How I started sewing & 10 tips for beginners

It’s weird for me to think that I’ve only been sewing for 6 years, not just because 99% of my clothes are now me-made, but also because I can’t really remember what I wore or did in my spare time before; it’s truly a distant memory. Sewing my own wardrobe has inadvertently made me think about sustainability and the sheer effort that goes into making clothes; it’s not that I would never buy any ready-to-wear clothes anymore, it’s just that I’d really have to love it, appreciate how and what it’s made from and consider it absolutely perfect, otherwise I’d rather attempt to make it myself. When I set out making my first dress I didn’t think about any of this, I just thought I’d make one or two dresses and it would be nice to have something that fit well in a print I loved for special occasions.

I often found high street clothes had one or the other; fit or fabric, but never both, and this was my main motivation for making my own dress. I was looking for a dress for a party and I knew I wanted a 50s style dress in a Liberty print. My budget didn’t stretch to buying a Liberty dress, and I often struggled to find clothes that fit right. I felt like I’d outgrown high street stores like Topshop and New Look in terms of my age, but I didn’t have the budget for Whistles or & Other Stories. I was at a bit of a middle ground where I couldn’t find anything I wanted or any brands I actually liked. Pre-dressmaking I had been making and selling lots of different things on Etsy including cards, jewellery and more recently cushions and make up bags. I’d done some simple sewing projects on a mini John Lewis machine and sold them at craft fairs. I’d also recently been featured in a Japanese magazine called Giorni showing off some of my Liberty makes such as cards, covered buttons and cushions. I think the idea of making a dress came from that photo shoot – I bought my dress from Cath Kidston but it didn’t fit great and I didn’t feel myself in it, I had wished I had something that suited my style better.

I wanted to go to a sewing class and when I researched I found Sew Over It. Aside from not really being able to afford it at the time, I was a bit worried about going straight into the Betty dress class because it was considered Intermediate and you needed some garment making experience. I had absolutely none, I didn’t even sew at school, so I didn’t think it was worthwhile signing up to the class. But when Sew Over It released the Betty pattern for home sewing I thought I may as well give it a go; I could take it at my own pace and to be honest no one would even know if I messed it up. I bought the pattern, some Liberty fabric and a Janome sewing machine and I didn’t make a toile, I just dived in. Many people would question why I would make my first ever dress out of Liberty fabric but the truth is I’m extremely impatient and I’m a bit all-or-nothing. If I made it out of an old bedsheet I would never have motivated myself to finish it, and the preciousness of the fabric gave me the motivation needed to not mess it up. I’d also sewn with it before making cushions and make up bags so I felt like I could handle it, and it didn’t feel too overwhelming unlike floatier fabrics. If I messed it up, I could make cushions and cards and sell them.

Of course I did mess it up, I made thousands of mistakes and it took me a couple of weeks to finish it. I didn’t have an invisible zip foot, I didn’t know they existed so my zip was not invisible. My neckline was wonky and I had no idea you should clip curves so the armpits were tight and uneven. But my first dress taught me two things 1. You can achieve whatever you want to if you put your mind to it and 2. You won’t make the same mistake twice. Everything I have learned about sewing up until now is based on the mistakes I’ve made. Sure, I have watched some YouTube videos and I’ve been to a couple of classes, but nothing equips you better than trial and many errors. It’s also worth pointing out that despite the many errors I was genuinely so shocked and happy that I’d managed to make something that resembled clothing that I actually didn’t care much about the wonkiness of the dress.

(Me after I’d just finished my first dress!)
(Me today wearing the first dress I made 6 years ago)

Sometimes I still wear that dress, it’s really special to me because of all of those mistakes and the sheer sense of achievement that I still feel when I put it on, even though I’ve made so many things since. Although I am a complete advocate for diving in and getting started, here are the 10 things I wish someone had told me before I started sewing, and I hope they are helpful for beginner sewists:

  1. Read the whole pattern’s instructions before you start. Most of the errors I make to this day are because I haven’t thought about the construction start to finish, and if you can imagine how it’s all put together you’re much less likely to make a mistake. I still do this now if I make something new, as it also means you don’t skip any steps as well.
  2. Make sure you have the right tools. You don’t need the fanciest sewing machine or overlocker, but if to set yourself up for success get some sharp scissors, a point turner, an invisible zip foot, an unpicker and some sharp pins. My favourite ever tool is Frixion pens which you can use to mark out your darts and can be removed by ironing (just test it on your fabric first to make sure it doesn’t stain).
  3. Planning is everything. As with any project ever, you need to plan what you’re going to make and what size. You can’t really wing it and edit as you go along, unless they are small edits. Even now I sit down and draw out what I want to make to ensure it’s exactly what I want, before I cut into my fabric.
  4. Choose your fabric carefully. The fabric and pattern combo is the make or break for me. If you don’t know what fabric to look for as viscose vs. rayon vs. crepe can be a bit of a minefield, either shop in person or search on the Instagram hashtag for the pattern you’re making and see what fabrics other people chose. Usually the pattern will give some suggestions and I’d recommend following them for the most part, unless you have a genius alternative idea that you’re confident in. For a beginner, I think the best fabric to start with is some form of cotton – something you can iron and pin accurately and that doesn’t slide around too much. Linen is also a great low-cost fabric to start with.
  5. Pre-wash your fabric. Most of the instructions you need will be in whichever pattern instructions you choose, but in case this one isn’t there, make sure you pre wash your fabric with the settings you will use to wash it when it’s a garment, so any shrinkage happens before you cut it out and not after you’ve made something. Definitely don’t skip this step, and similarly make sure you iron your fabric before you cut out. This isn’t a bit to cut corners on.
  6. Make sure you mark notches. I didn’t pay attention to notches for a long time, and essentially I was giving myself a really difficult time! They’re there so that you can see where each pattern piece should fit together like an armhole and sleeve, and if you pay attention to them you’re less likely to sew pieces together the wrong way. Sometimes if I’m particularly worried about similar looking pieces I use different colour pins to colour code the ones that fit together.
  7. Make something that you really want to wear. This one might be contradictory to usual advice for beginners, but personally I was motivated by making something I really wanted to wear, rather than feeling like I was practicing with something simple. That’s not to say you should make a wedding dress as your first garment but don’t be put off by patterns saying they’re intermediate, you might just need to take it slower and Google things along the way. And I Google EVERYTHING. Even to this day, I check via YouTube that I’ve set my machine up right to sew a buttonhole in case I forgot one of the steps. Just take it stitch by stitch and don’t get disheartened that you don’t know everything yet.
  8. Be comfortable with less than perfect. A lot of people call me a perfectionist and I actually find that kind of hilarious because most of the time if I make an error I forgive myself for it and I just leave it. The insides of my dresses for a long time were really messy and it was only when I got an overlocker that I started to step it up and finish everything properly. Before that, I would literally leave the house in a dress where I hadn’t finished the seams just because I was impatient. My boyfriend always jokes that I hate every dress I make as soon as I finish it but I’ll love it tomorrow. I think there’s a point where you need to leave your critical eye behind and just finish and accept it.
  9. Don’t panic. There’s really nothing that can go so horribly wrong in sewing that you can’t resolve. That’s kind of what I love about it. You can unpick to your heart’s content and start again. Even if you cut something out wrong, you can buy more fabric. Don’t put pressure on yourself to get it perfect, and know that you can come back from mistakes.
  10. Find inspiration. And lastly, find blogs, tutorials and Instagram accounts to follow (including some cat accounts to take your mind off things when you make sewing mistakes. Betty helps me with this too). I’d also find inspiration from high street or designer shops, and seeing people out and about. Once you start making clothes you can start to deconstruct what people are wearing (in a non-creepy way) and understand how it might be sewn together. There is so much inspiration to be found and sewing people are just the nicest people. Whenever people say Instagram is full of negativity I genuinely just think they haven’t discovered the sewing community yet.

6 thoughts on “How I started sewing & 10 tips for beginners

  1. Thank you for the advice! I’ve been wanting to learn how to sew and I’ve been going back and forth about whether I should practice with something I don’t actually love the look of. The point you made about the fabric motivating you to finish is definitely something I should have thought about more, I’ve been worried about buying expensive fabric and messing it up but if I don’t actually like it there’s a good chance I’ll never start.

    1. It’s so true! My main motivation is always wanting to wear it at the end so if you’re not bothered about what you’re making, why would you be motivated?! Good luck with your sewing!

  2. Hallo Kate, I recently made some attempts at sewing clothes during the lockdown. I made a washi dress and a tunic. So far I had only made some quilting and patchwork, some bags and pouches as a hobby since I work full time. I realized that I definetely need to buy an overlooket in order to accomplish a good finish. I checked through your blog which I LOVE and indeed, I found some precious suggestions about starting sewing (and how very true!) But i didn’t see any tips on choosing an overlocker … will you consider giving some wise advice based on your experience? THANKS!

    1. Hi! I didn’t put much thought into my overlocker if I’m honest. There’s a huge range of prices and I didn’t want to spend loads so I got a lower end one from Janome. I think the basic function is the same on most of them but you pay more for ease of threading and additional features. Another thing I would recommend in the absence of an overlocker is french seams as they give that professional finish without an overlocker

      1. Thanks Kate for your suggestion, I will consider French seams as long as I don’t get an overlocker because I’m not pleased with zig-zag at all!

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