Back to Basics


So you've looked through the projects and you want to dive right in... but what exactly do you need? The fabric and other items will depend on the project, but there are a few basics you really need to get started.

You may want to invest in a good basic sewing book. Even the most seasoned seamster needs a refrence now and again with something tricky. They are not only helpful for defining terms, and learning techniques, but they can point out little things that you never would have thought of that can ruin your whole project. Learn from others experience and mistakes whenever you can. Check out several and see which one looks most useful to you.

You will need a good sharp pair of scissors, something that will never be used for cutting paper or anything else besides fabric. They don't have to be expensive, I've had a $5 pair of shears last for ages when I took care of them. Cutting paper tends to dull scissors, and in order not to have nasty ragged edges when you cut, they need to be sharp. This is also important for cutting straight. Remember to always leave enough seam allowence, and when in doubt cut garments too big rather than too small. It's a lot easier to take something in than let it out. Also remember measure twice, cut once. Clichés are your friend.

Do you have to have a sewing machine? Well, no. It does help though. Sewing long seams can be tedious and time consuming, (even if you do have access to one learning to hand sew in as invaluable skill that you will need from time to time regardless of how fancy your machine is). Get some scrap fabric and learn to use the machine before tackling a big project. Small draw string bags, and fingerless gloves are good beginning projects. Before starting to work with a new kind of fabric, say velvet, for the first time always buy a little extra so you can learn how it behaves in the machine. I remember the first time I tried to sew deep pile velvet and I was not prepared for 'velvet creep', or the mounds of lint, and have since learned ways of combating it... more on difficult fabrics later.

You will want to make sure you have the correct needles for the project whether you are doing it by hand or not. Delicate fabrics need very fine needles so it doesn't get snagged, these same needles will most likely break if you try and sew very heavy fabrics with them. Get a good pack of hand sewing needles of varying sizes, and a variety pack of machine needles too if you need them. The right tool for the job, sewing is definately no exception.

On a similar note you need to make sure you have the correct thread. I find cotton covered Polyester, not pure poly is the strongest and most reliable. The weight of the thread is important too. Usually a 4 or 5 will be fine (it will be marked on the spool). Make sure when machiene sewing that the thread in the bobbin and on the spool is the exact same weight, or you will find it rats up and otherwise behaves oddly. There are tricks for gathering where you need different weight thread, but until you have a specific reason to do so, always match them up. I would start off by getting two spools of black and a spool of any colour you are planning on sewing with. When faced with an inexact colour match, choose a slightly darker shade of thread, it will be less likely to show up.

Other items you will need: a seam ripper, measuring tape, tailor's chalk (or I usually use one of those little white hotel soaps broken in half), you may want a thimble (I never use one myself), a needle threader, tiny scisors to nip those little left over threads, and some straight pins... satin pins are a good all around solution for these. Get a little sewing box to keep all your goodies in, that way you will always know where everything is when you need it. I also find a 'yard stick' to be extremly useful for marking long straight seams, a weight and cord for marking circles. If you plan on making some of my projects, I recommend you pick these up. The amount of supplies you need depends on how committed you are to learning to sew. If you will just be making one thing, just get what you need.


Before you purcahse your fabric be sure how much you need. I almost always buy extra "Murphy fabric", remember Murphy's Law: if anything can go wrong it will. This will allow you some room for error, plus you can always find something to do with the leftovers! Pay special attention to how wide the fabric is as well as the yardage you buy, if it has a nap or an obvious pattern you will need extra.

You also want to get someone at the fabric store to help you decipher the care instructions. That can make a very big difference in the long run on how wearable the garment is. If it is machine washable, be sure to wash the yardage before you start your project. This will prevent puckering seams from shrinkage after the first wash as well as remove any sizing (kind of like starch) that may be in the fabric and prevent it from hanging oddly after the first washing. I also like to wash it because I have allergies, and sizing and other chemicals lieft in the fabric tends to irratate my skin. You also want to press the fabric before you cut. Why sew in the wrinkles?

If you happen to get your fabric somewhere, like second hand, and you can't tell if it's washable or not test it out first. Take a small scrap, measure the exact dimensions of it. Wash it in cold (always safest) by hand. If it starts to bleed add some salt and vinegar to the water. Afterwards measure it, see if it changed in anyway. If not you can toss it in the machiene, again in cold. If it didn't shrink, change in texture or stretch, and kept it's colour... your safe to wash.

Choose your fabric carefully. Does the project call for some stretch? How should it hang? Big bell or angel wing sleeves are best made out of light flowing fabric, while very full cloaks tend to hang better if the fabric has a bit of weight to it. Most of my projects and most patterns have fabric suggestions that you should probably follow till you get a better feel for judging this sort of thing.

If you have your heart set on using some pricey brocade or velvet, get some cheap fabric to make a mock up... basically a test run of your project. It may seem like a lot of extra work, but it is definately worth avoiding the heartbreak of screwing up something with expensive velvet. You probably won't need to this on simple things like my tatters skirt, but more complicated and fitted garments demand this extra step. Usually mock ups are made of cotton muslin which come in varying weights and is very cheap. I like getting cheap corduroy to make mock ups for heavier fabrics like velvet and thick brocade. If you can find it cheap enough it's worth the risk, plus you will end up with a comfy more causel, wearable version of your intended project if all goes well!

Some fabrics are trickier than others to sew. Before diving in, test test test. You may also want to ask for a little advice at your fabric store. Make sure you have the right needle and thread for the fabric. If you are having problems with puckering, bunching, or ugly uneven stitches you probably need to adjust your thread tension. This is where it pays to know your machine, it's manual is your friend.

Light, diafenous fabrics, like chiffon and lace have a bad habit of puckering, and snagging. You want to be sure to use a fine, sharp, new needle. A needle with any dings... and yes it does happen, will chomp through silk like piranah. If your delicate fabric is slick it will want to slide around alot, and at the worst times. Head this one off at the pass by basting (long loose stitches good for first fittings and when pins aren't feasible, best done by hand), or pinning the fabric. Remember to go slow with pins in. If you hit a pin with a needle as it goes through the machine even if it doesn't break and put your eye out it's probably a goner. This is the easiest way to ding needles. Do not let pins go through the machine, baste instead if possible.

Brocade tends to be a bit more sturdy than thin fabrics, but those raised desgins can snag too. You most likely will need a heavier needle, but make sure it is ding free.

Velvet also needs to be pinned or basted as it creeps very badly. The other thing to watch out for when running velvet through a machine is that the presser foot doesn't mash the pile. You also want to be careful about mashing if you press it. A steamer is better than an iron to get wrinkles out of velvet, but if you must press make sure to lay the velvet pile down on top of a scrap piece with it's pile up. When cutting velvet be very aware that it has a nap, like the fibres in your carpet, and if the nap doesn't match up it will appear to be different shades. This means that you may have to buy extra fabric for certain projects. Eventually you will get a feel for how much more you need, but an extra 25% usually does the trick... but not always.

For Vinyl and PVC, use tissue paper to help it glide through the machine easily. Remember that these particular fabrics will scar very badly. Do not pin them anywhere the little holes will show later. When I need to 'pin' PVC together I get two sided 'post-it' tape, (the kind that you can use on paper with out it damaging the paper, you can find this in office supply places ), and place it about half an inch from where I will sew the seam. Just don't leave it on the PVC for too long or the glue will stick and make a mess. It doesn't hold it indellibly, but it will keep it in line long enough to get it through the machine usually.


Personally, I rarely use patterns anymore, but they are great when you are starting out. You will find tons of great patterns around Halloween. Gothable Patterns has some great ideas for patterns too. Learn to use your imagination and as you sewing skils grow, so will your possibilities. Also check out my instructions for making patterns out of old clothes, and from thrift store finds.