Sewing is a skill. It takes time and lots and lots of practice to learn it and get it right, but we all start somewhere – everyone is a beginner at some point. One of the questions I get asked most often is what I recommend for a new sewist: the best machines, the easiest patterns, the most user-friendly fabrics. Quite frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken me the entire year and a half I’ve been blogging to address it. (I’ve been distracted by pretty fabrics!) So, I thought with the start of a new year it was a great time to talk about a few things you’ll need if you’re just starting your sewing journey.
First things first, a good quality sewing machine is absolutely essential. If you’re really serious about getting into the craft, buying the best sewing machine that your budget allows is the way to go. I always recommend that, because there are a lot of great sewing machines out there that don’t break the bank, and they do everything you need them to do. Last year, I took the HUSQVARNA VIKING® DESIGNER JADE™ 35 for a test drive, and it’s a great sewing and embroidery machine for a beginner. But if you don’t need embroidery capabilities, I would recommend the SINGER 4425 Heavy Duty sewing machine.
I own this machine, and it is reliable, sturdy, and has a lot of basic, built in functions that come in handy, like the automatic, one-step buttonhole. There’s also six basic stitches and four stretch stitches, so you can sew both wovens and knits with ease. I like the idea of a heavy duty machine for beginners because you can mess up and make mistakes (and we all do) and a machine like this is so tough it won’t miss a beat. And as you build up your confidence and gain experience, this machine comes is exactly what you need for sewing more challenging projects like handbags and jeans and heavy wool coats.
In the beginning it is really, really easy to tackle too much. When I first started sewing, I was so excited to learn and make things that I ended up with a bunch of so-so projects that were very rushed and I eventually tossed them. The best thing you can do for the first little while is go for one project at a time. I speak from experience – being overwhelmed only leads to frustration and you waste your time and fabric. Start with simple patterns, and slowly make your way up to things like zippers and buttonholes. Look for patterns with a wrap design and things that aren’t too fitted. Closures and alterations can come later.
Pajamas is a great place to start for a beginner sewist. Jammies are usually pretty straightforward (nothing too complicated to sew) and because they’re designed to be loose fitting you don’t have to worry about getting the fit just right. There’s a lot of basic concepts in pajama patterns that make a great foundation to build upon, like easy hems and seam finishes and drawstrings.
“Lifestyle” or “five easy pieces” patterns are also a great option for beginners. Oftentimes, the designs are more simple and easy to sew, so there’s usually a number of projects to choose from. I like this Vogue pattern because there’s a lot of really nice pieces in it, and not one is too complicated or difficult. The pants actually wrap around you with one button in the front and back, so there’s no worrying about a zipper, and the shell and poncho are fantastic basic pieces. How great would those pants be in linen at the beach?!
This pattern has even more concepts in it, like using bias tape, sewing French darts, attaching trim, and elastic waistbands (on the shorts), but not one of those things is something a beginner can’t tackle.
Sewing is all about concepts that build on one another. Once you’re familiar with some basics and are comfortable with the construction process, you can apply those skills to more “advanced basics” like swishy dresses with bias tape finishes and blouses with sleeves and garments with pockets and gathers.
When you’re just starting out, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the fabrics out there. Here’s my best advice: stick with cotton, linen, and lightweight denim and wool and ignore the rest. Just because you’re new to sewing and working with only a handful of fabrics doesn’t mean that your projects have to look like beginner projects, so don’t think that working with a few fabrics is limiting. I work with cotton and linen all the time, and I use simple patterns all the time too – simple and easy doesn’t mean it’s bad!
Save rayon, silks, sequins, and prints that require precise matching (plaid, stripes, directional prints) for later. Investing in a book that explains all the different fabrics and how to use them is a must. You’ll be glad you have that resource, and it’s something you’ll reference for years. There’s lots of great books out there, but these are two of my favorites. I own an older version of this Fabric Savvy book, and it’s a pretty comprehensive guide to fabric, and it gives you information on what size needle and interfacing to use which is really helpful.
This is also a book I’d recommend. This one is nice because it shows different fabrics as they’ve been used by designers on the runway and in collection. It’s informative and inspiring.
Just like anything else, being good at sewing takes practice and time. But it’s also not an insanely difficult thing to master. Half the battle is accurate cutting and pressing, pressing, pressing. Invest in a nice pair of scissors and a good quality iron. I use these scissors, and I love them so much I have two pairs.
As far as irons go, there are tons of good, inexpensive options. I’ve used Rowenta for years, but Reliant is also good and Black & Decker makes a good iron too. This Rowenta iron is similar to the one I have, and I love it. (I have a “Master” and this one is a “Pro Master.” Either way, both are great.)
Beginners will also want to invest in a sewing kit with a few tools like a seam ripper, hem gauge, thread, and needles. Getting into sewing will cost a little money, but you can do it without spending a fortune. Nice cotton fabrics are pretty inexpensive, and grab patterns during a sale – which happens all the time. And here’s a few tips that will help lead to sewing success:
I’m always telling folks to “go for it!” and “keep sewing!” because I know how rewarding sewing is, and I want everyone to experience it. And that’s not to mention how fantastic it is to be able to make clothes that you can’t find anywhere else that are a true representation of who you are and what you want to say with your style.
There’s no reason whatsoever to be intimidated by sewing. Besides a few obvious things like a sewing machine and fabric, you just need a healthy amount of desire and determination to get into it. I hope this post helped answer some of the questions you have, but if there’s anything I’ve forgotten let me know. Leave a comment or shoot me an email, and I’ll get back with you. I don’t know about you, but I have never been more inspired about a new year – let’s sew!
P.S. I post updates on Instagram occasionally, but it’s been a while since I shared our first floor remodel with you here. Things are coming along, and we’ll have walls again next week. Cabinets will be installed at the end of the month, and we’ve picked paint colors and countertops. My dad was in town last week to help us, and I loved having him here. He helped me figure out a new furniture arrangement in my studio too, which was a huge help. I’ll write more about my studio in the coming weeks, but here’s a look at our house in its current state:
We’re going with white and grey, and quartz countertops. (Basically obsessed with everything in this picture!)
Ty and my dad taking out the horrible built-ins at the top of the stairs. Those are the stopping point for phase one of this whole remodel, and it’s so much brighter and open with them gone.
We’re finally getting to the point where things start to get put back and rebuilt, so I’m looking forward to the next few weeks. In the meantime, I can retreat to my studio and sew! 🙂
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Endings are always bittersweet, and the big finale of this giveaway project is no exception. The sweet part, however, is only because I’m super excited to take a nap and relax for a couple days. Otherwise, I’m so not ready to see this come to a close. What fun it’s been! I have to say, too, that the fun really started a couple months ago when this idea first came up. Figuring out how to structure this thing, scheduling it, reaching out to brands, planning and making all the projects – that was nothing but a good time. I wish we could have done more!
For this last day of the Holly Jolly Christmas Giveaway event, we’re pulling out all the stops. There’s a very Christmas-y finale dress (ooh-la-la), a little sparkle (of course), a JOANN gift card (who doesn’t need one of those?), and a one-year subscription to Threads magazine (because learning is important).
Wait, I think I’m forgetting something . . . oh, yes, that’s right, today’s winner is getting a sewing machine! (I’m sorry, I just had to keep the suspense going a little longer!) HUSQVARNA VIKING® is giving one lucky sewist a brand new TRIBUTE 145M Anniversary Sewing Machine. I am absolutely thrilled that today’s winner is getting this machine. To really bring things full circle, I’ll tell you this: I entered a contest hosted by HUSQVARNA VIKING® a few years ago and won. And what did I win? The 140th Anniversary Tribute sewing machine. So, to whoever wins today: we’ll be sewing machine twins!
Here’s mine, sitting next to my H|CLASS™ 200S overlock machine:
This is a fantastic machine, and it can sew anything under the sun. I refer to mine as my “workhorse” machine, because I’ve really put it to the test over the years. Name the fabric and that machine has sewn it – and with ease. I sew all of my sequin and tulle garments on it, and I trust it to sew leather and thick denim too. No doubt this 145th Anniversary version is just as reliable, and it comes with a few bonus presser feet (gathering foot, clear piping foot, and the braiding foot – all helpful).
For today’s post, I wanted a finale dress that was both special enough to be considered a finale dress but also still my style. A few months ago, I found this delicious rayon/nylon blend ponte knit at JOANN. I’ve used the same fabric for previous projects and raved about it, so when I saw it in this rich, deep Kelly green I had to have it. I had no idea at the time what I would make with it, but I loved the color instantly. Fast forward to December and the finale dress I needed. I wanted something that was floor length with a mermaid style skirt, and it had to have sleeves. Enter, McCall’s 6886 for what is now the fifth time (see version one here and versions 2-4 here). Because I wanted a mermaid style skirt, I knew I could achieve the look simply by adding a circle skirt to the bottom of the dress. I was just careful to watch the proportions and make sure I didn’t make it too long or too short.
Today’s winner will also receive a $50 gift card to JOANN.
The beaded leaf appliques are from Britex Fabrics in San Francisco. I got them in July and, again, I was just waiting for the right project to fall into place. Without them, the dress is well fitting and pretty but a little dull. I like the placement of that detail because it highlights some curves in a very sophisticated, mature way, and it draws the eye up. The appliques are attached to the dress by hand. I absolutely love this dress, but I might remove the mermaid skirt eventually so I can get more wear out of it. Or, I might be able to just shorten it to ankle length. Either way, without the floor length skirt it’s instantly appropriate for a lot more occasions – and those gorgeous appliques need to be seen!
The last goody in this giveaway is yet another item that is not only exceptionally useful but also special to me. In college, one of my professors gave me a subscription to Threads magazine, and I’ve read it ever since. We live in a world of internet personalities and wannabes posing as experts – so information is readily available, but it’s not always the right information. Threads is not only the premier resource for how to do things the right way, but it’s also a consistently inspiring magazine to read. I particularly enjoy the tips from readers. I’ve picked up a number of helpful hints in that section. Today’s winner will receive a one-year subscription to Threads magazine.
My favorite professor (the same professor who gave me the Threads subscription) gave me a few boxes of her Threads magazine catalog a couple years ago, and they are now part of my cherished sewing library. She had not only read each one but made notes in the articles and tabbed helpful information. Some of the issues are from the 90s so the styling and fashion trends reflect that, but the information is no less helpful and inspiring.
A few of the issues from my professor’s stash:
The winner of today’s giveaway will receive:
Thank you all so very much for participating in this giveaway event. I’ll be back tomorrow to announce the winner of today’s giveaway along with a little recap and a look ahead and what’s coming up next week. I’m so excited about everything you’ve won, and I hope you enjoy it for a long, long time. Remember, get your entries in before 11:59PM central time today.
Right off the bat, let me say the following: this dress is magical and I love it. That statement makes me laugh because if I only knew a long time ago what I know now, you better believe I’d have more than just four versions of this dress. (See the first one here.) I have had this pattern – and genuinely wanted to make it – for a really long time. Longer than I’d like to admit, because I consider myself a pretty fearless seamstress, one who normally doesn’t let the “what if it doesn’t fit/look right/flatter me” mentality get in the way of a project or new idea. This dress, however, is different.
We all know the feeling of a failed or disappointing project. It stings, and the only thing worse than trying on something unflattering or unattractive or what-have-you is trying on something that is any of those things, except . . . you made it. Right?! It’s such a waste! And it happens to all of us, so that concern was always in the back of my mind about this dress until, one day, I decided to get over it and just make it. Fast forward a couple of months, and I have three new versions. I made two small fitting adjustments (swayback and grading down a size at the waist), and it’s one of the easiest things I’ve ever sewn. Easy to sew and quick to sew – and all the positive reviews you’ve seen for it are true. Somehow, this dress looks good on everyone. This pattern is a versatile design that translates into a lot of different, wearable looks, which we sewists can appreciate.
I wanted something work-appropriate, a version that was a little more casual/everyday, and a special occasion dress in a knockout fabric. The navy super stretch denim, navy floral scuba knit, and the white super stretch denim (used as the underlining for the sequin mesh) all came from JoAnn. The cracked ice sequin mesh came from Fabrics World last year. And no, the fabric suggestions on the pattern envelope don’t mention the super stretch denim or sequin mesh or scuba knit that I used, but all of them can work for this dress. The denim has a backing on it which makes it as stretchy as a knit, and the scuba is a stable knit with just enough stretch to work for this design.
We all need pieces in our closet that are appropriate for the office – and even better if they work for after-hours cocktails, right? This dress will work well for me year-round for countless different events, and I am absolutely over the moon about this fabric. I saw it at JoAnn a few weeks ago and knew it had to come home with me. It’s a lot of my favorite things in one fabric: navy blue, shimmer, florals, stretch. It’s just so pretty! (I don’t think it’s available online, but check your local store in case it’s still in stock.)
Construction of this dress was incredibly easy. I serged all the seams and went with a blind hem stitch to hem the skirt and sleeves. The neckline is turned under, turned under again, and stitched.
The denim version is my new go-to dress for running errands or traveling. It’s stretchy and comfortable, and it’s easy to toss in the wash. I combined the neckline from view E with with sleeves from view C for this version. All three of these dresses are the length from view E, simply because I like that length on me (a couple of inches below my knee). Attaching the neck band is pretty straightforward, but I did find that I had to clip the neckline at center front before sewing the band to the neckline, which is opposite the typical order of operations.
Last fall, I made Butterick 6244 in this creamy double wool, and it’s a nice outerwear piece with this dress. Here in Texas, we’re lucky to get a couple months of super cold weather, so it’s all about smart layers for the days when it’s too warm for a coat but too chilly to wear a dress on its own.
Now, for the showstopper. I can’t tell you how long I’ve been dreaming about this dress. When I bought this fabric over a year ago I knew exactly what I was going to do with it: a sequin skirt and this very dress. The skirt happened earlier this year and now, finally, the dress is a reality too. I make a lot of things, and I make a lot of things that I love, but this dress is pretty incredible. It’s classic and simple, but special and beautiful.
In order to hide seams and hems, I used the sequin mesh as the outer layer and the super stretch denim as the underlining. Basically, it’s the same concept I used to create the skirt in this fabric earlier this year. In place of hems that you turn up and stitch, I went with hem facings using the stretch denim. This does two things: it keeps the hem neat and clean and keeps the sequins off your skin. I wanted a prettier seam finish on the inside of the dress, so each seam is bias bound, and the hem facings (sleeve, skirt, neckline) are all sewn down with a hidden catch stitch.
To get a more personalized fit, I graded down a size at the waist and made a swayback adjustment to the back pattern pieces. This is an adjustment I have to make to most of my patterns, but it’s not always needed in knit garments. When I made this dress for the first time I didn’t make this adjustment and I should have. It’s probably not obvious to anyone but us seamstresses, but I wanted to take out some of that excess fabric before making these versions. Put simply, all “swayback” really means is that you’re curvy and there’s not enough of your back to fill out all that fabric.
Here, you can see the fabric that is pooling at my lower back in the first version of this dress:
To eliminate the excess fabric, you simply pinch it out, pin the excess so you know how much to remove from the pattern, and transfer that to your pattern piece. The adjustment starts at the side seam, but be sure to not lengthen or shorten that seam at all. We’re only interested in removing the fabric from the back.
A great resource for fitting patterns is a book called The Complete Photo Guide to Perfect Fitting, and it walks you through each step of this process really well. I’m on my own when I make adjustments like this (and yes, it’s a bit of a challenge), but I would recommend enlisting the help of a sewing buddy to help you with this if possible.
It’s an easy but significant adjustment to make. This is what the back of this dress looks like now:
Sewing your own clothes is a rewarding endeavor by itself, but adding pieces to your closet that are well made, flattering, and wearable is an exceptionally satisfying feeling. Love these dresses!
Special thank you to the McCall Pattern Company for sponsoring this post.