10 June, 2010

A few thoughts on MSL's Encyclopedia of Sewing and Fabric Crafts

I've spent far more time than I probably should have thinking about what I'd say if someone asked me what I thought of this book and should they buy it. No-one has, but I'll tell you anyways! Part of me really likes it and is glad I bought it, part of me is glad it was birthday (ie 'free') money I used on it because I'm not entirely sure whether it...mmm...how to put it...justifies its price or size?

So what I'll do is the good stuff first and I've scanned a few of my favourite projects out of it to show you - and to be honest there were this many again I could have put in so the hit rate in terms of things that make me go "ooOOO!" is pretty high. The book is organised with a large section at the beginning that covers various techniques necessary to do the projects in the book. The projects are broken down into categories like Animals, Aprons, Bed linens, Clothing, Coasters, Decorative Pillows, Flowers, Nursery, Organisers, Pets, Quilts and Patchwork, Slippers, Upholstery, Wall decor etc. etc.

In the order that Flickr gives the photos to me (which is the opposite of their order in the book!):

Menswear Mice. I'm not sure if Lucy would actually be interested in them as she's not a catnip cat and can get a bit scared of anything too big lobbed towards her, but damn they're cute! I suspect little kids would like them more.
Menswear mice

Felt slippers. I love love love the cut-out treatment, they look gorgeous. I'd probably do the soles in something warmer than just felt though.
Felt slippers

Dog Coats. One of my nephews is a small terrier named Duncan. He'd look adorable in one of these.
Dog coats

Covered button boutonierre. I love this, so small and perfect. Though I never have floral wire or tape around for these sorts of things and I never do them, maybe I should lay some in.
Covered button boutonniere

Stencilled curtains. These are actually very similar to the fabric we used to make the curtains in Hazel's room and I love the Scandinavian feel to them. Beautiful.

Girl's shirt dress. Can't get enough of these little girl dresses out of men's shirts! This one looks very cute and has the added bonus of a great construction technique with means you don't have to pfaff around with sleeves etc. Now if only Mat would tire of his shirts before they were worn out! This picture is like my fantasy little girl shot, so demure, the freckles, the sweet little (non-pink) cardigan. I think Hazel would run screaming the other way if I tried it though...
Girl's shirtdress

Little felt bags. These are the ones that inspired the Totoro bag. Nothing startlingly new but I just love the colours and design. Hazel likes the birdy one best and I'm very keen on the cat. There are several other more grown up versions in the book as well.

Menswear Bunnies. Oh my goodness I heart these bunnies so much! Wook at deir widdle faces! But really, how cute. These definitely got a "can you make me one mummy?" from Hazel and I will!
Menswear bunnies

Sashiko. I've only recently become aware of this Japanese style of embroidery and I love the patterns shown here and in a couple projects in the book. It's used particularly effectively on the edges of pillowcases in one project. The circles are my favourite but they're all just so elegant and restrained. Again, love it!

Ok, so that was the good. And it was pretty good right? Plus there are lots of projects for things that I don't need right now, like curtains, but might in the future, so it's a good reference book as well.

The bad. Even I, with limited access to the MSL magazine, recognise some of the projects. Like the stencilled curtains - a couple of projects come from that particular issue, which I picked up last time I was home for a visit, as do some of the upholstery ones which I know from another magazine from a previous visit. Needless to say I've been treasuring them since, but I think it illustrates the point that if you have every magazine then you probably have a decent section of this book already.

The same goes if you're an online tutorial addict like me - many of these projects rang a bell or two as to tutorials I'd come across elsewhere. Not identical or anything, but there are only so many ways you can make a small felt purse, or a small dog jacket if you know what I mean. A little searching and perserverence will yield similar projects.

Some of the techniques are in reality quite complicated and I don't think that a page or two of rather superficial instructions are going to get you good enough to tackle the projects successfully. Like the sashiko - to be honest I'd go elsewhere for instructions because I'm not sure I'd get good results based on the book's. The pictures are pretty and it's fabulous to leaf through and read, but I'm not convinced about the achievability of many of the projects. But actually, maybe that's not the point? It's quite likely that the intended audience isn't going to try 90% of these projects, just like they probably don't from the magazines, so I may be judging it by criteria that it simply wasn't meant to meet.

My final verdict? Well I think it depends on how you feel about the Martha Stewart brand and the styling, as well as what you want from a book like this. If you have all the magazines probably don't bother unless you want one of the new projects. Personally I'm a total sucker for the MSL styling and the aesthetic, if not the über-frau ethos. But if it irritates you then don't buy the book. If you need all the projects to be practical or achievable based on the instructions included then be wary but not totally put off, most of them are achievable with just a few that you'd need a gazillion dollars to do, or a personal coach to show you how to do it. If you are more of a free online tutorial kind of person then stick with that because there isn't much in here that you couldn't get online.

On the whole though, I'm pleased I've got it because really, nothing beats sitting on the couch with a cup of tea looking through a lovely great big book, with the promise of page after page of neat and wonderful things stretching out before me. Computers are great, online tutorials are great, but a book's a book and it doesn't need to be plugged in or printed out. So I like this one, it's like a chunk of the crafty internet made real.


  1. I just love the mice. I have 3 cats, buy mice...I might try making some.

  2. I am SO GLAD you wrote this up Jacqs. I totally agree with everything you've said. I have her Christmas crafting book, and I've only tried a couple of things out of there, but just having the book is a joy. The styling, the loveliness of all of the projects shown just makes me strive to bring that beauty into the styling of my own craft photos. I obviously fail miserably with my point & shoot and lack of good ambient light (curse the lack of windows in my home!), but I love, love anything that'll give me that inspiration. Even if I can't attain it, I know it'll influence me and that's enough.

    On the other hand, the redonkulous cost of materials and lack of thorough instructions can be really frustrating. "Oooh, do you like the stenciling on this table? You can do it too with $500 worth of materials and proper instruction. Unfortunately, you won't be able to find any of the materials except online so it'll be even more than $500, and we won't give you all of the instruction. Suck it!" Thanks Martha, I know you like being better than me. You are better than me, OK?? Happy now??!!?!?!?!?!?!?!

    But I'll still sit there with her mags & books and flip idly through. They are lovely stuff.

  3. No, I think a huge part of the resurgance (clothes making in particular, since it's what I have the most experience with) was due to people having to save money. My husband was out of work for the last 11 months and only got a job a couple of weeks ago. I was able to make my own clothes because I hit up clearance fabric and am lucky enough to live in Southern California where cheap fabric places abound. But I think people needing to save money has led them to pick up crafting as a means to get the fancy for cheap, which in turn has forced pattern makers to keep pace with current fashion trends so they don't miss out on these new sewists, which in turn gets people more and more excited about sewing because they can actually make something they see in stores vs. making something that looks god-awful home made. I don't know what about Martha has such a disconnect to this. I'd think it would be a great way to really be omnicient in the marketplace, much like she has the Kmart line and the Macy's line. Who knows? Maybe she wants to show the higher-end as inspiration and fantasy, but she alwasy seems to leave out such integral steps that if you don't know what you're doing (and even when you do) you'll curse her to high hell.

  4. Thanks for this review Jacqui. I've been wondering about this book. I do like MS styling, but it also think it's the sort of thing that does (or can) date quite easily. You know those 70s or worse 80s craft books you find in the op-shops. I imagine this will be that in 10 years time. Maybe I'm wrong. I love a lot of what the MS brand does, but a lot of it is way too styled and I know that I simply can't achieve it with my way of crafting (I'm learning to embrace the wonk in my stitches).
    It's good to hear that some things aren't explained well, as I was hoping this would be an excellent resource (sashiko esp, as I'm really keen to get some of that started), so it's good to know I should invest in just a sashiko book.
    Though, it still looks really pretty and I'm sure would spark so much inspiration. I love searching her website for little hints of ideas - but I generally give them my own (wonky) spin.

    Can't wait to see your $500 stencils. Sure there's nothing like them anywhere in the whole wide world anywhere else. Best go buy the MS branded ones, I do believe......
    (PS if you want stencil instructions I think both Lotta Jandsdotter + Lena Corwin books are excellent, with so much easy, cheap information.).

  5. oh, the freckles!! the freckles ... *sigh*

  6. We buy Lucy fur mice sometimes but they don't exactly get used up so we have
    a fairly large colony lurking around our house. She likes them if they're
    attached to something you can jerk around, otherwise they only get desultory
    bats. String is her thing! But if she were a catnip cat then I'd
    definitely give these a go because she wouldn't care what they looked like!

  7. Ah yes, the insanely expensive materials list scenario. In the magazine that
    had the lovely stencilling projects there was one for a table that I adore -
    but the stencils are literally $500 US each, and she used like 5 or so?
    Ummm yeah. That's helpful. My brother sent me a scan of a great Easter egg
    project from the magazine this year and I was so keen but where to find
    flexible vinyl adhesive sheets? Fail. It's that side of the magazine that I
    find a bit depressing because I get so amped up by the gorgeous photos and
    neat ideas, only to fall at the first hurdle because of price or
    availability of the supplies. Then I'm all sad and unhappy. :( Que tiny
    violin. Can you imagine if they started saying "if you can't find supply X
    then Y and Z are easily available and work well" but they seem to be so
    focussed on buying the exact item for use in one project, hang the expense
    or difficulty of sourcing it. I guess that's what probably raised them above
    the hoi polloi in the first place and gave the whole crafty movement the
    appearance of a bit of class. OMG, do you think we might owe this craft
    resurgence in part to Martha? O_o



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