November 21, 2005

My life as an ecclesiastical tailor is filled with tools of all sorts. For anyone else who’s a bit of a “tool hound”, here’s a short synopsis of the tools I love and use on a daily basis:

Shears-I cut hundreds of yards of fabric every year and I have been using the same Gingher shears since I was a teenager. Over the years I have added two additional pairs of the exact same model-the 8″ dressmaker’s shears-so I can rotate them out every couple of months for sharpening. They cut easily and cleanly, especially through brocades and don’t dull too quickly when cutting real metal brocades. I also have lots of little pairs of “thread snips” floating around my workroom, but the only ones I really like are the little Ginghers.

Prismacolor pencils-I think there is no finer marking pencil in the world. These high-quality artist’s pencils have soft leads, leave a strong line on the fabric and don’t stretch the fabric as they mark. The three colors I use are True Blue, Cream, and Carmine Red. Being as fussy about using high- quality tools as I am, I also gave these to my children instead of crayons when they began drawing. They are far more satisfactory to draw and color with as they leave a nice, saturated color and are more easily controlled than crayons.

Pencil sharpener-Although this isn’t really a sewing tool, I recently installed an old-fashioned, manual pencil sharpener in my basement and I simply must extol its virtues. It never runs out of battery power and a few quick turns provide a good, sharp point. This was definitely one of those “Why didn’t I think of this sooner?” moments after years of battery-operated sharpeners that seemed to run down after a few days. It is also just plain satisfying to operate.

Needles-I like the John James brand for embroidery and hand-sewing. I’ve tried many other brands, but have never found any I like so well.

Thimbles-I love thimbles and simply cannot work without them. I learned to use a thimble when I took a hand-quilting class years ago and now am unable to perform the smallest hand-sewing task without one. I prefer the concave-top type where the top is slightly “dented” so the needle doesn’t slip when I’m applying pressure. Thimbles do take a little getting used to, but give so much more leverage when sewing-especially through layers of brocades, interfacings, and linings.

Chopsticks-this definitely falls into the category of necessity being the mother of invention. Chopsticks are great for turning things inside out (like the double-sided satin ileton) because they have a “broad” and a “sharp” end so I can use either depending on the need. They are also excellent for putting Anterri drawstrings into their casings.

Bamboo turner-a close second behind the chopstick, this is a great all-purpose sewing tool. Its point is a little sharper than a chopstick, so it needs to be used with care.

Loop turner-this inexpensive, mystical device looks like a long crochet hook with a little metal piece that is hinged and “closes” the loop. You put it through a long tube of narrow fabric and grab the end of the tube with the hook-and-hinge end and then gently pull to turn something inside out. They break easily, so I always keep a spare around.

Tailor’s iron-this is the Formula 1 of seamstress tools and I feel almost like an Indy 500 driver when I operate it. Talk about steam! These irons have a boiler connected to the iron by a steam hose and can go for hours giving out loads of wonderful steam and they make the most impressive sound (kind of like some big important steam engine). When I first got mine, I ironed sheets for days because it was such fun to use. The only drawback is that I am slightly afraid of it blowing up and I’m constantly driving away from my house asking, “Did I leave the iron on?”

Ironing board cover-I’m really picky about the kind of cover I’ll put on my ironing board as I like a non- slippery surface. I usually make my own out of high-quality quilter’s cotton (two or three layers) with a drawstring around the perimeter so I can cinch it down taut. I’ve got some really nifty-looking, specialty ironing board cover fabric from my tailor’s supply, but I haven’t gotten around to making a cover out of it yet.

Tweezers-as far as I am concerned, I would keep the tweezers if I had to get rid of almost every other tool (except shears and thimbles). I think a good pair of cosmetic tweezers should be mandatory for any seamstress (this kind usually costs a little more than the standard drugstore kind). They work wonders for getting into tight spaces, pulling out old threads, or when you need to remove a seam. And you always have them handy when someone in the house needs a sliver removed.

Seam ripper-A friend took pity on me when she sawing me using an old, dull seam ripper and gave me this very fancy Clover-brand seam ripper complete with ergonomic handle. It’s very professional-looking and makes me feel just a little better when I have to take a seam out.

Steam chalk-this isn’t really a tool, but a fun little tailor’s secret. You usually have to purchase it from a tailor’s supply store and it comes in little rectangular pieces. You mark anything dark with it (wool, cotton, etc.) and when you want the mark to disappear, you just iron over it and it’s gone. I have not had good success using this on light-colored fabric as it leaves a faint mark even after steaming.

Coffee cups-I do like a good cup of coffee and I think old coffee cups are great organizers in the sewing room. I put marking pens, chopsticks, bamboo turner, tweezers, scissors, etc. into them and keep a couple next to the sewing machines so tools are within easy view and reach. They are not only some of the cheapest organizers out there, they brighten up the workroom (thrift stores are a great place to find these). My favorite is a 1960s mustard yellow, pot-bellied one that looks a little like an upside-down mushroom. Very cheery.

Stapler and old-fashioned staple puller-This might sound a little odd, but anytime you need fasten a slippery fabric to an interfacing (I do this when making cuffs, zone, or epigonatia), it is very helpful to carefully staple the fabric into place, sew a little bit to hold it, and then remove the staples with an old- fashioned staple puller (not the “gripping” type, but the kind that looks a little like a paper knife). This is a fool-proof method for getting things to line up perfectly.

Knitting needles-This doesn’t fall into the sewing tools category, but I’m an avid knitter (it keeps my hands flexible) and my absolutely, bar-none favorite needles are the Addi Turbo circular needles. They are incredibly comfortable and fast to knit with, plus the circular design keeps the weight of the knitting in my lap so it doesn’t fatigue my shoulders or wrists. Another great knitting tool is the Clover “Chibbi” yarn needles that have a slightly bent end and come in a handy screw-top case so you never lose them. I just love when someone designs a tool that is so exceptionally well thought-out that you can’t improve upon the design.

And last, but not least-

The little wooden thread spool holder that my dad made for me. This clever contraption consists of top and bottom circles of wood with six small pegs affixed to the bottom circle. The top circle lifts off and I slip a thread spool onto each peg. To put the top circle back, I simply line up the top circle’s wood grain perpendicular to the bottom circle’s wood grain. Voila! I can pull out long strands of thread without ever losing the spool or having it jump off my worktable.