Learn How To Sew Part 2:
Selecting the pattern, fabric and other necessities.
So you want to learn to sew, and you learned about the machines, tools, and notions you’ll need to learn how to sew in part 1 of the How to Sew article, and now you’re ready to move forward and start sewing. Learn How To sew Part 2 will teach you how to select patterns, fabric and the other necessities of sewing.
Now that you know about the tools and machines needed, you’ll want to start considering what you’ll be sewing. What do you need for the next steps of learning how to sew?
Learn How to sew with a pattern:
If you’ve decided you want to learn how to sew, you’ve probably decided what you want to sew and that’s why you want to learn. But if not, the first step will be to find a pattern for your interests. If you’re brand new to learning how to sew, you’ll want to choose a beginner sewing pattern. Beginner garment sewing patterns are often less complex, with simple lines, a looser fit, and less detailing. Some beginner patterns may include zippers or button closures or elastic waistbands, but don’t fear, you’ll be sewing all of them in no time. We have loads of fabulous beginner sewing patterns on our site, and the ease of printing your pattern at home at any hour of the day is especially desirable. Our PDF patterns can easily be assembled by downloading them from our site in the size that you want, printing them on printer paper, and then taping or gluing the paper together. For our USA customers, we also offer an A0 pattern printing service that prints your RP sewing pattern on a wide format printer and ships it directly to your home so you can skip the assembly. Our PDF sewing patterns also come with step-by-step instructions and coordinating photos so even tricky steps are broken down to be first-timer friendly.
If you’ve never measured yourself before, we walk you through the process on our website, you’re going to measure the widest part of your bust, waist, and hips.
For the back-to-waist measurement, find the prominent bone that’s at the top of your spine/bottom of your neck—it’s about at the height of your shoulders. That’s where you start measuring and you measure down to your waistline. If you’re not sure where your waistline is, bend over like you’re going to touch the ground—where you bend, that’s your natural waistline.
You will find various nuggets of information in the pattern information. First, there should be information on that pattern’s sizing based on your body measurements, so you’ll want to take your measurements as mentioned above, using a flexible tape measure or measuring tape–not the kind a handyman uses for measuring a room, this one is made of plastic or fabric so it curves to the surface you’re measuring, namely YOU.
If you don’t fit the measurements for a single size as outlined, you might need to print the pattern out using multiple sizes and then grading in between the two patterns. Grading is just a simple way of saying cutting in between the two sizes. For instance, if your bust measurements matches a size 14 but your waist measurement matches a 12, you have a few options.
- You might want to adapt the pattern to match your sizes by gently connecting the lines between the two sizes so that the bust area remains a 14, but you gently ease over to the next size down for the waist measurement.
- You might decide that the garment is fine in the larger size and you wouldn’t notice the extra inch (which might be all there is as difference between the sizes) at the waist if the top isn’t fitted at the waist, for instance.
- Either way, make sure the part of you that aligns with the larger size is cut at the larger size. Sewing a garment allows you to customize the fit to your body, which is one of the perks of learning to sew, so you can make those small changes for better fit.
Another group of measurements that are often included in a pattern is finished garment measurements.
This gives you an idea of how a garment fits in various places (bustline, hipline), and also usually provides length measurements (back length from base of the neck or from the waist)—a real plus if you’re taller or shorter than the norm, or if you are shorter in the torso but longer in your legs or vice versa (sometimes referred to as being short- or long-waisted). Being able to tell whether a dress will be a mini or maxi on YOUR body and being able to adapt that without needing to go to a tailor or seamstress is another perk of learning how to sew. You want to make sure the garment measurement is enough larger than your body measurements, especially if the garment will be sewn from woven fabric (as opposed to knit, which stretches) or the garment will be very uncomfortable and ill-fitting. But you might find as you look at the numbers that the finished garment will be a little more billowy or loose-fitting than you’d prefer, so maybe you could go down a size. While you can always take in a garment and do fitting as you go, you want to start by considering fit before you cut out the pieces initially.
Fabric and notions to sew my pattern
The pattern information or description will tell you more about what type of fabric to use or which fabrics are or aren’t appropriate for the design of the garment. For instance, if you used a pattern for stretch leggings, but you sewed them with non-stretch denim, they wouldn’t turn out how you expected. Imagine choosing knit spandex for a flowy beach coverup, or lace for jeans-style pants. The suggested fabrics are just that, of course, but if you want the completed garment to look like the sample shown, choosing a similar style fabric is your best choice. Fabric bolts (the cardboards that fabric is often wound around when you purchase it at the store) or online fabric descriptions use common fabric names: denim, wool suiting, challis, chiffon, cotton, lace, rayon, etc. Sometimes the name used describes the fiber the fabric is made with, while other times, it may represent the “type” or style of fabric. The sturdiness or drape of a fabric—think not-yet-washed denim jeans versus a chiffon ballroom-dancing style dress—matters in garments. We sell fabric on our site and provide recommendations of fabrics that correspond to that pattern of your interest just in case you aren’t sure what type of fabric to buy.
One important note about fabric choices: Patterns sometimes mention whether the pattern will work well (or won’t work) with a directional print (like a stripe or a print with an obvious top or bottom, like lettering), or whether fabrics with or without nap will require extra yardage. Nap is the plushness of fabric like velvet. When working with a fabric that has a nap, the nap appears to change color when you brush your hand across it in one direction and then in the other. When making a garment out of something with a nap, such as velvet or a velour, you want the nap of each piece of your garment going in the same direction, typically. Sometimes, to cut all of the pieces with the same nap requires a different arrangement of the pattern pieces. Pattern pieces are usually arranged on the fabric for the most efficient use of the fabric, so pieces might fit together more like a puzzle, with the shoulder of a front piece, for example, next to the waistline of the back piece so the armholes can nestle together for the most efficient use of fabric. However, since that type of layout would mean that pieces cut from a napped fabric would have the nap going in opposite directions for the front and back, the pieces would need to be turned if you were cutting them from velvet, which will result in a less efficient use of the yardage, but a better-looking finished garment. So if you see a note or some asterisks referring to nap, and you’re working with a fabric that has a nap, be sure to purchase enough fabric to accommodate the change.
When you’re deciding on how much yardage to buy, first find the style of the garment you’re going to make. There might be sleeve options or top vs dress options. Once you’ve located the one you’re making, you’ll see a chart that has the sizes listed, and possibly the fabric width listed. Woven fabric may list two widths—45″ and 60″, while knits typically are only listed as 60″. Once you’ve found your fabric width, just follow along to find your size and the number listed where the two intersect is your yardage needed. You might also want to look for any mention of a second fabric, which might be listed as “contrast” or “accent”. Then, you also want to look for mentions of things like Interfacing, which you might also need to purchase by the yard (or partial yard)—pay attention if it mentions the weight of the interfacing or the width, and purchase accordingly. Then, as you look over the rest of the list, you might notice notions. They might also be broken out by the garment style—sometimes this is done by letter and sometimes by description, but either way, you want to make sure you purchase the items listed. Notions might include elastic (there should be a mention of the width and how much you need), buttons (again, listed by size and number), ribbon, hooks and eyes, snaps, etc. The pattern won’t mention thread, but of course, you want a thread that matches your fabric.
Since I mentioned interfacing, let’s talk a bit about that. Interfacing is a layer that’s added to provide stability and structure to a garment. The collar, cuff, and button placket of a buttondown shirt, for instance, gets its stiffness from interfacing. But there are lighter forms of interfacing that add support without as much stiffness. Interfacing may be woven, knit, or more of a non-woven (pressed-together fibrous sheet). It may be referred to as “sew-in” or “fusible”, the latter having little dots of glue that melts or fuses to your fabric when heated with a hot iron. Some patterns will mention which to use between sew-in and fusible, but might not mention the weight. The weight should correspond to the weight of your fabric. The heavier the fabric, the sturdier the interfacing can be. Pellon, a company that makes interfacing, has a handy guide to help you understand which interfacing can be used for what purpose. https://pellonprojects.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/pellon101-apparel1.pdf
You’ll want to refer to the pattern instructions and the instructions that come with fusible interfacing for the proper method of fusing.
Elastic is another product that might be listed for your project. There are different types of elastic, and most patterns will provide information about size and amount. A pattern might mention non-roll elastic, which is great for waistbands, or lingerie elastic which is soft and very pliable and often sewn in place. Elastic may be inserted into a casing (a folded-over tunnel of fabric—like the place where a drawstring would be in your sweatpants), where it moves freely, or sewn directly to fabric, as in lingerie elastic. Elastic types include woven, knit, and braid, and then, of course, there are some specialty elastics such as elastic thread and clear elastic.
Other items you might see listed include eyelets or grommets (metal pieces set into the fabric, like the metal rings on your tennis shoes or your hoodie hood), buttons (might be flat where you see the holes in the button or shanked where there’s a loop on the back of the button that you sew in place), snaps, hooks and eyes, zippers, single- or double-fold bias tape, hem tape, etc. If in doubt, join our Facebook sewing group and ask the community for help with your materials. Our Facebook Admins are always available to hop in and provide extra help!
Thread is, of course, a necessity when you are learning how to sew. For garment sewing, you want to use an all-purpose thread. If your garment is made with cotton fabric, you might choose to use a cotton thread, but in general, an all purpose polyester thread will work with most fabrics. For general sewing, you want to avoid decorative threads or rayon embroidery threads—those are best used for details like topstitching, not for sewing the seams of a garment. If you’re using a serger or coverstitch machine, purchase appropriate thread for those machines, as their thread differs from all-purpose thread used on your regular sewing machine.
Once you have your supplies in hand, there’s one more thing to consider before you cut out your fabric and start sewing. When sewing garments, it’s advised that you prewash and preshrink your fabrics, laundering them as you will the finished garment. That way, if there’s going to be any shrinkage in the fabric, it shrinks before you cut it out based on your measurements and adjustments to the pattern. Most fabrics have laundering information on the end of the bolt, so make sure when you’re purchasing your fabric, you make note of the care information. You’d hate to purchase dry-clean-only fabric to use for a casual summer romper, for instance, or for a child’s everyday garment. If you are making a special garment from dry-clean-only fabric, you don’t have to dry-clean the yardage ahead of time, as the shrinkage in a dry clean garment should be minimal or non-existent. And if you’re worried about color loss or bleeding with a fabric, prewash it alone with Shout Color Catchers or another color-catching item. There are also color stabilizing products on the market if you find that the fabric you’ve chosen bleeds in the pre-washing stage.
Let’s start actually learning how to sew:
First, you want to get comfortable using your machine, so be ready to do some practice stitching on scrap fabric.
Your machine has many settings to consider. For most of your sewing, especially in the beginning, you’ll be using the straight stitch and maybe a zigzag stitch. Refer to your machine’s operating manual for the settings for your particular machine, but you want to start by learning how to make a straight stitch, and where the markings are for your seam allowance. The seam allowance is the width from the edge of your fabric to the stitches, and for garment sewing, that is often 5/8″. You’ll want to be sure you know which mark on your machine is the 5/8″ mark. Some people like to put a guide there so that the fabric brushes along the guide, helping to keep their seam width consistent. Your needle may be able to be moved from the center position to the left or the right but for now, let’s leave it in the center. Before you thread your machine, you’ll want to wind a bobbin. Again, this process is sometimes machine-specific, but there will probably be illustrations on your machine that tells you exactly where to place the thread to wind the bobbin. The manual might show that you have to move some part of the mechanism in place to make it wind properly, and there might be a bobbin winding button, or you might have to press the power pedal to make the bobbin wind. Most of the time, when you’re winding a bobbin, there’s a setting on your machine that disengages the “sewing” mechanism while you wind the bobbin, so the needle doesn’t go up and down while you’re winding the bobbin on the top of the machine. You want a smooth-looking bobbin—it won’t look quite as smooth as the thread on your spool of thread, but it will be similar to that. If your bobbin is loopy, with loose-looking threads, something didn’t work right and you want to stop and correct the problem. Do not use a bobbin that has loose or loopy threads.
Insert the bobbin into the bobbin case or area (again, depending on if you have a case or a drop-in bobbin), following along in your manual. Make sure the thread is going in the direction indicated. Next, thread the top of your machine. Again, most machines have little notations on the machine telling you where the thread goes next, and many machines have online videos where you can watch the machine threading process to make sure it’s threaded properly. Be sure there is some tension on the thread once you’ve threaded it up to the needle, then thread the needle from front to back. Next, holding that thread end with your left hand, either turn the wheel on the right end of the machine or press the needle up/needle down button on your machine to bring the bobbin thread up from inside the casing to out of the hole in the needle plate. Once you have both the bobbin thread and the machine thread connected, you can bring them under the presser foot of your machine and toward the back of the machine. You want to have a tail of threads to start your seams, or the needle might come unthreaded if your top thread is too short.
To begin a seam, place the fabric on the bed of the machine, in front of the needle but under the presser foot. Put the presser foot down gently—most machines have a lever on the back of the machine to do this, while other machines might also have an extra lever, called a knee lift, that allows you to raise and lower the presser foot with a sideways motion of your knee. When the presser foot of your machine is down, the tension discs engage on the top of the machine, putting tension on the thread to enable the machine to make an even, consistent stitch. There is also tension on the bobbin, and the balance of those two tensions can sometimes get out of sync. How do you know you have tension issues? Usually, one thread will seem flat, like it’s just laying on the fabric, while the other thread is looped over it. Good tension basically has the top and bobbin threads crossing in the center of the fabric/fabrics, so if there are obvious loops of thread on the top of the bobbin, your tension is off and needs to be adjusted. Check your manual for guidance or find a video online for your machine that covers tension issues. If you can’t easily get your tension back to alignment, you might have to take the machine to a repair shop to have it adjusted.
When you start and end a line of stitching, you might want to secure the stitching with either a back-and-forth motion, taking a stitch or two in each direction, or with a stitching in place stitch. This type of stitching is called backstitching. Some machines have a button for backstitching, while others have a lever. Beginning and ending your seam with a backstitch locks the threads together so that the seam doesn’t open when you’re pressing the seam. Sometimes, if there will be another seam crossing over the initial seam, those stitches will be less likely to open up, but it’s good practice to secure all of the seams regardless of if they run the risk of opening up.
As you sew two pieces of fabric together to form a seam, these fabrics are typically sewn together with the right sides of the fabric facing each other, unless otherwise specified. That way, the seam allowance is on the inside (or wrong side) of the garment.
Depending on the fabrics being used, you might choose to finish the seams in some way to keep them from unraveling. Woven fabrics can unravel from the simple process of putting on and removing a garment, so doing something to keep them from unraveling will make a difference. There are several finishes:
- Pinking. Pinking shears are used to cut a zigzagged edge of the fabric. This zigzag design cut into the seam allowances helps to keep the fabric from unraveling. Some people choose to cut out their garment pieces with pinking shears, but oftentimes, you’re sewing and then trimming a seam allowance, so you might find yourself cutting the seam allowance a second time with your pinking shears. But if you think you’re going to handle the pieces a lot as you construct the garment, having the edges pinked might keep unraveling minimized as you’re working on the garment.
- A similar method is to stitch a zigzag stitch along all of the edges of the fabric pieces once they’re cut out. Again, you may end up trimming off some of the stitches, only needing to add them to a smaller seam allowance, but some people prefer this method. The zigzag stitch should be close to the edge; some people prefer it to actually have one leg of the zigzag just off of the fabric edge in order to lock that stitch around the cut edge to further cut down on fraying, while others prefer to have the stitch entirely on the seam allowance as a stopping point for fraying. You want to make sure that whichever you choose is leaving the fabric flat, rather than gathering it or reducing the seam allowance. Some sewists do all of the zigzagging before they start to sew, while others choose to do it after they finish a seam. Most of the time, you zigzag on each individual layer of fabric, rather than zigzagging the seam allowances together. This allows you to press the seam open, which is most common in garment sewing.
- Edgestitching is a straight stitch worked along the seam allowance. Some sewists combine edge stitching and pinking, while others just work the straight edgestitch to stop any unraveling beyond that point.
- French seams are a more advanced technique in seam finishing, but we love French seams! All of our patterns include steps to either serge or overlock your seams or create flawless French seams. To make a French seam, you sew the seam with the fabrics wrong sides together at ¼”, then turn them right sides together with the raw edges now captured between the two layers, and sew at 3/8″. This encapsulates the raw edges and provides a very tidy and sleek seam on the inside of the garment. This technique is frequently used for sheer fabrics to cut down on fraying while also adding to the structure of the seam.
- Serging or overlocking the seams requires a serger machine. The four threads encapsulate the raw edges while also sewing the seam; the serger threads over the raw edges of the fabric cuts down on raveling. Most store-bought clothing is finished with serged seams if you’re looking for an example of this finish in your home.
- There are other more advanced seam finishes, but for the beginning sewist, these basic options will provide you with a good base for creating well-made garments. You might find some of these other finishes have specialty stitches designated in your stitch options on your machine. They can be fun to experiment with—you might find a finish you love in your stitch settings.
When working with knit fabrics, the serger is ideal, as the four-thread stitch allows for the stretch of the fabric along the seamlines. However, you can still sew on knit fabrics using your regular sewing machine and a special ball point needle designed for knit fabrics. Check to see if your sewing machine has a special stitch designated as a knit stitch (back to your manual again!). If not, you can use a zigzag stitch that only mildly zigs and zags—basically what would be called a narrow but standard-length zigzag. You want to keep your stitch length about the same as or a little longer than you do for your regular straight stitch, but you want to have narrow movement in left-to-right width of the zigzag. Every machine defines that differently, and you might need to test the stitch to find the length and width you’re happy with. Here’s why the zigzag is important for sewing on knit fabric. Knit stretches, but our regular straight stitch doesn’t. If you use a zigzag, the knit fabric has more ability to stretch and the stitches stretch with it because they are patterned in a zigzag rather than a straight line. If you’ve ever heard stitches pop when you tugged on a knit fabric, that is probably because the stitches were in a straight line and didn’t allow for the fabric to stretch as you were asking it to before the pop. The downside of a wider zigzag is that the seam won’t be smooth, since some stitches will be deeper than others. So a narrow zigzag in a regular-to-longer length stitch is the solution if you want to work with knit fabric and don’t have a serger to sew and finish the seams. Some machines also have a multi-stitch zigzag that they recommend for stretch seams, so try that stitch if your machine has it as an option.
Another stitch you might want to know about is the basting stitch. Basting is used to temporarily stitch pieces of fabric together. These stitches can be made either by just lengthening your stitches or using the designated basting stitch on your machine, depending on what you want to do. Sometimes the machine basting stitch is much longer—used to baste layers of a quilt together for instance—while the simple lengthening of your regular straight stitch can be used for basting fabrics together to secure layers before adding more layers. Or it might be used to gather a piece of fabric. Gathering can be done by making a row or two of long basting/gathering stitches and leaving long tails at the beginning and end, and not doing anything to secure the stitches at the beginning or the end. Then the fabric is actually slid down the pairs of threads, forming small gathers between the long stitches. This method keeps the fabric in evenly and easily adjusted gathers.
Other stitches that you might want to explore on your machine are edgestitch, rolled hem, triple stitch, satin stitch (a very tight, wide zigzag sometimes seen on monograms), buttonhole, hemstitch or blind-hemstitch, and more. These are stitches you probably won’t use on your first projects, but you might want to read up on their uses in your manual. Some might require special feet or attachments that may have come with your machine or might need to be purchased.
Now it’s time to start sewing:
First, start with a simple project to get comfortable with your machine. Maybe it’s a fabric postcard, or a simple pillow cover—something with straight lines that doesn’t require a lot of fitting. Read through the instructions step-by-step and look up any words that are new for you. Follow each step for cutting and sewing, cutting the pieces based on the instructions in the pattern. Lay out the pieces as shown. Cut along the outer edge, taking the time to mark any markings on the pattern pieces. There may be dots, darts, or other shapes on the pattern along the seam allowance that need to be marked… these marks are used to align pattern pieces properly. Mark them with a pencil, chalk, or whatever sewing marking tool you prefer. Move through the cutting and then the sewing process, one step at a time. If your sewing machine has speed control (not just the pedal, but a setting where the machine has a “top speed” adjustment), you might want to move it to a slower stitch if you are just starting out. Some new sewists have a difficult time controlling the speed with just the pedal, so slowing the machine down overall helps them control their speed and keep their stitches straight.
One thing I learned the hard way is that sewing posture is important. Do not crouch over your machine and don’t let your head get too close to the machine. As a child learning to sew, the machine I learned on had an exposed take-up lever (the little thing after the tension disc mechanism that moves up and down) and I can’t tell you how many times it knocked me in the forehead because I had my face too close to the sewing machine. So sit back. Breathe. Relax your posture. Roll your shoulders back. Take breaks and stand up and dance it out once in a while. Walk away if something seems not to be working or right… you might need a minute or two to wrap your head around it.
If you make a mistake, take a breath and know that every sewing pro has had to tear out their fair share of stitches. Don’t panic. Most mistakes can be salvaged or solved.
And once your project is complete, be proud! Show off your new skills! Share photos with us in our Facebook Sewing Group or tag us on Instagram #rebeccapage. Start planning your next project as you continue to learn how to sew.