If you want a more "scientific" way to make perfect fitting skirts, make a sloper. (Like the one in this tutorial.) Skirt slopers are really simple and quick to make. It's basically a skirt base made from your measurements that you can use to make all kinds of skirts.
Form the sloper you can use a reference like this for inspiration. I hardly ever but skirt patterns anymore, this is an easy way to make perfect fitting patterns.
You're not at all the only one to start late and all on your own, I promise
For sewing machines, I agree that you shouldn't spend too much money on the first one, but be prepared to resist the temptation of buing a new and fancy one as soon as you start discovering the wonderful world of mechanical, computerized and antique machines and begin to see what your preference tends towards. It took me about a year from I bought my first, cheapie, budget line Pfaff till I just couldn't resist the beautiful, fancy schmanzy Husqvarna I now own and adore. Have a look at PatternReview for by far the best machine resource online. You have to sign up to see all reviews older than 3 month, but it's SO worth it! If you can't find a positive review of the machine you're looking at there, the chances are good that you ought to stay away from it.
About where to begin technique-wise, it's all a matter of your preferred learning methods. I have a friend who sewars by YouTube tutorial videos, another who uses huge sewing reference books. Personally I can't stand either method and just poured through sites like Craftster for cute projects with tutorials that I tried to mimic. Eventually I discovered Burdastyle, that at that time had loads of free patterns. Now most cost a few dollars, but they still have some free ones that can be an inexpensive way of learning to use patterns. Maybe the Coffee Date Dress, that one of the members have uploaded? Or a very simple basic men's tee?
I don't remember off the top of my head, but it was a 'top of the line' that Joann's were just now putting on sale. Maybe a call to one of their sewing galleries would be fruitful? I'm gonna guess it was the Designer Diamond - but maybe less expensive machines also have those functions?
Most of the computerized Vikings can do it. My Platinum 770 does, and I'm pretty sure all the others in that line does too. The Sapphires and the Topazes too. The only one that doesn't is the Emeralt 183.
I'm a Husqvarna fangirl myself, but be aware that the E20 as far as I can remember is from the budget line Huskystar. I know many people have had problems with the C10 and C20, but it seems the E10 (which was the only one I found reviews of in my very quick search) has been more successful so maybe it won't be a problem at all. For heavy duty sewing as home dec (heavy fabrics, strong thread) you might concider something more sturdy than a plastic budget line machine.
I understand the drooling over fancy stitches, but I'm sure you've seen the posts around here stating that "you don't need it, you'll hardly use it anyway", and that's not a lie. I now have 128 (I think) stitch patterns, a couple of alphabets and a few other fancy bells and whistls, but I rarely use other things than straight, zig-zag, elastic straight, and the automatic buttonhole.
(Of course, there is also the excitement over a new machine that spurs enthusiam and desire to sew and it shouldn't be underestimated. I bought my pretty Husquarna just a year after buying my first, budget line, 18 stitch Pfaff and have never regretted it! If you really want something to play with, not just work with, it might be worth the possible troubles )
What kinds of things are you interested in sewing? Clothing, home-dec, bags, quilts? I always reccomend first deciding what you want to make, then hunt for simple patterns. There are easy versions of practically anything you'd want to sew (Pajama pants before dress pants, or a tank top before a button up - fitted sleeve shirt for instance). It's much easier to put a little extra effort in something you want to make, than very litte effort in something you just make for experiences sake.
I think that fabric could be a cute apron, or maybe a simple tank top? For aprons there's for instance this cute tutorial, where you can play with pockets and trims.
I highly reccomend looking at the different tutorial list threads for inspiration.
You don't nescessarily need patterns to learn to sew. Look at the clothing forum, and you'll find many tutorials that tell you all you need to know. The Purses/bags forum has a similar thread, if that's more of your interest. The most important part is to not be afraid to try. Sewing is all a matter of putting pieces of fabric together in the right way, so as long as you follow the instructions you'll be fine. It seems more dauntig than it is.
If you think you'll feel more comfortable with patterns, there are free ones around. At Burdastyle they have a few free ones. THIS dress, for example, is not difficult. At PrintSew they also have some free patterns. They change from time to time, but the Simplicity Dress has been there for some time, and it's really cute! Both these places you print out the pattern on a home printer and glue/tape the paper together.
Maybe that's a start? Good luck, sewing is an amazing hobby.
This month I'm not really learning a new skill, but I'm kick-starting my loving relationship with my sewing machine and working for a greener earth by making a new reusable shopping bag. Haven't used my beloved sewing machine for ages now, I've been so busy and it's so much quicker to just pull out a knitting project during a break than taking the effort to measure, cut, pin sew, fix, sew, test... Yeah...
I'm using the ever awesome "singlet style shopping bag" (sorry for not linking to the tutorial, but it's here on craftster and it's absolutely AWESOME! Just search for it). I've done it plenty of times before, but this time I'm facing the handles in attempt to make it stronger. The main reason for this choise is, to be honest, that bags don't really interest me so I don't get inspired to sew them. Still, as this is my New Years resolution, and I for once plan on sticking to it, I think I should participate. The handbag is more or less done, pics'll be up pretty soon.
If you want a free pattern you'll probably have to make it yourself. Patternmaking is time-consuming, and there's a reason why you'll find very few free patterns out there. Also, if you want that exact pattern, you might as well buy it. Concidering the cost of the fabric, buttons etc it'll be a cheap investment in a product you'll like.
You'll find a couple of free coat/jacket patterns on the german burdamode site (here) if you want to try to make it yourself and need a place to start. Look for patterns with a similar shape on top and then the bottom is mainly a rectangle that's been gathered. Try it out on muslin or another cheap fabric to see if you like it.
and one quick question: i want to do a simple hat, but i've heard that circular needles and DPN's are WAY harder to use than straights, is that true???
Lots has been said on this subject already, but I thought I'd chip in anyway. I'm a newbie knitter too and my first project ever was a hat on DPN's so I've just been through the same worries that you express. The first hat turned out a real disaster, but that was mainly because I just fudged it all and was more focused on learning different techniques than actually making a wearable hat. My second project (and to date my only FO, finished it last week) was also a hat on DPN's. It turned out really cute, no problems with ladders between the needles (I pulled the two first and to last stitches on each needle a little tighter), and the lace edge looks good to anyone who hasn't seen the original pattern. (The pattern was Lace-Edged hat, if that's of interest)
I'm now done with the first of a pair of Irish Hiking Wristwarmers and they're looking pretty good. So, from two of three first projects I have already done DPN's, Lace, Cables and mattress stitch, and it all worked out perfectly fine. My point in this is that you shouldn't be afraid of trying out new techniques. You obviously can do a nice and even knit and purl, and that's all you need. Find a pattern that inspires you, then you can worry about the difficulties if it turns out that they really are that difficult (And if you're still worried about knitting in the round, use big needles and yarn so it doesn't take to long)
This is very easy to do if you have a basic straight skirt pattern, preferrably without yoke, available (or you can draft one, it's not that hard).
If it has darts in the waist, draw a line from the point of the yoke to the bottom of the skirt, cut, and move the two pieces so that the dart is closed and you get an open "triangle" from the tip of the old dart. Ignore that the open triangle is there, cover it up with paper if it gets confusing. (Here's a link to illustrate this step if it helps ) Also, since it's assymetrical it's probably a good idea to draw out a full pattern piece, not with a "place on fold"-line in the middle like most patterns will have you do. (Just place it on a big piece of paper, draw, turn it over so the pattern fold-line meets the newly drawn fold-line and draw around the pattern piece again) Do the same to both the front and back piece. You now have two whole, dartless pieces. Draw the yoke the way you want it, remember to match up the front and back pieces. Cut, and remember to add seam allowances where you cut.
Now, if you want the bottom piece to be circle skirt-y, you use the same slash-and-spread technique as you used when you closed the waist dart. Draw lines from the yoke seam to the bottom of the skirt, cut and spread out the pieces so they still connect at the top but the bottom is spread out. Do this at several places, you want the "cracks" at the top to be evenly distributed to make the skirt fall smootly. Tape/glue paper to cover the open spaces that have formed, or trace around it on a new piece of paper, and you have your complete pieces. (And another link to illustrate the slash-and-spread. Look at how they make godet-pieces in the drawings, it's the same principle)
I don't know how much experience you have with patterns, so I'm sorry if I was being overly detailed, but I think it's better to be detailed just in case