May 192013

I was looking at my sewing bookshelf recently and realized I have many books geared toward making sewing easier. There is quite a market, in fact, for books containing tips that mothers of yesteryear passed on to their daughters, or for advice about so-called modern sewing techniques. Staring at me in the face are some older-but-still-relevant titles, such as 501 Sewing Secrets: Tips, Treasures & Trivia, 501 Sewing Hints: From the Viewers of Sewing with Nancy, and Sewing with Nancy’s Favorite Hints.


Don’t even get me started on the list of books that tout sewing notions! But here’s one book that is really good, and yes, it will put a dent in your pocketbook (the notions, not the book!):


If you own a sewing machine, you’ll get more use out of it if you know how to use its attachments. But just in case you don’t have enough of those, you can learn about others through The Sewing Machine Attachment Handbook and The Sewing Machine Accessory Bible.


Seriously—all joking aside—these books are useful, especially if you read them before you start doing things the hard way. Did you notice, however, how quickly you can spend a small fortune on sewing notions and accessories?

While I was eating dinner the other night, my conversation with my husband revolved around ordinary household objects you can use in the sewing room instead of purchased gadgets. Okay, I’ll be honest here—I talked, and John listened. But here is the list of time-saving (and inexpensive) items most people have in their homes to accomplish tasks for which special sewing notions have been designed.

  1. To clean the sole plate of your iron, just heat your iron and run it over a piece of wax paper. Fold the wax paper, and repeat as necessary.
  2. Need tracing paper? Use wax paper. You can fuse the sheets together with a heated iron if you need your paper to be wider.
  3. It’s not necessary to buy a spool holder for cone or specialty thread. Just drop your spool in a coffee mug behind your sewing machine, and thread your machine.
  4. The fastest way to pin a pattern to fabric is to use fabric weights. But don’t buy them; use soup cans.
  5. Transparent tape is an excellent straight seam guide, especially when you insert a zipper. Just adhere the tape to your fabric.
  6. Need to cut a curved edge? Use a dinner plate and your rotary cutter.
  7. You don’t need a cording foot to guide a cord beneath the sewing machine needle. Just tape part of a drinking straw to your sewing table, and feed the cord through the tube.
  8. Curved hair clips are excellent to use as hemming pins.DSCN7532
  9. Don’t have a hem gauge? Just cut a strip of manila file folder the depth of your hem, fold over your fabric, insert the manila file folder strip, and iron away.
  10. Clear nail polish, brushed onto the ends of ribbon, is a great fray check. Once upon a time, that’s how we ladies stopped the runs in our pantyhose.
  11. Clean out the lint from your bobbin case with a small cosmetic brush or even an ear swab. It works much better than the stiff brush that comes with your sewing machine, or the one you can buy at the fabric store.
  12. A narrow strip of paper cut from a folded sticky note or index card is an inexpensive and readily available threader for yarn or decorative threads. Obviously, use a needle with a larger eye.
  13. Use a wooden kebab skewer to poke out fabric corners.
  14. Can’t find your tracing wheel? Who cares? Draw pattern symbols on mailing labels, cut them out and adhere them in place. Or just use old-fashioned  tailor’s tacks—stitch a loose X in place by hand.
  15. Paper clips work well as emergency pins. Color code them for pattern notches or other pattern symbols.
  16. If you don’t have a fabric tube turner, just push the outside end of the tube to the inside with a closed safety pin, a bobby pin, a wooden kebab skewer, or even a pencil, if the tube is wide enough.
  17. A quick-and-easy stitching guide is a stack of sticky notes. Just adhere the pad to your sewing machine bed where you want your stitching line to be, and push the fabric up against it.
  18. If you are couching multiple threads in place and need to keep them separated, tape a plastic fork or comb perpendicular to the edge of your table, and just run the threads through the tines. Keep the balls or spools in coffee mugs on the floor!
  19. A balloon is a great needle grabber when you can’t pull the needle through the fabric.
  20. Don’t have a Hera marker? Just use the blunt side of a butter knife.
  21. You’re sewing a shoulder seam and you don’t have any stabilizer tape. Just sew over a length of fabric selvedge. It doesn’t ravel or stretch.
  22. If you need a temporary, raised seam guide, just slide a rubber band over the free arm of your sewing machine where the stitching line is supposed to be.
  23. If you need a vertical spool holder, insert a wooden dowel or Tinker Toys rod in a recessed hole that is often a part of your sewing machine.
  24. A temporary but effective ironing board is a cotton bath towel, folded to the desired thickness.

Here are 6 sewing tips that will save you time in the long run:

  1. Instead of stitching two parallel lines in preparation for fabric gathering, just sew a wide zig-zig stitch over buttonhole thread.
  2. Save your vacuum cleaner: keep a lint or pet roller near your sewing machine to pick up not only threads but also runaway pins.
  3. You’ll spend less time re-fusing interfacing to fabric if you heat up the fabric first. It creates a better bond.
  4. Spend less time analyzing which is the wrong side of your fabric by simply marking it with tape.
  5. Hang fabric pieces on hangers between sewing sessions to keep them out of the way.
  6. Need to cut out the same shape again and again? Trace it onto freezer paper, cut out the shape, and fuse it into place using your iron. Cut out your shape, peel off the freezer paper, and re-fuse as a tracing shape as many times as you need.

For more ideas, you can buy the books I described above . . . or read the comments from the readers of this post. Add your own alternate sewing notion ideas or time-saving sewing tips below.

Mental health disclaimer: I’m a gadget junkie, and own more sewing notions and sewing machine attachments than I can count.

© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Oct 242012

In early September I was reading Nancy Zieman’s sewing blog, and commented on one of her posts, String Quilts—What’s Old is New Again! In that post, Nancy introduces sewing sisters Virginia Baker and Barbara Sanders, promoting their book titled String Quilt Revival. Because string quilting makes heavy use of fabric scraps, Nancy asked her readers to confess how many boxes of scraps they have, and promised a random giveaway—a copy of String Quilt Revival—to the winner.

“This could be incriminating to answer!” I wrote. “Let’s just say that there are boxes and baskets of scraps, and nobody really wants to count them. (I sure don’t!).”

The next thing I knew, I received an e-mail from one of her representatives, telling me I had won the random drawing . I am looking forward to talking more about this book in a future post, when I can share a project that uses string quilting.

The publishing warehouse charged with sending me the book, however, accidentally mailed me Lisa Lam’s A bag for all reasons, a great book that already sits on my bookshelf. I called the customer service number on the company’s Web site, and they apologized for the error, told me to keep the book, and sent me the title promised. Well, that error will now be a giveaway for someone else.

If you are a sewist and like to sew bags (or have aspirations to sew bags), then you have to visit Lisa’s blog,, which is chock-full of bag sewing tips. The book, of course, includes many of her best tips, discusses basic bag sewing sewing tools that are a must, and includes projects that will set you on the path toward designing your own bags. Imagine learning how to make all of these bags:

  • iPad case
  • groceries tote
  • pouch
  • backpack
  • school satchel
  • purse-frame purse
  • laundry bag
  • baby bag
  • bicycle bag
  • convertible backpack
  • tri-fold wallet
  • vanity case

To enter a random drawing for this book, just comment below. Let me know what style of everyday bag is your favorite. For example, do you like a clutch purse, a shoulder bag, a tote bag, a backback-style purse, a slouchy bag? You’re not limited to these choices; I am simply interested to hear what your favorite type of bag might be. The winner of Lisa Lam’s A bag for all reasons will be announced on October 30, 2012. Make sure you include your email address in the comment form; it will not be published, but I do need a way to get in touch with you if you’re the winner.

For those of you who do not win Lisa’s book, visit her blog or check out Nancy Zieman’s post, Top 10 Creative Designer Bag Sewing Tips. You’ll be glad you did!

© 2012 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Feb 092011

When it comes to sewing, I’m a tool junky.

Apparently there are many sewing enthusiasts out there with similar attitudes. Basically, we just want an easier way to “get it done.”  Our need is the very reason that a young home economist named Nancy Zieman started a sewing notions business back in 1979. Nancy realized that the notions many sewers needed were difficult to find. She conceived the idea of a direct distribution company for sewing notions, and not too long after, a 12-page catalog called Nancy’s Notions Catalog was born.

Today Nancy’s Notions is much more than a mail order business. While sewing enthusiasts can still purchase notions by catalog from Nancy, the center of operations is a combined warehouse and retail center located in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. These days Nancy is an author, pattern designer, art quilter, television producer, educator, business owner and national sewing authority. Her sewing notions, fabrics, patterns, videos and books can be purchased in the retail center in Beaver Dam, online or via catalog. Her books include tips on how to use her favorite sewing notions, and are available through her business, in online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, and in quilting and fabric stores across the U.S. Her television show, Sewing with Nancy®, is a co-production of Wisconsin Public Television and SWN Productions and is the longest-airing television sewing series. Nancy now has a blog and an online video site called Nancy Zieman TV. In short, Nancy Zieman has become the Queen of Sewing Notions, and her kingdom reaches into the hearts and homes of sewers everywhere.

Though I cannot claim that I buy all of my sewing notions from Nancy Zieman, many of them were purchased in her Beaver Dam retail center, and so was my sewing machine. I own most of her books; one of them was even autographed by her when I attended one of her Sewing Expos. One fundamental tip I have learned from Nancy is that sewing tools do not have to be fancy to be helpful, and that simplicity often gets the job done best. That being said, I looked through my sewing room to find humble sewing notions that I consider essential. Can you name others? Add your favorite sewing tool to this list in the comments below this post.

The links and/or photos for the products below will take you to a page where these items can be purchased online. Obviously, there are multiple sources for these sewing notions; I have only listed one for each item.

Ezy-Hem® Gauge by Dritz is a lightweight aluminum gauge that is perfect to use as a hemming guide for both straight and curved seams. Lines on the gauge allow you to fold over fabric to the right depth, and simply press it with an iron before stitching the fabric in place. The gauge is also handy to use for pockets, collars, belts and waistbands, as well as pattern alterations.

Ezy-Hem® Gauge by Dritz

Cottage Mills Treasure Markers come in two varieties, one in graphite for light fabrics and one in soapstone for dark fabrics. Each marker fits into an aluminum handle and is  easy and comfortable to use. The graphite marks wash off, while the soapstone marks rub off. The markers last a long time, and may be sharpened with a standard pencil sharpener.

Cottage Mills Treasure Markers

Dritz® Bodkin Ball Point is one of my most frequently used sewing notions. The slotted end is perfect for threading trims and ribbons, for turning bias tubing for button loops, frog closures, straps and belts, while the ballpoint end is great for pulling elastic through a casing.  Either end is helpful as a point turner, or for poking stuffing into narrow areas.

Dritz® Bodkin Ball Point

Gingher 6″ Applique Scissor. These scissors handle well and protect your fabric from accidental cuts during not only appliqué, but also any kind of trimming, especially when you are working with fine, lightweight fabrics such as chiffon or lace. They are perfect for grading seams. The duck-billed blade pushes away the bottom layer of fabric, allowing for controlled cutting, while the bent handle positions your hand comfortably above the fabric.

Gingher 6″ Applique Scissor

Pin Curl Clips. Years ago a quilting friend gave me pin curl clips for holding quilt binding (or hems) in place instead of pins. You’ll never prick your fingers while hand sewing, using these clips. If you have materials that you don’t want to pin, such as leather or vinyl, these are perfect. You can also use Dritz® Binding & Hem Clips, or hair clips you can find in any drugstore. They look pretty much the same.

Pin Curl Clips

Post-it® Flags. Transfer pattern markings to the flags, not the fabric, especially when dealing with hard-to-mark or delicate fabrics. Mark the right (or wrong) side of the fabric. Use the flag colors to organize your fabric pieces before sewing. Mark buttonholes, or use the flags as a quick, removable sewing edge guide. The adhesive on the flags will not gum up your fabric, and any ink markings on the flag will not transfer to the fabric, either.

Post-it® Flags

Needle book, pin cushion, or needle nabber. There are many options for keeping track of pins and needles. Interestingly, a number of BBEST (Boomers and Beyond Etsy Street Team) members have come up with solutions, all of them different. Top row, left to right: Needle book by JN Originals, Needle nabber by Big Isand Rose Designs. Bottom row, left to right: Pin cushion by Asian Expressions, Pin cushion by kimbuktu.

Dritz Quilting Measuring Gauge 14 in 1. There are 14 different measurements in this double-sided aluminum tool. Anytime you need to check a small measurement while quilting or sewing, this tiny gauge will be handy. Measurements range from 1/8 of an inch to 2 inches.

Dritz Quilting Measuring Gauge 14 in 1

Clover® Seam Ripper. Not all seam rippers are alike. This one cuts cleanly through seams, basting threads, beneath buttons, or even through buttonholes.

Clover Seam Ripper

© 2011 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved. Please note that the images in this post are owned by the artists and may not be used without permission. Simultaneously published at