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No Ruler, No Problem

Ready, set, mark. This old Erector Set bar made it easy to adjust a sewing pattern.

When I really, really want to start a sewing project, I will, to paraphrase Tim Gunn, find a way to make it work. I’ll even turn vintage toys into sewing tools, as I discovered last week.

It was “Project Runway” premiere night, and I wanted to cut out a pattern while I watched. But I just started working as assistant editor here at Threads magazine, and I’m in the process of moving from upstate New York to Connecticut. I came here with just a carload of things, because I get to stay in the Taunton Press’ guest house until I find a new place. My commute is less than 100 yards!

It’s fantastic to be surrounded by sewing enthusiasts, to see and study beautiful garments every day and have notions, books and sewing machines at the ready. It is NOT easy to be surrounded by these things when you don’t have own trusty sewing tools with you!

So last Thursday evening I was ready to work on adjusting a size 4 three-layered skirt pattern to my own (sigh, larger) size. I realized I didn’t have a ruler.

I was disappointed, but then I thought, maybe there is a ruler someplace here in the guest house? I looked through some drawers, but no luck. Until … I came across parts to an old Erector Set.  

If you never had an Erector Set, I have to say I’m a little sorry for you. I remember playing with one. It was right up there with Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs and Legos in the pantheon of creative toys. The sets had real nuts and bolts and metal bars like girders. You could build vehicles, buildings and all kinds of mechanical stuff. The parts were metal and indestructible, although the nuts, bolts and tiny wrench always disappeared.

I saw the toy parts and thought I could at least use a piece as a straightedge. Then I realized the potential of this old toy. When I placed it on the pattern paper, every other hole lined up with a symbol. The symbols, of course, are at 1-inch intervals.

Each hole in the Erector Set bar was exactly 1/2 inch apart! It ended up being a better tool for adjusting the size of my pattern than I could have hoped for – actually easier to use than a real ruler would have been.

I needed to add a total of 4 inches to the waist circumference of my skirt pattern.  

I was able to trace the original front and back patterns (from a fold-out section in a book), then use the metal bar to deftly mark dots an inch outside the original side dimensions of the skirt. I connected the dots, and ta-da! A pattern that will make a skirt that fits me.

Good old Erector Sets. I checked and they still are produced, and have been since 1913 (that is NOT when I had mine). Now they come with power tools and motors, so kids can make bulldozers, helicopters, dragsters and more.

Personally, I think that Erector Sets will always be cool, even without batteries.

Find out more about non-traditional measuring tools in “Measuring with What’s at Hand“.


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  1. miracle worker | | #1

    When I have to measure something really wide and I want exactness, I use a laser level. My brother gave me a laser level for my DIY projects and it works great on extra wide fabric on the floor also.

  2. trulyblonde | | #2

    I had a similar problem. I wanted to buy a rack of some sort to hang in the limited space by my kitchen/garage door, but didn't have anything to measure with - until I noticed that the Hardware store where I was shopping had displays with pegboard. And pegboard has holes on 1 inch centers. Ta-da! my problem was solved!

  3. jlg412 | | #3

    If I am caught without my windup measuring tape and need to measure something, I use a dollar bill. They are 6 inches long.

  4. the_Southerner | | #4

    My handspan is 8 1/2 inches. Actually, I use this measure quite a lot.

  5. SEWNYA | | #5

    My mother was a very creative seamstress and used whatever was available to achieve the work she was trying to do. I never knew that there was such a thing as a seam gauge until I was grown. When she wanted to measure a hem or something similar, she would use a piece of thin cardboard (usually the board bias tape, etc. came on) and notch it down in an "L" shape to use as her "seam gauge". It always worked and her results were professional!

  6. trubleu | | #6

    Ordinary copy paper is 8-1/2 x 11, which has saved me lots of times. Happy to know about the 6" dollar, too.

  7. bedmaker04 | | #7

    I remember that my great-grandmother showing me as a little girl how she made patterns out of newspapers.She would measure who she was making the outfit for.Draw the pattern she wanted.With darts,seams,hem lines.You name it she had it on the pattern .And they always looked like she bought the outfit from the store.She always made them with the person in mind.

  8. ichefdiane | | #8

    From my mother I learned the same technique as SEWNYA learned, making a hem gauge. I also learned to cut a pattern without pinning it. My mom would spread her fabric on the dining room table, spread the pattern and weight it with canned goods from the kitchen. Then cut.

  9. User avater
    dlipsky | | #9

    My father taught me this one...If you are in a store and want to know the size of something look down- the floor tiles are usually 12"

  10. User avater
    CFields | | #10

    I learned from my grandmother to measure yards of fabric by stretching the selvedge edge from my fingertips to my nose - that is one yard. She used it as an estimate but I measured and I actually measure exactly 36" from pinched finger and thumb to my nose.

  11. lauraflo | | #11

    I have used the patten instruction sheet as a measure. If I have to reconstruct a measure in a different place, I just hold the sheet there, mark or make a crease, and then move it to where I need to put the same measurement.
    I have also used parts of my hand, my fingers, from my finger tips to my elbow,etc. to make a measurement of something and then (remembering it) to reconstruct that measurement later.
    The floor tiles in a store are great. I work in a fabric store, and mention to customers if they need to estimate something.
    I also have used various sewing tools - scissors, clippers, pen,etc., whatever is available - and use a point up to the screw, or the length of the blade, etc.
    A piece of typing paper - 8 1/2 x 11" helps also.

    Someone told me that Everyone measures 1 yard from nose to thumb and finger tip of outstretched arm, but this is NOT TRUE. Mine is 32", tho if I measure to my outstretched middle finger it is 35". We, as sewers, know that many people have long or short arms, legs, torsos, necks, fingers, etc. So how could EVERYONE have the same length arms? A 6'2" man AND a 5'woman? I doubt it. However, as an AVERAGE it is close, but not accurate. Better measure your own before you use it as a yard stick.

  12. proud_grandmother | | #12

    Most of the "measuring" comments I've read here really brought back some fond memories and a smile to my face. My mother raised us 4 kids as a single parent by sewing for the public from our home. I remember the cans to raise her cutting table, the bias tape card for measuring hems, and cutting out a pattern with anything from her extra scissors to a clean rock to hold it down. One year for Mother's day when both of my daughters were toddlers, I made replicas of their little hands from dough and even painted them with red fingernails and wrote her a poem about her "helping hands". Thanks to you fellow-sewers for letting me share these special memories. Mom left us in January 2001 and is now making robes for the angels.

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