Sewing Tips & Inspiration for Beginners

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Just starting to sew? This is just for you!

You Got This

So… you’re the new kid.  You’ve decided to join this wonderful world of modern sewists.  It’s a little overwhelming, right?  It sure was for me when I first started out (not too terribly long ago!).

From the very start, I relied tremendously on blog and YouTube tutorials when I was unsure about a specific skill or technique.  And let’s just say I was unsure A LOT.  Luckily, in this day and age, becoming a competent, self-taught sewist is completely doable!  I encourage anyone new to the sewing world to be curious, determined, and resourceful… all the answers are out there in this big, wide, interwebbed world.

I’d say one of the most important things is to be patient with the process AND with yourself!  You’re more than likely to face thread tension problems, cutting mistakes, confusing patterns, broken needles,  bird nests (when your thread gets all bunched up), skipped/uneven stitches, and a fair amount of seam ripping.  There may also be projects that’ll leave you frustrated and deflated.  Consequently, it may be tempting to stash your machine in the back of the closet and decide sewing isn’t for you.  I sure hope you don’t, though.  I assure you, it gets easier and more fun as you improve your skills with experience and practice.

Stick to simple, beginner-friendly patterns at first.  Be sure to check out Michelle Patterns and  Dog Under My Desk when you’re looking for your next project.  They both write exceptionally thorough and well-photographed patterns perfect for the beginner.  And, of course, I’d love it if you checked out my Journal Sleeve pattern coming soon to Craftsy.  It’s ideal for the brand new sewist, as well.

Regardless of your pattern choice, do yourself a favor and make accuracy your top priority even though it takes more time.  You’re more likely to enjoy yourself and you’ll be happier with your finished items (which is the whole point, right?).

I’ve put together a list of a few things you might find helpful if you’re new to sewing.  Remember, though, no one resource will be completely comprehensive… that’s why Google is your friend.


Pre-Cut Fabric

Pre-cut fabric bundles are a super fun way to buy fabrics from an entire collection without spending a fortune.  Since they’re already cut for you, they can be a tremendous time saver, as well.  And they’re just so darn cute!  Here are a few of the most common available:

Fat Quarter Bundles:  Contains a fat quarter cut of each print (What’s a fat quarter?  Keep reading.)
Fat Eighth Bundles:  Contains a fat eighth cut (half a fat quarter or 9″ x 22″) of each print
Jelly Rolls:  2.5″ x 44″ strips – (40 with duplicates)
Charm Packs:  5″ x 5″ squares (stack of 42 with duplicates)
Layer Cakes:  10″ x 10″ squares (stack of 42 with duplicates)

If you find yourself with one of the above pre-cut bundles and you don’t know what the heck to do with it, do an internet search for projects deemed “friendly” for your particular bundle.  For example, search “charm pack friendly” or “charm pack patterns” to find ways to use up your charm packs.


Fat Quarters

Visit your local quilt shop and you’ll see baskets of little folded pieces of fabric called fat quarters.  Their cuteness is so hard to resist!  In addition to the appealing price, there are several good reasons to stock up on fat quarters.  It’s only one fourth of a yard of fabric, but it’s a nice versatile chunk, as opposed to a long, skinny strip.  You’ll see more of your print, especially if it’s a large-scale print, and you also get more fabric along the selvage, which is the finished edge of the fabric that keeps it from unraveling.  This length of fabric along the selvage has less stretch and is more desirable to work with.

Fabric off the bolt from selvage to selvage, is typically 44″ wide.  So, one yard of fabric would be 36” x 44” making a half-yard cut 18” x 44”.   You’ll get a quarter yard cut if you cut this in half along the 18″ side.  If you halve it along the 44″ side instead, you end up with a fat quarter.  Right, clear as mud!  Maybe this diagram will help:

Fabric Cuts: Quarter Yard vs Fat Quarter


Fabric Cutting

Most often, I use my Olfa 45mm blades. My Fiskars 28mm blade comes in handy, though, when cutting out curved pattern pieces. You can switch the blades to the right side (like in the pic) if you are left-handed.

Most often, I use my Olfa 45mm blades. My Fiskars 28mm blade comes in handy, though, when cutting out curved pattern pieces. Some rotary cutters allow you to switch the blades to the right side (like in the pic) if you are left-handed.

Taking the time to make sure your pieces are measured and cut accurately is essential.  It’s incredibly frustrating to sew a project when your pieces don’t fit together properly.  If you’ve never used a rotary cutter to cut fabric, you’d be amazed by how much more accurate it is than using a pair of scissors.  Rotary cutting is also a huge time saver.  I firmly believe a rotary cutter, self-healing cutting mat, and a clear non-slip acrylic ruler are must-haves if you plan to sew regularly.

When rotary cutting, learning the technique is important, but it’s probably more important to consider the safety issues.  These blades are SHARP!  Do your research and practice before you try out your new skills.  There are loads of blog and video tutorials out there and, fortunately for southpaws like me, there are even resources for left-handed sewists.  And then, once you’re ready to take the plunge and rotary cut your first project, remember to measure TWICE and cut ONCE!  We hear this all the time, but it’s a habit with a big pay off.

After you’ve been sewing for a while, it’s likely you’ll branch out with a variety of ruler sizes and cutting mats.  You’ll have a better feel by then what works best for the kind of sewing you want to do.  My favorite rulers are:  6″ x 24″, 4″ x 14″, and 3.5″ x 3.5″.  When it comes to cutting mats, I work daily with a 24″ x 36″, I travel with a 12″ x 18″, and I absolutely LOVE my super cool 13″ x 13″ rotating mat.


Ironing vs. Pressing

My fave: the Steamfast SF-717 Home-and-Away Mini Steam Iron

My favorite iron for sewing is the Steamfast SF-717 Home-and-Away Mini Steam Iron.

Ironing clothing has really become a thing of the past for me, but my little iron still gets a daily workout.  It’s an absolute essential tool in my sewing arsenal and there are two distinct ways it gets put to use.

When you iron fabric, you move the iron back and forth around your fabric without lifting it. Ironing out wrinkles from your fabric before you begin cutting will ensure your pieces are the proper size. I find Best Press, spray starch, or steam extremely helpful when I have to deal with an especially stubborn crease.

Now, pressing is entirely different than ironing. When you press, you set down the iron onto your fabric, press firmly for a few seconds, and then lift it up again.  You do not move the iron around because a back and forth motion can sometimes stretch or distort your fabric pieces.  Careful and thorough pressing throughout the construction of your sewing projects is critical if you want a professional looking finish.

So, iron your fabric before you start, press between steps as you work your way through your pattern, and give your project a good final press when you’re all done!


Right vs. Wrong Side of Fabric

Right vs Wrong Side of Fabric

The right side side of fabric is the prettier side where you see the print design. So, when you sew “right sides together” or RST, the seam allowance ends up hidden away on the wrong side.  Solid fabrics typically don’t have an obvious wrong or right side – they look identical on both sides.



More faves: Glasshead Pins from Dritz and my Magnetic Pin Holder from Clover

Can’t do without my glasshead pins from Dritz and my magnetic pin holder from Clover.

Taking the time to pin before you sew is another one of those things that helps with accuracy, especially when you’re first starting out.  Pinning your layers together before sewing keeps everything nice and even and allows you to focus on your stitching rather than having to worry about keeping the pieces aligned.   Make sure you insert your pins perpendicular to the edge of the fabric so they are easy to remove as you sew.  And, whatever you do, do NOT sew over your pins!  You could end up in a scary flying broken needle scenario and/or cause damage to your machine.


Seam Allowance

Seam Allowance Definition

When you sew two pieces of fabric together, the area between the stitches and the edge of the fabric is called the seam allowance.  The required seam allowance in bag patterns varies.  The most common is 1/4″, but you will see 3/8″ and 1/2″, as well.  If you don’t have a machine foot or a guideline to help with the particular seam allowance you need, you can measure the appropriate distance out from your needle and make your own guideline with a piece of washi or masking tape.  Take your time and do whatever you need to do to keep your seam allowance consistent.  If you place importance on sewing straight and maintaining an accurate seam allowance, you will be happier in the end with your finished project.  In my book, accuracy trumps speed!


Stitch Types

An average or default stitch length is somewhere around 2.5 mm.

Basting stitches are long stitches, maybe 5 or a 6mm (or at your machine’s highest setting), used to temporarily hold layers together until the final row of stitches have been sewn. If basting stitches show once the project is finished, they can easily be removed.

Topstitching is a slightly longer stitch, maybe 3mm or so. It can be purely decorative or it can be used to secure layers together (like stitching along a zipper or hemming a pocket edge).

Backstitching or lockstitching is when you sew forward and backward a few stitches at the beginning and end of your seams to keep them from unraveling.


Fear no Zipper

Zippers are fun!

Zippers have been known to intimidate a sewist or two.  I’m here to tell you, though, they really aren’t something you should shy away from.  After you’ve tackled a couple of projects with zippers, you’ll see how fun they are to work with and they won’t be at all scary!

After you’ve picked out the perfect colored zipper for your project, be sure you test it out before any sewing takes place.  Simply open and close it a few times.  I can tell you from personal experience how sad it is to finish a zipper pouch only to discover the zipper is a lemon.

If your zipper won’t lay flat because it was folded inside a package, you can try spraying it with a little water or Best Press and press it flat (with the teeth side down) using a pressing cloth.  Be careful not to allow your iron to come into direct contact with your zipper or the teeth will melt! Consider checking into the shop, Zipit Zippers, on Etsy.  It’s a great shop with a huge variety of zippers and they are shipped flat without the pesky packaging.  You’ll love not having to deal with bent zippers.

Here is a nice and thorough guide to zippers written by Jennie (from Zipit Zippers), herself!

And you know what?  I reached out to Jennie to make sure she was ok with the links in this zipper blurb and she responded generously with a discount code for her shop!  Her prices are already amazing, but now, when you purchase from Zipit Zippers, you can enter the code GoatFishGoods during checkout and you’ll receive 10% off your order!  How cool is that?  Thanks, Jennie!  (Keep in mind, this discount is only good through the end of 2016.)


Interfacing {Shape Flex SF-101}

I use Shape Flex so often, I purchase it by the bolt when it goes on sale!

I use Shape Flex so often, I purchase it by the bolt when it goes on sale!

Shape Flex by Pellon (SF-101) is a mid-weight fusible woven interfacing and it’s magical.  When fused to quilting cotton, it gives a perfect amount of body or structure to the fabric without making it thick and difficult to work with.  In other words, it keeps your bag from being all floppy like.  On small bags, you can fuse it to either the lining or the exterior.  Or, you may decide to fuse it to both.     The thing I love most about this product is that it doesn’t make the fabric crunchy, dimpled, or wrinkly.  It moves with the fabric… well, like magic.

If you’ve never used Shape Flex, be sure to look over the manufacturer’s instructions it comes with before applying it to your fabric.  You’ll likely develop your own fusing technique the more you work with it, though.  Here’s what works for me:

The bumpy side of Shape Flex is the fusible side with the glue. I place my fabric wrong side up with the interfacing bumpy side down on top of it. Never let your iron come into direct contact with the glue or you will have a mess on your hands.  I spray it very lightly with water and, starting from the middle, I slowly press (not iron!) the interfacing away from the center toward each side. This prevents the Shape Flex from wrinkling.  Once I’m sure there are no wrinkles, I start on one end and press for about 10 seconds before moving to the next spot, overlapping each area as I go.  I let the fabric cool a bit before proceeding so I can be sure the interfacing is completely fused to the fabric before proceeding.

The more bags you make, the deeper you’ll dive into the world of interfacing.  Here is a super helpful guide on interfacing by Sara at Sew Sweetness.  If you don’t know her already, she’s one of the great goddesses of bag making.  I highly recommend you check out her class Building Better Bags: Interfacing and Structure on Craftsy.

Take Care of Your Machine {so it takes care of you}

Love Your Machine (by taking care of it!)

Love Your Machine (by taking care of it!)

Unfortunately, you can’t sew and sew to your heart’s content without considering the maintenance of your sewing machine.  Well, you can, but I’m pretty sure you’ll regret it.  To keep your sewing experiences on the happy side, keep your machine covered when not in use and clean it between projects.  Don’t underestimate the usefulness of your owner’s manual, but again, there are also some great tutorials you can take advantage of.  Craftsy offers a FREE class called Sew Ready – Machine Basics that includes a lesson specifically on sewing machine maintenance.  Aside from the regular cleaning you’ll need to do, it’s also a good idea to take your machine in to your local dealer once a year for a deep cleaning and an overall checkup.

Change your needles often, too.  They say to do this every 4-5 hours of sewing.  I have a hard time remembering this rule, so I simply try to change it out every project or every other project depending on how extensive the construction is.  Sharp needles make everything better.

So… there you go!  This list is a teeny tip of the iceberg, but what I’ve included would be the top things I’d share with a friend who is new to sewing.  I hope you found it to be helpful!  Please let me know if you have any questions.  Oh, and if there’s a tip or trick you’ve picked up along your own sewing journey, please share!

The fabric in these photos are all from the Desert Bloom line by Rae Ritchie for Dear Stella.

Starting Out and Sticktoitiveness

I remember well the day in May of 2012 when I visited a local quilt show with a friend.  She was an avid quilter and I went along because it sounded like a fun diversion from my work day.  We strolled up and down the aisles admiring the quilts and, toward the end, we came upon a sewing machine vendor who showed me a machine “perfect for the beginner.”  I was intrigued… and then suddenly, I was the nervous owner of a new sewing machine.

Once the thrill of the purchase subsided a little, I remembered my tendency to get super enthusiastic about something only to lose interest in it a short time later.  This was a hefty purchase and a big commitment!  I was overwhelmed, to say the least.  The list of supplies I would need to kick off my new hobby seemed a mile long and many dollars wide.  After several chats with my friend and lots of time spent jumping around on the internet searching for ideas, I visited my local craft store and purchased what I believed to be the essentials.  Or, that is, my first batch of essentials.  I quickly went from never stepping foot in this craft store to being a regular customer.

One of my first treasures was a small pack of fabric charm squares – 5″ squares of coordinating prints.  I practically raced to my machine so I could finally SEW something!  I arranged and rearranged nine squares and slowly sewed them together.  Then, I pressed the edge under and hemmed it with a decorative stitch.  It seems unremarkable now, but I was SO proud of that little whatever it was!!

My first project actually had a huge impact on my life.  I was hooked.  I loved the feeling of creating something!  I remember I had a book club meeting that night and I showed my quilty friend what I had made and I delighted in her compliments.  I didn’t grasp it at the time, but my life was truly changed by this little 9-patch.  Too melodramatic?  Yes.  A little.  But, it’s the darn truth.

A few years have passed now (and my taste in fabric has changed dramatically), but I still feel that same amazing thrill every time I finish a new project.  I’ve had so many fun “I made that!” moments.  However, I’ve also been discouraged and frustrated MANY times along the way, especially in the beginning.  Luckily, though, I didn’t give up.

I suppose this is the message I’d like to share with brand new sewing beginners.  You WILL get discouraged and it WILL be frustrating at times.  You may feel like you spend more time with your seam ripper than you do with your sewing machine.  Persevere, though, and you may end up finding tremendous value (and humor!) in your trials and tribulations.  Like everything else in life, you’ll learn from your mistakes and you will grow as a maker.

I remember a bag I made once that turned out so incredibly awful that I threw it away.  I was FUMING MAD and resentful about the time I wasted.  But, the next day, it suddenly dawned on me that I could salvage the quilted panels from this little zipper pouch and turn it into a slightly smaller pouch using a different pattern.  And you know what?  It’s one of my favorite bags to this day.  Every time I look at it, I think about how it was rescued in just the nick of time.  Life lesson: Sometimes it pays to dig in the trash.

Just Doing It

Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant. - Mitchell Kapor

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:  “Information overload” (also known as infobesity or infoxication) is a term popularized by Alvin Toffler in his bestselling 1970 book Future Shock. It refers to the difficulty a person can have understanding an issue and making decisions that can be caused by the presence of too much information.

Blogging is like everything else in this world. The more you try to read and learn about it, the more intimidating and overwhelming it can be (especially if you’re just starting out like I am). There are endless articles about plugins, widgets, stats, spam, ads, CSS, monetization, HTML, and search engine optimization, and so many other things I’ve never heard of.  Then, of course, there’s social media, knowing your audience, shareability, finding a niche, finding your voice, photography and editing, and graphic design.  The amount of information is astounding.  It’s the kind of thing that always manages to put a big, fat knot in my stomach.

I’ve decided to forge ahead despite the fact I know nearly nothing about nearly everything blog related. This will be a learn as I go adventure. I know my way around a keyboard and I’m fairly competent when it comes to communicating with other humans, so that’s going to be good enough for now. Plus, I DO know who my audience is. It’s my mom.

Hi, Mom!