Stitched Up

4th March 2011

Clare Finney gets the needle. Or doesn’t.

It was going to be my Everything Tee. All-season, all-purpose, with a boyfriend fit and bias-cut, this top would mark the start of my simple life… my own unique contribution towards the environment, the economy and the Slow Movement.

It was a disaster. Baggy and asymmetrical, with ends that defied even my best Girl Guide knots, the garment that materialised was less Vogue, more vagrant with a drink habit. This, I told my reflection, was how Dr Frankenstein must have felt upon waking his monster; except that where Frankenstein had been meddling at the forefront of medical science, my failure lay in attempting what had been second nature to members of my grandmother’s generation. I was just trying to make my own clothes.

Of course not everyone is so domestically inept as myself. For those who are, though, here is a general list of sewing dos and don’ts from the girl who’s been there, tried that and failed to get the T-shirt.
Do keep it simple

I say this with the authority of bitter, bitter experience: if you cannot tell your back stitch from your run and fell seam, you cannot even begin to think about that T-Shirt. My advice is to start at a button and work up, choosing projects according to what you know rather than by your desire to jazz up your entire wardrobe. If you are itching to make something (and have the wherewithal to do so), try putting together an apron out of some old dresses or tops. You’ll need to know how to sew a hem (slip stitch) and to sew fabric together (back stitch) but it’s quite simple. I’m told. Personally, I am more tempted by Elspeth Thompson’s idea in her book Homemade: use an old, unstained tea-towel where the hem and the shape are already catered for. Add ribbon. Done.

Do not buy a fancy sewing machine

It’s big investment for what stress and time may tell to be a passing phase – and as the older generation is quick to point out, in their day they made do without them. Should your nature of project demand it, borrow from a friend and family member. That way, even if said garment doesn’t work out, you will have learned just what it’s like to have one of these mechanical guilt trips gathering dust in your lounge without owning one yourself – a bit like looking after your neighbour’s cat for a week.

Do ask your elders

Aspiring seamstresses whose grandmothers are still ‘alive and knitting’ should ask now – even if it involves partaking some of granny’s humble pie first. Top tips from my own grandmother include tacking (that’s sew-speak for fastening bits of fabric together temporarily before you sew them, using pins or long stitches); checking what stitch to use for which task; ironing out the materials before you start (thereby avoiding the bumps and bunching that blight my T-Shirt); always working from a pattern, even if it’s one you draw out yourself; and having to hand at all times, a] a scarily sharp pair of haberdashery scissors – and b] a cuppa.

Do join a class if you have the time

Though evidence to the contrary might seem overwhelming, grandmothers and great aunts were not simply born with sewing needles in their hands. My own grandma’s first project was making a pair of knickers – and the story of her holding her new pants proudly up in front of her teacher, only to be told to unpick them and start again – has quite literally had me in stitches. Fifty years on and she’s something of a dab hand, but she still maintains that, had it not been for her childhood classes, she too would be in a tangle over needles and threads. Nowadays Needlework has all but left the syllabus (the proliferation of Primark and disposable income having spelled an end to Britain’s make-do-and-mend philosophy) – but if you’re intent on being taught then Stitch London in Pinner has evening and Saturday classes and is suitable for children and adults aged seven to 70.

Do ask your kids

Okay, so maybe not your actual kids – they’ll probably just point you to your nearest Primark – but do take advantage of all the fantastic resources out there that are created for them. For some reason, while adults are severely undercatered for in the way of basic DIY guides on the internet, children have more than they know what to do with. Particularly impressive is the BBC’s portal Thread, an online magazine on how to achieve an ‘eco-glam look’ that was created off the back of a series highlighting our throwaway attitude to shopping. It hasn’t been updated for a while, but that doesn’t mean the DIY tips (or indeed the issues discussed) are out of date . Features like Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts and Clocking on for a 7-day working week are essential viewing for anyone thinks slow, sustainable fashion is an old-fashioned waste of time.

Do not Google

Even the Google generation will struggle to pick their way though the tangle of forums thrown up by the search term ‘sew’. These forums are dominated by grannies who see the world wide web as a chance for them to endlessly discuss the relative merits of closed herringbone versus couch trellis. Do not listen to them. They will only confuse you.

Do not shop for stuff online

See above. A notable exception to this rule, though, is HobbyCraft, an arts and crafts superstore which boasts a website that’s surprisingly accessible, given that its real life stores resemble the needleworker’s answer to Tesco Extra.

Do befriend your shopkeeper

That is, if they know what they’re doing. John Lewis is a safe bet, albeit an expensive one. Partners employed in their Haberdashery department are required to know the ins and outs of dressmaking and needlework, and if you go in a quiet moment they’ll help you with anything. That said, if you can’t trust yourself to enter JL without spending (and do bear in mind that Haberdashery is on the fourth floor) then Watford Market is a surprising but equally helpful alternative – not least because in the hustle and bustle of a marketplace its far easier to confess that, if you’re really honest, you don’t know how to sew on a button. If they’re good (and at Kayte’s Needlecraft and Michael’s Fabrics they really are) they’ll explain the basics, run through what you’ll need (and supply you with it too), and invite you back if you get stuck.

Do not tie dye

Do not even go near it. It’s messy, unpredictable and terribly hard to undo. If, however you insist on looking like something the seventies left behind, may I suggest you refrain from using all-purpose dye (which will work on many different kinds of fabric and yarn, but not particularly well on any of them) – and don’t, whatever you do, team your finished tie-dye with checks, stripes, spots, bright colours or anything other than denim.

Do buy Cath Kidston

And no, I don’t mean her finished goods, though they are beautiful. I mean her books. Not one to keep her cards close to her chest, Cath has produced a range of guides on getting that unmistakable look. The most recent of these, Stitch!, provides a flowery host of simple needlepoint projects for you to undertake. I’m told it’s pretty difficult to go wrong: every pattern is described in simple, primary-coloured detail, and there’s even a little kit to get you started. Yet with the art of running stitch still eluding me, I can’t help but think Cath’s first book, Sew!, might be more appropriate. ‘Whether you're an absolute beginner or an old hand, Sew! has something for everyone!’ declares the blurb, before going on to give me explicit guides to essential equipment, techniques and seams and edges. With a little bag-making kit included you can get the buzz quite quickly. Still, I’m disappointed at the number of references made to the sewing machine. Is there no guide out there whose answers will cater for those who are both domestically hopeless and frugal, whether by necessity or choice?

Do ask the ‘Sewing Answer Book’

At RRP £9.99 this is a little easier on the purse strings than Cath, her sewing machines and her inside-out Tote bags. With Q&As on everything from types of fabrics to seams, linings and fastenings, it’s as valuable to an expert as it is to an incompetent. Even my grandma was hooked – on page 357. I was still pinned to Section 2: Needles and Threads.

And if all else fails…

go to a tailoring service, where you’ll find those who can are more than happy to rescue or restyle the clothes of those who pathologically can not. It might sound like a cop out, but in a country that throws away 900,000 tonnes of clothing a year, it’s a darn sight better than nothing. At least then you can dress yourself safe in the knowledge that you are funding and supporting the Slow Movement – even if you aren’t quite spearheading it.

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