My next post in the Guide to Sewing series was actually going to be resources for getting started sewing, but I realized that leaving you hanging without knowing where to start with the most important ingredients for sewing–fabric and patterns–would be silly! So here’s an in-between post dealing with just that…
Chances are if you’re a beginner at sewing you’ll want to start off with a pattern. Although this is by no means the only way to learn the ropes (many sewists have taken a merry jaunt into making their own patterns to start off with), there are benefits to learning with the help of a pattern. Firstly, you begin to understand that there are certain standards within patterns, the proper steps for construction, and the basics of how to lay out and cut out your project of choice. Many books advocate super simple patterns to start with, usually of the pillowcase or tote bag variety, but if you find those not quite what you’re interested in, I found a really fantastic viewpoint for those who want to jump right into garment sewing from a 1940s sewing book.
[ this is a great beginner pattern: few pieces in simple shapes, and an absence of closures ]
While the excerpt itself is quite long, the gist of the advice is that the first garment pattern should be quite simple with as few pieces as possible. Basically a piece with few seams and very simple closures (or none at all): a slip over style garment. The next can branch out to set-in sleeves, waistline seams, etc. for practicing the task of cutting and piecing together the garment from start to finish. The third garment attempted can be separates, or a garment that has more advanced closures (zippers, buttons) and perhaps some more fitting details (such as multiple darts, tuck, etc.). Basically, the whole idea is to ease yourself into the art of sewing by stages and still challenge yourself (and keep your interest in the projects!).
Aside from picking a garment that has simpler lines, you’ll want to consider a few other aspects of your choice for a pattern: what sorts of fabrics does it suggest? Slinky, slippery fabrics (chiffon, velvet, satin, etc.) tend to be harder to handle–even for more experienced seamstresses. Stick to materials that have some stability and don’t slip and slide all over. What kind of closure methods does the pattern call for? Zippers can be tricky at first, but if you practice a few times on scraps are doable. Buttonholes likewise can be a hassle, but again, practice is key! The easiest closures tend to be those that tie, rely on elastic, or use snaps/hooks and eyes. But don’t let that confine you. Finally, ask yourself this about your pattern choice: is it something you’re excited about wearing? I know, this is a funny thing to say, but why spend the time making something because it’s “simple” that you don’t really love or will wear? Trust me: even if you’re a beginner, there is no reason to sacrifice your personal style aesthetic.
After saying all this, I do want to say that just because I (or a book) tells you that something is too “advanced”, don’t let that necessarily stop you. Part of the beauty of sewing is gauging what projects you feel comfortable and capable enough to handle. Yes, you may make a few mistakes along the way, but as I’ve said in previous posts in this series: everyone makes mistakes and they are great learning tools! After all: how else do you learn and become better at something?
[ a slightly more complicated pattern; the lines are still simple, but the number of buttonholes may prove a bit of a challenge. ]
Now it’s time to find that pattern! Of course there are the big pattern companies–stocked at most mainstream sewing stores (Vogue, Simplicity, McCalls, and Butterick). All of these have “easy” lines or styles that are simple enough to tackle as a beginner. If you’re interested in unique styles, be sure to seek out independent pattern companies like Colette Patterns, BurdaStyle, etc. (more links to come in my next post!). Just make sure with any of these that you’re comfortable with the difficulty level assigned to the pattern.
[ a pattern that has lots of pieces and may need more complicated fitting is definitely a good project to tackle as you become more confident in your abilities. ]
But what if you are more interested in vintage styles, not modern patterns? Trust me: you have no shortage of simple, easy to work with garments here! While the patterns themselves may be a bit tricky to master and understand at first (be sure to read over my Vintage Pattern Primer for particulars), if you are determined there are a plethora of vintage garments with simple lines. While these may not have any indication of difficulty available, study the lines of the garment and number of pattern pieces; generally things with more darts/tucks/shirring and lots of pieces are a bit more tricky.
[ pairing the correct fabric with the pattern style is key for a successful garment. ]
Walking into a fabric store as a sewer has be intimidating, tempting and overwhelming! Trust me: even now I spend a good 20 minutes just going around and taking it all in before I start making my selections; some times I need to let myself visually calm down and focus. Some key things to keep in mind with garment sewing and fabric selection:
- Unless you pattern indicates you can use them, stay away from quilting cottons. (Although, if you pattern specifies that it’s suitable for stiffer fabrics: medium weight cottons, twill, heavy linen, etc. you have more wiggle room on this.) Generally (though not all the time) they are more stiff and not suited to draping on a garment. As pretty as the patterns and colors are, sometimes it’s best to stick with an apparel fabric.
- Look on the back of your envelope for fabric suggestions; most times they will have half a dozen or so type and weight specifications. If you’re using a vintage pattern that doesn’t have these, there are a few clues to what you should pick: is the garment drapy or does it have more tailored lines? The former will need something soft and supple (most likely lightweight too), while tailored garments can use fabrics with a stiffer hand and heavier weight (medium weight materials). If in doubt, ask someone at the store what their suggestions are; when I worked in a fabric store I loved helping people choose the right material for their project!
- Does the surface pattern/texture jive with the style of the pattern? If the back of the envelope says “not suitable for one way designs” or “not suitable for plaids”, there is a reason: nine times out of ten the pieces are such that make it virtually impossible (or horribly frustrating at best!) to match up certain fabric designs. Aside from plaids or stripes being suitable for a pattern, think about scale: is the fabric design too small and busy for the garment? Or is the pattern such that will overwhelm the lines of the pattern (or you as well; keep in mind scale when envisioning a finished garment in relation to your stature)?
Are the ideas of fabric types still a bit confusing? Don’t worry–there are plenty of good books out there on fabric. My favorites are Claire Shaeffer’s Fabric Sewing Guide and Sandra Betzina’s Fabric Savvy. Not only are both books fantastic at describing various fabrics, but also offer helpful tips on handling, care of specific materials, needle and thread recommendations and other points that the sewist needs to keep in mind when selecting fabric.
[ a pretty vintage cotton feedsack. ]
So where do you find fabric? If you’re in the US, ten-to-one you probably have one of the chain stores JoAnn Fabric & Craft or Hancock Fabrics nearby. While those are great places to start, the selection can be limited. If you’re lucky enough to live near a big city (New York, LA, Miami, etc.), check to see if there is a garment or fabric district in your city. I have friends who find amazing materials that many of us (smaller town gals) only dream about! Finally, if you’re like me and don’t have many options in your town, the internet is a fantastic place. Threads Magazine published a great list of online retailers catering towards home sewists. Keep in mind though that buying fabric online can sometimes be a bit of a “luck of the draw” scenario: colors don’t always appear true to life on computer monitors, you can’t feel the weight/drape of the material, and the quality of the fibers can be less than what you expected. When in doubt, and especially when purchasing a more expensive textile, see if the retailer offers a swatching service, and order a few of those so you can see and touch the material first.
Finally, don’t discount the idea of reusing material or hunting down vintage textiles. While these often present a whole other set of problems (condition, staining, the strength of the older fibers, etc.), vintage fabrics can be a lot of fun to work with! Keep an eye out for garments that can be taken apart and the material reused, old linens that have appealing patterns and colors, or lengths of vintage fabric that is uncut. Both hunting in thrift shops and antique stores, plus the internet, are great places to start!
What are your thoughts on appropriate first projects and fabric selection? I’d love to know!