Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sewing Basics: Make a Rectangle

Are you ready to sew? Are you pumped?? Do you want to fricken' sew things together already??? OK.

This post will take you through the steps to make a large rectangular scarf using quilting cotton. But really, what you will be doing is just sewing two rectangles together, so you don't have to be making a scarf. It could be a pillow, a handkerchief, a placemat, whatever.

Strawberry fabric I picked up on a whim in Dublin.
I don't think it's particularly Irish, but it's cute.
Materials needed:

  • Sewing machine: I assume that you have some basic knowledge about how to set up your machine with thread, how to turn it on, and how to make it sew. 
  • Fabric: How large do you want your finished object to be? You will need at least twice that amount of fabric. Some examples (assuming fabric is at least 44" wide):
    For a 20" x 80" scarf, you will want 2.5 yards (90" long)
    For a 20" x 20" pillow, you will want 0.75 yards (27" long)
    For a coaster, you will want at least 5.25"x5.25" of fabric
  • Thread to match your fabric
  • Scissors
  • Pins
  • Ruler
  • Pen
  • Chopstick (not even kidding)

Step 1: Prepare your fabric 
Once you've chosen your fabric, wash it the way you plan to when you've finished with it. If you don't care, then go to step 2. #YOLO amirite? Then iron your fabric (or don't... it will be easier to work with if you do, but not the end of the world if you don't). 

Step 2: Find your grain
Put your fabric down in a single layer, with the right sides up, and one of the selvages closest to you. Pick up that selvage, and bring it over to the other, so that your fabric is folded in half lengthwise, right sides together. You want the fold of the fabric to lie evenly, like this:

 It helps to hold it out in front of you, pinch two points at the top, and let it hang.

Your fabric won't be cut properly if it looks twisty like this:
If this is the case, carefully move the side of the fabric closest to you, either to the left or right, until it lies flat.

Another way to find your grainline is to make a small cut on one end, through the selvage. Plain weave cotton will rip exactly along a weft thread, so give it a good tug and start ripping. Other fabrics, however, may not be as easy to tear. If you're dealing with that situation, pull a few of the threads out, and you will dislodge them enough to create a perfectly straight cutting line:

Once you've lined up your straight edges using either method above, pin your selvages together so that the fabric doesn't move.

If you want one side to be a different fabric, you can cheat a little and pin it on top, after doing Steps 1-2 again with the second fabric. Pin them together before cutting them at the same time.

Step 3: Cut your fabric
When you cut fabric to sew, you always want your pieces to be larger than the finished size. Let's go with the commercial standard of 5/8" seam allowance for this project. That means you need to have 5/8" extra on each side; a 20" x 80" scarf should actually be cut to 21.25" x 81.25".

If you tried to stitch right along the edge of your fabric, the threads would probably unravel, and your project would fall apart. The seam allowance is excess fabric that keeps your stitching in place. If your project was a DOM element, the stitching would be the border (a dashed line), and the seam allowance would be the margin.

You can use a pen and a ruler to mark your lines before cutting, but it's best to use tailor's chalk, since it's less likely to damage your fabric. Even better would be to not mark at all, and use a rotary cutter to cut straight lines, but this works just fine.

Step 4: Pin your fabric
You should have two pieces of cut fabric. Layer them so that the edges match, and the right sides of the fabric are facing one another. Pick a spot on one of the long edges, and place two pins 4" apart, through both layers. (If you're doing something smaller, place them closer together, but no less than 2" apart). It helps if these two pins are very different from your others.

Once you've done that, pin together the rest of your fabric, along all four edges, with your pins around 1-2" apart.

Your first two pins are going to serve as markers, to tell you where to start and stop sewing. Because you're sewing the fabric with the right sides on the inside, you need to leave an opening so you can turn your project right-side out. You're going to be sewing like this:

Step 5: Start sewing!
When you're sewing, you want to keep the bulk of the fabric to the left of the machine, where there is space. The seam allowance will be on the right side of the foot, pointing towards the machine settings.

Place both hands on the fabric: one hand should be between you and the machine, and one hand should be on the fabric in the back, coming out of the machine. The front hand guides the fabric into the stitching area, and the back hand guides the fabric out. Think of it this way: when you throw a ball, you don't just stop when you let go, you follow through and your arm keeps moving. When you sew, you don't just stop paying attention to the fabric after it's been stitched, you have to keep paying attention.

Similarly, every couple of seconds I peek at the fabric coming out to check and make sure that the stitches look right. It's like blackbox testing: fabric in is the input, and stitches out are the output.

Your sewing machine will likely have some markings on the metal plate underneath the foot. Sometimes they include measurements, sometimes not. Take a look at it, and take a ruler to yours to see what the lines correspond to.

If you have difficulty sewing in a straight line, take a piece of tape, fold over the end, and place it so that it's lined up with the 5/8" mark. That way you can see exactly where your fabric should stop while you're sewing.

Enough with the talky-talky. The best way to figure this out is to just start sewing.

To start or stop sewing, do a few backstitches. Your machine should have some lever or button that will do this automatically. This helps keep the end threads from unravelling.

When you reach a corner, stop about an inch from the edge. Then grab the hand wheel on the right side of the machine, and start rotating it towards you/counter-clockwise.
Always turn the hand wheel counter-clockwise! 
If you feel like you've made a mistake, turning it clockwise may be tempting, but the machine isn't designed to do that, and you may end up damaging some of the inner workings and messing up your machine.

Turning the hand wheel lets you sew manually, slowly. You want to keep doing this until you are 5/8" away from the edge, then stop, with the needle going through the fabric.
Now, lift the presser foot, and rotate the fabric, using the needle as a pivot. This is how you make a sharp turn while sewing. When the next edge of the fabric is lined up with your piece of tape, put the presser foot back down. Keep going until you are 1" away from the next corner, and repeat.

Step 6: Prepare to turn
Once you've sewn your fabric together (except for that opening), clip off each of the corners, being careful not to cut through your stitching. Like so:
Since your seam allowance is going to be on the inside of your project, excess fabric like the ones at the corner are going to bunch up. Clipping the corners off reduces that bulk and lets the square lie flat.

Before you turn your project right-side out, fold back the seam allowance at the gap, using your stitching line as a guide. Give each layer of fabric a firm crease--use your fingernail or another hard object to do this.

Step 7: Turn your work
Now you should be ready to turn your project right-side out. Stick a couple of fingers (or your hand, if it fits) through the gap in your stitching, grab one end of your project, and pull it out through the gap. Keep pulling until everything is flipped around, and your fabric is right-side out.

Use that chopstick to coax your corners sharp--but don't poke too hard, or you might break the stitching or fabric and end up with a hole.

Step 8: Close the gap
There are a couple of ways to close up that turning gap. The most standard way is to slip-stitch it closed. If you're making a pillow, you'll definitely want to do that after stuffing it. Since we gave the gap a good crease, you should see that the seam allowance there naturally falls in at the right point, making it easier to stitch the layers together.

If you want to give your project a nice finish is to edgestitch it, although I really only recommend this if you have an edgestitch foot. If you do have one and know how to use it already (I plan on talking about presser feet at a later date), edgestitching can let you bypass hand sewing the gap, since your stitching is close enough to the edge that it won't really matter.

Whichever method you choose to use, remember to iron your work after you're done. Ironing sets your stitches into the fabric, and gives your project a great completed look.

Et voilĂ ! You've sewn a rectangle!

Each step in this post represents the basics of sewing fundamentals, which you can use in a variety of projects. Don't be afraid to get some fabric and thread and just start sewing. Everything that is written is just theory; turn it into practice by making things. 

Next week I'm going to start explaining the basics of commercial patterns, from pattern companies like Simplicity or Butterick. We'll go over how to read a pattern envelope, gathering the right materials, and how to use the pattern. 

Keep sewing!

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