Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Improvised Sewing Tools: Hints & Tips



Although it can save you money in the long term, sewing can be a costly hobby, particularly when you’re just starting out. In addition to investing in a machine, there are about a squillion tools on the market tempting you with their promise of making sewing that little bit faster, easier, more efficient.

But just as you’re being creative making your own clothing, you can get creative making some of your sewing tools yourself or improvising with things you have around the house. Here are some ideas…


1) Make your own dress form
I recently invested in a dress form, which I must say I love. But for my first two years of sewing I did without. I spent a fun afternoon making my own out of parcel paper – and you can too. It may not be quite as elegant as a padded form on a wooden stand, but on the plus side a parcel tape version conforms to your shape exactly.



2) Improvise pattern weights
You don’t need to buy specialist pattern weights to hold your pattern pieces in place while you draw round them. Grab whatever you have on hand – I use tins of sardines for corners, tins of beans for curves.

3) Alternative to a loop turner
I still can’t get over the fact that you can buy an implement whose sole purpose is to turn tubes of fabric inside out. Maybe I just don't turn enough loops in my life? Alternatively you can enclose a piece of string or cord inside the tube when you’re sewing it, stitch it to one end to secure it, then pull it out the other end while turning the tube of fabric. Okay, so the loop turner may be slightly quicker, but I’m pretty sure people made do without for decades :)



4) Improvise pressing aids
A tailor’s ham and seam roll are useful for pressing shaped parts of garments. But they’re not cheap, so if you can’t afford them right now, you can use a towel instead. Roll or mould the towel into your desired shape. I do this and am happy with the result!


5) Marking tools you may already own
My favourite tool for transferring pattern markings onto fabric? Washable felt tip! If you can’t get to the haberdashery store for your tailor’s chalk, look in your newsagent or supermarket for a cheap packet of kids' washable felt pens instead. They’re not suitable for all fabrics, so test them out first, but I use these for loads of sewing projects.

Do you have any make-shift sewing tool tips of your own? Do share!

[Soundtrack: 'Rich Girl' by Nina Simone]

63 comments:

  1. Awesome post Tilly! It really needed to be said, I find it so frustrating how commercialised sewing can be, the amount of 'stuff' we are encouraged to buy.

    I use ordinary pencils and biros for marking fabric. When I do use chalk, I sharpen it with the blade of my scissors, similarly to you, I can't believe someone invented a gadget specifically to sharpen tailors chalk!

    Zo xxx

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    1. Hahaha exactly! The inspiration for this post came from comparing the recommended tools pages of two sewing books, one from 1946 and one from present day. Plus all the "must have" recommendations I see on websites sometimes - reminds me too much of the "must have" skirt in Grazia or whatever. xx

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  2. Great, these tools are exactly what I use. I just use shoes!!! and books as pattern weights, because I don't have tins on hand. For a long time I used kohl to mark patterns on jersey fabrics, but I also converted to felt pens in the last years.

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    1. Moreover I use sandwich paper for tracing patterns. It's cheap and has the same feel as the paper from Burda patterns. For bigger pieces I just tape together several strips of paper.

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  3. I use soft pencils for pattern marking, just as good and washable as chalk. A 2B works for most fabrics.

    I use chopsticks as loop turners! I recently had to turn loads of tubes for a dress I was making and after doing 2 with my hands resulting in very numb fingers, chopsticks made the whole thing a lot easier!

    I'm yet to make my own dress form, but I've been planning to do it for ages! Is the parcel tape the paper stuff? Not sure I'll be able to find it in Austria, will have a look!

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    1. Yep it's just paper tape which becomes sticky when daubed with a wet sponge. I'm sure you can find something equivalent. I've also seen a tutorial which uses gaffer tape, although the finished dress form isn't quite as sturdy.

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    2. chopsticks FTW!!! Trick my mum taught me. Being asian, our house is full of chopsticks

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    3. Threads had a article a few years back about several ways to make your own dress form, it's online now. I made a duct tape one and I love having it!

      I use a thin wire for turning tubes, works great.

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  4. Great post, I feel so silly not to have thought of washable pens before. I like using the pointed end of a cuticle pusher from a manicure set as a point turner and you can't go wrong with a safety pin for turning out tubes of fabric!

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    1. That's such a great idea to use a cuticle pusher for points - I'll be doing this now!

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  5. For ages, I used a household steel tape measure as a knitting and sewing measuring tool. There's also the old tip of using a butter knife as a point turner on corners, a safety pin for a loop turner (those ones you buy simply don't work!), bed sheets for toile fabric, cardboard instead of a cutting mat... Shivani reminded me yesterday that greaseproof paper makes perfectly good tracing paper and I know people who use old newspaper for tracing or drafting patterns. The acquisition of 'stuff' is an interesting part of the ritualisation of sewing, however. I love picking up my best performing chalk pen or bringing out the tape measure I love and trust. These things help confirm to ourselves what we're doing and enjoying. So, you know, it's a balancing act. But you're quite right, Tilly, there are loads of ways around things when starting out. That's the fun of it!

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    1. I really like your point about sewing-specific tools confirming what we're doing - as an artistic practice, I guess. I do always think of you when I see fine steel pins and other lovely bits and bobs like that which I'm sure I'll succumb to one day as they're just so tempting! xx

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  6. Love this thrifty post Tilly, particularly the idea of using a towel to press tricky seems! I'm so trying that out soon as I just can't afford a tailor's ham right now. I too always use greasproof paper for tracing and regular pencils/biros for marking fabric...easy!

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    1. Ah yes, must put a roll of greaseproof paper on my shopping list!

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  7. Funny but all the gidgetgadgets are a mystery to me - I've acquired some over the years (and my rouleau turner is a godsend for making really fine loops for wedding gowns) but mostly I've had very little technology.
    Cloth sticking plaster makes excellent thimbles, cutlery makes excellent pattern weights, I make my patterns from a roll of newsprint, but have also used newspaper for years. I always have cotton tape on hand for checking waist levels, taking measurements etc, and until my recent acquisition of a fancy marking chalk pencil recommended by Karen, I used triangle chalks and sharpened with a knife too! Still do mostly :)

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    1. These are all great ideas - I can see a follow up post coming on... keep 'em coming!

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  8. I never understood pattern weights as they look like washers from my tool box anyway! So i use them, or anything else that is lying around, like tins of beans! lol
    I like the idea with the towel. I just made my own pressing tools from scrap fabric and old paper. it was fun and quick. :)

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  9. Great tips. I also find you can buy a lot of sewing stuff second hand - i recently bought a dress form from an ad posted in a local sewing shop noticeboard, and they often have sewing machines etc.
    I use whatever is to hand for pattern weights - remote controls seem to work pretty well! i always use greaseproof paper for tracing patterns and a safety pin to turn loops. really glad you posted about using a towel instead of a tailor's ham - i was thinking of making my own but i don't think i will bother now!

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    1. You're right, getting sewing tools second hand is a great way of saving money (and reducing landfill), especially for the big stuff like dress forms and sewing machines.

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  10. A towel! So simple, why haven't I thought of that before! Apart from being thrifty, it also has the advantage of being able to cope with a lot of steam- the tailors hams at my local sewing store are made of a bright red fabric that really doesn't look colourfast.

    I used to trace around plates and cups to make curved lines for pattern-drafting, though recently I did crack and buy a french curve.

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  11. thanks for the tips! i too rarely buy sewing gadgets, they seem expensive and frankly, poorly made. i never thought to use washable markers, good idea!

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  12. I love this post so much! I'm still trying to set myself up with sewing goodies and after a wonderful (if pricey)fabric splurge on a recent trip I'm living in frugal town... Never thoguht of kids markers- what a great idea!

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  13. Nice post...you are totally right...I am a gadget lover but you can't just buy it all.
    I use washers as pattern weights
    I made my own tailor's ham and seam roll. You can find the free pattern on my blog http://bombardone.com/sewingprincess/2011/01/tailors-ham-and-seam-roll-free-pattern/
    I use leftover soap instead of chalk (you need to check on delicate fabrics)...very nice to use. Sometimes I simply use a 2B pencil or markers to mark.
    I recycle my partner's shirts or sheets as toile.

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    1. Soap? I've never heard of that - gotta give it a try!

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  14. Steel ruler from B&Q - 2 quid. Set square from Rymans (80p) - I crave a steel one but the ones at B&Q are a little industrial and expensive.
    Random heavy things that are lying around for weights. And proper thick tracing paper from an art supplier (not cheap, but very reasonable and much better quality than the stuff designed for sewing)

    I like the washable marker idea, but I've just had a splurge on an expensive chalk pen thingy recommended by Karen. I've not used it other than to test it, but love it already.

    I'm appalled at the cost of bias tape makers, but trying to iron the folds without them drives me insane.

    Part of the fun of sewing is to buy the odd bit of gadgetry though.

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  15. I used your tutorial to make a tailor's ham (& stuffed it with all my tiny bits of fabric), the seam roll is still on my To Do list. It's great. Washable felt pens are a great idea, I sometimes regret reaching for the nearest biro! The big rolls of drawing paper from Ikea are great for tracing pattern pieces with a wheel. I use old sheets for muslins and lining fabric and crochet hooks for turning tubes and pushing out corners, I have them in so many sizes there is always one fit fir the job.

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  16. Obviously I meant Sewing Princess' tutorial - note to self, do not press publish and answer the phone at the same time!

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  17. I bought a box of kids chalk (12 different colors) from the dollar store along with a 2 sized pencil sharpener, the larger hole fits chalk perfectly! I cannot get over how expensive marking tools are in sewing shops.
    I also use pretty glass rocks for weights, again from the dollar store. And I taped 3 craft magnets (the tiny round ones, 12 per pack) together to put on my scissors as a seam allowance adder. Again, dollar store purchase. I also use shipping paper for patterns, which I prefer the weight of to commercial tissue patterns.
    My husband used an old quarter round and marked 60 inches on it for me, incredibly handy tool when cutting out all the curtains for our apartment!
    If you can think out of the box, you really can save loads of money on tools you need to have and tools you want to have. Buying the big ticket items used and developing a manageable size hoard of sale or used fabric I think is the way to keep costs low.
    Great post tilly!

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    1. Sounds like you're super creative when it comes to tools as well as sewing, Jessica!

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  18. Great post. I particularly like the tip for using a rolled up towel as a pressing aid. Why didn't I think of that last night when I was trying to press a curved seam on a dress bodice? I'll definitely be trying that one, probably as soon as tomorrow.

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  19. Haha, I love all the little specialized sewing notions - but I'm a collector/hoarder at heart :) I've also had yeeeears to build up my stash, so yeah - buying it all at once in the beginning can get expensive!

    I don't know if this counts as a sewing "tip," but I noticed the other day that my fabric store was selling yard sticks for like $15. That's ridiculous! You can get a yard stick at the paint store - THE SAME FREAKIN' THING - for $1. Don't buy the ones at the sewing store, ok :)

    Before I had a loop turner (and I have no idea where it came from, I certainly didn't buy it!), I used a ribbon with a safety pin at the end :) Oh, and a knitting needle for pushing out the points! Wax paper is a good substitute for tracing paper... and it's cheaaap.

    As a side note, it's really easy to make those pressing hams/rolls if you get tired of the towel :) You can use scraps - wool on one side, cotton on the other - and stuff it with sawdust. Most lumber stores will just give you a bag of sawdust if you ask nicely!

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  20. I;ve used white gifting tissue paper for tracing paper before and it's usually on sale after major holidays. It's also usually cheap at the dollar stores and you can always get light, pastel colors too. It can make for some colorful patterns!

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  21. I use cutlery as weights for my pattern pieces.
    brown paper for drafting patterns,
    rolled up cotton table cloth as a seam roll - especially for sleeves and trousers.
    And Single quilt covers make excellent garment protection - especially when I'm working on long dresses.
    I also use white gift tissue. - it's perfect for tracing burda patterns onto.
    selvedge edges instead of stay tape

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    1. Selvedge edges instead of stay tape is genius!

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  22. Great tip, especially about the rolled up towel for a tailor's ham! I've been meaning to get a ham for awhile now, but I always stop since I'm just cheap. I'll definitely try this one out.

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  23. I use travel-sized liquor bottles as pattern weights. They work great as long as I don't get thirsty and drink the ballast!

    Also, toilet paper makes great tear-away stabilizer.

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    1. I'm definitely trying your toilet paper tip!

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  24. In our front garden there are those smooth river stones, so I just stole a few of those, washed them, and use them to weigh down my patterns.

    I use lunch wrap paper from the supermarket to trace patterns (just stick two or more lengths together if it's wider than the paper), I made a tailor's ham (it doesn't have wool on one side, but meh), I use a rolled-up towel as a sleeve roll, I save all my selvedges to use as seam tape (that way you can get colours other than black and white), and thanks to my triathlete partner, we've got an abundance of bicycle spokes, which I use to get those corners turned out. I've also used the (closed) tips of scissors.

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  25. Glad I'm not the only one who's like "duh! towel as sleeve roll/tailor's ham!"

    I too buy newsprint used for packing ($10 for 200 large sheets at U-haul) to draft/trace patterns on.

    Haven't tried this, but it's how to use a utility knife as a bias tape maker: http://dollarstorecrafts.com/2012/05/make-your-own-bias-tape/

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    1. Thanks for the make-shift bias tape maker link - very handy.

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  26. oh, and TOTALLY stealing Jessica's brilliant idea to use magnets on her scissors for adding seam allowances!

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  27. I love all the comments on this important post - we all need to save money so that we can splurge on great fabrics. I use metal washers from the hardware store for pattern weights and I buy the kids paper roll ($5) at Ikea, which is a great buy for over 100ft of paper. Also, I try to sew without pins and I use regular chalkboard chalk for marking.

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    1. Here here, let's save the money for fabric!

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  28. I'm someone else who uses soap instead of chalk or pens. Just keep the little shard that is too small to bathe with.
    For pattern paper you could try your local newspaper office. Newspapers use big rolls of white paper for their print runs and they might give or sell you the end of rolls that are too small for another run - I know the one here in Canberra (Australia) sells them.

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  29. Thanks for the tips! The rolled up towel and washable markers are great ones! I use little glass tea light (candle) holders from IKEA to hold pins and buttons all the time. They are just very small glasses with a wide mouth and narrow bottom. I find them so convenient for holding pins and much easier to reach into than a little plastic box.

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    1. ... and I bet they look much prettier on your sewing table too. I'm gonna start doing this!

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  30. Cool ideas :)
    I agree, buying too many gadgets is unnecessary!

    I have a tutorial for the paper tape dress form on my blog actually. I really love it, it's been super useful!
    Here: http://makingitwell.blogspot.co.nz/2012/03/i-made-my-own-dress-form.html

    I also made my own pressing aids so that was cheap too :) Yay thriftyness!

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    1. Your dress form is SEW COOL!!! :P

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  31. Amazing tips esp the towel as an improvised tailors ham!!

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  32. Wow all the comments have such great tips too!!!! Thanks for the great post Tilly! x

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  33. Thanks for these great handy hints they are fabulous, definitely trying them out! XxxX http://thesecondhandrose.blogspot.co.uk

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  34. This is such an incredibly worthy topic Tilly - a few I've always used but have learnt some new methods too. Turning of the shoestring straps drives me absolutely crazy using the loop turner, that hook on the end is soooo tricky, and usually rips the finer fabric to pieces, so I'm very hopeful that someone here has an ingenious method that they'd love to share.

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  35. I use a rectangular towelling bath mitt, stuffed with leftover bits of batting, and fastened with a nappy pin as a tailor's ham. It can be squashed into different shapes of curves.
    I'm afraid it's my only nod to frugality - I just love gadgets, multiples preferably - and yes, I've got a loop turner!

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  36. I bought bias tape makers, then found this post on how to make bias tape with a pin. I couldn't get the hang of the gadgets and found this miles easier. http://creativelittledaisy.typepad.com/creative_little_daisy/2007/11/diy-version-of.html
    also, I have never need one myself; but I used to see tons of sewing machines on freecycle.
    Also, older relatives are great source of good quality old sewing stuff, i am very lucky and have rarely had to buy anything. I find that because i'm the only one who sews, that i get all the good stuff!

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  37. I use cheap plastic roller shades from Home Depot to copy patterns onto. Much more durable in the long run than paper.

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  38. Oh, boy - washable felt-tip pens for marking! I would never have thought of this - thank you!!

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  39. Everyone...! Put those expensive tools on your wish list so your family and friends will give you what you really want!!!!!

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  40. For an improvised gauge, especially good for preparing hems, is to notch a small piece of cardboard (the insert from bias tape/hem tape is perfect). It is much less fiddly than having to work with a standard gauge, and the fact that it's bigger is a plus.

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  41. PS to turn small straps, belts, etc. use a small safety pin when piece is inside out, and work the fabric over it, turning it to right-side out.

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  42. I second the tip about putting sewing tools on your gift wish list. That's how I got my sleeve-roll. My dad had no idea what it was even for but it showed up in my stocking and I use it almost daily.

    For making patterns, I use cheap gift wrapping paper from the dollar store. Sometimes newspaper, but the ink gets messy. Also, colored pencils instead of buying the more expensive "marking pencils".

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  43. What a cool idea this is very helpful in improving my sewing skills

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