Sew in need of garment construction lessons
July 24, 2013 12:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm new at sewing. As in, "I took classes and learned how to make a tote bag and a zipper box bag" new to sewing. I looked through the "learn to sew!" books at the bookstore, but the projects were all for things like coasters and baby clothes, which I'm not interested in. I want to make dresses, eventually. Can I make tiny clothing in order to practice making clothing in less time, and with less fabric? Is that a thing?

I don't know how to read patterns yet, and I'm still pretty bad with zippers. I'm looking for small, clothing-related projects because my only access to a sewing machine is at the local sewing store, which sells access to their sewing studio (with machines, irons, notions, etc.) by the hour. I like their studio, and I don't have the space for sewing tools where I live right now, so I'm okay with this setup. I'm not looking for suggestions to get a sewing machine of my own.

I saw this comment recommending The Mary Frances Sewing Book, and it sounded great! I don't know any small humans, so the fancier and less practical, the better. I'd love specific recommendations for books or patterns that explain how to make tiny clothing or small, clothing-related projects and that are easy to follow and aimed at people who have little experience. I am capable of measuring/cutting things, pinning things together, sewing straight on a machine, maintaining seam allowance, and pressing seams.

Also, if there are any n00b sewing books you'd recommend that aren't filled with projects like coasters, please let me know!
posted by topoisomerase to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I'd recommend the Colette Sewing book. Comes with a bunch of patterns, and walks you through them, easy to hard.
posted by mollymayhem at 12:40 PM on July 24, 2013

Do accessories count as clothing-related? I'm a moderately beginner sewer myself and I learned a lot trying to create these clutches: See Kate Sew.

I also found that I learned a lot doing one of the super basic patterns from a big pattern house like McCall's. I started with a summer robe. Limited piecing and simple enough that you can lay it out on the floor and figure out how it goes together, but you'll practice matching pattern pieces, sewing curves, possibly using interfacing depending on the pattern. Mine wouldn't win any prizes but I still wear it all the time!
posted by brilliantine at 12:42 PM on July 24, 2013

Haha, I came in to say "DOLL CLOTHES!" but you already linked to my comment. You can TOTALLY learn from that book. It explains it to 10-year-old girls. I picked up most of the fabrics I used in the remnants bin. Now I've made heirloom, super-fancy christening gowns for both my kids, tailored my husband's dress shirts, made clothes for me, done valences for my living room, just finished a fascinator hat, and I'm starting some teeny clothes for a micro-preemie.

BTW, charity auctions LOVE doll clothes, especially American Girl-sized doll clothes. For a while there I just made a whole bunch of ridiculous ball gowns for American Girl dolls and donated them to different charity auctions and people were paying like $50 for them so their daughters could have foofy princess dresses for their dolls. Lots of excellent practice setting different sorts of sleeves (which is what I'm awful at). You could do the whole Mary Frances wardrobe, get the doll, and donate the whole shebang to a children's hospital or a charity auction or something when you're ready to get it out of the house.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:43 PM on July 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't have any specific recommendations for books, but I can say that yes you can make tiny clothes in order to practice.

I take fashion design classes at a design school and for the three semester clothing construction class, the first semester started with just practicing individual techniques. i.e. class one we just sewed mazes - squares and ciricles - to practice controlling the machine. Then we just practiced sewing various types of seams, 1/4" seam, 1/2" seam, flat felled seam, french seam, etc. Then we just sewed different types of tucks and darts. This continued for the whole semester, so we never actually made a fully garmet, just parts of one. We made cuffs, we made colars, we made scalloped edges, etc.

2nd semester we made toddler sizes clothes using all the techniques we learned the 1st semester. We made a tiny blouse, a tiny collared dress shirt, tiny pants, and a tiny blazer.

We didn't make full sized clothes until the 3rd semester. Everthing we learned in the first 2 semesters made the full sized clothes significantly easier! So just start practicing. You can move on to full-sized patterns after you're more comfortable with the basic steps.
posted by Arbac at 12:44 PM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding the Colette Sewing book. One thing that's great about it is that it teaches you about wearable muslins. Basically, if you're going to be making clothing, you'll eventually be making muslin mock-ups of your garments to check fit, etc. If you make these mock ups out of inexpensive but wearable fabric, your practice garment could end up being wearable, and you have the info you need to make your final piece without wasting your more expensive fabric. You might find this more practical than making tiny clothes, because eventually your goal is to make clothes and patterns that fit you, and you'll learn the basics of adjusting them for just that.

The Colette book also has instructions for practicing each element of the garments (from straight lines to scallops to inserting zippers), which you can use scrap fabric to practice on if you need to economize.
posted by whodatninja at 12:57 PM on July 24, 2013

I'm not a particularly sophisticated sewer, but I've found that the Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing does a good job of fleshing out the kind of detail that patterns tend to elide. I've only used the old edition (the one pictured on the linked Amazon page), but People on the Internet think the newer editions aren't as good.
posted by pullayup at 1:03 PM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Based on what you can do, I'm sure you could make the skirt in Sew U: The Built by Wendy Guide to Making Your Own Wardrobe. It was one of my first wearable projects. The instructions are written for a beginner, and each step is described thoroughly. The hardest part is probably the zipper, but you can always rip it out and try again if you don't like the results the first time around.

Whether you should go this route, instead of the doll-clothes/practice samplers route, depends on what kind of learner you are. Would you be more motivated to complete a project you can wear, but has some little mess-ups? Or would you prefer to perfect your technique on small pieces, therefore taking alot more time, but eventually ending up with more skills?
posted by tinymegalo at 1:06 PM on July 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am going to give you the best gift ever. I have a super-easy way to set a zipper, it's fool-proof (and I'm the fool that proved it.)

Sew your back seam (or side seam) all the way up. Then on the inside of your garment, pin the zipper in. It will be all sewed up.

Then, without changing to a zipper foot, just use the regular seam foot to stitch the sides and bottom of the zipper. (If you want to use a zipper foot, you can, but that seems like a LOT of work to me.) Then, when it's set, just pick the seam open, and voila! Zipper is set.

Here's a visual turorial.

I know this doesn't have much to do with your question, but honestly, this tip revolutionized my sewing. (I took home ec in high school.)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:22 PM on July 24, 2013 [11 favorites]

The Reader's Digest recommended by pullyaup is a really great comprehensive book on sewing. I have one published in 1978, and it's still great. It's one of the few sewing books that really cover everything.

I also really like the Sew U: Built by Wendy by tinymegalo suggested. I think it's a little bit more versatile than the Collette Sewing Handbook, though that does build up to the more complicated projects.

You could look into a local sewing club, which would get you in touch with more experienced sewers of all kinds.

This blog has a nice set of tutorials for learning how to sew, including reading patterns, etc.
posted by annsunny at 1:30 PM on July 24, 2013

I think the things that made it easier to sew clothing was that I learned how to use a machine on projects where it wasn't important to be precise. For example, my first use of a machine was to make a soft sculpture gnome in 8th grade. These were easy:
  1. Cut two teardrops for the body from a stout fabric
  2. Make the face by sewing (or basting or pinning) a circle of flesh colored stretchy fabric down to the right side of one body panel turning the cut edge under
  3. Sketch a series of light pencil lines on the face for the features
  4. Use black embroidery floss and a simple stitch to make the details.
  5. On the back side of the front body panel, cut/rip pencil-diameter holes in only the body panel fabric and jam stuffing in to make the face puff out.
  6. Cut out arms and legs with plenty of room for seams, sew right sides together leaving the shoulder/hip open
  7. turn feet and arms right side out and stuff.
  8. Pin arms and legs in place on the right side of the face
  9. Pin that to the back teardrop, right sides together
  10. sew front and back together, leaving a 6" or so gap
  11. turn right side out and stuff
  12. whip stitch the hole closed.
Don't worry if you botch steps 8 and 9. That's why you used a stout fabric (I used corduroy, but some people in my class used denim or duck) and that's why you have a seam ripper.

Since the process is so loose in design, "mistakes" become features. It's very confidence building. If a class of 14 year olds can do this, you can too. The gnome in that picture was 28 years old, so it clearly held up (I just threw it away).

After you get the sense of working with the wrong side of the fabric and how things turn inside out etc., some of the parts of clothing really aren't that hard. Topologically speaking, that gnome is equivalent to a vest.

As an adult, I got back in with Hawaiian shirts, which are more strict but still pretty fault tolerant. I've made three, I think. The first one was with really cheesy fabric. On the last one, I went to the trouble of making sure that the pattern matched well when buttoned and the pocket blended in perfectly.

For your first one you can use really cheap fabric like muslin if you like, which is $3/yd or less.

Oh, and when you buy patterns, also get some large manilla envelopes. Put the pattern pieces in the envelope, because folding them up neatly to fit in the original is worse than a road map. cut the pattern envelope open and glue it to the envelope or write the pattern name and number on the envelope in a bold marker. Makes like much easier when you make it again.
posted by plinth at 1:45 PM on July 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I asked this tangentially related question a few years ago... some of the responses I got may be relevant. In terms of guides to common garment construction techniques, The DK Complete Book of Sewing is pretty comprehensive, and used copies are quite cheap on Alibris.

Of all the big pattern companies, Simplicity has a reputation for less complicated patterns with good instructions, and I found that to be the case with the two different vest patterns I've made of theirs.

What I've found with garments is that most of the time spent on a project is actually in cutting up the pattern, and then pinning and cutting out pattern pieces. The actual sewing goes pretty quickly. Pins and shears don't take up too much space - maybe you can do some of that prep at home to maximize the time you're paying for at the studio?
posted by usonian at 1:46 PM on July 24, 2013

New Look also has very easy to follow patterns.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:26 PM on July 24, 2013

I find sewing small things well more difficult than sewing large things well, fwiw, so sewing tiny dresses might actually prove more frustrating than sewing dresses for you.

I like Sandra Betzina's Power Sewing as a reference, but it's not a 'walk you through and teach you the steps' type of book, it's a 'okay, the pattern I bought says to put in the zipper, how do I put in a zipper?' more encyclopedic approach.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:56 PM on July 24, 2013

I have a hard time sewing small things compared to big things. If you find that is also the case for you, you can always make practice dresses out of cheap fabric, like muslin - you can occasionally find entire bolts on sale (I once got an entire bolt for 99 cents, because someone spilled soda on it. I washed it and am still using it up). I usually do a full trial run of a pattern in muslin before I do it with "real" fabric, just so I can get all the kinks out and really see what I'm doing before using an expensive fabric.
posted by RogueTech at 6:32 PM on July 24, 2013

Baby (toddler/ children's/ what-have-you) clothes are tiny clothes made with less fabric.

Just sayin.
posted by windykites at 8:43 PM on July 24, 2013

I think full-size items are a thousand times easier to sew than little things. Trying to insert a sleeve into a doll-sized dress is enough to make you tear your hair out. In today's sewing world, there are loads of really, truly easy patterns to make anything you want. Most patterns - Simplicity/McCalls/Vogue are really expensive BUT every single week Joanne's has one brand or another on sale for a few dollars - and you can also pick them up in thrift shops or on E-Bay. There are also a whole bunch of new pattern brands now which sell for $1 or $2 each at Wal-Mart - they're excellent, because they're for simple clothes to make and easy to follow.

What makes the biggest difference in how your finished garment comes out is the fabric you choose. You can make a very simple pattern in a very delicious fabric and feel - and look like - a million dollars when you wear it. But - the first thing you need to do is get a good overall sewing book - something for beginners - Readers Digest would be excellent. Then buy some muslin or some cotton/polyester shirt/dress fabric that's on sale - ask the clerk at the fabric store to help you get the quantity you need according to the pattern you've chosen.

Take a scrap of fabric - an old sheet is good - and play around with your sewing machine, following the manual and your new sewing book, until you master the machine - it won't take long.

Then, my dear, just jump in! Make one loose-fitting, smooth-line top or skirt or jacket or dress or nightgown or ... and see what you think. Decide what needs to be done to make it better the next time, go get some nicer material, and make it again. You're going to have some fun!
posted by aryma at 12:14 AM on July 25, 2013

Having just had someone in my work room last night trying to learn to sew on doll clothes, allow me to assure you, full size, easy garments are really a lot easier based on my observation.

1) Doll clothes seem to have a 1/4 seam allowance, which is basically nothing, and harder to control, IMHO.

2) at least the pattern she was using had very few directions and the inside finishes weren't good - I'm not saying you should try french or flatfelled seams on your first try but I felt like the directions were just setting up bad habits.

So I would get something like the Colette book described above, or a good old Reader's Digest (from the 70s! the new ones are a bit sad IMHO) and a simple pattern and go for it. I've learned more by making mistakes than anything else, probably.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:29 AM on July 25, 2013

There's a massive industry of people selling Blythe doll clothes on Etsy - so if you get good, you can sell them to fund more fabric. The Party Dress on this page seems to be the most popular. The clothes also fit Skipper dolls, so you can pick one up from a thrift store or eBay if you don't have an (expensive) Blythe handy.
posted by mippy at 4:14 AM on July 30, 2013

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