If you’re new to sewing, or haven’t sewed since high school it may be a little bit forbidding to jump into making canvas items for your boat. Probably the last thing you’d be thinking about are the sewing tools you might need – you’re probably focused on techniques. Facebook groups like Sewing on Boats can support you in your new endeavor and other sewists at your marina or anchorage are generally happy to answer questions. All I can contribute in general on technique is
- take it slowly both in your speed of sewing and in the complexity of items you start on and
- secure everything with seam tape, pins, clips, or staples before sewing. You may take shortcuts later but you’ll get better results if the layers aren’t moving on you
Even though nothing substitutes for practice and experience, there are things that will make the work easier. Good sewing tools really do make a difference. You don’t have to buy everything new, and remember to look on eBay and other sale sites, but good quality tools will make your work easier. I’ll talk about a few of the things I wouldn’t want to do without.
Every Day Sewing Tools
Cutting the Fabric
You probably have a good pair of sewing shears, and you probably know that you should NEVER use them on paper or non-fabric. Let your partner know that using your sewing shears is grounds for murder. But if you don’t have a good pair yet Gingher is one of the great brands and even Fiskars can be fine. Get them left-handed if you are. The “bent” shears are great for cutting out fabric because you can run the bottom blade along the table surface and keep cutting.
Although shears are essential, for synthetic materials like Sunbrella and other marine products you may eventually splurge on a Hot Cutter or Hot Knife. These use heat to cut and are only for synthetic materials that melt with a beaded edge to keep the edge from unraveling. You can use them with a cutting foot that helps keep the burn off your table surface, but some people find they still need a sheet of metal or glass under that hot edge. On the boat I find a 2″ aluminum ruler is adequate, but I sure miss the 4’x2′ piece of tempered glass I used when I lived on land. Hot Knifes are expensive, strangely so, and the best price I’ve seen is this Hot Knife on Amazon. It doesn’t come with a cutting foot, but you can buy this spare blade and cutter fairly reasonably.
The third item you MAY want for cutting is a rotary cutter. Unless you do a lot of lighter materials such as for curtains or clothing or hats, you may not have much use for this, but they are quick to use once you get used to them. They can cut Sunbrella but will not seal the edge. My favorite is the Martelli Rotary Cutter but you can pick up more traditional ones at sewing stores anywhere.
Favorite Sewing Tools
While you’re sewing there are lots of things you need to pay attention to. The material where it is actually being sewn, what is happening to the bulk of the material behind the machine that has already been sewn, and the material that you are guiding into the machine. You don’t need any more complication! Here are some tools that keep things handy so you don’t spend time looking for the tools you constantly need and generally make life easier.
Clipping threads is one of the things you will do constantly, there is no way around it. And inexpensive small scissors are invaluable, but they tend to hide just when you need them most. I secure mine to the front of my shirt on a retractable lanyard so they’re always to hand. The retracting lanyards are called Badge Reels and can be found at office stores, sewing stores, or Amazon.
I like to have a Magnetic Bowl stuck to the top of my machine. (If you don’t have a metal machine this might not work). It corrals the pins you might need for sewing or the screws you just removed so that you can oil the machine. The picture below shows the bowl.
For heavy-duty sewing a heavy-duty Sewing Guide is valuable. The deluxe magnetic guide sold by SailRite stays put even for the heaviest material you might be sewing. It has two super-strong magnets that hold it to the bed of the machine and it’s long enough to really form an edge to sew to. Being magnetic it stores easily on your machine, ready when you need it. Use it with the solid edge against the material and use the edge with the gap to “unpeel” it from the surface when you want to move it. See the guide (the large white slab stuck to the side of the machine) in the picture below.
SailRite sells an LED light but if you don’t already have one there are less expensive ones to get. I got one similar to the LED flex light on Amazon several years ago and it’s been great. It bends just where I need it to shine, doesn’t burn if I brush up against it, and uses little energy. See the image above for the inexpensive light I got.
Stapling Pliers, or staplers as most of us call them, are very useful when sewing. Rather than the kind used for paper where the base is fixed and you push down on the top to staple, stapling pliers are held in your hand with the material between them, and pressed together. They do secure a seam quickly, but the staples have to be removed after sewing which adds a little time. The stick-like staple remover is much easier to use than the alligator type that you pinch together.
Rulers and Guides
I have six types of rulers I use routinely. Seems crazy, especially when I have to fit all these on a monohull sailboat as a full-time live-aboard, but they’re good for different things. First is a 48″ long, 2″ wide aluminum ruler. It’s essential for cutting or marking large canvas projects – the longer the better for this purpose. And, if I flip it over, it is a great surface for cutting material with the hot knife. Luckily it is easy to store under my salon cushions.
A quilting ruler is great for measuring offsets or narrow strips. Say I want a 3″ wide strip of material. If I use the long ruler I have to turn the ruler perpendicular to the surface and mark it in several places, then turn it 90 degrees to draw the line through those marks. With a quilting ruler (mine is 6″x24″) I just hold the long side against the edge and line it up with the 3″ mark and draw the line.
Measuring tapes are useful, too. The standard kind you get at the hardware store are useful at 25′ or so. You’ll use these to measure booms, hatches, anything mostly flat. However you also need a cloth measuring tape for measuring circumferences such as around a mast or sail stack. The cloth conforms more accurately to the surface than the metal retracting tapes which are designed to measure straight spans. The best ones are retractable.
And what about circles? Winch covers, hats, fender covers and some totes require cutting out a circle. Yes, you can use a pin and string, but the SailRite patterning ruler is much easier.
And finally a framing square, carpenter’s square, or right-angle ruler is nice-to-have but not essential. I use it when I really want to make sure I cut a right angle out of my scraps – say for a hatch cover or other rectangular item.
Specialized tools for Specialty Jobs
Then there are the tools that are only useful for specific jobs. Only you can decide if you will use them often enough to be worth buying. They tend to be more expensive and there are usually less expensive solutions that, though not as powerful as the options I present here, are perfectly fine if you are, say, putting one or two snaps in, but become an ordeal to use if you have 50 snaps to put in. So you decide based on the kinds of projects you normally do.
I like snaps. They are low profile compared to lift the dot or common sense fasteners, both of which stick up quite a bit. Perhaps I go a little overboard using snaps, I’m the first to admit that. But since I do lots of snaps, I like SailRite’s SnapRite system. These snaps have a whole in the center to make for easy precision placement, and are put on with a rivet gun which is fast and easy. The system is everything but cheap.
The Press-N-Snap tool are used to apply a whole range of fasteners such as snaps, lift-the-dot, and several sizes of grommets. It can even punch holes. However each different job requires a different die set which can get expensive. The minimal set offered does both parts of a snap (button and base) as well as #1 size of grommet. It is not as easy to use as the Rivet tool used for the SnapRite system, but it is pretty powerful and effective. It also has a bench mount available separately so that you can use it with one hand if you will be using it frequently.
Those are the tools I come back to again and again. What tools to you use regularly?