The one purchase that supercharged my dress making skills

OK, I have to start with an apology for the clickbait title. However it is true that one purchase made a huge difference to my skills, both making and fitting garments. The boring reality is that there was no magic quick-fix involved. It was exactly the opposite. This purchase made everything slower, allowed me to practice, make mistakes, learn, and ultimately work out the problem areas of every dress making project.

My purchase was a 10 metre bolt of calico. Not very exciting I will admit…

Before buying this fabric I never made mock-ups, (or muslin or toile) AND THIS IS WHY EVERYTHING I MADE DIDN’T FIT.

If I could time travel I’d go back to my younger self and state the gosh darned obvious: I don’t fit in mass produced high-street clothes, so what made me think I’d fit into a mass produced high-street pattern? It was so exciting to start a new project that I couldn’t be bothered with all the preparation. Prewashing fabric? No thanks. Ironing seams? Not likely. Mock-ups? A waste of my time.

As the youngsters of today say: Learn from my fail…

Adjusting a collar pattern to fit

Reasons why a mock-up is crucial:

  1. Testing the size of your pattern. If, like myself, you don’t fit a standard size then adapting a pattern to your shape is essential. I’m a size bigger on my bottom half than my top half so I have to adjust all dress patterns around the hip. But I can’t change a pattern blindly. I have to test the fit and overall look of the garment with a mock-up.
  2. Practising the pattern techniques. Having a safe area where you can go through all the steps of the pattern in a practical way so you can resolve any difficult areas before you start with the actual project. It also means that the real project will be quicker as you know each step more thoroughly.
  3. Save fabric. It’s the most poignant pain a sewer can feel. When you cut out a pattern shape in your lovely fabric and realise that it’s not the right size. As with the points above. You don’t want to have the trial and error with your beautiful fabric.
  4. Working out how much fabric you need. You can make a mock-up before you buy the real fabric and this way you have a better idea how to lay out your adjusted pattern pieces and know if you need a bit more or less than the orginal pattern specifies.

Although making a mock-up can seem daunting. So here are a few tips to help.

  1. You don’t have to do both sleeves/cuffs. Just one will be enough to see if it fits.
  2. You don’t have to finish the seams or hems. This will speed up construction. Unless you want some stitching practice, then carry on.
  3. You don’t have to keep the mock-up. After adjustments have been made and applied to the final pattern you can pull apart the mock-up and reuse/re-cut the fabric for another mock-up. Thus saving fabric.
  4. Don’t be afraid to make a second mock-up. You might have made quite a few changes to your pattern so if you feel the need to test the pattern pieces again. Go ahead. Practice makes perfect.

Once you have a pattern you are happy with you can reuse it many times over. In different weight fabrics a pattern can look very different and smaller changes can easily be made by adding details such as different pockets, sleeve lengths or decorative trims. It is worth investing the time and effort early on in a project to make it work over and over again.

Rage* Against the Sewing Machine – Why it’s time to abandon your machine.

*In the most polite sense

My first sewing machine, and why it’ll be my last.

It was my 21st birthday and I knew exactly how I wanted to mark the the momentous milestone. Armed with birthday money from my parents I went to my local sewing machine shop. It was a small independent business no bigger than an average living room, shelves stocked high with machines. I had walked past it everyday for the past 6 months on my way to university and I knew that one day I’d buy a sewing machine and start making my own clothes.

It seemed a simple equation in my head. Girl + sewing machine = dressmaker. I’d cut out clothing shaped fabric and the machine would do the rest. Wouldn’t it? I chose a sewing machine almost at random. I was dazzled by the options had no idea what I actually needed. What on earth would one do with 200+ stitch patterns? There were automatic button hole functions, integrated needle threading, touch screen digital displays. Even to this day I’m confused by the mysterious “free-arm” which is by no means a modern advancement.

It has been 13 years since I proudly carried home my heavy Toyota sewing machine. Shamefully in all that time I can only remember one or two successful dress making projects. I always put my lack of success down to not having a fancy enough sewing machine. My machine didn’t have a digital screen or a button sewing option. Surely these machines were created to take the burden from me as a fallible human.

There was a time about a year ago that I thought all my sewing problems might be solved by buying an overlocker. Everyone seemed to agree that an overlocker gave a “professional finish” to the inside of garments. I’d always used a zig-zag stitch on my raw edges and never been happy with them. Although this was probably more due to my lack of skills sewing in a straight line and penchant for tricky, slippy fabrics. I’m so glad I went off the idea because the last few months have revolutionised my sewing completely. My sewing machine sits on a shelf. I could use it to make clothes, but I don’t have to.

Hidden stitches to stop fraying

The YouTube Epiphany

I’d been watching Bernadette Banner’s historical sewing escapades for some months before the realisation occurred to me to abandon my sewing machine. Miss Banner has a modern sewing machine, as well as a working antique Singer, but in general she hand sews – and she enjoys it.

Why didn’t I hand sew my projects? I already invested a lot of time into knitting projects so why didn’t I do the same with sewing? Although describing this realisation as an epiphany is a very polite way of saying that Occam’s Razor came and punched me in the face. The simple way is often the best. (Apologies for my terrible summation of a complex philosophical theory). I’d been thinking about this the wrong way. I needed to learn to sew before I would go back to using a sewing machine.

In my tiny flat the only area big enough for dress making is the living room. If I wanted to do some sewing I’d have to wait till my other-half was out of the house for a significant length of time. I could then unpack the sewing machine, ironing board, pins fabric and cutting equipment and generally make a complete mess of the flat, Do some frantic sewing and pack up again before he came home. This wasn’t fun.

By switching to hand sewing I have made a complete change to how I create with fabric.

Pretty pretty seams…

Reasons to sew by hand:

  1. I can sew while watching Netflix, TV, YouTube, while cooking, waiting for the postman, listening to an audiobook, etc. etc. ad nauseam. Without a sewing machine rattling away like a panzer tank I can listen to music. Without a sewing machine gripping my fabric, I can stow my needle, wrap up my fabric at any time and put it away without disturbing the seam in progress. Without a sewing machine I can take my work anywhere with me to idle away the time on a train.
  2. I can learn real sewing skills. My sewing machine had a buttonhole function, so why would I ever need to learn how to do them by hand? When there is a wide stitch function why would I hand-sew a basting stitch? Buying a sewing machine at the start of my dress-making journey meant I skipped over so many basic skills that I needed to learn. I thought the machine would do it all for me and guess what? It didn’t. My sewing was really sloppy and I didn’t know how to fix it except that by buying a “better” machine would help.
  3. Hand-felled seams are so much neater than overlocked seams and add strength and security to the clothing. I sometimes feel the urge to pull open the neckline of my dress to show off how lovely the hand-felled seams are. Which is probably an urge I should fight in public for a number of reasons. No-one knows or cares how my internal seams are finished – except me. It gives me such a good feeling to not see any frayed edges or threads. It’s not a coincidence that high-end couture fashion houses use hand finishing techniques where as fast fashion uses overlockers as a quick fix.
  4. Hand-sewing tricky shapes is easier. I will happily admit that if I wanted to make a jacket for a cuboid robot a sewing machine would be perfect. Humans however have clothes with armholes that are round-ish. I always hated sewing sleeves on a machine because it always felt like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Or to be more accurate, put a complex curved shape with multiple layers of fabric each with it’s own tension, under a flat machine foot and stitching at speed. By stitching by hand I can take it slowly, turn the work over to stitch at a different angle, check my work, unpick a few stitches to correct, abandon half way through, come back when I’ve finished screaming into the void, and complete to my satisfaction.
  5. I have much more confidence in my sewing. I have quite a stash of fabric. Quite a lot of it I had great plans for but I knew I didn’t have the skills to achieve. With almost all my sewing projects I’d cut out the fabric and run it through the sewing machine and … well it was rubbish.

So what will I do with my sewing machine? It will stay on my shelf for now. There are still lots of sewing projects I can use it for but I’m not going to let it be a silver bullet for skills I haven’t learnt yet.

Projects in Lockdown – Face Masks

Stitching on the tape onto the edge of the face mask.

At the moment here in the UK we are in week 9 (or maybe 10?) of Covid 19 lockdown. Which has left me with so much more time and energy not having to travel to and from work everyday. So has lead to a cornucopia of sewing projects which I hope to document on this blog.

Now that we are starting to open up our social circles, I decided an important quick project would be to make some cotton masks for myself and partner so use on public transport.


  • Cotton fabric fat quarter
  • 1m of 3mm elastic
  • 20cm of 16mm wide cotton tape
  • Needle and thread
  • Ruler
  • Fabric scissors or rotary cutter
  1. Start with your fat quarter. Measure a 20cm (8 inch) strip of fabric and cut.
  2. Fold into thirds. Then fold under the raw edge. Press flat with an iron.
  3. Fold two pleats so that the fabric is 3 inches long. Press the pleats in place and pin.
  4. Sew along the raw edges to secure the pleats approximately 5mm from the edge. Whip stitch the folded raw edge.
  5. Trim the raw edges and wrap with the cotton tape. Pin in place and sew to secure.
  6. Cut a small length of tape and sew on the elastic to each corner. Complete one side and measure the amount of elastic you need on the wearer. Then sew onto the other side being careful not to twist the elastic.