Tiny Yellow Dress, and a Few More Thoughts

comments: 107


Thank you very, very much for all of the kind and thoughtful and generous comments yesterday. I really appreciate them, and I thank you for listening, and for always encouraging me. I don't think of myself as someone who remembers things very well, but whenever I dip my toe into those deep pools of memory, the images bubble up, then pop into rings that collide. Sewing was always a hobby, nothing I ever thought I'd do for a living. When I had my accident, I found that needle and thread soothed my soul — and I wanted that salve. I think they had been soothing it all along, I just hadn't ever been so desperate, and so hadn't seen it that way before. And so it goes.

If you've read Stitched in Time (and of course you have!), you know that I wrote a lot about myself, my family, my history, and Andy in that book. Though it is a collection of projects and patterns, the patterns exist (for me, anyway) totally within the context of the essays that connect them to the larger concept. In the introduction I tried to put my finger on it:

Have you ever come across something in your dresser that your mother — or grandmother, or aunt, or godmother — made for you? That tiny doll's dress can prompt as many memories and emotions as photos on a page or written words. If you show it to your mom, I bet she'll remember making it for you and get a little misty herself. Not only do the projects in this book offer a way to remember and honor special times, people, places, and events, but the act of working on them also becomes its own meaningful experience. Sewing things for others and for ourselves is a way of celebrating and honoring our families, our homes, and our days, both the special and the ordinary. There is good reason to take the time and make the effort to preserve and create memories with needle and thread. Sewing, like so many domestic arts, is so much more than a means to an end. It is an act of caring, and of taking care.

I believe that with all of my heart.

That said

(here comes the however part, where your antennae start to quiver with worry)

that all said: Sewing can also be intimidating, frustrating, and, some days, seriously annoying! As I worked on the tiny yellow dress (which is, by the way, view A of Simplicity pattern 4709), I thought about what I would say if I were to offer any tips for new sewers. So here is my advice, from someone who has sewn cute things and ugly things; things that fit and things that really, really didn't fit; things that I loved and things that sucked; things that turned out to be a colossal waste of money, time, and energy; things that I am more proud of than anything else I've created; and things that, at the end of the day, all got me here, for better or worse. My advice is this:

1. Find a little bit of space for yourself. Whether you have a whole studio or just a futon on which to sew, prepare a space where you can collect your fabrics, supplies, and tools — and also be sure to plan an exit strategy. Quit — and clean up if you have to — a little bit before you have hit the wall. When you've just stitched the sleeve on backwards for the third time and you want to punch someone in the face, it is best to walk away from the sewing machine. Trust me here. If you've just sewn the sleeve on backwards for the third time and you now have to clean everything up because there will be nowhere to eat dinner if you don't and, also, you just realized you have to make dinner, too, trust me. You will wish you'd quit just a little bit earlier.

2. Know your machine. My sincere advice about buying a sewing machine is this: Figure out how much you can spend, and then ask yourself what you like to make, and then what you might want to learn how to make, and then look in the yellow pages and find your local sewing machine shop. Wait until you have a morning to yourself, and go down to the shop, first thing (so that it's not yet crowded, and they will be able to spend time with you). Bring your budget and your list of potential needs. (Like to sew clothes? You need an automatic buttonholer. Want to do machine embroidery someday? Ask to see what patterns come with each model. Hate running out of bobbin thread? Some machines can tell you when they're getting low!) Hand your list to a salesperson, and introduce yourself. Have them demonstrate the basics on the machines in your price range, then sit down and sew a whole bunch of stuff yourself — make buttonholes, zig-zag stitches, basting stitches — whatever you might use. Learn to thread the machines and the bobbins. Feel how the foot-pedals act. Don't be pressured into buying more machine than you can afford, or more than you really need. Once you've found a few to choose from, read reviews if you want, research on-line if you want — but in my experience, you must choose the machine that is right for you, and it must feel good to you. If your salesperson is pushy, or disinterested, or doesn't have time to talk to you, go somewhere else, or come back on a different day, when someone else is there. Don't be intimidated by the store or by the machine — you'll be having a very intimate relationship with it very soon, and all your shyness will seem quaint and useless when you're swearing at it for gobbling your bobbin thread again, or refusing to stitch evenly in reverse. When you think you know the one you want, sleep on it. It's not a decision to be rushed, but, that said, sewing machines are like cars — they'll all get you, more or less, where you want to go. The more you sew, the more you'll know what kind to get next time. Don't break the bank, and plan to upgrade someday, if necessary. And if the machine gets messed up for whatever reason, don't worry about it — take it back to the shop and have them repair it. Sewing machines are unique and complicated. Unless you live with a sewing-machine mechanic, I say bring it to a pro, pronto, and pay them to sort it out for you. Worth it.

3. Take a class. If you've never sewn before, seriously, take a class. No one is born knowing how to sew, and although people like to tell you how easy sewing is, learning to sew is a lot like learning to drive a stick shift — sure, it's easy once you know how, but until then, there's a lot going on. It takes more than a bit of eye-hand-foot coordination before you feel comfortable. A class will get you started, and encourage you to develop good habits that will, hopefully, become second nature to you as your body develops a certain kind of muscle memory, and starts to work automatically. Expect this to take a while! Don't feel stupid because you can't do it right away! Think of how many parking lots your raged around, starting and stopping (your girlfriends in the back seat, screaming) and stalling out before you "got it," and found that magic balance between pedal and gear shift, gas and clutch.  Remember that you need to give your body time to understand what you're asking it to do. DO NOT put your fingers under the needle (can't believe how many people mentioned doing this in the comments — sends a shiver through my stomach just thinking about it). A good beginner's teacher will remember what it's like to feel uncoordinated, and will choose projects that cover all the basics but still give you lots of opportunities for repeated practice and success. Call around to the different fabric stores in your area, and tell them where you're at with things, and what you want to learn. Ask about the details of each class and the style of each teacher, and try to find one that will be appropriate for you. And remember that if you take a class and it doesn't go well, so what. Whatever. Take a different one, with someone else.

4. Get a good, general-sewing reference book. The one I have and love is the Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing, 8th edition, 1981. I've had this book forever and it's never let me down. There are lots of used copies out there. If you read it, you will learn soooooo much stuff. If you keep it around just for reference and never crack it unless you are stumped, you won't be sorry, either, because it's very comprehensive. If you buy individual patterns or most project-sewing books, please know that, although they do their best to walk you through from beginning to end, they also must presume an ability on your part to be able to research things you aren't familiar with, and no book and can possibly know what those things might be for you. So: general-sewing reference book — it's a good thing.

5. Read. The. Pattern. Sounds obvious, I know. It's so obvious that no one actually does it. Slooooooow down, and actually read the general directions on the pattern. If there are words that aren't defined for you and you're confused, look terms up in your good, general-sewing reference book. They will be there, I promise. Read all of the step-by-step instructions before you start. If you don't understand something, ask, check the publisher's web site for errata (always a good idea with books, anyway), or call the help line listed on a commercial pattern. Otherwise, put the instructions down and just give it a shot — think, fiddle, stitch, rip, fiddle some more, stitch — eureka! Understand the symbols and cutting instructions before you pin and cut. And, when you pin and cut, pin a lot (and on the inside of the cutting line :-) and cut carefully. I can't emphasize that enough. I'm not saying it because I want you to be perfect. I'm saying it because the more carefully you cut, the better the pieces of your very-carefully-engineered puzzle will come together, and this will seeeeriously help in keeping your head from exploding. Read the pattern, pin a lot, and cut carefully. You're only helping yourself here, I swear.

6. Determine seam allowances for your individual machine. Okay, this is a biggie. You must know exactly where the needle falls in relation to your general presser foot and needle plate in order to determine exactly how wide a 5/8" seam allowance, or a 1/4" seam allowance, or a 3/8" seam allowance really, truly is. Take out a ruler and measure it. My computerized (metric-based) machine allows me move the needle six little hops to the left and six little hops to the right of center, and I have memorized exactly where to set my needle in order to achieve a perfect seam allowance. You might think you "know" what a 1/4" looks like, but I think if you take out a ruler and actually measure it, you'll find that eyeballing it doesn't give you the kind of accuracy that, again, will only make things easier for you in the long run. For a long time I assumed that the distance between the edge of my general presser foot and the centered needle was 1/4". Wrong. It's three-hops-to-the-left more than 1/4". Being off even 1/8" can really start to add up when you multiply that 1/8" by several seams. If your needle doesn't move, place pieces of tape on the needle plate to indicate how to line up your fabric to achieve certain seam allowances (if these marks don't already exist). You can also buy presser feet made for specific seam allowances.

7. Press often, press neatly. Get a dressmaker's ham, just 'cause it's cool.

8. If you're not a B-cup, have someone teach you how to do a small- or large-bust adjustment for a (Misses-sized) commercial pattern. If you're going to sew clothes and you're going to want them to fit (can't imagine why you wouldn't), this is crucial to know. You can find tutorials on -line, too.

9. Give yourself a budget for sewing notions, and make sure you have the basics, then plan to buy more as necessary. If you are just starting, go to the fabric store and find a salesperson who looks like she's been sewing longer than you've been alive, and enlist her help in filling up your basket with what you'll need. She'll know. Ask her about fabric and notions for the project you want to make, while you're at it. And if you need advice on your love-life, or your career, or your kids, ask her that, too. She's knows everything.

10. Don't require perfection. Enjoy learning. Trust that you will learn. It will all come. But it's an evolution, not a magic show. As with anything else worth doing, you must log hours, and miles of seams. You will make mistakes, you will wreck perfectly good fabric, you will get mad at patterns, at fabric, at authors, at yourself — but please remember that it's all part of the process, and that we're all in this together. Don't lose your sense of humor. If you fear you're about to, remember the Davy Crockett Slumber Party and feel free to point and laugh. People still ask me what I did with it. I'll never tell. 

In closing, I'd like to offer you the words of the great knitting icon, Elizabeth Zimmerman, who, although she is talking here about knitting, could just as well be talking about sewing:

Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn't hurt the untroubled spirit, either.

When I say properly practiced, I mean executed in a relaxed manner, without anxiety, strain, or tension, but with confidence, inventiveness, pleasure, and ultimate pride.

If you hate to knit, why, bless you, don't; follow your secret heart and take up something else. But if you start out knitting with enjoyment, you will probably continue in this pleasant path.

  — Elizabeth Zimmerman, Knitting Without Tears

I wish you a truly pleasant sewing path, and as much enjoyment as I have found.



Precious little dress for a little precious, I'm sure. Wonderful eloquent piece on sewing, thank you, lovely Alicia. Now, could someone come over and watch my kids so I can go sew??!

Thank you, Alicia. I'm older than you and just starting on this path, I've made one baby quilt (nothing complicated, of course) for my son's first son and my dear daughter-in-law now wants me to help her make another like it for her new niece.
The finished product will be great, just as the doing it will be.

That's really helpful advice, Ms Alicia. I think people get discouraged very easily when they are learning crafty stuff - they forget that it takes time to be good at things. And, of course, you want things to turn out great from Day One! That's not always so, but you really do learn from experience (and your mistakes!) - and it's totally worth persevering!

Hope you are well! xx

I thoroughly enjoyed these last 2 posts. Great info and thanks for sharing so much of your heart with us.

I would love to know what color/brand of paint that turquoise wall is behind the adorable dress in this post.

You are the best.

That dress is so very lovely.

SooDarwin says: July 24, 2009 at 05:39 PM

How did you get to be so wise? Great advice there and anyone starting out could well print this off and read it from time to time. Your little dress is quite lovely as well. x

What a sweet little dress. A pattern I need to check out for my little one. I love what you said about creating a space for sewing. I see all these beautiful studios people have and I am quite jealous. I live in NYC and space is an issue so all of my sewing is confined to a cabinet. After seeing photo's of your studio I am tempted to paint it a lovely "Tiffany Blue".

Thanks so much for posting this. I grew up around a mother and grandmothers who were avid sewers, but I always felt a little deficient in the area myself. My mom always worried I would wreck her machine as I was prone to getting the bobbin thread all tangled and jammed. She'd usually step in at the height of my frustration and sew the "tricky" parts for me. Anyway, now that I'm away at college I got my own sewing machine and so far so good. Maybe it's that sense of confidence that comes from going at it alone that I needed all along. I still have so much to learn but I'm looking forward to it! Thanks for the inspiration and advice.

My local ASG group is teaching a beginning sewing course for adults this fall. I'm sending my students to this post!! A lovely eloquent balance that honors the creativity AND craftsmanship that make up sewing. Thank you.

What a beautiful little dress for your little friend. I hope she has auburn hair. My little niece has auburn hair and that print would look precious on her. I so look forward to your posts every day and I have never been disappointed. You are very wise for your age and your caring spirit really comes thru. It is probably quite a sacrifice for you to take time out of your busy days to update this site, but I am so glad you do it and I am sure I speak for all of your devoted readers when I say, "Thank You". Have a wonderful evening.

Thank you so much for that! It's so hard to put into words all the feelings that come from sewing: the relief, the heartbreak, the anticipation, the bliss, the contentedness. You've done an excellent job.

I have my first official sewing lesson (as a teacher!) on Monday, and I'm somewhat nervous... your words have helped give me courage as I attempt to pass on the art!

Thanks so much for your tips! I've sewn a few things, but still definitely a newbie.

Your post came at a great time. I got my summerhouse pillow pattern (which I will READ first!) and hope to have a pillow done by summer's end.

Great tips, I will pass them on! One thing - on the seam allowance, definitely it's something you should learn on your machine, but ALSO, I would say get a 1/4" presser foot - meant for quilting, they will give you a perfect 1/4" seam allowance on your machine! I love mine.

Wow! Well said! I have been sewing for almost 50 years, and can relate to sew many things you have said here. My mother, grandmothers and aunts all sewed. It was only natural that I would sew. I only wish I had imparted this to my daughter. Oh well, she cooks and knits, so I guess I should be happy, but I hope that someday, she too will sew.

I mean -- that you should let people know that, not that you need to know! I'm positive I've seen you post that you use one. I just think they're so helpful.

Tracy Rizzo says: July 24, 2009 at 06:55 PM

My Mom just gave me that exact book! Now I am so excited to read it. Lovely post.

What an adorable dress...love the fabric choice! You are so right with your tip to 'walk away"! I have been there many times and that is the only solution to a rough patch when sewing.

Fantastic advice and a truly beautiful dress. Reading your blog is one of my daily pleasures, Alicia. Thank you.

Mary Ann/Ca says: July 24, 2009 at 07:31 PM

Perfect post Alicia, just like the others on this subject. I am off to find a copy of that book for a newbie sewer in my life....well maybe two since I could use it myself.

a darling dress and wonderful words of wisdom...

Thank you for providing some much-needed reassurance! My husband sews all his own clothes, which I find amazing. I'm trying to learn to sew garments (I do a lot of embroidery, hand-applique, and knitting), but sometimes I feel like the learning curve will get the better of me.

And I *totally* agree about the Reader's Digest book! I have both the sewing one and the needlework one. Priceless resources.

Alicia, thank you, thank you, thank you. I do terribly want to learn to sew, and these last two posts have been the most well-written encouragement for beginners that I have ever read. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Any more advice on the No. 8 count? My bust is a large (excuse me) part of why I'm intimidated to try sewing clothing. Could you point me toward a Web tutorial I can trust?

I love your blog. So wise and charming...and cozy! ;-) I find myself relaxing as soon as I open the page and start reading. Love the pictures, stories, cooking and tips. You are a very special lady for creating such a special space and sharing it with us! :)
I couldn't agree more about all of your sewing tips (and I learned a few new things too so thanks!). I just wish I found this post years ago when I first started sewing. Sadly I think I don't enjoy sewing very much because of the VERY rough beginning. I put way too much pressure on myself to complete a difficult project in a certain amount of time - put all my eggs in the basket thinking that I could figure it out in a snap. I'm sharing this story as if I'm sending sage advice to myself in a time capsule. It would start something like this - Before you even think about picking out a pattern, buying fabric, or touching a sewing machine please read the following:
**Attention beginning sewers** Start with a SMALL project. Something just for you. Something fun. Note: nothing with elaborate curves or zippers or crazy seams. --choose something with straight lines and easy to understand directions. Maybe a placemat or a coaster? Or how about a pillow case? Just a little something to see what you can do. Flaws? That's okay because it's just for you and you will look back at it and be able to measure your success. After that build your confidence and try something *slightly* more challenging. And so on and so forth. Each new project should build on your previous skills and teach you new skills. Build your confidence and knowledge first and I promise you'll enjoy sewing so much more. Please note this warning: if you start with a project that is extremely important, needs to look perfect, and needs to be done by a certain timeframe then be prepared to loose your mind!! You'll have crazy thoughts like "I'm going to open the window, pick this sewing machine up, and toss it out into the yard. AND THEN I'm going to the garage and get an ax and chop that evil machine up into teeny tiny bits!". I'm not kidding. Those are thoughts I had and seriously considered. So please don't do that to yourself. TRUST ME!

Wishing all of you happy sewing! :)

Thank you for your thoughtful insight on sewing. It's invaluable for people like me who want to really dive in and learn the trade... this is just another reason I appreciate your blog!

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About Alicia Paulson


My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at aliciapaulson.com




Since August of 2011 I've been using a Canon EOS 60D with an EF 18-200mm kit lens and an EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens.