Which Sewing Supplies Should I Buy?
It's very easy to get overwhelmed with all the options for sewing tools and machinery out there. What do you really need? What are the essentials and the cool extras, and how do you know what to look for when you buy?
Sewing scissors - even relatively inexpensive brands, like Fiskars, perform well. They need to stay just for sewing. Designate a box, tote, or drawer for your sewing supplies. Sewing scissors need to stay very sharp, and so you don't want to use them to cut other materials. They can go through lightweight papers used in sewing without a problem, but cutting heavier papers, and anything craft related is a bad idea. They'll cut through it much better than your desk or craft scissors, but they'll also get dull edges that will then start fraying your fabric. If your scissors get dull, most stores have sharpening services, or you can buy a sharpening stone. I have a pair of scissors I have used since I was eight years old and they still work. Get a pair of 8" shears for cutting patterns, and a pair of small, sharp tip detail scissors.
Cardboard cutting board - These come in more than one size, although getting one to fit your table is prudent. Or you can just kneel on your floor with a back brace and some nice knee pads left over from your days at the roll-o-rink.
Hand sewing needles - a pack with a few sizes is ideal for different weights of thread and fabric.
Beeswax or other thread conditioner - I never used this when I learned to sew as a girl, and I don't know how. It saves infinite headaches because it helps stop the thread from winding around itself when hand sewing, creating knots and tangles that then have to be cut only to begin again. It also strengthens the thread.
Marking pencils or pens - the simple chalk pencils will do, just be sure you have a GOOD quality sharpener. Even the small silver hand sharpeners will do fine as long as the blade is very sharp - get one in the art supply store or in the drafting section of your local office store. Don't bother with cheapo sharpeners. Like a colored pencil, the center of the chalk pencil tends to fall out if not sharpened correctly. The pens are usually air or water soluble, meaning they will fade away in 24 hours, or can be removed with a damp cloth. Remove pen and pencil marks before pressing with an iron, since heat can make them hard to get out.
Seam gauge ruler - indispensable for marking seams, evenly ironing hems, and such.
A good steam iron - Most companies will tout lightweight as a good thing. It's actually not. It's certainly easier to use, but the weight helps press the fabric flat. Why did you think it was called pressing? Higher wattage at least should mean greater steam capacity, though not always. Read the reviews. More steam equals better pressing.
Tailor's ham and seam roll - another couple of items I did not learn to sew with, and yet I can't imagine how. Actually, I can. I managed without it by accidentally pressing wrinkles into every curved seam I sewed. You don't want to do that. Get a tailor's ham. You will love it and start using it when doing your regular ironing work. It's indispensable. Use it for adding curve to a sleeve cap before setting in a sleeve, pressing curved darts at a waistline, pressing a curved seam at the hipline, adding shape to a collar . . . and more. A seam roll is only slightly less dispensable. Use it for pressing open seams on delicate fabrics that may leave an imprint, pressing cuffs, and getting into shirtsleeves and other tight areas without putting creases and dents in the rest of the garment.
Good quality ironing board - the cover is what's important. The frame can be chintzy if you like, although some of the fancy ones have a lot of bells and whistles. The cover should be 100% cotton. I prefer NOT to have any chemical scorch resistant treatment on it. Why? Because cotton takes more heat than any fabric, excepting linen. If I scorched my ironing cover, then what did I just do to my precious garment? What you want is a cover and pad that will trap steam and eventually let it evaporate. Steam is the key to reshaping fabric from something flat into something that fits your body. Look for a 100% cotton or wool thick pad and cover without chemical treatment. Avoid polyester foam for padding - again, it isn't absorbent. You can order heavy cotton ironing pads online or you can make your own ironing board if you want to get fancy.
Tape measure - No, the pattern sizes you see on sewing patterns are NOT the same as ready to wear. I wear a size twelve commercial pattern, my waist a little smaller, my hips a little bigger. I wear a size two in most major ready to wear brands. In general, adding ten to your ready to wear size is a good place to start, but again, that really depends on the brand of clothing. Why is this? The pattern sizes haven't changed in decades, but ready to wear sizes have. You need a quality tape measure that is accurately marked (check it with other rules - sometimes they are off) and does not stretch.
Seam ripper - Don't think you won't have to rip out seams. Just the way you were sure you would not rev the motor too much and crack the headlight on the rocks in the front yard when learning to drive, you may be sure you will sew carefully and not need to rip anything out. But you will. Yes, you will. Make it as easy as possible. Get several, since you will drop them on the floor inadvertently, or hide them from yourself in an unconscious effort to never again rip out another seam.
Point turner - Sometimes you can find seam gauge and point turners in one. Otherwise, I like the wood ones. They're inexpensive and the wood is good for giving a little extra heat to seams to help them stay open when pressing.
Pin cushion - More then one is handy, but you need at least one. Or a magnetic pin dish. Wrist ones are handy, except the ones sold in stores with a plastic band are intolerably scratchy to me. Which is why I have a handy tutorial on making your own . . .
Pins - Yes, I sew without pins a lot of the time. But you still need pins. Glass head pins are more expensive, but nice because they don't melt under an iron, in case I am pressing before stitching.
Machine needles - Match them to your fabric. Most of the time you will need a universal needle. Size 12 is great for many fabrics. 10 is good for sheers. 14 is good for heavier fabrics. If you plan to sew knits you will need jersey ball point needles as well. Since I use size 12 universal needles the most, I keep a pack on hand, in addition to several combo packs, and some specialty needles. You won't need as many needles as I do! They do wear out after a couple projects, so plan to replace them, and have alternate storage for your used needles (for some fabrics you will always want to start with a fresh needle to be safe). Schmetz is a good brand. The only caveat is they don't color code their needles, making it a bit annoying to figure out which kind of needle you have in your machine if you forget. Simple storage solution here.
You may not HAVE to have these . . . but wait, yes you do. Once you use them, you will have to have them.
Pinking shears - Yet another item I didn't use when learning to sew. But I don't know how. If you want to wear a garment more than once, you'll want to wash it. At least, we hope so. Finishing seams is important, even though it isn't listed as a step in sewing patterns. How you finish the seam depends on the fabric and personal choice, but for a number of situations I like to simply pink the seams to prevent fraying. This also reduces seam imprints on the right side of the fabric when pressing.
Pattern weights - These are rather pricey. So instead I just bought a box of enormous metal bolts from the hardware store. There are also plenty of online tutorials for making your own. These save time when cutting out patterns to avoid pinning down every little edge (this works best on crisper fabrics that don't shift a lot, but with practice can be used on slinky little rascals). They're also handy as paper weights when you like to sew by an open window and you don't want to feel like a backup dancer in an 80's music video every time the wind blows your pattern pieces all over the room.
Rotary cutter and mat - Although I have enough practice to use fabric shears with pattern weights, I wouldn't recommend trying this to begin. Rotary cutters are kind of like a pizza cutter - a wheel that turns around to cut the fabric. They can make quick work of cutting out most any pattern, although they must be used with a self-healing mat. Don't even think about using them on a cardboard cutting mat.
Heavy duty clamps - Remember the sewing by the window scenario? Now imagine a lovely delicious breeze whisking your hair off your face, all sweaty from standing over a hot iron. It's so wonderful - until it picks up and lifts your entire cutting board off the table with the fabric you so carefully laid out. If you want to sew in a cubicle without windows, you probably don't need these, but I do.
Some sort of box for your patterns - I like the decorative paper boxes from stores like Michael's and Home Goods. Just consider the size and number of patterns to store before you purchase a box.
A binder and sheet protectors or other solution for drafting your own patterns, if you want to try this, or for altering patterns.
Tracing paper - You can get artist tracing paper in rolls of various sizes. I've also heard great things about the sewable cloth-like Swedish tracing paper online. I have a huge stash of Pellon Easy Pattern, which is also a sewable tracing cloth-like paper. I don't usually love Pellon products but this one is good. You'll want tracing paper for replicating patterns, altering patterns, and drafting patterns of your own. You'll be doing it before you know it! In a pinch you can use the plain newsprint paper that a lot of stores wrap breakables in for small size pattern pieces. I've used regular newspaper, but you can risk the ink bleeding onto your garments - don't do it with anything you can't toss in the wash!
Clapper, seam roll, seam stick, and ham holder - More pressing tools. Use the clapper to seal steam into a pressed seam on hard to press fabrics that like to spring back open (in a pinch, I use a wood ruler or other such item, and use my fingers to hold it down - careful, it's hot!). A seam stick is like a long wooden dowel that's handy for opening seams on delicate fabrics that can imprint. The ham holder props up your tailors ham to use the different curved edges more easily.
Tracing wheel and carbon paper - Makes quick work of tracing seamlines, darts, and other design details. Also handy for pattern drafting.