I recently watched a video by the phenomenal Leena Norms, in which she bought herself a very cheap sewing machine and had a bash at teaching herself to sew. This blog post takes you through my reaction, as a vaguely professional seamstress, to what she made and how she made it.
First off, I heartily recommend subscribing to Leena’s YouTube channel. In addition to her marvelous sense of humour, she has a commendable attitude to trying new things and getting creative, which I could really do with embracing myself a bit more often. She covers profound and complex topics with humility and poise but also makes videos about dressing like Mean Girls characters or explaining how to make your capsule wardrobe less beige. If you need honest and amusing advice on something, Leena’s probably got you covered.
I must also state that I have basically nothing but praise for everything in the video I’ll be reacting to. I won’t be trashing or mocking her efforts. In fact, quite the opposite.
This video turned out to be a great watch for anyone who sews or is interested in giving sewing a try. It also took me on a trip down memory lane and left me with a few musings about how people who don’t know much about sewing see this crafty world from the outside.
Leena’s Assessment of Sewing
“I’m not saying that it doesn’t look incredibly hard . . . DRAMATIC PAUSE . . . but it doesn’t look undoable”
This is a highly accurate assessment about the skills required to make/mend clothes. Like any craft, sewing is not impossible once you’ve acquired a little know-how, made some mistakes, and put in an unspecified number of hours of practice. While we should absolutely respect the skills of the experts, the basics of sewing are well within the reach of the average schmuck.
The Sewing Machine
“I find the cheapest sewing machine money can buy, yes guys, £26.99”
WARNING, I’M ABOUT TO BE A MASSIVE SNOB!
How fucking much?! £26.99 is not enough money for a sewing machine. My seamstress soul shrivels up when she declares that it doesn’t even do reverse stitch. Almost every line of stitching I’ve ever done involved reverse stitching!
I’ve used some truly woeful sewing machines in my life and the sight of this bargain basement machine provokes flashbacks of frustrating incidents involving broken needles, loose stitching, and (even by my standards) a hell of a lot of swearing.
Initially, I’m disappointed that Leena doesn’t go for a second-hand machine, which would also have been cheap but probably better quality. On the other hand, I understand why she chooses this machine. Buying second-hand is difficult in lockdown as you often have to travel and physically collect the machine in person.
If you’ve never bought a sewing machine before you won’t know how many buttons and levers it should have never mind about what they all do, and the sheer number of options out there can be baffling.
I also understand why you wouldn’t want to invest a lot of money in a sewing machine if you’re not confident that it will be used very regularly.
All that being said, my gut reaction is that something like a sewing machine shouldn’t be so cheap that it can be considered such a trivial or disposable item. Although, I also know I’m being a snob and that this kind of machine is sometimes the best option.
So many feelings for £26.99!
I am very impressed with the variety of projects Leena gets through in this video. I’m not sure how long it is in real-world time, but in internet time, over the course of a 23-minute video she produces:
Scrunchies from a drawstring bag that a pair of Lucy and Yak jeans were delivered in
A cutlery set holder (aka “The Planet Saving Buritto”) from a placemat and the string from the drawstring bag mentioned above
A top and a skirt from a dress no longer loved as one item
A top made from Beatrix Potter fabric from an old skirt
A repaired pair of pants
Many repaired holes in many inner thighs of many trousers (a phenomena she refers to as “the blind thigh”)
Not quite a bikini (more on that later)
A dungaree wrap dress from dungaree trousers
Not a bad collection of largely successful projects.
I find a generous helping of joy in how superbly Leena uses resources she already has to bring these creations into being. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m an enthusiastic advocate of repurposing and reinventing materials and Leena does this brilliantly.
One of the barriers that may well hold people back from getting into sewing is the price of, not just the kit, but the fabric. I wholeheartedly believe that good quality, ethically produced fabric should not be dirt cheap. It takes effort and resources to produce top notch fabric, and this should be reflected in the price. Be that as it may, there are still plenty of affordable alternatives to using new fabric, many of which may well be sitting in your cupboard/wardrobe waiting to reach their full potential.
Leena’s experience also highlights the value of alteration and customisation. It’s not essential to start from scratch when producing your own clothes. Maybe you can transform a garment you already own from something you like to something you love by adjusting the hem length, taking a seam in, or adding some new buttons.
“It was all going so well until it came unthreaded, and I tried to teach myself with the instruction booklet but at this point it was quite late at night and I had to . . . I rage quit.”
The sewing induced rage quit. I know it well.
As much as I adore sewing, I have to confess that it has caused its fair share of tantrums and tears.
Machines that won’t stitch properly no matter how many times I re-thread them, twiddle with the tension dials or take the whole contraption apart to give it a bloody good clean. Instructions on dodgy patterns that make no bloody sense. Sleeves with unreasonable amounts of ease that refuse to get in the gosh darn armhole. All of these have had me stomping angrily away from my sewing table and swapping my scissors for a bottle of gin.
I once got so angry with a purple velvet jacket that refused to bend to my will that I repeatedly punched it as it lay helplessly yet defiantly on the table before me. Luckily, I was sewing on a flimsy wallpaper pasting table at the time. If I’d been using my current much sturdier table, I would have had some broken fingers to rage about on top of my sewing woes.
Sometimes the best thing you can do when reduced to an angry shell of your former self by an unruly piece of sewing is to step away and come back to it once you’ve calmed down. As Leena says:
“Rage quitting isn’t a failure. It’s part of the journey”
“I had fun unpicking that along with my ever-dwindling self-esteem"
Melancholy music plays, the video turns to black and white, and rain gently falls over the scene
This pretty much sums up how I feel about unpicking stitching. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell yourself “I’ll learn from this mistake” or “never mind, I can fix this”. Dealing with the time-consuming ramifications of your own incompetence is rubbish.
Curse you, consequences of my own actions!
“I can’t find a ruler but I have got this piece of paper [shows small rectangle of paper to the camera] so I’m just going to use that. Because, I think the thing about measuring . . . is that it just has to be the same length. The length doesn’t have to have a title, a name.”
Never a truer word was spoken.
With some sewing projects, you absolutely should measure things accurately. With a tape measure. Not a random piece of paper. But obscene levels of accuracy, like all things, should be used at an appropriate time and in an appropriate place.
For example, if you can just as easily establish a button’s appropriate position with a ruler or handy random object (like a piece of paper) why wouldn’t you use the random object? The result is the same.
If you have no intention of making the exact same thing again, it really doesn’t matter if you wing it when it comes to measuring. If the tool tells you what you need to know, facilitates what you’re trying to achieve, and produces the right result then who gives a toss what you used to measure it?
The "Nobody's Going to See it" Rule
“. . .should probably have tailor’s chalk for this but a biro works fine and nobody’s gonna see it so, like, give a shit”
Ah, another old friend. The “Nobody’s Going to See it” rule.
This one rings very true thanks to my past life in theatre. When making costumes for the stage and obsessing over every little detail, I’ve found it pays to take a step back and remember that the audience is usually at least ten feet away and won’t notice the odd misplaced stitch.
Even when you’re up close and personal with the actors and their costumes, it’s amazing what goes unnoticed.
One very lovely actor, who didn’t want to increase my already fairly hefty workload, waited weeks to tell me that the sleeve of his aviator jacket was almost completely detached from the body. Despite walking past him wearing that jacket at least twice a show for five or six nights a week, I didn’t have a clue it was broken.
Of course, I was horrified when he eventually showed it to me and immediately repaired it.
Anyway, the moral of the story is, if you’re happy with how something looks, the chances are everyone else is too busy thinking about other shit to care if you’ve left a small biro mark on the inside of a chopped-up pair of dungarees.
“I’m going to try and put pins where I need the back bit to be [while wearing the item that needs pinning]. If I end up deflating my own ass, remember me this way”
Fitting clothing on yourself is difficult. If you can contort yourself sufficiently to reach the parts of the garment that you want to pin, they will almost certainly not be in the right place when you return yourself to a more conventional position, thus making the whole exercise entirely pointless.
In my own attempts to fit garments on my body, I’ve stabbed myself more times, and in more places, than I care to count or admit. Thankfully my pin wielding skills are much better when used on garments worn by other people.
[After attempting to turn a swimming costume into a bikini by cutting it in half and hemming the edges] “When you’re sewing something that’s elastic, you probably need to use elastic thread. Lesson learned.”
Ah, stretchy fabric, you tricky mistress!
I’d bet that everyone who sews regularly has done this. You sew a hem or a seam in stretchy fabric with a regular straight stitch and one of two things happens. Either your stitching removes the stretchy quality of the fabric completely, preventing you from getting the garment onto whichever body part it was intended for. Or you’re taunted by the sound of ripping thread as the stretchy fabric defeats your insufficiently springy stitching and tears it apart. Whichever way it goes, you’re left with a useless garment and a load of unpicking to do.
I have been sewing for many years now and stretchy fabric still frightens me. I actively avoid using it and have often regretted using it when I’ve had the courage to do so. I’m sure it’s not as frightening as I’ve built it up in my head to be, but it’s certainly a chink in my sewing armour.
“I should never have been as intimidated by sewing as I think we’re encouraged to be”
This statement confused me and sparked some questions:
Who are the people that made you believe that sewing is intimidating?
Have I accidentally become one of them?
Where can I find these people? I’d like to meet them and tell them they’re idiots. Even if I’m one of them!
I’m certainly guilty of banging on about how underappreciated sewing and other practical skills are compared to supposedly loftier theoretical pursuits (I have a whole article you can read about it, if you’re so inclined). I wonder if that kind of chat contributes to the idea that sewing is too difficult for the general public.
Perhaps it’s a generational thing. Many members of my mother and grandmother’s generations acquired sewing skills seemingly by osmosis. However, outside of my friends who work in theatre, very few people I know of my age have any clue how to wield a needle and thread in a productive manner.
It’s thanks to this millennial blind spot that I saved a fortune charging by the gin and tonic to repair the clothes of Husband’s university friends.
As with any field of expertise, perhaps the fancy lingo and seemingly endless amount of kit you can buy for sewing causes people to shy away from giving it a try. Upon walking into a shop like Hobbycraft, you’ll find so many rows of different types of threads, buttons, zips, sewing machines, scissors, fabrics, and haberdashery that not having a clue where to start is a perfectly reasonable reaction.
Whatever the reason may be, I’m siding with Leena on this one. You don’t need to be intimidated. People have been sewing for thousands of years and you can too. If you want to give sewing a shot but find the whole idea overwhelming here’s a few tips for starting out:
YouTube is your friend. As Leena mentions, there are thousands of video tutorials to guide you through all aspects of sewing. As an experienced seamstress, I still find good tutorials an absolute god send when tackling new projects
Start small. Make something simple like a scrunchie. Each item you make will add another page to your encyclopedia of sewing know-how. You can then draw on the skills you gain making simpler stuff when tackling more complicated projects in the future
Use what you have. You’ll feel far more confident hacking into something that’s been lying around your house unused for years than stressing about ruining brand new expensive fabric. It will also be a lot cheaper
Borrow a sewing machine or buy one second-hand. You might be surprised by the number of friends or family you have with sewing machines in their possession. They may be willing to lend one to you while you test the waters a bit. If you do decide to take the plunge and buy one, check out second-hand sources like Facebook Marketplace, eBay, or even Freecycle. I’m sorry Leena, I can’t recommend buying the £26.99 machine. I just can’t do it!
Talk to experienced sewers. We’re a very friendly bunch really. If someone has put in enough hours to get good at sewing, they’re probably pretty passionate and more than happy to chat about it
Remember to eat. I’m stealing this tip from Leena but she’s absolutely right. I love food and list eating as one of my favourite hobbies (actually higher up the list than sewing if I’m really honest with myself) but even I fall down the rabbit hole of a sewing project sometimes and forget to come back up for sustenance. If you’re feeling frustrated ask yourself this question from Leena’s video:
“Are you failing indefinitely or are you just hungry?”
I hope you’ve had fun watching this video and hearing my take on it. I’d love to know your thoughts on the matter, especially if you’re a non-sewer. Do you find sewing intimidating? Am I absolutely clueless for not realising this is something that people find daunting? Let me know in the comments below!