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!

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