What is the best way to improve your skills at anything you do? The answer is the same as the answer to ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall?’ Practice, practice, practice!
1. Take a Class
If there’s a store in your community that sells sewing machines or fabric, or one that caters to the arts and crafts market in general, like a Michaels or an A.C. Moore, that store probably offers classes. Sometimes the classes are free if you make a purchase at that store. Sometimes you will pay a small (we hope!) fee. If you’re the sort of person who learns best by watching someone else do it, enjoys social interaction with like-minded hobbyists, and prefers immediate feedback about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, not to mention immediate answers to your questions, then an in-person class is definitely the way to go. This sort of class is especially helpful if you’ve just spent several hundreds or thousands of dollars on a new sewing machine! A real live human teacher can go a long way to ease your nervousness about your expensive new toy and can give you lots of hints, tips, and techniques that you won’t find in any manual.
If you can’t find a local class, there’s always YouTube. A simple search for sewing videos there will get you plenty of results from short and simple ‘how to thread your sewing machine’ to long multi part videos teaching you how to make an entire quilt from start to finish. You can even find videos on how to make cabinets and tables for your machine.
For something that’s more of a compromise between a live class and a YouTube video, I strongly recommend checking out the online classes available at Craftsy. You still get the feedback social aspects of an in-person class, just not quite so immediately. All their classes are reasonably priced and go on sale on a regular basis, and they have apps available for your phone or tablet so you can access the classes any time and any place. The last time I checked, Craftsy offered 18 sewing and quilting classes that are absolutely free. Try before you buy. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
2. Choose Simple Patterns
Patterns marked as suitable for beginners or labeled ‘Easy’, ‘Quick’, or ‘Learn to Sew’ aren’t really just for beginners. Anyone looking to improve their skills would do well to get back to basics, even if just for a quick brush-up. Sewing a straight seam or a gently curving seam or an even hem are skills that don’t come naturally to a lot of people. Even the easiest patterns will help you perfect those skills. Focus on getting your stitches and your seam allowances absolutely perfect. Concentrate on trying to eliminate even a hint of puckering. As an added bonus, a simple pattern lets you focus your attention on other skills, like choosing the right fabrics and threads and combining colors and patterns in new and creative ways.
3. Sew What You Love
So you already have a stack of simple patterns and you can’t bear the thought of doing another block-of-the-month club quilt or another super easy pattern that you’ve made a dozen times in the past. Inertia sets in and you end up not sewing anything at all.
The solution just might be to inspire yourself with a design that’s clearly beyond your skill level, like the Victorian gown pictured on the right. Maybe you’ve always wanted to make a formal gown with lots of lace and ruffles. Maybe a tailored suit with a double-breasted jacket has always seemed intimidating yet intriguing. Corsets, blue jeans, pleats, an ornate steam-punk ensemble, or fancy draperies that take yards of expensive home decor fabric can all be daunting. But if you see a pattern you really love, you’re going to want to make it and you will learn to do things you never thought possible before. So go ahead and get started on that wedding ring quilt. It’s hard, but if you really want to do it, you can! And think of the heirloom quality work you will end up creating.
4. Use the Right Tools
Nothing is more frustrating that a cheap pair of scissors or a rotary cutter with a dull blade. If you do machine embroidery, you’ll get bad results if you use the wrong stabilizer. Your grandmother may have made templates out of cardboard for her quilts, but it’s so much easier and faster, and so much more accurate, to use plastic templates that won’t distort and disintegrate with use. Do you have to run to the laundry room to find the iron? Do you have an assortment of needles for your machine, or are you trying to sew everything from tulle to faux leather with the same everyday needles you bought in bulk from the local discount store? You’re not trying to quilt with serger thread just because it’s what you have on hand at the moment, are you? Do you know how to use half of the specialty feet you bought for your sewing machine? Dig them out and practice with them! Dust off that serger you bought on sale and learn how to use it. You’d be surprised how much easier it makes sewing with knits.
Any mechanic or crafts person will tell you that you will consistently get better results if you use the right tool for the job, and a good quality tool is always better than a cheap substitute. I’m always amazed at the ‘can’t live without it’ gadgets I see in the sewing and crafting catalogs. Believe me, there’s something for everything, even problems you never knew you had! Invest in the good stuff that will make your work easier and keep it on hand in your sewing area. Make sure everyone knows that your tools are for your use alone and relegate the cheap scissors to the kitchen or the garage.
5. Join an Online Group
Do you regularly use Facebook or Yahoo! or Google? You can find a lot of sewing and other crafting groups to join. Personally, I’m not a big fan of Google Groups and I rarely use Yahoo! anymore, but I’m on Facebook every day and I’ve joined a lot of the sewing and crafting groups available there. There is no better way to find inspiration than to browse through the photos other members have posted to the groups. Without exception, those groups have been made up of some of the nicest, most helpful people you will ever find online. Ask a question and you will start getting answers almost immediately. Post a picture of something you’ve made to a sewing group on Facebook and be prepared to get more ‘likes’ than the last picture you posted of a baby or a dog! If you’re undecided about what fabric or thread color to use, just post of picture of your options and wait for the opinions to roll in by the dozen.
6. Learn Something New
If all you sew is clothing, maybe you should try home decor. Make some pillows or place mats or curtains for a change, all of which can be excellent practice for sewing those perfectly straight seams with precise seam allowances and the ideal thread tension. Have you considered sewing your own underwear? Just learning to work with the fabrics used in undergarments will be a learning experience if you aren’t accustomed to working with elastic, lace, satin, or tiny little hook-and-eye closures. If all you’ve been doing is making quilts, maybe it’s time you tried something smaller. Making purses and bags can be very rewarding because you not only learn new skills, but you get something every-day useful out of the process. And remember that serger? That forgotten specialty foot that you never used? You probably have a sewing machine that has more stitches available than anyone could possibly need. A lot of them may not be all that useful, but some of them may surprise you. Why not create a sample booklet or wall hanging of each of your machine’s stitches? Just sew long straight lines in different colors of thread. Keep the booklet by your machine or frame and hang the sampler as a quick reference guide. I promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how pretty such a thing can be. As a bonus, it may inspire you to use those decorative stitches more often, whereas you may not have considered using them before.
7. Buy a Kit
There’s something about shopping for fabrics and notions that is absolutely devastating to my bank account and my storage space. I’ll be browsing for certain particular colors or patterns and get distracted by all the other pretty colors and patterns. I’ll notice a sale that’s too good to pass up or I’ll check the remnants table… big mistake! Before you know it, I have the car so full of cloth that I don’t have room for the groceries I was planning to buy right after my “quick” trip to the fabric store. Even worse, I’ll have a head full of inspiration for all the other projects I want to make with all my newly purchased loot, projects that I may not get around to for months on end. And then there’s the time I’ll be spending that evening to sort and store all that extra stuff instead of working on the project I had intended to sew that night.
The solution is to order a kit. For quilts especially, a precut kit can be a godsend and a real time saver. Even if you assemble your own kit, packages of precut fat quarters or charms can save you a lot of headaches and help eliminate the mistakes you might make by cutting your own yardage. Kits are usually available for any class you’ve chosen. While it’s not that common to find a kit for sewing clothing, most of the online classes from places like Craftsy do have kits available for any of their projects. You get all the materials you need in the correct quantities and in pleasing color schemes, usually of your choice. No more guessing, no more dangerous browsing at the fabric store, no more worries about getting organized or about settling for something that’s close but not quite right for the project you have in mind. And no more disappointment when your completed project doesn’t turn out to be a pretty as you thought it would be. Catalogs like the ones from Annie’s or Nancy’s Notions have kits for everything you can imagine, from clothing to quilts to table covers, pot holders, and stuffed toys. When you’ve eliminated the problem of gathering the materials together, you can focus on the sewing.
And that’s the real trick: Focus! Stay focused and sew every day, even if it’s just a bit of mending. Any practice at all will improve your skills. Good luck, and I’ll see you at the remnant racks.