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Sewing Basics
TIPS, F.A.Q.s and General Sewing Advice

Starting out
Probably the most frequent comment/question I get is, "How did you get so good at sewing?" and "My seams never come out straight, how does your stuff look so professional?" and "I am in awe of your sewing ability!". The truth is, I don't have any formal sewing training. I learned to sew in a middle school "Life Skills" class- I made a really hideous stuffed monkey that never came out of my closet. After that, my mom taught me how to use a sewing pattern- I made a really hideous wrap skirt that never came out of my closet.

So how did I get good at sewing? Practice. LOTS of practice. How much? Several hours a day, not necessarily every day, but most. If you think I just sat down at a sewing machine one day and out popped these corset style tops and halter dresses, you're wrong. And frankly, if it didn't make me sound like some sort of super genius with magic powers, I might be a little offended at your assumption that I didn't put any effort into this. I put a lot of time into learning and developing my skill. Of course, it didn't feel like that's what I was doing at the time, I was just messing around with a sewing machine.

I can give you some pointers, and tell you some things that helped me, but again, I'm no expert. I figured all of this out with trial and error. I started out with store-bought patterns, and once I got the hang of those and how the pieces of different garments are shaped, I started drafting my own patterns (and yes, that took practice, too.).

Don't get frustrated when something doesn't turn out right. You can always start over or make something different with what you have.


Click here for a list of handy tools!

  • Sharp scissors - Buy a pair of decent scissors and mark them with a piece of tape or ribbon on the handle to distinguish from other scissors.  ONLY use these scissors to cut fabric.  Paper will dull the scissors and eventually they won't cut fabric. If you live with other people that might stumble upon the Sacred Sewing Scissors, I suggest you hide them in a drawer or keep them out of sight so they don't use them to cut paper.
  • Basic patterns - Buy a few basic patterns: an a-line skirt, a t-shirt, a pair of pants.  You can use these to practice with and eventually you will be able to play with them and make changes (maybe a v-neck for the shirt or adding ruffles or pleats to the skirt). Not only will you learn a lot by using them, once you get good, you'll be able to modify the patterns to make whole new patterns!
  • Thread - Make sure you always have extra spools of black and white thread. Stock up on some other common colors like red, pink, etc.
  • Hand sewing needles - I try so hard to put needles back in their spot when I'm finished working, but I always manage to lose them. Have some extras on hand so you aren't caught with no way to fix that pair of jeans that just ripped. It's also a good idea to have different sizes. Really thin needles are great for beading, and fatter needles work better for thicker materials like denim.
  • Sewing machine needles (if you have a sewing machine, obviously) - Always, always, always, have extras on hand. I didn't break a needle for the first 6 months I got back into sewing. Then one night, I broke 3 needles in 20 minutes, and then I was out! Always have extras in several sizes and types.
  • Seam ripper - I've lost my fair share of seam rippers, and I can tell you it takes forever to undo a seam with a pair of scissors. These are handy and cheap.
  • Fabric - I don't think this one needs much explanation, but I'll list some kinds of fabric that'd be handy to have around. Muslin is good if you're experimenting and want to do a rough draft first, because it's cheap. Craft fabric, canvas, or duck cloth is good for making screenprinted or stencilled patches. Knits are good for tops and stretchy waistbands. I like having a variety of broadcloth around in basic prints (polka dots, stripes, houndstooth, etc.) for purses, skirts, pillows, etc.
  • Zipper foot - Hopefully your sewing machine came with a zipper foot, but if not you should be able to find one at a sewing/craft supply store.

If you have trouble finding some of this stuff, or don't know where to look, check out the Craft Resource Directory.

Thrift stores: If you don't have a lot of money to spend on supplies, your local thrift stores will be your best friends. And even if you do have a lot of money, thrift stores are still fun and have lots of great supplies. Bed sheets are usually really cheap, and yield a TON of fabric. T-shirts are usually only a buck or two a piece, so you'll have plenty to experiment with there. If you're worried about something not turning out right, do a trial version on a crappy t-shirt that you won't mind destroying. Thrift stores also often have really cheap second-hand patterns, so don't overlook them! Of course, you might not always find the right size, so you might have to play with them a bit. Thrift stores also often yield cheap sewing machines!

 

Other things you might want to invest in:

  • Pinking shears - These look like a heavy duty pair of scissors, but when you cut, it looks like this: /\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\ This will make the edges of fabric less likely to fray, and it also will make your seams look nice when they're pressed open.
  • Rotary cutter - It's like a pizza cutter for fabric! This isn't a must, but it's handy if you're cutting through several layers, or if you need really straight lines. Make sure you get a cutting mat and a big thick ruler or you'll mess up your floors and tabletops.
  • Buttons - Buttons are good for embellishments, and they're also handy to have around in case one pops off of your favorite shirt and rolls under the fridge.
  • Embellishments - patches, lace, sequins, beads... I can never have enough of this crap. You can add it to your diy creations or spiff up a plain t-shirt or bag you bought at the store. Handy for hiding pesky stains, too!
  • Modpodge - You can decoupage just about anything. Furniture, notebooks, boxes, etc.
  • Paintbrushes - Make sure you have some broad brushes and foam brushes for filling in big spaces and a variety of smaller brushes for fine lines and details.
  • Fabric paint or acrylic paint and textile medium or textile ink- You can paint it on, stencil, screenprint, or water it down and use it as a dye for light colors.
  • Fabric glue - This comes in handy for lots of stuff. You can use it to attached embellishments or hold something in place before stitching it down.
  • Fabric dye - Fabric dye can fix a lot of things. Got some ink stains on your favorite pair of jeans? Dye them dark indigo or black and cover the stains. Or bleach that ugly orange skirt you got at the thrift shop and dye it green.
  • Teflon foot (for sewing machines) -
  • Serger/Overlocker - If you'd like to sew professionally or you work with a lot of knit and stretch fabric, a serger is an excellent investment. Sergers cut and finish the seams of your garments all in one step, and they do it fast. If you don't have a regular sewing machine, a serger is not a replacement. Sergers can't do topstitching, and there are plenty of projects where a serger wouldn't be an appropriate replacement for a sewing machine.
  • Dressform - I got incredibly lucky and found my dressform for $5 at a rummage sale. Check out your local thrift stores, and the craft gods might smile upon you. If you don't have luck there, you can always try to find a deal on Ebay or other craft/sewing supply stores or DiY it!

 

Straight seams
If you're having trouble keeping your seams straight, you probably just need some more practice. Go slow- don't put the pedal to the metal just yet. Some machines are really fast, so you'll need to practice keeping steady pressure on the pedal at a speed you can keep up with. It's really a lot like driving.

You can also get a handy little tool called a Seam Guide. It's a little magnetic doo-dah that sticks to the plate of your sewing machine. You adjust it to fit your seam allowance, and then while you're sewing, line the edge of your fabric up with it.

Trouble with sewing knits/stretch fabric
If you're using a standard sewing maching and trying to reconstruct t-shirts, you'll want to use a zig-zag or stretch stitch. The zig-zag allows the stitch to stretch with the fabric, so it doesn't break when you try to get your newly reconstructed t-shirt on or off.
If you plan to be sewing a lot with stretch and knit fabrics, you might want to consider investing in a serger (sometimes called an overlock machine). A serger is a special sewing machine that uses 3, 4, or 5 threads. It trims off the seam allowance and sews "around" the seam, locking the edges to prevent rolling and fraying. A serger is very well suited to sewing stretch fabrics because it's stitch allows for a lot more stretch than even a zig-zag stitch.


For more information about sergers, check out the Serger F.A.Q.s and Guide.


Measuring, fitting, patternmaking
If you're using the tutorials on this site, please keep in mind that almost all of them are intended to be used with stretch fabric (t-shirts, knit, jersey, interlock, etc.). If you're a decent seamstress, you can probably adapt some of them to non-stretch fabrics pretty easily by adding an inch or two here and there, and by planning for some sort of closing/opening device (zippers, buttons, etc.).

Also make sure you've got accurate measurements for yourself. If you don't know how to measure yourself, it's pretty simple:

Your bust is the widest part of your chest.
Your natural waist is the slimmest part of your torso, generally a few inches above your belly button.
Your low waist is where you wear the waistband of your pants/skirts.
Your hips are the widest part of your lower body.

Note: Your bra size is not an accurate bust measurement.

If you are not confident in your ability to correctly measure yourself, find a garment that fits you well (it would be best if it has some stretch to it if you're going to be working with stretchy fabric), and measure that.

And finally: Any tutorial will probably need a bit of tweaking to fit your unique bod.

If you're interested in making your own patterns, I'd suggest to get comfortable with the basic shape of some simple pattern pieces first: sleeves, pant legs, etc. Making patterns may seem like the best place to start if you want to make clothes, but most people who make their own patterns will tell you that they started with storebought patterns. They played around with modifying those patterns once they got comfortable, and THEN moved on to making patterns from scratch.

Consider the fact that you're taking a 2D shape and making it fit a 3D body... it's not as easy as it sounds. Some people will "get it" faster than others, but with practice, you'll figure out what goes where.

If you want to jump head-first into pattern making, then try cutting up some of your old clothes along the seams. Trace the resulting pieces and sew them back together again. Voila! You made a pattern.

For a very basic, made- to-fit top pattern, check out this tutorial.


Seam Allowances
I don't mention it in most tutorials, but you should always add a seam allowance when you cut out your pieces.

EXAMPLE: You are making a tube top with a bust of 36". When you are cutting out the pieces, add an inch (or a 1/2 inch, it's up to you) on each side. This will give you room to sew seams and hems, and it will also give you room for mistakes.

In this example, a piece that will measure 18" when completely finished will measure 20" after you cut it out.

If you find that you make a lot of mistakes when you're sewing, and you have to cut and sew the same spot so many times that you lose a few inches in the process, OR if you aren't very good about measuring yourself, you might want to increase your seam allowance. That's what it's there for anyway, it gives you some room to make mistakes! And hey, mistakes are good! That's how you learn.

 

Backstitching
Your sewing machine should have a button or a lever (it's different from machine to machine) that can make the machine stitch backwards. This is perfect for securing the ends of seams so your threads don't just unravel.
On my newer Singer, it's a large button/bar that you slide down, and it's labeled with a little symbol that looks like a U-turn. On my vintage Kenmore, it's a button with a big "R" on it (reverse). On my vintage Singer, the stitch length lever pushed all the way to the top position is reverse.
You'll want to backstitch at least twice to make sure the seam is secure.

For the purposes of the diagram, my backstitching was kind of messy- I wanted to show each back-and-forth motion. You want to try to line up those stitches on top of each other as best you can.

 

T-shirt corsets
I get more requests for corset tutorials than anything else. Here's the secret to a very easy corset style top:
Take the tube top tutorial, and then cut the back piece right up the middle. But how do you get all of those little metal doo-dahs on there so you can lace it up with ribbon? Easy, my friends: grommet tape.
It's also sometimes called eyelet tape. Another similar solution would be hook and eye tape.
Grommet tape comes with all of the grommets pre-set so there's no fussing with those stupid setting tools (and, if you've ever used them, you know they're usually worthless).  Sometimes craft stores like Joann carry it, sometimes not, and it's pretty often way overpriced.  The Craft Resource Directory lists several places you can buy it online for a decent price.


Choosing the Right Needle
Using the wrong needle can make your sewing life a living hell.
Universal needles are intended for most sewing projects. They work well with woven fabrics.
If you are working with knits, you should use ballpoint needles. They have a rounder edge than universal needles, which prevents the needle from snagging the fabric.
There are other kinds of specialty needles besides ballpoint. For example, there are special needles for sewing leather (made to make smaller holes) and denim (made to sew through many layers of thick fabric).

Most needle packages are marked with two sizes. The higher number is the European size. The lower number is the American size.

Weight/Type of Fabric
Needle Size
Very Lightweight (fabric, fabric, blah)
8 or 9
Lightweight
9, 10, 11
Medium-weight
12 or 14
Heavyweight
14 or 16
Very Heavyweight
16 or 18
 

 

Buttonholes
Here's what the manual for my rad old Kenmore has to say about buttonholes.

I've found that something more like this works better for me. Remember to do a very tight zig-zag, like the guide above says, the stitch length should be almost to zero so the zig-zags lay right next to one another like a satin stitch in embroidery.

If you use a small piece of light fusible interfacing on the inside of the fabric, your button hole with look nicer and last longer.

Sewing on decorative elastic
Sometimes you'll want the elastic to show a little bit, if you've got something a little fancy, like a picot elastic, or ruffle elastic. So you need something other than a casing.
When I use decorative elastic on a skirt or top, I fold the edge of the fabric over, and sew the elastic on top of it, stretching the elastic a little as I sew. (see diagram below)
You should use some sort of zig-zag stitch. I like to use the Lingerie stitch, which looks like a zig-zag stitch made up of tiny straight stitches.

(picot trim sewn on the neckline of a top with lingerie stitch)

 

Sewing on trims (stretch lace, grommet tape, etc.)
Most trims like grommet tape and hook & eye tape will probably be easiest to attach with a zipper foot.
For things like stretch lace, where you'll often be sewing it on top of the hem, and you don't want the stitching to show, I like to use a Lingerie stitch. It looks like a zig-zag stitch made of tiny straight stitches, and it blends in really well with stretch lace trim.

(Lingerie stitch picture at left)

"FAKE" coverstitching
Take a look at the hem of a t-shirt, and it's most likely coverstitched. Some fancy pants sergers come with a coverstitch function, some people have entirely separate machines for coverstitching. I cheat, because I'm a Cheater McPeter.
My cheat: twin needles. It looks like two needles on one needle shaft, and that's exactly what it is. You will insert the needle in your standard zig-zag sewing machine* like any other needle. You'll also need to rig up a second spool of thread.
Once you've threaded both needles, you can sew as usual (though I like to take it slow). You might need some tension adjustment, as well. When you sew a regular straight stitch, the top of the stitching will be two parallel rows of straight stitching. However, the bottom (bobbin) thread will be a zig zag. It's a good stitch for using to hem knits, and it looks almost identical to a true coverstitch.
*Some older machines will not be compatible with the twin needle.


top side of a true coverstitch

underside of a true coverstitch
   

top side of twin needle stitching

underside of twin needle stitching (in red)

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