Long-Overdue Q&A with Sarai Mitnick!

by Erin on January 16, 2012

I know you all know Sarai Mitnick, of Colette Patterns … her new book (The Colette Sewing Handbook) has been out for a while (go check it out, if you didn't already get it for Christmas) and it is fantastic. I learned three new great ideas (including keeping a "someday" notebook for imagined projects) just from flipping through it, and it really rewards sitting down with it and a stack of sticky notes to mark things you want to try. :-)

My favorite thing about Sarai's book is her emphasis on sewing as an experience, rather than just as a slower method of acquiring new clothes. I have a hard time explaining why I sew to people if I don't start with saying that I enjoy the process as much as the outcome. (If I became fabulously wealthy overnight, for instance, I would probably sew MORE, not less.)

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Sarai graciously agreed (quite some time ago) to do a Q&A for me, and finally, here it is!

Q. What do you usually suggest as a first project for people learning to sew?

A. I think it's important to choose something that you have a good chance of (1) successfully finishing and (2) actually wanting to wear.

For those reasons, it's a good idea to start with simple, tailored shapes. That means nothing too flowy, no weird lines or corners, just a straightforward design without too many pieces. Patterns with fewer pieces are just faster to sew, and it's nice for a beginner to have that gratification sooner rather than risk frustration with long sewing marathons.

Skirts are a really excellent place to start when it comes to garment sewing, since they don't usually require as much fitting as something with a bodice. The bust and shoulders are usually the area that can be most challenging to get a good fit on, but with a skirt you just have to worry about the waist and maybe the hips, depending on the shape you choose.

As for making something you'll actually want to wear, a lot of classes start with the wrap skirt, which is easy to sew but isn't something that would really fit in my wardrobe, personally. But there are plenty of other really easy skirt shapes that would. I'd say to choose one of those, then pick a really cute or pretty fabric to make it in.

I'd also advise not to fear the zipper! So many people get hung up on zippers, and yeah, they can be fiddly and annoying sometimes. But most clothing does need a closure of some kind, and the more you practice with them the better you get. Look up tutorials, learn different ways of doing it, practice, make friends with your seam ripper, and go forth fearlessly!

Q. I love your approach to wardrobe planning (although I'm more of an impulse-sewer myself). Do you personally start with fabric, or colors, or shapes, or does your inspiration vary?

A. It does vary, but I think I'm pretty color oriented. We do these seasonal "palette challenges" over on my blog, where everyone comes up with their own color palette for the season and sews a little mini-wardrobe based on that palette. That's really helped me get creative with my sewing in the last year. But it all sort of fits together, because sometimes my palette comes from fabrics I own (or want to own).

Erin, even though you're an impulse sewer, one of the things I love about your sewing projects is that you'll often take a pattern and make it in several different fabrics. I do the same thing, when I find a style I love and that works, I stick with it. That's a great way to minimize frustration. I really love making the same dress in different fabrics, and trying out different techniques or details on each one.

Q. What was the hardest thing for you to learn about patternmaking? What do you like best about it?

A. Grading was pretty tricky at first. That is, learning how to create different sizes from a single size. I am the rare person who actually really likes doing math, but wrapping my head around the calculations and finding ways to keep them all straight was definitely a challenge at first. I'd made plenty of patterns before, but it wasn't until I decided to start Colette Patterns that I actually had to learn how to make different sizes! Fortunately, grading is pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it.

The thing I like best about patternmaking is seeing the clothes come to life. It's really amazing to see something go from a sketch on paper to a 3D, real life garment. It never ceases to amaze me.

Q. Can you give us any sneak previews of upcoming patterns? e.g. are you working on a ball gown? A jumpsuit? A pair of Katherine-Hepburn pants? :-)

A. Right now, we're working on a few new designs for spring/summer: two sundresses and a pair of shorts. One of the sundresses we've codenamed Sophia Loren because it just reminds me of something she would have worn in the early 60s. Probably in white and paired with big sunglasses. The other dress has a really cool shape and is going to work splendidly with border prints and eyelets, which I think is pretty exciting.
One last thing — my favorite tip from Sarai's book, on creating a "match point". I've never seen it explained as clearly before (or maybe I wasn't paying enough attention, always possible): 
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