The Bare Essentials: Machine Sewing

So you’ve decided to take up machine sewing! Or your niece asked for a sewing machine for Christmas. Or you’re just dipping a tow in to see how deep the water is. Whatever brought you here, I’m laying out a (very short) list of the basic, essential tools to get in and out of your first sewing project without extra clutter and a crazy credit card bill. 

A little background about me before we jump right in, I got my first sewing machine in high school. My parents wisely opted for a cheaper, beginner machine in lieu of The Best Machine Money Can Buy in case it was a passing fad and ten years later, I still use the same machine. Later, when I started dabbling in real projects after college, I was living the glamorous paycheck-to-paycheck life and couldn’t afford to waste money on unnecessary supplies. I am breathing, coffee-drinking proof that learning to sew does not have to be an expensive undertaking. 

The Musts

These are the must-have tools to beg, borrow, or steal-from-your-sibling to begin Your First Project:

1. Sewing Machine

The best thing since before sliced bread, a sewing machine is a marvelous, mystical piece of mechanics. Like I said before, you don’t need a suped-up model to get the job done. To do 99% of beginning projects, I suggest finding a machine with at least an array of stitches, including a straight stitch, a zig-zag stitch, a double-or-triple stitch, and an automatic button-hole setting. Bonus points if it comes with a twin needle, a zipper foot, and a narrow hemmer foot. 

Have a hand-me-down machine? Incredible! I suggest you replace the needle to avoid the more common beginner frustrations a dull needle can bring. *When buying new needles or feet for a machine, most brands are universally compatible. Check your manual to be sure, but a Schmidtz needle should work with a Singer machine the same as it would a Brother. 

Brother XM2701 | Singer 3232 | Brother Project Runway CS5055PRW

2. Scissors 

You might find yourself standing in the aisle wondering, 'Do I need fabric scissors?' Yes and no. Any pair of scissors will cut fabric, but I suggest you designate a pair - new or used, regular or fabric-specific - for cutting only fabric. When your scissors start 'sticking' while you cut, or your snips become extra-jagged, consider splurging on a new pair.

Cheap | Cheaper | Cheapest

3. Pins

Ever wanted 1,000 instant best friends? Pins. Specifically, brightly-colored pins. Try to grab a box of ones with a little extra length. 

Good Deal | Better Deal

4. Tape Measure

I'd bet every other girl in a bar bathroom line does not know her true measurements. Whether you're making up a pattern on the fly or using something pre-made, you will need something flexible and functional to get accurate numbers. 

Pink | White | Black

5. Seam ripper

No one is perfect, especially not first-time sewers. Save your sanity and your time and pick up a seam ripper. 

Regular | Bougie | Completely Excessive

6. Fabric

If you picked up a pre-made pattern for your first project, it will list the amount and type of fabric needed. Because of the overwhelming variety of fabric types, I strongly suggest picking up the material for your first few projects in person. Getting started with no plan in mind and no idea how much fabric you'll need? Consider checking out the clearance section of the fabric store or the 'muslin' aisle for the best deals on fabric to practice with. 

Wondering where to shop for great fabric deals? Download the JOANN Fabric app for an almost never-ending supply of 50% off coupons, or pop into Walmart's surprisingly great fabric section.

7. Thread 

One bobbin of universal thread is all you need to start. Thread that is your fabric's exact shade or a shade darker will better hide some of your messier beginner seams. 

8. Trims, Odds, and Ends

Pre-made patterns will also list any extras a project may require: elastics, buttons, zippers, etc. Buy supplies as you need them, instead of stockpiling things you might use someday. A trip to the fabric store is better than having six extra zippers in colors and sizes you don't need. 

The Maybes

Could you live without caffeine? Yes. Would you want to? Not necessarily. If you’ve got wiggle-room in your budget, consider adding these to your shopping cart. 

1. Pin Cushion 

When I started sewing, a pin cushion seemed like an unnecessary extravagance. I took my pins out of their little box, used them, and put them back in their little box. Having a pin cushion speeds the process up, but your world will not crumble without one.

Classic Tomato | Edgy Hedgehog | What Kanye West Would Buy, Probably

2. A Variety of Needles and Feet

New projects will bring new skills which require new tools. If you want to work with leather, you'd buy a leather needle. If you're sewing a lot of children's clothes, you might find a gathering foot useful. Your machine should come with a variety of accessories, so consult your manual before shopping online. 

Presser Feet Kit | Needle Combo Pack

3. Iron and Ironing Board

It's said that the tell-tale sign of a handmade garment is non-pressed seams. I don't know that I agree with that, but I do think we adults should own an iron and ironing board just for the sake of being adults and owning irons and ironing boards. 

Iron | Ironing Board

4. Fabric Marking Pencil

For very visual learners, it might be helpful to actually draw a pattern onto your fabric. If you're pinching pennies, a regular pencil will get the job done. I, myself, have found a white fabric pencil to be very handy with black fabric.

5. Pinking Shears

Pinking shears are God's gift to lazy tailors. They 'neatly' finish the raw edges of most fabrics with almost no effort. Not needed, but welcomed nonetheless.

Pinking Shears | Shears and Scissors Set

The Meh, Not Necessary

Official Tailors will name-drop some tools that are just not needed for beginner seamstresses; save your singles to tip your waiters. 

1. Serger/Overlocker 

A serger (or overlocker) is a more powerful sewing machine that makes beautiful, retail-clothing-level seams almost instantaneously. It can do a lot, but it can't topstitch or make a very basic hem, so you still need your regular sewing machine. If you're looking to expand your arsenal, I have this model and absolutely love it.

2. Dress Form

A dress form is a body-double that you can measure, drape fabric over, and pin to death while trying to create new garments. If you prefer to use pre-made patterns, a dress form won't do you much good, move along. If you do need a dress form but don't want to drop a month's rent on one, find a great tutorial on duct-tape dress forms here; that's how I drafted many, many of my first projects on a razor thin budget.

Happy crafting! xo

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