Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sew U Review

Learning to sew is not a forgiving endeavor. More akin to carpentry than crafting, the stringent rules of mathematics can strangle creativity; one wrong cut, one slip of the pattern, and not only is your project ruined, you’ve wasted your time and money. True for wood and fiber crafts, “Measure twice, cut once” is the operative rule; even measuring countless times, you can still make mistakes. With everything that can go wrong, it’s a wonder anyone learns to sew at all.

I knew I wanted to learn, but I was certainly scared off by the seemingly endless possibilities for error. The sewing books that I had looked over were terse, filled with terms defined once at the beginning and never repeated. The patterns often had to be enlarged on a printer, or if they were full-sized, they were filled with markings as unfamiliar as a foreign language. These books also featured projects and photographs that appeared as if they were taken straight from some 1980s sewing magazine; tacky fabrics with hand-models pointing out stitches did not exactly inspire me to slog through their step-by-step lists.

Sew U by Wendy Mullin was the book that cracked the pattern-code and released me from my fears. Modern fonts and illustrations, a casual tone, and instructions clearly written for the beginner grabbed my attention from the start—this was no learn-to-sew book written by some dowdy great-aunt. A NYC designer (her line is “Built by Wendy”), Wendy Mullin’s own story, preferences, and tips are integrated throughout, lending a sense of personality often missing from DIY guides.

She begins with the building blocks of sewing: fabric, tools, the sewing machine itself. If you’ve never sewn before, walking into Jo-Ann’s fabrics is daunting, both in decisions and in up-front costs. Why pay $30.00 for scissors when you have a perfectly good pair in your drawer? Which is better: the scissors or a rotary cutter and mat…which cost $50.00? All the tools you’ll encounter are identified and explained piece by piece, which is handy when you’re standing in an aisle with a million different pencils, pins, and needles. You only need a few basic tools, but knowing exactly which of these to get is the difficulty.

Sew U could also function as an introductory guide to fabric. Weft and warp, silk and wool—the construction, differences, and appropriate purposes are all concisely explained. You receive a thorough introduction without getting bogged down in useless details; everything you learn, you learn for a practical purpose. Wendy also takes the time to talk about how much fabric to buy, explaining that all those identical-looking bolts on the shelf are actually different widths; you can easily find a lovely fabric, read off the amount needed on the label, and get it home only to find you’ve bought too little.

The chapter on reading patterns is worth its weight in gold. With everything you could need to know about the practical implications of pinning some incredibly-easy-to-tear paper on inside out and precisely arranged fabric, Wendy makes each step make sense. While some people may be able to blindly follow directions that seem to contradict the final product, others—myself included—need to understand the “why” aspect. Covering grainlines, darts, punch holes, even pattern storage, she answers not only the obvious “This is what such-and-such does” questions, but also the little random problems that pop up when you have your mouth filled with pins and it’s two in the morning. It’s those invaluable details: marking darts not at the end of the dart, but 1/8” of an inch before, flipping sleeve-pattern pieces over so you don’t get two of the same armhole, the seam allowance for bias tape, that can make or break a project. Sew U provides many of these helpful clarifications, and could perhaps even use a few more. However, the issues each person faces vary with the fabric, equipment, and pattern; it would be impossible for a manual to cover every possibility.

The projects themselves are classic, but with plenty of personalization options. Until you’re able to modify patterns independently, these little details provide a way to think outside the box while following the pattern-lines. Three Simplicity brand patterns are provided: a simple skirt, shirt, and pants. A “ticket” is provided for each of the different customization options; this page lists the trim you’ll need to buy, any pattern changes, unique sewing notes, ideas for fabrics and trims, and a front and back view. It’s all right there for easy reference and consultation.

With all that prep-work, introduction, and research, the element of fear is quite reduced when beginning the actual cutting and sewing. You can still get that queasy feeling when slicing a piece of fabric for the first time—there’s always the possibility of miscalculation, no matter how many times you re-check your work—but it’s calmed considerably. The two-tone illustrations play a crucial role in ensuring your work is on-track; every numbered step has an accompanying picture. Photographs, while providing a realistic feel, have their efficiency muted by distracting details. These pictures are crisp, every line drawn to bring attention to the most important part, each color shaded to minimize confusion.

The text retains a remarkably jargon-free tone that doesn’t over-caution or under-instruct. Instructions are simple, to-the-point, and in line with what Wendy has explained earlier in the book; she does a remarkable job of not springing new concepts midway through the project. Wendy keeps to a need-to-know basis during the actual construction steps (when you need to concentrate the most); in the other sections, her personality and design background shines through. She’s not simply interested in getting you to sew for the sake of sewing; she’s interested in helping you design your own clothes. You bring the ideas; she’ll provide the canvas.

Let’s say by the end of all this, you’ve learned that sewing is not for you. Sew U is fun, witty, and makes everything easy to understand, but sewing still takes plenty of nerve-racking effort. Even if this is your final conclusion, Wendy doesn’t make you feel like a failure; her final chapter is “Plan B: Take It to Your Tailor.” She provides all the information you need to get customized clothes—but without sewing them yourself. Detailed tips cover how to draw and explain your project so that the tailor understands precisely how you want the final result.

The lay-out of the book itself is also well thought out. Even the shape was taken into consideration; it’s longer, rather than taller—perfect for avoiding desperate scanning to find the paragraph you need. Most importantly, it has a lay-flat, hidden-spiral binding. It’s hard enough to keep a standard-bound book from flopping shut , never mind when you have both hands, a foot, and an elbow engaged.

For myself, learning to sew has been incredibly fun—though certainly not without its trying moments—and I credit my burgeoning confidence to the foundation Sew U laid. I still double-check laconic pattern directions with Sew U; I often want to be reassured that my grainline is correct. I also reuse the included skirt pattern; it’s an easy way for me to get a new piece of clothing, and its simplicity allows me to switch out the fabric for a completely new look. I continue to rely on Wendy’s basic explanations as back-up help; she doesn’t include a dress pattern in the book, and a dress remains my only complete failure. I’m not saying it happened because I didn’t learn to sew dresses with her first (she has a separate book on dresses)…but I certainly wished that I had! In a very thorough manual, altering patterns seems to be the only aspect that she completely ignores. I can understand why—it’s a complex task, and would probably expand Sew U by another few chapters—but to include it would have been helpful.

An ideal beginner’s volume, Sew U features amazing detail. Including what other books leave to dull introductory guides, the information provided in Sew U will allow you to quickly move on to regular patterns. Her designs are simple, up-to-date, and customizable. The three patterns provide a fantastic way to learn the basic elements of garment construction, and her designer-input allows for the same pattern to be re-used with a completely different effect. You get to create unique items, but since the pattern stays mostly the same, you’ll eventually find yourself sewing faster and faster, gaining an invaluable “feel” for both the garment and the craft of sewing.

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