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My Favorite Basic Sewing Reference Books

My sister asked me to write about the basic sewing reference books that I use over and over again.  There are a lot of great sewing books available but today I’m going to share my top three books.  Not surprisingly, two of them are vintage and the third one is the book I’ve been using for eons.  Fortunately, they are all still readily available (just click on the name of the book).

New Complete Guide to Sewing (Readers Digest)

I cut my teeth, so to speak, on the 1976 edition of Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing. By that time my grandmother had become quite ill from her cancer and I was having to learn new sewing skills on my own.  If I didn’t understand the pattern instructions (which are written with the assumption that you have basic sewing skills), I turned to the Reader’s Digest sewing guide.  I think of it as an encyclopedia for sewing–I just have to look in the index for whatever problem I’m encountering and can usually find the solution for it.  If you can only have one resource book, I’d recommend this book.


McCall’s Sewing Book

Listeners to the Grandma’s Sewing Cabinet podcast will recognize this second recommendation as the book I’ve been reading…slowly but surely.  I have the 1963 edition but you can also get the 1968 version for dirt cheap on Amazon.

While this book can be used in the same way as the Reader’s Digest book, for some reason, I think of it more as a “textbook” that will teach me how to sew step by step by step.  It starts with a discussion of how to choose flattering patterns, fabrics, and colors and takes you clear through to tailoring.  The book finishes with home decorating information.

Cover Page

Cover Page

The Complete Book of Sewing

If you want THE classic sewing reference book, then you need to get your hands on Constance Talbot’s Complete Book of Sewing, published in 1943.  She also published one in 1949 that I haven’t seen.

What I love about this book is that it was written before all of the modern shortcuts became the norm.  It is just good old-fashioned sewing advise…including how to repair and reuse garments (it was written during World War II as people were recovering from The Great Depression, after all).

This is a vintage lover’s dream and I want to thank Carolyn for bringing this book to my attention.

What are your general “go to” books for sewing basics?

3 comments to My Favorite Basic Sewing Reference Books

  • I have the Singer Sewing Book, 1972. I found it very helpful recently when I was making a housecoat from a vintage McCall’s pattern, 1932. The instructions were summaries, such as “apply continuous lap,” and since I hadn’t sewn for awhile, I appreciated the help of my Singer Sewing Book.

    Recently I was driving into town listening to back podcasts of Grandma’s Sewing Cabinet when Dr. J. mentioned the Better Homes and Gardens Sewing Book. “This book is out there,” she said, so on a lark I drove to my favorite antique / collectibles consignment shop. Yes, I found a copy for $3.00 and bought it — just for the fun of it.

    And I have something else to add. I think Dr. J. was reading from the Constance Talbot book in one of the podcasts early this year. At the time I was making a jacket for myself from a Butterick retro pattern, B4928. “A short woman should never wear raglan sleeves,” read Dr. J. (Not a direct quote.) “Oh-oh,” I said to myself. Sure enough, when I tried that jacket on, my husband broke into a huge grin. What a downer! That jacket totally swallows me up. The fabric is embroidered corduroy and I worked so hard. It’s all finished except the hem. I just hung it away since I know I can’t wear it. I’ll probably take it apart and make a skirt or a vest.

    Finally, since I seem to need a little help selecting styles best for my matronly figure and station in life, I bought another book at the collectibles shop — “H-O-A-X Fashion Formula — Dress the Body Type You Have to Look Like the Body You Want,” by Mary Duffy, 1987.

  • Anne

    I got the Constance Talbot book after you recommended it. Mine says:
    First published January 1948
    Second Edition, December 1948 (It must have been popular)
    Third Edition, March 1952
    Fourth Impression, February 1955

    Mine has no “Edited by …” and it is printed in England by Museum Press Limited in London.

  • I also have these books:
    McCalls’ – circa 1968
    Reader’s Digest – revised 1995
    Singer Sewing Books – circa 1972, 1954, & 1953
    among others – they co well with our older machines and retro patterns – I love my older machines! I’ll post up my books on my blog sometime soon – I have a cabinet full! Each one a treasure! I remember going to the Singer Store in my area when I was learning to sew in the mid 60’s – my teenage daughter loves the older styles, too! We just modify everything to make them modest. Great job on the shirt, too!