Colette

Sewing Chatter: How do you improve your sewing skills?

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Learning to sew is challenging. Most of us will come across obstacles that ebb and flow within a lifetime of sewing projects. But the fun part about sewing is learning how to overcome those obstacles. Your challenge could be time, or finding the courage to teach yourself a new skill. For some men, it might be facing the stigma of a craft historically dominated by women.

In this month’s episode of Seamwork Radio, Sarai talks to Joost De Cock, the man behind makemypattern.com, a website that generates custom patterns. Joost candidly talks about how he grew his skills from mending to sewing curtains to making nearly everything he wears (yep, even his shoes!). He stresses that there isn’t one way to learn how to sew, and we should all strive to find our own identities in the sewing community. Some of us might take a more traditional route, and others will go rogue on a self-taught sewing adventure.

Joost suggests that learning comes from enjoying. If you enjoy sewing, you’ll find a way to spend time learning. I have to agree!

So, what helps you learn about sewing? Books, tutorials, taking classes? Or is it ripping apart every garment you buy, or practicing with the same pattern over and over again? Curiosity is at the heart of sewing, but how do you stay curious?

If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, take a few minutes to hear Joost talk about his sewing journey, and how he continues to learn every day. Then join the conversation below to share your favorite way to learn, and get inspired from others.

Here’s what I want to know: How do you improve your sewing skills?

  • How did you start learning? Has that changed now that you have more experience?
  • Do you prefer to teach yourself new skills, or take classes?
  • What have been some of your obstacles while learning to sew?
  • How do you stay curious about sewing?

Here’s the newest episode of Seamwork Radio:

Meg Stively   —   Communications Manager

Meg is here to help you. She's the smiling face behind our customer service and social media. Keeping in touch with our family of stockists, and shipping your orders all across the world, she loves seeing what you're making with our patterns.

Comments 40

PsychicKathleen tarotbykathleen.ca

I am a returned sewer (after a 40 yr absence!) so I’m learning all the time. I learn the most through videos, blogs, online courses and some in books as well. I try to learn something new everyday (today it was tailor tacking!) My biggest obstacle has been remembering what to do when the occasion arises that I need to do it! Keeping it all clear in my mind. I’m trying to train myself to be more diligent in writing down my plan and documenting my process throughout and I’ve done some of that but not nearly as much as I need to. I just completed a Violet blouse in chocolate silk taffeta and gold embroidered collar (after 2 previous practice runs in cotton) and I was learning so much throughout. I love my blouse though. My practice runs are my most powerful learning experiences though. This is where I experiment, try new seams and techniques.

Meg colettehq.com

It’s great that you take time to document your process. I think that is definitely where much of the learning happens.

Heide

“Just do it!” That is my motto! I love to read vintage and new sewing books and magazines. When faced with a particular problem usually a bit of info will pop in my mind and that at lest gets me started. Sometimes of course, this method doesn’t end up with the best results, but I don’t think I have completely ruined a project yet (at lest not by using the wrong technique!)
I am kind of seamstress who likes to figure it out on my own and gave up most pattern instructions long ago. Though I do glance through Colette and Seamwork instructions to see if there is anything new to glean. and there usually is!

Meg colettehq.com

Think Nike would be mad if we started using “Just Sew It”? I love your approach, thanks for sharing!

Carol

I take courses in sewing techniques that I find challenging as it helps me to perfect my approach. Mostly these are on line classes and I like these because I can repeat the class until I have the technique down. As well I use youtube to look for how to videos when I want to do something or refine the way that I do it. I used youtube to find methods for gathering lots of fabric as this is one of my pet peeves but when done well looks really good. I also subscribe to sites that give their reads sewing tips and I love my vintage copy of Vogue Sewing. From the time I was a small girl making dolls clothes on my Mother’s sewing machine until now I have been learning to sew and that is one of the reasons that I love it.

Marilyn

I started about 2 years ago, taking beginning sewing at Stitch Lab in Austin, Texas. I mostly sewed little stuff because I was afraid of garment sewing, which is my goal. I finally bit the bullet and started taking more classes – shout out to Stitch Lab for such great classes and instructors – and I have challenged myself to start sewing every day that I can. I bought a lot of muslin and away I went. I learn something from everything I do. And what’s really nice, is I can see myself improving!

Meg colettehq.com

We love Stitch Lab!

Lara

I am a Stitch Lab lover as well. I had sewn with my grandmother as a child but did not get my sewing confidence until I took classes there. It was the best jumping off point! Now I learn mainly from online classes (because of a busy schedule) and just working through a pattern until I get it right. I try to learn a new skill with every new project I take on.
How about interviewing Leslie from Stitch Lab for the Seamwork Radio podcast?
She is great!

Tory

I love Stitch Lab! I took a few garment classes there and had a wonderful time. Their classes gave me the courage to tackle my own sewing challenges. Excellent staff and instructors!

As mentioned in the podcast interview, the online sewing community is wonderful. I don’t have much of an online presence, but I consult the online community with all of my projects. I especially like pattern reviews by bloggers, YouTube tutorials for tiny and difficult things (which I pause and replay countless times), and tutorials and pattern hacks from Seamwork / Colette.

JW

You lucky ducks who have active sewing groups around you so you can develop sewing connections for fun and learning! A bit envious here in RI.

Rachael

I use a combination of books and online tutorials to learn. Recently, I’ve started doing two things that really have helped. First, I pick a pattern I wouldn’t mind having multiples of in different fabrics, and second, I make a muslin. I never used to make muslins because it seemed like a waste of time and money, but it helps a lot. I’m not to the point where I’m doing elaborate fitting, but it helps me with construction technique. Plus, I take the muslins apart and reuse the fabric for the next muslin, which helps me justify the “cost.” Then I make as many versions as I can stand or think I’d wear. For instance. I picked a gathered skirt with a waistband and pockets. My first was black brocade, my second denim with an exposed zip, and the third will be linen, which I plan to embroider around the hem.

Embarrassingly though, the thing that gave me the most trouble recently was sewing Velcro on a Halloween costume for my husband…

Dana

Velcro is trouble and I’ve been sewing forever. There must be an industry secret we haven’t found.

Rochelle Ireland

I used a denim needle to sew Velcro before and that seemed like it worked a bit better. The Velcro I used was quite heavy and I needed something that would punch through. The stitching is always a bit warbly so maybe it’s an upper tension thing? I’m guessing maybe a lower tension might do it?

Dalia thelittlecave.wordpress.com

I bought my first sewing machine to hem my pants, and I tried to copy the original hem, which often meant hand-stitching with that silly machine. I then realised I could easily do the same for unraveled shirt and dress-seams, copying the original stitching. Then I thought, while you are at it, why not make the whole thing…
For me it was a mixture between looking at RTW and finding YouTube videos about terms in my instructions I did not understand.
As I became more advanced (and as I lacked the patience and time after the birth of my son) that changed. While he slept on me, I read a lot of sewing-blogs and tutorials, I now have a veritable sewing-encyclopaedia in my head. My new body also brought fitting challenges that I researched.
I do not have any fear of making mistakes, because I am going to wear even slighlty wonky garments. I do muslins only when the fabric is very expensive. BUT I am planning on sewing my first fully lined winter jacket, and the fabric is 50 Euros a meter, and I am really thinking of taking a course…
I think what keeps me curious are the images I have in my head, I love not having to run around shops in search of something resembling my dream-garment, but to make it and to look as unique on the outside as I feel on the inside. And that keeps research going as I get bolder in my dreams.

Lusty lusty.org

I have been surprised by the degree to which sewing, for me, is a social activity. I find it much harder to motivate myself alone, at home, than I do in “classes”, even when the “class” is just an open sewing session where everyone works on their own projects.

Meg colettehq.com

That’s an interesting thought! I love to sew with others, too, but sometimes if I am working on a tricky project and can’t get distracted, I prefer to stitch alone.

Raquel

I try to challenge myself every time I sew a garment: new patterns, new fabrics with different textures. I rarely sew twice the same pattern. I began sewing 20 years ago and now one of the most important things for me is taking note of every especial detail or alteration I made in a garment (I use paper and pencil because sometimes I like to draw what changes I’ve made). I don’t take classes in stores, I don’t feel comfortable sewing in front of others ( It’s silly, I know, but what can I do…)

Janet diywardrobe.co.uk

In the beginning, I learnt from my Mum and my Grandmother. These day, it’s a mixture of books, online tutorials, pattern instructions and classes.

If I’m completely in the dark about something (like when I first bought my overlocker and had no idea how to use it), then I’ll look for a workshop. Otherwise, I usually learn on my own. I’ve made some mistakes, and there’s a long way to go, but I enjoy the journey.

The biggest obstacle is always time. I never get more than two hours to sew at a time so I have to break projects down into small chunks and try to remember things from one session to another.

Seeing other people’s makes keeps me curious. I love to learn, but I probably wouldn’t have kept going without the constant flow of ideas and inspiration from the online community.

Sally jr.

I started sewind around age 11 because my mother had made me a dress but not
finished the zipper and buttons. I wanted the dress so I finished it myself.
I followed the instructions for a lapped zipper and it wasn’t too bad. I then
became the one who finished garments for my sister and myself.
I took one class in tailoring which I loved and now do mostly alterations which
I don’t love.
Most of my sewing time these days is quilting.

Sien

Before I start anything new, I like to read about it and gather as much information as I can. It was the same with sewing. I need to have the process ready in my head before I can start. I buy a lot of books and magazines and love reading articles online. I also like to look a store-bought clothes and think about how I could make that myself.
I’ve never taken any classes and I’m afraid I would irritate any sewing teacher because I’ve learned to do things my way… My motto is: Make it work!

Robin

I like your approach. Maybe I don’t take criticism well, but I would not like paying for a course only to be taught that I needed to ‘correct’ my techniques. Maybe especially because I’m a lefty. I would appreciate a teacher that would show me new things, as opposed to a right and wrong way. That’s one thing I really like about sewing – I can do it my way, and I am not that concerned about using a single, right way. I don’t think you learn unique and alternatives ways to do things. It is rewarding to use mindful execution though, and not be in a hurry.

kc theactofmaking.tumblr.com

Two things really help me move forward in my sewing: revisiting the basics and teaching skills to others.

For the first, I try to alternate between big projects that really challenge me (or that use techniques/materials/tailoring skills I’ve not used before) and simpler projects. The complicated projects usually take a long time and can be sort of draining if they don’t turn out as perfectly as I’d like, and the smaller projects give me the opportunity to revisit the basics and get my sewing confidence back up. Taking a break from always trying the next complicated thing helps me re-engergize and reinforce good habits

And there’s really nothing better to help cement your skills than teaching. Like a lot of people in this thread, I learned to sew at an early age and some of the assumptions I have about the ‘correct’ way of doing things just never got questioned until I started teaching. Having to explain a process or skill to a student really helps me prioritize and focus on which of my practices are essential and which spring from perfectionism or old (bad) habits.

Meg colettehq.com

I love your approach. Teaching can also be a big boost of confidence in your own skills. Thanks so much for sharing!

Irene studioirene.blogspot.ca

I’ve been sewing for decades, but there is no such thing as knowing everything. I’m always learning. There are books to read, videos to watch. After years of faithfully following instructions, I came to realize that there are many ways of doing one thing. Trying different methods gives me the opportunity of learning and choosing which way works best for me, or perhaps best for a particular project. The more you learn, the more you realize how comparatively little you know. That’s not scary – just a way of keeping the interest going.

Misha

I follow several swing blogs and I’ve done quite a few Craftsy classes which has really improved my skills. I’ve recently discovered the joys of sew alongs and I’m busy with my muslin (of cheap curtain fabric from a closing down sale) for the phoebe pattern. I’m also inspired by the great British sewing bee and in the back of my mind i can hear Patrick, May and Esme criticising my workmanship. I have the season 3 and 4 GBSB books and they have lovely inserts on core skills between the patterns in the books.

Hélène Martin meetcora.com

I started sewing in high school and through my mom’s social circle, was able to take some private lessons with an absolute master sewist and teacher. She accelerated my initial learning tremendously and I miss her every time I sew! I strongly recommend taking some in-person lessons with someone more experienced.

Recently I’ve learned most from repetition and blogs.

Meredith

In an attempt to make some extra cash and hone my sewing skills, I started an alterations and general sewing business. In the process of deconstructing and then reconstructing I feel I have mastered some valuable sewing skills like facing and lining construction, finishing details like understitching and topstitching, and easing in areas like sleeves and waistbands. I am a much better sewer today than I was 10 months ago, and I really didn’t realize my business would give me this kind of kick back! I have turned to YouTube, Craftsy classes, and a couple of local mentors (everyone needs a mentor) when I needed to learn a new skill. The biggest deterrents to sewing for myself have been cash and time (I’m a mother of 4). I am finding that re-purposing/refashioning garments from thrift stores fits that need to create with less time commitment….usually. :)

Nethwen

My Mon taught be home-ec style sewing. There is a lot I don’t remember learning. That doesn’t mean she didn’t teach it, but I didn’t learn it. For example, I couldn’t understand the point of seam finishes until I realized on my own that you finish each seam before sewing the intersecting seam, not finish all seams after the garment is completed.

Now I learn through trial and error, books, and the occasional online tutorial. I also have a fee garments styles that I make repeatedly and try new techniques each time or try to perfect a technique.

I prefer to teach myself. I would like to take a class in alterations or pattern drafting, but can’t justify the cost.

My biggest obstacle has been money. There was a time when the only way I could have fabric to sew was to stitch together scraps – even the one-inch square scraps got used. Now I can buy fabric more often, but finding quality knits in all natural fibers is expensive and harder than finding similar wovens, which I rarely sew.

My other challenge is finding inspiration. Dresses are pretty, but I don’t wear or sew them regularly. I find more inspiration from men’s sewing blogs that most others, but they don’t have the same fitting challenges as women, so it’s a mixed bag.

I stay curious through the challenge of teaching myself. I’m reinventing the wheel, but I’m also learning how to sew in a way that makes sense to me. For example, I came up with the idea to sew in sleeves flat before I ever read that was an option.

Jane

I too haven’t sewed in 30+ years. My mother sewed as did my older sisters. I think I just picked it up. I remember making dresses in 7th and 8th grades. I stepped in when my son was in his high school musicals to help with sewing and fitting etc. It took the HS musicals to help me remember how much I loved to sew.
Then I met Colette. You single handily got me back to sewing. Downloaded the free sorbetto and started seeing away. My first sorbetto I taught myself how to do French seams! Why no one taught me how to sew French seams before I will never know.
YouTube has taught me a lot. I like to recycle clothing so I am learning to upcycle some old pieces of clothing. I now buy used clothes for $2 and experiment. It is so fun to see if I can alter it. If it doesn’t work no big deal because it only cost $2!
So thank you Colette. Without you my sewing machine would just be collecting dust!

Sandy magpiestitcher.wordpress.com

“practice garments,” aka wearable muslins. Example: I want to make a tank top out of rayon challis. I don’t want to sew darts in rayon challis, so that means adapting the dartless FBA in my T-shirt pattern to a pattern for a woven (probably the Sorbetto) and cutting it on the bias. I bought a yard of nice, stable, well-behaved cotton lawn and made myself a summer nightdress using all the techniques I will use on the tank: Bias cut, French seams, self-fabric bias binding, rolled hem. I now have a very nice nightdress for about $5 (1/4 what I’d pay in a store), and the techniques won’t give me any trouble (the jury is still out on what the fabric will do!).

Judy

Like this conversation and reading posts here! I learned to sew in junior high home ec, so that dates me. Been sewing over 50 years, but have had a few breaks.

Never made a muslin, and find that idea unattractive though I’d probably do it with a sewing pal if one was handy. What I do is buy reasonable facsimile fabric at as deep a discount as possible, something I can tolerate but probably is not my first choice but ok to practice on. That becomes my muslin, and I learn as I go, try new techniques and will wear the trial garment if it turns out ok.

Also, instead of doing muslins for learning, I try as much refashioning as possible to use old garments. Just up-cycled a few knit nighties and created shorties with tops for summer sleeps. Saw summer pjs being sold as separates with hefty price tags and felt great about actually saving some money this way. Sewing is not, in my experience, an inexpensive hobby.

Also, I read a lot and keep a list of sewing “fear factor” items that I plan to research and assemble info for reference. Coming up is pants-sewing and after I get past the fitting issues, I’m heading toward sewing a pair of jeans!

Probably the biggest plus in my repertoire is my learned ability to fail and learn then move on. Though I struggle with perfectionist tendencies, I let go when I sew and relax. It’s fine when I’m in learning mode to make mistakes and adjustments. Sewing has been a focus for lifelong learning and satisfaction this way.

Elsie

My Mum taught me the basics a couple of years ago. We live quite far apart though so I tend to use a combination of sew-alongs and blogs, and then I’ll ask my Mum over the phone if I get stuck. We have very different approaches though, she’s very methodical and precise whereas I’m more impatient and willing to fudge things to get through.

I find it interesting how sewing is such a different learning experience for me than knitting. I learned to knit several years ago and made a concerted effort to try and always pick patterns with new techniques (cables, lace, colourwork etc.). However, I decided fairly early on to sew rather than buy clothes so I feel like I’m often playing catch-up (career shifts mean lots of new workwear, plus during term time I get very little time/energy for sewing) so I’m likely to go for things that are fast or that I’d sewn before rather than prioritising new skills, though of course every time I sew I’m refining my skills in some ways.

I have learned a huge amount, but sewing is so vast it can sometimes feel like a daunting task. I like the ‘Just Sew It’ advice, it’s definitely helped me at times, and often when I just get on with a project it’s not as hard as I thought.

Robin

My decision about a year ago to only make the clothes I need is doing wonders to help me to learn new techniques and try new fabrics and styles. I had a large stash of both patterns and fabric, which helped a lot, and got tired of poorly made RTW in hideous fabrics that are in my price range, and the time and humiliation of trying garments on. I focus on finding alternative ways of doing things to minimize or eliminate additional costs, to keep myself from buying more disposables. For example, patterns may call for a fusible hem tape by name (especially for knits), and I find an alternative and no-cost method so I can get an acceptable finish and get the job done just as well without it. I bought cone thread to cut down on thread cost.

It helps keep on track now that Hancock Fabric closed, the only fashion fabric and notions store in my area. I do find bargain fabrics for wearable Muslims at Walmart, and there’s the occasional thrift store find.

Robin

That should have been muslins – darn autocorrect!

Rebecca bravexperiment.blogspot.com

That did make me reread! :)

Ani

I was just making a bunch of stuff I couldn’t wear and getting sad until I decided to just say what the hell and try my hand at the Florence/Geneva combo. I have no idea what possessed me to give that a shot when I wasn’t even making simple pajama pants I could wear. And yet, suddenly it was all fine. I made a set of bra & undies that was not at all perfect but totally wearable and then right after that I made a set that was, in fact, totally perfect. So I decided to stop worrying about sewing what I thought I was ready to sew, and to make a concerted effort to just make a pattern I wanted to make. It’s slow going, as I’m limited by budget and physical disability at times. But I learn so much from picking a pattern, researching the hell out of it, asking people for thoughts and tips over at Textillia, and taking it one slow step at a time. Suddenly, I find myself with the skills to hem a placemat properly (which I could not do two years ago to save my life) because I actually understand things like fabric grain and stuff now. Classes from creativebug have been lifesavers too! Even if you don’t plan on drafting your own patterns, I totally recommend taking pattern drafting courses there because I can make my adjustments to patterns much better now that I understand the basics behind them!

Jen gingerella.wordpress.com

This episode was great, like many of the other episodes, what Joost said was inspiring and much of it resonated with me.

I learnt to sew nearly 3 years ago now when my friend encouraged me to take a sewing for beginners class at a local adult learning centre. She’d been sewing for a few years then and had been attending the follow-on dressmaking class. Whilst I was excited, I honestly thought it probably wasn’t going to be for me. But, after 2 classes, I’d already bought a sewing machine and haven’t looked back! Having that hands-on learning experience with an experienced sewer at the beginning was essential for me, I think I would’ve been much more likely to give up if I’d been using books, YouTube, etc. Although there were some good sewing books for beginners (and there are more now!) so perhaps not.

In the last few years, I’ve preferred to teach myself skills rather than take classes but have just purchased a Craftsy class for moulage and drafting bodice slopers. Until recently, I was still going to the dressmaking class at the adult learning centre but it was more about getting together with other sewers than the tuition really. In the beginning, I would repeat garments a lot more but now I always try to do something new, even if it’s not a new type of garment, perhaps involving a new technique. Thanks to the Wardrobe Architect project, I’m also much better at sewing things which will actually fill a gap in my wardrobe, i.e. not quite so many pretty dresses! Although, I do occasionally like to sew something I’ve sewn before for a satisfying sew.

Obstacles while learning sewing? Not sure any spring to mind really other than my own reluctance sometimes holding me back. But this has dramatically reduced, as I’m inspired by what I see others doing. Also, posts like Heather Lou’s “JUST MAKE IT ALREADY!” are great for motivation and encouragement.

Staying curious about sewing really comes from the blogosphere and magazines, I would say, including Seamwork. There’s just so much to learn and as I said above, seeing what others are up to and just what your own skills could progress to are great for keeping it fresh.

Karen

Like Kathleen I have returned to sewing after a long break.
I also want to sew very well-made clothes, particularly structured garments and those made with difficult fabrics with a high level of finish.
So – when I am planning to make something I work out what new technique I will introduce in that garment.
In my latest I have used a stretch woven wool for a jacket. This fabric choice has raised all sorts of new challenges around fit, interlining, interfacing and bound buttonholes. I have also drafted a collar and, for the first time put in welt pockets with a flap.
There are two books I look at when searching out techniques: “Tailoring: The Classic Guide to Making the Perfect Jacket” and “Dressmaker’s Handbook of Couture Sewing Techniques”.
While it can be slow and frustrating I am enjoying the process of sewing more and am much happier with what I make.

Marsha Andrews

Can I coin a new term and call myself “novice-beginner”? I learned some of the basics in high school 40 odd years ago. It feels threatening to try it again. I never mastered zippers and lots of other things. Unfortunately I can’t afford to spend money on something I can’t wear. Since I love Vintage I am no stranger to thrift stores. I realize I can go there and buy a cheap sheet to sew a sample. The main hold off for me is how do I know I’ll like it after I’m finished. The beauty in ready-to-wear is seeing what you look like in it and you can be assured it’s in style. Help! I would love to to sew some clothes for myself.

Rebecca bravexperiment.blogspot.com

I have sewn since I was a kid, taught by my mama, but didn’t get a lot of high-level instruction per se. I’ve made a bunch of quilts, upwards of 30 pairs of pj pants (ranging from very basic to more elegant), and have started sewing a bit more recently when our house emptied out a bit and I gained a study/workroom! I finally made the Sorbetto this past month, and I found the set up to be super helpful: I even figured out how to make my own bias tape maker with a creativedaisy link that I found in a comment. At age 53, learning to push my skills in a convenient and fun way is great–and I have two Sorbettos (one basic, one modern hack version) to show for it! Unfortunately, I’m a teacher–ah, let me rephrase that: “I am a teacher, so unfortunately, I don’t have much time except during the summer”! Thanks for your tutorials and your overall approach: I really appreciate both!

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