Beginner Sewing Tips: How to Successfully Sew Your First Shirt or Dress

September 11, 2019Sarah Khandjian

Sew your first shirt or dress!

Last week I talked all about what tools and supplies are required for sewing your own clothes (in case you missed it, I’d definitely recommend checking it out). And today is all about my favorite tips and tricks for successfully sewing your first shirt or dress. I’ve partnered with Fiskars, one of my lifelong favorite DIY brands, to share some of the key skills I’ve picked up throughout my sewing journey with you today.

Whether you’ve always wanted to sew your own clothes but were too scared to or have made an attempt but didn’t love the results, keep reading! I hope that this post encourages you to give garment sewing a try. Perhaps it will spark a little joy for you and kickstart your own sewing journey.

Stock Up on the Essentials

As I mentioned in last weeks post, investing in a few supplies is key! Some of my go-to items include those from the Sewing Essentials Kit. Before jumping into sewing your first pattern, make sure you have gathered all your supplies including thread that matches your fabric!

Take Your Measurements

Our bodies are constantly changing so it’s best to measure yourself frequently, especially before selecting a specific pattern size to make. I use a measuring tape (part of the Sewing Essentials Kit) to measure the fullest part of my bust, my natural waist (found easiest when you bend to the side), and the fullest part of my hips. It’s best to do this in your underwear or while you’re wearing yoga tights. Sizing can vary significantly between different pattern brands so you always want to select your size based on your actual measurements. Since I’m pear shaped, I often am one size smaller on top. But the amazing thing about sewing your own clothes is that you get to make a garment that actually fits your exact body type.

If you also fall between sizes, I recommend checking out videos on “grading between pattern sizes” to learn more about this.

Choose a pattern

My favorite pattern designers are indie pattern designers. Not only are they constantly releasing on-trend styles but many included wonderful step-by-step directions with each pattern. Some of my favorite include Tilly and the Buttons, Made by Rae, Sew Liberated, Megan Nielsen, Deer & Doe, Grainline Studio, Hey June Handmade, and Helen’s Closet.

All the clothing you see in this post was made from a single pattern! I used the Stevie Tunic pattern from Tilly and the Buttons. It’s a wonderful, beginner pattern that is lovely when made as-is but it’s also a blank canvas open for hacking to your hearts desire. For the gold top, I sewed it as-is. For the blush top, I cut off the bodice (top) pattern at the waist notch and added a gathered “skirt” to create a peplum-style top. I did the same thing for the dress, adding a gathered skirt that was 1.5x my hip measurements and replacing the cuffed sleeves with short gathered sleeves.

Print and Assemble the Pattern

Many patterns are available pre-printed. Just order them online and they will mail you a fancy little envelope with a printed pattern that includes the full size range. But if you’re terribly impatient like me and also want to save a couple bucks, I always opt to purchased the digital pattern. What this means if you receive a PDF that contains the pattern and the sewing instructions. Many include a copy shop file and a print-at-home file. If you choose to print you pattern at home, as I always do since I have a printer, here are a few tips.

Make sure your printer is set to print at 100%. Printing at a larger (or smaller) scale will produce iffy results. I recommend doing a test print and only printing the first page of the pattern. Then use your ruler to measure the test square on the page. Double check that this is the same exact measurements as shown. Often it’s a 2″ x 2″ square or something like that.

Trim the bottom and right side of each page. Use a paper trimmer to trim the margin off the bottom and right side of every single pattern page. This can be a little monotonous but just put on a podcast and trim away. It’s a key step that makes assembling the pattern much easier.

Once all the pages are trimmed, use clear tape to tape them together, matching the letters/numbers on each side.Once you do this for your first pattern, you’ll get intro the flow of doing this. But honestly, prepping everything to sew often takes more time than actually sewing your garment!

Cutout the Pattern

Each size on a pattern is identified using a specific series of dots and dashes. This can vary between patterns so it’s best to reference the key on each pattern before cutting. I like to use a highlighter to trace over my size on the pattern so I don’t accidentally cut the incorrect size.

Use your orange handled-scissors (the pair you only use for cutting paper) to cut out the pattern. You might not need every single pattern piece for the garment you’re making. If you’re skipping the front patch pocket, you don’t need to cut out that piece. Also if you’re making a top rather than a dress, you can cut along the lines that indicate where to cut the bottom bodice for the shirt length.

Get Fabric

If you’re unsure about what type of fabric to buy, check out the list of suggested fabric types on the pattern you’re going to use. This is a great place to start! Most fabric comes in 2 widths, 45″ and 60″. Often the patterned cotton fabric you find a quilt shop is 45″ wide and apparel fabric is 60″ wide. I prefer using wider fabric because it often means less yardage is required for the project. For your first sewing project, I recommend avoiding fabrics that are very slippery like 100% rayon. For the color blocked dress, I used 100% cotton sateen from Nerida Hansen (which unfortunately is no longer available) and for both tops I used mora slub, a 70% rayon, 30% linen fabric from Stone Mountain & Daughter Fabrics.

Wash and Dry It

This step cannot be skipped! You’ll want to wash and dry your fabric before cutting or sewing it. The reason? Fabric can shrink in the washer/dryer and sewing is an investment. You don’t want your garment to be unwearable after the first washing so this step is so integral to the sewing process. You’ll want to launder your fabric however you plan on washing the finished top/dress. For me, that’s washing it cold and tumble drying it on low. I also always pay attention to the washing label on the fabric. The mora slub used for both tops recommend air drying it so that’s what I did. But that also means I’ll have to air dry my finished shirts too. Once washed and dried, use an iron to smooth out any wrinkles and press the ends and sides.

Trace the pattern

Once you’ve cut out your paper pattern, then you’ll want to lay out your fabric according to the directions. Often this is with right, or outside, sides together and with the selvedges aligned. The selvedge is simply finished sides of the fabric that don’t unravel or fray. You can place the fabric on a large table (like your dining room table) or the floor, as I often do. Then place the pattern on top of the fabric. Most patterns include a layout guide that illustrate the best way to arrange all the pattern pieces.

Use pattern weights, metal washers, or anything heavy to hold your pattern in place. I use these painted ceramic terrazzo ornaments I made last holiday season. They make wonderful pattern weights! Then use chalk to carefully trace along the edges of the pattern. You’ll also want to mark all the notches, the tiny perpendicular lines that appear somewhat sporadically around the pattern. These will be helpful for lining up pieces as you sew. I like to trace my pattern with chalk and then mark all the notices with a water-soluble pen as I find the pen a little more accurate for marking tiny details.

Cut out the fabric

Use your orange handled-scissors that you use for fabric to cut out the fabric along the lines you just drew. A sewing instructor once told me to always cut your fabric with the palm of your hand facing towards the inside of the pattern piece. This seemingly unimportant tip actually helps get the most accurate cut since your hand isn’t blocking the chalk markings. After cutting along the outlines, be sure to carefully snip along the notches too.

Start Sewing!

Now it’s time to start sewing your top or dress! Before sewing the first step, I like to take a scrap piece of fabric (the same fabric as your dress or shirt) and run it through your sewing machine to sew a row of test stitches. If everything looks good, then start with the first step. Take your time, and reference the step-by-step photos when completing each step.

Iron and Pressing Seams

Throughout the pattern, you will notice the instructions state to press seams pretty frequently. This step seems superfluous but it’s really necessary. Pressing seams will not only help the fabric regain its shape after stitching, it will also produce a more professional looking garment. Be sure to set your iron to the appropriate setting for the fabric you’re using (rayon, cotton, linen, etc.).

Use your seam gauge

Usually at the beginning to a pattern, it will state what the seam allowance is. This is simply how away from the edge of the fabric you will sew. It’s 5/8″ for most garments, but sometimes it will change depending on the step. Just take note of when this changes and keep your seam gauge handy while sewing to double-check it.

I like to place a piece of washi tape directly on my sewing machine to mark the seam allowance. It makes a great guide when sewing and helps keep your stitches nice and straight.

Finishing Seams

Woven fabrics, like the ones used for this pattern, will fray if the cut edges aren’t “finished.” If you look at the inside of a garment you bought from a store, you will notice that the side seams have stitching almost to the edge. That was likely sewn with a serger, a secondary sewing machine that trims fabric while it finishes the edges. Sergers are wonderful (I use one now) but they are absolutely not necessary when starting out. In fact, they are such a pain to thread that I don’t recommend using one just yet. Rather, there are a few ways to finish seams with a regular sewing machine. You can use a wide zig-zag stitch along the raw edges of fabric to prevent it from fraying. Some sewing machines also have an overlock stitch that uses an overlock foot. If yours does this, give it a try on some scrap fabric to practice sewing this stitch before using it on your garment.

Interfacing Tips

This pattern, and most garments, require the use of fusible interfacing. This helps reinforce the structure of the garment and help things like facings lie flat. Often pattern pieces will say “cut 1 on interfacing, cut 1 on fabric”. Rather than cutting them out separately, I like to fuse, or iron, the interfacing to the wrong side of the fabric, trace the pattern, and then cut it out together. Interfacing can move around and be tricky to cut out, plus doing it all in one step ensures both pieces will be the exact same size.

I finished the back of all three garments the same way, creating a little loop out of fabric and hand sewing a button to the opposite side. The pattern recommends using a small hair tie for this method and I think that’s absolutely genius! Sewing tiny loops like I did can be tricky (it took me 30 min. to turn it right side out) so I’d go the hair elastic method on your first shot too. You can also sew long ties to create a pretty tied closure too—both options are included in the pattern.

Whew, this was a long one! If you made it through this far, I hope you found this post informative and inspiring! I hope I’ve convinced you to give sewing your own clothes a try and I cannot wait to see what lovely things you create!

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