Monday, 24 December 2012

How to sew

OK, I'm not a typical blogger. I'm a male and a teacher. You may notice that all my blogs have knowledge sharing as a common theme. So, without further ado, here's how a middle aged man learns to sew.

I have an advantage over the average learner, being that I share a house with a pattern maker who is, well, rather good at all of this. So, if you think I'm a genius for doing so much so quickly, just remember this advantage and don't be discouraged: When I got stuck, I stopped what I was doing and sat down. After a while, the answer usually came to me.

Step 0: Gather resources
If you have a seamstress/tailor at hand you'll be well ahead. I have a good in-house resource but if you don't, you're not lost yet. Most women over 60 will be able to sew and willing to help you, so find a relative.
Most pattern publishers will have a book full of tips and techniques. They'll also explain the terms sewers use. I have the Butterick, Vogue, McCalls and two Simplicity books (1957 and 1974). The Butterick book was from ebay ($9) and was published in 1949. The rest were all from op shops and church/garage sales.
The third resource is the Internet, which you clearly have already. I was still unsure about putting a zipper in my daughter's dress, so I watched a youtube video. Problem solved.

Step 1: Buy sewing stuff
I got my machine from various places, and they were all really cheap. If you want an old sewing machine, they're easily obtainable from op shops (although all the ones I've seen are around $65), car swap meets where I've seen many from $10 to $30 (my Aussie Pinnock, in mint condition as well as a hand operated 1930s Jones). You also have the option of collectibles bazaars. In the Glen Waverley one there are several machines available, from $19 upwards. If you want a new machine you're looking at a Chinese option. New machines are definitely not my area but you can buy one for just over $100. They're lighter than the old ones but I personally wouldn't have one. If you're after a classic Singer (black and silver) with a treadle and table, you need deep pockets (a very average one will still set you back nearly $200), but I saw an electric Singer black and silver machine there a few months ago for $65! Even more surprising is that it sat near the front counter for over a month before someone bought it. I wasn't tempted, since it was still more than my budget allowed (hard for me to justify spending that much on any machine). Here's the best reason to buy a Singer over a Pinnock: Support. They are still around today and support their machines back to the 1950s models (at least). They have always been extremely popular, so they're very easy to find. Parts are easy to get and cheap (sewparts have an excellent stock of Singer parts) and Singer, being around in the Internet era, offer manuals as free downloads. I chose a Pinnock and have a lot of trouble finding manuals and parts, but with lots of spare machines, I hope it will go on for a while yet.
You'll also need hand sewing stuff. This is all pretty cheap and I can recommend sewparts in Victoria Street. By far the friendliest and most helpful shop I've been to. No, I don't work there, have shares or get a commission: When people are all nice and helpful, you want to go back there and tell everyone. They also have the basic sewing stuff very cheap (in the front window). You'll need two packs of pins, extra needles and bobbins for your machine and some thread (black, white and colours to match the fabrics in your first pattern) as well as a fabric tape measure, tailors chalk and a good pair of fabric scissors.
A large table is helpful to cut your fabric on, and an iron and ironing board are absolutely essential (you have to iron the pattern flat before cutting, and almost every time you do something).

Step 2: Choose a pattern
You have to have a pattern. Trying to make clothes without one is pointless. Even in Victorian times they used them. You must measure the person you're making the clothes for, as will be mentioned in your book. Chest (widest part), waist (narrowest part) and hips (widest) are the measurements you need. Write it down in inches and centimetres if you're thinking about old patterns, or just centimetres if you'll stick to new.
I like vintage clothes, so I get my patterns from op shops. They aren't that easy to find but if you find a good shop, they're usually about 20 to 50 cents each.If you don't want to trawl through thousands of modern patterns to get to the good vintage stuff, go to the aforementioned bazaar. There are at least two really good stalls that sell just vintage patterns for about $5.
If you have children of either gender you'll find a large choice. Kids' clothes are easier to make in general, and women (only women ever made women's and kids' clothing) seldom made their own clothes, it seems. So if you have kids, look for a kids pattern to start with.
Incidentally, it pays to like the older designs. New patterns are more work (you have to cut them from a big sheet, whereas secondhand ones have been done already) as well as more expensive (my eldest daughter found one at Savers with an original price of $27.50!).
Here's my first vintage dress pattern:
Simplicity 5993 (1966)
Step 3: Fabric
This is actually written on the pattern. Have a look at the back and you'll see what type of fabric should be used. There are usually two or three, but cotton is normal for kids' clothing. My girl chose a pattern that included a lined jacket (bottom centre in the pattern photo), so I had to ask for "shirting" for the jacket. My resource #1 had loads of light blue polka dot dress fabric, which the girl said would be perfect.
Spotlight and Lincraft are the shops I buy fabric from. Op shops are a bit useless for fabric, since they only ever get people's off cuts (usually much less than a metre long) and they aren't all that cheap anyway.

OK, that's about all I can write in one session (I have a dress to make for resource #1 for an xmas present) so here is how Simplicity 5993 turned out:

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Why learn to sew?

Well, the answer is because you've been unemployed for a ridiculous amount of time, developed an obsession with vintage sewing machines that you require an excuse to keep collecting more of, and your grandmother was an amazing seamstress. The fact is, though, I'm a male and the whole thing seemed a bit stupid.
In Australia we pretty much don't manufacture anything, and in the 1980s when the tariffs were abolished (remember the buy Australian campaign?) we all said "bugger buy Australian: that Chinese garbage is really cheap!!" and the first of our industries to suffer was clothing manufacture.
This all fills me with sadness. The Chinese made garments we put up with today are every bit as crappy as 25 years ago, and we still buy them because they're that much cheaper than good clothes. Our clothing manufacturers are nearly all gone as are the machines to make them (most were bought by Chinese factories and are lost forever to us). I bought Australian and still do. Only way to now is to buy second hand. Op shops are full of cheap Aussie made shirts, suits, jackets, coats etc. and they sit on the same racks as the later Chinese stuff - handy for quality comparison. The local garments still look good up to 50 years later, whereas the Chinese made are faded, rough, out of shape and obviously not very well put together or finished.
Off the soap box now. I thought long and hard about reviving the industry in any way possible (including thinking about investing in a factory a while ago) but we just expect to get paid too much money, and the Chinese are practically slaves. There's just no competing with that.
I discovered a really good tip shop a few months ago, and they had a load of discarded sewing machines. I was looking for one for my daughter (9 YO) so she could learn to sew, and they had a 1968 Singer that looked very suitable. I couldn't believe I got the machine for the grand sum of $7. After cleaning it up, I had to test it. Well, how do you test a sewing machine when you have no idea of how they even work? You ask someone who knows. Luckily I have one of those. She didn't know about Singers, really (well, her mum had a '30s electric one) but she worked it out and showed me. Here is the model I got:
Singer Stylist 498
So, a few weeks later I went to the tip shop again and there was a very attractive old machine that had "craftamatic" branded. Hmm... $7 or so later and it was mine, and someone happened to have just returned one. The guy said it apparently didn't work so I could have both for $7. Yes, got them home, worked them out and fixed both. A month or so ago I bought another three, seeing as the first was $7.50 and he said he'd give me $1 off for each subsequent machine. So what do we have here? Six working vintage sewing machines. My shed is filling up quickly now.
Below are two of them. I don't have the Princess any longer: It was just too pretty for the shed so I passed it to a young lady who also loved vintage. The others were all either Craftamatic or Pinnock, both Australian brands. Pinnock was a great Australian brand who made machines for nearly all of the 20th century in Adelaide. Not all that much information is available on the Internet about them but when I bought the last tip shop machine, it was a Japanese Pinnock from the '70s. This was the nicest, smoothest machine I'd used yet. Last weekend there was a car swap meet on north of Melbourne (Whittlesea) and someone was selling an Aussie made Pinnock in almost mint condition for $30. Yes I bought it, so that makes seven and this one takes over the title of smoothest. It also came with all the original accessories, spare needles, bobbins etc.
The HG Palmer Princess

Craftamatic (Pinnock copy) with zig-zag
Latest Pinnock in remarkable condition

Over the months I learned how to oil (anything that moved except gears, only use sewing machine oil) and grease them (gears only, only use sewing machine grease), then started testing them so I knew they worked. I needed to know what the bits did and how it all worked. The best way to learn all this is to learn to sew. Daughter needed a dress for "Italian Day" so I made it (with a great deal of guidance from the resident seamstress, of course). The learning curve was very steep indeed and I figured it'd all be worth while when I got around to re-upholstering the Valiant seats.

There had to be a reason for all of this, and I felt the urge to learn the art of sewing. It seems that mens wear is a different art form to women's, and my main problem is that I don't know anyone who can teach me. Also, there are much fewer publications on making shirts and suits than there are dresses. I started looking for patterns in op shops, and around 98% were for women. Nearly all women 50 years ago had a sewing machine and could use it. Men's wear was almost all made in factories.
After making the Italian dress, the bobbin gear broke. This meant the bobbin wouldn't move at all and I had to switch to a different machine (the Singer). Sewparts (Wm Jackson) in Vic Pde (East Melb) have been amazing  in supplying parts (cheaper than anything you'll find on the Internet - really!) but they didn't have spares for Pinnocks. So, I looked inside all the craftamatics and one of them had the same drive gears, only solid steel! Changed it over and the machine is as good (better, in fact) as before. After changing it over the bobbin timing had to be set. If I get around to taking pictures of this I will but it's very important, or the machine won't sew. Just one millimetre out is enough to prevent threading.
The whole sewing thing is quite a skill. In today's time poor world it's no wonder nobody learns it. I bought my niece a book on first principles cooking because she raved about how good my cooking was a few years ago, and she was less than impressed when she saw how 'complicated' it all was (more than moving a packet from the freezer to the microwave). I imagine said book is still in mint condition somewhere.
As the old saying goes aim for the top, but don't expect to fly there. You need to do what you probably couldn't when you were young: be persistent, be open to new concepts, don't take short cuts, read the instructions thoroughly. I'm a little embarrassed about nearly all my interests being traditionally female pursuits (cooking, sewing, car restoration - I did say nearly all) but learning constantly seems to be a great way to spend your down time.