Monthly Archives: May 2013

Sewing machines: Finding the one that is “just right”

People ask me all the time for sewing machine recommendations.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight; I am a dedicated Bernina girl. I realize not everyone is, and I understand that. But I believe they are the best machine on the market, and I have been sewing on one Bernina or another for almost 40 years. (I still own the machine my parents bought for my college graduation present 38 years ago!) They are also far from the cheapest brand you can buy. I don’t much care. I don’t like sewing with cheap machines; I don’t like sewing with cheap fabric, and I don’t like using cheap tools. Picky, I know, but that’s how I feel. You asked, right? 🙂

Sewing machines are complicated pieces of equipment. If you expect good engineering, you are going to have to pay for it. Good engineering prevents tension problems, thread jams, bobbin-winding snafus, and much more. What kind of car do you drive? Uh huh. I thought so. You like the road performance of German engineering, right? Same principle applies to buying a sewing machine.

I also think it makes better economic sense to purchase a better quality machine – one that holds its resale value. I regularly see Bernina 830 Record sewing machines (manufactured between 1971 – 1981) selling for $500-$700, depending on condition and accessories. In 1975 the retail price was about $750. Take that, Brother.

Let’s talk about your time. It’s probably limited, like most people’s these days. If you want to spend the free time you have available for sewing fiddling with a cheap bobbin mechanism trying to get a decent stitch out of a $100 Singer, be my guest. I would rather actually sew.

And then there is the pleasure factor. I would wager that if you spend all your sewing time fighting a machine, you are not likely to think highly of the art and the unbounded enjoyment sewing can provide. Me? I can barely tolerate putting gas in a car! Shouldn’t you should just be able to buy the damn thing and have it run forever?

OK, now that you have read all my biases about Bernina and snarky comments about cheaply manufactured plastic machines, what sewing machine should you actually buy?

  1. Find a good dealer. If you are asking me for recommendations you probably aren’t knowledgeable enough to buy a machine on eBay. Do yourself a favor and get a dealer you can trust. You already know my opinion on that too.
  2. Buy the best machine you can afford. That doesn’t mean the one with the most decorative stitches; it means the one with the best engineering.
  3. Try to think about what you sew today, and then take a look into the crystal ball of your sewing journey and project a few years down the road. When I bought my latest Bernina this spring I bypassed the embroidery software option. If I have not embraced machine embroidery in 48+ years of sewing, it’s probably not gonna happen.
  4. Consider buying a used machine (from a reputable dealer). Well-built sewing machines do not really wear out, but people do “trade up” for machines with more features. This can be a really good way to get a great machine at a discounted price.
  5. It’s hard for me to say much about brands other than Berninas, but a Singer would definitely be a very poor purchase choice IMHO. Every one that has come thru my studio has been a complete dog sub-optimal. In general, Brother machines are decent if you plan on sewing medium weight cottons, linens and knits. Some (all?) of them are a little balky when sewing heavy denim or home dec fabrics. I have not sewn on any Janome machines, but I do have a few ASG friends who like them as a light-weight, portable machine for simple sewing tasks.
  6.  Just find a reputable dealer and test-drive as many machines as you can. The things that are important to me may not matter to you at all.

Happy sewing machine shopping!

Maris Olsen

Tutorial: 3 Ways to Gather Fabric

Gathering is an insanely common sewing task, especially if you are sewing with or for girls, right? Recently I hosted a sewing camp featuring “twirly skirts”, and I was stunned by how hard it was for kids to gather fabric. Clearly some things I have just forgotten after sewing for almost 50 years!

I decided to figure out a way that kids could successfully gather fabric regardless of the kind of sewing machine or accessory feet they owned. And by George, I think I’ve got it!

This is the first gathering method  I learned as a kid:

  1. Lengthen stitch length as far as possible.
  2. Stitch (at least) 2 parallel rows of stitching
  3. Pull up both bobbin threads equally to gather. If necessary, do the same from the opposite end of the stitching.

2 Rows of gathering stitches

Two rows of long, straight stitching

2 Rows of gathering stitches closeup

Close-up of the two rows of long, straight stitching

2 Rows of gathering stitches pulled up

Bobbin threads pulled to start gathering the fabric.

I think the pros of this first method are that it is quick to stitch, and no special equipment or stitch is required. The cons are that it is really only effective on lighter weight fabric and it is fairly easy for the threads to break when pulling on them. That breakage issue is really annoying, too, because you have to run a new row of long stitches. Not fun.

Somewhere along the line the next gathering technique I learned was this one:

  1. Set your stitch on a wide (4) and medium-long (3) zig-zag stitch.
  2. Place pearl cotton, sturdy yarn, or some other strong thread or cord under your presser foot.
  3. Zig-zag over the cord, taking care to not catch the cord in the stitches.
  4. Pull the pearl cotton thread to gather the fabric.

ZigZag over pearl cotton closeup

The red thread is normal poly, and the black is pearl cotton.

ZigZag over pearl cotton gathered

The pearl cotton is pulled to gather the fabric.

The pros of this method are that it is fairly easy to do, and virtually guarantees no thread breakage. The cons are you either must use a foot with a hole to thread the cording thru (not everyone has such a foot!), and it is pretty easy to catch the cording in the zig-zag stitch. I definitely cannot guarantee that all of my students will have a cording foot, and no way can an 8 year-old zig-zag over cording without catching the pearl cotton in the stitching!!

So, here is my brilliant solution.

  1. Hand-wind pearl cotton onto a bobbin
  2. Set stitch length as long as possible (max 5 or 6).
  3. Stitch 1 row of long straight stitching.
  4. Pull bobbin thread (aka pearl cotton) to gather fabric.

Pearl cottonbobbinflat

Black above is pearl cotton, and white is normal poly thread.

Pearl cotton bobbin gathered

Pull on the pearl cotton thread, and voila!

I tested this technique on an 8-year-old, and I sure wish I had thought it up before the Twirly Skirt Sew Camp. Ah well, next time!!

Happy sewing!

Maris Olsen