Arts & Culture

A beginner’s guide to sewing

May is a busy time for seamstresses and sewists thanks to Me-Made May, a month-long celebration for the love and art of sewing that takes over Instagram and sewing communities. If you’ve ever wanted to embark on the slow hobby of stitching your own garments, quilts, or home furnishings, May is the perfect time to find inspiration and get started. This basic beginner’s guide will help you get that needle threaded.

Defining your sewing purpose

Close-up of fashion designer stitching cloth with needle
Credit: Wavebreakmedia/ iStock

Not all those who sew can quilt, and not all those who embroider can sew. Sewing is such a diverse hobby because there’s so many ways to join fabric and thread. Ask yourself about the kind of sewing you’d like to do. What’s your purpose — mending torn jeans, making a quilt, drafting a dress, or designing items for your home (perhaps some nice curtains or throw pillows)? Having an idea of what you want to sew can help you get started.

Machine sewing versus hand sewing

Sewing machine with yellow fabric
Credit: juanjoporta/ Unsplash

Prospective sewists are often held back from their first project because they don’t have a sewing machine — but don’t let that stop you. Hand sewing has been the tried and true way of creating fabric items since humans first learned to thread a needle. For some sewists, stitching by hand is a meditative art that brings calm and joy. Hand sewing is also a fundamental skill that can help you understand the basics of sewing, and it works well for quick projects that would be a hassle to do on a sewing machine, such as mending holes in a sweater.

If you’re interested in purchasing a sewing machine, know that an entry-level machine doesn’t have to be a top-of-the-line model. Popular sewing machine manufacturers such as Singer and Brother offer low-end models (often under $100) that cover all the basic sewing functions you’ll need. An even thriftier option? Scour estate sales and thrift stores for secondhand machines. While hobby sewing is making a comeback, far fewer people sew now than decades ago, meaning you may find a well-loved and functioning machine at a good price.

If you choose to purchase a new sewing machine, ask yourself what you intend to do with it. If you’re interested in quilting, specific machines can make that task easier; if you want an all-purpose machine, you may not need something with fancy features. And if you’re intrigued by handheld sewing machines, know that these are usually advertised for quick repairs, not full-on projects. Many sewists find them unreliable and difficult to use.

Basic sewing supplies

Colorful sewing supplies all laid out
Credit: Neustockimages/ iStock

Sure, sewing at its most essential is a job for a needle and thread, but a few accessories can make the task more enjoyable. Called “notions” at your sewing or craft store, these items are inexpensive (think $5 to $10 at most) and can make sewing easier:

Measuring tape: A basic sewing measuring tape is flexible and a standard 60 inches in length, making it easy to measure yourself, your pet, or that pillow you’re trying to cover.

Stick pins or sewing clips: Traditional pins are cheap and plentiful, though many sewists use clips that are marketed to quilters since they work just as well without the accidental finger pokes.

Tailor’s chalk or water-soluble pencil: Some sewing will require you to mark lines or notches on fabric, and these two options fade when washed.

Fabric scissors: While you can technically use any scissors to cut fabric or thread, you’ll have the best results with actual fabric scissors. They have more ergonomic handles, longer shears, and offer a smooth cut to prevent fabric frays. You’ll soon learn to become defensive about who uses your scissors, and what for.

Stitch ripper: Sorry to say, but you’re probably going to lean hard on this tool. Its two prongs allow you to cut through and remove stitches and mistakes without excess tear or fuss.

As for the more expensive sewing accouterments, such as dress forms and French curves, hold off until you find your sewing passion. These items are useful for more advanced sewists but will likely be expensive dust collectors for beginners.

Selecting a project

Sewing supplies laying out on a table
Credit: Floortje/ iStock

Easy sewing projects are plentiful — one scroll through Pinterest or Instagram can generate tons of ideas (even some that aren’t marked as beginner level). Some of the most popular beginner projects are pillowcases, pajama bottoms, or tote bags. The easiest projects work with the most beginner-friendly fabric available: cotton. Quilting cottons, apparel cottons (such as lawn, broadcloth, or chambray) and other cotton-based woven fabrics won’t slip and stretch the way satins, silks, and knits do, meaning you can focus on stitching instead of fighting fabric.

If you still feel lost or unsure of where to start, consider taking a sewing class. In-person classes are often hosted by craft and fabric stores, while online sew-a-long classes walk you through a project with step-by-step videos. Whether you choose to dive in on your own or learn with someone more experienced, know that the best part of sewing is finishing a project and showing it off — whether that's in Me-Made May or any other time of the year.