What’s worth hand sewing (and what’s not)?

There were some great posts by some awesome sewing bloggers last year with some brilliant tips for better hand-stitching (from Closet Case Files and Did You Make That? to name just two). But I couldn’t help but wonder (cue Carrie Bradshaw…) how do you know when you should hand-sew something and when you’d be better off using your machine?

I’m hand-stitching the inside of the waistband on my latest pair of Thurlow trousers.

The short answer is that it is, genuinely, up to you. If you and your machine get into fights inserting zips, or you just can’t get on with your buttonhole foot, then you might want to try doing these jobs by hand (with something nice and relaxing on the TV, or a Seamwork podcast on in the background).

Generally, I’m all in favour of saving time, so if I can do something well enough on my machine, then I will. But there are some jobs I prefer to do by hand because it’s quicker for me in the long run, and those are:

  • Sewing on buttons – I’m not even going to bother finding out if my machine can do this or not when it’s so quick and secure by hand
  • Hemming woven fabrics when I don’t want the stitching to show through
  • If I’m putting a zip into a lined garment, I’ll usually insert the zip with the machine, but then secure the lining by hand along the opening – I always get puckers if I try to stitch both at once with a zip foot (Could someone please invent a walking zip foot?)
  • Tasks you only get one shot at, like attaching the leather toggle fastenings to my son’s School Days jacket – and hand-stitching them gave me more control for my first attempt

How do you feel about hand sewing? Are there things you could do on your machine but you opt to hand-stitch instead? And can you recommend a longish brand of sharps?


A space to sew, and everything in that space


Fabric stacked on open shelves
The built-in shelving in the office is great for fabric, patterns and notions

Sewing room envy. Which of us hasn’t spent a Tuesday night gradually turning green looking at pictures of perfectly stacked fabric and beautifully arranged ribbons on Pinterest?

No? Then this post isn’t for you.

Unless Mr Wardrobe and I win the lottery, we’re not about to gain an extra room in our house any time soon, so my sewing space will always have to share with another function. For the past three years or so that’s been the dining room. It seemed like time for a change.

We’ve moved my sewing space into our home office and replaced our old seated desks with a standing desk that’s also the ideal height for a cutting table.

It’s an IKEA workbench made from the Finnvard base and a Klimpen top (so I don’t have to worry too much about scratching it with pins). This does mean that Mr Wardrobe and I (we both work from home, together1!) will have to using our computers and my sewing machine standing up, so we’ll see how that goes.

The existing built-in shelving in the office is ideal for fabric and notions and we’ve moved the shelves around to make room to stash my sewing machine and overlocker.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, do you have any tips on storage containers for thread or patterns? And have you ever used your machine standing up?


A new sewing machine

Eek. I’ve got a new sewing machine!

It’s the Janome DKS30, and so far, it really is the best thing since sliced bread.

Image: janome.co.uk
Image: janome.co.uk

My old machine wasn’t quite cutting the mustard, and the final straw came when I realised there was no way I was ever going to be able to use a twin needle with it. Given that I have a list of about twenty things I want to make in knit fabrics, I thought it might be time to move into the modern age.

There are so many options on the market it was hard to choose, but I knew I didn’t need a squillion fancy stitches or lots of quilting features. In fact I really just wanted my old machine with a couple more features and some of the glitches ironed out. But the more I read about computerised machines, the more that seemed like the way to go for me, so I decided to push my budget as far as it would go.

I tested this one at the West End Sewing Centre in Cheltenham, putting it through its paces on things like sewing four layers of coating, attaching a lining and hemming jersey. It actually managed all of those just using the ordinary zigzag foot, and a regular needle, so I was sold.

Now the only problem is working out which foot is which – there are so many!

Only one of these wasn't included with the machine. Bonus points if you can guess which!
Only one of these wasn’t included with the machine. Bonus points if you can guess which!

My sewing machine

My 1950s Singer 201k - raring to go
My 1950s Singer 201k – raring to go


I’d like you to meet my sewing machine. She’s a Singer 201k and I think she dates from the late 1950s.

I was given this machine by my Mum, who was given it by her mother. My Grannie was a keen dressmaker and this was a gift to her from my Grandpa and my great-grandmother in the late 1950s or early 1960s. I think they did a lot of saving up to buy this.

It was her pride and joy for fifteen years, when she upgraded to a newer machine with more stitches, but she always said what a good machine this was and how she missed its simplicity.

She was right. It may be a straight stitch only machine but it’s sturdy, hard-working and reliable. Everything’s mechanical, so if something goes wrong you can have a go at fixing it yourself. It can handle any fabric from chiffon to denim without complaining.

Over the last five years I’ve collected lots of attachments at flea fairs and through eBay and enthusiast sites: a buttonholer, a range of feet and even an automatic zigzagger (although I have yet to get that one working…). I love using it, but every now and then I do crave a machine that’s lighter, has a free arm, and does a zigzag stitch at the flick of a switch.

I’m tempted to get another machine at intervals, but I’m not sure I could part with this one.

I’m starting to feel as though she deserves a name. Perhaps Faith – which was also my Grannie’s name.

What equipment do I need?

A copy of a McCalls sewing manual.

If you’ve been inspired to try sewing your own clothes, then here’s what I think you’ll need to get started. I’ve tried to keep this to the bare minimum, but if it still looks like a lot of outlay, I’ve also put together some suggestions for cutting costs.

A copy of a McCalls sewing manual.
My current favourite sewing manual from the 1960s. I picked this up for £2 in the British Red Cross charity shop in Cheltenham.


  • sewing machine and bobbins
  • pins
  • tape measure (or some string and a ruler, at a push)
  • fabric scissors
  • ordinary scissors for paper and snipping threads
  • a few hand sewing needles – often called ‘sharps’
  • paper, pencils, masking tape, and a ruler for altering the pattern

You’ll also want to track down

  • a bright light or a sunny spot to sew in
  • a large flat surface for cutting out
  • a table or desk to sit at when you use your machine
  • an iron

For each project

  • a new sewing machine needle
  • the fabric and any notions you need for the garment
  • thread to match your fabric and a contrasting thread for tacking
  • a pattern – shop-bought, downloaded or homemade
  • any special sewing machine feet your project needs – e.g. a zipper foot

Optional extras

There are tons of clever gadgets that will make sewing easier, or quicker, but I think you can muddle through with the list above. If you’ve got money to burn however, (or a generous Auntie offering you lots of her spare kit) you might like to collect the following.

  • a seam ripper
  • a pincushion – you could easily make one
  • different types of pins – ballpoint for knits, longer pins for heavy fabrics and thinner ones for delicate fabrics
  • a tailor’s ham, press mitt and a sleeve board
  • a pattern master and a french curve
  • a book about dressmaking (I’d go for one that’s a similar vintage to your machine and has a big index)
  • extra feet and attachments for your machine
  • storage for all your notions and haberdashery bits
  • tailor’s chalk, dressmakers’ carbon paper and tracing wheel, washable fabric markers

Have I missed something essential? Let me know what you can’t live without.

Will dressmaking save me money?

Dressmaking is going through a revival, and it could be because we’re all keen to save money on clothes. So can a DIY wardrobe actually save you money?

DIY v high street prices…

Big high street clothing chains buy their fabric, equipment and labour very cheaply – too cheaply in some cases. Expect your fabric to cost about the same as the finished garment would in Primark. Your version’ll be awesome in comparison, obviously – but if you usually shop in budget chains then DIY won’t be cheaper overall.

If you usually pay a bit more, then you can definitely make clothes that you’ll like more and that fit you better for less than you pay in the shops.

How can I cut costs?

There are lots of things you can do to bring the costs down. Here are my top 5 suggestions:

1. Upcycle. Root through your existing wardrobe, your stash household linen, and those of your family and friends. Try charity shops too. If you can find a garment you could alter, or a piece of fabric that’s big enough to cut something new you could convert it into something you love. Even if you hate the material, could you re-use the buttons or the zip?

2. Repeat yourself. Once you’ve got a pattern you love that fits, get your money’s worth by making it up in several different fabrics. If you’re making for a child, buy a multi-size pattern and make bigger versions of the same garment as they grow.

3. If you’re buying fabric, shop around. Try your local market, or head for your nearest city and investigate specialist fabric stores away from the main drag. It’s also worth a dig around your local charity shop – some occasionally have dressmaking fabric, or items like bed linen and curtains that could be adapted into clothes – depending on your taste!

4. Blag equipment. Let your family and friends know that you’re taking up dressmaking and see if you can have or borrow any kit for free. You’d be amazed at how many people have an unused sewing machine lurking in the loft, or a bag of haberdashery they don’t want. Ebay, gumtree and preloved are worth a look too, but check the prices carefully. Start with the bare minimum and work out what else you’ll use as you go along.

5. Be different. There’s a whole swathe of people out there looking for vintage 1950s dress patterns, so prices are rocketing. Try something else – maybe you’d love some well-fitting trousers for work, or a shirt that doesn’t pull across the chest. You can even draft your own patterns if you can’t find what you want.

Where shouldn’t I scrimp?

There’s some stuff you shouldn’t skimp on. You need a good quality pair of fabric scissors and cheap thread isn’t usually good value – it snaps in the machine and your seams come apart.

What tips would you give to a sewer on a budget?