Sewing for Dummies

October 20, 2011

by Margaret Cabaniss

Behold my nemesis.

I have this weird mental block when it comes to sewing. I don’t know why: My mom was always sewing something when I was growing up — dresses, curtains, you name it — and she was constantly offering to show her daughters the ropes, if we wanted to learn.

Usually we didn’t, though, because sewing wasn’t cool when I was a kid. I did take one sewing class in high school, and made a serviceable drawstring bag and wrap skirt, but after that I promptly forgot everything I learned and went back to being suspicious of the whole endeavor.

Now that I’m older, of course, I wish I had stuck with it. My mom, never one to lose hope, bought me this awesome machine a couple of years ago so I could start up again — but without her around to re-teach me, I’ve been slow to open it up. So on a recent visit, I finally broke down and asked for her advice: As someone who has been sewing for 50 years, and now teaching sewing classes of her own, how does she help people get over that mental hurdle and just start sewing?

So many settings! Time to panic!

For anyone who doesn’t have their own personal sewing guru to consult, her advice was definitely helpful:

Have the right attitude. Mom says that whenever she’s approached about teaching a beginner lesson, everyone — without fail — says they are the unteachable ones. They insist it’s impossible, they’ll never learn, etc. But sewing is like anything else: It takes time and practice — and, yes, making mistakes — to improve. And with that commitment, all her students do improve. So maybe there’s hope for me yet.

Invest in the right tools. The biggest mistake a beginner can make, according to my mom, is to buy a cheap machine off the shelf at WalMart. You may be saving money now, but it won’t be worth the hassle in the long run: Cheap tools don’t work well, and they break easily (at which point you’ll be paying more than they’re worth just to get them fixed). People get frustrated when their machines don’t work the way they should, which means their project doesn’t turn out right…and then they think they’re the problem, and the shame spiral above starts all over again.

Instead, take the time to do a little research. You don’t have to buy top-of-the-line anything, but invest in something that you’re actually going to enjoy using. Talk to a dealer at your local fabric store and see what they recommend, and take one of their machines for a test drive. Check out Craigslist or eBay for good secondhand options; that’s where my mom found the one I have now. She gives tons more machine-buying advice on her sewing blog here. (Oh yes, my mom has a sewing blog. I told you she was serious.)

Don’t expect perfection right away. This is a hard one for me. I want to be making elaborate bespoke outfits immediately, but attempting something like that right off the bat will only lead to heartache. Start with something simple — envelope cases for throw pillows are about as straightforward as you can get, while still being fun and actually useful around the house. Save the complicated stuff for later.

Get help. God bless the interwebs: Those of us without crafty moms (or with said moms in other states) can easily find sewing help online. YouTube channels, blog tutorials…it’s all out there. I like the tutorials section of Sew Mama Sew; my mom recommends Totally Stitchin’, eSewingWorkshop, and Sew4Home. And, of course, if you happen to live near Raleigh, North Carolina, I know a lady who teaches awesome classes

Handmade baby blankets are way more comfy.

After her pep talk, I’m feeling more inspired to take out my machine again. I’ll be sure to keep you all posted on my progress… Meanwhile, anyone else have sewing resources, tips, or stories to share? Let’s muddle through this together!

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1 Linda October 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Great article Margaret. I love the way you write, and since I know you, I can tell it’s straight from the heart. Good job!


2 Jen October 23, 2011 at 12:33 am

Forget the best sewing machine — where do I get my hands on that baby?!


3 Jen October 23, 2011 at 12:36 am

Oh — the irony of this post is that I’m pretty sure the sewing machine Mom got for me *is* actually off the shelf at WalMart. And it still serves me well! Decent brands don’t have to be expensive, and bottom-of-the-line from a good company can still be serviceable.

I think Husqvarna is one of the good ones. So — yay, you! Now, get sewing. :)


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