9 January 2011

Learning to Sew - Part 2

This post is part 2 of Learning to Sew - Part 1, some tips for beginners on how to get start out in the wonderful world of stitching.

"What tools do I need to get started?"

There are squillions of different tools you could buy, from pressing aids to funny little wire loops whose sole function is to turn narrow tubes of fabric inside out. You could literally spend a fortune, but I survived perfectly happily in the first few months of my sewing life with the following essentials:

- Fabric scissors - keep them away from paper or they'll go blunt really quickly

- Thread scissors - for close-up snipping

- Pins - for... erm... pinning things

- Seam ripper - a beginner's best friend, essential for pulling out rogue stitches

- Tape measure - to drape around your neck so you can pretend you are Coco Chanel

- Needles - both sewing machine needles and hand-sewing needles in various sizes

- Thread - as close a match as possible to the colour of your fabric, plus some contrasting colours for temporary basting stitches (so you can see which stitches are the ones that need pulling out)

- Marking tools - for transferring pattern markings onto your fabric. There are a range of options available, including chalk that can be rubbed off or even just children's washable coloured pens.

- Iron and ironing board - for keeping all your folds crisp and accurate

- Cutting mat - to save your table from scissor scratches

If you can afford it, a dress form is great to help with the fitting process and will save you some of the hassle (and pin pricks!) of putting a garment on three million times when you're adjusting it. I made my own out of parcel tape!

As you become more experienced and learn about your sewing style, you might want to think about investing in various sewing machine feet, which are designed to help sew particular things like zigzag stitches, zippers, piping etc. They aren't essential and can add up in cost (they cost around £12 each), but might make your life a little easier. The next things I plan to buy are a rotary cutter for easy fabric cutting and tailor's ham for pressing curves. But I've lived without them for a year, so don't worry about things like that for now!

"Where can I get a reasonably priced sewing machine?"

Your sewing machine will be your biggest investment, but you don't necessarily have to spend an absolute fortune, especially when you're just starting out - you can always upgrade to a snazzier model when your ship comes in.

If you're buying new, prices can range from around £120 to £4,000. I got my Janome J3-18for £129 as a birthday present. It's a perfectly good machine, and though it doesn't have many fancy stitching options, how often am I going to use those settings anyway?

If you do a bit of research, you should be able to find a second-hand machine on selling and exchange websites like Ebay, Gumtree or Freecycle. Or even better - ask people you know. Seriously. Since I've taken up sewing, I've lost count of the number of people who've told me they own a sewing machine which is collecting dust in their attic. Spread the word that you're looking, and you may just be able to give an unloved machine a new home without spending a penny (that sounds wrong - you know what I mean).

"Where do you buy your sewing patterns?"

The big sewing pattern brands are McCalls, Vogue, Butterick, and Simplicity. They have their own websites or you can find them stocked in department stores or locally based websites, such as Sew Direct in the UK. Don't be deterred by what are often frumpy illustrations on the front of the pack! Squint your eyes and envisage the general shape with a better fit, in your favourite colour, with the right accessories. It's fun, isn't it?!

There are also some smaller independent companies. My absolute favourite is Colette Patterns, which has a small line of gorgeous designs with a vintage flavour. The patterns themselves are beautifully packaged, with delightfully clear instructions, and there's even a glossary included. And if you can't decide what colour or fabric to go for, there's plenty of inspiration available from the stitchers' gallery and Flickr group.

The lovely Tasia from Sewaholic has just started up her own pattern company, designed for pear-shaped ladies. Her first pattern, the Pendrell blouse, is available to buy now, and I'm looking forward to seeing what else she comes up with this year. I wish I had the design skills to start up a pattern company of my own!

You can download patterns for free (or for a small charge) from BurdaStyle. You print them out, tape the sheets of paper together and cut out the pattern pieces. There's a readers' gallery on each project page to inspire you.

There are a few other lines that I haven't yet tried but would be worth a look, including Kwik Sew, Sew Chic, Hot Patterns and Sew Liberated

If you want to get into sewing vintage patterns, you can find these on Ebay, Etsy and various independent online retailers. If you're lucky, you might find them in charity shops or antique shops going mega cheap. Be warned - sewing with vintage patterns is a totally different experience from using modern patterns. Casey has written a useful guide if you're new to vintage sewing. Even if you don't end up sewing with them, in my opinion they're collectible works of art and little pieces of fashion history to treasure. Swoon!

You can also get reproductions of vintage patterns which may not be collectible but are easier to use. For example, Vintage Vogue has a good range of designs from the 1940s and 1950s. Sense and Sensibility has a beautiful line of patterns from the Georgian era to the Swing era (I love the Beatrix Potter shirt!). And Wearing History has some stunning - and quirky! - garments from the 1930s and 1940s.

"Can you direct me to some useful websites?"

As you can imagine, there is a wealth of information about sewing online. To save you getting lost in the depths of the web, here are some of my favourites:

BurdaStyle - good for downloading free (or cheap) patterns, even better for browsing other people's finished projects for inspiration (my profile is tilly-vanilly)

Pattern Review - not a great looking website, but useful for checking out other stitchers' feedback on particular patterns before you buy them

Sew Retro - a group blog for people sewing vintage patterns, great for finding new blogs to obsess over

Casey's vintage pattern primer - a really good introduction to the specificities of sewing with vintage patterns

New Vintage Lady's guide to cost-effective patterns - a useful reference to temper your vintage pattern spending sprees

Tasia's Sewtionary - dictionary and tutorials for common sewing techniques

And, last but not least, sewing blogs! Reading about what other stitchers get up to is a great source of inspiration and advice. There's a list of some of the blogs I read on the right-hand side, although I'm constantly finding new ones as more and more people are catching the sewing bug. Hurrah!

I hope this post was helpful. Don't forget Learning to Sew - Part 1 if you haven't already seen it. And read the comments section too, in which readers have made some really valuable contributions to the discussion. If you've got tips of your own or want to flag up favourite pattern companies or other websites that you can't live without, please do share!


  1. Thank you Tilly! Although I'm not a complete beginner, I'm finding your 'Learning to sew' posts extremely helpful with a wealth of information packed in them!

  2. This is fabulous - thank you so much! I've just caught the sewing bug and it's so useful to read these posts - they've given me some fab little tips already :) xx

  3. So full of info. This must've taken you ages to put together. I've only recently discovered the blogosphere and can't believe I'd been missing out on such a wealth of information and inspiration.

    Personally apart from the ones you've mentioned, (and your blog of course Tilly ;) I've found sewmamasew, threadsmagazine, paperscissorscloth, and Gertie' blog particularly useful.

    I've also picked up loads of vintage and newer sewing books from charity shops and boot sales (these can be very expensive new!) and they've been really useful to turn to in times of need and shoulder drag lines!!. My best drafting one so far has been Aldrich


  4. sorry, that should read patternscissorscloth. oops!

  5. try my blog too! http://erikamadeit.blogspot.com/

  6. Great info Tilly, not everyone has had the benefit of watching their mothers sew and inheriting the machine and knowledge. I was very lucky in that respect, both my mum and aunt sewed regularly.

    I had to say goodbye to my mother's old machine last year and invest in a new one - I was amazed at what modern machines can do these days (and I'm not *that* old!) I suggest finding a store where you can try before you buy - John Lewis and the like.

    But do think about supporting the small specialist haberdashery shops that are still in existence - the store owners usually have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom and will often give you a good deal on regular MOTs and problem solving with your machine - not a service you can get online ;-)

  7. There's also Decades of Style Pattern Company. She recreates out-of-print patterns from the 1920s-50s (some 1910s) and includes a new set of modern instructions. http://www.decadesofstyle.com/

    I would just add that if you don't know much about sewing machines it's probably best to stay away from sites such as Ebay or Craigslist because you'll want to be able to test it out first. Having said that I love my Janome Sewist 500 and highly recommend it!

  8. If you want a tailor's ham, they're really easy and much cheaper to make yourself. I used these instructions http://bridgesonthebody.blogspot.com/2009/05/mighty-tailors-ham.html
    scrap wool and cotton, and sawdust from Pets at home which cost me about £1.50. It's a bit messy but I really enjoyed making mine!

  9. I sewed my first two projects without a seam ripper. Uuuuuuggggghhhhh. Huge mistake. I can't believe I couldn't be bothered to go to the store and spend the $3.00.

  10. I like this tutorial and informative posting...thanks for sharing!

  11. oooW!!
    this tutorial is cool!!! i like to sew but you are a master!!

  12. These are really great posts!I didn't have a seam ripper for a while either - and I hardly use the one I have because it's so dull!

  13. I'm really enjoying these posts Tilly, cheers for putting them together. Duly bookmarked for future reference! xx

  14. Thank you so much, Tilly. Lots of great information. You had me on gumtree already, but I decided I should probably get back to my paper...

  15. I had just decided to learn to sew clothing this year when I discovered your blog and this series. It's FANTASTIC. You know exactly what questions a beginner has and you explain everything so clearly. Please, please, please keep doing these "Learning to Sew" posts. I just LOVE what you have posted so far and will be waiting eagerly for each of your new lessons. THANK YOU!!

  16. Paulena - awww... thank you for your kind words. It's great to know that these posts are appreciated (as they took a lot of work) - you've made my day! :)

  17. Hi tilly! I just found this blog of yours and i got ineterested in it....this informations are REALLY HELPFUL for me...i love sewing! And this blog helps me alot! When i was a kid i just hand-sewn the clothes of my barbie dolls...and now that im forteen years old i already made two dresses for myself....my parents just bought me a new sewing machine and it cost alot....now im having a sideline when i have free time and it already covered up the cost of the machine....XD.....im earning while enjoying with my hobby.....:)......and you inspired me!

  18. Whoooooorarrrrrr!

    Easy, readable instructions and advice which don't melt my brain or send me running in the opposite directions of my sewing machine...

    You are an Angel :)

    Quick, get a book written, I need more of this, much more!


  19. Thanks for a lot of useful information:-)


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