I love those little emergency sewing kits they have at hotels. They're a life saver if you lose a button right before an important meeting or have another kind of "wardrobe malfunction." But I wouldn't dream of using them for my regular sewing – anymore than I'd open a hair salon that only carried those cute little hotel shampoos. However, for some sewers, especially beginning sewers, their set of tools is at about the same level as the free repair kit. If that's the case with your sewing basket, you have some shopping to do. Having better quality tools and notions actually helps you achieve better results on your projects. It can make the difference between a project that was fun to create and you're proud to display, and one you feel like hurling out the window. This is also a great article to share with friends who are just learning to sew. Helping them collect the right basic tools is one of the best ways to make sure they start off on the right foot.
A little terminology to start: Sewing tools, like pins, needles, tape measures and stuff, are also called "notions." So, the next time you're in a fabric store searching for something, look for the giant sign that says "NOTIONS," and you'll be headed in the right direction.
The art of sewing has been around for thousands of years. And some of the accessories you can buy at the store today are based on technology that's hundreds of years old. But they're still in the store because they're tried-and-true and have always done exactly what they're intended to do. Other items, like the levitating iron and the heat-sensitive marking pen, are only possible because of the latest technology. This is just another way sewing is a great mix of old and new, traditional and cutting-edge.
The variety of tools to choose from today is incredible, but can also be a little mind boggling. For this article, we're concentrating on notions and accessories at two levels.
Basic: What you need to get started.
Premium: What to build toward for the best possible results.
As we explain in our article on Shopping For and Buying a Sewing Machine, what you choose to work with is important to both achieving a professional finish and not getting bogged down along the way to that pro finish. Using great tools eliminates frustration and unleashes up your creativity.
There are five main categories of tools: Measuring, Marking, Cutting, Pressing and Sewing
Measuring your project
One of the first things you do in any project is measure. Of course, the more accurate your measurements, the better your end results. The carpenter's words of wisdom: "Measure twice, cut once" are just as important for sewing.
- Ruler: Get a see-through ruler that's at least a foot long. A transparent ruler lets you see what you're measuring and gives you accurate horizontal and vertical lines. You'll also need the hard, straight edge for cutting with a rotary cutter.
- Tape measure: The classic sewing notion. Get one that is flexible but not stretchy. You'll use it for measuring three-dimensional objects, working with long cuts of fabric, aligning patterns and more.
- Seam gauge: This handy little fella is a small ruler (usually 6" total) with a double-pointed, sliding guide. It's great for marking seam allowances and hems or anywhere you need to set and then repeatedly check a small measurement.
- Rulers: Transparent rulers come in all shapes and sizes: squares, frames, triangles, etc. There are even measuring devices for very specific tasks, such as the Drapery Hem Gauge shown above. As you try new kinds of projects, you should add a variety of these unique rulers to your collection to give you faster, easier measuring and better accuracy. We are also big fans of the Clover heat resistant measuring tools, the Hot Hemmer and the Hot Ruler.
- T-squares and long metal rulers: If you plan on doing a lot of larger projects, like floor length curtains or upholstery projects that require cutting foam, a long metal ruler and T-square are very helpful to insuring accurate cuts and corners.
- Tape measures: In addition to having a traditional soft tape, a retractable model is also nice. If you plan on doing big home dec projects, you'll also want to add a carpenter's metal retractable tape measure.
Marking the fabric
Being able to draw a straight line to follow or indicate the exact spot for a button means you need to mark on your fabric. Sounds scary, right? Only if you're considering using a Sharpie®. There are special tools just for marking on fabric.
Important tip: Always test your marking tool on a scrap of the actual fabric(s) before using it on your project.
- Pen: A water soluble marking pen will allow you to draw on your fabric, then wash out the ink or wipe it away with a damp cloth.
- Pencil: Fabric pencils have special "lead" that also easily washes out. White pencils show up on dark fabric. Dark pencils are for light fabrics. Some pencils come with their own specialty erasers and brushes that make eliminating the lines even easier.
- Sharpener: A regular pencil sharpener will keep a nice point on your fabric pencils.
- Pens: To your basic water-soluble pen, add air-soluble pens (dissolves/vanishes over time with exposure to the air) and even heat-soluble pens (iron it off). These are good additions so you don't always have to wash/wet the item to remove your markings.
- Pencils: Fabric pencils come in all kinds of colors, allowing you to overlap different measurements without getting confused.
- Chalk: Don't use just any old chalk. Fabric chalk is formulated for fabric and is very easy to remove. You can get it in the classic tailor's shape for a bold mark, or for a thin chalk line, try one of the nifty chalk wheels (the yellow tool shown above).
Cutting the fabric
Remember when your mom yelled at you for using her "good scissors?" Now you'll understand! Sharp, precise cutting tools are very important. Once you have your favorites, don't use them to cut anything but fabric! Even paper cutting will quickly dull good sewing scissors.
The photo above top is the super-duper basic set. The photo above bottom shows our recommended basic package, which includes a few classic specialty items, such as pinking shears and thread snips.
- Scissors and shears: To start, get yourself a good pair of shears for fabric cutting. We're showing standard straight blade options above. In addition, if you'll be doing a lot of cutting and prefer scissors over a rotary cutter, you may want to add a pair of bent dressmaker shears as shown below. They should have a bend of about 45˚ at the pivot point.
- Seam ripper: This allows you to undo your sewing mistakes. A good seam ripper is invaluable and not very expensive. Don't necessarily rely on the one that came with your machine; make sure yours is super sharp. We have a good tutorial on its use.
- Rotary cutter: These are nifty for curves, long slices, and exact cuts against a straight edge (remember those see-through rulers above). They work similar to a pizza cutter and many people prefer them to scissors. Two things to remember: a) always use rotary cutters on a cutting mat or you could cut right through your fabric and down into your work surface, and b) these blades are sharp when new; always cover and lock the blade when not in use.
- Cutting mats: First of all, you must have one of these to use your rotary cutter. But you'll also find the lines and markings useful. You can get a medium size one just for starting out. Get the type that is labeled as "self healing" if you'll be doing a lot of rotary cutting.
- Scissors and shears: There must be dozens of different ways to cut fabric, thread, appliqués and more; and it seems like there's a specialized pair of scissors for each one – as you can see by the wonderful collection of cutting tools shown above. To make big cutting jobs go faster, you can get fabric shears up to 10" long. But you'll also want a variety of smaller scissors for snipping threads and cutting accurately in tight areas.
- Seam ripper: Get the best one you can afford. These also come in very handy for cutting open buttonholes. They can get dull, so remember to replace yours now and then.
- Rotary cutters: Like the scissors, these also come in a variety of sizes, designed for specific tasks. A better quality rotary cutter will not only be more accurate, but will be easier on your wrist as you make repetitive cuts. Spend the extra money to get high quality, titanium blades and change them often.
- Cutting mats: Like everything else, these come in all sizes, from 12" x 18" for things like little quilting squares and triangles to giant 3' x 4' and beyond to cover an entire table. As mentioned above, some are made from self-healing plastic, so your rotary blade marks disappear. There are even some options that are a cutting mat on one side and a pressing mat on the other, and other types that spin on a turntable. How cool is that?
Pressing the project
If you want your projects to look professional you gotta apply a little pressure. Well-pressed seams are what give a project those wonderful crisp, clean edges. And don't we all love to erase wrinkles?!
- Steam iron: Get a good one. If you have an old one that doesn't heat up well or dribbles water, get a new one. Look for one that lets you control the amount of steam, from none to a big blast o' heat and spray.
- Ironing board: These come in all sizes; choose the one that will be best for your working space and your preferred height. Some folks like to stand at a traditional ironing board, others prefer a portable style, and some people choose the smaller ironing pads. You want a surface that is firm and sturdy, padded well, and cotton covered. We prefer cotton over heat-reflective surfaces because the reflective surfaces can cause problems when working with fusible products.
- Ham: Pressing hams are handy three-dimensional, fabric-stuffed shapes that help you iron curves and other hard-to-reach areas.
- Pressing cloths: Some types of fabric have a tendency to shine (or even melt) if heat is applied directly; a pressing cloth can help prevent that. Choose a cloth made from natural fiber like cotton or wool, or make your own.
- Smart iron: If you iron regularly, it really is worth it to get a high quality "smart iron" like the Oliso shown above. This one automatically stands up when you let go, so you don't risk scorching your fabric. The steam is phenomenal. And it glides like butter, making it easy to press out even the most stubborn wrinkles.
- Mini iron: Get into tight places a regular iron just can't go.
- Ironing board: A premium ironing board will give you greater height adjustment, better stability, and a more evenly padded surface.
- Pressing cloths: A step up from a regular old ironing cloth is a one that's sheer. It still offers protection but lets you see what's happening to the fabric underneath.
- Hams and rolls: Pressing hams and rolls come in several shapes and sizes. Having a variety makes it easier to iron specific areas.
- Folding pen: Makes it easy to fold fabric along an exact line without having to use your iron.
Sewing Notions aka Needles, Pins and Thread
There are probably more choices in this category than any other. But don't despair. Always choose quality and don't over-buy when you're starting out. You'll develop preferences as you go, so start with the simple, tried and true.
Basic Sewing Notions
- Sewing machine needles: The rule of thumb is to start every new project with a new needle. It's like sharpening your pencil before you write. Start with Universal needles for woven fabrics and most knits in an 80/12 size. For home décor, this will also be your choice the majority of the time. Needle size has two numbers, such as 75/11 or 80/12. The first number is a European designation, the second is American. For a lightweight fabric, choose a small number (e.g. 70/10); for a heavy fabric, choose a large number (e.g. 90/14). For more on this topic, see our article: How To Choose The Right Sewing Machine Needle For Your Project.
- Hand sewing needles: Get a variety pack of hand sewing needles that gives you several point styles and eye sizes.
- Needle threader: These are inexpensive and will save you a lot of frustration. They consist of a thin wire loop on a fob. Insert the loop through the eye, thread this much larger and easier-to-see loop, then pull it back through the eye. You can use these for hand or sewing machine needles.
- Thread: Good quality thread from a major manufacturer will run better in your machine. Don't worry about having a huge collection to start with. For most projects, all-purpose thread in your top spool and bobbin is a safe bet. Color coordinate to blend into your fabric or choose a contrasting color if you want a top-stitching effect.
- Pins and pincushion: Get steel straight pins with the colored balls on the top. They're easier to insert, see, and pick up when you spill them all over the floor. A magnetic pin dish is great to hold your entire collection. Then, keep a stuffed pincushion next to your machine to hold a few pins while you're working. The classic tomato-shaped pincushion is great, and there are also pincushions you wear right on your wrist – very handy.
Premium Sewing Notions
- Sewing machine needles: You can assure optimum results by getting needles that are specifically designed for your current fabric or technique. For example, stretch needles have a rounder point to spread the knit fibers apart rather than piercing them. Sharp needles are the exact opposite; they have a sharper point that can pierce tightly woven fabrics. As mentioned above, find out more in our article: How To Choose The Right Sewing Machine Needle For Your Project.
- Hand sewing needles: The variety in hand sewing options is even larger than for machine needles. You can simply purchase a good quality variety pack. Or, if you're doing highly specialized hand sewing, such as doll making, bead application or upholstery, you can find needles of all sizes, point styles and lengths crafted just for your application.
- Needle threader: The cheaper needle threaders are one-size-fits-all. For a few more dollars you can get one that’s easier to handle and is designed to work with several sizes of needle eyes.
- Thread: The sky is the limit when it comes to your thread collection. If you can afford it, it's wonderful to have a wide palette of colors at your fingertips. You can also get many different kinds of speciality thread for decorative effects, from silky rayon to soft cotton to sparkling metallic. For more information, take a look at our article on selecting the right thread for the job.
- Pins and pincushion: The magnetic dish and classic pincushion are a must. Like needles, pins can come in a variety of thicknesses and lengths, designed to suit specific sewing techniques. If you need to iron over your pins, get ones with glass or metal heads.