Sewing 101 at The Needle Shop

Yesterday morning was my first sewing class, Sewing 101, at The Needle Shop in Bucktown.

(As a side note, I hadn’t ever spent much time in Bucktown and hadn’t been there at all in six or seven years, and I was surprised to see how trendy it was. I was wondering whether I’d feel comfortable walking from the shop to the Damen stop on the blue line if I took a class that ended at 10pm, and the answer is certainly yes.)

It was a beautiful day outside, with a hint of crisp fall air as I was traveling by bus and train. I had considered driving, but I really hate driving in the city, and I was looking forward to reading while traveling. The instructions that The Needle Shop sent me implored:

Being on time is essential! Students who are more than 15 minutes late will not be allowed in class and will lose their payment. Please leave plenty of travel time and let us know if you need more specific directions.

And I wanted to show up a few minutes early to have time to pick out my pillow fabric, so I gave myself two hours to get there. Even after the inevitable blue line delay as we sat on the tracks while the conductor fixed something, I was still very early, so I had coffee at the very cute Bucktown Beanery, which would be an ideal place to write/study. (Side note: don’t drink coffee before sewing unless you want your stitches to be jittery.) Since I also ate lunch at the BB, I want to say a few words about it. First, the service in the morning was maddeningly slow, but the coffee was good and tasted fresh. For lunch I had the mozzarella sandwich and the water lemon freeze (?), a watermelon lemonade slushee. Both were terrific but really overpriced. And the bathroom was clean and frankly nicer than my bathroom at home.

Bucktown Beanery

Trendy coffee shop in a trendy neighborhood.

Anyway, on to The Needle Shop. I was the first to arrive. Although the store technically opens at 10am on Saturdays, they propped open the doors at 9:45 so that people like me who needed to buy fabrics before a ten o’clock class could do so. The woman working the register was super nice and very helpful in pointing out which fabrics would work well. The fabric there is beautiful and a far cry from anything you’ll find at JoAnn Fabrics. But it’s pricey, too. For the bolts hanging on the walls, I wasn’t even sure how to determine the price. I lucked out and picked a pillow fabric that was only (only!) $9.50/yd. She also pulled together the pillow insert and sewing kit I needed. Since I was spending money anyway, I also purchased the materials for my next class (Raglan Shirt)–fabric, elastic, and the pattern–so I could pre-wash the fabric. Although I love the fabric I chose and think it will make a great, work-appropriate shirt, it was $11/yard, and I needed two yards (ouch). Clothes at Old Navy really are a lot cheaper than making your own!


The cotton lawn fabric I chose for my shirt, after they didn't have enough of my first choice. The draping is fantastic. At $11/yd, I'm glad someone will be helping me with construction!

By the time I had finally made my choices, the other students were starting to show up. I would like to note that at least one of them was definitely late (although maybe not 15 minutes late), and we did not start promptly. So much for my concerted efforts to be on time. While I waited for my classmates to make their purchases, I perused the pattern selection in the tiny back room. In addition to a few choice Simplicity and McCalls patterns, there’s a prominent display of Amy Butler and the like ($15-20 for a pattern? No, thank you!). There are also sample items from their courses and their patterns hanging throughout the two rooms. The back room also had a wall of sewing books, along the lines of Sew Liberated. There’s not much in the way of notions, just a small display behind the register. For me, this is the kind of store you go to to find a special fabric for a nice outfit, not where you do all your sewing shopping. (Which is why I walked to JoAnn Fabrics after class to purchase zippers, thread, magnetic snaps, etc.)

Interior of The Needle Shop

You're basically seeing the whole fabric room here. The hidden long wall also has fabric, but that's it. (Photo stolen from

Once everyone was situated, we finally made our way down the narrow stairs to the bright sewing room (one of two in the basement). The sewing tables were set up in a rectangle all facing in to the center, and there were machines at each station. There were a few different styles of machine (all Kenmore), so I chose the simplest one that looked the most similar to mine (vertical bobbin loading and all). Two of the five students in the class (all female) had brought their own machines, so the machines at their stations were moved off to the side. The room was bright and cheery, and the finished projects hanging on the walls were inspirational (and instructional, in the case of the pillow).

The Needle Shop Sewing Class

A TNS sewing class (not mine). Note the all-female class roster. Photo stolen from

We spent the first hour-plus of the class learning the very basics of what the machine parts do, how to thread the needle, how to wind the bobbin, how to load the bobbin (both for vertical and horizontal machines), how to change the feet, etc. My instructor, Alison, was very clear and walked us through everything, showing us each step and then having us try on our own machines. I learned more in that hour than I had in weeks of reading about sewing. Although I was the only person in the class who had never sewn before, I never felt lost, and the pace seemed just right to me.

After practicing stitching and turning corners on scrap fabric, we moved on to the pillows themselves. There was no pattern for the pillow, but there was a detailed instruction sheet that we then got to take home. I finally really learned the concept of length versus width of fabric, what selvage is, and that I could just rip fabric to the correct size, rather than cut. Who knew?

We spent a great deal of time on the zipper end of the pillow. Although my zipper section is not perfect, it is functional (and pretty, with a green zipper!), and I feel like I have a good understanding of how to install zippers and why not to be afraid of them. When we finally finished the zipper end, it was like, “Okay, just sew up the other sides,” which I did. Easily.

Although there were five students in the class, rather than the four that TNS says is the limit, I felt like I got a lot of hands-on help. Alison was constantly walking around, noting our progress, and making suggestions. She even showed me how to iron the final product correctly (I suck at ironing). I also really appreciated that they had snacks and water for us to take at any time. I ate before class, but 10-2 is not a time when I can go completely without food, especially when working on something that requires fine motor control. The snacks were crucial, for me anyway.

I walked out of class with a finished pillow that actually looks pretty good, complete with corners that are purposely not 90-degree angles. I know where the problems are in the pillow, but it’s nice enough to keep on the couch in the living room, even when guests come over. I’ll post a better picture of my pillow when I have a chance to upload pictures (my computer is freaking out at the moment). For now, you can see a bad picture in yesterday’s post.

I can’t imagine an introductory class being a better start to sewing. The only thing I would change about the class would be the price. Was it worth the $70 (plus materials)? Yes. (It helps that it wasn’t my $70 since it was a birthday present from my mom–actually a birthday present for my husband, but that’s a different story!) Before the class, I spent a lot of time reading the manual, watching youtube videos, reading tutorials, etc, and there were really important things I never figured out, like properly threading the machine. Without this course, I’d probably still be in the dark. That alone makes the course worth it to me. The added bonus of having completed a project and the confidence that gives me is huge.

Unfortunately, when I returned home, excited about sewing and finally able to properly thread my sewing machine, I discovered that it’s broken. My test stitches did not look like the stitches I had done in class. Upon consulting the manual, I learned that the upper tension was too high. Unfortunately, the tension is already set to zero, so there’s no way to turn it down further. I’m sure a sewing machine repair shop can fix it, but the nearest shop I know about is pretty far away, and I don’t have access to our car during the week. A lot more went into this decision, but tomorrow you will get to read about my new sewing machine. (Sad and happy faces.)


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