I have been fortunate enough to have some time off from work this summer, and in amongst various family trips and activities I managed to fit in something that was just for me: a short course at the London College of Fashion.
There were a few courses that I’d been thinking about doing – they have so many good options! – from couture bridal/occasion wear sewing, to tailoring, to embroidery. Many of those courses mentioned LCF’s ‘sewing skills’ courses as an example of the prerequisite level of sewing, and being mainly self-taught, I started to wonder whether I should take a sewing skills course before venturing on to any of those.
I eventually settled on the ‘Professional Sewing Skills‘ course. It is described as an intermediate level course and covers various seam types and edge finishes, collars (notched with revere/lapel, roll/shawl, and camp), facing applications, various cuff finishes, zips (lapped, centred, and concealed), pockets (in seam, welt and jetted), fly fastenings, bound openings, shirt button plackets (visible and hidden) and ‘garment pressing procedures’. There are two ‘Introduction to Professional Sewing’ courses which I think precede this one, as well as a long ‘Mastering Sewing Skills and Garment Making’ course which seems to run for a whole academic year. I didn’t think I needed the introductory courses, and definitely I wasn’t looking to commit to a year-long course. Although I have sewn each of the things on the Professional Sewing Skills course outline before (some more often than others), I thought it would be helpful to attend this course and hopefully pick up some professional tips and techniques to use across the board. And it certainly didn’t disappoint! So, grab a cuppa – I’ll explain what we did on the course, and then walk you through the 10 things I’ll be doing differently as a result of the course.
WHAT WE DID
In short, we made a whooole lot of samples! The course focuses on machine stitching techniques for elements of garments such as collars, cuffs, bound openings, pockets and zips, as I mentioned above. Rather than making a single garment, we made the samples individually, although in some cases they were grouped (e.g. in the mini-shirt with collar and two different cuff styles).
For me, the pace of instruction was good. We covered a lot of ground in the five days, but I had time to review the course notes for each sample/technique, and make my own notes as we went. I also took lots of pictures as I worked on my samples, for my own future reference, and had time to raise any extra questions with the instructor when needed. I do think it is correctly labelled an intermediate course – you do need to be quite comfortable behind the sewing machine in order to keep up, and I think a beginner would struggle to do so – but the instructor was great at making sure everyone was okay. There were 11 students on the first day (down to 9 by the third day) and one instructor with a technical assistant. We each had an industrial sewing machine to use, and shared 2-3 industrial overlockers and 3 industrial pressing stations. We were provided with a ring binder folder containing printed notes for each of the techniques we covered and more general information about different types of needles, interlining / underlining, etc.
My husband and my mum both commented that I knew how to make a shirt or insert a zip before I went on the course – I had clearly done these things before – but I do think it was worth attending and I still came away with useful information, tips, reference photos and a bag of calico samples for future reference. I’m very glad I attended!
10 THINGS I WILL DO DIFFERENTLY GOING FORWARD
- Use fewer pins
I noticed that our instructor didn’t use many pins whilst sewing (and bear in mind, we made mini-shirts, inserted zips, collars and facings etc). Instead, she showed us how she controls the fabric when sewing – the left hand is used to keep the layers together and prevent left-to-right shifting, whilst the right hand steers the fabric to the right seam allowance and keeps the layers together lengthwise whilst sewing. Your hands should never normally need to go behind the needle – you shouldn’t need to pull the fabric from behind as you sew. We talked about using the feed dogs strategically when easing one layer to another, and directional sewing. For the first time, I tried sewing a set-in sleeve with the sleeve laying down on the feed dogs. I was able to set the sleeve without using ease stitches (albeit I did use quite a few pins, as usual) and I do think it makes a difference.
I have also seen similar guidance on Janet Pray’s ‘Sew Faster: Garment Industry Secrets’ classes and David Coffin’s shirt making classes on Bluprint (formerly Craftsy) in which they talk about effectively using your fingers as pins when you hold the fabric with the proper grip. Janet, and our instructor on the course, explained how in industry people sew with short, quick bursts, and few (if any) pins. I do think it’s much easier to do this when your machine is set into your table so that you’re sewing on one large flat surface, but I’m going to practice the technique anyway and try to become more comfortable sewing with fewer pins, which I hope will mean faster sewing! I suspect I’ll still be using plenty of pins for sleeves and collars though!
2. Press more thoughtfully
Our instructor really opened my eyes about pressing techniques. What I really noticed about her demonstrations is how much of the ironing board she would use – she would hang the garment off the edge of the ironing board in such a way as to prevent pressing the bits that she wasn’t intentionally seeking to press, but with enough support that it wouldn’t be stretching the garment out. She used the tip of the iron quite strategically, and on the welt/jetted pockets and sleeve plackets in particular I could see how much more crisp the results were. She used the edge of the ironing board to press some rounded seams. We talked about when to press with a dry iron versus pressing with steam, and I loved that the way we pre-pressed the sleeve cuffs actually took account of turn of the cloth in a way that made it easier to achieve even top stitching when attaching them to the sleeves.
3. Use smaller seam allowances more often
We used 1cm or 0.5cm seam allowances for most of our samples and I really noticed how little grading, clipping and notching was required. Curved seams are easier to match with a narrower seam allowance, and we didn’t have any issues turning crisp collar points etc having sewn them with narrower seam allowances. However, my approach to seam allowances will still depend on the fabric. A loose-weaved boucle for example might require a wider seam allowance – and I’d need to be very sure of the fit of the pattern (which probably means making more toiles).
4. Upgrade my sewing room goals
At the time of writing, I don’t have a sewing room. I sew in my dining room, my fabric stash is spread between cupboards in the dining room and elsewhere in the house.
However, having used the industrial machines (sewing machine, overlocker and iron) during the course, I definitely want them for my imaginary future sewing room! Ok, I’m not likely to get an industrial pressing station, let’s be real, but honestly the generously sized ironing board, swivelling sleeve board and vacuum function which quickly cools your pressed fabric had us all talking about how much we’d love to have one at home. The industrial sewing machine and overlocker were surprisingly easy to use (including to control the speed), and I’m almost certain that both were quieter than my equivalent machines at home.
5. Improve my current sewing ergonomics
Whilst I wait for that ‘one day’ sewing room, I want to think a bit more about the ergonomics of my current setup. I have actually taken the quilting extension table for my sewing machine out of the box, and am experimenting with using that so that more of my fabric is lying on a flat surface as I sew.
At some point I would like to set my machine up on a table with a lowered platform so that the machine sits flush with the table surface and it becomes one large flat sewing surface (much like the industrial machines). Another ergonomic advantage on the course was the knee lift on the industrial machines, which allows you to lift the presser foot with your knee, leaving both hands free to place the fabric. My machine didn’t come with one but for some domestic machine models you can apparently get a knee lift as an optional extra. I will investigate this further, but I’m not changing my sewing machine any time soon if it’s a no-go!
6. Set my overlocker up for a 3-thread stitch for woven fabric
We used a narrow 3-thread stitch that just looked clean and neat on the samples without adding much bulk to the seams. Our instructor mentioned that it is usual in industry to use 3-thread overlocking for wovens and 4-thread for knit fabric. I’ve used my overlocker with 4 threads since I first got it, and I mostly sew woven. So I’ve actually already removed a needle, set up the narrow 3-thread stitch and have given it a try!
7. Bring the patience
“When you come to the sewing machine, bring your patience…”Our sewing instructor
I loved this little tidbit from our sewing instructor. Her point was that sometimes, you sit behind the machine and everything just works and it’s all sunshine and roses. At other times, you can spend the whole afternoon unpicking and re-stitching the same thing because it just won’t turn out right. So every time you sit down to sew, bring your patience! For me, it was a reminder not to be too hard on myself too – for example, our instructor explained that in industry, they use specialised machines for collar stitching and top stitching, which is how they end up with such perfect, parallel lines. Whilst I will still compare my collar stitching to an RTW shirt as the de facto standard of good sewing, I’ll probably cut myself a little slack if I can’t achieve 100% perfection every time without the whizzy industrial gadgets.
8. Take the time to improve my accuracy
That said, I’ll take the time to mark stitching lines as well as notches where it is critical to match a point or seam (e.g. for collar notches, bound openings, welt/jetted pockets). Doing so might take a little longer but the benefits (of professional results) far outweigh the additional time spent.
This also applies to certain procedures where it is helpful to sew in two passes rather than one. For example, when inserting flat piping to a seam, I typically would pin the piping between the two layers and sew the seam in one pass. As a result, there is always a section where my stitching line wavers and the width of the contrast piping on the right side of the garment may vary if you look along it from end to end. However, taking the time to stitch the piping to one layer of fabric first, and then sew another pass to attach the second layer, gives a much more clean result. In short, I need to stop being lazy and focus on accuracy, for truly professional sewing.
9. Make samples when reading about new-to-me techniques
I read a lot of sewing blog posts / reference books and I watch a lot of sewing content online (either on vlogs, You Tube or on Craftsy/Bluprint classes). I therefore feel like I have a lot of theoretical knowledge in my head about how to do various things – but I haven’t physically tried most of them. On the course, we weren’t making a whole garment, but focusing on learning the techniques by working with small pieces of calico for the most part. I was struck by how easy it would be to spend an hour with some calico and fabric scraps (who doesn’t have a handy bag of scraps?!) and actually try out a new technique. All being well, you would then have a sewn sample for future reference – and if you photograph and take notes as you go, you’ll hopefully have enough of a prompt for how to do it in future. I’m definitely going to make more samples.
I have approximately 200 photos from the five day course (I was literally taking a photo at every step so that I could remind myself of the sequences later, as the notes provided either looked sparse or were for more complicated methods than that shown in person during the class). So one thing I want to do is create a reference folder using those photos and my notes taken during the class, and other techniques that I try out, so that I have a personalised sewing ‘textbook’ of all my favourite techniques. And, of course, a big pile of calico samples!
10. Take more courses!
I really enjoyed immersing myself in this sewing course for a week, learning from a professional and meeting other sewers. I’m already booked in for a weekend embroidery class in a few weeks and I’ll definitely try to do at least one course each year going forward.
Phew, well that was a doozy of a blog post – well done (and thank you) for reading this far! I hope it was helpful and/or interesting, and I’d love to read your thoughts so please feel free to comment below.