Sewing advice for newbies from the Sew Over 50 hive mind.

The @sewover50 account is nothing if not helpful. When Cathy messaged Judith and Sandy recently she said she was ‘nearly 60, keen as mustard, but where do I start?’ Well she picked a very good place to start…hold on, that’s the Sound of Music but you know what I mean.

So Judith and Sandy turned it over to you and you really didn’t let us down (as if you ever would…) I’ve trawled through all your comments and collated as best I can all the wise and helpful advice you’ve contributed here. I’m not sure how coherent it will be but here goes…

First up is simply get to know your machine-assuming you have one [choosing a machine is a whole other post] if possible have a lesson on it at the shop you bought it from, definitely look through the manual and watch the DVD; familiarise yourself with threading it and winding a bobbin; learn to change the needle; practice sewing straight parallel lines before moving on to curves and pivoting corners. You could draw lines onto paper and practice that way (don’t use the needle on fabric after that though, it will probably spoil your fabric by being blunt) one contributor said she taught her child by using dot-to-dot puzzles from a book-one page at a time presumably, not the whole book under the needle…. Learning to manipulate and manoeuvre fabric is something which comes in time with practice, you’ll get there and rushing won’t actually help…take your time.

Get used to ‘driving’ your machine, can you adjust the speed manually? Sometimes the foot pedal has a switch you can change. Have it on a slower setting if that’s possible, otherwise it’s all down to your foot control which again will come with practice. Make sure you’re sitting comfortably right in front of the work area so you have a clear view of what you’re sewing, do you need an extra light? a daylight lamp or a daylight bulb in an old one can be really helpful. If you have the option to leave your machine out so you can use it at any time this will allow you to sew whenever you get a chance and not have to keep getting it out and putting it away.

Gradually compile yourself a ‘stitch bible’ of what your machine can do, use pieces of plain fabric (two layers) old sheets or a duvet cover are perfect for this, then use a coloured thread so that everything shows up clearly. Even if your machine can only sew straight and zigzag it’s still possible to make buttonholes and neaten seams. If there are other feet or attachments what are they for? They might be useful as you progress, the zip foot will probably be an essential although they are usually the most basic type unless you’re buying a high-end machine. Learning a few seam finishes without an overlocker will help you make longer-lasting garments too. You might like to make examples of gathers or darts and other seam types to create your own reference resource which you can always go back to. It might sound ‘old-school’ but whatever works for you is fine.

Ready to think about what to sew? Things like tote bags, aprons or cushion covers are an excellent place to begin because they will enable you to practice sewing plenty of straight lines with a few corners and/or curves. You can include patch pockets, possibly a zip, add trims, embellishment or applique for interest. Everything will help you to become more confident using your machine. Having a bash at making costumes for kids is another great way of getting more confident, you don’t have to be so precious about the materials you use, the fit might not be spot-on but you’ll have fun exploring new ideas. Or what about accessories or clothes for dolls or toys? Kids clothes can be lovely to make but they can also be very fiddly if you’re making something tiny with little armholes for example. Stick to little T-shirts and leggings to begin with perhaps.

This brings me onto another area: you’ll find masses of free patterns online especially for simple things like bags and aprons, sewing magazines always feature these types of project along with well-photographed step-by-step guides. As you progress there are also free patterns for all sorts of other things including garments, many pattern companies will have one or two free ones which, if you’re happy with it, will hopefully encourage you to buy from them too. The Mandy Boat tee by Tessuti is only 3 pattern pieces and really simple to construct for example. With regards to fabric choices it’s probably sensible to stick to a woven fabric like cotton poplin or lawn, or a stable knit like Ponte Roma to begin with, they don’t wiggle about when you’re cutting or sewing, chiffon and slippery satin will have to wait just a bit longer. Another contributor suggested choose a pattern with no more than 5 pieces to start with, what about pyjama shorts or an elasticated waist skirt for example? A really simple dirndl skirt doesn’t need a pattern at all, just gather widths of fabric onto a waistband.

So you’ve got the machine and you’ve got the pattern and now you need to sew it. You don’t need masses of equipment to start off with but I would suggest that you invest in decent quality pins, scissors and a tape measure for starters [I’m set in my ways here because I never use rotary cutters or weights]

Look out for classes locally-is there a fabric shop nearby? what about a college offering part-time courses? There are so many online tutorials that you could learn entirely via the internet and never pay a penny. There are also specific online courses which you can pay for, these are probably of a higher quality and consistency as a result, whichever you opt for you can access them at any time wherever you are in the world. Many indie pattern companies create sewalongs for their patterns so you can follow at your own pace, Closet Case and Tilly and the Buttons are just two for example. Others like Sew Essential, Stitch Sisters and GuthrieGhani (all in the UK) have created easy to follow tutorials, often for specific techniques and processes which can be really helpful. That’s all online but there are plenty of excellent books to help, a really good one is the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing which has been in print for years but has such clear illustrations and instructions that it’s useful as ever. It covers SO many different techniques and examples of garment and fabric types, many that you’ve probably never even heard of! Seamwork magazine and Tilly’s book ‘Love at First Stitch’ were also suggested as excellent sources of clear, concise patterns with instructions, there will be many others which might be equally useful.

Other sources of support and advice (apart from SewOver50 obviously!) are Facebook groups-McCalls patterns have one which offers ‘massive global support for fellow sewists of all abilities’, there are area-specific ones too which you might prefer if they are more local. These forums could be especially helpful if you live miles from anyone else who sews. If quilting or patchwork are more what you want there many groups or guilds for these, I was also told about the American Sewing Guild and the Australian Sewing Guild.

If you like Instagram try using a specific hashtag for a pattern #lbpullover #wikstenhaori for example. You’ll get to see what it looks like on real people of all figure types which can be so helpful before you start. There are loads of SewOver50 ones too including #so50dresses, #so50tops or #so50visible for example. Or listening to a podcast like Love to Sew while you sew can be both entertaining and informative.

Another suggestion was to take a good look at the ready to wear clothes you would buy to see what the fabric is like, does it drape well or how has it been cut, or does the style even suit me? These days you can try things on and take sneaky photos in the changing rooms so that you’ve got a clearer idea when you’re planning your makes. It’s also a really good idea to make a ‘toile’ or ‘muslin’ so that you don’t spoil your ‘good’ fabric with errors that can’t be rectified, why not use a old duvet cover or sheets? It’s always a good idea to make a toile in a fabric which is similar to the fashion fabric you intend to use. This is because all fabrics behave differently with different properties which might not work appropriately. Make sure you read the pattern envelope carefully for fabric-type advice, or ask in the shop where you’re buying it; get a sample from online shops to avoid costly mistakes.

As you improve you could treat yourself to a complete sewing kit which include everything you need-pattern, fabric, trims, notions etc to make a project, or what about a subscription box?

What about trying refashioning? Take an old or unloved garment and reinvent it as something new. Or you could unpick a worn out garment to make a pattern from and recreate it in new fabric.

Don’t forget that sewing and fitting are two different things and there’s no quick and foolproof way to learn either, it just takes time. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the size you buy in the shops is the size that you cut out-check your own measurements! Better to cut a little big and take it down than try to add extra (the voice of bitter experience!!) You will make mistakes but don’t beat yourself up over them, do a step at a time and don’t worry about step 7 or 11 or whatever until you get to it. By all means browse through the instructions before you start (especially before you cut anything out though!) to familiarise yourself, gather your favourite books or other information if you’re going to need clarification of a technique. Above all, enjoy the process, this is your time and you’re investing in yourself even if the project isn’t ultimately for you. Don’t be put off by those who finish projects quicker than you, they’ve probably been doing it for longer than you. Blanca of @Blakandblanca said “thoughtful making gets the best results” and I agree. Even those of us who have sewn for decades were beginners once and I certainly still make mistakes, to quote Einstein (approximately) “a person who never made a mistake never made anything” or something like that.

Thank you to every single person who contributed their thoughts and advice on the original post, I can’t possibly attribute each one I’ve used unfortunately but I hope everyone, especially nervous beginners, will find this post useful. If there’s anything else you’d like to add you can leave a comment at the end. Incidentally, I wrote a blog post a couple of years ago where I detailed a few starter thoughts when it comes to getting yourself ready preparing and cutting out your projects. I’m a stickler for accurate cutting because if that is correct to start with, and then something goes a bit wonky, you’ll have some idea if it’s your cutting or the pattern (and there’s been a lot of talk about accuracy or otherwise of pricy Indie patterns recently!)

I haven’t attempted to put too many links in here because you’re all over the world so what might be appropriate for the UK probably won’t be where you are. Hopefully you’ll get some generally helpful ideas as a springboard though.

Until next time,

Happy sewing

Sue

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