Guide to the basic sewing tools & equipment needed for dressmaking
There are so many sewing tools & gadgets on the market, it’s hard to know when you’re starting out what you actually need. There are essential items that every sewer should have and then there are desirable items that you may like to buy once you are sure that sewing is for you!
Below are photos of my sewing tools & equipment and include the following:
Cutting Tools – a decent pair of dressmaking shears is essential, they should have long blades with handles that bend up so as not to lift the fabric when cutting. I cannot stress enough that they should only be used for fabric, do not be tempted to use them for cutting paper. My children know under no circumstances are they allowed to use my fabric scissors for cutting wrapping paper. Buy the best that you can afford – they will last if you look after them. A small pair of scissors are handy for snipping threads – embroidery scissors is the name for the small ones. Although not pictured, a regular pair of scissors for cutting paper patterns will be required.
Measuring Tools – a tape measure, usually made from a plastic coated soft cloth with measurements on both sides in cm and inches, a ruler and not pictured a Metre Rule. This is a wooden ruler measuring 100cm and is perfect when you are needing to measure beyond that of a regular ruler. A sewing (seam) guage looks like a small ruler but has a plastic slider that allows you to measure accurately for hems and a pointed end useful for turning corners out.
Marking Tools – there are different methods for marking your fabric and my preference is the FriXion ball pen – it’s markings are removed by ironing. I purchased mine in a Supermarket and I’m sure most stationers will sell them. The only downside is it’s black ink so if I’m working on dark fabrics I’ll use a chalk pencil. I also have an air eraseable pen which is fine for marking when you are going to sew immediately – otherwise markings have a tendency to disappear!
Other items you will need are:
- Seam Ripper – this is necessary for fast unpicking of stitches and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been sewing, it will be your best friend!
- Pins – there are lots of different kinds of pins available, household, dressmakers, bridal, glass or quilters, a box of dressmaking pins will be fine to start. I have to confess I hate pinning – I always have a tendency to put them either in the wrong way so when I am sewing the pin head is facing away from me, or on the wrong side of the fabric so the pin is underneath when sewing! I have got around this by buying Quilting Clips, I love these, you just clip the seams together and remove easily as you sew – no worrying about which way they need to go!
- Needles – like pins there are so many different types of needles depending on the job in hand. A pack of Sharps, all-purpose needles, will be fine to start for hand sewing. Sewing machine needles come in different sizes to match the fabric weight and thread thickness. The European system in use for needles for household sewing is 130/705 H. Look for this number when you buy machine needles. For regular sewing on medium fabrics use 80/12, the heavier the fabric the higher the number ie. 100/16 for denim and the lighter the fabric the lower the needle number ie. 60/8 for voile. (The second number refers to the US system just to complicate things further). There are also within these sizes, different needles for stretch fabrics referred to as ballpoint, jersey or stretch needles.
- Threads – when it comes to threads, you get what you pay for. My mum once gave me a lovely box of threads in all colours of the rainbow with matching threaded bobbins, I think they cost around £5, and they had a tendency to snap and fray, so I’ve learnt my lesson there. When you consider the amount of time, effort and money (fabric is not cheap) you invest when you make your own clothes, spending a few pounds on one spool of thread is a very small amount to pay when you consider the frustration you’ll experience using cheap threads! I tend to use Gutermann threads and use the same thread for top & bobbin threads.
- Steam Iron & Ironing Board – I have an ironing board permanately set up although I hate ironing, I tumble dry everything in the hope that I can get away with not using it and, apart from special occassions, no-one in the household gets their clothes ironed! However when it comes to sewing, I use it all the time. It’s not called ironing though in the sewing world, it’s pressing. This is more holding the iron on the fabric for a few seconds before moving it to another area – we don’t move the iron around in quick motions like ironing. All seams should be pressed, this helps to set the stitch and flatten the seams, using steam will also help even out stitches and mould to shape if necessary.
- Tailor’s Ham & Seam Roll – this isn’t pictured because I don’t have them and improvise by using a small hand towel rolled up with a muslin cloth over. They are used to press areas where shaping is required such as darts. (Update – after deciding I would like to have a tailor’s ham, I went to purchase one but have ended up making my own, see my blog post with full tutorial and pattern free tailors ham PDF template).
- Dressmaking paper – any lightweight paper can be used, I bought lots of christmas wrapping paper in the sales, the one’s with the square gridlines on the reverse are useful as they have straight lines already marked. Tracing paper, baking parchment – you can improvise! You’ll need this to draft your own patterns or copy patterns when there are lots marked on one sheet of paper. When you buy an individual pattern this won’t be the case but patterns that come with books, The Great British Sewing Bee series for example, there are lots of patterns overlapping each other on both sides of paper. If you cut one out then you will lose the pattern on the reverse so it’s always best to duplicate in this situation.
Once you’ve decided dressmaking is for you, there are some other tools that you may find useful:
- Rotary Cutter & Self Healing Mat – a Rotary cutter is traditionally used by quilters, but I find it speeds up the process of cutting out fabric when using a pattern. The large silver circles are heavyweight washers and I use these for holding the paper pattern in place on the fabric as I’m cutting out. I keep meaning to ‘decorate’ them so they look pretty and have seen lots of photos of them resembling Party Ring biscuits – too cute!
- Tracing Wheel & Carbon – this can be used for transferring markings from the pattern onto your fabric and you simply place the carbon on each layer of fabric and run the wheel over the markings on the pattern and marks will be transferred to fabric.
- Dressmakers Curve – this is great for when you are working with patterns and perhaps need to blend between pattern sizes, the curved edge can help with this.
- Pinking Shears – these help reduce the fraying of fabric and are a quick way of finishing seams. Personally I don’t use them much in dressmaking since I have an Overlocker (a machine that finishes seams for you – look at the seams of the clothes you are wearing – these will have been finished with an Overlocker) but when you start dressmaking this simple method may be suitable for simple items.
There are lots of other tools available, but this list will be enough for you to get started, I’m continously adding to mine…it’s a bit like fabric – you can never have too much!