How to Sew Faster: Batching Tasks

The other week, I wanted to make a dress but I had such a small amount of time that it barely seemed possible. But rather than give up, I used the pressure to try out a technique that would make my sewing more efficient – batching tasks. I’m never going back!

Batching your sewing tasks is such a time saver – and it doesn’t even involve cutting any corners. (Insert joke about trimming seam allowances here.) You’re not skipping any of the important steps – you’re just rearranging them.

What is Task Batching in Sewing?

The principle of task batching is that you group together as many similar tasks together as you can in one go, and then do them all before moving on to the next type of task.

Heard of mise en place in cooking? It’s a bit like that, but for sewing.

For instance, the pattern instructions may tell you to sew a seam, then finish it and finally press it. This makes clear logical sense, and is a fine way to write instructions, particularly for beginners. But if you follow these steps in this order for every seam, then you’re constantly switching up your workspace to suit different tasks. This might mean physically moving around the room, or moving machines around, or even reconfiguring your machine settings.

For example, these are the different spaces I use:

  1. My sewing machine
  2. My overlocker* (which shares a space with my sewing machine, so I physically swap them around)
  3. My ironing board
  4. My cutting table where I pin seams together, and also where I trim/grade seam allowances

*If you don’t have an overlocker, then you’re probably changing the settings on your sewing machine between straight seams and edge finishing. And you’re trimming seam allowances too!

All considered, that’s a lot of time spent simply moving around or moving machines!

So what to do instead?

Your goal is to do as much of the same kind of task in one go as you can, before moving on to the next kind of task.

For instance, identify a set of seams that can be sewn together. Pin them all, then move all your pinned pieces to the sewing machine and sew them all one after the other. Then overlock them all, and then finally press them all. Then you’re ready to pick up the next set of seams.

Obviously you can’t do all the seams in your project in one batch, because there are dependencies between them (i.e. you probably want to finish your side and shoulder seams before you insert a sleeve). But you can probably batch together more seams than the pattern instructions suggest.

Top Tips for Batching your Sewing Tasks

Take time to save time. Sit down for 5 minutes before you start sewing, and rewrite the pattern instructions. I even reword the instructions into very simple shorthand for myself. There’s no need to stop and read full-length pattern instructions between each step, especially if you’re an experienced sewist who doesn’t need the step-by-step instructions for everything.

Identify independent seams. It’s worth reading through to the end of the pattern and finding as many unrelated seams as possible. For instance, there may be a waist tie, collar, cuff or skirt that you can pin/sew/overlock at the same time as your shoulder seams. (I like to think of this in terms of dependency trees, but then again, I am a software engineer…)

Batch up all kinds of pressing tasks – not just seams. When pressing your first seams, also look ahead for any other pressing tasks that can be brought forward. Waistbands, neckbands or ties can be pressed in half before the time comes to sew them. Also, it can nice to press hems before sewing the pieces – particularly on sleeves, which become more fiddly to press after they’ve been sewn into the garment.

Consider the changes to settings on your machine. You’ll also want to batch up steps that involve changing the settings on your machine. Gathering stitches, bar tacks, topstitching in a contrasting thread colour, and rolled hems – these all involve faffing around with your setup. Plus if you batch them all together, that also minimises the number of times you can forget to put the settings back afterwards!

And that’s it.

I hope you enjoy using this technique. Enjoy your speedier sewing!

90s Themed Shelby Dress

I’d planned to make this Shelby dress for a 90s themed birthday party I was going to. I bought the fabric and the pattern well in advance – but thanks to some other sewing deadlines I had, I ended up with only two days to make it! Spoiler: I managed it in time.

This time pressure gave me the impetus to try out a technique I’ve been meaning to do for a long time – task batching. I mean. It’s not exactly revolutionary. I do the same thing in the kitchen when I’m cooking.

I’ve got a blog post coming up on how to batch tasks, so look out for that!

The dress is inspired by a particular music video from the 90s

I’m really pleased with how it came out, given the sheer panic I was operating under while making it. I actually cut the midi length, which meant the pieces were too long for my cutting table, and I had to cut on the floor (which also meant scissors rather than my trusty rotary cutter). That wasn’t great for my back as I have a condition that means I’m super prone to backache. Annoyingly, I actually ended up trimming the dress to just above the knee anyway, so I should have just made the short version and used my cutting table after all! Oh well.

The dress came together really nicely – even considering it’s viscose, which I really used to struggle with, but I’ve got enough experience with viscose now that I am better at manhandling it.

The only real issue I had was that the button band facing wanted to hang differently from the outer dress fabric, which caused some weird pulling around the front centre. I suspect I accidentally cut the outer fabric on a slight bias. I had to redo the hem a couple of times to get it to work, but I got there. I ended up hanging the dress and pinning it where it wanted to hang.

The buttons are actually pearlescent, which you can’t tell in the photos. I added the extra three up the neckline in homage to the original dress from the music video.

The fit isn’t perfect – but given how little prep I did (no toile!!!) I’m overjoyed at it. It’s slightly too big, which is fine at the waist as you can use the back ties to cinch it in. But around the bust, the princess seams don’t sit properly on the bust point, and there’s a little bagginess going on. But I don’t care. I’m very happy with this dress. And I’m very happy with the lessons it taught me.