Friday, 20 April 2012

A few homespun advices on sewing

Maureen O'Hara looking glamorous and sewing in 1946, picture found at Life archive

I have been sewing since my late teens, mostly because I became more and more frustrated with the lack of clothes that fitted me properly. I’m not fantastically skilled and I’m not quick (unfortunately) but it is something that I really enjoy doing it. In fact, I tend to get rather testy if I don’t get to do some sewing for several days. I’m working on getting more structure into my sewing and one of my obstacles- a very untidy sewing room, has almost been eliminated. I often hear people sigh and say that they wished they could sew and I say. Well, why don’t you start? I realize that not everyone will like it as much as I do, but sewing is not as hard as it may seem. If you start with something easy, work slowly and carefully, then I am sure that most everyone can pull something pretty and wearable together.

To encourage those who find sewing scary I have compiled a littler list of advices. They are not professional or all-embracing, but they are things I have found useful and helpful myself.

Learn the basics
You don’t have to learn advanced sewing or taking classes for years and years to make clothes for yourself, but if you don’t know how to sew, then it is very helpful to take a beginner’s course in sewing. I did just that when I was 18 and then I took a class in pattern construction when I was 22 and that has worked very well for me. I do think you can learn just by reading, but it’s always nice to have someone to ask when you feel unsure.

Know your terms
A good sewing pattern usually have a glossary on sewing terms, but if you are new to sewing you may need more terms explained than the pattern provide. You can find explanation online and there are also books. If you feel unsure of what something means, then check it out instead of guessing!

Don’t deny your curves
It can be a bit discouraging to find out that your waist measurement is more than you thought, but shaving of on the numbers doesn’t make you thinner, but it will provide clothes that don’t fit.

Measure twice and cut twice
When using a pattern for the first time, make a mock-up first. I save worn-out sheets for that purpose. A mock-up give you the opportunity to fine-tune the fit- And when fitted to your liking, trace the pattern onto something durable like Swedish tracing paper and you have a pattern that you know will fit and will save time when you use it the next time.

A little place to call home
I find it so much easier to sew if I can have my sewing machine permanently out. I have a sewing room, so that is not difficult for me, but I know not everyone is so lucky. But even if you have to put your machine away when you don’t use it, try to find a place where you can use it unhindered while you finish your project. It is also much much easier to start sewing if you have your things in order and at your fingertips. When I start a project I keep everything for it in a large ziplock bag- pattern, mock-up, fabric, thread, buttons, zippers, etc. That way it’s easy to keep track on what you have and if you need to store the project away for some reason, you know you have everything together and easy to find when you pull it out again.

A pattern is a pattern is a pattern
A good pattern to start with, regardless brand, is a simple skirt, but not all patterns are alike. Take a peek on the pattern envelope for an indication of skill level. A beginner may be able to pull an advanced style together, but I advice to begin with something easy and work your way up. There’s been quite a rave over Colette Patterns at sewing blogs for quite some time now, and after purchasing a few I can understand why. Though not reproduction patters, their design has a distinct vintage flair to them and they are a joy to work with. The instructions are very clear and I think that they would be very good pattern for a beginner. They also have a sewing book that I haven’t read myself, but the reviews indicate that it is a very helpful one.

Beware of the dead dino
In re-enactment circles there is a lot of sneering over “dead dino-fabrics”, i.e. polyester and there are very good reasons to choose natural fibers over synthetics. Natural ones breathe, are easier to sew in and stand up better to the ravages of time. Polyester may seem like a cheap alternative, but if you look around you can usually find natural fibers for a good price too. I recently made an outfit in polyester because I happened to have some of the right colour at home and my budget was tight. It was a complete nightmare to sew in. Never again.

Get to know your fabric
Polyester isn’t the only fabric that can be a hassle to work with. Thin and slippery fabrics can be difficult regardless of material. Silk charmeuse may make you want to weep for example. My favourite fabrics are wool and silk taffeta. Wool is especially easy to sew and press and don’t ravel much. So if you are unused to sewing, take a little time before you start to sew to get acquainted with your fabric. Does it ravel? At what temperature should it be pressed? Does it get marred if you have to unpick a seam? Does it stretch?

Your iron is your friend
Pressing the seams after sewing them makes a world of difference to the finished garment. It sets the seam and flattens them and believe me, it’s very easy to tell if you cheat on the pressing.

Don’t fear hand sewing
A lot of people seem to shy away from hand sewing, feeling that it’s difficult and takes time. As with any skills, hand sewing gets easier the more you practice, and so does your speed. The benefit of hand sewing is invisible seams, more control over the garment and if you have to rip seams, hand sewn ones doesn’t damage fabric as much as machine made ones. I tend to use my machine for the assembling a garment and then I do all the details by hand.

Get by with a little help from your friends
It’s fun to sew together and it’s sometimes very very helpful. A friend can help you taking your measurements and with fitting. You can do those thing yourself, but it’s so much easier to have someone else to help you. And if you get stuck, friends can provide you with help and answers.

What is your best sewing tip?


Anthea said...

That's a great list!

My tip is: If its not going as you want it to be. Leave it for a while, instead of getting on and getting more frustrated.

Anonymous said...

My best sewing tip (in English for once, for the benefit of other readers) is this:

Learn from others' experience, but don't listen too much to their opinions.

Different people find different things difficult. The blogging community seems terrified of knit fabrics, for example, but my first ever me-made garment was made from cotton jersey, without an overlock machine (if you listen to bloggers, you'll think you need one of those), and I was 11 years old and a complete newbie who'd never worked a pattern before. It was the perfect basic top that I wore for years until it lost all shape and opacity. They'll be scared of a lapped side zipper or having to fit a pair of trousers, but those people are not you. Adopting other people's opinions as your own without experience is simply prejudice and it will only limit you.

Vintage Cherry said...

Great advice, and photos as usual!
If you have a sewer friend, try out their machine before you buy one. And then buy a simple one that does straight, zig-zag and button holes, that you are able to easily get serviced and buy replacement parts for. I agree about overlockers - they always seem more trouble than not to me! I find for normal clothes sewing I don't need fancy stitches or embroidery options, but button holes are useful.

Anushka said...

the iron is your best friend!!!
I've done a degree involving much sewing and this tip has been revolutionary.
Also, always test out the tension on your machine on a scrap of the same fabric before sewing your garment.

Ann said...

What a wonderful blog! I've just visited for the first time and love your passion for sewing. I've been posting old letters and many of them include comments about a search for a machine, 1942-46. Love your great images as well.

Lithia Black said...

My two favorite sewing tips:

1. Shrink wash and pre shrink
I always wash my fabric right away before putting it into my stash. If it's wool I pre shrink. That way I know that I can pull any fabric out of my stash without worrying about shrinkage

2. Never sew if you are hungry, very tired or angry!
I tend to make most of my mistakes when I'm any of those modes...

Isis said...

Excellent advice, all of you!

I inherited my grandmother's machine that she bought in the 60's. For 8 years it has been working well for me with an occasional drop of oil and had seen some very heavy use before that as well. It's not fancy, but perfect for me!

Ann: That sounds intriguing!

Anonymous said...

My all-time 2 favorite tips for beginners:
1. Start with something simple!
Having coached 2 friends who were absolute sewing newbies through making a lined tailored jacket and a blouse respectively and ending up with sewing half of it myself I really really really recommend to start with a skirt which is IMHO the best garment for beginners.

2. Don't buy a cheap sewing machine from IKEA or any discount store or supermarket. You see these offers every once in a while, but they are a total waste of money. You don't need a machine with lots of stitches and features, but you need one which is reliable and makes good seams. Go to a specialized shop where you will have the opportunity to try the machine before buying it. If you have a machine which keeps tangling the bobbin thread and leaving out stitches, you will never learn to sew because there's no fun in struggling withe your machine. A basic machine will not be much more expensive than the discount ones, but a hundred times more useful.

As for the rest of your tips: I agree with everything except to only using natural fibres. Don't get me wrong, they are great and I love wool and cotton and sew a lot with it. But there are some great (and not always cheap) man-made fibres which I think are worth using. Rayon being the most authentic of them.

Isis said...

sewvintage: Absolutely, rayon is quite nice and I ought to have mentioned it! I was thinking in terms of oil-based fabrics, which I have never had any luck with.

Cassie Stephens said...

Thank you so much for this incredible advice....I'm a self-taught (and it shows!) seamstress and I so appreciate any tips from pros! The awesome photos help too. Thank you so much. I'm new to your blog and LOVE it!

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