Learning to Sew: Braving the Fabric Store

Fabric Store

I find it incredibly odd and perfectly true that stores can be intimidating. An invisible barrier often exists between the newcomer and the world within, especially with stores that represent something aspirational and/or that cater to a special interest that stirs our hearts but in which we lack knowledge and expertise. For a newbie, stepping into an art store, a music store or a yarn store, for example,  is like treading on foreign soil on a hero’s quest, not knowing the lay of the land or speaking the language. It’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed.

That’s how I felt about going to a fabric store.

I’ve recently decided to open the door to sewing and my first mission was to choose a pattern and buy some fabric.  Though I spent ages searching and exploring online (the perfect beginning when something feels intimidating), I knew that at some point I had to actually go into a store! Scary! So here’s my top tip for finding the courage to cross the border into the unknown: bring an adventure buddy! I enlisted my sister Shannon, who has studied fashion and knows a thing or two about fabrics!

We decided to go to the closest store, nothing high-end or special, just the most straightforward nearby spot we could find. It ended up being that perfect level of “generally we ignore you and let you do your own thing but you can bother us when you need something.” Perfect.

First: Picking a Pattern

From the time the idea of sewing came to me, I knew I wanted a simple little tunic dress, something I’d wear with tights, something creative and comfortable, something easy to make and easy to wear. This is what I found: McCall’s Fashion Star Pattern 6553. I’m taking the pink dot on the package that says “Easy” at its word! We shall see.

Next: Choosing Fabric

With so many choices it seemed to me that one of the joys of sewing is making something tailored to your own taste (and eventually to your own body). This was strongly reinforced when I Googled people’s finished results with this particular pattern. Have a look. What a range! I especially like this one.

Immediately I was taken with how all of these people had created something that was both exactly the same and completely different. They all began with the same pattern and ended up with something unique and personal. This is one of my very favourite things about creativity – that dance of form and freedom, of function and expression, of earth and fire.

In this aspect, sewing reminded me of the theatre, something I do know and love. Different players perform the same play and it will always always be different. At its core, Hamlet will always be Hamlet, but it will also be alive with the energy, the thoughts, the creativity, the vision of a particular group of people in a particular place at a particular time. As an actor and a director, I know what it is like to ground myself first in a script, letting it guide me and also inspire my own imagination.

Maybe that would help me with sewing too: to start with finding ground in its creative constraints.

Creative Constraints

Fabric Type: One constraint in sewing is that each pattern is best made within a range of particular fabrics, mostly because of how they flow and sew.  My pattern outlined the types of fabrics I should be choosing from. If I hadn’t been with Shannon, this would have been a time to ask for help because even with the descriptions of “Double Knits, Cotton Knits, Gabardine, Suiting Fabrics” I wouldn’t have been sure what to look for. Note: Lesson Learned. On the outside of the pattern there was no indication of the width of fabric I needed in order to have room to place my pattern pieces. This resulted in me not having enough. This is another detail that would be great to confirm at the store.

Price: Another constraint when it comes to choosing fabric is price. To stay within your budget, be sure to check your pattern for how much fabric you need and then do the math as you look at your options. It was quickly clear to me that sewing wasn’t going to be about saving money.

Availability: Once I narrowed down my fabric options by type and price, I chose from what was there. I knew that this time around I wasn’t going to visit dozens of fabric stores or do massive online searches. This was my first project and I had a timeline for starting so I would be working with what was available, here and now.

Creative Freedom & Inspiration

Once the constraints were handled, it was time to have fun and get inspired! Shannon and I had a great time looking at options. The colours, the textures, the patterns – oh my! Right away I could see how a trip to the fabric store could become an artist’s date. Everywhere you looked there were fascinating design choices, colour stories and themes!

I found myself gravitating immediately and repeatedly to a gorgeous floral in dynamic contrasting tones of red and green! It was a major divergence from my favoured greys, whites and blacks and my love of monochromatic colour stories with blues, pinks and purples. I tend to live on one side of the colour wheel and this wasn’t it!

Lesson Learned Note: From years of clothes shopping, including at all sorts of vintage and secondhand shops,  I’ve learned it’s important to pay attention not only to what pleases your eye but also to what you love to wear. There are many gorgeous colours you’ll find on my painting palette that you won’t find in my closet!

Having said that, I choose the red and green. Being unattached to the result of this very first project allowed me the freedom to be playful. I’ll be pleased if this dress simply comes together. I’ll be delighted if it fits. I’ll be over the moon if I can wear it even for one filming of stART or the Behind the Scenes! And then, if I feel like I enjoyed myself, if I feel like this is something I’m interested in and that this is a dress that I’d really like, I’ll go buy some tweedy charcoal grey, something that feels right at home in my wardrobe. And maybe by then, I’ll also be feeling more at home at the fabric store.

Jamie's First Fabric


  1. Suzie Ridler says:

    What a great article Jamie and yes, fabric stores (and other store like bead stores for me) can be so intimidating! I think you did a great job and offered excellent advice for going out and getting fabric for an outfit that you are going to like and I am excited by the colours you choose!

  2. Shannon says:

    I’m so happy I could be your Adventure Buddy on the fabric store adventure. Now I so want a button that says Adventure Buddy.

    I love the analogy of patterns to plays. “Hamlet will always be Hamlet”. So true! But every Hamlet is different. I wonder what this dress will be called :)

    Sewing and knitting seem to have the not-about-saving-money in common. I think it’s one thing that over time you end up gaining more tools, supplies and skills and sometimes it can even out but ….that is probably me just trying to rationalize ;)

    You were so brave on this adventure, and just like the hero on foreign soil you solved the puzzle and left with the prize! /cheer.

    • Jamie says:

      Thank you so much, Deanna. I just love it. My eye kept going back to it and back to it so I thought, that must be for me! I’ll be sure to share how this dress turns out :)

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