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Some ‘not so stupid’ questions

I’m asked lots of questions during every teaching session in the studio, and most of them start ‘this may be a stupid question but….’. Well do you know? I’ve never heard a stupid question yet! They have all been excellent questions, and I’m always happy to answer them. Chances are the person asking isn’t the only one who doesn’t know the answer. So if you don’t know, then ask away…

  1. If a patterns says the seam allowance is 1.5cm, do I cut an extra 1.5cm around the edge?

No. That means you cut around the edge of the paper – you don’t need to add extra. Most commercial paper patterns will already include seam allowance and it will always tell you. However, it may not be the same amount everywhere on the pattern, so read all the instructions and pattern pieces carefully. It’s common for necklines and armholes to have less seam allowance.

2. Is cotton a natural fabric or synthetic?

Cotton is not a fabric but a natural fibre. It’s from the cotton plant. Other natural fibres are wool, silk, linen, cashmere, alpaca, angora and other animal fibres.

Examples of synthetic fibres are polyester, nylon and acrylic which are forms of plastic molecules derived from oil.

Fibres are spun into the yarns (or threads) which are then woven or knitted into fabrics. Sometimes synthetic fibres are heat-bonded to create fabrics for example, interfacing.

Commonly these days, natural and synthetic fibres are combined to create ‘mixed fibre’ fabrics, e.g. polyester/cotton for sheets and shirts, cotton/lycra for T-shirts. This is to make the final fabric cheaper or to blend the qualities of both fibres to create a harder-wearing fabric that’s less prone to some of the problems of natural fibres on their own. For instance, T-shirts made from pure cotton tend to shrink lengthways but go baggy around the hem. Nylon or polyester is often added to wool suiting to make it harder wearing and less prone to shrinking/felting. Teflon is added to children’s school uniforms for durability and stain-resistance. The fibre content of any garment must be shown on the label.

3. Can I use a singer needle in my new Brother sewing machine?

Yes you can. Modern domestic sewing machines all use the same type of needle. You may see the code somewhere on the packet 130/705H. There is no need to buy branded needles (eg Singer, Janome) and they’re usually much more expensive. Just make sure you insert it correctly, with the flat part of the shaft to the back, and push it up as far as it will go.

4. I’m bringing my own sewing machine to your class; can I borrow your bobbins?

Most definitely not (unless your machine is a Husqvarna Emerald).

Although they look similar, bobbins for different machines may vary slightly in height, width and shape. They can be made of plastic or metal. You MUST use the type of bobbin that’s specified for your make and model of machine. If you don’t, then the machine may not sew properly, and you can even damage your machine. If your machine is still under warranty, then the warranty will be invalidated as this will be deemed ‘user error’. Bobbins don’t cost much (a few £’s for a dozen so it’s not worth taking the risk). And avoid those packs of small thread reels with matching bobbins you see in the pound shops. Who knows what type of machine those are meant for, and the thread is poor quality too.

5. How important is it to buy poly cotton thread instead of normal cotton?

Just like fabric, thread for sewing machines is made from different fibres. It used to be 100% cotton (hence the reason many people still refer to all thread as ‘cotton’) However, nowadays, there are alternatives. The general multi-purpose sewing thread available under many brand names is 100% polyester but you can still buy cotton thread. However, cotton has less wear resistance and little ‘give’ so tends to break more easily. If you’re sewing with jersey knit or stretch fabric, always use polyester thread. The quilting purists will only use cotton thread on cotton fabric. For more information on types of thread, go to my blog: how to choose machine sewing thread.

6. Are overlocker needles the same as sewing machine needles?

Sorry there’s no easy answer to this question. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, you need to check your overlocker manual. Modern overlockers usually use the 130/705H needle system mentioned earlier, but not always. Older overlockers (30 or so years) can use a round-shank needle called DB1. If you’re going to be sewing jersey knit fabric, be sure to use a ballpoint needle or you may get holes in the fabric.

7. On overlocker machines, do you need to backstitch?

It’s not possible to backstitch on overlockers. Instead, create a chain, then cut it off and either sew it in or tie off. Alternatively you can flip the work over and sew in the chain. For a dedicated class to learn how to use your overlocker, see ‘Know your overlocker‘.

fabric-marking tools

A guide to fabric marking tools – Making your Mark

Making your mark. A guide to fabric-marking tools.  

A question I’m asked frequently is what is the best way of marking fabric for dressmaking?  Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that as there is a variety of fabric-marking tools available, and each has their pro’s and cons.  My advice is to have a selection of these tools available to cope with every situation. Here’s a list of the most common:

Tailors chalk
The traditional triangle of chalk is cheap and easily available. It’s also available in a range of colours including white, yellow, pink, blue and black. However, the edges need to be kept sharp to get a fine and accurate mark.  It’s also ‘dusty’ and rubs off easily.  It’s ok for areas that you’re going to sew immediately after marking. However, if that section isn’t going to be stitched for a while, and you’re handling your fabric meanwhile, then you may find your marks have faded or even disappeared. 

 Chalk pencils
These are slightly waxier than tailors chalk so they stay on the fabric for longer. They are also more accurate as it’s easy to sharpen them for a fine line. Have a selection of colours so they show up on the fabric.

  ‘Carbon’ paper and tracing wheel
The paper is covered on one side with a waxy substance that is transferred to the fabric by a tracing wheel.  It can also be rubbed with a pen or pencil to mark small dots. Available in different colours for light or dark fabrics. The tracing wheel will leave indentations so don’t use this on your best furniture without having a cutting mat underneath.

  Marking pens
There are a variety of pens available and again, each have their uses. 

Heat-sensitive: These pens disappear when you iron the fabric, but the marks can come back if the item is exposed to cold temperatures. However, they usually disappear permanently if the fabric is washed. Frixion is a well-known brand. 

Water-soluble: This is a turquoise-coloured felt-tip type pen that will disappear when dabbed with water.  It creates a very fine line so is extremely accurate but can only be used when the fabric will not be stained by water. There’s also water-soluble pencils become available recently made by Clover. They’re available in a pack of 3 colours: white, pink and blue.

Air-erasable:  This pen is usually purple in colour and will fade over a period of about 48 hours.  So don’t use this if you’re not going to get that part of the garment sewn in that timescale.  Be careful as ironing over this pen can fix it although it can be removed by washing.  

Whatever you use, you should firstly test that it can be removed from the fabric without leaving a stain. 

Where to mark? As a general guide, darts, and dots to mark collar and sleeve positions should be marked on the wrong side of the fabric as they’ll be sewn from the reverse.  Markings for buttonholes, pockets, tucks, pleats and folds are sewn from the right side so are best marked on the right side of the fabric. 

When to mark?  Immediately after you’ve cut out the garment, BEFORE removing the paper pattern. It’s false economy to skip this step timewise, as you’ll only have to lay on the pattern again later and it won’t be so accurate. 

And finally, where you have various sizes of dot ‘i.e. pattern says ‘match to small dots’, and there are also large dots elsewhere, try to use a different colour for each set of dots to avoid confusion.

To improve your sewing, why not try a Dressmaking course?

What pattern size am I?

One question I’m asked almost every day is ‘What pattern size am I?’

Probably the most difficult aspect of dressmaking is how to find the correct pattern size. . Sewing patterns aren’t sized in the same way as ready-to-wear clothes. So you can’t just buy your usual off-the-peg dress size.

Read more

Haberdashery – what a wonderful world

Haberdashery means all the tools, equipment and other bits you need to complete your sewing project besides fabric and a sewing machine. Choosing the right haberdashery is every bit as important as fabric to the successful outcome of your sewing project. So I’m delighted to introduce a guest blogger who’s a specialist in this field.

Read more

Sewing Machine Tension

Sewing machine tension

Probably the most common sewing problem is getting correct sewing machine tension. By thread tension, we mean the amount of thread that can pass through the machine to create the stitch. The more thread in the stitch, then the looser the stitch.  The less thread, then the tighter the stitch. Read more

Overlocker tension

How to get perfect Overlocker tension

How to get the correct overlocker tension is the most common issue when using these machines. An overlocker is a fantastic machine and can be extremely useful.  But they can also be beastly. Read on to find out how to use them and get the most from an overlocker.  Read more

Husqvarna Viking Emerald 118 Sewing Machine – Review

Best Sewing Machine?

Husqvarna Emerald 118 Sewing Machine Review

I had to find the best sewing machine for my teaching studio. I needed something that was easy-to-use,  versatile, robust, and great value.  My local specialist dealer Andrew Pemberton recommended the Husqvarna Viking Emerald 118.  Prior to that, I was aware of Husqvarna as a high-quality brand but I hadn’t used one before.  So I was happy to go along to test it against some of its closest rivals in the same price bracket. Read more

Pattern Ease – Why is my sewing pattern bigger than my measurements?

What is ‘Pattern Ease’ and why do I need it?

Pattern Ease is the allowance made over and above the body measurements when making a pattern. It enables natural body movement. If patterns were exactly the same size as your body measurement, the garment would literally be skin tight. Pattern ease is added to the body circumference measurements, but not to any vertical measurements.  Although your shop-bought clothes may say ‘to fit bust 36″‘, if you measure them, you’ll find that they are considerable bigger. Read more