Tag Archives: tutorial

DIY portable ironing pad

A solid 50% of my private sewing students do not own an iron or ironing board…true story! (I was shocked at first, until I realized that the only time I use MY iron is when I’m sewing…not to iron my actual clothes!)

So I found myself toting an iron and mini ironing board to my lessons. This quickly became tedious and unpleasant, and so I switched to a makeshift canvas/muslin combo that was effective, but both unattractive and unwieldy.

Obviously I needed something more convenient and prettier…and here we are!


DIY portable ironing pad


The truth is, I need this in my home sewing room just as much as I need it when I work with my students in their homes! My ironing board just isn’t big enough for most things I need to press; so I end up using an old towel/scrap muslin combination that is truly hideous. Now I don’t have to!

If you have the type of sewing space that doubles as something else (the dining room, someone’s office, the guest room, etc.), then maybe you’ll find this useful as well!


step 1: gather materials


materials needed for diy portable ironing pad


You only need four things for this project, and you probably have three of them already! I cut my fabric 21″ x 32″, because that’s the size of my cutting table. I made the edges curved because I’m extra like that. ūüôā Make yours any size you like!

The backing: I used terrycloth, but any cotton fabric would work, too.

The batting: I used a layer of Insul-Bright, which is a fluffy, insulating interlining that is used for potholders and coolers and such. If you’re worried about heat or steam damage to the surface underneath your mat, you might want to use a second layer of this, or another layer of something absorbent/heat resistant between this and the backing.

The top layer: I have this vintage red and white ticking that I adore (and that I love to paint on), which I thought would be perfect for this project. Ticking is technically “utility fabric” (most often used on mattresses and such), so it feels very appropriate for an ironing surface. Plus I just like the look of it. As long as you pick something 100% cotton with a smooth finish (nothing with pile or a shine to it), you’re good to go!

The binding: I used extra wide, double-fold bias tape to finish the edges. (Take note in step 3 if you want to skip the binding…)


step 2: draw quilting lines


ticking marked in 45 degree squares


I love me a good windowpane check, so naturally that’s the design I wanted to quilt into the pad. I do a lot of drawing on fabric, and¬†two of my essential tools are a clear ruler and my Frixion pens/highlighters. The highlighters make an excellently bright line to serve as a stitching guide, but will disappears under a hot iron when I’m done stitching.

It does not matter how you quilt the layers together…you could even do just one giant stitch down the middle in each direction. But do some kind of stitching to hold all three (or more) layers together, so your interlining isn’t shifting around in there all willy-nilly.


step 3: pin & stitch all three layers together


three layers of the ironing pad stacked and pinned together


Sandwich your Insul-Bright between the ticking and the terrycloth, and spend some time making all three layers smooth and even. With the lines 6″ apart, it was easy and convenient to leave the pins in while I stitched on the orange lines. If you’re afraid of sticking yourself, use safety pins instead.

If you want to skip the binding, only quilt your top layer and the Insul-Bright together, and leave your backing separate! You can then sew the backing onto your quilted top with right sides together, and then turn the whole thing right side out. Close up the hole with a hand stitch or a simple edgestitch on the machine. Done!


step 4: trim and baste


trim excess fabric after quilting


Once you’re done quilting (and ironing away the lines you drew), it is very likely that the edges of your fabrics will no longer meet. That is okay, we are just going to trim until they are nice and neat and matching again!

Don’t worry if you have to trim both your backing (the terrycloth in my case) AND the top layer (the ticking). Just make sure all the edges are matching exactly.


baste all layers together very close to the raw edge

Next, you’ll want to baste the layers together, very close to your newly-trimmed edge.¬† You might even find you’ll need to trim AGAIN after basting…that is totally okay.¬† This will make the binding step much easier!

(p.s. basting just means use a long, straight stitch to hold something together temporarily. In this case, it is holding the layers together so that they do not move during the next step.)


step 5: apply binding


bias binding pinned to quilted ironing pad


I hope you don’t cheat when you apply bias binding by just slipping the binding over the edge and topstitching…! The right way (and the easier way, honestly) is to unfold one fold of the bias tape, and pin it right sides together with the thing you are binding. Make sure the raw edges match exactly.

When making the ends meet, make sure you fold over the beginning spot just a bit and pin it it place. Then fold down the end on top of it. This ensures that no raw edges of the bias tape will be peeking out when you’re finished.


end of bias tape folded down over the beginning for a clean finish.


When you start sewing on your bias tape, you will stitch directly into that first crease…it is usually about 3/8″ from the edge, sometimes as much as 1/2″.¬† DO NOT start where the ends of the bias tape overlap, but rather slightly below that spot…where I have the double pins in an “X” shape in the image above.

Why? Bias tape can very easily stretch as you sew (regardless of the shape or size of the thing you’re sewing it on to).¬† If that happens,¬† you will want to be able to adjust the tape at the end, to eliminate any bulges or buckles that may have appeared along the way.


step 6: finishing topstitch


finished bias binding on edge of ironing pad


Once you’ve stitched down the bias tape, you will wrap it around to enclose the raw edge of the pad, and pin the other fold to the back of the pad. You might have to fiddle with it if your pad is very thick (I used very thick terrycloth so mine took some wrangling). Then, you’ll want to topstitch the bias tape in place from the front, making sure that your stitch catches the fold of the bias tape on the back.

While I’m pinning the bias tape for this last step, I like to test it as I go, using a pin to imitate what my machine needle will do, making sure the pin goes through the fold of the bias tape on the back.

And you’re done! Now you have an easily portable ironing pad you can use anywhere in your sewing studio, whether you have to pack up your sewing gear after every project or not. Having the right tools always makes sewing easier and more fun!




DIY domino-style mask

Are you one of those people who has already finished their Halloween costume (handmade, obviously), have already posted multiple Instagram pics, and have already RSVP’d to all the events and parties that will be graced with your presence (and your awesome costume)?

Then this post is not for you!

I made this tutorial and pattern download for people like me…you love the idea of an amazing costume, but somehow it never comes to fruition…

(I can’t tell you how many elaborate plans I’ve made for awesome costumes that never happened…Ursula, Calypso, Bellatrix, Eartha Kitt-style Catwoman…sigh.)

free pdf pattern and tutorial for a domino-style mask

Don’t fret, my friend! Download my domino-style mask pattern and make yourself a costume that is super-simple but also awesome. Just pair your finished mask with simple clothes you already have!

I made mine in an Italian Carnivale style, but the pattern is so simple, you could do pretty much anything with it. You could use primary colors (or solid black) for a super-hero style mask. You could use feathers or fur for some kind of animal costume. Or, if you’re going for creepy and scary rather than shiny and pretty, switch out all the gold trims for spiders, bats, or fake scars.

If you want to make one like mine, there’s only a few steps!


step 1: gather fabric & trims

materials to make my domino mask - felt, black ribbon and gold trims


I used felt for my mask, but you could use any type of fabric! If your fabric is very flimsy, you might consider a layer of interfacing as well.

My theme was red and gold, so all my trims and decorations are gold: ribbon, ric rac, netting, embroidery floss, metallic thread, and glass beads.

You’ll also want ribbon or elastic to keep your mask in place while you wear it. I chose black ribbon for the ties, since the lining of my mask is also black.


step 2: cut 2 masks

front and back of mask in red and black felt


I chose black fabric as the back of my mask, but there’s no reason both layers can’t be the same color. Just remember whatever you choose as the lining will be rubbing against your face all night, so choose carefully!

Click here to download the PDF pattern, and remember to set scaling to “none” when you print…otherwise the mask might come out a little too small. The pattern includes a 1″ test square to make sure you get the scaling right!


step 3: decorate the front & attach ribbon ties

red felt mask with gold embellishments


This is the fun part! Stitch on whatever you’d like to decorate your mask. I used the metallic thread to sew on the gold trims on one half of my mask. For the other side, I used embroidery floss to stitch in little asterisk-style stars, with a little gold bead in the center of each.

Since I wanted a Carnivale look (but I don’t have any feathers), I used gold netting instead. These were tulle circles meant for bridal favors (I have no idea why they are in my stash…these things happen to me sometimes), that I folded into a fan shape.

Remember, anything you want to stick out of the edge of your finished mask has to be stitched so that it is facing inwards:

decorated mask with ribbon ties and tulle accents added

That way, once you sew on the back, and turn the whole thing right-side-out, your ribbon ties and other embellishments will be facing the right way.

Also: remember your seam allowance! Keep all your embellishments away from the edge of the mask, so you don’t risk sewing over them in the next step!


step 4: sew front and back together

mask with black lining pinned in place


With right sides facing, pin and stitch the front and back of your mask together, all the way around the outside edge, using a 1/4″ seam allowance.

Make sure to back stitch over the ends of your ribbon ties/elastic to reinforce those stress points.

Trim the seam allowance all the way around. Gently turn your mask right side out through one of the eye holes, being careful not to damage any of your fancy embellishments.


step 5: finish the eye holes

mask turned right side out, the eye holes don't match!


Once you’ve turned your mask right side out, you’ll need to carefully finger-press, and then press with an iron.

You might find that a bit of your lining fabric is showing through the eye holes. No worries! Just baste the edges of the eye holes together, keeping your stitch close to the edge of the front fabric, and then trim the rest off.


trimmed eye holes


If you like the way this stitch looks, you can leave it at that. In fact, you might want to do this step with a decorative hand-stitch with embroidery floss, depending on the look you’re going for.

I wanted more glitter and shine, so I finished my eye holes with more metallic thread. I used the widest and shortest zig zag stitch on my machine, and stitched two layers, since the metallic thread is so thin.

Your machine might have a satin stitch which achieves essentially the same look. Try out both on a bit of scrap fabric to see which one you like best!

Note: metallic thread is easiest to use when you also have needles especially for metallic thread (they have larger eyes). I cheated though, and used my size 90 universal needle. I figure this is for a costume, it’s not that serious. BUT you will definitely want to slow down while you sew with metallic thread; it can break easily if it is subjected to too much friction!

finished Italian Carnivale style mask in red and gold

There you have it friends, an easy, low-stress way to have a handmade costume, for Halloween or any masquerade event. Happy sewing and trick-or-treating!




bad sewing habits that are making your life harder

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


keep your eye on the seam allowance line, not 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


don't be 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

don't disrespect the grain of the fabric


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

before finger-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:


after finger pressing

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

with and without 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!




it’s not the tension: troubleshooting steps to get your sewing back on track

In the last several years, I have taught hundreds (thousands?) of people the basics of sewing, and helped many of them improve their skills beyond the beginner level.

I’ve seen a lot of frustration with bent needles, dull scissors, stubborn fabric, and the myriad other woes that sewers of all experience levels regularly must deal with.

What I have NOT seen a lot of is incorrect tension. Often when something goes wrong, the first thing you want to do is mess with the tension dial. Y’all LOVE to fiddle with that little dial! But guess what: 99% of the time, it’s not the tension.


snarled bobbin thread


Once you have the tension set properly, you will rarely have to change it. I don’t remember the last time I adjusted the tension on my Viking, and I sew on denim, leather, jersey, shantung, tweed, satin, linen, and so much more.

Next time something goes wrong with your sewing (the stitches look weird…the thread is nesting underneath the fabric…the fabric is bunching up…the machine makes a scary noise…if anything at all goes wrong), I want you to consider these problems first before you even think about messing with the tension!


problem #1: your machine is threaded incorrectly


Friends, the truth is this: whenever something goes wrong with your sewing machine, it’s probably the threading. In fact, it’s probably the bobbin. I know what you’re thinking.

Valerie, I’m not some kind of *noob* I think I know how to thread a machine!

I know you do. But still: check the threading. Just because it looks right doesn’t mean that the thread is hooked around every little hook, and sliding into every little groove inside the machine. Re-thread the machine, and you will see it’s just like re-booting your computer. Suddenly whatever was wrong is now fixed!

The biggest trouble area is the bobbin. For top loading machines, your bobbin thread should be making a diagonal line across the bobbin like this:


correctly threaded top-loading bobbin


That diagonal line is how you know you’ve done it right. The same is true for front-loading machines, but of course you can’t see it. Here’s a tutorial for threading a front-loading bobbin.

Additional threading tips:

  • always thread your machine with the presser foot UP
  • always leave a long tail of thread after finishing a stitch (snip threads away from the machine)
  • always lift your bobbin thread through the hole in the throat plate (as seen above)…don’t just pop your bobbin in and start sewing.

Okay, you’ve double and triple-checked the threading path…but are you putting the right type of thread in your machine?


problem #2: you are using the wrong thread


Patterns and tutorials rarely mention thread. But choosing the right thread is just as important as choosing the right fabric! Your thread, fabric, and needle all have to be working together properly for successful and drama-free sewing!

Like fabric, there are hundreds (thousands?) of different thread types available in various style/fiber/weight combinations. The good news is that all-purpose thread (100% polyester) is in fact all-purpose. You can use it for anything, on any type of fabric, in any machine, and it will always be appropriate!

The bad news is that sometimes, it’s still not that simple.


an assortment of common types and brands of thread


Using the wrong type of thread can gunk up your machine, cause your thread to break repeatedly, or tangle in your machine, all of which can in turn damage your fabric (and your calm…you might want to throw your sewing machine out the window).

We could be here all day talking about different types of thread, their various properties, and the best time to use each. But for the purposes of this post on machine troubleshooting, let’s focus on what you shouldn’t do. For best results, you should never:

  • use 100% cotton thread on anything but 100% cotton fabric (same for silk thread and silk fabric) in your machine;
  • use machine embroidery thread (that shiny nylon stuff) in your regular sewing machine;
  • use waxed thread (like hand quilting thread) in your machine;
  • use topstitching thread or buttonhole twist for construction seams (unless you’re sewing something really REALLY,¬†REALLY¬†heavyweight…like a sailboat sail – something¬†really heavy);
  • use cheap thread of any type for any reason.


Gutermann thread all in a row!


I like to pretend I’m not a thread snob…except that I totally am, and you should be, too. If you came to my house and saw my thread collection, you’d see it’s 99% Gutermann. ¬†There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Coats & Clark or Mettler, and I own and use all three (which are the three brands you’re most likely to see in your local fabric store). Aurifil is another brand you might see. I have never personally used it, but I understand it’s quite lovely, and some people swear by it!

What you need to avoid and be “snobby” about, is that off-brand stuff that comes in emergency sewing kits, bargain bins, and from the dollar store. The frustration of constant breakage is not worth it!

Okay, you’ve threaded your machine flawlessly with your high-quality, appropriate-for-your-project thread, but something is still wrong! Now what?


problem #3: you are using the wrong needle


Machine needles come in different styles and different sizes. Like the thread, it’s important to make sure you’re using the right needle for your fabric, and also the right needle for your thread.


Schmetz needles of different types and sizes


Universal needles will probably be fine most of the time. I find it worth it to switch out my needle for some types of fabrics and tasks, however. When I’m working with knits, I’ll switch to a ballpoint needle. Denim needles have a stronger shaft, so they are handy when sewing on stiff, heavyweight fabric, or over very thick seams. When I’m sewing on real leather or suede, sometimes a beveled leather needle is necessary (but not for vinyl or ultrasuede). Decorative topstitching, of course calls for a topstitch needle (and thread!).

The next question is the size. Your machine probably came with 90/14, so I’m guessing that’s what you use the most. It’s worth it to size down to an 80/12 or 75/11 for finer, thinner fabrics, otherwise, you’re going to leave giant holes in your fabric. Imagine the damage you’d do to a fine cotton lawn with an enormous 90/14 needle!


Organ brand needles of different sizes


The reverse is true, of course. You would want a bigger needle for thicker, heavier fabric.¬†But (and there’s always a but, isn’t there???) sometimes, even with thick, heavyweight fabrics, you’re going to want a skinny, sharp needle instead of a bigger one.

Fabrics that are thick but very soft (e.g. thick tweed, wool felt, cotton webbing, even some denim) actually sew up better with smaller needles. The same is true for thin leathers (think kidskin gloves). A fine universal needle would be a better bet than a leather needle that’s too big.


an example scenario

Maybe I have a finely woven silk blend twill for the lining of a bag. I might use a size 80/12 universal to sew up the lining, to avoid leaving huge holes in the fine fabric.

Then the outside of the bag features leather stitched on top of other fabrics, so I size up to a 90/14 leather needle for the bag construction. But the area where the denim straps are attached require me to stitch through 4-8 layers of fabric and interfacing, so I size up again to a 100/16 denim needle just for that step.

All totally worth it for the frustration, broken needles, and damaged fabric it would save me!


Beyond the type and size of your needle, consider it’s health. When was the last time you changed the needle in your machine? If you can’t remember, it’s probably time to change it!

Needles that are bent, dull, or have little nicks in the shaft or on the point will wreak all kinds of havoc on your sewing, and these flaws are not necessarily visible. Switching to a new needle is always worth it!

Once you know all your notions and tools are on point, what about your machine settings?


#problem 4: you are using the wrong stitch


I don’t know what type of machine you have, but I’m willing to bet that the default stitch length is very small. Most of the time, you’ll need to lengthen the stitch, for practically every seam, and every project.

Stitches that are too small can damage your fabric, or cause the thread to tangle or break. If your needle is also too big, and your thread is the wrong type, you can imagine the hot mess you’ll end up with! Get into the habit of lengthening your stitch and you will see how your seams look better on practically everything!


a sample of straight stitches of different length


The first stitch in the above image is the default stitch on my Viking, which is labeled 2.5. I normally sew at 3.5 for regular sewing, and I’ll move it up to 4.5 for most topstitching, like the surface designs on my latest handbags.detail of the topstitching on the anjelica 517 tote from Holland Cox


Thread is a lot stronger than you think it is, and tiny stitches are very rarely better. Test out different stitch lengths on a swatch of fabric to figure out what’s best for your project!

For specialty thread like topstitching or metallics, you will almost always want a longer stitch length than what you usually use.


BONUS problem #1: the presser foot pressure is wrong


presser foot pressure dial on my Viking


This is a bonus because not all machines can even make this adjustment! This is the presser foot pressure dial on my Viking. It controls how hard the presser foot is pressing the fabric against the feed-dogs. You can see that “4” is the default on my machine. Unlike the tension dial (which on my machine is further down to the right), I find myself adjusting this all the time.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for this; I’ve found that experimenting with a swatch of fabric is the best way to figure out where to set this dial. If your machine has this option, sometimes the dial is flat on the left side of the machine. Sometimes instead of a dial, you’ll have a screw on the top of the machine. Consult your manual if you’re not sure!


BONUS problem #2: your machine might be dirty!

Believe it or not, regular old dust and oil can be the culprit. You should be regularly cleaning out your bobbin casing, and using a Q-tip or paint brush to clean out the nooks and crannies of your machine. Dust, thread lint, frayed fabric, machine oil, tailor’s chalk, and all kinds of stuff builds up in all kinds of places, and can cause you all kinds of grief if you don’t stay on top of it.


topstitching on denim


I hope this helps! The bottom line is that¬†the tension only means anything if you’ve already done everything above exactly right! “Tension” in general refers to how the top and bottom threads are being pulled through the machine’s interior mechanisms. ¬†If you don’t have everything threaded right, with the right needle and thread for your project, messing with the tension dial itself will do absolutely nothing.

Moreover, if you DO adjust your tension dial (which I hope I’ve convinced you should be your LAST RESORT), remember to do it with your presser foot DOWN. The machine can only adjust tension with it properly threaded, the needle up, and the presser foot down.


Happy sewing, and please share any other troubleshooting tips you’ve found helpful in the comments!