Did you know I can sew? Oh boy, I can sew… And sew can you! (See what I did there?)
About the Episode:
If you tuned in when I was focused on thrifting, renovating, canning, or any of my other homestead hobbies, you might not realize that my first foray into the world of do-it-yourself started at the sewing machine. Like so many others, I sat down and put the pedal to the metal and pumped out everything from brasieres to duffle bags, even my own wedding dress! So let’s talk about sewing, shall we?
This episode is brought to you by Ana Luisa. Go to shop.analuisa.com/vernacular to buy one, get one 40% off!
In this episode, you’ll hear:
- Why your first project does not have to be a “beginner” project
- How to find the perfect vintage workhorse sewing machine that I promise you’ll love forever (and I MEAN forever!)
- How to read your pattern, pick your fabrics, and find your notions for a successful sewing project
And so much more!
Follow me on Instagram @FarmhouseVernacular!
Hello, and welcome to the Vernacular Life Podcast, where we talk about anything and everything that goes on in our turn-of-the-century, vernacular home. I am your host, Paige, as usual. And today we’re going to do a little bit of a throwback. It’s not really a throwback for you, but it’s definitely a throwback for me. And we are going to talk about what you need to get started with sewing.
Now, you may not know this, or you might know this, but before we renovated, before we put all of our energy into transforming this slight dumpster fire of a house, my main hobby was sewing. I picked it up in college. I knew a little bit from my mother. When I was younger, she kind of taught me the basics of threading the machine and reading a pattern and all of that. But in college, I really wanted dresses. I wanted beautiful, fun, cute, feminine dresses. And I just didn’t have the budget to spend ninety, a hundred, a hundred and fifty dollars on the dresses that I wanted.
So I got my grandmother’s sewing machine. We’ll talk about sewing machines a little bit more later, because I have lots of opinions on them. And I set it up in my college apartment and I really went to town. And that continued for quite a while. I made a whole bunch of dresses in college. I started making pants. I made shirts.
Eventually, I made my own bras. And it all kind of culminated with making my own wedding dress. And I did make that. And it kind of fried me on sewing for a little bit, because it was such a complex project and it had so many different requirements, but it’s to date the thing that I am the most proud of by far. And I’m kind of slowly starting to get back into a little bit of sewing.
But I know a lot of people want to sew and a lot of people are interested in sewing, but they just don’t really know where to start. So we’re kind of going to break down the anatomy of a sewing project, different things that you need, different tools that you need, because you do need some things to get started, not a ton, but you do need some things. So here we go.
The first thing to start with is kind of where I start any project, which is why am I doing this project? Why do you want to learn to sew? And some people, it might be just, oh, I think it would be a good life skill to have, or I would like to fix these pants, or I would like to make this dress, but why you want to sew, I think, is very important. I said this in the episode about teaching yourself new things, is that when you’re starting something new, I find it really beneficial to start with the project that I’m interested in.
Not necessarily a “beginner project.” Not something that’s supposed to be really easy. I start with a thing I want, because usually that’s the only thing that’s going to be interesting enough for me to keep slogging through all of the mistakes and all of the trial and error that it takes to pick up a new hobby.
So if you saw really cute pillows and you wanted to make your own, start with that project. If you saw a really cute skirt and you wanted to make your own, start with that project. It’s never going to be perfect. It’s never going to be exactly what you want it to be, but it will be something that you’re interested in. And even if you have to make it over and over while you learn, I just think that results in a more fun time.
While you’re learning to sew, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. And there are ways to get around that. There are things you can do to kind of mitigate the losses, but it’s just a fact of life. Even with my wedding dress, that I spent six months making and I learned to draft patterns, and I was so careful with making it, there are things that I wished that I had done differently in my I wedding dress. Every single project is a learning experience and that’s okay.
But speaking of projects, what exactly goes into a sewing project? What is the anatomy of a sewing project? Because even though sewing is wonderful, because you can make so many different things and you can make them exactly how you want, to your specifications, in the fabric that you want, there is still kind of a general pattern that each sewing project follows. The first thing to start with is a pattern.
Most of the time in your sewing project, there is going to be a pattern that you purchase or that you download from somewhere. If you get real advanced and you want to have a real good time, you can start drafting your own patterns and that’s a whole other kettle of fish. But either way, you need a pattern. And what the pattern is, the flat pieces that when you sow them together, turn into your finished garment.
So a lot of times these have specifically curved seams, or darts, or other shaping techniques that will help create the three-dimensional form of the clothing that you’re looking for. If you’re trying to sew a bag or a pillow, there might be some different seams to help give it the shape that it eventually has when you’re finished with the project. But patterns, there are a lot of big pattern companies.
You have Simplicity. You have some McCall. You have Butterick. You have Vogue. All of those patterns are usually available at the fabric store. And something to know about patterns, especially if you’re sewing clothing for the first time, is that they have not been subjected to as much vanity sizing as a lot of clothing manufacturers have been putting in. For me, normally, if I’m buying clothing at the store, I might buy a four or a six, maybe an eight, depending on what the piece of clothing is.
When I sew patterns, I’m usually sewing in a 12, 14 or 16. That’s just what the measurements come out to be. If you look on the back of the pattern, there will be finished garment measurements and kind of bust measurements and waist measurements directed toward the finished garment. So you want to go by those, not by your typical size when you’re buying from the store. A lot of these are just kind of left over from the ’40s and ’50s, before all that sizing changes kind took effect. But you’re probably not going to sew the same size that you buy in the store. So just know that going in.
One of the great things about patterns is it’s just a starting point. And it kind of takes a little bit of trial and error to learn what patterns will make good, finished garments on you. And it sort of takes learning what you like, what you don’t like, the kind of style lines that you like. Do you like a low waist? Do you like a princess seam?
Do you like all of these different elements? And then once you learn that, it’s really not terribly complicated to add sleeves, to lengthen a garment, to shorten a garment. And all of that is stuff that can be adjusted in the pattern.
You don’t have to, though. You can make the pattern exactly as it is. If it’s your first project or you’re worried about messing something up, just make it as it is. And then you can learn those adjustments as you do more and more complicated projects. So the first thing is a pattern like we said, and that will contain all of the pieces that you need for your project. You’ll have to cut them out in the size that you want.
And a lot of times there are different views. The views kind of very subtly. You might have a short sleeve version and a long sleeve version of the same top. Or you might have a knee length version and a maxi length version of the same skirt. They’ll be similar, but they’ll be a little bit different, so you get kind of different options within the same pattern.
And because of this, I ended up developing, or finding, a few really good, tried-and-true patterns. These patterns are what I make every single time I want to make a dress. I always use this pattern, because there’s so many options in it. And a lot of times you can come up with kind of your version of that tried-and-true pattern.
On the back of the pattern, well, when you open up the pattern, there will be a set of instructions, which is really awesome, because that kind of walks you through how the pattern designers intended you to make the project. And then there will also be a whole bunch of tissue paper. And when you open up that tissue paper, that’s where all of your pattern pieces will live. You’ll have to cut them out. They’ll be numbered. So maybe if you’re making view A, you need pieces 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7. So you’ll cut all of those out. But that’s pretty much what’s inside the pattern.
On the back of the pattern envelope is a lot of really good information. I already mentioned that you have the sizing and the kind of finished garment measurements. Sometimes those are on the back of the pattern. Sometimes it’s just the measurements for each size. But that will tell you what size pattern you need to buy, because a lot of times patterns are in size ranges.
You have kind of a lower size range and then a higher size range. On the back of the pattern is also information about fabric, because you can’t make something out of the fabric without fabric. So the second part in kind of this anatomy of a sewing project is the fabric.
Now, fabric usually is sold by the yard. A yard is 36 inches. So if you go into a fabric store and you ask them, “I would like two yards of this,” they’re going to give you 72 inches of fabric. In addition to buying the length of fabric, fabric comes in different widths. The width of the fabric is defined as the length from selvage to selvage.
Selvage is the kind of manufactured edge on fabric. So if you imagine this fabric is on a big loom and the loom is only so wide, those raw edges on either side of it are considered the selvage. Fashion fabric, which is fabric that is typically meant for dresses, and skirts, and pants, and clothing, and just general apparel, that fabric is usually 50-ish to 60-ish inches wide. Sometimes with things like silk, you might have a 45-inch. Or you might have specific fashion fabrics that are a little bit wider than that. But in general, it’s about that wide.
I can’t talk about fabric without giving a little bit of a warning about quilting cottons. Quilting cottons are those wonderful, super bright, colorful fabrics that you see right when you walk in the fabric store. There’re usually kind of color coded. They have different patterns on them. Usually, the patterns are pretty small scale. But the important thing is that they are 100% cotton. That is tough for fabric. That is tough for making clothes with.
That is just, I mean, you can do it. I did it when I was learning how to make clothing. I have very fond memories of one particular dress that I made that had masks on it, like masquerade masks, that was out of a quilting cotton. But the issue with it is it’s just very stiff. It doesn’t drape super well. It is not very forgiving. You have to iron it a lot of times. So if you’re looking for fabric to start, I would just kind of avoid the quilting cottons.
Go to the fashion fabrics. Find some nice polka dots or some nice stripes. Do something with that kind of fabric, because the quilting cottons, they’re easy to work with, but they’re hard for clothing. And they’re also only 45 inches wide, so you sometimes can’t do certain things like long skirts out of them, depending on how you need to put the pieces on the fabric. When you’re buying fabric, you obviously need to buy as much as you need for your pattern.
But how do you know how much you need for your pattern? Well, that is on the back of the pattern envelope. That’s some of the information that’s on the back that’s really, really useful. So if you go on the back of the pattern, you will be able to find the size that you intend to make, and it will tell you, “You need this much fabric out of 60-inch wide fabric,” which is about the same for 54-inch. You can buy a little more if you’re worried. Or you need this much fabric out of 45-inch.
And what’s really interesting is if you look at vintage patterns, if you end up coming across patterns from the ’40s or ’50s and making things out of them, a lot of times fabrics were only 36 inches wide. So you have to do a little bit of mental gymnastics to figure out how much fabric you need if you’re sewing from a vintage pattern. But on the back of the pattern envelope it will tell you how much fabric to buy.
So you say, “Okay, I’m going to make view A and I’m going to make it in this size.” And so that means I need two and a quarter yards. And typically, for fashion, I tend to not buy anything in lower increments than a quarter yard. I tend not to do eighth of a yard. If it’s a quarter of a yard, half a yard, it works out for me. I like to have a little bit of extra fabric, because I don’t want to run out.
The only thing to really consider when you’re buying fabric, and when I would suggest that you don’t buy what the pattern recommends, is if you are matching stripes or any kind of a pattern, or you are using a fabric with a nap. So matching pattern means if you’re doing something like plaids and you are sewing a skirt, if you have a seam running down the side of your skirt, you want to make sure that the plaids match up across that seam.
It’s not going to affect quality of the finished garment. It’s not going to make the garment unwearable. But it’s just one of those nice touches that you can put in if you’re custom making your clothing, you have this nice matched plaid seam on the side. It also works for other patterns if you have a paisley that you’re trying to match or piece together or something like that.
So if you’re doing something where you have a fabric pattern that you intend to match across seams, you’re going to want to buy a little bit extra. Similarly with napped fabric. Napped fabric means that there is a direction that the fabric goes and a direction that it doesn’t.
So think about velvet. If you run your hands long velvet in one direction, it’s going to feel nice and smooth. And if you run it in the other direction, it’s going to feel kind of crunchy and unpleasant. That is the nap of the fabric. And when you’re laying out your pieces, you want to make sure that all of the nap is going to go in the right direction.
If you have a dress with a bunch of vertical panels on it, you don’t want one of those panels suddenly to have a nap that goes up if it was velvet. So you want to make sure those all go in the same direction.
So if you’re matching patterned fabric or you have a fabric that has a direction, you’re going to want to buy a little bit more than the pattern calls for, maybe an extra half a yard. The biggest things that our pattern tells us are what we’re making and then how much fabric that we need. But there’s something else on the back called notions.
Notions are all of little extra bits and bobs that you need in order to complete your project. So if you are putting in a zipper, it will tell you to buy a zipper in this length. It will always tell you to buy matching thread. It will tell you to buy snaps, or buttons, or fusible interfacing, which is a really great product that helps add stiffness around collars, and cuffs, and anything where you need a little bit more structure in the fabric, if you’re putting in buttons or something like that. So all of these will be listed on the pattern.
And notions typically don’t change with the size of the pattern that you’re making. You might need more buttons. Or you might need a slightly longer zipper. But typically, the notions are about all the same. So when you’re ready to start your project, you’re going to go pick your pattern, which they typically also have at fabric stores, too.
They have these really big books that are absolutely full of patterns. And you can just kind of look through them and find things that you like. I have found that I tend to make things out of the costume section, because they’re just nice long dresses. I just make them less fancy or with less frills and less costumey.
But you look through those books and you pick the pattern that you like, and then you go retrieve that pattern. And from there, you figure out what fabric you want to make. You purchase that much fabric by the yard. So you might purchase two yards of it, or two and a quarter yards, or three and a half yards.
And then you go and you purchase all of your notions. You purchase your buttons. You purchase your zippers, your matching thread, your ribbon, anything that you need to finish off that project. That’s kind of what you do when you start off a new sewing project. I’ll tell you more about that in a minute, but first we’ll be right back.
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Now, let’s get back to the episode. So if you have all of your things, you have your pattern, you have your fabric, you have your notions and you’re ready to get started, the next big thing to talk about are sewing machines. And I have waxed poetic about these a few places before, but I have to do it again, because it’s something that I have a lot of opinions on.
Truthfully, I have a lot of opinions on a lot of things, but sewing machines were one of my first deeply-held convictions. New sewing machines that you’re going to find at the fabric store are probably going to run anywhere from two hundred to maybe a thousand dollars. I haven’t tried them all, but I have a very strong suspicion that most of them are garbage. And the reason is plastic gears. Sewing machines basically take the around and around circular motion of a motor and they’re going to convert that into the up and down motion of the needle.
But as that force change is happening, they’re using gearing to do that. So you’re using different gears and different levers that will translate that around and around and around into an up and down motion. The problem with plastic gears is that they break, that they wear out, they’re loud and noisy. And then on top of that, they’re just not able to translate as much force to the needle as metal gears are.
Force at the needle means you can sew through more. You can sew through two or three layers of denim. You can so through multiple layers of cotton. And a lot of times you don’t need to just so through a bunch of layers like that. But if you’re putting something together and you have a bunch of seams coming together at the same point, you might be sewing through six or eight layers of fabric and you need your needle not to break.
So for the amount of money that you’re going to spend, I don’t think the sewing machines at the sewing store or the fabric store are going to be your best bet. “Well, Paige, what should I buy instead then?” I’m so glad you asked. Kenmore 158 Series sewing machines, they’re the greatest. They’re the best sewing machines that I have ever sewn on. And I have to tell a very quick story before I talk about them.
I went into a high-end quilting shop once, and I wanted to try one of their kind of mid-range machines. So the sales lady set me down at a $5,000 machine. $5,000 selling machine, I think one of my cars cost less than that. That is a big mamma jamma of a machine. And she’s walking me through all of the features and all of the kind of workings of this machine. And as she’s showing me this, she hasn’t even been using it for more than five minutes, the darn thing crashes.
It’s built-in computer freezes up and she has to turn it off and turn it back on again. And I was sitting there and I was like, “I will never own one of these machines, literally never, because I have no time for a machine that crashes.” The Kenmore 158 Series was a sewing machine line that came out of Japan, I think, around the 1950s and ’60s. They were made in postwar factories. They are heavy as tanks. They are all metal. All of the gears, and all of the levers, and all of the mechanisms inside are completely metal.
So most of the time they’re still in pretty good working condition. And even if they’re gummed up a little bit, you can add some oil to them and they will kind of free up and just be perfect. The Kenmore machines I love so much, because they just work. I know I have three main ones. I think I might have one or two more. And I purchased one for my mother. So I’ve bought a lot of these Kenmore 158 Series machines.
They never lose their tension. You never have to fight them. They can sew through so much fabric. I’ve sewn through motorcycle fabric, multiple layers of it. I’ve sewn through denim. I’ve sewn so many different things on my machines and they’ve never broken needles. They are just powerful. They are inexpensive. And they just work.
You could buy one of these machines as an investment and it will serve you for the rest of your life and your children’s life, and their children, and their children, because they’re just so good. You can find them on eBay a lot of times. You can find them if you just search Kenmore 158 Series. And if you’re finding one, try to find one that has a lot of accessories and maybe has the manual, because that’s kind of an indication that it’s been taken pretty good care of. Once you buy it and you get it in the mail…
Let’s see, I’ve bought two or three of them. And I’ve only spent around $250 on them for very nice ones that had lots of bells and whistles. So that’s kind of the price point you should be looking for, maybe up to 300, if you’re kind of unlucky, or if there’s not a whole lot of them available right now. But the Kenmore 158 Series, I’ve had such good luck with it. I’ve had much better luck with it than comparable Singer sewing machines from the same era.
I just think the Kenmores are so good and so powerful. That would be my recommendation. Because if you’re going to spend $200 on a machine, I think you should spend it on one that will last you forever, as opposed to a plastic one from the fabric store, that’s going to break the first time you try to do a serious project. And then you’re going to have to buy another one anyway. So, okay, that’s my spiel on the sewing machine.
I love Kenmore so much. They are heavy. They are kind of retro looking, very much styled in the way that the ’50s styled things. But they’re just good. They’re good machines. So once you have your sewing machine of choice, maybe it is a new one, maybe it’s an old one, maybe it’s one your mother gave you, I’m not sure, once you have your machine, there are some extras. You don’t need a ton of things to get started sewing, but there are a few things that are going to kind of up your sewing game and improve the finished quality of your garment.
The first one is ironing. I cannot overstate the importance of ironing your seams. Pressing your seams, pressing them open, pressing your hems, it is the one thing that is going to transform the quality of your finished work, because it just makes everything look tailored. It makes things lay properly and smoothly on you.
If you’re making a bag, it’s going to make the corners nice and crisp and everything kind of sit the way that it’s supposed to. Get an iron. It doesn’t have to be a crazy good iron. You can just start with a twenty dollar iron or a five dollar iron from the thrift store, but you want a good iron. You need one. And with that, of course, you need a pressing board or an ironing board. If you don’t have one, you can honestly use a towel on a countertop. That works perfectly well. But press your seams as you are working through your projects. It will make an absolutely ridiculous amount of difference to the quality of what you make.
Then you will need some pins. There are different kinds of pins. There are some pins that are meant for silk, but you just want basic straight pins. I tend to like the ones that have a plastic ball on the end, just because I find them easier to grab. And also, if I’m forcing the pin through multiple layers of fabric, the little ones with just the pin head, the tiny metal pin head, those tend to hurt my hands. So I prefer the pins that have a nice big plastic head on them, just because they’re easier to grab. They’re easier to see. And I have to give you a PSA now, do not sew over your pins. If you hit it with a needle, the needle breaks. That’s not good. Just take your pins out as you’re sewing down a seam.
You’ll also need some kind of marking chalk. I use this sparingly, but when I need it, I pretty much can’t use anything else. Just some kind of marking chalk or washable marker or something like that, so you can mark out different things on your pattern. Sometimes you need to mark button holes. Sometimes you need to mark where a zipper is going.
Sometimes you need to mark darts. You just are going to need to be able to mark on your fabric. And so make sure you have something for that. A lot of times at the fabric store they sell pencils in a two-pack, a blue one for light fabrics and a white one for dark fabrics. And those work perfectly fine.
Two more things. You will need a seam ripper. One of the wonderful things about sewing is most of the time, as long as everything is cut out properly, you can take things apart and sew them back together if you do it badly. To do that, you will need a seam ripper. Seam rippers just go in the seam and rip all of the thread holding the two pieces of fabric together. And it lets you take them apart and do it again. So make sure you have a seam ripper.
Now, the last thing, one of the most important things, other than the fabric and the actual sewing machine, are sewing scissors. Fabric will not cut well with dull scissors. So I would say that if you’re going to start sewing, purchase a pair of fabric scissors. It doesn’t have to be a super expensive pair. It can be just a fifteen or twenty dollar pair, but you need to make sure that those are dedicated for sewing. Don’t let anybody else use them.
Don’t let anybody else cut anything with them. Because as soon as your scissors get a nick in them, or as they start to get dull, they will not cut your fabric. And there’s nothing more annoying than trying to cut fabric with dull scissors. So make sure you have a good pair of scissors that you can dedicate solely to sewing and keep them with your sewing stuff and don’t let anybody touch them.
So I think that is pretty much an okay crash course in what you need to get started in sewing. Of course, there are more things to learn about how to cut out fabric and all of the that, and how to sew things together, and how to put garments together. But if you’re just kind of feeling a little bit unsure about where to start, this, I think, is a pretty good overview of kind of what goes into a sewing project and some of the tools that you will need to actually get your sewing done.
So I hope you found that interesting. I hope you maybe learned a little bit. I hope maybe you go find yourself a Kenmore 158 Series machine. And thank you so much for listening. I loved having you. And I will see you next time. Bye