Back to school is a good time to sew things. Not only are the kids out of the house, but it’s prime season to organize and take some time out for mom. You may have once learned how to sew, perhaps back in Home Ec classes, but the fall is a great season to pick up sewing, again. I’ve found it to be a creative outlet that focuses my attention on producing something highly useful, while learning a practical life skill at the same time.
If you never learned to sew, you’ll want a handy, simple-to-follow sewing manual that will walk you through the entire process. Sewing isn’t rocket science, but you’ll definitely need instruction of some kind.
During this time of year, sewing clothing for the kids is one possibility, but dorm room essentials, school bags, pencil pouches, pillow cases, and a whole host of other small craft items are totally doable as well. I know my kids’ pencil pouches seem to fall apart in the time it takes to ride the bus to school the first day! Fabric pouches, especially those made of heavier fabrics, last sooo much longer and are super easy to make. For a little project like that, I like to use small, inexpensive pieces from the remnants area.
First, you’ll need a machine. The brand names that come to mind aren’t the best quality out there (best quality is rarely the most common), but they do make some serviceable, inexpensive machines for beginners. These should come with a few basic “feet,” such as a buttonhole foot, to get you started. You will also want a sewing machine case to keep lint and dust out of your machine. This helps it stay in good working condition. Many machines come with their own case.
There are a lot of considerations when you choose a machine, but the most basic are what you will use it for and how much you will use it. (Here and here are two more sets of reviews; sewing without electricity is not discussed here.) For very light use, a back-up machine, or for younger sewers, the Brother XL2600I is a solid, and very affordable, choice at around $80. If you master hemming pants, it will pay for itself in very short order.
A machine suitable for heavier use, the Singer Sewing 4423 Heavy Duty is a good mechanical machine and still under $200. It looks like the one my Mom used in the 1970s. For more advanced sewers, and those who plan to machine embroider or quilt, the Singer 9960 Quantum Stylist or a Brother SE400 are both feature-rich and under $400.
You will also want:
- sewing machine oil
- a good magnifier
- a seam ripper — You will get your money’s worth out of this little tool!
- dressmakers chalk
- snippers (tiny scissors)
- a good measuring tape
- a supply of bobbins (there are a few kinds, make sure you have the right ones)
- a variety of needles, making particularly sure to have needles for knit as well are woven fabric. (Knitwear needles are more rounded so they don’t snag.)
- a cutting board — This will go a long way toward protecting your table and countertops.
Personally, I strongly prefer using quilting pins because they are larger and easier to use. I also have a big magnet wand I can wave across the floor or table to pick up random pins I dropped and didn’t see. It’s like magic!
Part of what re-inspired my sewing was finally – finally – getting a table and space for my machine. I moved the tubs of material and other sewing supplies out of the basement, and set up the iron and ironing machine near by. (My husband was amazed to learn I actually know how these pieces of equipment work.)
It’s really easy to skip the “iron this” part of the instructions for sewing, but it really does help and it doesn’t take long to do. Most of the time it’s either sewing interfacing so it attaches to fabric or ironing seams so they lay flat and are easier to sew. It really does make the seams easier to sew. Interfacing is a thin but somewhat stiff material that is layered between 2 pieces of fabric to give such things as collars or cuffs a bit of body. Attaching the interfacing by ironing, not sewing, is critical because ironing the two pieces together makes the fabric firmer so your finished garment holds its shape.
It’s also important to have good light and a handy trash can for all the little scraps. A large open space for laying out and cutting patterns nearby is good, but you can really do that anywhere, including a clean kitchen or dining room table.
Fabric, patterns, and notions
Find a pattern you love that’s at your level (I look for the word “easy”) and in your size. A range of sizes are marked on the front. The back of the pattern will tell you how much material you need and it will be different based on size and fabric width. Generally, fabric is either 45″ or 60″. There will also be a list of required “notions” such as buttons, zippers, thread, bias tape, etc. as well as any interfacing needed.
If you read the list of supplies carefully and make sure to buy the correct amount of fabric for your size, you should be ready to sew.
Online, you can buy regular patterns or download patterns in .pdf form. Some are free, others are not. I’m excited about some of the amazing vintage patterns that are available for free, but I think making a .pdf into a useable pattern may be a pain I don’t want to handle. I found some great lots on eBay and also had a friend give me a stack of them.
I was very excited to get patterns for $2 ($5 for Vogue) at Hancock Fabric liquidation sale, but I have heard that they go on sale for about that price fairly often. So keep an eye out for pattern sales. List price for the ones I purchased ranged from $15 to $28 with Vogue having the higher priced patterns. From what I have read, some of the difference is based on how good the instructions are and some is based on how well made the actual pattern is. I have really enjoyed the Kwik Sew patterns I made, but the actual patterns are printed on paper instead of tissue paper, which is just weird, and is extremely simplistic compared to others. (That’s not a bad thing when you are starting out!)
Walmart and JoAnn’s
Don’t dismiss Walmart for your basic sewing needs! There isn’t a fabric store near me any more so I’ve stopped in Walmart more than once for notions and interfacing I needed to finish a project. They have basic items, such as bobbins and cutting boards as well. I made a fun robe for my little boy from a $5 fleece blanket. My favorite item I’ve made so far is a circle skirt that uses fabric I bought for $1 / yard on clearance at Walmart. In fairness, it’s a bit of a coarse cotton weave, and not nearly as soft as the fabric from better stores, but I love the pattern. And it was perfect for a Retro ’47 Butterick pattern!
That said, I really need to go to JoAnn Fabric for the 14″ invisible coral zipper I need. I will never, ever find that at Walmart. While I haven’t done any real research, I think JoAnn’s may be the last remaining large fabric chain. Obviously, they have a far larger selection than Walmart, and generally higher quality items. Whenever I need something specific, including new patterns, I go there.
Walmart does have a small selection of patterns, but the last remaining major fabric chain undoubtedly needs any help it can get from paying customers, so I will try to patronize them whenever possible.
Sewing as a life skill
Once you have decided on your first project and have all your supplies, it’s time to get started. Fill your bobbin and thread the machine before you do anything else to make sure you remember how to do it and that the machine is in working order. If you’ve never done this before, it’s just a matter of following a diagram that comes in the machine’s instruction manual.
Once you know the machine is up and running, cut out the pattern and start sewing, stopping, as necessary, to rip things apart and say nasty things about the sewing machine and it’s parentage if things don’t go well. The proper tool for ripping things apart is called a seam ripper and is another basic, essential tool. I use mine – a lot. Way, way too much. On one robe, I sewed the first arm in upside down.
The dressmakers chalk mentioned in the Getting (re)equipped section is very handy for transferring markings such as gathering marks and circles onto your pattern. You can also use it to mark the inside of fabrics that are almost, but not quite, reversible. It really is no fun to finish a pair of pants only to realize the sheen of the fabric is different from left to right or front to back because you used different sides of the fabric on different areas.
You can use other chalk if you want, even sidewalk chalk, but dressmakers chalk has a nice little handhold and cover so you don’t get chalk all over the place.
The most important point is that you must follow the instructions on the pattern. With experience, you can be a little more free about modifying it, but not when you are first getting re-started. If you get stuck on some part, YouTube is a wonderful resource. I found the Kwik Sew patterns did the best job of explaining techniques, so they are a good place to start for your first few items.
Pinterest and sewing ideas
There are actually a lot of great looking free patterns and sewing advice on Pinterest. I was amazed at all the different patterns that are available now, in stores as well as online. In addition to basic pants, skirts, blouses, and nightwear, I now have patterns for hats, gloves, laptop bags, and an ironing board cover. You can make anything! I know that sounds obvious, but I found a patterns for men’s underwear and doggie Halloween costumes.
Creativity is important in sewing. I had barely a half yard of a fun polka dot fabric but most patterns require two or three yards, and almost no piece of clothing can be made with less than a yard. My solution was to use it as an accent on a coordinating top and skirt. It came out great! It could also have become a clutch bag, a band along the bottom of a skirt, a pillow case… so many things! When you sew, your options can seem nearly as endless as the stacks of fabric you acquire.
For me, the biggest benefit of sewing is that I can make things I would never find in stores. I love – love – flannel, but I’m not big on lumberjack shirts or floral nightgowns. So far, I have made a lavender flannel tank top, a lavender and black tunic top, and a purple tie-die print nightgown. They feel lovely, and they make me smile. What more can you ask for?
There may be links in the post above that are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission, which does not affect the price you pay for the product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.
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