How I Learned to Sew

I would definitely not recommend learning to sew the way that I did. It was a haphazard patchwork of my mother and grandmother’s tutelage, home ec (sort of), self-teaching, and finally formal industry training. The result is a hodge-podge of home sewing, couture, and industry techniques that has taken me 40+ years to cobble together. (Raise your hands if you started sewing at age 5, too!)


Get your learning here!

It works for me, but it’s a very long way to get there. I know that everyone moans about the lack of good home ec in schools today, but the truth is that I didn’t learn much in my ‘70s home ec class either. More than one woman has told me of the trauma of learning from harried mothers. 

My own mother learned through 4-H, and she seems to be very confident about the right and wrong way to sew. All that I’ve come to over my many years of sewing and editing sewing magazines is that there is no one right way to accomplish anything sewing.

I have this dream that somewhere out there is the perfect linear sewing curriculum that teaches the skills to empower great creations, but I think the reality is more like my own experience. I take whatever I can get in whatever form I can find it, and add it to my ever expanding quest for sewing knowledge.

That said, I do think that this Handy Sewing Reference Guide by the editors of Stitch magazine is a good start at a reasoned approach to learning sewing. It includes essential techniques, terms, and a complete stitch glossary. This eBook packs a lot of learning into its digital pages, and you can find it in the Sew Daily Shop.

How did you learn to sew? I never get tired of hearing this story!

Happy stitching!

Happy stitching!

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Sewing for Beginners
Amber

About Amber

Amber Eden is the editor of Stitch and SewDaily.com. She LOVES sewing and editing Stitch and SewDaily.com. She also loves dance, yoga, iced decaf triple espressos, and her two golden retrievers. She divides her time between Boston and New York.

29 thoughts on “How I Learned to Sew

  1. It may surprise some of you to hear that I don’t remember learning to sew. I just always knew. At least that’s how it seems to me. My mother got a sewing machine when I was a baby and sewed gobs of stuff. Now, I’m not saying I can remember that, though I have heard about it enough. I Do remember being small enough to have to sit on a lap to reach the knee lever to run the machine-an old Elna-when I was finally allowed to use a machine. It was wonderful. Of course home ec class was a review for me, with just a few of the “rules” that I hadn’t heard before. I’ve done an enormous amount of sewing, myself, over the years since then. I designed many of the fancy dresses with puffed sleeves and full skirts and fancy collars that my daughter always wanted. Now, it’s mostly mending and necessary stuff. Mostly, but not all.

  2. I learned the basics of sewing in my ’70s home ec class… sort-of – but then, basic stuff is about all they could cover in a mere 18 weeks, of which only three days per week were actual hands-on sewing. The other two days were consumed in lectures and teacher demonstrations. The other half of the school year was spent on cooking…

    A semester of sewing in college – many years later – turned out to be only a refresher course on the highschool home ec class. Most of what I’ve learned has been self-taught, using many different books for reference. I think my library of sewing reference books probably contains everything in this “Handy Sewing Reference Guide”

  3. My sister and I and two of our friends formed a club. We decided we needed matching outfits. We were 12 years old. So my mom taught us to sew, and we made matching green gabardine skirts, darts and all. That was 1962. Having that early training really helped when we got to Home Ec. I have been sewing since. It is really creative and fulfilling for me.

  4. I can remember sitting on the floor under the extension leaf of my mother’s sewing machine while she was sewing something for one of us kids. I was using the scraps to make Barbie dresses, I sewed them by hand because I wasn’t old enough to use the machine.
    I had a semester of sewing in high school that taught me a lot. The teacher made a big impression on my sewing ability. She said that when you make something you wear, and someone asks where did you buy that? My answer would be I made it myself. She said is when your skills have advanced from homemade to Handmade Thank you Mrs. Girtman.I used my sewing skills when my oldest son was born. Normal size baby clothes swallowed him . At one year he could still wear 6 month size clothes. So I had to alter patterns to fit him and I made a lot of his clothes when he was younger.

  5. Mom made most of our clothes so I started young sewing doll clothes by hand. Learned to sew around the age of 7 on the treadle sewing machine. Mom made us sew on paper in spirals both curved and square with out thread till we could stay on a line, then graduated up to thread then hemmed tea towels. Took sewing for 10 yrs in 4-H. Mom was my sewing coach/teacher for most of those years. As she worked for Hart Shaftner and Mart she also taught me industry sewing tricks. Jr. High home ec class was a joke as I was way past what they were teaching so it was a boring class. Took the skirt that we had to make home, took it apart and made one that I would wear. Learned more tailoring techniques in the sewing class during college. Continue to read, experiment and go to workshops when I can to learn other techniques. I have even picked up some new things from our son who has a degree in fashion design and is a pattern maker.

  6. I also learned to sew from my mother, using my Grandma’s old Singer sewing machine. It was one of the first electric portable machines they made, with the knee lever, fancy Singer scroll painted design and wooden base and cover. We also did a lot of hand sewing, and I remembered my Mom sitting at night while the TV. was on, darning our socks and tights. She made my oldest sister’s lace wedding dress and my other sister and my bridesmaids dresses on it. I sewed a lot of my clothes on that machine, and now my sister has the machine, which still works like a charm. I just bought a new machine for myself, as my other machine doesn’t work very well. It was an expensive, Sears electric computerized selected stitches, and had gotten slightly damaged 12 years ago during a move. Nowadays everything is plastic, and they just don’t hold up like the old machines did. I’m teaching myself to quilt, just baby steps with pre-cut jelly roll strips and easy patterns. My new machine comes with an add-on table to do machine quilting, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can do it!

  7. I was the 3rd child and mom was running out of patience so my older sister learned to sew and I was chased away from the machine every time. Home ec class was mandatory in the 70’s, so I found myself in a class with little guidance, sewing footed pajamas out of a striped knit fabric that was not meant for a beginner. I did finally get them all together and remember actually wearing them to bed a time or two but the teacher failed me. Years later when my husband and I bought our first house there was an old sewing machine in it that was offered to us by the seller for $50.00, I bought it. I began teaching myself to sew by making curtains, then Halloween costumes and I slowly moved up to clothes for the kids. As my daughter got older she loved when I made her special things, dresses for dances at school and finally her senior prom dress.
    I now own my own business, Embroidery and Sewing and this past September I was honored as my daughter walked down the isle in a beautiful wedding dress designed by her and made by me!
    I consider myself self taught, but I do have to credit some fantastic women I have met over the years that have shared there experiences with me.

  8. I started sewing when I was in the second grade by making clothes for my baby dolls and Barbie dolls. I was even inspired by my grandmother’s quilting to make a patchwork blanket for my dolls. This was all by hand using left over scraps from my mother’s sewing projects. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who taught me to use a sewing machine, but it was probably my older sister who is a fabulous seamstress. By the time I took Home Ec in middle school school, I was already sewing my own clothes. I stopped sewing when I started working full time, but has just restarted sewing this fall and am looking forward to reviving and improving my skills. Happy stitching!

  9. I started sewing when I was in the second grade by making clothes for my baby dolls and Barbie dolls. I was even inspired by my grandmother’s quilting to make a patchwork blanket for my dolls. This was all by hand using left over scraps from my mother’s sewing projects. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who taught me to use a sewing machine, but it was probably my older sister who is a fabulous seamstress. By the time I took Home Ec in middle school school, I was already sewing my own clothes. I stopped sewing when I started working full time, but has just restarted sewing this fall and am looking forward to reviving and improving my skills. Happy stitching!

  10. I started sewing when I was in the second grade by making clothes for my baby dolls and Barbie dolls. I was even inspired by my grandmother’s quilting to make a patchwork blanket for my dolls. This was all by hand using left over scraps from my mother’s sewing projects. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who taught me to use a sewing machine, but it was probably my older sister who is a fabulous seamstress. By the time I took Home Ec in middle school school, I was already sewing my own clothes. I stopped sewing when I started working full time, but has just restarted sewing this fall and am looking forward to reviving and improving my skills. Happy stitching!

  11. I started sewing when I was in the second grade by making clothes for my baby dolls and Barbie dolls. I was even inspired by my grandmother’s quilting to make a patchwork blanket for my dolls. This was all by hand using left over scraps from my mother’s sewing projects. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who taught me to use a sewing machine, but it was probably my older sister who is a fabulous seamstress. By the time I took Home Ec in middle school school, I was already sewing my own clothes. I stopped sewing when I started working full time, but has just restarted sewing this fall and am looking forward to reviving and improving my skills. Happy stitching!

  12. I started sewing when I was in the second grade by making clothes for my baby dolls and Barbie dolls. I was even inspired by my grandmother’s quilting to make a patchwork blanket for my dolls. This was all by hand using left over scraps from my mother’s sewing projects. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who taught me to use a sewing machine, but it was probably my older sister who is a fabulous seamstress. By the time I took Home Ec in middle school school, I was already sewing my own clothes. I stopped sewing when I started working full time, but has just restarted sewing this fall and am looking forward to reviving and improving my skills. Happy stitching!

  13. I learned to sew making clothes for my sister’s and my Barbies and baby dolls. It was done by hand at first and then on an old machine someone gave my mom. My mom did not sew and was uninterested in my projects. The darn machine kept breaking thread and tangling, it’s a wonder I did not get discouraged. I took Home Ec. in 7th grade and realized that garments had crotches in them. When I look back at some of the stuff I made I realize that I did a pretty good job armed only with desire. When I graduated high school I used my graduation money to buy a Singer sewing machine and the instruction booklet taught me about tensions, so I finally understood why the old machines thread kept breaking. A lady that lived across the street taught me how to put zippers in by hand stitching one on a scrap of fabric. I still have that piece. I learn a lot by trial and error, patterns and magazines. As I age my desire to sew is still going strong.

  14. I was a Parisian dressmaker in 3 past lives. I sewed for my dolls and teddy bear. At 12 I made a white wool jersey shirtwaist for the Make It With Wool contest and won locally. Sewing was a lot easier with cotton prints, cotton sateen, etc. The knits and synthetics and, well, “man hath sought out many inventions” and indeed it’s a lot of silly marketing these days. Besides which there are no hard and fast rules! I loved Shirley Adams’ programs because she’d say try different ways and see what you like. Check out museums and even upscale big city consignment shops just to feel of beautifully made clothes. Don’t ever be tempted to think you’ve got it made. The next challenge is just up the way. And while you look great for 45, it’s stupid to tell your age!!!

  15. Hi,
    I have just started teaching a course for my local adult learning organisation – called “Learning to Love Sewing”. We have just completed the first 5 sessions and it was delightful. The Learners made pincushions by hand sewing and then Ipad/phone covers using their sewing machines (first time out of the box!). They then made various other small items, and I couldn’t stop them from sewing long enough to do tutorials.
    In January we are going to design and make either Cushion covers or Tote bags and then start to learn some basic dressmaking – I can’t wait.

  16. I learned from my Gramma, beginning around 4-5 years old: first doll clothes, then buttons, etc. By the time had home ec. in jr. high, I had learned from her that a pattern or a recipe was merely a suggested starting point. It’s more efficient to stitch everything you can before hitting the ironing board, just like substituting ingredients. This honor student almost flunked sewing and cooking! I wasn’t allowed to alter the pattern, and had to sew in the prescribed order. This is what makes students dislike sewing, in my opinion. I continued, picking up skills as I rolled. I did a lot of “hard” things without realizing the degree of difficulty, and gained experience to start my own business. Have taught my daughters the basics, and my son’s Marine Gunnery Sgt. was amazed he knew how to sew o a button before Boot Camp. None have wanted to go further, because Mom’s always been there to fix it.

  17. I started at about age seven. I wanted to make Barbie clothes. My mother let me have her scraps. I cut two pieces back and front complete with sleeves in the piece and stitched up the sides by hand. I was not allowed near the treddle machine and could not have reached the sewing surface and the treddle at the same time anyway. After that I was mainly self taught as my mother passed when I was eleven. I learned very little at home ec classes. At 17 I got out my mother’s electric machine and took what little skills I had and headed out on this life long journey. I have picked up many tips and tricks along the way in some classes, books, magazines and Sewing with Nancy and others on television. At one time I made dance costumes for my friend’s ballet studio and some theatre costumes. That first Barbie dress in green plaid was 53 years ago now. My granddaughter is now learning and everybody wishes me to teach her. I wish to send her to classes at Nana’s expense!!

  18. I started at about age seven. I wanted to make Barbie clothes. My mother let me have her scraps. I cut two pieces back and front complete with sleeves in the piece and stitched up the sides by hand. I was not allowed near the treddle machine and could not have reached the sewing surface and the treddle at the same time anyway. After that I was mainly self taught as my mother passed when I was eleven. I learned very little at home ec classes. At 17 I got out my mother’s electric machine and took what little skills I had and headed out on this life long journey. I have picked up many tips and tricks along the way in some classes, books, magazines and Sewing with Nancy and others on television. At one time I made dance costumes for my friend’s ballet studio and some theatre costumes. That first Barbie dress in green plaid was 53 years ago now. My granddaughter is now learning and everybody wishes me to teach her. I wish to send her to classes at Nana’s expense!!

  19. Let me remember…
    It all started in my very early age vof 5 or 6 years.
    Both my grandma´s had old mechanical sewing machines and I loved to kick (?) both of them.
    One granny became very angry but the other one who earned a few bucks with sewing dresses for other people allowed me to learn the right way of moving the mechanical gear.
    Soon later she cut a very simple doll-dress for me and asked me to stitch it by hand.
    My-o-my!
    My poor fingers, covered with stitches and blood all over…
    She war quite pleased with this my first attempt (forget about it, but it was my first hand-sewn dolly-dress!) and a couple of weekends later she taught me how to sew with her old mechanical machine.
    It was love at the first attempt!
    She told me that a girl is never too young to learn handling a sewing machine, and she was definitely right!

    Years later I killed my mothers electrical sewing machine by copying a “Star Trek” costume- this was not one of the best days of my life…

    In the age of fourteen years or so I started learning sewing at school. This was definitely boring. But as I was always interested in handicraft I booked a tutorial at an german institution called “The Family Education House” close to my part of town.
    After the Elementary Tutorial I took the Adavanced, and finally the Masters Tutorial.
    During this period of time the other Granny gave me her old “Adler” built in 1904 and I used to sew nearly all my blouses, skirts, even leather jackets and coats with this old mechanical machine!
    Of yourse all of them fitting to my personal problem-zones as I am 6 feet tall and used to be very slim those days 😉

    Later at RUB University I stopped sewing for more than 30 years but started again one and a half years ago when I retired from work.

    To tell you the truth I nearly forgot everything I once learned..
    But slowly it comes back and nowadays I create cat-shaped pillows (animal-shaped Pillows) with an … old zick-zack mechanical sewing-machine!
    “Ideal Zick-Zack Spezial” is for the time being my favourite, bought for 5€ at ebay 😉

    I still love the mechanical machines althoug I have an electrical Pfaff-Sewing Machine.

    Please excuse my bad english- it´s a long time since I used your language!
    With love
    Tina from Germany

  20. Home ec was not required in my school, but most of my classmates had domestic German hausfraus who sewed beautiful clothing. Not me. My grandmother helped me a little when I wanted to learn how to make Barbie clothes, and I picked up other things from library books.

    Later on in life I dated a man who owned a sewing machine and knew how to use it. He taught me the basics, then two lovely friends from work helped me improve my sewing skills. I have owned a sewing machine since my early 20s and while it’s not fancy, it gets the job done!

  21. My German mother learned to sew while growing up under Hitler. All children were forced to learn a “survival skill’; her choice was sewing. By the time she married my father and moved to the states (late fifties) she was a perfectionist in the sewing arena. I watched her sew an entire wedding party’s ensemble in gold velvet. When it was my turn to learn to sew I could, in no way, perform as she did on the machine. it was left to my 7th grade home ec teacher who just happened to retire after my year. Could have had something to do with the size 12 skirt I was sewing which presented in size 9 form after I had to rip the zipper out 6 times and re-sew it in (or maybe the fire we started when learning to cook but that is another story for another blog). In later life I discovered quilting-no lining, no interfacing, no darts and NO zippers! it is a passion for me now and I love sharing my finished pieces with my family!

  22. I started sewing at 6 on a peddle Singer Sewing Machine. We lived in the interior of Brazil and had no electricity – nor did we have access to stores. I started by making doll clothes, then embroidery and then my own clothes. When we came back to the states my grandmother could not believe how well I could sew. Her electric was the first one that I used and I could not believe how much harder it was to do the same things on it that I did on the peddle machine – especially embroidery. My mother had made clothes for all of us all my life and was happy to turn my clothes over to me. Before school started each year she would give me the money she had set aside for my school clothes and let me pick out the patterns and cloth that I wanted. She had majored in Home Ec in college and taught me many of the shortcuts and detail sewing techniques that I still use. I agree that the Home Ec taught in school was worthless – I knew more than the teacher.

    For years I did not have any time for sewing but now that I am retired I am picking it up again. I’ve bought a Brother Embroidery Machine and am looking forward to playing with it and seeing what it will do. The problem is that I have so many ideas I don’t know where to start.

  23. My grandmother put needle, thread & cloth in my hand when I was about 3 YO! I would wrap the cloth around my little dolly and sew it in place – a dress! As I got older she taught me more hand sewing, then 4-H helped me. Home Ec was a complete bust – I was punished for already knowing how to sew garments! I’ve learned more over the years, and enjoy every new technique I learn.

  24. I remember quite clearly what sparked my interest in sewing to begin with. I was 11 or so and searching my mom’s closet for hidden Christmas presents when I saw a bag with coordinating fabrics in it. Now, my mother did not sew so that was unusual to begin with. But something about the colours drew me in and I have been hooked ever since. I asked her if I could have them and she allowed me to go to town on them. I learned all on my own. Got some patterns from the sewing store and thankfully we already had an old sewing machine. Home Ec was laughable a year later. A poncho, two straight lines and a fringe. I had already been making pants with zippers by then. Over the years I have read many how to books and with the internet gloried in the abundance of you tube videos available to learn from. Today my experience includes clothing for my daughters, dresses, prom dresses, toys and rag dolls (craft business), curtains, repairs, and today magic bags and stockings. I love the hodge podge way I learned my skills.

  25. In the 1950s sewing and cooking were expected from our mothers, so I grew up with a mother who sewed. My (Paternal) grandfather was a tailor, which reinforced the idea of sewing as a normal activity. I started hand sewing on doll clothes, and eventually used my mother’s sewing machine, a desk model with a knee control on the side. The size and configuration was beyond awkward for me. (starting by using the machine without power, then adding the motor added to the annoyances. I had to learn twice) Seventh grade meant home economics, using machines with foot controls, much easier! About 15 years later I decided to get a sewing machine to make my clothes; the ready to wear was not either my size or my style (miniskirts are silly for a mother with toddlers, and the pants didn’t fit) My husband needs his clothes altered to fit, so I started sewing his trousers long ago. Our children were not ordinary sizes either, so I sewed for them. I realized how far Grandfather’s lessons had spread when my daughters came home from school and remarked about a staff member who set great store on keeping current with fashion, but wore something with mis-matched plaids!

  26. I started out learning to sew by having a grandmother who sewed (she had been a seamstress with Marshall Field Dept. Store in the early 1900’s), a mother who sewed, a sewing machine in the upstairs bedroom. Also 2 sisters who were interested in learning as well.
    Actually my dad showed us how to run the machine when we were old enough – before that one of us turned the fly wheel and the other one controlled the fabric. We made a lot of learning mistakes on doll clothes and scraps – which was a great way to learn. I had home ec in high school, but I had already progressed to some simple skirts, as I had the benefit of learning from my older sister who had home ec before I did. She showed me a lot, and when i was in class, I already knew more than most people there. As a teen, I could use pattern pieces from different patterns and make something unique.
    I progressed from there, kept sewing, and did not really have a book to learn from. Which is funny, as, when I taught sewing later, I recommended people get a good book so they could look things up and understand them better. Experience is a great teacher, but a good book will help you not waste your time and money.

  27. I believe I began by first hand-sewing doll clothes, not for Barbie dolls, as I am “before Barbies!” My mother was an expert seamstress, sewing with a Singer treadle machine purchased in 1943. She made everything for me and my brothers – parkas, ski pants, pants, shirts, dresses, blouses, pedal pushers, pyjamas as well as drapes and slipcovers for furniture. I remember making a pair of shorts for myself on the treadle machine. Eventually, the treadle was converted to electric and that helped a lot, but I was short on patience and Mom enrolled me in a sewing course being taught by a woman from the Pfaff store, who came out to our rural area for a series of lessons. That was when I really learned to sew and take directions, as I could not throw a tantrum in front of all the neighbour ladies! Those experiences equipped me for the sewing portion of the Home Economics courses in grades eleven and twelve, and I have sailed along ever since..and I have plenty of patience now! I truly enjoy sewing, and used to make clothing for our three sons when they were younger, two of whom have done sewing for themselves. I once made a plaid fortel suit for my husband which he wore and as it was fashionable at the time, it looked great! Imagine! Now I am into quilting and love it, but still have a fabric stash for clothing.

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