Sewing FAQ

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New to the sewing game? Thinking of taking up an awesome hobby? It’s never too late to learn how to sew!  I went out to my Instafam and asked what questions you may have, so read on for some of the more frequently asked questions I get related to sewing!

Where do I start?

Assuming you have access to a sewing machine, buy an inexpensive pattern (I recommend elastic waist pajama pants), the recommended fabric type and yardage, notions (thread, elastic) and set aside some time alone to read the pattern and then get started!

What a good way to move beyond straight seams without too much frustration?

Like the old saying goes - Practice Makes Perfect. And that might not be entirely true, because I’ve probably passed the 10,000 hour mark for sewing and I still make mistakes too! (My personal rule to avoid getting too frustrated is to stop when I’ve made two mistakes in a row).

You don’t have do actually make things to practice either. When I was in school we did sample books to learn different techniques - inserting zippers, fancy seams, darts, you name it. Precision and accuracy will come with repetition (and attention to detail!) 

When there’s something I haven’t done in a while, like an automated button hole, I do practice runs! Even when I think I’ve got it, I do another, just to be sure for the real deal (and even so, I’ve had thread run out or break and had to tear out!)

Also: Take. Your. Time! When I make a lot of mistakes in a row, it makes me hate sewing. My personal rule is to call it a night once I’ve made more than two errors. Frustration just builds on itself in my experience!

What are some good beginner projects?

For your home, try making a throw pillow or a pillow case (which don’t really need patterns - just measurements and observation of similar items you already have). 

If you’d like to sew for yourself, look for pajama pants or a full skirt with straight waistband. Look for patterns marked “easy” or “beginner”. Often they include extra explanations or details that newbies might need. 

Select a basic cotton in a tight weave - I think muslin or quilters cotton is a good way to start experimenting and is generally not shifty or slippery - two fabric qualities that make sewing more difficult. Old sheets can make good practice fabric too - and there’s a lot of yardage!

Depending on the project - at any level of expertise - seamstresses will sometimes make a muslin mock up. It’s especially helpful for new silhouettes or techniques you’re unfamiliar with.

With more experience you can move to more fitted garments. If you’re the engineering or math savvy type, you can also venture into pattern alterations and adjustments, but that’s a huge post for another day (and there IS a lot of this kind of thing already online!)

Do I really need to pre-wash my fabric?

Always pre treat your fabric in the same manner you’ll use for future washing. For me, I do whatever I need to shrink it, which is usually a hot wash and dry. Then iron it flat, pin your (ironed!) pattern pieces down and cut out! Accuracy is so important, so go slowly, work at a comfortable height (I like a kitchen counter) and pay attention to pattern grainlines and markings).

Do classes help or should I just sew sew sew?

Yes and yes! Classes are great for hands on learning and some things are just easier to understand that way. I took classes in college as a part of my costuming degree and since then I’ve signed up for knitting lessons and a hat making workshop. I’d love to take classes for sewing knits or making bras. 

All that said, time at your machine is the only way to perfect your technique! 


Where do you find patterns?

Lately I’m really into indie pattern designers and companies, like Megan Nielsen Patterns (love the Dawn Jean), Papercut (Rite of Spring Short) and the Seamwork Hayden Tee. I want to try the Kelly Anorak from Closet Case Patterns too! But I also use patterns from McCalls, Simplicity, VOGUE and Butterick. Basically - I’m open to anything! I scan the pattern books at the fabric store and keep a running list and WAIT FOR SALES. I buy indie patterns at full price because I want to support these designers. I also sometimes use vintage patterns (and collect via thrifts and garage sales!)


How do I grow my skill set to more advanced sewing?

Start by picking more difficult projects! Chances are, you’re already capable! 


Equipment and Tools

Machine

I highly recommend the Brother HC1850, which is available at a really reasonable $200. I’ve used mine for years and it was such an improvement over my previous machine (which was a Christmas gift when I was relatively new to sewing. Machine prices can range from under a hundred bucks to thousands. I certainly don’t recommend a huge investment if you’re not sure if you enjoy sewing, but if you’ve already spent some time using an entry priced machine and want my two cents, this one is for you.  (And speaking of two cents, if you do take my recommendation and buy through this affiliate link, I get a very small kickback).

If $200 is out of budget, my next suggestion is to visit a sewing repair shop and let them know you’d like to buy the best quality used machine at whatever your price point is. The folks that work in these stores are experts and can steer you in the right direction. In my opinion, you really only need front stitch, backstitch and a zig zag. Bonus points for an automatic buttonhole function, but I believe a sturdy machine is more important. The bells and whistles (my machine has over 100 stitches) are great, but truthfully, I use those main four stitches 99% of the time.

Lastly, I don’t use a serger/overlock machine and neaten my edges either through some self contained treatment (flat felled or French seams) or through a combo of straight line and zigzagged edges. Maybe one day if I get into sewing knits (which is something I’d like to learn!)

Iron

Pressing during construction is just as important as sewing in a straight line. Omitting the pressing steps is a recipe for mistakes and sloppy sewing. What iron you use is up to you, but a good steam and multiple heat settings are necessary.

Pressing Hams

The human body isn’t flat and sewing to fit your body will mean pressing curves - whether its darts, princess seams or the slope of your hips. A tailor’s pressing ham will help you get those seams nice and smooth. (They also come in longer cylindrical shapes for sleeve seams. I have both!)

Sewing Kit

Whether you sew by hand or use a machine, the bare basics are as follows, including the brand I recommend where applicable: (Shop full list here)

  • 8” Scissors (Gingher)

  • Regular Scissors (for paper - never cut paper with your good scissors!)

  • Straight Pins

  • Hand Sewing Needles in Variety Pack

  • Pin Cushion

  • Tape Measure

  • Seam Gage

  • Tackle Box

  • Machine Case

You might also want:

  • Replacement Universal Needles (for sewing machine)

  • Specialty Sewing Needles (for Denim or Knit)

  • Replacement Bobbins (specific to your machine)

  • Embroidery scissors or small snips

  • Thimble

  • Water Soluble Marking Pen

Recommended Reading

I swear by the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing, which I’ve been using since it was a required textbook in my college courses. There’s no shame in refreshing your memory on a technique. And you don’t need the most recent edition! I actually collect sewing manuals from garage sales and thrift stores and it’s all good advice (some date back to the 1920s!) There’s also Google in a pinch (but sometime’s that’s a rabbit hole best avoided when you want to get a project done in a timely manner)

Online, I’ve really loved the Design Diary from Megan Nielsen. In fact, I didn’t even read her pattern instructions for the Dawn Jean, I just read the blog posts in order! They were SO helpful and detailed. A lot of Indie Designers provide this kind of information, which can be a lot more in-depth than the commercial patterns you buy at the fabric store. 

Speaking of indie designers and sewing bloggers, the #memade tag on instagram is a good way to find home sewers and pattern companies. Just click around!


Personal Sewing

At what age did you start sewing?

I started with hand sewing and quilting in the 3rd or 4th grade (so around age 10?) and did my first machine project a year or so later (I cut up a Vera Bradley dress to make into a mini version of their popular handbag). My mom made a lot of my clothing - especially special dresses - throughout my entire childhood. As I got into middle and high school, she and I would play designer by picking fabrics and silhouettes and she’d do the sewing. I made some things like skirts, but my mom put in the zippers for me (to this day I don’t enjoy zippers and usually put them in by hand!)

In college I studied Apparel Merchandising for my Batchelor’s Degree and did an additional Associate’s Degree in Costume Construction Technology which is where I learned flat pattern drafting, oodles of specialized sewing skills, intro to corsetry, millinery and glove making as well as beginning my fashion illustration skills. In the nearly 15 years since I’ve improve by leaps and bounds, and I attribute it to practice and anxiety medication (seriously)… now sewing is so zen for me. I absolutely love it!

You can see some of my makes here, here and here (I need to organize my tags!) And here are my historical costumes!


How do you sew with kids?

I’ve only recently been able to sew while the kids are around - my daughter is two and my son is four and a half. They are old enough to play solo or together - something that would have happened a year ago. My sewing station is adjacent to their play area and I usually give them a snack and a movie. Otherwise I sew in the evenings after bed or while they are at school/childcare. 

Will you make me something? I’ll pay you!

I’ll take the compliment! I’m not taking commissions at this time (unless you’ve got an offer I can’t refuse, then email me!)


I know I’m just skimming the surface here, but please let me know via comments if I can elaborate on any particular topic. I know some of you are looking for some pretty specific pattern recommendations and my best advice there is to google search your descriptors and follow other sewing bloggers (again, instagram is an awesome way to find them!) If you make anything, please share with me! I’d love to see!

Time Traveling | Early 19th Century Corded Stays

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I’ve been on a sewing roll in 2019 and my latest project is a pair of early 19th century stays. As fashion moved towards a neoclassical influence around the turn of the century, the undergarments worn also evolved. Instead of shaping the torso into a conical shape (like my first pair of stays), the shape of the bosom was more defined by lifting and separating the bust (versus just smushing them up like previous centuries).

The construction for this new shape incorporates gussets, or triangular shaped inserts, to give more shape to the stays. To me this is probably the first version of the bra we know and wear today - from flattened uniboobs to more rounded cups.

When it comes to my historical undergarments - you know me - the more elaborate, the better! Enter the idea for corded stays. These actually fall more towards the 1820-1830s due to the cording, but I’m hoping the shape of this garment will work for costumes between 1800-1840. Plus I wanted to make something spectacular, and I think I’ve done it!

For my base pattern, I worked with the Laughing Moon Mercantile 115 and chose a white coutil (a tightly woven fabric made for corsetry). I made a quick mock up in size 16, determined I could size down and got to the business of cutting and cording my pieces.

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For my cording design I used extant museum pieces (specifically this one) as my inspiration. I first drew sketches of the overall look and then moved to creating them on my paper pattern. I then taped my fabric and cording design to my windows and traced them with a water soluble pen. The design I started with is far less intricate than my final design because I just kept adding, adding, adding channels (even after front and back sides were joined) but I’m really glad I did. This is an intentionally softer style corset (there’s way more breathing room than my earlier pair) and isn’t meant for major waist reduction like mid 19th century - 20th century styles. It does provide posture correction and some shaping, but my rib cage can expand so much more than a heavily boned version. There are only four total boning channels, plus the front busk pocket so all of the extra cording gives the garment more strength. Plus I think it’s really beautiful!

After the channels are sewn, loose tails are threaded into a needle and taken to the back side. Every single stop and start of a stitching line! After a while I altered my technique a bit so I could sew one whole section (like 4 parallel lines) without cutting my thread. It can get mighty messy with all of those threads on the backside. Once they were pulled to the back, I tied the bobbin and top threads together and cut them near the knot. Then comes the fun part of actually getting the cording into the channels.

I did this using a combination of large needles, needle nose pliers and a fierce determination to carry on even when my fingers were so sore! You need the pliers to grab the needle and keep it from slipping as you gather the thick fabric and push the needle through. I can’t imagine even getting one channel complete without them! For the majority of the channels, I used a blunt tapestry needle, but I also used a long (4-5”) sharper needle to quickly get me through shorter channels. I had to be very careful to not puncture my top fabric with the needles and keep the cording (I just used cotton yarn) in place.

After the gussets were sewn and flossed (part embroidery, part stabilization), I moved onto the back eyelets. Those are all hand sewn and call me crazy but I LOVE doing them. They’re so cute and strong! Finally, after the straps were sewn to the back, I did bias binding around both the top and bottom edges. This is another thing I really love! If you’re precise, it looks so crisp and amazing. During that process I also added a drawstring channel to the top of the front so I could draw in the excess space created by the bust gussets.

The center front busk is a flat wooden piece inserted into a pocket. In my early construction phases I just used a freebie paint stick (as many a historical costumer has recommended online!) but wanted something a little more special and straight (there’s a small indentation about 2” from one edge on both left and right sides I didn’t want showing through my stays. Adam was able to run out to his woodshop and brought back a gorgeous ash version (wood leftover from our dining room floors!) in under 5 minutes! Thanks Adam!

This project took about seven working days to complete (during weekends, while kids are playing or at night). My pattern, fabric and lacing were a gift from my mother in law - thank you Mary!!!) and I harvested old steel bones (creepy!) from a corset I’m not planning on wearing again.

In the end I’m excited to add this piece to my costume closet and start making regency style dresses to be worn over it. If you’d like to see more behind the scenes, check out my Instagram Highlights to watch the process!

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Time Traveling | 18th Century Snow Day

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It’s been a while since I’ve gotten gussied up in my 18th century gear! With a gorgeous snowy morning as my backdrop, I pulled out my red chintz Italian gown and styled it for a wintertime scene. I wore my dark red petticoat, a 1970s silk Dior scarf as a fichu, a black silk wired ribbon and pair of long black gloves. I powdered my hair and arranged two feathers in it. I went a little more dramatic with makeup (please tell me I don’t look like a badger?) and I felt so beautiful posing for these images!

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My Year Shopping Secondhand First

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With the end of the year just 11 days away, I’m pretty pumped to report I kept my New Year’s Resolution this year! Maybe for the first time ever? For 2018, I set a goal of only shopping second hand first with a few exceptions. That’s right - no mindless $100 Target checkouts, no more Nordstrom sale, none of it!

The real push behind this change was wanting to get as far away as possible from my old blog, What I Wore. Creating near daily content for 10 years took a huge toll on my wallet and although I wore and re-wore my clothes all the time, I still bought a lot. A lot more than I needed. I genuinely liked my clothes, but how many pairs of jeans do you need? How many coats or striped shirts? Olive jackets? I’ve always bought things that had a timeless appeal and I’m happy to report that nothing went out of style in one year’s time. I’m still wearing the same pair of Rag + Bone booties, Lee Jeans (LOVE THEM) and self knit sweaters. The one thing that does need retired? My old Anna Maria sweatshirt (as seen in a million of my instagram stories). That thing is ratty AF.

I think the reason this resolution worked is because it was something I truly wanted to do, not something I should do. If you’re not fully committed, it’s probably not time to start something you’re not 100% keen on.

Exceptions to the Rule

Of course, there were exceptions. I bought myself two new bras after I completed 16 months of breast feeding and my size changed. I purchased three pair of Thinx undies in hopes I could turn my cycle into a no waste experiment (jury’s still out on them. They are great for light days but I probably need a few more pair to feel like I’m not constantly washing and hanging them up to dry).

And there were some new additions to my closet as gifts. A pair of 18th century shoes care of my mom, a few pieces from my MIL and a jacket and tee shirt from my husband.

I don’t count fabric for sewing my own clothes against my purchasing habits so my whole 1780s look fell into the parameters of my resolution too.

As for my kids - they get almost 90% of their clothes from the grandmas - a mix of new and second hand. Everything I buy them (minus socks and undies) is from a kid’s resale shop called Once Upon a Child. So many of the things there are never worn or maybe worn a few times and in like new condition. This goes for their boots, snow gear and coats too!

In my home I also focused on second hand first. I did this bedroom makeover without buying anything first hand and my sunroom was completed last year without any 2018 decorative purchases (but the rugs and one new chair were bought new in 2017). Some have asked about construction supplies - those are usually new too. When i can find an old light fixture I’ll use it (like in the laundry room), but in some places where 5 lights are needed (like the lighting in the sunroom), you just have to get new.

So what about 2019?

I’m still committed to second hand first (here’s how I normally attack a thrift shop), but in 2019, I’d like to go a step further by sewing my own clothes. I have some denim I want to make into overalls and I’d like to try making a bathing suit (and I already have that fabric too!). This might be the year I try to make my own bras (why not?) or maybe a grey sweatshirt (I’ve never sewn knits, but if I like it, maybe I’ll make tee shirts too?) I found a new to me fabric store in Adam’s home town and I think it’s going to help make all of my sewing dreams a reality. It might cost me more, but designing and sewing my own pieces is one of my favorite things to do. I won’t skip an amazing vintage piece from the thrifts, but my days of Target shopping sprees are over.

Was it hard? No! We have great thrift stores in town and if I’m not in a hurry to get something, it will eventually show up (I’m looking at you, donut pan!). I’m also a person that loves hunting and digging. It’s like I can scan the junk and the treasures just pop out at me! Also: I love a bargain. It was a great experiment and I’m so happy I’ve changed my shopping habits!

What are you resolving to change in 2019?

Our Farmhouse | Toy Kitchen Makeover

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We’ve had this little toy Hape kitchen with us since Felix was a toddler. It’s cute enough but I’ve never been a huge fan of bright orange and red it felt better placed in the kids’ room instead of out in the main living space. Bea really likes playing house, so I thought I’d give the little toy kitchen a quick update (I started this morning, so under 4 hours total with drying time) and move it to the family room.

See also: Mama loves a makeover.

So here’s what I did: first I unscrewed all of the orange parts - two front handles and the kitchen ledge and cleaned them well. I found some matte black spray paint in the basement and gave them a few light coats outside.

Meanwhile, I removed the backsplash and painted it white (again, with what I had on hand). After dry, I got do to the fun part - painting on the tile (or more accurately, the grout lines!) I used a pencil to make a 1.25” grid and then “painted” in the grout using a black chalk marker. I’ve always wanted to do this layout with subway tile, so this little project is a fun way to envision it. I made sure to do my pencil strokes on the light side so a quick coat of white paint would cover up pencil marks.

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Once I screwed this panel back on, I ran my black marker along the crease were it meets the countertop to give it a crisp, perfect finish. I got pretty lucky that my “tiles” fit perfectly. I love how the small scale makes them look realistic!

I wanted to do something about the red knobs, but they weren’t coming off easily to be spray painted. I tried some craft paint but it didn’t grab onto the lacquered finish - so I just used the chalk marker on that too.

Finally I spent way too much time styling it out. Those little wooden “vases” are napkin rings and I grabbed some of my faux plants to make it cute. There’s also a little iron owl trivet on there.

Guys - this project was easy, quick and totally free because I used supplies from my stash. Also a good way to get out my need to renovate and finish a space while my other projects are currently being demo’d.