When you can take the bobbin from my hand, it will be time for you to sew.
March 13, 2006 2:48 PM   Subscribe

I want to improve my sewing kung-fu. But where to start?

I've owned my mother's old Husqvarna Viking for years, and while I have a basic enough grasp of how it functions, I have yet to really do anything significant with it--mending, minor alterations, simple projects like curtains and pillow shams, and one improvised Mona Lisa costume that turned out middling-to-awful. This was all well and good, but...

Flash forward to two weeks ago, where I found myself digging through a not-small-mall's plus-sized offerings, which were uniformly crap. (I was looking for a dress to wear to an upcoming wedding.) It might've been a lack of sleep or an overdose of Project Runway, but after the nth rack of tacky polyester garbage, something snapped. I'm now bound and determined to learn to sew, and the incomplete set of Time-Life sewing books I somehow inherited along with Mom's machine just aren't going to cut it. (Sorry.)

Much as I would like to go from zero to couture in a week, I know I have to start somewhere. My question(s) for you: what books do you recommend for beginning/intermediate/advanced sewing skills, especially those relating to pattern alteration or design? What, if anything, do you feel you need to learn in a classroom setting? Were there any projects that you found especially helpful for the acquisition and honing of skills? And what additions (e.g. specialty feet, duct tape double) to the basic sewing setup did you find most helpful?
posted by Vervain to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Just doing things over and over again is one of the best ways to hone sewing skills. I learned to sew from my mother, but I didn't do much more than make pillows or small quilts. I took up sewing again a few years ago and learned all about fitting and tailoring clothes through practice and pattern directions. Here are a few patterns that would be good to start with:
New Look 6348
New Look 6149
Simplicity 4951

Speed Sewing by Janiec Saunders will help you get to know how to use all of the stitches your machine has and lots of extra little tricks. I also like the Vogue Fitting Guide for figuring out how to get patterns to fit you and what will look nice with your frame.

Craftster and Sewing Pattern Review both have forums where you can ask for advice or see what other people are making. Both sites will also tell you how to do things like draft your own skirt patterns or make your own messenger bags.

Just make sure that you have a really good set of scissors, lots of pins, a nice seam ripper (you'll use it!) and a fabric marker or tailor's chalk. Right now I really want to splurge and get a nice adjustable body form so that I'll have an easier time designing my own clothes, so if you see one at a yard sale snap it up.
posted by Alison at 3:09 PM on March 13, 2006

I never found books alone to be helpful at all. The few tips I've used to help me sew are from Threads magazine.

My sewing technique is pretty much as follows: Use a Simplicity pattern, make skirt/dress, note what went wrong, and make a note on the pattern. I've now moved up to other companies' patterns (Vogue isn't bad, Butterick I find to be written by someone from another planet, but all pattern companies are different and YMMV.) If it's a nice dress, like the one I made to be in a wedding party in 2003, I make a mockup in cheaper fabric first, then dissect the dress. (Dissecting well-fitting but falling-apart clothing is also a way to learn - that's how I figured out raglan sleeves.)

Things I like to sew with besides the basics: a big area to cut, transfer paper. That's about it. Someday I'll get a body form but as I'm a graduate student that's not currently in my budget.

The dress I found to be my most skill-intensive one was a shirtwaist dress - fitted sleeves, princess line seams, pleats in the skirt, and a zipper. I took my time and it came out fine, but I think the key componant is taking one's time.

As for a series of things to sew, this is my timeline: pillowcases, curtains, a-line skirt, sun dress, long-sleeved dress, shirts. There's a lot of things you can do to skirts - elastic for the first one, then making the elastic better (this is where books/magazines can be helpful), zippers, pockets, gathers, pleats, etc. They're a good training ground and it seldom happens that they're too messed up to not be worn at all.
posted by cobaltnine at 3:25 PM on March 13, 2006

The two books I return to again and again are:
Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing and
Vogue Sewing

I find that I never use most of the fancy sewing gadgets, but these are things (besides the sewing machine) I use with almost every project:
-High-quality fabric shears
-Cardboard cutting mat with inch grid and bias markings
-Zipper foot
-Fabric marking chalk

Cobaltnine's project progression is right on - skirts will introduce you gently to fitting a flat pattern to an actual body, then moving on to the bodice (harder) and sleeves (hardest of all).

You can definitely go far without a dress form or double - I'm at the point of drafting my own (simple) patterns by now, and I still don't have one. This is easier to acheive if you have someone around to help you mark hems, though.

Have fun and good luck!
posted by hilatron at 4:37 PM on March 13, 2006

I second cobaltnine's suggestions, especially for project order.

Pulling apart clothing that fits well is a great way to learn how clothes are put together, if you're willing to make the sacrifice. Also, for almost every project, it's very helpful to sew the item using cheap muslin fabric, then make adjustments accordingly.

I also recommend taking classes at a local college in pattern drafting and clothing construction. Those are probably the most important concepts to learn, and hands-on instruction is generally the best way to pick up the practical stuff.
posted by lhall at 4:43 PM on March 13, 2006

As an avid sewer (stitching buttons onto my new flannel chef shirt right now) who learned through trial and (much) error, my advice is to find a pattern you like that looks fairly simple and make it . The first one will come out lousy so make it again, learning from your mistakes, until you end up with something wearable. Kimonos are a good place to start, nice straight seams, simple sleeves, no buttons, easy to fit properly. Vests are also good, no sleeves to deal with. This page shows the first few things I learned to make

And take the time to fix your mistakes properly. This one took me a long time to learn. I never wanted to rip a seam that I'd screwed up on, I'd just try and fudge it with another stitching line. It doesn't work, the seam ripper is your friend.

I'd recomment french seams for just about everything (I hate the way commercial overlock and zig-zag seams look), they're fairly easy to make and have a nice finished look to them.

As far as pattern alteration and design goes, take your time and start by modifying similar commercial patterns. After 3 years of sewing I'm just now getting to a point where I can sit down and draw a pattern and expect it to fit well and look right. And that's making things for myself, I'm pretty hopeless at tailoring for others.

And most importantly, once you've got the basics down and know how to do things like attatch collars and cuffs and what back pieces and front pieces and sleeves and all the rest look like, take a look at the construction of clothes in stores. Once you've got that basic knowlege you can learn a huge amount and get new ideas by seeing how others do it. And in time you'll start noticing that the clothes you make are put together much nicer than most of the commercial junk. That's one of the most rewarding things about sewing for me. Good luck.
posted by Jawn at 4:58 PM on March 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

BIG topic, with many levels, and a pretty huge library! Can you be more specific about what exactly your goals are, and what you'd like to start out with? And maybe how you feel you learn best? When I was getting started, I got a lot out of just bringing tall stacks of general sewing books home from the library, comparing newer, speedy techniques with older, more traditional ones, and home sewing approaches with factory or professional ones, such as I could find. But then I'm the sort who enjoys reading manuals... I also learned almost nothing from the first classes I took, both because of how fast they went, and how ungrounded I was in basics; and also how little they matched my personal goals and needs. After I had some experience, classes were much more useful, but in the long run, I much preferred reading and taking clothes apart, abetted with many critical but brief moments of watching and quizzing experts.

I've always been impressed with how many different types of skill one must have to make clothing successfully, even if only simply and for themselves: Basic sewing/cutting/pressing techniques and the rudiments of craftmanship with fabric, handling a machine and an iron and sorting out all their accessories, selecting appropriate fabrics for various types of garment and colors suitable for oneself, learning to see what's implied style- and detail-wise in flat sewing patterns, and on top of that, an understanding of both what good fit is AND how to adjust flat patterns or partially completed garments to achieve it. There's no one book that's going to spell all of this out and make it all simple....and no way to know which of these skills are going to be easy for you, and which more challenging. The only way is to dig in and make a bunch of mistakes.

I don't say this to be discouraging, but to help you separate the challenges. You need good resources/support-folks in all these areas.

For most people, fitting is by far the biggest challenge if they're wanting to make things to wear. No amount of skill in the other areas will matter if you can't get the clothes to fit. It's my opinion that the single most helpful fitting tool ANYone sewing for themselves can have is a CUSTOM form. And these are far more likely to be had by MAKING them than by trying to buy them. In fact, you can't buy a really customized form, one that matches your posture, your shapes, and your circumferences. Circumference-matching (and a few basic length issues) is all that either a custom-made professional dress form or a crappy adjustable hobbyist model will offer, and that simply isn't enough. You need matching shoulders and neck angles. You need posture. You need a MOLD.

So, spend some time at that duct-tape double site, and others like it. And plunder the Threads index to find the many ways you can do this. Believe me, you’ll never regret having started out with a body clone. Putting this off, or skipping it altogether, which is what 99.99% of sewers do is just folly, imo. You’ll learn more from 20 minutes with a muslin and some pins working on your body double, than you will from a year of reading and seminar-taking.

The other thing is that the sewing community, both online and locally, is exceptionally eager to welcome you, and will be invaluable.

So ask, ask, ask.
posted by dpcoffin at 5:00 PM on March 13, 2006

Here's the WORKING links:

My Twin

Jean Haas

posted by dpcoffin at 5:10 PM on March 13, 2006

And toss those blasted Time-Life sewing books; they're the most confusing and ill-designed collection of misguided instructional materials I've ever seen.
posted by dpcoffin at 5:14 PM on March 13, 2006

I've just recently learned to sew (a generous friend sat with me to do basic machine functions). The first thing I did was a pillow and then I didn't touch the sucker for months out of fear. I bought a pattern and material at Britex and then never touched it.

Then! I got these awesome patterns (the skirt and bag) and some cotton fabrics, zippers, fusible binding, and a big enough work bench and I've been sewing up those little skirt suckers and loving it. They're easy, they have a clean approach (which is really what put me at ease, those old-looking musty patterns make me crazy nervous), and I'm finding it very fun.

So if their dress pattern at all appeals to you I recommend them.

(Only with one misgiving, they use white to indicate the "wrong side" and shaded to indicate the "right side" and everything I've ever learned makes my brain want to default to shaded being the "wrong side")
posted by birdie birdington at 5:22 PM on March 13, 2006

Other things to note:

Each of the pattern companies (Butterick/Vogue, McCalls, Simplicity, NewLook, Burda) fits a different body style, even though the numbers are the same. So a size 20 from one company may not fit the same as a size 20 from another, even though the numbers are the same....

Despite the fact that McCalls bought Butterick/Vogue a few years ago, McCalls are designed on different blocks than B/V patterns.

There are specialty companies out there that specialise in plus size patterns. You'll find links for them off the Threads site. Many plus size sewists find that they fit much better than the patterns from the big pattern companies.

You need good tools. Good shears are worth their weight in, well, maybe not gold, but they do make your life a lot easier. They don't need to be super expensive, either. I've had good luck with the $20 Fiskars. Good, sharp, pins are indispensible. Be sure to keep a sharp needle in the machine. Use good thread, not the 3/$1 poly thread from the clearance bin. Don't use cheap serger thread in your sewing machine -- it lints too much and will mess up your tension. A seam ripper that's easy for you to hold is quite useful, not only for ripping seams but also for guiding fabric.

Depending on how much you've used the machine since you got it, you may want to take it to a reputable shop for a tune-up.
posted by jlkr at 5:26 PM on March 13, 2006

My sewing goals and learning style...well, that's something as multilayered as the subject itself. But here goes.

I'm a graphic/web designer by day, but my formal training was in illustration. The web stuff was entirely self-taught, though; I seem to be pretty good at teaching myself things (embroidery, cooking, bookbinding). I'm not averse to classroom settings, although I try to hold off until it's obviously something I can't tackle on my own (welding, stained glass, Russian). Basically I'll decide I want to make or do something, figure out what it'll take, then screw up until I get it right. Lucky for me that seems to be an effective way to learn to sew!

As far as what I want to do...well, I'm trying to keep it realistic. I'd like to be able to alter the clothes I buy, but I'd also like to start making things. And I know that that would inevitably involve tweaking storebought patterns or coming up with my own, which in turn requires the vast amount of secondary knowledge dpcoffin mentions upthread. It's my designerly nature at work..."well, this is nice, but it would be so much better if (whatever)". Materials-wise, I've got the basics--nice shears, a good stitchripper, some extra feet for the machine, the aforementioned cutting cardboard. Knowing where to start is something else again, so the project progression mentioned upthread is very helpful.

Long-term, pie-in-the-sky goal (warning! rant ahoy!): I can't help but think that there's an untapped market out there for plus-sized clothing that doesn't completely suck ass. I've ranged from size 16 to 22 in recent years, and even when I was at the lower end of it, I had a tough time finding clothes that pleased me. You'd think shopping would be easier given the advent of the internet, and in some ways, it is. But many sites/stores that ostensibly cater to fatties are still churning out the most outlandish, unflattering, overpriced garbage. Tube tops? Polyester vomit? Drawstring sacks with ruffles? Gauchos? It's enough to make me wonder if anyone designing this stuff has ever been fat, or talked with people who are. You know, to point out design flaws like: knits thin enough to show every ripple of backfat, tops that are not bra-friendly, fabrics your grandmother wouldn't wear (but might scour dishes with), pants that are tapered/pleated/badly elasticized/mom-waisted...

IGIGI.com is one example of people who are doing it right, in my opinion, and I'm really glad they are. But my own experience tells me that there's more room at that table (so to speak). I don't know if I'll ever reach the point where my sewing/design skills are of use to others, but I'm reasonably certain I can at least learn enough to help myself. Anything else is just gravy.
posted by Vervain at 7:15 PM on March 13, 2006

Full disclosure: My sewing skills are horribly lacking, but at some point, when I have world enough and time, I will improve them. I WILL.

That being said, if you're at all curious about couture sewing techniques, you should get this book. It's conveniently published by the same people who bring you Threads. It's a wonderful book; it explains why couture sewing costs what it does, and Claire has already taken apart all the Chanel jackets and things, so you don't have to. You may not be able to apply any of the techniques in it to the dress you'll be making for the wedding, unless the people getting married are still in grade school. But it's like The French Laundry Cookbook --90% pornography and 10% unbelieveable inspiration and technique.
posted by Lycaste at 7:21 PM on March 13, 2006

Sounds like you're very well equipped: Visual, hand-skilled, self-teacher, willing to screw up, and (most important) have a vision. Actually, that sounds like exactly what I started with, and sewing became my career eventually, too, in a way, without actually intending that.

So, I second my own previous prescriptions, which I’ll clarify:

1. Immerse yourself in info, via books and magazines; I’m partial to Threads, having worked there, but I really can’t imagine any other sewing magazine that would serve you so well as an introduction to multiple aspects of the craft and as an inspiration. By all means, seek out a library with a back collection. At least flip through EVERY sewing/fabric/design how-to book you find.

2. MAKE a CUSTOM FORM. Really. Ignore the fact that most home sewers don’t do this. Most home sewers are still struggling with fit. ALL professional sewers and designers use forms. A form shows them how their work looks on their intended customer. It lets them walk around this person, poke at her, pin stuff on her, tug at her clothing, and stand back for many long, serious, objective looks. If they are custom clothiers, they customize their forms to match their clients. YOU simply want one that is a clone of YOU, not a manufacturing aid. Especially since you want to design for yourself, and you’re not a standard garment-industry fantasy size/shape. You will never really know what you actually look like in clothes until you do this.

I’d encourage you to plunge right in with whatever fabrics/styles/techniques you’re most attracted to without wasting too much time “building your skills” with easy stuff that isn’t exciting. All paths lead to you; why not pick the most appealing?

Here’s a short, totally incomplete list of google-able/Threads-index-able designers/authors/teachers you might find handy:

Lois and Diane Ericson
Marcy Tilton
Sandra Betzina
Kathryn Brenne
Kenneth King
Susan Khalje
Sarah Veblen
Lorain Croft
The Sewing Workshop
Loes Hinse
Fred Bloebaum

...many more.

Oh, and you’re completely right about that untapped market. Go for it!
posted by dpcoffin at 8:33 PM on March 13, 2006

Try to get a good sense of the different kinds of fabrics and how to sew them. I like 100% cotton would be a good choice because it is easy to sew and will take a lot of abuse if you make a mistake and need to rip a seam. Remember to always pre-wash fabric and treat it the same way you will the finished garment. This wil prevent any nasty shrinkage surprises. Skip this step if the fabric is dry-clean only.

Also, pay attention to what your fabric is made of. It's easy to get swept up in a pattern without thinking about how the fabric will wear. Natural fibers are better for comfort and longevity. Polyester doesn't breathe and will leave you sweaty in the summer. Cheap flannel won't hold up to too many washings. Boucle and some silks will unravel if you aren't gentle. Knit fabrics can be tough to sew, but their stretchiness can make for simpler patterns. They are less likely to need darts, buttons or a zipper.

Just go to a fabric store and feel some of the fabrics. Most patterns will recommend a few specific types. After you get more familiar with the drape and feel of most types of fabrics you'll be able to make your own judgements.
posted by Alison at 8:37 PM on March 13, 2006

Just ran across this site while looking for a sewing contractor, there's a lot of good info there.
posted by Jawn at 10:33 PM on March 13, 2006

Thanks, everyone, for your suggestions--I'm very encouraged by this! Certainly I'm more confident that my next dress project isn't going to end up in Project Limbo, like the last one did. For the record, I'm planning on making Vogue 7898 (the shorter, flutter-sleeve variation) in a delicious mid-weight electric blue jersey...just as soon as I sit down and alter the pattern to fit my actual measurements.
posted by Vervain at 11:25 AM on March 15, 2006

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