‘Dressmaking’ book – intermediate skills

A new wardrobe pattern book, ‘Dressmaking’ by Alison Smith, includes good photo instructions for making about 30 garments, based on classic patterns for tops, skirts, pants, dresses, jackets (see my post on the styles included).

This book sparked off so many thoughts, my comments expanded to several posts. I’ve already posted about help for complete beginners and advanced beginners. This is a review of the ‘Dressmaking’ book. I’m writing another post on other routes to intermediate skills.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I like project based learning. It’s good for people who like very classic styles and want to learn intermediate sewing techniques, plus starter skills for pattern altering to make new styles. Very good on technique. But difficult to read and look things up.

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General limitations of the ‘Dressmaking’ book

In this book the typeface is small and low contrast so it’s difficult to see. The pages look lovely, but you have to peer closely to read the text. As this is an instruction book not a coffee-table book, I don’t think this is good book design.

There are pages and pages of tools which you apparently have to have before sewing a single stitch. I’ve been sewing for 70 years and I still haven’t got all of them.

There’s a good general section on altering a pattern to fit, but not much detail. As so often happens, there’s next to nothing on how you know what you need to alter on the pattern, or by how much ! You have to work out for yourself which parts of this are relevant to your project and your body shape. There’s a brief section on making a muslin to test fit, but very little on how to evaluate and alter it. So this is not a book to turn to if you need help with fit. (Index page 2 lists my posts on fit.)

This is a project based book. When techniques are described within projects, you need a good index if you want to look up a technique away from a particular project. Sadly this index is in such dim type you need a strong light to read it. And it’s not good. For example there are a couple of pages on openings (plackets), but they’re not mentioned in the index.
Hmm – 5 out of the first 6 things I looked up in the index aren’t there, though they are in the text.
So once you’ve learned to sew from this book, it’s not so good as a reference afterwards.

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Quality of instructions

I do like the technique instructions in this book. Lots of close-up photos. A huge amount of thought and work must have gone into preparing such detailed and effective illustrations. They give a high level of ‘I could do this’ confidence. (Though there isn’t enough to support complete beginners.)

I’ve read the whole thing and only found :
3 techniques which I think a first-timer would like a bit more help with.
3 techniques where I do things a bit differently. (I finish the neckline treatment while the garment is flat, before sewing the side seams, if possible.)
2 small omissions.
And in 200 pages packed with sewing instructions, there were only 3 steps which I didn’t understand.
Is this a record 😀

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Project based learning

Alison Smith’s other books describe techniques and have drawings rather than photos. This book is about projects. If you work through these projects, you’ll have a good grounding in sewing techniques up to intermediate level, though only for standard weave woven fabrics. But she doesn’t suggest a best sequence for learning. You could choose any project, with minimum guidance on how difficult it is.

If you do want to learn from a sequence of increasing difficulty, it’s probably best to work through all the projects in this book in the order given – from a skirt with darts, zip, waistband, to a lined jacket with lined patch pockets and shawl collar. Not as far as a structured notch-collar blazer. The technical descriptions for later garments are briefer and refer you back to earlier in the book.

If you work through the whole sequence, you’ll learn competent sewing of standard woven fabrics and simple pattern altering. There’s usually only a few clearly explained new skills in each project. It would be a good learning experience to work through all the projects in this book – except that making 31 ultra-classic garments is a major commitment !

I wrote a list of the pattern altering and sewing skills covered in each project in the Dressmaking book, for my own reference.
It won’t be of general interest, but some people who use the book might find it helpful. So here’s a pdf version :
31 projects.A4.pdf
31 projects.USletter.pdf
It might also act as a guide to a sequence of learning intermediate skills.

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When I first got the ‘Dressmaking’ book I wavered wildly for and against. It is difficult to read and find things in. The patterns are ultra classic. I’ve settled on being very impressed with the instructions for technique. Very easy to learn from at intermediate level.

With over 300 large pages, this book is packed with information. But it can’t be all things for all people. The techniques are unusually easy to understand, but you may want to know about other fabrics or styles, easier or more advanced techniques, more guidance about fit.

The techniques included can be used for making a wide variety of styles, not just classics. But the patterns are more limited.
I love project-based learning rather than just working through a list of techniques, but I agree it is difficult to produce projects that everyone wants to make !

This also works well for me as an instruction book as I’m happy to sew at intermediate level. I have little wish to learn more advanced sewing techniques. But for some people that’s their big love. My interests are more in the direction of learning to make my own styles.

Which level of skill are you happiest to sew at 😀

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Links available March 2013

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Explore posts in the same categories: learning to sew

10 Comments on “‘Dressmaking’ book – intermediate skills”

  1. alison Says:

    My own sewing is rather happily what I would describe as intermediate in skill. I have no real interest in advanced couture stitchery for my own clothing, as I make ALL my own clothes (except shoes socks and bras). I realise that someone who sews more for their pleasure than for practicality may make different choices, as would someone who has need of the sorts of garments and tailoring that require advanced sewing techniques. I do have a great deal of interest in altering and recombining TNT patterns to add variety to my wardrobe, as well as creating my own designs to fit my unique body, and personal style.

    • sewingplums Says:

      Lovely comments Alison – thanks. You’ve reminded me of another gap in the Dressmaking book – there’s almost nothing on embellishment, certainly nothing on the lovingly hand-worked ways you enhance your clothes !

      Did you see that the winner of Pattern Review’s One Pattern Many Looks contest this year makes her own bras 😀

      I’m with you on having body and style that don’t fit comfortably into any of the simple categories. Even though we’re very different, I find what you do very inspirational – a good reminder of wide possibilities !

      • alison Says:

        I’d not seen the Patternreview contest, (don’t spend a lot of time over there for some reason) but wow, what an amazing set of lingerie she made! It has been a back of the mind/do it someday idea to make my own constructed bras, I make sports-bra styled ones for everyday, but would have to get fitted first before even starting, to know what size pattern to begin with…

  2. sdbev Says:

    I like intermediate sewing with periodic easy projects to clear the palate and make me feel like I can sew. While I admire hand sewing and couture projects, I just don’t want to invest that much effort.

    I’ve also purchased several project books. They were fine when I was a beginning sewist and needed my hand held. Now I prefer reference books that I can easily turn to when I can’t remember how to do something or a book of options such as “Sew Any Patch Pocket”

    • sewingplums Says:

      Thanks Bev – there’s so much we can do using intermediate skills.

      Yes, pockets are an excellent way to add interest. I haven’t seen that Claire Shaeffer book and will look out for it. I like another oop book, ‘Just Pockets’ by Patricia Moyes.

  3. Vildy Says:

    Can’t really figure out what my sewing skill level is. Although I am not interested in NLP (neuro linguistic programming), I love one of their sayings: If there is any person who can do it, then I can do it, too, IN SOME FASHION. Think wheelchair basketball or singing in the shower instead of at the opera house.

    Took a look at that pocket book. Reminded me of something I recently read. I see many pockets use a bound buttonhole type technique for insertion. Mens clothes never use bound buttonholes! With all their tailoring, that seems amazing. Instead they love these wonky looking lumpy hand stitched buttonholes.

    When I was younger I learned to put in invisible zippers. I’m terrible at spatial relationships – can you imagine that in someone who can sew!
    So a lot of things, I quit trying to understand or visualize the process but just stepped through the instructions. Voila. But I have never put one in since. I have read every tutorial on the face of the earth, too. I remember that I used the sew-the-seam-first technique. Anyway, I recently bought some pants with a back invisible zipper and at the very bottom there is not that famous bulge but it just doesn’t meet quite as invisibly as the rest of the zipper. Thought I could cheat and fix it by hand. Nope. Reread many tutorials. Still nope.

    I recently bought my first sewing pattern with the intention of making something from scratch. I was reading a style blog and she happened to be discussing the shirtwaist and one illustration was a vintage pattern from the 70’s. I loved it. Collar and placket that goes part way down the front so you can just step in to it or easily pull it over head.
    Skimming but with flaring pieces so you get some contoured fullness towards the bottom. Tracked it down online and bought one.

    Tissue fitted the main pieces and looks like I won’t have to do any alterations. Felt exceedingly calm doing this – here is something I know how to do! Though haven’t done it for decades.

    Main problem I never can solve through books and articles is what fabric I want to use. In the same vein, I often have ideas of what I want to do and search in vain for examples someone else has done. Zip. Nada. Example: I recently thrifted a washable suede shirt jacket and skirt. (I’m beginning to really like these jackets!) Skirt a little too snug.
    Thought about picking it up and shortening from the top by cutting new waistline. But I also wondered about making a “mixed media” skirt that is so popular now. Yet wondered what fabric I would use, etc. Not any examples of this kind of thing. Decided the easiest route might be to just lose the few holiday pounds I put on!

    • Vildy Says:

      I meant that I thought about a yoke in another fabric. I love yoked skirts. Plenty of examples of a second fabric being used down the sides but that’s too on trend for me. 🙂

      • sewingplums Says:

        Vildy – do you ever do some try-outs ? for example – put on the skirt, then wrap another fabric round it at yoke level – do you like the result ?
        When I’m choosing fabrics for patchwork, I always leave them lying around for a few days, to see if I change my mind. No way we can always be right !

  4. diya Says:

    I love your posts on sewing books. It helped me purchase my first sewing books, I always used to refer back to your site before I made a purchase. Thanks a lot. Is it possible to make a composition of sewing books links. I mean of all the books which you have blogged about. I know it is there is a lot of posts spread across. But a link list in your side bar will be great to navigate 🙂

    • sewingplums Says:

      Thanks for the interesting comment Diya. I”m pleased to be of help. Pulling all the book links together would be a lot of work for me too – but I’ll certainly think about it.

      Don’t know why your comments aren’t appearing. WordPress has a 2-level system for spam comments. Some get deleted automatically. Some I get to see, and say if I want to reject them. I do assume comments which say “your blog is wonderful and you’re the most intelligent person in the universe” without any specific reference to my content are spam !


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