2) A Healthy Sewing Machine. Ok, ok, I have three, but I'm a professional! Really, though you only need one and it doesn't have to be fancy. All you need is a machine that does good straight and zig-zag stitches (99% about 1% of your sewing, respectively). It is essential that your machine have good tension. Have your machine cleaned every year. My favorite machine is an old Singer that I've had for over 25 years. It's a basic machine that chugs along without complaint no matter what I put under the presser feet. My other machine is a lovely computerized Janome that I bought about 10 years ago because I fell prey to the appeal of fancy stitches. I spent a lot of money on it (and it was worth it), but the fancy stuff is not what I do every day. It is great to have, but I use my old Singer every day. My third machine is a serger; I don't really use it that often.
5) A Good Iron. I have three irons that I use for different purposes. My favorite is an old iron from the 80's whose circuitry has gone bad and becomes screaming hot. I love this because I love a hot iron. I don't use it so often though because it's a little dangerous. I have a Sunbeam set up all the time in the sewing room and a Rowenta for special projects. Along with a good iron have a spray bottle with distilled water ready for use. Steam is good, but controlling the steam is better (I turn the steam off on my iron). My one complaint about modern irons is that they turn off automatically too soon for me - I spend a lot of time tipping and shaking my Sunbeam while working on a project. This alone gives me a tired arm, but I guess the house won't burn down. It's important to have good temperature control, but do make sure you have a good hot cotton/linen setting. For safety's sake, I think manufacturers build irons that don't heat up as much as they used to. Keep in mind that a quick press at the correct temperature is more useful than pressing away for a long time at lower temperatures. Do keep your iron on a power strip and get in the habit of clicking it off when you leave the room.
6) 100% Cotton Muslin. Muslin is invaluable to my work. I use it to draft patterns, face more delicate textiles, dye it for a multitude of purposes, back quilted pieces, test ideas, and countless other things. Please buy only cotton muslin. The poly/cotton blends do not behave as natural fabrics do; they are less sturdy, difficult to press, difficult to dye, and trickier to sew. If you go to your local Wal-Fart you will find bolts of utility muslin, usually 36" wide, for a very low price -usually around $3/yd. This muslin is a bit thicker and rougher (it's made with fewer and larger threads), but it is the greatest stuff. I buy bolts of utility muslin and dye up large amounts for various projects - it looks and feels like suede when I'm done and the fabric is virtually indestructible. You may be tempted by some of the cheapo poly/cotton blends, but if you want something that you will really be able to use, buy the 100% cotton. You can certainly go to your local quilt shop and find a higher quality cotton muslin (pricier too), but you may not need something that nice. In any case, take your fabric home and throw the entire piece (yes, I know it's huge) into the washer. Wash it, dry it at hot as you can, then take the time (don't argue!) and iron the whole thing. Once it's folded, you're set for wonderful adventures.
7) Good, No Great, Lighting. I only work during the daytime. I have one window in my studio and it's not large, but that infusion of daylight is essential to working without eyestrain. I do have Ott-lights in my lamps, but even so, no hand-stitching after dark. It just doesn't work for me. The thing about your lighting is that you may not realize how bad it is until it gets better. If you can, definitely buy an Ott light - they are really the best as capturing the daylight spectrum.
11) A Healthy Body and Brain. It may seem silly to say so, but the most important tool you will ever have is yourself. Everything you do will be overseen by your brain and accomplished with your hands. Other tools are only there to make the job easier. Take care of yourself, don't stress your body physically when working
in the studio, stretch often and have a good time. If you're not enjoying the process, stop and do something else. Tomorrow will bring new insight.
Remember also that books like these are wonderful as they are, but should also be seen as a stepping off point. Some of the following are dictionaries of techniques, others are collections of various works and still others showcase the output of a single artist. Don’t be afraid to combine what you see in these books into something new - this is how art and fine craft is supposed to work.
The Art of Manipulating Fabric by Colette Wolffe. This is one of those books that perplexes me. Why don’t I ever see anyone else refer to it? Why doesn’t it show up more in anyone else’s library? Why is it never in bookstores? I just don’t know. This book is a fantastic encyclopedia of sewing techniques: ruffles, gathering, smocking, pleating, godets, darts, cording and more! Everything is beautifully shown with a multitude of muslin samples. Examples range from basic to pretty far out there. I use this book constantly as both a how-to and a source of ideas. The author assumes you know your way around a sewing machine and how to use a needle and thread. With those basics and her book, the sky is the limit!
Anatomy of a Doll and Designing the Doll by Susanna Oroyan. I have read just about every doll-book on the market; I have many and lots of older ones (pre-1990) also. Susan Oroyan’s books are the only ones I recommend. If you can buy only one figure making book, it should be Anatomy of a Doll. These books have loads of information on joints, armatures, heads, costumes, design, and more. The author has a positive, encouraging attitude and you will return to this book again and again for inspiration and useful information.
Fine Machine Sewing by Carol Lafler Ahles. This is a book on how to achieve the heirloom sewing look with a machine. There are a lot of good examples and instructions to use different types of stitches for various results. I don’t often use these stitches for their intended purpose, but when I need that look on a piece of clothing, this is the book I turn to.
Opening and Closing by Lois Ericson. This work was published by a smaller press and may be difficult to find these days; try interlibrary loan, but even then you may have difficulties. This book is definitely worth a look. A nearly endless supply of inventive buttonholes, uses for cording and closures of every kind. A fantastic source of ideas, especially if you like a more organic, artistic look for your clothing (or costumes).
Strip Patchwork by Valerie Campbell-Harding. An older book I bought when learning to quilt in college. Even though many books about strip piecing and Seminole quilts have been published since that time , this is the book I go back to most often and is the most informative. You’ll find everything strip (and stripe) related here, with long discussions about design and construction.
The Art of Fabric Collage by Rosemary Eichorn. I love this book. Ms. Eichorn’s work is wonderful, but the technique she describes and illustrates in this book is simply liberating. Basically, pin a bunch of pieces of fabric onto a muslin background, stitch around them, stitch over them, toss in a washer & dryer and presto!, fabric art. The samples of clothing in the book are inspiration themselves, but the technique is what you should pay attention to. If you’ve never tried fabric collage, this book has a lot info that will save time and heartache.
The Stumpwork, Goldwork and Surface Embroidery Beetle Collection by Jane Nichols. Not many people have heard of stumpwork (3-D stand-alone embroidery), and it seems like only three other people besides me have heard of this book. How sad. Ms. Nichols has taken traditional stumpwork techniques to another dimension. Her work is nothing short of extraordinary. She has another book (on dragonflies - stunning!), but this one is a mighty tome of technique and inspiration. Her beetles, from realistic to imagined, are simply amazing. The beetles I create for my work are based on some of her techniques. This book will fill the prescription for your daily dose of beauty - find it and fall in love.
Color by Accident by Ann Johnston. There are many books describing how to dye your own textiles, but this is the one I recommend most. Dyeing became fashionable among quilters a few years back, but not too many stuck with it. There’s a certain level of unpredictability and mess that go with the process and you definitely have to be prepared to accept it. I dye and over-dye at least 1/4 of my fabrics. It’s quite liberating to know that if you love a fabric, but hate it’s color, you have options. This book is the most approachable and easy to understand. The technique is super simple; stuff your fabric in a jar (or bag), pour dye over, squish a bit, wait a bit, then toss into washer and dryer. The book encourages experimentation, small batches and fun.
Shibori: The Inventive Art of Japanese Shaped Resist by Wada et al. This is a beautiful, educational and expensive book. I love every page. With practice, anyone can create stunning dyed textiles, but be prepared for hand fatigue (wrapping requires a lot of hand strength) and to devote large chunks of time to the process. I think it’s well worth it because the results are like nothing else. This is by far the best shibori book on the market; others describe one or two techniques and not as thoroughly. Dyeing is not discussed in detail, so you’ll either have to know how to dye, or be prepared to learn at the same time.
Fashion in Detail From the 17th and 18th Centuries by Avril Hart and Susan North. There are a few other books along this vein published by the V&A, but this is the one I turn to the most. The book is pricey, but like a penny romance novel, every page will leave you breathless and a little disappointed at the same time. Why? Well, the book shows details of clothing (exquisite, elegant clothing) from the V&A collection. So, for a dress covered with mouthwatering embroidery, you’ll see a beautiful photo of part of the bodice, a drawing of the entire piece, a detailed description of the work, but that’s it! Like a tiny box of Godiva chocolates, what you get is wonderful, but you want so much more. As beautiful as the work is, it is also humbling when you realize that 99.99% of what you see was done by hand, with only a needle and thread... and no Ott lights.
Threads Magazine. I started subscribing to Threads in the mid-90's. I loved it then and I love it now. I find something useful in every issue and my collection is the best sewing reference I have. I’m considering buying the DVD set of the entire collection, but I don’t know..... It would certainly save a lot of shelf space, but I love thumbing through old issues for ideas and have my own idiosyncratic index of back issues.
Creative Bead Weaving by Carol Wilcox Wells. Ms. Wells has published another book, but I prefer her first. It covers only beadweaving, but is clearly illustrated, has great examples and instructions are easy to follow. I make lots of little beaded things for my figures, but nothing bead-related seems to stick in my brain, so I use this book a lot.
Fine Embellishment Techniques: Classic Details for Today’s Clothing by Jane Conlon. If you want to know how to make spaghetti straps, beaded edges, frog closures or braiding, you’ll find the info here. A fantastic resource for the home sewer who wants to spiff up a garment and make it unique. The book is published by Taunton Press; many of the articles are taken from Threads Magazine, and are well illustrated with clear instructions.
Dressing the Galaxy: the Costumes of Star Wars by Trisha Biggar. A stunning large book with umpteen photos of Star Wars costumes, many (but not enough) with close-up shots. The majority of pictures are taken against a grey screen with the actors themselves wearing the costumes and in full make-up. Also included are sketches and comments by actors and other movie personnel discussing the clothing. If only there were something similar for the Lord of the Rings movies - we can all hope.
Ornament Magazine: The Art and Craft of Personal Adornment. This is my favorite magazine. A small, but artistically powerful magazine, it focuses mainly on jewelry and art to wear. Every page is filled with beauty, even the advertisements. The editors have a positive personal philosophy and dedication to their publication that shines through in every page; I would love to meet these people. I find inspiration on every page and like that I can keep up with contemporary artists in various fields.
Along with those listed above, I have many books on crochet, knitting, quilting, sewing, embroidery, knotwork, weaving, dyeing, dolls, historical costume, buttons, wirework, jewelry, folk art and more. In addition, I cull pages from numerous magazines and have notebooks chock full of pictures, techniques, and articles. It’s a lot of paper, but I love every page.