Paula Fonseca, April 22, 2019
About two years ago, I bought the most beautiful wool blend to make a winter coat. The fabric was gorgeous — a blend of black and gray with threads of silver woven into it, making the fabric sparkle whenever the light hit it. I also purchased a deliciously buttery peachskin in black to be used as lining. But every time I thought about sewing the coat, I was filled with self-doubt. I felt like I did not have the skills necessary for such a difficult project. I kept on waiting until I was 100% sure that I could sew that coat, that I was not going to waste such precious fabrics because I was not there yet. And the fabric lived in one of my fabric storage containers for two whole years before I found the courage to start sewing that coat.
I had to realize that I was probably going to wait all my life, and I would still not feel prepared to sew a coat. The reality is, if you don’t push yourself just a little farther than what you can currently do, you will never learn and grow. I could sew a million more T-shirts and skirts, and I would still not develop the skills to sew a coat. Growth is always a few steps outside of our comfort zone; I had to be okay with being uncomfortable to push through and finally get the project going.
It was not easy, and there were moments when I just wanted to shove the unfinished coat into a drawer and forget about it. What helped me start the project and persevere when things felt overwhelming was developing a systematic approach to dealing with challenging projects. I looked at my experience as a teacher to find strategies to help me with my sewing. I realized that there was a lot I could borrow from my professional practice to make facing a challenging sewing project more approachable.
The best way to start any challenging project is with a plan. A plan forces you to analyze the project carefully, and it helps you gauge how much time and effort the project will require. As you look through the instructions of the pattern or visit your fabric stash for possible pairings, you get a full idea of what you are getting yourself into. Your plan can be as simple or as involved as your comfort level allows.
When I decided to sew Simplicity 1197, I knew the project was going to be challenging. I spent some time mentally organizing it, and then I forced myself to create a written plan to guide my steps. Putting pen to paper made the plan real, and it prompted me to start. There were moments when I had to deviate from the plan — after all, life happens — but having it kept me focused throughout the whole project.
Once you have a plan, it is time to refine it by organizing steps into similar categories. Chunking, or breaking down your efforts into more manageable blocks, does wonders to help you manage your time and level of frustration. Instead of attempting to get the whole project done in one pass, you can select which chunks you want to address during each sewing session. Some logical chunks are: preparing fabric (washing and ironing); preparing the pattern (taping, tracing, or cutting the pattern); cutting the pattern pieces; interfacing; sewing the lining; sewing the fashion fabric; etc. But you can chunk your steps any way you like; this is all about making use of time more efficiently by combining steps and preventing frustration by pushing too hard for too long.
After writing down and analyzing my plan, I realized that I had a lot to do. I chunked the project into logical batches: pre-shrinking the wool and pre-washing the lining; sewing a muslin (or two); transferring adjustments to the paper pattern; cutting the wool; cutting the lining; interfacing; sewing the welt pockets; sewing the coat; sewing the lining; sewing lining to coat; hemming the coat and the lining; making buttonholes; sewing buttons; finishing the coat. Looking at the project as a whole made me exhausted, but when I broke it into chunks, everything became manageable… and fun!
Whenever I start a new project, be it simple or super complex, I search the Internet for reviews, tutorials, or any content that might help me have a better idea of the pattern or fabric I am working with. I have a hard time visualizing a new pattern on me, so looking at other sewists’s finished project gives me a clearer idea of how it will look on me. Reviews provide important information such as possible adjustments, tricky construction, or useful tips. I also rely on research when I am faced with a technique I am not familiar with.
I was lucky to find that two of my favorite sewists, The Crafty Pinup (see above) and Alexandra Bruce, had great video reviews of Simplicity 1197. For the welt pockets, I used this Mimi G’s tutorial. For the more complicated aspects of coat making, I referred to Steffani Lincecum’s classes Inside Vogue Patterns: Coatmaking Techniques V9040 and Classic Tailoring: The Blazer. I had never heard of French chains, so I used this great tutorial by Profession Pincushion. And when my machine could not handle making buttons because of the thickness of the layers, I found help in Alison Smith’s quick video and Megan Nielsen’s photo tutorial. It is amazing how generous people are with their knowledge, and I try to make use of this generosity as often as possible.
Making a Muslin
I know, I know, making a muslin is the least fun one can have in the sewing room — it can be time consuming, and there is nothing exciting about a garment made out of beige fabric one step removed from cardboard. Making a muslin, though, has many advantages that far outweigh an ugly beige garment. First, it gives you the opportunity to correct any fit issues. You can then transfer the adjustments to your pattern, and once you are ready to sew your expensive fabric, you will not have to worry about the fit. A muslin also allows you to practice before you complete your final project. If there are any skills or techniques that you are unfamiliar with or unsure about, the muslin stage will help you identify and prepare for it.
For my coat, I ended up sewing two muslins, one size 18 and one 16. The 18 looked enormous. The 16 split in half at the back seam. I ended up finding a middle ground between the two. The truth is, I was still adjusting the coat even after I had sewed the wool, but these were easier adjustments (taking the sides seam in). Having the two muslins as guides helped me get the best fit I could with the fewest amount of changes to the real thing.
Celebrating Success and Embracing Failure
I feel like Captain Obvious when I say that experiencing a sewing success is amazing. There is something god-like about creating something functional and beautiful out of a bunch of fabric. I love that I can take a piece of fabric and shape it into a skirt, a dress, a coat… pretty much anything! I embraced the coat challenge, and I won. The final product is a warm and beautiful piece of clothing that I will be wearing every winter.
But what about sewing failures? The pattern that does not flatter, the garment that does not fit, the fabric that does not work quite like you expected… No one starts a sewing project expecting failure, but failure happens. And it is okay. Because even if the final product is not a success, it allowed you to practice your skills. You learned a technique, or maybe you improved your sewing speed. And you spent some time doing something that you love, and how can that be bad? You can gift the garment to a family member or friend, you can donate it to a thrift store, or you can repurpose the fabric. Whatever you do, know that sewing that garment was not a waste of time and resources.
The Final Product: My Coat
I am very proud of myself for having sewn a coat, but I am prouder that I pushed myself beyond the familiar, the safe. I am not an adventurous person, and stepping outside of my comfort zone is a real struggle. Now that I have a system I can rely on, I feel a lot more confident about trying to sew more complex garments. I am planning a corset in the near future, and I know I will benefit from the lessons learned from sewing this coat.
Paula loves sewing second only to cats. For more than 10 years, she has been sewing to bring goth aesthetics and comfort together to create a wardrobe uniquely hers. In real life, she is a high school librarian in Los Angeles, CA. She runs SewGoth.com and can be found on Instagram @SewGoth.
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