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Prototype Development

The foreign language of sewing

May 14, 2018

One of the special skill sets I love being able to utilize at Design Concepts and for projects at home is sewing.

It’s not only a helpful tool for altering clothing that never fits quite right off-the-rack but allows me to support the design process when soft goods or working with fabric and flexible textiles is called for. I incorporated soft-goods design into my Masters of Industrial Design thesis project in the form of a custom backpack. I made my own non-traditional wedding dress (red seersucker and teal crinoline). I have hemmed many curtains and created other home goods, cosplay, and handbags when the inspiration to create hits. I love when I get the opportunity to break out our industrial sewing machine (I named it Ferdinand) to produce fabric-based prototypes for the products our design and engineering teams are working on for our clients.

I learned the basics of how to sew early in my life. My mom and grandmothers made many outfits and costumes for me. Watching them use the odd tools, complex machines, read foreign language patterns to make something I can wear from rectangles of fabric was amazing! I have fond memories of hours of lovingly cutting out pattern pieces on the floor and listening to the hum of the machine together with my mom, Heidi. She taught me the first few steps that everyone should know how to do and the more complicated steps of reading a pattern later.

Sewing is a foreign language

Sewing has its own language with words like seam-allowance, weft, bobbin, feed-dog, presser-foot, pleat, dart, ease, baste, grainline, and interfacing. Just like learning a language, you don’t learn everything all at once. You pick up definitions little by little as you choose different items to make. YouTube continues my education when I have questions about specific construction techniques or adaptations I want to make to customize my projects.

Here’s how to start learning the foreign language of sewing:

First – get to know your fabric What’s it made of and how does it behave? Is it stretchy? Can you iron it? What is the right-side vs. the reverse-side? Start with something simple like cotton or another non-stretch material and you’ll be much happier with the result.

Second – get to know your machine! Now that you know what fabric you’re working with, you can choose a thread (usually poly/cotton blends) to work with. Threading a bobbin is next. Threading a machine can be complicated. There are a certain set of steps to follow in order to feed the thread through a series of loops, holes, plates and gaps to ensure the stitches will be tensioned correctly and make the stitches work. Newer machines have auto threaders, but I prefer my 1969, maroon, Viking Husqvarna because, I feel like going through all those steps is like performing a secret hand-shake with your machine before you start! It’s also helpful because I know what might be going wrong if stitches skip or another problem starts.

Third – get to know the types of stitches, seams and how your clothes “work”! The basic stitches you’ll see are straight-stitches and zig-zag stitches. The stiches that you find on the hem of a T-shirt are made by a serger or overlock machine. That’s a whole different kind of animal. Stick with straight and zig-zag for now.

Fourth – get to know your tools! Sewing tools can be as simple as a pair of “fabric-only” scissors, pins and a measuring tape. They can also look like odd and complicated surgical devices. My essentials are the seam ripper, shears, snips, long pins, flexible measuring tape, sewing gauge, and most importantly, your iron. It may seem like an extra step to iron before you sew but setting the hem with the iron is essential for a good outcome. If you don’t you’re more likely to have mis-cuts, puckering, and a wobbly hem and you’ll have to get your seam ripper out and do it all over again!

Epic winter coat project

The advanced techniques of pattern reading and construction came later with a lot more practice and a lot of time spent making lots of mistakes to use my seam-ripper on. I finally felt ready to tackle a big and complicated pattern. My ambitious project to create a winter coat with some features I couldn’t find in off-the-shelf coats started last summer. I wanted a coat I could walk to work in on sub-zero-degree days, but not be too heavy for the “warmer” days when it was a balmy 20 outside. I also wanted to add some special features to solve the perpetual problem of “what do you do with all of the stuff you need outside when you get inside,” so I added back-pack straps. I also wanted to wear a non-black/neutral color to cheer me up in the depths of Wisconsin winter.

I purchased the fabric on Mood's website​ because I wanted to be on my own, personal Project Runway.

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