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Sewing For Dummies®, 3rd Edition Reveals Ten Beginner Mistakes

Basic sewing tips for Novices

by Jan Saunders Maresh (October 4, 2010)

(Note: Jan Saunders Maresh is former Director of Consumer Education for White Sewing Machine Co. and Jo-Ann. She’s the author of 15 books, including Home Staging For Dummies®. She has a web-tv show at www.nakedroomsolutions.tv.)

Does your budget just not stretch far enough to include all the home improvement projects, adorable kids outfits, and fun accessories on your wish list? You're not alone! These days, handmade, custom, and homemade goods are (finally) back in vogue. And with a rise in the popularity of craft shows, farmers' markets, and the explosion of the handmade online marketplace Etsy, it's never been a better time to try your hand at a little crafting of your own—and there's no better place to start than sewing.

Sewing can be the perfect outlet for fully defining your style, especially if you're on a budget. But for many first-timers, the thought of sitting down at a machine can be a daunting and overwhelming undertaking. But sewing journalist and author Jan Saunders Maresh says this doesn't have to be the case.

"Sewing is one of those activities that gets easier and produces better results the more you do it," says Maresh, author of Sewing For Dummies®, 3rd Edition (Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-62320-6, $19.99). "If you know what common mistakes and pitfalls to watch out for, you're more likely to have an enjoyable sewing experience with positive results.

"For rookies, it's best to start with a basic, simple sewing project like a pillowcase," she continues. "These smaller, easier projects provide you the foundation on which to build your skill and can be the small touches that make the difference in your house. Eventually, with patient practice, you can become a pro and take on more challenging pieces."

Still worried about getting started? Maresh tells how to overcome the ten most common sewing stumbling blocks as you sit down with your machine for the very first time:

Attempting a project beyond your skill level. It's great to challenge yourself, but when it comes to sewing, you have to draw a fine line between challenging and frustrating. The bottom line for your first project: Don't even think about making a suit jacket with notched lapels out of an uneven wool plaid. Starting at that level is a recipe for disaster. You'll probably waste your time and money -- and may never wear the thing after you finish it. In fact, you may never even sew again. Instead, look for simpler projects, such as a pillowcase or a tablecloth, which have just a few seams or hems, don't need fitting, and can be made in a couple of hours or less.

"Know that the first time you make something, you're on a learning curve, and the result probably won't be perfect," Maresh says. "In fact, you may never wear or use the project, which is okay. Your skills improve with every project. After you master the basics, you can move on to more challenging projects that have a little bit more style."

Choosing difficult fabrics to work with. Don't choose fabrics that may be too heavy, too fine, too complicated (such as plaids, stripes, and 1-inch gingham checks), or too expensive (with the proviso that using the best fabrics you can afford adds to the tactile experience of sewing). Instead, choose those fabrics that work with your lifestyle, personal style, and comfort requirements.

"Stay away from lightweight slippery fabrics such as polyester faille, silk crepe or charmeuse, sand-washed rayon, acetate linings, and the entire category of microfibers," warns Maresh. "These fabrics scoot around during cutting, attract static electricity, slip when you pin them together, and need special handling during sewing and pressing. When you're starting out, stick with easier fabrics like cotton poplin, chambray, and cotton twill."

Choosing an unflattering style. When choosing clothing patterns, go for styles that you already know from experience look good on you. When you are taking the time and effort to create a piece from start to finish, it's probably not a good time to try a new fit or style.

"Chances are that if elastic-waist, pull-on pants from your local department store don't look good on you, elastic-waist, pull-on pants that you make for yourself won't look good on you, either," Maresh explains. "Before you get started on a new project, it's a good idea to try on pieces you own, or even try on similar styles at a local store to get a good idea of the type of sizing and fit that works best for you."

Using the wrong fabric for the pattern. If a pattern says "for knits only" and you decide to use a woven poplin because you love the color, the project won't fit. Knits stretch and contribute to the overall fit of the garment. If you choose a pattern labeled "not suitable for plaids" and you decide to ignore this instruction, you're setting yourself up for failure.

"Always read the back of the pattern envelope and choose from the list of recommended fabrics," asserts Maresh. "Patterns list fabric recommendations for a reason!"

Laying out the fabric incorrectly. Have you ever had your pants' legs twist uncomfortably around your legs while walking? Perhaps this same pair of pants makes you look bowlegged even when you carefully press the creases. Chances are good that the fabric of those pants was cut off-grain. While you may be eager to start sewing on your project, remember that proper preparation can make all the difference in the success and quality of a finished project.

"Before cutting, lay out the pattern as your pattern guide sheet instructions recommend," suggests Maresh. "To avoid costly mistakes, remember the old adage: Measure twice and cut once!"

Neglecting to use interfacing. Interfacing is a layer of fabric that gives body and oomph to collars, cuffs, and front plackets. It doesn't show on the outside of the garment, but it makes a world of difference in the project's final look.

"If you're spending your time and effort making something, you'll want it to look as professional as possible," Maresh explains. "Interfacing will help you do that. Try using it in your next project; you'll love the results."

Failing to press as you sew. When you press a project after each seam, you shape a flat, shapeless piece of fabric into something that fits the forms and curves of whatever is under it—almost like pressing the fabric into submission. It's a small step that can make a big difference in the outcome of a project.

"I remember one of my favorite college professors at the New York Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT for short) telling me to 'have a love affair with your iron,'" recalls Maresh. "I never really thought too much about the value of pressing garments-in-progress until he said it, but he was right."

Using your grandmother's hand-me-down sewing machine. Part of the joy of sewing is sitting down in front of the machine, knowing that it works perfectly every time. So, instead of borrowing Grandma's old clunker, get a sewing machine that sews in good working order by:

Renting or borrowing a machine from your local sewing machine dealer ... Taking a sewing class and sewing on the classroom machines. ... Buying a new or reconditioned machine from a sewing machine dealer. A used sewing machine sold by a reputable dealer has undergone a thorough mechanical inspection so you can be sure it works well.

"You don't have to buy one of those $4,000 do-everything models," Maresh explains. "You just need one that provides good, reliable service. As your skills improve, and your budget permits, you can trade up to a better model.

"When you use a machine that sews in good working order, you also need to maintain it to keep it that way," she continues. "Read your machine's operating manual to see how to care for your machine and then be sure to treat yours with the TLC it deserves."

Neglecting to use a new needle on every project. Even though the needle may look perfect to the naked eye, the point bends and just plain wears out with use, much like a razor blade. So change your needle and throw the old one away after each project.

"I once met a woman who complained about her needle unthreading each time she sewed," Maresh says. "She brought me the machine so I could diagnose the problem, and I discovered that she had worn the needle down to the eye. We put in a new needle, and the machine worked perfectly."

Refusing to cut yourself some slack. Remember when you first started riding a bike? You weren't perfect, were you? Sewing is like any new skill you take on. You can't be perfect from the get-go, so cut yourself some slack. If you can live with a sewing mistake, don't rip it out.

"Learn from your mistakes, practice, and know that you will improve with time," Maresh says. "Even the sewing pros still mess up from time to time. And the best way to learn and improve is to keep trying new projects and techniques."

"Take time to relish the different challenges presented by each new sewing project," Maresh concludes. "And remember, if you embrace being a beginner and follow all the basic rules, your experience will not only be more rewarding but more enjoyable. You'll sew like a pro in no time at all!"

(Note: Sewing For Dummies® Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-62320-6, $19.99 is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher by calling 877-762-2974.)



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