When an email popped into my inbox from the lovely Wendy Ward asking if I’d like to review her new book I was naturally going to say yes. I really rate Wendy’s meticulous approach to sewing and she has somehow become the “angel on my shoulder” when I sew. Reminding me to take my time and do things properly, and it will pay dividends. I can hear her tutting when I don’t use pins, and the warm glow of approval when I take the time to baste. (All totally imagined of course, but then I’m a bit nuts like that!) So of course I’d be ready to devour any instructional content Wendy has to offer, and let’s face it, help promote Wendy’s latest venture because she’s a pal. I’ll make no bones about that. LOVE her.
But almost as soon as I’d said “yes” in my head, that voice cautioned me. (I talk to myself alot. Nuts you see.) ” Hang on a minute P. Are you really the right person to offer your readers a relevant and impartial review of this book?” The answer to that my friends was a resounding no. A Beginner’s Guide to Skirts is exactly that. It’s a skirt making guide for beginners. Well I am neither a beginner, nor do I wear skirts. You all know that. So a review from me, proudly modelling a skirt I’d made from the book, to my mind, wouldn’t have served you or Wendy. I wouldn’t be viewing the book as a beginner and I wouldn’t be making something that I would truthfully wear; and you would all know that in a heartbeat….so let’s be real…
So what to do then? Well…..I did what I always do of course….turned a relatively simple request into a mammoth undertaking and created a whole bunch of extra work for myself in the process, ha ha! (But much more fun was had and much more was learnt in the process so it’s all for the good!) To my mind, a truly useful and authentic review of this book, would have to come from it’s target audience. Beginner sewers. So I ran an idea by Wendy. How about I find a beginner (who wears skirts!), get THEM to make a skirt from the book, observe the process, interview them about their experience and report back to you guys with THEIR review of the book! Bam! To me (and thankfully to Wendy) that sounded like the perfect review. Impartial (they don’t know Wendy) and relevant (because they would be a beginner who wears skirts!), and something a little different to a standard book review, and therefore, more fun! Little did I know that it would also equal a ton more time, work and planning to pull off. Largely because, when I asked around the “school Mums” if anyone would be interested in doing this with me; I ended up with not one….but five beginner sewers, all keen to have a go!! Whaaaaaaat! So now, now I was going to need a venue. Because we’re not all going to fit into my little Shedquarters. (This is looking suspiciously like a skirt workshop to me. ) Gah! What have I done! No matter, because it just so happens that a lovely little sewing emporium has opened up recently in my local town….
Housed in a lovely old building on the historic waterfront of Burnham on Crouch, it’s owned and run by the gorgeous Lorraine Robinson, with help from her hubby (who also services and repairs machines! I know, right on my doorstep! How lucky?!!) And she just happens to have a workshop space at the back of the building. Which she very kindly let us use for our skirt making event. She was an absolute gem of a host so this is an opportunity to shout out and say a very public thank you to her. Mwah! (Lorraine is in the process of setting up her Creative Lady shop online too so watch this space for deets on that. And we DID touch on the idea of my running some workshops there in the new year. So who knows…Eeeep!) Aaaaanyway, I digress. Where was I? Ah….yes….I had managed to turn a simple book review into an epic workshop. And having secured a space to work in….the next hurdle was wrangling 5 busy working Mum’s down to one date when they would all be available. Pffft! That was fun, ha ha! But we got there. The date was set. (Doodle was a godsend people!) We had one day, to get 5 skirts made. 5 beginners ranging from complete novice (never touched a sewing machine) to some machine, but little or no dressmaking experience. Can we do this, just by following the instructions from Wendy’s book??
But first…Meet “the ladies”…
Experience Level: “Absolutely no experience with using a machine before. (They wouldn’t let me near one at school! Needle and thread making hand puppets was as good as I got!) This is the first time I have EVER used a machine. Sewing virgin….that’s me!!”
Experience Level: ” I have used a sewing machine for a mixed bag of crafts. Children’s costumes, patchwork quilts, bunting etc. Exploratory projects that have allowed me to play and discover as I go. Dressmaking experience was non existent . Never used a pattern or made anything to fit.”
Experience Level: “I started to sew on a whim about 18 months ago and have since made clothes for the kids from PDF patterns. Prior to that I was hopeless in needlework at Secondary School. I’ve made dresses and pull on trousers for kids. No zips though!”
Experience Level: ” Very minimal. A bit at school and then a couple of home projects (cushion covers) a couple of years ago. In terms of dressmaking, none. This was a first for me!”
Experience Level: “Not used a sewing machine since secondary school. (No need to calculate the years….a long time will suffice!). Never made any clothes before.”
So…those are my ladies. All willing and excited guinea pigs. Now, about this book that they are testing out…let’s start with the patterns. They come on 3 large pattern sheets, printed on both sides. They are multi sized patterns, nested and overlapped and designed to be traced off. Coloured lines help distinguish each pattern. Pieces like waistbands and pockets can be used on several different skirts. Each skirt will also have different length options. Without exception, all of my ladies balked at the thought of this process. And I for one don’t blame them. This is my least favourite format for patterns and I have experience in tracing patterns. So for a beginner I can see how daunting this can look. But when you have this number of patterns packed into one book, (8 patterns for not much more than the price you would pay for one paper pattern) practically and logistically,there has to be a pay off, and this is it. The truth is, it looks daunting. But the reality is less so. It’s a faff yes. But it’s actually quite straightforward. Find your pattern piece(s). Trace around it(them) carefully. You just need to gird your loins a bit to dive in and get it done (a little bit of squinting and some concentration may be involved). But you do have the added bonus of having the original sheets and ALL the patterns intact. So any mistakes in cutting/measuring or changes in size/making for others etc you can go back to the original pattern sheet and trace off a new pattern…..
Having said all that and in the interests of full disclosure, this is one area where we deviated. With one day to get all this done, having 5 people trace off their patterns from one set of sheets would’ve been a logistical nightmare and taken a huge chunk of sewing time out of our already tight schedule. It would have been impossible frankly. So Wendy kindly provided me with digital files for the skirts my ladies had chosen to make, and I gave myself a crash course in tiling full size patterns for print in Illustrator the night before. (Yeah, apparently I like to make work for myself! But hey, I have a new skill now! )….
I figured we could get the patterns assembled quicker if I tiled and printed off an individual pattern for each of my ladies. Rather than having four of them twiddling their thumbs waiting for the other to finish tracing from the single set of pattern sheets we had to work with.
So onto the book itself…..”Learn how to make 24 different skirts from 8 basic shapes”. So that’s 8 different skirt patterns with variations in length and details like pleats, gathers, pockets, waistband finishes, hem finishes and different types of fastenings and finishing techniques. All of which combine to give you the 24 options. The projects ascend in order of difficulty, with the recommendation that you start with the easiest (a pull on jersey pencil skirt) and work your way through each project, learning additional and increasingly more complex techniques as you go. That, is excellent advice. Follow THAT advice and all will be well. That advice is the Wendy Angel steering you sure and true. Or you could do what my ladies did, ignore that advice, and jump in at the deep end with zips, back vents, pleats gathers and pockets, ha ha! Now the “Portia Devil” in me is also an enthusiastic advocate of that approach too. Because whichever approach you take, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you are doing it; and there are things to be learned either way. It really just comes down to how tough you want those lessons to be and how willing you are to accept mistakes along the way….
Follow Wendy’s advice and this book will hold your hand starting with the simplest project and working from there. Dive straight in to a more complicated make, and you may have missed some of the foundations (and confidence building) that Wendy has carefully laid out in the earlier projects. It all depends on your personality. Slow and steady. Or dive in and rectify/learn from your mistakes as you go. I have a split sewing personality and have one foot in both camps, depending on the day of the week, what colour my socks are, and where the sun sits in the sky 😉
The book is laid out in a very logical manner, with each skirt style given it’s own section. An intro to the skirt style and the inspiration behind it; along with measurements……fabric requirements…cutting layouts etc…
Then follows a step by step guide to sewing that particular skirt. Within the instructional text, where a particular technique is referenced, (eg: attach the waistband or insert your zip) you are directed to the appropriate page of a comprehensive glossary of techniques at the back of the book. There you will be walked through that technique in more detail. So when using the book you will be switching between your project pages, and the techniques section at the back of the book…
Honestly, the book is almost worth buying just for the techniques section alone as it’s a very handy reference guide for any dressmaking project. Not just the skirts contained in the book. 3 different kinds of zipper. 4 different hemming techniques. Using elastic. Sewing darts. Attaching waistbands and facings. Understitching. Buttonholes, fastenings, gathers pleats, pockets; as well as advice on choosing and working with different fabrics, pressing techniques,measuring, fitting and pattern adjustments, machine set up. The list goes on. And all of it can be applied to any number of garments. So it all makes for a great little reference guide for any sewing library. As I’ve alluded to already, Wendy is one of those people that does things the “proper” way. She’s meticulous in her approach. Everything is marked, measured, pinned, basted; and when you’re starting out, that’s the best way to achieve the best possible finish on your garment. As you become more experienced you will begin to know where you can and can’t afford to take shortcuts without sacraficing finish and fit. Sometimes you might even eyeball things (Sorry Wendy Angel ;)) I think you all know I like a shortcut, but believe it or not, there are instances now, where I have learnt from experience to ALWAYS baste. Equally there are others where I don’t find it necessary, for me, and will often sew without even using pins, gasp!! I always think though, when you’re starting out, learn what the rules are….before you can work out how to break them and get away with it! (The Wendy Angel on my shoulder just flicked my ear for saying that last part.) So if you want to learn how to do things “properly”, you won’t go far wrong with this book…
Also of note is the fabric glossary at the back of the book. This is something that, without exception, my ladies found really useful. When you’re buying fabrics online and can’t feel them it’s handy to know your fabric types (and their characteristics) in order to know what to look for. I for one am REALLY bad at knowing the names of fabric types. So even as an experienced sewer this kind of info is invaluable to have.
Aikta opted to use this beautiful Sari fabric that she had at home, sitting there unworn…and decided she wanted to turn it into a Finsbury Skirt (long version without the bubble hem)…
Amanda opted for this black and white floral linen blend also from Minerva Crafts. (Now out of stock in black and white but still available in red and white at the time of writing). She also went for the Finsbury without the bubble hem…
….And then we come to “the day” itself. Our little workshop. We were lucky enough to have the lovely Jenna with us on the day, helping out with advice and answering questions. She managed to squeeze us in before another slightly more important creative project 😉
There was talk initially of stopping for a pub lunch, but once these ladies got stuck in, the concentration was palpable! In the end we scoffed bacon sarnies from the cafe round the corner as we worked….and drank lots of coffee….(well I did!) Pretty sure those biscuits remained untouched….
They worked the whole day, processing lot’s of new information and wrestling admirably with techniques that were not second nature, and in many cases, completely alien. What struck me, (as this workshop thing was a new experience for me….) were the variety of approaches/learning styles amongst these ladies. Which I think is pertinent in the sense that our mindset/viewpoint/personality can influence our perception and experience of things; especially learning a new skill. (Blimey that’s a bit philosophical for a sewing blog, sorry!) So I thought I’d share a few observations…
Sarah was a ball of energy! Keen to crack on and get her skirt sewn. (Although the rather tight timescale may have contributed to that some). Her natural way of working is very intuitive and she was naturally inclined (and confident enough) to figure out what was the next most logical step for herself and just go there, often with just a cursory scan of the instructions. Which largely worked, with a just a few minor hiccups. Amanda was laid back and methodical in her approach; reading through the instructions first, occasionally double checking her understanding of things, then working through each step. Her invisible zip went in with scant input from me and she seemed completely unphased throughout the whole thing. Very logical. Very methodical. Very chilled. (Interestingly Sarah and Amanda are both teachers. One of Art and the other of Animal Sciences which I found really interesting….I wonder if you can guess who teaches what…)
Aikta was a trooper with that sari fabric which would be tricky to work with for the most seasoned of stitchers. Being able to handle and manipulate fabric is a skill in itself. As is having a vision of what you want to create. She had a very clear design in mind using the border print of the sari at the hem and matching it to the waistband. She had a very quiet, focused, and studious approach. Reading and re reading the instructions and asking for clarification of her understanding before proceeding. Barely a peep out of Aikta and she seemed to be able to zone out of the noise in the room and go into her own little bubble. (one of my favourite things about sewing btw!)
Katherine worked super fast with her denim. She is one seriously quick sewer. She had a frenetic energy that if you didn’t know otherwise, might lead you to believe she was stressed by the whole thing. She wasn’t. (Again, perhaps a symptom of the time pressure!) I think Katherine’s previous experience, both with a sewing machine and following a pattern for simple children’s clothes, left her well placed to get the best out of this book. The act of sewing, and following pattern instructions, wasn’t alien to her. So all of her brain space could be used processing the instructions themselves…
Tracey was meticulous in her approach and her sewing DESPITE this being the first time she had EVER used a sewing machine! Very neat. Very precise. Very Methodical. Honestly….immaculate. And possibly a Wendy kindred spirit! She would quietly listen to other conversations in the room and take all that in too. I would say that Tracey is quite similar to me in the sense that she wants to understand ALL the things and the logic and function behind them. Again, due to the time factor she was constantly apologising to me for being “such a slow sewer”. (She doesn’t realise that I hold the title of World’s Slowest Sewer) Speed doesn’t equate to better. Slow suits me better. Unless you are naturally speedy (Like Katherine and Sarah) it just equates to rushing…which is never good!
The one caveat I would add to this review, is that these ladies had myself or Jenna to turn to throughout the process. To ask questions and explain terminology etc. So it wasn’t realistic in that way. Jenna and I can’t come to your house and answer queries as you sew, sadly. (Although if you have wine I’d be game). Some of them said that without that, they don’t think they would have been able to complete their skirts. I don’t necessarily concur with that. That, I think, is largely a confidence thing. And with that, you just have to bite the bullet and dive in. Confidence increases with time and experience and there is no shortcut to that.
It’s also a necessity thing. If you HAVE to just get on with it, you will. If we had not been there to ask then all of these ladies would have been capable of finishing their skirts. Yes there may have been a few more hiccups along the way, yes it may have taken a couple of goes or taken 10 times as long, but they would have gotten there. And had they not had us to ask, they would have asked someone else, looked up an online tutorial or two…or a you tube video. That, after all, is how many of us have learnt. And completely, if I can reach the standard of sewing I have by learning that way, then so could these intelligent, gorgeous ladies! Incidentally, talking about YouTube videos….did you know Wendy is in the process of putting together a series of videos to compliment the book? Super useful if you are a visual/practical learner and printed instructions don’t cut it for you on their own!
Sooooooo, how did my ladies get on? Well….we didn’t quite get all the skirts finished on the day. Almost though! But not quite. So a couple of weeks later, when everyone had put the finishing touches to their skirts, we FINALLY got together for a group photo session (Prosecco obligatory right?)….I apologise for the indoor winter lighting…but I think you’ll agree…they all look amazing…
So without further ado…here is what they made, and what they thought about the book…
Made: Finsbury skirt. Long version. Opted for large box pleats instead of gathering. Waistband and invisible zip.
Thoughts: “Probably needed more experience than none as I had to you tube a couple of videos when doing the waistband and pleats and didn’t understand some of the sewing terminology. Because I am a complete novice I had to research a few things to get me to the finish line”
Made: Fallowfield Pencil skirt. Long version with back vent, waistband and centred zipper.
Thoughts: “The pictures and the layout of the book were very good. I would definitely have benefited from having some sewing experience as I didn’t understand some of the terminology and needed a practical demonstration to really get my head around some of the techniques”
Made: Rusholme A Line Skirt with cutaway pockets, wasitband and invisible zip.
Thoughts: “The book is both inspirational and aspirational. It’s set out well in the way the reader is directed to pages depending on what skills are being used. I could have done with some You Tube tutorials for the trickier parts – it’s a big jump from kids clothes to adult makes. But I’m about to attempt another invisible zip so you may have started something!”
Made: Finsbury skirt. Long version. Gathered, with waistband, in seam pockets, and invisible zip.
Thoughts: “I’m not au fait with alot of the terminology or techniques so for an absolute beginner to dressmaking, the book had alot of assumed knowledge. So I would say those who want more structure and a push with their existing dressmaking skills would really benefit. That said, there were clear sections for hems, zips, fabrics etc that were really helpful. It was a massive learning curve, and at times I really wanted to do what I thought was best rather than follow step by step instructions. But I was a good girl and followed the instructions, and am so pleased with the result!”
Made: Finsbury skirt. Long version. Pleated, with waistband and invisible zip.
Thoughts: “Think the book would be great for people who have some experience of sewing but might be new to dressmaking. It felt a bit advanced for me although once I had read through the instructions a few times it made more sense. It is also really good for understanding terminology and different fabrics and techniques. I think it would really work in a beginner’s workshop setting. Overall I love the way my skirt turned out and am now totally inspired to keep sewing. I’ve since made some bunting and a kids nativity costume. Really enjoying it! Thanks!”
So there we are. A beginner’s eye view to A Beginner’s Guide to Making Skirts…cheers ladies! (Honestly, thank you so much!)…
The fact that all 5 ladies have finished, gorgeous and wearable skirts, (including 4 functioning invisible zips no less!! I don’t think they realise what an achievement that is!) despite little or no sewing experience, is almost testament on it’s own that this book “works”.
But I think it’s important not to sidestep the fact that they had some help in addition to the book(in the form of Jenna and I) and that they all found it difficult, and didn’t feel confident that the book alone was enough to get them there. So I really want to address that too.
It was really interesting to me watching people learn something that is now becoming second nature to me. (I think I would really enjoy teaching). But I can remember very clearly what it is like to not understand terminology, or get my head round what can essentially seem like fabric origami to the uninitiated. Two things I think, are key to measuring the success of this book. Who is it aimed at…that is….how do you define a beginner? And what do you expect to get out of it?
So a beginner, in the context of this book….is that someone who has never sewn a stitch in their lives or someone who has never sewn a skirt before? Based on my observations I would say the latter. It’s a Beginner’s Guide to Skirts not a Beginner’s Guide to Using a Sewing Machine. So someone who has the sewing machine experience under their belt is going to find that they fly through this book quicker than someone who has never used a sewing machine before. (Katherine for instance, required much less input than Tracey.) That’s pretty logical really. BUT I personally, don’t think that should preclude complete novices from giving this book a go. After all, to learn to use a sewing machine, you have to sew stuff. And there is nothing enshrined in law that says the first thing you ever sew, has to be a laundry bag or a cushion cover! Why the hell not a skirt!? Just start with the pull on jersey skirt or the wrap skirt. Start simple. At some point you have to just dive in and “do”, so why not dive straight in? Tracey did, and her pencil skirt is awesome. Yes I was there to help and demonstrate. But there are other ways of getting that additional support…
….which brings me to expectation. NOTHING is going to match having someone sat next to you, talking you through every stage of the process. Fact. Teachers are awesome. But it’s not always possible to have that. So we turn to books, online tutorials, and videos as our virtual teachers. Not a single one of those is enough on it’s own to have you fully understand a sewing technique. They can take you to the door but you have to walk through it. Sewing is a physical act; (an art, a skill) and that set of instructions on a page will not fully make sense until you physically translate them into cloth. Right there, that is where you will have your “aaaaaaahhh!” moment. Only then will it make sense. (Even then you have to repeat that process numerous times before it’s embedded in your brain) And yes, you will scratch your head, and struggle, and feel out of your depth. That’s what happens when you are out of your comfort zone, learning something new. Don’t expect anything different. Dressmaking is a skill. Honed over time. Give yourself a chance, and don’t expect to just “get it” first time, every time. Not even a teacher sat next to you can always give you that. Go easy on yourself. Learning a skill like this is a long term relationship. Forget any notions of “how hard can it be?” or ” I must be thick for not getting this.” The answers are “quite hard actually” and “Nope. You’re not. It’s tricky to explain and understand until you actually do it”. Think about how far a book can realistically take you. It’s like a passport. It can take you to any airport you want in the world. But you have to physically step through the gate and spend the time to explore and experience the place fully to get the most out of it.
So what can you expect from A Beginner’s Guide to Making Skirts…?
You can expect a beautifully photographed, logically laid out book, that will walk you step by step through the skirt making process. From the simplest of designs to the more complex. It will give you the tools to develop skills that you can take forward into your future dressmaking projects. It will show you how to be precise and accurate, and let’s face it, you may never need another skirt pattern in your life! If you are completely new to sewing, then there will be things in there that you might not understand straight away. That’s normal. Just ask. Ask Google, ask You Tube, ask a friendly blogger ;), heck ask Wendy!
This book will not turn you into an experienced and competent sewer on it’s own. Only you can do that with time, practice and effort. What it will do, is give you the tools to do that, and gently (but firmly!) hold your hand all the way there.
A Beginner’s Guide to Making Skirts is published by Cico Books and is available to buy now on Amazon. Signed copies can be purchase via Wendy’d website. A series of videos is available to compliment the book & demonstrate some of the techniques referred to, with more being added over time. Click here to view.