Warning: The following interview might make you want to both a.) run out and buy a sewing machine and/or b.) invent a time machine to go back to the fabulous 50s.
For the uninitiated, meet Gretchen Hirsch. And trust when we say that you’ll want to get your Web browsing eyes over to her blog, Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing stat.
Gretchen is a home seamstress in Queens (holla!) aiming to make all 14 looks from her favorite vintage sewing book, “Vogue’s New Book for Better Sewing.” The book promises that by creating the looks within, she’ll become a better dressmaker – and she’s looking to prove them right. But along the way, she is making some incredible detours, sharing her trade secrets with readers and showing how they can recreate her incredible 50′s inspired style.
Gretchen recently walked us through where she gets her inspirations, her background and how you, too, might start on your way to creating, not just buying, your own fabulous wardrobe.
1. Your blog is based on recreating looks from “Vogue’s New Book for Better Sewing” – how did this book come into your life?
I came across the book on the internet in September of 2008. It’s a guide from 1952, which, through the completion of 14 Vogue patterns, promised to make one an expert home seamstress. The projects were so fabulous – an evening gown, a silk shantung shirtdress, a fitted flannel suit, that sort of thing. The first copy I saw was a whopping $75. I knew I had to have the book, so through a bit of patience and Googling, I found a copy for $10.25 on Alibris.com. It was a little worse for wear, but beautiful all the same.
When I received the book, reality set in. What was I going to do with this thing? Track down all the patterns from 1952 and make them? That seemed ridiculous. But when I picked up the book again after setting it aside for many months, that’s exactly what I decided to do.
2. What is it about the 1950′s speaks to you?
The clothing of the 50′s is much more complex than people realize. It changed so dramatically over the decade, and there was a constant push and pull between varying silhouettes. Even at the height of the full-skirted silhouette, there was a parallel gravitation toward very sleek, slim-skirted wiggle dresses. I love that patterns of this decade often feature two extreme variations – one with an enormous circle skirt and one with the slimmest pencil skirt you can imagine. I think this paradox of silhouettes is what makes the decade interesting – it hints at a struggle between ideals, I think.
3. How did you get started sewing?
Sewing has always been a part of my life in some regard or another. My mother sewed all my Halloween costumes and she always seemed to have some sort of project going on. According to her, I didn’t show a lot of interest in sewing as a little girl, but having it as a constant in our lives has made it accessible to me in a way that other people don’t experience. I knew how to thread a machine, how to lay out a pattern and how to pin and sew seams. I think a lot of people are intimidated by sewing, and I never had this feeling because of my exposure to it at an early age.
When I decided to pick up sewing garments about two years ago, I had all the basics I needed and I was pretty fearless about the whole thing. (Perhaps a little too fearless at times!)
4.What materials should a beginning sewer have in hand? (The best type of sewing machine, etc.)
Fearlessness is the number one supply for sewing. (See above!) As for material supplies, you should have a good, basic sewing machine that you can depend on. I’m a recent convert to pared-down mechanical machines (as opposed to super fancy computerized machines.) I just bought a Bernina 1008, and I love it. It has everything I need, and nothing I don’t (no alphabets or stitch patterns that look like alligators, for instance). If you’re not ready to spend that kind of money (a Bernina 1008 costs around $850) I would recommend looking into a used mechanical machine.
Another must is a good sewing reference book. I recommend the “Reader’s Digest Guide to Sewing.” (Here’s the latest edition, I own the first edition from 1971.) A great project-oriented book for beginners is Diana Rupp’s Sew Everything Workshop. If you want to know the sewing basics in an accessible format, this is the book to start with!
5. What is a good first project to learn the mechanics of sewing?
Curtains! Curtains are a great first project – you learn hems and get to sew for long, straight stretches but don’t have to worry about zippers or buttonholes. Plus it’s very gratifying – handmade curtains are infinitely more chic and affordable than the polyester madness in stores. Once you’re comfortable with curtains, I’d move on to a simple straight skirt.
6. What advice would you give others who want to learn to sew and create clothes?
While you can teach yourself to sew, I would really recommend taking a class or hitting up a friend for lessons. It’s so much easier to learn by watching someone else do it – and having someone to guide you through the process is invaluable.
7. What Websites or stores would you recommend for patterns? For buying fabrics?
My favorite Websites to buy contemporary patterns are Colette Patterns (a fabulous independent pattern company with stunning retro designs) and Vogue Patterns (their Very Easy Vogue dresses and separates are great for beginners). I buy all of my vintage patterns online from various wonderful sellers (you might want to start with Etsy if you’re new to buying vintage patterns).
As for fabric, I’m lucky enough to live very close to New York’s Garment District, so I have the cream of the crop within arm’s reach. I love Mood, B&J Fabrics, Paron’s and New York Elegant Fabrics. If you’d like to buy online, I highly recommend Gorgeous Fabrics for a great selection of fabrics specifically for garment sewing (as opposed to quilting).
8. Besides the Vogue book, where do you find inspiration?
For design inspiration, I watch my favorite TV characters (Emma from Glee and Joan from Mad Men) and look at vintage pattern illustrations. But I’m mostly inspired by learning new skills. Sewing is an inexhaustible topic – there’s always more to learn. I love to read vintage sewing books (check out Design Your Own Dress Patterns by Adele P. Margolis) and leaf though back issues of Threads Magazine to get excited about new techniques.
9. Who are some of your favorite designers – past and present?
For vintage inspiration, nothing compares to Dior’s New Look. In contemporary design, my tastes lean toward very wearable, girly designers like Nanette Lepore, Rebecca Taylor and Tracy Reese.
10. When you do shop – where do you go?
Anthropologie! I’m an Anthro girl at heart. I like to do “snoop shopping” there – aka trying on their clothes for the sole purpose of copying their details in my own sewing.
11. Have you ever thought about applying to a reality show like Project Runway? Why or why not?
It briefly occurred to me when I was out of work last year, but the thought quickly left my mind. I see myself foremost as a seamstress rather than a designer. I like to work within the constraints of a pattern and add my own flourishes though fabric, color, and special techniques.
Follow Gretchen as she continues her sewing odyssey at www.blogforbettersewing.com. And thanks to Yay! DIY friend Kaitlin for turning us onto Gretchen’s amazing site!