Sewing for beginners with Tilly and the Buttons

Tilly and The Buttons Beginners Sewing Tips

Tilly Walnes answers all your burning beginners’ sewing questions…

If ou’ve been inspired by the Great British Sewing Bee to get stitching but are blinded by all the buttons on your sewing machine, don’t have a clue what a stitch unpicker is, and think basting is what you do to a turkey, never fear!

We hung out with Tilly Walnes of Tilly and the Buttons (and also Great British Sewing Bee alumni herself) to answer all your beginners’ sewing questions so you’ll be stitching like a pro in no time. Plus, Tilly’s Marigold 2-in-1 easy-to-sew jumpsuit and trouser pattern is issue 104’s gift, so who better to answer all your sewing conundrums?

Tilly and The Buttons Beginners Sewing Tips

Don’t worry about getting a fancy machine when you first start sewing. Photo credit: Tilly and the Buttons

What sewing machine is best for beginners?

Tilly says: There are lots of great machines out there with entry-level prices for beginners who don’t need all the bells and whistles of a professional model. Look for a sewing machine that’s full size, with a straight stitch (for most stitching), an adjustable zigzag stitch (for finishing edges and sewing knits), and a buttonhole function. Get one from a well-known brand, as it’ll be easier to find extra parts that fit it and to get it serviced.

Tilly and The Buttons Beginners Sewing Tips

Your machine should come with a button hole attachment. Photo credit: Tilly and the Buttons

How do I sew a buttonhole – do I need a special attachment?

Tilly says: There are two main types – one-step buttonholes, which are sewn automatically by your machine at the touch of a button, and four-step buttonholes, which you sew manually in four stages. Have a quick look at the instructions in your machine’s manual to see which one yours does. Your machine should include a buttonhole foot designed for the type of buttonhole it sews too.

Tilly and The Buttons Beginners Sewing Tips

An overlocker isn’t essential. Photo credit: Tilly and the Buttons

Can I just use my sewing machine if I don’t have an overlocker?

Tilly says: Yes! Overlockers, AKA sergers, are great for sewing stretch knit fabrics and for finishing the seams on woven garments. However, you can use the zigzag on your regular sewing machine for both – a narrow zigzag for joining knits, and a wide zigzag for finishing seams on wovens. I wouldn’t worry about getting an overlocker if you’re just starting out.

Tilly and The Buttons Beginners Sewing Tips

Take your time when you first start sewing and make sure you enjoy it! Photo credit: Tilly and the Buttons

What is interfacing?

Tilly says: Interfacing is used in sewing to add extra structure or firmness to certain areas of a garment – such as cuffs, collars and waistbands. The pattern you’re working with will tell you if you need to get some. There are a few different types – I’d recommend getting the woven type if you can, rather than the papery kind, as it will last longer. Make sure you pick something in a similar weight to your fabric too.

Tilly and The Buttons Beginners Sewing Tips

You can easily create your own bias tape. Photo credit: Tilly and the Buttons

What is bias tape and how do I use it?

Tilly says: Bias binding is useful for creating a neat finish on seams that aren’t attached to anything else and don’t have a facing (that’s material which is sewn on the inside of a garment, especially at the neck and armholes, to strengthen it). The bias cut will allow the binding to stretch slightly, which is handy for getting around curves such as armholes and necklines. You can buy ready-made bias binding relatively easily. Or you can make your own bias binding in a print, colour and width of your choice so it matches the rest of your fabric.


What does baste mean?

Tilly says: Basting, or tacking as it’s also known (which is the British term), is a long stitch used to hold pieces in place temporarily and is usually done by hand. It’s useful to tack seams together before sewing them for real so you can try on your handmade outfit and adjust it to fit. It can also be used to hold a piece in place before attaching another one on top of it later, or to create a guideline for another line of sewing such as topstitching.


What do notches mean on a pattern?

Tilly says: Notches will be indicated on your pattern by either a little triangle or a small line at a right angle to the cutting lines. Make a snip of about 5mm (1/4in) where you see notches when you cut out your fabric. They’ll help you match up the pieces accurately by putting the notches together when it comes to sewing it all together for a final time.

Tilly and The Buttons Beginners Sewing Tips

Don’t fret if you don’t want to cut your paper pattern up. Photo credit: Tilly and the Buttons

How can I use my sewing pattern without cutting it up?

Tilly says: My favourite method is to use dressmaker’s carbon and a tracing wheel. The beauty of this method is it keeps all sizes of the pattern pieces intact, so if you need to adjust the pattern or use a bigger size later on, you can without having to spend time tracing the pattern first. You also don’t need to use your fabric scissors to cut through the paper pattern at the same time, so you won’t dull the blades (so much) and you’ll end up with pieces that have been cut more accurately than if you’d cut the pattern at the same time as the fabric.

Tilly and The Buttons Beginners Sewing Tips

Keep your pins at the ready! Photo credit: Tilly and the Buttons

What side of the fabric do I pin my pattern to?

Tilly says: It’s usually best to pin the pattern to the wrong side of the fabric (the side you wouldn’t see) so you can mark it without leaving marks on the outside of your garment. If I’m trying to pattern match a printed fabric at the seams, I sometimes pin my pattern to the right side instead so you can make sure the pattern flows and be careful with my markings. If you’re sewing something that has different pattern pieces for the right and left side, check the cutting instructions in the pattern for which way up to cut the fabric to make sure it ends up the right way round!

Tilly and The Buttons Beginners Sewing Tips

Take some time to get to know your machine. Photo credit: Tilly and the Buttons

What is backstitching?

Tilly says: Backstitching, or backtacking, is when you sew backwards or reverse stitch at the start and end of a line of stitching to knot the threads in place and stop the stitching unravelling.

Tilly and The Buttons Beginners Sewing Tips

The tools of the trade. Photo credit: Tilly and the Buttons

What tools do I need to start dressmaking?

Tilly says: The main things you’ll need to get started are a pair of fabric scissors, pins, tape measure, seam ripper (for unpicking temporary stitches… and mistakes!), marking tool (such as a chalk pencil), iron and ironing board. You can find these on Amazon, at department stores or indie haberdasheries.

Tilly and The Buttons Beginners Sewing Tips

Threading your machine isn’t as hard as it looks. Photo credit: Tilly and the Buttons

What’s a bobbin and how does it work?

Tilly says: A sewing machine uses two sources of thread. The spool (or reel) of thread that sits on top of the machine and the bobbin of thread that comes up from below. The two sources of thread weave together to create the stitches. You buy the spools of thread in the shops and the bobbins come empty, so before threading the machine, you need to get some of your chosen thread off the spool and onto the bobbin.

For more information on Tilly and to buy her fabulous patterns visit or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.

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