Beginner Sewing Tips

on May 27 | in Sewing + Quilting Tips | by | with 92 Comments

This giveaway is now closed. Thanks!

Tasha Miller Griffith’s created her PDF e-book for someone new to sewing. Hello Sewing Machine, Learn How to Sew with Basics for Every Sewing Machine covers the basics about how to use your sewing machine and how to start to make things. In celebration of the release of her e-book, Tasha selected some of your beginner sewing questions to answer below from the blog, Facebook and Twitter. Your comment on this post below enters you to win one of THREE free copies of Hello Sewing Machine, Learn How to Sew with Basics for Every Sewing Machine, and Tasha is also offering a %25 discount for Sew,Mama,Sew! readers with the code HELLOSEWMAMA on Etsy. Enjoy Tasha’s tips and be sure to check out her new e-book!

Hello Sew,Mama,Sew! readers! I’m excited to be with you today, answering your sewing questions. You all came up with some good ones! I’m going to answer the ones that I thought were the most relevant to other beginning sewers. I’m glad to have the chance to bridge the gap between what you already know, and the knowledge you need to confidently pick up a pattern and start sewing. That’s exactly what I wanted to do with my new e-book, Hello Sewing Machine, Learn How to Sew with Basics for Every Sewing Machine, which starts you off with the basics for any machine. Most of the answers below are excerpted or adapted from it. I’m offering you a chance to win one of three free copies today, as well as a discount for everyone reading this blog. Just enter the code HELLOSEWMAMA when you checkout on Etsy to save 25%! And now, on to your questions:

Thread Tension
This is great question, and definitely something I wanted to cover in Hello Sewing Machine. The tension of the top thread and the bobbin thread can be unbalanced. This causes loose stitches on one side of the fabric and/or too tight ones on the other side, and thread breakage if one side is extremely tight. It’s normal to need to adjust the thread tension every once in a while for balanced stitches.

  • Sew a sample seam to check out the tension. Use a straight stitch and two layers of fabric. A longer seam will give you a better sample. Sew another seam to compare after you make adjustments.
  • Ideally, the two threads should interlock in the center of the fabric layers. The stitches should look flush to the fabric surface on both sides of the fabric– not loose, but not puckering or tight– with just a dot of the thread from the opposite side showing. If you use a different color thread in the top and bobbin it will be easier to see, and to tell which is which.
  • Try adjusting the bobbin tension first. There’s probably a screw in the case that you turn clockwise to tighten. A little turn of that screw goes a long way, but don’t be afraid to adjust it and see what happens. If you’re not sure, check your machine manual for how to adjust your bobbin tension.
  • If that doesn’t fix the problem, try adjusting the top tension as well, especially on older machines. Some machines have a “normal” top tension setting, and a dial that easily adjusts the tension for special situations.

Cleaning + Oiling
Another thing you asked about that I think all sewers should know is how to maintain your machine by cleaning and oiling it. A little TLC for your sewing machine goes a long way towards making sure that it will work well for you. All troubleshooting should start with cleaning your machine. Also clean and oil it after every few hours of actual sewing time, to keep it running problem-free.

To start cleaning, open the throat plate; it probably either slides to the side, or pops up (you may need to drop the feed dogs). Also open the bobbin area if it’s separate.

Cleaning Out Lint

  • Clean out the fuzzy bits of thread and fabric lint that have accumulated under and between the feed dogs, and around the bobbin.
  • I use a small soft brush that came with my machine, and a scrap of soft fabric to clean out the lint. You can also blow it out with your breath or canned air, but be careful not to blow lint further into the workings of the machine.
  • The bobbin compartment may have a hook that also comes out. Consult your manual to figure out which parts of your machine you are supposed to open and clean yourself, and which to leave alone.

Modern machines usually need only a drop or two of oil in one place, and then the action of sewing distributes it to the rest. Older machines may have more points to oil– hatches that open and/or extra holes in the case. If you have a machine that hasn’t been used for a while, it’s a good idea to put a drop of oil in all the spots that the manual recommends.

Use only sewing machine oil. It’s finely processed machine oil without any particles that could clog things up. After a while you will be able to tell when your machine needs oil just by the sound of the motor running!

Seam Allowances + Sewing Rounded Edges
Two people asked about sewing around curved seams. It can be a little tricky when you are first starting out, but there are a few tips that can help you get the hang of it. Some of them apply to sewing straight seams as well.

  • First, and for all sewing, watch the edge of the fabric against your seam allowance guide, and not the needle.
  • Another question mentioned seam allowance being “set wrong.” If you have an adjustable seam guide, measure the distance from the needle to the guide, and adjust it so that it matches your seam allowance. Especially for straight seams, make sure that the guide is aligned parallel to the feed dogs, perpendicular to the front of the machine bed, otherwise your seam can be crooked. If your machine has seam guide lines printed or engraved on it, measure out from the needle to see which one matches the seam allowance for your project.

  • For curved seams, go slowly. If the curve is steep, it may help to stop with the needle down, lift the presser foot and pivot the fabric a small amount. Set the foot back down and continue on. You can do this as often as you need to.
  • Remember that if you are sewing a rounded edge, only the part of the seam allowance directly across from the needle should be aligned with the seam guide at any one time. Don’t try and stretch or bend the fabric around. Just sew slowly and only worry about the part of the curve that is about ready to go under the needle. Steer the fabric gently using both hands.

Finishing Fabric Edges
I love that someone asked a question about when to finish fabric edges and whether it depends on the type of fabric. It depends on the fabric, and also what part of the garment or project you are working on, and whether the edges there are likely to fray.

  • The cut edges of most woven fabrics will unravel if they are exposed to wear. Edges cut on the bias won’t fray as much. Most knit fabrics don’t unravel, but some will run (like stockings). You can check how prone to fraying or running your fabric is on a scrap, by rubbing the edge with your thumb. If the fabric is a knit, stretch out the edge and watch what happens to the threads.
  • Adding some kind of stitching to hold the threads at the cut edges together is called overcasting. You can use any number of machine stitches for this. I like to use a zigzag that that takes a few stitches to go from one side to the other. A regular zigzag stitch works too. Test the length and width settings to see that it’s not puckering the fabric. If your machine doesn’t have zigzag, use a line of straight stitching fairly close to the edge of the seam allowance. If you are overcasting a knit fabric, use a stitch that has some stretch, ideally as much as the fabric stretches in the direction you are sewing. Keep in mind that if you want to press your seams open, you will need to finish each side of the seam allowances separately.
  • Most overcasting in ready to wear uses a serger, and you can too if you have one.
  • Other alternatives for finishing edges include covering them with bias strips or seam binding, or sewing an enclosed seam (like a French or flat-felled seam). You can also use pinking shears (those scissors with sharp diagonal teeth) on the edges. They cut the fabric in little diagonals that are less likely to unravel, since they are on the bias. I may be a little on the paranoid side about this, but I wouldn’t use pinking shears alone unless I knew that the edge I was finishing would not get a lot of wear.

  • I choose whether to finish the edges and how based on the fabric type and how much wear a seam will be exposed to. If I am making a special project, I may choose French seams or seam binding instead of overcasting, so that the inside looks clean. For most of my garment sewing (with woven fabrics) I overcast all the seams, except ones that will be enclosed in fabric (like inside a waistband, hem, or yoke). For knit fabrics, I don’t usually overcast the edges at all. However, I recently made a shirt from a silk knit that ran very easily, so I definitely overcast those edges!
  • Usually I finish the edges after sewing the seams of a project. That way any adjustment or seam trimming happens first, and I make sure that I haven’t distorted the edges of the fabric pieces before sewing them together. Sometimes I will make an exception, like for the silk knit I mentioned. With narrow seam allowances and slippery fabric, I was afraid that I would get runs in the edges as I sewed them together, so I overcast them first. If you decide to do this, test on scraps and adjust your settings to make sure that your overcastting method won’t distort the fabric edges, which could throw off your seams or cause the fabric to pucker.

Sewing Slippery + Stretchy Fabrics
Several people asked variations on this question about fabric slipping, sewing knits and using a walking foot or a serger, which are all related. Although this is a little bit outside the scope of “beginning” sewing, it’s obviously something you all want to know, and I hope that by adding some tips here I will help you try out some different fabrics with less frustration!

No amount of pins will hold the fabric perfectly still, and too many will get in your way. Put a pin at the top of your seam, then at the bottom, then in the middle, then in the spaces in between, so that you keep the fabric layers even.

The Feed Dogs + a Walking Foot
The feed dogs always pull a little more on the layer of fabric they directly contact than on the layers above. This is especially apparent in slippery fabrics and knits, and across long seams. It also shows up in quilting, since there are a lot of fabric layers. (By the way, if you are sewing two pieces together, and one layer is larger than another, you can use this effect to help you ease and make the two layers match, by turning your project so that the larger layer is on the bottom as you sew.)

A walking foot, which has teeth on top to match the ones in the feed dogs, is designed to help even out the pull on the top layer of fabric. You can get a walking foot especially for your brand of sewing machine, or a generic one to fit your shank type, which is usually cheaper and works fine. I love my walking foot, and I almost always use it when I’m sewing with knits and slippery fabrics.

Stitches and Settings + Sergers
Different stitch selections, lengths, and widths can push or pull the fabric more or less than you want as you sew. A serger has two sets of feed dogs, and a special setting to adjust them called differential feed. This lets you adjust the feed to gather in the fabric more or less, which is a big reason why many people love sergers for sewing knits. However, on every project I’ve made so far, I’ve been able to adjust the settings on my regular zigzag machine to get a result I’m happy with. That’s why I still don’t have a serger! If you’re trying out a new fabric or want a particular effect, make as many samples as you need to to figure out what settings will work best. On the silk knit (a new fabric for me) I made a whole bunch of little test seams. I found that by increasing the stitch length, I got the machine to gather the fabric in more, so I could adjust the stitch length until the seams were not too gathered or stretched out.

Basting + More Options
For difficult seams that don’t want to stay in place, my ultimate solution is basting. That means using some temporary stitches, sewn either by hand or by machine, to hold things in place. Basting by hand is slower but gives you the most control. By machine, use a long stitch length to make it easier to pull out the basting later. Sew close to your intended seam line. Just concentrate on keeping the fabric edges where you want them, and don’t worry about how the basting stitches look. Pull out some of them if you need to and try again, until the fabric is held where you want it. Then sew your seam with regular stitching. The basting will hold everything together better than pins, and you won’t have to stop to pull them out or worry about them distorting the fabric. When you are happy with your seam, pull out the basting stitches.

Some people also sew with a layer of tissue paper, or use water-soluble stabilizers and/or fusible web when sewing and hemming tricky fabrics. I don’t have any expert guidance there; I’m kind of a purist when it comes to fabric and thread. But those options are also there for you to explore.

I really wish I had time and space to answer every single question you posed! I will finish off by giving a quick answer to two more which are more in-depth than I can answer fully here, but important, and I can at least point you towards some more resources.

The quick answer to “What is interfacing?” might be: anything that stiffens or stabilizes a layer of fabric. You might want something lightweight to make a shirt collar crisp, or much heavier for the bottom of a purse. Many people think fusible when they think about interfacing, and there are all kinds of weights and types that you can iron on to reinforce any kind of fabric. You can also use any kind of fabric or sew-in interfacing that produces the effect you want. Lately I have been using a simple densely woven, somewhat stiff cotton fabric from my stash to interface the waistbands of all my pants and skirts. Try out a sample, either sewing or fusing it on to a fabric scrap, to see how your chosen interfacing changes the hand of your fabric. The most extensive selection of interfacing I know of is at Fashion Sewing Supply.

This is a huge topic, and one that I’m definitely still learning myself. I think everyone who sews clothes would say the same!

Plus Sizes
Unfortunately, the quick answer to “Is there an easy way to increase the size of a pattern?” is no. Those lines on the pattern for different sizes are created by grading, which is a system that patternmakers have worked out. You’ll notice that the amount graded is different in different places on the pattern pieces, which can make it quite complex to scale the pattern up, depending on how many pieces are in the pattern and how complex they are. I would suggest starting with patterns that are available to fit your measurements. Then when you get a little more experience, you can try grading up a pattern you like, or altering one that fits you to get a similar style. Of the more independent pattern companies (which I love to support), I know that Cake Patterns go up to 50” waist, Hot Patterns include up to a 44” waist, and some styleARC patterns include plus sizes.

Pants are definitely the hardest thing out there to fit, at least for me! I have had the best luck starting with an already existing pair that fits me reasonably well, and copying them. There’s more about my own adventures fitting pants on my blog here and here. One resource I have found really helpful is the book Pants for Real People. Although I haven’t used the tissue-fitting method, all the descriptions and illustrations of common pants-fitting issues and solutions in the book are super helpful. Good luck!

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions; it was great to see what you all are wondering about, and I hope this post has made at least some things clearer! There’s a lot more basic sewing info in Hello Sewing Machine, Learn How to Sew with Basics for Every Sewing Machine, including threading, the bobbin, more troubleshooting and how to make a drawstring bag as a first project. I hope it will answer more of your questions and help more people start sewing!

Sew,Mama,Sew! Note: We have some good, related tutorials and guides to give you more information about questions in this post too. Check out the Amy Butler Interfacing Guide, Guide to Sewing Machine Feet, Seam Finishes Simplified + Seam Finishes from Sewing A to Z, How to Sew a French Seam, plus all of our Patterns + Adjustments tutorials. Don’t forget to comment for a chance to win one of three copies of Tasha’s Hello Sewing Machine, Learn How to Sew with Basics for Every Sewing Machine and use the discount to purchase!

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92 Responses to Beginner Sewing Tips

  1. Gayle says:

    I love the simplicity and clarity of your instructions, thanks from an old newbie to sewing!

  2. Marie says:

    It’s good to find a sewing book that doesn’t assume that the reader knows the basics! I’m a beginner, and so far I’ve just been winging it.

  3. I’ve been trying to learn sewing during my free time. This one would surely be a big help to me.

  4. Megan says:

    This was an awesome post! The ebook would be great!! Thanks!

  5. Cindy Clarke says:

    I would love to have a copy of your ebook but I am not a member of etsy. Is it available some other way?

  6. Kate says:

    Great tips! Especially glad to see that you too are still working sans serger. At times I really want to get one, but then I’m not sure I would complete enough projects to warrant getting one. I’ve been able to, like you, do most everything I need with the zigzag stitch. Thanks again for all the tips, I actually bookmarked this page to come back to! It is nice to have such a variety, all in one place! ๐Ÿ™‚ Congrats on the book and thanks for the giveaway / discount!

  7. These tips and illustrations are so helpful, I look forward to learning much more, thanks much!!!

  8. Joy says:

    Thanks for the great tips! I taught myself to sew, and could really use a handy guide like yours.

  9. Monica says:

    This ebook sounds great! I started sewing last summer while pregnant. I’ve only taken a 2 hour intro to my machine class. Everything else I’ve found online through blogs. More info is always helpful!

  10. Shasta says:

    Very smart tips!

  11. Lucia says:

    Wow! Great tips!

  12. Amber says:

    Great tips! I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in your book. It looks really interesting. Thanks!

  13. Natalie L says:

    I’ve heard most of these tips before, but it’s SO NICE to have them all in one place! I can’t imagine how awesome an entire eBook would be! ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Julie T says:

    I love what I have read so far. She answered so many questions I didn’t even know I had. This is on my must read list.

  15. rebeccawip says:

    wow! what a wealth of info – thanks for that post!
    i’m going to chack out your book withthe generous 25% off offer. thank you ๐Ÿ˜€

  16. diane says:

    I have several Japanese class 15 clones that don’t have engraved markings on the face plate so that nifty seam guide is a must have for me.

    I also match needles to the country of origin. My European made Bernina only gets Schmetz and for the Japanese machines I buy Organ needles that are made in Japan.

  17. kim t. says:

    wonderful tips! thank you!

  18. Carmen says:

    Thanks for all the wonderful beginner tips.

  19. Caroline B says:

    I would love to win this I feel like I have a lot to learn when it comes to sewing.

  20. Sara says:

    Those are alot of great tips and illistrations!
    Thanks for the giveaway!

  21. Jessica says:

    This looks like a great resourse for a beginner like me

  22. Elena says:

    I’d love to win that ebook!!!

  23. rebecca c says:

    I’d love to win a copy of this book as I’m new to sewing and sounds super helpful

  24. Cathie says:

    Wow, I could really use one of these. Thanks for the chance.

  25. dushyle says:

    Thank you so much for the tips! The book seems exactly what I need now, hope to get one…

  26. KeriAnn says:

    I am so excited to see that my question was answered!! I just learned how to sew/quilt in October and have only completed a handful of simple projects. I think that this eBook will be extremely helpful for trying to complete bigger projects, like clothing! Thanks for the great giveaway and for taking the time to ask us beginners what we would like to see!

  27. kelli says:

    Wonderful information!

  28. Emily C says:

    Love all these tips! So great for beginning sewers!

  29. Larissa says:

    What a great idea!

  30. Brigette says:

    Tension has gotten me in lots of unknown trouble!

  31. Leslie says:

    What a great book, thanks for tha chance to win a copy!

  32. Debbie says:

    Ive been sewing for years, but never to old to learn something new.

  33. Rebecca T in CA says:

    What a great ebook! I hope I get a copy ๐Ÿ™‚

  34. Kerri says:

    This was really helpful! I would love to win the ebook, to give to my son’s girlfriend, who got a sewing machine for Christmas.

  35. breanne says:

    These are all super helpful tips for what seems to be the new way I spend all my spare time รขโ‚ฌโ€ sewing! Thanks!

  36. This is just wonderful! I have many friends who are looking for beginning sewing with the machine, and this looks just the ticket. I am learning a lot from your answers here! Thank you!

  37. Courtney Hopkins says:

    This is great. I just bought a new (old) sewing machine and I can definitely use a book like this! Thanks for the tension pointers!

  38. Nupur says:

    Thanks for the giveaway! I for one NEED to read this book and learn some basics. I’m new to sewing and it would be nice to properly learn the technical basics of the machine.

  39. Allison C says:

    Even though I have been sewing for several years now, I still feel like I can always learn more. I could definitely use this book! Thanks for the tips!

  40. Anna says:

    This looks like such a useful book!

  41. Jane says:

    This book sounds awesome, I have just bought a walking foot for my machine and I learnt more in the short exerpt of this book(it came with no instructions at all) I like the illustrations as well very clear

  42. Kathe says:

    Great article – something for all who sew. Thanks for sharing.

  43. Mhairi says:

    This looks like such a great book. I love the explanations and all the pictures – I am definitely a visual learner.
    Thanks so much for the review.

  44. Suzanne says:

    If this post is an example of Tasha’s teaching style, the book must be great!

  45. Kayla Alt says:

    This book looks so great!
    And easy to follow, which I definitely am in need of!!!!

  46. Olivia Peters says:

    Fantastically helpful, thank you! Fingers crossed for a book!

  47. Deb Cameron says:

    Tasha, what an enlightening post and I’m more your intermediate sewer and still learnt something. Fabulous book, I have lots do people ask me all the time about sewing resources for beginners and I love that this a PDF, as most of the are younger and like their electronic devices over paper ๐Ÿ™‚

  48. Mariana says:

    I love this kinds of books because there is always something new to learn!

  49. Crystal says:

    Our daughter-in-law is just beginning to sew and I’d love to share this book with her. Thank you for answering the questions and for sharing your book!

  50. wendy says:

    This is super amazing. Thanks for doing this.

  51. Donna B. says:

    Great tips. I’m excited about the book! Although I, not brand new to sewing I still feel like a rank beginner and need all the help I can get.

  52. mamacharm says:

    this is so neat! fundamentals are so important and i’d love to refine mine.

  53. jessicac says:

    I really need this book! I am so intimidated by my machine!

  54. Stephanie says:

    What a wonderful resource that would be!

  55. Joanna Mull says:

    I love that this doesn’t appear to be a “list of tools I’ve never heard of and out of context” and that you’ve got such practical tips. I would love to have a chance to win.

  56. Kathy says:

    This book looks fantastic-I would love to own it!!

  57. Helene says:

    I bought my daughter a sewing machine for her birthday, and this introduction to sewing would be perfect for her!

  58. Patsy Booher says:

    Really great post! Although I have been sewing for several years, it never hurts to “brush up” on your skills. Who knows, maybe you will learn something new?

    Thanks for the giveaway!

  59. Kathryn says:

    In recent weeks, 3 friends who are beginner sewers have asked me to help them learn how to sew, I would love to win a copy of this book to help me make sure my answers are correct and make sense! Thanks so much

  60. Deana says:

    Thanks for the post – if your book is as thorough, then it will be a fabulous resource for new sewists!

  61. Rumeysa says:

    Thank you so much for the tips and giveaway.

  62. Catherine says:

    Just got my first sewing machine, this would be great!

  63. Katherine says:

    This has to be an amazing book! And just imagine how many people will be brave enough to start sewing because of you! Congratulations on such a wonderful accomplishment!

  64. Gina Nathan says:

    Oh my how i need this! I’m petrified of my sewing machine and I’d really love to be able to use it confidently.

  65. Lynda says:

    Wonderful tutorial on basic sewing tips. I printed this out and am keeping it in my sewing manual as a quick reference.
    Thank you so much!

  66. Ooh, this is awesome, what a great giveaway!

  67. Debbie Weishaar says:

    Thanks for all the great info on Beginner Sewing Tips as well as the wonderful giveaway. I’ll be sure to pass this info along to my young cousin who got her first sewing machine at Christmas last year and asked me to show her how it works. She knew nothing about it and it was so much fun watching a young girl learn to stitch straight lines after she learned to wind a bobbin and thread the machine. Can’t wait to see her this summer and see what she’s created or teach her something new. Thanks for the chance to win.

  68. kbo says:

    I have rekindled my interest in garment sewing after decades of off the rack buying. Thanks for the question and answers in this post and the mention of several pattern companies new to me.

  69. Megan says:

    Thanks for the tips -sounds like a great book!

  70. muriel says:

    Thanks for the tips.

  71. Tiffany says:

    Thanks for the tips. I’ve learned so much and have so much more to learn.

  72. CM says:

    Great comprehensive post, thank you!

  73. Trisha says:

    I would love to win this book since I am just starting to learn to sew.

  74. Laura F. says:

    I would love a copy of this book! It looks so helpful!

  75. Mollie says:

    Those are amazing tips! Thank you!

  76. Samina says:

    Very helpful. I’ll be referring to this page over & over again. Thanks!

  77. Lee Ann says:

    Looks like a book everyone should have in their library. I know I would love to have a copy.

  78. Jenniffier says:

    Those are some great tips. Especially the curve seam.

  79. Steph Wehrman says:

    Looks like a great book!!!

  80. Melissa Vink says:

    Wow what a great opportunity to learn more. I just got back into sewing a few months ago and am loving. I typically call my mom asking her questions or google my questions as well as follow tutorials. This would be a great tool! Thank you for the opportunity to win such a helpful ebook!!

  81. Jen says:

    Thanks for a giveaway! I could sure use some help — I have way more sewing machine than I do ability/knowledge!

  82. Jill says:

    Thanks for this post with great questions/answers. I can’t wait to read the book.

  83. MelodyJ says:

    Seems like a good book. I think I need this.

  84. Deb says:

    I could really use this book to improve my sewing skills!

  85. beth says:

    What a great resource. I’m not a new sewer but am starting to teach others. This could really help me make sure I cover all the bases!

  86. Jennet says:

    This looks like a great book! Thanks for the chance to win one.

  87. Michelle Naugle says:

    Would love to win this book! I just bought my first sewing machine in February and have been learning as I go. Thanks for the opportunity!

  88. Gene Black says:

    I have a seam guide but have never used it. I am not a beginner, but my niece is and I would love to win this for her.

  89. Alison says:

    Thanks for the tip on cleaning and oiling my machine. I just got a new one and I want to make sure I take care of it correctly.

  90. Drena says:

    how helpful and the illustrations are great! thanks for posting!

  91. Trina says:

    LOVE this!!

  92. Alex Emmons says:

    These are some really lovely drawings!

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