The best sewing books you need in your library

Sewing books are an excellent resource, no matter where you are on your sewing journey. Here’s my 100% subjective take on the best sewing books to check out.

I’m not a sewing educator, and I don’t claim to be. I do, however, happen to be fairly good at teaching myself things.

How? Because I was a fucking nerd growing up and read lots of books. I was even voted Best Reader in the 4th grade; it was that bad.

My sewing knowledge is from a combination of a few sewing classes and books. If I don’t know how to do something, I look it up in my trusty sewing library.

Why should you get a sewing book?

I understand the compulsion to search Google or YouTube for what you need. It’s easily accessible. The algorithm has you down, and Autocomplete can usually figure out what you’re trying to search for before you even know it. (I highly recommend reading Algorithms of Oppression and Weapons of Math Destruction. )

We often say “the internet is forever,” but it’s only forever as long as someone pays to host a site or wants to keep their YouTube videos up.

A GIF of a blonde woman holding a book. The caption reads, "These things are great! It's like a TV in your head!"

Additionally, the pages or videos that end up on the front page of search engines have nothing to do with how credible those sources are. Instead, it’s all about SEO or search engine optimization—the practice of optimizing a web page, so your website ends up high on organic search rankings.

And unless someone talks about their credentials, it’s hard to know whether you’re learning the correct sewing technique. Of course, there are multiple ways to do one thing in sewing. But there’s a difference between efficient methods that will result in a good final product and inefficient methods that cause frustration and may end up screwing up your final project.

I’m all about efficiency. I’d rather learn a tried-and-true method versus learning a bad habit and trying to undo it later. But, I have a life too.

Books are forever. Is your Wifi slow? Phone battery dead? You’ve got a book, which goes through multiple edits before publication.

If you’re new to sewing, it’s so hard to know where to start with a simple Google search. Of course, you’ll get a ton of options in an Amazon search too, but the last thing a new sewist need is more choices.

I’m the type to over-research most things before I purchase them, so therefore I am your new best friend. If you’re overwhelmed with the options out there or looking for a new book to add to your personal sewing library, you’ve come to the right place.

Disclaimer: I’m not an Amazon affiliate, so I’m not getting the Bezos Bucks for linking out. If you can, shop at secondhand bookstores or visit your local library. I don’t want to send Bezos to space.

Best overall beginner books

These are the must-have books you need in your collection right meow.

Your sewing machine manual

Krystina's sewing machine manuals.
I keep all of my sewing machine manuals. You’ll also notice the tabs.
Best for: Troubleshooting any issue on your machine

Yes, I’m that person who reads the manual before they assemble furniture or install something. I like to work smarter, not harder. The machine manual isn’t getting in the way of your fun. It’s there to help you ensure you don’t mess up your machine and sew with minimal tears.

A woman lies on the floor in shame next to a dark wood chair. The chair is assembled in reverse.
When you didn’t read the manual. (Credit: Imgur)

Your sewing machine manual doesn’t just teach you to thread your machine. It also teaches you how to use features specific to your machine and various techniques associated with those stitches. In addition, it always comes with a section at the end for troubleshooting errors on your machine.

Half of the questions in r/sewing about sewing machine tension can be solved by reading the damn sewing manual. So if you threw yours away, find it online, print it out, and hang onto it. I often reference my manuals when I’m using a new feature or a stitch I haven’t used in a while.

Note: If someone who is not your local sewing machine dealer tells you to adjust your bobbin tension, run.

Where to buy it: Your sewing machine manual usually comes free with purchasing a new sewing machine. If you purchased a used machine and it didn’t come with a manual, most manufacturers list their PDF manuals online for free. You’ll usually find it in a quick Google search.

Simplicity’s Simply the Best Sewing Book

Simplicity's Simply the Best Sewing Book against a green background.
Best for: Guiding you through all things garment sewing.

Simplicity’s Simply the Best Sewing Book needs to be in your library if you want a comprehensive overview of sewing and garment construction.

If you’re not familiar, Simplicity is a major sewing pattern under the “Big 4” umbrella of major sewing pattern companies you’ll often find in Joann’s or your local big box craft retailer.

Is this book “simply the best?” I think it’s one of the best introductions to garment sewing in a book. It covers every step of the garment sewing process, from preparing and cutting your fabric to measuring yourself and selecting a pattern. It also covers most sewing techniques you’ll find in garment sewing, and it even has a section for pattern-less garment projects.

Patternless garments are essentially “zero-waste patterns,” without the slick rebrand and upcharge. I said what I said.

Where to buy it: Joann stores or Amazon. Some reviews on Amazon and Pattern Review say older editions of the book are more thorough.

Amazon listings for older editions are a little more expensive, but I found mine at Half-Priced Books. You can also try your luck at your local secondhand book store and the local library.

Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing

The only photo I have is the one I sent to my brother, asking if he’d like it.
Best for: Guiding you from sewing steps 0 through 50.

If I didn’t find Simply the Best Sewing Book first, I would’ve purchased Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing.

Reader’s Digest has a special place in my heart as a young reader. My mom had a subscription for years, and I would read each one. Reader’s Digest prints many books, from guides to home repair to needlework and even sewing.

Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing is great for beginners because it covers the supplies you need, the types of presser feet and their uses, basic techniques, and even sewing for the home. Older editions also have a section on measuring masculine bodies and differences in sewing techniques, such as the direction of a pants fly.

Where to buy it: Joann stores, Amazon, your local second-hand book store, or the local library. Some reviews on Amazon and Pattern Review prefer the older edition. I found a copy for $6 at Half-Priced Books, and I gave it to my brother.

Favorite fitting books

You likely will not fit a sewing pattern right out of the envelope. That’s okay. Unlike shopping for ready-to-wear clothing, where you get what you get, you can fit a pattern to fit your shape better with garment sewing.

It can be overwhelming to learn about fitting because there’s more than one method to pattern fitting. And no matter who you talk to, each sewer has their own preferences.

The books below introduced me to pattern fitting and helped me decide which methods I like best.

Yes, you will need to take your own measurements. However, if you’re recovering from disordered eating or body dysmorphia, you need to be careful not to take these measurements too personally. Don’t compare yourself to others. Instead, look at these measurements through a purely scientific approach to selecting a pattern size. Remember: the numbers are made up don’t really matter.

Another caveat: These (and most fitting books in general) talk about body shapes, features, and “flattering” pattern selection. Ignore that. Wear what you’d like. Minimize or maximize whatever you’d like. All that matters is that the pattern fits you how you’d like.

Singer’s The Perfect Fit

Singer's The Perfect Fit book against a green backdrop.
Best for: An introduction to pattern fitting.

Singer used to publish books as part of the Singer Sewing Reference Library, and The Perfect Fit was one of those titles in the collection.

This book introduces you to taking body measurements, comparing them to the flat pattern, and making adjustments. It also explains how much ease particular parts of the garment should have and how to make adjustments for different garment features, such as collars.

I like this book because it filled some gaps other fitting books skim over. Having well-fitting collar matters!

Where to buy it: It appears like this book is out of print, judging by the high paperback price on Amazon. I found mine for $7 at Half-Priced Books, so you can also check out thrift shops, second-hand book stores, and the library.

The Palmer Pletsch Complete Guide to Fitting

The Palmer/Pletsch Complete Guide to Fitting book against a green backdrop.
Best for: Explaining how Big 4 and commercial pattern sizing works.

This book is an introduction to Palmer/Pletsch’s popular tissue-fitting method. In short, you try on the pattern tissue—or trace a PDF pattern on a softer medium like Pellon or Swedish tracing paper—and make your pattern adjustments based on how the tissue fits your body.

The book is oddly organized, so you’ll definitely need to take my tabbing tip. Still, it covers how to identify the adjustments you need to make on your body, how to identify when something is ill-fitting, and has some great tips for fitting as you sew to avoid mistakes.

This book covers every body part, but it excludes pants fitting from this guide. You’ll need the Pants for Real People book for that.

Where to buy it: Amazon, Joann stores, and the Palmer/Pletsch online store. Get the spiral-bound version if you can. I didn’t, and I have regrets.

Favorite fabric books

Most beginners think selecting the fabric is the fun part of sewing, and it can be. However, as you learn more, you’ll realize that you can’t just buy the prettiest thing you see and hope everything will turn out well.

Fabric will feel and behave differently depending on the weight and composition. In addition, certain fabrics are suited for certain garments, creating different shapes, and yes, certain weather too.

And when your fabric selection meets your sewing machine, it can be heaven or hell, depending on if you know what you’re doing.

If screwing up your beautiful fabric scares you, you’ll need these books in your library to ease the fear.

The New Fabric Savvy

The All-New Fabric Savvy.
Best for: Fabric selection, sewing, and care

Long-time sewing instructor Sandra Betzina sewed with more than 100 types of fabrics and went through trial-and-error, so you don’t have to.

Each fabric has its own section describing best uses, pre-treat and care for it, which needle size and type to use, the best machine presser foot to use, tips for handling the fabric under the machine, and much more.

There’s also an appendix in the back describing different interfacing types and their uses, how to conduct a burn test for your fabric and what it means, stain removal, and much more.

In short, you need The All New Fabric Savvy book in your library.

Where to buy it: Amazon and Joann. Also, check your local library.

Fabric for Fashion: The Swatch Book

Fabric for Fashion: The Swatch Book.
Best for: A primer on textiles.

Part of the fabric shopping experience is touching and feeling the fabric between your fingers. It’s hard to do that with online shopping.

If you’re wondering what shantung or chiffon feels like, Fabric for Fashion: The Swatch Book is for you. The draw is the swatches for the most commonly-used fashion fabrics. Unfortunately, many fabric shops don’t let you cut off your own swatches for burn tests, so this book is a better alternative to pissing off your local businesses or making your own swatch book.

However, this book also explains how fabric is produced, different types of weaves, how fabric weight is determined, and much more. Think of this as an entry-level primer to textiles.

Where to buy it: Amazon. The price is high—$85 for the 2nd edition—because it’s used in fashion schools. There’s also a new edition coming out in December 2021. I saved up several Amazon gift cards for this.

Favorite reference books

With reference books, you don’t need to read them cover-to-cover. Just look up what you need to and get on with it. Reference books have saved me from certain disasters multiple times.

The Vogue/Butterick Guide to Sewing Techniques

The Vogue/Butterick Step-by-step Guide to Sewing Techniques. Krystina's copy is against a green backdrop.
Best for: Learning any sewing technique.

If you’re reading through pattern instructions and there’s a technique that’s unfamiliar to you, whip out the Vogue/Butterick Guide to Sewing Techniques.

Vogue and Butterick are also under the “Big 4” umbrella of major pattern companies. So they combined forces like Power Rangers to create the ultimate Zord of a reference book with every sewing technique you can think of. Don’t know how to do a bias-bound seam? Need help sewing collars? You can find it all in this book.

Where to buy it: I haven’t found new editions of this book, but the price on Amazon is pretty reasonable. Mine was less than $10 at Half-Priced Books, so you can also check out thrift shops, second-hand book stores, and the library.

Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Needlework

Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Needlework book against a green backdrop.
Best for: Dabbling in other techniques.

Want to add embroidery or appliqué to a garment? Are you finally going to pick up knitting like your other crafty friends?

Instead of starting at square one with another Google search, the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Needlework is a great start. I’ve seen this OG book on my mother’s bookshelf, so when I found it second-hand, I screamed and snatched it immediately.

It covers various needlework crafts such as quilting, patchwork, macrame, lacework, and much more.

Folks who are hardcore quilters, knitters, and so forth may not feel this is comprehensive enough, but I think it’s a great resource for someone who needs an intro. For example, I recently turned to this book to figure out how to do appliqué on my coverstitch dust cover, and the explanations were excellent. Now I’m in love and want to appliqué all the things. Good job, Reader’s Digest.

Where to find it: Amazon, your local secondhand bookstore, or check your local library. I found this (and five other copies) at Half-Price Books for $6 each. Don’t worry. I only bought one.

Knits for Real People and Pants for Real People

Knits for Real People and Pants for Real People technically fit books from the Palmer/Pletsch method in their “Sewing for Real People” series. I treat them as reference books, though, so I’m sticking them in this category.

If you have the Complete Guide to Fitting, you probably have tissue-fitting down. Unfortunately, the book on knits doesn’t introduce anything new in that regard, except for trying on the pinned fabric before you sew because of the way knit fabrics behave.

However, I like the Knits for Real People book because of the sewing tips for knits. The book gives you all sorts of tips for sewing different knit styles, embellishments, and using your serger.

As for Pants for Real People, it introduces tissue-fitting for pants. While it’s rather simplistic and may not go into as much detail as some people like, I found the ease tips for different pant styles helpful. The tips for sewing different waistbands are solid gold. You could pick up this book for pant sewing techniques alone, and it’d be worth it.

Where to buy it: Amazon and the Palmer/Pletsch website.

Fitting and Pattern Alteration

The author's copy of Fitting and Pattern alteration against a green backdrop.
Best for: Going deep with fitting.

There’s more than one way to approach sewing pattern alterations. Which one is the right one to use? You’ll find that every sewer has their preference, which may not be helpful for new folks.

Fitting and Pattern Alteration is a doozy of a textbook—yes, it’s a textbook that costs as much as you’d expect—that includes not one but three alteration methods for each of the 88 figure variations.

It also walks you through how to take extensive measurements in a chart, create your own crotch curve to adjust pants patterns, and much more.

I don’t recommend this for beginners because it’s a lot. But if you think you’re up for it, it’s a resource I reference constantly.

Judith Rasband, one of the textbook authors, runs the Conselle Institute of Image Management. (Yikes.) They also have a shop too.

Where to find it: Amazon. I saved several gift cards to purchase this book.

Pro tip: Use sticky tabs

A hypothetical complaint I imagine someone might say is, “But Krystinaaaa, I hate flipping around in a book to find what I need!”

The author's set of sticky tabs against a green backdrop.

Let me introduce you to something called sticky tabs. They’re the lifeblood for medical students, Ph.D. candidates, and anyone who hates flipping between pages constantly. (Me.)

They’re easy to write on and remove without ruining or tearing pages. I use these to mark chapters or major sections in sewing books I reference constantly. I personally prefer the thicker ones by Post-It that feel more like the tabs in a file folder.

It will save you time when you need to look up something on the fly.

Conclusion

Books are dope, especially for improving your sewing practice. Hopefully, these recommendations give you a place to start. I’m curious: Which sewing books do you have in your library already? Any pet peeves with sewing books? I’d love to hear it!

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