What sewing equipment do I need to buy?
When it comes to sewing equipment, your sewing drawer could look just like your kitchen; full of ‘essential’ gadgets that may be your best friend, or may lie there gathering dust never to see the light of day.
If you’re just starting out, it may be tempting to rush out and spend a fortune on lots of fancy sewing equipment that the packaging claims will make you better at sewing and solve all your dressmaking problems. However, most of these items are quite specialised and you may never need them. I agree that if you want to make spaghetti straps, then a rouleau loop turner will save hours of frustration, but you can build up your collection of sewing equipment as your skills and ‘repertoire’ increase, and you can decide if you need a specialised tool for a particular project or sewing technique that you want to try.
In the studio, I tend to limit my tools to the basics. I like to encourage beginners to feel that they can learn to sew without blowing their budget on fancy gimmicks or top range sewing equipment (including machines). Here’s a photo of my favourite items that I wouldn’t be without.
Essential Sewing Equipment
You will need good quality fabric scissors which have a flattened lower blade so it can lie along the cutting table. This means you can cut a long stroke, minimising fabric movement. The blade length can vary from 20-30cm (8-12″). Avoid flimsy plastic handles as they can break if strain is placed on them (if cutting thick fabrics for instance). However very heavy shears can cause wrist fatigue if using them for a long period so choose ones that feel comfortable for you. They should fit snuggly in your hand and feel sturdy but not too heavy or large for your hand.
Prices vary from a few £’s to up to £150 but there are many high-quality options for around £20. For a budget-friendly and phenominally great-value option, try the IKEA fabric shears for just £5.
Don’t use your fabric scissors to cut our paper patterns. It will blunt them! Instead, you should also get some scissors just for cutting out paper patterns.
Small embroidery scissors
These need to have sharp points and are useful to trim and snip fabric, getting into tight corners and can clip threads close to the fabric. The blades should be around 4″. I like the stork-shaped scissors and these are available at a variety of price points.
Perhaps some people may view these as optional if you already have small scissors but for me, my snips are a must-have. I couldn’t live without them. As they’ve no handles that you have to wiggle your fingers into, they can be picked up quickly and can get up close to snip threads at the machine. Mine are usually clamped in my palm while I’m sewing.
These are essential items in your collection of sewing equipment. There is a large range of sizes and types of pins for specialised tasks (i.e. lace pins). But for general use, I like plastic headed pins about 3cm (1 1/4″) long. They are easy to hold and see in the fabric (or when dropped on the floor!) TIP: use the colours that contrast most with your fabric i.e. if you’re using blue fabric, then yellow, orange or red pins show up well. I also insert pins at right angles to the seam line, leaving the heads sticking out over the fabric edge. You easily whip them out as the sewing machine needle reaches that bit, or if you do sew over them, you’re not so likely to hit one with the needle. Just don’t iron over plastic-headed pins or they’ll melt, so you may want to get glass-headed pins instead. Make sure your pins are smooth and sharp. If you hit one when sewing, check if it’s damaged by running your fingers up and down it. If there’s any burrs, then throw it away or it will damage your fabric. Keep them away from damp too. Rust spots will stain fabric.
This is essential for taking body measurements but you can also use it to measure the dimensions of pattern pieces and the length of a curve (around the neckline for instance). I work in centimetres but it’s good to have inches on the other side too. Get a sturdy plastic one. They used to made from fabric, but as they got old, they used to stretch!
Other Important Equipment
Water-erasable pen – You will need to mark the fabric prior to sewing features like darts and buttonholes but these markings need to be temporary. My favourite fabric marking tool is a water-erasable pen. This is like a normal felt-tip pen but magically disappears when you add a touch of water. Because it’s got a fine tip, it’s very accurate and I use it to mark buttonholes.
Chalk is available in the traditional tailor’s triangle, or in pencil form. Chalk Pencils are available in white, yellow, pink & blue, while the chalk triangles can come in similar colours plus I have seen black too. The pencils can be sharpened to a point so are more accurate and cleaner on your hands. In either format, you can brush off the chalk afterwards but do check if using a strong coloured chalk that it won’t leave a stain. The pencils are slightly more waxy and leave a longer-lasting mark but can be more difficult to remove.
Tracing wheel & dressmakers carbon paper. Useful for marking larger seam lines, but not for small marks like buttonholes. Insert the carbon paper between the fabric pieces immediately after cutting, and with the pattern pieces still attached, you trace over the lines you wish to transfer to the fabric. Whatever form of marking you use, test it on a scrap of fabric first, as some can leave a stain on delicate fabrics, and remove it as soon as you’ve no longer a need for it. The longer you leave the mark on the fabric, the more likely it is to cause a permanent stain.
For more detailed information about marking tools and how to use them, please see ‘Making your mark – a guide to fabric marking tools.
Useful but not essential sewing equipment
This is a handy tool about 15cm (6″) long marked in cm and inches with a sliding tab. I use mine when turning and pressing hems, to measure the diameter of a button, or to mark the length of buttonholes.
Covered Button maker – If you don’t make covered buttons, then you’ll never have a need for one of these . However, if you do, you will! Making covered buttons by hand involves hours of painstaking hand-stitching gathering threads around tiny circles of fabric. However, with this tool, you just pop in the fabric disc (it helps if you dampen the fabric first). Push in the button, and clip the button base into place. Simples!
Point Turner – If you wonder how to get crisp folds and neat, sharp points, then this is the secret. This plastic tool has a flat edge to create creases, and a point to help push out corners. It’s useful on collars, pockets or anywhere else you need crisp corners. If you don’t have one, you can use a chunky knitting needle instead. Please don’t use anything with a sharp point such as scissors. Also be careful not to push too hard or you’ll burst the stitches.
You may notice that one item is conspicuous in its absence from this list; the seam ripper. I recommend that once you’ve unpacked your new sewing machine, open the box of accessories. Take out the seam ripper and throw it away! I’ve seen so many ruined sewing projects with gashes right up the middle, caused when a seam ripper slips. And also a gash or two in someone’s hand. I rarely use one and prefer to do any unpicking with my thread snips. However seam rippers are useful for cutting open buttonholes so if you must use one, then please be very careful!
What I never use
Pinking shears! These are the scissors with zig-zag blades that used to be used to ‘neaten’ fabric edges before swing-needle sewing machines were available (i.e.machines that can sew a zig-zag stitch). Pinking shears are now considered terribly old-fashioned and give a very ‘home-made’ finish. Professional seamstresses of the day would actually have used other methods to neaten raw edges (such as the clean finish, french seams, or binding). A pinked edge can still fray anyway, so if you don’t have an overlocker to neaten edges, then you can use a short zig-zag stitch on your domestic sewing machine.
Although much in vogue probably due to their extensive use on the Great British Sewing Bee, I’m not a fan of these tools for use in dressmaking. They were developed for cutting long straight pieces of fabric for patchwork and quilting. And that’s where their use should be restricted in my opinion. If you want to use them for dressmaking, then you should have a huge cutting board underneath your entire fabric layout area so you don’t cause any movement in the fabric. It’s difficult to get into corners with a rotary cutter, and also you can’t cut around the notches; a good practice for novice dressmakers. Finally, they get blunt easily and are expensive to replace. My advise is to stick to your shears as they are more accurate and give more control.
My ‘must-have’ sewing equipment: a selection of items I use everyday.
Best dressmaking scissors – an article by Fiona Parker of The independent. The most comprehensive guide to dressmaking shears I’ve ever read.