Friday, November 9, 2018

Sewalong Week 3: A Beginner's Guide

Super happy to have Rachael from the Carnivale Vintage Shop in Edinburgh and co-host of the Sewalong doing a guest post today on the beginner's guide to sewing.  Thanks Rachael!

So whereas Debi will be taking you through the actual sewalong, I've been drafted in to start us from the very, very basics. I first learnt to sew around four years ago, also as part of a sewalong, and quite frankly, it's the best thing I ever learnt to do. I have always been clothes obsessed - clothing not fashion - but sewing allowed me a creative outlet to make garments exactly how I wanted them, both in terms of style but also fit. Being a short, fat person, the High Street doesn't exactly love me, and even vintage is more challenging to find in a larger size. So with vintage sewing patterns (which very much DO come in larger sizes) I was set! I wanted to encourage the sewalong because the ability to sew has been one of the greatest gifts ever given to me, and I want to encourage others in its joys. Best of all, there's no annoying Home Ec teacher screaming at me that I use the sewing machine like a machine gun!

So there are ten things I think it's worth covering as absolute basics:
1.    Pre-wash your fabric
2.    Sewing is like building, getting one stage right makes the rest easier
3.    Knowing what size to use
4.    Preparing the pattern and your fabric
5.    Crosswise and lengthwise grain
6.    On the fold
7.    Placing pins
8.    Cutting out and marking up
9.    Pressing really matters
10. Seam finishes

1.    Fabric and Pre-wash

The pattern will indicate what fabrics are best to use. I strongly recommend cotton as a great start point for beginners as it's easy. The pattern will also tell you how much fabric you need. I usually buy more just in case, unless it is particularly expensive.
Pre-washing fabric and trims is a good idea, particularly if they are likely to bleed colour. No point ruining your dress after one wear!

2.      Building Blocks

I've found that as much as I want to rush onto the next step - seriously, that's my entire personality right there - that mastering each step is worth more and is faster in the long run. One wonky bit of sewing that you kinda fudged because you weren't sure at that point, WILL come back to haunt you I'm sorry, it sucks. This is where this group and google are your friends - I swear a quick search for clarification makes all the difference. Don't get scared off, dive right in, but don't be afraid to ask for help.

3.      Sizing

Quite frankly there is no such thing as standard sizing, so let's just ignore all that and concentrate on our measurements. To start with, measure:
·     Largest part of your bust
·     Where your waist goes in the most - this will be above your belly button and where you naturally crease when bending to the side
·     Fullest part of your hips - will depend on whether your bum or thighs are biggest

Record these, memorise them and check on them regularly (they will change!). Then find the pattern size which best corresponds with those measurements. You won't necessarily fit one pattern entirely - pick the one that's the closest fit and you will finesse fit later. Think about how you want the garment to fit - I want it to be flowing over the bust because pancake boob flatters no-one, and I like a tight fit on the waist, but I need things loose on my oversize hips. I take that into account when choosing the size. Patterns will have 'ease' to allow for movement so will likely be a bit bigger than your actual measurements, you can choose how much ease you want when you fit your toile.

It would also be a good idea to take your torso length and length for the skirt as well at this point. I kinda know by now that as a short-arse, I need to take at least an inch off the bodice of most patterns, so factor this in now too.

4.      Preparing the Pattern and Fabric

Patterns come in a variety of guises - modern multi-size versus single-size, printed versus unprinted etc - follow the instructions on the pattern to work out what you need to do, e.g. cut out your size on a multi-size pattern. At this stage you can also measure the flat pieces to get an idea of the amount of ease the pattern makers have allowed, and how this will influence the sizing you want.

You may want to make the odd adjustment to your pattern at this stage, or you can wait and make a toile/muslin in cheap fabric to test the fit first. For example, I usually try and remember to shorten if I need to at this stage, just by holding the pattern pieces to my body (coz I'm kinda lazy and don't often do toiles).

One of the many things I've learnt from vintage sewing patterns, is that a mangled up pattern won't make cutting it out easier, and if you cut it out duff, the whole project will be duff. Take two seconds with an iron on low to iron your pieces flat.
Also at this point note if there is already a seam allowance added to your pattern pieces, or if you need to add one! Seam allowances can differ, often it's 5/8 of an inch, but it does vary!
Iron your fabric too!

5.      Crosswise and lengthwise grain

So most fabric we will be working with is woven - some threads go horizontally and some go vertically, this is called crosswise grain and lengthwise grain. Fabric is cut from bolts, so you have the raw edge where it's been cut off the bolt, and the two side edges which are finished and called the selvedge edge. We don't need to worry about this hugely, but it does affect how your garment will drape and how pattern placement for printed fabrics work. Once you know the rules of grainlines, you can choose to break them for effect, but for now, let's just make it so our finished garment looks good!

When we are placing our pattern pieces, we want to make sure our fabric is square and that the grain of the fabric hasn't become messed up. This is pretty easy with cotton, but on more complicated fabrics, it becomes a bigger deal. Our pattern pieces indicate how to cut out our fabric and where it should be in relation to the grain, via grain lines marked on the pieces. Your grain line should run parallel to the selvedge edges, so each dot should be the same distance from the selvedge edge so we know it's straight.

Lengthwise fold:

Crosswise fold:
Now every pattern comes with a guide to cut out making the most economical use of your fabric. Which is great if you have the space for this. I live in a tiny, crowded one bed flat and do not have the space! So I generally cut out only a few pattern pieces at the same time, which means I have to be very careful that I have enough fabric. I generally buy more than I need because of this.

6.             On the Fold and Not

Some pieces will be marked out to cut on the fold - this means that you fold the fabric selvedge to selvedge and place the pattern piece on the fold, so it cuts out one double piece. This is done to avoid a seam line where we don't want one, for example on the bodice. Grain line is not marked on such pieces, because the act of folding the selvedges together and cutting on the fold, should ensure it is straight!
Pieces not on the fold can still be cut out at the same time, but are placed away from the fold of the fabric. Fabric pieces are sometimes mirrors of each other - for example you may have two back pieces for the bodice, you can fold you fabric over to cut both of these at the same time using the one pattern piece which saves time and ensures they match. You fold the fabric selvedge edge to selvedge edge, ensure the grain of your fabric lines up with the grain line, and cut out both pieces together.

7.             Placing Pins

There are various different ways of holding down fabric to cut it out - you will find what you like best, be that pattern weights or pins. Personally I like pins due to lack of space, and I place these at a right angle to the fabric edge because I find this the most stable means of holding the fabric and pattern together (it moves less).

8.                Cutting Out and Marking Up

Use the whole length of your scissors and cut out smoothly. You will want to mark out all those funny V and VV shapes at this stage. These are for matching up pattern pieces to sew together later and are totally important! Otherwise you will kick yourself later that they are missing! Again you can decide how you want to do these - some make a wee V out of the fabric you are cutting, but personally I make a wee V into the seam allowance as I find that easier for me. You choose what works best for you.

For all the other marks, well let's go through what some of these are:
·         Triangle shaped marks are darts for shaping;
·         Straight marks often indicate where pleats are to be made;
·         Other marks are for placement of items such as buttons, buttonholes, gathers or a point to sew until.

These will be explained in the pattern instructions. You need to mark these with whatever way you feel most comfortable. Traditionally it was done with tailor's tacks (loops of thread), or chalk, but personally I prefer to use pencils specifically designed for the purpose which I find don't rub off too easily. I even use them to draw lines for darts to make it easier to sew. Whatever you use, you need to ensure it will wash off and not damage your finished garment.

9.             Pressing

I don't know why sewing is so-called, because I swear it's more about ironing than sewing! Pressing after each step is essential for the crisp and professional look of your finished piece. I will take a lot of short cuts in life, but pressing isn't one of them! And I urge you that it's a good practice sewing habit to fully adopt.

10.          Seam Finishes

There are various types of seam finishes, and knowing a few helps you decide what's best for the garment you are making and the fabric used. 

There is where the edge is left without a seam finish:
Modern commercially made items are usually overlocked/serged which is where there is little seam allowance left and the edge is heavily bound over with thread, which doesn't fray as a result. 

Most of us don't have access to an overlocker and one of the benefits of home sewing, is deliberately using a large seam allowance to change fit with time. A lot of vintage items have large seam allowances so the original owner could let them out if she changed size!

One of the easiest seam finishes for cotton is simple pinking shears which give the fabric a zig zag which does not fray easily and is also period correct for vintage sewing.

Another of my favourites is French seams where the fabric is first sewn wrong sides together for 1/4" of the 5/8" seam allowance, and then turned in with right sides together and the remaining 3/8" of the seam allowance sewn, therefore encasing the raw edge entirely, is useful for sheer or delicate fabrics where a clean edge is required. Obviously it can be adapted for any amount of seam allowance given, but is most useful to be kept narrow.
Zig zag stitching can be used to finish off the raw edge or even just the raw edge folded over and stitched with a straight stitch, are often seam finishes found in home-made vintage garments. You can decide what works best for you but bear in mind the effect of the fabric you are using.

I hope that gives the absolute beginner's a starting point and I hope you are as excited as I am to start the sewalong!

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