Tips and Techniques For Sewing Your Own Outdoor Gear

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!”. You can save money also, maybe a little or maybe a lot, and you will have something custom made the way YOU want it. I have found that the biggest challenges for outdoors “sewists” (as we like to call ourselve these days) is where to get what you need, and how to find out the special techniques that might be needed for a particular project. I have been making my own and my family’s gear, plus sewing professionally for many years, and thought it was high time to share some tips. 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. I thought it would be fun to share some of what I have learned with all of you. If you would like to read about “Specialty Outdoors”, my sewing business, visit About Specialty Outdoors

Equipment you will need:
Sewing Machine
Sharp Scissors
Sharp pins, paperclips, tape, marking pencils
Sewing Machine Needles: Size 90 or 100 Nice to have but not necessary:
Rotary Cutter and Mat
Serger (Overlock Sewing Machine)
Industrial Sewing Machine
Permanent Work Space
Rulers, Tape Measure, 6″ Seam Guage
Walking (Even Feed) Foot

Sewing machines:
For most projects, any sewing machine will do. Be sure it has been cleaned and oiled recently, and that the needle is new, sharp and properly positioned. You will be able to determine just how ‘powerful’ your machine is by observing how it responds to multiple layers of fabrics like denim. Power should not be an issue unless you are planning on working with heavier fabrics like Cordura┬« or webbing. A good zig-zag stitch and a buttonholer are very nice to have, and there are many other stitches that come in handy but are not necessary. More is not necessarily better in the stitch department.

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 finshed 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 knits or fleece. It’s not necessary though, and is no substitute for a regular machine.

An industrial sewing machine is a heavy-duty machine. There are many different types. An industrial is very powerful, fast, and typically more single-task suited than a regular sewing machine. A typical industrial will do 2000+ stitches per minute as compared to 600-800 on a home sewing machine. Industrials also have seperate motors, usually between 1/3 to 1/2 horsepower, and are built into a large table that takes up quite a bit of space. There is a ‘table-top’ machine available, the “Thompson Mini-Walker” but I have no experience with it. If you are going to be sewing heavy materials, multiple thickness of heavy fabrics, or quantities of items, an industrial machine might be a good investment. I use a “walking-foot” (dual-feed) upholstery machine for all of my heavy projects. The problems with using a home machine are generally not enough ‘piercing power’ for many heavy fabrics, an inability to feed difficult and thick fabrics properly, and an inabilty 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, others will give you fits. If you decide you need an industrial, watching the wants ads is a great way to find one.

A Word About Thread:
Poor thread probably ruins more projects than anything else. You must use a top quality, 100% polyester thread. Stay away from the typical “cotton covered polyester core” thread that is found in all fabrics stores. It will shred, rot and is generally weak. Brands to look for are: Metrosene, Molynecke, or Gutermann. They are much stronger, won’t rot, and come in many colors. For sewing anything heavy, such as packs and webbing, a heavy duty nylon is recommended. “#69 Nylon” is commonly used in the industry. If you can find a nylon upholstery thread, it is going to be very similar. You must use a big needle, at minimum a #100. The problem that most people have with heavier thread is that the bobbin case machining 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 seperate bobbin case just for heavy duty thread.

Mail order is the best option for patterns for making your own outdoor clothing and equipment. There is a terrific selection available but chances are your local fabric store doesn’t carry them. “Kwik-Sew” and “Stretch-and-Sew” are nationally available lines that have some good patterns suitable for fleece and some types of outerwear. You can find more technical patterns for everything from bivy bags to gloves and ski pants at Outdoors Wilderness Fabrics, Wy’east Fabrics,and Textile Outfitters. Some pattern lines to look for are: Controlled Exposure, Green Pepper, DK Sports, and Storm Mountain.

Finding Outdoors Fabrics:
Finding specialized outdoors fabrics has been traditionally the biggest challenge. There are small stores that do cater to the outdoors community, but they are few and far between. If you have specific fabrics that you are looking for, mail order is your best option. Outdoors Wilderness Fabrics, Wy’east Fabrics, and Textile Outfitters all have everything you need for outdoor sewing projects, not just patterns. I have also found that if you are a good shopper, and know what you are looking for, it doesn’t hurt to ‘cruise’ regular fabric stores; you just might get lucky. In my experience, though, you will get both the best products and the best prices, plus knowledgeable service, from mail order specialists. Additional, non-internet sources can be found at Fabrics.net in their “outdoor” listing.

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