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How to sew productively (a dozen tips)


How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« on: May 23, 2019, 07:38:32 AM »
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 was 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.


Re: How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« Reply #1 on: May 23, 2019, 07:38:51 AM »
what are your tips?


Re: How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« Reply #2 on: May 23, 2019, 07:50:59 AM »
Thanks @SewRuthieSews those tips make sense. You plan a capsule wardrobe rather than single garments, that would probably be the way forward for me to improve productivity. I have several TnT patterns but do enjoy modifying patterns & spend a long time on this! However I enjoy the challenge..... For me, I think less time online =more time sewing, but I also enjoy virtual conversations on here >:)
2020 stash: not gonna count, not gonna feel guilty.


Re: How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« Reply #3 on: May 23, 2019, 10:50:13 AM »
Some great tips.  Using TNT patterns is wonderful when you need something in a hurry and don’t have time to faff around too much.  It took me a while to get my students to stop buying patterns that were similar to what they had, doing all the same alterations and just end up with something that had a different neckline or sleeve. 
@Lachica I wish I could get to grips with a capsule wardrobe.  I see fabric I like but don’t think about sewing things that go together.  You’d think after 45 years of sewing almost all my clothes I’d have that sussed.   :(. I wonder if it’s because I don’t often see fabrics that go together.


Re: How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« Reply #4 on: May 23, 2019, 10:50:32 AM »
You can also sew more complicated garments quickly, but not like, 10 items at once quick.

I have gotten out of the habit with taking care of my parents, and am working back into it.  Even then, I spent the last 8 years hand sewing more then actual machine sewing.  I started where it took me 30 hours to make an easy top that I can now make in 7 or an apron took 14 and I can now make one in 3...but how that happened is tip 1.

1.  It helps to set goals.  In hand sewing, I had it in my head from my grandmother and great grandmother the timing of sewing (in hand sewing it was a tailor's guide to timing and advertising on sewing machines being a time saver).  I worked to achieve the professional goals of that.  With regular sewing I have weekly goals, monthly and seasonal.  Not all of them are the same.

And it doesn't matter what your goals actually are, as long as you have some and a plan to get there.  If you're sewing 50 meters of fabric in a year, break it down to smaller goals.  Smaller goals are easier to hit then larger ones.  In the 50 yards, you need to sew about one garment every 2 weeks, give or take.  Using 5 meters a month is easier then trying to work on 50 at once, or even just looking at it as you sew.  You actually beat the goal doing it in smaller chunks, and by focusing on an achievable smaller goal, you keep the momentum up to sew to the larger one.  By taking the end goal out of's less omg I have so much fabric and just "Oh I need to make this top by Friday next".  Those add up to the main goal, but it no longer is the main focus. 

2.  Rotate complicated garments and easy garments.  Working on a Chanel jacket takes 100 or more hours...but an straight skirt or lounge pants can take 2.  While working on the jacket, you're not producing anything to show for your time.  You're not getting the satisfaction since it's delayed with work.  Easy projects fuel that...and can keep you going on the harder one making them less likely to be a UFO.

3.  Be honest about what you will wear and your skill, including style and fabric.  Silk is nice and all, but if you are going to put it to the side for something you won't ruin, then there's no point in buying the fabric or making it up.  If you don't have experience with chiffon, for example, then use the fabric like a more complicated garment.

4.  Toiles actually save time.  Wearable muslin makes me scratch my don't have to go to the length to make a garment fully, just enough to make sure it fits.  And wearable muslin wastes never make that garment you meant to.  And once you know it fits, you've already made up the main garment once or twice, so that final sewing is faster.  You tend to make less mistakes and it will fit when it's done so you don't have to fiddle with it.

5.  Tighten up your fabric choices...and this is not actually buying less, although it helps, but limit the color choices.  Choose a set of colors...going along the 3, 2 accent and 4 colors works well, and shop to it.  By doing so, you'll limit the orphans and have an easier time creating looks that go together. is the easiest explanation of this. 
Then do some searching to pad the idea out.  There's several good ones. 

My main color palette is basically olive, brown and navy.  (Brown covers a lot).  My neutral is black and gold (gold also covers a lot from cream to mustard to beige to actual gold) and my accent colors are orange, green and (not as frequent of a choice) pink.  From these colors I can pretty much pick anything out of a box and match from my stash.  This is not to say I don't have other colors, since I do, but 85% of my fabric will into one of these colors, although I vary the hue of them.  And when I do go off the palette, I know my main color and neutrals so I can match.  Having less orphans makes for quicker sewing since you're not having to try to make something else to match.  (I'm not going on texture here, although it does play a part.)

6. Much as I hate them, schedules for everything else allows you time to sew.  Having a set housework guide, meal plan and set bedtime with a work schedule (even non regular hours) can make the time to actually sit and sew.  You can schedule it in to your day and one thing I have learned taking care of 2 aging parents and a SO with PTSD plus one is going to let you have the time to do jack spit. 


Re: How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« Reply #5 on: May 23, 2019, 12:50:37 PM »
My small contribution to this thread is just to say don't feel you can't sew knits unless you have a fancy machine or an overlocker. I have neither and although it might not be so quick a zig zag stitch works well
Attempting to be a Tailor of Gloucester


Re: How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« Reply #6 on: May 26, 2019, 11:28:18 AM »
I'm afraid this makes me look proper disorderly.  My only claim to being orderly, I have my heir and spare machines set up with neutral thread.  I've also found that using Gutermann 120 thread, even if it is not the right colour it always seem to match with the fabric with being on the finer side.  First thing I cut after the first pattern piece is some decent scraps for trying out the tension and if something is not going  right, best thing is to walk away and come back later.  Also, I know when something is above my pay grade and don't waste fabric going there.

I'm certainly not productive but there again I don't need to  be.
Stash extension 2020 -28.5 meters
Left at the end of 2019 - 39 meters


Re: How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« Reply #7 on: May 26, 2019, 13:28:42 PM »
@SewRuthieSews :

Very good list! I've always sewn fast, but I like intricate woven pieces, so I like working efficiently. Making groups of T-shirts at once works well for me, as I sew knits infrequently and prefer a variety of solid colors. Having to rethread machines every few hours is quicker as I just did it a few hours earlier -and can remember! If I'm doing 4 Tees I pull all of the thread and notions for each all at once. I have a rolling cart that holds all and can move between machines.

I like to handsew in the livingroom while watching TV. I bought a daylight bulb for a regular lamp, and the basket that holds the remotes is large enough for extra scissors, clip, snips, etc. - no running back and forth. Made my pincushion from a ceramic turtle - he "lives" under the lamp. A storage ottoman is only for current sewing projects, so things can be tucked away quickly.

I wax thread for a project all at once, always do extra, and it hangs from a straight pin stuck in the drywall at a steep angle, tucked to the side of the drapes in the livingroom. If the project gets delayed, its wound onto an empty TP roll and secured with green painter's tape - kept with the remotes.

Most important - take 30 minutes to an hour to reorganize as things begin to jumble. This is easy to do if everything has a dedicated space "to live". Waiting to organize once a year or so means wasting time searching for things - or running out to buy a duplicate (or triplicate!).

Organization makes a huge difference.

I also avoid large plastic tubs. They're much too difficult to manuever, hold too much to be practical for constant use and I can't stand looking at the things!


Re: How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« Reply #8 on: May 26, 2019, 13:55:28 PM »
@SewRuthieSews, you have great ideas for sewing productively. They work well if you sew casually also.

My tips are similar to yours but I had the opportunity to get them in order while the sewing room was out of commission for 7 weeks.

1. Set my goals. Without goals, I go no where in the sewing room. What is my "why"? What is it I want to accomplish? How will I accomplish it; those steps I will take to get to my why and what. I review what I am doing to keep myself on track. I am working on garment, craft, and doll sewing goals now rather than just sewing goals. And I have smaller goals in each of those areas.

2. The Sewing Space. I have the luxury of having a huge room to sew in. It can hold a lot of stuff. I have set it up so I have a sewing area, a designing/beading/?? area, an area that I can sit in next to my books and yarn. How did it look when I had a small bedroom? I had my sewing area, cube for yarn with TV on top, books and fabric in the closet and my ironing board near the door. I could change that room into a bedroom in a half an hour. It worked but it showed me what I needed and didn't need to be productive.

3. Trims, and fabric. I look at this one quite seriously. I'm trying to sew down the stash as I can drive between 20 and 45 minutes to many fabric stores. I can get trims just as easily; elastic, buttons, lace, etc. The same goes for yarn of which I have a good stash that I'm trying to knit up. Having as much as I have on hand has become stale. I want new stuff. What I have, I love. But, it's time to sew it up and move on. I have tightened up my fabric choices and the colors I will be sewing for myself and DH. The doll's collection can be a bit more hodge podge but I'm really working on what is best for them. Crafts will be items I want to make vs getting the fabric sewn up and out of the house.
I keep fabric scraps to practice button holes and to make sure the serger tension is correct for that fabric. When I'm done, I toss it. It is usually small pieces that are too small for anything. The bigger pieces are kept for the dolls as I can make something for them.

4. Notions. I've come to the conclusion that I have a lovely collection of notions but the items I don't use need to go. What do I use the most often? How can I group them? Hand sewing, machine sewing, pressing, cutting and novelty items I use frequently. I have some in small tubs, others in trays. I keep thread in the sewing cabinet and am sewing it down so I have what I need; black white, cream, grey and a few spools of silk thread. I can buy the colored thread to match a project. Left over thread is used for hand basting. I have most of a bolt of interfacing that I love but am using other types also. I buy those as I need them so I don't have too much on hand.

5. Patterns. I have cut my pattern stash way back. I mean way back. I need to get some TNT patterns but am floundering on that front. I'm loosing weight and use it as an excuse. I trace my patterns so have to have the materials on hand for that. I am trying to set up a pattern area where they can be stored in an orderly fashion. All the same way. That includes the doll patterns. As I work on this, I will be trying to get a set of basic patterns and then a few patterns that take time to sew. I need to do some thinking and set a goal for patterns.

6. Sew often. I can sew daily but I am a slow sewer. I do a lot of hand basting, pressing, and fiddling. I love to try out techniques and often do high end tricks. Can I do this? Yes because I love it and because I have no big deadline. When I was working full time and sewing, I did sew every day for 30 minutes. I did sew all one color and had it all cut out ready to go. Now I don't have to sew that way. I do need to get out of first gear and into second gear. I can sew one item and change the thread several times if I want to. Some people can't and they will sew several items using one color of thread. I honor that as their time is tightly scheduled.

7. Choose your sewing techniques wisely. Hold the threads to start a seam, sewing before serging, clipping and grading all great techniques. When using the machine, I have learned how to use the presser feet I have for my machine. I can edge stitch, make my own piping, and much more. I use tissue paper to keep small pieces more stable when sewing them. Learn how to use what you have in different ways. I also spend a lot of time at the pressing station and my ironing board is larger and I also have a press.

8. Keep your machines well serviced. Mine are due and now that I can get to my carriers, they will be going in for a good cleaning and service.

Thank you @SewRuthieSews, for making me think about how I sew and it is helping me try to become a bit more productive in my three areas of sewing.
Stash Busting 2020
Goal: 50 metres
So far: 20.7 meters


Re: How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« Reply #9 on: May 26, 2019, 15:03:39 PM »
Thank you for posting such a useful and interesting thread. As a newbie, I really appreciate the advice you all bring to the table. You certainly sound both experienced and extremely organised.

I have a dedicated sewing room (very occasional spare bedroom) for my stuff, so it’s reasonably organised.

For years I have bought clothes within a limited range of mostly cool colours so that I can easily mix and match my outfits and always look reasonably put together. My main colours are blues, lilac/purples, turquoise, pinks, black and white. Occasionally greys and greens such as a bright jade green. Jackets have to be fairly brightly coloured as I don’t want to look like I’m going to a funeral every day. Definitely no yellow, orange or brown as these really don’t suit my skin tone and just look awful on me.

When buying fabric, I stick to the same colour palette and so even if it’s a pretty fabric or a total bargain price-wise, if it’s not the right colour, it won’t get bought. I use the same colour palette to furnish my house too although I’m not sure if DH has really noticed.  :D

I am struggling a bit now though because I don’t think my son wants to wear pink and purple stuff so I’ve been buying odd metres of fabric in colours and prints specifically to make things for him to wear. I’m currently trying my hand at making a pair of simple indoor slippers for him from some Aldi Harry Potter fat quarters.  :P


Re: How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« Reply #10 on: May 26, 2019, 16:10:01 PM »
@SewRuthieSews :

Most important - take 30 minutes to an hour to reorganize as things begin to jumble. This is easy to do if everything has a dedicated space "to live". Waiting to organize once a year or so means wasting time searching for things - or running out to buy a duplicate (or triplicate!).

Organization makes a huge difference.

I also avoid large plastic tubs. They're much too difficult to manuever, hold too much to be practical for constant use and I can't stand looking at the things!

I have tried to clean up some each day and when I finish a project. There are times I do need to stop and organize my tools but overall I'm pretty good at putting them back where they belong.

I don't like large plastic tubs either. Everything gets lost in them. And moving them around is painful. I like things on shelves with doors on them. But I'd love to sew down the stash and only buy for what I am going to be sewing. That way I can look at new fabrics. Right now I am missing out on looking at the new fabrics or drooling over them and walking away as I need to use what I have in the stash.
Stash Busting 2020
Goal: 50 metres
So far: 20.7 meters


Re: How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« Reply #11 on: May 26, 2019, 18:01:08 PM »
The only thing I’ll say is don’t sew when you’re not in the only leads to disasters. If I can’t get in the groove I’ll sort stuff out, trace a pattern or just tidy up the stash. That usually starts the mojo.


Re: How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« Reply #12 on: September 05, 2019, 14:25:36 PM »
1. Stop when you’re tired. You will make far fewer mistakes.

2. Keep some scrap fabric handy to test new stitches, check thread tension, etc.  I always test on some scrap before sewing anything I care about.
You can't scare me. I taught high school for 32 years.


Re: How to sew productively (a dozen tips)
« Reply #13 on: September 05, 2019, 14:31:24 PM »
Both very good bits of advice!  The second one I have found absolutely essential since buying an overlocker and coverstitcher - I never, ever sew straight onto the actual item!
I might look as though I'm talking to you, but inside my head I'm sewing.