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The 8 Most Important Sewing Skills to Learn

The next step in the Sewing by Design framework is to set up a strong foundation of sewing skills.

Posted in: Creativity & Mindset • December 14, 2022

Imagine that you are building a house on an empty piece of land.

You'd probably have big dreams about what this house would look like. You might be able to picture the lighting in each room, the sorts of cabinets you'd have in the kitchen, even the colors you'd paint the walls.

You might even have a Pinterest board (or several!) to help you envision exactly what that house would look like.

But first things first. You wouldn't start by buying paint and picking out cabinet hardware. You'd start building your house by creating a strong foundation.

It's the same with learning a complex skill like sewing. If we want to be able to make exactly what we want, we need to start with the right foundation.

As we take a holiday break to wrap up 2022, we’re re-airing a popular series from the Seamwork Radio podcast that originally aired earlier this summer. In the series, Sarai and Haley break down each step in the Sewing by Design framework.

If you missed the first article, you can read it here or listen to the podcast episode here. It introduces you to the Sewing by Design concept and explains why we compare sewing to a house.

The first step in this concept is to lay your foundation, just like you would when building your home.

The 80/20 Rule

If you open up a sewing book, you'll see a list of unfamiliar techniques, like how to bag a lining or bind your seams. You'll also find hundreds of new words. What even is a bodkin, and where is the bust apex? It's overwhelming. You signed up to sew clothes not learn a new language.

You can lessen this overwhelm by using something called the 80/20 skills.

What are the 80/20 skills? The idea comes from something called the Pareto Principle, but less formally, it's known as the "80/20 rule." It says that in many circumstances, 80% of the results come from 20% of the actions that you take.

In sewing, there is a core group of skills that you use over and over and over again, no matter what the project. They are the 20% of sewing skills that you use 80% of the time.

That's what we mean by the first step in our framework: Lay Your Foundation. Like creating a foundation for a house, you want to create a strong skillset right from the beginning.

8 Skills to Lay Your Foundation

1. Know Your Tools and Materials

You can’t really accomplish much without knowing your tools and materials, and this includes your machine and fabric. Learning about fabric is a lifelong part of learning how to sew, but you have to start somewhere.

Here are some resources to help you learn more about your tools and materials (including your machine).

2. Read Your Map

Your sewing pattern is your map when you're learning to sew. But it's also full of unfamiliar jargon and tiny symbols that can be totally puzzling until you learn what they mean.

When you're sewing a commercial pattern, the pattern itself has all the answers. The person who's developed the pattern has sewn it countless times and knows the ins and outs of it. So learning how to read and also trust that information is super vital for successful projects.

Here is an article called The Anatomy of a Sewing Pattern to help you learn how to work with a sewing pattern.

3. Cutting and Marking

Here’s the cruel truth about sewing: you’ll spend much more time cutting, marking, and pressing fabric than sitting at your machine. This part of the process is slow, and you might not ever truly enjoy it. But here are some resources to help make it easier for you.

4. Sewing Seams

With your tools, map, and fabric-cutting skills in tow, the next foundational skill is sewing your seams. You’ll sew straight seams, corners, curved seams, and finishes, and you’ll learn how to press all of them. A lot of information is distilled into the humble seam. 

It might not take long to learn how to sew a straight seam on your machine, but from there, the possibilities unfold. Here are some resources to help you explore seams.

5. Adding Fullness

Why is adding fullness on the list of the most fundamental sewing skills to learn? It’s simple. You’re taking two-dimensional fabric and turning it into a three-dimensional garment. So think about the power of things like darts, gathers, tucks, and easing. These skills teach you to craft a three-dimensional thing that drapes, hugs, and moves with your body.

Here are some resources to help you explore fullness.

6. Installing a Sleeve

Here’s where sewing starts to feel real. When you first started sewing, did you assume that a sleeve cap would match the armscye on a pattern? What did you think when you found out the sleeve cap was bigger? And how were you supposed to sew something bigger onto something smaller?

When you install a sleeve, you use a bunch of the fundamental techniques you’ve learned so far, which is why it might feel intimidating. So here is a tutorial that shows you how to install a set-in sleeve step by step.

7. Adding Closures

This is another skill that you can continuously learn about. When you first start, you might work with elastic or casings. Then you might try zippers and bottons. From there, you can explore all the niche closures you’ll find in the notions aisle.

Here are some resources to help you explore closures.

8. Finishing the Edges

Bias tape, facings, hems, and all kinds of neat seaming finishes give your garment a clean, professional look, even on the inside. You probably didn’t think much about finished edges when you first imagined sewing your own clothes, but these techniques make sewing so special, even if it’s just a little surprise that only you see when you get dressed.

Here are some resources for finishing your garments.

And there it is, your sewing foundation! Just like the foundation of your safe, sturdy home, these 8 skills support all the possibilities of your entire sewing practice.

What comes next? Design. Once you've laid your foundation, it's time to build your practice. We'll explore that in the next part of this series, next week.

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