Sewing was one of my first loves. I remember learning on Mom’s old, black Singer while she sewed on her Bernina. My first project ever was either a pillow or an apron. I can’t remember which, I just know I made them at about the same time.
I went on to take sewing classes every chance I had in high school, completed a BS degree in Clothing and Textiles, and then ran my own dressmaking business for seven years.
In addition to sewing clothing, I really enjoy sewing quilts. Unfortunately, it’s one of those hobbies that is often pushed to the side in the rush of my life. I have had the time to finish a few quilts, however, and to accumulate a little bit of “wisdom” over time.
I am also a member of Rocky Mountain Creative Quilters, a fantastic quilt guild which emphasizes innovation and creativity in quilting.
I may not know enough to write a whole book, but I’ve tried to share a few things with you here.
Cuffs, collars and other enclosed seams
Cutting and marking
Darts, pleats, easing, and gathering
Fabric and interfacing
Seams and seam finishes
Zippers, buttons, and other closures
Cuffs, collars and other enclosed seams
When making a dress shirt with a tab down the center front, try this technique. This tab will be 1-1/4″ wide when finished, and no interfacing is required. These directions are for a lady’s blouse. You will need to adjust for a man’s shirt since the buttons are on the other side.
Extend the left front 3-1/8″ from the center front line. Fold 1-1/4″ toward the back, press, then fold 1-1/4″ again and press. Topstitch 1-1/8″ from the fold.
Extend the right front 3-5/8″ from the center front line. Fold 1-1/4″ toward the back, press, then fold 1-1/4″ again and press. Fold it one more time, and press. Stitch 1/4″ away from the fold. Unfold it, then stitch 1/4″ from the other fold. Press. Add buttons and buttonholes, and that’s it! Buttonholes should be vertical.
- I’m sure you’ve noticed that when you roll up a pile of papers, the inside papers stick out. It works the same with fabric, and this is why collar points sometimes stick up. For collars which roll nicely, remove about 1/8″ from the undercollar along the design edge, more or less depending on the thickness of your fabric. Take off more for thicker fabrics. Interface the upper collar, then ease the pieces to fit when sewing it together. Understitch and press using a pressing ham to preserve the shape.
- To sew a back yoke on a dress shirt without hand stitching, first layer and pin together along the long edge in the following order, the yoke facing (right side up), shirt back (right side up), and yoke (wrong side up). Stitch. Baste yoke and shirt front right sides together at shoulder seams. Roll shirt front and back together from the hem edge. Wrap the yoke facing around the rolled shirt and stitch to the front pieces. Pull the roll through the neck area, press, and top-stitch if you’d like.
Cutting and marking
- When sewing garment with a front closure in a print fabric, match the fabric print across the closure. This keeps the print continuous across the garment and gives it a much more professionally-sewn look. To do this you will need to cut the left front and right front separately. Place the pattern on the right side of your fabric with the pattern right side up. This will be your right front piece. Place it on grain, and place it so that the print is in a pleasing arrangement within the piece. Cut it out, mark it, and remove it from the pattern. Lightly press the right front along the center front line. Place it right side up against the fabric so that the print is continuous across the center front line. Place the pattern piece right side down, matching the center front line. Remove the right front then cut and mark the left front piece. As long as you are very accurate when you sew, the print will match along the center front. This takes extra effort, but it’s worth it!
Accuracy when cutting the garment pieces is crucial with plaids. If you are off at all, the seams will not match and they will definitely stand out.
If the piece is not cut on the fold, cut one piece first. Then remove the pattern paper, turn it over, and place it on your fabric. Make sure all lines vertically and horizontally match, then cut out the second piece.
If the piece is cut on the fold, first fold your fabric in half, matching identical parts of the plaid. Pin the fabric throughout every few inches. Place your piece on the fabric and cut it out, being careful not to cut into any pins.
To match adjoining pieces, be sure that each piece meets at the same point in the design of the fabric where the seam allowance and the notch meet.
To sew a seam, place the pieces together and pin often. Stitch the seam, then check it before you press. If you’ve cut the pieces out as directed above, and stitched from the wide end of the garment to the narrow end, the pieces should match. If not, undo the seam in the offending area and try again.
- Mark the right side of your fabric by taping a small piece of masking tape to the wrong side. This is especially good to do if it’s difficult to tell which is the right and wrong side of your fabric.
- Use your rotary cutter to cut your sewing projects as well as your quilting projects. Cut free-hand along curves, and use your ruler along straight edges. Cutters with smaller blades are available, and work quite well around tight curves.
- If your fabric is woven tightly enough that it won’t unravel, or if it’s a knit, don’t cut out the notches on your pattern. Mark these spots by clipping into the seam allowance 1/8″ to 1/4″. This method is much more accurate, and faster. Mark center front, center back, and dots at the seamline this way as well.
- If the item you’re making is fitted, increase all seam allowances to 1″, including the shoulder seam. Do not increase the seam allowances along a seam that is strictly a design element. This will allow enough room for any adjustments you may need. Trim excess seam allowance after the item is fitted and the permanent seam is sewn.
Darts, pleats, easing, and gathering
- This method of gathering will produce small, even gathers. Reduce the tension on your machine and set the stitch length to about 10 stitches per inch. Make sure you set it to make longer stitches for heavy fabrics. On the right side of the fabric, stitch about 1/16″ inside the seam allowance. Make a second row of stitching 1/8″ from the previous stitching so that the two rows of stitching straddle the seamline. Pin it to the matching garment piece at the dots and notches. Pull the bobbin threads and adjust the gathers until they’re even. Stitch with the gathered piece against the feed dogs, then remove the gathering threads. Take your time and be picky! The quality of your gathering makes the difference between your garment looking homemade and handmade.
- To avoid those strings at the end of your darts, especially when working with sheer fabric, do this! Tie the bobbin and top threads on your sewing machine together in a knot. Pull the thread backwards through the machine until the knot is beyond any mechanisms on your machine. Sew your dart from the tip to the raw edge. The thread will wrap itself around the fabric at the tip, and you won’t have to deal with tying off any threads!
- When easing two pieces of fabric together, pin them in place, then sew with the longer piece toward the feed dogs. They will do a good amount of the easing for you.
A simple way to mark and sew a dart. Mark the ends of the dart at the raw edges by clipping 1/4″ into the seam allowance. Push a pin straight in at each dot on the dart. Turn the fabric over and place another pin at each spot where the first pins show. Separate the two layers of fabric and secure the pins in place.
When you’re ready to sew, fold the fabric so that the clips line up and the point of the dart is on the fold. I don’t spend time worrying about whether the dots on the front and back of the dart match. If you’ve cut your fabric on-grain, the dots will match. Use the pins to hold the dart in place, making sure you don’t move the pins from where the dot is marked. Start stitching at the raw edge, stop with the needle down, then place an index card against the needle, angling the edge of it toward the next dot. Follow the length of the card. At the point, gradually go off the edge of the fabric. Stitch another 1/2″ or so, then tack the trailing thread to the dart using a small zig-zag stitch. Press toward center front.
Fabric and interfacing
- When cutting fake fur, cut only the fabric base. This ensures that you won’t cut off too much of the fur and prevents “short” spots.
- If you’re going to be making something out of very expensive fabric, try making a muslin version of the garment first. Keep track of the alterations you make, and be sure you transfer these to your pattern before you cut the fashion fabric. This way you can feel more confident as you work with your expensive fabric.
- Always prewash and straighten the grain of your fabric before you cut. This way your garment will hang straight and you will have less trouble as you sew. Here is a method for straightening woven fabrics. First, straighten one cut edge by snipping into the selvage then tearing the fabric from selvage to selvage. Fold the fabric in half, matching these corners, and give it a good shake. If the selvages hang evenly, the grain is straight. If they don’t, unfold the fabric and pull it on the bias every 4-6″. Your goal is to make your fabric square. Keep testing it until the selvages hang evenly. Then fold your fabric the other direction and repeat the procedure.
- Often the best interfacing you can use is the fashion fabric itself, if at all possible. Keep the grainlines consistent thoughout. However, don’t use the fashion fabric as interfacing if it’s a print and it will show through.
Here are two ways to press seams in velvet without crushing the fibers.
- Place a large scrap of velvet right side up on the ironing board. Lay the piece to be pressed right side down, then lightly steam the seam allowance. Do not place the iron directly on the fabric, but gently pat it flat with your hand.
- Use a needle board. A needle board looks like a tiny bed of nails. Place the velvet piece to be pressed right side down on the board then lightly steam, gently patting it flat with your hand.
- Your pattern instructions will probably tell you to turn up the hem on a shirt 1/4″ twice then sew. It’s easier and less bulky to serge the seam first, then turn it up just beyond the stitching and topstitch with the sewing machine. Quick, fast, and less bulk!
- A rule of thumb: the more curved your hem, the narrower the hem should be. Try to make the hem as wide as is feasible up to 3″. The extra weight will help your skirt hang better.
- Use this method to control fullness when turning up a hem. On a skirt, the bottom edge is always longer than where it is sewn to when you turn up the hem. This can leave uneven puckers which can, in turn, make the hemline appear choppy. In order to fix this, after finishing the raw edge, sew a straight stitch about 1/4″ away from it. Pin the hem in place, matching the side seams, center front, center back, and any other seams that may come down to the hem. Then using a pin, pull a stitch at regular intervals along the hem. This will slightly gather the fabric, and will even out the extra fullness. Then finish your hem in your favorite manner.
- Pin tucks add a beautiful touch to your garments. Sometimes they will extend the full length of a garment piece, such as in a yoke. Sometimes they end somewhere in the field of the garment piece. In this situation, you will need to hide the thread ends for a clean look, and it’s best not to backstitch and trim close to the stitching. That adds bulk to the stitching and just looks homemade, not hand made.
After stitching a pin tuck, cut the threads leaving about 5″. Turn the fabric over to the wrong side and gently pull the tuck apart where it ends in the field of the garment. Carefully pull the threads of the last stitch to the wrong side of the fabric. Tie a snug knot, but not so tight that the fabric puckers or that the tuck lays wrong. Trim the threads down to 1/2″.
- Having your sewing machine adjusted to the correct tension for each project is crucial. Bad tension results in skipped stitches, broken thread, puckered seams, and even tangling of the thread as you sew. The correct tension allows your garment to move better with you as you wear it and assures you have a strong seam which will last. Fortunately, it takes just a few minutes to adjust your sewing machine.
Try to avoid ever changing the tension in your bobbin case; only adjust the tension on your top thread. I’ve had my machine for almost 25 years, using the same bobbin case, and only once did I need to change the bobbin case tension.
Take a 6″ square of your scrap fabric from the project you are about to begin and fold it along the bias into the shape of a triangle. Adjust your machine’s tension to your best preliminary guess for this type of fabric. Heavier fabrics generally require looser tension. Stitch approximately 1/4″ away from the fold using a long stitch.
First, look at the stitches. They should be even, and the top thread and bobbin thread should both “disappear” into the fabric. This is very apparent if you use different colors of thread in the bobbin and for the top thread. The image to the right shows how the stitch should be formed within the fabric. When this is correct, you should not see the connecting loop on either side of the fabric.
Once you’re satisifed, test your tension again by pulling on the corners at each end of the seam. If your tension is correct, the threads should not break when pulling moderately.
Be sure to adjust your machine’s tension for every project because each fabric you sew on behaves differently.
- It is crucial to the success of your sewing project to select the correct needle. Having a bad needle is the mistake I see most often with new sewers, and causes a lot of frustration and difficulty as they sew.
Use a good quality sewing machine needle and change it for each project you do. A worn or damaged needle leaves skipped stitches and can damage your fabric as you sew. If you hit a pin or otherwise damage the needle while you’re working, change it out right away. I’ve learned it really isn’t frugal to use the needle for too long because it damages the fabric and can even make sewing projects take longer than they otherwise would have.
Sewing machine needles are sized by number. The smaller the number, the finer the needle. This is true regardless of the numbering system your brand of needle uses. Use the smaller needles for sheer and light-weight fabrics, and the heavier needles for heavier fabric such as corduroy and heavy woolens. For denim, use a denim-weight needle. A needle that is too small can more easily break and makes sewing more difficult. A needle that is too large will punch holes in your fabric that are much too big.
Use a standard sharp needle when sewing on woven fabrics. A ball-point needle is best on knits because instead of cutting a hole through the fabric, it will push the threads aside and goes through the natural hole. When sewing on leather, vinyl, or suede, use a wedge-point needle. It will cut a narrow slit rather than create a hole.
If you aren’t sure which type and size of needle is best for your project, test it on a scrap of fabric.
- Most of us have less time to sew than we’d like to have, and sometimes we have to work on a deadline. So, I thought I’d add a few pointers for speeding up your sewing without sacrificing quality.
- Select a pattern that has fewer pieces. This one almost goes without saying, but the patterns that have fewer pieces to put together are the easiest and quickest to cut out and assemble. If you wanted something really fancy, think about using a simple pattern made out of a really incredible fabric and maybe embellish it in an interesting way.
- Rotary cutters aren’t just for quilting! A rotary cutter can take a lot of time off the cutting process, and is generally more accurate.
- When you lay out your garment, hold it down with something clean and heavy instead of pinning. There are weights you can purchase to do this, or just improvise and use some cans of soup. Make sure you mark your garment before you move it since you won’t have pins attached.
- Cut straight across notches in your pattern then mark them by making a small snip into the fabric. This is much faster, and much more accurate, too!
- Use a sew-in interfacing. This one probably flies in the face of reason, but I find sew-in interfacing much easier and faster to use. Simply place it against the garment piece it goes with and sew it all together as one layer. You won’t need to stand at the ironing board and count to 20 (or however long it takes). Plus your finished garment will look much more professionally finished, too!
- Sew zippers into the garment while you can still lay it flat.
- Sew as much as possible before getting up to press your garment. Start by sewing all the darts and tucks, and adding patch pockets. Sew as many seams as you can without crossing a seam, dart, or tuck that needs pressing first. Never sew over a seam without pressing it first.
- Chain sew. Don’t cut the thread after finishing a seam. Get the next seam ready to sew and butt it up right against the seam you just finished. This is a really handy technique if you’re doing piecework.
- Sew seams in the longest seams possible by using the flat method of construction. Look at my earlier discussion of the flat method under the heading Other tips.
- Use topstitching or decorative stitches to sew hems in place. Not only does this add a nice touch to your garment, it is a quick and easy way to stitch the hem, especially if you’re picky about your hems like I am. If I don’t topstitch or embellish a hem, I stitch it by hand.
- Sewing for children is especially fun. But they grow so fast it doesn’t seem you get to put your favorite outfits on them for long. Happily, there are some things you can do to increase the longevity of the clothing you sew for them. Here are a few suggestions.
- Sew decorative patches on the knees. You can do this right away, or wait til the knees are worn first if you like. This is an especially good idea for crawling babies. Add a padded patch for your baby’s comfort when he crawls on hard floors.
- Include a large hem. When your child grows too tall, but still fits the garment around the waist, you can just let them hem down a bit. Dab the fold with some vinegar and steam to get the crease out. If the crease still shows, add a bit of ribbon. rick-rack, contrasting fabric, or lace to cover it up.
- Add “expandable” features to your child’s clothing. A pair of pants or a skirt with an elastic waistband will fit them a lot longer than one with a sewn waistband.
- Add decorative trim to pants or a skirt that is too short but fits around the child. A old pair of jeans can be lots of fun with an embroidered band added around the hem, or a skirt can have a length of lace added. Use your imagination!
- Be sure to follow the fabric manufacturer’s instructions for laundering the item. This seems obvious, but for me, it’s something I need to be reminded of. I have a tendency to just throw things in the wash without thinking about it and unfortunately, I’ve destroyed a few really great outfits.
- Re-dye clothing that isn’t worn but is stained or looking faded. You can find the dye at the grocery store.
- For babies, use a bib when you bottle-feed. Unless baby formula has changed dramatically since I had babies, baby formula will badly stain your baby’s clothing.
- If you’ve lost the instructions to the dress you just cut out, don’t despair! Most patterns are easy to assemble even without the instructions. The pattern pieces contain all the information you need to assemble your garment. Each piece will tell you which view it is used for, how many pieces to cut out, where to place the grain, and whether you need to cut the piece from interfacing, too. Cut all pieces and mark the notches,
darts, tucks, etc. with your favorite marking methods. The pattern pieces also tell you the order of construction. At each notch is a number. Sew
the seam with the number 1 first, number 2 second, etc.
If you don’t wish to hunt for the numbers, use either the unit method or the flat method for assembling a garment.
The unit method is simply this: construct the garment by sewing each part of it individually, then sew the pieces together. This results in a garment
more in alignment with the contours of the body than the flat method. Use the unit method when sewing better quality, tailored, and fitted garments.
The flat method is generally faster and easier to complete, often used in ready-to-wear and is useful for casual clothing. The object of this method
is to keep the garment pieces flat for as long as possible while sewing.
We’ll use a shirtdress with a one-piece front bodice, separate skirt, set-in sleeves, jewel neckline, and back zipper closure for an example.
To sew this dress using the unit method, sew the bodice including all darts, pockets, etc. and the facings at the neckline. Sew the sleeve underarm
seam, the skirt side and front seams and design elements. Any elements that are on more than one unit of the dress, such as a back zipper, should
not be sewn yet. Once you’ve completed all you can on each piece individually, sew them to each other. Sew the sleeve into the armseye, and
the skirt onto the bodice. Then add the back zipper, finish the neckline, and finally, hem the skirt and the sleeves. The result is a dress shaped
more in harmony to you. You can see this better at the armseye. The armseye is sewn so that the sleeve and side seams lie against each other
with the seam allowance pointing up into the underarm.
Now let’s discuss the same shirtdress using the flat method. First sew all design elements such as darts and pockets. Sew the back skirt pieces to
the back bodice. Add the zipper. Sew the front skirt to the front bodice. Sew the shoulder seams, then add the facings to the neckline. Now sew the
sleeve to the bodice. Then sew the side seams starting at the hem, sewing across the underarm seam, and finishing at the sleeve hem. Hem the sleeves
and the skirt and you’re done! Now look at the difference with the armseye seam. The front and back pieces lie against each other instead of the side
seams and the seam allowance will be forced to sit flat against the garment. This seam appears much more casual and will not conform to your body as
I suggest you use the unit method most often because it gives the most professional look to your garment. Always use the unit method when sewing
a tailored garment such as a jacket. However, for a nice broadcloth dress shirt, use the flat method at the side seam/armseye seam.
It’s possible, and probably not a bad idea, to use a combination of these methods as you construct your garment. Use your best judgment to determine
when each method is appropriate.
- It’s easy to create a throw pillow with a removable pillow form. Instead of making the back of the pillow one piece, cut two pieces. Each piece should be the same height as the pillow (plus seam allowances), but at least 2/3 of the width. Finish one edge on each of the back pieces by turning it under 1/4″ and stitching. When you assemble the pillow, match all raw edges and sew as usual. This creates an overlap on the back side that hides the pillow form, but still makes it easy to remove.
- Add a lining to your skirt. It adds body, and can eliminate the need to wear a slip. For a relatively straight skirt, use the front and back skirt pattern pieces for your lining pattern. If there is a slit in the skirt, cut the lining at the slit in a curve so that it will not been seen through the slit. Sew the darts as usual, but press in the opposite direction as the darts in the fashion fabric. Sew side seams as usual. Press along the seamline in the zipper area, but leave it unstitched. Place the skirt and lining wrong sides together. Sew the skirt and lining into the waistband. Hand-stitch the lining to the seam allowances of the skirt in the zipper area. Finish the hem so that it’s about 1″ shorter than the skirt.
Here’s how you can make professional-looking patch pockets that lay smooth and are consistently shaped from pocket to pocket. It’s more work, but well worth the bother.
First add up to 1/8″ (depending on the thickness of the fabric) to the edge of the pocket which will face toward the side of the garment. This will allow for the curvature of your body when wearing the garment, and your pocket will lay smoothly instead of pulling on the fabric behind it. Make a template of the pocket by tracing the seamlines from the pattern onto a piece of poster board and cutting it out.
Cut your pockets from your fabric. Interface the pocket on the hem with one edge of the interfacing along the fold. Fold the pocket right sides together along the fold line and stitch the side seams to just past the edge of the hem. Trim, turn and press. Machine baste 1/4″ from the side and bottom edges. Pull these threads up and shape the pocket around the template. Press gently and clip where necessary. Repeat this for the pocket on the other side, but make sure you turn the template over because of the change you made in its shape.
Match the two upper corners of the pocket to the marks on the pattern (your pocket will not lay totally flat). Make sure you put the right-hand pocket on the right side of the garment, same for the left. Topstitch. Reinforce your stitching at the corners with bar tacks.
- Some fabrics, especially synthetics, can be difficult to press creases into. To set a nice crease into a stubborn fabric, set your iron on the hottest setting your fabric will take. Consult your fabric care instructions and your iron’s user manual to find the correct setting. Press the crease with the iron, then put a clapper on top. (A clapper is a pressing tool made of wood used for just this purpose. Often, it also has a point presser attached to it. If you’re not sure what a clapper looks like, check out this photo.) Let it rest there until the fabric has cooled. Press the next section, and repeat until the entire crease is finished. If you use this technique to press a seam open, be sure to place a piece of paper between the seam allowance and the garment to prevent the seam allowance from “indenting” the garment fabric when it’s pressed.
- Make your own bias binding! It’s much less expensive, and you can coordinate it with the rest of the quilt. Buy 1 1/4 yards of 44″ wide fabric then preshrink and press it. Fold it from corner to corner to form a triangle and cut it along the fold. Open it back up to make the original square. Take the piece closest to you and move it away from you so that the straight edges of both pieces match. Fold right sides together and sew .25″ seam. Press. Open the fabric up and mark parallel to the longest edge with a pencil every 2.5″ to 3″. Bring right sides together at the edges where the marks end, offsetting the seam by one width of the markings. Sew .25″ seam and press. Then cut along your markings. Press the entire strip in half lengthwise. You’ll end up with enough bias binding for at least a queen-sized quilt. Sew it to the quilt by lining up raw edges and making a .5″ seam. Then roll the binding to the other side of the quilt and stitch.
- Use a balloon to help you keep a good hold of the needle when pulling it through the fabric.
- Yard sales are great places for finding fabric. If you want to know the fiber content of what you find there, perform a “burn” test. Burn a small piece of the fabric and look for these signs: if it’s cotton, it should burn quickly and brightly, will have an afterglow, will leave a soft, gray ash, and may smell like burning paper. It should not melt at all. If it does melt, it has some polyester content.
- Sewing little trinkets such as buttons, thimbles, and charms to your quilted wall-hanging can really enhance its visual appeal as well as emphasize the theme. This could even be a good way to display one of your collections! I haven’t done it yet, but wouldn’t tatting be wonderful along the edge of a fan or basket pattern!
- If you’re short on ideas for your next quilt, talk to your kids (or a friend’s kids)! Kids can come up with some very clever new ideas.
- If you’re short on time, try tying your quilt. It’s much faster and can create a nice “homey” look.
- If one of your fabric pieces is cut on the bias, put that piece against the feed dogs of your sewing machine. This feeds the fabric evenly and prevents it from becoming stretched and distorted.
- Begin a new project at your scrap box. I almost always need to buy a little new fabric to complete a scrap quilt, but I can get lots of good ideas by going through what I already have.
Seams and seam finishes
- Instead of sewing a flat-felled seam on denim, try a welt seam. It looks almost exactly like a flat-felled seam from the right side,
but it’s easier and faster to do. Sew your seam right sides together. Press the seam open. Trim one seam down to 1/4″ and finish the raw edge of the other seam by zig-zagging or serging. Press the seam toward the side that was trimmed down. From the right side of the fabric, topstitch through all layers 1/8″ from the seam and again 1/4″ from the first topstitching. Quick and easy!
- How to sew an angled inset that doesn’t pucker. You often see these seams as gussets, V-shaped waistlines, and visual design elements like a squared inset. One piece of fabric will have a point at this seam, the other will be L-shaped. Mark the corner of the seam on the each piece with tailor tacks or an X drawn with tailor’s chalk. Reinforce the L-shaped piece by doing the following: shorten the stitch length. Start from about 2″ from the corner of the seam and stitch just barely on the seam allowance of the seamline until you reach the corner. Stop with the needle in the fabric, lift the presser foot and turn halfway. Stitch one stitch across, end with the needle down, lift the presser foot, and continue stitching as before for about 2″. Trim the threads then clip from the raw edge to the corner threads without cutting them. Match the seam on the angled piece and the L-shaped piece along one length of the L, making sure you match the seam at the corner. Stitch the seam from the corner, leaving about 6″ of thread at the beginning of the seam. Pull one of the 6″ lengths of thread through the fabric so that both threads are on the same side and tie a knot. Trim the threads short. Now turn out the L-shaped fabric so that the second seam matches the other seam of the angled piece. Stitch from the corner out again and tie another knot. Press open, trim, and press toward the L-shaped piece. Top-stitch if you wish.
- Always sew from wide to narrow, or with the grain. For example, on a skirt you would sew the side seam from the hem to the waist. Do this on sleeves, bodices, and any other areas where the seam goes from wide to narrow.
- Shorten your stitches before you go around curves, especially tight curves. This will make it easier for you to sew the seam smoothly.
- A French seam is the best type of seam to use for sheers and other light fabrics. The first step is to sew the seam wrong sides together with a 1/4″ seam allowance. Press it open, then back on itself so that the right sides of the fabric are together. Open it back up and trim the seam allowance down to 1/8″. Fold it back right sides together and stitch 1/4″ away from the fold. Press to one side. This is a pretty finish which is inconspicuous and strong.
- When matching plaids, make sure the separate garment pieces match at the notch along the sideseams. To sew a well-matched seam, fold and press along the seamline on one piece. Lay this on top of the adjoining piece with seam allowances matching. Pin in place so that the plaids on the fabric match (or form a chevron pattern). Fold the pressed seam allowance flat and hand baste along the crease. Then stitch the seam and remove the basting. This should give you a perfectly matched seam every time.
- To make an invisible seam in lace, cut the pieces out leaving one motif of the lace beyond the seam allowance. Mark the seamline with hand basting. Overlap and pin the two garment pieces together, matching seamlines, front garment piece on top. Sew with a small zig-zag following the edges of the motifs closest to the seam allowance. Trim away excess lace close to stitching on top, 1/4″ away on the under side. This seam is nearly impossible to find when it’s done right. I did this on the green formal that is in my gallery. The arrow in this image is pointing to the seam. Notice how the lace motifs aren’t broken across the seam.
- When clipping a curved seam which will be convex when complete (such as a collar), cut lots of tiny wedges. When the seam is turned, the wedge-shaped areas will close, and the seam will be much less bulky. Or, try using pinking shears instead. Never clip armseyes or crotch seams!
- Flat-felled seams are used most often on jeans, and are very durable. To make one, sew the seam wrong sides together. Press open. Trim one seam allowance down to 1/8-1/4″ (5-10mm). Press under the raw edge of the other seam, then fold the entire seam over so that the raw edge is hidden. Press, topstitch, and you’re done!
- Try a Hong Kong seam finish on an unlined jacket or skirt. Cut a length of light-weight coordinating fabric 1″ wide on the bias. Place right sides together with the jacket seam allowance and sew 1/4″ seam. Fold the lining fabric over the raw edge of the jacket seam then stitch through all layers in the ditch of your first seam. Trim away excess lining fabric. Pretty!
Sewing machine care
Consult your sewing machine user’s manual for more complete machine care instructions.
Oil your machine regularly using sewing machine oil available in fabric stores. It should be oiled after approximately eight hours of use. Your owner’s manual should have instructions and a detailed diagram of the points which need oiling. After oiling, your machine should sit for a few hours before using again. Fold a scrap of absorbent fabric a few times so that it’s several layers thick. Place it over the feed dogs then put the needle through it. One of the places I oil my machine is in the case above the needle, and sometimes I over-do it. Putting the fabric scrap in the machine this way absorbs any excess oil that may run down the needle. (Yeah, I do get messy, but my machine is 21 years old and runs like a charm.) Before sewing again, thread your machine then sew on a scrap until the thread sewn into the fabric is clean and free of oil.
- For a beautifully rounded tailored sleeve cap, add a sleeve header. First sew the sleeve into the armseye. Cut a piece of tulle or organiza 1-3/4″ wide X 11″ long. Fold it in half lengthwise. Place it against the sleeve along the top seam with 2/3 of it toward the back and the fold extending into the sleeve about 1/8″. Stitch it to the seam allowance close to the seamline. Once your garment is turned right side out, the sleeve header will fill the top of the sleeve cap and provide a nice, professional roll.
- How to quickly attach 1/8″ elastic to a child’s sleeve: Cut the elastic a comfortable length plus seam allowances. Finish the bottom edge of the sleeve. Pin the ends of the elastic to the wrong side of the fabric along the elastic’s placement line, with raw edges even. Set your machine to a wide zig-zag and long stitch. Stitch one end of the elastic to the fabric. Pull the fabric so it lays flat, stretching the elastic along the placement line. Zig-zag over the elastic, with the needle coming down on either side of the elastic but not sewing through it. Secure the elastic to the fabric at the other end. Sew the sleeve side seam and you’re done!
- Here’s a slick trick for inserting an ungathered sleeve. Cut a strip of tricot on the bias 1″ wide and 1″ longer than the finished armseye from notch to notch. Mark the center of the strip with a pin. Pin the strip to the wrong side of the sleeve with the center point at the shoulder seam and the notch 1/2″ away from the end of the strip. Baste just inside the seamline. This will ease your sleeve smoothly. Sew the sleeve to the bodice. A nice side benefit to this is that you get a built-in sleeve header, making the roll of the sleeve much smoother.
Zippers, buttons, and other closures
- If you’re installing a invisible zipper, you need to purchase a presser foot for your machine that is made for that particular manufacturer’s zipper. To install the zipper, start with the right garment piece. Open the zipper completely and place it with the right-side tape in the seam allowance and the coil on the seamline, right sides together. Set the presser foot on the zipper so that the coil goes through the right-side opening on the presser foot. Stitch. Do the same for the left garment piece, except the coil will go through the left-side opening. Close the zipper and finish the rest of the seam, starting just to the garment side of the final stitches of the zipper. Secure the ends of the zipper tape to the seam allowance. At the top of the zipper, secure the ends of the tape, making sure the coil remains folded as you pass over it.
For a more professional look, always use a lapped zipper instead of a centered zipper even if your pattern instructs otherwise. You’ll find that the better quality ready-made clothing is made this way. Lapped zippers need to be topstitched 1/2″ from the center back fold (or the side seam as the case may be). Quickly and accurately mark this by placing 1/2″ clear cellophane tape along the fold. Stitch next to it, and remove it when you’re done.
For an even more professional and elegant look, instead of topstitching with the machine, stitch by hand using a prick stitch. Working from the right side, take a stitch through all layers. Begin the next stitch about 1/16″ behind the exit point of the last stitch, and make the length of this stitch the same as the last. Stitches should be 1/4″ or less.
- If your garment has some buttons that you anticipate will receive a lot of hard wear, reinforce them by adding another button on the wrong side of the fabric as you attach your “right-side” button.