The Dress A Day Guide to Learning To Sew: Part One


dottyral pincushion

pincushion from Dottyral on Etsy

I get a lot of email asking me how to learn to sew, and with so many other things in life, the answer is "It Depends."

First of all, you have to know how you learn. Are you someone who likes the "monkey-see, monkey-do" approach? Then you probably want to learn from a person, instead of a book. Do you want to learn in a big group where you can hide in the back, or do you need one-on-one attention? Do you do better with a kindly-grandma type who's never met a zipper she couldn't fix, or do you want a hip young thing wearing a deconstructed t-shirt? If you are going to learn from a family member or friend, will your relationship survive the first buttonhole? (Be honest with yourself. If a family dinner with Aunt Biddy has you gritting your teeth and wishing for death, she is NOT the person to teach you how to sew.)

If your fingers itch at the thought of not being able to just jump in yourself and TRY things, maybe you should learn from a book. I really like the Reader's
Digest Complete Guide to Sewing
, because it has great pictures and is very matter-of-fact; other people swear by the Singer Sewing Essentials book or the Vogue Sewing Book, among other titles. I recommend that, if you go the book route, you buy at least two books (or as many as you can afford the money and space for) so that you can get second opinions if something doesn't work for you. (Remember, sewing is like perl: There's More Than One Way To Do It.)

Then there's the question of What Do You Sew First? Again, how do you work? Will you do better with the challenge of a complicated first project (because you really, really want the result)? Or will you be happy making a basic tote bag or placemat that you wouldn't otherwise want or use, just to learn techniques slowly? Will you not be motivated unless you're sewing beautiful fabric, or will it rip you up inside if you ruin something special?

And another thing: how do you deal with frustration and failure? Because learning to sew, at least at first, will add heaping doses of both into your life, I'm sorry to say. If frustration makes you crazy-angry, with bouts of throwing things and/or screaming, try to sew when your family/roommate/pet parakeets are elsewhere. Take lots of deep breaths. One deep breath for each stitch ripped out is a pretty good ratio.

If "failing" at something makes you want to sleep for a week (and either stop eating altogether or mainline Ben & Jerry's): redefine 'failure'. You didn't fail to make a skirt, you succeeded in learning how NOT to make a skirt! Go into every project, at least for the first few projects, with the goal of learning, and not with the goal of making something couture-level. Define success generously. If you got the machine threaded right, didn't sew through your finger, and the two pieces of fabric join up more or less evenly? You won. Do a victory lap.

More advice: isolate your variables. Don't try everything at once! In other words, don't try to change a pattern's size or design AND do a new technique you've never tried before AND use a difficult fabric: if something goes wrong you will find it hard to figure out just what to blame (except for sunspots: I find it convenient to blame sunspots for everything).

I still think the ideal first project is a full skirt; it gives you only one part of your body to fit (your waist), encourages you to jump right in to zippers (Zippers: not that hard. Take some deep breaths, go slowly, and baste; you'll be fine), and, truly, a full skirt is also forgiving of minor "mistakes". Waistband uneven? Don't tuck in your shirt! Your hem is wobbly? Walk fast, they'll never notice.

Lastly, here are some things I wish I'd known when I first learned to sew … and that I wish I followed 100% now!

  • Cutting is five times as important as construction. Honestly. Once you've cut the pattern, your track is chosen. It's much harder to recover from a cutting error than a sewing error. If you take your time on the cutting out, you will never regret it. Don't cut out patterns when you're tired, angry, or distracted (or, needless to say, drunk); you'll never wear the dress. And all those markings on the patterns? MARK THEM ALL. You won't be able to 'figure it out later' — believe me, I KNOW.
  • Have everything in place before you start sewing. And by everything, I mean, wind one more bobbin than you think you'll need, know where your seam ripper, measuring tape, pins, zipper foot for your machine, etc., are. If the project needs seam binding or buttons or a zipper or interfacing: have it before you start. The fabric store is a sad, sad place at ten p.m. (if it's even open). And once you get home with whatever it was you needed, sitting down with a book will look awfully inviting. (Of course, being by nature impatient and NOT having what you need can lead to some "interesting" design decisions … not that I would know. Ha.)
  • Put your stuff away in the right place when you're done. That way you won't have to spend an hour cleaning up from your LAST project before you can start your NEXT project. Total buzzkill, that is.
  • Eliminate the "shouldas" from your sewing life. Has a project descended into that abyss from which it shall never emerge? Write. It. Off. Don't let it hang around your sewing room like some Dickensian ghost. Give it away, cut it into quilt squares, mash it up for papermaking, hold an unfinished-object-swap with all your sewing friends, heck, throw it out or burn it if you have to — I don't care what you do with it, but once you get to the point where thinking of it makes you feel guilty and self-flagellating, it is not a "unfinished project" but a curséd albatross. Sewing is no longer something people need to do to survive on the frontier [if you ARE on the frontier, pls ignore this part]; it's a FU
    N HOBBY. Vigorously expunge the parts that aren't fun. So you screwed up. So what? Bury the evidence, deny, deny, deny, and move ON.

I called this "Part One" as I may (or may not, you never know) add other parts later. But don't wait for them! Start now!

0 thoughts on “The Dress A Day Guide to Learning To Sew: Part One

  1. My most successful “first project” with my kids was a knit top. As long as the shoulders and the chest fit, the rest would fit. And then they would wear it, which was a very big motivator to getting them interested. My first project in HomeEc was a horrible cap sleeved blouse that looked horrid and ended up in a bag on the floor of the rear of my closet. The full skirt thing would work as well, but since one of the kids I taught was my son, the knit shirt thing worked better for him(grin). He’s gone on to make himself some pretty amazing Hallowe’en costumes (samurai armor from egg cartons, anyone?).

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  2. The only other thing I would add is press as you go! 😀 It’s too hard to do it all at once when you’re done, and skipping it makes your item look handmade, not handcrafted. 🙂

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  3. Good advice! As a novice sewist who prefers to jump in with both feet, I heartily agree with “redefining success”. For me, if I can wear it it’s a success. That doesn’t mean it looks good or that it’s comfortable. Maybe some day my definition of success will include those qualities, but for now if it’s wearable it’s a winner!I also find it helpful to repeat these phrases while sewing: – It’s good enough for who it’s for.” – This (zipper, hem, etc.) says ‘I care, but not a lot.’ – This is AT LEAST as good as ‘Made in China’ – If someone is pathetic enough to criticize my hem I don’t want to be friends with them anyway.

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  4. Erin, you’re brilliant and this is very sound, sage advice. The cutting out part is so important and if I hadn’t been shown how to do it, I am not sure I would have ever figured it out from a book – most other things I can get from a book. I think choosing patterns (and getting the size right) and matching fabrics to the pattern is another invaluable skill needed for success. It’s hard to get that stuff from a book.

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  5. I agree completely with everything you said! And the part about getting rid of “shouldas” really resonates with me. I have quite a few of them still in a box from when I moved 15 months ago. Maybe it’s time to get rid of them…

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  6. I’m a big fan of aprons as a first project, too. You can go very utilitarian or lacy-frou-frou, you don’t have to worry about fit, and the best part? All it has to “do” to be called a terrific success is keep floury handprints off your pants. Which means, you really should bake some cookies to try it out.

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  7. Erin, this is so to-the-point. I taught my first class ever to beginning sewers last weekend. These wonderful people did not know what selvedge was, true beginners. May I copy your words of wisdom and hand them out to my students (3 of them)?I think the biggest obstacle for them is wanting everything to be perfect, first time out. Never happens.

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  8. Oh, definitely, copy at will. I like the points about pressing and aprons and choosing sizes and patterns … I think part two might be coming up faster than I thought!

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  9. My recommendation is, if you want to learn how to make clothes, begin with the basic little girls’ dress, say, size 4-6 – gathered skirt, lined or faced bodice, maybe a cap sleeve, buttoned or zippered. Small enough to learn the important basics, quicker to finish, cheap enough to ruin/throw away/start over. 70% of your time is prep – if you take your time there, the sewing is almost incidental.

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  10. Totally agree with all of this.I learned mostly from books because I’m always itching to do it MYSELF. And I prefer to just jump in and figure things out as I go. It’s led to both spectacular successes and failures. But hey, now I know what not to do next time.”How hard could it be?” are famous last words of mine… usually before the heavy drinking starts.

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  11. Excellent advice! And while I agree with the “don’t cut while drunk” rule, I have constructed many of my garments from start to finish while a bit tipsy.*ahem*Although I can’t say I would recommend that course of action for a beginner sewist. =D

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  12. If I’d ony read this a few days sooner! Then I could have followed the “don’t cut while drunk” rule and saved a few bandages and kept an intact finger.

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  13. Great post! My favorite mantra is “nothing is unfixable.” You may have to alter the item from the pattern a little (or maybe a lot), but that’s part of the joy of making something yourself–if it doesn’t work, you can try something else!I just finished up a sundress that, somehow, was about two inches too small in the waist. Tragedy, until I decided to add in pockets–it took a little futzing until I got it right, but now the dress fits, is more functional, and will be getting a ton of use come summer.

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  14. As someone who was taught to sew by my Grandmother – THINK beofre asking a family member to teach you to sew. Try your local Adult Ed class. The family member route is best for help in chosing a pattern then the size and THEN the fabric. I am sending this site to my costume crew students because the comment about cutting is dead on. Thank you!!!!

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  15. As someone who was taught to sew by my Grandmother – THINK beofre asking a family member to teach you to sew. Try your local Adult Ed class. The family member route is best for help in chosing a pattern then the size and THEN the fabric. I am sending this site to my costume crew students because the comment about cutting is dead on. Thank you!!!!

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  16. I must be one of the worst trial-and-error learners ever. I’ve really had an unpardonable level of success considering what a noncompliant I am with regards to following a pattern. I made a dress two weeks ago and, for the first time, actually cut out the little triangles you’re supposed to use to match pieces. Well, some of the little triangles. When I remembered to do it. So far, though, I have not had any real sewing disasters.The first dress I attempted was a 1947 wrap-around housedress that included darts, curved seams, and tucks, none of which I had ever attempted. I decided it just HAD to have piping trim (again, I’d never dealt with piping; I figured out on my own to use the zipper foot to install it), and I picked a unidirectional print. I had to make two small fudges where I trimmed the seam allowance a little too closely, but other than that, it came out beautifully. I so did not deserve that level of success.I love old sewing manuals. My mother sews very competently but she and I sometimes clash when it comes to working together on projects (learning to drive was Hell on Earth), so I don’t ask her for much sewing advice. I do, however, web-surf for it shamelessly.

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  17. I began learning to sew when I was eight years old in 4-H, that would have been in 19…sometime. My suggestion for the beginner: Have a good seam ripper. (We named ours Jack). Do to the fabric what you will do to the garment – wash, tumble dry, iron. As for mistakes, my mother sometimes said, “It won’t show on a galloping horse.” and Dad said, “The mark of a good craftsman isn’t that he (or she) doesn’t make mistakes; its that he (or she) knows what to do about mistakes.” Enjoy the process!

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  18. I just want to add the importance of pressing at every stage. It gets tedious, its my least favorite part of sewing. But doing it right (pressing a seam all the way, using pressing tools like press cloths and a seam roll) adds a noticable difference, and it really makes the next step of sewing easier.I have a guilty excuse for every one of Erin’s main tips…I cut when I’m too tired/tipsy to sew, I never can keep track of where my tools are (between my drawers, my ironing board, my sewing basket, my travel bag, the bin on my sewing machine, and my cats who think spools of thread belong under the bed), and my “shoulda” is a wool suit I was making for my husband, who hasn’t forgotten about it, and won’t let me forget either.

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  19. Try pj’s or a nightgown as a first time project. The pants especially are a good first time project – especially if there isn’t a side seam. You get to fit your waist comfortably, make as long or short as you like – and learn to cut things out, basic seams, trim if you want, hem, casing – but no major futzy stuff…AND best of all, who cares what it looks like? You sleep in it!

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  20. I was so “out of style” for so many years …I wandered the aisles of the JCPenny’s fabric section, the Woolworth cut yardage tables fingering the textures, flipping thru the LaMode button racks….I even managed a few JoAnns back in the 80s…now, sewing is In..hurrah!Yes press!and yes, if it aint working out, let it go. It’s a process of learning….not a contest.Tho contests can be fun.;-)

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  21. Another vote here for aprons as first projects…however, teens seem to prefer shorts as a first project, at least the ones I taught together when my daughter talked me into tesching her and her friends at the same time, voiced that preference.Baby clothes are SO good to learn on, too, especially since many have simple lines that can be embellished in different ways every time they are constructed (piping, lining, ruffles, and flounces, applique)….and the seams that you have to rip out are a LOT shorter and go a lot faster, too. No problem if you don’t have a baby to sew for….the garment, if successful, can go to a Crisis Pregnancy Center, and find a good home.

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  22. Kudos to Miss Erin and everybody who has posted here.Everything said is dead on.One thing I would add: Enjoy the process not just the results. If you don’t, sewing becomes another chore. Find joy in the journey.For the things I don’t like to do (hand sewing and buttonholes) I treat myself to something while doing the lesser loved tasks.Watch a guilty tv show or put on some really peppy music. Sing along very loudly. Take your garment with you and do that hand sewing while talking with others or on break or while waiting for an appointment. I like to do my hand sewing at work because I can. And because others become interested in what I am doing. We share conversation over what would otherwise be a solitary task. I’ve gathered stories and advice in this manner. Because sewing is not as common as it once was, folks are somewhat intrigued by it (and the person doing it.)And of course you must use patience, patience, patience. Plus don’t be too hard on yourself. I can find flaws in almost every store bought item. People won’t be able to see your minor flaws if you don’t point ’em out. Fight the urge to do so.Thanks Erin,-Janet

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  23. I will add to what Sondra said above: get a good seam ripper, and learn early on how to use it efficiently. It will make taking out your mistakes less painful. And it is a skill you will always need, because no matter how good a sewist you become, you will sometimes have to rip.

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  24. My sewing teacher way back said as a first remark to the class, “If you don’t like to iron, you’re not going to like sewing.” So true. Good pressing makes the difference between sad-homemade and awesome-handcrafted. Pressing is way more fun with a good iron….this is no place for the $15 featherlight model. I invested in nice, heavy Rowenta and have never looked back!

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  25. I just have to geek out and drop a comment that hanging out in alt.sewing on USENET offers a good source of advice to the beginner. Also, web sources like patternreview.com are invaluable.

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  26. I have found a great deal of comfort in youtube when I get stuck. I learned by watching online how to sew in a zipper or sew a french seam or a flat felt seam. I just did a google search. So incredibly helpful. The benefit of live instruction, you can repeat the video over and over until you really understand it and you would be surprised (well probably not) the subject matter as basic as threading a needle to matters far more complex. Anyway, it helped me.melissa

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  27. HiI just discovered your blog and i find it great !even if i don’t understand everything i feel how passionate and pro you areI just quitted the press industry to create 3 month ago a blog that shows Paris through street style photo romances. It’s a new way for me to humanize fashion.I hope you’ll like as much as people already like it.As i need feed back from all over countries and culture to improve my work, I’ll be glad to have your opinion and why not share links to share our work and because i am sure that you share my vision : fashion is for sheep, whereas style gives personality !ps : if you need some of my photos, I’ll be pleased to help you.Best regardsKamel LAHMADIstreet style romancer in Paris

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  28. I also highly recommend this book to new sewers:Sew Fast, Sew Easy, by Elissa Meyrichhttp://www.powells.com/biblio/61-9780312269098-0It comes with three patterns — 1 pillow (with piping), 1 bag, and one skirt. It is particularly good at helping you understand and work your way through a pattern. That, along with the Vogue Sewing guide from the seventies and Claire Schaeffer’s Couture Sewing Techniques, really made me a proper sewer.Threads Magazine is also doing a top-notch job these days of speaking to the budding sewing geek, I have been enjoying them and applying the lessons I learn there regularly.Always love your blog, thanks!

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  29. Excellent post, with really great advice!! I’m a novice, sewist, trying to teach myself from this blog and about nine million others. My mom’s very skilled, but she lives far away, so it’s not like we can have sewing nights every now and again.I’m looking forward to the next lesson!

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  30. Way back in 1958 my Home Ec teacher said, “When you take out your sewing machine, plug in your iron!” That has been the absolute best advice I have passed on to everyone I’ve taught to sew, even a few family members.

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  31. “When sewing with silk for the first time, make sure it’s for your sister to wear as bridesmaid at your wedding, so that when she comes to you an hour after the meal, after the first riotous reel, and shows you the front bodice seams coming apart, you will be so deliriously happy, you don’t care!”Or is that just a wee bit too specific?

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  32. Regarding the last paragraph of Part One:My mother would say, “stop shoulding all over yourself.” That’s one of my mantras!Also, I’m so excited because a local auction is advertising that it’s having a “Quilter’s Attic” this year, which means “bring all your shouldas and donate them and pick through everyone else’s shouldas for some lucky gold.” Waaaay more exciting than ogling the finished projects, if you ask me!

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  33. I totally have to agree with the Reader’s Digest book. It is great for basics and does an excellent job about explaining/illustrating techniques.

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  34. I found a sewing shop in Portland that had open sew nights. It was a nominal fee, but they’d stay open late, and everyone would sit around and show off their latest project. I got TREMENDOUS help from being around all these women who had been sewing for years, and were perfectly happy to give me tips on the easiest way to sew sleeves, or help me pick fabrics, or give me encouragement when I was starting to falter. I even brought my half finished dress one night, and put it on inside out so that someone could mark it and pin it for me so that it actually fit. Now I’ve moved away and haven’t yet found a support group – but that group was absolutely the number one thing that kept me sewing.

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  35. Erin, Thank you sooooo much for permission to junk my “unfinished, started-but-gone-wrong projects. Another thanks for the tip on filling up bobbins before starting a project. Been sewing for many years and had never thought of that. Think I will get into the sewing room today and clean out my unfinished project holder. That will give me the room to store the fabric I bought that has, at the moment, no home. Thanks again.

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  36. On reading over some more of the other comments, I would like to add that if a sewer becomes interested in sewing vintage style cloths, then an investment in some old sewing manuals is a wonderful way to go.

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  37. I thank you so much for this post! And I also thank all the amazing comments I found here! I have been handsewing for a while now and soon will be getting my Huskystar E20, so I am basically in a moment of mantra-chanting and Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing-reading. I’ll get one more of the indicated books and try my best to keep calm while learning! 😀 Thank you so much!!!!

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  38. Thank you so much for this post! I used to sew in high school, but got out of it when I left home (and the sewing machine). I’ve had a machine for a few years now, but have been discouraged by my projects (I had a skirt COMPLETELY bust a seam while I was at WORK one day).I know I should mark the patterns, but I’m wondering how? What should I use for marking? I have some sort of pen-thing, but I can’t see it on dark fabric, and the chalk I’ve tried wasn’t very smooth. Can you recommend a brand? Thanks! I have a few vintage sewing books (not about vintage sewing… from the 40’s), but had a hard time choosing a new one.

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  39. FABULOUS FABULOUS FABULOUS advice…..I consider myself intermediate, and I jumped for joy to know that I have discovered most of the things you pointed out, albeit through trial and error and many deep breaths! My greatest overlooked method? Tailors’ tacks. You gotta have them, and so many people just don’t know about them. Tailors tacks SAVED MY LIFE. Seriously. Love the blog, thanks so much….Leah xxx

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  40. Erin–Fabulous advice! The Readers’ Digest series is my favorite (they have a book put out in the ’70s about living off the land that is priceless), most can be picked up very cheaply at used book stores. I like the older copies because they have fun projects. I think flannel pants are a great starter project (although I managed to cut two left legs last Christmas – I ended up cutting them down for my younger niece) – or drawstring backpacks for the teen crowd.

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  41. Great article – great advice. May I respectfully add: If you are serious about learning and are using books as a guide – I recommend the Sewing Companion Library/Easy Guide series published by Taunton. Easy Guide to Sewing Skirts is a good place to start. The books are OOP but are available through Alibris and other used book dealers.

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  42. I so agree with the two (or three!) instruction book idea. It’s good to be able to see the same technique in different words (and pictures) — you never know which version will make more sense to your confused brain.And my group, the Disco Inferno and Sweatshop, has a hard and fast rule: No cutting fabric after 10pm. We’re all happier that way.

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  43. Marlena, I use a few things for marking:1. Tailor tacks. I know they’re tedious, but still the best way to mark darts, pleats, and so on.2. Blackboard chalk. I use it on a lot of fabrics because it marks easily and I can see it. It also rubs off easily.3. Soft charcoal pencil. Just like you’d use for art class. Make sure it’s a pencil and not a pastel or something. I use it on where markings are unlikely to show (just in case) but the marks have always washed out.

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  44. Marlena, I have another tip for marking fabric – soap chips. I never got the hang of chalk, but if you use your soap down till its about 1/8″ thick, you can sharpen the edges really easily with your fingers. You can mark lightly or heavily, and comes off easier than chalk. I am waiting for someone to come out with the soap pencil!

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  45. I’ve been sewing for, umm… a year and a half now. I’m not quite a beginner anymore, and I can fake a lot of things reasonably, as long as there is no zipper involved.One particularly interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed is that how happy I am with a garment’s construction is directly proportional to how I feel about the fabric. I’ve had a lot of things get wadded up and hidden in the trash can, and they were always pieces I wasn’t too wild about in the first place. On the other hand, I’ve NEVER had a project not turn out when made in an Alexander Henry print.

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  46. Thanks so much, Karen and geogrrl! Can you believe I’ve never even heard of tailors tacks? I’ll try out the chalk and the soap. I don’t use bar soap, but my boyfriend does. And he ALWAYS uses it down to a sliver.

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  47. Marlena, I’m intimately acquainted with tailor tacks because that was my job as a kid. I wanted to “help” Mom with the sewing, so I was allowed to cut notches and make tailor tacks. As much as I find them a PITA, they’re still the way to go for the most part when marking patterns.Good luck on your future projects! I’ll be interested to see what you make. Do you have a blog or post to places like “Sew Retro”?

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