4 March 2015

Essential Sewing Toolkit

Wondering what you need in your essential sewing toolkit? With lots of new people taking up sewing right now (hooray!), we’re going back to basics today. One of the most common questions in my inbox and at our workshops is what tools you need to get started with - and which ones in particular I’m using in my photos. If you're just starting out, you may feel overwhelmed hearing about all the bits and bobs that are out there - from rotary cutters to seam gauges - and fear how they are going to impact upon your bank balance. My advice is to not worry about getting everything all at once, just start with the essentials and build up your toolkit gradually.

Here's what I consider must-have supplies to start with (with links to the ones I use for those who have asked)...

Fabric scissors

Get yourself a nice pair of long scissors that you feel comfortable using. Classic tailor’s shears look super cool, but personally I find a lighter pair of dressmaking scissors with a soft grip more comfortable to use. Use them to cut fabric only – not paper – so they stay nice and sharp.

Small scissors

Arguably not an essential, as you can use your fabric scissors instead, but I do like to keep a small pair of polka dot scissors next to my machine for snipping threads.

Cutting mat

If you don’t want to scratch your kitchen table – or if you’re cutting out on the floor and need a smooth surface – a cutting mat is a great investment. My tip would be to get the biggest one you can afford so you don’t have to move it around so much when marking or cutting out larger pieces. I’m in love with the yellow Fiskars cutting mats we use in our studio (ours are actually A1, larger than those in the link).

Marking tools

You’ll need something to transfer pattern markings onto your fabric. My favourite option is dressmaker’s carbon and a blunt tracing wheel (read about how I use it for cutting fabric without cutting the pattern) - or you can use tailor’s chalk, chalk pencils, roller chalk, washable felt pens, air-erasable pens… Lots of options to choose from!

Tape measure

Get the flexible kind so you can measure your curves – and the curves on a garment or pattern - accurately. Be aware that sometimes those crazy cheap ones you see online are cheaply made with an inaccurate starting point!

Pins and pin holder

I like to use coloured glasshead pins so you can spot them easily and so they won’t melt if you accidentally iron them (oops!). Many people use a classic pin cushion but I prefer a magnetic pin dish because I’m clumsy and am always dropping them all over the place.

Seam ripper

Whenever I demonstrate the seam ripper at our Make Friends with a Sewing Machine workshop, the whole room let’s out a collective sigh of relief. Ohhh... you can unpick mistakes – glory be! Unlike cheap tape measures, I’m yet to find a cheap seam ripper that doesn’t do it’s job properly.


You can get different types of needles for your sewing machine, from size 60/8 for fine fabrics to size 110/18 for heavier materials, and ballpoint or stretch needles for knit fabric, for example. A pack of universal assorted needles in a variety of sizes should cover you for your first bunch of projects. Depending on what you’re making, you might also need hand sewing needles for sewing on buttons, for example.

Paper, pencil, ruler and tape or glue

These bits will come in handy for tracing sewing patterns in order to preserve or adjust them.

Steam iron and ironing board

Last but not least, pressing your sewing projects is essential for creating a neat-looking finish. Even if you don’t iron your ready-made wardrobe, be sure to use the iron as you sew your handmade clothes!

And of course you'll need a sewing machine and presser feet, plus the pattern, fabric, thread and other supplies notions for whatever project you're making :)

I hope this helps you get started!

This post contains some affiliate links, meaning that if you buy something from Amazon following one of the links, we get paid a small percentage of the sale in compensation. This doesn't cost you anything extra.


  1. Perfect, although I don't actually have much more than this in my tool kit even after years of sewing! I'm glad you said that about the scissors as I use some Fiskar scissors for all my cutting and have been toying with the idea of tailors shears, but was thinking they may be too heavy and uncomfortable! Also, tape measures (especially cheap ones) can stretch over time and become inaccurate, so worth checking them every now and then! X

  2. Great post! I was always told not to use my fabric scissors for cutting threads as it blunts them over time, partly because you tend to be using the same (very small!) section of the blade...

  3. Handy list! I've actually come across seam rippers, that was too cheap. The little blade part was so dull it couldn't cut a single thread and just pulled it. And almost even worse, the pointy part had a rough edge, making it stick almost like a fishing hook, pulling the fabric. How do you feel about rotary cutters?

  4. Handy list! I've actually come across seam rippers, that was too cheap. The little blade part was so dull it couldn't cut a single thread and just pulled it. And almost even worse, the pointy part had a rough edge, making it stick almost like a fishing hook, pulling the fabric. How do you feel about rotary cutters?

  5. I don't know why I never see anyone mentioning folding cardboard cutting mats. I find mine essential for sewing. They're very cheap (like $5) and very large and you can even let it extend over the edges of your table a little when you're cutting out your pattern or you can put it on the floor. Just can't use them with a rotary cutter but I wouldn't recommend a rotary cutter for a beginner anyhow.

  6. Hi Tilly, great toolkit list and probably all a beginner really needs, although I now find it hard not to buy non essential sewing knick knacks when I see them! I have a question; I have tried to use the carbon paper method, but it never works. The marks don't transfer onto the fabric well enough for me to see them. I even bought a new lot of paper thinking my first pack must have dried out, but the result was the same. Could I be doing something wrong? I used a tracing wheel and tried different colours...

    1. Hmm... are you definitely laying it with the carbon side against the fabric? It doesn't show up on all fabrics but should definitely work on cottons, denim etc. Occasionally I get a dud sheet so maybe try another pack?

  7. Can you tell me about your Sewing Susan needles? I just inherited some exactly like that in my Grandma's old seeing box!! I love the art!

    1. I have no idea about them, I just saw them and WANTED them!!

  8. OMG a magnetic pin dish, why didn't I think of that? That's *GENIUS*

  9. Hi Tilly, this article is just great review, thank you for that. I checked my very begginner-y box of tools and now I know what to get next.
    On the other news, your lovely book was translated into czech language and is available right now, here in Czech Rep. Guess what I am buying tomorow!!! :-D
    I have my birthday in the middle of month and this coincidence is just too good to be true, plus I know from your blog (which I am stalking every week at least) that one of the patterns is for pyjamas, which I was thinking of making for such a long time! So excited right know!
    RTW clothes are the worst for me, when it comes to bottoms, I have wide hips and smaller waist, plus long legs, which means = cold calves and feet all winter long... Sewing my own is a must.
    Oh gosh, I just cant explain how happy I am to get my mitts on your book :-)
    Talk to you soon again :-) Bye Aneta

    1. Aw thanks so much Aneta - I'm so happy that my book is in Czech :) Good luck with the PJs!

  10. Great list. I also use a 6" sewing gauge for measuring hems.

  11. Hey Tilly! Great post. This is also all I have in my collection after years of sewing but I am thinking about branching out and getting a rotary cutter. Do you use one? And if so which do you recommend? Kristina

    1. Yes I use a rotary cutter - I like the white one from Fiskars, I find it nice to handle.

  12. My friend from assignmentmountain.com/help-with-dissertation loves sewing! She always gives us small interesting presents which she makes by herself. So it's her birthday soon and can you give me some advice what to give her as a present?


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