Learn about the basics of sewing from Bernadette Banner and why this historic skill set is one everyone should have a basic knowledge of.
As a parent to ten children, I’ve been watching the quality of clothing, even the more expensive brands, diminish over the years. Articles of clothing that used to be passed down to multiple children are now barely making it through one child.
Because of this, I think having the basic knowledge of sewing is crucial to be able to make, mend and sew practical items as needed. Not to say I’ll soon be sewing all of my children’s clothing, but to be able to sew on a button, mend a hem or a ripped seam, or stitch a patch on a hole are all great skills to know.
I’m excited to have a sewing master on the Pantry Chat today. Bernadette Banner, formerly a New Yorker, is currently living in London studying the history of what people used to wear and sharing her work on YouTube.
Bernadette is a dress historian and you can watch many of the incredibly elaborate dresses she’s sewn on her YouTube channel, Bernadette Banner.
What History Can Teach Us
Bernadette and I have a lot in common in that we both look to historical records to learn about methods to incorporate into our everyday lifestyle. For Bernadette, that’s clothing, but for me, it’s more the history of homesteading, preserving, cooking, and traditional living.
When you go back and study what many people were doing with basic tools, we quickly realize we have become such a simplified generation and we’re not really as advanced as we think we are.
Bernadette grew up sewing but never really enjoyed it because it was usually paired with deadlines sewing costumes for productions. Once she got to University she was taught how to look at the process as individual steps, breaking it all the way down to the variations and the tension of the thread she was using.
This is when she fell in love with sewing because it became so much more than just a finished product.
Why Everyone Should Learn Sewing Skills
Bernadette calls sewing an apocalypse skill. If everything were to go away today, you could still utilize the basics of sewing with a simple needle, thread, and some fabric.
We all wear clothes, so the fact that most people walking around today don’t know how to mend a basic hem, or sew on a button is such an unnecessary gap in the knowledge of humans.
Bernadette shares how our clothing communicates our personality and having the ability to make or repair your clothing is so freeing. Sewing is a blank slate for someone to create and define their own personality.
It’s never a bad idea to learn a new skill. Every single skill, no matter how irrelevant it may seem at the time, usually comes back around to be useful. When Bernadette studied film, she never knew one day she’d be making YouTube videos!
How to Get Started Sewing
If someone wants to get started sewing, Bernadette recommends first understanding the basics of sewing. That’s one reason why she wrote her book, Make, Sew and Mend: Traditional Techniques to Sustainably Maintain and Refashion Your Clothes.
Many times there are roadblocks that keep people from even picking up a sewing needle and those roadblocks could be simply not understanding the basics. Learning these fundamental basics about how to do a hem stitch, or the proper length to hem your trousers will help eliminate those roadblocks.
I was so excited to see that Bernadette even has a tutorial on how to make your own button! Talk about skills we’ll all need if things go sideways.
Do You Need a Sewing Machine to Sew?
Bernadette talks about how long people have been sewing gowns, well before sewing machines were created. Up until about 1857, when the domestic sewing machine began to become available, all sewing was done by hand.
In fact, I can remember a time when I decided that I was going to sew myself a seven-layer skirt by hand. I thought it was going to take me forever, but I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t take as long as I thought because I could take that project with me wherever I was during the day.
When sewing on a sewing machine, we’re relegated to the time we have to sit down at that machine and we can’t work on it while the kids are playing, while we’re watching a movie, or when sitting by the fire in the early morning.
Bernadette also shares how hand sewing is a wonderful addition to our modern digital age. In this 21st century where electronics are always at our fingertips, there are many times we’re actively doing something but our hands are free to work.
Bernadette loves pairing her sewing with getting caught up on her favorite Netflix series. I happen to agree that it’s a great feeling knowing you’re being productive while also allowing your body to be at rest, which is something we can struggle with getting enough of.
What Sewing Project is the Best to Start With?
I asked Bernadette what project she would recommend for a beginner, or someone just starting with sewing. She recommends they start with a project they’re excited about. She explains that when you’re excited about a project, you’ll form enthusiastic associations with it and will want to continue working on it.
If your goal is to make a dress like Marie Antoinette, consider starting with the shifts, or the gowns that are worn underneath the dresses. They double as a great nightgown and you don’t have the pressure of getting it perfect.
Something Bernadette also covers in her book is how to test fibers. If you want to test the fibers in the fabrics you’re purchasing (or if you think your fabric isn’t what it’s labeled as) you can do a simple burn test.
Do be careful when doing this and have a bowl of water in a sink ready to extinguish your fabric if needed. Light the fabric on fire at one end and watch to see what happens.
- When you burn a swatch of wool, it will burn quickly and smell like burning hair.
- Cotton will turn to ash and smell like burning paper.
- Any synthetic fabrics like polyester will actually melt into a hard plastic bead.
Tools to Help You Learn to Sew
If you’re feeling the inclination to learn how to sew, which I highly recommend, Bernadette’s book, Make, Sew and Mend is a fantastic starting point.
You’ll learn the basics, just as she recommends starting with, and you’ll gain the confidence to try your hand at sewing something you’re excited about.
Just as with any skill, take it one step at a time, start slowly, and before long you’ll find yourself sewing projects you never believed you could sew.
Where to Find Bernadette
Be sure to check out all of Bernadette’s amazing videos on YouTube as well as on her website, and you can even find her over on Instagram @bernadettebanner.
Bernadette also offers a Skillshare course called “Handsewing Basics: Sturdy Stitches for Mending & More”.
YouTube is excellent for pretty pictures and calming vibes, but rarely is there time in the story to stop and explain how to actually thread the needle.
This step-by-step introductory course will help curious beginners learn the fundamental hand stitches needed to make or mend almost any garment. Learn more about her course on her website.
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Carolyn: Hello, everybody. Welcome to this week's episode of the Pantry Chat Food for Thought. This week, I am so excited to have Bernadette Banner with me. If you guys don't know Bernadette Banner, you have got to go check out her YouTube channel. We'll be talking about her new book that's out right now. And here we go, get it up there. And we are going to be covering some of the basics of a time-tested, long-standing skill that is really near and dear to my heart, but not nearly as near and dear to my heart as it is to Bernadette's heart, and that is sewing. And this is something that I think we just don't really talk a lot about in the modern world, do we?
Bernadette: Yes, I would say so. And especially, there are many methods of sewing that have been lost across time. Nowadays, there's so much focus placed on the machine sewing because, that is the quickest, and the fastest, and the easiest. But there are a lot of really handy techniques that are done by hand, incidentally, that we've just lost. And it's good to bring the conversation back around to that and say, "Actually, wait, this worked really well. Why did we stop doing this?"
Carolyn: Oh, this just makes me so excited. And, I know, I just threw you right in. So hi, Bernadette, how are you? Thanks for joining us today. I'll go back to all the intro stuff, because I'm so excited about this topic. I want to dive right in. But tell us a little bit about you. Where do you live? What's the weather like around you right now? What are you up to? What projects are you involved in?
Bernadette: Well, I am a New Yorker originally, but I currently live in London. So, the weather is arguably very much the same. I will make that controversial statement. But, well, it's a bit cooler here now. It's summer. Not quite so sweltering hot usually as it is in New York.
Carolyn: Good. Yeah. I think there's the constant conversation about really what is normal. Because every year-
Bernadette: Especially these days.
Carolyn: Absolutely. Okay. So what projects are you working on right now? Anything in particular?
Bernadette: Many things, always. Many, many, many things. The project list is endless, as I'm sure we all know in any craft. But I am a dress historian, so I study the history of what people wear and I, by means of YouTube, or... Whatever it is. I put my work on YouTube. As I'm reconstructing things and learning about things, I'm putting those processes on YouTube and I am doing my, to the public, chatty mass-appeal viral videos as well.
So I mainly focus on the reconstruction of historical dress. Sometimes I twist and adapt them to suit modern purposes. What do I want for my own wardrobe? How can I adapt these pretty Victorian dresses to suit my own current lifestyle in 2022? So currently I've got, I'm just finishing up an Edwardian lingerie dress, which is those big fluffy, white dresses that they would wear in the summer. That has been an ongoing project for about a year. It's taken me ages to complete.
Carolyn: Oh, wow.
Bernadette: Yeah. I focus a lot in late Victorian and Edwardian, just because it's such an interesting period to work in.
Carolyn: So this is one of the reasons that I'm so excited to get to talk to you, because on different skills, I often go to the historical record to be able to relearn skills that are really becoming lost. Whether it's food preservation, or cooking, or creating foods at a home level, a lot of that has really been lost. It's either become an industrial product at an industrial scale or it's just gone away together. And so sometimes the only place that you can find good information is to really go back in the historic record. And so I just love this idea of approaching sewing in that same way.
And clothing is such, oh, it's really a very intimate object. When you are dealing with somebody's clothing, especially somebody from the past, somebody historically, you really have to dive into their life, and how it worked in practice, what it felt like every day. Were they sweating hot all the time in those long sleeves? You just really have to think about the daily practical side of it. And so I love thinking about the sewing side in history.
Bernadette: There's so much connection between what we do. We work with essentially the fundamentals of human existence. People have to eat food, people have to wear clothes. So what can tell us about the way that people were and, likewise, how can we look at what people were doing then to inform and to build upon how we're doing things now? How to improve our lives now. It's really cool.
Carolyn: I know that from my studies I find that, as modern people, we often have this ego that we are so advanced and we have so much advancement about what we do, and we're so far ahead, we're light years ahead. But when you go back and you start studying what people were doing with much more basic tools, you realize that no, no, we've actually lost a lot. And our options and our society have become much more simplified than they were in the history books. I think because of all the industrialization, everything's the cookie cutter, we don't have all these specialized things that we used to have. Do you see that same thing in the sewing world?
Bernadette: Absolutely. I like to say, "define better," because we have this narrative these days that back in the day... Things are done better now. But what does that mean? We do things faster now. We might do things cheaper now. But is the quality actually better? Does it actually bring us more joy? How do you define better? Because there is certainly so much, as you say, so much just exquisite craftsmanship. The quality, the durability of clothing has deteriorated really, from what we can see. We've got clothing surviving from 500 years ago. Are you really going to see a top from H&M surviving more than 10 years?
Carolyn: Absolutely. And I've become frustrated, honestly, with the lack of good quality clothing, even going by the more expensive brands and not the really cheap things that people are buying here. Of course, Walmart is the place where people go to buy the cheap clothing, or Target. Even when you step up to a more expensive clothing manufacturer, the quality has declined significantly, I think in just the time I've been a parent. Just watching that decrease and decrease, and of course the costs are going up and up. And it really makes you start thinking, where do you get the better quality clothes? And maybe the option becomes to create them yourself. And at some level, that becomes economically viable as actually a cost savings, even with the time involved, because the quality of clothes are just... They're essentially disposable clothes that we can get on the market nowadays.
Bernadette: Yeah, absolutely. And that's one of the myths that I like to try and bust, is that you need a sewing machine to be able to do all of this. First of all, you don't. People have been sewing for hundreds of years, entirely by hand, but the methods that they used to sew by hand are actually different from the methods that are generally taught to us now. We are taught to hand so to accomplish the tasks that machines can't do, which is a lot of the delicate work. But historically, when you were doing these constructional seams by hand, the methods that you used to sew those seams produced seams that are so strong, the seams will outlast the fabric in most cases these days. Especially when the fabrics might be of slightly lesser quality, I've had many garments just wear out, but the seams are still there.
Carolyn: Yeah, it's absolutely amazing. Okay. So I've gotten completely off of my list of questions.
Carolyn: So let me go back to some of them, because I really want to not only talk about the historical side, but I want to help people know where to get started eventually, if they're interested in starting to sew. And maybe they've dabbled in it a little bit, but how do we make this something that's really attainable for an average person? But first, before I even start there, how did you start sewing?
Bernadette: Good question. And I'm afraid I don't have a good answer for that, because I don't really remember. You pick up a needle and you start sewing things for... I had those little figures that you used, that you pose, to sketch from. And I would just make things for that. But I don't wholly remember my beginning revelatory moment of this is what I need to learn how to do.
I had dabbled in costume making, and made the costumes for school plays and things, and I never really enjoyed it, the process of sewing. It was always more of a chore. It was a means to an end. I need to get this done because this needs to get on stage. And it wasn't until I was in university and I had the opportunity to go work with a dress historian. One of the first conversations we had, she said, "Do you know how to sew?" And I said, "Yeah, I know how to sew." And she said, "Forget, everything you've been taught." And she taught me, from square one, this is how it was done historically. This is how you do it by hand. This is how you do it from the perspective of... We're approaching this from a labor mindset rather than this needs to go under a machine now, or this is beginning under a machine and will be finished by hand. But we are thinking about the whole process as a piece of step-by-step manual labor.
And that was when I fell in love with the process of sewing. It was less about, what can I get out of this in the end? And more of, I'm learning so much, I'm gaining this visceral understanding of the entirety of human existence, just by taking every stitch and understanding the length of time that it takes to make these garments. And understanding the variations in the tension that I have to put into the thread to make this. I feel like I'm just doing the opposite of inspiring people to do this, because I'm making it sound harder than it is, but the point is, it is such a more exhilarating process when you realize that the process itself has so much to teach you rather than this is just a thing that you have to learn to produce a thing that you can use. If that makes sense.
Carolyn: I totally love this. Yes, I think that makes complete sense. And that ties right into things like food production. The journey of growing the food and the connection that you have with that. Yes, you're going to produce something that's probably better than you could get anywhere at any grocery store or restaurant, but there's also this heightened enjoyment of it because of the entire journey that you've gone through. You've struggled with it, you've babied those plants or those animals, you've gone through the whole process. And so when you come out the other side, you have this relationship with it, that... It's transforming really in ways. And I think that's why people get hooked on this a thing.
I know for me, especially as a young mom, I found myself turning to sewing a lot because I would change the baby's diaper and half an hour later I'd have to do it again. And I would clean the floor and I would have to do it again right away. I'd cook the meal and everybody would eat it and it would be gone. And there was this like... It didn't last. And that can be defeating for some of us. So just the act of creating something that was going to last a long time, for me, that was therapy all by itself, even without the end product. So I completely identify with what you're saying there. I absolutely love it.
What do you think you love the most about sewing? Is it the journey? Is it the process? Is it the end result? Or is it just all of it together?
Bernadette: It's all of it all together, absolutely. But I think my favorite part about the concept of sewing in general is that the knowledge that this is fundamentally, what I like to call, an apocalypse skill. This is a skill that you can do yourself without relying on any machinery, electricity, any outside forces. If humanity, human society as we know it today, were just to implode, you would still have the very useful skill that you would be able to benefit other people, and yourself, with those... Agriculture growing, cooking food, I'm sure you understand this very well. These absolute fundamental skills are just... They have an inherent satisfaction to them.
Carolyn: They do. And our world now is so specialized in so many ways, and so intangible. It's very complex in that half the world's children don't even understand what they do. They can't explain it in a way that's just foundational and make sense. Because it's data entry, or it's some of these high skill things that are really dependent on technology. Whereas this is just something... It may not always be easy, but it's simple. It's very understandable. And, like you said, it's kind of going back to that rubbing two sticks together. You don't need a lot, this is very basic, but what you can do with it is phenomenal. You can go to the extremes on how much effort and energy and beauty of it. I've seen some of the amazing dresses that you have sewn and put in, I think, thousands of hours of work into some of the dresses. Is that correct? Am I overstating that? I have a tendency to exaggerate, so I just want to make sure I'm saying that right.
Bernadette: [inaudible] thousands of hours into anything yet, but we'll. See definitely in the hundreds.
Carolyn: Yes. And they're just absolutely amazing, what you can create out of something that's very simple and basic. So I really, really like that.
Okay. So here we are. This is a video, it's going to be on YouTube. How are you here? Did you ever see yourself sharing sewing skills on YouTube, and your sewing journey? We all have a story there.
Bernadette: Kind of no. No, I don't think so. My initial thought about this was that I wanted something to watch while I was doing my hand sewing. I was like, "Why is there no YouTube channel of someone doing historical hand stitching so that I could be entertained and be kept company while I do this?" And then I realized, well, if you want it, you have to make it yourself, effectively. And I thought... I immediately dismissed it. There's no way. I'm not the YouTube personality. I'm not comfortable in front of a camera. I'm not comfortable in front of people in general. But I did have a bit of a hobby as background in filmmaking, and enjoyed video craft, and so I thought I could make some videos of the sewing. And my first couple of videos, my face is not in them. I wanted to keep off the internet until things got a bit bigger than expected. Carolyn: That is so amazing. And it blesses so many of us by you stepping out of your comfort zone and sharing like that. And I know that's how we started when. When we started, I just wanted to help people. And the exact same thing, I was so frustrated by the lack of good information out there that I set out to create the videos that I wish somebody had given me, or the information that I wish somebody had given me.
But right at the beginning, I said, "I will not do video." That was an absolute declaration that I made. I was so terrified of that. And yet, here we are.
Bernadette: Here we are.
Carolyn: [inaudible] Oh, that's great. So, why is sewing such an important skill for modern people to learn? I know we've covered some of the broader reasons why the connection to history, putting us into... For me, I shared a little bit of that therapy state of having something that's actually productive, having things that are real and good quality. Why would somebody actually pick the skill up nowadays when they can just run to their local Target or order something on Amazon?
Bernadette: Well, we all wear clothes. I feel like it's just an unnecessary gap in your knowledge as a human existing in this society if you don't understand the most fundamental aspects of an item that you encounter every single day of your life. It empowers you a lot. It gives you a lot of control over such a arguably large aspect of your existence. The way that you appear and present yourself to other people is something that communicates your personality in so many ways. And to not understand, to not have the control over, first of all, being able to repair and care for properly so that they ask as long as possible, these garments that you're wearing, presumably often, every day of your life, it's a bit of an unnecessary detriment. Maybe a bit too dramatic with this.
But the other aspect of that is that there's so much possibility with the possibility of expressing yourself in the way that you truly want to appear to the world. Or in a way that just intrinsically makes you happy, that just running to Target, they're not going to necessarily have. There's this whole, absolutely exploding community of people that I've found on the internet who are really into historical dress, and really into adapting elements of historical dress to wear in real life. People of all backgrounds, all ages, all sizes, taking little elements of, "I love the cravats that they would wear. I love the waist coats that they would wear. I love the long skirts," and adopting those elements into their everyday wardrobes that they can then wear to work. You can't go out to Target and buy something like that.
Carolyn: And again, I think that goes back to that idea that we've become somehow more advanced in the last century, two centuries, and now we can express our individuality. But when the entire population is choosing from the same set of clothing in the same mass-produced stores, and the same colors that somebody says are the colors of the season, and the same styles that somebody says, "We all need to wear this style this season." It's like, how much individuality is there really that's coming out? Versus, here's a blank slate, express yourself with it.
And that's really exciting. I think, probably, for some people that's very scary because it's like getting that blank page and now you have to fill it. Like, who am I really? If I had to define my dress, who is that? Who is that person? We don't really have that option when it's just ready-made wear off the store shelf, and yet you do when you're sewing. So, that's great. That's really good.
So if somebody was wanting to get started with basic sewing, but they've never sewn before, we'll start with somebody who's never even attempted this. Is there anything they would need to do before they got started? Or is there anything that they'd really have to learn before they even dove into a project?
Bernadette: I would just make sure that you understand the basics of what you're doing. I'm all for just going for it and experimenting and learning on the fly. There's definitely something to be said for that. But there's so many fantastic, not to plug my own book, but books, YouTube videos, for every technique you could ever possibly want to learn. If you go in and type how to hem a pair of trousers, there will be a video for that. But, if you're looking to start hand sewing, I would just look to start understanding the basic stitches that you will need to employ. So the running stitch, the back stitch, the felling stitch, or whip stitch, however you call that. And just understand the fundamental technique so that when you are faced with a seam, it's not like, "Where do I even start?" But you know, this is how I thread the needle. This is how I start the stitch.
Because so much of that initial fear, the roadblock to actually picking up the needle is, I don't even know where to start. I'm too afraid of this. But when you know... And sometimes it can help to actually physically write out a step-by-step list of exactly what you need to do to get to a place. So if your goal is to re-hem your pair of trousers, where do I even start with that? Okay. I need to learn hand stitches first. Learn hand stitches, step one. Step two, learn the correct height for hemming trousers. Just understanding, fundamentally, where you need to go to learn the things that will inevitably cause you the roadblock will help you to get started, I thin.
Carolyn: Yeah. Absolutely. That's a good way to put it. And you don't want to plug your book, you were being very modest there, but I'm going to fully plug your book because it is very good and it will definitely teach you all of these things that she's talking about. She goes into detail on the different types of stitches.
Okay. This is going to be really funny that I love this here. And different people, I'm sure, flip through books and pull out very different things as to what tickles them. This is one that made me happy in a very funny way, and that's making buttons from your fabric. You guys see that? How to actually make your own buttons from your fabric. I guess that's because it makes me feel like that's one step removed from something that I would have to go purchase. I can just make my own from the fabric I'm already working with. And I really like that part. So anyways, check out her book. We'll have the link in everything in the description for you, and I'm sure we'll talk about it more in just a minute.
I feel like you have covered this really well, but I just want to hammer this home to people. Do they need a sewing machine in order to sew real clothes? Let's say they're like, "I want to sew a full skirt. I don't just mean a little decorative pillow. I want to get into sewing." Do they need a sewing machine?
Bernadette: So I'll put it this way. For as long as humans have not been covered in fur, we have been making clothes for ourselves. From everything from medieval gowns, whether it's your sewing bits of fur leather together, medieval gowns, those elaborate Elizabethan farthingale concoctions, 18th century, Mary Antoinette. All of that's done by hand until about 1857 when the domestic sewing machine begins to become available. And not until really the end of the 19th century does it really become available. It is absolutely possible. Yes. Sewing machines are at time saver, absolutely. I will not deny that. But you can absolutely, 100%, make elaborate entire garments by hand.
Carolyn: Absolutely amazing. That is so great. I know one time I decided to make a seven-tier skirt, and I decided to do that by hand, and all the gatherers and everything that was in there. And I actually was... I had just read something historically that, and this is probably very, very simplified of this, because I really don't know very much about this topic, but that a proper stitch done to last would have 12 stitches per inch and-
Bernadette: Yeah, that's actually about right.
Carolyn: That's about right? Okay. So I set out and I thought, "Okay, what would this be like to do..." Those are tiny stitches. When you're talking 12 per inch, a 12th of an inch is a very small stitch. I'll just say that.
Bernadette: I will say, with a caveat though, it depends on the thickness of your fabric. If you're working with a thick wool, you cannot physically get that many stitches in. [inaudible]
Carolyn: Well, this was a simple broad cloth. But I have to say, I was actually surprised at how quickly I got through that project. And the reason for that was surprising to me. It's that because I didn't have to sit down at the sewing machine, I could have that project with me all the time. In the little edges of the day, when my family was sitting around in the evening, I could pull that out and stitch on it like that. When you pull out the sewing machine, it's loud, it stops the conversation, it interrupts things, and you have to really focus on what you're doing. This was so easy for me to just pick up and stitch and then put down when I had to go attend to something, or I couldn't concentrate on it, or whatever it was. I actually got that thing done very quickly compared to what I expected.
So I guess the question becomes, hand sewing is not only doable, but it's actually in some ways very viable for modern, a modern woman, or man, or whoever wants to partake in sewing to use, to actually get garments created for everyday use. Isn't it?
Bernadette: Yeah. And I like to say it's actually really wonderful, especially for our modern digital age, when a lot of us still have so much energy. So much fidgety... I don't know about you, but I find myself, I've still got so much hand energy. Also, with this very 21st century compulsion to sit and watch Netflix all day. So what better thing for you to be doing with your hands than something that's fairly mindless, doing a backstitch seam or whatever, that while you're watching Netflix, or while you're standing in line to wait for the train, or while you're on the train, really, if you take public transportation, or waiting to get your driver's license renewed. There's so many just mundane aspects of society today, as I'm sure that we're historically, but lots of time spent listening to podcasts, or audio books. There's so much media to consume and not really a lot to do with our hands while we do it. So I get loads of sewing done that way.
Carolyn: Yeah. It's actually, there's a lot of little bits of time that you can fill in with something when you do it like that. So I think that's really... For me, I really enjoy that. I identify with what you're saying about the fidgeting. I am going, going, going constantly. And so for me to relax, I have to ramp down. And this gives me something... Sewing, I do a lot of knitting, knitting has been what I've been focusing on the last couple years, and it gives me something to do with my hands. It makes me feel like I'm productive, but it allows my body to just wind down. And then it's that repetitive thing. It lets my mind relax. All of a sudden I'm like, "Okay, I'm relaxed now," where that transition into the evening time for me is a wonderful thing.
So if somebody wanted to start, is there an ideal project for them to start with? If they're a brand new sewer, never sewed before, or maybe they want to pick up hand sewing and they haven't done that before, what sort of a project would you recommend they start with?
Bernadette: My philosophical answer for this is you should start with the project that you're most excited about, because that way you'll form those really enthusiastic associations with the process of sewing. And you'll be excited about the garment that you will end up with, if it's a garment at all. The practical answer is there is the caveat that, okay, maybe don't start with the Maria Antoinette dress. By all means, go ahead. Have a grand time, I'm sure you will. But if you're interested in historical dress, for example, the best things to start with are the underlays. So the shifts, the chemises, that are actually really great to wear for night dress, so you can make them and you can wear them actually and get loads of use out of them without necessarily having to worry about them being the most perfect garment you will ever make, because no one has to see them. They're worn underneath or they're worn to bed or whatever.
But if you're not into historical dress, that's a useless recommendation, because what are you going to do with a linen shift if you want sleep in your sweatpants or whatever. In which case, it might be more inspiring for you to make a tote bag that you can take to the park with the print of your favorite band or TV show or whatever.
So it depends on whatever makes you happy. Definitely follow your heart, but then maybe try and find the square one step of that. A lot of beginner sewing classes have you begin with pajama pants, tote bags. And then I would add to that, if you're into the costume side or the historical dress side, start with the undergarments.
Carolyn: So do what you love, but start with the simple version of it. Is that right? Good.
Now, another thing you really address in this book, which I have never seen... And on your video, is that I've never seen this, and this made me really excited. Many of us are trying to avoid the synthetic fabrics. These are creeping into everything in modern day life. And I just don't like the idea of wearing a plastic water bottle on my body all day long. And that's really what a lot of these fabrics are pretty much plasticized fabrics at this point. And aside from what they're doing to our environment, with all the microplastics, which is a very real problem, they're just not good for us. I don't believe that they're good for us. And so identifying the fibers, and what fibers are in the fabric that you're using, or that even if you're buying clothes in... Honestly, how often do you find that pre-made clothes, their fabric listing is not what they say it is. Is that an often, a common problem?
Bernadette: They're not supposed to be able to do that. They're supposed to list this is 20% cotton, 38% spandex, or whatever it is. Sometimes they don't list the percentages, so you don't... They can put cotton, but it's 2% cotton. I will say that there... If you're feeling bold, there's the burn test. So you can actually take a bit of the fabric, and it's a bit more difficult if this is a garment and there's not really a place to do this, but if you're buying fabric, you can absolutely ask for a swatch and say, "Can I just have a little swatch of this?" And usually they will give you one. Take it home and carefully put it under a flame over a sink or something. Be safe and all that. But different fiber types reacts differently to flames.
So for example, wool, which is flame retardant, it will smolder and fluff off into ash. It will smell like burning hair, too, because it's a protein fiber. It's like our hair. Whereas cotton will, again, it will crumble off into ash, because it's a natural fiber, but it will smell like burning paper because it is a cellulous fiber. It's plant material. Whereas polyester synthetics, when you light them on fire, you do have to be very careful about those, because if they're petroleum based they can go up very quickly. But yeah, so do it over a bowl of water and be ready to put it out quickly. It won't explode, but... It shouldn't, at least, unless it's treated with something horrendous. But it will not dissolve into ash, it will melt back into a hard plastic bead. So that's how you can tell, if there's any synthetic content in a fabric, even if it's blended with something, you will get some ash, and then you will also get that congealing into plastic again.
Carolyn: I love that. And in your book, you actually show how to do that and the different results that we have. I keep trying to... There we go, show the picture. It really makes, honestly, this makes me think about children's clothing. I don't know if this is an international law, but in the United States, children's clothing has to be treated with... Night clothing, sleep clothing, has to be treated with flame retardant. And it makes me think, one bad decision often leads to another, doesn't it? If we were using natural fibers, we probably wouldn't have the fire concern that we have with children's pajamas as if we're using these synthetic fabrics, which could have have a very different result if there was fire. You've got a problem if you've got fire and children and pajamas all mixed up in the first place, but so now we've got children's clothing with additional chemicals on synthetic clothing, and you think, we could have just started this and just had good decisions about what fabric we were using to begin with and usable or use something natural. Very interesting.
Bernadette: Yeah. Wool definitely is good against flame. I won't necessarily claim that natural fibers are better in flame, because there is a whole history, especially in the 19th century of women's dresses catching on fire. And those are all natural fiber.
Carolyn: Very true.
Bernadette: But that's beside the point.
Carolyn: Absolutely. I guess at least it didn't melt into a ball of plastic on your body.
Bernadette: Yeah. If you catch on fire and you're in synthetic, you are in a much worse position than if you were on fire in a cotton dress.
Carolyn: Absolutely. Okay. So if you were to give one tip to someone who's on the fence and thinking about learning sewing, maybe think about diving in, but they're not sure about it, what would it be?
Bernadette: It's never a bad idea to learn a new skill. You never regret it. I'm always of the philosophy, or at least this is what I have found personally in my life, but that every single skill, no matter how irrelevant I feel like it is, filmmaking is something that I just decided to experiment with one day, it all comes around to be useful eventually. Whether or not you're going to go into business as a dress maker or whatever, but it never hurts to have a skill. Especially in today's very strange and hyper-saturated and very competitive society, it helps to be a person who doesn't just do one thing, but who is very versatile, who can do many things.
Also, just in regards to looking after a dying planet, it helps to understand textiles, and the things that you wear, and how to take care of them so that you don't have to throw them away as often, because textile waste is a problem, but that's part of a much bigger issue. My answer to that is that it never hurts. If you're feeling the inclination, absolutely go for it, because it will come back and serve you at some point in your life, if not immediately.
Carolyn: Yeah, that is so great. And what I found about learning skills is, each new skill that you learn, as you add new skills, you start understanding the way skills work. Maybe it's the way your mind works, and the way you can learn best, but also you start seeing patterns in the way the world works, I think. And so each new skill, when it comes to foundational things like this, really adds on to the other one. So even if you don't... Let's say learning the skill of fermenting, even if you don't turn around and become a lifelong fermenter, you gain an understanding of food preservation, and of food, and of bacteria, and the way the world works in that natural environment, that actually will serve you in all different areas of your life and help you learn other skills in that area, too.
Same thing with creating and with making things. One thing leads to understanding another thing better, and that leads to understanding other things better. And I just love the way that all goes together. So I like that theory of it's never a bad idea to learn a skill. What a beautifully said thing.
Bernadette: Especially with handcrafts, too, because there are very delicate muscles in your hands. And when you can learn how to develop the ability to mold things and craft things, and how to hold things that you're physically making, whether or not you pursue sewing more in depth, or whether you just continue doing it functionally. But let's say maybe perhaps down the line you decide to take up book binding. You now understand the precise nature with which you have to craft things with your hands, and that will absolutely serve you. Drawing even, I have a lot of relation between drawing and painting and picking up sewing, because I had already developed a lot of those very fine hand movements that served me very well in drawing, but then translated over into sewing very well. So, definitely, definitely useful.
Carolyn: Very good. Well, thank you so much for, for your time today. Thanks for joining us all the way from a very different time zone, all the way across [inaudible].
Bernadette: [inaudible] completely. Well, Thank you for having me. It's been a delight to get chat with you.
Carolyn: Yes. You, too. You guys, if you have not seen this book yet, make sure you go grab it. It is Make, Sew and Mend: Traditional Techniques to Sustainably Maintain and Refashion Your Clothes. It's an amazing book, a lot of fundamentals, a lot of basics, and a lot of fun extra stuff for those of you who are already into sewing and you want to up your skills a little bit more. And make sure you go check out Bernadette on her YouTube channel. Is there anywhere else they'd get ahold of you or see what you're doing?
Bernadette: YouTube. I've got a website, but that's updated occasionally. [inaudible] the place I'm at the most.
Carolyn: Okay. That sounds good. We'll put the links to all of those below. And thanks again, Bernadette. We'll see you guys soon.
Bernadette: Thank you so much. It was good to chat.
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