I have apparently got a reputation for sewing quickly. I’m not sure that’s really true, but if you want to sew more productively these are my top tips.
1 Have a dedicated sewing space.
Currently I have my own house and I have a whole (small) bedroom as a dedicated sewing room which is great, this hasn’t always been possible, but whether it is a desk in the corner of the dining room or bedroom, a table in the hallway or more than that it makes a huge difference if you are able to leave your sewing machine set up. I’ve seen people use their conservatory, a guest bedroom, basement, area under the stairwell etc. If you have to use the dining table (and it needs to be used for meals as well), then have a cupboard/shelf nearby where you can move the sewing machine, still threaded for the duration of the meal and then move it back. A portable caddy with a handle containing scissors, pins, tape measure etc is also handy. Depending on what you are sewing it is good to have the ironing board and iron set up nearby also (less critical for knits).
2 Sew TnTs
Develop some TnTs (tried and tested patterns) which you sew over and over in different fabrics and with minor variations. You have done your fitting exercise once, and then just cut out and sew. This may seem boring, but with different fabrics, necklines, sleeve lengths, colour blocking, embellishments etc garments can look quite different.
3 Sew multiple garments in the same colour thread
Thread up the sewing machine (and if you have them overlocker/serger and anything extra like a coverhem machine) in a single colour e.g. brown, ivory, navy etc and then construct several garments using the same thread. For example if you are short of summer tops, you could cut out 3 tees all from the same pattern, but different prints but that all had an off white background. Then sew them all up with off white before you have to change thread again.
4 Keep all your sewing stuff together
Where possible keep all your fabric, notions, scissors, thread, patterns etc in the same place in the house. If this isn’t possible try to get similar things together, and is as few places as possible. So for example when I sewed on a student desk in the corner of the bedroom I had a bookcase behind me. I kept thread and other notions in the drawers of the desk, patterns in boxes on the bookcase with my sewing books and had a folder of swatches for the fabric stash which was stored in boxes in the loft. Try not to have some fabric under the bed, some on top of the wardrobe, some in the loft, some in the dining room etc. Pick a single location for fabric and put it all there. This will save you time when you want to sew fabric you have already bought. Similarly keep all your sewing related things in a hobby box or drawer and return them there after use, that way you can always find your buttonhole chisel or fray check.
I previously lived somewhere which didn’t have great fabric buying options and tended to stash. I know have fairly easy access to new fabrics and am trying to sew down the stash a bit more.
5 Have basic supplies on hand
I don’t recommend an enormous stash of supplies (though mine has built up over many years), but it does make sense to have some basic supplies on hand of things you regularly use. For me this is things like invisible zippers, iron on interfacing in charcoal and white, elastic in several widths. Where you have got quantities of something like ribbon, lace, buttons, zips, cording etc keep like with like and clearly labelled. Zip lock bags work well to keep things together and can be tucked neatly into a drawer or box.
6 Sew little and often
Try to sew every day, even if only for a few minutes and use time away from the machine to read the instructions for a new pattern (fine in a waiting room), measure and pin a hemline (I like to do this watching TV) or small items of hand sewing. Please don’t wait until you have a whole sewing day just do a few minutes whenever you get a chance. After a few sessions you’ll see fantastic progress and be encouraged to do a little more. Often the day has more of those little snippets of time, so its good to make use of them rather than being online again!
7 Use scraps wisely
I like to keep the scraps leftover after cutting out the garment handy during construction. I use them to test all the machines are sewing correctly, and to experiment with finishes. So if I want to see how the automatic buttonhole will look I mock up a bit of waistband/front band, with all the layers the real one would have and try a few buttonholes, see if the extra thick edges get stuck, if the buttons go through and so on. For a hem, I’ll mock up the multiple layers and see whether the cover hem, blind hem, zig zag or top stitched hem looks better on that fabric. 10 minutes experimenting with hem finishes on a scrap can save a lot longer unpicking later.
8 Measure and sew carefully
I find it is actually quicker and easier to spend slightly longer measuring, marking and pinning as this results in less unpicking later. I also like to sew knits on the sewing machine first, then check I don’t have any gaps, puckers etc, before putting through the overlocker. I realise this is not necessarily what everyone else would do, however I don’t want pins anywhere near my overlocker blades, and early on I had a few times when I chopped off bits I didn’t want to with the overlocker, using the sewing machine first reduces this a great deal. (if you are happy sewing directly on the overlocker and don’t have mishaps, then keep doing it, maybe one day I’ll get brave and do that too, but for now careful works for me).
9 Hold the ends of the thread when starting sewing
On fine fabric the sewing machine can ‘eat’ the fabric at the start of the stitching. An easy way to avoid this is to position the fabric under the presser foot and put the foot down, then using one hand hold the thread ends with light tension and coming out the back of the machine. Put the needle down into the fabric and sew a few stitches whilst still holding the thread, after an inch or so you should be able to let go and sew as normal. This takes 1 second longer, but avoids having to unpick the mess created from a thread snarl.
10 Apply elastic with a zig zag stitch rather than the overlocker
When doing an elastic waist treatment where the elastic is sewn to the top of the garment, folded over and top stitched at the seams, the directions often advise overlocking/serging the elastic to the garment. This is really difficult to unpick if it is the wrong length later. To avoid this I try the garment on with the elastic sewn into a loop and adjust the length if needed. I overlock just the top of the garment to finish it (usually done earlier) then quarter and stitch the elastic on with a zig zag stitch. This doesn’t show at all once folded over but is a lot easier to unpick if the elastic needs to be changed for some reason.
11 Sew knits and stretch wovens
There is a learning curve to sewing knits, but once you are comfortable with them, they make for fast and easy projects. There are lots of books and videos available which help you learn the techniques and they are often more forgiving of figure variations because the stretch accommodates to different shapes. I am a huge fan of knits and although I’ve had my share of wadders am now fairly confident with simple styles in a wide variety of knits. Stretch wovens, such as bengaline and other stretch fabrics which can be used for trousers can also be great, a bit smarter than a knit and sewn with a combination of knit and woven construction methods depending on the style and the fabric. I find the resulting trousers very comfortable.
12 Sew simple styles
If you want to produce more completed garments, then fewer details will make for a faster sew. Be careful that easy doesn’t mean shapeless, a little waist shaping in a knit top or dress will really help, as do shoulders and waists that sit well on the body. An invisible zip is easy with the right sewing machine foot and is smoother under other garments than the bulk (and complexity) of a front fly zip. A simpler style can also be better when showcasing an amazing fabric, as it allows the fabric to shine.