5 January 2011

Learning to Sew - Part 1


Since I began sewing, a lot of people - readers of my blog and real life friends - have shown an interest in taking it up themselves and have asked me how to get started. We're at that time of year when many of us are itching to try something new, so I thought it'd be good to answer some of those questions I get here, to give anyone tempted to take up sewing a few tips and a hearty dose of encouragement to get started.

Alas, this won't be a tutorial on the practicalities of using a sewing machine.
Update! I've now started posting practical tutorials on using a sewing machine - check out the Learn to Sew series.

Righto, here goes with some of the most common questions I get asked:

"I hated sewing at school... is it difficult?"

I hear the same story so often and it saddens me every time - the scary home economics teacher standing over the child's shoulder, screaming at them for the tiniest mistake, terrifying them so they never get the hang of threading a machine, let alone discover the pleasures that sewing brings. Maybe it was a blessing that I was never taught sewing at school so I wasn't put off at an early age. I want to shout it from the rooftops - "SEWING IS FUN!"

The most difficult part is learning to thread the machine, but really it's like tying your shoe laces - once you've got your head round that (see next question) and practised a few times it becomes second nature. After that, sewing can be as easy or as difficult as you like, depending on the projects and techniques that you choose to tackle. So you can take it at your own pace, starting with easy projects, upping the stakes gradually with more challenging techniques when you feel ready for it. There's always something new to learn, so it never gets boring, just more rewarding - that's the beauty of it!


"Does sewing your own clothes save you money?"

Not necessarily. On a single project I could spend £10 - £40 on fabric, £4 on thread, £5 on buttons, £1 or £2 on a zipper, and sometimes you need extras like bias tape, lace, linings... Having said that, you can get lucky and find cheap fabric and buttons that match your project at charity shops, markets and independent haberdashers. You can also upcycle things you don't wear in your closet... or even old bed sheets!

No matter what you spend on making a dress, you'll treasure it forever. And don't forget that you're not only paying for clothes, you're paying for your hobby at the same time (trust me, once you get the sewing bug, you won't be spending so much money down the pub or on entertainment - you'll want to stay home all the time!). Moreover, since I started sewing my own clothes, I've gone off shopping as I know that I can always make something that little bit more perfect myself (perfect as in suitable, that is, if not perfect stitching!). So in that sense, it can certainly save you tons of money!


"I have no idea how to use a sewing machine. How can I learn?"

Update! I've now started posting practical tutorials on using a sewing machine - check out the Learn to Sew series.

If you're like me and have no patience with instruction manuals, the best way to learn is to take a class. I started with a one-day workshop in how to use a sewing machine, which drilled me in threading the machine, showed me basic stitches, and taught me to make a simple appliquéd bag. After that, I took a three-day introduction to dressmaking course which taught me how to cut out the fabric pieces, follow a sewing pattern, sew in a zipper, make gathering stitches, set in sleeves, sew buttonholes and other basic techniques. Having a tutor on hand to check I was doing it right and to correct any (many) mistakes was invaluable, and having other beginners around me was really motivating. Have a look for courses at colleges, fashion schools or community centres. And in London at least there are sewing schools (such as Oh Sew Brixton) and craft cafes (such as The Make Lounge in Islington) popping up all over the place (hurrah!), and even museums are getting in on the act (eg. the Fashion and Textile Museum).

Alternatively, if you have a patient seamstress friend or auntie, ask them to sit down with you for a couple of hours to show you the ropes. They'll probably be flattered you asked! Just make sure you schedule in lots of time to practice afterwards so you really get used to the techniques.

Once you've mastered the basics, you can learn a lot from books, video tutorials and sewing blogs. Starting your own sewing blog is highly recommended for documenting your progress, keeping yourself motivated, and becoming part of a community very willing to share hints and tips!


"I know how to use a sewing machine to make simple things like cushion covers, but how do I make clothes?"

I'd advise you to follow a sewing pattern (see question below for suggestions). You can of course sew clothes without a pattern, by following tutorials in books, by basing your project on an existing item in your wardrobe, or if you're really confident you could just make it up yourself. But personally I think you're best off learning to follow a pattern, as it'll talk you through the standard procedure for putting a garment together and you'll learn new construction techniques along the way. Think of it as a life skill!

Interpreting a pattern can seem a bit daunting at first, so the quickest way to learn is to take a class that will help you decipher the instructions (or lack of them). I could show you the back of a pattern and explain how to read it if you want - leave a comment and if there's enough demand I'll go through it in a later post.

To sew clothes, you'll need to learn techniques such as forming darts, finishing seams, adding interfacing, inserting a zipper, sewing buttonholes, gathering stitch... You can get these from a book - I constantly refer to Complete Book Of Sewingbut again I would recommend a basic sewing course to get you started so you get hands on experience and tutor feedback.


"Are there any first projects you could recommend to get me started?"

If you've never sewn anything before, I'd begin with a simple tote bag. This will give you practice in straight stitching and hemming, and you can have fun decorating it afterwards!

For a first clothes project, I'd start with an A-line skirt or shift dress, with simple lines, a minimum number of pieces and no fancy techniques. When choosing a pattern, think about what you are ready to tackle. Zips? Buttonholes? Pleats? Gathering? You might also want to consider whether you can see yourself making up the same pattern a few times. Once you've completed your first garment, it's worth going through it again to remind yourself what you learnt.

My first clothes project was McCalls 2401, which taught me darts, zips, hems, sleeves and facings. Pyjama bottoms would also be a good first project to ease you in, or maybe a smock-style top, or even just an apron.

You also need to consider what fabric to use for your first project. Don't choose anything that's even vaguely slippery or liable to run, otherwise you'll be put off for life! A light- to medium-weight cotton would be good as it will lie flat, press well and won't slide around on the machine. There are a lot of gorgeous cottons around that are designed to be used for quilting and craft projects, and there seem to be two schools of thought on whether you can use them to sew apparel. Some people will be adamant that you can't use them for clothes as they are too stiff and don't drape nicely. In the other camp, some people say that you can use them for some projects that don't require flowing fabrics - such as an A-line skirt. This may all seem confusing, and choosing fabrics isn't my forte, but the back of the pattern will suggest some fabrics to use and you can always take your pattern into a fabric shop and find a friendly assistant to advise you.


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Now read Learning to sew - Part 2!

36 comments:

  1. I'd encourage anyone to take up sewing. It is totally addictive and ultimately very satisfying. Well done Tilly for such a detailed and encouraging post! Can't wait for the next one!
    Brilliant as ever.
    Portia (Miss P)
    xxx

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  2. This is a great post - I hope it encourages more people to get involved with sewing.

    I'm relatively new to this myself but I'm already hooked! Who would have thought sewing could be so much fun and rewarding?!

    Donna

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  3. I'm already well on my way but Tilly it has to be said you're so kind to do this, you're so sweet.

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  4. What a great beginner post! I wish I had read it 3 years ago when I started sewing.

    I would also add--pick a first pattern that you actually like! I picked a simple pull-over dress that had no zippers, and an awesome fabric. It definitely motivated me, and I still wear the dress often!

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  5. excellent sewing advice! You're so right- sewing is a blast!! I often buy my patterns when they go on sale for 99 cents and use a 50% off coupon on fabrics and it saves a ton of money! Sewing isn't difficult, it just takes time and patience. Two of the most valuable tips that I leaned is that 1.) Reading the instructions is important, no matter how good you are at sewing. 2.)Pressing is a must! I started sewing when I was 12 and very stubborn but now I've learned to take my time and be patient and I have much better results! :)

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  6. Great post, I have to admit I'd love you to explain how to read a pattern... Clothes patterns always seen so daunting to me, especially when they require so much fabric. I get bogged down with the expense and the knowledge that I'm not necessarily that good! I have bought an apron pattern to try this year though...

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  7. This is so encouraging!! I have some very, VERY basic sewing knowledge, but I find it tricky and get really frustrated. After reading this though, I feel inspired to have another go, so thanks!
    From Carys of La Ville Inconnue

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  8. Thanks for the tips Tilly, I'll definitely have to try making an A line skirt. I got my machine today (woohoo!) and I managed to set it up and get to grips with threading it. I had a go at making the bow belt using your fab tutorial, it didn't exactly turn out right but I know where I screwed up so I'm going to try again tomorrow. I'm getting addicted to sewing already :)

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  9. I highly recommend pajamas as your first sewing project. You don't have to worry about fit, especially if you use elastic for the waist band. Use a lightweight or medium weight cotton as Tilly said. This was my first clothes project that I completed and at the end of it I kept thinking to myself, "Wow, I actually made this!!" It was such an accomplishment, even if it was basic :)

    I also second learning the basics in a class. I think it's so important to have someone to ask directly.

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  10. An absolutely wonderful and inspiring post. May I link to it soon?

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  11. yay! <3 i hope this inspires a few ladies to get sewin'! it is oh so fun and i agree, having a tutor is invaluable!

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  12. This post is spot on - you nailed it! I knew how to thread a machine, but completely taught myself how to do darts, etc., using patterns. It can be done.

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  13. As a complete beginner I think this is great advice! I'd only add that your first project should be something you really like. When I got my machine a few years ago I bought an ugly dress pattern because it looked really easy. I never used it because I was simply uninspired. I would never have worn the dress. Then, a few months ago, I got the itch to try something new and creative. I dusted off the Singer and bought another pattern -- it was slightly more complicated, but I really liked it. I loved sewing it because I couldn't wait to wear it! Now I'm a sewing addict. I still have that first pattern sitting in a drawer somewhere. I doubt I'll ever use it.

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  14. Thanks for this post, you've got it spot-on, I've caught the sewing itch! Your pieces are great, love your prints.

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  15. The thing that's off putting to me is trying to figure out how to get the markings on the pattern to your garment, like dart lines.

    Do you use a special tool?

    Tia

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  16. It is great to read for people who wants to start sewing and also already-in-love people;) I'm sure many girls will decide to activate their sewing machine pretty soon;)
    Great post, Tilly!!

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  17. I often suggest for people to start with a pair of PJ bottoms - cotton or flanelette are the most common fabric choices and both easy to sew with, and fit is less important so they're more likely to come out with an item they'll wear on a regular basis.

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  18. Ah! Great post! Though no more a beginner, I might repeat some of what you said to people who want to learn...

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  19. This is a great idea for posts. I've been sewing for a year ish and am self taught. I have a treadle and a hand crank machine and do not want an electric one so classes are really out for me. I'm learing my following people like you and Gertie. You guys have taught me a lot. The biggest hurdle for me was to see imperfect garments as lessons rather than waste!

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  20. Great post! I'm a beginner too but I've just dived right in. Bought a vintage machine off ebay, a couple of patterns and got stuck in.

    I just bought some sewing books but I've found tutorials on the web very very handy when looking for exactly how to do something.

    With patterns I've found it really helpful to read the whole instruction sheet right through a couple of times to really understand everything that's on it. It could just be the vintage ones, but they can be pretty vague!

    My first real thing to make was a wrap skirt which was dead easy. I even learnt how to make bound buttonholes!

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  21. Great post Tilly - and v timely for a newbie to garment sewing, such as myself!
    Though I'm comfortable using the sewing machine, I get really stuck with picking the right fabrics for clothes. But I guess that's all part of the learning process!

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  22. Hello Tilly!
    I suddenly got very interested in sewing a few weeks ago and I got registered a sewing class. I like your blog and I find it motivating :) Thanks for that useful post!

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  23. Great post, and I can't believe how well your first dress turned out! I wasn't so lucky with my first project, but since then I've made some beautiful and unique clothing items. I would certainly encourage anyone that has the interest to take up sewing!

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  24. That's an excellent point about paying for your own hobby. Since I've started sewing I've stopped buying clothes (with the exception of things I can't make -- knit cardigans, undies, shoes). It can be more expensive than buying RTW, but it's more worthwhile I think.

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  25. Fab post Tilly. I was one of the unfortunates who was taught to sew at school by a pair of dragons. It put me off for nearly 30 years, BUT... once I started my dressmaking course, all the basics such as threading a machine, sewing darts, catch stitching a hem etc all came flooding back, so they must have done something right! x

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  26. This is a wonderful post! Like many others I too have decided to take up sewing this year! I have always wanted to sew and begged my mam for a sewing machine when i was younger but was put off when everytime I touched it, something went wrong or broke!

    I have, however, been inspired by your blog and am looking for beginner sewing courses in Edinburgh to get me started!

    Thank you for all the tips, can't wait for part 2 :)

    Rachel
    xxx

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  27. What a great idea for a post - sewing is not scary and I'm glad you've done this to hopefully encourage others to take it up!!

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  28. Sewing isn't that scary. I've been pretty much going on my own, using sew alongs, sewing blogs and good old trial and error. My mother-in-law thinks I'm a natural, but I just think I do well with directions. It's incredibly fun and I think this series of posts will be a great asset to new sewers.

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  29. Sewing can be so intimidating but like everything once you get going it's easy. When I started my own company doing baby clothes it was a huge learning curve. Embroidery was something that I thought was going to be easy but it took a long time to master. Now its so much fun and so much easier. Great article and would defiantly encourage people to get into sewing.

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  30. Just brilliant. I had no idea that this is what you got up to - I spotted it on twitter.

    I have started to sew too, I only started last week and have made two brooches, using felt, buttons and ribbons. I will take some photo's and share. I need to progress onto reading instructions and learning stitches then eventually machines!

    I will keep checking your blog for inspiration, especially when Im ready to move onto the big stuff.

    Hugs

    Jen

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  31. Just discovered your blog, and I love it! thanks for the tips =]

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  32. I'm so glad I found your blog! I just got my first sewing machine in the mail today, and can't wait to learn to use it. Your website is very helpful!

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  33. I finally have the time to try sewing and it is so refreshing to find your blog! Thanks! Love it!

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  34. Learning to sew also helps you to tailor ready-to-wear garments. You can make inexpensive clothes look more expensive if tailored properly.

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  35. I was "that kid"... from age 6-12 I was decent (though not great) with hand sewing, did a project every school holiday, and loved my toy chainstitch machine. Enter secondary school Home Ec, and the tables turned dramatically -- my first real sewing machine experience ended with me veering off the fabric and my seams and hems were never perfectly straight.

    Fast-forward 20+ years, and I decided that my urge to get into garment sewing was enough to face my incompetence head-on. So even though I am living alone in a non-English-speaking country and cannot find a class to take, I still purchased a machine and jumped straight into it. Three months and six garments later, I've inserted 5 zips, done 5 circular hems (multiple skirt layers), shirred, made darts, and done some simple fitting (for length). And I have 3 skirts, a pair of shorts, a jumpsuit and a dress which wowed the friends I did Home Ec with.

    So take heart that a less-than-stellar Home Ec experience isn't the end of the world... some things actually become easier as an adult than as a kid, and sewing is one of them. You have the advantage of better dexterity, more common sense & problem solving skills, and no dragon teacher looking over your shoulder. And all that can make a lot of difference!

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