Things I've Learned from Sewing

(so that you don't have to)

Things I've Learned from Sewing
Photo by Darling Arias on Unsplash

A lot of people have taken up new hobbies since we've been in quarantine, and I'm no exception.

I've always been a crafty sort of person--in my 26 years on this earth, I've dabbled in crochet, knitting, embroidery, quilting, sewing, making those weird square plastic bracelets out of string--you name it, I've tried it.

Knitting has been my hobby of choice for the past decade or so, and I've not had much inclination to stray from it. Until I binge watched all of Bernadette Banner's videos on YouTube and thought, "You know what I need? I need to sew some historical clothing!"

Ever a fan of long, imposing skirts, I bought a historically accurate pattern, spent way too long trying to find my scissors, and dove in.

Because who takes time to read instructions?

Tip 1: Read the instructions on the pattern.

I don't like to wait. I'm a person who enjoys instant gratification. I attempted to exercise good judgement by skimming the two pages of instructions included, and went ahead and did things my own way.

Pro tip: A good pattern will show you how to lay your fabric so that you can get the right amount of pieces cut out in the most efficient way. I would recommend that any beginner starts with a pattern that doesn't need to be matched, or a fabric that has a nap (think velvets, corderoy, or prints that need to go in a certain direction).

Tip 2: Take the time to cut the notches and arrows

This is crucial to match up your pattern pieces when your cutting resembles a kindergartener trying our scissors for the first time. Your edges will not be straight, your hems will not match, but if you take the time to cut out the little annoying bits and put them together, you have a chance of making something that resembles actual clothing.

These little tools are also handy when you're trying to figure out which side of the pattern goes where. Notches don't go on top of arrows, and vice versa.

This is also what alerted me to the fact that I flat lined my skirt panels on the wrong side of some of my fabric pieces. More on that in a minute.

Tip #3: Choose your fabrics carefully

It's easy to imagine your sewing machine whirring as satin, silk, and chiffon garments come off your needle. But wait!

Those fabrics are slippery. And that's not to say you can't use them, you can! But they're often more expensive than cotton, and the slipperiness of them makes it hard to sew, especially if you're new to sewing machines. You'll need to adjust the tension of the thread and use the correct thread in order to sew a seam that doesn't pucker.

I knew this. I had only ever sewn cotton quilting fabric before. And I still left Joann Fabrics with a cotton suiting and a red satin lining. Because I hate myself.

To date, I have sewn one seam that doesn't look like complete and utter garbage. I blame the fabric.

Tip #4: Choose the appropriate thread

You can't just grab thread in a color that matches your fabric. You also need to match the thread to the fabric that you're using, and the method in which you're sewing.

If you're using cotton fabrics, use cotton thread. Make sure that if you're using a machine, get thread that is meant for machine sewing. Most stores will have the thread separated into specialized sections, so read carefully. (Also, serger thread is different than sewing machine thread. Don't confuse the two).

Tip#5: Have patience

I've mentioned that I enjoy instant gratification. While sewing in general is quicker than, say, knitting a sweater, you still need to exercise a fair bit of restraint and endurance.

Cutting the pattern pieces out takes time. Then you need to pin the pieces onto the fabric. Maybe use some tailor's chalk to trace, if you're feeling fancy. Then cut out the fabric, label your pieces, press them....and in the case of this pattern, flatline the skirt panels.

Flatlining is not, in this case, dying. Flatlining is when you baste the outer fabric and the lining together, and treat them as one panel of fabric, instead of sewing both pieces separately and joining them later. This is a more historically accurate method of sewing, and let me tell you, if you have odd fabrics joined together, it's very apparent that they didn't have sewing machines back then.

It takes a lot of patience to get the correct tension to push four layers of fabric through a sewing machine, especially when two of those layers are trying to make a great escape. It takes patience to do things the right way, to make a piece of clothing that you can be proud of. And even if you don't get the result you want, it takes patience to either unpick miles of stitching to redo it the right way, or to start the whole process over again.

Tip #5: Google is your friend

Learning to sew is like learning a language--you may read over your pattern and go, "what the hell is a placket?" "What's blind hemming?" "How do I make a buttonhole?"

There's no shame in not knowing what something means. The internet has so many videos and tutorials that we don't need to rely on static images in books anymore. As a visual person, this has helped me out so much more than puzzling out diagrams or trying to follow written instructions. And chances are, someone has made the same pattern you're trying to make at one point, and may have had the same questions. If you're using a commercial pattern from Simplicity, Butterick, McCall, etc, you can often get the best results by searching "Butterick 7047 pattern help."

Tip #6: It's ok to walk away for a bit

Sometimes nothing goes right. Your machine jams, you realize after sewing a 1,785 mile seam that you ran out of bobbin thread halfway through, you poke yourself with one too many needles...the list goes on.

It's ok to put your project away for a little while, have a glass of wine (or something stronger, you do you), and take a mental break. Odds are, you'll be in a better frame of mind when you return to it and actually have more success finishing than if you pushed through and made a wonky shirt that you hide in the back of your closet in shame.

Not that I've done that...ever...

Happy sewing.

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Maurisa Cerilli
See all posts by Maurisa Cerilli