Why make your own outdoor gear? Well, why not?
If you like to sew and you spend time in the outdoors, you have probably considered making your own gear. Nothing beats saying, “I made it myself!” You may some save money and you will have something custom-made just the way you want it. I have found that the biggest challenges for outdoors “sewists” (as we call ourselves these days) is where to get what you need and how to find the techniques needed for a particular project. I have been sewing professionally and making gear for myself and my family for many years. Over the years, I have been on a quest for information on sewing outdoor clothing and gear. I have read books, picked people’s brains, taken things apart, and used trial and error in order to learn the best techniques. Many of these techniques and tips are not covered in traditional sewing resources, so I have created this section to share what I know. If you would like to read about Specialty Outdoors, my outdoors sewing business, visit About Specialty Outdoors
Note: If you are looking for pages that were on the old site, know that those articles will be updated and will reappear as blog entries over the next few months.
Here you will find tips on
- Sewing Machines
- Industrial Machines and Sergers
- Needles and Thread
- Finding Fabric and Notions
For most projects, any sewing machine will do. Be sure that it has been cleaned and oiled recently, and that the needle is new, sharp, correctly sized, and properly positioned. You will be able to determine how powerful your machine is by observing how it responds to multiple layers of heavy fabrics such as denim. Power should not be an issue unless you are planning to work with heavier fabrics such as Cordura® or webbing. A good zig-zag stitch and a buttonholer are very nice to have. Many other stitches come in handy, such as a three-step zig-zag, but they are not necessary: more is not necessarily better in the stitch department.
What machine should you buy? I have no specific recommendations, but here are some things to think about. Consider a used machine if you are just getting started. Many great machines get traded in for the newest technology, which means you can get a good buy on a gently used machine. Some older, all-metal Kenmores and Singers are real workhorses, but be careful. Take fabric samples with you, and test, test, test. Buying from a dealer will get you lessons, training, classes, service, and support; buying from a big box store will give you none of this.
The problems with using a home machine are generally the following: not enough piercing power for many heavy fabrics, an inability to feed difficult and thick fabrics properly, and an inability to use the extremely heavy (upholstery nylon) thread that is recommended for strength. Again, here is where you need to know your sewing machine’s “personality.” Some home sewing machines will handle anything that comes their way, while others will give you fits. If you decide you need an industrial machine, watching the classified ads is a great way to find one.
Sergers and Industrial Machines
A serger (or overlocker) is a specialized sewing machine that trims and finishes a seam simultaneously. It uses a blade to trim the seam allowance and a series of needles and loopers to finish the seam allowance so it won’t ravel. If you look inside almost any knit or ready-to-wear garment, you will see a serged seam. A home serger is a wonderful addition to any sewing room, especially if you sew Lycras, knits, or fleece. It is not necessary though, and is no substitute for a regular machine. If you are considering a new serger, consider looking at one that has a cover-stitch option. This is a very professional looking stitch that is perfect for hemming and finishing knits of all kinds. You will see a cover stitch on the hem of a t-shirt, for example.
An industrial sewing machine is a heavy-duty machine. If you are going to be sewing heavy materials, multiple thicknesses of heavy fabrics, or quantities of items, an industrial machine might be a good investment. Industrial machines are powerful and fast, and because they are typically more suited to single tasks than regular machines are, there are many different types. A typical industrial will do 2,000+ stitches per minute compared to 600 to 800 on a home sewing machine. An industrial also has a separate motor, usually 1/3 to 1/2 horsepower, and is built into a large table that takes up quite a bit of space. Upholstery “walking foot” machines are very tough, but the range of material is limited to heavy and heavier. A needle feed is a good choice that will handle a wide range of fabrics, from light to heavy.
Poor thread probably ruins more projects than anything else. You must use a top-quality, 100% polyester thread. Stay away from the inexpensive thread found in all fabrics stores. It is very weak and will shred and rot. For sewing anything heavy, such as packs and webbing, heavy-duty nylon is recommended; #69 nylon is commonly used in the industry. If you can find a nylon upholstery thread, it will be very similar. Another good size of thread is a #40 cotton-poly thread (tex-40) or #30, which is often used for clothing and tents. You can get it from WAWAK. You must use a big needle with these threads, at minimum a #14 or 90. The problem that most people have with heavier thread is that the bobbin case machining in a home machine does not allow for the extra thickness of the thread, causing all sorts of bobbin jams and bird’s nests on the underside of the fabric. Potential solutions include loosening your bobbin tension (only for the experienced) or purchasing a separate bobbin case just for heavy-duty thread. For example, I absolutely cannot run heavy nylon #69 in my Bernina, but I can use #30 or #40.
Using needles that are old or the wrong size is another source of problems and frustration. A good rule of thumb is to put in a new needle for every project. Synthetic fabrics dull needles very quickly, so you may even want to change halfway through a project. Needles can develop burrs that will damage the fabric by cutting the threads as you sew. Choose the correct size; don’t just assume that any needle will work. I typically use a #90 or #100. If you are having problems with your thread shredding or stitches skipping, check your needle size. Old thread is another source of problems. It will break down with time, becoming very weak. If you have inherited sewing supplies, consider buying new thread for your projects.
Mail order is the best option for patterns for making your own outdoor clothing and equipment. Although there is a terrific selection of patterns available, chances are that your local fabric store doesn’t carry them. You may have to modify an existing pattern to get what you want. Check the Sources page for retailers that carry these patterns:
Sources: listing of retailers of outdoors fabrics for US, Canada and Europe
Finding outdoors fabrics has traditionally been the biggest challenge. If you are looking for a specific fabric, mail order is your best option. Many terrific companies have everything you need for outdoor sewing projects: patterns, notions, and hardware. In my experience, though, you will get the best products and the best prices, plus knowledgeable service, from mail-order specialists. They know the fabrics and understand end uses well. It also doesn’t hurt to “cruise” regular fabric stores; you just might get lucky.
Sewing Outdoor Gear: Easy Techniques for Outerwear That Works (Rochelle Harper; Taunton Press, 2001) If you are looking for information on making technically beautiful and functional outdoors clothing, this is the book for you.
Sew and Repair Your Outdoor Gear (Louise Lindgren Sumner; Mountaineers, 1989) This book contains good information and projects, but does not touch on fleece or waterproof-breathable fabrics.
Sew the New Fleece: Technique for Synthetic Fleece and Pile (Rochelle Harper; Taunton, 1997) This wealth of excellent information goes way beyond headbands and mittens.
Shirtmaking: Developing Skills for Fine Sewing (David Page Coffin; Taunton, 1993) Although it has nothing to do with outerwear, this book is terrific for helping you perfect your sewing skills.
Adventures with Polarfleece: A Sewing Expedition (Nancy Cornwell; Krause Publications, 1997) More great tips for going a little farther with fleece using unique zippers, fashion ideas, and embellishments.
The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing (Kathleen Fasanella; Apparel Technical Svcs, 1998) Anyone who wants to design, manufacture, and market their own sewn products must read this book. It is full of excellent information on production, marketing, sourcing, and contracting. If you are thinking about venturing into sewn gear production on any scale, this book will save you a great deal of time and money.
I can recommend a few other books if you like to read to learn. Many traditional sewing books focus on what I call “home ec” techniques, many of which do not apply to sewing outdoor items. The Singer Sewing Reference Library has excellent instructions and step-by-step photos for many good techniques. Three books you might look at are as follows:
- Sewing Essentials is a great basics book; if you are just getting started, this one is a very good investment.
- Sewing Activewear has good information on Lycra and simple outerwear.
- Sewing with an Overlock has lots of advice about using sergers.