Mary Roehr Books & Video
Mary Roehr Books & Video
Mary Roehr Books & Video
Mary Roehr Books & Video
Mary Roehr Books & Video
Mary Roehr Books & Video
30 Top Sewing Secrets


The biggest challenge facing today’s sewers is fit. The most important fitting tool is the muslin test copy or toile, as designers call it. I find it much more effective than taking endless measurements or battling with complicated pattern drafting systems. Purchase basic fitting patterns sold by most pattern companies in the size closest to yours (one for pants and one for a dress) like Vogue 1003 and 1004 (Fig. 1). Cut them out in gingham so you can keep the grainlines straight then cut, slash, pin and alter until they fit. Carefully remove the stitching and trace them onto pattern paper or Pellon.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Use them every time you buy new patterns by placing the patterns on top of the toiles to check for bust, crotch, knee, hip, neckline and elbow placements. Adjust patterns for length and then width. After tracing my muslin dress toile onto Pellon, I sewed it back together and fit it onto a dressform by padding out areas with cotton batting so it was smooth (Fig. 2). Now I use the mannequin for fitting as well as the Pellon pattern. Remember that bodies change over time so your toile may need to be modified accordingly.


The secret to eliminating stress over fit is to recognize your own fitting problems and then learn the corresponding pattern alterations as these indicate body type and will not change significantly over your lifetime. Remember, you do not need to learn how to do every alteration (unless you are operating a sewing business). Just master the ones that apply to you and soon they will become second nature. Since changing lengths is the most common alteration done to both ready-to-wear and home sewn garments, learning how to do hems is a logical place to start.




For professional looking garments, always cut and sew accurately. An eighth of an inch here and an eighth of an inch there can add up quickly and as little as ¼” can make a garment fall completely differently than intended. If sewn edges do not match up, do not cut the excess from one side as many beginners do. This indicates you cut inaccurately, your machine stretched one side, or one side was supposed to be eased. These seemingly insignificant details can have a dramatic effect on the overall appearance of garments.


Developing a wardrobe plan by gradually adding pieces that work with almost everything in your closet is the answer to never having anything to wear. Learn which styles and colors are best for you and concentrate on acquiring clothing to be worn during the most time-consuming activities in your life—for most people this will be casual and comfortable clothing rather than formalwear. Spend the most effort and money on classic styles in muted colors and punctuate them with less expensive or trendy pieces that wear out and can be replaced to keep your wardrobe updated.

While analyzing the wardrobes of many women during complete closet makeovers, I have found that the items of clothing most lacking are colorful tops in both short (or sleeveless) and long sleeves. These can be worn under basic pieces to give color and life, and used to facilitate mixing and matching (Fig. 3- “Colorful tops in various styles and textures are the basis for a workable closet. All of these can be worn with any wardrobe neutral like black, brown, navy, gray, tan, and even tweed.”)

Fig. 3


To appear an inch taller in height and 5 pounds thinner in the hips, make skirt hems ¼” longer in the back than the front (Fig. 4- “Dotted lines indicate a straight hem. Make yours ¼” longer in the back.”).

Simply mark the hem evenly all around from the floor up and then when you lay the garment out to alter it, lengthen ¼” at the back and taper up to the front marks.

Fig. 4


To make skirts and pants look chic, peg skirt hems and taper pant hems. In general, this is also very slenderizing. Straight skirt hems can usually be tapered an inch on each side for a total of 4” (Fig. 5). Standard pant hems, which usually measure about 9” across when the pants are laid flat, can be tapered to 8 or 8 ½” (Fig. 6).

Fig. 5 (above)
Fig. 6 (at right)


To keep dresses, blouses, tops, and jackets from looking dowdy, make sleeves the proper length (Fig 7). Sleeve hems should just touch the top of the hands when they are folded up at the wrists (Fig. 8). When measuring, be sure to mark each side to allow for variations in arm lengths. Winter coat sleeves should be ½” to 1” longer to cover garments warn underneath.

Fig. 7

Fig. 8


Altering clothing after weight loss is not done by sizes but is determined by the amount of weight lost and where each individual has lost it. You cannot take garments in uniformly because people do not carry or lose weight uniformly. It is generally not worth altering garments if you have lost more than 35 pounds because the lines and proportions become too distorted.




To prevent pant hems from looking “high water” and to give a custom touch, make them ¼” longer in the back than the front. This is called a “tip” because you are tipping the hem downward in the back (Fig. 9). Formerly done as a matter of course in both women’s and men’s pants, tipping is rarely seen in ready-to-wear garments, but we as sewers can apply these custom touches to our garments and look a cut above everyone who does not sew.

Fig. 9
(at right)


Men’s clothes are easier to alter than women’s because they are made to be altered and contain extra fabric in the sleeves, waists, sideseams, and crotches. In addition, men wear far fewer styles than women so once you master individual men’s alterations they are always done that way with no variation, whereas each woman’s alteration can be done in a variety of ways depending on the style and how individual weight is carried. Those who are business minded should know that since men’s clothing is usually purchased as an investment and women’s clothing is based on fashion that quickly becomes obsolete, men are usually more willing to pay higher alteration prices than women.




To look more youthful and balance hips and bust, always use shoulder pads especially if you are over 40 years old. Position shoulder pads on the edges of your shoulders no matter what width your shoulders are, rather than letting them droop (Fig. 10). Uniform pads about 3/8” thick are usually sufficient to uplift garments and make shoulders erect rather than rounded (Fig. 11).

Fig. 10 (above)
Fig. 11 (at right)


To disguise a protruding tummy, wear low cut waistbands rather than ones that come up over the stomach; do not tuck tops in (refer to Fig. 15), and tie blouses in a knot at the front of the waist (see shawl in Fig. 13). When sewing, always angle pleats rather than making them straight (Fig. 12) and do not sew them down. Press them over a ham to simulate the curve of your tummy rather than flat on an ironing board.

Fig. 12
(at left)


To remedy poor clothing choices or outfits that do not work, alter accordingly and/or combine them with other items for a more appealing and appropriate look. Marilyn loved the beautiful hand painted fabric in her flowing blouse and skirt but always felt dowdy and uncomfortable wearing it. We added shoulder pads to the blouse, shortened the sleeves, and paired it as an over top with white capris or black pants. The skirt can be worn unchanged with a black tank top and hand knit shawl cinched at the waist (Fig. 13). Karen loved the brightly colored flowers on her long dress and jacket, but some of the boldest flowers on the dress were poorly placed and not flattering. The jacket combined with black capris and a green tee allowed her to use the better part of the outfit in a new and attractive way
(Fig. 14).

Fig. 13
(Marilyn at right)

Fig. 14 (Karen)

Fig. 15 (Karen)


To age elegantly and with class, always keep updated. This means not clinging to outmoded fashions as well as old hairstyles and make-up. Karen traded in her “old favorite” polo shirt and plaid shorts for a knit top, overblouse, and tights that are slenderizing and comfortable as well as good looking (Fig. 15). Using color next to the face (here we changed from the light tan polo to the green knit top) always uplifts and adds life to the wearer as well as the outfit.


To disguise less than perfect upper arms, try to be creative. When sewing, extend short sleeves to the bend of the elbows (Fig. 16) rather than hemming them several inches above the elbows as most patterns do. Lightweight sweaters or lace tops can be worn over sleeveless garments to disguise arms and add shape to outfits (Fig. 17). Sleeveless dresses can be enhanced by making and adding sleeves of sheer fabric that give the illusion of wearing sleeveless designs without really showing the arms (Fig. 18).

Fig. 16

Fig. 17 (Marilyn)

Fig. 18


Tailored garments are the great equalizer. Fabrics used for tailoring are classic and they drape well to disguise and conceal all manner of figure irregularities (Fig 19). In addition, making jackets and coats is easier than sewing blouses, skirts or pants because there are fewer pattern pieces and the fabrics are heavier, not slippery and easier to sew and press. Tailored garments do not fit as snugly as other garments so many fitting problems are also eliminated.

Fig. 19


To give jackets and coats pizzazz, contour the usually straight center back seam by taking it in ½” (1” total) at the waistline and taper up to nothing and down to nothing (Fig. 20). To appear thinner in double-breasted jackets, move the top two sets of buttons about ½” closer together (Fig 21). Both alterations can also be done to blouses and dresses as well.

Fig. 20

Fig. 21


To slenderize hips when sewing jackets and coats, move pockets ½ to 1” toward the back past the normal pocket positions on patterns. This allows them to curve around the sides of the body rather than stick out and widen the front (Fig. 22).

Fig. 22


To update traditional jackets or blazers, turn the collars up, wear a scarf around the neck that drapes on each side over the bust and/or cinch jackets with a belt. Push sleeves up and secure them at just below the elbows with rubber bands or sleeve garters. Opt for brightly colored tops or blouses rather than black or other neutrals (Fig. 23).

Fig. 23
(at right)


Most people know you should press as you sew, but the key is directional pressing, or pressing with the grainline of the fabric such as in pressing hems up and down rather than back and forth (Fig. 24). This prevents distortion and requires fewer strokes over wrinkled areas. Employ this technique for ironing shirts, putting creases in pants, pressing seams open, quilting, or literally anytime you use your iron.




Getting fusible interfacing to stick has a threefold solution. First, preshrink fusible interfacing by steam shrinking--holding an iron above the fabric and allowing steam to penetrate it (Fig. 25) -- rather than soaking it in water as this partially dissolves the adhesive. Secondly, fuse one area for the allotted time, then lift and move the iron to another area rather than sliding it to prevent smearing the interfacing. Thirdly, the most important step is to let whatever you have fused become cool and dry in that position before you move it. This is called “setting the press” and is essential to permanent fusing.

Fig. 24

Fig. 25


To extend the life of your iron and to avoid scorching fabrics, never turn your iron above the steam setting. More heat does not aid pressing--more PRESSURE and more steam when appropriate are the keys! Be aware that using the proper water in your iron is extremely important (many irons have been engineered to use tap water rather than distilled) and this together with emptying the water each time you iron can prevent spitting and leaking.


Charging appropriately is essential to operating a successful sewing business. I have talked with hundreds of people who sew for profit and I have never met one who charged enough or who went out of business because their prices were too high. If you are wondering whether you are charging enough, you probably are not (Fig. 26). Most people do not charge enough because of self-esteem issues or they do not know how to justify their prices.

Fig. 26


To justify prices, always write them down rather than quoting them off the top of your head. This is professional and eliminates bargaining. Price lists can be presented directly to customers or can be posted in fitting areas. I do not recommend giving copies to customers because they can become outdated and lead to confusion.




Staying in business requires raising your prices 5 to 10% each year to keep up with the cost of living just as other businesses do. For instance, if you charge $10.00 for a pant hem one year, the price should go to $10.50 or $11.00 the next. Small price increases are easily understood and accepted by clients, but waiting until your profit margin is too low or non-existent and then implementing large increases can be intolerable or unacceptable.


In general doing alterations is more lucrative than custom sewing. Alterations are more easily completed and you can charge proportionately more than for custom sewing where trying to get a good fit can go on indefinitely. This is not to say you cannot make money in custom sewing, you can, but you have to do big ticket items like tailored garments (suits and coats), bridal, or formalwear rather than normal blouses, dresses, and skirts. Other areas like home decorating, pants fitting, quantity machine embroidery, or custom designing and pattern drafting can also be extremely lucrative (Fig. 27).

Fig. 27


The secret to satisfied customers is communication and assertiveness. Always write a complete description of work to be done in advance and read it over together. Schedule future fittings during the initial meeting. Do not let customers take completed garments home without trying them on first. Stand behind them in front of a mirror and check garments from top to bottom to make sure all details are correct. For custom work, always require at least 50% down and the balance on delivery- no exceptions! If clients offer to pay in advance, always accept—they may not have the money later and they will be more likely to retrieve garments on time.




To eliminate possible failures, do not commit to any sewing job unless you can personally afford to replace the garment or fabric if something goes wrong that is your fault. This removes the fear factor. I learned this lesson early in my career when a man brought me his family’s Tartan plaid to be made into a sport coat. At that time Tartans could only be bought in Scotland and were extremely expensive. I agonized for weeks before cutting because if I made a mistake, it would be nearly impossible and very costly to replace the fabric. In the end, the sport coat turned out well, but I never again accepted an order that I could not easily or affordably replace if something went wrong. This applies to alterations as well as custom work.




Coping with burn-out, which is characterized by stress, fatigue, and wanting to quit your business, is twofold. You need to immediately do one of the following or both:  raise your prices and/or take a vacation. Being overly busy is an automatic indication that your prices are too low and you need to raise them. This can be done as a set percentage for all prices or individually as you see fit. By raising prices you will find yourself working less and making more. Burn-out is a natural result of overwork and is rampant in new business owners who never take time off. Scheduling short breaks as well as vacations actually contributes more to productivity than working constantly.


The secret to happiness in the world of sewing (or anywhere else for that matter) is to keep a sense of humor. The first cartoon (Fig. 28) actually happened in one of the first sewing classes I taught. It provided a great laugh and tension breaker as well as a cheerful reminder to pay attention to details when sewing. The second cartoon (Fig. 29) pretty much says it all and reflects sewers’ unfailing ability to adjust to what could be unpleasant circumstances.

Fig. 28

Fig. 29

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Mary Roehr Books & Video

Mary Roehr Books & Video