I’m mostly a self-taught sewist. I took one two-hour class at a sewing machine store when I lived in Madison, and that’s been it for formal training.

This means I’ve mostly learned by trial and error, online tutorials, and books and magazines. I’ve missed having a seasoned sewist looking over my shoulder. I imagine she would drop nuggets of wisdom on me, offer words of encouragement, and commiserate when I hit the wall.

Now, I’m not the world’s greatest or most experienced sewist, but I’ve learned some sewing tips that could be useful to someone starting out. Here are twelve truths I wish I would have possessed when I started sewing:

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1.) Get a rotary cutter.

Sweet fancy Moses, my life is so much better with a rotary cutter. It slices through fabric like a hot knife through butter. My cutting is WAY more accurate because of my rotary cutter. Be aware, though, it’s very easy to get ahead of yourself and make cuts you wish you could take back. Also, it’s easy to cut yourself with a wheeled razor. With great power comes great responsibility.

Photo by kelly via Flickr

2.) Cut fabric small.

I finally came around to this recently. I would cut pattern pieces from big yardages, which are tricky to handle. To avoid wasting fabric, I could cram all the pattern pieces as tight as possible on my big piece of fabric. And my big piece of fabric would slide around and be tricky to fold because of its size. Save time and headaches by cutting yardages into manageable chunks — chunks that fit comfortably on your cutting surface. If your yardage is almost impossible to fold, smooth out, or keep in place, cut it into smaller pieces.

3.) Use a transparent press cloth.

With a transparent press cloth, you can see what you’re doing when you drop a blazing-hot chunk of metal on top of your sewing project. And you protect your project from spots and scorching, which can happen quickly. I use a one-foot square piece of silk organza with pinked edges — nothing fancy. I noticed recently that Target sells press cloths next to the ironing boards (so you could pick up press cloths on one of your regular Target runs).

4.) Pin shifty fabric to tissue paper.

A few summers ago, I was lining a shift dress with Bemberg rayon. When it came time to sew the lining pieces together, I was VERY surprised to discover that the pieces were all kinds of crazy. I thought I was careful! Honest! I recut the lining by sandwiching it between layers of tissue paper and pinning the pattern pieces on top of the top layer a tissue paper. So, from the bottom up, the layers were: tissue paper, Bemberg rayon, tissue paper, pattern pieces. Yes, it was a lot of pinning, but the new lining pieces didn’t budge and were extremely accurate. Take time to make the tissue paper sandwich, or you’ll have to recut anyway. Trust me on this.

Clip art via Via PublicDomainPictures.net. Text by yours truly.

5.) Sew slowly.

Don’t let your machine turn into a runaway train. Go more slowly than you think is necessary. You’ll have greater control, giving your brain more time to react when things go astray. Plus, your stitches will look nicer. I get frustrated sometimes by sewing slowly, but the alternative is hand sewing, which is slower still.

6.) Buy a machine with speed control and an auto threader.

On a related note, if you can afford it, buy a machine that lets you control speed. This feature is so nice for beginning sewists, but not many starter sewing machines have it as an option. It feels good to gun the foot pedal. With a speed governor, you can floor it and still have control. I also like having an automatic threader. You pull and release a lever with a satisfying “snap.” I also think if your eyesight’s not the greatest, an auto threader is the only game in town. For the record, I think speed control is more important than an auto threader.

7.) Buy the sewing foot.

Sewing machine feet are the best. If you’re struggling with a technique (gathering, quilting, sewing with vinyl, etc.), there’s a foot for you (gathering foot, walking foot, nonstick foot, respectively). Now, you don’t NEED special feet. But, they can make your experience so much more pleasant and faster. You’ll get better results with less drama. #winning

8.) Mark your seam allowance on your sewing machine.

I often use a piece of painter’s tape, which doesn’t leave a residue. Smack it on there at five-eighths, half an inch, a quarter inch, etc. Sometimes those little hash marks seem to disappear or get blurry as you stare at a seam. A big, blue piece of tape won’t let you down. If you don’t have a computerized machine and have a metal throat plate, you could try a magnetic seam guide. I used one of these until I got a computerized machine. (Computers + magnets = bad news.) Jumping a back to sewing feet for a minute, you also could get a foot with a little ruler on it (see above). Make it easy on yourself to stitch the most accurate seam allowance possible.

Photo by kelly via Flickr

9.) Take your time with easing.

Even though I’ve been sewing for a while, I still struggle with easing. Joining pattern pieces that are different sizes is tricky. I get the best results when I take my time and keep dividing the two edges in half to eliminate wavy sections. I am yet to find a shortcut for easing that works for me. I keep at it with pins until I know the seam will pass politely under my needle. There are some sewing bloggers who can ease at the machine. This blows my mind.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

10.) Hand sewing isn’t so bad.

Really. I used to hate hand sewing, and my hand sewing technically isn’t great, but it does the job. I haven’t tried this yet, but if you want even stitches (duh, who doesn’t?) draw hashes on your thumb or forefinger to create a tiny, built-in ruler! Brilliant! I actually started liking hand sewing when I stitched a bunch of fabric Christmas ornaments. Hand sewing gives you a lot of control when you’re manipulating fabric, so relish that experience. Reframe hand sewing as a luxury! Treat yo self to some hand sewing.

Photo by pcutler via Flickr

11.) Beware of cheap fabric.

If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Sigh. This is the saddest of my sewing tips. I like a good deal, and too often I’ve been drawn to a color or pattern on a fabric that’s had an unfortunate fiber content or characteristics. If you can’t figure out what a fabric is (polyester, acrylic, cotton, etc.), take it home at your own risk. And no matter what, really think about what a fabric is going to be like to work with and how it’s going to launder. Will it be unbearable to ease? Will it pill after one wash? Is there a chance it’s a synthetic that will melt under an iron? Think about worst-case scenarios on those cheap fabrics, and decide if it’s worth it.

12.) Don’t start at the edge.

It’t not super critical to start at the VEEERRRY edge of a piece of fabric. I used to get hung up on starting at the edge. Then I realized when I started at the very edge, there was a good chance that the edge would get all mashed up in the feed dogs or hole in the throat plate through which the needle passes. Moving ahead a touch solves this problem. Remember that the beginning of a line of stitching probably will end up secured in a seam allowance. If you want the stitches to go all the way to the edge, start sewing slightly below the top edge. Then, flip around your project so that top of the seam is at the bottom and sew off the edge (see above). It’s easier to sew OFF the edge than it is to sew FROM the edge.

Over to you: What do you wish you would have known when you started sewing? What were the best sewing tips you received as a novice sewist? Please sound off in comments! My goal is to update this collection of tips periodically, and your input is so, so valuable. Thanks in advance for doing me and other sewists a big solid.

P.S. Here are some other posts chock-full of sewing tips:

Swimwear sewing tips: 8 can’t-miss resources in one place
How to survive a long-term sewing project
The easy way to calculate flying geese quilt blocks