Friday, October 25, 2013

So, you want to sew...Beginner Lessons Part 2 (Choosing a Project)

Today's lesson: choosing a project.  If you missed the previous tutorial, check out part 1, gathering supplies.  Part 3, basic stitches, can be found HERE.

I think there's a decent number of people out there who have tried sewing before, but finding themselves with a jumbled mess of fabric, knotted threads - and nothing near the Pinterest picture they were attempting - have sworn off sewing forever.  Now there may be some people who are less naturally inclined to crafty type things, but it is not an impossible task, and I wouldn't buy a "I can't sew" line.  You can't sew, yet.  And the past projects?  I highly suspect that it was the projects, not you.

This time of year is notorious for people to want to learn to sew.  People are scared off by the price tags at those Halloween stores, and think "how hard could it possibly be to make this?"  Unless the costume is a ghost, it's probably not a beginner sewing project.  And here's another hint - by the time you buy the satin and the tulle and the thread and the trim and everything else to make a Tinkerbell costume, you'll have spent far more than whatever Party City - and gotten a free helping of frustration to boot.  Buy the costume, this year.  Start with a small project now, and you'll be ready to outfit an entire Disney cast next Halloween (although that won't make it any less expensive!)

When you choose your first project, keep the following in mind:


1) Save high-stakes projects for down the road. (e.g., living room curtains from expensive fabric, a dress for your sister's wedding, clothes for your upcoming family photos, a zipper repair for your favorite skirt).  If there's too much emotional investment in the outcome, any snafus while you're learning will be amplified, and you'll be more likely to swear off ever sewing again.

2) Don't pick something that is designed to fit well.  Chances are, as long as you choose the right size pattern for pajama pants, you'll be able to wear (and enjoy!) your finished project no matter what.  This will not be the case if you go for a skirt or a jacket or something else fitted.  Just like everything in a store won't necessarily fit your body type, every pattern won't necessarily fit you, either.  It's annoying to have spent the time making something only to learn that you can't wear it (and don't know how to alter it!)  Note that kid's clothes are more forgiving (think elastic) in the fit category than adult, so something for your kids could be a good first project.  Loose-fitting garments, given that they're less structured, are also more simple to make, making them better for beginners.

3) Straight seams only!!  In other words, start simple.  Nothing with ruffles, curved seams (like setting sleeves), and definitely no zippers.

4) COTTON, COTTON, COTTON.  I should have listed this first, because I think it's the number one key to having a successful first sewing experience.  Currently (with many years of sewing experience), I will start a project involving certain types of fabric (silky, stretchy, or furry, for example) only very reluctantly because it can be so frustrating to handle.  Cotton fabrics do not slide around when you're cutting the pattern, they crease neatly with the iron when you are hemming, and they're unlikely to make your machine jam.  Also - added bonus - they come in so many beautiful patterns that you're bound to find a fun print that you love AND the style of fabric is conducive to the types of projects that are appropriate for a beginner.

Most fabric stores have a "wall" of cotton (typically arranged by color) - it may be called "quilter's cotton" or "calicos."  I suspect you'll know it when you see it.  Flannel would also be an appropriate first fabric, depending on your project (it's 100% cotton as well, just a bit thicker) - you may have to look around a bit, but chances are there's a lot of patterns - often baby prints - to chose from in that section as well.

So many great fabrics, how will you ever choose?
Fabric is sold by the yard (that's 36 inches if your English conversions are rusty).  After you choose your fabric, you'll take it to a cutting counter (often at the center of the store) to have your selected amount cut before proceeding to the check-out register.  Some stores will let you buy in any fraction - .028 of a yard (1 inch) for example - but you can typically just stick to normal fractions.  1 yard.  1/2 yard.  1/4 yard.  Maybe 1/3 yard, and your pattern or tutorial should tell you how much you need.  The other dimension is standard, based on the bolt size.  Most cottons are on 45 inch bolts (which are realistically more like 42", so confusing), and then most "apparel" fabric is on 60 inch (again, 56", 58", it depends) bolts.

You may also see the little folded squares of fabric near the patterned cotton.  They're pre-cut and very tempting to add to your cart (typically $1 or $2).  They're called "fat quarters."  A typically quarter-yard cut would be 9 inches (1/4 of 36) by 45 inches (standard bolt width).  That's a long and skinny strip.  Imagine if you took that strip and cut it in half (2 pieces, 9" by 22"), and then put the pieces on top of each other - instead of a long strip, now it's more of a rectangle (18" by 22") that's a lot more useful than the strip.  Buying one or two of these would be great for the practice stitches & seams I'm going to have in part 3 of my tutorials.

But back to your project.  Here are a few suggestions of projects that meet my criteria for beginners, as well as links to some tutorials that I've found.  Note that I haven't tried all of the tutorials I'm linking to, so I can't guarantee anything, but they look good on my quick read-through.


- A pillow case.

- Drawstring bags.  (My mom made a ton of these when we were little to corral our various sets of toys.  I'm due to make Anna several soon!)

- Pajama pants.

Here's one you can download online, although it's probably easier to buy a simple pattern at the fabric store if you want to go this route.

- An elastic waist skirt for a little girl.
(I have made these for Anna - as well as other tutorials from this site, they're great!

- A simple apron.

- A tote bag.

- A table runner.

Note - if you want to see these projects, I created a Pinterest board "Beginner Sewing Project Suggestions" and pinned all of the listed tutorials there.  Check it out HERE.

Stay tuned for part three of the series - practicing basic stitches, and let me know if you have questions in the meantime!  UPDATE: Part 3 is now posted HERE


  1. You are really inspiring me, Emily! Keep these posts coming. Job #1 for me is to get my machine fixed.

  2. Ooh now I really want to make aprons for the kids! They look a little ridiculous wearing mine, and our fallback of belting reusable shopping bags around them doesn't work so well :P

    I'm so excited for part 3 - I know zero about basic stitches and was kind of flying blind!

  3. I request a segment on the different types of thread and sewing machine needles and what projects/fabrics you would use each with.