Sewing bootcamp

Last Saturday, I took a 7-hour class at Workshop as an intense introduction to learning how to sew. I registered for the class partly for the sake of trying something outside of my comfort zone, but also because I wanted to decide whether to buy a sewing machine to continue teaching myself at home. Back in college, I never wanted to learn how to cook to feed myself. I was only interested in learning how to bake cookies to give as gifts or to host rush events for my service fraternity. Likewise, I don’t want to sew in order to alter my regular clothes or save money. What I want is to wear better costumes at Halloween, Bay to Breakers, and comic / anime conventions.

Workshop’s 7-hour sewing bootcamp was the perfect place for me to test my interest. They provided a bunch of identical sewing machines and boxes of sample fabrics that our instructor had already pre-cut to the sizes we would want to use for the day’s starter projects. We started by gathering around one machine while our instructor gave us a rapid-fire explanation of the various components and what we would do with them. Several of us looked stricken at this point, so she reassured us that we would get the hang of it very quickly once we got our hands on the machines.

When I first returned to my seat, I felt like I had already forgotten everything she told us. After taking a moment to poke at the machine and try some reasonable guesses, I raised my hand and told her that I couldn’t remember at all where to start, so she reviewed the first three steps with me. Once I had actually gotten started, I found myself remembering more than I expected. It was also useful to have classmates on both sides (there were ten of us gathered around a long table) so that I could ask my shorter, simpler questions to a peer without waiting for the instructor to return to me.

The first thing we did was to load top and bottom threads onto the machine. The threads hook onto each other, which is how they stay in the fabric after they’ve been pulled through by the needle. Our “hello world” task was to add a stitch onto a piece of scrap denim. After we had confirmed that the thread was indeed going into the fabric, we continued practicing different stitch styles and speeds, backtracking (which is like reversing the gear to go back over the same section), and stopping to lift the foot so that we could turn the fabric and then continue stitching at a 90 degree angle. I was surprised by how much we were able to make mostly just using those two skills.

We made two projects before lunch: a pouch that tied with an attached string or ribbon, and a beer or soda koozie (which I’ve always called a cozy, so that was disorienting to hear all day) with a little decorative pocket. I made noticeable mistakes on both of these projects. I knew that we would be making the pouch by pinning two rectangles together and then sewing the two layers together along three of their four sides. However, I pinned my ribbon to the wrong spot, so when I sewed those three sides, I also sewed the ribbon halfway into the inside of the pouch. After turning the pouch inside out and realizing what I had done, I considered my options and then cut the ribbon mostly off, tying it to a little loop that had formed on the outside and deciding that it would now be decorative instead of functional. I sewed the beer koozie correctly, but when I traced the pattern using a tailor’s best friend (a white crayon for temporary markings that are easily removed without laundering) and then cut it out with bulky scissors, I made it quite a bit bigger. Even after some adjustment (I borrowed a can of PBR from a classmate to size it), I still ended up making it a bit too big.

Lunch was a welcome break from intensely focusing and talking out loud. I went across the street and ate a sandwich and mindlessly read articles on my phone. In retrospect, though, I wish I hadn’t done that last bit, since my eyes and my mind could have used a bit more rest.

After lunch, we used scrap denim again, this time to learn how to make button holes and attach buttons using a sewing machine. We were impressed to learn that one of the wider stitch options could be used to send the needle precisely through the holes of each button, as long as we were careful to adjust it manually before stepping on the pedal. A few students broke their needles at this point, so they got an opportunity to learn how to change the needle on their machine. We also used a different foot to hold down the fabric when making button holes. This special button hole foot had a guide that helped us keep track of how large we were going to make the hole. On my first try, I ended up making the button hole too small, but after I measured the button more precisely, I made it fit easily.

The toughest part of the afternoon was making a zipper pouch. Like the earlier pouch, this was mostly two rectangles of fabric that were attached together on three sides. However, we had to start by attaching the zipper to the top edge, which was a precise task that required swapping out for yet another foot (shaped differently than the standard foot and the button hole foot) and ripping out some loose temporary stitches after putting the real ones in place. The hardest part for me was guiding the fabric through the machine after I had already attached a zipper to it, since the zipper was bulky and not flat, unlike everything else we were working with that day. I ended up with a somewhat lopsided zipper pouch, even after detecting the problem partway through and ripping out some stitches in order to redo the bottom edge. I also learned the hard way that I shouldn’t cut fabric with the only interesting parts of the print at the very edge, because those edges get folded into the final product, so my pouch that was supposed to have cowboy boots just looks like it has some abstract colors instead.

Our final project was a tote bag, which was conceptually simple but still tiring, especially after a long day of learning. It was really satisfying to call upon the basic skills that we had been practicing all day, and to realize that we were getting a lot better and that things that had seemed baffling at 11:30 am were now simple at 6 pm. Some students finished so quickly that they made an extra pouch or an extra beer koozie, but I used most of our allotted time to finish my tote bag.

I’m really happy that I signed up for this class. I appreciated the hands-on guidance when using a sewing machine for the first time, since that had really intimidated me. (I have no experience at all with most crafts and physical tools.) I’m also glad that we started making things almost immediately. It was fun, of course, but also crucial in solidifying what we learned. I’ve ordered a machine to use at home and I plan to head to a craft store to start buying some starter threads and fabrics next week.

I made some stuff today at #WorkshopSF!

A post shared by Sharon Wong (@charon5) on

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