Please note, photos contain links to their source. I am not necessarily recommending you purchase from these places
Welcome to the next post in the beginner series!
One of the first, and most understandable questions you might ask when you’re beginning is: what do I need to get started? There’s a lot of different sewing tools – some are necessary, some are useful, others are luxuries. I thought I would compile a list of my “essential sewing tools” to help anyone who’s just starting off – and I’ll come back later with some other tools that will make your sewing life a lot easier!
This is probably one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make when starting sewing, and the most personal: what kind of sewing machine should you buy? Your decision will depend on your budget, how much sewing you’re planning on doing, availability, whether you’d prefer a brand new or second hand machine (and then, vintage or contemporary?), mechanical or computerised, etc.
This is a great post on how to choose a suitable sewing machine. At a minimum you want a machine that will do a straight stitch, a zig zag, and can back stitch. One-step buttonholes are nice. Decorative stitches, in general, aren’t worth the extra price, but there are some that will be of use (overlock stitch, blind hem stitch).
You’ll want to choose a machine that will service you for at least a couple of years – you want to have something that will allow you to sew what you want to make now, and allow you to sew more complicated things as your skills improve. Then, if you decide to upgrade, you will know more about what you want in a machine, and you’ll know if you want to spend more money on certain features (I upgraded to the Janome DC7060 this year, pictured above. I paid a bit more for the knee lift and holy smokes, I will never go back!)
I will make one very strong suggestion though – please, please buy from a local retailer if you have the option. Local small suppliers (I don’t mean Spotlight/Joann’s) may be a bit more expensive than chain stores or online, but you know you’re getting a quality machine, you can often bargain for more accessories, some shops offer free lessons, and you have someone who is able to help with any problems that you come across – and your warranty will be through an actual person. You’re also supporting the local sewing community which is in real trouble these days.
This goes hand in hand with a sewing machine – bobbins! The bobbin is wound with thread and placed in the underside of the machine and contribute to the stitching line under your fabric. You want to make sure you have several, because you need to thread it with thread that matches whatever you’re sewing. I have about 20, half of which are threaded. Once I’ve finished a garment I will use the rest of the bobbin thread for similar coloured fabric, or when I’m sewing a muslin and don’t need matching thread.
For interests sake, this is how a bobbin works.
Needles are another necessity. Brand new machines will come with a couple, but you want to have a few on hand – it’s recommended that you change your needle for every 1-2 projects, and breakages can happen.
There are several different types of needle to choose from. Look at what brand of needles came with your machine to make sure they’ll fit. Then, your choice depends on what you’re sewing. For most cottons, linens and mid-weight polyester, you can use universal sized needles.
See this table on the SCHMETZ website for a more comprehensive guide to which weight needle to use. The main needles you’ll be using are:
- Universal – has a slightly rounded tip so can be used for knit and woven fabric. The smaller the number (70 à 100), the thinner it is, so you’d use a 70 for fine fabrics, 80 for most average fabrics like crafting cottons, shirting, chambray etc, 90 for light denim and 100 for heavier fabrics like a twill/drill.
- Microtex – has a very fine tip so good for things like silk de chine, lightweight polyester
- Ball point/jersey vs stretch – yes, these are different. Ballpoint needles have a rounded tip so, theoretically they will slide around the fibers of the fabric rather than slicing through, which would cause runs in the fabric. Stretch needles have this, but also have a different type of “scarf”, which is the indentation above the eye of the needle (see this post for the anatomy of a needle), making it less likely to drop stitches on difficult stretchy fabrics like lycra. But the needle is slightly less rounded so looser knits that are prone to running, like merino, should probably be sewn with a ballpoint needle.
- Jeans – have a heavier blade for slicing through multiple layers of heavier fabric. If you’re sewing with heavier fabric and can hear your machine struggling, or “clunking”, which may be caused by the heavier fabric deflecting the angle of the needle as it enters the fabric, try switching to one of these needles
- Some machines have less than perfect timing, so if you’re finding a lot of skipped stitches, try a needle with a longer scarf (like the stretch needle) which makes it easier for the needle to grab the bobbin thread.
I’m not going to much into the different types of threads, other than to say: choose a quality cotton or cotton-polyester thread as this will be strong, cheap, and will be available in plenty of colours. Less quality threads are more likely to break, causing much sadness.
Other than that, it’s important to match the colour of your thread to your garments. It’s not compulsory, as my 17 year old self would have told you – one of my first garments was a bright pink-with-white-polka-dots dress, made with black thread. Which was visible because I did a centered zip, and I turned-and-topstitched the neckline (not knowing what the point of a lining or facing was). That dress never got a hem, either, but I wore it a lot.
It’s up to you how much you want it to match – some people will have some general colours they’ll use on lots of different fabrics (white, black, blue, red). Others will want to closely match the colour of the fabric, and I’d recommend this if you have any top-stitching as it will look more professional. To match the thread, take your fabric to the notions store and pick out a few colours you think will work. Pull out a couple of inches of thread and lay it on the fabric – buy whichever one is hardest to see (almost invisible laying on the fabric).
If you have a patterned fabric, choose the colour by laying down threads that will match each main colour way, and again decide which is the least obvious. For some fabrics this will be the lightest colour, the darkest colour, or the most dominant colour.
Quick un-pick/Seam Ripper
This tool is a sewers best friend. Whether you’re a beginner or a professional, slap-dash or perfectionist, you need at least one. I have about 5! These are used to rip or pull out stitches – so you can fix mistakes and remove basting stitches, without cutting through the fabric (although mistakes happen!!! So be careful).
Self-explanatory – used to hold things together! I use pins to hold my pattern piece against the fabric before I cut it (if I’m not using chalk), and to hold pieces of fabric together before sewing them together. They also help the fabric to feed through your machine evenly. Most pins are placed perpendicular to the seam, and are removed before your needle gets to them (it’s very possible for your needle to snap in half, getting lost in your machine or eye, if it hits a pin). Be careful with some fabrics as they will show pin marks (so you’ll only want to pin within the seam allowance).
Obviously you’ll need fabric to sew! Good fabric choices for beginners has been covered in a previous post by Tanya.
To cut the fabric! Get some sharp, dedicated fabric scissors and DO NOT CUT paper with them as this will make them blunt. Instill a sense of fear in all family members so they don’t inadvertently use them for paper. Keep away from crafting children (I’m sorry Mum, for using your pinking shears on paper). I have a ribbon hanging off the handle of my sewing scissors, just in case.
Unless you plan to only alter/refashion existing garments, you will need a pattern. I won’t go into too much detail here as we will have another post specifically on how to choose a pattern. There are tutorials all over the internet on how to self-draft your own patterns but I would highly recommending starting off with a commercial pattern (Big 4 or indie), as you will learn a large amount of other skills: how to read a pattern, which fabrics are recommended, different techniques, etc.
Iron and ironing board
You may think “what is an iron doing on a beginners sewing list?” but, take my word for it, an iron will take your sewing from Beccy-home-eccy to looking so much more professional. Press (by putting vertical pressure down through the iron, rather than back and forth over the board) each seam as you sew it, and your clothing will come out so much nicer. It took me a few years of casual sewing to learn this, and I’m not not embarrassed to say that my iron is one of the best wedding presents I received.
Is there anything you think I left off the list? There are lots more tools that will be really useful soon after beginning, but this is the basics – what you will need to get started (okay, an iron isn’t technically necessary, but trust me when I say it makes a big difference!!)