The history of sewing dates back to the Paleolithic Period some 21,000 years ago when Man first started to bind animal skins together with single stitches to make clothing and tents to protect himself from the cold. Sewing with natural fibres (cotton thread, linen thread, hemp or burlap threads) first took place in the Middle East around 4,000 BC.
Over the course of the centuries, economies grew to include the profession of tailor, along with sewing as a leisure activity. Depending on the period and culture, a tailor or seamstress might also have woven cloth, made male and female garments, embroidered and sewn decorative or upholstery fabrics. To do so, they needed a basic set of sewing tools for measuring and cutting fabrics.
But when you’re just starting out, it’s hard to know what you really need to hem a pair of trousers, neaten a raw edge, darn socks, mend a shirt or a pillowcase or sew a bag. Tracking down information on what exactly should go into your sewing box takes time. This is why, like your friendly neighbourhood haberdashery, we at Superprof will help you with your choice. Here is an inventory of the basic sewing supplies you should own to complete all your sewing projects.
Discover the right accessories for learning how to sew…
When learning to sew, you tend to think a sewing machine, a little fabric and some thread will be enough to get started on beginner sewing projects. You couldn’t be more wrong. You will also need some sewing supplies for hand sewing and a lot of little helpers that make a seamstress’s life easier.
First, you will need to measure and take dimensions, so you will know how much fabric to buy and where to cut. For this, there are four basic sewing tools:
Indispensable for sewing of any type, a flexible measuring tape helps you measure curves on sewing patterns and – as its name suggests – measure the length of sleeves, the width of your shoulders, the circumference of your waist, etc. – all the dimensions you need to figure out how much fabric to cut, embroider or sew. In fact, it’s simple: the measuring tape is to the tailor what the saw is to the carpenter.
A measuring tape is indispensable for taking dimensions for a sewing pattern – or a new set of armour. Photo by pinkpurse on VisualHunt
It’s a basic tool without which no sewing ever gets done. Tape measures can be anywhere between one to three metres long, but the usual length is 150 cm. They come in different materials: cloth, plastic or satin ribbon.They rarely cost more than £5 or £6.
When working on a flat surface, a small ruler lets you measure short distances with greater precision than a measuring tape. A metal ruler is the best choice (aluminium, for example), but you often find them in wood or plastic, about 20 cm long. Online haberdasheries offer not only the usual straight ruler, but also:
They are transparent rulers with markings to help you draw parallel lines. Their purpose? To help all those learning how to sew by making it easier to mark a hem, transfer a pattern or trace patchwork squares. They are generally slightly bendy and measure up to 50 cm.
Gauges are used to mark out a small, repetitive measurements, for example the distance between the buttons of a shirt or a seam allowance before pinning a seam. They can be notched metal rulers or else a small ruler with a cut-out in the middle for a sliding cursor that can be moved up and down to set a fixed length (1 cm, 1.5 cm, 2.2 cm, etc.)
Does your starter sewing kit have these basic supplies?
Even if you use an industrial-strength sewing machine and have been sewing for a long time, you still need to mark your fabric with at least a few reference points. To do this, there are two main sewing tools: dressmaker’s chalk and marking pencils or pens. They serve to mark the contours of a shape or mark pleats and gathers on fabrics.
A little sewing tip: use a white pencil on dark fabric and dressmaker’s chalk on light fabrics.
Chalk and pencils are essential for any sewing kit since they allow you to trace the pattern for cutting and marking pleats. Tailor’s chalk serves to mark the lines of a pattern: gathers, flounces, where to put pockets on trousers or pantaloons… The marks made by these sewing tools are temporary and easy to erase.
Whether rectangular, triangular or conical, dressmaker’s chalks can be of one of two materials: talc or soapstone. Marking pencils and pens, though, are more accurate. Their marks are water-soluble and come out in the first wash.
To transfer a pattern and let the creative juices flow, consider tracing paper and tracing wheels. They are among the most basic sewing supplies when learning to sew. Why? Because they are re-usable – thus, durable – precise, easy to use: you simply slide the pattern under the fabric and roll the serrated wheel along the lines you want to trace – whether its cotton fabric, coated fabric or any type of cloth.
Note that it works best for thinner fabrics; the tracing wheel leaves no marks on felt and wool. You can also use it to take patterns from ready-made garments: put some tracing paper underneath the piece of clothing and run the pinwheel over the seams.
Some tailors swear on good, old-fashioned carbon paper. Place it flat onto your fabric and spread the pattern over it. Trace the pattern with a pencil and the carbon paper will transfer the lines onto the fabric. This only works with light cloths, though. Once you have measured, marked and traced your pattern, you need your sewing supplies to cut the cloth.
Do you know which sewing machines are best for the beginner sewer?
They say that stitchers think only in metre-lengths of cloth.This is why it’s a good idea to take your measurements before you go to the fabric store to buy your cloth or choose your embroidery canvasses.Whether you are cutting a buttonhole, snipping threads, customising old clothes, cutting out a quilt patch, repairing a zip or even knitting a hand-made scarf, you will need one fundamental tool: a pair of scissors.
When you use sewing shears correctly, you can cut very precisely. Photo by Khaz on VisualHunt
Usually, sewing scissors should be new and used only to cut cloth.
But you should also consider investing in a cutting mat (so as not to damage your table) and a rotary cutter for precision cutting.
And finally – no one is safe from sewing mistakes and having to undo a seam. Thread snips or thread scissors will help you undo that missed seam so you can take that step back (to better go forward.) Seam rippers are a metal blade shaped like a “Y” with a protective knob at the end. Simply insert the long end under a stitch to cut it and undo a badly-done seam. Make sure both hands are behind the seam ripper to avoid injury.
Seam rippers will help you undo your mistakes doing your first sewing lessons. Photo by alsokaizen on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC
Now, we are getting somewhere. Your cloth is marked and cut – now you can start sewing!
You will need to buy safety pins. They will keep several layers of fabric together while cutting. And you should consider getting a box of pins with coloured tips and a pincushion for pinning your project together to try it on or before basting.
You might remember that odd little hat your grandmother wore on her middle finger as she knitted. It was a thimble, very useful for pushing needles through stiff fabrics without injuring yourself.
Assuming you have already bought a sewing machine, you will now need sewing needles. Indeed, if you are a beginner sewing student, you will be doing a lot of hand stitching. We recommend buying a little assortment of needles in different sizes, varying in both length and thickness. You will be using them mostly for precision and finishing work.
Thimbles are useful when sewing through thick fabrics or if you often prick your thumb. Photo by The Knowles Gallery on Visualhunt.com
If you plan on working with fabrics of different thicknesses (from thin lawn to thick woolen coat fabrics), you might also consider getting several boxes of sewing machine needles.
Other tools that can’t be missing from a sewing box: thread and bobbins. Superprof recommends getting several bobbins so you don’t get mixed up and end up with different-coloured sewing threads on the same bobbin. But sewing machines generally come with several extra.
The last element still missing from your sewing box is evidently the sewing thread itself.It is better to prefer quality to cheapness. A low-quality thread will fray or break more easily, causing accidents (and fraying your nerves.) In order to avoid staining your fabrics, we recommend you sew with a thread of the same colour.
Final tip: If you want to advance and learn to sew like a true professional, our sewing teachers at Superprof are waiting for you to contact them for sewing lessons, or even embroidery lessons to make the most of your shiny new sewing machine.