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If you’re a foodie, you know all about the slow food movement; taking care to know not only where your food is coming from, but how it is prepared – to be more in touch with what you’re eating and the process involved. This mindset has taken hold in the world of sewing and craft as well and spawned a new generation of creators who are not only more conscientious about their consumption but are also more aware of how their creations impact the world around them.

Slow craft itself is the respect for traditional techniques and craftmanship and keeping these time honored traditions alive. It is also a movement to put thought back into what we’re making, to take our time and make it special – not churn out a project just for the sake of making something. Susan Wasinger is an artist who has taken the ideas of slow craft and upcyling and created a name for herself as a sort of authority on crafting beautiful, eye-catching projects using repurposed materials. Susan has written a number of books including her latest, Sewn by Hand, which applies these ideals to a range of easy, fun and adorable projects you can make with a few pieces of fabric and a needle and thread.

Susan took some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions and give us some insight into her creative process.

Tell us about your background and how you started sewing and crafting.

My Swiss grandmother started me sewing when I was 4 years old. I started off with a useful project, a pair of elastic waist pants. I loved that it was something I could actually wear! I’m sure if it had been a sachet or a potholder for my first project, I would never have become so enamored. I come from a long line of folks who are good with their hands. Even my father knew how to sew! He made me a little blue plaid dress when I was around 5 years old. I wore that it in my kindergarten and first grade school portraits, so I have photographic evidence of his craftiness and his love. My mother was also a good seamstress; she took on large-scale projects like curtains and valences. My grandmother could sew anything: she could tailor a blazer, make a bias cut gown or slipcover a chair. We were never afraid of hand-work…or hard work for that matter.

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Projects and materials in Susan’s workspace

Speaking of your grandmother – your bio says that she was a couture-trained seamstress. Is there any advice or tips she gave you that you rely on today?

Well, she just taught me the right way to do everything. However, whether I did it the “right way” or not was decided on a case-by-case basis. I was an American kid after all, and sometimes speed trumped quality. However, doing things well was often part of the fun. She taught me to know quality materials, rhapsodized silks and linens and wools to me. Taught me about drape and hand, and was the one with whom I shared my giddiness over beautiful fabrics. One of the most important things she taught me was to be willing to thread a needle and tie a knot. Sometimes, in our rush to finish something, we will try to cut corners and save time by threading a long thread so you don’t have to tie off and re-thread too often. My Nan had an old Swiss German saying that translated as “long thread, lazy girl”. My grandmother taught me that those long threads inevitable got tangled and wasted time, so it was a sort of false economy. That has been especially useful in my book Sewn by Hand. I rediscovered the power of threading the needle and tying the knot. As long as you are willing to do that, and not see it as a big pain, then you can sew just about anything your imagination can dream up.

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Susan’s 1950’s Singer Rocketter machine

You’re known for reusing what many people would consider trash and turning it into beautiful products – tell us a bit about what your creative process is like? How do you approach taking these discarded items and making them something new?

I have a slightly twisted love of showing people something I have made and getting to say, “yeah, that was made out of truck tire inner tubes or plastic six-pac holders!” I especially like it when they wouldn’t otherwise have recognized those humble origins because of the general beauty or utility of the actual finished piece. In Sewn by Hand, I made little felted wool evening bags that were accessorized with roses made from old metal zippers. Sounds weird, but, with the right twists, it turns into the most delectable and elegant little bag. I also “borrowed the seams” of men’s button-down shirts from the Goodwill store. I dismantled the shirts, turned pieces on their side, cut off plackets, re-used pockets, and generally re-engineered things to make a very smart little apron that has some very fine tailoring repurposed from the original shirt. That is the kind of quirky stuff that is most inspiring to me, and also the most fun.

You live outside Boulder, Colorado. How does your environment influence your work? Does the space and landscape allow you to be more creative?

I love where I live, even on those harsh days when the wind is howling 70 miles an hour and the snow has drifted half way up my doors and windows. I feel blessed to look out my studio windows and see nothing but mountain and meadow and trees and sky in all directions. So where I live grants me gratitude and humility and an abundance of natural light for working and photographing. I suppose my environment teaches me something about nature’s creativity—how relentless and transformative. How things are constantly being invented and destroyed and then something else tried. That is good for me, since we need to be ceaselessly and tenaciously creative in our lives and in our craft. Not everything works out the first time, its okay to try and to fail; the important thing is to try, try again. Mother Nature is always and forever at work on a new project.

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The view from Susan’s studio

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Susan’s studio

What have been your favorite or most rewarding projects to work on?

I do so love the recycling of things. Using and transforming something that is past its sell-by date and turning it into something fresh and modern…and useful! Love to be useful! Also love to find the contents of someone’s old sewing basket and put some of those forgotten things to work again. Ebay is so fun for that. I often buy “lots” of things that amount to the contents of some old aunty or grandmother’s sewing kit. It is like archeology. Tools and tidbit, notions of projects started decades ago. Rickrack in outlandish colors, bits of old lace, bake-lite buttons sometimes with the price tag still on. Fun to see that a whole card of buttons once cost 10 cents. I like to add these bits and pieces to projects I’m working on now; it’s like a little wink at Father Time. It’s a nod to the constancy of change, especially the wonderful way things disappear, and go into hiding, but then suddenly reappear and are all the rage. This would be a fun book to work on, projects that are made from all old stuff, scraps of old fabrics, and odd constellations of vintage notions and trims. Sort of sewing as time machine… And the bonus is, it’s 100% recycled!

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Personalized paper lanterns, one of Susan’s projects

How did the idea for your new book Sewn by Hand come about?

Well, I think I grew tired of finding myself sequestered in my studio, hunched over my sewing machine, all alone. I wanted to be able to hang out with my family and still work on projects. I found myself lingering over hems, and basting, and any of those things that just required a needle and thread, things I could work on anywhere I chose. The original idea was sort of edgy and radical was called “sewing unplugged.” But after I had done a few projects, and had truly finally really “unplugged,” the projects started becoming softer and sweeter and just the opposite of edgy. I discovered the wonderful quiet of hand sewing. I was so used to the hum and whine of my sewing machine, that I didn’t realize how lovely and full of grace it is to sit quietly and purposefully let your hands work on something pretty. It was a discovery I just had to share with others.

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The thread caddy and apron projects from Sewn by Hand

You said that creating a book of projects sewn by hand was sort of a retaliation against our machine-dominated world of computers and keyboards and programmable sewing machines. Do you think craft has suffered from the advent of these technologies? Why do you think it’s important that we continue to keep these hand-stitching traditions relevant?

Well it’s true that these days our eyes and our brains can run far ahead of our hands. We can look at thousands of things online. And find things from all over the planet. We can see how things are done. But until we actually put our hands on something, and let them get to work, we really don’t know what anything can truly be. Our hands have knowledge, and skill, and even aesthetic sensibility that our brains just plain don’t know about. Our brains want to intellectualize the making of things, and imagine that everything can be planned and then made just so. Computers are the perfect tool for the brain; they too serve that idea that things work out in certain set ways. Our hands are the tinkerers. Their tools are the needle and thread and scissors. They don’t mind meandering toward a sense of completion. The brain, and the computers would prefer to draw a straight line between point A and B. Again, I just can’t say enough about the wisdom of hands. Wisdom that is unknown and inaccessible until fingers touch fabric and take up thread. But more than anything, there is a sense of well-being in hands that are engaged. The nice thing about hand-stitching is that it is so human scaled. It proceeds at a comfortable pace, and allows our minds to wander into the land of contented musing. Tapping on a keyboard doesn’t that often feed the soul. And all that texting we do? Well, that is just making us all thumbs…

What are a few of your favorite hand-stitching techniques and why?

I love any stitches that show. Simple as that. Doesn’t matter to me whether it is a whip stitch, or an over-cast stitch, or a simple running stitch. I want to see them, and see their reassuringly-human imperfections. Adore that. Many projects in Sewn by Hand use fat thread, or thread in wildly contrasting color, just so you are sure to see every last stitch. Our ancestors use to ascribe all kinds of magical, protective qualities to those stitches. So I guess I should say that, my favorite hand-stitching technique is to stitch with intention. To imagine that each tiny dip of thread into fabric imbues the project with love and power and magic and grace.

People have been talking a lot about the “slow craft” movement, upcycling and being more conscientious about their consumption, why do you think these things have become so important to a younger generation of crafters?

Well, we’ve done the conspicuous consumption route and found it to be pretty empty and depressing and messy, too—-for our lives and for our environment. People are paying closer attention to the essentials these days. There was a time when crafting, sewing, knitting, etc. were purely economical concerns. Things could be made cheaper than they could be purchased. So crafters many years ago tried to make things look “store bought,” and “hand-made” was synonymous with “second-rate.” Thank goodness this new generation doesn’t labor under that same thinking. In our machine-made, sweat-shopped, mass-produced consumer society, smart, creative, crafty people have come to honor and value those things painstakingly crafted by hand. They want their crafts to wear their hand-made status with pride. They are not afraid to let their stitches show. They expect their crafts to have soul.

What’s your favorite part about the crafting process? Is it dreaming up the idea or seeing the finished project? Or maybe the journey in between?

Uh oh, gonna have to say “all of the above.” Love dreaming something up: this is high giddy energy for me. Love seeing the finished project and falling in love with it. Love the journey in between, the lovely calm of heart and mind that happens when your hands are happily engaged, and feeling powerful and useful. It’s all good….very, very good.

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A stash of Susan’s notions and trim

Every crafter encounters a sort of writer’s block – or crafting block, if you will – how do you continue to get inspired and work through those blocks?

For me this is when my head gets in the way of my hands. If I have spent too long imagining or envisioning something and have gotten all invested in it turning out some specific way. Sometimes, that rigid idea makes me hesitant to put my fingers to fabric, as though the reality will break the spell I have woven in my head. It is almost an apprehension. I find that making the first cut with the scissors can sometimes break that impasse, as can taking that first stitch. Especially if you hold those first stitches lightly, and imagine you can take them out if you don’t like where they are going. Starting off with a sense of play and adventure seems to get around those blocks. Get your hands involved early, even before your head has a chance to decide exactly what it wants. That seems to help release the tension that gets in the way of us diving in and swimming in a sea of creative juices.

Thanks to Susan for giving us a peek into her creative world! And thanks to Lark Crafts for offering up one of Susan’s great hand-stitched projects just for our readers! Grab the instructions to make your own Sewn by Hand thread caddy here. The folks at Lark Crafts have also been kind enough to share their range of fantastic craft books at 50% off! Click through to get your coupon code and stock up on loads of great titles from their talented authors.

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And as if that wasn’t enough, we’re also giving away a sewing kit and copies of Susan’s new book to a few of our lucky BurdaStyle members! Simply tell us why you think it’s important to keep hand-stitching traditions alive in the comments below and you could win. Comments must be left by 9:30am on Monday, May 9th to be eligible.

110 Comments

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    May 7, 2011, 12.59 AMby JanetCR

    Hand stitching is our heritage and our history, no matter where in the world we live or are from. It is soothing, relaxing, creative, something we can share with our children and our friends. And besides, maybe one day in our lives, or in the world, all the technology won’t be available to us. This looks like a lovely book.

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    May 5, 2011, 02.00 PMby VThwaites

    I’m new to Burda just found you today in fact, I am a novice sewer and prefer my machine to hand, but I believe this is only because I haven’t been taught how to hand sew properly and truely believe this is a craft/art that should be handed down from generation to generation and not dismissed by the modern world.

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    May 5, 2011, 08.32 AMby solstitches

    I learned to knit and sew in school at around age seven. My first project was a gathered dirndl skirt and a few years later I remember making my cookery cap and apron. I’m sad that these crafts are no longer taught in school. Handwork is such a relaxing occupation. It’s important to keep these crafts alive or risk losing them in our modern world where the pace of life seems to get ever faster. I love to hand quilt, do hand embroidery and cross stitch and my daughter has a love of sewing also.

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    May 5, 2011, 05.58 AMby nwhomesteader

    So many reasons! It would be tragic to loose the art! Clothes always fit better! We may NEED to make our own again! We should want to make our own to stop the horrific conditions in off-shore production! It’s a blast and self-satisfying! Need I say more?

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    May 5, 2011, 04.56 AMby moonsilkcookiesface

    Hand sewing (hand-stitching) is a family jewel it’s a history developed like a family tree with thread and hand. It’s a “Oldie but Goodie.”and a guilt free sinfully sweet hobby at that!. It connects people not only with their history but a share one by stitch, it like a universal language. It puts you in a zen like state it relaxs and zone into a world where you are aware of everything; the smell of the fabric as it I feed it threw your fingers, the symmetry of each stitch as the needle sails the air and the thread reminds you of kite tails in the wind. I always considered hand-sewing as sewing and it didn’t dawn on me that people owned machines, in my naivety I thought that was just a industry factory tool. We all learned to sew(hand-stitch) in my house well my family for the most part even the men! Brothers, Cousins you name it so I thought it was the norm and when the machine was used for a dress/pants you still hand stitched the zipper and whip-stitched the edges smooth. Call me old fashioned but even when my mother gave me her old machine last year I could only keep it clean and dust free. I simply can’t find the will to persuade myself to use it because needle and thread have been my arm for years. With years of sewing buttons onto a wool dress coat and patching book bag straps I never grew tired and I don’t think any one will because nothing feels better then when you have accomplished something with your own hands except for the joy it brings when people know it was hand made for no one else but them, Now how can such a feat of love die? I may have digressed but thats just my passion, but Hand-stitching is history and it will continue to be pasted down like grandma cake/jam recipes.

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    May 4, 2011, 03.15 PMby Morolake Dairo

    Apart from the fact that hand sewn works are so beautiful, even when they aren’t perfect. I usually imagine the hours that have gone into the work, to me…such works can’t compete with any million dollar ready made gown. It also gives me the chance to talk with my sister and mum (sometimes, they even advice on embroidery designs), unlike when I’m busy at my machine and they are in the room. The reward derived at the end of the project is usually the icing on the cake, you finally look back at the beautiful fruits reaped from your hard work!!!!!!

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    May 4, 2011, 10.08 AMby mel007

    I love to hand sew and do a great deal of hand embroidery, like Susan say’s it’s easy to just loose yourself in your work and is very relaxing, although I also enjoy using the machine too, hand stitching is lovely to see on creations as well.

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    May 4, 2011, 07.05 AMby tine94

    Wow, wonderful to know that she is so conscientious about where various materials come from and whether they are good for the environment. I had not even thought about that until then!

    Hand sewing is a lovely way to stay in touch with what your creating, although it’s time consuming which means I tend to use the machine.

    I think i’ll get back into the swing of doing it by hand now. Thank you!!

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    May 4, 2011, 05.42 AMby jessdunstan

    I love handsewing especially doing all the embroidery work on my smocked dresses. I definitely find it a great way to relax and unwind after a hectic day in the office.

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    May 4, 2011, 04.58 AMby RoniBarr

    While machine sewing gives quick, professional results, there’s nothing like the meditation of hand sewing, stich by stich, lost in a trance of needle and thread working its way through the fabric, really creating something with your own two hands.

    I love my machines, but the elegance and detail of hand sewing cannot be replaced. :)

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    May 4, 2011, 03.38 AMby limetwist2

    I enjoy sewing by hand because it helps me slow down is such a fast paced life. It is my time to ‘stop and smell the roses’ so to speak or stop and smell the fresh fabrics of a project. It is a tradition that I shall pass onto my daughter/children.

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    May 4, 2011, 03.37 AMby sertyan

    Sometimes you can only handstitch (as opposed to machine sewing) to add finer details to a garment!

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    May 4, 2011, 02.37 AMby Evelene Sterling

    Hand sewing is a basic necessity; Its art form is embroidery. As much as Duct tape is wonderful when it comes to adding or fixing buttons only hand sewing is the one for me. I learned how to make Barbie doll clothes and all of it done by hand. When the electricity goes out it will be hand sewing that will make and mend anything.

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    May 3, 2011, 11.54 PMby dldhill219

    As a child, my mother taught me to sew and design by having me make clothes for my dolls, all by hand. As an adult, I participate in living history events at a local historic site (we’re in the 1840’s there) and it is sad to see the number of children (and adults for that matter) that come to visit that have no idea what I am doing when I’m hand sewing a garment. It seems that in some places it is becoming a lost art. I am happy to see that there are still people that understand the importance of doing things by hand!

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    May 3, 2011, 11.03 PMby kgrdnr

    I don’t do many hand sewing projects, but in my opinion hand sewing just looks so precious and every time you hand sew it’s completely unique. It’s relaxing to just sit and hand sew sometimes without the use of a machine doing all the work for you. I can really just appreciate the work when it’s hand sewn, and it just looks lovely.

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    May 3, 2011, 08.43 PMby kdschafer

    I haven’t done much hand sewing, mostly buttons and fixing small tears in the kids clothes. I will have to practice up because my daughter will need to do a hem by hand soon for her 4-H clothing project. I also do counted cross stitch, so I appreciate having something small and portable. It keeps me sane while I’m waiting for kids at ice rinks, soccer fields and swimming pools.

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    May 3, 2011, 07.43 AMby Lorraine Mabbett

    Appreciation of artistry comes from experiencing the fundamentals. A fashion designer and a tailor each still utilize hand sewing. The small bit of a person giftedthrough hand stiches is priceless

    mabbettlorraine at yahoo dot com

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    May 3, 2011, 12.13 AMby sunnydays212003

    I believe that hand stitching is an art form and to preserve it is to preserve art and history. A hand stitched gift or a project for personal use feels as if the maker put a lot of soul and love into a project. Hand stitching is what makes a project unique and priceless. I wish I had more time to do hand stitching because the outcome is beautiful and beautiful to share with others.

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    May 2, 2011, 11.48 PMby orchardcity

    I believe it’s important to keep the hand-stitching tradition alive because of the act itself: Slow, repetitive, creative tasks are a form of meditation, and can be a great tool for gaining a sense of perspective!

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    May 2, 2011, 11.05 PMby thedivachic

    hand sewing is part technique, part artistry. that’s why hand sewing is will be around for a long time to come and why it’s so important.

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    May 2, 2011, 10.01 PMby kardamon

    Some things will look better if they are sewed by hand. Hand sewed details could give an unique look for all hand made stuff.

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    May 2, 2011, 08.38 PMby swankypot

    Because you never know when your machine could break!

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    May 2, 2011, 08.06 PMby lisamarie

    Hand stitching takes sewing right back to it’s roots. As an “old-fashioned” girl, that is very appealing. Also, I feel that hand stitching offers greater control over where my stitches end up.

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    May 2, 2011, 06.18 PMby MooLoo

    How strange to come accross this today. I had gone to my friends for the weekend, taking with me a pair of secondhand curtains, to lower the hem so I can use them in my bedroom here at the new house, and I had grabbed a piece of fabric I had been playing around with just before I left home. I sat and cut out and hand stitched a silk patchwork piece of fabric into a tote bag!. My friends daughter came home in the evening and couldnt believe that I had completed the bag while watching TV, and sitting in the garden in the sun.! I could never have done that with my sewing machine. Although having said that I do remember as a child sitting with my Mum in the garden (We lived in Cyprus then, and subsribed to Burda, 600cy mills at the time) and she was making soft toys with her sewing machine in the garden, and I was knitting hats and scarves for them. Infact as I set up my new sewing room in my sons room, I realised I still have some of the things we had made still to this day. Along with several copies of Burda from the 1970’s!. Infact I hand sewed a “felix” the cat in a grey fur fabric, making rafia whiskers, and he is still here on my bed, and my granddaughter plays with him regularily. I also hand sewed a bed quilt over 30 years! made from everything from my school uniform, to my sisters wedding dress, a dress from my grans in the 1940’s and any other scrap big enough. Alas there is no sign of it now, as it was lost in a house move about 6 years ago. Something I was more gutted about loosing then I did my home!

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    May 2, 2011, 04.28 PMby aega

    I’m a big advocate of other pared down activities that focus on slower, traditional methods of doing things so keeping hand-stitching traditions alive fits perfectly with that. Life is so hectic and busy for most people that there’s no time to sit still and think or just be. Hand stitching is a great way to slow down and provide time for a little contemplation.

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    May 2, 2011, 04.14 PMby cmstephens

    Hand sewing is a lot of fun and a great way to personalize projects. It’s also a very affordable, portable hobby. There are a lot of techniques that you just can’t achieve with a machine.

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    May 2, 2011, 03.35 PMby milkshake80

    I always hand hem my Dad’s suit pants…It’s a thank you to him for paying for my fashion degree! Thanks Popi!

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    May 2, 2011, 03.18 PMby pulgarsita7

    Hand sewing brings me memories of my grandma. She used to hand sew many of my doll’s dresses. They were gorgeous. I remember one that had little fuschia flower in it and the fabric was pink. Thinking back, I remember how my grandma would look so happy and relaxed while doing those projects. She also was very happy to see my reaction on the first time that I put the dress on my doll. My grandma no longer works on projects like those but lately I have started to do more hand sew pieces. The latest one being a skirt for my sister, I even hand sew a zipper on it and she loved it. Now, I can understand why my grandma loved those projects because I too enjoy relaxing and focusing for some time out of my busy day on a special project for a loved one.

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    May 2, 2011, 02.58 PMby elsiesea

    I just finished handsewing a dress – it was a great way to better understand how a pattern and a garment work. And very soothing while watching TV in the evening. Even better: I gave up TV for Lent, so I sat and sewed in the evenings while listening to Radio 4 comedies and Big FInish Dr Who audio plays. It was, by my judgement, Fairly Awesome. A lot quieter than the sewing machine, and almost as fast. i’d love a book that told me what hand stitches to use where in a garment, and gave me some good little projects too!

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    May 2, 2011, 12.35 PMby shibbybean

    Handstitching is always more deliberate and careful (at least for me), and that amounts to a heck of a lot less unpicking. When sewing by hand it’s calm, quiet and it’s just you and the project. The machine isn’t in the way sometimes getting jammed up or having tension problems – you’re the machine but you certainly don’t feel like it. There’s no clunking or humming of the machine whipping along and so hand sewing can become more of a communal activity as well – you can talk and discuss projects or life with other people in the room. In a technological age when people spend most of their time texting or playing Angry Birds with their ear-buds in, an activity that requires only technology from 15,000 years ago is reassuring and relaxing.Hand sewing makes sewing personal and interpersonal and that fact, combined with the knowledge that you can make something useful with your own two hands is very, very rewarding.

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