A new feature – Top Ten for Tuesday – Most Useful Sewing Skills

Introducing…a new – in fact my first – regular feature on this blog….

top ten for tuesday - sewing skills

Tuesday is my favourite day of the working week.  All the kids have after school activities which buys me an extra two hours in the afternoon to tidy the house, cook dinner, play around with my sewing machine.

I also love a good list.  Who doesn’t love a list?!  I love reading them; I love writing them; I love discussing them.  I can totally relate to Rob Fleming in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.

Put these two things together and what do you get?  That’s right, a new little feature on this blog.

Top Ten for Tuesday

Each week I’ll inform, entertain, dazzle or inspire you with a list of top ten things.  I’d love for this to be a conversation so please feel free to disagree, argue (politely), concur, or simply add your own list.  Of course these are all just my own opinions.  So, what are we waiting for?!  I’ll kick off with a straightforward sewing theme:

My Top Ten Most Useful Sewing Skills

10. Be careful when using fusible interfacing

With so many interfacing solutions on the market, it’s hard to know which one is right for the job at hand.  To be honest, most of them I have not tried (living in Belgium means we don’t get quite the choice you Americans do) but I have had to resolve two issues to improve my sewing.

1.  When using interfacing for things such as bags, I usually prefer not to use fusible interfacing at all.  I find that its adhesiveness changes the feel of the fabric, not to mention that it often peels away between the layers of the bag.  Instead, I use another layer of quilting-weight cotton (or thicker/thinner – depending on how much structure your bag does/doesn’t need).  This should give the support you need but maintains the quality of the fabric.

2.  Sewing garments is trickier and there are many times when fusible interfacing is not only recommended but makes all the difference (applying it before installing a zip, for example).  When choosing fusible interfacing for collars, necklines, sleeve cuffs, etc, the thing I’ve found most important is the weight of the interfacing.  As a rule, use the lightest weight interfacing you can find so that these sections of your garment have a bit of structure but without being stiff.  

The right amount of interfacing will give structure without making your bag too stiff.

Other useful information about fusible interfacing:

  • Ashley from Make It – Love It has a detailed explanation of different types of interfacing in this post
  • A beginner’s guide to interfacing as well as an online shop (in the UK) can be found here.
  • And finally, a nice little sketch of how to attach fusible interfacing.

picture courtesy of sew-it-love-it.com

9.  Attaching an exposed elastic (or ribbing) waistband

This is one of the first really useful techniques I learned when I started sewing.  It was the perfect way to whip up a cute skirt without extensive sewing knowledge or expertise.  Also, I think the exposed elastic is fresher and more modern than an enclosed band.  I also use this same method for attaching ribbing as a waistband (just make sure your ribbing is quite stiff otherwise you’ll have skirts and trousers constantly slipping down – done that many times!).

Two of the very first skirts I ever made.

A layered ruffled skirt with a ribbing waistband.

If you want to have a go yourself, try this tutorial for a starters.  I love the neon elastic and, who doesn’t love Liberty?!

Liberty print with neon elastic waistband from purlbee.com

8.  Making covered buttons

Before I started sewing I thought covered buttons must be difficult to make because they look so polished and professional.  Boy was I wrong!

  • They are an absolute cinch to make (simply buy a Prym button covering kit and follow the instructions or go here to learn how to do it without a kit).
  • They’re great for using up tiny scraps of beautiful fabrics that you can’t bear to part with (I like to keep a little stash of covered buttons in various sizes – they always come in handy).
  • And even if you don’t like or need buttons, you can always turn them into badges, magnets or even thumbtacks (!!) instead.

My first attempt at covered buttons. Bag made using The Awesome Bag tutorial from http://www.elsiemarley.com/the-awesome-bag-luvinthemommyhood.html

One simple button using the last bit of a favourite fabric. Tutorial for dress can be found at http://prudentbaby.com/2010/09/baby-kid/snap-wrap-dress-2/

7.  Using an overlocker foot for knits/jersey fabric

really would like a serger/over-locker, but I don’t have one so I have to find ways to make my standard sewing machine work for me.  I find that using the overlocker foot on my normal, Brother sewing machine means I can enclose the seam while sewing with knits.  It’s not a perfect solution but it does make the inside seams much more tidy.  Have a read here for a more detailed explanation of how this works.


PS – If anyone has a suggestion of a fantastic serger please pass it on.  I currently have my eye on a Bernina 800DL

6.  Drafting pant/trouser patterns

Apart from maybe a simple elastic skirt, I think trousers (especially for kids) are one of the easiest things to sew in terms of actual sewing skills.  What is not so easy is getting the fit right.  Here are two of my early attempts:

First attempt at trousers.

These were worn and loved but I do cringe a little bit now when I look at them!!  Because the fit is so crucial, I think it’s worthwhile to invest the time to draft a pattern specifically for your child which can then simply be tweaked as they grow.  Go check out Dana over at Made for an awesome tutorial.  Here’s a more recent pair (notice the piping, which we’ll talk about later).

Manu in orange piping trousers (1)

5.  Understanding and using markings on patterns

The first time I opened a pattern sheet and tried to work out all the sizes, markings, etc. I nearly put the whole thing in the bin and gave up.  Up until that point I had only made things from my own scatter-brained head or by following an online tutorial.  I knew that to improve my sewing I needed to get to grips with patterns so I took a deep breath and continued.

I quickly realised that once I isolated the parts of the pattern that I needed it wasn’t so daunting after all.  Indeed, I have now come to love patterns – in fact, the more markings there are on a pattern piece, the happier I am because I know those marks actually mean something and that they will make my job much easier once I start to sew.

So, don’t ignore markings – embrace them.  Take the time to figure out what they mean and transfer them to your fabric clearly and consistently.  Having said that, don’t get too bogged down in all the scary-looking tools and supplies that can be used to do this transferring.  Yes, some of them will be helpful but don’t let this be a barrier to having a go.  Find what works for you and go with it.  If you want some help with this go here for a solid explanation of what’s available and how to do it.

4.  Hand-stitching an invisible hem

I usually try to avoid hand-stitching like the plague – I even once tried to sew on a button with my sewing machine (yes, I broke the needle).  I have learned, however, that hand stitching the bottom hem of skirts makes for a clean and professional finish.  Here’s a great video from Burda to walk you through it.

Another little trick for hemming is something that Liesl, the designer behind the Oliver+S and Lisette sewing patterns, uses often.  You use a basting stitch to sew a line where you want your hem to be (for example, if you want a one inch hem then you sew the basting stitch at one inch).  This means you have a clear line to fold along so that you’re sure to get a nice even hem line.

3.  Making and applying bias tape

One of my first sewing friends is from Denmark and she got me hooked on bias very early on.  I couldn’t finish a skirt any other way than with bias around the bottom edge.

bias detail

Once I was a bit more experienced sewing I taught myself how to make my own bias using one of these.

Bias tape maker – two sizes

It became a bit addictive and I still have a box of bias I made in the early days – because I couldn’t stop myself!  I know there are electric bias tape makers but, for me, why would I spend €100 to save me a job I love doing anyway?!

With this simple Prym tool it’s easy to make (just take your time to cut the fabric strips accurately) and really gives your sewing a personal touch (sometimes I like the bias to be bold and stand out; other times it’s fun to make it out of the same fabric as your garment so it blends in and looks professional).

bias tape detail

To find some good bias tape making tutorials go here or here.

Applying bias tape can be done the easy way – where you simply enclose the raw edge with the bias and sew it on – making sure to catch the tape on both sides. This works well on some things but if you’re going to have to join your two pieces of bias at the end (as in the hem of a skirt) then it can get a bit messy and you’re better off doing it like this.  This involves opening up the tape and sewing it in two stages but the end result is much more tidy.

Going around curves is pretty easy with bias as it stretches to fit the curve.  Doing inverted corners or v-necks can be more tricky.  There’s a good tutorial here.

2.  Using piping

I have already waxed lyrical about piping herehere and here.  I truly love the stuff.  And, although it’s probably not the most indispensable skill for making a garment wearable, I do find it personalises your work so much that, for me, it is one of my most useful skills.

With piping you have two choices – make it or buy it.  I’ve read lots of great tutorials on making your own piping but, (gasp!), I haven’t tried it yet!  This is mainly because I’m lucky enough to have lots of great colours and prints (including Liberty print!!) available to me that I’ve never felt the need.

You can find lots of more piping inspiration over at Made-by-Rae here.  Here’s some inspiration of my own.

Geranium dress with blue piping.

Geranium dress – piping detail.

Geranium dress – piping detail

piping trousers sitting


1.  Common sense!!

Are you a little let down that the number one item is something so obvious?!  Well, don’t be – I cannot tell you how many times using common sense has got me out of a sticky sewing situation.  It’s so easy to get so sucked into a specific pattern, following specific instructions that we sometimes use lose sight of the big picture.

If I really get stuck on something I will forget what’s written in the instructions and just think about how I want the finished garment to look and ask myself how I would achieve that using, that’s right, common sense.

We’ve all made mistakes of sewing things the wrong way round or upside-down but if we can remember to use a healthy dose of common sense then many of these errors can be avoided. (Oh, and not sewing when you’re tired….or have had a couple of glasses of wine….that helps avoid mistakes as well!).

It’s very liberating to know that, when it’s all said and done, common sense can allow you to make things that you might not have thought you were able to do.  Here are a few things I’ve made with no pattern, just using common sense to achieve what I wanted.

Butterfly wings using felt and very thick interfacing to give enough structure.

Upcycling a doll’s pushchair by taking about the original seat and using that as a template to make a personalised one.

Doll nappies

So, there you have it!  My top ten sewing skills.  What do you think?  Agree?  Are you shouting at the computer because I’ve left something off? (I know, I know – zippers aren’t on the list!!).  I’d love to hear what you think – and maybe pick up a few new tricks!

Thanks for reading,

Laura x

5 thoughts on “A new feature – Top Ten for Tuesday – Most Useful Sewing Skills

  1. Caroline

    Useful list, Thanks! p.s. Love the doll nappies…will be good for using up odds and ends and for putting an end to my daughter insisting I buy her baby a pack of real nappies!

  2. Marcela

    Super post!!! thanks a lot, I’m a beginner and your post has given me a lot of reading material for the next days, and yes, true, for us living in Belgium, the choice on materials are sometimes very limited.

  3. Pingback: Top 10 tried and tested *free* kid clothes sewing tutorials | Behind the Hedgerow

Leave a Reply