Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Picking out a sewing machine

What is it?

This is something I get asked about a lot by friends and folks who know I sew. I should likely explain that I have sewn personally and professionally for over 20 years, so it doesn't surprise me to get this question. Most of the time I get this from folks who are new to sewing or want to give a gift to a someone. I think there are some critical things to look for here, and I was reminded recently when my friend Erin asked for input.

Why do it?

I find that many people eventually try their hand at sewing for a variety of reasons. Maybe they are interested in picking up a craft like quilting. Some, especially those into reenacting and living history, want to make their own costumes or period clothing. Still others just want to be able to hem their own pants or repair some items they've had sitting around for ages. Whatever the reason, if you're going to do much more than stitch on a button, most people decide a machine is worth the cost to save a ton of time. While it is true that for thousands of years man clothed himself (or, in most cases, women clothed us) doing each stitch by hand, but folks generally owned less clothing and weren't always trying to fit it around our busy modern life. So, if you think you need one, it helps to know what you need.

How did I learn it?

I learned to sew on my mom's Singer, but when I was 20 and heading back to college, I was given an old Kenmore, built into a table, by a friend's mother who just wanted it gone. That fairly unreliable machine served me until I moved back to PA and...long term borrowed my mother's again. This lead to her giving me a Singer Merit for Christmas. It wasn't until a few years later, when I got serious about making big and heavier things - plus occasionally charging for them - that I bought my first machine. Since that time, I've owned a number of machines and currently have 6 sewing machines, not including the 2 my wife owns, each with their own purpose. I've figured out what works, what doesn't, what you need, and what's really just flash.

How do you learn it?

Like owning a car, much of this is personal, but hopefully I can give you some pointers to ease your path. I'll take the path of someone new to sewing with a few pointers for those of you who may be older hands.

Usage Level - Be realistically on how much you will use this machine. That will have an impact on how much you want to spend. For the casual, once in a great while use, many of the cheap, basic models will serve. If, on the other hand, you intend to sew a lot and/or fabrics that can be tough on a machine, pay a bit more for quality. Rough fabrics can include wool, velvet, velor, leather, and canvas. Some of those seem obviously tough, but fuzzy fabrics like velvet can cause a lot of build up inside the machine's inner workings. Cheaper machines will jam up faster than a better built one as the parts may be weaker or more exposed.

Industrial or Home - Industrials are generally purpose built machines that take up a lot of space and do one task or stitch very well. For the vast majority of people out there, this is unnecessary. I own 3, but currently use none of them since leaving professional costuming. Be aware that some companies use "industrial" as a label on what is really a home model. If it doesn't include a power table and motor, it's a home model.

Stitches - This is often the first thing people see when they look at a new machine. "Wow, this one has 6 zillion stitches!" How many do you need? Realistically, 2. If I'm being downright honest with myself, 80 percent or more of my work is done with the straight and zig-zag stitches. Following that, I think that a blind hem stitch is a big help as this is great on pant legs, skirt hems, and the like. A 3-step zig-zag is another nice one to avoid rolling on certain fabrics. Past this, it's mostly window dressing.
Many people get hung up on an automatic buttonhole stitch. This is a great feature IF you do a lot of buttonholes. For a few hear and there, I don't think they're worth it. In fact, I think new users should consider doing them manually as it's good skill learning and considerable reduces your cost.

Reverse - This is standard these days, but not all reverses are created equal! The reverse lets you back-tack to lock stitches in, but can also be handy when doing buttonholes and decorative work. Many reverses require you to hold down a lever or button to move the needle backwards. Realize that this needs to be done while guiding the fabric, so that if you need to reach across or exert great pressure to perform this function, it may be tough to do regularly. Some more advanced machines allow you to hit a button and switch the current stitch to go in reverse. I feel that most folks will get by with a "hold-down" solution, but if you think there will be a lot of it consider the second option.

Feed Dogs - Fabric is moved through most sewing machines by feed dogs which move the fabric from underneath. There are exceptions, but we're not worrying about them. The point I wish to make here is that sometimes you don't want the fabric to move, either because you're darning, doing embroidery, or some other operation where YOU want to control the movement. This means that the feed dogs need to be circumvented. One option is the use of a plate, often plastic, placed over the dogs. This option, honestly, is horrible and, if possible should be avoided. The plate will break or get lost the first time you use it. Instead, consider a machine where the dogs lower if at all possible. If you think you'll never need to worry about it, take a risk, but you might find yourself regretting it.

Speed - Machines are almost always controlled by a foot pedal. This pedal often acts like a gas pedal in that the harder you push, the faster you sew. Some are little more than an on/off switch and should be avoided. One of the nicest additions to sewing machines in the last 10 or so years is the ability to set a max speed on the machine itself. Thus, no matter how far down you push the pedal, you can only go so fast. For folks just starting out this can be a good way to keep yourself from inadvertently stitching 5 inches past where you intended to be. As a more experienced, high-speed user I find it a wonderful way to slow myself down when I need to be paying more attention. The muscle memory in my foot that says "floor it!" but the slide speed on my Janome says "not so much".

Brand - Here we can get into a lot of trouble. Almost everyone in the US has fond memories of the Singer their mother got from their grandmother and how long that machine lasted. Today, Singer is the low-end offering of SVP, who own Pfaff and Husquavarna Viking. While this doesn't mean they're a bad option, it does mean they aren't the top-of-the-line they once were. Still, for the newer user, consider Singer or Brother, especially if you don't intend to use it a lot. However, if you can find used machines, consider piking up something by Pfaff, Husquavarna, or Janome. They may cost more, but will hold out for a long time. The first machine I bought myself was a Husquavarna Viking which was 10 years old when I got it. I beat that machine into the ground, making 3 period tents out of heavy weight canvas, more wool cloaks than I can count, and finally put it out to pasture after 14 years of, honestly, industrial level use.

Electronic or Mechanical - For durability and general use, nothing beats the mechanical machines. My current go to machine is an electronic model, but only because of some of the specialty items I couldn't otherwise get. Your first machine should be mechanical, especially as it provides less to go wrong! Hopefully you can suss out a lot of the small issues you find and not dealing with electronics makes this easier.

Embroidery and other hooplah - Not at first, seriously. It seems super inviting, very sexy, but spend some years mastering things like stitching 2 or more layers of cloth together. I have an embroidery machine which is now seldom used, do in part to software I can no longer run. I used it as a professional, but it was still likely overkill for what I needed. Unless this is going to be a business, don't bother.
I think that may be true of most of the gimmicky machines, like quilter's models. 9 (or more) times out of 10, you can do what you need without all the extra bells and whistles.

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?

What, that's not enough? All right, consider taking a class in your new machine, or a sewing class in general. You'll be amazed at what you can learn. I got a few free with my last 2 machines and picked up techniques I never considered before.
Don't assume this will be your last machine. If you stick with this for a long time, you'll move on to another. I recently sold that Singer Merit my mom gave me to a friend's sister, where it is helping a new enthusiast get some skills under her fingers.
Oh, and don't use, or at least type, the word sewer. Everyone will read it the way they're used to seeing that word, not as sew-er.