Last week I got a great question from a follower named Jacqueline: “Hello! I’m excited to get started learning to sew Barbie & Ken clothes. What advise do you have for me to keep my sewing machine from tangling thread & bunching the fabric when sewing such small tops with light weight fabric? I can sew fleece and pant weight fabrics fine but want to also make dresses & tops with beautiful prints or shirt weight fabric. Do I forget about backstitching (when snarls happen)? Do I sew off the edge & tie the threads at the ends by hand?”
This question was left in the comments, but not everyone reads the comments on my blog. So I decided, since many of you would benefit from this advice, I’d create a blog post dedicated to this topic. Here goes…
In response, I must be perfectly honest with you: for Barbie and Ken, I rarely use my sewing machine. The smaller the doll clothes, the more likely I am to simply sew by hand.
When I do use my sewing machine for Barbie or Ken clothes (or for smaller doll clothes), I only use the machine to stitch relatively straight lines, like the hem of a dress or the straight-across shoulder seams. For corners like along the edges of a sleeve, I always sew by hand. I find I have more control when I stitch by hand, and therefore my seams match up correctly when I join pieces together.
Now let’s get to the topic of the sewing machine itself, which as I mentioned, I do use when sewing for larger dolls and when sewing straight seams for smaller doll clothes.
My machine is a Viking Husqvarna with a top-loading bobbin. I used to use an older Singer sewing machine with a front-loading bobbin (see link for a similar model), and it worked great for years! But I’ve found that the top-loaders have fewer problems with the “tangling thread and bunching fabric” that Jacqueline mentioned.
However, if a new sewing machine is not in your budget, you may find that a $50 machine service may help a lot! Have a professional clean and service your machine, and set the tension for you. It will be well worth the money.
Also, if you want to try making doll clothes out of jersey or stretchy fabrics, you should consider buying what’s called a “walking foot.” It’s not impossible to use a backstitch with a walking foot, but backstitching can create bunching if you don’t have the tension adjusted to your walking foot. So when I use a walking foot, I tie off the strings like Jacqueline mentioned in her comment.
Here’s a trick I use too: in my desk drawer, I keep a notepad of tension adjustments. When I find a tension setting that works well for a certain type of fabric, I record it on the notepad (along with the type of fabric I used it for). Tension is sort of fiddly and your machine’s guide book isn’t always accurate. But it’s usually tension problems that cause snarls to happen.
People who are super good with sewing machines (and that would not be me by the way) adjust their tension with every type and weight of fabric, but I usually only adjust my tension when I switch to heavy denims (when sewing for people) or when I switch to stretchy or silky fabrics.
The rest of the time, I try to use 100% cotton — the kind you buy in the quilting area of the fabric store. That way I don’t have to adjust the tension too much. Probably 90% of the patterns I design were primarily designed to be used with 100% cotton or cotton-polyester blends. These are the easiest fabrics to work with, when you’re sewing for dolls.
Tiny doll clothes must use tiny seam allowances, in order to prevent the fabric from looking too bulky on the doll. And you’ll notice that when I sew a corner (like the area around a sleeve or crotch), I clip my seams and press them open, even if the doll clothes are very tiny. This also helps prevent the fabric from looking bulky on the doll.
Now when I sew for larger dolls, like vintage Crissy dolls, American Girl dolls, and baby dolls, I use my sewing machine more frequently. You may notice that in the video tutorials for making my Wellie Wisher doll clothes, I’m shown sewing on my actual Viking sewing machine. But you won’t see me attaching the sleeves on the machine. There’s a reason for this.
When sewing for a person, if your seams are off by a quarter of an inch (6 mm), it isn’t that big of a deal, but when sewing for a doll, that quarter of an inch looks HUGE!
Let’s say you use a 4 mm seam allowance to sew the left shoulder seam of a shirt, but you use a 5 mm seam to sew the right shoulder seam. That one millimeter is actually noticeable on a doll’s shirt when you open and press that shoulder seam and begin to attach the sleeve. You’ll say to yourself, “Why did the sleeve fit perfectly on the other side, but it’s off by a little bit on this side? Ugh!”
The smaller the doll clothes, the more you’ll notice this.
So that’s why I choose to sew by hand for Barbie and Ken most of the time. I find it easier to control the seam allowance when I sew by hand.
My patterns also make the sleeve itself a little too big for the arm hole, and my tutorials suggest that you attach the sleeves starting at the underarm and leaving a gap at the top. Like this:
Look carefully at the photograph. The image shows a bodice with a sleeve partially attached. It’s attached from one underarm to just shy of the shoulder seam on both sides. There’s a gap between the shoulder seam and the sleeve itself.
Here’s a close-up, and you can see my finger poking through that gap at the top of the sleeve:
The reason I design my doll clothes this way is to avoid that “Oh no!” effect when you realize your shoulder seams were off by a millimeter or two. As long as you attach the sleeves from the underarm up, the differences in shoulder seams won’t be noticeable.
But you might wonder about the “puffy sleeve” problem if you’re sewing for a male doll. Unless you’re making Renaissance clothing for a male doll, you want to avoid making sleeves that look puffy at the top. So here’s what you do…
Sew from the underarm up, but leave a larger gap at the top. The more room you leave at the top, the less noticeable your gathers will be. A wider swath for the gathers will make the shirt seem like it is tailored to fit Ken’s muscular shoulders, rather than puffed to look like a lady’s ball gown’s sleeves.
Even with the skirt portion of a human person’s dress, I always do my gathers by hand, never on a sewing machine. I do know how to do this on a sewing machine, but I find using sewing needle with a doubled thread to pull gathers is much sturdier and less likely to break while being pulled.
So rather than doing it twice or three times, I want my gathers to pull correctly on the first try. That’s why I always gather by hand.
I guess I’m sort of obsessive about that. I hate when the thread breaks!
I have one last piece of advice. Even I — a person who teaches others how to sew on YouTube — have gone to a sewing center for sewing machine lessons. Find out where you can get sewing machine lessons in your area. Even if it costs $100 for two lessons, you’ll be able to “up your sewing game” in ways you had never imagined!
Arrive at your sewing lessons with a list of questions, swatches of fabrics you plan to use, and the actual machine you plan to sew on. You’ll find it’s well worth the money!
Best wishes, happy sewing, and thank you for the topic, Jacqueline!