The Chaos Guide to Organizing Your Sewing Workspace & Materials

16 February 2022

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So you want to organize your craft space—and keep it that way. What do you do when you’re not enamoured of labels, spreadsheets, and neatly catalogued containers and shelves? Or when your personality is chaotic, and you’d rather spend your time crafting than figuring out the best system for organizing your fabric? The key is to understand how your brain works and find ways to stay organized that work with your lifestyle and personality. I’m not a particularly neat person, and I’m okay with that. I don’t think in linear ways; I think in clusters with lots of tangents. My organizing strategy consists of piles. I can put my hand on anything within each pile, but heaven help the person that moves one of my piles, because then my “system” shatters like a filing cabinet dropped off a roof. But lately the piles have started taking over my crafting space, preventing me from actually making anything. Over my holiday break, I decided to get serious about organizing my crafting space. It was time for a better way: to create a space I love working in and a system that doesn’t impede my hobby. That system needed to be simple and easy to maintain, helping me to develop better habits and a more enjoyable craft space.
image description: a sketchbook

My brain doesn’t work in a linear way. Getting all my ideas out on paper helps me better understand what I need to focus on. This is the “before” plan for my studio reorganization.

Defining Your Chaotic Mind

To build a system that you’ll use consistently, you need to understand how your mind works, what your body can manage, and what habits you’ve already been able to develop and maintain. What are you willing and able to do to create a space you love?

Answering the questions below will help identify habits and personality traits that will guide you towards a system that works for you.

I included my answers as an example, and of course yours might be wildly different!

chaos org mind map

This is the pared down, consolidated version of the plan that started as scribbles in my sketchbook.

1. What happens to new fabric when you bring it into the house?
I can ignore clutter for a very long time, carving out small spaces amongst the piles. Any system I create must not lead to new piles.

2. How are you storing fabric right now? What works and what doesn’t?
What works for me is assigning different types of fabric to a specific container, shelf, or drawer, to be put away before they become hidden. This removes the need to dig through large storage containers looking for a specific fabric, a process I find painful and exhausting.

3. What other aspects of your sewing life need to be organized? How do you manage notions, interfacing, tools, etc.?
I like to have the items I use most often close at hand, so my system needs to allow for that.

4. What bothers you most about your crafting space?
Fixing the parts that bother you most is key to a system that works for you. I hate it when I need to cut out fabric but my cutting table is covered, or when my cutting space is too small for the fabric I’ve chosen.

5. Are there physical factors to consider, such as height, mobility, pain management, etc.? I am five feet tall and have pain and mobility challenges. I need to ensure that I store fabric in places I can easily reach. Size and weight of containers is also key, as I’m not physically able to lift and carry large, heavy tubs of fabric.

Find the systems that work with your personality, and not against it, and those systems will help you to create order from your chaos.

Create Rules That Work For You

Create rules for managing your fabric and notions that work with the habits you’ve already developed and ways your brain already works. Identify your habits and things you already do consistently.

image description: a basket containing freshly-picked flowers and blooms

This is an outline of my home office. I’ve blacked out areas that can’t be included in my plan for my crafting space and laid out a plan for the spaces I can use.

How do you manage new items that come into your home? What are things you do every day to make your life, health, and household run smoothly? If you can replicate those habits in your crafting space, you will have a system that works. Even simple, routine tasks like brushing your teeth, putting away groceries, doing laundry, and organizing your kitchen can help you create a model for how to manage your crafting space.

Here are some of my rules:

  1. When new fabric or notions are brought into the house, I must unpack them immediately and put them in their designated places. This is modelled on what happens to groceries when they come into the house.
  2. New fabric that needs to be washed before sewing is immediately laundered, dried, folded (selvedge to selvedge first, so that it’s ready to be cut), and put away. This mimics how laundry is managed in our home.
  3. I assign designated containers for every type of item—fabric, tools, notions, scraps—make them easily accessible, and put everything away when I’m done for the day. In the same way, there are designated places for glasses, plates, bowls, and cutlery in my kitchen, which makes emptying the dishwasher or preparing a meal a much easier process.
  4. I keep my workspaces clear by putting everything away every single time. Creating easily accessible places for everything makes this easier for me. A place for cutting tools and pattern weights near my cutting table. A place for my seam ripper, thread snips and other sewing tools near my sewing machine. A storage container for my thread spools and bobbins near my machine. My morning and bedtime routines are set up in this way so that even when I’m half asleep I don’t forget to brush my teeth or wash my face.

Storage and Sorting

You’ve determined how you need to organize, now put it into action.

1. What do you need to store?
Our sewing stash is not just about fabric. It’s about all the other bits and pieces that go along with it, including tools, notions, and interfacing. What is on your list?

2. Start with what you have.
What do you already have available to use for storage? Think big and small:

  • Unused furniture that has storage capacity: a dresser, shelving unit, bookcase, etc.
  •  Plastic tubs, baskets, boxes, and other containers
  • Magazine files or accordion files can help organize patterns, magazines, and books
  • Carts on wheels, with drawers or shelves, are useful for any tools and notions you might need to move around the room
  • Small cups, chipped mugs/glasses, and desk organizers can help keep tools, markers, and other small items organized

3. Convenience
Convenience is a big part of my making experience. If I have a place set up for sewing and cutting fabric, I’m more likely to sew.

What is convenient for you? What would you need to do to create a permanent crafting space that is convenient for your making life?

image description: a sketch of a sewing table and shelf system, with each shelf labelled to indicate its contents

Here I’ve created the ideal space both for cutting fabric, and for storing smaller amounts of fabric. A cart with plastic drawers under the cutting table creates easy access to space for cut fabric and scraps. A wastepaper basket lined with a plastic bag creates a convenient place to drop scraps intended for recycling. Shelves provide storage for patterns, books, and magazines, making it easy for me to put everything away once I’ve finished cutting. Everything is within arm’s reach.

image description: a sketch of a three-level shelf, each shelf has a label, referring to craft supplies

This three-level cart creates easy access to the sewing, measuring, and cutting tools and notions I use most often. I’ve added stick-on hooks to the side of the cart to hold my sewing rulers. A desk organizer in the top level holds scissors, rotary cutters, measuring tapes and marking tools.

4. Sort and Assign
What is the most useful way to sort your fabric for your purposes? Think about the fabrics you own and the projects you like to make. Sort in a way that makes most sense to you. If you’re a quilter, you might want to sort by colour. If you like making garments, sorting by weight and fabric type might make the most sense to you. 

Don’t forget to sort fabrics that you have already cut. What do you plan to keep, use for mending, or recycle? Find local organizations that accept and distribute scraps to fibre artists and arts groups or send them out for textile recycling.

image description: a sketch of a shelving unit, with each shelf labelled to indicate its contents

The plan for my closet shelves fabric storage. Instead of labels, this diagram is printed out and taped to the inside of the closet to remind me what goes where.

Nothing stops a good plan faster than being overwhelmed and too tired to carry it out.

After you plan, break it down

Once you have a plan and you know how all the pieces will fit together, break it down into small chunks. Your chaos developed over a long period of time; don’t try to change it in one day. Break your plan down into small, achievable tasks, and give each one a time limit—thirty or sixty minutes, for example—to make them more manageable and to give you a sense of success. Then reward yourself with some high-quality making time! Using the space you’ve created for making will remind you why you got organized in the first place and will encourage you to keep going until you’ve created your ideal crafting space.

Featured photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash. All other images by Kim McBrien Evans.

Copyright © Kim McBrien Evans except as indicated.
Photo of Kim McBrien Evans

About Kim McBrien Evans

Curiosity and exploration are the name of the game for Canadian knitwear designer and indie hand dyer, Kim McBrien Evans. A lifelong love of colour, texture, and pattern prompted Kim to transition from working artist to textile maven. Her knitwear designs are known for their ability to turn an abstract idea into a textile reality while simultaneously fitting and complimenting a wide range of bodies. This design work has lead her to explore how home sewers and knitters can create clothing that fits, while showing professional designers the beauty of inclusive design. Her yarn company, indigodragonfly, is renowned for its vibrant colours, offbeat names, and ever expanding plan for world domination. Her work has appeared in Vogue Knitting, Knitscene, Knit.Wear, Knitting Magazine (UK), A Stash of One’s Own (ed. Clara Parkes), The Sewcialists and Uppercase. She is co-author of Custom Shawls for the Curious and Creative Knitter.

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