You want to learn how to sew but you don’t know how to get started? Instagram shows you the most amazing creations and you wonder if you‘ll ever be able to do something similar? The answer is YES! Step by step and by taking the tips below into account you will eventually reach your goal: a wardrobe filled with handmade items made by you!
What do you need to get started?
It’s decided. You are enrolled in a sewing class, you’re about to attend a cool sewing club or you simply decided to start sewing in the comfort of your own home. You dream of stylish handmade outfits and envision admiring glances. Soon you’ll no longer be a sewing virgin, so you better start prepared. But what items are key to success? These are – in order of appearance – the most important and most useful tools!
To take the perfect body measurements, to measure certains distances on the pattern and to simply wear it around your neck, looking like a pro. No one will ever notice that you’re new to the game. If you come across a tape measure marked with centimeters on one side and inches on the other, then it’s a wise thing to buy it as you’ll be prepared for projects from more exotic designers than yours truly.
You can use any kind of ruler you have at hand, but I strongly recommend you to invest in a 50 or even 60 centimeter ruler. This way I can assure you that the straight lines you copy from the pattern will actually be straight. For those of you who want to go all the way, there are also omnigrids and special tailor’s rulers with complicated curves that allow you to draw the most fluid lines.
Tracing paper is semi-transparant paper you can use to trace the original pattern. Tracing paper comes in different qualities. You can buy it from fabric or craft supply stores or sometimes even the local supermarkt has it. The more creative ones among us sometimes use baking paper and for simple patterns that you can draw yourself you can even use a newspaper. How you use paper to trace a pattern you can read here.
Standard pencils (to trace the pattern), possibly some color pencils (to highlight important markings), a ballpoint pen, …
To cut the pattern pieces.
You simply cannot do without pins. You use them to pin the pattern pieces to the the fabric but also to pin pieces together to keep them in place while stitching. Depending on the type of fabric you use it might be a good idea to use extra fine pins or wonder clips.
Wonder clips are an alternative to pins and allow you to work just that little bit faster. They’re ideal when you’re working with heavy-weight fabrics or materials where pins are not an option. Wonderclips to the rescue!
Your best buddy for laying hems and folds! This small tool has various small measurement indications which makes it extremely easy to lay the perfect uniform hem or add a consistent 1 centimeter seam allowance.
To transfer the pattern to the fabric you use special tailor’s chalk. It fades after a couple of days and disappears completely after washing.
Tailor’s chalk is available in many shapes and colors. From simple chalk pencils over chalk wheels to the more traditional pieces of soapstone and even actual liquid chalk marker pens. The most common colors are white, grey, blue and red.
Always remember this golden rule: never use fabric scissors on anything other than fabric as it will dull the blades and scissor sharpeners seem to have become a rare species.
Tacking may seem like a dated skill, but it can be very useful. When tacking, you sew temporary stitches that will later be removed. Tacking is usually sewn using specialised tacking thread which is slightly thicker than regular sewing thread, but slightly thinner than embroidery thread. You can buy tacking thread from a sewing supply shop. It only comes in a limited number of colors, of which beige seems to be the world’s favorite.
Tacking may look time consuming and double the work, but it has the advantage that you can assemble your garment, try it on, and then easily remove the thread if you need to make extra alterations.
Tacking thread can also be used to transfer important pattern markings to the fabric. In some situations tacking thread is more ideal than tailor’s chalk as it doesn't fade and the markings are visible on both sides of the fabric.
Hand sewing needles
To tack, to attach small embellishments, to close the final seam by hand and occasionally to prick your fingers.
Make sure to use the correct type of needle for the fabric you use. Every type of needle has a tip that is designed for a certain type of fabric. There are needles for stretch fabrics, cotton fabrics, jeans, leather,… A box that holds different types of needles or needles of different sizes will definitely come in handy.
To – finally – put all the pieces together. Always choose high-quality thread. Sewing thread which is too thick or has a lot of loose fibres (often the less expensive ones) can lead to poor stitch quality or even block your machine.
If you cannot find thread that exactly matches the color of the fabric, pick a color that is slightly darker than the fabric.
You probably don’t like the sight of it because when you need it, it means that you made a mistake. If the hem of your skirt is not straight, if you have accidentally sewn the wrong pattern pieces together or if you ended up with a strange looking button hole, remove the stitches, open the seam, cut the threads or open the buttonholes. When you removed all loose threads, start all over again until your stitches are perfect and you meet your personal high-standard criteria.
They come in really handy to pick ripped threads from the fabric without getting frustrated.
Glue or wondertape
Are you a perfectionist? Say hello to perfect collars, cuffs or polo shirt plackets thanks to this glue pen or double-sided tape. The adhesive will immobilize the layers during stitching. Bye bye pins, moving fabric, and bye bye glue residue as it dissolves when washing. Hallelujah!
Sewing box, bag, ...
Once you collected everything mentioned above you’re already pretty well equiped. You will notice that it’s only a matter of time before your sewing box starts filling up with an array of supplies like buttons, zippers, ribbon, tape, closures,… It all depends on what projects you have in mind, but often they’re just nice to have and soon you’ll have more than you’ll ever use. Mind, though, that even if you have a lot, you’ll never have the right button!
What is a good sewing machine for beginners?
A good sewing machine for beginners is - in my opinion - one that can at least
- handle projects that involve 2 layers of canvas or jeans
- make buttonholes
- handle straight and zigzag stitches
- set the needle off center
These minimum requirements are based on 14 years of experience as a sewist and workshop instructor during which I’ve seen many different models and brands. It goes without saying that many machines offer numerous other options, but know that you won’t need 101 types of stitches. If your budget is limited, but you want a decent machine, then keep this checklist in mind.
For a limited budget I can advise you - unsponsored - that I’ve seen a lot of starting sewists who are happy with their Brother Innov'is which come at approximately €350. Even cheaper machines soon make you hit a wall (read: be prepared to get frustrated and start yelling that you should never have started sewing in the first place) or run into trouble with stitches or the machine itself. Remember that service costs also don’t come cheap.
For €350 you usually only get some basic tools like a zipper foot, a buttonhole foot and a blindstitch foot. These types of presser feet are very commonly used and if they don’t come with your machine, the overall price might be much higher. Depending on the machine’s brand, these feet could be pretty expensive.
For people with a larger budget or the firm intention to get the most out of it, I can only advise to look for a machine with a powerful motor. It will guarantee that your machine will be able to handle all projects you have in mind, irrespective of the type or thickness of the fabric. The more expensive machines often come with more accessories. If this is not the case, you can always buy them separately.
- Walking foot
I bought this expensive presser foot as an extra with my sewing machine and I must say it is one of my smartest purchases so far. I use it in almost every project. On every machine, the feed dogs make sure the machine smoothly moves the fabric. As this is definitely the case for a standard light-weight cotton fabric, it becomes a little trickier when stretch or knit fabrics are involved or slippery and delicate ones like silk or viscose. With these fabrics, a walking foot is highly recommended. It will make your life so much easier. Some brands even have machines with a built-in walking foot. Lucky bastards.
- Adjustable presser foot pressure
Adjustable presser foot pressure is a good alternative to a walking foot and is therefore pretty high on my wishlist should I consider buying a new machine. Presser foot pressure is the amount of pressure applied to the fabric by the presser foot. If the pressure is adjustable it means you can manage the distance between the foot and the fabric. It makes sure the fabric moves more easily under the foot and prevents it from either puckering or being stretched.
- Bright LED light
My own machine produces a warm light, but many newer models have bright LED light. If you often work late at night or if you have trouble with your eyesight, then it might be a good investment and something to put on your checklist.
- Needle stop position control
If you really want to be on top of things, set the needle's stopping position to ‘down’. The needle will stop down in the fabric each time you stop sewing. This option is also included in the low range Brother Innov’is.
- Automatic needle threader
More useful than anti-aging cream if you ask me. No more endlessly trying to thread that needle. Again, this option is also included in the low range Brother Innov’is.
- Slide-on table
Handling large pieces of fabric on a small free arm is not always easy. As I often make dresses or adult shirts, a slide-on table simply gives you more workspace. No wonder it’s high on my wish list.
- Machine case
If you often take your machine with you to sew in the company of friends, or if you’re a workshop instructor, then a case or a bag will protect your machine when traveling.
Sewing machine brands
There are quite some machine brands and it’s not always easy to compare different brands and machine models. With some brands extra accessories are included in the price, where for others they’re not. If you’re thinking of buying a new machine, make a list of what’s important to you. Which projects do you have in mind? How often would you use it? What accessories are indispensable?
Based on your own preferences and the info above you can compile a list of things you really can’t do without and things that are useful, but not strictly necessary. If you don’t make that list, chances are that you’re overwhelmed by all the options the different brands or models have to offer. You’ll notice that quite some brands mention dozens of stitches, but unless you’re a quilter and decorative stitches are important to you, they are a nice-to-have, not a must. In all these years of sewing, I guess I only used a handful of different stitches other than a straight or a zigzag stitch.
Service and support
The last, and maybe most important piece of advice I can give you is to buy your machine from a local dealer. You might pay just a little extra compared to some amazing deal with an anonymous online reseller, but in the long run the total price will be much lower, and the chances of you getting frustrated too, believe me. Buying a sewing machine is a big investment and trying to save on the service cost is not a good idea.
I live in Ghent and I guess you can call me a true (and unsponsored!) fan of Mertens Service Center in Melle where I bought both my sewing machine and serger. Dirk and his team only sell top brands and will happily tell you everything you want to know, without any obligations. On top of that, their after sales service is truly amazing.
The most important sewing vocabulary
Are you new to sewing? Then it may sound as if we’re talking cryptic nonsense. The most important code words that you will also come across in the Zonen 09 patterns are listed below.
Not making any political statement whatsoever, we’re constantly talking about the right side of the fabric. What we refer to is actually the pretty side of the fabric. With printed fabric, the right side is easy to spot. With solid fabric it is slightly harder to see. The ‘ugly’ side is then called the wrong side. When you have to stitch ‘right sides together’ (which is usually the case) it means you have to put the pieces together so that the right sides are touching.
For many patterns you need to add seam allowance when transferring the pattern to the fabric. This is also the case for Zonen 09 patterns. As stitching too closely to the edge of the cut fabric might cause your fabric to unravel, you need to make sure the fabric is firmly caught. Seam allowance is the area between the edge of the fabric and the stitching. Seam allowances can range from ¼” to several inches. Most patterns call for a specific seam allowance. Zonen 09 patterns call for a 3/8” seam allowance for most pattern pieces. For hem allowance we usually take 1.2” or 1.6”. The seam allowance is indicated in the instructions so don’t forget to check those before starting.
With the forementioned tips in mind you undoubtedly get the following reasoning: when you transfer the pattern to the fabric and you need to add seam allowance you take a seam gauge and tailor’s chalk and you draw an extra line on the fabric. Please check the instructions for the correct seam allowance. The newly drawn line is now your cut line, the transferred line is the stitching line.
When buying fabric you can only choose the length of the fabric. The width is determined by the manufacturer. This is often 45, 48, 54 or 60 inches. So if you ask for 1 yard of bright flowery fabric, your piece will be 1 yard long and 60 inches wide.
The edges that run around each side of the fabric’s lengthwise grain are called selvages. They basically prevent the fabric from unravelling. When buying designer fabrics (e.g. See You At Six, Capsule Fabrics, Kokka, Michael Miller,… ) the selvage often mentions the designer, the collection and the manufacturer. The selvage can also help you determine the right side of a solid fabric. If the selvage shows these tiny pinholes, then the right side is the side where the fabric is kind of sticking out.
Grain | Grainline
Most pattern pieces have to be cut on the grain. Cutting on the grain is important to make your garment drape well and wear evenly. Pattern pieces always have a long arrow symbol printed on them. When you transfer a pattern to the fabric it is important that the arrow is parallel to the lengthwise grain, selvage or fold. What the fold is I’ll tell you in a bit.
Some fabrics, like checkered fabric can intentionally be cut on the bias. Here you put the grainline arrow in a 45-degree angle on the fabric rather than following the lengthwise grain.
Center front | Center back
You may have come across ‘center front’ or ‘center back’ when tracing pattern pieces for a skirt, a shirt or the bodice of a dress. But they’re also quite commonly used on larger pattern pieces for e.g. shoulder bags. Front and back have in this case nothing to do with the right and wrong side of the fabric. They simply indicate a vertical line marking the exact center of the front or back of a pattern piece or a garment. These two center lines are imperative to pattern making as they serve as important guides for pattern symmetry and the placement of zippers and buttons. Unless you’re in a conceptual mood, I assume you also like these lines to be centered. On basic garments, the center front and center back lines can serve as cut-on-fold lines, making a pattern more efficient to cut and manage.
When transferring pattern pieces to the fabric you can come across the term ‘cut on fold’. It means that the pattern piece is only half the size of the actual piece of fabric. You have to fold the fabric in half and line up that edge of the pattern piece along the fold. If you now cut around the pattern piece, except for the side that’s on the fold, you’ll have a piece of fabric that’s twice the size of the paper pattern piece. When positioning the pattern pieces on the fabric do not forget to take the fabric’s grain into account. In practice it means that you will usually fold the fabric parallel to the selvage.* The simplest ways to create folds is to put the selvages together, but you can also fold them towards the center of the fabric which gives you two fold lines. It all depends on the size of the pattern pieces, but I’m sure you want to cut your fabric in the most efficient way, right?
When you fold the fabric, always fold with the right sides touching. The wrong side of the fabric is now facing up. When you transfer pattern pieces to a single layer of fabric, you make sure the right side is facing up.
*If it’s still clear: this is important to be able to cut the pieces with the grain.
When you start and stop stitching a seam it’s good practice to backstitch. A backstitch is a strong stitch that doubles back on the last stitch and is perfect for securing seams. How to do this depends on your machine, but in any case it’s really simple.
When you’re done stitching the pieces together, the instructions may ask you to topstitch. This means that you sew another straight stitch on the right side of the fabric, parallel to the seam, often at approximately 1/16” from the seam. It’s not only decorative but also practical as it holds fabric layers in place, such as seam allowances (this is often done with straight-stitched rows sewn on each side of the seam), facings (such as at the neckline), hems, collars, lapels, cuffs, pockets and so on. As every stitch shows it is recommended use a slightly longer stitch length to achieve a more professional look.
Fusible interfacing is a type of fabric that has heat-sensitive adhesive on one side that enables it to bind to another fabric. Fusible interfacing makes it possible for fabrics to hold their shape and firmness which is recommended for some pattern pieces. It is usually white or black and comes in different weights which are indicated with a number. E.g, With the brand Vilene H180 is designed for lightweight fabrics or pieces that only need a little more firmness whereas H410 is for heavy-weight fabrics or pieces that need a lot of firmness. Of course, there are many different types for every project you can imagine.
Before assembling the pattern pieces that need interfacing, you first need to apply it. Place the main fabric right side down on the ironing board, then place the fusible interfacing on top, with the adhesive side facing down on to the wrong side of the main fabric. The adhesive side is the bobbly side where you can usually see a slight shininess from the glue. Cover the fabric and interfacing with a press cloth and press the iron on to the fabric. Do not use steam. Hold in the same position for about 8 seconds, although this depends on the weight of the interfacing. Lift the iron, move it to the next position and repeat.
Lightweight fusible interfacing is usually applied to waistbands, collars, necklines and cuffs. The heavier fusible interfacing can be applied to pieces of a bag to make it more sturdy.
Some pattern pieces have to be cut twice, once for the visible outside and once for the invisible inside, the facing. It is used to finish the fabric edges and give support. It also gives your garment a professionally looking finish as the seams are well hidden in the folds. Fusible interfacing is often applied to the facing. The instructions will tell you exactly which pattern pieces need a facing, usually it’s waistbands, collars and necklines.
Sewing projects for beginners
Your grandparents attic held a wonderful surprise: a proper sewing machine! Or maybe you thought #yolo and you immediately bought your own shiny new machine. You have the right tools to get started. Your sewing box is filled with notions and supplies, and you understand most of the sewing terminology. In other words, you’re all set! But what projects are ideal to make your first experience a success?
If buying a proper sewing pattern or making a garment is still too big a step, then have a browse on Pinterest or on one of the many blogs on the internet. There are many free tutorials for simple projects that are perfect for beginners.
If you’re overwhelmed by all these options the world wide web has to offer and you’re dying for a ready-made answer, then let me lead the way! The projects listed below will get you into the groove and you’ll improve your skills at the same time. This is a list of simple sewing projects that are tried and tested by many bloggers and readers before you.
Making your own clothes with sewing patterns
Pencil cases, bunting, bags, bibs: been there, done that and need something more? You reached the next level in this wonderful sewing game: let’s make your own clothes!
In order to make clothes for yourself, your friends or your family you need a sewing pattern. Sewing patterns come in both paper and digital (pdf) versions. Zonen 09 patterns are only available in pdf, so it goes without saying that this reflects my own personal preference. Check this page to understand the reasoning behind this and find out how to get from buying a pattern to wearing a unique handmade item in 5 steps.