Introduction: Welcome to Machine Sewing!

In this class, we're going to learn the basics of using a home sewing machine. Sewing isn't an activity that should be confined to one gender or profession, it's just an awesome skill that let's you create all kinds of great projects no matter who you are! From clothing and accessories to home decor, toys and outdoor gear, sewing is an essential process that helps hold together the world around us. If you've never sewn, the prospect of using a sewing machine may may a little intimidating to you, but mastering the basics of sewing is actually fairly simple. Home machines are amazingly hard working and versatile tools, so you don't even need to max out your credit card on a fancy industrial machine to get professional looking results.

In this class we'll learn how to understand and operate our machine, choose fabric, sew straight stitches and zigzag, create beautiful straight and curved seams, add hems and seam finishing, sew stretch fabric, create buttonholes, attach zippers, buttons and elastic, follow simple patterns, and more! As we learn, we'll apply these techniques by creating some fun simple projects.

By the end of this class, your sewing machine won't seem so intimidating, and you'll have the skills you need make sewing part of your creative practice.

Step 1: What We're Making

We're going to practice the sewing skills we learn by making some simple projects at the end of each lesson. I've tried to choose projects here that are not gender-specific because sewing should be a skill for everyone! Hopefully applying techniques in this way will help give you an idea of the awesome DIY possibilities that are open to you when you know how to sew :)

Grocery Bag: practice marking, cutting, pinning, sewing straight seams, sewing corners, topstitching, pressing, hemming and seam finishing by making a simple canvas grocery bag.

Stuffed Creature: practice sewing smooth curved seams and panelling by following a simple pattern to create an adorable stuffed creature from a simple pattern I've designed.

Infinity Scarf: practice using your home machine to sew stretch stitches by making a simple infinity scarf with two contrasting stretch fabrics.

Zippered Dopp Kit: practice installing zippers and adding a lining by making a simple lined dopp kit with a zipper closure.

Pajama Pants: learn how to follow a commercial sewing pattern and practice gathering and using elastic by sewing simple pajama pants. Choose a different pattern if you're feeling ambitious :)

Step 2: Shopping for Fabric

Fabric choice has a tremendous impact on the things you sew, both aesthetically and functionally. Some fabrics just won't work for certain designs and others are really difficult to sew for beginners. Fabric stores can be dizzying and glee inducing... so many choices! Don't panic. There are thousands of types of fabric, but a little knowledge goes a long way. Here's what you need to know to get started:

Woven versus knit: this is possibly the most basic distinction when it comes to types of fabric. It is a fundamental structural difference in the way the fabric is created, and how it behaves.

Woven fabric is fabric that is made on a loom with warp and weft yarns that are woven over and under each other at right angles.

Different weaving patterns and different types of fibers create fabrics with different qualities, but standard woven fabrics are usually less stretchy and more structural than knits. Wovens are traditionally used to make the majority of clothing, especially anything tailored or structured (though more and more modern sportswear is created with knits because knits are more comfortable).

Some of the most common types of woven fabric are: quilting cotton, canvas, suiting, flannel, linen, denim, chiffon, organza and brocade among many many others.

Knits are fabrics that are created with a knitting machine. The structure of a knit fabric is fundamentally the same as something knitted by hand, but at a much much smaller scale. Instead of having many individual warp and weft strands like a woven, knits are made with just one long yarn that is looped over and over onto itself in thousands of knit stitches.

Because of its structure, knit fabric is fundamentally stretchier than woven fabric even when it is not made with a stretch yarn, and it therefore needs to be sewn with a zigzag stitch, a serger, or another technique that allows the seams to stretch with the fabric. Knit fabrics are also usually softer and more "drapey" than wovens, making them popular for clothing.

Some of the most common types of knit fabric are jersey, spandex, tricot, and sweater knits.

We will mostly be using woven fabrics in this class because they are easier to sew with a standard sewing machine, but we will also spend one lesson learning how to sew knits on a home machine.

Natural versus synthetic fibers: the yarns that make up a fabric are made from tiny fibers and those fibers can come from a variety of different sources, some man-made, and some naturally occurring. When you are shopping for fabric you will usually find a tag on each bolt of fabric that identifies the fiber content of the fabric. If you can't find this, ask for help.

Natural fibers are any fiber that comes from a plant or animal. Wool, silk, cotton, and linen are the most common naturally occurring fabric fibers. Cloth made from natural fibers tends to be more expensive and is often higher quality than synthetic fabric. I also think natural fiber fabric usually has a nicer feel, or "hand" than synthetic fabric, but the technology that creates synthetic fabric can give it more variation and versatility.


Cotton Plants. Photo by Kimberly Vardeman (Flickr: Cotton Harvest) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Flowers of the Flax plant which produces linen fibers. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1...


Silk Worm and Cocoon. Photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/guojerry/7267496528... Creative Commons


Sheep whose wool is used to make cloth

Synthetic fibers are fibers that have been man-made by an extrusion process (which works kind of like a giant pasta maker with very tiny holes). Nylon, polyester, acrylic and spandex are some of the most common synthetic fibers. Fibers like rayon and bamboo can be considered semi-synthetic because they are actually made from a solution of wood pulp that is extruded in the same way as other synthetic fibers. Fabrics made from synthetic fibers have both advantages and disadvantages over natural fibers. They usually wrinkle and stain less easily, but they will melt under a hot iron, and they tend to retain smells more than natural fibers. They also tend to look and feel cheaper.


Spandex fiber. Photo by Luigi Chiesa - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3...


Spandex fiber under a microscope. Photo by Photon 400 750 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4...

These days many fabrics are blends of natural and synthetic fibers. For example: combining synthetic spandex with natural cotton allows factories to create woven stretch denim. Such amazing advances have been made in the process of manufacturing synthetic microfibers that, at this point, some synthetic fabrics can be hard to distinguish from natural fabrics.

Easier and harder fabrics to sew: some fabrics are harder to sew than others, and for a beginning sewer, it's important to choose fabric that won't be frustrating to work with. I recommend fabrics that I think are good for our projects at the beginning of each lesson, but here are a few things to keep in mind.

By Fiber Content:

  • Cotton - generally the easiest kind of fabric to sew. It isn't slippery or sticky, it moves smoothly through a sewing machine, and it's easy to pin and press.
  • Wool - also fairly easy, though thicker wools can sometimes jam a sewing machine.
  • Silk - tends to be trickier because silk fabrics are often slippery and springy.
  • Synthetics - some synthetic fabrics, like nylon, can be fairly easy to sew, while others like poly-organza are much harder. I mostly recommend using fabrics made from natural fibers as a beginner, with the exception of knits.

By Weight: mid-weight fabrics will usually be the easiest to sew. Fabric that is too thick, like heavy denim or canvas, may be difficult for a home machine to sew through and sometimes requires special needles. Very thin fabrics like chiffon or charmeuse are slippery and really difficult to sew neatly. As a beginning sewer, I would definitely steer clear of these thin drapey fabrics if you don't want spend a lot of time cursing at your sewing machine.

How fabric is sold: when you walk into a fabric store you will usually see fabric stored on rolls, these rolls are called bolts. If you were a designer making a lot of one design, you might buy fabric by the bolt, but usually you'll be buying fabric in yards. When you find the fabric you want, someone who works at the fabric store will cut you the number of yards you want. Some fabric stores will sell fabric in quantities of less than a yard (such as 1/2 yard or 1/4 yard) and some won't. When you're starting out, it's usually good to get more fabric than you need in case you make a mistake.

Fabric also comes in different widths. The two most standard fabric widths are 45" and 60", but some fabric may be wider or narrower than that. The width of the fabric will effect how many yards you need for a project, so make sure you find out how wide fabric is before you get it cut.

Where to shop: there are all kinds of fabric stores in every part of the world, and many options online as well (I've listed some of my favorite stores in the Sewing Encyclopedia). When you are first starting out, I really recommend making a few visits to a fabric store in person. There's just no substitute for seeing, and more importantly, feeling, a fabric in person. Honestly, I still rarely buy fabric online, because I think it's hard to make an informed decision about the hand and quality of the fabric, plus, fabric stores are fun! :)

People who work in fabric stores are also a great resource. They are likely to know a lot more than you do about the right fabric choice for a project, and they usually love talking to you about what you're making.

For this class I tried to buy as much fabric as I could at Joann Fabrics so that if you wanted to use the exact same fabric it would be easy to get. I couldn't find everything I wanted there, though, so I sourced a few other things at my favorite local store here in San Francisco, Fabric Outlet. I'm always a fan of supporting your local stores, and there are also plenty of other ways to source fabric if you're in the mood for a treasure hunt. Yard sales, thrift stores, re-use centers, and your grandma's closet are good places to start :)

Prepping fabric for sewing: once you've found the fabric you want to use, there's usually one more thing you need to do before you start sewing with: WASH IT!

Many fabrics are treated with a "sizing" that needs to be washed out, and they can also shrink and bleed when you wash them, so before you start measuring and cutting, you need to get those transformations out of the way. If you're lucky, your fabric will have care instructions on the label on the bolt, so snap a photo of this in the store if you can. Otherwise, a good rule of thumb is that you should wash and dry all cottons and cotton blends, and wash and hang dry (or tumble dry low) all polyesters. Silks and wools should usually not be washed as it can ruin the fabric. Ask an employee in the store for advice about washing specific fabrics.

In the next lesson we'll talk about exactly what materials you'll need to buy for each project.

Step 3: Choosing a Sewing Machine

If you don't already own a sewing machine, you will obviously need to get one for this class. Choosing the right machine can be a bit overwhelming, so here are a few pointers to help on your shopping journey.

Industrial versus home machines: There are two basic kinds of sewing machines: industrial machines and home machines.

Industrial machines are expensive, heavy duty machines that are built into special benches, and are mostly used by professional seamstresses and apparel factories. Juki, Singer and Brother are the most ubiquitous industrial brands. These machines are simple, powerful, and usually only have straight and back stitch capabilities. They are great as part of a collection of sewing machines, but not that useful as your only machine. They also sew at a breakneck speed that can be downright terrifying for a beginner!

If you happen to have an industrial machine, you are welcome to use it, but you won't be able to do everything we're learning in this class on an industrial machine alone, so for this reason I highly recommend having a home machine.

Home machines are compact portable machines that are designed to be used on top of any table or desk. They come in a wide variety of price points and features, but even the simplest models can usually create a few types of stitches, as well as sewing buttonholes. Because of their smaller size and less powerful motors, they can't handle very heavy duty materials, but the portable aspect of home machines can be a huge plus because you can put them away when you're done... or, if you're like me, drag them with you to sew in all kinds of unlikely places ;)

Things to Consider:

  • Choose something simple: as a beginner, it is especially helpful to have a machine that is easy to use. There are a lot of computerized machines on the market these days, and I'm sure some of them are great, but in my experience, manual machines are simpler, break less often, and are cheaper to fix. If you continue to pursue sewing, you will occasionally need some of the more complex features offered by a fancy machine, but even as an advanced sewer, the majority of the time you will probably only be using basic stitches.
  • Think about what you want to make: depending on what you are most likely to sew, different machines can be better choices. For example, if you are likely to be sewing a lot of heavy fabrics, a simple but sturdy machine like the Singer 4411 Heavy Duty might be a good choice, but if you are more interested in decorative stitching you might want a more complex machine that includes a lot of embroidery stitches like the Brother CS 6000i.
  • Cost does not always equal quality: while some of the more expensive machines are great, you can also get a very good quality and durable machine for less than $300. The Singer I mentioned earlier is a great low cost, good quality option, as are the Janome Magnolia 7318 and the Janome HD1000 Heavy-Duty (the machine I'll be using in this class). I tend to prefer the feel of machines with heavy metal bodies (like the HD1000 and the Singer 4411), but they are not necessarily better quality than a good plastic body machine.
  • Sewing machines are also usually long lasting, so you can find some great used machines on Craigslist, or even collecting dust in a friend's closet!
  • Don't stress about it: whatever machine you use, it will probably be great! As long as you like using your machine, then it is the right machine for you. In my time I've had home machines from Viking, Singer and Janome, worked with quite a few industrial machines, and even gotten a calf workout using an ancient singer treadle! Each one has its pros and cons, but they've all enabled me to sew and that's what matters. (Though I'd steer clear of the treadle machine :)

If you really want to dig into some great information about the pros and cons of the best entry level machines, this great article from thesweethome.com is a really good resource. If you have a local sewing machine dealer in your area, buying from them can also take some of the mystery out of choosing a machine. They can let you try out different machines before you buy, walk you through the basic operations of your machine, and help you with repairs when it's acting up. Taking your machine to a shop in for a tune-up about once a year is a great idea no matter what.

Step 4: Setting Up a Sewing Station

It's important to have a good area to work in when you're sewing. Of course we can't all have a dedicated sewing room, but there are a few things that will make your sewing experience easier.

You will need a table or desk to hold your sewing machine. Make sure this space is the right height for you and that you have a comfortable chair to sit in when you're sewing. You will also need some space around the machine on the table to hold your fabric as you sew, as well as a thread snipper, pin cushion and other items. Try to keep your sewing table uncluttered though, it can be easy to knock things over with your fabric as you sew.

You will also need a surface for cutting. I think the best type of cutting surface is a high table that you can stand next to and move all the way around while you work. Laying out fabric and cutting large patterns sometimes requires a lot of moving around and it's much more convenient to be on your feet for this. You can always get a high stool to sit on when you want to get off your feet. A long table, at least as wide as the widest fabric (60") is ideal.

It's also really helpful to have a table with a surface you can cut on and stick pins into. There are many options for this. In fashion school, all our tables had smooth cork tops which let us anchor our fabric in place with pins, or cut easily with a cutting wheel. At my old studio I covered an Ikea tabletop with a layer of cork and then wrapped brown paper over the whole thing, that worked well. At Instructables we have a square table with a large cutting mat over it, and that works great too, though I prefer the cork.

Of course, most of the time it's hard to have a large table dedicated to sewing, and smaller ones will work too, especially if you are mostly sewing small projects. You can also find folding cutting tables online that can be put away when you're not using them, or in a pinch, the floor is not a terrible option (I've cut plenty of fabric on floors, believe me).

You will also need to have an ironing board and iron set up whenever you are sewing. You use a iron constantly when you sew. A small table top ironing board will work if don't have room for a full sized one.

No matter what, make sure your space is clean and well lit, and that you feel comfortable and happy working there, that is really the most important thing :)

Step 5: About Your Professor

I am a costume and experimental fashion designer and artist by training... and also a huge dork who likes to make and wear a lot of silly costumes and unusual clothes :)

I studied Visual Art at Brown University and Fashion Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and since then I've done my best to turn playing dress-up into a career. I have worked as a costume and fashion designer, and right now I'm lucky enough to have a job in the Instructables Design Studio where I make a lot of fun things with creative people in an amazing makerspace. I love experimenting with materials and finding new ways to use traditional techniques in my never-ending quest to create clothing and accessories worthy of time traveling cyborg superheroes!

I sewed my very first stitches on an old Singer treadle machine! (I'm not 95 years old, I just grew up in the woods with hippie parents and limited electricity :). In high school I bemoaned the fact that no one taught home-ec any more, so I started taking sewing classes in my spare time and learning how to make my own clothes. Later, in fashion school, I learned to sew on industrial machines, and design and construct garments with professional techniques. Sewing is still a huge part of my design practice and I think it's a tremendously fun and empowering skill that everyone should learn. You're going to love it :)

You can see many examples of my work on my website, and find all the tutorials I've created so far on my Instructables page.

Step 6: Quiz

{
    "id": "quiz-1",
    "question": "Which is a synthetic fiber?",
    "answers": [
        {
            "title": "Linen",
            "correct": false
        },
        {
            "title": "Nylon",
            "correct": true
        },
{
            "title": "Silk",
            "correct": false
        }
    ],
    "correctNotice": "Well Done!",
    "incorrectNotice": "Try Again"
}
{
    "id": "quiz-2",
    "question": "Fabric is sold in:",
    "answers": [
        {
            "title": "Bundles",
            "correct": false
        },
        {
            "title": "Bales",
            "correct": false
        },
{
            "title": "Bolts",
            "correct": true
        }
    ],
    "correctNotice": "Well Done!",
    "incorrectNotice": "Try Again"
}
{
    "id": "quiz-3",
    "question": "True or False: Knits are naturally more stretchy than wovens.",
    "answers": [
        {
            "title": "True",
            "correct": true
        },
        {
            "title": "False",
            "correct": false
        }
    ],
    "correctNotice": "Well Done!",
    "incorrectNotice": "Try Again"
}

About This Instructable

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Bio: Costume and experimental fashion designer and artist. Maker of clothing and accessories for time traveling cyborg superheroes, and lucid dreamers. Interested in fusing couture design ... More »
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