Even if you’re all thumbs, it’s nice to know how to sew on a button or fix a ripped hemline as a general life skill. For this, you need a basic (but good!) sewing kit, and we highly recommend the Merchant & Mills Rapid Repair Kit ($25).
You could, of course, buy separate sewing notions and keep them in your own bag or tin, as many DIYers do. A quick look through sewing blogs and Pinterest brings up hundreds of DIY projects for making your own sewing kit. The advantage to this is you can stock your kit with the specifics you want and higher-quality thread than most kits come with. That said, we think our top pick, the Merchant & Mills Rapid Repair Kit, will rival anything you could compile separately.
You should still get one of these. You should also read the “What makes a good sewing kit?” section first. In it, I explain what all these tools are, what they do, and what to look for. If you’re new to sewing or clothes repair, the rest of the guide will make a lot more sense.
I sew—a lot. My mom taught me when I was a kid, and I’ve been making my own clothing on and off for the past 20 years. Currently, I sew clothes for myself and my daughter and I chronicle my makes on my sewing blog. I’ve written tutorials for the popular home sewing and pattern website BurdaStyle, and I also host a sewing and textile podcast called Thread Cult.
Additionally, I worked as an editor on Martha Stewart’s Encyclopedia of Sewing and Fabric Crafts, for which I did quite a bit of research on sewing notions.
Despite a glut of sewing kits on the market, I was surprised that I didn’t find any comparative editorial reviews. In researching, I combed general consumer sites such as Consumer Reports and sewing-specific sites like Threads and BurdaStyle, as well as many sewing blogs, yet the most I found were reviews of a single kit.
This might have something to do with the fact that hardcore sewers, by and large, would never get a kit. Like chefs who buy specific kitchen knives, most avid home sewers usually invest in the specific tools they want in order to build their own kits.
Because of the lack of reviews, we decided we needed to do our own testing. From experience, we also knew that the notions in kits–the scissors, thread, and other tools–are usually not great. We thought about recommending an a la carte kit. However, we realized that most people don’t want to overthink this purchase and a kit makes things simple. As it turns out, our winning kit, the Merchant & Mills Rapid Repair Kit, has great tools, so we don’t feel it’s a compromise at all.
In our first round of testing, we settled on six kits—three travel and three full-size—that had recommendations from our sewing experts or Amazon reviewers or that looked to be better-than-average quality. For our second round of testing this fall, we called in three additional travel kits; two were highly rated on Amazon, and the third came from a new indie company making a high-quality kit comparable to the Merchant & Mills.
For testing, we first inspected the case that each kit came in. A messy sewing kit can be more work than it’s worth. If you’ve got a rat’s nest of tangled thread and loose pins and needles, the kit will be annoying to use. We wanted to find kits that held all the notions neatly and could be tossed into a drawer or dropped on the floor without all the tools coming out. We took all the notions out of each case and put them back in, noting whether everything could be replaced without fuss.
We inspected how the pins and needles were organized (was there a good pincushion or some other organizing method?) and noted how easy it was to thread the needles (was the eye too small to pass the thread?). We used the scissors to cut through medium-weight muslin and heavier-weight denim, and had both men and women use the scissors to see how they fit in different hands. We also used a needle and thread from each kit to sew running stitches in muslin and then used the seam ripper (if the kit came with one) to pick out the stitches. Additionally, we tested marking tools.
As we expected, most of the kits felt cheap, and we found that the Merchant & Mills Rapid Repair Kit is truly the best available for multiple reasons.
The Merchant & Mills Rapid Repair Kit ($25) has everything needed to make small sewing repairs with no added junk. In our test group, this was the simplest kit to keep organized, the thread was of higher quality than the thread in most other kits, the needles were easy to thread, it had the best pin and needle organization, and everything about this kit was very good-looking.
The tools in the Merchant & Mills kit were exactly what we needed to make small repairs. Most of the other kits came with more items—such as various colors of thread, more needles, and low-quality needle threaders—that we didn’t think we’d actually use and that took up extra space in the cases. We think every item in the Merchant & Mills kit will get used in the course of regular sewing repairs.
The Merchant & Mills kit was the easiest to keep organized. We could literally toss all the notions into the small tin case, and they still fit easily with no fuss. Most of the other travel kits have funky elastic straps that are supposed to keep everything organized, but we could see them breaking down the road (and then you’d end up with a mess). We could also see the zippered cases potentially falling apart over time. The one other tested travel kit that came in a tin didn’t fit all of its notions as nicely as the Merchant & Mills tin did. Two of the full-size kits had awkward and flimsy plastic cases that we didn’t love, while the last came with a zippered pouch that seemed both flimsy and garishly pink. We liked how neatly everything fit in the Merchant & Mills kit and it seemed that everything would stay organized for a long time, even if you’re not the neatest person.
We could easily thread the needles in the Merchant & Mills kit without using a needle threader. If you’re not familiar, a needle threader is a thin wire loop connected to a piece of tin used to more easily thread a very narrow needle. Generally, we’ve found that needle threaders break easily, and for most repairs you don’t need a needle with such a thin eye. We actually broke one of the needle threaders while testing another kit (see picture below) and generally liked that we didn’t need to use one with any of the Merchant & Mills needles. The four needles (in two sizes) in the Merchant & Mills kit are good, all-purpose sizes that will work on a variety of fabrics. Although that isn’t many needles, it’s enough to last a while. You can also always refill the vial if you run out.
The Merchant & Mills kit also had the best pin and needle organization of the kits we tried. The dress pins in this kit are actually pinned through a piece of paper and securely tucked into a small envelope. There’s very little risk of the pins getting loose. We also appreciate that the needles fit into a glass vial. The large kits come with low-quality pincushions that we didn’t love, and most of the travel kits have soft cloth interiors that could double as cushions. We think the Merchant & Mills set offers a more elegant alternative.
Lastly, we like how the Merchant & Mills Rapid Repair Kit looks. Its simple black tin case—about the size of a deck of cards—the stylish black and white labels, and the overall simplicity of the kit make it appealing to both men and women.
As with the other kits, we found no editorial reviews of the Merchant & Mills Rapid Repair Kit. It’s also not available on Amazon, so we weren’t able to find user reviews. However, this was the kit recommended to us by several sewing bloggers and it’s also sold at many indie fabric stores, which incidentally tend to be very picky about what notions they carry.
The only downside to this kit is the small size of the scissors. The three-inch scissors will snip thread and small pieces of fabric just fine, but you definitely won’t be able to cut through most fabric.
The handles on the scissors are also pretty small and may feel awkward for bigger hands. Despite their size, though, the scissors feel solid; they’re made of seamless pieces of metal, rather than blades glued into plastic handles like the flimsier versions we found in some of the other travel kits. The scissors in the kit we tested also had some sort of black gunk (perhaps paint residue?) that rubbed off on our hands. When we contacted Merchant & Mills about this, representatives told us that the company had recalled the kit because of this issue and that all the new kits should now have a “clean-as-a-whistle pair enclosed.”
Over the past 10 months, we have used the Merchant & Mills Rapid Repair Kit to make a few minor clothing repairs and have consistently been impressed with how easily all the tools fit in their box. The needles are easy to keep organized in their vial, and though we haven’t used the pins for any projects yet, they have stayed neatly tucked in their paper envelope. The scissors are still sharp, and the spools have plenty of thread.
I took the Merchant & Mills kit on one vacation, and it easily packed into a pocket of my luggage. Perhaps most impressive is how well the kit has held up to repeated toddler assaults. For this update, the kit sat on my desk for nearly a month, during which time my daughter repeatedly nabbed it and flung it with cavegirl fervor. Not once did the Merchant & Mills kit open from the tumbles it endured, and when I peeked inside, all the notions and thread still sat neatly in place.
The Great American Sewing Kit ($30) was the only other travel kit we tried that had high-quality tools and notions. Like our top pick, the Merchant & Mills Rapid Repair Kit, this kit comes in a sturdy tin and has two spools of thread (black and white). However, it also has a lot more needles (20) and buttons (11), a sturdier plastic measuring tape, and a needle threader. This kit’s 4-inch folding scissors are the best folding scissors we’ve ever tried. They smoothly collapse and expand, and they offer much more comfortable handling than the flimsy folding scissors included in the REI travel sewing kit.
The only real knock against this kit is that the notions tend to overcrowd the box (the buttons on paper cards, in particular, hog space). Every time we’ve closed this kit, thread from one of the spools has spilled out. We also weren’t convinced that the thimble dots—red plastic nubs meant to replace a regular metal thimble—were that useful. I immediately lost one and couldn’t get the remaining one to stick well on my finger. If we were to purchase this kit, we’d probably ditch the dots and string the buttons on some thin twine or a large bobby pin. Overall, though, this kit is leagues ahead of the glut of mediocre travel kits out there. The majority of the included tools and notions are made in the United States—thus the kit’s name.
We didn’t read any comparative reviews of this kit, and because it’s currently sold only on the Great American Sewing Kit website, we couldn’t find any user ratings.
The seam ripper was sharper and the pincushion bigger than in the two Singer sets we tested (the pins actually poked through the bottom of the Singer cushions, which is terribly annoying).
The Dritz kit doesn’t come with thread, but that doesn’t bother us because the thread in these kits is usually so mediocre. More importantly, this kit comes with tracing paper and a tracing wheel to transfer pattern markings onto fabric. If you sew clothing, these tools will prove more useful than the small spools of thread included in the other kits.
If we were purchasing this kit, we’d probably opt to store the tools in a different case or bag rather than use the plastic case they come with. The case is flimsy, and you have to perfectly place all of the notions in their particular spots for everything to fit properly.
Like our other kits, the Dritz Start-To-Sew Kit was not editorially reviewed. It’s the ninth top-rated kit on Amazon and received an average of 4.5 stars of 22 reviews.
Singer Beginner’s Sewing Kit ($9) is the set that Rachel Epperson sells at The Needle Shop. We found the notions mostly on par with the Dritz Start-To-Sew Kit, however the pincushion is slightly smaller and pins actually stuck through the bottom of the cushion.
We didn’t think we’d use the small spools of thread included in either of the Singer kits. The thread doesn’t seem like it’s very high quality for hand sewing and the spools are too small to use on a sewing machine. This kit comes with a zippered pouch that’s handy for keeping everything organized, but it felt cheap and the inside of the bag of the kit we tested was actually stained. The bag’s princess pink color was also a little off-putting (although maybe not for the tween who likes sewing clothes for American Girl Dolls).
The Singer 1512 Beginners Sewing Kit ($10) is essentially the same as the other Singer kit, except it doesn’t come with the pink bag and does come with an extra blue marking pencil. We found that the seam ripper in this kit was very poorly glued together. This is the second best-selling kit on Amazon and has four stars of 242 user reviews.
The bare-bones Raine Military Sewing Kit ($15) had the most basic setup we tried. Designed specifically to repair army fatigues, this kit is sold widely at army surplus stores. It has only one spool of strong tan thread, folding scissors, a couple of needles, safety pins, and a half dozen buttons. The zippered pouch is sturdy, and we like how compact the scissors fold; we think this would make a good kit for throwing in with camping gear. But as this kit lacks pins, black or white thread, and more delicate buttons, we don’t think this is the most versatile kit for repairing a range of civilian clothes. We didn’t find user reviews for this kit, but we opted to test it because it looked so durable.
In our first round of testing, we tried the REI Travel Sewing Kit, which we liked and originally featured as our runner-up to the Merchant & Mills. But this kit has since been discontinued.
Best Sewing Kit for Home, Travel and Emergency Use ($13) has more tools than most of the other travel kits—including a seam ripper and a circular needle dispenser—but the scissors are super-cheap feeling and we could see them breaking very quickly. We also think that all the elastic straps inside the case would eventually break, and we didn’t like how we had to fasten every tool into the case. This is the top-selling sewing kit on Amazon, where it currently has 4.4 stars (out of five) across 95 user reviews.
In our last round of testing, we also tried the Embroidex Sewing Kit ($13) but found its notions to be on a par with those in the other mediocre travel kits we’d tested. This kit isn’t terrible—it is the best-selling kit on Amazon—but it isn’t great. The scissors were flimsy and uncomfortable to use, and the thread felt cheap. We’d rather hand over an extra $15 for the Merchant & Mills, which we think will last a lot longer. The Embroidex currently has a rating of 4.6 stars out of five across 124 Amazon user reviews.
We also looked at the following kits, but for various reasons opted not to test them:
Merchant & Mills Sewing Kit — This is Merchant & Mills’s full-size kit. The notions in it look great, and it comes in an awesome oilskin tailor’s roll. However, at more than $75 (plus shipping), this is more than most beginning sewers need. Besides, if you’re spending that much money, you may as well build your own kit.
Alabama Chanin Essential Sewing Kit — This boutique clothing and sewing pattern company is popular within the home sewing community. Their full-size kit includes top-quality notions from various brands. We think this would be a great kit for a seasoned sewer looking for a beautiful sewing kit. But at $75, we also think this kit is too expensive for most people.
Sewing Kit – Home Essentials Sewing Kit With 18 Different Accessories — Filled with bobbins and full-size spools of thread, this kit is really meant to go along with a sewing machine. It also didn’t receive higher user reviews than the kits we tested.
LoveSewing Basic Sewing Kit — Again, this set is geared toward machine sewing. It also didn’t have better user reviews than the full-size kits we did test.
Singer Professional Series Sew Kit in Designer Bag — Another machine sewing kit. It was also not more highly reviewed than the kits we tested.
Michley Lil’ Sew and Sew 100-Piece Sewing Kit — This machine sewing kit received poor Amazon user reviews.
Singer QuiltPro Sewing Basket Kit — Received poor reviews on Amazon and Walmart.com.
Patagonia Expedition Sewing Kit — We liked the look of this kit, and actually recommend it in The Wirecutter’s The Gifts We Want to Give in 2013 guide. Yet with an awl and an adhesive patch, we think this kit is better suited for outdoor expeditions than everyday sewing projects.
Singer Sewing Kit — The notions in this travel kit don’t look great, and it received mediocre Amazon user reviews.
Restoration Hardware Roll-Up Sewing Kit — We loved the look of this kit, but it’s no longer available.
Lewis N. Clark Travel Sewing Kit — This has many Amazon complaints about the bag breaking and the kit feeling cheap.
Singer Mini Travel Sew Kit in Storage Case — The tools in this kit look very cheap and it only received one star (over one review) on Amazon.
Singer Sewing Kit in Egg Shaped Storage Case — The quality of the notions in this kit did not look better than those in the kits we tested.
BDS Mini Sewing Kit — Multiple Amazon complaints about this kit being cheaply made. The scissors also look very small and flimsy.
Whether you’re buying a travel-size or full-size kit, the included scissors should be sharp and open and close smoothly. Good scissors can make cutting through fabric super easy, while dull shears make cutting drudgery. The scissors in most kits tend to be middle of the road—not terrible, but not life-changing. Rachel Epperson from The Needle Shop told me, “a lot of times the scissors in a kit will end up becoming the pair [people] use for crappier tasks and [they] get higher end ones for fabrics.” If you really get into sewing, you’ll probably want to upgrade your scissors and invest in a rotary cutter and cutting mat.
Ideally a kit will include several sizes of needles. You’ll want a very thin needle for silk, rayon, or other delicate fabrics, otherwise the needle will leave a mark where it’s gone through. On the other hand, you’ll need a sturdier and perhaps longer needle for sewing denim or canvas (it’s a bummer sewing thick fabrics with a delicate needle). It’s nice to have a variety on hand to suit whatever fabric you’re sewing. Of course, all of the needles should be sharp. Our top pick, the Merchant & Mills Rapid Repair Kit, actually only includes two needle sizes, but we found they are good for general use.
Sewing pins are used to temporarily hold fabric together. Most kits seem to come with standard metal dressmaker pins, which are all metal. Other kits contain pins with colorful plastic heads; these can be easier to see and work with, but shouldn’t be ironed over or the plastic will melt. Really nice kits (such as the Alabama Chanin one) come with glass-head pins, which won’t melt when ironed. Regardless of the type, pins should move through fabric easily; dull ones tend stick in the fabric and in some cases even snag fibers.
A good kit will also include a few safety pins, which are perfect for MacGyvering all manner of clothing. Like regular pins, safety pins should be sharp.
Many full-size kits, and even some travel ones, come with a seam ripper—a handle fitted with a sharp metal pointed end. Contrary to its name, you really shouldn’t use a ripper to rip. Instead, use this tool to pick out stitches. (Many dressmakers actually call the process “picking” stitches.) The ripper should be sharp enough that you barely need to pull at the stitches to cut through them.
A measuring tape comes in handy for taking various body measurements, evenly hemming pants and curtains, and many other sewing tasks. It looks similar to a carpenter’s tape measure except it’s made of ribbon printed with inch and centimeter markings. Better dressmaker tapes are made of sturdy vinyl ribbon, while lesser-quality ones are made of paper.
A marking pencil or tailor’s chalk (a thin square of chalk) allows you to temporarily mark fabric. Nice chalk easily marks fabric. When it gets dry, or if the marking pencil is sort of waxy, you’ll find it difficult to mark with. Home sewers often upgrade to a disappearing ink fabric marker or a tailor’s chalk wheel.
A seam gauge is a handy tool for measuring seam allowance and for hemming things like pants or curtains. This is simply a small metal ruler with a sliding right-angle marker. A good seam gauge will be sturdy enough that the plastic right-angle marker won’t break when you move it up and down the ruler.
A metal or silicone thimble protects the end of your finger from a needle or pin puncture. Most home kits come with a metal version.
Home kits have full-size tools and notions, appropriate for bigger projects, while travel kits are compact and better for on-the-go repairs.
Travel kits tend to be small, meant to fit in a purse, backpack, luggage, or office drawer. These small kits usually only contain the bare essentials for making quick sewing repairs. Most travel kits come with a set of miniature scissors, a few pins and needles, a needle threader, a safety pin, a couple buttons and snaps, and a miniature card wrapped with multiple colors of thread. Some travel kits are even more minimalist, fitting into a matchbook.
Home kits, on the other hand, have full-size scissors, more pins and needles, usually spools of thread in multiple colors, and a variety of other tools that will make sewing easier (such as a seam ripper, marking tool, and measuring tape). A home kit can serve either as your emergency repair kit at home or as the beginnings of a larger sewing tool collection.
If you’re experimenting with getting into sewing, buying a kit is an easy and relatively inexpensive way to get everything you need. If you really get into sewing, you’ll probably eventually upgrade your tools. But if you get the right kit, you may not even need to upgrade.
As with most systems, if you keep your sewing kit organized you’re more likely to use it. Store all of your notions in a case so they’re easily accessible. If you find you’re accumulating many spools of thread, it may be worth investing in a thread rack.
If you actually need some pointers on the basics of sewing, there are some fantastic resources online. We like these Creativebug tutorials for sewing on a button and machine-sewing seams, both by Liesl Gibson of the pattern company Oliver + S. If you end up falling for sewing and want to learn more, there are also some amazing online courses. A few other places to look are at Craftsy, and, for the more advanced, the University of Fashion.
(Photos by Christine Cyr Clisset.)
Originally published: October 19, 2015
That dinner was delicious.