Saturday, November 7, 2009

Dear Gertie: A Cry for Help!

Readers, today's question from Anna is a dire one. This poor woman is abroad and her sewing machine died! Can you imagine? Here's what she wrote to me.

Dear Gertie,

I'm a military wife and just moved from the U.S. to a new base in Norway. I brought my $500 Brother sewing machine (Best. gift. ever!) with me and committed the ultimate sin. All the other Americans here tell me the everyone blows at least one appliance on the different electricity but I hoped I would be smarter than them. (I'm guessing this is my Karma for being a snob) I plugged my machine into the wrong outlet on my transformer and turned my machine on. it made a sickening*Pop* and is dead. Sewing has been my one link to sanity. I'm a career girl who sews my own clothes because I love to, but I'm waiting on a Norwegian work permit (which can take months and months) and now I have nothing to do!

My question after entirely too much back story is, have you ever sewn a dress, or any other substantial project completely by hand? Do you know of any web sites with tips for better hand stitching? I'm hoping the sheer length of stitches to complete a dress will placate all my crazy instead of amplifying it!

Thanks for hearing out my rant,

AirForce wife extraordinaire
Sola, Norway
First of all, Anna, your poor thing! I totally understand how you feel. I was unemployed for about five months earlier this year, and my sewing machine was definitely what kept me going through many a day at home alone.

The idea of sewing something entirely by hand is an intriguing one. When we're so used to zipping through stitches with our machines, it's hard to remember that people used to sew clothing entirely by hand. And they still do! Last weekend, I watched the documentary Valentino: the Last Emperor. Everything in Valentino's couture workroom is done by hand. My favorite moment in the film was when Valentino's partner tells a story about the time they bought a sewing machine for the workroom, but got rid of it since no one ever used it. 100 seamstresses and everything is done by hand!

I've never completed a garment entirely by hand, but I think it would be an awesome project! Think of it as a challenge, and pretend that you're a seamstress in a couture house, and you can only use the finest hand-sewing methods.

Here's what I think you should do. Take a simple project, like a camisole or blouse with an uncomplicated design. Purchase the very, very best materials you can afford, and focus on enjoying every stitch of your couture project. Just think how treasured that garment will be when you're done!

Here are a few links I found that might help you:
Also, if you can get your hands on a copy of the book Couture Sewing Techniques by Claire Shaeffer, it's enormously helpful.

Good luck! Please tell us what you decide to do. Readers, do you have any thoughts or links to online resources for Anna?


  1. Handsewing clothing is big in the reenactor area. I'm in the SCA and do alot of handsewing cause like Anna I'm working in another country to where I'm from. I left my good sewing machine and overlocker back in Australia when I came over here to the US for work. Now luckily a friend has lent me her second machine but I still do alot of the sewing by hand.

    Here's a link to a hand sewing LJ community for SCA garb. It might be a useful reference.

    Cheers. Tina/Nesta

  2. I think I'm too old to join the Air Force, but if I could be guaranteed deployment to Norway, I'd sign up in a heartbeat.

    I thought the Valentino movie was dreadful (it failed as a documentary, didn't seem to have a point and was too focused on Valentino's partner and not enough on the actual making of these incredible garments). One of the few memorable lines from the movie was Valentino's revelation that there wasn't a sewing machine on the premises. Of course Valentino's ladies are not sewing jeans by hand, they're sewing these soft, pliable fabrics that are easily pierced with a fine needle. Still, hand sewing is quite strong (think of the 100-year-old quilts that were sewn by hand and still look good).

    She may not work at a couture house, but Mairuru (from Japan) is quite inspirational. She sews *everything* by hand, including leather. If you go through her archives, you'll see she's sewn dresses.

    But consider the possibility of sharing/renting a machine from a local, or starting a sewing circle at the base. You might make new friends, learn a new language. I'm guessing there must be at least one other sewing machine out there.

    Finally, there's always knitting. It's a great, portable, low-tech hobby to take up while you're in Norway.

  3. I have very much been enjoying learning to sew entirely by hand; I've been using the Mary Frances sewing book to help me, so I've been creating dolly clothes that way -- they are very small and easily completed, and I've learned a lot.

    A few things:
    1) you can press a crease by hand and use it as a marking line to do your basting on;
    2) always baste instead of pinning only. Use basting thread (soft and doesn't fall out
    3) the main stitch you use for sewing seams is the backstitch, and it's very strong.
    4) lining things is easier than finishing seams!!
    5) handsewing is great and fun and in many ways more versatile than machine sewing. Enjoy your opportunity.

  4. When my sewing machine was in the shop, I thought I'd get a jump on projects by basting everything together to check fit... before the machine was ready for pick up I had an a-line skirt and flutter-sleeved linen top both done all by hand. I still have that top, and I think the hand stitches add something special to it.

    The only thing I found annoying about the whole enterprise was finishing the seam edges - I think if I were to do it again, I'd try the Hong Kong finishing technique.

  5. Well, it takes a lot of pluck to want to sew an entire garment by hand!! I would check the classifieds and see about another machine while there. Is there a local sewing shop? Maybe they would allow you to use a machine in exchange for working or something, especially if you aren't allowed to work for money. (You could make display items or something.)
    Good luck to Anna! Thank you to you and your husband for your service to our country!

  6. I'd check to make sure that you didn't just blow the fuse. I'm not sure about how the electricity works in your machine, but it would be easy and cheap to fix if that's the only problem.

    Otherwise, have a great time hand sewing!

  7. Since this is the place for all things vintage sewing I am going to offer up the book "Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques" Edited by Kristina Harris it is published by Dover Press and is a reprint of Butterick;s Dressmaking Up To Date from 1905. You can probably find it on Amazon. It is great for handsewing techniques and inspiration from the time when everything was handsewn!

  8. And I sewed a skirt entirely by hand several years ago and i still have it. it no longer fits but it got some good wear! Good Luck!

  9. I highly highly applaud the hand sewing endeavour. BUT...Europe is an excellent place to delve into the world of hand cranks or treadles as well. A lot of handcrank machines especially were produced in Europe due to unreliable electricity as well as smaller spaces. Entry vintage sewing machine land! Its addictive :D

  10. Ohh poor dear what a loss, I dont know what I would do with out my sewing machine.

    I once compltely hand sewed a top and it was so rewarding when I finished. I would have never even thought about this what a perfect way to still sew while traveling.

    Lovely post
    ♥ Darla

  11. Perhaps this could be an opportunity for a foray into embroidery? I'm just getting started with it myself, and am finding its possibilities quite exciting! It is portable, supplies are readily available, and hand-embroidered elements could be incorporated into other projects once her machine is up and running again.

    Then, as a previous commenter pointed out, there is always knitting - Norway (and all of Scandinavia) has such an inspiring knitting tradition, as well as some really cool contemporary designers such as Tuulia Salmela. Knitting classes or groups can also be great ways to meet people after moving to a new place.

  12. Have you looked into renting a machine? Norway is a well-developed country that might have rental places or a hobby shop or fabric store with machines that you could use.

    When I was stationed in Germany I bought a 220/110 volt switchable Pfaff sewing machine at the PX. This was the best purchase I ever made in my life. You might check the AAFES catalog if you don't have a PX nearby. I, too, would be lost without my sewing machine.

  13. I live in fear of the same thing happening to me! I even made a sketch of the correct way to plug my US machine into our converter so I don't fry it. A couple of times I blew the fuse, but so far, so good!

  14. A huge thank you to everyone! Your advice and suggestions have inspired me to buy books, try knitting, and completely hand sew my very first garment. I can't wait to get started!
    I have so much time on my hands that maybe I'll churn out a whole wardrobe; something to make Valentino proud. :)

  15. Hey, I nominated you for a Kreativ Blogger award here - I think your blog is fab.

  16. I started sewing entirely by hand because I didn't have a sewing machine at University - it wasn't until this past Summer that I had time to sit down and master the sewing machine my Mum bought and never used! I too am in a foreign country (Germany!) and found myself sorely missing my sewing machine - I was only allowed a certain amount of luggage, so bringing along my sewing machine just wasn't an option! I ended up buying one on ebay for 40 euros including postage and packaging. Ebay has some great deals on sewing machines. Unfortunately I probably won't be able to take old Viktoria (the sewing machine that is...) back home because she's a rather heavy old girl, so she'll either be Freecycled or re-sold on ebay!

    Loving the hand sewn zipper link by the way, if only because that's ALWAYS how I sew my zippers due to lack of a zipper foot! Nice to know I figured out a decent technique by myself :)


  17. I've been meaning to hand sew some garments for myself since I finished a reproduction project back in the spring as part of my MA. I've got a blog about it documenting the process in detail, which you might find useful despite the time period difference:

    I'm particularly looking forward to trying the lapped seam that was so common on women's clothing in the 18th century. It's strong, a lot quicker to execute than backstitch, and I think it looks pretty cool!

  18. there is a german website called "hobbyschneiderin" with a hughe section where you can post questions about your machine. I'm sure if you post your problem in english, there would be someone to answer it. I did the same with my old Pfaff sewing machine, and somebody was kind enough wo write me how to fix it! here is a link directly to the part of the forum dedicated to brother sewing machines:

    good luck!

  19. Gertie: Maybe Anna would like to give hand-sewn lingerie a try? I've got some stuff from the old Woman's Institute up on my Flickr account.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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