Winter is a great time to immerse yourself in a hobby, so we caught up with Jamie Lau, couthor of BurdaStyle Sewing Vintage Modern and editorial and e-commerce manager of the DIY fashion and sewing community BurdaStyle, to ask her about how to get started with sewing.
Books for Better Living: How did you learn to sew?
Jamie Lau: I am a self-taught seamstress and designer. I sewed my first stitch in September 2007, but didn’t become a regular until I received a sewing machine for my birthday the following spring. I had just moved from New York to San Francisco in 2007 for a new job with the California Judicial Branch and had just this much more free time on my hands compared to living in New York. I discovered a DIY sewing school near work called Stitch Lounge and signed up for their basic sewing class making handbags. The whole process of threading a machine and winding a bobbin threw me for a loop at first (no pun intended), but once I got my own machine I kept making reversible tote bags for friends over and over again to practice stitching in a straight line. I eventually got involved in the thriving San Francisco craft fair scene and Jamie Lau Designs was born. I then delved into patternmaking and draping classes while I was still working full-time so that I could learn how to make clothing, my true passion.
BBL: How does this hobby affect your well-being?
JL: Learning how to sew has definitely had a positive impact on my life. I have a masters degree from Columbia where I studied public policy and social work, but I have always been a creative person with an interest in fashion and art even though I didn’t study fashion design formally. I was good at my job and had quite a successful career, but I was always excited to sew a new dress, draft a new pattern at the library during lunch or go to the fabric store for my next project inspiration. Having the courage to make a major career leap from the cubicle to the drafting table was huge for me, and to do so successfully. I now enjoy being able to wake up every day and immerse myself in something that I love to do, and to be able to do it for a living. I not only design clothing for my own line now, but I also get to work in different facets of fashion as a designer, sewing instructor, editor and author. I am able to empower others through teaching sewing and draping classes at places such as 3rd Ward and Textile Arts Center while also working as an editor at BurdaStyle creating new content on sewing, fashion, and trends and even writing a fashion sewing book!
Isn’t it frustrating at times? Like when you’ve invested hours into a project and it comes out wrong. How do you handle that?
JL: I am somewhat of a meticulous “long haul” sewer and often spend 12+ hours a day on any given sewing project. It’s important to know when to step away from a project, take breaks and not beat yourself up, especially if you’ve made a mistake and have to pull out the seam ripper, or are frustrated with how to execute a certain technique. I am a firm believer in putting in good work up front in order to reduce the possibility of future errors—meaning to press as you go, mark your fabric properly, always trim your loose threads, or even start off with muslin first. Being mindful of your ergonomics is also something that may be overlooked when sewing and drafting patterns, so it’s good to be aware of your posture and work environment as well. Lastly, having an idea of your order or operations (just like with math) is helpful so you don’t, for instance, accidentally sew your side seams before attaching your combined neckline and armhole facing.
BBL: What tips do you have for someone who wants to learn to sew but is intimidated by it?
JL: Perhaps I’m a good test case of someone who learned to sew later in life. I was surprised to learn that a lot of my skills from my previous career as a researcher in the public policy world were actually transferable to sewing, such as being precise and exacting with patternmaking and measurements. I would recommend to a new sewer that he/she start off with a realistic, basic project, such as a tote bag or drawstring bag, and master that first, then gradually move on to more advanced projects. From my experience teaching, I oftentimes see students bite off more than they can chew and then get discouraged or frustrated quickly. It’s definitely exciting to learn a new craft and get gung ho about it, but having patience and being open to learning from your mistakes are both key.