Sewing Tutorial: To An Absolute Beginner from a Relative Novice

I recently had a chance to cross two things off my list: I needed to make a warmer tunic for my honey for an upcoming event, and I wanted to start making tutorials for the stuff I do.

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Generally I think of tutorials as being what masters of the arts tend to make so others may follow in their footsteps.  That may be why I have rarely attempted it.  But it has been impressed upon me that making a tutorial for something I can do can be as simple as “I’m no expert but I have managed to figure this out, maybe I can help?”

It will also serve to hopefully get insight into what major problems I may be having that someone else can offer insight into.  Since I don’t have an expert to hang over my shoulder and tell me if I’m messing up somewhere, this is the next best thing!

So I spent the weekend sewing and taking far more pictures than I am generally wont to do, partly because I don’t consider myself terribly good at taking pictures, and partly due to the aforementioned skill, I almost never remember to try.

However, I plunged into the deep end and produced the following step-by-step for how to create a simple rectangular construction tunic which was very common, especially in early-period.  The basics lend themselves to a variety of cultures and the length is the only major difference between tunic and dress.

The finished product is not exactly accurate, as plaid such as I used has not been found in Viking-era graves, but I was using what I had on-hand and looked nice.

The main fabric is a very old, used blanket of questionable fiber content.  It is rougher than I would expect from most synthetics but it does not burn like wool.  It is a quick and dirty cold-weather solution.

Tunic Tutorial:

Tools needed: 

While you may have a great many additional tools to use which will come in exceptionally handy, the absolute bare minimum of tools this project will require are:

  1. scissors
  2. sewing pins
  3. needle and thread
  4. something to measure a set length (can be as simple as a piece of string, though a fabric measuring tape is preferred)
  5. Ideally a bowl, plate, or other suitably sized round template you can trace.

The cat is optional.

Step 1 of any sewing project is, of course, purchasing the fabric.  I am very bad at this part – or good, depending on your point of view.  I tend to have far more fabric than I will ever be able to go through and therefore I have almost always pre-purchased the fabric I am about to use in whatever amount struck my fancy at the time.

Or, in the case of this tutorial, it was a blanket.  A holey blanket, at that!

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So I cannot give much advice as to how much fabric you will need for your particular project as I had to cut around the holes and worn spots.  The width of the fabric, any patterns you may want to account for, the length of your garment, and especially the size of the person who will need to wear it will affect how much fabric it will take.   I would say 3-4 yards should provide ample fabric for either a tunic or dress for an adult, and maybe enough extra for mistakes, or matching mittens or something.

As for the fabric itself, ideally you would want linen or wool for historic accuracy, but if all you have or all you can afford is cotton or whatever random blanket you picked up at good-will, go for it.

Step 2  Pre-wash your fabric by whatever method you intend to care for your final garment.  If you are going to spot-clean or dry clean or some non-washing method, then don’t pre-wash.  But I don’t like clothes that are difficult to care for, so I wash everything.  Yes, even wool.  I do test wash – I cut an approximately 4″x4″ piece out of the corner, zig-zag the edges so it doesn’t start to unravel in the wash, then wash and dry it with a regular load of laundry.  This can give you a good idea of how the fabric will take to washing and you can probably get a feel for the shrinkage as well.

So with wool fabric, I might even pre-wash it on hot and dry it hotter than I expect to ever do for the final garment just to ensure it shrinks or felts just as much as it ever is going to right up front.

After washing and drying, you may want to iron if it comes out wrinkly.

Step 3 Lay out your fabric in your sewing space.  I use the floor because it’s the largest flat area I have to work with.  This is where you will consider whether you have a directional pattern to account for.

For example, if you have a pattern that clearly has an ‘up’ side and a ‘down’ side, you would want to adjust how you cut the pattern so that none of the pieces are upside down on the finished project.  Or if you had stripes you would not want some pieces to be cut horizontal and others vertical.

This is also where you will determine which direction you can orient your cuts.  If you want to make a floor-length dress with no shoulder seem, you will likely need to layout the fabric along the yardage length folded over.

  • Voice of Experience You may wish to purchase a similar amount of simple cotton muslin (or whatever the cheapest fabric is you can find) to serve as your trial run before you cut into what may well be very expensive fabric.   Prototypes allow you to test for fit, and you aren’t going to lose $25/yd fabric over a mis-cut!If you take them apart once you’ve worked out the kinks, they also give you fantastic pattern pieces to work from!  Label what garment and part each piece is for and keep it in an envelop or something to pull out later!

Step 4  If you have a good fitting shirt that does not stretch when you put it on (a business shirt, for example, not a t-shirt or other stretchy material) you can use this as a template to work from for sizing.  This is especially handy if you don’t have someone to help you measure yourself.

In my case I started with a shirt I had made for him previously (without first making a pattern, which is why making a pattern first comes in so very handy for the ‘next time’, but of course This Tutorial Brought To You By The Lack Of A Pattern, so I’ll call it a win for science.) dscf6001

This is a linen shirt I made about two years ago and it still fits him very well and definitely not stretchy so this is what I will be using to size the basic pieces of the tunic intended to go over it.

Once you have determined the best way to lay out your fabric for your garment, take the shirt and lay it down on the fabric.  How exactly you lay it down will depend on how you are going to end up cutting your pieces.  In my case there is no right or wrong side (but there was a ‘not as nice-looking side) and there was no directional pattern to account for, and the width of the blanket folded over was long enough to account for the full length of my garment.

I folded the blanket in half, laid the shirt on it leaving enough room on either side to account for a slightly larger fit and the seam allowance.  I only accounted for the width of the body, not the additional godets (I learned a thing!) or sleeves.

  • Definition So wanting to ensure I got the right terms, I went looking for the definition of gores and gussets only to find out I had the wrong definition of gore – and to discover that apparently many people do.  So I use the term godet throughout this tutorial as defined in the above link, however many people refer to this as a gore so if you hear that being used, you’ll know what’s going on.

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Note my sewing assistant-slash-custom pattern weight Dexter.

I did not leave any seam allowance at the shoulder since I will not have a shoulder seam.  I also did not leave any additional length at the hemline as I want it to be just a little bit shorter than the undershirt.

Now, if you needed your final garment to be longer than the shirt you are using for this, you can do things like take a pillow case or a skirt or really anything else to use to extend your garment further.

What if your fabric has a pattern?

If you need to orient a pattern so that both the front and back of your garment are ‘right-side up’ then just folding in half over the shoulder won’t work.  You can either fold the fabric width-wise and cut along the fold to get the front and back, or you can cut one side out first, then lay that down on your fabric to cut your second side using the first as your ‘pattern’.  Both of these will require you to have a shoulder seam, but at least you won’t look upside down from behind!

  • Measuring If you need to make a measurement and don’t have a fabric measuring tape may I strongly advise you to get one.  You can find them just about anywhere that you can find sewing and craft items – WalMart, Amazon, Michael’s, and of course Your Local Fabric and/or Craft Store™.If you don’t have one and can’t get one, an alternative is string.  Not yarn – too stretchy – but a good solid string like cording or twine.  You can also run out a length of tape (masking, duct, etc) and fold it in half to hide the sticky part.  Really you just want something very flexible but not stretchy that you can transfer lengths with.
  • Fit checking before cutting, as much as possible, drape the fabric over the appropriate body part and ensure that where you are about to cut will go far enough – around your body, around your arm, etc.  After you have cut, do this again.  Cut long if you are unsure and you can adjust down later after fit checking it to yourself (or to whomever this garment is for.)  Bear in mind that things like the gussets will affect how the final piece fits, so sometimes trial and error is all you have.

For the length of your garment, hold at your shoulder where it meets the neck and approximately as centered as you can front to back, then measure down to where you want the garment to end.  If you have a friend who can mark this length for you that’s ideal.  Transfer this length to your fabric and add about an inch for your hem.

Hang on to this make-shift custom made Measuring Device™, it will come in handy later as well.

Step 5 This is it, we are going to cut our fabric! (have I already said make this out of muslin first?  Make this out of muslin first.  I know it takes longer and takes more fabric, but better to screw up the .99/yd fabric on your first try than the $25/yd fabric.  And bonus pattern pieces!  Seriously.  Use muslin.)

  • Confession I really, really, really should have used pins when I was cutting this part.  Pins help keep the two layers of fabric from sliding and producing uneven cuts.  I managed to ‘get away’ with it this time but I would really recommend you pin.  It is one of my bad habits I have formed in my sewing is failing to pin.

So, we are going to say PIN the fabric before you lay down your shirt so the two sides cannot shift while you cut.

Still have that pillow case handy?  That’s a great tool to lay down on your fabric to ensure you are cutting a straight line.  Do be careful that you are cutting ‘square’ however, as a straight line can still angle badly.  You can do this by using your custom made Measuring Device™ to ensure the cut at the top and the bottom are both the same distance in from the far edge.

I winged it (and had to correct a little later so, really, don’t wing it).

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  • No Shirt? If you really just do not have a shirt to use for this step, take your Measuring Device™, measure around the largest portion of your body that this will need to fit over (if that’s your chest, use your chest, if your stomach, use that).  Add a bit for movement, add a bit more for seam allowance, then use half of that measurement for the width of your garment.

If you cut both the front and back of your body together, you’re done with this step.  If you cut one side separately, then re-position on the fabric lining up patterns elements if you want them to line up and pin and cut the second side.  Place these pieces aside for now.

  • Voice of Experience Ideally, label all the pieces as you cut them with a pinned-on sticky note or scrap of paper with what these pieces are so nothing gets confused later on.  Trust me, nothing sucks worse than grabbing what you thought were the sleeves and sewing them on only to find out no, those were left-over scraps you just sewed on and they aren’t the right size and now you have to rip them back off and where did your sleeves go anyway!?  Oh, you cut them up to make gussets? *sob*

Step 6 To cut the godets, we want to figure out the measurement from the hem of the garment back to your waist.  This adds the fullness over the hips.  Figure out where your waist falls on your garment and measure out a square that tall (don’t worry about seam allowance for that, I’ll show you why in a second) and as wide as you want for however full you want your final piece to be.

You have quite a lot of leeway with this piece, the more room you want through your garment, the longer the godet should be, but should stop short of your sleeve.

You will need four of these, two for each side (left and right) which will also mean two for each side (front and back) so you need to account for pattern and right/wrong side of fabric here.

If you don’t have any directional limitations, the easiest way to cut these is to get all four at once by doubling the fabric, pinning to prevent shifting, and cutting your rectangle, then cutting diagonally to get your four triangles.

If you need to account for your pattern, you will lose some of your fabric to waste by doing this twice and keeping the four ‘upright’ pieces.  Don’t discard the others, you may be able to use part of them later, but for now set them with the scraps.

Label your godets!

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  • An option you have is to cut the two sides as single pieces instead of two to save yourself sewing a seam.  If you have newspaper or something you can probably make a pretty good pattern for a “full” triangle instead of the two halves as I’ve done.  You will waste a bit more fabric using that method but it may be worth it to you to lose the additional seam.  It can be tricker to add the godets as a single piece, but I will show you how to do so using the same method we’ll be adding the under-arm gussets in, so stay tuned.Incidentally, the gussets can be cut out in four pieces as I’ve done with the godets so you’ll see both methods of construction illustrated here, use the one you prefer.
  • Another option you may choose is to simply cut these as part of the body of your tunic and save yourself a variety of seams.  It is not period accurate but that’s okay, we get as close as we like and mix in a bit of relief where we can.  You will lose a bit more fabric but these can be utilized for other pieces, such as the gussets or neck lining.

Next we are going to cut our armpit gussets.  These will be square.  If you’ve ever made a square out of a piece of paper by folding a diagonal and cutting off the excess on the bottom this is a great way to get a good template for your gusset.  The gusset is a bit less precise as far as measurements, the more excess room you need in your upper arm or bust the larger the gusset should be, so consider accordingly.

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I made these gussets a little larger than the last to give better range of motion in this tunic.  I suppose they’re around 4-5″ square?  I cut one side up until the fabric folded into a full triangle, that gave me (close enough) to a perfect square and gave a straight edge to cut the top.  You will need two of these, one for under each arm.

The problem with the gussets and patterns is that no matter how you try to cut them, something is going to be misaligned on the final garment.  Unless you cut them as four triangles like with the godets, in which case you can orient your pattern correctly.

If you want to do that, angling your fabric as shown above is also a great way to get the center cut – pin first, then cut along the folded edge and you’ll have your half-gusset.

Step 7 Now for the sleeves.  This works for both short and long-sleeved garments.  In this case I am making long sleeves.  (I am also trying to find two suitable pieces of my fabric that don’t have holes, so that is why the placement seems odd.)

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I used the very precise measuring tool of my fingers to get the width of the original and double it (so it goes all the way around) and then additional for seam and a fuller cut.  You should verify at least that you have enough to go around your closed fist.  Remember that the thickest part of your arm is getting additional room from the under-arm gusset.

I laid the fabric so one edge was along the line of the shoulder down, and then cut additional length.  Again, if you need to measure this use your Measuring Device™ to go from the mid-point over your shoulder to however long you wish the sleeve to go, adding seam allowance at both ends.

Once I had cut the two ends, I folded the top over to get a straight edge to cut along for the bottom.  Again with the pins. Label your sleeves and especially the sleeve direction (I have sewn them on accidentally rotated 90 degrees and it sucks.)

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Step 8 If you will need a shoulder seam, we are going to sew that now.  Yay, finally some sewing!  If you don’t need to sew the shoulder seam, we are going to find the center of our garment for the neck hole, so don’t skip this step just because you don’t have to sew your shoulder seam.

Place your front and back panels together so that the patterns are both pointing up – if you need to watch for that – and so the ‘right’ sides of your fabric (the pretty sides) face one another.  Pin this seam.

  • Confession: I didn’t sew mine with seam so I didn’t account for this step while doing mine.  That will make my steps a bit backward for you. If you are hand-sewing may I suggest you skip to step 9 for locating the neck hole before sewing your seam.  It will prevent unnecessary sewing and cutting over your sewn seam.  If you are sewing by machine, we’ll just go back over the ends of the seam we cut.

Sew along the entire top edge from left to right.  We will be fixing the fact that there is no neck after we define the extents of the neck hole in the next step.

Step 9  First find the center of the body of your garment from left to right.  The easiest way to do this is fold it in half an pin at the centerline.  This is also a good time to place pins at the shoulder fold if you are not doing a seam.

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  • I did a purely round neckline instead of a neckline that has a keyhole slit down the front.  So if you want to do that, I found a great keyhole neckline tutorial here for it someone else had already done, since I didn’t.

Cut the lining piece for the neck hole.  While this is not strictly necessary, I find it much, much easier to cut a separate lining piece for the neck for a number of reasons – it reinforces the neck, which is especially helpful on light weight fabrics, it can add a comfortable fabric at the neck if your chosen fabric tends to be itchy, and it saves you the frustration of turning over a curved edge.

You can either cut this from the same fabric as your garment or a contrasting fabric.  I chose to make mine decorative and so it is visible on the outside of the garment, but if you don’t want yours to be visible reverse the instructions and sew it to the inside instead.

I first cut for the width, in this case I wanted the plaid pattern to be centered so I am cutting in from the existing edge using the extent of my original neckline plus additional width for stability or decoration and seam allowance.

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Then I adjusted the placement on the fabric down approximately 1/3 to allow for the back of the neckhole and additional fabric, and cut below the bottom of my original neck opening.  I realize until the bottom cut is located, 1/3 is meaningless, but … well, wing it.

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I cut out my rectangle based on the extents I defined (more or less per what you want to final result to look like) and now we center it on our body over where the neck hole should be.

Again, note which direction is which so you don’t lay your lining turned 90 degrees and get the wrong length going the wrong way.

Fold your lining in half so that the left and right sides overlap.

  • This part is tricky: If you want the lining to be visible on the outside of the fabric, the right side of your neck liner should be against the wrong side of your garment.   If you want it to be on the inside of your garment, the wrong side of your liner should face the right side of your garment.

Place this fold at the center point of your garment body we located earlier.  The shoulder line of your garment should cross the lining at about 1/3 (so more fabric will end up in front of your garment than in back.)

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Lay your lining fabric flat and to your garment at several points around the perimeter.

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Fun with dishes is next!  Measure around the largest part of your head with your Measuring Device™.  Add an inch(ish).  This is the absolute minimum size you want your neck hole unless you are doing the keyhole neckline linked above.

Take your measurement and look through your cabinet for salad plates or mixing bowls or something else round you may have on hand (say, a circular saw blade) and see if anything is the right-ish size of your head.  If so, horray!  Place centered on your liner fabric (so it falls approximate 2/3rds on the front of your garment and 1/3 on the back.

Pin or trace completely around the outside adding in your seam allowance (so pin or trace about 1/2″ or so to the outside of what you’re tracing).  If your dish is a little small, pin further away.  Double check your size with the math below.

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If you have nothing to work with, we shall do math.

Take the length of your head circumference (if using a string and you really have nothing else like a ruler, you can measure against a known such as a piece of paper which is 8 1/2″ by 11″.  Folded in half one way gives you 4 1/4″, folding the other way gives you 5 1/2″, etc.  You can probably get close enough.)

Take your head circumference and convert to radius using the this link.   (For example, if your head circumference is 21″, add an inch to 22″ and the diameter of a corresponding circle would be 7″ + your seam allowance.)

Mark out your diameter+seam allowance length-wise and width-wise in the same manner as we placed the plate above, so that it is approximately 1/3 on the back and 2/3 on the front.  Mark the center of this measurement with a pin and continue to rotate your Measuring Device™ around the center until you’ve pinned or traced a complete circle.  Double check the circumference against your head measurement and adjust as necessary.

  • Backtrack If you are hand sewing your shoulder seam, this is what you want.  Now that you’ve pinned the extent of your neck opening you can sew the shoulder seam shut up to this point and skip the part you’ll be cutting out.

You should end up with something like this:  dscf6022

Sew completely around the line you created. (In this case the plate was the size including the seam so I sewed to the inside of the pins, but that’s a good way to end up with a neck too small so I don’ recommend doing that.)

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Now cut out the hole leaving your seam allowance.

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Pull the lining fabric through the hole and pin all around the neck opening, manipulating the seam so it lays as flat as possible.

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Once the neck opening has been pinned, pin the remainder of the lining all round, tucking the edge seam allowance under.

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Sew you lining down all around the outer edge.   Consider which side is your visible side when deciding what color and type of stitches to use for this.  You want the outside to be pretty.

Step 10 Now we attach the godets to the bottom.  If you cut them as 4 separate pieces, proceed as shown here.

Pin the long side (not the square side) to the bottom side edge of your garment with the right sides of your fabric together.  Do this on all 4 corners.

godet

This is why you didn’t have to account for a seam allowance before, because we are using a longer cut edge than you measured.

Do not pin the measured square side of your godet to your garment, like I did.  See how the bottom edge of the godet lies along the bottom edge of the garment in the below picture?  That’s wrong.  Well, not so much wrong but that isn’t the pattern I’m using.  You can if you’d like but the corners of your garment will have sort of odd points to them so I suggest laying it out as shown above and not my bad example below (which I sewed up before realizing I had pinned it wrong and had to rip the seams out and do it over again.

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This picture shows the godets attached correctly.  Never mind the dirty floor, I’ll be washing this again anyway.

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Step 11 Locate your sleeves and gussets (ideally because you properly labeled them and put them in a safe place.)

Pin the gussets to the edge of your sleeve that will be sewn against your garment (so take into account whatever pattern you may have.)  Right sides of fabric should be together, with the gusset pinned opposite on the other sleeve.

dscf6030Sew the gusset to the sleeve leaving your seam allowance free at the end of your gusset that lies along the bottom of the sleeve as show below, but sew the body-side completely.

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If you cut your gusset in two parts, sew half to each side of your sleeve per below, accounting for any pattern direction you have.

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Step 12 Fold the sleeve in half with the wrong side to the inside of the fold.  Place the fold at the center of your garment shoulder – either at the seam or at the pin locating the shoulder – with the right sides of your fabric together.

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Lay the sleeve open and pin along the entire length of the seam where the sleeve and gussets lay against the side edge of your garment body.

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Sew along this entire seam except leaving your seam allowance open on both ends.

Step 13 Now for the side seams.  Fold the sleeve over with right sides together and pin from the end toward the body until you reach the gussset.

If you cut the gusset in two pieces, just keep pinning down the gusset and the side of the body.  If you cut the godets in two pieces, again keep pinning until you have pinned the entire side seam closed.  Sew from end of sleeve to bottom of hem.

  • Troubleshoot Ideally the bottom hem of your garment should align.  If not, FIRST repin your seam.  Sometimes one side of the garment has more tension than the other.  Lay the garment flat and don’t pull as you pin.  If the hem still does not align, if it is only a small amount you may be able to ignore it, otherwise you may need to rip out the seams of the sleeve to the body and realign your sleeve to the correct shoulder seam/line of your garment.This is a great reason to continually recheck fit and ensure you have the shoulder seam/line of your garment properly located.

If you cut the gusset as a single piece, this is how you pin.  Starting again at the end of the sleeve, pin the two halves of the sleeve together until you reach where the gusset was attached.  Using the seam allowance you left yourself, continue to pin, only pin the free side of the sleeve to the free side of the gusset.  Continue this until you reach the body of your garment.  Now leave a seam allowance at your sleeve and pin the remaining side of the gusset to the side of the body.

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Annotated for clarity.  Ignore the plaid to the end of the sleeve, that was a mistake I’ll confess to later.  Follow the red line for your new seam.

side seam

Pin down the body until you reach the godet.  If you cut it in two pieces, you can pin straight down to the center to the hem, if you cut it in one, you should pin similar to the gusset, with a seam allowance left at the top.  Pin the free side of the godet to the free side of the garment body down to the hem.

Again, if you need to adjust, re-pin first before ripping seams out.

  • Okay Confession I thought I was being clever with the end of the sleeve but I got it backwards.  I accidentally sewed the plaid fabric I intended to finish the sleeve end with on wrong and when I went to fold it over from the inside of the sleeve to the outside I had ended up with the seam on the outside as well.  I ended up having to rip the seams out of both the plaid fabric and part of the sleeve bottom seam.
  • I re-sewed the sleeve seam, then turned the plaid over and sewed it slightly to the inside of the sleeve cuff so that a soft fabric would be against the back of his hand and wrist instead of the rough body of fabric, then sewed it further up the outside of the sleeve to provide a wider contrasting cuff.

Here you see I have sewn the trim about an inch and a half from the end of the cuff to provide the soft fabric against the skin.  The right side of the plaid cuff is sewn to the inside of the sleeve, with the sewn edge toward the cuff.

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I then turned the garment right-side out and pulled the cuff out.

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Fold the cuff around the end of the sleeve and pin it to the outside of the sleeve with the edge tucked under.  There was no magic number for how deep I made the cuff, I just picked a length that looked ‘about right’ and went for it.  You can always cut a bit long and trim down if you are worried about cutting too short.

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Step 14 You now have a fully constructed garment, but it isn’t yet finished.  You will need to finish the sleeve cuffs (if you don’t use the contrasting fabric method I did above), bottom hem, and the seams so they look finished and don’t unravel!  I will leave it to others to give a variety of seam finish options.   Here is a good one for Viking garments, as part of a tutorial for an apron dress.

The hem and cuffs can be finished on a machine by turning them under twice to hide the raw edge, but a nice hand finish looks very nice on period garments!

In this case I used more of my contrasting plaid fabric to finish the cuff, and used a blanket stitch on the bottom hem.  Despite kitty’s “help”.

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This is me trying to finish the hem, while the cat decides this is a purfectly awesome place to sleep.

So that’s it!  That is my tutorial for the absolute beginner from a relative novice who still stumbles through this whole ‘garb’ thing sometimes.

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If you don’t want the whole rambling tutorial with pictures and just need a quick refresher on the steps, here ya go:

Quick Steps

  1. Purchase fabric, keeping in mind fabric width, garment length, and pattern orientations.
  2. Pre-wash according to final garment care.
  3. Account for fabric patterns, garment size, etc.
  4. Lay out garment pieces
  5. Using a well-fitting shirt, cut body
  6. Cut godets and gussets
  7. Cut the sleeves
  8. Locate neck hole, if required sew the shoulder seam
  9. Cut neck-hole/liner
  10. Attach godets
  11. Attach gussets to sleeves
  12. Attach sleeve
  13. Sew sides
  14. Finish cuffs, hem, and seams

2 thoughts on “Sewing Tutorial: To An Absolute Beginner from a Relative Novice

  1. Oh my goodness! This is a great tutorial. I was very confused before and could not picture how things went together, but now I think I might be able to do this. Thanks!

    Like

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