Monday, April 14, 2014

March-April: Top Ten

When I've been away from the blog for so long (almost a month this time! - but you can't say you haven't come to expect it...), once I finally decide to write again, the challenge is figuring out which of the 1,000 things I've thought about or experienced since my last post are worthy of sharing.

^^ I wrote the above paragraph over a week ago, when I meant to participate in the Friday 7 Quick Takes link-up (the idea was to pick 7 things to write about)...and then I got distracted for the rest of that day...the following week...the next Friday went by....and now it's another week!

Our last month has been, undoubtedly, the busiest since our marriage.  And so, I give you, the top 10 things that have happened since my last post:

Let's start with the two biggies first:


Justin became a doctor!

He keeps reminding me that he's not officially a doctor until he finishes formatting his thesis and graduates in May - but he passed his dissertation defense last Thursday, so that's enough for me to start referring to him as "doctor."  (I always think of the story from Randy Pausch's book "The Last Lecture" in which he shares that his mother would proudly announce that her son was a doctor..."but not the kind that helps people.")  So, yeah, there isn't any medicine or surgery in his future, but Justin will be helping the next generation of engineers learn the discipline in his new professor role, so I'm still a very proud wife.


We sold the house!

The house was on the market for 5 days, in which time we had 2 open houses, nearly 20 showings, and (this is the crazy part) 10 offers.  We're still in disbelief over the interest that the house generated, and while it made for a couple of really crazy days, the positive response was really rewarding, as sort of external validation that all of the renovations did take it from an ugly old house to a desirable home (inside at least, the outside - see above - has some work left for the next owner!)  Anyway, the success of the sale was primarily due to our awesome realtor and to the really great market conditions (with two universities in town, there's a frequent housing turnover, and the ridiculous rents make home purchasing a pretty desirable option...and apparently our section of town is really "hot" right now).  The renovations would have probably helped in another location, but I'm not kidding myself that it sold in 5 days (or for the price it did) because of anything we did!

The whole process was overwhelming in a lot of ways (primarily, in finding places to go with a toddler during showings department), but it ended up being less emotionally taxing than I had originally anticipated.  It definitely helps that we know the house is going to be loved as much in the future as it has been by us - and that it will continue to be a place that knows love, laughter, and family time.  It feels like we're passing the baton rather than abandoning our beloved home!


Anna learned that the outside can be something other than "BRR!"

This winter has been so long and so cold that little Anna had forgotten anything other than that.  If she saw a picture in a book of a window, she said "BRR" (even if there were flowers and sunshine drawn outside the window!)  When Daddy left for work, she said "bye bye" and "BRR."  And so now that it's actually possible to go outside again, whenever I mention the possibility to her, she says "BRR."  It's delightful to tell her that it's actually not that cold!  

We've had beautiful weather - especially the last few days, when it's topped 70!  It's lots of fun to take her outside, especially since she appreciates playing outside, and doesn't try to eat grass (which seemed like her primarily outdoor entertainment for most of last summer).

She's finally learning that it's not always cold outside, and mention of going outdoors now more frequently elicits a response of "woof woof...da done"  (dogs, all done; in reference to the two German shepherds next door who aren't really sure what to make of the little pink thing that runs around on the other side of their fence or "BOOPS!" as she runs towards the door and grabs her new rainboots.

We're just ignoring the fact that there's snow on the forecast for later this week.  Ithaca weather is nuts.


I grew a bump!

I realize that this photo utilizes the most bump-hiding angle (as well as most awkward hand placement) possible, but there's a noticeable bump going on now.  Also, despite what this post suggests, Justin doesn't always wear a 3-piece suit (although I wouldn't complain if he did).

Anyway, I went through a stage in which I realized that I actually did not have any clothes that fit.  I would stand in front of my closet and say "I'm not even being dramatic!!  I literally don't have anything to wear!!"  (Of course, in my least dramatic voice possible.  ahem).  My maternity bin didn't help much because most of what I had was dressy work clothes, or hot weather clothes (Anna was born Sept. 3).  I've since remedied the situation with far more time on and eBay than a person should spend (especially one who was doing a major Internet cut-back for Lent), but I thought that in the quest for non-nakedness it was a good trade-off.  

So, the bump is noticeable (at the dinner we attended on Saturday (photo above)), someone said cheerfully in the buffet line "So! You'll have a new little one pretty soon!"  And I had to tell him that I still had 6 months to go.  It reminded me of the time on Mother's Day (3+ months from my due date) when someone told me "at least you don't have to make it through the hot summer!"  Plenty of bumpage yet to come.  Thankfully, I'm feeling more energetic now (to the point that I've actually forgotten a few times that I'm pregnant), and I'm very thankful for the blessing of this new life, despite any expansion and discomfort that comes along with it!


Old habits die hard.

Anyone who thought my absence was due to my incredible Lenten success was thinking too highly of me, I'm afraid.  Although I did start out strong, I fell back pretty quickly to more computer usage than I would like.  Honestly, my need for maternity clothes is what set me back, and then from there the craziness of life meant that I didn't have a lot of energy left, and I ended up clicking on over...and you know the rest.  (tick, tick, tick on the clock!)

I think that the last 40ish days have been fruitful, despite the failure on that front.  I think I still managed to grow spiritually and maybe a little bit in the self-control department (judging by the ice-cream resistance that's going on over here), and I actually plan to return to my more stringent Internet rules - even after Easter - because I know it's the best for me (even if it was unrealistic for me to maintain on top of the other craziness these past few weeks).


Anna and I took a road trip.

We visited my family in Harrisburg a few weeks ago.  It was a whirlwind trip (and we returned a day or two before the house went on the market).  My grandfather, sadly, fell a few weeks ago, and as a result, he and my grandmother are both moving from their home to a retirement community (he's currently in a nursing care section regaining some strength before he can join her in their little apartment).  It's been a stressful month or so for everyone involved - aside from all of the logistics, there's such an emotional component to seeing someone you love in declining health.  Anna and I made the trip to visit with everyone, and to help out where we could (being the only business major in a family of medical professionals meant that I got tasked with lots of paperwork, etc).  Anna was busy in the entertainment and cheer departments, as you can imagine.

My grandfather has always been a picture of health and energy (I specifically remember that on his 70th birthday, he was showing - not telling - my brother how to properly climb a big tree), and so it's all the more difficult to know that he can't physically do all the things he used to do.

This picture (which was very likely his idea) was taken a few Christmases ago, and should give you a little insight into his personality.

So, while things are definitely settling in their situation, I'm sure it wouldn't hurt if you have some prayers to spare.  As I'm learning first-hand, leaving your home is never easy (and we've been here approximately 1/12 the number of years that they were in their home).

Let's see...other (far less notable) events - so I can make this a full-fledged top ten list

(7)  Justin (finally) shaved his "I'm writing a thesis" beard.  It was a nice experimental look while it lasted, but I for one am not disappointed that it's gone!

(8) We tried corned beef and cabbage for the first time (I mention this mostly because it illustrates how busy we've been - I finally cooked our St. Patty's day meal last Wednesday.  Thankfully the meat's got a long shelf life).  It was a hit - a certain small person had to be given little bits at a time after the first plateful was consumed by the fist-full.

(9) We finally finished (almost all) the projects that have been hanging over our heads.  Having to get the house in perfect showing condition meant that all of the tiny tasks that have been nagging me for months finally are done - and I can walk into rooms of the house without spots needing paint touch-ups starting at me.  It definitely feeds my fire about thinking relaxation is much more relaxing when the work is done properly first.

(10) I learned what matters (to me) and what doesn't when it comes to having a "perfect" house.  For the five days the house was on the market (plus some, if you count the inspection time, etc), the house was absolutely spotless.  There wasn't a (clean) dish sitting on the counter, or a fuzz on the carpet, or a piece of trash in the trash cans.  It was surprisingly easy to keep up with all of the work while we needed to (this was of course helped by the fact that we were barely here to mess anything up, and we ate almost every meal out of the house), which was a good lesson in what I can actually get done if I put my mind to it.  It was nice to come home to a spotless house, but I learned that some of those things that I thought were annoying messes aren't so bad.  It's been wonderful to (almost always) keep up with having the bathroom vanity wiped down and the bed made first thing in the morning, but I don't mind that there's toys sprawled across Anna's room.  The spotless house felt pretty sterile and neutral, and was missing some of that concrete personality that comes from rooms being lived in and loved.  I've sort of mentally redefined what I'm chasing - cleanliness and order - but it's definitely not "perfection."  I'd hate to suggest the stress of a house sale to anyone, but it really was a good teacher for me, of a lesson I might not have otherwise learned.  (And of course, like everything I end up professing on the blog, it will be a long work-in-progress as I continue to remember what I'm learning!)

So - yes - crazy last month.  The upcoming one should be far less eventful - although just as exciting, as we're about one month away from learning the gender of this baby!  :)

Friday, March 7, 2014

Make it Do or Do Without

I've often thought about how one of the concepts we've really lost as a society is the old mantra

"Use it up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, or Do Without"

It's pretty much the opposite of our consumerist culture, where we have disposable-everything at our fingertips.

But (like so many things from the past) there's plenty of wisdom in this.  Figuring out how to make something work is economical, and often the creativity and accomplishment makes it quite satisfying.  (Like last spring, when I challenged myself to make this quilt for Anna using only materials I already owned)

I have a recurring problem of items of clothing being too short.  (I'm beginning to think that even cold water shrinks things little by little).  I realized with the "color block" trend (for all I know the trend actually ended two years ago, but please don't tell me if that's true...), I could start fixing things, and not have to keep donating and replacing my favorite things.

The latest project was one of my favorite tunics from Target.  The average American female would have been fine with its original length, but since I'm 27-going-on-72, I require a bit more coverage in the upper-knee region.

So, I cut off the bottom hem, made a quick band of some coordinating navy fabric, and attached it.  Now I can wear it again (for another...2 weeks?...note it's hanging sort of weird in the picture because of early bumpage - that awkward stage where exactly 0% of my clothing fits comfortably or correctly).

Speaking of making do and doing without - this whole remove the Internet temptation thing has been really great.  I'm not going to list everything I got done yesterday (it's embarrassing, not to mention I'd go over today's allotted time for being online).  The biggest benefit is I find without the easy distraction of clicking around online, I'm either doing something I actually want to do, or doing something that is actually restful (who knew, staring at a bright screen at 10 pm does not have that effect).  So then I have more energy to do productive things with Anna or around the house, or tackle little sewing updates that have been sitting on my to-do pile for months (ahem, above tunic).

It fits with my whole discipline/schedule theme, and makes me realize that bringing your life in line with the virtues (here, self-control) makes your life much better.  All the "rules" of faith can be a turn-off to some people, but I think it's fairly obvious that God made them for a reason.  Certainly, there are challenges of doing the right thing (I'm thinking in bigger pictures than using or not using the Internet), and I don't want to minimize that, but the point is that God really has our own happiness in mind when He directs us in certain ways.

So, yeah, I don't think you're supposed to "enjoy" your Lenten sacrifice as much as I have - it's a good thing this was just part of my overall Lenten observations.  Perhaps it will get harder and more of a "sacrifice" later on when the novelty of "hey, look!  I just finished another random thing I've been meaning to do for months" has worn off, but we'll see.  I'm already finding myself less interested in things online, and - happily - less distracted even when I'm on the computer.  I know I have limited time, so I get in and out and do the things I really want to do (like writing this post) and not the things I don't really care about (like a 10th check of Facebook).

Down-side of a quickie-post, I have no clever way to wrap it up.  So...goodbye?  (until next time, of course)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What took me so long?! (Procrastination Analysis, Part 2)

Apparently in my last post, I didn't adequately impress upon you, dear readers, the dire state of home management that I find myself in many days (judging by the "don't worry about the cheerios on the couch" comments!)

So here's another picture, circa 12:30 this afternoon. For more context, I was wearing pajamas when I took the shot.

Anna was down for her nap, and I was trying to finish up a meal plan and grocery list (which absolutely has to be done early in the day, or else I will lose energy and it won't get done and I'll put off the shopping for another day).  

There are all sorts of excuses (many legitimate) for the state of the kitchen, including how awful I felt while cooking dinner the previous evening, how quickly I had to run out after said dinner (thankfully feeling much better!) for a church meeting, the fact that Anna was apparently making a pre-nap soup snack (main ingredient: winter boots) on the steps, etc, etc.  Not to mention that I still haven't gotten out from under this first trimester exhaustion.

I try to cut myself some slack (and appreciate those of you who encourage me in that direction), but the truth is, I know I can do better, and I know I should do better.

In fact, this afternoon, I did do better.  I cleaned one important object out of the kitchen, and the rest of it got tidied in record time (actually, twice, because once it was cleaned up and we grocery shopped, I managed to make another mess making dinner - including Anna's contribution of finding, opening, and distributing a whole new box of freezer bags allllll over the kitchen).

Can you guess what I moved first?

It's not hard - look front and center.

I had grabbed the computer to look up a recipe while working on the meal plan, but (like pretty much every time anyone in the history of the Internet logged on) I found myself clicking on far more than the recipe.  (Each click taking at least the time and some of the energy I needed to pick up just one dish from the piles on every flat surface).  Incidentally, I recall reading Ellen's post during this time, about how part of her Lenten observance is going to be reading the Keeping House book she won in my giveaway this fall (hey Ellen - maybe set aside time to read it twice - a once through clearly wasn't effective enough over here!)

The Internet can be such a challenge - there are so many benefits, but I daresay that most of us haven't figured out how to keep it in check.

In years past, I've given up blogs/Facebook/some combination thereof for Lent.  The problem, though, is it's tough to delineate when I need to go on a site for a legitimate reason (contacting someone for a church project I'm working on, or looking up a favorite recipe I've saved on Pinterest) and when I'm just looking.   And, even so, a moderate amount of just looking can be a good thing, too - especially when it's in keeping or making connections with people.  The all-or-nothing approach also didn't really help after Easter - once I was "free" to check in on things again, I was, well, like the kid who eats every piece of chocolate out of the Easter basket.  I didn't exactly develop lasting habits.

So this year, I've realized that the importance is in moderation.  I've set myself limits for both where and when I can use the computer.  In a few test days (like this afternoon), I've already seen the amount of work I can get done, the amount of extra time I have, the calmness that pervades our home, how much better I feel as a mom and as a wife, etc.

I started this procrastination analysis with things in mind like "I wait on projects that require me to make a decision..." (which is absolutely true, and - don't worry - still coming in part 3), but it hit me squarely the other day that I can think of as many reasons as I want, and none of them will compare to the temptation of the little glowing screen.  There's always one more post to read, one more link to click, one more time to check the email....(and I'm willing to bet I'm preaching to the choir here!)

At our church's playgroup the other week, some of us were talking about raising our kids in our technology-filled world.  As we talked about setting examples for our kids, and about giving full attention to things (instead of one eye on screen, one eye on toddler), I realized I'm not living the life I want to be living, or accomplishing the things I want to accomplish, or - I daresay - being the person God wants me to be.

It's not just about accomplishing more - it's about being intentional about time, working and resting when it's time for each, being fully in each moment as they come, and allowing myself the quiet for the thinking and praying I should do more.  

I'll still be the pregnant mother of a 18-month-old tornado toddler, so you're "don't worry about the cheerios on the couch" comments will still be necessary - but let's all be honest about assigning the blame - it's not all her (or the little one zapping my energy!).  It's all about balance, and having reasonable expectations.  I'll still be tired and probably not accomplishing all that I would like - but that's not an excuse for not keeping up with basic tasks.  I should be resting, yes, but rest implies that it's a break from work - not blatant disregard for responsibility!

If you happen to be joining me in bringing Internet-time in check this Lent, check out this article "Email and the Holy Spirit," which includes this poignant quote:

"When the question “what should I be doing right now?” arises, it is much easier to turn to a simple reactionary activity where we can assume a passive role. Why think about what you should actually do, when you can easily check your email and taste a little bit of artificial efficiency and self-importance?"

I've never gotten to the end of the day and thought "gee, I wish I had spent more time with the computer today."  I'm looking forward to not having the constant nagging of wishing the opposite.

P.S. I finally remedied the shower/sewage situation, so visitors are welcome (hey - between an Internet fast and visitors coming, this place will be pristine! - which (YIKES!) it needs to be in a few short weeks for house showings!)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What took me so long?! (Procrastination Analysis, part 1)

This weekend, we experienced our third annual winter plumbing crisis.  (Actually, they used to be bi-annual, but I guess this old house didn't want us to leave without a parting gift by way of spilled sewage.  Second sidenote, before I get too carried away with parenthesis: for those of you who were keeping track, 2011 was the sewage in the basement crisis, 2013 was the frozen/exploding pipes and leak before the main water shut-off valve, and this year was a sewage back-up outside (caused by tree roots and one errant cloth diaper wipe that accidentally got flushed a few months ago) that turned our vent pipe into a sewage sprinkler (thankfully discovered because we decided to go for a walk on the one day the weather was above 30 degrees!)  In all three crises, we learned just how quickly you can go from happy homeowner to essentially camping in your home without the ability to use running water or sewage disposal, and also how grimy you feel after 48+ hours without showers (bonus grime earned from snaking the sewage pipes which, yes, I helped with).  Justin claims I have an "annoying" habit of being peppy and optimistic afterwards and relaying all of the things that could have been worse, and all of the things we learned from the experience, and while I won't go into that now (I do have several I could list if you were interested), I will note our mutual improvement in handling said plumbing crises.  In fact, I think we even laughed before this one was over.  Anyway, the pipe outside was mostly spewing clean-ish water, since we were simultaneously running the dishwasher and the laundry machine, so there's a silver lining for ya).  We did discover in retrospect that probably a little of the water backed up into the downstairs shower as well.  And that brings me to the point of today's post.  I was beating myself up today about how I still haven't cleaned out the shower (24+ hours after having returned to modern plumbing conveniences) despite the fact that, you know, sewage was in it over the weekend.  Granted, we don't use that shower (unless we have guests), so it's not like our actual showering has been counter-productive.  But it still feels pretty gross to know that it's in there.

But then, the reality of it hit me.  Unless I were to make my tired pregnant self do it after 9 pm (after baby is in bed and dinner dishes are washed and I've checked two or ten blogs), it really couldn't have gotten done today.  Anna didn't nap.  She usually likes to hide in the shower behind the curtain (it's one of the walk-in ones, not a regular bathtub) while I'm doing laundry in that room.  And I need to use bleach.  I couldn't close the door and leave her elsewhere, and I couldn't leave the door open without her coming in to do a dance performance in the half-sewaged, half-bleached shower.

I guess all of this is to say that I walk the fine line between wanting to meet my own high expectations, and realizing that some of them are just unrealistically high.

Between motivating myself to do what I should, and not being frustrated about not doing what I can't.

Between writing a lot of posts like this:  Advice from a Singer Sewing Manual 

And living a lot of days like this:

(Not pictured: my camp-out on the other side of the sofa where I sat (probably in pajamas, breaking every other helpful lesson I listed in that previous post).  Also not pictured, probably at least one meal's worth of dishes on the table).

There's plenty that I don't get done because of my own laziness and my own distractions and willingness to leave a mess in one room and go hide in another, but there's also plenty I don't get done because I'm primarily taking care of a busy 1 year old who often necessitates the quick exit from a room to be saved from a precarious new climbing location, or because she has a diaper issue and we fix that and get distracted by 10 other things before we come back to put away the breakfast cereal.

Most of the time, I write posts like this because it's reassuring and helpful for myself to analyze my life and identify the things that I can change and the things that I can't, to challenge myself to deal with the ones in the first category and stop beating myself up over the ones in the second.  But I also recognize - in the isolating modern world of stay-at-home-moms - that reading about how other people are dealing with the challenges and rising to the occasion has been incredibly helpful to me, and so I write things like this for my mom friends as a sort of solidarity/sisterhood of "yeah, me too."  Although I'm probably the only one with lingering effects of sewage back-up in my shower.

This started out as an introduction to a post about the reasons I procrastinate on house projects (after so many "what took me so long" comments to myself, I finally sat down and figured out what did take me so long to do a bunch of things, and the reasons were pretty enlightening (at least to me)).  I'm going to call it a day now, but look forward to that riveting installment of my "why I procrastinate" series.  You know, whenever I get around to it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Anna's new shirt! (and various ramblings thereupon)

Just popping in to share Anna's new shirt (in a blurry cell phone picture, which ended up being the best I have, even after a photo shoot with the good camera):

Frequently asked questions:

I'm due October 1, so I'm about 8 weeks along now.  I'm feeling, well, like I'm 8 weeks pregnant, which is marked most notably by the extreme exhaustion that plagued my first trimester with Anna.  I'm a bit more sick this time around (I basically wasn't at all with her), but much less dizzy.  Last time it felt like a light switch was switched and I had my energy back the day my second trimester started (I felt so much better I thought, hey, I bet that second trimester is coming up, so I looked at the calendar and literally the day I felt better was the first day of the second trimester) so I'm hoping that will happen again this time, especially since we'll be putting the house up on the market right around that time!  (Translation, my housekeeping will have to step it up a notch from my current lounge-around-eating-Rice-Chex-with-Anna-all-day standards.  You can tell how tired I was in a day by how many crumbs I let her leave on the couch/bed/other random places where food is usually a big no-no!)  

Speaking of moving, all of the biggest changes (house sale / packing / moving) will occur when I'm in the (energetic!) second trimester, and we should be settled in time to be set-up in time for Justin's semester to start (in his new role as professor!) and to get ready for baby #2.  The pregnancy has made me (surprisingly) far more calm about the whole moving thing, and much less sappy/emotional about leaving our house.  I think having a new little someone to look forward to has made me realize that this chapter (while a very sweet chapter) was only one in our book of life, and - God willing - we have lots more to come for our family.  With my limited energy, I've found myself allotting it more practically to a to-do list of preparations (and napping) and less to all of the associated emotions.  

We plan to find out the gender again as soon as we can, although our Italian neighbor and her (remarkable 11 for 11 prediction record) says that it's a boy.  Last time I had a strong (and obviously correct) feeling that it was a girl, and this time I think boy, but with less conviction than I had about Anna (although my thoughts are probably heavily influenced by aforementioned gender predictions from across the street).  We've been tossing around names and have pretty much settled on a boy's name and have 3 or 4 favorites for a girl.  We'll probably chose around the time of the 20-week ultrasound again and begin referring (publicly) to the child by name.  I have to admit, I thought that idea was totally weird the first time I heard someone doing it, but it felt natural and made sense to us with Anna - and I think it was a reflection of our strongly-held pro-life belief that the baby is a baby from the moment of conception, and doesn't become one at birth.  I respect that not everyone wants to share their chosen name before the baby's birth, but it just works for us.  Calling her by name gave me such a connection to Anna as a little person even before she was born, and I find it really weird to now be back at the stage of pregnancy where there's a little someone inside but I don't know who it is (or really how to refer to him or her besides "baby," which feels awfully impersonal for a beloved child).

Speaking of baby (isn't that what this is all about!?), we had an ultrasound on Monday, and saw the little heart beating away.  The awesomeness of that just blows my mind - there is a tiny little person (about 1/2 inch from those measurements) who has been alive for only 6 weeks AND HAS A BEATING HEART.  Amazing.  Amazing.  Yay God.

The kiddos will be 2 years and 1 month apart (perhaps exactly, if this one is a few days late like big sister).  We think Anna is primed to be a loving and helpful sister, if her behavior with her dolls is a good indicator (with the exception of the vigor with which she tosses them out of the crib to climb in herself, but a taller crib for a real human ought to solve that one ;))  I don't think she "gets" that there's a baby in Mommy's belly, but we talk about it enough for her to remember that we say so.  If she's so inclined, she'll come over and give the baby kisses (very sweet), or will look down my shirt (and sometimes her own) if we ask her where the baby is (slightly awkward, but still cute).

My blogging will probably continue to be very sporadic (not that you've come to expect anything less!) but you (and I) never know when I might get on a roll again.  Until then...we'd appreciate your prayers for continued health for our littlest member!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

So, you want to sew...Beginner Lessons Part 3 (Basic Stitches)

Here we go - at long last, part 3 of my beginner sewing lessons!  I can't promise that it will be worth the wait, but I hope it will be helpful!  If you're just joining in, check out Part 1 (Supplies) and Part 2 (Choosing a Project).


I'm going to start with the basic assumption that you have threaded your machine and you're ready to make your first stitches.  I think it might be impossible to write a generic tutorial for how to thread a machine - the process is basically the same, but there are nuances to each make and model.  Follow your manual (carefully!  precisely!), or if it's an old machine that came sans manual, try searching for it online.  Once you're all threaded up and ready to go, come back here :)

OK, so your machine is threaded, and your bobbin is in place (and your bobbin thread is up through the hole in the throat plate - your threading instructions should include this, but if it didn't, the basic gist is that you need to hold your top thread still (so it doesn't pull back up through your needle) then turn the hand wheel (on the right side of the machine) one full turn - this will (magically!) catch your bobbin thread and you can gently tug on the top thread to pull the bobbin loop up completely).

As you're starting, things should look like this:

Both threads are ready - a few inches of a tail on each - and it's a good idea to pull them off to the side so that they don't make a tangle when you start.

For practice, we can just make some stitches in the middle of a fabric scrap (cotton calico is the best!)

BEFORE YOU START SEWING, LOWER THE PRESSER FOOT AND PUT THE NEEDLE IN THE FABRIC.  There is a lever (near the needle shank, to the back or to the right) to lower the presser foot, and you can lower the needle with the hand crank.  Do not EVER start sewing without these two steps.  This is like putting your car in drive and taking off the emergency break.  Do it every time before you start.

One more time for emphasis:  Pre-stitching check: presser foot down?  needle down?  Ok.  We're good to go!

You can begin sewing by pushing on the foot pedal (given that most people reading this tutorial can drive, there's likely to be a smaller learning curve than the SPPPEEEEDY/herky-jerky stops and starts that came when 5-year-old me was learning, but it's still like driving a different car when you're used to - you need to familiarize yourself with the amount of pressure needed).  Especially as you're starting out, don't sew too fast!  (And don't drive too fast; safety first!)

I needed a third hand to take a picture, but your hands should be in position like this (left hand as shown, right hand in a similar position on the right side).  You can gently guide your fabric, but you should not be pushing or pulling it at all.  There are feed dogs (yes, that's the technical term) under the fabric that are moving it along at a nice even pace.  You just want to make sure that it's not getting off course (aka, you're sewing where you want to be sewing).  Also, watch where your fingers are, and do not put them under the needle (it sounds obvious, huh?)

Practice stitching straight lines until you feel comfortable.  For this practice round, just "eye-ball" your straight lines - don't worry about following any specific lines.  (Although you could, if you wanted, buy striped fabric and practice going up and down the lines).


Next, you can move onto curves and points.

The best way to practice this is to draw some curves on another piece of scrap fabric (I just used a Sharpie, since this is practice.  There are obviously more correct ways to mark fabric if you're doing anything besides practicing!)

Then follow your line with machine stitching, carefully guiding the fabric as you stitch (again, remember no pushing or pulling, just gentle corrections - I generally keep both hands palm down as you saw in the pictures above, and apply gentle downward pressure (while moving slightly to the right or left) to the fabric - almost like you're slowly brushing or wiping the table top with the fabric).

If I were a better photographer, you would see that this line now has stitching on it.  But alas, you came here to learn to sew, not to learn to photograph!

It will likely take some practice to be able to keep the stitching right on the line.  Chances are, you'll be tempted to just skip this and move onto a real project - but you'll be less frustrated if you master your basics first!

After curves, you can do pivots.  If you need to pivot for any reason (for example, maybe you're sewing a pillow case and you come to the corner), slow down with your stitches so that you can carefully guide your last few stitches and end with the needle down right at (in?) the point of the pivot.  It's sometimes difficult to have this much control with the foot pedal, so you can make these last few stitches by using the hand crank.

When the needle is in place (DOWN!), then lift the presser foot and adjust the fabric.  It will easily pivot on the needle.  Do not attempt to pivot unless the needle is down, otherwise your fabric can completely move free and you'll end up with (at best) a long stitch, or possibly a loop of thread, or just generally undesirable results.  Once the fabric is situated in the new direction, put the presser foot back down and continue sewing (also, don't forget to put it back down before you start again; I've also done that in some distracted moments).

Approach point slowly, stop with needle down in point.

Lift presser foot, pivot fabric to new direction.

Put presser foot back down and continue sewing.

Practice makes perfect!


Now - to start connecting pieces of fabric!

For this practice exercise, start with two blocks of calico that are the same size.  Line them up so that the right sides of the fabric are touching.  The "right side" is the more brightly printed side, the side that should be shown on your finished project (as opposed to the "wrong side," which will be the back or the inside that won't be seen).  You will almost always make seams with the right sides together - when you stitch, you are looking at the wrong side of the fabric, so the seam (and the raw edges of the fabric) will then be hidden on the back when you turn it around.  Sometimes keeping track of which is the right and wrong side and why it should be that way can be confusing, especially if you're not spatially oriented - but once you practice a bit, it will start to make sense!

Particularly if it's a long or curvy seam, or if your fabric is silky (it should be none of the above for this practice round!), you will want to pin it.  I prefer to place my pins perpendicular to the seam, with the pinhead sticking out to the right.  (This arrangement makes them easy to remove while sewing and minimizes the unfortunate pin-with-needle collisions, although they'll still likely occur from time to time).

OK, now to start a seam, you will start sewing between a quarter of an inch and a half of an inch from the top edge of the seam (the side perpendicular to where your seam will be).  On the right side (right as opposed to left, not right as opposed to wrong sides of the fabric), you will line it up with the measuring guide on the face plate of your machine.  The distance you choose (from the edge of the fabric to the needle) is called the seam allowance.  The standard seam allowance for most patterns (particularly clothing) is 5/8 of an inch.  I've seen a lot of online tutorials and newer patterns use 1/2 inch.  The standard for quilting (and often baby or kids clothes) is 1/4 inch.  The pattern you are using will tell you.  For this practice, I recommend 5/8".

Line up your fabric and put your needle down & presser foot down once the right is aligned with your seam guide.  Remember again - not too close to the top edge.  If you don't leave a little space at the beginning, the feed dogs won't "catch" the fabric, and you will end up with a knot and frustration.  Believe me.

Start sewing slowly, making 3 or 4 stitches.  Then, push your reverse button or lever and sew (now backwards!) until you reach the top edge of the fabric (but again, don't go completely over).  Then, release the reverse button and start sewing normally again for the length of the seam.  Use the same method for guiding the fabric that we talked about above.  Be careful to keep the right edge aligned with the appropriate seam guide on the machine

As you come to them, you can remove the pins with your right hand.

When you reach the end of the seam, again push the reverse button, sew backwards for 5 or 6 stitches, and then sew forwards until you go off the end of the fabric.  This back and forth at the beginning and end of seams is called "back-tacking" and it locks the stitches so that your seam doesn't unravel.

back tack
A finished seam
 After finishing the seam, be sure to trim your loose threads (the photo above is a bad example).  My mom always taught me that loose threads on a project were the mark of carelessness or unprofessional work - so clip them and make her proud!


Although most people won't see the inside of your garment or project, there are still cases where you want the raw edges of the seam to look more finished.  There are also practical reasons for this; for example, if it's a piece of clothing that will be machine-washed, if you don't finish your raw edges, they will get really ratty really fast in the washing machine (although the seam will be in place, the fabric in the seam allowance will start to unravel and those strings will knot, and, in short, look like a big mess).

The fastest/easiest method (provided you have the right equipment) is to serge the edges.  This requires a serger/overlock machine, which is a special kind of sewing machine that simultaneously cuts the raw edge and stitches over it to keep it from unraveling.  If you look inside almost any store-bought garment, those seams will be serged.

A serged seam (see stitching on top edge)
If you don't have a serger (and honestly, I wouldn't recommend it if you're just learning to sew - worry about one machine at a time!!), you can zig zag over the edge to achieve a similar result.

You can follow your machine guide on how to set your zig-zag settings.  You should have two choices - how wide the stitch is (the width of the Z), and how far apart the stitches are (imagine a regular Z versus a Z that was stepped on from the top).  This explanation probably makes more sense if you see the stitches.

Anyway, if you're going to zig-zag the edge, line up your presser foot so that when the needle comes down to the left it hits your fabric, and when it comes down on the right (as it goes back and forth in the zig-zag) it goes off the right edge.  If you have a newer machine, you might even have a little arrow on your zig-zag foot that shows where the edge of the fabric should line up.

Two important notes: make sure you check your machine guide for the proper presser foot needed to zig-zag (I've broken many a needle by switching to zig-zag settings and forgetting to change the foot from a straight stitch foot), and also check whether or not you need to change the little plate under the needle (my older machine has a reversible plate with a small pin-point hole for the needle to go down when you're doing straight stitching (the needle is only going up and down) and a wider space for the needle when it's going both up and down and back and forth.

Zig-Zag edge (see top edge)

If you want a relatively simple way to have your seams completely finished (no raw edges showing) without zig-zap or serging, try a french seam.

French seam
To make a French seam, you will first put your fabrics together wrong sides together, and stitch the seam with a small seam allowance (say, 1/4").  

Then, carefully turn the fabrics so that the right sides are together (the seam you want to sew will already be together, with the raw edges of the seam allowance between the two layers of fabric). Now, stitch the seam again - this time with a larger seam allowance.  Your raw edges will be completely encased in the new seam.  Keep in mind that if you're doing this on a pattern, you have to adjust for the 1/4" you already used in the first seam - so if you're making a French seam on a pattern that calls for 5/8" seam allowances, you'd make the first pass at 1/4" and the second one at 3/8" (5/8" minus 1/4").  If you forget to subtract out the seam width you already used, you'll be eating in to the actual garment or pattern piece instead of just the allotted seam allowance.

Top stitching

Top stitching is honestly my favorite type of machine sewing.  I'm not sure why, since it's also the most visible (and therefore potentially nerve-wracking), but I always get excited when I get to that step on a project.

Top stitching isn't used for a seam construction, but can be used to keep a facing in place, or for a narrow hem.  It's typically stitching done very close to a folded edge, and the stitching is visible on the finished project.

Top stitching

You can see here how close the needle should be to the edge.  My presser foot has a little gap that should line up with the edge of the fabric.  Depending on what your presser feet look like, you may have to experiment for a bit to determine what part of the foot you should use as a guide to get the appropriate distance (approximately 1/8").  Most often, you'll stitch with the right side of the project facing you (the top stitches usually look slightly nicer than the bottom stitches, and it's nice to see exactly what it will look like as you sew).

Like before with your straight seams practice, continue doing some top stitching practice until you're comfortable with guiding the fabric through the machine and you're happy with your results.

Another application of top stitching is for a hem.  From the bottom (raw) edge of a garment, you would first iron up a 1/4", and then fold and iron again to create your desired hem length.  The raw edge of the material is now completely hidden.  On the inside of the garment, you can top stitch along the folded edge, keeping in mind that the bottom threads will be visible on the outside of your garment when it is finished.

Using top-stitching to sew a hem

Finished hem (wrong side / inside of garment)

Decorative Stitches

Finally, you can have fun with some of the decorative stitches on your machine.  What is offered and how to set them is varied by machine, so you'll definitely need to consult your manual.  My only advice is to remember to use a zig-zag presser foot when you're doing these types of stitches.

I honestly don't use decorative stitches very often, but they are fun to play with if you figure out where you'd like to use them!  It can be a fun little addition to a pillow case edge or to the hem of a little girl's skirt!

Straight seam (left) plus two decorative stitches.

WHEW!  Months after I promised it, there's my run-down on basic sewing stitches.  I'm sure there are parts of this that can be better explained, so please leave comments when you need clarification or have questions.  And if you can think of other sewing questions, let me know - I'll collect the answers for a part four of the series :)