Very very basic sewing questions

“Learn to sew” has been on my to do list for about 20 years now.

I just got my MIL’s sewing machine, so it’s time.

I though I would start with a table cloth, seems simple.

  1. If my table is 45 inches wide and most fabric is 45 inches wide (what does 44/45" mean?) that means I need to have a seam down the middle to get any tablecloth hanging over the edges, right?

2)how do you press that 1/4 hem in? Is it “measure…press…measure…press” and so on. It seems really tedious, am I missing some trick?

3)If the cut edge of the fabric isn’t exactly straight, how do I get my hem exactly straight?

4)any really really obvious things about sewing someone clueless enough to ask the preceeding questions might need to be told?


I’m not a great seamstress. I have a sewing machine, but use it mainly for repairs. I expect the more knowledgeable will be along shortly.

There are many fabrics that are 60" or even 72" wide. you just have to choose carefully.

Pressing is essential. My only trick for that is, to keep your ironing board next to the sewing machine at sitting height, so you can go back and fourth.

You will need to cut your hem as straight as possible. I lay my fabric on my dining room table, or the floor, folded, so I know it’s square, then measure (half ) from the fold, cut both sides at once (for your tablecloth). Then for the other direction, fold it so the creases are together. I use a “T” square to check that the corners are, indeed, square.
Using fabric chalk to draw your cut line helps keep it straight.
Hope that helps a little.

You would want to buy extra-wide cloth or put seams on the sides, not the middle.

Measure pin pin measure pin pin then press.

Not sure exactly what you’re asking, so I’ll take a stab at it. You need to know the narrowest measurement of the fabric and base everything on that. If the fabric is 24" at one point and 25" at another, the maximum width you can use is 24", not 25" minus .25 inches at one place and 24" minus .25 inches at another. So you need to measure the fabric when it has cut edges to find out the maximum dimensions.

Don’t sew your tablecloth to your blouse. :smiley:

**I just got my MIL’s sewing machine, so it’s time.**FYI–the sewing machine might have to be serviced/overhauled, especially if it’s been stored a long time. If it’s a good machine, then it’s worth it. What kind is it? How old?

**I though I would start with a table cloth, seems simple.**Nope. Your questions demonstrate why a tablecloth isn’t so simple. It’s hard to get it exactly straight and exactly right so that it hangs nicely. And it’s a heck of a lot of fabric to waste if you mess it up.

Try something smaller, first. Like the napkins to go with the tablecloth. Drawstring bags are easy and fun, and you don’t have to get them just right. I just made a bunch of cedar sachets to store with my woollens. I had some pretty fabric, and I just made simple bags and filled them with aromatic cedar shavings from the pet store. They’re kind of cockeyed, but who cares?

**1) If my table is 45 inches wide and most fabric is 45 inches wide (what does 44/45" mean?) that means I need to have a seam down the middle to get any tablecloth hanging over the edges, right?**You’ll probably want to find some extra-wide fabric when you make the tablecloth. Seams in tablecloths usually are bad.

**2)how do you press that 1/4 hem in? Is it “measure…press…measure…press” and so on. It seems really tedious, am I missing some trick?**Sounds like you’re missing some basic techniques and a few good sewing notions. I’d suggest getting a book about basic sewing. Your library and bookstore should have lots of them.

**3)If the cut edge of the fabric isn’t exactly straight, how do I get my hem exactly straight?**You have to cut the fabric straight yourself. But first you have to make sure that the grain of the fabric is straight so it all stays straight. Yeah. Sorry. That doesn’t help much, does it. Get a book with pictures.

**4)any really really obvious things about sewing someone clueless enough to ask the preceeding questions might need to be told?**Lots of things! Get a book with lots of handy tips and tricks. And I’m sure we Dopers will supply some good tips. (maybe you’d get a good response about general sewing tips in IMHO)

Here’s a tip from me: Use good thread. Use only good thread. Regular Coats & Clark from the discount store is the pits. It’s weak and it fuzzes. I use Mettler or Gutermann. My preference is for the 100% cotton “silk finish” from Mettler. If I want more strength, I use Metrosene from Mettler.

Yep, folding can help show where the fabric goes off square. The only caution, especially for a new sewer: Do be very careful when cutting multiple layers as it can be easy to let the layers get out of alignment. You can get a crease in the under layer and then cut in a notch. Some fabrics are worse than others. Knits or anything with give are a beast. Slippery fabrics can also be a beast, as can napped fabrics, or fabrics that are especially limp, like gauze. Fabric is evil and bent on destroying you!


Good point. Napkins, pillowcases, throw pillows, bags, all have leeway if things get a little out of whack.

Then there are things that never seem to go right: Curtains! Ack!

Curtains have the same problem as tablecloths–they have to hang right. And Og forbid they have a print and the print is not aligned with the grain of the fabric! :eek:

Don’t mean to scare ya, Carlotta. Sewing isn’t necessarily difficult. There are just a few things that seem simple but really aren’t.

At least with a tablecloth you can pile stuff on the table. Putting a bowl of fruit on the curtain is tricky. :smiley:

This is an excellent book for beginners. I taught myself to sew about 25 years ago using an earlier version of one of the Singer books and have since made clothing, quilts, curtains, slipcovers, and all sorts of artsy craftsy things.

Enjoy your new hobby but a tiny warning - it’s addictive and sometimes expensive!

A pretty good thing to do with fabric that rips is to rip it. It will probably rip absolutely straight. Picking out a thread and making it pucker is anothes good way to find the straight grain (the perfect 90 degree angle).

Get some tailor’s chalk or a tracing wheel for the hem. Mark 1/4" up from the edge of the fabric, and then pin the hem up to meet that marked line. Then press it. Marking things is so much easier than guessing.

One thing you might want to do instead of trying to get a stupid, fiddly 1/4" hem right, is to find two complementary fabrics in the same weight. Cut them to the right size to fit your table, adding an inch to length and width, and pin them together all the edges with the right sides together. Sew around the outside a half-inch from the edge, leaving a space to turn it right side out. Before turning it right side out, clip the corners. Then turn it right side out, and press the edges, making sure the corners and completely turned out and sharp. When you press the edges, just turn the seam allowances of the open section in. Topstitch a quarter-inch away from the edge and press again. Voila! You’ve just created a double-sided tablecloth. Or a picnicking blanket.

Otherwise, make a pillow. You can’t wrong with a pillow as your first project. You do basically the same thing as for the double-sided tablecloth above, only you skip the topstitching step and stuff it with fiberfill, handsewing the gap shut. An peasant skirt with an elastic waist is also really basic or a pair of pajama pants. New Look patterns by Simplicity are all generally pretty easy to assemble. There’s also one for tote bags/beach bags that are really cute and pretty practical. It’s Simplicity 4670, and is from the Sewing Patterns for Dummies line, which I’m fairly confident was a shoot-off of the Sewing for Dummies book. There’s also the It’s So Easy! line, which is.

A tablecloth has very few steps, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier than something with more steps.

Just to address this, 45" is the overall width but once you trim the selvage (edge area that binds off the fabrics and may not be printed like the rest of the fabric) you effective have 44" of consistent width to work with. [Even then, some companies have small holes in a row that affect the edges of even the 44" width; this makes me grr when I am counting on every little bit of fabric to make quilt pieces.]

Home decorating fabric tends to be wider so you shouldn’t have to seam anything.

I can’t fault you for that, as those are great choices, but I will say that overall I haven’t had a problem with Coats and Clark poly/cotton. I use it to hand-piece and machine-piece as well as hand-quilt and have no problems.

A tip if you do want to make a hem: Get a piece of light weight cardboard (the thin stuff, not the corrugated kind. Cut a rectangle approximately 2" wide by maybe 4" deep. (this is just a size that handy to use and large enough not to get lost all the time.)

Measure up one of the long sides to the depth you want your hem and make a cut in the cardboard at that height about 3/4" long. Then cut down to the end of that first cut at a slant from about an inch ‘higher’ than the first cut. Now you have a notch with one level side and one slanting side.

This creates an easy to use gauge. Lay the gauge on your material so the flat edge of the notch is closer to the edge of the material. Now fold the edge of the material up over the gauge until the edge of the material is even with the flat edge of your notch. Finger crease or pin. Move the gauge an inch and repeat, over and over, the length of your hem.

The reason this is easier is that you don’t have to squint at the little markings on your ruler over and over, and you won’t ever accidentally miscount lines and have part of your hem at 3/8" and the rest at 5/8". (Don’t laugh, it’s been done.)

BTW – a great source of tablecloth material is flat sheets. A full sized sheet is usually the right width for ordinary dinner tables, but measure your table and read the size listings on the sheet wrappers to be sure. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one with a width that will have ‘acceptable’ lengths hanging down from both sides, so you can use the existing hems on the sides and one end, and only have to cut for length and re-hem one short side.

Sheet material will feel kind of flimsy and cheap all by itself, so what you need to also buy is some plain white felt long and wide enough to cover the table (it doesn’t matter how many inches it hangs over, so long as it covers the top.) Put this down first and your sheet tablecloths on top of it, and it will provide the extra thickness needed to look and feel ‘right’. And, of course, the white undercloth can be used forever under too flimsy table cloths.

Have fun!

Moved to CS.

General Questions Moderator

Many junior/community colleges offer sewing and other craft classes for the public. They’re generally listed as noncredit courses. If you have such a school close to you, take advantage of it.

And I second Green Bean’s advice to get the machine serviced. The machine probably needs to be cleaned out, checked out, and given new oil. Old gunky oil can cause it to seize up. Sew on an old piece of cloth for a bit, to get any excess oil out of the machine. I’ve seen people recommend that machines be serviced every year. I don’t do it that often, but I don’t do that much sewing, either.

Cover the machine when it’s not in use. This keeps dust, dirt, and stray cat hair out of it.

Buy more bobbins than you think you’ll need. Also buy more needles than you think are necessary. Trust me on this. For larger projects, buy two spools of thread. If your machine allows you to wind a bobbin and sew at the same time, do so. It’s a great time saver.

Slick fabrics are tricky to sew on. Try something in woven cotton for your first project.

I’ll second the book recommendation. The entire Singer series is excellent.

I have seen them in most of my local fabric stores here. Amazon might have them a little cheaper, but if the stores near you have them I go look through a few to get an idea which ones would help you the most.

Thanks for all the good advice. I’ve ordered the book suggested from abebooks.

Also thanks Starving for the idea of the felt to make flimsy fabrics work for tablecloths. I want to take advantage of that cute, but flimsy, fabric available every holiday to make tablecloths for every holiday (yep, I’m tacky that way :slight_smile: )