I woke up this morning to a message from my cousin Heather, in Scotland. She’s collected her new sewing machine, is just about to start dressmaking and wondered if I had any tips.
Super excited, I started writing a response on my phone, when I realised this was more than a quick Instagram reply.
So here it is, Heather. 29 things I wish someone had told me before I started sewing this year. (With apologies if some of this seems obvious! I was a total newbie when I started.)
Getting started: learn and practice
Tip #1 – I signed up for a class, but with 14 people the teacher couldn’t give us individual attention. I’ve learned way more by searching YouTube.
Tip #2 -If you are using special fabric (something you love or expensive) I would definitely practice making the garment out of cheap fabric first (called a toile or muslin). If it works, you have an extra piece. If it doesn’t, you’ve saved your special fabric and, hopefully, learned how to fix it.
Tip #3 -Practice on a folded scrap of the fabric you’ll be using before you start, so you can see how your machine and the fabric interact – maybe you need to adjust the tension or stitch length, for example.
Tip #4 -It’s taken ages for my topstitching to look any good. While you’re just getting started I wouldn’t do contrast colour topstitching. It’s harder to sew in a straight line than it looks!
Tip #5 – Sewing around a curved edge is also a little tricky. Not much advice here except to say I got better with practice. Tips – cut into the curve at intervals and use the iron.
Tip #6 – Even if you think you’re doing things okay (bust darts, topstitching), people on YouTube always have hacks and tips to help you improve.
Tip #7 – You look at people’s messy sewing rooms and crazy fabric stashes and think ‘I’ll never be like that’… After finishing each project, record how much of that fabric you have left and put it away neatly. That way, when you’re wondering if you have enough fabric to make something, you don’t need to pull out each piece.
Tip #8 – Chiffon-type fabrics don’t listen to your iron telling them to lie flat and are a total pain to press and sew. Jersey-type fabrics, which I was initially worried about curling or stretching, have actually ironed well (as long as you don’t cut and then leave for a bit – they will roll!).
Machine maintenance and issues
Tip #9 – Use a clean paintbrush to brush out thread fibres that build up around the bobbin (and anywhere else) every time you start or stop using the machine for a bit.
Tip #10 – Use different machine needles for different fabrics. I haven’t needed to replace needles after each garment, as some recommend, but don’t leave the same needle in forever.
Tip #11 – When your machine plays up, re-thread top and bottom. Apparently problems with the underside stitching are usually caused by the top threading.
Tip #12 – Use cheap supermarket greaseproof paper (not baking paper, it’s too shiny to draw on) for tracing over patterns (you might want to save the original pattern, or not be sure of your size, or want to try altering the pattern).
Tip #13 – Use instagram – each pattern has an associated hashtag and you can start to see trends like ‘Next time I would go down a size’ that will help. Or you might want to lower a neckline, etc.
Tip #14 – Personal preference: Double the height of any neck facing pattern piece to allow for hemming top and bottom, especially if you want to add a label. I designed my own labels and ordered them on Etsy. Kylie and the Machine is probably the best-known for pre-made labels.
Tip #15 – Keep a record of exactly what changes you’ve made as you’ve gone along, what you learned, what was a challenge. Not only is it great to look back on and see how far you’ve come, if you want to make the same thing again you won’t have to start your alterations from scratch. At the start I couldn’t believe I’d forget what I’d done to a garment, but by my third or fourth, I had no memory at all of the things I’d changed!
Cutting and grading
Tip #16 – Use a French rule to grade between sizes with perfect curves.
Tip #17 – I use a highlighter to draw around my (graded) size on the pattern, as they can all get a bit confusing and overlapping.
Tip #18 – If you want some free patterns to start with, Peppermint magazine has a number of collaborations with indie companies with great instructions. Here’s a directory of free patterns I came across online:
Tip #19 – Read the instructions all the way through before starting. Sometimes I think about skipping something, or something doesn’t make sense, but later it all clicks together.
Tip #20 – Independent pattern companies tend to make their patterns a little easier to follow than the traditional firms. After I made a dress that came out way too small from McCalls I’ve gone indie and never looked back!
Print vs. PDF
Tip #21 – I love getting indie PDF patterns printed at A0 size at my local printers. The paper is way sturdier than the delicate tissue paper of pre-printed patterns. Plus, they often come with each size saved to a different layer, so you can get just your size printed. (I play with Photoshop and Illustrator to customise things, but that’s not necessary).
Style and sizing
Tip #22 – I had no idea that sizes on patterns don’t necessarily correspond to the size you’d buy in a shop.
Tip #23 – Patterns are designed for an ‘average’ body shape, and a b-cup bra size, which most of us aren’t. You might fall into different sizes for bust, hips and waist (my body measurements span four sizes). No problem, just ‘grade’ between them. Start with the size that corresponds to your ‘high bust’ size and adjust from there.
Tip #24 – I don’t have an overlocker to finish seams and find zig-zag stitch quite messy, so French seams are a relatively easy way to get beautiful seams.
Tip #25 – I’ve definitely been reminded of my body shape and style – what looks awesome on some people on Instagram doesn’t look or feel good on me.
Tip #26 – This is not a cheap hobby! Save money where you can by buying fabric when it’s on sale and don’t buy a billion tools straightaway. (I bought a tracing wheel and paper and have never used them). By contrast, buy decent thread, pins and scissors.
Tip #27 – Old thread snaps. Buy new thread.
Tip #28 – Some people use clips to save putting holes in nice fabrics with pins – I haven’t tried this myself but have seen delicate fabrics pull and run when using pins, so may be worth a go.
Tip #29 – I quickly moved on from cutting patterns with scissors to using a rotary cutter and cutting mat. So much quicker and hurts my hands less. Also, I get backache from this hobby, so anything that reduces leaning over is welcome!
I thought there would be more sewing! Instead it’s tracing and marking, cutting and ironing (and unpicking) and vacuuming.
It’s addictive – you’ll want to stay up late and just finish that next bit (and the next and the next).
And I can’t resist a nice round tip #30 – Have fun and don’t rush. If you run into a few challenges and lose your sew-jo, pick an easy pattern to bounce back with. If you don’t feel like it, don’t do it – it should be a break, enjoyable, not a chore.