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

DIY Shibori – Indigo dyeing fabric – Part 1

Hi, earlier this year, I took an indigo dyeing (also known as Shibori) workshop taught by Anna Joyce at Craftcation, which was so easy and so much fun. You can see photos from the workshop in my post My Craftcation 2016 Weekend. When I posted photos on my Instagram feed (@csews), a Bay Area Sewists member Ali (@sewmsboncha), commented that I should teach it to our meetup group (I organize monthly meetups for the Bay Area Sewists). I thought, why not pass along what I learned?

Shibori - Indigo dye results - Bay Area Sewists - CSews.com

So four months later, I finally taught the Shibori workshop the first Saturday in August, passing along what I learned. The above photo is some of the lovely dyed fabric drying outside. We held this meetup at The Sewing Room in Alameda, courtesy of its lovely owner Jennifer Serr who graciously let us invade her space last Saturday afternoon.  Jennifer offers sewing classes at The Sewing Room and sells Tilly and the Buttons patterns as well as her own pattern line, Bonjour Teaspoon, in the shop.

I used the same indigo tie dye kits we used at Craftcation – the Jacquard Indigo Tie Dye Kit. I also bought five-gallon buckets at Home Depot , which we filled with four gallons of water. Here are some of the supplies I gathered: buckets, sticks to stir the dye, and the kits – taken before I left for Alameda.

Indigo tie dye supplies - CSews.com

The kits are really easy to use. You get the indigo powder and two other separately packaged ingredients – thiox and soda ash – to pour in the water. (Thiox is a reducing agent, which means it reduces the oxygen in the water. Soda ash fixes the dye to the fiber you’re dyeing.) According to Anna Joyce, it doesn’t matter what order you put them in because the indigo is pre-reduced, which means it easily dissolves in the water.

However, I just watched this video by Jacquard, which says to put the indigo in first, followed by the soda ash and thiox. Well, we did it both ways indigo first and last and didn’t have any problems with the dye. You can always follow the manufacturer’s instructions and watch their video –Indigo Tie Dye Kit from Jacquard Products:

I got the kits at Artists & Craftsman Supply in Berkeley, which is conveniently located near Stonemountain & Daughter Fabrics. 😉 So Bay Area folks, the next time you’re buying fabric, just go across the street and walk a half-block down to the art supply store and pick up an indigo dye kit. You can also buy the kits from Dharma Trading here ($8.49 per kit) or on Amazon for $9.97, affiliate link here. There is enough dye for 15 shirts or 15 yards of fabric.

I also got three different sizes of rubber bands to use (size 8, 16 and 64), plus cotton twine to use to manipulate the fabric. Size 8 are really tiny – they fit around my pinkie finger. I remember that we had tiny rubber bands at Craftcation, which are useful when you want to make small circle shapes in your fabric. I ordered them via Amazon (affiliate link here) because regular office supply stores don’t carry that size. They had a lot of size 16 (thin long rubber bands) and size 64,the thick rubber bands. In reading about Shibori – after the workshop – I see that at Craftcation, we mostly did the shape resist technique – or itajime shibori – where you fold and bind the fabric and a variation of kumo shibori – pleat and bind. Some of just did binding, no pleating.

Rubber bands for indigo dyeing - CSews.com

I gave each Bay Area Sewist a yard of muslin to play around with. (The dye works best with natural fibers – cotton, linen, silk, wool, and rayon.) We folded, twisted, clamped, and tied the fabric and then put it in the dye bath. I prewashed (and ironed!) the muslin a few days before the Bay Area Sewists workshop to ensure that the dye would take. At Craftcation the tea towels and tote bags we dyed were a little dye resistant. The finishing on the fabric was the problem. Anna said she didn’t have any problems at another workshop she taught so she was surprised. I guess the materials came from a different supplier.

Shibori - indigo dyeing - folding and binding fabric - Bay Area Sewists - CSews.com

One member, Maria, asked if the fabric should be wet first and I said it wasn’t necessary because we didn’t wet it at Craftcation and I prewashed the fabric.

I relied on my Craftcation experience to lead the workshop but in retrospect I should have at least read the Jacquard instructions more thoroughly. My apologies, Bay Area Sewists! I spent more time gathering supplies than anything else. Jacquard says to wet the fabric after you fold/tie/bind it and squeeze out the excess water and air. Then you put it in the dye bath. If I do this again, I’d like to do a comparison – prepare the fabric in the exact same way, then wet one piece of fabric and leave the other one dry and see what happens after dyeing it.

Here’s what I did with one piece of muslin – accordion-folded and then folded in thirds and then I held it together with three rubber bands. The rubber bands weren’t too tight because I was more interested in the folding lines and didn’t really care about the lines the rubber bands would create.

Shibori - Indigo dyeing - pleating fabric

 

As you can see, there’s a lot of white space. I decided I wanted it to be blue so I put it back in the dye bath and now it looks like the last photo. I think I like the previous version better. Next time!

Everyone had fun experimenting. Here’s how Jacquard says you’re supposed to take your fabric out of the dye bath -” squeeze it just below the surface as you slowly remove it from the vat. You want to prevent splashing as this introduces oxygen back into the vat.” You can read the full instructions here.

Shibori - Indigo dyeing fabric - Bay Area Sewists - C Sews

One fascinating thing about indigo dye is that the fabric is green when you first take it out of the dye and then when it oxidizes, it turns indigo blue. For a darker blue, you just wait about 20 minutes for it to fully oxidize and then put it back in the dye bath. You can keep putting it back in for a darker color – but you need to wait for it to oxidize before you dip it again. Keep in mind that when wet, the color looks a couple of shades darker than it will when dry.

I took a bucket of dye home and posted a video on Instagram that shows how green fabric initially is. You can see that it gets darker when it’s out of the dye bath – and you can see the other fabric that’s been out of the dye bath for a longer time. (You might have to wait a little bit for it to load because it’s taking the video from IG.)

A video posted by Chuleenan | C Sews (@csews) on

What I learned at Craftcation was the tighter you tie/twist/clamp it, the more white space you’ll have. So if you want more indigo blue in your fabric, make sure more fabric is exposed to the dye and that you loosely tie/twist your fabric.

What’s so great about indigo dyeing is that you see your results so quickly and you can just have fun experimenting with manipulating the fabric.

Shibori - Indigo dyed fabric - Bay Area Sewists meetup - CSews.com

At Craftcation we were only using the dye for that workshop, which is likely why Anna Joyce didn’t mention anything about not introducing oxygen to the dye bath. No one was going to keep the dye so it didn’t matter if the dye oxidized. If the dye is oxidized, it will be indigo, .

The bottom line: You do need to be careful about introducing oxygen to the dye bath. This means no splashing when you put the fabric in the dye bath, slowly stirring the dye, and putting the lid on it in between dyeing. If the dye oxidizes it won’t adhere to the fibers as well.

The day after the workshop, I cut up a couple of yards of muslin and experimented with different folding/twisting/binding techniques. I’ll reveal the results of those experiments next week – with plenty of photos – in Part 2. UPDATE: I decided to write a post about washing indigo-dyed fabric before I wrote about my dye experiments.

Meanwhile, check out the Shibori techniques in these articles. (If I do the workshop again, I’ll have a lot more information to pass along!)

  • Shibori DIY – a Dharma Trading article on three Shibori resist techniques: Arashi (pole-wrapping), Kumo (twist and bind), and Itajime (shape resist).
  • DIY Shibori – a HonestlyWTF article showing the Arashi and Kumo techniques with photos of the binding and the results.
  • DIY Shibori Designs – a Design Sponge article on three folding techniques and how to make abstract rings of white.

Have you done any indigo dyeing? What’s your favorite binding technique?

Shibori - indigo dyeing workshop - CSews.com