PSA: Support Your Local Sewing Shop — and Get Away From It All

Our cat is ancient — she’ll be 20 this March. Cats, being desert creatures, are uniquely adapted to preserve their bodily fluids. The downside of this parsimonious use of water is that when their kidneys fail, they fail comprehensively and fast. If nothing else gets a cat first, her kidneys will probably be her major point of failure.

Given that Angel is so old, but mostly healthy other than her kidneys (and the fact that she’s clever and getting senile, which is a bad combination), when we heard of a stem-cell study ongoing at Colorado State University, I figured that she would be useful for science. Worst case, we would not be shortening her life; best case, we’d be improving her quality of life. If we can get stem cells working to repair feline kidneys, there’s a good chance we can do the same for human kidneys, and if that’s the case, then dialysis can go away and the need for transplants will drop.

This means that every other week, I get up at OMG It’s Early and shove the cat in her carrier, then drive an hour with her howling to be LET OUT RIGHT THE HELL NOW AND LET ME DRIVE. She spends several hours at the CSU Vet teaching hospital, and I spend those hours working. I can’t take my professional work, but I can sew, and I’m finding that I can sew better when I’m not home.

Typical sewing experience at Mama Said Sew
10:10 a.m.: Arrive, open sewing box, remove current project, scissors, pins, pencil. Turn on iron. Unpack scissors, thread machine. Queue up current audiobook or podcast.
10:15: Get to work. Sew seams, trim, iron, pin. Repeat until finished or time runs out.
Noon: check out new arrivals, pay for my time and anything I can’t live without. Pick up the cat. Drive home with cat trying to chew her way out of the carrier.

Contrast that to typical sewing time at home:
Pick up current project. Turn on iron. Email pings.
Answer email. Shake iron because it has turned itself off. Sew seam.
Shake iron because it has turned itself off. Press.
Phone rings. Check caller ID, ignore or answer.
Shake iron because it has turned itself off. Remember what comes next in garment. Pin. Email pings.
Delete email, get distracted with a Youtube video.
Shake iron because it has turned itself off. Sew seam. Press.
Take off headphones and ask husband to repeat himself. Nod vaguely about World of Warcraft politics or gameplay. Check that he didn’t have anything he actually wanted from me. Shake iron because it has turned itself off.
Remove headphones again because hubs has remembered what it was he actually wanted to ask me about. Have mental indexing fail regarding whereabouts of $MissingItem, look in three possible places and find in fourth.
Shake iron because it has turned itself off.
Figure out what came next.
Email pings.
Delete email.
Cat yowls like her lungs are being pulled out through her nostrils. Go in search of cat.
Find cat, who is sitting on bed, looking innocent. Cat notices attention from servant, mews gently and flops on side, presenting cute belly for rake attack trap. Do mental calculus that cat will not be with us much longer, pet kitty belly, get lightly gnawed on and kicked, make kitty happy for five minutes.
Thank all the drug companies there ever were that I don’t have kids, because if I did, I’d never get any seams sewn, or that iron shaken.

Yes, I could fix this by a) turning off wi-fi, b) turning off phone, c) ignoring attention-seeking behavior of cat and/or d) ignoring hubs, but those are bad precedents to be starting. I could also buy an iron without an auto-shutoff, but then I’d probably burn down the house. Truly, it’s easier to just pack my crap in a box and take it elsewhere for a few hours.

Local Sewing Shops are incredible resources — they have a curated selection of fabrics, machines, notions, and knowledge that the Big Boxes don’t. I NEVER have to worry that what I’ve bought from MSM or Elfride’s is not actually what the label says — they’ve done their research, they know their manufacturers, and they’ve done the burn tests. If Angela or Elfride says fabric is cotton, or linen, or silk, it IS.

This is not true of the Big Box that starts with J or the Big Box that starts with H. More than once, I’ve bought fabric from a bolt labeled 100% cotton, or cotton-linen blend, or wool, and gotten home and found that the fabric melts. That means synthetics — natural fibers don’t melt, blogga. It’s not the fault of the retail clerks — most are not sewists when they start working there. It’s not even the fault of the Big Box corporate buyers — they’re required by the Federal Trade Commission to state content, and they can be fined heavily if their products are other than what is labeled.

But the Big Boxes get buffaloed by their suppliers. Raw cotton has been running around .80 USD per pound, but polyester fiber runs about .04 USD per pound. An unscrupulous supplier need not and cannot substitute all of the cotton with poly, but 35-50% is hard to detect without a burn test of every bolt. That’s completely impractical when daily imports are in the tons. The chances of getting caught are so low and the potential profits so high compared to the potential fines that it’s a good way to increase income. It doesn’t even have to be dishonesty — if a supplier is weaving ten thousand tons of fabric a year, there will be mistakes. The Big Box suppliers will also make mistakes because that’s the nature of volume.

Local sewing shops also offer respite from distraction that is precious in this world. The best part of the pre-free wifi at Starbucks was having to think hard about whether I wanted to be connected. (I’ve never been a Starbucks coffee fan. I like their teas, though.) The best thing about Peet’s is still the absence of wifi, but I can’t take a sewing machine there.

Half of the reason I do almost everything on my iPad now is because it makes me focus — I can only have one application open at a time. There are ten thousand things demanding my very precious attention at any moment, and the mental spoons to curate that is demanding. A Local Sewing Shop that provides that distraction-free space is worth every cent I spend there.

Sewing tools: Thimbles

Home Economics was not a reality when I was in school. I’m pretty sure there were home ec classes in all of my schools, but I had other stuff to fill those seven classes a day. Most school years, I didn’t have time for all the stuff I wanted to do, much less classes the teenage aspiring astronaut/doctor/senator/lawyer me would ever need.

This means I’m mostly self-taught in all sorts of crafty stuff. One great-grandmother did give me a basic 9 block when I was about four (she made gorgeous quilts), and another put a ginormous crochet hook and the nastiest 1970’s era acrylic yarn in my hands (and made me wary of yarn for years) and my mother taught me the basics of running a sewing machine at some point, but I’m GenX. We really didn’t get instruction — we got instruction manuals. I’ve been RTFMing since I could read.

I never learned to use a thimble. I know what they are, and I’ve used a lot of makeshift ones over the years (a never-to-be-used credit card makes a great needle pusher; teeth can be used as needle pliers in a real pinch, but the former will ruin the card, and the latter will send a dentist’s kid to Berkeley) but I’ve never figured out how they’re supposed to work.

Some people push the needle with a fingertip, but I use the side of my middle finger, between the first and second knuckle. When I do handwork, I usually use a back-stitch or a chain stitch, not a running stitch. My stitch length won’t win awards and running stitches get bunchy on me.

For a thimble, I start with a square of leather about 3″ x 3″. I’ve used junk purses, Dritz leather elbow patches, upholstery scrap and chamois from the automotive shop. I personally like upholstery scrap, since it’s a good weight, usually cheap, and flexible. The only thing that doesn’t work well is garment suede. Garment suede will wear through in about three weeks of heavy use. The small pieces from Michael’s work fine if that’s what you’ve got, but you’re better off buying a thrift-store purse and cutting it down. Vegans, I’m sorry, but pleather does not work. The needles will puncture it. If you’re entirely opposed to using leather, I suggest figuring out how to use a metal thimble.

You’ll also need
heavy thread or two rivets (my preference for speed and not having to shove a needle through leather without a thimble)
an awl
a small hammer
something you can pound on (anvil, scrap wood, sibling skull — something thick, not easily damaged, resilient)
scissors (not the fabric scissors)
chalk or a crayon

Wrap the leather around the finger you want to protect, with one edge near the palm knuckle and the other near the nail. You want this to be tight but not cut off circulation — leather will stretch over time. Use your chalk to mark your first and second knuckles, and mark the length. You want about 1/4 to 1/2 inch (.5 to 1 cm) overlap.

Your fingers probably taper a little, so the first shape you’ll cut in the leather is a trapezoid. (Do this fitting with paper or a scrap of fabric if leather is hard to get.)


A: length of finger between first and third knuckle
B: circumference of finger at third knuckle plus 1/2 inch
C: circumference of finger at first knuckle plus 1/2 inch

Cut a couple half circles from each side of the trapezoid and one from the center — this is so your finger can bend. Don’t cut too deep, and use your chalk marks as a guide.

Now use the awl to poke holes in the corners — where the blue dots are in my drawing. If you’re sewing the thimble together, you’ll need six or eight on each tab, about 1/8 inch apart. Rivets only need one hole. Rivets are cheap (usually $3 for a pack of fifty) and they’re right next to the leather at the craft shop.

Check the fit, sew up or smash the rivets, and get to sewing. For me, that means an audiobook or some season of television.