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What on earth is a sewing sample reference library?!

Updated: Aug 21, 2022

Sewing used to be taught both at home and in school, it was seen as an important, if not essential, life skill. Up until about 50 years ago, clothes were still being sewn and mended at home, with handmade clothes only really stopping with the arrival of fast and cheap high street fashion.


The benefits of being taught to sew at home or in school are obvious, firstly you have a 'teacher' sitting right there, you can ask questions, they can guide you in real time. Secondly, you would usually see what it is you were trying to achieve, your mum may already have worked the technique on a dress she made or in class the teacher would provide a sample you can see and hold, it was crystal clear what you had to do.


In our modern world this teaching has sadly disappeared for most of us and been replaced with firstly, an overload of 'advice' online. This sewing advice comes from everywhere! People do not have to state their sewing qualifications, or even have a qualification, to feel they can give you advice. I'm in many sewing groups and there is so much incorrect and poor advice given to sewers, it's shocking! For a new sewer it's impossible to filter out the helpful and correct information. Secondly you can no longer see what it is you are trying to achieve. You may try and watch a video online, pausing to see what is happening, but that is no substitute for being able to hold and touch an example of what it is you are trying to sew. This is where your sewing sample reference library comes in.


When being taught to sew professionally, you are taught each sewing process individually, and you are given the opportunity to practice and master these processes. As part of this, you complete each process as a sewing sample, in a fabric such as calico. Calico is a cheaper, unbleached cotton, which comes in various weights and is lovely and stable for sewing, so you do not have to consider anything tricky such as stretch, or seeing your thread against a dark fabric.


You start with sewing basic seams and build up to trickier techniques such as fly zips and welt pockets. Along with the fabric practice samples you sew , you keep notes so should you be sewing a garment, for example a man's shirt, and need to refer back to how to sew a cuff placket, you would already have practiced sewing a cuff placket and have this stored in your sample reference library with your notes. So now, when you come to sew your shirt, you can finish your cuff with ease, minimal unpicking or destroying fabric! You build your sample library over time and it becomes an invaluable resource to use in your sewing projects.


As you learn the different seams and seam finishes, you can then apply this knowledge when it comes to constructing your projects, so ensuring the best finish every time. If you are working with a lightweight fabric you can refer to your folder for the seam types and seam finishes you can use, alternatively you may be working with denim and from your samples now know that a run and fell seam is lovely and strong and perfect for heavier fabrics - you will be unstoppable!


I still have some of my sewing reference samples from my degree, techniques such as gathering and shirring, tricky fly zips and welt pockets. Knowing how to sew each process widens your knowledge and gives you more confidence when you come to sew, or design, a garment. Even if it has been months since you last sewed a zip, being able to go to your folder and refer to your zip sample and any notes, reminds you of the technique you used and how to go about it. You are no longer going to avoid zips, as you will have practised them and will now be confident you can sew them into a dress, skirt, top or pair of trousers!


At the Dressmaker's Apprentice, we love this traditional, tested approach to learning to sew. If you were to take a degree in Fashion Design, or an apprenticeship in tailoring, you would be taught in this same way. Our lessons are based on sewing processes and building your own sewing sample reference library, with a reference card for each process. Uniquely we provide you with a complete sample for each process, so you can hold this in your hands and see exactly what it is you are trying to achieve. You also receive sample cards to store your practice work and build your own library. We want you to succeed in your sewing and this true and tried method will ensure this!

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