5 indispensable sewing tools I had completely underestimated

Ladystitcher Top Tools

When I first thought about learning to sew and make my own clothes, my mother gave me a brilliant present: a new sewing box with lots of useful bits and bobs inside including machine and hand sewing needles, a variety of pins, a spongey pincushion, good fabric scissors, tailor’s chalk (the sort that comes in a hard little square) and a measuring tape. This kit was a great toolbox for a new sewer starting out and I didn’t really think about adding any other implements or accessories for quite some time.

More recently, through reading different sewing blogs and books, I’ve come across suggestions for other sewing tools which I had initially dismissed as not being of particular use to a beginner. There are so many sewing-related gadgets and tools out there that it’s really hard for beginners to figure out what’s worth picking up and what’s an unnecessary expense. I soon discovered that I had really underestimated the usefulness of five of these in particular, and thought I’d share them in case you might be in the same boat in terms of keeping sewing costs down and limiting your sewing gadgetry.

1. Wax for hand sewing

It is almost ridiculous just how useful this has been for me in preventing thread from tangling up while hand sewing waistbands and bindings, or even just quickly basting two pieces of fabric together. A very simple, but very effective, tool for your kit which should be stocked in your local sewing store.

2. A really good marking pen

I used to rely solely on the standard square tailor’s chalk that came in my sewing box gift, but I found it hard to make accurate markings with it because the edges became dull so quickly and yet the chalk wasn’t soft enough to make a nice clear mark.

My husband bought me a chalk pen set at Joanne’s (it’s the red pen above) for Christmas last year. The pen came with a set of over a dozen white and multicoloured replacement nibs as well as a sharpener for replenishing the point. The chalk is good enough quality to mark any of the fabrics I’ve used it on, from wovens through knits, but rubs off really easily and hasn’t left any stains. I can’t tell you how much time and frustration this one pen has saved me!

3. Tailor’s ham

I held off on sourcing one of these for ages, mistakenly believing they were really only useful when inserting sleeves. Nope – the tailor’s ham comes in handy for pressing all sorts of shapes and seams. Pressing seams properly makes such a huge difference to how ‘finished’ a garment looks – and once the item is made up, there’s no going back in there to smooth things out!

Ladystitcher Tools close

4. Bias binding makers

One sewing task I always put off tackling is making matching bias binding. It’s not that hard – just a bit dull! I bought these three Hemline bias binding makers which definitely make the task a lot easier. They’re really not essential for making binding – you can certainly make it just fine using a few pins, a measuring tape and a good iron – but they really speed up the process. The one I use most is the 1″ binding one, but the other two do come in useful.

5. A rotary cutter

I have a really good pair of fabric scissors and so for a long time I thought they would see me through just fine. However, I had a lot of difficulty in trying to cut lighter fabrics with any kind of accuracy using the scissors: the fabric kept slipping and shifting around when lifted for the scissors. I sourced my rotary cutter on eBay and bought a self-healing cutting mat at a local art supply store and have found them particularly useful for cutting knits (so quick and no stretching out of shape!) and very lightweight fabric. And the rotary cutter is especially useful when cutting fabric strips for binding!

So what simple, but brilliantly useful, inexpensive sewing tools do you turn to time and again? What else have I been missing out on all this time??

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Owls sweater: My first knitted garment!

Owls Lady Stitcher

I felt really excited about sewing during Me-Made-May but somehow my sewjo has really collapsed in the past fortnight. I think it’s down to a combination of having difficulty finding the right fabric for the projects I want to work on and feeling a tad overwhelmed by all the sewing events I want to take part in, but don’t have time to.

BUT I am happily back into knitting! After some hiccups on that front, I’ve regained knitting confidence through the Owls sweater knit-along organised by Kat of A Krafty Kat and Sabs of Tybalt: King of Cats. I’ve had the Kate Davies pattern on standby for, literally, years but never tried it. Knitting is so much more of a commitment for me than sewing (and it’s much harder to modify the fit as you work) so I think I’ve been unnecessarily cautious about picking knitting patterns to try.

Owls Lady Stitcher Back

The knitalong was perfect for building knitting confidence: Sabs and Kat were great for giving advice throughout the project and the pattern is quite easy to follow. The only real difficulties I encountered were in trying to use the magic loop method to sew the sleeves in the round. I gave it a shot because I couldn’t find the right sized DPNs, but once I got my hands on them, knitting the sleeves was a dream. (I also knit quite tightly and had to cast off three times (!) before the neck opening was wide enough to squeeze my head through.)

I used Debbie Bliss Rialto Chunky in Ruby (bought from This Is Knit in Dublin) and love the colour and softness of this merino wool. It makes for a really cosy – albeit seasonally inappropriate – sweater! I also decided, like fellow knitalonger Charlotte, not to sew on the button eyes as I prefer these little guys without them.

Owls Lady Stitcher Closeup

Buoyed by the success of this, my first finished knitted garment, I’ve already launched into a new project: the Panelled Effect Lady’s Jumper from Jane Waller and Susan Crawford’s book, A Stitch in Time. The pattern requires a bit of concentration but is not so complicated that a novice knitter can’t manage it. I’m using another Debbie Bliss yarn – a 4-ply in a steel grey colour.

Lady Stitcher Panelled Jumper

Cats and Cocos: Stress-free sewing

Mousey

I had some dental surgery last week which has laid me low for a while. I  haven’t been up to tackling any big or tricky projects post-surgery, but last weekend I wanted to sew something – something simple. So, I turned to two of my favourite things: cats and Cocos.

The first project I worked on was a sweet stuffed toy for the cat. Working from Creative Pixie’s handy mouse-making tutorial, I used some fabric left over from my Murphy dress for the body and cut the mouse ears from the same grey knit as my first Coco. I also inserted a bell from a Lindt chocolate Santa and some dried catnip along with the mouse stuffing to spice it up a bit for her, then secured a string tail. The stuffing also came from leftovers – I had used it for the needle case I made at Christmas.

Our cat is pretty tough on toys so I’m not sure how long this little creature will last! It was really quick to make though, so won’t be too hard to whip up a few more when the time comes. Plus, it’s a handy use of fabric scraps – and she’s certainly been enjoying it.

Cue a cat-smushing-toy-in-face photo:

Cat Face

Cat Heart Mouse

And then for a bit of selfish sewing… I’ve had a lovely soft, very lightweight, polka dot jersey on standby for a while. I found a yard of it in a remnant bin for a few euros and thought that one day, I’d get around to making some kind of pyjama top out of it. Well I forgot all about that until I saw Stitch and Witter’s cosy bedtime Coco and remembered that I had squirreled this fabric away.

The polka dot knit (it’s an off-white base with grey dots) is very lightweight so I made the yoke and short sleeves out of some of the leftover red fabric from my sporty Coco to preserve some modesty.

Night Coco Front

This is one soft pyjama t-shirt! I’ve been holding off on wearing it since making it on Sunday so I could photograph it and now I can’t wait to snuggle into it! I like the way the unfinished sleeve and bodice ends suit the softness and casual feel of the top, so I’ve left them unfinished.

What do you turn to when you want to do something craft-related, but don’t want to commit to a big project?

Seed scarf: Tackling negative knitting with simple stitches

Sirdar Click

My sisters bought me four balls of lovely double knit Sirdar ‘Click’ yarn for Christmas, and I thought that I would put them to good use to re-build my knitting confidence with a simple scarf project. I’ve found seed stitch great for producing a lovely, cosy scarf in lighter weight wool, and this knit up really well. Click is 70% acrylic and 30% wool, and comes in some really cool colours. This was the ‘teal twist 203’ shade.

Seed Scarf

My knitting hit a wall late last year about three-quarters of the way through a vintage pattern project. I was working on this 1940s tunic from one of Jane Waller’s fabulous books and was almost, almost, finished…but ran out of yarn just as I started into the second sleeve. I was pretty confident at the time that I had bought more (at least a whole 50g more) than I needed, but somehow, I was short. I tried and tried to source a ball from the matching dye lot online, but it wasn’t to be. I even tried comparing another dye lot, but the colour was way off.

So, the almost-completed tunic has been sitting in my knitting bag untouched for months. I was really enjoying the project and loved the yarn weight and colour. It was really frustrating to get stuck like that so near the end. And that’s not the first time it’s happened – I still have the remains of a long-ago half-knitted cardigan around here too (cringe…).

Well, I think enough time has passed for me to try again. I’m still shelving the tunic (for now!) but I’m determined to get back on the knitting wagon and actually make a sweater that (a) fits and (b) I like. I’ve had Kate Davies’s gorgeous ‘owls’ sweater pattern for ages and now I’ve signed up to join Kat from A Krafty Kat and Sabs of Tybalt: king of cats in an owls knitalong. We’re starting mid-March, so if you’ve never knitted it but fancy giving it a go along with us, just say so in the comments below!

Do you have any tips for getting back on track with a frustrating project or a craft?

Seed Close Up

Crazy for Coco: Learning to sew with knits

Coco cat front

Tilly Walnes’s new pattern, Coco, came out just as I was wondering how best to tackle sewing with knit fabrics. I’ve sewn a wool skirt, but have stayed away from any kind of wool or cotton blend that involved a bit of stretch because I wasn’t really sure how to approach it. When I saw Coco’s release this week, I knew I’d found a good place to start.

At first look, the pattern appeared both approachable and simple (there are only three main pattern pieces to the top or dress: sleeve, front bodice and back bodice). Plus, the core versions outlined by Tilly are all lovely simple silhouettes and really wearable. Having used the pattern, I can now confirm that it is a simple one and a brilliant introduction to sewing knits.

I already had ball-point needles to hand, but had no knit fabrics in my stash, so I scoured the main fabric shops in Dublin city centre to see what my options were. The most suitable fabrics I found were in the lovely The Cloth Shop, but the only colour options were cream/beige, deep brown and steel grey. Nude and brown shades aren’t really my thing, so I took a chance on the grey, although I suspect it’s a tad heavier and stretchier than the pattern calls for. It is, though, fantastically soft to touch – if I could afford to go back and buy the rest of the roll, I would!

Image

Coco and casual-photo-bombing cat

Initially, I had my eye on making up the shorter version with cuffed sleeves and roll neck (it’s so fantastically 60s!), but, on consideration, thought that this fabric would be more suited to the dress. I’ve omitted the pockets though because they just didn’t look quite right on me, but I would love to have a go at putting a strongly contrasting colour like a golden yellow or neon pink against this grey. There’s not much chance of finding either of those colours in the shops here though so I think I’ll be ordering some fabric samples from the suggested stockists on Tilly’s site for my future Cocos.

I bought the pdf version of the pattern and the instructions are very simple, methodical and clear (Tilly is planning to post detailed instructions soon on her site to coincide with a forthcoming Coco sew-along). I did also use Sewaholic’s Renfrew tutorial for more detail on stabilising the shoulder seams and found that really helpful.

I’m really pleased with how easy it was to make this dress, and it’s lovely and cosy to wear. I don’t have a serger, so made it all on my regular Janome sewing machine. Once I’ve sourced some other lovely knits, I’ll get stuck into making a few of the top versions, with and without the funnel roll neck!

(Speaking of the roll neck, here’s how it looks standing up before it’s rolled down over the neck seamline:)

Image

Wrapping up: Final sewing project of 2013

Happy New Year!

I photographed this project – a knitting needle case for my mother – a couple of weeks ago in preparation for a post, but I’ve been holding off putting it on the blog until I was sure it had been received at Christmas!

Needle Case

I opted for a cute bunny print cotton as the contrast interior and a grey polycotton as the main colour. I somehow managed to not photograph the ribbon to tie the closed case up with (ahem, see my New Year’s resolution below…). The pattern is Butterick B5006. I bought it with the intention of making myself a good cat-proof knitting bag, but instead have used the knitting needle case part a few times for gifts (the last one I made up was for my sister and involved this fun Michael Miller alien print as the contrast to a complimentary blue main fabric).

Last project 2013

Skills learned: I’ve worked with this pattern before, but I used a thicker wadding this time around so I think the ‘skill’ I worked on most here was manipulating a much chunkier project than usual.

Recommend pattern? The only segment of the pattern I’ve used so far is this needle-case but it certainly does the job for that. Had I not had one on hand, though, I could have drafted my own version.

Next steps…

I have been really enjoying catching up on my blog reading over the past few days and seeing reviews of various sewing and knitting projects of 2013. It’s also been really interesting to read up on bloggers’ plans for the coming year.

I’ve never been great for New Year’s resolutions, so all I’ll say on that front is that I hope to continue building my sewing skills with new and exciting projects in 2014 – and that I maintain this blog while I’m at it! I started the blog with the sole aim of using it as encouragement to push my sewing education and I really think it is helping to keep me focused. I completed several pieces this year, which is more than I had expected to do, and some of these are now in regular rotation in my wardrobe. Although sewing has fast become my favourite hobby and pastime, my sewing budget remains pretty tight so it’s important that whatever I sew is actually useful to me in an everyday sense. (This lesson was learned very early on – the first dress I ever made was a lovely and well-fitting purple party dress which I have never worn!)

One area of the blog I specifically aim to develop this year concerns the photos of finished projects for the blog. With that in mind, I’ll soon be posting a couple of pieces that I finished up late in 2013 but haven’t written about here yet.

Hope your 2014 is off to a good start! 🙂

Knitting inspiration: stitch ‘dictionaries’

Stitch dictionary

So the 1940s tunic/simple sweater I’ve been working on has hit a bit of a wall: I had bought more wool than the project apparently required in case I needed extra, but it turns out that I still need more. Unfortunately, I only realised this after knitting the front, the back, and most of one sleeve. There’s just no way I have enough to finish the second sleeve and I’ve been scouring the internet in a (so far) vain attempt to find just one skein from the same dye batch. Just one! Argh…

I’m trying to think of ways to salvage the project, but I’m putting it aside for the moment to see if the miracle ball of yarn shows up somewhere online. In the meantime, I’m turning my attention to Christmas present production.

Every year, I knit at least two or three scarves as gifts for family or friends and have found knitting or stitch ‘dictionaries’ brilliant sources of inspiration when designing scarves for different people. I bought this one (pictured above) in New York a few years back, after buying a copy for my sister who was then just learning to knit. I thought it would be really useful to have to hand whenever I would start to design my own projects and it’s been invaluable when it comes to scarves.

Stitch index

By outlining different types of stitches or different pattern plans, it’s really easy to modify them and to develop your own border and pattern combinations.

One of my favourite projects so far has been this red merino-mix scarf I made for myself a few years back using basketweave stitch with a moss stitch border. Although it’s fairly lightweight, it’s one of the warmest that I own and I just love the bright red colour:

Me scarf

I don’t have pics of the myriad other scarves I’ve finished over the past few years, but I’ll definitely be drawing on this book again in the coming weeks as I design a new batch of scarves for the festive season. I’ll post pics when the projects are underway, but I particularly love these three designs and hope to incorporate some of them into my plans:

Fancypants stitches