sewing 101: tools of the trade

Posted by & filed under Sewing 101.

Wow, what a fantastic response from y’all about this sewing course! I’ve already had nearly a hundred people speak up to say they’ll be following along – many of whom really are baby sewers (seamstresses? seamsters?). I’m geeked that this is going to be useful to so many people – the pressure is on now to make it great! And, so many of y’all have sewing machines that are yet unopened – that serve as drink holders in the box or that have made only a few timid stitches before being tucked back away. No more. We are bringing the sewing machine back, my friends!

Now, I warned you yesterday that we are going to start with the very basics. If you’re an intermediate sewer, don’t be turned off – you may even learn something here. Who knows?

While I am eager to plug in machines all across the world and jump right in, today we’re not even going to glance in the direction of our machines. It’s not time. We’re just going to focus on supplies. Below is a list of all of the basic tools that you may want to have around in your shiny little sewing kit. I’m sure you could arguably add or subtract from this list, but these tools will get you through this course with flying colors!


Tools of the Trade

(you can also find all of these items in the handy shopping list I have assembled for this course)

1. 4″x4″ muslin squares – twenty of them should do the trick, maybe thirty if you’re feeling nervous – they’re always handy to have on hand. I will be using solid black squares so my white thread will show up very clearly in photos. You can use pink or green or blue or whatever. But I do recommend that it be a solid color.

2. tracing paper – this is often used when sewing from a pattern in combination with the tracing wheel (13) to mark darts or hem lines onto your fabric non-permanently. Buying one pack will last you a lifetime so share it with a buddy if you can.

3. bent scissors – I cannot emphasize enough that your sewing scissors should be used ONLY on fabric. Have a second set of scissors around to cut paper or velcro or wire or whatever else you need to cut. If you want your cuts to be clean, keep your sewing scissors pure. I have a friend (hi, Keight!) who has taped danger warnings to her sewing scissors, woe-ing the fool who sneaks a snip of anything besides fabric with her set-apart steel. Keep it clean, y’all. (and also, it’s okay to keep it inexpensive. You can get a fine pair for $12 or so).

4. a marking utensil – I love these Disappearing Ink/Mark B Gone pens. One side is water-soluble and the other is air soluble. So fancy, so visible, so right. I don’t mess with chalk markers at all in favor of this guy.

5. rotary cutter – yes, you could probably get away with just scissors. But for cutting lots of squares (like the 4″x4″ squares you need for next week – or for a quilt), a cutting mat (14), clear ruler (15) and rotary cutter can’t be beat. I got mine as a 3-piece kit with a 50% off coupon for about $25 and am so glad to have it.

6. snips – for all the little threads. They’re smaller and easier to manage. I keep a pair handy whenever stitching at my machine.

7. pins & pincushion – can we take a little interlude halfway through our list to examine three different methods for corralling your pins? (Sure, why not, Raechel? That sounds fun!)

There. Wasn’t that a fun way to talk about pins and pin cushions? I hope you enjoyed.

8. thread – it’s nice to have lots of colors of thread, but for this month, just have something that is a high contrast to your solid fabric squares. I pictured grey here, but as I said, I’m going with white for the rest of the month. You’ll also want thread for our project in week 4 – whatever coordinated with your fabric choices.

9. tailor tape – a must. at least one – you’ll use it for everything.

10. seam gauge – this little bit of magic is handy for quick (and short) measurements, but is specifically made for things like hem lengths. It’s handy to keep on the ironing board when you have to turn your fabric up 1/2″ all the way across and  you need it to be perfect.

11. needle & thread – yes, I already listed thread, and a needle feels obvious. Even with the best machine in town, there will always be moments when nothing will do but a hand stitch.

12. seam ripper – everyone needs one. heck, every project needs one. mistakes are inevitable and a good seam ripper makes the undoing process a little quicker and less bitter. well, a little less bitter.

13. tracing wheel – you’ll use this in combination with your tracing paper (2) to make subtle-yet-critical marks on your fabric when using a pattern.

14. cutting mat – to be used with the rotary cutter (3) and acrylic ruler (15). I use it for cutting, measuring, eyeballing, and to protect my sewing table when I’m wielding a hammer to install snaps.

15. acrylic ruler – to be used with cutting mat (14) and rotary cutter (3). don’t try to make a quilt without one.


Stocking your sewing basket/drawer/bin with these fifteen items will give you a great start in your sewing career. And beyond these, the only other things you’ll need to rock this course is a pretty little notebook (5×7-ish) and some double-sided tape. Here’s the one I found for $2.99 at Target last night. The cover says, “She’s a dreamer, a doer, a thinker. She sees possibility everywhere.”

I heart it.

As we go through the lessons, you will use the notebook for making notes, keeping finished fabric squares (attached with the double-sided tape) and generally feeling tidy about all that you’ve learned. The book is not critical, but if you’re anything like me, it will feel really nice to assemble it as we go along.


Tomorrow, we approach the machine!

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28 Responses

  1. keight 3 April 2012 at 11:00 am

    my “WHOA” to the man warning says, “FABBIE ONLY!” in an angry font. its the only way to go.

    a few notes:

    1. your mark be gone pen is the ONLY one i use now and is so very superior to the cheaper ones i have bought.

    2. to the people: dont be an april fool and buy an acrylic ruler that is not at least 6 inches wide and i personally believe, at least as long as the longest side of your mat. i did both when i started out so that i could start smaller and cheaper and they were worthless pretty much off the bat. (if you are bigtime and have a huge cutting mat, thats different).

    3. when i saw your fancy pin dish i was sad that the happy pink magnet one was gone. what lesson is going to cover labeling magnetic pincushions that look similar to your neighbors (“not that i care…”)

    4. i cant believe you own a tomato.

    loving this already.

    • Raechel Myers 3 April 2012 at 11:16 am

      wait – was I wrong about “woe” to the man? I feel like we’ve had this conversation before.

      1. yes, I know.

      2. agreed. I’m pretty happy with mine ad it’s 6.5″ wide and 24.5″ long. I think that’s the one I linked to. don’t go any smaller than that.

      3. no lessons will cover that this month. in march I will be covering life lessons, however, such as: Coveting your neighbors wife and magnetic pincushion. I expect it to be pretty popular.

      4. I can’t either! I just gutted my sewing room for a spring deep clean and didn’t find one, then I found my old, old sewing box and there were a bunch of elusive glue sticks in there, as well as a tomato and a pirate’s bounty of wrong-sized bobbins.

    • Anne 8 September 2015 at 3:04 pm

      I really don’t agree with the ruler info. It depends! You have to be sure you can control the ruler and stop it moving. I have very small hands (I’m a UK size 10 petite) – there is no way my hands will stretch across 6 or 6.5 inches comfortably enough to hold a ruler steady at that width. I have found that a 4in by 14in ruler works fantastically for me cutting 4 layers of fabric. I have recently bought the Quilters Slidelock from Barnyarns in UK and this has really made so much difference to my control of the ruler – especially those I just can’t stretch my hand over. Using it on the 4 x 14 inch ruler I have cut through 9 layers of fabric without any movement at all.

  2. Jessica 3 April 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Pin Cushion Option 4 – A wrapped bar of soap. It helps the pins glide into the fabric so easily! Thank you Pinterest!

    As a not-beginner sew-ist, I have to say I’m still super excited about this series! You always make such beautiful things!

  3. katie 3 April 2012 at 1:23 pm

    hi raechel,

    i just bought the pattern for the class. i only have my best friends moms 1990s machine to work with. do you think that will do?? i am just dying to learn to sew and i feel like you have to be the best person to teach me since i have been in awe of every thing you have sewed since i stumbled on this blog 2 years ago.

    thank you!!! kd

  4. Katie Bernshausen 3 April 2012 at 2:34 pm

    I’m excited that you are doing this series! So fun.

    I’m already learning, I had no idea what {#10} a seam gauge was or used for! I have one that a more experienced sewer handed down to me but never explained it. And I will be putting it to use because there are so many times the I need to measure at my ironing board but just end up eye balling it {sometimes to my demise} because I am too lazy to go back and get my ruler. :)

  5. Ashley Ward 3 April 2012 at 7:02 pm

    The part where you said its not time to touch the machines makes me think of the episode of Friends where Phoebe is teaching Joey to play guitar and won’t let him touch a guitar :D

  6. Megan Wilson 3 April 2012 at 9:13 pm

    thank you for doing this! I got a sewing machine for Christmas and I am too scared to take it out of the box, I will definitely be tuning in!

  7. Shannon 4 April 2012 at 12:54 pm

    For those that are interested in loading up on any supplies Joanns has a free shipping code for online orders. It is good for today, 4/4, only!


  8. Sarah M. 4 April 2012 at 2:08 pm

    Okay…I am a little…okay a lot embarrassed to ask this question. I could google it, but then you wouldn’t get to be the teacher and tell me that “there is no such thing as a stupid question”. So, I am going to stock up on supplies at Joann’s today and before I walk in there and feel stupid, muslin squares…is muslin a type of fabric? I told you, I have NO knowledge. And, do I buy the squares pre-cut to 4×4 or do I buy a certain amount of fabric and cut my own?

    And now you can say the rest of that saying, “only stupid people who ask them”….

    • Raechel Myers 4 April 2012 at 9:10 pm

      Hey Sarah!
      totally not a stupid question – I can see how I wasn’t super clear there. Honestly, glad you asked! I said “muslin squares” because that’s what you will need to make to use for the class. I should have said, “buy about 1/2 yard of fabric – muslin or quilting cotton (both types of fabric) in a solid color (muslin only comes in white/cream) and cut it up into a stack of 4″x4″ squares.”

      Shame on me for not making that a bit clearer!

      • Sarah M. 4 April 2012 at 9:26 pm

        Phew. Glad I didn’t go in asking for muslin squares haha! And don’t worry…you have a LOT to explain and I’m probably one of the only ones that didn’t know this! You’re already teaching me so much! Thanks again!

  9. Jenny Andersen 17 April 2012 at 6:22 pm

    I am so behind. I still need to get some tools. We use my scissors for everything. I probably won’t get caught up. Hopefully you will have your tutorials up for a while ;) I am a busy working mom.

  10. Melly 28 November 2012 at 1:07 am

    I feel like I am drinking Icelandic water, reading your blog. This is so refreshing, even everyone’s comments and your answers! Didn’t know what muslin squares were either. Ha ha. It’s 1 am and I can’t stop reading. I am gonna get to read the whole process before and during at this rate. I feel like I am not alone in my fear of sewing machines or fear of failure or terminology or all of the above. Yay!

  11. Jenny Bjerke 4 December 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Hi Raechel!
    My name is Jenny Bjerke and I am just now taking your class. My mother-in-law gave me a Brother CS 770 sewing machine for my birthday this year. I am so excited to go over this course with you! Thanks for creating this sewing 101 blog and just blogging in general. :)

  12. Christina 31 March 2014 at 7:03 pm

    Thanks for leaving this up still. I just ordered the supplies I am missing! I know I’m about a year late, but is the rest of your tutorial still available to go through? I’ll be checking next of course. I really hope so. I have so much to learn ;)

  13. Rossie 23 November 2014 at 9:39 am

    I also want to thank you for the Sewing 101 blog. I received a nice Singer sewing machine for Christmas last year and I have been wanting to use it, but my sewing skills have definitely gotten quite rusty through the years. My mother and grandmother taught me how to sew as a young girl. Well, fast forward 20 years later and five children later, I haven’t had time to touch a sewing machine. I am so excited to refresh my skills.
    Thank you!

  14. Sam 30 May 2015 at 3:47 pm

    I’m in the process of acquiring all of the tools needed to take your course (that I found out about thanks to Pinterest). I didn’t want to order off of the Internet so the only Fiskars cutting set I found is the cheaper one that has the 6×6 in rotating mat, ruler and rotary blade. Will that suffice? Or should I just suck it up and order the one you linked to from Amazon?

  15. Jennifer 12 March 2016 at 9:51 pm

    Hi Raechel!!!
    And yes 4 year after you originally posted this I have stumbled upon it!!! I’ve been looking high and low for easy to understand tutorials / lessons. I wasn’t able to still find the pattern that you make at the end and was wondering if you know of where I could find it. Thank you so much!!!

  16. Tracy 26 March 2016 at 4:38 pm

    Just came across your blog. I got a new sewing machine for Christmas this past year. I am so excited to find this class. I will begin this weekend! Thank you.


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