Sew, What's New?

Curating sewing and quilting talent, techniques, and tutorials, since 1997.



By Sara Cornthwaite

Although, I am not a super (or Master) seamstress, I can follow a pattern and sew. So when my husband said he would attend the annual Jane Austen Evening (late 1700s to early 1800s costumes) with me if I made him an outfit, I was extremely excited. The Regency is my favorite time period! I love balls but was scared to tackle such a new project.

You may ask what caused my fear. Well, JC was very particular about what type of outfit he wanted - a Naval Officer's uniform just like Horatio Hornblower. He made it very clear that he did not want it to look like a costume but an authentic set of clothes. I've never taken on such a task as this; I had no clue where to start.

When you were first starting out in making historical clothing, you may have been in a similar situation as me. So based on this project, here are a few things that I found extremely valuable throughout the process. I hope they will be a good checklist for you in all your sewing projects.

Good Sharp Scissors (both large and small pairs) - I keep my big, heavy-duty scissors on my fabric table for cutting through my fabric My little pair is right next to my machine for cutting thread and any other little pieces. This way, I do not have to constantly move my scissors from one location to the next; they are always where I need them. I spend a lot less time looking for them too because I can't remember the last place I had them.

Thimble - Something my mom never used, so I never used it until JC agreed to help me sew the buttons on his uniform. The coat had 19, the waistcoat 8, and 12 on the breeches. Well, he asked for a thimble. For thinner fabrics, it has never seemed to be needed, but the thimble sure does help with the thicker fabrics.

Bolt of Muslin - I was never one to have to do any more than I needed, so making a mock-up of an outfit before actually sewing the real thing was really hard for me to get used to. But after spending a good amount of money on the fabric, I did not want to mess up and waste any. Muslin mock-ups were necessary and I'm so glad I took the time. If you can get a coupon to your favorite fabric store, buying a whole bolt of muslin is a great buy. Muslin is great not only for mock-ups, but also for the lining of your skirts, petticoats and undergarments. Having it on hand is a huge time and money saver.

Pattern or Parchment Paper - After the mock-up is complete, try it on and mark on it to make all your adjustments. Then take it off and take it apart (Hint: Make sure to not do a small stitch on your mock-ups or taking them apart later will be a huge chore - it's more of a basting seam than a real seam). Trace your adjusted mock-up onto parchment paper and make your new pattern pieces. You will then use these to cut out your fashion fabric pieces.

Seam Ripper - I hate using this because it means extra work, but it's a must, as I'm sure you well know.

All Your Materials on Hand - This is where planning ahead really comes in - it can save you a lot of time. I had to make many trips to the store during the construction because I kept forgetting things that I needed. Get extra thread, pre-made bindings and other notions and keep with your project fabrics.

Magnetic Pin "Cushion" - This is extremely helpful as you are removing pins. You can simply drop them on the "cushion" and not have to worry about them rolling around or dropping on the floor. It's also a great time-saver as you will not have to be picking up pins from everywhere and push them all back into an actual pin cushion, like the one shown on our blog.

Extra Table Near Your Sewing Table - This may be a luxury for some but it was so useful - I set up my sewing table right next to my dining table and used it as a place keep my sewing instructions, scissors, ruler, and fabric pieces that I was going to use next.

Keep the Scraps - These came in very handy when I had a smaller pattern piece to cut out and didn't want to cut an odd or small shape into my larger fabric piece. Also great for covering buttons and for testing things on, like an erasable marking pen to make sure it actually erases.

Erasable or Disappearing Marking Pen - This handy tool allows you to mark on your fabric any construction marks, button placements, etc. without the fear of leaving a mark on your fabric. Hint: Make sure to always test the pen on a scrap piece of fabric to make sure it actually disappears. Also, if it's erasable pen and not disappearing, you will have to completely wet the fabric to remove the pen markings (I did not know this and just dabbed the areas with a damp cloth and the markings kept coming back until I completely wet the area).

Ironing Board and Iron - After I heard Jennifer say that half your time should be spent at the ironing board, I did! Growing up, my mom did basic sewing and taught me what she knew. But she never did any of the extra things that you "should" do because it also took more time - and with four kids she didn't have extra time. So I grew up taking those same short-cuts, not basting any pieces together or ironing during the process. I never really thought that it was needed, but I also could never figure out why the few clothes that I did make always looked so "home-made." Well, for the officer's uniform, I didn't want to take any chances with how it turned out. After I heard Jennifer make that remark I told myself I would stick to it and I did. I know that a huge part of the success of my garment is due to that.


Clear Ruler - I never thought that this would come in so handy, but now I can't imagine sewing, or rather, altering mock-ups and creating new pattern pieces, without it. This see-through tool allows you to accurately mark on a fabric or pattern piece to the exact spot you need because you simply place the ruler down on the fabric or paper, extend it to where you want it, and mark. No lifting up the ruler to make sure it's in the right spot. I have a 1" ruler and that has suited me well thus far.
May these 12 tips save you time and progress you further to expert dressmaker status.

(To see pictures from this event, visit the Historical Sewing Blog: and click on the January 2008 archive.)

© 2011 Brookwaite Enterprises and Cloak & Corset

Sara Cornthwaite is the Co-Owner of Cloak & Corset, the Premier Source to Historical Clothing Construction. If you're ready to jump-start your sewing projects, learn helpful hints, and have more fun in your historical reenacting, get your FREE sewing tips now at

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Replies to This Post

Great post!  Love your list of ideas.  Would second the need for the bolt of muslin on hand all the time!  I've started tracing my patterns I make, onto the muslin.  Especially the ones I use frequently.  They hold up better than the paper, I just clip them on a hanger, put the paper with notes & clients names on it.......and the hanger goes up on the rack.  Seems easier & quicker than working with envelopes, etc. 



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