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Feb 5, 2013

Sewing and the Creative Process

Readers, do you ever sit down and think about how you go about choosing and carrying out your sewing projects?

Some of you make your choices primarily based on legitimate wardrobe needs.  For others, maybe there's a contest on Pattern Review that sounds like fun, or an online sew-along you want to participate in.  Perhaps you're making a gift for somebody's birthday or creating an outfit for a special event you're attending.  I've made sewing choices based on all of these.

Often my original idea comes from a movie I've watched, a pattern I've picked up on Etsy, or even something I've seen someone wearing on the street.  I can also be inspired by a cool accessory like a pair of vintage shoes, a mink stole, or a hat.  And fabric, especially fabric.  Whatever it is, it sets my mind spinning and from there all the pieces fall into place.  If it sounds rather arbitrary, it is.  This is not  "Little House on the Prairie" sewing.   I could never sew another thing for myself and I'd likely have enough clothes to last me till I'm ninety, though I might run out of boxer shorts.

Unique vintage flea market fabric inspires a shirt for Michael.

For me, sewing is really about exploring new ideas and pushing my creative boundaries.  I think most of us enjoy learning a new technique, sewing with a fabric we've never tried before, or making a garment similar to one we've admired in a magazine or store window.

Here's where my creative process led me last night: I have all that pink and black chiffon, right?  Well, I happened to be exploring patterns on Etsy late last night checking out what had recently been posted (dangerous, I know), when I saw this dress pattern from 1966.

Now 1966 is not my favorite period in fashion by a long shot but it was a big moment for chiffon.  I consider Simplicity 6570 to be a variation on the Liesl dress, you know, Sixteen Going on Seventeen, moonlit gazebo, Rolf, etc.

Somewhat closer to the classic Liesl would be McCall's 6853 below, especially the version with those puffy sleeves.

My Simplicity is only slightly different, but the minor changes, particularly that lovely cowl-like neckline, make the dress much more sophisticated, don't you agree?

If you're of a certain age, you remember that nearly every female celebrity who was ever a guest on The Ed Sullivan Show or Hollywood Palace wore a swirly chiffon dress at one time or another: Totie Fields, Debbie Reynolds, Lainie Kazan, all the big stars!

You would not believe how much yardage this dress (which has a chiffon overlay) calls for.   With the underskirt, try eight.

And so the wheels start turning...

You may be wondering what happened to some of my earlier project ideas that you have yet to see finished.  Cathy's 1939 dress is nearly done and waiting for a winter thaw to be modeled.  I still have plans to make myself a bomber-style wool jacket, but that will probably have to wait till March (perhaps my first Mood Sewing Network project, which will definitely be menswear).  The Cyd Charisse dress?  I haven't forgotten.

I try to honor my process, by which I mean I try to follow through on my ideas and ride the crest of my enthusiasm while it lasts.  But sometimes I do change my mind; I'm human, after all.

Readers, where does that initial creative spark usually originate for you?  A wardrobe need?  A sew-along?  A whim?

Are you able to support yourself through your project, or do you sometimes lose steam before things get underway, either due to lack of time, patience, self-confidence, or other constraints?

Do you see your sewing as part of a larger creative process or just a fun hobby to fill the holes in your wardrobe, or both?

Is your sewing more creative than practical, or more practical than creative?

Do tell!

(Chiffon-skirted Debbie Reynolds lends her voice to the Sixties protest movement!)


  1. Hello Peter: I love this topic. I am very rarely inspired to sew based on a need. And I rarely end up enjoying sewing commissioned pieces. A piece of fabric has to stir something up inside me (a memory of a place, person or time, a dream, a wish) in order for me to feel like turning it into a garment or an accessory. And I don't sketch, I need to drape and to see the piece come to life on the dress form. I really think that is why I never pursued Fashion Design - I don't have the desire to make a collection. If it becomes a "job" for me, the passion is gone. I have very happily come to the conclusion that if I make money from what I sew, that's lovely - but it won't be my focus. I have a lot of respect for the designers out there who can buckle down and turn out amazing collections season after season.

    I love that shirt you made for Michael. And I can't wait to see what you make with your Mood allowance!

  2. "For me, sewing is really about exploring new ideas and pushing my creative boundaries."

    That about sums up my process. I started sewing in earnest for my kids. First it was baby clothes. Then it was Halloween costumes. I still haven't got to the light-up, transforming Bumblebee costume, but I'll get there, I think. And then it was pageant clothing. I've sewn some stuff for me along the way, but I've been most challenged by making stuff for my kids. Heck, they're super easy to fit! No curves except for the middle one. Girl has an hourglass shape and has since birth. She's "fun" to try and fit stuff to. Waist of a 2 year old, chest of a 4 year old, hips of a 6 year old. Oh my.

    But yeah, I've had the best time stretching myself and working with fabrics I might never have worked with if it hadn't been for "projects".

  3. Great topic, Peter. My process is similar to yours, and I was an art teacher. I am hampered by health issues, and depression. BUT, I LOVE sewing and clothes. Often an image will spark my fancy, and then I run with it. Luckily, clothes I loved in the 60's (funky, even for then) are still what I love. So, if I don't finish up quickly (LOL), I still love it. I also get ideas from paintings, and have art books near sewing machine, as the clothes inspire me (Medieval, 20's to 30's). What helps me is sharing, learning from others too. I am delighted my 22 year old niece, Stephanie, is a realy go-getter sewer - taking risks, and going for it. In fact, stash and patterns she can take home are in Go For IT bags. She chooses. She has just written to me she is making a Lilly Pad dress, and will show me soon. I wear rummage on a daily basis (I call it doggie wear) - it should be good quality, comfortable, colourful. But, sewing more fantastic, yet very wearable items get me up higher emotionally. I do love to mix styles, for instance my adored black taffeta long skirt, with tulle ruffles under on underskirt, with jean jacket, and motor cycle boots. These are costumes in which I express the many facets of myself. Cathie, in Quebec.

  4. If I went for practical I would only make jeans and knit shirts. While I've been prolific lately, I haven't felt especially creative, or creatively inspired. I need something to pull me out of my doldrums. But I'm not sure what. I'm not a twirly skirt sorta girl. I love them, but two kids and (mumble mumble) years later, I just don't have the waistline for them, alas. Maybe a fabulous form hugging lace dress. See? You've inspired me!

  5. I actually create what I need or can't find. I designed a bag for library books. I then chose fabrics. Denim was the sturdiest and then a contrasting color the kids got to choose. It has various sized pockets for different books. It came out really great and has been very useful. I have made other items that I use everyday. So nothing really exciting here.

    I reconstruct clothing for my kids, especially for my daughter. I just chop off sleeves, add different ones, add frills or whatever else will look good.

  6. Sometimes a pattern gives me inspiration, sometimes a fabric, and sometimes a desire to own a particular piece of clothing I've seen — it all depends. I find my favorite things I have made began with a great fabric. Patterns can be altered or drafted anew. But a great fabric just .... is!

  7. Totie Fields! Oh my lord, Totie Fields! :)

    I can't see how sewing would be worth my money or time if I stuck to the practical stuff. I can buy it for cheaper.

    No, the attraction of sewing for me was the creation of things I wanted but couldn't find either because I required a size the item never came in or because the design I saw with my mind's eye was too outlandish for regular retail. (Not that it seems outlandish to me, of course.)

  8. Creative and practical stuff is what I intend to make, every time I sit down to sew. Actually more than the sewing, it's actually the deciding process of what to make, which takes more time for me...

  9. I think all my sewing and practical-creativ. I try not to make clothes I do not need or wont ever wear. Of course like every good girl I sometimes fall. But luckily I have handful of girlfriends who can not wait to get something I made :) So stuff never just hangs in my closet. Thankfully.
    I get my inspiration from ... everywhere! Just last week I found but ugly 80' leather jacket that had THE MOST GORGEOUS kidney pattern on sleeves(it's made with lace or something and it really is very pretty!). so it came home with me. I shall be making a tweed jacket with leather sleeves and pocket flaps. In my head it looks like a Chanel with a twist.

  10. Sewing is the reason I get out of bed in the mornings, even though I may go for days or weeks without the opportunity to sew (life does get in the way).

    I loathe being between projects. I'm completely at sea when I don't have a sewing project to ground me.

    I tend to sew more creative or fantasy things that I have no use for. Every now and then I sew useful things, and I always think I should do more of that. Then I go and sew another orange dress.

  11. I'm relatively new to sewing, so I have yet to be inspired by a pattern. So far my biggest inspiration has been the desire to have pieces in my wardrobe that are the typical men's pieces, but with a bit of WOW added to them in one way or another. Whether that comes from the fabric/pattern or an unexpected design element depends on my mood and the materials available.

    Also Peter, I have a great history of burning out on craft projects in general. I give myself time to plan them, gather materials, and then get a solid start. Then things either take longer than expected, or I hit a snag. Before I know it, the project has been on the shelf for a month and I have to plan myself time to get it finished.

    Either way I get my ideas out there and am usually thrilled with the result.

    It's all about the journey!


  12. Because it's the only thing I do well. Because no one is looking over my shoulder scowling that I didn't attend college-any college-so therefore not worthy of conversation or notice. Because it gives back when I put in the effort. Because being at the machine assembling a garment evokes images in my mind's eye of being fabulous, svelte and can smoke in bars whilst being witty and a terrific dancer. Because it makes me happy. And you can't smoke anywhere anymore anyway so I'll just go make another pair of trousers. But they'll be fab Garbo pants and I'll just smoke on the corner while posing. Rock on Peter!
    The Savage One

  13. You post is very timely.

    I realized recently while purging my closet that I almost never wear the clothes I make.

    Partly because I feel self-conscious about them, and partly because they're not what I'm comfortable wear day-to-day. I tend to have a very subdued style (jeans, tops, flats, ponytail) and love to sew very elegant garments ! I've also sewn costumes and had a blast - I'd love to sew more of them but have nowhere so wear them.

    But sewing is my hobby, I want to sew what I like to sew, so I guess the Red Cross will just recieve a lot of hand-made Jackie dresses in the future :) (Sewing for others is a no-no, I strongly dislike that).

  14. Well, if a messy sewing room is a sign of creativity ... lol. Seriously, I sew, quilt, knit, crochet, embroider, and pretty much haven't met a craft I didn't try or like, and I have the UFOs to prove it ;-) I do sew/knit a lot of practical clothing for myself and family (current UFOs are a fleece hat for my DH, vest for my DS, and another knitted pair of socks for myself). So sometimes it's a wardrobe need. But most of the time, a pattern or fabric or yarn will call my name, and off I go on another project. I get interrupted a lot by sewing work for clients, so the wool suit I cut out in 2011 is still only half assembled. And sometimes procrastination pays off: fabric from a recent job perfectly matches some teal shantung I've had for several years (it will be a dress someday, honestly!), so I'm buying the leftover yardage to use as lining. Sewing karma, yay!

  15. I sew to have the clothes that I can't buy. I started with outerwear because 1. It's usually very expensive and 2. It's usually pretty boring. I started with little experience and found that the challenge of doing things well keeps propelling me forward. The "spark" can come from multiple sources, so I try to stay open to lots of potential avenues of inspiration. Color, fabric, historical dress, contemporary fashion. Each project is its own adventure. I also feel that we home sewists, in a small way, make the world a more interesting and beautiful place. Why, take a look at the fabulous Cathy Lane!

  16. where do you stumble upon these videos?
    sometimes they're the best part of your post.
    this one is so bad, it's good.

    I do love the set, though, for real.
    Still modern.

  17. Hmmmm... Interesting subject, as usual!

    I've been sewing forever. AARP recognized me a few birthdays ago, so I'm in the 50+ category--and remember those floaty chiffon dresses. Never wore one, but remember them!

    Most of the time, I sew because my wardrobe is in need of replenishment. My body does not meet manufacturers standards, so I can't just go out and buy something and expect it to fit. I'll usually buy a few casual knit tops (tanks, tees) one or two sizes too large and and alter/refashion them to fit. I don't like spending a lot of time on things that I'll wear in 110+ degree weather! lol

    I really enjoy sewing what inspires me, but I have minimized my wardrobe based on needs, rather than wants. I love designing and sewing formal wear and really miss it! My current lifestyle incudes only about 6 to 10 formal occasions annually, where previously it was at least three events monthly.

    My formal wardrobe has been pared down to two gowns, two skirts, six tops and four jackets (tops and jackets also can be used for dressy, non-formal occasions). I usually update one top each year.

    This past year I began sewing for Miss Curious (my cousin's five-year-old), shortly before she began full-day kindergarten (7:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. plus after school activities). Since the school has a fairly strict dress code and her clothing has to accommodate a full day of disparate activities, it has been challenging to design and make garments that she likes to wear while meeting all of the other criteria. And fun! :)


  18. I sew because it is tactile; such an antidote to the digital world I am immersed in most of the day.

  19. Yup, been pretty obsessed with that Sound of Music dress my whole life :-)

  20. I try to only make fabulous things that make me look smashing. Still trying to shake off a plain childhood by becoming a glamour queen I guess.

    1. I suspect that you have things somewhat backwards. From the photo, I am pretty sure that you make the fabulous things you make look smashing. You are much fun to look at. It is a gift, if not to you, then to the rest of us. And forget about becoming a glamour queen. Beautiful beats glamorous anyway, anywhere, anytime.

    2. I went to your blogs. I suspect that you posted those photos to make old farts like me stare at that cleavage and bite their lips off. I got off easy; just a bit of bleeding. You are drop dead gorgeous. Deal with it.

  21. The creative space in my brain is a rather messy place. Sometimes a project starts with a pattern or a fabric that seems to get stuck in my head. Other times it's something I pin on pinterest or there is a good learning opportunity (like a sew along) for an idea that I was toying with in the first place. I guess I tend to follow my bliss/obsession. I do change my mind pretty regularly, too.

  22. I suppose a little bit of both. I am really inspired by patterns and what I see others sewing and sharing on their blogs. I tend to want to sew what I know I will actually wear, but not necessarily basics. I don't sew especially fast or have lots of time to do it, so I do find the problem that I often daydream a lot about a project and then forget about it when something new pops into my mind and the first idea never comes to fruition. I do wish I actually executed at least half of my ideas! But I do get a lot of enjoyment out of the dreaming process, and there will be a day when my little kids are not so little needing so much of me.

  23. Totie,would you believe that's the name of the rescue yorkie mix that is dh's dog? We laugh about him as he is solely focused on dh and is oblivious to the rest of the world. They ride around here on a 4 wheeler and a polaris daily and watch tv together. I can't even hand the phone to dh without him growling. He is one of a kind.
    As for inspiration it comes from everywhere. I am very artistic and a control freak so a project has to be my idea/light bulb moment. I really hate for people to imagine a project and drop it off for me to do the grunt work. It is only fun if it is my fashion daydream even if it is for a family member I don't mind sewing something for. It's one thing for them to request and let me fly with it when I want to do it but another if they want a copy of something and done now with only their input.

  24. I definitely look to a lot sources for my creativity! I love getting inspiration from movies (like for my aviator dress) or from Hollywood stars from the 30s and 40s (like Marlene and Rita) and sometimes I don't even have to look any further than the vintage pattern envelope (one of the many reasons I love 1940 McCall patterns so much!) I've also recently embraced how cool UFOs are....first they let me follow my enthusiasm (if I'm not feeling a specific to the side it goes) AND it lets me create more because now I have quite a pile of half finished projects and when I feel like it, I can just pick something up that's halfway finished and finish it! I'm actually really loving that because sometimes I don't feel like cutting out fabric or starting something new! So I've got something for all my moods :-)

  25. There's two kind of projects: first the ones that get their shape because I think about them for a while and, depending on time available, fabric search and my mood, make at some point. These are usually inspired by stereotypes or clothes I see (in real life or media); then there's unplanned projects that fall into my head and are made almost at that very moment. Those are usually inspired by material at hand, like that time I took a pillow case bought second hand to make dolls dresses out of the fabric basket, held it in front of me and suddenly saw a summer top in it; or by an urgent need to feel cool!
    In general, inspiration comes from literally everywhere always in any possible way (I have even dreamt sewing ideas) and I definitely don't sew based on wardrobe needs, though one could argue that I need unique, really me items which I cannot buy anywhere...

  26. I do not sew as a creative outlet. I have many other creative outlets. I sew to make store-bought jeans fit my stubby legs, and because my machine, a 105 year old Singer treadle, model 31-15, which I love, needs the exercise.


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