What does a dead president have to do with sewing...

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We all know the history about Lincoln and Kennedy being assassinated.

But what about the other two presidents? Can you name them right off the top of your head?

And what does this have to do with sewing?

Well, let me tell you a story...

President Garfield was shot July, 2 1881 by a guy who was cuckoo bananas named Charles Guiteau.

He thought he was besties with the new prez and was convinced he would be getting a cush White House appointment as soon as Garfield was settled into office.

Guiteau was convinced he was the reason the new prez had been elected.

Sooo, not the case but he was cuckoo bananas...

After repeatedly attempting to see the president and being repeatedly denied, he decided the new prez was an ungrateful jerk and needed to die.

Garfield had only been in office for about 4 months when Guiteau followed him to the train station and shot him in the back, true cowardly style.

This was back in the days when the prez and his family could just wander around town with no protection!

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The thing is, Garfield didn’t die right away.

The bullet missed all of his organs and lodged near his spine not really doing any major damage.

He was quickly gathered up and moved to a room in the train station onto a dirty mat. Yuck.

Where his bullet wound was immediately poked and prodded with dirty fingers. More yuck.

The decision was made to move him to the White House for care. This is where things take a turn. And not for the better, mind you.

Let’s go back in time just a bit. To a guy named Dr. Lister.

This is the dude who created and implemented the idea of a sterile surgery environment. That having clean hands and instruments would prevent death.

Well, duh.

But at the time this was a revolutionary idea. Other doctors thought he was cuckoo bananas.

He based his idea and theory on Louis Pasteur's work with microbes.  

We all know now how right he was, but at the time the “Old School” way of thinking and practicing medicine was “the dirtier the better.”

Old School doctors, particularly doctors practicing in the US, thought there were no such things as “germs” and that the more bloody and disgusting your surgery apron was the better the doctor you were.

Even going so far as holding surgery knives in their mouths as they worked! Double freaking yuck!

No wonder people died at staggering rates! And it wasn't from the surgery, it was from the massive infections they would get afterwards.

The 1876 Centennial World’s Fair Philadelphia

This is the year that Dr. Lister was touring the US trying to convince the medical profession that antisepsis and cleanliness saved lives.

He was met with complete skepticism and basically told he was an idiot and “wrong”. American doctors had no room for his way of thinking.

They were going to continue practicing medicine their way because that's how they were taught and therefore that was the only “right” way to practice.

Oh, nevermind that they were killing people with their stubborness to innovate and implement new tested and proven ideas. Pride much?

(This is the year that bananas were introduced to the US btw…)

And this was the World’s Fair that guy Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone.

He was the “Bell” of the ball with his new invention. But there was no room for handwashing…

Fast Forward to 1881.

Garfield has been shot. He’s back at the White House in remarkably good spirits despite the bullet lodged near his spine.

Dr. Lister is still seeing remarkable improvement in death rates in Europe due to his antiseptic and clean surgery practices.

But back in the good ole US of A, doctors still refuse to accept his evidence.

‘“It’s just not how is it done!”, they cry.

“We believe in practicing medicine the ‘old school’ way!”  

Despite the GLARING EVIDENCE that just washing your freaking hands can save lives.

I can just picture Dr. Lister doing a major facepalm.

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So enters the picture, Dr. Death. I mean Dr. Bliss. This guy.

He was a crook, a fraud, a liar. The epitome of medical malpractice.

And a guy with huge ego. He road on the coattails of the doctor who had attended to Lincoln when he had been shot.

He road that fame to build his own medical practice. (All he did was stand in the room while Lincoln was being treated)

He also lost his medical license for a while for selling a “cancer cure”.

Lincoln's son was also Garfield's assistant.

Neither men knew of Dr. Bliss’s unsavory reputation.

All both men knew was that he had “attended” to the past president and had built his reputation on it. They both thought he was legit.

He was brought in to treat Garfield by Lincoln's son, signing Garfield’s death warrant in the process.

Bliss was an egocentric liar who adhered wholeheartedly to the “old school” way of practicing medicine and had zero tolerance for new ideas.

And did I mention sadistic?

He repeatedly tortured the president by sticking his dirty fingers in the bullet wound and probing it with a filthy metal probe trying to find the bullet.

All without any anesthetic, which as available at the time in the form of ether.

Introducing dirt, filth, and no telling what kind of body juices left over on that dirty probe from the last guy he used it on.

Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone guy, believed he could help the president.

He spent countless hours developing a device that could detect the metal bullet. The precursor to the modern metal detector.

He tested in on several Civil War veterans who had metal shrapnel left in their bodies with perfect success.

Now he had a device that could help Garfield.

But convincing Bliss to let him use it on the prez to find the bullet was another story..

He was finally able to convince Bliss to let him try.

With explicit instructions to remove all metal from the room and to place Garfield on a bed with no metal box springs.

Bell attempted twice to locate the bullet and failed.

(This was the only time the device ever failed) He couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong since his other tests had proven successful.

Dr. Bliss then took it upon himself to publicly disparage Bell and his failed attempts to help the president. And falsely claim that the prez was getting better due solely to his medical care.

Come to find out, Bliss deliberately ignored Bell’s request to remove the metal box springs to sabotage the search for the bullet.

He wanted all of the glory of saving the President and wasn’t about to let anyone’s new fangled ideas or inventions get in his way.

He continued to torture the President, forcing him to eat rich meals he couldn’t stomach. And sticking his nasty fingers in the the bullet wound.

Over the course of almost two months, Garfield’s body became riddled with massive infection.

With no antibiotics at the time, he passed away slowly in pain and suffering.

During his autopsy, they found massive pus filled pockets surrounding the wound and extending into his body from all of the probing.

There is speculation that if he had just been left alone he would have lived.

The bullet had not done any major damage and had not caused any paralysis. There were many Civil War survivors living with bullet shrapnel in them just fine.

But Bliss, being ignorant, stubborn, and egocentric, killed the president.

Had he been more interested in saving lives than his own ego, he would have tried Lister’s approach and maybe saved the President.

Thus altering our US history for the better.

Garfield was a new kind of president, throwing out the spoils system and changing American politics.

He was an ardent supporter of African American civil rights. Had he lived to the end of his term, who knows where our nation might be today.

He was a beloved president that is now mostly forgotten.

At the time of his death, the nation went into a massive state of mourning. Before he died he wanted to be moved to a New Jersey Beach home to escape the terrible heat of the summer.

He was moved by a special cushioned train car because he was so ill.

There was not enough railway track to get him to the home. Two thousand American volunteers banded together and stayed up all night laying track to the door so he could die in peace near the cool shore.

When his train car got stuck on a small hill near the home, two hundred volunteers uncoupled his train car and pushed it the rest of the way to the cottage.

He died on September, 19 1881.

I don’t think there has been a president alive in the last 50 years that any American would think of doing this for now except maybe when Kennedy was assassinated.

So, what in the world has this got to do with sewing?

I hear this all the time, I mean all the time…

I sew “old school” and therefore new techniques are wrong and I don’t have time for them.

That’s not how I was taught to sew.

That’s not how my mom taught me and how her mom taught her, so what you are showing me is not the “right” way to sew.


It’s extremely common to find people offering bad sewing advice because they claim that it’s old school and therefore the “right” way to sew and everyone else is wrong.

Doesn’t this sound a liiiiittle bit like Dr. Bliss and the medical community at large 150 years ago?

The medical community was actually killing people (like a lot of people) because they refused to try new ideas and innovate.

They blindly clung to that “old School” way of practicing medicine mentality.

Ok, ok, so I know your sewing isn’t actually killing anyone (expect maybe your wallet), but is your attitude killing your creativity and your ability to improve?

There is more than one way to skin a cat and more than one way to sew a dress (my son hates that expression because he loves cats. I mean freakin loves them).

Think about where we would be today if people like Dr. Lister, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Steve Jobs hadn’t been willing to innovate, buck tradition, and try new ideas?

I mean, you wouldn’t be reading this on a tiny hand held computer! iphone anyone?

Just because something has been done one way doesn’t always make it the best way.

Let’s get into why this old school way of thinking persists.

First, it’s comfortable.

Some of us just really don’t like change.

We like rules and following them. Breaking the rules and tradition feels wrong, almost painful.

And I hear ya…

But the home sewing pattern industry was created well over a hundred years ago.

When pattern instructions were first introduced, the idea was that a home sewist wouldn't be interested in or even be able to sew with professional garment industry techniques.

This sounds like a man thought this up, just sayin…

To think, that woman at home wouldn’t be smart enough or talented enough to employ pro techniques.

And where were the women they were hiring for the pro garment industry coming from? Uh, at home…

Heck, a lot of them were children at the time.

So they dumbed down the sewing instructions.

And guess what? They made it actually harder to sew! What the what!

Yep. Home sewing pattern instructions actually work against you.

Making it way harder to sew up a garment without getting frustrated as hell and want to quit.

And the instructions haven’t really changed all that much. Facepalm.

And another guess what?

Home sewists learn to sew from home sewing instructions.

Meaning your mom and her mom and so on learned to sew the hard way. Thinking it was the only way.

I think it is an insult to our sewing predecessors that the pattern industry didn't trust them to be smart enough to sew like a pro.

I’ve also heard people say that home sewing methods must be more suitable to home sewing and pro sewing more suitable to pro sewing.

Not the case.

Especially when home sewing instruction and techniques make you want to give up and throw your sewing machine out of a two story window…

And it really only takes a few changes to sew more efficiently and professionally right at home.

It’s so simple it’s almost stupid.

For example. Reducing seam allowances.

In the pro industry, they don’t use ⅝” seams.

One, that extra little bit of fabric adds up over time, but most importantly, it is hard AF to sew certain parts of a garment with larger seam allowances.

Have you ever tried to set in a sleeve with a ⅝” seam allowance?

And couldn’t? Like no matter how many times you tried?

Try reducing the seam allowance down to ⅜” like in the industry. You will set that sleeve the first time, everytime.

You need a ⅝” seam allowance so the home sewist will have room to “fit”.

Well, ⅝ isn’t really a whole lot to work with in the first place.

In order to really fit your garment, you need to be sewing up a test garment first. Getting all of your fitting out of the way before you sew up your final garment.

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Once you've done all of your fitting you don’t need that ⅝”.

It just makes everything harder.

Especially sewing anything that has a curve.

And as soon as you have your seams sewn up, guess what the home sewing pattern instructions have you do?

Trim them down.

Imagine having all of your seams the smaller size before you sew up your garment. You can now skip this time wasting step.

Snipping notches vs cutting them outward

This is a hot button topic!

And who’d’ve thought sewing has hot button topics that get people so riled up!

Old school sewists will tell you snipping is wrong!

In the pro industry they never waste time cutting a notch outward. Period.

You will have old school sewists tell you to never snip into the seam allowance to mark a notch. Why?

Because that is not how they were taught.

Oh, and they will tell you that it will weaken the seam or that you need room for fitting. See above about fitting.

There are times when you have to snip into the seam allowance. Like clipping curves.

You clip right to the stitching. So no, snipping a small notch won’t hurt a darn thing.

And pros will tell you to snip to mark.

Take this excerpt from the Threads Sewing Guide. One of the best authorities on sewing techniques.

“Mark notches, dots, center back, and center front with snips, about ¼ in. long into the seam allowance at the marking position. Use only the tips of the scissors to prevent cutting beyond the stitching line. Making a single snip for a single notch, two snips for a double notch, and three snips for a triple notch.” Page 109

Occasionally the home sewing instructions get updated.

This is an excerpt from Simplicity pattern 8250: “To Quick Mark: Snip edge of fabric to mark notches, ends of fold lines and center lines.”

Snipping is fast, efficient, and saves a lot of time.

And some of us get very little sewing time so we need every second!

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Very rarely are there absolutes that apply to every situation

I see a lot of old school sewists offer advice with absolutes like:

You must



Take this type of advice with caution because there are hardly ever any absolutes in anything, let alone sewing.

For example, you must always wash all of your fabric everytime.

Terrible advice! I see this well meaning advice all the time in sewing groups.

Not all fabric can be washed, especially in the machine.

Toss a $50 a yard pure silk fabric in the wash or a beautiful 100% wool crepe that you splurged on, following this well meaning advice.

You will ruin your fabric. And there ain’t no goin back.

And you will cry.

Ask me how I know this…

There are just some fabrics that washing will change or ruin them.

Machine washing comes down to fiber content, recommended washing instructions found on the bolt, and garment intentions.

If you buy a 100% cotton and you intend to make pajama pants, you’re gonna want to wash it first.

Because it will shrink and you want the shrinking to happen before you cut out your pattern.

The $50 a yard silk that you intend to make into a boned evening gown. No way you’re gonna toss that in the wash. One, it will ruin the silk and you can’t wash metal boning. It will be a dry cleaned garment.

You should ask yourself: what is the fabric made of and will I be machine washing the garment?

This will help you decide what to do.

Some fabrics change texture when washed and you might not like it.

I washed a simple canvas duck once, blindly following the always wash advice. It completely changed the fabric and I hated it. I had to buy all new fabric.

The best advice is to wash a test swatch the way you intend to wash the garment and see what happens.

You can then decide what to do without risking all of your fabric at once.

The moral of the story is this: Just because it’s the way it’s always been done doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

Being open minded and willing to try new techniques can really change the way you sew, seeing amazing improvement and just a lot less frustration.

And if a technique works for you, great!

But it doesn't mean it’s the only technique out there that will produce great results.

And just because someone is trying something a different way, doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

I truly believe there are a lot of tried and true sewing techniques out there that are the bomb and work great.

But from experience and research, I know there are some techniques that are outdated and cause frustration and hair pulling.

My challenge to you is this: try a new sewing technique this week. Get out of your comfort zone. Try something that goes against what you were taught.

Who knows, your innovation might take the sewing world by storm!

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