Monday, January 2, 2012

Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Sewing

As long as I'm in a reflective mood, I thought I'd also make a list of things I wish I knew last January. As I mentioned before, last January I only knew how to make elastic waist skirts and zippered pouches. Then I decided to bite the bullet and start drafting circle skirts and designing my own tops and make dresses to wear to other people's weddings. Along the way, I learned:

1. A huge part of good sewing is good pressing/ironing. I had no idea how important it was to press seams as they were sewn, and I wondered why my finished garments looked so weird and bubbly. I found this post by Edelweiss Patterns to be immensely helpful, and ever since then my iron has been plugged in every time I've sewn something. It might seem tedious to run back and forth and press and sew and press again, but it is so worth it! I'd even go so far as to say that good pressing has revolutionalized my sewing. UPDATE: This is another helpful article about pressing. And this one, too!

2. Don't sew in a rush or when you're tired. Okay, that might seem like an obvious statement, but I needed to know this last January. All the times that I've accidentally sewn a side to a shoulder or attached two pieces wrong sides together have been when I wasn't 100% mentally present. One of my most horrific memories was deciding to sew a dress for attending a friend's wedding starting at 8 PM the night before. Also, it was only the second time I'd ever sewn a fitted dress. I only finished at 5 AM the next morning, and while the dress looked fine and held up all day and everything, the seam finishing left so much to be desired that I later had to go back and topstitch everything to make sure it wouldn't fall apart in the wash. Not a pleasant experience.

So that's what it's for!!! Picture from here.
3. Get to know your machine. Read the manual. Play around with tension and stitch length on scrap pieces of cloth. Practice buttonholes. Try different feet and needles. If you know beforehand what your machine is capable of, you will feel more confident about tackling new fabrics and techniques. I didn't know what was so great about having a "free arm" sewing machine until oh, October this year? Previously I always thought that removable plastic piece was just so that you could store bits and bobbins in the little compartment underneath; when I discovered that it meant you could slide cuffs and sleeves over it for easier sewing, I wanted to smack my head.

Masking tape to indicate walls and other features of the dungeon.
4. Suck it up and invest in a cutting mat and rotary cutter. For me and most of the people I know who sew, the worst part of sewing is having to cut out the pattern and fabric. It's just really not fun with dull shears, and if you have other non-sewing people in your house who might accidentally grab your fabric scissors for cutting paper, well, dull shears are inevitable. When I cut pieces out with scissors, the fabric tends to shift as it gets picked up (I hate tracing/chalking, so I cut with the paper pieces on top of the fabric) I tend to end up with pieces that are slightly off, which then affects the final sewn piece. With a mat and rotary cutter, I don't need to mark everything or pin it, and there is waaaay less fabric shifting. The whole process just goes a lot faster. Also, the 1-inch squares on your cutting mat are perfect for doubling as a D&D board.

5. Just do it. If you spend all your time wibbling about how you don't know how to do something yet, or how it looks way too difficult, you will just scare yourself and never learn. Like I mentioned before, I'd never done much by way of "real" sewing, then I decided that I was going to make a dress to wear to a wedding. And yes, it was crazy and hard and I wanted to tear out my hair, but in the end it was, actually, worth it. I felt so proud of myself and that is not a feeling you can get from just anywhere. So much of my sewing starts with "You know what? I'm just going to try it," whether it's designing a sailor dress or making a cut-out back or hacking a princess seam bodice pattern to make a strapless dress. But, that said, you should still...

6. Think very carefully about what you're doing. I spend a lot of time before each project (usually as I'm driving or drifting off to sleep (but not both at the same time!) visualizing in my head how I'm going to manipulate my fabric and what I want the final piece to look like. I make design changes in my head, think through what order would make the most sense as I sew, how I would even put a ____ in the ____, etc. Kind of like how they tell you to visualize shooting an arrow right into the target when doing archery. Or something. Do it enough in your head, and it'll be better when you do it in real life.

7. Don't get discouraged! Everyone has to start out somewhere. I daresay even Gertie and Tasia and Sunni sewed crooked stitches and wonky pieces at some point in their life... Practice can really go a long way, as long as you learn from your mistakes.

Or you can always just look at this mess to make yourself feel better.
8. Utilize the online sewing community! I really taught myself to sew with the help of all the helpful tips and tutorials out there. I only have one sewing book, and even then almost all of the information in it I've seen better described and illustrated and demonstrated on somebody's blog. Here are the sites that I've found most helpful:
  • Tasia the Sewaholic's sewtionary (she inspired me to try a handpicked zipper and I've never looked back...she also has really good basic techniques)
  • The Snippets emails from Colette Patterns (also tons more on their blog, but those can be a little more overwhelming)
  • Sunni from A Fashionable Stitch has a mini "Sewing School" (as well as a fantastic online shop for harder to find sewing stuff)
  • Burdastyle has a whole bunch of helpful techniques (also lots of of other inspirational sewists)
  • Pattern Review is exactly what it sounds like: reviews by real people for the commercial patterns you find at Joann's and such...really helpful before you grab a bunch of duds during the $0.99 sales (you'll need to join before you can read older reviews, but it's free)
  • For the single best lined dress bodice tutorial ever (this is the strategy I always use and just ignore the actual directions in the pattern envelope), look at this. Of course, it's just my opinion, and it only works for sleeveless dresses, but still.
  • I only recently discovered Sherry's Tricks of the Trade, and even though these techniques are mostly beyond me for now, I have it bookmarked for the future!
  • For real people you can ask about all your problems (sewing only), I have found the Pattern Review community and Sew Weekly Circle very very helpful.
  • UPDATE: This article from Fiskars on how to use a pattern is excellent for beginning sewists!
I know a bunch of my friends have been thinking about picking up sewing and are lurkers here on my blog, so hopefully you find these resources helpful!

Bonus tip #9: Wait until the cat is asleep before getting to work. Walnut is inevitably drawn to nicely laid out fabric and crinkly pattern paper as if it were freshly cut salmon. I'm constantly having to pull him out of my projects. Or if not out of fabric or off of paper, then off of my sewing chair. Or the laptop.
I really wasn't kidding.

Nope. Not gonna let you do what you wanna do.


  1. Even though I have been sewing for a while, this post is very helpful. I printed out a list of the sites you suggest (some I hadn't heard of) to look at later. As a full time teacher as well, I was amazed at how much you have produced this year!

  2. Great post! Sounds a lot like my history of sewing, although mine was a little more stretched out ;). I figured out pressing at least five years ago! lol.

    Also, I played in my first D&D game just before New Years. After nearly 20 years of wanting to... /sigh. I had a very good time, too. :)

  3. This is a great post! Very helpful!

    Also, not just cats do that...somehow my weiner dog has ended up in all of those positions...WHY DO YOU WANT TO SLEEP ON MY LAPTOP?!?! That can't be comfy!!!

    1. My husky doesn't go for the laptop, she thinks she is a 70 lbs lap dog when I sit down to sew. . . or any other time for that matter! And the spread out fabric is a dog bed just for her!

  4. Thanks for the great tips! It is definitely true about not sewing when you are tired, its easy for things to go wrong. I am a perfectionist and get discouraged very easily. Ugh I also hate cutting out fabric and I am thinking about investing in a cutting mat. Good luck with your sewing! XxxX

  5. Walnut . . . what an adorable name.You put me to shame. I have been sewing since Jan 2011 more off then on but no where near as advanced as you. Decided 2012 will be the year when I step it up a bit.

  6. #9 is so true! The amount of time I spend rescuing sewing from Felicity! Or locking her out of a room so I can sew in it.

    Walnut is so cute!

  7. It's not just cats who want to help with sewing my dog Boston is constantly finding a lovely place ontop of my work to sleep!

  8. I especially love #5! Exactly right! Just do it- it's only fabric!

  9. Thank you so much! Was really helpful!

    God bless

    Julie Maria

  10. Great post!
    And LOL I totally love bonus top #9 I swear my cat could be half way across the suburb on some errand known only to herself but can hear me get out my sewing patterns, and come racing back to er, help...

    I found my way here from a link from another blog and have been enjoying reading yours :-)

    Imogheena (btw I'm doing a pattern pyramid at the moment, come over and check it out and join in if you want. The more the merrier!)

  11. Thanks for the tips!

  12. I always read the entire guide sheet of the pattern the night before I start a project. When some directions are confusing they usually make sense latter in the directions. It also helps me visualize the completed project.

  13. Thanks for the list of useful websites! Some I've been to and so glad to find out about the others. I would like to share it on my blog with a link back to you, if that's okay?
    I stumbled upon your page and am a new follower. I love your blog and your amazing Flickr photos. Ohmygosh, what an impressive wardrobe you have sewn for yourself! I don't know how you have time...I guess you "make" time.
    I'm very inspired and might begin sewing for myself again. I usually sew for others.
    Thank you again for the great ideas!

  14. I couldn't agree more with #2. After messing up several of my projects because I was too tired, I keep a good eye on the clock and if it's too late at night by the time I actually have some spare time, even if I feel like working on my latest project, I will choose to do something different. It's just not worth it when often enough I ended up just wasting time and fabric.
    As you described in #5 it is such a great feeling to tackle a project that seems to be beyond your skill level. For last years Halloween I made myself a beautiful victorian dress. I would've never done it if my husband hadn't picked out the pattern and told me he wanted to see me in that dress. Took me 5 hours just to press pattern pieces and fabric and then cut everything. It was exhausting, most of the time no fun at all, but the end result was amazing and I got so many compliments it was definitely worth it!
    And as of #9 there seems to be a problem a lot of us have. I swear my cat is obsessed with pins. He pulls them out of the fabric and starts chewing on them! There has been a number of times when I actually had to pry his mouth open to get them back. And of course he also loves to lay down on my fabric and shred the pattern paper. He has tried to catch the needle in my sewing machine as I was sewing. When I'm lucky he will be happy just laying on top of my sewing machine....

  15. All you need to distract the cat is an empty cardboard box. Just sit it anywhere you want the cat (out of your way) and leave it. Your cat will gravitate to the box and crawl in. Even better if he can watch everything you do from his spot.

  16. A quick suggestion on the super-important ironing step... I setup my ironing board at half height at a right angle next to my sewing machine. And I use an office-style chair that swivels for sewing. so I don't even have to get up to iron seams as I sew.


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