I was eleven years old and desperate to learn how to sew. I'd watched my mother at her sewing machine making a few dresses for me and had pestered her for years already to teach me how. She'd been quick to give me all of her scraps and a needle and thread but was still hesitant to turn me loose on the sewing machine. She didn't respect her own shoot-from-the-hip method enough to pass it on to me, so she asked my paternal grandmother to teach me how to sew.
Granny was a real seamstress. She had the fancy sewing machines and all the right tools. She was a genius at following a pattern and coming out with a perfect product; from clothing to fine quilts, Granny was the best.
My mom took me to spend a day with Granny, who would teach me how to sew. She took me to buy fabric and a pattern at the nearest fabric store. That part was pretty thrilling and I could hardly wait to make the cute little calico skirt I could already see in my mind's eye.
I find myself wanting to completely skip the next part of this story because I'm already stressed out just thinking about it. But you'll miss the point if I do, so here goes…
She had me unfold the pattern and showed me how to carefully cut it out, including all the little triangles that you need to line up the pieces. She had me iron the pattern; then the material. Then she had me read the pattern all the way through from beginning to end to make sure I had everything I needed. Then she had me lay the material out and lay the pattern on top of it. Straight pins every six inches were needed to hold the pattern perfectly in place. Double-check everything.
I can't stand any more.
It took all day, two days in a row, to get my skirt done. By the time I was done I knew that sewing was not my calling and never would be. I was convinced I hated sewing.
Eventually I recovered and regained interest in sewing after watching my mom make a simple dress from two pieces of material and a piece of elastic. I was sure I could make that dress. I decided to ask for a sewing machine for my thirteenth birthday.
Dad bought me a sewing machine and Mom got me a pile of fabric. A fellow who worked for my Dad bought me a pair of scissors. I was in business! For years I'd watched Mom just cut out whatever and sew it. I tried to do the same. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. I made some things I really loved and ruined a lot of material along the way. I did need a teacher, but who?
When I was 14, I met a lady named Susanna who sewed prolifically and made all of her own patterns. One day I happened to be at Susanna's house when she was altering one of her own patterns to make a new one for my cousin. She measured my cousin's shoulders, her waist, her bust, the length of her torso, her neck, her arms, and her height from waist to floor. Then she laid out her own newspaper pattern on new, uncut newspaper and, using the measurements she had taken, she added to or subtracted here and there, sketching with a pencil on the background paper until she had the new pattern sketched out.
“See, here,” she said as she worked, “she's a bigger person than me, so the shoulder will be a half-inch longer like I measured, and the armhole will be about one inch deeper. Now, she needs the waistband to be bigger too, so I know that I'll need the bodice to be wider so that there will be extra material to gather. Bigger waistband, more bodice material… ”
I watched as she cut out the material with the new pattern and sewed it. It fit perfectly!
I was amazed. It only took one “lesson” that lasted less than two hours for me to finally understand the art of sewing. I have ever since enjoyed the freedom to make up my own patterns. Nowadays I can look at a photograph for a few minutes and then take my own measurements and reproduce what I see in the picture.
My cousin, who was having a dress made that day, was more like my grandmother and benefited from my grandmother's instruction much more than I did. She went on to study mathematics in college and eventually became an attorney. Unlike me, she excelled at following directions and sewed according to a pattern. Susanna's method of both sewing and teaching was too “risky” for her, while the store-bought-pattern method was too confining for me.
The ability to choose the right teacher comes from observing oneself. If you know how you learn, then you will be able to find a teacher who can meet your needs. I did not know that I learn best from watching someone else and being shown the underlying principles, so I was disheartened when my first lesson (with Granny) failed me.
Providence afforded me the right teacher in time; but had I known the kind of teacher I needed, I might have been able to satisfy my desire to sew even sooner. I might even have been able to lead my mom in teaching me by asking the right questions.
Choosing the right teacher at the moment you need a teacher is not always possible. But if you know how you learn you will be able to identify good teachers for yourself throughout your whole life. You will be able to say “that grandmother can teach me how to cook… that farmer can teach me how to shear sheep… that herbalist can teach me how to take care of my health… ”