Stuff Mama Never Taught You, #1: Hand Sewing

I tweeted this the other day:

On further thought, though, I decided I was serious.

I asked Twitter which tutorials were most wanted, and “sewing” was first on the list.

Sewing is a big topic. I own several books on it, and I don’t even enjoy it! But here’s a quick 101 guide to help you save clothes and bags when seams split or buttons fall off.

Step One: Tools

You may have grown up around women who had big ol’ intimidating boxes of sewing tools like this:

(Yes, that’s a literal tool box.)

This is what happens when you make your own clothes, blankets, etc. For basic repairs, a small kit will do.

This is the one I carry in my colorguard bag:

It contains everything I’ll likely need for a quick costume or flag fix.

At a bare minimum, you need:

1. Needle

2. Thread

3. Scissors

Depending on the type/extent of your fix, you might find two more things helpful:

1. A tape measure

2. Straight pins

Most of this stuff is pretty cheap. A ruler or the measuring tape from a toolbox will work in a pinch if all you’re doing is fixing a hem.

Do not, under any circumstances, use your fabric scissors for anything but fabric or thread. Ever.

Anyone who sews will tell you that using fabric scissors on non-fabric is a justifiable excuse for homicide. It ruins them for fabric, and good ones are not cheap. Don’t do it.

Step Two: Prep

Once you have tools, it’s time to get ready to sew.

Normally, you want your thread color to match your fabric as closely as possible. Here, though, I’m going to use contrasting colors so you can see the seams better.

Cut a length of thread about 3-4 times as long as the bit you need to stitch, or long enough to handle comfortably.

(The orange line on the bandana is where I’ll be stitching.)

Tie a knot as close to one end of the thread as you can. I tend to pile 2-3 overhand or figure 8 knots on top of each other. It has to be larger than your needle.

(My grandmother used to say “Conceal a knot as you would a secret.” I’m a blabbermouth.)

The not-knotted end of your thread is going through the hole in your needle. You can stick it in your mouth to wet it down, which makes it easier to fit through the hole without unraveling it.

Here’s a secret I both love and hate: Self-threading needles.

Those two little pointy bits at the top of the eye are actually a gap to slide the thread between (like you’re flossing them), so you don’t have to actually jab the end of your thread through the eye. They’re great until the thread slips back out of the needle halfway through your project.

Whichever way you choose, put the not-knotted end of your thread through the eye and pull about a hand’s length of thread through to make a tail:

Holding the tail as you sew helps prevent the thread from slipping back out of the needle.

Starting on the wrong side of your fabric (the side that doesn’t face the world), poke your needle through the fabric and pull it through till the knot stops it:

Flip it over, poke your needle back in a short distance from where the thread emerges, and repeat:

Keep doing this till you’re done with your seam.

Smaller stitches hold more effectively than large ones. They’re also tedious af and hard to do evenly, which is why they were so prized in pre-sewing machine clothing.

Stitching Edges

The method above is best for fixing hems. To draw two edges together and keep them from fraying, however, it’s not ideal.

To fix edges, prep your needle and thread as above. Start by bringing your two edges together and pinning them in place like so:

The pins help keep everything where it belongs.

If you’re stitching parallel edges like in the photo (good for making things like bags or pillow covers), you can pull your thread through both sides at once to start:

Were this to become a bag, I’d put the right sides together to stitch and then turn it right side out when I was done.

When mending a tear, however, you may want to start with the knot on the wrong side of the fabric. The first stitch would then be perpendicular over the tear and to the other side.

Once your thread is pulled through, carry the needle back over the edges and put it through the same side the knot is on:

Repeat until your edges are closed:

Small stitches are best here too, and just as tedious.


I think every human being deserves to know how to sew on a button. It’s very easy, and it saves so many pieces of clothing from an untimely death.

Once again, prep your thread as above, knot and all.

Put your needle into the fabric where your button goes. I’ve decided mine goes over the “100%” print on this bandana:

Before extracting the needle, drop the button on it:

Then pull the thread through till it hits the knot.

Stick your needle through an adjacent hole in the button and pull it tight:

Then do the same thing on the other side. Repeat 4-6 times just to be sure your button isn’t coming off.

You may need to pinch the button slightly to keep it close to the fabric. If you’re doing a button on a very thick fabric, like a wool coat, you’ll want to leave a bit of “play” to accommodate the extra fabric layer.

I won’t get into how to shank a button here, but if you can attach a regular shirt button, Googling “how to shank a coat button” should provide comprehensible directions.

When You’re Done

When everything is all stitched up:

Make one more stitch that goes sideways through the wrong side of the fabric, as close to your last stitch as possible:

(This one is actually nowhere near my last stitch, but this is what your needle should do.)

Pull the thread most but not all of the way through, so you have a small loop:

Run your needle back through the loop and pull it tight. Repeat right on top of the stitch you just made. Then cut your extra thread.

Other Important Notes

Store sewing supplies out of reach of children and especially pets. Cats will swallow sewing needles, as an 11 PM trip to the emergency vet once taught me. (The cat survived without complications, thanks to a late-night surgery.)

Pincushions are a convenient way to store pins, although they do sometimes swallow needles. Jab both pins and needles through the little strawberry bit on the tail to remove rust and sharpen them (it’s full of sand for that purpose):

Most pincushions today are stuffed with wool or synthetic materials. By far the best pincushion stuffing is human hair, but if you’re sufficiently dedicated to sewing that you currently save your own hair to make pincushions, you’re not reading this tutorial anyway.

You can buy both pins and needles especially for certain fabrics, but for most wardrobe repairs, the all-purpose ones work just fine. Do buy denim thread and needles if you’re going to try to repair jeans on a machine, though. (More on machine sewing in a later tutorial.)

I own a half-dozen thimbles and have never used one. Make of that what you will.

Questions? Ideas for future tutorials? Drop them in the comments!

If you found this useful, please consider buying me a coffee so I can fuel more tutorials. ❤

Best Valentine’s Therapy: Predictive Text Advice For Your Special Day

In January, I asked Botnik to provide the median New Year’s resolutions by uploading twenty of the top articles for “new year’s resolutions” and allowing the system to generate predictive-text advice.

That advice was so classically helpful, I figured we could all use the same help deciding how to spoil our loved ones this Valentine’s Day.

I uploaded the text of the top 20 Google search results for “best valentine’s day ideas” to Botnik. Here’s what it recommends.


Best Valentine’s Therapy

“Here’s what you can enjoy with your cheesy selves” this Valentine’s Day, says Botnik.

Sing at your favorite people.

Whoever your favorite people are, find them and sing at them.

“Singing classic music can really take a moment to the opera,” says Botnik. “Don’t romantic for all night, or you could probably order dessert.”

Volunteer the weekend to spend time thinking of flowers.

Volunteering is a great way to spread the love, and what’s more traditional on Valentine’s Day than flowers? If springing for a bouquet of roses is outside your budget, consider changing up your approach this year by volunteering to think of flowers instead of actually buying them.

When you volunteer, Botnik recommends couples “get stuck dancing together. Forever is definitely around the corner, but only with beer samples.”

Recreate a local nonprofit but with chocolate.

As part of your Valentine’s volunteering, consider recreating a local nonprofit in the most romantic and popular of all Valentine’s Day foods: chocolate!

“Chocolate tasting adventures are guaranteed to make Valentine’s exciting,” says Botnik. “Nonprofts everywhere tend to get stuck without cliches.”

Have affordable sex.

Sex is a great way to increase your intimacy on the most romantic holiday of the year, but blowing your budget on one night of fun will leave you feeling strung out the rest of the year.

Instead, says Botnik, “save on pricey service fees with some blissful thing. Planned outings are sure to make up for your significant confusion.”

Find tickets for two at your local waterkeeper.

Most people associate trips to the local waterkeeper with Arbor Day festivities. Surprisingly, Valentine’s Day is a great time to switch up your routine and buy tickets from this beloved hometown institution.

“Your waterkeeper will fall for your partner every year, so you can enjoy some dueling without their personality introducing fees,” says Botnik. “Don’t forget to try the salsa.”

Give some homemade spaghetti to a deluxe man.

If you’re short on cash, love to cook, or both, don’t overlook the romantic value of a home-cooked meal. However, it’s important to share that meal with the right person. Only a deluxe man (or woman) deserves your work on this special day.

“A deluxe man, with creative wine and tapas, skewers online copies of your ex,” says Botnik.

Challenge yourselves to celebrate your strong plans.

Your plans with your loved one, whatever they may be, are strong – so strong, in fact, that it can be tough to tame them. Remember that it’s important to celebrate your strong plans, even as you’re attempting to rope them into submission on the old prairie.

If you’re concerned that your plans are too strong, says Botnik, “tarot cards are likely to celebrate your chemistry.”

Show your first love that they are meant to eat your entree.

Remember that first person on whom you had a total crush? This Valentine’s Day, enjoy a “blast from the past” by finding this person and showing them that they are totally meant to eat your entree.

Naturally, some people are hesitant to call up their first love. But Botnik says not to worry: “Your first love letters definitely deserve plenty of time to think. Cook your inner wishlist and reminisce about ghosts.”

Reread ideas for couples while watching crappy movies alone.

Expecting to be alone this Valentine’s Day? You don’t have to spend the day in a fulfilling activity or relationship with yourself. Instead, reread lists of ideas that only work for couples on February 14, while you watch the worst movies you can find.

“Bad treats are meant for singles to eat,” says Botnik. “I like your favorite people when they adore neither of these.”

Visit your spouse at another burlesque show.

If staying at home just isn’t for you, take matters into your own hands this Valentine’s Day by surprising your spouse at whatever burlesque show they decided to attend instead of spending the night with you.

“Sexy prizes for couples are always ready,” says Botnik, cautioning that not all couples will benefit from this risky idea: “You have to start with creative holiday cake.”

22 Answers to 22 Questions: On Novel Writing, Surviving as a Freelancer, and More

My Quora inbox is facing a bit of a crisis right now.

Like any moderately-active Quoran, I get a lot of answer requests. Some of them are really good questions I spend time and thought answering. Some can be answered in a sentence or less. Some just make no sense at all.

Also, like any moderately-active Quoran, I don’t answer every request I get. I tend to delete the utterly nonsensical ones and let most of the others simply sit there, either because they don’t instantly inspire me and/or because I feel like answering with just a few words is a waste of everyone’s time but answering with more words is a waste of my time.

Here’s my method of clearing both my A2A backlog and my conscience: I’m going to answer the backlog here.

22 answers to 22 questions_on novel writing, surviving as a freelancer, and more

Has anyone ever paid for a course/program in making a living as a freelance writer? Do they work or is it a scam?

I’ve never paid for a course, just a few books. I particularly recommend The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman.

I’m sure some courses are helpful. I’m equally sure some are scams.

What are the best freelancing opportunities for someone with an active mind and a lot of time on their hands?

Research-heavy writing worked for me. If you’re trying to kill time, anything time-bound like creating/editing/rendering music and video will probably fit the bill as well.

What is the best advice for a new freelance editor?

(Note: I’ve stopped answering this question on Quora because my advice is literally always the same for every freelancer.)

Do not quit your day job until you can live comfortably off 50 percent or less of your gross pay from freelancing. You need to put at least 50 percent, ideally 60-70 percent, of that pay into savings immediately and pretend it does not exist except when you need to pay your taxes.

Is experience or talent the key to writing really well?

Yes, but mostly the first one.

What observable characteristic screams “I can tell you a good story”?

Visible scars.

Why is the new trend for entrepreneurs and any type of freelancers to sell a course via their site?

To make money, you need to provide value in some way. Sharing your own knowledge in a convenient, packaged fashion for people who want to know what you know is an easy way to provide value.

Why don’t commercially/non-commercially successful writers or seasoned writers host more workshops, especially since the writing industry is growing?

(Yes, this question and the previous one appeared back to back.)

Probably because they’re busy writing and/or they don’t want to teach. Teaching a workshop takes work.

To progress professionally as a content writer should I go into marketing?

It depends on what you mean by “go into marketing.” You need an understanding of online marketing principles and tools in order to progress as a content writer. There’s no getting around it.

You don’t, however, need to go take marketing classes unless you have some independent passion for marketing. The stuff you need to know to be an outstanding content writer you can largely learn by doing and by reading the Internets, which is where the vast majority of the good info on online marketing lives.

Where did you get your first idea for a story?

Watching my parents yell at other drivers when I was five or six.

Has there ever been a good part three of something?

Return of the Jedi.

Can we think of a better word than “content” to describe what we create?

In private, I call mine “repackaged knowledge,” which is far more honest but not what anyone wants to admit they’re buying.

Realistically, though, “content” is exactly what content creators create. We populate websites and blogs so that they feel useful and relevant, but the underlying goal is always to get someone to buy something else.

How should I address my main character, by the first or by the last name?

If you’re using a point of view that gets inside the character’s head, use whatever they call themselves. Otherwise, use what other characters call them.

Do you agree with the controversial opinion that Copywriters should never use adjectives?

Without adjectives, we’d never know that Frosted Flakes are “great,” KFC is “finger-lickin’ good,” Subway is “Fresh,” that diamonds are “forever,” that Google’s goal is not to be “evil,” or that Rice Krispies make a sound when you pour milk on them.

I mean, you do you, but that sounds boring as heck.

How many principles of composition are in Strunk’s book The Elements of Style?

It’s been a good twenty years since I last read The Elements of Style, but I recall there being zero principles of composition in it and a whole lot of advice on style.

How do you make a likeable story/series?

  1. Give me someone to care about.
  2. Give me something I care whether or not they succeed at it.
  3. Show me what happens on the way to their success or failure.

What was it like starting your career with a liberal arts degree?

It was fine. I got paid enough to cover all my rent and bills with some left over for savings and the work wasn’t too difficult.

The recession blew that all out of the water, of course, but back in the day I had no trouble at all.

Do you feel as though your creative writing ability has peaked at some point and gradually began to decline, or continued to progress throughout your career as an author?

My inner troll thinks we’ve never had a jot of creative writing ability in our lives, we never will have any, and that writing books is a hilarious joke.

I ignore it.

What is the craziest way you have overcome writers’ block?


What are the pros and cons of an online juris doctor (law) degree?

Pros: Not having to cram into a lecture room with 90 other people and no air conditioning/sporadic heat. Not having a law professor stare you down while you try to figure out how to admit you didn’t do the reading.

Cons: You’ll be in no way prepared for the actual practice of law, which frequently involves being crammed cheek by jowl with other people, uncomfortable waiting in uncomfortable rooms, and being stared down by intimidating people who know the law much better than you ever will.

Is Infowars one giant scam?

Worse. Scams only take your money. Infowars takes your dignity.

Why does a freelancer never earns the same respect as earned by a full timer?

Because we live in a society where we’re taught not only to accept our ownership by the capitalist class, but to pride ourselves on which of the capitalists owns us at any given time. Freelancers prefer to be owned by multiple capitalists, concurrently or consecutively, which makes them suspicious.

What is the funniest thing you’ve ever written?

Definitely not this blog post.