreement between many threads to stay together because it would be too hard to figure out how to get away, everything becomes easier. Also implied is the ability to see where those threads are going at any given moment, & predict how they’ll move if you tug on them. This is hard to teach to beginners, but I can usually make a little headway.

    And I don’t know about anyone else, but enlightenment came to me quite suddenly one day while sewing a gigantic curtain with a contrast band that had to be stitched-in-the-ditch for, like, 100 feet. Halfway through, my mind vacated, & my stitches straightened out and disappeared into that ditch. I realized that sewing well meant I had to let my body do it, ’cause the brain is way too stupid. I even liked it. So, I think I understand when Kathleen claims that there are plenty of sewing factory workers who really like their jobs.

  3. La BellaDonna says:

    I’ve always stressed, to home sewers, that the actual machine stitching was maybe about 10% of the construction process (at least in my experience). Far more time is spent measuring, preparing the fabric, preparing the pattern, marking, cutting, fitting,etc., than is actually spent machining. Those would be the skills which actually have to precede the machining skills you list. And home sewers who do not have differential feeds (built-in or walking feet) need to know that their home machines will tend to “eat” the bottom layer of fabric first (like me with my underbite, in fact). This can be handy; you can sometimes have the machine itself ease two layers of different lengths together. It can also be a nasty surprise, if you know nothing about it.

    Sewing sure as heck is a physical skill; I’ve had plenty of garments that required sheer determined wrestling in order to machine them (not that I was fighting the machine, just the garment). I’ve also had times when I’ve stopped in the middle of what I’ve been doing because I had flipped into auto-pilot while working, and then emerged from it unexpectedly.

    And for sheer obnoxiousness (for me at least), brocade-matching is even more fun than matching stripes and plaids.

  4. AMK says:

    Had to dive into this machine for a little brain food before tackling the finish of a few stubborn jobs that are having a hard time leaving my workroom- and Kathleen you have done it again!

    I needed to be reminded of what is important, I needed to be reminded that there is great value in what is important and I wanted to be reminded that there is a reason I love what I do.

    And best of all, it comes with humor and a certain directness that makes me want to clean up my act. Thank you.

    off to the other machine…..

  5. Reader says:

    This is a great list (I see that it is continued). For home sewers, I would add that, in addition to the other prep skills listed by earlier commenters, basting and other hand sewing finishing stitches are important.

  6. Melissa Brown says:

    Jinjer: Don’t know if you’ll read this, since so long has passed since the original post, but thank you for teaching your students the hand strengthening and stretching. I rarely hear people talk about this and it’s so important. When I worked on a(n assembly) line at Jantzen I was taught to do this. And thank goodness, because my hands ached for the first five weeks or so that I worked there. The exercises gave me some relief. I think it took longer for me to get past the aches than other people on my line because I was doing elastic applications for swimsuit leg openings and that required me to stretch the elastic during part of the application. That stress took some time to adjust to. I wondered if there was such a thing as “Thumb and forefinger pinched together syndrome” (like carpal tunnel syndrome) and I would develope it long-term.

    I liked working in the factory. I found the sewing, once I mastered the application, worked best/went fastest if I didn’t think about what my hands were doing. So I sort of zoned out. It was a zen experience. Certainly my first experience of “flow” that lasted more than a few minutes at a time. I think most of the people I worked with had similar experiences as people talked about how thinking slowed up their times and almost everyone wore a headset and listened to the radio or music while we worked.

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