#1. learn to sew

June 30th, 2011

I know I promised a while ago to start posting my thoughts on starting on your own clothing line, as a part of my Becoming a Designer series and as much as I’ve meant to, I kept getting stuck on what to talk about first.

So I decided to start with the most important thing in any career. Learning.

All too often I receive incredibly sweet emails from budding designers, who have been sketching a lot of and have lots of ideas – but can’t sew. I always tell them the same thing – learn to sew. Being able to draw and having ideas are both incredibly important, but unfortunately unless you can implement them into a garment – you really can’t call yourself  a designer.

I’m not going to comment on whether you should or shouldn’t get a degree in Fashion Design, because I don’t have one, and for independent designers I believe that’s a personal decision, and will largely depend on what your specific plans are. So I’m only going to talk about what I think with respect to people who want to do what I’ve done. Obviously if you want to pursue a design position with an established brand, you will absolutely need a degree – and I really can’t talk with an authority on that process. But I will say this, whether you decide to study at University or teach yourself, make sure you do it seriously and thoroughly.

I think since fashion design is classed as a creative field people think they can skip the fundamentals. But that’s not the case.

I find it really frustrating when I come across home sewers who declare themselves to be “self taught”, and yet have no understanding of standard techniques. What they really mean is “I figured it out on my own”. Teaching yourself is a completely different thing to making up your own methods. And in all honesty, I have no patience for people who have made up their own methods, use sewing terms incorrectly, and then act as if they know everything. No-one knows everything about sewing, and if you want to teach yourself, you need to do it seriously. You need to study.

I taught myself to sew, and I taught myself to draft patterns. But I am very confident in my knowledge, as I did it all from books – I learnt from experts. I acted as if I was studying. If you asked my husband, he would tell you how many nights I spent practicing my pattern drafting. How many practice swatches I made of various techniques. How many times I did boring, tedious exercises to make sure my technique was correct. How much time I spend still doing that – because I still don’t know everything (even though I would love to!). You cannot escape the fundamentals, and I would argue that you absolutely 100% cannot be successful unless you have a good understand of all the necessary techniques. You must know how to draft your own patterns, you must know how to sew at a very high level.

The reasons are simple.

  1. You cannot use commercial sewing patterns to sell clothing (even if you think you’re altering them a lot)- it’s illegal. So you need to be able to make your own. You need to be able to alter them, you need to be able to fix them if they’re wrong. You need to understand why they’re wrong, and you need to be able to discern when they are wrong.
  2. You will more than likely start out sewing your own designs, and if you don’t sew well, you will sew slowly and it will be of poor quality. And no-one wants to buy something that looks like it was home sewn.
  3. When you finally move on to using a sewing contractor, you need to be able to talk to them as a peer. To know what you’re talking about. You need to be able to provide patterns, explain them – and know enough to identify when there are mistakes in the samples.
  4. Your level of knowledge will dictate what you make – there’s nothing more tragic than having to scrap a design because you simply cannot figure out how to implement it. I know, it’s happened to me.

I’m not trying to sound mean, and I honestly don’t know everything – but I do think that whatever you pursue in life, you need to do it properly in order to succeed, and design is no exception.

So there it is, if you’re wondering what the very first thing is that you should do if you want to start a clothing line…

{Next week I’ll be sharing a list of the books I recommend reading if you want to teach yourself to sew}

Becoming a Designer series by Megan Nielsen

29 Responses

  1. Jodi says:

    The thing I love about learning “proper” sewing techniques is that they WORK and they are beautiful. There is a a reason things are done the way they are. It is because generations upon generations of people have been working perfecting these techniques.

    I consider myself “self-taught” because I have never taken any classes. Instead, I’ve talked to experienced seamstress, read books and blogs, and practiced, a lot. You can learn a lot about sewing by just following the directions given in commercial patterns. There is still so much to learn, but I think I’m getting somewhere.

    I am curious about the books you will recommend and I look forward to this series.

    • Meg says:

      I absolutely agree with you!!! Times i’ve tried doing things my own way often turn out quite disastrously! Whereas doing things the “proper” way always turns out with beautiful results that ended up being easier. Makes me stand in awe of the clever people who developed them all in the first place :)

      Meanwhile, I totally agree with your definition of self taught – i call myself self taught too, and thats exactly what I mean! I always adore your creations!

      XOXO

  2. Laura says:

    I’m not wanting to really design clothing for anything other than for myself, and am really just learning my way through basic sewing. Which books did you use to really get the basic techniques? I’m over in the UK and on a tight budget but really want to get to grips with all the basics, in order to build on it.
    xxxx

    • Meg says:

      Hi Laura! I’ll be covering a really comprehensive list of books next week :) And don’t worry i’m splitting it out into beginner and advanced, so you’ll be able to see which ones work best for you! (plus tips for a tight budget, because i know what thats like too hehe) XOXO

  3. Firesparx says:

    I was fortunate enough to have my mom teach me to sew starting at a young age. However, I only ever sewed from patterns. I’d love to get better at clothing alterations and repairs, especially now that I just got hooked on thrifting. I look forward to your list of books next week, I’m hoping for a book or two on clothing alteration!

  4. Loren says:

    My mother taught me how to use a sewing machine and then I took a very basic ‘costume construction’ class in college. After that I started reading sewing blogs. I have no desire to ever sew professionally but I think everyone (ladies and gentlemen) should learn to sew because it opens up a whole new world of clothing options through alterations, repairs, and creation. Learning to hem things or add a dart to a waist made buying vintage and thrifted items so much more accessible and fun.

    • Meg says:

      I tooootally agree!! I really wish that sewing was still considered a necessary skill to learn – like you pointed out, it’s incredibly useful in so many ways beyond making things from scratch.

  5. Casey says:

    Amen, sister! As someone who is self-taught (well, my mom started me with learning how to use a machine, but I pretty much took off from there on my own) and learned from years of *reading*, studying books and techniques and trial and error, I can never stress enough the importance of learning techniques properly to people who email me. Besides the obvious difference it makes in the finished product, I find that learning about sewing is just plain exciting! I’m one of those nerdy types who have reading most of my sewing/drafting books cover to cover and do so again often to keep things fresh in my mind. As my mom always said to me: make the reference books your best friend, and it’ll pay off! ;)

    Gosh, and yet just reading what I wrote, I realize how much I feel like I still have to grasp and learn about sewing (and I’ve been doing it for over 15 years!). Which is probably why it still holds my interest after all these years: I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point of having learned *everything*. lol.

    • Meg says:

      Casey, the more I get to know you the more I think you and are I a lot alike! I absolutely agree with everything you’ve said! I also don’t think I’ll ever get to a point of having learnt everything – I don’t think anyone can! But I’m hoping the fact that I recognise that, is a sign of wisdom? i hope? hehe

  6. Jessica M says:

    Thanks for your insight and saying how studying IS important-that makes my little math teacher heart so happy! Studying is fun especially when you have tangible results. As a beginner, I am really looking forward to your suggestions. Thanks!

    • Meg says:

      hehe well, as a math nerd originally, maybe I get my love of studying from endless hours of working on calculus?? And i totally agree with you that studying is fun when you see the results of your hard work :)

  7. Gina says:

    I’m very thankful for these “lessons” you’ll be giving! I was wondering if you know of any books about pattern drafting/making? Or perhaps this will be a part of your book list. I’m definitely not an expert at anything but I know most sewing terms and techniques but when it comes to making patterns I tend to make them a little too big and then become unable to alter them correctly without them looking awkward. It’s more encouraging to know you are self taught because you’re clothes are beautiful so I know I can learn a lot from you!

  8. Sarah says:

    What a great post! I confess I am totally a ‘make it up as I go’ sewer. The more I make commercially available patterns though, the more I keep getting this nagging thought that it would be so fun to make my own designs, even if it’s just stuff for me and maybe my future kids. I also sorta knew deep down I’d have to get serious about my sewing skills, this was a great kick in the butt! Can’t wait to read your book recommendations next week!!

  9. roberta says:

    I feel like my quilting skills are strong- I am self taught the way you taught yourself. However, my clothing making skills are terrible. I struggle to make things turn out the way I want them to in my head, even when I use a commercial pattern. I look forward to your reference books!

    • Meg says:

      Well it sounds like you and i are kind of opposites!! I am an atrocious quilter!!!! I would probably make you cry with how bad my quilting is! So i stand in awe of your skills my dear :)

  10. nette says:

    Thanks for sharing all this with us Megan! I am so so looking forward to your books recommendations! Have a wonderful sunday!

  11. MC says:

    Dear Megan,

    So much appreciation for sharing!

    I have been actively sewing since 3-4 years ago, it felt awesome to have been able to find smth that I feel so passionate about.

    I have been learning so much in these years, I don’t know if I could be considered self taught, nor if my techniques are correct. I pick them up from various sources, internet, pattern books from different continents and origins,books, from fellow sewist and some experienced tailor.Although I have never used a commercial pattern before, I have always drafted my own and through trial and error make many amendments to fit my small frame.

    I’m very lucky to have my mom who has learnt quite a few tricks in her younger days in dressmaking and we have been doing many sessions of brainstorming.

    Your post I must say is really inspiring.
    I agree that learning is an ongoing process, I can’t wait for you to share the books that you have used. I’m looking forward to learn more techniques and the right I hope!

    Thanks!

  12. [...] so happy you all enjoyed last weeks post on learning to sew! As promised I’ve done some work putting together a list of recommended [...]

  13. [...] enough to draw pretty pictures, you need to sew, and sew well. Can you draft patterns? I’ve mentioned this before – but if you don’t know how to sew, you are really hampering your ability to do well. [...]

  14. Sarah says:

    Hi Megan! I just discovered your blog today, and am so glad I read this post! I’ve been sewing for only a few months now and am so excited about learning more about sewing. I really like your frankness in what you wrote. It’s so true that if you want to get good at something you have to start at the beginning and work your way through it. I’m learning that having a good set of fundamental sewing skills is necessary in order to be able to make what I want. I know I’ve only scratched the surface, but it was really encouraging to read this! Thank you!

    • Meg says:

      hi Sarah! I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! I always feel so nervous being truly frank as i never want to offend anyone :) Anyway, I’m so happy to hear about the way you’re learning! i really hope you do well! sewing is SUCH a wonderful hobby!! XOXO

  15. Leah says:

    “I find it really frustrating when I come across home sewers who declare themselves to be “self taught”, and yet have no understanding of standard techniques. What they really mean is “I figured it out on my own”‘.

    YES! I get tired of this ‘self taught’ flag waving as though, somehow, this is something to be proud of. There is a huge problem with this in the cooking world (spent a few years as a chef) where I have personally worked alongside supposed greats (Fat Duck anyone?) and they just DON’T HAVE THE BASICS. It’s not only frustrating but time consuming. How are you expected to get your idea across if you don’t know how to construct it? I am self taught in clothes making because I can’t afford a degree course or any other course for that matter so I putter along and figure it out for myself. Commonsense told me that sewing was my first port of call and you are so right on that too.

    Love this blog. Being 6 months pregnant I have saved an absolute fortune ($$$$) making my own maternity clothes (patterns for which are so HARD TO FIND HERE) and I can’t thank you enough.

    Onya.

  16. Zenith Divas says:

    Lovely post! I am currently designing my own heels and shoes collections. Its really awesome to see your own piece of work being appreciated by others. I cant wait to start my very own clothing line as well! Your suggestions would surely be noted in my new venture! Thanks

  17. Jane says:

    Hi, I am currently learning to sew using the books you have recommended to be able to produce some of my designs. At this stage I do not own a sewing machine and wondering if you can recommend a machine for a beginner on s budget. Any assistance will be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks
    Jane

  18. [...] it possible to practise for a sewing plan?  Absolutely.  Reading Megan Nielsens’ design blog, this paragraph really struck home the futility of some of my endeavours.  Why not do it properly [...]

  19. Riya says:

    How did you teach yourself to sew? I’ve seen your stuff and it’s so amazing. Can you also link the blog post with the books for learning?

  20. Riya says:

    Also, for a beginner, what should be on the list for things to sew first?

    Just very simple but useful. It doesn’t have to be clothing necessarily (but it can be)? What would you recommend?

  21. [...] recently came across the post “#1. Learn to Sew” by Megan Nielsen, which touched on the topic of being a self-taught sewer. Before [...]

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