Mother Earth Living

Sew by Hand: Build Your Own Sewing Kit

With a few basic skills and supplies, you can stitch new life into old garments.
By Ginevra Holtkamp
November/December 2011
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Mending your own clothes is good for the environment and your soul—and you don't have to be an expert to do it!
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You don’t have to be an experienced seamstress to mend your clothes. You don’t even need a sewing machine. The power to patch your favorite pair of jeans, hem a thrift-store skirt or swap out ordinary buttons with extraordinary ones lies in your hands. Mending your clothes is good for the environment and good for the soul—a simple, soothing pastime that allows us to slow down and save resources. And with our list of sewing kit essentials and mending tips and techniques, you’ll be sew savvy in no time.

Tools of the Trade

To start your sewing kit, pick up these basic supplies at your neighborhood fabric store. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start. As you sharpen your skills and refine your craft, your sewing kit will evolve to suit your needs.

Needles: A pack of assorted sewing needles will have a variety of thicknesses and lengths. Use fine needles for fine fabrics and thick needles for heavy materials such as denim and canvas. The shorter the needle, the easier it will be to make short stitches, which are stronger and don’t show as easily.

Thimble: It can be awkward to use at first, but a thimble will protect your finger from accidental jabs. They are usually worn on the middle or ring finger and should feel snug but not too tight. Metal thimbles offer the most protection; open-ended thimbles accommodate long fingernails and provide air circulation; and leather thimbles are soft and “grab” the needle better. 

Thread: Stock up on some spools of organic all-purpose thread in your favorite colors, as well as in white, black and navy blue. (If your local craft store doesn’t carry organic, check out nearseanaturals.com.) Don’t obsess over finding the perfect thread color to match your fabric. Simply choose a color that blends with or is a shade darker than the fabric; it will “sew in” lighter.

Scissors: You will want at least two pairs of scissors: one for fabric and one for everything else. Invest in a good pair of stainless steel dressmaker’s shears. Unlike the cheaper, orange-handled aluminum varieties, they can be sharpened and will last well beyond your lifetime. Never use them to cut anything other than fabric—especially paper, which will dull them in an instant.

Measuring Tape and Ruler: A flexible measuring tape is a must-have for properly measuring inseams and curved areas such as waists. Opt for cloth over vinyl. A standard 60-inch tape should do the trick, but you can get a 120-inch version for larger projects such as curtains. Keep a ruler on hand for marking straight lines.

Marking Tool: There are several options for marking fabric, but clay tailor’s chalk is the most environmentally friendly. It’s nontoxic, easy to remove and inexpensive. Get white for dark fabrics and light blue for fabrics and prints where white won’t show. The only downside is that chalk makes a thick line. For projects that require precision—embroidery, for instance—use a fine-tip disappearing-ink marker. 

Pins and Pincushion: Pins hold hems and seams in place as you repair and alter your clothing. We like ones with large, colorful metal heads because they won’t melt under an iron, and they’re easy to spot on the floor before you spot them in your foot. Store pins safely in a pretty pincushion.

Vessel: Once you’ve gathered your goodies, corral them in a cute container that reflects your style. Vintage baskets, suitcases and purses make great catchalls for sewing supplies. Collect tea tins, baby food containers and small jars to store loose items. 


In Stitches

Extend the life of your clothes with these simple suggestions.

• Traditionally, mending was done on laundry day. Why not revive this custom? Inspect all of your clothing before you wash it, and set aside pieces with loose or missing buttons and small holes or rips that might get larger in the wash. Use cold water and dry clothes on a clothesline or drying rack when you can.

• Gather your garments and sewing kit and find a comfy chair. The great thing about sewing by hand is that it’s portable; you can pick it up at any time. And when you focus on this quiet task, your mind quiets down, too.

• You may be tempted to use long thread lengths to avoid rethreading your needle. Don’t do it! Keep your thread shorter than your arm’s length so it doesn’t tangle and knot as you sew. Keep in mind that thread weakens with age. Give strands a few sharp yanks to test their strength before you begin.

• Work stitches from right to left (reverse if you’re left-handed), and keep the thread tension loose enough to avoid puckering the fabric. For a guide to different types of hand stitches and 24 projects you can sew by hand, check out Susan Wasinger’s Sewn By Hand.


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