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I am often asked how I learned to sew and what advice I would give beginners. Since I started sewing only two years ago, it’s all very fresh in my mind!

So here, in no particular order, is my entirely subjective, highly biased top ten tips list:

1. Start off with a good machine. I can’t imagine anything more discouraging than learning to sew on a temperamental sewing machine. You may know by now that I am extremely biased toward vintage machines, straight stitchers in particular. But most people these days start with zigzaggers and that’s OK too.

Here in the USA, good used machines can be had for less than $50 on Craigslist, eBay, and at many local thrift stores. Maybe your neighbor or a family member has one in storage. Make sure you clearly ask the seller/donor whether the machine has any mechanical problems. The last thing you need is to bring home your first sewing machine and discover the bobbin winding mechanism doesn’t work or the cams are cracked (if it has embroidery cams). A manual is always helpful and if missing, can usually be downloaded online for a few dollars.

There’s nothing wrong with spending more for a high quality machine, but when you’re starting out you don’t really know which features you’ll value most. I recommend thinking of your first machine as a starter and spending the big bucks later, if at all. Doesn’t that makes sense?

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2. Avoid (avoidable) complexity. The simpler the machine the less is likely to be/go wrong with it, which is why I like old straight stitch machines. If you’re interested in making clothes, you don’t need fancy embroidery stitches, which is the selling point for new machines. Nothing has changed mechanically in decades and little (if anything) has improved. I know that some people prefer a new machine and that’s fine. Just keep it simple and don’t let yourself be wowed by fancy computerized geegaws you’re unlikely ever to use.

3. Buy yourself a good beginner’s book. In my experience, there aren’t that many of these. There are countless excellent encyclopedic sewing guides, like the Readers Digest guide, and these are great to have on hand for reference, but I would not use them to get started — too much info.

My favorite beginner’s sewing book is Diana Rupp’s Sew Everything Workshop. Diana walks you through step-by-step in the gentlest, most caring way, and the book itself is beautiful to look at AND spiral bound, which is a tremendous help. It also includes many simple patterns for some basic garments and home dec items that are cute and trendy (and on real pattern paper too). They’re mainly for women, of course, but not exclusively. I made my first garment — a pair of boxer shorts — from a pattern in Diana’s book and I still wear the results!

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4. Start small. If you follow Diana’s book you won’t have to think about this. It’s more fun to sew something simple and do it well than to tackle something too advanced and be disappointed with the results. You’ll learn either way, for sure, but some of us get very discouraged when our results don’t match our expectations. Whether we’re making a pencil case or an evening gown, choice of fabric and other details is going to make a huge difference in our enthusiasm and happiness with the result. It’s not what you sew but how you sew it.

5. Practice. Like any other skill, sewing takes some practice. After a while things that seemed difficult at first, like matching the edges of two separate pieces of fabric at 5/8", become second nature. When I got my first sewing machine, I just loved to sew scraps of fabric together — any fabric. It all seemed very miraculous to me at the time and still does!

6. Lower the stakes. A lot of perfectionists are drawn to sewing. I’ve sewn many dozens of garments, and some turn out better than others. I try not to make sewing a reflection of my self-worth. Sewing should be fun, even when it’s challenging. With skill you can make some fantastic things but ultimately, most of us don’t have to sew to have clothes to wear. Many of us already had bulging closets before we even picked up a needle. Sew like a child and enjoy it. You’re only going to get better with practice.

7. Make up your own rules. I am a big believer in trusting one’s intelligence. Some things you read in a sewing book or in pattern directions — how to insert a zipper, say — may sound unnecessarily complex. Don’t be afraid to try it your own way. The people who wrote those directions are just people. Maybe there’s a simpler method and YOU are the person who will have discovered it. If it doesn’t work, you’ll have learned something. You have nothing to lose provided you’re not experimenting on your nearly-finished garment made of $75/yd. silk shantung!

8. Find a sewing community. I could not have learned as fast as I have without the support and encouragement of Burdastyle and Pattern Review members. Sewing friends are tremendously valuable, not only at the beginning but all along your sewing journey. Having a community makes sewing so much more fun. A dirty little secret is that I rarely looked at sewing blogs until I started Male Pattern Boldness, but some of the blogs I enjoy most are written by people who are just starting out because I can relate to their sewing challenges — and their enthusiasm.

9. Make sewing your play and not your work. Life is stressful enough without adding even more stress. Sewing can be challenging, especially when things aren’t working out the way you’d like them to. Remember why you’re sewing in the first place. You didn’t learn to walk in a day or in a week and you’re not going to master sewing in that amount of time. But imagine how much you’ll know a year from now if you just keep plugging along, making mistakes and learning from them. Just keep going and maintain a sense of humor.

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10. Make something you really like. I’ve heard a lot of stories from people who were taught — and turned off — sewing in Home Economics class where they were forced to make something they hated, like an apron or an ugly skirt. As an adult, you make the rules. It’s much more inspiring to sew something you might actually want to wear. You don’t have to pay a lot for the fabric (Pick up some old sheets!). I also think sewing for oneself, especially at the beginning, is more fun than sewing for others. You don’t have to please anyone but yourself and you know best how you want something to look or fit.

BONUS ITEM!

11. Take a class. Don’t take a class. A lot of people ask me if they should take a class. Some people really enjoy the social aspect of a class or the way a class organizes their week or (potentially) keeps them from making costly mistakes. I didn’t take a class though I wouldn’t rule it out for the future. I’d recommend that anybody who wants to take a class take one and anybody who wants to learn on their own do so. It’s not either/or.

I will say that given the tremendous amount of information available in books, DVDs, on YouTube videos, sites like BurdaStyle, and blogs, nobody has to take a class to get the information they need. All those “sewing secrets” have already been revealed!

So wise readers, anything to add? Anything that would be in your top ten that I haven’t included?

How did you learn to sew?

~Peter

When native New Yorker Peter Lappin bought his first sewing machine two years ago to hem a pair of thrift store jeans, little did he know he was initiating a journey that would bring him fame and fortune. While awaiting his fortune he stays busy writing “the world’s most popular men’s sewing blog,” Male Pattern Boldness, and now contributing to BurdaStyle.

“For more than twenty years I’d lived on the edge of the Garment District without even knowing what a seam ripper was. Now I rip daily!”

92 Comments

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    Nov 25, 2012, 04.00 PMby Amal Ha

    would you kindly advice me a good book in sewing that teach me how to sew ,i cant be on the net all the time & also i don’t have enough time to catch any classes .Thank you any way.

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    May 7, 2012, 09.59 PMby Jane DeWitt

    I am so glad I stumbled upon your blog!! I have fallen in love with sewing at the ripe old age of 51!! Sometimes I think I’m crazy, but I am a painter, art teacher by trade, and oooohhh the colors in textiles!! I’ll be in the fabric stores saying to myself “this is silly, I could just buy something like this at…..” But where’s the fun, yes and frustration. Case in point I have an old white sewing machine circa 1996 and have no zipper foot. All these obscure sewing places want my credit card and promise me a zipper foot. I sewed a zipper in without one, it was okay, my perfection demon laughing all the while….

    This is fun, and a lost art. I’m holding on with both hands!!

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    Aug 1, 2011, 07.40 AMby rebeccawip

    all great tips! thanks :D i’m a new sewer and i highly agree with your beginner book- my first projects were 2 skirts (easy breezy wrap skirt and naughty secretary skirt) from dianna rupp’s book. I was successful in both of these projects thanks to her easy to follow, clear, explicit instructions – loved it! And there was so much more info in there to get us started too. Now i’ve moved on to more complex skirts from sew serendipity but i never would have had the courage had i not started out small and had my hand held by dianna! I love how you encourage us to loosen up, enjoy the ride, and trust in our own experiences to further our skills! Sew on :D

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    Jul 31, 2011, 06.58 PMby lemmonsc

    I have an old Singer that looks exactly like yours. Built in 1953. Do you do your own repairs? If so, could you tell us where to get a manual. I’m wanting to get mine back in working order. Thanks. lemmonsc@acu.edu

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    Jul 28, 2011, 04.30 PMby zumurruda

    I can so relate to ALL your tips, you articulated all my thoughts exactly! I am not as talented as you are though!

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    Jul 27, 2011, 10.05 AMby cymraes1982

    Good advice! When’s your beginners book coming out? Or are you too busy sewing!?!

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    Jul 21, 2011, 03.22 AMby pogotown

    My first sewing experience was sitting on the floor pumping the treadle while my grandmother sewed!

    The one thing I suggest, which my mother did in teaching me, if you’re nervous about the sewing maching, don’t thread it, and draw big turns and swoops and shapes on a piece of typing paper and practice with that first. Pretty soon you’ll be steering like a pro!

    Pogotown

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    Jul 21, 2011, 01.01 AMby bigblockhemi

    I started off sewing by hand and remaking my garage sale and thrift store finds ~ 15 yrs ago. Then for My 17th birthday (I am now 31) my Dad paid for me to have sewing lessons for the summer. I made mostly things I didnt like. Then I put sewing on the back burner until I was 22, I joined a local quilting circle. Thats what got me back into it, I was quilting then when I was bored with that I would make a garment, then go back to quilting. About 3 years ago I was teaching a beggining sewing class for homeschoolers. Now I am in talks to teach sewing at my Church. I almost constantly thank my Dad for those sewing classes!

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    Jul 20, 2011, 03.12 PMby SUZAG

    Peter! I am so impressed that you have only been sewing for two years! It must have really “over took” you as a hobby! For some reason, I was given a Singer Stylist for my 8th birthday, even though no one in my family had ever sewn. I totally taught myself and now after a kids break of 30 years, the internet and a group that meets every two weeks, I’m learning the “correct way” to do things. Maybe there really isn’t a correct way but these new ways sure seem to look better and are easier…LOL

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    Jul 20, 2011, 03.25 AMby annabell0768

    I learned to sew from watching youtube videos over my winter break from work. That was about 1 1/2 years ago and have made huge progress but lots to go. Thanks for the article. It reminded me of how much fun it was to experiment with fabrics rather than make it a job. :)

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    Jul 19, 2011, 08.33 PMby zanne101

    I learned in “home ec”. My mother always sewed, but never passed it on. Just as someone posted above, I made my first ugly garment in home ec. When I finally tried things on my own years later, I realized that I could make something totally wearable and cute. I think they should re-institute home ec, but have some really knowledgeable teachers. Everyone should learn the basics of sewing, but also how to alter a pattern, pick fabric, correct problems etc. The old way of teaching home ec was not useful.

    My main problem now is getting nice fabric – I live way too far from shopping areas and it’s annoying to shop online – having to wait for swatches and then ordering makes the projects go so slowly. I do have problems in figuring which size patterns to get. If I had a mannequin, I could work things much better.

    I’m just getting back into sewing, but look forward to creating something.

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    Jul 19, 2011, 07.48 PMby tuscadero

    My great-grandmother taught me how to sew on her old treadle machine. I remember being fascinated by the pedal that made the needle move! My grandmother (her daughter) and my mom (her daughter) picked up as I got older. I sewed off and on for years but recently started really getting into different projects.

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    Jul 19, 2011, 07.27 PMby merriberri

    My best tip- have a really good steam iron and sturdy ironing board. Pressing between each step is most important. After years of frustration I finally purchased a Europro Steamiron-the tank is separate and produces lots of steam without over heating the fabric. Merriberri

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    Jul 19, 2011, 07.26 PMby bgkaake

    I have been sewing for 55 years and it is still a passion. I now sew for myself, my daughters, grandsons and granddaughter. Everything from wedding dresses to PJ’s for grandsons have passed through my sewing room.

    This article is well written and encouraging for newbies. One thing I would add is that you should try many different ways of doing the same thing, such as sewing in a zipper, and eventually decide which method works best for you and gives you the best results. Then, make notes for yourself in a sewing journal (kept near your sewing area) and do it the same way every time thereafter. This speeds up your sewing and makes your garments more attractive rather than “homemade”.

    I especially like the comment made by Dory Cubana “As a teenager and university student, I was often stopped by my school peers to ask me where did I get this or that?” That was also my experience. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up (9 kids) and the hand-me-downs from my cousin who was small busted didn’t fit me very well. After getting teased in school, I became very good at sewing very stylish clothes for myself. My own creations actually fit better than anything I could find in stores…even if I did have the money to buy them. My biggest challenge was learning to alter for bust size.

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    Jul 19, 2011, 07.03 PMby heidimcclellan321

    I sewed when I was younger, then took some classes, bought some books and so on. Now, I teach classes, and I find that the ones drawn to the class environment are intimidated by the machine and are afraid to make mistakes. I teach them that mistakes are part of the process. I sew; therefore, I rip!

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    Jul 19, 2011, 07.00 PMby pixiedevil

    I learn to sew a little from my mom and then a bit in Home Ec class in the eight grade. Where I really learned to sew for real was in the costume shop at college. Getting behind my first Bernina was a little intimidating but then empowering. I still wasn’t great but I was learning a ton. Flash forward like ten or so more years and suddenly I am buying my very first brand new mechanical Pfaff and have never looked back. I had to relearn a few things, re-acquaint myself with a few more things but the love and desire to make stuff is still there. I still reference my Reader’s Digest sewing book and have acquired quite a few more books along the way. Online tutorials have been great too! Joining the sew weekly and some online sew-a-longs have been extremely helpful and inspirational. Y’all have some made skills out there!!!! I still struggle with some skills (pattern drafting and altering) but like you said you get better with each project.

    thanks so much for your post!

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    Jul 19, 2011, 03.56 PMby ritsel

    I learned sewing a bit from my mother and grandmother, a bit from following lessons, a lot from books and a lot from doing it and even more from everything that went wrong. an advice that would have helped me was: don’t be afraid of mistakes and don’t get too disappointed when it doesn’t end up like you wanted it in you head. For some years, this held me back in sewing but now I see all sewing as learning, as a process. The sewing is going better now but I still got trouble choosing the right fabric for a project. And then…. one day…., the things I’ll make, will be just like I wanted it! Until then, I enjoy the process! (and somethimes a finished garment :-))

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    Jul 19, 2011, 12.58 PMby Romaine Schubert Szabo

    how do you find tips and instructions on youtube, and what is an invisible zipper?

  • Missing

    Jul 19, 2011, 12.58 PMby Romaine Schubert Szabo

    how do you find tips and instructions on youtube, and what is an invisible zipper?

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    Jul 19, 2011, 12.36 PMby MaryamNaghdali

    I have also used my mums old old machines the ones with not even a zigzag stitch. You can say alot about the quality of stitch etc etc…. but I gotta say that once you give the new computerised machines a shot you will be addicted to them!!!! They can just go beyond what you have in mind…. Its not just about picking up a fabric and a pattern to sew something, Its about all those details you can perfectly bring together… The finishing stitch you select, the button hole style you want to go for, The embroidery you want to add…. I am using a fully computerised machine and I am loving it!!! I even think that doing a straight stitch on that machine is actually a waste of talent! so I have kept my older computerised machine for that…

    Don’t be afraid of new machines they are a pleasure to work with :)

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    Jul 19, 2011, 12.27 PMby amyalberici

    Peter, this is absolutely great advice. Have fun, get creative with mistakes and gravitate towards it like a child. I LOVE IT!

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    Jul 19, 2011, 11.01 AMby finlaw

    I love your advice about zips. The first time I tried to insert one using instructions was a nightmare so I chucked them away and figured it out for myself lol! I inherited an old Singer from my Grandma and I’d love to use it but it has no foot pedal so for now I’m sticking to my new machine, I need both hands to guid mt material!

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    Jul 19, 2011, 07.55 AMby urbandon

    Another great post. Glad my mum showed me how to sew when I was young. Her advice was to “just do it and see what happens”.

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    Jul 19, 2011, 06.29 AMby nericec

    I was one of those girls that learnt to sew by making a hideous apron in home ec. I didn’t touch a sewing machine for ages, until an old boyfriend left his at my house – go figure! Now I can’t imagine life without sewing. Thanks for your tips. They’re reassuring!

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    Jul 18, 2011, 09.15 PMby panicsindetroit

    Great article!

    I grew up around my grandma and grandpa who were always sewing and making crafts. I never really had much interest in it until after they passed. About a year and a half ago I came into possession of one of my grandma’s sewing machines. Considering I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, and could barely figure out how to thread the machine, I think I’ve come a long way. But I definitely have a long way to go!

    As for making your own rules, I definitely agree. I’m 19, impatient, and don’t like reading directions. I like doing things my way and taking short cuts….which usually end up NOT being short cuts. But I enjoy what I do, whether things turn out good or bad, it’s definitely a hobby I’m happy to have picked up. :)

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    Jul 18, 2011, 12.18 PMby Dory Cubana

    I grew up in socialist Croatia. And I was a fat girl. I could never find the trendy clothes I wanted to wear, at least not in my size, not even during frequent shopping trips to neighouring Austria and Italy. So my granny sewed many of my “creations” based on Burda and Neue Mode patterns. Often she would “reinterpret” what I had in mind and the clothes did not look quite right as I wanted them to look. Aged 13 I took up sewing by hand, because she did not let me use the machine. When I proved skilled enough and machine worthy, the world of funky fashion clothes was mine. As a teenager and university student, I was often stopped by my school peers to ask me where did I get this or that? made me very proud and fashion conscious. This was pre-google, pre-youtube time, so my best source for both patterns and techniques were Burda magazine and Burda books. 20 years later taking up sewing again, browsing endless crafting blogs and googling, I see not much has actually changed. Burda still rules (girls behing Burdastyle, you rock! Thanks you for all plus size patterns), with one addition, a lot of guys took up sewing: Great! I’ll become a regular visiting your post. Thanks for anything you might want to share with us!

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    Jul 18, 2011, 04.22 AMby BLink

    While in college, my roommate had a sewing machine that she used to hem all of her pants (she was 4’11’’). She left it out often and told me that I could use it anytime I wanted… every since then, I’ve done nothing but practice (that was 8 years ago). Today, I make most of my own clothes and stitch just about anything I can find!

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