I think most of you readers are not new to sewing, so you can skip this post if you like. One of Mr Rat's coworkers has asked us to teach her how to sew, so I've been putting together a list of supplies she needs to get started. Since it has been very difficult to get photos of my new sewing projects with all of the snowstorms we've been having the last few weeks (and are supposed to keep having the next few days), I thought I'd post the same list here in case there are any visitors to this blog who are curious about learning to sew and don't know quite how to start going about it.
Things you need to get started sewing:
A sewing machine – for dressmaking, the only essential stitch is the straight stitch, although it is convenient to have a machine that also does a zigzag stitch. If you want to sew with knits, look for a machine that has a stretch stitch as well. It isn’t necessary to have lots of decorative stitches unless you want them, and I would avoid getting one of the expensive quilting machines or a computerized machine (which can break when exposed to magnets), since they are more specialized than you need as a beginner. We used to use a contemporary Singer Heavy Duty machine before we found and refurbished our current Singer, which was made in 1946. The vintage metal-body machines are more durable and reliable than modern machines. If you decided to buy a used machine you can either buy a refurbished one from a shop or look online at sewing forums such as patternreview.com for advice on what brands and models best fit your needs. It is useful to have an automatic button-holer on your machine, but not a necessity, since we can teach you to make your buttonholes by hand. You’ll also want a cover or case if the machine doesn’t come with one. You can use the box the machine came in (if it had one) to store the machine when you are not sewing with it, or buy a portable carry-case, or some older machines come inside of cabinets (special sewing machine desks) and cannot be carried, but still need to be covered or put back inside their cabinet in between uses. Dust can clog and damage your machine, so you need to protect it somehow when you are not using it---a piece of cloth will work in a pinch.
A small brush and a tiny screwdriver – most machines come with one, but if yours doesn’t, you will want a small brush to clean the lint out of your machine. If you are using an older machine you will also need to buy sewing machine oil to keep your machine running well. Not very many contemporary machines are built in a way that you can open them to oil them, so refer to your manual to see if your machine needs to be oiled or not. If you buy an older, used machine, you can usually find and print the manual off the internet. This will instruct you on how to use and thread the machine, how to clean and care for it, and how to switch stitches and fix problems. If your machine does come apart to be oiled, then you will need a tiny screwdriver to open the machine to oil it.
A steam iron and ironing board – it is helpful if your steam iron also has the feature of using concentrated bursts of steam, and the ability to adjust the amount of steam as you iron. Your ironing board should be a comfortable height and have a padded cover.
An ironing shield/cloth – I use a plain white cotton bandana for this purpose. You can also use a large square of white cotton. This is used to place between the iron and your fabric when you are concerned that the iron may leave a shine or a mark on the fabric.
Bent-handled sewing shears – these are the scissors you need to cut out fabric. The bent handle makes it easier to keep the bottom blade flat against the floor or table when you are cutting. It is worthwhile to spend some extra money to get a good pair (we use Gingher) because you will be using them a lot, and will want to get them sharpened every year rather than having to buy a new pair when the blades get dull.
Sewing or embroidery scissors with a pointed end – these are your all-purpose sewing scissors, used for trimming seams, making notches, and cutting threads, etc. If your machine doesn’t have an automatic button-hole feature, then I would recommend getting some small embroidery scissors with a sharp and pointed end for cutting buttonholes.
Ordinary scissors – for cutting out patterns. You don’t want to ever use your sewing scissors on paper, as it will dull the blades very quickly.
A package of hand-sewing needles – you will need these for doing slip-stitch as well as sewing on buttons, etc. You can buy sets with different sizes, just be careful you are buying a set that is intended for hand sewing rather than embroidery or leather, etc.
A thimble - this will protect your fingers when you sew by hand, especially if you are sewing into a heavy fabric. It should fit tightly but not squeeze your finger. There are many varieties of thimbles out there---we use old-fashioned metal ones, but there are also leather and rubber ones.
Dress-making pins – if your pins don’t come in a closable box, you will also want to buy or make a pin-cushion or a magnetic pin holder to keep your pins handy while you sew.
Weights for cutting out patterns – we use small canned goods from our pantry. You can also use large, heavy, clean washers from the hardware store.
Measuring tool/point turner – this is very helpful for measuring seam allowances and hems, adjusting the placement of buttons, and turning things inside out.
Seam-ripper – self-explanatory, I think, and very necessary. We all make sewing mistakes and need to unpick seams from time to time.
A marking tool – while you may not use this all the time, it is helpful to have a washable fabric pencil or piece of tailor’s chalk, or even a small sliver of soap to mark pocket placements, pleats, etc. We often use pins to mark our projects, so buying this right away isn’t a necessity.
A flexible tape measure – this is important for taking measurements, especially of your own body, and also the fabric and pattern-pieces, to make sure that they will fit.
A box or basket to keep your sewing supplies in – there are lots of sewing baskets at the fabric store, but you can also use any handy medium sized box or basket that you like to keep your supplies in. It is useful if it is lidded to keep everything dust free.
Your first pattern, fabric, thread, and notions – it is easiest to start with a less-fitted pattern (such as a loose, pullover dress without darts or a pullover blouse with few or no darts) or a pattern that is fitted in only one place like the waist (a full skirt gathered to a waist-band would be an example). But if you want to sew a basic, fitted dress with bust darts and a full or a-line skirt, it is not too complicated to sew for the first time if you have some guidance along the way. For your first few times sewing, I would recommend buying inexpensive fabric, since you will be figuring out fitting and sewing techniques. Cotton is among the easiest of fabrics to sew with, since it frays very little, washes and presses well, and can be used for all sorts of clothing. You will want to pre-wash your fabric before you cut out your pattern. Use the same method to wash and dry your fabric as you will for the finished garment. This is in case the fabric shrinks or warps in any way---it is better to know this before you cut into it than after you’ve finished sewing your garment. Before you choose your pattern size, know that the sizing on patterns is quite different than ready-to-wear from the store. You will want to use your tape measure to take your own body measurements and write them down. It is not uncommon to fall within two different sizes for your top and bottom; most modern patterns are multi-sized, so this is not a difficult issue to work around. Most patterns will fit better if you use your upper-bust measurement rather than your full-bust measurement. It’s very helpful to get onto JoAnn fabric store’s e-mail or mailing list for coupons and mailers. They do pattern sales regularly where you can buy the patterns on sale for anywhere from 99 cents to 5 dollars each. The pattern envelope will tell you what fabrics are recommended for your sewing project, and what notions (zipper, buttons, bias tape, etc.) you will need to buy to complete your garment.
Interfacing – Almost all sewing projects require interfacing to give fabrics structure, stability, and support in necessary areas (such as collars, button bands, cuffs, necklines, and sometimes hems, pockets, lapels, and waistbands). I usually buy several yards of it when it is on-sale at the fabric store and keep it stored with my sewing supplies so I can use it when I need it. Lightweight or featherweight fusible interfacing is a good all-purpose weight for most sewing projects.
Things that are nice to have, but you don’t need to buy right away:
Tailor’s ham – This is incredibly helpful for ironing darts, princess seams, and any kind of curve. If you are going to sew fitted, darted dresses, then I would recommend buying this sooner rather than later, because it gives your pressing a much more professional look.
Pinking shears – If you sew a lot with firmly woven fabrics such as cotton, pinking shears are a quick and easy way to finish your seams so they go through the wash better.
French Curve – This is helpful for making fitting adjustments on your pattern, copying patterns from books and magazines, and drafting your own patterns.
Yardstick – This is helpful for measuring fabric, measuring dress lengths, and pinning up your hems or checking that they are even all the way around.
Extra bobbins – Most machines come with two or three extra bobbins. You can also buy them at the fabric store in a little case. It is useful to have extra for when you are switching thread colors---this way you don’t have to unroll your bobbin to switch colors every time.
A white glue-stick – this can be helpful when putting collars and cuffs together, or when attaching trims that you will sew on by hand or machine. The glue helps things stick together while you work and washes out of your finished garment.
Sewing books – I like the Vogue sewing guide from the 1970s-80s, although I also have a 1970s-era Butterick sewing book that is packed full of useful information and diagrams. These books will help you solve problems and learn new techniques.
Extra sewing machine needles – as you sew, you will need to switch needles as they get dull after a few projects. Size 10-11 is the most common needle we use, since it works for light and medium weight fabrics. But if you sew with especially light or heavy-weight fabrics, you will need different sized needles to accommodate your fabric choice (the smaller the number, the lighter the fabric----the larger the number, the heavier the fabric). If you sew with knits, you will need a ball-point or special knit needle so as to not damage the fabric. You will also need special pins for sewing with knits, or fine and delicate fabrics such as silk.
Beeswax - this is very useful if you sew a lot by hand. You pull your thread through it, which strengthens the thread and makes it harder to tangle.
Happy belated Valentine's Day! I'm glad I took these photos of my new dress yesterday on Valentine's Day, when there was a little bit of sunshine, because today we woke to a world transformed by snow.
I'm sure many of you will recognize one of my favorite patterns, 1970s-era McCall's 6209, which I have made before in tan striped cotton, black cotton-polyester broadcloth, and most recently in black flannel. I am fond of this pattern for its fit: it is more semi-fitted than fitted, and the ease makes the dress very comfortable for every day wear. But the small waist and full skirt and sleeves still give the dress a fitted look without the discomfort of tightness.
As I've mentioned a little bit before, I'm trying to experiment a little more with sewing with patterned fabric. Last summer I found that I like to sew and wear gingham, and I've sewn with stripes a few times, but so far I haven't tried many floral fabrics until the last few months. Our local Goodwill has a good selection of sheets, and recently I've found myself drawn to the ones with rose prints. At $2-$4 each, they are a small risk. I bought a few and have made two dresses out of them so far (only one of which has been blogged about), and I have yet another floral-print outfit cut out to start work on next. Roses are among my favorite flowers, and I miss my mother's rose garden very much. Wearing roses on my clothes reminds me of the places and plants that I love so much, and brings a little cheer to the grey winter that is so close to spring.
One of the advantages of sewing with sheets is that they are often already soft with washing. This sheet in particular had a nice drape and was easy to sew with, especially since the print hides any tiny imperfections and mistakes like a bust dart that isn't perfectly aligned with the other bust dart, or edge-stitching that can get a little wiggly. Imperfection has become a theme for me. I have to remind myself often that the goal is to get better slowly, and to make wearable clothes along the way. This dress turned out very wearable; it is so light and comfortable. Already since I finished it I've worn it twice, and received more compliments on it from people at church and from family members than any other garment I've sewn. When my grandpa saw it, he told me I was quite the "flower girl."
Since I've written about this pattern before, I will keep the construction notes brief here: I pinked the seams, finished the waistline with some thrifted bias tape, and had to trim the bottom a little to even it before I turned and finished it with a narrow hem. The zipper is stitched in by hand, and I stitched twice around the arm-holes to reinforce them. As usual, I edge-stitched the top of the sleeve-bands and the neckline to keep them crisp.
Mr Rat and I had a pleasant and quiet Valentine's Day. I wore my new dress and a Mexican silver heart necklace that I found a yard sale last year. I made a black-rice vegetable salad and prepared the ingredients so that when Mr Rat got home from work we could cook okonomiyaki together (savory Japanese pancakes with vegetables and little bits of meat cooked into them). We picked out our gifts for each other at a local antique mall a few weeks ago. One of the gifts Mr Rat gave me was a lovely little gold brooch shaped like a bouquet of violets, which is near the bottom of the photo at the end of this post that I took of my drawer of vintage brooches. Some were my grandmother's, and some are lucky finds from thrift stores, and some I've found with some careful searching on ebay for under $5. It's nice to have choices to wear with my dresses and blouses and jackets.
Did any of you do anything nice for Valentine's Day (with or without a significant other)? I like that Valentine's day can be a celebration of love in all its forms, including that of friendship. When we lived in Santa Clara we invited our friend K and her daughter to come have dinner with us, since her husband worked very late into the evening. It's pleasant to find a way to celebrate, no matter what the circumstances. And who doesn't need a reason to celebrate when winter feels like it has been here so long?
Mr Rat has been hard at work on his newest project, squeezing out the time to sew on the weekends and the occasional weeknight evening. He's been making great progress and we are both looking forward to when we can share his finished garment with you all. . .
There is something so therapeutic about sewing. It is varied, interesting, challenging, and yet also restful. There is something reassuring about following pattern instructions and knowing they will lead to a finished garment. And there is something so magical about taking a flat piece of fabric and turning it into a beautiful, detailed, dimensional item of clothing you can wear. It may take time to create, but the act of creation is a pleasure in itself, well worth the hours spent.
I feel like I have a few things to apologize for: first, that I've been somewhat absent around here. I mentioned in my last post that January was tumultuous and I was sick for a rather long portion of it. Second, that my new tweed cape-jacket made from McCall's 7291 is so wrinkly in these photos! I tried steaming it with my iron but the wrinkles didn't want to come out. I'm going to take it to the dry-cleaners to get it professionally pressed when my husband takes his suits to be cleaned, but I wanted to take some photos of it, and we haven't made it to the dry-cleaners yet. Hopefully we'll go in the next week or two, and the next time you see this jacket on the blog, it will look much more crisp. And third, I apologize that the quality of the photos is varied. By the time we walked to the park with Gia to take these pictures most of the sunshine we were hoping to photograph in had already disappeared. So only a few of these photos have even a little sunshine or warmth or color in them, and some of the photos are very cool-toned indeed, and even a little blurry (although that can be interesting, sometimes).
This project was a somewhat frustrating one, and I have to admit that at least twice I thought of giving up and not finishing it. But I'm glad I pressed on, because I like how it turned out very much. The tweed is also very warm, even if it wasn't very nice to me while I was sewing it. I used McCalls 7291 (which is still in print, I believe---I think it got released a year or two ago) as a base for what I wanted. I didn't like the way it is drafted on the envelope to hang open in the front, so when I was cutting out the fabric I widened the front pieces and the front facings so that they would overlap. I also decided I didn't want to add the collar onto my version, since the tweed is heavy and scratchy and I thought it would be easier to wear scarves with with my jacket (as I did here), or a collared blouse where the collar could peek over the top, without the collar getting in the way. The tweed is from a church rummage sale I attended with a friend some years ago, and the facings are cut from a scrap of flannel leftover from one of my husband's sewing projects. Some of you longtime readers might recognize the tweed from a Christmas present I made for my husband three years ago. I used all of the remaining fabric to make my jacket, and it was not only wrinkly, but badly-behaved. It liked to move about while I was sewing it, it was too thick to make rolled hems, and it frayed all over. My solution to these problems was to only sew the main seams on machine and hand-sew everything else. I top-stitched the seams by hand so they would stay flat and fray less. Then I hand-stitched bias binding (also thrifted---I was lucky to find two packages of the same 'seal' brown I used on all the visible parts of the jacket, and I used some green for the arm-holes, which are hidden by the cape-sleeves) to all of the edges, which made dealing with them so much easier than trying to wrestle the tweed under the sewing foot any more than was necessary. It took a while, but I am pleased with the result. Even though up close it is apparent that the bias tape is hand-sewn, at least it looks even, and it gives the jacket more visual interest. I finished the buttonholes by hand as well, and used some brown tortoise-shell style buttons from my stash that were probably harvested off of one of my husband's old and worn out jackets.
Once I get this jacket pressed, I can imagine wearing it a lot. The fit is good---close but not tight, and it looks nice with full skirts and dresses, like my flannel dress I'm wearing with it here. I think the McCall's pattern is better used as a base for drafting than sewn the way it was designed. But I may well use it again if I come across the right piece of fabric. I like the flared cape-sleeves, which easily accommodate puff sleeves worn underneath, yet are long enough to keep my whole arm warm.
I am grateful it is February because we are that much closer to Spring. I hope you are well, wherever you are, and enjoying the beauty around you, whether it is the greenery of the south or the stark white and grey of the north.
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew.