New to Sewing? Have some tips.

The subtitle for this post should be “Learn from my mistakes”. Sewing is not as complicated as people pretend it is, but there’s a few bits and bobs to keep in mind to make sure your projects go smoothly. Bear in mind I don’t do complicated sewing – soft toys and the occasional skirt or handbag, but I do a fair bit of it and here are some things I wish people had told me back when I started out.

Yes, you need to press.
It’s tempting to look at your fabric and say “Eh, it’s pretty smooth” and just go ahead. Skipping the ironing stage can save you entire minutes, I get that, but they are minutes that are well invested. Crumpled or folded fabric, when cut to a pattern shape, may surprise you with unexpectedly wonky edges, and your finished piece won’t look as crisp or polished. Sometimes that’s the look you’re going for of course, but overall – pressing saves you a headache in cutting and sewing so it’s worth doing.

Cut on a clear surface
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been cheerfully cutting out a pattern and then felt the scissors chop through a thicker layer. Yep, the last piece I cut out was in the way and is now sporting a massive cut through it. I tend to cut out on a small table, so it’s easy to let it get crowded, but ideally you should move your cut pattern pieces, fabric left overs and other pattern bits to one side, giving you a clear surface where the only thing the scissors will strike is the fabric you want to be cutting. Personally I leave the ironing board set up after pressing as a home for the to be cut and has been cut fabrics.

Read the instructions. Twice.
It’s no good having a quick skim and then jumping in, make sure you’ve really read and understood what the instructions for your piece are – should this bit be cut on the fold? Do you need to do something fancy with this other bit? The difference between a great finished piece and a thing you don’t even want to admit you made is instructions.
Which is not to say the instructions are always clear, because they’re not. If you’re baffled by something or other, try a search for the project – other people were probably baffled too and might have some tips to offer you.
Also some people don’t bother to mention steps, or seam allowences or unsuitable fabrics. I’m just saying – sometimes patterns are a nightmare, and not understanding them doesn’t mean you’re not skilled enough to make the piece, it means the person who wrote the pattern wasn’t skilled enough to write a proper set of instructions.

Pin pin pin
This goes for cutting out, and for the actual sewing. Scrimping on the pinning is easier, but means your pattern pieces or fabric can shift around. Pin your heart out! Make sure everything is really secure before you start cutting or sewing, otherwise you might cut a wonky pattern shape which won’t sew nicely to the other bits, or you’ll find you’re sewing one piece of fabric but not the other.

It’s not a race
Try to avoid giving yourself a set time to have your sewing finished by. Sure, it’s nice to create something from scratch in an afternoon, but rushing yourself will lead to mistakes. Take your time, sew at a comfortable speed and if things start going wrong – that’s a sign you should take a break.
Cut your fabric carefully, make sure you’re cutting the right pieces and stop from time to time to take stock of where you are and what you still need to do.
As for using the machine – look, we’ve all seen people wizz a seam through in the blink of an eye, but if you feel like you can’t control the fabric you’re sewing faster than you should be. That insane speed (which my Grandmother had, she was a speed demon on the sewing machine) comes with practice and time, so if you’re plodding along slowly but surely then that’s perfectly alright. As you gain confidence and skill, you’ll speed up if that’s bothering you. I’m quite quick on straight seams now, but I take forever around curves and that’s all good. Losing control of the speed leads to a session with the unpicker, which is no fun at all.

Don’t scrimp on the cheap stuff
Thread, pins, marking chalks, needles – all these things are the absolute least expensive things about this hobby. Most of your budget will go on fabric and patterns and those are the things you should be careful and kind with.
Be ruthless, for example, with your pins. Pins go blunt over time, or bend, or develop catches and burrs. If your pin doesn’t go through the fabric smoothly then throw it away. Bent pins don’t hold fabric in place as well, so they can go too.
Sewing machine needles also go blunt. I don’t have any hard and fast rules about how much I sew with each needle (I know some people do), but throwing out a needle after you’ve done a large project makes sense. A blunt needle will pucker and pull at your fabric, so it’s just not worth saving the cents on those.

Watch your bobbin
When you’re machine sewing, keep a good eye on your bobbin thread. I’m telling you this as good advice because I always forget about the bobbin. Maybe modern machines have a warning or cut out system, I don’t know, but check it yourself. If there’s only a little bit left, play it safe and run a new bobbin. Yes, throw out the thread that was left, see above note about cheap stuff.

Your fabric scissors are for fabric
Invest in a quality pair of fabric scissors. Treat them nicely and they’ll last you forever. The fastest way to blunt your lovely fabric scissors is to use them on paper, or hair, or wire or… Keep your fabric scissors just for fabric and stock up on cheap general purpose scissors for around the house. Have them sharpened from time to time too, they’ll blunt slowly and you won’t notice until they’re nicely sharp again.

With the price of fabric getting ever higher, it can be hard to talk yourself into just having a play and sewing up some nonsense. Sewing up nonsenses is a great skill builder and confidence builder. Grab some fabric at an op shop (thrift store) – old bed sheets for example give you a ton of fabric to play with, and they’re usually cheap second hand. Or chop up your old clothes and make things. It’s perfectly fine to make things you don’t need, just for the fun of making them.

The Half Cross Stitch Issue

Last night I started a new kit which I will tell you about much much later. The kit came with aida fabric and I did stitch a little on that before I looked closely at the chart and saw an absolute ton of half cross stitches. Soon as I saw them I unpicked what I’d done and rummaged around for some evenweave. While it’s perfectly possible to half stitch on aida, it’s a bit of a pain in the neck in my opinion, and doing it on evenweave is so much easier.

A half cross stitch is a stitch that doesn’t complete the whole X. Half of the bottom arm is worked, with the thread taken back down through the fabric in the middle of the block. They are used for shaping, without them a design can look quite blocky at the edges, but with a diagonal half stitch the blocks are smoothed out.

Just as an aside, the pictures for this post were taken with a USB microscope I have, so the quality is not brilliant. Pretend it’s 1998.

Evenweave and Aida

On the left is probably the most familiar fabric for cross stitching – Aida. It’s woven in clear blocks to accommodate the cross stitch. Generally speaking, each cross is worked over one block. On the right is evenweave. This is an open weave fabric with no clear blocks. Crosses are usually worked over a square of 9 holes.

I dare say most cross stitchers start out with aida. It’s provided in most beginner kits, and is generally a nice easy fabric to cross stitch on. It’s easy to keep tight in a hoop too, because it tends to be firmer than evenweave (especially the horrible cheap stuff which is horrible and cheap). For half stitches, though, it can be a bit of a pain. It’s not impossible!

Half Stitches

To start a half stitch, a hole has to be made in the middle of the block. You can see the one just to the left of the thread exiting there. The trouble with this is that sometimes the hole doesn’t end up right in the middle – the rounded end of most cross stitch needles can slip to one side while you’re stabbing it into the fabric. The solution is simple – keep a sharp sewing needle to hand. Using this to start the hole in the fabric is a lot easier, the hole tends to end up where you want it and you don’t have to use as much force to make the hole.

Once the underlying half arm is done (I always do the half as the bottom stitch, I don’t know if that’s correct, but it works for me and hides the stabbity hole I made), the top arm is worked as normal, from corner to corner.

Half stitches

This photo shows two half stitches in the middle. The top one has the top arm worked in yellow, and the bottom one has the top arm worked in blue. The dominating colour will always be whichever colour the top arm is worked in. To do the two colour bottom arm you just work the rest of the bottom stitch, using the hole you made in the middle (which is off kilter in this shot on the bottom row – see? Tsk).

Now, why is it easier to half stitches on evenweave? Because the hole is already there for the half stitch. Because it’s worked over a grid of 9 (or worked over two threads if you want to use the proper terms), there’s a perfectly placed middle hole to use for your half stitches.

Halves on Evenweave

I suspect I’d set myself up as a better authority in these things (ha!) if I hadn’t forgotten to do the yellow half stitch on the top row there. I blame the radio, it was being distracting.

Evenweave can be a bit of a brain bender to start with, especially if you’ve been using aida. It’s a little harder to keep tight in a hoop also. Life can be a little easier by using a dark fabric on your lap or the table you’re working over – it will help the holes show up better. You can also exploit the “extra” holes for long stitches which can really add a lot of detail to a design.

Long Half Stitches

These long, narrow crosses are worked over a block of 6 holes. This makes them the same length as a normal stitch in one direction, but narrower in the other direction.

If you’re swapping aida for evenweave, you can make sure your design works out the size it should by remembering that aida counts are doubled. “What? Lyn, what?”. Look, I wrote that 9 times and it didn’t come out any clearer. Put it this way, if your design is sized for 14 count aida, you’ll need to replace that with 28 count evenweave.