Sometimes The Best Tip is Practice

Sometimes the Best Tip is Practice

I get questions almost every day in regards to tips. What are my best tips for sewing silk? What feet do I recommend for the straightest topstitching? How do I think people should cut slippery fabrics? What’s the best way to plaid match? How do I get such nice looking rolled hems?

Some of these things I learned in school or at work and took little to no effort to introduce into my sewing practice, like cutting silk through paper, but most of these things I learned via trial and error over many years. I always try to respond to these questions with some sort of answer, but in reality, the best tip I can give, that is always applicable to the situation, is practice.

The first garments I made as a pre-teen were pretty raw. Then years later when I thought I was getting pretty good, I went back to school for fashion and realized, nope, you’re still pretty sloppy. Especially when thrown onto an industrial for the first time! I remember stitching threadless on a piece of paper, trying to turn curves on an industrial machine the first night of my first garment construction class and just feeling totally and completely defeated that my stitching wasn’t perfect. Honestly I could barely follow the lines, my foot control was SO not used to the speed and quickness that those machines start up with.

Tools can be helpful but are not a magic pill to a perfect garment. Occasionally I find them to be overrated and expensive, but time spent honing your skills is always well spent. I sewed a LOT of really ugly rolled hems, mostly on industrial machines, before I became proficient. I don’t use a rolled hem foot, I find it’s easier and faster to just do it with my trusty 1/4″ foot, the same way Jurata, one of the incredibly skilled seamstresses at my old job, taught me. This is not to say that tools aren’t helpful, they are of course indispensable in many situations.

There can be a lot of pressure in the sewing community, especially with social media, to produce perfectly sewn garments. Sometimes I worry that it’s taken away our feeling that it’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to make garments that aren’t “perfect” and it’s actually really important that we do so. For every successful garment I’ve made there are hundreds and hundreds of garments, muslins, scraps, test pieces, horrific looking doll clothes, etc. that went into the making of it.

All of this is to say, don’t be afraid to try a new fabric that scares you or a new technique that seems way too hard. That’s the way you’ll really learn what works, just by trial and error, messing up, figuring out what went wrong, and correcting it the next time. Honestly one of the best ways to really figure out what fabrics will work well in different garment situations is to make something in a fabric that totally fails. I actually have found that more helpful over the years, assessing why something didn’t work, than when fabric choices go smoothly. In the end you’ll be so proud of what you’ve accomplished when you think back on the long sewing journey you’ve made to get where you are, as well as how much there still is to learn. I learn something every time I pick up a new fabric or sit down at my machine even still.

And yes, I still make weird ugly things from time to time, it happens to all of us! I’m still here for you with tips from my journey so far though, don’t worry.

38 replies on “Sometimes The Best Tip is Practice

  • Ms Cleaver

    Hear! Hear! It’s so tempting to try to be perfect right off the bat, and often we only see someone else’s finished product, not the yards of thread pulled out with a seam ripper or the shirt that went straight into the bin. Thank you for this post. .

  • Melissa

    Such an excellent post. I’m just returning to apparel making after many years away from it. I still remember the project that became my “last” for more than a decade. It was to wear to a wedding, and I selected very challenging fabric. I made the muslin, but totally failed with the actual fabric. Today, I realize that I didn’t know enough about pattern construction and sloping to be able to make the necessary corrections along the way. But the fail made me walk away from garment sewing. Grainline patterns, and the makers online, have brought me back and I’m now pushing myself to learn and even make my own versions – I love it again and have the confidence (and age maybe) to push it and try new things again. Perfect post!

  • Francis

    One of the best posts ever. It makes me want to keep trying and not put off making items that seem hard or might not come out perfect. The time will be well spent because it will teach me something.

  • Dana Tougas

    Thanks for the great post. It’s definitely a reminder that no one started becoming proficient on their first try.

  • Linda

    Agreed and well put! Can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve been sewing for over 40 years…yikes…and learn something new every day in my sewing workroom. Just forge on is the best advise.

  • Deborah

    Thanks for this post. I have returned to sewing recently and have, at times, become overwhelmed by all there is to know and learn. Your advice is very encouraging.

  • Rita

    I can’t for the life of me remember where, but I recently heard someone saying that her father used to ask her at the end of the day what mistakes she made that day rather than how her day was, because that’s where the bulk of your learning happens.

    Both that story and this post are helpful to contemplate as I’m currently ripping out an entire French seamed-ed dress because I realized only after assembly that I’d cut out the wrong pattern pieces for the front and back (pattern book tracing error). I thought at the time of sewing that they seemed off, but failed to investigate further. At least I’m able to give my new seam ripper a very thorough testing period!

  • maryann

    Thank you for this. Its a good reminder always. And your patterns feel and read like they are based on many, many drafts. I really enjoy sewing them.

  • Dani Malloy

    Yes! Thank you for this post. It’s really encouraging. My technique for when I’m feeling insecure about my sewing is to think back on all those hours I poured into practicing my clarinet as a kid. (#RepYourNerd) I didn’t get good from playing once every two weeks—I got good by practicing for 30 minutes a day, every day, for years. I try to manage my sewing expectations accordingly, since most weeks I don’t have time to sit at the sewing machine every day. (P.S. The tops in that picture are amazing.)

  • Michelle

    My past attempts at sewing lost steam after I got confused, made a mistake or the finished garment didn’t fit or look how I wanted it to. I just gave up. But this time I pick one pattern and then I make it as many times as it takes to get the effect I’m looking for. I’m on my 3rd Alder now: the first was meh, the second is awesome but I see where I want to improve, and I am still excited to make another!

    Your sewalongs and the other information available online from inspiring sewists and patternmakers around the world is the other element that really makes the difference; those resources weren’t around just a few years ago. For any issue, I can find an experienced and generous expert to virtually hold my hand so I can figure things out. So to you and others like you, thank you, Jen!

  • Deepika

    Completely agree with you Jen. Also I don’t get when people say I am afraid to cut into that fabric. We’ve already bought it, Whatever we make, its still going to look better than its flat fold stage in the stash 🙂

  • PsychicKathleen

    I honestly think that’s the hardest part of sewing – not getting it perfect. It can get pretty daunting when we bring our makes to our monthly sewing group. It’s wonderful to see what others are up to – but when they turn their discerning eye to my make I cringe. Others will blather on about, “oh don’t look inside I just used thread that was in my serger and I was too lazy to change it” or “I know that back neck bulges…” etc But I feel the same self conscious, self deprecating behaviours creeping into my share and I get so annoyed. It’s like we have to show the others that we KNOW we didn’t do it perfectly just in case they notice and remark and we hadn’t noticed. Such a gauche amateur. It’s all so crazy because honestly what people are making is often nice sometimes even spectacular and if we were a circle of men sitting around by the gods we were would be beating our chests and roaring like lions at how spectacular we are!!

  • Julie

    I’ve been sewing for 53 years, since age 12, and I STILL screw up sometimes. Even on “easy” things. It’s only human. Everybody, cut yourself some slack and sew on!

  • symondezyn

    I’m so glad you posted this 🙂 When I let go of the need to be perfect, I found myself enjoying and loving my hand made garments much, much more (which is the point, after all). I know going in that there is always going to be some thing or other that I bung up LOL. I recently made a Lark tee with something funny going on at the V-neck, but you know what? I never had a tee that fit so good!! I did an FBA and kept the darts in, wondering how the heck it was going to look on a knit, and the verdict is that it fits really well and feels fantastic. I don’t care that it’s not perfect – it’s mine, made for me, by me, and that’s pretty damn cool ^_^

  • Lynn Segleau

    Yes! Practice! When I took home etc rooms ago, we were given lots of scraps to practice on and get accustomed to sewing before we even made a single thing. Even now, if something comes up that I think will cause problems, I use scraps to try things and practice before I tear into my project. Fitting causes a lot of Wadders, but so does sewing the wrong garment in an unsuitable fabric, or messing up a construction step because of impatience to get on with construction instead of making sure you can do the step properly.

  • Anna

    So thankful for your post. A beautiful reminder of what matters. It takes courage and commitment to sew and mistakes only make your skills stronger.

  • Kim

    I really agree with this perspective, and it’s very nice and rare to hear it from a professional in the home sewing business.

  • Jessica

    Ahhhhhh, excellent post. I’m a real perfectionist in real life and have been trying to cultivate an attitude of “selective perfectionism” in sewing (which is probably why I sew with bold prints, so that even if my sheath dress *cough* fits RATHER ODDLY in the back, well hey, at least it’s pretty from the front and I managed those petal sleeves!) This is a great reminder to keep tackling those things that intimidate me (right now: underwire bras). Thanks!

  • Janet

    Possibly the best post I’ve read this year. (Up there with Heather Lou’s manifesto for just making it already…) I’m currently grappling with learning to knit and trying not to get disillusioned with my uneven tension, dropped stitches and dicey yarn choices. Somebody once said to me that to learn something, you have to be prepared to be really bad at it. So count me in for a practice session.

  • Joen

    Thanks for this post. I’m spending my Memorial Day weekend making my first Archer. I’ve been sewing for years but have a button whole phobia and have successfully avoided them until now! As most is us know the seam ripper is our best friend and yes it’s ok to make a mistake I’ve learned to take my time and just enjoy the process!

  • Marion

    When I was in high school I “knew ” I sewed really well. Now in my fifties I sew much better but am constantly learning, improving and changeling myself. With practise I hope to get as good as that 16 year old was!! Lol

  • Janome Gnome

    I love this. I’m so proud of where I am on my sewing learning curve and am just enjoying all of it. I’m well past phase one (owning a sewing machine and feeling guilty about not using it- important stage), phase two (wearing clothes in the street and them, mostly at least, not disintegrating at the seams and falling off in breech of social convention) and on to phase three (making, playing, getting able to do quick makes and slow makes and choose where to keep learning). I plan on moving on to phase four (“as pretty on the insides as the outsides” and that probably) soon. Until then, I’m doing exactly what you said: getting better through practice and enjoying my sewing. As they say in the schools : process not product! And if you get some nice products too, so much the better:)

  • Susan

    Omg. I went through the same thing going from sewing at home to working in the industry. I went from thinking I was doing pretty well to realizing I was making super rough pieces! And then I learned a lot of tips and tricks for improving and I practiced a lot and got better, but also I realized that it’s totally fine that my sewing is not as good as the sewing of the top factory sewer in NYC who’s been doing it for 9 hours a day for 30 years and gets paid like way way more than I do. It’s ok to not be perfect! It’s a journey and as long as you’re happy, whatever you did is fine!

  • Colleen P.

    Oh my stars, SO much yes here! FANTASTIC article! LOL-I worked in a costume/mascot shop back in the mid-90’s, and the first time I used one of those industrial machine I was trying to sew a circle of elastic, that was then going to be attached to the top of some leggings to go under a costume-shot the elastic across the room, scared myself silly. I’d sell my left foot now to get my hands on one of those big heavy noisy machines, the stitch was so consistently smooth, even and beautiful.

  • Vanessa

    Sewing blogs and social media have been helpful to me — because they allow me to see, on the finished, published garments produced by more experienced, more accomplished, more dedicated sewers than myself, the imperfections that still exist. I’ll beat myself up over my bindings and necklines and hems that aren’t perfectly even or don’t lay perfectly flat that I’ve resewn half a dozen times. It’s great to run to blog and find amazing, great looking garments with the same problem– it reminds me that maybe I don’t need to be so critical on myself. (If I can judge someone else’s work as looking fine when it has the same problem as mine, why can’t I let mine slide?)


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