Fashion sewing entrepreneur Joi Mahon enjoys custom sewing and tailoring for clients, but she also has a passion for sharing her expertise with beginning and advancing sewists. With classes in her studio that she converted from a hundred-year-old bank building and teaching via Zoom and YouTube, she shares her enthusiasm for garment sewing and, especially, making fit work for infinite shapes and sizes of bodies.
How did you find yourself on a creative path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I have always been creative. I have fond memories as a young child looking at sewing magazines and sewing notions at my grandmother’s farm house. At first I did a lot of hand sewing. I remember Herrshners’ and Annie’s Attic catalogs where I would look at photos and try to make the things I saw.
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When I was in 6th grade I joined 4-H. That was pivotal in my growth in the textile and sewing category. By high school I already was an experienced sewist. It was a skill that I seemed to have a gift for. I started working for a tailor in high school where I learned to fit every body type you can think of. I did custom sewing, alterations, men’s tailoring and bridal. After studying Fashion Design and Product Development in College, I started my own business the same month I graduated. I have always been on this path, and I love it.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
I am not sure if I thought about it that way. I just gravitated to anything sewing, arts and crafts.
What motivates you creatively?
Many things. I do love fine fabrics. For apparel, I am inspired a lot by textural designs of fabrics. From there I incorporate the fabric characteristic into my designs. Anything can be inspiration, however. I started an inspiration portfolio in college. I still have a magazine page that had a really interesting spoon with a decorative handle. To me that was very inspirational for fabric manipulation. I have photos of stained glass which I think has interesting seaming and color blocking. Inspiration is everywhere. I would also say I gravitate to bold colors. I just love a solid pop of color in a true rich tone.
Why sewing? How does that medium best express your creativity?
I think this is where I am most gifted. Sewing is more than sitting at a machine, however. I love fabric and I love mixing fabric mediums for interested combinations. Textiles are works of art.
If we asked a good friend of yours to describe your work, what would they say?
Detailed. Not always over the top eccentric, but Joi goes beyond basics. Well-sewn, quality, solid combination of fabrics blending with the wearer and the pattern design. Joi takes pride in her work. Professional.
What is the greatest takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, The Ultimate Illustrated Guide to Sewing Clothes?
I always talk about continual learning.
Sewing is something where there are always new fabrics, new patterns and new figures to sew for. There is always something to learn so you never have to be bored. Additionally, no one sews every technique every single day all the time.
With this Guide, I hope it encourages sewists of all ages to pick up a new technique or skill and practice it. Refine skills you know, and practice ones you need to polish up. The joy and perfection comes with applying yourself and that is so rewarding. I also want everyone to know that they can be empowered to sew and they can do it no matter how little or how long they have been sewing.
What’s different about your approach to fit? Can you share a couple of your top fitting tips for garment sewists?
My approach is about customization. It is based on making the core sloper pattern that exists within your garment to match the scale and proportion of your body. Basically, recognizing those basic areas and taking your pattern adjustments across the entire area of fit.
Too many fit methods confine fit to just a line on the pattern or the edge of the pattern when fit actually happens in an area of the pattern. It’s easy to do and timeless. My process works for any pattern, any shape and any size.
There are lots of tips, but one of the most important is to take the time to do a fit sample, often called a muslin. Most methods have you tissue fit which does not drape to represent fabric most accurately. Or you maybe adjust the bust, waist and hips, but not other areas. A pattern can numerically match your body, but not fit your body.
I like to focus on smaller areas of fit. A fit sample helps us understand not only how the garment will fit our body, but we can study how our body interacts with the garment, evaluate what will happen if we change fabrics and so many more opportunities for learning. Right now I am doing Zoom fit evaluations in my pattern club. Members get to sit in as I evaluate fit samples and I really teach them how to fit a muslin. The feedback has been astounding.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Both. I am a very organized person. With the variety of design work I do, I have to be. I am really good at planning out a project, and a well-planned project has greater success.
However, you have to leave room for modifications. Maybe something takes longer, or mid-way you want to try something different. In the creative process that happens a lot.
In the planning process I try to anticipate areas where I may make modifications. For example, in my custom designs for my clients, we explore various fabrics, but we don’t settle on the final one until the pattern design and fitting of the muslin is complete. Then we settle on the final fabric. Maybe a different fabric requires other techniques, or maybe I want to embellish a fabric and I am wavering among a few ideas. I know a decision will need to be made, but I have time to explore, make samples and swatch materials for the best selection.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
Yes! I am very fortunate. I have a brick and mortar location that used to be a bank over 100 years ago. Yes, I have an antique bank vault which doubles as my swatch closet.
My studio is about 3,000 square feet. The front area is my fabric bolt room and design table. As you transition to the middle of the studio I have my thread cabinets, my classroom tables and machines, then my cutting tables, my sewing machines and finally in the back my desk, my Facebook Live set and my fitting area.
My studio is on one of the busiest streets heading out of town, so I have a great store front window that we decorate for all occasions. We are in an older neighborhood that is starting to revive which is really exciting. Right now we are having the brickwork redone, we are looking into new windows and awnings and plan to have a mural on the side of the building to complete the redesign. I am pretty excited about that.
What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric and creative supplies?
I love garment racks. I buy some decorative racks, and big hangers. Any cut of fabric 3 yards or under I hang which displays them nicely and makes them easier to peruse. I also love big jars. I have jars of buttons, thread, thimbles, garment labels . . .
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I know a sewing machine seems the first choice and, yes, I love my sewing machine. But my industrial iron and my KAI and Clover Scissors are a must.
I was influenced by fine tailoring supplies when I worked in the tailor shop, so my entire sewing career I have used a professional gravity feed iron. Hands down that makes the difference in projects. I have taught thousands of students in live classes, and people don’t press their projects well or know how to press. Pressing is an art in itself. I also love my true tailor’s chalk (not the stuff from big box stores) and my tailor’s beeswax.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I do sketch. I have all sorts of sketch books. For a while my sketching supplies kind of lost their main space in my studio, so I am exploring Pinterest to get ideas for making a new sketching-dedicated area in my studio. I love buying a brand new sketch book. There is something about getting that clean crisp bound book of paper that I just love.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
EVERYTHING! If you were a fly on the wall there would be lots of times when I crank the music up and you would hear me sing at the top of my lungs while sewing. But, I also love YouTube documentaries, an occasional audio book and talk radio. IF I had to pick, I like singing the best.
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
As creators we are linked to our creations. Many of us throw ourselves into our work. Early on I would take it personally if someone critiqued my work. I would think something like, “I can’t believe they don’t like this”. For example, I had a beautiful wedding gown with a drapey skirt and embroidery all over the bodice. I had a burgundy velvet band around the hem of the dress. It was so beautiful. It was on display at a bridal event and so many people had wonderful things to say. Then a few ladies commented about why that was done and how awful it was. That was their preference, but it bothered me for a while.
I had to learn early and very quickly that comments from people don’t define who you are as a person and are not reflective of your work. We live in a world where everyone is a critic. Just like music, there are so many styles of design and art, and they are not all going to be for everyone. So if someone does not like a design, I just let it roll off my shoulder.
But as creators we really do want people to love our work. That is why I don’t sew for gifts. Or I rarely do. Not everyone grasps what goes into a piece of art. I figure my works stands for themselves, and when clients pay me for my custom work they are doing that because they truly want my work. That also allows me to be very genuine when I teach. I am not talking about my opinion, but I am teaching what I do for people who pay me for it. I think that speaks a lot for my brand. So the short answer to this question is when you are creative you learn a lot about yourself and others.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be?
Oh WOW! Tough question. I am not so sure it would be one person, but I would love to be a fly on the wall in ancient Egypt to see how they made their fine Coptic textiles. We had a piece of one in college when we studied History of Textiles and the threads were so fine. I think the lost art of so many textiles are interesting to research. .
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think everyone has some form of creativity, but not everyone has the opportunity to let it bud. Some people are naturally gifted in some areas. People often gravitate to creative things.
This may not just be sewing, but things like gardening, interior decorating, painting, cooking, model railroading (my son has a 12 foot layout and that is VERY creative) and more. For those who have not blossomed in their area of interest, or those who are good at one thing, but want to try something else, I do think creativity is teachable.
I tell my students all the time, however, when you are learning a skill it does not happen instantly. Creative learning, or any skill for that matter, takes time to develop. It’s like learning the piano. You don’t drop out and quit at the junior recital because you don’t sound like Mozart. That skill comes with years of practice, and really we never stop learning or improving.
How do you get unstuck creatively?
I have so many ideas that’s not usually a problem, LOL! Maybe it helps to have other interests. If you are stuck, you can hop over to another creative art for a recharge. Sometimes you need to step away from a project.
How do you stay organized when working with multiple design ideas and processes?
Well, that is a skill, too. I am uber-organized, but this can look different for different people.
I use a few types of calendars, from Outlook to my smart phone to my paper wall calendar at home to make sure things are written down. Then I check my calendars daily, weekly and monthly. I always have an idea what is going on with me, my business and my family.
So I would say start there. If you can’t master your schedule you will have a hard time mastering various projects. I organize projects with assigned folders or binders and they go on a master shelf. This is an area where I keep all ideas for a given project together.
Since most of my work is clothing, I have a cloth bag where fabrics and supplies are placed and then hung on a garment rack. Usually there is a garment sample hung on a hanger next to the bag.
I don’t work on every project every day, so sometimes there is a time gap between working on different parts of a project. Maybe I just fitted a muslin fit sample and I have to wait two weeks for fabric to arrive. I don’t want to twiddle my thumbs for two weeks. So I do something different. I place everything I do on my calendar. If I have an idea when the fabrics will arrive, then I go to that week in my calendar and I block out sewing time so I have time reserved for that task in my schedule. I don’t think people are as aware of how they spend their time or where they lose time. There is a lot more to organizing, but this is a good start.
Learn more about Joi:
Facebook Page Designer Joi Mahon
IG Designer Joi Mahon
Facebook Program Sewing Time Live featured on the Designer Joi Mahon FB page every Thursday at 1pm CST
Designer Joi’s Perfect Pattern and Fit Club you can join on my website.
Interview posted February 2022
Browse through more inspiration for sewing clothes on Create Whimsy.