Make me a Master Tailor...
August 18, 2008 12:11 PM   Subscribe

Make me a Master Tailor: I know how to plug in a sewing machine and use a cloth ruler. Assuming nothing more, where do I begin...

A chance encounter with the Book Shirtmaking: Developing Skills for Fine Sewing last week has lead to a weekend and more of sleepless nights, thinking about a possible career change.

I've always been very crafty (woodworking, knitting, cooking, baking, cake decorating, etc.) and meticulous in all of my work, but had never considered making clothes for myself, let alone others. After reading, er, devouring the book, my brain has literally run away with itself trying to come up with ways to ease into a more tactile and creatively oriented career. I know that the bespoke industry is no picnic as far as hours, pay, etc., but I'm very much interested in what 'I' would need to learn in order to be a "Success" technically, not so much financially. I'm not that interested in the fashion design aspect, but the creation of perfectly fitted, intricately constructed, and beautiful clothing. Primarily for Men (myself especially), but for anyone willing to have custom work done.

So with that said, I'm asking the hive mind for suggestions on:
- References. Books, magazines, websites, blogs, etc. to learn sewing, fitting, tailoring techniques from absolute beginner to professional levels. Especially, anything more focused on Men's clothing. I do realize from reading what I have been able to find, that most of this information isn't in book form, but gained through apprenticing, classroom, or on the job type of training.
- Educational programs. From DVDs to Design School, what would I need to look for to be taken seriously. Is there a certification process, some sort of art degree?
- Equipment. I essentially, just have my sister's sewing machine on loan for now, and a pair of scissors. It is a mid level machine in the $500 range, but I can't remember the model right now. I'd like to get some idea of what would be needed to do one-off, or very limited copies of tailored clothes. I am not really interested in doing "sewing room" work as a main focus. So I'm not sure what features are necessary, and what ones are not needed. I don't see a massive computerized embroidery robot with 5000 fonts and Disney characters in my future.
- What else? Free for all category or wish lists.

I have a good job with regular hours with enough extra income to "invest" in myself to turn a fantasy into reality, if the reality can be anything like the fantasy. I have 10-20 hours a week to develop skills and do practice work. I realize that this is a long term plan and so I want to lay a solid foundation going forward. Worst case scenario, I have some new shirts that I can wear under my suit jackets :)
posted by Hollowman to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (11 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
For what it's worth, here is my mom's story: she was bored, had no hobbies per se, and had inherited a sewing machine from her sister when sis was purging her attic. On a whim, Mom took a basic sewing course at Montgomery Ward (four weeks, with the ultimate goal being able to sew a T-shirt). Surprisingly, Mom absorbed a lot of info from that four-week course, like how to read patterns. She never took another form of professional instruction, but just by constantly "doing" and working with patterns and fabric managed to learn how to adjust store-bought patterns and eventually make her own patterns/designs. For example, it was the mid-1980s, I had tickets to a Devo concert and needed an appropriate New Wave type of shirt to wear. I vaguely described what I wanted - something black with a T-shirt sleeve on one shoulder, and an almost bare shoulder on the other side held together with a dog-leash-type clasp. Surprisingly, my 60-something Mom didn't flinch and pulled out her box of patterns (I went to the hardward store and provided the dog leash clasp) and her surplus black fabric and provided an appropriate garment within a few hours. In later years she sewed me many other made-to-order garments, including a beautiful winter coat. All this with a basic sewing machine (not a serger or anything special) and just one official class under her belt.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:29 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Our local center(s) for adult education often offer both "intro to sewing" and more advanced courses, the involve reading patterns, making alterations to existing garments, and so forth.
posted by larsks at 1:34 PM on August 18, 2008

I second taking a class. Call any large fabric store in your area, they can probably advise you. You should also pick up some really basic pattern-- these are going to be the ones on the racks rather than in the drawers at the fabric store. I would suggest an a-line skirt, an apron, or a simple dress with sleeves (if you're ambitious). Follow the step-by-step instructions, they'll be pretty straightforward. Anything that doesn't make sense google it verbatim; the web is *full* of basic sewing advice. You will get more out of the class if you've already made something, because the teacher will make assumptions about your vocabulary at the very least. You will also have a better idea of what confuses you the most. Don't be afraid to say "I have never sewn before and I don't know what you mean."

Don't forget that a generation ago 9-year-olds learned to use sewing machines. It ain't brain surgery.
posted by nax at 1:40 PM on August 18, 2008

Definitely take a class. You will learn a lot, and since you seem to have a knack already, you'll probably be sewing cool designs and garments in no time.

(On the unlikely chance that you happen to live in Chicago, let me know-- I have a great recommendation.)
posted by applemeat at 2:53 PM on August 18, 2008

I love that book!
Anyhow, to answer your question:
Books, magazines etc.
Threads magazine
English Cut (hasn't been updated in awhile)
I learned how to tailor jackets from Kenneth King. He's a couturier and sells a CD with instructions on how to tailor jackets, make muslins, among other fun things. He also travels around the country and gives lessons.
Sandra Betzina and Susan Khalje are two well-respected authors of sewing books.

I take classes at FIT. Your local design school will probably let you take sewing classes without being an enrolled student; ultimately you will probably need some kind of degree, if only for networking and learning new techniques.
I think you can also apprentice to a tailor or couturier, which would be a fun way to learn the business.

The first thing you should do is get a pair of good scissors. Gingher is the company that has been recommended to me on many occasions. You should start with a pair of these and a pair of dressmaker shears for cutting out patterns.

Eventually, you will need a good sewing machine (Bernina is a well-regarded brand). Your current machine is probably fine for the time being.

Best of luck! Feel free to message me with any questions!
posted by Lycaste at 3:34 PM on August 18, 2008

I am in Chicago, and have had very similar (although less ambitious) ideas. Recommend away!
posted by Plug Dub In at 3:36 PM on August 18, 2008

Well my good sir, with aspirations like yours I'd say don't fuck around. Hmm, I'm not sure where you're from or what they would call it?? I did a cert. 3 in clothing production at TAFE (community college?) when I left high-school - and it was very very good! They might have you sewing skirts and shit :) but when you leave there you'll be able to achieve what you speak of, at quite a competent and professional level. (I noticed the less you know to start off with the happier they are! Less things that they have to re-teach you...)

Although I'm sure sewing classes are good the certificate means you've been trained in industry standards and procedures to a solid proficiency with various types of industrial machines.
Uh... whatever. So, that means you can hem my jeans? Right?
*sigh* Yes. That's exactly what that means. Not! It means clothing perfection :) I had to smile at your post. You're going to enjoy it immensely. If you can sew in a straight line that is all well within your grasp. Personally, I like reconstructions because there's more diverse calculations and things going on, but you'll see what I mean. Fun fun fun!

Start learning your machine. Service it and keep it running smoothly. You can be as skilled as you like but if your machine is unhappy, you won't be sewing a stitch that's worth keeping.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 3:59 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

the creation of perfectly fitted, intricately constructed, and beautiful clothing

If this is your goal, then as well as taking a class, get to know and love your fabrics. Go to a fabric shop if there's one nearby, and spend time reading the labels and comparing how things feel under the fingers. Since you're thinking of making shirts, you'll be working with cottons quite a lot: get to know how cotton feels different from polyester; how a light cotton feels compared to a heavy one; how a high-thread-count cotton differs from a low-thread-count one. Look at the different weave patterns and notice how they affect the texture of the fabric. If you can do this without irritating the fabric shop people, unroll a little fabric off the bolt and swoosh it around a little, noting the difference in how different fabrics move. (Then roll it back up neatly. Always, always be nice to fabric shop people.)

When you have a little more experience, you'll begin to know how different fabrics are to work with. Cotton tends to be pretty easy, as does silk (except the lighter stuff.) Synthetic and/or stretchy fabrics tend to slide all over the goddamn place. Linen slinks against itself like a burlesque dancer. Velvet... aaaaggghh, don't even go there. (But if you do, cotton velvets are MUCH easier than synthetic ones.)

Other than that, learn to do the basic things really well: measuring, cutting, pressing. Pattern cutting in particular is worth being insanely anal about.

Taking a class or learning from a more experienced friend are excellent ways of acquiring sewing skills. Once you have those skills, one thing that sets a great tailor apart from an OK one is the knowledge of the right fabric for the project, and how to use it best.

Good luck!
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:34 PM on August 18, 2008

I learned how to operate a sewing machine as part of an 8th grade art class - the basics: threading, winding a bobbin, sewing straight seams. As an adult, I bought a cheap Elna machine and started working from printed patterns. Before I dug into patterns, I checked out this book (Complete Book of Sewing Shortcuts) from the library, at the recommendation of several more experienced tailors/seamstresses. While not "modern" it is a very complete guide to everything you'll likely need to do short of a serger. With that under my belt, I found it trivially easy to make Hawaiian shirts of equal or better quality than a typical off-the-rack store (which isn't saying much, quite honestly).

You said you've done woodworking. You should find reading patterns straight forward, if not easy--and anyone who says that women lack spatial reasoning in comparison to men hasn't looked at the sewing pattern for a lined vest.

My Elna (this is a 2002, mine's a 2005) has a paltry number of stitches compared to many, but quite frankly, I'm happy with simple. It's easier to keep it running than more complicated machines, and most of the time, you'll need little more than a straight stitch and a variable width satin/zig-zag stitch. My machine does button holes and I invested in the button hole foot for the machine up front.

Some tips previously.

And to add, for commercial patterns, I paste the outside of the packet onto a large manila envelope and put the contents inside. It's possible to refold the patterns to fit into the original envelope, but a larger envelope is much easier.
posted by plinth at 6:06 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't forget that a generation ago 9-year-olds learned to use sewing machines. It ain't brain surgery.
Not just then... that's about how old I was.

That being said, remember this: you are only as good as your tools and materials. Something I wish someone had told me fifteen years ago. A shirt made of $4 a yard fabric, pressed on a home board and iron (if at all), done with the wrong needle and cut with the same scissors you use for everything else will look, well, just like all of that. (not saying you need to pay a ton for fabric, but it is something where you get what you pay for. I get my notions at joanne, I avoid their apparel fabrics like the plague.)

A seam roll and tailor's ham are all but mandatory for menswear. They're the difference between looking homemade and looking professional. Expect to drop $25+ on scissors, and use them for NOTHING but fabric. I don't even cut pattern tissue with mine (that's what the retired sewing scissors are for). I like Gingher, but that's just me. Get on the JoAnne mailing list and you get a 40% off coupon every month. I always use one for scissors. I usually keep a pair on hand for fabric, and another cheaper pair for leather and pvc.

If you plan to make shirts you'll be happier with a fully automatic buttonhole machine (as opposed to a four-step). I lived without one for years, but I'll never go back. You don't need a $1500 machine, though. Few do. I use five stitches, and my buttonhole. My machine came with 30. When the hell will I embroider little ducks on something? Look for something that is HEAVY. The heavier it is the less plastic inside. You'll find more bang for your buck if you go used. Just get it cleaned and serviced before you start any projects.

Make nice with the folks at the fabric store. It's great to have a second pair of eyes to compare two threads to a fabric swatch for the closest match, or to recommend a needle for a particular project. And they love to see people sewing so they're always happy to help. (don't assume they'll know your machine even if you got it there, though... I've had more than one gal try to sell me the wrong size bobbins at a Joann, and they carry my current machine.)

Get good thread. Cheap thread is woven from shorter fibers, which means it'll break easier and get more lint in your machine.

You don't need the $7 a pack needles. I like schmetz. I've used them forever, my mom uses them, my grandmother used them. They work, and they're not expensive. Not the cheapest in the store, but very reasonable. I buy them in huge packs because nothing is worse than breaking your last needle in the house. Oh, and also, this may be me, but if I hit a pin, I toss the needle, even if it didn't break. If they bend just a teensy bit that can cause issues (ask me how much my new bobbin housing was after a bent needle chewed the side up!)

You can technically sharpen pins with emory (that's in the strawberry on the tomato pincushion), but pins are cheap and life is short. Never sharpen machine needles, though.

I'm sure there's more, but those are the vital things I learned along the way and kicked myself for not figuring out sooner.
posted by Kellydamnit at 10:44 PM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hey, thanks for the nice surprise; glad you liked my book:) Feel free to email me any time...

Here's another previous thread with some very good info on your exact question, except that you seem a bit clearer than that poster about a career change and not just a wardrobe upgrade. Exciting! I wish you very well. The comments I made there about the various "levels" or sub-groups within the clothes-making universe are maybe even more pertinent in your case, then, since you're looking to find an industry you resonate with, not just to sort your way through a variety of different approaches and mentors.

In short, most folks who are taking sewing classes are NOT wanting to go pro, so while I certainly encourage you to take classes, you should definitely figure out who all the sewing teachers are that are active in your area, and then sort thru these teachers to find those who can relate to your professional goals, as opposed to the goals of the more typical home-sewer (which may be just as passionate, but won't be as ambitious, as a rule). Of course, if you're near NY or LA, you should go right to FIT or Parsons (NY) or whatever the similar schools are in LA and check out their offerings first. You should also definitely find out who is doing custom clothing nearby you and go check them out, under any pretext (buying clothes, buying fabric, window-shopping, whatever...); you might hit it off with somebody and find a mentor. And of course, find all your local fabric stores; active ones will be hot-spots for teachers and "dress"makers.

My own career has been much more about writing on clothes-making than about making the clothes, which suits me well, since I'm really more interested in solving craft problems and sharing the solutions than in production and client management, which I'd find both boring and stressful in short order. (Altho I will say that the fastest way to propel yourself into pro-level skills and efficiencies will be to make the same garment over and over, all day every day, at least for a while.) But I have met a few interesting, very accomplished folks who are more or less self-supporting makers. Most had also chosen to include teaching and/or writing, on some level, in their total sew-for-$$ strategy, which is why I found them (back when I was working for Threads Magazine developing sewing articles with these folks), so they tended to be self-employed and growing out of working full-time as custom-makers, and were almost never fully-employed garment-industry types. But every story is different, and you should feel confident that you can both learn to make clothes well, and figure out how to integrate your skills and preferences into a personally shaped strategy for earning money from it. It's definitely been done.

Here's a few links that you'll probably find interesting:
A works-from-home custom shirtmaker
A talkative bespoke shirtmaker
A fascinating blog on high-end men's custom clothes
A custom-menswear forum, mostly clients talking about makers
Another one
Scroll to end for the invaluable books of my own mentor (the other books are useful, too, but not all menswear)
A great list of fabric resources from a publisher of great books on fabrics for sewers
A useful guy who writes and teaches on patternmaking, from a no-nonsense theater-costume background
an association of professionals engaged in sewing and design related businesses

Definitely 2nding Kenneth King's books and CDs...

That should keep you busy for a bit:)

Welcome; I've found the world of sewers to be a generally convivial place. I'm sure you will, too...
posted by dpcoffin at 2:57 PM on August 19, 2008 [13 favorites]

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