So much of successful sewing is muscle memory…experience and practice makes all the difference! So you can imagine how repeating bad habits can make your sewing more frustrating than it needs to be.
No matter how long you’ve been sewing, you can improve your work by breaking some bad habits. If you’re still new to the craft, now is the time to develop good habits, so make sure you don’t fall into these traps!
bad habit #1: you’re looking at the needle
The absolute bedrock of sewing properly is learning to keep your seam allowances even. Without this skill (which is more than just sewing in a straight line!), whatever you’re making can end up the wrong size or the wrong shape.
If your stitch lines are wobbly, or your seam allowances are not uniform, you might be looking at the needle when you sew, rather than where your eyes should be: on the seam allowance line.
Looking at the needle gives you no information; how can you know what the edge of the fabric is doing, if you’re not looking at it? Your eye should be fixed on the edge of the fabric, right at the front of the presser foot, so you know your fabric is being fed into the needle properly, and at the correct seam allowance.
Use a bit of brightly colored tape to mark your seam allowance, and help your eye stay trained where it should be. Painter’s tape or electrical tape is great for this!
bad habit #2: you’re too grabby with your fabric
No matter what fabric you’re using, or what you’re making, you should never be pushing the fabric into the needle, or pulling it from the behind the needle.
(Every stitch behind the needle is already done, you can’t change it! Worry about the fabric being fed into the needle.)
You should use the lightest possible touch on your fabric, and only touch it as much as you need to in order to keep everything under control.
Your hands don’t need to be any closer to the needle than shown above, and if you do have to nudge your fabric to the left or right to keep your seam allowance even, you should do so gently and slowly, while you’re still sewing (as in, don’t stop and re-position your fabric, correct while you stitch). In other words: no yanking, no pulling, no pushing, no being grabby with the fabric!
bad habit #3: you’re disrespecting the grain
Understanding, respecting, and sometimes manipulating the grain of fabric can actually be a fairly complex discussion. Without getting too involved, I can say that at the very least you should be careful of the grain when cutting your fabric!
If you’re using a pattern, it likely has a grain line marked on it, in the form of an arrow. Sometimes these arrows are labeled “grain” or “straight grain,” and sometimes not.
Use this line to orient your pattern properly on your fabric, with the grain line parallel to the selvedge edge. Don’t just eyeball it, though! Get out your trusty clear ruler and make sure it really is straight: line up a line on the ruler with the selvedge, and make sure the grain line on the pattern also lines up with the ruler, and you’ll be good to go.
If you’re not using a pattern, think about what part of the thing you’re making would require the strongest part of the fabric. What part of it would require the fabric to give a little bit? That’s how you can decide what should be cut on the straight grain (parallel to the selvedge and most often the stiffest and strongest fibers), vs the cross-wise grain (perpendicular to the selvedge and often a bit stretchier than the straight grain).
Cutting on the bias (diagonally) produces the most stretch, which in many cases you want to avoid at all costs, but sometimes can actually produce a very cool effect!
If you aren’t paying attention to the grain, however, you can’t effectively control your fabric, and you might be (unpleasantly) surprised by how your fabric behaves, and what your finished product looks like!
bad habit #4: you’re being lazy about pressing
Nobody likes ironing…but ironing and pressing is critical for sewing success! Ironing your fabric before you start (and sometimes your pattern, too!), pressing seams open, and using heat to shape fabric are just some ways that your iron goes a long way in making your life easier, and your sewing more successful.
But one part of pressing you might not have thought much about is the idea of finger-pressing. It is exactly what it sounds like: using your fingers as if they are little tiny irons, and flattening out seams and such before you apply your hot iron. It makes a huge difference!
The little wallet above has been turned right side out, but I did not do any finger-pressing. After spending a little time getting the seams open and flat with my fingers, it looks like this:
Even before any heat gets anywhere near it, it’s much flatter already!
The reason finger-pressing is worth it and is in fact critical is that without it, you’ll be pressing in creases you don’t want. You’ll never have sharp corners or even edges without finger-pressing, and it makes your final project look nice, neat, and finished. It also makes sure it ends up the right size and shape.
It only takes a minute, don’t skip this step!
bad habit #5: you’re skipping the interfacing
Of course, not every sewing project ever requires interfacing. But so many do require it, and so many would really benefit from it!
Interfacing is what gives a tote bag it’s shape, keeps collars from looking floppy, keeps waistlines from twisting and stretching out of shape, and many other miracles. It stabilizes fabric and can make it stiffer, stronger, smoother, and easier to sew.
Choosing the right interfacing for your project depends on lots of factors, but the bottom line is to think about what your final product should look like. I chose a lightweight, woven, fusible interfacing for the inside of the little wallet shown above on the right (Pellon SF 101, my favorite), because I want it to be able to sit up by itself, and stand up to repeated use.
The one on the left is actually made with heavier weight fabric, but without interfacing…you see how it won’t stand up by itself, and how it doesn’t have crisp edges, even after pressing.
Skipping interfacing can change the look of your final product, and make the fabric wear out faster!
Any other bad habits you’ve formed over the years, or good habits you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments!