Book Review: Super Stitches Sewing

super stitches sewing book cover

When you’ve been sewing for as long as I have (30 years!), it can be hard to discover the gaps in your own knowledge. You have your own routes to the places you need to go, and time doesn’t always (or even usually) permit the kind of aimless wandering that leads you to new discoveries.

So when I was offered a review copy of Super Stitches Sewing (subtitled: A complete guide to machine-sewing and hand-stitching techniques), my thought was that it would be a great entry-level book to suggest to people just getting into sewing.

I wasn’t really wrong … I was just thinking too small. Super Stitches Sewing is a great book for people just getting into sewing, but it also revealed to me a huge blind spot of my own: turns out, I have been ignoring about 70% of what my sewing machine is capable of.

When I first started sewing, I used a machine that had a straight stitch and a zig-zag, and a buttonhole stitch that could charitably be described as “cantankerous”. My second machine was at about the same level of sophistication (albeit with a buttonhole stitch that could be described as “temperamental”). My third machine was a 1950s throwback (with cams that, while cool, I never really bothered to learn to use). So when I moved up to a brand-new machine that added a blind hem stitch to my repertoire, I patted myself on the back for joining the modern age. “Whoo-hoo, now we’re cooking with gas!” I believe I said.

As it turns, out there is SO much more I could be doing with the stitches on my machine (even leaving aside the alphabet-embroidery stuff that I’ve used exactly once). Machine darning! Sewing on buttons by machine! Shell stitching for scalloped piping! And pages and pages of stitches that might just be the key to me finally starting to sew with knits.

And I haven’t even mentioned the hand-sewing section yet … which even includes pad-stitching instructions for those of you interested in classic tailoring techniques.

So: in short, Super Stitches Sewing is a great book, highly recommended. Even if you’re a machine maestro, the simple instructions and clear illustrations make this worth keeping on hand as reference.

Book Review: The Lost Art of Dress, by Linda Przybyszewski

The Lost Art of Dress


So Basic Books sent me The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish months ago, and I read it immediately and thought it was awesome. And now it’s actually out in the world where you can read it, so I figured: review time!

The Lost Art of Dress is a history of (and paean to) the women who invented the field of home economics, and who taught hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of women how to dress beautifully, healthfully, economically, and practically during most of the twentieth century, only falling out of favor during the youthquake movement of the 1960s. Przybyszewski calls them the “Dress Doctors” and outlines how they used principles from art to guide women’s dress choices.

It’s a fascinating read, and whether or not you agree with the premise of the book (that women today are largely not stylish because they have abandoned these classic principles of color harmony, symmetry, and graceful line) it’s certain that you’ll enjoy the vast amount of largely forgotten and entirely charming advice the Dress Doctors gave their “patients.” For instance, women were advised that, when traveling, they should remain efficient and anonymous by choosing “no emotional colors, no revelatory designs, or fabrics, no temperamental hats or shoes.”

The most satisfying theme threaded through The Lost Art of Dress has got to be its debunking of the modern cult of youth fashion. Given that designers were only recently shamed into not letting children under sixteen walk their runways, it can be astonishing to remember that, pre-1960, all the good clothes were intended for mature audiences only. “The French say that all perfectly dressed women are over forty,” reported Women’s Home Companion in 1937. “That is because they know that a smart appearance is the result of study and experience.” Przybyszewski may hammer this point a little too hard for anyone under 30, but those of us past that don’t-trust-anyone-over age will nod and grimace by turns as we read advice on how to wear crepey textures in order to flatter crepey skin.

Przybyszewski does not shy away from strong statements, whether quotes from the Dress Doctors (who pointed out that if you wear fancy clothes for mundane errands, it’s likely those who see you will assume you have “no other place to wear fine clothes”) or her own observations that “the only creature that should be wearing bright yellow-green is a small poisonous tree frog living in the Amazon” and that “if you cannot walk more than a block in your shoes, they are not shoes; they are pretty sculptures that you happen to have attached to your feet.”

If you love the styles of the first half of the last century and wonder why they were so lovely (and why so many modern clothes are not), you should read this book. If you are interested in the history of popular fashion as worn by ordinary people, you should read this book. And if you’re interested in some practical dress advice from the good Doctors, you’ll find that here, too.

Highly recommended!

First Review!

The first review of The Secret Lives of Dresses has shown up in my feed reader … from Sarah at the blog Domestic Sluttery:

As the author of A Dress A Day, Erin McKean conjures up the most beautiful descriptions of clothes, including a cherry pie print blouse that sent me straight to eBay. In Mimi's shop, Dora discovers that each item comes with a story, and these were absolutely beautiful. The dress that is only for dancing, the dress that is for a very particular meeting…

Although certain elements of the plot were a little predictable for me, The Secret Lives of Dresses is a heart-warming and lovely book that would make a great Christmas present for any vintage lover.

Thanks Sarah! Of course, the book isn't out until February, but I assume they still have book tokens in the UK, right? (I used to love reading about book tokens in children's books. And speaking of children's books, the cover image at that post is for the UK edition — doesn't it look very Noel Streatfeild? I am so lucky in my book covers …)

Book Review: 1,000 Clever Sewing Shortcuts and Tips


Deepika (disclosure: advertises on this blog) sent me a copy of the new PatternReview book, 1,000 Clever Sewing Shortcuts and Tips: Top-Rated Favorites from Sewing Fans and Master Teachers, and boy, am I happy to have it.

I love books of tips because they reinforce two of my prized assumptions: first, that no one is ever so much of an expert that they can't LEARN SOMETHING NEW, and second, that bite-sized pieces of information are always more fun than long tracts.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a sucker for huge, project-based books (I think I still have a copy of a book called 'Make Your Own Mission Furniture' around here somewhere) but in my current reality, it's as much as I can manage to learn that (for instance) you can fold the fabric in the seam allowance perpendicular to the stitching line and clip notches OUTWARD, letting you have nice neat notches in curves without the risk of cutting into the stitching! (Which I do with regularity.) 

Some of the other tips I will be using:

  • make cardboard templates to make spacing guides — I really need one of these for pockets, so I remember that the best spacing for a pocket opening for me is about 5 inches … 
  • use fusible interfacing instead of tape to shorten or lengthen pattern pieces (genius!)
  • take apart a jeweled stretch bracelet for gorgeous sew-on decorations — they already have holes!
  • buttons too shiny? Sand 'em down with fine-grit sandpaper or an emery board.

I really like that this book is organized by category — makes it easier to find tips that apply just to the difficult project you're currently tearing your hair out over. And part of this book's charm is that some of the tips are really cautionary tales, of the "don't let this happen to you" variety — who doesn't identify with a good story about a heinous mistake? 

I also recommend reading it with a bunch of little sticky notes, so that you can mark the pages of the tips you want to try for yourself! 

Book Review: Martha Stewart's Encyclopedia of Sewing and Fabric Crafts


It's taken me forever to get around to reviewing Martha Stewart's Encyclopedia of Sewing and Fabric Crafts … but it's basically everything you expect from a Martha/Potter Craft book. Beautiful photographs taken someplace where the light always says "It's a summer Sunday afternoon"? Check. Meticulously detailed instructions which somehow manage not to imply that, left to your own devices, you'd stab yourself in the eye with the safety scissors and eat all the paste? Check. The firm conviction that the single most compelling thing you'd like to do today, more than anything else, is sew ribbon onto a bathmat? Check and double-check.

The clothing in the book falls under the heading "One Size Fits All," but not in a terrible way. There's a truly gorgeous and avant-garde scalloped suede skirt pattern that I drooled over, and the obligatory chiton dress, but the cutest thing is a little girl's dress made from a man's shirt. If I had a little girl handy I would make, like, five hundred of them. There wouldn't be a man's shirt left in any thrift store within a ten-mile radius.

I am definitely going to hold on to this book (they sent me a review copy, full disclosure). It's just sooo gorgeous, and, like everything else that comes from Martha Stewart OmniEverything, it is a perfect book to flip through when you want some kind of extra oomph for a project, but you're not sure exactly what. Plus, there's a CD of patterns for the appliqués and so forth, so that the next time I think "ooh, what this needs now is a felted stuffed chicken!" I will have one to hand.

This would make an excellent present, even for experienced sewists, simply because of the high production values. There's nothing like looking at pictures of gorgeous projects (even if they're as huh-inducing as sewing your own coasters) to inspire you to get going and make your own stuff.