Monday 25 July 2022

story time: my first terrible dressmaking class

(There has not been sewing or photos this week. Have a story instead.)

I've been thinking lately about the perils of writing reviews as a beginner (and as a non-expert in the subject matter in general). I started writing reviews and posting finished garment photos from the very beginning, with my first ever project, and I have not the smallest regret about doing so - my learning experience was so much better because I could see everything I made and read my own notes on each project so easily. It was inspiring to see clear evidence of the progress I was making, and most importantly (for me), I could see my own struggles and style ruts and traps I was prone to fall into, which enabled me to course correct away from them without getting bogged down in self-criticism. I also know that my personal experiences and photos of patterns on my specific body type have been useful for people. Sharing the experiences of a beginner has a lot of value. 

But it is difficult, when you don't know a lot. You blame yourself for things, gloss right over mistakes because you don't even realise they are mistakes, and you don't direct criticism towards the people you've paid for the fabric or the pattern or the class because you don't know how much it's warranted. I knew at the time that I'd had a bad experience with my first dressmaking class, but I was so overwhelmed with all the new stuff (and also very ill at the time) that I never made a complaint about it. 

(Small note: I'm not going to mention the company in this post. Since I wrote about it at the time it's extremely easy to find out who I'm talking about, but I really don't want this to be a call-out or a bad review or something they have to answer for. These classes don't even run anymore, and the teacher I'm about to talk about had been completely erased from their website the very next time I went to look for a class there. This is just an anecdote, not a drama post.)

The story unfolds like this:

It was 2015. I (not far off a complete mental breakdown) had signed up to a beginner dressmaking class with my friend Anna. We'd been talking about it for a while, with the intention of someday actually being able to own trousers that fit, and we were excited to finally get started. I was also extremely insecure about my size at the time, and was very nervous about getting measured and picking a size in front of other people, which will become relevant very shortly. 

We bought our fabric in their shop before the class. I didn't really like any of their regular cottons, which were all very pretty florals or novelty prints and thus not me at all, and asked if the much thicker stretch cotton they were also selling would make the project more difficult for me. The woman on the register told me to go for it in a way that, in retrospect, meant "this is not a good idea but I don't want to say no to a customer". So I bought that, and I should not have. 

The teacher introduced herself. I legitimately cannot remember her name now, so for the purposes of this story I'm going to call her Kara. Kara told us that we were making a circle skirt over the course of two evenings, and that circle skirts were the best beginner project because you only needed your waist measurement. She measured her own waist to demonstrate, and read her measurement out loud multiple times. She read it out in centimetres, and I don't think she or anyone else in the room had any real concept of what size that was (one of the stupidest things about being British is that for any given type of measurement we've picked metric or imperial at random, and the other is complete gibberish to us). There was a size chart on the table; as she was speaking I looked down at it to see that said waist measurement was towards the very top end of the pattern's (very small) range. In a room full of otherwise extremely thin women, I felt temporarily reassured. 

"So," said Kara to the class, "that waist measurement would put me in a size..." 

She looked down at the size chart to complete her sentence, and I could see her balk at it. She took the size chart away from view, and started talking about something else. Several minutes later she came back to the topic at hand, and said "so for my waist measurement, which is... you know, I'm going to be kind to myself and say [number literally seven centimetres smaller] which puts me in a size 12!" 

Side note: I hate that I remember so vividly that it was seven centimetres smaller. But my relationship with my body at the time was so bad, and the experience of thinking I might have an ally and then finding out that she just was not prepared to be that size was such a slap that it has been seared into my brain ever since. There are a lot of stupid things like this seared into my brain. It takes up all the space that's supposed to be for things like "where did I put my headphones". 

Kara did not give us back the size chart. What she did instead was send us away to our individual cutting tables and had us hold the tape measure up to the waistband piece. I can see that this is a thing that technically works, but I have never seen it since and don't see any reason to do that when you have a size chart. She then came around to all of us individually, asked us to show her where the tape measure landed, and told everyone they needed to go up two sizes "for wearing ease". Having literally never used a sewing pattern before in my life I assumed she must be right about how this worked, but because she'd made it so clear that she found it shameful to be a "big" size (lol) I lied about my waist measurement when she got to me. And that's how I got the best fitting - but still too big - skirt in the class. 

I still don't know why she told us to do this. It could be that she was insecure about most of the women being so small like I was, but I think the most likely explanation is that when she made things for herself she preferred the mental gymnastics of "I'm really a size 12 but I make an 18 for wearing ease" to the more straightforward "my waist measurement corresponds with a size 18 for this pattern so that's what I'm making" and it just didn't occur to her that everyone else didn't operate this way. 

We cut out our skirts and started sewing them. It was all completely uneventful until we had to put the zips in. Kara had all sorts of "techniques" that often made whatever we were trying to do more difficult, and if you chose not to use them she would stand over you and glare. I was using four different "techniques" to get this regular-ass zip into a skirt - back seam basted shut, zip both pinned and hand-basted in, pins marking the bottom of the zip, stitching line drawn on the fabric in disappearing pen even though both the pen and my skirt were the exact same shade of purple - and I could not do it. I couldn't get it started. I spent an hour doing this. Kara kept coming over but could provide no assistance except to keep suggesting I draw the purple line on the purple skirt as though that were the real problem. 

I took the skirt home. I spent the entire week trying to get that zip in with no success. I came in super early the following week (super early even by sewing class standards - is it just in London where you can walk in fifteen minutes early to a full room and have the teacher say in a put-upon voice, "well, now that everyone is finally here we can make a start"?) to work on it. I was in a bit of a panic at this point, wondering how I could be this bad at sewing that I couldn't even make a basic skirt in the most beginner class. I'd been trying this for a few minutes when another teacher noticed there were people here for the class inconceivably early, and shouted through from another room.

Second teacher: Are you alright in there?
Me: Yeah, sorry, I came in early to try and get this zip in. I've been trying all week.
Second teacher: What's the problem?
Me: I can't get started.
Second teacher: Oh, that's probably because your fabric's thicker. Just start sewing a bit further down the zip and backstitch to get it sewn up at the edge. 
Me: Oh. [does exactly this and gets the zip sewn in one go in twenty seconds] Thanks, I've done it now.

I spent a week on that goddamn thing because Techniques Kara didn't think to mention that the fabric should be far enough under the presser foot that the needle can actually sew rather than just bumping into the edge. Graaahhh. 

(My friend Anna, by this point, had given up and insisted that Kara insert the zip for her. On our way out of the class she said thoughtfully, "I would have expected that getting the teacher to do it for me would give me a perfect zip. And, you know, it really isn't.")

Then came hemming. I'm glad the era of Circle Skirts for Beginners seems to be over because it really is a stupid idea. Nine thousand miles of curved hem is a skill that takes time to get the hang of, and also when you're in a class you don't have time to let the bias drop so your skirt ends up looking wonky even if you somehow managed to sew the hem perfectly. My fabric did not want to press, and Kara had a full zero techniques for dealing with this. I spent about two hours pinning the shit out of it, and my final hem, even to my complete beginner eyes, was atrocious. I am not even close to a perfectionist when it comes to my sewing, but I barely wore that skirt because I was embarrassed by it. The skirt I keep as my "sentimental first project" skirt is the second one I made by myself. 

With all the skirts finished, everyone tried them on. And surprise, none of the skirts fitted. Mine fit the best, because I lied to her. I had yet another mild self-esteem crisis watching a roomful of tiny women pull their waistbands far, far away from themselves and say things like "I'm so relieved, I went home crying to my boyfriend about being a size 12". Kara attempted to fix one person's skirt by just... overlocking a random amount off the side, waistband and all. She offered the same to Anna, who said very politely that she'd much rather take the waistband off and cut fabric from both side seams, so that said seams would be in the right place and there wouldn't be giant overlock lumps in the waistband. Kara nodded, turned away, and gave up on her. 

Nearly seven years later Anna has not finished that skirt, so nice work there, Kara. In fact it was only last month, after years and years of my offering, that Anna came to my sewing room and made her second ever garment. The pattern she picked happened to be the first jersey top pattern that I ever made, and it was quite a trip going through the instructions now and thinking, "wait, but why are you doing it like that?" over and over again. 

In retrospect, I find the whole thing hilarious (in a sad sort of way, because there's all sorts of insidious societal stuff represented here). A sewing teacher who could not instruct a beginner to put in a zip, insisted the entire class make the wrong size, confiscated the size chart, and tried to fix her mistakes by making the skirts lopsided. It's very funny to me, now, that it didn't occur to her not to measure herself in front of everyone and to just say something like, "If you have, for example, a 30 inch waist, you'd be size X. If you have a 31 inch waist we recommend you size up to size Y." It's not like she was making a skirt along with us! We would never have known! 

I wonder sometimes if anyone else who was there still sews, or even made anything else at all after the class finished. I'm still going, but if I hadn't been ill and stuck at home instead of going out dancing four or five nights a week as I had been, I can't imagine I'd have bothered. I had to get a lot better at sewing to realise just how bad Kara was at teaching, and if I hadn't bothered to continue I would never have known just how little of the whole experience was down to me fucking up. I would have thought the size thing was stupid, but I also would have thought I was just bad at sewing, and it wasn't for me. 

Here is the skirt in question, by the way, on 2015 Jen (who hadn't worked out how to frame her project photos yet) in her back garden in Tottenham. It doesn't look like the worst thing in the world in photographs, but oh the pain it put me through:

2015 Jen in her unfortunate purple circle skirt

Sometimes I even wonder what became of Kara. As I said at the beginning, the next time I went to the website her name was nowhere to be seen on the list of teachers. I wonder if someone else complained. I wonder if she's still trying to teach sewing. I wonder if she moved on to a different subject and is out there somewhere giving piano lessons by staying, Marge Simpson-style, one lesson ahead of the kid. 


  1. oh dear, that sounds like a terrible experience for beginners. I definitely notice the tendency in sewists (very natural for beginners!) to blame themselves for a pattern/project not working out- one of the reasons I love your blog is how straightforward you are reviewing patterns I'm interested in, and how honest/clear-sighted/humorous you are about pattern faults. But your story threw me back to my own teen insecurities about my size and working to get past that, I had forgotten how that felt. What a world we live in.

  2. I have so many things to say about this story but I'm also speechless.

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