Tips to Get a Quality Result (Even if You are a Beginner)

I am a chronic researcher. I’m also a perfectionist. And a beginner. What a terrible combination!

This Thoughtful, Methodical Cat Will Make Beautiful Clothes. Photo by Anya Quinn.

When I decided that I wanted–no, needed–to learn to sew in order to own the quality of clothes I want to wear, I did a lot of reading. What I was most worried about was producing clothes that looked good enough to wear in public. I didn’t want a tell-tale “home-made” (as in “not well-made” rather than “custom and fabulous!”) look about me. Here’s a compilation of tips that I found particularly useful:

Know Your Goal:

  • My goal for sewing is to replace as much of my store-bought clothing with “demoiselle-made” clothes that flatter my figure. Hubby’s business is with people who make a lot of money–and dress better than we can afford to dress me. Therefore, whatever I make must be made of higher quality material than what I can get in the store, be made to last, and have finishing touches that shout “professional” and “sophisticated.” If I ever get to “tailored” or “designer-looking,” I will be over the moon.
  • Knowing your goal will affect choices down the road. For example, my desire for “finished” feeling garments is part of why I decided to get a serger, even though it isn’t necessary (I’d used sergers in the costume shop in high school, and could not get over how much better finished the garments felt). If you’re sewing just to learn or have fun, or to make cute clothes for fast-growing kids, then you can be much more relaxed about this stuff.

Pick Your Tools Wisely:

  • If you are going to buy a sewing machine, read the reviews–on retailer sites, on blogs, and on sewing sites–carefully. Don’t get something that is so new that there aren’t any reviews of it. If I’d had the sense to do this, I wouldn’t have gotten my lemon, the Singer 4423 HD. Of course, you can do you research and still get a bad machine–but you’re less likely to.
  • Get a good iron and ironing board that you can raise to a comfortable height. You’ll be standing over it a lot.
  • A large, self-healing cutting mat with a grid and high-quality scissors that you use only for cutting fabric are useful.
  • Get a good reference book. Or two. I got the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing in a used book shop for a couple bucks and I refer to it constantly. I prefer it to the The Vogue Sewing Book (also purchased inexpensively at a used book store). Doesn’t matter that they are from the 1970s or 1990s. The information is the same.
  • Buy patterns that are simple, timeless, and excellently reviewed. PatternReview.com is great for this: go through their “Patterns of the Year” pages and then move on to browsing other patterns. If others have found a pattern’s instructions clear and the resulting garments flattering, there is a good chance you will, too.
  • Look for patterns that offer several variations on a theme. You don’t need six different patterns for similar skirts. If you can find that one really good pattern with five or six different views, you’ll have made your life easier. Every time you make that garment, you’ll make it better–and by changing fabrics, views, and finishing touches, you can make sure that it won’t always look the same.
  • Fabric: Get the best quality that you can afford. The simplest garment made by a meticulous beginner will look many times better if your material is a step above what you usually see in stores. Getting to one step above the stores might not be that hard (especially if you are lucky enough to live in NYC like me). I can find polyester suiting at a reasonable price that feels and looks much better than Ready-to-Wear polyester suits, and the bonus is that the resulting skirt is machine-washable rather than dry-clean-only!
  • Buy at least a little extra fabric. Having a bit to play around with before you start seaming will help you test how you need to handle the fabric, what stitch length works, etc.
Me. I won't look good in every pattern ever.

Me. I won’t look good in every pattern ever.

Don’t Sew for a Fantasy:

  • Analyze your body, or at least the clothes in your wardrobe that flatter you. With all the gorgeous patterns–and gorgeous finished garments–pictured in reviews and on blogs, it’s easy to convince yourself that you, too, would look good in that dress. Step back and ask yourself if the cut really suits your figure. The line-drawings on the back of patterns help you see what the construction of the garment really is. Use them.
  • It can’t hurt to make a chart of what styles look good on you (there is plenty of information about different cuts–and what body-types they flatter–in books like the Complete Guide to Sewing).

Always Do a Muslin (and Not a “Wearable” One):

  • If you’re a beginner, you need practice. If it is your first time making a particular pattern, you need to learn how it fits your body. You need to practice sewing in zippers, or even sewing in a straight line! Get some muslin or ugly woven cotton and make the whole garment, fitting along the way. Take note of any changes you had to make so you can duplicate them when you cut into the real material.
  • This will be controversial but I’ll say it: I was taught that muslins are not meant to be “wearable.” Lots of people make first garments as “wearable muslins,” but I fear that sets a beginner up for disappointment. You may not be using your favorite fabric, but if you had the goal of the muslin being “wearable” you probably liked it. Then, when it doesn’t work out or fit right, you’ll feel disappointed. You don’t need to set yourself up for disappointment. I get ugly cotton on sale that I wouldn’t dream of wearing out of the house.
  • Practice new techniques (darts, zippers, buttonholes) on scraps of fabric–both your muslin fabric and your “ideal” fabric, if you have spare.

Be Meticulous in Construction (Even on the Muslin):

  • Preshrink everything. Look in your reference book and see what needs to be preshrunk–you might be surprised how much there is! Not only does your fabric need to be preshrunk in a particular way according to what type it is, but so does your interfacing, lining fabric (if you have it), and your zippers!
  • Iron the pattern tissue before you use it. Wrinkles can distort the shape of the fabric you cut out.
  • Press every seam immediately after you sew it, first flat and then open or, in the case of a dart, in the direction called for by the pattern. You would not believe how much of a difference this makes!
  • No, really, press every single seam immediately after you sew itPressing, stitching a straight seam, and picking a simple, flattering, well-tested pattern are probably the three biggest things you can do to make your simple, beginner garment look good.
  • If you are stitching curves (darts, or hips on a narrow skirt), you’ll find you have problems pressing those seams on a flat ironing board. If you don’t want to get a tailor’s ham (I didn’t–I waited for hubby to give me one for Christmas), you can wad up towels to fill in that curve and get a better result.

Don’t Forget the Details:

  • From what I’ve read, one of the big things that keep beginners’ self-made clothes from looking polished is that they leave off some of the finishing touches that we’ve gotten used to from RTW clothes. The finishing detail I saw mentioned most often was topstitching. Topstitching is all over RTW clothing. Taking the time to topstitch can make your finished garment look much more . . . well, finished.
  • The same goes for well-chosen buttons–even if you use them for embellishment rather than functionality.

Accept that You’re Not Going to Fit the Standard:

  • Skirts are a good beginner project because they are less likely to need adjustments to the pattern, but anything more complex is likely to have fitting issues. I’m going through this right now with my first top. When it gets hard, ask for help. Try things. And thank goodness that you used that ugly old cotton for your muslin and can still pet the nice fabric you’re planning to use when you get the fit right.

Just Wear It, Already!:

  • You’re sure that your home-made garment won’t pass muster? Wear it out! Try just going for a stroll in the neighborhood wearing it–something low risk. Then, try it in more formal settings. If there is a flaw, figure out how to hide it (I hid a wonky zipper with a well-placed belt, and I got tons of compliments on my skirt). Wear it around the house. Wear it for dinner parties. Most likely, your garment will not draw criticism. If anyone comments, it’s most likely to be a compliment!
  • Of course, if you wear your self-made item out over and over and it never feels right, perhaps there is another problem (poor fabric or pattern choice for your figure?). If this happens, make a note about what suits you and what doesn’t. That way, you won’t end up with an identical “wadder” in the future.

Well, there are my tips (so far). Any other suggestions are warmly welcomed.

Useful Links

A lot of my information for this post (as far as I can remember) came from a number of discussions on PatternReviews.com, though it has been a couple years since I read through the threads. For more advice and information, try reading these threads:

Other Links

These links were suggested on PatternReview.com as additional resources: