Category Archives: Sewing help

How to Thread a Sewing Machine – Picking up the Bobbin Thread

Find my latest video tutorial explaining how to pick up the bobbin thread once you’ve threaded-up your sewing machine over on my blog.

how to pick up the bobbin thread

How to Look After Your Scissors – an interview with scissor-maker Nick Wright of Ernest Wright & Son

how to look after your scissors

Read the full interview here.

Dressmaking SOS


Have you got yourself in a bit of a dressmaking tangle?

Keep getting stuck with the same thing, tearing your hair out with some sewing pattern instructions, struggling with a tricksy fabric or just want to know more about sewing equipment or a particular technique?

Whatever your sewing and dressmaking problem or question, send it to me in any of the following ways:

Every month I’ll be throwing a sewing lifeline to 3 of you and hopefully answering your question.

A New Series for Sewing World Magazine

I’m very happy to be back with a new regular series for Sewing World magazine this month.  Even happier because it’s all about my favourite subject: Sewing With Knits!

I managed to catch up with Julie the editor at the Knitting & Stitching show at Alexandra Palace last week and she gave me a copy of this issue hot off the press.  Here it is in all its glory:

Sewing with Knits

This first part is a thorough background to all the different kinds of knitted fabrics available and their versatile uses.  If you’re a new or experienced dressmaker who is terrified of sewing knitted fabrics, I recommend a read.  It’s nowhere near as scary as you think and I hope to dispel a few of the myths I regularly hear about working with knitted fabrics along the way.  This is the November issue of Sewing World and it’s out now!

The fabrics for this series have been generously provided by Art Gallery fabrics who have just introduced knitted fabrics into their comprehensive range.

If you’re tempted to have a go and struggle to find nice knitted fabrics, have a read of my “Where to Buy Stretch Knit Fabrics” guide here.

Which Pressing Tools Do I Really Need?

pressing tools for dressmakingYou need slightly different pressing tools if you’re dressmaking rather than craft sewing and patchwork.  And remember, pressing isn’t simply ironing!  It requires more precision, often more heat and a lot more than just an iron and ironing board.  Here’s the ideal pressing tool kit:

1 – IRONING BOARD – buy the best you can afford, ironing boards last for years! The 3 crucial qualities in an ironing board are: the size of the ironing surface – as big as possible (!), the height it can be adjusted to – more important if you’re taller than average, being hunched over a short ironing board isn’t pleasant and finally how sturdy it is – rickety ironing boards are dangerous. Here’s a great review of the best ironing boards by Good Housekeeping. My recommended brands: Brabantia

2 – IRON – your iron should not be too lightweight which might go against what you would instinctively look for (lightweight = easy, no aching arms!), but to press well, you need some weight, so a lightweight iron actually means more effort is required from you!  Irons are now available with a whole range of high tech materials on the sole plate which can glide over your fabric and also be non-stick (handy when ironing on fusible interfacing), make sure the sole plate also has plenty of steam holes and has a nice long tapered point at the end to make it easier to iron in and around those fiddly bits of your sewing. Also look for a variable steam setting, a long cable and a large water tank.  The irons that come with a separate steam generator (that look like they’re sitting on a tank) can be useful but obviously take up more space and the cords tend to be a bit shorter. If you live in an area of the country with hard water, always use ironing water to avoid your iron scaling up and leaving dirty marks when it steams. My recommended brands: TeFal, Rowenta, Morphy Richards.

3 – PRESSING CLOTH – a simple piece of unbleached or white cotton muslin will be the cheapest and most useful addition to your pressing tool kit.  It allows you to protect delicate fabrics whilst ironing and will also protect your iron. Place it between your fabric and the iron and always use one when ironing on fusible interfacing.  Some people use a tea towel for this job, but it won’t work as well because you need a fairly open weave fabric like muslin which allows the heat to pass through it, tea towels are too densely woven and will simply block most of the heat.

4 – SLEEVE BOARD – might look like a luxury, but once you have one I guarantee you will use it a lot! They’re not just for sleeves, they’re handy for any awkward to get at bits of pressing such as inside leg seams, pocket openings, cuffs…..see what I mean?! They’re a bit harder to get hold of than ironing boards, but not if you shop online – you can even find them on the John Lewis website. Sleeve rolls are a good alternative – these are long sausage shaped objects filled with sawdust to make them more sturdy.  I’ve even heard of people using rolling pins wrapped in a towel! My recommended brands: Minky, Brabantia, Prym or look for a nice vintage wooden one.

5 – TAILOR’S HAM – so-called because of its ham-like shape, this is another tool that once you have, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without! Stuffed with sawdust to make it solid and compact, a tailor’s ham really is the best thing for pressing darts and any curved, awkward to get at areas of your garment while maintaining their shape. Choose one that is a reasonable size (get an idea of scale from my photo) and make sure one side is covered with a slightly hairy wool (usually checked) and the other in a smooth cotton for pressing different types of fabric. I don’t really have a preferred brand for these as there are so few making them, have a look at some of the shops listed at the end of this post, most of them stock tailor’s hams.

6 – IRONING BOARD COVER – a padded base on your ironing board covered with a reflective cover gives the best surface for pressing.  A bit of padding supports your fabric and reflective covers have multiple benefits: they reflect the heat from the iron back into the fabric for a thorough press, won’t absorb spills and leaks of water from your iron and are easy to clean (things tend not to stick to them, unlike fabric covers).  My recommended brands: Lakeland have a separate padded base, Brabantia for reflective covers.

Where to buy?

Here are some online shops (some that also have bricks and mortar shops) that  I’ve found to be good sources for pressing tools and equipment:

Next in this series on tools and equipment a question that keeps cropping up from my students: Should I buy a mannequin?

Do You Know Your Weft From Your Selvedge?

If not, here’s a little reminder…..

understanding fabric

How to Use Bias Binding

It’s my last article in the Finishing Touches series for Sewing World magazine this month and it’s all about bias binding – how to make your own and different ways to use it.  It’s the August issue which is out now and is on pages 68-70.

how to use bias binding

I won’t be leaving Sewing World for good – I return in the November issue to start a new series!  Nope I’m not telling you what it is for now but both me and Julie the editor are really excited about it…….

Is Your Sewing Progressive?

I went to the gym today where there is a poster reminding us all to “Keep Your Training Progressive”.  Meaning?  To keep changing your exercise routine by adding new exercises and increasing the difficulty of existing ones.  The way to push your body to increase strength and fitness.

Now, I’ve written in the past about the similarities between exercise and sewing (stay with me, you’ll be surprised) and it was while chatting with two of my students today (Assuntina and Lizzie) that I realised this progressive approach also applies to your sewing.

Assuntina asked me what sort of project she should tackle next to keep improving her new found sewing skills (so far in classes she’s made cushions, my A-line skirt and my shift dress – all great successes, which have provided the encouragement and motivation for Assuntina to want to learn more).  Lizzie has taken this progressive approach to her sewing since she started with me as a complete beginner last year.  She started with my A-line skirt, has had a go at a dress sewing pattern, made my pull-on shift dress, had a go at knits with my cowl neck dress and drapey cardi and recently took on the key challenge of making a shirt and made a fantastic job of it.  She’s now making loose covers for a chair!

If you choose a sewing teacher with lots of experience in the areas in which you’re interested (be that home sewing, dressmaking or craft sewing), you’re going to progress too, but if your teacher doesn’t have much experience you’re never going to move beyond the basics.

Here are some ideas for a progressive approach to sewing your own clothes:


How to Make Perfect Patch Pockets in Sewing World Magazine


For Sewing World magazine this month it’s all about making patch pockets.

Thought they were too simple to merit a place in the Finishing Touches category?  Well they are one of the easier pockets to make and attach but there are a few little things you can do to make yours look perfect rather than just ok.

It’s on pages 52-54 of the July issue which is out now.

The 15 Essential Sewing Tools You Need


1 – FABRIC SCISSORS – choose a specialist pair of dressmaking scissors that will have long blades and angled handles allowing the scissors to stay close to the table without lifting your fabric too much.  DON’T USE THEM FOR ANYTHING BUT FABRIC!!!  Recommended brands: Fiskars, Mundial, Kai

2 – PAPER SCISSORS – again, I prefer a pair with long blades and angled handles to make cutting patterns easier.  You can relegate a pair of fabric scissors that have been abused for this job!  No brands to recommend, although mine are Fiskars and are sharp and comfortable to use.

3 – SMALL SHARP POINTED SCISSORS – for cutting threads while working on your sewing machine, tidying thread ends on garments and the inevitable unpicking.  They should have a very sharp point and like your fabric scissors SHOULD NOT BE USED FOR ANYTHING ELSE!!!  Recommended brands: Fiskars, Kai, Hemline embroidery scissors.

4 – UNPICKER – handy, but I don’t always recommend them to students because it’s very easy to slip when using one and gouge a chunk out of your fabric (or your finger!).  I prefer small scissors for unpicking and removing tacking stitches (see no. 3), but unpickers are useful for cutting open buttonholes. You will usually get one with your sewing machine or you can buy one from any sewing shop.  Clover make quite nice fancy ones if you’re that way inclined…..!

5 – FORCEPS OR TWEEZERS – really useful for removing those stubborn tacking stitches (or any stitches for that matter) that just refuse to budge and fiddly awkward to get at bits of work on your sewing machine.

6 – SEAM & HEM GAUGE – gauges like this make quick and easy work of marking seam and hem allowances rather than wrestling with a tape measure.  You can buy cm and inch versions of mine online here, others are available!

7 – TOE DIVIDERS (!) – no I haven’t gone mad, this was a fantastic idea I originally saw on Pinterest.  Toe dividers are the perfect size and shape for keeping your bobbins neat and tidy!

8 – LOOP TURNER – when you’re making narrow fabric loops or strips, this is a useful gadget for turning those tubes of fabric back  through to the right side.  Available from all sewing shops.

9 – BLUNT KNITTING NEEDLE – great for poking out corners and so much better to use for this job than scissors, which I’m sure some of you will be guilty of!

10 – TAILOR’S CHALK – some people don’t like using the lumps of tailor’s chalk as they get blunt quickly.  I find them good for some jobs and you can sharpen them – either buy a special chalk sharpener (yes they do exist – just search online for “tailors chalk sharpener”) or run scissors along either side of the edge (obviously not your fabric scissors!).  Recommended brands: Hancocks, Prymm.

11 – CHALK PENCILS / PENS – for those who don’t like the lumps of chalk you can get various forms of chalk pencils.  Some are just like ordinary pencils that you sharpen, but I often find these a bit too hard and can really drag some fabrics.  I prefer these style of mechanical chalk pencils that you can buy refill leads for.  Recommended brands: Hoechstmass, Sewline.

12 – CHACO LINERS – these are great for precision marking and for use on delicate fabrics that are easily dragged by chalk pencils, eg. silks, lightweight jerseys.  The marks do rub off easily though as the marker uses chalk dust.

13 – HAND SEWING NEEDLES – have a pack of mixed sizes – “sharps” are the name of general purpose hand sewing needles.  Avoid the cheap packs of generic needles as these can be blunt and have small snags on them which makes sewing with them extremely unpleasant. Recommended brands: Hemline, Clover, Prymm.

14 – PINS & MAGNETIC PIN CUSHION – pins can sound like an obvious one, but they’re one of my biggest bugbears – there’s nothing worse than pins that are too short / thick / old and rusty.  I prefer to work with the longer length dressmaking pins and don’t recommend going shorter than 30mm or thicker than 0.6mm.  I don’t need to say much about a magnetic pincushion – it does what it says on the tin.  I’m a new convert and I don’t know how I ever managed without one! No more scrabbling around on the floor picking up dropped pins. Recommended brands: Prymm, Clover.

15 – THREAD – you can use any old thread for hand tacking, but choose a bright colour so you can see it easily to remove it.  For your machine always choose branded threads, cheap threads can cause endless machine problems.  For lots of detailed guidance on choosing the right thread for the right job, have a look at my previous blog post here.

Where to buy?

Here are some online shops (some that also have bricks and mortar shops) that  I’ve found to be good sources for tools and equipment:

What about Sewing Machines?

So obviously the biggest, most important and most expensive bit of kit is your sewing machine!  If you don’t have one yet and are feeling daunted by the choice and range of advice available, have a read of my no-nonsense, completely un-biased guide here.

Next in this series on Tools & Equipment, I’ll guide you through all the essential pressing kit you should have.