Shelby's Compact Guide to Sewing

This compact guide is for anybody interested in making their own outdoor gear. Everyone has something to learn, from expert sewers to beginners looking to buy a machine or start their first project. Here we'll go through different kinds of equipment and materials needed for making clothing and gear, discuss products sold by us, and try to give links to the best web resources. This is a work in progress, so we appreciate any advice, improvements or comments to improve this guide.

In general I highly recommend the book "Sewing Outdoor Gear" by Rochelle Harper, it is the bible of our hobby.

Sewing machines

Of course you can make almost anything sewing by hand, and in some cases its even recommended (gloves!). But a basic sewing machine is really a must for most bigger projects. Nothing fancy is needed. You need a machine that has a straight stitch, zigzag stitch and adjustable tension. A "stretch stitch" and some extra feet (zipper, top-stitch etc) come in handy as well. I personally recommend old, simple, indestructable Husqvarna or Bernina machines. For under 200 EUR you get a good used machine, be sure to have your machine serviced by a professional sometimes, and do some sewing tests on the kinds of materials you will use before buying. Here is a great FAQ about buying a machine by Penny of Specialty Outdoors.

Don't worry too much about needles and thread. Use sharp #70 sized needles for most materials, and #90 size for tough stuff. Change the needle after each larger project. 100% polyester thread (e.g. Gutermann) is good for everything, buy high quality #100 weight for most projects, and #70 weight for tough stuff (backpacks, tents etc.).

What about sergers? When it comes to sewing fleece or non-coated materials that frey, I really like mine. Of course a zig-zag can achieve the same effect, but sergers are just cool (once you get them threaded and adjusted!). Using stretchy nylon thread, you can also achieve a flat-seam effect that is great for next-to-skin layers. We have a tutorial coming on that soon. Used sergers are also common, although they are more expensive than a normal machine. A serger can also be very touchy to adjust, and a pain to thread - so if you like mechanics and get excited about fixing things - a serger is for you!

Other sewing tools

Here you need much less than you think. I recommend the following:
  • Large, high quality scissors (don't cut paper with them!)
  • Crappy scissors for paper and other dirty-work
  • Pins, good ones, long with a large head
  • Stitch remover for fixing mistakes
  • A tape-measure
  • Large, clear ruler
  • White and black marking pencils
  • Pattern paper (I use plain, leftover wrapping paper)
  • Tracing paper (semi-transparent with lines)
  • Old clothes iron and baking paper (for seam tape and interfacing)


For making outdoor clothing and gear we have a few options when it comes to making an idea turn into reality:

  • Make a pattern from a commercial product

    For this you need to take lots of measurements, transfer them to paper, then make a sketch pattern and check more difficult curves. Remember to add seam and hem allowances, and choose something simple to copy.

  • Find a free pattern/instructions/project on the Internet

    In our links section and on the discussion forum you will find tons of free projects. Can't find what you're looking for? Post a message and someone might know the place.

  • Buy a "normal" pattern from the sewing shop and modify it

    Many commercial patterns from Burda, Kwik-sew, Stil etc. are useful as a starting point, and can be slightly modified for outdoor activities. It is usually the basic shape of pants, jackets, shirts etc. that is hard to get right from scratch.

  • Buy a specialized outdoor gear pattern

    Shelby Kaava is releasing specialized patterns as there are very few available in Europe. However we also import patterns from Controlled Exposure, and some patterns are avilable from England. In addition patterns from Jalie and Textile Outfitters can be ordered from Canada, but customs into the EU is painful.

I don't recommend just starting from scratch, you will waste alot of time, and there are tons of great projects and patterns out there.

Buying materials

Well, that's what I started this web-store for! But really, we only stock specialty outdoor materials. Use your local fabric and notion shops to buy normal supplies like machines, tools, thread, needles and other accessories. Also remember to check out the fabric shops, they often have basic nylon and polyester materials around, as well as linings and interfacing. Be careful of fleece quality though!


Good quality fleece should be 100% Polyester, with good antipilling properties, and it shouldn't absorb water. Be careful when buying fleece from normal stores, there is tons of "junk fleece" out there. Polyester fleece was developed by Malden Mills in conjunction with Patagonia, back then it was called Polarfleece. Nowadays the trademark Polartec is used, and it is high quality designed for sport use.

Polartec fleece comes in a huge variety. There are wicking fleeces meant for use next to the skin, they move moisture but are not too hot, e.g. PowerDry or PowerStretch. Mid-weight fleeces like PowerStretch along with Polartec 100, 200 and 300 are used as insulating layers. There are also high-tech soft-shell fleeces that resist wind and water. WindBloc has a wind-stopping membrane sandwidched between two fleece layers and a Durable Water Resistant (DRW) finish. WindPro uses a tightly woven outer surface to block 95% of the wind while retaining breathability. Finally newer fleece materials like PowerShield have hit the market, it uses a tightly woven nylon face which is water, wind and abrasion resistant.

Sewing fleece is quite easy, it doesn't fray, so using a normal machine works well. A serger is also good as the seam has more stretch to it and flat-seams are nice with next-to-skin layers. Stretchy fleece like PowerStretch should be pinned well to make sewing easier. I recommend the book "Sew the New Fleece" by Rochelle Harper for those who want to master sewing with fleece.

Shell materials

Shell materials should protect us from wind, water, sun, dirt and abrasion. The climates we use shells in are just as varied, from desert, to tropical and arctic. For that reason we need a wide range of shells for our needs. From light to heavy and breathable to waterproof.

Shell materials fall into two technical categories, those with and without a membrane. Let's call those without breathable shells, and those with Water-Proof Breahable (WPB). Breathable shell materials have wind and water resistance because of the fiber, a tightly woven face and often a chemical DWR coating. Nylon and polyester are commonly used shell fibers as they are strong and don't absorb water. Cotton is also used as it is durable, comforable and can be woven very tightly. As a shell its bad thermal properties are not such an issue. Cotton materials, or more recently polyester/cotton blends such as Fjällräven's G1000 are waxed to control their waterproofness/breathability. Breathable shells don't need a lining and can be used in aerobic and extreme cold conditions.

Penny has created a very good WPB overview so I won't dwell on the technical details. Membranes don't really breath, they let water vapor out, and very slowly compared to non-membrane fabrics. However for many activities they are ideal: Very wet weather, very windy conditions or in non-sweaty activities. Light membranes such as Gore Windstopper are available that block 100% of the wind and are close to waterproof - better breathability than fully waterproof materials. Gore-tex is a reg. trademark of W. L. Gore and Associates, Ltd. It is overused as a general term for a shell material, stop it! Yes, it is a WPB membrane, but it doesn't perform micacles. Other comparable products are available such as eVent, Sympatex, Ultrex, and in Finland, Finlaysson Action. Often you get similar performance for a better price, so don't be fooled by the marketing. A plastic bag is a plastic bag.

Most WPB materials are two-layer and should be lined to protect the membrane. Three-layer WPBs have a lining laminated to the fabric, so no lining is needed (yipee! less sewing). If you pay the price of using a WPB material, then you should seal the seams with seam tape to make it really waterproof. See our seamtaping guide.

Remember that soft shells follow the same rules, they just have fleece on the inside. There are breathable ones such as Polartec PowerShield, and those that use a membrane and don't breath that well.

Gear materials

With the right materials, it is easy to make gear like tents, backpacks, storage bags, sleeping bags, tarps, you name it. The patterns for these are often easier than for clothing, and the materials are cheaper. For gear materials we are looking at durability, weight and waterproofness. Patterns for gear are quite easy to come by on the net, or to copy from existing gear.

Durability comes from the type and size of fibers used to make a material. Fiber sizes are described with the term "denier", 100 is quite fine, whereas 500 is very durable and 1000 very large. Nylon and polyester are the most common fibers. Cordura is a special kind of nylon that is 5-10 times stronger for the same denier. Waterproofness in gear materials comes from a non-breathable coating such as polyurethane (PU) or polyvinylchloride (PVC), PU is lighter and more flexible than PVC. For many applications (such as sleeping bags) we want a breathable material, so look for non-coated. The durability of a fabric along with its coating greatly affect its weight. Many ultra-light backpackers are looking to minimize weight, when making your own gear you can make the tradeoff. Of course light weight comes at the cost of less durability or less waterproofness.

Linings and insulation

Two-layer WPB fabrics should be lined to protect that expensive membrane. A simple polyester mesh liner is great for most applications, letting moisture through easily. For pants and insulated garments a smooth taffeta lining is better as the insulation fibers can't escape. Taffeta also allows better movement in pants.

Insulation keeps warmth in through two mechanisms, by trapping heat and/or reflecting it. Most insulation uses very fine fibers that trap air, such as down, fleece and thinsulate. Natural insulators such as wool and down have the disadvantage of absorbing moisture, especially with down as it looses loft. Synthetic insulation doesn't absorb moisture. Insulation is rated in CLO units, with fleece rating from 1-1.5, thinsulate from 1-3, and loft insulations up to 5.

To use insulation in your own projects it is important to plan. It should be sewn between the outside shell layer and a smooth inner lining, such as taffeta. Quilting the insulation either to the lining or shell is usually needed, but that depends on the insulation. Here is a guide to making outerwear with insulation.


It is important to use high-quality zippers made for outdoor applications in your projects. Using a cheap zipper may result in zipper failure, and a lot of time repairing the problem. A good zipper should last as long as the gear. Zipper come in traditionally in three styles, spiral, tooth and metal. Each has it's best uses. Recently water-resistant zippers have been developed which make sewing with waterproof-breathable materials easier as extra flaps can be removed.

Spiral zippers are great for fleece and light-weight shell materials. They are also good for gear projects as non-opening ones can be made to custom lengths. Tooth zippers are more durable, and are often used in shell clothing. Metal zippers are very durable and are usually used in shells. Water-resistant zippers are actually spiral zippers with the spiral facing inwards and a PU coating on the zipper tape. Some people don't like them on long arctic trips as the zipper gets stiff - but anyways who needs waterproof clothing on arctic trips? With waterproof-breathable materials these zippers are great. No flaps are needed to keep out the water, and they can be seam taped. On pockets be sure to make a small "parking place" for the zipper pull so water doesn't come in that way.

Cording and webbing

I also call this category "software". Cording is used for adjusting openings in clothing and gear. Cording is available in both stretch and non-stretch versions and is usually made from nylon, polypro or polyester. Webbing is a broad category including backpack straps, bindings, edgings, elastic, reflectors as well as hook and loop (Velcro). The most important thing here is to look for something made for your application.


Good hardware makes your clothing and gear more functional and often times easier to design and sew. Duraflex is the world leading commpany for plastic hardware, producing most of the innovative designs on the market. Hardware for outdoor use should resist the cold, moisture and impact damage.

On clothing the most useful hardware includes attachments for zipper pulls, like the "zip-clip" or "groovy" zipper pull. In order to adjust stretch cording, many kinds of cord stoppers are available. Many include a slot for attaching the stopper to the fabric, allowing one-handed operation. There is also hardware for suspenders, such as clips and dividers. Gear requires a much wider range of hardware. Buckles, loops, slip-locks and tension-locks are used to connect and adjust straps. D-rings, lash tabs and hooks are useful for gear attachments on for instance a backpack. A huge variety of hardware is available, just takes some dreaming to put it to use.

By Zach Shelby