There is good, if slightly terrifying, news about how to get better at sewing. It took me two years to get to a decent place, but this sped up considerably in the past year because of the weeks when I sewed for 30 or 40 hours a week. This business is about practice, looking, and patience … and also asking for help. Some of the help you can get online, some of the help you can get from whatever human is handy, and some you need a master for.
Online tutorials have saved my bacon: I make gowns with Koshka’s tutorial handy because after intensive menswear, I forget how this gown business works. The random human help I get comes from Mr S, who patiently takes photos as I try to fit backs or see what’s wrong. Trust me: you cannot see your own back in a mirror, so take a photo, or get someone else to. The masters who have helped me are Sharon Burnston and Henry Cooke. From both of them I’ve learned how to look and how to think about historic costumes. Sharon’s workshop really helped my sewing, and watching Henry has taught me a lot about fit. Also from both: patience.
When it came to Mr S’s overalls, I needed a professional bail out. Mr Cooke offered to help after watching me basting the things at MMNHP, and here’s what I wrote in reply:
[the] overalls have reached a rather bad place, and are now only half-basted on the legs after a third fitting attempt. He appears to have lost more weight. The fit in the seat confounds me, and when I get one leg right, the other twists. Your help would be deeply appreciated…
In the end, my basting was ripped out and Mr Cooke sat on the floor and basted the overalls on to Mr S. The process took a bit more than an hour, during which time Mr S became very familiar with the curtain material in Mr Cooke’s workroom, and realized that it was identical to the curtains he’s had as a child. This memory transported him back to a childhood trip to Williamsburg, when he yearned to be one of the costumed interpreters at CW. It was a transformative afternoon for Mr S and his overalls.
Now that they’ve been worn, I know that I need to:
- Adjust the waistband and seat
- Add a leather strap under the foot
- Finish the in-and out-seams (with fit proven, felling can begin)
- Switch ankle buttons from plain and RI mix to all plain or 10MA
- Take a pattern from the legs!
There is hardly any seam allowance over Mr S’s single-speed bike-riding-up-hills calves, so a pattern from the legs would make the next pair that much easier. He has two pairs, so why should I bother? Because he will undoubtedly wear these out doing as many belly crawls, stream fordings, nettle bush tangoes and other light infantry activities as he possibly can. At some point, mending will cease to be an option.
So how would I pass on the lessons I’ve learned? In some ways, by writing honestly about the struggles and successes in getting these things right, and to let you know that practice really does make a difference. It’s also become clear that maintaining an open, curious mind willing to accept criticism and new ideas will make you a better sewer, and maybe even a better living historian/reenactor…dare I say person?