This guide to tailoring tools is an extract from Ladies Couture Tailoring: A Step-by-Step Guide to Making a Jacket That Fits by Michelle Pye. The book demystifies the process of making a handmade jacket with personal tips and tricks from an experienced tailor. It is available to buy on The Crowood Press website.
Tailoring Tools and Materials
I have listed the equipment I use for tailoring, some of which you will already have for dressmaking projects. You can tailor quite successfully if you have, for instance, different pins or needles, but I find the items listed make things easier.
I use extra-long extra-fine pins for all my sewing; they can be used with most weights of fabric. With a medium-weight tailoring cloth they are perfect, as the points are very sharp and glide through the fabric when pinning on the pattern, and the extra length of the pins enables you to easily pin enough fabric to secure your seams when sewing.
Betweens needles are known as tailors’ needles. They are noticeably short; some are only about 3.1cm (1¼in) long. A tailor likes to use these needles as the thimble used has no end in it (see below); with this type of short needle, you don’t have to bend your finger back as far to push it through as you would with a normal-length needle.
Have a go with these needles before you dismiss them. Many of my students have been initially very way of using needles this small but, after trying them out, have switched to them and won’t use anything else.
I use a tailor’s thimble; this type has no top on it. This is because a tailor doesn’t push the needle through with the top of the finger but with the side of it. You push the needle through the cloth using the area close to your nail, thus using the strongest part of the finger.
Many of my students say they can’t use a thimble. As soon as the thimble goes onto the middle finger, they automatically use another one for sewing. The way I was taught to get used to sewing with a thimble was to get a big piece of canvas with a couple of layers of padding placed on top of it; I was then shown how to pad stitch. I covered the entire piece of canvas with small stitches all the way across it, forcing myself to use the thimble.
If you do this for a couple of hours, using the thimble becomes second nature; I can’t sew without one now. If you don’t use a thimble and you do a lot of tailoring, you will get a very sore finger. Before thimbles were invented, apprentice tailors were encouraged to do a great deal of sewing to make their fingers bleed – without getting any blood on the garment they were creating, of course. The finger would then scab over. After doing this for about six months a callus would form, producing a built-in thimble! This is a very painful way of acquiring a thimble and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it.
PRICKING YOUR FINGER
Should you be unfortunate enough to get blood on your sewing, whether it is a jacket or anything else, simply get a length of thread (I like to use basting thread), put it into your mouth and moisten it. Now take the thread and rub it onto the blood stain. It has to be saliva; both blood and saliva have enzymes in them and they work together to lift the blood stain from the fabric.
In a tailoring workroom you rarely see anything other than large shears, somewhere between 20cm (8in) and 30cm (12in) with metal handles. I tend to use 23cm (9in) or 25cm (10in) as my hand aches from the weight of anything bigger. You can get shears up to about 40cm (16in).
I only use my best shears for cutting fabric and I am extremely careful not to drop them. Use an old pair of shears for cutting the pattern paper, otherwise your fabric shears will become blunted and not cut smoothly.
There is the age-old problem of family members borrowing your shears but be very firm about this. I’ve heard of various methods of controlling such borrowing: the best one I’ve heard is to use a padlock on the handles!
Tailor’s chalk will mark most fabrics. I only use white chalk as there is more chance of it brushing off than if you use coloured chalk. I even use it on white or cream fabrics. There are many different pens and pencils on the market claiming to do the same job. I only use Hancock’s chalk as it contains no wax. Some brands do contain wax and on some fabrics it will stain.
A chalk sharpening box has blades set at an angle. To use it you just rub the chalk across the blades on both sides of the chalk; this leaves a very sharp edge, perfect for drawing precise lines on your fabric.
USING TAILOR’S CHALK
Always test the chalk on a spare piece of your fabric before you start, then you can be sure it will brush off without leaving any residue. Always use a sharp piece, so that the line drawn is fine and sharp. Using blunt chalk will give a very thick line and can make markings inaccurate.
You can sharpen your chalk using a pair of scissors (the paper-cutting ones, not the fabric-cutting ones). Be careful if you do this; I only use this method if the chalk sharpener isn’t available. A safer way to do this is to use a chalk sharpening box.
The point presser and clapper is a useful piece of equipment. The clapper or banger is the bottom of the wooden block. When you press a seam or the edge of your jacket you place the clapper on it and it absorbs the steam: this sets the edge immediately, meaning that the fabric won’t rise up and give a half-pressed look.
Despite its name you don’t have to apply a lot of pressure to make it work.
I find a tailor’s ham invaluable when making jackets of any sort as it provides a series of curves, some more curvy than others. By using the shape of this ham inside your jacket you can make pressing curves easy without creasing the fabric on either side of the seam you are pressing.
Used in conjunction with the point presser the ham will get a perfect finish for your rounded seams every time you press.
A sleeve roll is a useful piece of equipment when pressing sleeve seams open because you don’t want to put creases into the sleeve whilst pressing open the sleeve’s second seam. I prefer this roll to a sleeve board, as you can accidentally press an impression of the edges of a sleeve board onto the sleeve, leaving creases in it.
It isn’t easy to press a sleeve once it’s joined up and getting rid of extra creases or impressions just adds to the problem. Your iron needs to become like a friend to you. When tailoring you do need steam and heat to successfully press and shape your jacket. I prefer to use a steam generator iron: this type of iron only produces steam when you press the button, so you will be able to control exactly when and where the steam is applied.
This also means that if you don’t want to use steam for the seam you are pressing, you don’t have to. An ordinary iron only delivers steam every now and again, so it may well take a bit longer to do the pressing stages. You can also use a dry iron and a wet cloth but again this takes more time. If you are using a wet cloth, be careful not to get it too wet as water can mark certain cloths.
As my pressing cloth I always use a piece of silk organza. This fabric is sheer so you can see through it, enabling you to keep your eye on what you are pressing and you don’t press any creases into your sewing by accident. Silk organza is a tough fabric and I promise it won’t melt when you use a hot iron on it.
I never finish off the edges of my silk organza pressing cloth, as making a hem or overlocking the edges creates a bulky finish. If you catch this as you are pressing it could leave a mark on the fabric you are pressing. Just trim off the fraying ends as they appear, and after a while the cloth stops fraying. I also wash my cloth when it gets dirty; this does take some of the dressing out of it, but it prolongs the life of the cloth.
A tracing wheel is a useful tool to transfer all the pattern markings to the redrafted dot-and-cross paper pattern once all the fitting stages have been done. Using the wheel means you don’t have to lift the pattern out of the way to transfer the markings, which makes it more accurate.
It works best if you put a piece of fabric or a pressing board underneath it. You will have to press quite hard to get the wheel to mark the paper if you just put the pattern onto the work surface.
However, be careful if you are using a tracing wheel on a polished table: if you press too hard the spikes on the wheel will damage the surface of the table. Once you have all the markings traced onto the pattern, you can use a pen or pencil to go over them and mark them clearly.
The hole punch is used when handfinishing. It makes a small hole in the fabric at the end of the buttonhole nearest to the front of the jacket so that the shank of the button can sit comfortably without puckering or distorting the fabric. This punch has several sizes of hole to choose from but you always use the smallest one for buttonholes.
For patterns I use dot-and-cross paper, as it is stronger than the traditional tissue paper. When I buy a commercial pattern, I trace it out onto the dot-and cross paper and keep the original pattern for reference only. When making alterations you can stick clear adhesive tape (such as Sellotape) to this paper without creating a problem whereas tissue paper does not take kindly to having lots of tape stuck to it. It can also crease and not sit correctly once the tape is applied; this can cause you to make an inaccurate alteration to your pattern which will then alter the fit of the jacket.
I always have a ruler to hand. I use it for altering patterns and for marking cloth using tailor’s chalk. I use the one in the photograph, which came from the workroom I was trained in. The end of it has a metal strip, which is a reinforcement to stop the end wearing out. The measurements start right at the end of the ruler, not slightly in, as most of the rulers on the market do.
I’m told that it is more like a ruler used by a carpenter; these are available from DIY stores. I find the 45cm (18in) ruler is more useful than one of 30cm (12in) (too short) or one of 60cm (24in) (too long).
I always use inches for my measurements, but you don’t have to if you want to use metric measurements – that’s fine. I have put the measurements in both throughout the book, but the conversion isn’t exact, so don’t start out using one set of measurements and switch halfway through.
When you are tailoring you don’t need a sewing machine which does dozens of different stitches. What you do need is a machine which can take heavier-weight fabrics and apply a straight stitch and a basic zigzag stitch. I love sewing machines, from the basic straight stitch machines to the most complex computerized ones. I’m the first one to jump on a machine and try it out.
Although I have said that you don’t need a complicated machine for tailoring, some of the more complex machines are easy to work with and have a lot of time-saving gadgets, for example a thread-cutting button. This book is not an excuse for buying a new machine; however, if you get a good deal on one, why not treat yourself!
Basting thread is a special cotton thread made to break easily. It has a slightly rougher texture than a normal thread. This is one item I can’t sew without. Doing tailor tacks is so simple with this thread, as the rough texture of the thread keeps the tailor tack in place. I also use this thread when putting in temporary basting stitches which hold layers of fabrics together whilst more permanent stitches are put in place.
Basting thread is perfect when pulling out the basting stiches right at the end of the making-up process. Should it get caught when you are pulling it out, it snaps, unlike ordinary thread which would cut into the fabric. I use beeswax to strengthen the thread when I’m hand-working buttonholes.
You pull the thread through the wax, then take it to the iron. Make sure you have a piece of scrap fabric on the ironing board. Place the thread onto the scrap fabric and fold the fabric over, place the hot iron gently on top and then pull the thread through. This will remove any excess wax before you start the buttonhole. The wax will then not get on to the ironing board or the iron and then transfer to your jacket when you press it.
The piece of beeswax you can see in the photograph was given to me by my grandfather when I started tailoring. He used to work in the shoe industry and used this piece of wax in his work.
USING BASTING THREAD
When I’m using this thread, I don’t cut the end of it, I break it. The thread is quite thick and if you cut it, it’s almost impossible to thread the needle. If you break the thread, it leaves a wispy end, which is finer and more easily pushed through the needle.
You can buy special heavyweight thread to work buttonholes with: in the trade it’s known as buttonhole twist. If you can’t get hold of this thread, then use a topstitching thread (a slightly thicker thread) which is readily available in most stores where you buy ordinary cotton threads. There is a good choice of colours in topstitching thread, which is a good thing as women’s jackets come in a bigger variety of colours than men’s. Traditional buttonhole thread comes in an very limited choice of colours.
Buttonhole gimp is a thick thread which is placed onto the edge of the buttonhole and the buttonhole stitch is then worked over it. This gives a rounded, slightly padded shape to the edge of your buttonhole.
The thread is made up of several core threads, with an outside lighter thread wrapped around the core. It has almost a wire-like feel to it. If you can’t get hold of any gimp, you can use several strands of the topstitching thread instead; these strands can be waxed to make them stronger.