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What I Started Making When Learning To Sew

I thought it was about time to start sharing my thoughts about what I’ve been making – which patterns I’ve been working with and anything they’ve taught me, what I’ve found difficult or things about them I’ve decided to have a go at changing (pattern hacking). My intention is to do this once a month, as I’m aiming to make at least one thing a week. There will be times when I won’t manage this, there will also be times (as there are currently) when I’ve been making several things per week. I keep referring to these as ‘things’ rather than clothes as I don’t always make clothes – I like to make items for around the house or as gifts as well as making my own clothes. For this first post, I’m going to share my thoughts about the things I made (or attempted to make) when I got back into sewing around two years ago.

My first attempt at sewing for 10 to 15 years
This was my first attempt at sewing in 10-15 years and I chose to have a go at something I'd never done before - making a bag from scratch, including a zippered inner pocket

The first thing I decided to make was a new bag for myself. I didn’t have a sewing machine, I didn’t have a pattern, I just decided I was fed up with trying to stuff the growing list of things to carry around with me (reusable shopping bags, reusable cup, water bottle, etc) into my current bag. I had a go at drafting my own pattern, borrowed my mum’s machine and just… started. Anything I didn’t know I googled – like how to set up the sewing machine and how to sew a zippered pocket – which, honestly, is the great thing about learning a new skill (or refreshing an old one) these days. There’s a tutorial for almost everything on the internet, so there’s no excuse for not learning new skills! I got all of my lining made…and then the project fell to the wayside.

I had been determined to use as little synthetic materials as possible and so wanted to use real leather, but had found it really difficult to work with. This, in hindsight, is because the leather I was trying to work with was totally unsuitable to be machine sewn and I didn’t have the right tools to hand sew it. I tried to find a viable alternative and discovered “recycled leather”, only to be disappointed with it when I opened the bag – it looked just like faux leather, there was even a plastic-y coating to it which was pulling away at the edges where it had been cut. To this day I’m not convinced it in’t just faux leather (I’ve still not used it) – whether the company accidentally gave me the wrong item or whether the “recycled” bit was just plain wrong, who knows. Since then, I haven’t had the heart to continue working on the project, even though my husband keeps reminding me that it’s unfinished! I keep flitting between liking the design I came up with and absolutely hating it, so two years later I’m still using the same bag as I was.

Looking at retro and vintage sewing patterns

After that I inherited my current sewing machine and had a go at upcycling. I had a cheap Ikea laundry bag which was falling apart, so I decided to take measurements from it and make a new bag to fit the metal frame. I bought a 3 metre remnant of thick curtain and upholstery weight cotton and set to work. It went surprisingly well, though the handles aren’t great and so are starting to tear and be in need of repair (having said this, it’s still lasted longer than the original Ikea bag). I reinforced the seams and made my own tape to go around the handles, though I wasn’t yet aware of how to make bias tape properly and I’m sure that this is why the handles are starting to go. As I decided to make it exactly like the original and sew the bag directly to the frame, my husband helped to hold the frame whilst I sewed around it. My stitching here wasn’t the neatest or the straightest, as you might imagine when two people are trying to work on the same thing, but it’s held together well. There’s things that I would definitely improve upon if I made a new one now, but until it fails completely I’m happy to just mend it as is needed. I still have loads of fabric left over and will eventually get around to making some storage boxes for our wardrobe with it.

The retro Vogue pattern I sewed my wedding dress from
The Vogue V2962 pattern I chose to make my wedding dress from - the first pattern I ever used

I think I must have gotten a bit excited about making things again because at this point I decided I wasn’t going to buy a dress for our upcoming wedding, I wanted to make one. I spent ages searching for the right pattern and eventually found it in the Vogue Vintage V2962. I’ve mentioned in my previous post about handmade weddings that I like the clothing style of the 1950s and this is the reprint of a pattern from 1957. Described on the back of the pattern as “a lined halter dress in two lengths” with a difficulty of “easy”, the length I chose (dress B, the longer one) states it requires 6 metres of fabric! Much of this fabric ends up in the skirt, which you can easily fit a couple of petticoats under if you want the fuller skirt look that was so typical of the 1950s. Ultimately I chose not to use petticoats as I actually really like the way it sits on me and I have great fun swishing the skirt around!

Making my own wedding dress

It was this very first pattern which really taught me the value of making toiles for testing when you aren’t sure about the fit, a technique, or you just really want to get the piece of clothing right! It took four or five toiles to get the bodice section right (we didn’t bother making a toile of the skirt as it is simply constructed and uses a lot of fabric). I can only assume that when this pattern was drafted back in 1957, women wore huge bullet bras, as the amount of fabric in the bust (especially for someone with a slim frame) was utterly incredible. After the first couple of toiles, my mother-in-law (who guided me throughout the construction of my dress) came up with the idea of pleating the bust section rather than trying to gather it as per the pattern instructions. It fitted me so much better and I found it much easier to sew! We still had to shrink the pattern for the bust pieces down a few times to get the fit right, but once we found that pleating solved several issues we were having, it was much more straightforward. I’d definitely advise making a toile of the bodice for this dress, no matter what size you are, just to see if the original gathering technique advised in the pattern works for you or whether pleating fits you better.

Now, I said the skirt is simply constructed – and it is – but that doesn’t mean that gathering 5 metres of fabric is easy – certainly not for one person to do alone! It took myself, my mother and my mother-in-law all gathering the fabric together, being extremely careful not to break the threads along which we were gathering! There are feet for sewing machines which you can use to gather fabric and this may make things easier, though we were gathering by hand. Stitching the gathered skirt to the bodice wasn’t especially easy either. It’s perhaps not the best pattern for a complete beginner to dressmaking to start on, but it’s a good teacher!

Being a vintage pattern, it seemed only right to finish it with vintage buttons. After searching around on Etsy for a while, I came across some pretty mother of pearl buttons which were made in France and – judging by the cards they were packaged on – were likely made around the 1950s or 60s. These worked really well with the button loops, though they’re not easy to do up yourself! We added a series of hooks and loops to ensure everything stayed in place on the day (nobody wants a wardrobe malfunction after all, let alone on their wedding day!) If I make another dress with this pattern in future, I think I’d probably swap the loops for regular buttonholes to make it easier to do the dress up by yourself, that way I wouldn’t need all the hooks and loops either. It’s also really heavy – it hangs on the hanger by some thick loops sewn into the seam where the skirt meets the bodice – so while this is cotton poplin, I’d also consider using an even lighter weight of fabric next time, like silk or double gauze.

Vintage mother of pearl buttons
Here's the detail of my wonderful vintage mother of pearl buttons up the back of my wedding dress

After making my wedding dress, I decided I wanted to make another dress for my birthday. Again I wanted to make a vintage dress and chose a pattern which I’d considered when choosing which to make for my wedding dress – this time the Butterick B5813, a reprint from 1956. I fell in love with a fabric from Hawthorn Supply Co. in America and, while wincing at the shipping and import fees, ordered over 3 yards. The dress only actually needs 2 metres, but given this was coming from America, I didn’t want to take any chances! Considering this was only the second item of clothing I ever made, looking back at it I’m quite impressed with myself that I managed to make a pattern graded “average” almost entirely by myself. For this dress, I only needed to ask my mother-in-law for her help when it came to installing the zip.

The Butterick B5813 pattern
I chose to make dress A (the ochre coloured one on the right) for my birthday, though I'm tempted to make dress C next time (the pink one on the left)

Both of the above dresses contain mistakes in their construction – you can see in the photo of the buttons down the back of my wedding dress that I made a mistake with the back dart – but I don’t mind. While it’s important to recognise and rectify your big mistakes which may cause issues with the construction of your clothes or items, I don’t think it’s worth trying to pursue absolute perfection. Little mistakes will always occur and nothing will ever be entirely perfect as they’re handmade, but then “perfect” doesn’t really exist anyway. Even shop bought clothes and items contain mistakes – I’ve lost count over the years of how many buttons I’ve had to resew on jackets immediately after I’ve bought them, for example. No-one notices your little mistakes unless you point them out, so don’t beat yourself up over them, plus I think they give your clothes a little more character.

Making my own jeans

After this I stopped sewing for a while. I’d slightly overdone things in the run up to the wedding and wanted some time away from my sewing machine. This is important for anyone I think, no matter what you’re doing, to be able to recognise when you’re getting a little burned out by a particular activity. When I went back to my sewing machine, it was to complete yet another ambitious project: a pair of jeans.

My first pair of jeans
My first pair of jeans! Comfy to wear and much better fitting than the pair of Levi's I had before I made these

In case you haven’t realised by now, I like challenges – or at least I tell myself at the time that I take them on that I do. For these jeans, I borrowed my mother-in-law’s copy of the Butterick B5682 pattern, though I’ve since bought the Megan Nielsen Dawn pattern (though I’ve not made anything from that pattern yet). Jeans aren’t actually overly complicated, but they require working with heavy weight fabrics and properly fitting them isn’t always easy. Trying to sew four layers of 14oz denim together at the crotch without breaking needle or thread was probably the most difficult part, though I did endure a couple of rather painful fittings where the pins stabbed into my hips and legs. Because of the difficulty I was finding in making my jeans, they took quite a while for me to finish – mostly because I found it easier to procrastinate than to work up the courage to tackle them! I was really pleased with them when I finished making my jeans though – they fit well, though not perfectly as I’d tried to just get them finished at the later stages and so didn’t try them on as often, but they are comfy to wear. I should have used a stronger stitch to sew the seams however, as a couple of times now I’ve had to repair the non-reinforced seams along the outer sections, and in future I think I’ll try and use a stronger type of thread to sew them with too. I might also try another method to finish the seams, both for strength and to keep them neat (the raw ends of the denim in the seams keep annoying me).

My jeans are the last piece of clothing I made for a while, until lockdown that is. I was busy with my filmmaking business and the general run up to Christmas made it difficult for me to feel as though I could give myself the time to sew. I’ve been making much more since then – which I’ll go through in the next of these monthly posts – and I’ve learned a lot by making these first projects, plus more since making them which I’d feel confident applying to the patterns the next time I decide to make them.

Grateful for the learning curve

All of this is a learning curve – there’s things I’ve attempted and done successfully that more experienced dressmakers and sewists have been a little afraid to try and other things which are actually reasonably simple which have scared me. Buttonholes used to terrify me – to the point that I opted to just hand sew the one on my jeans, given that it was just a single buttonhole I needed – but I learned how to make them properly and now I don’t feel scared about having to do them. Ultimately, if you want to make something I think you should go for it – and if there are things about the pattern you don’t know how to do or are otherwise scared of or unsure about, learn how to do them along the way. You won’t gain anything from putting it off or finding something easier to do, but you will open up more opportunities for yourself if you put the time and effort into learning. Don’t be afraid to ask other sewists and dressmakers for help – whether that’s ones you know or those who are part of an online community. One of the great things about the sewing community is that everybody is in it together for the same love of making things and people generally don’t mind giving advice or helping you out.