Sewing 101: Learning to Sew a Fine Seam

Survival of the Fittest
March 26, 2013
Pakistan Elections: May 11, 2013 – My Story
May 15, 2013

By Fareeha Qayoom



f you are a regular visitor, you probably already know I have been making noises for ages about ‘real’ lack of knowledgeable people in the rag trade in Pakistan (as far as domestic retail or bespoke fashion is concerned- we are pretty good when it comes to spinning yarn and making fabric, or even manufacturing ready to wear for export to apparel brands, retail and mass markets.). Fit is an integral part of looking good regardless of your actual size. No matter how beautiful your clothes, if they don’t fit, you might as well throw them in the bin.

waistcoat sketch

As far as women’s wear is concerned, it all comes down to measurements – do they understand how to measure? Have they based it on actual live model or is it an imaginary person with fantasy measurements? Most tailors and pattern makers in town actually do not understand how-to-measure (or maybe it’s a modesty thing? They’d rather guess based on appearance than actually measuring the person involved before proceeding!) When they do measure, they usually take down your widths at various points of measurement but never your corresponding height! You know the ‘Y’ Coordinate of every ‘X’ point of measurement.


They have learnt a basic pattern (based on an average height and width) and they keep churning out the same fit grading it up or down to individual widths when it comes to their customers’ individual size requirements. The height of a person never comes into it. Same is the case when it comes to domestic retail brands. There is no research built into actual target customers – (I am talking about only women’s wear here). Buying clothes off the peg could prove to be a nightmare if you don’t know how to sew; especially if you do not fall into ‘standard’ hour glass silhouette to begin with.


European and American retail brands on the other hand have developed their graded size charts on extensive customer research and are pretty universal when it comes to fit – they keep upgrading their fit and each design is individually fit tested before it’s released into mass production/launched into their stores; (mind you, invariably European sizes are comparatively smaller than the US and it even varies from brand to brand within the country). However, they too also base it on ‘standard’ or average sizes – if you do not fall into ‘standard’ size based on your height:  petite (less than 5 ft. 3 inch), regular (5 ft. 4 inch to 5 ft. 7 inch) and tall (5 ft. 8 inch onwards), – the only route open to you is bespoke or individually tailored or custom-made clothes.


I for example, avoid buying Ready-to-wear (RTW) woven tops (from international retailers) as they never fit well – I have finally figured out that my armscye (armhole) measurement is one inch smaller than standard size 16 (European 44) on my favorite British retail brand; because of this one inconsistency the whole fit goes out of whack (for example, my waistline should be at 14 inches from High point shoulder – height –  it falls at 15 inches so on and so forth – know what I mean?) – Strangely, knits (Tees, Polo’s, hoody’s) always look and fit better even though the armscye is actually the same spec as woven; (maybe it’s something to do with the shape of the armhole on the knits or the nature of the jersey fabric)…


So what do you do if you can’t find a single tailor/pattern maker to customize clothes (bought off the peg) exactly to your measurements? Or get some clothes tailored to your exact measurements?


You reinvent the wheel. You learn to sew.


My adventures in learning how to sew


Locating a working sewing machine

The first problem – acquiring a working sewing machine; I trawled the malls and departmental stores – didn’t actually manage to find a single one. Checked out the internet – yes, Singer does have outlets in obscure far flung places in Lahore and you can acquire one for about 10K but if you are beginner, there is no point in purchasing a high tech machine just yet. Also, you wouldn’t know which unit to go for until you learn to handle one. You can acquire a basic one over the television as well. (Yes, my mom bought me a unit as a present, though it feels more like a toy sewing machine than a real one in spite of the heavy advertisement on television!) However, I still prefer working on her old trusty singer. Yes, ‘learning to- sew-a-fine-seam’ is a long hard road but I have taken the first step already…now, its practice, practice, practice. I am hopeful I will get there eventually.


Locating some sewing instructions

The second problem: locating some working sewing instructions on pattern making, tailoring, Dress making, cutting and sewing. Google is the best source. Second best source, books. (I have built a small library which is slowly growing – though, technical books are pretty expensive and are not readily available.  It takes a lot of money to buy and persistence to sift through a lot of books to get there. It might make more sense to you to borrow from the library, scan or photo copy and return them than actually purchasing them. Third best source – locating an instructor; it’s taken me a while to acquire all three…unfortunately, YouTube is no longer available in Pakistan, otherwise, you might not need a live instructor; you could always download videos of individual sewing projects…though, you might be able to download a few videos of old sewing television programs. My brother helped me download a few “Sewing with Nancy” TV programs…I am slowly sifting through those episodes…


Acquiring a seam ripper and learning how to use one

I have a box full of ill-fitting clothes – that I purchased the fabric for and took to various tailors for custom fit over the years (yes, I wasn’t always overweight; my size changed with age and sedentary lifestyle, I used to be size 2 in my teens and tailored clothes always used to be  too loose and ill-fitting in those days too! Though, I have given away clothes from that era, I kept good fabrics from year 2000 onwards – my journey from size 12 to size 16!), sitting in the back of my closet that I never threw out or gave away because of too much emotional investment-so I had collected them in a box couple of years ago and titled this box – sewing projects. Currently, I am recycling this collection and learning how-to-sew at the same time.


Learning how to rip seams cleanly and efficiently takes a lot of patience; I am getting quite good at that. My sewing instructor is pretty impressed. He hates ripping out seams and hands over items that need to be redone over to me to rip out cleanly. He thinks teaching an educated person his skills is much more fun than teaching a totally illiterate student. He also likes my organizational skills (especially the way I keep my workspace neat and organized with everything in its place).


There is nothing much you can do regarding needle holes but what the heck, it’s considered green to refurbish, recycle and make over; not to mention, thrifty.


I have started with easy to do 3 panels Waistcoat as my first sewing project and I am proud to say I am steadily improving – the first project I rescued an old check print Kurti, (inner facing caused me a lot of headaches though), second project I recycled an old denim jean and check shirt and got it professionally finished (only, my instructor added too thick fusing between the lining and surface making it too bulky for summer, however, I learnt how to line a waistcoat from him), third project I saved an old Gap shirt (though, I am not entirely happy with this one, I might add a few darts to add more shape), fourth project I remade the waistcoat from an old discarded shalwar, fifth project I rescued my sister’s discarded BRODERIE ANGLAISE (chicken Kari) Kameez… today, my sister asked me, “why don’t you also learn to do other projects like long sleeve jackets and Shalwar Kameez as well?” which, I plan to do, though, only when I have perfected my hand with this particular project. It doesn’t take as much fabric to do and you can always recycle your old stuff while you learn…


Creating a sewing room

I have set up shop in the corner of my upstairs home office cum living room. It’s make-shift but efficient; there are lots of sewing tools required if you go by the book; my sewing corner consists of basics: sewing machine, iron, scissors, seam ripper, tracing chalk, old newspapers to create paper patterns, sewing threads, needles for hand sewing,  a big plastic basket to keep my current sewing projects in, old jars containing buttons, laces, a flat surface to serve as cutting table and of course, the box full of old clothes/fabrics that I am slowly making over…



girl in a vest

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Fareeha Qayoom
Fareeha Qayoom
Publisher and editor-in-chief of and former print editions of The Knit-Xtyle Fashion Review (tkfr), a trade newsletter for the textile and apparel industry of Pakistan. In short, Publisher, editor, and a blogger. In addition, she has served as Managing Editor of MIT Technology Review Pakistan, print and web editions (2015-16). Total of 7 editions were published under her leadership by ITU, Punjab's first public technology university under the license of MIT Technology Review (USA). She has also managed Value Mag in the same capacity, a real estate and lifestyle magazine for Value TV - 2008-9. Published freelancer for The News on Sunday 1994-96. Fareeha has over 21 years of solid management experience – of managing brands (like Harley Davidson, Munsingwear, Chaps, Chaps Ralph Lauren etc.,), Retailers (like Target, Mervyns, Kohl's, Marks and Spencer etc.,), customers (VPs, Product Managers, Unit Managers, and Buyers), and products (apparel - woven, knits, men's, women's, children's, Print and online publishing units), projects, teams, and processes, information, content, and data, staff, vendors, and time. Versatile and adaptable with international exposure, communication and language skills (oral and written), and a consistent track record of achieving company targets and objectives, plus a MA in Political Science from Punjab University, a MSc in Economics from La Salle University, Louisiana, USA, and a BA in Economics from Kinnaird College for Women.


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