guide to sewing: materials


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.

02.21.08 {wrestling with pockets}

[ 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.

vintage feedsack material 02

[ 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!

March 29, 2010 · 17 lovely thoughts
posted in sewing · tags: ,

Maggi March 29, 2010 at 09:45

What an awesome post! I finally got my machine threaded correctly and am trying to get my nerve to start on a project (I got an apron pattern figuring it would be easier, lol)

Thanks for posting this!!!

Ellen March 29, 2010 at 10:10

Great post for beginners! When looking at fabric selection, going shopping and looking at the fabrics of your favorite ready to wear garments can be very educational. Read the tags, feel the fabric, and see how it drapes. Then you can take that knowledge with you to the fabric store. Many online fabric stores also let you buy swatches, which can be helpful in learning about different fabrics, and can take some of the “surprise” out of online fabric shopping.

Holly S. March 29, 2010 at 10:16

Hi. First of all, I have to ask what the pattern maker and number is of the first pic of the apron dress. I HAVE to make that (omitting the pocket) for this summer.

Secondly, I live in a small town also. Although we do have a Hancocks, the selection is not half of what it was in the city I just moved from. They seem to mostly carry their own line of bridal dress-type fabrics. You know, all arranged by color, with the various fabric types within that category. And all solids, formal satins and laces. Ugh. While they have their place, I crave more! With a selection like that, I usually end up in the quilting section : (

I recently ordered from, my first internet fabric purchase, of which I was VERY nervous. I was shopping for drapey crepes. They had a LARGE selection, with pretty good descriptions of all of the fabrics (drape, weight, etc.). They had good prices, but with the sale going on, my fabric was 2.00/yd.!!! I lucked out. They shipped quickly, but when I received it, one of my fabrics, of which I ordered 4 yds., was wrong. I called them that day, they shipped the right fabric the next day, and said to keep the incorrect one; a sheer chiffon that matched the color of the fabric that I had originally bought! I’m sure it was pricey too. I am so happy with their customer service that I am planning on buying from them in the near future. Ugh. I sound like a commercial, but that is my online fabric experience so far!

I am still a novice, having started sewing last summer, but am getting pretty good here. My first project was a free online pattern. A simple one-shoulder asymmetrical dress with a long tie belt. 3 pieces. I even made the asymmetrical hem into a symmetrical one (just not my style), and was pretty proud of myself for lopping off a piece of fabric! That can be found here: The Shirley dress:

I am now graduating to Colette’s gorgeous patterns. Wish me luck!

Victoria / Justice Pirate March 29, 2010 at 10:29

Thanks so much for this!!!!

melina bee March 29, 2010 at 10:53

Very helpful guide. I learned to sew like 15 years ago and still need a basic primer like this every time I start a project! (sorry, some of us just weren’t born to be seamstresses)
melina bee

Mary Van Notes March 29, 2010 at 12:34

This was so helpful! thank you

Julia March 29, 2010 at 13:58

What a lovely, useful post! I am writing specifically, though, because that Butterick shirtdress pattern caught my eye. I LOVE IT! Do you know the number for it? I don’t suppose it is one that you own personally and are selling in your Etsy shop, is it? :) I would snap it up in a heartbeat.

Rebeca March 29, 2010 at 14:47

I live on OC, CA and I can find fabric in LA but have not ventured down there for numerous reasons (distance, time, parking hassles while there, crime ,etc). Have you ever considered using sheets as fabric? I personally like working with cottons for my garment making and sheets often have a nice print/design, sophistication, finish, good value for the qty of fabric, etc. I have never used a sheet as my fabric source but have definitely been tempted too!

eyeliah March 29, 2010 at 16:02

This will buch a great resource when I get back in the swing of sewing. :)

Rosie March 29, 2010 at 16:25

Great post!

If you are in Canada (Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia maybe PEI), Fabricville is amazing! You can usually get everything for a project, from pattern to notions, to scissors in one store. They have lots of different styles, and they have really good sales sometimes.

Tasia March 29, 2010 at 19:31

Casey, I like your advice on picking projects you would actually wear, too, rather than just picking the simplest project. I agree that you’ll enjoy the finished garment so much more if it’s something you love. Think of it this way, if it was finished and hanging in your closet, would you reach for it?
I’d also suggest choosing a project with ONE hard thing – ie. buttonholes OR zippers, but not both. Master one skill at a time, and then move on to the next thing!
Great post for beginners! Sewing can be scary if you’re just getting started but you make it sound fun and full of opportunity!

summer March 29, 2010 at 20:58

Thanks for this tutorial series, it’s very helpful even for an intermediate sewer. I’m looking forward to any fitting tips you have!

Your mention of vintage fabrics gave me the idea to make a dress from an embroidered pillowcase. I inherited a few which I don’t currently use–I’m thinking a slipdress that can be worn over jeans and tee when the weather’s cooler.

Miss Emmi March 30, 2010 at 01:10

Oh, I really need to print out what you said about quilting cotton and stick it in my wallet! My local fabric stores have a much wider and prettier range of designs for quilters (the ‘apparel’ section is clearly catering to the school play costume/dance class requirements) so I am often tempted – but you’re so right, it isn’t a suitable fabric.

Desi Wilson April 3, 2010 at 10:45

I really have enjoyed this series you are putting together. I am a beginner at sewing and at this point I would not even attempt an outfit, but the information was still invaluable for other things. I really appreciated the encouragement as well, such as: “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!).”
I have bought a couple of easy (well from my vantage point, but who knows?) purse patterns, but am so scared of cutting the fabrics for fear of doing it wrong, I can’t make myself start. Hey…fabric’s are expensive. Also…do you wash medium weight fabrics for purses before you start? The purse has bamboo handles and probably won’t be washed, right?
Any information is greatly appreciated. Hey..I am so glad I found this blog!

Maegan April 13, 2010 at 15:29

I haven’t been reading the blog of late, I have been busy with some home improvement projects of my own (not sewing related, unfortunately).

I did stumble across a website called LOTS of cute stuff…I think I actually emailed you right around the time this post went up asking for some help in that arena. I just moved to a military town, in a very rural area (was all farm land before the Army showed up!). There is a VERY big Amish & Mennonite community and the JoAnn’s seems to cater to that. I found a few baby fabrics, but nothing really good until I found Pink Chalk. I didn’t see it in the list from the website you posted, so I thought I’d add this one. I haven’t ordered anything yet, as they are a tad pricey, but I don’t need much, and I don’t want to order it too early and then end up needing more & it not be available. (I have some skirt patterns for my girls…they could have an unexpected growth spurt, lol…I don’t need to re-purchase for that!!)

Maegan April 13, 2010 at 15:41

Eep! Yep, that’s better. :)

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