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The Textile Bench

Jul 01, 2023Jul 01, 2023

What's on your bench? Mine's mostly filled with electronic test equipment, soldering kit, and computers. I’m an electronic engineer by trade when I’m not writing for Hackaday, so that's hardly surprising. Perhaps yours is like mine, or maybe you’ve added a 3D printer to the mix, a bunch of woodworking tools, or maybe power tools.

So that's my bench. But is it my only bench? On the other side of the room from the electronics bench is a sturdy folding dining table that houses the tools and supplies of my other bench. I’m probably not alone in having more than one bench for different activities, indeed like many of you I also have a messy bench elsewhere for dismantling parts of 1960s cars, or making clay ovens.

The other bench in question though is not for messy work, in fact the diametric opposite. This is my textile bench, and it houses the various sewing machines and other equipment that allow me to tackle all sorts of projects involving fabric. On it I’ve made, modified, and repaired all sorts of clothing, I’ve made not-very-successful kites, passable sandals, and adventurous tent designs among countless other projects.

Some of you might wonder why my textile bench is Hackaday fodder, after all it's probably safe to assume that few readers have ever considered fabricating their own taffeta ball gown. But to concentrate only on one aspect of textile work misses the point, because the potential is there for so much cross-over between these different threads of the maker world. So I’m going to take you through my textile bench and introduce you to its main tools. With luck this will demystify some of them, and maybe encourage you to have a go.

You might expect this article to head directly for the machine tools, the sewing machines. But they are only part of the picture, and it is how the rest of the tools that surround them are used that makes the difference between textile success and failure.

First up are my collection of scissors and shears. I have three pairs, a big orange handled set of fabric shears for cutting fabric, a set of normal domestic scissors for cutting pattern pieces and other paper, and a set of tiny scissors for getting into small spaces for snipping thread or similar. These should be taken care of, in particular the fabric shears. Blunt or damaged shears can damage your fabric, so woe betide anyone who picks up mine and cuts anything but fabric with them.

The smallest and probably the cheapest tool on my textile bench is my stitch ripper. This is a combination of hook, spike, and knife, which is like a universal delete button for textilists. With it you can unpick seams, either to dismantle an item for remodeling or most likely, to undo your inevitable mistakes. This and the shears really are the tools you have to hand the most on your textile bench.

The metrology requirements of a textilist are less demanding than those of an electronic engineer, so the closest thing to an instrument on my textile bench is a fabric tape measure. Why a fabric one, you ask? Imagine having a measurement taken with a cold spring steel engineer's tape measure. Unexpectedly from an engineering perspective I do my textile measurements in inches rather than millimetres, they seem to be the unit of choice in the field.

In the picture above, you’ll see a range of sundries and consumables. Minor components of your project, or small parts used in their construction. Most obvious are the pins, I have a pincushion full of dressmaker's pins, each about an inch long with a small plastic ball on one end. Pins are the universal fixer of textile work, they are used to hold everything in place exactly as it should be before sewing. I’ll thus often have a piece of work with a lot of them in at once, and have to be careful to remove them afterwards. In the case of pinned-together seams, the pins are removed anyway as you feed them into your sewing machine.

As for consumables, you’ll find elastic, iron-on interfacing — like a stick-on fabric stiffener and support, repair tape, and a box of spools of thread in my workbox. There is also a box of sewing machine bobbins ready loaded with different coloured threads, and because I have two sewing machines of vastly different ages I have to keep two different bobbin sizes.

Having dealt with the small stuff, we come to the machines. I have a couple of sewing machines and an overlocker, which are each used for doing seams to join fabric in their own particular way.

My main sewing machine is a modern Singer domestic machine. It has been mine for several years now, it has a basic computerized management of a huge range of specialized stitches, and with it I’ve built all sorts of projects. I’ve talked in the past about selecting a sewing machine for your bench at all levels, but I can recommend a similar everyday modern machine as a workhorse if you can afford it.

The other sewing machine on my bench is a vintage Singer from the 1950s, a 201K. It does only one stitch, a straight line, but it does that better and more robustly than almost any machine you could find today. It is built to a standard that exceeds that of many modern heavy-duty or industrial machines, and in fact that is what I use it for. It comes out for leather, footwear, canvas, tentage, awnings, or other projects the domestic machine would struggle over.

A 201K does however weigh as much as a small battleship, and is not a machine for the faint-hearted to move.

The final machine on my textile bench is a Janome overlocker. If you are unfamiliar with an overlocker, think of it as a machine for creating seams and finishing them such that they don't fray. When you simply sew two pieces of fabric together with a single line of stitching and without any techniques to protect the edge, the cut edge of the fabric has nothing to secure it, and thus its weaving starts to come apart. The overlocker prevents this by extending a stitch over the cut edge from above and below, in effect protecting the cut edge. You can see this clearly in the accompanying picture, on the left is a fraying seam edge done with the Singer, on the right an overlocked one from the Janome.

This functionality comes with the trade-off of an overlocker being a much more complex machine than a straightforward sewing machine. It has four spools of thread and two needles which are rather more complex to set up, and it has an oscillating knife blade which cuts a straight edge on the fabric.

An overlocker is probably not something you will find on the second-hand market as readily as you would a sewing machine, they are not such a ubiquitous piece of domestic equipment that everybody's mother or grandmother would have had. However if you have the chance to pick one up cheaply or you can afford to buy a new one then they are very much worth the effort, this is a machine that will take your textile work to the next level.

There is one final piece of textile equipment that doesn't sit on my bench, it's simply too big for that. A tailor's dummy is an extremely useful tool, a human-shaped former onto which you can pin fabric or pattern pieces to create shapes in 3D. I use mine for adjusting the fit of part-built garments, as a former to get the shape I need when taking something in, and for laying pieces of tracing paper to create my own patterns. It was an enabling moment for my textile work, taking me off the 2D table and into the third dimension allowed me to get to grips with my own patterns in a way I had never done before.

If you are looking for a tailor's dummy, you might be lucky enough to find one second-hand. Purpose built ones are adjustable across a range of sizes and are not exactly cheap when bought new, but fortunately if all you will ever need is one size there is a cheap alternative. My tailor's dummy is a fake one manufactured from expanded polystyrene with a fabric cover for shop window displays, these are available in a range of sizes and don't cost a huge amount. Mine came from Amazon, and cost me around £20 ($25).

All this equipment represents a fairly well-equipped textile bench, It takes up quite a lot of space, and I haven't even shown you the boxes containing my stocks of random fabrics or patterns. If you have an interest in textiles you don't have to buy all the equipment shown here, this represents the accumulated result of quite a few years. But if you take a look at the hand tools and consumables then pair them with a serviceable domestic sewing machine you should be equipped to tackle most textile builds, and it needn't cost an arm and a leg. Even if it might sometimes cover them.

scissors and shears stitch ripper dressmaker's pins