With my Sewing 101 series, I hope to demystify learning to sew. This installment of the Sewing 101 series offers practical advice for what you really need to get started. There is a tremendous amount of information out there that is useful when you know what you are looking for, but if you’re a newbie it can be overwhelming.
One of the most intimidating things for me when I started learning to sew was knowing what tools to use and what I really needed. There are lots of neat little gadgets out there that serve a specific purpose, but knowing whether or not they are worth purchasing is hard to know when you are learning a new skill. As my mother would say, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Sewing tools can also be pricey, and again knowing what is worth paying top dollar for or just getting the cheap version is hard to know if you have never used the tool or aren’t sure how often you will actually use it. If you’re just starting out you don’t need every single sewing supply ever invented. Start with the basics, see if you like it and build your toolbox from there. There are so many types of sewing and specialties that you really won’t know what you love to make until you have been at it for a while. Sewing garments vs. handbags vs. quilts takes a lot of different tools, so start out with the essentials first and don’t be afraid to try lots of different things.
Below is a list of essential sewing tools and the best places to buy them on the cheap or even get them for free. Most things you can find used if you know where to look. There is also a printable version of the list that you can take with you when you are shopping for what you need.
*Full disclosure: This post contains Amazon Affiliate links.*
Sewing 101: Essential Sewing Tools
The question “What is the best sewing machine for beginners?” gets asked (and Googled) a lot. The answer to this magical question is…there isn’t a best sewing machine for beginners. The good news is that unless you sew everyday, a basic sewing machine should be fine for most jobs and will allow you to learn skills you need. As long as your machine will make a straight stitch and a zig zag stitch, you will be able to complete 100% of projects you would want to tackle starting out. Bells and whistles are definitely nice to have if you sew a lot, but really aren’t necessary and they don’t affect the performance of you machine. If it becomes you primary hobby or a business it might be worth it to invest money in a machine that has fancy features that you find useful. However, if you are just learning, a basic machine with a few stitches is ideal. Two brands that offer inexpensive options and are generally good machines are Brother and Singer.
Two features that are nice to have are a free arm and a top loading bobbin. These aren’t necessary, but they are helpful features to have.
*If you are buying a machine used make sure that you get the pedal and power cord or that you can order replacements online.
Your machine should come with at least a standard all purpose presser foot. For most projects that is all you will need. There are lots of different kinds of feet for your machine, but when you are starting out you will really only need an all purpose foot and possibly a zipper foot once you are ready to tackle zippers.
Craftsy offers a free class on different kinds of feet that you can signup for here. It’s short and gives a nice overview of your options.
If you are in the market for a set of sewing machine feet, you can buy this set on Amazon. I have one myself and use it often.
Remember when you were little and your sweet grandma would turn into the Incredible Hulk if you got near her sewing scissors when you were working on your construction paper projects? And you were like, “I’ll just be over here with my safety scissors until Nice Grandma comes back.”
As a kid I was unclear about what was so special about those sharp, fancy orange handled scissors and fantasized about how sweet it would be to cut something, anything with them. As an adult, I will turn into the Incredible Hulk if you try to touch my sharp, fancy orange handled scissors. You don’t touch a lady’s sewing scissors.
Sewing scissors are very sharp and designed to cut fabric. Your dull kitchen scissors will cut your fabric unevenly and leave it choppy, which will make it nearly impossible to sew a straight seam. A good set of sewing scissors are essential for cutting fabric.
Invest in a good pair of scissors from Gingher or Fiskars and I promise you will not be disappointed. After sewing for a while you might find that you need a few different sizes, but to start out a good pair of dressmakers shears will work just fine.
Note that after you have used your scissors for a while they will start to get dull. Fiskars makes a sharpening tool that will accommodate most of their models. You can also do a search for blade or scissors sharpening services locally, which is how I sharpen my Ginghers.
I have read a few places around the internet that you can cut tinfoil with your scissors to sharpen them. I personally have not have very good results with this method and wasted a lot of perfectly good tinfoil.
Your scissors will also need to be oiled occasionally to keep the 2 pieces from causing friction as they cut. A few drops of vegetable oil or coconut oil will do the trick.
To use your sewing machine you will need extra bobbins, which are pretty inexpensive. There are few different sizes, so check your manual or do an internet search to find the correct size for your machine (usually a size 15 or 15J).
Bobbins come in plastic or metal varieties. I personally prefer metal bobbins to plastic. Plastic bobbins can be a little squeaky in my machine. But that’s really just a personal preference.
All Purpose Thread
All purpose thread or polyester thread will work perfectly when you are just starting out and it’s cheap.
There a lots of different kinds of thread out there and they all serve a special purpose. Cotton thread is great for top stitching (stitching on the outside of your work that is visible) on quilts and machine embroidery thread is exactly what it sounds like. When you are just starting out a few spools of all purpose thread in neutral colors will serve you purposes just fine.
Sewing with a sharp, appropriately sized needle is key. When I first started out sewing, I never changed my needle unless it broke. Sometimes that was once a week, sometimes that was for months. Then one day I was sewing through a few layers of thick material and realized that my stitches top stitches were catching the bobbin stitches. After research and a few hours of frustration and confusion, I finally figured out that my needle was probably dull and needed to be changed. Problem solved.
Purchase a pack of Universal needles of various sizes. A size 14 needle will work fine for most projects you are starting out with. It’s a good size for sewing through a few layers of cotton fabric. I find a pair a needle nose pliers helpful when changing needles if they are being stubborn.
Hand Sewing Needles
A few hand sewing needles area also essential and very inexpensive. Sometimes you will to do a little hand stitching to finish off a project or sew on a button.
Straight Pins and a Pin Cushion
Straight pins are another must-have. For any project you sew, you will need to pin fabric. I really like these pins. I originally bought them because they are pretty and make me happy when I look at them, but after using them I also discovered that they are very sharp and the butterflies make them very easy to pull out of your work as you go. It’s a win-win.
In addition, you will need a pincushion to hold your pins. I personally like to have 2 pincushions in my sewing space, one on my cutting table and one on my sewing table. Otherwise I spend a lot of time getting up an down from my machine because I forgot to bring my pincushion with me.
*Remember never to sew over a pin. They can break your needle and it can go flying! Pull your pins out as you go.
Clear Ruler with a Grid
A clear ruler with a grid is also a must have. I use the one pictured below and it very handy. I use it constantly.
You read that right. You need a chopstick. You can find a zillionty uses for a chopstick when you are sewing. They are great for pushing out corners when you turn your work right side out, you can use them to slide your bobbin thread through when threading your machine and poking people who try to use your sewing scissors for cutting things other than fabric.
Masking Tape or Painters Tape
Masking tape or painters tape come in handy quite often. Until you get the hang of it, sewing in a straight line can be challenging. Placing a piece of tape on your plate to guide you can save a lot of time and frustration. Seam rippers exist for a reason and get used plenty, so don’t think your seam ripper will feel lonely if it doesn’t get used enough.
A good seam ripper is your best friend. When you are learning to sew, just go in knowing that you will mess up and your seam ripper is there to help you out.
Also know that there is a right way and a wrong way to use your seam ripper. If you use your seam ripper the wrong way you will reach the same conclusion, but it will be a lot messier and take much longer to fix your mistake. Not really what you want to deal with when you’re already frustrated because you messed up and have to rip out a seam. Listen to what your mama told you: don’t pick.
To learn the proper ways to use a seam ripper check out this blog post from Craftsy and this video from the very talented Pam Damour. If I ever meet this woman I will kiss her. Seriously, this video changed my life.
Pipe Cleaners and a Cleaning Kit
Keeping your machine clean is essential for it to run smoothly. As you sew dust will collect under the plate and in the bobbin casing of your machine. If too much dust collects it will start to interfere with the moving parts and mess you up, so keeping it clean is a must. Yet another thing I wish I knew when I started out. It would have saved me many hours of frustration.
If you buy your machine new, it should come with a kit that has extra presser feet, a few small tools for your machine and a small brush for cleaning your machine. If your machine didn’t come with these accessories you can buy a kit. In addition to your kit, you should also buy a pack of pipe cleaners. These are great for cleaning out the little dust bunnies that collect in the hard to reach places of your machine.
Iron and Ironing Board
Next on our list are an iron and ironing board. You don’t need anything fancy, just an iron that works like it’s supposed to and a nice, sturdy board.
If you decide that you really love sewing and need a fancier iron, it might be worth the investment to do some research and find one that will suit your needs better. I personally still use my Shark brand iron from Target, which is a huge step up from the $15 iron that I bought in college and finally replaced this year.* I feel so fancy when I use it.
Here is a little tip: If you are forgetful like me, remembering to empty the water of your iron every time you use it may be asking a bit much. Letting water sit in your iron will drastically shorten its life, though. Purchase a little squirt bottle for $1 and use that when you need a little steam. It will be $1 well spent.
*A lady never tells her age, but suffice it to say that college was quite a while ago.
Last on our list of absolute essentials is fabric!
When you are first starting out, you will mess up. Once you’re experienced you still might mess up. It’s okay to mess up. Remember, that’s what your seam ripper is for.
However, for your first project or 2, use fabric that you don’t really care about. Grab an old sheet or pillowcase from the thrift store that you think is cool, but you won’t be sad if you mess up. Make a few projects with that and get a feel for you machine and your tool,s and get the hang of measuring and cutting.
Once you have done that, go buy some fabric that you think it is the prettiest thing you have seen and make something amazing that you can show off to your friends!
You can thank me later.
Self-Healing Cutting Mat and Rotary Cutter
The last few items on the list are absolute must-haves, but if you decided that you really love to sew they are absolutely worth the investment.
A self-healing cutting mat and rotary cutter will be your besties if you sew a lot. When used with your handy clear ruler, these tools make it very easy to cut a straight line and cut multiple pieces at the same time. They are absolutely essential if you want to make a quilt. Check out this video for a demonstration if you aren’t familiar with them. It’s one of those inventions that make you wonder what people did before they came along. I think it’s safe to say that making a quilt took a whole lot longer.
If you purchase a rotary cutter it would behoove you to go ahead an purchase a blade sharpener as well. As will all your other other cutting tools, making sure that your rotary blade is sharp will save you a lot of frustration.
If you go into any fabric or quilt store you will notice the packs of pre-cut fabrics all have the cute little zig zag edges on them. It turns out that isn’t just because it looks cool, it also serves a very important purpose. Those zig zag edges are the result of being cut with pinking shears (of some iteration of pinking shears) and that special cut keeps the edges of the fabric from fraying and becoming a huge mess.
Pinking shears are an essential and super useful tool if you sew a lot. They can be used to finish off seams that will be hidden, to cut a piece of fabric that you think will fray a lot while you are sewing and you can trim new fabric before you throw it in the wash so that it doesn’t become a huge, tangled mess. If you have a rotary cutter you can even purchase a special pinking blade.
A sewing gauge is a pretty nifty tool to have. I didn’t have one for the longest time until I was given a box of sewing supplies and one happened to be in there. I wish so much that I had understood what they are used for and gotten one sooner.
In a nut shell, it’s a tiny ruler with a slider that you can place on or next to your work to make sure your measurements are correct, for example along a hemline. Starting out your grid ruler will work just fine, but down the road these are really nice to have around.
Where to shop
- Thrift stores. I find all kind of neat stuff at thrift stores, especially sheets. If you keep your eye out you can also find old sewing boxes full of sewing supplies.
- Friends. Ask around. You would be surprised how many people have one stuck in a closet somewhere that they aren’t using.
- Yard sales. Also a great place to find old sewing boxes and sheets.
- Brick and mortar stores. Lots of stores carry basic sewing machines and supplies, like Wal Mart, Target and Jo Ann Fabrics. If you are lucky enough to live near a Jo Ann’s, sign up for their coupons. They have coupons every week and lots of sales throughout the year.
- Online. Amazon is chock full of just about everything you could ask for. Ebay is a great place, too. If you look around you can often times find lots (meaning a set) of sewing supplies. It will likely be a mixed bag, but sometimes that makes it more fun.
- Craigslist. Craigslist is good resource for finding a used sewing machine. Again, you can also often times find sewing boxes that have been collecting dust in someone’s attic.
Download the printable Sewing for Beginners: Essential Sewing Tools Checklist.