Oh… am I ever so happy to introduce Kim from Retro Mama to you. For the next four Mondays, she'll be teaching Craft Snob's fresh 'petite series' on Sewing 101.
Peek, snoop or loiter around her retro pattern shop and gobble up a few of these cuties…
Hi everyone! I’m Kim from Retro Mama, and I was so excited when Sara asked me to do a series of introductory sewing lessons here at Craft Snob. I love teaching and I love sewing, so this is right up my alley! Today I’m going to start off with the very basics including a short discussion on sewing machines, then talk a bit about the types of tools you need, and end on one of my favorite topics: fabric. My future posts will get into the nitty gritty details of the actual sewing, and we’ll practice your new skills with some fun project tutorials.
The Sewing Machine
First off, you don’t need a fancy or expensive machine to have a blast sewing and to be able to do a ton of techniques with great results. My suggestions for things to look for in your first sewing machine are: a top-load bobbin with a see through window, multiple stitch functions including (but not necessarily limited to) zig-zag, triple stitch and stretch stitch, adjustable sewing speed and stitch length, adjustable needle position, and a free arm (which lets you sew circular items like the topstitching on a handbag). If you plan to make lots of clothes, you’ll probably want your machine to have buttonhole stitches as well. You might want to check out the sewing machine reviews here (you’ll need to register, but they won’t spam you). Read your sewing machine manual thoroughly to get familiarized with how to operate and maintain your machine, and to learn about the features particular to your machine. Also consider taking a class or two to learn how to wind a bobbin, thread and fire up your machine.
Many machines come with several basic presser feet, but you may need to purchase additional feet if they aren’t already included (yours may look a little different from my photo, as presser feet do vary some by manufacturer). These are my most used presser feet:
- A. General purpose foot: I use this foot most of the time; it works great for single stitch, triple stitch, and a regular zig zag stitch (I will go into more detail about different types of stitches in my next post).
- B. Zig-zag/embroidery foot: I think of this as my appliqué foot. The bottom is see-through to allow you to have greater visibility and control when using a tight zig-zag stitch to go around appliqués.
- C. Zipper foot: I use this foot for installing zippers and also any time I need to sew really close to the edge of fabric because it gives you a good view of the fabric beneath the foot.
- D. Walking foot/even feed foot: For quilting, this foot has its own set of feed dogs to help the top and bottom layers of fabric to travel at the same speed through the machine. You’ll want to use this foot any time you use batting in your project.
Sewing Machine Needles
For the purpose of these introductory lessons, we will be using sharp/regular point needles. When working with woven fabric (e.g. quilting cotton, or other fabrics that aren’t stretchy), use a sharp needle (80/12 universal regular point for lightweight fabrics and quilting cotton, or 90/14 universal regular point for slightly heavier fabrics or when sewing through several layers). Ball point needles are for knit fabrics only.
Thread is a little bit of a tricky subject as many folks tend to be very loyal to one brand and swear that all other threads are junk. For most projects, I think Coats & Clark 100% cotton thread or Guttermann threads (both can be found at most fabric shops) work great. You may find with experience that you prefer a particular brand; it’s worth experimenting to figure out what you like. A nice thread comparison can be found here.
Essential Sewing Tools
These are what I consider to be the most essential sewing tools. There are plenty of other tools and gadgets that you will discover as you learn more about sewing and techniques, but this list is a good start. I’m including links to online shops, but you should be able to find all of these items in your local stores as well:
- A. Dressmaker's Shears. For cutting fabric around patterns. It is worth investing in a good pair of shears and embroidery scissors, below.
- B. Embroidery Scissors. My go-to scissors for snipping threads and cutting right up next to a seam.
- C. Flexible Tape Measure. Especially if you plan to make clothes.
- D. A Chopstick. Yep, the utensil that helps you eat delicious food will also be your best friend when it comes to pushing out those corners or curves when turning your project right side out, and for putting polyfill into your stuffed creations. I have several with different sized tips and blunt ends (and my husband is probably still looking for their mates, shhh!). You can also purchase a point turner which is specifically designed for this purpose, though the handle isn’t quite as long.
- E. Thimble. Either metal or leather, used for hand sewing, embroidery, and quilting.
- F. Pinking Shears or pinking rotary cutter. The uneven edge helps to prevent fabric from fraying.
- G. Rotary Cutter. Rotary cutters make life so much easier. The 45mm diameter cutters are terrific for long, straight cuts, the 28mm diameter cutters are helpful for curves. If you have little ones, I recommend buying a cutter that has a little button to lock the blade when it is retracted.
- H. Magnetic pincushion. My favorite place to store straight pins. I keep threaded hand sewing needles in one of my plush pear pincushions. Straight pins. For pinning patterns to fabric or keeping two layers of fabric together while sewing.
- I. Seam Ripper. I’d like to pretend I never need this tool, but of course there are occasions that it comes in handy. It lets you gently cut threads to remove seams if you happen to make a boo-boo.
- J. Disappearing Fabric Ink Pen. For tracing and marking patterns. I can't find a link to my exact pen. The purple ink becomes invisible as it dries, the blue ink disappears when you put water on it. White pencil or chalk is great for marking dark fabrics.
- K. Self-healing cutting mat. These provide a great work surface, and I recommend getting the largest size that will fit on your table. The measurement grid often comes in very handy, and the mat will magically heal all those cuts into it while protecting your tabletop. Always store your cutting mat flat so it doesn’t warp.
Quilter’s rulers. My most used sizes are: 6” x 24”, and 6” x 6” square, as well as a 12-1/2” x 12-1/2” square for quilting projects. Okay, I love my 3” x 18” too. You may find that you end up with a collection of different rulers over time as you purchase them for specific projects, but at the very minimum I recommend starting out with a 6” x 24” as it is very versatile. Rulers that are frosted on the back are less slippery on fabric. I store my rulers on a “ruler rack” which is essentially a block of wood with ruts cut into it for the rulers to rest on their sides. Lint roller. Yes, that is a lint roller next to my rulers. They are great for picking up stray lint and threads, so I like to always keep one handy. The rollers made for pet hair are extra sticky. Iron and ironing board. I have a counter top ironing board that sits on top of a short bookcase. My tiny ironing board is all that I need for almost any project, and it takes up very little space. I use 2 store-bought covers on it (for extra padding), and though you can purchase expensive designer covers, I’ll forewarn you that you will be very sad when you accidentally fuse some interfacing to your beautiful cover or scorch it while making bias tape (not that I have ever done anything like that…okay, yes I have. Several times.).
My favorite fabric to work with is quilting cotton. It is wonderfully versatile, you can use it for bags, toys, clothes, housewares, accessories…and the variety of prints is endless. You can buy quilting cotton by the yard, or in precut packs such as charms (5” x 5” squares) or jelly rolls (2-1/2” x 44” strips). Precuts are offered by the fabric manufacturer Moda. If you plan to do smaller projects, or little patchwork projects, fat quarters (18” x 22”) are readily available at local quilt shops (LQS) and many online retailers, and are a great (and less expensive) way to stock your fabric stash than purchasing full yards. I am a bit particular about where I buy fabric, and recommend that you purchase fabric from your local quilt shop or online retailers. The quilting fabrics sold at chain fabric stores tend to be thinner and have lower thread counts, which will make a difference in the durability and softness of your finished projects.
I’m often asked where I buy my fabric, and the answer is: mostly online. Some of my favorite shops are listed below.
- On Etsy: Fabric Worm (also at fabricworm.com) Fresh Squeezed Fabrics Sew Love Fabrics Fabric Closet Mountain of the Dragon (lots of Japanese prints) Fabricpalooza (great selection of Free Spirit/Westminster prints)
- Other online retailers: Hawthorne Threads (formerly fabricsupplies on Etsy) has a nice system of tiered pricing for repeat customers Fat Quarter Shop Hancock’s of Paducah EQuilter.com Superbuzzy (Japanese prints)
- Linen: Fabrics-store.com has very reasonable prices on linen. I like the IL019 which is the 5.3 oz weight.
Phew! If you're still with me, congratulations, and thank you! That's a wrap for today. If you have any questions about today’s topics, please leave them in the comments and I’ll check in to answer them. I'll be back next week, so be ready to rev up that sewing machine and start stitching!