Quite a few years ago, I somehow came across this wonderful sewing resource that was written by an elderly lady who was entering her twilight years and wanted to write about her experience of what was a good sewing kit based on her many years of sewing and also the changes in technology with regards to sewing.
<h2> TOOLS </h2>
essential tools Useful Tools #
scissors rotary cutter and mat #
needles pinking shears #
thimble laundry starch #
measuring tools sewing bird #
pins traveller’s sewing bird #
emergency sewing kit magnifying glass #
draftsman’s triangle #
Desirable Tools #
buttonhole attachment #
pin cushion dressmaker’s dummy #
ironing board #
pressing cloth Luxury Tools #
point turner #
marking tools serger #
sewing machine embroidery machine #
whisk broom #
full-length mirror Postscript &
cake of beeswax #
seam ripper #
eyebrow tweezers #
<h2> TOOLS FOR SEWING </h2>
Regardless of what I say about how important a tool is,
don’t buy it until you feel the need for it — aside from
the possibility that you won’t ever do the chore it is
supposed to help you with, there is no way you can buy what
you need until you have had enough experience to know what
On the other hand, never stint yourself on cheap things.
Too many of us spend thousands of dollars on things that
don’t do us much good, then struggle with a dull seam
ripper, or fight over the only pencil in the house.
You can’t sew it if you can’t cut it, and a *good* pair
of shears will allow you to do better work with less
frustration. Good scissors are cheaper in the long run,
because good shears can be re-sharpened when they get dull,
while cheap scissors have to be replaced.
Do not use your sewing scissors for anything except
cutting fabric. Paper is abrasive, and dulls scissors
quickly. (When I used to cut-and-paste the illustrations
for a newsletter, I had to stroke my knife twice on a stone
after one stroke through paper.)
Wipe scissor blades after use, to remove any lint that
may have accumulated on them. Wipe in the middle of a job
if the scissors start to feel wrong. Wipe frequently when
cutting silk even if they don’t feel funny.
It is very easy for an incompetent scissor-grinder to
ruin your shears. Before sending your shears out, get a
reccomendation from a good sewing shop — NOT a craft shop
with a little fabric on one side. (As far as I know, all
chain “fabric stores” are craft stores.) If there is no
sewing shop in your town, consult a hairdresser — barber
shears are nothing like fabric shears, but a sharpener that
a hairdresser will entrust his livelihood to should know
In addition to a good pair of bent-handle trimmers
(which we usually call “shears”), you are going to need
guardian scissors: cheap scissors for cutting paper, and
small scissors for snipping threads.
The black-handled steel dollar-store scissors are quite
good, and at least one pair should be posted prominently
where it is easier to find than your discreetly-stashed
sewing scissors. I keep a pair everywhere in the house that
a heedless family member is likely to decide to cut
something: stuck to a magnet on the fridge, one in each
pencil mug, tethered to the magazine rack, the pocket of my
suitcase . . .
While scissors of good quality make thread-snipping (and
needle-threading!) easier, any sort of scissor will chew
through a thread; the most important quality in a thread
snip is that it be small enough that you’ll keep it where
it’s easier to get at than your good shears.
I keep the seam ripper that came with my sewing machine
tucked behind the feed-dog-lowering button, as a handy
alternative to the built-in thread cutter, and a pair of
cheap embroidery scissors in the drawer of the sewing-
machine table. These have a sheath I made from two left-
over leather patches when I was working in a sewing-machine
store, so that I could keep them up my sleeve while helping
customers. This sheath keeps them and the other stuff in
the drawer from bothering each other, and it also reminds me
to put the scissors back into the drawer, instead of
dropping them and going on with the next step.
A good pair of “straight operating scissors” — these
are small scissors with one sharp point, and a blunt point
that keeps the sharp point out of trouble when the scissors
are closed — hang beside the ironing board when I’m not
carrying them in a pocket. The blunt point doesn’t catch
the layers below the seam allowance I’m trimming, and the
sharp point allows me to begin cutting at places other than the edge. Since these scissors are apt to wander, I
crocheted a chain two yards long out of thick black cotton,
joined the ends, and looped it through one finger-loop.
This allows me to wear the scissors around my neck or hang
them almost anywhere, and when I mislay them, I can follow
the black string.
You may need special scissors for special work: for
example, some sorts of cutwork embroidery require scissors
with very small, very sharp, blades that cut clean at the
very sharp points.
If you open a lot of buttonholes, you will need a
woodworker’s chisel, a mallet, and an end-grain block of
wood. If buttonholes are rare in your sewing, a seam ripper
A great long pair of paper-cutting scissors is nice to
have, if you can find one.
Razor blades are discussed in the file on ripping seams.
A single-edged razor blade can substitute for scissors in an
Needles are so cheap that you should have a wide
assortment from which to choose the best needle for the job
Needles are so small that you should never be caught
Needles are so important that you should treat them as
though they were still hand-made and precious.
Needles are usually made of steel. Sometimes the eye of
a needle is gold-plated to guard against rust.
Needles named after precious metals are usually plated
steel. A gold needle should not be pure gold, but plated or
an alloy, because gold is too soft to make a good needle.
Silver is also soft, and it tends to rub off on the work.
Pure platinum would make a good needle, but platinum is hard
to shape. Needles made of metals that tarnish, such as
silver, brass, bronze, and copper, should be plated with
non-tarnishing metals such as nickel, gold, or platinum.
(Gold wears off very quickly if it isn’t laid on thick, so
some embroiderers regard “gold” needles as purely
Very large needles are sometimes made of plastic or
aluminum. Precious needles in this class can be carved from
bone, wood, ivory, stone, etc.
Though pins are stainless steel nowadays, needles are
rarely rustproof — needles must be kept away from water.
Never store needles in contact with plant fibers, for
plant fibers draw humidity out of the air; a needle stuck
into a linen curtain and forgotten will be found, when it is
finally remembered, to have a ring of rust at each place
where it pierced the fabric.
All animal fibers make excellent needle books and pin-
cushion stuffing. (The traditional stuffing for pin
cushions was human hair, saved when brushing and combing a
lady’s long tresses.)
No general statements can be made about synthetic fibers
and plastics. Rayon (which is man-made but not synthetic)
should be considered a plant fiber for pin-cushion purposes.
Choose needles by length, thickness, eye style, and
Short needles are used for quilting and other stab-
straight-down styles of sewing. “Sharps” are the general
all-around length. Long needles are used for darning and
other work where the needle is to be woven as many times as
possible before being drawn through. Extremely-long needles
are used for pushing through thick stuffed things such as
rag dolls, soft sculpture, and upholstery.
The needle should be thick enough to make a hole the
thread can slide through easily — but no thicker. Large
holes not only mar the work, they take energy and force to
You also get worse results for more work when you force
thread through a hole that is too small for it.
“Milliner’s” needles are easier to find in very thin
sizes than “sharps” or “crewel” needles.
Round and oval eyes are used for thread, long eyes for
fluffy yarn and multiple strands.
I prefer long-eyed needles for all the jobs they can
handle, because they are easier to thread than round-eyed
needles. However, a long-eyed needle makes a slightly
larger hole in the fabric, and it is considerably weaker
than a round-eyed needle.
Whether the eye is round, oval, or long, there should be
a groove on each side that runs from the eye to the blunt
end of the needle. Without this groove, the thread emerging
from the eye is a lump that is hard to yank through the
fabric, and the hard yanking quickly wears through the
Sharp points are used for most sewing, so blunt needles
often have names that imply that they are only for
embroidery. Blunt points slip between the threads of a
fabric without piercing them, so are mostly used on loosely-
woven fabrics; they are good for some types of darning.
Blunt needles may taper, end abruptly, or have a small ball
on the point.
Needles may also have sharp-edged, three-cornered points
to cut through heavy fabric and leather; don’t use these if
a less-destructive needle pierces easily.
Also consider using an awl to pre-punch holes, or a
“sewing awl”: a strong needle in a thick handle that you
can push hard on without injuring yourself or losing
control. There is a spool of thread in the handle of the
awl, and the special needle has an eye in its point, like a
sewing-machine needle. You can make a chain stitch with the
awl, or pull out extra thread at the beginning and thread it
through each loop you push through the leather or canvas to
make a lock stitch like the stitch your sewing machine
There are also special thimbles, such as the “sailor’s
palm”, which allow you to push hard on an ordinary needle.
You aren’t going to sew very industriously if the end of
the needle keeps piercing your finger. Get a thimble and
learn how to use it.
The most important quality in a thimble is fit — it
must fit the end of your finger, and also fit your way of
The classic thimble-shaped thimble is for general
sewing. It is slightly wider at the open end than at the
closed end, and the top is slightly domed, but there is a
definite corner between the top and the rest of the thimble.
It is dimpled all over the end for skid resistance.
The best thimbles are made of nickel-plated brass,
second best of nickel-plated steel. Silver thimbles are
good, but hard to come by, and one is apt to be nervous
about losing them. Silver thimbles are a godsend, however,
for those who are allergic to nickel.
Porcelain thimbles and thimbles of other unusual
materials are often intended for display only.
Plastic thimbles sometimes come apart at the mold marks,
and if a thimble splits, it is sure to be when you are
pushing on the needle extra hard. This is a major
YEEEEOWWWCH!, so look at a plastic thimble with a jaundiced
eye before every use.
I have, of late, seen bright-colored thimbles made of a
rubbery plastic. I haven’t looked closely yet, but they
appear to be particularly good for beginners and children,
as it would be easier to get a good fit — assuming that
they are made in as many sizes as hard thimbles, which may
be a rash assumption. (But then hard thimbles aren’t made
in as many sizes as they ought to, these days.) Soft
plastic can’t split at the mold marks, but would be easier
to puncture than steel. On the other hand, you should be
able to feel an incipient puncture and ease off the
Some people find that a metal thimble fits better if
they step on it ever so lightly, making it subtly oval. It
is often possible to feel a difference without being able to
see a difference. If stepping lightly on the thimble
doesn’t deform it, a higher-tech approach is needed. Borrow
a heavy-duty vise, attach scrap wood to the jaws with rubber
bands, and squeeze the thimble between the two pieces of
wood until it fits the end of your finger. If it springs
back when you back off the vise, over-squeeze it just a tad,
back off again, repeat until you get a good fit. Remember
that you can always squeeze it a little more, but you can’t
squeeze it a little less.
There are leather thimbles, leather thimbles with a
metal patch, elastic-mesh thimbles with a leather patch,
open-topped thimbles, ring thimbles, and on and on for
special uses. There are also “sailor’s palms” and other
hand-protectors for heavy work. Look around every time you
see a display; something might be just right for what you
have been doing.
You can also improvise a thimble by sticking a dot of
heavy-duty first-aid tape to the spot that keeps getting
pricked. Such a “thimble” can serve where anything re-
usable would be much too clumsy. If you are substituting
tape for a thimble as an emergency measure, be sure to cover
the end of your nail, so that a needle that slips can’t
slide into your quick.
At the least, you need a yardstick and a tape measure.
The housewife of eld scratched equal intervals on a
stick, and used that to mark off a ribbon.
As long as all measurements were made with the same
stick, or with measures accurately made from the same stick,
it worked fine.
Nowadays, we can buy measures ready-made, and all are
copied from the same platinum-iridium stick, so any ruler or
tape can be used with any other.
The primary quality to look for in a tape measure is
that it should not stretch. Most are five feet long and
five-eighths of an inch wide, but you can get narrow
measures to carry around with you in a pill bottle, and
longer tape measures are sometimes available. The
“retractable” measure that comes in its own case is only for
carry-around work; get a plain measure for day-in, day-out
Hardware-store tape measures are meant for distances too
long for a stick, rather than for measuring around things,
and are apt to be too stiff for sewing measurements.
Yardsticks used to be made of raw wood, and were given
away as advertisements. Nowadays they are covered with
paint — not an improvement, in my opinion — and even those
with ads on them cost a few dollars. Some have decorations
on the back, so that they can be hung up as ornaments when
not in use. Try to get one that’s a measure on both sides,
so that you can use it any way up. Some sticks are so
marked that they read from left to right no matter how you
hold them. A stick that can measure from either end is more
Meter sticks tend to be thicker and better-made than
yard sticks, since they are primarily used by scientists,
and meter sticks are likely to be varnished instead of
A meter stick is thick so that it can be stood on edge
to get a more-accurate measure, by putting the mark on the
stick right against the thing being measured. Everyday
measures make the stick thin, or thin on the edge, so that
the mark isn’t too far from the thing being measured. A
triangular ruler has it both ways: in one sense, it has a
thin edge; in another, it is “stood on edge” no matter how
you put it down.
An excellent way to avoid parallax is to print the
markings on the bottom of a transparent ruler. Since
plastic is flexible, these rulers are usually shorter than a
full yard or meter.
If you need both metric and inch measures, get two
sticks, each with the same system on both edges.
A few shorter rulers are handy to have around,
particularly a six-inch ruler with a sliding pointer on it.
An aluminum six-inch ruler with a plastic slider is sold in
fabric stores, where it is called a “hem gauge” or “seam
gauge”. A higher-quality gauge can be found in the hardware
store, where it is called a stainless-steel pocket ruler.
A carpenter’s folding ruler is handy if you measure long
And there are still uses for home-made measures — a
“ruler” with only one mark on it is very handy for pinning a
hem, for example. The old way was to cut a notch in the
edge of a slip of cardboard — the stiffeners inside three-
yard packets of tape or braid are a handy size; so are
business cards. I prefer to draw a line across the card, as
I can match the edge of the hem to the entire line.
For some purposes, you should cut card or stiff paper to
the exact size needed. Here, measures grade into templates
Historical note: the oldest known measuring tapes have
no marks; it is presumed that the user marked the tape with
a pin or a stitch or by holding the thumbnail against it,
then measured the tape with an ell stick, or transferred the
measurement directly to the work in progress.
Tailors used to measure customers with strips of paper
or parchment that were then kept as a record. They cut
notches on both sides and diamond-shaped holes in the
middle, which presumably allowed them to record also the
meaning of the measurements. In addition to dispensing with
the need for standard units of measure, such strips allowed
one to determine halves and quarters by folding the paper,
without any error-prone calculation.
I once read mention of a flock of seamstresses in a
foreign port who measured clients with pieces of string,
which they knotted to record the measurements. I wonder
whether they used tatting technique to place the knots
I gave up my beloved nickel-plated brass “silk” pins in
an instant the day my mother-in-law gave me a magnetic
pincushion. Throw a steel pin at it from any distance, and
Silk pins are sometimes made of magnetic stainless, but
the tiny heads don’t lift the pin enough to allow easy
removal from a magnet. (Needles also lie too flat to be
picked up, and cannot be stuck on one side of a magnet; they
get mixed in with the pins, and sink to the bottom of the
pile, so it is not convenient to keep needles and pins on
the same magnet.)
I use only large-head pins now, even though they distort
the fabric more than the traditional pins do, and make it
harder to press a pinned-in fold. On the other hand, when
you drop one, you have a much better chance of finding it
before somebody steps on it barefoot, and I get fewer
complaints about pins left in finished garments.
I prefer glass-head pins to plastic, because glass
doesn’t melt when touched by an iron, and because glass
heads are usually smaller than plastic heads. Glass heads
also come on finer pins than plastic heads do.
If you use a magnetic pincushion, take a magnet with you
when buying pins, to make sure that the stainless in
question is strongly attracted to magnets. Some stainless
steel is only weakly attracted, and some isn’t magnetic at
If you don’t use a magnetic pincushion, pins with the
heads formed all in one piece with the shank, like miniature
nails, are the best — unless your eyes are fading, or you
have trouble picking up small-headed pins. Even if you
suffer from both conditions, you may need small-headed pins
for particularly dainty work.
There are many head styles for special work: T-pins,
also called “bankers’ pins” because they were used to secure
bundles of papers before the stapler was invented, are good
when you have to push hard on the head and don’t mind a
thick shank — thick is good when pinning out lace by
slipping the pin through pre-existing holes. “Flower” pins
have two-dimensional heads so that they can lie flat even
though the head is very large; these are always very long,
because they are used mostly by quilters. Pearl-head pins
are intended to be decorative — most are bought by florists
to give away with corsages — but are handy when you want an
extra-long pin with a large head, and don’t mind that it’s a
bit coarse. Pearl heads are more likely to be round on
short pins, and more likely to be tear-shaped on long ones.
Like needles, pins come in many lengths and thicknesses.
Pins that are too thin for the fabric are apt to bend in use
— and so are pins that are too thick: when you punch a big
hole in the fabric, you have to push pretty hard, and may
bend the pin. I buy the thinnest of the generally-available
pins; since they are easier than heavier pins to push in,
they hold up pretty well — unless I use them for fitting,
or in other ways that put force on the pin after it’s in the
Coarser fabrics require thicker and longer pins. As an
extreme example, a silk pin stuck into agricultural burlap
will fall right out. For a *really* coarse fabric, use the
picks sold for use with hair rollers.
Safety pins in assorted sizes are useful, particularly
for making marks that don’t fall out, brush off, or prick
you. Unfortunately, even the smallest safety pins are
How many pins do you need? This is a matter that will
always require your attention. Too many pins slow the work:
in addition to the time spent putting pins in, and the time
spent taking pins out, there is the break in your rhythm
each time you stop stitching to take out a pin.
Rhythm-breaking is such a great inconvenience that some
misguided souls advocate machine stitching right over pins,
and taking them out later. This is a very foolish economy.
Inevitably, the needle will hit some of the pins. Most of
the pins that are hit will be struck a glancing blow, so
that the needle bends aside and no damage will be done,
aside from the slight displacement of the stitch. But some
of the pins that are struck will be damaged, and the time
saved by not taking them out will be used up sorting them
after. Moreover, sometimes the needle will hit the pin so
squarely that it breaks, and if you think that taking a pin
out is a waste of time, try stopping in the middle of the
seam to change your needle! And there is a pretty good
chance that the needle will tear the cloth while it is
breaking. There is also a chance that the needle will be
blunted without breaking, and do considerable damage to your
fabric before you notice.
No matter how much you love your contacts, wear your
spectacles while you operate your sewing machine. Even
people who never do anything foolish sometimes break needles
— and when a needle breaks, there is no telling which way
the pieces will fly.
There is no way you can put in enough pins to use up as
much extra time as taking the stitches out and doing the
work over again would occupy, so at first, you will err by
putting in too many pins. Your pin usage will diminish with
experience, because both your skill in handling fabric and
your ability to tell whether or not a given pin is necessary
A pin placed at right angles to a line will secure only
a point along that line, while a pin place parallel to a
line will secure a segment of it. When you are first
measuring a hem and have it correct at a point, but aren’t
sure that the edge goes in the right directions as it leaves
that point, stick the pin in at right angles to the
stitching line. You can put pins in the stitching line
after you have measured points on both sides of the point
being pinned, and are sure you aren’t pinning in a wobble.
It is easy to put a pin in at right angles to a pin
that’s already in, but difficult or impossible to put two
parallel pins in the same place. For this reason, when you
want to pin from one side, then sew from the other side, put
the pins in at right angles to the way they should go, then
turn the work over and re-pin in the seam line, removing the
old pins as you go. (Leave the first batch of pins with the
heads overhanging the edge to make them easier to find from
the other side.)
If you very carefully pin a seam, then realize that the
heads are on the wrong ends of the pins, usually there is
enough redundance that you can remove each pin, turn it
around, and put it back — but in difficult circumstances,
you can pin at right angles to the pin before flipping it.
For machine sewing, in-seamline pins are nearly always
best, because this best keeps the fabric from migrating.
This is particularly important when matching plaids and
patterns, or when sewing pile fabrics or other fabrics that
tend to creep. When fabric is unco-operative, I may use a
right-angle pin at the beginning of a seam, so that I can
pull it out after lowering the presser foot on it, or at the
end to hold after the last of the in-seamline pins has been
removed. Turn the handwheel to approach a right-angle pin,
so that you can pull it out as soon as it touches the
presser foot, before it slides under it to get bent, bef
it’s at risk of encountering the needle.
Emergency Sewing Kit
It is both feasible and advisable to keep the essential
tools on your person at all times, to keep small emergencies
from becoming major nuisances.
It’s seldom convenient to carry a bottle of pins around,
but a few safety pins can be stuck into the lining of your
wallet, the insides of pockets, inconspicuous parts of your
A small pair of folding scissors or a small, razor-sharp
penknife can be carried on your keychain. A single-edge
razor blade still in the original wrapper can be stashed
unobtrusively in a card case or wallet.
A thimble and an extra-narrow measuring tape can fit
into a small pill bottle, and there are assorted folding or
rolling rulers. You should know the dimensions of common
objects, such as money and your own body parts. In
particular, you should know how to strike a pose that makes
it one yard from nose-tip to finger-pinch, and you should
know how many inches are in the span of your spread fingers.
(On me, from thumb to index fingertip happens to be half a
foot. My full span is eight inches; the unit of length
called “span”, presumably taken from a man’s hand, is nine
And don’t forget the original rule of thumb. Step off
ten thumb-widths on a ruler, then read the number of inches
to get your thumb-width in tenths of an inch. If that
number isn’t neat, try sixteenths. Or measure from thumbtip
Needle and thread, of course, can be secreted almost
anywhere. It has been suggested that one open up a
retractable ball-point pen, and lash a needle to the ink
tube with sewing thread. One can notch a business card,
wind it with thread, slip a needle under the windings, and
keep it in a business-card case. Look at the objects you
always have with you with an eye to hiding a needle.
A four-compartment bobbin box can be made into a
traveller’s sewing kit: put a thimble and pins into one
compartment, up to nine kinds of thread on sewing-machine
bobbins into the other three, cut a piece of thick wool
fabric to fit inside the lid, and stick needles into the
The bobbins must be labeled, as you are sure to forget
what is on them. Gummed reinforcements meant for notebook
paper make good bobbin labels. The holes in my bobbins are
larger than the holes in reinforcements, so I pressed a
mailing label over the side of the bobbin, then shaved it
around the edge with my Exacto knife, ran the point of the
knife around the seam between the hole and the flat side,
and lifted out the paper in the hole by puncturing it with
the point of the knife. Another bobbin is marked with rub-
on letters, and I engraved a cheap plastic bobbin with a
large needle, then rubbed permanent marker in the scratches.
Typist’s removable correction tape is good for making
If the bobbins that fit your machine aren’t suitable, buy
a packet of cheap bobbins and wind them with an electric
screwdriver. (See “odd tricks”.)
It’s a serious fault of the bobbin-box sewing kit that
if it’s subjected to vibration, the bobbins rotate and
unwind the thread, which creates a dreadful mess. A
suitcase is seldom subjected to enough vibration to cause
trouble, but don’t take a bobbin box on a bicycle tour
without doing something stern to keep the bobbins from
rattling. Or wrap each bobbin with re-positionable tape to
keep the thread from unwinding, and let them spin.
A kit that’s harder to use but easier to carry can be
made in a 35mm film can. Cut slips of stiff paper into
narrow bobbins the length of the can, and wind them with
threads you are apt to need. Write the names of the threads
on the bobbins. To keep the thread clean, make the bobbins
triple-wide, to wrap over both sides of the thread. (See
instructions for wallet sewing kit.) Stick needles into a
fold of wool fabric the same size and shape as the bobbins.
Put needles and thread into the film can, drop in a few
straight pins and a safety pin, wedge all into place with a
thimble, and drop a button into the thimble.
..insert drawing of bobbins and wallet kit here
..add cite for the photographs in the html files
A wallet-sized sewing kit can be made from a piece of
stiff paper. Cut a strip exactly as wide as the length of a
business card, and at least four times as long as the width
of the card. Use a ruler and a blunt point — a #8 crochet
hook, for example — to draw a crease on the paper a bit
less than the width of a business card from one end. Fold
on that crease, and draw another crease a hairsbreadth from
the edge of the part you have folded over. Fold again,
crease just beyond the first fold. If you allowed extra
paper, crease again just beyond the second fold. What you
have in your hand now should fit neatly into your card case
or a card pocket in your wallet. Unwrap all but one fold.
Use a paper punch to make a series of notches in one cut
edge of the doubled part, then make exactly corresponding
notches in the other edge. These notches should be quite
deep, so that the thread won’t be exposed to wear.
Write a thread description near the folded edge, write
another between the first pair of notches and the second,
and so on until all notches have been labeled. (Be careful
not to put your labels where the thread will cover them.)
Slip the end of a piece of thread inside the fold, and
wind it onto the notch-pair nearest the folded edge. You
can tuck the end under the windings, slip it between the two
layers of a tab between notches, or cut a snip in the paper
to hold it.
Fill all the notches in the same way, working from the
fold to the free edge. Put a single-edge razor blade (still
in its original cardboard sheath!) into the pocket just
created. Slip a needle or two under the threads, or weave
needles through the upper layer of paper. Re-fold on all
The outside of the packet may be decorated as you
please, or it can be used as a place to jot down phone
numbers and other data that you want to have handy, but the
side of the paper that touches the thread should be kept
The above instructions work for kits made of
construction paper. If you decide to use nice card stock,
it will be found to be too slick to hold the thread in
place. Make a snip into each tab between thread-notches and
secure both ends of the threads in the snips.
Almost anything in reach gets used for a pin cushion; I
once read an interview with a fellow who dis-assembled old
mattresses, which said that he invariably found needles in
them. This probably happens
less often now that nobody
sews, but a bed with lots of firm pillows and a good light
*is* a comfortable place to do hand finishing. Keep track
of the pins and needles, and don’t stick any into the
mattress! A magnetic pincushion is handy here, because it
will also hang onto your seam ripper and anything else made
Pincushions are a popular target of art needlework, and
for ornamental pincushions, anything goes. For pincushions
meant for use, stick to animal fibers, particularly if
needles will remain stuck in them for long periods. You can
get away with plant fibers, if only pins will ever be stuck
in, and if all your pins are rustproof and tarnish proof.
Many synthetics and tightly-woven fabrics show pinholes, so
test-jab any fabric you are thinking of using in a pin
A scrap of wool rolled up tightly makes a good
pincushion. The traditional recipe for a pincushion is to
make a small bag, stuff it firmly with hair, or with
snippets of wool and silk saved up in a bag hung on the
sewing machine, sew shut, decorate. Since it’s inadvisable
to make a pincushion thick enough for a needle to go all the
way in, I quilted my cushion with a few stitches to hold it
flat and thin; this also made it firmer.
Closely related to the pincushion is the needlebook:
pieces of fabric sewn together at one edge. Since wool felt
is no longer available, and “craft” felt may tend to induce
rust, make the needlebook of spun-silk scraps, or wool that
has been washed in hot water. If you wash woven wool very
thoroughly (perhaps using a washboard) and iron it
mercilessly, it can be used for old patterns that require
It is traditional to make a needlebook look like
something; a popular pattern was a sunbonnet girl cut from
felt, with a second, shorter girl sewn on top to represent
her coat. When the coat-tail was lifted, you saw needles
stuck into her apron.
I made mine look like a book: two rectangles of felt,
the inner one slightly smaller, sewn exactly down the middle
and folded to make four leaves, then sewn again to keep it
folded and suggest binding. Needles are slipped under rows
of embroidery stitches that suggest writing on the “pages”.
I used darning wool for the embroidery, since Woolworth
didn’t sell embroidery wool. Nowadays, I use embroidery
wool for darning, and don’t have nearly as much fun.
You can spend a lot of money buying a steamer that is
powerful and short-lived, but the two irons I use the most
are a very cheap modern iron, and an old iron I bought for a
dollar or two at a garage sale.
The modern iron is an “ecological” energy-saving model
that uses a lot more energy — both mine and the power
company’s — to do the laundry than the “wastrel” models,
because I have to hold it forever to get results. But when
I use it for sewing, I can take all the time I need to
arrange a fold that I’m pressing; even when set on “linen”,
this iron won’t melt or scorch the most delicate fabric.
Since I use the highest setting for everything, I never
worry about mis-setting it.
The old iron, on the other hand, has a setting above
“linen” — and it means it. This makes it perfect for
ironing a whole bolt of damp denim.
What made me grab it from among the pile of oddments was
that there are no holes in the soleplate. Since I never put
steam in the iron when I intend to press something that I’m
holding in place with my fingers, steam vents are nothing
but a nuisance in a sewing iron. They catch on edges and
corners and anything else they can catch on when you are
sliding back and forth, and they leave little bumps when you
press down and lift straight up.
I was startled at the old iron’s weight the first time I
picked it up. The missing water tank makes it look much
smaller than the modern iron, but it weighs more: it is
made of steel, and it is not hollow. I am just old enough
to remember ads saying “Don’t wear yourself out with a heavy
iron; it is the heat, not the weight, that flattens cloth.”
But I found that I had been pressing down when I ironed
things; this heavy iron can simply be slid back and forth.
On big jobs, where one isn’t continually picking it up, it
is much less effort to use.
And lifting it isn’t nearly as strenuous as the ads
I also find the lower-slung shape and the longer nose
easier to use than my modern irons.
The only drawback is the cone-shaped plug; now I realize
why safety messages used to be so strident about the dangers
of pulling on electrical cords; with this slippery, tight-
fitting plug, it’s a genuine temptation. The modern
electrical plug is an unquestioned improvement.
(Plugging the iron into an adaptor resolved all
difficulties: the sides of the adaptor are ridged to give a
good grip, and it doesn’t take much force to get it out of
You should be aware that settings on old irons are a
notch hotter than the same settings on current irons. When
dry irons were in fashion, dime stores sold oilcloth liners
for bushel baskets, and housewives of the era *needed*
bushel baskets to hold their dampened ironing. Someone who
irons a bushel of clothes every week pretty soon learns to
move the iron so fast that it needs to be sizzling hot.
An iron is a heat-producing appliance, and all heat-
producing appliances should be unplugged whenever they are
turned off, if only because thermostat-controlled devices
have no true off — you merely set them below room
temperature. If the temperature drops below that setting,
they will turn themselves back on. (A turned-off, plugged-
in electric skillet is a great way to thaw food quickly
without risk of cooking it.)
An iron can’t take very many times of being knocked to
the floor, and neither can your toes. It is a good idea to
set the iron on the floor every time you unplug it, if you
have a spot where it won’t get tripped over. I used to
store my irons under the bookcase, but have an elbow-height
shelf for them now that my back is stiff.
It is a good idea to remove anything heavy or fragile
from the ironing board whenever you don’t need to have it
there; the board is narrow and easily bumped, and you are
usually busy in its neighborhood.
When an iron burns out, don’t trash it unless you have
two burned-out irons in your attic already. Someday when
you are snowed in with nothing to do, and the power crews
are too busy restoring power to hospitals and schools to
worry about your sewing, you can dig out the ruined irons,
remove the power cords, and heat them on the stove or over a
candle. (Be sure to put a sheet of metal between the candle
and the iron, or you will get soot on your clothes. If the
stove is still working, heat them in a skillet. Wipe the
iron with a rag just before using even if you are sure there
is no soot on it.
If you have more than two burned-out irons, keep the two
heaviest, as heavier irons hold more heat.
Non-electric irons for remote locations are available in
If you get a pair of flat irons, get the kind that have
two irons and one handle. The older kind are more
picturesque, but the handles get hot.
There is also an “iron with a soul” — a hollow iron
with blocks of iron to heat and put inside; these inserts
can be heated over open flame without fear of dirtying your
clothes. New box irons are not being made, and the old ones
are apt to be missing the souls, so don’t set your heart on
Some non-electric irons run on combustible gas, are
thermostat-controlled, and if they weren’t so expensive, and
if I knew where to buy butane, I’d get one just to be rid of
that &%#@! electric cord.
It helps a great deal to buy two ceiling hooks of the
sort sold for suspending lamps or flower baskets, and run an
extension cord up to dangle over the ironing board. Use a
heavy-duty cord that is meant for constant use and high
current. Repeat: go to a hardware store and get a cord
designed for heavy-duty construction equipment.
An outlet in the ceiling is an even better idea, of
course, but you can stick ceiling hooks in anywhere.
As a bonus, it is almost impossible to walk away and
forget to unplug the iron when the cord is dangling from the
Not to mention that reaching up is easier than bending
over; this gets more and more important as you age.
A dangling lamp with an outlet will provide extra light
as well as keeping the cord out of your way. You can buy a
socket and outlet already on a cord, but these “drop cords”
come only in orange, as they are normally used in places
where they might get forgotten and stepped on. You can make
the sewing room neater, once you’ve been using a light for a
while and are happy with its location, by cutting off the
excess cord and installing a new three-prong plug. Watch
the wire colors and attach the correct wire to the correct
Repeating for emphasis: Use a cord meant for high
current. An iron plugged into a lamp cord can set fire to
Cordless electric irons work on the flat-iron principle,
but not very well, because you don’t have a second iron to
be heating while you are using the first one. If you use an
iron intermittently, never long enough at a time to cool it
beyond use, a “cordless” electric might be worth having.
And no, they *can’t* put a battery into the iron. They
could put in more thermal mass, but thermal mass is also
gravitational mass. (Translation: an iron that stays hot
for a long time is going to be heavy.)
The most important feature of an ironing board is that
you should be able to adjust it to the exact height required
for each job, and do it so easily that you won’t hesitate to
sit down for a few minutes and then stand up again. It
should be convenient to change the height subtly whenever
you notice a slight discomfort.
The ideal working height varies; the height of your
ironing board should vary with it.
You should make your own ironing-board cover out of some
sturdy plant-fiber fabric that you can stick pins in; the
“reflective” covers don’t take kindly to having holes
punched in them, and they are apt to be impervious to steam
— steamproofness might or might not speed up laundry
ironing, but it slows the kind of pressing that you do when
The padding of an ironing board should be thick enough
that you can stick pins in it, but it should also be very
flat and firm.
Think twice before you throw out padding that has been
pounded down thin and hard; if it is still smooth and even,
it might be just the thing to put underneath your new
The cheapest padding is cotton batting. Wool padding is
more absorbent and more resilient. You can buy wool batting
at high-end quilting shops.
When you go to a thrift shop or a rummage sale, keep an
eye out for worn-out wool blankets; in addition to making
excellent ironing-board pads, they supply warm interlining
for coats, quilts, etc. You can spot old pure wool easily:
when it is worn completely out, the shreds still look good.
The unworn edges of a worn-out mattress pad often supply
enough material to cover an ironing board — but not if it
is filled with polyester fiberfill, or anything else that is
inclined to melt.
As little as ten percent of nylon makes a blanket
worthless as an ironing-board pad. If you aren’t sure of
the fiber content of potential padding, flame test it. Even
if you don’t know how to tell what the fiber is, you’ll know
whether it behaves badly in the presence of heat.
When I got married, my sister gave me an ironing board
that was square on both ends. It seemed exceeding queer,
but I hadn’t been using it long before I began to wonder why
boards were ever made tapered.
After about thirty-five years, I ironed a pair of
cotton-twill pants, and for the first time had to let down
the hinged corner of the board. If I ironed pants a lot, I
might have a tapered board just for pants and narrow skirts
— but if I could have only one, I’d hang onto my current
board no matter how many pairs of pants I ironed in a day.
The board-shaped board must have looked queer to
everyone, for I’ve never seen one for sale anywhere. If you
want a convenient padded surface for sewing, you’ll probably
have to design and build it yourself. Some padded sewing
surfaces are laid on tables, some fit over the tops of
ironing boards. People who sew constantly may pad the top
of a table.
An old blanket or mattress pad and a canton-flannel
tablecloth can be handy if you have yardage to iron — but
never throw them over a table that isn’t already all beat
up. No matter what precautions you take, using a table for
an ironing board will ruin the varnish.
A small ironing board called a sleeve board is nearly
essential for sewing. As the name implies, you can use it
to press tubes without pressing both sides at once, and it
is also useful for ironing other things that aren’t flat.
When pressing the crotch seam in a pair of pants, for
example, you can put the seam on the sleeve board and let
the rest of the garment drape down on both sides out of your
way. A dart can be laid on the point of the sleeve board,
with the curve the dart creates dangling down out of your
For fine tailoring, you will also need a seam roll and a
A seam roll is a firmly-stuffed tube meant to allow you
to press seams o
pen without pressing the edges of the seam
allowances and making ridges on the right side. It can also
fill in for a sleeve board, and fits into tighter places.
You can simulate a seam roll by wrapping padding around a
A tailor’s ham is a firmly-stuffed egg shape, somewhat
flattened, and larger on one end than the other. The small
end simulates your shoulder, and the large end simulates
your hip. Since rough sewing shapes things by cutting and
sewing, not by steaming and shrinking, you can get by
without a ham, but a ham is convenient. The stands sold to
go with them don’t work very well, however; make a nest by
twisting and coiling a towel, or prop it up with two or
three rice bags. More often than not, it works fine just
lying flat on the table.
There are many other tools tailors use when pressing,
such as clappers, point-pressers, and seam sticks; whenever
you see a tool advertised, you should consider whether it
would be useful for any of the chores you do, and then
consider whether it would be useful enough to justify the
space it occupies, and whether it would be useful often
enough that you would remember that you have it.
A piece of quarter-inch plywood twenty-one inches long
by six and three fourths inches wide wandered into the
sewing room, and turned out to be invaluable whenever I need
a firm surface on my ironing board. The combination of a
pinnable surface and a patch of plywood is often more
convenient than a table — not to mention that I haven’t
room for a table; there’s barely space to leave the board
set up. And tables aren’t easy to adjust to the currently-
desired height. (Or easy to fold up and put away when you
need the space.)
Plywood is also useful for putting inside tubes when I
want to pin the upper layer without catching the lower
layer. I keep thinking I should obtain a longer piece, and
a few smaller and thinner pieces as well.
Only raw wood should be used for sewing tools; no finish
is impervious to a hot iron, some finishes rub off on cloth,
and many ironing tools rely on the porous nature of wood.
My pieces of plywood were improved considerably when I
took an orbital sander to them. Use a fine grit, and don’t
forget the edges. Corners should be slightly rounded.
Some kinds of wood are capable of staining fabric when
There are all sorts of special-purpose press cloths for
sale, but for general use, a piece of white cotton you found
in the rag bag is as good as any of them, and better than
most. Much-washed plant fiber is more absorbent than new
fabric, and dampness evens out faster. Worn-out sheets and
pillowcases are about the right weight for most jobs.
Choose white so that you will notice when the cloth is
scorched or dirty. If a cloth becomes discolored, throw it
into the laundry at once and take a fresh one.
Ironing through a damp cloth is more persuasive than
using a steam iron, and safer if you are holding the bits in
place with your fingers. In the old days, we would dip one
end of the cloth into water, wring it, fold the wet half
inside the dry half, and wring again to distribute the
dampness evenly. This achieved the perfect degree of
dampness quickly and easily — but each time you use the
cloth, you dry it out and it all has to be done again!
Nowadays I give the pressing cloth a few squirts with
the spray bottle I keep for dampening ironing. A plastic
garden sprayer is good for this purpose, as is a well-rinsed
spray bottle that you bought a harmless cleaning agent in.
My best sprayer has an air pump in it, and is used like a
spray can. It was intended to spray oil on my cooking, but
tended to clog, so I washed the oil out and use it to spray
a fine mist of water.
Tear special shapes for special purposes. Sometimes you
need a really-big press cloth to iron yardage, sometimes you
need a long, narrow piece for creasing an edge, and so on.
Anything that’s thin or flat and has a sharp-but-not-
too-sharp point or corner can poke your corners out from the
inside. I often use the aluminum bodkins Grandfather made
for Grandmother, which have square corners at the blunt end,
and sometimes I use blunt-pointed scissors.
The most useful point turner I have is a bit of plastic
that came in an advertisement. It looks like a ruler that
was sawed off at thirty degrees — it’s two inches long on
one side, four inches long on the other side, and an inch
and a half wide. The thickness drops abruptly half an inch
from the slanted edge, like two sheets of pasteboard glued
together with one sticking out half an inch. This makes it
stiff to handle, yet thin to poke into things.
It’s so well designed that I think it a pity that I
can’t remember what they were selling! (Next time, print it
right on the point turner, guys.)
There are all sorts of special pens, pencils, chalks,
crayons, inks, powders, and tools for marking, and there are
tools that combine measuring and marking. Some marks are
meant to come off easily, some go away by themselves, and
some aren’t supposed to come out at all.
Innumerable markers that aren’t meant for fabric are
useful in sewing, one can mark with things that the maker
never thought of as markers, and you can pinch a crease with
your bare hands.
Think twice and buy once: some marking tools are dirt
cheap when compared to the convenience they give you, some
aren’t worth house room — and nobody but you can tell which
are which. Every tool that is priceless to one person is
worthless to another.
The proper tool for sharpening a pencil is a knife.
Most marking pencils are too soft to sharpen in a pencil
sharpener, and a wedge-shaped point is usually better than a
conical point. I use an Exacto knife and keep it in a
pencil mug with my pens, pencils, and other pencil-shaped
Any container that doesn’t tip easily will serve as a
pencil mug, but bear in mind that it’s apt to be
contaminated with substances you’d rather not drink, so if
you use a drinking vessel, choose one that’s chipped, ill-
designed for drinking, or otherwise unlikely to be put back
on the eating table by mistake.
Marking tools are discussed in more detail in the
section on marking.
Some time during the nineteen-seventies, sewing morphed
from a frugal necessity into an expensive hobby. As a
result, you’ll have a terrible time finding a new machine
meant for practical sewing; either it will be loaded with
easily-broken frills and fripperies, or it will be a flimsy
Luckily, when se
wing machines were tools, everybody had
one, and they were so well built that most of them are still
around. Because there are so many of them, they are very
Singer’s “Featherweight” is being bought up at collector
prices, but many old straight-stitch machines are almost as
easy to carry around, and can be had for as little as $25 at
garage sales. These old machines are so simple and rugged
that almost any handyman can clean, lube, and adjust one.
If you aren’t handy with wrenches, it can still be worth
your while to spend more on a tune-up than you paid for the
If shopping at garage sales, a machine old enough to be
painted black or to have a visible motor bolted to the
machine is almost certain to be worth restoring if it still
sews when you turn the handwheel. And if it doesn’t, the
problem might be as simple as lint packed into the
shuttle race. Inspect the insulation on the wires before
you plug it in. If you can’t plug it in at the garage sale,
reflect that bolt-on motors are usually easy to replace.
One excellent machine made after black paint and bolt-on
motors went out of fashion is the Singer 400 series.
Your best bet is to visit a competent mechanic who has a
few used machines for sale, and tell him that you need a
sound, reliable straight-stitch machine, and would like one
that does zig-zag too.
There is a stitch called “mending stitch” or “multiple
zig-zag” that may come in handy — the machine takes a few
stitches slanting to the left, then a few slanting to the
If you do a lot of blind hemming, it might be worth your
while to learn how to use the “blind hem stitch”. This is a
stitch in which the machine sews straight for a few
stitches, zigs once to the left, makes the same number of
straight stitches, etc. The idea is that you sew on the hem
allowance, and the zigs catch a fold of the main fabric.
Adjusting it just so takes practice and setting up, but once
you get going, you can blind hem almost as fast as you could
top-stitch a hem. The same trick can be done with a plain
zig-zag, but you can’t space the “blind” stitches as far
The blind hemmer can also be used with the zigs going
over a folded edge, to pull it into decorative scallops.
Other fancy stitches are lots of fun, and some are
useful, but don’t sacrifice a good reliable straight stitch
to get them.
If you want to embroider, it’s best to buy a simple
machine for sewing, and a dedicated machine for embroidery;
a machine that tries to do both doesn’t do either as well as
it might, and you can get a good sewing-only machine for a
small fraction of the price of an embroidery machine.
Most sewing machines are flat-bed machines. You can
also get a “free arm” sewing machine in which the machinery
under the fabric is cantilevered out like the machinery that
moves the needle. This makes the sewing of tubes such as
sleeves and pants legs much easier — but not so easy as the
salesman will make it look. A free arm will be demonstrated
on a ring of fabric about the size of a sleeve cuff, and
indeed the free arm makes hemming sleeves and pants legs as
easy as sewing flat.
But most of your tube sewing is done lengthwise, not
around, and when you flat-fell a leg seam, you have to turn
the leg through a right angle, and gather up the entire leg
onto an arm that appears most remarkably short before you
finish. But that is miles better than turning the leg
through a hundred and eighty degrees and gathering it up in
no space at all on a flat-bed machine.
A free-arm machine should convert to a flat bed for
general work. I prefer a clip-on flat bed to a machine that
rises up out of the flat bed. If the machine rises and
isn’t too low when sewing flat, it will be too high when
using the free arm.
Free-arm machines appeared rather late in the serious-
tool era, and never became common, so they are much harder
to find second-hand than flatbed machines. But if you find
a good sound free-arm machine that isn’t encumbered with
obtrusive fripperies, it is certainly worth paying extra.
If the sewing machine doesn’t come in a cabinet, it will
have to be set on a table. Your natural instinct will be to
set the machine in the center of the space in front of your
chair, but you should, instead, center the *needle* of the
machine. This gives you a better view of what you are
doing, and leaves more space on the table for the fabric
Most tables are too high for comfortable machine sewing;
you should be able to look down on your work. I use an old
typewriter stand — one from the years after they added big
electric motors to typewriters, but before they stopped
building them on heavy steel frames to hold them steady
while the platen thumped back and forth.
If you have to set your portable on a too-high table,
you can get a special prop that tilts the machine toward you
to provide a view of your work. If you use such a gadget,
make sure it is stable. Or just use a rice bag.
If at all possible, you should store your machine set up
and ready to sew — sewing time often comes in the form of a
minute here and two minutes there; you don’t want to spend
all of it setting up and putting away.
Tricks for getting the machine out of sight when not in
use range from throwing an old tablecloth over it to very
expensive built-in furniture. You can sew a decorative
cover — if I discuss that, I’ll file it under “bags”.
A table with wheels on it can be very convenient. Since
typists had the same problem, typing tables nearly always
As long as we’re in the office-furniture store, there is
nothing quite so comfortable for serious sewing as a well-
built secretary’s chair — one that rolls and swivels and
adjusts to fit you. If you have trouble standing up and
sitting down, get an “executive” chair, which is the same
thing with arm rests. The arms bump your elbows while you
are sewing, so don’t get them unless you need them.
I like the kind that is made by tying a bundle of broom
corn to make its own handle, sewing the business end flat,
and adding a metal cap with a D ring to hang it by.
Whisk brooms are used for removing dust and snippets of
thread from fabric, clothing, works-in-progress, the ironing
board etc. They are also useful for straightening fringes,
thinning bias edges, etc.
An old toothbrush is handy for smaller jobs; keep one
with your sewing tools so that you won’t absent-mindedly use
a brush that’s been dipped in bleach.
A “stencil brush”, found in art-supply stores, is a
teeny-tiny whisk broom.
Even if you have a dress dummy, there will be times when
you need to put a work-in-progress on and study it i
mirror. A mirror is also useful when fitting a second
person: it makes it possible for your model to see what is
going on without wiggling.
You also need a hand mirror to inspect the work from the
back, and to see how it looks from the side when your neck
Cake of Beeswax
Any lump of wax will do — candle stubs were traditional
— but the wax sold in fabric stores comes in a convenient
plastic case that keeps it clean, and one lump will last
forever, so the extra expense is irrelevant. The case has
slots in it that appear to have been meant to allow you to
wax threads without opening the case, but it’s easier to
remove one half of the case, and use the other half for a
handle. Beeswax is primarily useful for sharpening the end
of a thread to make it easier to thread into a needle, but
some crafts require waxing the entire thread.
Threads were waxed more often when thread quality was
less reliable, as wax prevents a weak, fuzzy thread from
wearing and getting even weaker and fuzzier as it is drawn
through the fabric. Wax also tames threads that are
inclined to twist and tangle. Most linen threads need to be
When a thread is heavily waxed — as one would when
sewing with ravellings — the tail tends to become glued to
the main thread if not separated after each of the first few
stitches. But if the thread needs to be waxed that heavily,
you’ll be wanting to change the place where the eye wears on
it frequently anyhow — and if you’ve used a weak thread
double, wax will weld the two strands together, which makes
them as easy to sew with as a single thread. The gluing
properties of wax also allow you to use a very short tail
when sewing with linen thread or some other thread that
breaks when folded sharply around a needle eye. (It helps to
twist the threads together, roll them between your fingers
to weld them, then re-wax the combined threads.)
Sometimes “beeswax” is a synthetic that makes threads
sticky. Read labels carefully — *especially* when the
product was made specifically for sewing.
Used for correcting mistakes, removing basting, and
opening buttonholes. It can also serve as an awl.
(More details in the file “Ripping Seams and Removing
I’ve never used an awl that was sold as an awl.
In embroidery, awls are used to make holes, as the name
implies, but in rough sewing, they are mostly used for such
jobs as tucking under folds that have started to come
undone, controlling fabric closer to the sewing-machine
needle than your fingers will go, picking up single threads,
etc. For these jobs I use seam rippers, corsage pins,
darning needles, doll needles, knitting needles, bodkins —
whatever comes to hand.
I once used a #4 pencil to enlarge holes that I’d
punched with a fine brass knitting needle, but that wasn’t
sewing: I was punching holes in plastic bags so that I
could file knitting tools in a ring binder. The plastic
stuck to metal implements, but could be worked with a wooden
There is also the “sewing awl”, discussed above under
“needles”. If left unthreaded, this can be used as an awl.
(And unthreaded sewing machines are very good at poking
Eyebrow tweezers are a great help in drawing threads,
removing unwanted stitches, etc. The best kind are cut off
at an angle, so that when held one way the flat end of the
tweezers are parallel to the fabric while the tweezers are
held at a comfortable angle, and when you turn them over,
the acute corner serves to pick one thread out from among
Rotary Cutter and Mat
A rolling knife is more expensive to operate than
scissors — mats eventually wear out, and blades need
frequent replacement. Moreover, there are jobs that knives
just can’t do, so you have to buy the scissors too. But a
knife is a very convenient way to cut, and may be kinder to
your arthritis than scissors. (It can happen the other way
around, of course, but for most of us, having a choice and
frequently changing methods is a great help.)
When cutting along drawn threads, I find it easier to to
see what I’m doing when looking straight down at the work,
so I cut only a few inches before moving the fabric. For
this reason, I bought a small mat just for cutting along
threads, so that I wouldn’t wear out the corners of the
expensive big mat I use to cut out garments. Much to my
surprise, this small mat has been quite handy. It’s amazing
how often I make things that consist entirely of small
Notching a raw edge makes it look more “finished”, and
chops ravellings up into short pieces that don’t show as
much — and each tab has to ravel separately, so the edge
may not ravel as much.
In addition to notching edges, pinking shears can make
zig-zag cuts — for ornament, or to avoid a straight line
showing through another layer.
There are wavy rotary cutter blades to use for the same
purposes, but it is harder to to position an already-sewn
seam on a cutting mat than to trim it with shears. On the
other hand, a spare blade for a cutter you already own is
much cheaper than a decent pair of shears, if you want to
try out the idea, and a wavy knife may be easier to cut out
patterns with than pinking shears. When sewing, don’t
forget that the little tabs added by the wavy cutter have
made your seam allowances wider. (Cutting seams already
pinked is useful primarily when making clothes for rapidly-
I get my pinking shears out of storage maybe once in
Starch can tame stretchy or flimsy fabric, and it makes
creases stay where you put them.
There’s one risk in the use of starch: it makes fabric
look much better than it really is. If you starch a fabric
before using it, you may, in a fit of absent-mindedness, use
it for a job that calls for a higher grade.
(Fabric is sometimes starched — “sized” — at the
factory for just this reason, which is another reason to
wash fabric before cutting it.)
When you want to say “lie down, stay put, and no back
talk!” undiluted laundry starch is at least as coercive as
the iron-through-damp-tape method, but more laborious if you
need to glue more than an inch or two of crease. Since
undiluted starch is apt to make spots that still look wet
when dry, it’s best to reserve it for stout fabrics that
will be washed early and often, and to keep it on the wrong
side and in the seam allowance. A bamboo skewer whittled to
a flat, brush-like tip will ap
ply minute amounts of starch.
If starch is dripped in the wrong place, rubbing at once
with a wet washrag will dilute it.
To apply diluted starch to a controlled area, use a
quarter-inch slice cut off a cellulose sponge. Keep it in a
waterproof container so that it doesn’t dry out between uses
— *IF* you are using starch with preservatives!
If you have a moldy sponge even once, keep the next one
in an open container, let it dry out between uses, and
dampen it a little while before each sewing session. And
scald the old container before using it again for any
You can buy liquid starch in bottles or spray cans.
Diluted bottle starch in a plant mister is cheaper and more
convenient than starch in pressure cans — and you don’t run
out without warning. Spray starch must be used frequently,
or the starch will dry up in the fine channels and render
your sprayer useless. You might keep it near a sink, and
squirt a bit down the drain each time you wash your hands.
If you expect it to be a long time before you use it again,
empty the bottle and pump plain water until you have cleaned
the sprayer. Diluted starch will ferment and smell yeasty
if you let it sit long enough.
You can make your own liquid starch from cornstarch,
potato starch, or whatever is readily available and cheap in
your cuisine, but only if you plan to use it within a day or
two. If you want to keep a stock solution handy, you need
commercial starch, which is stuffed with preservatives to
keep it from fermenting, molding, mildewing, turning strange
colors, stinking, sprouting fungus, and generally serving as
food for whatever minute organisms may be floating around.
Since the mixture has to be stirred constantly until it
boils, it’s a good idea to make a very strong solution in a
small amount of water, then add water little by little,
still stirring, until the starch is thin enough to dump the
rest of the water in. The resulting mixture can be used at
once, or you can bring it to the boil without such close
After spritzing either kind of spray starch, give it a
few minutes to soak in before you iron — otherwise it’s
likely to be found on the bottom of the iron instead of in
More suggestions for making and using laundry starch are
in the section on shrinking before you sew.
A clamp that is of considerable help in hand sewing,
particularly seams and hems. Luxury models are actually
shaped like birds. Some vendors call these tools “third
The “bird” I use most often is a corsage
pin stabbed through the fabric into whatever upholstered
surface is the right distance away. I discuss using an
ironing board for this purpose in various places.
traveler’s sewing bird
It’s a good idea to keep a couple of wooden clamp-type
clothespins in your suitcase, because they come in handy in
all sorts of minor emergencies — needing to hang a skirt on
a dress hanger, for instance. (A wire coat hanger with two
clothes pins is the most-convenient skirt-and-pant hanger
I’ve ever used, and it’s also a dandy way to store a length
If you drill a hole in one handle of each clothespin,
and stash a couple of two-yard pieces of braided nylon
string in your suitcase, you’ve got two sewing birds without
adding any weight or consuming any space.
To use this bird, tie one end of the string into the
hole in the clothespin, and tie the other end to some
stationary object. Or loop the middle of the string to the
clothespin, and tie the doubled ends to an object.
A taut-line hitch is a good way to tie the string to the
stationary object, because it makes it easy to adjust the
string to the most-convenient length. Tying knots is one of
those things that are easier done than said, so bear with me
through a few digressions.
A taut-line hitch is a loop made by tying the end of a
rope to its own standing part with a prusik knot.
A prusik knot is how mountaineers tied their slings to
their ropes before ascenders were invented. A “sling” was a
piece of rope spliced into a circle, perhaps with something
wider to stand on at one spot.
To attach a sling to a rope, the climber would wrap a
loop of sling around the rope two or three times, then pull
the whole sling through the loop and snug down. A prusik
knot is easy to slide along a rope when slack, but it jams
when you pull on the ends. This made it possible for the
climber to stand in one sling while sliding the knot of the
When your “sling” has ends and one isn’t free, you can’t
push it through the loop, so you have to tie in a way that
is harder to describe. First, note that the prusik is the
cow hitch that you use to tie strings to clothespins and
fringes to scarves, but with extra wraps.
So let’s look at the cow hitch. First, fold a string in
half, fold the loop over something, pull the free ends
through the loop. Take another string — or the free end of
the “something” — and duplicate the knot a more laborious
I’m going to suppose that you are on the side where you
see a horizontal bar, and the two ends hang behind it, so
if the two ends are in front of the bar, walk around to the
other side so that we’ll have the same picture in mind and I
won’t have to describe all the possible angles of view.
With the “something” horizontal before you, bring the
end of the string up from below, pass up in front of the
something, down behind it, and come out to the right of the
trailing tail. Pass over the tail to the left, and up
behind the something, come forward over the top, and tuck
the end down through the loop just created, beside the
trailing tail. Tug the two ends — the end and the trailing
tail, that is — and you should see a cow hitch just like
the one you made by pulling both ends through the loop
To convert to to a prusik, before you take the end
across the trailing tail, take it up, back over, and forward
at the bottom again, thus wrapping it around the something.
You can wrap more than once, each wrap to the right of the
preceding wrap. Similarly, wrap one or more times before
tucking the end down through the loop, with each wrap to the
right of the preceding wrap. There should be the same
number of extra wraps on each side, and the two halves of
the knot should be mirror images.
If the prusik knot is too hard to slide, retie it with
fewer extra wraps. If it is too easy to slide, retie it
with more extra wraps. If the string is fuzzy cotton, a cow
hitch might do.
..add drawings of knots
Magnifiers are essential for some people and pointless
for others. I discuss magnifiers at
some length in my essay
on threading needles.
Draftsmans’ 45ø triangle
This is useful for marking the bias of fabric and for
drawing right angles when drafting patterns; it also makes
an excellent pattern weight when cutting with a knife, as
you can put the long edge near a cutting line, then lean on
it (or put a book on it) to hold the cloth firm.
If you come across one of these that fits your sewing
machine, grab it with both hands!
If it doesn’t fit your machine, seriously consider
buying a cheap second-hand machine to fit it, and leaving
the buttonholer permanently attached, ready to make
buttonholes at a moment’s notice.
Zig-zag machines and embroidery machines make usable
buttonholes, but nothing makes buttonholes like a machine
that’s designed to do nothing else. New buttonholers aren’t
being made, but there are a lot floating around on the
(If production resumes before this is printed — very
likely since the estimated time to finish writing exceeds my
life expectancy — BEWARE. Reproduction cast-iron cookware
and reproduction treadle sewing machines are of extremely
poor quality, and the same may be expected of reproduction
Indispensable for the dressmaker who never makes the
same dress twice, dress dummies are seldom used for rough
sewing. They are very useful when you need to stand behind
yourself, or when you want to fit someone who is disinclined
to stand quietly for hours, but they are expensive, and they
take up a lot of room in the house.
The most expensive and least satisfactory are the
dummies that can be adjusted to various measurements by
turning dials. The right measurements won’t necessarily
produce the right shape, but such a dummy is essential to
the professional dressmaker who wants to use the same dummy
for a different person every session; having the right
measurements allows him to fit well enough to minimize the
number of fittings on the actual customer.
Another variety consists of a stout, custom-made cover
that compresses a foam core. If you should gain or lose
weight, you can make a new cover. This dummy gets your
shape a little better than the dial type, but still can’t
duplicate your posture.
Some dummies are made of a moldable mesh, which you
press to shape over your body, then install on the dummy.
Disadvantages: mesh that can be molded to a soft body can
be re-molded by misadventure, and the holes in the mesh have
to be covered with something.
Non-adjustable dummies are made in standard dress sizes.
As is, standard-size dummies are useful only to designers
who drape patterns for ready-to-wear companies, but they can
be padded with layers of batting and then dressed in a
custom-made cover that compresses the batting to your exact
shape and posture — if you are sufficiently patient and
skillful. All standard dummies are bust B. If you are
larger than that, you can put one of your bras on it and
stuff it, but if you are smaller, you are out of luck —
unless the dummy can be sawn or chiseled to your shape.
The best dummy for the home dressmaker is the kind you
make yourself. All dummy-making methods require two people,
however. Since rough sewing requires few fittings, it might
be that adjusting each other’s patterns would be a better
use of your time together.
There are many ways to make custom dress dummies, but
they can be divided into two classes:
You can make a mold of your body, and then fill or line
the mold with something that will solidify or firm up, and
remove the mold.
You can put on an old T shirt, have your assistant cover
you with layers of duct tape, brown-paper tape, or something
else that can make a thin, stiff shell. (The assistant
should be careful not to stick the tape to anything but the
T-shirt, especially if it’s duct tape.) When completed —
and cured if necessary — the shell is split up the back,
carefully removed, then repaired, stuffed, and mounted on a
stand. Often, such a shell is placed on a commercial dummy
that has been padded out to fit it.
Then again, you could make a life-size rag doll. I
hardly need to belabor the disadvantages — the suggestion
was put forth in a spirit of humor — but it *is* a way that
you can make a dress dummy all by yourself. (I wonder how
many pounds of kapok it would take to fill it?)
Serger (more properly, overlocking machine)
If you are a professional dressmaker, or if you have a
large family who dress exclusively in custom-fitted T-
shirts, you need a serger. Otherwise, it’s an expensive
If you can afford a serger (or if you get a good buy on
a second-hand serger in good condition), it can make sewing
more fun and, therefore, more likely to get done, so if you
enjoy using a serger, wallow in it — just don’t fool
yourself into thinking that you *need* one.
In serger-owning homes, a lot of seams get “finished”
that would be much better if pinked and left raw. An
overlocked edge is always thick, and apt to make a line on
the right side. And, once you’ve persuaded yourself that
all raw edges must be serged — even those that are enclosed
in facings — the temptation to sew seams with the serger
becomes overwhelming, since each pass with the sewing
machine requires two passes with the serger. A home serger
cuts off practically all of the seam allowance, so any
slight mistake will ruin the fabric, and alterations are
much more difficult if there is no seam allowance.
On the other hand, an overcast edge is often an
ornamental alternative to a hem, and sometimes it’s
practical — my best cycling shorts have an overlocked edge
instead of a hem, which makes them less lumpy when worn
The overlock machine comes into its own when sewing
knits, particularly stretchy jerseys, because the looping
stitches are a sort of knitting, and give with the fabric.
Knits which run easily also benefit from having their raw
edges covered the moment they are cut.
But if you don’t have some particular need for jersey,
interlock and doubleknit make better-looking, longer-wearing
clothes, and interlock and doubleknit sew just fine on a
sewing machine. You not only don’t have to “finish” seams
in doubleknit, you don’t have to turn under the edges of
You will notice that factory-made clothing is sewn
almost exclusively with overlock machines — at one time,
checking for “chain stitched” seams was the
way to identify
cheap clothing, but now, even the finest garments have
overlocked seams. You rightly conclude that overlockers
have some overwhelming advantage.
The advantage is that all the threads an overlock
machine uses can be fed directly off huge cones. When
operating a sewing machine, you have to stop work every
forty yards and change the bobbin. When you are making two
hundred copies of the seam you are stitching, that is
intolerable — not because of the few seconds used up
swapping bobbins, but because the interruption breaks your
If you get one of these, admit it, and don’t try to get
one that will also sew satisfactory seams; instead, buy a
good housewife-era sewing machine to back it up. Make sure
that your embroidery machine will allow you to stitch your
own designs, or at least let you edit the canned designs
that you buy on chips or disks. Otherwise, you’d get more
options by buying pre-made embroidery in the notions
And if you are sure you’ll enjoy using it, don’t flinch
at the price. Compare the expense per hour with going to
the movies, or taking cruises, and you’ll find it a bargain.
Postscript: many makes of sewing tools are of superb
quality, as is suitable to the precision of the work. But
sewing is perceived as “women’s work”, and it is received
wisdom among manufacturers that you adapt a product to women
by making it smaller, flimsier, cheaper in quality, and
higher in price — even the best manufacturers sometimes
succumb to the clear evidence that cutesy-poo sells. Keep a
sharp and jaundiced eye on the quality of the tools you buy,
and when the hardware store sells a similar tool, give it