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I am a mother, a new grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My first book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge will be published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon


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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Technical notes from that birthday shirt: or how do you finish a back neckline?

For various reasons sewing guide sheets have been on my mind this week.

It all started with an email last week from an independent designer who noted that their patterns had minimal instructions because the assumption had been made that anyone who bought a pattern "already knew how to sew."

I have been considering this all week.

O.K. how do most people learn to sew?

Schools have maybe a smattering of sewing instruction jammed in between other family studies stuff, if that. My kids made shorts on semester for example. Even I didn't learn to sew at school (the project was a slip and I think I barely passed - the teacher obviously had little patience for deviation, mine was floral with lots of free form lace). 

My mother taught me the basics, things she learned from her mother, stuff like tailor tacks and the importance of grain lines, and I am grateful for that knowledge. In university I did a minor in theatrical costume design where I found out that no one can raise their arms in an 18th century frock coat from an original pattern.

But really most of the sewing knowledge I had starting out, pre Nancy Zeiman, pre sewing books, pre the internet for sure, I gathered from reading about 10,000 sewing instructions.

From this process I learned a lot about what worked, and even more about what doesn't.

Like most sewers (tell me if this is you too) I have remembered a particularly cool technique when I have found one and integrated it into my own repertoire.

For instance when I recently made Brensen Designs KISS dress I found a new way of bagging the lining in a sleeveless dress and that is the method I will use from now on. To me that meant it was a great, not just a good pattern.

I also learned a lot from alternative pattern sources. Kwik Sew and Jalie have taught me all I know about knits and Burda magazine opened my eyes to more ready-to-wear methods of construction and the reality that there were more sensible, and successful, ways to put garments together than the peculiar techniques I read in the Big Four.

All of this is leading somewhere.

After I had read my message a week ago from the designer who presumed sewers already knew how to put pieces together, I got to work on my son's shirt, Vogue 8800. This is an excellent pattern with a nice slightly retro, hip look and the fit was great. (BTW despite my earlier comments it turned out he really loved the shirt and gave me a shout out on FB for making it which was nice).

This is a convertible collar shirt, being casual and retro, and there isn't a stand on the collar, which is unusual for a man's shirt, but consistent with the style of this one.

When I glanced at the instructions I noted the usual Big Four method for finishing the back of the neck below the collar was still there, and I have taken professional level iPad shots of that method so you know what I mean:

The last stage, see how nice and easy it looks to just turn under that neckline collar edge and slip stitch it down. A sewer might be fooled into thinking this will go smoothly and in the end look like this picture.

OK this is how you set this up. Note very accurate clips right to the stitching line, already I am worried.

Where this technique goes off the rails. See how much action, and layers, there are at the intersection of the facings, collar turned under edge - all depending on those two surgically precise clips, which at this point are probably fraying and even more so because the odd stitch, the ones used to nail down the collar (making sure not to catch the free edge as they say) has been unpicked and restitched. I mean who can do this is a relaxed way?

I know all of this because in an unusual burst of conformity I actually tried this method to see if I was being too fussy. I did get it to turn out, with some fixes and restitches, but really am not happy with it, not as a process and not as a  product. I can do better.

Techniques like this, and I am sure this one was just cut and copied in from some sort of central data back without any actual person thinking this through, function only to frustrate sewers and even worse, far worse, make the learning-to-sew  sewer feel she just can't do this sewing thing.

Yes I know I have written a lot about this in the past but it always annoys me. Why are techniques never seen in ready-to-wear inserted into patterns by folks who should be trying to create new sewers, not lose them?

Are there other sewing-pattern-only-methods out there that frustrate you? What are the instructions you ignore?

Oh and how do I usually finish back necklines? I either serge right across the seam which reduces bulk and wears quite well, or I put a binding over the seam allowance. 

Tell me how do you finish the necklines of collars without a stand?


Debbie Cook said...

I do convertible collars pretty much this same way, but since I use a fusible interfacing on the outer collar, the snips don't fray. But I never hand-sew the opening. I hate handsewing. ;-) Instead, I just glue down (glue stick or Wonder Tape) the opening slightly over the stitching line from the under collar and stitch in the ditch from the right side to catch and close the opening.

I learned to sew from my mother and grandmother who both sewed a LOT as many women did in the 1950s and earlier. Not really lessons. Just being there and "helping" and learning from watching. But I never really sewed for myself until I was 39 ... mostly because I had them to sew for me. ;-) Thankfully, the internet was in full swing when I took it up and I learned, among other things, that Kwik Sew patterns (and books) have the best instructions/methods and even though I don't make many KS patterns these days, I do still keep them just for the wisdom.

Cosmos said...

I am more of a quilter than a garment sewer, but I want to sew more garments.

I read, reread, and triple check the instructions when I make garments and I still make mistakes. It is not intuitive to me. There are a few independent patterns I'd like to try, but won't because the reviews indicate little or no directions. Sorry, they lost my business.

I don't want to buy multiple books and spend days watching You Tube videos learning new techniques. I don't feel confident enough to divert from the original pattern instructions.

annie said...

With a lot of cussing?

Bunny said...

Pattern instruction went downhill with the advent of the cut and paste era. It eliminates the thought process, jobs, and any reasonable input into the making of a garment. What I REALLY REALLY hate about the cut and paste era is the jumping all over the pattern. Need step 12? Look at View D step 6. Step 6? Look at View A step 10. It's insane and drives me batty.

Lyrique Threads said...

I had sewn a skirt in the 8th grade. I had sewn a dress when I was age 21, and then I stopped sewing when when I grew out of patterns that fit. All those fabric stores and books about sewing? In my mind, those were obviously meant for professionals and those who had somehow already learned; I was obviously ignorant and had no business being anywhere near them. I paid them no attention. Besides, I was overweight, and patterns wouldn't fit me. I made do with finding RTW. I went on with my life and became a professional in another area entirely.

A year-and-a-half ago, I became interested in embroidery. As I learned more about it, I drifted into sewing blogs. Until one year ago, at age 63, when I found people who blogged about sewing, I had no idea how to sew. Until I read Debbie Cook's blog, I had no idea that patterns were meant to be cut and adjusted. I just never gave sewing thought. It clearly was something I couldn't do, so I didn't think about it. I didn't know anyone who sewed.

So, those who buy patterns already know how to sew, eh? That's as ignorant as my thinking was. Shame on that designer. Such arrogance. We can all continue learning and enjoy the experience of learning if not shut down by our own lack of confidence, ignorance, or the rash and demeaning judgment of others.

Julie Culshaw said...

Peggy Sagers has great techniques in her patterns, ones that are used by the industry. And they make so much sense.
I too find those clips formidable, always a spot where the raw edges peek out to remind you "this is homemade".

Angela said...

I learned a few basics in home ec class, where I made a blouse with buttons and a collar stand. I wish I still had it:) My mom, who is an excellent seamstress, could not understand how I made an "A" on it, but I think it was the black fabric covered in tiny flowers -- you couldn't see the mistakes. Somewhere someone told me I needed to get Singer's Sewing Essentials book, and I have relied on that heavily when I don't understand the instructions in the pattern. With the internet, I have learned so much, especially from Debbie Cook, Michelle at Cheapandpicky, and Sunni at AfashionableStitch.

One of the instructions I find mystifying in current patterns is to hem the sleeves before they are attached to the dress or shirt. Hmmm.....how can you tell where you want to hem them until the end?

Sandra said...

Pattern instructions --sometimes make me just about cry. How, I think, can anybody make sense of this? I go over the same little section over and over again. Until my retirement last year, I was a technical editor (science, geeky type, not computer hard or software type) for years. Mostly I worked with engineers who wrote long reports about the inner workings of power plants -- as well as up-to-the minute topics. I often untangled instructions so that maintenance workers could follow safety rules. Believe me, sewing pattern instructions from the "Big Four" are more convoluted than the first drafts of reports I edited. I have learned to keep careful notes and refer to them instead.

Scenic Route said...

Exactly! I usually serge or bind collars. We must be a determined bunch--1) to survive home ec sewing (yes, I'm that old ;) --I had one teacher that made us tie square knots at the beginning & ending of all machine seams! and 2) make it through/past sewing pattern instructions! All this and we still sew and love to sew. As one of the contestants on the recent Great British Sewing Bee muttered under her breath, "there's more than one way to get something sewn."

Lyndle said...

Although I learnt to use a sewing machine at home and school, I really knew nothing about sewing when I started using patterns. I learnt from kwiksew patterns and from a night class, and then found patternreview and Debbie Cook's blog and learnt rapidly from there. I love Style Arc but I do find I need to supplement their instructions for things like zips and cuffs. Their online tutorials are a bit helpful but with some of them you can tell they're written by someone who can't remember not knowing. For me the drafting is so good that I'd still tell a beginner to buy the patterns but use alongside a book or a kwiksew pattern (or, ideally, a person) to learn how to do things.

The difference between my first time round trying to sew, when I was slimmish (though short and pear shaped) and there was no internet, just me and my pattern and my readers digest guide, to learning again with a much less standard figure but with online sources to help, was huge.

It's a tough call- the ideal to begin sewing with is a well drafted pattern that fits like the illustration (ie you may need an fba but should not need to downsize 2 sizes from the stated measurements). AND has hold-thehand instructions. And of course is a style you'd actually wear. Perhaps the pattern company in question could get someone to write beginner-friendly instructions for popular patterns, to download (at a small cost if nec?). I'd be happy to test them!

Lyndle said...

Ps - One thing i do like about Style Arc and Burda, is that they remind you to stabiise the shoulder seams, which the Big 4 hardly ever do despite other detailed instructions.

LinB said...

Binding. RTW idea I stole from tearing some shirts apart to alter them. Learned to sew at my mother's knee -- she came from a centuries-old line of seamstresses. Home Ec in middle school was a joke, since I was already so far beyond the "pull-a-thread to find the grain" and "use a ruler to assure that your pattern grainline arrow is the same distance from the selvedge all along its length" school of anal-retentive sewing espoused by Miss Brooks to make ... a pillowcase! My project was a double-knit dirndl, with one seam up the back and an elastic waistband. I wore with it a self-made blouse with intricate and impeccable detailing, which went completely unnoticed, as she assumed the thing was RTW. Expose yourself to as many instructions and methods of sewing as possible, then choose your favorites for each application. Ignore any instructions that frustrate you, as someone else has surely developed another way to tackle the same problem, and their way may suit you better.

badmomgoodmom said...

I use a technique I learned in a 20 year old Palmer Pletsch 2 hour camp shirt pattern. There is a bit of hand sewing to attach the inside yoke at the shoulder. But, all the other seams are machine sewn and neatly enclosed. None of this clipping nonsense.

Unknown said...

I agree that the clip and turn method is lame. Doesn't really show on the outside but you always know the mess is there. I usually either cut a strip of bias to bind the neck seam, sewing it down on the outside if it won't show. Or I add a back yoke facing, which I think supports the top of the shirt well.

JustGail said...

The last stand-less collar I did had the upper collar sewn to the shirt, then the under collar sewn to the facings. Then sew the facing/undercollar unit to the collar/shirt unit. Flip the undercollar/facing to the inside, and I topstitched around the edges. There was no clip & turn needed.

I'm not a beginning sewer, but I'm not what I'd call an advanced sewer either. Instructions are often confusing. I wish I knew how they decided what to assume is known by sewers. It sometimes seems like if it involves more than 2 short sentences, they leave it out. Or put in things like the clip/turn/handsew collars. A good sewing book is a lovely thing!

Jilly Be said...

Thank you for this post! I love love love the indie pattern designers who load up their instruction sheets with creative options, even though the details on construction are often lacking in those same patterns.

With all of the patterns that are out there that look like duplicates (and triplicates, quadruplicates, etc..) of each other, why wouldn't someone want to stand out with excellent instructions? One of the biggest reasons to do so is to actually attract new sewers before they go into confusion and decide that sewing is not for them.

If you already know how to do something (or use a different method), it's so easy to just skip that section.