How to shop for inspiration instead of clothing


The other weekend, I went on a shopping expedition to Steven Alan, a branch of which recently opened up in Portland.

I came away with a whole lot, and I didn’t spend a dime.

Inspiration shopping is one of my favorite activities. It turns the act of spending, which is usually loaded with difficult decisions and stress for me, into something creative and inspiring. Not only that, but I actually learn how to improve my sewing and expand my options by looking at really well-made garments.

There are a few things I do to maximize the inspiration I gather while I’m out shopping. Here are a few of my techniques, and I’d be interested to hear yours in the comments.

Where to shop

The most important aspect of snoop shopping is deciding where to go.

If you choose middle of the road or cheap chain stores, you might glean a few things about how garments are mass produced quickly, but not much beyond that.

I look at sewing as a way to produce garments I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford (at least not often). So when I shop for inspiration, I go high end.

This is my chance to shop at my dream stores. I go for independent boutiques that stock emerging designers, or stores that stock high quality fashion forward basics like Steven Alan. It’s always interesting to me to see how basics can be elevated with small details and fabric.

What to look for

I love to really examine the clothes to look at the choices the designer made, and think about how they could be used in different contexts.

It isn’t a matter of knocking off any particular garment for me. It’s more about seeing what makes something interesting and how it could be incorporated to solve a different problem. That’s the heart of creativity, taking in inspiration and using it in a new or different way.

Here’s what I look for:

  • Fabric. Seeing what fibers nicer garments are made of, the weight and drape of the fabric, and how different fabrics are combined will teach you a lot. You can carry that knowledge right into the fabric store. It’s interesting to note when unusual fibers or blends are used.
  • Style lines. Examining trends in the silhouettes and shapes of garments can give you new ideas and take you out of your comfort zone a bit.
  • Finishes. Take a close look at how seams, hems, and necklines are finished. You’ll be surprised at how many of these you can recreate, and you’ll be inspired to switch out finishes when you sew. Note where facings are used, when bindings are chosen, what types of hems you see on various garments. This can get really fun.
  • Details. In addition to the overall shapes and finishes, you’ll discover a wealth of interesting details you may not have thought to use.

Keeping track of your inspiration

Unlike online window shopping, in-person shopping is a little harder to keep track of.

Here are a few ideas for utilizing what you observe:

  • Photos. This can be a little awkward in a shop, but it’s pretty common to take photos of yourself in a dressing room when trying things on. You can even upload your photos to a site like Pinterest, or use Evernote to keep track.
  • Notes. I always carry a little moleskine notebook in my bag, and have for years. I use it for everything, but that includes notes and ideas for things I’d like to try with my sewing.
  • Sketches. Sketching is my favorite way to quickly jot down sewing ideas.
  • Go online. If the shop has an online store, you can sometimes go online when you get home and find the garments you saw in person. Save photos and take notes about what you observed when you looked at the garment up close. This combination of in-person observation with clear photos can be a great method for tracking inspiration.

Where do you shop for inspiration? Do you have any other tips to share?

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How do you get rid of things you’ve made?


There’s something very freeing about de-cluttering. As you get rid of the things you don’t need, you start to realize that your stuff is not all that important.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been trying to rid myself of at least one thing a day, and it’s been surprisingly easy. I’ve gotten rid of a ton of clothing that I don’t miss at all.

But there’s one category that I still have a little trouble with, and that’s the stuff I’ve made with my own two hands.

Is it because this stuff actually is important? Or is it something else?

I’ve tried to dig a little deeper and think about why this is. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Why getting rid of handmades is so hard

  1. It feels like failure. Admitting that you don’t need something you made is admitting that you made a mistake. Of course, the same could be said of something you buy, but it feels much less personal.
  2. I am attached. I grow attached to the things I make, even if they aren’t useful. They still feel special.
  3. It feels wasteful. Often, I will still be in love with the fabric I used, even if I no longer love the garment. Saying goodbye makes me feel like I wasted the fabric.

I’m not saying these reasons are logical, just that they are there, buried deep in my brain.

There are a few things I’ve noticed that make getting rid of these precious projects a little easier.

Dumping the baggage

  1. Documentation. First, if I’ve photographed it and wrote about it on the blog, I find it easier to part with. It seems odd, but I feel like it’s been documented and loved and will continue to exist in some form in the world. I learned from making it and can move on.
  2. Transitioning. Second, putting it aside for a while helps. I can pack it away into a temporary holding area before getting rid of it. Once it’s out of my sight for a while, I know I can say goodbye. If not, I can still hold onto it as a keepsake.

  3. Last chance. Third, I can try giving it one more shot. If I wear it one last time and don’t feel beautiful and comfortable in it, it’s time to go.

Do you have any tricks for making it easier to part with your precious handmade garments?

Weekend Reading: Womanly models, mortality, and communist fabric


Last weekend, we took a drive out to the Maryhill museum. After getting my socks knocked off by the Rodin collection, we stumbled randomly into the collection of Théâtre de la Mode.

Théâtre de la Mode was an exhibition of 1/3 scale models and clothing crafted by the top fashion designers in 1945, and intended to help revive the French fashion industry after world war II.

I’d always wanted to see this collection, but had completely forgotten that it was part of the museum. The dolls were absolutely stunning, as were the displays and tiny-sized couture they wore. I highly recommend a visit if you are ever in Oregon or Washington.

I hope you find some serendipitous inspiration yourself this weekend.

Weekend Reading:

For more links every week, you can follow me on Twitter, where I’m always posting interesting tidbits I find.

image above via colettepatterns on instagram

How to build sewing skills if you’re an absolute beginner


Today, I’d like to talk to all the beginners out there.

I know how disheartening it is to be a beginner at something. Often when you’re learning something new, your imagination and taste greatly outpace your actual skills.

You know when something looks wrong, but you aren’t at the point where you can fix it. Not yet. This can be highly motivating, but it can also be incredibly frustrating.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.”
-Ira Glass

The good news is, things are getting easier.

The evolving world of sewing

Here’s how I used to pick my sewing projects:

Head over to the big chain fabric store. You know, the one in the strip mall that smells overwhelmingly like christmas half the year.

After a quick browse through the 50% off section, I’d head over to the pattern table, where the stacks of massive pattern catalogs lived.

Usually, there’d be a few other bored-looking ladies there rifling through, and at least one frustrated bride-to-be with her mother, horrified by the massive leg-o-mutton sleeves she was being presented with.

I’d sit down and start browsing, ever hopeful that I’d find something I could work with. I’d stare and squint, and try to imagine the clothes in better colors, different fabrics, and on less generic looking models.

Finally, I’d settle for something I thought I could work with. I’d totally ignore the skill level indicated by the pattern, and only kinda-sorta pay attention to the recommended fabrics.

As you can imagine, this was not a recipe for awesome. Oh, occasionally I’d get lucky and make something work, but more often I got in over my head and had to do some slapdash sewing to pull the whole thing together.

The indie revolution to the rescue

These days, the new sewist has many more options. In addition to those phone book sized pattern catalogs, there are amazing indie pattern companies to choose from, many of which make a point of guiding and helping newbies through blogs, tutorials, and sewalongs.

There are also wonderful independent shops to buy from, and classes both in person and online. The sewing world has exploded with options.

But that’s only part of the story. Though we have better options nowadays, I don’t think it’s necessarily easier to know what to sew, especially if you aren’t experienced. It’s still way too easy to get in over your head and lose all confidence.


Pick your skills, pick your project

Here’s my simple tip for the beginner to become a competent sewer in no time:

Learn at least one new skill with each project.

Your skills need to build gradually over time, and the best way to do that is to focus on learning something new with each project you try. Think of it as giving yourself little assignments.

It does require some advance planning and research, but you’ll come out of each project with stronger skills and probably something you like a little better than the chain store special.

A true beginner sequence

To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s a sample sequence of patterns and projects I’d recommend to a complete beginner, and the skills you’d learn.


  1. Make a pillow. So easy, and you don’t need a pattern. You’ll learn how to cut and sew with seam allowances. And you can use almost any fabric. Plus you get to look at it every day (I should make more pillows).
  2. Make a Sorbetto top. This free pattern has only two pattern pieces and will help you learn to use bias tape, a very good skill to have. No zippers or other closures are needed.
  3. Make another Sorbetto. This time, try making your own bias tape, if you’re feeling adventurous.
  4. Laurel. Now you’ll use those bias tape skills once again, while also installing a zipper.
  5. Ginger. With this aline skirt, you’ll be putting in a zipper once again, and also installing a waistband.
  6. Macaron. Try installing pockets, facings, and doing a bit of topstitching.

You can go on from there, maybe choosing a project with buttons, like Zinnia or Hawthorn, moving all the way up into outerwear.

If you find a project you like and want more practice, make multiples! Laurel is a great choice for this (as is Moneta for the knits-inclined) because there are so many options and things you could try.

Become a sewing detective

The best sewists (or knitters, or artists, or ceramicists, or writers…) I know are intensely curious.

Sure, it can be discouraging to not be great at first. But by picking projects based on what you’ll learn instead of just the best-case-scenario fantasy outcome, you will never really be disappointed. You’ll always be learning something new that you can apply again.

When you feel over your head, the next step isn’t to give up – it’s to learn more! Is there a tool that could help you? Is there a technique you’ve never heard of?

I won’t lie, I know failures can be frustrating. But they’re also inevitable, and the best way of improving quickly.

If you’re trying to improve your skill set, the important thing is that you push yourself just the right amount. Give yourself some assignments that are easy enough to make you feel good, and hard enough to make you improve. Every time.

Do you have any tips for beginners trying to build up their skills?

Video: Installing an elastic waistband on Myrtle

Today, I’m going to show you how to install the elastic waistband on Myrtle. Watch the video and follow along with the photo tutorial and you’ll get it.


Here’s the short version:

The method we’re using here creates a little flap at the waistline, which you can fold over a circle of elastic to create a casing.

There is one thing to keep in mind.

The method shown in the video is designed for knit fabrics, because they stretch and are much easier to ease into place.

If you’re sewing with a woven, I’ll talk about a simple variation that’s a little easier with non-stretchy fabric. It results in a slightly shorter bodice, so if you are long waisted or tall, you may wish to add some length to your bodice when making Myrtle in a woven fabric.

Start by assembling the bodice and the skirt as instructed in the pattern. You should have the bodice and skirt completed before you start the rest of this tutorial.

Attach Skirt to Bodice


1) Sew skirt to bodice. With right sides together, align the skirt with the bodice at the waist, matching the fronts and backs at the waistline and aligning the side seams and notches. Pin, then stitch the bodice to the skirt.


2) Sew a second waistline seam. With right sides together, stitch the bodice to the skirt again, stitching 1 3/8″ from the first seam.

If you are using a knit fabric, use a narrow zigzag stitch for this (with a width of 0.5mm).

If you are using a woven fabric, use a straight stitch.


You can use masking tape to mark your sewing machine at the correct distance for an even seam allowance.

Create elastic band


3) Measure out your elastic. Measure a length of elastic to fit around your waist, unstretched. Add an extra 3/8″ to each end for seam allowance.


4) Shorten the elastic. Trim 2-3 inches from the length of elastic. This should create some negative ease. Wrap the elastic around your waist to check for fit, and trim more if you’d like it to be tighter.


5) Create a circle. Join the elastic in a circle by overlapping 3/8″ on each side and zigzagging each end into place.

Encase the elastic


6) Pin elastic in place. For a knit dress, align the edge of the elastic right below the second line you stitched on the skirt. You will have to stretch the elastic a little in order to fit the waist. Pin the elastic in place. You should have a flap of fabric above the elastic.

For a woven dress, do the same, but pin the elastic ABOVE the line of stitching instead of below. In this case, the flap of fabric will be BELOW the elastic.


7) Fold the flap over. Take the 1 3/8″ flap and fold it over the elastic to cover. Pin the flap to the dress, removing pins from the elastic as you go.

So, for a knit fabric, you’ll be folding the flap down and pinning it to the skirt.

For a woven fabric, you’ll be folding the flap up and pinning it to the bodice.

The reason for this is that the flare in the skirt makes sewing the flap down a little tricky with non-stretchy fabric.


8) Stitch flap. Stitch the edge of the flap to the dress, stretching the elastic as you sew. Stitch just through the flap and the outer dress, don’t catch the elastic in your stitching.

For knit fabrics, you will again use a narrow (0.5mm width) zigzag to do this.

For woven fabrics, use a straight stitch.

This step can be a bit fiddly, because you are stretching everything to fit as you sew. Take it slowly, check for puckers, and don’t be afraid to rip some stitches and redo if you need to.



9) Adjust gathers. Turn the dress right side out and adjust the gathers to be even.


10) Stitch in the ditch. To secure the elastic, stitch in the ditch at each side seam. This will keep the elastic from twisting or sliding, and help maintain the evenness of your gathers over time.

Let me know if you have any questions!

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