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Sue Thomas

Sewist Spotlight: Meet Sue

How long have you been sewing?

When I got to high school, I had a really, really outstanding home economics teacher who really taught construction. And I think that is the key to all of it that you could learn. I still put in this zipper exactly like she said. If you were making a pleated skirt and you had to put the pleats in, best thing you do is start with a measuring tape and your make your pleats and pin it on to the tapes. I remember my graduation dress, which was this lace dress underlined. And you know, she was just outstanding but really emphasized construction. But as far as I know, I didn’t make my own clothes. When I went on to college, my degree was in clothing, textiles, and merchandising. I wanted to be a buyer for Neiman Marcus but they showed you how to sew clothes as well.  We had draping classes, tailoring classes and just regular sewing. We did a lot of illustrations and textiles. When I started having a family, I sewed a lot for my boys in the sixties. I had four boys and they didn’t have really cute clothes for little boys. I did a lot of sewing for my boy’s little jeans, and coats.

How did you learn to sew?

My mother was a sew-er. I don’t really remember if I learned from her. I remember we had a treadle sewing machine and my mother could make anything.  She grew up down in the country and what she learned to sew with were feed sacks. Some of those Calicos were really nice. I think she had to sew probably everything. I don’t know if my grandmother sewed or not. I remember her sewing on this treadle machine and it was one of those where the case opened up and it had a little bobbin I would play on the floor, and I was probably more interested in the button box. That way she could keep an eye on my brother because there were scissors around.

What was the first thing you remember sewing?

I can remember cutting circles and cutting a hole in the middle and made a skirt. I pulled it over the dolls head or stuck her feet in it. I do remember when I was making doll clothes, I used feed sacks.  In the country, they saved feed sacks for my mother not thinking she could buy stuff in the city. As far as I know, I never made clothes. My mother made draperies; she made all kinds of stuff. And then my godmother got a portable electric sewing machine and the world opened up. I remember having to take home-economics in junior high and I’m thinking it was required. I had to make a skirt. If you remember the fabric cord, it was a neat fabric. I think we had to make a straight skirt, probably with a zipper, a waistband and a pleat. And then a blouse that had a Peter Pan collar set with sleeves and buttonholes and the whole bit. I know the fabric came from Goldie’s. If you grew up in St. Louis, that’s where they carried fabric.  It was white with some kind of dot in it. I hated everything about it. I don’t know if I didn’t like the teacher or what. The only thing I can remember about it is we finished it. I took it home, cut the buttons off of it and put the thing in the rec room. Then when I got in high school, I had a fabulous teacher. I made slacks, and several coats.

What do you like to sew?

I made my own draperies and slip covers, I liked doing things for myself. I would do different kinds of stuff. I had a friend that had a piece of needle point and she asked if I could make a purse out of it. I went into a needle point shop to ask about a frame and they asked me to come to work for them. All kinds of designers would come in asking if I could make stuff, and I would say I don’t know, there is no patterns for anything. I just figured it out. We did rugs and people would do panels and we had to figure out how to put them together. We had a system where we washed everything and blocked the needle point, it has to be square. And then we figured out how to sew these pieces together to match. A designer asked me to make an Ice Skate, and I figured out how to put a leather toe on it, like the Hans Brinker one. Those were fun. I have to say that construction is what I really like, I’m fascinated by the way things were made. It was a lot of fun to do that. But you know, when you do it all the time, you get burned out and it’s not fun anymore. I think I did it for 20 odd years.

What is your least favorite thing to do involving sewing?

I would do alterations for me, but I wouldn’t do them for someone else. I really like making clothes for an American girl doll. You see, we didn’t have dolls in my house.  I had boys, hockey players, baseball players and boy stuff. Karen got me started on American girl doll clothes and that was really fun. I really enjoyed making those little outfits and the construction to make them, it’s like grown up, just miniature. Those duffle bags were not hard to make once you figured them out, I enjoyed making those. I really don’t dislike anything.

Any particular type of fabric you like to use.

All fabrics are interesting.

What kind of sewing machine do you have?  Any other machines like serger, etc.

I have – a lot! When we lived in Milwaukee, I could buy any machine from the Singer company at 33% off, because I was still teaching. I bought a Singer Touch & Sew. When you threaded it, the bobbin was threaded through the needle. It would sew everything, it would sew canvas, even a tent. I have a Featherweight and the table that goes with it and all of the attachments. I have a Baby Lock embroidery, and a 2ndBaby Lock embroidery machine. We went to a sewing thing in Indianapolis and I took a chance and won a Pfaff. I have a Serger also.

What do you make that you are most proud of?

I made drapes that I like, I slipcovered my sofa once and I quilted it. I love making things for my kids when they were little. The yellow ring for the doll was fun. The most fun we had was when we entered the Salvation Army fashion show and we had to make something out of trash bags.  Could you make a dress out of a plastic bag that could be worn? Yes!  They gave us a model, a reporter for some paper, she was just charming. We made a black plastic cocktail dress and put circles of other bright colored plastic, anything we could get on this dress. We put in a zipper and it fit her so well. She wanted to keep it, and she wore it to parties. We learned how to sew on plastic bags, we did a bridal dress and a yellow rain coat. We found boots and put yellow polka dots on them. We had an awful lot of fun, that was the fun stuff!

How long have you been a Guild member? Why did you join the Guild?

I don’t know, a long time, I think. I joined the Guild strictly for friends.

Biggest change in sewing over the years?

Fabrics, sewing machines, construction. Different fabric for fabrics were very different back then. They were linen, wool, silk, and nylon. I think rayon came before nylon, probably and some of that came out of the industry, but I really liked textiles. I thought that was very interesting. It was a whole different program than what it is today. Patterns today are not very good as far as explaining. And if you don't have the basics in construction, you don't have the slightest idea what they're telling you to do. How to read a pattern, that was one of the things. They explained everything, they don’t tell you what to do, they just assume you know. You learned back then, do you remember buying fabric and it wasn't square. And you pull it on, on diagonals until you got it square. Right. Because you had to start with straight of grain. And if it's straight of grain, it can go this way or this way bias if you want, you would stand there and you'd pull it out and stretch it. We have so many fabrics today that you can't do that with. The knits you can't do that. Sewing has totally changed, but I do believe they need to go back to teaching the basics. I think construction is the main thing that you really have to do because if you know it, you can do anything.

Best sewing tip for us?

Learn construction.

What sewing groups do you belong to; neighborhood or online?

City Sew-er’s, South City Chain Stitchers, Embroidery Club, the Guild

Is there anything about you that you would like us to know?

After graduation, I got married and ended up in Milwaukee teaching English, Reading and Social Studies. They asked if I could teach adult education classes. I taught a couple of classes for clothing construction, but then they would do special events. I got to do all of that. We did a program on how to wrap packages, Christmas packages and wrapping paper. They gave me a credit card and let me go buy whatever I wanted. Oh, that was the most gorgeous Hallmark ribbons you ever saw in your life, it was kind of fun. Things were different back then. If its enjoyable to you, you have to take a chance and do it. If you rip it out, then you have another chance to redo it. I think it should be a requirement for boys to know how to sew on buttons. If you have to do it, instead of wanting to do it, it’s tedious.

Sue Thomas
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