Thursday, March 11, 2010

Building a Sewing Library

I've always been a book person. I grew up in a town where the library was a converted one-room schoolhouse and I remember clearly the tiny children's nook on the second floor. I love to browse book shops and libraries, and I've worked in more of them than I can count at this point. It wasn't much of a surprise that my chosen career ended up being in book publishing. I mention books often on this blog, and I've recently gotten some requests for a post dedicated to my favorite sewing books. You demand, I supply!

I enjoy reading about sewing almost as much as I enjoy actually sewing. Is there anything better than curling up in bed with the new issue of Threads or a lovely vintage sewing book? As you can imagine, I have quite a collection of sewing books. But out of all of them, there are a few gems that I come back to again and again.

But before I begin, a couple tips for building your library:
  • Buy used. This cuts down on cost, and you can find out-of-print books pretty easily as well. My favorite site is
  • Look for older editions. The book nerd in me loves having the first edition of sewing books. Plus, if you're sewing vintage, these older books correspond well to vintage pattern instructions.
  • Focus more on technique-based books rather than project-based books. It can be hard to resist fancy new books filled with tons of trendy patterns, but I find that these are the books I use the least. You'll get more bang for your buck if you focus on skill-building books.
Now, on to the list!
  1. SEW: Sew Everything Workshop by Diana Rupp. This is my absolute favorite beginner's book. Even if you've never sewn a stitch in your life, this guide will make you comfortable with the basics of sewing. And lots of cute projects as a bonus.

  2. The Reader's Digest Guide to Sewing. This is the classic guide that tons of sewists use and it's a fantastic supplement to your pattern instructions. Drafted your own Peter Pan collar but don't know how to sew it properly? Want to use a lapped zipper rather than a centered one? Make a simple waistband for a skirt without a pattern? This is your book!

  3. The Sewing Book by Alison Smith. This is a DK guide, which are known for their clear pictures on glossy pages. This is an all-in-one reference like the Reader's Digest Guide but with photos rather than illustrations. I use this as a second reference, after my RD guide.

  4. Design Your Own Dress Patterns by Adele P. Margolis. I'm obsessed with this book, as you've probably noticed. I have a 70s edition of this book, but it's available currently as Make Your Own Dress Patterns. If you're interested in making design changes to your patterns or drafting your own elements like collars, yokes, and waistbands, this is a fabulously accessible book that you must own.

  5. The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot. Published in 1943, this is the oldest sewing book I own. I love it for the illustrations as much as the time-tested techniques.

  6. Fit for Real People by Pati Palmer and Marta Alto. This is the fitting book I recommend to anyone who asks. It teaches you tissue fitting and how to address every fit issue you can think of. This covers dresses, blouses, and skirts.

  7. Clare Shaeffer's Fabric Sewing Guide. Whenever I'm sewing an unfamiliar fabric, I look it up in this book. It gives all the info you could need from recommended needle size, care guidelines, best finishing techniques, and more.

  8. Easy Guide to Sewing Linings by Connie Long. The bad news first: this book is out of print, hard to find, and quite pricey. But I got my used copy for around $30, which is an excellent price. I have to say, it is so worth it. Lining always brings up a lot of questions, and this book answers them all. I love her method of quick lining. (See the technique here on the Threads website.) Update! This book is available as a pdf download here for only $13.99. Thanks to the commenter who pointed this out!

  9. Threads back issues. Okay, this isn't a book, but I've learned SO much from perusing my back issues of Threads magazine. You can order back issues directly on the Taunton site (watch out for their 50% off sales), but I bought most of mine on the cheap on eBay.

  10. Couture Sewing Techniques by Claire Shaeffer. The classic text on couture sewing at home.

  11. Tailoring: the Classic Guide to Sewing the Perfect Jacket. All the tailoring I did on my red coat, I learned from this book. It is fantastic. Trust me.

  12. Pattern Drafting for Fashion Designers by Helen Joseph-Armstrong. If you want to get deeper into drafting patterns, this is an excellent resource. It's geared toward fashion students (and it comes with a textbook price), but still accessible to the home sewer, I think.
Did I skip any of your favorites? Do share!


  1. I have every one of the books you listed plus the whole collection of Threads magazines from the beginning. I recommend Sandra Betzina's "Power Sewing" and "More Power Sewing" books also. And the Singer Reference Library books are excellent too.

  2. Gertie - I just realized that there's a typo in the post title (Buliding instead of Building).

    This list of books sounds fantastic!

  3. Great list!

    Just for info, 'Easy Guide to Sewing Linings' can be had as an e-book from, at a very modest price.
    And I agree - worth having.


  4. Hi Gertie!

    I don't know why it happens to me, but as soon as you recommend something on your blog, be it a book or presser foot, I can't seem to prevent that sudden urge to go out and buy it! ;D Thanks so much for the book suggestions!

    And oh, by the way, I own "Make Your Own Dress Patterns" and I actually made an entire dress pattern using that one book. And I never did any sort of pattern drafting beforehand! So as you can see, I completely agree with you on that book being the crown jewel of the sewing book world!


  5. The fabric sewing guide sounds amazing, I'm always so terrified when choosing fabric that i'll end up with something dry clean only and destroy it in the first wash.

  6. I agree wholehaeartedly on your technique and have most of those books. I buy the pure technique ones AS WELL as the eye-candy project books... which resulted in this mishap...

    I'll buy any book put out by Threads and any sewing shortcuts book I see. I grew up with the Readers Digest Complete Guide to Sewing and I still have it and use it.

    Since the bookshelf mishap (around xmas) these are a few of my purchases (scroll to the bottom of this post) -

    I'm a tad obsessed with sewing books.

  7. Thank you so so much for this post!

  8. I die when I see sewing manuals on etsy or ebay that I've never seen before. Thus spending $100 on a french couture book from the 60s.

  9. Sandra Betzina's Power Sewing, Fabric Savvy and the Vogue Sewing Book or the Singer Series are great. Some of the WWII books on reusing, refashions are great, they show how to thoughtfully and tastefully reuse clothing for other items, suits, mens shirt, etc, and can look great.

  10. I have been very happy with Decorative Dressmaking by Sue Thompson which has wonderful techniques for making simple patterns more exciting, and focuses on techniques from vintage patterns (translated into 80s fashion, but still very usable. Also great for adding flourishes and inspiring is The Art of Manipulating Fabric by Collette Wolff. And finally, Fine Machine Sewing by Carol Ahles is a wonderful volume, to which I often refer when perplexed by pintucking, binding, narrow hems and the like. And ought I mention Pants for Real People again?

  11. Gertie - Have you seen Modern Pattern Design by Harriet Pepin? It was first published in 1942, I think. If you haven't, you're in for a treat!

    I picked it up a few years ago, cheaply. It's pretty expensive now, but you there is an online version here:

    I don't have the original with me, but I am fairly sure that everything in the book is also in the online version.


  12. Awesome list, thanks.

    I have the Vogue Sewing Book that's in the photo you posted, from the seventies, and I love it. It is for me what it sounds like the Reader's Digest Guide to Sewing is for you.

    I think that Elissa Meyrich's Sew Fast, Sew Easy, printed in 2002, is another excellent beginner's book that has good patterns and fantastic guidance on how to choose a pattern, read a pattern and make simple fitting adjustments.

    I agree that Shaeffer's Couture Sewing Techniques book is indispensable.

    I have Fit for Real People and for whatever reason, I just can't get into it. I think I have an inability to think in three dimensions when it comes to flat patterns. I think Kenneth King's recent "How to Move Flare in a Skirt" presentation at the Threads website promises more awesome guidance from him in future on the same kinds of topics, and I hope he does a book on the topic, I would buy that, I like his presentation and it "fits" my way of visualizing the topics better.

    I recently bought The Little Black Dress, How to Make the Perfect One for You, which is really a course in draping in disguise, and I'm looking forward to going through that later this year.

    So many wonderful guides! Your site has been a rich resource and I love your instruction, your personal style and your writing style. Thank you!!!

  13. Oh yay! Thank you :D I'm *pretty* sure I spotted the Fabric Sewing Guide at the used bookstore by me yesterday; think I'll pop over and have a better look today. This whole list is going in my purse! Minus RD Guide as I DO have that one...

  14. I just finished my first intro to pattern-drafting class and my instructor referenced the Armstrong book repeatedly through the class. It's on my short list of books to acquire relatively soon.

  15. I am also book-obsessed (I did a rough count recently and I have over 1600 books in my smallish Brooklyn apartment, no joke!) and second the recommendation for buying used.

    I have and love most of the books you listed and love them, though I don't have a huge number of Threads back issues anymore (I sold them on eBay a few years ago, oops!).

    All of the Taunton Easy Guide to Sewing books are GREAT--I have the ones on Linings (got it when it was still in print), Skirts, Tops & T-Shirts, Blouses, Pants, Jackets and Serging Fine Fabrics.

    I second the love for Sandra Betzina's Power Sewing.

    Other favorites: Claire Schaeffer's High-Fashion Sewing Secrets from the World's Best Designers, Sewing Secrets from the Fashion Industry (multiple authors), Sew U: Home Stretch, Sewing Lingerie That Fits...

    I like to curl up in bed with a big stack of these and just read them like they're my favorite science fiction novels (which make up the bulk of that 1600-book collection I mentioned).

  16. is a good search. It searches through all the bookstores -- including -- all at once and gives you prices with shipping included.

    Also, in your photo, you show the "Vogue Sewing Book." Is that book worth getting? That book has been coming up as I've been searching for VNBoBS (unfortunately, haven't found an affordable copy of that yet).

  17. These are some great reads and I'm excited to start looking for the books I don't have here. Great info! Thanks Gertie!

  18. I also love books and am pretty close to finishing up my double masters in Library Science and Music History to become a music librarian. I chose this route mostly because I LOVE the smell of old books (I know, weird).

    Anyway, I have many of the books you mentioned. I also took a costuming class during my bachelors degree and found that the The Costume Technician's Handbook was incredibly helpful as far as sewing vintage. It also walks you through building a body block/sloper for yourself.

  19. I have a Threads collection going back almost to the beginning, and I still use so many of the articles. I'd really recommend the expensive DVD collection to get the earlier articles.

  20. i have to second the constance talbot book--not only does it have some fantastic diagrams and other advice in there, it is HILARIOUS as well as fascinating for its chapters on deportment and proper behavior. i also recommend a few books from the 30s and 40s, including modern dressmaking made easy.

    in response to some other commenters' love of the schaffer couture books, i have to respectfully disagree, particularly with regards to her "high fashion secrets", which i found to be random, disorganized and not even remotely useful. her straight-up "couture sewing" has undeniably good advice but i find the book difficult to follow along with.

  21. I set myself up with a sewing library for Christmas.
    My family thought I was going crazy!
    I haven't read them all yet, but this is what I bought then:
    - Sewing For Men And Boys (Simplicity's How-To Book of Illustrated Sewing)
    The styles in this one are so fun! All seventies!
    - Fit for Real People: Sew Great Clothes Using ANY Pattern (Sewing for Real People series)
    - Pants for Real People: Fit and Sew for Any Body (Sewing for Real People series)
    - Shirtmaking: Developing Skills for Fine Sewing
    - Metric Pattern Cutting for Menswear
    - Couture Sewing Techniques
    - Making Trousers for Men & Women: A Multimedia Sewing Workshop
    - Fast Fit: Easy Pattern Alterations for Every Figure
    - Easy Guide to Sewing Tops & T-Shirts, Skirts and Pants

    And I already had:
    - "Reader's Digest" Complete Guide to Sewing
    I love that one! I got a version from 1981 for no money and am so happy to have it!
    - Rok & Co: a Dutch booklet on sewing skirts the lazy way
    And some magazines:
    - a Threads magazine and a SewStylish magazine I brought from the US
    - a few Burda's, KnipMode's, an OttobreWoman

    I know it seems quite silly for someone who has only sewn three garments and a bunch of presents... But to keep myself dreaming about sewing even though I look the time, I just study up!
    I'll be well prepared ;)
    I especially like the fabric book from Schaeffer on your list... Maybe I should get that one...

  22. When I started sewing, I really enjoyed Sew Simply, Sew Right by Mini Rhea (Jackie Kennedy's seamstress).

  23. Thanks for compiling a list of books! Lord knows how many books I've perused only to be disappointed, lost, and confused by the instructions, but these sound great! I'll have to get a few :)

  24. That's an awesome list, Gertie. I have a few of those myself. I plan on doing a sewing books post soon, too. Great minds think alike. And I haven't forgotten about the beauty post. I'm hoping to get to that in the near future.

  25. I have Talbot's book and the same edition of the Reader's Digest (they had a whole series of them, and the ones I own for needle work, home repair, and basic wood working are just as thorough and amazing). I recently did a paper on Seamstresses from 1942-1952 (basically an awesome excuse to go through every sewing book from that time period)And have these suggestions:

    "The New Encyclopedia of Modern Sewing" Edited by Sally Dickson and Francis Blondin in 1943 has the best diagrams for re-cutting new garments from old ones.

    "Needles and Pins" by Ida Riley Duncan has pattern drafting, forties style, with a very basic skirt, bodice, and shift, with ideas for variation.

    "Sewing Magic" by Mary Brooks Picken (in several editions, I looked at 1952) Is entirely devoted to drafting patterns. It shows the finished garment at the top of the page then detailed measuring and drawing instructions and a diagram. The patterns in it are gorgeous, (there's even drafting instructions for a button back blouse) but what really stunned me was Picken's suggestion that you chalk the pattern right on to your fabric!

    And if you want a refresher in the "women have come along way" department, try the 1949 Singer sewing book. It recommends sewing in full make up and dress in case your husband shows up unexpectedly, and warns that if you do not sew wonderful garments for your children, they'll develop a complex. It also has terrifyingly hilarious home decor.

  26. What about Fine Machine Sewing by Carol Laflin Ahles? I think it's in its third edition now. :) I've found it very useful for some older "fancy" sewing techniques. I mean, it has clear instructions for duplicating what used to be strictly hand sewing techniques by sewing machine.

  27. I picked up the Readers Digest one a few weeks ago at the op shop for $2 - what a bargain - in excellent condition too! :)

  28. Another shout out for the Sandra Betzina books too - I have Power Sewing and Fast Fit and recommend both. I also recently splurged on the Threads CD which has 146 back issues on it, so much information, so little space taken up, and its searchable too.

  29. Great post!!

    My current fav book is Nancy Zieman's Busy Woman's Sewing Book, if for nothing else than her two seam fly zipper install.
    Tons of organizational and construction tips, too. I found mine on for .75, plus shipping.

  30. I recently bought the Dressmaker's Technique Bible by Lorna Knight. It's great.

  31. I'm obsessed with sewing lingerie at the moment, and learned a lot from this book called, simply enough, 'Sewing Lingerie'. Can't stop buying lace now. And I agree about project books, something comes mind about teaching a man how to fish...

  32. I have both the Reader's Digest and The Complete Photo Guide to Sewing (Singer Sewing Reference Library). I find the latter far more accessible and as a beginner, I understand the explanations straight away - in the Reader's Digest I have had to read some articles several times, and eventually resorted to looking up the same thing in the Singer.

    I would love to add the Couture Techniques, and Kathleen Fasanella's The Entrepreneur's Guide (I love her blog!).

  33. I second Valerie's vote for Modern Pattern Design by Harriet Peppin. Everything that I remember being in the book is in the online version, and there are some other vintage sewing texts online there too. That book is amazing, and totally got me started scheming about pattern design years ago, and is way more fun than most of the pattern design books that I've seen from the past 20 years. Now, if only my sewing skills were up to par! Maybe a few of those technique books should be on my bookshelf...

  34. I have have some of the books on your list, and many more. One of the most treasured is, "A Collection of Sewing Tipsby Wrold Famous Designers - The Spadea Sewing Book". You will LOVE this book. Trust me on this one. Wonderful vintage techniques that you will seldom see elsewhere!
    Check Abe's Books

  35. (Sorry for the typos in my previous comment) "The Spadea Sewing Book" is available at Abes, but I was shocked by the prices! I bought mine for $2.98 a few years ago.


  36. I own most of the books you mentioned, and love them all, but my all time favorite is Sandra Betzina's Power Sewing. Her Fabric Savvy is also great, and I am waiting on More Power Sewing to arrive in the mail. Sandra's books have a way of making you feel she is right there showing you in person. Love! Love reading about sewing almost (or more?) than sewing itself!

  37. Thank you Gertie! It can be so difficult to find good information when there is such an overabundance of books and blogs. I'm saving this list! :)

  38. That's a wonderfully well-rounded list! Inspired by you, I wrote my own list here:

  39. As a bookworm, this post made my heart go pitter-patter! ;) I've read/own most of the books you listed, so I won't add anything, but just wanted to say I really appreciate that you listed all these! Plus, the point about focusing more on technique books, rather than project books, is invaluable to any seamstress. I think far too often people get sucked in by the prettiness of some of the newer, project-based books, and then still need to go out and buy a basic sewing manual to supplement them. I always recommend starting with a good stack of the general sewing manuals/fitting/drafting books and then adding a few of the project books to the mix. ;)

    ♥ Casey
    blog |

  40. I purchased a ton of vintage sewing books just recently and listed them with photos on my blog. New to sewing, new to blogging, but boy do I have the books! Books are shown at

  41. Fantastic post! Like you I love reading about sewing almost as much as sewing itself. A couple of great books no one else mentioned 'Sewing Basics' by Patricia Moyes, a great basic book, 'Sewing for Plus Sizes' by Barbara Deckert, it has lots of great information and isn't just for plus sizes.

  42. I just received my copy of The Complete Book of Sewing by Constance Talbot. I am so thrilled! It is delightful. I'm having a blast reading it. Now I have a reference for those vintage patterns I own.
    Thanks for the tip, Gertie.

  43. Also love books as much as sewing (and gardening next best after that). For a really complete book on fitting, I recommend 'Fabulous Fit: Speed Fitting and Alteration' by Rasband and Liechy, a textbook but so worth it. I have half a dozen books on fit but this is the one that answers most of my questions, best for everything except the FBA. I also like Sandra Betzina's 'Power Sewing' for lots of clever tips, not so much couture sewing, but very useful. Finally, for anyone interested in 20th century vintage clothing, I recommend the Dover Publishing extracts from the Sears catalogs, issued one for each decade. The 30's and 40's are my personal favorite decades.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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