Want to improve your sewing skills? In this guest post, Yesterday’s Thimble blogger Lisha Vidler shares 10 sewing tips to help you take your seamstress skills to the next level…
Whether you’re new to sewing or just looking to improve, there are things you can do to take your skills up a notch. Don’t let your garments look “Becky Home-Ecky,” as Michael Kors would say! Even if you aren’t a professional dressmaker or crafter, you can aim for a more professional look. Here are 10 tips to help you improve your sewing.
Note: While this article talks about garment sewing, these tips also apply to home decorating, purse-making, historical costuming, and many other types of sewing.
1. Get Quality Tools and Materials
Trying to sew without the correct tools is like sewing blindfolded, with one hand tied behind your back! There are tools for almost every sewing task, so find out what exists and give these sewing tools a try. Nancy’s Favorite 101 Notions is a great book for beginners.
It’s important not to skimp on quality—always buy the best tools you can afford. What’s the difference between a $5 pair of shears and a $25 pair? Bargain scissors are harder to cut with, they’ll probably go dull quickly, they won’t always cut accurately, they could ruin your fabric, and they may give you blisters or sore fingers. Is it really worth saving a few dollars?
Higher-quality sewing tools will last longer and work better, and most importantly—they’ll make sewing a pleasant experience. The same goes for fabric and sewing notions. It’s difficult to make a high-end garment if you’re using cheap fabric!
If you’re ready to take things to the next level, start by upgrading your sewing tools.
2. Pre-Wash Fabric and Trims
Have you ever washed a hand-made garment only to discover that it shrunk? Or the seams mysteriously puckered? Or the fabric’s texture changed? Or the colors bled? These symptoms can be prevented by pre-washing your fabric.
Many sewing notions need to be pre-washed, too. This includes lace, ribbon, decorative braid and trim, zippers, and interfacing, which should be hand-washed and drip-dried.
3. Find the Right Fit
A good fit is one of the key aspects of a professional-looking garment, but it can be the trickiest to learn. Commercial patterns are made to fit a very specific, uncommon body type. If your shape doesn’t match the pattern’s ideal model, you’ll need to make adjustments. There’s no shame in this! Learn your body’s quirks and how to compensate for them. A great guide for common fitting adjustments is Palmer and Pletch’s Fit For Real People.
Here’s another tip: take the time to sew a mockup. Sometimes called a muslin or toile, it’s what the experts use to get a perfect fit. Basically, you’re going to sew your garment from unbleached muslin (or some other cheap fabric) in order to test the fit and make necessary changes—without risking your good fabric.
Tip: A good source for mockup fabric is your local thrift shop. Look for secondhand flat sheets!
4. Measure Grainlines
Have you ever wondered about the arrows on your pattern pieces? They indicate which direction the pattern should face. The arrows should run parallel to the fabric’s grain.
If you cut a pattern off-grain, it may hang oddly. Eyeballing isn’t good enough—take the time to measure from each end of the arrow to the fabric’s edge to make sure the pattern piece is straight.
It’s especially important to pay attention to the direction of each pattern piece if you’re working with napped fabric. For this purpose, napped means any fabric that looks different from various angles, such as velvet, corduroy, satin, and shot (iridescent) fabrics. This also applies to stripes, plaids, and directional prints.
If you cut some pieces with the arrow running parallel to the selvage and others perpendicular, you may end up with stripes running the wrong way on half of your blouse!
5. Use the Right Needle
Different fabrics require different types of needles. Regular woven fabrics need a universal needle. Knit jerseys, sweater knits, and stretch fabrics require a ballpoint needle. Leather and suede call for a leather needle. Heavy fabrics, like denim and twill, need a jeans needle.
Needle size is important, too. The higher the number, the bigger the needle. Bigger needles are intended for heavier fabrics.
Here’s a fabric size cheat-sheet to help you out:
- Lightweight: Voile, Batiste, Lawn, Chiffon, Organza, Tissue Knit Jersey #9
- Light to Medium-Weight: Quilting Cotton, Broadcloth, Flannel, 21-Wale Corduroy #11 or #12
- Heavyweight: Twill, Denim, Upholstery #14 or #16
Note: needles go dull faster than you’d think, so change your needle with every new project.
6. Press As You Sew
For those of you who despise ironing—it’s not the same as pressing! Strangely, most pattern directions don’t mention pressing at all, yet pressing as you sew is vital.
First, press the seam flat, just as it was sewn. This melds the stitching, smoothing it out, so it’s flush with the fabric. Next, press the seam open, first from the inside of the garment, then from the outside. This flattens the seam, making it less visible. After that, if your pattern calls for it, press the seam to one side.
7. Learn to Use Different Seam Finishes
This is another crucial step, yet it’s rarely mentioned in pattern directions. If you leave a seam raw, it will fray—especially when you wash the garment. It also looks very unprofessional.
The solution is to finish the seams in some way. There are lots of different seam finishes to choose from, such as flat-felling, French seams, mock-French seams, Hong Kong binding, and others. Most are very easy.
My favorite finishing technique is overlocking. It’s a method that’s rarely used because most people think you need an industrial sewing machine to do it. The truth is, most sewing machines have an overlock (aka overcast) stitch. Use it with an overlock or overcast presser foot (which can be purchased online for around $12) and you’ll get a beautiful seam finish every time!
8. Reduce Bulk
By reducing bulk wherever possible, you’ll end up with a tidier-looking garment. Here’s how:
Trim and Grade Seams
For seams that aren’t pressed open, cut one side of the seam allowance narrower than the other. Not only does this reduce bulk, but it prevents ridges from showing on the right side of the garment.
Clip or Notch Curves
Convex or outward curves (such as collars), need to be notched. Cut a series of small triangles into the seam allowance, so that when the garment is turned right-side out, the curved seam will lie flat.
Concave or inward curves (such as necklines and armscyes) need to be clipped. Cut a series of short cuts into the seam allowance, so the seam allowance can spread open when flipped right-side out.
With both methods, alternate the clips on each seam allowance, so you avoid weak points in the seam.
Clip Ends of Seam Allowance Diagonally
Any seam allowance that will be crossed by another seam should have the ends clipped diagonally, to remove excess fabric.
Clip Corners Before Flipping Right-Side Out
Any corner should have the point clipped off—not just once, but three times. First, cut straight across the diagonal corner. Then, go back and cut both remaining corners. This will help create a sharp point when the fabric is turned right-side out.
Beginners often have trouble backstitching accurately. If you do succeed in sewing directly over your previous stitch, it often creates a thick seam that won’t press flat, no matter how hard you try.
Instead, try this couture method: reduce your stitch length to 1.0 or 1.5 for the first and last half inch of every seam. Don’t worry, it will hold securely—and without the unwieldy bulk of backstitching.
9. Don’t Forget the Details
Sometimes, it’s the small things that matter most. For example:
Learn to Sew Straight
If you have trouble sewing a straight line—practice! If necessary, buy a seam guide. They make several different kinds that attach to your sewing machine. (Never use the magnetic kind if your sewing machine is computerized!) Or you can simply place a piece of blue painter’s tape alongside the feed dogs to mark your seam allowance.
If you have trouble sewing curves, slow down. Instead of trying to angle the fabric while you’re stitching, stop sewing. Make sure the needle is down, then raise the presser foot and pivot the fabric slightly. Lower the presser foot and sew a few stitches, then repeat.
If it’s a very tight curve, you may need to stop and pivot every two stitches. If it’s a shallower curve, you can get away with fewer pivots.
Clip Your Threads
Whenever you finish a seam and remove the fabric from the sewing machine, immediately clip your threads. It’s a good habit that will prevent finished garments with messy, dangling threads.
This is a technique that’s rarely taught these days. To prevent distorted or stretched-out seams, sew from the widest point to the narrowest, or from the highest point to the lowest.
For example, when sewing the side seams of a flared skirt, start at the hem and sew toward the waist. Or when sewing a curved neckline, don’t sew down one side and back up the other. Instead, start at the highest point (the shoulder) and sew to the lowest point (the center of the neckline).
To finish, flip the garment over and repeat, sewing the other side of the neckline in the same way. Overlap the stitches at the center front. (For more information, see: “Directional Stitching.”)
10. Practice Hand Sewing
Most garments will call for hand sewing at some point, whether it’s basting, hemming, attaching a hook and eye, or crafting buttonholes. The more you practice hand sewing, the better your stitches will look. Here’s four types of hand-sewing you’ll want to master.
A long running stitch used to temporarily hold seams together. It’s more secure than pinning, so baste whenever you have a tricky seam, or difficult fabric.
Tip: Use a fine silk thread for basting. It’s a dream to sew with, and it pulls out easily once you’re done.
Hems often look nicer when hand-sewn. Learn the blind-hem stitch, as well as the catch-stitch.
This is an invisible stitch used to close gaps in linings, as well as to attach bias binding. It takes practice to make it truly invisible, so don’t skip this one.
Not just for sewing buttonholes! Use this stitch to attach hooks and eyes, to give them a polished look, or as a decorative embroidery stitch.
Bonus! When hand sewing, always use waxed thread. It’s stronger and less likely to tangle or knot up. To wax it, first thread your needle and knot the end. Pull the thread through a cake of beeswax several times, until it feels a bit like dental floss. Fold the thread into a scrap of muslin, then press with a warm iron. This melts the wax, fusing it with the thread.
One final tip: Keep practicing and keep learning. Don’t focus just on new techniques, but try to refine the sewing methods you already know. Before you know it, you’ll be stitching like a pro!
Hopefully, these sewing tips will help you refine your technique and improve your sewing skills. If you have questions, let us know in the comments below!
Lisha Vidler started sewing at the age of four, when she crafted Barbie dresses out of Kleenex! One thing led to another, and now she teaches sewing classes in Cordova, TN. Her website, Yesterday’s Thimble, is filled with sewing tips and tricks.