Best tips and advice for a sewing beginner?
November 23, 2012 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Sewing-filter: Top 5 tips for a beginner working on my first real project from a pattern? Bonus question: can I do this? Pep talks welcome.

I'm about to start my first ever project-- this reversible apron. I could use some tips before I get started. If you're relatively experienced at sewing, what would be the top five tips the now-you would give to the earlier-you before you began your first project?

Here's what I can do:
Reliably thread the machine, wind the bobbin, iron, and sew a reasonably straight line. I've practiced on scraps of fabric and I've also made this practice apron out of a sheet which came out pretty well.

That's it.

Here's what I have:
Beginner's machine (Brother), appropriate amounts of (beautiful!) fabric, coordinating thread, seam ripper, good scissors, pattern and written instructions with some (but not many) pictures and drawings.
Also: lots of motivation (and quite a bit of apprehension).

Here's what I'm missing:
Rotary cutter/mat (not an option just yet), chalk something-or-other to mark with, sewing skills and pattern-following experience.

Given these details, what should I know? What are your top beginner's tips? Also-- can I even do this in the first place?
posted by mireille to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
You can use a sliver of soap in place of the chalk, although it may not last quite as long. And yes, you will be able to do it now, if you were able to do it with the sheet before! And it will be even easier, since you have already done it once.
posted by dilettante at 12:29 PM on November 23, 2012

That apron is a good one for a beginner sewer. You don't need a rotary cutter for that at all. Those are mostly for quilters from what I understand. I've been sewing for over thirty years and have never once used a rotary cutter.

My advice? Just follow the instructions on the pattern. Use the material they recommend, the notions they recommend, etc... After you've sewn for a while, you can experiment because you'll get a feel for what works with what, but for now, just follow the patter. Also, if something confuses you (something that's written in sewer speak for instance), look it up online. But most patterns are pretty easy to follow.

That's it. There's nothing that will help you improve than to practice, practice, practice. That'll get you over your apprehension pretty quickly too.
posted by patheral at 12:30 PM on November 23, 2012

Mark the seam allowance on your machine with masking tape (5/8 inch is the typical seam allowance, and for some reason, the tape really helped.

Go slow. Double check everything.

Expect that you'll be ripping seams out, we all do, no matter how advanced.

Don't cut the notches INTO The fabric/seam allowance, cut them out into little arrows. (that was HUGE)

Press your seams open as you go along.

I never got alot out of marking the stuff on the fabric, so chalk/tracing paper etc, was unnecessary.

I did my cutting on the table or floor, depending on what made the most sense.

You can do this! If I can, anyone can!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:30 PM on November 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

Just go for it. The only way you'll become a great sewer is to sew! The key is not to judge yourself or your final product too harshly. Have fun with it, and if it comes out a little wonky don't sweat it.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:32 PM on November 23, 2012

I've made that apron, and it's reasonably easy, especially if you're using regular fabrics (not waxed canvas or anything weird).

Make sure you have good light. Keep water for the iron nearby - nothing worse than realizing you need steam and having to run to the kitchen.

Rotary cutters are over-rated unless you're quilting, IMHO. I prefer an excellent, sharp pair of shears any day.

Chalk - I've used everything under the sun to mark fabric, and I highly prefer and recommend this Clover Chalk Wheel.

Read the instructions all the way through once before you start. Look up anything you don't understand or that is not explained in the pattern. Everyone on the internet is there to help you (which is way better than when I got started, calling my mom and asking poorly phrased questions!).

If it says baste, use long stitches.

Have fun. :)
posted by Medieval Maven at 12:32 PM on November 23, 2012

Preshrink your fabric before you cut and sew! Wash and dry it just like it will be after it is made up, so you don't get weird shrinkage afterwards.

It may tell you this in the pattern instructions, but just in case, when you go to sew your gathering threads, do two rows of stitching. Your gathering will be much more even and attractive and really, even though sewing two rows may seem like a pain, it will be easier in the long run. Remember to pull on the bobbin thread when gathering. Using two different colors of thread can make it easy to figure out which one to pull.
posted by jvilter at 12:36 PM on November 23, 2012

You can totally make that apron! I think the only problem you'll encounter is that patterns are difficult to read at first. It's like they're written in another language. If you don't understand the pattern's instructions, take them into any fabric store and ask the cutter to translate.

I agree that you don't need a rotary cutter unless you're planning on quilting. Sharp shears are way better! If I try to cut a garment pattern with a rotary tool, I always mess it up anyway.

To mark fabric, I've always just used pencils or colored pencils.

If it's complete before this thread closes, you should model it and take a picture for us!

Have fun.
posted by dchrssyr at 12:42 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding the pre-washing, a basting stitch for gathering, and cutting your markers in to arrows not notches.

Also, I have never, not once, marked out a pattern on the fabric. I've always pinned the paper pattern to the fabric and cut it out right from there. Then you make your little tiny marks, like where that gathering starts and stops, and then remove the paper pattern when I'm getting ready to sew.

I also have a very, very bad habit of sewing a right side and a wrong side together, so now I double and triple check that I'm sewing the correct sides together before I sew.

Good Luck, sewing is a fun but exacting mistress.
posted by teleri025 at 12:43 PM on November 23, 2012

OOOh, I forgot, I use this for quilting a lot. Crayola makes washable markers for kids and I use them as my cheap-o way of marking on fabric that doesn't need to be permanent. They wash out beautifully and they are way cheaper, plus, they don't rub off like chalk
posted by teleri025 at 12:45 PM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Pin, pin, pin. Pin the pattern to the fabric before cutting, pin seams together before sewing, pin interfacing down before ironing it. If you pin your seams with the pins perpendicular to the edge of the fabric, you may be able to sew your seam right over them, and extract them afterwards.

Also, don't forget to wash your fabric (in warmish water, if it's cotton that might need preshrinking) BEFORE sewing, and iron flat again before cutting out.

Lay out all your pattern pieces on the fabric before cutting so you can be sure you've got them positioned efficiently.

Especially for woven fabric, be aware of the way pieces will stretch differently if cut on the bias vs. with the weave of the fabric, and rotate accordingly.

For long internal seams in woven fabrics, you can minimize fraying after the fact by carefully cutting the raw edges of the fabric with a pinking shears after sewing them together.

This may be insultingly obvious, but you can start and finish your thread without knotting by just machine-stitching a couple of times backwards and forwards over the same ~1cm line.
posted by Bardolph at 12:46 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm an intermediate level sewer.

The best advice I can give is to complete your projects before you go out an buy more patterns and fabrics. It's fun to buy fabric, I love textiles, but don't get carried away.

Buy the best shears you can afford. Get them sharpened regularly and never use on anything but fabric and thread.

Take your time.

Good pins are wonderful to use. I love the fine yellow-headed quilter's pins and the fine flower head pins.

Kwik-Sew patterns. The instructions are great.

Get yourself some Dritz chalk. It's inexpensive. Get the holder, too. I also have the Clover chalk pen. It's good. I'm a big believer in marking.

When matching fabric to thread and you are in doubt, the thread should be a shade darker than the fabric. Also have some neutrals on hand-- beige, off-white, grey, taupe, etc. They can be used in most situations.
posted by Fairchild at 12:56 PM on November 23, 2012

Nice apron! It will look great. I have been waiting for a pattern with gathering to try the technique on this post - basically, zig-zagging over a piece of dental floss. My gathers are always uneven and I am optimistic that this will be the cure.

Nthing prewashing, and also lots of ironing as you go, and that you don't need a cutting wheel (how on earth do they cut curves anyway?). But a little chalk or a disappearing ink marker is useful, for marking darts and things like that.

I have got super lazy these days and use pattern weights rather than pins, when cutting the pattern out. In fact I don't even use proper pattern weights, usually it's tins of food or whatever small objects are lying around nearby. (Works fine. But I would save this sort of laziness til project 2).
posted by superfish at 12:57 PM on November 23, 2012

If it feels like something's wrong (machine makes a funny noise, fabric is not feeding through easily), stop sewing and figure it out, don't try to force it through. It's ok to pull out stitches, rethread your machine and start your seam over. Probably obvious but that didn't stop me from messing up a lot of projects by being impatient.
posted by waterlily at 12:58 PM on November 23, 2012

Oh! I forgot (but this goes with following the directions on the pattern), however this is a mistake a lot of beginners make. Please make sure you lay the pattern on the fabric following the grain. Here's a page that explains some of the symbols you'll find on most patterns.

As for whether to cut notches or mark your fabric, you'll find what works for you. I tend to cut notches rather than mark the fabric, but hey, I know people who do the opposite and we all sew just as well as the other. So there's that.
posted by patheral at 1:01 PM on November 23, 2012

Pay close attention to the grain lines when laying out the pattern. Keep them all carefully parallel to the selvedge, and to each other. This matters a lot.

Work slowly, methodically, and carefully. If you rush something and do it in what seems like an easier way, the result will be sloppy and you'll have to do it over, or get discouraged.

Clip the loose ends of threads off as soon as you finish each seam. Having lots of loose threads flapping around gets messy and confusing.

Press as you go -- this keeps things easier to handle as you work, and the end result will be a lot neater.
posted by Corvid at 1:06 PM on November 23, 2012

Corvid reminded me... Thread snips make it really quick and easy to clip those stray threads.
posted by superfish at 1:47 PM on November 23, 2012

Rusty intermediate sewer! These are the tips my pro-seamstress level mother gave me.
1. Measure twice cut once. Including your own measurements. And make sure the pattern fits you at all the crucial spots - hips, waist, bust. How I wish I'd listened to my mother on this one when I was making my own clothes. The heartache of discovering my beautiful beautiful new silk shift wouldn't go over my hips... I still wince.
2. When cutting out, iron your pattern pieces flat, iron your fabric, pin pieces to fabric AND use weights for extra security. They don't have to be proper pattern weights, just something to stop the paper slipping. An extra 5mm when the fabric shifts matters. (Thanks Mum. I was particularly resistant to this one, insisting on using a book or something to weigh down pieces and zipping around the edges. With predictable results of, you know, pieces being out and not fitting together properly. Frustration!)
3. If in doubt, leave a little extra seam allowance. You can take in but much harder to fix something too small.
4. You have already made a toile, well done!
5. Pin, then baste, then machine sew. It is so much easier to sew over basting than over pins and the basting will hold your fabric straight much more securely than pins guarding against the dreaded shift/slip. Your seam ripper will make short work of the basting when you're done.
6. Make sure your tension is right - do a test run on some scraps of the fabric you're sewing before starting the real thing.
7. Follow these tips no matter how simple the garment. If you do it right on a pillowcase or apron, you'll be well set up for more complicated projects. If you're slipshod on the simple stuff you won't build the skills you need to pull off the more advanced stuff. (Sigh. See 'silk shift' above.)

Bonus answer: you totally can do this. I ignored most of my mother's advice and still managed to get things together that I could wear although they were nowhere near her standard. By way of contrast she was an absolute perfectionist who made her own ball gowns and cocktail frocks in the 50s, 60s and 70s, then spent the 80s and 90s absorbed in extraordinarily detailed quilting, embroidery and appliqué. She would say you can do this too!
posted by t0astie at 1:54 PM on November 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

This is all super-helpful advice and exactly what I was hoping for/needing. Thanks so much so far!
posted by mireille at 1:57 PM on November 23, 2012

You can do it! An apron is a great place to start because it doesn't require too much fitting, and is ideal for cotton fabric which is easy to sew with. Given that you have made a practice version, you've probably navigated some of the larger pitfalls already, and as far as I'm concerned you're already succeeding at sewing. :) Try to relax and enjoy the process, and don't fret over mistakes -- we all make them!

I've been sewing for about four years -- my "top 5" tips echo some of the ones above.

1. Read the pattern instructions before you start! If you encounter a step you don't know how to do, chances are there is a good tutorial out there on the web. Having a good sewing book on hand that covers basic techniques is a good idea too. Also pay attention to recommended fabrics: using the wrong fabric can ruin an otherwise perfectly-executed project! As you gain more experience, you'll need the instructions less and less, and will even find that you can improve on them. Sadly, pattern instructions are not always the best they could be. Occasionally they are even flat-out wrong!

2. Pay attention to pattern layout, and cut carefully -- some pieces will need to be cut on the fold, others may not hang correctly if they are not cut according to the grain lines marked on the pattern piece. (The lengthwise "grain" of the fabric runs parallel to the selvages.)

3. Wash your fabric as you intend to care for the completed project, and iron it before you start cutting. Press seams as you sew, too. It's far easier to be accurate when working with smooth, flat fabric!

4. If you're unsure if you're sewing something correctly, or may need to adjust for fit, baste (sew with long stitches) first. That will make it much easier to rip out unwanted seams later.

5. Know your own measurements, and how much "wearing ease" you like. This probably won't be a big issue for your apron, but if you decide to start sewing garments, you'll want to measure the pattern pieces in your size before you start to make sure you get the fit you're looking for. Pattern manufacturers often include excessive amounts of ease, and it's better to discover this and make adjustments before you have the garment almost finished. Some people have a "sloper" or "basic block" that they use to compare to patterns and to make fit adjustments specific to their own bodies: I use patterns I've made before and like the fit of for comparison. For me, fit is the hardest part about sewing!
posted by Lost Cities at 2:02 PM on November 23, 2012

You can totally do this.

1) READ THE DIRECTIONS you've already made a muslin of this apron so clearly you've got that down for this project, but it's a good idea before you start any pattern to be able to envision how anything goes together as a whole.

2) I hardly ever mark fabric with anything other than notches (going out, not in!) pins or occasionally stickers (those little colored dots you're supposed to use on files work well), thanks to a not-so-washable marker incident. Chalk brushes off too easily for me.

3) Work in an area with good light and enough space. I am always trying to sew in a corner of my desk where I've shoved the books and computer over--it's not worth it.

4) Agree with prewashing fabric (if it's supposed to be washable). And don't skip the part where you iron it before cutting into it. Just smoothing it out doesn't do the job.

5) Clean as you go. I find that a lint roller works really well for the little scraps of thread that accumulate.

6) I don't see pins on your list of supplies. You don't need so many for something with long straight seams like an apron, but as soon as you start sewing a lot of curves, you will want a lot of pins. You probably already have some, but if not--get some.

7) I agree with marking the seam allowance on your sewing machine with a piece of painter's masking tape (low tack=no residue on the machine). It makes it easier to sew straight.

8) At some point, the best of us will sew a right side to a wrong side, insert a zipper upside down, blithely continue sewing after the bobbin runs out, and accidentally follow the size 8 pattern line when you meant to follow the size 10. It happens--all you can do is pay attention and try not to do it twice in a row!
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 2:26 PM on November 23, 2012

Oh--etsy is blocked at my workplace and I didn't realize there was so much gathering and an empire waist. The only fit issue you may have is that if you are busty the waistband may ride up over your bustline. If you are, you can do a fit test of JUST the top using your trusty sheet and decide if you need an extra half inch or so in the final piece. It looks like a pretty forgiving pattern though so unless you're like me and have never managed to find anything with an empire waist that fits you off the rack, you're probably OK.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 3:26 PM on November 23, 2012

This is a great starters project and I think you'll have a lot of fun.

Gathers are easy and fun! Practice a couple times on some scrap fabric, and then go for it. They are pretty hard to mess up, especially in a design like this.

Definitely iron the pattern pieces flat. Then pin them carefully to the fabric. You don't need too many pins. But since you are beginning, it will be a lot safer for you to have the pattern attached to the fabric until you get the hang of cutting out pieces.

It looks to me like this apron has darts in it. Because of this, I believe you will need something to mark the darts on the fabric before sewing. But lots of people in this thread suggested marking options, so don't fret about having an official sewing tool as much as something useable that will wash out.

About your Brother machine specifically: I have one and have learned that if you encounter a sewing issue (the stitches don't look right, or feel right or something is just off) CHECK YOUR BOBBIN! It is going to be your bobbin 99 times out of 100. Another Brother trick I've learned is that if your bobbin keeps messing things up, switch from a plastic bobbin to a metal bobbin, even if the instructions frown on that. It seems like the slight weight difference between the metal and the plastic can make a big difference in the bobbin behaving correctly overall.

Youtube is your friend. There are so, so many sewing tutorial videos on youtube. If you run into a problem, try searching there first.

r/sewing is your even better friend. This community on reddit is just amazing! It is filled with people from all levels of sewing, from bespoke tailors to fashion design students to cosplay folks to hobbyists to bare bones beginners. You can come on and ask any question (and no quantity limits) and no matter how poorly you think you're communicating your issue, someone will have suggestions on how to fix it. Also, they love seeing completed projects, so snap a pic or two once you are finished and show off your awesome new apron.

I hope you have a great time with this project. It sounds to me like you've done everything right so far to make this a good experience. My first project was an apron, and I still feel really proud of myself every time I put it on. It's really satisfying to sew your own clothes.
posted by Brody's chum at 6:12 PM on November 23, 2012

If you are nervous, trace the pattern onto the dull side of freezer paper, then iron it glossy side down onto the fabric. It will stick!It makes cutting out so so much less stressful. And then it is also oh-so-easy to peel it off when you are through. And you can save the pieces to use again.
posted by munichmaiden at 8:02 PM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Buy an air duster (e.g.). Use it to spray out the lint from the entire bobbin area ideally after every time you sew, otherwise at least every other time. Trust me, not letting lint and dust build up in there will save you many inexplicable machine-failure headaches in the future, esp if you ever use particularly fuzzy fabric.
posted by corn_bread at 9:37 AM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I forgot something else... follow the instructions in your machine's manual (if you tossed it or lost it, you can almost certainly find it online) for maintenance (oiling and cleaning). Please! So many beginning sewers don't keep their machine maintained and it will royally screw them up, then they wonder why nothing's working like it should.
posted by patheral at 3:51 PM on November 24, 2012

Well, I did it, and it wouldn't have turned out as well as it did without all of your help!

The pattern turned out to be challenging but as a result I got to try out all kinds of techniques and I learned so much.

I used a great deal of your tips, including reading the pattern instructions a million times until I understood it, pre-washing the fabric (I thought it would fall apart but it didn't!), ironing the pattern paper itself, pinning the paper down really well to the fabric, long stitches for the gathers, marking the darts and bias cutting on the wrong side with pencil (it's all I had and it worked great), being careful to line up the fabric with the grain, keeping the bobbin area clean, and cleaning up all the bits of thread with a lint roller, among other things.

Here's an album with various images so you can see how it turned out!
posted by mireille at 10:40 AM on December 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

It came out great! And you're fast!

Just came in to nth the suggestion that you don't need a rotary cutter. I quilt and I hate using one. Spend money on the best scissors you can find instead.

A small quilt would be great to get more practice!
posted by dawkins_7 at 10:59 AM on December 7, 2012

For cotton fabrics rotary cutters are optional, though I would HIGHLY recommend one if you ever decide to sew with stretch fabric. They are way easier than scissors and you don't get any distortion or stretching or displacement of the fabric while you're cutting.

My advice -- IRON EVERYTHING. ALL THE TIME. the most important skill for sewing is patience. You'll want to iron every seam immediately after sewing and also make sure that if something doesn't come out right, take it out and do it again. Mistakes tend to compound so if you're not quite happy with something early on, it'll look ten times worse when you're done. Patience, patience, patience.
posted by custard heart at 11:00 AM on December 7, 2012

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