Learn How To Sew Part 1: Machines, tools and other equipment.
Have you been wanting to learn how to sew? Do you have questions about the tools and equipment you’d need to have to learn to sew? Have you been swooning over the patterns on our website, wishing you had learned how to sew when you were younger? It’s a question I’ve heard over and over again from “Can you teach me how to sew?” I love sharing my sewing knowledge with so I put together some basic information “Learn How to Sew Part 1” to increase your comfort level over tackling the basics of learning how to sew. Let’s dive in and talk materials today.
We’re seeing unprecedented interest in learning how to sew and we have thousands signing up to join our Facebook sewing community group. Whether you want to learn how to sew to make garments for yourself or you want to sew matching mommy-daughter outfits, garment sewing is a big incentive for wanting to learn to sew. Maybe you don’t fit perfectly into a ready-to-wear garment size and want to start sewing to be able to make clothes that fit your body. Perhaps you have seen clothes in a magazine or on tv and wish you could find them in your size or afford to have them in your wardrobe… learning how to sew and making them yourself makes that a reality. If your home is your DIY happy place and you binge-watch home decorating shows, you might find yourself wanting to customize your décor by making your own curtains, duvet, pillows, or even learning how to sew quilts, but until you learn how to sew, those ideas are just ideas floating around in your head… learning how to sew can make them a reality.
Learning how to sew also lets you tackle one very popular hobby… quilting. While some people do still piece and quilt by hand, most modern quilters use a sewing machine and their sewing knowledge to piece together the fabrics for their quilts in addition to quilting the layers of their quilt together. Therefore, learning how to sew is important if quilting is your goal.
While you can sew a garment, a quilt, or even a pillow by hand, the best way to learn how to sew is with a sewing machine, as it results in a sturdier finished item and means you can finish a sewing project quickly, maybe in a day rather than months of handwork. So, let’s talk about the machines that you might run across as you start your search into learning how to sew and how each of them has a specific purpose.
What you want to learn how to sew will drive your sewing machine choice
Are you interested in learning how to sew garments? Are you focused on learning how to sew on knit fabric or woven fabrics? Is your passion project learning how to sew activewear? Or are you wanting to update your home by sewing pillows, quilts, curtains, and other accents? All of these questions come into play when making a decision about the type of machine you need to purchase when you want to learn how to sew. Let’s talk about some of your options.
A basic sewing machine
As with most tools, you want to consider purchasing the best machine you can afford. A reliable, well-built sewing machine will serve your sewing needs for years to come. However, your machine doesn’t have to have a lot of extras and doesn’t have to break the bank — a simple machine will serve you well on your way to learning how to sew. If you expect most of your sewn items will be garments or home-dec items, a good basic machine that does the following would meet your needs: straight stitch, zigzag, and buttonhole. Decorative stitches are a bonus, and if you plan to stitch with knit fabrics, you want to inquire about a stretch stitch in the stitch settings on your sewing machine. While we’re all excited to be the first owner of a machine, you might want to investigate a used machine, and the best place to inquire would be your local sewing machine dealer. Often, when someone decides to upgrade to a machine that has more capability (maybe a sewing and embroidery machine, for instance), they might trade in their sturdy, capable sewing machine for a discount on the price. Most shops do a quick service on the machine to ensure that it’s working properly (ask the shop representative about that), and then they sell it as a used machine to recoup their money. Sometimes, they even offer a lesson on the machine and depending on what got traded in, you might receive various attachments and the manual for the machine in the purchase price. I’ve known many people who consider quilting and/or sewing to be their main hobby or possibly even their income stream who have purchased all of their machines used and couldn’t be more pleased with their selections.
Beyond those basic stitches, some other things that you might look for in a sewing machine when you want to learn to sew is a control that actually manages the speed at which the machine will run (handy for when you’re just starting out). Almost every machine comes with a speed pedal of course, but having an additional speed control lever is like having a mechanism on your car that won’t let you go over a certain mile-per-hour… great for beginners and even useful when you’re managing something tricky. Most machines come with the ability to adjust the length of your straight, the length and width of your zigzag stitch, and the position of your needle; having the ability to change the length and width of your stitches incrementally will be helpful, especially if you plan to learn to sew using several different types of fabric.
Machines are like any other tool—they require new parts sometimes, some maintenance, and some TLC. While it’s unlikely that you’ll have to replace the interior parts of your machine often, there are some things that do have a shorter lifespan than your machine itself. One of the things I never want to be caught without is extra sewing machine needles.
Needles vary—there are machine needles for general sewing (often referred to as Universal), needles for knits, denim, leather, topstitching, and more. You want to make sure you have plenty of needles on hand and a variety of needles that equals the various types of sewing that you do. Needles can break or nick, especially if they come into contact with other metal objects, such as sewing pins, which is why it’s recommended that you don’t sew over pins. If your needle just grazes against a pin, it might be fine, or it might nick the needle slightly, but if your needle comes directly in contact with a pin, the needle can bend or break, the tip can break off ever so slightly making it dull, or the pin can bend and get stuck in the needle hole of your machine. A damaged needle can mess up your stitching (causing skipped stitches or other issues), can snag your fabric, or worse, can cause your machine to need servicing because of timing issues or other problems. Think of it like driving over a big piece of metal in the road… If you’re lucky, it could cause no harm, or it could flatten a tire, or it could throw your entire wheelbase out of alignment. It could also fly up and do damage to your car or someone else’s. Sewing over a pin is the same scenario in miniature—may be fine, and maybe not. Once you get to know the sounds your machine makes, you’ll start to “hear” the difference when you’re sewing your project and the needle is having a difficult time going in and out of the fabric because it’s dulled, has lost its sharp point, or is nicked. The sound of a needle needing to replaced is almost a popping sound, which makes sense. When you’re sewing with a new needle, the tip of the needle pierces and almost glides through the fabric smoothly, but when the tip is dull, it has to push through the fibers, possibly snagging one along the way or knocking a thread of the fabric down with it as it tries to pass through. This can cause the printed fabric to actually appear snagged, where the thread itself is knocked out of its place in the fabric and with it, the consistency of the design printed on the fabric is thrown out of whack. While good needles aren’t necessarily cheap, investing in good needles and replacing them often, whenever you think you need to, is well worth the cost in not damaging whatever it is you’re sewing as you go. Schmetz, one of the leading manufacturers of sewing machine needles, recommends replacing your needle after approximately 8 hours of sewing. Depending on your sewing habits, that could be every month or it could be every day! For more information about sewing needles, visit schmetzneedles.com, where you can find a lot of information about various needles, why you need different sizes and types, and how to pair your needle size with your thread. But as I mentioned, I like to have several extra packages of each type of needle I use on hand… I often sew at times when the stores aren’t open and often I’m focused on finishing my project for a deadline (a looming, next-day deadline), and so if I break or ding up a needle, I want to be able to quickly replace it and continue with my project. In addition, rather than toss your needles in the trash, have a small bottle near your sewing machine (an empty vitamin bottle with a lid is my bottle of choice) in which you can toss broken or dull needles, bent pins, etc., to keep them from poking you or poking through your regular trash bag.
Another item you’ll want to have a few of is bobbins for your machine.
A basic sewing machine uses a spool of thread on the top and a bobbin filled with thread on the bottom to form the stitches. Bobbins might be inserted into the front of the machine, under where the needle is located and under the sometimes removable bed or sewing surface of the machine, or it might be dropped in on the bed of the machine, just in front of the needle. Either way, most people don’t purchase pre-wound bobbins for their sewing machines. They purchase empty bobbins and use the bobbin winder on their machine to make a bobbin from the thread that matches the thread they’re using on the top of the machine. However, there’s little more frustrating than having only a few bobbins and either having to empty one to put on a new color (which means you’ll be throwing away that thread—which is wasteful) or use a color of thread you don’t want to use in the bobbin because you don’t have an empty spare. And heed my warning: NEVER spin a new color of thread over a partly filled bobbin. But, you can fill a bobbin part of the way rather than filling it entirely, especially if it’s for something where you don’t think you’ll need that color of thread. If I’m doing a little accent topstitching, for instance, I might just fill a bobbin a quarter or half full, rather than filling the entire bobbin for what I know will only be a few feet of stitching. And in the unlikely event that I have to empty a bobbin, I choose the ones with colors that I’m least likely to need again. I would never empty a neutral bobbin… quilters often use neutral gray or cream to do the majority of their piecing, rather than changing thread colors to match the fabrics, so having extras of those already filled lets them continue along on a project without having to stop often to refill a bobbin. You might decide to do the same if you’re working on something with a lot of gathered edges, a significant amount of stitching to be done, or at least with some of your basic colors, like white, gray, black, etc. Be sure to check your manual for what size bobbins your machine takes… this is not a one-size-fits-all situation… there are several sizes of bobbins and some only fit certain machines. Bobbins are also commonly available in different sizes in both plastic and metal. Some sewing machines are designed to work better with one over the other, so be sure to check your manual and make note of the bobbins that are compatible with your machine.
As for general maintenance on your machine, changing the needle is the first easy maintenance that you can do yourself to care for your machine while you’re learning how to sew. You’ll also want to keep the lint from building up, both under the little teeth that surround your needle (those are called feed dogs, and they basically guide the fabric through the machine from front to back) and inside the bobbin case. Your manual will tell you how to take care of your machine, how to clear out the lint, and how to oil it when needed. We can all get pretty heavy-handed when it comes to oiling our machines, but really, your machine only needs an occasional drop of oil wherever your manual indicates. Also, once you oil your machine, you’ll want to thread it and stitch on some scrap fabric to make sure any oil that’s in the system has a chance to work its way through the system and out onto your scrap fabric before you go back to stitching with your regular fabric. Oil spots are rare in this case, but you don’t really want to take the chance.
Your machine, just like your car, still needs to go in occasionally for a regular checkup. A good sewing machine shop will probably have a repairman who can give your machine a good check-up, fix any minor issues, and get it running smoothly and quietly again. And of course, if anything goes wrong with your machine, a repairman can diagnose and fix it. We’ve all had things go wrong… fabric gets jammed under a broken needle and throws the timing out of whack without you realizing it. Suddenly, your machine won’t sew, you break a needle with each stitch, and you don’t know what’s wrong. This is the time to let the pros handle it! Or the tension is off, and you have loopy stitches on one side of the fabric or super-tight stitches. Again, while you can work on adjusting some tension issues, sometimes you can’t fix what’s wrong by making small tension shifts. It could be that there’s a thread caught between the tension discs, or there’s a crack in the bobbin case, and those are things you might not readily notice. So if your machine is working great and suddenly isn’t, check your manual for troubleshooting, but don’t be afraid to call your local shop, explain what it’s doing, and ask for advice. They’ve seen it all and might be able to solve the problem over the phone. If not, it might be time for your sewing machine to have a little “day at the spa”.
Another package of items that might accompany your sewing machine is a variety of presser feet. They’re the piece of metal or plastic that is controlled by the lever on the back of the machine that applies pressure to hold the fabric in place as you sew. Different feet have different uses and we sell tons of presser feet in the tools & notions portion of our site. Some common feet include a zipper foot (for putting in zippers), a buttonhole foot, a ¼” foot (popular for piecing a quilt), an open-toed foot, and a couching foot. A handy presser foot for various uses is an even-feed or walking foot. This foot has little feed dog teeth on it so that it counters the feed dogs underneath, allowing the two fabrics that you’re sewing together to move through the fabric at the same pace. Quilters love this foot because it helps keep their pieces aligned. But before machine quilting was popular, this foot was also used in garment sewing. I’ve seen it referred to as a plaid-matching foot—when sewing with plaid fabric, some seamstresses went to great length to match the plaid along seamlines so that the same color line in the plaid appeared continuous at side seams, back seams, sleeve seams, etc., so having the fabric feed evenly on top and on the bottom kept the lines of the plaid matched. This attention to detail was perceived as making a homemade garment rival a high-end store-bought garment. While these details aren’t as common in clothing today, when you see it done, it reflects on a great deal of care and attention being put into the construction of the garment.
Now that we’ve covered some of the basics of a regular sewing machine, let’s talk about the two machines that are often referred to for sewing on knits.
As mentioned, if you’re learning how to sew on knit fabrics, a basic sewing machine can work just fine, but there are other machines out there that are designed to make it easier to learn how to sew on knits successfully.
Sergers or overlock machines: If you’re wearing a knit shirt right now, turn up the hem or peek inside the sleeve and you’ll see a seam that seems to involve multiple threads, and that’s because it does! A serger or overlock machine sews a seam like that using three or four threads. Two of the threads actually stitch the pieces together while the other two make a stitch that goes around the cut edges of the fabric to protect the fabric edges from raveling. This serged or overlocked seam also stretches with the fabric because of the way it’s sewn, allowing the seam to have the same flexibility as the fabric. A typical straight seam will result in popped or broken stitches if the seam is pulled in the way knit fabric is designed to be stretched, but a serged or overlocked seam is less likely to do so. In addition, the serger has a blade that trims the seam allowance of the fabric away as it stitches, keeping the seams compact. While sergers can be used on woven fabric and can even be used in ways to add decorative elements to a garment, their primary use is to cleanly sew and finish a seam in one pass. If you want to finish a seam in a similar way on a sewing machine, you’d either need to sew along the seam allowance a second time with a zigzag stitch after sewing your seam the first time with a straight stitch or you’d need to use pinking shears (special scissors that cut a zigzag line) to cut the seam allowance to reduce fraying of the fabric. So a serger can save time by doing both things at once. Sergers do not use bobbins, but they do use three or four threads, depending on the process you’re doing with the serger. If you’re rolling a tiny hem on a delicate fabric you probably only need to have three of the threads going, but you need to check your manual to make sure you have the RIGHT three threads or you might end up with a bad result. Sergers can be a little more difficult to thread than a typical machine, so a lot of people keep their machines threaded and, if they need to change colors of thread, they cut the threads from the cones of thread at the top of the machine, tie each thread to the thread of a different cone, and gently pull the threads through all of the various guides, etc., until they are at the needle position. That way, they don’t miss a spot to thread something. The newest technology, which makes threading a serger very easy, is airlock threading where the thread is basically “puffed” through the system of threading by tiny bursts of air. (I like to think of it like the pneumatic tubes at the bank drive-through.) Sergers take special thread on cones instead of spools—you may have noticed in store-bought garments that the serger thread doesn’t always match the garment. But you’ll want to buy your serger thread in sets of four if you want them to match along the seam.
Another machine, which is somewhat a combination machine in that it looks more like a traditional sewing machine but performs differently in many other ways, is called a cover stitch machine. Most store-bought knit shirts use a cover stitch for hemming—just flip the hem of almost any knit garment and you’ll see what a cover stitch machine can do that basic sergers cannot. While some stitchers prefer to hem their garments on their regular sewing machines using a twin needle, a cover stitch machine accommodates one to three needles, and the stitching is done very differently than a standard sewing machine. It’s difficult to explain exactly what the backside of the cover-stitched fabric looks like: With one needle, the backing resembles a chain stitch, but with two or three needles, it turns into more of a lattice or mesh, and this underneath “looper” thread is what holds the front stitches in place. A separate cover stitch machine might be a wise investment if you want a professional look for your garments. It can provide the same hem finish on both knits and wovens, so if this polished finish is what you’re after, consider adding a cover stitch machine to your wishlist.
I should note that there are some machines that can be set up to both serge and coverstitch. The downside I hear most often about those machines is that all of the switching around of things is a hassle. However, it is something to consider if you’re thinking about purchasing both machines and are limited in space or find a great deal on a dual-purpose machine.
Embroidery only machines don’t have the capability to do basic sewing. Instead, they’re designed to read a digitized embroidery design and stitch it on the fabric. There are sewing/embroidery combo machines that can do both things. Obviously, these combo machines will be more expensive because they have to have two sets of mechanics inside – one that sews forward and back, and then the embroidery unit that allows for computerized motion in many directions. Embroidery machines are fun for adding embellishments to a garment, monograms to towels, etc. Meanwhile, you might look at a machine and think it has embroidery capability when really what it has is a wide variety of decorative stitches programmed in and maybe an alphabet that can’t be adjusted for various sizes. That’s not the kind of embroidery that an embroidery machine can do. An embroidery machine is the type of machine that might stitch a company logo on a shirt or might embroider a cute cartoon animal on a onesie for a baby. An embroidery machine is usually a later-in-your-journey purchase once you’ve learned how to sew and have made some decisions in where your creativity is taking you on this path.
Notions, tools, and supplies that will help me learn how to sew:
Once you’ve picked your machine, you need to give some attention to the other things you’ll need to have to learn how to sew.
If you’re learning how to sew garments, you will want to have thread that matches your fabric. If you’re learning how to sew on a multi-color print, choose a thread color to match the background of the fabric, though you might want to have a spool of thread that contrasts as well if you want to add details like topstitching that you want to stand out. There are many types of thread at your local sewing store, and you can learn more about each one in our upcoming article about thread choices. For now, you’re looking for words like “all-purpose”, “general purpose”, “sew all”, or a basic polyester or cotton thread. Some cautions: terms you want to make sure to avoid on your thread choice are: embroidery, elastic, monofilament, metallic, serger or overlock (unless purchasing it for that usage), glazed or hand-quilting thread, silk, rayon. These threads all have their purposes, but for general sewing, you want to stick with either polyester, cotton, or cotton-wrapped polyester. Some sewists choose their thread type to match their fabric type, and therefore would only use cotton thread when working with cotton fabric, but you can also learn how to sew successfully by using a polyester or polycotton thread with almost any fabric.
We covered needles earlier but wanted to mention other types of needles. In addition to having a variety of machine needle types, you also want to have a package of hand sewing needles. These often come in a multipack that will serve most general sewing uses. Sometimes you need to do a little hand-sewing on a garment or home décor item, so having a selection of hand sewing needles is important.
Everyone who is learning how to sew should have a few pairs of good-quality scissors. As you become part of the sewing community or if you’ve ever had a friend or family member who sews, you will learn that some sewing enthusiasts are very protective of their scissors, and for good reason. Good scissors are an investment and a nick or ding in the blades can cause frustration when you’re cutting out your fabric, trimming threads or seam allowances, or performing any cutting step in the process. You’ll want to have a good pair of cutting shears, which are a larger pair of scissors used to cut out fabrics. In addition, having a pair of basic (read less expensive) scissors for cutting paper patterns or other non-fabric functions is handy as well. And a good pair of small scissors with a sharp point will be convenient for trimming threads, clipping curves, and other tasks that require you to do fine cutting. Pinking shears are another pair of scissors you might consider for garment sewing. They cut that zigzag edge you’ve seen on precut fabric—that zigzag cut helps to keep your woven fabric from raveling.
Other tools and equipment
A well-stocked sewing basket will make learning how to sew much easier. Items you’ll need include pins, marking tools like tailor’s chalk or erasable fabric pens, a measuring tape, a 6″ metal ruler, a seam ripper (your best and worst friend). Start with these tools and then determine what else you need as you decide what projects you’ll tackle. If you’re sewing a lot of garments, you might want a hem marker or pattern weights. If you’re quilting, you’ll need a rotary cutter, self-healing mat, and an assortment of quilting rulers.
A few other tools that aren’t necessary but may make learning how to sew easier include a pincushion or pin magnet, sewing clips (one brand is Wonder Clips by Clover) which are great for holding layers of fabric in place without shifting which can happen occasionally when you pin, and a bobbin holder (to hold your extra bobbins). This might sound silly, but a magnet on a wand, a tool used on construction sites to pick up lost nails, can be very handy to have around to pick up pins that seem to find their way under your sewing table or if you happen to spill your container of pins all over the floor (happened to a friend… ok, me, it’s happened to me).
Lastly, you’ll need an iron and ironing board. Some fabrics call for steam while others can’t withstand the heat needed for steam. But no matter the fabric, you will most likely be pressing seams open or in one direction, pressing darts or gathers, and overall trying to get creases and fold lines out of fabric, so you’ll need an iron and ironing board if you’re learning how to sew. There are also other ironing surfaces that are sometimes used when making garments. These alternative surfaces, called tailor’s hams or seam rolls, are hard-stuffed and fabric-covered, and allow you to press “shape” into the garment rather than pressing it flat. Basically, it fills the space your body would fill and allows you to press to that shape, which can keep you from adding creases to no-longer-flat clothing. For instance, it can be used to mimic a shoulder and help you press the cap of the sleeve in place, or let you press the darts that will help a fitted garment lay beautifully over your curvy body parts. While these hams and rolls aren’t needed for your first steps in learning how to sew, if garment sewing is going to be part of your sewing journey, keep an eye out for these items. Also, there are mini irons that can be used effectively with this type of shaping. They’re also handy to have on a pressing surface next to you as you sew, for when you might just need to press a seam quickly.
Now that you know the basics of what you’ll need if you want to learn how to sew, check out part two of How to Sew to learn about making decisions about patterns, fabrics, and notions, and also starting to put a needle to fabric.