July 31, 2007

Tips on How to Sew Faster

I sew fairly quickly. My sister in law call it 'Pulling an Elizabeth' when she cuts out, and sews a complete garement in a couple of hours. I come from a long line of women who sew fast. And truthfully, my great grandmother sewed a lot faster than I do, but then, she was a professional seamstress in a factory, and she had a lot more practice at sewing fast than I ever will, and a lot more incentive to do it! One of the women at Sewing Pattern Review asked for tips on how to sew fast. This is a slightly edited version of my post to her, and I hope someone here finds it helpful.

Sew with your head first.

Sew every day.

Practice helps!

You need to sew a lot to get fast.

But, if you are ready to read about sewing fast in more detail, here are some of my thoughts on sewing fast.

  1. You are the designer, and you are in charge of your sewing, not the pattern sheet. The pattern sheet is only a guide. If you do something differently from the sheet no one will smite you; you will not get a ticket from the sewing police for doing something differently (and faster!). Reading the pattern guide through for a new pattern is suggested, as long as you also read it using your head; reading it through step by step for your TNT after making 14 of them really slows you down. Think through your sewing, and see if there are steps you can change to speed up.
  2. You sew with your head first, and then your hands. You need to picture how you are putting the pieces together first in your head. It can help to put your pattern pieces out in order as you walk through the process. (eg. for the princess style dress: center front piece, side front pieces; center back pieces, side back pieces, zipper...). If you can think through the construction process in your head, you don't need to stop every step, read the instructions, guess to see if you are doing it right, reread the instructions, sew it, and wonder if you actually did it right. (My MIL is famous for this--and then she does it wrong and has to rip and redo). If you lay the pieces out in order, you also prevent those other well known crisis: oh no, I didn't cut the back skirt....and, oh no, I don't have a zipper.
  3. Construction order is pretty standard: you put each of the parts together first--front, back, sleeves if pieced--then the pieces to each other: shoulders, side seams, (set in sleeves here)-- and last finish the edges (neck and hems). Once you understand that the overall sequence does not change between garments, no matter how complex the garment, your sewing will speed up. You almost need to develop an internal sequence for your garments--or your own mini guide with keywords. The steps for all tops/dresses are 'essentially' the same (of course, there are always design variations, and details that change...which is what makes it fun.) But understanding the sequence speeds the process up.
  4. Use industrial seam allowances instead of 5/8 inch seam allowances when possible. Clipping off seam allowances takes time. Unless this is a fitting pattern, a pattern where you need a 5/8 inch seam allowance for a specific seam technique (flat felled seams on jeans, for example, or putting in a zipper), or you are working with particularly difficult fabric that needs an alternate seam finish, a 3/8 of an inch seam allowance is all you need.
  5. Using different seam allowances for different parts (like in industrial techniques) speeds things up. Inside facings, waistbands and necklines--1/4 to 3/8 of an inch seam allowances help you to sew more accurately and faster. For your TNT patterns, particularly the collared blouses, it is worth the time to create a collar pattern with the right seam allowances. You actually don't need to clip as much with the narrower seam allowance, and it looks better. But, remember, you are the designer and you sew with your head first. If your head/gut say use wider seam allowances with certain fabrics, trust them.
  6. Pins are (generally) optional. There are some exceptions to this rule, but normally, once you are a fairly experienced sewer, pins slow you down. Industrial seamstresses do not use pins; they match their notches and pleat up their seams along the edges, releasing a pleat as they come to it--but that is another thing. Having said that--I still use pins for difficult fabrics, and for matching princess seam curves, but I don't use a lot of pins. For example, I use only 4 pins for sleeves: notches, seam and shoulder.
  7. I am not a 'fussy seamstress' and I prefer industrial sewing techniques. I don't thread mark all my grainlines; I don't tailor tack because I am more accurate with pin-marking, or chalk marking; I don't 'tie off' every seam allowance thread tail; I don't hand baste unless it is absolutely necessary. These particular fussy seamstress habits will slow you down. There are always exceptions to this; I would do most of those for tailored garments, because it would make a difference for the final garment. But, I generally don't hand sew unless forced to (except for beading; I like beading). I grew up the only right handed person in a left handed family, and I didn't learn to handsew until I worked as a seamstress. I can do anything with a sewing machine.
  8. Don't be afraid of the machine going fast. Practice sewing with the machine going fast. Let the machine sew at a steady pace, and let the feed dogs guide your fabric. You will get more comfortable with the speed if you practice at a higher speed on things you don't care about, or just samples. You have to practice to work up to accuracy and speed.
  9. Chain sew whatever you can; that is, sew one item after another with only a few stitches of thread between them. Cipping threads takes time; shorter threads, less time. This is a skill; if you quilt, you learn this one fast, but you can learn this one with garments, too.
  10. You don't have to match every thread colour in the serger to your garment (the industry does not!), but the lower loopers should be pretty close or deliberately different as a design detail. Stitch all the same colour garments at the same time, so you don't have to rethread your machine every time you sew.
  11. Wind more than one bobbin of the same colour when you start your garment. I usually wind two bobbing for shirts, simple pants, and simple dresses, and three bobbins for topstitched garments.
  12. You will not be fast the first time you sew a garment; you will get faster by the 6th garment of the same style. If you want to get better at sewing a particular style, sew more than one at a time. You will be faster by the last one, particularly if you are trying to develop that sequence in your head. It helps if you don't have to change the thread for each garment. But, practice will help you speed up.
  13. When you are trying something new, realize that you will be slower at it at first, and give yourself permission to be slow at first. It usually takes about 6 to 10 garments of the same type to become comfortable with the process, and about 10 more to become fast. I'm fast at Tshirts, now. By the same token, try something new and see if you will be faster with that method. Industrial sewing techniques are designed to be faster, with practice.
  14. Have your tools where you need them, and put them back where they go when you are done with them. Nothing slows you down quite like having to go to the store to buy another loop turner because you lost the first one 'somewhere in the sewing room'. I like having thread snips and small scissors at each sewing machine, as well as a garbage can/bag, so I don't spend a lot of time looking for thread snips! (I have multiple machines, ok. I sew a lot. I also have two children and a husband who 'borrow' my tools.)
  15. Take care of your machine. Try to get in the habit of using a fluffy 'blush brush' to clean out bobbin area every time you change bobbins. Oil the poor beast every once in a while (beginning of every garment?), particularly if you are sewing a lot. A well loved machine sews better, and faster, and nothing slows down your sewing quite like a trip to the mechanic.
  16. The honest truth is that practice is the only real way to get faster and more comfortable at going faster. Sewing a little bit every day will help you go faster. Learning to sew fast is like learning to play the piano fast; it takes practice. No one is fast at scales the first time; no one is fast at sewing the first time. Be willing to practice. Wardrobe sewing helps with the practice factor; there is nothing like making 11 garments in two months to get in practice.


TracyKM said...

Thanks for writing this! I am definately a slow sewer, but I am also new. I can see myself getting faster on the few things that I have made multiples of, but how do I speed up the process of selecting patterns and fabric, LOL?! If someone handed me a pattern, in my styles and size, and some fabric, I'd be all set. I get overloaded and distracted at the fabric store!

Boppingbeth (aka Beth or Elizabeth) said...

My favourite tip for this is to use something like Missus Smarty Pants. She is great--everything she has suggested for my body type has really worked for me in my sewing. Other sites (free) include myshape dot com, and the virtual model at Land's End Catalogue. These can help you 'preplan' your wardrobe with things that look good on you. Other things to think about: what do you like to wear? And, what can you handle sewing? Online fabric shopping might be more sucessful for you (but that is not something I do so I don't have good advice, there.) I totally love the fondling of fabric, at the store.

TracyKM said...

How about tips for cutting out the pieces? I do okay with the basic layout diagrams, but this last one had some weird things and it was hard to visualize. I pinned the pattern pieces, but I think the fabric was just too slippery and now that I'm trying to sew it together, pieces don't line up/match notches, etc. I'm worried about the final result and fitting in the zipper! AND, it was labelled "Easy!!" LOL.

Alexandra said...

Excellent advice! Now if only I could convince my brain that things don't have to be *perfect*. I used to sew fast - as in, trace the pattern, cut the fabric, and sew the garment all in one day. In the last few years, I have become obsessed with making the inside as beautiful as the outside, and it has slowed me down (occasionally I come to a screeching halt and it takes weeks to get out of the funk). So, any advice on how to get the perfectionist in my brain to take a vacation?

Boppingbeth (aka Beth or Elizabeth) said...

Tracykm: try using paper underneath the slippery fabric, and cut it with your pattern; that often controls the problem (not always, but often).

Alexandra: The trick is knowing when to put in that effort, and when to just sew. Sometimes, when I get totally perfectionistic, I have to resort to sewing something definitely non perfectionistic. Shopping bags are good for this, as are corn-filled heat bags.

TNC said...

Thank you so much for writing this helpful advice on sewing faster. You are a genius! I am new to sewing and I will often be too hard on myself for my slow progress without giving myself credit for being new at this. It takes time and pratice that's for sure. I was seeking for help online and I got it! The problem I had was the sewing technique which was taking too much time & tiring me out. I would feel down & find myself putting off sewing because it was beginning to intimidate me. I've learned so much out of this and what stood out the most for me is to develop a assembly line system which saves time and helps me to get better at accuracy.