Start to Dressmake with Confidence

Arm yourself with sewing techniques to ensure great results (Vogue Pattern 9108)
Arm yourself with sewing techniques to ensure great results (Vogue Pattern 9108)

In January last year I wrote a blog answering some FAQs on choosing pattern sizing, measuring and cutting out patterns. A year on and I will now answer some of the sewing technique queries I often get asked about. Arm yourself with these tips and you can be sure of great success with your dressmaking. And if you do want to check out the blog abut choosing pattern sizing etc, it’s in the archives.


Stay stitch around the neckline to prevent it stretching out of shape, ease stitch sleeves in for a smooth insertion (McCall 7535)

What is stay stitching and why is it needed?
Stay stitching is a line of stitching which helps prevent the fabric stretching out of shape during handling and making up the garment. Use a regular stitch length (2.2 – 2.5) and sew just inside the seam line on the seam allowance. This remains in place, but will not be visible once the seams are sewn.

What is ease stitching?
This is also row of stitching, but this time it is to help ‘ease’ in a curved seam, particularly into a straight edge. You will use ease stitching around sleeve heads, on a circular hem allowance and sometimes on princess seams. Again stitch on the seam allowance, about 6mm – 10mm from the edge but with a long stitch length of 4.5 – 5. You can then gently pull up the stitching a little to ease in the fabric edge to fit the straight edge and match notches etc. Any tiny gathers should only be in the seam allowance and not beyond the seam line once the seam is stitched.

Darts are used for shaping to shape around the bust or slim fit into the torso (McCall 7085)

My dress pattern includes darts, what are these for and how do I make them?
Darts are used to shape a garment, taking out extra fullness to provide a good fit at the waist, through the body and of course to shape the fabric around the bust. They provide the 3D element in a garment – rather than having flat fabric pieces that fit where they touch, you can create fit by stitching darts to add shape. Bust darts come from the side seam to approx 2.5cm from the bust point (fullest part of the bust) and should be pressed over a ‘ham’ which is a firm curved shape (that looks like a ham, hence the name). This enables you to press the stitching but retain the curved shape created. Waist darts are used to shape trousers and skirts from waist to hip. Avoid making darts wider than 2.5cm at the top before the fabric is folded as they will be impossible to make flat and smooth at the tapered point. If you are a true pear shape and need to take out more fabric because the difference between waist and hip is greater than ‘average’, rather than have 2 wide darts at the back of the skirt, have 4, two either side of the centre back seam that are easier to taper smoothly.

Double ended darts are stitched from the wide centre to the point at one end and then centre to other point. (Butterick 6582)

Double ended darts are used in the bodice and are vertical. They are wide in the centre tapering to points at either end, helping to fit the garment through the torso.

It is good advise to stitch all darts from the widest part to the tip, taking the final 2-3 stitches right on the fold of the fabric. This includes the double ended darts, so for them you stitch from the centre to the point at one end, and then overlap the stitching at the centre and stitch again down to the other point. Press horizontal darts downwards and vertical darts towards the centre. For double ended darts you may also need/want to cut a wedge shape out of the folded fabric at the fullest centre part so that the fabric can more easily curve with the body.

An invisible zip is a great finish – no stitching on the right side of garment and just a tiny zip pull visible (Butterick 5998)

What is an invisible or concealed zip and how is it different?
An invisible, or concealed, zip is one with the teeth on the underside so they are not visible from the right side of the zip. A regular zip has teeth on the right side of the zip topped with a zip pull. When inserted, the teeth face outwards. On an invisible zip, as the teeth are on the underside, they face towards the body.

An invisible zip is sewn to the seam allowances only so there is also no visible stitching on the right side of the garment and it is inserted before the rest of the seam is sewn. All that should be seen is the little zip pull at the top. It is the easiest zip to insert, once you know how (!) and is best sewn in place with an invisible zip foot – which has two deep grooves on the underside, through which the teeth are fed as you sew virtually underneath the teeth.

Finishing seam edges neatly turns a garment from homemade to hand crafted

I want my garment to look professional, do you have any advice for finishing seams?
Finishing seams properly can turn a garment from homemade to hand crafted. It is vitally important to finish and press seams all the way through the garment construction process. Once sewn, press the seam before you stitch over it again. Depending on the weight of the fabric, you can press seam allowances together or apart (lightweight fabrics can have seam allowances finished together, on medium or heavyweight fabrics, press them open and neaten each separately).  You then need to neaten, clip and notch seams depending on whether they are curved or not.

To neaten, use an overlocker if available – this is the fastest and neatest way to encase raw edges to prevent fraying and provide a neat finish. Otherwise you can use an overedge stitch with your overedge foot (this is often one of the basic feet provided with a sewing machine, it has a metal bar in the aperture and a guide that protrudes below the foot, or a thicker right toe). Line up the guide or thicker toe with the edge of the fabric and choose the overedge stitch – this has a straight stitch to the left with a zigzag stitch to the right which goes over the metal bars holding the fabric edge flat and over the edge of the fabric. An alternative is the zigzag stitch, which you sew along the seam allowance and then trim the allowances close to the zigzag.

For curved seams you need to clip and notch the seam allowances so they will lay flat. Clip diagonally into inner curves and take wedge shape notches from outer curves. On thick fabrics, you need to grade the seam allowances at collars, cuffs and facings to minimise bulk in the seams – to do this, trim one to 10mm and the other to 6mm.

Neaten the raw edges of an unlined jacket with Hong Kong seams (Vogue Pattern 9133)

For garments that you will see the inside of, you can sew seams with a French seam that neatly encases the raw edges, or finish seam allowances with a Hong Kong finish (wrap bias tape around the seam allowance and sew in place to the seam allowance only). A Hong Kong finish is perfect for unlined jackets or heavier fabrics.


I hope these tips help. Enjoy sewing.