Vintage Sewing 101: Sewing Tools And Their Uses

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Welcome back to Vintage Sewing 101. Hopefully you’ve already read my Introduction to the series and know what to expect from these posts (if not, be sure to have a quick read!). As per my pledge to follow the 1950s sewing course through from beginning to end, I’m starting where the manuals tell me that I should – by determining whether or not I’m well equipped to begin.

Since I’ve already been sewing for two years, I obviously have an advantage over the amateur vintage seamstress – not to mention that my tools are likely a little more advanced than hers would have been (I assume). From a historical standpoint, however, it’s interesting to think about what would have been considered ‘well-equipped’ from the perspective of 1950s sewing companies. Since this sewing course was produced by Sears, Roebuck and Company, we’re obviously working with one of the major sewing retailers. So let’s see what they have to say…

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Starting off with the absolute basics of the basics. The course promises that having the right tools to measure with “will save hours of work that can be lost by careless, half-guess calculations.” I already feel that I’m not quite a Sears-standard seamstress since – although I assume that I’m doing pretty well in the realm of sewing tools – careless, half-guess calculations are honestly just part of the process for me. Perhaps this course will help me mend my ways.

With regards to measuring tools, the course recommends that we be equipped with:

  • A stout (non-stretching) cloth tape 60 inches long
  • A short, 6-12″ ruler (preferably steel)
  • A yardstick
  • Wax chalk and/or tailor’s chalk (for marking)
  • A full length mirror

As well equipped as I thought myself to be, I’m surprisingly under-equipped by 1950s standards. I gathered all of my measuring tools together and realised that this journey is going to be a definite uphill battle.

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Laura’s Measuring Tools:

  • A 60″ measuring tape (giving myself a mental checkmark here)
  • A 6″ plastic ruler (probably half a check mark since the sewing course recommends a 6-12″ steel ruler and mine is plastic)
  • A curved ruler (not recommended but I think invaluable. This is the nearest I come to having a yardstick. Since a yard is 36″, I’m definitely no way near where I should be)
  • Some tailor’s chalk (another check mark!)
  • Mirror (unpictured)

Ok so I didn’t do too badly on this front, although I’m missing a whole load of steel and about half a yard on my rulers. I’m also not entirely sold on the need for a mirror as a measuring tool – I guess maybe required to check even hem length – but who am I to question the wisdom of Sears?

On to Tools to Cut With. I think we can all agree that these are amongst the most important pieces of equipment for any sewist. A good pair of scissors can see you through practically anything. As the course indicates “Nothing slows work more than poor cutting tools.” For cutting, the well-equipped 1950s seamstress requires:

  • A large pair of shears with raised handles
  • A pair of 3-5″ scissors for close work
  • A pair of 7-8″ pinking shears
  • A razor blade for ripping seams
  • A cutting surface

Admittedly, I had to do an internet search to determine what raised handles are. As it turns out, they’re pretty standard to fabric scissors (where the handles are tilted, rather than straight like most regular scissors – see my picture below for a better idea). On to my cutting equipment:

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  • Large fabric scissors (2 pairs) with raised handles
  • Pinking shears
  • Seam ripper

Confession time – I own no small pairs of scissors. This sounds almost catastrophic for anyone who considers themselves an avid sewist. I’m very aware that I need to get a pair but I just never seem to get round to it (*update: since writing this post, I was motivated to go out and buy myself a pair of 3″ scissors. Thank you Sears for pushing me to do the right thing.*). So, on that score, I’m not so well equipped by 1950s standards. I also traded in a razor blade for a seam ripper, but I figure that it’s a permissible exchange. In terms of a cutting surface, I use both my sewing table (which is super long) or our big wooden floor – since the course informs us that “it’s better to use the floor than try it on the bed!” I think I’m doing pretty well.

So measuring and cutting-wise, I’m not quite up to par.  Although I’m only deficient on a couple of fronts, writing this post almost 70 years after the fact means I had pretty much assumed I’d be surpassing the manual on every front. Instead, my performance is just a little lacklustre. The 1950s obviously had pretty high standards. Perhaps I will fair better when it comes to pressing and sewing:

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“Press as you sew!” exclaims the course. This is a point that I wouldn’t contradict. I used to be terrible when it came to pressing my seams but I’ve definitely learnt the error of my ways. Pressing, by 1950s standards, requires a few different tools:

  • A light-weight, easy to handle iron (2-3lb in size)
  • An ironing board
  • A good pressing cloth
  • A sponge and dish of water (unless you have a steam iron)

Now, I haven’t actually weighed my iron so I can’t verify whether it falls within the bounds of the appropriate 1950s weight. I imagine conventional modern irons are lighter than their 1950s counterparts since they’re predominantly plastic (don’t quote me on this because I genuinely don’t know – if you have any insight on the subject, please share!). Anyway, my pressing equipment:

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Pictured are:

  • A Singer Steam Iron
  • An ironing board (very sturdy)
  • A pressing cloth (ok, truly I’ve never used a pressing cloth. But I imagine this would suffice, so we’ll just imagine that it’s used for that purpose)

I finally checked all of the boxes! Since I have a steam iron, the course permits me to forgo the bowl of water and sponge. I can’t imagine how using water and a sponge would turn out – I guess that it would be pretty slow going and a bit messier than using the iron. I may give it a go just to see how well it would work in comparison to a steam iron. For now, however, I consider myself very ready for all the pressing that must be done. And, apparently, the 1950s would agree.

Finally, on to arguably the most important set of tools in a sewists arsenal, those required for sewing. The course doesn’t beat about the bush on this, telling us simply that “good sewing tools are a must.” In the 1950s, a good seamstress would require:

  • A generous supply of needles
  • A thimble
  • Plenty of pins
  • A pincushion
  • Mercerised thread
  • A sewing machine

So, where do I fall on this count?

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In my kit:

  • Needles (pictured are embroidery needles and ones for my sewing machine, so I’m actually exceeding 1950s standards)
  • Pins, stuck in…
  • A pincushion
  • Thread
  • A sewing machine

Here I fail on just one count – no thimble. I actually had one when I was still living in the UK but found it incredibly difficult to use. Although, admittedly, a thimble would in theory save me a lot of finger pain, I couldn’t get to grips with it. I also had to do an internet search to find out what, exactly, ‘mercerised’ thread is meant to be. According to the source of all wisdom, Wikipedia, “Mercerisation is a treatment for cellulosic material, typically cotton threads, that strengthens them and gives them a lustrous appearance.” In modern production, cotton is bathed in sodium hydroxide and neutralised in acid. According to Wiki, “this treatment increases lustre, strength, affinity to dye, and resistance to mildew.” I have no idea whether or not my threads are mercerised, but I’m going to assume so. Most sewing threads have a definite sheen to them that would suggest mercerisation. So I’m going to give myself a check and say that the only piece of 1950s sewing equipment I’m lacking is a thimble.

It would seem, then, that the 1950s had pretty high standards when it came to being adequately equipped for sewing. Although we should bear in mind that this sewing course has been put together by a seller of sewing goods, I’m still surprised by the number of contemporary tools that were in use back in the 50s. Although we’re only 60 years on, technology has clearly developed by leaps and bounds. Other than the sewing machine itself – which is undoubtedly a totally different experience from those in use in the 50s – we’re still relying on much the same equipment. Hopefully, I have the appropriate foundations for moving forward on my 1950s sewing journey.

Make sure to join me for the next Vintage Sewing 101 post when I’ll be following instructions on how to care for and use my sewing machine!

11 thoughts on “Vintage Sewing 101: Sewing Tools And Their Uses

  1. Emily Kitsch says:

    I LOVE this idea! I can already tell these posts are going to be a ton of fun to read. 😀

    Also – I don’t use a thimble either, even though I know I should (my fingertips are a mess from repeatedly stabbing myself with needles), but I just can’t get the hang of using one, it feels awkward and unnatural. I have several thimbles and the only one that will even come close to fitting is a really old metal one that belonged to my mom – maybe I’ll just try practicing using that one and stop stabbing myself quite so much. LOL.

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    • sewforvictory says:

      I will never get the hang of using a thimble. I feel as though maybe I should try harder with it but I felt so clumsy when I tried to make it work. So instead, I’m just accepting that sore fingertips are a part of the deal!

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      • Elena says:

        Girls, a lot of people sew without a thimble. But I don’t like to see blood stains decorating my hand-embroidered silks as those stains don’t really come out. It takes a while to get used to the thimble, but once you’ve mastered it, there is no way back – it becomes a second nature and you can’t do without it anymore. I only used it at first so as not to hear all all the females in my extended family constantly tell me that sewing without a thimble is a sign of a poor seamstress, and also that I’d never marry (for that reason?). Not sure how much of that is an empty threat… 😮

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      • Emily Kitsch says:

        I’m the exact same way, I keep telling myself I need to try harder and just wear it until it feels natural, but whenever I wear one, I end up compensating for the clumsiness of wearing it by stabbing the rest of my fingers. LOL.

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  2. Sew Old Fashioned (Katie Writes Stuff) says:

    This is fun! I was mentally ticking off the items I do and don’t have as I was reading and I can see there are a couple of things I might need (apparently, I don’t have enough scissors to be going on with yet). One of the best things I bought last year was a metre-long ruler – it has come in so handy on multiple occasions!

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    • sewforvictory says:

      I’m super tempted to get a longer ruler. I’ve started doing a bit of pattern drafting and I can’t really see it going too smoothly with the rulers I currently have. Plus, let’s face it, if it was useful in the 1950s, it’d probably be useful now!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Elena says:

        Definitely get one but don’t be shocked by the price – these things are expensive. I have two 1m rulers (one aluminium, the other steel) and one 60cm ruler with a 15cm side at right angle – extremely useful.

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  3. Elena says:

    Laura, is your ironing cloth a bath towel? It will leave fluff and burly marks on your garments. The best cloth is a piece of Teflon-impregnated organza – light, heat resistant and translucent. Failing that, take a piece of cotton lawn or voile. It needs to be big enough to cover your entire ironing board and then some (think: ironing side seams in trousers).

    Your iron should be ok, although personally I prefer a smaller iron for seams – much more manoeuvrable. I just bought a small travel steam iron and it does the trick perfectly.

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  4. designedbydanita says:

    Oh my goodness! Thank you for explaining WHY I need all this stuff! My husband still can’t comprehend WHY I need MANY different kinds of scissors!!! I have warned him MANY, MANY times to never touch any of them as he might just pick up the fabric ones instead of the paper ones. He is clueless, no matter how many lessons I give him!!! By the way, they are ALL different colors so I can tell them apart at a glance!!! LOVE this post! Yup, got everything covered!!! Thanks for the checklist! 🙂

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