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The Tool Kit

 Since I learned to sew from my mom, I had a lot of tools available to me from the get-go, and I could then acquire other things on an as-needed basis. This was good because, in most towns where I’ve lived, the only place to get sewing tools is Jo Ann’s. The store has a quality that my dad would refer to as “Wal-Marty,” and so I’m never very inclined to hang around browsing. If I’d had to go in and build a kit from scratch, I don’t know if I ever would have started sewing. Most likely, I would have gotten muddled and left with three dusty fake flowers, a pair of embroidery scissors, and some puffer paint.

 Instead, my essential toolbox looks something like this. The list is gleaned from personal experience and from sewing book recommendations, particularly Diana Rupp’s Sew Everything Workshop. Pretty much everything on it can be bought at Jo Ann’s CrazyMegaCraftopolis. It’s best to make a beeline for what you want, then get out before you’re hypnotized by the acres of polar fleece.

 (Of course, these tools are also available online, or at an independent fabric store, if you’re lucky enough to have one!)

 Rotary Cutter and Mat. I wouldn’t want to live without my rotary cutter, which allows for much greater precision while cutting. If you plan to continue sewing for a long time, it’s an excellent idea to invest in a Gingher.

  •  Looking a little bit ahead of your cutting wheel as you work (rather than right down at it) will help you cut straighter lines.

Scissors and Shears. Use the rotary cutter for the fabric, and a pair of dressmaker’s shears for trimming seams and hems, slashing pleats, and any other cutting you do while sewing. Keep the scissors for cutting paper. A pair of little embroidery scissors is nice for notching seam allowances and trimming excess thread.  

Tracing Wheel, Paper, and Pattern Weights. This is an example of how a small investment in the right tools can make a huge difference, in terms of both process and results. When cutting, I like to keep the pattern and the fabric as straight and flat as possible. These three tools facilitate that, and they’ll also keep you from tearing up your pattern the first time you use it.

  • Before you start sewing, and even before you start making a muslin, use the tracing wheel to copy the pattern in the size you need onto lightweight interfacing or butcher paper. Save the original in a large manila envelope.
  • You can buy nice, compact, aesthetically pleasing pattern weights, but a can of beans works just fine if you’re not particular.

Ruler. Use for measuring hems and seam allowances, altering length, placing buttonholes, making bias tape… A small investment can get you the 18-inch, clear, bendable kind.

Pencil, fabric pen, or chalk. You’ll spend a lot of time marking your fabric, and finding something that’s comfortable for you and safe for the garment is well worth the effort. I usually draw lightly with a pencil and then flick away the marks with an eraser. However, tailor’s chalk is an even better option, and a nice, smooth fabric pen is wonderfully pleasant.

Pins and pincushions. I like to have a set of very narrow pins for silk, and I’d love to have a Scrooge McDuck-style swimming pool full of standard dressmaker’s pins, if that weren’t a bad idea in so many ways.

  • Bonus points if your pincushion is something other than the Dritz tomato.

Seam ripper. For my money, the actual construction of a garment is by far the most fun part of the process. Unfortunately, I tend to enjoy it a little too much; things go well for a while, and so I daydream. The next thing I know I’ve stitched the bodice front to the skirt back. Enter the seam ripper, pure genius distilled into metal and plastic.

Where do you get supplies? What would you add to this list?

Image credits: Lovely toolbox from Sharingneedles.com, snazzy Gingher Seam Ripper.

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On , Courtney (Miss C) said: | virtualbulletinboard.blogspot.com

I think this is a great list for getting started in sewing. However, I have to step in and say that JoAnn is not necessarily “Wal-Marty.” Most everything you have listed here is available there, including lots of Gingher products, and the best part is you can use 40% off coupons on almost anything in the store.

I managed to get a decorative Gigher Rotary cutter and Seam ripper set on clearance for $30. While it’s nice to daydream about paying full price in your neighborhood shop to keep it open, the reality of the situation is that people are going to do what they can to save money, and that means shopping at places like JoAnn, where prices for the most part are not artificially inflated, so you really are getting your tools etc for 40% off.

I’m sure it wasn’t your intention to offend anyone with this post, but not everyone has the money to pay full price for quality tools. If you were referring to the idea that a lot of the fabric there isn’t the highest quality, I wouldn’t refute that, but that’s where online and local fabric stores come in.

I appreciate your tips and information, and I think it’s great that you are recommending quality tools. I look forward to more of your posts in the future.

On , Carrie said:

Thanks for the response. I agree about prices and whatnot — I have to be very thrifty too, and I’ve bought several tools from Jo Ann’s. I certainly didn’t mean to offend; it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek more than anything else.

And I guess there’s also an element of musing. I don’t have any clear visions of an ideal world, but I do wonder what it would be like if I (and most of the rest of the country) had more convenient access to independent fabric and notion sellers.

On , Courtney (Miss C) said: | virtualbulletinboard.blogspot.com

I totally understand you there. I have one Sewing Studio, and it’s a really nice place, but I don’t think there are too many more little shops around town.

The one really nice thing about JoAnn that ties into your post is this: it enables people to sew that might not otherwise have had access to anything but the internet.

My Husqvarna and I would not be together if the store didn’t rent out a little space to the Viking dealers…

On , Corvus said: | corvustristis.wordpress.com

I dream of the day I get a rotary cutter. Meanwhile, while I don’t have a tomato for a pincushion (I have a magnet!), all my pins are getting dull. Must find sharpening strawberry!

On , Ashley Akers said: | ashleyakers.blogspot.com

I have to agree with Courtney, I’m a big Joann shopper and use the coupons almost every time. I do not have other options and would support a small business for some things if I had a choice. However, being thrifty, the Joann coupons really draw me in. I too have my mom’s tool stash to use and when she moves away (soon) there are many, many tools that I will have to purchase for myself.

I do agree that their fabric selection leaves a lot to be desired!

On , lsaspacey said: | lifeisexamined.blogspot.com

Yes, I always wonder is there really THAT big of a demand for polar fleece items? I mean, really!

On , Leigh said:

My sister nearly got stabbed with a seam ripper by a lady working at Joann Fabrics because I was looking for fabric and she said something like, ‘if only they had some fleece. Seriously who in the world needs that much fleece?’ The Joann employee was apparently not amused.

I must admit I’ve never actually used fleece for anything. Do they have so much because you don’t have to hem it or something? You’d think they’d have a better selection of jersey were that the case.

On , Susan said:

What’s wrong with a tomato pin cushion that I got at JoAnn for 50% off? :)

On , afreckledlip said: | afreckedlip.blogspot.com

Growing up my Mom had the tomato pin cushion. I always thought it was ugly so when i started my own sewing kit I bought a pincushion pattern for several different fruits. The one I have right now is a pear. Why use something drab when you can make it decorative!

On , Christina said:

I bought a rotary cutter but am scared to use it to cut out patterns. I feel out of control! I tried looking for a youtube video of how to cut with a rotary cutter and couldn’t find anything. Do you know of any? Or do you have any tips? Thanks!

On , Carrie said:

I don’t know of any videos, unfortunately, but I think as long as you have a nice surface (the self-healing boards for the cutter), you’ll actually feel way more in control with a rotary cutter than a scissors. I definitely do. As far as tips…

I think it’s much easier when you trace the pattern onto the fabric, then remove the paper before you cut. Be sure you’re sitting with the rotary cutter ahead of you, so that you’re pushing away from your body (little risk of cutting yourself + the motion will be easier/more natural). Set your free hand on the fabric, and then you can pretty much let the tool do the work.

You might also ask for a demo/quick lesson from someone at a fabric store.

I hope this helps.

On , Christina said:

Thanks Carrie!

On , viquena said: | viquena.blogspot.com

Hrm, I use wine bottles for my pattern weights…
http://viquena.blogspot.com/2010/07/pattern-weights-solution.html
(alert! that post also shows a dog wearing my sister’s Colette mini-bloomers)

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On , Leah said: | thesewingblonde.blogspot.com

Thanks for the helpful article; this will be really useful for beginning sewers. I have to step in and say that I find the JoAnns/Wal-Mart snark off-putting. Fine if you are a sewing snob–many of us are–but I don’t see why it’s necessary to put others down. A lot of people shop at discount box stores because that’s all that’s available or all that they can afford. No need to insult them just because you make different choices.

On , Sarai said: | colettepatterns.com

Leah, I think Carrie tried to address that in the comments above. I don’t think she meant to put people down for shopping there (since I’m sure nearly every sewer or crafter in the US has at one time or another!).

On , Tj said:

Double wheeled tracing wheel (adjustable) for automatically adding seam allowances, carbon paper (for tracing patterns onto paper/fabric), fusible tape (for fusing zippers, hems, seams etc before sewing), bias tape maker, roulade hook (for turning piping inside out).

On , Tj said:

Oh and the most massive cutting mat you can afford -pattern cutting is so much more efficient and precise with a good cutting mat +rotary blade..

On , Suzanne said:

Was excited to read about choosing a sewing machine but it didn’t answer the questions I have. I have blown the clutches on mine twice now and the technician who fixes it doesn’t understand how I could possibly have done this. My guess is that I need something with variable speed (like a drill with different torque options) and that would sew through thick and thin, because I do it all. I don’t really quilt so no need for the walking foot option, but who knows, I might want to do that later too. But I do think I need a high-torque motor where I can adjust the speed depending on what I am sewing. After reading your article, I’m convinced that the technician at my local shop is the person to advise me on what to buy. Thanks!

On , DEBORAH DAMELIO said:

I use large nuts I bought a mega-hardware store for weights–relatively small and they could fit on your magnetic strip if I had one!
I quilt also so I’ve used the rotary cutter quite a bit. I would suggest you stand “above” where you’re going to cut. Pressing down from above I think gives you more control than from a sitting position. Also, quilters use special rulers and in using them you put your non-cutting hand on the ruler–from above–while you cut along the ruler’s edge. They have a raised edge that protects your left hand and keeps the cutter from slipping. The rulers are straight of course but lots of pieces of patterns are straight and that might be enough to get you comfortable with using one. You could get a small one–just wide enough for your hand to rest on–6″x6″ or 4″x8″, etc.

On , Jen said:

Wow some people can find offense in anything! Holy cow people she said walmarty! Are u kidding me, that offended you? Really? Wow. Such whiny people never fail to amaze me.

On , Classic said:

I hear u Jen, i hear u.