Tool Time

posted in: Organisation | 30

Did you ever watch hilarious American sit com Home Improvement?

Tool TIme Tim Taylor
Tim Taylor’s Tool Time

I really loved the show – in it Tim Taylor has a programme called Tool Time and he is really pretty useless as a DIYer. Lots of explosions, casual sexism; apart from his exasperated and disapproving wife I also loved his introverted assistant Al, and Wilson the neighbour. But the show’s huge success owes a lot to the notion of Man – interested in sport, fast cars, taking charge, fixing stuff and Power Tools. Women’s sewing equipment is a different matter. We don’t use words like Power Tools, even if we employ electricity.

I do think men and women have a different attitude to tools that may go back to the beginning of time. Women are generally only credited with invented weaving, maybe knitting, whereas men get to claim all the cool stuff – fire, speed, hard metals, killing equipment, etc.

Years ago, when the kids were little and iPhones hadn’t been invented,  I had a real run-of-the-mill camera. I tried to take pictures of the usual things – landscapes, portraits, still life etc. And then I really tried hard to photograph insects and flowers, close up. And after a number of frustrating attempts my (then) husband John told me I needed a special lens – a macro lens – to get the type of close-ups I wanted to achieve. He found it rather sweet that I was struggling with a problem for a while without realising that all I needed was a different piece of equipment! He offered to buy me a new lens but I figured I wasn’t that keen on getting the shots. If it wasn’t technically feasible I would concentrate on all the other things I could do with a camera.

 Stretch is a book by Scott Sonenshein (thanks for bringing it to my attention Steph!).

He writes: “The problem is: We routinely overestimate the importance of acquiring resources but even more significantly underestimate our ability to make more out of those we have.” I am not sure I need to read a whole book about this but I immediately recognised the two personality types – he calls us “stretchers” who make the most of the resources they have against “chasers” who acquire resources systematically.  “Most of our time and energy get spent looking for tools and not actually putting nails into walls,” he argues. This can make us dissatisfied as we feel the need to keep up with the Jones who have more or better stuff. As we get more we lose track of it or it goes to waste.  If we stretch instead we see our limitations as an opportunity – I don’t have any red buttons – can I make a feature of white ones? Or cover some in fabric? Or use nail varnish (no – that one doesn’t work!)

Maybe I am flattering myself with the idea that I am a stretcher.

I bought white silk for a time, painting designs on it rather than buying fresh cloth every time and creating waste. Sometimes making do helps you to think creatively about using one tool for several purposes rather than a specific tool (we have an avocado tool that scoops and slices – but a spoon and knife is just as good). At work I generally adopt the principle that we can do what we need without additional resources eg relying on consultants. We rarely put money aside for any project – our philosophy is just to stretch the resources we already have. In other arenas, without the special tools we can become more innovative and creative. Having less can encourage us to invent or solve problems. If we don’t have too much we find ways to reuse what we have – the slum dwellers of Rio became excellent recyclers of rubbish to make a living.  All this is trite and rather obvious.

So I have been fascinated to consider what this has meant for me as I have been working with my husband to complete my new sewing room. My existing area had been a small corner in the kitchen of our London flat. As we collaborate to create the new area I have watched him in his very well-equipped work shop where he seems to have a tool for every task known to man. He bought a job lot of tools and didn’t even know what all of them were for. Our (builder) friend Symon said one of them is for “cutting letter boxes in any size or shape”. How we laughed. But I really don’t want to criticise at all – I am the beneficiary, and doing the job well gives him pleasure. But I was struck by the difference in attitude we have to equipping ourselves.

Making sewing cupboards
Nick in his workshop – see that tool belt and those dungarees?

So I am interested to hear your views. Do you make do and mend, or are you a top-of-the-range purchaser who likes the very best equipment? Are your skills in advance of your tools, or vice versa? Do you think men behave fundamentally differently in this regard, and if so why? Are you prepared to learn with second hand shabby tools, and then splash out only when you are frustrated by the results. Or do you blame your tools? And those who make a living from sewing – what is your attitude to equipment?




30 Responses

  1. Catherine Daze

    Some sewing tools make an enormous difference: I pressed sleeves using a towel wrapped round a rolled up magazine for years, but a sleeve roll is much easier to use. Others are just gimmicks. The trouble is telling the difference before you buy them! I used to accumulate lots but now I’ve worked out which ones are most use and don’t feel the need to buy a lot of new ones any more. I would generally only buy something if I have a specific job on hand that really needs it.

    In my experience it’s not a particularly male/female thing; it’s something that can evolve as your life changes. There’s certainly a lot of fun to be had with collecting gadgets but right now I’d rather use the space and the money for other things.

  2. Annemarie

    I do like some of my sewing tools, like my sleeve ironing board – I press way more than just sleeves there and it really improves the garment. E.g. a garment doesn’t hang off the ironing board while I iron a detail, but drapes from the sleeve board onto the ironing board without stretching out.

    I also think that it is harder to make do in woodworking than sewing. I have build a couple of furniture pieces (my bed, a shoe bank) and have really struggled missing some essential tools. Maybe there are techniques that substitute for tools (in sewing a french seam can substitute for a serger), but sometimes in woodworking the tool has paid for itself after first use. A botched woodworking project is a huge amount of money, time and space gone down the drain. That said, I also tried to stretch my resources when woodworking, especially since I know it is not my no.1-hobby and can never be, simply because I don’t need new furniture.
    While both approaches have value, I believe the golden path is somewhere in the middle.

    • fabrickated

      I guess you are right about woodworking needing better equipment. But of course in the medieval times cathedrals were built mainly with hand tools. It maybe because men have (generally) more resources and more power that they design and “need” better equipment. Our willingness to rely on what we have maybe due to our relative poverty and less power. Just a thought.

  3. eimear

    I think I would be a mix – I have the same measuring tape since I was 17 training as a cutter (its one of those with the 3inch of brass so you could measure the inside leg more discreetly) and I deliberately keep my tools simple, and thought out (at 18 I asked for a steam iron for my birthday as I had found they gave a better press with wool) at 20 I had money to buy an electric machine but justified my purchase by making an 800 piece patchwork on a hand machine first! I only bought a proper shears last year as I never found the right feel with other ones….and I still dont use it all the time! (I am a creature of habit and take a while to adapt to the feel of new tools)

    I tend to try and consider a purchase but one time I was deliberating over whether I would buy a cast iron griddle pan and my friend asked why and I said I like the charred lines on veg – and he made the analogy if it genuinely gave added value to something I enjoyed doing then I should buy it as indulging your passion and knowing the value of doing what you love is so important. He is an artist and use work in an art store in Oz and said the easiest people to sell quality goods to were surfers who took up painting, as surfers knew the value of good quality equipment, and the value of doing what you love well.

    • fabrickated

      What a lovely thoughtful comment Eimear. Buying more mindfully is important – to consider if we really want it. I find I will think about it for a few weeks and if I still want it I will buy it.

  4. Elaine Sabin-Simpson

    Interesting! I had to learn to stretch as I never, ever had money to spare until many years into my sewing journey. Even now, I wince at the very thought of buying big fancy sewing machines [although I long for a coverstitch just because I sew so many knits now]
    I used folded towels forever and a day until I got my tailor’s ham about five years ago. In fact, many of the bits and bobs I have now have only been bought in the last 5 or 6 years, despite making clothes for nearly forty. Blimey.
    Most of my indispensable tools are small things though- beeswax, silicon thimble, various needle threaders…my Ernest Wright shears delight me every time I look at them, as does my vintage Singer’s button hole attachment.
    Even in the kitchen I only have a very few indulgent quality tools- my food processor was a big treat out of the house-sale after my divorce, and my posh food mixer was part of the wedding prep [all those gateaux!]. My absolute must have kitchen gadget is my lemon zester though! [I’ve even convinced my mum to get one!]

    • fabrickated

      I am not sure it is actually about having money or not. I have always thought spending was more about priorities than absolutes, but I could be wrong. Some of my tenants who have very low incomes are always nicely dressed and have the best brand new baby equipment (stuff I didn’t buy as I thought it was a waste of money,eg baby bath, bumpers on a cot, nike trainers etc) but maybe never have a holiday. And I am the same as you in terms of not wanting to spend too much on fabric – I think some of us just have a tolerance level of what we find reasonable, and good value.

      Most sewing stuff is relatively inexpensive actually, isn’t it? This month I bought a gadget for slicing button holes after I struggled with scissors on my pink jacket. I had never wanted or needed one before, but I bought one. But it was about £7 I think.

      I am not even sure what a zester is – I just grate them on the other side of the cheese grater.

  5. Kim

    I am a stretcher by nature (and like Fairy of many years of necessity) but I’m prepared to buy a tool if it will make a significant difference to the ease or finish of a job. However I do smart at some obviously unnecessary ‘aids’.

  6. Mary Funt

    First of all, I am in awe of Nick’s workshop. What a great space and I hope you will have something similar in your new house. I assume he’s working on the cabinets and they look spectacular; you NEED those in your sewing room. I’m a mix of make do versus get the best equipment you can. I have a Bernina embroidery machine but purchased an older model on EBay for about 20% of the cost of a new one. The older models work just fine and I didn’t need a dealer holding my hand. I made many of my own pressing tools (ham, seam roll, tailors buck) because I could make them better and cheaper than what was available. On the other hand I will buy the best scissors (love my Kai tailoring shears) and have a professional steam iron with vacuum table. Fabrics are also a splurge as quality does make a difference but I make classic things and wear them forever. I recently attended an embroidery software class at the Bernina dealer and met quite a few women who had purchased a machine way beyond their abilities; maybe the dealer convinced them the machine would magically make the clothing.

    • fabrickated

      Hi Mary – this is the workshop attached to our new house. Nick wasn’t able to do any serious woodwork in the old house. Just a bit of making models and repair work. It is interesting to read about your attitude to tools. You kindly gave me the best needles and basting threads, whereas I had always “made do”. But I laughed at the idea of women buying a fancy machine that would somehow enable them to make great clothes – maybe this fantasy is what marketing and shopping is all about?

  7. Lynn Mally

    I’m a low tech person, and so is my husband. We are not big on tools, but then again we have to hire people to fix everything beyond the most basic repair. In my sewing area, I have a lot of pressing tools…but my machine is on the simple side.

  8. Dagmar

    Your husband’s workshop is a thing of beauty. Not only well provisioned, but also impeccably organized and clean. I don’t think I have ever seen one quite so perfect other than a printed advertisement! I suppose my admiration puts me in the camp of chasers except that I have come to learn that having the best in equipment does not necessarily result in the best of production. I believe that drive and discipline are more important to the final outcome except at the most advanced level. My sewing machine is a case in point for this argument. I am a strong seamstress with good knowledge in both tailoring and party wear. I have a top of the line Bernina and it has not improved my sewing one iota. It is filled with features that bamboozled my better judgement at the time of purchase and which I do not make use of. As it is so complex, it is not as easy to sew with as my older, less complex machines. In fact it often stares me down in my sewing room and fills me with guilt when I chose to use my vintage singer instead because my task is small or of short duration! I am now quite reluctant to buy new and improved items if I am satisfied with the level of quality that I can produce with my existing tools. Nevertheless, my eye is easily attracted by new, shiny things and it is an ongoing battle to rein myself in. I sometimes think that having the luxury of being able to buy whatever we want can actually be a curse in terms of our happiness and contentment.

  9. Erika Otter

    I am a stretcher for sure – I’m with the person above who irons over a folded towel rather than a ham – but I will say that GOOD tools make a huge difference. It’s not so much the number as the quality. I got a scissors sharpener for xmas last year and that is an AWESOME tool that makes my other simple tools better.

  10. SJ Kurtz

    I am very put off by your premise, which is putting it lightly. I also value your virtual friendship and your opinions.

    I think that we know and love what we learn and grow up with. You and I are not so different in age or class or education (despite the geographical difference) but what we were taught was different. I grew up in the ‘handy’ household, with a workshop, taught by my engineer dad, and I love all the power tools. I am grateful my dad was ahead of the curve on shop safety especially in regards to overexposure to noise and inhalants (I still have my dad’s table saw and his homemade dust collection system, all made in 1956, and it’s still running like a top because I take good care of it). I also grew up in the other end of the house, in front of the sewing machine with my lab tech mom, who taught me to make things fit me, “the dress looks good on you, not the other way around”. I love a well made tool like some people love a sunset or a painting. It fills me with love and hope. The hardware store and the sewing store are places of infinite possibilities. I was the luckiest girl in the world because I was taught that I can learn to do anything.

    I did not learn how to cook. 😉

    • fabrickated

      I am always fascinated by what you make and actually your confidence with equipment I admit to being a bit scared of. You push the boundaries every day SJ! My Dad was not like yours. He didn’t even clean his own shoes. He was a great Dad – he was funny, kind, affectionate, successful at work and generous to a fault. But I never saw him make anything, although his mother (he had three sisters and no brothers) taught him to knit, and he could dye fabric (he was in the textile business). And fly a plane. He was good at navigation and languages and had a huge interest in current affairs. It strikes me now that the ridiculous division of men’s and women’s work diminishes us all. You are an inspiration.

  11. Linda


    Thank you for your always thoughtful posts. Both my husband and I are interested in tools, but he needs them to be more top of the line that I do. His shop is much like your husband’s, full of Festool goodies and prepared for every project that might come his way. Like you, I am his only and best customer, so I am not criticizing – it makes him happy. I love tools too but I descend from practical Scots so I am more of a stretcher. Having recently read the Kondo tidying book, I really question new acquisitions. Yes, a fancy embroidery machine or cover stitch would be nice, but I seem to do fine with my low-level Bernina machine and serger. Love those Kai scissors, but luckily for me, most other sewing tools are pretty affordable so I won’t say I’m not tempted occasionally by a new seam ripper or notch clipper, but that’s about it. Now fabric and patterns, on the other hand, I do accumulate, but those aren’t tools!

  12. Kerry

    I think Nick might be a measure twice, cut once kind of guy, and I suspect that means he likes to have the right tools for the job. His workshop is extremely tidy! Maybe he is something of a perfectionist? My husband likes new tools, but is not as confident in the execution of projects as he would like. But he always does a great job once he has nutted out the problems (which has to be done in his head). March 2015 I was away from home for a month and he decided to tackle the stairs which desperately need the paint completely stripped from the sides (whatever those little triangles are called). All of the ‘stuff’ is still there, gathering dust. Don’t ask.

    Personally, I like to try to improvise first rather than race of to get the latest gadget. Having said that though, purchasing a walking foot was one of the best purchases I have made. I have also recently treated myself to the (new to me) interchangeable knitting needles and cables and I am happy to spend the money as I know it has made life that much easier.

  13. Karen Kayes

    Another interesting, enjoyable thoughtful post from you Kate. I’ve not heard of describing resource acquisition in this way, but instantly recognised my type. Nick must get some confidence from having the right tools and that is so very important when tackling anything challenging. It looks like he’s very well equipped to do his work and takes things seriously. As a chaser I get comfort in having the best tools at hand to do a quality (but not necessarily perfect) job. It doesn’t mean I don’t stretch either. My sewing machine is a good quality, but fairly basic model, and I mostly buy the more expensive items second hand, but I do love a good time-saving tool. I was brought up in a household with very little spare cash, but now that I have more money I can indulge my love of the practical and beautiful. I also worked in manufacturing for many years and learned that working efficiently can be so very satisfying. Time is precious and I don’t want to waste it with shoddy tools or poor processes. I hate losing momentum on a project because the tools aren’t up to the job, so I bought lots of feet for my machine early on, as well pressing tools such as a ham and a sleeve roll. In reality you really don’t need to spend a lot of money to do a decent job in the sewing world. The price/quality of fabric is way more important once you master the necessary skills.

  14. ceci

    So interesting, the comments as well as Kate’s original reflections. I can identify both tendencies in my own approaches – I have been saying for some time that my urgent need is to reduce what I have rather than acquire more and that is working out just fine in many ways.

    On the other hand I love finding what I think I need already around the house. BUT one can take the Stretcher approach too far – my mid-90s mom has 2 broken plastic laundry baskets that she lugs clothes out to the line in, and that I bring her bedding laundry to my house in. They are falling apart, and have no emotional significance that I can imagine. But, she says, they are “good enough” and if I want to replace them maybe I should stop helping her with the bedding laundry instead? I can see all kinds of background motivations, a generally oppositional personality (hers, not mine? Or both…..), Depression era childhood, no cultural value attached to women’s work, blah blah, but broken tools make no logical sense to me. On the other hand my Chaser side is sometimes seized with a conviction that I will be somehow happier if I acquire something new, frequently these days something major (real estate! bathroom redo! another dog!) but sometimes minor (a house plant….) . I try to mindful either way and so far am staving off a second dog acquisition.

    I so enjoy these discussions!


  15. jay

    Some do a lot with a little, some do a little with a lot. Somewhere in the middle are those who focus on getting just what they need. Resources are an issue, space a bigger one. I don’t want a coverstitch machine because I don’t have the space to keep it readily available, and the thought of threading up something else for one part of a garment is off putting. I sew pretty much everything on a Bernina Sport bought decades ago, and can’t say I often wish for something higher spec. I think woodworking is different in so far as you need to make so much more of a physical effort and put in so much more time with basic tools. I’ve helped daughters putting up shelves etc without some of the gear DH has in our house, and it is a pain. A rechargeable electric screwdriver saves hours.

  16. Aida

    I love this article Kate, it gives food for thought. After I started sewing I’ve become totally obsessed in the right tools as I think they make a big difference in the end result, like the topstitching foot, as much as i would try to be careful I would have never get the result I have now without the foot. When possible I prefer a handmade tool, for example my father made for me a tailor’s board which is not perfect at all as he literally had no tools to make it but I don’t mind and because it is made by my dad this tool is going to stay for me forever and I’m not changing it wiith a perfect store bought one.
    p.s. i used to watch that film as a child and i loved it,

  17. Anne Frances

    This is very interesting. I find myself torn between the sense that some things come out much more easily and better when done with good tools, and other things do not need them. My husband has a relatively small tool box (some of it inherited from his father) and some resistance to buying tools for a specific job, but when he tiled kitchen and bathroom he bought an electric tile-cutter and did the job much more easily than he expected and at least as well as professional tilers we have also used. As a child of 40s and 50s austerity my instinct is to “make-do” but I have learnt that sometimes the effort and slightly “botched” outcome would be much mitigated by the right equipment. I tend to resist sewing “gadgets” but I have found that using specialised presser feet on my machine has produced much improved results – for example a walking foot – or the IDT on my Pfaff – a piping foot for piping and an “edge joining” foot that, combined with the adjustable needle position, gave me very much better edge/top stitching. My biggest purchase recently was probably a set of interchangeable knitting needles and cables, and I have got a great deal of use out of them. So I haven’t myself experienced a gender gap in this area, and tend to think that the best tool of all is careful and good judgement about cost/benefit.

  18. Pam

    My parents were both stretchers by necessity, but when my mother, who in those days sewed most of our clothes and her own, bought a new sewing machine, my dad was part of the decision to buy high quality. (This was before sergers were sold for home sewing.) I have slowly collected some good tools for my knitting, but also have some of my grandmothers’ old needles and such, most of which I don’t use. Sometimes though, she had the perfect thing.

    A side-note is that there is a difference between good tools and gadgets. For whatever reason, the kitchen has attracted both. A good quality stand mixer (like a Kitchenaid) is a tool. Good knives are certainly tools. But some cutting and slicing gizmos are gadgets – less useful and likely to collect dust in place of either a good knife or maybe a decent food-processor.

  19. mrsmole

    My approach to buying supplies/machines/notions is “how many hours of labor will this take to pay for itself”. Every article has to be producing a benefit to my business or it doesn’t get to live here. Everything has to last a lifetime so what I have is basic and durable and repairable and kept running with annual servicing. All my kitchen tools are from 1971 and still working and knives are kept sharpened. I keep cars past their sell-by date as well and would still be driving my 1976 Oldsmobile station wagon if some woman hadn’t run through a red light and totaled it after 14 good years of service. Maybe it depends how you were raised, my parents barely survived the Depression, my father was left at an orphanage at age 11, so there was never an abundance of anything.

  20. Su

    I will buy more expensive, high end equipment if its use will be justified by frequent use. Otherwise, I’m okay with middle of the road quality. Although I gulp at the price of buying $20+ Addi turbo circular knitting needles I’m only buying them in a size that I know I will use often, but what a joy to use with the slick surface and smooth flexible cable. I won’t buy expensive knitting needles if I know it’s very likely for only one use. Quality can make a big difference in the pleasure of an activity. My dad was never one for buying high end/ expensive of anything. If he could get it second hand he would. He bought a canoe and two paddles second hand. At a friend’s cottage I tried her expensive canoe paddle – had a completely different shape and taper to the blade and was probably lighter- was so much more pleasurable and made it easier to steer.

  21. Karen

    This very interesting post got me thinking about my sewing equipment. I consider myself an accomplished sewist and value good equipment but have to chuckle at my friends buying ridiculously expensive sewing machines. I’ve always purchased second hand machines of my preferred brand (Pfaff). I also have a large cutting table with large mats that are rotary safe and a good Oliso iron and basic serger machine. With these items and my 60 years of sewing experience I can sew almost anything. My SIL has an extensive wood working shop but nothing was purchased new and he makes lovely, quality items. I guess my point being that it is the creator that makes fine items and not the machines.

  22. Helen

    Nick’s workshop looks great. My husband is a carpenter and he’d love that space. His workshop is our garage. Due to a big job at the moment my bike is in the kitchen.
    My husband is really into the traditional way of making things. He has modern equipment but routinely makes his own tools to work a certain way. He also likes to use old tools and a few years ago found a local charity who collect old tools to send to Africa, they also sell what they have. He often comes home with old chisels and those two-man saws. Some things get used, others are cleaned up and mounted on the wall in his workshop.
    When it comes to me sewing I just seem to make do with equipment I have had for years, the overlocker is 30 years old and still going strong. About 3 years ago I asked for a cutting mat and rotary cutter for a birthday present and they are fab and get a lot of use. Sleeve board and tailors ham are two things that I use a lot but were reasonably inexpensive.

  23. Pamela

    A tidy, organized workshop such as your husband’s, enables one to work efficiently. My husband is a stretcher, so he was quite shocked at the efficiencies availed to him by the tools left behind when one carpenter went to jail and the other to rehab. DH was able to finish all the tile work with the tile cutter left behind; and the abandoned table saw and nail gun were a huge improvement in finishing the remaining carpentry in my sewing room. He was shocked at how the nail gun made doing trim so much faster!

    I suspect I am a combination stretcher/chaser. I learned to sew on a treadle machine. I studied the manual and learned to use all the attachments and feet. The ruffler, binder and the screw in guide bar were useful and improved my speed. In college I received a 3/4 head portable machine with which I was able to use the treadle attachments. The portable machine suited my life in my twenties. Later, as my skills improved, in order to sew heavier weight fabrics, I needed a stronger machine, so I bought a used Elna with cams. I was in my mid 30s before I was able to buy a new machine. I am now on my third Bernina. It is not a top of the line by choice, but it does have the power, features – needle down, knee presser foot lifter, and stitch quality I need for the sewing I do. I find that a variety of feet and attachments, none of which are really new inventions, do the most for my sewing. The reality is, I could easily turn out a good product using just my old treadle machine. It will sew through anything!

    That said, 5 years ago I purchased a gravity feed iron with a vacuum board. Due to heavy iron use, I was having to buy a new iron every year; I hated that most modern irons have an auto-off feature. After seeing a demonstration of a gravity feed iron and vacuum table, I did my homework and ordered one from Amazon. This iron and board takes my sewing and even shirts to a whole new level. Not only is my pressing more crisp and professional, but it goes so much faster. Woolens are easier to tailor and silks easier to control. I wish I had bought a gravity iron decades ago. But again, I am not sure that this is new technology, only technology finally available to the home user. I find that my sewing goes so much faster in a well organized and spacious workspace. Having a cutting table of the right height and size is so much an improvement over cutting on the dining room table or the floor. In general, I wish I had had all these tools years ago, especially as sewing is my favourite pastime.

    So, for sewing I find that high quality, if not high tech equipment, is worth the investment for both efficiency and quality of output. For a carpentry, high tech advances have made big improvements in speed and quality. As one might expect, a home craftsperson whose tools approach the professional level will do a better job.

    Thank you for bringing up this concept. It is smart to consider what actually improves the quality and output of one’s hobbies/endeavors. I always tell new sewers to buy a high quality used machine. This was after trying to teach a young lady to sew on a brand new, wretched, cheap, big box store sewing machine. I ended up telling her even I couldn’t sew on that machine.

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