For those who are new to sewing, it can be really confusing. Many times, I have found myself walking into a craft store with the intention to buy sewing supplies with little to no knowledge. Fortunately, I had help when I was young, and had carefully planned out trips to get certain tools for specific jobs.
Here I have a list of different items that will help make your sewing journey go a bit more smoothly!
A needle: There are many sizes for needles and each have a specific job. A smaller eye needle creates less difficulty in pulling the thread through a tightly woven fabric like cotton. A bigger eyeneedle is usually intended for loosely woven fabrics, and fancy needle work, like embroidery or yarn for finishing a knitted or crochet project. Curved needles are used for furniture finishing, and it can also help navigate tight spaces like a gusset in a pattern. For those who struggle with straight needles in general, a curved needle can be more comfortable.
Spool of thread: Thread is usually on a spool, and is made of a variety of materials. Early spools were made of wood and were collected and reused in the home for later threads and ribbons. Nowadays plastic spools are more commonly used.
Thread is measured in thickness called “weights”, with 40, 50, and 60 being the most common weight to find. The sticker placed at either end of the spool will tell you the material content and weight. The thicker the thread, the more visible the stitching.
40 is the thickest of the group, and 60 is the thinnest.
Cottonthread is the most old-school style of thread, well known for quilting and other home decor projects. In my experience, cotton thread requires a patient and gentle hand because it can be easier to snap when pulling too hard.
Polyester/cotton thread (all purpose thread) has a bit of give to its structure with 3-4 small strands wound together for extra strength (similar to embroidery thread), and will be less likely to snap. This type works great for repair and sewing.
Waxed thread is usually used for more heavy duty projects like sewing leather or heavy canvas, and is generally threaded through an awl, which is a larger leather-working needle with a wooden handle.
If you aren’t sure what kind of thread to use, it is a good idea to match your thread material with your fabric material, when possible.
Fabric: There are so many different types of fabric, but I will focus on just a few so you can get familiar with them before branching out.
Disclaimer: These descriptions are highly simplistic, and I am in no way heavily educated in textile fabrics. I only know common use terms, and I am learning as I go. Please feel free to correct me, as I am happy to learn!
Cotton (possibly chintz) is a tightly woven, generally uniform, thin fabric that is good to practice with. It comes in many colors, patterns, and sizes and like most fabrics, is found on a board called a bolt. Cotton requires the highest setting on an iron to use because of how tough it is to heat, and creases really well. This fabric does not stretch out of shape.
If you are just practicing, I recommend a piece of cast-away cotton (something too small for a project). You can also use the fabric you intend to create something with, but it may be less stressful to get some practice on a scrap first. Cotton for me has been the beginner fabric. It has a clear grain, and is easy to iron folds in place when needed. It is also inexpensive!
Muslin or calico is very similar to cotton fabric, but has an informal appearance in a cream color with small specs of fiber woven in. This means the fabric is minimally processed and unbleached. The splintered cotton husks are easy to see and are pretty on basic patterns like bags and basket liners. It is treated as a practice fabric for clothing patterns, but I prefer plain muslin for loads of projects as is. I like the rough look with the still soft texture. It reminds me of times long past. Despite what it might suggest, most older sewing of shirts and aprons were stark white in color and were a bit more processed depending on the class of the person wearing it. This fabric does not stretch out of shape.
Linen is made of cotton too, but is heavier, with the fibers spun thicker, and woven a bit looser than cotton fabrics. This is useful for things like tea towels, light curtains, and table cloths. Linen does well to be starched while ironed to give it an extra finished, crisp feel. It is also used often for articles of clothing. This fabric does not stretch out of shape unless forced.
Canvas orduck is a heavy weight fabric that is stiff and rough to the touch. It is used for things like bags, covers, and aprons that are used for heavy work. This is made of cotton, linen, or hemp and can come in a variety of different blends. Historically, it is known to be waxed for water resistance in bags, tents. It was also used to be stretched on a frame for canvas paintings. This fabric does not stretch out of shape unless forced.
Knits are not recommended for hand sewing or basic sewing machines. They tend to stretch out of shape easily. You can sew it with a serger machine, but that is currently out of my jurisdiction of experience. Hand sewing is possible but difficult. I prefer to just knit what I like into what I like, connecting with a darning needle, or crochet hook, instead of knitting and sewing later for certain shapes. You can hand sew for repair, but it is harder to hide your stitching!
Bolt: A bolt is just a board for fabric to be wound over to store away without wrinkling or damaging the fabric. It can be used to loosely measure how many yards are on the fabric as well, and keep lovely fabrics from being returned as a wad. They are helpful for craft store employees too; This is useful for when following a pattern because the pattern will ask you for a specific length of fabric, which you will in turn, inform the employee to cut a certain length. This keeps the rest of the fabric intact, ready to be shelved away for another guest.
The board will generally have more information as to what kind of fabric it is holding, what it is made of, how many yards is on a new untouched bolt, and the company that makes the fabric. This tool isn’t needed at home unless you buy a whole bolt of fabric. It is useful in a professional setting, but I have never needed one myself (unless I was doing a huge project). I just fold away my fabric and store it for later use.
Beeswax: When rubbing some beeswax on the edge of the thread, it will make it easier to thread through your needle if you aren’t using a needle threader. There are beeswax threader tools too that are great for fast threading, but you can use an old candle or tealight that is finished with left over wax.
Needle threader: This tool looks like a coin with a diamond wire on the end of it. It helps pull thread through an eye of a needle without using beeswax. This tool is great for those who struggle with shaky hands.
This tool might break if you are using a smaller eye needle, so it it best to use on a bigger eye needle with the threader. Smaller eye needles are more compatible with beeswax threading.
To use the threader, you poke the wire through the eye of the needle, and pull the thread through the wire on one side of the needle. Next, you pull the threader through the eye of the needle gently, along with the thread. -Now you have successfully threaded a needle!
Measuring tape: This tool is used for measuring the body in exact proportions to accurately choose a size for your pattern or map out your own. This tape has inches printed on one side, while the other side is depicted in centimeters. Inches are more useful to Americans, while centimeters are useful to everyone else in the world that uses the metric system.
Needle wheel case: Most inexpensive needle kits are stored inside a needle wheel case. This container is in the shape of a circle with a interlocked, clear, piece of plastic that can be turned. This opens up each cell which contains a variety of needles to be shaken out to use. Usually each cell has at least 3 needles inside when brand new.
Some older versions of this would be a line of needles pierced through thin cardboard or through plastic. Some people reuse them, some put their needle on a pin-cushion, some use a case or a magnet. It’s up to you how you store and keep track of them.
Tailor’s chalk: This is used to mark where to cut on fabric. It looks like a wedge of chalk with a handle. It is easy to rub away after cutting and sewing. You may also use a white colored pencil (aka dress maker’s pencil) for the same effect. I prefer the pencil since the chalk (aside from blackboard chalk) is difficult to find.
Hem gage: (or seam gage) This one was a bit of a mystery to me, despite it’s obvious use for measurement. It looks like a metal measuring stick with a gap in the middle. It also has a bar that is easy to slide down the stick, to measure how big your hem is. This is especially useful for creating a consistent hemline in any project. This tool has the same set up as the measuring tape: it comes in inches and centimeters.
I haven’t used this yet in my projects, but intend to do so in the future.
Pattern: This is essential to a sewing a project, if you aren’t doing simple mending. A pattern consists of a stack of folded tracing carbon paper with shapes printed on it. These shapes wouldn’t make much sense without a page of instructions on it! The instructions have a key for sizing, terminology, and a shape list needed for different pieces of clothing or sewn objects. Everything described is folded neatly within an envelope. -When finished, you can gently fold and even iron the pattern into place to fit into your envelope for later use.
Tracing wheel: This item was one of the tools I wasn’t entirely sure how to use until recently. That is because I don’t generally make patterns myself. This tool is built to help trace a pattern from one medium to another for a final pattern design. There is a spiked version with a wooden handle (which will punch more pronounced holes into the opposing fabric or paper) and a plastic one with a rounded serrated wheel blade. This one isn’t sharp; it’s just supposed to leave an indent enough to follow a pattern. I have heard of some professionals that would wheel the blade over tailor’s chalk to leave behind a trail of dots on dark fabric. This may prove useful to use with blackboard chalk or even stamp ink.
This was new to me because I was used to having to smooth out the pattern, cut out the individual pieces of carbon paper, and then pin the paper again to my fabric to trace and cut. This makes your pattern only useful for one size of clothing. This may not be a problem with patterns that are for bags and one-size-fits all. It is a problem however for patterns with multiple sizes, in which you do have to cut one size for the pattern, and be stuck with that size only. Personally, I don’t like to have to buy a pattern more than once, so it is frugal to use a tracing wheel instead of pinning and cutting as is.
The final step for using the Tracing wheel is to connect the dots you just made with either a pencil (on light fabrics) or a dress-maker’s pencil (on dark fabrics). I find that looking for the dots when cutting will be difficult, so tracing the trail is a good idea.
Thimble: Useful for hand sewing. This tool is meant to be placed on your opposite forefinger or thumb of your needle-wielding hand. If the needle pokes out of the fabric and touches your finger, it will hit the thimble instead, protecting your finger from agony. For those who sew a lot, you know what it is like to have a battle-worn forefinger full of pokes and torn skin.
Fabric scissors: These come very sharp, and exact in cutting fabric for patterns. Please be sure to never cut paper or other items with these scissors because they will dull quickly. (A good pair can be very expensive! 30$+.) These scissors can be sharpened, but I recommend only a professional to sharpen them back into working order.
Pin cushion: Have you ever looked in the craft store or in a corner of a friend’s home and saw a bright red, tomato-looking ball sitting conspicuously out in the open? That is a pin cushion! One of the older varieties of designs for the tool; the tomato has been used as a symbol for prosperity of a harvest and even believed to turn evil away from the home. They were very popular and were collected to showcase beautiful pins. These shapes were also great for standing in for the real fruits and vegetables that were hard to come by in winter months.
This item was filled with sawdust, and was generally known to be a heavy tool (unlike the recent lighter versions we have that are stuffed with spun polyester fibers for pillows and teddy bears). I have always wondered why they were so heavy, and I honestly think it may have been used for a pattern weight as well. Pins are stored in the cushion and keep all of them within reach. On the stem of the tomato, a strand of thread is attached to a small strawberry or pepper that was either filled with sand or iron filings. This was a tool to be poked with the needles used, to sharpen and clean the needle for a long useful life. If you can believe it, needles and other metal tools like pins were very expensive! Back then, everything was made to last.
Pins: These are no doubt one for the most essential tools for sewing in my book. These used to be quite expensive to buy in the victorian era (and further back in time) and have been showcased in pin cushions shamelessly as decoration. Generally they would have a pinhead on a flat metal base, or would have a droplet of glass to finish the end of the pin. Nowadays you can find the glass kind (though they are more pricey, I think they are more durable). There are plastic varieties as well as metal flat head pins.
Safety Pins: Similar to the Pin, this item was specifically used to hold together cloth diapers and keep the baby from poking themselves. This was later adapted to plenty of uses in repair, sewing, and even fashion in the 19th and 20th century.
I have been a fool before, thinking as I was about to cut a pattern: “I don’t need to pin that,” and was sorely disappointed with my crooked cut and abysmal sewing full of holes. These keep layers of fabric together as you sew (either by sewing with a machine or by hand) and fabric loves to travel away from your intended placement. This is just another cautionary tale of forgetting to pin your project.
Just do it. You will thank yourself.
It is worth the time, and the energy. If you don’t think so, experience I find is the best teacher. I remind myself all the time.
Seam Ripper: This tool is one of my favorites. Crafts like sewing will have it’s flaws as you practice but you don’t have to live with those flaws in your projects! You an undo any sewing you like with a sturdy seam ripper. It is described to have a long handle with a metal hooked blade on the end. The hook has a long stem and a short stem mirroring each other. The short stem normally has a red bead on the end of it. It is a safety measure to remind you of your fingers and hand when slicing through thread and possibly fabric. This tool can stab and do some damage, so always point the ripper away from yourself, and treat is like it was a very sharp knife, (because it is). The long stem has a narrowed point and is built to slide underneath stitches. As you push the tool forward to the connection of both metal stems, you can break the thread and after pulling out the older thread, you can start sewing again.
Iron: The basic iron (before electricity was available), was a heavy, triangle shaped tool that was mostly an iron brick with a minimal wood or leather-wrapped handle curving from the top. Generally one would leave this object on a hot stove or another hot surface to heat up, and then used cautiously with a ragged layer of fabric in between. This helped smooth out lines in linen, cotton, and other fibers without burning it. This tool took some skill and demanded all your attention, for fear of burning your nice fabric would leave a permanent mark. Starch was used to help keep certain fabrics really stiff and fresh when pressed with an iron. This was useful for things like shirt collars, pleated skirts, and household linens.
These days we have an easy plug in iron that doesn’t require much time to heat up, and we even have settings for specific kinds of fabrics you intend to smooth out! Always review and keep the instructions, you never know what kind of new methods you might learn in the future.
Disclaimer: These tools are capable of serious damage to clothing, other property, yourself, and your home. Be very mindful of where your hands are and where you are ironing. For the love of all that is good, Please only iron on a ironing board. I have burnt myself countless times, and though I view it as a rite of passage for a crafter to poke or burn a hand, I hope you never do!
PS: You could very well find an antique iron (I kinda want one myself!) but that would demand a learning curve to use, to which I say: best of luck!
Ironing board: This tool comes in a vast array of sizes and can be very large (for big tablecloths and bedspreads), to the very tiny hanger version (for your necktie). I recommend a size somewhere in between where you can tackle a large job successfully, without sacrificing space to store the thing. I’ve seen people hang it on the back of their door but that requires a special metal set up with it’s own board or a separate metal piece you can rig yourself.
An ironing board by itself has a pair of bar feet sitting underneath that can flip out and give a solid, flat surface to work with. It is best to have it on a surface that is comfortable like a table at waist height. You can iron on the floor, but be very very careful. -Tripping over cords, and risking a down turned iron on the carpet isn’t worth it. I like to iron on my coffee table whenever possible.
These are the general tools needed for sewing but if you are just barely starting out to learn to sew, You can inexpensively get started with:
Good pair of scissors
A few colors of thread including black and white.
A pin cushion
Chalk/ white colored pencil/regular pencil
Practice fabric like cotton (A few yards are useful for loads of small projects!)
Bonus Item: Seam Ripper
All tutorial photos belong to Sonya C. “The Bone Generation”.
Header Image and other example images partially from pixabay.com.
Churchill, Alexandra. “The Mystery of the Tomato Pin Cushion Has Been Solved”. Date Posted: September 05, 2014.