Beginner's Guide to Sewing
If you are just starting out or need to refresh some basic sewing skills, take a look at our basic guide here. We will continue to add more tips, so do keep coming back for more!
Choose a pattern by your measurements and NOT by your ready-to-wear size (it may not be the same size). Choose tops, dresses and jackets by bust and trousers or skirts by waist. See Understanding Patterns and Determine Pattern Size for more information.
Start with designs that are listed as Easy, Very Easy etc or that have the sewing time noted such as 1-hour, 2 hour. These will have fewer pieces to join together and thus will be easier to sew.
Read the instructions through carefully before you begin. If there are any sewing terms you don’t understand, check our Sewing Dictionary.
Following the pattern layout for the fabric width you are using and fold fabric as shown. Make sure the pieces are placed on fabric with straight of grain line (bold line with arrow head either end) parallel to the selvedges.
Transfer any placement marks for pockets, pleats, zips and darts to fabric using a vanishing marking pen, chalk pencil or tailor’s tacks.
HANDY HINT: Keep tissue pieces with fabric sections so you can refer to them quickly if need be.
It is very important to use a fresh needle with every project as blunt needles can cause all sorts of problems from skipped or broken stitching to snags and holes in the fabric. Also, use the right type of needle for the fabric being sewn – lightweight fabrics need finer needles, denim and heavyweight fabrics should be sewn with Jeans needles whilst stetchy fabrics need a ball point or stretch needle (see Know your Needles for more information).
Most needles are inserted with flat part of the shank to the back (check user manual). Unscrew the screw to push the needle up as far as possible and then tighten again – use screwdriver to make final turn to ensure the needle doesn’t work loose when sewing.
All machines follow a similar path from thread spool to needle, which takes them up over a loop/hook and between tension discs. With some, the thread simply falls neatly between the discs quite easily; with others it is necessary to take care placing the thread between the discs. If thread is not through the discs the stitching will be uneven, there may be some skipped stitches and/or thread breaking as it jerks from spool to needle. If this happens, take the thread out and retry.
HANDY HINT: Make sure the presser foot is raised and the needle is in the highest position which helps thread through the tension discs.
Another reason for jerking and uneven stitching is the thread spool jumping along the spindle. Hold it in place by adding a thread retainer disc to the spindle, pushed close up against thread spool.
Try the built-in stitches
Try out all the different stitches built-in to the sewing machine. Alter length and width to vary the finished look. Make samples and note the variations. For instance, a very close zigzag stitch creates a satin stitch. On basic, entry level models, the perfect stitch is achieved by trial and error, making adjustments to stitch length bit by bit.
The bobbin thread forms the under side of the stitch and the top thread the top side. The threads intertwine between the fabric layers so all that should be visible on the top is the top thread and on the bottom the bottom thread. If the bottom thread is coming up the tension may be too loose. If the top thread is visible on the underside, the tension may be too tight.
Try the different feet supplied – each machine comes with a small selection of presser feet. Most feet nowadays are snap-on or clip-on making them very easy to remove and replace. Depending on the type of foot, they have different length prongs, a larger or smaller hole through which the needle goes and the underside may have grooves to go smoothly over concentrated stitching, or an attached guard to guide fabric. Unfortunately feet look different depending on brand and even model so it is not easy to recognise a foot just by looking at it. However, those supplied will be listed in the users manual and all usually have a number or letter to identify them.
Using the right foot for the job really does make it easier. For instance, inserting a zip without using a zipper foot will mean the zip teeth will show when they shouldn’t because the stitching isn’t close enough to the teeth. An overlocking foot helps sew with the right swing of the needle falling off the fabric and thus the stitching overlocks the edge. A blind-hem foot helps create perfect blind hems easily and of course a buttonhole foot is used to make buttonholes neatly and evenly every time.
HANDY HINT: Whenever presser feet are changed, always turn the balance wheel by hand to lower and raise the needle before starting to stitch, to check the foot is correctly positioned and that the needle will go down the hole into the feed dogs without hitting the foot or throat place.
Straight stitches are the most commonly used type of stitch. These can include regular straight stitch of course but also ease stitch, stay stitch gathering or basting. The difference is in the length of stitch and the purpose of it. Often the description is not necessarily how the stitch is formed, more the purpose it is used for.
For instance, ease stitch is a slightly longer than normal stitch, sewn just within the seam allowance so that the fabric can be very gently pulled up/gathered, to fit onto another slightly smaller section. Stay stitch is a normal length stitch, again sewn just within seam allowance, that is used to keep the fabric from stretching whilst being handled. It is used at neck edges or armholes.
Zigzag stitches – the length and width can be altered to create bigger or smaller stitches that are formed wider apart or very close (for satin stitch – very close zigzag). For stretch fabrics, such as knits, T-shirting and jerseys, use a small zigzag stitch, or if available on your machine, a stretch stitch. This will help the seam flex and stretch as necessary to pull over your head etc, without the stitching breaking.
Zigzag stitching is also used to neaten raw edges. Stitch 2-3 mm from the seam stitching and then trim the seam allowance close to the zigzag stitch.
What stitch length? The fabric type and number of layers determines the correct stitch length. Sheer lightweight fabrics are best sewn with small stitches, thus start with stitch length of 2 mm whereas fleece fabric is thicker and needs a longer stitch length to prevent fabric puckering and threads breaking. Try a stitch length of 3.5 mm.
HANDY HINT: Try out stitch length (and width on zigzag stitches) on a scrap of the same fabric, same number of layers and with interfacing if applicable. Adjust the length and width until the stitching is perfectly formed – with only top thread visible on the top and bobbin thread visible on the bottom.
Pressing – always press seams before they are sewn over again. Pressing embeds the stitches and helps the seam lie flat. Press from the wrong side and then the right side, protecting the fabric with a press cloth (a piece of organza makes an excellent press cloth).
Clipping and notching curved areas – this will help the seam allowances lie flat when the fabric is turned through to the right side. Clip inner curves by snipping into the seam allowance diagonally. Notch outer curves by cutting small wedge shapes from the seam allowance.
This article was written and prepared by Wendy Gardiner, Editor of Sewing World magazine.
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