Sewing class is always in session with Professor Pincushion, aka Tova Opatrny! With hundreds of free videos, each teaching a specific sewing skill, sewists can power through what they know, then stop for coaching when they hit a dreaded invisible zipper or encounter darts for the first time. And just what does it mean to grade a seam allowance? Do you give it an A or a B for a good job, or do something with scissors?
Tova knows what it’s like for a beginner to navigate unfamiliar techniques, tools and vocabulary and wants you to be able to get each of your questions answered so you can get back to sewing! Sewing class is always in session with Professor Pincushion, aka Tova Opatrny! With hundreds of free videos, on her website professorpincushion.com and YouTube channel.
How did you find yourself on a creative path?
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I first started sewing in High School, taking a beginner clothing class. The class was mostly just buying a pattern and fabric, and jumping in. I certainly wasn’t the bravest beginner out there, and every aspect of sewing made me nervous. When I got stuck, which happened at nearly every step, I had to put my name on a list and wait for the instructor to get to me. I probably spent more time creating straight pin designs in my pin cushion than sewing.
In college, I took a side job working in a fabric store. I was still a nervous newbie because I didn’t have a lot of experience and I had to field questions from customers. But I started to learn a little bit about different kinds of sewing. And, then, seeing new fabrics come in all the time, I started branching out with projects because it gave me a great excuse to buy fabric. Most of my sewing knowledge is self-taught, and I’ve probably made every single mistake you can make. Whatever beginners are going through, I’ve definitely been there and remember how overwhelming the process is.
After college, I moved to LA, started working in the film industry, and met the Professor’s Assistant. The job I had was stressful and I was miserable. Sewing was my escape. The whole idea of Professor Pincushion wouldn’t exist without the Professor’s Assistant. He’s the one who suggested doing sewing video tutorials, making it easy for people to learn anywhere. He purchased all the equipment and set it up. Honestly, I wasn’t sure about the whole idea at the beginning because, as a perpetual nervous person, I’m not the best at being on camera. But I do love showing people how to sew. And getting responses from viewers about how much our tutorials have helped them is very rewarding. Our channel grew from there.
Why sewing clothes?
I think all kinds of sewing can be fun but I’m also a very impatient person. I prefer projects that don’t take a long time to make. Most garments, (once you get past the boring cut everything out portion), come together fairly quickly. Watching your project transform from scraps of fabric into something wearable feels like magic.
I also like compliments. People can make beautiful quilts, but you can’t exactly drape a quilt over your shoulders to sashay around town looking for compliments. Sewing clothes makes the process of getting compliments a lot easier. No lie.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
People seek out the Professor Pincushion videos for different reasons, but I think the biggest one is that we try to make whatever technique we’re teaching broken down in the easiest way possible. I always teach as if a beginner will watch it. This means each step is clearly laid out and the camera always gets the best seat in the house. It isn’t always easy because some techniques can be challenging to show. And sometimes the camera gets a better view than I do and I have to contort my body in a weird way while trying to sew. But we always try our best to make our explanations top notch.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Professor Pincushion’s Beginner Guide to Sewing?
I always try to push the idea that it’s okay not to be perfect. Expecting perfection in sewing is setting yourself up for frustration. Being good at sewing can only happen with trying and experimenting, which is why I mention the idea of XP (Experience) Points in the book. Similar to a game, a beginner (and even more experienced people) gain more knowledge (XP points) by sewing, taking risks and even making mistakes. It doesn’t mean you’re bad at sewing. It’s okay to get frustrated or cry. (Been there, done that.) It’s easy to get wrapped up in the dream of a project and then give up when it doesn’t live up to that dream. But all that means is that you might not have built up enough XP points at that time. And that’s okay. You’ll get there.
In writing this book, I still approached it as though speaking to beginners (or Past Tova from my nervous high school days). People may want to learn how to sew their own clothes but don’t know where to start or feel overwhelmed. I want my book to hold their hand from scary beginnings to the joy of that first success. There’s nothing like the feeling of finishing your first handmade item, with crooked seams and frayed edges, and being impressed at what you were able to accomplish and wondering what you can make next.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I have to be a little bit of both. When it comes to Professor Pincushion, I definitely have to be a planner. I need to plan out what tutorials I want to offer, then take time to do research, experiment, prep and film. Even in the early days, I never just sat down and did a video without any planning. We’ve done over 500 video tutorials, covering not only garment sewing but also crafts, quilting, and home decor. That’s a lot of work and doesn’t happen by accident.
When it comes to my own personal projects, I might come up with an idea of something I want to make and then go for it. Sometimes I complete them and sometimes they become UFOs (Unfinished Objects). But, regardless of the project, it was something I needed in my life at that moment. Either I chose something to challenge me creatively or because I needed to relax. I love that sewing can be both.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I do! I feel very lucky because it wasn’t always the case. When we first started out, we filmed our videos in the dining nook, and we had standing photography lights all around the table. It was very claustrophobic. When we moved from LA to Oregon, we were fortunate enough to be able to get a house with a good size backyard. I’m not the only crafty one around here, and the Professor’s Assistant built a shed/studio in the backyard. He’s always been very supportive of me and Professor Pincushion.
Now I have a place not only to store my fabric stash (a definite must) and sew, but there’s a dedicated spot for filming. We fixed all the lights to the ceiling so it’s no longer a claustrophobic situation. Plus, I have a dedicated desk area, so I have a special place for writing or whatever. It’s more functional than beautiful, but it’s still mine.
What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric and creative supplies?
Is this a trick question? We’re not supposed to store our stuff in a giant pile? Maybe that’s why I can never find any of my countless seam rippers. My only tip is to store the pretty fabric on top so you can occasionally take it out to stare at it and stroke it like a dear pet. You have to do what works for you. Apparently what works for me is building myself a giant nest out of fabric.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio?
I don’t know if this qualifies, but having a really big table/workspace. When I first started out in class, I was crammed, trying to cut out my corduroy elastic-waisted pants (I was stylish), on a small table shared with two other people. Having a dedicated workspace, where you can spread out, is life changing for a crafter. Oh, and my walking foot. I use that sucker all the time and it’s cut down on the bad names said to my sewing machine.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m filming a tutorial, it’s always silent with the occasional meow from my cat. He’s been caught on camera before.
If I’m prepping for a tutorial or doing my own sewing project, then I usually listen to audiobooks. I love apps like Hoopla (from the library) for the endless amount of free books I get to listen to. My favorites are romance books. It’s possible I sew slower when the book gets to the really good parts—But who’s keeping track? Not me.
How have other people supported or inspired you?
I love when people tag Professor Pincushion on social media, showing what they made with the help of one of our tutorials. Or they mention that they learned to sew with our videos and now they own their own sewing related business. Being able to help people feel good and I hope, by the end of it, their sewing skills are even better than mine. People can be really creative in a bunch of different ways and it always blows my mind.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think both of these things can be true.
In my little sewing corner, I don’t think it matters. I don’t want people to feel that they have to be creative in order to sew. It’s true that sewing clothes can be a creative outlet but it doesn’t have to be. That’s what makes it great.
When it comes down to it, I’m teaching people straightforward methods and techniques. This is how you put in a zipper. This is how you alter a pattern to create a tulip style sleeve. You don’t need to be creative to do either one of these.
It’s what you do with the knowledge that determines whether or not it becomes something else. But the things I teach don’t have to be used for creative purposes and that’s okay too.
Learning to sew because you want clothes to fit better, or you want to be able to do repairs or you want to wear things that are well made are all valid reasons. I see all types of beginners and I want to help each of them because everyone comes to the hobby for a different purpose. It is exciting when someone may have picked up a sewing machine to make face masks and now they’re sewing costumes. You never really know where sewing is going to take you until you try.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
People can either find us on our website (www.professorpincushion.com) or find our channel on YouTube. While we do have some projects and a few sew-alongs for commercial patterns, most of our videos focus on one particular sewing aspect or technique.
We see ourselves as a sewing encyclopedia in video form. It’s not possible for us to do a video on every single pattern out there, mostly because new patterns come out every season and who could possibly keep up…although, my pattern stash certainly tries. Instead, we hope that people seek us out when they get stuck at a particular step in their sewing pattern directions. No longer do they have to write their name on a list and wait for the teacher. Now they can search “understitch” or “rolled hem” and see me demonstrate it. Then they can move on to the next step.
My biggest advice to beginners is always this: Never try to understand the whole project at once. That’s when it gets scary. Try to understand only the step you’re currently at. Because all sewing is a series of steps. It’s a bunch of stitches and seams and maybe something a little more, but you’ll get there, even with mistakes, building those XP points. Like magic.
Interview posted November 2022
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