Dr. Threadblade or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Seam Ripper

Dr. Threadblade or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Seam Ripper

One of the best things I get to hear sewing kids say, and I hear it several times in every camp, "Wow! I made that!" It's always said with a little bit of surprise and a whole lot of pride. The satisfaction of completing a sewing project is a top-of-the-mountain kind of feeling. It's so good because of the tough climb to get there. 

Part of what makes the climb difficult are the stumbles along the way. Mistakes are part of sewing. Mistakes and fixing mistakes teach more in five minutes than I am sometimes able to teach in an entire day.  And that's such good stuff, in sewing and in life.

As a teacher, I have THREE rules I follow when it comes to teaching through mistakes: 

1. I let students make mistakes. Sometimes it's the best way to learn.

2. I don't let them give up or start all over once they've made the mistake. Mistakes are almost never the end of the sewing story. Meet the humble seam ripper.

The seam ripper is to the needle and thread what the eraser is to the pencil and lead. When used slowly and correctly, a few minutes of careful seam unpicking can save a project that took hours to make. 

Some variation of the seam ripper most commonly used today has been around since the late 1800's. 


But, if you are like me, you may have been using a seam ripper all wrong. After years of inefficient unpicking, torn fabric, and broken seam rippers, I finally learned to do it right.

Here's a closer look at the modern seam ripper included in the tool kit with most sewing machines. 

First, the picker is made to slide under a single stitch. Most of us probably got that intuitively. But the next step is the part that many of us have been doing wrong for years and is the cause for torn and distorted fabric and even broken seam rippers.

The next step is to gently slide the picked stitch down into the curved center of the seam ripper onto the blade. Yes, that's a razor sharp blade in the center of your seam ripper. It's used to cleanly cut the thread so that there is never a need to pull the thread with any force. I usually pick and cut every 4th or 5th stitch and then gently pull out the loose threads. 

What about that red ball tip? The picker is just right for wiggling under tight stitches but if you've ever tried to wedge that sharp picker tip between two pieces of fabric to razor the stitches between the layers, you know how easy it is to accidently tear a hole. The correct way to razor those two layers of fabric apart is by leading with the blunt ball tip, using the blade to cut the threads in between, and keeping the picker clear of the fabric. 

And the THIRD rule I follow when teaching through mistakes:

3. I encourage students to talk about their mistakes, own them. Share them with someone else in class and tell them what they learned. They are never the only one making that mistake. Teaching the correct way reinforces the learning for them. And it's a nice thing to do because it makes it okay for everyone else to make mistakes too. 

About that illustration. That's Slim Pickens. He famously rode a nuclear warhead like a bucking bronco in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 Dark Comedy, Dr. Stranglelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. As I was thinking about seam rippers and pickers, Slim Pickens' name kept coming to mind. I imagined him riding a seam ripper, with those same words from the warhead carefully painted around the edge. Hi there! Handle with care. 

I left my work as a psychotherapist in 2019 to begin laying the foundations for Sew My Goodness. I live and sew in Austin, Texas with my husband, three kids, a hamster (he doesn't sew), and a few dozen sewing machines. I come from a long line of seamstresses, embroiderers, quilters, darners, hemmers, scrap savers, upcyclers, artists, improvisors, and connection makers. For me, sewing is utilitarian, it is art, it is healing, and it is connection. In addition to private sewing camps and classes, Sew My Goodness offers "Sewcial" Clubs, camps, and enrichment classes throughout Round Rock ISD. 



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