Craft Stars: Gretchen Hirsch, Seamstress Supreme!
The inimitable Gretchen Hirsch, THE person to go to if you want to learn how to sew, vintage-style. (Illustration by Ellen Lindner)
If you love to sew - or just love the idea of sewing - then Gertie's New Blog for Better Sewing is for you. I am always amazed at the vintage-style garments - often sewn from delicious mid-century patterns - that Gretchen Hirsch, the eponymous Gertie, produces. And this lady has a great feel for the sewing zeitgeist - vintage-style sewing is HUGE.
But the fact is, Gretchen started out as a mere stitchy mortal. Born in Hockessin, Delaware, she came to New York City as a theater student. Sewing was a hobby until she started blogging about her attempts to sew through the classic Vogue New Book for Better Sewing.
The rest, as they say, is craft history - Gretchen made the leap from blogging to teaching, and in the last year, she's become one of Craftsy's featured instructors.
Right now Gretchen's getting ready to promote her upcoming book from STC/Melanie Falick books - called, of course, Gertie's New Book for Better Sewing.
Seeing as I'm currently taking one of Gretchen's Craftsy courses, I used my Crafty Crafty press card to finagle an appointment with the lady herself. The tape is rolling....
Hello Gretchen! The number of beautiful dresses featured on your blog never ceases to astound me. I have to ask, how many dresses do you think you've sewn since launching Gertie's New Blog for Better Sewing?
Oh God, that's a really hard question (laughing). Definitely triple digits at this point. My personal sewing is about a dress a month, or a coat, or an outfit - but with my book coming out, I had to sew 27 garments, and a lot of them were dresses. And then for the Craftsy courses, I do all of the sample dressmaking. For the last one I had to make three suits. I've also made about a million zippered pouches for my beginning classes - so I have those everywhere. Dresses and pouches!
I bet! Speaking of your classes, teaching seems as integral to your life in sewing as blogging - when did you begin teaching, and what gave you the confidence to start?
I started maybe two years ago. I used to work full-time as a children's book editor - this was when everything was taking off with my blog. I was looking to make a transition from having a full-time day job to doing what I do now. I was on Craigslist one day and I saw an ad for a sewing instructor. It was a place called the Sewing Studio, and they'd just opened a really beautiful studio in Manhattan. They were looking for sewing teachers.
(The class I taught), it was intro to sewing, so you get people who've never touched a machine, and it was an eight-week course. I remember not having the confidence at first. I made a teaching guide, and I was so nervous, I re-read it before each class. I've always been a people person, so it's been nice teaching in person. Teaching one-on-one, you get to know people so well. Some of them become my private students after that, and I stay in touch with them. It's cool.
How did your relationship with Craftsy begin?
Emily Lawrence is the original producer of the Craftsy videos, and when I started working with them she was the only craft video producer.
Since then it's really grown. She took charge of finding talent, and she sent me an email saying they were looking to expand the sewing portion of the site. They really liked the retro angle of what I did, and (asked), would I be interested in doing a reproduction dress type of class.
I didn't write back right away - and then I saw them popping up all over the place. Diana (Rupp)'s class was getting great reviews, and I started looking into it - I found that I really liked what they were doing.
I pitched the bombshell dress to them, and they said yes - my relationship with them has always been really easy. They give me a lot of freedom in terms of what I want to teach.
What was it that made you confident that your online students would get as much out of your courses on Craftsy as your in-person students?
Well, I really had no idea, when I got into it. The first course, I had no idea what I'd gotten myself into. It's really intense, filming one of those courses, because you do it over two and a half days, and it's pretty much non-stop filming, from morning to night.
And it's really great, but it takes a toll on you, especially when you're teaching something complicated, like as tailored jacket, there comes a point where you kind of lose your mind in the process, and it seems really difficult. There's a hump you have to get over.
With the 'bombshell' class, I planned what I wanted it to be, but when I got in there it was so much more intense than I really anticipated.
I hadn't planned on having to be like (switches to beauty queen voice) "Hi, I'm Gretchen Hirsch." All that news-anchor stuff made me really uncomfortable. At the end of the video I need to say my name, and what course I'm taking - the teaching's fine, but then, when I need to say my name, I just lose it.
It took me a while to get comfortable with that aspect of it. It was an intense three days. We filmed it at the sewing studio where I teach, before they installed air-conditioning.
They needed to keep blotting my face, because it was something like 90 degrees in there. I'd just sweat, all day. They say it's one of the most famous Craftsy stories. I was sweating so much that they had to go and get a bucket full of ice to put my feet on, beneath the table, just so I would stop sweating, just to get my body temperature down. I was teaching how to make a boned bodice, and my feet were in a bucket of ice.
Wow! I can't wait to watch that segment! New York gets so incredibly hot, I can imagine taking those kinds of measures.
Ha ha! I don't think you can tell. They took a trash can, and a bag of ice, and said, put your feet in there. I also burned myself really badly during that filming - I felt like a wounded soldier by the end of it. The cool thing about (working with) Craftsy is that after those intensive days days of filming, you go away, and they go away, and two weeks later, it's a course. They do all the graphics, everything. It's really amazing how they turn it around.
But your job isn't over, then, is it? It still seems like you have a pretty intense level of ongoing involvement with the course - you're on there all the time, answering students' questions.
It's hard sometimes. The online thing definitely has its limitations. Communication has to be really good. If they don't have a camera, or don't know how to upload photos. There's a varying degree of how technically savvy people are. Most of them are pretty savvy, because they're on Craftsy in the first place.
A lot of these people are bloggers, and this is what they do with their free time, they make things and take pictures of them. But then you have people who've never downloaded a pattern before, have never uploaded a photo to a computer. That can make it hard, especially when they're not comfortable showing me a picture of their muslin - I only really just guess!
Do you get a sense of the success rate of each of the individual students?
(There were) so many beautiful dresses. The tailored suit class, that's still in early days, but the bombshell dresses,I've been meaning to put together a post for my own blog, because the way people have interpreted it on their own. I've been really proud of all of the students.
(For example) there's one woman who lives in China, and she wore her dress for a red carpet event. She sent a picture of it - stuff like that. It's cool seeing the different takes on it. It's a retro look, but a lot of people have made it more contemporary, too, which is interesting to see.
What do you think are the biggest problems that your students encounter as they move from beginner sewing to more complicated, couture sewing?
Some people have trouble making the leap to just, trying things. When you're a beginner, it makes sense, you want a teacher who's going to hold your hand, who's going to help you figure out what line to cut, they get really freaked out - but when you move to an intermediate level you need to be more independent, and the Craftsy platform fosters that.
You're not really alone, in your own home, you have the community, but it teaches you how to be more independent.
You need to make a muslin, you need to go out on a limb, which is great, because for me, the single most important thing for advancing is to become independent, being willing to go out on a limb. 'If I take the neckline and do it like this, will that work?'
Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. But that's the only way to learn. So I think it's good. It's good watching people say, 'I wasn't sure what to do, so I tried this.'
A lot of our readers will be amongst the many fans of your blog - what do they have to look forward to in your upcoming book, Gertie's New Book for Better Sewing?
I have ten patterns, which are being published in the book - they're paper patterns, similar to (the patterns in) Burda magazine. They're tiled on top of each other, so you have to trace them, but that was the way to fit the most patterns in there.
So there are the patterns, but there are also variations on each of the patterns. For instance there's a sundress pattern, but then I also do a variation and I made it in a gorgeous black organdy, with little flowers, and a charmeuse bow on top, and I made it strapless, so you can customize the bodice.
And it goes over different kinds of skirts, the pencil skirt, the dirndl...the projects are a really big component, but then there's also the instructional part of it.
It's half hard-working reference on vintage-style sewing, which overlaps a lot of couture sewing, and half projects. It's a really good balance.
It has really gorgeous illustrations, that's one of the things I'm really excited about. The illustrators took inspiration from Vogue's New Book for Better Sewing, and worked in this retro, two tone style. It's looking good.
So, do you feel that the specific focus on vintage sets it apart?
I would say that what sets it apart is the focus on vintage styles and clothing, but also that the target audience is a bit younger than other couture sewing books. But also that there are so many projects - couture sewing books are all about the techniques.
So, Gretchen - you still need to face the most important craft question of our time. When the zombie hordes attack your new hometown of Beacon, New York, which of your many craft tools will you use to repel the waves of undead?
Probably my 10" dressmakers shears - I've almost cut off my own fingers with those - but a rotary blade would also do a lot of damage.
If you're a fan of Gretchen's approach to vintage-style sewing, pre-order her book now, and prepare for a fun Fall full of dressmaking galore.