First up, the tools which I use the most. I'd say they're all essentials to start out, except the last item (overlocker), which is a "nice-to-have", but only for dressmaking.
Sewing scissors:I think it's worth having two pairs: one large pair of fabric shears for cutting large distances and one small pair of embroidery scissors for snipping small things or threads. Never use these for cutting paper - it will blunt them and leave you with sad fabric snipping. Boo hoo.
Tape measure:The kind of one that rolls up into a container when you press a button may look cool, but I find the container annoying when it comes to laying the tape out flat on my fabric. I prefer a flat non-stretch tape that has both inches and centimetres. (I draft patterns metrically, but prefer to sew in imperial.)
Pins:I think the ones with a coloured glass or plastic head are easier to spot in your fabric. Glass is probably better because you won't melt it with the iron, but I'm always too cheap and get the plastic ones. My supply constantly dwindles because they end up accidentally in the bin attached to fabric scraps, or sucked up by the hoover. I don't bother with a pin-cushion, I just stick them in a little pot. Pins, Mother!
Seam ripper:Even when you're super careful, you'll probably end up ripping out at least one seam per garment, so this is another must-have. I find they get a little blunt with constant use, so I keep two: one for ripping out seams, and one newer one just for slashing button-holes. There's nothing worse than using a blunt one for your button hole and accidentally tearing through the bar-tack and half the button-stand. Almost-finished-shirt = wrecked. :-(
Iron + board + press cloth:This is almost the most essential tool. You MUST work next to your ironing-station and press constantly or your results won't look very good. Really, it shouldn't be called "sewing", but rather "ironing", as more time is spent pressing than at the sewing machine.
A boring normal iron is great, as long as it does steam. I think a stainless steel sole-plate is best (not ceramic), but only because I know you can use nasty soleplate-cleaner on the steel ones, which is always handy to remove the interfacing glue from it when you make an error.
A press-cloth is handy to keep fusible-interfacing glue off the iron soleplate to start with. I just hemmed a bit of cream or white cotton I had hanging around for this job. Don't use coloured cotton: the colour will transfer! Argh!
Hand needles:A collection of sharp fine needles for sewing in threads, tacking and blind-hemming. I've also found a selection of leather-work needles useful for mending jobs, but those aren't essential for regular sewing.
Sewing machine:You can get lots of fancy-pants models, but I just have a basic Janome. I only really use 3 stitches: straight, zig-zag and buttonhole. A one-step buttonhole feature is nice, but probably 4-step would also be fine. You might want a blind-hem stitch, but I prefer to hem by hand. Some machines offer an overlock-style stitch to finish your raw edges if you don't have an overlocker, but I always found I preferred to use zig-zag for this. Finally, you might want to consider a top-loading lower bobbin as this is easier to switch quickly for quilting. Don't be tempted by the cute mini-machines on offer unless you're short for space or it's as a second machine. I think you'll quickly get cross when your work won't fit under the arm: you won't have a hope for quilts. Finally, make sure you can buy a good selection of feet for your machine. Don't let the expense of a sewing machine put you off sewing: a super-cheapo one with just straight and zig-zag is really all you'll ever need for most things, as long as you can get the feet for it that I mention next.
Machine Feet:Most machines come with a regular foot which does well for most work. Additional feet which I use most often are: one-step buttonhole foot, concealed zipper foot, regular zipper foot.
|L to R: buttonhole foot, regular foot, zipper foot, concealed zipper foot.|
Overlocker (non-essential):I managed for years without an overlocker, just zig-zagging my raw edges. These machines cut and enclose the edges in one action using three or four threads to stitch over the raw edge. If you find yourself making lots of clothes then this might be a worthwhile investment, but check out the second-hand market as many are returned barely-used by people who can't get on with threading them. You don't really need one for home-decoration sewing and not for quilting either. I really only use it for adult clothing.
The nice-to-haves and the blitzy do-withoutables! :-)