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The Right Tools for a Sewing Job: The Old School Way

The Right Tools for a Sewing Job: The Old School Way main article image
Posted on January 12, 2021 by Diane Earhart

As a kid, I always wanted to sew my own clothes, just like my grandmother did.  I begged my mom to show me how, but she refused.  She said she wasn’t a sewing teacher, and she wanted to leave it to a professional to teach me.

In my freshman year of high school, I could not wait to take Home Economics 1 and learn how to sew and learn about all the right tools needed for sewing.  Thank you, Mary Jo Hultgren!  I took to sewing like a duck to water.  In my junior year, I was hired at Jo-Ann Fabrics at the shopping mall, back when the franchise was all about sewing and not crafts and home goods.  I understand the need to change with the times, but I really miss the old school stores dedicated completely to all things about sewing.

There was a fancy clothing store next to Jo-Ann’s with a big store window.  The mannequins wore the latest dresses.  We at Jo-Ann’s would make the same dress and display it in our store showing how it could be made at home for about half the price!  Twice a year, all notions at Jo-Ann’s were on sale for 50 percent off.  In sewing terms, notions are accessories or tools used in the creating and sewing process.  Taking advantage of the sale plus an additional employee discount, I bought everything, including the Uniquely You brand dress form.  Using the right tools for a job makes every job better, and the right tools for sewing are no exception to this rule. 

Let’s talk about all the right tools from the notion section of the sewing store:

1. Straight pins are used to secure the pattern to the fabric during the cutting phase of your project.  They are also used to hold together the layers of fabric that you will sew.  

The pins should be perpendicular to the sewing line (also called the seam line.)  Most of the time, you will be able to sew right over them without breaking the needle or jamming the sewing machine.  Do not use ball pins or bent pins for this reason.  Either one will break the sewing machine needle.

2. Scissors should be sharp and used only for sewing.  If your kids use them for school projects and your partner uses them on the workbench, this will cause major frustrations in the sewing room.   

Consider purchasing a pair of scissors that have the handles raised and slightly angled.  The purpose is to keep the cutting blades flat against the cutting surface when cutting through the pattern and fabric.  When using straight scissors, the fabric will slightly raise and also uncomfortably bend your wrist.  It is worth the investment to buy high-quality scissors to be used strictly for sewing projects.

3. A cutting board is usually made of cardboard marked in one-inch squares.  It measures approximately 36 inches by 72 inches.  It is accordion folded for easy storage.  I have discovered the less expensive, thinner cardboard is actually more useful than a higher quality thick cutting board, because it lies flatter on the cutting surface.  

Using a cutting board will save the surface underneath–whether your cutting surface is the dining room table, your bed, or the floor.  You can stick pins directly into it and use the grid lines to keep your project perfectly straight.  It can also serve as a ruler for cutting small projects, especially without a pattern, such as cutting a nine-inch by six-inch piece of fabric for a face mask.

4. A seam gauge may seem like nothing more than a fancy ruler, but it is much more valuable!  It has a slit in the middle of the ruler with a sliding guide.  It is handy to use because it is only six inches long.  Set the guide at a precise measurement to ensure uniform seams and markings.  I was particularly thankful for this tool when placing piping into a seam

5. Tracing paper and a tracing wheel cannot be replaced merely with a ruler and pencil.  Years ago, seamstresses and tailors used dressmaker’s chalk to mark the fabric.  Chalk is still useful when making alterations, but for marking darts or other pattern designations, tracing paper is a dream.  

A tracing wheel looks like a small pizza cutter.  It is not sharp and is not used for cutting.  It is used to trace markings from the pattern, such as where darts need to be placed.  Its small size is more accurate for curves and intricate markings.  

Don’t use a pizza cutter as a substitute.  The tracing wheel has teeth on the edge leaving dots, rather than a solid line, behind on the fabric.  These marks will disappear with heat or steam from the iron or wash out with the laundry.

6. Patterns are usually made of thin tissue paper with many printed markings on them.  Tissue paper is easier to cut through and is translucent allowing you to see the fabric beneath.  If it’s a pattern you plan to use repeatedly, reinforce the most common pin-points with some Scotch tape.  

There are various diamond- or triangle-shaped notches printed on the pattern extending beyond the cutting line.  These may be single notches or combined double or triple notches.  The notches are there for a reason; don’t cut through them!  Notches help you ascertain how the fabric pieces properly line up to be sewn.  If you are matching stripes or plaids, notches help in aligning the fabric for stitching.  

The grainline is very important.  This is printed as a long, double-ended arrow.  (It is different from a curved arrow which is used to indicate placement of the pattern on a fold of the fabric.)  Carefully measure the length of one end of the grainline to the selvage of the fabric and pin it in place.  (The selvage is the border or margin that runs the length of the fabric.)   Do the same with the opposite end of the grainline arrow.  Failure to do this will result in garments that don’t hang correctly or will twist uncomfortably.  

Use the layout guide.  As you become more experienced, you may be able to improvise the position of the pattern pieces on the layout guide, especially if the pattern pieces have been altered.  

Alter the pattern before cutting; it is a lot easier than altering the finished garment.  

Create an exaggerated notch at the crown of the sleeve.  This will be easier to match to the shoulder seam.  

Make sure you notice if the pattern includes seam allowances.  Most patterns have a 5/8 inch seam allowance included, and the pattern is printed to indicate this.

7. Dressmaker’s ham and sleeve board or sleeve roll are necessary for pressing (ironing) seams flat and for fitting pieces together.  Ironing clothes may seem as outdated as Wilma Flintstone, but it’s essential in the sewing process.  

If you’ve ever tried to iron a curved seam, such as where a sleeve attaches to a shirt or tried to iron a shirt sleeve without leaving a crease, these tools are the answers to those dilemmas.  A dressmaker’s ham is very solid, yet somewhat malleable shaped, like a canned ham.  It is usually covered with a woolen fabric or heavy cotton canvas and filled with a form of sawdust.  It provides a hard surface for pressing curved seams.   

A sleeve roll is made similarly to a dressmaker’s ham but is cylindrical and has a smaller diameter.  

A sleeve board resembles a miniature ironing board, no bigger than the size of an adult sleeve.  The sleeve can be slid over the sleeve board or roll, and its entire surface can be ironed without leaving a crease.

8. A tape measure is a pliable measuring device, usually 48 inches long.  It is more flexible than a ruler or even a carpenter’s tape measure.  

Plastic or plastic-coated tape measures are slightly more expensive but are more durable and accurate.  

Cloth tape measures can stretch slightly during use and become frayed over time.  

A tape measure is necessary for laying out the pattern accurately along the grain of the fabric, and you will find many uses.

9. Thread is very basic, with cotton-covered polyester being the most commonly available.  Cotton provides all the benefits of natural fiber and won’t melt under the heat of the iron, while the polyester core provides strength.  

Usually, in the same section of the store as a sewing thread, you will find heavy, thick upholstery thread.  This thread has a purpose, and it should not be used in a normal sewing machine.  

To find the perfect color match, loosen a single thread from the spool and lay it across the fabric.  The thread should be one shade darker than the fabric.  When it’s sewn, it will blend perfectly!

Additional tips for a sewing job

The 2020 pandemic left many people full of tension.  However, tension on a sewing machine is good.  And necessary.  As the stitch locks itself (in a magical process I don’t understand) a tiny stitch of the bobbin thread will be visible in the top stitch line, and a tiny stitch of the main thread will be visible in the bobbin (usually on the backside of the garment) line.  

If a different color thread is in the bobbin, you will be able to see these stitches easily.  If either line of stitching is loose and loopy or straight without any indentations in the fabric, the tension probably needs adjusting.  Adjust the tension by turning the knob, which is typically on the left side of the sewing machine as you are facing it.  The tension is usually preset by the manufacturer and will require little if any, adjustment by you.  If you do need to adjust the tension, make very (VERY) small adjustments.  (Read that sentence again!)  You’re adjusting the tension, not trying to tune a radio.

Using the right tools for the job is key.  It will make your job easier and at the same time help yield professional results.   For the best results, don’t cut corners on notions, both figuratively and literally.

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Thank you for this article, it was very helpful!

Creative Fabrica
Roemie Hillenaar from Creative Fabrica

January 14, 2021

Creative Fabrica

I agree!

Creative Fabrica
Roemie Hillenaar from Creative Fabrica

January 14, 2021

Creative Fabrica

This article is indeed great!

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