When Emily Shockey learned to sew, she began by learning her machine. She learned to thread her sewing machine, how to align the fabric and the pattern within it, how to put the right touch of pressure – not too fast – on the foot pedal, how to run the fabric through in a perfectly straight line. “The basic knowledge of the machine is essential for you to be able to create anything,” said Robert Hines, the owner of Sun Sew Vac in Mount Vernon Plaza, where Emily, 15, first began sewing lessons with a group of fifth-grade friends.
Four years later, the friends are no longer taking lessons and Emily, now a freshman at West Potomac High School, is no longer making doll clothes. Her garments have won the “tweens and teens” age group for the last two years at Pfaff Convention competitions with contestants from North America, Australia and New Zealand. Pfaff, a premier German sewing machine maker, sponsors some of the most prestigious sewing contests in the world.
Emily said her interest in sewing began as “just something to do in the afternoon.” But the more time she spent in the sewing room and the more challenging her projects became, the more she began to understand that there was something inside her that allowed her to make garments that were more than the sum of her ability to select a fabric, judge a pattern, run a machine and stitch a straight line. It was the finished product, not a single difficult stitch, perfect hem or precisely draped pleat, that opened Emily’s mind to the idea that she would spend her life doing this. “It was just the whole, entire making a garment concept,” she explained. “I thought that was a really big accomplishment, making [my] first outfit.”
“She has a special ability, I believe,” said Hines. “We haven’t seen that out of any student that we’ve had, and we’ve been in business 31 years. She can create easily. She has the ability to put things together. And that requires a lot of skills – visual skills, hand-eye coordination, mathematics. There’s a lot of different things that you have to be able to do to actually construct a garment successfully. Lots of people can throw a garment together. But to actually put it together to look good and fit good, that’s a different story.”
“Fit” seems to be the term that best expresses this ability to make a garment transcend the series of technical steps that created it. “There are a lot of sewers that are out there, but there aren’t a lot of people that create garments,” Hines said, “and the reason why is they can’t fit garments, to themselves or someone else.”
The ability to fit a garment to a body separates sewing enthusiasts, “home-dec” sewers and quilters, from professional dressmakers. “It’s like Tiger Woods,” Hines said. “He has a special feel. Emily has a special feel for it as well. You have to have it inside you to be able to create nice, high quality garments.”
BUT IT STARTS with learning your machine. Emily began with a basic model. She learned that slower is better with the machine’s foot-operated power pedal (“You can’t be all Speedy Gonzalez”). She learned to move the fabric beneath the needle, ruler-straight forever. She learned to appreciate fabrics for their color and texture and to choose the patterns that would complement them. Then she began mixing and matching patterns, finding the elements she wanted. She worked up to increasingly intelligent machines, eventually learning to harness the possibilities created by models that “think” for themselves. “The sewing machine became smart,” Emily said.
Costing thousands of dollars and equipped with computer brains, the machines allow Emily to decorate her garments with detailed embroidery to an extent that would be impossibly time-consuming if hand-sewn. Now Emily chooses a digital embroidery design, uploads it from her computer onto a memory card, and plugs the card into her sewing machine. Then she spools the colored threads she wants, and presses a button. The machine goes to work. She has to monitor it as it whirs above the fabric, making sure nothing bunches up or gets jammed. “It opened her horizons,” said Hines. “She has a tool that fits what her capabilities are.”
Sun Sew Vac was the first store in the area to sell computerized embroidery machines when they appeared in 1985. Most people were skeptical that a skill that had been exclusively the domain of skilled artisans for hundreds of years, and more recently of commercial producers, could ever become popular in the home. “Purists didn’t think embroidery machines would make it,” he said.
Hines has had a shop in Mount Vernon Plaza since 1975. He began his career as a teenager in a job program at Fort Hunt High School, working part-time for a vacuum store on King Street in Old Town. At 20, he pulled together $3,000 to start his own business on Route 1. In 1980 he began selling sewing machines as well as vacuums. Since the turn of the century, he has seen the popularity of sewing sharply increase. “It’s huge. It’s gone way up.” He believes the nesting instinct may have played a role in the rediscovery of domestic pastimes like sewing and knitting.
EMBROIDERY, even by machine, is time-consuming. A plain dress might take a week. An embroidered dress will take a month, Emily said. She made the blue formal dress that won last year’s Pfaff competition for a winter cotillion dance. Her instructor, Deborah Lesley, estimated it took 25 to 30 hours for the embroidery alone. “That was my Christmas vacation,” Emily said, “to watch the embroidery.”
Emily began the dress with the idea of winter. Wanting cold colors, she chose different shades of blue. After finding a pattern and a fabric she liked, she had to put the dress together and hand-sew all the hems, so they wouldn’t show through. Fitting it to herself required trying on the dress again and again, making minute adjustments each time. But Emily enjoys every step of the process. She often moves from station to station, completing one task while the machine does another. “Sometimes I’ll be down in the sewing room for a good four hours,” she said. “I’ll just get so wrapped up in what I’m doing that I won’t pay attention to the time.”
“That product right there, [the blue dress] just kind of pulled together her last few years and her creativity,” said Emily’s mother, Michelle Shockey. “I really saw, ‘Okay, she really is enjoying this.’”
Garments will always be the end result of Emily’s artistic expression. But a single dress from a pattern is not the final “final product” Emily aspires to. She said she’s looking forward to West Potomac’s fashion design academy, which is only offered to upperclassmen, because she wants to learn the skills that will allow her to push her creativity backward. Instead of searching for patterns, she will create them herself, learning to professionally draw the ideas she is now only sketching, and to fit her designs onto a body-shaped form that will help her create the specifics of the pattern she wants. This pattern will be the DNA of the dress she will build for and fit to the bodies of paying customers.
She added that her dress for this year’s Pfaff competition will combine the two styles that pique her interest. “I like a classy type of simple dress,” Emily said. “But I also like a punk-rocker-edge type of design too.”