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Sunday, 5 February 2017

Sewing Productivity

We all want to complete more sewing projects. I often look for articles on how to sew faster, and I love reading sewing blogs. In the last year I've become much more productive! There are lots of tips in different places so I've tried to bring them all together and also explain what works for me. The ideas are laid out into several categories including real life, sewing room setup, materials, methods and you. 

1. Real life
We're all busy people, trying to fit sewing into the gaps between jobs, family, friends and other hobbies. Sometimes sewing is the lowest priority and that's definitely ok. One difficulty is overcommitting oneself, which is a major problem I've had in the past. Is there much point creating a rigid queue of complex projects each needing sewn in two weeks, when in reality you might complete three garments in a year? Why not keep a note of all your ideas but use simpler patterns again and again so you don't have to fit them, and have a shorter queue? I now only have one or two projects on the go at any time so changes to the "queue" are easy. This means I'm more likely to finish items when I need them but I can still keep dreaming of fancy ballgowns. Another thing I learnt after the first few years of sewing is to think like the big fashion houses in terms of when to make garments. Make a coat in Summer so it's ready when the cold hits, rather than starting a coat in October, feeling cold, getting busy, giving up, buying one anyway and finishing the coat in March. And make a swimsuit in Winter!

Me and my real-life distraction :)
2. Setup
The ideal setup is a whole sewing room, or even part of a room with a table, sewing machine and ironing board always up. I used to have that but now the room is the baby's nursery so the ironing board is folded until needed. Often use my sleeve board or ham instead which are quicker to pull out! You may only have a tiny desk and that's ok. Whatever your situation, figure out how much stuff you can keep ready to go in an instant. This prevents time being wasted by setting up and putting away equipment.

My sewing room setup: an old school desk with patterns in one drawer and notions and scraps in the other. Fabric is in the large bookcase, and ironing accessories are to the left of the desk. I made no effort to clean up before taking this photo!
Minimising the amount of patterns, books, notions and fabric you have also makes it easier to find things when you need them. What is minimal to one person and their sewing space is different to another so this is your decision. I have one shelf on a bookshelf which contains fabric. My sewing desk is an old school desk with two deep drawers so one contains patterns and paper, the other contains notions and fabric scraps. I try to keep all these areas regularly cleared out.
The pattern drawer: large patterns in pockets on the left, smaller ones on the right. I have around 60 patterns in here, neatly arranged. 

The other thing that helps productivity for me is using phone apps to organise my patterns and fabrics. I use TapForms for both but a lot of people like Cora for fabrics. I'm fairly sure both are only available for iPhones, but please comment below if I'm wrong! TapForms is database app where you can completely customise all the fields. Examples: 1. I have all my patterns stored with a photo of the front cover, the type of garment(s), the era (40s to modern) and the back cover, with an optional field for TNT; 2. Another form for all my fabrics with a photo, width, length, freeform box to note any scraps or other info, type of fabric and drape; 3. Another for notions... I also keep crochet patterns in one but that's not relevant here. This app takes longer to set up than some, but if you want something completely customisable it's amazing. It also has a search function. Using the database means I can search everything quickly when planning garments or buying fabrics.  It also prevents lots of fabric and patterns being scattered around each time I start daydreaming about making new things.

Lastly, my sewing queue is almost nonexistent. I work on a maximum of two garments at once, with the patterns, thread, fabric and all the bits and pieces for both in a shoebox. If I get bored of one I change to the other but I never have more than two. It would mess up the sewing area and confuse my tiny brain. Also, keeping to this means fewer UFOs.

3. Materials
a. Fabric and patterns
It's easy to get overwhelmed by patterns and fabrics, especially if a bunch of both get pulled out each time you ponder a new project. I have 50-60 paper patterns at any time and often clear out ones that I think I won't use again, or represent my fantasy self rather than being items of clothing I will actually wear. 

Regarding notions: keep a few extra reels of thread which match most of the clothes you make, as well as a few weights of black and white interfacing, zips, buttons, stay tape and anything you use a lot. Chuck the rest or use it up. I use up thread in colours I don't normally need by making tailors' tacks.

b. Cutting
A lot of bloggers swear by using rotary cutters rather than shears. They do cut faster and don't lift fabric as they cut, however, they need a big mat underneath and the blades need replaced often. There's an interesting article on Fashion Incubator about why they're not actually better at cutting: As ever, it's really up to you. Also while cutting you can use weights to hold the pattern in place on the fabric. These need storage space and don't hold slippery fabrics as well, but on the other hand they are much faster to place and remove, and won't leave marks in the fabric. I prefer pins but use as few as possible for each pattern piece.

c. Sewing
A comparison of sewing machines is definitely outwith the scope of this post, however, I would like to suggest exploring different feet and needles as these can help you sew better as well as faster. Most machines can take an invisible zipper foot and rolled hem feet of different sizes. I am a recent convert to twin needles for hemming. Lastly, change your needle often. When they get blunt or damaged you only end up unpicking which doesn't save time at all!

d. Pressing
Pressing every seam is important and is easier and faster with the right equipment. My iron is a Rowenta with lots of steam and a million holes on the bottom as well as a special point for tight corners.
Check out my iron!

Some people get big gravity-feed irons to press faster and better but these take up more space. Instead I would suggest investing in pressing accessories: a tailor's ham is amazing to help press curves; sleeve boards make it easier to press seam in narrow tubes e.g. sleeves or childrens' trousers; clappers help set in the seam and press cloths prevent fabric scorching and thus recutting of fabric. The only one I don't yet have is a clapper, though I definitely want to get one, and here's why:
My ironing gear: large ironing board, old tatty sleeve board from a charity shop (50p!), tailor's ham and press cloths. 

4. Methods
a. Blocks/slopers, toiles/muslins, and reusing patterns
Making your own blocks takes an initial time outlay but saves a lot later. Having even a basic bodice block means you can take any pattern and quickly check there is enough space around the bust, that the bust dart actually ends at the apex of the bust, and that the shoulder slope is correct. These things are hard and/or annoying to alter once you've cut and started sewing! Using a block often means you don't need a toile/muslin.

If you don't have (or want to have) a block, making a toile is also useful, particularly if the garment has unusual features, your fabric is expensive, or ripped-out stitches would leave marks e.g. leather. I use cheap jerseys for testing out knit patterns and cut up old duvet covers from charity shops for patterns requiring woven fabric. Duvet covers give the most fabric for your money.

If you'd rather not do either, and jump straight into making things (and there's no shame in that!) one way to sew faster is to reuse a pattern several times as you know the fit and the sewing order already.

b. Pinning
Some sources advise using no pins while sewing. I think this really depends on how comfortable you are with the techniques e.g. curved seams as well as straight, armholes et cetera. I've seen articles suggesting using no pins while sewing in sleeves, but these are industrial machinists who do thousands. Personally I've moved from about 20 pins to 6 for a set-in sleeve, going with my comfort level and certainty that I won't have to unpick the whole thing again! Pinning is also very dependent on the fabric itself. If the two layers are flat and adhere to each other well with friction, you can easily forego pins; if one layer is shorter or the fabrics are slippery, use pins liberally. Again, the question is whether you are likely to have to unpick, losing the time you "saved" by not pinning.

c. Sewing order
One thing that has improved my speed and enjoyment of sewing is changing the sewing order and doing as much sewing as I can before stopping to press, trim etc. Instead of sewing a dress by making the bodice, then the skirt, then the sleeves, and pressing in between, do as many sewing steps as you can, then press as much as you can, then sew... It feels odd at first but does become second nature. While sewing, you can even "chain" the pieces by not cutting the threads in between until you finish sewing as much as you can. I have a small sewing desk and get confused by the resulting lump of pieces, but some people find this really helps their speed.

d. Specific techniques
There's not enough space here to discuss all the different techniques one can use when sewing. I like to read sewing blogs to get ideas and google specific techniques only on occasion. With each new technique, one must balance the time saved with the finished result. I recently made a knit skirt with a waistband containing wide elastic. I found a brilliant set of instructions for sewing a casing fast and neatly, so sometimes you can get lucky with both!

5. You
The usefulness of all of these tips depends on your skill and comfort levels and how much you wandt to push your boundaries. Just because you CAN sew fancy couture methods doesn't mean you have to every time. It's often nice to make a simple pattern with only a few pieces.

Find your mental blocks. If you hate cutting, why? Can you change your materials or processes or get someone else to do it? If you have fitting issues find a buddy to help. Figure out where your UFOs often halt and work through the issues.

Sew in small increments. If you only have ten minutes, do some stay stitching or change the needle and thread. Sometimes I will wind a bobbin while my baby's playing on her changing mat, or I'll simply position the next piece of fabric and put the needle down so that sewing can start immediately next time I have five minutes. Out of all the tips I've just written out, this by far is the reason I manage to sew so much now.

That's it! I hope you enjoyed reading.

A final gratuitous baby photo :) 


  1. What a good lot of tips to consider. I have never really thought about sewing order, just did what seemed to be easiest for me - and this was not necessarily the order given by the instructions. However I see that it might speed up my sewing if I think about the best order for the project. Also I am always pressing as I go and that definitely slows me down as I have to get up and wait for the iron to heat up each time. No wonder I am such a slow sewer. Regarding pins, I think that the right type of pin really helps (ball point pins make a difference when pinning jersey for example)and good quality ones that don't break or snag. Many thanks for these ideas.

  2. Hi Barbara, that's so funny; I was just wondering the other day if ballpoint pins existed! After all, I have ballpoint needles and twin needles... Sewing order is very personal and I've enjoyed breaking free of instructions as my sewing has improved. It sonds like you will already find it easy to change the order. I just bought my first Marfy pattern (eek!) and I'm looking forward to having a go at completely making up the instructions.

  3. Thanks for your tips! They seem really helpful. I'm just starting out on my journey so this blog will come in really handy :-)

    1. Glad to hear that our blog is useful - we love hearing that! Let us know if you'd like any advice or tips, i.e. in the comments. Or in case you have any sewing/dressmaking questions.
      Happy sewing!


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