Thursday, January 12, 2012

{Sew} Get Started: Sewing Basics Part 1

Tools and Materials

Today's post is all about getting familar with your tools and materials!  If you know what you're doing with your machine and fabrics etc, you can skip this one, but if you are a complete beginner and just bought your first sewing machine, I hope that you will find it useful. This post is part of the {Sew} Get Started series.

FairyFace Designs

Sewing Machine

I recommend that you spend a little bit of time this week getting familiar with your machine. It won't bite!

The very first thing I am going to say to you is to go and find your manual. Read it. Use it. Keep it to hand. Refer to it often. If you have a manual on DVD, all the better. Put it on and watch it - I had one for my previous machine and it was brilliant, with videos to show you how to do all the basic sewing techniques. It was a mine of information. Keep it safe, and take it out and look at it when you are learning a new technique. Sewing machine manuals contain lots of vital information about how your machine is set up, along with trouble shooting tips, and you should keep it carefully.

The next thing I want you to do, before you start sewing and trying out stitches etc is to take a note of your tension settting - the one that came preset on it from the factory.Your manual will show you where to find your tension dial. Most will be set between 4-6 I would imagine. Make a note of it somewhere - on the inside cover of your manual preferrably. That way, you always have it (for the days you are messing around and can't figure out what it should be set to!) No. 1 rule coming up - don't touch your tension! Your preset tension will be right for almost all the projects you will need to do. The only time I ever change my is for free motion quilting, and then only rarely. So leave it alone until you really know what you are doing!

Ok - every sewing machine is different but all will have roughly the same structure, so I'm going to give you a quick tour of mine. My sewing machine is a Pfaff Expression 2.0.  I have owned it for just over a year and absolutely love it. It is a digital machine with lots of extra features on it and a nice long throat which helps when quilting. However, my first machine was a cheap machine from Lidl (a discount grocery store, for the non-Europeans!) which cost me €70 and worked absolutely fine for the 2 years prior to that and was certainly a good buy for a beginner. The only problem about buying a machine like that is that you can't get spare parts, and when it packs it in, its really not worth replacing. It is worth going to a sewing machine shop and getting advice when buying a machine. Buying a good 2nd hand machine from a reputable dealer is a great way of accessing a machine with a better spec than you could normally afford.

You can see in the photo above the main parts of my sewing machine. What you can't see in the photo is the wheel on the right hand side which you can turn manually to move your presser foot up and down. Your manual will show you the different parts of your machine.

The next thing to get familiar with is the different presser feet. Most machines will come with a range of presser feet. How many depends on your make and model. But most will include a standard presser foot, a zipper foot and a buttonhole foot at a minimum. If your machine has decorative stitches, it may come with extra feet for these stitches. You can usually buy additional presser feet for your machine and if you are going to be doing a lot of quilting, a 1/4" foot is really, really useful.  It is important to use the correct foot for the type of stitching you are doing. I have broken more needles than I care to remember forgetting to switch out my 1/4" foot for the standard foot before starting to do a zig zag stitch!

You also should check what's in your accessory tray. You will usually find a seam ripper, anything needed to maintain the machine, needles and other essential bits. If you have a free arm machine, your accessory tray will slide off, leaving a narrower arm which is useful if you are sewing tubular items such as sleeves etc.

The first thing you need to do is to thread your machine and to wind a bobbin. Every machine is threaded differently so unfortunately I can't show you how to thread your machine. But your manual will show you how. If you have trouble figuring out the manual instructions, pop over to YouTube and do a search for threading a sewing machine, using your machine make and model and you should be able to find a video. The most important thing to remember is that your presser foot should be up when you are threading, otherwise it will not thread correctly. Once you have your bobbin wound, and your machine threaded, pop your bobbin in its case and thread it through as per your manual, put back on the cover and you are ready to sew.  My bobbin is a "drop in" bobbin - i.e. you just drop the bobbin in the case which is visible in the stitch plate. Bobbins can also be side loading, as my previous machine was.

Your stitch plate will usually have markings in different widths on it. These are for seam allowances and are really useful. You can also add your own seam allowance markings - a quick google search will show you how.

Now, you are ready to start having a little fun. You will be able to set your stitch type, length etc using the buttons on your machine, so go try them out with some doubled up scraps of fabric. I cut up my hubbie's old cotton work shirts and use them for practising stitches on rather than wasting my precious fabric! More about starting to use your machine in Saturday's tute.

If you have problems with stitching, particularly if you get a "birds nest" on the bottom, the first thing to do is to rethread, making sure your presser foot is up. Problems with the stitches on the bottom of the fabric are usually related to the top thread.  Other basic troubleshooting would be to redo your bobbin, and to change your needle. Your manual will also have some advice.

Finally, it is important to take care of your sewing machine. You will find some little brushes in your accessory tray to clean out the fluff from your bobbin case etc and your manual will tell you what you need to do to keep it maintained - so do make sure you keep it well looked after, to prevent problems arising. And don't forget to get your machine serviced when it is needed!


There are hundreds of different types of fabric out there. For craft sewing and a small bit of garment making, there is probably a reasonably limited range of the type of fabrics you will work with. Here are the main ones I use:

Most of what I use is quilting weight cotton. I often use lighter weight cottons for binding quilts. Home decor weight fabric is great for cushions/pillows and bags and totes too.  As you can see in the photo below, home dec weight is a little bit heavier weight than quilting cotton.

Quilting cottons come in printed or plain fabrics known as solids:

A few important things to know about fabrics:

  • When working with most fabrics, you need to know where the "grain" is. Simply put, this is the line that runs parallel or at right angles to the edge of your fabric - as your fabric consists of threads running lengthways which are woven with threads running crossways. It is usually called straight grain, or straight-of-grain. Fabric has a lengthwise and crosswise grain. It is important to try and cut on the grain as fabric behaves much better when cut properly! This is particularly important for garment making but is also relevant to quilting.
  • The bound edge of fabric is called the selvedge and is usually woven tighter than the fabric itself. It is important that you cut the selvedge off fabric before using it as it has different properties and sews and shrinks differently to the rest of the fabric.
I have marked the selvedge and grain lines in the photo below. If you have already cut the selvedge and don't know where your grain is, the easiest way to find it is to look at the threads and try to see where you think it is. Make a little cut and try to tear the fabric - if it tears easily in a straight line, that is your grain. Also if you can pull a thread in the fabric, it will usually show you accurately where your grain is.

Fabric also has a "bias". True bias is line running at 45 degrees to the grain line. Fabric has huge stretch on the bias, so it can be difficult to work with. This is by comparison to the stretch on the grain, which is minimal.

Some fabrics, such as fleece, minky, velvet and cord have a "nap". This refers to the direction of the pile. Depending on the direction, the fabric can look different - for example, the colour can look deeper. In the photo below you can see the differnce in shading depending on the direction of the nap. If you are using fabrics with a nap, you need to be careful that pieces are cut so that the nap is running correctly in the finished product. Patterns may specify the nap, but if not do be aware of it when you are cutting.

Lastly - fabric needs to be stored and cared for properly. You should fold fabric carefully and store out of direct light and away from strong smells. There are lots of different storage systems out there you can use. I like to use big decorative cardboard boxes - the ones that come as flat pack and assemble with buttons or hat boxes. I also use baskets, and these are stacked on my shelves.


 I store fabric by quantity - so, yardage in one box, fat quarters/big scraps in baskets, and small scraps in smaller baskets. I keep batting, fleece and minky separately, and I have another box for precuts like layer cakes and charm packs.

The question as to whether or not to prewash is a subject of a lot of opinion and there are arguments for and against. For me, the main reason for prewashing is to eliminate colour bleeding. I generally don't prewash designer quilting cottons - like Moda, Kona, Riley Blake etc etc - as I find their colours don't run, although I sometimes do wash deep pinks and reds and blues when I am using them with white, just for peace of mind. But I do prewash cheaper fabrics as I have found some of those carried by my local fabric shop are inclined to run. I also wash fabrics if I am concerned about them shrinking, and fabrics do shrink at different rates, so if I have a mixture of fabrics I will often pre-wash. The other reason a lot of people like to prewash is to remove the chemicals they are treated with by manufacturers. These chemicals give the fabric a nice crisp feel and help repel moths etc. I am just too lazy to be too bothered about the chemicals but it can be a concern for people with allergies. What you do is a personal choice, but whatever you do, don't try to prewash charm packs - they will come out of the washing machine a complete mess and I suspect the same thing would happen with a layer cake.

Interfacing, Fusible Web, Batting and more....

Some other products you will use with your fabric include interfacing, batting/wadding, fusible web and stabilisers.

Interfacing is used to provide shape and stiffness to fabrics and comes in a variety of weights. It comes as fusible (iron on) or sew in. I mostly use fusible interfacing, and much prefer woven interfacing which is softer. Your local fabric store will generally be able to advise you as to what type of interfacing to use for the project you are working on, or the tutorial/pattern will tell you what to get. There is great information on interfacing over in this U-Handbag article if you want to find out more.

Fusible web is used for applique. There are lots of brands - I use one called Bondaweb as it is the best one available to me here in the local shops. It is papery on one side and rough on the other. More about fusible web in later tutorials!

Stabilizer is used to...well, stabilize your fabrics when you are doing something like machine embroidery. Otherwise your machine might chew up your fabric! The stablizer I get here -  Vlieseline Stickvlies - can also be used as freezer paper, I recently discovered.

As with all the products, you can get lots of types of quilt batting. I like to use a cotton batting with a low loft, i.e. it is a thin batting. The brand I use is called Warm and White, but there are lots of different types out there and you need to find what works for you by trialling whatever is available to you. You can get wool and wool mix battings also.

You can also get polyester batting which tends to be cheaper. It comes in different lofts and is very useful for things like playmats etc.

The cotton batting is on the left of the photo, and the polyester on the right - you can see the difference.


You will need an iron and an ironing board for any sewing you are doing. Most sewing involves pressing - i.e. putting the iron down and letting the weight and heat do the work - rather than ironing, which can distort your fabric. Lee did a great post on this issue here which is worth reading.

I also bought a cheapie Tesco Value €5 iron for applying applique and interfacing, as the fusible stuff will stick to your iron if you are not really accurate and its easy to ruin your good iron with it.

Cutting Tools

Your scissors and/or rotary cutter will get a lot of use, so take care of them and never ever use for paper which will blunt them quicker than you can imagine. Rotary cutters, in particular, are very easy to mishandle so it is really important to be aware of safety when you are using them. The most important rule is to put the guard back on the blade every time you put it down, so you never reach for it without thinking and give yourself a serious cut.

A rotary cutter is not necessary for cutting but it does make cutting hugely easier and is a good investment. A small quilting ruler is also an invaluable tool for making sure that your pieces are cut and measured properly, you have proper angles etc.

That's all for now folks....pop back Saturday for the 2nd part which is about getting sewing, stitches, how to cut your fabric, a glossary of sewing terms etc. Then we will be ready to kick off with our first project next week!

As always, pop any questions up in the Flickr group, in the comments or email me directly!


Sarah said...

Awesome machine Sarah! (Great post too obviously but I'm still distracted by the awesomeness of your machine... lol)

Irina said...

Great post! and I agree... this is a Rolls Royce of a sewing machine...

Francis Paul said...

I have the same Pfaff 2.0 :-) still finding out all the things it can do though..........

Alison in Germany said...

So that's what selvedge is! Thanks so much for doing this, it's really helpful!

Katy Cameron said...

Loads to digest there, that should keep people busy a while :o) Just a couple of things though - lower end machines don't come with automatic tension - my Baby Brother (which was a £400 RRP) certainly didn't, there's a dial I have to turn on it, and other than a diagram to show how to tell whether your top or bottom was too loose in the manual, you had to work it out yourself, it didn't even have a suggested preset!

Also, you might want to consider changing to pop up comments rather than embedded ones, as the embedded ones cause the most problems for people trying to comment getting stuck in a loop since Blogger changed things last autumn (case in point, I'm reading this at work on IE, but have had to e-mail this comment home so I can open it on Chrome there and post it)

Inspiredbyfelix said...

Brilliant start Sarah! I'm telling everyone who mentions sewing to me about your programme of posts! x

Kathy said...

Fantastic Post Sarah - so Fantastic I'm going to direct people to it from my blog :) So much great info, and easy to read :)

Anonymous said...

This is fab - got my first machine for Christmas and need lots of helpful tips and pointers such as this! Look forward to your next tutorials...

Anonymous said...

What a great tutorial, not only for the beginner, but also lots of reminders for the more experienced sewer.

Katarina said...

I'm not a total beginner but as I never took any sewing classes I learnt a lot from your blog post. Thank you very much!!

Lindsay said...

I just started sewing and this blog is so helpful! Please dont stop its so helpful i actually handwrite notes (its how i learn)