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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.

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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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    Jul 17, 2011, 01.21 AMby enjoycake

    Thank you so much these are really helpful tips.Especially the one about being a perfectionist.I’ve been trying to read a lot about sewing lately and learn stitch types and how to take in patterns. :/ I’ve had alot of trouble so far cause I have a strange body build that wasn’t on any size chart I could find. But reading your tips have made me feel a little less uneasy about sewing for myself :3

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 17, 2011, 01.13 PMby Peter Lappin

      I think the important thing to remember is that you will only get better with time. I think fitting issues are the hardest (for me, anyway). Once you know how to fit yourself, however, you’ll be able to adapt patterns more easily.

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    Jul 16, 2011, 08.35 PMby Tokie Ang

    great post peter..btw do u have any recommendation for the technique which i can learn for couture technique? i found susan khalje and i think i still need more technique to learn… thank you peter :D

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 17, 2011, 01.12 PMby Peter Lappin

      Susan Khalje offers classes in various places, of course, and I’ve heard many positive things about them. Another excellent resource is Kenneth King, his books, classes, DVDs, etc. Are you familiar with him?

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    Jul 16, 2011, 02.41 PMby Jodi Wade

    My tip: don’t listen to the people who say stuff like sewing slippery fabric or stretch fabric or putting in zips is hard. When I had sewing classes at school when I was about 12, we weren’t told this stuff, and the first garment we made in class was satin boxers and it was pretty easy! I am teaching a 13 year old friend to sew, she has put in zips alone, without any help or advice from me. She just tries it, she doesn’t have the fear of it from others.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 16, 2011, 05.13 PMby Peter Lappin

      Good point. I think a lot depends on the machine you use too.

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    Jul 16, 2011, 01.43 PMby liveagaindt

    when i was a little girl i had a dress that was black and white stripe at the top a red waist band and the bottom was black .as i grew the dress was too short so my mama cut the top off and made a skirt., of course she was the smartest. smile

    1 Reply
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    Jul 16, 2011, 09.40 AMby vchan38

    Peter, excellent post! I love my vintage sewing machines and their stitch quality is much better than my top of the range modern machine, I joined a 3 hour sewing class and a serger class when I first started sewing a year ago then continued learning through books, DVDs and online classes on patternreview.com which are much more economical than proper classes. I do want to join a bridal couture class in the future when I have the money :)

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 16, 2011, 05.14 PMby Peter Lappin

      There’s a Susan Khalje class that comes around here too — she’s the author of “Bridal Couture.”

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    Jul 15, 2011, 11.52 PMby sewster55

    I just learned this past year using books, also the videos you can find on youtube are really helpful

    1 Reply
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    Jul 15, 2011, 10.00 PMby sewtake2

    What a great article especially point 2-every now and again I really hanker after a serger/overlocker. But as my favourite part of sewing is finding a great fabric bargain at a car boot sale or charity shop and creating a unique garment I don’t need to emulate store bought clothes-pinking shears or seam binding make my garment unique. I am really critical of the final result of my sewing but friends/colleagues never see the “faults” that I think are so obvious. It’s amazing what you can learn from browsing Burdastyle.com-I didn’t even know you could buy concealed zips until I read an article about how to insert one!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 16, 2011, 05.16 PMby Peter Lappin

      I almost always use invisible zippers — I actually find them easier to insert!

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    Jul 15, 2011, 07.44 PMby Staci Carpenter

    Wonderful article Peter! I’ve just recently gotten back into sewing and for the first time, am making my own clothes. Your tips hit home with me on several points. And I couldn’t agree with you more….the vintage machines are the best. I inherited my mother’s machine from the mid-60’s and although it is one of Singer’s first zigzag models, you can’t beat the straight stitching. And talk about reliability! Mine weighs an easy 30 lbs and is solid metal, no plastic parts to break!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 15, 2011, 09.00 PMby Peter Lappin

      Exactly! Sounds great, Staci.

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    Jul 15, 2011, 06.51 PMby Emeraldstar

    youtue. that’s i learned. but i’ve handsewn things many many years before the machine came along.

    i’m taking a class in pattern making to get a better understanding of patterns and how to make my own for industrial use. i really want to be in costume design. pics from the movie i designed for coming soon!

    1 Reply
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    Jul 15, 2011, 06.49 PMby The Tropical Sewist

    I think #6 and #9 are so true. It’s much better to spend time savouring every little step (including TOILES! aaarghhh) , than stressing myself out by self-imposed deadlines. I work much harder at sewing than my day job, but enjoy myself much more. And if it all goes wonky in the end, I just have a good laugh :)

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 15, 2011, 07.19 PMby Peter Lappin

      Me too…at least I TRY to have a good laugh…

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    Jul 15, 2011, 04.55 PMby FashionSewingBlog

    My mother taught me how to sew, many, many, many years ago.

    Regarding your top ‘ten / eleven’ rules, No 7- Make Up Your Own Rules resonates with me, particularly when I first started. Young people don’t seem to like many rules and ALWAYS think they know best, even though we know better. Saying that, sometimes when you know best, its a simple case of knowing best, no matter what the rules.

    As long as there is a passion and desire to succeed, whether or not the project is a great success, you can always achieve what you want.

    YOU did your way and as long as your happy with the results, then that’s all one can ask. You learn and grow and develop the skills necessary to keep on getting better and better, but if you achieve perfection first time, you can’t really ask for more. it needs improve.

    1 Reply
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    Jul 15, 2011, 03.09 PMby MadeByMarzipan

    A tip I’d definitely add is: take clothing apart! If your child has a dress that’s hopelessly stained but still fits, pick out the seams, and use it as a pattern. Turn items inside out in the store to see how they’re constructed. Before long clothing construction starts to make sense, and you can dive into making your own patterns :)

    1 Reply
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