How to Teach Yourself to Sew

People often tell me, “Wow, I could never sew the way you do!” Or, “I wish I had that kind of talent!” Hearing comments like that makes me kind of sad, because I think there are lots of people out there with unused potential. They think they can’t sew and that they wouldn’t be able to if they tried…. but that’s the problem, they never really gave it a real try!

I used to be one of those people who thought that sewing was such a distant, difficult skill to learn and that it would never be “my thing.” When I was very little, my grandma taught me how to use a sewing machine, but I used it so infrequently that by the time I would try it again, I had forgotten again. But costuming and fashion design was a part of my life even as a little kid. I used to love making sketches of princess dresses. I used to hand-sew little costumes for my stuffed animals. And as I came to be a teenager and I began to write a fantasy novel, I always sketched out the characters’ costumes. That was the point where I started to wish I could make my fashion sketches real. I was at the exact same position as many of my friends and readers- wishing I knew how to sew, but I had no idea how to get started.

Thankfully, I had a friend who knew how to sew cool costumes and one day I just asked her if she could help me create a Jedi costume I had sketched. She walked me through, step by step, how to make a basic Jedi tunic and tabards out of basic shapes like rectangles. That came out to be my first Jedi costume, the one I mentioned in the Anakin cosplay post:

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Trust me, I knew nothing back then about finishing seams or adding darts or making nice attachment methods like zippers, hooks and eyes, snaps, or anything like that.

That Jedi costume was the only one where I ever used assistance from another live human being. From there, my guide was all YouTube and costuming blogs! And that brings me to this post today. I want to address anyone who dreams of creating their own clothes or costumes, but feels intimidated by all the complexity involved in sewing and doesn’t know where to begin.

First of all, I know how you feel! Nobody starts out instantly an expert at anything. I started out as a beginner too. Look through my costuming portfolio and you’ll find all sorts of fraying polyester edges, crooked underarm seams, ill-fitting bodices, you name it. Those are all beginner mistakes that everybody makes, but they’re necessary if we want to learn from them and become better at our craft.

If you want to learn how to sew clothing well, you also have to know that it is a time commitment. Costumes and apparel are some of the hardest things out there to sew. They’re much more oddly shaped and structurally complicated than, for example, tablecloths. Lots of people who sew make beautiful crafty things for their homes, but costumers are a bit harder to find. One reason for that is because it takes so much time to become even halfway decent at costuming. So if you are serious about learning costuming, you will manage to find the time for it even if you’re really busy. But just know that you won’t become like Firefly Path on Instagram overnight. If you don’t want to invest the time, you won’t be able to get much past the beginner threshold.

You also have to set realistic goals for yourself. Do you think a historically accurate 1912 ballgown would have been a feasible idea for my very first sewing project? For anyone sewing for the first time, I would advise that your first project should be something simple, one or two pieces at the most. Like a blouse and skirt or a Jedi tunic. It shouldn’t be one of your dream projects, because your first project will be the lowest quality project you ever make. I would also recommend you don’t make a historical costume your first time dressing. You want to learn modern techniques of sewing before historical techniques. Make sure you avoid structurally complicated things like lots of darts, pleats, princess seams, or pintucks. (Though just trying one new technique like that might be helpful!) Finally, I would also advise that you do NOT make your first project from a pattern. Patterns are full of complicated lines and weird terminology and can be extremely confusing for a new costumer. You’ll learn how to use those in due time. It’s more intuitive to draft it out of basic shapes like rectangles.

From there, you can focus more on your long-term goals. If you dream of being an expert at Victorian costuming, don’t go off making an 1880s bustle dress immediately. As your skills develop, you can try simple but relevant things such as just the chemise. Then eventually you could work your way up to the petticoats and corset cover, and finally the corset and bustle itself.

Once you’ve got your level of time commitment and your goals figured out, you need to know where to look on the Internet for tutorials. There’s plenty of stuff out there, and that’s the beauty of being a costumer in the era of the Internet! You just have to know where to look.

  • For the raw basics such as how to use your sewing machine and what sort of supplies you need, those are really easy to find on YouTube. Though it’s probably even easier to get a real person to show you the very basics. If you have a friend or relative who does quilting, they won’t know any costuming stuff but they can certainly help you figure out your sewing machine! Make sure that, in this raw basics stage, you learn about adding seam allowances and hemming edges.
  • For learning the basics of drafting (making something without a pattern), there’s not really a general guide on how to draft everything in existence. Instead, search for specific examples based on what you’re trying to do. For example, you could search YouTube for “drafting a basic blouse” or “drafting an A-line skirt.” Whatever drafting tutorials you watch, it will probably give you at least something applicable to your specific project. If a video is so complicated that you don’t follow it, search for a different video, or look up the terminology they used. Don’t pretend to understand something if you actually don’t.
  • For learning how to use a pattern, search the Internet for the exact pattern that you’re making. Chances are, someone else made it too and they have a tutorial on it. They might be able to help clear up any confusing parts. Again, always look up terminology you don’t understand! I have to do this all the time!
  • If you’re making a cosplay, search for the name of the cosplay and just see what comes up. Searching for “padme meadow dress” brings up the Jedi Council Forums thread and some other various blogs relating to making the Padmé meadow picnic dress.
  • As you get more comfortable, search the Internet for ways to make your costuming more professional. In my opinion, the #1 Way To Make More Professional Costumes is by finishing seams properly, so make sure to search for seam finishing techniques. Search for these techniques as they are specific to your fabric type- for example, you may want to search “how to finish seams on chiffon” or “how to finish seams on denim.” Chiffon and denim are extremely different fabrics, so they will have different techniques for finishing seams. Other good things to search for are darts, pleats and gathers.

As you watch tutorials and read blogs, you will easily figure out what other things to look up. My list above is not extensive. My rules for sewing research on the Internet are simple: look for people who have already made what you’re making, and look up everything you don’t understand.

Here are some specific resources I use consistently in my costuming adventures:

  • Padawan’s Guide. This is a thorough and extensive site for any Star Wars related costuming, and their advice is relevant to both new and experienced costumers. They have both a website and a Facebook page- the Facebook page is updated more recently. Plus, on Facebook, you can privately message the members and ask questions directly. Here’s the Facebook page and here’s the website.
  • Lucy’s Corsetry. Both on YouTube and on her website, Lucy teaches you pretty much everything you need to know about making and wearing corsets. I learned how to insert eyelets, busks and steel boning through her tutorials. I can’t recommend it enough! Here’s her YouTube channel and here’s her website.
  • Ralph Pink. Ralph Pink is a corsetiere from Australia or something, and his YouTube channel has helpful videos on drafting corsets. Plus, he has free corset patterns on his site! Here’s his YouTube channel and here’s his website.
  • Jennifer Rosburgh. She has created this amazingly helpful website about sewing 19th century costumes. I don’t do 19th century just yet, but her articles relate to pretty much any type of historical sewing. If you need to make a petticoat for anything, read her site. If you need to know how to make ruffles, read her site! She gets really specific about techniques that are pretty universal to sewing. Even if you aren’t a historical, I still recommend you check out some of her articles. If you are interested in costuming, read her site.
  • Sew Historically. This is a really helpful site with tons of helpful Victorian and Edwardian sewing information, and there are some other great DIY tutorials and recipes and all kinds of crafty stuff. Lina, the author, has made and bought a lot of Edwardian and 1920s stuff. Here’s the site.

I think that’s about it! If you’re interested in costuming, I hope this post has inspired you to take up some research, and that you find these resources to be helpful. If you did, please let me know, I would love to hear from you!

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