Thursday, February 16, 2012

{Sewing for Beginners} Taking The Easy Route

Every time I complete a sewing project I get commenters saying they would love to learn to sew. Sewing really isn't as hard as you might think - at least until you get to more advanced techniques and tailoring. So, as a far-from-expert myself, I thought I'd present a beginner's guide to sewing - in the hope that I can encourage some of you to get started.

Personally I'm a fan of jumping straight in and learning "on the job". My first dress was a 1930s unprinted pattern - it took me literally months to complete (I didn't have a sewing machine at the time and worked on it sporadically, at my sister's house), but the techniques I learned on that one project include shirring, gathering, topstitching, buttonholes, collar, hemming, pleating, darting, inserting a zip, and setting in sleeves. I love that it was a huge learning experience for me, but if I'd actually known anything about garment construction I might have gone for a simpler pattern - only I didn't know at the time how to tell which patterns were easier or more difficult than others. So, for those of you who would prefer something slightly less daunting for your first project, I bring you the Tuppence Ha'penny Guide to Taking the Easy Option.

Case Study: Vogue 5869

Why it's easy: Princess seam panelled construction is straightforward to sew. The sleeveless version eliminates the fiddly setting in of sleeves.

Although I've often seen skirts suggested as beginner sewing projects, I actually think dresses can be easier because I find waistbands a little fiddly. Sheath dresses are probably the easiest as they don't even require attaching bodice and skirt, but sewing a waistline seam is far from tricky. The looser, relaxed fit and minimalism of the 1960s lends itself particularly well to easy sewing, but a cap-sleeved 50s party frock or 30s sundress can be equally straightforward.

Case Study: Fashion Pattern 2858

Why it's easy: You can see from the construction diagram that the dress is assembled with just a few simple seams, no gathering, darting or complex setting in of sleeves. This would be an ideal beginner pattern, except for the scalloped edge on the sleeves.

For the easiest possible construction, you'll want to minimise the techniques required. Sleeves are fiddly components to sew, so if you're after something simple to start with, look for patterns with no sleeves, cap sleeves or kimono (cut in one with the bodice) sleeves. If you do want to have proper set-in sleeves, I find gathered puff sleeves the easiest to sew as you don't need to worry about the seam being perfectly smooth.

Case Study: Simplicity 4897

Why it's easy: The dress is cut in a simple shift shape with no waistline seam. Shaping on both dress & jacket is achieved by way of simple side darts, and both have kimono sleeves.

Collars aren't difficult exactly, but they can be a little fiddly. Much easier are simple open necklines (if it's a side-closure pattern, wider necklines which you can pull over your head are best as they don't require an additional little neckline zip). Equally, buttons and buttonholes aren't really that complicated (especially if your sewing machine has a buttonhole attachment), but they do add an extra layer of complexity, so if you want to simplify as much as possible you may want to avoid them.

Look for patterns which include facings (that's a semi-lining, usually required round the inside the neckline so you don't have raw edges or visible stitching on the outside) - they're easier to deal with than either full linings or using bias binding.

Case Study: Butterick 7050

Why it's easy: It's a jumper dress, so no sleeves to worry about. The simple wide neckline is easy to sew, and the pattern includes facings. The skirt is flared from the waist. This type of skirt is slightly easier to put together than gathered skirts as there's no "drawing up to fit", it's just simple, flat seams all the way.

The choice of fabric is another consideration. For easy of sewing I'd recommend a simple, firmly-woven cotton: it's inexpensive, so perfect for a trial project; doesn't slip or stretch, making it easy to pin, cut and sew; and doesn't fray badly. Slippery silks and rayons, though delightful for a drapey 1940s number, are a little harder to control when sewing, so best saved for a later project.

Case Study: Advance 2737

Why it's harder: While the gored skirt is simple to sew, the bodice features gathering combined with curved, topstitched panels which is a more intermediate, multi-stage technique. The sleeves are darted and set-in. This pattern is also suited to a drapey fabric, which can be harder to sew.

So hopefully I've given some of you prospective seamstresses a better idea of what makes an easy pattern easy, so you're in a position to make an informed decision when pattern shopping! And do let me know in the comments if there are any other topics you'd like to see me cover in my Sewing for Beginners series.

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  1. This is a brilliant guide - I've just finished my first proper dress (very similar to the sleeveless sheath dress in the first picture) which involved much beating of and swearing at fabric, because I just had to choose a wool tweed that insisted on stretching irreparably out of shape at every opportunity :P
    If I'd have read this first I'd have known a different fabric would be better! Thanks xx

  2. I haven't made anything from scratch since school. :/ I really should try!! Thanks for these easy patterns, I might try one soon.

  3. Good tips there! I learnt from jumping in, I always had to alter my vintage years ago as my bust size meant the waist was always too big so I learnt through alteration. When you alter tricky vintage styles you soon learn about construction but then I know lots of people wouldn't want to start this way, when I was young vintage was cheap and not as rare!!

  4. Great post. I too learned by jumping right in there and I agree, there's nothing quite like it. My only addition for anyone interested in getting a vintage pattern and trying it out would be to watch out that pattern sizes aren't the same as RTW and you'll need to know your exact measurements first. And if you find that your proportions aren't standard, choose a pattern in the right bust size (as waist and hip adjustments tend to be easier than bust ones).

    1. An additional note to choosing the pattern size, for the large of boob it's sometimes best to base the size on your *high bust* measurement and making an FBA adjustment. If I used patterns based on my actual bust measurement they'd be too huge on the shoulders.

      xx Charlotte

  5. This is really interesting. I desperately want to learn to sew (and I need to, also, with my career plans!), so this is some useful advice. Thanks!

  6. Thanks for the advice. I've just about finished cutting out my first dress pattern, but alas moved house in the middle of it. So am just digging it all out know to get started again.

  7. These are great tips! I'm definitely one of those people who wish they knew how to sew so I can have prettier clothing that is somewhat inexpensive. So this post has most definitely inspired me to get sewing! So thank you!(:


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