Is your sewing machine gathering dust in the corner? Did best intentions of making your own clothes go skew-whiff?
Needlecrafts and knitting, the hobbies that kept our grandmothers busy as bees, are back in fashion. Women determined to beat both recession and chainstore mundanity are picking up their needles and new skills galore.
But not everyone finds its a seamless transition from novice to nimble-fingered.
Many a frustrated tear is shed over seams that refuse to run straight, shifts that stubbornly remain shapeless and blouses that don’t blossom according to plan.
Take heart, though; with a bit of instruction, it’s sew, sew easy, says the Sheffield woman determinedly streamlining amateur sewers into creditable seamstresses.
Gill Walker, for 25 years a pattern cutter in the fashion industry, reckons there are thousands of machines lying forlorn in cupboards under South Yorkshire stores. And she aims to set them singing again.
“Forget the way the bossy school sewing mistress made you feel you were all pricked fingers and thumbs. And banish from your mind all those finicky, time-consuming steps she insisted upon,” says Gill. “It’s a lot easier than you think to make professional-looking clothes that you will love wearing.”
Many a would-be seamstress will probably recognise Gill. She had a long career pattern-cutting for well-known jeans brands and Sheffield eveningwear couturier Lesley Sandra - whose dresses were worn by Shirley Bassey and city songbird and comedienne Mart Caine. She then became a sewing machine demonstrator at John Lewis.
“I was there for seven years; lots of people didn’t want sewing machines, they just wanted help,” she recalls. “They would come brandishing patterns they couldn’t fathom and garments that had gone wrong.”
That’s what gave her the idea to set up a sewing school after redundancy in 2009. “I knew there must be lots of desperate, thwarted sewers out there,” says Gill, 54.
“People of all ages and walks of life turn up to my classes. From the young to the retired, the sense of achievement and the pleasure of having unique things appeals to them. Though a lot of career women really enjoy the focus. It’s a great stress-reliever.”
Gill is enthusiastic about reviving a skill she believes was in danger of dying out.
“It’s fun, it’s creative and it’s useful,” she says. “I make virtually all my own clothes and I’m forever re-inventing things I own with a bit of nifty needlework.
“It can save you a fortune. That cheapie dress you bought in Primark? Make a few changes to it and no one would ever know.
“And come autumn when you think you need a new winter coat, you can alter the one you’ve got. It’s amazing what a difference a new hem length and different buttons can make.”
Three women try to make an make an outfit in a day
Val Christopher, Shirley Bilby and daughter Carol Goodison arrived at Gill’s sewing session at Bank Street Arts in the city centre clutching swatches of fabric and sewing machines but battling nerves.
“It sounds like a huge task. Most novices would say there’s no way they could make a dress in just one day. But it is perfectly possible,” Gill encouraged.
Our determined three had been given a hand-made pattern by Gill and worked for six hours. They were delighted to be able to model fully-finished frocks by the end.
Though many a top tip from the industry insider was picked up along the way, surprisingly, not a single pin was.
Said Gill: “In fashion factories no one uses them. Instead, you cut tiny notches into the fabric edge and marry them up as you sew pieces together. That’s just one of the secrets that save time and make sewing simpler.”
Despite not having sewn anything since the simple little dresses for her daughter Helena 30 years ago, recently retired Val Christopher turned out a sleek, on-trend white shirt dress from 1.5 metres of gaberdine fabric from John Lewis.
“I really didn’t think I’d be able to make it in a day. I thought it would be far too difficult,” said the 65-year-old from Thorpe Hesley.
“Cutting out the fabric was the most nerve-wracking bit. I was wavering around some of the curves. You don’t want to spoil it all right at the beginning,” she said. “Being shown how to lay out the pattern and fabric properly, and having an expert on hand while cutting, made a real difference though.
“We were shown how to tack with the sewing machine, which saved loads of time over doing it by hand. And Gill explained how to tweak the pattern to make it right.”
Val reckons her classy white dress would have been priced around £100 in a shop, but needs a few more nips and tucks to get the perfect fit she’s after. “I know how to do it now, though,” she said.
Total cost: £15.
As a teenage office junior, Carol Goodison blew her first month’s wages on a sewing machine. But the knack of turning out professional-looking clothes evaded her - and most things went in the bin.
Some 15 years ago, she gave up, put her machine in a cupboard and forgot about it.
But the Stannington housewife still yearned to make her own clothes and jumped at our challenge. “My chance to find out what I did wrong all those years,” she said, brandishing two metres of soft, muted green fabric from Hillsbrough Fine Fabrics
“I cut the dress out under Gill’s instructions and sewed it carefully.
“But it was miles too big; it looked like a tent and I was so disappointed.
“This was the stage I’d reached so many times before and I was sure that once again, all my hard work would end up in the bin.
“But Gill showed me how to alter it to fit. I’d happily go out on a Saturday night in my dress,” she said. “I feel really proud of it.”
Total cost: £6.
A bolt of fabric Shirley Bilby had stuffed in a drawer years ago became her chic new summer dress in just six hours. The 76-year-old from Stannington was the most experienced machinist
“At 16 I was given a tiny machine that only did cross-stitch, then my mother in-law gave me her old treadle Singer and I taught myself by trial and error,” she said. “I’ve made lots of clothes over the years, but I always felt they looked too home-made. I wanted tips on how to get that perfect finish.”
The brown and white striped fabric she bought because it was a bargain swiftly became an A-line, V-necked, mid-calf frock she’s planning to wear on her next holiday.
“At first the dress wasn’t quite right. With Gill’s help I tweaked the neckline to the right shape and depth to suit my figure and got the length spot-on. Those little touches made all the difference. It suddenly suited me - and looked like I’d bought it.
“Like many women my age, I really struggle to find dresses. They’re usually way too short and fitted. My made-to-measure one is perfect - and has spurred me on to make more clothes.”
Total cost: £4
Gill’s tips for a professional finish
Don’t trust the pattern’s size 14 to be your size 14. Take your measurements, add 5cm for a dress or blouse, 10cm for a coat and check these on the paper. It may be worth making the lining first to be sure of a good fit before cutting expensive fabric.
Using a large stitch on your machine, put the main pieces of the garment together, then try it on. There’s nothing more sure to make you abandon a project than trying it on when it’s almost finished and finding it’s too tight.
An iron is possibly the most important piece of kit for a dressmakers. Un-pressed seams are a dead give away for a home-made item. Use a damp cloth and flatten all darts and seams as you sew.
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