why I sew // KCW

why I sew: Shelley

Hi everyone, it’s Shelley from Bartacks and Singletrack back again to talk about me this time, and see if I can answer the question: Why I Sew

Let’s imagine we’re all on a deserted tropical island (humour me here, it’s winter down-under and I need to dream). What are you all doing? Not much? Lying on the beach? watching the waves? idling in the sun?….

Well, I’d be doing something. I’d like to think I’d have the engineering smarts to be building the raft that could rescue us all, or that I’d be catching a fish for our dinner, but more likely I’d be amusing myself making a fancy dress costume out of things I find lying around.


Prior to having kids my thing to do was race mountain bikes. Before that it was travel, learning languages, university study, riding horses… The activity has varied but my commitment to whatever I was doing at the time has never wavered. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. That may not always be very good compared to others (my mountain bike racing career was a case in point!) but I get real satisfaction out of trying to improve.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not a restless person. I can be physically still and very much at ease, but I’ll probably be thinking, or planning, or talking. When I found myself somewhat housebound as my heavily pregnant belly limited my range on the bike, I took to making stuff.

early projects

1. Wombat playmat (1st ever sewing project)    2. Quilting a change mat     3. Play gym made from hula hoops and fleece

I bought a basic sewing machine and made a few things for my soon to be born baby. It never occurred to me to seek instruction or tuition, or even to see if there was a pattern for what I was wanting to do. I just experimented. One of the things I love about taking on a new hobby is that “honeymoon period” when your confidence is way ahead of your skill or ability.

While I hadn’t sewed before, it didn’t feel like completely new territory as there’s quite a few parallels between sewing and my professional career as a veterinary surgeon

Thanks to my surgical training, I found most sewing skills relatively easy to pick up. When I realised that a slipstitch is just the same as how I do intradermal sutures on a cat spey, or that a thread chain is just a series of hand ties, I felt more and more confident that this sewing caper was something I could possibly master.

surgery sewing

Most of all, I relished the freedom to practice those skills in a field with a lot less restrictions. You see, a sewing project can be set aside if it’s getting too complicated, if you’re bored with it, if you’re hungry, if you need a toilet break. In fact, a sewing project will wait quietly on a shelf for months on end and you can return to it when you choose to. Unfinished objects, or UFOs in sewing speak, simply cannot exist in the surgical world!

And, should it all go horribly, disastrously wrong, a sewing project can be quietly popped into the rubbish bin and no explanations are needed. Perhaps if you’d justified the expense of some really fancy fabric by telling your partner how awesome the thing you were making was going to be, perhaps then you might secretly pop the failed garment into the outside bin rather than the kitchen bin. But that’s about as serious as it can ever get, and I find the freedom to fail enormously liberating!

With the invincible feeling that you get from knowing that the price of failure is negligible, I started to sew clothes for my little boy.

early garments

1. Burda 9792 shirt    2. Make It Perfect Little Explorer overalls     3. Burda 9793 Jeans

Shortly after I started struggling with sewing kid’s clothes I discovered Oliver + S patterns, then I had a baby girl to sew for as well, and from that moment on I became almost unstoppable. As I learned more, my confidence grew and I continued to delight in the devil-may-care attitude that I can use when approaching a sewing project.

Speaking of which… You know, my sewing machine is perhaps one of the only appliances I own that did NOT come with a warning not to operate it while consuming alcohol. That may not be the case for everyone, as I’m sure in more litigious, risk averse countries such warnings are making their way into sewing machine instructions. But at my house, if I want to try and pattern match plaid with a glass of red in one hand, then darn it, I will. (And I maintain it’s a sure fire way to make stripes match, or at least not to care when they don’t…)

evel knievel

Evel Knievel costume

I’ve never been much of an artist in terms of having a creative vision, but I’m not bad as a copyist (I think that is an almost exact quote from my year 10 art report). Sewing allows me to copy something that takes my fancy, whether it’s what you just posted on Flickr, a costume or haute couture.

The challenge in recreating a garment using the patterns that I have to hand, my limited ability to “mash” patterns, and the materials I can source locally, is something I delight in. In doing this I can combine some painting, handsewing, or other techniques to achieve the look I want. Pitching all these artistic endeavours into one project is immensely satisfying.

Elle and Audrey

Kill Bill Vol 1 – A Moschino 2001 knock off

However, like anyone who sews for their kids, my creations are bound to sometimes get rejected. A painstakingly made dress or shirt that never gets worn would seem a waste, but a ridiculously time consuming beaded sweater? Nope, that was my project and I don’t care a jot if it doesn’t get worn.

By getting carried away with the idea, the technique and the attention to detail I can make the project something that I enjoy. From the imagining right through to the last stitch I’m in it for the journey, and the skills learned along the way, as much as the end result.

pixcell red deer

KCW Summer 2014: Beaded pullover

But since I do like a challenge, I also set myself the goal of making all of my kids’ everyday clothes (with the exception of socks and undies). That meant getting comfortable with sewing knit fabric, and perhaps even consulting with the kids sometimes on what it is that they would actually wear.

Sewing for kids seems to be a bit like surfing. You have to paddle really hard at the start to get yourself up to speed. Then, if you can keep your skill set just a little bit ahead of the wave of their disregard for anything dorky and mum-made, you can keep riding it forever. At least that’s how I hope it will work.

Herein lies another thing I love about sewing. I am a bit of a perpetual student. Since the day I started kindergarten I have almost always been doing some form of study. As well as my degree in veterinary science I’ve undertaken studies in fitness instruction, cocktail making and bar service, French language… It doesn’t seem to matter what the topic is so long as the instruction is good I’ll enjoy learning. It would seem there is an endless amount to learn about sewing. I doubt I would ever have learned to sew beads, cut freezer paper stencils, do reverse applique or a dozen other things, if it wasn’t for the need to jazz up a bit of garment sewing.


1. Kenzo knock off jeans     2. Darth stencilled T-shirt     3. Metallic topstitched jeans

I find lots of inspiration from sewers who post their creations on the internet, and I am forever mentally noting details that give a garment a professional look. Perhaps one reason I can’t stop sewing is the flood of ideas that come from all corners of the globe. As long as you people continue to make awesome stuff I will continue to either find suggestions in what you’ve done, or to straight out copy it.

While my early beginnings were experimental and truly “self-taught” I would say I am now taught by YOU. If you’ve ever created a pattern, put anything on the internet, or shared your tips for the perfect knit hem, or the neatest bias binding application, then you have been my teacher. Maybe not directly, but the great whirlpool of information and inspiration that we share on sites like KCW means our own modest efforts get picked up, improved upon and then circulated back to us.

recent garments

1. Apple Picking dress     2. Made for Kids Month    3. KCW: Mini Me

Perhaps what will keep me sewing, rather than drifting off to discover some new hobby, is this very community. When we feed off each other we all get so much better. I never cease to be delighted when people make comments about my sewing, but I’m especially proud of who we are when someone comments favourably on something I’ve done, which was a blatant copy of what they’d done themselves a season earlier. You don’t find generosity of spirit like that in too many other endeavours. Sewing folk rock.

Thanks to the KCW blog for having me. I’ve had such fun chatting and sewing with you all. Until next season,

Shelley xx

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  • Reply Kristi August 20, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Ha! Love your graphics, and the humor you bring to sewing Shelley! Not to mention your awesome creations. 

    So true about the super supportive online sewing community feeding each other’s interest in sewing, too!

    • Reply shelley August 20, 2014 at 7:37 pm

      Thanks Kristi. I sew to amuse myself, so amusing others is like the icing on the cake!
      I know very few people in real life who sew, so the online community is such a motivating force to keep me going.

  • Reply Renee August 20, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    You are hilarious Shelley! Love you attitude & your sewing projects 🙂

    • Reply shelley August 20, 2014 at 7:40 pm

      Thanks for the kind words Renee.

  • Reply kristin August 20, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    shelley, you’re the best!  love your blog and all you do!  that evel knievel costume is one of the greatest things ever sewn for a child, and the elle driver coat isn’t far behind.  big fan.  HUGE.

    • Reply shelley August 20, 2014 at 7:43 pm

      Ha ha. Did we just slip through a portal into some weird, reversed parallel world? I forgot to say that one of the reasons I sew is to get Kristin’s attention! 🙂 I’m the fan. HUGE-R

  • Reply Irene August 20, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    Sooooo good! You are definitely more creative than you give yourself credit for! I love everything you make–seriously. Just when I don’t think I need another Oliver + S pattern, I see something you’ve made and order just one more…

    • Reply shelley August 20, 2014 at 7:46 pm

      Thanks Irene, you’re the sweetest. It’s true though isn’t it. We sell each other on patterns and fabrics, but I even find myself eyeing the backgrounds of photos, the wall colours, the knick-knacks on the mantel piece (yours especially!)…. Now I’m thinking some ironical product placement in my blog photos could be good for a laugh. See who can spot them.

  • Reply marisa August 21, 2014 at 2:46 am

    Great post, Shelley – very entertaining and nicely illustrated!

  • Reply Wagyu Burger August 21, 2014 at 11:17 pm

    Shelley, that Kill Bill costume is THE BEST THING EVER!!! Thank you for this lovely, heartfelt post.

    • Reply shelley August 22, 2014 at 12:29 am

      Thanks Waggy (if that’s not too familiar!) The Kill Bill outfit was one that had me laughing (snorting if I’m honest) while I sewed. the best fun kind of sewing.

  • Reply Lucinda August 23, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    What a delight to see your interview here! Yay – you deserve it SO much! I have so much fun reading your posts, as your very real, tell-it-like-it-is style of writing is so conversational and helps me to feel like a friend:) Love how you explain the clear connect between your career as a surgeon and your life as a sewist – who knew those skills would pay off in so many areas? And you are far more than a copyist, as you have amazing talents in seeing potential and knowing how to translate ideas to fabric and textile. I still marvel at the bias tank you made for Lilah that had ALL diagonals matching! 
    So sweet of you to mention the sewing community so glowingly. It’s a pretty amazing thing to be part of something like that, each in our own small – or not so small – way. You are such an encourager and a gift to the sewing world!

    • Reply shelley August 25, 2014 at 7:16 pm

      Thanks Lucinda, you’re so very kind. I maintain that the bias stripe matching was down to red wine and sheer good luck, but I appreciate your lovely compliments.

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