Revisiting ‘the small stuff’- the sewing kit

 

A carefully thought out sewing kit for extended hikes

A more carefully thought out sewing kit for extended hikes

I have chatted before on various pieces of repair kit that I include in my ditty bag. At that time I expressed a wish to improve on my small sewing kit. It was really just a small collection of poor quality items I picked up in a hotel and encased in a small plastic container alongside a couple of extra buttons and needles. I strongly suspect that this is exactly what most hikers do, if they even bother to take a sewing kit with them on trips.

The sewing kit will be refined further. It isn't perhaps the best I can manage and for 11g I can do far better.

The 11g sewing kit that Three Points of the Compass used to carry. Deemed imperfect, it was time to refine the contents

The cotton threads and selection of needles in the 11g kit  had not been looked at as regards suitability and each time I had needed to put it to use, certain aspects had often been found wanting. Even the buttons I had been packing along were largely not required because of those already present on baselayers etc.

I have never yet had to repair a pack’s shoulder strap or belt ‘on the trail’, most such small repairs being effected at home. But buttons have come adrift, trouser belt loops come undone, tent loops have come unstitched, socks have holed. Nothing ever disastrous, but I prefer to look on myself as fortunate rather than anything else and I had the means to fix some, if not all, items while on the trail. It was time, I felt, to spend a few minutes looking at exactly what it is I include in my little sewing kit, what I hope to achieve with it, and what I could, or should, include.

Spare 'little white button' on Icebreaker base-layer

Spare ‘little white button’ on Icebreaker base-layer

The first thing to mention is that I never include any form of sewing kit on a day hike. I only take such a thing on multi-day hikes where wear and tear is extended, or damage potentially sustained. I am not looking at fashion statements so have no real need to match button or thread colours. All I want is a sturdy repair job. Most outdoor clothing and kit is pretty tough, some items, such as webbing straps extremely so, and it is difficult to force a needle through them by hand. You can use a rubber ‘needle grabber’, but even these are not really up to some more difficult jobs, such as pushing in, or pulling out, a needle from composite shoe or boot soles, or even leather. A little lightweight thimble is useful for pushing in, but not for pulling out. In addition, a needle that is up to difficult-to-work materials is also required.

A typical 'hotel' sewing kit. There is little here that is of practical use on outdoor clothing. Cotton thread isn't robust enough, nedles lack strength, safety pin is tiny and buttons are unrepresentative of what will have actually got lost. being too small in most instance

A typical ‘hotel’ sewing kit. There is little here that is of practical use on outdoor clothing. Cotton thread isn’t robust enough, solitary needle lacks strength, safety pin is tiny and buttons are poor quality and mostly unrepresentative of what will have actually got lost. being also too small in most instances

 

Thread

Thread is a prime example of why it is wise to look again at what is contained within a small ‘hotel’ type sewing kit as the contents are usually cotton, of a bewildering range of bright and largely useless colours. There are far better options to include. Kevlar thread is one of the strongest threads available and flame resistant up to 425°C and can be purchased in fairly short lengths in different colours. It is, however, badly affected by ultra-violet (u/v) light and loses strength when exposed for long periods, so is probably not best suited for use on outdoor gear. Most Nylon thread too, is affected by u/v to its detriment. A 100% Polyester thread would seem to be the best type to include as this has good resistance to u/v, mildew and abrasion. Cotton thread is not suitable at all.

The braided cotton thread strips that are available are of no practical use for outdoors work. Cotton tape isn't robust. The lengths, ideal for the odd dress shirt button, are too short and the striking array of colours is mostly not required

Cotton sewing thread plaits are of no practical use for outdoors work. The cotton thread isn’t robust, while the length, ideal for the odd dress shirt button, is too short. The striking array of colours is also mostly not required

For those who sew, particularly machine users, there is as much brand loyalty for specific brands of thread as for any other discipline. Some swear by Mettler or Coats & Clark. I prefer to use Gütermann- a family-run company with over 150 years of experience.  Their Sew-All polyester sewing thread is suitable for all materials and seams and can be used for any stitch type. They also produce a 12wt Extra-strong polyester thread  with a high break point that is suited for highly stressed seams or heavy duty application. These threads are extremely suited to use on outdoor gear.

The Coarse (No. 150) and Fine (No 1700 waxed polyester theads produced by Stewart Manufacturing for use with their Speedy Stitcher

The Coarse (No. 150) and Fine (No 170) waxed polyester threads produced by Stewart Manufacturing for use with their Speedy Stitcher

In anticipation of potentially requiring something even more robust than this, with greater resistance to abrasion, I have also included a short length of one of the waxed polyester threads supplied by Stewart Manufacturing for use with their Speedy Stitcher Awl. These two products are a three (Fine) and four (Coarse) filament high tensile threads that can be put to good use on shoes etc. Thread size is about 207 (Tex 210). Awl-for-all also produce three-strand waxed polyester threads, though in a wider range of colours. Other similar thread is available elsewhere with a bit of searching. I have included a good length of the finer of the two Stewart options.

There other alternatives. Many hikers will make use of dental floss for sewing jobs. This is strong stuff. Mono filament fishing line could be packed and used but some can suffer over time under u/v. Some hikers also take along a length of wire for sewing with but I cannot, as yet, ascertain why.

When looking at thread specification, Tex is probably the most consistent method though difficult to simply correlate to Gütermann products. Tex is the weight in grams of 1000 metres of thread. So if a gram of thread measured 1000 metres, it would be 1 Tex. The higher the Tex, the thicker the thread.

Polyester thread sizes, tensile strength and weights
Size Size TEX Tensile
(lbs)
Weight
(yds/lb)
Diameter
(in)
V- 15 0 16 1.5 30000 0.0047
V- 23 AA 24 2 21000 0.0059
V- 33 AA 30 3 12200 0.0070
V- 46 B 45 7 9500 0.0080
V- 69 E 70 11 6000 0.0107
V- 92 F 90 15 4500 0.0124
V- 138 FF 135 21 3000 0.0152
V- 207 3 cord 210 31 2100 0.0186
V- 277 4 cord 270 44 1500 0.0231
V- 346 5 cord 350 53 1300 0.0258
V- 415 6 cord 410 73 1000 0.0283
V- 554 8 cord 600 98 630 0.0330
100m of Gütermann Sew-All and 30m of Gütermann Extra Strong thread. Enough for a thousand hikes

100m of Gütermann Sew-All and 30m of Gütermann Extra Strong thread. Enough for a thousand hikes

While it is perfectly possible to wind a few metres of thread around a piece of card, or a little less around a needle itself, a better way to keep greater quantities is wound around a dedicated thread bobbin. Because my kit is specifically designed to suit longer hikes, I have included the lightest plastic bobbins I could find, produced by Hemline (Type 120.14), each weighing 0.4g.

I included three bobbins in my kit. One has around ten metres of black Gütermann Sew-All thread on it, mostly for buttons, repairing loose zips, and some seams. For more demanding work a second bobbin contains around six metres of black Gütermann Extra-strong polyester thread and the third bobbin has three metres of tan coloured Stewart Fine waxed filament. This is for those, hopefully never encountered, really demanding repair jobs.

 

Needle threader

Threader

For someone as cack-handed as I, combined with a degree of myopia, then anything that can aid in threading a needle is a welcome piece of kit. I have sat in darkened tents, with the wind whistling through, and struggled in vain to make the thread pass through the barely discernible eye of a needle. In addition to large eye needles it is wise to include one of these tiny little threaders in a sewing kit. They are not particularly robust but weigh only 0.3g. Put one, or even two, in your kit. More robust examples are available, but their weight and size preclude inclusion when balanced against frequency of use. Otherwise, you could consider using Spiral Eye needles or self threading needles. Where possible I have included large-eyed needle alternatives.

 

Needles

There is no ‘one size fits all needs’ needle. A needle suitable for sewing back an errant small button is simply not up to the thicker and stronger threads often necessary for fixing back loose soles on trail shoes or a pack’s waist buckle that is beginning to come adrift. However the inclusion of a fine needle is also required for use for teasing out splinters or popping blisters (after sterilizing over a flame of course).

There are two main types of needle. Those for hand sewing, with the eye (hole) for the thread in the butt, and the needles normally used in sewing machines, with the eye for the thread just behind the point. Within these two main types there are then a bewildering array of classes, styles, cross-overs and even materials. Needles sizes are defined by number, the higher the number the smaller the needle. In general, within a specific class of needle, the length and thickness of a needle increases as the size number decreases. In addition to this, due to a lack of standardisation, a size 10 needle in one class of needle may actually be thinner than a size 12 in another class.

Two types of needles are taken for hand sewing

Two types of needles are taken for hand sewing. The two at the top are No. 7 embroidery/crewel needles, the two with particularly large eyes at the bottom are No. 18 chenille needles

For hand sewing, particularly with my eyes and possibly for use with thicker threads, I am also looking at a large eye to simplify threading, so something like a Chenille needle. These are similar to those used for tapestry or Cross Stitch but have a sharp rather than blunt, rounded point. Possibly more importantly, they are thick, strong needles that resist bending well. A knackered needle is the last thing you want with limited supplies. Chenille needles are useful for heavier fabrics as the sharp point pierces the material well while the thicker body of the needle creates a larger hole through which the thread can pass. In addition, I include a couple of Embroidery/Crewel style, which again, have a longer eye than a general Sharps needle. Embroidery needles are particularly suited to closely woven fabrics.

Chenille needles- sharp point, large eye, broad shank

Chenille needles- sharp point, large eye, broad shank

For the machine needles to be used with my sewing awl. I included a small selection of sewing machine needles. There was no need to include smaller, thinner needles here as these were represented in the hand sewing selection. The sewing awl needles are specifically for forcing thread through tough fabric straps such as those of the pack, or for stitching back and repairing pack body fabric. The trail shoes I favour these days are not as robust as the leather boots of previous years, sadly, it is not an infrequent occasion for seams to suffer or soles to gape at the sides in places. Where a dab of seam grip (if taken) doesn’t do the job, it may be that a few stitches with strong thread are required.

Types of sewing machine needles and their application

Types of sewing machine needles and their application

Just a little knowledge of sewing machine needle types pointed me at which appeared to be most suited to including in my kit. Jersey needles are suited to machines working on man-made fibres such as polyester or viscose, stretchier fabrics benefit from a Stretch needle. Many sewers will know that the Microtex needles are the (almost) fail safe needle, used in many applications. The Microtex/Sharp and Universal options are favourite but the titanium Topstitch needles produced by Superior also appeared admirable. Where I could, I included titanium nitride coated needles. Titanium nitride is an extremely hard, ceramic, thin coating on a hardened metal needle. With the infrequent if possibly harsh use that these needles get on the trail, such a coating will last indefinitely and ‘should’ enable the needles to pierce  fabric more easily and smoothly, prevent thread breaking so easily and strengthen the point, slowing wear.

Needles are sized in metric and imperial. The European system is the metric method and numbers sewing machine needles from 60 to 120. The American system numbers needles from 8  to 20. For both systems, the smaller the number, the finer the needle. Both sizes are shown on most packets. The size of a needle is calculated by its diameter, so the smallest below, the 60 needle, has a 0.6mm diameter.

  • Size  60/8
  • Size  70/10
  • Size  75/11
  • Size  80/12
  • Size  90/14
  • Size  100/16
  • Size  110/18
  • Size  120/20

I have included an 80/12 Topstitch needle mostly for use with the Extra strong thread on general purpose duty with the awl, and a Microtex 60/8 needle primarily for use with a finer thread (the Sew-All). This needle has a very thin acute point and is suited to precision work yet is still capable of being pushed in with an awl with care. I also wanted to include at least one leather needle. These are a tougher needle and have a triangular point designed to pierce leather, vinyl and plastic without tearing it.

I was going to include two or three of the extremely tough needles that are supplied with the Speedy Stitcher Awl. These are a curved needle (# 130/8B), a thick straight needle (# 130/8A) and a thinner straight needle (# 130/4). Instead, I have just included the 130A large No. 8 needle. This is a tried and true diamond point needle product and is suited to both the fine and course waxed threads also supplied by Stewart Manufacturing for use with their Speedy Stitcher (though I am only taking one of the threads). The larger needles are especially useful for tougher work.

A small selection of robust machine needles are taken for use in a sewing awl

A small selection of robust machine needles are taken for use in a sewing awl. The top needle is a No. 100 Leather needles, the second is a Titanium coated No. 60/8 Microtex, the third is a Titanium coated No. 80/12 Topstitch while the bottom is a large, strong No. 130/8B needle for more demanding work

While it would be possible to keep the needles on a piece of thin card, I prefer to store these more securely. This is to limit the risk of their piercing my gear from within. I keep machine (awl) and hand needles separate for ease of selection, each type being encased in a small plastic tube with end caps. These are re-purposed from my tool chest where they originally held small drill bits. Each empty case with two end caps weighs 0.5g. Tubes have ‘awl’ and ‘hand’ written on with a Sharpie.

 

Sewing awl

Home made sewing awl

Home made sewing awl with large diamond point needle

I decide to include a small sewing awl in my kit as this would provide the facility to stitch thicker or tougher items such as pack straps, belt or footwear. It was then  a question of sourcing the lightest, yet still practical, awl that I could find.

The Speedy Stitcher (patented 1909) or Awl-for-All (patented 1903) sewing awls are really handy little pieces of kit and both being still in production today demonstrate that each have proved themselves for over a century. But these are more suited to home repairs or simple manufacture, being far too bulky and heavy for including in any more mobile repair kit. However the chuck design and use of, what is in effect, a large sewing machine needle got me thinking as to the possibilities for a more discreet and lightweight kit. I wondered if I could locate a small Dremmel drill type chuck that would take a sewing machine needle and act as a sewing awl. Needless to say a quick search on-line revealed that I was not the first to consider such a project.

Speedy Stitcher Sewing Awl, with coarse four filament thread and No. 130B- 8C curved needle for more awkward sewing spaces

Speedy Stitcher sewing awl, with coarse four filament thread and No. 130/8B curved needle for more awkward sewing spaces. Spare needles are stored behind the head. However this awl is too large to take backpacking

I have also taken considerable inspiration from the famed Chouinard Expedition Sewing Kit, sadly no longer available. In recent years, Patagonia, a company that originally just made tools for climbers and was founded by Yvon Chouinard, did reproduce the kit for the US market but despite emailed pleas to Patagonia, I have found it impossible to purchase their sewing kit in the UK.  I am additionally peeved as I was offered one of the original kits some thirty years ago and refused it.

The first thing done was to hacksaw off the superfluous shank to the pin vice. Then a T piece grip was produced by cutting a short titanium peg down to 55mm, cleaning sawn edges with a file to produce the sewing awl

The first thing done was to hacksaw off the superfluous shank to the pin vice, cleaning the sawn end with a file. With collet in place (not shown here) it is now 30mm in length

After a bit of searching, I decided to adapt a pin vice or similar and eventually settled on what is described as a mini mandrel chuck adapter for craft and jewellery tools. This came with three collets for holding drills up to 2.2mm diameter. I would only require one of these once I had adapted the mini chuck to suit my purpose. This was a simple task with a vice, hacksaw and file and has produced a very handy little sewing awl that weighs 12g complete with T-bar handle.

With a little filing, the T-bar handle now has nicely rounded ends so will not poke a hole through the sewing kit pouch. It is pulled out of the hole of the awl when not in use and just lies loose within the kit.

A short titanium tent peg was cut down to 55mm and the whole through the body drilled out to 3mm so that the T piece would fit. Again, all sawn edges cleaned up with a file

A short titanium tent peg was cut down to 55mm and the hole through the body drilled out to 3mm so that the T-piece would fit. Again, all sawn edges were cleaned up with a file

It would even be possible to simplify my arrangement still further. If I took one size (diameter of shank) of needle and a small piece of dowel with a hole drilled out to fit, this could prove enough in itself to act as an in-the-hand awl. However I think the ability to clamp down on the needle, so as to be able to pull it back out of thick gripping material such as webbing or shoe soles, is a requirement so I shall stick with my awl.

 

 

Buttons

The 'Soldier '95' style buttons have been used by some outdoor clothing manufacturers but are troublesome to replcae if they are broken or lost, being designed to be fixed in place with a tape running through them

The ‘Soldier ’95’ style’ buttons have been used by some outdoor clothing manufacturers but are troublesome to replace if they are broken or lost, being designed to be fixed in place with a tape running through them

Most people, myself too for many years, simply cart along one of the small ‘hotel’ sewing kits picked up with ease across the globe. These invariably come complete with one small white and one small black button. How many of us stop to question if the clothes we are wearing on a hike actually have small white and black buttons! Much better to look at what we are actually wearing and if a spare or two is advisable. Many shirts for example have a small tab inside with a spare or two affixed.

I included four buttons from the John Lewis haberdashery range. Simple four hole, black, plastic buttons, there are two 13mm and two 18mm buttons weighing 2g in total once put in a tiny baggie.

For most of my hikes, I like to wear the Montane Terra Pants. About the only button to be found on these is that on the waist.

Before including buttons in a thru hike sewing kit, have a peak inside clothing to see what is already being carried

Before including buttons in a thru-hike sewing kit, have a peak inside clothing to see what is already being carried

Other than these trousers, about the only other buttons on my hiking clothes may appear on a merino polo shirt or a Rohan short sleeve shirt worn as town or camp wear. So, a small white button after all…

 

 

 

 

 

Scissors and tweezers

I am not including these in my sewing kit. I rely instead on my knife and the tweezers included in my First Aid Kit. For those who do desire a pair of scissors, these need be minimal in size and a simple scalpel blade would suffice for most work. There is absolutely no need to pack along a seam ripper, though McNett seem to disagree.

 

Safety pins

Again, I am mostly relying on the safety pins included in my First Aid Kit but include one here simply to avoid unpacking more than is necessary if a quick fix with a pin is all that is required. To that end I have included a sole, large size, ‘nappy’ pin with  sliding plastic cap that prevents it easily opening by itself. I could also look on it that one less pin is packed in the First Aid Kit as I know I can rely on the one included here.

The whole sewing kit is kept together in a small cuben wallet made by Tread Lite. There was a small mitten hook on this but I cut this off together with the short tape through which it passed.

The assembled sewing kit-

The newly assembled sewing kit- 28 in total

The newly assembled sewing kit- 28g in total

Cuben wallet Tread Lite (with mitten hook removed) 3.6g
2 x Needle case With end caps 1.0g
2 x #7 embroidery/Crewel Hand sewing- (by Hemline) 0.2g
2 x #18 Chenille Hand sewing (by John James) 0.8g
1 x #60/8 Microtex- Titanium coated Awl sewing (by Superior) 0.3g
1 x #80/12 Topstitch-Titanium coated Awl sewing (by Superior) 0.3g
1 x #100/10 Leather Awl sewing (by Klasse) 0.4g
1 x 130/4 long straight Awl sewing (by Stewart) 1.1g
10m fine polyester thread- on bobbin Gütermann- Sew-All 0.8g
6m thick polyester thread- on bobbin Gütermann- Extra strong 1.4g
3m waxed polyester thread- on bobbin Stewart- Fine 1.8g
‘Threader’ Mounted on thin card 0.7g
1 x ‘Nappy’ safety pin- Large Hemline 1.4g
2 x button- 18mm John Lewis 1.3g
2 x button- 13mm John Lewis 0.7g
Sewing awl Home made 11.9
Total 27.7g

I am sure you will have noted that this 28g kit is more elaborate than it possibly needs to be. This is because it is one of those little aspects of preparation for my long walk in 2018. The wear and tear I can expect over a thousand plus mile hike is far in excess of a brief one weeks jaunt of just one hundred miles. For shorter hikes in the interim this kit can be tweaked as I require.

It is very likely that another hiker would consider my sewing kit as overkill, however I would still encourage a glance over the actual contents of any small sewing kit taken. Do ensure that what is in there will actually prove to be useful when pulled out at the end of the day in an attempt to repair something a little more crucial than a missing button.

6 thoughts on “Revisiting ‘the small stuff’- the sewing kit

  1. exploriment

    The Chouinard tool is cool and all, but I’ve sewn loads of stuff – messenger bags, backpacks, etc. {with multiple layers of webbing and zippers and seam tape and Cordura} with an embroidery crewel and thread – by hand. The pliers on my Leatherman Wave help get it through really thick areas, but a layer of webbing and Cordura, or two pieces of Cordura, even a bit thicker than that, no problem. A rubber stationery thimble helps to protect finger tips from the back of the needle.

    If you really want to save weight, it’s not strictly necessary. There is a lot you can do without it.

    And that needle threader – I’ve threaded a needle, I don’t think it’s any exaggeration, 10s of 1000s of times, and I’ve never used one. The key is to cut your thread. scissors, nail clippers, whichever, but CUT it. Don’t gnaw it or yank it. A crisp clean end is the key to making threading easier.

    Lots of info and examples:
    http://exploriment.blogspot.ca/search/label/sewing

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    1. Jools Post author

      Thanks for your comments, all very good points. Quite agree re the Chouinard tool, but more a multi-person expedition, extremes of habitat, tool possibly. A bit of overkill for most trails certainly. I also agree that a pair or pliers are a great help in forcing a needle through thicker or tougher materials, I do the same at home myself. A Leatherman Wave though, is possibly a bit much for taking on most longer hikes, it is over a 140g after all. That is why I carry a Leatherman in my everyday work bag but could never countenance such weight of a pair of pliers included in my hiking kit. The knife/combination tool I carry on longer hikes is the old Leatherman Squirt. But I take the scissors version rather than the pliers version. As to a threader, since one of these weighs less than probably anything else in my gear list, I’ll continue to include one, I wish I had your excellent eyes, but sadly, do not.

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  2. hugbear

    A DIY awl made from a cheap Exacto knife replica:
    http://s.go.ro/dyuxcqwt
    The plastic vice needed to be drilled to take the needle. I heated the needle and pressed it in place, little by little. Too hot and the hole would be too large to ensure proper grip. Easy does it!
    The handle is hollow so it can carry a few needles inside, out of harm’s way. The blade can be brought along, too!
    Without needles and blade, the handle weighs 9g.

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    1. Jools Post author

      A nice idea that brings the weight now well. Those Exacto knife handles are pretty tough. Now if we can just adapt the handle to take a toothbrush head and a spoon…

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