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Top Ten Tips to Improve Your Sewing

Top 10 Tips To Improve Your Sewing

No matter how experienced at sewing, there is always something new to learn. Here are my Top Ten Tips to Improve Your Sewing and to make it all as stress free as possible!

1. Choose the right pattern size

Firstly, remember the right pattern size might NOT be the same size as you’d buy ready-to-wear garments. Also, you might well be different pattern sizes top and bottom – which is one of the benefits of making your own clothes!

Determine which size of pattern to buy for the garment type you are making by firstly taking accurate measurements and comparing these against the measurements listed for each size on the pattern envelope or in the back of the catalogue (you will also find guides to measuring and measurement charts on the pattern websites: Simplicity/New Look at, McCalls, Butterick and Vogue Patterns at

When making a top, coat, jacket or dress, choose pattern by bust size UNLESS there is more than 6.3 cm (2 ½”) between bust and High Bust. In which case, choose size by the High Bust measurement.

When making skirts, trousers and shorts, use your waist measurement to select pattern size UNLESS hips are two sizes or more larger than your waist, then use HIP measurement.

Remember – it is easier to enlarge a pattern than it is to make it smaller.

2. Make your Mark

Patterns come with many markings which can be transferred to fabric, such as pleats, darts, buttonholes, centre front, pocket placement etc so you know how to join or fold pieces when the time comes to do so.

HANDY HINT: For further information on taking measurements, see the How To… Determine Pattern Size which has direct links to Simplicity’s measurement charts.

Use your chosen method of transferring these guidelines – tailor’s tacks, chalk marks, soluble pen etc, but remember to colour code them. For instance when matching large dots together, it’s easier to do so if you do them in a different colour to small dots! Also pleats, mark the fold line in one colour and the stitching line in another. This will save a great deal of time when folding a row of pleats as you won’t be wondering which bit to fold to which line!

HANDY HINT: Keep the correct pattern piece folded with each garment section (unpinned though as pin holes can leave marks) so that you can refer back to it if unsure about markings.

HamUse hams and sleeve rolls to help press properly.

3. Press, press and press again

Pressing between each sewing stage is essential in order to make a garment look professionally finished. Always press a seam before crossing it with another.

HANDY HINT: Sew as many seams as possible on different garment sections and then press at same time to avoid repeated small trips to the ironing board.

Also, use pressing aids such as tailor’s ham and sleeve roll (well stuffed cloth shapes) for shapely curves, curved darts or sleeves without creases pressed in, and a clapper for crisp tailoring such as pleats (hard wood, shaped tool with edges to press against).


4. Dare to clip and grade!

Another major problem that beginners experience is bulky seams and seams that don’t fold back flat – caused by too much fabric in the seam allowance.

On curved areas the seam allowance has to be clipped or notched:

  • Clips are diagonally snips into the seam allowance, used to straighten a seam by giving it more flexibility or when turning an inner curve or corner.
  • Notches are little wedge shaped pieces cut out from the seam allowance when turning an outer curve inside; this enables to fabric to fold in comfortable.

Grading seam allowances is another method of reducing bulk – quite simply cut each seam allowance a different width from the stitching. Cut one a scant 3 mm (1/8”) wide, then the next 6 mm (1/4”) and so on.

Turn of Cloth

5. Turn of cloth exists!

The term ‘turn of cloth’ is used to describe describe the amount of fabric taken up in a fold. Heavier fabrics take up more, thin, lightweight, crisp fabrics fold almost flat so when joined together and turned through, the thick fabric will end up shorter than the lining. Sewing two different fabric weights together can produce some exciting combinations but it can also cause problems because of this difference in thickness of the layers. The result may be a lining that appears larger than the main fabric, a collar or facing that keeps rolling out.

  • Trim thick fabric close to stitching and turn through, rolling seam to inside.
  • Press and then understitch the seam allowances to facings only (not to outer garment layer).
  • Another solution is to cut the lining of a collar of facing slightly smaller in the first place.

6. Making sleeves fit

A set-in sleeve needn’t be a nightmare to fit! Just remember to measure the armhole and then shape the sleeve to fit it before trying to join the two.

Ease stitch around the cap of the sleeve (on patterns this is usually between the notches front and back) then pull up carefully to gather the sleeve head until the measurement of the sleeve and armhole match. Press over a ham to set into shape.

7. Interfacing

Never underestimate the power of interfacing! Fortunately nowadays there are lots of different weights and types of interfacing including ‘nude’ coloured lightweight stretch interfacings great for transparent or stretchy fabrics.

Don’t get stuck in the rut of using the same interfacing for all fabrics, garment sections etc. Sometimes a combination of two will work better than one heavy layer. Interfacings are used to add stability and strength to an area. They should complement the fabric feel and weight, not alter it. Try out a few, mix them up – use heavier weights in collars of coats, lighter weight varieties in jacket fronts and medium weight interfacing in a hem of a tailored garment to give it body.

If using fusible interfacings, do make sure they are properly fused in place to stay – use a press cloth, press with a hot iron (lowering iron onto area, holding in place for at least 10 seconds, lifting and moving to another area) – do not glide iron back and forth as it may stretch the interfacing.

8. Underlining

Different from interfacing, this is another layer of fabric that is the same size as the main fabric. Underlining or interlining a garment, section or even cushion cover gives greater stability to stretch or knit fabric, prevents transparent fabrics being see through or gives more body to a lightweight fabric you love and want to use for a garment or cushion cover that really calls for something heavier.

Cut the underlining from the same pattern pieces as the main garment and then work with the two layers together, treating them as one.

Choose a zip appropriate to the garment being made.

A Selection of Zips

9. Zip tricks

If working with a plastic zip on a garment with neck facing or waistband or facing, you can avoid that potential gap at the top by buying a zip slightly longer than required and stitching it with the teeth ending within the facing.

Buy a zip about 2.5 cm (1”) longer than the pattern calls for then insert it so the excess is above the the seamline for facing or waistband. This means the little bit at the end that is hard to sew close to teeth because of the zip pull or zip stop (at top end of zip), is actually hidden within the facing or waistband. Trim zip close to stitch and then attach waistband, stitching across zip tape to secure. The waistband or facing now becomes the natural stop for the zip, avoiding the gap!

Zip length – If you can’t find the correct length zip, go for a longer one and then make it shorter by stitching across the teeth at the length required (bar tacks in thick thread 4-6 times). Then simply cut the excess off, leaving approx 13 mm (1/2”) tape beyond zip teeth.

Finally, if you are nervous about inserting zips, invest in an invisible zip foot for your sewing machine and use an invisible zip – no stitching on the right side and it’s easy. See Zips in Sewing Techniques.

Bias Binders

10. Go with Gadgets

There really is a tool for every occasion now, so don’t be afraid to try them out. Throw out old pins and needles and invest in new ones. Keep a supply of goodies close to hand – essentials include marking pens/chalks in different colours, a point turner for turning out corners on clothes and cushions; a good tape measure; bias binding makers in different sizes so that you can quickly bind edges for a super neat finish; rouleau turners to turn thin straps through, needle threaders, bodkins to help feed elastic through casings, different types of scissors. The list is endless. Look out for them and add them to your Christmas Stocking Filler list!