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Demonstrations>Getting Started>Basic Sewing Techniques

Five Things to Improve the Finished Product -

Ok, so this is way more than five things but if I had titled this "Basic Sewing Tech: Fourteen Things…" you'd never have read it.

The completed garment is more than just fabric cut and sewn. It's a plan come to life. The following tips will make that plan easier to execute and will improve the completed project immeasurably.

I've broken the process down into three stages: pre-production, production, and post-production. The following represents the stages, in order, of how I approach making a garment. Your actual mileage may vary - test drive and see what works best for you.

1. Pre-Production

A. Planning

If I ever go to the grocery store without a shopping list, I inevitably end up spending more than I wanted buying stuff I don't need and forgetting to buy half the stuff I do need. It's the same way for me when I put together a garment. I've found that, if I sit down and plan out a garment, complete with color sketches and trim ideas as well as a list of notions that I'll need, I spend less money and time putting that garment together than if I simply rely on serendipity.

I keep sketchbooks and doodle pads full of ideas on garments, trim ideas, and scraps of fabric. Mostly the pages are set up with a sketch of a garment, lists of things I'll need such as hooks and eyes or estimated lengths of trim as well as buttons, embroidery thread, or other do-dads. If I've got a certain fabric at home that I'd like to make a garment out of, I'll include a scrap of that in the sketchbook with the line drawing so that I can pick out lining fabric to match or contrast.

Contrary to popular opinion, you don't have to be a great artist to use this technique. Just by sketching out a rough, coloring it in and making your lists, you have given yourself a plan of action that you can follow. If you know someone who draws well, have them sketch out a basic outline of the types of garments you like to make. Xerox those and use them to draw on and color. Either way, you'll be ready when you hit the fabric store and they're having a sale. Sketchbook in hand, you can compare the color of that $1.99 linen to the swatch of brocade in your book and either buy it or leave it be (although I still have a tough time passing up $1.99 anything).

Another way to make this technique work for you is to xerox pictures of the various types of garments and portions of garments you want to make and put those in your sketch book along with fabric swatches.

B. Material Selection

Garments from the 16th and 17th century have a certain weight to them that is produced by the types of fabrics both available and utilized. When a source states that a certain garment was made of silk lined with taffeta, it is talking about a fairly heavy bodied silk with a crisp silk taffeta lining. Most of the silks that anyone of us can afford are much softer and thinner than would've been used.

There are two ways of getting around this. First, switch to a heavier but less expensive material that simulates the look you're trying to achieve. Second, if you can't find a heavier material or have decided to work with a thinner material, interline the garment.

Interlining: Cut the interlining layer as with the outer layer. Put them together and, during the construction phase, treat them as one single layer of fabric. Baste or pin together as necessary.

Interlining: Cut the interlining as with the outer layer. Put them together and, during the construction phase, treat them as one single layer of fabric. Baste or pin together as necessary.

C. Pre-washing

Pre-wash everything: no exceptions. Even if it says 'dry clean only'. Burn test first to make sure there are no surprises - I pre-wash and subsequently wash everything that is made of natural fibers up to and including silk and linen. The dryer is actually the big culprit in causing wear and tear on fabric. So, I usually dry the fabric after pre-washing but, depending on the fabric used, the garment may end up being drip dried for the rest of its life. I often take a small swatch off of the fabric prior to pre-washing and compare it to the fabric after it's been pre-washed and dried. As a general rule of thumb I always drip dry any garment made from upholstery brocades or jacquards. If the garment is made from good quality cotton, linen or silk, it gets washed and dried per normal unless the pre-wash swatch indicated an extreme loss of color, shrinkage or other undesirable effects. Then, it gets drip dried only.

Pre-washing cannot be overemphasized. Modern fabrics are extremely 'sized' during the production phase. The term 'sizing' refers to the bath that most fabrics go through which gives them more body and sheen after they are pressed through rollers and then put up on boards for delivery to the store. Once this fabric is washed, the 'size' is washed out and the fabric is softer and less shiny.

Pre-washing also deters shrinking later on. Most modern fabrics are stretched (a little or a lot, depending on quality) during the weaving and sizing process. If you do not pre-wash your fabric before you cut and make your project, you will regret it later when you was that project and it shrinks in very undesirable ways.

The best way to determine whether or not your fabric is of a natural fiber is to do a burn test. If I am at a store and unsure of a fabric content, I'll ask for a snip and conduct a burn test in the parking lot (I carry tweezers and a lighter in my car).

Burn Test Chart -

D. Ironing

Iron out your fabric prior to cutting. Just as it is very difficult to draw on a rumpled piece of paper, it's extremely difficult to cut out a garment on a rumpled piece of cloth.

E. Laying out the fabric

Lining up the fabric prior to cutting, if you're cutting doubles and on the fold is extremely important. If the fabric is not lined up with itself prior to cutting doubles and on the fold, the grain lines for some of the pieces could end up being much different and this will have an adverse affect on the finished product.

F. Pattern Cutting

Pay attention to those grain lines! Cut all pieces of the garment out (shell, lining and interlining if used) at the same time. Instead of using pins, consider using pattern weights. Not only does this save your patterns from getting perforated, but it streamlines the process. Tuna fish cans make cheap, excellent alternatives to the more expensive weights sold in fabric stores. I prefer the weight of Tuna fish packed in oil but it's not as good for you so I recommend getting Tuna fish packed in spring water.

2. Production

A. Construction

Break the garment up into several smaller sections and construct those sections first. For instance, I typically work the bodice first, constructing it and getting it to the point where the other pieces will be laid in or attached. I then move on to the sleeves. After the sleeves is the skirt or pants. My rule of thumb is to start with the most difficult section, just to get that out of the way. I also like to start with the central section, meaning the section that everything else depends on. For the most part, this is the body section.

B. Grading Seams and Points

This reduces bulk and allows points to make a crisp line. In many of the garments of the 16th and 17th century, reducing bulk is a good thing.

Grading seams by trimming bulk. Don't trim too closely if the seam will be under stress. Clipping corners makes for a cleaner, crisper corner.

C. Clipping Seams

This allows concave and convex points to do their thing without puckering. Many of the seams in garments from the period are convex or concave. Clipping them so that they don't pull or pucker also makes the final fit better and allows those seams to move and shape themselves around the body as they were designed to do.

Clipping curves allows the seams to bend as required.
For a clean finish on key hole necklines, without the fuss of a placket, sew around the slit as above, grade the points and make three small cuts as above.
Inside of neck, sewn and clipped.
Outside of neck, after pressing... Look, Mom! No wrinkles!

D. Pressing Seams

Unless you're sewing by hand (and even then), you should always open all seams and iron them flat. The biggest difference between a couture garment and a regular, off the rack garment is the pressing. Unpressed seams look bulky and don't behave. Pressed seams have a nice, finished look to them that reflects upon the rest of the garment.

Pressing seams flat makes for a better finish.

E. Adding Trim

Adding trim either by hand or by machine at this stage insures that you can tuck the tails into closed seams later and makes it possible to lay the trim down on the shell only. Adding trim later means that you'll have to add trim after all the pieces are sewn together and you'll have to figure out what to do with the unfinished ends.

F. Put It All Together

Once the shell pieces have been sewn together and the lining pieces have been sewn together, sew the shell and the lining together. This is the modern way of constructing a garment. If you're sewing by hand, you would put the lining and shell pieces together and treat them as one in the construction process.

G. Fitting

Before hitting the post-production state, make your last fitting. Determine if armholes and neck openings are too small. This last final fitting will also determine if the finished fit is correct. This is basically your last chance to change things easily. After things are finished, it's much harder to go back and fix fit.

3. Post-Production

A. Finishing by Hand

I know it's a lot faster to finish seams closed by running the sewing machine across them. Fight that temptation! Nothing beats a seam finished by hand. It looks better lies flatter and doesn't disturb the rest of the garment. Bias or seam binding always looks better if finished by hand.

If it makes you feel any better, I loathe hand sewing…

B. Final Touches

Hand sewing buttons, buttonholes, eyelet holes, and other little details bring the garment to life. It may be easier and faster to accomplish these things with your machine, but it won't look as good and it won't look at period, which is the whole idea…

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