This post expanded so much it has been divided, first in two, now into three :
First makes : 1. tools.
First makes : 2. basic skills.
First makes : 3. starter projects.
The later posts with suggestions for easy first garments are also expanding. . .
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 for you 😀
This post grew and grew, so I’ve divided it into two sections :
The Sections in this post are on :
The most basic sewing tools and techniques you need for nearly any project.
Part Two covers :
Garment making intro.
A few garments you can make with starter skills.
The simplest garment patterns to move on to.
– – –
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), needles (they get blunt, they don’t last forever),
– 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. We know from remains that have been found that people have been making things that way for more than 4,000 years. And high end couture is still sewn 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,
– 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 – except leave buying an expensive machine until you know what sort of sewing you most enjoy. See the end of that machine post for options, and it’s best not to make assumptions as a beginner about what you’ll find you enjoy making 😀
Add other items as they’re needed for a project. The first things you’re likely to need next may be :
– seam ripper (everyone has to unpick at some time, and 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
Even the simplest sewing machine is a complex machine tool, with many knobs, buttons, levers, wheels, plus other odd things sticking out which turn out to be bobbin winders, thread cutters, spool holders. . . It takes some effort to learn to use, but it’s all well worth it. Don’t be disappointed if your learning doesn’t happen quickly.
Find out how to set up your machine for use.
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 if you have thread problems, it is worth looking for detailed help with your machine. (Brother machine models have different numbers in different countries, find the US number to get the most information.)
Here are many suggestions about how to take your learning in small slow steps : first steps in exploring your machine.
Learn to sew straight seams, pivot at corners, and pivot round a curve.
Find out how to choose a stitch, and to change the length and width of stitches.
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 pattern markings, cutting out folded fabric, finding what materials and notions you need for your project.
No need to understand about sizes at this stage.
Paper patterns are easier to use than home-print pdfs, but you may need to print and assemble a pdf pattern.
Basic sewing techniques
Cutting and pinning fabric, understand how cutting folded fabric works.
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.
Video from Seamwork, first minute shows basic technique.
I have never had problems with doing this, but I’m a slow and ‘check everything’ sewist anyway. Many problem solving tips in this photo post from Sewaholic patterns.
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.
– – –
Many people find they need to make some 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. If you’re registered with them you should be able to view the supporting video links – click on the continue button if need be. Patterns included, clothes for body with hips 34″-60″, 86cm-152cm.
Sew Over It also have a video class for complete beginners, it includes the cushion/ pillow cover, zippered purse, and pj pants.
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 (of very variable quality, one of the reasons I started this blog was to record links to good ones).
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.
See above for links to guidance on these basic techniques.
There are many different methods for every sewing technique. And there are many patterns available for each of these items.
You may find a pattern gives a result which you are not happy with. For example, many beginner patterns use easy techniques which do not give a quality result. If so, look for another pattern for the same type of item. As in much of life, you often have to choose between speed/easy and accuracy. Hopefully you will quickly get to know which gives you pleasure 😀
Projects which need only straight seams, seam finishes, 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, quilt, 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; easiest backpacks are just drawstring bags or totes with added straps.
Here’s a very easy tote from Sarah Kirsten.
There’s slightly more complex lined tote with pocket from Cal Patch in a video class at Creative Bug. (Sewing a lined bag or tote entirely by machine is one of those inside-out-and-back-to-front sewing techniques which look like nonsense until the final step. Just follow the instructions and you may be surprised !)
Add square cornered patch pockets :
to many of those items.
Here’s an easy free video for a square apron with pockets from Cosmopolitan Corn Bread, scroll down for written instructions.
There are dozens of preprinted Advent Calendar fabric panels, which have 24 patch pockets to practice on 😀
Add sewing inward and outward curves :
eye mask; Christmas stocking.
Add stuffing, sew 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.
Make the doll yourself ? Rag dolls with separate limbs are a little more complex than pancake dolls, see e.g. Charlotte.
You can also make people-size elastic waist skirts and pants using these techniques, see the next post of this pair.
Sadly even the simplest top (with very rare exceptions) needs a more complex technique for finishing a curved neckline. There’s a section at the end of the end of that post on some ways to make these.
Repeat until you feel confident
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 no need to feel under pressure. This is a hobby, enjoy 😀 Make another of something you’ve made before.
‘Only’ know how to make drawstring bags ? Vary the fabric for Christmas, vacation, hobbies. . . make them any size, add decorative stitches or trims. And there are many attractive patterns on the web ! Drawstring bags are my ‘go to’ make when I need a rest, so I have rather a lot of them 😀 What about a different tote for each time you go shopping, a different apron for each time you cook. . .
If you think it would be boring to repeat, here are some simple variations usable on most projects:
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.
Cut out from pre-used fabric, perhaps your unworn or unusable garments, or ones from a charity shop. Try to align pattern pieces ‘with the straight of grain’. Or see what happens when you don’t !
Add trims such as :
– machine or hand sewn decorative stitches.
– lace, fringe, pom-pom trim, ric-rac, ribbon, fake fur strip. These trims just need to be attached with a line of stitching, test if it’s best to use straight stitches or zigzag. (Adding bias binding and piping are skills to learn later.)
– appliqué patches – there are ones that stick on, others need zigzagging round the edge.
Add square-cornered patch pockets.
Many items – cut the fabric pieces a different size, but otherwise use the same instructions.
– – –
Good Luck with making marvellous sewing progress at your own pace, and making the sort of items which give you joy 😀
You can stop at any point and just enjoy making.
♥️ Hopefully, each of your projects will be something you’re excited about ♥️
When you know everything here, the next step, if you want to, is to move on to making garments. The second group of posts about beginning to sew makes some starter garment suggestions.
I’ve mainly focussed on moving towards making garments for adults, but many people love making clothes for children, home dec items, bags, crafts, quilts. When you can use a sewing machine, a whole world of amazing possibilities opens up !
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