Does Sewing Make Us Smarter?

Could it be that while we are planning, fitting, pinning, cutting, stitching, (and re-stitching), we are also using skills that can enhance the ability of our brains to process information and solve complex problems?

I have always loved the fact that sewing demands so many different skills and abilities, but I never thought of it as “brain-enhancing” until I read an article with the intriguing title “Which Professions Can Make You Smarter?” (by Sue Shellenbarger of The Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2015: search here.) The author identified five criteria that indicate the activity or job you are doing, can, according to some neuro-scientists, enhance the “elasticity” and cognitive ability of the brain. One by one, as these criteria were listed, I thought of how apropos they are to sewing. See what you think:

1) “You work at tasks that are difficult enough that you make some mistakes.”

As we all know only too well, mistakes are part of sewing. Why else would seam rippers have been invented?  Have you ever sewn a sleeve in backwards or failed to match a plaid? I immediately thought of this blouse which I made a couple of years ago; while sewing the collar/tie to the front of the bodice, I made the same mistake over and over until I finally got it right.

The Necessary Blouse

2) “You have a job [or avocation] that is continually challenging.”

Whether the challenge comes from the pattern you have chosen, the fabric, the fitting issues you are facing, your time constraints, or any other myriad of potential hazards or goals, sewing is inherently challenging. A good example of a sewing challenge is the use of Marfy patterns. With no written instructions, minimal marking on the pattern tissues, and often complex (but very exciting) designs, Marfy patterns are definitely for the dressmaker who relishes a challenge.

Here is a detail from a dress which I made using a Marfy pattern.

Here is a detail from a dress which I made using a Marfy pattern.

3) “Your work lets you progress to higher skill levels, but you are never able to master it.”

I am always amazed at people who, knowing that I have  taken numerous couture-sewing classes, comment to me that I “must know everything there is to know about sewing.”  I find that the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. Just take a look at the Table of Contents of this special Designer edition of Threads Magazine from Summer 2014.   So much to learn, and while every piece we finish expands our sewing knowledge – and abilities – we are still humbled by some of the amazing techniques that would take more than a lifetime to master.

Sewing makes us smarter - designer techniques

Click on the image to read the text.

Sewing makes us smarter - designer techniques - 2

4) “Improving your skills is rewarding enough that you want to keep trying to do better.”

I believe this is one of the most important aspects of sewing. The reward of using – and improving – your skills is something you can wear! Although I love a Classic French Jacket, and want more of them because of their wearability, style, and enduring appeal, I have to confess that after making my first one in a class with Susan Khalje, I immediately wanted to make another one to see if I could improve on the first one. Now I have two more in my queue – and yes, it does have at least some small part to do with making each one better than the one before.

I wanted to add working buttons and buttonholes on my second French jacket, so I devised a way to make slot-seam buttonholes. This definitely took some thinking and a bit of nerve, too!

I wanted to add working buttons and buttonholes to my second French jacket, so I devised a way to make slot-seam buttonholes. This definitely took some thinking and a bit of nerve, too!

5) “You have to pay attention to details while solving more complex problems.”

The details in sewing are legend! The darts, the seams, the proper alignment of your fabric, using the correct thread, choosing buttons, marking – well, the list goes on and on and on. We do all of this as a matter of course in our sewing, but we also know that if one of these details is not done well, it can affect the outcome of the entire garment. So, for example, while I am working my way through some complex instructions such as the sheet below, I have to be completing each detail, no matter how simple, with mindfulness and skill.

This is from one of the more complex patterns I have in my collection. It is a Jo Mattli Vogue Designer pattern for a coat and dress.

This is from one of the more complex patterns I have in my collection. It is a Jo Mattli Vogue Designer pattern for a coat and dress.

One of the sewing quotes I love so much is from the great American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne:

“It is a token of healthy and gentle characteristics, when women of high thoughts and accomplishments love to sew; especially as they are never more at home with their hearts than while so occupied.”

It seems we are also at home with our minds while stitching away the hours.




Filed under Chanel-type jackets, Love of sewing, Marfy patterns, Quotes about sewing, Slot-seam buttonholes, Uncategorized

31 responses to “Does Sewing Make Us Smarter?

  1. Oh my goodness yes, yes, and yes! I have always said that sewing is engineering with fabric. Every project (both personal or for work) is a learning experience for me. Some things can be done on autopilot, but no matter what, sewing requires you too think and plan ahead.

  2. How interesting, Karen. My son told me a few weeks ago, when I was lamenting not using my brain enough, that I used all sorts of important brain skills while sewing. I guess he’s right. I am working on a project now that I had thought would take only a couple of days. It has been a week now of constant redoing, mostly because of the fabric. Even though I have been tempted to toss it, I plug away, determined to master it! There are days when I think I’m getting ‘there” (after 50+ years of sewing) and then there are those other days!!

    • We all have those “days,” but a successful (or mostly successful) make is so rewarding. We just keep plugging away, don’t we? I think it’s wonderful that your son recognizes how complex sewing is.

  3. I totally agree!! And I love to challenge myself with every new project.

  4. Yes to all of this! The challenges, the complex problems, I love them all. There’s always so much more to learn!

  5. Yes I agree with all of this. It is a challenging hobby, but one which is so much slower and more measured than my day job, which allows a change of pace and is therefore relaxing.

  6. I’ve often thought about how mentally challenging sewing can be. I often design and construct garments mentally. You are right about there always being something new to learn and techniques to be improved. I think advanced sewers critique their own work and look for ways to do things better.

    • I agree – when I’m not actually engaged in the sewing process, I am often thinking about construction details and how best to handle a particular task. And what works in one case doesn’t always work in another – keeps it interesting, for sure!

  7. Love this article. I work with a lot of vintage patterns and although there is some marking, the instructions are very sparse. I often have to picture all the pieces in my head and figure the best order to sew them in.

    And then of course sometimes a garment just doesn’t seem to go together correctly and I have to figure out how to save it. Its great problem solving!

    Thanks for the ego boost!

    ~ Tam Francis ~

  8. jay

    Well, does it make you smarter? I don’t know. It’s absorbing enough to take your mind off worries (and the waiting chores), but not so demanding that you can’t put it down if you have to. A big plus is that it doesn’t have to be repetitive, and can throw up new challenges, but can also jog along with a gentle pace and easy projects.

  9. Hmm, nice to know! I would love to get smarter with everything I make!

  10. Adriaan

    Very nice article. And so true. One always think ahead. And it sometimes drive me insane. Doing better and better.

  11. heather

    i definitely agree! many times when reading sewists blogs i am struck with how many are engineers/chemists/…ists, etc.

    i would rather have a sewing or some creative challenge & a (hopefully eventual) smile on my face than be “bored.” i also want my children to see learning is life long… thank you for posting this!

  12. nana says sew

    Love this article! I, too, have been sewing for 50 years. Seam rippers were the best invention. Soon as I complete an item, I am anxious to start another. It is fun and relaxing, and definitely causes creative thinking along with developing organizational skills. Even after all the years of sewing, I am learning new tricks, and continuing to use the seam ripper.

  13. Karen, I don’t sew more than straight edge curtains or pillows, and not that often, but my grandma, mom, and aunt sewed and it still amazes me. I love fashion. I just started following your blog, and I really enjoyed this first piece. Made me think of my own work as a writer and teacher. Best, Neva Knott

  14. Great post and agree to all points! I’m going to share it on my FB Page. 😊

  15. Amy

    Hello! Would you be interested in adapting this article for print publication?
    Drop me a message to
    I’m from a UK-based sewing publication and love pieces like this

  16. Thank you a thousand times for this article! For someone like me who is a novice (second time around), I find that frustration and over-thinking keeps me from actually sitting down and sewing. But I have projects finally in progress, and knowing that with each completion I’ve learned something, or improved something, I look forward to feelings of accomplishment. Becoming smarter by sewing, yes!

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