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I am a mother, a 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 book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge was published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon

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Friday, March 8, 2019

Book review: First time sewing with a serger: the absolute beginner's guide



This is the second of two books that Quarto sent unsolicited for me to review.

I have found I quite enjoy reviewing books, and will be doing another one next Wednesday.

Books are pricey. So I think it is worthwhile to read a bit more about the contents before you invest. I hope I was able to do that for David Coffin's book, that has a very clear and specific focus on custom shirt fitting, - a person would know right away if that was something they are interested in or not.

This next book has been very clear to set expectations about its content. 

First time sewing with a serger: the absolute beginner's guide makes it clear that this its audience is very specifically those who are staring at their new serger in the box (or the older serger still in the box - I still run into those ladies in my sewing travels) and not a clue what to do with it.

When I first started reading this book my mind went immediately to one of my sisters, Dawn. 

Now Dawn is an amazing quilter. She churns out quilts and wall hangings for the whole family that are completely faultless

I mean this. 

I couldn't do what she does, and don't.

Once many decades ago we decided to collaborate on an anniversary quilt for our parents. We were each supposed to make half the blocks. Dawn was going to put it all together and quilt it.

I made my blocks and sent them off.

Dawn mailed them back.

"You do know what a 1/4" is don't you?"

What?

This was me measuring.

With my most accurate and well-used measuring tools and that would be my own eyeballs.

I can do 5/8" in the dark.

Again I digress.

I am fairly certain, and she can back me up on this, that Dawn has been making the same New Year's resolution for a fair number of years now. 

That resolution would be to finally get over her fear of sewing with knits, and maybe even do something other than seam finishing on her serger.

Sure enough I got the annual text again this year.

My sister was about to embark on a T-shirt, but that facing something this scary in itself she was going to do it on her sewing machine, because she really doesn't trust her serger.

The operative word here is trust but what she really meant is that she doesn't really understand her serger, understanding of course being different than trusting.

When I go home this is a book I am going to send her.

Before I get into specifics I have to say in general I am not a fan of most how-to serge books. Maybe I am jaded by the rash of them that got published in the '90s in all their decorative thread glory. Outfit after outfit edged with metallic serving. Miles and miles of it.

I even got myself mixed up in the enthusiasm for a bit. Made a vest made of woven strips of decoratively serger edged strips.

I wore it once. Outside of the sewing workshop it didn't have quite the same allure. In fact I distinctly remember thinking "what the hell do I have on my body" before taking it off in the car.

To me that's what most serging books tell you - that you would look great with exposed lame serged edges on every thing.

Those books of that time also didn't tell you too much about sergers, just that they could do it.

This book is a totally different creature.

The explanation of what's going on in a serger, and the wonderful explanation of how it is different than a sewing machine, clear throughout the book, is just what people like my sister need.

Once you understand the mechanics of a serger the rest sort of becomes more manageable.

There is also a brilliant section on tension (I always say for the sewing community nothing causes tension like tension) and a very empowering explanation of why tension needs to be confidently adjusted and readjusted for variations in stitch length, stitch width, foot pressure, and differential feed.

It's all so clear and makes so much sense. 

The trouble shooting tips are terrific and would pretty much answer all the numerous "my stitch looks like this, what am I doing wrong?" posts that populate my Facebook feed every morning. 

And you have to love a section with the header "getting the hang of it."

There are of course projects too at the end of the book, which are useful to those who feel now they get their serger but what are they going to do with it.

Most of these projects are very practical, like a knit tunic up-cycled out of a knit dress, and a tiered broomstick skirt that shows how a serger can gather, one of my favourite functions.

The authors are both Singer related and their facility with a variety of serger products shows. 

Clearly they are able to comfortably talk about different features on different products. This is useful and helpful to a new serging person for example who needs to know that the stitch finger can be located in different places in different machines.

This great familiarity with the range of products however might have lead to the one weakness of the book, particularly given the intended readership serging novices.

There is a bit too much assumption that everyone appreciates that there is more than one kind of serger. You know this in the business, might not be true if you operate outside of it.

An explanation of the different types of sergers available, illustrated, would have been so useful.

Many new serger owners, or prospective buyers, have no idea of what the different capabilities of different machines might be, and what they actually need, or even what they have actually bought.

Many people purchase sergers without this information. Many first sergers are bought second-hand.

The difference between a 3-thread only, a 3/4 thread, a 2/3/4, a 2/3/4/5 thread and of course a cover stitch machine (two or three needles too), which may be a function of a combo machine, or a dedicated stand alone machine needs to be more fully explained.

To simply list the different stitches (the cover hem and chain stitches are listed as something some 5 thread machines can do - confusing as this can be done on both stand alone and combo machines) all together as serging stitches is strictly true but to my mind still confusing. This just might mystify some sew serger owners. I can see some folks looking to for the cover hem stitch on their 3/4 thread, or not understanding that the cover hem only machine they see on eBay can't sew seams.

I think picturing the stitches possible under the different classes of machines would have been really useful.

I might be over thinking this, but listen I have my sister to consider. I will still send her this book but will explain that part myself I think.

This one issue apart, I think this is still among the best serger orientation books I have seen out there. 

A frustrated new serger owner would most certainly find the solution to any issue that I could anticipate, and that is worth so much.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Book review: Sewing shirts with a perfect fit by David Page Coffin


A few days ago I received two books to review from the Quatro Group. The first David Page Coffin's newest shirt book, released by Creative Publishing, I will talk about today, the second, on serging I will review on Friday.

First some full disclosure.

David is a friend of mine. We got to know each other when I was a frequent contributor and later a contributing editor for Threads. David has stayed at my house and is long remembered by my children as an extremely cool guy. He was probably the first person we ever had visit to meditate in the living room, or to put a bottle of greens in the fridge. I noticed he was terrific at speaking to children as if they were adults - always a valuable skill. 

So I already know David as an original, authentic thinker of many talents (he is also a painter and musician) as well as one with a very clear eye for sewing and problem solving.

David Coffin is the real deal.

So are his books.

This is of course the third book David has written on shirts. 

The first one Shirtmaking: developing skills for fine sewing is an absolute classic.

His second shirt book, The shirt making workbook: pattern, design and construction resources expands the sewer's view of how a shirt pattern can be customized and developed. The pages of beautiful collar styles for me were particularly inspirational.

The current book however takes on the really hard part of shirt-making - and that's fitting.

When I read this latest book it struck me that all David's books, this one the most, were the opposite of what someone once said to me about the internet - that it goes wide but it doesn't go deep.

When David tackles a focused area of sewing, as in this case  fitting shirts, he goes deep, always goes deep. 

You are going to want to sit down and read this one carefully, re-read some sections to make sure you have taken it all in, and then re-read it again as you try his method all out.

But it will be worth it.

What is presented here is, as far as I can figure out, a totally fresh, interesting, and effective way of getting a great fitting shirt. 

To my mind no one else has quite looked at the problems of shirt fitting this way. It's an unusual way of looking at fitting shirts and it makes perfect sense.

Common sense.

The premise is this:

It all depends on nailing an excellent shoulder upper body fit.

That is built here around a yoke molded to the body, as a base for hanging rectangles of fabric that can then be draped, or adjusted, until the fabric fits individual, male or female, big or little, curves or shapes. Armhole shapes and sleeve caps are also added to this base and these two are adjusted, the fabric saying what to do, on the body.

Templates for the basic shapes, yokes, armholes and sleeve caps (fitted, semi-fitted and dropped) are included in the book as pattern sheets. 

If you have fabric, a body to work from, and these templates you are good to go.

For those of us who will be working on ourselves Coffin also gives some really quirky and probably effective instructions for making a personal sloper out of tin foil that can be transformed into an accurate dress form. This is absolutely the first thing I am going to do when I get home from my current trip. Looks like an interesting project.

Other resources of how-to information are also given in links to the Quarto site.

But the book itself is very instructive.The fine-tuning necessary to fit the shirt body, or refine the sleeves with the draping method, are explained carefully in an extensive series of photographs. The photographic approach is also helpful in illustrating the several projects, from a casual jacket to a fitted shirt and a shirtdress -  in step-by-step detail.


There are several reasons why Coffin's original approach appeals to me:

1. He is right, it all starts at the top. 

Get that right and then smooth out the fabric makes perfect sense to me. 

When I read this book I was reminded of the many women who have show me their fit issues with shirts. One lady in particular went through 12 muslins, tweaking from one area to another trying to eliminate some new wrinkle or fold as it appeared - each alteration seeming to produce just one more problem in a completely different area. When I looked at the photos she sent me I noticed right away that she had sloping shoulders that were not settling at all well in her straight edged yoke. This was the root of all her other problems nothing else was going to get fixed until this was dealt with. 

The fact that this book includes yoke, armhole and sleeve templates (I love the different choices of sleeve cap height - could have used this on a shirt pattern I struggled to adjust this week) gives you a great starting point for establishing that critical upper body fit.

2. It looks like an easy method to me

After all you are working only with your hands, your fabric, and your body. If there is a measuring tape in this book I didn't seem it, nor did I see any complicated full bust alteration instructions, or other flat pattern alteration ideas. Those kinds of formulas just aren't here, as Coffin says he would rather deal direct.

So finally who would I recommend this book to?

First off anyone who really wants to make a shirt that fits really, really well, particularly if the body is not symmetrical or in any other way a "standard" size.

Second I would suggest this book to anyone who is more or less down to their last nerve with trying to find a good shirt pattern that fits, or who is fed up with trying to get a pattern they have to work for them. When you get to that point in your fitting/sewing it's time to try something completely different and this book really provides that.

Who wouldn't I recommend this book to?

Obviously any one who isn't all that concerned about or really has problem fitting wouldn't appreciate the value here. If your just want to know how to make shirts, buy Coffin's first book; if you want to customize your shirts buy his second one.

And who needs this book right away?

My poor sewer with the 12 muslins for sure.