Dressmaking: Tips and Tricks for Beginners

If you’re just starting out on your dressmaking journey, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the basic skills and techniques you need to know, including ones that don’t involve your sewing machine. Here’s what you need to know before you get started…

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Images and text taken from The Beginners Guide to Dressmaking by Wendy Ward, published by David & Charles.



Working with Fabric

Fabric is your main ‘ingredient’ in sewing, so it makes sense to understand a bit about what you’re working with and how it likes to be treated. Fabric comes on a roll and fabric rolls come in different widths. Knowing this is crucial to working out how much fabric you need to buy to fit all of your pattern pieces, so check the width of the fabric before buying to be sure you buy the right amount. Fig 1 shows some of the common fabric terms used in dressmaking. Most of this also applies to knitted fabric, but there isn’t strictly speaking a bias in knitted fabric.

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Fabric Types

There are many different types of fabrics, some made from natural fibres such as cotton, wool and silk, and others from synthetic materials such as polyester. Fabrics are also formed in different ways, the main ones being woven and knitted.
Woven fabrics have two sets of threads running at right angles, weaving under and over each other. They have a tendency to fray once cut. Knitted fabrics are formed in the same way as something that is hand knitted, but using many very thin needles. Knitted fabrics won’t fray once cut, but depending on the fabric can unravel or ladder.

Washing Fabric

It is always a good idea to wash fabric before cutting out your garment. Fabric shouldn’t shrink, but you never know! Wash it on the recommended cycle – there should be washing instructions with the fabric composition information on the roll. If not, ask in the shop when you are buying.


Pressing is an essential part of your sewing, so get in the habit of ‘pressing as you go’, so each bit of sewing is pressed before moving on to the next part. Pressing really can make the difference between making a professional-looking garment and a shabby, rushed-together one. Here are some tips on pressing.

  • Test the setting of your iron on a spare bit of your fabric first. It needs to be hot but not too hot.
  • Press from the wrong side of your fabric.
  • If you’re using a natural fibre fabric, it’s fine to use a bit of steam, but be wary with synthetics and always test first.
  • For delicate fabrics, use a pressing cloth so that you can get your iron as hot as possible while not damaging the fabric.

Checking Fabric Grain of Woven Fabrics

Once your fabric has been prepared you need to check its grainline and straighten it if necessary. It is important to understand how a fabric’s ‘grain’ affects its behaviour. The ‘straight grain’ or ‘grainline’ means the lengthwise direction of the fabric. Knowing this will help you place your pattern pieces correctly onto your fabric (see also Using Paper Patterns).

To help identify the straight grain, first find the selvedges on your fabric. These are the neat, self-finished edges that run along the two lengthwise edges of your cut piece of fabric, which won’t fray. In general, the straight grain runs vertically through all the different parts of a garment (though there are exceptions to this). One of the most important reasons for understanding what the straight grain is and getting it in the right position on all your cut fabric pieces is that if you get it wrong (often called cutting ‘off grain’), your finished garment won’t hang well and your seams could stretch and pucker. Bear the following points in mind:

  • Woven fabrics are made of lengthwise threads (warp threads) and crosswise threads (weft threads). Warp threads are on the ‘straight’ grain and are the strongest with the least stretch. Weft threads run across the width and are also firm but with a bit more give.
  • The ‘bias’ direction is at a 45-degree angle to warp and weft threads and has the least strength and the most stretch.
  • Bias-cut fabric can be useful where you want fabric to stretch, such as for binding.
  • The selvedges (or selvages) are self-finished edges that run along the length of the fabric and so can help you to identify the straight grain or grainline.

1. To check fabric grain, pull a thread across the width of the fabric to straighten the ends (Photo 1). Cut along this line where you have pulled the thread to square up each end of your length of fabric.

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2. Fold the fabric along the length so the selvedges are level. Does the fabric lie flat and square without any wrinkles (Fig 2), or does it need to be twisted (Fig 3) to be wrinkle-free?

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3. If your fabric is twisted as in Fig 3, you need to straighten the grain. Lay the fabric out flat and pull the
selvedges firmly along the bias (diagonally between the selvedges) – see Photo 2. You might need to do
this a couple of times to completely straighten it. Don’t overdo it though – you don’t want to tear the fabric!

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Using Paper Patterns

To make a garment you first need a paper pattern, which will be attached to your fabric to cut around. There are several sizes all printed on the same pattern sheets and the printed sheets are double-sided. The first thing you need to do is to decide which size you need for the project you are making, identify the pattern pieces you need and trace them onto a fresh sheet of paper. Don’t cut the Pattern Sheets, otherwise you won’t be able to use all the other patterns! 

Note: some of the patterns need to be traced in two parts and joined together. You can identify these by the line shown in Fig 1, which will be along each edge that needs to be joined. Match up the two sides of the pattern pieces along these lines and tape together.

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Understanding Pattern Sheets

The Pattern Sheets show the outline of the pattern piece in the different sizes, indicating where you need to follow the correct cutting line for the size you’ve chosen. There is a key on the Pattern Sheets for the sizes used. The marks and symbols on patterns can be a bit of a mystery to new stitchers, so here are
explanations of the ones used on the patterns in this book.

  • Seam allowance – all the pattern pieces tell you what seam allowance is used and it is also at the beginning of all the project instructions.
  • Grain lines – there will be a line with an arrow on each end on every pattern piece (Fig 2). These are the straight grain lines and tell you how to position the pattern piece in relation to the straight grain in the fabric (Fig 3).
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    Beginners Guide to Dressmaking #beginner #guide #dressmaking #sewing #learn
  • Fold lines – sometimes pattern pieces need to be cut with one edge on a fold in the fabric, so that when the fabric is cut out you have one big symmetrical pattern piece (Fig 3A). Each pattern piece that requires you to do this will have a slightly different grain line (with the ends turned in
    and pointing to the edge where the fold should be (Fig 2). 
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  • Notches – these are shown as solid short lines on the cutting line of a pattern piece, helping you match seams accurately and join the correct pieces together (Fig 4).
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  • Other pattern markings – the patterns also include some other markings: circles to show things like the end of a zip or a pocket position, and darts are shown with dots and lines in the shape of a wedge or a diamond (Fig 4).

Pinning the Pattern to the Fabric

So, your fabric is ready to use and you have your traced off paper patterns – it’s time to start making your garment.

1. It’s important to follow the correct cutting layout for the width of fabric you are using and the project you are making. The Cutting Plans included with all the projects ensure you are using the right pattern pieces and that you are putting them in the right position on your fabric. The plans have been worked out for the best fit of the pattern pieces on the fabric, and if followed accurately will make sure you don’t run out of fabric.

2. Select the Cutting Plan for the width of fabric you are using and gather all the pattern pieces that you need. Fold the fabric if necessary, as in the Cutting Plan, and loosely arrange the pattern pieces as shown to check that they fit and that you have all the pieces.

3. Now the pattern pieces can be pinned onto your fabric. Pin the corners of the pattern pieces first, smoothing down each piece so they are nice and flat. This bit is easier if the patterns are held in place with weights.  I have lots of lovely old irons I use for this job, but tins will do just as well, so raid your cupboards!

4. When all your pattern pieces are in position and pinned in the corners, go back around and add more pins so that all your pattern pieces are securely held to your fabric, especially around curves.

Cutting Fabric

The fabric is all pinned – now you’re ready to chop! My newer students often don’t like this bit as it makes them feel nervous to cut up the fabric they’ve just bought, but as long as you have checked the pieces and followed the Cutting Plan you are good to go. I love the sound of scissors slicing through fabric and I’m sure you will soon love it too. There are a couple of easy things you can do to make your cutting more enjoyable.

  • Select the right scissors for cutting fabric. Look after your scissors, keeping your fabric scissors only for fabric to keep them sharp.
  • Try to have the paper pattern on the outside of your scissor blades, so if you are right-handed, have the pattern to the right of the scissors and if left-handed, have the pattern to the left of the scissors. The edge of the pattern won’t move as much if you cut this way.
  • Don’t lift up the fabric while you are cutting, keep it flat on the table and try not to move it around the table at all. If you have enough space, move yourself around the table
    rather than the fabric.

Transferring Pattern Markings

To transfer the pattern information onto your fabric, you can use tailor’s chalk, a chalk pencil or chaco liner. Choose a method that works best on your fabric by making some test marks.

1. Once you have cut out all your fabric pieces it’s time to transfer the pattern markings onto your fabric. Unpin the pattern as you work around transferring the markings, but don’t unpin it completely or you won’t be able to mark the positions accurately.

2. Most of the time the Cutting Plan will have told you to pin your pattern onto the wrong side of the fabric – this is the side of the fabric where we want to put all the pattern markings so that they are not visible on the outside of your garment once you have sewn it together.

3. Transfer the markings onto your fabric (see Fig 4 shown previously). Make sure you do it accurately and mark them in the same position as they appear on the paper pattern (Photo 3). To mark dots that appear within the pattern rather than on the cut edge, make a hole in the pattern on the dot with a pin. Wiggle the pin around to make a hole and then mark through the hole onto your fabric. Remember that if you have cut two fabric pieces  with your fabric folded, both cut pattern pieces need to have the markings transferred onto them. 

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4. You will also find one of these markings on all pattern pieces (see Fig 2 shown previously). They are the straight grain lines and as explained in Understanding Paper Patterns they tell you how to position the pattern piece in relation to the straight grain in the fabric. These marks don’t need to be transferred onto the fabric.

Using Directional or One-Way Prints

All the projects say in the instructions if they are suitable for directional or one-way prints. These are print designs on fabric that have a definite top and bottom and so can only be used one way up or they will appear upside down on the finished garment (see lower fabric in Photo 4). Pattern pieces cut from
these fabrics have to lay in the same direction – you can’t turn pieces around to get a better fit – which often means wasting quite a lot of fabric.

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Using Interfacing

Interfacing is fixed to the wrong side of certain pattern pieces (usually by ironing) to make them stronger and a bit stiffer in places that will get a lot of wear and strain, such as waistbands and collars. Interfacing is also sometimes called Vilene (which is a brand name). Fusible or iron-on interfacing is the type I recommend using in this book as it’s the easiest and quickest method for beginners and is suitable for all the fabrics used in the projects. You can also buy sew-in interfacing, which takes longer to apply as it has to be tacked onto the cut fabric pattern pieces. It is better for very delicate fabrics.

Where projects require you to cut pattern pieces from interfacing, these pieces need to be cut a little smaller than the actual pattern piece, so that when you iron the interfacing onto your fabric, the interfacing doesn’t overhang the fabric edge and end up stuck to your ironing board. The easiest way to do this is to pin the pattern pieces to your interfacing as explained earlier, then, before cutting, chalk around the pattern pieces, unpin them and cut approximately 0.5cm (3/16in) inside your chalk line.


Sewing Machine Basics

Whole books are available on using a sewing machine and this book assumes that you will have a basic working knowledge of your own machine and be on quite good terms – don’t be afraid of your sewing machine, it’s about to become your new best friend. Whether you have a very basic machine, a computerized one with all the bells and whistles, whether it’s inherited or brand new, here are a few reminders on some basic good habits that apply to any machine. 

  • Before you begin a project, make sure your machine needle is sharp and the correct size for the fabric. Use a quality branded sewing thread in your machine.
  • Get in the habit of regularly cleaning your machine – especially the feed dogs and the bobbin case.
  • Always test sew on a scrap of fabric from your project before launching into your garment.
  • Check the stitch settings. For general straight stitch sewing most people use a medium stitch length, so if your stitch length setting goes from 0–4, number 2–2.5 will do the job. Remember, you will need to change the settings depending on the fabric and the stitch being used.
    Generally, the thicker the fabric, the longer the stitch required.
  • Check the tension. This controls how tight or how loose the thread is being held by the machine and thus how tight or loose your stitches will be. Start off with the tension dial in the middle. This should be fine for seaming two layers of medium-weight woven fabric (like many of the fabrics used in the projects in this book). If you use a lighter weight fabric or are zigzagging the seam
    allowance of a single layer of fabric, the tension will need to be looser, which is a lower number (usually just one number lower is enough). If you use slightly thicker fabric or are joining several layers, the tension will need to be tighter, which is a higher number (again, usually just one number higher is enough).

Sewing Seams

Seams are the foundation of all sewing. Seaming is the process of joining two pieces of fabric together. Seams are easy, but the trick is doing them neatly and accurately! Don’t be tempted to rush them and follow these steps for joining seams in woven fabrics to always have professional, neat and accurate seams. Fig 1 here will help you find your way around a seam. Common seam allowances used in dressmaking (and in the projects in this book) are as follows.

  • 1.5cm (5/8in).
  • 1cm (3/8in) on curved and fiddly seams, for example necks and armholes.

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Sewing the Perfect Seam

1. Pin and tack your seams with the right sides of the fabric together, especially curved seams and tricky shapes. Pin the top and bottom of the seam, match up any notches and then pin in between to prevent stretching. Try to tack on the seamline (Photo 1). Tacking is a temporary hand-worked running stitch that needs to be well secured at each end and holds your seam together accurately, ready for machining. Keep tacking stitches fairly small and even, and use a thread colour that stands out against the fabric so it’s easy to remove later. As you become a more confident sewer you will need to tack less, but in the
beginning tack everything. It makes the machining much easier and what would you rather do – tack something once and machine it right first time, or not tack, make a mess of your machining and have to unpick it?

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2. Now you’re ready to start machining. Make sure you have removed all the pins. Don’t start your sewing right on the edge of the fabric as there won’t be enough for your machine to get hold of – make sure the hole in the presser foot is covered by your fabric (Photo 2). Bring the needle down into the fabric by turning the hand wheel towards you and then use your foot pedal. If you always start sewing in this way, your machine won’t get in a tangle before you’ve even started. Use the seam guides on your 
machine to make sure your seam is accurate and straight. Do a reverse stitch to reinforce the start of the seam.

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3. When you reach the end of the seam, don’t sew off the fabric but make a reverse stitch to reinforce the end of the seam. Take your foot off the foot pedal and bring the needle up to its highest position using the hand wheel (Photo 3). Your fabric will then pull out from the machine easily as it is at the end of a stitch when the needle is in this position. Once the seam is sewn, remove the tacking and press the seam open from the wrong side.

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4. Neaten the seam allowances: if you leave them the fabric will fray, which will be messy and eventually weaken the seam. The easiest way to do this is by machine sewing a zigzag stitch along the edges of the seam allowances (Photo 4). You will get the best result if you have an overcasting or overlock foot for your machine. If not, you should be able to buy one. To zigzag the seam allowances using an overcasting foot the stitch should go right over the edge of the fabric.

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5. You can still zigzag your seam allowances with the normal presser foot. You just have to sew a bit further in from the edge of the fabric than with the overcasting foot and it’s not quite as neat (Photo 5).

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6. Curved seams need to have seam allowances snipped so the curve can lay flat and the seam will be smooth. Once the curved seam has been joined and seam allowances neatened, use small scissors with a sharp point to snip close to the seamline. Inside curves should have a simple snip, while outside curves should have a small triangle snipped out to reduce bulk (Photo 6).

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Sewing Hems

A hem is a way of finishing the edges of a garment, usually the bottom edge and the ends of sleeves. I’m going to show you four ways to hem that are suitable for woven fabrics. Knitted fabrics need to be hemmed differently in order to keep their stretch. Fig 1 shows where the hemline and hem allowance occur. A common hem allowance used in dressmaking (and in the projects in this book) is 2cm (3/4in). As a general rule, the thicker the fabric the more of a hem allowance you need. This is why you will often find up to 5cm (2in) hem allowances on heavy coats, but as little as 1cm (3?8in) on lightweight silk garments. Hems need to be accurate and be parallel to the ground all around the garment once sewn. You don’t want to finish a beautiful garment that you have put lots of work into with a wavy hem! To
ensure your hems are neat, accurate and wobblefree I recommend marking the hemline with a line
of tacking stitches before you sew the hem on your garment.

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Double Turned Hem

This hem is best for lighter weight fabrics, but not good for bulky fabrics. It’s used on the grey crêpe wide-leg trousers.

1. Turn the fabric’s cut edge towards the wrong side so the edge is level with the tacked hemline and press (Photo 5). 

2. Turn again along the tacked hemline towards the wrong side, press and then pin and tack in place. Tack close to the first folded edge (Photo 6).

3. Straight stitch the hem from the right side of your garment following the tacking stitches, as in step 3 of Neatened and Turned Hem (Photo 7).

4. Remove all tacking and press the hem from the wrong side along the fold only, to get a nice crisp edge.

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Neated and Turned Hem

This is suitable for all fabrics and is the easiest way to sew a hem, but perhaps not the neatest. 

1. First, zigzag the raw edge of the hem (Photo 2). 

2. Turn the hem along the tacked hemline towards the wrong side and tack in place along the middle of the zigzag stitches (Photo 3).

3. Straight stitch the hem from the right side of the garment following tacking stitches. Machine stitching looks best from the upper or needle side; having the hem tacked and being able to sew from the right side allows you to have that better stitching on the garment’s outside (Photo 4).

4. Remove all tacking and press the hem from the wrong side along the fold only, to get a nice crisp edge.

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Hand Blind Hem

You may already be familiar with this hand-sewn type of hem, which is suitable for all fabrics but isn’t as strong as machined hems.

1. Turn the cut edge of the fabric towards the wrong side by just 0.5cm (3/16in) and press (Photo 8).

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2. Turn again along the tacked hemline towards the wrong side, press and pin in place (Photo 9).

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3. Thread a hand sewing needle with a thread colour to match your fabric and secure the end of the thread on the turned-up hem (Photo 10).

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4. Make a tiny stitch in the garment, just catching a few threads of the fabric (Photo 11).

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5. Directly opposite on the hem, slide the needle along the folded edge of the pinned-up hem (Photo 12). Keep these stitches on the hem side quite short. Repeat steps 4 and 5 all around the hem, keeping the stitches short for strength.

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Bias-Bound Hem

This type of hem is finished with bias binding and is suitable for most fabrics. The technique using bias binding as a facing gives a particularly neat and professional-looking hem and is one that I like to use on a lot of my garments. 



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