Newbie sewing for the inept crafter

sewing machine
Picture of my sewing machine that I bought a few weeks into the course. I feel like I should give it a name. Maybe Bessie?

As long as I can remember, I’ve admired those people out there who made things using their hands. Painters, knitters, sculptors, carpenters, the whole shebang. They seemed to be in the same league of intrigue and mystery to me that I felt my first ever French class (immersion style) in high school. These pantheons of greatness had the knowledge, skills and dexterity to create beautiful things seemingly effortlessly.

When I was younger, I remember trying to awkwardly get my fingers and hands to cooperate to learn various crafty skills, from cross stitch at my after school care to lanyards (essentially the 90s version of loom bands for the uninitiated) at summer day camp. The lanyards I just about got a basic grasp of, but all other things involved making something using my hands for the most part, was a colossal failure. It could be the fact that I’ve always hand very long, slender, ET-like fingers that just get in the way and are incredibly cumbersome in doing intricate tasks. It could be my lack of experience because I didn’t really grow up doing those sorts of things at home, they were more fleeting opportunities at school, with friends, or at day care.

Here in the UK, all kids have to take “Textiles” (aka sewing) for a certain period of time while they’re in Key Stage 3 (aka Middle School). This means over in these parts, my complete lack of knowledge of even being able to sew a button on something or use a sewing machine is particularly rare, yay! I have searched for years over here to find a sewing class for absolute beginners with no luck, not even a local independent fabric store that runs sewing classes in-house could offer me one, d’oh!

But why, you may ask, am I so interested in sewing?

Well… I don’t want to have to rely on my mother-in-law’s skills to fix my family’s stuff.

Oh, and two of my intentions for 2018 are to get creative and connect, so learning something as functional as sewing in a night class allows me to use my creativity and connect with new humans once a week!

I’m an independent woman (cue Destiny’s Child getting stuck in my head for the rest of the day, or, even better, Elbow’s version with the cats in the video, no, seriously, check it out, it’s like a snapshot of the internet circa… 2003?) and if I can’t do something myself, or at least have a darn good go at it to reach “that’ll do” status, it annoys me.

Despite the exterior, I’m a treehugging hippie at heart, and I’ve always loved imagining myself being able to give things a new lease of life, avoiding wastage and upcycling stuff using my sewing skills to repurpose things. Think Kirstie Allsopp but less polished and more Californian. That’s about how I see my ideal myself in my daydreams where I can craft and sew.

The reality? Totally different.

First week’s attempt at sewing in straight lines and using different stitches with varying degrees of success.

Week 1: Come into class, trying to absorb everything, but my brain hurts really quickly. It was a beginners class, but everyone had experience sewing at a fairly decent level. Except for me. They were just a bit rusty was all. They were taking off and soaring quickly after dusting the cobwebs off that area of their brain. There was one lady teaching us and offering support, and while I needed a lot of the stuff, I was also acutely aware that others needed the help too and I didn’t want to hog her all to myself to the detriment of the others.

Meanwhile, I had lots of stuff to take in, like threading the machine and trying to sew in a straight line. I kept “breaking the machine” a lot, which I now realize my problem was I was always forgetting the put the foot down, so when I tried to sew I’d create a cascade of loose stitches and bung up the machine. Damn foot! I came home crying.

Week 2: Not much progress, I was able to sew straightish enough lines for government work, but this damn foot thing was messing with me. I was forgetting to put it down. On the upside I could disassemble the machine, clean it out and reassemble it about as well as a soldier with their gun after boot camp! I choked back a lot of tears of frustration that night and came home crying. That night or the next day, I bought this sewing machine***. It was (at the time) only £10 more expensive than the secondhand ones I was watching on eBay, it worked and it came with a DVD. It was perfect. I could rewatch things I was struggling with a bajillion times on my laptop right next to the machine.

I stitched together 3 squares of fabric for my 9 square couch cushion cover. It felt like a major achievement!

What I achieved by the end of our 3rd 2 hour lesson, plus a bit of practice at home!

Week 3: A.k.a. The Turning Point. I had my own machine rather than borrowing one. I had a much better idea of what I was doing and I fairly quickly stitched together the remaining 6 squares of fabric for my cushion cover. Dare I say… it looked good? I’m not a perfectionist (you might have figured that out by now), my motto is “eh, that’ll do!”. I was pleased with it and for once didn’t feel like crying during the class and didn’t erupt into tears once I got home! It felt good.

Misunderstanding the instructions during week 4. I thought I needed to quilt it so both sides of the fabric were sown together. This was a mistake, whoops!

Week 4: Abandoning the cushion cover project for now because I kind of… kept forgetting to buy a pillow to make said cover for. Whoops! Lots of us went to Aldi the previous Sunday for their sewing special buys. I got some more fat quarters (a.k.a. material), a rotary cutter (think pizza cutter but for fabric) and quilter’s grid.

We opted for a small bag (think cosmetics bag / pencil case) instead. It looked insanely complicated. My brain seriously hurt after all of the things I learned, like putting padding on, quilting, switching to the zipper foot and putting a zipper in. I was close to finishing (I didn’t realize this at the time, it didn’t seem like it!), but left it a week and didn’t work on it in between classes.

Original zip I had bought for my bag… left it at home during week 4, so had to borrow one. Whoops!

Week 5: Last class of the half-term, make or break time. The goal was to finish my little bag. I reinforced the zipper, sewed the sides together. I knew then that it was the moment of truth… pulling everything through the hole I had left in the bottom. I was eyeing up the one the lady next to me was working on. She used dark colored fabric. Smart! It hides the imperfections. Damn, why didn’t I think of that? I watched her pull hers so it was right side out. It looked great!

I gulped heavily, wondering what would meet me on the other side of my own bag. I pulled and pulled and pulled. And? It looked like an actual bag! Honestly, no one was more astonished than me. It looked cute! And surprisingly well-made! And the zipper actually functioned! I was floored. Flabbergasted. No, astonished was truly the correct word to accurately capture that moment. I felt I was the first alchemist to create gold. I genuinely hadn’t expected it to look as good as it had!

Everyone knew how hard I had found everything was so amazingly supportive, eagerly asking me to bring my little pride and joy over to show it off. The lady who runs the group convinced me to go let the lady who organizes the night classes to have a gander. It felt really strange to put myself out there and really boast what I had done, but it was a big accomplishment for me and nice to let others see it.

Am I going to continue? 

For the time being, yes. I will be signing up again for next half term and who knows what I’ll actually be able to create by then? It was good to genuinely struggle with a new skill, persevere and see it through. It made me really appreciate all of the kids who I have taught where Languages was totally not their thing. I mean, I always had an inkling of what their struggle was like because Math had always been that way for me, but it was good to have a more recent reminder. I’m grateful I had the grit to stick with it and produce something. Honestly, I had similar struggles at first when I first began to play the clarinet and later, the trombone, and I now absolutely love playing music, so who knows where I’ll be a few years down the line with this sewing malarkey?

Why share this experience? 

I think it’s hard on the internet to appreciate the process of learning something new. We see a lot of finished products floating around and things that look shiny and exciting, yet we rarely see the struggle. We rarely get to hear about the setbacks and the twists and turns in the learning process. I know I am certainly guilty of wanting to just be good at something already!

It’s so, so good to remind ourselves every once in a while that mastery does not come without hours of practice, mistakes, resilience and perseverance, especially if you have kids that are in your care. Perfection doesn’t matter (fixed mindset), mistakes are okay because it’s how you learn. Praise them for the mistakes and trying in the first place and they’ll do great things without fear.


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