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How to Use a Sewing Machine: Basics for Beginners

Updated on July 2, 2017
lbrummer profile image

Retired now, Loraine was owner/operator of a custom window treatments business. She now shares sewing and window treatment tips and ideas.

So you want to learn how to sew. Sewing with a sewing machine is not difficult, but it does take practice to become comfortable doing it. In this article I'm going to give you some hints or tips to help you the beginning seamstress.

I thoroughly enjoy sewing and have a home based custom window treatment sewing business. This is a great business to be in for someone who likes to sew, enjoys the challenge of measuring and fitting a window treatment to a particular window. It's satisfying to work with beautiful fabrics and trims and especially satisfying to see happy clients. If you like to sew and enjoy decorating, this is a great job.

Find the tutorial for making the beautiful door stop shown above at Mollie.

Sewing For Beginners

If you are a beginning seamstress, there are some basic things you should know that will make sewing easier and more fun. In this article I'm going to tell you what these basics sewing hints are. Just remember; "There is no better way to learn how to sew...than to do it."

If you get frustrated, because you don't think you understand the instructions or the thread keeps coming out of the needle, stop awhile and take a break. When you return, rested, the instructions will make sense...but, unless you pull a longer piece of thread before cutting it off at the machine, the thread will still come out of the needle when you begin sewing.

Starting to Sew

Some of the supplies you'll need to start sewing are: a sewing machine, scissors, tape measure, ruler, chalk pencils, straight pins, pincushion, extra sewing machine needles, hand sewing needles, thread, seam ripper, an iron and a pattern.

You'll need a good sewing machine and extra sewing machine needles. If you have a machine, one that hasn't been used for some time, be sure that it is cleaned and oiled. You can find instructions on how to clean and oil a machine in the owner's manual.

If you are buying a machine, remember that you don't need to buy the most expensive sewing machine on the market. At the same time don't waste your money on the cheapest machine either.

Sharp Scissors

Scissors: You want a good, sharp scissors that you'll keep only for your sewing. Don't let the kids use it to cut cardboard or let your husband use it for cutting wire. You can also get an inexpensive sharpener, to keep your scissors in great shape. I have pinking shears that I use for practically all fabrics, but you only really need it when cutting shear or fabrics that tend to fray.

Pins and Needles

Straight pins or dressmaker pins: The pins that I like best are the longer pins with the yellow ball on the end. They are easy to see if you drop one (or many) and they are easy to handle. I use the pins for pinning my pattern in place on the fabric for cutting and I use them for holding two pieces of fabric together for sewing. I pin along the seam line that I'll be sewing. I don't pin horizontally across the seam because I don't like to sew over the pins....too many broken sewing machine needles that way.

Also you'll want a pin cushion or a container for the pins. Other needles you'll want to have on hand are sewing machine needles and hand sewing needles.

Seam Ripper?

Seam ripper: I don't like to use this any more than absolutely necessary, so when in doubt about making a seam, sew with a basting (extra long) stitch first. The basting stitch is easy to remove and can be just sewn over again with a regular stitch. But, when you need to redo a seam, a seam ripper is a great tool.

Tape Measure and Ruler

Tape measure: You'll want a cloth tape measure, a 6-inch hem ruler and a 12" or 18" ruler. I have an 18" steel ruler that I use all the time; I can depend on the straight edge being without nicks.

You'll use the ruler to measure from the edge of your fabric to the straight of the pattern pieces. You'll also use it when making adjustments to the pattern.

Steam Iron

I can't stress enough how important it is to press the seams when your pattern tells you to. Get into the habit of doing that right from the get-go. You'll definitely see the difference. This is one step that many folks tend to omit, but pressing is unbelievably important for how the project fits, and looks, whether we're talking clothing or window jabots.

You'll want to have a good steam iron for pressing. As with any steam iron, be sure to read the directions and use the type of water that is recommended.

Sewing Patterns

Pattern: For your first project I would suggest making something like a simple apron, elastic waist skirt or shorts, a pillow or cafe curtains for your kitchen. Start simple and work up to more difficult projects. With practice comes confidence. Whatever you do, give yourself a little slack, don't expect perfection immediately. And don't give up. The better you become as a seamstress, the more you will love sewing and take pride in your accomplishment.

Simplicity patterns have the easiest to understand instructions, so start with a Simplicity pattern. On the back of the pattern it gives suggestions for the type of fabric that is suitable for that particular pattern. It also will tell you how much fabric you will need according to the size chosen. A measurement chart shows you how the pattern is sized.

Fabulous Fabric

Fabric: For your first projects choose a woven fabric like cotton or a cotton blend fabric. A print or solid color fabric is best at first. Plaids and stripes need to be matched at the seams so it is better to leave those for a later project.

If your fabric is 100% cotton, be sure to wash and dry the fabric before cutting it out. Cotton blends usually don't shrink, so I don't prewash them.

Chalk Marking Pencil

Use a chalk pencil for marking darts or for matching seams marks, from the pattern onto the fabric. As you can see, my pencils are well used. I like using chalk for marking because the chalk pencil marks can be easily removed from your fabric.

It's a good idea to have a little hand held pencil sharpener with your sewing supplies to keep the pencil sharp.

Colorful Threads

Thread comes in so many colors, so you can easily match thread to your fabric. When you can't find the exact shade for your fabric, go with a slightly darker, rather than lighter, shade. It isn't as obvious on the finished project.

Beginner Sewing Hints

short and sweet

I like to cut the paper pattern pieces I'm going to use before laying them on the fabric. Simplicity patterns have good pictures and instructions for cutting out and sewing the fabric. They tell you how to lay your pattern on the straight of the fabric. I always pin my pattern pieces to the fabric so the pattern doesn't shift while I'm cutting. I also pin pieces that I'm going to sew.

Use the seam width marks on your machine (on the needle plate) to guide your fabric. Most suggested seam widths are 1/2", 5/8" or occasionally 1/4". By using the seam width marker on your machine, you'll get consistent, neat seams.

The secret to professional looking sewing has to do with trimming seams, clipping curves and pressing seams. The pattern will tell you when and where to do that...you don't want to skip these steps.

How to Dye Elastic

I found this to be a great tutorial for dyeing the wide elastic to match the maxi skirt fabric. Find the directions for dyeing elastic at Dana Made It.

Maxi Skirt

I love the maxi skirt and notice that this tutorial from INDIVIDUAL RIVALRY is an exceptionally easy tutorial to follow. Buy some inexpensive fabric from the clearance table at Walmart to make the skirt first if you are afraid to start right out with your favorite fabric.

Easy Tote Bag

You can make this easy tote bag as one of your first sewing projects. Find the instructions at needle and spatula and make totes for the beach, shopping, for an iPad, etc. When you've made one, you'll see how easy it really is. And then you'll think of more ways to use totes.

Sewing Tips and Tricks

Free Patterns

If you want the resource to find lots of great Free patterns, go to ALLFREESEWING Free Patterns To Keep You In Stitches. There are a huge number of free patterns on this site that will keep you happy and busy and give you all the sewing experience you will want. This site features all free patterns to help you choose your next project. Start with the patterns designated as Easy and proceed to the more difficult ones as you gain confidence.

65 Free Apron Sewing Patterns

I ran across this site, Life Below Zero and decided that I had to share it here, so that beginner seamstresses could choose a pattern that they liked. There are 65 free apron patterns to choose from. I looked at just a few and was really impressed with the choices. The free pattern list can be found at the Life Below Zero site.

Adjustable Chef's Apron

One of the first things you can sew is a nice chef's apron for your hubby. Of course, this pattern is for an adjustable apron, so you'll be able to wear it too. For the instructions for making this chef apron, go to instructables.

Free Curtain Patterns to Sew

At Free Curtain Patterns to Sew you'll find a collection of easy to sew curtain patterns. These are great first projects that when you finish making it, you can use it.

Sewing Pattern Tips

© 2012 Loraine Brummer

Have You Ever Taught Someone to Sew? - or leave a comment

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    • Teapixie LM profile image

      Tea Pixie 5 years ago

      I sew when I need to and I prefer straight lines! HAHAHA! Honestly, I sew things like curtains. I've tried hats but I need to do more work on fitting. But now, my daughter is launching into a textiles course at school, so I have sent her a link to your website. I think she might be interested to start with purses. Thanks for providing this great lens.

    • profile image

      Ruthi 5 years ago

      I have not sewn for years and years and miss it too. I learned to sew as a young girl on my mother's old Singer sewing machine. A sewing machine is on my wishlist.

    • profile image

      GilliansCloud 5 years ago

      I love sewing. It's a wonderful skill to pass on.

    • knitowl profile image

      knitowl 5 years ago

      Wonderful lens - I sew all of little girls clothes and find it a very satisfying hobby indeed. I have a Singer Heavy Duty - and am intrigued by your commercial grade machine!

    • Stickypony LM profile image

      Stickypony LM 5 years ago

      thanks for all the hints! Now am ready to get sewing! :D

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have never used a sewing Machine, but I have made repairs to jeans, Trousers and replaced old or missing buttons! ;)

    • KateHonebrink profile image

      KateHonebrink 5 years ago

      As I was growing up, I sewed all my clothes. Now, I focus on sewing window treatments and other home dec items. Love your informational article - kudos on a super, super job!

    • profile image

      pinkbellaboutique 5 years ago

      Excellent Lens! I've been wanting to get a sewing machine to start making some vintage aprons. Your lens sold me on everything I needed to get for my basics. I at least now have a list to start from. You've inspired me...(hope my aprons look as good as they do in my head.) lol

    • Heidi Vincent profile image

      Heidi Vincent 5 years ago from GRENADA

      Great lens Ibrummer. I'm not a good seamstress at all! Maybe I will get there some day:)

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 5 years ago from Arkansas USA

      I used to sew most of my clothes and even made clothes for my boys, but I haven't sewed in years. Guess what I just got this weekend? A sewing machine from my mom! I'm looking forward to sewing again and really, really appreciate these free resources and your very excellent reminders for beginners (or return-ers like me)!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 5 years ago from Colorado

      I am just now getting back into sewing. My mother sewed most of my clothes when I was growing up. I got involved in sewing through 4-H. Just bought a new sewing machine for a curtain project. As you mentioned, sewing some simple curtains will be a great project to get me back into the swing of things. Your sewing business sounds like a great way to use your expertise. Thanks for these tips!