Round Up: Non-Sewing Tools We Love

melissa • August 31, 2011 • 18 Comments

Sears Craftsman chests make great sewing tool storage.

Remember when playing with a big box was more fun than some expensive toy? Well, we quilty/stitchy/crafty people use that same genome for resourcefulness when it comes to stocking our sewing spaces.  We find plenty of  I-had-this-hanging-around-the-house ways to get done what needs doing. That’s why you’ll often find everyday items hanging out with our rotary cutters and other New Sewing Age tools. Our motto: If it works, it belongs!

So, we tapped some high-profile quilters and asked them to share about their go-to tools that might be more at home in the garage or office. Gold mine! (Can we just say that if you don’t have blue painter’s tape or chopsticks in your sewing room, you are so out of the loop.) Here’s what we learned:

Freelance writer/translator/quilter Elisabeth Fuchs of France, loves sandpaper for its grippy-ness, placing it under her fabric when she’s tracing around templates to keep the fabric from moving.

She also keeps a cork handy for safely holding bent needles and pins. “When it looks like a little ‘hedgehog,’ I throw it away without worrying that the garbage men will risk pricking themselves!” she says.

Bari Ackerman of Bari J, (and her new site, We Love French Knots) San Ramon, California, swears by hemostats for turning tubes and other narrow elements. Scott Murkin of Asheboro, North Carolina, loves ‘em too, but for pulling through stubborn needles when hand quilting or for getting into any tight spot where his fat fingers won’t fit. (His words, not ours.)

And Scott also loves his Craftsman tool chest for storing tools. “The drawers are different sizes to hold notions, threads, drafting materials, class materials, etc. And they are on sliders to slide all the way out so you can easily get to the stuff at the very back,” he says.


Blue painter's tape makes a great moveable quilting guide. (Our thanks to Heather Jones of Olive & Ollie for the photograph.)

Weeks Ringle, co-owner of FunQuilts, Oak Park, Illinois, just won’t sew without school chalk for numbering blocks or rows of fabric. “It’s cheap, and it washes out completely,” she says.

Gardening gloves from the hardware store are quilter Elaine Wong Haselhuhn’s choice for an everyday tool that goes quilty. She sometimes uses those for protection when she’s pin basting.  But this Milwaukee, Wisconsin, gal has also found other great tools among the nails, nuts and bolts, including webbing and different fasteners and balsa wood, which she uses to hang her wall quilts.

Try a dental tool, like Sue Laughton of Walnut, California. This self-proclaimed Goddess of Quilting (Hey, wait a minute…that’s us!) uses the pick end to guide fabric under the foot of her machine, and the spade-shaped end for pushing out corners.

Sci-fi quilter/sculptor Jimmy McBride of Brooklyn, New York, finds his opaque projector totally indispensable in pattern-making for his space-themed quilted art. (In fact, he just blogged about it a few days ago.)

GenQ’s own Scott Hansen (well, okay, you might know him from Blue Nickel Studios, too) covets the unused cleaning brush from an electric shaver that died (um, could there be a clue here about why the shaver died?) to clean out the bobbin case in his sewing machine.

And Scott’s wife, Linda Hansen—an artist in her own right, showcasing her designs under the name Miss Mabel Studio— loves magnetic auto mechanics’ bowls made to hold bolts and nuts while working on a car. She uses them for pins, instead.

Jacquie Gering of Tallgrass Prairie Studio (which is relocating to Chicago in about, oh, six days) adores a 48″ metal wallpaper ruler and a good old-fashioned carpenter’s square.

“I use the first for measuring and cutting long blocks or when multiple blocks have been joined together as I’m improvising,” she says, “and the carpenter’s square is great for squaring just about anything…tops, backs, any old corner.”

Quilt and fabric designer Michele Scott of The Pieceful Quilter in Deptford, New Jersey, considers her computer her best tool for almost everything related to generating patterns, templates and such. And here’s her best-kept secret: she always uses her Illustrator app to put on lettering.

For quilter/blogger Candi Weinrick of Raccoon Quilts in Logan Township, New Jersey, a well-stocked sewing room must have white glue. She waters down the glue and uses a small paint brush to glue-baste fabric for appliqué.

Sewist/artist/designer/mama/blogger Carrie Bloomston of SUCH Designs in Phoenix, really digs black office clips instead of pins to hold bulky things taut and in place for stitching.

And she’s a big fan of 3M’s ScotchBlue blue painter’s tape for customizing sewing guide lines on her sewing machine.

Julie Herman of Jaybird Quilts (who just relocated to San Marcos, California) loves herself a roll of the blue, too. She loves it for marking lines for quilting, keeping boxes of pins closed, temporarily holding fabric together, marking right side/wrong side when working with batiks and more.

Large washers make great pattern weights. (Photo courtesy of Heather Jones, Olive & Ollie)

We can’t leave designer Heather Jones of Olive & Ollie out of the blue tape line-up; she uses this gentle tape for marking quilting lines. (Its barely-there tack leaves no adhesive on the quilt top.) Plus, she uses metal washers from Home Depot as weights to hold down pattern pieces when she’s cutting out stuff.

Now, a chopstick might win the award for the most-mentioned everyday tool that has sewing appeal:

  • Scarlett Burroughs of Little Rock, Arkansas (and Quilt Mistress/blogger for ) uses a bamboo chopstick to push out pillow corners or similar sewn items.
  • Heather Jones of Olive & Ollie favors a plastic IKEA version for pushing out the seams on the baby bib she frequently sews.
  • Gailen Runge, Oakland, California-based quilter and creative director of C & T Publishing, uses a  mate-less Japanese chopstick with a tapered tip and little ridges for turning and smoothing seams. (And it has sentimental value, too. Her best friend in college gave her the chopstick long ago.)

(CraftGossip’s Scarlett also offers this tip about how to save money on quilty tools: Don’t look in the “Quilting” section for them, she advises.

“Sometimes manufacturers mark up the price for quilting supplies as opposed to sewing ones when there is no difference in the product but the label,” she says. “Yesterday, I bought a pack of  Dritz size 20 Sharps for about fifty cents less than the very same needles (marked) ‘Quilting Needles.’ I looked at them side-by-side and there was no difference in the size or quantity of the needles.”)

All great tips—every one of them!—and hugs to all our q-celebs who took time to bare their sewing souls. But the Totally Smart Quilter award just has to go to Candi Weinrick, who has found a quilty use for….cornstarch! She makes her own spray starch using plain ol’ cornstarch and water in a spray bottle. Here’s her technique: Use 1 tablespoon of cornstarch to 16 ounces of warm water. (The warm water helps it dissolve well.) Just shake it each time before spraying to make sure it’s mixed well, she says. So smart!

Now, Q-bies, what about you? If you’ve got an everyday tool that holds pride of place in your sewing area, give!


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  • Molly • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #1

    I use one of those big, plastic handles with suction cups that you stick to a shower wall on my cutting ruler. It’s great for applying pressure at both ends so your ruler doesn’t slip, plus it helps avoid accidental finger cuts from the rotary blade. Can you tell I’ve done that once or twice?

  • Benita Skinner • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #2

    Great list of tools you’ve posted!
    I’m going to try the blue tape, instead of masking tape which is what I currently use.

    I have a few ideas for items mentioned above to add to the list…
    A chopstick can make a great way to hang a tiny wallhanging.
    [Sew triangles in the two top corners, leaving the long edge open and tuck the chopstick under it].

    Plus I like using cornstarch sometimes to mark a quilting design.
    Machine stitch a quilting design on paper (without no thread).
    Place a tablespoon of cornstarch (or cocoa for lighter colours) in a square of muslin, and pounce above the design, onto your quilting fabric.

    And a new one to add…
    Small washers from the hardware store can make great small circle templates for applique.

    And if you want a list of great ‘reuse/repurpose’ items to use in your sewing room, let me know 🙂

    Benita Skinner

  • Kit Lang • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #3

    Some of my favourite re-purposed tools?

    A tweezer with magnifying glass ( ) for seam ripping really tiny stitches, a simliar medical tweezer (with no magnifying glass for every day stitch picking), a nut pick for poking out small seams and corners, “work gloves” for quilting (cotton with rubberized palms I bought a hundred pair for $25 at a construction workers’ outlet store) and an ordinary glue stick for tacking down stuff before I sew or quilt it on.

    Like some of the other folks above, I use painter’s tape for everything from holding down my backing fabric on the floor when I ‘m basting queen sized quilts to marking off my grid lines when I’m doing honeycomb quilting; school chalk for sketching or writing on fabric before I manipulate it, and binder clips for holding stuff in place.

    But I’m enthralled with the spray starch – both for it’s simplicity and for it’s peronsal “duh” moment. The reason being, I spent my whole life watching my mother use this mixture in an old spray bottle for ironing everything from my father’s boxers to the Sunday dining tablecloth – and yet never thought to use it in place of canned spray starch in my sewing room.



  • Sam Hunter • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #4

    Definitely tweezers – I keep them by the sewing machine at all times. They help when pulling up bottom threads and in general machine cleaning.
    When teaching new quilters and sewists, instead of tape to mark a seam guide on the machine, I use cut up chunks of moleskin/molefoam (from the foot stuff aisle of the pharmacy) – this makes a physical bumper to guide the fabric (instead of just trying to match the edge to the tape) which helps newbies get their seam allowances in line.
    And lastly – a canning jar or big coffee cup makes a great stand-in (pun!) for a thread stand. Tape a safety pin with the head down to the body of your machine, and put the thread through the loop in the end to guide it from the cup to the thread path.

  • Betty • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #5

    I use an empty Tic-Tac box for spent pins and needles. I stuck a little piece of Velcro to the front of my sewing machine and to the back of the box to keep it handy. When I break a needle or bend a pin, I open the box, drop in the pin, and snap it closed again. Once it is full, I will seal it and dispose of it. I also have an old Altoids tin for used rotary blades.

  • Ebony • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #6

    The paper towel holder I repurposed into a binding unwinder:

  • Mary • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #7

    I use a can of compressed air (like what you’d use to clean out your keyboard) to get bits of dust and fuzz out of my sewing machine and serger. If you do this, wear safety goggles if you’ve broken a needle…never know where it will fly!

    The super-long tweezers that your dentist uses are also great for re-threading your serger….you’re not right on top of it!

  • Mary • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #8

    Forgot one!

    I use a X-Acto knife for a seam ripper. The curved blades work best, and they’re so much cheaper to replace when they get dull! You can buy a pack of about 10 blades for around $5.

  • quiltzyx/sue • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #9

    Love getting new ideas on how to use “regular” stuff in the sewing area (um, that would be most of my house these days).
    Oh, and I will find my Certificate of Deity & scan it to send you a copy. Hah!

  • Paul • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #10

    Quilters can use Carpet Cutters instead of Rotary Cutters… Exact same concept, they’re just usually black, yellow or orange instead of pink or purple and they cost HALF as much! Same goes for the replacement blades.

  • Laura Haywood • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #11

    I use an empty prescription bottle (label removed, of course) to drop in bent and dull pins and needles. Seal the cap and drop into the trash when it’s full.
    Altoids tins are great to use for various small items.
    And thanks to Scott Murkin, I now covet my very own Craftsman tool chest!

  • Eileen • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #12

    I use the washers, too, along with large bolts, but I covered them with ribbon or with strips of batiks then modpodged them and sanded with craft paper. Found directions online

  • Carrie • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #13

    What a fabulous article! I learned so much. Thanks for including me. The Craftsman Tool chest idea is brilliant. After all, a sewing machine really is a serious power tool!

  • Jan O • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #14

    Wonderful suggestions, all! I need some of that blue tape. Since so many ideas here come from the hardware department, here’s another: I love my 12 foot metal retractable tape measure. Perfect for sizing up borders & backing, measuring the diagonal to square up the quilt top, etc. It never stretches out like fabric tape measures can. Sometimes I tape it to the edge of my cutting table to easily measure yardage. DH’s tool box is a great place to find the best quilting tools!

  • DianeY • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #15

    I hope I’m not the only one who had to Google hemostat to see what the heck it was!

    I use the chop sticks, painters tape, and large washers for holding down pattern pieces till I can pin (thanks to the ceiling fan!) . I have an older Bernina that has a buttonhole setting but not the automatic thingy for length that the newer machines have. I cut a notch into a post-it note (sticky side) the length of my buttonhole and stick it down for uniform length. I quilt, too, but for anyone who does garment sewing as well, I find this really useful!

  • Kristy • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #16

    Great post! I loved the idea of using white glue for applique. I use an open hair barrette to close safety pins while basting.

  • patty • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #17

    I use a nicely worn wood yardstick for smoothing the layers when stacking each layer of a quilt for pin basting
    I have a 60″ 2 inch wide thick metal ruler I use for cutting long lenghts of fabric for borders or straighting the sides of a quilt top
    I have two bricks each wrapped in a laye of batting and then a heavy fabric. I use these as an extra pair of hands to hold down large pieces of fabric while I hold on the the other end for straightening them. I also use them to hold down each end of my 60″ ruler when I rotary cutting.

  • patty • 13 years ago
    COMMENT #18

    A couple more came to mind – I have a pair of small needle nose pliers that I use for all kinds of things – gabbing fuzz in tight spots, pulling needles thru tough fabric
    I use 3M green painters tape because it has more tack than the blue and holds on to fabric better especially when the humidity is up.

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