PINS! Aside from the obvious needles and threads, pins are probably the most necessary of all sewing tools. There are folk songs like Paper of Pins and references to pins going as far back in sewing history as you can want to look for them.
Although pins were once only available in simple straight all-metal styles as seen in the photo, today’s shops offer a plethora of styles, finishes, and sizes. (Fun history fact: Steel pins were sold on sheets of paper during past centuries. It’s only been thanks to more recent industrial and packaging advances that we are able to purchase hundreds if not thousands of pins in a neat little box.)
So… now that we know we have options, let’s take a look at what’s available. I’m going to divide them into three main categories:
- Steel dressmaker pins
- Plastic head pins
- Glass head pins
All-metal pins are the most utilitarian, and in my own sewing room, my favorite to use. Today they’re mostly made of stainless steel, are rust-proof, and are available in a variety of lengths and sizes. I prefer pins that are at least 1.5″ in length and tend towards the thinner side. These all-purpose pins are great for both modern dressmaking and the historical costuming that sometimes takes over my project list. They’re strong enough to hold most fabrics together and thin enough that no large holes are created. Plus, being all metal, a hot iron can be used while pressing without any damage to the pins. The primary downside for me is that they can difficult to find when dropped and are easier to lose in a garment while it’s being made… definitely upping the ouch factor later on!
For new and/or youth sewists, I recommend plastic head pins. The pin shaft is still made of steel but the small plastic ball on the end makes them easier to see and easier to pick up or manipulate in and out of the fabric. You can also find pins with all sorts of novelty shapes in place of the ball at the end. Again, I prefer longer pins, at least 1.5.” Longer pins tend to equal thicker pins so I usually avoid anything longer than 2.” These are the pins that I always have available for students to use during classes. The biggest downside to the plastic head pins is that you can’t use an iron near them. Plastic + hot iron = melting and no one wants a big glob of yellow permanently fused to their newly made clothing!
Last but not least are a specialized type of pin… glass head pins. These pins also have a steel shaft but the ball at the top is made of glass which means an iron can be safely used on them. These pins offer the best of both types listed above – easier to pick up and use but still tolerant of being pressed. They’re also often extra-thin, making them ideal for fussier fabrics like silk that is slippery or shows holes easily. Being thinner, they do bend a bit more easily than other pins which can make them challenging to use for young sewists just starting to get the hang of pinning fabric. The primary downside to glass head pins is the cost – they are by far the most expensive of the pins mentioned here.
The three types of pins described above can all be used for most basic clothing-making projects and I typically have all three types in my sewing bag and studio at any given time. One quick note – these pins are all meant for woven fabrics, not knit fabrics. They all come standard with sharp points meant for piercing the actual threads of the fabric.
If you plan on sewing with stretchy knit fabric (like t-shirt material, jersey, lycra, or dance/swimwear fabric) then you’ll want to look for one more feature in your pins: a ball point. Instead of a sharp fiber-piercing point, ball point pins have a rounded tip which allows them to slide between the knit fabric thread. If you think of knit fabric as the same as a sweater, this makes more sense. You don’t want to pierce or pull a thread in the sweater as that would create a hole that could unravel. The same holds true for knit fabric. Ball point pins work the same way as rounded knitting needles, allowing you to pin between the individual threads that create the fabric. Ball point pins are typically available with either a plastic head or in all-metal.
One final caution… the plastic head pins are often sold as ‘ball pins.’ These are not the same as ball point so just be sure to read the packaging carefully. Happy stitching!