Stuff I see beginners do…
So I’ve got a summer worth of Beginner Sewing camps and classes under my belt, and there are a few really common things I see beginners doing. These are really small things, that in the grand scale don’t seem to make much difference, but can lead to frustration for them. So this is really:
How to build good habits from the very beginning.
Focus on the machine.
I see fear, a lot of fear. Women who drive full sized SUV’s in big city traffic while drinking coffee and having a conversation with three kids at once sit in front of that little machine afraid to touch the power switch. I get that it’s unfamiliar, but it’s small! No lives will be lost of you screw up! This isn’t a Ferrari, it isn’t going to be expensive to ‘take it around the block’.
The absolute worst thing you can do, which everyone seems to think is a constant threat when it isn’t, is sew through your finger. I’ve seen it happen once* in a business where sewing was what they did full time. That business at the time had been open for twelve years (as of this writing they are still going strong at 17 years) and that was the first and only time since that an employee did that. Lets do the math on that, shall we? Three machines running eight hours a day, five days a week, 49 weeks a year (small business, they take vacations). 5880 sewing hours per year, times 17 years = 99,960 hours of sewing time to accumulate ONE sewn finger incident. That’s a .00001% chance of sewing through your finger. Keep your eyes and mind focused on the sewing and you won’t have to worry about this. The employee in question admitted to looking up at someone who was talking to her without taking her foot off the pedal. She was unfocused.
For the love of Pete buy some decent scissors.
Okay, this isn’t a habit but a tool. But a critically important tool most beginners don’t realize just how important it is. I fully admit to being a scissor snob, I do not require that of my students. If you are using cheap ‘craft’ scissors, you are going to produce ragged, frayed, not-nearly-accurate-to-the-pattern pieces. This in turn makes the actual sewing of those pieces even harder. I have watched children and adults struggle to cut fabric, even hearing “I can’t cut anything”, handed them good, sharp fabric shears, then watched as the frustration melted away to be replaced by a smile and an “oh!”. Walmart sells Fiscars, MSRP of $19.99, which are good quality without the hefty price tag of my beloved Heinkles. If you get a coupon, you can buy them at Michael’s, Jo Ann or Hobby Lobby even cheaper. Melita and Gingher are also really nice and fall in between price wise. [Random: you may notice, all of these are German products. Germany produces some of the best blade steel in the world, followed by Japan. So, there’s a thing you know now.]
“Titanium” scissors are coated with a microscopically thin titanium layer. So long as this layer remains intact, they are fair, but they cannot be sharpened (as that would remove the titanium layer) and any nicks are a death knell. I have some I use for paper and cardboard.
Handing fabric: you are ‘the boss’
It’s a catch-phrase we use in our classes “you are the boss of your fabric” yet some people have a hard time learning that. Two long straight edges to be sewn don’t lay lined up perfectly? Make them line up. Use pins, this is your first tool in controlling the fabric. “Pinning is winning” is another of our catchy slogans. You aren’t going to hurt it’s feelings, it doesn’t have any. There are a lot of times in garment construction where a piece with a curve is sewn to a piece with a straight edge or less curve. Only by being the boss will your crotch seam or sleeve get sewn the way it needs to.
ah! much better, no stabbing fingers…
Pins: both friend and enemy
For beginners, I recommend two qualities in the pins they buy and use: first, ones with big colorful heads. Second: not quilters pins, which are very long. These can be tempting in one may think it gives them more to work with, but it’s using a sword when a kitchen knife will do. Unless your first project is actually a quilt, get ordinary pins. The colorful heads help visually both in knowing where your pins are, but also I intentionally use contrasting colors in order to keep track of them in my projects.
You will poke or scratch yourself with a pin stuck in the fabric. I do it about once per project (which can accumulate to a few a day when I’m really on a roll). Those pins need to be there to control the fabric, so here are a few specific images to help you.
All the pins face the edge to be sewn. This simplifies things mentally as that edge is getting all the ‘action’.
All the pins are not hanging over the raw edge. Porcupines stick their sharp points out there on purpose.
Keep it tidy: 1) put the pins in something
It’s really important to develop the habit of always having your pins in something. Try hard to keep a pincushion near your sewing machine close enough to put those pins in it as you remove them from the thing you are sewing. They are round, they will roll off the table. You are already paused to pull the pin, the half second to stab it into your pincushion will save a toe from injury and your vacuum cleaner hose from being perforated. I have a magnetic pincushion, I like being able to drop them in the general vicinity without worry.
Keep it tidy: 2) trim and toss those threads
I see beginners sew their practice seams, pull out the long tails as recommended, cut them off right at the machine, then leave these long tails hanging off their fabric. Then as they begin the next seam the thread pulls out of the machine and isn’t sewing. This is frustrating. Once the fabric is sewn, it doesn’t need all that extra thread, cut those threads right at the fabric, leave the long tail on the machine.
Then go to the starting point of your sewing and cut off that thread tail and put it in the trash. I see beginners leave all the long tails and say “Oh, I’ll do that all at the end”. I asked several students why they left those long tails until one was able to articulate their thoughts. She said “I guess I’m afraid it will come apart if I cut them off”. Now in our classes we emphasize back-stitching, every start and and finish. Even if you don’t back-stitch, it isn’t going to just fall apart, you have to pull on it, fairly firmly. So don’t let that set in your mind. Cut those tails off, do it every time you stop sewing. Those tails will grab and tangle and twist. They will get sucked down into the machine and cause mechanical problems. Don’t leave them on your table either, they can still cause problem, get them in the trash can. Nothing ruins a vacuum cleaner faster than a couple yards of thread wrapped around the brush. Also, it looks prettier. You feel more accomplished when the half-way stage looks tidy. Boost your self esteem the easy way.
Keep it tidy: 3) keep the coffee at arms reach.
That’s a fully extended arm, arms reach. In our kids classes, they aren’t allowed any liquids on the machine tables at all. Adults are allowed closed type cups (travel mugs) but even then we try to keep them at least 12” away from the machine in all directions. You will be moving your hands and projects through that space, don’t risk your project or your machine with a spill. I personally keep my drink on the table next to my machine, not on the same table.
iced tea, note the 4″ gap between the sewing machine table and where my drink is!
Trust the pattern/ instructions. Actually follow them and don’t add, skip, or change it up.
Understanding comes from doing, particularly when it comes to assembling three dimensional forms. This is engineering in action, it’s not going to come naturally except to a tiny percentage of people. Trust that they already did the complicated thinking and math for you. It doesn’t have to make sense for you to follow it to the letter the first time. Do you really want a geometry lesson? Or just to know that if you line up all the points it will fit over your shoulder?
We do a lined zippered tote in our beginner classes. It’s small, uses plain squares, and gets a variety of techniques under their belts in a fairly short time frame. Once the pieces are sewn to the zipper there is a tendency to think “this isn’t working. I laid it on the table and these squares are all over”.
freshly ironed, but looks wonky
Then they break ranks and grab scissors and start cutting. Don’t do that! Did the instructions tell you to? No they didn’t! Remember that “be the boss” thing? You are still the boss, you can make these pieces line up without cutting a section off.
pinned where it needs to be.
Second, even if you did start with a ragged cut, once it’s turned to the inside, no one is going to see it ever again. Cutting your seam allowance tiny only weakens the seam. Leave it be.
oh hey! that turned out pretty good!
Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
I can’t tell you how many times I give instructions on a step, and all but one person starts doing that step. The one just sits there staring at the fabric or the machine. Speak up! If you are flying solo, find an internet forum and post your question. I’ve found sewing forums and bloggers actually some of the nicest around and most will answer your questions several ways to help you understand the step or procedure. Videos and tutorials are good, but feedback is critically important to learning to do it well.
Good luck! I’ll be here saying “Practice, practice, practice”
*Just in case you were wondering: She was taken to the ER, they removed the broken needle tip, gave her a tetanus shot, glued the hole (punctures rarely need stitches), splinted her finger and she was back to work that afternoon. She wore the finger splint for about a week and was tender for two weeks beyond that. Unpleasant, but far from life threatening.