Sewing For Dummies®, 3rd Edition

Table of Contents


About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

Foolish Assumptions

How This Book Is Organized

Part I: Getting Ready to Sew

Part II: Mastering Basic Sewing Skills

Part III: Fashion Sewing Fun-damentals

Part IV: Sewing for Your Home

Part V: Making Alterations and Quick Fixes for a Sustainable Wardrobe

Part VI: The Part of Tens

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I: Getting Ready to Sew

Chapter 1: The World of Sewing

Figuring Out What Comes First: The Idea or the Tools?

The pleasure of using good tools

Understanding fabrics and fibers

Getting the sewing notion

Pondering the pattern

Sizing Up the Sewing Process

Preshrinking fabric

Finding the right pattern pieces

Laying out the pattern on the fabric

Pinning and cutting



Pressing for the best shape

Moving On to the Needle and Thread

Finishing the edges first





Adding Fashion Detail with Sleeves and Pockets

Sewing for the Home Is Where the Saving Is

Doing Your Part for the Planet with a Sustainable Wardrobe

Chapter 2: Assembling Your Sewing Kit

Making Sure Your Sewing Measures Up

Cutting Up (Without Cracking Up)

Making Your Mark

Pinning Down Your Projects

Getting to the Point with the Right Needles, Thimbles, and Seam Rippers

Selecting needles for hand sewing

Selecting needles for sewing machines

Fortify your fingertips with thimbles

As ye sew, so shall ye rip

Selecting Thread for Your Project

Pressing Issues

Real Machines: Sewing Machines and Sergers

Working with a sewing machine

Finding your way around a serger

Chapter 3: Selecting Fabric, Findings, and Interfacing

Choosing the Right Fabric for Your Project

Figuring out fiber

Getting to know common fabric types

Taking fabric nap into consideration

Considering fabric width and yardage needed

Reading labels and bolt ends

Getting Notions about Findings

Bias tape basics

Bonkers for braid

Getting elastic

Loving lace

Piping up for piping and cording

Running with ribbons

Refreshing with rickrack and twill tape

Getting the lowdown on drapery headers

Adding zip with zippers

Investigating Interfacing

Preshrinking Your Fabric

Chapter 4: Working with Patterns

Shopping for Patterns

Sizing Things Up for Fashion Sewing

Deciphering the Pattern and Its Parts

Checking out the front of the pattern envelope

Reading the back of the pattern envelope

It’s what’s inside that counts

Decoding the pattern pieces

Laying Out the Pattern

Getting to know your fabric

Preparing the fabric

Knowing right from wrong

Placing the pattern pieces on-grain

Laying out plaids, stripes, and one-way designs

Pinning and Cutting Out the Pieces

Making Your Mark

Marking what matters

Using the right tool at the right time

Part II: Mastering Basic Sewing Skills

Chapter 5: Kicking Off Your Sewing Adventure

Threading the Needle

Hand needles

Machine needles

Tying a Sewing Knot

Choosing and Using the Right Hand Stitches

The securing stitch

The hand-basting stitch

The running stitch

The even backstitch

The blind hemming stitch

The slant hemming or whip stitch

The hemming slipstitch

The even slipstitch

Working with Machine Stitches

Examining the basic machine stitches

Selecting a stitch type

Choosing the length of the stitch

Setting the stitch width

Stitching in the ditch


Starting and Stopping

. . . with your sewing machine

. . . with your serger

Basting Projects for a Better Fit

Pressing Matters

Why press and iron as you sew?

When and where to press

Pressing napped fabrics

Repurposed Shirt Pillow

Chapter 6: Securing Sensational Seams

Finishing the Edges First

Pinking your edges

Using your sewing machine or serger

Securing Your Seams

Backstitching or not

Tying off threads

Fleece Throw with Colorful Fringe

Seaming Fabrics

Sewing straight seams

Turning corners

Sewing 1/4-inch seams

Serging 1/4-inch seams

Ripping into Seam Mistakes

Shaping Up the Seams

Starting by stitching the seam on your sewing machine

Clipping the curve with your scissors

Chapter 7: Fast and Easy Hems by Hand and Machine

Marking the Hem’s Placement

If you’re the hem-ee

If you’re the hemmer

Deciding on the Hem Allowance

Finishing the Raw Edges of the Hem

Using a straight stitch

Using a three-step zigzag or overlock stitch

Using a serger

Securing the Hem

No-sew hemming

Pinning up the hem for hand or machine hemming

Hand blind hemming

Machine blind hemming

Sewing Tapered Hems

Hemming Knits with Twin Needles

Part III: Fashion Sewing Fun-damentals

Chapter 8: Shaping Things Up

Darting Around

Sewing the straight dart

Sewing the contour dart

Finishing the dart

Gathering Fabric from One Piece into Another

Gathering with two threads

Gathering over a cord

Ruffled Apron

Cutting out the apron parts

Finishing the apron side seams

Gathering and attaching the ruffle strip

Tying up the apron strings

Completing Pleats

Defining the types of pleats

Making a pleat

Adding Stretch and Comfort with Elastic

Inserting elastic in a casing

Attaching elastic on an edge

Cuffed Pajama Pants

Laying and cutting out your pj’s

Sewing your pj’s together

Sewing elastic at the waist

Cuffing each leg

Chapter 9: Zippers, Buttons, and Other Closure Company

Welcoming Easy Ways to Put in Zippers

Putting in a centered zipper

Putting in an invisible zipper

Mastering Buttonhole Basics

Sizing buttonholes

Marking buttonholes

Sewing beautiful buttonholes

Cutting open buttonholes

Figuring out button placement

Attaching buttons

Checking Out Other Fasteners

Fold-Over Clutch with Button Closure

Choosing the materials

Sewing the clutch

Chapter 10: Sleeves: The Long and the Short of It

Finishing Sleeveless Armholes

Facing sleeveless armholes

Binding sleeveless armholes

Rarin’ to Sew Raglan Sleeves

Taking On Set-In Sleeves

Using easestitch-plus to prepare traditional set-in sleeves

Setting sleeves in flat

Setting sleeves in the round

Protective Laptop Sleeve

Chapter 11: Pockets Full of Ideas

Putting Together Patch Pockets

Making unlined patch pockets with square corners

Making unlined patch pockets with curved corners

Attaching patch pockets

Using Your Own Pocket Patterns

Coordinating Pocket-Collage Shirt

Part IV: Sewing for Your Home

Chapter 12: Do-It-Yourself Decorating: Home Décor Sewing

Overcoming Décoraphobia

Understanding color

Unmasking your home’s complexion

Determining your color odds

Homing In on Home Décor Fabric

Tackling Trim

Braving braid basics

Conquering cord

Figuring out fringe

Dealing with decorator trims

Attaching Piping, Cording, and Fringe

Making your own piping

Cutting bias strips for covering cable cord

Sewing on piping and fringe

Attaching and joining cord-edge trim

Reversible Table Runner

Chapter 13: Quick-Change Table Toppers

Selecting Fabric for Table Toppers

Making Easy Napkins

Figuring out fabric yardage

Sewing basic table napkins

Serging napkins with narrow rolled edges

Party-Ready Lapkins

Hip to Be Square Tablecloth

Chapter 14: Praiseworthy Pillows

Selecting Materials for Pillows

A Basic Cover Fit for a Pillow Form

Measuring your pillow form and cutting the pillow front and back

Sewing the seams

Wrapping the corners

Stitching the closure

The Easiest Reversible Pillow Cover Ever

15-Minute Flanged Pillow Cover

Plush Pet Bed

Making the bolster

Creating the fleece pillow cover

Putting the bed together

Box-Edged Pillow

Chapter 15: Adding Wow to Your Windows

The Wide World of Window Treatments

Dealing with draperies and curtains

Exploring the anatomy of windows and rods

Determining Window Treatment Dimensions

Measuring the finished width and length

Calculating cut fabric length and width

Custom Draperies

Determining how much fabric you need

Putting the drapery together

Heading off rips with the drapery header

Chapter 16: Giving Your Bed a Makeover

Saving Money by Crafting a Bedding Set

Pleated Bed Skirt

Measuring the box spring

Buying your fabric

Cutting the fabric

Double hemming the skirt and pleats

Attaching the skirt and pleats to the base fabric

Positioning the bed skirt on the box spring

Custom Duvet Cover

Cutting out the front of the duvet cover

Constructing the back of the duvet cover

Putting everything together

Part V: Making Alterations and Quick Fixes for a Sustainable Wardrobe

Chapter 17: When Clothes Are Too Short, Too Long, Too Tight, or Too Loose

When It’s Too Short

Cutting off pant legs and re-hemming them

Letting down and facing the hem

Adding ribbing into an opening

When It’s Too Long

Moving the button on a sleeve cuff

Removing the cuff to shorten the sleeve

Shortening jeans

When It’s Too Tight

Moving the buttons over on a jacket

Adding room to the waistband

When It’s Too Loose

Crossover Belt

Chapter 18: Making Repairs on the Run

Repairing a Split Seam

Repairing a seam on woven fabrics

Repairing a seam on knit fabrics

Patching Holes and Rips

Covering holes with patches

Patching with appliqués

Mending Tears in Fabric

Replacing a Fly-Front Zipper

Chapter 19: Eco Fashion: Giving Existing Garments New Life

Felted Wool Hat

Sourcing and preparing the wool

Felting the wool

Laying out and cutting the hat pieces

Assembling the hat

(Almost) Instant Party Dress

Finding the perfect bra and fabric

Cutting out the skirt and straps

Making the skirt

Sewing the straps

Hemming the dress

Part VI: The Part of Tens

Chapter 20: Ten Tips for Mixing Prints

Stick with One Base

Run a Background Check

Go Solid and Save Money

Mix ’n’ Match Manufacturers

Stare Down Your Prints

Weigh the Scales

Try Before You Buy

Rely on a Collection

Buy More, Use Less

Consult a Pro

Chapter 21: Ten Rookie Sewing Mistakes to Avoid

Attempting a Project Beyond Your Skill Level

Choosing Difficult Fabrics to Work With

Choosing an Unflattering Style

Using the Wrong Fabric for the Pattern

Laying Out the Fabric Incorrectly

Neglecting to Use Interfacing

Failing to Press as You Sew

Using an Old, Beat-Up Sewing Machine

Neglecting to Use a New Needle on Every Project

Refusing to Cut Yourself Some Slack

Chapter 22: Ten Important Sewing Fundamentals

Buy the Best Fabric You Can Afford

Understand Your Fabric Terminology

Know the Difference between Right and Wrong

Put Your Foot Down before Sewing

Stop and Start Sewing the Right Way

Righty, Tighty; Lefty, Loosey

Test-Stitch First

Sew from the Bottom Up and from the Center Out

Press Seams Together and then Open or to One Side

Clip with the Tips of Your Scissors

Appendix: Sewing Resources

Sewing For Dummies®, 3rd Edition

by Jan Saunders Maresh


About the Author

Jan Saunders Maresh is a nationally known sewing journalist, interior redesigner, and certified staging professional. After graduating from Adrian College in Michigan, she became the education director of one of the largest sewing machine companies in the country, and then the director of consumer education for the largest fabric chain in the country. Both professional experiences give her a solid foundation in the home sewing industry, which she continues to serve with her many writing, marketing, and industry consulting projects.

In addition to writing for several home sewing publications, she is a best-selling author for several publishers, with 16 books to her credit. Her most recent title is Home Staging For Dummies (Wiley) which she co-authored with Christine Rae. Many of her titles have been chosen as main selections for the Crafters’ Choice Collection, a division of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

To promote her projects, Jan has been a frequent guest on several PBS television shows. Jan has also made regular appearances on the Home Shopping Network and is the local expert featuring lifestyle tips and decorating techniques in western Massachusetts.

When she’s not writing, Jan keeps busy teaching and motivating consumers to create beautiful and sustainable homes. She’s also a Certified Trainer for the Live Green Live Smart Institute. Since being transferred to New England, Jan’s latest venture has been renovating a 1959 ranch with her husband, using all the green and sustainable renovation products and practices the industry (and their budget) has to offer.

Jan currently resides in Longmeadow, Massachusetts (near Springfield), with her husband, dog, and a collection of books, sewing equipment, fabric, and green building products stashed neatly in every available corner of her home.


This book is dedicated to my husband, Ted Maresh, and son, Todd Moser. After so many nights of pizza and cereal for dinner, they deserve all the credit for putting up with my crazy writing projects all these years. Thanks, guys.

Author’s Acknowledgments

At age 7, I learned to sew under the watchful eye of my grandmother. When I had finished hand-stitching the set-in sleeves of a doll jacket, I cried and cried because it didn’t look right. Grandma gently took the jacket from me and turned the sleeves “inside out.” It was a miracle — the jacket looked just like the one in the store. From that moment on, I was hooked on sewing. It’s been an intimate part of who I am ever since. Thank you, Grandma, for being my first teacher.

A big-time thank you also goes to my parents, Ray and Bernice Saunders. Although I grew up on a strict budget, there was always money for fabric and plenty of praise for my handmade creations. Dad is gone now, but I’m sure the many hours of looking over his civil-engineer shoulders as he reviewed the latest blueprints for the job helped me think three-dimensionally — crucial for what I do today.

I have the most wonderful network of friends who have influenced what I’ve done in my life and career. You provide inspiration, knowledge, encouragement, and expertise, and I thank each of you from the bottom of my heart. Without you, this book would have been written by someone else. Thank you, Robbie Fanning, for teaching me so much about writing, sewing, and keeping life in perspective. Thank you, Jackie Dodson, for your incredible sense of humor, for your sewing help on a tight deadline, your creative genius, and friendship. Thank you, Gail Brown, for your constant encouragement and market savvy. Thank you, Karyl Garbow, for being a kindred spirit for almost 30 years. Thank you, Sue Hausmann, for your dedication to sewing education in our industry and for always sharing your wisdom with me no matter the time of day. Thank you, Judy Raymond at Simplicity Pattern Company, for your help and support of this project and for publishing and promoting the Sewing For Dummies sewing patterns. Many more people have the courage to try sewing for the first time because of your efforts. Finally, thank you Cindy Cummins at DIYStyle for your friendship and assistance with some of the projects in this book and your diligent research that makes the appendix a very helpful and up-to-date sewing resource for readers everywhere.

Thank you, Lisa Reed, for your tremendously talented hand and critical eye in illustrating this 3rd Edition. And thank you, Mike Lewis, Elizabeth Rea, and Caitie Copple, the team of incredible editors at Wiley Publishing who helped my words sound brilliant and encouraged my sense of humor about this craft I love so much. You are all truly amazing at what you do and how you do it.

Publisher’s Acknowledgments

We’re proud of this book; please send us your comments through our online registration form located at For other comments, please contact our Customer Care Department within the U.S. at 877-762-2974, outside the U.S. at 317-572-3993, or fax 317-572-4002.

Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:

Acquisitions, Editorial, and Media Development

Project Editor: Elizabeth Rea

Acquisitions Editor: Michael Lewis

Copy Editor: Caitlin Copple

Assistant Editor: Erin Calligan Mooney

Senior Editorial Assistant: David Lutton

Technical Editor: Diane E. Burns

Editorial Manager: Michelle Hacker

Editorial Assistants: Jennette ElNaggar, Rachelle Amick

Art Coordinator: Alicia B. South

Cover Photos: ©

Cartoons: Rich Tennant (

Composition Services

Project Coordinator: Patrick Redmond

Layout and Graphics: Timothy C. Detrick, Kelly Kijovsky

Illustrations: Lisa Reed

Photography: Matt Bowen, DIYStyle, Tom Reed/Kreber, Colleen Green/Kreber (styling)

Proofreader: Betty Kish

Indexer: Estalita Slivoskey

Publishing and Editorial for Consumer Dummies

Diane Graves Steele, Vice President and Publisher, Consumer Dummies

Kristin Ferguson-Wagstaffe, Product Development Director, Consumer Dummies

Ensley Eikenburg, Associate Publisher, Travel

Kelly Regan, Editorial Director, Travel

Publishing for Technology Dummies

Andy Cummings, Vice President and Publisher, Dummies Technology/General User

Composition Services

Debbie Stailey, Director of Composition Services


I love to sew. Period. First I get the immediate gratification of completing a project using beautiful fabrics and great timesaving tools. Then I can bask in the personal recognition — I get to admire my work and hear praise from my family and friends. On top of that, I save money sewing because I can make things (and make them right) instead of purchase them (and pay to have them altered, if necessary). Wow, what a hobby!

I’m betting that after you have a couple of projects under your belt you’ll love to sew as much as I do.

About This Book

Sewing For Dummies, 3rd Edition, is a book for both absolute beginners and experienced sewers. If you’re a stone-cold beginner, you may appreciate that I explain everything necessary to sew beginning-level projects and I don’t assume that you’ve ever even picked up a needle and thread before. If you’re not a complete stranger to needle and thread (or sewing machine and pedal), Sewing For Dummies, 3rd Edition, still has something to offer — I give you tips and tricks that it took me years to pick up. All sewers can enjoy the projects in this book, no matter what their level of experience.

With the “greening” of the world on everyone’s mind these days, I’ve taken a new approach to the projects in this edition. Many of the projects start with a used ready-to-wear garment that, with a little sewing sleight of hand, gets a refreshed new life. The rest of the projects have been redesigned and modernized to reflect the latest fashion trends and our more streamlined, uncluttered lives. The most significant improvement to the edition is the addition of over 100 new instructive illustrations. A picture says a thousand words, so the clearly written, no-nonsense instructions For Dummies books are famous for are enhanced with exceptional illustrations to ensure your success. As always, this all-new edition includes my favorite sewing techniques and the innovative shortcuts learned over my career. Remember, I’ve made every sewing mistake known to man (or woman), so you don’t have to!

Conventions Used in This Book

As you sew, you’re going to rely heavily on the tools in your sewing survival kit, which I describe in Chapter 2. Keep it handy and well stocked. You need it for just about every project listed in this book, and I wrote this book assuming that you have and use these tools.

You also see instructions throughout the book that can be completed by using a sewing machine or a serger. A serger is a specialized machine that saves a lot of sewing time; it sews the seam, overcasts the edge, and then cuts off the excess fabric from a seam allowance — all at the same time. I think of a serger like the microwave oven of sewing — you don’t usually make an entire project on a serger, but it sure speeds up the process.

Foolish Assumptions

As I wrote this book, I made some assumptions about you and your needs:

You don’t yet know how to sew or are looking for a refresher course.

You want to master the fundamentals of sewing.

You’re looking for tips and tricks to make your sewing projects easier and more fun.

You want to start sewing as soon as possible.

If this sounds like you, you’ve come to the right book!

How This Book Is Organized

I organized this book into six parts so it’s easy for you to find exactly the information you need.

Part I: Getting Ready to Sew

In this part I run through the tools you need for sewing and tell you how to work with them, including your sewing machine, fabric, thread, needles, pins, iron, and patterns.

Part II: Mastering Basic Sewing Skills

Read the chapters in this part to find out how to do some of the more fundamental tasks involved in sewing, including threading a needle, tying a knot, sewing a seam, and hemming.

Part III: Fashion Sewing Fun-damentals

When you sew clothing, you usually start out with a pattern and a set of instructions for putting the project together. For a beginner, these pattern instructions can sometimes be a little intimidating; the instructions may tell you to do something (like sew a dart or apply a zipper) that you don’t know how to do. The chapters in this part help you decipher techniques like putting in buttons and zippers, adding sleeves, and sewing pockets that are essential to successful fashion sewing.

Part IV: Sewing for Your Home

Sewing your own home fashions means that you get exactly what you want and save money — a winning combination! This part of the book lets you turn a little sewing knowledge into untold savings for your home. I show you how to sew pillows, a duvet cover, a bed skirt, draperies, napkins, a table runner, tablecloths, and more. Using the chapters in this part, you can quickly and inexpensively create coordinated looks for almost every room in your home.

Part V: Making Alterations and Quick Fixes for a Sustainable Wardrobe

Are you suffering from the terrible toos — clothes that are too tight, too loose, too long, or too short? This part is a lifesaver when you need creative solutions to fix what ails your clothing and get a little more wear from them before sending them off to the landfill. I also show you how to do some basic repairs on holes, rips, and other mishaps.

Part VI: The Part of Tens

In this part I share tips for avoiding common mistakes when you start sewing. I include the all-important guidelines for sewing smarter and faster along with tips for mixing fabrics without creating fashion faux pas or home décor havoc. I also include an appendix of resources and popular Web sites to help you find the materials you need.

Icons Used in This Book

Throughout this book I guide you toward important points by using the following icons:

nicetohave_sewing.epsSome sewing tools are essential to sewing, and others aren’t essential but are still nice to have as you sew. Try out the tools mentioned next to this icon — you may find one that helps you quite a bit with the sort of projects you like to do.

remember.epsNext to this icon you find information that you should keep in the back of your mind as you sew. These points are key to creative and efficient sewing.

tip.epsThe information next to this icon tells you how to do something in the quickest and best way possible.

warning_bomb.epsMake sure to read the text next to this icon. It can save you a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.

Where to Go from Here

If you’re new to sewing, I suggest that you start by reading the chapters in Parts I and II. You can find some fundamental information on sewing in those parts. After that, you can skip around from chapter to chapter in the book, reading about the types of sewing and the projects that interest you.

I wrote this book to be your sewing companion. Instead of putting it on the bookshelf for future reference after you finish reading it and making the projects, use it actively each time you sew — whether at home or in one of the many sewing classes available at your local sewing machine dealer or fabric store. Keep it handy so that when pattern guide sheet instructions direct you to do something, you can check out this book to find the fastest, most efficient way to accomplish the task.

I’ve spent my professional lifetime amassing these sewing methods (and more), and they fuel my love affair with the craft every time I sit in front of the machine. My fervent hope is that after spending a little time with this book, a beautiful piece of fabric, and your beloved sewing machine, your own love affair with sewing will blossom. Enjoy!

Part I

Getting Ready to Sew


In this part . . .

To end up with a successful sewing project, you need to start out with good materials. These materials include your sewing machine, needles, thread, fabric, and pattern, among other things. I tell you about the very best tools for your sewing projects in this part. In addition, I tell you how to work with those tools after you have them, including how to navigate a sewing machine and how to lay out a pattern.

Chapter 1

The World of Sewing

In This Chapter

Discovering why you should sew

Taking a look at the sewing process, seaming, and adding details

Understanding how sewing can save money and resources

Why sew? Simply put, it’s fun. You also get the gratification of making something useful and beautiful and the personal recognition from friends and family who are in awe of your raw, natural talent. Not to mention that what you learn about fabrics, fibers, and fashion helps you in other areas of your life.

You may think of sewing as a hobby in which you make clothes. But as you move from place to place in your busy life, start paying attention to how much fabric is used everywhere. You can sew Halloween costumes, teddy bears, prom dresses, and purses. Think of the fashions in home décor. A tablescape isn’t complete without some great-looking linens — that you can make, of course. You can update your house by making a wardrobe of pillows with a set of covers for every season or by sewing a new duvet cover. Need a gift? Make a throw or fill a basket with a set of napkins. It’s all possible when you sew. My friend and editor, Robbie Fanning, called this collection of possibilities “the world of sewing.”

Because the topic of sewing is so extensive and I have only so many pages in this book, I thoughtfully organized the world of sewing for you. I first walk you through the sewing process used in making clothing and then move on to ways to sew for your home and repair and remake existing clothing for a more sustainable wardrobe. My hope is that after you get to know more about this creative endeavor and have some success with the projects in this book, you’ll spread your wings and investigate the larger world of sewing.

Figuring Out What Comes First: The Idea or the Tools?

My family was on a strict budget when I was growing up, so I’d read my Seventeen magazine and head off to the mall to see what all the kids were wearing. After seeing just what I wanted and knowing it was too expensive, I’d pore over the pattern catalogs for the latest junior fashions that I could “knock off.”

Next stop — the fabric store. There I combed though the bolts for just the right fabric, color, and texture, and went on to the notions wall to find the right-sized buttons. Little did I know that I was shaping the skills I now use to create something trendy for myself, my family members, and my home.

So to answer the question of whether the idea or the tools come first, for me the idea or inspiration is first, and then the adventure of hunting for just the right project pattern and fabric starts me on my journey. After I find everything, I take it all home and put it together with tools — but not just any tools; tools that are a pleasure to use. Read on to understand what I mean.

The pleasure of using good tools

You can cook a five-course gourmet meal for eight by using nasty old pots and pans and cooking over an open fire, but it’s not a lot of fun. The same is true for sewing — you can make a project by sewing everything together with a hand needle and thread, but it takes a lot of time and patience and you may not like the results. For me, the joy of sewing is having quality tools at my fingertips. No scurrying around the house to find a pair of shears that haven’t been used in my husband’s workshop or pins that have been pulled off packaged dress shirts. Sure, good tools are an investment, but if you’re serious about learning to sew, nothing gets you closer to success than the pleasure of using a quality tool that works perfectly every time you use it. Not sure if you’ll like sewing but still want to try it? Take a sewing class at your local fabric store or sewing machine dealer where you can use great tools and quality equipment.

I spend some time in Chapter 2 sharing my favorite tools with you, so check it out. Besides the fabric and pattern, here’s what will make your sewing experience a real pleasure:

Measuring tools for small and large areas of a project. I love my 6-inch adjustable sewing gauge, my flexible vinyl tape measure, and the see-through O’Lipfa ruler with 1/4-inch increments.

Cutting tools for cutting out your project. I use 8-inch bent-handle dressmaking shears, 5-inch scissors for trimming smaller areas, and embroidery scissors for clipping and ripping out unwanted stitches. For long straight cutting, the pizza cutter–type rotary cutter is the best.

Marking tools to show you how to turn a flat, shapeless piece of fabric into something useful. You need a marking tool for dark-colored fabrics and one for light-colored fabrics. My favorites are disappearing dressmaker’s chalk that washes out with water and air-soluble markers.

Pinning tools both for pinning and to hold pins. My favorite pins for 90 percent of the sewing I do are 1-1/4-inch glass-head pins. To keep my pins from ending up all over the place, I use three magnetic pin catchers (one for the ironing board, one on the cutting table, and one next to my sewing machine). I also like a wrist pin cushion with a felt cushion so my pins are portable.

New hand and machine needles. After some use, needles wear out and need to be discarded. As far as hand needles go, specialty needles are available for just about every hand-sewing task. I most often use self-threading needles for basic hand sewing and easy repairs — I used these even before I needed reading glasses because the thread just clips into place, no squinting and poking thread ends through a microscopic eye required.

Thread to hold everything together. Be sure not to skimp on the thread — when you see three spools for $1, run (away from the store, not to it!). The quality of that thread isn’t worth the spool its wound on. Read more about choosing quality thread in Chapter 2.

A good sewing machine to enjoy the sewing experience. I said you need a good one, not an expensive one — and it doesn’t have to be new. Just buy it from a reputable sewing machine dealer that can offer you reliable service and lessons if you need them.

A serger — if you discover that you like to sew and want to take your newfound skill to a new level. If you’re new to sewing, you don’t need a serger, but after you have some experience, it makes the sewing process faster and more streamlined (like the microwave oven does for cooking).

Understanding fabrics and fibers

Among other perks of learning to sew, one cool thing is that you gain more knowledge about fabrics, fibers, how they respond to washing (or not), wearing, and pressing, and ultimately this knowledge makes you a savvier shopper of ready-to-wear garments. And because your time and effort is worth something, spend your sewing time wisely by buying the best fabric you can afford and the best fiber for the project you’re making. So what’s the difference between fiber and fabric?

Fabrics are woven or knitted yarns, which are created by twisting fibers together. Whether the fabric is all wool or a cotton-polyester blend, each fiber has its unique advantages and disadvantages, which makes one better than others for a particular project. (See more specific information about the most common types of fibers and fabrics in Chapter 3.)

If you aren’t sure about your fabric choice, the sales associate at your local fabric store is a great resource for locating just the right fabric for the project. Most have knowledge it would take you years to learn, so don’t be shy. Ask for help, tell her what you want to make, and ask for her best advice. This can save you time and guide you on your way to success.

Getting the sewing notion

In most fabric stores you find a notions wall that’s full of specialty tools and sewing stuff that can be packaged and hung up. Notions range from pins, needles, scissors, shears, and measuring tools, to buttons, bra hooks, collar stays, and iron-on knee patches. The list of notions needed for a particular project is listed on the back of your pattern envelope, so when in doubt, find what you need on the notions wall. Don’t be afraid to ask for help — what you need may be hidden in plain sight.

Pondering the pattern

Fabric stores have catalogs of patterns that you can browse through, but you only need to do a quick Internet search for “sewing patterns” and the world of sewing is at your fingertips. Looking for a particular project? Type in the project you want to make then “sewing pattern” after it to find even more choices. The Internet brings pattern catalogs home and puts the right project just a keystroke away. It also makes investigating independent pattern designers easy.

tip.epsChoose a pattern designed for your skill set. If a pattern says it’s easy, the instruction writers often still assume you have some knowledge of sewing, so if you’re a true beginner, choose patterns for beginners. If you don’t, you may become discouraged and never sew again! Simplicity Pattern Company helps beginners find appropriate patterns with their line of “Sewing For Dummies” patterns. Check it out at

When the pattern has been chosen, check out the front and back of the envelope for very important information: what fabric works best to achieve the results pictured on the front of the envelope, how much fabric to buy for the sized garment you’re making, what you need in the way of trims and notions (see above), and the front and back views shown in easy-to-read line drawings.

Inside the envelope you find an instruction sheet commonly referred to as the pattern guide sheet. The pattern guide sheet shows you which pattern pieces you need to use for a specific version of the pattern (several versions or views may be packaged in one pattern), shows you how to lay out the pattern pieces on the fabric, and gives you step-by-step instructions showing you how to put the project together. Even though I’ve been sewing for years, I still refer to my pattern guide sheet to be sure that I haven’t forgotten to do something. You can read more about working with patterns in Chapter 4.

Use this book to supplement the pattern guide sheet instructions. Many times pattern instruction writers assume you know how to make a dart or sew in a zipper and may leave out information essential for your success. If you don’t understand what the instructions tell you, look up how I recommend you complete a particular technique. I’m confident that trying it my way will get ’er done and that you’ll pick up the skills and the lingo as you work though the project. So where to begin? In the following section I break it down and give you a general idea of where you’re headed — think of this as your sewing GPS at the mile-high view.

Sizing Up the Sewing Process

Like any new endeavor, sewing has its very own vocabulary, skill set, and process. After you decide on a project, select your pattern and fabric, and collect the notions and tools you need, the sewing process follows the basic steps outlined in this section to complete a project.

As you look over the rest of this chapter, it may occur to you that a lot happens before you start actually sewing things together. Have you noticed that it takes a long time for road crews to prepare to lay a new road and then almost overnight it’s in and you’re cruising smoothly along your merry way? That’s how it is with sewing. When you get your fabric and pattern; lay out, pin down, cut, and mark your pattern pieces; fuse on the interfacing; and finish the fabric edges; you’re two-thirds of the way finished. But I’m ahead of myself. Here’s a quick breakdown of the sewing process and the creative journey you’re about to take.

Preshrinking fabric

After getting home from fabric shopping, preshrink your washable fabrics so the finished project won’t shrink any more after it’s washed. (You can find the whys and hows of preshrinking in Chapter 3.)

tip.epsIf life gets in the way and you have to set your project aside temporarily, still preshrink the fabric when you first bring it home. That way you don’t have to wonder if the fabric is “needle ready” when you are.

Finding the right pattern pieces

Most patterns have a couple of variations included. Each variation is called a view and requires specific pattern pieces. Check out the pattern guide sheet to see what pattern pieces are needed for the view you’re making, then cut those pattern pieces apart from the large sheet of printed pattern paper and set them aside. Read more in-depth about this in Chapter 4.

Laying out the pattern on the fabric

The pattern guide sheet has a suggested pattern-piece layout for the width of the fabric you are using (see “Understating fabrics and fibers” above). This is the most important step because if you lay out and cut something crookedly or incorrectly, no amount of sewing, ironing, begging, or pleading will make the fabric behave the way you want it to. Learn the do’s and don’ts in Chapter 4.

Pinning and cutting

When you have the pattern pieces arranged on the fabric, pin each pattern piece to the fabric ready for cutting. As you cut out each pattern piece, notice if there are special markings such as a dart or a larger than normal dot. If so, place the cut pieces that need to be marked in one stack and those that don’t in another. Read on to learn why.


Even though you may not know what the random pattern markings mean, as you proceed through the project the guide sheet instructions will tell you. When in doubt, transfer the mark from the pattern paper to the fabric. Chapter 4 gives you several methods to do this. If you don’t, you’ll waste a bunch of time sifting through pattern paper you’ve removed from the fabric to find and mark something you should have done in the first place. (Trust me here — I make the mistakes so you don’t have to.)


After cutting out the pattern pieces and marking them, your guide sheet may tell you to cut interfacing for several of the pattern pieces. Some patterns even give you separate paper pattern pieces for the interfacing. So what is it and why should you care?

Certain places on a project need a little extra stability — like a collar, sleeve cuff, waistband, or down the front of a shirt or jacket with buttons and buttonholes. If what you’re wearing has a waistband, take a look at the two separate pieces of fabric creating the outside and inside of the band. Inside and between these two layers of fabric is a third piece of fabric called interfacing that keeps your waistband from stretching out of shape and that keeps the hooks and eyes, buttons, or snaps from pulling off the fabric. So even though this may seem like an unnecessary step and extra expense, interfacing gives your project a professional finish and provides excellent wear. Read more about interfacings and how to use them in Chapter 3.

Pressing for the best shape

One my tailoring professors at the New York Fashion Institute of Technology said, “as you sew, have a love affair with your iron.” By that time I had been sewing for 14 years and didn’t give my iron much thought, but she was right. The best way to get a very professional-looking project is to press every seam and press it well. Learn more about this pressing subject in Chapter 5.

Moving On to the Needle and Thread

Pieces of fabric are joined by using a needle and thread to stitch them together in a way that fits a form. Stitches are done by hand or machine, and some stitches work better than others for a specific job. See Chapter 5 for the breakdown of the most common hand and machine stitches.

Finishing the edges first

If you use a fabric that ravels, you need to treat the edges of the fabric in some way to stop it from raveling. This treatment is called finishing the edges and is done before the seams are sewn. You can finish the edges either with pinking shears, for that delightful zigzag cut that’s impervious to unraveling, or by sewing the edges with a machine or serger. Discover what works best for your project in Chapter 6.


Shaping a piece of fabric to fit a form is done by nipping in a little here or letting out a little fabric there. So before you sew most pattern pieces together, you need to shape them with a dart, gathers, or tucks so they conform to the particular body part they cover.

To both nip in and let out at the same time, you sew a dart — a little triangle-shaped wedge of fabric that’s wide at one end and is stitched to a point at the other end. After the dart is pressed it turns that flat, lifeless piece of fabric into something that conforms to the shape of your waist, bust, knee, or elbow so the fabric can move with you and be comfortable.

Need a nip here and a lot more fullness there? Then sew a tuck — it has a similar purpose as a dart except that the fabric is taken in, stitched in a straight line, and is open (rather than coming to a point) on one or both ends. Adding gathers and elastic are other ways of putting shape where you want it. Learn all about these shape-shifting techniques in Chapter 8.


The place where two pieces of fabric come together is called a seam. Seams can be straight, curved, or turn a corner. After seams are sewn they’re pressed and ironed into submission so that flat piece of fabric can be transformed into something that follows the contours of your body or a piece of furniture. What happens if you make a mistake? No worries. Unwanted stitches can be ripped out in several ways. You can find out more about seaming, pressing, and ripping in Chapter 6.