I once read a tip that was said to separate the professional tailor from the novice: Ironing. I hated ironing, I abhorred it. I didn’t see how applying heat could possibly make that big of a difference, but I made myself not only do it but research it as well. And a noticeable change in the quality of my work was quickly seen.
For the best possible results, iron your work flat first. This helps lock the stitches in place in the fabric. Only after ironing everything down flat should you press open the seams.
If you are making anything beyond curtains–and you probably are–buy an ironing ham. These ham-shaped pillows are hard enough to iron your work on and have numerous possible angles you can use in place of an ironing board to smooth out curves. Currently these sell in the range of ten dollars. I do not suggest making your own as it is neigh impossible to reach the necessary density at home.
I also keep a book handy that addresses tips and information on a multitude of fabric types. This information can just as easily be accessed on the internet now, so I don’t think a hard copy is essential. For whatever material you’re working with (and do pay attention to the type and content of the cloth you plan to work with) , look it up online to find recommended ironing settings, ease of use, and other information.
Having said that, choose your fabric wisely. Cheap fabrics have a great draw thanks to their price, but they are not often the best fit for your project. I used to try to work in almost exclusively bargain-priced fabrics, but they start at low prices for good reason. I would caution that most of these fabrics aren’t even worth practicing on. Many would ideally require special sewing feet to work with properly and cannot be washed or ironed because of their low quality. Working with low quality materials makes the entire process of costuming quite daunting. A good alternative for the budget-conscious is to seek out discounted/out-of-season fabrics. I also buy large cotton sheets at thrift stores for drafting and lining material on personal projects. This is a great way to get a large amount of fabric at an affordable price.
Find the right material for each project. After deciding what costume or costume piece you plan to work on, look into what materials other makers have used for similar items. This will give you a good starting guideline. If you are using a pre-made/packaged pattern, suggested cloth types can often be found in the instructions (normally on the outside of the packaging itself).
As humans come in all shapes and sizes, keep in mind that anything mass produced won’t fit everyone perfectly. This applies to both clothing and patterns. Though patterns are an excellent start for a unique garment, proper customization and fitting beyond what the pattern gives you are essential for a good fit and custom result.
Any type of crafting can get frustrating at times, but I’ve found sewing to be particularly so. Know when to step away. There is no shame in taking a break. We all get flustered from time to time, and some of the intricate cutting and stitching you may be getting into will be greatly hindered by your frustrations. The cloth will not always bend exactly to your will. This is to be expected. As with any artistic project, you may need to take a break from it and examine how to tackle it from a new angle or with different tools. Scheduling breaks has never worked for me. Usually, once I delve into a project, I become quite singularly-minded. I have sewn enough now to largely understand my limits and can take a break when irritation approaches. I will admit that I’ve stowed projects away for a week or two at a time on a regular basis. On at least one occasion, a project was hidden away for months before going back to it; and this was only after sudden inspiration hit as to how I could continue it.
Draft in muslin or lining material. This is an entire additional process for many costumers, but it’s worth it. To make an initial draft of your garment, use any material that you would ultimately use for lining. Polyester clothing lining is fairly cheap per yard, and I normally use muslin for projects done in cotton or cotton blends. In lieu of stitching everything together, pin the pieces together–you will use a lot of pins to get a good result–and carefully wear the piece (or have it worn by whomever this is ultimately for) in order to adjust pinning for a good fit void of wrinkles and uncomfortable pulling.
Only after you have achieved a good fit through pinning and on-body adjustments, trim the material down (while remembering your seam allowances) and use the draft as the pattern for your final garment. The draft can then be stitched together and used as the garment lining. Linings generally smooth out the body and make the finished piece a lot nicer and more comfortable.
Alternatively, save the cheap/lining material as a pattern for subsequent work. Often I use the draft to outline a pattern on large format paper before stitching it together. Once you put that much fitting work into something, it’s nice to keep a copy, especially if the work is something you plan to repeat in similar form in the future.
One of the most uncomfortable sewing aspects (at least for me) was to get used to clipping seam allowances in curves after stitching and pressing your projects flat. Seam allowances in both convex and concave curves require small periodic cuts perpendicular to your stitch line that come very close to your stitching. This prevents the fabric past your seam from restricting movement in the curve. In most cases, I find that I make such cuts approximately 3/4″ apart. Until you have had a lot of practice, I recommend making these cuts at a very slow pace in order to avoid accidentally clipping too far into your project.
Beyond ironing and clipping seam allowance curves, I’ve found that top stitching yields a very polished look. This is a visible stitch from the outside of the garment done by stitching one or both sides of your seam allowance down flat.
One of my best tips is to periodically make something fun. As daunting as sewing can be, make sure to throw in small, low stress projects. Do this when you have scrap lying around, find a quirky fabric you love, or inspiration just hits you. It fuels your creative drive and re-energizes your sewing efforts. This could be a simpler tote bag, a craft project, a gift, or a creepy rag doll–go with whatever hits your mind!
It’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time, so remember that not everyone will share your tastes and interests. As much as fad items and trends are crowd pleasers, you are an individual. Never fear deviation from the masses. Find projects that appeal directly to you, and sewing will yield a lifetime of personal reward.