I have an advantage over the average learner, being that I share a house with a pattern maker who is, well, rather good at all of this. So, if you think I'm a genius for doing so much so quickly, just remember this advantage and don't be discouraged: When I got stuck, I stopped what I was doing and sat down. After a while, the answer usually came to me.
Step 0: Gather resources
If you have a seamstress/tailor at hand you'll be well ahead. I have a good in-house resource but if you don't, you're not lost yet. Most women over 60 will be able to sew and willing to help you, so find a relative.
Most pattern publishers will have a book full of tips and techniques. They'll also explain the terms sewers use. I have the Butterick, Vogue, McCalls and two Simplicity books (1957 and 1974). The Butterick book was from ebay ($9) and was published in 1949. The rest were all from op shops and church/garage sales.
The third resource is the Internet, which you clearly have already. I was still unsure about putting a zipper in my daughter's dress, so I watched a youtube video. Problem solved.
Step 1: Buy sewing stuff
I got my machine from various places, and they were all really cheap. If you want an old sewing machine, they're easily obtainable from op shops (although all the ones I've seen are around $65), car swap meets where I've seen many from $10 to $30 (my Aussie Pinnock, in mint condition as well as a hand operated 1930s Jones). You also have the option of collectibles bazaars. In the Glen Waverley one there are several machines available, from $19 upwards. If you want a new machine you're looking at a Chinese option. New machines are definitely not my area but you can buy one for just over $100. They're lighter than the old ones but I personally wouldn't have one. If you're after a classic Singer (black and silver) with a treadle and table, you need deep pockets (a very average one will still set you back nearly $200), but I saw an electric Singer black and silver machine there a few months ago for $65! Even more surprising is that it sat near the front counter for over a month before someone bought it. I wasn't tempted, since it was still more than my budget allowed (hard for me to justify spending that much on any machine). Here's the best reason to buy a Singer over a Pinnock: Support. They are still around today and support their machines back to the 1950s models (at least). They have always been extremely popular, so they're very easy to find. Parts are easy to get and cheap (sewparts have an excellent stock of Singer parts) and Singer, being around in the Internet era, offer manuals as free downloads. I chose a Pinnock and have a lot of trouble finding manuals and parts, but with lots of spare machines, I hope it will go on for a while yet.
You'll also need hand sewing stuff. This is all pretty cheap and I can recommend sewparts in Victoria Street. By far the friendliest and most helpful shop I've been to. No, I don't work there, have shares or get a commission: When people are all nice and helpful, you want to go back there and tell everyone. They also have the basic sewing stuff very cheap (in the front window). You'll need two packs of pins, extra needles and bobbins for your machine and some thread (black, white and colours to match the fabrics in your first pattern) as well as a fabric tape measure, tailors chalk and a good pair of fabric scissors.
A large table is helpful to cut your fabric on, and an iron and ironing board are absolutely essential (you have to iron the pattern flat before cutting, and almost every time you do something).
Step 2: Choose a pattern
You have to have a pattern. Trying to make clothes without one is pointless. Even in Victorian times they used them. You must measure the person you're making the clothes for, as will be mentioned in your book. Chest (widest part), waist (narrowest part) and hips (widest) are the measurements you need. Write it down in inches and centimetres if you're thinking about old patterns, or just centimetres if you'll stick to new.
I like vintage clothes, so I get my patterns from op shops. They aren't that easy to find but if you find a good shop, they're usually about 20 to 50 cents each.If you don't want to trawl through thousands of modern patterns to get to the good vintage stuff, go to the aforementioned bazaar. There are at least two really good stalls that sell just vintage patterns for about $5.
If you have children of either gender you'll find a large choice. Kids' clothes are easier to make in general, and women (only women ever made women's and kids' clothing) seldom made their own clothes, it seems. So if you have kids, look for a kids pattern to start with.
Incidentally, it pays to like the older designs. New patterns are more work (you have to cut them from a big sheet, whereas secondhand ones have been done already) as well as more expensive (my eldest daughter found one at Savers with an original price of $27.50!).
Here's my first vintage dress pattern:
|Simplicity 5993 (1966)|
This is actually written on the pattern. Have a look at the back and you'll see what type of fabric should be used. There are usually two or three, but cotton is normal for kids' clothing. My girl chose a pattern that included a lined jacket (bottom centre in the pattern photo), so I had to ask for "shirting" for the jacket. My resource #1 had loads of light blue polka dot dress fabric, which the girl said would be perfect.
Spotlight and Lincraft are the shops I buy fabric from. Op shops are a bit useless for fabric, since they only ever get people's off cuts (usually much less than a metre long) and they aren't all that cheap anyway.
OK, that's about all I can write in one session (I have a dress to make for resource #1 for an xmas present) so here is how Simplicity 5993 turned out: