Like any hobby, sewing can get expensive fast, and it’s easy to get carried away. Buying specialty tools is a rabbit hole easily fallen down when you don’t know what you need. So I’m going to clear it up for you.
The good news is it does not have to be an expensive hobby, it can get that way, particularly if you find yourself gravitating toward designer fabrics, but it doesn’t have to. You can get the basics to complete a small project like a tote bag for somewhere in the neighborhood of $25.
Things you need to sew fall into two groups: tools and consumables. Tools are the buy-it-once things and consumables are of course the things that get used up, like thread. I will list in sections then elaborate on each.
“Spend” means just that, be prepared to spend more than the cheapest price you see, because for this item the quality really matters.
“Save” means feel free to buy the cheapest priced one you can find.
“RSM” means Recycle, Salvage or Make. These are things you don’t necessarily have to buy new retail.
Things You Must Have.
hand sewing needles save
a place for pins & needles RSM
fabric save/ RSM
Scissors: ah my precious…. :ahem: sorry. You really only need one pair, large shears, to get started. But if you’ve got money to spend, or there are packaged sets on sale the second pair should be some tiny embroidery scissor or even a pair of nippers. Big shears first, embroidery or nippers only if you’ve got money to spend, okay? Good. Do not try to compromise and get those sorta-half-way 5” long size, get big ones and tiny ones or just big ones. Why spend money on scissors? Because if you get good ones, and don’t loose them, you’ll have them for the rest of your life. Really. I have a pair that I have owned for slightly over 30 years and they are still just as good as the day I got them.
What you should look for and be willing to spend on scissors:
forged steel if it doesn’t say so on the scissors or the package, they probably aren’t. Skip those.
a screw or other tightening mechanism at the hinging area
do they feel good in your hand?
If you want brand names, look for Fiskars, Melita, Gingher, and Heinkles. Those were listed least expensive to most expensive but not necessarily in order of recommendation. USE A COUPON! Michael’s, Hobby Lobby and JoAnn’s constantly have coupons available and all three retailers carry those brands and more. With a coupon you might be able to spend as little as $10 on good scissors. Without a coupon $20-30 is not unreasonable. Note I said good scissors. Yes, all three retailers have garbage ‘craft’ scissors as low as a buck a pair. Those are for use on poster board and Christmas wrap, not for sewing. Are you pondering some other brand? Open them and try flexing the blade, if it bends, they are stamped metal and not forged, avoid them. Are they “titanium”? Only a microscopic layer of Titanium dust is applied to the blade actually, and therefore cannot be sharpened, so again, I’d avoid these.
Pins are pins are pins are pins, for the most part. I like the big colorful heads. I like standard length (as opposed to quilters pins which are really long). I really like the glass head type because I can iron over them. One package or box is usually about 80 to 100 pins which is more than sufficient for most beginner projects. Through loss and damage I’ll buy a new package about once every five years or so. These cost $3 to 7 bucks depending on what you set yourself up with.
Hand Sewing Needles are nearly always sold in largeish packages of assorted sizes. Save money and get the least expensive big multi pack. Once you’ve done enough sewing to know that you desire specific sizes and types, you can buy the smaller packages of just that size.
A place to put your pins & needles is most commonly a pin cushion. But, it could be: an old gift box of the jewelry size, a magnet, and of course one of your first projects can be to make your own pin cushion. Besides, everyone has a red tomato pin cushion, that’s just… boring 😉
Thread is usually bought by color, but beware the bins of really cheap stuff, because it’s awful. Also beware the sewing kits that contain several tiny spools of common colors, those too are very low quality. Actually most sewing kits are pretty junky and not worth the price.
Thread brands to look for: Coats (or sometimes it’s Coats and Clark, depending on the age and type of spool) and Hobby Lobby’s house brand Sewology are going to be your everyday type threads. If you do some quilting you’ll start wandering over to the skinny spools of Gutermann, Mettler, and Sulky. All of these are nice stuff. Avoid the shiny ones and metallic threads until you know what you are doing.
If it’s a brand you don’t see listed, hold the spool up to really good light. Gently rub a finger up and down the wrapped thread. Do you see fine fuzzies sticking out where you rubbed it? If not, it’s good, buy it. If it’s fuzzy (and I’ve seen thread I didn’t need to touch to see the fuzz) don’t buy it, it’s poor quality.
Fabric is where most beginners get overwhelmed. I get it, there’s just so much to choose from… the think tank types call this paralysis of choice. So the easiest way to pick something for your first project is to go where there is less to choose from. So yes, really, don’t go to JoAnn’s (on you first trip out). Don’t get me wrong, I like the store, but if you are doing a pair of pajama pants or maybe a tote bag, save yourself the stress and go to Walmart. Its one aisle, maybe two, the prices are low, and the fabrics are cute enough for a trial run. Once you’ve gotten your feet wet and decided to do the same thing in another color for your best friend, then go to JoAnn’s and get a pretty Amy Butler print, or Hoffman, or Michael Miller, or Moda…
Fabric for ‘messing around’ when there isn’t a project in mind, can be got even cheaper. Recycle something from your closet that doesn’t fit any more. Hit the thrift store. Men’s name brand dress shirts are very high quality fabric, at JoAnn’s it’s the $16-20 a yard stuff. Recycle some Ralph Lauren shirts into new stuff for yourself.
Second Group: Stuff that is really nice to have, which happen to be all tools
A sewing machine save
EDIT: Iron save
rotary cutter save
cutting mat spend
quilters ruler(s) save
a dedicated space save/ RSM
Sewing machines … You may notice I put this in the second group. The sewing machine didn’t exist until the 1860’s, it was the forerunner of the industrial revolution. Think about every painting and portrait depicting the elaborate clothing worn by the wealthy and powerful up to that point… That stuff was made all. by. hand. Let’s let that sink in for a minute. Ok, now we can appreciate the glorious piece of machinery that the sewing machine is!
Sewing machines do not have to be a big expense. I nearly always recommend that ones first machine be a basic model without too many bells and whistles. I’m a big advocate of used machines as well. They are often heavier than new, but made so much better than the plastic stuff. Even used, there’s a bottom end for pricing which is generally about $45 complete and functional. New the most basic models can be bought for around $80. Beware the new $25 machine! I’ve seen these under several names commonly associated more with kitchen appliances than sewing and they are absolute garbage. While technically they do in fact sew, they are so basic as to not even have adjustable tension. It’s like getting a Power Wheels instead of a real car. The top end prices of course are as high as the market will bear. Yes, I’ve seen used sewing machines the subject of bidding wars, upwards of $300 for a vintage Singer Featherweight and $500 for a Bernina embroidery capable machine (which was a steal, new they start at about $2000).
What to look for in a new machine: all newer models will have a straight stitch, zigzag stitch and a hand full of others. Make sure at least one of those others is a stretch or knits stitch. Also look for a buttonhole function. A machine that comes with a zipper foot, a buttonhole foot and a zigzag or applique foot is nearly always standard, but look at what’s included to be sure. I prefer a machine where the stitch width and length are something I can set myself. Some basic models have three different zigzag sizes and no way to alter them, if you don’t want the ones available you are just out of luck. You may find the simplicity of options more suited to your needs, that’s okay too. If you have a little more money to spend: a fully automatic buttonhole function is really nice, and an automatic needle threader is a godsend for those who struggle with seeing tiny things. Make sure you can lift and carry it easily.
Many new machines have fifteen or more stitches of varying fanciness. Don’t be fooled, you won’t use the Christmas Tree stitch but once in a blue moon. Some new machines come with covers, this is also fluff. These are ugly plastic and should be replaced with your own made one as soon as possible. Some new machines come with hard plastic travel cases, again, not as great as they sound. They tend to be cumbersome, there’s no room for much else besides the machine, and a purchased separately wheeled case will always be better. You’ll find Brother, Janome and Singer with models in this bottom tier range. Those companies are Chinese, Japanese and (as of approximately 1990) Chinese, manufactured in said countries. Brother is also manufactured in Taiwan and Vietnam. I find this information helps me in my decision making.
What to look for in a used machine: First, do your homework, have a few models and brands in mind when you hit the auction sites and your local thrift stores. Also know which ones you want to avoid. Next is power. Plug it in an turn it on. Some older models either have no light or the light has a separate switch, you may have to hunt around a bit. Do not assume it doesn’t work if no light comes on, the bulb may be burned out. Inspect the power cord and foot pedal cord: look for breaks, tears, fraying, and rust or corrosion. Old machines were built to last, but this part is what wears out fastest with the passage of time. The good news is many replacement parts are sold as well as it being reasonably easy for an experienced electronics person to replace old wires. A cracked or frayed power cord may work well enough to see if the rest of the machine suits you, just pay attention and unplug it as soon as you are done.
(unthread the needle and remove the bobbin if it happens to be threaded for this phase of testing)
Manually turn the hand wheel and see if it cycles freely, turn continuously through several stitch cycles, it should move freely without any clicking or scraping noises. A hitch or slowdown in one phase of the wheels turning is bad news, move on from that machine.
Push the power pedal and see how it runs. I find many people are surprised by how quiet those old machines can be, they are a whisper in comparison to modern machines! Again, clicking or scraping noises can be an indication something isn’t quite right, but doesn’t mean it’s irreparable. Run it for a full minute, if the noises die down or stop all together it was simply dry and the oil has redistributed to where it belongs. Conversely if noises get louder this can indicate serious problems. It’s up to you whether the specific machine you are checking out seems worth the effort to take to a professional for repair. Grinding noises and any failure to move through the motions smoothly, like a significant pause somewhere, are indications of serious damage, avoid this machine.
Does this machine require a separate accessory piece to change stitch types? Usually these are disc shaped pieces or look like a toothpaste cap with a big flange. These usually will have numbers and often pictures of the type of stitch they produce on them. If so, you want to be sure you are getting straight and zigzag with the machine. There is no guarantee you’ll find them elsewhere, ever. Many machines made with this separate disc/ gear system date from the 1940’s and those discs were made in Bakelite, Celuloid, and early plastics. When exposed to the sun they became very brittle and Celuloid is actually flammable. So if it has no discs and requires them, move on.
Last, open any compartments or doors not requiring a screwdriver and turn it on it’s back and look underneath. Look for rust or other corrosion. Oily lint is to be expected, but dry dirt may indicate it was stored outdoors where heat dried up the oil leaving crusty dirt behind or even submerged. It’s always a treat to open an old machine to find it clean and well oiled. Yellowed oil globs are normal, this only means it’s been sitting unused for quite a while.
Used machines will nearly always need the tension adjusted and a good cleaning and oiling, don’t let these dissuade you from a good deal.
A manual is mighty handy, but unlikely to be still in the region of an older machine. The good news is every major manufacturer has reproduced their manuals on-line in PDF format, many are free (every Singer manual) but some require a couple bucks to buy it. Get the manual, even if you have to buy it. Some minor brands or foreign manufactured machines not commonly found in the US may be harder to get parts or manuals for, think about this in your research before buying.
Extra feet, bobbins and other accessories are sort of a crap shoot on used machines, take anything offered with it but do not assume they actually fit that machine! Particularly in thrift stores they tend to get mixed up and jumbled.
Last, if you select an older machine, look for owner clubs and forums for your machine. Singer Featherweight machines are still popular with quilters and the 50’s era Singer “Slant-O-Matic” machines have user/ collector clubs too. Bernina hosts all era owner websites. Bernina requires registration, but that’s to be expected when it’s manufacturer supported.
Major manufacturers you are likely to come across in used machines and where they are made:
Singer up until approximately 1990 USA
Kenmore “ “ actually Singer, USA
Singer after 1990 China
Kenmore after 1990 either Janome or Husqvarna
New Home actually Janome, Japan
White connected to Baby Lock, Japan
Baby Lock Japan
Viking connected to Husqvarna, Sweden, China
Shark “ “ “
If you know you will be taking your machine with you to sew different places (classes, a friends house, church) invest in a wheeled case. Fifteen pounds of a newer model machine doesn’t seem like much putting it in the cart at the store but hauling it up the stairs at church or across a parking lot with the cords dragging and three bags of project fabric loaded on your shoulders will change your mind fast.
EDIT: How on earth did I forget about irons?!?!
Irons don’t need to be fancy. Several years ago Consumer Reports tested them. The top model was a $150 Rowenta, the next best, only a fraction of a star lower, was a $15 Black & Decker. Basically as long as the thermostat works, you are good to go. And while you need something to not ruin other surfaces while ironing, those little fold up ironing mats you see on sale with the dorm stuff at back to school time are great. If you are following nearly any pattern or tutorial “turn and press” “press seams open” etc will be there over and over and over. And yes, you really do need to iron as part of the process. Getting more life from your iron: I keep mine dry and keep water in a separate spray bottle. No matter how good or fancy or expensive your iron, they all eventually leak. Easier to avoid the problem all together.
Rotary cutter, cutting mat & quilters ruler
I often see these sold in sets, because you do not want to use a rotary cutter without a good cutting mat, but I often find the pre-packaged sets inadequate in one area or another.
Every scissor manufacturer makes rotary cutters too. Like with scissors, use a coupon and select one that fits your hand nicely. The bigger blade ones are most common and easiest to get replacement blades for. Do not purchase this without also purchasing a quilters ruler or other guides and a cutting mat. Rotary cutters are essentially razor blades. Used without the proper accompanying tools they will destroy your table top, and if you aren’t careful, fingertips too.
Buy the expensive Olfa (green) one, in the biggest size you can afford and store properly. Why? Olfa holds the patent on the magical material that makes the self healing mats, all others are mediocre copies and do not last anywhere as long. Also be sure to care for it and store it properly. Do not iron anywhere near it! Heat ruins them quickly and permanently. Do not roll or store it on its side, keep it flat or hang it (but not from just one hook! Two or more to keep it flat). Once wavy, it will always be wavy. You can use any sharp blade tools on these, exacto knives, lino cutters, etc. it’s a great surface protector.
This doesn’t have to be used only with your rotary cutter, they are awesome rulers period. But you want to only use one, not any random skinny ruler, when you do use your rotary cutter, because it’s the safest way to use that sharp tool. Again, use a coupon, and get the biggest one you can comfortably store.
Last, a dedicated space…
If you are lucky enough to have a spare bedroom or finished basement that you can turn into a dedicated sewing room, woo hoo! You lucky dog! Very few beginners have that option.
Most beginners have a corner of a bedroom or maybe a cabinet in the dining room that can be cleared and dedicated to their sewing stuff. Think about it and make an effort to keep it all in one place together.
If the only space you can dedicate are a folding table and an under bed plastic tote, and they both have to be under the bed when not in use, so be it. But think about it when you are buying your stuff for those first projects. Make an effort to keep your tools tidy and organized.
This may be my longest post to date, but I felt the need to have all this information together in one spot. Happy Hunting!