The sewing world is full of experts, rules, and guides to follow as to what is going to produce the best final result. There are so many tips, tricks, and techniques out there, that its hard to reason which is the best practice to follow. I believe that this abundance of information is for 2 reasons.
1. Its a craft that has been past down in the master/student relationship tradition. Usually a student learns sewing from another expert who is willing to teach them. Even today, if you don't have an actual person to teach you and are learning on youtube, then you are still going to another expert to teach you. What's interesting about this, is how many master are out there, and how incredibly different all of their perspectives must be! I've seen it be shocking to a student to see me approach the garment different than how they were first taught to execute a certain technique. And that plays a role in creating "rules" because with complicated construction it's nice to be safe within what has been defined as the best method.
But there isn't only one way to do something.
2. It is a craft built in math principles. Mathematics is a reliable rule based system. 1+1=2, you can consistently say it's always going to add up. And pattern drafting is based in math, its all math principles applied to create a certain shape. However, where the frustration appears is, "who decided on the original shape." If the original shape is a human conception, likely created 70 to 60 years ago, then who is to say applying all these rules and principles to the pattern is going to get you a consistently desired outcome. The original shape may be made by steps of applied math, but its not necessarily conceived by math- some human awhile back decided these shapes will work best for a human body.
So you see what I'm saying- somewhere, somehow, all of our fashion shapes, rules, and designs go back to human decisions made at a very different time in the world of clothing and creating that might not apply to us now.
Lately, I have been really struggling with the "rules" of sewing and patternmaking. Honestly, its because a lot of people email me their complaints with clothing, sewing, and sewing patterns that exist. They think there must be knowledge being withheld, they feel left out of the fashion system because it doesn't serve them well, and they believe that if they learn the rules that its going to make it all better. But its almost like we need new rules, because all of those problems are very real and I have never, in all my years of sewing, found one solution to the problem that works for everybody. I have been thinking a lot about the rules I know, questioning why they exist, and considering "who thought up these rules and who do they serve?" There must have been some reason, and lots of ways that they were helpful at a time.
Don't get me wrong, there are definitely fundamentals to sewing that you really must learn, practice, and master to get great results with your sewing and work with sewing patterns. But honestly, if enough people complain, and ask why something is done in that certain way, you have to start considering is this rule really necessary?
While some folks thrive within the rules, and really adhere to the practices within them, its likely because those rules are really helpful to their creative growth work and practice. But for some of you who are frustrated, and asking the question of why and when we do this or that step, I wrote this post for you so that you can open up your mind and creative practice to attempt to make some of your own rules and decisions about how you want to proceed with your sewing. "Best practices" are really your own personal practices that work for you!
I've taught enough Beginner's Sewing classes to see where a beginner sewist will get stuck. And I know where I've been stuck too. In this post, lets discuss some of the most common rules I see in sewing, discuss why they exist, and then ponder if you really need to rigidly follow them. You may decide to break them, or come back to these rules and perfect them later. And even better, I hope it inspires you to create your own decisions and "rules" for your personal sewing practice
Rule # 1: Sewing Perfect Seam Allowances.
Why it exists:
Perfect seam allowances on a garment ensure that you get a consistent size. If your seam allowance is 5/8, and you sew 1/2 inch, you will have a garment that's too big, and in reverse, a garment that's too small. Its really important to learn how to consistently sew your seam allowance as described in your pattern.
Why and When Not to Sweat
When you get to sewing your own clothes you really need to get your straight stitch down and start sewing straight. But that is something that happens over time and lots of practice. In my Beginner's Sewing Class, I teach you tricks to get there faster. However, beginners get really hung up on this. In the beginning, you really need to practice, and if you are agonizing over 1 to 2 millimeters, you are really going to not enjoy sewing. In class, I explain how seam allowance is your grace. Use it! I'd rather see you bust out a bag, and then another bag, than argue with yourself over 2 millimeters. You will get there, your seams will begin to refine and if you use some good tips in the beginning you will be able to achieve your designated seam allowance.
Believe me, I've been a self persecuting perfectionist, so I know where your brain is going. What if I mess up my garment?! The other thing you really have to consider is that pattern makers add and build in a lot of ease to the pattern. Ease is the amount of extra room in the pattern to be able to achieve the fit and look of the designed garment. So if you aren't perfect all the time, you have enough wiggle room to get away with some imperfect seams.
When this rule really matters:
This rule really matters when you start getting into more advanced garments, like tailored jackets, dresses, and pants. It also matters when your garment has details like waistbands, plackets, cuffs, collars, and other parts that build in steps as you sew. If you don't nail your seam allowances, you are going to have to do some fudging to make the garment sew together smoothly. But if you haven't nailed your straight stitching yet, you shouldn't be attempting garments this advanced yet anyway.
In patternmaking, it really matters. Patterns must be accurately drafted down to the millimeter, which is why some pattermakers prefer the metric system for accuracy. Patterns are drafted in steps, and if one step is inaccurate, then that miss carries into the next steps and you end up with a pattern fail.
And my quilter friends will agree, consistent seam allowances really, really matters in quilting.
Rule # 2: Using pins, and sewing over pins
I just read a post on 10 tips every beginner must know, and sewing over pins was a big no no. Um, there are times I sew over my pins guys. Pins are like, really controversial in the sewing world the more you advance. I was in a workshop where a teacher told me to push my sewing, I really needed to stop sewing with pins all together. And once I posted on Instagram that I'd like to be able to use less pins, and half the folks agreed, and half the folks were like hell no! Pins create precision.
Why this rule exists:
Sewing with pins does create precision when you need it. There are many things I won't sew without pins, like a sleeve head, or slippery fabrics. Those who argue for no pins come from a production standpoint, that pins can slow you down and you need to learn to sew with less, or without them to speed up your sewing.
Those who advocate never sewing over pins are thinking of safety for yourself and your machine. If you hit a pin, the pin and needle can break, and that's not the safest. And even if you hit the pin and the needle doesn't break, you damage the tip of your needle and that can damage your fabric as you sew.
When to not sweat it:
I'm not going to lie, I do sew over pins on certain projects if I have something that I can't compromise seam with the fabric slipping. At times I do it because I'm trying to finish the step only once, and if the fabric slips I'm going to have to seam rip, so I take the risk because I'd rather risk busting a needle, then slow my progress. I think its about a 10% likelihood you will hit a needle, and that increases the more thick the fabric is that you are building into a seam. And I think its been about 2 years since I've broken a needle on a pin.
I sew over pins that are on a sleeve, because I hate sleeves, and I do go a lot slower. Or another place where I sew over pins is when I'm trying to get perfect ease on a princess seam. Its really in those spaces were I really need the pin to hold the fabric in place that I break this rule. But I do break it when I need to.
You can also sew with safety googles on, which is really recommended if you sew with tough and thick fabric.
As for the pins/no pins argument. This really has to be a personal decision. Try both, and decide what works best for you.
When this rule really matters:
Difficult fabrics, difficult seams, and advanced garments will require you to make decisions about when, how, and why to use pins. But you are going to have to decide and do what works best for you, because this isn't really a rule, its a practice.
Rule #3 Cut and Customize Your Sewing Patterns
Pattern alterations are the most frustrating, and hotly discussed and debated topics in the sewing world. I am growing more and more frustrated the more I'm exposed to the discussion, because its so individualized, so personal, and unique to so many various situations, issues, and complaints that it's a hard problem to wrap your head around.
I think the frustration comes from lack of available information, problems with the ways patterns are drafted, standardization of size and measurements in pattern drafting for commercial patterns, and expecting that all prexisting methods and shapes used in patterns will work for all people. And I agree, when you can't solve a problem and its wasting your time, and affecting your experience with clothing and sewing, yes, there's a right to be frustrated. But its also a situation where problem solving and critical thinking are necessary.
Why the rule exists:
Yes, you should learn how to alter patterns, to get them to fit better. Its necessary when you are working within a prexisting design that was not designed for you.
I can't say not sweat it, because let's face it, we all do:
I've learned that some of my students have been nervous to cut into their patterns without knowing what the rules are. I think often we think that its a pre made thing, and that cutting into it would be ruining it, or that we can't do it without being a pattern maker.
And because pattern drafting is principled and rule based, pattern alts must be, right? Only sometimes, and other times you have to get creative with it. The thing is, you can't say each and every time that something like a full bust adjustment is going to work for every pattern that you sew. And you can't say that what works great for a blogger recommending the full bust adjustment for a pattern to fit her, is going to make that pattern fit you. Its very subjective and the only way to wrap your head around it is to be willing to work with different approaches.
The other rule I break- when it comes to patterns, I don't think you have to have a "principle" to have permission to alter the pattern. What does that mean? It's a pattern, not a law. I treat them like drawings, and I do go in and sometimes draw a new style line, a curve, or cut a diagonal, just because I feel like it or just to see what happens. Design solves problems, you have to get creative to arrive at something genius. When you are NOT making patterns for production, rather making things for yourself, then you can let yourself have some fun.
When it really matters:
When you want your design to fit of course. However, where I am trying to encourage you and free up the fear of not knowing the rules is to explain that its a process, and an experiment. You will have to develop your own "alterations" that work just right for you.
Rule #4 Topstitching
I love topstitching. I like things to be really dense in construction, and durable. I once had an intern who told her teacher that Fair Fit Clothing was topstitched. The teacher was shocked, like I had somehow transgressed some great law of sewing.
Why this rule exists:
In some really fine sewing, especially couture, the fact that the seams were completely hidden is an artistic achievement. And some designs, you simply can't topstitch because it affects the construction of the fabric and drape of how the garment is designed. At times its thought to be a type of construction that evolved out of mass production and the speed of faster fashion, and can be a crutch for less thoughtful construction and sewn techniques.
When to not sweat it:
Its a design decision. I can think of many designs where topstitching plays an essential role and is part of the beauty of the design. Also there are times like the flat felled seam, where its an essential construction element. It can be essential visually to a garment, a part of the whole and when used thoughtfully is really compelling. This needs to be a decision on your part, because its part of how you want the garment to be designed and how you want the cloth to lay.
When it matters:
Some people prefer really clean, minimal construction, and they do not want a lot of lines on their clothing. This is when the use of proper facings and blind stitch and hemming become essential to the design.
Rule #5 Buying All Your Tools at Once
This really isn't much of a rule, but I think its important to go slow in your accumulation of materials, tools, and machines. I'm all about having the tools and machines to better increase my success, but I have accumulated them over the course of 15 years, and I got each one when I needed and knew it would make a difference in my sewing.
Why this "rule" exists:
Because their are great tools and machines out there, that's without a doubt. And knowing what tool, or special part to use when and where to get the most professional, accomplished result, is highly satisfying.
When to not sweat it:
There was a recent article about the costs of sewing, that American's can easily spend $2000 to $3000 a year on quilting. Wow. It was never like that for me. I built my collection of tools by getting a few things a year, and when I really needed something, I saved up. And I purchased a better tool, or part to my machine, when I knew I had a specific reason to do so, and I had a project that I knew using and applying the tool would bring me a great result.
The reason to not go whole hog in the beginning, is you might end up with large investments that don't really suit your needs. That's why there's so many sergers for sale on craigslist. Get recommendations, talk to your friends, do your research, and take classes. You will find out what you need, when you need it, and why you need it. They why you need it is really important, because that ensures you will use the tool consistently in your practice.
Why it matters:
Buying the right tool, or machine, at the right time can help you exponentially grow in your sewing. They definitely speed things up. If you want to get my essential tool guide, go to this post that describes in depth what you need when you start sewing.
I think that the main point of this post is to encourage you to do what's best for you. Of course its important to seek out experts, but I love mixing their info with what I've found will work best for me, and what I'm currently creating. The parameters change so much, that one rule that works great for cotton, will not work for rayon. A pattern alteration that works great for a favorite pattern, will likely not work for all.