Learning to Sew

November 10, 2010

I grew up watching my mom and my aunts sew clothing, pillows, and curtains for their homes.  There were no blogs to showcase their work, just their fellow community where they shared their tips and advice.  It was the late seventies, times were tough, money was tight, and the economy was in the you know what.  Ladies all across the nation were trading patterns and ideas, and sewing up a frenzy of home decor on a budget.  Sounds kinda familiar doesn’t it?

The very best way to soften a space, to add texture, pattern and personality, is with the use of great fabrics, so I believe one of the best tools for an avid DIYer is a basic sewing machine. You’ll find plenty of tutorials online for ‘no sew’ decor, and they are fantastic, in fact I’ve done several myself.  There are lots of times when fusible web, fabric glue, or safety pins have come to my rescue with a simple hem or a window treatment.  Yay for those solutions!  Yet one thing I’ve learned is that having the ability to work a sewing machine opens up an entirely new world.

Do you ever see a swatch of fabric, be it in the form of a dress, an apron, a napkin, a silk scarf, and you think to yourself, "This would make a great pillow!" or you find a great fabric and think "I want to make curtains out of this."  It happens to me all the time!  You can design an entire space around a single swatch of fabric that inspires, be it a damask, geometric, Ikat or simple stripe pattern, whatever speaks to you.  I am constantly inspired by patterns I find beyond the racks in fabric stores, and I’m a big believer in reinventing them into new things.

For example, take these inexpensive napkins I found in a local kitchen store.  Beautiful robins egg blue background with an apple green botanical pattern.  Love!  In fact, I loved them so much, I turned them into a pillow!


napkin turned pillow  

We all know custom window panels and designer pillows can cost a small fortune.  Years ago, after gathering a few quotes, there came a moment when I just wanted the ability make a simple pillows for myself out of some favorite fabrics, but didn’t want to pay someone to have them made.  So I did some research online, and I bought a basic Singer sewing machine for around $125 bucks.

My Mom didn’t teach me to sew (I wasn’t interested when I was young).  I taught myself by reading the manual and following directions.  I learned how to thread the machine and to sew a straight stitch.  Most recently, I’ve mastered piping and zippers, all with some online tutorials, a lot of patience, and a little gumption.

So many people I converse with via email want the ability to create things for their home, but have never learned how to sew, mostly because they’re afraid it’s too hard.  I’m here to tell you it’s not!   You can do it!  

If you’re ready to get started, here are some encouraging words and a few pointers from my guest, Julie Anne Eason of Serious Sewing.com.


Ten Rules of the Road for Happy Sewing Machines

"A new sewing machine can be your gateway to a whole new world of creativity and thrifty fun. It’s easy to imagine yourself spending long hours blissfully churning out cheap-but-chic fashions for yourself, your family and friends. But sometimes reality steps in and smacks unwary beginners upside the head.  A sewing machine can provide hours of joy if you take the time to learn a few simple rules before you start to sew.

1. Use good thread.  The number one reason people have trouble with a new sewing machine has something to do with thread.  Cheap thread will shred and jam up your machine so if you’re having trouble (especially with the dreaded "birdsnest" of tangled thread under your fabric) just do yourself a favor and switch to a better brand of thread.

2. Use the right needles for your project and change them often.  I know people who think the only time you should change a needle is if it breaks.  Not true. Needles get dull; they get bent; they get nicked; they just plain wear out.  After every ten hours of sewing, you should think about changing your needle.

You also need to use the right needle for the project. There are two types: ball point and sharps.  Ball point needles are designed to sew knits (anything stretchy) and sharps are designed for woven fabrics (non-stretchy.)  There are universal needles which usually work okay for both types of cloth.  If you’re having trouble with skipped stitches or weird seams, ditch the universal for the appropriate type needle.  Also, use the correct size needle for your fabrics as well.  Sewing machine needles are sized differently for lightweight, medium and heavyweight fabrics. Check your machine’s instruction manual for specific recommendations.

3. Read your manual.  Every machine is a little different, so even if you’ve been using your Grandma’s 1940’s Singer for years, your new machine will work a little differently.  It can take a little time to read through the entire manual, but it’s worth the effort. The authors often include priceless tips that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.

4. When in doubt, rethread.  It never fails, at the first sign of trouble with a stitch or seam, we all head straight for the tension dials.  Please, for the love of fabric, leave the tension dials alone!  At least at first.  Anytime you run into trouble, your first thought should be "hmm, maybe it’s threaded wrong."   Do yourself a favor and just rethread the machine. About 80% of the time, this will fix whatever is wrong.  The other 20% could be you need a new needle or different thread.

Here’s a bonus tip:  Always, rethread your machine with the presser foot in the UP position.  Otherwise, the thread might get caught by the tension disks and then your machine won’t work.

5. Clean and oil your machine often.  Most sewers don’t clean their machines nearly often enough because they think they have to take it to a sewing machine mechanic and pay $100 or more to get it cleaned.  Go to YouTube or research online for a tutorial.  If you can work a screwdriver, you can clean your machine.

6. Take the time to understand your stitches.  Modern sewing machines come with a huge assortment of stitches (some machines come with thousands built-in.) Some of them are designed for sewing regular fabrics; some are for stretch fabrics; and some are purely decorative embroidery-type stitches.  Using the wrong stitch for the wrong purpose will cause you trouble.

7. Use the correct presser foot for the job.  Depending on your machine, you probably have a regular foot, a zig-zag foot, a button-holer, a walking foot, a zipper foot and a wide variety of others.  These are specially designed to perform unique tasks, so use them appropriately.  Presser feet are very easy to change in and out, usually with just the touch of a button.

8. Try this fancy trick.  To help prevent that snarl you sometimes get at the very beginning of a seam when your fabric edge is too close to the needle, hold the main thread and bobbin thread in your left hand and pull gently for the first few stitches until the jagged parallel lines, or ‘feed dogs’ are completely in control of the fabric.

9.  Keep a pretty jar handy for bent pins and broken needles.    I’ve had one too many times where the needle slammed right into the pin and broke.  It’s always a hassle, so now I just pull the pins out as I sew.

10.  Slow down.  We’re all in a hurry to get a project done, but sometimes you really need to slow down.  When you’re first learning how to sew, when working tricky curves and sharp corners, or when you’re working with thick layers of fabric, you should start on the slowest setting and then speed up as you gain experience, or after gauging how the machine handles the fabric. 

Follow these tips and you’ll spend your sewing hours happily creating project after project instead of fighting with your machine! 

If you’re inspired to purchase a new machine, I recommend new sewers choose quality over the lowest price.  I think the Brother CS6000I is the best model for beginners, you can read my full review here.  Having a machine that runs well means you can save money later by recycling used clothing, mending torn garments and creating pieces that fit you perfectly!"

Julie Anne Eason is an independent web publisher and writer specializing in sewing and craft projects.  You can find her at her blog Serious Sewing.com

Thank you so much Julie for your time, expertise, and recommendations!  Now, here’s how I made that sweet stylish pillow out of napkins found at a local kitchen store.

How To Make a Removable Pillow Cover out of Two Cloth Napkins

1) Cut one of the napkins in half down the middle.  2) Flip both napkins inside out and overlap the hemmed edges of the cut napkin.  3) Stitch overlapped edges together.  4) Sew the perimeter of the napkins edges together (inside out). 4) To prevent fluffier pillows from bulging on the back, sew small Velcro tabs to the edge of the overlap (turn the sewing needle by hand and avoid using the pedal to prevent needle breakage due to thickness. 6) Velcro together for a seamless back.

napkin tutorial


Voila!  A designer look pillow cover fashioned out of napkins!

cg living room pillow


Those of you who sew, tell me, what’s your favorite project you’ve created on a sewing machine?  Those of you who don’t sew, are you inclined to purchase a sewing machine or put one on your Christmas list?  Do tell!


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122 Responses to “Learning to Sew”

  1. Libby says:

    Great tips — I taught myself to sew right out of college, as my first job didn’t pay much. My greatest delight was in sewing for my daughter — dresses, doll clothes and costumes. So many fond memories…

  2. Susie Hollams says:

    Thank you so much, sewing has always been the bane of my existence and it is now on my “to learn and conquer” list for 2011
    xxxxx susieq

  3. Thanks for sharing this with us. I’ve quite loved the experience of reading your blog so far. Maybe some cliff notes at the botton would be a useful addition to summarize the lessons… regardless I will be visiting back here so keep up the delightful writing, your readers appreciate it.

  4. katie kirby says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I only started sewing last year after being interested in it for so long and it’s quickly become a passion of mine.

  5. Nettie says:

    I have been sewing for over 30 years, each new project is exciting. Home dec projects are my favorite because I can see it everyday. Unlike laundry and dishes a sewing project has a definite end! Your pillows are great, the only thing I would add is just a bit of batting in the corners to “fill” it out. And you are quite right about a good machine, it makes all the difference.

  6. I wish I could sew :0( For those of you who can, I admire you! I took a quilting class one time to try but that didn’t seem to help me either. I guess I’m a lost cause when it comes to sewing.

  7. Thanks for linking up with me, Kate. :)

  8. I took a short series of beginner sewing classes after my first child was born and it was a great investment. I’ve made numerous window treatments and pillows over the years, but my favorite projects are the Halloween costumes I sewed for my kids, the pink princess dress, the Humpty Dumpty suit and the little clown costume that both my children wore for their first Halloween are so special to me.

  9. Kara @ KSS says:

    I still don’t understand how you laid the napkins together before you sewed their edges. Can you explain it in a little more detail? I’m having a hard time visualizing. (And I’d love to make my own pillows.)

  10. kimbobim says:

    I learned how to sew when I was about 8 or 9. I wanted one of those kiddie sewing machines I saw in the Sears catalog – bright pink, 100% plastic. Instead, my mother took me into the laundry/sewing room, showed me how to do the basic stitches on her machine (a tank of a Kenmore), showed me her stash of fabrics, and said “go for it.” I’ve been sewing ever since. (She did did the same thing when I begged for an Easy-Bake oven). When I got married, instead of paying someone gobs of cash to sew my dress, I bought a decent sewing machine and sewed the dress myself – I still have that machine. I’ve sewn my own clothes, my kids’ clothes, Halloween costumes, quilts and duvet covers, window treatments, window seat cushions, and re-upholstered our couches – I love fixing up great old furniture for the cost of fabric and trim.

    There are so many great online classes and tutorials out there on websites and YouTube for specific techniques!

  11. Katharine says:

    Thanks for sharing the great tips. I’ll remember to change the needles instead of adjusting the tension. I’ve had my machine over 30 years and often think it’s the tensions fault when it probably was just the needle after all. I love to sew pillows because you can hide your boo boos inside the pillows lol.

  12. Neyshan says:

    I have to protest your choice of machine for a beginner. The absolute worst kind of machine is one that has so much computer hardware in it. I work in a costume shop at my college with machines with computers in them and they are always the things that break and by far the most expensive things to fix. Where as my mothers all mechanical is easily 3-decades old by now and is still a freaking work horse.

  13. Natalie says:

    I have been sewing for 10 years, and I still found this post usefull. Sometimes I forget the basics for keeping my machine and projects nice.

  14. Ennay says:

    I just tried sewing these napkins I found into pillows and I am ecstatic with the results! I highly recommend trying this, such a quick, easy and affordable way to transform any space.

    I do want to share that the fabric of the napkins I picked out (100% cotton) wrinkled easily so if I had to do it again I would prob pay more attention to the fabric. Hubby rested on pillow once and it was covered with wrinkles.

    I blogged about it here:

    Love your blog and am looking forward to trying your other DIY projects.

  15. Gwendolyn says:

    I didn’t learn as a kid although my mom is an expert. A few years back my DH bought me that same brother machine and it’s worked like a dream. I’m not an expert yet, but I hope to get better. Thanks for the tips!

  16. Jennifer says:

    I’m so grateful for the tip about which sewing machine to buy – thank you so much! I plan to buy one for my daughter for Christmas and you just saved me hours of research. And Kate, I love the sweater pillow idea; maybe that’ll be our first project with the new machine.

  17. ambrosia says:

    My mom and grandma sew, but I just got into sewing this year. I made a ton of things for my wedding this summer – and I am addicted! Great “rules”…I need to adhere to them more often :)

  18. Yvette says:

    Great advice! I want to learn how to sew and i want to buy a sewing machine. How do I pick the right one?

  19. […] I used¬†Centsational Girl’s tutorial as a guide (see that here).¬† […]

  20. Leslie says:

    After trying and failing the no sew version…I am determined to learn how to sew! Thanks for the inspiration, I love reading your blog!

  21. What is a high quality thread? I’ve just started sewing last night, trying to make some curtains with your Easy Rod Pocket Panel tutorial. But I keep getting the birdsnest effect and my thread keeps breaking. Ugh! I bought some thread at Walmart (it was all they had), but I think it’s just cheap. What should I look for to get a high quality thread?? Thanks!!

  22. Nancy Nelson says:

    I know this post is older but your advice on learning to sew was fabulous. I can’t tell you how many times I have shared those same words of wisdom with others who are learning to sew. The taking your time tip was probably the best one. It has taken me over 20 years to develop my skills and I continue to learn all the time. Thanks so much for sharing what I hope to be a resurging art.

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