The very first step is figuring out the basics of your sewing machine. You need to learn to put in a needle, wind a bobbin, and thread your machine. Your manual (or one downloaded from the manufacturer's website) should help you with this. If you have trouble with this (or really any sewing-related task) the internet is your friend. You will find a million YouTube videos showing you how to do whatever it is.
I found a really great introduction to a sewing machine the other day on Shrimp Salad Circus. It shows you all the parts and walks you through threading your machine and sewing a few stitches. Definitely check it out.
So after you've got your machine threaded, grab some plain, non-stretchy fabric and start stitching. You're not trying to make anything yet, just make some lines of stitches. You can try different stitch types and machine settings. If you're like me, you will quickly discover you have problems stitching in a straight line. That's ok, just do your best. I'll talk about this more in a bit.
If you have problems with your machine, if it jams up or your thread is knotting or whatever, there are a few things to check. First, make sure it is threaded correctly. If the thread isn't through all the right places it will jam the machine. Sometimes the thread slips from one of the guides during sewing. Maybe it wasn't in there securely, but every once in a while it just happens, and usually it takes me way too long to realize what the problem is.
Other sources of problems may be your thread tension. Try adjusting your tension knob slightly. Typically I don't mess with mine a lot, but you need to find a good place to keep it set. Another source of problem could be your choice of needle, thread, or fabric. You need to have the right needle and thread thickness for your fabric. Here is a good basic guide to choosing needle size and thread type.
One problem I ran into a lot when I first started was my thread knotting up. I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. Well, eventually I found out: I had cheap thread. At some point my mother-in-law game me several spools of 2/$1 Wal-mart thread and so that was what I was using. I didn't think thread could really vary much in quality. OMG, IT DOES. I threw all of this thread in the trash because it was ruining my projects, my sanity, and possibly my machine. You don't have to buy the really expensive, top-of-the-line thread, but buy a name brand like Coats. For almost all normal sewing tasks you will use the same type of thread: the kind labeled all-purpose or something similar. Don't buy "heavy-duty" thread (or other specialty thread) unless you know you need it.
You don't really need to worry about doing anything complicated at this point. You need to be able to stitch a relatively straight line by using the seam guide on your machine. Just doing that will get you through most beginner projects. If you (like me) have a hard time sewing straight, I recommend a Magnetic Seam Guide. I used one of these for almost a year until I was confident in my ability to sew an accurate seam.
Ok, so you've got your machine working and you know how to make a basic line of stitches on your machine. Now what? Well, you need to start with something that will hopefully be fun, make something you want to make, but won't cost a lot or break your heart if you mess up and have to throw it out.
The best materials to work with when you're first starting are FREE materials. You probably have lots of things laying around that you can practice your sewing on. Old clothes that are damaged, don't fit, or you just don't like? Sheets you're not using or that have a hole in them? A stack of old T-shirts you can't bring yourself to give away but that you can't/don't wear either? Perfect practice material. If you don't have anything of your own, ask family and friends or go to the thrift store. I posted on facebook asking for old T-shirts and a friend mailed me a HUGE box of them that her family didn't want anymore.
So what should you make with this stuff? Well, anything you want. There are plenty of books and websites with instructions for remaking things into other things. I personally have used Generation T: 108 Ways to Transform a T-Shirt and Generation T: Beyond Fashion: 120 New Ways to Transform a T-shirt (A slight warning: some of the fashion instructions don't work for plus-sized figures. I prefer the second book because it has more household items than just shirts that become a slightly different style of shirt.) There are lots of books like this, but those are the best for using T-shirts. Look around the sewing section of your local used bookstore.
Other great beginner projects are napkins, tote bags from an old sheet or pillowcase, a sewing machine cover, or Make Your Own Snuggie (these are GREAT Xmas gifts). Here is a page full of links to beginner sewing instructions. These are just a few of the things I tried as a beginner. There's a whole internet out there full of great tutorials to explore.
I do honestly recommend starting with little tutorials like this rather than a sewing pattern. Many sewing patterns don't have great instructions and tell you to do something like "narrow hem" that you might not have a clue how to do. There are patterns that are made for beginners like the "It's So Easy" or "Learn to Sew" line of patterns and they have better instructions.
Do I need a reference book?
Because I have self-taught a lot of skills, my first instinct is to go out and buy a book on whatever topic I'm trying to learn. With sewing, I think you can get a lot from the internet, if you're willing to put in the searching time. Start with some simple tutorials and once you are fairly comfortable using a sewing machine, try some simple patterns. If you come to something you don't know how to do, it's time for YouTube or finding an appropriate tutorial.
But you might feel better having a book around to read and refer to. First of all, I DON'T recommend the Sewing for Dummies book. It was the first book I had, and it ended up making things more complicated than they needed to be. And when I really needed help, the descriptions were unclear. It's difficult to learn sewing from text. Pictures are very important, which is why internet tutorials and YouTube videos are awesome.
There are nice books out there that give basic instruction and also include projects and patterns. I own the Sew Everything Workshop: The Complete Step-by-Step Beginner's Guide with 25 Fabulous Original Designs, Including 10 Patterns and it's pretty good. The projects are nice items, although I never actually got around to making many of them because I advanced straight into steampunk stuff. But for general intro sewing projects, it's great. The instructions for the included projects are good, but I found that as a general reference this book isn't always complete. If a skill isn't needed for the stuff in the book, it's not there. I've seen other similar books in my used bookstore's craft section, so it's worth looking around.
I did finally find an EXCELLENT sewing reference book. Clotilde's Sew Smart is a book for the sewer who wants to improve the quality of her work and take it to the next level. So it's not an intro book, but if you want a reference that is going to show you how to make every style of pocket possible, or teach you the right way to set in a sleeve, this is that book. Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print so you will have to find it used.
Ok, but what about steampunk?
|My petticoat skirt make from a bedsheet.|
If you're wanting to make men's clothing, that's a big more difficult. Men's clothing has less variation and most of the pieces are pretty complicated. You might want to start with a simple accessory, like a cravat from my tutorial. Spats are another fairly simple accessory. Pardon me while I point you to my spats pattern.
The next easiest thing to make for men is probably a vest, but be warned, not all patterns are going to be straightforward. There are a few "Learn to Sew" or "Easy" vest patterns out there. Try one of those and if you're just making your first clothing, simplify your vest. Leave off lapels and pockets. You don't want to try to make welt pockets until you have some sewing experience. It took me four months to make my first welt pocket vest. (If you are ready to try them, I have cracked them and shared my technique here. ) If you desperately want pockets, use a patch pocket.
And really, from there the sky's the limit. The trick to learning a new skill is picking your projects correctly. Each project should be a little more challenging than the last one. If you do that, your skills will improve very rapidly and you'll constantly be learning new things. If you're too timid and only pick projects you are comfortable doing, you will stagnate and end up making napkins and tote bags for the rest of your life. If you try to do something extremely challenging too quickly, you are likely to get frustrated and give up. So you should always challenge yourself and be optimistic about your skills. If you overreach, you can always put a project to the side and try something else until you feel you can give it another try.
EDIT: I have just found a good Novice Sewer Guide. It includes some info about tools that I didn't cover, as well as instructions to make coasters as a first project.