You have more little ones than I do and not only do you find time to sew, but to design beautiful new patterns. Can you share a little about how you make time to do it all?

This question was recently posted to the S&S Facebook page, and it’s one I get from time to time via email as well. I’ve posted in my FAQs about the “do-it-all” myth, but I thought it might be time to just blog about this topic, since it’s near and dear to my heart. 🙂 off, I have to give vast amounts of credit to my amazing mother. Thirty-odd years ago, she began teaching my siblings and me how to manage and care for a household. By the time we could stand on a stool and reach the knobs, we sorted, washed, and folded the laundry. By the time I was 10, my younger brother, sister, and I were handling all the household chores (cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming, mopping, keeping our rooms neat, etc.). My parents taught us that, as members of a household “economy,” we all needed to learn how to do all the chores involved in keeping things humming, so we learned to prepare menus, cook, bake bread, and sew (even my brother could sew on a button and hem his own pants!). Because we did this from such a young age, it became as easy and natural as breathing. That doesn’t mean things always went perfectly, but they were routine to us and weren’t difficult. And because my mother didn’t have to worry over all the household chores, she was freed to do other things (like sewing, making dolls to sell, refinishing furniture, and editing manuscripts for my late father). My mother was a born organizer and taught me to do the same. My father was a great time manager and kept short, achievable lists of things that needed to be done. He taught me how to prioritize and set realistic goals. I can’t stress enough what a huge blessing this foundation has been to me.

My mother first attempted to teach me to sew when I was eight. Being the first-born perfectionist that I am, I caved into frustration immediately when my results didn’t look just like the pattern cover. 😉 I huffed and puffed my way through three projects before announcing that I was done with sewing and was giving up. My wise mother quietly put away my “mistakes” and bided her time. When I was 13 and saw the “Anne of Green Gables” miniseries, I promptly fell in love with vintage fashion and begged my mother to make me shirtwaists and long skirts and pinafores. Mom pointed at the sewing machine with a smile and offered to teach me to make them for myself. So I can honestly say that all my pattern designs started over 25 years ago! Mom patiently guided me through the process of creating my own patterns from photos and from original garments. I spent my teenage years dressing in vintage reproductions ranging from 1910s dresses with long aprons to 1930s sailor middies to 1950s pinafore dresses with full skirts. I was in hog heaven! But I never imagined I’d one day turn this skill into a business.

Yes, that's me on the left in my younger (thinner!) days. Those are my first two Regency gowns, too!

Fast forward to 1996, when newlywed me decided to launch a small custom sewing business from home. Friends obliged me by modeling my creations, and my brother urged me to put up a website (forcing me to learn HTML–thanks, David!). I grew the business that first year, and, once our first child was born, I sewed when he napped. I kept that up for the next four years, working on orders when my children were sleeping and on the occasional weekend when my husband had to be away. The business continued to grow, and I finally decided it was time to retire from the sewing end of things and just sell my patterns. I was homeschooling our eldest and looking forward to all that entailed, so the time was right. I’d introduced the original Regency Gown Pattern in 1998 and was totally surprised by its success. I published eight more patterns over the next few years, and a customer-turned-friend drew (and continues to draw) all my pattern cover art, saving me the embarrassment of showing my severely underdeveloped illustration skills! Thank you, Anna!

I soon reached a point where so many orders were coming in that I couldn’t make a once-a-week trip to the post office to ship things. I needed to go to daily shipping. This was a nice “problem” to have, but I began to wonder how I’d manage. I decided it was now time to “retire” from order fulfillment as well. We had a single gal from church living with us for a year, and she was delighted to take over order fulfillment while she was with us–my first official “employee.” After she moved on, I handed over that part of the business to a dear family from our church who already ran a home mailing business. The Shanks continue to manage all the order fulfillment for me, which means they pick things up at the printers, fold, package, and ship patterns. What’s left to me is the “e” portion of the business, which entails updating the site and answering customer inquiries. So, as you see, I am definitely not “doing it all” — LOL!

As for new pattern designs, they have to fit into our life as time permits. I do not do a lot of sewing these days; I mainly sew in “bursts.” There have been long stretches of years when I’ve pretty much retired from designing to focus solely on home tasks and our family. But when a block of time presents itself (many times during a holiday break), I’ll grab it and use it to create something new. One pattern design I’ll be introducing this year grew out of flower girl dresses I made for my daughters to wear in a wedding. Since the bride wanted Georgian-style dresses, I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone and create a new pattern at the same time. I pulled those together over a weekend, then continued to tweak the pieces when I had time to sit down for an hour over the next couple of months. This month I had two friends visit who have served as models for me in the past (and who also happen to be very beloved by my children!). These young ladies stayed for a week, cooking, cleaning, and helping with children. That gave me a block of time to pull together a new ladies’ pattern and sew one model dress. Hurrah!

Many people have asked how I design patterns, imagining it to be a long, complicated process involving lots of math and coffee. Well, it is a long process, but mainly because I hold ideas in my head for months (sometimes years!), checking into extant garments online and in books and museums, puzzling out sleeve shapes in my head in my daydreams, and thinking up different pattern options. The Georgian patterns I’m working on this year, for instance, started out in my head in the early spring of 2009. I viewed some extant gowns in the fall of 2009 and filed them away mentally. I went back to Janet Arnold and Nancy Bradfield and other excellent resources to see how pieces looked gridded out for various gowns. Finally, when the wedding project came up this spring, I knew exactly how I wanted the pattern to look and was able to just take a little girl’s sloper (basic bodice pattern I keep on hand) and cut it into the required pieces. Because of all the ideas in my head from the preceding year, it only took about two days to get the entire thing put together, tested, and sewn into a model gown. When I first started designing, things didn’t go so quickly, but I’ve gotten faster with time and experience.

The longest part of pattern-making has always been sizing things up and down and testing the fit for each size. That has all changed this year, as I’ve discovered a wonderful gal who can accurately plot sizes with a laser plotter. Her machine traces my original pieces, then she enters the size differentials, and the computer sizes up and down from there with complete accuracy. I tried a similar computer program years ago, but it kept “correcting” my pieces, not understanding the vintage shapes. Bernie is able to prevent the plotter program from doing that, and she is also able to check to make sure all notches match and all pieces fit together. This will revolutionize my patterns from here on out, and I have plans to send her all my older patterns to have them re-plotted as time (and budget!) permits. So, once again, someone else has come along who can save me time and help speed up the final stage of drafting a new pattern. I am thrilled!

I hope you see a theme here: the things I do I never, ever do alone. They are possible because of the work of others (my parents, my friends, and even my customers, who send in helpful suggestions and pattern corrections!). And I’m following my mother’s example and advice as well, training my children to manage and run a household so that those skills become second-nature to them. Because of this, I have a little “army” taking care of dishes, sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, and laundry. I guide the littlest folks, naturally, but, for the most part, our home hums along with everyone pitching in. That makes life easier for everyone and makes it possible to run a business without letting it run us! 😉 Pattern-making must fit into life, not the other way ’round. And life in our house is never dull. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m very, very thankful for friends who have volunteered their photography skills, for customers who have tested pattern designs for me over the years, for rzen design (who totally redesigned my site this year so I could retire from coding HTML forever), and to all of you who send in your pictures, your stories, and your excellent suggestions. Sense & Sensibility Patterns would not exist without this wonderful community! You are what have made this a success, and I’ve always felt like my customers are dear friends. So, thank you for all you do. Together, we can “do it all,” each one contributing her own unique skills and abilities to her family and community. That’s the way it should be!

She seeks wool and flax,
And willingly works with her hands….

She girds herself with strength,
And strengthens her arms.
She perceives that her merchandise is good,
And her lamp does not go out by night.
She stretches out her hands to the distaff,
And her hand holds the spindle….

She makes linen garments and sells them,
And supplies sashes for the merchants.
Strength and honor are her clothing;
She shall rejoice in time to come….

She watches over the ways of her household,
And does not eat the bread of idleness….

Give her of the fruit of her hands,
And let her own works praise her in the gates.

~ Proverbs 31:13, 17-19, 24-25, 27, 31

6 comments on ““So how do you do all this anyway?”

  1. Thank you for sharing, Jennie! It is encouraging to read how God has blessed your efforts from a humble beginning and turned them into a successful family business. I appreciate your example of putting your family first.

  2. That’s about how I get it all done too. My family, especially my husband, likes me better when I get some time to get “my” things done. even if it only happens in rare spurts.

  3. Even though I’ve read your comments on this subject before, I enjoyed this – I am always interested in how other women manage their homes.

  4. Jenny, thanks so much for posting this. You have such a wonderful number of friends who help you! What a blessing they are! I love how you use your busy times to come up with the ideas and then your ideas can be pulled together in smaller blocks of time. I need to remember that.

    Once again, I hope to learn how to draft patterns this winter, when all the outside work slows down. Hopefully this upcoming season will be the season for that. =)

  5. Dear Jenny,
    My mother and I enjoyed your post immensely. Running our own home-based business has taught us many of the same lessons in family team-work!
    Mama is still learning how to delegate…now especially since she is battling breast cancer. We could accomplish nothing apart from the grace of God! Blessings on your continued endeavors!
    Emily and Karen Lenz

    • Emily, your mother is in our prayers. We have two aunts battling breast cancer right now, so I know what that entails. May God give all of you strength and bring total healing. Thanks for stopping to leave a note!

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