Sandra Betzina’s Sewing Seminar

Garment with sample buttonholes made with fabric
Buttonhole detail

Last February I attended  “Power Sewing Toolbox,” a two-hour sewing seminar taught by Sandra Betzina, Vogue pattern designer and sewing book author. The description certainly caught my eye:

“This 2 hour class is full of tips and techniques the patterns don’t tell you but essential to a quality looking finished product. No longer will you be intimidated by mitered bindings, fringe detailing, classy seam embellishments, welt pockets and buttonholes, neckline bindings for round and V neckline and truly invisible zippers.  In addition, you will learn a technique for lining knit pants, T-shirts in stretch mesh and zippers hidden in pockets. Feel your sewing savvy soar from a C to an A plus as you learn all new tricks of the trade.”

The class took place at Britex Fabrics in San Francisco. Britex isn’t really set up to hold classes so space was very limited. The store could squeeze in a few dozen people into folding chairs placed in between the tables of fabric on the first floor. It was a tight fit but we were there for the duration. Not surprisingly the class was nearly all women with the exception of one man who was an aspiring fashion designer. We each received a nice black Britex canvas bag and retractable tape measure for attending the $60 class.

The first floor of Britex is where you’ll find gorgeous (and gorgeously expensive!) wool and silk fabrics – stuff you just love to touch and feel and wish you could afford to buy. (See “Shopping for Fabric” for more on Britex.) We sat next to these fabrics and Sandra stood near one of the tables and  held up her various samples of garments in different stages as she explained her techniques.

The sample clothes she displayed were of her own design from the Vogue pattern line “Today’s Fit.” She also passed various pieces around so that everyone got a chance to look at them up close and see how they were constructed. Here are links to a few patterns: Lovely pleated shirt (V1165), pants with a striking side pleat (V1050), a lined skirt with flattering curing seams (V1082). All of the clothes made from these patterns looked great. And according to Sandra, the instructions are easy to understand and execute. She says she incorporates her sewing techniques in her patterns.

Sandra went over a lot of things very quickly. It was sort of like highlights from her book Power Sewing Toolbox I, which had just been released. She showed us beautiful samples of buttonholes you can create using contrasting fabric – a very nice alternative to consider, especially when you’re making a jacket. She likes to call the fabric around the buttonholes “lips.”

Revising shirt collar pattern so seam is center back

Here’s one cool tip for reducing bulk in shirt collar points: Move the seam from the side to the center back (in red in photo at right).

You can do this with any basic shirt collar. Just take collar pattern and instead of cutting the collar shape on the fold, you trace out one half on the fold and then flip it over. This means that when you sew it together, you don’t have two side seams and corners to trim. Instead you have ONE seam and it’s on the center back.

It took me a little while to understand that so I took a picture of her sample. Hopefully that will make it more clear to you. For a better description, go to her website Power Sewing and subscribe to her tutorials or get a copy of her book Power Sewing Toolbox 1, which covers this technique.

Throughout the seminar, Sandra was promoting her books as well as her Vogue patterns, all of which Britex had on hand for folks to buy. And naturally, when the class took a break, we were encouraged to shop and we got a discount on her books. I went ahead and bought Power Sewing Toolbox 1, which I knew would be a handy reference.

And here are a few additional tips, which I gleaned from my notes. Sandra recommends using:

  • Steam-a-Seam instead of interfacing for plackets
  • Fray Block (instead of Fray Check) because it’s thinner
  • silk thread for buttonholes.
Happy sewing!

Shopping for Fabric

My bias-cut skirt made with fabric from Britex Fabrics

Once I got sewing again, I wanted to make some skirts. I really like long swingy, skirts cut on the bias (or at the crossgrain), which means that it’s cut at a 45-degree angle to the warp and weft threads. The result is a garment that has more fluidity. (For a detailed explanation, see this Threads magazine page for Marcy Tilton’s “Bias 101.”)

I bought a McCall’s pattern (M4258, now discontinued) for a simple skirt with a side zipper and began looking for light cotton fabric that was 60′ wide. I needed a fabric with a design that would could be cut on the bias and I didn’t want to attempt matching stripes or one-way designs.

Luckily for me, I work only a few blocks away from Britex Fabrics in San Francisco. This place has three (!) floors of fabric and one floor of notions with a fabulous collection of ribbons, lace, and buttons. It’s fabric heaven – but it’s not cheap – not by a long shot. This is the first place where I saw fabric selling for more than $100/yard. Why so pricey? Well, Britex sells a lot of imported fabric – silk and wool from Italy, designer velvets from France, cashmere from the U.K. – you get the picture.

I grew up in upstate New York where Joann Fabric was the only place to buy fabric (this was back when the store had more fabric than crafts). But the SF Bay Area has places like Britex, Discount Fabrics (south of Market), the Fabric Outlet (Mission district), and Stone Mountain & Daughter Fabrics (Berkeley). Of course there are plenty of places to shop online for fabric but whenever possible I like to see it and touch it in person.

Cotton fabrics are on the second floor of Britex. The bolts are displayed on shelves on the walls and stacked on large tables. (The store posts signs saying that you can’t take photos so no photo.) The prices are discreetly placed on paper tags tucked in the bolt. You have to pull it out to see it.

Because the cottons I was interested in were on the wall, bolt-end out with only a few inches of visible fabric, I couldn’t tell which ones were 60′ wide. So I asked a sales person which bolts were the width I needed. She was very helpful and pulled out a few that were 60′ and could work with a bias cut. I really liked this black-and-white cotton print. It’s very lightweight. I made this skirt (above left) from it.

Discount Fabrics

A few weeks later I went to Discount Fabrics main store in San Francisco (they have three locations) and found this intriguing fabric. The design is kind of like someone swirled some black paint on a white surface (see photo below). The main SF store is located in a huge warehouse space south of Market St. Most of the bolts are on rolls and they’re stacked on top of each other on huge utility shelves.

Fabric detail

It’s a bit of a challenge shopping here because it’s not easy to see all the fabric. Many rolls are stacked one on top of the other and sometimes you have to pull out several rolls so you can see what’s underneath. So you need a lot of time to look. But the prices are pretty good. (I’ve seen plenty of fashion design students roaming the aisles here.) Each roll is marked with two prices – one indicating the discount price and the other the extra discounted price if you buy the entire roll.