The Sewcialists Interview: Carolyn of Diary of a Sewing Fanatic

I’ve been sewing and crafting some way or another all my life, but when I really bit the bullet on financially investing in my sewing & equipment in 2011, I recall following Carolyn on Diary of a Sewing Fanatic even then. She’s iconic; no one can do a border print like Carolyn can do a border print. She’s intersectional in her sewing but also so down-to-earth-approachable. She’s got some real sewing wisdom we can all learn from, but she’s not gonna hold your hand. You can come to her side of the street, or don’t. And that is one of the things I love most about Carolyn: she’s been authentic since before it was a buzzword.

As always, I start off each interview with fluffy rainbows and unicorns, and then I tend to hit pretty heavy.

TW: Racism, violence, LOTS of politics (how does racism even hide behind “politics”??), and lots of swearing. 2020 is almost here—you should know me by now. I swear. 2020 for Sewcialists will be harder-hitting with fluff sprinkled in, so let’s kick it off, shall we?

Becky (B): First, let’s go over some get-to-know-you basics. Are you living in New York now? Where are you based out of?

Caroline (C): I work in New York City; I live in New Jersey. I’m in the ’burbs.

B: OK, I wasn’t sure. You seem to go to events all over, which is great to watch online, but for our readers, how does that look for you?

C: For me to go to a sewing event, like an event in Baltimore or Atlanta or something like that, I don’t drive; I take the train. So for a sewing event, if I can get there on public transportation, I’m going to go.

B: And you’ve mentioned online you don’t like to fly….

C: No, it’s not my favorite, but I will fly. Like I AM going to London and Paris next year. I’m going to stay with my friend, Ruth. She’s @dibsandthemachine on Instagram. We’ve known each other for years on social media, but we met IRL in May, and we just had the best time. She came in May to my house, and she took some stuff from The Stash, and she said if I ever want to go to London, that she’d take me around. So I decided I really do want to go to London, and so I asked her to let me get some days together, check hotels, and to see if she’d be around, BUT she said, “No. You come to London and stay at MY house.” Well, so that settled it. I’m definitely going to London now.

B: That just opens up the budget entirely!

C: I’m ready to shop to my heart’s content now!

B: You can just ship it back from there.

C: Oh, no. I’m buying an extra suitcase IN London, and I’m packing all my goodies in my new suitcase and putting it on that plane right next to me. I’m not going to be parted from my goodies! We are also going to Paris for two days: one day to fabric shop, and one day to sightsee. I’m excited. So yes, I’m getting on a plane!

B: That all sounds like it will be worth it. A good way to treat yourself.

C: (laughs) This is so totally off of what we were talking about.

photo of plus-sized, black woman in 3 different border print sewn outfits
Undisputed Queen of Border Prints

B: We view it as all the same topic. You do so much. You’re on social media, you blog, you go to “sewcial” events, you take lots of classes and report online on it all; to us, it’s all part of our community. It’s what makes us “Sewcialists.” This segues perfectly into what I want to ask you next. Walk me through the differences between your blogging, Instagram, IRL sewing, and how they complement each other. What do you like best?

C: Let’s start with blogging, because of everything I do, I like blogging the the best. I like blogging the best because I get to say what I want to say and when I want to say it. I get to show what I’m making, and I get to tell you why I’m making it. I also like that I have a big enough blog audience that if I decide that I just want to type like a question of the day like “Do you sharpen your scissors?,” there are people that talk back to me. Gone are the days when you had a hundred comments on a blog post, so to get people talking back to you on the blog is really a big thing now.

I have a love-hate relationship with Bloglovin’ and blog readers. Most people read their blogs off blog readers now because it’s on their mobile device and it’s easy to access for them. When they leave a comment, I don’t see that comment for two to three weeks sometimes.

B: Oh really? That’s interesting. I don’t use blog readers because they often cause extra barriers to commenting; between that extra unnecessary barrier of entry or when the author forces a click-through, it’s really turned me off of blog reading in general.

C: I didn’t even know that! I only know about the comments because I check it every now and then, but it takes my friends, like Gaylen, to tell me I have comments. But I like blogging first because of the interaction.

The second place I’m probably most visible is Instagram. You can leave good comments, you can write more than a few characters with your photos, but I pretty much hate stories, though, because I hate everyone just talking to their phone. I don’t understand. Sometimes I think that makes me old (laughs).

I like meetups and things like Sew Camp and like the Baltimore Destash because then you get to actually meet some of the people who are leaving comments or following you. It also gives you a chance to make better relationships than just online, but then, in some cases, it makes people realize that the person they’ve dreamed up in their head is not who I actually am! (laughs)

4 more border print outfits from Carolyn
More Queen of the Border Prints

B: Oh, I know what you mean! Text doesn’t have cadence, so people put their own cadence into what they read, their own ideas, their own personality and sometimes it doesn’t mesh in real life.

C: Yes! Their own ideas and make me their friend in their head, and then they meet me. I’m kind of loud and I curse a lot! I mean, I’m a lot more unfiltered in person than I am in a blog post. I’ll read a blog post three or four times before I post it. Sometimes I’ll write something and I let it sit for a day or two before I post it. So you see, who you’ve made me to be in your head might not be who I am actually am, and I found that some people are disappointed when they meet me. I’m not the friend they thought I was! Real-life meetings are really important for getting to know others. While I know I’ve disappointed some, I’ve met even more that are now really great friends.

3 images showing different angles of Carolyn's substantial fabric stash in her sewing cave
Legendary Sewing Cave Stash

B: Your sewing cave is legendary in the sewing blog-verse. What do you watch on your TV in your sewing room?

C: Right now I’m addicted to Chicago PD, but I also watched CSI or I watch Law & Order: SVU.

B: How are you able to do so and do you listen to podcasts or music?

C: I just need the TV going in the background and because I’ve seen all of them a whole bunch of times, I don’t need to watch. I found that at one point I was running old Grey’s Anatomy or old Scandal, but I ended up stopping and watching the episodes, so it has to be something I’ve already seen a bunch.

I often sew late. Often I start sewing about 9 PM  until 2 or 3 in the morning, when it’s quiet and peaceful. At that time, there’s Internet, there’s nobody calling me, and there’s just quiet, then I play music. I like Marvin Gaye, Eric Benét, Luther Vandross or some Teddy Pendergrass. I found Teddy Pendergrass on Apple Music the other day, and he was like blasting for two weeks in the sewing cave. I’m definitely showing my age!

 B: Well, I think that’s a good thing! We have Pati Palmer here in Portland, and I’ve been lucky enough to see her speak a few times. It’s amazing to watch her command a room, regardless of age. I feel like within our hobby here, our sewing world, we respect what you say because you have so much more experience. I think it’s important to hear you.

C: Well, I don’t know about listening to others’ expertise. I don’t necessarily know if that’s true online.

B: You don’t think so?

C: Maybe there’s a certain population that respects sewists with experience, or an elder source, but I don’t actually believe that’s true online.

We’ve become a “show me” community. You have to have a YouTube video, or you have a sparkly Instagram (IG) channel. If you have a blog, it has to have big, bright pictures with pretty and clean backgrounds. My personal opinion is that I believe we’re veering towards the shiny and the new. We have become very visual people and more experienced people compete with the shiny and new. I think we’re losing some of the experienced sewists because they’re just dropping out. I think we’re losing some of the experience to the visual and the flashy.

I realize I’m in the “baby boomer” generation, but I’ve been an unusual baby boomer because I have an active social media presence. Most baby boomers my age, they might have a Facebook page, but they have it so they can keep in contact with their kids. If they have an IG account, they usually don’t use it much other than to scroll through and see other people’s pictures. The way the pictures and YouTube videos and blogs are set up now, that’s intimidating! It’s so different from the way it was when we first started blogging.

B: Speaking of how it used to be, I’ve been following you a very long time. And, while you’re right, I follow blogs a lot less frequently now, and I do have one request.

Could you bring back your February 14th, 2014  post My Top Ten Sewing Blogs? It’s such a fun trip down Memory Lane, and going through the comments. Some of those blogs are no longer around; some were just starting out then and are huge now. It would be great to see what you’d put on the list now and to see the comments. Some of those small blogs and indie designers that were listed have even disappeared at this point.

C: That’s a good idea! I like that. What has happened to some of those smaller designers?

B: Well, I’ve talked to a few. I feel like the general public thinks there’s a lot of money in indie patterns, but there’s not. They’re not making a ton of money. Most indie designers are doing it for the love of the community, and if they need to make a paycheck large enough to help with their family, they can’t keep doing it. There’s just not that much. No one is getting rich here.

C: Well, you know why people think they are?

B: The shiny pictures on Instagram?

C: Right! I do know they’re not all making that much money. I was at a SewExpo, and I asked the lady from Vogue if the indie patterns were cutting into their business, and she actually laughed before she said, “No, absolutely not.”

B: Well, that’s good to know she was honest about it; some of their financial statements have been creatively worded to allow conjecture. I’ve seen firsthand some of the financial numbers out there on the indie side; no one’s getting rich, yet a lot of people are still insisting it’s happening.

C: I want to say, “Don’t be fooled by the hype.” Most people who sew aren’t on the Internet, they don’t have an IG account, or they don’t have a blog. They head off to JOANN or Walmart or Hobby Lobby. They pick up a pattern, pick up some fabric, and make what they need.

We (those of us online) are maybe 10% of the sewing population. When you see an account with tens of thousands of followers, it’s easy to think that is a lot, but if you put that within the scope of all sewists, we are an insignificant percentage.

B: Right! You work in market analysis and know all about big data. What those tens of thousands of followers translate to in dollars and “market mindshare” is minimal in the big picture.

C: Exactly. And people will see those thousands of followers and swear they’re getting rich, but they’re not. I know they’re not. Sometimes people come to me, and they’ll say, “You have a lot of followers and you are vocal about plus-sized patterns; you should do a plus-sized pattern.” All I can think about is WHY? I like healthcare, and I wrote about this in a blog post. I like getting a paycheck every two weeks. I like the benefits that come along with having a job, and I would throw all of that away to hope someone would buy a hundred patterns from me? No.

B: Oh, yeah. And there are so many hidden costs. I know a designer that had entire lines graded for plus sized. You have to pay for grading up front. She paid for it. It all came back wrong. The grader didn’t know as much as they said they did, so that pattern maker had to scrap it all and start over. She got in a plus-sized dress form, and is starting from zero again on the plus-sized block, but she’s already out the money. No one sees all of that. (Note: We are intentionally staying ambiguous on some of these as details aren’t necessary, but the general information is important.)

C: Well, and you’ll see (that designer) get a pass from the plus-sized community because she’s doing what she’s supposed to…and she’s working. She’s got the good sense not to open her mouth.

Some people wonder why the conversations are so much louder and vocal with some indie pattern makers versus others. It’s because they sit still, put their head down, do what they have to do, and then they launch it like they’re supposed to, and when they can. Instead, some do a lot of talk, then do a splashy launch with all these little sizes, still talking about how it’s coming!!! Plus sizes are coming, and it’s so much money!!

And paper patterns. You have to have paper patterns.

B: Tired of sticking together all those pieces of paper?

C:  Don’t get me started on that!

B: (laughs) Bring it! Get on your soapbox!

C: I think this (PDF patterns) is a scam! Either you tape it together using your own paper, your own ink, and your own time after paying someone fifteen dollars or you pay an additional seven dollars to send it to PDF Plotting to get it back on those big pieces of paper. So, in essence, you spent more than twenty-five dollars for a very simple design. There are very few indie designers out there that are making complex designs or giving options out on a pattern. I go down to JOANN, which I hate with a passion, or I go to Hobby Lobby (I know people hate Hobby Lobby too), but I pay a $1.99 and get five designs in a pattern. Yeah, that’s a scam. People are being scammed. There’s a whole audience out there that is never going to tape shit together. AND they’re not gonna go online and try it. I’ve tried going on the PDF Plotting site just so that I wouldn’t sound like just an asshole, just complaining all the time, and it’s not intuitive.

B: I have a print-design background, and I found it difficult. I can’t imagine someone completely new to it all trying to figure out that site.

C: Yes! People are just going to keep buying Big 4.

The other thing that gets me about this is when people say, “Indie patterns are just so much better drafted. They don’t have so much ease.”

People. The reason there is ease in them is because twenty-five million people buy a pattern. It has to be made so that it fits a wide range of people. If you know you don’t like ease, remove it. Believe me, Mimi G’s patterns do not come out the envelope looking like they look on her! She has spent years learning how to perfect the fit for her body, and all I’m saying is other people should learn the way to fit patterns to their bodies too.

4 images of Carolyn in 4 different button up shirts made of 4 different border print fabrics
Seriously. Not joking about Border Print Queen title.

B: This is just proving my point of why it’s so important I think to listen to our elders and those with more experience. I didn’t know, until I talked to Pati Palmer and Marta Alto, that in the Big 4’s the bust measurement is HIGH BUST measurement, not bust apex. I was making 2 sizes too big for years, as is just about everyone else I come across. Cutting out two sizes too big in the first place will definitely cause too much ease! Not only are you adding extra circumference to your bust, you’re adding it to your back as well! This is the same when people advise to “grade between sizes” for an increase in bust. Do an FBA. Your back doesn’t have a larger bust cup! All these things you learn from those with more experience, instead of just getting your education from other beginners on Instagram.

C: Mm-hmm! I spend a lot of time sitting on my hands and not saying anything because at the beginning I used to be very vocal about all of this, and people hated me for it! New sewists on social media like to learn from beginners like them, and they don’t like to be told to stop listening to bad advice. There are a lot of people out there leading people down the garden path with really nice YouTube videos with bad information.

B: Yeah. I refer so many people to Grace aka @wzrdreams when I see “scooping out the crotch” spreading like wildfire again. Don’t do it! But if you don’t want to listen to me, listen to Grace. But some people have to learn by making their own mistakes.

C: Yes! And her (Grace’s) videos on walking the seams to be sure they match and on sleeve caps. See, these are things I learned when I first learned to sew, but people don’t want to learn from us. They don’t want to hear us say it. Our pictures aren’t great. Well, we’re not concentrating on our photos, we’re concentrating on the skill.

4 images showing from the beginning of a garment the pattern alterations, custom button making, and finished blouse on Carolyn.
Example of just some of the knowledge shared by Carolyn on her blog.

B: I know you get tired of it, but I think you’re this fountain of knowledge. Who do YOU go to? What books and/or teachers are your favorites?

C: My favorite class, I don’t even have to think about it: Cynthia Guffey! Before YouTube and Google and all of these things, we had to travel to shows to meet some celebrities and to take classes. I went to Cynthia Guffey’s classes at the SewExpos. Oh. My. God. Life changing. When people ask how I pipe so much, I like piping because of Cynthia Guffey. In my formative years, in the 80s and 90s, all the sewing magazines were big. One of the sewing machine companies had an advertisement with Cynthia Guffey, and she would talk about how she’d make beautiful clothes because she’d pipe the collars, the cuffs, and those kinds of details. I learned that detail sewing because of Cynthia Guffey. All the big names like Pati Palmer, Sandra Betzina, Nancy Zieman, and Rhonda Chaney would be in magazines and at Expos, and we’d take classes from them.

People always ask how I can look at a pattern and see potential in them when others haven’t seen it. I like Make It Your Own and that’s from Rhonda Chaney. When people ask how I can look outside the box, it’s this book.

B: Oh, I see it. Great! I’ll order it right now. (Yes, I really did order the book while I was on a video call with Carolyn, LOL. It’s a great book. Not too technical-pattern drafting-jargony if that’s not your thing. It’s very user-friendly. A bit dated, sure, but you can easily see past that and get the gist of it all. Everything in fashion is cyclical anyway.)

Going into my next question. You said that you started off being more vocal, I think I started following you around 2012, so maybe I was too late to the party. I honestly never thought you were super opinionated or vocal in regards to issues, but I did notice a change when we got the Orange Menace in office (my irreverent term for the 45th  President of the United States.) That is where I see you being more vocal politically and taking a more activist position in the sewing community. 2017 started pretty early with you calling out Simplicity’s pattern cover tying together with the Hidden Figures movie but with white models.

C: I’ve been vocal about plus-sized patterns for a long time. I started with a Big 4 about plus-sized patterns. It drove me crazy that Butterick, McCall, and Vogue could not grade up to a size 24. A 24!!!  I’m not even asking for a 28 or 30 which is what Simplicity was doing at the time. I’ve been vocal for a long time. The lady that runs Pattern Review (PR) hates me. I started way before; let me look it up. On Thursday June 15, 2006, I wrote a post called An Open Letter because they had a folder in Pattern Review called Calling a Spade a Spade, and people lost their shit. This was back when I used to call those forums the “wild wild west” because they weren’t moderated.

B: They’re still pretty wild.

C: Yes, they are. “Calling a spade a spade” is derogatory to black people, and I was offended by ninety percent of the content written in that folder. Instead of writing about it on PR, I wrote it on MY blog, because on my blog I can moderate, and I can hold the conversation. But, the point is, I have always had a big mouth, and I did comment about politics before 45 showed up. When Hillary and Bill were running against Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton went to South Carolina and started using code words, I wrote about it on my blog. Do you know that the people who had Ravelry at one point had to have the police sitting outside their house (in reference to Ravelry’s No Trump Policy)?

B: They did not! I saw their No Trump Policy, and we (Sewcialists editors) discussed it, of course. We take the Sewcialists/Socialists play on words pretty seriously to be honest, but I’m a crap knitter, so had no idea!

C: Yes, they did! They were threatened, and the police had to be called. The police had to sit outside their house. You have to be really careful these days coming at Trump supporters because they’ve been emboldened. This was suppressed for the prior 8 years; they no longer have to suppress themselves.

B: In the Pacific Northwest of the USA where I’m at, which a lot of it was built on white supremacy, we had a huge skinhead problem in the late 80s/early 90s, and I remember young men dying and going to prison. Now we’ve got this next set generation coming out; while the West Coast can be very liberal as far as a lot of things go, I’ve had no illusions about the bigots in the closet. That said, I’m still white and still have blind spots where I can be ignorant. One thing I’d like to ask specifically about having this asshole in the office (President Trump of USA) is that now all of these wolves in sheep’s clothing are showing their true colors. We can see them now, and they can’t hide now. Once they out themselves as being bigots, there’s no going back. Is that at all a silver lining?

C: No. Now it’s even more dangerous if you’re a person of color or if you’re LGBTQIA+. If you’re anything other than white, life in America has become as dangerous for you now as it was in the 50s and 60s. I believe that 45 has made it difficult to be a person of color, to be queer, to be trans, to be Hispanic, to be anything other than white male Christian or female Christian. If you’re anything outside that scope, you are fucked in America right now.

We were beforehand, like females and, in particular, people of color, but we said we weren’t; we said we weren’t because you couldn’t see it like you can see it now. You ALL can see it now. I always knew when someone was being prejudiced to me or when someone had institutionalized prejudice and didn’t realize that they did by the way they treated me. If you are “other,” you always knew. I wasn’t in fear of my life in the last decade. Now?? Everyone is.

(At this point, Carolyn’s voice is starting to crack. I add this note because like we state above, there’s no cadence in text. Often in these interviews, I tell you when we’re being cheeky or laughing, but to end 2019, I want you to know how important this interview is for us all. I want you to know this line of dialog was HARD. I want you to know my asking this of Carolyn, and Carolyn answering was painful for her. Everyday tensions and violent occurrences are wearing on our fellow humans. Elections are still not being taken seriously. We saw the UK votes this year, and US presidential elections are in 2020. We must have our eyes open. While this isn’t at all BIPOC’s work to do, Carolyn gave us her time. Please respect it.)

B: I’m sorry. I want to get this out there because it’s important those of us with white privilege to see what it really is like. For some reason, many still just won’t believe it.

C: I’m 60 years old. When I was growing up, I went to my grandparents’ house one summer. My grandfather was six-foot-five; he was this beautiful tall black man with green eyes. They lived in South Carolina, and we were just walking down the street one day. I remember some people called him “boy” and when we looked, we saw a group of white women. My grandfather stepped off of the sidewalk, lifted me up and onto his shoulders, and we walked clear around them.

We are right back there. We constantly have conversations with my grandson. He’s only ten years old, and he’s the sweetest, nicest boy. BUT he’s big like his father and my grandfather. He’s gonna be six-foot-five or six-foot-six. He’s big and burly already. We went to the playground a few months ago, and he was trying to help two little white children, smaller than him, on the swings. The parents ran over and grabbed their kids and walked away. I live in New Jersey!

We are right back where we were.

I’m sorry, I’m crying. This scares the the hell out of me because we are allowing a small segment of the country to drive the rest of us, and we’re allowing it to happen. We don’t vote because we want to stick our heads in the sand. We want to believe it’s better.

I’m sorry. This has nothing to do with sewing.

B: It has everything to do with it. Politics are intertwined with everything. You are part of sewing, and you face this, therefore it IS part of sewing. It has everything to do with this site and our mission for this site. We don’t believe it should be separated because it is NOT separated. Separating it allows people to keep their heads in the sand. The people who want their sewing to only be their happy place can fuck off.

C: People think just because it doesn’t affect them, that it doesn’t happen. It does. It is real. Life has swung back exactly the way it was; the only difference is camera phones. The fact that some of the shackles have been loosened so people can still talk, and we have come to a place where it’s no longer acceptable, so if the camera phone catches you cursing out a black person or a queer person or a trans person, you can lose your job for it. You can be shamed for it. That is the only difference, because there was no shame when I was a child.

B: Right…and now we have a whole segment who’s not sorry they did it, they’re just sorry they got caught.

C: RIGHT!!! Right! We have now emboldened some people. You’re right in that, like, the sheets are coming off, but there’s been a cost. The cost is going to continue to affect our country so much.

picture of black newborn baby boy sleeping.
Carolyn’s Grandson when he was just a tiny newborn.

I end my Sewcialists interviews indefinitely on this note and with Carolyn. I love doing our interviews, but they are incredibly labor intensive, and I will be taking a break to work on other things, and hopefully open up interviews to more volunteer editors. Carolyn is the ultimate interview to go out on. We are an international community, where there are no “others.” We cannot allow “others.” Politics, environment, economics: We are one. One human race. We have to ride this out together. Help us make 2020 better for Carolyn, for Carolyn’s grandson, and for all of us on this giant rock hurtling through space. ~Becky Jo