Nik Intan (far left) and Nazreen (third from left) with students making patterns. Photo by Mahzir Mat Isa.

With ready-made clothes easily and cheaply available, tailoring has become a skill less common these days. But it’s still worth learning, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup

IT is 11am on a Thursday and I find myself studying a scaled-down paper pattern for a tunic dress. I am at a sewing class in Kota Damansara organised by Bengkel called Sew Senang. I’m supposed to transfer the pattern onto a piece of brown paper where it should follow my actual frame.

The class instructor, Nazreen Datuk Sheik has already taken my measurements — shoulder width, dress length, etc — and it seems simple enough. But I still can’t imagine how a flat pattern on a piece of paper would have any correlation to a wearable garment.

Sewing is a rare skill among my generation. When my mother was my age she could whip up a baju kurung for a formal function overnight. I, on the other hand, can only sew on loose buttons and replace the elastic band on my pyjama pants. It doesn’t really compare.

And it’s not like she didn’t teach me how to sew. I made a pretty serviceable baju kurung for college in cotton plaid fabric — cotton being an easy material to work with and plaid because the printed boxes make it easier to sew since you just follow the lines. But that was the only garment I have ever made, till now.

A Sew Senang class in full swing. Photo by Mahzir Mat Isa.

My classmate, Nina Omar has brought her mother’s old Singer sewing machine to class to learn how to use it. It’s missing a bobbin — the cylinder that holds the thread inside the machine — but a replacement is easily found.

“It’s been lying around at home for years,” says the stay-at-home mother of two young boys. “I’ve always wanted to sew. With my sons now in school, I have time to learn and do all these projects.”

Nina’s attempting to make a pair of simple drawstring trousers. Considering this is her second Sew Senang class, she’s quicker at making sense of the pattern and transferring the measurements onto the brown paper.

Once the pattern is measured and drawn using a sewing ruler, the paper is cut and pinned on top of the fabric. Nazreen determines how wide the seam allowance should be — either 1cm or 2cm. We mark the allowance with chalk and proceed to cut the fabric.

We continue with a serrated roller or tracing wheel and tracing paper, running it on the edge of the paper pattern to mark where we need to sew on the fabric. I remember all these tools from my mother’s sewing box, but I never really knew what they were for.

Nina is learning to use her mother’s sewing machine. Photo by Mahzir Mat Isa.

Once the preparatory steps are done, we can finally begin to sew. I pick a bright orange thread to go with my bright orange and pink polka dot fabric. The thread in the bobbin is white, but it should be alright since it would only show on the inside of the garment.

My dress comes with a zip opening, and now I need to sew the zip onto the garment. This requires a change of feet on the sewing machine. A “feet” is a changeable attachment that is used to hold the fabric flat as it is fed through the machine to be stitched. Because a zip is not flat, it requires a different feet so that the zip can go through the machine.

We use a hidden zip, and I had to attempt the sewing a couple of times because the stitches weren’t close enough to hide it. The other tricky bit was sewing the sleeves — there’s not a lot of space to work with, and you have to allow for a little bit of “give” so that the attachment comes together.

In four hours, Nina has pretty much completed her trousers, even though she still needs to ask a professional tailor to seam the frayed edges of the fabric. She’s using an elastic rubber band instead of drawstring on the waist. These are not fancy trousers, more like fancy pyjama pants, I tell her.

“These are expensive pyjama pants, considering the price of the fabric!” she says. But she’s excited to see that with the remaining material, she can make several more pairs for her husband and sons, especially since she now knows how to use her mum’s sewing machine.

Meanwhile, my dress turns out okay, though I will be first to admit that it’s not going to win any prizes for style or neatness. But I feel satisfied seeing it completed. It’s easier and perhaps even cheaper to buy clothes off the rack, but you won’t get the same kind of pleasure with that.

Sewing itself, with the rattle of the sewing machine and working with your hands, feels therapeutic. You focus on the task in front of you and time just passes by. I’m seriously considering making my own baju kurung for Hari Raya.

Sewing class instructor Nazreen with student Nik Nurul Iman. Photo by Mahzir Mat Isa.

“I LEARNT how to sew because I had a fashion line and I wanted to be able to control production. If I know how it’s done, then my staff can’t cut corners,” says Nik Intan Rashid, founder of Bengkel in Kota Damansara, Selangor.

Her fashion label Alana Ilham specialises in batik, and it won first prize at the 2013 Piala Seri Endon. She doesn’t run the label anymore but she holds batik classes at Bengkel, which she hopes to turn into an artist hub.

“I started Bengkel in October last year, to help fulfil my creative self and help other people to teach and learn. I started the sewing class because it’s a skill I already have. I make clothes for my family regularly.”

Our mothers a generation ago were so adept with their household skills, and they seemed to be able to sew so naturally. Nik Intan agrees, saying that our generation’s emphasis on academic excellence doesn’t provide much leeway for these kinds of pursuit. But academic excellence doesn’t always guarantee a bright future.

“With the current economy, I've seen many friends and family lose their jobs and it has been very hard on them. So I feel that it is important for us to have another skill. If you're an engineer with a very specific but now-irrelevant job scope, what else can you do? If you can sew, paint or do woodwork, then you can at least try to make money out of it.”

For more information on Sew Senang, visit Bengkel.Kami on Facebook.

“With the current economy, I feel it is important to have another skill. If you can sew, paint or do woodwork, then you can at least try to make money out of it.” Nik Intan Rashid. Photo by Mahzir Mat Isa.

PROPER tools help make any job easier, and sewing is no different. These are some of the basic instruments to help you get your stitch on.

1- Dressmaking scissors: scissors are some of your most important tools, and you should use a sharp pair that fits nicely in your hands. Try many different pairs before choosing one; think of it like buying a pair of shoes. Do not use these to cut things other than fabric.

2- Sewing rulers: Sewing rulers have both centimetres and inches. They are also curved to help guide the markings on fabric or paper, since patterns are not always in a straight line.

3- Chalk: Fabric chalk is water-soluble and is used to make temporary markings on the fabric.

4- Tracing wheel and paper: Among the uses of these tools are to mark sewing lines on the fabric.

5- Dressmaker pins: Dressmaker pins are useful for keeping your pieces together until you stitch them together, as well as for fitting garments to the body and for draping on a dress form.

6- All-purpose scissors: these are used to cut the patterns after they are drawn on thin brown paper.

7- Snippers: Using a snipper to cut excess thread is much easier than using scissors. It’s also used to make notches on the fabric.

8- Seam ripper: Used to undo stitches. When using a ripper, work from the bobbin thread side of the seam.

9- Tape measure: A must for taking measurements, on the body or fabric.

10- Needle and thread: Machine needles may differ according to the type of sewing machine, and it’s also different to hand-sewing needles. There are also many different types of thread, which must correspond to both the needle size and fabric you are sewing with.

Source: Adapted from

Tools for sewing (l-r), scissors, chalk, rulers, tracing wheel, dressmakers pins, tracing paper. Also in the picture is the pattern for a pair of shorts. Photo by Mahzir Mat Isa.

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