Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Best Practices: The Rat's Nest

I only ever had one sewing lesson -- It was the free lesson on how to use my machine that came with my purchase.  I had been cobbling together curtains, throw pillows and tablecloths to outfit our new home for months on my mother's old Singer and a temperamental secondhand serger when SuperHusband said I could have a new sewing machine for my birthday.  We'd been married less than a year, and a $300 gift was no small thing.  (It still isn't -- If anything, we're cheaper since the kids came along.)

Spring 2002 felt so promising.  I don't think then that we ever conceived of how long our lives would be defined by the events of the previous fall.  We just loved being newlyweds.  So my beloved took me to the Delaware Sewing Center -- a cool little mom and pop-owned fabric shop and machine dealer with a great deal:  If we bought a machine and traded it within a year, they would give us full original purchase price credit towards the upgrade.  (I have no idea whether they do this anymore.)  SOLD!  For the next two years of our Dover Air Force Base assignment, I would get a new, higher end sewing machine on my birthday.  I'm still sewing on the Janome MC4800 he bought for me that last May before the military moved us to Florida.

Here's me with the first one:  You know you're totally jealous of those sweet PJs.   SuperHusband took the photo with our first digital camera.  It was probably like 1MP or something.  :)  He might've steered clear of the sewing center if he'd known then how thoroughly my addiction would take over the house.

I couldn't wait for that first lesson and still have samples of many of the stitch combinations she shared.  That whole first year I tried to make as many projects as I could to incorporate some of the techniques she taught me.  Though I sew constantly, I've forgotten so many of the little tricks and tips that she pulled from her vast mental archive for my sophomoric perusal.  So with her tutelage in mind, I want to share and document some of my best practices and those that others have passed on to me.

Changing Thread

Her most memorable admonishment?  "Never, ever pull your thread backwards through your machine."  She went on to tell me that when you change your thread, grabbing the spool at top and yanking the thread backwards pulled all kinds of lint and dirt into the delicate system of tension disks that allow the top thread to feed into the perfect stitch.  Instead, you should clip your thread next to the spool at the top of the machine, then grab it from the back of the needle and pull it through in its intended direction.

Snip the thread at the top of the machine, near the spool.

Remove it from the bottom by pulling through the needle.


The Rat's Nest

I understood the point of that rule, but the more I sewed, the more wasteful it seemed to me to pull a 12-18 in piece of perfectly good thread out of the machine and throw it away.  So I stopped...throwing it away, that is.  I still clip my thread and pull it out of the machine from the needle, but when I'm done, I twirl it around my fingers to make a little circle, and drop it into a paper plate I keep beside my machine.  I call it the rat's nest (pictured at the top of this post), because that's what my mother used to call my tangled mop when she tried to brush my baby-fine hair out before bed at night.  These short cuts of thread are exactly the right length for handwork.  When I finish the last few inches of a throw pillow or a bag lining that requires hand-stitching, I head for the rat's nest before I cut new thread.  When I bind a quilt by hand, I check for the right color there first.

It's also a good little catch-all for tiny notions like needles, my box of Thread Heaven the size of a die and my mini snips...all tools, incidentally, that I need for hand sewing.  When I decide to move my hand sewing to the sofa or the sun porch, I already have everything I need right there in the rat's nest.  I just pick it up and bring it with me.  (It's become so indispensable, I even have a paper plate in my travel sewing bag for this purpose.  A little obsessive, right?)


Share What You Learn

I'll never forget the joy of that first new sewing machine and all the inspiration it brought with it.  My one and only sewing lesson served me well, and hopefully you've found something useful here, too.  The ingenuity of artists and people who sew amazes me, along with their elegant, common sense solutions to everyday problems.  If you have little tips or techniques you'd like to share, please leave them in a comment below or contact me at


  1. Great tips! I also liked your idea to stick a PostIt with the date/type of needle that you last changed in your machine. Because I know I'll never remember something like that. Thanks!

  2. Thanks! (Someone was paying attention in Gals' Gathering...) ;) I'll remember to include that one in my next best practices posting.


Thanks for leaving a comment! I have enabled comment moderation for posts older than 14 days to stop spammers from using my blog to advertise.