HCDE 451: Sewing

Anna Schmitz
Nov 4, 2019 · 6 min read

HCDE students in 451 had several projects to work on for the past two weeks. Here, I’ll cover the sewing portion. It is admittedly a little curious as to why UX students should pick up sewing machines, but for the prompts we were given, it seemed like a useful skill. Just as UX needs a device to operate on, that device can take any number of forms — hard or soft. For example, an e-textile can work as an interface. To prototype that effectively, the UX designer must therefore learn to sew.

In this assignment, students had a number of options for items to prototype. They’re complex enough to be useful, yet simple enough for a novice sewer to learn to make quickly. These were:

  • A pencil or accessory bag
  • A case for an electronic device
  • A small tote bag
  • A simple cap

I selected an accessory bag, meant for paintbrushes. I had simply been unable to find a carrying device long enough to tote around paintbrushes, especially to sites such as parks or hiking trails, where I enjoy painting. Therefore, a comfortable way to carry them within a backpack seemed like a plausible idea for this project. There were no requirements on specific materials or shapes of the end result, but there were a few technical specs included:

  • Made of a flexible fabric / material
  • Uses a sewing machine to assemble
  • Includes a fastening mechanism

We were provided with muslin, a thin white material used in industry for quick prototyping iterations with fabric. I practiced a few stitches using the material, testing which length and thickness could both carry long paintbrushes and keep them structurally protected.

I thought back to my prior experience with fabric. My mother runs a small business, where she sews gifts for women and children from playful, colorful fabric. She had taught me early on how to sew. So when I heard of this project, I became excited — I hadn’t sewn in a while and was eager to practice again. I laid out a plan for myself to create a lined paintbrush bag.

Paintbrush Bag Plan
  1. Select two pieces of fabric and lay the fronts together, so both backs are showing.
  2. Stitch around the edges, giving about 1/8" allowance, and cut off the corners of the fabric. Leave a gap about 3" long.
  3. Through the 3" gap, flip the fabric inside out. Press it flat to create crisp seams.
  4. Lay out Velcro on opposing edges of the fabric. Trim it to the length of the fabric. Stick it on or sew along its edges.
  5. Fold the fabric in half so the Velcro meets. Stitch along the other two sides.
  6. Finished! Open the Velcro on top to use the bag.

Admittedly simple for someone who has done other complex fabric projects in the past, I decided to keep the name of the game here as “simplicity”. A bag shouldn’t need to be any fancier than necessary. This also provides a little leeway in case something goes wrong while sewing. I know from experience that machines are finicky and that threading a different machine can be very challenging.

I decided to create this bag with a sturdy gray canvas-like material on the exterior and a softer patterned fabric on the interior. The sturdier material should the protect the bag as a whole from stains, water spills, and tearing. The interior should be soft enough to not damage the bristles of the paintbrushes. Because a lot of my stitching would be on the outside, I decided to make something special of it — making it bright yellow. Instead of just a structural element, the stitches will be a part of the aesthetics of the bag as well.

Iteration of the paintbrush bag

After construction, I found the two materials to be working quite well together. The gray fabric was surprisingly strong but not too strong to sew through. The Velcro was adhesive, making stitching time a bit shorter. But, I wasn’t sure of how sturdy the adhesive would be, or if it would run down after too much use. I then decided to try and stitch through the Velcro along the edges as a precaution. The result was not what I expected — the machine found it very hard to try and get through the dense material of the Velcro and its adhesive. I was only able to complete one row of stitches. In hindsight, I would buy Velcro that wasn’t adhesive so I could securely sew it on.

A consequence of this was the needle became very “gummy”. This meant when I tried to make the final two stitches along the bag’s sides, the needle would “grab” the thread and pull it slightly loose with each stitch. The result looks rather unruly and sloppy. In a future iteration, I would find a new needle after any sticky material had touched it.

From this project, I learned the importance of buying relevant materials to your goal, even early on. While most of the materials were performing as a I expected, I could not have foreseen the consequence of buying one adhesive material, and have it loosen up all of my stitches afterwards. I essentially bought one package of Velcro, not thinking anything of what it was made of. With a little more attention to detail, it would have been wiser to shop for something more realistic and reliable for what I expected my end result to be.

I’d also challenge myself a bit in the future. Just as 3D printers can manifest complex shapes, I know the same can be done with sewing. Different stitch patterns lend different strengths and different materials require more or less force to pierce through. One detriment is it requires enormous patience and planning. There is no “right way” to iterate with fabric, and because it isn’t a nice and rigid material, you very much have to be in control of every little change you make to it.

A few positive things are that the awkward stitching turned out to not be a big drawback — the bag is plenty sturdy and usable as it is. (It only looks not-so-sturdy). If I were creating this for a client, I’d be sure to make a better stitch next time. Aside from that, it is indeed big enough for my paintbrushes, and I finally have something protective to bring them along in my outdoor adventures.

In the future, I’d be more selective with my material choices and allow more time for iteration and troubleshooting if something goes awry while sewing. I still appreciate this project for allowing me to test my sewing skills again, and I’d like to incorporate this into a future design project!

    Anna Schmitz

    Written by

    Human-Centered Design + Engineering at University of Washington. A relentless creator, musician, and reinvisioner of a better world.

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