Learn to sew – complete beginners

I seem to collect wardrobe pattern books and review them. I started reviewing ‘Dressmaking’ by Alison Smith. That started off so many thoughts on learning, my comments expanded into 5 posts. Perhaps that is a bit much !

The ‘Dressmaking’ book is supposed to be a ‘complete step-by-step’ guide to sewing. I don’t think it would be good for beginners. And it’s not for advanced skills. I do think it’s very good for intermediate learning, though it doesn’t cover anywhere near everything ! More on that later – first a couple of posts on help for beginners.

These are my own levels of sewing difficulty. I don’t know any generally accepted list of skills !

(P.S. Many books for beginners, with patterns included, have been published since this post was written. Sorry, but I havenโ€™t been able to keep up with them all, so canโ€™t comment on quality.)

Allow for what you’re nervous about

It takes time to build confidence in all the skills needed to make garments. Fabric knowledge, pattern symbols, layout, cutting, marking, pressing, fitting, pattern altering, as well as sewing. It’s a wonder we ever learn it all.

These are guides I get on with. As we all learn best in different ways (see my post on what helps you learn) they may not be to everyone’s taste. I like many pictures, much detail, easy beginnings and gentle progress. And videos.

Some people are intimidated both by using a sewing machine and by commercial patterns. I’ve called them ‘timid’ complete beginners.

And some people are happy to try anything with good instructions. Most books on learning are aimed at them.

Some people are happy to use a machine, but daunted by commercial patterns. Suggestions for them at the end.

Some people like to start with a challenge – you don’t need my advice ! Just enjoy the process and laugh about what you make ๐Ÿ˜€

‘Drape’ without a pattern

Some people like to work direct with fabric. Including refashion charity shop finds. Currently popular but not my style.

A lot of designers work in this way, by ‘draping’ on a dress form or person (see my post). Flat pattern making is actually quite a recent development. Different people prefer the different approaches.

There are books, sites and blogs on this but I don’t know them. Nearly all the sources I mention involve a paper pattern – though some of them are very easy patterns that you make yourself.

If you want to devise your own projects but need a beginners general reference book on sewing, there’s Me and my sewing machine by Kate Haxell – good and clear on basic sewing machine skills.

Timid complete beginners

These are some places to start if you’re intimidated by the thought of using a sewing machine or a commercial pattern.

There are many on-line sewing tips and ultra simple beginner projects at Debbie Colgrove’s site. Move on to her detailed Sewing 101 course – make pillow covers and a robe (dressing gown).

Here’s another simple on-line guide by Tilly and the buttons.

eSewingWorkshop.com has a free course of on-line videos on the basics of using a sewing machine.

Prefer a physical book ? Perhaps take A little course in sewing with a guided sequence of hand and machine sewing projects. Though there are pages of needed equipment. It would be less daunting if they mentioned that the tools actually needed (very few) are listed with each project.

Or try Sew Over It by Lisa Comfort. Altering and embellishing clothes for beginners. The only complaints at Amazon are that it’s too easy !

The Mary Frances Sewing Book is fun if you’d be happy to learn by hand sewing dolls’ clothes. Shorten the garments to thigh length (about 7 in./ 18 cm shoulder to hem) if you prefer current styles. Adults are allowed to use a sewing machine, so machine sew them if you prefer ๐Ÿ˜€

I’m a timid learner myself. (The first issue of ‘Sew Stylish’ magazine had 12 sewing personalities. I recognised myself in “when will you have made enough place mats and be ready to move on ?” ๐Ÿ˜€ It’s drawstring bags I’ve got a house full of.) I know what’s it’s like to be knocked sideways by incomprehensible, incomplete or wrong instructions. I don’t know if there are any sources with no errors at all, but hopefully the ones I mention have very few.

(P.S. 2018. Mimi G, who publishes Simplicity patterns with video sew-alongs, now has a good video course for complete beginners, Sew It! Academy, with separate courses for women and men, no written instructions.)

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Confident complete beginners

For beginners who don’t need to start quite so slowly.
Most of these guides assume you’re happy to use a sewing machine.

Diana Rupp is clear and helpful in her beginners’ video class at Craftsy. Make a pillow and simple skirt with zip. Linked to her book Sew Everything Workshop.

Connie Crawford’s Studio Sewing Skills DVD leads you through practice samples (there’s even a kit of materials), then making a blouse.

Make modern doll’s clothes ? – detailed videos at Rosie’s doll clothes.

A couple of video series go from beginner to expert.

You Can Make It DVDs are detailed sew-alongs with 7 levels : elastic waist skirt, skirt with zip and waistband, simple blouse with collar and sleeves, sleeveless dress with waist seam cut from plaid, pants with fly zip, shirt, notched collar jacket. Cumulative, later DVDs assume you have worked through earlier ones. Video clips here.

The Sewing Guru has introductory videos on the sewing machine, and a beginners class on making a pillow (cushion cover) and apron.
Then sew-along videos from easier skirt, pyjamas, dress, to more difficult men’s pants, shirt and tailored jackets. Join free for a couple of days and look around the site.

Ah, those are all videos. I do like the clothes styles that the book Sewing Machine Basics by Jane Bolsover leads up to (pants, skirt, top patterns). Before that there are good sections on basic skills, then a related project. I need to be more imaginative about these projects – change the colours, and use fleece instead of felt !

Make your own patterns

Personally I find it more alarming to be expected to make my own patterns than to use a commercial pattern. But some people are the other way round.

Some people find commercial patterns daunting and confusing.
Some people find making their own patterns is more freely creative, and they feel more ownership of the result.

These are some places to start if you don’t want to use a conventional pattern. They do assume you don’t need help with using a sewing machine, or you’re happy to hand sew your garments.

I enjoy DIY Couture. Instructions for drawing garment shapes directly onto the fabric. (The ‘How to use the instructions’ section has comments on which styles are easy, which more difficult.) There’s a long review with sample pages by nouvellegamine.

These other books include making your own paper patterns by simple methods.

The hippie style Hassle-free make your own clothes book is simple and fun. A bit like DIY Couture, but you draw the shapes onto paper rather than direct onto fabric.

Sew What Bags is simple : cut fabric to measurements, or make a square/ rectangle pattern the shape and size you want your bag.

Sew What Skirts and Sew What Fleece are fun guides to simple ‘proper’ pattern making. Draw out the simplest possible patterns for skirts and other garments, based on a small number of personal measurements,

Learning to sew is a topic a bit like fit – I’ve done a lot of exploring of what’s available !
Posts to come on sources I like at advanced beginner level, and for learning intermediate skills.

There are hundreds of books on learning to sew. Some have a few minor mistakes, some are truly terrible. I’ve only seen a small sample. And it’s impossible for one book/ video to be in the best instruction style for everyone, or contain projects loved by all tastes – so you may not like my suggestions !

Good Luck for avoiding confusing books. Worth taking the time to read low star reviews at Amazon. And only believe 5 star reviews from beginners who’ve actually followed the instructions. Many glowing reviews are from people who just think the book looks pretty – much easier than writing good instructions.

In the right hand menu of my blog there are links to on-line sources of sewing demos, DVDs, and tutorials.

Getting to the level of being able to sew garments is a major achievement.
Best Wishes for finding easy projects that you want to make, and enjoy your learning ๐Ÿ˜€

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Links available February 2013

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4 Comments on “Learn to sew – complete beginners”


  1. I love your posts – thank you so much for the care you take. Have you seen this? http://www.easypatternmaking.co.za/ Eilleen Lewis has developed a Pattern Ruler which enables to you make patterns which fit, including the alltime problem – well-fitting pants. Do have a look and review. I am using the Ruler and it is marvellous!
    Candy

    • sewingplums Says:

      Thanks for your comment Candy. Yes, I’ve seen that ruler, and I’m pleased to hear it works well for you. As far as I can see it just allows for bust and hip measures. Sadly it wouldn’t work for me – sloping shoulders, high round back, forward neck, unusual armholes, large high hips, non-average crotch curve. . . It is marvellous if you can find an easy aid that helps you get good patterns.


      • The Pattern Ruler allows you make a basic bodice, skirt, or pants pattern which includes all your personal measurements, however odd, (and would certainly deal with high hip), and then, in the accompanying books, shows you how to adjust for backs, sloping shoulders, gaping shoulders, and crotch adjustments – it really is a very simple and enabling way into pattern-making! And in addition there are instructions on dart manipulation and the first stages of real design. Why not write to Eilleen and put these points to her?


  2. I have an enthusiastic synthetic eye to get details and may anticipate complications before they occur.


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