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I Finally Taught Myself To Use a Sewing Machine

YouTube tutorials and time during the pandemic helped me achieve a longtime goal, despite some zig-zags along the way

By Andrea Wickstrom

It was the early 90s, and I was in my late teens. Before bed, I left my mom a note on the counter that said, "Can you sew this button on?" I left the button on top of the note, then placed it next to a sans-button shirt. 

The following morning, I walked by, and there it was. The button was sewn onto the note.

Touché.

A vintage sewing machine. Next Avenue
"Often, a sewing machine sat on our dining room table with a mending pile next to it."  |  Credit: Photo by Annie Spratt

According to my parents, I was interested in learning to sew at a young age. Knowing it was a good life skill, my dad encouraged my mom to teach me the basics of using a needle and thread.

Homemaker Wannabe

I loved being at home. Helping my mom with my younger sisters came naturally. By eleven years old, I did laundry, regularly rearranged the living room furniture, and waxed the linoleum kitchen floor (without washing it first). And I "breastfed" my Cabbage Patch Kid. My ultimate dream when I grew up was to be a full-time homemaking momma who had a lot of babies and went to Target.

I dreamed of owning a sewing table, a machine and a fully stocked and well-organized supply caddy. If only I knew how to sew.

My mom and aunt stayed home and were sewers, so it doesn't surprise me that I included learning to sew on my to-do list. Often, a sewing machine sat on our dining room table with a mending pile next to it. Other times, it had large fabric pieces covering it, and I watched my mom attach thin, crinkly brown pattern paper to the fabric with multicolor-headed pins from a magnetic holder.

She hunched over and squinted her eyes to get the tip of the thread through the tiny eye of the needle. That's when I also learned the word "bobbin." I wonder if my mom struggled with it because it's what stuck with me through the years. Using a sewing machine would be challenging; therefore, I hesitated to tackle it.  
 
I often shopped at craft stores and stopped by the fabric section to browse. No texture went untouched. I dreamed of owning a sewing table, a machine and a fully stocked and well-organized supply caddy. If only I knew how to sew.

Yes, I could haphazardly reattach buttons or fix a torn seam with a needle and thread. However, I still asked my mom to alter my clothing or household items. I was well over 40 years old and was still asking my mom to do my mending for me. It was time to start adulting.

Pandemic Pastime

The COVID-19 pandemic hit, and I had to fill my time at home, so the moment was right. My daughter had expressed interest in sewing, and I wanted to support her desire to do something besides spending time on screens. Her other grandma, also an excellent seamstress, caught wind of this. Soon, my kitchen table had a new Singer sewing machine sitting on it. It was daunting and thrilling at the same time.

I intently watched every video 2-3 times before touching anything. The thought of threading the machine was dreadful.

Singer's YouTube channel has multiple how-to videos featuring topics like unboxing, parts, settings and functions. My specific model, a basic Singer Tradition 2277, had 25 dedicated video tutorials. I intently watched every video 2-3 times before touching anything. The thought of threading the machine was dreadful.

Finally, I took the plunge with my laptop on the table next to me. I pushed the "pause" and "play" buttons multiple times. Sometimes, I started the whole video over to ensure I did everything correctly up to that point. Wholly committed, I readily confess I made it way harder than it should have been. That's just how I roll.

I am so grateful to the numerous sewing experts who started their own YouTube channels. Many of their tutorial videos include a description field with written materials lists, fabric dimensions and links.

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I also searched Pinterest for ideas and tips. There was a lot of helpful information, and many people on that platform cross-posted videos to their YouTube channels. I found Facebook groups for sewing beginners that added a personal and relatable way to learn.

A Beginner's Projects

I started with a simple envelope-style pillowcase. I must have had compatible fabric, thread and the correct needle size and chose the proper settings because it went surprisingly smoothly. It may have been the simple straight lines working in my favor.

This first project boosted my confidence, so I tackled doll dresses next. They were small, and what kiddo could see or care about stitching catastrophes? I found a dress pattern for the popular 18-inch or "American Girl" dolls. The pattern came with mix-and-match choices for the top to attach to a basic bottom. I took the liberty of deviating from the pattern to make additional styles. At completion, I had sewn four different dresses and matching hair scrunchies. I was soaring!

People holding bowls with fabric cozies in the outside. Next Avenue, sewing
The author made bowl cozies for her family members at holiday time.  |  Credit: Andrea Wickstrom

Every December, my mom, sisters, sister-in-law and I get together for our annual "Girls' Hallmark Day." We eat, watch Hallmark movies all day and laugh. Chicken wild rice soup was on the menu that year, so I made bowl cozies for all of us to use.

During this process, I learned I couldn't take shortcuts with measuring. I got past my dislike for sewing something inside out, then turning it inside right through a tiny hole without falling apart. It was also valuable for me to learn that the fabric, thread and batting must all be 100% cotton to go into the microwave.

I gave a bowl cozy to a coworker. She liked it so much that she wanted me to make eight for her to give to her family as Christmas gifts. The stress of being paid to make equal sides with straight stitches forced me to apply what I learned in the bowl cozy YouTube tutorials. I couldn't wing it. 

Thoughts of Quitting

Despite my small successes and great excitement about creating these projects, there was also much frustration and thoughts of quitting. I found myself muttering at the needles stuck again in fabric that was too thick for my chosen needle size and the hard stops that caused the needle tips to break off. I silently cursed the thread that kept balling up. Tears welled when I disassembled the bobbin mechanism to apply oil and couldn't get it back together. But I kept going.

Learning to use a sewing machine was, and still is, a better investment of my time and brain power than binge-watching Netflix

Many positives came out of the experience. I've never been a good problem solver. My husband couldn't help with this one. I wanted to keep trying until I figured it out myself. Until I found the issue and addressed it correctly, I couldn't proceed – and I desperately wanted to proceed.

The Final Stitch

Learning to use a sewing machine was, and still is, a better investment of my time and brain power than binge-watching Netflix or scrolling on social media. I find tremendous satisfaction in creating something valuable that requires a mastered skill.

Repairing salvageable items is a cost-effective option instead of buying replacements. Sewing is also an excellent choice for those who crave a creative outlet. The skills attained, and the confidence gained, have lasting gratification. 

It's never too late to learn how to use a sewing machine. Numerous video tutorials are available online, making setup and techniques easier to conquer. A sewing machine is a worthy investment but it doesn't have to be brand new. Online websites and sewing groups often have used starter models for sale at reduced prices.

A note about my opening story. It turns out that my dad had learned to sew in the army. He was the one who took my note literally and sewed the button onto the paper instead of the shirt. He told my mom I needed to be able to do the small things myself. Otherwise, I would never learn. 

Andrea Wickstrom
Andrea Wickstrom, BSN, PHN, RN, has been a nurse for 25 years. Most of her experience is in cardiology at the bedside, stress testing, and with cardiac medical devices. Health literacy is also a passion of hers. Now, she combines her nursing knowledge with her love for writing to reach and educate readers. Read More
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