Sewing new beginnings

West Tisbury library opens up a whole new set of options with its sewing classes.


On a sunny day in March, the program room of the West Tisbury library was humming — with the sound of sewing machines. The idea of providing workshops to teach the basics of using a sewing machine came to MaryAnn Dolezhar as a result of her participation in Jen Burkin’s acrylics painting class, sponsored by the library. “I love taking that class, and I thought, ‘What can I do?’” she says. “I had noticed on the Islanders Talk Facebook page that quite a few people wanted to know if anyone taught sewing on the Island. This is something I know about, and I wanted to do this for the library.” Program director Olivia Gately was enthusiastic, and soon the workshop was full.

Reuse, repair, create

It seems like home sewing may be making a comeback against the headwinds of the easy availability of masses of cheap imported clothing and the modern throw-away mentality. Now the cultural weathervane is turning toward a new ethos of upcycling, recycling, repairing, and repurposing. But confidence in using a sewing machine is not just to be able to patch things and make potholders or sew those old blue jeans down in New Orleans. The desire to make beautiful things to suit one’s own taste never dies. As one class participant said, “You see a beautiful fabric, and you just want to make something out of it.”

But home ec. class is far in the past (memorably taught by Rosalie Powell, when I was a tadpole in the Tisbury School), and quite a few people own a sewing machine, but don’t know how to use it, or have given up in frustration at tangled and broken threads and other mechanical tantrums. Workshop participant Elizabeth Whelan, a quilter as well as painter, “would end up just piecing a quilt by hand rather than worry about whether the machine would cooperate.” Another participant hadn’t touched her sewing machine for years because “the tension was a mess.”

MaryAnn is eminently qualified to help reawaken pleasure in sewing. An expert seamstress, she is also an experienced teacher who enjoyed a 35-year career in the Taunton High School teaching “family and consumer science” — a.k.a. home economics. She designed her own curricula, and also taught curriculum design to older students who worked with younger students. Not surprisingly, her workshop sessions were clearly structured, with specific learning goals, including the basics of how a modern sewing machine works; the three types of textiles and their characteristics and uses; and skills such as using different types of stitches and guiding fabric along the sewing-machine bed.

One handout showed the basic parts of a sewing machine so everyone was speaking the same language such as a “feed dog,” “throat plate,” and “faceplate”; the second handout contained patterns for practice stitching; the third was a pattern for an actual sewing project — a small (about 8 by 5 by 2 inches) but commodious, sturdy zippered pouch.

MaryAnn started by assessing participants’ level of knowledge — about fabrics, sewing machines, and the tools of the trade. An object that looked like a shrimp deveiner turned out to be a seam ripper. Emery powder, to gently sharpen sewing needles, is the substance inside the “strawberry” hanging from a “tomato” pincushion. The three textile types are woven, knit, and felt. Everyone learned something new.

Small, but properly made

Materials to be brought the following week for the purse project were at least ¼ yard of two woven fabrics, for the purse’s exterior and liner, and a zipper (“Make sure the zipper works”). MaryAnn supplied the interfacing, so that the purse holds its shape, in this case a fusible type, which is ironed to the wrong side of the material. This was a well-chosen project to teach how to line an item, use interfacing, and install a zipper. It also involved thinking things through and visualizing the final artifact so that nothing ended up inside out or attached to the wrong edge.

Participants used their own machines, and were asked to bring the machine’s manual with them. One aspect of the workshop was new to MaryAnn: “When I taught in school, the machines were all the same, and I expected that they would all be working. This has been a learning experience for me, dealing with all these different machines that people have.” There was quite a lot of successful troubleshooting, for instance, to get bobbins properly wound and seated, prevent tangles by threading the needle in the right direction, and problem-solving a missing manual. Solution: Order a replacement from

Historical detour: The Sewing Machine War

The Singer home sewing machine was to the textile industry what Henry Ford’s Model T was to personal transportation: a complex machine engineered and manufactured for everyday use by everyperson. Hand-sewing was an arduous task that took up a huge portion of women’s time, and some men’s trades required brute-strength sewing. Attempts to mechanize sewing started in the 18th century, with various ideas to produce a reliable stitching mechanism. First efforts were geared toward facilitating the sewing of leather and sails. Eventually, figuring out how to use two threads to create a series of loops — the lockstitch — became the holy grail of inventors, but the road to a well-functioning lockstitch machine was rocky, strewn with competing patents. A frenetic patent and litigation landscape led to the Sewing Machine War of the 1850s. Destined to play the Henry Ford role for sewing machines was the eccentric engineer, actor, and businessman Isaac Merritt Singer, who prevailed in the legal jousting and combined a number of patents and his own innovations to create, and creatively market, the first easy-to-use home sewing machine in the early 1860s.

A decent basic sewing machine is a good investment. MaryAnn advises that a solid machine that does straight, zigzag, and blind hem stitching is all that most people need. Today a new electronic machine can be purchased for under $200. A classic mid-century mechanical sewing machine, with all metal parts, may cost as much as a new machine but, properly maintained, may last longer — up to 100 years.

More workshops may be on the horizon. Stay tuned!