The Complete Idiot's Guide to Sewing

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The Complete Idiot's Guide To Sewing covers everything from sewing on a button and hemming to making pillows and drapes to designing and making a whole wardrobe. This book is the perfect resource for beginners or more experienced seamstresses and tailors who need a refresher course before tackling new projects. You'll find tips and shortcuts on using patterns and fabrics, supplies and tools, sewing machines, and more.

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The Complete Idiot's Guide To Sewing covers everything from sewing on a button and hemming to making pillows and drapes to designing and making a whole wardrobe. This book is the perfect resource for beginners or more experienced seamstresses and tailors who need a refresher course before tackling new projects. You'll find tips and shortcuts on using patterns and fabrics, supplies and tools, sewing machines, and more.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780028638911
  • Publisher: Alpha Books
  • Publication date: 4/11/2000
  • Series: Complete Idiot's Guide Series
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 7.34 (w) x 9.08 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

Lydia Willis is a New York-based literary agent who sidelines as a seamstress, specializing in home accents, fancy pajamas, and elegant dresses.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Shear Essentials

In This Chapter

* Get a clear notion about notions

* Sharpen your knowledge of scissors and shears that are a cut above

* Measure your marking and measuring tools

* Build your sewing toolbox

* Face down interfacing

Whenever anyone thinks about sewing, the image of a sewing machine immediately pops up—but before you get to the machine, you've got to have a clear idea about what supplies are involved in any project. In other words, you need to have a clear notion about notions—the essentials of any sewing project.

Notion is a loose term that applies to all the parts of a sewing project except for the fabric—from thread to pins and needles to interfacing. Notions are found in a variety of stores, from five-and-dimes like K-Mart to specialized outlets like my favorite one in New York, Greenberg and Hammer, which sells only sewing notions.

This chapter outlines the "shear" essentials—the notions you should shop for once or twice a year to fill your sewing basket (my "basket" is actually a filing cabinet, but we'll get to that later). This way, as long as you have your fabric, you can start any project, any time. Planning ahead will save you countless hours and keep your energy where it belongs—on the project—instead of running around looking for thread!

Cutting Up: Any Sharp Sewer's Necessities

Any sewer is only as good as her dullest shears or most run-down needles. It really pays to have sharp, well-cared-fortools. After all, would you want a carpenter with an old rusty saw working on your new addition? Well, I feel the same way about my beautiful woolens and silk pajamas—they deserve the best tools (which also happen to be the most time-effective)!

You don't need to run out and buy every sewing tool on the market, but there are a few simple items that you should definitely have on hand. If you start out with the right tools for the job, you'll find that you've cut your project time in half before you've picked up a single piece of fabric.


Here's where you need to invest in the best you can afford, because a great pair of sewing shears can make one of the more labor-intensive parts of sewing—cutting fabric—almost effortless. High-quality shears can last a lifetime. In fact, they can even improve with age if properly cared for. My sewing teacher has had the same pair of shears for the last 20 years and is meticulous about sharpening and maintaining them. She spent 20 dollars on them back then, which adds up to a whopping dollar a year! So, don't skimp. Crummy shears can ruin your fabric as well as your sewing experience.

Rotary Cutter and Cutting Mat

Don't be fooled by the rotary cutter's appearance; while it may look like a harmless pizza wheel, it's actually a sewer's secret weapon. A rotary cutter is really a circular X-Acto knife that cuts the fabric as it rolls over the fabric surface. The truly great thing about it is that you never have to lift the blade from the surface of the fabric—it always stays in contact with the cutting surface, eliminating a lot of cutting errors that occur when fabric is moved and shifted. It's particularly useful when working with slippery, silky fabrics or when you need to cut two layers at once (such as interfacing and fabric pieces).
Just like an X-Acto knife, rotary cutters need a "self-healing" cutting mat that won't be damaged by the blade. These mats come in various sizes and are gridded, which makes cutting and measuring much easier. It's smart to buy the biggest that you can afford—just make sure you have room for it—so that you can cut large pieces of fabric without having to move them around.

Must-Have Mainstays

Sure, you could probably get through a project without the items in this section, but why try? The point here is to make your project as easy as possible.

* Scissors. These are for cutting patterns, stray threads, tape, and so on—but never for fabric.
* Pinking shears. Despite their rather froufrou name, these are useful shears with a serrated edge. Use them to cut a seam so it won't unravel, for decorative cutting, or for cutting interfacing so the edges won't show through to the fabric.
* Seam ripper. My favorite and least-favorite tool all in one! It's useful because, if you're careful, you can remove thread from a seam without damaging the fabric—which is great—but it also means you've made a big sewing mistake. A seam ripper is basically a 2- to 4-inch handled tool with two prongs: One is a crescent-shaped blade, and the other is short and bulbed to protect the fabric.

Measuring Up: It Pays to Be Accurate

After cutting, your most important tools are for measuring. I used to hate measuring hems or other sewing jobs for a few reasons: I didn't understand how to do it properly (why won't that fabric sit still?), and I didn't have the proper equipment. You only need a few things, but boy, are they important!

* Clear, 18-inch-long-by-2-inch-wide ruler. It's crucial that this tool is see-through so you can do just that—see how much fabric you're measuring under the ruler. It's a great straight edge as well.
* Tape measure. I always saw my grandmother, the seamstress, with a tape measure around her neck, whether she was sewing or not! You don't have to keep yours there, but it does have to be handy.
* Six-inch metal sewing gauge with sliding marker. This invaluable tool is a metal ruler with a sliding plastic marker. Perfect for making alterations, marking hems, turning fabric—the list goes on and on. Pick one up, use it, and you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.

Marking Up: Points Well Taken

A few marks here and there will guide you during your sewing. Here are some tools to help you get good marks.
* Tailor's chalk. Chalk, the standard fabric marking tool, is available in a few different forms. Triangle chalk or chalk squares are solid and come in a few different colors—white, red, and blue—for use with different-colored fabrics. Try to get old-fashioned tailor's chalk, which is made of chalk rather than a chalk/wax blend. Run your nail along the chalk to determine its make-up; a waxy brand is harder to remove and "sets" into your fabric with heat. A chalk wheel is packed with loose chalk that marks the fabric as the wheel rolls. A chalk pencil is used just like a normal pencil.
* Fabric marking pencil. This is a thin lead pencil made specifically for marking up fabric. It works better than your average Number 2, contains less graphite, and washes well. And you can use it on paper in a pinch.
* Water- and air-soluble markers. The former makes marks that wipe away with water; the latter makes marks that disappear within 12 to 24 hours.

Staying Up: Holding It All Together

From pins to the finishing touches of buttons and clasps, you'll need these items to keep everything together—both while you're sewing and when the project is complete:
* Zippers. It's smart to stock up on the basic colors—black, white, and gray—as well as your personal favorites. There are three basic kinds of zippers: traditional, invisible, and separating. See Chapter 10, "Win One for the Zipper," for some zipper guidance.
* Snaps. I recommend a few different sizes and colors such as metal, black, and white.
* Hooks and eyes. A great name for a useful notion. These are the closures that are on the back of bras, as well as other areas that need some hooking up, such as the side of your slacks. Again, stock up on an assortment so you have various sizes and colors on hand.
* Elastic. There are many different kinds of elastic to choose from for all kinds of applications. The best all-around elastic to have on hand is nonroll, which is made to do just that—retain its shape and not bunch up in the casings for elastic waists, wrists, and so on. While there are many types and widths of elastic available, it's smart to keep several yards of one inch nonroll on hand.
* Buttons. Needless to say, viva variety! It really pays to have the standards around all the time, from clear to black, and brown to pearly white. Buy them in a few sizes and styles—1/2-inch to l 1/4-inch four-hole buttons, as well as buttons that have a toggle on the back. Buy the quantity of buttons according to their size:
1. Four to eight medium, size buttons
2. Four large, or coat-size, buttons
3. One specialty button—such as a unique button that will grace the top of a coat or jacket
* Seam sealant. This is a clear resin that prevents seams from unraveling, especially on buttonholes. Try a brand like Fray Check.
* Straight pins. Pins are the number one notion need. You should always have them around, easy to grab, easy to store. They're categorized by length, which is measured in 1/16-inch gradations, and by the shape of the head. They also come in different widths, with the average pin .5 mm thick. Here are some guidelines for picking pins:
Number 17 dressmaker's pins. These are the standard-size pins for use with most fabrics. They're 1 1/16 inches long and have a flat head.
Ballpoint pins. Ballpoint pins are just that—they have a bulbous tip instead of a sharp point. Use them with knitted fabrics—instead of slicing away at the threads, causing snags, the bulb separates the knitted fibers.
Glasshead pins. Glasshead pins are topped with a colored ball made of either glass, or more likely, plastic. This makes them easy to spot when pinning, especially with thick, piled fabric. Be careful not to leave them in when sewing or pressing—the bulb can damage your machine, break the needle, or melt if ironed.
T-pins. These are longer pins with a T-shaped top. They work well when you need to do some heavy-duty pinning on upholstery and other crafts.
* Weights. Rather than laboriously pinning fabric and pattern pieces together when laying out and cutting, I almost always use weights. You just position them intermittently on the edges of the pattern and fabric, and you're ready to cut. Look, ma ... no fabric slippage!
* Transparent tape. Scotch Magic brand has a place in your sewing toolkit.
* Glue. A good craft and fabric glue (Sobo or Magna-Tac are top-notch brands) holds things together before you get to the final sewing stage. Always test to make sure it disappears when it dries.
* Basting tape. This is a thin double-sided tape that serves the same purpose as basting; it keeps fabric layers, zippers, and more in place before and during sewing. I find the thinnest width—1/8 inch—the most useful.
* Spray starch. Besides using for basic ironing, spray starch is good for adding some firmness to fabric as well. Although starch does come in various strengths, I like to use the heavy-duty dosage.

Keeping Interfacing Easy

One of the great things about new fabrics, threads, and interfacing is that they've made life a lot easier for the sewer. Interfacing, which is a layer of fabric that adds shape, stability, durability, and control to garments, has been totally transformed in the past few decades and become much more user-friendly.

Interfacing is a fantastic way of "edging" a garment, giving some structure and stability to armholes, necklines, and the front edges of jackets and blouses. It adds some stiffness and crispness to details like collars, cuffs, and pockets so they won't wilt. It reinforces fabric that needs some extra anchoring, such as the buttonhole area or a shoulder seam.

Interfacing isn't just used in clothing; it's also great for stiffening the edges of a European, pillow sham or adding strength and stability to the tops of curtains so that they hang rather than droop. New technology and the creation of foolproof fusible—that is to say "iron-on"—interfacing has made it a snap to create contouring without all that old-fashioned hand sewing.

Choosing Without Blowing a Fuse: Fusibles vs. Stitchables

There are two main kinds of interfacing: fusible, which is coated on one side with a heat-activated resin that sticks to fabric for good when pressed; and stitchable, which has to be sewn on. This is probably obvious, but I almost always use the fusible variety! It's much easier to simply iron on than it is to go to the trouble of more sewing. There are a few fabrics that call for a stitchable, though:
* Fabrics with a pile or nap, like velvet, corduroy, or the like, the raised surface of which will be damaged by the chemicals or fusing process.

* Fabrics like silk that react badly to moisture.

* Fabrics that are treated with a stain- or water-repellant finish. These chemicals not only repel stains and water—they repel fusible interfacing, so no bond is created.

In addition to the categories of stitchable and fusible, there are many varieties of "base" fabrics that are used to create interfacing. The base fabric, which is treated with resin if it's a fusible, can be made out of woven or nonwoven fabric (usually nylon or polyester or a blend), knit tricot, or what's called weft-insertion fabric. Instead of focusing on the technical aspects of the interfacing make-up, try touching, stretching, playing with, and draping the interfacing. See how it moves with your fabric.

Face to Face with Interface

Interfacing is sold off of bolts, just like fabric, so you can't return your purchase if you discover you bought the wrong kind. I found this out the hard way when I was shopping in the garment district in New York City and bought some bargain-basement interfacing. I used it on a jacket—I think you know where I'm going with this—and promptly ruined the entire garment because the bargain was a bust and I didn't test it first. Big mistake, but at least you can learn from my error!
So, use my interfacing table from this chapter to start off on the right foot; remember, interfacing involves a number of variables—the interfacing itself, the fabric, heat, moisture, and pressure—all of which have to combine in the right way to be successful. The only assurance you have is through testing with small swatches. For more detailed information on testing interfacing, check out Chapter 12, "Pressing Matters: Ironing Out the Wrinkles."
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Table of Contents

Part 1: Tools of the Trade 1
1 Shear Essentials 3
2 The Eyes Have It: Needles and Thread 15
3 Power Stitching and Steam Heat 25
4 Going with the Grain: Fabric Facts 39
Part 2: No More Hemming and Hawing: Getting Set to Sew 53
5 Man vs. Machine 55
6 Room to Sew 71
7 Ready, Set, Prep! 83
Part 3: A Stitch in Time Saves Nine: Basic Techniques 93
8 The Ace of Baste: Seams 95
9 Buttons in a Snap 109
10 Win One for the Zipper 121
11 The Bottom Line: Hems 133
12 Pressing Matters: Ironing Out the Wrinkles 147
Part 4: Fashion in a Flash 159
13 Tissue Issues: Understanding Commercial Patterns 161
14 Skirting the Issue: Painless Pants and Skirt Details 173
15 Off the Cuff: Simple Sleeves and Collars 185
16 A Fitting Finale: The Perfect Fit 197
Part 5: Home Sewn: Home Accent and Gifts 209
17 How Much Is That Dressing in the Window: Curtains and
Shades 211
18 The Well-Dressed Home: Pillows and More 229
19 Crafty Gift Giving 241
A Glossary 253
B When the Sewing Gets Tough: Finding Help and Resources 259
C Further Reading 267
Index 271
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2000

    Something Lacking

    It would have been nice if the author had included more simple sewing projects in order to give the reader-sewer the satisfaction of making an easily constructed garment that would be fun to wear as well.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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