Updated 16 July 2018


Table of Contents


Notions are all the things that are neither fabric nor tools:  small things that are used up in making clothing.  (Vendors sometimes lump notions and small tools together.)

You don't so much stock up on notions as accumulate them; if you keep a container for each type and store the left-overs each time you make a garment, eventually it will be a rare thing to need to dash out to buy thread, buttons or snaps.  I keep my notions and small tools organized in shoe boxes in a foot locker left over from my spouse's college days.


Twill Tape is an exception to the above rule; it is expensive in the little packages, and only polyester tape is available in sewing shops, so every ten years or so I mail-order whole reels of cotton tape in various widths, both black and unbleached.

Polyester tape is bought as needed in the little packages.  Polyester tape comes in many bright colors, and is shiny, so it is good for decoration.  [It is also, alas, out of style.  The last time I looked, the available tape was polyester posing as cotton, combining the worst of both fibers with none of the advantages.]

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Seam binding is a plain-woven tape, usually half an inch wide, often thin and loosely woven.  I usually use twill tape or bias tape instead.  The last time I bought seam tape, only rayon was available.  It's probably polyester by now.

There is a synthetic-knit seam-binding tape that takes advantage of the curl of plain weft knit to cover raw edges.  I don't think it has a generic name yet; one brand is "Seams Great".  Unlike seam tape, it's not useful for anything except binding seams, so I am not familiar with it.

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Bias Tape is stored right next to the twill tape, for there are many situations where either will do.  Little of my bias tape was bought ready made.  The selection in shops is extremely limited, and it is very easy to make bias tape at home.  (I've written a whole chapter on how to do it.)  If you cut a scrap on the true bias for some reason, consider throwing it in with your supply of bias tape.

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All sorts of ribbon, seam binding, and cheap flat lace get thrown in with the tapes.1 Sometimes a selvage can be used as tape.

I found a piece of cotton seam binding once, and I'm keeping my eye out for more.  (It's called "tailor's tape", but Googling on that phrase gets you a hundred references to measuring tape for every reference to seam tape.)  I'm also browsing web sites that sell linen tape, but so far, linen tape is available only at shops that specialize in hard-to-find items at high prices.

Silk ribbon is also available, but too expensive to buy just to have on hand.  Silk bias, on the other hand, can be made from china silk bought on clearance.

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In theory, you should use cotton thread with plant-fiber fabrics, silk thread with animal fibers, and nylon thread with synthetics.

In practice, polyester thread is apt to be all you can find.  A good brand of polyester thread will do whenever you haven't a reason to use something else, but under no circumstances use a blend of polyester and cotton, or polyester wrapped with cotton.  There just isn't room in sewing thread to blend fibers successfully.

(Under no home-sewing circumstances, that is.  In factories, machines sew so fast that the needle gets hot enough to melt polyester, so they need polyester wrapped with cotton.)

A seller of silk thread suggests buying extra-fine white silk thread and using it for everything.  This sounds like a good idea until you ask yourself what happens when cotton sewn with silk is bleached!  Use silk on a plant fiber only if the garment will never be bleached or cleaned with a strong alkali.  Likewise, if you use vinegar to clean your wool, cotton thread might not hold up very well.  (Remember that animal fibers love acids and are destroyed by alkalis, and plant fibers are preserved by alkalis and destroyed by acids.)

I am thinking about buying a spool of the extra-fine silk to use with all colors of silk and wool.  If I do, I'll report back on how it worked out.2 One reason I haven't yet is that the numbers have changed, and I don't know whether 50 is the size A that used to be standard and 100 is half that, or 50 is the thickness of the spun silk now available, and 100 is the size A I already have plenty of.  Buttonhole silk, on the order of the thickness of #8 (button-and-carpet) cotton thread, is size D.  (Tire calls its buttonhole silk #8.  I haven't seen any to know whether it matches size D.)

There are many brands of silk thread for lace and embroidery on the Web, but I've seen only two brands of machine twist, and Tire is the only one I have tried.

Chopping filaments into staple before spinning them into thread weakens them considerably.  If at all possible, buy filament synthetics and reeled silk.

I liked Nymo nylon thread because the parallel fibers flattened out against the fabric instead of cutting it, but I don't think any floss machine-sewing threads are available now.

I haven't seen any linen thread that can be machine-sewn.

Linen fiber is chopped up to suit cotton-spinning machines, but linen fibers don't stick together the way cotton does, so modern linen thread is weak, instead of extra-strong as linespun linen was, and nearly everyone who uses linen thread complains about unevenness and slubs.  I have heard of linespun linen sold for embroiderers, but have yet to obtain a sample.  I've also heard of people who hand-spin linen sewing thread for re-enactors.

A spool labelled only "linen thread" that I have is single ply, and I suspect it of being re-wound off a cone of thread meant for weavers.  It tends to drift apart when pulling it through fabric has worn the sizing out of it, but I rather like it for embroidering hook eyes.  Even the best linen can't bear the wear of a needle's eye, so keep the needle near the end of the thread, instead of shifting it as you do when sewing with cotton thread.  I expected to discard the last inch repeatedly when I first realized I needed to do this, but a needle at the end doesn't cut the thread even though it stays in the same place much longer than one in the middle.

I strongly recommend using a strong #8 cotton thread for your first hook eye, as cotton thread is the easiest to handle.  A filament synthetic thread makes a more durable eye, but it tends to slip out of the needle, and you have to anchor it very well.  Buttonhole silk also makes good thread eyes.  It is harder to handle than cotton, but easier than synthetic.

Six-ply cotton thread, once the standard, has become hard to find.  Thanks to the popularity of patchwork and quilting, three-ply threads in size 50/3 and size 40/3 are being made, and some of them are of good quality.  When white or ecru will do, I use DMC Cordonnette #100/6 for all-round work and #80/6 for heavy duty.

Cordonnette is a crochet thread that comes in balls, and must be re-wound onto spools — but I have had good luck with putting the ball into a box behind the sewing machine, and leading the thread up over the curtain rod before passing it through a hole in the handle of my cam-compartment door (which is just above the spool pins on my machine) and then through the thread path.

Cone threads, which are intended to be used in this manner, can be set directly on the floor and be led straight to the thread path, but the indirect route gives jerks, vibrations, and loops time and space to straighten out, and a box keeps the thread clean and protects the cone from being knocked over.

(Later I switched to a coil-less safety pin stuck near the top of each curtain, so that I could close the curtains without rubbing the thread.)

It is also possible to hang balls and cones; details in "Threading a Sewing Machine".

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"Embroidery floss" is six strands of loosely-spun two-ply cotton thread, originally created as a cheap substitute for silk floss.  (Nowadays, embroidery floss also comes in other fibers, and some of them glitter like metal.)  The strands are twisted together tightly enough to be used as a single thread on coarse fabric, but it's more common to separate the strands and use two or three.

It is obvious to the most casual glance that "floss" isn't floss, so it's used for its own purposes and most of the people who use it are unaware that there is such a thing as silk floss.

Embroidery floss is weak, and is used only in fancywork and darning.  It loses its beauty rapidly if subjected to heavy wear, but holds up quite well on party clothes.

You can embroider with sewing thread, crochet thread, weaving thread, etc.  Knitting yarn is likely to fray quickly when dragged through cloth.  Among weaving yarns, warp threads are more likely to be suitable for embroidery than threads intended for weft.

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DMC Medici, a worsted-wool embroidery thread, is fine enough to hand-sew seams; it is useful in darning and patching.

Medici was discontinued after I wrote this, but some other crewel yarns are almost fine enough to use instead.

Nylon thread is the strongest and stretchiest, but it's hard to come by.  Floss-style nylon, which flattens against the fabric instead of holding its shape, makes seams that are less likely to tear along the stitching than nylon twisted into a hard cord.  You can also get "woolly nylon" intended specifically for sergers.  Don't use woolly nylon in sewing machines.

Dental floss is useful when an excessively-strong thread is wanted — if you can find floss; dental tape is often labeled "floss" because floss is what people are used to buying.  When floss is too thick, it is easy to split it.

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Rayon thread is made for machine embroidery, and may not be suitable for seams.  Sew rayon fabric with cotton or polyester thread.

There are dozens more fibers, but they are seldom made into sewing threads.  Bast fibers such as hemp, nettle, and ramie will resemble linen, and may be quite strong if linespun.  Animal hairs other than wool are apt to be slick, but if tolerable thread can be made of chopped silk, it should be possible to spin sewing thread from alpaca.

Human hair is useful in fine repair work, particularly if you can obtain long strands of white hair, but it's hard to handle — and the invisibility that makes it so attractive for fine mending wears a different face entirely when you are trying to thread a needle.  Quintuple that if you are trying to use a double strand and the hair is naturally curly.

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Thread sizes get smaller when the threads get larger because the sizes used to mean the number of skeins of yarn in a pound.  Different fibers were put up in skeins of different lengths, so a thread made of one fiber may not be the same weight as a thread of the same size number in another fiber.  Since the densities are different, the thicknesses wouldn't match anyway.

The numbers refer to the thickness of the yarns of which threads are made.  The plies of thread are called "yarns." The "yarns" of which thread is made resemble the "yarns" used for knitting only slightly more than they resemble the "yarns" spun by old men sitting around a fire.  Most knitting yarns are made of two or more yarns.

The full name of a plant-fiber thread size is the size of the thread's yarns written as a fraction over the number of yarns — 20/3 thread is made of three #20 size yarns.  (Wool uses the reverse fraction:  ply over yarn size.)  Threads whose fractions reduce to the same number will be approximately the same thickness:  if you use twice as many yarns, and make them half as thick, you'll get a thread about the same size as before.

All sewing thread used to be three-ply thread; since the bottom part of the fraction was always the same, it was the custom to leave it off.  To this day, sewing thread is labeled by the size of the cotton yarns it would take three of to make a thread of that thickness, so a six-cord #60 cotton sewing thread is actually 120/6, which equals 60/3.

Many crochet cottons are labeled as if they were six-ply threads, so if you halve the number of a crochet cotton, you will have the number it would have if it were sold for sewing thread.

As a rule of thumb, six-cord thread is stronger than three-cord, but the quality and length of fiber, and the care taken in manufacturing, are more important than the number of plies.

There are many, many other sizing systems such as "denier" — denier is the weight in grams of nine hundred meters of thread or yarn.  Fly-tying silk is marked with the diameter of the thread as measured with a micrometer.  Twine is marked in "pounds test." In all three of these systems, larger numbers denote thicker thread.

Silk thread used to come in A, for general sewing, B, for heavy duty, and D, for working buttonholes.  I presume there was a C, but have never seen any.  B thread is about the thickness of cotton sewing thread, and A is considerably finer — I can put all of a 100-yard spool of size A sewing silk onto a bobbin meant for forty yards of #50 cotton, and have room left over.  Spools of sewing silk are still to be had by sorting through baskets of bargain thread, but you must check to see whether it has dried out and gotten brittle.  As far as I know, Tire and YLI are the only companies that make filament-silk sewing thread.  (And I can't personally attest to the existence of YLI.)  Color selection is limited, and the thread is available only by mail order.

Spun-silk thread is readily available in densely-populated areas, and comes in many colors —if you can find a store that sells enough silk thread that it can afford to buy many boxes of it— but spun silk shouldn't be used when strength is critical.  Sometimes spun silk is better for decorative stitching because it isn't as shiny as reeled silk.  I like spun silk for hems on fuzzy fabric.

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10 November 2011

Having just spent considerable time learning that I'd put my 50/3 black cotton into the drawer where I keep silk and nylon, this seems like a good time to undertake a discusson of thread organization.

On the other hand, searching all three of my thread depots turned up a dark-gray 100/6 that I might as well use up mending even though the garment in question is old enough that 50/3 would probably hold until the rest of it wears out.

I'm not qualified to comment on the organization of machine-embroidery threads.  I'll assume that if you embroider, the embroidery threads are an entirely separate issue from the rough-sewing threads.  (I don't think of my embroidery floss as thread even though I sometimes use it for darning.)

The first cut is to divide threads by type.  Ideally, I would walk to a display of 50/3 cotton and select the correct color.  In practice, I store my threads in three places.  (Four if you count the box of embroidery floss in the foot locker.)  (Five:  there are also cones of nylon and silk in the foot locker.)

In the left-hand upper drawer of the treadle sewing machine are spools that match pre-wound treadle bobbins.  So this is really the second cut after division by type.

In the drawer under the electric sewing machine are silk threads, nylon threads, linen threads, two spools of polyester thread to match uniform shirts that I haven't seen since 2001, three kinds of cotton threads in little "reclosable" bags, and electric-machine bobbins.

On the shelf beside the window is everything else, some of the spools stacked on chopsticks.  Here also are two boxes containing silk thread to back up four of the silks in the drawer.

Many spools of thread need to be kept associated with other objects:  a spool you bought to use when this one is used up, a bobbin wound with thread off this spool, a threaded needle, and a needle particularly suited to this thread spring to mind.

When all of these apply, a small Zip-Lock (oops, I should say "reclosable") bag is the best bet.

There are little plastic bobbin holders that wedge into the hole in a spool.  A tiny scrap of cloth makes a good shim to keep the gadget from falling out of the hole.

I've also used a narrow strip of cloth threaded through the hole in the spool and the hole in the bobbin, then knotted into a loop.  (This is mainly for long-term storage.)

I made a tiny pincushion by forcing a scrap of wool into the hole of a spool of thread used only for hand sewing.  Now when I grab that spool, a needle of the appropriate size is with it.

If you aren't going to leave it very long, you can lay a needle against the spool and secure it with a few windings of thread.  But needles ought not to be left in prolonged contact with plant fibers, for reasons discussed under "pincushions".

The spool that the gray 100/6 mentioned in the second paragraph came on has a bobbin holder attached to each end, and the thread is on two bobbins.  I think that the way this came about is that I wound a bobbin, found that there was no thread left on the spool, and wound a second bobbin until the two bobbins were equal so that I could finish whatever job was at hand.  Then I put them away on the spool so that I'd know what they were.



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Ravellings: To make stitches really inconspicuous, hand-sew with threads ravelled from a scrap of the fabric you are sewing.  Ordinarily, you would do this only if the thread is good just as it comes, or maybe waxed a bit or doubled.

When working with silk, you may be willing to go to more trouble, because silk is often dyed with colors that wash out:  thread that matches when you are sewing might not match after a washing or two.  And silk is a strong fiber, so thread made from it is rarely weak even when no particular attention has been paid to making it suitable for sewing.

Spun silk, particularly "raw" silk, may be fuzzy and uneven.  Use it double — the odds are that weak places in one strand will line up with strong places in the other.  Then wax it thoroughly enough to glue the two strands together, which will also slick down the fuzz.  Another way that rubbing thread on beeswax smooths it is by yanking out loose fuzz and retaining it embedded in the wax; you may not want to use the same piece of wax that you use for better thread.  (But I haven't had any trouble with the fuzz coming off on other thread.)  Because the fuzz wears off, raw silk tends to improve while you are sewing with it.  When sewing with heavily-waxed thread, shift the needle often to keep the tail from gluing itself to the standing part.

The "energized" threads used in crepe can take a lot of taming.  I'll describe the entire process, and you can select appropriate bits for use as required.

First, draw a thread out of a suitable scrap.  Since over-spun threads seem to behave better when there is a loop at one end where the thread was folded in half, I choose threads about twice as long as I want to thread into a needle.

The scrap in hand as I write this has a selvage at one end, so each thread pulled out is a loop that wants to ply itself.  I allow it to do so, as that takes up some of its energy.

Then I wet it.  I can wrap the thread around my fingers and swish it under a faucet or through a bowl of water, but I prefer to dangle it under the high faucet in the kitchen, so that the weight and movement of the water can help take out the kinks and twist.

After dousing it, I hold it by the loop end with one hand and stroke it with the other until it hangs straight.  Being wet and heavy, it grudgingly consents to do so.  Now I can open it, holding one end in each hand and separating the plies.  It may be necessary to pull on the loop end also, to keep it from tangling.  (I confess to using my mouth when this situation arises; after all, I've just washed the thread, and I'm about to wash it again.)

Once the thread is straight, I let go of one end and allow it to untwist.  If released suddenly, the thread is apt to jump up into tangles, so it's a good idea to release the length a little at a time.  Holding firmly to one end, I put it under the faucet again, then carry it (still dangling freely) to the sewing room, where I drape it over the ironing board to dry.

The thread is so fine that it dries in a few minutes, but the longer the time between stages the better — it gives the thread time to become accustomed to its new shape.  For this reason, I keep several threads in progress at once, moving each thread up one place in line every time I re-thread my needle.

(Yes, I re-thread many times — it's a long dress, and I'm flat-felling all the seams.  Thank goodness the next piece of silk crepe I intend to cut is black!  However much it bleeds, black silk remains black, so I could use black sewing silk for top-stitching if I had any, and even the spun-silk sewing thread I do have will do fine — spun-silk thread is thicker than sewing silk, and that makes it strong enough for light duty.)

Once the thread is thoroughly dry, I stick a knitter's coil-less safety pin into the ironing board with the opening down, dangle the thread again, take one end in each hand and pull the thread to distribute the twist evenly, then catch it under the safety pin without letting go of the ends.  After bringing the ends together, I hold them in one hand while pulling the pin out of the board and closing it with the other, all the time keeping tension on the thread.  Then I carefully let go of the pin.  The weight of the pin keeps the thread from jumping up into snarls while it spins.

When the pin has quit spinning, I hold the thread by the pin and let it spin some more, then put it under the faucet, holding it at the pin end, then hang it to dry with the thread dangling freely.

Then I wax it, stroking the wax down the thread slowly to give the twists and kinks time to move out of the way.  The first time, moving slowly won't be enough to keep kinks out, so I hold it near the end (with the pin dangling freely), wax an inch or three, shift my grip, wax a longer piece, and so work my way back to the pin.

Then I hang it up —in a different place, or hanging on a different style of peg from the threads that are drying— and let it dangle freely until it is wanted.  (Pins stuck through the safety pin into the edge of the ironing board make convenient hanging pegs, if I don't want to press or iron right then.)

I wax it again just before threading it into a needle, and also re-wax all the threads that are waiting in line.  A thread quickly absorbs the maximum of wax, but drawing it over the wax gets it into shape for being drawn through fabric, and letting it dangle between waxings lets it rest up and assimilate the training.

Most ravellings aren't this much trouble.  But even the easiest thread should be wetted, in case it got stretched while you were ravelling it.

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No-sew fasteners are popular for mass-produced clothing, but they damage the cloth when they are installed, so it's difficult to repair a garment where a pound-on fastener has failed.  It is also risky to install such a fastener in a one-off garment — you can't correct mistakes, and the time to install fasteners is after you have invested hours of work.  Of course, neither factor is a consideration on a production line.  Mass-produced clothing is seldom mended, and once you get the fastener-installing machine set up and adjusted, it works first time every time — not to mention that wasting a garment or two upsets a factory about as much as wasting an inch of thread upsets you.

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I hardly ever use zippers, and when I do, I find one in my stash, so I'm not up on what's available now.

Some people adore "invisible" zippers; I dislike them because the turned-in chain makes a long, narrow lump in the seam.

It has been a long time since "dress" zippers that are closed at both ends have been available.  If you put a zipper in a side seam, use a neckline zipper and close the upper end with a bar tack.

If you need to shorten a neckline zipper, shorten it at the bottom, replacing the stop you cut off with a bar tack.  Leave at least an inch of tape beyond the tack.  If you need to shorten a separating zipper, shorten it at the top and hide the cut ends under the facing.

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Hooks and Eyes

Large hooks and eyes may be made of sheet metal, but I prefer the kind that are bent from wire, and seldom use a hook larger than #3.  Some clasps are hooks and eyes made by various decorative techniques.

Eyes come in two varieties:  Loops, and straight eyes.  All the sheet-metal eyes I have seen have been straight eyes:  a straight strip bent at the ends to raise it up from the fabric enough to let the bill of the hook go under, re-bent to proved flat feet to punch holes in to sew it on by, or it may have prongs to poke through the fabric and bend down to hold the eye in place.

A wire straight eye will be a bowed piece of wire — bent just enough to raise it enough to let the bill of the hook slide under — with each end formed into a loop to sew it on by.  It looks like the capital letter "I", with loops instead of serifs.  Straight wire eyes are almost impossible to buy and, if you don't want enough to render shipping charges irrelevant, expensive.  I mostly substitute buttonholed bar tacks.  (See hand-sewing stitches.  It isn't much more trouble to buttonhole a bar tack than to sew on a straight eye, but the metal hook frets it away and you usually have to do the job again before the garment is worn out.  It helps to use filament thread to make the eye.  Also beware of making the eye too thick, as it will wear faster if it has to be forced into the hook.  When using thread eyes, be particularly alert for defective or deformed hooks.

Where the sewing-loops of a straight eye are in a plane at right angles to the plane of the bow in the middle, all the curves of a loop eye are in the same plane:  it lies quite flat.  It is a horseshoe-shaped piece of wire with the ends of the wire formed into sewing loops.  It looks like the letter Omega.

A loop eye can also be replaced by multiple strands buttonholed together:  take stitches in two places on the edge or corner, working over a gauge of some sort if you can't eyeball the lengths of the loops you are making.  When there are enough strands to make a strong-but-not-too-thick loop, buttonhole over them with the same thread.  Another way is to make a bar tack that is quite loose on one side; use this method if you fear that the cloth might tear.

You use straight eyes when the closing overlaps, and loop eyes when the edges of the closing meet — the loops stick out beyond the edge to connect the two sides.

Some very large wire hooks and eyes are covered with thread, to make them inconspicuous on coats.  Small hooks are usually painted black or plated "silver".  (Looks more like nickel to me.)  Sometimes plated hooks are called "white", rather than "silver".  Brass hooks are harder to come by than steel hooks, but are much better because they can't rust.  (They can corrode, but aren't likely to make spreading stains when they do.)  If you see the yellow of brass showing through the paint or plating on a worn hook, or if you find an old hook that doesn't stick to a magnet, be careful not to throw it out when the garment it is sewn to is discarded.

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Snap tape, Hook-and-eye tape

When you want to install a lot of snaps or hooks close together, it's a great convenience to buy them on tape.

Snaps will be the pound-in variety, and should be on a stout twill tape, but may be on a folded strip of cut cloth.  If the latter, check to make sure the raw edges are folded to the inside.

Hooks and eyes will be sewn to cut cloth, which will be folded and sewn in a manner that covers the raw edges, and also covers all but the working parts of the hooks and the eyes.  In some tapes the eyes stick out beyond the edge of the tape, and in some the tape extends to both sides of the wire loops.

As far as I know, only loop-style eyes are available on tape.

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Hook and Loop

The most-familiar brand of hook-and-loop is Velcro.  Hook-and-loop comes as tape or dots, usually paired, but sometimes hook tape and loop tape are available separately.  Some people adore hook-and-loop; I consider it unreliable and lumpy.

If hook-and-loop stops holding, check the hook side for lint that stops the loops from touching it.  If cleaning the hooks doesn't restore function, look at the loop side sideways.  If you see a cloud of fluff that stops the hooks from engaging the loops, trim it off with scissors.  This fix cannot be used more than once or twice before all the loops have been plucked loose and sheared away.

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Buttons come in a bewildering variety.

They can be divided into two classes:  "flat buttons" with holes at right angles to the fabric, so that the bar tack that holds them on is visible when the button is worn, and "shank buttons" with a stem on the back.  A hole through this "shank" is parallel to the fabric, so that the threads are hidden by the button when it is in use.

There are also buttons that, like grommets, are attached by pushing a shank through the fabric and deforming it to hold a washer.  These are used almost exclusively in factories, since they save enormous amounts of labor if you need to attach several thousand, but it isn't practical to install small numbers of them, and they damage the cloth so that repair is impossible if the button fails or is attached in the wrong place.

Some buttons aren't meant to be buttoned:  flat, thin buttons to put underneath other buttons for reinforcement, and purely ornamental buttons.  Any button that is simply a flat disk with two or more holes in it is either a reinforcement button or a "craft" button; a button meant to be buttoned has some means for the threads attaching it to be recessed, so that they don't immediately wear away from being pushed through the buttonhole.  It may be dished or have a raised rim, or it may have a groove between the holes.

A button with only one hole in it is a sequin.  A button-sized sequin has the hole close to the edge, and such sequins are meant to be sewn on in overlapping rows, with each row concealing the stitching on the row beneath.  (Shingles work on the same principle.)  This style of sequin is quite rare, because they are expensive — and, more important, because attaching them requires enormous amounts of hand labor.  Metal-plated plastic foil sequins so small that the middle is the only place you can put a hole are still fairly common.

A button-sized sequin with the hole in the middle is meant to be used with a gadget that attaches buttons with plastic wires like those used for attaching tags to clothing.  The gadget seems to have died a well-deserved death, but if you happen upon a cache of the buttons, they can be used for ornament by sewing them on with a bead.

Among shank buttons, there is no clear division between ornamental buttons and buttons meant to be used:  you can push a plastic duck or bunny through a buttonhole, though I wouldn't recommend making a habit of it.

Try not to buy buttons that almost match.  If you want to make several shirts with white buttons, for example, buy enough buttons to button all your shirts and have a few left over to make up losses, and you'll spend a lot less time searching your button jar — and you'll never have to replace all the buttons on a shirt just because one broke or went missing.

Speaking of searching the button jar, group the buttons you put in it.  You can string them on loops of heavy thread (or eighth-inch ribbon tied in a bow), sew them to cards, pin them into clear plastic bags, keep them in ring boxes, etc.  Try not to have more than one or two opaque containers in your button jar.  And making the jar literally a jar, of clear glass, also saves on searching time.

I also have a box of shirt buttons sewn to cards.  Or laced, rather, with each end of the string wrapped around one of the buttons on the card — like the string on a button envelope — to keep them from coming unlaced.  These are mostly different colors of the same button.

Some buttons are costume jewelry, and should be attached in such a way that they can easily be detached before washing or dry cleaning.

One way to do this is to make buttonholes on both sides of the opening, and sew the buttons to a strip of cloth that can be buttoned to the button side of the opening.  The strip should be very stiff.

There used to be shank buttons that came with a cotter pin to be pushed through the hole in the shank after the shank was pushed through a tiny buttonhole.  These might still be around somewhere, but I can't help with the search because it's been decades since I forgot what they were called.

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We usually mean by "frog" a fastener made by knotting one end of a cord to form a button, and forming the other end into a looped decoration by which the button is sewn to one side of a closure.  The other half of the frog is a mirror-image decoration one loop of which embraces the button.  Frogs can be purchased ready made, or they can be made at home.  One or more frogs make a striking decoration.

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Clasps are essentially jewelry, and therefore aren't standardized in the least.  Some are ornate hook-and-eye sets, others fasten in various ways.  What they have in common is that the halves of a clasp can be joined or separated, and you sew or otherwise secure one half of the clasp to each side of the opening.

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Pins for fastening clothes have gone entirely out of fashion, so far out of fashion that a pin in your clothing is taken as a mark of slovenliness and moral decay — even the diaper pin is under siege.

It is true that repeatedly sticking a pin in the same place will wear out your fabric, but it's also true that a garment that's pinned together is re-fitted every time it's put on.  This may be an over-riding consideration when fit is particularly important, or when a garment is shared.  Laces, ties, D-ring buckles, and some installations of hook-and-loop are also continuously adjustable, but they don't always fill the bill.

You can escape the onus of pins by using a large and ornamental pin, or a reproduction of an antique or archaeological pin.  But you can rarely get away with using more than one pin unless you can keep them out of sight.

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There are tapes and cords made especially to be laces, and you can use any cord or strong, narrow tape.  If you want aglets on your laces, and shoelaces don't come in the correct length, you can make aglets with shrink tubing.  To make a nice square end, shrink the tubing onto the lace first, and cut the tape afterward, trimming the tubing at the same time.

You can make two aglets at once by sliding a double-length tube onto the lace, centering it over the place where you will cut.

If you seal the ends of nylon string before you cut it, you can stiffen the end of the string to make it easier to put it through eyelets — just partly-melt the string for an inch or so to each side of the place where you plan to cut it.  It's much easier to melt the string when you can stretch it between your hands, and keep it straight without getting your hands anywhere near the heat source.  Keep holding it straight until it is cool enough to be firm.

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Sewing people into their clothes has no place anywhere but on the stage — but some garments worn only to rare events are, essentially, costumes.  Slip-stitching an opening is the least-conspicuous way to close it.

More practically, clothing for display dolls can be sewn on to avoid the difficulty of keeping fasteners in scale provided that the doll is merely an ornament and not a toy — changing a doll's clothing is half the fun.

Pillow covers and other articles that aren't cleaned frequently can be basted on instead of installing zippers or other fasteners.

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Eyelets and Grommets

An eyelet is a small tube with a flange on one end, and the other end weakened so that it is easy to form it into another flange after putting it through a hole in cloth.  A grommet is the same thing, but there's a sort of washer that is held in place by the flange you make by deforming the tube.  Since a grommet is much stronger than an eyelet, you are apt to find eyelets to fit small holes and grommets to fit large holes.

"Eyelet" also refers to a hole made by embroidery.  When purely ornamental, an eyelet might be a die-cut hole with buttonhole stitch or satin stitch worked around it, but when it is to be used for lacing, an eyelet should be made by forcing an awl or stiletto through the fabric — preferably without breaking any of the threads of the fabric.  Such an eyelet should be held open with a few overcasting stitches; it should not be buttonholed.

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For ties and drawstrings, you can use all sorts of string, cord, twine, tape, ribbon, braid, etc.  You can make cords by innumerable methods:  crocheting, braiding, plying, knitting, spool knitting, using a lucet, etc.

You can also make a tie or drawstring by hemming a strip of fabric, or by sewing a tube and turning it, or by folding a strip lengthwise and topstitching.  There is no clear distinction among ties, strings, and belts.

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A buckle is a gadget that holds a strap stuck through it.  It's the usual way to close a belt, and straps are often sewn to garments to close an opening.  In garments, strap-and-buckle closures that require more than one strap-and-buckle set are often chosen for appearance, rather than function

The iconic buckle is a rectangular frame with a bar across it.  The end of a belt is sewn to the bar, the other end of the belt comes up through one hole, over the strap-wrapped bar, and down through the other hole.

In a light-duty buckle, this may be all there is to it, and friction holds the strap in place.

In most buckles there is a prong hinged to the bar, and the prong goes through a hole in the strap to keep it from slipping back.  The end of the prong rests on the edge of the coming-up hole, so that any tension on the strap pulls the prong more firmly into place, and you would have to break the prong or tear the strap to loosen the belt by pulling on it.

The hole may be a worked eyelet, a grommet, a metal eyelet — or just a puncture made with an icepick or the prong itself.  Crocheted straps and some other fabrics already have holes that the prong can use; such straps are more adjustable than straps with pre-made holes, but less suited to heavy duty.

There are innumerable variations on the iconic buckle, mostly by varying the shape of the frame.  One can also end the buckle at the bar, leaving only the coming-up hole.  In lieu of the going-down hole, a belt loop across the strap keeps the end of the belt from flapping around.

There are also countless forms of buckles that work on different principles; the only one I'll discuss here is one that you can make at home.  It's called a "D-ring buckle".

D-Ring Buckles are easy to fasten, even though your first look at one is apt to cause you consternation, and you will doubt that the thing is meant to be a fastener at all.  They are usually made with two rings that are flat on one side, suggesting a capital letter D, but any two rings the same size will make a buckle.

You make a buckle by sewing two rings inside a loop of fabric.  You close the buckle by bringing the end of the belt or strap up through both rings, then down through just one ring — the ring that you went through first when coming up.

The strap will slide easily when you pull on the free end, making it possible to tighten the belt or strap with one hand while, for example, controlling a bike with the other.  Pulling on the other end will jam the upper ring down into the lower ring with the strap caught in between; the harder you pull, the more firmly the strap is held.

The D-ring buckle both easy to adjust and reliable — you always know whether or not you have fastened it, and it won't fail unless something breaks.  This makes D-rings popular in life-critical applications such as the chin straps on helmets.


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Braid:  a general term covering all kinds of ornamental tape — braids can be woven as well as braided, and you may even find braid that's knitted.

Rick-rack:  a zig-zag braid; it is said that the machines that make it use a true bobbin-lace technique.

In my youth, the bane of rickrack was the tendency for the points to curl if you sewed it with a single line of stitches down the middle — and if you use two rows of machine stitching, to hold the points down, they show terribly and spoil the effect.  I suspect that perma-press polyester rick-rack obviates this difficulty, but haven't tested the hypothesis.

Rickrack is particularly valuable when you want to make an impression from a distance, when the fine detail in figured braid would be invisible.

It's also a classic ingredient in many forms of embroidery and coarse lace.  I have an example of antique rickrack that has a picot on each point, for easier incorporation into tatted and crocheted patterns.  I have never seen any evidence that such rickrack is still being made, but with the World Wide Web making it feasible to sell to a diffuse market, if anybody anywhere in the world makes it, the odds are that you can get some.

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Lace:  Once the very finest fabric in both senses of the word, lace now has a cheap air about it.

First machines that could make lace almost as good as hand-made lace for a small fraction of the price chased lace pillows into museums, then looms, knitting machines, netting machines, and whatnot learned to make delicate fabrics that looked pretty much like lace and chased the true-lace machines into museums.

The skills for making hand-made lace are still around, preserved by hobbyists, but nobody would be willing to make lace for any sum that anybody would be willing to pay, and the strains of flax that used to provide exquisitely-fine linen threads have gone extinct, which doesn't really matter because climates have shifted and nobody knows what made the fine-flax growing areas produce such fine flax — with everyone wearing Tencil and Microfiber, there isn't a lot of research and development going into flax.  If we knew how to grow flax for ultra-fine linen, we'd still have the problem of finding customers willing to pay for the skilled labor required to grow, harvest, and spin it.

So most of the lace you run into . . . well, it makes nifty-neato hem facings.  The exceptions are of no interest to the topic of this book, for to use those laces, you design the garment to set off the lace, you don't choose lace to set off the garment.  Not to mention that using good lace is fine sewing, not only outside the scope of this book, but above the scope of the currently-popular "french hand sewing", which tends to use quantities of cheap lace in a disrespectful manner.

By "flat lace", I mean lace that isn't pre-gathered.

Laces suitable for rough sewing are edgings, which have one straight edge and are scalloped on the other, insertions, which have two straight edges, and galloons, which are scalloped on both edges.  All of these can be thought of as net tape, to be used as a light-duty substitute for twill tape and seam binding.  Indeed, one kind of half-inch insertion is sold in three-yard packets as "lace seam binding".  Some kinds of lace are flexible enough to be used like bias tape.

In addition to providing an elegant touch, lace hem facings etc. are much thinner and less likely to show on the right side than woven-fabric tapes.

I leave lace fabric to books on fashion sewing.

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Appliqués:  You can buy embroidery to sew onto your fabric, usually worked on stabilizer that has been torn off or otherwise removed so that only the embroidery threads show when you buy it.  Like clip art, finding the right design is often more trouble than it's worth, and sometimes impossible.  (Hmm . . . does Ed Sibbut ever do embroidery designs?)

Most embroidered appliqués are much thicker than embroidery worked directly on the fabric.  This makes it possible to sew them on invisibly by back-stitching from the wrong side of the fabric, but it also makes it inadvisable to sew them to fabric that requires ironing.

Other appliqués are embroidered on patches of fabric; these will have an embroidered border to stop fraying, and this border is a good place to hide the stitches that hold them on.  Don't try to slip-stitch, as embroidered patches usually go on clothing that will take hard wear.

If you make your own embroidered patch, iron a lightweight woven interfacing onto the back before working the border.  This stiffens the patch and hides the messy threads.

You can also get appliqués by cutting motifs out of all-over fabrics; many lace fabrics have a structure that doesn't ravel if one removes a motif by snipping one thread at a time.

Woven fabrics have to be finished at the edges.  A motif cut from a print is usually satin-stitched down by machine, rather than turned under at the edges, in order to follow the convoluted edge of the design.  Cut the motif with a seam allowance, sew it on with a narrower and longer stitch than you want for your satin stitch, trim close to this preliminary stitching with fine scissors, then set the machine for satin stitch and cover the padding stitches.

When a cut-out motif is attached by hand, running-stitch inside the cutting line, and trim an inch or so at a time just before covering the running stitch and freshly-cut edge with buttonhole stitch.

If you can avoid inside corners when cutting out, a turned-under edge is easier and looks better.  Slip stitch, or "hand pick" (spaced backstitch) near the fold.  If the colors of the print co-operate with you, one expedient is to slipstitch or backstitch most of the edge, and buttonhole the inside corners.

This gets us off the topic of notions altogether, and into the boundary between appliqué and embroidery.  Appliqué can be attached with embroidery stitches, or patches of fabric can be placed under embroidery to keep the base fabric from showing between the stitches, and there is no clear division between one extreme and the other.

There is no clear division between appliqué and other fine needle arts — for example, appliqué of fine fabric on transparent fabric is one way of making lace (or, rather, a whole set of laces).

A bold and durable decoration can be made by turning under the edges of patches of fabric and straight-stitching by machine with matching thread close to the fold.  Prints with a very small repeat work best.

One way to turn under edges around inside corners is to make a patchwork appliqué, with a seam ending at each inside corner.

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March 11, 2003:

Perhaps you noticed that that statement implies a steady increase in the entropy in the straight-grain tape box.  Today it reached a crisis, and I was obliged to sort out the entire box to find a suitable hem tape for the pockets on the linen-blend suit I cut out yesterday.  (I chose a pure-linen selvage I'd entirely forgotten saving.)  A hint of the degree of entropy can be given by the inscription on the package of white cotton quarter-inch tape:  "boiled Dec. 1976."

(And why didn't I label all the stuff so that I wouldn't have to shrink anything a second time?  As I write, a yard or two of dirtied tapes are soaking in a bowl in the oven; I'd best pin a note with the date to each piece.)

When I put the stuff back into the box, I sorted it into clear plastic bags:  snap-seal sandwich bags for tapes on two-by-five cards or rolled up into little cylinders, and gallon-size twist-tie bags for tapes on reels or large packages.

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February 2004:

I bought four spools of Tire 100+, two white and two black.  Since my sewing-machine bobbin holds an entire 100-yard spool of size A silk with room left over, I figured an entire 200-meter spool of 100+ thread would fit on a bobbin, and I was right — but just barely.

As advertised, 100+ thread is nearly invisible.  This is wonderful for zapping up a hem by machine, not so wonderful when I inspect the hem to make sure the fabric has been caught, downright horrid when I've made a mistake and want the stitches out.  I suppose I could get used to hand-sewing with it — given sunshine or a good task lamp.  It's better to take advantage of the invisibility to get out of hand sewing.

I found, much to my surprise, that the first seam I made with 100+ didn't just pucker, it gathered.  One would expect tension to be too loose, rather than too tight, when changing to thinner thread.  Reducing the stitch length to two millimeters helped considerably, and keeping the fabric taut doesn't require as much attention on wool as on china silk.  The problem went away in a few days of practice, and I never fiddled with the tensions.

I don't feel inclined to use 100+ for seams unless the fabric is fine enough to require it or I'm flat felling and don't want to change threads. Unlike size A sewing silk and, presumably, #50 machine twist, it is easy to break 100+ with my hands.

I had a great deal of trouble with the thread breaking until I noticed that the spool was balanced on its label, so that it didn't quite touch the felt pad at the base of the spool pin, so there was nothing to stop it from continuing to spin after I stopped the machine, which wrapped the thread around the spool pin.  After checking that I wouldn't lose valuable data by doing so, I turned the spool over, poked a hole in the label, pushed it all the way down to the felt pad, and expect no further difficulty.

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