How do you describe your sewing level?

I’ve been thinking about how we define ourselves as sewers/seamstresses/seamsters, partly as a personal thing, and partly as a teacher.

An Absolute Beginners cushion

I started considering this when I signed up for Sewing Pattern Review.  They ask your skill level – beginner, intermediate, advanced, couture.

What on earth should I put?  I make garments that many seamtresses would never dream of without batting an eye, and my fabric knowledge is considerable, but when it comes to some modern techniques, I don’t have much experience.

Now that I’m teaching I’m working on a way for students to categorize their skill level for classes.

We start out with Absolute Beginners, but the next class they take is Intermediate, which many of the students find amusing and flattering.  They say “surely I’m not an intermediate sewer!”.  Sure, they’ve never tackled a pattern or made a garment, but student come out of my Absolute Beginners class knowing how to set a zips, construct a basic garment, sew a number of stitches precisely, and how to choose fabrics (which I firmly believe is an essential cornerstone for sewing).  They have the fundamentals.

Three of my early-ish sewing projects: dresses for my sister & I, and a jester hat. My dress is from a pattern, her dress & hat I made up

On the other hand, I’ve taught students in more advanced classes who make their own designs and cobble together patterns to create just the look they want – a very advanced skill – but only know how to use one foot on their machine, only know one kind of hem, and end up being unhappy with a lot of their garments because they picked the wrong fabric for the project.  What level are they at?

I’ve come up with a difficulty scale for the classes I’m teaching, something to give students a rough idea as to how challenging they will find a course.  Because I like 1-10 scales, my courses are rated on difficulty on a scale of 1 to 10 .

For me, the ratings are a guideline to give students an idea of how hard the course will be.  Within many courses, there are options to make it easier or more difficult (for example, I’m teaching a ’30s garden party dress class, and it will be a much harder class if you choose silk chiffon as your fabric, than if you choose a nice stable rayon).  I hope that students pick classes that they can tackle without being overwhelmed, but that challenge their skills at one or two key points.

This is my scale:

1:  is an absolute beginners course, for someone who has never been on a sewing machine before.

2:  you’ve made cushions or something similar, and know how to set zips and make buttonholes.

3:  you can follow a simple sewing pattern.

4:  you’ve moved up to more complicated patterns with linings.

5:  you’re ready to start making adaptions to your patterns to suit your taste and to fit you better.

6:  you’ve begun to draft your own simple patterns and making up moderately difficult patterns

7:  you’re beginning to play with draping, and trickier fabrics

8:  you’re working your way up to difficult fabrics, evening wear, tailoring and tricky fitting issues

9:  you’re making your own patterns, and working with couture techniques.

10:  is for someone with experience in pattern making, couture sewing, and advanced fitting.

Ninon’s 1660s gown – not a beginners project

What do you think?  Have I missed anything?  How does this compare to other skill ratings you have seen?  And how  do  you describe your sewing level?  What are you really comfortable doing, what do you need to work on?

As for me, what I need to work on is knits: that’s up next!


  1. I think your system looks pretty useful. In general, I don’t encourage my students to get into draping/drafting/cobbling together garments until we’ve built a nice solid foundational skills set- comfort working with the kinds of fabrics they usually wear, using their machine to its best potential, knowledge of basic construction and finishing techniques… Otherwise, it ends up feeling like I’m sewing a garment myself, using someone else’s hands. I *have* done that before for a few brides I liked, that kind of thing, but it is SO much work for me, and kind of scary for the student unless they’re already the “dive in head first” type. I much much prefer the “crawl, then walk, then run, then fly” philosophy of teaching.

    • I agree, Steph, it can feel like tandem skydiving when people are aiming for too hard a make!!

  2. SilkSmuggler says

    I took a university level diploma in costuming, and I could rank as a 2, or a 9 :p

    2: I cannot do a zipper. To save my life, I can cobble one in, but its awful and untidy and I hate it and I will do any kind of closure other then a zipper.
    3: check
    4: check
    5: check
    6: check – though I know several people who have skipped from step 2 to step 6 – all of them self taught people who like to dress up
    7: check
    8: kind of not really. I fake it.
    9: I can draft basic blocks, and make my own patterns from them.

    I would love to take one of your classes, sadly the commute from Vancouver is prohibitive 🙂

  3. Interesting scale! It looks pretty useful, and logically put together. I would say I am somewhere around 6, though most of my “pattern drafting” has been for skating costumes, which really aren’t that complicated. I haven’t really done much draping, but I am wanting to play with more difficult fabrics, so maybe I am working my way up to a 7, but I am not there yet. Definitely would love to learn a lot of the couture and tailoring skills I don’t have yet, as well as better finishing techniques for my more detailed projects.

  4. Lynne says

    I’m a kind of retired 8! Mostly self-taught, after years of watching and assisting my mother. I wish I had junior me around! My mother trained me early to press seams and darts and to pin and tack – we ran a regular production line. Child labour – seen as good for the child! Was, too.

    My breaking away from sticking to the pattern, adjusted to fit, came when I started being the school wardrobe person. Suddenly there were all these people, all shapes and sizes, and probably nothing like a pattern to start with. But I don’t think I was good at pattern-drafting, and would very much have liked to learn it properly.

    Lovely photo of you and your sister and your early projects!

  5. OK, so 4 or 5 ish, with the occasional foray into biting off more than I can chew.

    • Elise says

      Me too! Rather, I don’t sew anymore, but when I did, I could handle just about what you can.

  6. I think its hard to put a label on a level above absolute beginner. For me I find it useful to have a list of ‘skills required’.
    e.g. A-line skirt may be quite ‘easy’ but if under skills required it said ‘use a machine’ rather than hand sew it would be much harder for me.
    Because I can do: 2, 3 (tolerate) 4, (attempted) 5, and (half of) 6…but have not managed to master sewing machine mentioned in 1.

  7. I like this system, although I think that with all classifications (probably not the best word but can’t think of another one) the top and bottom work well and the middle grades are never set in stone.

    For me, I can get all the way to 6. I can follow instructions, I have drafted simple things and I make small modifications to existing patterns. However there are two notable exceptions:

    50% of level 2 – I can insert zippers with my eyes close but I have yet to do a buttonhole despite even having a dedicated attachment for my 1970s Singer;
    level 4 – linings are just not something I even want to think about. Especially since they seem to be attached to facings, which I will avoid at all costs and replace with bias tape instead.

    Then again I desperately need some work shirts so I can see both facings and buttonholes in my immediate future. As for linings I am not sure, probably in 2013! 🙂

  8. I think I am about a 4. Good way to break up the skill levels! It also gives me ideas on how to measure my improvements in my sewing and skills.

  9. This seems like a good system. I’m probably between a 5 and a 6, but I have done trickier things in trickier fabrics to good result.

    I feel like those of us who are self taught end up jumping around the list, though. I made evening gowns before I ever made a cushion or did a buttonhole. But, after ~15 of sewing, I think I’ve managed to go back and learn something to feel comfortable as a 5. Then again, I know there is plenty more that I should probably have a refresher course on, or unlearn bad habits about.

  10. This seems like a good system. I’m probably between a 5 and a 6, but I have done trickier things in trickier fabrics to good result.

    I feel like those of us who are self taught end up jumping around the list, though. I made evening gowns before I ever made a cushion or did a buttonhole. But, after ~15 years of sewing, I think I’ve managed to go back and learn enough more basic things to feel comfortable as a fully qualified 5. Then again, I know there is plenty more that I should probably have a refresher course on, or unlearn bad habits about.

  11. Well, I’m somewhere between a 4 and a 6. I’ve been doing a lot of lined garments, and I just learned how to resize patterns. Also, I modify patterns all the time. I can come up with a very basic pattern. But I just (as in the past two weeks!) figured out what all those other sewing machine feet are for, and I just set my first zipper. But with the zipper, it may just be beginner’s luck, so we’ll have to see how the next one goes…LOL. I also just learned the usefulness of marking my fabric with tailor’s tacks or the like while cutting my fabric. I should have learned that a long time ago, but I was lazy……

  12. I do like this scale, and fall squarely in the middle of 8. I could do 9 (depends on how you define “making your own patterns”) but I’m totally uninterested in couture techniques. It’s an excellent idea to define the scale by skills and techniques instead of arbitrary comparisons.

    The trick is that particularly among costumers, some skills are totally unnecessary, while other techniques can be incredibly advanced. This was certainly true of me a couple years ago, in which case I was still up a 7 if not an 8, except for setting zippers. (Buttonholes fine, either by hand or machine).

    Still, this is a really interesting scale and does IMHO an excellent job assessing a sewer’s overall level of skill. Even an omission like zippers doesn’t so much reflect on the sewer’s level as on the opportunity. I’m not at an 8 level *on zippers alone*, but I know I can do them and do them well if I try.

  13. I’d say something like beginner intermediate for myself… I can play with patterns, but I still sometimes struggle with the basic things like zippers and buttonholes… On your scale, I’d say somewhere around 6, but some of my skills are more advanced and some less.

    I like your scale; you just have to watch out for odd people like me – like people who have mostly successfully avoided buttonholes because they have koumpounophobia. 😀 I also agree it has a lot to do with what sort of sewing you focus on. There may be people who can make a very good couture-finish-like garment, but cannot make their own patterns, only alter existing ones… at least theoretically.

  14. Hmm… I think I am a beginner with a few extra skills. As far as your list goes:
    1 – have been on a sewing machine before … hate it and avoid it at all costs
    2 – cushions or similar, yes; zips, no; buttonholes, yes but not properly (i.e. medieval style whip-stitched ones, not modern buttonhole-stitched ones)
    3 – not sure what a “simple sewing pattern” constitutes – if its a boughten paper pattern with ‘beginners’ or ‘basic’ or something written on it, then no
    4 – more complicated patterns, again no if you mean boughten paper ones; linings, yes (though I prefer flat lined over bag lined)
    5 – adaptions to patterns – no, if you mean boughten paper ones
    6 – yes, I’ve drafted masses of simple clothes (if rectangular-construction medieval clothes count)
    7 – draping, not really; trickier fabrics, not sure what would constitute tricky
    8 – difficult fabrics, no; evening wear, no; tailoring, no; tricky fitting issues, yes!
    9 – making your own patterns, yes (again, if medieval ones count); couture, nope
    10 – nope

    I think it doesn’t really work on me as I’m a) self-taught, b) hand sew if at all possible, and c) only really work on medieval reproduction stuff.

    • Yay! Another dedicated hand sewer. 🙂 I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one.

  15. Catharine says

    I would say I was a 9, maaaybe a 10, if I had more experience with bias cut draping. I make all my own patterns, and can make nearly anything I am shown a picture of. What I don’t do well is doing these things really quickly if they are for a client. I did my last court gown in three days, but I am too OCD to let unfinished stuff go out to a client. Meaning it has to be trimmed appropriately. If a client sews plastic beads onto one of my gowns it makes my skin crawl, so I prefer to do it all myself. Its like someone else adding paint to your artwork.

  16. The Mad Purple Chicken says

    Hmm, I don’t know where I fit on that list, somewhere in the middle maybe, my learning has been all over the place. I’ve made thing with linings and boning, but I’m not sure if I did a good job. I haven’t worked with sheers or stretchy fabrics before, mostly just cotton weave.

    I might be a 5 or 6 if putting on an old lab coat, cutting bits off, pinning things together and marking construction details on with a sharpie counts as “drafting” or “altering”. That’s how I made my waistcoat pattern, it was quite awkward because I had to twist way around to mark things on the back.

    Being only 17, I know that I don’t know very much, so I recently switched from diving head first into complicated projects to a different approach, lately I have been making small samples of different sewing techniques for practice.

    As soon as I sewed my first garment I knew that store bought patterns are evil and pattern companies have no idea what humans are shaped like. I’ve been experimenting with draping on a little wooden drawing mannequin that I’ve padded out, I’m trying to learn how costumes are put together on a smaller scale, that way I won’t waste expensive fabric on horrible sloppy garments. I’m also making up some of my patterns full size but in cheap muslin and quilters cotton, I figure I’ll spend my money on sewing and historical pattern books now and get nice fabric next year, when I am more likely to turn it into something wearable.

    Your rating scale is quite helpful, and the photo of you and your sister is great. I’m looking forward to your wisdom on knits.

    • Lynne says

      Not all store-bought patterns are evil. You have to experiment until you find a maker who is putting out patterns that know more or less what shape you are, and who gives really clear instructions.
      I’m not sure what they are like right now, but Vogue always worked for me. Great instructions.

      • The Mad Purple Chicken says

        Okay, I’ll look at some vogue patterns, but I mostly sew historical stuff. Do they have any costume patterns?

        • Most of the Big 3 commercial costume patterns are pretty terrible, and will put you off patterns. I do recommend sewing with commercial patterns to make a few simple things for yourself as a good exercise, even for historical costuming.

  17. I’m not quite sure how I would label myself, even by your scale here! I’ve made quite advanced garments (evening gowns in velvet and satin, a tailored suit, completely hand-stitched corset…) but I can’t draft my own patterns. I’m to the point of being pretty comfortable altering other people’s patterns, but the only things I’ve ever made completely sans pattern were things like petticoats (and really you can’t go wrong with a couple of gathered rectangles) and a few simple aprons. So I would say my actual *sewing* level is pretty advanced (although not quite couture level, perhaps, but some of my other skills (drafting, draping, general pattern manipulation) are a little lower.

  18. I like the rating scale–it could be a really helpful guide! At the same time, I hear you on not *quite* fitting anywhere–while I’ve made silk evening gowns with bodices I draped myself, I’ve never done a machine button hole. I’ve noticed focusing mainly on historical sewing kind of throws me a loop, too, in that we’re often really skilled in difficult stuff just because we’ve had to do it…but lagging on beginner skills. At least, I know I am. 🙂

  19. I’m another all-over-the-scale self-taught person. Maybe a 2-6?

    I think those of us who start sewing because we want to make costumes or historical garb often end up tackling some really tricky things before we’ve done the usual basics…

    I can do zips and buttonholes, pattern drafting, and adjusting the fit of a garment, but all in a very trial-and-error, figure-it-out-as-you-go kind of way. I usually end up getting results I’m happy with, but it can be pretty stressful if there’s a deadline coming up like an event I need the costume ready for.

    I’ve never used a normal bought pattern. Even if I’m making clothes rather than costumes, I make it up as I go, or find a tutorial online. Works well for skirts and simple tops, anyway. 🙂

  20. Zach says

    Dear me! You know, I have never in my life touched a sewing machine. That is, unless you call moving one touching it. I hand sew everything. Since it’s more of a hobby to me than anything else and my income is somewhat less than…well…I don’t have one (Oh! To be young and free!), I just haven’t bothered to buy one. If I did, it might sit around here forever, since I have no Earthy idea how those blasted things work. (I mean seriously–how do they work? I don’t understand it!) As far as everything else goes, I’ve never used a pattern before. I can draft (little things…like miniature clothes kind of little) and made a big and billowy shirt for my neighbour to wear. I also made a stuffed doll for her birthday (how horrid that experience was, going into it with the “unexperienced” approach), which, thankfully, turned out quite nice. I am in the middle of making a “robe” type thing for her as well. (As you can see, she is my sewing outlet.) I do like to just dive in on things like that, though.

    Let me see, now…that puts me at about a…one, I’m assuming? 🙂

    • I’m convinced sewing machines work by witchcraft….lol!
      Or at least have a mind of their own.

  21. I dunno what I am, I can sew zips (most of the time) make and alter patterns, I sometimes can sew commercial patterns. I can size up a corset pattern by eye and have it fit, but I can only sew the most basic forms of pants. And I can never figure out other machine feet. So I’m a mix of almost all of those…….I guess this makes sense since I’m self taught

  22. Hayley says

    I would hover somewhere around a 5.

    But I like more general terms, like

    Absolute Beginner – how do I thread my machine again?

    Beginner – wheeee!!! Look I made a simple wrap skirt!

    Novice – buttonholes and zippers still make me swear, but my garments are very wearable

    Intermediate – working with difficult patterns and fabrics, and tweaking them to suit

    Proficient – confident to give almost any pattern and fabric a go, and to mix and match ideas from different patterns. Starting to draft own patterns.

    Advanced – doesn’t have to refer to the directions on a pattern, unless it’s a super confusing or unusual one. Makes ridiculously complicated items with fantastic finishes. Can make own items from scratch without a pattern

    Couture – never uses a pattern! Works with impossible fabrics and designs, and the end result could be found in a ritzy shop where there are no price tags….

  23. Actually, I usually try *not* to categorize myself as a sewer or seamstress ever–that would give seamstresses such a bad name! 🙂

    But to give you an idea how odd my own experience is, I’ll go through my experience using your scale.

    1. Check. I’ve used a sewing machine many times, often successfully.
    2. I have made simple things like cushion covers (a certain drawstring bag comes to mind) but I have never set a zipper or made machine buttonholes.
    3. Check. I’ve used a simple pattern In fact, I’ve used some more complex patterns pretty successfully.
    4. I’ve only ever done flatlined garments, nothing with a modern lining. No, I take that back. I tried to make a 1830s frock coat for my husband once that *did* have a modern lining. The coat looked very well from the waist up but the skirts were a travesty. (I heard later from other costumers that the particular pattern I had used was known to have many problems and was generally distrusted).
    5. I have “adapted” patterns for various reasons, with varying degrees of success (mostly “lack of”).
    6. The only patterns I’ve drafted are the kind that were common before, say, 1300 CE–you’re using measurements to draw the right sizes of triangles, trapezoids, and rectangles to make simple tunics, etc. I’ve done quite a bit of that.
    7. I have done no draping. On the other hand, I don’t let my ignorance of how to handle “tricky” fabrics stop me from trying to do it. I once managed to apply three rows of velvet strips *cut on the straight* to a mid-Victorian skirt, and the result looked much nicer than should have been the case!. 🙂
    8. Nope. (There’s a reason why I only wear some of my more elaborate creations for LARPs….)
    9. Nope. Not likely. This is one reason why I admire you–I’m never likely to reach these rarefied heights in my lifetime.
    10. Even more nope.

    On the other hand, I’m quite good with whipstitching and invisible hemming, and have sewn entire garments (albeit simple ones, as I’ve said) by hand.

    So where does all of that put me?

  24. Kylie says

    Wow, categorising sewing? I’ve always tended to go by a couple of my own categories, and I’ve been in all of them at some time or another. There’s absolutely clueless – a definition I’ve spent far too much time in. That is the step below “reasonably proficient”, where I feel that I can do simple things – including zips and buttonholes – but nothing too complicated (about the level of my hand sewing, sadly, but I’m working on it. There’s “no idea how I did it, but it seemed to work OK”, which I’ve always figured (hoped???) meant there was a degree of skill involved. Then there’s “unjustifiably confident”, which tends to lead to hours of unpicking and re-sewing. Occasionally, I have aspired to my final classification – “knows exactly what she’s doing” – but generally I fall short. By your categories, though, I think I’m a fairly respectable 7/8. I’ve drafted my own patterns for basics (skirts, pants, blouses, basic dresses), but never really done any draping. On the other hand, I’ve made evening dresses, including a strapless silk 1950s evening dress complete with train and boning and used a variety of fabrics that are pretty challenging with reasonable success. My next plan is to start working up to couture techniques, and improving my hand sewing at the same time. I look at the finish on things I’ve made by hand and I cringe. It doesn’t show on the outside, thankfully, but I know that I’ve fudged things and just don’t feel comfortable with the knowledge…

  25. Kate says

    Maybe it would be easier to list the skills needed for each class you teach. That way you’d have more participants. The person who knows how to sew a zipper can come to a more advanced class even if they’re clueless about sewing a buttonhole, as long as the project is without buttonholes!

    Now, could anyone suggest how to limit the scope of questions asked in a brief beginner’s class? What would be your response to questions requiring detailed explanations which are beyond the curriculum? (How would you encourage them to come back for more classes? ; )

  26. I’m moving into a 7 with a snag at level 2. When it comes to zippers and button holes….haven’t done them in years. I just picked up sewing after years of my machine collecting dust…I didn’t even mend! Now I sew Victorian dresses (zippers are a no no.) My machine doesn’t do button holes so I’ve been making my dresses with hooks and eyes. I tried to make a button hole with my mother-in-law’s 4 step machine and it was terrible…but I blame the machine not me….it was crap. I do want to get a machine that does button holes because I think my dresses will sit better in the “boobage” area if it is anchored with a million buttons rather than a million hooks. I’m certain I could do hand button holes with very little difficulty except I’d die of bordom. I hate hand sewing.

  27. i actually have a degree in fashion design, i can do all or these things but i can put in a good looking zipper to save my life……

    • I don’t know about the degree programme you studied in, but I’ve noticed that a lot of modern programmes put a lot of emphasis on theory and design over construction, which I’m not a huge fan of – I think construction leads to better design. I wonder what the thought behind the shift in programme emphasis has been.

      And I’m so sad to hear from all these seamstresses who have trouble with zips and buttons. They really shouldn’t be so hard, and feeling confident doing them is a great moment.

  28. I like this scale MUCH better than the “Begginer/Intermediate” etc. scale. On this scale, I’d place myself at a 5-6–I can manipulate patterns to fit me and I’ve drafted a few simple skirts and dresses. So… yeah. This is a much better scale for sewist taking lessons!

  29. Lylassandra says


    I have to say, being one of those people who learns by diving in at the deep end, I have no idea where I fit in here. My mom taught me to sew, and she now constantly brags about how I’m this amazing seamstress who knows so much more than she does– and it scares the crap out of me, because I still feel so totally unsure of myself a lot of the time.

    To break it down as someone did above:
    1: Check.
    2: Check. I can set a zipper, and not too badly, but I hate them and buttonholes both. I only know one hem.
    3: Check.
    4: Check.
    5: Check. I don’t know what I’m doing, but so far I haven’t had to burn anything I’ve made…
    6: I haven’t drafted anything of my own really (except for the bias sleeve cuffs of an Amidala gown, long story) but I’ve started scaling up and altering historical patterns.
    7: I’ve been playing with tricky fabrics since I decided my second-ever project should be stretch velvet (file under “didn’t know enough to be afraid”), and my mom just got me a book on draping, but I haven’t had time to really play with it yet.
    8: I guess? I just feel like calling myself an 8 is massive hubris, since I’m so very self-taught and feeling through all this by instinct. And I’ve only been sewing a few years.
    9 & 10: Not remotely.

  30. I think this is the most sensible breakdown I’ve seen, although it also makes me think I need to brush up on zipper insertion. Making costumes from thrift store finds tends to get me all over the place, where I’ve done complicated patterns on my own, but also not worked with a tricky fabric like velvet. At any rate, I’d probably put myself at a six.

    • Thank you for weighing in! I really respect you for how you have taken on sewing: you’ve done such an amazing job of learning how, and of pushing yourself in a sensible way. You’re my model for beginner sewers (seriously, I tell my beginners class “go look at her website and her trajectory, and try to do that too”). So it’s great to see your input. I do hugely recommend getting really comfortable with stuff like zips and buttons though.

  31. […] to see what else I could find on the topic. Clearly it’s subjective, but opinions abound. This great post from The Dreamstress describes a 10-point scale that I found interesting. If I followed it […]

  32. I also think this is a very descriptive listing of sewing skills progression, solidly up to #5. After that I think I would skip to #8, then #6,7,9&10, only because not everyone has the need or opportunity to draft/drape. I like your interpretation because you give specific sewing benchmarks to use in evaluating a sewist’s perceived level of proficiency.

    • Thanks for the input Ellen! I actually REALLY recommend that every seamstress take a few classes in draping and drafting, even if they don’t intend to use the skills themselves, if only because you learn a lot about how fabrics behave when you learn to drape, and how patterns are made, and how that affects their fit, when you learn to draft patterns. I do think it’s the most effective way to learn both those skills, and can improve your sewing immeasurably through fabric choice, and ability to fit and tweak patterns successfully.

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