I learned to sew under the tutelage of a wise and patient 4-H leader when i was about 10 years old. I have sewn off and on since then, but long gaps between projects meant that my skill level has dropped every time i started something new. Enter Covid. This forced self-entertainment during the pandemic has had me on a very long sewing jag. And perhaps as a result of age, rather than concentrating on getting to the finished product, i spent more time on the process. I have picked up some skills and tricks that i had never bothered to learn before. There are a lot of tutorials out there, but there aren’t many that just hand out the basic “rules of the road” like an elderly 4-H leader does. Since i know a lot of people have been teaching themselves to sew throughout the current isolation, i figured i might share some of those basic concepts that i was probably told all those years ago, but didn’t really pay attention to until i started on this self-made, sustainably-made, quest.
**** Note: If i make reference to a technique that you have not done before, just google a tutorial. There are a zillion tutorials, both written type and video. I use them frequently. Watch a few, take a bash at it for practice, and then go for the real deal when you are ready. Practice is the most important part.
First off, my “must haves” for sewing:
A decent iron. Teachers always say to press, press, press… And i used to ignore it. But having made many projects that came out crap because i was working on wrinkles or unpressed seams, i now press the fabric before i cut it, press every seam after i sew it, and even press it if it has just been jumbled on my sewing table for a couple days. I promise you, it is worth the time.
A seam ripper. This is your new best friend. Or maybe frenemy. No one likes to admit they have goofed, but if you want to improve, you have to. Check each seam after you complete it and make sure you have it caught the way you want. If you don’t, rip that baby out. Even if no one notices the mistake, you will know it is there, and it will eat away at your sewing confidence.
A magnifying glass. I have a couple $5 ones that i bought on amazon. I think they were meant for kids who were bug hunting, but they have been so helpful. Threading the machine is easier, for sure. And ripping out seams where your thread matches so well, you can’t see the seam…. Way easier when magnified (This is said by someone who, more than once, accidentally tore a hole in the allowance while trying to undo a seam because of very small stitches or a well-matched thread.)
Pattern paper. Personally, though i would love to buy the fancy stuff, i make too many mistakes to afford that. I searched for tracing paper on amazon and ended up buying rolls of paper that i’m fairly certain were intended for physician office tables. But whatever. It works, it comes in a big roll, and i use it with nearly every pattern. Why, you ask? Well, i need to alter almost every pattern. FBAs (Full bust adjustments,) neckline changes and/or shoulder alterations, adding pockets (Why do they even make clothing without pockets????) – If you try to do it right on your pattern, the pattern won’t hold up, it will look crap, and no one wants to sew with ugly supplies. Plus if you mess up the changes, you will have no way to go back and tweak it. It is also worth noting that Japanese pattern books are a lot of fun to work with, and you have to trace those patterns. Trust me, the purchase is worth it.
A stack of cheap thrift store sheets. If you have a pattern you have never made before, don’t do your first take with good fabric. Make a toile/muslin/practice, even if it is only of the garment body. A used $2 bedsheet can make a whole bunch of practice takes where you can check your fit, alterations needed, and whether you even like the style on your own bod. Yes, it takes time. But it is worth it. It does help if you have a dress form. Again, my budget is limited, so mine is made out of duct tape and fiberfill – Done properly, it is an inexpensive but helpful option. There are a mess of tutorials on how to make one and they all work, so pick your favorite and take a bash at it. It speeds up the early stages, but always try your muslin on the actual body before you make your final tweaks. A dress form can’t account for how your body moves in a garment.
Two rulers: A regular 12″ and a quilting ruler with all the angles marked on it. Make sure both have metric measurements as well – Some fantastic PDF patterns come from Europe. Those and those Japanese pattern books i spoke of earlier generally use metric measurements. You will need to mark points, mitre corners, make straight edges, accurately set on the bias… Measuring tape is great for measuring bodies, but not so much for the other stuff.
Now, for some things i have learned that upped my game from “Beginner” to “Advanced beginner”…
Resist the urge to step on the gas. Even if it is a straight seam, it is easy for it to get out of hand. Find that “sweet spot” on your pedal that gets you moving, but is still controllable. When i started back at the beginning of the pandemic, i actually spent a little time doing basic stitches on scrap because i know my tendency is to rush. To coin a phrase from Miracle Max, “If you rush a crafter, you get rotten crafts.”
If you are a beginner, you will likely use a lot of elastic, and elastic is definitely one of those cases where you need the right tool for the task. Pajama elastic may be softer and cheaper, but it will roll like hell in the waistband of your $15 a yard pants. (Guess how i know this…) Buy the good non-roll stuff. Oh, and flat front the waist, even if only a few inches – A) It looks better. And B) you will never have to wonder which side is the front. Also, keep some good narrow elastic on hand. If that neckline turns out way too wide and gapey, a casing made of a bias strip placed around the neck and threaded with some thinner elastic can save the project by turning the neckline into a softly gathered one. (I am embarrassed to admit how many times i have used that little nugget of advice, especially when i first started working full bust adjustments.)
Speaking of bias strips, learn how to make and use them. (There are a mess of tutorials out there, but practicing with scrap is the most important part.) Commercial bias tape has its place, as does a pattern facing. But for many beginner projects – simple tunics, for example – a simple bias strip in self- or contrasting fabric can be a really easy and pretty way to finish a neck, hem, or sleeve. I sometimes even do it backwards, bringing it from inside to outside, if i want a little contrast edge or i want the neckline to sit up a little.
Finish your seams properly for the fabric and project you are making. I make a lot of clothing with linen, for example, and my sewing machine is a rather basic one – no serger. To keep the fraying edges in check, i often do away with inseam pockets and make patch ones instead so that i can finish with french seams. Yes, french seams take longer, but the garment will last longer, and the inside will look and feel as pretty as the outside. On seams where a french isn’t an option and i have to zigzag, (For me, this usually means on garments where i have to stick with inseam pockets,) i have learned that wider isn’t always better. A medium width and a short stitch length work well and look and feel a lot better against the skin than a wide one.
Prewash! Your fabric, obviously, but also your trim. In general, it is advised by everyone to wash it before you make it the same way you would after you make it. I generally line dry the clothes, etc, that i make, but i do put them in the dryer for the prewash. It helps get more of the shrinkage out. The exception to this is a fabric or trim that specifically states not to dry it. To ensure you don’t make that error, check the bolt when you buy it, write the instructions on a piece of paper if they are different than your usual laundry care, and pin it to the fabric right when they hand the cut to you. That way, if it sits in your stash for a while, you won’t forget! I also take a tiny bit of red ribbon and stitch a small tag on the inside of the neck or a side seam of projects i make out of it to remind me not to wash/dry/whatever it in the future. Of course, you don’t have to use red – i use it because i rarely wear red, so the ribbon stands out and i can’t miss it. And remember to prewash the ribbon (Each trim in its own lingerie bag to avoid a rat’s nest) to ensure it doesn’t ever accidentally bleed on your beautiful creation!
And lastly, have faith and be gentle with yourself. Everyone has to tear out a seam now and again; it doesn’t mean you are terrible at it. Just take a step back and try again. And everyone has a project or three that turn out crap. I’m sure even Donna Karan has some designs she wishes she hadn’t even tried. It isn’t failure, it is experience. You learn and get better. Like any other skill, it takes times to master. And the first time someone compliments you on something you made, and they show genuine surprise that it is your own creation…. Well, that feeling is something a lot of us haven’t had since we were kids and got a gold star. Admittedly, you might not get that on your first creation, but i promise, it doesn’t take long before you will be whipping up something truly remarkable. As long as you take your time and practice, you can do it. I promise, YOU CAN DO IT!