Updated: Mar 13
Looking back now to when I started my training, I recall how daunting at times it all seemed. My excitement and love for all things tailoring helped push me forward and regained my confidence that I could succeed. When we first place that thimble on the middle finger it feels alien, unnatural and very uncomfortable. I would watch my master, Eugene, and how the thimble seemed to flow through the needle placing each stitch uniformed with the next. A needle so small it was hardly visible to the naked eye yet its presents and importance are one with the thimble. No accomplished sewer can sew without one. When present with someone who called themselves a tailor, I would often ask, “On which digit is the thimble worn?” just to watch them scramble for an answer with the usual retort being the thumb. It's a telltale sign when one is talking up their skills as a tailor of what their true knowledge of the trade actually is.
My time in the trade has taught me one undeniable fact that those who train outside of the strict rule of an apprenticeship will use every excuse they can think of to avoid using a thimble. Students of my own school are no different. The resistance I have met from my own students, I also refuse to tolerate. I once met a young English girl in New York who worked for a custom tailor. She sat behind a desk in the centre of this showroom apparently canvassing a forepart so that the patrons could see evidence that their garments were made in-house. Her sewing skills resembled those of an infant learning to walk. Hap hazard at best, when I asked her where she trained she retorted, “Savile Row” (◕▿◕✿) “SAVILE ROW?!”(╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻ I exclaimed, “but you’re not using a thimble! How could you have possibly trained on Savile Row?” She replied that her boss didn't use a thimble either. To which I remarked, “Yeah, but he isn't claiming to be Savile Row trained tailor.” She was both shocked and embarrassed to realise that her charade had been exposed by an actual Savile Row trained master tailor. Being a tailor and already quite familiar with their work, I had already surmised that the garments sold in this custom shop were made by a local factory. Everyone's style of construction is like a fingerprint, when examined closely one can be distinguished one another. These garments looked to be as if cut with a cookie cutter. The thimble is worn on the middle finger, no one can hope to master the skills of tailoring without first mastering its use. An experienced tailor cannot sew without one, it's the one tool that is always on hand (pun intended). Tailors get so attached to their thimble that a loss is felt when it finally wears through and has to be replaced.
To assist the novice in mastering the technique of the thimble, an elastic band is placed around the knuckle of the middle finger to hold the nail behind the needle. The nail is of course protected by the thimble and it's a flick forward that pushes the needle through the material. The needle is held between the index finger and thumb. The thimble is in constant contact with the needle. As it passes through the cloth, the digits release the needle and it is guided forward by the thimble.
The index and thumb of the non-dominant hand play just as important of a role as it sees the needle through the cloth and guides it out to form the stitch. The needle grazes the index finger on the bottom and passes the tip of the thumb on top. The technique changes slightly when sewing flat on the table rather than in the lap as has just been explained. The index finger controls the cloth, the needle is aimed at its tip and then resurfaces at its face.
Many novices fingertips will resemble a pin cushion as they repeatedly stab them time and time again as they learn how to properly control the needle and thimble.
Once the thimble becomes an extension of the hand all other hand sewing techniques fall into place. Basting with fullness for example comes a lot more naturally when one can use a thimble properly.
As an apprentice, I used to place the needle under a piece of cloth and then focus on a point to see how closely I could penetrate the cloth with the needle in that location. This skill comes into use when doing the D tacks at the edge of a pocket. As an apprentice learning to sew, I recall how unlike the D shape my early attempts appeared but perseverance brought slow success.
The backstitch is often hailed as the tailor's stitch, something that is often stated in old books and regurgitated by those who claim to be in the know. In reality, it’s the basting stitch that is the tailor’s stitch. Though not visible in a finished garment, it is this stitch that bings the whole garment together before the finishing stitches are added. A basting stitch can go in any which direction: backwards, forwards, diagonally, side to side… It’s not the style of the stitch from which it takes its name but the thread used to sew it. Basting cotton comes in a 50 weight and breaks easily in the hand. It is this characteristic that is the most important element. As a holding stitch, the baste is only temporary. Its soft thread is easy to remove without the risk of damaging the cloth. If we used a 36 weight (equal to that of a machine thread), when we would come to remove it, a double stitch could tear the cloth when pulled on.
The bodkin, an instrument that closely resembles a small pencil with a handle made out of bone or wood and a sharp pointed tip, is used by the tailor to remove a basting stitch. The point is placed between the basting stitch and cloth and with a swift upward thrust the stitch is whipped out. Bodkins can also be used to remove a misplaced machine stitch, though greater care is taken as this thread can easily damage the cloth.
I was never taught how to use a sewing machine when I first started in the trade. It wasn’t until I reached Savile Row and began my training under Paul Frearson’s tutelage that I finally mastered its control. It often felt like I was trying to steer a runaway train with the sew lines swinging back and forth between a 3/8”, 1/2” and 1/4” seam width. Or as the old tailors would say ‘a cow pissing in the snow’. A vulgar phrase that still managed to accurately describe my novice sew lines. Electric industrial machines today are still controlled like the treadles of old. Two feet should be placed on the pedal, the left foot is placed on the top edge of the pedal and the right foot on the bottom edge. The left foot is the accelerator and the right foot is the brake. When we want the machine to roll forward, we press the left and when we want to brake, we push down with the right. Using the machine in such a fashion resembles the driving of a car - you can’t stop a car by taking your foot off the gas. When focusing our eye on the sew line, our attention is drawn to the needle bobbing up and down. It is by watching the needle that our eyes stray from the stitch forming. Attention should be paid to the foot of the machine and the distance from the foot to the edge of the fabric. A foot’s width is typically 1/4”. Tailors use a seam width of 3/8” so the cloth that protrudes past the edge of the foot is 1/8”. That's what you need to focus on. The 1/8” which passes the foot will maintain the seam width and sew it straight.
We are all often blinded to our own inabilities. As a college lecturer teaching tailor at Parsons the New School in New York, I would ask all my students on the first day if they can sew in a straight line. The answer was always a predictable yes. So I would then set them all to task, passing out leaves of cloth and asking the students to sew both together with a consistent 3/8” seam. Out of a class of twenty, I would be lucky if one was successful. Each student would approach my board and I would place a ruler along the seam to show how much the sew line wobbled along an 8” length of cloth. No one can fix anything if they don't see a problem. I would then demonstrate the correct handling of the sewing machine and show how to keep the seam width consistent. The introduction of the electric industrial sewing machine revolutionised tailoring, even the handcraft field. However, even the most commonly found straight stitch machines still have their drawbacks. The foot of the machine pushes the cloth away from the machine and the feed dog (the teeth) pulls it in. If one were to place two pieces of cloth together they would find that though both pieces were the same length the top piece would finish long and the bottom piece short. To counteract this, the tailor holds the bottom layer and feeds in from the top. As both feet control the pedal, both hands control the fabric. A sewing machine is just a tool like a thimble - it’s the hands of the master that does all the work.
One would like to think that when you are being trained in tailoring you’d be inundated with tailoring tips for beginners. Tailoring isn’t really taught this way. Sewing tips from the experts doesn’t fall from the mouth of many masters to their apprentices. Just because one excels in their industry doesn't necessarily make them a good teacher. What gives me the confidence in teaching tailoring is the recollection of my own struggles and in the beginning how mystifying the whole trade felt. Tailoring seemed almost like magic; the bringing together of various elements that when mixed in would create a form-fitting garment. This mysticism was perpetrated by those who surrounded me in those early days because every question I posed was not met with a definitive answer.
Many tradespersons in the tailoring trade cannot vocalise their knowledge. This is not to say they don't know - just that they can’t express their abilities through words and phrases, only actions and demonstrations. This of course isn't unique to tailoring. I have met many a tradesperson who could only say let me show you as opposed to let me tell you. As a teacher, we must be able to express our knowledge through action and words, what we do and why we do it.
Often the question of why things are done a certain way is answered by this is how I was shown doesn’t satisfy the learner. If you don't why you do it that way, how can you be sure this is the way you were shown and not an evolved version of it? There is no single step in tailoring that doesn’t have an explanation. If a student has any chance of succeeding in the tailoring trade it is this knowledge of tailoring that they must also possess. The why is just as important as the how and it's this lack of clarity in the trade that brings not only novices but professionals to the door of my tailoring school.