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Jan 10, 2011

The 14 shirtmaking tools you won't want to live without!

Friends, with a mere three weeks before our Men's Shirt Sew-Along begins, it's time to think beyond patterns and fabric and focus on helpful tools to make shirtmaking easier.

Today's ripped-from-Cosmo title notwithstanding, we all have our ways of doing things, and the tools I find useful may not serve you.  Still, I'd like to share some of the items I use most frequently when making shirts, along with a few others I've picked up on others' recommendations and haven't used much, but you might enjoy.  Many of these are supplies I use for all my sewing projects; others are more specialized.

In no particular order they are...

1.  One of my most treasured tools is my rotary cutter.  I use an Olfa 60 mm; there are other popular brands and smaller sizes as well.  Mine works well for me and I've had to change the blade only once in the last year and a half.  I use it with a green self-healing cutting mat you've no doubt seen in my sewing photos.  I rest it on the floor, which is where I cut my fabric.  

For weights I just use stuff I have around the house like glass paperweights and even scissors!


2.  I didn't think I'd use this Collins bamboo point turner much when I first bought it but I use it all the time.  It's ideal for making collar points sharp -- anything that you sew inside-out and then turn (like a patch pocket) will benefit.  Before I had it I used the edge of a letter opener and even (closed) scissors, but they didn't do the job as well.

3.  I only recently purchased this straight stitch walking foot but it works great -- not only with plaids, but whenever you're stitching something where precise lining up of edges is essential (like stitching a collar to a collar stand).  It's not necessary of course -- I did without it till last month -- but it's useful and at roughly $20, cheap.

You'll recognize this...

4.  A tailor's ham is essential when pressing a shirt collar, imo.  I bought a Dritz but if I had it to do over again I'd get one of Sunni's (The Cupcake Goddess) for sale in her Etsy shop.  Looks like the shop is closed for vacation but let's see if we can get her to re-open!


5.  A wood point presser with clapper (the heavy bottom) is also handy to have around when you're pressing or ironing.  The clapper makes creases razor sharp and flat as can be.  I use it more with wool than cotton, but it's a wonderful tool and oddly not so easy to find for sale.


6.  Needless to say a good heavy iron is a must.  I'm a big believer in the "sew as you go" adage.  I finger press when I have to or when the fabric doesn't press sharply (like flannel), but it makes a huge positive difference in the way finished garments look.

You'll also want...

7.  A sharp seam ripper (When's the last time you replaced yours?) and a seam gauge.  These two tools are cheap and easy to find.  Buy two so you never have to look for one in the middle of a project.

Now for some specialized tools...

8.  Rolled hem feet are great for finishing shirt hems but I must admit I rarely use them.  I usually just roll up 1/8 inch, stitch, and then roll up again.  These feet require practice and since they won't stitch over a seam, you'll have to stop and start multiple times when finishing a shirt hem unless you hem the individual pieces before you stitch them together, in which case you'd better make sure everything's lined up beforehand.  You probably own one of these already but to me they're not essential.

9.  Ditto this felling foot.  I bought it on David Coffin's recommendation and haven't used it though I've sewn miles of flat felled seams.  We'll be talking a lot more about seams and maybe I'll give this little foot a shot.  It wasn't cheap.  It just sits but I can't blame David for that; I just don't see the need for it.

10.  This little button sewing foot on the other hand is great.  I rarely sew buttons on by hand, preferring instead my Viking zigzagger which has a low shank attachment for snap-on feet.  I tape the button to the fabric first, which helps hold it in place.

I bought a whole set of snap-on attachment feet -- much cheaper than buying them one at at a time even though there are a few in the set I never use.  You can find these sets all over eBay.

And speaking of buttons...

11.  Nothing screams home-sewn more than oversized shirt buttons.  I generally use vintage plastic shirt buttons but you can use new ones, obviously.  Some might prefer shell buttons for a fancier look, but do keep them small.  Look at an RTW shirt you or a man in your life owns to get the size right. 

Which leads to...

12.  I love my Singer buttonholer attachment.  It makes beautiful buttonholes.

You may prefer a more rectangular (as opposed to oval) hole, which I've seen on more modern machines.  You shouldn't have to struggle with buttonholes but I suspect many people do.  I open up mine with a seam ripper but first I fill the little well (i.e., the inside of the buttonhole) with....

13.  I HATE the smell of Fray Check -- it literally nauseates me -- but I can't deny this stuff works.  I've made some buttonhole blunders occasionally and Fray Check has saved the day by making sure the fabric stays intact.  It's something of a love/hate relationship, obviously.  I also grow tired of sticking a pin in the top to keep it flowing.  (After I apply it I let it dry, by the way, before opening the buttonhole.)


14. You've heard me go on about straight stitch sewing machines so I'll be brief.  Nothing sews shirts better or more accurately.  Want to know why?  Watch my topstitching video.  Given that you can often buy a vintage straight stitch sewing machine for less than you'd pay for an iron, I think it's a great investment for the garment sewer, but not everybody wants one or has room for one and I get that.

These are not rules, but merely suggestions.  

Friends, that's it.  Have I missed anything?  Is there a tool you use regularly when making shirts (or blouses) that you couldn't do without?  Do tell!

I'll have a few more surprises tomorrow, including an Elnapress  -- no, you'll just have to tune in tomorrow.

Is this helpful?  Hope so!  Any questions?  Just ask.

Have a great day, everybody!

PS -  You still have till midnight tonight (EST) to enter my men's shirt pattern GIVEAWAY.  See details in yesterday's post.


  1. Awesome! Perfect timing! I *do* love that oval button hole. My machine has button hole choices which include squared at each end, rounded at one end, and key hole shape, as well as 3 more that are square at each end (a bit redundant, IMO). I can't wait to see what you say about seams!

  2. Hopefully you haven't dealt with this before.
    What sort of interfacing do you use?
    Thank's a lot

  3. I thought of you when I was reading my new Vogue Patterns magazine the other day. They have an entire TWO-PAGE spread of mens' patterns, and the back cover is an ad for their new mens' pattern line. The patterns are not on the web site, yet, but they should be there soon.

  4. You might be even happier with your rotary cutter if you change the blade more often. A year and a half is a long time for one blade. I change blades after two or three months and transfer the old blades in another handle to use for cutting out paper pattern pieces.

  5. We'll be talking more about interfacing later on but I generally use weft-weight woven when I use it. See Saturday's post about fabric.

  6. Question for you - what size needles do you use for sewing and topstitching, and what kind of thread? My Viking is SO particular about thread and it really only likes Coats & Clark. Do you use a heavier weight thread to topstitch?

  7. I, too, got really tired of sticking a pin in the hole of the Fray Check until I discovered this trick: before putting on the cap, squeeze the bottle at the short, curved sides/edges. This will not squeeze out liquid, but will force the bottle to suck in air, eliminating the material inside the applicator tip. While holding it this way, screw on the cap. When you open it again, it will flow freely, no pins.

  8. Helpful? Yes! This post — and pressing out the muslin collar yesterday — reminded me that I really want one of those point-presser/clappers. I have the similar point & curvy presser thing (no clapper), but it's more cumbersome to use/keep handy and the point pressing surface isn't all the way flat (has a built-in curve), which is a PITA. Kind of a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none thing going on with it. So I just bought one of the good ones on Ebay and it should be here about the same time as the fabric.

    Have you tried Fray Block instead of Fray Check? Less smell and it dries soft.

  9. Only on my fingernails, Debbie. ;)

    Thanks for the great tip, Hoosiermama.

    Stephanie, I'll cover thread and needles shortly.

  10. Well, one of those magic fabric markers could come in handy. Or anything to marks fabric for that matter. I just got one last week and I can't believe how I survived my sewing life (now over 3 years) without it.

  11. I would say that pressing as you go, is the single-most helpful thing I've learned in 20+ years of sewing. And that pressing tools like the clapper bottom of wood point presser make pressing a joy. I used to have great one I found at garage sales, but no more. I'm on the hunt once more!
    I have found that fender washers make great pattern weights. You can get a pack of 25 for less than $5 at the hardware store and the compact weight works so lovely, much better than the soup cans I routinely used before. Also, storing them is easy since they are flat and take up no room at all.

  12. I don't do well with buttonholes, probably because I don't make them much. I have a 40 or 50 year old iron (with a fabric covered cord, it's so old) that I just adore, but my sons gathered their courage and bought me a new Rowenta that's quite heavy when filled with water. I must have 10 stitch rippers, and 4 seam gauges. But why, oh why, is that poor sewing machine on the street?

  13. I actually don't open buttonholes with my seam ripper anymore. It sometimes can mangle the buttonhole. My favorite tool for opening buttonholes is actually an Exacto knife and my green mat. I have good control over the knife and I don't have accidents like going through the end of the buttonhole. And best of all, it opens cleanly no matter how many layers you're trying to go through.

  14. Marjie, it was at the outdoor flea market!

    Laura, it's funny: my experience is exactly the opposite. I started with the Exacto knife but then discovered the seam ripper and feel like I can control it more. Go figure!

  15. Glad you remembered the seam ripper - I can't get by without one of those!
    I'll be tuning in tomorrow to see if you really did get an EP!

  16. I truly envy your point presser. Those are terribly hard to find and once you do find one, they are terribly expensive, or so I've found. Still on the look out for one.

    I'll be opening the shop back up at the end of the week. The vacation is over. It's high time to shake off those January blues and bright and cheery Tailor's Hams is just the way to do it.

  17. I'm in! Bought the pattern today. Peter, will you make up a muslin / calico version first, or should I do this before we start to check the fit?

  18. Nice list there Peter :) - your post is bound to "enable" spendthrift ways in the sewing community LOL!

    I've gone down the list & I own everything on it except:

    2. Collins bamboo point turner
    4. A tailor's ham (I'm making one at the moment - it's half filled with wood shavings as I speak!)
    6. A good heavy iron Mine is a normal domestic one, but I'm happy with it)
    9. A felling foot.

    So if this were a test I'd score 71% ;) LOL.

    Re: #5. A wood point presser with clapper being hard to buy these days here's some places in the US that sell them:
    - fabricsandtrimmings on
    - Mary Jo's Cloth Store, Item No. GH274($16.49 each!)
    - (Item No. PT250)

    And in the UK try theses places :
    - (Item Ref. M709)
    - English Couture Company (Ref No: ECP3)

    Or there are directions on this PDF to Make Your Own Pressing Equipment from the University of Kentucky - College of Agriculture.

  19. Oval buttonholes? Oval buttonholes! I can't stop thinking about them. I've been sewing for more years than I care to admit, and I never heard of such a thing before. My machine also makes several different buttonholes, but I may have to start looking for one of those Singer buttonhole attachments (in an OVAL case, no less).

  20. Great list Claire!

    Peter, I was just re-reading parts of Coffin's book again and I think you *can* blame him for the felling foot. He pretty much orders the reader to get one. It's why I have one too, of course. ;-) Not that I'm actually planning on flat-felled seams unless Michael insists.

  21. I do not know why, but till today I can not get used to rotary cutters! I preffer a good sharp scisor. But I do like to use a patchwork ruler to set or fix straight lines, before I cut the fabric.

  22. I have many of the items on your list. I have to say though, number 5, the wood point presser, what is that? I have never seen one before. How do you use it? When do you use it?

  23. Katie, whenever I need to press a narrow raised edge the point presser is helpful. I use the blunt heavy clapper part more.

    Debbie, I think flat-felled seams are called for, don't you?

    Claire, thanks for the links!

    Squirrel, we will start with a muslin together, not to worry.

  24. ^Peter you're most welcome :)
    I had all those links saved to my bookmarks - because I'd been searching for weeks for a Point Presser & Clapper - at a good price inc. the shipping. In the end I got one from the seller fabricsandtrimmings on 9as per link above) they were extremely helpful & shipped the item to me here in the UK quickly & very, very well wrapped - I'm a happy customer (plus Hubby paid for it - 'twas part of my Christmas Presents list!)

  25. I was afraid you were going to say that. ;-)

  26. Peter, how DO you write AND sew every day, and do both so well?? Honestly, if for no other reason than it's so fabulously written, your blog would be a must-read for me every day... that it's about sewing-and-life is a lovely bonus. Many thanks from a new-ish fan!

  27. Peter-

    Maybe it's all the art school training? :) I'm a trained 3D artist, and I've been using stuff like exacto knives for years before I went back to sewing.

  28. Interestingly, I own most of the items you mentioned... they just haven't seen much use for a significant period of time.

    I guess this means I will need to be in the 'Search and Recovery' mode for the next few weeks to locate a couple of the items, i.e the Ham and Point Presser.

    I agree the rolled hem presser foot requires practice and in many ways isn't that useful. I haven't attempted to use the flat fell presser foot so I can't say how that would work but the instructions that came with it seemed backward.

    Should I be haunting the local thrift store for a nice used sheet? If so, what size do you recommend?

  29. I got a bunch of hand woodcarving tools at a garage sale for a quarter each, and discovered that the flat ended blade was perfect for opening buttonholes. Essentially, it's a tiny delicate chisel.

    At another garage sale I got these very useful objects, I don't know their proper name: a description: two and a half inches of steel, about two millimeters in diameter, pointed on one end and with the other flattened into a fan shape for the last half inch to a quarter inch width. I use them as stilletos; but they're even more useful with my bullet shuttles for my long bobbins the fan end is extremely useful to push the thread into the proper place. I use them all the time to move fabric around my presser feet too. I have two, and treat them like gold as I have no idea whatsoever how to replace them.

    I also like my little metal oil can, it's nose goes everywhere so much more easily than the Singer bottle does.

    And while I don't use it as frequently, I have a little gizmo for making the holes in my treadle belt that is amazing. I had gotten a pair of treadle belt pliers and was disappointed because the piercing part was too large and mangled the belt rather than making a nice hole in it for the staple. Then I remembered this odd thingumbob I'd gotten in a mix of stuff. It's got a metal thing to place the belt end into, with a closed end so you can't put it in too far, then a little handle rotates a screw with a long thin point down through the belt and a little hole on the other side so you don't blunt the point. Again, a nameless gizmo as far as I know; but so very handy! It makes the treadle holes quickly and cleanly and safely, much better than the cordless drill with a small bit I had been using.

  30. I used to think buttonhole chisels were a cheap gimmick until I used one. Fantastic.

    Also, thanks for the tip about taping on the button. I usually just sort of faff around until it's in the right place, I think the tape will make the whole process quicker.

  31. Please explain more about the straight stitch walking foot. I've never seen or heard of that foot before.

  32. Kelepso, it's the foot you find on a straight stitch machine, though you can also buy one for a zigzagger. If you google it you'll see pictures of one. It's worth having.

  33. For holding down paper patterns, I bought a bag of clear green glass things that I think are used for in the bottom of flower vases. They are about 1 1/4" in diameter and about 1/4" thick. $1 at the Dollar Store. They are so pretty to use!
    I will have to get by without a pressing ham. Options?

  34. Roll a towel very tight, tie it with a wide ribbon or strip of cloth. :)

  35. I'm another fan of buttonholes chisels- and of your writing Peter!

  36. Nice list, and great blog, Peter!

    I would like to suggest an alternative to #2, that bamboo point pusher, which I've always found far from ideal, if not actively harmful, when it comes in contact with a collar point. I suggest a hemostat.

    In fact, I just wrote up a new blog post describing the hemostat as the perfect turning tool, inspired by your list.

    I can't imagine that any sewer who buys a hemostat will be sorry to have one handy, and not just for point turning, game-changing as I think they are for that.

    But then I thought the same about the felling foot; sorry to all who regret buying one of those! I still think that must be due to not quite getting how they're used (I've encountered many a sewing-machine demonstrator who hadn't a clue but went ahead and "showed how" anyway), but obviously different hands feel happiest with different tools. I'd love to see your no-felling-foot felled shirt seams, Peter! I can't imagine ever stitching as straight and parallel without one. And a princess-seamed shirt front without one? Truly daunting. With one? Easy.

    Off to read more posts… Thank you, google, for pointing me here!

  37. it just brought back memories for me. My mother had a singer treadle sewing machine and that is what I learned to sew on. I now have i tin my spare bedroom.(doesn't have a bobbin shuttle now). anyway my mother had that singer buttonhole attachment-- haven't seen one in years until seeing yours. BTW love your blog.

  38. Great post. I done my first buttonhole the other day after several tests. Used a seam ripper. Will try a craft knife and see which I prefer. Ultimately, I will be wanting a buttonhole chisel, as am in awe of the finish. I understand it works by pushing the fabric out to give the sharp finish. Although yours do look great.

  39. Late addition, but I put a large open safety pin in the top of my Fray Check. I'm going to have to check out Fray Block. Does that mean I have to use up my Fray Check first? ;-)


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