Jennifer Serr – an interview with The Sewing Room founder and Bonjour Teaspoon designer

Jennifer Serr of The Sewing Room

Jennifer Serr began sewing when she was seven years old. All the women in her family sewed so she was following a family tradition. The first thing she made was a reversible pinafore for herself. And once she realized she could make doll clothes, she sewed doll clothes, too. Eventually she made most of her clothes.

“My grandfather told me if I got straight As [in school], he would pay for whatever fabric I wanted,” says Jennifer, who grew up in Fremont, a city about 38 miles southeast of San Francisco. “My mom didn’t have much money so I got really good grades. I could get whatever fabric I wanted: fancy hounds tooth wool for a skirt, green taffeta for a prom dress with big rhinestone and pearl buttons on the front, a royal blue wool suit with a little bolero jacket and shorts.”

When she was 15 years old, she and her mother moved to San Diego. In high school, other students noticed Jennifer’s nice wardrobe and asked her to make their prom dresses. So she would sew her own prom dress and two or three others for her friends. “We would go together and shop for the pattern and fabric,” says Jennifer. “They would give me $50 and the rest was for fabric, mostly strapless mini-dresses.”

Two weeks after Jennifer graduated from high school, she went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (better known as FIDM), to study fashion design. She spent a year at FIDM in San Diego and then a year at FIDM in Los Angeles, earning an associate arts degree. Then she moved back to the Bay Area, working part-time at Z Gallery and began making hats and selling them at different boutiques throughout the Bay Area. She enjoyed making hats but had to stop after she realized she needed to pay self-employment tax and pay the government the taxes she owed. Her next jobs set the stage for her to open her own sewing business and launch an indie pattern line.

I spoke with Jennifer about how her career evolution. She was also a guest speaker for the Bay Area Sewists’s October meetup. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

What happened after your hat business closed?

I got a freelance job at Gap. I was hired to measure clothing. They had had fittings three times a week. We would measure clothing against the spec sheet. I helped out at fittings and then became a full-time technical designer in the 1990s for Gap kids, Baby Gap, and knits. We were building spec packages for the factories. I would go to the fittings, adjust the spec packages, and send comments off to the factories.

It was not design work. I was making sure the garments fit the models, that they were functional. [Pointing out] if the head opening wasn’t big enough, telling factory how to construct the garment, giving them details about the top stitching or the size of the buttons.

A friend of mine got married and I made her wedding dress. Then I got married and all my friends started getting married and I was making their dresses. It became clear I couldn’t work at Gap and make wedding dresses. And I was burnt out from working in the corporate world.

In 2000 I left Gap to start my own bridal gown company making custom wedding gowns. I took take classes with Susan Khalje and tried to soak up what everyone else in the class was doing. I took the class to get more familiar with lace. It was great to work with nice fabrics and see immediate fit results. At Gap you didn’t know what results would be.

I opened a little studio in downtown Oakland and then was able to do it full-time for a couple of years. I would see people in the fall for spring weddings and I would be working on their gown right up until the wedding. My busiest time was between January and June.

Then I decided to have a baby and be a stay-at-home mom. I wrapped up everybody’s project and was a mom for a few years. But it didn’t pay any bills so I took on some more freelance work. I also taught pattern making at CCA [California College of Arts in Oakland]. Sometimes I filled in for a teacher or taught a class. I started having workshops at my house or at Julie’s Coffee and Tea. It was fun and different. People were excited about what they were learning.

How did you get started teaching kids to sew?

A friend had a daughter who was really into fashion design and she asked me, “Would you teach kids?” This girl was darling and she would come over once a week and have sewing classes at my house. My daughter Emma was in preschool by that point. I had been teaching kids for about a year and one parent told me, “You should really do a summer camp.” I hadn’t really been to a summer camp as a kid. Modern moms didn’t stay at home over the summer. The following summer, I had a sewing camp and it was a mad success – lots of kids signed up. It was for a couple of weeks and I held it at Rhythmix Cultural Works in Alameda. The owner had been in the fashion business. That student – Maya – had a birthday party at Rhythmic and had a runway fashion show. I had the fit model from Gap give runway tips to the girls.

I taught at Rhythmix, where I could rent space by the hour. I was there almost every day and I had to share the space with whoever needed it and sometimes got kicked out of space because a performance was going on.

It wasn’t a huge risk. It was affordable. As I would make money, I would invest in more equipment. I went from kids bringing their own machines to having machines.

When did you open The Sewing Room?

Four years ago, I opened up The Sewing Room with a friend who sold clothes in the front and I had the back of the shop, teaching after-school classes. Eventually she moved out because she got lonely and there wasn’t much foot traffic. My business would come to me because people would hear about my classes. So when she moved out two-and-a-half years ago, I took over the space.

I have an affinity for teaching kids. I had no idea that I would be good with kids. It was hard at first knowing how to handle a large group of kids. I knew I could handle a large group of adults but I eventually figured out what would work.

The first thing I learned, you gotta give them a snack. If they get restless and loopy, give them a break and a snack, it’ll be fine. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned throughout my lifetime and looking back at the past and a lot of it was self-taught. I would make it lighthearted and fun and not be concerned about the right way of doing it. I’d ask, “How do you feel about it – if it’s going to bother you, rip it out, if not, leave it.”

When I’m teaching adults, I have a different perspective on it. Some people are really afraid of making mistakes. For me, it’s how you learn.

If you put in a sleeve the wrong way, you cry about it and put it back in. It’s all ok. That’s my philosophy. We’re going to figure out the best ways for you.

For the kids’ summer camps, I like them to start at age 8 or older. One student, which is now 10, learned about my classes when she was 6 and waited two years to start sewing with me. She would come to the summer camps and sewed at home as well. Some of these kids won’t sew at home, just in my class.

How did your pattern line get started?

I had this one bag pattern I made and I was selling the bags made from recycled materials. One time I was teaching and I had this pattern and all of the other kids said, “I want to make it!” So I went home and traced it out ten times, wrote out instructions, photocopied it, and stuck a picture on it. Then I sold it to them for $10 and they kept asking for other things.

How did you get the name Bonjour Teaspoon?

Before I was pregnant with Emma, I went on a couture tour to Paris. We went to a pattern-making demonstration by a pattern maker for Azzedine Alia. While we were there, his little pug dog kept escaping from the kitchen and kept visiting us. I fell in love with the dog. His name was teaspoon – we kept saying, “Bonjour Teaspoon!”

Bonjour Teaspoon is cute and appealing to girls. How it evolved into a pattern line when kids would bring me things that they wanted to make. I helped them make a pattern and modify them so it would fit their size. I made a little collection inspired by the kids and then some of my original work.

Bonjour Teaspoon sewing pattern - Ava Lounge Jacket - doll and girl versions

One student started bringing in all these doll clothes patterns for her American Doll pattern. I saw that they had a partner program and you could design for dolls. They had a different philosophy about design and were encouraging people to make things from the patterns. They were saying, “We’re inviting you to have your own little business and help you with it.” They had a class in their pattern design academy on designing clothes for dolls. I totally learned a lot from this class about proportion and taking clothes from kids world or what they find fashionable and translating that to doll size.

I made kid patterns first and then did the doll patterns. I sent them a couple emails and they said they were interested in having girl doll and matching patterns. Because not too many people were doing it, it was technically challenging to get the girl patterns into digital form so you can print it out.

Bonjour Teaspoon - Ava Lounge Jacket sewing pattern

Now I sell my girl patterns and doll patterns digitally on my website (Bonjour Teaspoon), which is connected to Etsy. Pixiefaire.com is where the doll patterns are sold. I’m happy to talk to anybody about how I do it. [You can see Jennifer’s doll patterns here.]

Where did you first print your patterns?

I was able to have my first original pattern scanned at a large-scale printing company. Then I could trace them off into Illustrator and I went to I went to the print shop around the corner, the Alameda Word Factory that could print on large printer – 24 inches [61 cm] or 36 inches [91 cm] wide.

I came up with photographic booklet in black and white – put it in a 6×9 [15 cm x 23 cm] white envelope and put a sticker on the cover.

I still have them printed 50 at a time, which makes it more affordable. I have a few wholesale accounts as well – Stitchcraft in Petaluma and two stores in Portland.

Bonjour Teaspoon - Mia Dress sewing pattern

How many patterns do you have right now?

I’ve got patterns for garments and accessories, about 15 or 16 patterns. All of the hats come in kids and adult sizes. The Ava Lounge Jacket is sized for kids and adults. There’s a vest for adults only.

Most of my customer base is kids – having a size that goes from 6 to 13/14 is a good size range for my main clientele. I do like making patterns for grownups, too. I would almost have to drop the teaching business if I was going to pursue the patterns on a bigger level. Right now I’m at a standstill with the patterns. I will keep it as it is.

The doll patterns are easy to produce. If could produce two new patterns a month could make a lot more money.

What advice do you have for people who are looking for a printer for their own pattern line?

If I was going to expand the pattern business, I would do it a little differently now. I found a printing company that does printing for independent pattern designers, Palmer Publishing in Minnesota. But you need at least six patterns ready to go. I’ve also been contacted by pattern distributors. One distributor you had to use their fabric and photograph everything in their fabric. Another distributor said, “Oh, you might want to contact this place, a lot of our pattern vendors use this company PalmerPrinting.com.

You need to have a pattern line and it’s best if you have at least six that going to print. They will give you all the formats and paper sizes. There are different options for how you want to have patterns.

What advice do you have for people who want to launch their own pattern line?

Try to reach out to other pattern designers and get tips and tricks. Expand your community to expand your business. I can’t say that I’m the most experienced with the pattern part of my business. I would like to learn more about it and expand it some day. I studied fashion design and I want to be doing some design.

For independent design, I like Colette Patterns – the styles are really cute –  Waffle patterns – love her Instagram, love following her, and Sew Over It London and Cashmerette. I like the whole look of Tilly and the Buttons patterns and the sewalongs.

I love the Vintage Pattern Lending Library, which take old patterns and republishes them. I love 1920s fashions. I like the Wearing History Patterns company and Decades of Style for the same reason.

What should budding designers know?

Pattern grading is important. They need to know how to grade a pattern properly and they need to know about pattern balance.

One of my big issues with Colette is balance – the corners aren’t squared off at intersections.

Take some pattern making classes or learn about pattern grading. Test all your sizes if you are making apparel. Make sure your sizes work. I sewed up largest size of one of my patterns. The sleeve was way bigger than the body. The proportions weren’t right. Test your different sizes and learn about pattern grading.

Go online to some of the big manufacturers like Gap, J Crew and companies like that and look at their size charts. You can kind of see what the body measurements should be – what the measurements should be for each size. They have it down for the most part. Gap has everything online – some have plus sizes. At Gap we would make a test version for everything. Sometimes we would have to tweak the different sizes. We would develop our grade based on major size-range fittings. In the pattern room we would try on everything. Take each other’s measurements and see the different body shaping fit.

What keeps you inspired?

It was really teaching at CCA that drew me to teaching. Initially I got into it because I needed freelance work. Then I really enjoyed teaching. It’s what I loved to do. It was so full filling to see their confidence grow. Kids get so excited by learning something new and being able to make something. They have really good enthusiasm and pick things up really fast and don’t care as much. They don’t care about the same things as much. There is no preconceived notion about things. They are able to do it on a different level. I just love it when people have fun doing it.

I have fun hanging out with the Bay Area Sewists. They are just so enthusiastic about garment sewing. It’s just so much fun when people like doing the same thing that you do.

Jennifer Serr interviewed about her sewing business The Sewing Room and her pattern line Bonjour Teaspoon, which features patterns for dolls, girls, and adults

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