Updated: Sep 16
This is my personal top ten tips for sewing with a machine. I usually make small projects like bags and toys but here so different tips may apply if you like to make something bigger like curtains.
1. A wool felt pad and a small sized iron like a travel or craft iron, are perfect for smaller projects. You can set them up on the table next to you and you can quickly and easily iron a seam flat, or iron a crease out of a piece of fabric so you can measure it more accurately. I recommend an iron that doesn't turn off automatically after ten minutes. Although that is often a safety feature on many irons it can be a bit annoying when you are sewing as you constantly need to iron a seam or a wrinkled piece of fabric and you don't want to wait each time for the iron to warm up. Also some come with a longer cord which means you can use the iron where you want, rather than have to move the ironing board to the power socket Obviously if you use these options with children or pets around you will need to keep them out of the room.
2. It used to be that your only option was pins, and even with pins you were limited, but now there are so many different types of pins, some thinner, some longer. However, my tip is, use clips! These clips are small and easy to use and most importantly you will not stab your fingertips and risk getting blood on your fabric. They are much easier to use, in my opinion and there is a lot less risk of the fabric moving as happens sometimes as you try to attach the pin through several layers of fabric. Having said that, clips only work for the edge of the fabric, so there are times when only a pin will do, so invest in a couple of different types of pins. At the same time I would also suggest a rotary cutter over scissors, it is much easier to cut a continuous straight line or curves. Again there are times when you do need scissors both large fabric scissors and small ones for clipping thread. Microtip scissors are perfect for cutting thread.
3. Presser feet are your friend. I know a lot of people just use the basic presser foot that came with their machine for everything but there are so many out there that can be very helpful. Some have a guide along the side of them that you can line up with the edge of the fabric, if your machine allows you to move the needle from side to side, which most do, you can then use that to set the distance from the edge of the fabric to your neat row of stitches. Perfect for those projects that tell you to sew 1/8th of an inch from the seam and for all those top stitches that are out on show. A walking foot will make sewing some fabrics so much easier as the feed dogs feed the fabric through from the bottom and the walking foot feeds it through from the top. There are special feet for quilting and embroidery, for sewing in zips and buttons and all kinds of different stitches. Take a look at some and see which ones might be helpful to you.
4. Your project will look so much better if you pay attention to detail. Be sure to cut your fabric to the exact size and measure where you put the pockets so they line up perfectly. If you can fussy cut your fabric it will look so much better. This means line the fabric up with the pattern so your pockets sit almost invisibly, and putting the main or best part of the pattern front and centre. Another small thing that makes a big difference is changing the colour of thread as needed. If your interior fabric or coordinating fabric is a different colour, change the thread in your machine to match each time you sew stitches that are going to show, like top stitches. If you make a mistake, where possible undo it and fix the mistake, if you don't, you will always remember the mistake and it will stand out to you. When you have finished your project, use a tailor's ham, seem roll or even a rolled up towel to perfectly iron out every wrinkle to present your very best results.
5. Even if you are following a pattern, think about the design before you start, do you want to add anything extra, pockets, tabs, motifs, change the size a little, because sometimes even if you are quite new to sewing these things are easy changes to make but they need to be designed into the pattern at the start. Say for instance you want to make a simple pencil case with a zip but you want to be able to clip that pencil case to a folder or your bag, all you need to do is add a tab with a small ring or d ring on it. To do this you make a simple tab from fabric add it to the main fabric front of your pencil case before it's sewn together. Then when the case is sewn together it will get sewn into the seams of the case and be secure. So before you begin your project work out all those little changes and make notes in your pattern, use sticky notes or draw a picture showing your design to remind you to add these things at the right time. You will end up with an item that is unique to your needs.
6. Interfacing, so often I see people not use interfacing in a project and it ends up with no shape or body or strength. I'm not sure what it is about interfacing that make people ignore it but it will absolutely improve so many projects. Ask at your local fabric if they will let you buy small swatches of lots of different interfacings. Then you will be able to sandwich it between different fabric types to see how it feels to help you make a decision on the best interfacing for your project. Some interfacings have to be sewn in, some have glue on the back that melts with heat so you iron it onto the back of your fabric. Some interfacing is thick like fleece, some is thin like thin quilting cotton and some is papery and many types in between. Interfacing sandwiched between your main fabric and your backing fabric will add strength, padding, warmth, stiffness, or simply help keep the shape of your project, depending on the type of interfacing you choose.
7. Decide ahead of time if you need to wash your fabric. Many fabrics shrink when washed so if you are going to need to wash your finished project then definitely wash your fabric ahead of time. If you don't think you will want to wash it then you don't need to wash the fabric. I don't usually wash the fabric before making a bag because I hardly ever wash a bag, I tend to not get them dirty until they have started to wear out and the few times I have washed a bag i've been able to iron it back to shape reasonably successfully. Therefore I don't wash the fabric ahead of time. New fabric seems to be a bit easier to work with than washed fabric. I do almost always iron my fabric though, there is nothing worse than a wrinkle in the fabric adjusting the size of your cut.
8. When you are making a project with a backing fabric, say a sleep mask for instance, always clip your seams to the corners. You make a diagonal cut from the outside of your fabric towards the stitches in the corner so that when you turn your fabric the right way out you don't have all that extra fabric bulking up your corners and allowing you to get sharp corners. If you are using interfacing cut that out of the seem too, clip off the extra interfacing as close to the stitching as you can without clipping the stitches. It will help making your sleep mask a lot less bulky in the seams.
9. Take care of your tools. I always hide my sewing scissors and rotary cutters away because other people will always 'just quickly borrow them' each time they want to cut a tag off their clothes or open some packaging or need some sharp scissors. They are just one of those things that people grab the ones that are nearest to hand or easiest to find. I don't know how often I told my husband and kids not to mess with them, it was always 'it was just for a moment' or 'just a couple of quick snips' But using sewing scissors for anything other than fabric or thread will ruin them, they will lose their sharpness really quickly and sometimes develop little nicks along their blade, when used to cut paper and card or plastic tags. So now I hide my scissors in the drawer and leave out a decent pair of basic scissors with my other sewing tools so when they think they are borrowing my sewing scissors they are actually not. Also did you know that many sewing machine shops let you take your machine in for a yearly check up where they will clean and oil your machine and keep it in good working order for you.
10. I don't know how often I have convinced myself that a pattern I am following is wrong, that they made a mistake, only to find all too late that the mistake was mine. What I have actually found is that it is very rare for a pattern to be really wrong. Sure there might be a typo and the like, but usually the steps are exactly how they should be. Often testers test out the patterns before they are published so mistakes get picked up. What does happen though is you have it in your mind that something is going to work a particular way and when that is not how it works the pattern seems to be confusing and you start to think there are mistakes. Check out the pictures that are with the pattern try to see if you can see how it works there, if you need to check the website to find pictures or more information, you might even find a video. If that doesn't help walk away and take a break and look with fresh eyes later. You could even ask friends who sew or find a forum you can ask on but don't be too quick 'fixing' instructions that quite possibly aren't broken.