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Stitchers, start your sewing machines

Okay, so sewing isn't the ugly aprons that you remember from home ec class. But how do you get started? Here are some tips from Robin Powell:

The machine: "If I had my druthers _ and an unlimited budget _ I'd go for the high-tech sewing machines they're selling now. But if you're going to spend $2,000 or more on a machine, take time to research them. Make the rounds to reputable dealers, sit down with them and have them teach you how the machines work. That way you'll get a feel for what they do and how ambitious you want to get with a sewing machine."

Powell suggests taking swatches of the types of the fabrics you use when you go shopping for a machine. "The demonstrators will use a thin cotton swatch, but if you sew a lot of denim things (like I do) or chiffons, silks or woolens, you want to make sure that the machine handles them well.

"You also have to realize that you're going to have to invest time and research into the machine so that you can use it to its potential."

Equipment: Other than a sewing machine, the equipment you need to get started is minimal: a good, sharp pair of shears, a good steam iron and straight pins.

"Everything else you can add later," Powell said, listing point turners (a caliper for making fine points on collars), tube turners (for spaghetti straps), gizmos that automatically fold bias tape as you sew, sergers and a host of others.

Cloth: "I buy what I like in cloth; I go by the fiber content," she said. "Whether you're buying fabric or clothing, do a crush test: Squeeze the fabric tight and see if it springs back into place. If it doesn't, don't buy it, no matter how much you like the color or pattern. You don't want to put all that time and effort into something that will look ratty after the first washing."

Powell shops sales. "I let cost guide me. I haven't bought any Ultrasuede (at $47 a yard) yet, though I may one day. And I have a rule that if I find anything under $2 a yard, I buy as much as I want."

Sometimes she buys the fabric and then picks a suitable pattern. Other times she shops with pattern in hand. "You need to have some idea of what you're going to do with it so you'll know how much to buy," she said.

Patterns: "It's important to take accurate measurements so you can find the right size _ and it's important to be aware of your idiosyncrasies so that you can fit a pattern perfectly. For instance, I'm long-waisted, so I always add an inch when I'm cutting out slacks or shorts. And with my height, I check in-seam measurements carefully. Patterns these days are becoming more generous in in-seam allowance."

She said Vogue patterns are often more difficult for beginning or intermediate sewers. "If you find a pattern in Vogue that you like, take a look at Butterick or McCall's and you might find the same piece there. Where Vogue is different is in the construction techniques, which you don't see when you're wearing the finished product."

She uses basic patterns _ especially slacks, shorts and skirts _ over and over again, which saves on the cost of new patterns.

When in doubt: Classes are available at sewing stores, in schools and in county adult education programs. "And most sewers are happy to help with questions," she said. "Don't be afraid to ask questions. I'm still learning and I've been sewing for 25 years."