Throughout this series, we are discussing how to take on the challenge of Making Your Own Gear. Trying to make something for the first time all on your own can feel daunting, but our goal with this series is to help guide you through the first chapter in your outdoor gear making journey.
We have already talked about Sourcing Materials and Design previously in this series, and we hope they gave you the information and inspiration to get started. Now, are you ready to talk about how to tack all those pieces of fabric together?
Sewing is the part of this process that a new MYOGer might be the most nervous about and will probably get you out of your comfort zone. Do not fret. A sewing machine will do most of the work, and after this article, you will know some basics and tips to help your experience run a little smoother. It’s not for everyone, but if this born and raised Alabama boy can learn to enjoy it, I think you can too.
Like any hobby, the deeper you dive in, the more equipment you need and the more the price tag increases. Sewing is no different. But, just like how we don’t go out and buy a top-of-the-line tent or mountain bike on day one, we don’t need to buy an industrial sewing machine out of the gates either.
A home sewing machine can tackle most of your projects, and chances are you know someone — an aunt, a grandparent, a friend, a friend’s aunt — that is willing to lend you one. Plus, they will probably be overjoyed to teach an eager newbie like yourself.
By borrowing a machine for free and using cheap materials, you can decide if DIY / MYOG is worth the effort and up your alley … or not! Spending a ton of money and then learning you don’t like a hobby stings. Sewing can be very frustrating initially, and learning how to mitigate mistakes will help curb those frustrations.
Sewing machine tensioning - This refers to how taut the threading of your machine is. If it is too tight, it can break your thread. If your stitch feels off, check that your machine is threaded correctly or if the tensioning has changed.
Stitch length - The stitch length is the distance between where the needle penetrates the fabric each stitch. When using laminates like Dyneema, keeping your stitch length in mind is crucial because these materials do not mend after being punctured in the same way that woven fabrics do. Too close of a stitch length can cause laminates to perforate and become weak. Also, the more holes you poke through a waterproof material, the more water you can let in, so you will need to be extra thorough when seam sealing.
Seam allowance - This is how much fabric will stay to the right side of the sewing needle. When sewing, use the small ruler on the machine’s base to keep the seam allowance consistent.
Backstitching - Every time a stitch is started and ended, it is essential to sew forward and then backward 3-4 stitches to lock the thread in and keep it from unraveling. Get into a habit of doing this while practicing.
Remember, free and cheap is the way to go at first. Be creative and use what is available to you.
Sewing machine - A home machine gives the user more options and can handle many different projects. The Singer Heavy Duty is the model recommended by Matt at Red Paw Packs. Home machines have multiple stitch types providing the versatility to do tight zigzag stitches such as a bar tack, straight stitches, or buttonholes all on one machine.
Fabric scissors - A cheap pair of Walmart scissors can get the job done while you are getting started. The more money you spend, the longer the edge should last, and if you are looking for a nice pair, the Gingher Shears are it. You mustn’t use your fabric scissors to cut anything other than fabric. Doing so will dull the edge much faster. (Mom, I now understand why you got mad when you caught me using your fabric scissors as a kid!)
Seam ripper - This tool is the do-over button of sewing. A seam ripper is like an annoyingly optimistic friend that even at your lowest of lows says, “it’s okay, no mistake is permanent.” A seam ripper has a small blade on it that is useful for cutting stitches without harming the fabric. It comes in handy for lots of jobs and is so helpful I often joke that I should get a tattoo of one that says, “Nothing is permanent.”
Marking tools - To trace patterns onto your fabric, make alterations, or mark feature placements, you’ll need to mark up the fabric. A Sharpie can be used on the back side of the fabric and is something you probably already own, and even though it is permanent it will be concealed on the inside of your project. For washable markings, use a chalk pencil for pack fabrics or a chalk wheel on elastics.
Sewing needles - To determine the needle size needed for the job, take a sample piece of fabric and fold it to mimic the project’s thickest part. Then test if the needle can handle that thickness. Over time you will learn what your sewing machine and needle can take. You want to use the smallest needle your machine will allow for the project. The bigger the needle, the more damage it will cause to laminates.
Thread - After determining the needle size needed, match the thread to that size. For example, if you are using a size 16 needle, then Tex 46 thread is a good option. If you go into a local fabric supplier, they will be happy to advise you on what thread would work best for your fabric and project.
Corner turner - When you are done sewing, to help get a perfectly angled corner, you’ll need a corner turner to press out the fabric. Because sewing is done inside out in order to conceal raw edges, when you turn your item right side out, the corners are often rounded if you don’t press them out.
MYOG and Sewing Tips
- For thin, slippery fabrics, such as silnylon, place paper under the fabrics as you sew to give some structure. The will help the needle go through the material instead of pushing it down into the bobbin. After sewing, just rip the paper away and appreciate your nice stitchwork.
- Every time you sit down to sew, whether you just threaded the machine or not, ALWAYS test your stitch. Take a scrap fabric piece and do a sample stitch or two to be confident that the stitch is right when you switch over to your project.
- Set up your sewing machine to end each stitch with the needle down. By leaving the needle in the fabric, every pause for readjustment or a break will keep the stitch and fabric in place. This is also important when making sharp turns because you can use the needle as an anchor when rotating the material.
- If you are handy and have the tools and materials, you could make a plywood sewing surface that is level with your machine’s sewing surface making it easier to make straight stitches.
Using an iron to crease or flatten fabric is an easy way to make certain stitches more manageable.
- A simple way to conceal sloppy stitching when you start out is to match the thread color to your fabric. If the fabric and the thread are the same color, it is tough to notice mistakes in the finished product’s stitching.
- Plan ahead. Everything on a sewing machine needs to be sewn flat and will catch any fabric underneath. So be sure to tack those pockets and accessories on first before sewing the bag together.
- Anything tacked to the seam allowance will be hidden inside of the finished product. So, when sewing on pockets and accessories, be sure to sew close to the edge of the fabric.
Keep A Sewing Glossary
As your sewing skills progress, your ability to problem solve will too. The more you learn, the bigger and more elaborate your designs can be. A great way to build confidence is to make a sewing glossary, where you keep a sample of each technique you learn. This way, you can look back on how an individual stitch looked or how to add a zipper.
To make a sewing glossary, use cheap materials and a binder with sleeve protectors to store each sample stitch. By learning a new skill and saving it for future reference, you can feel confident when using it in a project. Some stitches, such as a flat felled seam, take time to learn but add value to the finished product.
While you are learning to sew, a low-stakes place to practice is repairing used gear. Saving something from the landfill is rewarding and will help you grow as a sewer. Each project will be different, allowing you a chance to get out of your comfort zone and flex your problem-solving muscles. The worst that can happen is you mess up, learn from it, and are back where you started. The best that could happen is you might save a well-loved piece of gear from retirement.
Another way to use your gear repairing skills is scoring damaged gear from a thrift shop or used gear shop. Wes at Hawbuck recommended going to REI garage sales and finding ripped gear for cheap and fixing it up. Often these items have been through several cycles at the garage sales and have been marked way down. Even if you cannot fix the item, you can use the materials to upcycle it into something else! Rain skirt made out of a tent rainfly, anyone?
We hope that this overview of sewing has you feeling confident and excited to start Making Your Own Gear. Sewing can be intimidating, but after you learn how to thread your machine, figure out which sides of the fabric go together, and realize that a seam ripper can fix most mistakes, it can be a gratifying hobby. It does take time to get good at it, like most things, but with each finished project, your confidence and enthusiasm will likely grow.
Thank you for joining us on this MYOG Series! Now that you have the basics of going from an idea to a finished product, we are excited to see what you make. The perfect piece of gear is just a sketch and some stitches away.
Thank you again to Wes at Hawbuck, Nash Calvin at Utah State University, Brandon at Superior Wilderness Designs, and Matt at Red Paw Packs for letting me interview them to pack these articles with information!