Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sewing: Basic Equipment

Sewing does require an investment of both time and money. Before you start on your first sewing project, you will want to make sure you have the following items:

Obviously, you can lovingly hand-stitch every bit of clothing you make, but that will take a lot of time and honestly, I'm not even sure the Amish do that anymore (they probably use a foot-powered sewing machine, but all the same, they're not going to waste their time drop-stitching while there's barns to be built). 

The sewing machine is going to be the most expensive item you'll have to furnish. Basic models will start at a little over USD$100. You don't need a lot of bells and whistles (you don't need a serger, for example, or something with an embroidery unit), but you want it to do more than just simple repair stuff. You just want your sewing machine to be able to do the following things:
  1. Straight, Zig-Zag, Overlock, and Button Hole stitching
  2. The ability to change the presser foot to be able to do buttons and zippers. Note: Buttonholes, zipper, and overlock will require special presser feet, those are the basics you'll need for now. You should be able to purchase additional feet.
  3. Reverse stitch
  4. Change the lengths of the stitches
  5. Wind a bobbin
Most sewing machines have a little tray that attaches to the base that keeps things like bobbins, extra feet, and basic tools in. This also creates more of a surface on which to manage your fabric as you're sewing. You want this tray to be able to come off, however, because sometimes you need to be able to fit a sleeve or other tight bit around a smaller arm. 
If You Are Buying a Used Sewing Machine:
Getting a used sewing machine might be a very good way to save cash, but if you aren't careful, you might end up flushing that money right down the toilet. A sewing machine is a very finely-tuned instrument, requiring precision for things like tension and timing to be able to work right. If you can, ask the person who is selling you the machine to sew a few scraps of fabric for you while you watch--that's the easiest way to make sure that the machine will work properly.
If you can't see the seller confirm that the sewing machine works, make sure it has all of its parts: presser feet, tray (and the tray should have other feet in it, you specifically want a zipper foot and a buttonhole foot), bobbin casing, and at least one bobbin, foot pedal, and wall plug. If it doesn't have a needle, the needle might be broken off in its holster, which will be a pain to get out.
Once you buy a used machine, you should locate a store that does sewing machine repairs and bring it in for a cleaning and a tune-up, just to be sure. Nothing will frustrate you sooner as a new sewer than your most important piece of equipment not working right... believe me, I know!
Whether you buy the sewing machine new or used, make sure you know how to properly thread both the arm and the bobbin, and also how to change out the presser foot -- unfortunately, each machine will have a slightly different trick to it (although I will post tutorials as I'm able). If you buy a sewing machine new, its instruction manual should have very clear step-by-step instructions for doing both of these things. If you buy it used, see if the seller can show you these things, and if they cannot, the person you take it to for repairs and cleaning will most likely be able to sit down with you for five minutes and show you how it's done. Practice a few times in front of whoever is showing you so that they can make sure you're doing it right.

Make sure you have a few extra needles (80 Normal) and a few extra bobbins.

Once you get your sewing machine, it's a good idea to get some cheap fabric or scraps, and just sew a bunch of lines so that you get comfortable using the machine -- this way, when it's time to sew "for real," you're comfortable with how the machine works.

2) A Good Pair of Scissors (shears), and a pair of "snips"
Most of you will already have a pair of scissors, in the kitchen or in the workroom, but it's good to have a pair of scissors that are specifically set aside for sewing, because you want these things to be as sharp as they can possibly be, and utility scissors that rattle around in the junk drawer are going to fray your fabrics when you sit down to cut out your pattern. Similarly, you want a sharp pair of "snips" (tiny little scissors) to keep in the tray of your sewing machine to cut threads when you're done. Make sure you designate these are "Sewing Only" shears, with harsh punishments for people who raid your tray!

3) A Yardstick and a Tape Measure A yardstick is an important tool when you're laying out your fabric for cutting--it can be used to smooth the fabric and help find the "grain" of the fabric, and it can also be used to measure out from the selvage to position a grainline. A tape measure, on the other hand, is going to be used to get your measurements -- there's no reason, after all, to go through the effort of making your own clothing if you're not able to get them to fit right!

4) A Seam Gauge and a Seam Ripper
Seam Gauge
These two things are absolutely necessary to have on-hand when you're sewing. The seam gauge is simply a small ruler that has a slide-able marker on it, that will help you create straight seams when you're sewing. The standard seam is 5/8" (1.5cm).


Seam-rippers
A seam ripper, on the other hand, is for when you mess up, and believe me, you will mess up. A seam-ripper is basically the staple-remover of the sewing world, it is a means of cleanly and quickly undoing a sewn seam, causing minimal damage to the fabric so you can try again.

Neither of these things are terribly expensive, but they are quite essential to your sewing kit. If you can, get two seam-rippers, and keep one in your kit and the other in the tray of your sewing machine for easy access.

5) Tailor's Wax or other Fabric Marking Pencil
Tailor's Wax is actually hard to find these days, most sewing supply stores sell marking pencils, which are fine. In a pinch, you could use a crayon, but the nice thing about tailor's wax (at least the white kind), is that it comes off when you iron it and generally won't stain the fabric.  You'll need these for when you're doing your patterns, even if it's just to mark the "wrong side" of what you're working on.

6) Glass-headed pins and something to store them in

Pins are something you will become very well-acquainted with. Nearly every step of sewing involves pinning something, then removing the pins as you stitch. You might want to get yourself a thimble at first, but believe me when I say after enough sewing, you won't need one as your fingers will become tough as leather.

The cheapest pins are the flat-headed little brad pins. Don't get these, get the pins with the little plastic or preferably glass balls at the end. They're only a bit more expensive but they're a lot easier to work with. When you're sewing, you pull the pins out as you go and it's a lot easier to grip the glass-headed pins than the brads. Glass is better than plastic, as you can iron it without melting the heads.

Also, when you drop them on the floor, they're a lot easier to find because ... color!

You might want to keep a few large safety pins around your sewing kit as well, although you won't use it for day-to-day sewing, they're good to have on-hand.

Pincushions are nice, I store my pins in an old tea-tin and it works fine.

7) Iron and Ironing Board
If you're like me, you hate ironing clothes with the passion of a thousand white-hot suns. Unfortunately, there is no way to get around the fact that, as my mom put it, the Iron is Your Most Important Tool. Every seam you make will require ironing. Every hem will need to be ironed. Fusible Interfacing cannot be done on a skillet, and if you're working with wool, nothing eases a stitch into place like a blast of steam. You need an iron that offers good steam (use distilled water to avoid staining your clothes and gumming up the steam vents), and the pad on your ironing board should be fairly thick because it will need to take a lot of abuse. You don't need a fancy iron, just one that works, has at least a Linen setting, has a button to send out a blast of steam, and won't burn down your house.

Other things that you'll need....
A cleaning brush
  • Sewing Needles for hand-sewing. You won't need them for much hand sewing, but there are a few stitching techniques that simply cannot be accomplished with a sewing machine (even a fancy one), so you might as well have these around.
  • A big, flat surface to work on. You might be able to use your kitchen table for this, but you want a surface that's at least 32" wide and much longer -- you want something that will be able to accommodate 60" fabric folded in half. Fabric requires space to lay out. If your kitchen table isn't quite up to the task (or, like me, you use that as your sewing table), see about getting a folding buffet table, and then, if you want to splurge, get a sewing board to lay on top of it (it's basically a big, folded piece of cardboard with measurements printed on it). My mom uses a drafting table--a bit more money, but it's a lot easier on her back to have the surface higher than most standard-height tables.
  • A cleaning brush for your sewing machine, and oil if you can open up the arm and get to the machinery. Basic sewing machine maintenance means you need to keep your machine in good working order, and that means cleaning and oiling your machine (If you have a computerized machine, you might not be able to oil it and will need to take it in for cleaning and oiling by a professional). Sewing machines should be oiled once a year to keep them in good working order, or more if you're just sewing like crazy. Cleaning should happen at the end of every sewing project. You'll want to really brush off your strike plate area, and the bobbin casing. Any place where you can get to that has thread running through it is going to build up fluff that can gum up the works, so brush it out!
  • Music and Light. Sewing can be very frustrating at first. I'm not going to pretend that it isn't. Having some good music on can help take the edge off of that moment you realize you have to rip out a seam and start over. But as you advance, you will probably find that sewing relaxes you, and then you'll just want music because what's a good time without a little music? Finally, because sewing requires keeping careful track of tiny little stitches that will be in the same color of your fabric, you need to have good light to work under.
Things you won't need (right away) but might be nice to have...

  • A Sewing Storage Box. This is basically a box with compartments specifically made for sewing. Half the box will have dowels to hold spools of thread on, and then there will be a space for your scissors, and tailor's wax, and seam ripper, and tape measure, and all of the other little things mentioned above. But honestly, a nice lined basket or a large tupperware will hold your sewing notions just fine. 
  • Bobbin Case. Once you start getting a bunch of bobbins, they might not fit comfortably in your sewing machine's tray. A bobbin case will prevent you from winding up a third bobbin with white thread as you'll be able to see quickly what colors you already have spooled.
  • Tailor's Ham and Sleeve Roll. Honestly, I don't have these things now, and I didn't need them for a long time, but now that I'm getting better and starting to work on sleeves and more interesting stitches, I've asked for these things for Christmas. Nothing says Christmas like a Tailor's Ham!
  • Organizing bins. As you sew, you will find yourself accumulating things: broadcloth and muslin, interfacing, ribbons, elastic, etc. Buying something to organize and store these things in will prevent them all from being stuffed in a bag on your sewing room floor. Not that I'm guilty of this.
  • Sewing Machine Bench. I don't have one of these, and frankly, I don't have a place to put one of these if I did have one, but a sewing machine bench is a good investment if you have the room and the money for one. It will allow your foot area to sit flush with the rest of the table, creating a larger surface for you to sew on. I do believe it's more of a "when you have multiple sewing machines" setup as a bench might inhibit sewing sleeves and other wrapping parts. But I could be wrong.

That's about it. There will of course be other things that might be required for specific projects, but these are the "basics" for sewing. It's an investment, and I admit, I got one of my mom's hand-me-down sewing machines which took a huge edge off of building up my equipment, but the rest of the stuff shouldn't be too much if you find a good sale.

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