Getting Started: Making Your Own Clothes

From time to time I get e-mails from readers who are interested in learning how to make their own clothing. Those who get in touch are usually looking for a starting place or advice on which sewing machine they should buy. Since TaylorTailor is three years old this month, I thought I would try to share my thoughts on the topic. This is mainly intended for those who have never sewn anything before and is in no way comprehensive. You might be disappointed if you are looking for technical advice or a step-by-step guide; buy this model of sewing machine, buy this special book, turn to page 9, and BOOM, you will have a pair of jeans. Instead, what follows are basically the steps I went through to get started. Hopefully it is helpful to others who might be thinking about learning how to sew.

I am in no way an expert, or have any formal training with pattern making or sewing. While I do have an amazingly helpful mentor/teacher here in Nashville, I’ve learned quite a bit on my own as well as from other blogs and websites. I may not do things the way a professional pattern maker or commercial sewing factory would do them, but I do what works for me with the knowledge and equipment I have on hand.fabric_stack

My first bit of advice is that you CAN do this. Don’t let lack of knowledge stop you from trying something new. I had no idea what a bobbin is or what seam allowances are when I started. With that said, making a piece of clothing that looks like it came from a store, that you are proud to wear in public, is hard work. Don’t expect to complete a shirt in a Saturday afternoon or quickly throw together a pair of jeans. This stuff takes time, lots of it, especially if you’ve never sewn before. I don’t mean that last part as discouragement. If your expectations are aligned properly going in, you won’t be disappointed when you’ve spent several weeks on the same project and it still isn’t finished. Take your time, learn as you go, and enjoy the process however long it may be.

  1. First, decide what types of garments/accessories you want to make, and try to gauge how committed you are going to be to learning something new. This will have an effect on how much you budget for your first sewing machine and which type of machine you decide to buy.

  2. Get a sewing machine. Choosing the right machine really comes down to budget, personal preferences, and in some cases, the types of things you want to make. Here are the machines I use. I can’t make a specific recommendation for a machine that will work for every beginner, especially if I’ve never used it myself. Sewing machines generally fall into two categories, those made for “domestic” or “household” use, and industrial sewing machines.

  • Pros of household/domestic sewing machines: portable, take up little space, most can do a variety of stitch types, they are versatile.
  • Cons of household/domestic sewing machines: lack power and speed, not ideal for really heavy materials, they can be less durable, although I’m sure a good household machine that is properly cared for can last quite a few years.
  • Pros of industrial sewing machines: powerful, retain power even at low speeds, ability to sew very fast, heavy duty (note: this doesn’t mean that they can all sew heavy duty materials. Depending on the machine, they can be set up for light or heavy work), made to do one task (such as a straight lockstitch) and do it really well.
  • Cons of industrial sewing machines: uni-taskers – generally they can only do one type of stitch, need different machines to do different types of stitches (straight, zig zag, bar tack, etc.) not portable, weigh a lot, need dedicated place to put them.

I’ve never had any problems with my industrial machine. The thing just works, and it works every time I turn it on. No fuss, no babying it, no mechanical issues. All other things being equal, if you have the space and the budget (a simple industrial can be cheaper than a complicated domestic) I would recommend an industrial sewing machine. Again, this is a personal preference, and after researching machines you might come to a different conclusion.

  1. Learn how to use your machine. If you don’t have a friend or relative to show you the basics, I would suggest checking out a local fabric/sewing supply store. If they don’t offer classes for beginners, they are likely to know someone who offers private lessons who can get you started. Once you know a few basic things like how to adjust the thread tension, how to wind a bobbin, how to back tack, and how to change a needle, you are ready to start with your first project.
  2. Keep it simple for your first couple of projects. I wanted to start with a three piece suit when I first got interested in sewing. My wife talked me down and convinced me to start with an apron. I’m glad she did. I’ve been sewing for three years and I’m still not ready to tackle something like a mens suit. There are lots of commercial patterns available for beginners. With these simple projects you will develop your sewing skills, continue to learn the quirks of your machine, and get a feel for what you like and don’t like to sew.

  3. After “suffering” though a few aprons or pairs of pajamas, choose a project that is a little more complicated, something that might eventually turn into a piece of clothing you wear in public. For me, this was a pair of jeans. You might find a commercial pattern for this project, or you might want to make your own pattern. Besides having a genuine interest in learning how to design and make my own patterns, I also decided to do so out of necessity. The commercial pattern business really seems to focus a lot more on women’s clothing, which makes sense given that most of their customers are women. But, for a guy who is interested in making his own clothes this left me with few options for patterns, and I’m extremely picky in terms of fit and style. The book I use to make patterns can be found here.

  4. Once you’ve decided on a project and have a pattern in hand, make a test garment, or two, or three. For every new pattern I draft, I make at least two or three test garments out of cheap practice muslin before cutting into nice fabric. With each test garment, I make adjustments to the pattern and modify the fit as needed. There is no sense in ruining a nice piece of fabric with a pattern that doesn’t fit the way you want it to.

As far as learning construction techniques goes, there are TONS of sewing books on the market. Here are the two that I use the most often for shirts and pants: David Coffin- Shirtmaking, David Coffin- Making Trousers for Men and Women. Another great way to learn construction techniques and some pattern making is to inspect store bought clothing. You can learn a lot by turning clothes inside out and inspecting seams, pockets, etc. Then there is good old fashion experience. The more you sew, the more you learn, the more the construction part will become intuitive.

tools

Here are the tools I use the most often:

  • Iron/Ironing board- If you are just starting out, the iron/ironing board you currently have is probably fine. At some point though, you will want to invest in a decent quality iron and a nice ironing board. For many projects, you will spend more time pressing than at your sewing machine.
  • Chalk wheels(s)- For marking positions on fabric.
  • Seam ripper- This will be your best friend when you make a mistake.
  • Point turner- Not always essential, but can be helpful turning various kinds of points.
  • Rulers/curves- For pattern drafting and measuring during construction.
  • Tracing paper- For pattern drafting and modification.
  • Pattern weights- I like to use large round washers.
  • Rotary cutter and cutting mat- When used with pattern weights, the best way to cut fabric in my opinion.
  • Shears/scissors- for trimming seam allowances and other cuts, have a pair for fabric only, no paper, cardboard, or other materials which dull the blades quicker.
  • Flexible tape measure- Great for making fit adjustments.
  • Pins- To temporarily hold fabric pieces together before sewing. Pins tend to distort fabric, so use them sparingly and only when absolutely necessary.

With the beginning of a new year approaching, this might be the perfect time to start a new hobby and learn how to make your own clothing. As always, feel free to get in touch if I can help in any way.

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