Saturday, January 14, 2012

{Sew} Get Started: Sewing Basics Part 2

Today's tutorial is about basic skills for sewing. This is part of the {Sew} Get Started: Beginner Sewing Tutorials series.

FairyFace Designs

Cutting Fabric

There are lots of online tutorials about how to cut fabric correctly, many of which go into a large amount of detail, but to get you started I want to keep this straightforward. You should always press your fabric properly to give an even, flat surface before cutting. Cuts made on wrinkly, creased fabric will not be accurate. Be careful when pressing not to iron with steam on, as you would with clothes, as this will distort your fabric and selvedges, athough sometimes I have to press carefully with a shot of steam to get the stubborn creases out.


The simplest way to cut your fabric is to pin a pattern piece to the wrong side, or mark directly onto the wrong side, and cut with a scissors. Remember to work along your grain lines, as explained in Thursday's tute. To mark a pattern, just use a water soluble pen or tailors chalk and follow your template or use a ruler.

You can then make an easy, accurate cut along the line. Sometimes, I cut roughly around the pattern piece/template first, then I cut it accurately, particularly if I'm working with a large piece of fabric, or a small template piece. To pin a pattern piece to the fabric and cut around it, there are a few things to be aware of. One is placing your paper template to match the grain lines. I was taught to do this by marking a line in the middle of the paper and placing it on the fabric. Then measuring the distance to the edge of the selvedge and pinning at one end of the line.


Then move your measuring tape up and do the same at the top of the line, making any adjustments necessary.

Pin your paper template at regular intervals to the fabric, then cut using a scissors.

Keep your non-cutting hand flat on the template close to the edge to keep your fabric as flat as possible when cutting - this gives greatest accuracy. But mind your fingers!

Rotary Cutter

Using a rotary cutter and ruler are an easy way to cut regular shapes like squares and rectangles and very accurate. I cut almost everything with a rotary cutter now, it is easy and speedy but buying a self-healing cutting mat, ruler and cutter is a little more expensive than a scissors. If you discover that you love sewing and you intend continuing and making lots of projects, particularly quilts, its definitely worth the extra money. I bought my cutting board locally but have been told they can be found cheaply on Ebay, so its worth checking around for good value.

First, you need to cut your fabric on the grain, close to the selvedge for a straight edge - I usually line up the ruler with the selvedge edge to give me a 3/4" width, then I cut.

To cut, place your hand on the ruler and hold steady - your hand should not be flat, but raised with your fingers spread to give you maximum stablility as you cut. Roll your rotary blade carefully along the ruler edge to the correct point. Then, line up your rule with the fresh cut edge to give you the correct measurements and cut. Line up your cut edges with the ruler lines to give you accurate angles and lines.

As I mentioned previously, safety is very important for cutting and particularly for rotary cutting. The exposed blade is extremly sharp and it is all too easy to cut yourself. Make sure, when you are cutting, that your fingers remain on the ruler and don't hang over the edge, in the path of the blade. This might sound basic, but I know experienced quilters who have done this! Work slowly and carefully - too fast and its easy to make mistakes. As I said previously, you should ensure that you put the blade guard back on (mine just slides up to engage, its very simple) as soon as your cut is made so that you don't leave the blade exposed, which is an accident waiting to happen. This is particularly important if you are working with kiddies around.

Machine Sewing

I hope you had a little fun playing round with your machine after Thursday's tute. Once you have it threaded, sewing is easy. Place your fabric right sides together and pin if necessary. I don't pin small pieces of fabric when sewing as I find that quilting cottons tend to stay together for as long as needed. For beginners, if you are working with fabric that is a little slippy or stretchy - e.g. fleece or minky, it is worthwhile taking the time to baste/tack your seams and then remove the pins for sewing. The basting stitches will hold your seams more securely than pins will and not having to think about the pins helps when you are concentrating on the fabric! It is time consuming, but worth it for a nice finish. (I will expain more about basting further down.)

Once you have your fabric preparered, raise your needle and presser foot and place the point you want to start sewing at in under your presser foot. Lower the foot and the needle and press your foot pedal to start sewing.

The pressure needed on your foot pedal will depend on your machine - you will get to know it. A really important thing to remember if you are a newbie sewist is that your machine will pull the fabric through at the correct pace - you do not need to help the machine by pushing it under the presser foot. All you need to do is hold it lightly to support it and direct it to get your seam allowance right. Pushing/feeding it will not help your machine - the opposite in fact! If you are working with a big piece of fabric, support the weight of the fabric as it feeds into the machine to avoid a drag on the needle.

To "tie off" your stitches, use your reverse button to take one back stitch, then take a stitch forward and then back and forward once more. This will seal your line of stitching from unravelling. You should tie off your stitches at the beginning and end of a row, but for patchwork piecing it is not necessary to tie off stitches when you are sewing the patches together ("piecing"). I only tie off the stitching rows which run to the edge of the quilt top (or equivalent). This is because all the patches are sewn together in rows and columns, thus sealing in the ends of each row of stitching. But the edges of quilt tops will be subject to being moved around, lifted and manipulated, so it is easy for the stitches to unravel at the edges if not tied off.

Seam allowances are an important part of accurate sewing. The seam allowance is the distance between the edge of the fabric and your stitching line. Seam allowance is really important - if it is not accurate to the pattern, your quilt/garment/project will not come out at the right size. For quilting, a seam allowance of 1/4" is most common. It is a narrow seam allowance, and I use a special 1//4" foot (you can see it in the picture above) to sew it accurately. For a beginner, I would suggest that you practice sewing a straight line with an accurate seam allowance of half an inch and get used to what you are doing. Your machine will have markings on the stitch plate (or you can mark it yourself) to follow. Once you have gotten used to this, try the 1/4" allowance - its not hard, just take it slow and be as accurate as you can be. Gwen has a great post here about seam allowance and how to adjust your seam allowance on your machine - I highly recommend you read it to understand the subject.

There are a small number of stitches which are the most frequently used:

Straight stitch - used for most sewing on cotton and non stretch fabrics. A stitch length of 2 or 2.5 is a good length for most projects, mine is set as standard to 2.5 when working with cotton, you will need to adjust it depending on the fabric you're working with.

Zig Zag stitch - used to seal the edges of applique, as a decorative stitch, and often used in the seams of garments/cushions/pillows to stop them fraying when going through the wash. I also use zig zag stitches to sew small pieces of batting together to make larger pieces. Zig zags can be done with different widths and lengths - a small, tight zig zag stitch is known as a satin stitch

Basting Stitch - Also known as tacking, this is basically a very long straight stitch and is used to hold fabrics together before sewing them properly. It can be used instead of pinning. I usually increase my stitch length to 6 to baste. You can also hand baste, taking large stitches. It is a good technique for beginners to use to hold your work together more accurately than pinning, particularly if working with stretchy fabrics. It will give more stability and accuracy when you are sewing the proper seam. To baste by hand or machine, use some pins to hold together your work, then insert the basting stitches. Then remove the pins and adjust your stitch length and sew your seam properly. You can then pull out the basting stitches.

Decorative Stitches - Most machines have some decorative stitch functions - the number depends on the machine. My last machine had 3 or 4, my current machine has loads! They can be simple or complex. This wavy line is one of my favourite decorative stitches and is nice for adding detail to garments and quilts.

Buttonhole & Hemming - I didn't show the button hole or hemming stitch functions here, but many machines have a range of different stitches for doing these jobs. Your manual will tell you more. Buttonholes are simpler than you might think and a little bit of practice will see you right.

Hand Sewing

There are lots of different hand stitches and embroidery stitches you could use. The ones I use most often if handsewing are the running stitch, slip stitch and back stitch, and for hand embroidery the chain stitch and the stem stitch.

Running stitch is a simple stitch done by pushing your needle in and out of the fabric along the line you want to sew. It is useful for basting/tacking, for hand quilting, if you want to gather fabric etc.

Back stitch is more like a machine stitch in terms of it strength and security, and can be used in place of machine stitching for sewing seams etc.

Other stitches that you may use for sewing up openings are a whip stitch and a slip stitch.

There are lots of vides on YouTube showing how to handsew various stitches. Lots are devoted to one particular stitch. This one gives a good overview of lots of stitches (including some you may never use!) - so go and have a search around any time you need to do a particular stitch.


I think I have covered a lot of the basic terms, but some additional ones you might see are:

Applique - where a design or motif is cut out and sewn to another piece of fabric for decorative effect.

Embellish - to add decorative detail to a piece of sewing, e.g. with decorative stitches, buttons, applique etc

Feed Dog - the teeth under the stitch plate on your sewing machine which pull your fabric through.

Free Motion - sewing with the feed dogs lowered and no regulation of stitch length. Used as a quilting technique or in applique to outline the cutout piece.

Stash - usually refers to your lovely collection of fabric!

Top Stitch - A line of stitching close to the edge of your finished project to secure it further, or for decorative purposes. It is usually added after your turn your project right side out, and can be a straight or decorative stitch.

This is the last of the introductory tutorials. I hope they were useful for the complete beginners out there! Next Thursday, we will start the practical tutes (yippee!) with a tutorial for this simple pincushion and needlebook.

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