How To Sew Your Own Clothes : Life Kit Learning how to sew opens up a world of options for making your own clothes — or transforming old ones. This guide can help you get started.
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You Sewed Your Own Masks. Here's How To Make Clothes

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You Sewed Your Own Masks. Here's How To Make Clothes

You Sewed Your Own Masks. Here's How To Make Clothes

You Sewed Your Own Masks. Here's How To Make Clothes

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/991701027/993040860" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A basic hand-sewing kit includes thread, hand-sewing needles, a thimble, beeswax, a pair of fabric scissors, an iron and ironing board. Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

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Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

A basic hand-sewing kit includes thread, hand-sewing needles, a thimble, beeswax, a pair of fabric scissors, an iron and ironing board.

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first recommended wearing masks and supplies of personal protective equipment were limited, home sewers kicked into gear and started making their own. People bought so many sewing machines that retailers had trouble keeping them in stock.

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Anyone who has tried making a cloth mask has probably picked up some pretty useful sewing skills. Those basic features that make masks more comfortable, like pleats or darts, are the same techniques used for making garments. (After all, a mask is basically pants for your face.)

So what if you've been thinking about taking the leap into making your own clothes? We asked some experts how to get started.

What You Need To Get Started

  • A sewing machine (or materials for hand-sewing: thread, needles, beeswax and a thimble)
  • Fabric scissors
  • Iron
  • Ironing board
  • Seam ripper (if you plan on removing stitches)

You don't need much, not even a sewing machine.

Leila Kelleher is a patternmaker based in Ontario, Canada, and the co-founder of Muna and Broad, a company that makes beginner-friendly sewing patterns for people with larger bodies. "Some people actually hand-sew entire garments," she says, "and that's amazing. I don't have the patience to do that, but hand-sewing is honestly a really useful skill to have."

One useful stitch for sewing garments by hand is called the backstitch. Kelleher also recommends learning the invisible stitch, also called the slip stitch or ladder stitch, "and you can use that for a seam that's popped open, any kind of little repairs."

A basic hand-sewing kit includes thread, hand-sewing needles and a thimble, if you plan on doing a lot of work by hand. Running the thread through some beeswax will prevent it from tangling. Also useful: a pair of fabric scissors, which are sharper than the kind used to cut paper, as well as an iron and ironing board.

If you are looking for a sewing machine, Kelleher suggests looking for a vintage mechanical model.

OK, what about fabric?

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Three pieces of fabric in mustard yellow, dark gray, and bright yellow and green are stacked against a light purple backdrop. Two spools of thread in pea green and marigold yellow are stacked on top of the fabric, and a measuring tape is draped across the front.
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Michael Gardner has been making clothes for his daughter, Ava, since she was little. When he was first learning to sew, he started out by upcycling clothes he already owned. "Upcycling is basically taking something that already exists — it can be something old from your closet," he says, "and you're creating something completely new from it."

Before buying fabric, do some research on how different materials feel and move, and figure out what feels good for your body. Woven fabrics — like cotton, canvas or linen — might be easier for beginners.

When it comes to picking a project, keep it simple.

If you're just starting out, opt for a project like a pull-on top or elastic-waist shorts to keep things simple. Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

If you're just starting out, opt for a project like a pull-on top or elastic-waist shorts to keep things simple.

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

"I feel like jumping out into, like, zippers and buttons can be very intimidating," Gardner says. A skirt, a pair of elastic-waist shorts or a pull-on top made from a woven fabric all make for great first projects.

Whatever you make, if you're sewing clothes for the very first time, you are probably going to make a mistake.

"I'll never forget trying to make Ava a dress. I had cut out the body, the sleeves, sewn it all together, and when she put it on she couldn't move," Gardner says. "I didn't know any better than to pay attention to the direction of the stretch in the fabric."

Gardner had a reason to push through those early challenges. "I love the fact that I get to have my fatherhood experience merged with my creativity," he says, "and I'm also very proud that I've gotten this far just by teaching myself."

What is a sewing pattern, where do you find one, and do you even need one?

If working from a pattern feels intimidating, you can trace a garment you already own to create your own pattern. Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

If working from a pattern feels intimidating, you can trace a garment you already own to create your own pattern.

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Sewing patterns are the templates and instructions used to cut out fabric pieces and assemble them into finished garments. Our experts recommend two different approaches to getting started with patterns.

Kelleher suggests checking out independent sewing-pattern companies. Some independent designers create detailed, step-by-step guides for beginner-friendly patterns. That's how I (Meg) got back into sewing a little over a year ago. (Kelleher makes at least one of these tutorials for every pattern at Muna and Broad.)

If the thought of working from any pattern seems totally overwhelming, you might want to try Gardner's approach: tracing something from your own closet, a process that will probably involve some trial and error. "For me, I feel like the process of copying is a little bit more freeing," he says. "You're going to make a few mistakes."

You deserve fabulous clothes that fit.

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
A measuring tape is arranged in a heart shape on a light purple background.
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

"I come from the philosophy that your body is your body and if clothes don't fit it, it's the clothes' problem. It's not your body's problem," says Kelleher.

A couple of tips for getting a good fit: Start with a pattern size that's as close to your measurements as possible, and make small adjustments as you go. (Here's a guide to measuring yourself.) And you can always start with a mock-up using inexpensive fabric — in sewing this is called a muslin or a toile.

There are also resources for queer and gender-expansive sewers who want to try patterns that haven't been designed with their bodies in mind — sites like SewQueer and The Sewcialists.

Fitting clothes is one of the most challenging parts of learning to sew. Ultimately, it's a process of trial and error and getting to know what works for your body.

Find your community.

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Spools of thread of varying colors are lined up in a loose row against a light yellow backdrop.
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Kelleher and Gardner both talked about how important the online sewing community has been for them.

Kelleher, who identifies as fat, says she hadn't been using Instagram. "And then I discovered some hashtags like #plussizesewing, #curvysewing, #fatsewing, those kinds of things. And I started seeing beautiful fat and large bodies wearing clothes that they had made that just look fantastic. And I found that really empowering for myself."

She also pointed out how useful it is to see a garment you want to sew on someone with a body like yours.

And some advice courtesy of Gardner's daughter, Ava, that's going to come in handy when you're ready to show the world what you made: "Confidence is key for her. So usually once she puts something on, out loud she'll say exactly how she feels. 'I feel beautiful' or 'I love this.' ... Giving yourself credit for what you're actually doing is very important."


The podcast portion of this episode was produced by Liam McBain.

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