Who We Are: Sewing While Overseas

Hello all! It’s Sophy here. When we asked if you had experience of sewing away from home, it was so interesting to see the discussion unfold on Instagram with great tips and comments for all those planning or having already made a big move overseas. This is a topic close to my heart, since I took up sewing when I moved from the United Kingdom to Hong Kong six years ago, first hand-sewing a quilt and eventually moving on to garment sewing. It gave a sense of focus and grounding during those big life changes. Here, some of our readers share their own experiences of sewing while overseas:

Kat says:

Kat is smiling at the camera and wearing an embroidered mesh top.
Kat is smiling at the camera and wearing an embroidered mesh top.

I moved to New Zealand from the midwestern US in 2014, with two suitcases and absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. I went from living in a town surrounded by corn fields to a tiny apartment in the middle of the biggest city in a different country. My natural state, as an introvert in a new environment, was to not leave the house unless critically necessary, and the concept of making new friends as an adult was absolutely terrifying. About six months in, I realized that the clothes I’d brought in my suitcase weren’t really going to cut it as a complete wardrobe. Instead of facing the mall (in this strange country with its strange sizing, full of strange stores whose names I didn’t recognize), I bought an old sewing machine, googled ‘fabric stores near me’ and added to my wardrobe that way. In a hopeful effort to make friends, I started posting my makes on Instagram and my blog and tagging my location – hoping I’d eventually attract the attention of one or two other people in Auckland and convince them to be friends with me.

Fast forward five years: I’ve successfully avoided the mall, and I am part of an absolutely incredible sewing community, with so many friends in Auckland and beyond. I was terrified the first time I met an internet friend ‘IRL’ (In Real Life) — but it was amazing, and every meetup since then has been equally so. A group of wonderful women came over for my ‘hem party’ to help me hem my wedding dress, and I never would have met any of them if I hadn’t put myself out there. My natural state is still at home in my tiny apartment, in my tiny sewing corner, but the addition of these incredible relationships is something I couldn’t have imagined and would never give up.

It can be scary to move to a new country as an adult – every single thing about your life changes. Your favourite cereal — even the way you spell ‘favourite’ — your habits and preferences. You have to ask people what the best kind of stain remover is because you don’t recognize any of the brand names. It’s a bit like a factory reset, you get to decide things all over again, but it’s all going to be outside your comfort zone. Everyone’s experience is different, but if you’ve recently found yourself in a new country, finding local people with similar interests is a huge step toward making a place feel like home. The sewing community is such a great one to be a part of, and I’m so grateful for all of the wonderful humans who have opened their arms and welcomed me here!

Kat Waters makes everything she wears (most recently shoes!) in sunny Auckland, New Zealand. She can be found on instagram @kat.makes and on her blog, www.katmakes.com.

Masha says:

Masha models a Washi dress on a bridge over Tbilisi's Mtkvari River
Masha models a Washi dress on a bridge over Tbilisi’s Mtkvari River.

I have been traveling the world as long as I can remember. I’ve lived in nine different countries in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and South America, both as a child and as an adult. In the 11 years since I learned to sew, my husband’s job has moved us to three new places. Originally from the United States, we’ve also lived in Moscow, Russia and Tbilisi, Georgia. We currently make our home in Bogota, Colombia. Despite our frequent moves, one thing is constant for me — my sewing practice. I always make a priority of having my sewing station set up relatively quickly after our things arrive. It’s important for me to have access to my sanity-saver both in the chaos of unpacking, and in that awkward period when I’m trying to adapt myself and my kids to our new home.

And adaptation is important. In addition to figuring things out like how to grocery shop in a new country, I have to figure out how to craft — and how to sewcialize. This takes on a different character in each location. In Moscow, I was lucky to find a regular craft night. Most of the other crafters were not sewists, but we had large tables with enough room for me to trace patterns while chatting with the scrapbookers, card-makers and knitters. In Moscow, I did make one great sewing buddy with whom I still keep in touch, eight years later.

In Tbilisi, I could buy fabric at the grocery store! That made the drudgery of weekly food runs more exciting. In Tbilisi, I got serious about adult garment sewing, but I mostly sewed and crafted on my own. That’s probably why I decided to start my sewing blog while we lived there. Tbilisi had really interesting streets and photo opportunities, and I took advantage by photographing my clothes around town.

I joined Instagram before moving to Bogota, and through that platform, I’ve been able to find a couple of adult garment sewing friends here. We’ve met up for coffee and gone fabric shopping together. I’ve found a few fabric stores, but what is special about Bogota for sewists is its amazing leather district with a wide variety of skins for sale at great prices. Sewing with leather is something I’d never considered doing, but now I have plans to tackle it before we move again next year. Having easy access to beautiful pieces that I can browse in person has been very inspiring!

Masha is a homeschooling mother of four who has lived in Canada, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Israel, Armenia, Afghanistan, Georgia (the country) and Colombia. She blogs about sewing at The Itinerant Seamstress. You can also find her on Instagram.

Erin says:

Erin stands in a fabric shop, with fabric bolts piled high around her.
Erin stands in a fabric shop, with fabric bolts piled high around her.

My name is Erin, and I live and sew in Erdenet, Mongolia. When I moved overseas a year and half ago, I knew that my sewing life was about to change dramatically. For one thing, I couldn’t bring my machines! We have a big family, and even though that’s a lot of carry-on space, we were moving, not traveling, and we needed to maximize our luggage for things we’d require down the road. And I knew my vintage babies weren’t going to handle the shift from 110V to 220V. We hadn’t been here very long when my husband (who knew that not-sewing was not going to improve my mental health) found a 220V Singer 4432 for my birthday. It’s kind of basic, but I love it. Since then we’ve added a serger and a coverstitch machine, and I’m back in business. I make a lot of my own clothing, and quite a few pieces for my kids. Being able to sew has been a huge blessing during this transition time.

Sewing overseas is a different ballgame, for sure. The language barrier is an obvious problem, especially since most fabric shops are stuffed as full as possible, and nothing is labelled! I have not yet perfected the art of the burn test, and I’ve had more than one fabric purchase turn out to be a complete flop. I recently bought a maxi dress length of a beautiful grey floral rayon…or so I thought. When I got it home and washed it, it acquired roughly the texture of a shower curtain. Not that I mind shower curtains… it’s just maybe not the right substrate for a floaty summer dress. On the other hand, I’ve found the fabric shop owners in my city to be some of the nicest people I’ve met so far. They are universally patient with my stumbling language, and a number of them take the time to help me learn the sewing terminology I need to know. Sewing friends are the best friends — that’s the truth!

There are so many resources available for the modern sewist that help immensely when you’re overseas. Back home in Canada, I lived an hour away from my nearest brick-and-mortar store, so I got used to printing and taping PDF patterns… which, of course, I can still do here. I can order parts and fabric online, and YouTube tutorials have saved my projects on more than one occasion. Social media is a fantastic way to connect with sewists around the world… I follow people from Norway, Russia, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong, and North America. It’s amazing!

If you are an expat sewist, or planning to become one, I’d love to connect with you! You can find me @kiltquest on Instagram (trying valiantly to make the #expatsewing hashtag a real thing…)

Amy says:

Amy smiles at the camera through fronds of ivy and is wearing a wrap bodice dress.
Amy smiles at the camera through fronds of ivy and is wearing a wrap bodice dress.

I was born and raised in the USA where I learnt to sew from my mother and from home economics in junior high. I moved to the UK as an adult and after a few years, decided I wanted to take up sewing again. I bought a cheap Singer sewing machine. The machine itself was much like ones I learned on before and the patterns were all the same too. My figure is an inverse triangle which is rather unusual and I was struggling with RTW clothes and standard patterns, so I signed up for a pattern-making class and it was brilliant. I later took a sewing class from the same school and having the in-person community was really helpful.

The main difference between the US and the UK in sewing is that Americans (usually) use imperial measurements and British people (usually) use metric. It completely changed sewing for me, it became vastly easier. Making alterations is so much simpler and the math makes more sense to me.

My best advice is to find people in your new country who sew (on or offline) and read and participate as much as you can. Via my classes, I discovered Goldhawk Road in London (the place to get fabric, and word of advice — when you go, take an empty suitcase for all the gorgeous fabric you’ll buy!) and made some friends.

Amy is a keen crafter from sewing to knitting, from embroidery to crochet. She constantly has to talk herself out of buying a loom. She doesn’t participate with social media, but is delighted to have this community!

Thank you for reading all of our stories! Sewing overseas can involve learning new ways of doing things and overcoming hurdles, and it brings so many rewards. As always with Who We Are posts, I hope that reading gives you insight into other people’s lives, and also confidence to talk about your own experiences. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!