How to build sewing skills if you’re an absolute beginner

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skill-building-header

Today, I’d like to talk to all the beginners out there.

I know how disheartening it is to be a beginner at something. Often when you’re learning something new, your imagination and taste greatly outpace your actual skills.

You know when something looks wrong, but you aren’t at the point where you can fix it. Not yet. This can be highly motivating, but it can also be incredibly frustrating.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.”
-Ira Glass

The good news is, things are getting easier.

The evolving world of sewing

Here’s how I used to pick my sewing projects:

Head over to the big chain fabric store. You know, the one in the strip mall that smells overwhelmingly like christmas half the year.

After a quick browse through the 50% off section, I’d head over to the pattern table, where the stacks of massive pattern catalogs lived.

Usually, there’d be a few other bored-looking ladies there rifling through, and at least one frustrated bride-to-be with her mother, horrified by the massive leg-o-mutton sleeves she was being presented with.

I’d sit down and start browsing, ever hopeful that I’d find something I could work with. I’d stare and squint, and try to imagine the clothes in better colors, different fabrics, and on less generic looking models.

Finally, I’d settle for something I thought I could work with. I’d totally ignore the skill level indicated by the pattern, and only kinda-sorta pay attention to the recommended fabrics.

As you can imagine, this was not a recipe for awesome. Oh, occasionally I’d get lucky and make something work, but more often I got in over my head and had to do some slapdash sewing to pull the whole thing together.

The indie revolution to the rescue

These days, the new sewist has many more options. In addition to those phone book sized pattern catalogs, there are amazing indie pattern companies to choose from, many of which make a point of guiding and helping newbies through blogs, tutorials, and sewalongs.

There are also wonderful independent shops to buy from, and classes both in person and online. The sewing world has exploded with options.

But that’s only part of the story. Though we have better options nowadays, I don’t think it’s necessarily easier to know what to sew, especially if you aren’t experienced. It’s still way too easy to get in over your head and lose all confidence.

serged-french-complete

Pick your skills, pick your project

Here’s my simple tip for the beginner to become a competent sewer in no time:

Learn at least one new skill with each project.

Your skills need to build gradually over time, and the best way to do that is to focus on learning something new with each project you try. Think of it as giving yourself little assignments.

It does require some advance planning and research, but you’ll come out of each project with stronger skills and probably something you like a little better than the chain store special.

A true beginner sequence

To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s a sample sequence of patterns and projects I’d recommend to a complete beginner, and the skills you’d learn.

press-to-side

  1. Make a pillow. So easy, and you don’t need a pattern. You’ll learn how to cut and sew with seam allowances. And you can use almost any fabric. Plus you get to look at it every day (I should make more pillows).
  2. Make a Sorbetto top. This free pattern has only two pattern pieces and will help you learn to use bias tape, a very good skill to have. No zippers or other closures are needed.
  3. Make another Sorbetto. This time, try making your own bias tape, if you’re feeling adventurous.
  4. Laurel. Now you’ll use those bias tape skills once again, while also installing a zipper.
  5. Ginger. With this aline skirt, you’ll be putting in a zipper once again, and also installing a waistband.
  6. Macaron. Try installing pockets, facings, and doing a bit of topstitching.

You can go on from there, maybe choosing a project with buttons, like Zinnia or Hawthorn, moving all the way up into outerwear.

If you find a project you like and want more practice, make multiples! Laurel is a great choice for this (as is Moneta for the knits-inclined) because there are so many options and things you could try.

Become a sewing detective

The best sewists (or knitters, or artists, or ceramicists, or writers…) I know are intensely curious.

Sure, it can be discouraging to not be great at first. But by picking projects based on what you’ll learn instead of just the best-case-scenario fantasy outcome, you will never really be disappointed. You’ll always be learning something new that you can apply again.

When you feel over your head, the next step isn’t to give up – it’s to learn more! Is there a tool that could help you? Is there a technique you’ve never heard of?

I won’t lie, I know failures can be frustrating. But they’re also inevitable, and the best way of improving quickly.

If you’re trying to improve your skill set, the important thing is that you push yourself just the right amount. Give yourself some assignments that are easy enough to make you feel good, and hard enough to make you improve. Every time.

Do you have any tips for beginners trying to build up their skills?

Sarai Mitnick   —   Founder

Sarai started Colette back in 2009. She believes the primary role of a business should be to help people. She loves good books, sewing with wool, her charming cats, working in her garden, and eating salsa.

More about our writers

Comments 109

Desirée

“But by picking projects based on what you’ll learn instead of just the best-case-scenario fantasy outcome, you will never really be disappointed. You’ll always be learning something new that you can apply again.”
This is an awesome way to look at things- even though I’ve been sewing since I was like 12, I still get too easily frustrated & give up rather than failing at yet another project. Changing the point of the exercise is a great tip!

Libby

I try to learn something new every day with sewing, knitting or baking. I always fnd it helpfull to make a plan. I start by cutting the project into small pieces. Hard things I always practice. For instance I’m going for a female version of the Albion for my wintercoat. I actually will make a muslin this time. And I made a plan. Today I bought tracing paper and muslin fabric. Tomorrow I will trace the pattern. Then I will cut the necessary pieces for my muslin. I will sew this up. Check for size, make alterations, choose fabrics and so forth…..dividing a project into smaller pieces makes it easier. You will have more controll. And the result is more likely to succeed….

Nicole

Curious! Yes! I catch myself, all the time, staring at other women, trying to figure out something about the construction of a garment they are wearing, the fabric, the way it might fit her if she’s got a similar shape to me. I think I’ve gone beyond curious to CREEPER!

gabriel ratchet

no… you’re not into creeper category until you sneak up and try to feel the fabric…. :)

Chris Griffin griffinfoodandsewing.wordpress.com

Omg, I creep on clothes all the time. I ask my mom questions, I read books, I read blogs, and I sneak a peek at my own clothes

Andrea zoopolis.wordpress.com

I agree on skill-building, but I don’t think it’s necessary to tackle a new skill every time. It’s ok to make half a dozen cushions first, or a variety of things using small, square or rectangular peoples and straight seams (tote bags, tea towels, placemats, etc.) before branching out into clothes. And then it’s ok to make a few gathered skirts and simple tops before getting into more complicated seams or closures.

It’s nice to get some reward out of the work you’ve already done and the skills you’ve already built, you know?

Andrea zoopolis.wordpress.com

I’m not entirely sure how “shapes” got autocorrected to “peoples,” but … there you go.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

That’s a really good point, it doesn’t have to be every time. Sometimes you need that sense of satisfaction in order to keep you happy and motivated.

Leigh Ann

Ha ha. I am one of those rectangular people.

Andrea zoopolis.wordpress.com

Better be careful, someone might sew you! ;)

Ingrid wethesewing.wordpress.com

Google everything you unsure about. And read as many sewing blogs you can. I’ve taught myself to sew (to an ok standard) at home, by my laptop. And obviously from a lot of trial and error by the sewing machine (my first creations were pretty awful..). When I first started it was in the months leading up to Christmas, and I set myself the task to make presents for everyone. Many, many aprons, wash bags and oven gloves later I was getting to a stage where the machine didn’t scare me as much any more. I’ve recently made a few unfortunate pieces, but I keep reminder myself that it’s a process, just like you say!

Sarai colettepatterns.com

Funny, the desire to make a bunch of holiday gifts is how I learned to knit. :)

Caitlyn M.

I’ve asked this before, and I meant to ask again on a post last week, but I think the question is relevant here too: when you’re a beginner and you make something that doesn’t work out, what do you do with it? I don’t mean total failures, since sending those to recycling isn’t difficult to justify–I mean projects that turn out okay but not great, projects that you know as soon as you complete them and put them on that you’re never likely to wear them.

For example, I drafted and sewed a mini skirt that I’ve only worn once. The fabric is a stretch cotton sateen that I rather like, but it has a weird light stripe that I didn’t notice until it ended up down the front of the skirt. The fit is okay, but it’s not as flattering as I had hoped. I attempted French seams and a machine blind-stitched hem on the lining, all of which came out okay but not great. The invisible zipper insertion went well enough, but the hook-and-eye closures really aren’t even. It’s an all-around “meh” garment, and I’m just not satisfied. So what do I do with it?

I’m a petite girl with average-sized family and friends, so gifting it isn’t an option. It feels wrong to send it to Goodwill–if I won’t wear it because of sub-par construction, why would I expect anyone else to buy and wear it? I could try salvaging the material, but I won’t get another garment out of it, and even if I make a little pillow or pouch I’ll be throwing away the (lovely rayon bemberg) lining. Throwing it away outright seems wasteful. So it hangs in my closet, in limbo, waiting for me to figure out what to do with it. And discouraging me from other sewing projects for fear of ending up in exactly the same spot again.

Helen

@Caitlyn M., I’m a very basic beginner sewer and I prowl my local Salvation Army for clothes to take apart, use for scraps & notions, or re-sew into a little project. I always like finding handmade clothes, even if imperfect, because they can teach me so much! So if your skirt is sitting in your closet unworn, don’t feel bad about donating it to a thrift store. Someone may welcome it as a chance to experiment, either fashion- or sewing-wise.

gabriel ratchet

it’s not just whether or not someone would buy it from goodwill…. goodwill also employs people to sort and process donations, and recycles and ships items to other markets, and processes textiles for reuse. if it’s not out and out trash but you’re not going to wear it, go ahead and donate it and let them decide how to handle it.

or, there’s always doll clothes and dog blankets….

Sarai colettepatterns.com

I agree with others who suggest donation, unless it really has sentimental value for you.

Maxine

Though I know that wanting to be able to use or be rid of the less-than-perfect project is an initial thought, sometimes I think holding onto it, leaving it in the back recesses of your closet, but moving onto a new version or completely different projects for a while, can be the answer. A few months down the road, look at it again. Maybe you’ll have to skills to salvage the project, or a new idea to reuse the fabric. That visual reminder of what you’ve learned in the meantime can be such a boost, and you can then decide to revamp it or donate it.

Terry 3outsidetheskinny.blogspot.com

I agree with all of those other great ideas for what to do with it, but I would also add that the lining could be saved to use to mend linings of casual purses. I recently patched the lining of my very favorite bag whose lining had got ripped, making the thing un-useable. I held onto the bag for months because I loved it, until I happened across a rayon satin scarf that had come with a coat, and which I never, ever wear. It is paisley and actually harmonized well with the original lining. Now I’m thinking that would be a great way to use some lengths of air-hostess cravat-looking sateen I’ll never put in a garment. I’m also planning to use some of it for endpapers in hand-made books.

Congratulations on actually finishing the project! That’s a very important step (says she who has about a dozen unfinished projects waiting patiently for her to get back to them).

Lessles

Gardening is your answer. Crappy ‘has-been’ clothes are great for gardening in! So chic yet so expendable!

alison

My big block right now has to do with fabric. I recently found a skirt shape that I really like that I copied from a dress that I bought, but I cannot find a fabric that I know will work! I’ve made a tour of my local shops (in Seattle) and found many beautiful fabrics, but none is just like what the dress is made out of. I may have liked to try something a little different to see if it works, but not at, say, $15-20/yd. I can’t afford to make something I hate for that price :) I even took the dress with me to show the shop ladies… I guess it’s some sort of rayon. So how do you most cost-effectively build a knowledge of fabric/pattern compatibility?

crab&bee crabandbee.com

Hi Alison! Picking new fabrics to work with is/was one of my biggest struggles. You might try looking at similar patterns to the skirt you’re interested in making and see what kinds of fabrics they suggest. I also think experimenting is key, and one way I like to do that cheaply is by using second-hand fabrics. I’m from Seattle too, and I highly recommend Our Fabric Stash in the international district; they consign unwanted fabric, and you can find a lot of variety for lower prices. I’ve also found that thrift stores like the Goodwill are carrying more yardage these days. Finally, organizing a fabric swap could be really helpful in acquiring a variety of fabrics to experiment with!

Sarah

It’s really interesting to me that you suggest the Macaron as a 6th project, considering the skill level of the pattern is intermediate. Thinking back on my own progression, I think I would have been stymied by an intermediate pattern that early on.

I love your take on choosing project based on specific skills, though. It’s a great way to build skills over time, and not be overwhelmed by so many new concepts at once.

I also think building fitting skills is super important, and something that beginners often don’t understand/focus on. I know I didn’t at first. It’s frustrating because you can tell that something is off, but don’t know how to fix it. Another one is choosing fabrics. That’s where books, online info, and experience are really important.

Cherie

Great post! When I was taking sewing lessons, my teacher would have me make a pattern more than once. I thought it made sense. After all, when I try a recipe for the first time and I like it, I’m always thinking about the next time I am going to make it again, and even how to make it even tastier by tweaking it. Same with my sewing. Plus, when I have sewed the same project more than once, it makes me feel more confident in my sewing skills. Thank you for this great topic.

Angela

Great advice. I guess I have been doing that, unintentionally. Last project had shirring, before that, welt pockets. Both of those things scared me to death, and my brain decided I liked patterns that had those. Love the “good taste” quote. I felt that one.

Shannon

I live in Taiwan, and the clothes here are just amazing for the sartorially curious. Women here almost never just wear jeans and T-shirts. Clothes are full of interesting details like built-in cape sleeves and all sorts of pleats and insets and overlays and other fun elements. Of course, they’re mostly all cheap instant fashion, but the store windows are fascinating, and I can never walk down a new street without stopping to examine something and figure out how I could make it.

Jenny jennymacsews.blogspot.ca

I would say look at the RTW clothes you already own for choosing what size to make. The worst thing for me when I was a beginner was choosing a size. Using a pattern’s FINISHED size measurements is the way to choose. Also take notes of each project, what worked what didn’t, what finished bust, waist, hip, sleeve you like. You think you’ll remember but we don’t. That way we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.

Nancy

On projects that are not quite up to par, I try to wear them for a season, and then if I really don’t feel great in them, donate. It’s the same approach for RTW or thrift store buys as well. I do have some sentimental fabrics that I am not quite ready to part with but I hate recycling the fabric– it is so much trouble — and I’d rather start over with a better fabric choice if that was part of the problem. Also, if there are just too many construction and / or fit issues and I am not complete, sometimes I will bail on the project totally and donate it also. Time is too short and I don’t want to invest a lot of time Into a futile project. However, this has also taught me to stop and rip things out to do it right if there is only 1 thing wrong and I can still fix it. Don’t keep going if you can fix it now. If you keep going you will never be happy with it.

Miss Crayola Creepy misscrayolacreepy.blogspot.com

My advice would be to sew with a buddy. If your friend has been sewing for a while he/she may be able to give you some one on one help or answer questions. If your friend is new to sewing like you, then the two of you could work on a project together. Team work makes the dream work.

Kaelyn wildoriginal.com

To add to this advice I would say invest in a great sewing book that has pretty much every piece of information about sewing that you could possibly want! I have my mother’s old 80’s edition of Vogue Sewing and it has proved invaluable in my sewing adventures!

miss agnes readytoknit.com

This post is going into my reading list for future reference, as it is just what I need. My first step is to go over the fear of the sewing machine and learn how to operate it. I have enrolled a sewing friend for that part. Then I will get started on your beginner sequence. Thank you so much for sharing this. Now I have a plan to learn how to sew.

Nakisha sewcraftychemist.blogspot.com

I’ve only been sewing for about a year and a half so I’m far from an expert. But when I am asked by beginners, my advice has been and will be to SEW WHAT YOU WANT.

I have never at any point in sewing wanted to make pillows or towels or any other “rectangles”. I started sewing because I wanted to sew clothes and so that’s what I did. Were my early projects *good*? Probably not. But I know if I would have been told that I “had to” start with some home dec mess I probably wouldn’t have continued sewing.

Same with fitting. I think you make the natural progression there. Again, as a beginner I would have completely threw in the towel if I was told I “had to” make a zillion muslins and get every wrinkle out.

Buttonholes/zippers/bias binding/etc is just one more skill to learn. There’s nothing inherently scary about any of them. You practice until you can do it reasonably well. And each time you do it you’ll improve your technique.

Finally, DO NOT run out and buy every single book on fitting and sewing that is suggested. Check your library first to ensure that the book will work for you.

Ok…I’m done ;-)

Sarai colettepatterns.com

Awesome suggestions! Personally, I love the quick satisfaction of a pillow or whatever (and that I get to look at it every day), but if that’s not your thing, you shouldn’t feel obliged to start there.

Ana Sullivan thelostapron.com

This is great advise. For actual beginner projects view my site at:

http://www.thelostapron.com/summer-sewing-camp/

unlabelled clothes unlabelledclothes.com

I think it’s good to practise any techniques that are new, on it’s own – like samples, not necessarily making a whole garment. You can build up your own library of different things eg. different seam finishes, different zip insertions etc.
Unless you really want lots of cushions, I think it’s good to tackle something that you want to end up with (rather than something just because it’s a beginner’s project), even if you don’t have any experience. Believe you can tackle anything.

Danka thepeppermintstore.blogspot.co.uk

This a very important post, including advice I wish I had when I started out. Whenever I talk to somebody who wants to get into sewing I recommend the Sorbetto top pattern. Not only is it an easy beginner’s project, but here’s the thing, even beginners want to be able to wear and look good in what they have made. So it has a bit more appeal than the pillowcase or apron.

I have a Sorbetto tribute post coming up soon, because honestly, this is the best pattern ever!

knitmo

I am a self-taught knitter and used this foundation to teach myself. I started with a scarf, then a hat and then a sweater and then socks. I still challenge myself to learn a new technique regularly by choosing a project that will stretch me.

When I started sewing garments, I practiced this philosophy and still do. I had a good grasp of using a machine general techniques. The area where I was a total novice was in pattern fitting. I have gotten better, my garments make up a good portion of my wardrobe, but I am still learning. Comparing items I made last year to things made this year, there is a drastic difference. Do I still wear most of them — yup. It may not be perfect, but they are generally speaking better fitting and the construction techniques are more sound. There may be a wobbly top stitch here or a nest of thread under the facing, but it is still I’d put it against RTW any day. Most people are amazed that I can make clothes.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

This was definitely my approach when I learned to knit as well. I think knitting can teach us so much about sewing (and vice versa).

Vita

Yes, but what puts me off progressing with sewing is fitting. The only thing in the list that would fit or suit me is the Ginger.

I want to make dresses that fit, but with my narrow back needing a sway back adjustment and my cleavage which needs a correspondingly big FBA… It’s too depressing.

Can you tell I’m a little discouraged!

Sarai colettepatterns.com

But I bet getting clothes with a good fit is one of the reasons you WANT to sew, am I right?

Fitting can be such a challenging subject, but one of the most rewarding too. It empowers you to make clothes conform to your real body and not the other way around. Just think about what you wrote here and how much better you understand the quirks of your body type compared to the average woman who doesn’t sew!

Mary

Yes! For me, fit is both the reason I sew and the most frustrating thing about sewing. I’ve fallen in love with knits for just this reason: they are so much easier to fit and I look good in the things I make! In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away with my fit books, Craftsy classes, and endless muslins that rarely become finished garments.

Nicole

I am so in this boat. I appreciate the suggestions and I love the style of Colette patterns, but if I want to make a Sorbetto (or anything else for that matter) I have to master pattern drafting/ modification and fitting with beginning apparel sewing because my bust is a L, waist is a XL and hips are 2XL which is why I want to make more of my own clothes in the first place.

dara

YOU are such an ENCOURAGER, THANKS SO MUCH!!! GOD BLESS YOU!

Renee missceliespants.com

I have to say, I think after a pillow, starting with a simple skirt is great. you are just fitting two parts of you. I think a top can require a FBA for so many women and baffle them if it doesn’t look right. When I took home ec (far far too long ago), we started with a hand sewn project, a pillow, and then elastic waist pants. I even get now why they have people make aprons.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

Very true, especially about the bust issues many women encounter! Some of my first projects were elastic waist skirts. Nowadays, I bet you could do a really pretty drawstring waist skirt and make it look very chic.

Robin

If you don’t want to start out with home-dec, some alternatives are children’s clothes in simple designs, pet beds and clothes, gifts, or stuffed animals.

I always learn a lot about construction, especially the differences between home sewing and ready-to-wear, by mending.

Upgrade as you go – even if you have lots of spare cash for the best machine, etc. after learning the basics on a simple machine, it’s a great reward for acquiring skills to purchase a machine with more stitches, or a high grade pair of scissors. When I am learning new skills (in cycles) I start with recycling fabric or inexpensive ends for those projects using fabrics I am not very familiar with. Helps me to justify better fabrics once I have good technique under my belt.

Keep up with the good habits that you have already learned, such as preparation before starting a new project. This might include practicing stitches, finishes and marking techniques on scraps before beginning the project. This little bit of extra effort helps to ensure success.

Fabric Tragic fabrictragic.blogspot.com

Not so much a comment about skill building, but ensuring you are more likely to wear your fledgling garments – try to resist buying pretty printed crazy fabric all the time – force yourself to buy at least one plain fabric for every one or two prints….. Wish I’d had that advice a couple of years ago! Great post Sarai.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

I think examining what you’ll really wear and what you need in your wardrobe truly helps with this.

I love to wear little black dresses (or little white dresses in summer). But at the fabric store, plain black fabric doesn’t stand out to me. Without that awareness, I’d be constantly buying the prettiest and least practical fabrics!

cyngehin

Ahh, once again , ‘sucked’ in by the flashy fabrics. Maybe learning to handle the ‘boring’ black and white fabrics, feeling the quality differences, subtle textures, I could take a lesson from that.

Lucy looseelastic.com

Start on a small scale. One of the first things I made was a bag in a busy fabric – I got to learn how to interface, how to topstitch, how to pleat, how to press seams, how to turn loops, but none of the not-quite-rights are that visible because the fabric is so busy, and so what? It’s a bag.

I’ve made a few little kids’ clothes to practice things like underlining, hemming and sewing a gathered skirt. That’s really good because you use so little fabric, if it goes wrong you haven’t just wasted four metres. Also, if it goes wrong the kid doesn’t care and its parents are probably thrilled about the gift. Win-win!

Amanda ardorzest.com

Take your time with the hard parts (that new skill), baste for help, and be friendly with your seam ripper. I’m not a beginner seamstress anymore, but I still use my seam ripper ALL the time. I love that tool because it erases my mistakes and gives me another opportunity to get it right.

gabriel ratchet

whenever i want to learn about something i’m just not familiar with, i start with a kid’s how-to book- and i made a lot of doll clothes before my first 4-H apron. you can learn a technique or process just as well on a small scale project as an adult garment. another way to try things is by working on costumes. local theater groups, kids school or church programs, living history museums, your all hallows alter ego….

Sim Shwen simshwen.com

I don’t know if it’s the same for anyone else (as I am a very obsessive person), but for me, not getting into the mindset of sewing to save money was actually key for me, because I would use a lot of fabric ripping out panels and recutting pieces. It’s so important to have things that you’ve made yourself that you’re proud of, even if you took months and months and miles of materials to make it, rather than a pile of things that you’re not completely happy with. Learning a new skill costs money, and your new sewing prowess is worth spending a bit extra for!

Patricia stenaros.blogspot.com

I think I technically CAN sew at the Intermediate level, but I’ve decided for right now to stick to Beginner stuff. That way I can practice working on fit, as well as be somewhat guaranteed that what I make will look really good. Early on I made a coat, which was cool because people were always tremendously impressed (“You MADE that?” they would ask with astonishment) but in truth, I had little idea what I was doing and the sleeves were backwards, and there were other things wrong. So I rarely wore it and ended up donating it.

Last year, after killing myself trying to finish an intermediate dress in time for an event, I swore I would stick to beginner stuff. I also look for sew-alongs. They are quite handy for when I get stuck.

Jan hylacraft.weebly.com

Altering or mending thrift store or RTW clothes is also an easy way to start if you want to sew clothes right away. Often, a very simple alteration – shortening and hemming sleeves or pants, adding belt loops or ties to cinch in a loose dress or top, taking in the side seams on a shirt or dress that’s a little too big – can turn a so-so garment into one that fits well and is a nice quick project. Also, while your working on it you’ll be looking at the inside of the garment and seeing how the whole thing was assembled.

cyngehin

Aside from the crazy patterns that I used to select, huge collars, flouncy sleeves, almost clown-like details. I now try to pick a pattern that will carry me through the years. That’s great about the Colette patterns. Lots of sizing choices and practical yet interesting enough to ‘catch my eye’ style. Seems kind of boring to start on a skirt like the current pattern, yet if it ends up being something that actually gets worn, there is value in that. You get to learn how your machine operates and produces a useable product.

Rachel snippetsofsweetness.com

Thank you for this post! I wish I had read it two years ago.

littlesewingdreams sewingdreamsblog.wordpress.com

These are really good tips for beginners, and I still aways try to use a new technique in my projects. And there are so many lovely books for beginners available. But what of the intermediate sewer? I do not need another book with the first 5 chapters telling me what basic sewing tools I need. I would love to have a book taking you step by step through complicated patterns and advanced sewing techniques. Any tips here?

Sarai colettepatterns.com

I find that books for intermediate sewists are either textbook-like, or they focus on a very specific area, like tailoring.

For the former, I like Professional Sewing Techniques for Designers.

For specific techniques, check out our list of 50 favorite sewing books!

Dottie doodle dottiedoodle.wordpress.com

I recommend taking a few sewing lessons. Having someone to show you what to do is great -and I picked up some very useful tips. But the main thing it gave me was confidence, a belief that I could do it if I kept trying.

daiyami

I started with the Bernina Seams Inside Out bag (in a class, which taught me seams, zippers, curves, etc), then with satin pillowcases (easy shape, slippery fabric, topstitched on ribbon), then with half-circle skirts (super-easy to fit–all you need to worry about is the waist and length. I actually measured the waist wrong on the second one and it’s still totally wearable). But I think a key aspect of me sticking with sewing was that my local fabric store ran an open studio night–I started there with a beginner class, and then I went back, could use their machine to work on my own projects, and had an expert there to help me with any questions. After about six weeks of that, I was confident enough to buy my own machine.

If you like wearing skirts, I think skirts are the best way to start–both learning new skills and getting a tangible reward with each project. Even doing multiple half-circle skirts with the same basic pattern, you could cut side seams and add pockets, change up the hemming (I did a few bias bound hems), learn waistband vs. facing, install regular and invisible zippers.

For garments, fit is the key to being happy and wanting to sew more. I’d like to see beginner recommendations that suggest easy-fit garments based on one’s dress style. Eg, “if this is your look, start with this type of pattern”. The boxy Sorbetto would not have encouraged me to sew more clothes for my pear-shaped body, but a loosely shaped tunic might be the best starting place for the person who loves to show off great legs. Alternatively, encourage people to look for the patterns that come with cup sizes or Simplicity’s Amazing Fit, so that they have the best chance possible of getting a decent fit.

daiyami

PS. To give beginners the best chance, we also have to help them understand how to pick the right shoulder/bust size in a pattern, or we are just setting people up for disappointment.

Sytha

I kind of followed this advice when I started sewing. First tote Bags, then pencil case and baskets. Then my first garment was à simple mini skirt with elastic band, no pattern, no fitting, it worked pretty well. It encouraged me. Next project was Crepe. I felt so proud! I could actually sew a real garment! Next step was Crepe again but with a friend. I taught her to use the sewing machine with this project. Since then , I really look forward to those sewing sessions with my friend. So much fun!

Jenny

I started sewing by making gifts (drum role please) – literally doll clothes for my goddaughter and her sisters. It was a good thing to start with. I didn’t need fancy or expensive fabric, or even much fabric at all, the projects were fast, I learned a lot of skills, and they were much loved.

I think there is a lot of good advice here. I would also add in, if you have a good independent fabric store, the salespeople often have a great deal of knowledge and can be really helpful. More than once I asked someone on the staff at Britex in SF for help (even mid project) and they were really helpful. They can also be helpful in selecting the right fabric for your project. I know Britex is expensive, but I’d come to believe that it was worth paying more at times for the access to the knowledge.

Nikki H

I’ve been sewing my whole life and I still have some failures come out of me. The main thing to remember is to keep sewing. Not just every project but every SEAM you sew will improve your skill and make you more comfortable in front of a machine. The other thing is if something doesn’t turn out perfectly perfect, don’t stress about it too much. Usually you’re the only one who notices the flaws and everyone else will be so impressed that omg you MADE THAT?

Trish padich adorehoneybird.blogspot.com

This is a great post! It’s so true. It’s taken me a while but I think I’ve finally accepted that not everything I make is going to turn out perfectly. I’ve learned to love sewing for the sake of sewing, and not just for the final result. Because of this I feel like I’ve become more patient. Now when I make something that does not turn out as I hoped, I dont just look at the flaws. I take note of them so I can improve next time around but I also look at what I did right and what new skills I conquered! It’s an empowering feeling.
Before making a Moneta I never thought I would be able to sew knits (especially without a serger!) But it was so much easier than I thought it would be! I think what you said about selecting patterns that challenge you is great advice, because it’s so much more rewarding when you conquer something you were afraid of. If you keep avoiding new things you will miss out on so much. Learning new skills is the most thrilling part of sewing!

Katie

My advice is not to be overly critical of your work. Nobody is going to notice your “mistakes”.

One of my first projects was a tote bag for the gym. Because of the fabric, it looked a little bit like a knock off vera bradly bag. A couple months after using it, it was stolen from the gym’s locker room. Even though I think the theif was hoping for a wallet/cash or a phone to pawn, it caught someone’s eye to take it.

Tif

I am lucky enough to have 2 fabulous friends teach me to sew about 2 years ago. I still consider myself a newbie as I’m taking my time learning, perfecting a skill and becoming comfortable with it before I move to the next skill. I’ve mastered French seams, lined tote bags with pockets (my own pattern), lined zipper pouches/small project bags and lined envelope pouches with snap closures (again my own patterns). It doesn’t seem like my progress is fast in building my skill set, but I’m now known as the zipper master by my sewing friends and my sister-in-law who owns a custom draperies business said she was more than impressed with my sewing skills and would have thought I’d been sewing all my life by how professional and detailed my projects look. So it’s true what they say, practice does make perfect and slow does win the race. Most importantly though, enjoy the process!

Helen nelliemakes.wordpress.com

As a teenager I was a standard size and had no fear tackling the most complicated vogue designer patterns without a second thought and being confident in the end product. Now twenty years later with no sewing for many reasons I am struggling to start again. I want the individuality that sewing your own brings but I am no longer a standard size and choosing the right pattern and then the right size and adjusting it for me leaves me cold and I bail! I like the independent patterns but they are rarely for the older lady with a more curvaceous and fuller figure. I like the advice in this post but would love some recommendations for other easy patterns from sewers with a fuller figure and as another commentator said for a pear snapped figure. I would also like a pointer to blogposts/books that help a newbie deal with altering patterns step by step.

Janet themakeden.com

Great post. One of the reasons I never got better than a beginner 25 years ago is I got pretty discouraged. It is so disappointing to make “wadders” and essentially pitch your efforts. The ratio of wearable to unwearable is pretty bad at the start. Never underestimate practice and if it wasn’t for the Renfrew t-shirt pattern….I have made probably 7 now. This is what builds confidence. Take lessons. I have a hard time learning by reading, especially something like sewing! Get a good sewing machine. I went through at least 4 mediocre machines – all hand me downs. Buy (or use at a sewing studio) a solid, basic Janome or Bernina. We still make mistakes. “Sewing clothes is hard”, said my sewing teacher. So true! Otherwise everyone would be doing it. Take it easy on yourself. I read somewhere…”It is never perfect or totally a failure.” Enjoy the process!

MTangel fiberai.wordpress.com

“best case scenario fantasy outcome”

That is totally me – I try to make reasonable goals, with step-by-step timelines, but in the back of my perfectionist-fueled mind, I expect genius regardless of whether I have any idea what I’m doing. It invariably ends up disappointing. I’m not sure the best way to install a reality check. Even for simple projects, I expect something better.

I’ve wondered about giving myself an out by allowing a certain number of “throw-away” projects. It doesn’t matter if the seam is wonky, or the drawing stinks, it’s just a throw-away. Don’t worry about it until after you’ve done 100 throw-aways, then reassess your expectations. I would think I’d be better by then, wouldn’t I?

Lori sewingmyselfstylish.com

I think a great way to learn to sew is “in- person” from an expert, even if she is 20 or 30 years older than you, she might have some skill and wisdom to pass on. I am 52 and teaching a 30 year old woman who has had never touched a sewing machine how to make bikinis. She confessed she watched a lot of YouTube videos and concluded that wasn’t how she was going to learn. I have been sewing with knits for decades, and guess what, the techniques that are popping up recently in the online sewing community are not new, just presented in appealing ways by young people for young people.

Leigh Ann

I found someone to teach me. It took a year to find someone! But I was such a complete beginner I had no idea where to start. All I had was a strong desire to learn. I read blogs where people say things like, “I started sewing a year ago, and I’m totally self-taught, and now I’m making all my clothes, and I’m doing couture techniques and doing really hard things!” (Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but not by much.) I think that is awesome, but also kind of intimidating. I could never have done that. I didn’t know where to start. I had no background, and no one else in my family sews. So I needed an actual person to show me. I went once a week for two hours, for a year. Now, I can read books or blogs or look at videos and understand and go from there. I do like reading sewing blogs (even the intimidating ones!). And I have a nice collection of books now, too. I agree that a lot of the indie patterns have better written instructions. (And instructions are very important to beginners!) And photographs of the steps help, too.

Katy

It’s easy to forget that sewing is like any other hobby…sometimes you have a streak of great days/successes, and sometimes you have losses/wadders. I do think that for as much support as the online sewing community offers, it can also be intimidating, particularly for beginners. When I read comments on blogs that point out small fitting flaws, or when bloggers go on the defensive and point out minute flaws to avert criticism, it makes me think we might be too hard on ourselves. Perfection is a lofty goal, but as Janet pointed out above, it’s also about enjoying the process.

Debbeg

What an inspirational blog post. I’m a beginner who has ruined way too much quality fabric on hard patterns by thinking, “I can do that.” I’m going to start with your Lauren pattern and hope I don’t screw up. Thanks for the pep talk!

Catherine from Canada

What progression of projects would you recommend for someone who wants to – eventually – knit her own sweaters/cardigans?
I’ve [almost] mastered knit two, purl two. I mean I can do them, it just still feels a bit clumsy. I’ve made a cowl on circular needles – what next?

Can you recommend patterns to try?

gabriel ratchet

very basic: melanie falick’s “kid’s knitting”
then find sally melville’s “the knitting experience” books – “the knit stitch” “the purl stitch” and “color”

she’s a fabulous teacher, and the books have great instructions, patterns, illustrations, and pictures…. and philosophy. also, along with every stepping stone of technique, there’s a what-to-do-when-something-goes-wrong section, including pictures of what the mistake probably looks like.

also, she’s from canada. :)

Gianna

What a wonderful coincidence that you wrote this. I’m working on a novel and a beginner sewing project. It makes me feel so alive, but at the same time, argh, it can get frustrating. Thanks for the motivation-this post came right when I needed it!

Nancy K blogspot.com

This is a great post. I’ve been sewing off and on for 50 years. More on in the last 10 years than off to the point of making almost all of my clothes. Like anything else the more you do something the better you will get at it. I still make samples for things like bound buttonholes or pockets since I don’t make them every day. For new techniques or tricky things samples can’t be beat. I would keep the best of them and record your settings so that you can repeat it. I still find it hard to believe when I hear that someone never tried on the garment until it was ready to hem. Fitting as you sew is how I sew. I cut wider seam allowances on the fitting seams so that I can adjust my fit. Not all fabrics fit the same way so even if you sew multiples of a garment they will often fit differently. Knits do this even more since the stretch and weight of the knit can vary so much. The other bit of advice I have is give yourself a break. Sometimes we all, no matter how experienced have sewn wadders and we all have sewn garments that just didn’t come out the way we thought they would. Learn from them and move on to the next garment.

Sarah

This is SO true! Thank you for actually sharing this out loud!

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[…] class or or the “add a new skill with each project” approach described recently on the Colette blog don’t necessarily appeal to me, and I’m sure there are a lot of people who would think […]

Sara A.

Oh god! I just jumped in feet first! I wanted to make quilts, so I made quilts and discovered how to cut and follow a seam allowance and press seams open. Then, I bought one of those big bundles of children’s patterns and made the prettiest dress for my daughter reasoning that there were no closures so it would be easy. Ha! Wrong! It was fully lined and had a gathered skirt and I’d never gathered anything or sewed anything lined before. It took me a solid week of nap and nighttime sewing, unpicking, and frantic calls to my mother before I finished it. Is it perfect? No, I made some real rookie mistakes, but it’s cute and wearable and I get compliments all the time. I made a bunch of clothes for my daughter to learn new skills because I can make a dress for her out of a yard of quilting fabric. If it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t hurt so much. After a few dresses and night gowns for her, I’m finally starting to sew for myself and I’m pleased with my results.

Laura Lee notesonaneedle.wordpress.com

Sarai, this post reminds me of two years ago when I found your website and started with the Sorbetto. I read and re-read all of your tutorials and practiced every seam and every stitch on scraps and put them in a book; I love looking at it now and smiling at the progress. On a personal note, I agree with Katy above. From the beginner to advanced, one who sews as a hobby need beware of negatively comparing themselves to the myriad of sewing sites and wondering why they can not sew a lined dress while taking care of children and a full time job. Always sew because it is rewarding and makes you happy and whenever you feel discouraged go back to a classic tank or T and make the small details really count. Thanks again for this community!

Patrice

Look for a local chapter of ASG (American Sewing Guild). Chapters are divided into smaller “neighborhood groups”, each with a different focus. You will find plenty of people to give you advice and help.
Lots of fabric stores have sewing classes. Look at web sites!
I took a beginning sewing class at a community college that had a fashion design program. (But bear in mind that it’s a vocational class leading to a career; I think most colleges would give preference to a future fashion designer than a home sewer).

Estelle tetellita.blogspot.com

What a coincidence, Sewaholic just released their pattern for complete beginners today, the Rae Skirt! I started sewing on Mother’s Day last year and have been slowly been learning new skills. My advice would be, if you are a complete beginner, take classes. YouTube is good, but nothing beats a real class! I took three classes last year, a beginner 101, then a class where I made a bag, then one when we made an apron. Only then did I feel ready to tackle projects on my own. I got this book: http://www.amazon.com/Sew-Skills-Simple-Sewing-Projects/dp/0811876497/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1406233293&sr=8-1&keywords=123+sew, which is packed with super cute projects. The Sobetto is a great pattern but it does not work on my shape. Then I made Tilly’s Miette Skirt, where I used the skills I learned at the apron class. Then I made Sewaholic’s Hollyburn. Bought the Colette Zinnia! Made Megan Nielsen’s Kelly Skirt. And the larning continues :)

Stina P stinap.com

Find the reason WHY you want to sew – is it the wish to do something with your hands? Being able to get clothes that fit? Your own style? Fast sewing to have a new dress every Friday or slow sewing with a thousand couture techniques? Then, find out if you learn by reading or watching videos or by a tutor in a class or by test-and-try-as-you-go. And there you have your game plan!

(I did all the pillow cases and bags and skirts during the school years which of course gave me a great base to stand on. I would never have the patience to do that now. If I were to begin again, I would do it Gertie-style: pick up a vintage sewing book and work my way through it (because I like vintage and hand sewing!))

maddie madalynne.com

I would tell a new sewer the same thing – learn something new with every project. Eight years after getting into the hobby, I still try to do that.

Molly O

Sarai, this post could not have come at a better time for me! I have been sewing for less than a year and I find my imagination and desire to sew things that are crazycoolawesomecomplicated often discourage me because I know I don’t have the skills to make them yet. This post was very much what I needed to hear in terms of encouragement right now! Thanks for posting it!

Juliette Williams

I had the same experience in that I made things for the first 3 years that I almost never wear. A few of them make it to donation.

I was amazed to see one of my donation dresses on someone in the street on her lunch break. I know it was my dress as the fabric was quite unusual and it was the exact pattern I had made down to the same hem technique I’d done. It was nice to think that someone saw it on the rack and thought it was nice enough to buy and wear to work. I wonder if they realised it was handmade???

Unfortunately I don’t think there is any way to avoid disappointing results at some point in the first few projects. It’s necessary I think to work out what you are happy with and how far you want to extend your skill set.

The best advice I could give anyone making something in those beginner years (or even later) I would say the process needs to relax and you need to take the time to do the steps properly. I often worked to a deadline and this really is a recipe for disappointment. Taking it all slowly and not feeling as though you have to rush can make all the difference. You can learn to enjoy the process – it’s kind of why we do this right? I mean the finished product is the point but the process is the actual sewing (etc). Anyway, I’ve learned to slow down and it has made for much better quality and resulted in wearing items I’ve made with pride and feeling as though they could hang with RTW and look just as good if not better.

Izy

I started simple such as making aprons, & pj bottoms. I also did little stuffies for friends as gifts. Once you get to know your machine it builds confidence!

Rachael

Thank you SO much for this post and the free pattern! I’m a long time sewer but I’ve never been able to get past the frustration of not being able to sew in real life like I do in my head, so this post was just what I needed.

kriston lion fearsome5.wordpress.com

the first thing I ever made was a Hazel https://www.colettepatterns.com/sewing/hazel (I’m so glad) and my advice would be to use AN INDIE PATTERN (maybe even one specifically marked beginner) or follow a sewalong so you know what you are doing. In Big4 you aren’t always going to get specific instructions-like staystitching, etc. The Hazel instructions were so clear, step by step, there was a glossary so I felt like I had all the info I needed to know. About a year later I attempted pants, and followed http://lladybird.com/tag/thurlow-sewalong/ Lauren Lladybird’s Thurlow sewalong to get me through the rough parts! I recommend as many pictures as possible for things like welt pockets-her sewalong is such a valuable resource

Kathryn kathrynsbusytown.blogspot.co.uk

These are great tips! The sorbetto was my first successful make, even making my own bias take the furst time (following your tutorial). I then made two more. I think that would be one of my tips for beginners-use the same skills a few times so they sink in. The sorbetto is perfect for this. Also, following a sew-along is so helpful, and great if you can’t afford a class.

Yvette

What advice would you give a complete beginner who doesn’t own a dress form? I’m only just beginning and I’m not sure if I would want to venture into the world of clothes making or if I want to use the skills I eventually master to just make home goods. I’d like to try my hand at sewing a few clothes pieces to start but I don’t want to invest in a dress form just yet.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

I didn’t have a dress form for years when I started out sewing! I’d suggest seeing if you can get a friend to help you when you’re fitting a garment on yourself.

A dress form is very handy, but often you need to put it on a real body to really get a good sense of how it fits anyway. I consider the dress form a first step, but not as important as putting it on a living, moving human.

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Stacey

What a wonderful post. As a beginner dressmaker, I am on a roller coaster, sometimes proud of what I am learning and frequently disappointed at the final outcome. Wearable, but not amazing. And I do have visions of all the amazing things I want to make. Thanks for such an encouraging post, which is just what I needed to read to keep myself motivated and focused on the right things. I will keep on and believe that one day, I too can sew like so many of the amazing women and men out in blogland!

ellen

Make something you LIKE ,be it a blouse or a pillow….I never do home decor because I find it boring! And I don’t quilt, even though I have the ultimate quilting machine…my dealer can’t believe it . But I took up sewing because we are a family of misfits when it comes to RTW, and so I stick to clothing. If you are a beginner take a course on basic pattern slopers. There are a few online. They will be immensely helpful to using the big 4 patterns (never fit!) and even some indie designers (my last purchase was a huge disappointment when I discovered the designer was 5’2″ and I am 5’8″….). Finally, take a night to sleep on it before you cut…I always remember something I forgot to take into account…it saves you a lot of frustration, time and money in the end. I’ve been sewing for 18 months. Still love it.

Avrila

I notice that all these patterns are size 0-18…what would you recommend for those of us whose sewing motivation is at least partly related to being not in that size range? I try to modify patterns sometimes but modifying across a substantial number of sizes (I’m, approximately, size 24 plus a Full Bust Adjustment) raises the complexity level and I feel like all I get to do is pattern paper puzzles due to time limitations and using up my enthusiasm for a project on the prep work.

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Ana Rita

I’m also a newbie :D
Thanks for the post, it’s an assurance of some of my thoughts!

For other beginners I strongly advise to take a class to learn how to operate your machine. It saves ours of frustration!
Although I agree with starting with simple stuff, I also don’t fancy pillows so I did panties! their so much fun – simple, you adventure yourself with stretchy fabrics and elastic and little details – and if you screw up NOBODY SEES IT :D And you know that you’re wearing something YOU MADE!

I signed up for the Burda sew-along and it gave me the courage and guidance to try one of my favorite patterns! I started sewing almost a year ago and I am finishing my second jacket full of newbie mistakes!
It looks like the non-perfectionists sewers are rare, but I’m one of them… I don’t care if it has some mistakes (the fitting is far from perfect) but I’m so HAPPY with my wearable HANDMADE JACKET! And I that is what matters most :D

Also, I found out some awesome side effects from my new sewing hobby – builds patience, it practices project management concepts and it increases your awareness for the details – who knew it could give me job interviewing material ;) ?

Sorry for the long comment!
Happy sewing!!

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Lisa

This post was really useful to me. If it wasn’t for the internet and great blogs I would’ve given up a long time ago. I’m from South Africa , so sewing as a hobby isn’t as big as it is in the states or Europe , but I’m hoping it could be

Lisa

I would really like more posts on what projects to do to harness certain skills!… The prospect of learning something new is exciting

Tamia

I took a beginner class a decade ago at JoAnns, had a love affair with sewing for a year and then promptly moved on. I began sewing again last year, and Sarai you really hit the nail on the head for me. I have such big dreams for sewing such grand plans, and a fabric stash to prove it :). Sewing is pretty tough. It takes soooo much practice. My biggest fear is hemming. I know… practice sewing napkins, but that just isn’t fun. I clarified my needs through the Wardrobe Architect series, and I found the lowest stress point for me is lingerie. I know what a jump, but who is going to see it and say that it has that “loving hands at home” look? For my first year out I am pretty proud of my accomplishments. I can make a skirt! ( CP Mabel, BHL Charlotte). I can make a Bra (Mix30), and I know I can make knit tops (StyleArc Cate, Dotty, Harper). However, I still look at hemming in fear, oh how I cheat using wonder tape on everything. I will say this, thank you CP for inspiring me and teaching me to keep trying and that one day, I will have a delicious wardrobe that people will say, “where did you buy that?” I know that is a few years off, but I will keep trucking along till then.

Avrila

How about camisoles? They have fairly long hems, so that once you can do them you should be able to do most other kinds of hems, and they’re worn with that part out of sight so you can hide the evidence while learning.

Tamia

Excellent idea, thank you! I have Gerties pattern and will start there.
This is my first time posting any comment, and I am wowed by the support I just received.
Thank you!

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[…] have since read an article on Coletterie, highlighting five things beginner or nervous sewers should start with making. Starting from […]

reklama public.fotki.com

Hey There. I discovered your blog the use of msn. That is a really neatly written article.
I’ll be sure to bookmark it and come back to learn more of your helpful information. Thanks for the post.
I will certainly return.

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