To be a bit cliché, this shoemaker is a professional Web Developer and her child is this blog, but it was past time to launch what I have of a new design. All the content is still here, everything else is a work in progress (kind of like most of my sewing projects)!
I did a bit of sartorial sewing over the weekend, but I haven’t yet managed photos. In the mean time, I’ve been plugging away on additional signature and piano key blocks. They’re quickly filling the design wall. All of the signature blocks are complete; the three that will be in my quilt are at the top of the wall, framed with scraps from my other blocks to build them out into 8″ finishing squares to mix in with the uneven nine patch blocks. I stil have another set of 12 piano keys to finish up, but then I’ll be done.
A note on the design wall
I received an email asking about my design wall. Mine is very low-tech—a scrap of batting (currently what is left from a queen pre-cut after two baby quilts, something around 50″×80″ or so) hanging from Command hooks with safety pins.
I do want a better solution in the long run, but this actually works very well—and I can swap out batting scraps as needed. I know most people swear by flannel or felt for their design walls, but I much prefer batting. It seems to hold on to the blocks much better, and can be purchased much cheaper than flannel if you pay attention to sales (assuming you want something wider than 45″). I also like that it’s not on a rigid board—this way, I can roll it up if I want, preserving the layout on it, and hang up another scrap for another project as needed.
When I was a kid rifling through my grandmother’s sewing supplies, I always got a kick out of the little berry thing that hangs off of the traditional tomato pin cushion. I never understood what it was for, I just thought it was cute and silly. Ok, no past-tense about it. I still think it’s a little cute and silly. But now I know what it is for.
The berry is filled with emery, which is an abrasive powder. Emery is commonly affixed to boards to create files, among other uses. In this case, its purpose is to keep needles clean and sharp.
Over time and with use, needles and pins will dull, tarnish, and burr (to different degrees depending on the quality of the metal), making it more difficult to push them through fabric. By running needles through the emery berry a couple of times before use, you help keep them in better shape, so they work much better as they age.
So there you have it. The berry does have a purpose. The most common use is for hand-sewing needles, but it can help pins and even machine needles.
Although the image above is of mine, which is the cheap Dritz one I picked up at Joann Fabric, these days you can get a wide variety.
Is there another sewing whatsit that you want to know more about? Let me know in the comments. Also, if you know of any super cute pincushions or pincushion patterns, pass them along! After writing this post, I feel like I need something much cooler than my yellow tomato.
My partner and I both have hobbies that can get expensive. His is cycling, which is by far the more healthy of the two. Mine is (obviously) sewing. Once you reach a certain threshold, each can be about as expensive as you’re willing to make them—and dedicated hobbyists of either are often willing to go quite expensive to get the best gear. The two hobbies actually have a lot of financial similarities—especially when it comes to the cost of machines. So here it is: the cyclists guide to sewing machines, or, how to understand why that $5,000 sewing machine is just important to your sewist’s hobby as your $5,000 bike is to yours.
The discount store machine
Once upon a time—not so long ago, in fact—Schwinn was a household name. It was a name that screamed quality. The American Dream in bike form. Schwinn made great bikes. Now they’re reduced to being sold in Walmart and other discount stores, a mere ghost of what they once were. Schwinn road bikes can generally be purchased in the $150–900 range. They get you from point A to point B, but they’re made with cheap components and clunky, heavy geometry.
Similar to Schwinn, Singer was the household name for sewing machines for over a century. Issac Singer, the company’s namesake, created the first commercially successful machine in the early 1850s. His company’s products continued to be known for quality and staying at the forefront of technological advances. At least, until the later part of the 20th century came along. Now, Singer is fast becoming the Schwinn of sewing machines. Their cheap models can be found at discount stores across the country for under $200. Their nicer machines fall in the $200–1000 range, but even those aren’t the high-quality all-metal-gear technologically-advanced machines Singer was once known for. This isn’t to say they are worthless machines—I currently own a Singer and they still have the majority of the market share—but the dedicated hobbyist with a Singer is just biding her time until she can afford the next step up. Other brands in this category include Kenmore and Brother.
The entry-level machine
For the rider who is really interested in putting miles down on the pavement, the cheapest place to start is with one of the $600–$1,500 entry-level bikes available from brands like Trek and Specialized. That will get you a somewhat light aluminum frame, maybe a carbon fiber fork, and an okay group set. It won’t be the best bike out there on the road, but it’s an improvement over the discount store bike. It’ll shift pretty smoothly and handle the road better. If you buy it from the right store, you’ll be assured that it was built correctly and you’ll have access to knowledgeable salespeople and mechanics.
For the sewist who is really dedicated to putting stitches down on fabric and creating amazing products—be they quilts, clothing, home dec, or whatever else—the place to start are the $600–$1,500 entry-level computerized machines available from brands like Husqvarna Viking and Bernina. These machines have metal parts that hold up better than the plastic ones in cheaper brands. They have some simple fancy options. They sew smoothly and handle what you throw at them a little better than the discount store machines. Like an entry-level bike, these machines should be purchased from a good store with knowledgeable salespeople who can steer you toward a good repair shop. Other quality brands that offer entry level machines include Pfaff and Janome.
The competition machine
The rider that is putting down 4,000 mi a year on a bike probably isn’t rolling on a Trek 1.2 or a Specialized Allez. Someone putting down that many miles is going to go for a high-end bike. Whether they’re looking for comfort on centuries or speed in races, light-weight components and fine-tuned geometry are important. You can spend anywhere from $3,000 to $20,000 on a high end bike. The same brands that make entry level machines also have models like the Madone and the Tarmac—bikes that have won the Tour de France. Bikes that run in the thousands for just the frame alone. This category also includes foreign brands like Pinarello, Cervelo, and many others.
For the dedicated sewist who wants to expand her craft, entry-level machines don’t cut it. They just don’t have all the options. That’s where the $2,000+ machines come in. They have the high-quality metal parts found in the entry level machines, but have better stitching, more options, and advanced computerized interfaces. Some of them automatically adapt to the type of fabric being used, removing the need to change the tuning on the machine to handle it. Just think—how cool would it be for your cassette to automatically adjust to the proper gear ratios for hills vs a long flat ride? The more expensive machines generally have embroidery options as well, with ways to interface with your computer to allow almost endless options for creativity. Cyclists want to go faster and longer. Sewists want to create more intricate, embellished projects.
The rain/training machine
Once you reach the level of owning a $5,000 racing bike, it is quite painful to take it out on the wet, dirty, oily roads. Thinking of damaging your super-light race wheels on a stray pothole brings tears to your eyes, and replacing the race-level tires every 1,500 mi gets costly. So, most cyclists at that level keep a rain/training bike. It might be the entry-level bike you started out with or your last frame with cheap componentry, 32-spoke wheels and touring tires, but whatever it is, it’s what you bring out when the elements are going to beat it up.
The sewist often has her own rain machine. A older machine, often with fewer options, sits packed away until she needs to work on something that might hurt her precious competition machine. For instance, when she needs to sew fleece, which has fuzz that gets everywhere and gums up the mechanics if you don’t clean the machine after. Or when sewing heavy materials that put a lot of stress on the machine. Or to teach someone how to sew on—after all, sewing machines don’t need to to be adjusted to fit the user. It’s the machine that gets ridden hard with the thought that if something happens, at least it wasn’t the expensive machine.
The time trial/specialty machine
Truly dedicated cyclists aren’t content with their single bike (or two bikes, including the rain bike). They start wanting things like a time trial/tri bike, with its special geometry that’s all about aerodynamics for short, high-energy sprints. They might have a bike built up solely for riding in hills, or one geared for flats. These machines are built for specific purposes. They may be less-used than the main machine, but they are just as important to the overall experience of cycling. Sure, you can go out to a time trial on a normal road bike with aero bars, but an aero bike and the appropriate gear will help you shave minutes off your time.
Sewing has its own specialty machines. There are sergers or overlock machines, which use multiple threads and needles to make quick, finished seams and sew knits with ease. This is often the second machine added to a sewist’s lineup. There are stand-alone embroidery machines rather than the sewing/quilting/embroidery systems described above. There are heavy-duty machines that have limited options and are made to sew denim, leather, and other heavy fabrics or are for extremely heavy use, such as in a professional tailor’s shop. Very serious sewists and professionals will have multiple machines configured for different tasks, such as one set up strictly for quilting, another for a certain type of sartorial sewing and a third for some other sartorial task. Large quilting machines are also available that can be programmed in different ways to automatically quilt the backing, batting and quilt top together.
While a bike is the main component to cycling, that’s not all you need. A helmet, bike shorts and jersey, gloves and shoes are all additional gear needed for cycling. As with bikes, each bit of gear comes in many different brands, styles and levels of quality, not to mention price. Sewing is no different. Your $100 Giro helmet with all its vents is better than the $30 Bell one. Likewise, the $80 Gingher shears (scissors, for the layman) are better than the $30 Fiskar ones for your sewist. Sewing has its own gear, called notions. Things like pins, needles, thread, drafting tools—they all allow a sewist to be good at her craft. Where cyclists have to replace brakes, chains, tires, tubes and cassettes after riding a certain number of miles, sewists need to buy fabric for their different projects.
A true hobbyist will learn to work with whatever machine is available. Like the racer who won a 75km road race on a hardtail mountain bike, skill can make you successful with the tools you have, but the higher-end tools make the job easier, more enjoyable, and allow you to push harder toward the limits you think exist. You can sew by hand—you don’t need a machine at all—but to continue pushing yourself to create new and better things, sometimes you have to spend a little more money. For now, Carl’s out there on his Madone 5.9, and I have my Singer (and a Trek 1.2), but that’s only because once you’ve had the discount model, you want to jump straight to the high-end, and the $6,000 machine I lust after is a commitment I can’t yet afford, to be sure.
Of course, there is one difference in cost between cycling and sewing: electricity isn’t exactly cheap, but the asphalt is free. C’est la vie.
The presser feet I ordered finally came in the mail today! I’m looking forward to all the things I can do with them.
It all started with the narrow hemfoot (or rolled hem foot). I made some alterations to a friend’s bridesmaid dress and needed the foot to shorten the hem of the poly chiffon layer. Unfortunately the foot didn’t make it in time, and it was not the best attempt at hemming a dress I’ve made. But, I was excited to have an excuse to buy the foot, because there are so many uses for it. It’s the perfect foot for finishing off edges of fabrics like silk georgette (of which I still have a few yards in my stash even after making a shrug). It’s wonderful for finishing off the edges of light-weight linens for historically-pieced late-Elizabethan shifts that were seamed using insertion stitches on hemmed edges (of course, historically accurate reproductions would be hand sewn. I don’t want to hand sew them). It works great for things like sheer curtain edges and likely a million other things I haven’t even begun to consider sewing.
Then, since the shop I was buying from had a great shipping deal when you purchase multiple feet, I went ahead and grabbed two others I’ve been wanting: a ¼” piecing foot and an even feed (walking) foot.
When I first started my quilting adventures, I put off buying a piecing foot in favor of using my standard foot because I knew there were some ¼” feet out there that also came with 1⁄8″ guides as well, but my local shop doesn’t carry one. This shop did. So, I’m eager to throw it on and continue piecing the blocks of the quilt I started on this past week.
Although I haven’t finished piecing either of the quilt tops I’m working on, looking ahead I know that I’ll need a walking foot to successfully quilt them. Without it, the backing of the fabric gets pulled by the feed dogs enough to visibly offset that part from the top regardless of how well the layers are pinned. The even feed foot isn’t useful only with quilting though. It is wonderful to use on projects where matching patterns is vital, for instance when sewing plaids or stripes. The foot acts as a second, upper pair of feed dogs to ensure all layers of fabric move through the machine together, making sure that matched patterns stay matched. Having sewn plaids without one before, I am eager to see what a difference it makes. Supposedly it’s great for dealing with vinyls and other fabrics that don’t want to feed correctly using a normal foot.
Now, I’m off to try out the piecing foot! I think I have about all the presser feet I could ever need now, except for a darning foot. I wanted to grab one of them in this order as well, but the shop didn’t carry one for my machine, nor does Joann Fabrics. Oh well, I should probably try quilting with straight lines before I try to start stippling, any way.
In my post about my machine being out of time, I counseled again and again on the need to use the right sewing machine needle for your project. However, I never answered the question of “What is the right sewing machine needle?”. All the numbers on the needle package can get quite confusing, as are the distinctions such as “sharp,” “ballpoint” and “universal.” Read on to learn what you need to know to choose the right needle for your project.
Using the wrong size of needle can turn a great project into a complete mess. A needle that is too heavy can leave gaping holes along the seam line, while a needle that is too thin will end up bending and breaking. You’ll end up with puckered, poorly-stitched seams that look terrible.
Sewing machine needles are labeled according to two systems: American and European. American sizes range on an indeterminate scale from 8-19, while European sizes range from 60-120 and are based on metric measuments (a size 60 needle is .6mm in diameter). Most needle packages list the size in both systems, generally with the European size first, like 60/8. Occasionally you’ll see the American size listed first—just remember that the smaller numbers are American and the larger are European system.
The rule: the smaller the number, the thinner (lighter) the needle. But even knowing this, picking a needle for your fabric can still be tricky. Hopefully this table will demystify the numbering system:
Sewing machine needle sizes in the American and European systems
Chiffon, organza, gauze
The closest thing to a universal size: linens, cottons, jerseys, medium-weight polyesters, etc. This is the size most home sewers use for everything.
Denim, canvas, upholstery
Once you’ve chosen your needle size, you should always test on a scrap of the fabric you intend to use. If the stitches aren’t smooth, you may need to use the next size up or down.
Don’t forget to consider your thread as well. If you’re using a heavy thread on a thin fabric, you’ll need a heavier needle than you would otherwise use. The thread should pass through the eye of the needle with ease. If the thread is too large for the eye of the needle, you’ll have issues with tension, as well as weakening the thread—often to the point of fraying it and breaking it mid-stitch.
Size is not your only consideration when it comes to choosing a needle. You must also take into account the type of fabric and type of stitching you plan to do. There are three basic needle types:
Sharp needles, as the name suggests, have sharp points that are good for piercing the fabric smoothly. These should be used on woven fabrics, particularly silks and mircofibers. They are also called Mircotex needles
Rather than having a very sharp point to pierce through fabric, ballpoint needles have a rounded tip that allows them to slide between threads in knitted fabrics. These needles are used on knits in order to keep from causing runs or breaking the threads. Stretch needles are similar to ballpoint needles and are made for use with lyrca and other stretchy knits.
Universal needles fall somewhere between sharp and ballpoint. They are meant to work for most fabrics the home sewer will encounter.
In general, universal needles will suit most projects, but it is good to use one of the other two for the best-finished project, especially when you’re not using a medium-weight woven fabric.
In addition to the three main types, there are some specialty needles available for specific applications:
These two needle types are heavier than normal needles and are made to pass easily through the heavy fabrics. Leather needles in particular have very sharp, shaped points that cut rather than pierce, so you may need to use a sharp/Microtex needle on synthetic leather.
These needle types have larger eyes and slightly different shaft/scarf/eye shapes to better accommodate the heavy, sometimes fragile, threads used for specialty applications.
Quilting needles have a tapered shaft that helps sew through multiple layers of fabric with greater ease than a normal sharp or universal needle.
Wing (Hemstitch) needles
These needles have wings on the side of the needle that create a large puncture hole in the fabric. They are used for hemstitching and heirloom sewing to create cutwork-like designs.
Double (Twin)/Triple Needles
Double (and triple) needles have two (three) needles attached to a single shank. They are used mainly for decorative top stitching or hem/seam finishing, and come in different widths and point types (ballpoint, sharp, universal, denim, etc.). These needles may require a different faceplate, so be sure to check that before you use them.
You should use the appropriate specialty needle if possible. For instance, while a 16/100 Universal needle may be able to sew through denim, a denim needle will be better suited for the project. For more information on these needle types and troubleshooting tips, check out this overview article at Threads magazine.
One mistake I made often when I was first learning to sew was thinking that I needn’t touch my needle until it broke or I needed a different size in the machine. For a long time, no one told me otherwise. Now I know better: needles are a consumable product. You should be replacing your needle on a regular basis (and throw out the old one). There’s no hard and fast rule, but for the most part, you’ll want to replace the needle for every project or after 8-10 hours of use. Over time, needles get dulled and slightly bent, reducing their effectiveness. An ineffective needle makes bad stitches.
More about needles
Almost all household sewing machines use the 130/705H needle system. This is great for the consumer, because it means you can go to most any craft/sewing store and pick up a package of needles that will fit your machine—without being tied to a specific brand. Sometimes you’ll see additional letters that correspond to the type of needle, such as M for microtex or Q for quilting. The ‘H’ in the system designation stands for Hohlkehle, which is German for “chamfer” or “with scarf”—referring to the cutaway groove on one side of the needle shaft, called a scarf. This scarf allows the bobbin case hook to intersect with the needle thread, forming the machine lockstitch.
Now that you’re well acquainted with sizes and types of needles, make sure you master changing the needle on your machine. It’s generally a simple thing to do, and with practice it shouldn’t cause much more of an inconvenience than threading the machine. Double check your owner’s manual, but a good rule of thumb is to always make sure the scarf is pointing toward the back of the machine, and make sure the screw holding the needle in is well-tightened. A loose needle will end up falling and breaking.
My machine is headed to the shop to have the timing fixed, so projects are on hold for now. What is timing, you ask? I’ll get to to that… but story first: I was merrily sewing along the other day, trying to do a decorative stitch on another stuffed animal from the Simplicity 2613 pattern, when I noticed that the pattern was a bit lopsided. In fact, every third or fourth left-side stitch was being dropped. I figured I was using the wrong needle size for my fabric, and didn’t pay too much attention at that point, since it wasn’t in a conspicuous place. I hoped it was just a needle issue, because the other option is that the machine is out of time.
What to do when your machine drops stitches
As I alluded to in the intro, dropped stitches can be caused by something as simple as using the wrong needle size for the fabric you’re using. If your machine starts dropping stitches, try the following before jumping to the conclusion that it is out of time:
Change the needle
The needle could be causing the issue for multiple reasons:
The needle is dull: a dull needle will have trouble going through the fabric, causing it to bend and cause difficulty picking up the bobbin thread.
The needle is bent: even a small bend in the needle can cause issues.
The needle is the wrong type: especially if it is too small/light for the fabric you’re using, the wrong needle can have issues getting through the fabric, being pulled by the feed and bent. Using the proper needle size is vital to good machine sewing.
In general, you should replace your needle before starting a new project, and after about 8-10 hours of sewing (so, judge by the latter if you do many small projects).
Check your tension
Check your tension settings to make sure they haven’t been changed. If they have, play with the tension to see if it is causing the issue.
Re-thread the machine
Sometimes the issue can be caused by funky tension in the machine and in the bobbin. Rethread the machine to see if that fixes it.
Respool the bobbin
Unwind the bobbin and respool it. If the bobbin was wound incorrectly, it could cause this issue.
The fact that my machine was only dropping left-hand stitches on zig-zag and decorative stitches was a good indication that it wasn’t a tension or thread issue, in my case. It continued sewing perfectly fine on the right-side and down the center. It still could have been a needle issue, as you’ll begin seeing many issues with a slightly bent or dull needle (or one that is too heavy/light) when you start having the needle move around horizontally that just don’t appear when the needle is sewing straight. But alas, when I got around to working on additional projects with different needles, thread, and fabric, I found the issue was still occurring. That, my friends, was a bad sign.
What is timing?
When you have a machine with many moving parts, all of those parts need to be moving along in a well-choreographed dance. The right movements have to happen at the right time to make sure everything functions properly. Over time, friction and other issues can cause these movements to slow down or speed up, resulting in minute differences between movements that need to happen simultaneously. This causes things like missing the bobbin thread when the needle goes down for a stitch. When that happens, your machine is said to be out of time.
Other things can cause the machine to become out of time, aside from use. In my case, it is probably because of my using the wrong needle type/dull needles at a couple of points in the couch project (like when I forgot I’d removed the upholstery needle, and tried using a size 70 on my heavy upholstery fabric.). That resulted in some nasty thread knotting in the bobbin case that I pulled a little too hard on to remove. Otherwise, my machine, which is only about 8 months old at this point, shouldn’t be having issues.
Is it the timing? What should you do?
If you’ve tried all of the above and it is still happening, the issue is probably the timing. I’m sure you can find information out on the Internet somewhere about how to fix the timing on your machine, but your best bet is to take the machine to a repair shop with people who know exactly what they’re doing. Especially if you machine is still under warranty (like mine). Oddly enough, this is similar to what happened to my other machine that caused me to buy the current one, except of course, the gears that help control timing happened to rot and fall apart completely, which isn’t as easy of a fix.
After my 1976 Singer Touch and Sew super-cool Zig-zag+crazy other stitches-stitching model 750’s gears rotted, resulting in the complete crumbling of the hook gear, I debated spending ~$80 in labor to have the $10 part replaced or sucking it up and purchasing a comparable modern machine. The question is, will I use the new machine enough to justify its cost?
Now, 6 years ago, it would have been a no-brainer: I did a lot of sewing. I sewed no fewer than 10 formal dresses for random school dances/my step-sister’s bridesmaids, and also a couple of faux-Faire costumes plus random other costumes/apparel items. (And let me tell you, while working on those bridesmaids dresses they seemed legion, not a mere 6) At the time, my sewing was split between an early-90s Bernina, a mid-70s Singer Touch and Sew (not the one above), and a late-90s Riccar.
But then, college intervened.
And continued for four years.
And then I got desperate my senior year, and bought a teeny-tiny little machine from Target so that I could sew up a corset for my society’s annual Rocky-Horror party. Let me tell you, that $30 machine worked its little heart out over Ridgeline boning, multiple layers, and heavy brocade. I was impressed. When I graduated though, I took it home and gave it to my young nieces.
Then, about a year ago (right after graduation), in exchange for manual labor and organization, a friend allowed me to scavenge things she was giving to Goodwill for my new apt. Buried in her basement included the Touch and Sew tucked away in a nice sewing machine cabinet. And amazingly, despite sitting unused for years and needing a thorough cleaning, it worked! So, I had a sewing machine again.
But, I never could get it quite clean enough … and aside from a few curtains, it pretty much sat tucked away in its cabinet in our living room.
That is, until we decided to reupholster the couch (which was also scavenged from the aforementioned basement). I was super excited! We found some great fabric for $6/yd (and lots of it for our 8-foot long, fluffy couch). So, we started reupholstering. And then, that same night, as I went to sew the first few seams of pieces to staple onto the couch, my needle wouldn’t go all the way down. It was striking metal down by the bobbin. I couldn’t figure why. So, after some troubleshooting from the top, I took the bottom of the machine off, and out fell little pieces of gear. My heart broke.
But, ok, I start Googling and find tons of resources for vintage Singer parts and service instructions. I order the part. It comes. I realize, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that I can take the machine apart and get the gear in on my own.
And thus, my quandary. Quotes to fix it are around $80 labor. But, I’m scared that another gear will break. And then another (there are at least 4 big black plastic gears).
So I took a leap. I bought a Singer Confidence 7470 (on a very good sale), which is, as near as I can figure, the 2009 equivalent of my bicentennial-born darling (and perhaps a little better).
And, to motivate myself to use it, I’m going to share my projects. So, feel free to yell when I don’t update for a while. In fact, I encourage it, please!
Perhaps someday I’ll also pull out old pictures of the various things I’ve sewn. Including the crazy Pink-Fushia-Aqua-Orange Plaid “formal” gown my dear friend Rebekah wore to our senior prom.