Sewing 101: Part 1

Oh… am I ever so happy to introduce Kim from Retro Mama to you. For the next four Mondays, she’ll be teaching Craft Snob’s fresh petite series’ on Sewing 101.

Peek, snoop or loiter around her retro pattern shop and gobble up a few of these cuties…

- Sara

P.S. Here’s Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Hi everyone! I’m Kim from Retro Mama, and I was so excited when Sara asked me to do a series of introductory sewing lessons here at Craft Snob. I love teaching and I love sewing, so this is right up my alley! Today I’m going to start off with the very basics including a short discussion on sewing machines, then talk a bit about the types of tools you need, and end on one of my favorite topics: fabric. My future posts will get into the nitty gritty details of the actual sewing, and we’ll practice your new skills with some fun project tutorials.


The Sewing Machine

First off, you don’t need a fancy or expensive machine to have a blast sewing and to be able to do a ton of techniques with great results. My suggestions for things to look for in your first sewing machine are: a top-load bobbin with a see through window, multiple stitch functions including (but not necessarily limited to) zig-zag, triple stitch and stretch stitch, adjustable sewing speed and stitch length, adjustable needle position, and a free arm (which lets you sew circular items like the topstitching on a handbag). If you plan to make lots of clothes, you’ll probably want your machine to have buttonhole stitches as well. You might want to check out the sewing machine reviews here (you’ll need to register, but they won’t spam you). Read your sewing machine manual thoroughly to get familiarized with how to operate and maintain your machine, and to learn about the features particular to your machine. Also consider taking a class or two to learn how to wind a bobbin, thread and fire up your machine.

Presser Feet

Many machines come with several basic presser feet, but you may need to purchase additional feet if they aren’t already included (yours may look a little different from my photo, as presser feet do vary some by manufacturer). These are my most used presser feet:


  • A. General purpose foot: I use this foot most of the time; it works great for single stitch, triple stitch, and a regular zig zag stitch (I will go into more detail about different types of stitches in my next post).
  • B. Zig-zag/embroidery foot: I think of this as my appliqué foot. The bottom is see-through to allow you to have greater visibility and control when using a tight zig-zag stitch to go around appliqués.
  • C. Zipper foot: I use this foot for installing zippers and also any time I need to sew really close to the edge of fabric because it gives you a good view of the fabric beneath the foot.
  • D. Walking foot/even feed foot: For quilting, this foot has its own set of feed dogs to help the top and bottom layers of fabric to travel at the same speed through the machine. You’ll want to use this foot any time you use batting in your project.

Sewing Machine Needles

For the purpose of these introductory lessons, we will be using sharp/regular point needles. When working with woven fabric (e.g. quilting cotton, or other fabrics that aren’t stretchy), use a sharp needle (80/12 universal regular point for lightweight fabrics and quilting cotton, or 90/14 universal regular point for slightly heavier fabrics or when sewing through several layers). Ball point needles are for knit fabrics only.



Thread is a little bit of a tricky subject as many folks tend to be very loyal to one brand and swear that all other threads are junk. For most projects, I think Coats & Clark 100% cotton thread or Guttermann threads (both can be found at most fabric shops) work great. You may find with experience that you prefer a particular brand; it’s worth experimenting to figure out what you like. A nice thread comparison can be found here.


Essential Sewing Tools


These are what I consider to be the most essential sewing tools. There are plenty of other tools and gadgets that you will discover as you learn more about sewing and techniques, but this list is a good start. I’m including links to online shops, but you should be able to find all of these items in your local stores as well:

  • A. Dressmaker’s Shears For cutting fabric around patterns. It is worth investing in a good pair of shears and embroidery scissors, below.
  • B. Embroidery Scissors. My go-to scissors for snipping threads and cutting right up next to a seam.
  • C. Flexible Tape Measure. Especially if you plan to make clothes.
  • D. A Chopstick. Yep, the utensil that helps you eat delicious food will also be your best friend when it comes to pushing out those corners or curves when turning your project right side out, and for putting polyfill into your stuffed creations. I have several with different sized tips and blunt ends (and my husband is probably still looking for their mates, shhh!). You can also purchase a point turner which is specifically designed for this purpose, though the handle isn’t quite as long.
  • E. Thimble. Either metal or leather, used for hand sewing, embroidery, and quilting.
  • F. Pinking Shears or pinking rotary cutter. The uneven edge helps to prevent fabric from fraying.
  • G. Rotary Cutter. Rotary cutters make life so much easier. The 45mm diameter cutters are terrific for long, straight cuts, the 28mm diameter cutters are helpful for curves. If you have little ones, I recommend buying a cutter that has a little button to lock the blade when it is retracted.
  • H. Magnetic pincushion. My favorite place to store straight pins. I keep threaded hand sewing needles in one of my plush pear pincushions. Straight pins. For pinning patterns to fabric or keeping two layers of fabric together while sewing.
  • I. Seam Ripper. I’d like to pretend I never need this tool, but of course there are occasions that it comes in handy. It lets you gently cut threads to remove seams if you happen to make a boo-boo.
  • J. Disappearing Fabric Ink Pen. For tracing and marking patterns. I can’t find a link to my exact pen. The purple ink becomes invisible as it dries, the blue ink disappears when you put water on it. White pencil or chalk is great for marking dark fabrics.
  • K. Self-healing cutting mat. These provide a great work surface, and I recommend getting the largest size that will fit on your table. The measurement grid often comes in very handy, and the mat will magically heal all those cuts into it while protecting your tabletop. Always store your cutting mat flat so it doesn’t warp.


Quilter’s rulers. My most used sizes are: 6” x 24”, and 6” x 6” square, as well as a 12-1/2” x 12-1/2” square for quilting projects. Okay, I love my 3” x 18” too. You may find that you end up with a collection of different rulers over time as you purchase them for specific projects, but at the very minimum I recommend starting out with a 6” x 24” as it is very versatile. Rulers that are frosted on the back are less slippery on fabric. I store my rulers on a “ruler rack” which is essentially a block of wood with ruts cut into it for the rulers to rest on their sides. Lint roller. Yes, that is a lint roller next to my rulers. They are great for picking up stray lint and threads, so I like to always keep one handy. The rollers made for pet hair are extra sticky. iron and ironing board. I have a counter top ironing board that sits on top of a short bookcase. My tiny ironing board is all that I need for almost any project, and it takes up very little space. I use 2 store-bought covers on it (for extra padding), and though you can purchase expensive designer covers, I’ll forewarn you that you will be very sad when you accidentally fuse some interfacing to your beautiful cover or scorch it while making bias tape (not that I have ever done anything like that…okay, yes I have. Several times.).

Fabric 101


My favorite fabric to work with is quilting cotton. It is wonderfully versatile, you can use it for bags, toys, clothes, housewares, accessories…and the variety of prints is endless. You can buy quilting cotton by the yard, or in precut packs such as charms (5” x 5” squares) or jelly rolls (2-1/2” x 44” strips). Precuts are offered by the fabric manufacturer Moda. If you plan to do smaller projects, or little patchwork projects, fat quarters (18” x 22”) are readily available at local quilt shops (LQS) and many online retailers, and are a great (and less expensive) way to stock your fabric stash than purchasing full yards. I am a bit particular about where I buy fabric, and recommend that you purchase fabric from your local quilt shop or online retailers. The quilting fabrics sold at chain fabric stores tend to be thinner and have lower thread counts, which will make a difference in the durability and softness of your finished projects.

I’m often asked where I buy my fabric, and the answer is: mostly online. Some of my favorite shops are listed below.

Phew! If you’re still with me, congratulations, and thank you! That’s a wrap for today. If you have any questions about today’s topics, please leave them in the comments and I’ll check in to answer them. I’ll be back next week, so be ready to rev up that sewing machine and start stitching!


  1. This is a great entry to keep handy. I'm an expat living in London and trying to find afforadable fabric has been a chore. Some fabrics tends to be more affordable in the States, even after shipping costs! Thanks for mentioning the shops!

  2. Ohh what a lovely series. Looking forward to the rest.
    I especially love the list of fabric shops online, But do you know of any good ones that are UK based or do cheaper international shipping?
    This is something I have been looking for recently but all the fabric shop recomendations I have seen have all been for US based shops, with quite high international shipping rates.
    Thanks very much and looking forward to the rest of the series…

  3. I love that white 5-drawer caddy by your cutting mat…where did you get it??

    • I'm with Kristy on this one; please share where you found this cubby of drawers.  It was the first thing I noticed!

  4. Thank you for doing this!! I've been wishing for sewing lessons for ages! My machine is still in the box.  So I'm really looking forward to learning :)  

  5. You should also list My Needle and Thread at for excellent prices and adorable fabrics! I love her stuff!! And I know she ships internationally for a fair price.

  6. I’m so glad you’re doing this series! I just learned to sew a couple of weeks ago so this information is so helpful!

  7. I love this series!  Very good information here.  I will for sure be back for more!

  8. Oh, I'm so excited! :) This is perfect! I have done some sewing, but always feel like I <i>missed out</i> on some of the basics and vocabulary which makes me scared to take on more adventurous sewing projects. This was a great post and I can't wait for more!

  9. Wow, thank you for sharing!  This is such a helpful overview!

  10. Ooh I'm so excited about this series. I'm just starting to learn how to sew and I've been looking all over the internet for tutorials/overviews like this one. I like having all my info in one place. Thank you so much! I can't wait for the next instalment! 

  11. this is going to be awesome! thanks!

    I’m so glad that many of you are finding this post helpful!  Thanks to Sara for coming up with this great idea!
    I found the little drawer caddy at Target a couple of years ago, so you might try looking there to find something similar.  Gosh, I really wish I knew of some fabric shops in the UK, I know it’s tough for you guys to find the same fabrics that we have here in the US.  I tried to list shops that have a really good fabric selection so that if you have to pay for international shipping then you could hopefully get most of what you wanted from just one or two places…but if anyone is aware of UK based shops that carry these fabrics I’d love for you to let us know!

  13. Great basic info! I’m looking forward to your posts over the next few weeks.

  14. Love this!  Looking forward to the next one!

  15. Can I please see more of your sewing room :)_

  16. I've starting sewing again after about a 20 year hiatus. It's good to see that I have almost all of the items that you have listed. I'm having a great time, thanks for the links to buy fabric! Happy sewing.

  17. Thanks so much for this outline.  I started sewing last year and have managed to collect most of the tools you describe.  Definitely want to buy some clear quilting rulers!
    You name quilting cotton as your favorite to work with but I was wondering what you think of cotton voile, such as the Little Folks line.  I'm in love with its drape and have been sewing up a storm for my daughter's summer wardrobe but of course, she hasn't worn any of it here in Chicago.  Am I going to find out that voild doesn't hold up like regular cotton?

    • Isn’t your daughter lucky to be getting a wardrobe full of voiles!  I think voile is a great garment fabric, being lighter than quilting cotton, and so soft and drapey.  I’m not sure how it holds up by comparison to quilting cotton…I imagine it depends some on your daughter’s clothing wearing personality, and how frequently the voile will go through the washer and dryer.  But I do think it’s designed to hold up for the purpose of clothing, and Free Spirit fabrics (such as what Little Folks is printed on) are always very high quality!

  18. When it comes to sewing it seems there is endless material you can use to create a unique project. Thank you Kim for sharing the basic needs when it comes to sewing.


  19. Thanks so much, Kim! This was so helpful! =)

  20. This was so very helpful!!! Thank you!!! Just learned to thread my sewing machine a couple weeks ago and I love creating any and everything! Just need help with all the sewing terms and definitions lol :) Cant wait till next Monday!! 

  21. I love this! I already sew, but am learning a lot from your intro here. I have a question about the walking foot. It looks as though your other feet are the same type I have for my Janome DC2010, so can I ask you what walking foot you have? I want to buy one for my machine, but there's no indication that I can even use a walking foot with my machine. I want to quilt my quilt myself, but do not have a walking foot yet.

    • I recommend going to a local sewing machine shop, and bring your sewing machine along with you, so they can be sure to fit your machine with the right walking foot.  Machines vary some in the angle of the part that connects to the presser foot, so you'll need to find one designed to fit your style of machine.  Good luck!

  22. Hello, I just wanted to say thank you for mentioning me on this thread.  I'm expanding the range of fabrics I stock all the time and am looking forward to a delivery of Michael Miller fabrics soon.  It is certainly not cheap to run a business like this in the UK as most of the manufacturers are based in America or Japan.  However, I do try and keep my prices competitive and it enables my customers to avoid customs charges.  I used to order my fabrics through Etsy to make my projects and then realised I wanted to import in bulk an sell it myself.  It means I get to work with all my favourite fabrics and my studio is full of fabulous colour!  I have a thriving Facebook group too now, please come over and join us :0)

  23. this is really helpful for a beginner like me. Thanks so much for sharing. All these whiles i've been clueless. 

  24. THANK YOU for this! I recently was roaming around a big-box fabric store wondering what I needed to get started. This is exactly what I needed. The links to reviews and products is awesome. I just bought a sewing machine last week and now I have a reference to check when I get started on my first project!

  25. Looking forward to the class. Fortunatly I have all the things you mentioned. I do have one question. I just bought a Baby lock- serenade (quilting machine) i was told i dont need a walking foot that it is built in.Does anyone you know anything about this?

    • Hi Ginny,
      A walking foot is useful for quilting and for sewing through lots of thick layers, so whether you need it will depend on what kind of sewing you plan to do.  I think it's always useful to have a walking foot, though, you never know when the urge to make a quilt might strike!  Happy stitching!

  26. So helpful, thank you!!

  27. I came across your website today. I am just started back sewing. It's been 22 years since I have been on my sewing machine! I made a lot of my daughters clothes when she was growing up. She is now 22. I am almost in the empty nest syndrome so I thought what craft project could I do that I love. Sewing won! So excited to get started back again! I will be visiting your website often. Need to go back and brush up on all the techniques. 

  28. I am the epitome of a beginner sewer ~ As in, I just decided about 30 minutes ago that I am determined to learn this summer, because it’s a skill I’ve always wanted to have under my belt…I mean, I just get so excited thinking about going to a fabric store, carefully selecting a print, and making something amazing out of it (: Anyways, I am reading up on different supplies and tutorials and stuff before I try my hand at it tomorrow, but I am confused about one thing…What is a rotary cutter? I don’t understand. Thank you! (:

Leave a Reply