Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Guest Post: Assembly-Line Sewing

Hi readers! I have a little treat for you today: my friend Robin has written you a guest post on her method for maximum sewing efficiency when you're making multiples of a garment. Enjoy!--Gertie

Greetings, Gertie Readers!  You may be aware that our book-writing, Bombshell-Dress- teaching, sample-sewing blogstress is just a little overloaded these days.  So allow me to pontificate on a topic I don't see much about, but gives me great sewing pleasure.  Imagine you are the proprietress of a small, but well-appointed little sewing factory.  It's OK to sweat in this shop, and in fact, I encourage it.  Crank up some Michael Jackson, and get into the groove to do some assembly-line sewing.
The sewing factory is all about efficiency and with that in mind, I recommend using:

   a tried and true pattern – if you don’t have one yet, how about an apron pattern?  There shouldn’t be any fitting issues or construction surprises for assembly-line sewing
   multiple pieces of fabric with the same properties - this is very important!
       same weight
       same hand (amount of drapey-ness)
       same background color, so you can use the same thread on everything
   rotary scissors, cutting mat & pattern weights

A good factory worker strives for optimal performance.  Boredom is welcome – just call it zen and relax into it.   As the boss, you get to choose how the employee (also you) will be graded.  Perhaps it’s a matter of punching in on the time clock to sew for 30 minutes.   Or the worker can be rewarded after milestones are reached.  All of the apron straps are sewn?  Let’s order in lunch to boost morale! 

By now the fabric has been pre-washed and any fusible interfacing has been obtained. Fold each piece of fabric consistently with the rest.  For example, if the right side is folded in on one piece, make it folded in on all pieces of fabric.

If you aren’t yet a convert, try a rotary cutter, cutting mat and pattern weights.  You can save time by not pinning the pattern to the fabric, which you only have to unpin in order to sew.  Because I prefer my patterns without seam allowances, I love a rotary cutter with a guide

It may take practice to gain speed with the rotary cutter, but think of yourself as an ice skater doing your compulsories.  Slow and steady in the beginning will get the job done.  Speed comes naturally with practice.  Hey, all the more reason to cut out multiples, right?  Cut the fusible interfacing, now, too.

Another time-saver is marking the notches and darts with little clips into the seam allowances and for this, scissors are a lot more accurate than rotary cutters.  To mark darts, I insert pins on both sides, like so:

It might be time for the afore-mentioned employee morale-boosting exercise.  Donuts, yoga – boss lady (or boss gentleman) it’s your choice!

Here is where the sweating comes in.  Fire up the iron and take the time to fuse each necessary piece now.  After fusing, double check that it hasn’t stretched or shrunk, by comparing the pattern piece your work.  Taking time at this stage increases quality of the finished goods.

Organizational Strategy
Lay out each individual garment in its own pile.  It is not considered anal to lay the pieces in the same order.  No, this is called efficiency and some might even take pride in their little piles of sewing goodness.  

Let’s say you want to sew all of the collars first, then cuffs, which are then attached to sleeves, which are then sewn to bodices.  Lay the bodice pieces on the bottom, the sleeves on top of the bodices, the cuffs next and the collars on top.

The Beauty of the System
Not only will assembly-line sewing generate a wardrobe in short order, these techniques will build the fine motor skills necessary to master techniques.  You will never fear another zipper after you have installed three, four, or, let’s get wild – five in a row.  You can just look at the fifth zipper and see the improvement.  Awesome.

Another benefit is less thinking.  Once you have identified the steps you will take, you can go on auto-pilot.  That allows for turning up the volume on the music, or even having a movie playing in the background. 

One caution:  advise the spouse, the kids, or the pets that mommy gets mad sometimes.  Mommy is just frustrated about ripping out a seam now and then.  You know it will happen.  You will not sew everything perfectly; no factory worker is perfect.  And let’s assume they get a raise every year, anyway, so it is OK!

Fun Decisions – How is it best to maximize The Win?

When sewing assembly-line style, there are many variations on this theme.  I like to repeat as many steps as I can before moving on.  I like to get all of the cutting, the marking and the fusing done before sitting down at the sewing machine and/or serger.  Then it is buckle-down-and-master-the-skill time.  I would rather sew 30 buttonholes so that the last six are perfect than finish one shirt at a time.

Let’s not forget that hand-sewing may be involved.  There may be times to sit and sew.  Remember, boredom can be transformed into zen and/or learning time.

You will choose your own approach – because you are the boss of this shop and you are in charge.  (Can you tell I like that part?)  Whether you finish several garments at once, or you space them out between other projects, assembly-line sewing makes sense.  If you are like me, you have invested time and money into this hobby, so it feels good to get tangible results.  Naturally, you may simply find it easier to buy most things, but if you hanker for the perfect gym shorts, skirts, dresses, whatever – you can fill your closet this way.

Pat yourself on the back for making such efficient use of your time and your resources.  You have leveraged the power of the tried & true pattern, you have saved money, clothed yourself, improved your skills and listened to some good music, too. 
 Check out Robin's blog, A Little Sewing!


  1. Excellent post! I find that Robin's method works beautifully when I have to sew home dec (curtains, especially). It makes it go so much faster.

  2. Thanks so much for this Robin! I often make two at once (one for me, and one for a friend). My favourite bit? "Remember, boredom can be transformed into zen and/or learning time"; I tell my (cinema studies) students this all the time!

  3. What a great post! I'm currently halfway through sewing 20 aprons for a kids cooking event at church. This sounds like a much better way then how I've been doing it! I've also learned only to pin when necessary. It saves so much time!

  4. I use this method when occasionally sewing lots of bags, what I call a bag-a-thon. It works.

  5. I'm a fan of this method too...especially when you get to crank up the music in your "factory"!

  6. love the post...keep these great guest posts coming, hope all is going well for you, we all know how busy you are with the new book and can't wait to see it!...Blessings~~

  7. I read Robin's blog, and am glad to see her post appear here. I've considered this style of sewing; unfortunately, I've not so far been in a position where there were enough similarities -- even with exactly the same pattern -- for me to benefit from this method.

    For example, the fabrics differ in weight, slightly, but enough to require a different weight or color of underlining, or the great underlining I finally found ran out. I always need a different thread color.

    I might look into the rotary cutter guide. But I'm such a klutz I might make a mistake in the cutting. I generally draw in the sewing line and then cut off the seam allowance.

    Even when I use weights, I still add a couple of pins. My fabric slips. I'm also usually working at a table that does not allow me to walk around to cut the piece without turning it. I generally have to move it, even though that's not recommended.

  8. I've been thinking about doing assembly line sewing too for a bunch of t shirts. Now to save my sanity and $$, I would cut all the pieces one day, and sew another. Really, life is too short when it all becomes a drudgery. And drinking on this job is perfectly fine. Just don't get tipsy or all your work is for naught.

  9. Unfortunately I am in opinion with atelierflou. I found that when doing something I'm not *really* good at (auto-pilot good), then it's best for me to make one item all the way through, learn from my mistakes, and make the second item after all that learning. Otherwise, I just make the same mistakes twice. Also, I like the variety of switching from cutting to pinning to sewing. If I had to cut a zillion pieces one after the other I would get bored much faster. I agree that the factory method is a good method if I want to make many of the same thing fast - but I would use it only if I have a tried and trued pattern like Robin said. That, and being sure what fabric I want to use for each item.

  10. I am so happy to see this post!
    One of the projects in the Apparel Studio class I teach is based on mass production techniques. The students are divided into groups and they must design and assemble a bag using Mass Production Sewing Methods. Efficiency is stressed throughout the project, from concept to construction.
    Packaging and bundling the cut pieces as you mentioned is a major time saver. I also find that machine connected seaming of each bundled set saves time and energy. Opposed to stopping after each piece to clip and trim. Turning, trimming and pressing can also each be done in one batch step of the operation to contribute to an efficient production.
    Also recommend is Block Fusing for efficient cutting. If you fused your interfacing to the fashion fabric and cut the pieces requiring fusing as one unit opposed to 2 separate cutting steps, efficiency at its finest.

  11. Very cool post. I like this method when I am doing craft sewing.

    I love the "zen" quote, because that's how I get the hand sewing process done, especially when I am re-attaching linings in sport jackets, etc. at work, which can really be boring.

    Thanks for a great post!

  12. Yes, yes, yes!
    This is my 'go to' method for most gift sewing and kid's wear (everything gets white top stitching) and I also use many of the industry techniques mentioned by melody m. Once I problem solve a technique, it goes too fast to be boring.
    This is when I watch old movies--love a good Fred Astaire flick while I'm buzzing along!

  13. Fantastic advice. I try to implement this approach whenever possible; it is a great way to speed up the process. Muscle memory can go a long way when it comes to speed and efficiency. In the case of something I haven't made before, I may make one from start to finish in order to pinpoint the most clean and efficient assembly procedure to do factory style. Even when thread colors vary, I prefer to do the same steps together, changing thread as necessary. (It really doesn't take long, even on a serger, to tie knots onto a new thread color and pull them through to rethread. Just get all your threads set out from the beginning so you don't have to get up from the machine to change colors!)

  14. Great post and advice! I've applied this home dec before, but am often constantly trying a new garment pattern. I think I'll apply these rules to some fall sewing :)

  15. I have just been making aprons in this exact way! I have never done it with clothing as I don't usually make more than one of something.

  16. Hi all, glad I am not the only one who likes to buzz along sewing multiples now and then. I wish I could clone myself :D
    Happy sewing!

  17. Great post- great attitude- thanks

  18. Excellent post! I've never sewn in this manner before but I definitely think I will try this in the future.

  19. I need to try this method..........thanks for the advise, Miss Gertie x

  20. Awesome advice! I do a lot of production-lining for the costume sewing I do, and these tips definitely help.

    A great pair of noise-canceling headphones with a long cord really helps stave off boredom when you're mindlessly gunning your way through the easy construction bits.

    If you're making multiple garments cut from the same color fabric but in different SIZES, it really helps me to have, say, a different, labeled shoebox for each garment. I carefully replace each bit in its appropriate spot each time I handle it, and I always progress through the boxes in the same order. That way, you never end up accidentally sewing a lady's small sleeve to the extra-large bodice. (It sounds stupid and unlikely, but would you rather be careful or would you rather rip out yet ANOTHER seam? :P)

  21. I finally got that same rotary cutter and guide about five months ago. I am so glad I did. I saw writer David Coffin, the shirt guy, using one and I had to have it.

    Pattern weights are next!

    Thanks for the great post.

  22. Wow, this was a great post! Thank you for all your wisdom and tips :)

  23. I've actually worked at a factory myself, hehe... and it's true! You just have to turn boredom and repetition into "zen" and... I don't know, creative thoughts?

  24. Inspiring post, thank you Robin!
    This reminds me of the once a month cooking (OAMC) idea. However, OAMC usually combines a few recipes in big batches. I bet that, with careful planning, this could be done to speed up sewing items that are more distinct from each other as well!

  25. Great advise! I was a frustrated sewer until I discovered the rotary cutter and started doing all my cutting at once. Cutting in multiples is even better. Equally invaluable are the pattern weights. I use as few pins as possible! Let me add that sometimes the fabric is just too squirrely for even pattern weights (linen, I'm talking to you)and I recommend temporary spray adhesive, specifically he 505 variety. I swear I will never sew some things without it again!


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

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