Shams of Communing With Fabric on Sewing & Style

Today in my series of interviews with sewing bloggers on their connection between sewing & style, I’m delighted to feature Shams of Communing with Fabric. Shams is a hoot! Her spunky enthusiasm, passion for sewing, boundless creativity, and tell-it-like-it-is attitude are totally infectious. I’ve had the delight of hanging out with her in person so I can say that she’s even more awesome in real life than on her blog! I love that, while her body shape and aesthetic are totally different from my own, I’m still inspired by every single garment she makes. Her “freak flag” is awesome, and I love seeing it fly! I’m delighted to share her thoughts on the connection between her ability to sew and her personal style.

Hello! My name is Shams (aka Sharon) and, by profession, I am a technical writer (for Google) who lives in San Francisco. I have two daughters, ages 21 and 19, who no longer live with me, and a curmudgeonly cat who deigns to share my house – which is full of fabric goodness. I love to sew, and I love to write about sewing at my blog,”Communing With Fabric“. I like to think that I represent sewers in the 50-something age bracket (or thereabouts) who have a funky aesthetic, and also busty sewers of all ages. I love to take a pattern and bend it to my will.

shams of communing with fabric sewing style

Describe your style.
My style is best described as “funky casual”, but comfort is also essential. I need to be able to move in my clothes: ride a bike, walk long distances, or take a nap. (Yes, napping is very important!)

Describe what you sew.
I primarily sew everyday wear with a funky twist. (Well, sometimes the twist is funky, sometimes not.) I rarely have occasion to dress up, so I sew clothes that I can wear every day, but I like my garments to include unique details, unusual fabrics, or interesting seaming. I especially enjoy sewing jackets, coats, pants, and skirts.

I sew some tops but I almost never wear a dress, so I rarely make one. I sew short skirts in winter and long skirts in summer. (Why, you ask? Because I like to cover up, so I wear a short winter skirt with tights or leggings, often with boots, but I wear a longer summer skirt over bare legs.) I also love pants – from baggy harem pants, to skinny pants, to leggings – in solid fabrics or in wild prints. Bring it on!

What inspires or influences your style?
I get very excited by interesting details and unusual construction, and I love to study boutique RTW and online clothing sites. I make heavy use of Pinterest and am a fan of Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo. It is my nature to constantly study any clothing that is within my view – I have gotten great ideas when studying outfits while riding the subway, for example.

My body has a fairly unusual shape with a large bust, small hips and legs, a large waist, and no rear end to speak of, so many designs that work for most women, don’t work for me, such as ruffles or gathers over the bust, or (quel horreur), a Diane Von Furstenberg-style wrap dress, or a belted tenchcoat. Not.for.me. (Don’t get me wrong, I like them, but they do not like me.)

If I want to use an interesting technique or detail on a garment, I spend time thinking how I can make it work on my figure. For example, I wanted to do some lattice smocking on a garmentand most garments feature this detail on the torso, but I put it at
the hem of a pair of pants.

I look at every day as a chance to play dress-up. How do you play dress-up?
I absolutely express my creativity through my clothing! Several months ago I started a new job at Google after working for Sun and Oracle for 14 years. For Sun/Oracle, I worked from home where it didn’t matter what I wore, but working for Google involves going to the office 5 days a week. At first I played down my funky style, avoiding my more “out there” outfits, but I eventually started letting my freak flag fly.

I love the response that I have received: Some co-workers don’t look twice at what I wear, but I have also received many unsolicitations, even from men. I always assume that I dress too weirdly for most men to appreciate, so that was a pleasant surprise. My wardrobe makes me happy, and I love adding to it.

How does your passion for sewing influence your style?
My passion for sewing certainly enables my style! I can make what I want, regardless of what is available in RTW.

Does your passion for sewing influence the style of those around you?
You’d have to ask this question of those around me. :)

What about over time: Has your style changed with time? Have your sewing abilities changed with time?
I am in my mid 50s, so I would hope so! It would be strange to cling to the same style over many decades, when working at different life pursuits, fulfilling different life roles, and at different body weights.

I made my first garment on a sewing machine around the age of 9 – it was a brown A-line skirt with a lapped zipper. Later, I was in 4H and I helped teach sewing as a junior leader. Thanks to all that I had learned from my mother (though sometimes we found ourselves glaring at each other from across the cutting table when I resisted her sage advice), I knew more about sewing techniques than the adult leader. Early on I started saving for my first real sewing machine – my mother matched my savings and gave me a vintage black Singer for Christmas when I was 11. It was 1970 and I never looked back.

By my teens, I was sewing garments that were well made, but they did not fit me. My mother did not have to do much altering, as patterns pretty much fit her right out of the envelope. At the age of 16 I suddenly developed, filling out a DD bra cup, and my mother had no clue on how to teach me to fit that shape. As a small-busted woman, it was completely outside of her expertise. At the time, in the 70s, there weren’t many available resources with this information (it was long before the internet), so I made garment after garment that didn’t fit me properly. I became increasingly frustrated and my clothes were given to one of my mother’s friends who had a smaller bust. (My bust kept growing, by the way, which is why I coined the phrase “uber bust” for extra ample bust sizes.)

It wasn’t until after I graduated from UC Berkeley in 1982 with a degree in computer science, and settled in Redwood City in my new job as a programmer, that I started taking fashion and sewing classes at Cañada College in the evenings, under Ronda Chaney. This was when I started learning how to fit my body. I took a year of pattern drafting and lost all fear of patterns. I also took classes on wearable art, fashion history, and tailoring. At the same time, I was taking classes at the Sewing Workshop in San Francisco from Marcy Tilton, Kenneth King, Sandra Betzina, Tara Arnold, Candace Kling, and Fred Bloebaum. This was back when Marcy Tilton owned The Sewing Workshop, before she created The Sewing Workshop pattern line, and many years before she started designing patterns for Vogue. It was due to all of these classes, along with my obsessive nature, that my skills were finally at the level where I had the confidence to tackle most any project that I envisioned.

Has a change in style caused you to change your sewing abilities? Has a change in sewing abilities caused you to change your style? I am always learning, always experimenting. For example, I first learned the conventional approach for a Full Bust Adjustment (FBA), but I often try different approaches, with varying success. As a result, I have developed an arsenal of approaches that I use in different situations. I have published pages on my blog of some of my more unusual techniques, especially those that increase a pattern at the bust, without increasing at the hip. I also use a different technique for knits, which I call a Vertical Only FBA, that employs negative ease. I recently used an experimental FBA on a Moto jacket – a technique that I have never seen used anywhere – with some success. I haven’t published it, because I don’t feel that it is perfected, and it certainly flies in the face of conventional wisdom. But I believe in experimentation!

What about in the beginning: Did you learn to sew so that you could have a certain style?
I learned to sew because I had an innate need to create and I was drawn to fabric and fiber from toddler-hood, back when I made clothes for my troll dolls out of fabric scraps. I also taught myself to knit, crochet, embroider, and tat (from books) at a young age. One of my writer friends has labeled me a Serial Hobbyist, but sewing is the passion I return to again and again. So, no, I did not learn to sew in order to create a specific style. It wasn’t until my kids were almost grown that I figured out my style.

Does your style require that you are able to sew?
It’s not required, but it would be hard to afford my tastes if I did not sew. I prefer clothing from expensive boutiques that carry garments from Europe, and from small-scale U.S. designers, and I favor fabrics Japan and Korea. (If you haven’t checked out recent fabrics and designs from Korea, you might be impressed.) Also, because I am difficult to fit, sewing is necessary in order to have clothes that fit my bust, but don’t swallow me up through the hips.

Anything else you would like to say about sewing and style?
First and foremost, have fun! If sewing is boring to you, then maybe re-think your approach. Some people want to attain perfection – to sew the perfect couture Chanel jacket, for example. That’s great if that’s what excites you, but that is not my cup of tea. Some people like to sew with a plan and to make perfectly coordinated wardrobes. I can’t seem to sew this way, though I rarely end up sewing orphans – my clothes do “go” together. Some people want to draft every pattern from scratch. I used to feel that way, but quickly realized that I found it to be a tedious endeavour. It slowed down my creative process and I had less time to use the many fun techniques that I wanted to try. For me, fun means using an interesting fabric, employing an unusual closure (I’ve used keyrings from the hardware store), designing the perfect pocket, or creating surprise with a crazy lining. (To name a few examples.) I love using materials in unexpected ways.

I love my TNT (Tried ‘N True) patterns! When sewn up as designed, they guarantee success and are also a perfect springboard for
innovation. I recommend that you develop a stable of TNT patterns. It allow you to really take off and make most anything you want with greater confidence.

Finally, the most crucial habit that influenced my style was when I started blogging and taking selfies in my clothing. I learned, much to my chagrin, that the mirror lies. The quickest way to see what really works (and what doesn’t) is to take some selfies, front and back. (You don’t have to post them anywhere if you don’t want to, but always take a few pictures from behind!) It will open your eyes.

I invested in an inexpensive tripod and remote for my high-end camera. It has been a revelation and has impacted my style more
than any other single thing I have done. As a result, I started sewing differently, I changed my hairstyle (and hair color), and I invested in more shoes and accessories. When I am asked if I like something I have recently sewn, I respond that I won’t know until I have seen the pictures.


Thanks, Erin, for this interview! It took me an entire evening (and then some) to answer your questions, but it brought up a lot of great memories, especially about my mom, and the 80s, before children and marriage, when I was an avid student learning from many sewing greats. I hope I get to see you again before you flee to the great Northwest. Your energy and enthusiasm will be missed here in San Francisco.

Comments 13

  1. Thanks, Erin, for your wonderful series on “Sewing & Style” bloggers. It is a real treat to read these interviews!

  2. Great interview – thanks Erin and Shams. It is fun learning new things about your favourite bloggers. And Shams all that learning from those great teachers!! No wonder you make such fabulous garments.

  3. Wonderful, Shams! I’d gleaned a lot of your sewing philosophy from your blog, but Erin’s questions brought out some terrific details. I’m experiencing a style shift as I settle into my 40s and a new SF wardrobe (I don’t need *nearly* so much winter gear as I did in Brooklyn!), so I especially appreciate your insights there.

    Thanks for doing this series, Erin! I’m really enjoying “meeting” the sewing blogosphere — it’s been several years since I was active on Pattern Review, and in the meantime there are a squillion more sewists online!

    1. Post

      So glad you’re enjoying the series! I’m actually looking forward to moving to Seattle because it will mean that I will need more clothing since there are more seasons :)

      1. Ha! That makes total sense. In SF, I’ve been enjoying how both wool and cotton are appropriate pretty much year-round, especially with layering.

        In your post about your mom’s quilting, you talked about the Vashon Quilt Guild — my sweetie, Greg Burton, grew up on Vashon! He was delighted to see the quilt with Vashon landmarks. Has she lived there long? Greg’s stories make it sound like it was a truly amazing place to grow up.

        1. Post

          My mom has lived on Vashon 13 years now which is almost long enough to be called an islander :) My sweetie and I are actually moving there soon and thinking about having our own family on the island since yes, it does sound like an amazing place to grow up.

      2. Hi, Erin,

        I’m delighted you are moving to the Seattle area and hope that our paths will cross. I have been making garments since the age of 10, but took many years off, and am now jumping in again. One of my favorite local fabric stores is District Fabrics in the Fremont neighborhood – you will want to pay a visit! Seattle welcomes you!

  4. You’re cloths look fantastic on you. I agree with you that one of the most fabulous things about sewing is the detailing; the fabric, finishing and little details

  5. I am a long-time reader of Shams’ blog. Always a treat to see her imagination and fearless creativity at work! Thanks for a delightful story! I’m still marveling overt the treehouse blog post- great fun!

  6. I loved reading about how Shams learnt to sew and her thoughts on sewing and style. I wish we had sewing tutors like that around here! I came across her blog because I have a ‘top heavy’ figure and was looking for FBA advice. I’m very glad she’s blogging – there seem to be quite a few bloggers with the ‘pear shape’ it’s such a relief to know someone else is out there sewing who is fitting a similar body type to me!

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