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10 Things I wish I Knew When I Started Sewing

I got my first sewing machine 13 years ago and, to be honest, I just muddled along. I had my fair share of ‘how on earth did I do that!?’ and ‘why can’t I do this!’ conversations with myself and learnt as I went. Recently I’ve tried more advanced sewing techniques and it got me thinking about what I would tell my 18 year old self to make her sewing going more smoothly. So here’s a mixture of tips and just things that are really useful to know.

10. Zips aren’t scary. Yes, even invisible zips. I used to get myself in such a tizz at the mere thought of inserting a zip. I remember very clearly pacing around the room before finally sitting down at my machine in some sort of terrified state. But now, a zip is one of the easiest parts of a project and no longer do my invisible zips look far less than invisible…

When it comes to invisible zips my ‘trick’ is definitely to use the correct foot. And to iron the zip first. More on this in another post.

9. This button is actually there for a reason… and it’s actually really useful! I’ve recently starting sewing with really thick fabrics and this magic button makes this easier. You press it before lowering your presser foot and it keeps it level. When this is no longer needed, the button pops out and you can sew normally. Now I bet you’re going to go and try that now aren’t you?

8. Your shop bought size is never your sewing pattern size. The first pattern I ever bought, I immediately made a size 8; that’s what I wore so what could go wrong? Well a lot of things actually but the main being it didn’t fit. Now I always check the measurements on the packet and compare them to my own. Even then it’s still not always right. So if I’m sewing with an expensive fabric, then I’ll make a mock up (or toille) of the item in a cheaper fabric so I can adjust it if need be.

7. Sometimes you’ll just wing it when a pattern doesn’t seem to make any sense. Some patterns, such as Tilly and the Buttons patterns, are great because they have step by step photographs to follow and lots of online support. Other patterns however…. I’ve recently used a pattern from one of the ‘Big 4’ (Butterick, McCalls, Simplicity and Vogue) and the instructions were AWFUL! I read, I reread, I asked other people to read it… but I was getting nowhere. In the end I just went with my gut and used my experience and it worked out ok. Now I couldn’t have done that when I started necessarily but I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to even try.

6. There is a way to make your stitching straight. When I started sewing I would keep my eye on the needle and, inevitably, my stitching wouldn’t be straight. Instead, I use the guide lines on my sewing machine. Normally when making clothes I have a seam allowance of 5/8″ so I just line up my fabric with that line and voila, much more accurate sewing.

5. You don’t need to pull the fabric as you sew. When I started sewing I’d pull on the fabric as I was sewing because I thought I had to do this to pull it through. Not the case. Machines have ‘feed dogs’ which are the metal ridges you can see in the photo below. These move as you sew and grip the bottom fabric helping it to pass through smoothly. So by pulling my fabric, I was skipping stitches as the fabric was passing through too quickly.

4. Jersey isn’t that scary Now this is a relatively recent revelation for me. I’d put off using jersey until last year and I wish I’d started using it sooner. There’s no need for zips or buttons and it isn’t half as bad to use as people say. I found that using my walking foot really helped. The walking foot (see below) is designed to have an extra set of feed dogs for the top fabric. It basically keeps it all together! My other trick is to cut using a rotary cutter as it really reduces stretching when cutting.

3. Ironing is essential I hate (and hardy ever do) ironing when it comes to my already-made or shop bought items but it really is essential when sewing; particularly clothes. So why iron?

  • Ironing before cutting eliminates inaccuracies
  • It helps seams to sit flat and therefore look more polished.
  • You can manipulate fabrics, particularly wool, in to different shapes by stretching and shrinking it.
  • It just makes the finished item look better. Simple.

2. There is a hidden compartment in a lot of your sewing threads. Again, this is relatively new to me. It doesn’t really help with my sewing but it’s interesting. Most threads have a little bit at the bottom that detaches; this is mainly for keeping the thread secure. But if you remove it, you have a little compartment for needles for on the move sewing. Just seal up the hole with tack or something similar.

1. You will ALWAYS have to use a stitch unpicker. On every project. Embrace it.

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Top 10… Haberdashery Items


I sew so I use a lot of different haberdashery on a regular basis (that and I work in a haberdashery of course). Mattie asked me a while ago if I could do a blog post about my top ten items and it got me thinking… What makes something one of my favourites? It’s not like fabric where I look at it and my heart beats that bit faster; these are practical items. But a blog post about sewing thread and needles wasn’t going to cut it. So in the last couple of months I’ve been paying close attention to what I use, how I use it and how it improves whatever project I’m working on. The result is this, my top 10 haberdashery items.

10. Bias Binding

The binding in the photo is beautiful, pretty bias binding that would have to be on show. I have done this recently on outfits when I want to make a bit of a statement and it’s so easy. But I’ve also started doing hidden bias binding finishes on necklines and arm-holes. Still super easy but also makes my clothes look nice and professional.

9. A Variety of Sewing Needles 

I know I said that I wasn’t about to write a post on needles but I did have to include some in the round up. In my sewing kit I have a variety of different needles for different jobs including general sewing, embroidery, beading or darning. When I first started I never would have thought that there were so many out there, but the right needle does make the job a lot easier!

8. Buttonhole Thread

I recently found the joy of hand sewing a buttonhole. So therapeutic and much less temperamental than doing it on my machine. A good strong thread in a variety of colours is definitely a part of my sewing box.

7. Buttons

It surprised me that buttons didn’t come a bit higher in my list (I am the girl who has buttons in her tattoo!) but they are definitely still there. Buttons can really make a garment and at the moment my particular favourites are these coconut buttons in yellow. Just scrummy!

6. Self Cover Buttons

Self cover buttons are great because you can choose the colour to match whatever you’re making. It can be a complete contrast, a perfect match, patterned or plain. You will definitely find something that works.

5. Pin Cushion

I love the ease of a pin cushion. No boxes or envelopes to open, just stab the needle in and voila, tidy. I’ve managed to master the skill of removing pins and continuing to sew on my machine so a pin cushion is a must for quick, blind tidying. 

4. Interfacing

When I first started writing this, my immediate thought was that this would be number 10. But after thinking about it, I actually use interfacing a lot. I like to make purses and bags so this gives me the structure and stiffness that I need. It’s also useful on collars to keep them looking pristine. 

3. Sharp Snipping Scissors

I have a lot of scissors in my craft room… I mean a lot. I obviously use my fabric scissors all of the time but I do love a nice, sharp pair of little scissors for snipping threads at the end of a project. The ‘sharp’ aspect is the most important bit here; no struggling and faffing involved.

2. Seam Ripper

It had to be here didn’t it. Barely a project goes by without me having to use a seam ripper. I have about 5… just in case.


And at number 1….

Chalk Pens

I often make my own designs so these pens are perfect for creating thin, precise lines on my fabric. They’re also perfect for transferring markings from a commercial pattern. The best bit, they wash out so no unsightly marks on my finished make. 

So there’s my top 10, what would be in yours?

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August Sewing Challenge… Kind of

Lets start by saying how good I’ve been at keeping up to date with my sewing challenge… Sadly last month wasn’t quite as much of a success. The theme was ‘outerwear’ and I decided on a 50s swing coat so it was never going to be made in a month anyway but I’ve made steps towards it so I thought I’d give an update.

I had a genuine meltdown trying to decide on my fabric; I knew this was going to be a special make, potentially a forever coat. I got some samples and spent a whole day moaning to anyone who would listen about my dilemma (sorry Annett!).  In the end I decided on this beautiful teal merino wool with this bright cotton lawn fabric

So where am I now? I traced the pattern onto Swedish Tracing Paper (after actually ironing my original pattern pieces) and have cut out all of my pieces which was terrifying. My next step is to book a lesson with the very talented Jamie Kemp so that I can get sewing (you didn’t think I would do this one all on my own did you?!).

So my plan is to make this one alongside my other challenges and I have actually made a start on September’s. I wanted to make more use of my overlocker which I only ever use for seams. I plan to do some research and also have a go at rolled hems which I’ll update you with as I go but I also wanted to make a garment almost entirely on the overlocker. It’s great for sewing jersey as the stitch allows some stretch still. So I decided on the TATB Joni dress (again) with this beautiful teal fabric. Although it was quite scary cutting off my seam allowance as I sewed, it was so quick and easy. I also found it was a lot quicker to sew in the clear elastic on the shoulders and waist.

So now I just need to find time to make a coat while we move our lovely shop to a new space and as the new school year has started. Easy…


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July Sewing Challenge – Trousers

My challenge for July was to make trousers; I made trousers at the beginning of the year but there were a few issues that I wanted to perfect. Controversially for a sewing project which I knew I would be writing about on a blog… I didn’t take very many pictures..  But here it goes anyway!

I decided to use this Simplicity pattern which is unusual for me as I very rarely use any of the more commercial pattern companies. I had also heard that Simplicity patterns aren’t actually very simple at all… I loved the floaty style though so decided to give it a go.

I wanted to be sure that I had a good fit so made a toile before I started. Last time I did this, I didn’t add the zip and just pinned where I thought it would close; this just wasn’t accurate enough! I didn’t need to make the whole length of the trousers as the bottoms aren’t fitted so I now have a nice pair of calico shorts…

I used a light fabric for optimum ‘swoosh’ factor. Even though there is swoosh, this fabric was not fun to work with; it was really slippery when I was cutting and sewing it! But also the needle kept catching and showing the white base of the fabric weave; apparently it’s because the pattern is dyed on after manufacture. After hopping on to the Sewing in the UK Facebook page, people suggested that I use a ballpoint or finer needle; I’ll definitely try that next time I work with a similar fabric. Luckily these parts aren’t obvious on the finishing trousers.

This pattern has a zip at the centre back of the trousers so I couldn’t use the same method I’ve used before for attaching the two legs together (putting one leg inside the other). So there was a bit of a headache while I tried to make sense of the diagrams and confusing language in the pattern. It seemed to work in the end though and there aren’t any holes in the crotch region so that’s a win.

I must admit that I did have to wing it a bit with this pattern and I did go off piste and just did what I thought would work. I’m a very visual/kinesthetic learner so bare-minimum diagrams just don’t work for me! I have enough sewing knowledge that it was fine and the finished trousers look like real trousers.

One reason that it’s taken me this long to finish is because I got to a point of almost finishing in July, then thought that the style didn’t suit me. I’m still not 100% sure but the tie belt makes a big difference. So now that I’m at a point where I’m not embarrassed to share it with all of you, here it is!

My August challenge (that I’m starting 13 days in) is going to be a 50s walking coat… Wish me luck!

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June Challenge – Slippery Fabrics

I can’t actually believe that I’ve stuck with this challenge for a whole 6 months! I honestly thought I’d do January then get bored… but I’ve surprised myself and have managed to persevere. So last month was working with slippery fabrics and as Devon is going through an insane heatwave, I decided to work with velvet. Yes, velvet in 30 degree heat! So I won’t be wearing this dress any time soon but I couldn’t resist the beautiful fabric and it definitely fitted with the challenge as it was indeed slippery.

I found out quite quickly that velvet looks different depending on which way up you cut it. One way is light and the other creates a rich, darker colour. Of course the first piece I cut out was the light version which I didn’t like as much so there was much swearing, re-cutting and really trying to squeeze the pieces out of the fabric that I had left. Now this is fairly standard for a sewing project but cutting velvet is an actual living nightmare and I wasn’t best pleased with having to do it more than I had to. As you would expect, it slips and slides all over the place. There were lots of sharp pins and a rotary cutter involved and it was still tricky.

After a good couple of hours I had all of my pieces cut out and couldn’t resist fitting them on my mannequin to see how it draped; I just love how it looks on the skirt pieces. And this is how it stood for the majority of June… standing there, looking pretty but very much not in a ‘finished dress’ way. It’s not that I didn’t have the time; I made several other non-sewing challenge items. It’s that I thought that if cutting the fabric was as bad as it was, what on earth would the sewing be like?

In the end, I needn’t have worried as I finished it all in a couple of hours and didn’t come by very many issues at all. I think this was down to a couple of reasons: lots of pins and a walking foot. The only time I had a problem was right at the end when I was rushing the waist and didn’t bother to use as many pins as I had before so of course both sides slid away from each other.

I didn’t actually try to sew this velvet without a walking foot but I imagine the outcome would have been messy and inaccurate. The foot works by providing an extra set of feed dogs for the top of the fabric being sewn so keeps everything where it should be. It meant that my sewing was stress free and my fabric wasn’t chewed up or destroyed.

I’ve learnt that slippery fabric (or at least velvet) isn’t too horrendous if you have the correct tools to make it work. I’m pleased with the dress and, even though I can’t wear it any time soon, I will be well kitted out for any Christmas parties that might happen!

So here is my Christmas dress… in June!

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May Sewing Challenge – Stretchy Fabrics

Now that The Contemporary Craft Festival is over, I can finally get around to writing about my May Challenge (yes I’m aware that it’s now the middle of June!). I challenged myself to sew with stretch fabrics for this month as I’d never done it before and I actually really enjoyed it. I’ve always heard horror stories about how hard jersey is to sew with but I didn’t have any issues and would definitely recommend it to anyone who is feeling a bit nervous about it.

I decided to start by making the Joni Dress which is in the Tilly and the Buttons Stretch book. I used a relatively cheap fabric so it was quite thin and very stretchy. I realised that I’d have to do things differently to when I sew with woven fabrics when I tried to fold the fabric and got all of this puckering. No way was it going to be possible to cut accurately with scissors so I decided to use my rotary cutter and do pieces that were on the fold individually. I have no idea why I don’t always use a rotary cutter! It is so much easier; I’ll definitely be using it for all of my cutting in the future and it was perfect for this jersey.

Before I started sewing, I changed my needle to one specifically for stretch materials, changed my stitch to a zig-zag and kept my regular sewing foot; so easy so far. The first instruction was to attach clear elastic to the waist and shoulder seams which stops them from stretching out after wearing the dress a few times.

Now the real perk to sewing with stretch fabrics is that sleeves are a doddle! Everything can be stretched in to place perfectly. I inserted the sleeve ‘on the flat’ which was so easy and all I had to do was match up the notches and then sew up the sides of the sleeve and bodice. I’m pleased with the finished dress but I’ll definitely be making it in a slightly sturdier fabric next time.

This was the first month when I decided to make two items for my monthly challenge! As I was flicking through the book, I came across the Stella Hoodie and decided to give that a go as well (not that I ever do anything even remotely active…). I bought some lovely teal sweatshirt fabric and matching lining and jumped straight in. I actually managed to make most of this in one evening from cutting out to being able to wear it. The only thing left to do is the hem at the bottom as I didn’t have a twin needle suitable for stretch fabrics.

Most of the hoodie was really straight forward, the only thing that was slightly different was having to stabilise the buttonhole so that it didn’t pull out of shape. Again, the sleeves were easy peezy and even the cuffs worked well. So now all that’s left is to take up a sport …

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April Sewing Challenge: A Shirt

As my sewing challenge continues, I’m stepping it up each time. This time I challenged myself to a fitted shirt. I decided against a collar in the end which kind of seems like I’m cheating but there’s always next time.

I decided to use a pattern that I made a while ago with the help of my sewing teacher at the time. We took my measurements and drew up the pattern together; it’d be quite a good exercise for me to draw it up again to see if I can remember how to do it at some point. It definitely looks more complicated than it is!

I did a double check of the pattern as I made it a while ago and wanted to make sure that the sizing was correct, luckily it was still ok! I decided to use a nice plain turquoise fabric that I had bought when I was in Thailand. I have made so many patterned skirts and trousers that I needed something plain to go with them.

I decided to be over cautious with this make as the fabric was quite slippery. So that meant loads of pins and tacking stitches which turned out to be a huge help.

After the palava of my sleeves challenge, I was dreading setting them in. This was really nice and simple though; I have no idea what I did differently but at least I managed it without wanting to throw my machine out of the window.

When I started trying to pair the finished shirt up with what I already have, I found that it goes quite well with one of my me-made skirts. So here is the finished outfit; perfect for when I need to be a bit smarter! 


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March Sewing Challenge: Pockets

After the debacle of my challenge last month, I was quite pleased to have a slightly easier challenge this time round. I still didn’t finish it before the end of March… but what’s 10 days.

I think any outfit can be improved with pockets and really wanted to learn how to add them in to patterns. I decided to make the Miette skirt by Tilly and the Buttons. This pattern has big patch pockets but I fancied trying in seam pockets (for those little things that you need to hand). As a side note, I’m so in love with this fabric; I bought the last bits from the shop and had to buy an extra half metre from elsewhere! I just knew it had to be made into a skirt.


Instead of winging it, I found some instructions by Tilly herself which even came with a pdf pattern. The instructions are pretty easy to follow with photos for you to check you’re on the right track. For my next project I’m going to make the pattern a little bigger so that my very large phone will fit inside.

I marked where I wanted the pocket to sit and reinforced it with interfacing then stitched it in place within the seam allowance. Can we just take a moment to admire the pattern matching? I then sewed the side seam, going around the pocket and voila! Easy peasy. I’m definitely going to use this technique on some of my future makes; I think it’ll be great in circle skirts and is such an easy addition to make.

My challenge for this month is going to be to make a shirt… a whole real life shirt, so only time will tell if my next post will be as positive! Wish me luck!


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February Sewing Challenge – Ergh… Sleeves

I have learnt one thing from my February challenge… I do NOT enjoy setting in sleeves. It’s hard and time consuming and I’m pretty sure I still haven’t cracked it (Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that). Sadly this won’t be a tutorial that you can follow to get the perfect sleeve but at least you can share in the experience…

I did A LOT of research for the February challenge. In fact, most of my work for the month was just reading stuff (if you are interested take a look at Tilly’s advice for creating a gathered sleeve) and begging for advice from the Sewing Challenge Facebook group. I decided I did actually need to produce something though and that something was going to be the Sew Over It Vintage Shirt Dress.

I decided to do my first attempt on calico so it didn’t matter if it went wrong. I adjusted my stitch length to the longest it would go and did my two lines of stitches which I would technically use to create my gathers. I then pulled the threads to gather the sleeve and spread it out so that it wasn’t too bunched up. I think in the future it’d be good to use a different coloured thread for the bobbin so I can see which one needs to be pulled. To get to this stage took a long time and I used my knee to try and manipulate the shape!

After a lot of procrastinating, I moved on to my actual fabric. Just to keep me on my toes, I decided to use a nice slippery and slightly stretchy fabric… After cutting, overlocking and creating a mock turn-up cuff, I proceeded to spend a huge amount of my time trying to get the over-sized sleeve to fit into the smaller sleeve hole while using all of my pins to do so. At one point I really did question if I actually needed to have movement for my shoulders.

The first picture was my first attempt. Note those tucks at the top there… they were not part of the pattern. I huffed, puffed, swore a bit and shut the dress away for the night. With a fresh head and a more objective pair of eyes, I looked at the dress again and realised that actually, they were to wide for my shoulders. By pure chance, that meant that I needed to increase the seam allowance at the top of the sleeve, thus hiding the tucks. Hurrah for my abnormally shaped shoulders!

So despite bodging it a bit… I managed to finish the dress (while learning lots of other skills along the way). I may avoid setting in sleeves like the plague in the future but I have a dress that shows that, one time, I did it (half) successfully.


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January Sewing Challenge – Adjusting Patterns and making a toile

So often, in the past, I’ve dived straight in to a project only to finish it and find it doesn’t fit me properly. It does make perfect sense, we’re never all going to be the exact size of the pattern; there’ll always be the odd thing that needs a tweak. This month I wanted to remedy this by practising adjusting patterns and in particular making a toile.

What on earth is a toile you ask!

It’s basically an early version of a pattern made up of cheap fabric so that sizing adjustments can be made without ruining beautiful fabric. You’d use a fabric that is similar to what you’ll use for the final piece and trace any changes to make a perfect pattern. I’ve always put it off in the past because it seems counterproductive to pre-make a garment when you have no intention of wearing it. But my 2018 challenge is to do things that I don’t usually do so here it goes.

I bought some really beautiful fabric a while ago but had been putting off making with it because the thought of ruining it terrified me! So it seemed like the perfect time to make a toile so that I could check the fit.

My toile for the Tilly and the Buttons ‘Francoise’ dress.

This is my finished toile which I also tried on myself and pranced around in to check movement of course. It turned out that the fit was pretty good. I have fairly standard measurements apparently so I didn’t need to adjust the bust which is often the main problem area.

One thing I did decide to change was the sleeve. On the long sleeve, little creases appeared quite quickly around the elbow; I don’t like ironing so this wouldn’t do at all. I took off the sleeve on my toile and traced it onto paper, making sure that I included all the markings from the original pattern.

So overall a great success and I had the confidence to cut in to my beautiful fabric knowing that the fit would be good.

Just the one toile was not enough though; I wanted a challenge. This time I decided to make one for a pair of fitted trousers and boy am I glad I did. The fit of my toile was all wrong and didn’t lay properly near the ankles. So with a little bit of a helping hand I pinned in the areas that needed pulling in and marked the changes with a pen. I then took everything apart and this time, used the toile as my pattern piece. I used carbon paper and a tracing wheel to transfer the markings on to my trousers fabric (polka dot trousers anyone?).

So, making a toile IS extra effort and I wouldn’t do it for everything but it is a great way to get a good fit and to eliminate the fear of ruining fabric.