tooling around: and sew on

The last time we chatted I introduced you all to Shelly Miller Leer of Mod Home Ec. She and I went on and on about her upholstery know-how, but, you guys, that is nowhere near the end of her incredible talent. True to the Home Ec teacher within, Shelly can also sew! While I try to quiet my wildly beating heart, I’ll let Shelly take it away.

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As I revealed in my previous interview, I learned how to sew so I could get undivided attention from my mom. A little bit of youngest child manipulation of a parent is nothing new. What I didn’t know at the time was how sewing would become such a huge part of my adult life. Thanks Mom, I loved everything you made for me and I am always grateful that you took the time to teach me how to do it myself.

I have students in my upholstery classes who are actually afraid of the sewing machine. It’s hard for me to imagine, since they aren’t one bit afraid of getting behind the steering wheel of a car. I guess the worst that could happen is running the needle through your finger. I’ve done that too, it’s no fun, but it couldn’t stop me from using the machine. That said, let me qualify all that’s to follow. I do not like to sew, just for the sake of running the sewing machine.

I love to sew because it’s a tool for making something I want or need.

For instance, if I want to make a color blocked ottoman cover, I’m not one bit excited about sitting down and doing the stitching, but I am excited about what I’ll get in the end; a stitched together color blocked piece of fabric to cover an ottoman.

The sewing machine is one of my very favorite tools in the whole world.

The Beginner

If you are just thinking about learning how to sew, here’s all you need:

  • Sewing machine (vintage, old ones are truly the best)
  • Sharp scissors
  • Seam ripper
Shelly's Singer

To get a good start, read the instruction manual, learn how to thread the machine and the bobbin, and practice sewing forward and in reverse. Get a piece of paper and draw a big figure 8 on it. Practice stitching along the figure 8 so you can get the feel for guiding fabric under the needle.

A really easy Beginner project would be to take one of the reusable market bags from Whole Foods or another grocery, take it apart to use as a pattern, all the while noticing how it was put together. Make your own bag out of some scrap fabric.

Practice, practice, practice.

The Advanced  Novice

Once you’ve mastered straight stitching and simple construction, try your hand at sewing curtains or a pillow. Again, very simple stitching, but now you’ll be learning how to sew a hem, install a zipper, or perhaps attach ties or tabs on your items. It helps to study curtains you already have, or throw pillows on your sofa. Try to figure out how they were made, then mimic that. You’ll want to learn some simple sewing techniques that will ensure your final project looks handmade, not homemade.

There are basic tools that just make the life of a sewist easier. You’ll need:

  • Zipper foot for installing a zipper and making covered piping/welt cord
  • Cutting mat for a table and a rotary cutter that quilters use for cutting straight lines quickly and efficiently
  • Clean, hot, steamy iron
Zipper foot in action at The Purl Bee. Click on the image for additional information.

Don’t overlook the iron. A good steam pressing makes fabric do almost anything you want it to.

(Note from Janice: I’d like to rub in the multiple times we’ve mentioned the need for a good iron. For example…)

The Experienced Needle Pusher

After the intermediate home sewing or fashion sewing projects, you may be interested in tailoring. At this level of proficiency many more sewing notions are available that assist in getting garments to hang just right.

  • A sewing ham; used to steam in rounded areas like shoulder caps of a sleeve
  • Rufflers that attach to the sewing machine’s presser foot to gather and stitch ruffles easily
  • “Walking foot,” specific to industrial upholstery machines, pulls the top layer of fabric under the needle as the “feed dog” on the bottom of the machine pulls the bottom fabric through, so the layers don’t shift as they are stitched
Tailor's Ham by Katy at No Big Dill. Click on the image to see the tutorial.

The Stitch Whisperer

When you’ve entered the advanced sewist playground, you may want to invest in:

  • Embroidery sewing machine
  • Commercial tailoring or upholstery machine
  • Serger

Whatever level you are, there are always more interesting, fun, and expensive gadgets and machines you can buy, but the truth is you really don’t need more than the first three items, a tape measure, and some school chalk to allow you to sew just about anything you could want. It’s more about knowing sewing tricks and techniques that allow you to make clothes, pillows, curtains, slipcovers, and boxed and corded cushion covers. Everyone could use a strict teacher hovering over them at the sewing machine to make sure they learn exactly how to sew darts, curves, zippers, or cording.

If you learn it right to begin with, you’ll never be satisfied with slipshod.

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Want more from Shelly? Check out her Digital Apprentice: Intro to Sewing & Upholstery ebook!

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