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Machine Sewing Class
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Lesson 6: Sewing Curved Seams
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Seams are not just a way to attach two pieces of fabric together, they are also a way to give shape and dimensionality to the object you are creating. When you are using seams to create rounded shapes as opposed to square ones, you have to use some different techniques to sew and finish your seams correctly. In this lesson we'll learn about two different kinds of curved seams, how to sew them, and how to finish them. Then we'll use these techniques to create an adorable stuffed creature.


Curved Facing

Say you wanted to create a collar on a jacket with a curved edge, or sew a pot holder with an interesting shape that was a different kind of fabric on both sides. To sew a finished edge like this we need to create a facing by sewing a curved seam that we can turn right-side-out and press together to create a clean finished edge. To practice this, let's cut ourselves a double layered piece of fabric that looks something like this:

I used a plain muslin on one side, and my owl patterned fabric on the other.

Now, use your ruler and marker to mark a seam allowance 1/2" in from the curved edge (or, if you're feeling confident using the seam guides, just pin your curved edge).

Now sew along the 1/2" sewing line, guiding the fabric around the curve with your fingers and using the seam guides to keep your stitching parallel to the edge of the fabric. Lock your stitches on both ends.

Sewing around curves can be tricky, especially when the curves get tight, but there are a few tricks that can really help make it easier.

  • First of all, it helps to use a short stitch length because your machine will sew more slowly and be more maneuverable.
  • Don't be afraid to go slowly, and when you get to really sharp curves, you can stop pressing the foot pedal and just turn the hand wheel to move the needle around curves.
  • If you start to really get off track, lower the needle, raise the presser foot, and rotate the fabric slightly to get yourself going back in the right direction.

Now we are going to flip the fabric so the right sides are facing out, but before we do this, we need to do something else to the seam allowances so they will lay flat.

On the convex areas of curve, the wider area of seam allowance will have to fit inside the smaller area on the other side of the seam once we flip the fabric, and it will end up bunched up. So in these areas we need to clip little triangles out of the seam allowance to make more room. You can do this with scissors, cutting right up to the stitching line, but not through it. The more clips you make, the flatter your seam will lay.

On the concave areas of curve, the smaller area of seam allowance will have to stretch to fit around the larger area on the other side of the seam once we flip the fabric. So in these areas we just need to cut slits in the seam allowance so it can spread. The more times you snip, the flatter your seam will lay, but no need to get too carried away.

Now flip the whole thing right side out. Use something pointy like the end of a pencil or a ruler to push out the seam from the inside and round the curves.

Press with your iron to create a neat, smoothly curved edge.

If you look in between the two layers, you will see where the seam allowance is spreading and squeezing together on the two different kinds of curves.


Curved Paneling

Now say you wanted to create a flat surface where two different fabrics meet in a curved or shaped line. This is a technique that is often used in quilting, but you'll use it sometimes for other things too.

To show you how to do this, I'm going to use a very simple pattern. The pattern is attached at the bottom of this section if you want to download and print it, or just create your own.

Cut out the two paper pattern pieces and pin them onto the right sides of two different kinds of fabric, lining them up with the grain. It helps to put pins close to the edges of the paper, to hold it down as you cut.

Use your scissors to cut around the edges of the paper.

Now we're going to mark our seam allowances using a transfer wheel and transfer paper. Spread the transfer paper out face up and lay your pattern pieces on top of it with the patterns still pinned on (if you're using light fabric, use dark transfer paper and visa versa). Trace the sewing lines of the curves with the tracing wheel, pressing down fairly hard.

You should see a line of dots on the wrong side of the fabric. This is how you will usually mark seam allowances when you're using a sewing pattern.

To create our seam we need to sew these two pieces of fabric together with wrong sides facing out, but as you can see, when we lay them on top of each other they don't match up at all! In fact, they are the opposite of each other! So what do we do about that?

Much like we did with the curved facing, we need to snip our concave seam allowance so it will stretch around the convex one. Cut slits in your concave seam allowance, about every inch, stopping 1/8" away from the sewing line.

Now lay the concave piece over the convex piece, with right sides facing and start pinning them together so the sewing lines match up. The concave piece will end up bunched up beyond the seam allowance, and that's ok.

Now sew along the sewing line, pushing the bunched fabric out of the way as you sew and being careful not to sew any folds into the seam.

When you're done the two pieces should open up and lay flat. Press them with your iron with the the un-snipped convex seam allowance over the snipped concave one.

Trim the ends of your seam allowances and you have a nice paneled square!


Quiz

{
    "id": "quiz-1",
    "question": "True or false, when you are sewing a curved seam, using a large stitch length makes it easier to get around tight curves.",
    "answers": [
        {
            "title": "True",
            "correct": false
        },
        {
            "title": "False",
            "correct": true
        }

    ],
    "correctNotice": "Well Done! A small stitch length is what will help you sew around curves.",
    "incorrectNotice": "Try Again"
}
{
    "id": "quiz-2",
    "question": "When you are sewing a curved panel, you need to clip the:",
    "answers": [
        {
            "title": "convex curve",
            "correct": false
        },
        {
            "title": "concave curve",
            "correct": true
        }
    ],
    "correctNotice": "Well Done!",
    "incorrectNotice": "Try Again"
}

Project: Make a Stuffed Creature

To practice these new-found curved seam sewing skills, we are going to create a little stuffed creature with some paneled and faced details. I'm calling my creature a Flying Fox: part fox, part bat, all cute.

Materials:

To create my design I sketched an idea, then traced my sketch in Illustrator and used it create a pattern which I am providing for you to download here. You can also design your own pattern, of course, and I'll give you some tips about the best way to do that in a minute.


Pattern Anatomy

Whether you are following my pattern, or creating your own, you need to know a little about how to read the information on a pattern. This is a very simple pattern, but it still follows the basic rules of pattern marking.

Cut Lines: the lines on a pattern that indicate where you need to cut your fabric, these are usually the outside borders of the pattern, but may include internal cut-outs as well.

Sewing Lines: internal lines on a pattern that indicate where two or more pieces are going to be joined by a line of stitching. Not all patterns mark the sewing lines but I usually do.

Seam Allowance: The space between the sewing line and cut line.

Pattern Label: Each pattern piece should be labeled with some information to identify it. This information should tell you: which piece of the pattern this is, what material it should be cut in (the main material of a design is called the "self," and a secondary material is call the "contrast"), and how many copies of that piece should be cut. (If you need to cut more than one copy of the exact same pattern piece for a design, you can usually just create one pattern piece in paper, and then cut it out in multiple layers of fabric.)

Grain Lines: Lines with arrows on both ends tell you how to orient pattern pieces in relation to the grain of your fabric. The grain lines on the pattern should always be parallel to the grain of the fabric.

Notches: where notches are marked on a pattern, you should snip into the seam allowance after the pattern is cut out. Notches help you identify important points on a pattern like the place where one piece should meet another. When you have patterns with multiple pieces, you use a specific system of notches to mark different pieces. We'll talk more about this later.


Creating Your Own Pattern

If you want to come up with your own design, here's a little about the method I used to make mine.

The basic structure of this kind of stuffed creature is just a front and back panel sewn together and stuffed. To give my Flying Fox some details, I've divided the front panel into three separate sections that will be cut in different fabrics and seamed together. The details of the face are just shapes cut out in felt and topstitched to flannel. I also created clean finished wings faced with contrasting fabric, and little felt feet that are sewn into the bottom seam.

To create a pattern for all this in Illustrator, I first traced my sketch, then offset the outline of the whole body (minus the wings) by 1/2". I added this extra 1/2" to the design because I wanted to account for the dimensionality of the stuffing. Then I adjusted the internal detail lines a little to extend all the way to the new larger outline.

I separated out each individual piece, making sure to flip the back piece, and added red seam allowance lines offset another 1/2" around the edge of each piece.

Following the rules for pattern labeling, I labeled each piece and added a grainline.


Fuse the Fabric

I'm using some soft cotton flannel for the body of this stuffed creature, but, while I like the feeling or "hand" of the fabric, the weight is a little lighter than I think is quite right for this project, and it has a tendency to stretch and deform too easily, which I think might make it look lumpy with stuffing inside. Luckily, there's an easy solution to this problem: fusible interfacing.

Fusible interfacing is designed to add stability to fabric in places where it needs reinforcement. Fusible comes in all kinds of weights and structures, but the kind I'm using here is a fairly light knit fabric with a layer of adhesive on one side. Different kinds of fusible sometimes have slightly different methods of attachment, so read the instructions that came with yours and try a test piece before you fuse you whole fabric.

To attach most fusible, you lay it on an ironing board over the wrong side of your fabric, with the glue side facing down onto the fabric. We are going to use an iron to adhere the fusible to the flannel, but since the fusible is synthetic, we don't want to iron directly on top of it, so we are going to use a "press cloth." A press cloth is just a piece of light to medium weight cotton scrap fabric that you put between the iron and your fabric when you are ironing anything that might potentially be damaged by the iron. I'm just using a piece of muslin here.

Place the muslin over the fusible and then press with you iron on a high setting with steam. Press down hard and run your iron in little circles until you have fused the entire piece of fusible to the fabric.

I fused both my black and patterned flannel, but not the yellow felt.


Cut Out the Pattern

To cut out the pattern, lay out your fabric on a flat cutting surface with the right side facing up, then arrange the pattern pieces with the grainline arrows parallel to the selvage edge (and thus the grain) of the fabric. I cut the large back panel, the chest and one set of wings out in the patterned pink flannel, and the head, legs and another set of wings out in the black flannel (I also accidentally cut another large back piece out in black as you can see here :)

Pin the pieces down with the pins in the seam allowances.

Then use your fabric scissors to cut around each pattern piece.


Mark the Seam Allowances

Now use your transfer paper and tracing wheel to mark the sewing lines like we did when we sewed the curved paneling.

I usually keep the paper pinned to the fabric until I'm going to use each piece, it helps you keep track of what's what.


Sew the Chest and Leg Panels

Now let's assemble the four pieces of the front panel, starting with the chest and legs. To do this we are going to use the curved paneling technique we learned earlier.

Remove the paper patterns from the chest and leg pieces and lay them out next to each other, as you can see, we have some concave and convex curves here.

Snip the concave seam allowances on the sides of the chest piece, then pin them to the convex curves of the leg piece that you are attaching it to.

Repeat on the other side.

Then sew both sides on your machine being careful not to sew any folds into the seam.

When you're done it should look like this:

Fold the unclipped seam allowances over the clipped ones and then press the seams flat with your iron from the front side.

To make the seams less bulky, it can also be a good idea to clip one or both layers of the seam allowances shorter. Clipping one seam allowance shorter than the other is called grading, and is often done in garments to give seams a clean professional look.


Attach the Head

To attach the head section, use the same method, but before you remove the paper, clip into the seam allowance at the notches I've marked down near the nose. These show you where the sewing lines of the chest should meet the head. Don't clip all the way to the sewing line, just about 1/4 in.

Now use the same clipping method to attach the head to the chest. Use the notches you clipped in the seam allowance to line the two pieces up correctly.

Sew the seam on your machine and press is flat.


Make the Wings

Now we're going to use the our curved facing technique to create a pair of wings for the little flying fox that are clean finished with contrasting fabric on each side.

Take the two sets of wings you've cut out and lay them on top of each other, with right sides facing together.

Sew each one together along the sewing lines, leaving the bases open. Remember the tips for sewing around curves:

  • use a short stitch length
  • go slow
  • stop pressing the foot pedal and just turn the hand wheel when you need to
  • when you start to get off track, lower the needle, raise the presser foot, and rotate the fabric slightly

At the sharp corners, lower your needle, raise your presser foot, turn your fabric 45 degrees and sew forward, back, forward, creating one stitch that cuts off the tip of the corner. Then turn your fabric again and continue sewing down the other side. Sewing this extra stitch that makes the corner slightly blunt will help you create a nice neat point when you turn the wings right side out.

When both the wings are sewn, take your scissors and trim the seam allowances very close to the sewing line, about 1/8". Snip a few triangles into the seam allowance around the convex curves.

Now turn them both inside out, and use a dull pencil, chop stick, or another pointy but not sharp object to push out the corners.

Press flat with an iron.


Add the Face Details

Before we sew the two sides of the fox together, we need to add the face details or we won't really be able to do it later. First, cut them out in felt. Since they are so small, I found it easier to trace them onto the felt with my disappearing marker than to pin them down. I flipped them upside down to trace them so the side I was marking on would be the back side of the felt.

I arranged them and pinned them down on my fox face and then topstitched them down with matching thread.


Hand Stitch the Eyes

Ok, one last detail to add before we sew the whole thing together, the eyes. I just stitched these with some contrast embroidery thread.

First I used my transfer paper and tracing wheel to mark the position of the eyes from the pattern.

Then I threaded a needle with yellow embroidery thread, and tied a knot on one end. For a great explanation of how to do this, check out this excellent lesson from Jessyratfink's Hand Sewing class.

I followed the line of the eyes with a simple running stitch.

And tied a knot in the back. If you don't know how to do this, once again, Jessyratfink has the instructions you need in this lesson on Tying Off To Finish Sewing.


Sew It All Together

Now we can sew it all together, sandwiching the wings and feet into the side seam.

First, pin the feet onto the front panel, right sides to right sides, and sew them down, about 3/8" on from the edge.

Then do the same with the wings positioning them folded over the front so they will end up sewn into the side seam.

Then lay the front and back panels of the fox on top of each other with right sides together.

Pin around the edges and then sew along the sewing line, leaving an opening at the bottom about 3" long.


Trim, Turn and Stuff

Now, trim the seam allowance of the whole thing the way you did on the wings. Trim down to about 1/8" and clip triangles into the convex curves.

Turn the whole thing rightside out, and then use a pointed but not sharp object to push out the corners.

Take some of your pillow stuffing and stuff the fox. Begin with small pieces and make sure you get them all the way up into the points of the ears. Use your pointy object to help. Try to distribute the stuffing evenly throughout the creature.


Hand Sew the Opening

The last step is to hand sew the bottom opening closed. First, snip the concave curve of the seam allowances, then fold the seam allowances in and pin them together.

Use a slipstitch to sew the opening closed. Again, for a great description of how to do this see this Handsewing Lesson by Jessyratfink.


You're Done!

Now you have a cute friend to keep you company while you sew the rest of the projects in this class :) I'm sure you can see how easily you could customize a design like this and use these curved sewing techniques to create all kinds of creatures. Of course sewing curved seams is something you'll use for a lot of other projects too. Show us what you've created by posting a photo of your completed project below!

In the next lesson we're going to learn how to use our machines to sew stretch fabric and create a simple scarf.

CLASS PROJECT

Share a photo of your finished project with the class!

Nice work! You've completed the class project