How to handle fabric while sewing...

schnurkeNovember 19, 2012

Hello. I am a new sewer. I am starting with quilted pillow covers, square patches--very simple, I understand. I have a mentor, but she has limited time and I am looking to connect with more people about the basics. All I'm wondering is, what exactly should I be doing with both hands while sewing the straight line? I could really use direction. How firmly should my left hand be down on the fabric? And how do you guide without pushing? And, do you or don't you use your right hand up there with everything (or is it to be down below)? I will appreciate any advice, thank you. - Karen

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Annie Deighnaugh

I was taught to sew with the left hand guiding the fabric from behind and the right hand guiding the fabric from the front. You don't want to push or pull, but move along evenly with the pace of the is to keep the fabric moving evenly and not create tension on the part of the fabric that is going under the needle.

The most important thing mother taught me (she was a sewing teacher) was don't look at the's going to do what it's going to do. Instead you need to be watching ahead of the needle to make sure you are guiding the fabric in straight so you will sew a straight line....esp important when you are working with only a 1/4" seam allowance. You want to make sure the edges of both pieces of fabric are even.....otherwise you can catch the top one, and miss the bottom piece, leaving a hole.

    Bookmark   November 20, 2012 at 7:24AM
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Schnurke - It depends on the kind of seam and the material.

For almost all fabrics, the feed dogs should be pulling the material under the presser foot, not your hands.

1 - "easy" material (non-stretch, not heavy) on straight or gently curved seams, with nothing to the right of the needle except the seam allowance.

I was taught that the right hand "steers" the fabric through the feed area by making TINY right-to-left movements, while the left hand moves the bulk at the right to prevent the weight of it from dragging the seams crooked. Just let the fabric run between your thumb and forefinger.

I was also taught to NOT look at the needle - base your guiding on where the material is relative to the seam line markers. I extend the marks (with masking tape) so I have a couple of inches in front of the needle to use for alignment.

When I'm doing these seams, my right hand is usually 6" or more away from the needle and my left hand is to the left of the needle, pushing the fabric as needed to keep it from piling up. On a skinny piece, such as a sash, it's just the right hand guiding while the needle is moving.

The material is held very lightly, so the feed dogs are pulling it through my fingers and I'm sewing as fast as I can and maintain control.

EXCEPTIONS: For extremely curved seams, such as collars and armholes, I have my right hand just in front of the feed dogs and the left hand is right behind them, holding the parts flat, the seam straight and/or rotating it ... very slow stitching, and the feed dogs are still doing all the pulling.

For stretchy material that has a tendency to bunch up the top layer, I use a special presser foot (walking foot) that moves both layers ... if I don't have one of those, I use a 3-finger guiding technique with the top layer between thumb and forefinger and the bottom layer between the next two fingers, with slightly more pressure on the top layer (takes lots of practice, it's easier to buy the special foot.)

Try this: Take some striped fabric and an unthreaded machine and practice guiding the material until you are confident. See how fast you can sew and still sew straight.

TIPS: For a beginner, firm woven fabrics in a medium weight are easiest, as are firm (low-stretch) knits. Avoid slinky knits, super stretch jersey, satins, crepes, fake furs and all that fancy stuff for a while.

Make a few bathrobes, cushions or caftans first. Then learn to handle stretch by making something in fleece or sweatshirt fabric, or modify a t-shirt.

For a cheap way to learn in a fancy fabric, find something in a thrift store that has a similar feel and make a small something out of it. Then make up the pattern in a CHEAP material to get the laterations right ... then and only then, cut your expensive French silk jersey.

When I was a lab tech I used to make my trial patterns in white polyester knit or woven cotton and wear them to work. I was the best dresses one in the lab, because they were Vogue designer patterns.

    Bookmark   November 20, 2012 at 10:40AM
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Thanks to both of you! I am anxious as well about how much pressure to put down with the left hand...It is very helpful to know not to watch the needle. I am so new, this is really good advice. Lazygardens, I was confused by your mentioning that the bulk of the fabric is to the right. The sewing I am doing, it is on the left. Sorry--I was just confused by that. Thank you again!!!

    Bookmark   November 20, 2012 at 3:41PM
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what both prev. posters said. Also, youtube has some very good stuff, you may find a video or 2 that will help you learn your technique.

I used to tell people to kind of 'sit on their hands', not really, but to remind them not to fight the machine & fabric. Sew some scraps, with dif. tension in dif. places, really gives a feel for what you're doing & what works. I sew a scrap of self-fabric first always, tests needle, thread/bobbin, do i need a dif. stitch, etc.

    Bookmark   November 21, 2012 at 9:51PM
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Annie Deighnaugh

The first project Mother taught me to sew on was a pillow case on a cotton gingham fabric. The check is the easiest to work with to practice straight lines. The pillow case is all straight lines and making french seams also was good practice.

    Bookmark   November 22, 2012 at 7:47AM
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Schnurke ... my typo! The bulk of the fabric is to my left.

And, my right hand is usually in line with the needle, about 6 inches in front of it.

    Bookmark   November 23, 2012 at 7:37AM
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I really appreciate all of this useful info, everyone. Thank you so much. - Karen

    Bookmark   November 23, 2012 at 1:28PM
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