Learn to sew

Sewing 101 – Handy Sewing Tricks

Both my Mother and two Grandmothers were extraordinary seamstresses.  They sewed new clothes with or without patterns, reconstructed all varieties of used clothing to fit like it was tailor made and mended holes and seams on favorite stuffed toys and hand-me-down clothes.  Sadly, all three of them are gone now and with them went a wealth of knowledge.  It happens for not just this, but in so many other areas of life.  I was lucky enough to be in the receiving position of some of this knowledge and as I was patching knee holes on about pair number 3 out of 5 pairs of pants this morning, it occurred to me that this is knowledge worth sharing.  What I’ve compiled below contains a lot of sewing basics that a new sewer may find useful but even if you’re a seasoned sewer, hopefully there is at least one tidbit that you’ll find helpful that goes past just basics.  All of these are machine sewing related and should apply whether the machine is electric or treadle.  I know we have at least a couple of sewers among the readers here so I hope you guys will chime in too and share your own tricks (hand or machine) in the comments.  Lets harness some of this fading knowledge for those that follow in our footsteps.  🙂

  1. A round patch holds up better to wear and tear than one with square corners.

How to sew a patch on jeans

2.  Put your presser foot down when threading your needle.  It will make it easier to reach the needle but also triggers the tension mechanism which will hold your spool of thread still while you work.sewing 101

3.  When loading the bobbin, feed the thread up through the bobbin hole by hand-turning the spinning wheel for a stitch or two with the presser foot up.  The top thread becomes intertwined with the bobbin thread so you can run your scissors under the presser foot to pull the thread up and to the back.

4.  When sewing stretchy fabric going WITH the stretch, use a zig-zag stitch so the thread can move with the fabric and not break.  The more stretchy the fabric, the wider the zig-zag stitch you’ll use. My machine is almost 65 years old, you can see she’s skipping a little.   I love her regardless. 🙂

5.  Put the needle in the fabric and lift the presser foot to make sewing around a sharp corner nice and tidy. 

6.  Lock your stiches by sewing a few forward then backward before sewing the rest of the garment.

7.  Make direct sewn elastic work by stretching the elastic out as you sew it to the fabric.  Use a zig-zag stitch just like you would with stretchy fabric so the stitches can expand as they need to without breaking the thread.

8.  Make your own ruffle by sewing a straight stitch down the middle of a piece of fabric or ribbon.  Then, holding the bottom thread only, gently slide the fabric up the stitches to make it gather.  Use a long stitch and make sure you lock your beginning stitches, but not the end ones.  The presser foot is a handy tool to hold one end so you can work the gathers with two hands.  Once it’s gathered, sew along the top to hold it in place.  (this works great for crepe paper decorations also!)


9.  Make a button hole without a button hole attachment by using a pen to mark two straight lines the length of your button and use them as a guide for the needle placement that will be the inside edge.  Use a tight zig zag stitch then snip down the middle between your two lines to make your hole.

How to make a buttonhole








10.  Don’t forget to use the lines on the foot plate to keep your stitches the same distance from the fabric edge.  That’s what they’re there for.  You can also use the side of the presser foot itself as a fabric edge guide if you need to get closer to the edge than your machine markings allow.

11.  If your seam will show, like on the side or back of a dress, turn the garmet inside out and press the folds of fabric open.  This will make it lay flat and the seam will have a finished appearance from the outside.

sewing techniques


12.  Snip out small triangles of the fabric to make round seams lay flat.

How to sew
What are some of your favorite sewing techniques?

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8 thoughts on “Sewing 101 – Handy Sewing Tricks

  1. Lynne Reichenbach

    Also watch your fingers. While using a sewing machine, I put the needle almost all the way through my right thumb.

  2. Dee Corbin

    I’ve been sewing for seemingly forever — I call it my “therapy”. One thing I’ve noticed when someone is trying to learn to sew they get frustrated with the thread getting tangled up at the beginning of a a seam — this is called a “bird’s nest”. To avoid this I use what I call a “bridge”. I cut a scrap piece of fabric about 1 inch by 2 1/2 to 3 inches so it is about the size of an old time piece of chewing gum. (Actually, cut two pieces this size as you should almost never try to sew on just one single layer of fabric.) Start sewing by sewing across the narrow portion of the bridge, then butt whatever you want to sew up to this and sew. When you get to the end of your seam cut the thread BETWEEN the bridge and your work, bring the bridge to the end where you stopped sewing and sew across it again. Now cut the thread BETWEEN the bridge and your work once again. This will avoid the “birds nest” and will also save thread.

  3. Deb

    I have not sewed in a while, well this Christmas I made kitchen curtains, but the bobbing Is not good, lose, I forgot to learn how to tighten it, got a nearly new sewing machine, but forgot nearly everything, LOL.. I used to make clothes when I was in High school.. by trial and error I will do it again…

  4. Oh, that is sooo frustrating, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how many things I’ve sewn and then realized the bobbin tension wasn’t quite right. Ugh! The good part is that it all comes back to you quickly. Yay for new sewing machines, too! 🙂

  5. Wondo

    I learned to use my mother’s straight stitch machine when I was 4. The pedal was adjustable to work by foot or knee. Teaching me to sew was, by far, the BEST thing my mother did for me! Everyone should know at least the basics.

    Re bobbins: something to note is not all bobbins wind in the same direction. Putting it in backwards is a very common error for newbies and rusty oldbies. Once properly adjusted, bobbin tension only needs adjustment when the weight of the thread is drastically different from typical sewing weight thread = NOT often! Other than that, tension is always adjusted for the top thread which can be necessary when fabrics are different weights or thicknesses, and usually it’s only one or so numbers higher or lower.

    My favorite tension test is to use a piece of smooth woven cotton fabric. Good quality quilting fabric is perfect here. Cut a square of fabric about 5″-6″ (15 cms) [or larger] on the grainline. Fold it diagonally, then, using COTTON thread, stitch along the diagonal fold about the width of a typical seam allowance away from the fold – not close to the edge. Having the cloth a solid colour and bobbin and top threads different colours makes it easiest to see which thread may need adjusting but isn’t necessary. Your seam should look smooth with no loose threads, loops, puckers, tucks or gathers and no bird’s nests (which can be prevented by holding the loose threads as you begin to stitch or as Dee explains her bridge above). Examine your sample.

    The top and bottom threads should look the same; neither thread should be fully visible from the other side. When properly adjusted the thread goes down and loops with the bobbin thread inside the two layers of fabric; top and bottom are equal. Now, take hold of both ends of your stitching and pull slowly as far as it will go. When both tensions are good the threads shouldn’t break – or won’t break until you’ve pulled quite a ways. The thread that breaks first is the one that needs adjustment, especially if it breaks quickly. If the tensions are too tight you’ll get puckering when washed and seams will break. Cotton is necessary for this test because some polyester threads are very difficult to break. They won’t give you an accurate test. The whole idea is to get the stitching smooth, even, non-puckering and not break the first time you move in your new summer dress or your husband tries on his new birthday shirt.

    Another test that takes some experience is to remove the bobbin case (not possible in all machines), insert the bobbin and quickly let it drop kind of giving it a bit of a shake as it drops. The thread should be firm but should loosen when pulled. If it refuses to drop no matter how hard you drop it, then it is likely too tight. I do another similar test where bobbin casings don’t come out or if I’ve changed the adjustment and forgotten to reset the screw and time has passed. All I do is pull the thread but, like I said, experience factors in here. I can sense if it is too tight or loose by the feel of it. It never hurts to learn the feel of what is right, so when all’s good pull the bobbin thread and remember how it feels when you pull its thread.

    If/when it’s necessary to adjust bobbin tension, use the little screw that holds the metal plate thingy against the thread. Start by turning the screw only 1/4 turn at a time. If you screw it all the way out you will seriously regret it. It’s a bugger to get back in. Do a new test each 1/4 turn. If the bobbin needs adjusting it’s usually not a lot unless some monkey has mucked it up. Beware, not ALL sewing machine shops do a good job of adjusting tensions! When adjusted as a temporary measure always remember to turn it back where it was. I find little sticky notes helpful for things like remembering the bobbin screw, type and size of needle that’s in the machine.

    Use the best quality needles you can afford and toss them if they get nicked or bent. Bent needles are caused by tugging at thread jams and can also cause damage, even to a good quality machine. If you are starting a new garment with nice fabric always start with a new needle. Use the proper needle and thread for your fabric/project. DO NOT sew cotton quilts with polyester threads. The polyester will literally cut the fabric as the quilt is used. Polyester thread, especially low quality, can put extra wear on tension mechanisms. Avoid sewing over pins. It not only can damage needles and fabrics, a broken needle or pin can damage the bobbin casing and internal working of your machine. Start with a new needle when you start a new project, especially if it’s nice fabric. The last thing you want is a thread pull or hole in your new silk blouse!

    Keep on stitchin’!

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