Friday, March 20, 2015

Episode 73: Tools of the Trade - Buying a Sewing Machine

This article is part of the Tools of the Trade series, sponsored by the Geek Girl Crafts Podcast. The author, Jade Falcon describes the how to buy and maintain a sewing machine. 

You can listen to this podcast:
Or directly download it from this link.:

How to Buy a Sewing Machine & Take Care of It

If you're a beginning costumer/cosplayer or just want to get into sewing, a good basic sewing machine can make the difference between learning to love sewing or loathing it.

With the plethora of sewing machines out there, it can be difficult to discern what type of sewing machine you need. There are a many sewing machines with extra bells & whistles (such as embroidery features, extra fancy applique stitches, etc), and you can get lost in nifty new features that you might not really ever use, but are SUPER COOL!.

There are some basic things you should really look for when you're ready to purchase a sewing machine that will take care of about 80-90% of all of your sewing needs.

Before I discuss these features, I want to classify sewing machines into two types. The following are oversimplified definitions:
  • Cabinet sewing machines -- these are machines that are built into a cabinet or table of some sort. You’ve probably seen your grand mother or great-grandmother with these machines. 
    • In this oversimplified definition, I'm also counting industrial sewing machines under "cabinet machines" because they are bolted onto a table. 
    • These machines aren’t portable, and the sewing machine is pretty much bolted into the cabinet or tabletop
Example of an industrial sewing machine bolted into a table.
  • Portable sewing machines -- most modern sewing machines are portable. They don't require a cabinet
    • All portable sewing machines have what is a called a “free arm”.  The free arm holds the bobbin, shuttle, and feed dogs. And there's usually a detachable piece that snaps on/off to give you a larger working space.
Example of bobbin, shuttle, and feed dogs within the arm.
    • A free arm sewing machines allows you to sew anything with a curve or is a tube (i.e. pant legs, sleeves, etc) --- basically any shape that cannot be sewn flat.  You can learn how to sew curves without the need for a free arm by bunching up the fabric or other techniques, but having a free arm can really make be a time saver.
    • Basically most modern sewing machines are considered "portable" or “free arm machines”
Example of a modern portable sewing machine with a free arm

I'm not trying to dissuade you from buying a cabinet. However, there are disadvantages to such machines -- including the need for more space to store the whole cabinet and lack of portability. My industrial sewing machine pictured above requires a lot of space, whereas my portable sewing machine, I can plunk down onto any flat surface.

[Note: Many newer sewing machines have been computerized (like the Viking shown above). However, a computerized sewing machine does not equal better. A good mechanical machine (like the industrial above) can do things equally as well, if not better than some computerized versions. If anything, computerized sewing machines are more expensive to purchase and maintain.]

In this article, I’m primarily going to discuss features that can be found in any type of sewing machine.

Basic Requirements in a Sewing Machine

There are some simple things you NEED in a sewing machine:

1) Is it easy to use? Such as threading and adjust?
A machine that’s easy to use is the one you’re going to use more often. I have several sewing machines. One machine an older industrial that is perfect for leather and heavy fabrics. BUT it takes me about 2 minutes to set up the thread tension each time I use it, and I have to test it out on scrap fabric every 30 minutes to ensure the tension is the same. And another machine lets me thread in under 10 seconds. Guess which one I tend to use a lot?

So what do I mean by easy to use?
  • THREADING: Can you easily thread the machine. If a machine is complicated to thread, you're not going to want to use it or change threads a lot. Personally, I tend to change threads quite a bit for different purposes, and I find that the ability to change threads is a god-send.
  • ADJUSTING: You want to be able to adjust two things on your machine
    • Tension -- how tight your stitches are.
    • Length of your stitches.
Basically, the easier it is to adjust your machine, the more you’ll be able to use it on different fabrics.
Here’s an article on adjusting tension: Adjusting your Sewing Machine Tension (a Craftsy article)
  • OTHER EASY TO USE FEATURES: Other things that make a machine easy to use:
    • How is the bobbin inserted into the machine? Is it easy to thread and insert? (The bobbin is a small spool of thread that creates the lower half of the stitch)
    • How easy is it to change the needle?

2) A good straight stitch.
The straight stitch is your most basic stitch and the one you'll probably use the most often (75-90% of the time). You want a sewing machine that allows you to adjust the length of your straight stitch (see Point #1) as well as one that is easy to go in reverse.

3) A good basic zig zag stitch
The second most used stitch is the zig-zag stitch. This stitch works well with stretch fabric, joining two working pieces, attaching appliques, and help prevent fraying of a raw edge.

In the following picture, you have:
  • two lines of straight stitches (with varying lengths)
  • two lines of zig zag stitches (with different lengths)

Nice-to-Have Features in a Sewing Machine
New machines nowadays have a lot of little extras such as cutting your thread for you or automatic tensioners. While these features are nice, they aren’t critical to your basic needs for sewing. After all, you can easily cut thread with scissors instead.

Consequently, the nice-to-have features in a sewing machine are:
  • A button hole feature -- You can create a buttonhole using a regular basic sewing machine using a straight stitch and zig zag stitches. However, a machine with a buttonhole feature can be a time saver.
  • A machine where you can easily obtain different “feet” or has machine comes with different feet. For example, a “zipper foot” can often mean the difference between tearing your hair out when installing a zipper or making it quick and painless.
    • Some recommended feet are: 
      • zipper foot, 
      • walking foot (for velvets and other slippery fabrics like stretch), 
      • zig zag foot,  
      • button hole foot
      • a roller foot (for thicker fabrics or fabric with nap)

How to find a machine:

At one point in sewing machine history, there was a lot of innovation. Sewing machine manufacturers were able to leap frog each other in technology. However, in this day and age, there are no major improvements in sewing machines. Most manufacturers add bells & whistles to existing features.

Most computerized sewing machines simplify some tasks, but overall, they do the basic things that mechanical (non-computerized) sewing machines do.

In addition, many sewing machine brands have farmed out manufacturing to Asia. So, price is not indicative of quality.

You can find sewing machines at your local big box store (like Joanns) -- they usually sell low-to-moderately priced sewing machines, starting at about $100.

You can also go to higher end fabric stores that carry an array of VERY expensive machines that cost as much as a used car -- these are often computerized sewing machines with a lot of extra features. (With some of these specialty fabric stores or sewing shops, you have to call to get a price on the machine!)

You can also try finding a sewing machine on Craiglist but, if you do that, I highly recommend knowing a lot more about sewing machines because you never know in what state a used sewing machine is in, especially if you're new to sewing!

However, there is an intermediary location where you can purchase good quality sewing machines that you know will work. I highly recommend finding a good sewing repair shop. They often sell used machines that can fit any budget, where you can find a good solid machine for less than a new one, and probably a higher quality than the low priced “new” one.

Finding a good sewing machine repair shop is like finding a good mechanic. You want to find them and HOLD ONTO THEM as long as you possibly can.
  • Look for a repair shop with a good reputation.
  • If possible, find a repair shop with a trade-in policy. You can trade in your sewing machine for an upgrade.
  • A good repair shop will be able to help you tune-up your machine later or help you fix any problems.
  •  A good reputable place will let you try machines unhindered. If you’re lucky, they can help you pick out a good machine. A really good shop will give you the advantages / disadvantages of each machine. 
Then go to the repair shop:
  1. If possible, bring someone who knows how to sew. They can help you be a sounding board.
  2. Try out different machines.
    • Try threading the machine several times, including changing out the needles.
    • Change out the bobbin several times.
    • Try the basic stitches -- straight stitch, zig zag. 
    • Try the button hole feature (if it has one)
    • Make sure you know how to "reverse" the sewing machines. 
  3. Ask if it comes with different feet or how you find them.
  4. Bring the type of fabric you think you'll be working on -- cotton, stretch fabrics, denim, leather and try it on the machine. Make sure the machine will go through the types of fabric you brought. If you're going to be working on several layers of denim, make sure the machine will go through several layers of denim.
Inheriting a sewing machine:
Don’t pass up on Grandma’s machine as long as it’s not a treadle (i.e. it uses electrcity). If it’s an older machine, you can get it serviced and repaired for probably less than a new one. A good repair shop will tell you if it's even worth fixing.

Brand recommendations:

I haven't used a lot of different machines, so it's hard for me to give you a large recommendation list of different sewing machines.  My machines include: older Singers (pre 1960s), Kenmores (1970s), and various Vikings (Colormatic 6000, 325 series) including a few modern ones (such as the Viking Designer). They’ve been workhorses for me.

For this podcast/article, I spoke with a couple of costumers whose opinions I trust. Here’s what they had to say:

Andy is a costumer in my area and has some great information about sewing machines. (See the link to his article below.) Here are his recommendations:
    • Pfaff's 300 series automatics (332, 332-260, 360 and 362) are excellent machines, basically scaled-down versions of their industrial models.
    • Elna's "Supermatic" series are sturdy and offers many unique features (including a surprising level of portability).
    • Viking's venerable "Model 21" and their 2000 and 6000 series "Colormatic" machines are real workhorses.
(Note: Personally, I like the older Vikings too.  Some of the newer (2010+) Viking machines aren’t as well-made for the price they want. I recently started having issues with some of the newer Vikings, and I'll probably never buy another one again.)

Lynne primarily works with vintage machines that do straight stitches only. She also repairs vintage sewing machines. Here are her recommendations:
"If a machine is all metal, with nothing broken inside it's usually worth fixing up. Once running, they won't die. Most aren't free arm, but if you are on a tight budget not having a free arm shouldn't deter you. Our sewing sisters from yesteryear did great things without a free arm machine.
    • Most pre-1965 Singers such as the 500a or 503 or Kenmores are great.
    • The Necchi supernova is another amazing European machine.
    • A great free arm machine is the Elna Supermatic. I'd recommend an Elna any day.

    Starting in the late 1950's Japan was producing very good clones of popular American made zig-zag machines. The names are all over the place as these clone machine were what we call "badged" machines. In other words they were made in Japan for a particular store and badged with that name. Japan had 15 factories that produced machines but hundreds of names appear on these machines. A lot of them look similar to this machine in the picture. Some are badged White or Brother and are very good, heck they are all workhorses. "

A Badged Simon machine (Does straight & zig zag) 
Courtesy of Lynne Taylor

A badged White machine, but only does straight stitch
Courtesy of Lynne Taylor

Cost of a Sewing Machine

The cost of a sewing machine can range from $100 (very cheap Singer) to a couple of thousand dollars (USD) for new machines. I know of one sewing machine with a lot of bells & whistles -- it sews, it embroiders, it cuts your thread for you  --- that cost $10,000+ (USD).

Used sewing machines can go for a lot less (as little as $50), depending on their state and whether they need repair. You can find a good used sewing machines that fit any type of budget, especially if you get the basics that I mention above.

Note: There are some sewing machine collectors, and some vintage sewing machines in good-to-mint condition can be expensive. So be aware of that when looking for a sewing machine.

Maintaining Your Sewing Machine

Just remember that your sewing machine is a machine just like your car. It has moving parts. And it will need regular tune-ups & maintenance to ensure that it is running smoothly and correctly. Depending on your machine, a tune up can be as little as $50 or if you have a computerized machine --  $100+ (USD)

Basic mechanical machines have a few things that are advantages:
  • Cost of maintenance is lower. Sewing machines with digital or computerized parts are lot more expensive to tune-up.
  • More places will be able to service them. I have a computerized Viking that I need to have serviced at a location 30 miles from my home, because it is the ONLY sewing repair shop that will take these machines. My other repair man will only take mechanical sewing machines. :-(
The repair shop can keep your machine up to 2 weeks, depending on how busy they are. So make sure you tune it up regularly, and in between projects. Definitely you want to know that your machine will work well when you start that BIG HUGE cosplay project.  (You don’t want to be like me, where you get stymied in a sewing project because it needed a tune-up)

Some people claim that they haven’t tuned up their sewing machines in years. Of course, I also know people who don’t tune-up their cars or change their oil. I don’t recommend it. Nor do any manufacturers.

How often to tune-up:
  • It depends on how often you use your machine. The type of fabric/ thread you use...and how well you maintain your machine.
  • Rule of thumb --  tune up your machine once to twice a year if you’re a heavy costumer and sew a lot. If you're a low to moderate sewer, tune up every 1-2 years.
  • If you’ve stored your machine for a long time -- they need to be tuned up before you start sewing.
  • Do it before you REALLY need your machine for a project.
Do some of your own maintenance --
  • Oiling it regularly -- You can get sewing machine oil at the machine repair shop). Read your owner's manual for where to oil your machine.
  • READ your owners's manual -- If you don't have the ownser's manual, look online. Many people have put up the manuals for older machines.
  • Changing out your needles very frequently -- (probably after every 8 hours or so). (I'll probably do a Tools of the Trade just on needles). If you use dull needles, your stitches won't be as sharp, result in skipped stitches, etc. Also, it can tear up your very expensive fabrics ….or even damage your sewing machine.
    • Cost of needles vs. cost of fabric + sewing machines = NO BRAINER.
  • Don't sew over pins -- it'll mess up the timing of your machine (costing you money), broken needles etc)
  • Remove lint regularly --  Open up your sewing machine and remove the lint around the bobbin area and throat/stitch plate. I recommend buying:
    • I recommend buying an specialized attachment for your regular vaccum that you can get at the repair shop or any sewing machine store.
    • A small lint brush or bent nose tweezers (like the dentist uses) to help remove crap from your machine.
In addition to doing your own maintenance:
  • Cover your machine when not in use. You can buy a cover for it, which just helps prevent accumulation of dust and grime in the sensitive parts of your machine. As a rule, I always keep my machine covered when not in use. I also have a sewing case specifically for it, in case I travel.
  • Pay attention to your machine. If you know what it sounds like when it's running fine, then you'll "hear" and "feel" when it starts to run wonky.

So, that’s it. I hope this helps you get a better idea of picking out a sewing machine and keeping it running for years. Happy Sewing!

If you want to read about my own adventures in sewing & costuming, check out my blog at: