Sewing tips

I did a post on this in the past, but I thought it would be useful for those who are starting out for the first time in dressmaking, these tips might come in handy.

The main thing is to have fun with it, but here are some advice that I wish I’d known when I started off. I’ve added my own tips to the 3 that Whitney posted on Suzannah’s blog, Adventures in Dressmaking, but if anyone has any further advice to add, I’d be happy to update this page.

Here goes:

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Working on my dressmaking projects

Kick Fear Out The Door

This is Whitney’s third tip, but I feel like this should come first. A lot of people start off with a fear of the unknown – ‘it’s a new venture and I’ve never done this before, so where do I start?’, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing!’ or even ‘I can’t believe you made that! I don’t think I can ever do what you’ve done’. It’s as simple as finding the courage, knowing you’ve got the skills to do the same thing and going for what you want. If you’ve ever had to mend socks or holes in shirts by hand, done some sewing in high school Home Ec classes, it’s those skills you need to make a dress, except it’s not as straight forward as making a checkboard print cushion cover. It’s a learning curve, but everyone has to start somewhere, right?

Know Your Body

There’s nothing worse than choosing a dress pattern to make your own dress, or even going clothes shopping for that perfect dress to wear to a wedding or a top to wear on a nice sunny day, to realise it emphasises your problem areas when you don’t want to. Or to buy something that’s meant to be in your size, but realise after the return period that it was too big for you. Knowing your body means choosing something that will flatter your shape. Personally, I’ve got a slim waist, but wide hips that can look unproportionate to the rest of my body in photos (believe me, people have come up to me – including a friend – and told me I’ve got ‘great childbearing hips’. Go figure) so I try to find styles that will emphasise my slimmer torso area, but minimise everything else. For a ‘small’ person, I’m also known for my suprisingly broad shoulders and I’ve also got a long torso in addition to my wide hips. Need I go on?

Find Your Own Style

You know what you like and you know what will look good on you. The key for me is to find dresses with a more fitted bodice and an A-line skirt, so it flows from the fitted waist and the fact that it flows from there means my hips don’t look so…childbearingly good anymore. Don’t choose something that you think is ‘in fashion’ and go with the trend if you don’t feel comfortable wearing it. You should be wearing something that you like, that will bring in your individual personality and style. Like the dress I’m in the process of perfecting with my Dutch fabric. Remember the fitted bodice and flared A-line skirt?

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New Look #6723 pattern

I’m not one for sweetheart necklines though, so I made some adjustments so it means I’ve got a A-line dress with a V-neck and floaty sleeves instead of princess-cuffed sleeves. Once I’ve finished with my dress, I’ll post a tutorial on how I adjusted neckline of the original pattern.

Start small, dream big

If you go back to my very first post, you’ll find that after those high school Home Ec classes and before I started dressmaking, I hadn’t sewn anything. At all. I decided to start off, I would make a dressmaking notebook with terminology which might come in handy. Then I read about the book by Rosie Martin DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection in an issue of Marie Claire and it inspired me to make those wishful thoughts reality. Learning how to make your own clothes without dress patterns, really?

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DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection by Rosie Martin, £11.48 from Amazon UK

I must confess, I’ve tagged pages for things I want to make from the book, but then I was distracted by my fruitless search for that perfect A-line skirted shirt dress that I finally ended up making myself using a vintage dress pattern. I’m still aiming to make that dress with a plain block colour top and a metallic threaded tweed skirt.

The other great thing is the patterns you can get from BurdaStyle which I’ve previously posted about for its inexpensive price tags, labels all their patterns with a level of difficulty. If you’ve never done any dressmaking before, why not start with their free Novice patterns? All patterns, whether bought in a packet or downloaded from BurdaStyle come with step by step instructions.

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Drawstring crêpe satin summer top, free from BurdaStyle

Fancy isn’t always better

If you feel daunted by all the information you’re trying to take in, having fancy equipment that you don’t know how to use won’t help. Where do you start with buying a good quality sewing machine? What kind of tools will you need? How much fabric will you need for a top/dress/skirt? Stick with the basics – if you’ve never made any item of clothing before, cotton is sturdy enough not to stretch/slip/rip etc. All you really need in terms of tools is a pair of thread scissors, a good strong pair of fabric scissors (make sure you don’t use these to cut anything else, it’ll dull the blade otherwise), a pair of pinking shears (they’ve got zig-zag blades and helps reduce/prevent further fraying on non-woven fabrics), a seam ripper/stitch picker (to unpick any stitching you want to remove), needle, thread and pins.

When it comes to sewing machines, getting one with all the fancy trimmings is great, it’ll last you a long time, but if you don’t know how to work it, I’d advise starting on a basic one that does a range of stitches, like this one from Brother:

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Brother Sewing Machine #LS2125, £99.99 from Amazon UK

It has 14 different types of stitches (zig zag, straight and even has a button hole setting) and isn’t as fancy as the computerised ones. Personally, starting off with a basic one while you get your bearings would help build up your confidence better than starting with one that’s got too many functions that overwhelms you. I bet you’re now thinking, I wonder what you use then?

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My trusty old Singer sewing machine

It’s really a hand-me-down sewing machine, a really old vintage Singer one, that does 2 types of stitches (straight or zig-zag), but it does what I need it to do and that’s all I really need. It used to belong to my OH’s parents’ neighbour who passed away and because he’s not been using it too much, I now use it frequently for all my dressmaking and craft needs.

Do a fitting every step of the way

It might sound silly, but where patterns tell you the size you need to make your dress into to fit the body measurements they’ve listed, rarely does the human body conform to those measurements. For example, I’ve learned that when I was in the process of adjusting the pattern for my current project, the top part was a pattern size smaller than the size for the waist down (I’ll tell you more about that when I do my next post on adjusting the original dress pattern). So before you decide you’re ready to take that leap and put in your line of stitching for the side seams, attaching the skirt to the bodice, finishing the hem of your top/skirt or adding that zipper, try it on while it’s all still pinned together. Wear it inside out so the pins don’t prick you when you’re putting it on or wearing it. Believe me, it’s a hassle when you have to unpick those stitches that took so long to put in because it ended up being too tight/loose – if you’re trying it on while it’s still pinned, at least you can adjust it before it goes under the needle.

Always back-stitch the beginning and ends

Back-stitching is the technique you use when you get the sewing machine to make backward stitches, over the ones you’ve just done in a forward direction. So you basically stitch your garment as normal and personally, when I start, I push the button (on other sewing machines you lift the lever) and the needle does stitches over the ones you’ve just done and when you let go, it continues where you’ve left off. This means that your beginning and end bits are secure and there’s less chance of thread coming apart because you cut the ends too short. Another personal touch I add is when I start or finish any stitches, I leave a length of about 2 inches of thread hanging off the ends. It means I’ve got enough length to work with comfortably, and for added security from doing back-stitching, I also hand-knot the loose ends 3 times at the top and bottom of the line I’ve just sewn before snipping off the ends.

Personalising what you make with that special touch

When you feel the inspiration to make something, it should be because you want to enjoy it. How many times have you walked into a shop to find something you like, but then realise there’s one itty bitty thing that puts you off actually buying it? I’ve had this happen to me more times than I can count. Making it suit you is the most important aspect of dressmaking or any craft project. Why make a leopard print maxi dress if you’re never going to wear it? Want a tiger print maxi dress to fit a petite person, but want to make it glamourous? Add a beaded ribbon around the armholes or neckline to give it that extra sparkle! It’s the little things you want to add to what you make that gives you that little feeling of joy and pride in what you’ve made, knowing that you’ve made it yourself and it’s exactly what you’re looking for.

My moments of pride were making my first shirt dress then making what I really wanted – a tartan shirt dress

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My second dressmaking project, the tartan shirt dress

Rome wasn’t built in a day

Dressmaking takes time, just as with anything else you do – baking, cooking, painting, sculpting, gardening…Especially if you’ve never done it before, patience is key. Even if you get it wrong, it can be frustrating (more about that when I’ve actually finished with my current dressmaking project) but don’t worry that you didn’t get it right the first time. Unpick the stitches, make the necessary adjustments and learn from your experience to remember for next time. This is where checking the fit of the garment when it’s still pinned can help with some of that frustration. If it’s getting to be too much and you’re getting too frustrated/stressed, leave it for a while and go back to it when you’re feeling fresh.

If in doubt, ask the experts

Now, I don’t mean the professional kind that charges you by the hour. I mean people just like you and me who are more than happy to share their experiences and advice with each other whenever one gets in a pickle. Some like to start their dressmaking journey by joining a class and having the freedom of consulting the instructor, but for those who like to do it themselves without paying the high price tag of going to classes for a couple of hour weekly, scouring through threads (pun not intended) and posting a question when you can’t find what you’re looking for in forums is the way to go – inexpensive (try free) advice which can come instantly or take a little bit of time, usually the next day or in a few days. Don’t forget these people have their own lives too, they don’t work for the forums and only browse when they’ve got time so if you don’t receive a reply immediately, don’t panic!

The Sewing Forum is a good way to get advice for your dressmaking and sewing needs, but starting with this site by clothes-press is also a useful start.

Have a cuppa, sit back and relax, and above all, have fun!

Last but not least, don’t forget you’re doing this as a hobby. It’s not something you can do perfect the first time and you’re not being graded on what you make. If the joy of making something is taken out of the equation, what do you have left to motivate you? Before I started my current dressmaking project, it had been months since I last made something, namely faux fur snoods because I was obsessed and decided I needed to share it with everyone who was interested (my family and colleague who had friends and family also interested in purchasing some from me). Finding the right project means knowing what you want, finding the right fabric and making it work. Need a stuffed toy to gift to someone’s kid as a Christmas present? Know someone who would love a zipper-beaded bracelet? Find a tutorial for making it (Google is your new best friend for finding those small, unknown bloggers posting their tutorials) and make a personalised gift for that friend or loved one!

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Beaded-zipper bracelet tutorial posted on Craft & Fun. The instructions are in Italian, but the photos are pretty self-explanatory so don’t worry if you don’t understand the language

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An alternative style of the zipper-bracelet by Cut Out + Keep

2 thoughts on “Sewing tips

  1. Good advice. I’ve got my sewing machine which I’ve had for 25 years, and a dressmakers dummy my size that I got last year, and a big goal to make some clothes, which I used to do as a teenager (a very long time ago). Must get on with it! I see I’m going to have to come back to this post to follow up on all the links when I have some time.

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