About the age I discovered fashion, I knew I loved it. After that I wanted to know all I could about how to create it – colors, line, style, proportion, seams, padded lapels, hem facings, construction, fitting, and well everything! I didn’t necessarily know what it was called! It all started with my Barbie!
What is it about Barbie, that most of we sewists start with dressing her? I think it is the imagination running nuts thinking about all the things that Barbie can do that we aren’t old enough to do – go out by ourselves…go on a date….drive a car….be at a movie opening….getting an acclaimed award…whatever – and of course she needs the clothes to make her whole life work. Enter the designer in all of us.
One day my babysitter, noticing my sewing acuity, took me to the local 5 & dime (a term in my day to describe the WalMarts of the past). She showed me the pattern book, which I immediately assumed was a book to give ideas to folks who didn’t have ideas about what to sew. Well, that was all fine and good – but I had enough ideas thankyouverymuch, and certainly didn’t need anymore – I couldn’t sew up what I had in my head as it was. I did NOT need any more ideas!
She patiently sat me down by one of the books while she went to a stack of cabinets and asked the clerk for a pattern number and opened it up and pulled out the directions (in those days you could pull out the directions but not the contents or you bought the pattern on the spot!) Ho-hum, whatever (I was a know it all back then), and pretty soon it dawned on me; you did not have to draw up your own pattern every time you wanted to make a new outfit for Barbie!!!! You could buy a pattern already drawn up for you and it would look like the dress in the big books on the tables. OMG!!! I went nuts!!! Not only could I sew for Barbie, but I could sew for ME!!! I immediately picked out some patterns, fabric and was off to the machine!
In my small town, (this was back in the day when stores like J. C. Penny, C. R. Anthony carried fabric), I found this fabulous pink fabric and a pink ribbon to go with it. I was a tiny thing back then and so I didn’t have any fitting issues (although this skirt was just a little full!) I lined it and wore it and felt like a million bucks in the dress.
This got me hooked, but one problem – this was about the maximum of my knowledge, and I couldn’t wait till I got to high school where I heard that sewing was taught. I was finally going to learn all I needed to know – or that was my fantasy.
My first high school Home Ec sewing class started with making a bib: in front of each student was a piece of fabric cut out, some rick-rack tape and our job was to attach the rick-rack to the cut-out fabric. I immediately stuck up my hand and exclaimed that this was not an appropriate message to send to the young ladies of today to relegate them to a life of baby-making as the only choice available to women….and then – uh-oh!
I was immediately sent to the principal’s office, where after what seemed like eternal hours of negotiation between my mother and the principal it was agreed that I could stay in high school (there was only one high school in my small hometown), but I could never dawn the doors of the Home Ec Department again! I was crushed.
I devoted myself to learning about art, and loved that and still do (the watercolor of the old C. R. Anthony’s above is a watercolor from my memories of it as a child). But my love still rested with sewing.
As I went through college, not only were Home Ec classes not offered, often there wasn’t even a Home Ec department as women moved more and more into the business world, Home Ec became almost a nasty word for an extremely contagious condition, but art didn’t, so I stayed with my art in college.
After school, I started my best Mary Tyler Moore imitation in the big city and married. I sewed periodically now and then. I had a wonderful old completely metal Singer – back when Singers were great machines. But my technique was missing the finer finishing qualities that I was striving to know.
I was totally convinced that there was a secret society that hoarded most of the knowledge about sewing and that I simply was not destined to have any of that knowledge. Somehow I didn’t qualify.
It was a mystery, and one I thought I was never supposed to solve and therefore never would understand, things like:
…how to cut out a pattern so that the shape or hang was different or had a certain line or style,
…was there a right and wrong way to fabric,
…how was I supposed to know what size to buy,
…how could I make my seams turn out un-crinkly, un-wavy, un-wobbly and pretty,
…how could I make my sewing look professional,
…how was I ever supposed to know how to sew at all when I really wanted to learn!
I can not tell you the frustration level I had for so many years. I didn’t really want to be a designer because I didn’t know how the garments went together – that’s what I needed to learn – that’s what I wanted to learn.
I read in a local magazine/newspaper about some sewing classes being offered through a very nice sewing shop that I had patronized (and would secretly go visit dreaming of this or that garment, but hardly ever buying anything as I had finally accepted that I couldn’t sew well enough for these fine fabrics). I had heard great things about this teacher; she was an expert and had sewn for many of the best-dressed ladies in my city; she worked out of this shop that had beautifully fine fabrics, so I thought fine: I’m going to test her to see if she really knows what she thinks she does.
I started my first class with her in 1976-1977. I decided to sew a shirt-waist dress with front inserted placket, collar, collar band, cuffs, set-in sleeve and housetop plackets on the sleeves and in plaid with white contrasting collar and cuff (very popular back then). The class was 8 weeks long.
I WAS IN HEAVEN! I finished the dress in 3 weeks, one of the ladies there had some samples of the beautiful new large plaids that Ralph Lauren was showing for the fall coats – they were gorgeous – I looked at my teacher and asked if she could teach me how to make a coat, and she said, you pick out the fabric and I’ll teach you how to sew your own coat. OMG! Could it be I found my match at last!
I made that coat (and it was a killer gorgeous coat). After the first 8 weeks, I was begging her when was her next class – not for another 2 months. WHAT?!!!! Not for another TWO whole months! Egads! I had just found my mentor and she wasn’t going to be teaching for T-W-O W-H-O-L-E months! What was wrong with this world forgoodnesssakes!
Well, this was plainly unfair. I wanted to learn, but the methods just seemed beyond my grasp….
I bided my time waiting for that next class and came fully prepared….if my teacher was only going to teach for 8 weeks, I was going to cram so many questions and problems into that class time. The truth is that she was a lovely person, and was probably just as excited to find me as I was to find her.
In the meantime, I had a wonderful aunt (actually I had a set of glamorous aunts that would spin the head of the most sophisticated kid – they were totally inspiring). But one lived close to me, and she had heard about my teacher and how I had sewn a coat and dress in the first class and couldn’t wait to take more. I had hinted to my mother that I needed a new machine, and she agreed to buy one for me – until I told her the price. It was too expensive. I understood and had this older Singer, but knew I was going to need a good machine sooner or later. Enter my sweet aunt!
Isn’t she beautiful? I have her red hair and penchant for green anything! She purchased my first Bernina for me. I was aghast with her generosity, and it never seemed to be anything I could do to pay her back. Fortunately, her grandchildren were lovely people and I did their girls’ weddings! I felt her lovely spirit on my shoulder the entire time.
So that brings up another chapter in my life – my relationship with the local Bernina store. From the very first, these people dealt in excellence and they taught me the importance of not only excellence in service but in quality equipment. Today I still buy Berninas. They are the only machine I sew with. You would, of course, expect me to recommend them highly and I do, but I also tell my students to buy local and buy the dealer. Usually, Pfaff, Husqvarna Viking, and Bernina are the top machines – find a dealer who will stand by the machine and you have your machine to buy. Of course, if you are lucky enough to be in a location where there are all three – then I would go with the Bernina, and if you are in my fair city, no doubt: Bernina (Bernina of Oklahoma City)!
Erma was a lovely lady. She was from a very simple background, but all her aunts saved up their money and sent her to the Parsons School of Design, where she learned to sew, tailor and design.
She was a very giving and generous person. She never, ever put a boundary on what I could learn – she used to say: “The sky’s the limit – you can learn what you will let yourself learn.” She was right. I studied with her for 10 years ending my classes, with bringing in a picture of a project and we would discuss how I was going to handle certain features, details, and aspects of the design. I would go off and make it up and then bring it to her for examination.
She was a blessing pure and simple to my life. She gave me back the gift of sewing that I had as a little tyke sewing my Barbie dresses. Only now I was sewing them for myself. My friends grew tired of asking me where I got my clothes. They would look at me with disgusted faces and shake their head knowing there was no way they could get what I wore. The local fabric store in my city, carried very fine designer type fabrics, so I delighted in getting the fabrics and then doing the design up with my own individual style – often more comfortable, more flattering and certainly more individualized for me.
I was also lucky that during this time was an extremely inflating economy. It was nice for a while, but soon it became apparent that it was “too nice”. I know that sounds odd, but the energy belt, which is where I live, is fraught with economic highs and lows – it’s the nature of the business.
Funny, though through all the downtimes, I never worried about whether I would be able to sew or not – I knew I would. And as luck had it, my friends came to me to have their wedding and debutante gowns made – what fun was this! Once again returning to my dream of dressing Barbie only here were these darling girls with fabulous little figures and their eyes full of all the light and promise of a new generation.
So I started my business in the early 80s in the middle of the worst economy you can imagine. I was told it was NOT the time to start a business – yea, well, good thing I didn’t listen. But because of the economy, I absolutely had to be profitable from the very start.
I did this for 30 years and loved it. One day I was sitting in my studio, getting ready to design a garment for an event that weekend, and thinking – what will I wear – what I can I design to wear this weekend? Then the whole idea of being able to pick and choose what I really want to wear and design for me was so much of a luxury. Other women were going to the stores or online to look for something that might work, or that might be okay or that would be passable, while all I had to go look at my stash or the local fabric store and whip something up and off I go – how spoiled I had become.
Suddenly it occurred to me that not only am I lucky but that I could pass this on. My teacher Erma had decided to teach and because of that, I was blessed with the knowledge of how to do this. I needed to start teaching.
I approached the local Bernina store where I have purchased my machines since I started sewing professionally, and started teaching there, which is where I teach today.
The most fun I have is seeing my students express their own ideas and seeing them expressed so beautifully technically.
Each one of these gals has her own imprint upon these jackets, and they look just like them. I’m so proud of each of them and the beautiful looks they have created. More than anything, I’m thrilled I can be a part of them discovering that they no longer have to be frustrated or lost in the world of sewing as I was for so many years.
Truly this is what I love seeing my students learn most of all.
I really do love to hear from you….if you can’t/won’t post here, drop me a line. What I really hope to accomplish more than anything else with this blog is to take you from beginning sewing into not only something more artistic but also something more technical or (hold on to your seat) way more advanced than you would have thought possible. Most often how I got to another level of expertise, was by being so inspired and probably more obsessed that I had to have that jacket or dress or skirt or whatever, and I could sew it. So email me here.