Saturday, May 19, 2012

10 Sewing Things I Want To Teach My Girls

It's time for another list!

Jayme nominated me for this award several moons ago:

Very thrilled! It is always wonderful to be recognized by one's peers, and I've always felt that I am among great company in Crafty Blogland. Thank you, Jayme!

Here are the rules - I must share 7 things about myself and nominate 15 other bloggers. It is hard to choose just 15 bloggers, so I shan't. Instead I will share one of my rather daft lists, in the hope that you will forgive me for breaking the rules. Plus I have a pattern coming up for you soon. Is that an OK swop?

So onto the list!

I've often been asked what beginners should know about sewing. It's a difficult question to answer, because it feels like I'd be forcing different people, with different learning styles to follow some rigid, standard curriculum. I mean, I could make a list of different lists of things, depending on one's approach and/or personality. For instance:


  • Equipment and tools to have before you even make your first stitch
  • Equipment and tools to collect over time
  • Practical fabric for your stash
  • Ambitious fabric for your stash
  • Skills you need to have before even turning on your sewing machine
  • Skills you need to learn within the first week
  • Skills you need to learn within the first year
  • Skills you need to make a bag
  • Skills you need to make a garment
  • Skills you need to cook dinner while simultaneously hand-embroidering a scarf
  • Projects for beginners
  • Projects meant for beginners but that nobody really likes
  • Projects meant for "intermediate" seamstresses but that beginners could actually do
  • Books that are useful to beginner seamstresses
  • Books that are totally useless to beginner seamstresses
  • Good video tutorials for beginner seamstresses
  • Useful and sometimes pretty hand-sewing stitches

and on it goes.

My point is that you could start anywhere in this big, non-linear adventure that is sewing, and chart your own course. For some of us, Sewing 101 is following a tutorial on making a rectangular tote bag; for others, it's drafting our first skirt block. It depends on what you want to do with your ability to sew. It also makes it slightly ridiculous to standardize one's skill level - we each define "beginner", "intermediate" or "advanced" differently, often based on what we ourselves expect, or even what we are used to. What criteria do we use, anyway? Here are some examples:

  • Number of years of sewing experience
  • Number of projects sewn
  • Variety of sewing projects attempted/completed
  • Most difficult/took-longest-time-to-finish sewing project
  • Variety of fabrics/materials used
  • Worst/fiddliest fabric/material used
  • Number of different skills possessed (define "possessed"?)
  • Number of techniques mastered (define "mastered"?)
  • Whether you have sewn a quilt or not
  • Whether you have used a commercial pattern or not
  • Whether you have drafted garments from body measurements or not
  • Whether you can sew for other people or not
  • Whether people have bought your sewn stuff or not (and returned them in disgust)

Think about it: some people consider being able to sew piping and zippers "advanced" while others consider that you need to be able to sew a garment to fit (like an evening gown) before you graduate from "intermediate". 
Skirt by Emily, age 5

And some people who've only sewn quilts think of themselves as "beginners" while others think that you're only a "beginner" till you've made your first quilt. 
Quilt by Emily, age 7

The fact that we've invented such in-between definitions as "adventurous beginner", "ambitious beginner" or "advanced beginner" is proof that it's just hard to declare ourselves ready to jump to the next level.

Flower by Emily, age 5

So back to my goal: what advice might I give to beginning seamstresses? Apart from, "Don't let older, crotchety, know-it-all, one-track-minded sewing folks make you feel inferior about yourself"? 

Here is a list of 10 things I hope my girls know by the time they leave my house and strike out on their own as independent seamstresses. Note that I allow for a time span of - what? - 10+ years, during which time I expect them to go through periods of acute sewing interest as well as distracted apathy. 
Tote, by Emily (age 5)

I also expect them to learn, forget, act prodigal and invent their own rules. It's certainly what I did to my mother, at any rate (sorry, Ma!).
Doll pillow and blanket by Jenna, age 4

And hop on, launch and fall unceremoniously off, various sewing bandwagons. 
Rainbow snake by Emily, age 6

And there's always the chance that they may not even want to sew. But if they do, I hope they take away with them, these 10 things:

1 Sew what you are interested in
People stick at what interests them. If it happens to be easy, they finish fast and get instant gratification. If it was challenging, they gain experience and are thirsty for the next big thing. Don't feel obliged to sew certain kinds of projects because it's what (ostensibly) more advanced seamstresses do. There are people who sew gorgeous tailored clothes and who can't visualize a bag. And there are people who make stunning bags and who can't sew clothes. And there are amazing quilters who can't handle princess seams, and expert pattern designers who've never sewn a Tshirt.   

2 Press
At the start, as you go and at the end. Press sewing lines, center fronts and center backs, hemlines, side seams, darts. Makes it easier to match important points, gives a more accurate fit in the in-between stages and minimizes the need to mark with chalk, markers and blood.

3 Baste/tack
Sometimes, instead of pins. Save pins for the straight stuff, the bags, the craft projects; baste the curves, the necklines, the armscyes, the sleeve caps, the princess seams. Baste for good fabric alignment, easing in sleeves, trial fits. Baste because it's faster than pinning. Except for stuff that shows pinholes and needle-holes, of course. Like vinyl and leather. In which case, use clips, fingers, walking feet.

4 Choose the right fabric
Over print. Always. Apparel fabric for garments, home-dec and canvas for bags that need to bear weight, quilting cotton for quilts. And go easy on interfacing, because it shouldn't overpower the project.

5 Choose quality over speed
particularly when making clothes. Take your time, sweet girls. Whip up craft projects, little coin purses and gathered, one-size-fits-most garments but render unto tailoring, the time that is needed for tailoring. Taking time comes naturally with hand-sewing but a sewing machine gives a person license to speed. Remember that making a good garment is at least 50% measuring, drafting (or adapting), cutting, fitting - all of which are done by hand.

6 Redo
There is no shame in unpicking to make better. Especially if you know you wouldn't be able to sleep at night until you do. I do it all the time - ugly seams, unpicking ugly seams, sleeping and not sleeping. Been there.

7 Sew with good techniques, not gadgets
The best seamstresses never earned their reputations because of the fancy gadgets on their sewing machines (or the number thereof).

8 Imitate
Different learning styles notwithstanding, most people can visualize best when they can see a 3D thing in 3D. To learn to sew a zipper, look at a sewn zipper. To learn to sew a collar, look at a collar. Till this day, each time I sew a zippered fly, I have to look at a pair of pants, turn it inside out and deconstruct the sequence in my head.  

9 Learn new ways to do old things
If it's an important enough skill or technique, many people will know how to do it. And many people = many ways to do the same thing. And many ways = some ways could better, faster, simpler, neater than my way. Just recently, after practically decades of sewing, I learned a new way to unpick stitches! Simultaneously duh and hurrah. 

10 Stop 
when it isn't going right. Do something else, and come back to it again later. I've often felt with my own sewing that I have moods "for" it and "not for" it. Some folks call it "sewing mojo" - part inspiration, part motivation. For me, the right mood translates to awesome fit, beautiful top-stitching, eye-catching designs, great fabric choices. But there are periods when everything I make is indescribably hideous, unfitting, and plain trying-too-hard. I've learnt the hard way that when that happens, to just not sew and take a break instead. My most memorable break lasted 10 years! It was great. And actually 10 years was not as scary as it sounds, since I was really young when I first started sewing and I was still young when I resumed. No loss, and all gain.

Messenger bag for Bearaby by Jenna, age 5

Um, that's technically three lists, if you were countng. It's hard to stop once I've started! Over to you, now. What are some sewing tips for "beginners"* you'd like to share? Or things that you, as a beginner, wish someone had told you?

whatever that means


  1. Not to be afraid of your fabric and to make a mistake. There is nothing worse than having a gorgeous fabric hidden away as its too precious to sew with.

  2. Thank you- this was wonderful and just what I needed to hear. I've been sewing sporadically since 2006, starting for a different form to express my creativity other than drawing.

    I have low energy a lot of the time at the moment and often find myself getting really frustrated and struggling with each process and just really over thinking. I convinced myself recently that I didn't know how to sew at all despite the fact that I have improved quite a bit. This is a great help, inspiring and well put. Thanks again :)

  3. Can you expand on pressing? I haven't heard of pressing sewing lines, centre fronts, etc. before you sew. I do press seams after they are sewn and hemlines before but that's about it!

    I completely agree with sewing what interests you. I've expanded it to knitting too - a friend of mine wanted to re-start knitting (I think she'd made a scarf before) and figured she should probably do another scarf before venturing on to socks which is what she really wanted to knit. I shared your theory and she is happily almost through both socks!

    1. Yes, Laura! First of all, you'd need to sew with patterns that have NO seam allowances and that were drawn on sturdy paper, not the rubbish tissue paper that patterns come in these days. You'd press the (straight) seam allowances against the edge of the pattern and get instant sewing lines. Same with darts. Don't do it for curved seams (armscyes, necklines etc) because in pressing the SA, you'd stretch the fabric and warp the necklines/armscyes. Leave those as is.

      Pressing the center front/back line just means that when you cut a pattern on the fold (e.g. bodice front), press that fold before you remove the pattern from the fabric for sewing. You'll get a nice center line that is very helpful for aligning symmetrical pockets and neckline facings and plackets and things like that. Oh, and also press the center line of the neckline facing, so you can line that up with the bodice's center line.

      When the garment is completed, you can iron away those center lines, or just wash the garment. No need to mark or tailor's tack (my home teachers made me do it, yuck) so nothing to unpick or rub off.

    2. Straight seam allowances makes more sense! I was trying to imagine all the fiddling that must go on to get curves pressed! Thanks for clarifying.

  4. The further I get from the sewing class I took in high school, the more I realize how absolutely brilliant my teacher was. We collected points in two categories, projects and skills. One of the things we were to do in our pre-flight checklist was to identify all the skills (from a very long list that I wish I still had) we'd accomplish in the project. Sometimes, if a project wasn't going to get you much new on the skills list, Mrs. Y would nudge you in another direction. She was an adherent of your first rule, though - it had to be something you were interested in. So if it was a dress you wanted to make, she would suggest a similar dress that would get you new skills. It cut down on the number of skill samplers we rushed through at the end of the semester. ;)

    It also got me in the habit of looking for projects that will extend my skills. It's never a dull moment, which means I'm less likely to walk away from a project for months at a time. (Although that's by no means a guarantee...)

    My biggest advice, though? STOP WHEN YOU'RE TIRED. You're operating a pretty significant piece of machinery there. Just as you shouldn't be driving when you're dead tired, you shouldn't try to push through that other sleeve when you're yawning. During my first week with my serger, I ruined a piece and went through considerable trouble getting more of the fabric and fixing it because I'd gotten the panel folded under itself and snipped right through it with the knife. It happened because I thought I could just push through and it'd be fine.

    Oh, and get a walking foot. It's a great investment. ;)

    1. Your sewing teacher is brilliant, indeed! And yes, I've done that with the serger too. And I wasn't even tired - I was rushing to finish before I went on my next errand. Goes against Rule #5. Lesson learnt.

      Yes! Walking foot! Yes! In fact, buy a Pfaff. They all come with walking feet integrated into their shank things. I sew with my walking foot engaged almost 100% of the time. But, again, that goes against Rule #7 and in support of that, I must share that I sewed serious bags and clothes with a treadle machine for many, many years. Not even zig-zag stitch on that baby. Zero gadgets. No walking foot. But the top-stitching it produced! Through layers and layers of batting and binding and nylon and packcloth. Oh, NONE of the electric machines can compare with it!

    2. It does go against Rule #7, I suppose, but I think of a walking foot as correcting a flaw in sewing machine mechanics. You can do beautiful things without one (and I did for a long time), but it gives you a little more control.

      (On the subject of gadgets, once, I was pleating a skirt, and the depth of the pleats went significantly beyond the seam allowance marks on the plate, so I measured what I needed and stuck a post-it note with the edge where the fold of the fabric needed to be. I'm pretty sure there's some sort of arm I could have attached to the shank, but the post-it stayed put and did the job perfectly. I'm a big fan of using what you have when it'll work as well as some special tool you'll only need for one project.)

    3. Yes! Well said, Anna. I love my walking foot too. And if it doesn't come with one's machine, it IS the best investment one can make, gadgetwise, if one bought such a foot.

  5. can you share the new technique you learned for unpicking stitches?? as an adventurous self-taught beginner, i would analyze a garment and try to imitate - i think i spent more time unpicking ridiculous seams than sewing :) . sure learned a lot though. still do plenty unpicking today too

    1. Here is a tutorial for that method. My friend told me about it, several years ago, but it's the same method as the tutorial.

    2. LiEr I'm also curious about the unpicking method. I can't see the link in your reply. Could you repost the link if you have a minute?

    3. Duh- I forgot to actual include the link. Here it is:

  6. thank you for this!

    Despite having been sewing since i was about 4-5 years old, (nearly 30 years!) I feel like i've learnt a ton of things from this list. :)

  7. Different personalities make for different beginner lists.
    My over-thinking friend and I sometimes get together to sew. She views my sewing as a no-fear-thing while I view hers as more accurate.
    She is more prone to un-picking then I am. I'm not unhappy if my seams don't line up perfectly but she will 'pick' at hers until they do.

    On techniques, she will turn a strap while I use the iron to fold and press and have a seam showing.

    We are best friends though in spite of our personality differences and often consult each other to decide how to proceed further on our projects.

    The only way I know to become a great sew-er is to practice. Be open to learn new skills or techniques.

    And pressing always helps.

    1. Isn't that just the truth? About personalities and preferences? I'm glad the world is made from all kinds of sewing folks!

  8. LiEr---now this is an awesome sewing post! Your list of ten things is so spot on!!! Thanks a million!

  9. So wonderful - thank you! :) And yay, pressing. That's a great idea to copy things onto stiffer paper and press the seam allowance! My iron is definitely my favourite sewing accessory (at least until I bite the really-not-that-expensive-why-am-I-waiting-forever bullet and get a walking foot for my machine!).

  10. My aha moment came when I realized that sometimes its okay to draw a line on the fabric and SEW DOWN THE LINE!
    Also I love to ask beginners how they do a thing because they often will have a much simpler solution - and this includes more than just sewing

    1. Lissa: Sorry this is such a late comment, but I was rereading this post today and wanted to say that I draw lines and sew ON them, too. Especially darts. I can't always trust myself to sew the slanted dart line without drawing it with a marker first.

  11. This was just wonderful. Could you talk more about sewing with very small children. My four-year-old niece wants to sew on the machine, but I'm scared! I tried helping her sew with an embroidery hoop, but her motor skills just aren't there. I worry that she's going to get discouraged and lose her enthusiasm.

  12. Can you tell me what the difference is between apparel fabric and quilting cotton? Or rather, is there some reason quilting cotton is not suitable for children's clothing?

    1. Rebecca, I couldn't find an email address so I'll answer the question here and hope you will read it sometime.
      Apparel fabric is fabric meant for making garments. They have a good weight and a nice drape, which means they will "fall" nicely against your body and feel soft and hang well and hug/skim your curves. They also usually have some "give" to them, so you can move comfortably in them. You can find these in a separate section in fabric stores, usually under the broad category of "apparel fabrics". Some examples of apparel fabrics are twill, silk, satin, knit (many varieties), wool, linen, corduroy, lawn, chambray. velvet, velour, denim and I can't think of any more at the moment. Some of these are 100% cotton, some are 100% polyester, some are 100% silk, some are combinations thereof and some are something else.

      Quilting cotton is usually a 100% cotton fabric that is meant for quilting. It is light, stiff and usually does not drape or hang well (because it's so light). It is great for for quilting, craft projects and things like that. It comes in different qualities, ranging from quite coarse to much finer and softer. These days, quilting cotton comes in anything from traditional calico prints (the small flowery sort) to modern designer prints that you see everywhere and on everyone's blogs. Because they are everywhere and so gorgeous, people buy them for everything. Also they tend to be cheaper than apparel fabrics. There is nothing wrong with using them for children's (or adult's) clothing- and lots of people do- but apparel fabric will almost always give better garments (they'll look and feel like what you are used to buying in stores).

      I don't know about other people's children, so take this next bit with a pinch of salt, because my kids may be the weird ones. My children will always pick out quilting cotton in stores and ask me to make dresses out of them, because they are so bright and pretty, but when I do, they will never wear them, claiming they are stiff and don't feel good. Whereas when I pick apparel fabric, even if it isn't as funky, they will always wear the garments sewn from them, because they feel soft and nice (that's what they say).

    2. Thanks, that's very clear and explains why the skirt I made for my daughter displeases me (too stiff), though she loves it (kitties!).

      At the store I shop at mostly, there is a section called "novelty prints", all of them cotton fabric, which I had thought was meant for apparel. However, judging from your description, perhaps it is quilting cotton instead, since that's where this stiff fabric came from.

  13. You know, except for the absence of cardboard, this post encapsulates everything I love about this blog. (And the baby loves the ribbon ball I made from your kit - I lined some sections with pieces of a Doritos bag, which makes very good crinkle!)

  14. Wow! I am 10 and i am too scared to sew a quilt. Good job jenna!

  15. Thank you so much for this post - it inspired me to finally take the time to sit the kids down at the machine!


Thank you for talking to me! If you have a question, I might reply to it here in the comments or in an email.