As many sewists do, indie pattern designer, author and teacher Erin Hentzel sewed for her children and their dolls. Sometimes the outfits matched, and other times the designs advanced hours, days, weeks of imaginative play. Small-scale sewing has a special skillset, so Erin developed patterns and a book to help others have as much fun sewing for kids as she does. And when kids want to learn to sew, Erin has that covered, too, with hands-on classes and patience.
What inspires you to create?
I think I just have always been compelled to sew and make things, ever since I was young. There are many things that inspire me. Here’s just one way I get inspired: seeing others happily share their makes! When I see what others are making in Facebook groups and blogs, I get inspired to go create something. When I teach classes, I often have to sew something as soon as I get home. It’s impossible for me to see others creating and not want to make something, too.
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How is teaching children to sew different from teaching adults?
This is an “ask 10 teachers and you’ll get 10 different answers” kind of thing.
I see some similarities and many differences. One obvious difference is they’re kids, or they’re adults. I have found they need different things when learning something new. Their life experiences and what not, like have they been taught fractions in school influences how I explain things. The younger the student, the more demonstrations I need to do and the more hands-on learning needs to happen. It also depends on the age and where they are developmentally. Teaching a 12-year-old looks very different from teaching a 5-year-old.
Interestingly, I find age isn’t the only influence on the child’s ability to learn to sew on the machine. I find their interest level is just as much of a factor. The ideal time to teach them is as soon as they start asking to learn. When you genuinely want to learn to sew, it drives the practice and participation. Children seem to have no inhibitions to giving something new a try. Learning and taking activity classes are still a huge part of their life.
What do you do to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do?
Practice, and try new things. When I learn a new technique or sew a new design element, I get a sense of pride. I remember sewing my daughter a burgundy wool coat with bound buttonholes. I used to make at least one coat for her each year, and I had always loved the look of bound buttonholes on wool coats but had never tried it. It is the preferred buttonhole for a medium- to heavy-weight wool coat. But it was a big risk, considering the Melton wool fabric was $30 a yard. I loved having that experience, and it gave her coat that little extra special touch. I think when I try traditional techniques not used much anymore, it gives me a wider sewing perspective, as well as a deeper understanding of the simpler techniques I use often. You can see the coat and bound buttonholes on my blog.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Definitely, a planner. I contemplate and sketch a lot before I even go into the sewing room. I like to think through the garment and its parts: how it will go together, what fabric will drape the intended way for the style I’m going for, and what changes to the slopers need to happen. Once I’m certain of my plan, I head into the sewing room and test things through.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
Everyone has the capacity for creativity. It’s a trait we all have. Some exercise their individual creativity more, that’s all. One of my favorite quotes I had pinned to my design board for years is by Maya Angelou. “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” I have experienced this to be true. The more I sew, the more ideas come to me, especially when I’m designing something new.
Everyone has creativity, but you can become more creative by creating things. Being open to the possibilities, thinking positively, and not being afraid to make mistakes all can help a person be more creative.
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey?
Being self-confident was a huge challenge for me. It’s very different sewing for yourself or family and friends than it is to sell your handmade things to strangers. I became obsessive about having everything sewn perfectly and would be a nervous wreck waiting for that Etsy feedback to be posted. It got pretty ridiculous. It really took all the joy out of it.
I’ve gotten much better about feeling self-assured, but sometimes I still wonder whether what I’ve done is good enough. Silly, I know.
How do you get unstuck creatively? What did you learn from it?
Sometimes I hold back as I create because I start thinking maybe others won’t think my design idea is clever and attractive, or maybe I’m afraid my idea might not work out well. I noticed that’s what generates a creativity block. Early in my professional sewing journey, I would sometimes concern myself with how well another person was doing and felt like I needed to compete, as if there could only be a limited amount of success available. That also generates a creative block.
That’s negative thinking. That’s basing my decisions on a fear I’m having. I started to notice that while I’m in that frame of mind, I would also feel uninspired to keep sewing or designing. Not a fun place to be at all.
When I feel a creative block, I will do something else, something completely unrelated to sewing, to create a mind shift.
Most often, I would go walk a nature trail to distract me from the fear or negative thinking. Nature seems to always bring me back to a clearer way of thinking. I love being out in nature and marvel at how much beauty, beautiful imperfections are all around us and within us. I’ll remind myself that there is more than enough for everyone, and that when I invite self-doubt and fear to the party, they will prevent me from creating something original.
If our thoughts are negative as we create, I don’t think the creativity can easily flow.
How did you get into designing patterns for doll clothes? What tickles you about designing for dolls?
It just kind of happened; I didn’t really plan for it to happen. I’m just a garment sewist, who happened to sew doll clothes for her kids. I began sewing doll and stuffed animal clothes again when my children we’re young. They would create elaborate pretend games that would go on for entire winter, spring and summer breaks, using their dolls (or animals, depending on the game) as the characters in a pretend “world”. It extended their play time to have a variety of clothes, accessories, and even bedding for their dolls and stuffed animals, so I happily sewed. I never thought of selling my handmade wares.
I grew up wearing mostly handmade clothes and then sewing for myself when I was able. So naturally, I sewed for my kids once I became pregnant with my oldest child. But it was my youngest for whom I sewed the most. She would reject most clothes, but she liked wearing her “mama-made” clothes. I happily sewed a lot of clothes for her. She insisted that her bear and doll had to have matching clothes with her. The other preschool parents started asking me to sew and sell them some of the styles that I was sewing for my daughter. Then I started selling children’s and matching doll outfits at Saturday Markets and on Etsy. It didn’t take long before I got tired of sewing the same things over and over. That’s when I decided to start selling the patterns that I had designed for the product in my booth.
I only had a handful of doll patterns at the time, so I started designing more to “fill my shop” on Etsy. These designs were more about what I wanted to sew and design. When I sewed for my kids, I always let them choose the fabric and style. Styling clothes for dolls, I get to make all the choices: color, fabric, design, trims.
I’ve always loved dolls since I was little. Sewing and designing for dolls just marries together two of my favorite things. I get to sew and I’ve gotten some really pretty dolls in the bargain.
What are the challenges of designing garment patterns on a small scale?
Sewing garments that small on a machine comes with challenges not found in human clothes construction. For example, you can’t easily sew the hem of doll pants in the round when it’s only a few inches in circumference. The sewing construction most often needs to be done in the flat. The bulk of the seam allowances is a consideration as well, as it affects the overall fit more than it would on a person-size garment. Another challenge is pressing small seams and garments.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
To me, pressing well throughout construction is key for a higher level of excellence. Just as important, if not more, as sewing straight, etc. Pressing can be challenging when the seams you’re pressing are curved and super small. I use a number of things like a mini board, tailor ham, sleeve roll, but my tailor’s block is what I use most when sewing tiny clothes. It’s ideal for fitting small garment seams onto and getting them pressed well. It makes sewing fine details, like topstitching, with more precision possible.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I do. For a long time, I was a traveling sewist, setting up in the dining room, living room, or to wherever I was displaced. For the first time, I have permanent real estate dedicated to my sewing. I loved being able to design the organization and layout of my space. The catalyst in me deciding to completely organize my sewing room: my cutting table broke. Now one of my sewing space’s best features is a cubby storage bookcase cutting table after seeing them on the internet, which my husband helped me build. I blogged about it here.
My sewing room isn’t huge, just a modest bedroom, but it is great being able to leave whatever out and shut the door.
I also love how easy it is to find what I need and that most everything is very accessible while creating. Even when I let the mess get a bit stacked up, it’s much quicker to tidy up with everything having its designated home. A great perk is family not having to walk through it while I’m working. Plus, I haven’t knocked over the iron once when moving past the ironing board because there is enough space to walk around easily now.
What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric?
After trying several methods for storing my fabric, I do like my new system. I wrap my fabric onto acid-free foam boards. Small scraps go into stackable bins, and fat quarters in baskets – kind of like my sewing room is my personal fabric shop. I’m getting used to the system, though I still have buckets of fabric to go through and wrap. It takes a lot of time to do…hours and hours to get it to where it is now. But it’s much prettier to look at and takes up less space. And I can quickly see what fabrics I have when starting a new project.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, especially your new title, Doll Studio Boutique?
It’s a beginner-friendly sewing book, with loads of doll clothes patterns and tutorials in it. Beginners can learn to sew and more advanced sewists will love the quick-to-sew, well fitting patterns.
Interview posted February 2022
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