Sewing for Dummies

As I’ve shared previously, “Alas, Babylon” is one of my favorite books relating to preparedness. I can read and reread it and still find myself making mental notes, “Oh yeah, I never thought of needing something like that.”  For some reason the last read through had me really paying attention to the clothing aspect of preparedness. As such, I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts with you.

For starters, understand that I am in no way expert in seamstress matters. I wouldn’t know what to do with a pattern if my life depended on it. I actually feel a bit guilty about that as I was raised by a phenomenally talented mother who could sew and create some of the best clothes. As if someone’s trying to give me a big hint, I also have a dear mother-in-law who is also fanatical about sewing, complete with tons and tons of fabric, and more thread that I could shake a stick at.  It’s her passion for sewing that motivates her to stand on her feet all day long at the local fabric store, at an age when most people are good to make it to the rocking chair. In spite of plenty of experts to ask to teach me, I have managed to dodge any talent in that regard.  I can put a button back on or sew up a rip, but it’s most likely not done properly as my mother or mother-in-law would do it, but it will work in a pinch.  I take a modicum amount of comfort that I’m not the only one in this boat.  Do they even still have Home Economics in school?  As such, I think that at the very least, having the appropriate supplies will make an unfamiliar task a bit easier and more successful and is therefore that much more important in my case. So, what does The Preparedness Pro have on hand in order to compensate for her lack of stitching talent?

Well, for starters, lots of spare needles and thread—strong thread.  What I may not be able to do in the form of competent stitching, strong thread will compensate.  Be sure that the needles are not the cheap ones from the Dollar Store.  A needle is to a seamstress like a shotgun is to a hunter.

Next—duct tape. Yup, you read that right. Duct tape and lots of it, as it has so many uses. Hemming pants? No problem with duct tape in a pinch. You won’t win any Miss American contests this way of course, but it will do just fine. Along those same lines there’s also “no-sew fusible fabric tape.” A hot iron and a little bit of water is all it takes to have a good hem. What? You might not have a hot iron in dire circumstances? Well silly, that’s what one of those old fashioned irons that you heat up on the wood burning stove are for. Sure, it’s a great bookend now, but later, you’ll be happy you have it.

Fabric glue will help me in a pinch if I’ve got a small tear in my light duty clothes. I simply use it much like I would clear nail polish and a run in my stockings. I realize that didn’t exactly help the men folk whatsoever, so ask a woman who’s 40 years of age or older what I mean by that.  Any younger and the gal probably doesn’t even know what nylons are.

Safety pins are an absolute must. Even accomplished seamstresses know the value of a safety pin in an uncomfortable situation. But I figure that any situation which requires me to be handy with a needle and thread will indeed be uncomfortable. So, lots and lots of safety pins for me. *grin*

A premium quality pair of pinking shears is also on my must have list. Using these shears to cut some of the fleece fabric I’ve accumulated will make a zig-zag finish as I cut and make fraying much less likely on the ends, which means I don’t have to sew a hem! Yea! You can use them on nearly any standard clothing weight of fabric, including jeans. So let’s say you manage to find a pair of jeans in the midst of the rough circumstances, but they are too long because you’re only 5’3” like me.  So, all you do is pull out your quality pinking shears, cut the excess length and voila! There you have it! To keep your shears in good condition, may I suggest that you don’t permit the little ones to go around the house cutting paper and other such items?  If you find your shears getting dull, simply cut heavy duty foil over and over and that will do wonders for them. If you find them getting a bit stuck, then cut through wax paper a few times.

Now, while this may sound a bit odd for someone who doesn’t sew, the ultimate item on my prep list is a treadle sewing machine.  My mother had one in the house while we were growing up and frankly, it gave me a bit of comfort knowing that if we didn’t have power, no problem, Mom would still be able make clothes as we continued to “grow and destroy.”  For those of you who don’t know, a treadle sewing machine is one that does not operate with electricity, rather you simply use your feet to get the wheels moving which then causes the needle to go up and down just like an electric sewing machine. With such a possession, having some spare needles for the machine as well as a couple of spare “belts” for the wheels is a wise idea.  The ones I’ve always seen were made by Singer, but I believe there was at least one other copycat brand out there. Unfortunately, I lost out to my competent seamstress of a sister in being able to keep Mom’s treadle sewing machine when she died, but I’ll keep looking for one. It’s definitely on my active acquisition list. I not only consider this an asset for my own possible talents which may reveal themselves in a time of necessity, but it’s an asset to my community as well. I may not be able to sew, but others may and they’ll be happy to have such a tool. Besides, I always loved the look of that Singer treadle sewing machine in our front room growing up. It’s where Mom always put her keys and purse when she came home from work.

If there is a situation in which all of this advice is relevant, it will no doubt bring with it hard physical labor for which the clothes we have today are rarely suited—excuse the pun.  Additionally, such a circumstance will no doubt require hand washing which is much harder on the fabric of the clothes. So I always keep my eye out for clearance sales of heavy denim fabric. In fact, I’ve found some denim fabric at the thrift stores a couple of times for dirt cheap.  I’m not suggesting that I need denim fabric so that I can make jeans from scratch—not gonna happen—rather you need denim in order to patch denim.  Worst case scenario, you can simply purchase some used denim jeans from the thrift store and sock them away to use as patching material in a challenging scenario.

Lastly, I continue to focus on my standard preparedness supplies understanding that I can always pay for sewing skills with a good hot meal, seeds, etc. If I have the most basic of tools and supplies for this task, them I’m that much better off. Keep in mind that I’ve always believed that if a serious challenge were to come our way in which we were without power, then a restoration of that power would take at least a year. A lot can happen to a kid’s clothing and their growing body in that span of time. I would, by no means, suggest that you purchase an entire wardrobe to have on hand for the next year of your children’s sizes, however, going to the thrift store—especially when it’s on a 50% discount day—and purchasing a “back-up” outfit for each person in the family is a wise idea. Have one outfit, including underwear, socks, etc., for warm and one for cold weather.  I would store these items in your bailout bag or 72 hour kit if you’ve got one.  Depending on the make up of your family, you might not even need to purchase these items at a thrift store as they may already be available as hand-me-downs from one child to the next. Regardless, it’s wise to be conscious of the fact that we shouldn’t take clothing for granted; after all, it’s the 5th Principle of Preparedness in order of prioritization.  Heat stroke and frost bite may become an issue much sooner than thirst or starvation. Regardless, the mending supplies will come in handy and extend the use of the clothes you already have on hand and undoubtedly come in handy for those who through that preparedness was only about food and water.


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Comments

Another great way to get clothes to stock up on, is host or attend a free clothing exchange. Everyone brings the clothes they don't want anymore, & takes whatever they would like. I have been able to stock up coats, clothes & shoes for my son in his future sizes for free. I also grab any "work" type clothes for me I see. Shoes are much harder to sew, as is a warm coat, & I may be able to make mine last a long time, but my son will outgrow his current ones.

Thank you for bringing this up. I think everyone needs to know at least the basics of sewing. At the VERY least, know how to repair your clothes. Get the supplies for it. I sew a lot. I have a ton of fabric and thread. I never thought about getting a non-electric sewing machine until today. I guess I figured that if we lost power, I would just sew by hand if I needed to make something (hand sewing is also a skill everyone needs to know). I found quite a few treadle machines on Craigslist, a couple for pretty cheap. You might want to look there to find one for yourself. They're so beautiful. I think I need one :)

Oooh... that would be so cool if I did! I'm looking today!

If you have heavy duty clothes- which you should- like Carhardts, you will definitely need heavy duty needles AND a thimble. You won't be able to sew a rip in heavy canvas or a seam in jeans without one! Needle nose pliers to grip and pull the needle through heavy clothes can be a lifesaver, too, esp. in the cold. And don't forget to store a button jar- you can't replace a button if you don't have one, and you can use buttons to replace other broken fasteners (snaps, zippers.)

I have a thimble, but another one or two wouldn't hurt. I never even thought of the needle nose pliers! Thanks!!

Kellene.
This is a great post. I have been shopping at thrift stores for a "years supply" of clothing for years now. Especially good quality shoes. I can't bear the thought of my little ones being in a situation and not having a decent pair of shoes that fit right. Same with good quality winter wear. Your right, go on a 50% off day and you will spend a tiny fraction of what you would otherwise, and still get high quality gently used clothing.

I'm a duct tape guy. I've stitched up a few cows way back when. Tossed a few diamond/double diamond hitches on pack stock. Can tie a fish hook on a line, or a horse to a rail. Other than that I have never sewn a button back on or anything more.
I need to start somewhere.
No local community collage out here. I would have to get a book, or DVD to learn.
I appreciate you efforts for all of us.

if you have a sears store or a store that sells sewing machines, you can buy a very basic singer machine for under $100 and take lessons on it at the store. also anyone that does alterations I'm sure would be happy to give you some hand sewing lessons for $ or exchange of services.

Great things to think about, Kellene. This subject has been on my mind for the past few years as well. Sewing really is a lost art.

I worked for several years doing sewing alterations and repairs back when I was in school. Here's a list of a few other sewing items I found myself constantly using that would be hard to do without: a sewing measuring tape, seam ripper, seam gauge (short slide ruler), tailors chalk and/or disappearing ink pen, a good pair of sewing scissors, several sizes of elastic (important, because one of the first things to wear out on clothes are the elastic), draw string (alternative waist band), zipper pull repair kit (if a zipper is intact, often replacing the zipper slider will fix the problem),various sizes of zippers, iron-on patches (and/or a products called Wonder Under to make your own patches), snaps and snap pliers, printout of an old public domain tailoring book with various stitches illustrated. I'd also suggest having an assortment of buttons on hand. If you have children, I'd definitely recommend getting a few packages of bias tape (you can use bias tape on the inside of a hem, allowing you to lengthen a pair of pants)

As for patch material, I'd recommend whenever you shorten a pair of pants, save the extra material to use for making patches. You can also salvage material, buttons, zippers, etc.... rather than throwing out/donating an article of clothing.

Thanks a lot Becky...now my list just got bigger. :-)

I use the back of my children and husband's jeans pant legs for patching material. So before you throw them out ,cut material off and save it. It usually has alot of life left in it.
Also, if we have an EMP, the sewing machines that have computers in them will not work even when the electricity comes back (in a year!). I looked at my old Bernina (that has no computers in it) even more lovingly after I heard that.
I also found out that you can run a sewing machine for a whole day on not very many watts of back-up solar power.
I really enjoy your blog, Kellene, Thank You for your service to us all !

Thanks! I needed that!

Just an FYI for you treadle hunters...

I have a treadle, but my everyday machine is an avacado green, 1970's Kenmore. It's electric and does fancy stitches, but here's the beauty part, it's belt driven! There is a small rubber belt that runs down to a small motor mounted under the cabinet. In a power down situation, all I have to do is move it to a treadle table and add a longer belt. and there you have it, a treadle machine with all the "modern" features. The all-metal construction and adaptability are what keeps it my daily use machine instead of some fancy newer model. And I bought it second hand!
So keep this in mind on your hunt for a manually powered machine. You can often find these machines that are considered "Vintage" and not "Antique" for $20-$40 on craigslist.

Dang it Shannon. Now I have to repent for coveting! :-) Thanks for sharing the info.

Good reminder. I have some minor sewing skills, but I don't know that I'd rely on them too heavily in an emergency. Mostly I try to make sure I've got clothes for my kids for AT LEAST the next year. I love to shop the clearance sales at the end of each season. I just bought winter clothes for almost the next two years. Yea! :)

Great Ideas, everyone! We did the "US127 longest yard sale" two years ago and the first purchase I made was a White Treadle Sewing Machine. It even had an extra belt plus all the bobbins and other attachments - even the instruction book. $60. Yep, I was tickled pink.

One of my goals is to buy an entire bolt of decent no-pill fleece and a bolt of denim material. That way I would have it on hand; you can make lots of warm stuff. I also took worn-out jeans and cut 6" squares; sewed them together for a quilt, backed it with fleece, tied with embroidery floss and gave it to my son for his bed at college. He loved it - and it has worn like iron. He says it is so warm and heavy it flattens him out on the bed - lol. His college is in the UP of Michigan and it gets very cold up there.

Check out your local Adult Ed offered in the school districts. Ours regularly have sewing classes for beginners to advanced. If you learn how to sew, you have the perfect cottage industry WSHTF.

May I suggest that you add a lot of dental floss to your list. It works great in repairing moccasins, duffel bags, and any other heavy duty items. Have it part of my repair stash and have used it many times. Maybe fragrant minty green is not the one to pick. One of the strongest threads on hand!

Include a set of upholstery needles - big and strong, some curved, some flat, and my alltime favorite thread for almost any purpose - waxed dental floss! Also, what we used to call a darning egg (aka lightbulb) makes a good backing for knit items, especially socks.

As to the other item on your wish list, the treadle sewing mashine.... they can be purchased new from Lehman's Catalog which is an actual store and web site carrying items for the Amish. Check it out for a pleasant but somewhat costly surprise! This site has many useful items for living off the grid. Happy shopping!

I love " Alas Babylon" also, and read it frequently. Just finished "Triumph" by Phillip Wylie, thoughtful. Thanks for the sewing update, will get better grade needles etc. I too keep my cut-off pants material (4'111/2) I use the material for reinforcements, and future what-ifs.
I coveted my grandmom's treadle, but an aunt got it. I do have a '70's machine along with a late 80's model. I also love "stitch-witchery" and the squeeze tube of hem-bonding. Gotta get some more!!

There is another website that carries an unassembled treadle sewing cabinet. Price is $198. It is allbrands.com Of course, shipping might be a killer. But it is another option. I've had this in the back of mind for a long time. I need to get a better stash of fabrics though, especially cottons before prices go too high. Fleece is a great idea also. And diaper flannel. I would think diapers will be in short supply if a long-term "something" happens. Great thing for us to think about, Kellene.

Miss Kellene, a great article as usual. I found an American brand sewing machine at a yard sale last year. It needed new belts, but luckily there is a sewing machine repair shop close by. The gentleman that owns the shop was a little older than I am and he gave lots of info. It will take a little practice at using the foot tredle to get the sewing machine to run and sew smoothly. He ordered 3 belts and extra needles for me. He also gave me several extra little tips on how to use the machine. I have also found older books on sewing at thrift stores (You know the kind that teaches you how to actually do everything to become a seamstress.) and they were very inexpensive. I like the older books, because they start with the more basic information to get you started in sewing, cooking, cheese making,gardening, blacksmithing, or whatever. Most of them were written before all of our new gadgets were invented. Grandma, and Great-grandma are great sources of information and knowledge. I am sorry that all of mine have passed. They were a great source of wisdom. I have read "Alas Babylon" and I will read it again. It is a great "mind jogger".

Kellene,

It is likely that in difficult times that we will have a medium of barter and friends who are willing to swap and trade. As little ones outgrow their clothes they will probably be easier to replace. My concern is for the growing teens. Our young teen has grown inches in seemingly days. And he goes through shoes, even quality ones, like they are made of cotton. I appreciate your efforts to get us thinking about future possibilities and then actually following through on actionable items.

Barbara

White is another brand for treadle sewing machines. I have my great grandmothers, check that off my list. I use to make all of my kids clothes when it was cheaper, then material got so expensive it wasn't the best way to go. Sometimes it is cheaper to buy a whole bolt of material (denim would be great) lots of discount tables have great values. You can alway take an old pair of jeans apart to make a pattern, reuse the zipper.

Renee

ANother place you can get clothes for every member of your family is Freecycle! I own our local Freecycle list and know first hand it can be done. I have even gotten clothes for my newest grandsons as they grow and my daughter is always amazed at the quality and quantity. Folks are very generous!

Just go to www.freecycle.org, look for your state and then your city. If your city is not listed, look for one close to you. I have lots of folks on my list that live a bit of a drive away but have found it to be well worth the drive. Plus, you can belong to more than one list, also.

HTH

I loved our post! I'm a sewer and honestly get really frustrated with younger moms not knowing how to replace a zipper. That said, I continue to look forward and gather more supplies for my stash. I used to make draperies (now retired) but came across a round "guide" thingy that calculates yardage needed. I did take a moment to think about it before tossing it and decided to keep it. You never know. I too have taken garments apart (many many times) to use as a pattern for a favorite fit in a shirt, dress, jeans, whatever and it works very well. A seam ripper and some music make the evening fly by as you take a garment apart. Last year I was lucky to have a friend call and tell me of an estate sale close by and I picked up a treadle in a more modern style cabinet, but the head is just beautiful with all the gold decals in great shape. The machine was owned by a German lady who used it up until the time she died. It was lovingly carted away for $70. I was walking on air for weeks. I try to accumulate the more "usable" fabrics for tough times, denim, chambray shirting, assorted flannels and shirt weight cottons as well as yarns for knitting socks, vests, whatever and since I"m always breaking a sewing machine needle I'm constantly adding those to my stash when they are on sale. Thanks for the tip about sharpening scissors by cutting heavy foil and the waxed paper trick. You are wonderful, have a generous heart and are such a wise, wise prepper! Thank you for sharing and caring.

P.S. Whenever someone wants to give me some leftover fabrics, I NEVER say no to the Fabric Fairies in my life. I'll use it somewhere, somehow, sometime in the future. It never fails to be another blessing.

Totally agree with you. Had a repair and alteration class for church with a low, low turnout but things are given away when hems come out (if you do not count stapling things in place).

For those that need help in sewing try the Singer books. They have a range of books for all kinds of sewing. The ones I have have good pictures showing the different steps and good written instructions.

For heavy sewing or repairs, such as a backpack or heavy blanket, an awl with heavy thread is invaluable. I repaired my husband's leather belt with mine, using the existing holes.

Thanks for this article. Reading all the comments brought back fond memories of my Great Grandma teaching me to sew on her treadle sewing machine. We talked and she taught me and I sewed a quilt top with it. The quilt is long gone, but the beautiful memories and skills are mine forever.

Now to find a used treadle. Already have a machine for it along with a great sewing stash. :)

My 58th b-day is coming up in 2 weeks, so I asked my Daddy if he would like to give me one that I found in his community via www.craigslist.org for $50 in VERY GOOD condition. He said, sure thing if that is what I would like to have!!! YIPPEEEE, finally, a treadle machine!!
Thanks so much, Kellene for this timely article, it was just the reminder I needed and the timing was PERFECT!!

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Rori

Lehman's Non-electric Catalogue has new trundle sewing machines.

Hi Kellene,

My husband got me a new Janome treadle sewing machine for Christmas. It is marketed to the Amish community as it has no capacity to be converted to electric power. The treadle and cabinet were a separate purchase from China, the treadle works great but the cabinet was very cheap. My husband is using some of the cabinet parts as patterns to rebuild the cabinet into something more functional. In addition we've been stocking up on fleece that we've found on sale. One of the greatest finds I think though, is the 72" wide roll of 25 yards of medium/heavy weight canvas. Think of what we will be able to do with that!

If you are serious about learning to sew, you may want to talk to someone who sews before you buy a machine. Just like with anything else, they are not all the same quality. Condition is important for a treadle machine if you actually want to use it (some have been disabled and are now decorative rather than useful). For new electric machines, a "cheap" machine will make your life much harder than it needs to be (as will cheap scissors). My mother thought she hated to sew, but it turned out she just had a really bad machine. You don't have to go for the top of the line (Bernina, Pfaff), but don't go for the bottom of the line (Singer's have been going downhill for decades). I recommend Kenmore for lower-end machines that are pretty decent. But whatever you decide, take some fabric and a friend who sews with you, so you can know if it is going to work for you. (Don't think "all I need is straight and zigzag so it doesn't matter". Trust me, the quality matters). Same thing for a used one. Just because it's old, doesn't mean it's better or worse quality.

Hi I'm a sewer, quilter, knitter etc. so I think this is a great article. I have some suggestions for everyone, the most important thing to learn besides how to wind a bobbin or tread a sewing machine is to learn how to change the needle and how to OIL and maintain your machine. A sewing machine needs a fresh needle after about 8 hours of sewing, and to be oiled after being used for a day. This is especially important if you only have one machine, especially older machines. So I would recommend buying a good supply of various types of sewing machine needles from ones that will sew fine fabrics to ones that will sew knit fabric needles and denim. And a big supply of sewing machine oil for your machine. Also replacement belts would be good to have as well as light bulbs for the machine. BUT SEWING MACHINE OIL IS ESSENTIAL!!

As for machines I have three ,one is a computerized machine that I quilt on, I also have a Singer Featherweight that I
got years ago for $25 at a yard sale. It's small, basic, easy to use and would use very little energy to use and could do silk, cotton to denim. I have tried treadle machines and frankly they are hard to use if you aren't taught young to use one. They are still made for use in third world countries that don't have electricity. So you could easily find one. But practice practice practice on it now. I also have a machine that's about 30 years old that is a basic machine with some nice stitches and can sew knit fabrics, this I would use for those hard to do projects like fix tents, back packs, some thing that would mess us a lesser machine. These machines are easy to find for $20 dollars at yard sales, but do take it to a good machine repair shop and have it tuned up. All machines need tune-ups on a regular basis.

I also have found some great sewing and homemaking skills books at yard sales and thrift shops, look for books from the 1920-1940's on tailoring, on taking in old clothes to make into new ones. This was a time of very thrifty housewives. Remember the scene in "Gone with the Wind" when Scarlet makes a dress out of the drapes? Also look for vintage sewing items, zippers, hooks and snap, velcro and buttons. I also have lots of knitting needles I have picked up. And there are lots of books on repurposing linens and old clothes, including wool sweaters into new items. Elastic is good to have but the rubber will breakdown and the elastic be useless after a few years ( this I have experienced). So learn how to make a good draw cord, sew on hooks and eyes, put in gromets, or snaps. And buy good thread, it's expensive but worth it. Thread will break down after a while, and polyester thread won't hold up to high heat.
I could go on and on, I really recommend if you are interested find someone who sews and pick up ideas and suggestions from them, check out yard sales and thrift shops, sign up for coupons at fabric stores and don't get stressed about it, have fun with it.

Funny I've been thinking about this lately too. I have kind of let my supply of sewing stuff dwindle. Thanks for your ideas and readers ideas!!!

Good article..I have saved a lot of material for quilts that will come in handy for patches and other things.
i too have been looking for a tredle machine but if you find one they are realllly pricey.I will have to look a see if I can find an older Kenmore like Shannon's. Thats the nice thing about your blog is all the information we get from you and the others who make comments.Thanks to all.

Where to buy hemp fabrics...so far Canada allows citizens to grow & cultivate hemp but our country is behind the times. Except President George Washington, remeber him? He grew hemp & made all kinds of useful products from this crop. He advised others to do the same. Also he made a huge amount of money from
this crop & there's the rub.
Who did away with hemp crops in USA?
My daughter purchased hemp clothes untold years ago & tells me each time she washes them, they get softer and softer.
I can order dark blue denim hemp cloth for jeans...but the shipping & fabric costs are huge.

I'm totally over-prepared when it comes to sewing supplies! At one time I wanted a treadle machine but the cabinet does take up some room. Instead I have a collection of old electric machines purchased at yard sales between $25 and $40. A few of them have knobs on the handwheel so they can be operated manually. These old machines are real gems! They only do a straight stitch and do it well and handle just about any fabric. The Japanese produced a basic model between the 1920s and 60s under many different names and came in colors like aqua, pink and mint green besides basic black. They are similar in style to a featherweight but weigh between 25 and 30 lbs.

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