incoming sewing n00b alert
April 7, 2007 4:30 AM   Subscribe

I've been inspired by t-shirt surgery and am thinking of getting into sewing. However, I've never sewed something in my life. Where do I begin?

A request from a friend to design a t-shirt for her (odd, because I've only used an iron-on transfer before, but eh) and my fascination with t-shirt surgery has inspired me to delve more into it. I've been experimenting with cutting up stuff (right now I'm wearing a rudimentary skirt made by chopping a t-shirt in half) but know next to nothing about sewing.

I used to hate sewing. We had to do it as part of a Life Skills course in school and I just tossed the work to my mum. I get the basic idea of sewing, but can't tell you how to do a hem. I'm not even interested in fashion; I find it utterly boring. However, I like the creativity of turning something into something else, and t-shirt surgery seemed fun.

My qs:

1. I live in Brisbane, Australia. Are there any sewing classes in the area? Google doesn't get me anything specific (there is a Sewing Guild but that's all). Is it worth going? I'm a uni student, so time and money is a concern.

2. I've been reading up on sewing machines for beginners and I'm not sure where to get a good deal. I saw a beginner Singer for $199 at Lincraft but I have the feeling they're cheaper elsewhere. Any tips for where to look?

3. Where can an absolute beginner seamstress start? Assume I know nothing. I've been reading up things online but even the name of stitches elude me.

4. How do you do a hem?

Any info appreciated, though if it's Brisbane-specific even better. Thanks!
posted by divabat to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
3. You might like to read Yeah, I made it myself. I've experimented with bought patterns and found this book helpful in understanding the basics (as the bought patterns assume you know what you're doing).
posted by paduasoy at 4:48 AM on April 7, 2007 [2 favorites]

I learned to sew and knit from my mother and grandmother. If this is a viable option for you it is by far the best option (maybe you could even find an aunt, mother-in-law, or just a lonely older woman willing to mentor you). As a second choice, I'd say go to a class. If you have enough time and patience, you can also teach yourself online (which is how I learned to crochet). When first learning to knit, sew and crochet, I made a deal with myself — each new project I took on would require me to attempt a new skill. Trial and error makes perfect.

Try searching "how to hem" or whatever else you what to know online. is a good resource for sewing in general and t-shirt surgery specifically. Their forums are arranged by types of crafts, from clothing reconstruction to designer homages.

If you decide to buy a sewing machine, I recommend starting with the simplest, most basic model available. Lots of machines do fancy hems and automatic buttonholes and this and that, but it's always best to know how to do that stuff yourself first.

Good luck!
posted by Brittanie at 4:53 AM on April 7, 2007

1. Check for your nearest fabric/sewing machine store; such places often offer classes, since more people who know how to sew means more potential sales of their merchandise. It's definitely worth going if you can afford it: books are really helpful, but especially when you're starting out it can be easier to get some hands-on instruction.

2. Lower-end Singers have not tended to be great machines -- European and Japanese brands like Elna, Pfaff, Husqvarna, or New Home have much better reputations. If at all possible, instead of selecting solely based on price, you should find a store where you can try the machines out for yourself, and see which ones are just a bit more comfortable and intuitive for you to use, easier to thread and adjust, etc. You're definitely going to want one with some stretch stitches if you're working on t-shirt knits. A refurbished used machine can be one good way to get more features for your money. (If there's any way to stretch your budget to both a regular sewing machine and a serger/overlock machine, that would be great -- sergers let you do much neater, more professional-looking edge finishes on your seam allowances, and are ideal for stretch knits.)

3. Get a good general-purpose sewing book -- Vogue Sewing or the Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing are a couple of really comprehensive ones, but really just check around in your local bookshops and find one with you like with lots of nice, clear illustrations. If you want to stretch the budget a little more, check for used books -- classics like the Vogue or RD books have been in print for years, and if you don't mind illustrations showing some out-of-date color schemes and such, the basic technical information will still be the same.

4. What kind of hem? ;)

Seriously, all you are basically doing is turning an edge up and stitching it hand or with a special blind hem stitch (after some careful folding) if you don't want stitching showing from the outside, or folded over twice and topstitched like at the bottom of a pair of jeans, or turned twice into a narrow roll with a special foot for a skinny hem like on the edge of a handkerchief... Figure out what sort of item you're making, whether the fabric is prone to fraying or not, stretchy or not, and how you want the hem to look from the outside; that'll determine what sort of hemming technique you should use. (And a machine-done blind stitch is one of those things where the odd way you have to fold the fabric is MUCH easier to figure out if you see someone do it in front of you.)
posted by Smilla's Sense of Snark at 5:11 AM on April 7, 2007

Just how much of a mystery are the basics to you? Could you, say, sew on a button?

Depending on that, a book meant for children might be the place to start. Would that I could remember the name of the one I had. It was in favour of using gingham as a starting fabric, which remains good advice.

For a good idea of how hems &c are constructed -- deconstruct some. Get a seam ripper, and take some old clothes apart.
posted by kmennie at 5:47 AM on April 7, 2007

Get Generation T from your bookstore or library - it's all about T-shirt surgery and how to make cool things out of your old tees. It requires the barest of sewing and even then includes instructions for everything. I haven't personally used any of their patterns (mostly due to parental reaction/screeching about mutilating shirts), but they look perfect for you.
posted by Phire at 5:51 AM on April 7, 2007 has forums , including "Clothing - Discussion and Questions"
posted by white light at 6:14 AM on April 7, 2007

Seconding the idea of checking out your local fabric store for lessons - if they don't offer them, they may know local teachers to recommend. I'm also a fan of the Vogue Sewing and Reader's Digest sewing books mentioned above - very helpful for looking up unfamiliar terms and learning new techniques.

Check out Pattern Review - their message boards have a beginner's forum where nearly every question you can think of has already been asked, and if you think of a new one, many knowledgeable and helpful sewing experts will offer their wisdom.

For a beginning sewing machine, consider a used one (you'll obviously want to test it first for straight stitch, zigzag, and reverse at the very least). Singers made through the 60s or 70s are built like tanks and will outlive us all, and you can often pick one up for cheap. I don't recommend spending a lot of money on your first machine until you get some experience under your belt and know what features will actually be useful for you.

If you're looking to start out with t-shirt surgery, you may not even need a sewing machine yet - many projects involve very little sewing, and you could do that by hand. Definitely check out some t-shirt projects and see what you might be able to do right now, just to see how you like it.
posted by hilatron at 7:15 AM on April 7, 2007

Seconding the Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing. It's a must have for a new sewer in my opinion.

Definitely take classes if you can. Ask the clerks in the fabric stores. They will most likely have business cards available for sewing instructors, or will know how to direct you.

Many people learn how to sew from Kwik Sew patterns. The instructions are wonderful. Kwik Sew also sells 'learn to sew' patterns. I *love* Kwik Sew and cannot recommend them enough.

If you're into T-shirts you may want to try Pamela's Patterns T-shirt makeover. You can transform a boxy T-shirt into a shapely one. The pattern is great for concert T-shirts, road race shirts, etc.

Last but not least log on to They have a beginner's forum. This site is fabulous for any level of sewer. Good luck!
posted by LoriFLA at 7:20 AM on April 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Whoops, in my haste I failed to notice that hilatron already mentioned Pattern Review.
posted by LoriFLA at 7:23 AM on April 7, 2007

I'm back to add more.

I would say buy the inexpensive Singer. New Singer's generally suck but it will do the job for now. When I started sewing years ago I bough a Singer from Walmart. It served me well for a couple of years. I would always recommend a person buy an inexpensive machine to start out with. You never know if you will tire of sewing, and discover it's not the hobby for you. Brother makes a good inexpensive machine also. I don't know if the Brother brand is available in Australia.

The Reader's Digest book will give you instructions on how to do a hem, or better yet, a sewing instructor. You may want to buy a blind-hem foot if you want invisible hems.
posted by LoriFLA at 7:38 AM on April 7, 2007

Try here, for sewing machines. Most places that sell the machines offer free lessons. Also fabric shops like Lincraft and Spotlight can put you onto sewing groups.

Get advice before you buy the machine because my (admittedly appalling) understanding is that an overlocker is far better for working with tshirt material than a regular machine. That said, $200 seems a fair price for a standard machine and it should last you a while.

Here's a tip. Read the maintenance guide of the manual (no, I don't normally either) and do what it says otherwise you might (like me) manage to seize the entire motor, and render your machine irreparable.

When learning sewing, be aware that US sizes and measurements are considerable different than Australian ones, and the staff at the store you buy from may not know the different. There's a Spotlight at Indooroopilly (again, a place to check for lessons) that sold me a wrong size skirt pattern that caused me to be quite adventurous in creating a pleated skirt for my daughter.

Measure twice and cut once. No, really, do it. But lessons are the go. I have an acquaintance who has gotten all excited about quilting and she takes her machine and her patches along to meetings once a week and chats and learns better ways to do things. Be prepared for a bunch of old ladies wanting to talk.

Other options depending on your time may involve TAFE. Or seeing as you're at QUT, check out what the students in Creative Industries are doing - there may be some links there.
posted by b33j at 7:40 AM on April 7, 2007

here's a place that actually says how much the lessons are, via here.
posted by b33j at 7:51 AM on April 7, 2007

q4 - how do you hem? I was taught the hemming stitch way back in the dark ages, but i think nowadays a running stitch is just as acceptable. See here. The point of the hemming stitch being to disguise it's existence, but with most off-the-rack stuff, it's just a plain machine line now, meh, don't fret about it.
posted by b33j at 7:58 AM on April 7, 2007

Definitely check out the book Generation T. It is a fabulous book and has a ton of projects you don't have to sew. There is a lot of good advice already, I just want to add a couple things.

The beauty of T-shirt material is that it doesn't fray therefore if you don't want to sew a hem you can get away with it easily.

Always, always, always sew with a zig-zag stitch on stretchy material so that your seams wont come apart when it, well, stretches. (a zig-zag stitch is exactly what it sounds like.)

I sew on a bottom of the line Brother model that I bought for $85 at either Target or Wal-Mart. The problem with it is that it took me a lot of frustration to learn how to use the thing as it has a side loading bobbin. A bobbin is the little thing that the thread is wrapped around and is in the bottom of the machine to work together with the thread coming down from the top of the machine.

I am completely self taught, using (a fabulous community!) and the singer website for general sewing machine 'how to' as references.

Good luck, and don't get frustrated. Recreating clothes is a ton of fun!
posted by trishthedish at 8:00 AM on April 7, 2007

Oh, I also cant sew really heavy material with the Brother, but doesn't sound like you will be running into that sort of thing.
posted by trishthedish at 8:01 AM on April 7, 2007

Disclaimer: I was involved in producing what I’m about to recommend, but it does seem to fill the bill in a variety of ways.

Marcy Tilton, a well-known US sewing teacher, pattern designer and a devoted t-shirt surgeon for over 30 years, has recently released Where Did You Get That T-Shirt?, a video workshop on CD that covers all the basics, and her choice of refinements, regarding the making and altering of t-shirts. It’s also a pretty good primer on a lot of basic sewing skills, t-shirt fitting and knit-specific techniques from a very experienced garment maker.

Incidentally, she didn’t use a single stretch stitch or a serger during the projects we filmed her making for the CD.
posted by dpcoffin at 9:14 AM on April 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and Marcy uses spray adhesive and a double needle to make her t-shirt hems.
posted by dpcoffin at 9:17 AM on April 7, 2007

Nthing the part about checking local fabric stores for basic sewing classes, but check what the classes cover and that it's what you need. Also, I'd read here that sometimes you can find good machines reconditioned at sewing machine repair stores - and I think I've seen the same at one local fabric store.

I finally found someone to teach me by reading Craigslist, when places here that offer classes had horribly inconvenient class times and also told me (possibly incorrectly) that their classes didn't cover some very basic stuff I needed, but since finding a listing on Craigslist is unpredictable, you'd probably want it to be a last resort.
posted by dilettante at 9:35 AM on April 7, 2007

If there's a decent sewing machine shop near you, look to buy a used machine. You may find a used machine at the shop itself (moderately more expensive, but will be refurbished and running well) or from Craigslist or a junk sale or anywhere else for cheap and then have that shop do the needed repairs to get it back working nicely again.

Sewing machines built before 1980 are much simpler and much higher quality (and consequently much heavier) than almost anything built since, and don't have all those computer controls that make things seem more complicated than they are.

The other caveat with older used sewing machines is the weight. If you don't have space to leave it out all the time and will be moving it in and out of a closet as needed, you might want to go with something newer and lighter, just because those old machines with metal parts were heavy sumbitches.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:47 AM on April 7, 2007

You're asking a good question about the hemming, because there are hundreds of ways to hem depending on the garment and fabric. Fortunately, knitted fabrics are some of the less finicky ones, partly because it's acceptable for the hem to show on the 'right' side. Take a look at this page, which has descriptions and photos.

Hems often require more practice than other elements. Lessons are good, and so is sniffing around the web -- because you'll find a lot of different sites that each have little useful tips or helpful illustrations. If you wanted to do a blind hem on woven fabric, you'd probably find that your sewing machine manual is of no help at all, and that Regular Joe or Jane's sewing site can show exactly how to fold your fabric and tape off guidelines. Also, there are "correct ways" that are always taught, but also a lot of innovative techniques (some call them crutches or cheats) that work well for less orthodox seamsters (like you?)

When you sew, one thing you just have to accept and believe is that measuring, precision, and patience are absolutely necessary some of the time -- sort of the way you can't just guess at the right amount of baking powder when you make a cake.
posted by wryly at 12:24 PM on April 7, 2007

Get advice before you buy the machine because my (admittedly appalling) understanding is that an overlocker is far better for working with tshirt material than a regular machine.

You can definitely work on stretch knits with nothing more than a basic machine zig-zag -- but if you have access to a serger, it produces a much stretchier stitch. That extra stretchiness is very, very helpful if you're using extra-stretchy fabrics, or making really close-fitting knit garments that need to stretch to fit. Overlocks also give you a much neater finish on the inside of the garment.

That said, unless you're working with a sewing machine that is seriously bare-bones or ancient, you will likely have a few other stitch options that are a bit stretchier and better for edge finishes than a simple zig-zag. A featherstitch is pretty basic, and commonly found on even most simpler machines; multi-stitch zig-zags are another good option. Slightly fancier machines will often even have stitches that are a reasonable approximation of an overlock stitch -- not quite as stretchy as the serger variety, and they don't trim the excess seam allowance while you sew, but they'll still give you a pretty nice, stretcable seam and edge finish.

Also, while there are areas you can skimp on...cutting tools aren't the place to go cheap. Cheap, dull scissors will make cutting out your garment pieces a real pain. Invest a little more money getting a really good pair, or a rotary cutter and cutting mat if you prefer, keep them clean and sharp and don't let anyone else "borrow" them for sawing open clamshell plastic packaging or dog-food bags or anything beyond fabric! Hide them if necessary. ;)
posted by Smilla's Sense of Snark at 4:43 PM on April 7, 2007

Have a look in secondhand shops for old sewing books. Incredibly inexpensive, and they teach you how to do things properly. Most have excellent illustrations which are a big help.

The current "chill, don't worry, just wing it" fashion in hipster sewing may sound wonderfully liberating but when nothing works, your clothes look crappy, and your new skirt falls apart if you go out in so much as a breeze, then it quickly loses its charm.
posted by sarahw at 6:00 PM on April 7, 2007

I would also recommend checking secondhand shops for sewing machines, too! If you're very very lucky you might find a 1970s-era Singer like the warhorse my mother just traded in (the dealer offered her an incredible amount of money for a machine older than me! the old metal ones really hold their value). And if the staffers are anything like the typical charity shop staffers here, you may find some older ladies willing to show you how it works, too!

If there's a local newspaper with cheap classifieds, run one saying you're looking for a machine -- you might happen upon someone cleaning out their basement/attic!

Seconding and not just because a friend of mine runs it! There's a great bunch of people on there who are willing to help...and some of the forum sections are sorted by city/country -- maybe you could find someone to give you lessons in the Australia section of Craftster?
posted by at 9:45 PM on April 7, 2007

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