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Jul 29, 2010

Learning to Sew: Peter's TOP TEN TIPS!



Increasingly I am asked how I learned to sew and what advice I would give beginners.  Since I only started a year ago this is easy -- it's all very fresh in my mind!  

So here, in no particular order, is my entirely subjective, highly biased top ten tips list:

1. Start off with a good machine.  I can't imagine anything more discouraging than learning to sew with a headache-inducing, temperamental sewing machine.  I think you all know by now that I am extremely biased toward vintage machines, straight stitchers in particular.  But most people these days start with zigzaggers and that's OK.

Good used machines can be had for less than $50 on Craigslist, eBay, and at your local thrift store.  Maybe your neighbor or a family member has one in storage.  Make sure you clearly ask the seller/donor whether the machine has any mechanical problems.  The last thing you need is to bring home your first sewing machine and discover the bobbin winding mechanism doesn't work (sound familiar, you-know-who?)  A manual is always helpful and if missing, can usually be downloaded online for a few dollars.

NOTE: There's nothing wrong with spending more for a high quality machine, but when you're starting out you don't really know which features you'll value most.  I recommend thinking of your first machine as a starter and spending the big bucks later, if at all.



2. Avoid (avoidable) complexity.   This relates to sewing machines and so much else in life.  The simpler the machine the less is likely to be/go wrong with it.  If you're interested in making clothes, you don't need fancy embroidery stitches, which is the selling point for new machines.  Nothing has changed mechanically in decades and nothing has improved, though some sewing machine companies may try to convince you otherwise.  I know that some people prefer the "new" and that's fine: it keeps our economy afloat, or somebody's....

Just keep it simple and don't let yourself be wowed by fancy computerized geegaws you're unlikely ever to use.

3. Buy yourself a good beginner's book.  In my experience, there aren't that many of these; I've looked.  There are countless excellent encyclopedic sewing guides, like the Readers Digest guide, Vogue's etc.  These are great to have on hand for reference but I would not use them to get started -- too much info.

My favorite beginner's sewing book is Diana Rupp's Sew Everything WorkshopI have raved about this book so often you'd think Diana would have sent me a few free copies.  Diana walks you through step-by-step in the gentlest, most caring way, and the book itself is beautiful to look at AND spiral bound, which is a tremendous help.  It also includes many simple patterns for some basic garments and home dec items that are cute and trendy (and on real pattern paper too).   They're mainly for women, of course, but not exclusively.   I made my first garment -- a pair of boxer shorts -- from a pattern in Diana's book and I still wear the results!





4. Start small.  If you follow Diana's book you won't have to think about this.  It's more fun to sew something simple and do it well than to tackle something too advanced and have it turn out crappy.  You'll learn either way, for sure, but some of us get very discouraged when our results don't match our expectations.   Whether we're making a pencil case or an evening gown, choice of fabric and other details is going to make a huge difference in our enthusiasm and happiness with the result.  It's not what you sew but how you sew it.

5. Practice.    Like any other skill, sewing takes some practice.  After a while things that seemed difficult at first, like matching the edges of two separate pieces of fabric at 5/8", become second nature.  When I got my first sewing machine, I just loved to sew scraps of fabric together -- any fabric!  It all seemed very miraculous to me at the time and still does!

6. Lower the stakes.  A lot of perfectionists are drawn to sewing.  People who are highly concerned with well-fitting clothes and cultivating a unique look through home sewn outfits are often the ones who obsess over getting things "right"  in all aspects of life.  I've sewed many dozens of garments and some came out better than others.  I try not to make sewing a reflection of my self-worth or engage in any other self-defeating behaviors.  Sewing is just a fun craft.  With skill you can make some fantastic things but ultimately, most of us don't have to sew to have clothes to wear.  Many of us already had bulging closets before we even picked up a needle.

Sewing should be fun.   Sew like a child and enjoy it.  You're only going to get better with practice.

7. Make up your own rules.  I am a big believer in trusting one's intelligence.  Some things you read in a sewing book or in pattern directions -- how to insert a zipper, say -- may sound unnecessarily complex.  Don't be afraid to try it your own way.  The people who wrote those directions are just people.  Maybe there's a simpler method and YOU are the person who will have discovered it.  If it doesn't work, you'll have learned something.  You have nothing to lose provided you're not experimenting on your nearly-finished garment made of $75/yd. silk shantung.

8. Find a sewing community.  I could not have learned as fast as I have without the support and encouragement of the Pattern Review community.  Other sewists prefer Burdastyle, Craftstylish, or other sites.  But you really need to make some sewing friends, not only at the beginning but all along your sewing journey.  It makes things so much more fun.  A dirty little secret is that I rarely looked at sewing blogs until I started my own, but blogging is a great way to connect with and/or create your own community.  Some of the blogs I enjoy most are written by people who are just starting out, like Elizabeth or Rachel.  Highly entertaining and educational!

9. Make sewing your play and not your work.  Life is stressful enough without adding even more stress.  Sewing can be challenging, especially when things aren't working out the way you'd like them to.  But remember why you're sewing in the first place.  You didn't learn to walk in a day or in a week and you're not going to master sewing in that amount of time.  But imagine how much you'll know a year from now if you just keep plugging along, making mistakes and learning from them.  Just keep going and maintain a sense of humor.



10. Make something you really like.  I've heard a lot of stories from people who were taught -- and turned off -- sewing in Home Economics class where they were forced to make something they hated, like an apron or an ugly skirt.  As an adult, you make the rules.  It's much more inspiring to sew something you might actually want to wear.  You don't have to pay a lot for the fabric (beautiful cotton prints can be had for $2 yard if you look and cotton is an easy fabric to start with since it irons so easily).  I would never call myself a Selfish Seamster (what, and invite a lawsuit?), but I do think sewing for oneself, especially at the beginning, has its virtues.  You don't have to please anyone but yourself and you know best how you want something to look or fit.  It's just plain more fun.

BONUS ITEM!  DING DING DING!

11.  Take a class.  Don't take a class.  A lot of people ask me if they should take a class.  We're all different.  Some people really enjoy the social aspect of a class or the way a class organizes their week or (potentially) keeps them from making costly mistakes.  I didn't take a class though I wouldn't rule it out for the future.   I'd recommend that anybody who wants to take a class take one and anybody who wants to learn on their own do so.  It's not either/or.

I will say that given the tremendous amount of information available in books, DVDs, on YouTube videos, and on sewing blogs, nobody has to take a class to get the information they need.  All those "sewing secrets" have already been revealed.  If you don't believe me, just Google "sewing secrets."

So wise readers, anything to add?  Anything that would be in your top ten that I haven't included? 

How did you learn to sew?

Hop in!

P.S. -- For more info, check out my entries under SEWING BASICS in my archive, or just click here.  

55 comments:

  1. Hm. Interesting question. I don't remember not sewing. When I was three, my grandmother taught me how to make stitches (by hand). By six, I was making doll clothes, by ten, I was embroidering stuff, by twelve, I'd moved to cross stitch, and by thirteen, I'd made my first pair of real people pants. Doll clothes gave me almost every aspect of sewing, aside from fasteners, in miniature. It's how I learned to read a pattern and just about everything else.

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  2. Was that pretty shirt with the flowers for Cathy? ;-)

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  3. Peter, it has been a pleasure to follow you on your journey in Sewing Land and especially here on your blog. Come on now, how could I not follow along to see Cousin Cathy?

    Great tips!

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  4. I am just starting to learn and loving it. Great tips!

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  5. Cherri, that was for ME. Hardy har har.

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  6. A good post today. I needed to read the part about sewing being a hobby! I need to let loose of the intensity that ultimately burns me out. I have trouble getting a fit; I basically know how to sew. You've got some pearls in today's column, Peter.

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  7. Great list! I would add:

    Cough up the dough and buy a few Kwik Sew patterns in very basic styles and for both wovens and knits. The instructions can't be beat. Use KS' methods instead of Big 3/4/5 (even on Big 3/4/5 patterns) and you'll set yourself off on a path of techniques that make sense and make professional results.

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  8. In my top 10 - pick a current style, and/or a style that looks good on you. A lot of sewing patterns are hideous, and if you make some dated, painful-looking pattern (and I love sewing vintage, so that's not it at all), you just won't be happy with the results. Go to a store, try on a similar style to what you want to sew, and then decide to proceed - some things just don't look good on my body, and a simple snoop-shopping expedition would have prevented hours of pointless work.

    Relatedly - pick fabric that you love, and can also see yourself reach for in a RTW store. If you are going to spend all that time making something, you do want to wear it out!

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  9. Like Bratling, I've been sewing as long as I can remember, thanks to my mom. And I hated home ec because my teacher was a control freak with a thing against lefties. (I'm not one, but having a leftie mom means I do a lot of things lefthanded.)

    In the last couple years, I've gotten back into garment sewing after a 20-year detour into quilting. Thanks to blogs like yours, Peter, I'm improving my skills and trying new things (well, old things, like vintage!). You're never too old to learn :-)

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  10. What is your favorite serger book? I have the same serger you do, and I'm SCARED! :)

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  11. A lot of people like "Serger Secrets" -- that's the one I have.

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  12. My mom sewed all of our clothes and headed up a pajama sewing project with my troupe of Bluebirds - ten 6-year-olds! She was brave. And we were perfect angels! I sewed it all and like other when I got to Home Ec I was insulted by the 1) tote bag, 2) sleeveless button-up-the-back blouse to wear under a suit (a suit? a SUIT???), 3) an apron. I made quilts for a long time, with a few clothes on the side, especially a long series of Hawaiian shirts for my boyfriend and dad. And now I'm back to clothes for myself.

    I'm also your fan, Mr. Peter. I read your blog with my coffee out here in Pacific time, after Eastern time people have already whipped out a shirt or two, picked up a couple of sewing machines off the sidewalk, and dug through the $2-a-yard table at the fabric store!

    Bravo!!

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  13. I would add to find yourself a real-life person who can sew, if at all possible. It is invaluable to be able to have someone show you (actually show you, not explain over the internet) how to do that totally confusing new technique. At least that's what I found. If you don't know anyone who actually sews, sometimes someone who can help interpret directions can be helpful--my sister, who is a knitter, has helped me with more than one confusing pattern instruction.

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  14. Fantastic tips, Peter!

    I learned how to sew from my mom when I was a petulant teen. There was lots of screaming and tantrums and huffing and puffing (pretty!) and NOTHING turned out well. I dropped it like it was hot soon after, and didn't return to sewing again until about four years ago when I couldn't find anything in the stores that I liked. I started small – I made lots of skirts from the "Sew Anything Skirts" book and built up from skills there. I'm still learning and now the sky's the limit!

    Of course, I thanked my long-suffering mom. I don't know how she put up with me!

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  15. If you're a visual learner, then a person to learn from is really helpful. It's a long story, but I'd set myself too much of a project and asked my mom to come help me make the dress. She came in and showed me how to do lots of things, but also let me watch. Since I learned how to drive a five speed based on watching her do it, I thought it would work for sewing, and VOILA! it did. My mom is awesome.

    Once I figured out the basic mistakes I was making from watching her and getting her help, it was much simpler to learn more complex things as we went along.

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  16. Great list, Peter!

    Trudy
    www.sewingwithtrudy.blogspot.com

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  17. Good list!

    Regarding machines--I sewed on a vintage machine for years (back when they were merely "old"), and I must say I prefer more bells and whistles. Not that I have a TOL or anything, but zigzag, needle position, etc. are definitely useful.

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  18. Great tips! I couldn't agree more with finding some sewing friends - be they IRL pals or through the computer. It has really taken this hobby to a whole new level for me. :)

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  19. Or at the very least, some rivals! ;)

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  20. Well, there's 'learning to sew' and 'LEARNING to sew'. My mom sat me down at the machine when I was 11, showed me how to thread it, drew a line down a piece of paper and had me sew along that. That was my sewing lesson. I really LEARNED how to sew when I was in high school and took a sewing class.

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  21. Peter, thank you so much for the tips and especially the book suggestion. Amazon has it at 103 reviews with 5 stars, so it must be pretty awesome. I'm running out during my lunch break to hopefully obtain this literary treasure.

    Your blog is wonderfully entertaining. I find myself telling my non-sewing friends about it all the time. Kudos to the glamorous Cathy too!

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  22. These are great tips. Even though I learned to sew for my studies google has never failed me yet. It's safe to say I'm still on a learning curve and that i'll be takig to to enjoy enjoy sewing for myself and making mistakes

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  23. Press! Press! Press!

    Take the time to press your seams, and if possible, use a tailor's ham to press darts. This makes all the difference, and takes your garments from home made to handmade.

    As far as sewing classes go, I highly recommend Shaerie at SewLA here in Los Angeles. That lady can SEW, and better yet, she can break any technique down into simple steps.

    Her blog has great tutorials as well, including FBA:
    http://sew-la-fabric.blogspot.com/

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  24. I took a class because I knew I would revert to moody teenager if I asked my mum to show me how to use a sewing machine (I'm sure she realised this too, hence the reason she never taught me!). It also forced me to spend the whole day on it rather than giving up when I hit the first stumbling block. One of the best decisions I ever made!

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  25. Brilliant list, Peter! I sewed a lot when I was young and fearless--I made play clothes in high school, curtains and furniture (an 8-foot stuffed flowered snaky thing that could be curled up into a beanbag chair-ish object) in college and jumpsuits (!) in graduate school. (I must have been pretty good--I distinctly remember wearing the navy cotton jumpsuit with white topstitching everywhere but, fortunately, can find no pictures.) Now that I'm older, I find I'm more fearful of taking scissors to cloth. Your tips, and especially number 6, are just what I need. Thanks.

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  26. Like many gay men in my age group I was at one time married. She was a lovely and hugely talented woman. Hard as it seems to believe now, there was no such thing as a mall. Young women made most of their school clothes -- skirts, shifts prom dresses. Like most young couples money was always tight and my wife sewed more out of necessity than pleasure. I had never sewn before until she asked for my help. She would have me pin pieces together and she would run them through the machine. She would tell me how to press the seams, I would check off the instructions as we completed a step, and in a day or two she would be wearing something new to work. Our incomes eventually grew and the sewing machine found new uses. Together we learned how to make drapes and slipcovers. Those skills I continued to use long after our relationship had ended. I had not even thought about making myself something to wear until I stumbled upon a Japanese sewing book "Making men's coats" on Ebay. It's opened up a whole new avenue of creativity for me.

    My cardinal rule is to take a deep breath and SLOW DOWN. Rome wasn't built in a day. If I'm feeling pressured by time, I walk away. Sometimes I just pin a seam together and that has to be enough progress for the day.

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  27. This is a very nice set of "rules"!
    I'd add, don't be afraid to rip off seams! If anything goes wrong, you can always (almost always) re-do it.
    Plus, ask for advice people around you - even non-sewing people. I mean, they might not be able to help you with the techniques, but they'll be able to tell you if the thing fits wrong in the back. :D

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  28. I'm not sure at what age I started watching my mother sew, but I remember sitting at the back of her machine watching. She finally let me start when I was five or six. She would draw patterns on brown paper sacks for my dolls. After every step, I would run into the kitchen and have her check my work. Most of the time she would make me rip the seam out and redo it. I'm great at ripping out! I then moved on to Barbie clothes and then onto clothes for me when I was 11 or 12. I learned from the pattern instructions. When I was 15 I took a few lessons from a friend of my mom's and learned how to do tailoring.

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  29. My grandmother taught me to sew, and then I was on my own. Somehow I managed to miss home ec.

    On your bonus tip: I would recommend specialty classes, for when you want to learn a special skill or take your sewing to the next level. And if you buy your sewing machine at an actual *ahem* dealer, then I would totally recommend taking the classes that come with it, even if you've been sewing a long time.

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  30. Such a wise post -- merci beaucoup, Peter! I'm the perfectionist with the way too complicated sewing machine and a fear of cutting into much of the lovely fabric I've collected. Back to basics for me!

    Karen in Paris

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  31. Hi Peter. My slightly long, rambling comment seems to have disappeared into the ether luckily for you - suffice to say, I stumbled across your blog a couple of days ago and absolutely adore it! Such fun and very inspiring to me as a beginner. I must thank you especially for today's post. I really needed this encouragement and I am now going to get my machine out of its box and start sewing!!

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  32. Thanks for this post, will definitely check out the books!

    I learned in February in a class that did the Bernina Seams Inside Out bag, and that really worked for me---I learned to not be scared of various techniques, I produced something functional and attractive, and the class doubles as a studio night, so the more experienced ladies who came for open studio were encouraging and friendly, and it nicely set me up to return to studio with independent projects until I invested in my own machine.

    I had "learned" to sew a couple times before but it hadn't clicked or stuck.

    Although, I bought a new machine two months later (Janome DC2010 for $400 at local dealer), and I have to say, I have REALLY been enjoying my decorative stitches, which I use all the time.

    (I'm intending to start a blog, I just need a good name, and will totally post about that)

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  33. Good list! I would especially ditto 5, 6, 7 and 9. I would also add: educate yourself about fabrics. This is something I'm still working on -- I've made plenty of mistakes in my fabric choices!

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  34. What a wonderful post Pierre! Kudos to you!

    A good, simple machine is key, we had a horrible sewing machine when I was a kid and it frustrated the heck out of me because things were always getting jammed and I never had patience to deal with it.

    I purchased my first vintage machine today, a Singer 328J (made some place other than Great Britain?). She came in a beautiful wood case and other than being a little dirty, she purrs like a kitten.

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  35. I LOVE this post. I can't think of anything to add.

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  36. Great post! My sewing really improved once I had a space in which to sew (a) that I liked and (b) where I could leave garments in their half-finished state undisturbed until I next had time/the inclincation to work on them. Having a happy sewing space makes me a happy sewer.

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  37. I have been lurking for a few months and I have to tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog and how inspiring it is. To think that you have only been sewing for a year!

    I have just one thing to add: if you been thinking,"gee, I wish I had kept sewing, I really should bring the sewing machine up from the basement, clean it up and sew something.." -stop thinking and just do it!

    My mother sewed almost all my dresses when I was a girl. (Until I was in fifth grade we weren't allowed to wear pants to school.) I loved picking out the patterns, the fabric, finding the perfect buttons. My enthusiasm waned after eighth grade home ec (stupid skirt!); then my mother got older and her arthritis and failing eyesight meant the sewing machine went downstairs.

    But- your blog and Gertie's and a host of others I discovered over the past few months have renewed my desire to sew. I brought the Kenmore back upstairs, oiled it up and was surprised to discover that it ran. Even the light still worked! I am almost finished with a dress- OK, the dress was supposed to be worn at my cousin's shower earlier this month, so I missed that deadline- but I plan on perservering and keep at it.

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  38. I first learned to sew when I was in elementary school, through a 4-H club and my mom. Many years passed when I didn't touch a sewing machine. Then mid-university days I had IDEAS for things I wanted to wear, but couldn't find. Modifications, simple projects. Now I live somewhere that RTW sizing offers me almost nothing, so I'm continuing the journey and learning more about fit and pattern alteration.

    Your list is good, another thing I've found useful, and it may be one of the reasons people blog, is to keep a project notebook. It really helps me to avoid repeat mistakes, remember that the project I set aside for a few months was cut out a size too small, etc.

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  39. I haven't sewn anything on a machine yet! But I want to and this post is really helpful, thanks. I've been lurking around this blog (and a few others) for a while now storing up inspiration and advice. I'm determined to give it a go just as soon as I can clear all my husband's rubbish off our table.

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  40. It's a really good list. I'll add something else. If your mistake can't be easily seen from normal viewing distance, forget about it and move on to the next garment.
    I learned to sew on my own but took an advanced class long after I started sewing that helped me take my sewing up a notch. There is so much sewing help out there on the internet, but for my money build a library of good sewing books.

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  41. I learned to sew in Home Ec - the basics, anyway. Mostly, I am self-taught gleaning bits of wisdom from books, other sewers and trial-and-error. My advice to any beginner is to JUST DO IT! Don't expect everything you make to be perfect and don't get discouraged. Learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward. Any hobby or sport requires practice and time. You wouldn't pick up a tennis racquet for the first time expecting to be any good, would you?

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  42. After buying numerous sewing books (which I enjoyed reading, but which overwhelmed me), I started taking evening classes at FIT. Although it's not oriented towards the person who wants to sew for herself/himself, it's been very valuable. The vibe is completely different when you're surrounded by people who want to become designers. You also get access outside of class to industrial sewing machines and workrooms with large cutting tables, although sometimes at odd hours.

    Some students are friendly, some snub you, just like at any other school. For a resident New Yorker, the rates are reasonable.

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  43. I'd like to add ironing to your great list. It's extremely helpful but as a beginner it's something you are likely to skip.

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  44. Hi Peter,

    Thanks so much for this list. I found this blog through a friend. After having a frustrating sewing weekend, it's good to read these tips. I learned to sew last year with Diana Rupp herself. She's a very nice lady, and I'm sure if you asked she'd give you free copies of her books. ;) I made a pencil skirt with her and right now I'm trying to work on her wrap skirt. I can't recommend her book enough. I also can't wait to read more of your blog posts!

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  45. Great advice Peter. Like several others I think working with others is a big help. If you have a body (like cuddlesome saggy little old me but not like gorgeous cousin Cathy ) that doesn't fit a standard size, and if (also like CSLOM, and maybe like gorgeous Cathy)your eyesight isn't quite as sharp as it was then you NEED someone to tell you that the shoulders and back should to be narrowed and the side seam taken in over the hip and let out the waist. Better still, they can pin the alterations for you. It's even better if the someone is expert enough to tell you what to alter as you tissue fit the pattern! No, I'm not an obsessive ,just cuddlesome saggy little old me who needs to tissue fit anything more shaped than a big flannel nightie, and when I need to tissue fit I need a friend!

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  46. Excellent tips - thank you. I'm hoping to buy my first machine soon and overcome the fear instilled in me by a sewing course that I hated. Your blog is really inspiring!

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  47. Hi Peter,
    I found your blog somehow on the nbet after doing a search on how to make a shirt. I am coming back to sewing after quite a long hiatus. i can totally understand the sew as a hobby rather than a job quote as I actually started a tailors apprenticeship in my late teens and it totally ruined my passion for sewing. I guess I am lucky in that my mother is a very long time dressmaker and she is really excited that I want to get my feet wet again. I am actually thinking of starting up a blog to record my progress although it might just wait until the hobby grabs a hold of me lol. All the best, and thanks for just being there!!!

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  48. Great to hear you're sewing again, Raff!

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  49. I learnt to sew, sat around my mothers feet as a young child whilst she did alterations and comissions for a local womens clothing boutique. As a consequence all three of us (I have two sisters) were expected to shorten our trousers or skirts, sew on buttons, make and mend. Mother was always there for support, guidence and a helping hand but at a distance. So when I came to do my GCSE Textiles and had to make a waistcoat (supposed to take 6 weeks) Having cut the pattern this was completed, lined and made reversible - minus buttons (didn't have these with me at the time)in a double lesson. I still continue to sew today, for both work and pleaseure. I now teach textiles along with other Home Ecomonics subjects. I love playing with fabric scraps...

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  50. I'm super late to the party on this post, but Books: I highly recommend Patricia Moyes "Sewing Basics". I've always loved to hand sew small things (loved my aunts button box). I took a sewing class in middle school (hated it). I came back to sewing during grad school for stress relief,fun, and I was super broke and decided to learn to make some better clothes than I could afford to buy. Patricia's book was a great overview of basic techniques step by step. I have a library of books and I still refer to Pat's. I also do enjoy the D.Rupp book. I've had it for years, but just recently made a few quick projects from it to stay sewing while I procrastinate on constructing a fraken-patterned knock off sweater project. The D. Rupp's instructions are clear and written with a light heart. Great recommend for a new sewer.

    I really enjoy taking classes. I'm a teacher so I value the student-teacher dynamic. However, sewing is my quiet time. I'm only tempted to find a sewing group to set aside some dedicated time to sew. Otherwise, I like the meditative solitude.

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  51. Several years ago and very far away I bought a sewing machine for my wife (by request). We got a single fancy Xmas tree blanket sewn on a friend's machine because her's was too complex. Since that time we have been lugging that brand new machine around the world. It's been calling to me for years and I think I'm about ready to pull it out of the mothball. I truly appreciate your words of encouragement. My plan is to have a snazzy pair of boxer shorts like yours in a week or so. Here goes!

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  52. I just bought a sewing machine, about a week ago. Im so excited for the journey I have embarked on. I've already tapered a pair of wide pants, fixed a belt loop, and I'm making patterns for a shirt I've seen online and didnt want to pay 580.00 dollars for (damn Givenchy). Ive been inspired partially by your blog and just want to say, Thanks.

    Brand new sewer with a huge imagination

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    Replies
    1. Have fun! (I also started on a bit of a whim.)

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