These days, it’s cheap and easy to step into a store and buy pretty much any outfit you like. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Learning basic sewing techniques (or even advanced sewing techniques!) is a handy skill with many benefits: making clothing and housewares from scratch means your everyday items are uniquely yours, fixing worn-out clothing can save you a lot of money, and sewing by hand or on a machine is a fun and relaxing creative hobby.
Discover everything you need to know to get started, including suggestions for classes on sewing basics for beginners.
Why Learn How to Sew?
There are many advantages of learning how to sew: creative, financial, and environmental.
First, sewing is a fun hobby and a great outlet for any creative. Whether you sew clothing, accessories, or items for your home, making something from scratch brings a sense of accomplishment. You can play with colors, textures, and techniques to make items that reflect your tastes and personality.
Learning the basics of sewing can also save you money on tailoring fees. Rather than throwing items away when they get a minor hole or tear, when a hem comes undone, or when a button falls off, you can fix them yourself. While making a whole piece of clothing from scratch may be expensive if you choose a luxury fabric like silk, there are also plenty of inexpensive fabrics to experiment with. Of course, making an item may cost more than fast, throwaway fashion you can buy for a handful of dollars, but that brings us to the next point…
Learning to sew can be good for your ecological footprint. The availability of cheap, low-quality clothing leads to a throwaway mindset. Landfills contain far more clothing than they should, which is terrible for the environment and a huge waste of the natural resources and human labor that went into making that clothing. By learning to sew, you can be more mindful about your fashion choices. You’re less likely to throw something away after a season if you’ve made it yourself. And learning how to fix things means you’ll get more wear out of each item, thus reducing your environmental impact.
What Can You Make?
What you can make with fabric and a needle and thread (or sewing machine) is only limited by your imagination. Common and popular things to sew by hand or on a machine are:
- Skirts, dresses, pants, and shirts
- Homewares like cushions, pillowcases, tablecloths, and curtains
- Bags and coin purses
- Pencil cases
- Accessories like neckties, scrunchies, and silk scarves
- Patchwork quilts
- Leather and canvas wallets or bags
- Wearable art
You can also alter and customize clothing yourself! If you find a pair of pants you love that’s just a bit too long, you can turn them up easily at home.
What Can You Fix?
When you learn to sew—even just the beginner sewing basics—you can potentially fix all of these items yourself:
- Holes or worn spots in jeans
- Jackets (think, worn elbows)
- Missing buttons
- Hems, split stitching, and loose straps
Another thing to keep in mind is that when mending fabric, the “fix” doesn’t always need to be invisible. By using patches, applique, and embroidery techniques, you can breathe new life into a mended item. Skillshare instructors Nina and Sonya Montenegro teach a course on this type of mending: Intro to Visible Mending by Hand: Fix Your Jeans—Simply and Beautifully!
Turn Your Back on Fast Fashion!
Make Your Own Clothing: Introduction to Garment Construction
Basic Sewing Supplies and Tools
The supplies and tools you’ll need for a sewing project will vary slightly depending on the fabrics involved, and whether you’re sewing by hand or with a sewing machine. Here are the most important basic sewing tools you’ll need.
Sewing Machine (Optional)
If you want to do a lot of sewing or do big projects, a sewing machine is handy. They’re much faster than sewing by hand, and you can adjust the stitch types depending on your fabric. Sewing machines come with most of the accessories they require, such as bobbins and sewing machine needles, although you’ll need to supply (or replace) your own thread.
For hand sewing, needles are essential. These come in a variety of sizes, which also have different sized eyes (the hole that you pull the thread through). The size needle you’ll need will depend on the texture and thickness of your fabric. For example, thin silk requires a thinner needle, whereas wool or leather will need something much thicker. You can buy packs of needles with a variety of lengths and thicknesses, which should be adequate for most projects.
What makes pins different from needles? They’re not used to pull thread through fabric but to secure pieces in place, hold layers of fabric together, or act as place markers. Pins have a little bobble at one end rather than an eye hole. Whether you’re sewing by hand or on a machine, having a pack of pins is handy.
You’ll need thread for any sewing project. Unless you’re sewing something with deliberately contrasting colors, you’ll usually want to match your thread to your fabric, so buy a starter pack with threads in many shades.
Tape measures for general sewing are usually plastic, with metric measurements on one side and imperial on the other. They’re useful for making sure you cut and sew the fabric in the right place, especially when sewing clothing. If you don’t have a tape measure, then a regular ruler will do in a pinch, but these aren’t designed to measure human bodies like tape measures are.
If you want to cut fabric, you’ll need a proper pair of fabric scissors, not just the general purpose pair you have lying around home for cutting paper. To cut fabric, scissors need to be very sharp, and cutting paper is the quickest way of blunting them! Keep these out of sight and reach of kids or non-crafty housemates, unless you don’t mind buying a new pair of fabric scissors again and again!
Last but definitely not least, you’ll need fabric for any sewing project. If you’re mending clothing then you’ll already have this to hand. Otherwise, you can buy fabric from craft stores, specialty furnishing stores, and even some second-hand stores. Fabric is usually sold by the length, so work out how much you’ll need to complete your project before buying it. It’s very annoying to find you didn’t buy quite enough only to return to the store for more and discover they’ve sold out!
Other useful but not-necessarily-essential sewing tools include thimbles, seam unpickers, thread cutters, fabric pencils, and safety pins.
There are many different sewing techniques you could try, and each has a slightly different function. Some are straightforward while others are more advanced or expert techniques. Although not exhaustive, the following list introduces some of the most common techniques you’ll hear or read about while you learn sewing basics.
As Skillshare instructor Vida Vasquez puts it: “Appliqué is [an] ornamental sewing technique often used when upcycling clothes in which pieces of fabric are sewn onto a larger piece of fabric to form pictures or patterns—making the original piece new and totally unique!”
Backstitching is a type of stitch used in hand sewing that makes a stitch and then goes backwards for one stitch to create an unbroken line of stitches. It contrasts with running stitch, which has a space the length of a stitch in between stitches.
This large stitch is often used to finish off the edges of blankets or other items made from thick wool or similar fabric. It’s rather difficult to visualize how to do a stitch from reading written instructions, so check out a video tutorial to learn how to do blanket stitch and other basic hand stitches, such as Skillshare instructor Angi Schneider’s class Basic Hand Stitches Everyone Should Learn.
A blind hem finishes off the edge of a piece of fabric (a hem) so that the stitches themselves aren’t visible. Many people prefer the way this type of hem looks. It’s a bit tricky, so it’s considered an intermediate or advanced sewing technique.
Buttonhole stitches can be done by hand or on a sewing machine, but the process of creating them is different with each method. Buttonhole stitches secure the fabric around a buttonhole so it doesn’t fray or tear.
Often used in embroidery, chain stitch is a type of stitch that creates a thick corded effect, somewhat like a chain. It’s a decorative technique.
An art/craft form in its own right, crocheting is nevertheless a type of sewing as it uses yarn and a tool called a hook to create fabric. Other sewing techniques, such as blanket stitch, applique, and embroidery, can be used alongside crocheting to create clothing, accessories, and homewares.
Embroidery is a decorative form of sewing, usually made by stretching a piece of fabric on a hoop and sewing with embroidery floss—a thick, glossy, and colorful type of thread. Embroidery can be added to clothing for decoration or done for its own sake and displayed in a hoop or frame. Embroidery utilizes many different stitch types, including silk stitch, French knots, and chain stitch.
Like crocheting, knitting sits within its own category but it still falls under the general “sewing” umbrella. Knitting uses two long knitting needles to loop yarn together, forming a piece of fabric. It’s very different from “regular” sewing, but knitters will also need to use other techniques to create finished pieces, such as blanket stitch.
An overlock stitch hems fabrics—it appears on most mass-produced clothing. Some sewing machines can make versions of overlock stitches, but special overlocker machines are preferable if you’re doing a lot of overlock stitching.
A running stitch is the most basic type of hand stitch and is most likely the type that all beginners will learn first. You push a needle and thread through the fabric in one point and then push it back through in the other direction a little further along, creating a row of stitches with gaps in between. The machine version of a running stitch is called a simple stitch.
Basic Sewing Terms
In addition to the sewing techniques listed above, you will probably come across the following basic sewing terms and wonder what they are.
Merriam-Webster defines bias, as it relates to fabric, as: “a line diagonal to the grain of a fabric; a line at a 45 degree angle to the selvage often utilized in the cutting of garments for smoother fit.” Essentially, the bias is the direction in which a piece of fabric is hung to create a desirable drape. With some types of fabric, cutting and sewing it “on the bias” is preferable as it minimizes the need for darts, tucks, or pleats.
A bobbin is a small plastic or metal spool that’s used to hold thread when working with a sewing machine.
To darn something is to mend it with interlacing stitches. Traditionally, before the mass production of cheap clothing, people tended to darn their socks to make them last longer.
A dart is a type of stitched tapering fold that’s sewn to make garments fit properly. They’re especially used for clothing made from non- or less-stretchy fabrics.
The hem is the border of a piece of cloth that’s folded back and stitched down. Fabric that isn’t hemmed risks fraying. There are various types of hems you can sew by hand or machine, from the flat felled seam used on jeans to the blind hem used on more formal clothing.
A pattern is the design that appears on some types of fabric, but it’s also a blueprint that sewers can follow when making a piece of clothing or another complex item from several pieces of fabric. Following a pattern might seem difficult, but once you’ve got the hang of it, doing so makes the construction of complex fabric items much simpler.
Similar to a hem, a seam is where two (or more, potentially) pieces of fabric are joined together by stitching. While hems are usually at the edge of a piece of fabric, seams can appear anywhere.
A thimble is a small wooden, metal, plastic, or ceramic cap that you can wear over your fingertip when hand sewing, to push the needle through fabric. They’re handy if the fabric you’re working with is thick and the needle needs a bit of pressure to go through it, and they’ll save your fingertips a bit of discomfort.
Whether you’re a complete newbie to sewing or want to learn more advanced skills, basic sewing lessons for beginners will teach you all you want to know. Here are some great basic sewing classes, plus a few more technical ones.
Sew Your Own Clothing
Machine Sewing Basics
Sewing With Patterns
Sew Items for the Home
Start Sewing Today!
In a world where everything seems to be fast, modern, and disposable, sewing by hand and machine can be an antidote. Whether you’re sewing a skirt, making a quilt, or upcycling a pair of jeans with original embroidery, sewing is a useful skill that enables you to express your creativity. Sewing might be an old-school craft, but it’s not going anywhere.
Beyond Basic Sewing Lessons for Beginners
Garment Construction: Introduction to Draping