When you’re first starting out, sewing is going to be a little intimidating. That’s okay! Everyone gets the jitters before they take on a new project. The secret of conquering that fear is being well-prepared and having all the tools you need to get going.
Here’s some essential starter gear for first-time seamsters:
- Sewing Needles
- Shears -Do not use the dinged up, crooked, greasy pair of scissors you have in your kitchen. You won’t be able to make long, straight cuts with them and your project will become infinitely harder.
- Measuring tape – Get a bunch of these–they’re easy to lose.
- Fabric pencils – In a pinch you can use a white colored pencil, but it’s good to have this on hand. They’re incredibly useful when you’re planning where you’re going to cut and pin.
- Straight pins
- Clear ruler – Being able to see through it is a major advantage–it lets you keep an eye out for any pins, folds, cuts, hems, etc. in the area that you’re working on.
- Seam ripper – Everybody makes mistakes. A seam ripper makes sure that you can fix them without tearing up the whole outfit. These are also pretty easy to lose, so get a couple.
Don’t feel like you have to break the bank by stocking up on sewing tools before you start on your costume. Look around the house first–these guys have a habit of getting lost in cupboard corners and you could make good use of them. A lot of dollar stores carry them as well. If you can’t find them in either of those places, though, just go to your local convenience or craft store and pick up what you need.
Basic Stitches for Sewing
When you’re sewing, knowing all the different stitches you can use is a really big advantage. You’ll be able to choose the most efficient stitch for each step of your project and the finished product will look a lot more professional. Check out these two links for great guidelines to hand stitches and machine stitches.
Types of Fabrics
You don’t realize just how many different fabrics there are until you have to walk into a store and try to choose one. This is a small list of some commonly used fabrics and their defining features.
You’ll usually find these materials in T-shirts, blouses, skirts, and other kinds of casual wear. They’re easy to work with and versatile enough for almost any costume.
A soft and wrinkle-resistant material that will keep you warm in cold weather. It’s easier to dye than linen, but it isn’t as absorbent.
Strong, soft, and durable, linen fabric will keep you cool on hot days. It’s a little more absorbent than cotton but it isn’t as stretchy.
Made as a cheaper alternative to silk in WWII, rayon is a slinky fabric that will keep you cool in hot weather. It’s cost-efficient, stretchy, and drapes beautifully, but will shrink when put into a dryer and wrinkles easily.
Very popular for skinsuits and athletic wear because of its incredible stretch. Spandex is cool, shiny, and durable. It will also give a nice drape if used in loose clothing. Must be hand-washed.
When you have a big event coming up, you’ll want to use these fabrics. Great for magical or royal costumes and lingerie.
A soft material covered with small fibers that will keep you warm in winter. Has a gorgeous shine and gathers nicely. Can be very expensive and must be hand-washed or dry-cleaned.
A high-quality material with a beautiful shine and drape. Silk will keep you cool in hot weather and is relatively easy to work with, but it can be pricey and requires special care.
Lightweight and shiny, satin is similar to silk but generally a little stiffer and more fragile. Can be bought for very cheap at most craft stores. Does not have much stretch, but is easy to cut and sew. Must be hand-washed.
Shiny, stretchy, and breathable, this material is frequently used in avant-garde outfits. Relatively easy to work with, but is prone to snag and burn. Must be hand-washed.
These fabrics are made to withstand rough use. Perfect for hunters, warriors, barbarians, and post-apocalyptic survivors.
Very durable and stylish, but doesn’t breathe and can shrink if improperly dried. It’s also very expensive and can be difficult to sew. Not animal-friendly.
A kind of leather with a velvety finish. Durable, but very difficult to maintain. Cheaper than leather and a little easier to work with.
Literally “plastic leather.” An artificial version of leather that’s cheaper, easier to work with, and that will let your skin breathe. Available in more prints than leather. Easier to clean, but can be less durable and may crack over time.
A shiny, stiff, and waterproof material that’s popular for accessories, catsuits, and fetish clothing. Wet Look is a subset of vinyl. This material is easy to clean, but it can be difficult to sew because it sticks on itself and finished materials.
Under and Over
It would be hard to make clothes out of these materials alone, but they really help give that extra oomph. Good for royal, fairy, and magical costumes.
A light and absorbent material that will keep you cool in hot weather. Can range from sheer material like those used in veils or opaque material used in sundresses and summer blouses. Can get holes if put to hard use.
A sheer, lightweight fabric with gorgeous drape. Perfect for royal costumes because of its billowing effect. Its slippery and fragile quality makes it difficult to cut and sew and it must be carefully hand-washed.
Sheer, lightweight, and shimmery. This material is great for layering on clothes to add structure. It’s stiffer and easier to work with than chiffon, but can still be difficult when sewing and cutting. Must be hand-washed.
A very stiff and dense net material often used in tutus and petticoats. Tulle won’t frayed when cut, so it doesn’t need to be finished. It doesn’t drape well but gives fantastic volume when worn under skirts. It needs to be hand-washed.
If you’d like to know about any other kinds of fabric, the Fabric Glossary is an excellent resource. If you type a kind of fabric into the search bar at the top you can look at and buy any of the materials listed there.
If you’re just starting out, you’ll want to practice by working on some simple patterns first. It’s not only going to boost your confidence, but you’re going learn basic sewing construction along the way. Try out these:
These can all be altered to fit a lot of different costumes. Play around and see what you end up making!
When you decide to start working on a certain costume, there’s no rule that says you have to make it from scratch. Finding old or cheap clothes and altering them is a great way to get your costume done fast and make it look great. After all, you have the basic template–all you’re doing is adjusting the form to best fit you. There are a few different kinds of alterations.
The most conventional form of alteration is resizing a garment to make it best fit you. Hemming is an easy example of this. You can take in seams (sew them further into the garment) and make darts (small folds in clothes to create shape) to transform it into a form-fitting piece. You can also let out seams (sew them further out into the garment) to make them larger.
Check out this clear tutorial on making a dress smaller (scroll half-way down to get to it):
That’s just a small part of altering, though. Since you’re changing the shape of the original garment you can transform it into whatever you want. One of my favorite episodes of the Simpsons is “The Class Struggle in Springfield” because of how many different outfits Marge makes out of a pink Chanel suit. You can add sleeves to a tank top, turn a long shirt into a dress, make a skirt out of shorts…you get the idea.
Take this example of how to turn a T-shirt into a dress:
Altering opens up a world of possibility for costumers, especially when it comes to saving money. In an hour you could turn old clothes into a key part of your outfit when it would have taken you a whole day and a chunk of your funds to make it from scratch. Likewise, thrift shops and clearance bargains become gold mines. Every one of my costumes includes pieces that were something else before I got to them. It really is as simple as having a vision, planning it out, and sitting down to do it.
Tips and Tricks
Sewing will come naturally with experience…and so many mistakes you couldn’t count them if tried. You’ll screw up a few times on every project, but that’s okay. These tips and tricks will help keep your mishaps to a manageable minimum.
Research and Plan
I cannot stress how important this step is. When you decide that you’re going to make a costume, it’s extremely helpful to do some research about it and plan out your ideas. If you’re cosplaying a character from a certain franchise, look into their background to figure out why they’re wearing that outfit. If you’re doing a period piece, see what materials were available back then to make sure your costume is accurate. Draw out your ideas on a piece of paper and see if you can anticipate any problems. Researching and planning will help you find the right fabrics and techniques for your project, tell you what to look out for, and give you the inspiration you need to get started.
You don’t want to be half-way through your pirate shirt before you realize that it’s a size too small. Checking your work as you go along will help you catch small mistakes before they snowball into disasters.
- Outline each piece before you cut it and make sure it matches the pattern or design.
- Check that the right pieces are pinned in the right direction. If you can, turn the pieces out as if you had just finished sewing them. If something doesn’t look right, you can go back and repin it.
- Check your sewing periodically. If you’re working on a sewing machine, peek under the foot to make sure the stitching is catching on both sides, that there are no knots, and that the fabric isn’t bunching. If you’re hand-sewing, make sure that stretching the material won’t break your stitches and that you didn’t catch some of the fabric accidentally.
- Do dry-runs. Whenever you complete a full section of your project, very gently try it on or use it to make sure everything is okay.
Imagine messing up a stitch, fumbling to find your seam ripper, struggling to keep your fabric in place as you search for a pin, and needing to crawl on the floor because you dropped the needle. Then imagine doing that three more times. Staying organized is a crucial part of any project. If you don’t give everything a proper place, you could spend double the amount of time needed because you were looking for all your tools. Here’s some useful hints for keeping everything within reach:
- Get a pin cushion (they really do come in handy).
- Have one container that keeps all your sewing stuff together and designate certain spots inside it for each tool. This doesn’t have to be fancy–putting everything in plastic bags is fine. Just make sure each section is labeled and easy to get to.
- Set out all your tools before you begin.
- Put things away once you’re done with them.
- Have a trash bag available for extra thread and fabric scraps.
- Have the plan you made for your project available so you can check through your progress.
Ask for help
If you don’t know how to do something, don’t just put it off or stop working. That’s the #1 way to be up until 7 in the morning the day before your event finishing everything up. Just ask someone to help you! A crafty friend, a family member, friends on Facebook and Twitter…there are plenty of avenues for you to search through. And whatever you do, don’t feel bad for asking them. It’s nice to know you’re helping someone out, and you’re giving them a chance to show off their skills. It’s a win-win for everyone.
- Iron your material before you use it.
- Spend a long time making your pinning perfect.
- Don’t rush cutting.
- Don’t sew too fast.
- Be careful of trying to sew through too many layers of fabric.
- Take breaks every 20 minutes (because no one actually stops every 15).
- Have really good lighting.
- Start working on your project two weeks before you think you should.
- Don’t think that satin will stretch.
- Remember that cotton will stretch.
- For goodness sake, if you’re sewing through leather have a really good thimble on hand.
- Take on a project that is one level below what you think you can do and elaborate on it later.
- Don’t be scared to waste fabric.
These are just some general tips that have helped me in every project I’ve taken on. They won’t make you an expert right away–I’m certainly no master seamstress–but they will help you on your way there.