Jill the (Relatively) Reluctant

I’m Karen Golden Smith, the other half of Golden Needles.  My sister Terri is the one usually doing the blogging since I work full time as a school counselor.  I’m counting the days to my retirement.  I love my job, … Continue reading

Learning to Sew – The Essential Tools

These are the tools we keep at every sewing machine for our students here at Golden Needles Studio.

These are the tools we keep at every sewing machine for our students here at Golden Needles Studio.

Here at Golden Needles Studio, we have a few items we consider essential for our sewing students.  In a plastic bin at each sewing station are the nine items shown here.

1)  Tape Measure, for taking body measurements, and for checking the grainline placement of patterns on fabric; 2)  Glass-head Pins and Magnetic Holder.  We like glass-head pins because they will not melt when using a steam iron to press things that are pinned;  3)  Fray Check for sealing the ends of serged seams, and several other handy applications;  4) Glue Stick for holding buttons and other things in place for sewing;  5) Fabric Shears, for cutting fabric only;  6) Small Scissors to use for clipping threads and other small jobs at the sewing machine;  7) Hem Gauge, or seam gauge, to accurately measure seam allowances and hems;  8) Seam Ripper, which is an unfortunate name.  It should be called a “seam picker,” because that is what you actually do with it.  If you use this tool to quickly rip a seam open, you are very likely to rip fabric and ruin your project.  Pick the threads of the seam out with this tool, no matter what you call it;  9) Chop Stick, which is just a handy little tool to have around.  We use them for gently turning out corners of pillows, and for holding things in place for pressing to keep fingers away from steam.

These tools are kept on a supply shelf for our students.

These tools are kept on a supply shelf for our students.

Some tools are not used quite as often, and are kept on a supply shelf here in the studio.  Shown above are:

1) Tracing Paper and Tracing Wheel, which are used to mark placement lines on the wrong side of fabric;  2) Marking Pens and Pencils, for placement markings that fall within the seam allowance.  Some disappear with time, and some require water for removal.  Marks from chalk pencils easily brush off;  3) Paper-cutting Scissors, for cutting out patterns.  We mark ours with a “P,” to keep them far away from the fabric shears;  4)  Large Safety Pin, for inserting elastic into a waist casing;  5) Loop Turner, for turning straps right side out.  The few times we’ve heard colorful language in class was mostly during this lesson.  Still, once you get the hang of it, it’s a handy tool.

If you are just beginning to learn how to sew, you will really need these essential tools.  There are many, many other tools that you will want to add as you need them, but these will get you a long way down the road of learning all the basics.  When shopping for sewing tools, keep your eye out for sales.  The fabric stores call these items “notions,”  which is not really correct.  A notion is anything that you actually sew into a project, like thread and zippers and buttons.  These are sewing TOOLS.  But if they are going to give you 40% off, that’s no time to argue semantics!  You can also use store coupons when you need a pricey tool that is not on sale.

Another nice addition to your sewing room (or corner) is a book such as the one shown below.  This one is easy to use, and has lots of photos and illustrations.  Of course you can google anything, but I still like to have a reference guide close by.  Old school, I know.

So, start gathering your tools!  Next time, we will talk about fabric qualities and why that matters.

A handy sewing reference guide is handy for looking of sewing terms and procedures.

A sewing reference guide is handy for looking of sewing terms and procedures.

Pattern Drafting – A New Journey

I’ve had the textbook for a year or so:  Patternmaking for Fashion Design by Helen Joseph-Armstrong.  It’s time to get serious about learning pattern drafting.  This is the necessary first step in creating my own designs.  Plus, I hear that learning new things keeps the brain sharp, and that’s always a good thing.  Forget Lumosity…let’s learn to create patterns and design us some gorgeous clothing!


So today, we start with Chapter One: Patternmaking Essentials for the Workroom.  I had many of these tools already, like pins and holder (mine is a magnet), paper and fabric scissors, assorted pens and pencils, a French curve ruler, weights, and tape measure.  I had to buy more rulers, a notcher, an awl, and a handy-looking tool called a Simflex folding measure.  I also – just now – ordered marking paper, used to develop first patterns from model measurements.  I will use it to learn to create a basic pattern set.

This handy tool helps to space buttonhole markings correctly.

This handy tool helps to space buttonhole markings correctly.

Weights are used in place of pins, for a quick way to cut patterns from fabric.  Pictured here are 2" washers, available from hardware stores, and Wiggle Weights that I bought at Atlanta's Original Sewing and Quilting Expo last March.

Weights are used in place of pins, for a quick way to cut patterns from fabric. Pictured here are 2″ washers, available from hardware stores, and Wiggle Weights that I bought at Atlanta’s Original Sewing and Quilting Expo last March.

Tools pictured here are marking chalk and holders, used to mark fabric; an awl for punching holes in pattern paper to mark things such as the point of darts; and a notcher, used to notch pattern paper at strategic places.

Tools pictured here are marking chalk and holders, used to mark fabric; an awl for punching holes in pattern paper to mark things such as the point of darts; and a notcher, used to notch pattern paper at strategic places.

The French curve and other rulers are used to shape patterns at the armholes, hips, and other areas.  Not pictured are the vary form curve and the hip curve,both of which I have on order.

The French curve and other rulers are used to shape patterns at the armholes, hips, and other areas. Not pictured are the vary form curve and the hip curve, both of which I have on order.

Most sewers will already have these items on hand: pins and holder, paper and fabric scissors, and a variety of marking pens and pencils.  The pens and pencils pictured here are for making patterns, not fabric.

Most sewers will already have these items on hand: pins and holder, paper and fabric scissors, tracing wheel, and a variety of marking pens and pencils. The pens and pencils pictured here are for marking patterns, not fabric.

Also listed as items needed in this chapter are push pins, stapler and staples, and black twill tape which is used on the dress form to mark style lines.  The one thing listed that I am not going to purchase are hanger hooks or ringers.  These are used to organize and hang patterns; I am not going into production anytime soon, so I don’t think I need this.  I will use, instead, skirt hangers with metal clips to organize my patterns while working my way through this textbook.

So, gather the tools you need, and maybe this textbook, and let’s learn this process together!

Next time, we will discuss some patternmaking terms from the second half of Chapter One.

Learning to Sew – The Sewing Machine

Today, we begin a new series of posts designed to help all of you who would like to learn to sew, or who have already begun taking small steps in that direction.  We will start with something very basic:  the sewing machine.

Maybe you are fortunate, and you have been given a sewing machine that someone no longer uses.  That’s wonderful!  Be sure to get the attachments and the operating manual.  And get the previous owner to show you how to thread it, make a bobbin, and make a stitch.

But if you need to purchase a sewing machine, you may feel a little overwhelmed when researching the variety of new machines available to the home sewer today.  And you may wonder if you will have to take out a second mortgage in order to buy a good sewing machine.  You can find new machines priced from $50 to $12,000!  The good news is that you can buy a good basic machine for not much money.

So here is our recommendation: the Brother LS-590.  Hancock Fabrics sells this nice little workhorse for $100, or a little less if you catch it on sale.  It’s a basic sewing machine with several built-in stitches, most of which you will never use.  But you will use the straight stitch, the zig zag stitch, the buttonhole setting, and a few others.


This is the machine that our students use in our Beginning Sewing classes here at Golden Needles Studio.  We have used seven of these for over a year now, and given them quite a workout. These little beauties will sew a variety of fabric weights without any problem.  Spend about a hundred bucks, and learn to sew.  You can always upgrade to something with more bells and whistles down the road, after you know what kind of bells and whistles you want.

Back when we were setting up our classroom, we we were prepared to spend between $300 and $400 each on basic sewing machines for our studio.  That was when I ran into a friend of mine who spends a good bit of her time teaching Haitian orphans to sew in open-weather tropical conditions; when I asked her to recommend a good sewing machine for our studio, this was it.  The Brother LS-590 is what she uses in Haiti.  That sold us, and saved us a lot of money.

The size of this sewing machine is about as small as you would want to go.  I’ve seen some smaller machines at Hancock’s.  Singer was one of the brands, I think, and they were a little less expensive.  But I would not trust a smaller machine to do the work that this one will do.

Brother has a few other models that look like they are almost the same as this one: XL-36001, XL-2610, XL-3750, and XL-2600i are all similar models in the same price range.  I feel quite certain any of these would be perfect for the beginner.

Below, see a short instructional video, explaining a few of the features of the Brother LS-590, which would also apply to other machines.  The video also shows how to thread the machine and how to make a bobbin.

So take the plunge.  Buy yourself a sewing machine.  Then meet us back here next time when we will talk about the basic tools you need for sewing.

More Bells and Whistles

After sewing for years with a Singer Touch and Sew, I bought a basic Baby Lock.  (If you are interested, I wrote a little about that decision in a recent post called “An Old Friend and a New One.”)  But I knew when I bought my basic Baby Lock that I would be looking for something else in the not-too-distant future with a few more features.

So, one of my main purposes at the Original Sewing and Quilting Expo in Atlanta a couple of months ago was to look at every sewing machine on display, and decide which one would best suit my needs.  I was on a mission.  I tried Brother machines, Bernina, Viking, Janome, Juki, Baby Lock, and Pfaff.  I skipped the machines with embroidery capabilities; I didn’t want to spend the money required for a feature that I knew I would hardly ever use.

A funny thing happened when I got to the Brother booth and sat down to do a test-drive on their “Project Runway” model.  I felt like I had just sat down at home in front of my Baby Lock “Grace.”  The guy in the booth told me that Baby Lock sewing machines are made by Brother, and that my Grace and this machine were basically one in the same.  Alrighty, then.

But I was looking for more bells and whistles than what I had at home, so I moved on to the higher-end Brother machines.  After a morning of learning about a myriad of features on every brand at the expo, I narrowed it down to a Pfaff model and a Juki model.  I was really impressed with the Juki company, and with their well-made machines, but in the end the Pfaff Quilt Expression 4.0 won me over.  I bought it, put my boxed-up brand new treasure in my car, and then headed for Nashville with my family for my niece’s wedding.  (I’m trying to forgive her for making me cut my expo weekend short…)

After a really wonderful weekend in Music City, I unloaded my new machine as soon as I got home, set it up in my studio, and got out the all-important owner’s manual.  Almost three months later, I’m still pulling out the manual and learning new things.

While I am not a quilter, at times I need to be able to sew through a thick layer of fabrics without worrying about skipped stitches or stalled-out feed.  But I also want to be able to sew thin, delicate silks smoothly and accurately.  My new Pfaff has not let me down.  The IDT (integrated dual feed) system has been key.  It is a built-in option that is ready to go with one pull on the IDT, which stays tucked away when you don’t need it.

My Pfaff has a beautiful and reliable stitch.  Threading it and making bobbins is a breeze.  You can even make a bobbin through the needle, if if runs out in the middle of a project.  (This is the best news for someone who used a Singer Touch and Sew, with that fantastic automatic bobbin winder, for more than three decades!)  The buttonhole attachment, which I used for the first time last week, works like a dream and makes beautiful buttonholes.   So my old Touch and Sew, which I had set up with a treasured special attachment to use for making buttonholes after I bought my Baby Lock, is becoming more and more obsolete in my studio.

Other features I love are the automatic reverse, the automatic thread snips, and the pivot-height option on the presser foot.  There are so many more options I have not yet tried.  My Pfaff has a large graphic screen to display all the programmed info for a chosen stitch, and there are more than 200 decorative and utilitarian stitches.  I used number 49 this morning to create a decorative bartack to reinforce a pocket seam.

I would recommend this machine to anyone who sews a lot.  Although it is called “Quilt Expression,” it is not just for quilters.  Those of us who love to sew clothes need this type of versatility.  I don’t do much home decor sewing, but this Pfaff would be perfect for those who do, because of the same great features that make it so wonderful for fashion sewers and for quilters.

Okay, enough blogging.  I’ve got a lot of sewing to do!

The Big Book!

Fabric swatches and details in my "Big Book"

Fabric swatch pages in my “Big Book”

Copies of pattern envelopes

Copies of pattern envelopes in my “Big Book”

A while back, after buying yet another pattern I already had, I decided to get organized.  Now, I know there are all kinds of apps for my smart phone that will keep up with pattern information, but until they make an app that will let me post swatches of my fabric–swatches that I can actually touch–I am sticking with my old school “Big Book.”  So, just in case you are looking for a way to organize your patterns and fabric samples in one place, let me tell you how I did it.  Feel free to be a copycat.  Better yet, leave me a note if you have done something similar, and give all of us some pointers.

I bought a large, sturdy three ring binder, some divider pages with write-on tabs, and white copy paper pre-punched with three holes.  Then I hauled out all of my patterns–and I do mean ALL.  I decided that if it was worth holding on to, it was worth a place in my book.  I separated them into categories, such as “tops,” “jackets,” “pants and skirts,” “dresses.”  You get the idea.  I recorded these titles with a pen on the tab pages.  Then I copied the front and back of every pattern I owned. To save money and space in my book, I copied the front of the pattern in color, then flipped that same sheet over to print the back of the pattern in black ink.  Some of the envelopes were flat enough for my flat bed printer that I didn’t have to remove the contents, but some of them were too thick.  I was careful to not get in too big of a hurry, so that I could be sure to get the pattern pieces back into the right envelope.  This all took some time, but now when I go to the fabric store, I take my Big Book, which holds everything I need to know about what patterns I have and their fabric and notions requirements.

Behind the pattern sections, I put my fabric swatch pages.  I used my computer’s word processor to design a simple page that would hold four swatches and information on them.  I printed these on both sides of some light gray card stock that I already had on hand, and used a three-ring punch on them so they could go in my book.

I cut fabric swatches approximately 2 x 3 inches, and stapled them onto the card stock.  You can see this in the picture at the top of this post.  In the information blanks, I recorded how much of the swatch fabric I had, whether or not it had been pre-washed, the width and the content of the fabric, and the source and cost.  All of this was recorded in pencil, so that when I use a portion of the fabric or when I pre-wash something, I can change the information I recorded earlier.  If I use it all, I just strike through the information.  But I leave the swatch.  I figured that in a few years, it might be fun to see all of those swatches that (hopefully) became garments.

I have a basket in my sewing studio, just inside the entrance, that holds any newly acquired fabric or patterns until I have had the chance to record them in my book.

“The Book” is quite large and heavy, but it’s worth the effort of lugging it to the fabric store.  Even if I haven’t planned a trip to a fabric store, it usually stays in my car because I never know when I might need all of the vital information it holds!

An Old Friend and a New One


Until 2010, I used the same Singer Touch and Sew sewing machine since I received it as a high school graduation gift in (gulp!) 1974.  I was seventeen when my parents presented me with this long-time companion, which was actually slightly used when I got it, and I was thrilled.  Up until then, I had been sewing on an old off-brand machine that smelled like burning oil every time I used it.  And yet, I sewed miles of seams on it.  Other than making my bedroom smell like an auto repair shop, it was reliable.  It got the job done.

But this new beauty had lots of options.  It came with a box of cams–little black hard plastic discs with patterned edges–which allowed me to choose all kinds of decorative and utilitarian stitches.  I mostly switched between the zig zag disc and the one for a blind hem stitch.  But the very best thing about this machine, and every other Touch and Sew, was that fabulous push-button bobbin.  The little plastic bobbin with uneven sides didn’t hold much thread at the time, but that was of little consequence since rewinding was a breeze.  Slide open the throat plate, push a button, wind the thread around the presser foot screw, and step on the pedal.  You didn’t have to unthread the machine at all!  I have really often wondered why that wonderful feature was not carried into other lines and brands of machines; that single feature is what kept me from moving to a more modern machine for years.

A small crisis led to the purchase of a new machine.  I was in the middle of a time-sensitive project, and the timing went out on my old Singer.  (The plastic gears in all of the Touch and Sews have a limited lifespan!) I was hoping that it could be quickly repaired, but as I drove to my local sewing machine store, I knew better.  I left my Singer for repair, and drove back home with a brand new basic Baby Lock named Grace.  (Yep, that name is displayed right on the front; a nice reminder of what I need and what I should offer to everyone around me every time I sit down to sew!)  I already had a Baby Lock serger, which I loved, so this sewing machine seemed a safe choice.  I deliberately stayed away from the top-of-the-line machines, because I had done no research to find out what I really wanted.  But for a little over $300, I acquired Grace, and she and I got along just fine.  I finished my project in record time.

After my Singer had been repaired, I set it up with the add-on buttonhole attachment, which is about as old the Touch and Sew itself.  It has sized templates that drop in the back of the contraption for a perfect buttonhole.  I love that thing so much that when I wore out my first one, I found another one on Ebay.  I ordered it in the hopes that the previous owner had not racked up as many hours on it as I had on mine, and so far, so good.  So now, when I need to make a set of buttonholes, I thread the right color on the Touch and Sew, and I’m ready to go.  Old habits are hard to break!