Getting Back into Sewing As a Life Skill

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Image: close up of hands with a sewing machine

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.

Getting (re)equipped

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:

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!

Sewing School has a great series of articles on what supplies you need to get started sewing and how to set up your sewing area. They even have some basic hints on buying a used sewing machine.

Sewing without electricity

image by Hammer51012

We preppers like to plan for scenarios where no electricity would be available, so why not consider a “people-powered” sewing machine? Treadle and hand crank sewing machines work just as well now as they did 100 years ago. I occasionally demonstrate the use of antique sewing machines at museums and someone always says, “I remember my mother/grandmother/aunt using one of those,” and “I have one of those in the barn/garage/attic”.

One hundred years ago, sewing machines were made to last. If you have or can acquire a treadle machine, it probably just needs a good cleaning and a nice drink of oil, and it will be happy to sew a lovely stitch for you. Most treadles were straight stitch machines, and most have no reverse, so don’t expect to find one that will do all the things modern machines will do. Instead, they came with a box of ingenious attachments for ruffling, hemming, making tucks, and binding. Optional attachments assisted with buttonholes, zigzag stitches, and machine embroidery.

There were literally hundreds of sewing machine companies in the 1800s. By the early 1900s, that was narrowed down to a few main brands in the U.S. Except for the early, primitive designs, almost any of them would be suitable for sewing clothing.

If you have a treadle machine, by all means, roust it out of storage and get it going. If you have to shop for one, I recommend looking for a round bobbin Singer machine (as opposed to the earlier long bobbin variety) because bobbins are still widely available. This includes Singer models 15, 115, 66, 99 and 201. With the exception of early Model 66s, these machines all have standard low shank feet that fit modern attachments such as a zipper foot, darning foot, walking foot, etc.

These machines were all available in both treadle cabinets and as hand-cranked portables. You can often find electric versions of these models and convert them to hand crank using a kit that is readily available on eBay. For conversion to hand crank, you need a Singer model with an external belt-driven motor, a motor boss, and a spoke wheel.

The White rotary is another excellent and widely available treadle machine. The slight disadvantages compared to the Singers are that there are no modern equivalent bobbins, although old ones can be found, and it has top clamping feet that are not compatible with modern attachments. These are irrelevant if you find a machine with lots of spare bobbins and a complete set of attachments. Standard and National rotary machines are also great choices. In the 1950s, the market was flooded with electric Japanese imitations of the Singer 15. These are excellent candidates for conversion to hand crank or treadle.

Where do you find one of these machines? Auctions, yard sales, Craigslist, flea markets, and eBay are all great resources. Prices vary with the region of the country, but in many rural areas, you can sometimes get a treadle for $5 or $10 at a household auction. I’ve even seen them go for that cheap on eBay. Most auctions on eBay are for local pickup only, so it helps to set up a daily radius search with the number of miles you are willing to drive and have new listings emailed to you every day.

Beware of sellers who think that because it runs without electricity it is a valuable antique worth big bucks. If you are patient, you should be able to find a nice one for less than $100.

If you have the older bullet shuttle/long bobbin machine, don’t worry, they are also excellent. The only disadvantage with them is that shuttles wear out and bobbins break and get lost, and you can’t just go to your local fabric store and buy replacements like you can with the Singer 15 and 66 style bobbins.

Don’t forget that in addition to the sewing machine, you should have a stockpile of sewing machine needles, thread, suitable fabrics, clothing patterns, zippers, buttons, elastic, hand needles, pins and maybe a spare treadle belt or two.

Setting up

As I got more and more involved with sewing, one thing that kept me motivated 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 nearby. (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 is 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 anymore 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 dressmaker’s 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 freer 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 pattern 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 pillowcase… 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?

Getting Back into Sewing As a Life Skill via The Survival Mom

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Bethanne is an eclectic writer who lives in the exurbs (that's what comes after the suburbs) with her husband, sons, and cats. She has been writing for The Survival Mom since 2010. You can learn more about her books, including the "Survival Skills for All Ages" series, at BethanneKim.com.

10 thoughts on “Getting Back into Sewing As a Life Skill”

  1. Hancock’s is a fabric store that opened with much fanfare here about 2 years ago and then closed without even a newspaper ad. So much for fabric stores. Joann’s has a good selection of material but the local one seems to be using most of the floor space for crafts. Another Joann’s about 40 mi away has a much larger selection.

    Don’t forget thrift stores for material. I’ve found fabric at $.25 a yard, trim, thread, etc. Also, if you have some sewing experience don’t forget about taking an existing garment and changing it to please you. I bought 2 ‘golf’ shirts at a thrift for $1. each and spent about 90 min removing the collars and changing the buttons.

    Also, since buttons are so expensive, often more than the cost of the fabric, look for them at thrift stores, garage sales, etc either loose or on a piece of clothing.

    Sewing/mending shouldn’t be a lost art but I’m beginning to feel it is. Happy sewing you’ll be so glad to have made something that is not off the rack.

  2. As folks decide to join the sewing revolution, don’t overlook the benefit of shopping at independent fabric and quilt stores. These stores are staffed with experienced stitchers, offer classes, and can help if you get stuck on a project. The paint guy at Walmart who’s cutting your fabric won’t be much help if you really want to learn to sew.

  3. Don’t forget local quiltshops for fabric. The fabric is better quality, you get personal service, and advice from someone who knows how to sew. Plus Quilt/Sewing shops often hold classes on quilt patterns or small sewing projects, and you are helping to keep a family going, not a chain store.

  4. I second what Bellen said about finding fabric at thrift stores. But don’t limit yourself to just “fabric”. Look at the linens where you’ll find sheets, both cotton and flannel, drapes and curtains, tablecloths, shower curtains, and such. All of these are potentials for great fabric at a fraction of the cost of new. I’ve used all of the above for pajamas, skirts, overalls for children, curtains, kitchen linens, pillows, pillow cases, Halloween costumes, and lots more.

    Another source of fabric is older women; ones whose families are raised, their lives are slowing down and they don’t sew much anymore. Ask around at church and you’ll likely find someone willing to give you, if not her whole stash, enough to get you started. I’ve gotten tons of fabric over the years that way. And if you’re a beginner the older woman is a perfect mentor for teaching you techniques or helping with something tricky.

    My most recent “score” at the thrift store was four huge curtain panels of gorgeous red 100% cotton velvet. Almost 10 yards of fabric for about $4! I couldn’t afford to buy it at a fabric store at about $20 per yard.

  5. Having sewn forever, my advice is embrace the craft! Take some sewing classes, and if you really get into it, then take some advanced classes. The difference between a $20 dress and a $500 dress is the inner construction, the support fabrics, and the attention to detail. Believe me! You can learn to do this!! I’ve made drapes, bedspreads, custom fabric rugs, etc. I may eventually tackle upholstery. This hobby is fun, creative, and very COST SAVINGS!!

  6. I’ve been having trouble finding the right fabric. Pretty much slim pickings where I live. Only one department store and pretty much department store quality fabric. They’re ok I guess, but not for anything wearable.

    1. I understand – but you can order online, and also keep your eyes peeled at yard sales and estate sales. It’s impossible to feel the fabric if you shop online, of course, but you might be able to request samples, especially if you place an order for one fabric or some notions and request samples at the same time. That would be a separate item.

      I found one place on ebay that sells old saris for a song. They would make beautiful material for – something. And another place that specializes in Hawaiian fabrics, including Asian prints. Mood Fabrics (the store on Project Runway) has an online store, too. Just something to think about in your search for decent fabric. 🙂

  7. Dont forget that JoAnns always have coupons–use your phone (text), their app or email to receive them, they change about 3-5 days BUT there is always one out there

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