Improving my twin needle hems

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The twin needle threaded up and ready to go.

I don’t have a coverstitch machine (yet…), so my favourite way to hem knitted garments is with a twin needle on my regular sewing machine. I’ve been sewing lots of knits over the last year (children’s clothes 1, 2 and 3 as well as things for me 1, 2 and 3). And I’m not very happy with my twin needle hems so I thought I’d scout around the blogosphere for some tips, test them, and share the results with you all.

So here’s my control example: some sweatshirting fabric scraps sewn with a twin needle, using Gutermann sew-all thread on top and bottom, medium presser foot pressure and the ordinary tension settings.

As you can see, the two lines of stitching on the top are fine, but there’s not much zig and zag in the black bobbin thread meaning them hem won’t stretch much. Fine in a loose fitting sweatshirt, maybe, but not great for a tight-fitting T-shirt. And when you look at the hem in profile, it’s got that tunnelling effect where the fabric between the two lines of stitching almost looks as though it has piping inside it.

The first tip I found was to adjust the tension on the top thread. Cranking up the tension on the top should make the bobbin tension lower and create more zig and zag in the bobbin thread. Except it didn’t, so I haven’t taken any pictures of that. The only thing it did do was to stop the hem from curving – almost as if I’d adjusted a non-existent differential feed.

Woolly nylon in the bobbin thread

The second tip I found was to try woolly nylon thread in the bobbin, instead of sew-all. This stuff is weird! It’s fuzzy, stretchy and feels very, very synthetic – a bit like you’ve unravelled your tights, I suppose.

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With woolly nylon in the bobbin, the hem comes out like this:

I think there’s a bit more zigzagging going on in the bobbin thread – although it’s hard to see with the pale grey colour I bought (sorry!), but there’s still a definite tunnel effect when you look at the hem in profile. So far, no better.

Lowering the bobbin tension (while using woolly nylon)

Next up, I tried lowering the bobbin tension as suggested on Oliver and S. My sewing machine manual doesn’t even tell me how to do this, as Janome firmly believes you should only ever need to alter the top tension to get the right balance. (If you try this at home, please make sure you know how to undo it, too.) To save my sanity if I couldn’t undo it, I followed Rachel’s example in the Oliver and S post and bought a second bobbin casing to play with, loosening the screw to lower the tension.

The results looked like this:

Lots more zigzagging in the bobbin thread, which means the hem is much stretchier. But I’ve still got the tunnelling. Aaargh.

Have you solved this problem? What should I try next?

 

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Bar tacks – denim v machine

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After – one good, one a bit messy

You might have noticed I haven’t finished my Ginger jeans yet. As well as the epic (and still ongoing) fitting process, I’ve been struggling with the bar tacks. So in case sewists of the future are also battling bar tacks, I thought I’d jot down what I’ve learnt.

Back up a minute – what’s a bar tack?

It’s a really dense stitch that you use to reinforce areas that undergo a lot of stress when you wear the garment. For example, you might use them to secure the edges of your pockets, or in the case of the Ginger Jeans, to strengthen the fly front.

Nothing to do with the Dior Bar Jacket, or this rather stylish eatery in Amsterdam (which is pretty much all you’ll find if you search Instagram for #bartack).

How do you do a bar tack?

It’s a lot like a buttonhole stitch – a short, narrow zigzag stitch. For jeans, it’s usually done with the same topstitching thread as the other decorative stitching.

This Seamwork feature shows you how and when you might use a bar tack, and some more decorative variations.

The Closet Case fly front zipper post in the sewalong for the Ginger jeans has tips on achieving the perfect bar tack on stretch denim.

Sadly, my machine didn’t want to follow the instructions.

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This was my machine’s initial reaction to be asked to sew a bar tack

My Janome DKS30 even has a specific bar tack stitch, but each time I tried a test tack, it jammed up and almost broke the needle. I fiddled with the tension, the presser foot pressure and tried four different presser feet but nothing was working.

After a cry for help on Instagram, some helpful suggestions came back. (Thank you @liwarlin, @heatherarnatt and @penguinandpear.)

I switched back to a regular zigzag stitch, swapped my denim needle for a topstitching needle and things improved a little. I swapped the bobbin thread for a slightly thicker sew-all thread (still nowhere near as thick as topstitching thread), and opted for the buttonhole foot with the stabiliser plate. Lastly, I lowered the needle using the wheel rather than the button, and when it began to look like the whole thing was going to jam up again, I used the handwheel to finish the stitch instead of the pedal.

They’re not the neatest, but at least I didn’t ruin the whole front of the jeans. Thinking I might go for rivets elsewhere though…

I’m still not sure my machine is supposed to behave like this, so I’d be interested to know if you’ve had similar problems – and whether you’ve solved them.

 

 

Sewing Christmas presents haul!

p1150503I was lucky enough to receive one or two sewing-related presents, so I thought I’d share a few pictures. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours?

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My in-laws gave me a whole selection of sewing tools and goodies. The double tracing wheel is going to make tracing Burda and Ottobre patterns a whole lot easier – I can use it to add the seam allowances straightaway. The London-themed pattern weights have already been pressed into service.

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My sister got me these scary-looking applique scissors, which I’m hoping will be just the thing for grading seam allowances. (Although presumably they’re also useful for applique? I just need to ponder that for a bit.

My parents got my the knitting roll (shown in the first picture) to store my rapidly expanding and very unwieldy collection of  knitting needles.

Did Father Christmas bring you anything for your stash?

Press Gang

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Do you enjoy ironing? How about pressing? (What’s the difference, I hear you ask?!)

In sewing, pressing means applying heat and/or steam to your fabric during construction.

If you’re working with a natural fibre, especially a fabric like wool that responds really well to pressing, you can use your iron to shape and mould the garment to your satisfaction.

I’m not a natural with an iron, so I’ve gathered up some of my favourite pressing tips and tutorials to help anyone else who struggles to get to grips with this part of the process.

Before you cut out

So you’ve pre-washed your fabric  and line dried it and now it’s all creased, possibly stretched off grain, and you’re starting to wish you hadn’t bothered.

Try: Pressing the unfolded fabric on your cutting surface (using an old towel underneath it). Start near the selvedges and get them straight and crease-free first, then carefully iron the middle part without dragging the fabric if you can. Next, fold it in half where you think the centre is and press all the way up to the fold but not on top of it.

Try: Pressing paper patterns using a cool, dry iron (empty the reservoir and turn the steam function off) so they’re exactly the shape they were intended to be when you come to cut out.

If you really love pressing enormous pieces of yardage, you might also enjoy this in-depth piece by David Page Coffin for Seamwork.

Applying fusible interfacing

Straight after cutting out, you’ll want to interface any pieces that are going to be under strain, or that need stiffening: typically facings, plackets, waistbands, collars and cuffs.

Try: Trim the interfacing so it’s slightly smaller than the corresponding pattern piece (usually you effectively trim off the seam allowances). Place the sticky side on top of the wrong side of your pattern piece and press it without your iron (without moving the iron around) for 8 seconds. And did you know you can add more than one layer of interfacing if you want to?

If you’re slovenly like me, and can’t always be bothered to cut out interfacing pieces exactly or trim off the seam allowances, you may want to invest in a sheet of oven liner or Teflon of some kind to prevent you glueing everything to your ironing board cover.

If you find this part of the process boring (hello coat-making!), you could always brighten up your ironing board with a new, homemade cover using this tutorial from Tilly and the Buttons.

After sewing a seam

Try: This is a three-step process, believe it or not. First, press the seam as sewn – lay it on your ironing board just as it was under the machine and press down on the stitches with your iron. Apparently this helps the stitches meld into your fabric.

(If you’re pressing a curved seam, grab your tailor’s ham now.) If the pattern says to press the seams open/to one side, do that from the wrong side. Then turn your fabric over and repeat from the right side.

This helpful piece from So Sew Easy includes advice on tailor’s hams, seam rolls and a press cloths.

Other ways to improve your pressing:

Buy a properly hot and steamy iron. My upgrade to a more powerful £50 model with a Teflon soleplate and much more steam has made pressing almost pleasurable. Almost, I said.

Turn the temperature and the steam up as high as you can without singeing. Test on a scrap first, obvs, and you may be able to go even hotter if you use a press cloth.

Upgrade your ironing board cover to something cotton, linen or canvas with a bit of grip to it to stop everything sliding around (rather than the shiny metallic ones they often come with).

Buy or make a tailor’s ham. If you don’t want to spend on a seam roll as well, you can always use a tightly rolled up towel.

If you want to do lots of tailoring, you could consider investing in a seam clapper. I don’t have one, but lots of people swear by them. Karen from Did You Make That? has created a short video so you can see her seam clapper in action.

If you’re making something that needs pressing into shape (lots of curved pieces and darts), don’t choose polyester fabric. It doesn’t respond well to pressing.

Can anyone tell me:

How do you press open tiny seam allowances without burning your fingers? I’m currently make a Fifi set by Tilly and the Buttons, which uses french seams. The instructions say: sew a 1/4″ seam with WST, trim the seam allowances by half (to 1/8″) and then press them open. How is this possible with real human fingers? Do I need a mini iron?

What’s your top pressing tip? And have you ever burnt a hole in a home-made garment?

Transferring pattern markings – three options but no clear winner

Did you watch the first series of the Great British Sewing Bee? I lapped it up – it’s one of the things that inspired me to get on and start writing this blog. One of my clearest memories of the show is watching Ann, the eventual winner, calmly doing tailor’s tacks during a typically tight-for-time challenge.

Why use tailor’s tacks?

A tailor’s tack is just one way to transfer markings from a pattern to your fabric. In its favour it’s accurate (since you mark the fabric before you remove the pattern piece), and done thoroughly it’s quite hard to dislodge. On the down side, if you then stitch that marking into a seam you might struggle to remove your brightly coloured marking thread.

Alternatives to tailor’s tacks

You can use a tracing wheel and special coloured carbon paper. Again, it’s accurate, because you don’t have to remove the pattern piece to get the carbon paper in the right spot, and it’s quick. If you use a serrated wheel, you will damage the paper pattern slightly. But the biggest disadvantage for me is that I just can’t get it to work on most of the medium and heavier weight clothing fabrics I use. Tartan cotton flannel, shocking pink boiled wool, brown linen – none of these fabrics have accepted a carbon paper marking. I love the idea of this method, but I’m starting to suspect I’m doing something wrong…

Or you can grapple with pins and chalk/pens, poking a pin through the marking on the pattern and then lifting up the pattern to mark the fabric at the right spot. Not that easy unless you have three hands, especially not if the marking is in the middle of a large pattern piece. I’ll admit I’ve done it sometimes, but I think it’s prone to distortion because you can’t get all the way around the pin this way.

What’s your favourite method? Do you even transfer all the markings, or do you prefer to fly by the seat of your only partially-marked pants?

Overlocker tips

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My Husqvarna Viking Huskylock s15 definitely rules the roost in my sewing space

If you own an overlocker (also known as a serger), then you probably love how quickly it sews and finishes your seams. You probably also find yourself swearing at it at other times. Here are some tips I use to help you get your overlocker purring along rather than juddering to a halt.

Thread the loopers first

When you have no option but to start threading from scratch, I always begin with the upper looper, then the lower looper, then the right and left needles. I find this works more often than doing it any other way. It does says this in the manual for my machine, but it took me over a year to notice that and heed the advice.

Pass each thread between the presser foot and the blade

After you’ve threaded it up, pass each thread between the presser foot and the blade (as you take the thread to the back of the stitch plate before you make your stitch chain). Layla, the tutor on the overlocker workshop I took at Guthrie & Ghani, gave the class this tip – and I’ve no idea why it works but it does!

Don’t bother lifting the presser foot when you sew

To put the fabric under the machine, I usually just lift the toe of the presser foot with my finger, rather than groping for the lever all the time. And because you stitch off the end of the fabric most of the time, you won’t need to lift it to take the fabric out either. In fact, the only time I do lift the presser foot with the lever is to get the threads in between the tension discs.

Sadly you do need to clean and oil it sometimes

Because overlockers work so quickly, and get covered in fibres all the time you will need to clean it out regularly (a vacuum cleaner will do the job), change the needles now and then (no, they’re not supposed to be level) and potentially even replace the stationary cutter blade if the fabric isn’t cutting cleanly any more.

So you might as well keep your manual handy and set a reminder to show it some love after every three projects. I’ve discovered mine makes a hideous shuddering noise that shakes the whole house if I forget to oil it…

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The hilariously cheesy cover photo on the manual for my overlocker. This lady looks so pleased to be cuddling this machine…

When the sewing gets tough

If all your efforts fail, you can always take it for a service at your local repair centre (or even better, track down a repairer who’ll come and visit you). I’m booking mine in for a service next month – after three years of hard use I think it’s time for a check-up.

Have you got a great tip for bending your overlocker to your will?

 

Hemming T-shirts

Coverstitch? Twin needles? Zigzag?

What’s the best way to hem a knit garment like a T-shirt or a jersey dress? From what I’ve learnt so far your options are:

Coverstitch

If you’re lucky enough to have a coverstitch machine this seems to be the way to go. You press up your hem, and then the coverstitch finishes the raw edge and stitches the hem in one go. It gives that RTW twin needle finish on the outside and because of the differential feed you can get it lovely and stretchy so you won’t split your stitches taking the garment on and off. If only I could justify buying one…

Overlock plus twin needle

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There’s just a hint of that tunnelling effect on this hem, but the printed fabric hides it well.

This is the one I’ve used the most. It gives a slightly stretchy finish because the bobbin thread zigs and zags between the two top threads, but it probably won’t stretch as much as the original fabric. First you overlock the raw edge and press up your hem. You can also stabilise the hem allowance to avoid a twisted, puckered or ridged finish.

Then fit a ballpoint twin needle in your ordinary sewing machine, use your walking foot, a straight stitch setting, and topstitch the hem in place from the right side.

(If you have a really old sewing machine, like my Singer 201K, that only has a straight stitch, then you may not have a footplate that will take a twin needle, but any machine that has a built-in a zigzag function should be fine. I used my mother-in-law’s 1960s Singer to hem my Moneta dress. If there’s no second spool, then put your two top threads onto bobbins and then you can stack them on top of each other on your spool pin.)

If you’re getting a ridge between the two lines of stitching, then a stabiliser should help, and you can also try playing around with the tension. Lots of people recommend stretchy woolly nylon for the bobbin thread, but I haven’t tried this yet.

If you don’t have an overlocker

You don’t have to overlock the edge before you press it up, you can still do a twin needle hem without this step, but in this case I would definitely use a stabiliser right up to the raw edge – and pick one that won’t wash out. A permanent stabiliser may limit the stretch a little, but that’s better than the raw edge curling back over the hemming stitch and creating a lump there. You might also choose to use an overedge or zigzag stitch to finish the raw edge for neatness.

If you don’t want to buy a ballpoint twin needle…

…because it’s an awful moment when you break one and have to part with another £4, then you can also topstitch the hem with a zigzag stitch, or a stretch stitch. This will stretch a little, but like the twin needle finish, not a lot. Some people are sniffy about how this finish looks, but I quite like the variation. I tried this for my latest T-shirt (which I’ll hopefully post later this week when the weather brightens enough to take pictures).

Unsolved mysteries

Can you help me with any of my unsolved questions?

  1. Is a coverstitch machine so amazing that I should blow the budget and get one? Or are they quite fiddly and hard to use?
  2. What’s the best stabiliser to use for knit hems? Spray-in starch, wash-away, knit interfacing or something else?
  3. I’ve read that you can also use a rolled hem. Has anyone tried this? What sort of fabric would this work best on?
  4. Where can you get woolly nylon thread in the UK?

Sewing thick fabrics

On Saturday night, I spent the evening at home – wrestling with a monster seam. IMG_1202 (1)

This is the toughest seam I’ve ever sewn, and I thought I’d share some tips for dealing with these, without breaking too many needles.

When you make a coat, there’s usually a point when you ‘bag’ the lining. You start by assembling the outer coat and the lining separately. Then you stitch them together along three sides, turn the whole thing inside out through the fourth side and hey presto, you (almost) have yourself a beautiful lined coat.

In this seam, because there was also a lined hood, I had six layers altogether: two layers of polyester coating, two of cotton jersey lining, plus two of fluffy Thinsulate interlining. And when I got to the point where the shoulder and hood seams aligned, it was briefly doubled to 12 layers.

So, how can you get all this under the needles smoothly?

Use the right kit

Being realistic, a portable lightweight machine is probably going to curl up and die if you ask it to sew a seam like this. So if you’re lucky enough to have more than one machine, thread up the stronger of the two. My new Janome DKS30 and my old Singer 201k have both sewn this seam successfully – although only the 201k actually enjoyed it.

Pick the right needle and thread. If you’re making a coat, you’re probably using a size 100/16 needle. If you can’t remember what needle you put in, or you changed it to sew the lining, now is the moment to double-check. A strong sew-all polyester thread, or potentially even a topstitching or buttonhole thread is a good idea too.

If you’ve been using your walking foot for your coat so far, you might need to change back to your ordinary foot just to get the fabric under the needle. But if you can stick with your walking foot, that will give you a better result when seaming all these different fabrics together.

You could also try a Jean-a-ma-jig (also called a ‘hump jumper’) to help you over the seam allowances. It helps the presser foot lift and stay level over the hump when the fabric suddenly gets thicker.

Extra tips and tricks

Fish out your sewing machine manual again and look for any advice on sewing thick fabrics. I found that mine has an extra lever position that lifts the presser foot even higher to help you get all the layers into position.

Set your presser foot pressure and needle thread tension according to the advice in the manual. (On my Janome DKS30 I set the presser foot pressure at 6 and the needle thread tension at 3.)

If your fabric stops moving through the machine you might have to help it along the way. You can try gently pulling and pushing it through with one hand on each side. Or you can switch to using the hand wheel instead of the motor – sometimes a few stitches done like that will get you through the hardest part.

A cup of tea or a stiff G&T can also make all the difference…

If it does go a bit wonky, try not to panic. Unless you’ve dropped a layer or created a pucker you probably don’t need to unpick. And because this seam will never lie flat on the body, if it’s not 100% perfect you mightn’t even notice.

Sourcing children’s duffel coat supplies in the UK

It’s happened. He’s grown. Again. So I’m starting my third Oliver + S School Days Jacket ahead of some of the other things in my queue that I’m itching to get stuck into.

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Most of the versions of this pattern (including the official sew-along) I’ve seen have been from US-based stitchers like Cashmerette, so I thought it might help to compile some links and tips to help UK sewists find everything they’ll need.

The pattern

I’ve used the Oliver + S School Days Jacket. I love this pattern – it’s cute, it’s adaptable, it’s unisex. The instructions are spot on and you don’t need any special tailoring skills or tools.

Loads of lovely sewing shops in the UK now stock Oliver + S but they rarely have this particular pattern, preferring to stick to simpler stuff like T-shirts and summer dresses. So you’ll probably need to get it from Backstitch. I’d recommend the PDF version because kids are a different size each time and I find it easier to re-print than trace it off each time.

One minor grumble – the pattern comes in sizes 6m-18m up to 3T and then for 4T and up you have to re-buy it in the larger size bundle. I read Todd’s post explaining why this is the case, and I do appreciate the reasons. But it still grates a bit, especially as there’s no overlap for grading between 3T and 4T.

Fabrics

Main fabric

Tons of options here. For a proper duffel coat, you’ll want to use a fairly heavy coating fabric. Obviously you can get wool, tweed, or even cashmere (!) but for a coat that’s only going to fit for one year and that you’re likely to want to wash or at least scrub regularly, that’s probably not a great idea. So I’ve used a polyester melton from Croft Mill. It washes well, doesn’t fray much and sews up well. The downsides are that it’s tough on your hands to cut out and you can’t press it into shape as easily as wool. Small price to pay, I think. (And actually it really is a small price at £10.50/m rather than upwards of £20/m). I also think it would look amazing in needlecord but my boy is determined to stick with what he knows.

Lining fabric

I made the first two versions with quilting cotton – it was on the list of fabric suggestions and there are so many brilliant patterns and colours to choose from.

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For the third version, I’m going to try something I see in lots of my son’s RTW clothes – a cotton jersey knit fabric for the body lining and an acetate (slippery nylon type) fabric for the sleeves. The theory is that this should make it easier to take on and off over winter jumpers but I’ll let you know how it goes. I’ve bought this slightly extravagant bicycle-print organic cotton jersey from Fabric Godmother and I’ll use some plain acetate lining from my stash for the sleeves.

For the pockets, although a contrast lining is really tempting, I’d strongly recommend something that closely matches the outer fabric. They’re patch pockets, and try/understitch as I might, I can’t get them on without a tiny peek of the lining showing through at the sides. So this time I’ll use a black acetate lining fabric.

Interlining

I embraced Liesl’s suggestion to interline the coat for a really cosy look and feel (toddlers don’t do layering, after all). It’s a lot simpler than making the optional quilted vest that comes with the pattern. I am definitely not a quilter so this is much quicker.

Pennine Outdoor sell a Thinsulate lining which works well here. It’s a bit like sewing with snow at roughly 1cm thick, but it squashes while it’s under the presser foot, it’s held up well and I’m pleased with the way it looks. You don’t need as much of this as the lining fabric because there’s no straight grain so you can arrange the pieces any old how for your cutting layout.

Notions

Don’t go with the Velcro option if you’re using a wool-type fabric – it sticks to everything and damages your outer fabric. Choose the snaps/press studs option instead. Nice chunky ones will help the coat sit better.

I’ve seen a few versions of this pattern with the button tabs, but for a proper duffel coat you can’t beat toggles. Myfabrics and Weaver Dee both sell ready-made leather-look toggle fastenings in a range of colours. I’d really love to make my own (using Jen’s instructions for the Grainline Cascade duffel coat) with real leather pieces but I haven’t found anywhere near me or online in the UK that sells leather cord or leather laces. Can you recommend anywhere?

For my third version, I’ve also decided to add some reflective piping to the hood and yoke seams. Pennine Outdoor sell this ready made and you’ll need between 1 and 2m to do the same seams as me, depending on the size you’re making.

Tools

Leather needles for the toggle fastenings – I sew mine by hand

Sticky tape or fabric glue to hold the toggles in place while you sew them

Size 90 or 100 regular machine needles for stitching the coating fabric

Nice long pins to hold all those layers together

Piping or regular zip foot for adding any piping

A walking foot for joining the lining to the coat and stitching together the interlining

Possibly a hump jumper, depending on your machine and your fabric.

 

That’s it. Not so hard when you list it all out – plus you get all the fun of ticking off the list, right?

Save or splurge?

Five sewing patterns on a table.

January’s not a month that most people have a ton of cash to flash. You might have bought such terrific presents for your nearest and dearest that your credit cards are all maxed out, or you might just be trying to kick your addiction to fabric shopping.

So what’s a good way to save money on your sewing habit and what’s a false economy?

Five sewing patterns on a table.
The lure of the new: just a few of the uncut patterns trying to tempt me away from finishing my Thurlow trousers

Five tips that help me cut costs are:

  1. Buy the stuff you use all the time in bulk – for me that’s black and white sew-all thread, lightweight fusible interfacing, and size 90/14 machine needles. If you live in a sewing shop desert and usually buy online, you’ll save a fortune on shipping and delivery costs this way.
  2. Don’t shop for new patterns! For me, pattern shopping almost always leads to fabric shopping, and to throwing aside whatever I was working on at the time in favour of the shiny new pattern.
  3. Sew your stash is an obvious one, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. If you’re anything like me there are at least four projects in there you could be getting on with, no outlay required.
  4. Scour the secondhand shops, charity shops and flea fairs in your area for vintage patterns and toile fabric at a fraction of the new price. Or if you’re the upcycling sort, you might find plenty of garments you can refashion – look among the plus sizes to find larger pieces of fabric.
  5. Think carefully about whether you need that clever-sounding sewing machine foot or specialist tool. I’ve learnt that a regular zip foot can be used in place of a piping foot, and you can make your own non-stick (Teflon) foot with an ordinary straight stitch foot and some masking tape. A tightly rolled towel can double for a seam roll and you can definitely use a chopstick in place of a point turner. Hopefully that’s £20 saved already.

Stuff I wouldn’t scrimp on? I find cheap thread is rarely up to the job, and I wouldn’t be without my (15-year old) pair of tailor’s shears.

I’d love to hear what you think is worth investing in, and what you do to keep costs down.