The big secret to learning to sew a straight line - practice, practice, practice! Before even threading up an industrial sewing machine, we were taught to practice using an unthreaded machine and a piece of paper with straight lines ruled on it. By 'sewing' straight lines, curves, corners on paper first, you:
- learn how to control your machine with the pedal
- learn how to guide your 'fabric' in relation to your needle
- build your sewing confidence, you've nothing to lose - it's only paper!
I cannot stress enough the benefits of practicing on these paper printouts, do it for a couple of days at least until you see your accuracy improve, believe me, you will end up wasting less fabric and making fewer mistakes in your projects!
All the printouts are available to download at the bottom of this page.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Master Your Machine
Why is a Smooth Line Important in Sewing?
In sewing the ‘line’ is everything. Each seam is a line, straight or curved, each hem, each cuff and collar edge. Garments have straight seams, curves at neck and arms, corners at facings and pockets. Think of your seam line as your ‘fitting’ line, the edge of your creation. A beautiful, smooth fit with a beautiful silhouette requires a beautifully smooth stitch line. A wobbly sewing line will give your skirt or trouser leg a wobbly outline which no amount of pressing will be able to correct.
Once you have mastered sewing without wobbles, staying true to the line itself, your projects will automatically have a more professional look and feel to them. There are other benefits to accurate sewing, I promise you will reduce the number of times you have to unpick; you will complete projects with fewer errors and fewer frustrations!
How to Sew a Beautifully Straight Line.
The holy grail of sewing, the beautifully straight line! Once mastered it lifts the quality of all of your projects and removes the need for unpicking and re-doing your work. Master it now before you start working with fabric, and your sewing journey will be all the better for it.
And the secret is….practice on paper first!
Practicing without the stresses of thread or fabric by sewing on paper frees you up to concentrate on your line and the task at hand. As fashion students we would practice for days, perfecting our lines, understanding the ‘feel’ of our machines and building our confidence. No magnetic seam guides please!
The practice sheets grow in difficulty, it helps to master each in order, but tackle them however you like! The main thing is to practice, practice, practice!
Tips for success:
• Do NOT watch the needle! The needle movement initially can be distracting - look away!
• Watch the edge of your presser foot and use it to guide your paper. When sewing seams, you can watch the presser foot or the guidelines on the plate in relation to the edge and line you are sewing
• Note where the line is in relation to the edge of the foot to ensure your needle consistently stays on the line
• Place your hands lightly on the paper to guide it, the feed dogs on your machine will do the work of moving the paper forward, do NOT pull or push the paper. You can test this on a blank sheet, simply sew without touching the paper and you will see your machine move the paper forward, pulling or pushing can distort your stitching and should be avoided
• Turn the paper around for best fit on your machine, this is simply a paper exercise, make it as easy for yourself
• Start sewing slowly and as confidence grows, go back and try the same exercises at a higher speed
How to Accurately Stop & Start a Line of Stitches.
Each sewing line has a start and end point. Both are very important, and it is part of our dressmaking sewing skills to accurately place our needles at these start and end points to ensure every sewn line is correct in length and position.
We cheat a bit at this! Rather than trying to gauge where to start, it helps to ‘hand crank’ the needle into the start position. This is a great term, hailing from the pre-electricity days, not that long ago, when sewing machines were indeed powered by the dressmaker's hand. On modern machines, this technique is still valuable, and machines continue to have a ‘wheel’ on the side which enables you to manually lower the needle accurately into position.
For each of the sewing practice lessons in this guide:
Print a couple of copies of each sewing practice sheet – no printer, no worries! – use lined notebook paper or draw on plain paper, roughly copying each exercise sheet
Ensure your machine is not threaded – top or bottom
Set the stitch to straight and stitch length mid-way, around 3-4, depending on the machine
Raise your machine presser foot and place the practice sheet so that most of the paper is to the left – as you would with fabric
Lower the presser foot and hand crank – turn the wheel – the needle down into position at the start of the line. You can raise the foot and move the sheet as often as you need to get the correct position for your needle
Once the presser foot is down, start to sew! Go at whatever speed suits you, part of this practicing is to help you with the foot control of your pedal and the speed of your machine
At the end of each line, practice slowing your machine and trying to stop with the needle in the paper precisely at the end point. To help with this initially stop 1-2cms before the end of the line and hand crank the needle to the end point but the aim here is to practice and build your accuracy so you can sew to the end, be brave, it’s only paper!
To finish, hand crank your needle out of the paper to the highest point, lift the presser foot, slide out your page and hold your paper up to the light to see your work. And repeat!
How to Pivot & Sew a Perfect Corner
A corner is simply where two lines meet, how hard can it be?! Sewing a corner is not difficult, however, sewing a neat one can be! A professionally sewn corner really does make all the difference to a finished garment, think of a beautifully, crisp point on a shirt collar or a precisely topstitched patch pocket, the devil is indeed in the details.
There are a couple of methods for sewing and turning out corners, depending on the weight of your fabric. The treatment varies from a lightweight cotton shirt to a heavy wool coat. For the purposes of this exercise, we will continue to focus on the accuracy of the sewing line and the corner itself. This method will apply to light and medium weight fabrics.
In sewing, to pivot means to leave your needle lowered in the fabric, raise the foot, and turn the fabric to the new desired position. The foot is then lowered and sewing can restart along the new sewing line. This ensures a smooth, unbroken corner as your needle does not stop in one place and start somewhere different, instead, you have a continuous, unbroken stitch line. The pivoting technique can also be applied to curves, pivoting a small amount multiple times to keep the needle accurately on the curve.
Corner Practice Exercise Summary:
Pick your practice sheet, print out or draw a couple of copies, leave your machine unthreaded
As before, hand crank your needle accurately into the start position and sew along to the corner point, stop sewing with the needle down in the paper right at the point of the corner – hand crank if necessary for accuracy
Tough love - you should now be able to accurately slow your sewing and stop with your needle down at the end of a line, if not, go back and practice your straight lines!
Leaving your needle down, in the paper, raise the foot, and turn the paper so it aligns with the next stitch line
Lower the foot and start sewing again to the next corner or end point
Raise your needle out of the paper and hold your page up to the light to see your wonderful sewing!
Repeat, repeat, repeat!
How to Sew a Smooth Curved Line
By now you should be more confident in starting and stopping a line of sewing and keeping your machine on track. Then curves come along! There are many types of curves in sewing, a smooth, long, gentle curve of a skirt over a hip, a shorter, tighter curve for fitting a sleeve. The tighter the curve the more tricky it can be to sew, as you are basically having to change direction every few stitches. You can apply a couple of different methods to ensure success.
Tips for curvy success:
Go slow! No prizes for speed, only for accuracy. It's not a race, the focus should be on accuracy and saying on the line
For a smooth, gentle, longer curve, sewing slowly and pivoting once or twice to ensure you stay on the line, is all that is needed
For a tighter curve, apply the pivot method every few stitches, stopping with the needle in the paper, lifting the foot, and ever so slightly twisting the paper so the needle stays on the curve itself
These exercises take you from a smooth, gentle curve to the trickiest curve - a circle. Take your time, work through the smooth curves a couple of times before attempting the circle. Approach each exercise in the same way you have for straight lines and pivots. You can do this!
Why & How to Adjust Your Stitch Length
We all like to take the easiest path in life and sewing is no different. We can find a stitch length that ‘works’ for us and we leave it at that, never touching the dial or risking something new! But how dull would that be!
It would also be such a mistake; stitch length is important with different lengths working best in different scenarios. You may see terms such ‘spi’ – stitches per inch (good old metric!) which will advise you on which stitch length to use for your project and you should be able to set your machine accordingly. As you become familiar with different fabric types and different seam types, you will also be able to adjust your stitch length to ensure the best finish for your projects, no puckering or visible stitches here thanks!
One helpful beginner's consideration for stitch length is the thickness of your fabric. As a general rule, thicker fabrics require a longer stitch while lightweight fabrics a shorter stitch. This also applies to sewing multiple layers of fabric, in one seam you may need to increase the stitch length to enable your machine to neatly sew over layers while going back to the shorter stitch for fewer layers.
It is good to build your confidence in using the various features of your machine. Stitch length can easily be changed by your machine's dial and the change clearly seen in your 'stitches' on paper.
For the same straight stitch exercise:
Sew each line with a different stitch length, hold up to the light to see the change, write the stitch length on your sheet
With a tape measure count how many stitches per inch, or centimetre, your machine sews at each setting, write this on your sheet
Start a line with a short stitch, stop sewing, change to a longer stitch midway
File your sheets away as references and to remind yourself how far you have come
What is a Seam Allowance?
When sewing a line or curve in dressmaking it will be most likely you are sewing a seam. Sewing a perfect seam is one of the fundamental processes in dressmaking or any sewing craft. By now, with all your practice, you will be able to sew beautifully straight lines and fabulously smooth curves. The position of these lines and curves gives your garment its shape and silhouette. The seam allowance (SA) is the space between these stitched lines and the edge of the fabric itself, your cutting line.
Most commercial dressmaking patterns have a seam allowance included, with a standard seam allowance of 1.5cm (5/8 inch). This can reduce to 0.5cm (1/4 inch) on collars and necklines, and may also end up being trimmed to reduce bulk.
However! A seam allowance can be anything you like! You can set it. You obviously do not want to waste fabric, but there can be advantages of a larger seam allowance for beginners as when fitting garments, a more generous allowance of 2-3cms, will give you more room for cutting and fitting mishaps.
Your fabric can also impact your seam allowance. A fabric that readily frays may be easier worked with a larger seam allowance, to allow for fraying and to provide enough fabric to finish the seam edges, possibly with binding or turning under and stitching.
Your seam allowance is totally within your control. It does not impact your sewing line, but can give you more flexibility, if needed, when you start out. If you have challenges cutting accurately for example, it is better to cut your pattern pieces slightly larger than cut into your seam allowance, ensuring your seam line does not change and is well marked on your fabric. Remember, a large seam allowance can always be trimmed back!
What is a Sewing Sample Library?
At the Dressmaker’s Apprentice, we believe that making your own sewing sample library is the best way for you to both learn and improve your sewing techniques.
As a fashion student way back in the ’90s, part of our degree course was weekly lessons where we worked purely on sewing processes and sewing our reference samples. From patch pockets to zip flies, piped seams to welt pockets, every technique you can imagine, we practiced and practiced, saving our attempts in our own personal sample reference libraries. I still have mine and still refer to it!
This approach is invaluable when it comes to dressmaking and design. You do not want your creativity or confidence to be limited by fear of a process. Too often I see creative people who would love to make a certain garment, stopped in their tracks because they are terrified by the thought of sewing a zip!
By learning and perfecting each process on its own, as you are doing here with your sewing, your dressmaking will have no limits! By practicing each technique, traditionally on calico, which we provide, the fear of destroying the beautiful fabric you have been saving, simply disappears. As your knowledge grows, you can apply the different techniques you have perfected to your dressmaking projects. The fear will disappear! You only need to work through a lesson one time to then be able to apply it to all your future projects, what could be better than that?!
At the Dressmaker’s Apprentice we prefer to think and aspire to haute couture, beautifully finished garments based on years of sewing tradition, rather than fast fashion and factory machine finish. These are all sewing processes any home dressmaker can learn. By learning a variety of sewing processes rather than relying on expensive machinery and gimmicks, you will be able to sew wonderful garments, elevating simple tops and dresses simply by their construction and finish. By practicing and building your own sewing reference library, you will lift your skills from self-taught home dressmaker to professional level and beyond.
What Are You Going to Learn Next?
There is a wonderful world of sewing tradition to learn from and dip into. What are you going to treat yourself to next! We have a range of exciting lessons for you to choose from including:
Basic Seam Finishes
Intermediate Seam Finishes
Couture Seam Finishes
Zips – centred and lapped
Zips – concealed and decorative
Visit us at www.thedressmakersapprentice.com to see our current and upcoming, lesson packs in sewing and pattern drafting.
Follow us on Instagram and Pinterest for lots of sewing and design inspiration.
Even better, share your sewing practices and your own sewing sample reference libraries on our Facebook page or at #thedressmakersaprentice.
We would love to see your work, from wobbly lines to straight lines and beautiful curves. This is just the start of your journey, excited to see where you finish!
How The Dressmaker’s Apprentice Works
We at the Dressmaker’s Apprentice want nothing more than to remove your sewing frustrations and to share our expertise and love of sewing with you. To achieve this, we have carefully crafted sewing and pattern drafting lessons with everything you need for success, delivered directly to your door.
Want to learn how to insert a zip, or how to finish a seam beautifully. Unsure of how to move a dart or the best ways to mark different fabric types. Simply select the sewing process you wish to learn and have a complete lesson sent to you. Want to learn it all? No problem, each lesson builds on the next, in the same way the traditions of sewing have been taught for years.
What makes us unique, is our approach in helping you to build your own sample library and as part of this we provide you with an already worked sample of each process in your lesson! No more trying to see what is going on in a YouTube video or trying to understand a drawing in a pattern instruction. You will have a sample in your hand which you can look at from every angle and see exactly what it is you are working towards.
It’s a sewing lesson, but not as you know it!