Learning to Sew

By Kate Riley November 10, 2010

I grew up watching my mom and my aunts sew clothing, pillows, and curtains for their homes.  There were no blogs to showcase their work, just their fellow community where they shared their tips and advice.  It was the late seventies, times were tough, money was tight, and the economy was in the you know what.  Ladies all across the nation were trading patterns and ideas, and sewing up a frenzy of home decor on a budget.  Sounds kinda familiar doesn’t it?

The very best way to soften a space, to add texture, pattern and personality, is with the use of great fabrics, so I believe one of the best tools for an avid DIYer is a basic sewing machine. You’ll find plenty of tutorials online for ‘no sew’ decor, and they are fantastic, in fact I’ve done several myself.  There are lots of times when fusible web, fabric glue, or safety pins have come to my rescue with a simple hem or a window treatment.  Yay for those solutions!  Yet one thing I’ve learned is that having the ability to work a sewing machine opens up an entirely new world.

Do you ever see a swatch of fabric, be it in the form of a dress, an apron, a napkin, a silk scarf, and you think to yourself, "This would make a great pillow!" or you find a great fabric and think "I want to make curtains out of this."  It happens to me all the time!  You can design an entire space around a single swatch of fabric that inspires, be it a damask, geometric, Ikat or simple stripe pattern, whatever speaks to you.  I am constantly inspired by patterns I find beyond the racks in fabric stores, and I’m a big believer in reinventing them into new things.

For example, take these inexpensive napkins I found in a local kitchen store.  Beautiful robins egg blue background with an apple green botanical pattern.  Love!  In fact, I loved them so much, I turned them into a pillow!


napkin turned pillow  

We all know custom window panels and designer pillows can cost a small fortune.  Years ago, after gathering a few quotes, there came a moment when I just wanted the ability make a simple pillows for myself out of some favorite fabrics, but didn’t want to pay someone to have them made.  So I did some research online, and I bought a basic Singer sewing machine for around $125 bucks.

My Mom didn’t teach me to sew (I wasn’t interested when I was young).  I taught myself by reading the manual and following directions.  I learned how to thread the machine and to sew a straight stitch.  Most recently, I’ve mastered piping and zippers, all with some online tutorials, a lot of patience, and a little gumption.

So many people I converse with via email want the ability to create things for their home, but have never learned how to sew, mostly because they’re afraid it’s too hard.  I’m here to tell you it’s not!   You can do it!  

If you’re ready to get started, here are some encouraging words and a few pointers from my guest, Julie Anne Eason of Serious Sewing.com.


Ten Rules of the Road for Happy Sewing Machines

"A new sewing machine can be your gateway to a whole new world of creativity and thrifty fun. It’s easy to imagine yourself spending long hours blissfully churning out cheap-but-chic fashions for yourself, your family and friends. But sometimes reality steps in and smacks unwary beginners upside the head.  A sewing machine can provide hours of joy if you take the time to learn a few simple rules before you start to sew.

1. Use good thread.  The number one reason people have trouble with a new sewing machine has something to do with thread.  Cheap thread will shred and jam up your machine so if you’re having trouble (especially with the dreaded "birdsnest" of tangled thread under your fabric) just do yourself a favor and switch to a better brand of thread.

2. Use the right needles for your project and change them often.  I know people who think the only time you should change a needle is if it breaks.  Not true. Needles get dull; they get bent; they get nicked; they just plain wear out.  After every ten hours of sewing, you should think about changing your needle.

You also need to use the right needle for the project. There are two types: ball point and sharps.  Ball point needles are designed to sew knits (anything stretchy) and sharps are designed for woven fabrics (non-stretchy.)  There are universal needles which usually work okay for both types of cloth.  If you’re having trouble with skipped stitches or weird seams, ditch the universal for the appropriate type needle.  Also, use the correct size needle for your fabrics as well.  Sewing machine needles are sized differently for lightweight, medium and heavyweight fabrics. Check your machine’s instruction manual for specific recommendations.

3. Read your manual.  Every machine is a little different, so even if you’ve been using your Grandma’s 1940’s Singer for years, your new machine will work a little differently.  It can take a little time to read through the entire manual, but it’s worth the effort. The authors often include priceless tips that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.

4. When in doubt, rethread.  It never fails, at the first sign of trouble with a stitch or seam, we all head straight for the tension dials.  Please, for the love of fabric, leave the tension dials alone!  At least at first.  Anytime you run into trouble, your first thought should be "hmm, maybe it’s threaded wrong."   Do yourself a favor and just rethread the machine. About 80% of the time, this will fix whatever is wrong.  The other 20% could be you need a new needle or different thread.

Here’s a bonus tip:  Always, rethread your machine with the presser foot in the UP position.  Otherwise, the thread might get caught by the tension disks and then your machine won’t work.

5. Clean and oil your machine often.  Most sewers don’t clean their machines nearly often enough because they think they have to take it to a sewing machine mechanic and pay $100 or more to get it cleaned.  Go to YouTube or research online for a tutorial.  If you can work a screwdriver, you can clean your machine.

6. Take the time to understand your stitches.  Modern sewing machines come with a huge assortment of stitches (some machines come with thousands built-in.) Some of them are designed for sewing regular fabrics; some are for stretch fabrics; and some are purely decorative embroidery-type stitches.  Using the wrong stitch for the wrong purpose will cause you trouble.

7. Use the correct presser foot for the job.  Depending on your machine, you probably have a regular foot, a zig-zag foot, a button-holer, a walking foot, a zipper foot and a wide variety of others.  These are specially designed to perform unique tasks, so use them appropriately.  Presser feet are very easy to change in and out, usually with just the touch of a button.

8. Try this fancy trick.  To help prevent that snarl you sometimes get at the very beginning of a seam when your fabric edge is too close to the needle, hold the main thread and bobbin thread in your left hand and pull gently for the first few stitches until the jagged parallel lines, or ‘feed dogs’ are completely in control of the fabric.

9.  Keep a pretty jar handy for bent pins and broken needles.    I’ve had one too many times where the needle slammed right into the pin and broke.  It’s always a hassle, so now I just pull the pins out as I sew.

10.  Slow down.  We’re all in a hurry to get a project done, but sometimes you really need to slow down.  When you’re first learning how to sew, when working tricky curves and sharp corners, or when you’re working with thick layers of fabric, you should start on the slowest setting and then speed up as you gain experience, or after gauging how the machine handles the fabric. 

Follow these tips and you’ll spend your sewing hours happily creating project after project instead of fighting with your machine! 

If you’re inspired to purchase a new machine, I recommend new sewers choose quality over the lowest price.  I think the Brother CS6000I is the best model for beginners, you can read my full review here.  Having a machine that runs well means you can save money later by recycling used clothing, mending torn garments and creating pieces that fit you perfectly!"

Julie Anne Eason is an independent web publisher and writer specializing in sewing and craft projects.  You can find her at her blog Serious Sewing.com

Thank you so much Julie for your time, expertise, and recommendations!  Now, here’s how I made that sweet stylish pillow out of napkins found at a local kitchen store.

How To Make a Removable Pillow Cover out of Two Cloth Napkins

1) Cut one of the napkins in half down the middle.  2) Flip both napkins inside out and overlap the hemmed edges of the cut napkin.  3) Stitch overlapped edges together.  4) Sew the perimeter of the napkins edges together (inside out). 4) To prevent fluffier pillows from bulging on the back, sew small Velcro tabs to the edge of the overlap (turn the sewing needle by hand and avoid using the pedal to prevent needle breakage due to thickness. 6) Velcro together for a seamless back.

napkin tutorial


Voila!  A designer look pillow cover fashioned out of napkins!

cg living room pillow


Those of you who sew, tell me, what’s your favorite project you’ve created on a sewing machine?  Those of you who don’t sew, are you inclined to purchase a sewing machine or put one on your Christmas list?  Do tell!


** If you have an area of expertise that is content relevant, that you believe CG readers may appreciate, please feel free to submit your article for consideration after reviewing these guidelines for guest submissions.



  1. thank you so much for posting the pillow tutorial! i was just in pottery barn yesterday and saw a few napkins that were just gorgeous, but as a new sewer, i was too chicken to pick them up and try a project without directions. looks like i’ll be heading back there today and picking them up!

    thanks!!!! :) :) :)

  2. My mum is visiting me from the UK and is in the process of teaching me to sew. We are currently making aprons for my little girls birthday parties. I am hooked and only wish I had taken it up earlier! Thanks for posting these tips! Lx

  3. My mother just asked me last night if I would like her sewing machine.
    You just made me very excited about the fact that I said “yes!”.

  4. The best Christmas present I ever received was a new, amazing sewing machine from my mom. That was last year. I mainly love to create quilts, but also love to sew pillows, curtains, craft projects, embroidered monograms etc etc. I LOVE fabric (an obsession, really). Sewing is such a great skill to learn, and I find it so relaxing and stress relieving. That is beautiful fabric for the pillows you made, Kate! I have a piece of very similar fabric in the same colour scheme awaiting to be sewn up for my youngest daughters room =)

  5. Thank you! This is so inspiring. I have always wanted to sew, simply for the fact that I am always wanting to make new pillows and draperies, but like everyone else I was too nervous. I think you have me convinced. I may have to put a sewing machine on my Christmas list! Saving this post to my computer!!

  6. Oh what a great post! I’d loooooove to learn to sew sometime in the future. Both of my great grandmothers & several great aunts all used to be seamtresses for very wealthy families back in the 50’s & 60’s, I know I have some of that talent in my blood, I just need to tap into it :-)

  7. This is such a helpful post! I grew up in a family where NONE of the women sew…I have been determined since childhood to learn how to sew. I bought my first machine about a year ago, and have been learning as I go. Thanks so much for posting – I had no idea I needed to clean my machine! (oops!)

    Thanks again!!! = )

  8. I love the way you matched the print on the back, Kate!

    My mom sews and made a lot of my clothes as a kid. LOTS of “wrap-around skirts” in bright patterns (the kelly green one with pink alligators comes to mind) and wool skirts in plaid. Oh, the number of times I tried on something in a store and heard my mom say, “I can make that for a fourth of the price. And it looks cheap – they didn’t even match the plaid!” (As if a 12-year-old cares!) She also made me tons of those fabric button-on purse covers that were the rage (at least here in the mid-Atlantic) at the time. (kelly green with a pink alligator dead center and pink buttons, anyone?) Am I the only one?

    You have inspired me. I LOVE fabric but am powerless to do anything with it except call mommy. I’m putting a sewing machine on my Christmas Wish List! (I’m sure said mommy would be thrilled to get me one.) :)

  9. A sewing machine is my #1 request form Santa this year. I find myself not being able to do things around the house because I don’t have one, curtains, pillows, etc.

    My mother-in-law is working on getting me one and she sews so I can learn from her.

  10. One of my resolutions at the start of this year was to learn how to sew. My Mom gave me her sewing machine a little while back and it sat in the corner of my “crafting space” intimidating me most of the time. I come from a long line of sewing women and finally decided that I didn’t want this craft to pass me by. I have spent a lot of time on the machine this past year. I had no idea it would be so fun, although there were times I got so frustrated I thought about throwing it out the window. Hee hee.

    It’s like I’ve built a relationship with this machine. I enjoy playing with it and getting to know all the ends and outs. I am no where close to being a sewing master, but look forward to continuing to learn. Sitting in front of it with the warm light from the tiny bulb, I feel connected to a long line of marvelous women before me.

    So dust off those machines and get to work! You can’t beat the warmth and love of a handmade treasure.

  11. Great idea using napkins! I sew a lot, home dec is my least favourite sewing because if I can’t wear it it’s not as fun to make!

    However your blog is so inspirational that I’m making over my son’s room – which may or may not include some sewing! Anyway to expand on your ‘rethreading’ tip, I also find changing the needle solves a lot of problems – I don’t know why, sometimes even when I’m using a relatively new needle, if I get into problems, changing the needle usually fixes the problem!

    Craigslist is a GREAT resource for durable mechanical machines, which are the workhorse of home dec. For less than $100 bucks you could probably get a machine in a table and get it serviced!

    Also, make friends with fusible tape – applied properly it’s a wonderful thing!

    Thanks for the inspiration, Sue

  12. My mother taught me to sew and I’m eternally grateful. I was the middle child in a struggling family with eight siblings, and an older sister who was much taller and five years older than me, so I didn’t even get hand-me-downs. I sewed my own clothes in order to have any kind of a wardrobe. I no longer sew clothing, but I do sew all kinds of home decor and craft items. My Singer machine is almost 50 years old and still going strong! I also have the wrought-iron base from my mother’s pedal machine which I repurposed as a side table and it reminds me always of my mom, who passed away many years ago.

  13. Kate I am always thinkng the same thing….. pillows are such an easy way to change out your decor!!

    Come and enter my New Giveaway from Empress of the Eye. You will love it!

    Art by Karena

  14. Thanks for all the tips!
    I’ve never cleaned my sewing machine (I got it from my neighbour earlier in the year, and she had just had it serviced) but now I know I can!
    Plus my mom gave me a mini screw driver set; perfect!

  15. I’ve been wanting a sewing machine forever! This just renews my itching! (c: Love the pillow, it turned out perfect!

  16. I’m always a bit shocked to find out how many people haven’t learned how to sew. My mom taught me when I was about 8 years old and almost everyone in 6th grade took Home Ec. I spent a lot of time making outfits for my dolls. I think it’s such a valuable skill to learn. Repairing clothing, hemming jeans, sewing pillows & drapes, costumes, designing my own bedding, creating my own patterns…it’s saved me so much money. Now I’m the mom and my two boys (ages 9 & 5) have already had their first sewing lessons and made little drawstring bags. I want them to grown up & be able to hem their own pants if they want. To this day, I still use my mom’s old Singer and my boys are learning on it, just like I did. My mom passed away several years before they were born, so it makes me feel like I’m at least passing on a little part of her to them.

  17. I’m completely the same . . . my mom and grandma so, but I’m totally intimidated by it. I know I want to, but I think it’ll be another couple of years before I take the plunge!

  18. Love this post! My mother gave me her mother’s sewing machine a few years back, and even spent time during one Christmas visit sewing a duvet cover with me, so that I would feel confident enough sewing on my own. Its been a few years now, and I’ve definitely improved my technique and become confident enough to sew more than just pillow covers. I’ve sewn curtains/drapes, roman shades, dog bed covers, bench seat covers, and now I am getting ready to start my most ambitious project—-custom slipcovers for my new dining room chairs.

    My biggest piece of advice to any non-professional sewer is to purchase a template of sorts—-i.e., a $6 roman shade from Ikea, a $10 chair slipcover from Ikea—to get an idea of how to assemble one on your own.

  19. TIMING IS EVERYTHING!!!! Kate, you couldn’t have written this at a better time. Less than two weeks ago, I told my husband that “all I want for x-mas is a sewing machine.” No, I cannot sew but yes, I can learn. And I know that I’ll be teaching myself to sew – so these tips are perfect!

    Since we’ve begun our FIRST HOME MAKEOVER journey, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I had a sewing machine. I’ve dreamed up so many kick-ass pillows and drapes in my head…and owning a sewing machine will make my dreams a reality.

  20. Hi Kate,

    I’ve recently discovered your blog and have enjoyed reading about your many projects. You are very talented! Thanks so much for posting this sewing information. It is nice to know that you have mastered sewing the things you like after learning to sew as an adult (as opposed to sewing for your whole life). I have long wanted to sew, but feel like it’s too difficult for me. So this post is great inspiration for me to learn soon. So many blogs are so wonderful – I never thought I could build furniture, but thanks to ana-white.com, I’ve already built floating shelves and a coffee table. So perhaps sewing is in my future after all, thanks to your blog!

  21. I needed throw pillows.The ones I like were priced around $75 each.After hours of search I found someone on etsy who is very affordable.

    Only if I had a sewing machine life would be easier.Need to get one soon.

  22. I wish i payed more attention when my mother was teaching me how to sew. Because that pillow looks so cute and i would love to be able to make cool stuff for my home like this.

  23. Great post, I was gifted a old sewing machine, I didn’t know how to use it. For a long period of time I choose to stich by hand. Finally one day I got on youtube, and typed how to thread a sewing machine, and experiment with all the different types of stiches. Now I have upgraded to a newer model, and I use it all the time. Great investment!!!!!

  24. Kate, I was one of the fortunate ones as my mom taught me to sew when I was young. As a matter of fact, I took 4 years of Home Ec in high school and my first major in college was in the Home Economics department. I ended up with a Computer Science degree but my first love is still all things domestic. When I first got out of college, I had no money and needed suits to wear so I made them and could do such a good job that the clothes looked high end with hidden zippers, bound buttonholes and pattern matching. You could find excellent fabric back then and now it is difficult to find really good clothing fabric to sew. Most of my sewing these days is for the house and I have made many pillow covers to swap out in my rooms for seasonal decorating. And I’ve used napkins as well because the fabrics are beautiful! I have a sewing machine and a serger and use both a lot. My mom still has her original black Singer and she just gave me a dress and jacket she made me as a small child and I plan on having it put in a shadow box to preserve it. Thanks for the wonderful post!

    And I’ve made a lot of use of those years of Home Ec because I love to cook, sew, needlepoint, and keep a clean house and have also put my year of shop class to use making frames and doing some small furniture pieces.

  25. Thanks so much for posting this – I need to really learn how to use my machine & this looks like the perfect place to start.

  26. I really loved this post. Thanks so much. I grew up learning how to sew and it’s always been pretty easy for me (except sewing clothes–grrr), but I teach a sewing class once a month to some girls from church and sometimes it’s like pulling teeth trying to convince them that sewing isn’t as hard as they think it is. This was a good read. And it’s good to hear from a self-taught sewer. :)

  27. My patient mother taught me to sew when I was an elementary schooler in 4-H. Needless to say, I loved picking out my pattern and its fabric for my fair project but I hated the actual sewing part. The patterns were too confusing and the minute my mom left me alone I would jame up my bobbin or sew the arms of my jumper to the crotch area.

    Howerver, now I am so thankful that I learned the basics. I have progressed by leaps and bounds in my sewing abilities through my adventures in the blogosphere. I am a very visual learner and the welcoming abundance of excellent web tutorials has helped me create numerous sewing projects within the past few years.

    Now I love to sew for my daughter and for our home. We are on a very limited buget, but I have champagne taste and want to decorate our new home with the best. Sewing has helped me be able to afford the window treatments and accessories I would normally have not been able to purchase. I also love that sewing lets me express my creativity and put my vision into everything I create.

    My favorite project I have sewn lately are some beautiful matelasse fabric roller shades for my daughter’s room. I love them and am amazed I was able to create something that I feel looks extremely professional. Please take a look.

    I truly enjoy your blog and especially loved this post. Thank you!

  28. Great post. I am not a seamstress, but I do know enough to sew my own pillows and curtains, and I have been glad on so many occasions for that knowledge (not to mention the fact that I have saved bundles.)

  29. AWESOME post!!! Both of my grandmothers were excellent seamstresses, but my mom and aunts seem to have let the skills lapse. I wish I’d had someone (with patience!) to teach me.

    I bought a sewing machine about a year and a half ago because I wanted to learn how to do some simple projects for things around the house. I took the “how to thread your machine” hour lesson from the shop that came with the purchase of my machine and played around with it some. A friend helped me with my first big project (a skirt for a table makeover), and I can do some straight lines now. ;)

    My favorite project is probably my drapes made from drop cloths. Easy and cheap!!

    The hardest part of sewing for me is the prep work: measuring, cutting, pressing, and pinning. I love the actual sewing part! ;)

  30. I did not grow up around sewers, and I do not sew. In fact, my hubby is the button sewer in the family! But more and more I wish I could…for the reasons you said…yummy fabric spotted that I can turn into something! I’ve been able to make it work with stitch-witchery so far…table runners, drapes, and even a poorly executed pillow. My main problem with a sewing machine would be where to set it up and use it!!??

  31. Sewing is my “thang” along with doing all things housy. When my 2nd baby girl came home from Guatemala I quickly realized that I couldn’t afford to dress them in all those boutiquey outfits, SO I taught myself to sew. I started with a little machine from Walmart but have now moved on to a Babylock Ellure… I LOVE it…. I do splurge on designer fabrics, but my girls look like no one else. I also feel such pride when people comment on their clothes… I think sewing is an art, and it’s one of my favorite outlets for creativity.

  32. Wonderful post! As a 50 year old who has been sewing since I was 6, I want to encourage all of you younger ladies to learn to sew. Over my lifetime, I have saved a ton of money of window treatments and pillows alone not to mention my children’s little outfits, flower girl dresses, etc, when they were young. One time, many years ago, I made 8 outfits for my family for a luau in Hawaii! I’m now on my second sewing machine in 30 years and I just get the cheaper models. They last a long time and are worth every dime.

  33. It is like you are in my head. I am just now learning to sew and a sewing machine is definitely on my Christmas list this year. I get so excited going into fabric stores and thinking about what I am going to make for our home. :-)

  34. Thank you! I am can sew a straight line, and have managed some duvets, etc., but I really want to be able to sew clothing. I think tip number 10 (slow down), and reading that you actually broke out the manual and watched some online tutorials is inspirational!

  35. Great article and in such a timely manner for me! I’ve wanted to sew for years, and finally got a machine for my birthday 2 years ago and haven’t sewn a thing out of fear that it would be too hard, or that “i don’t have time to learn”. My days are pretty full between my little guy with autism and a 5mth old baby, but i have vowed that this holiday season I NEED a little break once a week away from the kids to relax and do some crafting and sewing! I may have to hire a sitter to get this break since my hubby works 70+hours a week but i’m gonna get it!!!

  36. This couldn’t have come at a better time. My mom owned an interior design company and has been sewing all her adult life. But I never had any interest until recently. She got me my first sewing machine for my birthday last month and I’m signed up for some basic sewing lessons in December. Woo-hoo! I can’t wait! It will also be some great mother-daughter bonding time to sew together.

  37. Please, please, please do NOT buy a new “cheap” sewing machine (I believe any new machine that is less than $200 is probably not worth your while). Take it from someone who has been sewing for 45 years. You will be so much happier with an older machine that has been refurbished. Ask for used sewing machines at a sewing machine dealership; they will have been cleaned, repaired, and usually have a warranty. Dpn’t buy from Craigslist or Ebay unless you have someone with you who can check out the machine.

    The sewing machines that are being targeted for new sewists are poorly made and poorly designed. They will not stand up to continued use and often have problems that lead to a new sewist hating to sew. You will not enjoy the process if you don’t have adequate equipment.

  38. Beautiful pillow Kate! You have motivated me to take my sewing machine out of the box… never used bc I was too afraid to make a mistake. Will try to make something this week!

    Oh… having a great giveaway on the ol blog too!


  39. I got a sewing machine 2 years ago for a b-day present but still don’t know how to use it. I really want to take classes so that I can actually use the darn thing and make some sweet projects like yours!

  40. Oh, man…. I keep saying I am going to get my sewing machine out and put together a few projects. Thank you for the inspiration to drag it out of the closet and read the instructions again. Going to do that this evening when everything quiets down. I used to sew with my grandmother when I was young– aprons, small baby quilts and a few simple dresses. Oh, those were fun times marking the fabric with the patterns, cutting out the fabric and seeing our creations come alive.

    The fabric in the closet is calling me to re-cover some pillows and finally make some curtains for the laundry room. Thanks for the excitement!!

  41. Beautiful pillows! I taught myself to sew three years ago and have had the most wonderful adventures with my sewing machine!

    I’m not sure what my most favorite project has been… perhaps a quilt for my daughter’s room made entirely with scraps. It is so colorful.

    I actually just posted a really easy pillow cover project on my blog using men’s dress shirts to make pillow covers. It’s a super easy project and a great way to repurpose shirts that would otherwise end up in the trash. http://smallestsparrow.blogspot.com/2010/11/free-tutorial-dads-shirt-pillow.html

    Love your blog!

  42. Thanks for the tips. This helps for even the seasoned sewer. I’ve been sewing for 20 years plus and still go for the tension when something is wrong. You are right, it usually needs to be re-threaded.

  43. Thank you so much for this post! I have been wanting to sew for such a long time and just never had the courage to learn, reading your post and learning that you taught your self makes me want to purchase a sewing machine and really give a try! Thanks for the inspiration:)

  44. My stepmom did upholstery when I was a kid (like 11-18 years old). She recovered box pillows and redid car interiors and boats and all kinds of things. I don’t think she enjoyed it much because she doesn’t do it anymore, but OH how I wish I had asked her to teach me. I’m not sure if she would have or not because she always seemed to be in a rush, but I would have loved to learn. Even then, I think I would have loved it.

  45. Thanks for this article… hoping it might be just the “kick in the pants” I need to learn to sew. Also appreciative of the machine reco from Julie. As always, love, love your blog!

  46. Thank you so much for this timely post! I just felted some vintage sweaters that I want to turn into pillow covers; now I know I need to use a different type of needle to sew them :)

  47. I need to find the gumption and learn to sew. I have been looking around at different machines. Maybe Santa will bring me one!

  48. My favorite sewing projects include a dress I made for myself,(that the hubby got me the fabric for valentine’s day:) and some curtains I made for my daughters’ room. I’m not the best seamstress but people thought I had bought them!

  49. What a great post. I am self taught on the sewing machine and have always just figured things out. The tips you gave are great and I am going to use many of them. My first sewing machine was given to me by a family friend. They were moving and were not taking their Singer sewing machine with them. I learned on that old machine. A few years ago my husband bought me a brand new machine which has made sewing just so much easier. I love making pillows. They are so simple but can completely transform a space. I have used napkins to make pillows as well. I also have used some of my kids clothing that no longer fits them to make crafts. Sewing something always makes me happy. Thanks again for your amazing post.

  50. My mother went to a small very rural high school and a lot of her studies revolved around home life so she’s sewed for most of her life and of course she passed that on to me. My mother was always sewing something was I was younger and I wanted to be just like her. I love to sew I just don’t always have the time! One of my favorite pieces I’ve sewn was a Princess Peach costume last year, I got so many compliments and felt awesome in my own creation. Thanks for sharing these tips, I’m sure I’ll look back on a few!

  51. I love sewing. My grandma taught me when I was little, but I’m quite rusty now! Your pillow turned out so cute! That fabric is wonderful. Great tutorial, Kate!

  52. I am from the generation that took sewing in school. I loved it so much I went on to sew most of my clothes for many years . Many of us sewers were distressed in the 90s because it looked like sewing was going to disappear but thanks to women and men in their 20s and 30s it has been brought back to life. A big thanks to all of those who are taking up a wonderfully rewarding, useful, and just plain fun hobby. Now, taking a break from the working world, I have the time to sew to make a few bucks here and there, to improve my home, and make some nice gifts for friends and family. We all benefit from people taking up the craft – better fabrics and supplies, patterns, etc – so I say the more the merrier! Just remember, like anything, it takes a long time and many, many, many projects to learn the craft well, but what a fun journey it is. You’ll rip out miles of seams, put aside projects midstream never to pick them up again but it’s worth it. Enjoy.

  53. Okay I am now very inclined to ask for (or maybe even treat myself to) a sewing machine! I’ve wanted to learn for years, have said to myself several times “If only I could sew that myself”, and even worked in a fabric store to help pay my way through college (where I drooled over fabrics and imagined myself madly sewing beautiful creations – for a home I didn’t even own yet!). This was the perfect kick in the pants to get me going!! p.s. LOVE those pillows!!

  54. I have always seen fabric or pillows in various stores and wanted to make my own but never thought I could. I always thought “it was too hard” to sew but I am totally inspired now to give it a try. I might ask Santa for a sewing machine this year. Thanks for the amazing post and confidence booster.

  55. I learned to sew on my mothers old Kenmore. It was noisy and only had a few stitch’s to pick from. It really was all I needed. I later upgraded and now have a computerized brother and although it is much quieter and has a huge array of stitches I still miss that Kenmore. It represented the sewer that I became.

  56. Thanks for sharing how you made that pillow cover. It’s brilliant! I want to go out and find some pretty cloth napkins!

  57. I watched my grandmother growing up, but never really learned. The best thing I did for myself was to sign up at a local fabric store and take a basic class with a girlfriend. It got me started. I’ve been able to create many things with a simple straight stick. My favorite would be the throw quilts I made for both of my daughters when they were younger.

  58. Hi Kate-

    I never learned to sew as a kid either, but my MIL gave me her mother’s 50’s era Singer. I read the manual and now I would never ever give up this machine. It is a gem and has helped me decorate every room in my house. I tried to make clothes a few times – all flops. I stick to home decor.
    My best- Diane

  59. The best project I sewed was my wedding dress. I designed it myself. I enjoyed using a gorgeous lace from Italy that 19 years ago was $200/yard!

    I started sewing when I was 4, sewing buttons onto anything and everything. I progressed to draping fabric on my Barbie dolls and sewing outfits. Then my mom taught me how to use the sewing machine when I was 10 (she was a sewer extrodinaire). In high school I took tailoring and design. After university while pregnant with my first I took non credit courses at a fashion design school. I have sewn everything, 15 flower girl dresses for both sister and SIL’s weddings, fitted slipcovers, pillows, baby clothes, cloth diapers, Barbie/doll clothes for my girls, lined pinch pleat drapes, the list can go on!

    I love going to fabric stores, there is something so inspiring in the pattern and texture of fabric. I love it. My hubby bought me a Kennore sewing machine as a wedding gift, it has served me well. I always tell my friends if you can follow directions and sew a straight line you can sew!

    Thanks for this post, nice to see there are “others” out there as well

  60. Such a great and informative post! I have just one thing to add, the iron is a sewer’s best friend. don’t skip ironing your fabric or ironing down your seams! It will make the actual sewing so much easier! Every time I rush and skip this step I regret it!

  61. I think I am the winner here in terms of longevity. I have been sewing since I was 11, fifty three years. I know how to tailor, make my own clothes, etc. etc. Even though I knew what I was doing, I would run into trouble. My pillows wouldn’t be square, I would get a complete mess underneath when I started to sew. I think my machines didn’t have enough pressure on the pressure foot, and sometimes the tensions weren’t right. ALL THAT CHANGED when I started sewing on a Bernina. It was a miracle. You become a much better sewer with a Bernina. It’s like BUTTA. Anyway, I bought one, then got a serger with a rolled edge feature and another Bernina, and a Bernina serger. I have made thousands of napkins for myself and to sell for charity, besides all sorts of other things. If you are going to buy a machine, do not get a cheap one. The beginning Bernina is $500-600. It is not computerized. You don’t need a computer unless you are going into the little kids embroidery business. If you are buying one secondhand, make the person sit down and sew a few seams, Inspect the work, top and bottom. It should be perfect. If not, you need a tune up which could cost $75 and up. If you can find one, look in a vacuum, sewing machine repair shop. They usually have lots of machines for resale and can steer you to a good one. It really pays to take a course. You will learn so much, you won’t believe it. It also helps in the stress department.
    Supplies: Always buy good pins. Do not use the ones that come on the shirts you buy. Those are nails. Buy decent scissors and hide them from your family. Do not cut paper with your scissors. Buy good fabric. You will spend a lot of time sewing. It is not worth it to sew on cheap fabric. Get out your iron. Everything is easier if you iron. Take your time. I have made every mistake in the book because I was trying to hurry and take short cuts. Don’t be a fabric whore. Buy something and make something. Don’t have a huge stash of fabric. That will annoy your family and make you feel guilty. Enjoy. If you learn to sew, it will give you a lifetime of satisfaction.
    It is a token of healthy and gentle characteristics when women of high thoughts and accomplishments love to sew; especially as they are never more at home with their own hearts than while so occupied. Nathaniel Hawthorne The Marble Faun

  62. I treasure the fact that my Mum taught me to sew from an early age – and now I am teaching my eldest daughter to sew as well. I was so proud of her last week when she finished her first hand sewn effort.

    I asked my Husband for a sewing machine for my birthday the first year we were married, and that little basic Janome has paid for itself many times over. Like most newly married couples we had little money and lots of hand-me-down furniture and not much else – I made curtains and bedcovers, cushion covers and tableclothes for our first home together and then when our two little darlings came along I made cute little dresses, burp clothes, bibs, quilts, toys and play rugs! Yesterday I was looking at some photos’ of my eldest at Kindy and thought – “what a pretty dress that was” – only to remember it was one of the many I made for her at that age.

    Working full time I don’t always have the time to make all the things I would like to, but recently I have pulled my machine out to work on several projects, and I am enjoying it so much!

  63. Your post today gave me just the encouragement I need to go out and get a sewing machine, Kate! I have been going around and around for while on whether or not I could learn to sew. I have been drooling over fabrics and have so many ideas in my head but needed a push to just go for it. So, thank you for your post today! Now I just need to figure out what basic sewing machine to buy. I don’t want a super fancy one. Your pillows are beautiful – gorgous colors. Very elegant.

  64. This was so encouraging!! I have never sewn before, but for the last few weeks have really been up in the air about doing it I would say yes and then freak out and say it was too much work. I am on a mission to become an avid DIYer and I MUST know how to sew to make this work!! So this was exactly what I needed to read!! I have just one thing on my Christmas list this year, The Brother CS6000I Sewing Machine!!!! Well that, and maybe some jo-ann gift cards!!! Thanks Kate!!!

  65. I am also in the process of teaching myself to sew. It has been fun and rewarding but sometimes very frustrating too. My favorite projects are the drapes and pillows I’ve made. My least favorite project is the slipcovers I am making for my wingback chairs. Unlike the drapery panels and pillows, they have lots of curvy lines and tons of different seams. Very slow and tedious work. I really like sewing the pillows because I can get a few together in the time my baby is napping and they can completely change the look of a room.

  66. THANK YOU so much for this little bit of encouragement! I have been on the fence about this very topic just recently, since Halloween actually. I’ve been “taught” to sew numerous times in my life, by my mother, my grandmother and my home economics teacher. Never once did it “stick”. This past Halloween I wanted my youngest son to be The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I searched far and wide, but could not find a pre-made costume anywhere! So, I was either going to have to make it or find another costume for him. I had actually settled on the fact that I would sew the entire costume by hand… Until I ran out of time! It was three days before Halloween & he still did not have a costume. I remembered the trusty little hand held $10 machine that my sister in law had given to me several years ago (which I had never even opened). So at 9:00 the night before we were leaving for a family Halloween weekend out of town (when I should have been packing), I “taught” myself how to sew! How unbelievably rewarding it was to have that finished little costume! I had been thinking it would be nice to have a little bit better than a $10 machine, so it was going on my Christmas list. I’ve been back and forth on this for a week now, but after seeing your simple little pillow tutorial, and thinking about all the other great things I could make, I think I will do it! I’ll ask, and hope that I receive.. Thank you!

  67. My stepmom taught me how to sew when I was in junior high & high school and when I graduated in ’95, my grandma gave me a Brother sewing machine. I logged many hours on that machine making quilts and other home dec projects! More recently, my step mom passed her Elna on to me after she got a new one and WOW! This is a great machine! I have been making baby projects lately for friends (quilts, crib bumpers, blankers, etc.) and it has really been a lot of fun. I have done bridesmaid dresses, dresses for my little sisters (when they were 3 & 4), dresses for myself. The only bad part is that when I am out shopping and trying on clothes, I always look at how I can fix it to fit me right!

    Fabric I am totally loving right now is Amy Butler. She uses bright, happy colors and with fun patterns. I made one of her bags (Birdie Sling) as gifts and they were great! Moda also makes some similar fabrics.

  68. I would love to learn to sew but I think I would need to take a class. I don’t think I would have the patience to maintain the concentration to do it myself. I would probably give up before I ever got anywhere! I should see if there are sewing classes around me. It would be nice to make my own stuff rather than buying so much manufacturer items.

  69. I so agree with you when it comes to the best, quality machine that can do the basics over all the fancy stitches that you really will never use. In HS I had to take home-ec and I got a C in sewing because I used iron-on seam binding to hem my skirt…lol Later when we lived in Italy…I rented a sewing machine for $7.00 a day from the base to sew my curtains for the 7 double doors to our balconies. Since then…I’ve been hooked and actually burned out the motor to my first Singer…it was such a workhorse…I loved it and they don’t make them like they use to ;)

  70. Thanks for this, especially the beginner’s machine review. I completely know what you mean about looking at a project and thinking, “All this needs is a new cover!” quickly followed by, “Oh, right, I can’t sew.” I might just take the plunge.

  71. Thanks for the inspiration! I’ve been wanting to learn to sew for a couple years (never learned from my mom), but was a little intimidated to learn on my own. Looking forward to reading your suggestions/tips.

  72. I grew up learning to sew doll clothes first and then made all my clothes and school dance dresses while in high school and even sewed my first wedding dress and made my husband a suit. Now I mainly sew home decor like drapes, curtains and bed decor. I’m so glad I have that skill. I do feel sad that it has gone out of vogue. Does anyone else here recall the days where sometimes you had to wait on someone to get up from a chair at the pattern books so you could sit down? It was that popular…now I find no one at the pattern books. :(

  73. Awesome post! I am currently using the sewing machiene that my grandmother gave my mother. It is old-iron heavy-a 1960’s aqua green workhorse. There are lots of nicer newer models with fancier options-but I can’t give up the nostalgia of sewing away on the same machiene I grew up watching my mom sew some of my clothes on!

  74. Yay for sewing machines! It is a mission of mine to encourage our generation to break out those sewing machines and not be intimidated about using them! I did this post a while back to help people get started with a sewing machine for the first time:


    It includes links to videos showing how to thread a machine and get started as well as a great website that has free threading diagrams and manuals to most sewing machines (even the old ones that have been passed down to many of us!).

    There’s so much that can be accomplished with just the basic ability to turn the machine on and run a straight stitch!

  75. Can you just clarify something for me? Do you sew the overlapped edges together AND velcro them? or do you pin them first and after sewing all sides together velcro them at the end??

    I have bought napkins thinking I would do the same….and never get around to making them. I see sooo many cool fabrics for napkins and on clearance at TJ Maxx or Mashalls for like $4 bucks-usually for 4 napkins you can make two pillows-who doesn’t want $2 pillows!!!

  76. Now these are good tips, I’ve been sewing for a zillion years and haven’t thought about the specifics in forever, it just becomes second nature! This is sure to help newbies and provide some good reminders for the rest of us! Janell

  77. Did you use a covered pillow insert? If so, please share what size worked well for your napkins. Thank you!

  78. What a timely post – I literally just bought my first sewing machine this week! For years I had zero interest in learning to sew but now am very interested in making home decor items and other crafts. These tips are wonderful. I will be printing them out for future reference – thanks! Since I am a total newbie at this, I have no idea what brands of thread are considered good quality. Any one have their favorites?

  79. Oh, my stars! This is a great idea! I have a couple of napkins in my fabric chest just WAITING for an idea like this! You are the STARS!

  80. When we built our house, I looked at patterns for window treatments – soooo expensive that I decided to just wing it. All my window treatments turned out great, I used vintage tableclothes for some, nothing too fancy or elaborate, and they looked professionally done. I always do better sewing something that comes straight from my head or my sketches – I cannot follow a pattern to save my life! :)

  81. Wow! What a great idea to use napkins for pillow covers! I’ve been searching for new pillows for my living room, and haven’t been able to find something i like, in a price that i would want to pay. I’m definitely going to be keeping my eyes open at napkins! Thanks for the great tips!!

  82. My mother is the most beautiful seamstress. However she never taught me to sew either! By the time I’d have been interested, she was already working and there just wasn’t the time. I finally learned in college. My favorite project at the moment is my Ballard Knock-off Bag Holder in linen. I love how it turned out!

  83. Awesome post! Thank you both. I begged my husband for a sewing machine when I decided to become a homemaker. He bought one as a gift weeks later and it stayed in the box over a year unopened. I meet an awesome woman that made purses and she sat down with me and helped me take to sewing machine out the box and overcome the fear of messing up. That weekend I made an apron. I have been unstoppable for 6 months now, until I ran out of ideas of things to sew:( The idea never even crossed my mind to use napkins for pillow covers. Maybe now I will make a square pillow LOL! Anyone with project ideas please send them my way!

  84. I learnt to sew in my early teens, with help from my Mum on her old Singer. I started out making some calico smock tops…they were fashionable back in the 70’s, but more importantly they were cheap and if I messed them up it wasn’t a huge loss.
    When I left High School the first thing I bought was a Singer sewing machine for the whopping price of $199….that was a LOT way back then

    Years later when I moved around with work, my sewing machine was the first item that got packed in my car. I still have it and it’s still going strong. My girlfriend has a new machine with all the bells and whistles and has tried to talk me into getting a new one….but I love my old singer because it holds so many memories. I have bought myself an overlocker though. That’s a sensational addition!

  85. I recently got fed up with my pillows and junk on view for all to see. I have a hand-me-down sewing machine that I’d never used. I got it down from it’s perch, way above me in a tall bookcase, dusted it off, watched a few online tutorials and dove into sewing curtain panels to cover our junk and new pillow covers. In one day (Labor Day, coincidentally), I transformed our tiny apartment and later blogged about it: http://www.thestudiolo.com/2010/09/laboring-on-labor-day.html

  86. I absolutely love to sew… anything! I learned as a kid in home ec but never really did much. Both my mom and my grandmother sewed too but I never did more than the basics with them. As an adult, I bought my first machine when I moved out on my own. Over the last 28 years, I’ve become more adept and I have a lot more patience to really take my time and do it right. My favorite things to sew are costumes for my daughters (dress-up and Halloween) but I also sew removable pillow covers and various home wares. It’s nice to get some fresh fabric and change out my things seasonally, it feels like a new house every few months. Now my daughters are asking to learn. I can’t wait to introduce them to the wonderful world of sewing, it opens so many options and will be a life-long benefit. :)

  87. I love that you taught yourself how to sew! My mom was an amazing seamstress! You could make anything…curtains, wedding dresses, bedding, barbie doll clothes. I loved falling asleep to the sound of a sewing machine.
    She taught me enough to help me do easy sewing projects.
    I now own her very nice sewing machine and serger. I have never used a serger before, but I am wanting to learn how. I also have her embroidery machine. I am hoping to take a class on how to use it after Christmas.
    There is just no better feeling that making something by hand, don’t ya think?
    I love your napkin pillow. I made some from Christmas napkins last year and they turned out great. I always like to look for discounted napkins after holidays. Super frugal, I am! :)
    Hope you are doing well.
    Did you say you were going to Blissdom? I hope to see you there.

  88. Great tips — I taught myself to sew right out of college, as my first job didn’t pay much. My greatest delight was in sewing for my daughter — dresses, doll clothes and costumes. So many fond memories…

  89. Thank you so much, sewing has always been the bane of my existence and it is now on my “to learn and conquer” list for 2011
    xxxxx susieq

  90. Thanks for sharing this with us. I’ve quite loved the experience of reading your blog so far. Maybe some cliff notes at the botton would be a useful addition to summarize the lessons… regardless I will be visiting back here so keep up the delightful writing, your readers appreciate it.

  91. I really enjoyed this article. I only started sewing last year after being interested in it for so long and it’s quickly become a passion of mine.

  92. I have been sewing for over 30 years, each new project is exciting. Home dec projects are my favorite because I can see it everyday. Unlike laundry and dishes a sewing project has a definite end! Your pillows are great, the only thing I would add is just a bit of batting in the corners to “fill” it out. And you are quite right about a good machine, it makes all the difference.

  93. I took a short series of beginner sewing classes after my first child was born and it was a great investment. I’ve made numerous window treatments and pillows over the years, but my favorite projects are the Halloween costumes I sewed for my kids, the pink princess dress, the Humpty Dumpty suit and the little clown costume that both my children wore for their first Halloween are so special to me.

  94. I still don’t understand how you laid the napkins together before you sewed their edges. Can you explain it in a little more detail? I’m having a hard time visualizing. (And I’d love to make my own pillows.)

  95. I learned how to sew when I was about 8 or 9. I wanted one of those kiddie sewing machines I saw in the Sears catalog – bright pink, 100% plastic. Instead, my mother took me into the laundry/sewing room, showed me how to do the basic stitches on her machine (a tank of a Kenmore), showed me her stash of fabrics, and said “go for it.” I’ve been sewing ever since. (She did did the same thing when I begged for an Easy-Bake oven). When I got married, instead of paying someone gobs of cash to sew my dress, I bought a decent sewing machine and sewed the dress myself – I still have that machine. I’ve sewn my own clothes, my kids’ clothes, Halloween costumes, quilts and duvet covers, window treatments, window seat cushions, and re-upholstered our couches – I love fixing up great old furniture for the cost of fabric and trim.

    There are so many great online classes and tutorials out there on websites and YouTube for specific techniques!

  96. Thanks for sharing the great tips. I’ll remember to change the needles instead of adjusting the tension. I’ve had my machine over 30 years and often think it’s the tensions fault when it probably was just the needle after all. I love to sew pillows because you can hide your boo boos inside the pillows lol.

  97. I have to protest your choice of machine for a beginner. The absolute worst kind of machine is one that has so much computer hardware in it. I work in a costume shop at my college with machines with computers in them and they are always the things that break and by far the most expensive things to fix. Where as my mothers all mechanical is easily 3-decades old by now and is still a freaking work horse.

  98. I have been sewing for 10 years, and I still found this post usefull. Sometimes I forget the basics for keeping my machine and projects nice.

  99. I just tried sewing these napkins I found into pillows and I am ecstatic with the results! I highly recommend trying this, such a quick, easy and affordable way to transform any space.

    I do want to share that the fabric of the napkins I picked out (100% cotton) wrinkled easily so if I had to do it again I would prob pay more attention to the fabric. Hubby rested on pillow once and it was covered with wrinkles.

    I blogged about it here:

    Love your blog and am looking forward to trying your other DIY projects.

  100. I didn’t learn as a kid although my mom is an expert. A few years back my DH bought me that same brother machine and it’s worked like a dream. I’m not an expert yet, but I hope to get better. Thanks for the tips!

  101. I’m so grateful for the tip about which sewing machine to buy – thank you so much! I plan to buy one for my daughter for Christmas and you just saved me hours of research. And Kate, I love the sweater pillow idea; maybe that’ll be our first project with the new machine.

  102. My mom and grandma sew, but I just got into sewing this year. I made a ton of things for my wedding this summer – and I am addicted! Great “rules”…I need to adhere to them more often :)

  103. Great advice! I want to learn how to sew and i want to buy a sewing machine. How do I pick the right one?

  104. After trying and failing the no sew version…I am determined to learn how to sew! Thanks for the inspiration, I love reading your blog!

  105. What is a high quality thread? I’ve just started sewing last night, trying to make some curtains with your Easy Rod Pocket Panel tutorial. But I keep getting the birdsnest effect and my thread keeps breaking. Ugh! I bought some thread at Walmart (it was all they had), but I think it’s just cheap. What should I look for to get a high quality thread?? Thanks!!

  106. I know this post is older but your advice on learning to sew was fabulous. I can’t tell you how many times I have shared those same words of wisdom with others who are learning to sew. The taking your time tip was probably the best one. It has taken me over 20 years to develop my skills and I continue to learn all the time. Thanks so much for sharing what I hope to be a resurging art.

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