Here’s a round-up of things that I find really helpful, let me know what your indispensables are!
Rotary cutter and mat
For overall speed and for thick or slippery fabrics, I’m a complete convert to a rotary cutter and mat. I still use scissors for tight curves and fiddly shapes, but a cutter, mat and long ruler make for swift, accurate cutting. Bosh! As I frequently cut out fabric on the floor, it means I spent half as long pretzelled up. Bonus.
I’ve got two of these, a little one and a big one. They make quick work of marking off right angles and I love using them to mark out the box corners on bags.
Bobbin washers are small Teflon discs that sit behind the bobbin and reduce backlash and birdnesting. I was sceptical. I am sceptical no more. They’re awesome. Treat yourself.
This magical stuff conditions thread so that it really, really doesn’t want to knot up or snag. Just run your thread over it; it also tames cheap thread that I use for tacking stitches. And it lasts for aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaages.
I have various temporary marking tools, including air dry pens, rinsable pens and heat transfer pencils, but my cheap go-to for most projects is chalk pencils. If you’re struggling to make a mark on fabric with a tailor’s pencil, try it damp. Wet the tip (yes, I lick mine) or use it on fabric that has just been steam ironed or sprayed with water. You will find it much more cooperative. I have about fifteen of these. And I can still never find one 🙂
If you’re making small projects such as purses, little bags or bunting, cut up old cereal boxes for your templates. They’re stiff enough to draw around (no need for pinning) and you can write notes on them just like a pattern piece. You can also print perfect hexagons and diamonds onto large label sheets, peel them off and apply them to cardboard. Cut them out (I find a scalpel and cutting mat more accurate than scissors but it’s your choice) and you’ve got a consistent and durable set of pattern pieces. You can die cut cardboard to achieve the same result. Or if you need a little frame for silk painting or fabric painting, you can build up strips of cardboard with PVA glue for a very economical frame in the size of your choice (it’s therapeutic while I’m watching TV and too tired to do anything requiring concentration).
I bought my favourite fabric scissors from Sew Northampton a few years ago. They deal mainly in machines but have a good range of bobbins and tools and are really friendly and knowledgeable. I love the sound of these scissors at work almost as much as I love the purr of my Bernina.
There’s a nice exploration of the possibilities for this foot here, and I find it useful for creating seams with a narrow allowance, like tubing and French seams. I use it to create a narrow seam to save on fabric – or I’ve cut my toile pieces wrong and I’m sticking ’em back together 😉 Love love love the example of attaching trim…oh yes…and I like using my edgestitch foot for neat topstitching on bag straps and the like.
So you want to sew? Have the itch to stitch? Then I hope these tips are helpful!
Get yourself some good quality sewing scissors (I like to buy them from an actual shop so that I can check they’re comfortable), and use them only on fabric. Use other scissors to cut paper (including patterns) and other materials like plastics (such as nylon zips). This will prevent your sewing scissors becoming blunt or damaged. My scissors were around £25 and are a joy to use. A pair of pinking shears are also useful to prevent frayed edges; again, don’t use them on paper. You may like a rotary cutter too.
If “which scissors can I use on this?” is a constant refrain in your house, you’re getting it right.
Take photos of your pattern packets (front and back) on your phone. Then you’ll know how much fabric and trim you need if you and your credit card stumble accidentally into a fabric shop.
If in doubt, buy a little more fabric than you need.
Wash your fabric before you use it. If you wait until your garment is finished, it may come out a little distorted. I wash my fabric when I get it home, so I know that everything in my stash is pre-shrunk, ironed and ready to go the minute I want to use it. You know that feeling when you’re lying in bed on a Saturday morning and suddenly It’s Time To Make That Skirt? This is not the time to start tiddling around with washing fabric. No.
Use long pins, it’ll save you time. I like Prym’s 34mm. I’ve made pincushions and thread catchers to keep my pins sharp.
As you cut out your fabric, leave the pattern pieces pinned to them until you’re ready to sew. It will save you figuring out which is the back/front or remembering whether you’ve cut out a piece or not.
When you’re transferring dart markings onto your fabric, cut a little notch out of the fabric edge where the dart line ends. When you fold the fabric to make the dart, place one notch over the other to line it up.
Cardboard sheets and brown wrapping paper from the pound shop are great for making your own pattern pieces. Large cardboard can be stored upright in your wardrobe. Small pattern pieces can be cut from cereal boxes. You may even want to finish the cereal first, if you live with someone who lacks a sense of adventure.
This one sounds a bit obsessive, but it does make my prep less time consuming. I iron my pattern pieces (no steam, cool setting), cut them out and fold them with the number showing on top. In the case of patterns with a bazillion pieces, I put them in numerical order in the packet. If there are five variations of Piece No. 7, I paperclip those pieces together. If the packet is all tatty I iron that too. I told you it’s obsessive. But I haven’t lost any pattern pieces in a while and Hot Damn! they’re quick to find…and I can squash more in the pattern box of course 🙂
Measure twice, cut once.
Use the right sewing machine needle for the job (regular, denim, ballpoint, whatever). Store your broken/blunt needles and bent pins in an empty needle box to dispose of them safely. Same goes for rotary cutter blades – keep an old box and mark it as ‘Old blades’. Your project will look better without bloodstains.
Mark your place in the sewing instructions with a Post-It note, and don’t be afraid to make notes for next time. It’s your pattern!
Daisy chain your pieces: if you can, prepare more than one piece for sewing at a time. Then you can move from one piece to the next without wasting thread in between. It’s a small amount of thread for one project…but it’s miles over a lifetime of sewing.
Recognise the difference between pressing and ironing. Pressing means applying the iron to the fabric and then lifting it off. Ironing your project pieces (sliding the iron along) may distort the shape of them, making accurate construction more difficult. And if you try to apply iron-on interfacing by ironing it, rather than pressing it, you will end up with a sticky ruffle and an upset soleplate. How do I know this?
When you’ve sewn a seam, iron it as it is before you open it up to press it flat. Somehow this sets the stitches into the fibres and makes for a better finish.
Then place a damp cloth on your open seams to press them flat. I have an old tea towel that hangs on the end of the ironing board for this sole (geddit?) purpose. It’s thin, it’s lint free, it’s been in the family for thirty years. It is a treasure, though you wouldn’t know it to look at it.
Clean and oil your machine regularly and change the needle now and again! Seriously!
Read your sewing machine manual. Research your project. YouTube, Pinterest, blogs and forums are all there to help and inspire you. If you’re stuck on the sofa with a head cold, read that sewing book that’s sat on your shelf. If you’re not sure where to start, I think May Martin’s Sewing Bible is a masterpiece.
If you have cats, keep your reels and bobbins stored safely away. If they ingest your thread and it tangles up their insides, it can be fatal. Nobody wants that.
If you haven’t got a bobbin case, store your bobbins in foam toe separators. You know, like the ones you use when you’re painting your toenails (you too boys! We know you love it!). It will stop them dropping off the table, rolling all over the floor and unravelling. So annoying.
If you’re having trouble with tension, take a long bubble bath. Then read this article.
Lastly…my mother’s advice to me when I started out. “Learn to like unpicking.” She wasn’t slating my abilities. She was telling me that along the way, I would make mistakes as I improved. And that’s okay. Unpicking can be mindful and relaxing, it doesn’t have to be frustrating. Thanks, mum.
I hope there was something in there to help you or give you ideas! Let me know what you’re sewing!
Sometimes my valuables wiggle out of small gaps in my wallet’s compartments, so I’ve made a little zip pouch to keep them safe. Then I discovered that small pouches are very useful for loose change, memory sticks, USB cables, batteries, medication and other personal items. This is my how-to…with lots of step-by-step pictures. So let’s get cracking!
You will need:
- Fabric and lining as follows:
- Upper front 9.5 x 3cm
- Lower front 9.5 x 7cm
- Back 9.5 x 8.5cm
- A zip of at least 11cm (I use continuous lengths of nylon zip and cut off as much as I need, or buy individual ones if you prefer.)
- A sewing machine with a standard foot and a zipper foot
- Cotton, pins and scissors/rotary cutter, an iron, a ruler
Here are the fabric and lining pieces: upper front, lower front and back.
Now we’re going to make a zip sandwich with the lower front section.
Place the zip on top of your lower front fabric, teeth down, with the zip pull on the left hand side as shown below.
Now place your lower front lining wrong side up.
Pin all three layers together.
Put your zipper foot onto your sewing machine with the needle in the right hand side position. Stitch along the edge, close to the zip. I lined up the edge of the fabric with the edge of my zipper foot as a guide.
Press the lining away from the zip.
Now turn the piece over and press the fabric away from the zip.
Repeat the ‘zip sandwich’ process for the upper front section: put your zip on top of the upper lining fabric, teeth up, with the zip pull on the left. Then place your upper front fabric wrong side up, as shown below.
Pin in place and stitch as before.
Press the lining and the fabric away from the zip as before. Your purse front will look like this:
Use a standard machine foot to topstitch your fabric, keeping stitches an even distance away from the zip. This will prevent the fabric being snagged in the zip and gives a neat, flat finish.
Now we’ll attach the front of the purse to the back. Open the zip halfway. I like to tape the open end of the zip together so that the open ends don’t move away from each other.
Pin together front and back fabric only and stitch along the bottom edge. When you open it out, it should look like the picture above.
Now take your front and back lining only, pin together and stitch along the bottom edge, using a slightly wider seam allowance than for the fabric (so the lining will sit neatly inside the purse), and leaving a gap in the middle for turning (remember to also backstitch near the opening of the gap). You can just see a line of thread between the start and end of my gap below.
Stitch around the sides and top, avoiding the metal part of the zip if you have one.
Trim bulk from the corners, taking care not to cut through the stitching.
Turn your purse inside out through the gap you left in the lining. It will look like this.
Slide a knitting needle between the fabric and lining to gently push the fabric corners outwards.
To prepare the lining for stitching up the opening, I press creases and pin them together.
Hand sew the opening using a slipstitch for a flt seam, or if you don’t mind a little ridge you can machine stitch it.
Turn the purse the right way out and give it one final press. You’re done!
I hope you find this tutorial helpful! I would love to see what you’ve made, or get in touch if you have any comments.