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Conversational Threads

Must-have tools for beginners?

Lyngers | Posted in Equipment and Supplies on

Hello–I am new to everything sewing.
I was wondering if anyone can point me in the right direction for “must-have tools” (besides a sewing machine…I acquired a Singer 50-stitch). What are good scissors? I’ve heard polyester is good thread. Is there a list somewhere of tools for beginners?
(I plan to make some basics: pillow cases, aprons, placemats, skirts, dresses, slipcover or something for the couch).
Thanks in advance


  1. ShannonG4d | | #1

    Here is a basic list:

    Rotary cutter, mat and ruler (get one at least 18 inches long)

    Thread snips

    Chalk wheel for marking (I like the Clover brand)

    A tape measure

    Good straight pins.  I like the German ones that come in a tin box.

    A magnetic pincushion.  I just bought one of these this year, and don't know how I managed without it.

    Good handsewing needles....John James is a good brand.  Go to the local quilt shop to find handsewing needles.

    As for thread, it depends on the project whether I used cotton, cotton/poly, or poly.  In general, it is best to buy the best thread you can afford.  Don't buy cheap (as in 10 spools for a dollar) because you'll get what you pay for!  And don't use serger thread for construction.  It isn't intended for strength.

    That's basics; I know there are other things you will want to collect eventually, but this should get you through most projects.


  2. kai230 | | #2

    You will probably need more than one thimble until you find the perfect one, then you may need others for other fingers, depending.

    I could always use more bobbins, and I heartily second no to cheap thread. It breaks.

    One thing I used frequently was a seam ripper, but I don't know the proper term.

    I once bought a cutting board (again, probably the wrong term), abt 4'x4' heavy cardboard marked in inches, but it folded in 1/4s or 1/3s and didn't lay flat. So, I don't think that's a necessity at this point.

    BTW, something I heard from that Haley guy of Haley's hints is to lick the eye of the needle, not the thread, to ease in hand-threading. Hard to imagine this working if the thread is frayed, but, I suppose it's worth a try. Hmmm, does Threads take tips?

    1. Tish | | #3

      You need an iron.  Sewing really needs to be ironed throughout the process for a good look.  When I was first lerning to sew, I used a "ham" for ironing all of the curved seams. 

      If you do not have a cutting mat, or do not want a cutting mat, get a brand new pair of high-quality scissors, or have your best old pair sharpened, and then never ever use them for anything but fabric again.  Not even for cutting pattern paper.

      Kai, sorry, I got mixed up about who I was replying to.  You sent the last answer.  I think "seam ripper" is the correct name.  I used those a lot too! ;)

      1. kai230 | | #5

        Not to worry, Tish, this format is so hard to reply to someone and still see other people's stuff, too.

        A ham is wonderful! And yes, ironing at every step. I also have a miniature ironing board (abt 6" at max width, 24" long, and tapering to 2-3" at the pointy end) which is useful for tiny seams and whatnot.

        You are also correct abt those scissors--"never ever use them for anything but fabric again.  Not even for cutting pattern paper". Therefore, that's now adding up to at least 2-3 scissors Jen needs--one fabric, one patterns, one, uh, sorry, I forgot the name of those tiny little scissors mentioned, which are important in helping to keep me from chopping into fabric unintentially because I'm too lazy to switch scissor size.

        Seam ripper. OK, at least I have the right term! I think the reason I used this so much was because I was impatient and hated the fitting sessions (trying to fit myself was hit and miss). I admit to being spoiled by Grandma who made most of my clothes while growing up--all I had to do was stand up, turn around, and hold still!

    2. carolfresia | | #12

      Kai, we do take tips, although that one has already been printed! If the thread is frayed, lick it too, then moisten the eye of the needle. It really works! I'm already getting that middle-aged can't-quite-see thing happening, but this makes threading a needle quite a bit easier.


      1. kai230 | | #16

        Thanks, Carol! I know that "where the heck do I place the needle and thread so I can see what I'm doing" thing. You know what I'd love? If this forum had a link to all the tips. TIA 

  3. Tish | | #4

    Jen, I re-read your question and see you asked about good scissors.  My best are a pair of Japanese-made scissors that I inherited from my mom.  She bought them when someone was going out of business. I don't know the name!  I've got a wonderful pair of Wusthoff shears that I use only for fabric work.  The inexpensive Fiskars that are always on sale are OK for the first project or two, but they lose their edge and then they go into the kids' craft dresser.  They are not worth it unless you know (or want to learn) how to sharpen your own scissors.  They are a little too light for me too.

    Good scissors should cut woolens and silk sheers with equal ease.  The blades should *snick* against one another smoothly.  They should have some weight to them, but they should not fatigue your hands either by their weight or by the force you apply to them.  When you go shopping for scissors, take a small bag of fabric scraps with you, in varying fibers and weights, and don't buy anything you haven't tried.  Good scissors are serious tools and a joy to use.

  4. Crafty_Manx | | #6

    I absolutely swear by Gingher scissors.  They're a little pricey but they cut like a dream.  I prefer "regular" blades for most fabrics and "micro-serrated" blades for slippery fabrics.

    Hope this helps!


  5. SisterT | | #7

    I don't know how much room you have for sewing.  Office supply stores sell those collapsable boxes with lids--I would start out with those as ways to contain the chaos until you have been sewing for a while and know how you want to get stuff organized.

    Have fun!

    Sr. Tracey

    1. rjf | | #8

      "contain the chaos....."  Now there's a motto to live by!  Most of the time, I'm trying to control the chaos but your phrase makes me see that's "controlling" and "chaos" are contradictory and containment is the most I can hope for.  That makes me feel a lot better!!    Thanks         rjf

  6. JanetM | | #9

    Marking tools are big on my list. I prefer a blue marking pen that washes out with plain water. Don't touch it with an iron though - that mark will last almost forever! You might like a disappearing ink pen. Watch out with the iron on that one too. Trouble with the disappearing ink is if it's humid, the ink might disappear long before you're ready for it to. Keep both of these capped because they dry out quickly. Tailor's chalk is another easy marking tool I use alot. If you want to mark your cutting lines, seam lines, darts, etc., you might consider dressmakers carbon and a tracing wheel. A pair of long-handled tweezers generally used to thread sergers, is also a handy thing to have for all sorts of jobs around a sewing machine, like when a piece of thread is hung up in the bobbin area and your fingers can't reach it. A hem gauge is absolutely indispensable. Another handy gadget is a Dritz EZ Hem Gauge. It's marked in increments and lets you press up a hem without marking. Just watch your fingers - it's aluminum and gets really hot really fast when you set an iron on it. Another must-have is a small pair of thread nips kept at the sewing machine. These tools, along with those already mentioned, will get you started. It would also benefit you to look around for a really good sewing reference book. Other than that, good luck and have fun!       Janetpinkpanther

    1. sueb | | #10

      Here's a couple of things I find helpful to have in my sewing room:  I keep a small pair of scissors right next to my sewing machine to clip threads so I don't have to keep getting up to find my big scissors.  Good scissors are a must.

      I have two pin cushions, one where I cut my fabric and one next to my machine, again saving me time from getting up to find a pin cushion when I'm sewing and removing pins from a pattern piece. A supply of zip lock bags in small and large to hold patterns, ribbons, trims and a bunch of other things that always need a place to be stored.

      I invested in a good steam iron last year.  It was a hefty investment but one of the best I think I've made as far as equipment goes.  Have plenty of extra sewing machine needles and bobbins on hand ( I never have enough it seems).   Keep a pad of paper and a pen handy to write down things you need to replenish of wish for as your working so you'll always have a list ready when you head off to the fabric store.  I have a bulletin board hanging in my sewing room to tack things like notes and such on it.

      happy sewing !



    2. GhillieC | | #11

      "A hem gauge is absolutely indispensable."

      Try to find one of those squarish plastic gauges which will allow you to measure anything from a quarter of an inch to around two inches, so you can check seam widths as well as hems. They are exceedingly cheap and invaluable.

      Did anyone say tape measure?



      1. carolfresia | | #13

        A seam gauge is something I use a lot--the little ruler thingy with a sliding arrow in it. And I second Shannon's suggestion of the magnetic pin cushion. I thought that was a gimmick for the longest time, then used one at an author's house and was an instant convert. You can do some interesting things with them, too: here at the office, someone dropped ours, and put it back together but mistakenly inserted the magnetic section upside down. Instead of atrracting the pins, it sent them flying in all directions.

        I like my sleeve board and ham for pressing, as well as my clapper. Another notion I find myself turning to more and more often is fusible tape (there are several varieties on the market--different weights and widths). I use 1/4-inch Steam-a-Seam mostly because I like the narrow width. This stuff holds hems and edges in place perfectly for topstitching, so even a beginner can stitch evenly.

        One very low-tech item I use a lot is my cardboard cutting mat. THis is a large, foldable sheet of cardboard, marked with a grid on one side (I bought mine at Joann's), and I use it because I don't have a real cutting table. I spread it on the floor and cut there--not that I recommend this, because as the years go by it gets more and more uncomfortable to do it!--but the mat is great on a table top as well. You can pin into it to secure patterns for tracing, use the grid to align the fabric grain, etc. etc. It's not a rotary cutting mat though, so don't try to rotary cut on it or you'll ruin the mat, the cutter, and the table (or floor) underneath.


        1. ShannonG4d | | #14

          I can't believe I forgot fusible tape!  I love that stuff.

          If you cannot find the hem template, make your own.  In fact, I like my homemade ones much better.  I use heatproof mylar, like the stuff quilters use for templates.  One sheet will make several templates.  Plus, it doesn't get hot when you use it (like the metal ones).  I have sets in 1/4 inch increments with a hole punched at one end, then strung on a metal ring.  They are some of my most used tools.

          One more quick thing; Post it notes are wonderful tools.  You can use them to check your seam width accuracy, mark the right side of fabric, lots of things. 


          1. SisterT | | #15

            Oh, Shannon, you reminded me of something I use all the time--regular scotch tape!  And did anyone mention those see-through rulers?  When I am sewing larger items, or marking hems, I put a piece of scotch tape on the sewing machine to mark the seam allowance and make a nice dark line with permanent marker.  I also use it on the see-through ruler when marking seams....

            Maybe some of the new machines have better seam allowance markers.  I have a 1963 (I think) Elna.  Love it.  Someone "dumped" it on me when she upgraded...I think I got the better end of the deal!

            And--if you want to get the "sticky" from the tape cleaned up, use WD-40.


          2. rav2b | | #18

            I love masking tape for seam guides on the machine--much easier to pull off than the clear tapes, and no residue.

          3. ShannonG4d | | #19

            That's why I like Post it notes...no residue.  And the edge is perfectly straight.

            BTW, did you know you can use your sliding metal seam gauge to draw circles?  That's what the little hole in the end was made for.  You stick a pin in the hole with the gauge set to your desired radius, then use the pointed metal part to "scratch" the circle.


          4. ryansmum | | #20

            I use labels to identify what is what - sometimes just on the wrong side of fabric if it's not obvious.

            Instead of a seam ripper I use a razor blade which makes the ripping out process much easier, this is a technique used by professional tailors.

            I use a wooden skewer as I'm sewing occasionally for easing.

            Sulky kk2000 temporary adhesive for placing pockets and zippers. It's a must.

            A new tape measure, not a tired old streched out one that is inaccurate. Compare to a ruler.

            An other vitally important thing to have are accurate body measurements!  Not quite a tool.

            A fitting book. It's important to have a good idea of to adjust patterns to fit. Everything depends on this. I once read 25 percent of your time should go towards fitting.  Know that it could take several attempts at one pattern before getting the pattern to fit perfectly.

            Edited 8/20/2003 10:41:28 PM ET by Aria

          5. kai230 | | #21

            Instead of a seam ripper I use a razor blade which makes the ripping out process much easier, this is a technique used by professional tailors.

            Keyword: professional. I wouldn't recommend a blade for a beginner--too easy to cut the fabric (speaking from having done it many times). The key to easy ripping seems to be having both sides of the seam taut so the seam line is obvious, not always a simple task. I have used my limbs in all sorts of contortions to try to achieve this. A clamping device would be helpful.

            If I were a more patient person and would baste at every step, I wouldn't need to rip so much.

          6. ryansmum | | #22

            Yes, this is true that you could easily rip your fabric as I have when I first started learning to sew but you quickly become proficient at it. I was about 13 when I figured out how to do this adeptly. However this technique is not for the faint of heart. You need to be a bit brazen.  I should add that you could clamp down one side of the fabric under your sewing foot and this aids beautifully.  A third hand clamp is always set up for me. When I was in design school, it was a running joke that I was  the person who ripped apart the most seams  so I'm really good at it!

            Hopefully no one else will ever have to rip apart as much as I've had to.  This is where labeling the wrong side of your fabric ,if it's not obvious, is very handy. You will have less mistakes.

            For beginners I would also highly suggest loose fitting patterns where fitting isn't terribly important.  When skills are developed then venture into the more fitted patterns.

            Jen,  I highly recommend these two books for a beginner...

            A Guide to Fashion Sewing by Connie Crawford.

            The Busy Women's Fitting Book by Nancy Zieman

            The first one is so clearly written with wonderful diagrams. It was one of our textbooks.  The fitting book is not  the textbook we used but it is a very basic and easy guide.

            I found that practicing with scrap fabric is worth the time invested. I was determined to make the perfect welt pockets , buttonholes and zippers. I spent hours and hours developing my skills and I believe it's the reason I've won several awards for my designs.  Once you figure out a technique that is successful write it down step by step so you can refer to it. I have also kept my good samples to look over in the future.

            Enjoy the process as well as the finished product!  Good luck and have fun with it!

            Edited 8/21/2003 2:12:51 AM ET by Aria

          7. kai230 | | #23

            A third hand clamp is always set up for me.

            This is the type of device that would make seam ripping using blades easy. My prob was hurrying too much, and trying to maintain the level of tautness.

            Any chance you can describe or post a pic of the clamp? TIA

          8. jscraphappy | | #24

            Instead of pinning the pattern to the fabric I use empty photo canisters filled with fine sand they make greatweights lay them all around the piece I am going to cut out.For marking notches I use those holey paper strips(cannot remeber the right name of them.stationery rings. An investment did anyone mention a "dummy"

          9. ryansmum | | #25

            Hi Kai, (what a pretty name!)

            Third hand is screwed onto a surface and then it had a little clamp that you attach the fabric to .  The only reason I can remember using it is to rip out seams. (It's 10x's quicker ) Yes, you are right, the trick to this is to hold the fabric very taunt and keep readjusting it. I really only remember nicking my fabric once or twice and I just had to move my seamline over a little bit.   I have adopted Sandra Betzina's attitude and not demanded perfection. There really is some wiggle room for errors in most garments, this isn't an endorsement for sloppiness but just humaness! (Topstitching however is the exception!)

            The third hand was under $10.00. 


            Edited 8/21/2003 5:46:32 PM ET by Aria

          10. kai230 | | #26

            Thanks for the explanation. I like your name better!

  7. 2new2sew | | #17

    My mother swears by Ghingers. But you must test them for yourself so they are comfortable in your hand. They make different sizes and types and cost a little more. One could be heavy and another could fell just right.

  8. SewTruTerry | | #27

    Something else that I would not do without in the sewing room is good light.  You can't mark something if you can't see it.  Also I always have at least one of those masking tape type lint rollers in my sewing room as it is really sticky and is great after having to rip out seams for picking up all of the loose threads.  Something else
    I will never be without in my sewing room is patients with myself but also a sense of humor for when things don't go as smoothly as they should.

    And yes licking the eye of the needle really does work as does having a small tube of Chapstick type lip balm that in effect will matt down any frayed ends of thread to get it through the eye of the needle.  I also have a supply of greaseless hand lotion because my hands tend to dry out when working with some fabrics and then start to snag on the fabric.  And another product to use to get the stickies off of the machine from the tape is rubbing alcohol or waterless bacteria fighting hand cleaner as it has enough alcohol in it to cut the sticky without having an oily film left behind to possibly stain your beautiful creations.

    Any other hints out there for those of us that can't get enough of them?

    1. bellefille | | #28

      I keep a can of spray air, like the kind used to clean computer keyboards, in my sewing room, and at the end of every sewing session I spray the needle/bobbin area.  This is especially helpful when I sew fleece with my serger, as it get very linty in there!

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