Sewing, unlike gardening, is a jargon-heavy pasttime. The young person who thinks she will learn to sew clothing, innocently thinking this will be a smooth process (after all, you just sit down and stitch fabric together, she's seen people do it, maybe even done a little of it for her teddy bear or something when she was younger), may be overwhelmed when she visits the sewing department in or, worse, a fabric store. There's row after row of things she's never heard of before and doesn't know how to use. Back home, she turns on PBS or a cable channel to a sewing program, thinking she will learn something, only to find the host is showing a more efficient way to do X, which might be helpful, only she doesn't know what X is and what it's used for, much less the old process which it is replacing. If our would-be sewer doesn't let herself be deterred by this and seeks a book on garment sewing from the library, odds are it's the TV sewing show problem all over again--the author assumes the reader has all sorts of basic information already and is just looking for intermediate level help.
And every one of these forays into the world of sewing blasts her over the head with new words. There's [deep breath here] single-fold bias tape, double-fold bias tape, hem tape, hem facing, seam binding, flexi-lace seam binding or hem tape, quilt binding, satin blanket binding, gimp, fold-over braid, fold over elastic, elastic thread, elastic cord, knitted elastic, braided elastic, plushback elastic, picot elastic, interfacing, fusible interfacing, sew-in interfacing, non-woven interfacing, tricot interfacing, facings, stay stitch, hem stitch, blind hem stitch, topstitch, understitch, stitch in the ditch, French seam, flat felled seam, Hong Kong finish, clean-finished, French dart, "rotate the dart", high bust, full bust, "make a muslin", "bag the lining", blanket stitch, buttonhole stitch, 1-step buttonhole, 4-step button hole, bobbin case, placket, fusible webbing, slipstitch... You get the idea.
Sewing books generally seem to suffer from the opposite problem to that knitting books currently have: they all seem to assume the reader knows lots of stuff already. Garment sewing needs its own version of Stitch and Bitch--i.e. something that will address the needs of the complete novice, by showing how to do things (and why), explaining the jargon when it's introduced, and giving some cheerleading along the way. As far as I know, that book is not yet out there, although I've heard good things about Wendy Mullins' Sew U.
The closest I've seen to what I envision is The Illustrated Hassle-free Make Your Own Clothes Book, by Sharon Rosenberg and Joan Wiener. This delightful little book was published in the early 1970s, in hardcover and later in Bantam paperback. (The paperback may have been abridged.)It is very much a product of its time (and therein lies much of its charm), but it is more notable for speaking to complete novices.
Here is the beginning of the introduction:
"About three years ago I decided to start making my own clothes. It
took me another half a year before I actually did it. Each day the goal would
loom in my head--a hodgepodge of scary patterns and intricate machinery,
technical stuff like seam-binding, new and freaky terms like selvage or darts.
Many days I lurked in Sharon's little sewing room, watching as she quickly
turned out pants and skirts, ponchos and shirts. My determination would
strengthen and I'd dash off to the sewing store, only to be confronted with the
old fears again. I asked Sharon to show me how to do it the way she did--without
patterns. And sure enough, after a brief indoctrination period, I became the
envy of my friends...."
Ms Wiener goes on to explain the authors' philosophy: "Sharon and I think clothes should feel good--comfortable, sensual; [w]e also think they should be easy to make within a relatively short period of time, fairly inexpensive and groovy to look at." Now that's a clothing philosophy I can get on board with; as much as there was to dislike about the hippies and overlapping movements of the time, that little sentence seems to me to sum up much of what was best about them.
In their easy-going, jargon-free way the authors divide up all fabric into Softs, Mediums, and Stiffs. I love it! Isn't this how most of us choose fabric?Wiener and Rosenberg are good at explaining practical stuff too. Take a look at this, which begins the section on facings:
'Don't be scared by the word "facing". It is merely an easy way toThese few sentences impress me because most sewing book authors would have jumped right into how to sew the facing without explaining what it actually is or (as Rosenberg and Wiener go on to do) how to design your own facings for the clothes you will make.
get a smooth turned edge at garment openings like necks and armholes. The facing
is a 2" or 3" piece of fabric that follows the shape of the opening.'
What kind of clothing do they teach you to make? Well, that's probably the rub for most people. These are definitely hippie clothes. I happen to like most hippie clothes, but there's a further problem. The authors explain that they do not sew darts into their tops, because they do not wear bras (bras "give your clothes a funny shape"); they do explain how to make darts in pants and skirts, but the clothes shown are generally shapeless. Shapeless clothes don't work very well on fat people, especially fat women, and there are way, way more fat people in American now than there were when this book was published. Non-thin women who want to make hassle-free patternless clothes may want to pair this book with Pattern-free Fashions by Mary Lee Trees Cole, which has advice for controlling excess fullness easily and, I guess you could say, somewhat intuitively. (More intuitively than in conventional dressmaking, anyway.)
Are there any other problems with the book? I wanted it to be longer because I was enjoying it so much, but it is possible some might wish it were longer because they would like a little more discussion of, say, fabric choice or deciding what size to make their scarves. Additionally, there are a few spots where the book could have been organized a bit better: the Add-On Sleeves subsection should really have been put either right after the Basic Top/Dress or after all the dresses and just before the set-in sleeves, rather than sandwiched in the middle of all the dresses/tops; I think the men's and the AC/DC (unisex) clothing sections could have been combined, especially given the author's views on the swapability of clothing styles; and the skirt fabric suggestions are in the tops and dresses section with no rhyme nor reason. The other (very small) potential problem I see is that the authors use the term selvage when referring to seam allowances. I 've never seen that usage before, and I think it could be a little confusing to the complete novice, although it shouldn't faze anyone else.
And there are two potential non-problem problems relating to the book's age and nature. There is no discussion of special considerations in sewing knits or stretchy wovens. For the reason, check the publishing date: 1971, which I figure means the book was likely written in 1970, maybe '69. There were fewer knits around, synthetics in general were so new many home sewers weren't using them yet, and some of fabrics we have today hadn't been invented yet; moreover, a lot of the synthetic fabric that was around in the early '70s was polyester double knit which was so stable it could, I think, be sewn like wovens and was so aggressively synthetic and unpleasant to the touch that it was not very hippie-like. As to the other non-problem, I've noticed some people react badly to books which use drawings instead of photos or black-and-white photos instead of color. I figure anybody like that wouldn't bother with this book in the first place, so it's definitely a non-problem.
The rest of us, who don't expect a book to be what it is not and who can dig a little of that early-'70s, hippie feel now and again, can enjoy this book. You don't even have to look for a secondhand source, as I did, as Skyhorse Publishing has just re-issued the book and it is available inexpensively from Amazon and other online bookstores. I haven't seen the re-issue and so can't tell you if it was given any additions or other changes, but I can point you to a website with scans of a few pages of the '70s paperback and to a site with a picture of that first paperback's cover--very different from the new cover!
Even people who aren't keen on creating a peasant or hippie vibe in their daily life might enjoy this book for creating costumes or as a non-intimidating introduction to sewing. One, perhaps unexpected, group who might benefit from this book are Harry Potter fans who want to make wizard robes. Although the films put the characters in Muggle clothing much of the time (understandably--it increases audience identification with the characters and allows the Hogwarts scenes to be more visually appealing than a sea of black robes and hats would be), the books make it clear that wizards wear robes most of the time, and a close reading shows that these robes have more in common with some of the dress styles in The Illustrated Hassle-free Make Your Own Clothes Book than with the Oxbridge-like school robes of the films--though you could use the book to help you make those too.
So light up some patchouli incense (or grab a handful of Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, if that's your thing), lie back on some floor-pillows, and read happily.