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Episode 93

The Best Sewing Books for Beginners

Wondering which sewing books are best for learning how to sew? In this episode, Sarai and Haley share a framework for building a helpful and inspiring sewing library, including the three types of sewing books you should have.

If you love books, odds are you also love books about sewing. If you’re a beginner, it can be hard to identify which book works best for you. In this episode, you’ll learn about some of our favorite books for reference, fitting, and actual sewing projects.

Podcast Transcript

Sarai
Welcome back to Seamwork Radio. Today we’re talking about the best sewing books you can get if you’re a beginner or even if you’re in the beginner stage and you just want to build a great library.

So we’re going to cover the three types of sewing books beginners need in their library and then our recommendations for specific titles to pick up.

So let’s start with our ice breaker today. It comes from Seamwork member Laura. And Laura asks, what is the biggest sewing related purchase that you regret? What do you think? Haley? This is a great question.

Haley
It’s a good question. It’s a hard question. I mean, in terms of what I’ve personally maybe wasted the most money on is fabric. But I don’t know if I have any major personal sewing purchase regrets. I know something that we always struggle with at the studio is that we have an iron on all the time because we’re always sewing and pressing and we have the hardest time. We’ve gotten just so many dud irons in the last two years. How many irons do you think we’ve gone through, Sarai?

Sarai
I don’t know. A million. It feels like a million.

Haley
It always feels like it’s on the fritz and doing something weird. Before you ask, we have had gravity feed irons and more industrial irons and we just always seem to have issues with them. So I think maybe that’s like the tool that fills me with the most regret. I, on the other hand, at home, have had the same $9 Shark iron that I bought at Target like twelve years ago. And it’s going strong. But I think something about just keeping it on 8 hours a day is they don’t like it. The irons don’t like it.

Sarai
Did you say a Shark iron? Is that a brand Shark?

Haley
Yeah, Shark. I wish it was like a shark. I should just get some Sharpies and draw on it. My daughter might think it’s a toy then though. Maybe that is a bad idea.

Sarai
Yeah. My kittens already think the iron is a really fun toy and the ironing board is really fun to jump on.

Haley
Olive is too lazy to jump that high.

Sarai
The thing that came to mind, I agree. Like fabric is a really big one. Once you have your sewing space set up and you have the tools you need, most of your money with sewing usually goes to fabric. And I think that’s definitely where I’ve quote, unquote “wasted the most money.” But I don’t know. I love my fabric stash and there have been a few things I’ve gotten rid of that I never sewed with, but for the most part, I don’t know. I like it. I wouldn’t say that I regret it. I think the thing that came to mind for me was just buying a rotary mat that was not the size I needed because it was too small and thinking, well, it was less expensive. And I don’t necessarily have room at the time for a really big rotary mat, but then a small mat, it’s just kind of a pain in the butt at times when you need to lay out your fabric and cut out a large piece. It’s really annoying. So I ended up buying a larger size mat after that.

And that was kind of a waste. That’s the one that came to mind for me. The Shark iron. That’s what it looks like, a fin. It’s like pointy.

Haley
A shark. It does. I’m kind of thinking in my head of how I could draw on it to create the image of a shark.

Sarai
A great way is a very pointy fish. So you could, like, draw the face and draw the teeth on the.

Haley
Stay tuned. It’s happening.

Sarai
All right. Well, if you have an icebreaker for us for a future episode, you can submit it by going to Seamwork.com/go/icebreakers if you’re a Seamwork member. So that’ll take you right to our community post with icebreakers, where you can just leave your own ideas. That’s where we collect them and we grab them for the episodes. And we really appreciate everybody’s, including Laura’s, today. It’s really fun to read them.

Alright, so let’s talk about sewing books. How many sewing books do you think you have, Haley?

Haley
I don’t know the exact number, but I am currently in the process of moving, so I just packed all of my books up, and they fit into three medium-sized U-Haul, boxes. That also includes all of my fashion books, like coffee table books and things like that. But I’d have to guess, anywhere in the ballpark of 50.

Sarai
Wow.

Haley
There’s a lot of books. What about you?

Sarai
You know, I don’t have that many. I have had a lot of sewing books in the past, though. I’ve definitely collected them, and I used to have a ton of them. And fashion books, a lot of them I kept at the studio, and then we had some big studio sales, and we just purged almost all of them. So that left me with very few. And most of them are still at the studio, so they’re not even in my house. I live now, like, 45 minutes away from the studio, so it’s not, like, nearby. It’s not something that I’m out every day, so I don’t know how many are left there. Maybe like ten or 15 are still there. And then here at my house, like maybe five. I actually have more knitting books at my house than I have sewing books for some reason. I think because knitting books include knitting patterns in them often, or they’re just like stitch libraries. So you can kind of reference books that are really helpful, but I feel like with a lot of sewing stuff, you can find a lot more information online. These days. I feel like I still need books, but I need just a small number of them to have a pretty good library for my house.

Yeah, they’re fun, though. They’re fun to collect.

Haley
They are. I’m such a book girl. I have trouble parting with books unless it’s like novels and things like that. That’s the kind of book I like. Once I read, I pass it along or I get it from the library or download it on my Kindle. But cookbooks and sewing books, I can’t get enough. Those are my two book vices.

Sarai
Yeah, I’m like that with cookbooks. I have so many cookbooks, and I’m always, like, fighting for room for a new cookbook. I have so many, in spite of the fact that obviously there’s Pinterest and there’s food blogs and there’s so many recipes online. I just love a good cookbook. I do feel the same way about selling books. It’s just that, like I said, I feel like I need a few good ones.

Haley
Yeah, definitely.

Sarai
These days, garden books are another one. I have so many gardening books. It’s just so fun to look at plants. So I definitely have a lot of that as well. Do you remember the first sewing book that you ever bought?

Haley
Yes. Well, I know it was my freshman year of college, and I had to drop an ungodly amount on textbooks. And since I studied fashion, I bought three books. Three textbooks, an introductory patternmaking book, not introductory. It was just a patternmaking book. One I still have today, a draping book and a sewing reference book that was more aimed for production sewing.

Sarai
Yeah. I honestly don’t remember the first sewing book that I bought, but it was probably something from the thrift store. I probably just picked something up from the thrift store. I think I started with collecting vintage sewing books and all those really cool old manuals and reference books, and that’s kind of where my collection started, I think. Do you have a favorite type of sewing book?

Haley
Probably anything. This isn’t strictly sewing, but anything textile related, whether that’s surface design or dying or anything like that. I feel like I kind of can’t say no to, especially if I find it at a thrift store. It’s going in my library. Those are my favorite time to kind of mindlessly collect.

Sarai
Yeah, I would say two types of books. I really like vintage books that have a lot of, like, surface detail. By that I mean like embroidery and interesting techniques and little pen tucks and things that kind of have a bunch of different interesting techniques. I wouldn’t have thought of that. You can kind of mix and match into your projects. I find that really fun. There’s a lot of older sewing books that are like that. And then I think the other thing. I really like Japanese sewing books. They’re just so fun to look at and so cool and like the Pattern Magic books. I’ve never made anything from a Pattern Magic book, but they are so inspiring and cool. And just looking at all the cool 3D shapes you can make with fabric is just really neat. So I think those books are so creative and very inspiring to me. There’s a lot of really cool Japanese publishers.

Haley
Oh, my gosh, I love Japanese sewing books. That’s a good one. I have quite a few of those.

Sarai
As well when I lived in San Francisco. I love nothing more than going to Kinokuniya and shopping for Japanese sewing and knitting books and even crochet books. It’s just so fun. If you live near a Kinokuniya, it’s awesome. It’s amazing. I think there’s one in Seattle I haven’t been in a long time.

Haley
They’re really great books. They’re not the best for beginners necessarily, because a lot of times they’re not translated. And so you have to have a pretty good base knowledge of sewing in order to sew everything up. And they’re not necessarily always the most—they don’t have a ton of sizes necessarily, so it’s something to look out for. But if figuring out an order of operations is not a problem for you, then you can stop listening to this episode now and just go buy a million books. You probably won’t regret it.

Sarai
All right. Haley, do you want to run us through some of these books we do recommend for beginners?

Haley
Yes. Well, first I want to introduce kind of our suggested framework for building your sewing library. If you’re a beginner or you just want to build a library, there are three types of books we think are a great addition or great building blocks for your library. The first is reference books. This is like sewing technique reference books. The second is fitting books. So a great kind of Bible that you can refer to anytime you run into a fitting issue and then project based books. These are more kind of in the line of what we’re talking about with the Japanese pattern books. Project based books contain patterns that you can so from. So we’re going to go into each of these three categories today. So first is a reference book. I think that this is just obviously, you can Google any sewing technique that exists. That wasn’t always the way it was, not when I was learning how to sew. But now you can do that. I think that it’s really nice to have just a great kind of encyclopedia style reference book to flip open anytime you run into a little sewing issue or a technique that you’re struggling with.

Haley
One that I like is the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing. I think it’s a great basic reference book that has pretty much every technique that you’ll run into as a beginner and intermediate sewer.

Sarai
Yeah, that’s a good one. I think having a reference book is really helpful because it’s an authoritative source that you know you can trust when you go to it. I think when you Google techniques, you can find all kinds of information, and most of it is probably great. But you still have to decide which one you’re going to look at. Do I need a photo tutorial? Do I need a video and you watch a minute of the video? This video is no good. I have to watch a different video, and so that can suck up a lot of time. Whereas if you just have a book that you trust that you can turn to and find what you need, it can actually be a lot faster.

Another one that I like for a reference book, it’s more recent. It’s called how to Start Sewing by Assemble Books, and that one is a really great, very straightforward, thick, thick book. It’s definitely a reference book. It’s not like a step by step walk you through the process type book, but it’s great because it’s so comprehensive and it will last you many years because although it’s a good reference for beginners, I think it’s also got so much information that goes beyond the beginner level that it’ll just serve you for a really long time.

It does not have photos. It’s all illustrations. So if that’s something that resonates with you, that might be a good way to go. Sometimes illustrations can actually be a lot clearer than photos. That’s why we use illustrations for our instructions. For example, sometimes with a photo, it’s hard to tell what’s going on exactly and what part of the photo is supposed to be paying attention to, whereas an illustration can be a lot clearer. So I like that it has illustrations and it has a ton of great information. And another tip, I would add. So like I said, it’s a really thick book. I own this book as an ebook, and that can be a really good way to go for reference books. I think if you like ebooks and you’re used to reading ebooks and the reason is that, well, obviously they don’t take up as much room if it’s a big book. But also you can highlight parts that are particularly helpful to you or that you know you need to reference often and you can also search on them. So if it’s a really big book that has a lot of information in it, you can just go to the search and look for a certain term and find it really easily.

Obviously you can do that with an index in a paper book, too. But I just find ebooks to be really helpful for that particular purpose when we’re talking about reference books in particular. So that’s just a little tip. I have that one as a Kindle book. I don’t own a Kindle device. I just have an iPad that has the Kindle app installed on it. And I love that. I think it’s great.

Haley
That’s a great tip. So our next category of book is fitting books. And the reason I recommend that everybody, regardless of skill level, have a fitting book is for the same reasons that Sarai was talking about, where, of course, if you run into a fit issue, you can always Google it. But Google is going to turn up dozens of different sources, different ideas on how to solve that problem. And when you’re first starting out on your fitting journey, that can be really confusing and a little bit discouraging. So I think it’s really helpful to have a fitting book, and that helps you to kind of subscribe to one school, a fitting thought. There’s a lot of different ways to fit and kind of subscribing to one can demystify it a bit. One that I think is really fabulous for beginners is Fast Fit by Sandra Betzina. It’s just a really good, super clear, easy to understand fitting book for beginners. This is probably one of my favorite kind of quick fit books.

Sarai
Yeah, I think everything all of Sandra Betzina’s books are awesome. I think she just produces some really amazing books, really helpful for people of all levels. Another one that’s really popular that you might have heard of is Fit for Real People. That one is based on tissue fitting. So it’s a method of using the pattern and kind of pinning it to your body in order to assess the fit rather than going straight to a muslin. So that’s an interesting way to fit that a lot of people really like. And so that’s another one that you can check out.

So Haley was saying these different kind of schools of thought on fitting. That’s kind of another direction that you can pursue. And the benefit there is it’s fast. It’s fast to do a tissue fitting, and at the very least, it can give you a first pass before you move on to doing a muslin. So that’s kind of cool. It can reduce the number of muslins that you end up doing. If it’s something that’s a more complicated issue in the end and it’s great for beginners, I just think it’s a really good way to kind of learn about how patterns work.

If you’re a beginner and really see it kind of three dimensionally, instead of translating the changes you’re making on the pattern to the muslin and trying to imagine how that’s all going to work, you see it really the pattern on your body. So that’s kind of cool. And that is by Palmer and Pletsch. And they also have a book called Complete Guide to Fitting. And they also have other books. So anything in the Palmer Pletsch library is great and kind of follows the system. And it’s a really great way to go. And there’s awesome books. They have very inclusive models in them, like all shapes and sizes, ages really nice. So I’d recommend any of the Palmer pledge books, but the complete guide fitting is their newest one, I believe, so you can check that out. By the way, we’ll put links to all of these books in the show notes and the article that accompanies this episode, so you can always find it on our website.

Haley
Definitely. And our last category of books that we recommend are project-based books. And the reason that I really like a project book is they, of course, contain patterns, but they also take you on a linear journey and provide a path for you to sew and learn along. I think that this can be a really helpful structure, especially for beginners when you’re starting out. And a big question we get all the time is what do I sew? In what sequence do I sew those things? And I think that having a project-based book kind of takes all of the guessing out of that. So project-based book bonus points if it is specifically intended for beginners or whatever skill level you happen to be at in your sewing journey right now, if you are a beginner sewer, the author that I think is great for beginner sewers is Tilly Walnes of Tilly and the buttons. She’s really carved out a fabulous niche in this industry, catering to beginners and making really cute patterns and clear instructions. Her book that is specifically aimed at more newbie sewers is Love at First Stitch. I know she has a book on sewing with knits, and there’s at least one other one.

She has a few books now, so that’s a great author to look out for, if you are a more beginner sewer. Sarai, do you have any other kind of favorite project-based books?

Sarai
Yeah, there are so many good ones out there, I think. I feel like they’re not being produced at the quantities that they used to be produced at. I think just because so many people are using patterns digitally these days, it’s a little bit different. But I think Tilly’s book is awesome. She is great at teaching beginners. Another one that you can check out is The Act of Sewing by Sonya Phillip. That’s a really great book for beginners because the patterns are the designs are really lovely and simple designs that I think would appeal to a lot of people and are fairly simple to sew. And I think she really captures that simple but elegant style that is perfect for beginners. Another one is Ahead of the Curve by Jenny Rushmore. We have an episode with Jenny. One of our first episodes was it our first episode of the podcast is an interview with Jenny Rushmore, so you might want to check that out. She’s an amazing person, but her book Ahead of the Curve is another really great project-based book for beginners.

And then I have to give a shout out to my own out-of-print old book, if you can find it.

I wrote the Colette Sewing Handbook for Colette Patterns years ago and it’s now out of print. But you can still find copies, I think, on Amazon if you want to. But it’s kind of in line with this ethos of creating patterns that sort of walk you through the skills you need. And that was really based on not so much building the skills of learn how to do this type of zipper, which I think is also really great. But it was more learning kind of the big parts of sewing, like trying out fitting and learning about finishes and understanding patterns and kind of those bigger concepts that I think are great for beginners to kind of start thinking about. So it’s called the Colette Sewing Handbook, and you can probably just look on Amazon. I haven’t looked in a long time, actually. I don’t know what they’re going for on Amazon or if there are any copies on Amazon, but I’m sure there are. So that’s another one you could check out.

Haley
Fun fact about the Collect Sewing Handbook is that that is how I met Sarai to begin with is I worked in a fabric store and we’re having a book launch party for her and she came and visited LA. And that’s where I met Sarah the first time. What year was that?

Sarai
Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I don’t even know what year that came out a long time ago. That’s what year is. A long time ago.

Haley
It was a long time ago. I think it was. It 2011 or 2012, I think, in that ballpark.

Sarai
Yeah. I was going to say 2012 maybe probably there somewhere. That was ten years ago. Wow.

Haley
Yeah.

Sarai
Amazing.

Haley
Going strong.

Sarai
Alright. Well, this is a really good list. I think this is a great place for beginners to start. So I’m just going to recap the books that we mentioned. So we talked about three different categories, getting a good reference book, getting a good fitting book, and getting a good project based book. So the reference books we mentioned are the Readers Digest Complete Guide to Sewing and how to Start Sewing by Assembil books. And then the fitting books we mentioned are Fast Fit by Sandra Betzina, and then several Palmer Pletsch books, including Fit for Real People and The Palmer Pletsch Complete Guide to Fitting. And again, we’ll link all of these in the show notes. And then finding a good project-based book, we recommended Love it first Stitch, The Act of Sewing and Ahead of the Curve. And also if you can find it, the Collette Sewing Handbook, which is out of print.

So those are all of our books. And if you have a favorite beginner book that we did not mention, we would love to hear it, so you could just give us a shout out in the community. Head over to the community for a Seamwork member and let us know. Just go to Seamwork.com and share what your idea is for a good beginner book, and we’ll maybe do a little follow up if we get some more suggestions. But I think this is a really great place to start.

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