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Episode 95

What is the Best Way to Learn New Sewing Skills?

Sarai and Haley talk about why it’s hard to pick the best projects that challenge you without frustrating you, how to identify the skills you need, and our favorite method for learning new skills, project by project.

In this episode, you’ll learn 5 tips for picking up new sewing skills.

Podcast Transcript

Sarai
Welcome back to Seamwork Radio. Today we’re talking about the best way to build new sewing skills, project by project. We’re going to cover why it’s difficult to pick the right projects to challenge you without frustrating you, how to identify the exact skills you need to make a pattern, and our favorite method for building new skills using hands on learning.

So we’ll start with our ice breaker, as always. And today’s ice breaker comes from Seamwork member Jeanine. Jeanine writes, “I don’t know if this is too specific for Seamwork, but I’m always curious what the Seamwork team’s reaction is to what the community does with their patterns. Like, are there any patterns you’re surprised didn’t get embraced and made a lot?” That’s a great question. Thank you, Jeanine. I love that question. What do you think, Haley? Are there any patterns that you feel like should have been more popular?

Haley
Well, when I look back through the catalog, actually, most of the kind of fan favorites are my favorites as well, so that’s probably a good thing. Probably a good sign my taste hasn’t gone bad. But the one pattern recently that I was a little bit surprised by, probably because I’m such a die-hard fan of it, is the Robin bralette. I think maybe because it looks very simple at first glance, but there’s a lot of engineering that goes into it. People have kind of a bad taste in their mouth with bralettes. They think maybe they’re not supportive, and I’m a busty person. I wear a 36 G, and I love that bralette, it’s my favorite bralette I own. It’s such a rad pattern, and it has so many great little details in it. So that’s probably one of my WTF patterns.

Sarai
I mean, I can see that about bralettes if you’re a bustier person. I’m a little bit on the busty side, too. I’m a 32 D, and I love bralettes because I don’t leave the house very much anymore, so I wear them all the time around the house. They’re so comfy, and I can sleep in them. You can nap in them. I love them. I think with that pattern in particular, you can’t really see all the engineering from the outside, so it doesn’t look as fun to sell as it really is, maybe.

Haley
Totally. I got to get in there and take some more, like, close up shots and sing its praises, because I think more people would fall in love with it like I have if they could see it’s magic. What about you, Sarai? Do you have any favorites that haven’t been embraced?

Sarai
Well, a recent one that I guess I’m a little surprised and not surprised was the Keaton blazer, and I say surprised because, well, it’s a very cool pattern and people were excited about it, and we also get a lot of requests for more advanced patterns, but then when we come out with an advanced pattern. Naturally, not as many people sell it. So it makes sense on one level, but I just think it’s such a cool pattern and it’s so worth the time it takes to construct a blazer. I think it’s really interesting how that goes. I understand why something that’s a little bit more complicated, it’s not going to get sown as much because not as many people are going to be able to approach it or feel like they can approach it. But at the same time, we’re always getting requests for more difficult patterns. So it’s kind of a little bit of a conundrum, but we try and balance it out. Well, that was a really great icebreaker. Thank you, Jeanine. And if you want to give us an icebreaker for a future episode, if you’re a Seamwork member, you can go to Seamwork.com/go/icebreakers and leave it there and we will use it in a future episode, most likely.

Sarai
So turning to our topic for today, which is why is learning new skills difficult and then what you can do about it. So I think there are a few reasons that learning new sewing skills, really learning any new skill in kind of a complicated craft like sewing is challenging. And so I want to talk about those reasons first and then maybe talk about our experience a little bit and then give you guys Haley is going to give you guys some tips on how you can address these things. So the first reason that I think it’s difficult is just knowing what projects to choose in order to advance your skills in a reasonable way. And when I say a reasonable way, I mean finding things that are going to stretch your abilities, but at the same time not be too challenging because what you don’t want is either something that’s going to be so easy that you’re not really learning anything. I mean, you do want that sometimes, but if you’re specifically trying to grow your skills and at the same time, if something is too difficult, if you’re adding too much challenge, it’s really easy to get frustrated and give up.

So you kind of have to find that sweet spot and knowing which projects are going to meet those requirements are going to hit that sweet spot. That can be difficult. So that’s kind of the first challenge in growing your skills in a project-based way. And then the second thing is not wanting to mess up a project that you care about. So a lot of times when you want to grow your skills, I think the natural thing to do is to just find a project that you want to sell that has maybe some skills you haven’t done before. Maybe you can watch some YouTube videos or look up some tutorials to see how those things are done and then you start working on the project so you can kind of learn it in a hands-on way, which makes a lot of sense. But I think the problem is that if you’re making something that you care about, you want it to come out well, then you’re basically learning the skill while you’re doing it. So it’s sort of like a muslin who is learning how to play a piece of music while he’s on stage or while she’s on stage.
It’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself the first time you’re doing something. So that’s another reason that I think learning new skills can be frustrating or difficult. It can be just really intimidating. Doing this for the first time on something you care about, whether it’s a project you care about or it’s fabric you’re cutting into that you really care about and don’t want to waste. And then at the same time, you don’t want to make things that you don’t care about. You don’t want to make things that are going to meet the requirements of learning this skill, but you’re going to donate them or get rid of them or use them as rags afterwards. So that’s the challenge there. And then the third challenge, I think is just kind of goes with the first one and we’re going to talk about this a little bit more, but that’s just understanding patterns and understanding how to determine which patterns are going to build your skills. So we’ll talk about that as well. So I want to talk about a little bit about our experience with learning before we get into some tips. So Haley, I was wondering if there’s a time that you remember intentionally wanting to learn a specific skill.

Haley
Yes, definitely many times. One that kind of stands out for me is when I learned how to sew with knits and I actually attempted to learn how to sew with knits two times. The first time with very little success, and the second time around was actually when things really started kind of like clicking for me and I had those AHA moment that kind of catapulted me forward.

Sarai
I think for me, the times I remember really being intentional about learning skills are when I first did maybe some more complicated projects or maybe more niche projects. So for example, I wanted to learn how to bag a lining and I bought a book specifically on linings and really dove into linings. Or when I wanted to learn a lot more about tailoring and make a tailored blazer. Kind of going back to what we were talking about with the Keaton blazer, it’s a little bit more complicated. So I bought a book on tailoring and really studied that and practiced all the skills. So those are the times I remember really diving into a topic and learning something intentionally versus I think in the beginning I did more of what I described before of just trying to learn as I go, really just kind of like I’ve never installed a zipper before, so I’m going to make a skirt with a zipper and see how it comes out. And don’t get me wrong, that’s a great way to learn. You will learn that way for sure. It can just be a little bit frustrating because you’re going to make a lot of things that don’t turn out exactly what you want.

So it is a method that works. We’re just kind of talking about some tips that maybe can assist you as you build those skills by project. When do you feel like you’ve had the most success when you’re acquiring new skills?

Haley
Well, kind of to call back to my two experiences learning about sewing with knits, the first time I just kind of jumped in and I was like, I’m going to make a V-neck T shirt. I’m going to knock off a shirt that I have and I like, and I’m going to just sew it up. And I was really just flying blind. I knew how to draft the pattern. I knew how to do all of that. But the little tips and tricks to make sure that everything turns out just right, I’m just totally winging it. The second time I took a class with one of my friends, she was teaching a class on how to sew at home with a serger. Was kind of an introduction to sergers. And you sewed a T-shirt. And that’s when I really got to slow down and absorb all of those tips and tricks. And it was really like a light bulb moment for me, for sure. And it was because I intentionally sought out that learning opportunity instead of just like on a whim one day deciding, I’m going to make a T-shirt and then feel really bad about myself if it doesn’t turn out just right.

Sarai
Yeah, that kind of gets my next question was when have you had the least success? I think that kind of flows, like when you don’t put that much attention into it. I think that’s when we both had those experiences, I think for me, same kind of going back to the experience, I just mentioned it’s when I’ve been really also when I’ve been really intentional, like I mentioned with the tailoring book or the lining book. And really I think it goes back to acknowledging what you don’t know and really recognizing that you have a lot to learn and that this is a complicated skill and that it might not come out right the first time, so it might take a little extra effort to practice it. So I think that’s when I’ve had the most success and again, the least success is kind of just like, I can do this, which sometimes that works out. So I’m really not knocking it. I think sometimes that’s a great way to go and it just depends on your mood and your confidence and how complicated the skill is. So I think there’s definitely a place for that. But when it comes to things that maybe are a little bit more tricky to learn.

I think that’s when just putting a little bit more thought into it has been really helpful for me. Can you remember any projects that you were really disappointed in because you hadn’t quite mastered the skills yet?

Haley
Yeah, well, that first T-shirt, it was a hot mess. I had used a serger to construct it, and I had used a serger for a couple of years, but only to finish woven projects, so I wasn’t super well versed in the differential feeds and how to adjust that. So you didn’t get totally stretched out seams, so everything was just all the seams were like a wavy, wonky mess. The neckline got so stretched out, it was, like, down to the navel, like, so low and crazy, and it was like a whole look and a half. And the V-neck was just, I kept messing up that corner right at the center front, and so it just kept getting narrower and narrower as I was shaving off, like, a little bit more. When I would reattach it, it was bad. It was so ugly. I think I just tossed it in the trash. I didn’t even try to save it or do anything. I was like, nobody should have this shirt. This shirt is cursed. What about you? Do you have any disappointing projects?

Sarai
Oh, yeah. So many. I was just thinking about when I was I remember learning to sew an invisible zipper, and I hadn’t done it before, and I was just kind of winging it. And if you’ve ever sewn an invisible zipper, there’s some not quite intuitive flipping that you have to do where you’re kind of flipping it around and sewing it in a way that doesn’t maybe visually make much sense if you haven’t done it before, and I just could not get it right. I kept getting the zipper all twisted or sewn to the wrong side, and I was just so frustrated with it, and I ended up just, like, giving up for a little while on invisible zippers, and now they’re my favorite kind of zippers to sew because I know what the steps are, and I’ve done it enough. I’ve practiced enough that it makes sense to me. But I remember that being really frustrating when I was first learning to do it again. It kind of goes back to acknowledging what you don’t know with things like that, because there might be tricks. If you’re just looking at something, you might say, oh, I see how this goes, but there might be tricks and maybe some unintuitive things like that that you don’t necessarily see just by looking at it.

And that’s kind of one of the tricky things about sewing sometimes. So I wanted to talk about some tips that we have. So, Haley, do you want to share some of the things that we’ve learned about building skills in sewing?

Haley
I’ve obviously built my own skillset over the many years that I’ve been sewing. But I’ve also, through teaching people how to sew, have done this with countless people. So I have developed some steps. Sarai and I put our heads together and came up with a tight little list here of ways you can build your skills. So my first tip is to find projects with one to three new skills in them. And I would say especially if you’re in the beginning stages of learning, consider yourself an intermediate sewer or beginner sewer. Try not to exceed that three number because I think that’s when you really start to get a little bit overwhelmed and things stop being fun. And first and foremost, I think that sewing should be really fun. So it can be a little tough to determine whether a project has a ton of new skills for you. So I recommend reading through the pattern description really thoroughly, studying the flats, and these are two of the best tools that you can use to really determine how many new skills are in this particular pattern. Then what you’ll want to do is you’ll want to make a list of the pattern features and the techniques you’ll think that they’ll use.

Sometimes the skills can be a little bit hidden. So I find that making a list can be really helpful. So maybe it has set in sleeves and darts and zippers, but by studying the flat you might also find that it has a lot of top stitching and maybe that’s something that is pretty easy to take for granted when you’re just looking at the flat illustration. And maybe that would be something that you’re going to want to dedicate a little bit of extra time and attention on. So really making that list is going to be super helpful and I guarantee you, you might find something that is a new or newish skill to you that is in fact something that’s going to make that top three kind of a list. My next tip is to read the pattern instructions. If you have the pattern already, again, this is a great way to be kind of play Nancy Drew and investigate what kind of skills are really going to go into this pattern. If you don’t have the pattern you can look up online, there might be a pattern review on YouTube, or better yet, even if so long, can help you kind of walk through some of those major steps to identify the places that you might want to put forth a little bit of extra effort of research.

Haley
The next step is after you’ve made your list, you’ve done a little bit of research, you’re going to want to identify the places that you need more resources or research. Something that Sarai and I talk about often is that if a technique is challenging to you, you’re having trouble with it, it’s probably not you. You probably need the right tool or the right technique. So you’re going to want to identify those places where you need a tool or you need a technique. In some cases, you may even need both. And I think that it’s really important not to get too caught up in this research phase. I know so far I’ve been listing all of these, like making lists, do your research, but I think that this can be a little bit paralyzing. So pick a resource and go with it. Instead of reading ten different invisible zipper tutorials, everybody’s going to have a slightly different take or slightly different tips. And I think just picking one and going for it is a really good way not to get too stuck or bogged down by all of this research and stuff.

Sarai
Yeah, you talk about that a lot when it comes to fitting, because I think that’s a place where people can really get stuck with just doing research and learning about all these different styles of fitting and all these different techniques you can use. I think that applies to other techniques, too. It’s really easy to kind of get into that research mode and sometimes just confuse yourself with too much information. I feel like too much information is a big problem in life.

Haley
I really think this is a big thing outside of fitting. I see it happen a lot with people with tools where you go to all these different resources and they recommend all of these different tools. And don’t get me wrong, I am a really big fan of a tool that’s going to save you time and make your life easier. But also, I don’t think you need to go spend $80 at Joanne’s just so you can master top stitching or a zipper. I would say stick to the most necessary tools unless you’re having a hard time. And then maybe that’s when you invest in something, a tool that’s really going to give you a way gap on it. And a really great way to know whether you’re going to need that additional little support is to practice the new skill before you make the project. This, I think, is people really take for granted. Sarah, you were mentioning before you made the really great analogy of being a sewer. Practicing a skill for the first time on a garment is kind of like a muslin. Learning a piece on stage and practicing a skill just on.

I’m going to keep using the example of an invisible zipper on a couple of little scraps of muslin beforehand is really going to help you to feel more confident when you do your final run of it. And it’s also going to help you to see what steps you find most challenging. Maybe if you do need a little bit additional help, be that through a tool or a different technique, maybe you didn’t like the technique you found you want to try something new, and also it’s going to help you at the bare minimum, do a dry run of those motor skills because you can know a lot about something in theory, but making your hands do what your brain wants them to do is a totally different story.

Sarai
Yeah, a lot of skills in sewing really are about that hand eye coordination. And that’s something that does take actually doing it in order to get that drilled into your brain. So sewing is kind of interesting that way. It’s true for a lot of crafts, but it’s a little bit of like intellectually learning what you need to do, but then actually you have to physically do it in order to truly learn the skill.

Haley
I think that hand eye coordination, that learning is kind of cumulative. You’ll become just inherently better at that the more you practice it. But at first, especially those first couple of years in learning how to sew, I feel like making that mind body connection and wiring those pathways in your body, it’s not something you want to take for granted. It’s something that really does take a little bit of practice. So kind of going along with that, I recommend always keeping some practice fabric around so that it’s easy to do a test run of a particular skill. I think that that’s just a really great practice to have if you’re next time you’re cutting out projects. All of those little scraps, I find it really nice to have a little box that’s just my scraps and that’s things that are big enough for me to typically if it’s not big enough for me to make a pocket bag out of, I won’t keep it. But I got pocket bags out of it facing bias tape and also really great for practicing. And it’s nice to have sometimes a variety of weights around depending on what skills you’re going to want to practice.

Sarai
Yeah, I have a little basket right here up on my shelf. I have a few baskets up here and one of them is just full of scraps like that. My kittens love to people have seen this when we’re on Zoom meetings. My kittens love to climb up there and pull it down and knock it onto the floor when I’m in a meeting and go through all my scraps. So it’s really fun for them.

Haley
It sounds like my toddler, she’s recently discovered my scrap box as well. So my last tip is to make notes when it’s all said and done. When you’ve made your little practice sample, I find it really helpful to keep a little journal, maybe a three ring binder, a spiral bound, whatever staple that bad boy in there, and then make a few notes. You can jot down what you’ve learned, maybe the steps or the part of it that you found most challenging so you remember next time to slow down for those or maybe use a couple of extra pins. Make some notes on where you want to improve or even a technique that you want to try next time. When I was first learning how to sew, I did this and I found it really invaluable. Because you’re learning so many skills at the very beginning, it can be kind of hard to have a handle on all of them and remember, oh, what was that thing that I learned last time I was doing fish eye darts? Well, then you have a little notebook of samples that you can just flip through and find your notes.

Find your sample right there, and you could even jot down like the URL for the resource that you used or the book or whatever it may be. So if you need to refer to that again, it’s right there for you.

Sarai
I think even just the act of writing it down helps you to reflect and think about it a little bit more before you move on, which I think is just so helpful in and of itself. Even if you never go back through your journal, even if you never look at it again, I think just writing those things down is really helpful. And I recently bought a journal just to use for my sewing projects, just like a little with a dot grid paper in it so I can sketch in it and make notes on what I want. It’s really a fun practice, I think. Not just the reflection part of it, but also just making lists of things that you might want to sew this season and just kind of having an open space to sketch and journal whatever you want to do creatively. I think it makes sewing a lot more fun and I think creatively fulfilling for me. So I definitely recommend it if you feel like that could be something that’s helpful to you too. So I want to recap all these tips because we had some really great ones that I think could be helpful to some of you.

So the first one is when you’re trying to learn new skills to find projects that have one to three new skills in them and not more than that. And then make a list of the pattern features and techniques that you think that the patterns are going to use. If you have a pattern in mind for your next project, do a read through of the instructions. If you already have the pattern, it’s a great way to really understand what kind of techniques are going to be contained in there and then identify the places where you need more resources or more research. And that could be a new tool, or it could be a new technique you need to learn, but really kind of dig into what you actually need to learn in order to get through this next project. And once you do that, pick a resource and go with it so you don’t feel paralyzed by all the plentiful information that’s out there. And then this next one I think is really important. Practice the new skill before you make the project, even if that’s just like a really quick little sample with some scrap fabric.

Because that’s going to help you to really get a handle on the motor skills that you need before you’re actually making something that you care about. And then always keep practice fabric around, which makes it a lot easier to do that. Maybe create a little scrap bin for yourself. It’s really helpful. And then the last tip is to take notes. So this could be in the form of a journal or it could just be even notes on the pattern itself, writing on the pattern itself, whatever is most useful to you. Writing down things like what you learned, what was challenging, what you want to improve, what you want to try, things like that can be super helpful for the learning process. So that’s what we shared today. But if you want to learn more about this method of learning new skills, I think a really great resource are sewalongs. They’re really helpful for skill building because they really break down the project for you. So if you’re actively trying to build your skills, that’s a really helpful thing that we offer. So if you want to check that out, just go to Seamwork.com and click on Classroom and you’ll see all of our sewing there.

And if you want even more free sewing stuff, follow us on YouTube. Because we post new sewing videos there every single week and we have a huge library of over 200 videos right now and we’re adding to it all the time. And not only do we post techniques and tutorials there, but you also get to see some sneak peeks behind the scenes that seem work and what we’re working on and it’s just a really fun place that we can connect. So if you want to find us there, we are at Youtube.com/seamworkvideo. Or you can just search for Seamwork video on YouTube. That’s the name of our channel, Seamworkvideo. And if you liked this episode, we would love it if you could leave us a review on your podcast platform of choice, we would love for you to give us five stars and leave us a review. If you want to leave us a comment, we have a review today we wanted to share from Lady Bookathylon, which I just love that handle Lady Bookathylon. It’s a little bit long but I’m going to read it. She says:

“I discovered the podcast once it became a Seamwork member recently. The conversations looking at each sewist’s journey through a lens of growth, mindset, selfcare and accomplishment, I find that the underlying goal is to encourage new and experienced sewers alike to embrace the challenges as equal to the success. Because the experience of learning to sew must include both. And it’s really taken some of the pressure off to accomplish a new skill to perfection. For me already. Plus, the more I listen or read people with advanced skills talking about sewing, I learned something I had no idea I would find invaluable.”

That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Lady Bookathlyon. That’s really great to read and I think encapsulates what we’re trying to do with the podcast, so I love it. Thank you.

And that’s going to wrap us up for today. I’m Sarai.

Haley
And I’m Haley.

Sarai
And this is Seamwork Radio.

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