One of my favourite television series, The Great British Sewing Bee, has now come to an end. I love this program and while I am sad another series has finished I really enjoyed watching it. There are many reasons why I enjoy this program, given my business and my hobby in all things sewing and crafting I am always keen to see what challenges they face each week, but on a wider level I love how this program appeals to so many people and gives many people the confidence to start on their own sewing journey. Families can watch the show together, keen sewers can pick up new tips and learn new skills by trying out the challenges themselves and also people who have never sewn before become enthused and want to try sewing themselves.
The great thing about taking up sewing as a hobby is that, apart from a sewing machine, you do not need a lot of fancy expensive equipment. There are many beginner/entry level machines out there which are priced well and you can often pick them up on local buy and sell groups or charity shops too.
Another thing about The Great British Sewing Bee is that many of the challenges showed how reusing and recycling can be a key element of sewing. Sustainability is so important right now and you don't always need to buy expensive fabric. Instead, you can look around your home and see what you can upcycle – perhaps a pair of curtains, some old jeans that no longer fit, maybe a sweater or two or some scarves. The challenges where they reused or recycled old clothing were some of my favourite challenges of season 7 especially the denim dress challenge. There are lots of ways to reuse fabric off cuts and I have written about this in one of my previous blogs which can be found on my website.
In my sewing classes I am often asked by clients what equipment/tools I have in my sewing “box”. People are often surprised to hear me say that it is not crammed full of fancy equipment. Sewing does not need to be an expensive hobby so I thought I would take the opportunity to highlight some of the items I feel you need in order to start out sewing, and to showcase some of the brands I use myself.
As mentioned above, there are some great entry level machines out there. When starting out the choice can be overwhelming, there are machines that offer a huge variety of stitches, some are computerised, others are manual and it can be very confusing for a first time buyer. The key stitches you need are straight and zig zag, Whilst it is useful to have the option of stretch stitches too (these are great for jersey materials where you need some “give” in the stitches) it is not a necessity to have a machine offering 100+ stitch types and in fact you can sew jersey by using a good old zig zag and still get a professional finish. I still sew my jersey fabrics this way!
If I was looking to buy an entry level sewing machine I would look at these:
Brother LX 17 £ 119.00, Brother XR37NT £209, Janome Model 2200XT £169.00, Janome J3-24 £259.00 or John Lewis JL110 £130 – in fact my mum and sister have this machine!
Did you know that you can now purchase sewing machines that can be operated by hand control use with no need to use a foot pedal? These machines can cost slightly more at entry level price £250-£300, the entry level Brother Innov-is 15 is £249.00, Janome Model 230 Dc £379.00 . I have one of these machines for when I can not use my legs the Brother Innov-is NV1300, and all the machines we use for the classes have the option to be either hand controlled or foot controlled (Brother Innov-is 15).
After watching The Great British Sewing Bee people often feel that they need an overlocker/serger. While this is a great piece of equipment, this is not a piece of equipment you need, it is an extra. In fact, when I create and compile our Sew Ab Fab complete dressmaking kits I try to promote patterns that can be made without the use of an overlocker. More often than not, the raw edges of your garment can be “finished” using a zig zag stitch on your machine.
When buying thread for general sewing I look for either a Gutermann Sew All Thread or a Coats Duet. I would avoid cheaper threads and those that have a slightly fluffy look as they are often weaker and can play havoc with your sewing machine often making the sewing experience a negative one instead of a fun and positive one. A Gutermann 100m thread retails from £1.95 and a Coats Duet 100m thread retails from £1.75.
When starting out I recommend buying thread in a few basic colours – definitely a white and black, a light and dark grey (perfect blenders) and a navy. Personally after this I would only buy thread for a specific project e.g. if I was sewing a skirt I would buy the perfect match, there is no point having a vast collection of thread that you are not going to use.
My sewing kit includes 3 pairs of scissors – all with different uses: fabric, paper and small, sharp pointed scissors. It is really important to buy the best pair you can.
The most important thing to remember with fabric scissors is that they should never be used on paper. Always cut your paper pattern out with separate scissors so that you do not blunt the fabric scissors – these need to remain sharp if you are to accurately cut your fabric pieces, they should cut through your fabric as though you are slicing warm butter!
Your paper scissors do not need to be expensive - just a standard pair of household scissors from your local supermarket or craft shop will be fine. I will let you into a secret mine are from Wilko’s!
However, your fabric scissors need to be sharp. For a mid price range fabric scissor I recommend Friskars RazorEdge Softgrip 23cm, these are durable, sharp and well made. If you find these too big to handle drop down to an 8in/20cm pair.
As I mentioned I also have a pair of small sharp pointed scissors which I use to snip thread, embroider and English Paper Piece, so they really are multifunctional. My current ones are the Friskars Classic Micro-tip Scissors 13cm. However, if all you are going to be using them for is snipping thread, then save your money and buy a pair of snips.
Seam Ripper/ Stitch Un-Picker
My seam ripper is my best friend when it comes to sewing. No matter how good you are you will often find you need to unpick a section of your sewing. For those that watched the Sewing Bee you will have seen just how often mistakes are made and the trusty seam ripper is needed. This tool has a sharp pointy end with a little blade which is used to cut the thread without pulling the fabric. You must use with care as you do not want to cut the fabric, the aim is to remove the stitches without leaving marks.
These un-pickers can be picked up in all sewing shops and in many local craft shops and generally cost just a couple of pounds.
Although pins can be picked up in many places you really do need a set of quality pins. A brand name set will usually be really sharp and will leave fewer holes/marks in your fabric once removed. Personally I recommend Glass Headed pins or Dressmaker pins as both of these allow you to iron your fabric with them in place which the plastic headed pins do not, the plastic pin head will melt under the iron. Although pins can be picked up in the craft aisle of general stores, I cannot stress enough that a blunt pin will often cause more problems than they are worth. Buying a quality set will save you money and stress in the long run. Pins are used throughout the whole sewing process, they are used to pin the paper pattern to the fabric, to hold fabric pieces together when sewing and they are used when turning up hems and sleeves or making adjustments in fit.
I have a large number of tape measures – mainly because I put them down all over the place and can't find them when I need them. So I always keep spares stashed in drawers around my sewing room so I have one to hand at all times. Again, a quality tape measure is really important. Often the cheaper ones stretch over time thereby giving you an inaccurate measurement. When I first started sewing I made the mistake of buying a 3 metre tape measure and spent my while time tripping over it. Unless you are making curtains you only need a tape measure that is 1.5m in length.
When cutting out a pattern it is crucial to transfer all markings onto your fabric – these marks may be for darts, hem lines, or notches for matching pattern pieces etc. There are many ways of making these marks but for most people starting out on their sewing journey tailors chalk or chalk pencils are ideal. I recommend buying these in a couple of colours for use on different colours of material. I avoid marking my fabric in pen unless it is a Frixon pen as this is difficult to remove whereas chalk will brush out easily. These chalks are inexpensive to buy and worth the purchase.
An iron and ironing board
It is really important to iron at every stage of garment construction. A fancy iron is not needed – your regular home iron will work perfectly fine. I do recommend one with a steam function and my top tip is to use the iron in conjunction with a pressing cloth – this can be a piece of cotton, or a plain t-towel and its purpose is to protect your main fabric from intense heat when using the iron.
Whether you are hand sewing or using a machine you will need to buy a packet of general sewing needles. These are available in a variety of sizes. Again, you will want to buy a quality brand name to ensure the needles are sharp and strong as a blunt needle will damage the fabric. Needles are often sold in a mix sized pack and this is what I recommend to start with.
In terms of sewing machine needles – your machine will normally come with a couple of spare needles but as time goes on you will need to buy some replacement needles as they become blunt through use. I recommend you change your sewing machine needle after every project or 8 hours of sewing. It is really important to use the right needle for the project, so if you are sewing denim you want to use a jeans needle and if you are sewing cotton a universal needle is best while for jersey fabrics a stretch needle is appropriate. Now when you purchase your sewing machine needles they will often be in a little box of 5 or 10 and they will include a range of sizes, the lower the size number the finer the material and the larger the size number the heavier the material. For example, a packet of Mixed Universal Sewing Machine Needles will normally have a size range of 75 (ideal for use with Light weight Cottons such as Pima Cotton Lawn) to 100 (great for heavier weight cottons such as canvas). If you think about it this is the cheapest part of your sewing machine and the easiest thing to fix, often if your machine is not stitching well or there is a birds nest of threads it is because your needle is blunt and needs changing. Sewing machine needles start at £2.05.