Monday, 6 January 2014

What Things Do You Need To Start Sewing?

I love the internet. I love the way it connects people, and makes it possible to share ideas. I love that I can offer advice and ask questions - tapping into the collective brainpower of a bunch of enthusiastic people! Which is great when I'm boring the pants off the people around me in real life, who may not really understand why anyone would want to make their own clothes.

One question which comes up a lot seems to be 'What things do I need to start sewing?' along with 'What kind of sewing machine should I buy?' 

I kind of feel qualified on this one. I've moved around a bit, and sewn a LOT. I've acquired and received a multitude of tools, given some away, lost some and not even noticed. There are things I don't have which I acknowledge would be useful, and plenty I don't miss. So I thought it might be handy to share my views on the essentials to get started. I am only talking about equipment here, not materials. I'm not going to discuss my drafting tools either, I will go into that on another occasion.

When I arrived in the UK I came with two bags. I brought my block patterns, but otherwise I had no sewing gear whatsoever. That was something I intended to fix. I've been here for over 18 months now, during which I have sewn and blogged like crazy. Now I'm moving again, and it turns out I haven't needed a great deal more than I started with.

Here's my basic kit.

1. Pin cushion. The little 'strawberry' on the side is an emery pin cushion. You can use that to keep your pins and needles sharp.

2. Pins.

3. An assorted packet of needles for hand sewing.

4. A needle threader. I don't actually use this, but if you're starting out it would be helpful.

5. Fabric Scissors. Out of all of the above pictures, this is the thing to spend a little more on. Keep them ONLY for fabric. Make sure everyone in the household knows that they are only for fabric.

6. Paper scissors. You will use these on paper to protect your fabric scissors.

7. Measuring tape. These stretch over time so replace them every so often.

8. Chalk. There are lots of different kinds of chalks. As long as it's dressmaking chalk, it works.

9. Thimble. It is definitely worth getting used to using a thimble. While it may feel weird at first, it will save your fingertips. This one came as part of a cheap 'pocket sized' repair kit, and it fits my finger nicely so it's as good as any other.

10. Thread snips. Handy for keeping by the machine.

11. Unpicker poodle. Known to the rest of the world as a seam ripper, or quick-unpick. I've got a nice big sturdy one, because I use it often. So will you.

12. Something to store your equipment in. This lovely sewing box was a gift from Jon. But prior to that I used a shoebox, and it worked.

13. An iron and an ironing board. Absolutely necessary. You can get specialist mini-irons, but mostly it's important that it has steam. I once used a hair straightener on a hem, but I'm not proud of it. Gotta have an iron.

14. It's worth getting some iron cleaner. This will make sense the first time you iron the wrong side of your iron on interfacing.

If I was going to do patchwork/ quilting, I would also consider a cutting mat, rotary cutter and ruler essential items.

Similarly, I would probably get a folding ruler if I was doing curtains or home furnishings.

The Sewing Machine

If you're serious about sewing, you'll need one of these. I heard a lady in a shop the other day tell the shop assistant "I know how to sew, I just don't know how to use a sewing machine..."

With a lot of effort, I was cool enough not to say anything, but I'm pretty sure my face twitched visibly. It is possible to sew a garment without a machine, but why would you do that? It's like cleaning the whole house with a toothbrush.

This is my 4th (I think) machine, and it fit in my budget and does the job. My favourite machine was probably my Husqvarna Viking Prelude 360. It is sitting in storage in Australia. Having said that, I'm not going to give a brand recommendation. I think it's important to consider your specific needs. But here are some points to consider.

A Sewing Machine - If You Want to Start Learning to Sew.

1. You don't need to own a sewing machine to start. There are plenty of machines languishing in the back of spare rooms and coat closets. Ask around, and borrow. Some people might even be relieved to have their cupboard space back. It might be good to have a go before making a purchase.

2. You don't need a lot of fancy stitches to do a lot. I would want a straight stitch, a zigzag, a three step zigzag, stretch stitches, blind hem stitch, and absolutely a 4 step button hole. I wouldn't buy a machine without a buttonhole function. But I wouldn't be too concerned if I didn't have 20 different decorative stitch options.

3. Expect that this is an investment. You're probably not going to upgrade your sewing machine in a few years - this is it. Do some research, ask friends what they like. It might be worth borrowing your aunt's machine for an extra month if it means you can save a little more get something nicer.

4. If you buy through a dealer, you will get additional service, like free lessons and a warranty. Take the free lessons! They will help you with some basic troubleshooting, and that alone is worth rocking up for.

5. If you buy second hand through ebay or similar, there are lots of good machines out there in good condition, and prices are lower. You will need to pay for servicing though. Many sewing machine manuals are available online.

You will need some bits and pieces for your machine.

Most of these come with your machine anyway. The machine feet that you need will differ depending on what kind of sewing you do. So my collection reflects my dressmaking focus.

1. Basic foot. This one does most things, and will be on the machine most of the time. I find this one a bit frustrating because it blocks more of my view than I'd like - it isn't great for pin stitching.

2. Zipper foot. This clips on to the machine on either side, so that the needle can be as close to the zip as possible.

3. Invisible zipper foot / concealed zipper foot. This wasn't included with my machine. But for what I do, and because I like invisible zippers, this was well worth getting. It has two grooves underneath, and the zipper teeth sit in the groove as you sew the zip in.

4. Blind hem foot. Also not included, but again relevant to dressmaking. I wouldn't need one of these if I was interested in quilting.

5. Button hole foot. You slide the foot to accommodate the size of the button you are making the hole for.

6. Needles. There are lots of different kinds of needles. But to get started, you need universals. If you're sewing with jersey, get ball point. Needles come in different sizes, and you can get packets which are a mixture.

7. A brush. I did have a much better brush than this at one stage, this one is also a seam ripper. The brush is for cleaning the lint out of your machine, which should be done regularly.

8. Bobbins. Different machines use different bobbins, so you need to know which ones to get.

9. Screwdriver (not pictured). Generally included with the machine for changing needles and feet, unless your machine has snap on feet.

Sewing Space.

When you sew, you need an appropriate space. I would love to have a full sewing studio, and I am super excited that there will be a space for my sewing in the new place. But it isn't necessary to get started.

You need.

1. A table.
Bet you've already got one too! I use my dining table, in the corner of the living room. It needs to be sturdy, and it's important that it isn't too precious. If you are cutting out and pinning, your surface will pick up scratches. For cutting out, a table is better than a desk, since it's easier to pull it away from the wall and approach your cutting from all sides. For sewing, you want the machine to be a comfortable height to work at.

2. A comfortable chair.
I used to have a wheely chair, but now just use the dining chair. I actually prefer the dining chair because the wheels get threads caught in them!

3. Good lighting
This is really important!

So all up, those are my essentials.

There really are some lovely tools out there, and many of them can help improve your finished garment. But so does practice! You will pick up additional tools and great gadgets over time. In the meantime, get yourself sorted for the basics, and get into it.

Happy sewing!

PS. Did I miss anything that you think is absolutely necessary? Please pop a comment below, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. One tool I love is the turn thru tool, I used to use the long hook like contraption but recently found a new one which is a tube and a separate rod. Works like a dream turning thru bag handles, small straps, easily and effortlessly.
    On another note a lady at bellydance hand sewed her harem pants, she used three spools of thread as she back stitched them all. She too could sew but didn't own a machine as she couldn't afford one. When Bernadette had a friend selling retro machines I got her one, anyone who hand sews clothes deserves a free machine in my book! I am about to go over soon to show her how to thread it as unfortunately it doesn't have a manual but it has everything else and was serviced.
    Oh and I'm making a cowl dress will PM u in FB when finished.
    Happy sewing

    1. Fair call - she does deserve it! I'm all for patience but I wouldn't have the time.

      Looking forward to seeing pictures!

  2. Great post!
    When it comes to pressing I have a sleeve board, just like a mini ironing board and will fit up your sleeves and trouser legs. I have had it for years. Something I only got a few years back was a tailors ham, it make pressing princess seams and sleeve heads really much easier and gives a good finish.
    One thing I need to get sorted is a good light.

    1. Yup. Lighting is important.

      I've managed to improvise a sleeve roll from a rolled towel, but a sleeve roll and a tailor's ham are currently on my wishlist! I did see instructions for making one recently..

  3. This is a really great, informative post. I'm finding it particularly useful as I would like to sew this year and have just treated myself to a sewing machine.
    I'm looking to learn the basics as well as hopefully attempting quilting and patchwork.
    I look forward to seeing more from you as I have just signed up as a follower.
    Sarah :0)