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5 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Sewing

Close-up of the collar with the SewGoth tag
It might not be easy, but sewing is so rewarding. I made this!

I started sewing with the goal of creating clothing that fit my body and expressed my style. I was so tired of never finding clothes that I really loved—or when I did, they would not properly fit or not fit at all. I realized that what I wanted to wear did not exist; if I wanted it, I would have to make it myself. I had no idea of what I was doing. I bought a sewing machine and a bunch of cheap fabric and went for it.

I am very proud of how I did it, but looking back, I wish I knew a few things from the very beginning. Sewing can be transformative, life-changing even, but it is not without its faults. Going into a hobby (or a lifestyle!) with a clear understanding of what to expect will allow for a much higher rate of adherence and success.

Sewing Can Be Expensive

Image of a pile of fabric. From top to bottom: black and gold chevron knit, black polka dots on black silk, white cats on black cotton.
I love quality fabric, and I cannot lie!

Many people start sewing as a way to save money, but they quickly realize that making their own clothes can often be much more expensive than buying ready-to-wear clothing. First, there is the initial investment in a sewing machine and tools. Second, good fabric does not come cheap. Finally, your time is valuable. And when you are learning how to sew, you definitely don’t want to buy expensive materials. 

But if you stick with sewing, you will realize that the clothes that you sew may be more expensive, but their quality is far superior to that of most RTW fashion. The clothes you sew fit better than anything off the rack. You will create one-of-a-kind pieces inspired by your unique style. Good fabric lasts longer, so your clothes will not fall apart after a couple of washes. You can source sustainable materials that are produced ethically. 

Tips

1. You don’t want to spend too much when you are just starting, but working with cheap, low-quality materials can definitely hold back your progress. 

2. Cotton fabrics can be more expensive than polyester, but they are much easier to work with when you are a beginner. 

3. Big stores like Joanns have coupons that can significantly lower the cost of better-quality fabrics.

4. Thrift stores can be a great place to buy fabric.

5. Old sheets make for great practice fabric.

Get Your Size Right

Image of a woman with ling black hair standing in front of a wall covered with vines. The woman wears an empire-waist dress in a black fabric with scattered pink flamingos.
This Deer and Doe Magnolia combines one size for the bust and another one for the waist, with extra added to the waist

Sewing sizes are very different from ready-to-wear sizes. This may not mean much to some, but to me, it messed with my head. As far as I can remember, I’ve had issues with my body size. When I started sewing, I was wearing 8-12 RTW clothing. The very first piece of clothing I sewed was a skirt. I decided to go with a size 10 and was very disappointed when I could not get into that skirt. I was legit shocked when I realized I was a size 20 according to the pattern instructions.

The initial shock gave way to one of my favorite aspects of sewing: There really is no size in sewing but your size. Your size will probably be a combination of measurements that span different sizes. The best thing I did for my body was measure myself honestly. Clothing sizes are artificial constructs, and even though we are indoctrinated to believe that the number on the tag determines our value in society, that number means nothing. Trying to squeeze into a smaller size does nothing but produce ill-fitting clothing–and clothes that fit poorly are a sure way to make you feel bad.

Tips

1. Your size is not a measure of who you are.

2. Measure yourself with honesty.

3. When blending sizes—connecting different sizes based on your measurements—having a French curve ruler can be game-changing.

Patterns Will Not Fit Without Adjustments

Image of two pattern pieces for the front of a pair of shorts, one pattern piece on top of the other to show changes.
Adjustments made to the front pattern piece for Seamwork Iris Shorts

When I started sewing, I had this notion that I was going to start sewing garments, and they would all magically fit—right out of the package. I was always disappointed because even though the garments I sewed looked great, they did not look great on me. It took me some time and many blog posts to learn that a beautifully sewn garment is not the same as a properly fitting garment. I would have to make changes to most patterns if I wanted the garments to fit my body.

I am always happy to see sewing patterns with lots of tips on how to make adjustments. They emphasize the idea that the pattern is like a template that you can play with until you get a proper fit. It can be really overwhelming when you first start sewing, but once you know your way around a sewing machine and get your basic skills down, you will see that the adjustments are usually the same across patterns. Through trial and a lot of error, I started to notice that there is a set of adjustments that I usually have to make. And get into the practice of sewing a muslin (or three!)—you can see what needs to be adjusted and make the necessary changes before you get to the garment itself. 

Tips

1. Try to find out for what kind of a body a pattern is designed. Most designers have a block (a foundation pattern used as a base when drafting) from which they develop their patterns.

2. Try to find out what cup size a pattern is designed for. 

3. If you have many adjustments to make, don’t try to get them all done at the same time. If you need an FBA (full bust adjustment), start with it. Then, take one adjustment at a time, working from shoulders down.

There Will Be Frustration

Image of a woman standing in front of a white garage. She with long black hair is wearing a long gray coat, black top, red skirt, and gray boots. The woman points to a detail inisde the coat.
I’m smiling here, but there were many tears in the making of this coat

As an educator, I truly believe that you only grow by pushing yourself a little bit farther than where you think you can go. If you are always repeating what you already know, you will never learn new skills. Pushing yourself is understanding that you will feel frustration and accepting it as part of your journey. Having support and guidance does a lot to minimize the discomfort and foster growth. 

While I wholeheartedly believe in what I just said, I have to admit that when I started sewing, I had a really hard time embracing this philosophy. I felt so frustrated so often that I started to think I was not made for sewing. When I got stuck, I looked to the Internet for guidance. I said it before, but it bears repeating: The sewing community is so generous! I found so much knowledge on message boards, blog posts, and YouTube videos. And now there are Facebook and Discord groups, Instagram accounts, Zoom meetups… If you have a question, there is an answer out there.

There is no way around this one: Sewing will make you frustrated. Being aware of this before you start your sewing journey will help you handle those moments of discomfort with acceptance. Knowledge is right on the other side.

Tips

1. Take advantage of the Internet. 

2. Find a community of sewists in real life or online. 

3. Some Facebook Groups offer mentoring. You can get matched with an experienced sewist and get all the support that you need.

4. Books are great mentors. 

Perfection is the Enemy of Good

Image of a black V-neckline.
Somewhere on this neckline, there is a tiny hole. No one can see, but I know!

Have you ever studied RTW clothing carefully? Checked the grain of the fabric, the finish of the seams, how the pattern is matched across seams, how the zipper has been installed? I can tell you, I lived many decades without realizing that RTW clothing comes with all sorts of issues, from T-shirts off the grain to seams left unfinished—and I never had a problem with that.

But once I started sewing, EVERYTHING had to be perfect. I have destroyed garments by sewing and unpicking the zipper so many times until the fabric just disintegrated. I made dresses too short to wear because the hem was never even enough. I didn’t sew anything with buttons for a long time because I could not bear the thought of buttonholes not properly spaced. Friends, this was a tough one for me. Perfection is the monster that drags me down. It is still a struggle not to try to make every swamp, zipper, hem, gathering, and pleat perfect. But I have to remember that no one has ever, on learning that I sew my own clothes, criticized my craftspersonship; quite the opposite–people marvel at my handmade garments.

Tips

1. Remember: perfect is the enemy of good.

2. You are not a robot; your makes will have little imperfections that will make them a lot more personal and interesting.

3. Examine your RTW clothing. That should make you feel better about any imperfections in your handmade garments.

Ready to Start Sewing?

Image of a woman with long black hair standing in front of a wall covered in vines. She wears a buttoned up shirt in a purple fabric with images of skulls, goblins, and witches, a black shirt, and black boots.
I’m pretty sure no one has a shirt like this one

Sewing should be a fun activity. Unless you are being forced to sew, you should be enjoying the process. It will not always be easy, but it will be worthwhile. And really, if you start sewing and realize that you hate it, take up a new hobby. Watercoloring is just delightful!

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