A self-taught sewing journey at Unleash
If there’s anything you could call us, we’d prefer fashionable. Sure, there’s a whole host of other adjectives that have been used to describe us: smart, funny, hot, stunning, humble, self-aware. However, we’d like to think we give off the impression that we’re effortlessly cool, stylish people that slip into unique outfits without a second thought. As complete fashion boundary pushers (says Maddy, typing this in baggy jeans and the infamous leather blazer that NO ONE else has), we’ve maybe settled into a bit of a rut. Sure, we’re definitely worthy of a Pinterest pin on a daily basis, but we’re maybe getting a little too… comfortable? We’re bored of flicking through the racks of op shops in Tāmaki Makaurau (though we’ll certainly continue to do it regardless). After an intense, fashion-focused meeting, we decided to cross into unexplored territory—could we wander into the realm of Project Runway?
Of course, we’re being a little sarcastic (only a little). When you decide to avoid buying brand new clothes, your choices sometimes become a little limited. There’s still plenty to shop through and we love doing it, don’t get us wrong, but it’s a little tiresome flicking past the same 2015 skater skirt in every store. We want to find a bigger variety, and create more opportunities to curate a unique wardrobe with actual meaning. So, with this ethos in mind, we took the Thanos-philosophy into consideration: time to do it ourselves.
Luckily, the University has a free creative space in the Engineering building. It’s called “Unleash” and there are power tools, workbenches, sewing machines, 3D printers, laser cutters and other countless resources available. To use the space (excepting special machinery), all you need to do is go through a Canvas course and watch some cute training videos. Using the sewing machine also required a 30 minute in-person training, during which we were shown how to do some basic stitches and thread the machine properly. We sorted out curves and right-angles.
Note that we had two false starts by not realising there were a few steps to registering for Unleash space. You also have to show up on time for trainings, as the staff are quite busy!
After settling into the space, we sorted through the fabric bins to play with the off-cuts available, deciding we’d challenge ourselves to only use whatever we could source from the Unleash Space itself. Then, incredibly energised with optimism, we pulled out our notebooks and started on some shoddy sketches. Naomii started out with some ideas for a patchwork top (using all the smaller pieces of fabric), while Maddy, in a rush of blind confidence, drew a pair of wide leg pants. Our original approaches were definitely… different.
Naomii, much more bravely, leaned into the uncertainty and just got straight into pinning fabrics on the mannequin. Maddy, cautious as per, searched the archives for various sewing tips and potential patterns (much too reluctant to just pick a fabric). Though we definitely were holding tightly onto our enthusiasm, the optimism started to drain a little.
Feeling just a little bit out of our depth, Naomii suggested we talk to someone with a little more experience (just to calm our nerves a little). Karen, a more experienced tailor studying at UoA, was our phone-a-friend, providing the opinion of, you know… someone who knew what they were doing. Before giving us some very helpful direction, Karen recounted how she first became interested in sewing. “I was maybe 12 or 13. I was just really into crafts, and I would watch YouTube tutorials of people making plushies and stuff with felt. I started with following their hand-sewing tutorials, and after that my parents bought me my own sewing machine, and then I started to make clothes all based off of YouTube tutorials.”
Karen explained that YouTube, Pinterest and TikTok (or SewTok) have all been really helpful in finding new patterns and refining sewing skills. She clarified that she had never taken a formal class and learnt everything online or through her own experimentation.
Karen also highlighted the way learning to sew has changed her relationship with clothing. “When I’m wanting to do shopping, I evaluate it… can I make this myself? If I can, and it’s easy to make, then I won’t buy the item.” Similarly, she described being really careful about her approach to making her own pieces. “I try to avoid trends. I think sewing trends on TikTok are good to show me what other people are doing, but I don’t race to make that certain thing. For me, it’s a sustainability thing. I don’t want to replicate that and spend my time and effort on something I’m not going to wear or is only going to last for one season.”
When we sheepishly asked her for some advice, Karen provided some guidance for where novice tailors should start. She explained that tote bags, scrunchies, and patchwork clothing tend to be a good starting step, as the patterns tend to be a little easier. As she tells us this, we exchange a quick look. This is when we started to feel that we had, perhaps, been a little… ambitious?
Naomii continued with her haphazard construction, planning on a bodice and sleeves out of some stretchy fuschia fabric. She managed one nicely stitched sleeve, before giving up and ditching the sleeves altogether, attaching ribbon-straps to the bodice instead. The construction of this garment is not… professional, but the love that went into it can’t be replaced. In hindsight, there could definitely be improvements in construction. The eyelets weren’t thought out in advance, and could stand to gain from some reinforcing wire. The stitches went on backwards, but Naomii decided to lean into that *munted* look. Sewing mishaps included breaking a needle clean off the sewing machine, and sewing a wire guide only to take the wire out. However, the end product is a free shirt, entirely made from scrap fabrics and available materials at Unleash. That’s pretty sweet.
After talking to Karen, and cutting out a very rough-looking pattern sheet, Maddy decided to completely abandon her pant idea. Instead, after some light googling, and a more honest check in with her abilities, she decided to construct a halter top. It only required three pieces of fabric and the measurements were much more forgiving. Honestly, the construction kind of flew by and she was fully in the zone. A sweet four hours went by in the Unleash Space, and the piece was so close to being done. Unfortunately, towards the end of the day, Maddy realised she’d been using a sewing machine that had run out of bobbin thread and hadn’t *actually* sewn the left boob strap to the main bodice. While Maddy isn’t shy about her tits, she’s not quite THAT confident yet. The space unfortunately closed before Maddy could finish the top, and then… COVID. While the crop top may be lost to the Unleash Space for a few weeks, it’s pretty well constructed. On the right side.
So, what did we learn? Sewing clothes is, in fact, hard. If anyone is hungry, Unleash Space is serving humble pie. It gives you an appreciation of the clothes you already own, clothes that are made without weird loose threads, bunched fabric, and more than one boob sling. Making clothes is also a sustainable, creative (and for UoA students, free!) hobby to pick up. It requires focus, so you can distract yourself from bursting into tears over your imminent assignments. It’s also a huge lesson in perfectionism. Turns out being bad at things is good for you, actually. We learned that the hard way. Picking up a new skill is scary, and you definitely won’t be good at it straight away—that’s why Karen’s clothes look so much better than ours. But that’s part of the fun.
During her motivating chat, Karen told us, “I’d recommend sewing to anyone interested in fashion and developing their personal style.” And honestly, we’d say the same. What have you got to lose? Possibly your fingers. Keep them clear of the needle!
UoA students can register for Unleash Space at https://www.cie.auckland.ac.nz/unleash-space/maker-space/