(Re)learn to sew?
July 2, 2017 2:39 PM   Subscribe

I've been thinking about taking up sewing. Where to start? (US-based)

I sewed a bit as a teen. I took classes at a local shop focused on stretch fabrics and have made at least a t-shirt and a jacket with ribbing and a zipper, and probably some other things - but that was 30 years ago and I haven't touched a machine since then. I think my current goal would be mostly relatively simple dresses/shirts/skirts. How hard would this be to pick up again? Where would I start? What machine would I get, or where would I find info on machine options? Where does one find patterns and fabric, other than Jo-Ann? (Is Jo-Ann a reasonable source for these things?) How expensive does this get? Does it actually save money relative to buying clothes (I generally shop at places like Penneys, not particularly high end), or is it just that I'd get more control over the fabrics and fit and the joy of making my own clothes? What books or web pages would I start with? Is there a Ravelry for sewing? Anything else I would want to consider?

Wow, that was a lot of questions.

I do see this from 2013 and this from 2011 but it seems reasonable to ask if there are also more recent resources. I also saw this recent post which looks like it could be helpful too.
posted by 2 cats in the yard to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (14 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
I should mention that I am US size 16-ish with a smaller chest and larger hips/butt, if that affects sources for (or ability to find) patterns.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 2:55 PM on July 2, 2017

If you haven't sewn for 30 years you'll find the sewing world has changed a lot! The Ravelry for sewing is PatternReview. It's got a pretty archaic interface but tons of content and a very active garment sewing community with reviews of machines, patterns, online vendors, etc. There's also a whole world of sewing blogs, which are super helpful for tutorials and seeing popular patterns made up. Here's a blog that I like a lot: Handmade by Carolyn. Another big change is that there are now a lot of independent pattern companies and you can download and print the patterns you want instead of buying them in the store on tissue paper. Sewaholic is an example of a really good online pattern company. It's been sold and I don't know how good it is under the new owners, but the older patterns (still being sold) were very high quality and were designed for figures just like yours.

You're unlikely to save money unless you get really good and can replicate more expensive clothes, but you'll definitely get a better fit. Jo-Ann sucks for fabrics, especially garment fabrics. If you don't have a good independent store near you, then you'll want to shop online, which obviously has its risks, but also is where the good stuff is to be found. You'll eventually get to know the brands of fabric manufacturers. To get you started, for good quality but not outrageous prices, I really like Robert Kaufman fabrics, which you can often get on sale at Fabric.com. There are lots of great vendors selling designer fabrics but for a step up from Penney's, this is probably the type of store you're looking for.
posted by HotToddy at 3:16 PM on July 2, 2017 [9 favorites]

I'd suggest a sewing class, mainly because most of the frustration I've experienced when sewing is not knowing how to do something right. It's easy to develop bad habits and hard to break them, so I'd recommend a class. But if the expense is prohibitive or the time doesn't work for you (both were the case with me), you can check out Craftsy. They have online classes (I took the alterations class) and they do a really good job of getting in close up so you can actually see what the sewer is doing. You can also ask questions and have them answered in real time or fairly quickly. I was hesitant to do the online thing, but very impressed with Craftsy's quality and low price point, and there are sometimes coupons available online.

For quick projects, I'd suggest a book called "Stitch by Stitch." The projects start off really easy and increase in complexity, and all of them are practical/useful things you can use. It assumes you know nothing, has beautiful illustrations, and is well written with the user in mind. It's like a sew-along.

As far as machines go, I have a Singer FashionMate 360 from the early '70's. I bought it used on Craigslist for $35. I purchased it so I could make 8 makeup bags for my best friend's destination wedding. When I took it in to get it serviced, I was told that the old machines last forever and often work better than the new ones. Anecdata - I have a friend who is an accomplished home sewer - she makes kids clothes, hats, scarves, etc. When she came over to check out my machine, she said she was jealous at how well made it was. It's personal, though, and it depends on what you're looking for - if you want high quality at a low price and can take it in to get it serviced right after you buy it from the owner, go with an old used model. If you want the digital screen and bells and whistles, go for a mid-range machine if you can afford it. Personally I like the vintage feel of the old machines. If/when mine breaks, I'll find another used one if I can. It's done me well - I've hemmed pants, altered shirts, altered bras, sewn a shower curtain from scratch, made pillows with invisible zippers for my couch, and made the makeup bags. The only time I've had a broken needle is when I'm using the wrong needle for the fabric type.

Hopefully others can chime in with good beginners' resources. I mostly tried-as-I-went with a lot of help from YouTube and my friend whenever I got stuck in the middle of doing something.

Good luck! Sewing is such a wonderful, centering hobby.
posted by onecircleaday at 3:40 PM on July 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

As far as a machine goes, I've had a lot of luck going into thirft stores and buying the heaviest (meaning all-metal) Kenmore I can find. You can get them for a song, and they were made with the intention of serving a woman that would be sewing clothes, making home dec items, mending, and more. They're also workhorses and are infinitely more capable than a plastic $80 machine from Target. Once you've been sewing for a while and know what features you really desire, you could spring for a fancier machine, but I still haven't "outgrown" my vintage machines.
posted by christinetheslp at 3:42 PM on July 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yep, they're heavy - I just checked and mine clocks in at 30 pounds.
posted by onecircleaday at 3:47 PM on July 2, 2017

It won't save you money in an easily seen way, but if you educate yourself about garment construction and fabrics you will find yourself shopping better which ultimately will save you frustration and money. You'll be looking at tops and notice weak seams or looking at jackets and notice bad zipper placket and be like "nope!" Or like "easily fixed!" And subsequently make smarter choices.

Find a local small fabric store and strike up conversation with the people who work there. Often such stores will have classes where if you arrange it ahead of time you can bring in your sewing machine and work with someone to learn how to use your particular machine, which is amazing.

Sewing is one of those skills that is extremely deep and also very wide. Meaning, you can choose to learn some simple things that are applicable to a million situations, or find something that really interests you and delve very deep and learn a million niche techniques and get very focused. Garment construction is one of those very focused things and as you learn you will begin to be able to see when patterns are intended for the very focused artisans or the general knowledge crafty people and choose accordingly. But I think it is best to treat sewing as something to explore with little side quests of projects, instead of a big thing where you need to get the best thing to start and want to use your elite skill to achieve a big specific goal. Don't worry if you are going with the best machine or the absolute right fabric for a pattern or the rightest technique for that curved hem. That way lies a huge waste of money and frustration. Find your local resources and explore them, learn about fabrics and techniques, and combine them in ways that make you happy in the moment as a new fun thing you have learned.
posted by Mizu at 4:03 PM on July 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

I really like the Brother/Project Runway co-branded machines, which are intended for entry-level sewists, teenagers with limited funds but unlimited creativity, and so on. I like it a lot better than either my Singer or my mom's Singer -- the modern features make it a lot easier to use.

I don't find sewing saves money on clothes -- buying the fabric retail costs more than buying the finished garment retail, since fabric is at this point a specialty item but clothing manufacturers have crazy economies of scale and insanely low wages -- but I have found it saves on home furnishings! Like curtains, valences, throw pillows, etc. (Plus those things are all really easy!) Also things like totebags.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:10 PM on July 2, 2017

Oh, I also meant to link to the Curvy Sewing Collective as a helpful blog for patterns for curvier women (I think they start at size 8 and go up from there) and a lot of great info about adjusting fit for those of us with hips or boobs or booty. They work to include a diversity of body types so you can get an idea how something might look on an hourglass shape vs. a pear shape, which pattern companies fit which body types better, etc.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:15 PM on July 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've made the cost of my sewing machine back from taking up my trousers myself (I'm a short arse), but otherwise, it's not really a way to save money. But it is fun, and satisfying to make things yourself.

You can probably skip the basic learn to sew classes, or use the internet to get started, as you will have retained a lot of muscle memory from your teens. Youtube has an amazing amount of info. The manual for the machine will show you how to thread it, or you should be able to track the info down online. However, if you do want to be taught by a person, have a look at local sewing shop with classes or community colleges. They may have machines you can use.

I would be wary of buying a sewing machine secondhand if you're not in the position to assess how well it works, unless you're buying it privately, and they will let you plug it in and sew a bit. Can you ask around and see if anyone has one you can borrow for a weekend or two? A lot of people have sewing machines stashed in spare rooms that aren't getting used. If not, read some reviews, wait for a sale and buy something simple. You're unlikely to need anything other a straight stitch, zig zag and maybe a buttonhole. If you decide to use stretch material, a walking foot is nice, but you can buy that separately. Make sure you oil your machine often!! It's really important and will keep you machine running smoothly, and bizarrely isn't mentioned in all manuals. If you have a local sewing shop that gets good reviews, it might be worth paying a bit more to get one there, so you can go back with questions.

I would start with something that doesn't have to fit. A pencil case or cushion cover for example. If you don't want to waste fabric, you can practice sewing through pieces of paper at first. A simple A line skirt made from a pattern would be a great second project. If you find it hard to get the skirt to fit nicely, I would then recommend doing a course like this, which helps you make a skirt from first principles (I'm a plus sized and pear shaped, and this is the only way I've every made a pencil skirt that fit me). The biggest problem with sewing clothes is getting them to fit. If you aren't a standard size, it can be very demoralising. Luckily, there are lots of online resources (such as Craftsy) that can help, also books.
posted by kjs4 at 9:17 PM on July 2, 2017

My friend is taking sewing classes at the local community college. She discovered that the JUCO near her job offers great classes. She is totally hooked. In one class, she made her own dummy to her exact size and it's made sewing for herself much easier. Sewing, pattern making, draping, millinery - she's done lots of fun stuff.
posted by shoesietart at 9:53 PM on July 2, 2017

My sewing history has been very much like yours. I've been getting back into it over the last year or two, and I've been having so much fun! There are so many more great resources out there than there used to be, from indie pattern companies to YouTube sewing tutorials to online fabric stores to great online communities.

As mentioned above, Curvy Sewing Collective (CSC) and PatternReview are great. If you find a particular reviewer or blogger who matches your size/shape/style, then follow them to find good ideas for patterns. Don't miss the CSC Facebook community, where you can ask questions and get helpful answers. Craftsy offers online sewing classes (often on sale for half-off or more). And don't forget: for any given sewing technique (ie, setting a zipper, hemming a skirt, whatever), you can generally find detailed tutorials by searching on YouTube.


Thrift store option: look for the heaviest one you can find. Before you buy, plug it in to make sure it runs. After you buy, get a replacement manual, which will tell you how to clean it and what other accessories it needs. You may need to special-order supplies like bobbins, which can make this more expensive in the long run.

My current sewing machine is a Singer Talent, which I describe as the Kia Fit of sewing machines. It's about as entry-level as you can get, but it's cheap and does all the basics I need, like buttonholing, zig-zag and stretch stitching for knits. Not to mention, feet, bobbins, and other accessories for this machine are cheap and easily available. It'll take me a lot of practice before my skills outpace this machine's capacities.

I highly recommend connecting with your local sewing/craft shops -- not JoAnn, but any locally-owned places in your area. They'll often offer sewing machine tune-ups, classes, and other resources that can help you. Sometimes they'll have used sewing machines for sale, too.


You can still get patterns from the so-called "Big Four" -- Simplicity, Butterick, McCall's, and Vogue -- but the exciting new development is indie pattern companies. There are some great ones out there, designing for all shapes and sizes. With indies, it's often a matter of finding one that designs with your body shape in mind -- some seem to design more for a rectangular shape (like Seamwork/Colette), some for a pear shape (like Sewaholic), and some for a wide range (like Patterns4Pirates). By checking out the reviews & photos, you'll be able to get a sense of what might work for you.

Some indies sell pre-made tissue patterns like you'd get from JoAnn, but more often they come as PDFs that you print out and assemble at home. Here are some guides on how to assemble them. I got myself a cheap paper cutter to make this easier; you might wish to do the same.

Here are some of the tried & true patterns and pattern companies that I've seen get consistent raves from beginner and intermediate sewists:
- Colette Moneta is a easy knit dress that seems to work for a wide variety of body types.
- Patterns For Pirates designs very easy, forgiving-fit knit basics in a wide size range. If you join their Facebook group, you can get their Peg Legs legging pattern for free.
- I've seen a lot of love for the Love Notions Laundry Day Tee pattern, with which you can make a t-shirt, tank, and dress, and which you can get for free by joining their Facebook group.
- Cashmerette Patterns - sizes 12-28, and all their patterns include separate pattern pieces for different cup sizes. These patterns have clear instructions, detailed sewalongs on the Cashmerette blog, and excellent fit (for instance: their button-down shirt doesn't gape at the bust, unlike every other button-down shirt in the universe). They consistently get raves from the sewing community.
- Sewaholic patterns are very popular and they're generally designed for a "pear-shaped" body type. Here's a skirt pattern they advertise as being great for a beginner's first project.

There are so many more to choose from. Check out CSC's monthly New Pattern Roundup, Tried & True Patterns List, and Pattern Company List.


As mentioned, JoAnn is not great for garment fabrics. If you do shop there, keep in mind that they always have coupon deals running -- you can just call up the coupon on your phone and have them scan it at the register. Check out your locally-owned sewing/fabric shops for more options; there are also a ton of great places to buy fashion fabrics online.

Personally, since I'm still a beginner, I hate to spend a ton on fabric that I'm not fully confident about using. For my first try with any given pattern, I'll often go to my local thrift store and pick up a couple of cotton sheets in a nice color. It costs me less than a dollar and then I don't mind if I mess it up. I'm also lucky enough to have a store nearby that specializes in re-used fabrics -- they have a ton of great stuff, and it's much cheaper than it would be otherwise. If you have anything similar in your area, I highly recommend checking it out.

Making your own clothes is not likely to be much cheaper than buying them in most cases (especially if your fabric stash gets out of hand). I do find that I save some money because I can now repair my clothes, and also because I buy fewer clothes -- sewing my own has made me pickier and less likely to accept poor fit from a store-bought item. In any case, by sewing your own, you'll get better fit, you'll have fun, and you may find that you improve your understanding of and relationship with your own body.
posted by ourobouros at 7:47 AM on July 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'd suggest subscribing to Threads magazine. I've learned so much over the years from reading it.
posted by Lexica at 12:19 PM on July 3, 2017

Thank you all so much - lots to explore here!
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 3:20 PM on July 3, 2017

YouTube, YouTube, YouTube! Particularly for specific construction details/techniques; you can usually find several different how-to videos for the same task (installing a zipper, flat-felled seams, etc.) and they usually compliment one another; everyone has their own little techniques or shortcuts and getting those multiple perspectives is super helpful.

Similarly, you can pick up a copy of the DK Complete Book of Sewing for only a few bucks - it's a helpful visual glossary for occasions when you're reading sparsely written pattern instructions that mention a technique you're not familiar with.

Machine-wise, I don't have any personal experience with them but I've heard consistently good things about entry-level Brother machines. I'd recommend starting with a new machine before looking at vintage ones; that way you'll get a good sense of how a machine should work so you can identify a viable vintage one in the wild. (I'm a huuuuge fan of old 100% mechanical solid metal machines. I started on a modern Kenmore-branded Janome but my workhorse these days is a 1950s Necchi BU Mira that I found for peanuts in a thrift shop. It's built like a tank, sews through anything, and it will easily outlive me.)

As has already been mentioned, Jo-Ann isn't great for garment fabrics BUT they are ubiquitous, and once in a while they'll have an odd bolt of something quite nice along side their usual rotation. (Always check the 'red tag' clearance section... I've had good surprises there as well.) They have pretty regular "Big Four" pattern sales (Simplicity 5/$5.00, Vogue $4.99 each, etc.) and with the aforementioned coupons and constant sales there's basically no reason to ever pay full price for anything there.
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 9:25 AM on July 7, 2017

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