So, what’s the best sewing advice you’ve ever heard? There’s tons of great sewing tips and tricks out there, but what are those helpful nuggets that have become part of your sewing credo?

I’ve read and heard lots of memorable tidbits from experts over the years, but today I’m talking about 7 of the very best pieces of sewing advice. Some of them took a while to accept and others stopped me dead in my tracks.

So what is this magical sewing advice and how can it help me? Read on, friend!

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7 pieces of sewing advice that transformed my creativity

Use the best quality fabric you can

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jenny dress
swanky-time silk cotton voile from the designer Milly

I wish I could remember where I heard this one. Probably it came from several different people.

But the idea of using the best quality fabric you can is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way.

When I first started sewing I bought a crap ton of cheap fabric. I was scared of messing up! Was this sewing “hobby” even going to stick?

And what happened with me + cheap fabric?

Predictably, I made a lot of bad clothes, but I made a lot of bad clothes I wasn’t proud of. I felt ashamed of not only my beginner lack of finesse but also there was some truly gross fabric.

Moderately priced stretch crepe for #thelittlereddressproject

Quality does not necessarily mean expensive

In a little time my seams started getting less tortured looking and my zippers actually weren’t crooked at the top. But the best part of advancing in my own sewing skills was being able to recognize quality.

I’m equal parts proud and horrified that now I can often spot the most expensive bolt in a fabric store by sight.

But, [and it’s a big but]: I’ve learned that quality fabric isn’t necessarily expensive. Quality is quality. Good quality fabric feels good, it lasts a long time, it doesn’t get those nasty balls of fuzz after 1 wash.

sequin jersey cardigan
Jeans from $22/yard denim that have lasted a whopping 7 years, so in the end a crazy value
+ this sequin cardi

You can easily find quality fabric to sew with hanging on a rack as a pair of $3 jeans at a thrift store as you can plunking down $80/yd for some luxury silk.

yarn covered coat by tree
Total score of a $3/yard sweater knit made ultra luxe with wool yarn and a whole lot of hours stitching

So learn to recognize quality fabric by look and feel. Then you can brag when you score a 100% linen for $3/yard!

“Those of us who can’t sew all day simply have to replace the experience with patience, care, and a profound willingness to rip out and re-stitch our not-quite-right seams”

David Page Coffin, Making Trousers

Thanks to David Page Coffin for the little boost of encouragement for the all of us amateur sewists.

I know I easily fall into the trap of looking down on myself because I don’t have a fashion degree. But he’s right.

We can’t expect our work to be finished as well or sewn as perfectly as someone who is sewing 8 hours a day for years on end.

Lord knows I have destroyed a whole lot of fabric trying to make a wearable garment. But in the end it’s just fabric.

Every new sewing project is a new opportunity to get a little better at x, y, or z. You do your best with the knowledge and skills you have at that moment. Eventually, you get better.

Keep practicing.

I’d love another crack at that white+salmon seam. It’s *almost* but not quite there

Keep going, and when all you seem to be making is sewing fails, well,

that is indeed what your seam ripper is for.

Copy what you like

Peggy Sagers

If you ever watch Peggy Sagers, you know she is always telling you to know what you like. Carry your tape measure everywhere.

If you have a garment that you absolutely love, measure it at key points so that you can transfer it to your next sewing project.

This piece of sewing wisdom took a while to sink in, then it hit me.

Every garment that you make and every garment that you own is a library of what works and what doesn’t. I think a lot of times as sewists we get in the habit of just making the next thing. Sometimes we don’t think how what we’ve already made can help us make the next thing.

“Copy what you like” in practice

If you have pants you love the length of, measure the inseam. From then on, that inseam is the length you use for a pattern. Why do double work on a pattern?

Plus, once you know what you like, you don’t have to go searching for the perfect pattern. Just apply what you like to a pattern that you have.

That’s what happened for me with these cropped pants. Finding the right length for a cropped style on me took a whole lot of adjusting on my part.

wearing cropped pants at Smithsonian
My favorite summer pants at the Air and Space Museum. Weird face in response to silly hubby.

Being short, cropped styles can be awkward high waters. But then I nailed the right length, and these are now my favorite summer pants. So when time came to cut some emerald green linen for some new summer pants, I double checked the inseam on my brocade pants. Off came 4″ from the pattern.

green linen pants, painted shoes, lilac top and green lace necklace

“Some patterns are dogs”

Sandra Betzina
Power Sewing Toolbox vol. 1

Isn’t it true though! There are some patterns that no matter what you do to them, they just don’t work. Maybe the pattern doesn’t work for you.

It might be just a bad pattern period. Pieces missing, things not drafted well–who knows.

Whatever the case, you get done and you feel like a total failure. Stop doing that.

via GIPHY

Some patterns are total lemons. It’s okay. Find another one and move on!

Pick your size based on where a garment hangs

Cynthia Guffey

I had the joy of taking a few classes with Cynthia Guffey before she passed away a few months ago, and this idea was revolutionary to me.

Cynthia’s argument was that most of us pick patterns based on our bust or high bust. That’s all well and good when it comes to your bust, but that’s not where a garment hangs.

In most cases, a garment hangs on your shoulders. Or in the case of pants from your hips. So….

Start with picking a pattern based on your shoulders.

Cynthia’s logic: you can always add fabric to the bust if you need to, but it requires a lot of extra fuss to fix a shoulder and neck that’s too big.

Turns out my shoulders are not so wide

Cynthia’s advice totally changed my sewing. She was absolutely right–When I heard this, I was a beginner, and I was picking things based on my full bust. And nothing fit properly. If it was right in the bust, it was falling off my shoulders.

“Drop-shoulder” is a euphemism here

Part of the reason I started sewing for myself was so that I could stop shirts from falling off my shoulders. I got to the point of being so uncomfortable in clothes because everything from knits to blouses fell off my shoulders.

Resized, refashioned, and NOT falling off my shoulders

That day Cynthia showed our class how to measure across your shoulders and how to find the right size in a pattern with that measurement. From then on, I always double check the shoulder size in a pattern. And because of that, my shoulders don’t fall off me, and all without a narrow shoulder adjustment.

“Only buy fabric you love”

Diana Rupp
S.E.W. Sew Everything Workshop

Diana Rupp’s book Sew Everything Workshop was my go-to when I was a beginner, and this quote was a standout. She’s right.

Just like you should buy quality fabric, you should only buy fabric you love.

Sewing takes time. It’s not a microwave kind of hobby. “Instant gratification” takes at least a couple hours in most cases.

salmon colored fabrics with olive jacket
Salmony peaches forever!

So, if you’re spending the time to make a garment for your own body, make it from a fabric that you truly love. Fabric that you’re looking forward to wearing, fabric whose colors make your heart sing.

Buy fabric that feels good, that has texture that’s visually interesting.

We’ve all bought fabric we’ve regretted. Then we make up things from that unfortunate fabric. Do we wear them? No, they get tossed, or donated.

All your hard work in the trash. [all the sad faces]

Buy fabric you love. Use it. Enjoy the process of making a beautiful garment with it!

“Make visual decisions visually”

Nancy Zieman

I couldn’t tell you what episode Nancy Zieman said this little gem in because when she said it, the world stopped in my mind. N
Of all the sewing advice that’s impacted me, this is #1.

Think about it: there are some decisions that can’t be made any other way but to make them with your own two eyes. Let’s brainstorm:

Visual decisions you make in sewing

  • Which buttons to use
  • What thread color to choose
  • How to colorblock a project
  • Where a hem should hit you
  • Fitting
  • The best placement for a pocket
  • How big that pocket should be in the first place

And the list goes on. Here’s the thing:

Rules are good and helpful. You can make a lot of nice sewing projects by following all the rules–and you should. But you get to a point and you have to step back and take a long hard look at your project. Use your eyes to tell you if you need to add something, take something away or change something all-together.

No chance of guessing at the placement here–strictly by eye

There was no roadmap when I wanted to add silk appliques to this eyelet dress. The dress has deep folds in the skirt where the appliques could easily get swallowed up. My only option was to take all my appliques and pin them on a dress form to see where they looked best.

So do some sketches, audition different sets of buttons. Even stand back 5 feet from a project to understand what you’re trying to accomplish. Whatever you do, always use your eyes to help you make your sewing better.

I hope after these 7 pieces of sewing advice from these wonderful trusted experts, you’re feeling encouraged. All of these things have helped my sewing so much in the areas of fitting, and fabric buying, the creative process, and just having the freedom to make mistakes.

So how about you? What’s the sewing advice that’s been your North Star?

What are those guiding principles that stick in your brain and forever change your outlook? Drop a comment below!

12 Comments

  1. This is an amazing summary of what we need to keep in mind to be successful in our sewing and get the most enjoyment out of our limited time. Thank you!

    I cried when Nancy died.

  2. Patricia Clements Reply

    I cried too. Real tears. We have experienced some major losses in the sewing community over the last two years. And I cry too.

  3. I’m intrigued by the idea of picking a pattern size based on your shoulder measurements. Do you have any more tips for doing this? I’m trying to wrap my mind around it and give it a try!

    • Hi Jordan! I measure across the back from shoulder tip (basically where your joint is). From there you can divide that number in half since patterns are usually half of the back and compare that number to the pattern’s shoulder tip (the intersection of the shoulder seam and top of the armhole on the back piece) to center back (don’t forget to subtract seam allowances).

      That should get you the right size for your shoulders–you may still have to fiddle with fit for the rest of your body based on figure variations you may have. For me, I need a size larger between my shoulders and bust. To get there, I transition to the next size at the bottom of the armscye. If you need more space there, you can do a traditional FBA or something else depending on the style. But that should get you going!

      Here’s Cynthia Guffey herself on an old video explaining it too. 🙂 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuEoef4NqbQ

  4. My advice is: to learn to recognize your inner voice that tells you when something isn’t going to work. Ever. Then give up. For example I recently cut out a colour blocked top from pastel linen pieces. I was convinced before cutting that it would be amazing. Once cut, I couldn’t bring myself to start sewing, my inner voice was telling me that I would look like an Easter egg wearing it, and that I would hate it. So I listened and without wasting anymore valuable sewing time, I tossed the scraps and gave up. What a relief!

    • Wise words Elle! How sad to lose the linen, but you’re right. There’s times that design experiments sound awesome in your head, than as you look at them things are another matter. Good for you for having the courage to walk away. It happens to the best of us!

  5. This is a great article filled with loads of words of wisdom. Quite a few of which I live by in my sewing journey. Thanks for sharing them and thanks for highlighting some of my sewing sheros – Nancy Zieman and Cynthia Guffey!

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