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.
1946 was a good year for fairy tales: World War II had ended in the late summer of 1945, and celebrations of life in the new year of 1946 mixed with bitter memories of the lost.
In 1946, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast made its debut in movie theatres. The computer generated effects of today still don’t match the magic of his cinematic artistry and the mysterious delicacy of his style. Who could interpret the famous French fairy tale written by 18th century writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve better than he?
Antoine de Saint-Expurey, the famous French aviator-writer who wrote so eloquently of the beautiful and dangerous lives of the first pilots in Wind, Sand, and Stars, wrote about a different flight of the imagination in the fairy-tale The Little Prince, a tiny volume that was destined to become his most famous work, despite being published without his knowledge after his disappearance (and presumed death) on a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean a year prior.
Fashion in 1946 reflected the fairy-tale relief of a newly peaceful (and for America, newly prosperous) life with growing luxury: longer hem-lines, fuller skirts, and more fabric than had been seen in years.
Dior's 'New Look' was yet to debut in 1947, but as this evening dress by Lucien LeLong shows, the taste for fairy-tale beauty was already strong.
And in June of 1946, with the burgeoning post-war economy driving a new burst in American production, our Singer 15-91 sewing machine was made in New Jersey. And that is the stuff of fairy-tales for me and Mr Rat, because somehow it traveled to northern California and 71 years later turned up in the gutter across the street from our apartment. And in a fairy-tale appropriate turn of events, we rescued it from the doom of being left out for trash, cleaned it with care, and spent the last month sourcing parts to refurbish it, and now it runs beautifully again, and we are as pleased with it as can be.
Our main sources of information for refurbishing the machine came from a the book How to Select, Service, Repair and Maintain Your Vintage Sewing Machine by Connie McCaffrey, the very-comprehensive Singer 15-91 manual (which Mr Rat sourced and printed for free from the internet), and You-Tube tutorials. Our parts were mostly sourced from Ebay and we bought any tools we didn’t have but needed to repair the machine from Harbor Freight. Altogether, we estimate that it cost about $60 to fully refurbish the machine and make it work again, even the lamp. Luckily the cabinet was still in pretty good condition, just rather scratched and cobwebbed, so all it took was a thorough washing with a barely damp clean rag and a gentle application of wood oil to make it look good again.
I’ve already sewn Mr Rat some pajamas on our new-old machine, and I’m pleased with how well it stitches. It came at just the right time, since my seven-year-old Singer Heavy-Duty was wearing out and skipping stitches, and I wasn’t sure how we’d manage to get it fixed or replaced. Now we have a machine that is known for its durability and skill at stitching through just about anything, and best of all, we can care for it and repair it ourselves. A fairy-tale ending, indeed. Or perhaps a fairy-tale beginning.
Our sewing space is not very large or fancy, but it is heavily used and well cared for. We live in a very small apartment, so the majority of sewing work takes place at the little wooden desk seen above, which takes up a portion of wall in our bedroom. The sewing machine is covered by one of my grandmother’s old tapestries when not in use to protect it from dust, but in case anyone is curious, it is a Singer heavy duty model, almost six years old now. When I am sewing, I pin the pattern instructions on the bulletin board above the sewing machine, so they are easy to refer to and not in the way. The mushroom box on the desk has thread, fasteners, scissors, thimbles, needles, and any other small sewing notions stored away in it. The box was my mother-in-law’s. She gave it to my husband a while ago when we helped her clean out some of her cupboards. The drawers of the desk hold more thread, zippers, boxes of buttons, lace, ribbons, and other small items. There is a small wicker wastebasket next to the desk for threads and scraps. We keep our ironing board in our closet and set it up on the other side of the desk when we need it. There is a full length mirror on the wall behind the door for fittings. Our fabric, which we acquire mostly on thrifting expeditions and occasional visits to the fabric district in Los Angeles, and interfacing are folded on shelves in our single hall closet, where we also keep our iron and ironing supplies.
We keep the pattern envelopes in binders on our bookshelf so they can easily be looked over to plan new projects and the pattern tissues and instructions sorted by number in plastic ziploc bags in a large box in the closet. When it is time to cut out a pattern, we do it on the floor of our main room, which doubles as our living room and my art studio, using small cans from the kitchen pantry as pattern weights. After work is done for the day, everything is put back in its place, and we go on living in our little space with little mess. I hope our methods might be useful or encouraging for anyone else who doesn’t have much space, much less a whole room, to devote to their sewing—you can get a great deal done in a small space if you are organized.
This is my summer wardrobe. Most of it is handmade, the rest is from various thrift stores. I am trying to work my way through photographing and writing about the garments I've made. I've been sewing much longer than I've been documenting my sewing, so it will take a while. And sadly, there is the occasional loss in the meantime----one of my blue dresses got a stain on it while I was visiting my family earlier in the month, and despite trying to wash it several times, the stain wouldn't come out. I hadn't photographed it yet, so that dress will never be posted about, except the tiny bit of its shoulder that you can see here.
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew.