Sewing Tips for the Pseudo Dressmaker

by Hilary Phelan

It has happened to the best of us: The shopping disaster day. We drag ourself from shop to shop, searching for that perfect dress and go home empty-handed and frustrated. But what if I told you that you could make the dress of your dreams, and that it would fit you perfectly? Want to try sewing a dress for yourself, but don't know where to start? Well, I'm here to share my beginner sewing tips and tricks to get you started.

Growing up I thought that making my own clothes was something out of my reach. I believed only certain people (like my cousin Aisling) possessed the sewing gift. These days, more and more people are taking up sewing as a hobby, and whilst I will probably never be able to make a wedding dress or anything delicate or detailed, I too have caught the sewing bug. And I learned this secret: If you concentrate and believe you can so something, then you can MAKE IT WORK.

DIY, in general, is the talk of the town these days. You can make your own christmas decorations, concoct your own face masks and delight your whole family with homemade gifts for the festive season. Along with this upsurge in craftiness came TV shows such as Project Runway and The Great British Sewing Bee, bringing sewing back onto our screens and making it hip and trendy again. Other trends that are super popular right now are up-cycling and retro-style, both leading to a heightened interest in sewing, of course.

There are many reasons to start making your own clothes. Amongst them are these:

  • Possessing clothes that fit you perfectly. You can take measurements of every imaginable body part and adjust your pattern exactly to suit your shape. At a time when people are standing up and refusing to conform to the body norms of the fashion industry, it feels very empowering to make clothes for your body.
  • Wearing your own style. I personally love colorful clothes with playful prints, and you will often find me enviously browsing the four to eight-year-old styles in stores! The last dress I made was from the Camelot Fabrics Frolicking Forest range, labeled children's pajama fabric, but I'm cool with that! Now I have a dress with the cutest little foxes ever on it. Who else can say that? At the moment, I'm working on a red dress with funny little sheep on it, and OK, I admit I sometimes get not-so-positive comments. But they are never really mean; some people just don't understand.
"Wow the kid you're making that dress for must be really big, how old is she?" From a friendly, well-meaning old sewing lady

The thing is, I love wearing fun, colorful fabrics. It makes me happy and I refuse to conform!

  • Avoiding mainstream production companies, because they've got enough money, right?
  • Knowing for sure that you have in no way contributed to child labor or extreme chemical processes involved in the manufacture of many clothing in our stores. It is relatively easy to find organic cotton and ethically printed fabrics.

So those are the reasons. But before I give you my sewing tips and tricks, I have a confession to make: I am a lazy sewist. I cut corners, I skip steps and I ignore instructions if they seem too complicated. I am by no means a good example, and people who sew professionally (or who have actually studied sewing) would tear their hair out if they saw me working. But here is my advice none the less. Writing this article, I kept hearing Baz Luhrmann's "Everybody's Free To Wear Sunscreen" in my head, so you should read the below in his voice. It adds to the effect!


  • Find someone knowledgeable to translate the pattern into understandable English for you. I have found that owners of fabric shops are great for this (if you buy your fabric there and bring your pattern along, they're normally delighted to go through it with you).
  • Join some sewing groups on social media; it is nice to chat with people who are working on the same pattern as you. These groups can be great for getting advice on small questions, like which color accents to use. Not that you always have to follow their advice; you can change your mind at any second! For my dress (featuring mini sheep fabric designed by Gail Cadden), I decided to go with a yellow accent, when actually in the beginning I really thought I would go the blue/green direction.
  • Surround yourself with other sewing enthusiasts and plan sewing dates, find sewing workshops in your area and get involved. Sitting in a room with a few sewing people is great motivation and helps you avoid getting distracted from the task at hand. It is also fun and you can all learn from your mistakes together. Last weekend, I met up with two fabulous sewing ladies I met on the internet to sew together. Lieke from Bouquet of Buttons supplied the location and cupcakes and Ellen from Studio Elf provided the patterns and pretty accent ribbons.
  • Eat, drink and sleep YouTube tutorials.
  • Find some free beginner patterns online and print at home. There are also several patterns that cost under a dollar, such as the Danielle dress which I used to make my fox ensemble above. Mine is without sleeves because I didn't have enough fabric, but that just shows that you can make your own variations of any pattern.
  • Get lost on Pinterest for a few hours! Before I start making anything, I search Pinterest to see how other people have made it. That way you pick up loads of inspiration about fabric choice, color combinations, possible adaptations and decide which options are best for you. This step is also very valuable to help imagine what your finished dress could look like. I thought the grey velvet Danielle looks terrible, but when I saw a few versions on Pinterest I decided I loved the pattern (I have already started working on my second one).
  • Do not think you are going to make cheap dresses or save money on clothes. Good quality fabric, thread, workshops, pattern and sewing books all cost money. You just have to try not to think about it, enjoy the time spent making your creation, and the thrill of wearing something you made all by yourself.
  • A very important thing you must do as soon as you buy your fabric is to throw it in the washing machine and give it a wash on your normal cycle. Imagine making a perfect fitting dress and having it shrink the first time you wash it? That would be too painful for words. That being said, I have to admit I am guilty of skipping this stage when I buy new fabric, and start sewing it up like an excited child. If you are like me and don't have the patience to wash and dry the fabric, you should at least steam iron it really well before sewing. I'm pretty sure that people are soon going to start noticing the consequences of me being afraid to put my creations in the wash! Having a bit of patience in the beginning can save you a lot of stress in the end!


  • Prepare nibbles before you start; it is awfully frustrating to have to leave your sewing table to go make something to eat. We were lucky that our wonderful sewing tutor Lieke is also a fantastic cook and sorted us out with some yummy cupcakes!
  • Tie your hair in an up-do. You need to concentrate really hard when cutting out your fabric; if your hair is long and falling in your eyes it will drive you crazy. Not to mention the risk of cutting off a lump of your hair while focusing on your pattern, true story, right Lieke? OK, maybe not this kind of UP, but you know what I mean!
Eamonn McCormack/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
  • That photo reminds me of another important tip: Wear comfortable clothes! I'm talking tracksuits or pajama comfort level; get cosy and make yourself feel lovely because you're going to have to concentrate. (I'm starting to think I have serious concentration issues considering how many times I have mentioned it in this article!)
  • A top tip I got from my fashion designer BFF based in China is that if you lose your concentration and feel like everything is going wrong, take a break. Put the kettle on, grab some of those nibbles and think about something else for a minute. Ploughing on will not get you your focus back; you will just make some serious mistakes.
  • Get to know your feet! I'm not talking about the ones on the ends of your legs but the little shiny parts you attach to your machine. I somehow ended up with a machine without any extra feet, and so I never learned about them. After discovering the world of sewing machine feet and buying some, my sewing has come on in leaps and bounds. It's amazing how easy certain tasks become if you use the right foot for it.
  • When tracing and cutting your pattern, use weights to keep it in place. I used sticky tape in the beginning and always ended up damaging my pattern. It doesn't have to be anything fancy, just something heavy!
  • Check and double check each step before you sew (tearing out your stitches and starting again is an annoying and slow process). It is also quite difficult to do without poking holes in your fabric and destroying the whole friggin' thing. If you DO have to rip something, use a seam-ripper. Do NOT go at it with a scissors, you WILL cut holes where holes should not be, and that is bad: very, very bad.
  • Make sure you are ONLY sewing what you intended to sew and that there are not extra layers folded under the unforgiving needle. I don't want to admit how often have I sewn my soon-to-be fabulous new dress to the sleeve of my bath robe.
  • Don't plan anything major for the rest of your day. I'm always surprised by how exhausted I am after a few hours of sewing. You need to concentrate, but it is so much fun that you don't realise how much energy is required until you sit down afterwards.

And so, I hope I have encouraged you to give sewing a try. Not only is it fun, but if I can do it then you certainly can! My tips and tricks may not be conventional, but they helped me and hopefully I've saved you from learning them the hard way.

Images: Author;; Getty; Giphy