Tuesday, 25 March 2014

5 Sewing Tips that I wish I'd known (or paid attention to!) when I started sewing

Today I thought I'd share with you some of the things which have completely changed the quality, ease and speed of my sewing and that I can't believe I never did when I first started out! I've been thinking a lot about how I can improve my sewing this year and have been trying to sew slowly, considering what techniques I am using. This post has really come about as I've thought back over how and why my sewing skills have improved and what are the things I now can't live without.



  • The importance of pressing This first one is a big one. When I first started sewing I was just keen to be on the machine and actually sewing. I hated the hours spent cutting and resented all the up and down from the machine to the ironing board. However, making the effort to take time over pressing and pressing correctly has made a huge difference to the finish of my garments. It can also be a huge help in achieving those slightly tricky techniques; sewing a curved hem no longer daunts me thanks to this tutorial from Colette Patterns and a good press! The most important things to remember are to lift and move the iron rather than using a side to side motion as this can distort seams and that every seam/dart/pleat needs pressing before you sew anything that crosses it. This doesn't mean you need to get up and over the to the iron after each and every seam you sew but rather sew everything that you can until you are about to cross an unpressed line of stitching. This might mean that you can sew the shoulder and side seams on a blouse in one go but will need to press them before inserting the sleeves.


  • The difference under-stitching and stay tape can make This is right up there at the top of my best and most used sewing techniques when it comes to achieving a more professional looking finish. I've got to give credit for this one to Tasia from Sewaholic as this is a tip I picked up from making the Lonsdale Dress, which was the very first dress I made! There are great instructions for this included in the Lonsdale Sew-along. A stretched out and wavy neckline or lining flipping through to the wrong side at the edge of a pocket can ruin the look of a garment and be incredibly frustrating when you have invested so much time in an otherwise beautifully made project. Adding stay tape to your seam allowance helps curved edges from stretching on the bias over time and can also reinforce things like pocket edges which have to stand up to wear. I picked up my tape in New York's garment district last year but I've also used a narrow twill tape or the selvedge of my fabric. After adding your tape, stitching your lining or facing to both layers of the seam allowance (under-stitching) helps prevent it from peeking out on the right side when worn and can help a neckline stay nice and flat. I was delighted with the results on my Lonsdale.


  • Keeping a 'sewing journal' This is something that I actually haven't been doing all that long but have found totally indispensable since I started! I keep a little notepad by my machine just for sewing notes. In it I start a new page for each project and briefly jot down everything I've done for a particular project. Things like what size I cut, how much fabric I used, any alterations I made as I went along, any particular techniques and what worked well or didn't. Most importantly once finished I record any ideas or alterations I might have if I use this pattern again. This has really helped me to make sure each project is an improvement on the last, rather than forgetting what it was that I was so certain I'd do better next time. For lengthy projects this has really helped me write thorough blog posts too!

My thread box, also including Fiona's other sewing essentials...

  • Good general organisation saves time With limited space it's taken me a while to sort out a set up for all my sewing equipment and supplies that I'm happy with. I mainly found myself getting frustrated with all the time I was wasting hunting for my bias tape maker, my chalk pencils or that zip that 'I'm sure I saw somewhere the other day'. My sewing space is a room which also functions as a dining room and a music and teaching room for my boyfriend (Tilly wrote a great post about working in a shared sewing space like this). There isn't a huge amount of space for sewing equipment, some is even stored in other rooms, so things are split between boxes, baskets, a chest and a sewing table. I was loosing track of what was where but a good sort out a while back has made the world of difference. Tools are now all together, fastenings are now all together and threads are all together. I still have to root things out when I need them but I know exactly where to look. My most useful tip in terms of organisation is to figure out which tools and supplies you use frequently and keep these 'essentials' easily accessible by your machine. I have a little tin with useful thread colours, chalk, quick unpick, snips, bobbins, a seam gauge...all those handy things.


  • Using the correct tools When getting started with sewing it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of tools available. It's hard to know which are essential and which are an unnecessary gadget. I plodded along for ages thinking 'I don't need one of those, surely this chopstick/these kitchen scissors/this pencil' will do the job just as well'. In some cases yes (e.g. the chopstick for turning through straps) in other cases no (e.g. using a pencil instead of a tracing wheel. Don't ask how I know). Sewing can be an expensive hobby but some of these tools cost very little and will make a HUGE difference. A tailor's ham is amazing for getting that professional finish with beautifully pressed and shaped seams and is something you can make yourself basically for free. Using the correct needles for the fabric you are using is essential (e.g. ballpoint for stretch) and I've discovered choosing quality interfacing is worth taking your time over. Some tools are non essential but will make your life so much easier and your sewing more enjoyable. Kathryn from Yes I Like That wrote a great post on sewing accessories. Two of my personal favourites are my bias tape maker and my invisible zip foot. Both totally worth the investment. 

I'd love to know what you have found to make a difference with your sewing. What are your favourite sewing tips and tools?

70 comments:

  1. such good tips here! i really do need to keep a sewing journal - i know it will help! i must get on with the organisation thing - i have no space at the moment but we are planning to turn our tiny utility room into a sewing space in the summer. so of course I have done nothing to organise stuff. i like your handy essentials tin and i must start to collect storage things for my soon-to-be new space!

    my top tips are to buy tools that make your most hated jobs easier. i hate cutting but since buying a decent pair of spring action ginghers it's not too bad. ditto marking - i bought a chaco liner recently and it is amazing. that would be my best sewing accessory actually - the chacoliner. also pick up a pack of your most used needles each time to you go to the fabric shop. and plan full garments rather than just buying fabric and patterns, so that you have the buttons/ zips/ interfacing you need.

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    1. That is a fantastic tip, I'd never thought of it that way before. I've been seriously considering investing in a chacoliner, marking darts and pleats e.t.c is one of my absolute least favourite things and that might help!
      I'm so jealous of your soon-to-be sewing room and of you being able to plan exactly how you want everything, you lucky thing! My sewing tin was a gift but I think it was from John Lewis like my notepad. They have some great bits and pieces. I also highly recommend Wilkinsons for storage options!
      Starting a journal really has made SUCH a difference!

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  2. Great tips - and Dairy Milk should be an essential on any sewing supplies list.

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    1. Thanks Tilly! Dairy Milk is an essential on any kind of list in my opinion!

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    2. OK... I give... What is Dairy Milk?

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    3. :) I thought it might confuse some non-British readers! It's a particular chocolate bar from Cadburys, one of the main popular chocolate companies over here, ooo so good!

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  3. Hi Fiona- thank you for the very timely post as I work to finish my Mad Men challenge dress. It's a little out of my comfort zone and these finishing tips will come in very handy. You can take a look at my progress so far at www.sewingpies.wordpress.com!

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    1. O your Mad Men dress is looking wonderful! I absolutely love silk dupion, you can get it in such wonderful colours. I too often get to the point approaching the fiddly finishing stages of a project where my momentum slows down and I just want to be done! I try to remind myself that it is worth taking this bit slow as getting it right can make such a difference to the finished garment

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    1. Thanks Rachel! Each of them really has made such a difference to my sewing, enjoyment and productivity. I think it's definitely worthwhile spending some time finding the best methods for you

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  5. A clean and organized sewing space is so important for me to function. Press everything!! I really need to keep a sewing journal. I'm taking a fitting class right now and I know it will help me so much.

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    1. O how exciting! I'd love to take a fitting class and have intact been eyeing up the 'Sew the Perfect Fit' course on Craftsy. I too really need things clean a tidy to do a good job

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    2. I'm taking the Fast Track Fitting and really like it. Right now work is overwhelming and my sewing room is a bit of a mess, so not much sewing going on.

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    3. I'm having one of those moments at the minute too Amy! Am hoping to get some done today. Great to know that Fast Track Fitting is also worth a look, I definitely need to enrol in one of those Craftsy courses

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  6. I agree with the ironing - sometimes on sewing days I will spend more time at the ironing board than the machine, but it is totally worth it.

    I'm really pedantic about seams and top stitching, and can't leave it without pulling the threads to the wrong side and tying the ends off. It just looks neater. Does anyone else do this?

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    1. I'd never even thought about that, you are so good! Now you've put the idea in my head though the thought of everything being so neat and tidy is converting me already!
      I absolutely hated the amount of time spent pressing when I first started and never did a very good job, now I completely understand the value of it!

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    2. Yes I always pull my threads through.. hate little ends poking through m

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    3. Wow I've totally just discovered another tip I should have been paying attention to haven't I?! Ha!

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  7. I'm new to keeping a journal too. It makes so much sense I dunno why I didn't do it from the start. Just bought one of those IKEA rolling trolleys as my 'current projects' organiser so we'll see how that goes. Afraid I fail badly on 'using the correct tools' as I will still occasionally just grab a pencil to mark up fabric, me bad!

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    1. Oo I love a bit of the IKEA storage section! If I was ever lucky enough to have a sewing room I'd make a massive trip to get myself organised! Sometimes using household objects can be just as good if not better than the real thing so I don't think that's a fail!

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  8. Ooh, number 3 is an excellent tip! I really need to start a sewing journal. Currently I write my adjustments on my pattern pieces, which, although is handy when I'm actually using the pieces, is not so good afterwards when I'm writing my blog post and have to get each piece out to see what I did! D'oh.

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    1. I LOVE the idea of writing adjustments on the pattern pieces themselves! I can see why it might be problematic when writing a blog post but o so easy when you are making it again I bet!

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    1. Thanks Rach! I'm actually picking up some even better one's from reading the comments!

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  10. Really great tips! I fully agree with the notebook! If I don't write it down I'll probably make the same mistake again....

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    1. That's EXACTLY what I've found, it's really helped to move me forward

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  11. Great tips! I also try not to sew when I'm tired as much as possible... I swear 99% of my mistakes happen after 11pm!
    For the sewing journal, I totally recommend 110 Creations: A Sewists Handbook which has really cute croquis included so you can sketch your plans! http://cashmerette.blogspot.com/2014/01/bits-and-bobs-and-planning.html

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    1. That is an excellent tip! My projects nearly always go long when I've been sewing for too long in one session and just want to get it done!
      I've had my eye on that journal, the format really appeals to me. Good to hear it is recommended!

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  12. I wholeheartedly agree with all these tips! I should really start a sewing journal. It would really make second and third versions of a pattern much easier - I can never remember which alterations I made at the beginning on the pattern pieces and which I did mid-process and never bothered to transfer back to the pattern.

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    1. I wholeheartedly recommend that you do! It really has made a huge difference to my sewing and progress. It also saves a lot of time and head scratching!

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  13. By cost to benefit ratio, the most useful thing I have ever bought for my sewing room was a £3 plastic tray from Wilko's. It's exactly the right size to sit on the end of my sewing table and hold a box of pins, two ice-cream tubs full of thread spools, and a pile of all the miscellaneous bits that need to be near the machine but also need to be cleared off the table for cutting or tracing. So much easier, and while I still have to dig to find my buttonhole foot I do at least know it's in there, as opposed to potentially in any of three boxes.

    The single most useful tip I've been given is that, when basting or otherwise sewing a seam you know will be coming out later, use a contrasting thread so you can find it afterwards! Unpicking black from black is one of those things that never goes well for me.

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    1. I love Wilko's for storage options! It sounds like you've got a great organisational method going on.
      The basting tip is really great thanks, I've had some nightmare unpicking situations and confusion between what stitching needs to be unpicked and not!

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  14. Great tips Fiona! I found using a seam gauge a real revelation and much easier than trailing a tape measure round the whole time. PS. I use EXACTLY the same tin as you for keeping all my essential sewing bits in - spooky! x

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    1. Spooky indeed! Mine was a gift and I think it was from John Lewis, they have some lovely bits and pieces in there!
      I must admit I've long been tempted by a sewing gauge and am really starting to see the value of it for pressing up hems e.t.c. I'm constantly in a tangle with my tape!

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  15. These are great tips and considering my love for notebooks it's a surprise that I don't keep a sewing journal. Good thing I have a spare notebook for that project. I can't think of any tips of my own at the top of my head right now, maybe I'll think of some later on.

    Understitching is one of those things I wish I knew, in school I was taught to stitch facings down through the front and facing, leaving a row of stitches at the top of the neckline.

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    1. Get on with that notebook! I've found it invaluable and feel like my sewing has actually improved as a result as I'm not repeating mistakes but moving forward

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  16. Excellent advice, thank you. I already have a tailor's ham, but you inspired me to stop reading, and order a seam roll now. I also ordered two boxes for thread. I have only been sewing for one year, and am keeping track of my projects in "110 Creations, A Sewist's Notebook". I find the format quite helpful. I, too, have a small box for sewing notions, as well as a drawer. What I need to organize next is my patterns. I seem to hoard them the way most sewers hoard fabric. Every time I see something I like on a blog, I buy the pattern. I have made only 24 things in the last year, but I must have 60 to 100 patterns. Do you have any tips for storing and keeping track of them? There is a place to list them in my Sewist's Notebook, but I need more than the company name and number to remind me which pattern is which.

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    1. O hooray! I hope you enjoy the seam roll! I'm very tempted by that notebook, the format really appeals to me.
      I have a similar problem with patterns, I'm trying to be more restrained this year as I have no more room! I currently use three fairly cheap filing boxes from IKEA for mine, 1 for vintage patterns, 1 for Indie and 1 for modern 'Big Four' patterns. It is difficult to keep track of what I have though and I have to rummage through when I'm looking for a pattern to match an idea so I would like to find a more 'catalogued' system

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    2. I had a similar issue with patterns and ended up with multiple patterns all pretty much the same (its amazing how many A-skirt patterns there are out there and i think i own them all). I spent a saturday and scanned the covers (but probably could take photos) of all my patterns and then loaded them into drop box (had folders: women's, children, men and misc). Now i can see them everywhere and its handy when out fabric shopping, The only thing i would change would be to also scan in the back with the fabric requirements and notions. Once i purchase a new pattern it gets scanned into the collections. Time consuming to set up, but has been so worth it!

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    3. That sounds absolutely fantastic Kat! So much so that I might steal your idea. Particularly love the thought of having all the info handy on my phone using dropbox. So many times I've found the perfect fabric for a pattern I know I have at home but have had to take a wild guess at how much to buy or have had to try and find the info on the internet!

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    4. I don't know why I hadn't thought of scanning ?!? I had been trying to copy and set up notebook files but printing alone Is expensive and the copies need to fit in multiple places.

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  17. Great tips! I keep a little notebook on my sewing desk too!

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    1. Thanks Stephanie. I can't believe I didn't before. It seems so obvious now!

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  18. A sewing journal is a great idea, I try to keep notes each time I make something, so that I remember what I changed or what I need to change. It is def worth aiming for a good finish, I do always want things done quickly, but it is worth taking time to get them right. I am getting better at getting things done right, I even undo things and try again, which I used to hate doing!

    Hannah.
    http://surfjewels.tumblr.com/

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    1. I'm exactly the same Hannah! One of the biggest sewing skills I've developed is patience!!

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  19. Your posts are so helpful - I love that. And this is a timely reminder that I need to get some stay tape and be more regular with my note-keeping for my projects.

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    1. O thanks Elle! There's such a wealth of information out there on blogs to learn from I love taking it all in and sharing it onwards!

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  20. THIS was indeed helpful. All perfectly sound points; and there are those I will be trying, such as the journal.

    Thank you.

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    1. O do try the journal! I've found it really makes such a difference! It also helps if you can find a lovely sewing related notebook you want to write in too!

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  21. What a great post. Some of the things that I do (or try to do) to make sewing more enjoyable are:
    ~Wash the fabric as soon as I get it home from the shop so it's ready to sew when I want to use it. I don't bother pressing it until I'm cutting out because I'll have to press it anyway to get the fold creases out.
    ~I loath cutting fabric, so cutting out several projects at a time can be helpful. I've already got all the gear out so I may as well.
    ~I try to batch all the materials I need for a project together in a bundle or bag so I know I have everything I need before I start and don't have to stop to forage for bits and bobs.

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    1. They are all excellent tips thank you! I also try to wash fabric as soon as I get it and cut a few projects at the same time. I find it's a different kind of mindset to the actual sewing part so I find it a bit more enjoyable if I'm not trying just to get it done to get to the next part
      I really need to try out that bag system, sounds like a great way to save some more time!

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  22. Pressing EVERY SEAM is very important and same with understitching. I used to skip these steps sometimes when i first started, but now I know that it's a MUST-DO to get the perfect finished garment - just as essential as backstitching!

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    1. So true Neeno! I think they're both the sort of things that you don't appreciate the value of until you make the effort to do them well at some point

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  23. These are all brilliant tips! I love my little ruler with the slider that I can't remember the name of! Makes checking measurements so much easier! And pressing makes such a difference! I also approve of your additional essentials in your thread box...

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    1. :) I took that photo a little while ago so I can't guarantee the stash is still there! I never really understood those little rulers but am starting to see the value in them now. I hate pressing up hems so this might make that task a little more enjoyable!

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  24. I forgot to add that the Dairy Milk stash is an excellent idea, too!

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    1. :) There's nothing better than a long sewing session accompanied by Cadburys!

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  25. Thanks for the great tips. My sewing room is also my dining room so I have to be super organised so I can easily access things or I'd never get any sewing done. Also, my memory is shocking so keeping a notebook is essential!

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    1. Mine too! It seems strange to say good organisation is a sewing tip but it really has made such a difference to my sewing output

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  26. These are all wonderful realizations. I am so glad you have figured this out so early in your sewing career.

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    1. Thanks Bunny! I've really enjoyed looking back on how and why my sewing might have improved to put this post together. All of these things make it so much more enjoyable and satisfying too

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  27. Great tips! I especially agree with the organisation point. It is so frustrating to have to search for things before being able to start work. I also think the sewing journal is very important, so much so that I now create them to sell and they are proving to be very popular! I wouldn't be able to manage without one.


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    1. O wow! I'm going to have to check out your journals! Mine is getting rather full now!
      Not having to hunt around for things before sewing makes me want t sew so much more because I can just get started with the fun stuff straight away!

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  28. These are great tips - especially about the stay tape. As a relative newby still, I'm like a magpie, trying to pick up tips from people with waaay more experience than me. I just organised some of my sewing stuff, and I couldn't agree more than it makes you feel more sane!

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    1. It really does make you feel so much more relaxed when sewing doesn't it?! I love discovering everyone's tips and different ways for doing things like you. Reading all the comments on this post has been so interesting!

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  29. What great tips - thank you! I shall have to get stay tape - i always staystitch but don't always find it enough..... I love your blog - have only recently discovered you through Kollabora and you have the sweetest style.

    I have a couple cute hardbound copybooks which I use as various sewing journals - one where I write down, on a page to itself, fabric I buy, along with its measurements and any ideas I may have for it. I update this when I finish the garment with notes of any changes and big smileys (or not) and a big red READY. Another one with dividers which is one section - records of different patterns and fabrics and elastics used in my quest for cute underwear:) - another section details on how I upcycled things - this started after I was hunting for a sleeve pattern that I had used when I turned a huge baggy YSL handkerchief linen blouse (cast off by rich big sis) into a Alma shaped blouse with frilled cap sleeves. (Really happy with it , I kept the original neckline and buttonholes but used new buttons as the old ones were cracked - so much for pricey designers!). Anyway, I ended up going thru all my patterns until I realised it was the Miz Moselle sleeve I had used. So now whenever I upcycle something I note what and how...

    Any my third (ahem!) notebook is basically my inspiration. Lists of things I want to make, with sketches and pattern numbers. Lists of fabrics grouped by type - knits, voiles, drapey, not drapey - with amounts so I can easily see if I have enough for whatever it is. And lists of patterns I really want to make every season. Love when I cross something off!

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    1. Hi Francesca! Thank you for your lovely comment, I love hearing other people's favourite techniques and tricks. it's so great that you keep such detailed records of plans and projects, I'm still not very thorough with it but it has really made such a huge difference to the quality of my sewing and productivity. I find just blogging about my projects really useful too as I can look back through when I need reminding, much easier to have a notebook of the key points though!

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  30. This is such a helpful post! Thank you so much.

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    1. I hope you don't mind but I've referenced it in my most recent post: http://prettyflorals.co.uk/italian-floral-floralex/ Thanks again.

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    2. Of course I don't mind! Thanks so much for linking to me! I'm glad you enjoyed the post and found it useful, some of the comments are brilliant too!

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I love hearing from readers of my blog so please feel free to leave a comment letting me know what you thought about this post/make! Any hints or tips to improve my sewing are always much appreciated too!