Needles in the Stacks: Sewing with Nancy Zieman (pt.1)

"Sewing with Nancy" star, Nancy Zieman

It’s been a while since we’ve put out a Needles in the Stacks issue, so it’s time. The library has a lot of “how-to” sewing books. Many women (and a few men) have converted their passion for sewing into publishing businesses, video performances, and workshops. One well known such teacher was Nancy Zieman. Zieman died on November 14, 2017 from cancer.

Nancy Zieman being filmed at a fabric store in the 1980s

Zieman began a mail-order sewing supply business, Nancy’s Notions in 1979, after working for Minnesota Fabrics (a large midwestern chain of fabric stores.) Because of her business and experience, a Milwaukee fabric store asking her to host a sewing program in 1982. This didn’t survive beyond a dozen or so shows, but it inspired Zieman to launch her own show, on Wisconsin Public Television, beginning fall of 1982. The show became popular and was picked up by public television stations across the U.S. and Canada.

The library has 13 of Zieman’s books, although she published more than 80 over her career. In addition, she made nearly as many videos and DVDs and her television show ran for 35 years. To honor her career, I thought it would be a great opportunity to take a look through these titles. Because there are so many, this post will be in 2 parts.

Pressing guide from Zieman's Busy Woman's Sewing Book
Pressing instructions from Zieman’s 1988 Busy Woman’s Sewing Book

When we compare books from different decades, it’s easy to see the way the publishing industry has changed. When Zieman began her publishing career (early 1980s), color images and technical drawings were expensive to print. As a result, consumers didn’t expect many images. How-to books with big blocks of text were common. In addition, Zieman’s books were published inexpensively by small, local publishers. As her popularity grew, larger publishing houses published her work and invested more in the production of the books themselves. This shows clearly in the range of books FIT has.

Page on organizers for sewing tools in Nancy Zieman's 101 Favorite Notions
Colorful layout from Nancy Zieman’s 101 Favorite Notions, published in 2010


In addition, publishing methods for technical drawings changed a lot between 1970 and 2000. The birth of Apple computers and the availability of computer-aided publishing software like Adobe Illustrator allowed sharper, repeating images with differentiated textures and colors. Typeface styles have also changed a lot in that time. And American culture has become much more demanding photographs showing process in how-to manuals. Many recent manuals even include video on CD-roms augmenting the text.

Because desktop publishing was new then, a good number of the manuals we have from the 1980s are only a notch better than printed at home.

List of Zieman’s books FIT has, in StyleCat




Slacks “Pivot-Slide” Fitting Book, 1982

This is a self-published paperback on how to fit and sew professionally styled pants. It’s very basic, with line drawings and black and white stitching illustrations that resemble commercial pattern instructions. It includes a sizing chart for women, along with a basic pants pattern from which to work. The methods taught are simple pivot and slide, included because they are less time consuming that slash and spread.


The Busy Woman's Sewing Book (cover)

The Busy Woman’s Sewing Book, 1988

This book is a small format paperback, with black and white line drawings, probably produced inexpensively and published by Nancy’s Notions company along with another small California press. This and the next book were co-authored by Robbie Fanning, a columnist for “Needlecraft for Today”. The book is aimed at both homemakers and working women balancing child-rearing and home maintenance with their desire to sew for fun and dress well on a budget.




Zieman’s goal, stated on the back blurb, was to help the reader “plan a season’s wardrobe by perfecting one semi-lined jacket, one blouse and dress, and one skirt and slacks pattern. With this plan you can sew faster than you could shop.” She helps readers reach this ambitious goal by teaching them to plan their projects and organize their tools. Basic project tracking and measurement chart templates are included in the back.

Sleeve cap ease page from Busy Woman's Sewing Book
Sleeve cap easing instructions

A busy woman herself, Zieman stresses the importance of *starting*, no matter how little time the reader has to actually work. She points out that things worked on in tiny time increments still eventually get finished. Then she adds tips for sewing faster, steps to eliminate, and steps to combine. In addition she adds industry shortcuts like “stitch in the ditch” and use of fusible interfacings to cut out handwork time.




The book is organized by the basic garments she listed on the back, with shortcuts and tips included. In addition, she includes many tips and shortcuts that her viewers and readers wrote in, making the whole book feel like a homey group endeavor. Some of the pieces in the book are growing obsolete, like half slips and women’s jackets. But in the Midwestern US in 1988, these were still wardrobe basics.


Busy Woman's Fitting Book (cover)

The Busy Woman’s Fitting Book, 1989

This book has the same publisher, co-author, and format as the last one, but this time the focus is on fitting problems and altering commercial patterns to accommodate them. Getting correct fit continues to be difficult for many inexperienced sewers. The concepts are so important that Zieman expanded upon the topic twice more, with Fitting Finesse in 1994, and Pattern Fitting with Confidence in 2009 (see pt. 2 of this post), along with other variations in both book and video formats. In each case, tech advances in publishing allowed the new edition to present the concepts with sharper, more detailed illustration and an updated layout.


This book focuses on making alterations to commercial patterns to solve fitting problems. The only basic patternmaking concept introduced is that of pivot-to-open/close or move darts and seams. It’s interesting that, even with her years of sewing experience and teaching, Zieman never taught her audience how to make their own patterns.

Jacket fitting instructions from Zieman's 1989 Busy Woman's Fiting Book
Jacket fitting instructions


Despite its old-style illustrations and (few) black and white images, this book holds up pretty well. The pattern pieces shown are basic enough that the lessons are still useful. A newer manual might illustrate the lessons more attractively, but the information is organized clearly and contains frequent tips and explanations that would still be useful to any sewer.




10-20-30 Minutes to SewCover of Nancy Zieman's 10-20-30 Minutes to Sew book, 1992

This book begins with an interesting idea. The entire book is set up to move sewing projects along in small increments of time. Zieman lists tasks that can be done to make more time for the next window of opportunity. A lot of them are smallish, like iron the pattern pieces and put them over a hanger so they are ready when next you are.

Or test the fusible interfacing you’re planning on using so you know how it behaves before applying it in the garment. Or use a spare few minutes to set up your sewing machine. Other time hacks are more complicated, like acquiring a serger.



Many of these suggestions could easily qualify as helpful hints, but the book demonstrates the crisp organization that allowed Zieman herself to build a sewing empire and produce so prolifically. Being a busy woman myself, I welcomed the premise that I can keep my hand in my sewing projects even with tiny bits of time to spare from work, friends, housekeeping and graduate school. For that matter, this approach helped me get more writing done as well.

Different sewing machine feet and their uses
Sewing machine feet and their uses


Although Zieman’s techniques are more home-sewing techniques than industrial, she applies streamlining cuts, stitches, and finishes in an industrial sort of way, that is, subtracting steps at every level and minimizing or removing handstitching on most garments. In addition, Zieman’s approach takes on every sort of fabric item in a household. She offers a detailed tutorial on how knits differ from wovens. She includes notes on elastic and creating underwear and sweatshirts. Then in the back section she gives examples of different seam finishes, different sewing machine feet, their uses, and a glossary of terms.







This book is really dated (athletic wear is called “active wear”), but the techniques in it are helpful. I personally have a fear of knits, so I appreciate the whole section explaining different types of knits and elastics. Zieman taught fearlessness and that no fabric was too difficult when approached knowledgeably.


The Best of Sewing with Nancy (cover)

The Best of Sewing with Nancy, 1993

This book is a roundup of techniques celebrating the 10th anniversary of the PBS show, “Sewing with Nancy”. Like 10-20-30 Minutes, Fitting Finesse, and Sewing Express, this hardback, large format book is printed on glossy paper, with full color photographs. They were published by Oxmoor House, the company that launched Southern Living. They expanded to produce how-to books, and Zieman was a regular on their lists.




Zieman demonstrating a lesson on her TV show
This series incorporates lessons Zieman taught on her TV show



This book continues themes introduced in 10-20-30, with careful explanations of tools and notions, and sewing basics in the back. This time, however, the book covers making lingerie and christening gowns, introduces quilting’s piecing techniques to embellish outerwear (like sweatshirts), and includes an extensive section on making garment and jewelry carriers.





In addition, it picks up another frequent topic of Zieman’s, the tailored jacket, created with speedy fusible interfaced and machine techniques. The last section covers another theme Zieman went on to highlight further, surface embellishments created with machine embroidery and applique.

Jacket construction instructions from Zieman's Best of Sewing with Nancy
Instructions for Zieman’s streamlined jacket tailoring method


Nancy’s frequent notes give parenthetical pointers once the main instructions are laid out. Like most sewing manuals of the past, many of the projects don’t travel past their fashion expiration date well. In this book, the sweatshirts with carefully pieced insets and the machine appliqued button plackets are wince-worthy reminders that fashions of the 1980s remained current longer in the Midwest.

Surface treatments from Zieman's Best of Sewing with Nancy


Zieman’s personal style embraced the broad shoulderpads of her youth. But the techniques to create romantic lace insets and bang out tailored jackets in minimal time are excellent, and the small tips and reminders are solid. Zieman’s clear project descriptions demonstrate why she remained successful in this field until her death.


Zieman's Fitting Finesse cvr

Fitting Finesse, 1994

This is the third book FIT has of Zieman’s which is the large format hardback published by Oxmoor. This book, an expansion of her early “Busy Woman’s Fitting Book”, holds up particularly well because people’s bodies haven’t changed all that much, even if fashion and available materials have.





Pattern reference points from Zieman's Fitting Finesse
The basic fitting reference points on the upper body



The multi-color diagrams of pattern manipulation help make this book a lot more accessible than it’s predecessor. Red and green arrows demonstrate the directions of the pivot moves, and the entire format is larger and easier to see. The line drawn figures help depict the fitting problems, but the line drawn wrinkles aren’t as clear indicators as photographs will be in more recent manuals.





Wrinkles as fitting diagnostics in Zieman's Fitting Finesse
Wrinkles as important fit diagnostic information




This book is expanded from the earlier version described above, and it covers a wonderful range of possible fitting problems. The pieces Zieman uses are close enough to standard slopers that this book will remain useful for a long time.

With the huge publication list, it’s sad that none of these fitting manuals address pattern adjustments for men’s fit. Zieman’s interests extended to many useful tools and later into quilting techniques, but we must look to other sewing teachers for help sewing for men.




That’s the first half of our books by Nancy Zieman. I will review more of these in a few weeks. In the meantime, here’s an earlier Needles in the Stacks post to tide you over!

The author, Beth, in the FIT Library stacks








Posted in fashion, FIT Library, libraries, media, Needles in the Stacks, textiles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Girls Can’t Help It

ocean's 8 actresses on premiere red carpet
Ocean’s 8 premiere in NYC. The 8 showing their true selves. Photo by Matt Baron for REX/Shutterstock.

Fashion people look for different things in movies than regular people do.

Like many of my friends, I went to see Ocean’s 8 in order to see how the premise would fare with a cast of 8 famous women instead of 11 famous men. But they did a silly thing, thinking it would help capture the imagination of (generic?) women*: they set the caper into the Met Gala. This is a fashion event I know well. I did an internship in the Costume Institute and got to attend one year. Since then, I have carefully watched, and reported on, the fashion that walks up that staircase.

Anne Hathaway as glamorous actress Daphne Kluger in Ocean's 8
Anne Hathaway, as a chair of the Costume Institute Gala, gown by Sarah Edwards, costumer for Ocean’s 8. Photo by David Lee.



For a movie about NYC’s biggest fashion night, the clothes in Ocean’s 8 were pretty Meh. I get the argument that these women were acting the part of thieves, so trying *not* to draw attention to themselves. But these 8 actresses are some of the most fashionably conspicuous women in the world. Surely their costumes could have riffed off that more?

Anne Hathaway’s character, who was one of the gala chairs, should surely have been wearing something drop-dead and fantastic. I give you comparisons from the real MMA gala:





In contrast, Katy Perry as co-chair of the 2017 Met Gala:

Katy Perry, wearing Maison Margiela for Met Gala May 2017.
Katy Perry, wearing Maison Margiela for Met Gala May 2017. Photo by Getty.

Or Rihanna, one of the co-chairs of this season’s Gala, with the Heavenly Bodies theme:

Rihanna dressed for Met Gala 2018
Rihanna’s look for Costume Institute Gala 2018.  Ensemble by Maison Margiela. Photo by Ian West, PA Wire.
Rihanna dressed for Met Gala in Ocean's 8
Rihanna’s look for Met Gala in Ocean’s 8. Gown by Zac Posen. Photo by Barry Wetcher.













Rihanna’s impishness is radically underutilized in this film as well. The costumes that worked best, I think, were Cate Blanchett’s groovy pantsuits with the Keith Richards feeling, seen below.

This movie has earned a lot of commentary:

New York Times review of Ocean’s 8

Fashion Bloggers Tom & Lorenzo’s review of Ocean’s 8

Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Helena Bonham Carter on set in NYC
Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, & Helena Bonham Carter seen on set of ‘Ocean’s 8’ on October 26, 2016 in New York City. Photo by Raymond Hall/GC Images.



For people who were excited or angry or just tired of the idea that a major film should be cast with not just 1, but 8 major female leads, there was a lot of ink spilled. I have to agree: the skill of those 8 powerful actresses was way underutilized, their thoughts were too focused on the brother and the insurance agent, they were too nice to be human beings, and none of them got anything interesting in the way of character development.

New York Times article about problematic gender swapping films

All of It blog commentary on hopes for Ocean’s 8 film




I still enjoyed it. Because it was shot in New York City, and it was heartwarming to pick out the familiar places (Veselka!!). And the Met has been one of my educational homes (Yay, MMA!!). And I love a caper show! (Loved all of Hustle and How to Steal a Million!)

Time magazine’s homage to the caper film

The art world got a cinematic love letter! The Met as the main set! Art galleries and auction houses as part of the plot!

Artnet blog extolls Metropolitan Museum of Art’s starring role in Ocean’s 8

Sandra Bullock on stairs at MMA in Ocean's 8
Bullock’s Alberto Ferretti gown for the Met Gala in Ocean’s 8. So very Meh. Photo by Barry Wetcher.



We give the film organization major kudos for their homework on the fake Met exhibition in the film. It looked plausibly Costume Institut-ish, if a tad 70s in the mannequin choices. I’m always happy to see the Met get publicity. Besides that, the art directors did their homework. The film credits FIT Museum Associate Curator of Costume Molly Sorkin for her consulting on the setup of a costume exhibition, along with Jennifer Park and Hamish Bowles of Vogue magazine. In fact, the film is studded with fashion journalists, designers, and style influencers, in an attempt to lend verisimilitude to the on-screen gala. Even Anna Wintour got a cameo.

Vogue article by Hamish Bowles about Ocean’s 8 fake exhibition

Photo of Costume Institute exhibition in Ocean's 8.
Imitation exhibition for Met Gala in Ocean’s 8. Staged by Hamish Bowles.

Finally, it was just nice to watch talented actresses interact with one another in a setting that presumes their intelligence and displays their senses of humor and camaraderie**.

New York Times interview with Bullock, Kaling

I hope you enjoy the film!

Publicity still for Ocean's 8, principle cast on subway.
Publicity still for Ocean’s 8, principle cast. The coats here completely outdo the eveningwear in later scenes. Photo from Warner Bros.

* What do women (generic) want, really? Is there even such a Thing??

**Have you ever noticed how, in your real life, there are slightly more women around you than there are men? Now count the number of women to men in the next movie you go see. Weird, huh? In the article linked above, Sandra Bullock calls it “actress solitary confinement”. Here are some statistics on that phenomenon:

See Jane organization’s research on women in film










Posted in fashion, media, museums, red carpet fashion | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Magazine of the Week

Hi, everyone! Here’s this week’s Magazine of the Week:

Lula fashion magazine cover, showing woman in pink jacket

Lula magazine is another of the millenium’s new fashion magazines. This independent title is published 2x/year in London. Begun in 2005, it was the pet project of editor Leith Clark. The sales pitch described the reader as a young woman “with old-fashioned cameras, 70s dresses, patterned stockings, and heavy mascara.” Fans of the magazine described its photo layouts as lush, sun-kissed, kooky, vintagy, and fairy-tale inspired. The content included/s interviews with artists and makers, illustration layouts and fashion photography.



Lula‘s first 9 years reflected the passion of Leith Clark, an editor with a youthful and romantic vision. Her aesthetic reflected (and still does) her personal taste which is romantic, passionate about graphic arts, and vintage-inspired. This fit in perfectly with the decade that brought us Oh, Comely and Frankie magazines. Lula was a darling of fashion bloggers and was frequently described as “gorgeous”.





Clark moved on to other projects in 2014. She launched the magazine Violet Book, works as a stylist for Kiera Knightley and Kirsten Dunst, a co-designer for L’Orla, and a style-director-at-large for Harper’s Bazaar UK.




The title’s new editors, Sheila Single, and Maya Kolqvist, changed the magazine’s look to a slightly sleeker, mod aesthetic, without doing away with the overall vintage-y or youthful feel of it. Despite the fact that the title’s website is behaving oddly, their Instagram and Twitter feeds still have lots of recent content.


Lula website

Lula Instagram feed




Nicollette Mason’s blog: huge Lula fan!

Phantasmaphile blog: another huge Lula fan

Guardian 2008 interview with Leith

Fashionista blog 2013 article on Leith leaving Lula

Fashionista blog 2014 article announcing new Lula editors


Posted in fashion, FIT Library, magazine of the week, media | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment