A while back I wrote a glossary of sewing stitches commonly found in patterns and I figured it might be useful to write a similar one for tools. There’s a range of different tools out there; depending upon what exactly you’d like to do, some may be more useful to you than others. I’ve written this with absolute beginners in mind, so explanations might only cover the basics of that tool or may state things which seem obvious to more experienced sewists. While this glossary is intended to cover as much as possible, it’s feasible that it won’t be all encompassing and you may find or know of other tools out in the world which aren’t covered here.
Basic sewing tools
- Tape measure – for sewing, tape measures are thin and flexible, not the retractable metal ones you use in DIY. This is simply because our bodies don’t have straight lines and it’s difficult to get an accurate reading from a metal tape measure that’s been bent around a curve (plus the metal is often thin enough that you can cut yourself on it if it retracts unexpectedly or at speed). Most sewing tape measures will measure up to around 150cm or 60 inches, but there are some out there which measure slightly more or less than this.
- Sewing gauge – this is a ruler which has a moveable section with ‘wings’ on it, making it look a little like a “T” shape. This is typically used for marking seam allowances or hems and the wings help to ensure you get a straight and accurate marking line, which is particularly useful when hemming as it helps to prevent wonky hemlines. There are some square ruler style sewing gauges out there which have multiple markings around the outside, but I find these confusing to use and the straight ruler with wings is a much more common design.
- Seam ripper – known by many names, a seam ripper is designed to carefully unpick seams. It can also be used to carefully open buttonholes, as it has a short curved prong which has a blade on the inside of the curve and this can be much more carefully controlled than a craft knife.
- Point turner – these tools don’t tend to be very long, but they are reasonably thin and have pointed ends. Both of these features really help in turning seams, especially for tight corners like in shirt collars. There’s a few different shapes, though I’ve found that ones with a long thin point tend to stick through your fabric easily, while ones with a rounded curve leading to a point don’t do this as much, hence the design of my point turners.
- Loop turner – slightly different to a point turner, a loop turner is used for the same principle but for thin tubes of fabric, such as spaghetti style straps for a top or dress. Loop turners can also be used for threading drawstrings or elastic through casings, such as in hoodies or tie waistbands. Again there’s slightly different styles, from a long metal skewer with a circular end to long, thin, flat pieces of plastic or wood which have different sizes of hook at the end depending on the size of drawstring or elastic you’re pulling through the casing.
- Tailor’s chalk – not the same as the chalk you’d use on a blackboard, tailor’s chalk is actually made from kaolin clay. It tends to come in triangular or pillow shapes, though you can also get both mechanical and traditional style fabric pencils where the “lead” is tailor’s chalk. Some tailor’s chalk is heat reactive, meaning it will disappear if you iron over it, though most simply washes off.
- Fabric marker – there’s several different types of fabric marker, so you should double check which one you’re buying. Air reactive pens disappear within 24 hours from most fabrics, though I’ve found that the markings often disappear within a few minutes. If the marking doesn’t disappear from reacting with the air, these will also wash off. Water reactive pens require water for the ink to disappear and heat reactive pens will disappear if you iron over your markings.
- Pins or sewing clips – sounds like an obvious point, but there are so many different types of pins out there for specific uses! Sewing with lace or silk? Then you don’t want to be using your general dressmaking pins, as they’ll leave big holes in your fabric. Many of the longer pins with shaped heads are quilting pins and so should only really be used on thicker fabrics for the same reason. It’s always worth double checking what pins you have (or are thinking about buying) and making sure you use the right ones. If you’re working with fabric that falls at either end of the extremes (very thin or very thick), ideally you should use some sewing clips rather than pins and you should definitely use sewing clips if you’re working with leather. For leather and very thin fabrics, clips prevent holes from unnecessarily being punched through the fabric, as once you have a hole you can’t get rid of it.
- Needles – you’ll need to have some hand needles around as well as machine needles. Both hand and machine needles come in different varieties, though with hand needles you can get usually get an assorted pack which covers most things you need to use them for. The downside to these is that you never know what kind of needle you’re using, so you could end up using something which isn’t appropriate in terms of size and sharpness for the job you need to do. For machine needle types, check out my earlier post on choosing the right needle for your project, though if you want a pack of general use needles for hand stitching, check out primary needles.
- Mannequin – while a mannequin or tailor’s dummy isn’t an essential bit of kit, they are really useful to have, especially if you’re able to match it to your body shape. Adjustable mannequins don’t necessarily do this, so you could simply have a standard one which you add wadding to in order to match your body. For example, I permanently have a stuffed bra on my mannequin to emulate my bust a bit more accurately, as otherwise it doesn’t have much of a bust line.
- Threadclips – also known as snips, threadclips don’t have the typical finger holes of a pair of scissors – instead, you squeeze the two outer sides of your threadclips together in order to snip your thread. Some threadclips do have one finger hole however, as they’re designed for you to have them hanging on your middle finger whilst you sew by hand. Generally, threadclips are quite sharp and can cut fabric, though they have very short blades and aren’t designed for cutting anything out – it’s just something to be aware of if you get too close to the edge of your fabric with them.
- Fabric scissors – Not to be confused with your average office or house scissors, fabric scissors tend to be sharper and longer – indeed in some cases, the longer your scissors the better: true tailoring scissors can be up to 12″ long! All metal construction scissors tend to be preferable than plastic handled ones as the added weight gives you more inertia, meaning you’ll be able to get a steadier and more precise cut – plus I find that all metal scissors tend to be a bit comfier to use, as more thought needs to go into the design of the handles.
- Paper scissors – Dedicated paper scissors help you keep your fabric scissors sharp, as cutting paper can dull the blades of your fabric scissors. Paper scissors tend to be of a different design, making them easily identified, and you’ll likely find that they’re coated specifically to prevent adhesives like sticky tape from affecting the blades.
- Pinking shears – Cutting fabric in a distinctive zigzag pattern, pinking shears are mostly used for cutting swatches or samples of woven fabric, as they prevent the edges from fraying. However, they’re super useful if you make clothes too, as you can use them to clip your curves in seam allowances much better than doing this by hand.
- Leather shears – if you’re feeling adventurous enough to work with leather (or one of the many impressive vegetable alternatives like Piñatex), a good sharp set of leather shears is essential. Due to the thickness and density of leather, suede and similar alternatives, your regular fabric scissors will likely struggle to cut through it mostly through a lack of leverage. Leather shears have longer handle shanks to improve leverage and therefore the amount of pressure the blades can use to cut through dense fabrics.
- Pattern shears – pattern shears tend to have long handles and short blades and are used by pattern cutters, as this combination allows for very precise control – especially on corners.
- Embroidery scissors – embroidery scissors are small with narrow yet sharp blades in order to cut very precisely, which is quite important in embroidery given that you typically work with many threads in a reasonably small area. They can also be useful to have in emergency repair kits due to their small size. Many embroidery scissors have delicate and beautiful designs, making them gorgeous gifts for anyone interested in sewing and crafts.
- Appliqué scissors – perhaps some of the strangest looking scissors you can find, there are two types of appliqué scissors: duck billed and double curved (though sometimes you can get double curved duck billed scissors too). Duckbilled scissors have a regular top blade and a hugely curved bottom blade and the intention behind these is that the large flat curve of the bottom blade allows you to pick up the edges of your appliqué fabric and cut very close to your stitch line without damaging the base fabric underneath at all. Double curved scissors look like they belong in a painting by Salvador Dalí, as they look as though their handles have melted over the sides of something! These are designed for use with embroidery hoops, so you can easily cut fabric and thread away in hard to reach areas on the underside of the hoop.
- Buttonhole scissors – buttonhole scissors are specifically designed to precisely open buttonholes without stretching or catching stitches, as can sometimes happen when you use different methods of opening buttonholes. They have specially designed blades and a screw in the handle, enabling repeatable precise control as the screw only allows the scissors to close by a certain amount. I’ve previously written a post about making buttonholes and the different methods of opening them, and buttonhole scissors would be my preferred method given the precise control and the safety features of scissors over items such as a buttonhole chisel.
- Tailor’s ham – tailor’s hams are really useful if you’re trying to get neat, crease free clothes. You can get some specifically for sleeves, while others are larger and generally used for things like pressing the backs of shirts.
- Tailor’s clapper – tailor’s clappers help you to get super flat, pressed seams easily. Steam the seam then press the clapper down and hold it on the seam as the fabric cools (around 20-30 seconds). In addition to seams, it can also help to flatten bulky layers of fabric in areas such as facings and it can help you press wonderfully crisp collars.
Hardware and installation
- Stiletto awl – used for precisely poking holes through fabric, a stiletto awl is useful when you want to insert something such as a rivet or a jeans button.
- Buttonhole chisel – exactly as it sounds, this is a chisel set specifically designed for opening buttonholes. They’re sharp and can be intimidating, but much better to use for buttonholes than a craft knife simply because they’re much sturdier – craft knife blades tend to be quite thin and so they’ll bend when you apply pressure to cut the fabric, whereas a chisel won’t. Buttonhole chisels tend to come with a mini cutting board to put underneath your buttonhole, so that you have something to cut into without damaging your desk. They’re also designed to be kept sharp so that you only need apply some pressure to open the buttonhole, rather than whacking them with hammers like you might expect from wood and DIY chisels.
- Punch or punch pliers – punches are used to create precise holes in specific sizes, generally bigger than those you can make with an awl, and they can be used in conjunction with anvils to insert hardware. You can get punch pliers too: these are commonly used for punching new holes into belts, though there’s some brands who make pliers with interchangeable punch tips. These are useful if you don’t have anywhere to hammer with a hand punch and anvil, as they simply use the pressure applied by squeezing the pliers together in order to work.
- Anvils – anvils are just small pieces of metal, shaped specifically for the size and type of hardware you’re inserting. Anvils can be individual items that are used with hand punches, or they can be tips for an interchangeable punch plier. Most hardware will come with the correct size and shape of anvil required to fit it, though not all do – if it’s something you use often, you can buy the hardware without the punch or anvil, but if it’s a new size or type of hardware (or simply something you’ve never fitted before), you will need the correct anvil and potentially a punch too.
- Set square – extremely useful when designing patterns, set squares are effectively triangular rulers. Combining a right angle in one corner with mirrored markings along the hypotenuse (long edge) of the triangle, this allows pattern designers to create extremely accurate and symmetrical markings on their patterns. Some set squares also have a seam gauge along one of the shorter sides so that patterns can be graded properly with the correct amount of seam allowance included.
- L square – l squares are effectively two rulers joined together at a right angle. There’s generally one longer side and one shorter side, resulting in the “L” shape of their name.
- Quarter scale – quarter scales are used to create accurately scaled down patterns. Pattern designers might choose to make quarter scale patterns in order to test the shape or fit of the pattern before committing to using a lot of paper and fabric to make a full sized toile.
- Grader’s ruler – this is sometimes included on an all-in-one pattern tool called a pattern master (which combines a grader’s ruler, set square and french curve), though effectively this standalone ruler is used to carefully determine sizing and seam allowances required when sizing a pattern up or down. It has measurement markings as well as grid markings, enabling precise gradings of all areas of a pattern.
- Pattern or sample gauge – perhaps used more for quilting patterns than clothing patterns, this is very similar to a sewing gauge. Instead of the “T” shape of the sewing gauge, all the markings are at a 45º angle, as are the wings, so that squares can be easily aligned and measured.
- French curve – used for creating the curves of armscyes (armholes), hips, back of the neck and other curvy regions of a pattern, there’s many different shapes and sizes of these.
- Variform curve – sometimes also considered a french curve, a variform curve has a very similar use to them. However, it has measurements all along the main curve edge, which most french curves don’t.
- Notch punch – notch punches (or notchers) are a quick and simple way to add notches into a pattern. They can also be used by sewists when cutting out fabrics so that notches are accurate and in the correct place.
- Tracing wheel – there’s several types of tracing wheel; the ‘traditional’ style is simply a wheel with many needle shaped tynes to it which traces stitch lines and seam allowances from a pattern block onto fabric or pattern paper. Dual tracing wheels, like the name suggests, have two of these wheels; one for the stitch line and one for adding seam allowance, though some dual tracers have a wheel and a chalk dispenser rather than two wheels.
- Pattern paper – there’s a few different types of pattern paper used in pattern drafting. Some of the more well known types include dot and cross paper, kraft paper and tracing paper.
- Fineliner pens and mechanical pencils – perhaps an overlooked yet absolutely necessary tool of pattern drafting. Fineliner pens and mechanical pencils are used for marking stitch lines – fineliners are chosen over regular pens as the markings are more similar to the physical size of stitches and thread. Mechanical pencils make marking much easier than regular pencils and they don’t suffer the same issues with bluntness creating a wider marking like regular pencils do (plus it’s much easier and better to simply change the lead when you need to, rather than throwing out a stub of a pencil which can’t be physically held comfortably anymore).
- Rotary cutter – used in place of scissors, rotary cutters enable quick and precise cutting of patterns and fabrics. Reasonably small with replaceable blades, they’re popular with pattern cutters and sewists alike.
- Pattern weights – used in place of pins, pattern weights are generally small beanbags, though you can also use paperweights or cleaned pieces of stone, as long as it provides enough weight to prevent the pattern from moving as you cut your fabric. Pattern weights are typically used in conjunction with rotary cutters, as a rotary cutter does not need to get underneath the fabric like fabric scissors do in order to work; if you use pattern weights in conjunction with scissors, your pattern is likely to get shifted out of place.
- Cutting mat or board – very important to have when using a rotary cutter, as this protects your workspace from the rotary blade while also protecting the blade from getting damaged.
- Pattern hooks – These are used by pattern cutters to hang pattern pieces up during the designing process.
Hopefully you have a better understanding of the different tools used in sewing. Some of these are also used for other crafts, like some of the pattern drafting tools, so you may see them being used in leather working, knitting or crochet pattern design too.