Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Sewing With Excellence

Have you ever seen a lady wear an outfit where you instantly thought, “It looks like she made that herself – because I know that a store wouldn’t sell it!” Sometimes even the most well-intentioned seamstresses can occasionally produce unprofessional looking garments due to four main factors:


Lucille Ball dress from "I Love Lucy" tv show

Lucille Ball as "Lucy Ricardo" wears a homemade dress that she sewed herself in a classic "I Love Lucy" episode.




  • Incorrect sewing techniques
  • Non-compatible fabrics and patterns
  • Sloppy sewing
  • Lack of fitting the pattern

But this need not be the case! Before you start a project, make sure it’s something you’re excited about, as my experience has proved that if you don’t love what you’re creating, you will not be very enthusiastic about completing it. While it’s true that home sewers don’t have all the materials and trims available to them that major brands do, using the following guidelines can vastly improve your finished products! Here are the tips I’ve learned over the years which industry professionals put into practice everyday. By trying them yourself you can sew with excellence and produce clothing that will stand the test of time.

Sewing Techniques

~ Always use the exact seam allowance called for by the pattern. Nearly every machine on the market has clearly marked lines for 5/8″, 3/8″, 1/2″, and even 1/4″ . Depending on what you’re doing, the seam allowances may vary slightly, but it’s essential to maintain the same seam allowance throughout your sewing for successful results.

~ Press your seams well! I use the “Five-Step Pressing Method” which turns out perfect seams every time! In addition, be sure to have a supply of pressing tools handy. The most important are the ham, seam roll, clapper, and point presser.

~ Finish your raw edges by using a facing, lining, or simply zigzagging the ends. There’s nothing more unsightly than an unlined dressy garment or jacket. If you’re working with knits, you can sometimes get away with leaving the edges raw, but at least make sure to don’t leave any unfinished fabric near the hem that could fall out and expose the unraveling ends. Recently I was fitting a pattern with one of America’s biggest name sewing personalities (I won’t mention who it is!), when suddenly a flap of fabric which hadn’t been trimmed from above the hem fell down, completely unfinished! “Oh my goodness!” I thought, “This is the work of one of the biggest sewing professionals of today? Of course no one enjoys the extra step, but if you’re going to all the work of sewing a garment, you want it to be something you can be proud of!

~ Unless it’s a very casual shirt or dress, I always do my hemming by hand. One of the tell-tale signs of a home sewn dress is an otherwise attractive garment with a chunky, machine stitched hem. Particularly with fuller skirt silhouettes, it’s important to either overlock the bottom of the hem, or make a narrow hand hem so it’s as inconspicuous as possible.

Fabric & Pattern Choices

~ Before choosing what fabric to use for a pattern, make sure it has a similar weight to the pattern’s recommended fabrics list. Study up on fabric terminology so you can automatically know what type of material to shop for, whether that’s a faille, shantung, batiste, pique’, or broadcloth.

~ We seamstresses are known for our creativity, but do try to stick to a fabric that a clothing store would probably sell for that same style garment. For example, a cotton quilting print may make a charming apron, but it wouldn’t produce the most appealing pair of pants or long skirt – this is the type of thing that is stereotyped as a “homemade” outfit. For a medium-weight suede, think of how it could make a nice jacket or pencil skirt as opposed to a long-sleeved dress with lots of skirt fullness. Similarly, a satin charmeuse would look terrific made into a short sleeved blouse to wear with dressy slacks or skirt, but making an entire outfit of this fabric would either look like a costume or a prom dress!

~ And don’t forget to add couture details! If you study ready-made clothing, you’ll find that many dress shirts sport topstitching on the sleeves, collars, and cuffs. This is an added feature that instantly takes a garment from plain to professional. Inserting piping into seams is a quick way to add some pizzazz to your creation, or consider using attractive buttons or ruffles!

Precise Sewing

~ Accurate sewing begins with accurate cutting. Layout your pattern pieces on the grain, and be sure to mark the notches on the fabric itself. Once it’s time to sew, proper pinning can save you much sorrow and tears! No one likes to rip out seams, so if you’ve matched the pieces together and pinned them in place on a flat surface, your seams should come out even.

~ Do your best! I’ve found that taking shortcuts in sewing can often lengthen the time I spend constructing an outfit. Follow the directions exactly, and you’re well on your way to producing a beautiful garment!

And finally,

Fit Your Pattern!

~ I cannot stress enough how important it is to fit your tissue pattern if you want the outfit to fit you! One of the many blessings of sewing for yourself is that you can make it fit you perfectly. If you immediately dread the idea of making a muslin, don’t despair! Pati Palmer, designer of Palmer/Pletsch Fit Patterns, actually recommends fitting your tissue pattern instead of sewing a practice version. As a young girl I took many classes at the Palmer/Pletsch School of Sewing, and was always delighted with the way the patterns fit me! I recommend studying the book, Fit for Real People which gives full-color photos on how to fit virtually any pattern for any figure. (This book is essential for every serious seamstress to own. )

The basics of fitting a pattern are so simple! Pin the pattern pieces together at the seams, using the correct seam allowance. Since pattern pieces usually only represent half of the actual garment, you will need to pin the center front and center back markings to the center front and center back of the camisole/slip you’re wearing for the fitting. Stand in front of a mirror and determine any fit challenges. (Such as too short, too roomy, too tight, etc.) The exact details are described in the book I mentioned, but basically you just pin in the pattern where its too big, and let it out or add more tissue if it’s too small. Once the pattern is pinned to your size, tape any folds or tucks in place to secure. Now, separate the pieces and lay out according to pattern instructions, and the pieces should automatically fit you!

Lastly, it also helps to try on the garment periodically during the sewing process. If I’m sewing a top, I fit it after I sew the shoulder seams, side seams, and put the sleeves in. Better to catch a correction sooner, rather than to wait and be forced to rip seams more than necessary.