Sewing requires certain tools to get started. There’s the obvious stuff like thread and needles, but what type and size? Here’s my shopping list of equipment to buy if you’re brand new to sewing, with simple explanations on why you need them, when to use them, and what type, size, and brands to get.
Essential sewing tools for beginners – shopping list:
- Sewing machine needles – start with Universal size 80 (for light-medium weight woven fabrics) and ballpoint/jersey needles in size 80 (for light-medium weight stretchy knits). Schmetz is a reliable brand to buy from.
- Hand sewing needles – start with Sharps in sizes 3-9.
- Needle threader – to thread hand sewing needles (if you struggle to).
- Sewing pins – to temporarily hold fabric together before sewing.
- Sewing clips – to temporarily hold thick fabric together before sewing.
- Measuring tape
- Thread – to sew fabric together with.
- Seam rippers – for undoing bad stitches.
- Fabric scissors – for cutting fabric.
- Paper scissors – for cutting paper patterns.
- Fabric marking tools – for marking fabric.
- Spare bobbins – for sewing with different colored threads.
- Seam gauge – to measure hems and seam allowances.
- Bodkin or big safety pin – for inserting elastic into casings.
- Sewing machine oil – to help your machine run smoothly.
Sewing machine needles
What are sewing machine needles? And what are their uses?
They’re needles that are designed to go into your sewing machine and stitch. They cannot be used for hand sewing, and hand sewing needles cannot be used in sewing machines. Machine needles need to be changed when they wear out so that you don’t face problems like skipped stitches. It’s also important to use high quality needles to prolong the life of your sewing machine and avoid problems with your stitch quality. Choosing the right type and size for your fabric is crucial for successfully completing your sewing project.
What types and sizes do you need?
The “type” refers to what sort of fabric the needle was created for. The most common types you’ll encounter are Universal, Stretch, Jersey, Ballpoint, Jeans, Microtex, and Topstitch needles.
- Universal needles are good for most woven fabrics.
- Stretch, Jersey, and Ballpoint needles are for stretchy fabric. Their slightly rounded end slips between the threads in the fabric rather than breaking them and creating holes.
- Jeans needles are heavy duty needles that can sew through thick layers of denim.
- Microtex needles are used for really delicate fabrics to prevent runs.
- Topstitch needles have a larger eye that allows you to use thicker topstitching threads.
Each of these needle types comes in different sizes. There are 2 sizing systems that are used in different countries. The American system ranges from size 8 to 20, and the European system ranges from 60 to 130. In both systems, the thickness of the needle increases with the number, so the smaller size needles are used for finer fabrics and the larger size needles are used for thicker materials.
Which sewing machine needles do you recommend?
If you’re buying your first sewing needles, I suggest getting the following types and sizes:
- Universal needles in sizes 60/8, 80/12, and 100/16 for light, medium, and heavy weight woven fabrics without stretch. If you can only get one size, get size 80/12.
- Jersey needles in size 70/10 and 90/14 for lightweight jerseys (think t-shirt weight jerseys) and heavier jerseys (think sweatshirt weight jerseys).
- Stretch needles in size 75/11 if you’re planning to sew really stretchy materials like athletic or swimwear fabrics
Schmetz is a reliable and widely available brand to buy from.
Hand sewing needles
What are hand sewing needles? And what are their uses?
Hand sewing needles are thin pieces of metal with a sharp point and a hole for the thread (the “eye”). They’re used for sewing seams by hand, doing decorative beading or embroidery work, hand quilting, or hand basting. They come in many different types such as Sharps, Betweens, Beading, or Embroidery, and multiple sizes.
What size and type do you need?
You’ll most likely only need Sharps in your daily sewing practice. Sharps are medium length needles with a really sharp point, and they’re suitable for most hand sewing projects. They come in sizes ranging from 2 to 12, and unlike sewing machine needles, the higher the number the thinner the needle gets. This means sizes 2-4 are suitable for heavy weight fabrics, sizes 5-10 are suitable for medium weight fabrics, and sizes 11-12 are suitable for lightweight fabrics.
Which hand sewing needles do you recommend?
I like to get a set of Sharps that come with sizes 3-9 so that I have a variety of sizes that are suitable for different fabric weights. I’m happy with the brand Milwards, but any high quality brand should work. I also like to have a pack of longer generic needles that I use for hand-basting (temporarily joining layers of fabric together by hand): the longer size makes the process go by much faster.
What is a needle threader? And what’s it used for?
A needle threader is a small tool that helps you easily thread hand sewing needles. Because the hole in a hand sewing needle is quite small, it can be challenging to thread it – especially if you have poor eyesight or tremors in your hands. A classic needle threader has a larger loop made from thin wire, so you can push the wire loop through the hole in the needle and then put your thread into the wire loop. As you remove the needle threader from the needle, the thread will remain in the hole.
There are also automatic needle threaders (like this one here) which are small plastic gadgets where you place your needle eye-down into the tool, push on the button on the side, loop your thread around the designated part, and release the trigger to thread your needle.
Which needle threader do you recommend?
A simple wire needle threader should do the trick nicely, but if you’re planning to do a lot of hand sewing you might want to get an automatic needle threader to speed up the process.
What are sewing pins? And what are their uses?
Sewing pins are thin pieces of metal with sharp tips and blunt heads that are used for temporarily holding different layers of fabric together. You can use them instead of basting, or to simply mark a point on your fabric for a short time.
What types and sizes do you need?
- Glass-head dressmaking pins have tiny glass balls on the heads of the pins, making them suitable for ironing. Make sure that the heads are actually made out of glass and not plastic, as plastic heads will melt under high heat.
- Quilting pins are much longer than regular pins, and they frequently feature flat, plastic heads. Thanks to their extra-long length, they can easily pin many layers of thick or fluffy fabric together.
- Silk pins are thinner and smoother than regular pins, and they’re designed to avoid leaving holes in your delicate fabrics. They’re usually all-metal with a tiny glass ball head or none at all.
Which sewing pins do you recommend?
My favorite types of pins are all metal dressmaking pins with very small flat heads, because I can easily iron over them without my pins leaving too much of an impression on my fabric. If you experience weakness in your hands, you may want to get a set of needles with slightly larger heads (like glass-head pins) so that you can grab them more easily.
What is a measuring tape? And what’s it used for?
A measuring tape is a plastic or vinyl tape with measurements printed on either side. They can come with metric, imperial, or both measurements. Due to their flexible nature, they’re great for taking measurements of your body, objects around you, or curved areas on sewing patterns or garments. Some are retractable tapes that come with a case for easy storage.
What size do you need?
The most common versions you’ll find are 150 cm / 60” long. They’re long enough for most use cases. If you need an extra-long measuring tape (for making curtains, big quilts, etc), there are also 240 cm / 96” long ones.
Which measuring tape do you recommend?
I recommend the Hoechstmass Rollfix which is a retractable measuring tape that’s 150 cm / 60” long. It’s durable with easy-to-read markings and a helpful retractable mechanism. I’ve been using mine for over a year and it’s one of my favorite sewing tools!
What is sewing thread? And what’s it used for?
Thread is perhaps the most important tool on this list, as you quite literally cannot sew without it! It’s a long strand of material that’s used to join 2+ layers of fabric together. It comes in different fiber contents (like polyester, cotton, linen, or silk) and different weights, not to mention a whole array of colors to match your fabric. It’s important to choose the right type of thread for your purpose, for instance, sewing machines and overlockers use different qualities of thread.
Using high-quality thread is important for the health of your sewing machine and the longevity of your finished sewing project, so make sure you’re not using old spools of thread you found in your grandmother’s attic.
Which thread types do you recommend?
I like using the brand Gütermann for all my sewing machine thread needs. Their all purpose polyester thread is perfect for nearly all sewing projects, and I love using their Extra Strong line for topstitching. It’s slightly thinner than their topstitching threads, making it much easier to use in my sewing machine. I recommend getting larger spools of black and white as they tend to be super versatile. For hand basting, I use old spools of cotton thread, as it’s much easier to take basting stitches out when the thread isn’t super strong.
Related: 21 Types of Sewing Thread & When to Use Them (+ PDF Chart)
What are fabric scissors? And what are their uses?
Fabric scissors (also called dressmaking shears) are scissors that are specifically designed for cutting fabric. They’re much sharper than general-purpose craft scissors, and they have a slight bend to their handles which makes it possible to cut fabric without lifting it off the table too much. They allow you to get cleaner cuts in your fabric, and don’t tire your hands too much. They generally should not be used to cut anything other than fabric in order to retain their sharpness.
What size do you need?
Fabric scissors come in all sorts of sizes, but an 8” or 9” pair should work well in most circumstances. Don’t forget that you’ll need left-handed scissors if your dominant hand is your left one!
Which fabric scissors do you recommend?
I’ve been using my 9” LDH dressmaking shears for about a year and I’m still very happy with them. They have a very sharp tip that allows me to get precise cuts, and they glide through fabric with such ease that I never feel my hands getting tired.
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Fabric marking tools
What are fabric marking tools? And what are their uses?
You can use a variety of tools to mark your fabric. I like to trace my pattern pieces onto fabric before cutting to get precise cuts. They’re also commonly used to transfer pattern markings like darts, pleats, tucks, button placements, etc., onto fabric.
What types do you need?
- Tailor’s soap: This is a thin, waxy sliver of soap that comes in various colors. It’s ideal for marking darker colored fabrics, and it comes off with steam from your iron.
- Chalk: This is a waxy, hard, and thin piece of chalk, usually shaped like a triangle with rounded points. You can get it in lots of colors, and it comes off in the wash.
- Chalk-pens: These are tools that dispense a thin, precise line of chalk powder onto your fabric.
- Heat, water, and air erasable pens: These are markers that leave a clear line on your fabric, and they come off with heat, water, or just air respectively. They don’t always come off, so test them on a scrap of fabric from your project first. Some air erasable markers also vanish too quickly.
- Hera marker: This is a marking tool that doesn’t leave a colored line on your fabric, but instead creates a thin, sharp crease. It’s great for fabrics that don’t get along well with chalk or ink-based tools. It’s commonly used to mark quilting guidelines.
Which fabric marking tools do you recommend?
My personal favorite is tailor’s soap – they’re really inexpensive and I love the super sharp lines I can get with them. They can be harder to source in some countries, so chalk-based alternatives would be my second recommendation. Ink-based markers are also great for when you need really precise markings.
What is a seam gauge? And what’s it used for?
A seam gauge is a measuring tool that’s usually made out of metal or plastic. It has a sliding marker on it that helps you get really precise measurements in inches or millimeters. You can use it to measure seam and hem allowances, and quickly convert small measurements between metric and imperial measuring systems since it has both.
Which seam gauge do you recommend?
I recommend getting a classic 6” metal seam gauge. I prefer the metal ones over plastic ones as I like to use mine with an iron. Many brands manufacture this exact design, but the Dritz one is a good, reliable, and affordable option.
Bodkin or large safety pin
What is it? And what’s it used for?
A bodkin is a tool for inserting elastic or cord through a casing. Pinch bodkins look like a pair of tweezers with a locking mechanism. They’re used for threading elastic, ribbon, or cording through a casing or tunnel.
You can also use a large sewing pin in its absence. Simply attach the pin to the end of your elastic and push it through the channel. You can also use bodkins or safety pins to turn tubes of fabric inside out, which can be useful for making straps or belts.
Sewing machine oil
What is sewing machine oil? And what’s it used for?
Sewing machine oil is used to lubricate the moving parts inside your sewing machine. Without regular oiling, your machine won’t run smoothly and it could sound louder. Sewing machines are quite easy to oil at home, but it’s recommended to have your machines serviced periodically so they’re oiled and cleaned professionally. The mechanic will remove the casing and oil hidden areas that are inaccessible. You can also use your sewing machine oil to oil your dressmaking shears, as they also need to be cleaned and oiled to function smoothly.
Which sewing machine oil do you recommend?
I have a bottle of Singer sewing machine oil and I’m happy with it. It comes with a dropper-head which makes it really clean and easy to use.
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This article was written by Nisan Aktürk and edited by Sara Maker.
Nisan Aktürk (author)
Nisan started her sewing journey in December 2019 and already has a fully handmade wardrobe. She’s made 50+ trousers, 20+ buttoned shirts, and a wide array of coats, jackets, t-shirts, and jeans. She’s currently studying for her Sociology Master’s degree and is writing a thesis about sewing. So she spends a lot of her time either sewing or thinking/writing about sewing! Read more…