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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Home Decor Series -What Do I Really Need in My Workroom? Part 1A

Welcome to the first installment of the 'Sewing Instruction' portion of the Make Mine Beautiful Home Decor Series.

This series is designed to help you learn to sew like a pro, regardless of your current skill level. To do that, we need to start with the basics.

Our first class,(a 3 part series)
 'What Do I Really Need in My Workroom?', will cover the following:
1A. What to look for when buying a sewing machine
1B. What machines you need based on the kind of sewing you want to do
1C. What you really need on hand in your sewing room

Let's get right to it.

How Do I Know What Kind of Machine I Should Buy?
Let's assume you know nothing about sewing machines, yet you've found yourself magically transported smack dab in the middle of a sewing machine store where the sales lady is asking you if you need help. Well, sure, you need help, but since you don't know how to sew, you have no idea what questions to ask her, or yourself. Or maybe you do sew and you have a sewing machine but is just doesn't do what you want it to do and you're in search of a new one. How do you know which one to buy?

First of all, you'll want to answer the following questions.
1. What kind of sewing do I want to do?
Do you simply want to be able to mend clothes, sew on buttons, or hem a pair of pants? Do you want to be able to make a basic pair of curtains? Or do you want to be able to mend your clothes, make your curtains, recover a few chairs, and make embellished pillows and bed coverings? Do you want to be able to add decorative stitches to your creations? Sew in piping and trims?

2. What is your current skill level and your future desire?
Are you a beginner who only sews straight lines? Are you afraid of zippers and buttonholes? Do you fear a blindstitch? Do you even know what a blindstitch is? Is simple sewing all you ever want to do, or do you see yourself being able to make a complete bed set with complementary draperies.....if you only knew how?

3. Are you serious about your investment in a sewing machine?
Are the only sewing machines you've ever seen in the aisles of Walmart? Do you consider 'a high end machine' to be the most expensive one that Walmart carries? Do you know that Singer is not the only brand of sewing machine? Have you ever ventured into a real sewing center?

4. How much are you willing to learn that you don't already know?
Learning to sew takes time. Sure, we all want to be able to sit down at a machine and whip out a pair of draperies -blindstitched, not top stitched! - and add a few decorative stitches along the border, but are you willing to commit some of your time to learn how to do it properly? Are you willing to take a class or two to learn the functions of your machine? Are you willing to read the manual that comes with your machine before you use the machine?
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What particulars should I be looking for in a machine?

There are basically two types of machines, mechanical and computerized. (Note: These notes only apply to home machines, not institutional or industrial machines.)

Mechanical machines are usually much cheaper. With a mechanical machine, you'll control most of your functions by hand. You will have a selection of various stitch styles, albeit limited. Buttonholes are made manually. The motor in a mechanical machine is not as powerful or consistent as the electronic motors in computerized machines. These machines are not designed to handle heavy, daily sewing very well. (The sales people will tell you they are, but after 16 years of doing this, trust me, they aren't [unless it's industrial].)
Computerized machines are a bit more costly, but justifiably so. Computerized machines have touch pad control panels, and often, an LED screen. Computerized machines use a computer chip to control most of the functions. There are more stitch capabilities on this type of machine. Many computerized models have automatic buttonhole functions as well as memory settings for your favorite stitches. The electronic motors in computerized machines give them much more power than a typical mechanical machine, and they are designed to withstand daily sewing.
Now that you know a few of the differences in mechanical and computerized machines, you need to know which functions to look for in either.

Which Functions are Important when Buying a Sewing Machine?
Ok, here's where we get down to serious business. You want a machine that will be able to grow with you as you learn, which means you'll need to look for features that you want to have in the future as you develop your skills.

Choose a machine that can accomodate your learning.

Don't sacrifice quality for price. (You'll be thankful you heeded this advice once you start polishing your skills.)

Limited features equal limited creativity. You may have grand creations in your mind, but if your machine can't live up to your potential, your creations will suffer for it.

Ask the following:
-Does the machine come from a reputable company?
-Are the sales people knowledgeable?
-Will there be someone to help you if and when you have questions or need help?
-Can the salesperson show you basic techniques?
-Do they offer financing? (If they do, and you chose that option, buy everything you need at once.)
-Is there a warranty with the machine? Who sends in the warranty information?
-Is there on-site service where you purchased your machine? If not, do they have a repair person under contract? Do they have a print out of his fees?
-Do they offer a class to teach you the basics of your machine?
-Do they have creative classes you can take as you hone your skills?
-Does the company have a helpful and informative website?Does it have videos and/or tutorials? Do they offer webinars that teach new features? (Bernina, hands down, has the best customer friendly website EVER, and they offer webinars you can take part in to learn new techinques.)

Note: When you purchase a machine from a big box dealer such as Walmart, or a fabric store, keep in mind that you are on your own once you get the machine home. The sales people in these kind of stores are not trained to know the machines, and rarely ever know any more than what is written on the box. I would strongly suggest that you purchase a machine from a reputable dealer so that you have the benefit or their expertise to help you. If you're an experienced seamstress who knows the ins and outs of a machine and can troubleshoot your own problems, then feel free to buy a machine anywhere you like.
ANOTHER NOTE: Just an FYI: Some of the Hancock Fabrics stores have a BERNINA Sewing Center located inside, and some Joann Fabric stores have VIKING Centers inside. In these cases, those stores within the fabric store are independently owned, and do offer the same benefits as a sewing machine dealer. These independently owned stores do NOT sell the machines that are offered by Hancock and Joanns, they only rent space inside their stores in which to sell their own machines, and they are staffed with employees separate from the fabric store.  Make sense? In other words, don't purchase a machine from Hancock or Joann because it's cheaper and then carry it to the dealer in the store to get help with it. Won't happen.

Look for the following:

-What kind of stitch package does it have? (Are there more than basic utility stitches? The more you learn, the more you will want from your machine. Buying RIGHT the first time is something you'll never regret.)

-Does it have programmable stitches? (This is a great feature once you learn your machine. It will allow you to repeat the same stitches over and over without resetting the machine each time you do a like project.)

-What feet come with the machine? and what feet options are available? (At minimum you'll want the following: basic sewing foot [often called a reverse pattern foot], a zipper foot, a buttonhole foot, a button sew-on foot, and a blindstitch foot. See if the store has a handout of the feet options that are available for purchase in the future. When you learn to do more, you'll need more feet. )

-Are there memory function settings? (Wouldn't you love to be able to recreate the same size buttonhole, perfectly, time and time again? Most machines that have memory functions also have a basic alphabet. Imagine being able to program your kids names into the memory one time and be able to recall it every time you want to stitch it out.)

-Does it have adjustable stitch length and width settings?
(You'll also want to ask what the maximum stitch width is. The standard options are 5mm, 7mm, and 9mm. I would not get any less than a 7mm. When sewing straight lines, it doesn't matter. However, when you start using your decorative stitches, they'll look much prettier with a larger stitch width. Ask the salesperson to stitch out a sample for you using the same stitch on the different machines  and you'll see what I mean. What the point in adding a row of decorative flowers if you can't even tell what they are when you stitch them out?)

-Can you alter the stitches? (For instance, lengthen a decorative stitch, or tighten the stitches in a buttonhole.)

-Is there an automatic needle threader? (If you have trouble threading needles, you'll need this.)
-Are there various needle positions? (And by various, I mean more than 3. 7-11 is optimal.Trust me, you'll pat yourself on the back for making you sure you get a machine with this feature as soon as you start sewing zippers.)

-Can you lower the feed dogs? (You'll need this feature if you ever want to do free motion stitch work.)

-Is there a needle stop up AND down feature? (This will help when you need to be able to repostion your hands or your fabric without losing your place.)

-How much are extra bobbins? (You'll want plenty, so the cost can run up. If they're too pricey, check ebay.)

-Is there an extention table available? (Being able to put a lot of your fabric weight up on a table will help your sewing go smoother and give you more control over your project.)

Studying this information will arm you with the basics you need to know be able to purchase a great machine for yourself.  The salesperson will be uber impressed!

If all you ever want to do is sew a straight line and make basic projects, then a simple mechanical machine will do the trick. However, if you know that you will want to continue to make larger projects on a more regular basis, you'll want to invest in one with an electronic motor with some computerized features.

Stay tuned for parts 1B & 1C on Sunday.

I'll leave you with a bit of inspiration. This 'lace' is made solely with a combination of decorative stitches. This is a fairly easy process once you get the hang of lining up your stitches, and you can do it on any machine that has decorative stitch options.
In the industry, this is refered to as a 'stitch recipe'.  

I hope you feel this information has been beneficial and you walk away feeling more informed and confident about purchasing or upgrading your machine.

What sewing related questions do you want answered? Go ahead and ask them in the comments and I'll answer them in the next installment on Sunday


  1. Well now, I learned alot! Didn't know the diff between mechanical and digital. Actually, I didn't even know machines came digital! It's been awhile. :)

    No questions yet, but will continue to tune in for more! Thanks for all the incredible info.


  2. Great post!! I am in the market for a new machine and this will be so helpful!! Now I feel brave! Off to the sewing machine store I go!!

  3. Oh gosh this is so useful, thanks for the tips!

  4. Great post, Polly. I already have my dream machine and sold Berninas for years. I wish women would have this information before shopping for a machine. It is very helpful will make a buyer more able to find the right machine for them.

  5. How exciting! I just pulled my machine out of the attic, got it fixed and now want to learn how to sew. I have had a machine for a while now, but can sew very very little.

    I have a strong desire to learn and to teach my two daughters. Thanks for any and all help.

  6. OK, I want one. The big one. With the dohiggies on it! There isn't really that much that is mechanical/computerized that makes my heart go pitter patter. Seeing that Bernina...oh yeah!! I barely sew a straight line. But I "feel" an inner seamstress in me. Have for years.

    You posed a lot of questions that I would never have even thought to inquire. A dealer! That was the best one for me. While I wouldn't go to Wally World for a sewing machine. I did get mine at Sears. Is that the same difference???

    I will be following this series. Thank you Polly!!

  7. Excellent post, Polly! Great tips!

    I have been a hobby sewer for years and currently have four machines but must confess the one that I least care for is my Computerized machine. Though it does have its benefits I personally find it far too sensitive when 'the pedal is to the metal' so to speak. In other words when I speed. :) To me there is nothing more frustating when you have your thread break during the midst of sewing. Arrrrghhhhhh!

    Also even though all my machines have buttonhole features my very favourite is that of a clunky attachment with cams that is used on an old Singer Machine. It sews the most fantastic buttonholes and is the reason why I have not parted with it. -Brenda-

  8. Thanks for the tips! I'm excited to know more. I don't have a question yet, but I did pick up a basic Janome sewing machine four years ago. Nothing fancy but it runs really well.

  9. I would be interested in maintenance information.


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