Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Sewing Construction: The Basics


This post is part of Learn to Sew, aimed at beginners.

When I first started sewing, the biggest head-scratching moment for me was when it came to putting my first garment together. I wore clothes every day (you’ll be pleased to hear) – but I’d never considered how the pieces of fabric had been put together to create the garments in the first place. I have a distinct memory of day one of my sewing class, pinning together my first dress and very nearly sewing the armholes up - simply because I hadn’t got my head around what I was doing, nor why I was doing it.

So I want to make an attempt at answering some of the questions my brain was screaming at me when I first set fabric to machine. Hopefully the answers may help novice stitchers understand some of the basics of sewing construction.

You’ve prepared your fabric. You’ve cut your fabric to your pattern. You've threaded your machine. Now we’re going to turn those flat pieces of fabric into a 3D form that you can hang on your body. This is where magic happens!

Okay so I’ve cut my fabric… now what?

Now you need to put the pieces of fabric together. Your pattern instructions will tell you which bits need to be sewn to each other.

The pattern is telling me to place them “right sides together”. What does this mean, please?



When you join two or more pieces of fabric together, the line of stitching usually goes on the inside so that it’s hidden when the garment is worn. So when you’re pinning fabric together ready to stitch it, you need the sides of the fabric that will form the inside of the garment to be facing outwards, and the sides of the fabric that will be on show to be facing each other. The inside is referred to in sewing terminology as the “wrong” side, the outside as the “right” side.

So an expression you’ll come across a lot in sewing instructions is “right sides together”. If it’s not written, it’s usually assumed. (An example of when you would sew “wrong” sides together would be when you’re making French seams, but don’t worry about that for now.)

Do I just put the pieces on top of each other?



If you’ve got two pieces of fabric that need to be sewn together along a certain seam, say the side seam, place the edges of that seam together exactly. Sometimes they’ll match up easily with your fabric pieces staying nice and flat against each other. Other times it may look at first glance that the edges won’t align - for example, if you’re attaching a convex curve to a concave curve - so you’ll need to mould the fabric in such a way that the seams do match.


Most patterns include notches on the side seams, marked by either a tiny triangle or a little perpendicular line. These serve as little markers to help you align your pieces of fabric together. Snip these marks into your fabric when you cut it out. A single snip is a better idea than cutting the whole triangle, IMHO – firstly, it’s quicker, and secondly, it’ll make your fabric less likely to tear or distort out of shape. Make sure they’re shorter than your seam allowance so they won’t show on the outside of your garment. These little snips will help you align your pieces accurately when it comes to assembling your fabric pieces.

Now keep it all in place with some pins.

Which way do I stick the pins in?



If you’ve got nimble fingers, pinning perpendicular to the edge of the fabric with the heads sticking towards outwards will allow you to whip out those bad boys while you’re stitching. Okay, so this will only really save you a few seconds per seam, possibly an hour or two over the course of your lifetime – so not essential. But it looks really cool if you can do it!!

No one’s going to judge you on the angle you put your pins in though. Personally I chop and change between parallel and perpendicular to the seam line – sometimes diagonal if I’m feeling particularly wild - depending on what I’m stitching.

What is essential is to remove the pins before they reach the sewing machine needle. Sometimes you can get away with sewing over pins, but there’s always a chance the needle could snap and fly in your face – not a good look!

Professional stitchers often avoid using pins altogether unless absolutely necessary. But as far as I’m concerned, pins are my friends, and if you’re new to sewing you should make friends with them too!

What’s a “seam allowance”?



You probably know what a seam is - the extra space on the other side of the stitching line, which ends up on the inside of the garment. The seam allowance is the amount of extra space allowed on a pattern - and thus on the pieces of fabric that you cut - for the seam. Your sewing pattern should tell you what seam allowance has been added. A standard seam allowance for sewing patterns is 5/8” or 15mm (often ½” in the fashion industry - saves fabric!). When you take your fabric to the machine, keep the edge aligned with the 5/8” or 15mm mark to stitch at the correct seam allowance.

Which bits am I actually sewing together?



To avoid repeating the Tilly mistake of nearly sewing up your dress’s armpits, before you sew, stop and think for a second (or a few minutes!) about which part of the garment the seam line corresponds to, and thus what it’s going to look like on the outside once it’s sewn together. I know this can be tricky when you’re not used to thinking about how clothing is made. What really helps is taking an active interest in the clothing in your wardrobe – turn some garments inside out and notice how the pieces have been attached to create the final shape. It’ll make a lot more sense once you’ve sewn a few projects, I promise!


I hope this helps explain some of the things that can throw you as a novice stitcher. If something still doesn’t make sense, do leave a comment and I’ll try to explain. Equally, if you’re an experienced stitcher and have a brilliant analogy for explaining construction concepts to a novice, do share!

Like this? Read more Learn to Sew.

36 comments:

  1. Great post! I love this series, even though it's all things I've known most of my life =) So interesting to read the perspective of someone who learned to sew as an adult!

    An extra trick regarding right side/wrong side: on some fabrics the both sides are almost the same, or it's actually impossible to tell them apart! (One can usually tell by the selvedge, though)
    I then just decide "I'm using this as my wrong side" and make marks during cutting, maybe an X in the seamallowance with a chalkpen, or secure a needle through the fabric. Just something that makes sure I'm always using the same side of the fabric for all my pieces!

    Why is that important? Some fabrics may look the same on both sides, but small differences in shine/colour/weave may later be seen in full sunlight.

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    1. Thanks for the addition, Erika! I mentioned that point in the previous post on preparing fabric but it's good to reiterate it here. Marking the wrong side with a chalk pen is great tip.

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  2. I'm really enjoying your series of posts Tilly - you are answering all those kind of questions that a total novice might feel too shy to ask, for fear of being shot down (or of looking daft). Not everyone has access to a local real life class, or to a relative/friend who sees... so your posts are a great alternative to a hands-on demonstration :)

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    1. Thanks Claire :) Also I know a lot of people who either can't afford a sewing course or who want to dip their toe into sewing before committing or who like to learn things at home themselves. Hopefully these posts are useful for them. If we can get more people making their own clothes, that would be awesome!

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  3. This is a great post! You have a very simple but effective way of explaining things, so it becomes very clear, even for a total beginner.
    I'll check the rest of the series now :)

    Thank you for your work!

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  4. An excellent series full of easy to understand terminology; thanks! Off topic kind of...how on earth do you add the dashed lines and text to your pictures? I can already sew (am a Textiles teacher) but that fancy stuff stumps me!

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  5. This is really helpful - as a newbie sewer. (Got the machine, but not the bottle to try it out!)

    This is all information they assume the reader knows - so thanks for taking the time to explain it to beginners!

    www.mancunianvintage.com

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  6. I got my first sewing machine for Christmas and I really want to get started making a few basic things, so thank you so much for explaining the above as I had been getting no where and also getting frustrated along the way!

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    1. Brilliant! I really hope this helps you get started.

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  7. Really enjoying this series - despite the fact I've been sewing on and off for a while, and have actually managed to make some decent garments, I still make total rookie errors and sometimes, being told in words of one syllable is just what I need :D

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  8. I'm so glad you're doing this series. I'm finding myself being reminded of stuff that I've forgotten from when I first learned. It's never to late to review the basics. :)

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  9. great job. if I was a total newb, this would be an incredible tool. where we're you where I was learning to sew? oh yeah, not born yet. lol. I still remember the big black singers from home ec...straight stitch only.

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  10. first time commenting. I just love your posts, so clear. I learnt sewing some years back and your blog has being a great place to revise now that i am going back to it.

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    1. Thank you for your lovely comment!

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  11. Love your rainbow wardrobe picture!
    I'm enjoying this series, it's good to refresh the essentials.

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  12. You are a great teacher:) very wise and informative:)

    www.becstitches.blogspot.com.au

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  13. Hello Tilly, Any chance you will go over finishing seams for some reason i worry that I'm doing this all wrong.

    Loving these tutorials as the pictures really help and mean more sewing and less thinking/scratching head/ hesitating about "is that what the pattern means?"

    Have ordered my tracing wheel on the basis of your previous post - loked like fun

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    1. Yes! I'm planning a post on basic seam finishes very soon...

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  14. I haven't even ordered my machine (though I'm planning on doing it later this week) and I've been devouring all your posts in this series. I'm loving it so far. It's really really helpful. And by reading it now with time (and without the excitement of just wanting to get started) I'll able to focus better when I start my first project!
    Thank you so much. Lovely pictures and easy (and fun) to read!

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  15. Wonderful article, I remember when I was starting out how I struggled with the direction of pins and stitching the wrong bits together.

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  16. I am determined that over the course of this summer I will learn to sew! This series is so helpful and you are pretty much teaching me everything I know!! The only thing I ever knew before reading your blog was how to sew straight line/ zigzag and basic stitches and generally just how to operate a machine. I'm going to be saving up for some sewing patterns and fabric and making my own clothes once I get better! I'm even starting embroidery too :)

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  17. Hi Tilly! This is such a fab and fun site! I used to sew at school and made (and worse still, actually WORE) some clothes! I'm 48 now and haven't sewn for over 20 years. My daughter, 25, wants me to make her a skirt. She has tried everywhere to buy the skirt she wanted but to no avail, so here I am, sitting at a borrowed sewing machine, with one stabbed finger already but keen to give it a try! Your tips are fab and good fun too (sewing was boring when I was at school, but you have given it a bright side!). Thanks for all your advice!

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  18. so..My name is Nikki, I am a very enthusiastic beginner, I have been a fabric addict for 2 months now and counting, I bought my machine on a whim and have tackled a few projects with blind gusto. Some have worked, some look ok from a distance. I have had to twice turn a dress into a top because of not paying attention to the direction of my fabric, but hey- no one knows that but me. I am yet to sew a button hole or zipper. I am sitting here with pre-washed fabric and patterns at my disposal and am feeling ever so slightly more confident since finding this blog. Previously my sewing experience amounted to failing home economics in my first year at high school. I figure after 4 kids and running a household, I mustn't be too bad.. why not give sewing a crack too? Well now I am hooked! Like a woman possessed I want to sew EVERYTHING! Thankfully I have this blog to help me!!
    Thank you so much Tilly, from your newest follower in Oz.

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  19. Great blog! I am your new follower and anxious to learn more! I am attempting to make your Lola dress and shower proof jacket! I am waiting for patterns to do that.Best wishes, it is fantastic place:)

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  20. Hey Tilly,
    Any idea if/when your book "Love at First Stitch" may be available in Canada?
    I've recently started sewing - tackling and demystifying the things my sewing machine does (voluntarily or not). I found your website recently and really appreciate your simplicity and deconstruction of this "sewing jargon" that others tend to over-complicate to seem more intelligent. Your approach to sewing and clothing design is fresh and approachable, so I'm eager to absorb as much information as possible by getting my hands on your book!
    Please keep me posted! Thank you!
    -Elizabeth

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    1. Hi Elizabeth
      Watch this space - just got some news about international versions of the book, waiting to find out more...

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  21. Hi Tilly, I'm still struck with disbelief over how wonderful this website is! I'm a total novice to sewing but for the first time I read something- it makes sense- it's easy to apply- and (most importantly) the instructions are not written with the expectation that the reader is an utter monkey :) The book is pre-ordered now.
    Thanks for the great blog!

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  22. I just bought a sewing machine and I want to learn how to sew. Your explaination was totally clear and easy to understand. I am very happy with your post. Thanks Tilly :)

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  23. Best section in your explanation to sewing! I was utterly confused with the wrong and right side and notches but you successfully explained to me :) so thankyou

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  24. Great post for beginners! It covers all of the things experienced sewers take for granted.

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