Category Archives: Introductory Material

Kelly, Meet Ms. Sewing Machine

It was a bittersweet moment when I decided to purchase a new sewing machine. I loved the old sewing machine, even if I never did get to actually sew on it. I loved the retro charm of the avocado foot pedal and the quaint manual with the mom and daughter on the cover. I loved that it was made almost entirely of metal. I especially loved that I already had it, that I was avoiding purchasing something new, for both economic and environmental reasons.

However, I just couldn’t get the machine to work properly. I think I could have created stitches that looked almost right, but even then it was with the tension set at zero. I’m certain that the machine is fixable but not by me, and I was too impatient to use my newly-learned sewing skills to wait for the fix. I also suspect that there may well be other problems with the old machine that I just haven’t experienced yet.

So, with mixed emotions, I ordered a new machine and picked it up from Sears on Sunday. (As you may recall, I hate driving in the city, so I took the bus downtown and hauled the sewing machine back home on the bus! Good thing it’s not as heavy as the old machine.)

Kenmore 18221

The fancy new sewing machine, complete with pink(!) dials and knobs.

I purchased a Kenmore Drop-In Bobbin Sewing Machine (Model #18221) for a few reasons:

  1. The Needle Shop recommends Kenmores.
  2. I used a Kenmore in class (though not this one) and liked it.
  3. I’ve heard from several people that you should spend at least $150 on a new sewing machine (this was $179.99) because the cheapo models are not well-made.
  4. I wanted a drop-in bobbin because it seemed simpler and better for changing bobbins on the fly (although, as it turned out I had paid a lot more attention to the vertical bobbin loading in class and had to turn to my good friend, Youtube, to load this bobbin.
  5. If I was going to buy a new machine anyway, I wanted one that did automatic buttonholes and had a few decorative stitches.
  6. Devon has this machine so I had seen it in real life.
  7. Finally, the reviews of this machine on are overwhelmingly positive.

The machine was very easy to set up, and I really put it through the paces in the past few days (more on that tomorrow). Overall, I like it, and I think I’ve been far less frustrated than I would have been with a poorly-working older machine.

Foot Pedal

Boring Black Foot Pedal

I’m sad that the foot pedal is boring black, but on the other hand, it handles really well. I feel like I have complete control over the speed. I wish it went a touch faster, but it’s probably best for my projects that it doesn’t.

I like that it has a variety of stitches, even if I probably won’t use them very often. What’s really nice (maybe all new machines have this?) is that it lists the recommend stitch length and width for each stitch. I think the colors mean something, too, about the types of stitches they are, but I’ve only done straight stitching, so I can’t really comment on that.

Close-up of stitches on Kenmore 18221.

Colorful! Note the pink reverse switch.

Like the old machine, this one too has an extension piece that pulls off for free arm sewing (which I’ve already taken advantage of). Unlike the old machine, this one is all plastic, so if a peg breaks, all my useful mechanical skills will be useless. Also unlike the old machine, there’s a nifty storage compartment in this extension piece. I love have the presser feet and extra bobbins right there. (It would be nice if the machine came with more than three bobbins, but I can always buy more of those.)

Storage compartment in Kenmore 18221

Love having the accessories so close by!

Overall, I’m very happy with the machine. I don’t have much to compare it to, but I found sewing to be pretty straightforward, and I was able to keep stitches pretty straight, even on long pieces of fabric.

I do have a few gripes. I don’t know for sure if I’m doing something wrong, or if these are defects in the machine. First, occasionally when I wind the bobbin some of the thread goes below the bobbin, onto the bobbin holder. When this happens, I have to pull the bobbin off, unwind that loose thread, and start over. I’m not sure why that happens, but it is annoying. I can usually get it right on the second try. Second, sometimes I will sew a long section only to realize that the needle became unthreaded, and I have to start over, I’ve been trying to pull out more thread before I start, but it’s happened several times. I suspect this isn’t really a problem with the machine, but it’s frustrating. Finally, and again, I don’t think this is a machine problem, I’ve had some difficulties with thread bunching. I think it’s happening when I try to sew too many layers, or when I’m sewing over other stitches/loose threads. The problem is probably just that I’m a total novice. I’ll see what happens going forward, and maybe I can learn to avoid these problems.

I read in a few reviews that the zipper presser foot on these machine was bad, so I used the foot from my old machine, so I can’t comment on that. Being able to pop off presser feet rather than screwing them off is a nice bonus, but I had to use the screw-off feature to use my old presser foot.

Stay tuned tomorrow for pictures/descriptions of some of my finished projects!


The Star Trek Mini-Dress

The impetus for this whole sewing adventure was the Star Trek Original Series mini-dress. As I mentioned in a previous post, I want to wear the dress to the Star Trek Convention that is being held in Chicago in later October. However impractical the dress might be for actually working on a starship, it’s pretty hot.

Janice Rand

Yeoman Janice Rand, who really wanted Kirk to look at her legs

Jadzia Daz

This is actually Dax from an episode of DS9. (Yes, I'm a nerd!)

There are a few things to note about the dress:

  1. It’s really short. The women of TOS all wore cheerleading briefs (or something similar), and there were definitely shots where you could see them. I will be lengthening the dress some for my purposes.
  2. The red is very red.
  3. The gold braid at the end of the sleeves designates rank. I’ll probably be a yeoman so that I can just leave it off.
  4. There’s an off-center split in the skirt. I’m not sure exactly how the dress fastened together. Some Trek outfits have zippers under the arms; this may be more of a wrap dress. I’m going to leave out the split and go with a basic mini-dress.
  5. There’s an insignia. I need to find a patch for this.
  6. The black collar seems to stand straight up. I’m going to need to use interfacing or something for this. Please let me know if you have suggestions.

TOS Dress Schematics

Did I mention I'm a nerd?

The above diagram gives a better sense of the dimensions. Did I already say that it’s REALLY short?

T-shirt Dress

Waaaaay too tight. And the sleeeves aren't long enough.

For some reason, I don’t want to just buy the dress on Amazon (for $43 plus shipping). There’s also video online that shows an easy way to make this dress, starting with a red long-sleeved t-shirt. It may be simpler (although it still involves sewing), but I don’t like the way it looks.

Finally, there is an official pattern, sold on For $20! If you ask me, that’s a bit pricey for a pattern I will likely use only once. At that point, I might as well just buy the dress on Amazon.

Simplicity 3835

The old standby.

So, my plan instead is to start with the trusty Simplicity 3835, which I will be purchasing for my second sewing class anyway. This time I will be using View B, the super-short mini-dress. I’ll need to make a few changes:

  1. The little tie thingies on the sleeves will need to go, and the sleeves will need to be lengthened.
  2. The collar will need to be re-shaped and done in black. I don’t know exactly how I’ll make the collar stand up. If I can’t figure it out, I’m okay with a flat collar.
  3. I’ll need to add the insignia.

And I think that should be about it. It won’t look exactly like the Original Series dresses, but I think it will be close enough, especially since the Amazon dress doesn’t look exactly right either. In the end, will it be cheaper than $43 plus shipping? No, especially if you count the classes! The raw materials (fabric, thread, zipper, pattern, insignia, etc) may end up being slightly cheaper than the store-bought. The point, though, is that I will be learning a new skill at the same time. And, in theory, the dress will fit me better (we’ll see).

Patterns and Projects and Tutorials, Oh My

Okay, so where to start? I’ll be making a pillow at Sewing 101 (in two days-yay!), so I’m going to re-cover several pillows after that. Hopefully that will make me more comfortable with the machine. And with zippers!

So, from there it’s probably natural to move to bags and purses, right?

The bag I *really* want to make is the Buttercup Bag by Rae. So cute, and with a free pattern, to boot (I heart free patterns). The Needle Shop actually has a class to make this purse, but you have to take the Tote Bag class before you take it, and well, I’m not made of money. 🙂

Buttercup Bag by Rae

OMG. How cute is this?? (Photo by Rae Hoekstra)

The Buttercup bag is probably too ambitious a place to start, though, what with the lining and pockets and pleats and buttons.

Noodlehead has a tutorial for Lil Cutie Pouches, which looks a lot easier as a starting place. If a few of those go well, I might try her Zippy Wallet Tutorial, too. It’s a bit more complicated but possible do-able.

Picture of the Zippy Wallet

The Zippy Wallet should be quick to make. Right?

The Sewing Mamas have a lot of beginner patterns for bags and such, too. I may try my hand at the Patchwork Zippered Coin Purse and the Card Holder (with bias tape and a snap!). And we really don’t need any more grocery bags, but I may make one anyway.

Once I move into clothing, the possibilities are endless. I’ll most likely start, of course, with the shirt I’ll make in my second course at The Needle Shop. I’ve found tutorials for a few other cute tops, including the Spring Ruffle Top by Rae (again, she’s terrific) with a tutorial at Sew, Mama, Sew. It’s a bit summery, but maybe with a jacket it would be work appropriate(?).

Cute yellow top

More cuteness from Rae Hoekstra

From shirts, I can move to skirts. Here I will use the book I ordered used on Better World Books (by the way, you should order all your books here): Sew What! Skirts. What I like about the book is that it’s all about experimenting. I actually have an odd aversion to patterns and would much prefer to make clothes the way they do on Project Runway. Okay, so maybe my clothes won’t look quite like theirs:

April's outfit

April's ridiculous triple diaper.

but maybe making my “own” skirts will help me feel more comfortable with going off-pattern.

Once I’m ready for dresses, there are a few patterns I want to try. I found a dress on BurdaStyle that claims to be a “novice” dress. Novice without the ruffle, perhaps. It’s called the Coffee Date Dress (by the self-proclaimed Selfish Seamstress) and it could easily be work appropriate with a cute cardigan (can you tell that my number one concern with clothes is whether  I can wear them to work? All I wear at home is pajama pants, which is another good project…). It’s ridiculously cute. I just need to find a good solid color fabric if I’m going to include the ruffle. Maybe this gorgeous color from Sew, Mama. I think if I can make this dress I will feel like I have really arrived.

Coffee Date Dress

Too bad my date doesn't drink coffee!

Another free Burda pattern that I’ve been eying is Danielle, which looks beautiful in teal crushed velvet.  From pictures of the finished projects, it seems that the sleeves are a bit wonky when it’s not crushed velvet, but on the other hand cotton or linen would be better for work.  Is crushed velvet hard to work with? Would I ever wear it? Anyway, it appears to be a fairly easy dress (you know, if you can sew).

Velvet Danielle Dress

Gorgeous! I'll look like I stepped out of a catalog every time I wear it! 😉

In final preparation for the Star Trek TOS mini-dress, there’s Simplicity 3835 (Built By Wendy). This is the pattern I’ll be purchasing for the Raglan Sleeve Top Class at The Needle Shop.

Simplicity 3835

Doesn't look like much from the drawings on the cover.

A quick Google search will show you that everyone and her sister has made something from this pattern. You can see that in addition to the shirt I’ll be making, there are also patterns for two similar minidresses (score!). View B is my starting point for the Star Trek dress (more on that tomorrow), but I also want to make it as is (probably View A, though, so it’s not too short to wear in public!). As you can see, this pattern has way more potential than it looks like from the pattern cover drawings:

Girl wearing Simplicity 3835

Made and modeled by Kristin of Sew Very Prairie. She made this for her sister! Wish I had a sister like that!

So, what do you think? Are there great free patterns and tutorials that you recommend? Am I crazy to think I could be sewing clothes in a few weeks? What to join me for a sew-along on any of these?

Kelly, Meet Mr. Sewing Machine

For someone who has yet to sew an actual stitch (I did some test stitches on an old t-shirt), I have a fair amount of sewing gear.

First and most importantly, I have a sewing machine, a Kenmore that’s older than I am. It’s my mom’s machine (note: her only machine, not her old machine), that she bought with her final teaching paycheck before having me and becoming a stay at home mom. Her first sewing class was her last, and she didn’t use the machine much.

My Sewing Machine

Mr. Sewing Machine (for some reason it strikes me as male)

When Mom gave me the sewing machine a few months ago, the extension piece was held to the body of the machine with duct tape. Apparently, the metal peg that holds the two pieces together had come out of the extension and lodged itself in the body of the machine. I couldn’t do anything that would permanently affix the extension because it needs to be off to load the vertical bobbin. And I’m guessing there’s a reason for the extension, like it’s easier to sew long pieces when it’s on(?).

Free arm

Free arm of the sewing machine without the extension. (Ignore the mess in the background.)

Metal Peg

The peg in its proper place on the extension.

Upon reading the sewing manual (more on that later), I realized that I could take off the bottom of the machine (duh), and upon doing so, I was able to dislodge the peg and reattach it to its proper place on the extension piece. And voila, the sewing machine is whole again.

So being a modern girl, I searched high and low online to find videos to show me how to thread the needle and load the bobbin and, you know, sew. As it turns out, the manual that came with the sewing machine was the best reference I could find.

Kenmore Instruction Manual

This should have been my mom and me! (Love you, Mom!)

Bobbin Instructions

Okay, and then what?

Although I will say that the explanation for loading the bobbin is a little lacking. It seems like there’s a step or two missing, but I did eventually figure it out.

Foot Pedal for Sewing Machine

Avocado green FTW!

Once I got everything set up, I did some test stitching on a t-shirt (fun with zig zags!), and it seems like the machine still works great, at least as far as I can tell, even the old-school avocado green foot pedal. It’s a good, study machine, with no plastic parts, but it lacks the programmed stitches and automatic buttonhole making of newer machines. I’ll definitely start learning on it and wait to see if I stick with sewing and whether I need anything fancier before I think about purchasing anything else.

Green Sewing Bag

Repurposed avocado green purse as sewing bag.

Along with her sewing machine, my mom gave me her sewing bag of threads and needles and thimbles, and elastic, and interfacing, and pins galore. I cleaned out the bag of anything really old/falling apart/ruined/worthless and organized everything into my new sewing bag (the old bag was also a repurposed purse and was falling apart). The thread is pretty old, but it should be okay for practice sewing. I imagine that the elastic is too old to be good, but I might try to play with it anyway. I definitely need some new needles; the only ones my mom gave me are for really thick fabrics.

Purse with famous women

I've always loved this purse but never really used it. Now it can hold patterns!

Big blue purse

I have no idea why I bought this bag, but it's big enough for fabric, so yay!

I’ll be purchasing the Sewing 101 kit at The Needle Shop, so I’ll add things like good scissors and a pin cushion there. I know I’m going to need other things like zippers (and of course more fabric), but I feel pretty set. I even have a bag for fabric and a bag for patterns!

Now to keep myself from purchasing a dress form (have I mentioned that I tend to get ahead of myself…).

The Plan

So how, you may ask, do I plan to learn how to sew? Well, I know myself well enough to know that I will likely get frustrated quickly if I try to teach myself. I pulled out the sewing machine (my mom’s–more on that later) a few days ago and managed to get it threaded and make a few stitches on an old t-shirt. But I clearly don’t know what I’m doing, and my eyes glaze over every time I look at tutorials online.

The solution: I am signed up to take Sewing 101 at The Needle Shop (a “DIY Sewing School & Fabric Store”) this Saturday, where I will apparently learn to make this zippered pillow:

Sewing 101 Sample Pillow

My pillow will look exactly like this. Really.

I’m very excited! Although there were other options in Chicago, including free cheap courses at JoAnn Fabrics, The Needle Shop was so highly recommend by a friend and by Yelpers that it seemed the best option to get me on my way. (I’ll review the course after I take so you can decide if it’s worth the money for you.)

The Needle Shop

Plus, look how cute the shop is!

I was going to wait until after I completed the first class to get too carried away, but that’s not the way I work. So, even though I have yet to sew a garment, I have already signed up for a second class at The Needle Shop, entitled “Raglan Sleeve Top.” My friend, Devon (the aforementioned recommender of The Needle Shop), will be joining me at this class, so even if my shirt is a disaster, it should be fun!

Raglan Sleeve Top from The Needle Shop

I'm going to learn to sew real things! That I might be willing to wear in public!

I hope that after taking these two classes (and practicing on pillowcases and zippered pouches), I will feel confident enough to make a garment on my own. I have a few thoughts on where to start (more on that later too).

On a recent visit to Ohio, I stopped in at JoAnn Fabrics (yes, I know they have stores in Chicago, too) and purchased some cheap fabrics to practice on.

Kelly's colorful fabric purchase

I may have a thing for prints. Paging Uli Herzner.

And I may or may not have purchased some additional fabric (on sale!) at Sew, Mama, Sew.

So, the real plan is just to sew, sew, sew. And to blog about it. Because blogging will keep me motivated (I hope), and anytime I mess up, I can just think, “Hey, this will make a good story for the blog.”

I’m going to try to sew every day and to document here every project  I make (even the ones I give up on). Help keep me motivated!

Welcome to My Crazy Idea

I am a complete neophyte when it comes to sewing. Okay, I may have once sewn a button (badly), but I had never used a sewing machine until two days ago. And by used, I mean even plugged it in. My mom hated (and still hates) sewing and anything crafty, so she was never motivated to teach me (never mind that her maternal grandmother was a seamstress!!). I never took home-ec (or industrial arts, so I can’t hammer a nail either). In short, my heretofore experience of clothes is that they come from Old Navy, and if they rip, you use a safety pin to fix them.

Old Navy Shirt

I bought this exact shirt years ago, and it's still for sale at!

So, why do I want to sew now? I think there are a few reasons.

  1. I like a good project, and I think I’m done distance running for good. In the past, training for marathons has used up some of my project energy, but my knees just can’t take that kind of pounding anymore. I will still be writing a novel in November (as part of NaNoWriMo), but that’s only one month of the year.
  2. I feel the need to create something. Although I really enjoy my job, it doesn’t satisfy this craving because I don’t make anything. There is no product at the end of the work day, just more paperwork pushed around.
  3. My husband is in grad school and is busy reading, writing, and teaching for much of the school year, so I need to distract myself.
  4. There may be some kind of nesting thing going on here as we start thinking more seriously about having kids.
  5. Finally, I want to be able to make this dress before the Chicago Star Trek Convention (on October 22-eek!):

Uhura in the hot Star Trek TOS mini-dress

Uhura rockin' the mini-dress.

I don’t expect to be able to make it perfectly, but I do want to make some kind of red mini-dress with black collar!

Stay tuned to see if I get horrible frustrated really quickly, or if I manage to stick to it and make my dress!