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Learning to Sew

Learning to Sew

Q. I have been a faithful reader for some time now, and almost always find something in your newsletters that helps me save money.  As a young single person, on a severely limited budget, I was intrigued by the letter from the "single dad" who altered his daughter’s clothes for her.  I own a sewing machine, but it pretty much collects dust, as I haven’t got much savvy where they are concerned.  I don’t know why when I try to sew a straight line, the bottom comes out with tons of thread, how best to make alterations for myself, etc….  I bought the machine new, only a few months ago, so it is not the fault of the machine.  I must be doing things wrong.  Do you or any of your readers know of a way in which I can teach myself to sew?  Are there any great books I can check out of the library?   Any great websites?? The reason for this is that I tend to buy almost all my clothing at thrift stores, (which are a great deal, BTW, I have some wonderful designer clothing in my closet that typically costs me less than $5 apiece.) However, it’s not like going out any finding the perfect item in just your size, so learning to make alterations would help me greatly.  Any help you and your readers could give would be wonderful.  (P.S. – I don’t have the money to sign up for a sewing class, so that’s out of the question.)

A.  Usually when you purchase a new sewing machine lessons are offered free. If not in your case, then call around for low priced classes. Check out the high school home ec teachers or local community education classes. And if they cant help they may know someone that can. You can also ask family members or friends that sew to show you some pointers. If all that fails then go to the library they have a wealth of information on learning to sew etc. And a library card is free. Good Luck!  Carol

A.  A few years ago I wanted to learn to sew and now, after having the machine cleaned and listening to a few instructions from the man who cleaned it, I’ve sewn for my children, home and created gifts for family and friends.  The PBS program Sewing with Nancy is the answer!  Her website, sewing advisors, rental video program and books helped me acquire the skills (along with practice!) I had wanted since childhood!

A.  The "lots of thread on the bottom" is due to incorrect tension settings.   I suggest asking any friend with a sewing machine how to adjust top and bottom tensions, check at a material shop for somebody who would be interested in helping you, or just experiment until you find the right balance of tensions yourself. Good luck! This is probably the single most frustrating part of using a sewing machine. Once you get past this, you will love having and using it. ;-)    Ann


A.  There are a couple of things I can think of why you are getting gobs of thread on the bottom side….(isn’t that annoying?!?!)   Is the machine threaded correctly?   Mainly check if the thread is going through the upper tension; sometimes it looks right at a glance, but the thread didn’t go in the right slot.   Check the bobbin.   When you put the bobbin in the bobbin and pull the thread a little – the bobbin should rotate counterclockwise – if not, flip it over and try again.    Does  the foot feed have tension (or are you in ‘free wheelin’ mode)?  I keep mine somewhere in the middle.     Next, when you start a seam, hold onto both threads at the beginning just for a few stitches – this keeps the threads from getting back into the machine and tangling up.   The next thing I’d look at is the tension.   I keep mine set about 2.5 to 3, but sometimes the fabric needs something different.    Also, check the manual – mine has a ‘trouble shooter’s guide’ in the back.   When I bought my machine, the store clerk was extremely helpful.   Maybe you could go back to the store and ask a few questions – I’m sure they won’t mind, especially since the machine is only a few months old.    My store (Sears) offered a free sewing class with the purchase of a machine.   They didn’t hold them all the time, but had a list – offered the class when they had a few people.  The class wasn’t so much a class of how to sew, but it was how to use the machine….  a few tricks of the trade as it were. –Lorraine

A.  One of her problems, the bunched thread on the bottom, can be solved by simply reading the owners manual that came with her new machine. She needs to learn to adjust tension or simply to thread it correctly.

A.  The reason for the gobs of thread on the bottom is that the tension needs to be adjusted.  If you have a neighbor who sews, ask for help in  adjusting it.  It is too easy to over-adjust.  Don’t rule out sewing classes.  My best class was an adult education class at a local high school, and the price was miniscule.

A.  I would like to congratulate your reader with the question of sewing on taking the time to learn. There are many ways to learn. First, with the problem with your machine – try cleaning your bobbin holder, take the entire thing out and use a small "paintbrush" type brush  to clean it out. I had the same trouble with my newer machine and it stops giving so much thread once it is clean. I must add the older machines didn’t seem to "jam " as much. If you continue to have problems call the 800 number that comes with the paperwork for your machine and tell them you need technical assistance. Most companies have a hotline that will help you.  Second, how to learn. Look for the Better Homes and Garden’s Beginner’s Guide to Sewing, I have the older version, but I am sure the library will have one. If that isn’t satisfactory, look at your family and friends, neighbors any older female (or male ) with sewing ability. Most would be flattered if you asked for a few beginner "lessons". If you have to just spread the word with everyone that you know that you are looking for any help  you can get. Last, rethink your idea of not being able to afford lessons. If in the long run it enables you to save the majority of your clothing, it may save you money in the long run, you may just have to save up for a while. Look at local extension offices, colleges, etc. to see if they have any classes that are reasonable. As a last resort put up postings ( at places or in papers you feel safe with )that say you are on a limited budget but would like to learn how to sew.

A.  Getting all the threads  on the bottom is the machine–not you.  If you bought the machine new from a store, go back to the store and there should be someone there to help teach you "how to use" the machine….setting tension, threading the bobbin (the threads on the bottom is probably due to the bobbin being threaded wrong-or bobbin placed in the machine incorrectly).

A.  It sounds like her problem might be with the "tension setting". The manual with the new machine could be of some help, and I’m sure there are library books to help.  Also, how about friends and family. In some places, you can take Adult Education courses at night through the Dept. of Education for a very nominal fee.  Finally, I went to  "", and typed "sewing", and the first one that came up looks great and has free lessons online.  It is ""

A.  So glad to hear someone else shops at thrift shops.  Bargains along with good name brands.  As for alterations and instructions, I suggest you find someone that likes to sew and would barter with you.  Such as, make a few cookies or bake a cake, have your clothes that need to be altered ready.  In other words, seams opened, etc.  By spending an afternoon or evening together, you could get some real good pointers and help.  This way you would not feel like it was all for free.  Most people that sew are willing to share tips.  Good luck!  Mary

A.  You might want to check the setting on your bobbin control, or the size control of your stitches.  Not knowing the make of the machine makes it difficult to suggest a solution.  But if you check these settings, you might find your problem.  As for a "good book", you could ask the librarian at the local library, bit I would try to find one by one of the pattern companies.  They usually have more info on altering patterns that would work for you.   When I was little my mom used to alter clothes that were handed down, here’s what she would do.  1. first we had to put the clothes on inside out, then she would use straight pins and pin up the seams first, then she would pin in the darts.  2. after we removed the clothes she would sew along her pins.  As she sewed each set of alterations, she would have us try on the clothes before she would sew the darts.  This insured a correct alteration (sometimes when you sew a seam it changes the darts).  Good luck with your quest.  It can be fun as long as you don’t get frustrated.  Remember all mistakes can be fixed, if you don’t cut first! Sincerely, –Myra

A.  I’m the single Dad she refers to in her note.  I can’t really sew either, but I find I can keep clothes in good repair. If she wants a sewing course, she can probably contact a nearby fabric store and they can probably refer her to someone. Or, perhaps a nearby community college. If she did indeed buy the machine new, sometimes the store where she bought it may offer FREE lessons! It’s worth a call to them to see. The reason the thread on her sewing machine is bunching up on the bottom is that she has it threaded wrong! She should read the Instruction Manual carefully as she threads the machine. Usually it is the top thread that is threaded incorrectly. Also, if she has turned the adjustment knob for the thread tension, she may have set it incorrectly. Depending on the make of the machine, it usually sets on 2, 3, 4 or 5. On most straight stitch machines the thread is run through the left side of the needle and out the right side. If it is a zig-zag machine, most needles are threaded from the front to the back. Oh yes, the needle itself must be installed correctly. On my machine there is a flat place on the shank of the needle which MUST go against the shaft of the needle holder. This will ensure that the needle is correctly attached. Doing it the wrong way will produce poor stitching. Also, the bobbin underneath MUST be seated correctly. The small lever latch on the bobbin case must "click" to be well attached or it will wobble and allow the thread to build up in wads under the plate. Hope this has been of help. –Bill R.

A.  I have been sewing for approximately 35 years, six of them in a sewing factory that manufactures clothing. I have worked with a variety of people and experiences and believe it or not, just about everyone can learn how to sew.   On the subject of sewing a straight line and getting a lot of thread on the bottom could be the fault of the machine and not you. It could mean that your tension is not set correctly. The tension of the thread is not always set right before it is sold. Was the machine bought from a sewing store with someone who could have adjusted it properly, or was it just purchased??   My 19 year old daughter gets very frustrated when she tries to sew a straight line also, but last Christmas she wanted to make little gift bags for friends for gifts and wanted to sew them. She did accomplish it, with some help from me, and did quite well indeed.   One of the best practices you can do is just cutting some pieces of material the same size and sewing two of them together. They don’t have to be very big pieces to start with. The important thing here is to make sure that the settings on your machine are correct and that it is threaded correctly . That alone can cause you a lot of problems.   You have to start with small items to get a feel for the machine and to not be afraid of it.   When it comes to alterations, you will need more experience in plain sewing before you can accomplish that task.   Also there are several sewing books at the library. They vary in content depending on what you are capable of sewing. At least there you can look over the book(s) to see if it is really going to help you before you check it out and then you aren’t out any money. There are sewing magazines also that can help you later once you get comfortable with the machine and how it is threaded and have some plain straight sewing experience.   Check over your sewing machine book that came with it also. It can tell you basically what you need to know about threading and tension settings.  

A.  I used to manage a fabric store so I heard of a lot of great resources.   First try your high school or community center. They may offer a sewing class at a very reasonable price. The instructor can help you learn to size a pattern to your shape and or give you some simple instruction on your machine.   There is a great book call Simplicities, Simply the best sewing book. It is not too technical. It reads as if you know nothing.   Also, look at the library. I found several basic sewing books.   Your thread problem sounds as if you bobbin tension is too loose or you are using incorrect thread for your machine, pull out the manual and browse through and try the simple suggestions.   You might want to take a sewing class offered in your area, ask at the fabric store. I took one there for about seven dollars a lesson and it was well worth it!   There are many sites, do a search for sewing-you’ll be surprised.   Happy Sewing, Jill B.

A.  Try the website .  It is part of and you can get free newsletters too. They have a wide range of projects from beginner to expert and discussion boards too.  Good luck. –DEB

A.  The tension is wrong, needle stich length and bobbin need to be the correct tension for the fabric . The best thing to do is read the owner’s manual that came with your machine. Also, go back to the store where you purchased your machine, and ask the person who sold it to you about adjustments. Sewing machines are like cars, they do pretty much the same thing, but each model has a few particular features that distinguish it from other models and other brands. The owners manual should answer most of your questions.

A.  There are a lot of great sewing books out there. Check your library, there’s probably some basic and beginner sewing books there, as well as ones specifically on alterations. If you have any friends who sew, most are happy to give advice or a few lessons. Search the web for help too–one site I like that has free patterns as well as sewing machine info. is

A.  The person who was having a problem with tons of thread on the bottom of her stitching, she  could have a problem with her bobbin.  I had a machine that would sew a piece and then all of a sudden, I had the same problem with masses of thread on the bottom.  I would suggest she contact the one who sold her the machine.  The bobbin may need adjusting. I would suggest they get a very simple pattern to start with such as a skirt – the planner the better.  You could at one time purchase books that would explain how to sew.  Check the Internet also.  There may be something out there to help her. –Sarah

A.  Usually the store you bought the machine (Of course the last time I did this was many years ago) at will give you some basic training.  Go back with your receipt and ask them for some simple classes.  It can’t hurt to ask.  You could see if there is an older neighbor in the area who sews.  If so then barter for sewing lessons.  Offer to mow the lawn, do house work take her to the grocery store once a week. or whatever in exchange for lessons.  Or go to a sewing store (Like JoAnns) and see if they offer "free" classes.  Sometimes they do because you will probably buy sewing supplies there.

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