Interview with Rosie Martin, author of DIY Couture

I feel very lucky that Rosie Martin, author of DIY Couture and woman with a very sensible head on her shoulders, agreed to be interviewed at Did You Make That. I strongly agree with her egalitarian approach to sewing, and hope you enjoy our little chat!

I’d love to hear what your path was to book publication! Did you approach publishers or did Laurence King approach you? How have you found the whole process?

I hadn’t thought about having the DIYcouture instructions put into print by a real publisher at all. I have always had a DIY approach to DIYcouture, following a tradition of zine magazine making, and my original plan was to print instrustions that were almost like leaflets. There was so much information to put in each though – the photos, the illustrations and the words – and I wanted to give my instructions space, so I ended up printing books.

A publisher saw an article about these and contacted me. I had a few meetings with them but for one reason or another we didn’t come to an agreement. This opened up the idea to me that publishing was a possibility and I did a lot of research on suitable London-based companies. I approached Laurence King who are a fresh, independent creative arts publisher with some beautiful books. We got on very well and they liked the idea of DIY Couture.

I love getting stuck into a nice big project so producing the book was thoroughly enjoyable hard work!

Your approach is refreshingly down-to-earth, with a ‘Let it go’ attitude. Sewists can be notoriously critical of their own work – do you have any tips for self-forgiveness and a gentler attitude?

I think everyone is critical of their own work when it comes to making things, whether it is dinner or designing a website or whatever. Traditionally, tailors and seamstresses pay a great deal of attention to detail, which is what you pay for if you buy something hand made. I suppose my approach is one of forced distance. Firstly, when you are sewing something you are looking at it close up. You can see every stitch. When you put a piece of clothing on and look in the mirror you have taken a step back, or zoomed out. You are no longer focussing on the minutae but on the workability and the general look of the garment – is the fabric nice, does it hang well, does it fit you. When you are critical of what you are doing it can be helpful to think about this physical distancey ou will gain later on. I also think temporal distance can help. If you think something didn’t work as well as you intended, just put it on a shelf and come back to it in a week. You might see it from a different perspective. If you thought you sewed a wonky line of stitching, you might no even be able to find this when you pick up your garment again.

How did you learn to sew and what influenced your direction? What made you choose your current approach of refashioning, tracing, and the genius ‘pin and string’ method?

Haha! Well I learnt to sew at school with a notoriously impatient teacher called Mrs Wilson (sorry Mrs Wilson). Sewing does not run in my family so it’s not that I grew up soaking up tips from seamstresses. I did grow up sticking boxes together to make alien costumes and cutting up tinfoil to make rivers in worlds for my lego men. So my approach has always been a DIY one rather than one based upon perfectionism. I made clothes because I wanted to wear them. I had strong ideas about what colours and shapes I wanted on my body and I was unable to find them on the high street so I built them myself. As I wanted to wear the clothes myself, I didn’t fuss too much with attention to detail as I knew if the piece was acceptable I would wear it.

I think I have a strong ant-elitist philosophy and my methods of explanation stem from my ultimate desire to help anyone make a piece of clothing they are proud of. I see being able to make clothes as akin to being able to cook. If you cannot make a simple meal, you are forced to eat out, which is more expensive and in the long run not so healthy. Buying clothes is fun, but it opens up a wider world of clothing if you can make your own. All my methods are geared up to encouraging and enabling anyone to make their own clothes.

Where do you think pattern companies go wrong in their instructions? What could be done to make life easier for Sewists?

I think traditional sewing patterns were produced in a world that for the most part doesn’t exist any more – one in which girls study home economics and are brought up using sewing patterns. For this reason these mainstream patterns make an assumption that users are familiar with sewing vernacular. This is off-putting to people new to sewing, as the patterns can look like they are written in another language and as a result seem inacessible. This is unfortunate, as they are the learning tool that people most often turn to when they first have an interest in making clothes.

I think anyone should be able to pick up a sewing pattern and understand it. Traditional sewing patterns do use line drawings to illustrate their instructions, but often these are few and far between, covering just certain elements of the full making process. It’s a shame because, for instance, Vogue is an extremely popular magazine covering developments in contemporary fashion and using cutting edge technology to do so, yet their pattern company doesn’t live up to this. Vogue have an amazing archive of brilliant clothing patterns. They don’t need to make new designs, they just need to re-work their old ones so they are accessible. I would absolutely love this job by the way Vogue!

Having said all this, sewing patterns are extremely useful once you have the confidence to use them. There are certain things the DIY Couture instructions cannot do, which sewing patterns can, like enabling you to make truly tailored pieces of clothing. Also, there are a host of contemporary, independent pattern designers that do explain their processes very well, such as Colette and Hot Patterns. These are great companies working very hard to encourage and help people to make their own clothes. The only problem is that many people looking for a sewing pattern in the UK will walk into John Lewis or a high-street fabric shop, and these places still stock the old, mainstream pattern companies – Vogue, Kwiksew and Butterik. I think these larger companies could do a lot better in the selection of patterns they present to people and start stocking some of the younger, more innovative brands.

I think a lot of Sewists reach a stage where they want to start drafting their own clothes, instead of using expensive patterns for simple makes. Do you have any tips for someone drafting something from scratch for the first time?

Well, it depends what they want to make and whether they truly need to draft a pattern. If someone wants to make something and thinks to themself “I need to draft a pattern” that sounds quite scary and possibly offputting. True pattern drafting is technical. You need to take a lot of body measurements and then draft a block using these. It can be done – there are loads of great bloggers giving advice on this and plenty of YouTube tutorials. However, simple is the key word in your question! Many pieces of clothing can be made without truly drafting a pattern. These pieces of clothing might need one or two key measurements to be taken, but nothing more. If you can work out what the crucial measurement is – e.g. the distance round your waist for a skirt – you can then take existing clothes out of your wardrobe and use these shapes as guides to plotting out your own.

I hope that helps!

It certainly does, Rosie – thank you so much. Readers, how do you find out about new patterns and exciting new pattern suppliers? I’ve noticed a real crop of fresh patterns on sewing blogs – how can new Sewists (and myself!) find out about these? Do you have a favourite new pattern?

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8 Responses to Interview with Rosie Martin, author of DIY Couture

  1. A very interesting interview. I agree that drafting patterns is daunting to a beginner, especially one who’s had a hit-and-miss experience with commercial patterns. Starting with a couple of measurements is probably the key to building up confidence with which to move onto more complex, traditional methods for those who wish to.

  2. charlottepb says:

    I must say I am super scarred of drafting my own patterns! This book looks very inspiring though.

  3. Thanks for sharing this interview. I subscribe to a couple of pattern magazines and buy others but I mainly see new patterns on other people’s blogs (the 200+ subscriptions in my reader XD). Not all of these are sewing blogs, some are diy, some are refashion-based, some focus on Japanese pattern books, some focus on drafting (German/ Japanese/ Italian/ UK-metric – never empirical because that way lies madness…).

  4. I as a novice sewist tend to go a little crosseyed just reading through the instructions of the patterns. As a result I just keep sewing other things (patterns from books, free patterns of the internet, a little copying existing clothes etc) and putting of the proper patterns for ‘later’. I also find the sizing a little off-putting. I KNOW it’s just a number and I should rise above it, but it is a struggle sometimes 🙂

  5. That sounds like a wonderful way to inspire folk who want to sew but are deterred by the apparent complexity of even simple things that don’t speak their language. I count myself fortunate to have had good teachers in my early years but there are some – many! – things I’m sure I’d still hesitate to tackle.

  6. Thanks for introducing me to Rosie! I look forward to taking a look at her book. Hope you’re enjoying your trip 🙂

  7. Tilly says:

    This is such a fantastic interview and such an inspiring read. Thank you Rosie and Karen! xx

  8. What a fun&interesting read!! Hope to see you at Rosie’s DIY Couture book launch on May 29th@Hackney Attic. Xx

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