Beginner sewing

Start from the sewing beginning.

We all have different learning preferences – some of us like to learn with detailed instructions, some love to jump in and have a go. I’m talking here about what works for me, and I like slow learning with much guidance. You may need to try several courses and patterns before you find what is best for you. As an example, I know a couple of pattern companies which claim to have much better instructions than usual, but which I don’t get on with at all – they always seem to leave out what I want to know.

So, sadly at the beginning of making things, there’s not only learning to use a sewing machine and learning to make things from fabric, there’s also finding teachers and pattern companies which are right for you. I say this not to depress you and make sewing seem even more impossible, but to encourage you that if you don’t get on well at first – maybe it all whizzes by and you can’t understand what’s going on, or you get exasperated that it’s too slow and fussy. Or it’s too wordy, or you need to make something usable not just samples. Or the teacher’s voice annoys you. . .. That doesn’t mean you can’t sew. Learning to sew involves many processes, and it may just be that you haven’t yet found the right teacher 😀

The Sections in this post are :
The most basic sewing techniques you need for nearly any project.
Starter projects.
Garment making intro.
A few garments you can make with starter skills.

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The most basic processes for woven fabrics

Many beginner topics dealt with by Tilly and the Buttons.

Many beginner books have long lists of tools, some of which I still haven’t got after over 70 years of sewing.
To start with you just need :
big items :
– sewing machine, correct bobbins for the machine (these hold the thread under the fabric),
– iron, ironing surface (fold something heat proof (so not polyester) on a flat surface).
Well actually you can hand stitch and finger press if you want to. People have been making things that way for more than 4000 years. And high end couture is still made by hand, because a good hand sewist has more control.
small items :
– fabric cutting scissors (not used for cutting paper !), many people love a rotary cutter but they can be dangerous if you don’t use them properly, so that’s something to try later,
– thread,
– pins or clips and something to keep them in (most people use a pin cushion, I’ve never been able to get on with one and use a tin),
– measuring tool (unless you’re happy to start with cutting and folding ‘by eye’).

Use anything for these items at first (kitchen scissors ? paper clips ? school ruler ?), except for :
machine – the very cheapest new machine may be difficult to use,
thread – cheap thread may mess up your machine with fluff and what you make won’t last long. Old cotton thread may break easily.
Then if you find you love sewing, get the best you can afford.

Add other items as they’re needed for a project. The first things you’re likely to need next may be :
seam ripper (it’s difficult to unpick using scissors),
fabric marker,
– hand sewing needles.
Here’s a post on choosing the minimum items, from Sew DIY.

Use your sewing machine
Set up a sewing machine for use – see top of right side menu.
The general principles of threading a machine are the same for all machines, but there may be some little things which are important on yours, so try to find a manual or video specifically for your model. Many sewing problems are caused by wrong threading, so it is worth looking for detailed help with your machine.

Learn to sew straight seams, pivot at corners, and pivot round a curve.

When making garments you also want to be able to finish a fabric edge so it doesn’t fray. Probably easiest if you have a serger/ overlocker, but that is an expensive purchase if you don’t yet know whether you will enjoy making garments. You can also finish edges using a zig-zag or overlocking stitch on your domestic sewing machine.

For the very first projects, there are often instructions which tell you what size of fabric pieces you need to cut.
Later you may want to use patterns.
So, learn to use a sewing pattern – the basics about understanding markings, cutting out using folded fabric, finding what materials and notions you need for your project.
No need to understand about sizes at this stage.
Paper patterns are much easier to use than home-print pdfs, but you may need to print and assemble a pdf pattern.

If you’re really worried about using patterns, then you can sew without them, such as in this out of print book of boho styles, The illustrated hassle-free make your own clothes book by Bordow and Rosenberg.
Move on to crisper styles in Rosie Martin DIY Couture.

Basic sewing techniques
Cutting and pinning fabric.

Seams and seam finishes.
Hems and cut-on casings – simple hems and casings are made the same way, casings are for elastic or drawstrings.
Thread elastic/drawstring through casing.

For some simple projects you need to be able to :
Turn out a strap.
Add a patch pocket.
Hand sew an opening closed (see overcasting or ladder stitch).

Fabrics for beginners, suggested by Mood Fabrics.

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Starter projects

Many people find they need to make a few very simple other items before starting on clothes. Get used to : using a pattern; cutting and handling fabric; getting a machine to sew in straight lines, around curves, turning a corner.

Sew Over It pattern’s beginner e-book goes through similar projects to the ones suggested here – learn new skills with each project as you make a cushion/ pillow cover, drawstring bag, tote bag, bag with zipper, wrap skirt, pyjama pants. Links to technique videos (click Continue or Start Here on the page you get to when you click on the red circle link). You may find you want supplements, such as for threading your model of machine. Patterns included, clothes for body with hips 34″-60″, 86cm-152cm.

Simple projects are usually ones which have only a few pattern pieces, and no obvious added style elements (add interest by using a print fabric).
Search for these items and you’ll find the ‘big’ pattern companies have many patterns. There are also many indie patterns at etsy.
And many demos on YouTube. Watch a video to see if you feel ready for the processes used – if it’s just that you feel uncomfortable with this video, try another.
Look at the pattern line diagrams and choose patterns with the fewest lines, and with straight edges. Many home dec and craft patterns have added bias binding or piping round the edges – not good processes to try in a first ever project. It’s useful to develop the skill of recognising what sewing skills are needed from looking at line diagrams.

Projects which need only straight seams, hems and pivoting corners :
the simplest versions of : cushion/ pillow cover, sewing machine cover, needle case, table cloth, table runner, placemats and napkins, curtains/ drapes, bed cover, duvet cover, book cover, scarf.

Much glee and self-congratulation possible from making such items 😀
Or be generous and supportive with yourself if things don’t work out as you dreamed – learning to sew can be challenging ! Here’s a post on dealing with mistakes.

Add basic casings (made the same way as simple hems), and thread a drawstring/ elastic :
drawstring bag, laundry bag, hair scrunchie.

Add straps :
tote – unlined and lined; purses and bags without fastenings – including for phones and tablets; apron.
Here’s a very easy tote from Sarah Kirsten.

Add square cornered patch pockets :
to many of those items.
Here’s an easy video for a square apron with pockets from Cosmopolitan Corn Bread, scroll down for written instructions.

Add sewing inward and outward curves :
eye mask; more of the above items, now with curved edges.

Add stuffing, sewing an opening closed :
stuffed toys with cut-on ears and limbs (Kwik Sew 4384, McCalls’s 7451).
‘Pancake’ doll :
– the simplest sort of doll pattern, easy to make your own pattern once you know the principle.
– or here’s one with simple sewing instructions (no need to buy the tutorial).
– clothes – draw 1/4″ outside the body pattern for basic clothes shapes (leave centre back of top open).

Even a complete simple doll clothes wardrobe for an American Girl type 18″ doll, Kwik Sew 3091.

You can also make people-size elastic waist skirts and pants using these techniques, see below.
Sadly even the simplest top (with very rare exceptions) needs a more complex technique for finishing a curved neckline – I’m planning a post with beginner projects which need more skills.

Moving on to making garments

Free videos and photo tutorials are helpful for what to do, and you can look at them beforehand to see if they show processes you feel ready to try.

If you’re not confident about the techniques used – get some cheap fabric similar in weave and weight to the ‘proper’ fabric. Perhaps make many samples until you feel confident. Then make a test garment, it may turn out to be a ‘wearable muslin’. Or it may be so awful you just need to laugh/ weep/ groan/ scream and try again 😀 These are called UFOs – unfinished objects. Or you may like to upgrade to calling it a WIP – work in progress.

For the proper garment, be sure to choose fabric in a flattering colour, and a favourite print. It isn’t possible every time to make a garment you love to wear, but do start with a good chance. And you can learn from every item you attempt, even if it goes wrong !

Not in the mood for learning yet more ? (There’s does seem to be a huge amount you need to know before you can ever get going with sewing.) Don’t yet feel ready to move on to learning another skill ? Not to worry, there’s much you can make. Make another of something you’ve made before. Then move on to other patterns for the same type of item.

Some people like to make only one of an item. Others like to stay with a pattern until it becomes familiar. Some simple variations :
Change fabric colour or print.
Colour block : make each pattern piece from a different fabric, or make each pattern piece from a patchwork of fabrics.
Change fabric type – though not from woven to knit. And check if the original is best made in a stiffer or drapier fabric.
Add trims such as :
– machine or hand sewn decorative stitches.
– lace, fringe, ric-rac, ribbon – these trims just need to be attached with a line of stitching. (Adding bias binding and piping are skills to learn later.)
Add square-cornered patch pockets.
Garments : change the length of sleeve, top, skirt, pant legs (many patterns have instructions for this).

And once you’ve made one of these you may be able to look through the pattern catalogs and see styles you can make using the same sewing skills (develop the skill of looking at line diagrams to see what sewing skills are used) 😀

Garments you can make with the starter skills

The only extra step you need for making simple garments is to find your size. Get it from your measurements (bust for tops, hips for bottoms), as size numbers vary between pattern companies. Try to forget all the cultural messages about measurements and sizes, no one else need know these numbers. It’s so much more comfortable, and makes you look good, to wear a garment that fits you properly rather than one that is too tight. Celebrate the self-care of making what’s right for you.
Here’s a post on finding your size from Tilly and the Buttons.

Then you can make :

Elastic waist skirt and pants – links to some easy patterns with free support videos, and some more stylish patterns without. A few up to 71″ hip. Simply change length to make mini to maxi skirts, shorts to capris.

Sussex Seamstress Selsey top, halter top gathered at the neckline by casing and tie. Up to 50″ bust, with free sew-along video.
The suggested fabrics may be slippery, and so difficult to cut out and sew. Best to use something drapey but not slippery for a first garment, such as lawn or voile.
Lengthen to tunic, mini dress, maxi (measure pattern width to check it will go over both bust and hips).

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There are many possible easy projects in the next planned post, for you to build up yet more skills if you want to 😀

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Facings are an area of sewing technique where there are strong differences of opinion. Some people dislike facings. I think proper facings give a lovely high quality effect, much easier to get a good flat edge finish than with a bias facing strip. But some people think a ‘proper’ facing is unfashionable, and facings do need to be sewn with care.
These are free.

Faced slash-slit opening (Sewingplums)

Videos :
Sure Fit Designs on :
pattern making – 12 min.
sewing – 14 min.
Made to Sew on :
pattern making – 22 min.
sewing – 37 min.

Facings photo tutorial from Patterns for Pirates, optional video.
Both pattern drafting and sewing for plain (including hem) and combined neckline-armhole facings.

Pdfs :
Facings construction – from the University of Kentucky, click on download link, with drawings.
Sarah Veblen’s facings class at Pattern Review (not free), with photos.

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Pattern ‘hacking’

Adapting a pattern to make different styles is easy, and fits in with the current emphasis on re-cycling.
If you want to make your own styles, there’s no need to draft your own starter block, or work through one of the big pattern making textbooks. You can just alter a similar pattern. Patterns are not untouchable. It’s not wicked or dangerous to alter them, they’re tools. You can alter both the pattern pieces and the making instructions in any way you feel happy with.

If your re-designs don’t come out ‘right’ first time, no need to think that means you’re no good at it. Professional designers make several test garments until they get the proportions and position of style elements to match up to their ideas of what they want.

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Simple specific changes to a given pattern

Simple methods of altering a pattern are listed in this post from Sewingplums.
If you’d like more help, there are many suggestions in this post on simple pattern altering.
See also this page of Sewingplums – Pattern altering to make new styles (click link to go to section on ‘altering patterns’).

Dozens of simplified patterns at Sew Guide.

If you prefer someone to do the pattern work for you
This post from Sewingplums has links to many patterns with extensive variations (patterns available mid-2017).

Some of the sources available since that was written :
Atelier Charlotte Auzou, choose patterns for bodice, sleeves, skirt.
Named Clothing patterns Anni building blocks, for a princess seamed bodice with a variety of sleeves and skirts/pants.
Simplicity patterns ‘Hacking’ patterns.

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Start with a few basic patterns and make style variations

If those don’t include your own design vision :
no need to draft your own personal blocks to make new styles.
Several pattern companies and books provide the base patterns to start from, and suggest style variations.
It’s best to get the fit of the starter pattern right before you alter it. That way, the new pattern will probably fit well too without any more fitting work. So this approach is popular with people who have to make many fit alterations to commercial patterns – they only have to do the fitting work once !

Pattern companies which supply base patterns with personal fitting instructions, plus many style variations :
Many of the variation instructions could be applied to other patterns with a little thought.

It’s easiest when the pattern company provides the pattern pieces you need to make other styles.
Fit For Art has basic patterns for jacket, pants, knit top (body bust 30″-58″). Patterns and videos with extensive fitting instructions. The separate patterns for variations include ready-made pattern pieces.

Most pattern companies which specialise in this approach to patterns give you instructions on how to draft the new pattern pieces you need for yourself.
Alison Glass Essentials (scroll well down), basic patterns for woven fabric and knit fabric dresses (body bust 31″-50″). Pattern includes instructions for fitting and style changes.
All Well Workshop top and jacket patterns (body bust 32″-62″) include hacking guides, outfit completed by elastic-waist pants with variations.
Fit Nice has basic patterns for top, pants (body bust 32″-42″, instructions for enlarging). Some videos. Separate patterns are photo tutorials for variations.
Sure Fit Designs has basic patterns for dress, shirt, pants (body bust 28″-62″). Many posts and videos about fit adjustments. Pattern booklets describe how to draft many variations, more variations can be bought separately. There are also pattern change videos at SewFit Academy.

Books which include starting-point patterns and instructions for many style variations :

in print :
If you’d like a gentle introduction to pattern changing, there are several books which provide the pattern pieces needed ready made, such as :
The Magic Pattern Book by Amy Barickman, 6 basic patterns and 6 versions of each.
Named Patterns Building the Pattern book by the Huhta sisters has 6 basic patterns with pattern pieces to convert them to 20 styles, presented in an ‘improve your sewing’ sequence.
Sew Many Dresses, so little time by Tanya Whelan has interchangeable bodices, sleeves, and skirts. If you have a good pants pattern you could probably make jumpsuits too.

The next books suggest pattern variations and tell you how to draft the new pattern pieces yourself :
The Act of Sewing by Sonya Philip, full size paper patterns need tracing, for cut-on sleeve top, sleeved shirt, skirt, pants (body bust 32″-58″). Quarter of the book is on making those 4 garments, quarter on improving the fit, and half the book is instructions for choose-your-own variations. No darts, collars, zips, or knit fabrics. Instructions for changing necklines and adding buttonholes, facings, gathers, pleats, pockets, yokes, also for piecing, flaring or narrowing pattern pieces. At about advanced beginner level of sewing, but if you like casual wear that will be all you need 😀
Slightly easier but similar pdf patterns and sew-alongs with a few variations are in her video classes at Creative Bug.

The Dressmaking book by Alison Smith aims to teach both garment sewing (to high intermediate level) and pattern alteration, with several specific variations of each pattern included. Pdf patterns, diagrams of how to make the pattern changes.

Cal Patch’s book also tells you how to draft the starter patterns. Her Design It Yourself Clothes book has simplified block drafting instructions, plus instructions for many specific variations. Written pattern making instructions with few illustrations, minimal sewing instructions. Difficulty about half way between the 2 previous books. I like her video classes at Creative Bug.

out of print :
Many books mentioned in the Sewingplums posts linked above, and especially in Favourite books – pattern altering.

Getting ideas

Patterns and books are the easy starting point for understanding pattern changes, as they have simple starting point patterns and simple alterations all sorted out for you.

If you’d like more inspiration about making pattern changes, perhaps look at one of the pattern magazines. For example ‘Burda Style’ usually has several different styles made from the same basic pattern, and it’s interesting to look at how the patterns have been adapted to make this possible.
Burda Style jackets
These jackets are from one issue of Burda Style (over a decade ago, patterns not now available) – the same basic shape used for a classic ‘french’ jacket, a party cover up, military and sporty styles, simply by changing the added style elements and fabrics. Another casual option would be a centre front zip and hood. Or – a basic convertible collar is just a rectangle, add one to the neckline to make a camp shirt or casual jacket.

See these pinterest boards for many ideas for style elements :
necklines and collars, yokes, sleeves and cuffs, pockets.
And these boards for alternate styles of the main garment types :
blouse-shirt, skirt-dress, pants, jacket-coat.

Adele Margolis Make your own dress patterns could be a good source for making many of these styles. Does not include base patterns (she assumes you start from a commercial fitting pattern). But clear instructions for making many style elements. First edition 1985 but good enough it’s still in print !

Many routes to starting on making your own styles, if the thought of that appeals !

Enjoy the process 😀

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