The question I hear most often from beginning quilters is “What basic quilting supplies do I need?” In this article I tell you what I use and why. If you are a beginner, this information will help you start acquiring your basic quilting supplies.
Basic Quilting Supplies – Notions
We'll start with the very basic quilting supplies, notions. Most of these you will use in your everyday piecing. Buy the best quality you can afford. Many quilters have duplicates of these things. They keep a set at home and have a portable set for classes and retreats.
Thread for Piecing
I have two sewing machines, one is a high speed, professional machine and the other is a regular home machine. (See Machines below). I also have a longarm quilting machine that I used professionally for many years. I use Signature 40wt 100% cotton thread from A&E exclusively. It stitches well in all my machines and looks great in quilts. I also use it for stitching bindings by hand. It's a great thread and the only downside to this or any cotton thread is the lint, which is only an issue in the quilting machine. For me, I wanted one brand I could use for everyday quiltmaking on all three machines.
Many manufacturers make 50wt cotton thread, which is thinner than 40wt. When this thread is stitched into quilts, it seems to melt into the fabric. There are many famous brands out there no matter what weight you choose. My best advice is look for quality and try two spools to see how you like it and how it works in your machine. Two spools give you one for the needle and one for the bobbin.
As you add more techniques to your quiltmaking toolbox, you'll want to explore different types of threads to use for different applications.
Pins and Pincushion
Pins and a pincushion to hold them are essential basic quilting supplies. There are all types and sizes. I like the Easy Grasp pins from Dritz, shown below. The head is slimmer than the round, yellow quilters pins and it is slightly shorter.
Scissors: Large and Small
Choose a good, sharp pair of scissors and use them for fabric only. If you cut anything else but fabric, the scissors will quickly become dull. Like thread, there are many good manufacturers out there. Test out scissors to see how they fit in your hand and how they cut 4 layers of fabric. They should be lightweight and sharp and have no problem cutting four layers of fabric. I have one pair of the 8″ size, often called dressmaker, and several pairs of the 4″ embroidery size. The embroidery size, I keep one at each machine, one in my living room end table where I do my hand work and one in my travel supplies for classes and retreats.
Unfortunately, the seam ripper is the necessary evil of basic quilting supplies. The only thing I can say about seam rippers is to get a few good ones. They should be sharp and easy to hold. The small ones are easy to lose.
120″ Measuring tape
Consider adding a 120″ measuring tape to your basic quilting supplies. Most measuring tapes are 60″ long. At twice that length and a little wider than most, you'll love the extra length when measuring quilts.
Rotary Cutter and Blade
The most basic quilting supplies have to be rotary cutter, blade and cutting mat. Let's look at the rotary cutter first. I'm stepping up on my soap box here. Rotary cutting can be extremely dangerous. Many times I have seen fingers sliced in a split second. It involves a lot of pain and even more bloodshed, often requiring trips to the emergency room and stitches. Rotary cutters come in many designs and a variety of features. The only time I have had to replace a rotary cutter is because I have lost it.
The only rotary cutter I buy, use and recommend is the Olfa Ergonomic Rotary Cutter. I don't receive any money or products or anything from Olfa for this endorsement. I recommend this cutter for these reasons:
- While the cutter is not in use, the blade edge is never exposed. To expose the blade, grasp the cutter and lightly squeeze the handle. When you let go, the blade retracts. As a person who, quite often, drops her rotary cutter, I can tell you this feature has saved my toes many times over the years.
- You can lock the blade. Got little ones who may sneak into your sewing room? Need I say more. The locking blade is not a guarantee that no one will be harmed by the blade, but it's an additional safeguard.
- The handle is curved and wider for a better fit in your hand.
- It's lightweight and comes in 45mm and 60mm sizes.
I use the 45mm for day to day cutting and the 60mm when I need to cut more than 10 layers of fabric. I also use a 28mm if I'm cutting around plastic templates. The 28mm size is not available in the ergonomic style. If you're just starting out, the 45mm will get the job done for you for many years.
BEWARE of knockoffs. The cutter will have OLFA molded into the plastic and the disc holding the blade to the cutter will say “OLFA ROTARY CUTTER”.
I have used many different cutting mats over the years and don't really have a recommendation as far as brand. The size I use all the time is 18″ x 24″ and it does everything I need it to do. Don't leave these in a hot car. They won't be flat anymore.
There are more types, brands, shapes and sizes of rulers out there than you can shake a stick at. For beginners I recommend two sizes: 6-1/2″ x 12-1/2″ and a 2-1/2″ x 10″. As you work on more and more projects you'll quickly find you might desire another ruler: larger, smaller, whatever. You can then decide what to purchase.
You will need an iron and a pressing surface. An iron and ironing board are essential basic quilting supplies. Some quiltmakers use steam and some don't. I prefer a dry iron and, if I need steam, I use a spray bottle with water in it. An everyday ironing board is sufficient for most everything you'll want to press. Some quiltmakers have large, fabric and batting covered rectangular boards that fit on top of a standard ironing board. Many of these are wider than 45″, which is the standard width of fabric. Some quiltmakers have smaller pressing surfaces placed next to their sewing machine.
Basic Quilting Supplies – Machines
If you have a sewing machine buried in the corner of a closet or in storage, dig it out and give it a try. Consider having the machine cleaned and serviced if it's been a while since it was used. All you need to start, is a machine that makes a good stitch.
If you're looking to purchase a machine, here are some features you might consider:
Straight Stitch Only
There are machines that sew a straight stitch only. These are generally mechanical machines, not computer or digital machines. If you never plan to machine applique or use decorative stitches, this is the machine for you.
Decorative Stitch Machine
These machines can have a few decorative stitches up to thousands of decorative stitches. A decorative stitch can be as simple as a zig zag, which is all you need for machine applique. Generally, the more stitches and bells and whistles, the higher the price.
This is a good feature to have. In some older or less expensive machines the needle stops in whatever position it is in when you stop the motor. The needle can be in the fabric, off the fabric, all the way up and anywhere in between. Depending on where the needle stops, you might have to use the handwheel to move the needle out of the way. Sometimes you want the needle to stop in the down position so the fabric will stay in place.
With the needle up-down feature you can choose to have the needle stop in the up or down position depending on your needs. I recommend this feature for less frustration.
Automatic Thread Cutter
Most all machines have a manual thread cutter. It is usually on the left side of the machine and has a tiny blade enclosed. After stitching, you bring the edge of the fabric up to the blade and slice the thread. This leaves long thread tails at the beginning of the next piece you stitch.
Be sure to ask about “automatic” thread cutter. When stitching is complete, you press the thread cutter button (often it is a scissors icon) and the top and bobbin threads are cut automatically. This is a wonderful time saver because you don't have to bring the fabric to the cutter or pick up scissors each time. Nor do you have to cut all the dangling threads as you go.
Presser Foot Knee Lift
This is a lever you control with your knee. When the presser foot is down you push the lever with your knee and the presser foot lifts without staying up. When used with the needle down, you lift the presser foot with your knee, leaving both hands free to reposition the fabric. A caution here for short people like me – if we have the sewing machine table set at a height for comfortable sewing, which is lower to the floor, that makes the lever way below our knee which means it is a useless feature for us.
The machine features I listed above are those I recommend because they make sewing and piecing more enjoyable. There's a multitude of other features available on machines today, making it hard to compare one brand or model to another and keeping track of which does what. My advice is to let your budget and your needs be your guide. Shop around for the best deal. Choose the best machine for what you want to do.
When shopping for a machine, look for dealers that have a service department and offer free or discounted classes with the purchase of your machine. Go to the classes and learn how to use your machine. Later, you won't have the frustration of learning how to use the machine while you're learning how to make a quilt.
Extension Tables for Machines
An extension table is made specifically for the sewing machine and increases the working surface of the area around the needle. The images below show extension tables for two machines. The one on the left was purchased separately and the one on the right was included with the machine. Both were made by the sewing machine manufacturer.
Extension tables are made by other companies as well and can be made for specific models or can be configured to fit various models. I added this to the list of basic quilting supplies because I think it is essential for happy, frustration-free sewing. The extended surface holds larger pieces of fabric while you stitch. Without the extended working surface, the fabric edges hang and pull away from the needle.
Tables and Cabinets
There are as many tables out there as there are machines. These tables are made specifically for sewing machines and have a cut-out area where the machine is placed such that the working surface of the machine is level with the surface of the table or cabinet. An insert for a single machine is included with most purposes. This insert is cut to the shape of the machine and fills in the cut-out area so you have one continuous surface on which to sew. If you want to use more than one machine in the table, additional inserts can be purchased separately.
No matter where you put your machine to sew, whether it is an old dresser or an expensive sewing cabinet there are only two things that matter: is it sturdy and is it the correct height for you. The table must be sturdy so it won't move around as you're trying to sew.
Height is Important!
As for height, we are talking about the height of the working surface of your machine when you are using it. The shorter you are in stature, the lower the table will be. Sit in the chair you will use for sewing and place your elbows at a 90° angle with your fingers pointing forward, palms down. The approximate distance from the floor to the palms of your hands is where the working surface of your machine should be while you sew. If the table is lower than this, it starts getting harder to see what what's going on at the needle. Any higher, and you'll have sore wrists, arms, shoulders and back.
If you're purchasing a regular table such as a folding table, to use for sewing, take into consideration how high the working surface of your machine is from the table top. The table top may be the right height but when the machine is placed on top of it, now the working surface is too high. Look for adjustable height tables instead.
In conclusion, I'll summarize my suggestions for beginner quilters. There's quite a long list here of just the basic quilting supplies you need to get started. This list doesn't include fabric or patterns, which you'll want next. Purchase the best quality tools that fit in your budget. These will last a long time.
If you're not sure you need something, then don't buy it yet. You can easily get caught up into wanting every gadget that comes along. I've done it in the past and regretted it. I ended up with expensive tools I never used. I like to save my money to spend on fabric. Best wishes on your quilting journey!