Does any of the following describe you? You want to start sewing your own clothes or costumes or cosplay or home decor… whatever.
You don’t have a sewing machine or you have a sewing machine but haven’t or don’t know how to use it.
You’ve never really sewn anything in your life (if you did, it was ages ago and you don’t know if you remember anything and wouldn’t trust anything you do remember anyway).
You don’t know where to start.
If any or all of the above describes you, you’re in the right place… or at least, reading the right article.
Here are the basic steps to get started sewing.
- Decide what you want to sew (probably you should start small and simple).
- Learn what tools and supplies you need to have in order to make that thing.
- Buy what you need to make that thing.
- Get some sort of instruction on whatever it is you don’t know how to use or do.
- Make that thing.
Decide what to sew
I’m going to go out on a limb and make an assumption that you’re smart and you’re going to decide to make something relatively easy, out of fabric that’s easy to work with. (Unlike me – I have this bizarre tendency to decide to make the most complicated thing out of super difficult fabrics.)
What is simple to make?
Well, for starters, pick something that has very few pieces. Even better, pick something without many curves. If you’re looking for something for the house, I’d recommend a pillow or placemat. Nice, square corners, only a couple pieces (Probably).
If you want to make a garment, a simple skirt or shirt would be OK, but you could even start with an apron for the easiest thing.
What’s an easy fabric to start with?
Woven Cotton. Think quilters cotton, broadcloth, maybe a nice lightweight twill or cotton sateen or a woven, non-stretch printed cotton apparel fabric in shirt or blouse weight.
Stay away from knits, chiffon, charmeuse satin, anything that is slippery. And also, at first, stay away from super heavy thick fabrics like denim or corduroy. Avoid faux leather.
What are some good examples?
- Boxy shirt with non-set in sleeves and no fasteners (buttons, zippers).
- Pillow cover
- Basic Pouch or bag
For Example, this shirt pattern contains 6 pieces. The sleeves are part of the shirt body so there are no set-in sleeves. There are two fronts (one long one short sleeves), two backs and two tie pieces.
You can see that under 3582 in the upper left hand corner, it states “6 pieces).
Tools and Supplies You Need
Going on the assumption that you will make something simple out of some basic woven cotton type of fabric, here’s all the essentials you’ll need to get started.
Are there other things you might want, or that would be nice to have? Absolutely. Want and Need are separate. You can get by making pretty awesome things with a few essentials.
Here’s the basic list:
- Machine – Basic at least
- Extra Needles
- Seam Ripper
- Tape Measure
- Something to Mark your pieces with – tracing paper and wheel
The Sewing Machine
If you already have a sewing machine, great! I hope it does the following for you. If you don’t have a sewing machine, you’ll need to get one. Determine your price point, and the features you need. There are a lot of sewing machine features you might want or think you want, but you absolutely need these.
- It must make a straight stitch.
- It must be able to go in reverse.
- It must be able to make a zig-zag.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a machine that doesn’t do the above 3 things. However, they do exist. I own an OLD industrial machine that only goes forward and backward, but doesn’t do a zig-zag. Granted, it goes forward and backward REALLY FAST. And will power through almost anything (I haven’t tested metal on it, but if ever do, I’m wearing safety goggles).
Here are some other features you will probably need:
- Thread Tension Adjustment
- Stitch length Adjustment
- Stitch Width Adjustment
- Removable and Replaceable feet. (The machine doesn’t actually need many feet, but having the option is always good.)
Most machines will come with some basic tools and supplies to get you started. Among these look for:
- A lint brush (to clean fuzzies out of the machine)
- Extra Bobbins
- A pack of needles.
If you bought a new machine, likely it will come with a needle or a small pack of them. Probably it will come with needles labeled as “Universal”. And will likely be mid-range in size (12, 14, or 16). I tend to use a size 12 needle for almost all my woven projects. But having a variety is nice.
The bigger the number, the larger the needle in diameter. This means it’ll make a bigger “hole” if you will in the fabric. But it will also be stronger. So, larger needles are good for thicker fabrics, and projects with a lot of layers.
Smaller needles, like sizes 8 and 10 are really good for thinner, finer fabrics like chiffon and charmeuse satin. And if you’re being smart, you’re not starting with either of those fabrics. They can be hell to work with.
Universal needles are supposed to be just that. Universal. But, as you continue in your sewing journey, you’ll find out that they aren’t. However, they are a good place to start when sewing with a nice quilting cotton or broadcloth, or printed cotton shirt fabric.
Regardless of what the machine comes with, pick up an extra pack of needles. Needles are a consumable in sewing. They have a limited life-span. They will likely last forever when not being used, but if you are using them, they will wear out and need to be replaced. Likely sooner than you are expecting.
Yeah, it’s depressing to think you’ll need a seam ripper.
You’ll need a seam ripper.
Some sewing machines come with them. I have a nice … pricey machine, it came with a seam ripper. So, even those of us that have been sewing for over 35 years and use nice equipment need to rip seams.
For the longest time, I didn’t know that a seam ripper should have a nice pointy part. My Mother’s were all broken. Not that I’m ever excited to use a seam ripper, but I must say that I was excited to use one that wasn’t broken when it finally happened.
There are other things seam rippers are useful for, other than undoing erroneous stitches. For example, I frequently use mine to split open the insides of buttonholes. I’ve also used it to remove basting stitches.
It might go without saying that you will need fabric if you plan to sew something out of fabric. If you have never sewn a stitch in your life, it is best to start with something you like, but don’t LOVE. And something that is relatively inexpensive.
Why Like but not LOVE? Well, if you LOVE the fabric, you might be reluctant to try stuff on it that you could mess up.
And, especially with garments, keep in mind that the first one you make may or may not fit right. In fact, unless you look like a size 8 dress form (no one looks like a size 8 dress form….) there will very likely be some sort of adjustment you’ll need to make it better. So, it’s always good to do a test garment.
If it’s not a crazy new pattern than you’re drafting for yourself (and really, if you’re reading this, it’s quite possible that you haven’t even bought a pattern), you can use a nice inexpensive fabric that you like. That way, if it does work out you can wear it (or use it if it’s a pillow or something). But if you’re testing a pattern you’ve drafted, you’ll want to go even less expensive probably.
I recommend for your first garment, just to use simple inexpensive woven cotton. I’ve said that before.
If you don’t want to do that, do choose a woven fabric that is stable, not slippery or slinky. It’ll be MUCH MUCH MUCH easier to deal with. It’s not good to unnecessarily breed frustration when you’re first learning.
You’ll need thread. You can’t actually sew something without it. Again, this might go without saying.
So, a nice all-purpose thread is fine. I mostly use Coats & Clark (Dual Duty XP, all-purpose). Also, Gutermann is fine, sometimes more pricey, but I’ll buy it when I need a color I can’t get from Coats & Clark. Coats is a polyester thread. For most things polyester thread is just fine for everything, you’ll do. Should you choose to do fabric dying in the future, or work on couture garments, thread fiber will matter.
Color is important too. When choosing a color, you want to get as close in color to your fabric. If you can’t get it exact (and the chance of that is pretty good), shoot for a little darker. Don’t go lighter. Lighter will show up more. If you have to do stitching that is visible, the darker thread will blend into the fabric more.
If you’ve chosen a printed fabric, match your thread to the most dominant color. If there isn’t a single dominant color, pick a thread you like that goes with the fabric. Think about what that fabric might look like from a few feet away, and pick a thread to go with that “look”. Remember… few people will be looking at whatever you’re sewing as close-up as you will be.
If you don’t own scissors that can easily cut fabric, you will need to invest in a good pair.
For most fabrics, you can get away with a standard knife-edge (not serrated), eventually, you may want to invest in those too, but I haven’t yet, and I’ve lived.
I have two wonderful massive pairs of shears (a Mundial and a Wiss brand). They are big and heavy. I love them. I don’t recommend them for beginners. They are pricey and harder to wield. They are good brands, but more scissor than you need.
I also have a pair of Fiskars that are spring-loaded. Meaning, after I squeeze them closed, they spring back open for me. I really like these. Especially if your hand or forearm muscles aren’t all that strong or have a lot of stamina and you have to cut a lot the spring action is useful.
A word about scissors care: There’s a thought that you can’t cut paper with your sewing (fabric) scissors. The theory is that it will dull them. The reality is that you can damage them far more by cutting through pins (or other metal) or dropping them. So. Don’t cut through pins or other metal, and ye gads don’t drop them. 1) you could stab your toe and then you’ll get blood everywhere. and 2) you’ll damage your scissors.
Now, I wouldn’t advise cutting cardboard with my scissors. Janet Pray of Islander Sewing says that cutting paper is no problem, but she perpetuates the myth in her family so that no one else uses her scissors. And that ensures they will always be in her sewing room when she needs them. Smart. But think about this, if you are using a pattern, you probably will need to cut paper at some point, maybe even while it’s pinned to your fabric. There’s no way to get around cutting paper in that case.
I have a confession. I hate pins. I use them as little as possible. However, I still use them because there are some things I just can’t do without pins.
If you’re a novice, you’ll likely want pins to at least pin your pattern to your fabric for cutting with scissors. Now, if you are going all out (which I don’t recommend at first) and buying a cutting mat with a rotary blade, you can get away without pinning. But like I said, I don’t recommend that starting out. It’s a huge investment, and you might decide this sewing thing isn’t for you. Or maybe it isn’t on that scale. So. Pins.
What type of pin?
Well, there are several out there. A preliminary search shows an overwhelming selection of pins. I own 3 types (a ballpoint, standard pearl head, and an extra-fine glass head pin), and use 2 primarily (the standard pearl head, and the glass head). In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever used the ballpoint.
Here’s something to consider. Just starting out, a standard size dressmaker type pin is fine. Prym Dritz makes an “extra long pearlized Pin” size 24 in a package of 120. I’d start there. Pins are small. So, if you’re fingers aren’t as dexterous as they once were, a larger head will likely be beneficial. Also, the smaller the head, the harder it is to find when you drop them on the floor. And you will.
You don’t NEED to invest in a pincushion. So, I’m not calling it out as a necessary. However, if you want to get one, I recommend the standard tomato pin cushion OR my new favorite Dritz Quilt 101 Wrist Pin Cushion. you wear it on your wrist when sewing and it’s right there when you are removing pins while sewing. I’d avoid magnetic pin cushions. They tend to magnetize all the pins on them and then when you pick up one, you get like 4, and then have to spend time separating them before using them. I found it annoying. I think I gave mine away.
Another note about pins, they are a consumable like needles. Don’t keep damaged pins. Eventually, they will just damage your fabric and you’ll be angry about it. I keep a wine cork in my sewing room to stick used needles and pins into. When it fills up I toss it and get another. That way the points are protected even in the garbage. 🙂
You’ll need a pattern for whatever it is you’re going to sew. Probably. I mean, I use patterns, even if I draft them myself. If you’re reading this article, I’m kinda assuming you’re not drafting your own patterns. You might be draping stuff. If you are, you are probably NOT a beginner sewist. So, I’m going with the assumption that you will be using a pattern.
Look for a pattern that has only a few pieces for your first attempt. For example, if you want to make a shirt, find a pattern that is marked easy, and doesn’t need buttons or zippers. Or, be prepared to also get a button or zipper, if you choose something that requires it.
The most simple shirt will require a front and a back piece, like the pattern shown here.
However, most shirts require 2 sleeves, a front, a back and probably a neck facing. (Which may also require interfacing).
The most simple skirt will require either a front and a back or it’s a circle skirt and will have an elastic waist.
An apron might have a front and some tie pieces.
A pillow cover will have 2 pieces (front and back).
Make sure whatever you choose, the recommended fabric is the same as what you are going to sew with. So, sometimes you need to pick the pattern first then the fabric. But sometimes you find a fabric you love and then pick a pattern to use. But in this case, since I’m highly recommending you go with a relatively inexpensive woven cotton fabric, pick a pattern that works.
For garment construction, you’ll need to take your measurements. The best way to do that is with a cloth or other flexible tape measure. The standard style tape measure is 60 inches long. You can find some that have both inches and centimeters on it. That’s your preference. I like the ones with the centimeters just in case I want a more accurate measurement for something. I rarely use it, but I have the option. In no way is it required.
On the other hand, if you’re from somewhere other than the US, you’ll most likely have the option to get a metric tape measure and may or may not have inches on it.
Other than body measurements, you will need this for laying out your pattern on the fabric. You may also need to measure curves or distances for elastic when sewing. Plus, if you ever modify a pattern (which if you make clothes for yourself you will have to… for it to really fit) you will need a tape measure for measuring seam lines to make sure your pattern is true. Lots of words there.
Just get a tape measure if you don’t already have one. 🙂
Something to Mark your pieces with?
You don’t technically NEED this. So, I’ll leave it here as optional.
There are a bunch of pattern markings you will need to transfer from the pattern to the fabric.
For a very simple pattern, you may have only notches. Notches can be transferred with your scissors and no pens, paper or wheel is necessary.
Heck, even darts can be transferred with a sewing needle and scissors.
But, sometimes, you will want to mark something like a line for stitching or something. You can use hand needle and thread to do that. But if you want to invest in tracing paper and a wheel, you can.
Also, tracing paper and a wheel can be super useful just for dealing with your pattern (transferring a pattern to other paper to preserve the flimsy tissue when doing marking and cutting).
Should you choose to buy a tracing wheel and tracing paper, pick a wheel that has points. It doesn’t need to be super pointy, but you may want to invest in one that is at least somewhat pointy. The smooth wheels work for leather and waxed canvas. Not really what we are going for here.
For the tracing paper, you can buy a pack of multi-colored papers. That way, you’ll get some light ones to use on dark fabrics, and dark ones to use on light fabrics.
The wax-free paper doesn’t seem to work nearly as well as the old waxed stuff does. If you can find some that isn’t wax-free, you can use that. However, they came out with the wax-free stuff so that it would wash out easier. The Clover Chacopy Tracing paper seems to get better reviews than the Dritz wax-free paper.
Buy the things you need
For most of what you need, you can get a local fabric store (if you are lucky enough to have them).
You can often find fabric and all the notions at a Walmart as well.
There are some seriously good online stores, depending on what you want to get. Even Amazon has fabric for sale.
I buy a LOT of fabric online but sometimes it just pays to go to the fabric store and feel the fabric. You can’t truly get a sense of the drape (often called the hand) of the fabric from descriptions on the internet. Plus color and weight are hard to judge.
Patterns can be purchased online directly from their publisher. Sometimes in PDF format even. Plus sometimes you can get significant discounts.
For the machine, you can buy one at a fabric store. Or, if you are only in the market for a basic one, you can find them at Walmart and Home Depot (online even). However, if you are more interested in a mid-line or above machine, I would recommend shopping around at both fabric or crafting stores and specialized sewing machine stores. Often they offer additional classes on your machine if you purchase directly from them, so look for those kinds of specials if you want to take advantage of something like that.
Get some sort of instruction
You can opt for in-person or online classes.
In-person classes might be offered by individuals or businesses. For example, one of the stores that sells sewing machines near me not only offers classes on the machine if you purchase from them, but they also hold regular classes on quilting and other techniques.
You can join the American Sewing Guild, and check out any get-togethers or sponsored events in your area.
There are a ton of online classes. I like Bluprint. They have classes on a bunch of skills at all sorts of levels. But you can find instruction on youtube and other blogs as well.
Patternreview.com has classes and a whole community of sewists.
Sewing magazines like Threads Magazine contain how-to tutorials, and also puts out DVDs and other instructional videos.
And once you get to know your machine and some basic how-tos you can learn a lot from simple step-by-step instructions online.
Make the Thing
Sew your first thing.
Be kind to yourself. It’s possible (probable even) that you will mess up. Most mess-ups aren’t that bad and you can recover from them (that’s why the seam ripper is important).
One of the most important steps to get right is cutting out the garment. If you mess that up, there’s a pretty good chance that the garment won’t turn out right.
But for stitching, unless you jam the heck out of your machine, you can usually take the stitches out and just start over. Almost everything I’ve ever sewn, I’ve had to rip out stitches and re-sew it.
You don’t have to sew fast, and you can take your time.
Patterns come with instructions, and if something isn’t quite clear, you can always find a community online to help you.
Take the plunge and try it.
There are only a few things you really need in order to get started sewing. I know there are a lot of shiny gadgets out there that may look tempting, but until you really know if you want to sew, or get good enough to make a wide variety of types of things, you can likely get by with a bare minimum of tools.
Above are what I would consider the bare necessity.
However, to really make your creations special, you do need some tools to press. Here’s a good list:
Want more cool tool ideas? Check out these 4 posts: