Sewing 101

by Rebecca Underwood

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Has home sewing gone the way of the dinosaur? Not quite! More and more people are re-discovering the frugality and satisfaction of making their own clothing, linens, and gifts. Unfortunately, many have grown up with little or no sewing experience. If you'd like to get started but don't know where to begin, here are a few tips that will help you on your way.

  1. DO start with a commercial sewing pattern. They can be expensive if purchased at regular price, but most craft and fabric stores run 99-cent sales several times a year. When you have more experience, you may not always need a pattern for simple projects. However, commercial patterns come with detailed instructions that can be very valuable to a beginner. They explain the extra little steps that can mean the difference between a mediocre result and a professional-looking one. They also include toll-free phone numbers where you can contact an experienced seamstress for help if you have questions.
  2. DO begin with a simple project. Choose an item that requires four different pattern pieces or less. Try to avoid zippers, buttons, and appliques, too. If you start with anything more complicated, you run the risk of losing patience before you figure out how to finish the project. Pillows, curtains, elastic-waist skirts, pull-over tops, Christmas stockings, and table cloths all make good starter projects. After you gain a little experience, the more complex projects will be much easier to tackle.
  3. DO choose fabric carefully. You don't have to be a fabric expert; you can always ask for help from the staff at your fabric or craft store. The fabric you choose should fit the recommendations of your pattern, and should be easy to work with. Stretchy knits, flimsy transparent fabrics, and slippery materials are not good starter fabrics. They can be more difficult to cut and stitch, so save them for later when you're more experienced. Begin with simple cottons, lightweight denims, and other fabrics that hold their shape well and are easy to handle.
  4. DO prepare your fabric. Washable fabrics should always be washed, dried, and pressed before you begin your project. This allows them to shrink before you cut out and assemble your pieces. Your finished project will then be less likely to shrink further during repeated washings. When sewing, shrinkage doesn't just mean your item will get smaller. It can also cause seams to pucker and otherwise nasty results. If you are purchasing your fabric, always check the end of the bolt and write down the care instructions before you leave the store. If the bolt doesn't tell you how to care for the fabric, ask a clerk. Many bolts are coded so the clerk can look it up. If you receive fabric without any care instructions, test a small piece to see how well it washes and dries.
  5. DON'T start your project until you have read all instructions and located all materials. Later on you may be able to wing it, but make sure you know what you're doing before you get stuck right in the middle of a project. The toll-free help numbers that come with most patterns are not 24-hour services. Reading directions ahead of time allows you to call with questions while the help desks are open.
  6. DON'T skip steps. If the pattern says that pockets or decorative stitching is optional, by all means feel free to skip. Otherwise, follow every step as directed. Little things like clipping corners and pressing seams make the finished product look professional. Resist the temptation to skip them or it will be obvious when you're done.
  7. DO connect with other sewers. Many of our senior citizens are literally dying to feel useful; put out feelers to see if someone in your community would like to be a mentor. If that doesn't work, check your local fabric and craft stores for sewing groups you can join. You can also contact a high school home economics teacher. She may offer adult classes or have other suggestions. Whatever works for you, it's nice to have contact with others who can offer tips and answer questions.
  8. DO check your library for beginner sewing books. They can teach you a lot about selecting fabrics, reading patterns, and using alternative techniques.
  9. DON'T be intimidated. Sewing is just a series of simple tasks that have been performed for thousands of years. If our ancestors could do it by a kerosene lamp, you can certainly be successful, too. And the sooner you get started, the sooner you'll be sewing like a pro!

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