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