You may know Ryliss Bod from her Instagram account @sewing_and_design_school, which now has more than 200,000 followers or from #SewApril—the month-long Instagram contest she has been hosting every April since 2017. Ryliss began using Instagram to share her love of sewing and fashion as well as bring attention to Sewing and Design School, the business she launched in 2012 in Tacoma, Washington (population: 213,418). Her mission is to teach people the art of garment sewing. Her school offers classes on sewing from beginner-level classes to pattern alterations and drafting. She frequently invites experts such as Kenneth D. King and Linda Maynard to teach at her school.
I interviewed Ryliss in March and discussed everything from her sewing background and Instagram account, teaching sewing and more. I’ve split the article in two parts because it’s much longer than I thought it would be. Stayed tuned for Part 2 tomorrow, which discusses interfacing and Ryliss’s favored method of pattern alternation. 🙂
Learning to sew at a young age
Ryliss was born and raised in Washington state. She says she grew up in an era when women sewed really well. “My cousin’s grandmother was a seamstress who sewed all the cheerleading costumes for the local schools,” recalls Ryliss, who is 67 years young. “My mom sewed phenomenally well. She made all my school clothes. Sewing was a very productive part of her housewife life.”
When she was 9, Ryliss really wanted to sew but her mother thought she was too young to use the sewing machine. So when she strategized when she could use her mother’s machine. Ryliss knew it took 15 minutes for her mother to get to the grocery store so the next time her mother went to the store, she took the opportunity browse her mother’s fabric stash, which was stored in a cedar chest.
“I took out some pretty fabric, cut out my dress and threaded the machine by the time she came home.” That audaciousness convinced her mother that her daughter was ready to sew. Her mom started her on simple things, such as an A-line skirt.
When her family moved to the country, she joined the 4-H club, which was focused on sewing and cooking. “4-H had you start with sewing a pin cushion, an apron. I thought it was so elementary.” Then she got to make pajamas. “My mom didn’t make it easy. She had me make it with flat felled seams and then Hong Kong seams for the robe.”
“Our mothers were our teachers [at 4-H],” says Ryliss. “We had a gold mine with my mother who was trained in couture sewing.” Her mother had experience in pattern drafting and showed them tricks on construction.
After 9th grade, Ryliss says she never took another sewing class. “I had a wardrobe that was really nice, ” Ryliss recalls. “It looked like ready-to-wear but I kept it on the downside that it was my own creation. We all kept it secret because of high school pressure.”
The path to sewing instructor
Ryliss didn’t know she wanted to teach sewing until she was in graduate school at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., located about 100 miles southeast of Seatlle. She put herself through college and got a degree in teaching art but by then time she graduated, there were no jobs. The Vietnam war had just ended and “all the people returning from the military but the first job interviews.”
She and her boyfriend got married and joined the army. Ryliss was the art specialist at Fort Lewis in Tacoma and later was based in Alaska. When her stint in the army was over, went to graduate school. But at 24, she says she felt old because everyone else was 18 or 19 years old.
Then a woman complimented Ryliss on what she was wearing. And when Ryliss told her it was something she made, the woman said, “I want you to meet my professor. I’m taking a tailoring class.”
“I go to class and within first half hour,” says Ryliss, “I knew I wanted that woman’s job and that was going to be the direction of my life. I was only going to teach adults.”
The instructor, Carolyn Schactler, explained in manner that I understood, says Ryliss. “I learned so much in that tailoring class.”
Ryliss began writing up her own classes to create new areas of study. She volunteered to be TA in pattern drafting. She took weaving and textile classes and soon began teaching sewing classes at Bates Technical College. “I had about 20 to 25 students at the most per day, doing different sewing projects,” says Ryliss. ” I had my hands on thousands of garments.”
When she first started, she says the average student was age 54 who brought a size 10 pattern when they were in reality, a size 22. She notes that size 10 was the size when they were married.
“It was a dream job,” says Ryliss. “I had so many students that did not even want to take a break. They so loved coming to sewing class. One student said it was cheaper than therapy. They needed that one day a week. People discussed all kinds of subjects during class and some become good friends outside the classroom.”
Sewing and Design School
Ryliss launched her own sewing school when Bates Technical College stopped offering sewing instruction and bought out her tenure. Though Ryliss’s classes were over, her students didn’t want to quit. She suggested that they meet in the public library for free and she also offered to give three free lessons until she found a rental space in an arts and crafts facility. And that’s how Sewing and Design School began.
Ryliss paid rent for half the month and put the sewing machines away when she wasn’t there. “I started with workshops,” she says. “People didn’t want sewing classes to end in Tacoma. I’m the only game in town because the college ended those classes.”
About three-and-a-half years ago, Ryliss got a full-time space. “It’s just a small space in the backside of a real estate business. There’s free parking and I have access to a kitchen and bathroom.”
Her school has seven Bernina sewing machines. Ryliss says six are mature machines, more than 27 years old. The models are 910, 1120, 1090 and a 550. She also has two Bernina sergers.
Some of her current students had taken Ryliss’s classes in the 1980s when she was teaching at Bates. They retired and and now back taking classes again with her. “My oldest student is 85 years old,” says Ryliss. “She drives from Seattle to Tacoma.” (Tacoma is about 34 miles (~55 km) from Seattle.)
Ryliss and Instagram
“I started my instagram about three years ago,” says Ryliss, who wasn’t doing much with her account at first. “One of my students showed me how to Instagram. She almost didn’t come to class because I had a poor Instagram presence.”
The student was about 35 years old and flew from Atlanta to take a moulage class with Kenneth King at Ryliss’ school. “Over the course of the next few months she gave me little lessons,” says Ryliss. “A couple months later, I get an email from Vogue Patterns magazine about posting one of my photos. When the article was published in the August/September 2016 issue, she found that @sewing_and_design_school was listed as one of eight great Instagram accounts to inspire sewing and fashion.
“It exploded,” says Ryliss. “I started seeing some really cool things out there and I wanted to grow it. I wanted to reach people from around the country. People fly in to take classes here; it’s like a vacation for some people.”
Ryliss realized that she needed to get herself out there. “So I Google, ‘how do you build followers on Instagram? And I read photo challenge, a contest.”
She had run a photo contest when she was in the military, so she thought, I can do this. And #SewPhotoHop (hosted by Rachel of @houseofpinheiro), who blogs at House of Pinheiro) was happening at the time. “It was a lightbulb moment for me.”
She began participating in #SewPhotoHop in September 2016. “The themes were so thought-provoking.”
Sew April’s beginnings
Ryliss decided that she was going to do an Instagram contest but she didn’t know when. “I started investigating what month did not have a contest. So I picked April calling it #SewApril. And I just had to change the year.
She began prepping for it in December, contacting all kinds of fabrics stores to participate, picking a variety of themes. Before she began #SewApril, her Instagram account had 10,000 followers. Two weeks after the contest began, it had grown to 18,000. And it continues to grow. I think maybe a year or so ago her followers exceeded 100,000 and now it’s more than doubled.
But Ryliss’s Instagram growth didn’t magically happen. It was a combination of #SewApril and all the time she puts into curating her feed. She spends about an hour a 45 minutes everyday on her Instagram account, posting 8 to 12 times a day. Yes, you read that right – 8 to 12 times a day!
“Today I did 12,” says Ryliss. “I like to post 8, sometimes 9, sometimes 6 in my collections.”
Ryliss saves images on her phone. And if she finds a design that’s out there in retail, she tries to find four patterns that match it. Plus she tries to answer all comments. As she works on her posts, she is simultaneously working on her iPad to find the information she needs for each post.
She has created a schedule of what types of photos she posts each day. Here’s what she posted on her account about two weeks ago about her IG schedule.
Her caption reads:
I want YOU to know what I Instagram about to inspire you to sew. ❤️Ryliss
Tip- if you want to look up a collection of dresses, go to #dressfriday. If you want to see a variety of skirts go to #skirtwednesday. Statement Sleeves have been all the rage for several seasons. #statementsleeves has over 14,200 posts! Interested in pants? Check out #seasonoftheleg. Looking for a fabric store? Simple as #fabricstore or #onlinefabricstore.
So if you’ve made a dress or skirt, be sure to use those hashtags and you may be featured in her feed. (My Chardon skirt with an adjustable waist appeared on her feed last year as one of her #skirtwednesday posts.) And be sure to check out #statementsleeves. Ryliss had been using the hashtag #yearofthesleeve but when the year was over, she realized she needed a more evergreen hashtag – thus #statementsleeves.
Despite her Instagram success, Ryliss doesn’t feel like an expert on Instagram. “I’m always learning,” says Ryliss.
I asked Ryliss, “What are the hashtags you use most often?”
She uses hashtags specific to the image she’s posting and then uses the following hashtags:
Sew April 2019
This year’s Sew April contest began yesterday (use the hashtag #SewApril2019). In one of her recent Sew April posts, she says it “was designed to inspire you to sew, design, knit, weave and crochet. Post a photo or video relating to the daily theme for an opportunity to share your post with others and win prizes. The contest is open to everyone, no restrictions. Post every day or whenever you want.”
Here are the themes:
Be sure to check out the hashtag #SewApril2019 and get inspired!
Thanks for sharing, Ryliss! And please visit my blog tomorrow for her comments on pattern alterations, interfacing, her fabric stash and sewing patterns.