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Tools of the Trade – Part Three

About Quilting Tools - Pins, Needles, Thread, Thimbles, & more
By Barb Bergquist

This week’s edition of the continuing series about quilting tools will cover pins, needles, thimbles, threaders, seam rippers, and thread.  The information provided today will not be as in depth as experts would provide, but I provide information that is useful to every quilter.

Starting with pins, I only remember one type of pins when I was learning to sew as a kid.  Why were they called straight pins?  I tried to find that out, but had no success.  Maybe they were called that because they were straight, not curved.  What I did find was what I would call the definition of a straight pin: a small length of stiff wire with a head at one end and a point at the other end.  Simple, right?  Maybe not so much when you look at the selection on the market now.  There is a great article on pins available called A Pin for Every Purpose, but I will provide the highlights here and if you like, you can read more on your own.

Any pin breaks down into its components: head, point, thickness, length, and metal content.  A pin’s head will determine whether it can be pressed with a hot iron and when it is used.  A flat head is small and of the same material as the rest of the pin and can be pressed with a hot iron.  It is the straight pin I remember as a kid.

Plastic pin heads come in different shapes and colors and they cannot come into contact with a hot iron.  The plastic heads are usually either ball shaped or flower shaped.  The flower head pins are the easiest to spot on most fabric patterns, and because they are flat, you can get an accurate measurement right over the top of the pins.  The flower head pins are great for eyelet and loose weave fabrics.

Glass head pins are similar to the plastic ball headed pins, but with the head made of glass, you can iron right over the glass head and not worry about the heat of the iron melting the pin head.  You might also find metal ball pin heads and they also will not melt under the heat of an iron.

Moving on, not all pin points are created equal.  Different points are made for different types of fabrics.  Those points that are classified as sharp are all-purpose for use on loosely woven, medium-weight, and heavy-weight fabrics.  Extra sharp points are more tapered to pass cleanly through delicate fabrics.  Finally, ball points are designed specifically for knits so that it slips easily between the loops rather than piercing the yarns of your knit fabrics.

As with the other characteristics of a pin, length will vary based on use.  The shortest pins are between ½” and ¾” and are best used on appliqué, trim or sequins.  The all-purpose pin length is between 1 ” and 1 ½” and is used for most all purposes.  Quilting pins are generally 1 ½” – 2” in length and are great for pinning multiple layers of fabric and batting.

The thickness of a pin will control the likelihood of the pin marring your fabric with holes.  Use the thinnest of pins (.4mm) for sheer fabrics.  Those that are .5mm are great for lightweight fabrics while .6mm pins work well with medium weight fabrics.  And as you would guess, those that are .7mm or .8mm are suitable for thick fabrics but be aware that they do leave a hole in your fabric.

Pins are made of an assortment of metals: stainless steel, nickel-plated steel, nickel-plated brass, brass, and chrome-plated steel.  The chrome-plated steel is the strongest.  Regardless of the metal content, it is best to not leave a pin in your fabric any longer than necessary.  Why?  Simple – you do not want to take a chance that it should rust due to the moisture in your air.  In most climates, this is not a significant concern but those with a salty environment may want to be cautious.

In closing, I will share the best advice I found on pins: use only the best and toss the rest. If a pin becomes bent, dull or rusted, throw it out.  Don’t ruin your beautiful project with a bad pin.

Now before moving away from the discussion of pins, I will briefly mention pin holders.  In my childhood days, I remember pins coming in folded paper that held an insert of a metallic insert for the pins.  When Mom got new pins, I would remove each pin and put it into a pin cushion.  Later, they came in plastic boxes and we used and stored the pins right in that box.  These are both good ways to hold your pins, yet with the passage of time, we now find that there are magnetic pin holders that I am learning to be very convenient.  Besides holding your pins securely, you can actually move it closely over the pins and the pins will “jump” onto the holder.  Which pin holder you choose to use is a matter of personal preference.

As an alternative to pinning binding, you can use binding clips.  Binding clips were originally metal clips that snap in place to hold the binding until it has been sewn into place.  But more recently, quilters are turning to the plastic clips that look like miniature clothes pins to me.  You will find a number of them available on the market and many refer to them as “Wonder Clips.”

It’s time for a new subject: needles.  Needles are used for both hand and machine sewing.  I will start with sewing machine needles.  I could repeat here the excellent information found in a Craftsy article, but instead, I suggest that you read the article, How to Choose Sewing Machine Needles.  It states clearly what you need to know about the needles for your sewing machine.

So that brings us to the needles you will use for hand sewing.  In general, you want is a needle that feels comfortable, glides through the fabric, has an eye that you can thread, doesn’t bend and is the right size for the fabric you are sewing.  When it comes to size, the larger the number on the package, the shorter and thinner the needle. 

Sharps are the general purpose needles used for most sewing, appliqué, and mending.  A Between or Quilting needle is shorter and easily controlled.  They usually have a small eye, but you can find some with larger eyes for easier threading.  A Milliners needle is longer and is used more often for basting and gathering.  The Embroidery or Crewel needle is the same length as a Sharp but has a larger eye to assist when inserting multiple thread through the eye.

While talking about threading needles, let’s visit the subject of needle threaders.  The style most of us have seen have a thin wire loop that is inserted through a needle’s eye.  With the loop inserted in the eye, you work the thread into the wire loop.  Carefully pull the wire loop and the thread back through the needle’s eye and remove the thread from the wire loop.  Now your needle is threaded.

But if you are like me, you’ve probably on occasion broke the wire loop of the needle threader.  Now, though, there is a new style of needle threader that uses a hook rather than a wire loop.  I found this style at Hobby Lobby but I am sure you can find it in many retail locations.  It works basically the same as the other style except that you will insert the hook through the needle’s eye.  But be aware, just as you can potentially break the wire loop, you can bend the hook of this newer style of needle threader.  Which one you choose is a matter of personal preference.

One other tool I will mention briefly here is a thimble.  Thimbles come in a variety of shapes, sizes and are made of all different kinds of materials.  Which one is right for you is the one that is comfortable and fits what you are willing to spend.  Though it is hard to get used to a thimble initially, once you are comfortable with it, the thimble will protect you (and your work from blood stains!) while giving you better control.  Enough said!

What thread we use for our quilt projects make all the difference in the look and the results of the finished product.  Rather than go into all the details about threads here, I am again going to refer you to another excellent article of Craftsy titled All about Threads: Threads for Piecing and Quilting.

A related product is thread conditioner.  A thread conditioner makes thread easier to work, reducing tangling.  As I have not used one, I suggest that you research any conditioner that you are considering to ensure that it will not adversely affect your project.  I have to admit, though, that after fighting many thread tangles over the years, I may check out this product.

Now just as we sew, we also rip.  Inevitably, we will make a mistake and must undo what we did and correct our mistake.  I have a good friend, a fellow quilter, who explained one day that this is “unsewing.”  If you have to “unsew,” then you will need a seam ripper.  A seam ripper consists of a handle, a shaft and a head.  The head is usually forked and one side tapers to fit under the narrowest of stitches.  You can slide the tapered end under the stitch, cutting it and leaving the cut threads to pick out before resewing the seam.  There is also a way to use the ball side of the fork to cut a continuous line of threads, but you must be especially careful to ensure you do not cut a hole in your fabric in the process.  What style you choose is up to you, but regardless, always use this tool carefully to avoid damage to the fabric.

That’s all for this week’s post.  Next week, we will wrap up the series on Tools for the Trade!


Barb Bergquist along with husband, Ron, own A Block Away Quilt Shop.  A dedicated quilter with more than 25 years of experience, she is now actively sharing her love of quilting through the work in her shop.

Contact Us:

Phone: (956) 638-1961
Location: A Block Away Quilt Shop
                 2706 N. 10th Street
                 McAllen, TX 78501
Hours: Mon-Sat: 9AM-9PM, Sun: 10AM-6PM
Email: barb@ablockaway.com


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