Each week throughout the summer we’ll hear from a designer about a pattern or book that caused them to head in a new direction and helped form their career. This is the eighth post in the series. You can read all of them right here.
Melissa Quaal is a self-taught sewist, pattern designer and sewing instructor originally from the woods of Northern Minnesota and currently living in Central New Jersey. She went to graduate school in public policy research and anti-poverty studies before answering the long-ignored call to make all the things. Now she balances parenting two wild, nature-loving boys with teaching sewing classes and sewing something every day. Catch up with Melissa on her blog, A Happy Stitch.
I love this video about Melissa. You really get a sense of who she is and her devotion to teaching others to sew.
The book that changed Melissa’s life is one that I love as well. I’m so pleased to share Melissa’s story with you.
I consider Amy the goddess guiding my sewing career. Before discovering her book I had a very dismissive opinion of myself as a sewist. I was sewing a lot and giving handmade gifts but wasn’t a specialist in any one thing. As soon as I mastered one thing I wanted to make something new, try a different technique. I considered myself ‘impatient’ and ‘distracted’; unable to ‘get serious’ about sewing.
I grew up surrounded by women who could seriously sew. My mother used to sew elaborate Easter dresses for my sister and I and my grandmother had a closet full of handmade fully lined wool pantsuits. My great-grandmother was a designer and seamstress at the Pendleton Wool Company in Nebraska. Sewing was everywhere. Yet, everyone around me operated with more of a perfectionist bent than what my frenetic energy seemed to allow.
Where I wanted to explore and wing it, I got the message that ‘real sewists’ obviously specialize. People were quilters with a capital Q meaning they had perfected their quarter inch seams and stood at level Expert in color theory. If you didn’t know how to get the perfect fit on a dress, you just shouldn’t even make one.
I distinctly remember my mother watching me wrestle with newspaper in an attempt to make my own pattern when she announced, “You can’t just make it up like that. You have to follow a pattern. Even your grandmother, who has been sewing for decades, always follows a pattern.” Once a sales associate at a fabric shop mocked me for my determination to make a quilt as a wedding gift despite never having quilted before. (For the record, Dolores, I did make that quilt and it lasted longer than the marriage.)
It just seemed that every time I tried to follow all the rules and do things the right way it drained all of the joy out of it for me. As a result, I resigned myself to being little more than a hobby sewist and there were long stretches when I didn’t sew at all. Looking back, it amazes me what a big impact such tiny discouragements had.
Fortunately, the same can be said of words of encouragement because along came Amy and her crazy, liberating Bend-The-Rules philosophy. Right there in the book was every message I needed to hear. She not only lays out, in plain language, what the most basic sewing terms mean but she also had a section called “What Kind of Crafter Are You?” in which she lays out different approaches to sewing.
There I was, according to Amy, “The Artist”. Not “The Impatient One” or “The Lazy One” or “The Scattered One” but the artist. Possibly the word I’m most scared of. And, her advice?
“To follow a pattern from start to finish, you need to trick yourself: try pretending you have never sewn before. Pretend you are a brand new sewer and master some basic skills with confidence.”
I was sold. I decided to do exactly as she told me. I ended up completing twenty of the thirty projects in the book and following the instructions, to the letter, for each one. It was as if I had taken an entire college course. Not only did my skill level increase exponentially but so did my confidence. I learned how to properly bind a quilt, sew an invisible stitch, make stuffed animals, hem effectively and so much more.
Because of everything I learned in Amy’s book I became less shy and apologetic about giving handmade gifts and soon enough people at work were asking me to teach them to sew. I started giving sewing lessons during our lunch break and with the encouragement of my coworkers I eventually left my stifling non-profit job and started teaching sewing for a living. Turns out, I love teaching people to sew.
Through the projects in Amy’s book, some experimentation and other patterns, I learned how to strike a very important balance. There are, in fact, times when following patterns exactly is important but it doesn’t mean you never get to let loose and be creative, trying it out your way. I found this sweet spot where I knew enough to strike out on my own. I could satisfy my desire to explore and attempt something new but in a more constructive and satisfying way. I started to get a feel for when I had learned enough to wing it with some chance at success.
Perhaps even more important than that, I became aware of the different goals and learning processes of all sewists. There is no one way to be a sewist. Sewing and making things casts a wide net and it catches all kinds of people, all of whom bring their own, beautiful opportunities and snaggle-toothed challenges to the table.
We all just long to make things for ourselves. Everyone is coming from a different place with different purposes but after years of teaching I can see sewing meets different need for different people. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of lining something up perfectly or the ability to let go of outside-life perfectionism. Perhaps it’s the excitement that comes from whizzing through a project or realizing that you can take a single technique in a million different directions. Regardless, sewing can be a place where we uncover, make peace with and find ourselves.
P.S. Next week is the last week of this summer-long series. It’s been really amazing to hear these transformation stories from so many designers and avid sewists. For me the theme that runs through every one is a longing to be creative and to not be perfect. More analysis next week, but that one theme does stand out clearly to me.