tutorial: my favorite methods

Happy August! This article is for the beginner or intermediate stitcher who wants to take things up a notch. Many people struggle for years and feel like their sewing, though competent, is “off” somehow. They’ve hit the wall. Maybe they’re finding the craft stale!
Well – sewing isn’t magic! It is work. There are lots of moments of joy but there are also setbacks and yes, there are stall-outs! But time and persistence and attention to detail will continue to hone the art and help you find the way that the craft works for you.
Here are my top ten methods I employ that I think have benefitted me most in my thirty year sewing career:


The Old Singer
Of course by this I mean the obvious: measure carefully, cut with precision, easy there on the foot pedal!

But I gotta be real here. Most people who I observe keep stitching and throwing away garments (or never wearing the garments they create) are committing all kinds of emotional rush jobs. They’re trying to make their sewing satisfy something bigger than sewing. They’re sewing frantically because they’re wardrobe is scant, or dull, or ill-fitting. They’re sewing because they’re feeling stress and want to feel a sense of control over something. They’re sewing because they think if they make the magic garment, they’ll feel okay about how their body looks. They’re sewing because they’ve put impossible demands upon themselves in terms of frugality. They’re sewing because they feel this particular project will make them a “good mom” (psst… you’re already a good mom)!

Obviously, these kinds of drives and attitudes are more likely to leech the creative spirit from our bones, rather than edify us.

Sewing has been a balm through all kinds of personal crises over three decades, but the truth was I needed to seek out help (sometimes professional help) for my anxiety, stress, financial woes, marital problems, and parenting difficulties. Sewing can’t solve these problems. The times I’ve been best served by my craft – and created the best garments – were when I slowed down and really allowed myself time – as much time as it would take – to focus on the sewing for the sake of sewing. It sounds simple, but tt can be hard to do.

2. Make muslins: wearable ones

Mesh frock
A muslin (also called a wadding or a toile, and always corrected to “Muslim” when I type it on my phone) is basically a practice garment that we sew, in order to test fit and final effect. Muslins are less important for, say, a t-shirt from a trusted pattern company we’ve used before – but they are essential for, on the other end of the spectrum, a blazer or fitted dress. In my opinion, a muslin is far better than any other fitting option (like tissue fitting). Tracy from Hot Patterns eloquently makes this case and I hope you take the time to watch her video.

But what do I mean by a “wearable muslin”? What I mean is: make up this practice garment, without planning to throw anything away. Even when I am not sure of a final effect (as in: will I like this style?) I still make the entire garment, taking as much care as possible in all the details. I do this instead of making up a muslin out of cheap or ugly fabric which I plan to throw away once I’ve finished. I’ve learned this through experience. First of all, sometimes it’s very difficult to get the exact performance out of an ugly or ersatz fabric, and it can even be hard to get a feel for the final effect even if the muslin does help with fitting details. Secondly, I dislike the waste that goes into some clothing making and I try to be as close to zero- or low-waste as possible.

So does this mean I sometimes end up with something that is perfectly made – but that perhaps doesn’t suit me after all? Oh hell yes it does! But – so what? Because here’s the thing: the wearable dress I make may not, on reflection, be the dress for me. But it is a dress for someone! I have gifted, sold, and donated so many of my wearable muslins. They are now lovely garments in their own right, serving someone well. And since I practiced every detail to the best of my ability, my skills have improved all the more.

A caveat: for a formal or fitted garment where I do need to make a muslin for a first or second fitting, I make a muslin that later serves as the underlining: still very low-waste (I’m working on one such project today!)!

3. Buy quality fabrics

I have learned this the hard way.

Yes, money is tight – don’t I know it! Years ago I was forever pining for fabrics I couldn’t afford. I’d snatch up whatever I could get at thrift stores or at large fabric emporiums. And yes, often the resultant garments turned out just fine.

But the truth is, a high-quality fabric performs, washes, and wears better than a cheap one. There are always exceptions; I’ve picked up stuff at JoAnns that worked well and held up forever; I’ve purchased more expensive yardages that pilled. But in general, you get what you pay for, and it is rather easy to find high-end shops with good reputations. I’d rather invest in fewer fabrics but better fabrics because the experience of sewing, and the experience of wearing, is far superior. I’ve never regretted an expensive fabric purchase.

4. Make time & space

Plaid Flannel In "Lagoon"
I’ve pointed out before that my first sewing studio was a closet – a closet with a shag-green carpet (occasionally redolent with cat piss; joy!); and a closet I shared with my partner’s computer and with our clothes! This was in an impossibly-small studio apartment! There wasn’t even enough room for my sewing machine (a cheap plastic Kenmore my mother bought me) – I had to store it on the porch in a cabinet.

So I know all about how hard it is to “make space”.

But many stitchers have their fabrics and equipment shoved untidily into a closet; they lay out their work on a kitchen table and the family will snag the scissors or push the project aside or what-have-you. In order to give our sewing experience a chance to blossom, it’s good to try to honor our materials and respect our space.

Even a small space – where the rest of the family or roommates do not tread, where no one steals your supplies, and where you try your best to keep things in order, is better than nothing. It will help with your sense of commitment and frankly, with a little bit of joy. The internet is full of small sewing space inspirational photos; if those photos help you feel enthused (rather than despair or annoyance, as so many “craft inspiration” photos can at times), make it happen!

5. Quit fantasizing!

"Like A Spartan God!"

I used to think I needed to have a particular fabric, or piece(s) of equipment, in order to grow creatively. I also used to try to cram in sewing, when the rest of my life (kid care or housework) wasn’t in order. I felt pinched and I was ungrateful.
But the truth is, my creativity dwells within. My creativity is powerful enough and joyous enough that I can find ways to work with it today, with what I have! My resources: time, space, money… my creativity can thrive no matter the odds!
Another part of this, was I thought I had to enact and finish every idea that came into my head. Well, that would be great – except I get so many ideas! Sometimes twenty a day! I’ve learned not to chase down and throttle every project that comes to my mind: I let them rise to my consciousness, and let them pass. Oftentimes I write them down (rather than immediately researching materials and patterns). Often, I revisit the idea later and either enact it or let it pass. Sometimes this process takes years! You can imagine how satisfying it is to complete a project in this way – when the time is right.

6. Take classes


I have lived in remote and semi-rural locations for most of my sewing career. Traveling to classes was at times impossible or very difficult, and most classes anywhere near me were quilting or embroidery classes – not garment-making courses. Fortunately, thanks to the internet we have incredible classes at astonishingly low prices! There are several subscription services for classes out there – you are literally able to interface and work with experts. Classes can be frustrating in that they move slowwwwwly at times, but every minute I’ve spent in a class, was time well-spent.
In-person classes are also an excellent way to make that space and time. Sometimes we just aren’t making the time to get to our class subscription, so having an appointment with a living and breathing human being can make us more accountable (and yes, I offer lessons in person and via Skype – email me if you’re interested!)

7. Thread match like a dork


I go to extraordinary lengths to thread-match in a garment, yes – including the inside of the garment. This is an art and science in and of itself (for instance, for a multicolored print, the best thread color is often the cumulative shade formed by all the different hues)! Slowing down to really get a thread match creates a more agreeable finish.

So this method means that for garments where I am colorblocking, I will change out my bobbin and top thread so the thread always matches the fabric the thread line rests against! This is best illustrated by these inner seams of an Elevation Hoodie I made – I used all three colors of thread (charcoal, ivory, and tan):

Elevation Hoodie Sew-Along: Constructing The Body & Pockets

Perhaps you are thinking this is all way too Extra but I will remind you, YOU came HERE to read how I roll. lulz

8. Cut on grain like your life depended on it


The human eye is so well-attuned to minute details; this is one reason we’ve survived as a species. So to make something look amazing, really taking the time to find the grain – for knit and woven fabrics – is worth it. This can often mean cutting one pattern piece a a time, and/or cutting in one layer. It’s worth it. Every time.

9. Use stabilizers

Stabilizing Solution, Part 1

My brain got all meta on this one because sometimes a “stabilizer” is the clean table I lay my garment on as I hand-stitch the facing to the underlining! A “stablizer” really is any kind of technology we use to make sure our stitches are strong and consistent. But what I mean specifically by “stabilizer” on this point, are the various types of webbing and papers we can place underneath a garment or fabric – either for permanence or (usually) as a temporary measure. I use wash- or tear-away stabilizers under almost every buttonhole I sew (and sometimes on top of the buttonhole, sandwiching the garment between two stabilizer pieces), for seams in troublesome or tissue knits, for making baby hems, and in forming patches and in creating custom eyelets on finicky knits. I’ve made a liquid stabilizer (far cheaper than buying a liquid stabilizer)to paint tricky fabrics and keep edges from rolling. Think of a stabilizer as a temporary measure that helps you form a perfect, accurate, strong stitch. For delicate fabrics and exacting details, they are a game-changer.

10. Hand wash and drip dry

Sheer-lto Copley (My Latest Knit Top)

Ha ha fooled you! This is not a sewing tip at all, but rather a care tip.
If you hand wash (or delicate wash) and drip dry, your clothes will last much longer than treating them with the general laundry. I do this with lots of our clothing, as much as possible – even my storebought t-shirts! Yes, yes I know. Family life. Busy life. I’m just sharing what works for us. I took the time to make these lovely garments, and as a family we try to treat them with honor and care. They last years that way, and the pressure to fill the wardrobe drops dramatically.

So: go forth and create! May we deepen our craft and honor our creativity, every day.


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