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This is part two of the Best Sewing Tools post in the Cucicucicoo Recommends series. To read why I created this series and all about measuring, marking, cutting and pinning tools, please read the first part here.
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Now that we’ve gotten all our preparatory work done, it’s finally time to sew! Which means you need some sort of needle and thread.
Sewing machine needles. Let’s look up close at a machine needle. The widest part at the top is called the shank. That’s the part that gets inserted into the sewing machine. The back side of the shank is flat and usually the brand and needle size is etched into the flat side. Some brands color code their needles by size and type. For example, size 90/14 Singer brand needles for wovens as seen above have a red shank with a blue strip at the bottom. These colors vary from brand to brand. The shaft is the long center part of the needle. When sewing, the thread gets pushed into the groove in the front of the shaft. The indentation at the bottom back of the shaft is called the scarf and is necessary for the needle to pick up the bobbin thread from beneath the fabric. The hole near the tip is called the eye and this is where the thread is inserted. This animation shows well how the two threads (from the needle and the bobbin) create stitches. (This other animation is also fascinating!)
The standard sizes run from 60/08 to 120/19. The first number is the European size while the second number is the one used in the United States, although you’ll often find them written together. The lower the number, the more narrow is the needle. For general sewing with medium-weight fabric you’ll want to use a 90/14. 60/08 or 70/09 are good for very lightweight fabrics, such as the chiffon, and don’t make big holes in the fabric. When sewing a heavy-weight fabric, a 100/16 or 110/18 will be wide and strong enough to push through the fabric.
I usually use Schmetz brand needles, though you can see above that I also sometimes use Singer brand. If you’re just starting out, I suggest getting an assorted package of universal needles with various sizes. It’s always good to have extreme sizes on hand, too, such as 8/60 needles for very lightweight fabric and 19/120 needles for very heavyweight fabric.
When choosing a needle, you also have to consider the type of fabric, not only the weight. The most common needles are ones for wovens (as seen on the left above, often called “universal”) and ballpoints for knits (on the right above). The tip of a needle for wovens is nice and sharp so it can pierce the fabric easily. As I already mentioned above about pins, piercing knit fabric will damage it. Ballpoint needles or stretch needles in the correct size are less sharp so the tips slip between the fabric fibers instead of piercing them. This lets the fabric retain its stretchiness and avoids breakage of the more delicate fibers.
Once you start getting more experience, you can take advantage of a huge variety of machine needles. For example, the jeans needle is super sharp and can easily pierce this heavy fabric. Double eye needles have two holes, one on top of the other, so you can thread it with two different colors of thread at the same time, making multicolored stitches.
The specialty needle I use the most are twin needles (aka double needles), which are great for hemming and other things. There are universal twin needles for woven fabric, but I usually use stretch twin needles for jersey and other elastic fabrics, because this needle creates a slightly stretchy stitch. There are different widths available (the space between the two needles), and the choice depends completely on your own personal preference. (I generally choose the wider ones.)
Every type of needle has its specific use, so it’s important to keep them separate. Like I mentioned before, I have a pincushion that I marked up into sections to keep my slightly used needles in order.
Hand needles. Even if you sew everything by machine, there are cases in which you can’t do without a bit of hand sewing, such as when you need to close up openings with the ladder stitch. I suggest getting a package of assorted hand needle sizes, that way you’ll always be ready with thinner needles for lightweight fabric and thicker needles for heavier fabric and different eye sizes to accommodate various thread thicknesses. I absolutely love large eye hand needles for weaving in serger or other threads or sewing or embroidering with ribbon, yarn or other thicker threads.
Thread. How many colors and types of thread there are! Bring your fabric into the shop so you can choose thread that matches it perfectly. The best way to tell is to pull the end of the thread loose and pull it across the fabric. This will give you a much better idea of what it will look like as a single strand against your fabric as opposed to the whole spool. Or another option is to purposely choose a contrasting color thread to add an extra visual element. Take a look at the seams of your jeans. The orange-brown color looks nice against the blue denim, doesn’t it?
As with fabric and needles, there are different types and materials of thread, some of which you can see in the photo above. At the top (light blue) is a very thin thread used for embroidery. It is not resistent enough to use for sewing seams. Moving counter clockwise we then have an all purpose (lavender) medium weight cotton thread. This is great for general sewing with cotton wovens. Polyester thread (olive green) is probably the most versatile thread and is much more resistant than cotton thread. This is why it’s also a good choice for stretchy fabrics because it’s less likely to break. Heavy duty thread (black) is used for very heavy weight fabrics or, as I use it, for sewing buttons onto coats. Elastic thread (white) is used for special techniques, such as shirring.
I personally love Gutermann Sew All polyester thread and try to use it as much as possible. I get 1000 meter spools of white and black, then smaller spools of other colors. Otherwise, I usually use Coats Cucirini Tre Cerchi Rosso, which is what you can generally find the easiest in Italy. But remember that there are lots of other brands of high quality thread, such as Aurifil, Sulky and Coats & Clark, so try different ones out and decide which ones you prefer.
One thing to remember is that thread quality varies greatly. A cheap thread, such as the ones you get in those free sewing kits or the dollar store variety, will break right away. If you don’t believe me, look at this article showing different types of thread as seen under a microscope. You might be tempted to use vintage thread forgotten in some older relative’s sewing box, but trust me, thread gets old and brittle. Just fork out a couple of dollars to get the good stuff and I promise you will have far fewer hassles, swear an awful lot less, and enjoy sewing a whole lot more. Value your work and treat it the way it deserves.
Bobbins. Your sewing machine probably came with a few bobbins, but you might want to buy some extras so that you can keep a bunch of different colors on hand that match your spools of thread.
Unlike some other sewing notions, there’s no such thing as a universal bobbin. Make sure to get the correct style and size bobbin for your specific model of sewing machine. They differ even between models of the same brand, so be careful when choosing. My old Singer had the classic size plastic drop-in bobbin, but my current Elna Lotus takes the wider size plastic bobbin, so when I traded in my old machine, I had to buy all new bobbins. Another machine I had in the past used metal bobbins instead of plastic.
Sewing machine salespeople insist that the name brand plastic bobbins are not actually plastic, but a higher quality something or other. But to be quite honest, I haven’t noticed any difference in performance between the expensive name brand bobbins and the cheaper plastic ones. I’ve bought these inexpensive clear bobbins more than once and have never had a problem with them. They are the wider bobbins that work with the Elna Lotus and many other brands and models. If you are in doubt about the right type of bobbin to buy, bring one that came with your machine to your local sewing supply store and ask for help choosing.
I never wind up bobbins all the way to the edge because at times the pressure of the thread can snap them, but it’s not a good idea anyway because they sometimes don’t rotate well inside the bobbin case when fully wound.
Sewing machine feet. Most new sewing machines already come with a few interchangeable feet that are the most commonly used ones, such as the classic zig zag foot, the zipper foot, the automatic buttonhole foot, and the rolled hem foot. There are seemingly infinite types of sewing machine feet with very specific functions, but don’t feel as if you have to buy them all. I suggest that you only buy new feet when you find they would help you with a specific technique.
It is very important to remember that not all feet will fit all machines, so make sure that any feet you buy are compatible with your sewing machine. Most types have either a low or high shank, but some brands, such as Bernina, have totally different attachment mechanisms.
I have a bunch of machine feet, but rarely use most of them. I generally use the ones I already mentioned, plus the walking foot. (My Learn to Machine Sew course has lessons on the buttonhole foot and the walking foot.)
Seam ripper. You will make mistakes when sewing, no matter how amazing a seamstress you are. And this is why your seam ripper is your best friend and should never be far from you. They are also great for taking apart clothes for refashioning. You may not like ripping seams, but if it saves you from having to throw out a project, it’s definitely worth it! I just recently got this small Dritz ergonomic seam ripper you see above and I love it!
Seam rippers are also used for cutting open buttonholes. It actually took me a while to figure out what a seam ripper is called in Italian, because the Italian name, translated into English, is “buttonhole-cutter”. If you plan on cutting a lot of buttonholes, especially keyhole buttonholes with a circular opening in one end, you might consider buying one or more buttonhole chisel and hole cutters.
Buttons and snaps. Speaking of buttons, I love making my own covered buttons. They’re really easy to make with these covered button kits. Choose what size button you want, and apply the fabric around the domed metal button with the special tool. They’re easy and your work looks so much nicer with buttons in the same fabric as your project.
Sometimes it’s easier and/or looks better to use snaps instead of buttons. I use the classic hand-sewn snaps when I don’t want them to be visible on the outside of the project, but in general I prefer using a snap press. Snaps come in all different sizes, so make sure that the snaps you buy fit into the pliers or press that you have. A lot of people I know who sew cloth menstrual pads and cloth diapers, who therefore need very sturdy snaps, use KAM brand plastic resin snaps. If you’re just starting out, I highly suggest a kit of snap pliers and various colors of KAM snaps. I personally prefer metal snaps because I generally try to avoid plastic, plus I feel that they’re more heavy duty than plastic. Metal snaps, however, are more expensive and harder to find. I have this industrial snap press and use it with these colorful metal snaps (usually size 16), which I’ve always gotten at The Snap Store. (I do NOT recommend the plastic snaps from this shop. I have had many problems applying them and over time they frequently pop off.) There are some metal snap kits on Amazon, but they lack color and I have never used them myself.
Tube turning tool. Have you ever tried to turn a long, thin strip of fabric right side out? It can sometimes be very annoying, which is why I love this Quick Turn tool in three sizes. It’s perfect for turning even the tiniest pieces in softies right side out.
Magnifying lamp. If you have a hard time seeing the details on your work or the work area of your sewing machine, the Brightech LightView XL lamp (or a similar model) could be useful for you. Read my review of the Brightech lamp here.
Pressing cloth. You should have one of these even if you don’t sew, for regular ironing purposes. A pressing cloth protects fabric from potential heat damage from an iron, whether it be discoloring the fabric, leaving marks on it, or melting synthetic materials. It’s very important to press fabric and seams while sewing for the best results.
There are different types of pressing cloths, but my absolute favorite is this sheer press cloth, because you can see the fabric beneath the cloth, allowing you to make sure that you are ironing the right places and that the fabric is not folded or wrinkled (or IS folded in the case of hemming, for example). And obviously, you need a good iron with various heat and steam settings.
Stabilizers and adhesives. There are tons of products out there for making your sewing work come out more professionally, so I will only mention a few here that I use regularly. I absolutely love Heat N’Bond Lite, a double-sided iron-on adhesive which is incredibly useful for doing appliqué work.
Stabilizers come in three weights and can be fusible (meaning you iron them on to the back of the fabric) or sew-in. Their purpose is to add stability to fabric, making them easier to sew and/or more rigid. I always have some lightweight fusible interfacing, such as this one, on hand for darning jeans, medium weight fusible interfacing for collars and other parts that need additional stability, and heavy weight fusible interfacing for sewing bags and other such items which need to stand up or be stiff.
Another wonderful product is tear away stabilizer. Its purpose is to temporarily add stability while sewing, after which you can easily rip it off from behind the fabric. I use it a lot when sewing or appliqueing on knit fabric.
Fray check. There are many ways to keep fabric edges from fraying in the wash, such enclosing the raw edges inside seams or between layers, zig zagging or overlocking the edges, or using pinking shears (see the Scissors section above). But sometimes none of these techinques are possible or practical. When there’s just a small bit of exposed fabric edge, you can apply a little Fray check liquid to harden the fibers and keep them from fraying. The effect is similar to using a flame to singe the cut end of a synthetic ribbon or applying clear nail polish to runs in your nylons.
Pattern tracing and drafting. If you ever sew garments from sewing patterns, you will most likely need to trace them to avoid cutting up the original or to adjust the sizing and fit. The usual choice is Swedish tracing paper, which is actually a non-woven fabric that looks like a soft type of paper. It’s transparent enough to be able to see pattern lines beneath, but you can also sew it to try on the fit before cutting into expensive fabric. But I will be honest– I’ve never used it myself. I use this super inexpensive medical tracing paper. This roll of paper is definitely not fabric, so it cannot be sewn or modelled like fabric, but it works great for me.
You can usually trace patterns easily by freehand, but if you’re making any modifications or if you draft patterns, you will most likely want a design ruler, otherwise known as a French curve. The long curved edge varies in degree so that you can draw slight curves, deep curves, or anything in between.
Whew, so many products, and this is just the tip of the iceberg! Are there any products that you just can’t do without? Tell me all about it in the comments below or at firstname.lastname@example.org so that I can try them out myself before adding them to this list of best sewing supplies! I will be continually updating this list, so make sure to save this page in your bookmarks or Pin it here!