Jack the (Seam) Ripper

When you stop and think about it, many of the quilting tools we use are taken for granted.  Since they’re used so often, they definitely don’t have the sparkly attraction that things like rulers and patterns have.  They’re banal, nearly boring, and so common place we really don’t give them much of a second thought – you know things like pins and…seam rippers.

Ah.  Seam rippers.  The unsewing tools of our time.  The notion we like to spend as little time with as possible, primarily because their use notates a lack of progress…even regression.  They have a negative connotation and we truly do take them for granted.  So much so, I’d wager many of us are still using that cheap one which came with a basic quilting kit.

Please don’t tell me you’re still using this kind of ripper….

  Please tell me you’re not.  In this week’s blog, I want to address the dreaded seam ripper.  I want to discuss what makes a good one, how to use it, and my favorite kinds. 

The Ripper’s History

For as long as folks have sewn, we’ve made sewing mistakes.  Stitches in the wrong place.  Crooked stitches.  Too long or too short stitches.  And we’ve always had to have some way of removing them.  We may have used scissors, the tip of a knife, or the needle, but we’ve devised some way to remove the stitches and correct our sewing.  Then somewhere in 1883, W. Miller applied for a patent for a thimble with a small knife attached.  This was the first form of seam ripper.  Later on in 1898, Canadian John Fisher developed a tool whose sole use was for ripping out seams.  This tool was a twisted piece of metal with a small blade held between two pincher ends.  

1950’s Seam Ripper — notice there is no familiar red ball.

The design evolved from the single slicer between tiny jaws into a curved blade by the 1950s, with a little knobby protector appearing later.   From that 1950’s edition, little has changed.  There have been a few add-on features and in one or two cases, a complete overhaul, but generally little has changed about the basic seam ripper. 

General Facts about the Ripper

Appearance – Ninety-nine percent of seam rippers look the same:  A long and a short “finger” with the cutter in the curve between the two.  Very basic, but it does what it needs to do – rip out the stitches. There is also a handle and a shaft. 

It should be sharp – A sharp seam ripper should always be your favorite seam ripper.  This means the ripper can become dull over time and just like your rotary blades, needles, and pins, it should be replaced when it becomes dull.  Seam rippers are cheap (I’ve found I can buy 30 for around $18).  Replace it as needed.  Purchase several and keep one at your sewing machine and then others in your hand sewing project boxes.  If you can’t remember the last time you’ve replaced your seam ripper, then it’s time to do so.  A dull seam ripper is hard to use, and it may result in accidental cuts in your fabric.  With a dull blade, you push harder to remove stitches and that makes it easier to cut your fabric. 

You can mark and save your dull seam ripper to use to pull out corners or use as a stiletto when sewing.  If you do decide to toss the ripper, be sure to put them in a sharps container, empty Altoids type tin, or wrap tape around the business end so no one accidentally gets poked. 

Most of them have a red ball on the short finger — What’s it for?  This awesome feature allows you to slide the seam ripper along a seam for fast ripping. The red ball goes between the layers of fabric and holds them apart, so they are not cut when the thread is.  This is much, much faster than picking out individual stitches, or clipping every five stitches and pulling the seam apart.  It also helps align the seam with the blade of the seam ripper for easy cutting.  Granted this takes a bit of practice, but once you gain this skill, you’ll never unsew any other way.  It’s fast and as painless as ripping stitches can ever be. 

If your seam ripper doesn’t have the red ball, I don’t recommend sliding it down seams.  When you purchase a new ripper, just make sure it has the red ball on the short finger. 

The handle and cap are important – Because seam rippers are relatively inexpensive, it’s easy to think they’re all alike, or at least pretty similar to each other.  While it’s true all of them are made to remove erroneous stitches, it’s not true they’re all alike.  Yes, all seam rippers have a handle, but not all the handles are ergonomically friendly.  And while it is our goal to spend as little time with the ripper as possible, when it is in our hand we don’t want it to put a great deal of stress on our palms, fingers, and wrists.  Personally I don’t recommend this type of seam ripper:

It really stresses out my wrist.  A thicker handle works better (at least for me).  Seam rippers are one of the cheaper quilting tools, and like thread and needles, your personal preference should dictate your choice.  Try out several to see which works best for you.

You also want a seam ripper with a secure cap – especially if it will be tossed in a travel sewing kit or you have little ones around your sewing area.  If you have a hard time keeping up with your cap, remember many of them fit snugly on the end of the handle.

It can do more than just remove incorrect stitches – It can remove seams to change the design of a fitted garment.  It can be used to open up buttonholes.  It can be creatively used to rip jeans and other clothing or fabric for re-styling and repurposing. 

Choosing the Right Ripper for You

Just like it’s important to have the right needle and thread for the job, it’s just as essential to have the correct seam ripper.  As a matter of fact, you may find you need more than one ripper in your studio.

  • If you are working with fine fabric and thin thread, you may opt for one of the smaller rippers.  These have fine blades and smooth edges which prevent the ripper from inadvertently ripping or snagging the fabric.
  • If you’re sewing with heavier fabric like denim, you will want a more heavy-duty ripper.  These rippers are larger and have heavy duty blades which can easily cut through the heavier thread used with denim, outdoor gear, and weather-proof clothing.  They also can be used for refashioning garments that require a strong push to rip.
  • If you have arthritis, carpal tunnel, or any hand, finger, or wrist pain, one of the ergonomically shaped rippers is helpful.  Comfort is a key consideration in any activity and these ergonomic seam rippers with a soft grip and round shape can ease hand strain and stress. 
Ergonomical Ripper
  • Consider the “add-ons” many seam rippers now come with.  Seam rippers can now come with a magnifier, LED light, an awl, and a needle threader. 
  • Think about the newer model ripper like this:

Instead of having the two fingers with the blade in the curve, this seam ripper is simply a curved blade. (In all honesty, I think it’s a type of scalpel because the few times I did teach life science and had to perform dissections, the scalpel looked like this).

This ripper has an entirely different styling than traditional rippers.  The curved blade is not tucked away below a point – it is at the edge of the shaft.  It features a large handle and sometimes comes with a thumb hold for better control.  The blade is thin and extra sharp so it easily cuts through unwanted threads, sliding under the stitches for smooth cutting.  This type of ripper is great for use with sergers. 

Zone of truth – because I don’t have small ones at home (even my grand darlings are now heading towards double digits), I’m pretty lax about capping my rippers.  However, this is the one type of seam ripper I religiously cap – the blade is super, super sharp. 

Now before we get into this last part – the part where I rank my favorite seam rippers – let’s have a moment in Sherri’s Zone of Truth.  First, I’ve sewed and quilted for nearly 40 years.  Trust me, I have spent some quality time with seam rippers.  Second, since I dislike having quality time with seam rippers, I tend to use the ripper which is most efficient and least destructive so I can return to sewing.  Third, I am not employed by any of the companies which produce these seam rippers.  I receive no “pro-bono” products from them, nor do they sponsor any of my blogs.  The following is my unadulterated opinion based on years of use.  These are ranked from “okay” to “this is the best seam ripper ever.”

Number Four – Nifty Notions Brass Seam Ripper. 

This is the Queen of Rippers.  It’s brass, so it has a bit of “heft” in the hand.  It also feels down-right luxurious.  Legend has it the world will end before the red ball falls off a Nifty Notions Seam Ripper.  Rumor also has it that the ripper stays sharp for at least a decade.  It is wonderfully stylish and guaranteed to bring ripper envy in your quilting group sessions.  The reason this ripper didn’t rank higher was its price.  It sells from $16 to $24 (you can get them personalized, which is the reason behind the $24 price).  I have never had to contact Nifty Notions customer service, so I can’t vouch for how good or bad it is, but the internet was mixed.  Some complained that the ripper came to them dull, or the point snapped off and Nifty Notions was slow (or simply didn’t) make it right. 

However, in my research I have found that our friend Eleanor Burns has a brass seam ripper on her site which is around $15 and it received 4.5 out of 5 stars.  So if you simply must have a brass ripper, you may want to check out Quilt in a Day website. 

Number Three – The Surgical Seam Ripper.

 Yes, this seam ripper is just a tad on the scary side.  And yes, you must be more careful with this ripper than the others.  However, if you have a large area you need to unsew, this is the tool for the job. 

Number Two – The Mini or the Maxi Seam Fix Ripper. 

If you’re not into all the bells and whistles and simply want a great seam ripper without spending a lot of money, this is your ripper.  It comes fully loaded with a sharp blade, safety ball, a lid, and comes equipped to erase the threads which have been ripped out.  The lid has this large, rubber bulb on top.  Simply run that over the threads in your seam and it picks them all up.  The mini is my favorite ripper to keep with my hand sewing projects or in my sewing travel bag.

Number One – Clover 482 Seam Ripper

In my opinion, this seam ripper gives you the most bang for the buck.

I’ll be honest…I found this ripper on sale a few months ago and purchased eight of them.  They’re just that good.  Its handle is comfortable to hold and in my opinion it’s the best all-around ripper on the market.  It’s ergonomically friendly, the blade is thin but sharp, and it does take a long time to dull.  I will admit, the cap doesn’t stay snug, so just that word of caution.  These are a smidge over $6 on Amazon.

One final word about rippers.  If you use an embroidery machine, you know how long it takes to rip out any mistakes made.  I have found this

Works wonderfully well for embroidery machine mistakes.

Since I’m actually writing this the night before Halloween, it seemed fitting to call this blog Jack the (Seam) Ripper.  However, unlike our ripper’s scary, unknown counterpart, our ripper only unsews mistakes and clears the path for better stitches.  And like a few of the quilting notions we use regularly, a good seam ripper isn’t that expensive.  Make sure you use one which doesn’t put stress on your palm, wrist, or fingers.  Try out a few and see which one works best for you.

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stiches,


2 replies on “Jack the (Seam) Ripper”

Thanks for the history of the seam ripper. My favorite is the Dritz inexpensive blue one—the tip is thin, and I often find myself ripping out tiny machine quilting stitches.

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