My latest projects lack hems and buttonholes, so I have no finished items to share with you. Nevertheless, I feel like I’m getting a lot more accomplished these days, so I thought I’d share my personal tips for getting the most out of your sewing workspace. These are tried-and-true, in that I didn’t do any of these things when I first started sewing, and then I learned that there’s a reason for doing them. I used to cut corners all the time! (I’m talking recently… I just threw away a piece I made no more than a year or two ago, no finishing inside the seams, facings not understitched or tacked down, seams straining from bad fit… the piece was a wadder, but it shouldn’t have been. If I’d taken the time not to be sloppy, it would have been great.)
- Stock up on needles. You’re supposed to change your sewing machine needles every 3-4 hours, or every project or so. How many of us actually do that? I used to skimp on changing needles because I didn’t want to go buy any, or the shop was closed by then, etc. But making sure your needles are sharp will prevent skipped stitches and needle jams, which can really throw off your groove! I generally try to pick up a new pack of needles every time I go shopping. They sell nice multi-packs of Universal needles in different sizes at my Joanns, which are always handy; if I’m running low on ballpoint/stretch needles or Sharps, I’ll pick up those instead. If you never have a shortage, it’ll be easier to change needles since you won’t have to worry about running out. Another useful thing: if you use Schmetz needles, here’s a printable guide to the color bands they use to differentiate between needle types and sizes.
- Stock up on bobbins. Wind a few ahead of time in your most commonly used colors. That way you don’t have to interrupt your sewing time quite as much when you run out of bobbin thread, or worse, have to unwind an old one to even start winding a new color. Bobbins tend to be pretty inexpensive, and they’re good to have on hand.
- Toss your stash every so often. I don’t mean go throw it out! Toss your stash like you toss a salad (I stole this term from the Yarn Harlot, by the way. She is fabulous.) Go through all of your fabrics, reorganize them if necessary, or if you’re me, straighten the piles they’ve gotten stacked in. (I like to see what I’ve purchased! This means things usually don’t get put away very well.) Check things over for damage—moth holes, sun bleaching, the cats got into it, that kind of thing. This is great to do because it will remind you what you have—if you have a “deep” stash, it can be like going shopping, except since you already own it, it’s all free! You may want to go through your patterns and notions during the stash toss, as well. You can make sure they’re organized and, again, remind yourself of what you have. If there’s stuff you don’t want to have, now’s the time to get rid of it!
- Set some good background sound. Now, I realize not everyone gets a great choice of background noise—some people are sewing in the living room and keeping an eye on the kids, some people are in a cramped dorm room, everyone’s making the best with what they have. But if you can, set yourself some good grooves. (I don’t like headphones since I’m running back and forth from machine to ironing board and wielding hefty scissors; if you do use headphones, be careful to keep them out of the way!) Music can be great—if you tend to get stressed at the machine, pick something calming; if you tend to get bored, pick a playlist that lights you up. I also love listening to podcasts and audiobooks; it keeps my hands busy and my mind entertained during long stretches of sewing. You may have to tweak the volume to hear over your machine, or pause your audiobook when you get to a puzzling set of instructions, though; trying to focus on two things at once is a recipe for disaster.
- Sample, sample, sample. It’s the golden rule, really. If you get to any point when you’re not sure about the instructions, or the technique, or the fabric, etc. take the time to test it. Trust me, this will really save your bacon in the long run! Sampling can mean testing on a scrap of your intended fabric, like you should do with buttonholes. It can mean testing the technique on whatever fabric comes to mind—this is a good idea when you’re learning how to do plackets, or bound buttonholes, or welt pockets, anything like that. It can mean testing your needle/fabric/machine settings/interfacing combination, which you should do with exactly the combination you intend to use, otherwise your results won’t be accurate. Or it can mean simply basting your next seam instead of stitching it, if you’re not sure it’ll turn out right; that way it’s much easier to rip back if it’s wrong. Yes, sampling feels like it can slow you down, but in the long run—and I mean the long, lonely minutes with the seam ripper in hand and swear words on your lips—it will really pay off.
- If you’re trying to improve your sewing skills, not just make whatever garment is in your hands—or if that garment itself is proving obnoxious and difficult!—and you find yourself overwhelmed or frustrated, just take it bit by bit. I used to have a really low frustration threshold when I sewed, which is why I took so many shortcuts. As soon as I’d hit something hard—if I had to rip back, or I didn’t entirely understand the instructions, that sort of thing—I’d give up, and try to come back later with new energy. This is a pretty slow and frustrating way of doing things! Bit-by-bit is the way to conquer this. I learned to tell myself, “yes, I’m annoyed now; let me just do one more seam, and then I’ll quit.” It helped. Usually I found myself doing more than one seam; even if I didn’t, I hadn’t left myself at the hard part, and I’d conquered whatever had frustrated me. This is a great way to build confidence! Or, if I was trying to do “proper” sewing techniques and not take whatever shortcut occurred to me, I’d just try one less lazy technique. “This time, I don’t have to take time for a muslin, or try the fancy new topstitching technique I saw, but I will do flat-felled seams the whole way through.” It’s a good way to ease into better habits, and the sight of those awesome-looking flat-felled seams will encourage you to set higher standards for yourself.
- A caveat to the above: never sew when you’re so mad you want to throw things out the window. Nothing good can come of that. Nor should you sew when you’re exhausted or drunk. Trust me, scissors and needles and sewing machine motors will not be kind to you in that state. If you find yourself frustrated a lot, it can be helpful to push just a little bit past that, to improve your confidence; but when you’re really fed up and mad, go do something else. Even if you’re on a deadline. Trust me, long hours with a seam ripper are not going to help you with that deadline.
- And lastly: get good helpers!
Well, they think they’re helping, anyway. ;)