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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.

Oiling
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!

Pins
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.

Interfacing
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.

Fitting
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
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!