Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sew-Along Project: Sleep Pants (Tips and Tricks)

Welcome to the second post of our sew-along project!  I know that some participants are still getting their fabric ready and their pattern pieces cut out, so I thought this might be a good time to mention a few general sewing tips.

Several people on the 2Peas thread mentioned that they were interested in this project because they'd received new sewing machines under the Christmas tree.  They also indicated that they were just a little bit scared to open up that box.  If I've just described you, I'm just going to say -- DON'T BE INTIMIDATED BY YOUR MACHINE.  Sewing machines these days are really pretty effortless, and a lot fewer things tend to go wrong with them than in our mothers' day.  So, get that machine out of the box (or out of the closet, if yours has been languishing)!  Since we are waiting for everyone to get their pattern cut out before we start on the pajama pants, this would be a great time to "play around" with your machine.  Look at the manual and just read the part about getting set up and doing basic, straight stitch sewing.  Ignore all of the other stuff, like fancy stitches and buttonholes, for now.  Get yourself some scraps of fabric and practice threading your machine and sewing straight lines down your scrap of fabric.  Basically, you're just getting a "feel" for your machine.

On the question and answer thread on 2Peas, someone mentioned that they had trouble with keeping their line of sewing straight.  So, the first tip I'm going to give you is about that issue.  See the photo at the top of this post?  That's the throat plate of my sewing machine, and yours probably looks pretty similar.  See those markings?  Those lines are guides for you to use while you're sewing, so that you end up with the right amount of seam allowance (the distance from your sewn seam line to the edge of your fabric).  Most clothing patterns call for a 5/8" seam allowance -- that is pretty much standard.  That's why, on the throat plate, the line marking 5/8"  is longer than the other lines.

The thing is, though, when you're actually sewing along, it can be kind of hard to see that line.  So, a great tip that I learned when I started to sew is to put a piece of tape along that 5/8" seam allowance marking.  You want a piece of tape that's a few inches long, and you'll put it to the right side of that line, just like in this photo:

The tape simply gives you a nice, clear edge to line your fabric up against as you are feeding your fabric into the machine.  If your fabric is straight going into the machine, your stitching will be straight.  You can use any kind of tape to do this, but just for reference, I use that white adhesive tape that you find in first aid kits.  This is my roll:

This tape is good because it's waterproof, it's white (so really easy to see), but also, it comes off cleanly when you want to take it off.  As you can see in the photo above, I have part of the tape covering up my bobbin cover.  When I need to change the bobbin, I'll have to take the tape up, so if you're going to do the tape trick, it's good to use a tape that comes off completely cleanly.

Ok, the next tip is really important, and if you're a completely new sewer (sewist??), you should practice this so that it's second nature.  As you start your line of stitching on your machine, hold the top thread and the bottom thread TAUT with your right hand.  I'm demonstrating this in the photo below:

 You'll usually be lightly holding on to your fabric and feeding it into the machine with your left hand, so use the other hand to hold those threads taut before you lower your needle and take that first stitch.  Here is me actually starting to sew a couple of stitches, with the threads held taut:

I cannot emphasize this strongly enough.  Get in the habit of doing this, and DO IT EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU START A LINE OF STITCHING ON YOUR MACHINE.  If you do, I can promise you that you will save yourself a HUGE amount of grief.  Why?  Because if you don't hold those threads taut, what can sometimes happen is that, when you start to sew, the action of the needle moving up and down can kind of "suck" those tail thread ends down into the bowels of the machine.  And what happens down there is that those loose ends get tangled up with the thread that is making your stitches, and what you end up with is a "bird's nest" -- a glob of tangled, messy threads on the back of your work.  Besides being a pain to rip out (which you'll have to do), it can actually be hard to disentangle the mess from your machine.  So, again, if you just follow this little tip EVERY SINGLE TIME, you will eliminate many, many potential problems.  And I'll tell you, it's stupid little things like the loose threads getting sucked down into the machine that make people get frustrated with sewing and want to quit.  I don't want that to happen to you!!!  So follow the tip and hold those threads!

One final tip.  This one is about a handy notion.  If you start to enjoy sewing and making garments or even home decor items, you'll be doing a lot of hemming.  Pretty much every project requires a nicely hemmed edge.  On our pajama pants, we'll have hems along the bottoms of both legs, but we'll also need to make a finished edge along the waistband.  The little tool pictured below, called a seam gauge or a sewing gauge, only costs a couple of bucks, and it is a great addition to your sewing basket.  I highly recommend getting one.  Any fabric store will have them, as will WalMart or other stores with fabric sections.

What's great about the seam gauge is that little red jobbie-do.  Yes, I know, that's a very technical term.  Anyway, that red thing slides up and down, and when you're turning up a hem, it's invaluable.  I won't explain right now how to use it, but I'll show you when we get to the hemming stage of our pants.  But, if you have a couple of extra bucks, I really do recommend getting one of these.  It's one of my most used sewing notions.  (If you don't want to commit to one, however, you can use a plain old ruler when hemming.)

Ok, that's it for now!  My plan is to post Part 2 of the pajama pants this Saturday, January 7.  So, if you're sewing along, have your pattern cut out and ready to go, and we'll start sewing some durable seams!  In the meantime, you can post questions to the thread that's on 2Peas on the NSBR board, or you can post questions in the blog comments here and I'll answer them as soon as I can.  Happy sewing!


  1. I followed you here from 2ps! You are doing a fantastic job explaining sewing to beginners! I have been sewing for 30 years and have actually made the pj bottoms you are making but I think I will follow along too!!



  2. I'm here from two peas :) I can't thank you enough for all the tips and tricks :) I don't like to read manuals and this format is perfect!