Minju Kim, a South Korean fashion designer, looks at her reflection in despair. She's clutching a length of fabric in her hand.

Learning to sew? These mindset shifts will help

Many people who want to learn to sew end up quitting because it’s “too hard.” Here’s my hot take: You can learn to sew with the right mindset.

I wish everyone learned how to sew. It’s a useful skill, it’s fun, and the creativity is endless. But, unfortunately, so many people who want to learn to sew end up quitting because it’s “too hard.”

Here’s my hot take: Sewing isn’t an impossible skill to learn if you have the right mindset and pace yourself. Unfortunately, some beginners want to skip making pillowcases and head straight to copying the fashion trends they see.

I understand the impatience, really. I didn’t start sewing my clothes until 2019. I’ve sewn pants, shirts, one-pieces, and even a costume or two. What helped me get further, faster in my sewing hobby? My mindset.

Anybody can learn how to sew, no matter your gender identity or physical ability.

If you’re struggling to get started or make headway in your sewing practice, here are some tips and action steps you can implement right away to hasten your skill development.

Make it a habit

Technically, my first introduction to sewing was in the seventh grade. Home economics was still a thing, so I took a sewing class since everyone in my school was required to take a non-athletic elective.

I learned a lot of basic sewing techniques in that class that I still use today. However, after that class, I didn’t sew again for about 16 years.

When I picked up a needle again, those skills were rough. But when I was let go from a job, I suddenly had a ton of free time. So when I wasn’t applying to jobs, I was sewing. My sewing didn’t improve because I’m more skilled or anything—I just kept doing it.

Repetition will help you grow your sewing skills exponentially. For example, when I purchased my first serger three years ago, I went to my local sewing machine dealer to learn how to use my machine. After I threaded the machine the first time, my instructor cut the threads on my machine and said, “again.” And I kept threading the machine.

That’s why I’m not intimidated by sergers. Instead, I became comfortable with threading sergers through repetition, and I can do it fairly quickly.

Action step

If you’re struggling with consistency, try blocking out 30 minutes of your day to sew. You don’t need hours to make progress. Brittany J. Jones popularized the #sewin30 hashtag on Instagram, where she tackles her sewing in 30-minute sprints because she has a family and a life.

You don’t even need 30 minutes. I work from home, so I need to take eye breaks from my screen every few hours. When the Time Out app dims my screen, I set a timer for ten minutes, and I tackle a little bit of sewing.

Embrace your mistakes

If you’re the kind of person who hates masking mistakes, I hate to break it to you: You’ll mess up your sewing a lot.

I’ve been sewing at a steady clip since 2017, but I’m positive I make a mistake in every project.

A collection of four seam rippers of various sizes.
How many seam rippers do I own? The answer is yes.

I believe mistakes are the best teacher. Case in point: I’m one of those hardcore folks who believe that mechanical sewing machines are the best way to learn how to use a sewing machine. If you make a mistake—such as leaving the presser foot down while threading your machine—your machine will let you know right away that it does not like it. It won’t beep at you. The proof is in the tangled mess of threads on your fabric.

If this sounds terrifying, there’s a reason why a seam ripper comes with every sewing kit. You’ll make mistakes, but many of them are reversible. Instead of seeing mistakes as failure, consider them learning opportunities.

Action step

Are you worried about making a mistake? You’ll probably make them. So avoid the temptation to jump right to your project by making a muslin (also called a toile).

Muslins are test versions of the final garment. You usually use inexpensive fabric that mimics the fabric of your final garment. Since you know it’s practice and that this isn’t the final garment, it relieves the pressure to get it right the first time.

I often muslin any pants patterns to check fit and practice unfamiliar techniques. You might feel like it’s taking too long to get to the final project, but trust me. It’s preferable to make mistakes on a bedsheet than on fabric that costs $20 a yard.

If you’re trying a new setting on your machine, practice on scraps of fabric first. You can also use basting stitches — long stitches that aren’t locked—to assemble parts of a project before you dive into the real thing.

A graphic checklist of mindset shifts to improve sewing skills.

Challenge your sewing fears

If you’re keeping track or doing the math, I picked up sewing again in adulthood in 2017. I couldn’t find home furnishings I liked, and I wanted to make our newlywed apartment seem like home. Since I knew how to sew pillows, it seemed like something I could do myself.

As I fell down the Google rabbit hole, I discovered the garment sewing realm. And I was hella curious.

You see, I’m short, and I have an ass. So hemming pants were a constant in our household growing up. And as an adult, I’ve struggled with finding clothes that fit me well. Trips to the fitting room usually spiraled me into depression and body dysphoria.

So when I discovered that you could [gasp] make your clothes that fit your unique body? I wanted in.

I’m also an extremely cautious person. I like to research anything before I jump in thoroughly. And despite all my Google-fu, I was still terrified to attempt sewing from a pattern.

I knew I needed to get over this fear, but I also knew that I needed a guiding hand. So, remembering how much fun I had in my seventh-grade sewing class, I signed up for two local garment sewing classes.

And then I got laid off.

Since I had nothing else to look forward to—besides applying to jobs and general despair—I went all-in on these classes, and I grew comfortable enough to tackle garment projects independently.

The product of my first two garment sewing classes.

I identified my fear and came up with a plan to conquer it. If I let my fear of screwing up prevent me from taking those classes, I never would’ve progressed in my sewing classes—and I never would’ve made pants that fit my giant peach.

Action step

It’s okay to be afraid. Trying something new is low-key terrifying when you don’t know the outcome. Identify what you’re scared of. Are you afraid of touching a sewing machine? Are you afraid of cutting into that expensive fabric you bought?

Once you’ve identified your fear, think about what would help you move past it. For example, if you’re afraid of using a sewing machine, many sewing machine dealers offer free operator lessons with the purchase of a machine so you can ease your way into it. Likewise, if you’re afraid of using a new type of fabric in a project, try practicing using it on a smaller scale.

Learn from (constructive) critiques

A GIF of actor Daniel Radcliffe saying, "I tried, and therefore no one should criticize me."
r/sewing in a nutshell.

I’ve learned to take constructive criticism over the years. Most things I’ve pursued have required me to take critiques from middle school band, the high school dance team, and now as a writer.

Constructive criticism is how you improve. Do you think this was my first writing draft? I never would’ve improved as a musician, dancer, or writer if I didn’t take constructive criticism and applied it to what I was doing.

From what I’ve observed on Reddit and by talking to my brother, some people who are just getting started sewing seem to fear constructive critiques for a few reasons:

  1. It means they’re not good enough.
  2. The person giving the critique is mean.*
  3. They’re not trying to be a professional tailor, so the critique doesn’t matter.

*They’re usually not, based on what I’ve seen on Reddit.

These fears may be a reason why some people are afraid to go to a sewing class. They’re terrified that they’re going to be ripped apart for their skill.

Unless you’re in fashion school and your teacher is Miranda Priestly, most sewing instructors are friendly! They want people to enjoy sewing.

However, not all constructive criticism is created equal. For example, there’s a big difference between someone saying, “Hey, that fabric might not be the best choice to create the kind of structure you’re looking for,” and “you shouldn’t have used horizontal stripes because it’ll make you look fat.”

The former is a legitimate critique. Fabric properties can determine how the final garment is going to lay on the body. The latter is rude AF, an opinion, and inaccurate.

Action step

It takes practice to learn how to take constructive criticism and sort legitimate criticism from stupid opinions.

First of all, if you’re asking for constructive criticism, be prepared to hear something you may not like. At work, I give guidelines when I’m asking for feedback. So if you’re seeking input on your sewing, be specific about the kind of feedback you’re looking for—for example, technique or fabric choice.

Writers are familiar with the phrase “kill your darlings.” It means that one shouldn’t get so attached to a word or a phrase that they’re unwilling to make a change, even if it’ll improve the overall draft. Try to take that approach to sewing as well. It’s not easy at first, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time on something and it’s still not turning out how you’d like. The goal isn’t perfection; it’s progress.

As you receive feedback, you’ll learn to decipher whether it’s rooted in fact or someone’s tastes.

Embrace what you don’t know

As you get into sewing, you’ll learn that there’s a lot you don’t know.

You’re learning how to use a sewing machine, selecting the suitable fabric and materials for the project, reading a sewing pattern, fitting—the list goes on. For some people, this is overwhelming, and it makes them want to give up.

You’re not going to pick up this stuff overnight. It’s not like you’re crashing at the last minute for an exam. (And if you need to learn these skills fast because you promised to make something for someone, that’s your bad, and you should back out immediately.)

On the flip side, you’ll never be bored when you have a lot to learn. You’ll always pick up new techniques that will improve your sewing skills. Although I’ve been sewing for a few years now, I’m still learning new techniques. Just the other day, I learned how to maneuver fabric under a coverstitch machine. I consider that a win!

My challenger is usually applying bias tape.

Action step

Get a book. I’m serious. I don’t care if you hate reading, but a comprehensive book will be like a syllabus for your sewing exploits. It’ll introduce you to the depth and breadth of sewing, which will be more efficient than a million one-off Google or YouTube searches with the hope that your source is an actual authority and not just good at SEO.

Don’t get me wrong. I read online tutorials too. But if we’re talking about efficiency, you’ll save time with a book because it’ll usually be well-organized and walk you through each step of the process. Think of it as a guide to your sewing journey. If you need a visual, once you’ve looked up something in a book, then you can go ahead and search YouTube with the correct term.

Many sewing books are reference books, meaning you don’t have to read them cover-to-cover. Don’t know where to start? I’ll publish a list of recommendations soon.

Conclusion

Learning how to sew is not a race. Instead, it’s an ongoing, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately rewarding journey.

If you’re just getting started with sewing, or you’re picking it up again after many years, welcome! You’ll get frustrated. You might cry. But with the right mindset, you’ll find the journey to be ultimately rewarding.

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