Sewing Books

Kate recently wrote a lovely post about Charity Shops which got me thinking about sewing books.  But first I should start my a confession.

Hi, my name is Jane and I am a book addict.

IMG_0912I come from a family of book addicts and I live with a book addict, so it’s quite a hopeless case. This is a picture of part of our library

We spend hours of our lives in book shops.  I love new books but when it comes to sewing books I nearly always find second hand shops are a much better bet.


Look at this beauty – Dressmaking Made Easy  – a 1920’s sewing book complete with lovely 1920’s ladies. Apart from zips (rarely used before the 1930’s) this tells you everything you need to know about sewing.

IMG_1924IMG_1925..and what about this one?  McCall’s Treasury of Needlecraft from 1955 has chapters on embroidery, knitting, crochet, Glitter (who can’t resist “How to Use Sparkle in Decoration”?), Hair lace and Tatting, Home Beauty (about bedspreads and household linens rather than face creams) and Gifts.  I love this Norwegian cardigan.

Not all my books come from McCalls, I have a couple of Nancy Zieman “Busy Woman’s” books from the 1980’s. This one is about sewing and I have another about fitting.

These are the books I turn to when I get stuck with a particularly thorny problem. They’re straight forward and detailed, turn to any page and it will be packed with information.  Want to know how to sew a placket or 8 different sorts of collar, knit 11 basic stitch patterns, crochet with sequins or elasticised yarn or adjust a pattern for a large bust, or small bust? Then these are the books for you.

I IMG_1927love modern sewing books too, however I get frustrated that so many are very basic with a greater focus on pictures than proper instructions.  I suspect this is because sewing and knitting are no longer considered basic life skills that everyone should know something about.  Hugo’s Father learnt how to knit at prep school when he was around 6 or 7, that would have been in the 1930’s.  I was given weekly sewing classes in the 1970’s and still use the needlecase I made when I was 8 or 9.  I also sewed with Mother and my Grandmother taught me how to knit.  I learnt how to crochet on the school bus after we’d got bored of French knitting (does anyone do this now that thread is wound on plastic reels rather than wooden ones?).

I should add that there are some great modern sewing books which buck this trend for style over substance.  Alison Smith’s DK Sewing Book is about as comprehensive as you can get.  Helen Joseph-Armstrong’s Pattern Making for Fashion Design is a classic and the Pattern Magic books can’t be beaten for making you think.

Do you have a favourite sewing book? Have you managed to find any treasures in second hand book shops or do you stick to new books?




Thank you!

Thank you all for the advice given in response to my last post about books for helping children learn how to sew, there were some great ideas.  Catherine I think you are right the SewU books might be the answer, particularly home stretch.  Being a bit of a tomboy she  wears leggings, t-shirts and sweat shirts so learning how to make dresses from woven fabric doesn’t have much appeal.  I also like the idea of the Japanese books, the other advantage of these is that the patterns are likely to fit a 12 year old child.   Also, Marianna thank you for pointing out that the screen has superseded books for many youngsters!

Another book I am considering is the newly published  Beginner’s Guide to Dressmaking by Wendy Ward.   Look at these great projects you can make from it.  I particularly like the jacket

Also look at the variations – the t-shirts are great fun

Actually I might get it for us both – that way I can use the patterns too!



Help and Advice Needed!

My partner’s daughter is going to be 12 next week and, as she has enjoyed sewing a few things with me, we have decided to give her one of my old sewing machines. I wasn’t sure if this would be as good present as its a fine line between encouraging a child and pushing them into something which they later don’t enjoy, but we asked her if she wanted it and her response was beyond excited.

She doesn’t live with us and her Mum is not a sewer so if her sewing machine is not going to sit in the corner unused she could do with a book to help her and that’s where I need some advice.

So far we have sewn a simple dress which I drafted for her, an elastic waisted skirt and a t-shirt which we copied off one of her favourite tops. So she hasn’t really had any experience of sewing with patterns or making anything complicated. If she’s going to progress she really needs to start having a go on her own and make things she wants to make.

There are lots of beginner books out there but most of them are so pretty as to be off putting to a tomboy like Sas. She wants to make clothes she can wear to show off to her friends, that means t-shirts or sweat shirts or leggings, not pencil skirts or vintage dresses or cushion covers.

So does anyone know of a book which is good for absolute beginners and will help her to make the sort of things a self respecting 12 year old will want to wear?

Sew U Home Stretch

References to “Sew U Home Stretch” seem to crop up regularly on sewing blogs. Having tried “Built by Wendy Dresses” and not found it terribly useful I initially thought I wouldn’t bother with home stretch but it was one of the books people recommended when I got my overlocker so I decided to put in an order on Amazon. Actually, this proved to be rather difficult; although Amazon has all the other Sew U books listed home stretch appears to be rarely available. You can get it through their market place vendors but as you have to pay postage and packing this makes it more expensive. Anyway the stars were in the correct alignment the other day and I eventually managed to order it.

For those of you not familiar with the book it has five sections. The first being about knit fabrics and how to sew them. I found this immensely useful as it offers all sorts of tips I haven’t picked up elsewhere. It talks a lot about over lockers and cover stitch machines as well as how to sew knits with your ordinary machine. It explains the stitches you should use and why some are more suitable then others as well as going into detail about needles and threads. There is a good section on fabrics (doesn’t mention pontes!) including advice on ribbing.

The next three sections deal with the basic patterns; a crew neck t-shirt, a raglan sleeved, hooded sweatshirt and a dress. Each chapter suggests various modifications you can make to the pattern to achieve a number of different looks. I haven’t tried any of the patterns yet but they look simple and the modifications are clearly set out. One issue I have is that like the other Sew U books they use illustrations to show the finished garments and it’s not always easy to imagine them as real clothes.

The last section is about modifying and reworking existing garments.

I can see myself using this book a lot; the first section is invaluable and goes into a lot of detail I haven’t found in other books. I particularly found the section on overlockers useful and although I can’t imagine ever getting a cover stitch machine it was interesting to read about their capabilities.

The t-shirt and raglan top could be very useful basic patterns; I’m not so sure about the dress pattern but that’s possibly because I can’t imagine myself wearing any of the designs she has suggested. The last section I can’t see myself using, I’m not really interested in remodelling clothes, although I am impressed with those that do.

To be clear this is a beginners book and the patterns in it are for simple everyday clothes that can be found in GAP or any number of other shops. It’s strength is that by focussing solely on knits it makes them appear unintimidating; none of the techniques are complicated just a bit different from those you use for woven fabrics.

New Books

I’ve bought a couple of new books

Dressmaking Made Easy arrived yesterday. I saw it mentioned on another blog and decided I needed to get a copy. It is a 1920’s sewing manual written by Laura Baldt who was the Assistant Professor of Household Arts at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. It was published by the McCall Company who I guess are the same pattern company that’s still around.

The books has a green binding and very pretty patterned paper cover with a gold background and right coloured squares. The illustrations inside are of very elegant ladies in that unmistakeable 1920’s silhouette. It is a very matter of fact, straight forward sort of book that just tells you how to get on and do it. It doesn’t have any of the scene setting or general chat about the subject that you would get in a sewing book these days.

The thing that surprises me most about this book is how modern it seems; dressmaking techniques have hardly changed since it was published. There are several sections which wouldn’t be included in a sewing book today; for example how to care for hats, how to apply shields to an armhole and a chapter about how to avoid unsuitable fabric such as silk which has been dyed with tin to make it a heavier cloth or linen or cotton which has had chalk or clay added to disguise a loose weave. It is also missing a chapter on zips, I think this is because zips didn’t become common until the 1930’s. Apart from that it is very similar to a modern dress making manual.

The second book is Pattern Making for Fashion Design by Helen Joseph-Armstrong. Alice, the teacher at my evening class talked about this book one week and I decided to order it. She did add that it was not really a beginners book, which it isn’t. It is actually a very comprehensive manual for learning about pattern cutting. It goes through stage by stage how to make patterns with hundreds of examples of what an be achieved and exactly how to get the look you want. I really would like to take a year off work and spend my time working through and making up every example but I don’t think this is really very practical! The book also comes with a DVD which I haven’t looked at yet.

One frustration with this book is that at the end of each chapter there is a little test where you make up patterns for various illustrated garments. The problem with this is that the answers aren’t provided and for some of the garments the patterns are quite difficult to devise.

Alice, also recommended books by Winifred Aldrich which might also be worth a try.

Fitting Books

One of the reasons I like to make my own clothes is that I can get a better fit for my body than I can buying a garment.  Having said that achieving a good fit is proving very difficult. I’m lucky in that I’m average height and a fairly slim build and can usually find clothes that sort of fit me, but I want more than that I want a really good fit; one that is flattering and comfortable.

Being an inveterate book buyer I have bought three books on the subject and I thought it would be worth giving a quick review of them here.

The first book I bought was one that a lot of bloggers seem to mention; Fit for Real People by Palmer, Alto and Schilling. This book goes though the main alterations required for a pattern using a group of women with different fitting issues. It recommends using the tissue fitting system whereby you in the pattern tissue to the person you are fitting in order to detect fitting issues.

Personally I found this book too difficult. The tissue fitting system is not simple and can’t be done on yourself. I know it’s best to get someone to help you but my sewing buddy lives the other side of the country so I’m on my own most of the time. Having Dolly does make it easier but even so I don’t find pattern tissue as malleable as these ladies imply. Also patterns printed from the Internet or traced from Burda magazines are on stiff paper which just won’t bend around your body to give an idea of the fit.

The book covers a lot of fit issues but I found that it was too complicated to use practically. Every time I have tried to use it to make an alteration I have found myself putting it back on the shelf and referring to one of my other books or making it up as I go along.  Having said that a lot of people seem to swear by this book and there are some fabulous reviews on Amazon so maybe I will find it useful once I am more experienced.

The second book I have is the Busy Women’s Fitting Book by Nancy Zieman. This was published in the 80’s and I bought it second hand along with the Busy Women’s Sewing Book, both books are fairly short but packed full of useful tips. The fit book is very straight forward and recommends using pivot and slide techniques.   It’s very easy to make the adjustments recommended once you understand where you have fitting problems, but I didn’t find the “Prepare to Fit” chapter which outlines how to determine where to make adjustments helped me understand the issues I was having.

The third book is Fitting & Pattern Alteration by Leichty, Rasband and Pottberg-Steineckert.  It was a horribly expensive book but has proved to be worth every penny.  The book describes every fit issue and technique to fit known to man, describing each problem a bit like a medical text book; I find terms like “bones may be smaller than average/ideal, there may be less weight deposit and/or muscle development than average/ideal” rather off-putting as if the person is horribly deformed in some way. It then explains what fitting problems these issues will give and provides a number of options for altering ready made garments, toiles and pattern pieces.  It is the only place I have found that explains the order you need to make alterations in.  For my Tova dress I needed to lengthen and widen the shoulder and add more to the bust.  This book was the only one that told me to adjust the shoulder length first before making any other adjustments.  Having done this I could immediately see the other adjustments I required were much smaller than I had originally thought.

One thing that this book does is to show which measurements you need to make on yourself and your pattern pieces to indicate in advance where you might have fitting problems.  All the books do this to a certain extent but this one is much more thorough. I haven’t tried using this yet but it looks like a useful feature and may reduce the number of toiles that have to be made.

I should also mention the Colette Sewing Handbook which has a chapter on fit.  Given that this is only one chapter in the book it is surprisingly comprehensive and very useful for simple alterations.  It didn’t help me with my long shoulder problem and the bust alteration described doesn’t go into details about how to adjust around an insert (like on the Tova dress) or how to adjust a princess seam.  I also didn’t find it much help in adjusting my Beignet skirt pattern which had a much deeper curve between the waist and hip than my body has.  Having said that if you have the fitting problems she describes I think this would be a really helpful book.

So what have I learned from all these books?

1)  The standard method for analysing whether you need to adjust your bust doesn’t work for me.  I have more or less the same upper bust measurement as my full bust but I am a D-cup and so will always need to add more into any pattern.

2) The order you make alterations in makes a difference and I need to alter my shoulder length before I consider any other fitting issues.

3)  The fabric you use for a toile needs to be as close as possible to the final fabric you are intending to use. I’ve been using some rather stiff calico and have found that most of my final garments need to be considerably smaller.  My first Tova dress was made out of a denim that has quite a lot of give.  The second (which I am struggling with at present) is being made out of linen and needs to be larger around the bust and across the back.

4)  There’s a certain amount of hit and miss with this stuff. Leaving a lot of seam allowance is important.

5)  I have loads and loads to learn!