10 February 2015


Last week we talked tips for accurate sewing, and I enjoyed reading your own ideas in the comments. But what about when you need to sew something really fast? Maybe you’re snatching a precious half hour of creative time before work. Perhaps you’re finishing up a dress to wear to a wedding in a couple of hours (we’ve all removed pins and sewn buttons on our handmade dresses on the train, right?!). Or maybe you’re a contestant on The Great British Sewing Bee and only have two hours to cut and stitch a pair of trousers!! I enjoy sewing for pleasure, and will take it at a leisurely pace when I can, but it’s good to have a few speed sewing tricks up your sleeve when needed…

1) Forego the pins

Don’t have time to pin? Then don’t! Live dangerously, people. Match up the first few cm of the seams and start sewing, bringing together the edges of the fabric bit by bit as you sew. If you need to pause to adjust the seams, do so with the needle down so you don’t accidentally shift the fabric and thus the stitching line. Once you get the hang of it, this technique is pretty straightforward on many fabrics and areas, but personally I would still pin the heck out of slippery fabrics, gathering, and set-in sleeves. I’ve tried setting in sleeves without pins and much prefer to take the extra couple of minutes to get it right ;)

2) Try chain stitching

Stitching a simple seam doesn’t seem like a lot of work, but if you think about it, it involves a number of steps – lowering the presser foot onto the fabric, checking the threads are behind the needle, putting your foot down on the pedal, stitching, lifting your foot from the pedal when you come to the end of the seam, raising the presser foot, taking out the fabric, and trimming the threads. Phew! Chain stitching is a way of saving time on all the stopping and starting by stitching continuously between multiple pieces in one go. Once you’ve come to the end of the first seam (and backtacked if you want to – see the next tip below), keep stitching and feed another but seam under the presser foot. Keep going until you’re out of pieces to stitch (or need a cup of tea), then raise the presser foot and trim the threads on all the pieces in one go.

3) Bye bye back tacking

Back tacking – sewing backwards over the start and end of a line of stitching – can stop your stitches coming undone before you’ve had a chance to sew over them. It’s something we include in our sewing pattern instructions, but to be honest it’s really just a precautionary measure. If you’re going to sew across the same seam in the same sewing session - for example, if you're going to cross a side seam by hemming it - you don’t necessarily need to back tack. Simply attach the next piece (or hem it or whatever you're doing), and the second stitching line crossing the first one will do the same job of keeping the threads in place. Be aware, though, that the stitching might unravel at the seam allowances unless you finish the seams. And do back tack if you’re not going to be going over the stitching line again – for example, if you’re topstitching a patch pocket to the outside of a garment.

4) Save up your pressing

Pattern instructions often tell you to press seam allowances open or to the side after each step where needed. You don’t literally have to get up from your sewing table at that point and press the seam allowances open though. As long as you’re not about to sew across that unpressed seam, save up a few pieces of pressing, then go over to your ironing board and press a whole batch of pieces at once. (Also - omigawd my hands look so cold in these photos!)

5) You don’t always need to press

We’ve heard it said countless times - pressing seams before stitching over them can make a handmade garment look lovely and neat. And it’s true. However, you don’t always have to press every single seam. For example, when you’re understitching a facing to seam allowances, if you pull the fabric either side of the seam nice and taut as you’re sewing, then not pressing beforehand shouldn't really make a difference to the end result. Every time I come to understitch a facing, I remember saying to a tutor at the London College of Fashion that I was going to press it first – her reply was a bemused, “Why would you bother doing that? Understitching serves the same purpose”. As with so many sewing techniques, you can add the qualification that it depends on your fabric, so use your judgement here as to whether you can get away with not pressing it. But if your fabric can get away with it, this is a useful shortcut to know!

Do you have any other tips for speedy sewing? I’d love to hear them!

And don't forget to check out the tips for accurate sewing if you missed last week's post.


  1. More excellent sewing tips Tilly! I tend to 'save up' as many tasks or processes as possible so that I do them all together i.e. concurrently. This is partly practical because my ironing board is downstairs and I sew upstairs. (who knew sewing could actually keep you fit?!) Chaining-on is a good tip, particularly if you're sewing something like bunting which can go on for miles. I too went to LCF and I still use lots of the techniques I was taught many years later. Industrial practices can be very handy for domestic purposes. My own pet hate is not trimming off dangly threads as you finish a seam, or whatever, if you do it automatically then you don't have to go back later and do loads.

  2. Great tips, I love having my ironing press on a trolley, I leave it on and pull trolley out near machine desk, then just swivel my typist chair between pressing, sewing and overlocker. Also assemble on overlocker as much as possible, no pins, assemble flat (shoulders, insert sleeves flat, then seam up underarm and down side seams in one). And I production line simple garments like PJ pants for my men, layering and cutting two fabrics at once, then sewing up both pairs in one production run in a neutral thread

  3. That is exactly how my grandmother sews. She used to be a professional seamstress and is known for being able to sew really fast. I assume this is what you get if you get paid for each garment and not per hour. My family often laughs about it that she would be able to dress an entire wedding party a week before the wedding. She would leave her dress last, as in the night for the wedding. The downside was that after finishing everything she would have a massive headache and never enjoy the party itself.

  4. Great tips! I always try to save up my pressing, partly because I really don't like doing it and hate plugging/unplugging my iron more than a few times in one craft session. I'll have to try the chain stitching trick on my next project!


  5. I'm so glad someone put this into print. I figured I couldn't be the only one skipping pins and ironing!

  6. Great tips. I've become more comfortable with using less pins the more I sew. Of course, this depends on the fabric I"m using. I also don't sew, press, sew, press. It does save time and keeps me in the groove of sewing.

  7. Pressing makes the seams easier to sew; I iron and assemble for the next seam at the board. I have an iron that won't turn itself off, I leave it on and available a step away, and make darn sure I turn it off when I leave the room. Having a dedicated sewing space has saved me hours over the years, though I know that's not a option for most.

    The fastest sews of all are the repeat, TNT ones, though. Every other 'speed' project ends up getting unpicked (which is why I gave up backtacking years ago).

  8. I just realised I'm actually a speedy sewer. Nice to know there's a word for it :-)

  9. Thanks for the tip about understitching a facing. Skipping that press right before understitching should save me some time

  10. Good tip about back tacking. Will give that a bash! I also like the.idea of chaining! Thanks for the tips, Tilly!

  11. Hi, Tilly! Unrelated to your post--

    I'm working my way through your wonderful book but got a little stuck over combining pattern sizes with the Delphine skirt. The instructions say to connect the size lines at relevant points--but how do we determine what the relevant points are? I think I guessed well enough with the skirt, but the idea of guessing when I get to the dresses has me in a bit of a panic. Would you consider doing an in-depth post on how to work with a sewing pattern when you fall in to more than one size? It would be so helpful to us newbie sewers!

    1. Hi! Here's an example of grading between sizes on a dress. Where your bust, waist and hip lie will depend on your body shape/length, but for the sake of an initial pattern adjustment you can take the full part at the top of a dress side seam as the place to start grading for the bust, the smallest bit around the middle as the waist, and the hip about 20cm below the waist (or your own measurement between waist and hip). It's not always perfectly accurate, and you may need to do a bit of taking in or out at the side seams to fit you when you come to pin them together, but it's a good place to start. I hope this helps! Do show me your Delphine skirt when you've finished it :)

  12. I rarely pin fabrics, I loooove to live dangerously! And ironing? Uhm, life is too short to iron.

  13. This is so me! With limited time to sew, & very limited space (tony sewing bench squuezed into a corner of my tiny laundry) i am all for shortcuts! I rarely iron, and when I do it is on a small Ikea ironing board, which fits on top of the washing machine. I don't use pins unless really necessary, and sometime use clothes pegs instead, especially when using the overlocker- no risk of accidentally sewing over a large wooden peg! I don't pin patterns but draw around them onto fabric with a biro or fabric pencil/ fade out pen. Works well for marking darts too. For regularly used craft pattern with small pieces, I cut the pattern pieces out of a plastic sheet from Daiso (not sure if you have it in the UK? upmarket Japanese $2 shop) then the pattern pieces are nice & sturdy, much easier to cut around than paper or cardboard. And I keep an umpicker, small scissors, spare needles & screwdriver in the onboard tool box on the sewing machine, so they are always close at hand.

  14. I love the #4 tip, because pressing is my least favorite part! If I could hire someone to press for me, I totally would.

  15. Help!
    I posted yesterday but it hasn't shown up, i started the PJ's in your sewing book and having big problems pinning them together. The front leg is much skinnier then the back and the seams don't line up, how can i pin this? please help! (Super beginner! :)

  16. Having RA, I need to simplify my sewing ~ one of the easiest and simplest tricks is 1) a flat silicone baking sheet, 2) a piece of sheeting folded in four, to about the same size as the baking sheet, and edged with some of the more interesting stitches on my machine. this makes a superb (and non~slip) ironing mat on any surface; the baking mat stops the heat from damaging the surface underneath, and easily rolls up for storage. I've recently resurrected a tiny travel iron I first bought in the late 70's and had used precisely twice! This takes up so little room next to my machine, and I don't have to move from my chair. Win win.

  17. I have RA too, so I know what you mean! I LOVE the silicone mat idea! Thanks for sharing!!


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