A No BS Guide to the Essential Tools You Must Have for Sewing
Hello my fellow future sewists!
I am getting so much enjoyment from writing this series. Really, what this blog series is becoming is a class in itself- a great class to have before you take a beginners sewing class. Following the steps that I have presented and prepared for you will save you so much time, confusion, and effort. If you haven’t read the previous posts, I highly recommend going back to them before reading today’s topic.
So far, we have discussed your big vision, or big why, to start sewing. Having that why builds your excitement, and keeps your eye on your goal while you go through the steps to learn how to sew. Each lesson in this series builds upon the next, and last week, we talked about the investment that you are going to make, and set you up with plans for practice. We took your exciting vision from lesson 1, and made a plan for it.
You must be able to practice and find time for your sewing in order to learn the process of construction and have patience to refine the details.
Now this week, we are going to get into a very important topic- in order to make those wonderful things you plan on sewing, you have to have the right tools!
If you read this blog, or are a student of mine, you might have experienced my frank honesty on a lot of topics. I have sewn since I was 6, and I have taught people how to sew for 10 years, so I have seen a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t work.
Having the right tools is essential, but that doesn’t necessarily look like the most expensive, top of the line investments. Rather, the right tools are the tools that make your effort easy, save you time, and refine your work.
That’s why my advice is going to be different what you are used to hearing when it comes to investing in equipment and supplies.
1. How to find the right machine
Let me tell you the first biggest mistake I have seen beginner sewists make. Some students come to class having made the decision to start sewing on their own and bought a machine. But they can’t get going because they have bought a machine that they don’t understand and can’t figure out how to use.
Their intention was really good - they realized that sewing is an investment, and they wanted to buy a machine that will last them a long time. However, this investment is now exactly what is holding them back. The machine is too darn complicated to sew a simple straight stitch!
Let's think a little differently about what constitutes a great machine.
- In my view, a great machine is a machine that makes my sewing easier and more polished.
- A great machine is ready to sew in the click of a few buttons or turn of a dial.
- A great machine can be threaded quickly and easily.
- A great machine makes it easy to switch from stitch to stitch
When you look at it this way, a great machine doesn’t necessarily mean a very expensive and high tech machine.
The problem with machines that have an excessive amount of features is they make getting started that much harder- not only do you have to learn how to sew, which is hard enough. Now you are going to have to sort through a bunch of complicated features to find the easy ones. When you are just starting out- you don’t need to know how to use a sewing computerized softwear to make a simple dress.
These machines are so excessively complicated that I have seen students lose years of traction on their goal to start sewing. They think they are making a great investment, and for a very serious more experienced seamstress you definitely are, but a beginner should not buy a complicated machine.
You just need to buy a machine that does the minimum- straight stitch and zig zag. And those machines will also have other features, but those features won’t be hard or inaccessible to learn.
But I want my machine to last a long time, you might be saying. Yes, that is a good intention. But what if you don’t even like sewing? What if you buy this machine that is really expensive before you even touch the cloth?
My advice is to get a simple machine, in the price range of 150 to 300 dollars. I have had machines in this price range last me 10 years, and trust me, I use the heck out of them. Now, I’m not saying go out and buy a cheap machine- If you buy a machine that’s under a $100, you are likely going to have a lot of problems. I’ve seen those machines break right out of the box when a student uses them in my Beginner’s Sewing class.
2. What about needles and Thread?
For the majority of your projects, you will need to look for universal needles and universal/all purpose thread. Universal needles are used for most fabrics, and they are sized 10 to 18, 10 being for fine, lightweight fabrics like silk, and 18 being for heavy denims and thick fabric. The majority of the time, you will use a number 12 or 14 universal needle for your sewing.
You will replace the needle depending on how much you use it- some people use a general rule to replace the needle after every completed project. You may need to replace it sooner if you bend the needle, or if you see your stitching starting to skip or look loose. Bad stitches are usually a sign you need to replace the needle.
You should buy universal, all purpose polyester thread, or polyester cotton thread on the spool. Don’t get those huge spools that are 4 inches tall, those are for sergers. Why polyester? Because its strong and holds up. The lighter weight silk thread is for special projects like embroidery, and metallic thread is hard to work with. When you are just starting out, you just need to use all purpose thread.
3. Good cutting tools
Cutting things out is so important in the craft of fashion that usually in a workroom the cutter is a separate job and has a critical role in the success of a garment. I believe having the right cutting tools is just as important as having the right machine, because for many projects, you will spend more time cutting out the pieces than you will spend sewing.
I use all metal, Gingher shears. The reason why is because they can be sharpened, and I have actually had one of my pairs since high school. I just get them sharpened every 3 to 6 months depending on how much I am using them. There are other top of the line shears, but Ginghers are available in most craft stores, and if you get them with the 50 % off coupon, you can get a great deal. I have 3 pairs of shears-
- 8 inch dressmaker scissors for cutting out projects
- 5 inch craft shears for clipping and grading
- 2.5 inch embroidery “stork” snips for trimming threads and fine details
I can’t do a project without these three scissors. You must have good cutting tools or you will be a miserable sewist. I know its an investment, but get these 3 scissors as soon as you can so you can cut your cutting time in half. Tip- get the 50% off coupon from your big craft store and
Sewing is a lot of measurement, so there are 3 rulers that are the most essential to have. I use an Omnigrid ruler (quilter’s ruler) daily, its an essential. You will use this for hems, for altering patterns, for measuring your fabric.
I like that it is see through and three inches wide. You will appreciate this when you get into hemming.
For finer measurements, I use a seam gauge or small see through 6 inch ruler. The seam gauge is great for measuring finer details and for pressing seams that need .25 to .5 inch folds. The see through ruler is perfect for alterations. This ruler is also what I use to alter and adjust sewing patterns. You can also get a measuring tape - you need this to measure yourself to determine your size.
You need 2 kinds of pins - the long quilter pin with the big pin heads are really easy to use for pinning your pattern to the cloth for cutting. And a box of dressmaker's pins. These are more expensive, I paid $10 for a box, but the pins at the craft store tend to be cheap and dull and you throw them away fast. And for finer materials and precise pinning, you should get fine silk pins so that you don’t damage your fabric while you are pinning and sewing.
6. Marking tools
There are a lot of amazing marking tools on the market that can be used for a variety of reasons. To save you the overwhelm, I won’t go into that here. The marking tools I use the most are tailors chalk and the Dritz Tailor pen. This thing is the best for making precise marks and I use it all the time on alterations. You should also have a small and thin bar of soap, for working with knits or fabric that's hard to mark with chalk. Soap glides and works great, but you can't use it on everything since its not always as precise as the Dritz pen.
7. Tools for correcting mistakes ;)
You have to have a seam ripper for when you mess up. This should come with your sewing machine, but since its essentially a razor blade, you need to replace this regularly. When it goes dull, you risk damaging your fabric. The best seam ripper that I have used is the Clover brand. This seems to last forever, and its a little finer, so I have had less issues with it damaging the cloth.
Later, you can get into using razor blades and more advanced seam removal tools- but lets wait till you get the coordination down and start sewing first.
8. Advanced Machines?
Now, lets get into some more advanced topics. As soon as my beginners get started sewing, and are loving the craft, the next thing they ask me is “do I need a serger/overlock machine?”
This post is titled “most essential tools” so I have to say that a serger isn’t essential. However, once you use a serger, you are really going to want one!!
Actually in my world, I don’t do a project without using both my serger and my conventional “regular” sewing machine. Sergers aren’t just for sewing knitwear - they are also used for finishing up woven fabrics. Don’t worry if you aren't quite sure what I mean - I’m going to get into fabric in the next lesson so stay tuned.
The reason why a serger is important is because they create fast, polished, and professional looking seams for your garments. I don’t sew a garment without a serger because using the serger makes my handmade garments last longer and look more refined.
Again though, where I have seen beginners falter here is they get a $700 - $1000 dollar serger or overlocker! And you want to talk about complicated- if you thought a computerized domestic machine with extra features, software, and buttons was complicated, well- a serger/overlocker that has multiple features will stop you dead in your tracks. Knives have to be moved, parts have to be assembled, dials have multiple functions.
Am I scaring you? Okay, I’ll stop. Lets just get to the point- get a basic serger. You really don’t want a serger and a coverstich machine in one - don’t know what that means? Good. Just get a basic serger, and what you will pay is between $200 and $300 for a new one.
Yes, you may need to take a class on the serger. Don’t fret- I love sergers so much that I will be doing a class on this very very soon! It will be online, so you can access it from anywhere and you can keep revisiting it forever.
9. Dressforms or Mannequin
Its definitely not an essential for a beginner to have a dress form. However, I do use mine all the time. I have two kinds, a wolf form for pattermaking and draping - you don’t need one of these until you get into patternmaking. And an adjustable felt body form that I use for fitting garments that I make for myself, or testing a made to measure garment.
You might want an adjustable dress form because its easier to make adjustments on a form than on your own body. I have used mine for years, I bought it almost 15 years ago in college when I was making clothing for myself. These are not good for pattern making, but they are great for helping you make alterations and test the fit of your garment. They aren’t too hard to come by, and you can get them at your craft store or online very easily.
Phew! I'd say that's enough info for today :)
I hope this post is helpful! This is the beginning to setting up your sewing kit. What I have covered in here are the basic, most essential tools. Later you can invest in more tools as you fall in love with sewing. I have had friends who are super nerd sewists and they teach me about the good stuff for later down the line when you start refining your technique.
But now you may see why sewing is such an investment. Like carpentry or mechanics, there really are a million things you can buy to help you improve the ease and look of your sewing. However, I have been very conservative in my purchasing, and I try to buy only as I go and on a project by project basis. It wasn’t until years of sewing on my domestic machine that I bought a serger. I didn’t have all the rulers until I started altering patterns, and my marking tools used to be soap and that's it.
Now when I look back at how much I struggled without the list of tools I am giving you, I can definitely assure you that these are my essentials. Now, these items are the tools I must have on hand for my projects and I use them almost everyday in my professional sewing.
Thanks for reading, and happy sewing!