Tuesday, October 5, 2010

WFMW: Sewing Tips for Newbies

When people find out that I can sew, I hear a lot of folks lamenting that they inherited a sewing machine, or picked one up at the thrift store, and don't know what to do with it.

I thought I'd post a few tips I wish I had known when I started sewing.

1) First of all, when you're buying a pattern, and cutting it out, don't pay attention to the size listed, pay attention to the measurements. You'll often find that the sewing pattern's version of a size 10 is more like a 6 or an 8 in off the rack clothes. This is due to the so called vanity sizing in off the rack clothes. (You know how you can usually go down a size in clothes from the Gap or Banana Republic? It's not that you've really lost weight without realizing it. ;) Their sizes run a bit bigger than normal, because people get a kick out of wearing a smaller size. This is also the reason why you'll probably wear a larger size in vintage clothes. Back in the day, they sized the clothing according to actual body measurements. But I digress.) It's a real drag to finish a project, only to find that it's never going to fit you. (I've done it. More than once.)

2) Pick something easy to start with. Throw pillows, pillowcases,  tote bags, simple elastic waist skirts, and pajama pants that don't have a lots of pockets and extra detailing are good starter projects. Picking an easy project to start with raises the odds that it will turn out well, which in turn will help you develop the skills and confidence to move on to harder things. It's pretty much not ever a good idea to decide that you're going to sew your wedding dress or your daughter's prom dress as a first project.

(I made these pj pants for the kids today, using McCall's pattern number M6194. It would make a great beginner pattern, with just 2 pieces, and no fussy details. I also deliberately made them a little big, hoping the kids might get a little more wear out of them, in case you're wondering. I'm cheap like that.)

3) Pay attention specifically to the cutting instructions on the pattern. If you don't, you may end up with pieces that have been cut out on the wrong side of the fabric. Sometimes the instructions will dictate that you'll pin the pattern piece right side up, and then again upside down, in order to to achieve a left and right sleeve for instance. It's complicated to explain here, but trust me on this. Read the directions. Then read them again.

4) When you're first starting out, threading the sewing machine is pretty intimidating. There are usually around 6 places you have to run the thread through, and it has to be done in the right order. My mother gave me this tip: Write the numbers 1-6 on a piece of tape, then place them on the appropriate spots on the machine, as shown below. Next time you go to thread the machine, it will be easy to figure out the order. Later, when you don't need the prompting any more, you can remove the tape.

5) I'm going to totally go against the consensus here, but if you just want to dip your toes into sewing, and see if you like it, I think it's fine to buy a cheap Singer sewing machine at a big box store. It won't last forever, it doesn't have as many bells and whistles, and it may not be up to quilting multiple layers of heavy fabric. It should, however get you through the first couple of years, while you learn how to sew, and decide if you like it. Later you can upgrade to a fancy machine, if you want one, or need one. Or not. $1000 is a lot of cash to drop on something you're not even sure if you're going to use.

6) Initially you may be tempted to think that basting, and pinning, and ironing are a lot of trouble, and maybe you don't really have to do them. They save a lot of time on the back end though, ripping out mistakes. Sewing is a little like cooking. Once you sort of know what you're doing, you can figure out ways to improvise. At first though, follow the directions to the letter.

7) The easiest fabric to get started with is going to be cotton. It doesn't stretch, it won't slip and slide while you're sewing it, and it's pretty forgiving if you have to rip out stitches. It's also inexpensive. You probably don't want to get started sewing on antique silk.

8) My final tip is this: the best way to learn to sew is to start sewing. Pick an easy pattern, some inexpensive fabric and go to town. When you mess up, (and you will mess up,) you can either try try to fix it, or scrap it and start over.

Do you have any tips to add to the list? I'd love for you to add them to the comments section.

For many more WFMW posts, check out http://www.wearethatfamily.com/


  1. I've been sewing for over 30 years and I have to say this is a wonderful list for beginners who are intimidated! I love the PJ pants. I still like making simple things, even though I also make some more complicated projects (including a coat I'm just finishing up). I agree that an easy pattern (no zippers or buttons) is the best way to start, but I'd also say to look for a quality fabric that you love. And good thread! Nothing is more frustrating when you sew than crummy thread that breaks. LOL on the wedding gown and prom dress. Avoid shiny (slippery) fabric and velvet like the plague! I actually saw someone buying plaid (plaid, that has to be matched!) for a beginning sewist. I'd have said something except it was already cut.
    Begin with the basics and the heavy-duty stuff will come along just fine.

  2. Hi! I'm your newest follower from the Wednesday link up. Lovely blog:) You can find me at www.bouffeebambini.blogspot.com

    LOve the pants

  3. Thank you for sharing these tips. I am adding it to my bookmarked favorites. I have a sewing machine I got for Christmas about 3 years ago and have used twice. I really want to learn but am a little intimidated by it. your tips really help. Thanks!

  4. Mom2fur, you're right about the thread. There's nothing like having to rethread the sewing machine over and over because the thread keeps breaking!Thanks for wieghing in with your tips. :)

  5. I have a sewing machine that has been sitting in my closet since I had my oldest child - who is almost 10! This really inspires me to challenge myself and just learn how!!

  6. Great comments and advice! Love your blog.

    I would add two things: 1) choose fabric that you love. It makes the whole process more fun and if you mess it up, you'll have a lovely mistake. :) And 2) aprons are very easy to sew and very popular right now. They make great gifts. If you use different fabric, you can use the same pattern over and over. This lets you practice your sewing, cutting and pinning while making cute gifts that are fast and easy.

  7. Flowerpots, thanks for the comment. I hadn't even thought of aprons, but you're right, they'd make a good starter project too.

    You're right about the fabric too. I'd say choose inexpensive fabric so you don't have to cry if you somehow mangle it, but at the same time, pick something you're going to enjoy using and wearing. It doesn't do anyone any good to sew yourself an ugly skirt, right? :)

    Thanks to everyone that's weighed in the topic.