Choosing a machine...some basics

Apr 4, 2005

The Bottom Line Choose your machine for your project, several single-purpose machines may be more efficient than one multi-function machine. Older is better, no computers unless you really need that!

Ah the sewing machine, most folks today would rather buy their clothes off the rack than have to learn the complexities of sewing their own. For me....I absolutely hate making work clothes, my passion is medieval and renaissance (and maybe Elizabethan soon) period costuming and other fun stuff such as making period shoes from leather and other heavy-weight materials. Most home sewing machines can't handle leather well or the multi-layered gambesons that those participating in medieval re-creation fighting need to protect them from armor-bite. I have a serger for light stuff, a regular sewing machine for completing what can't be finished on the serger and a "walking foot" upholstery machine for the really thick stuff that the sewing machine won't handle.

Basically there are the following types of machines out there, a serious seamstress/tailor might own one or more of these machines because often a multi-functioned machine is just not as good as one that is designed to do one function exceptionally well.

The serger:
The serger's strength is that it cuts, over-edges, and sews all in one very fast operation. Most sergers have a function known as differential feed (don't buy a serger that doesn't have this, you'll be sorry) for handling really light weight or stretchy fabrics.

Sergers are generally much faster than a sewing machine and are best suited to light to medium weight fabrics--such as what most people make work clothing from. Because of the overedging function, they are well suited to any fabric that frays a lot (wools, raw silk noire, linen, loosely woven anything). The newest, and generally higher priced, serger models can handle heavier weight fabrics such as denim. Generally the serger can't complete the entire project, the lack of a free arm on most machines means you need the regular sewing machine to sew in facings around collars, hem sleeves, etc.

Early sergers offered one and only one stitch, newer models may offer more functionality such as safety stitch and blind hemming. Most store bought clothing is sewn on a serger. Because of technological limitations, most sergers are not "free-arm" they are best suited to straight lines and the occasional gentle curve (you can do 90 degree angles but the machine has to be stopped and the fabric repositioned at the corners). A good serger can do curves easily, a cheap machine will loose the stitch (i.e. the loopers drop out) as you move the fabric around the curve. The ends of serged seams must be secured in some fashion whether tied, glued(fray check) or over-sewn (flip up the knife and serge over the end of the chain) to prevent them from unraveling.

Sergers come in 3, 4 and 5 thread varieties. A 3 thread unit will be the most limited, a 4 thread (most common machine sold) can generally do several several functions and 5 thread is the most expensive but offers the strongest stitch and the most stitch variety. Some sergers have foot kits for beading and cording and may or may not require the changing of the foot plate when switching to rolled hemming.

The sewing machine:
The typical sewing machine sold these days has several functions including straight stitch, zig zag, smocking stitch(s) and possibly a button hole function. Some offer dual (twin needle) stitches too. Modern machines offer a variety of interchangeable "feet" for accomplishing common tasks such as blind hemming, rolled edges, adding cording, special feet for sewing on zippers, etc. There's just a huge number of accessories available for them.

Sewing machines come in a huge variety of machine types and industrial or special purpose models may have one single function (such as straight stitch, zig zag, or blind hemming). You might ask why you'd buy a one function sewing machine? Because those designed for a single function are very good at that one function and generally much faster at it than a multi-function machine could ever be (they also tend to be smaller and more compact).

Older sewing machines didn't have any fancy functions, however, they were made completely with metal parts (versus modern units that may have plastic or nylon parts) and often heavier duty motors than what you may find for sale today. As a rule, an older machine will be made better unless you spend an awful lot of money on a new machine. New machines may offer computerized operation and fancy functions such as embroidery--if you need those functions and can afford the ridiculous repair costs when those parts malfunction then more power to you. I for one believe the simpler the machine, the more dependable it's going to be.

Upholstery/industrial machines:
Most industrial grade upholstery sewing machines are more than the average home seamstress/tailor can or would want to handle. The machine motor is generally separate from the sewing machine head, bobbins have to be bought pre-wound, they often have messy oil reservoirs and the machine head is bolted into a heavy duty metal table...and don't forget they're expensive ($3000.00 and up for good ones). If you've got the space for one of these that's great but most of us don't. The biggest advantage to an industrial machine is generally presser foot heights of a half inch and greater and wider spaces on the right of the presser foot for sewing bulky stuff such as tents and tarps. (Meaning you can sew one heckuva lot of layers all at once or just sew very thick stuff.)

Heavy duty/industrial upholstery machines differ from typical home sewing machine models in that they are generally "walking foot" sewing machines and may only offer one or two stitches (usually straight and zig or only one of the above). In a walking foot machine, the presser foot is synchronized (moves simultaneously) with the lower feed dogs. In theory this machinery keeps the thick piece feeding better and prevents puckers and skipped stitches.

Note: there are two different types of walking foot machinery seen for sale. In one type the needle also "walks" with the foot as the machine sews. In the slightly inferior version, the needle is stationery and only the presser foot "walks" as the machine sews.

I have one of the stationery needle type, for what I do with it, it's just fine but I have heard that the other type offers much better feeding with really thick projects. Again most of us don't have the space, the $$$$$ or the need for one of the industrial table models, so if you've bought or obtained a walking foot upholstery machine that's been modified for home use you've most like got one of the stationary needle machines. I've never seen a home use walking foot machine with more than a quarter inch presser foot clearance, which is really all that most of us need, that's enough space for 8-10 layers of denim or about 4 layers of heavy canvas.

Keep it simple stupid. This applies to sewing machines and sergers too!. The more fancy self threaders and computerized junk you get on it, the more chance you'll have an expensive repair. Just think about it, constant vibration, fabric dust, oil, possibly hard knocks when the machine is moved around, power surges, none of those things are exactly friendly to sensitive electronic devices. I leave my machine setup all the time, it's covered, but still exposed to the ever damp atmosphere of Florida. If you ask me it's about like getting an electronic oven--my mother bought one and found out I was right when I told her to stick with the good old knobs, the electronics on her oven have been a constant issue.

Service Plans:
As with most items, a service plan on a sewing machine is generally mostly a waste of money. If your service plan includes cleaning and basic maintenance, it may start being more attractive. The typical sewing machine or serger cleaning and adjustment runs $70-$99 dollars in my area, if you use your machine a lot a cleaning/adjustment is recommended every year. So......a $89.00 service plan that covers three years is really a bargain when you consider that you get three free cleanings/adjustments with that even if nothing else goes wrong. If you spend a fortune for one of the machines with the computers on it, then I'd definetly recommend a service plan. This is especially so if you live in a humid, lightning ridden place like Florida; those electronics cost almost as much as the whole machine if they need to be replaced!

Who makes sewing machines anymore?
From what I've heard, the Japanese own most of the sewing machine patents so by and large everything is made in Japan or Taiwan and relabled by companies such as White and Brother. The only brand supposedly still making their own machines is Janome. The favored brands among the professional seemstress/tailor seem to be Viking (Husqvarna), Pfaff, and Baby Lock for the sergers. All of these machines have a great reputation but also carry hefty price tags. I'm sure they're great machines but I can't afford those prices. Kenmore, by Sears, are generally good machines, currently their sergers and sewing machines are made by Janome but Sears offers repair and extended warranties (with cleaning and adjustment every year). From what I've been told by repair people, sewing machines made in China are generally just not good and the parts are impossible to come by.

What have I got?
A Kenmore serger made by Janome (bought within the last six months). No free arm but it does have the differential feed, the easy change (i.e. no plate or presser foot changes) rolled hemming function, and a feature that makes the lower looper a bit easier to thread (the looper arm is jointed to make it easier to thread). The machine also does blind hemming and supposedly a type of flatlock stitch, I haven't used either of these functions yet. Compared to my fifteen year old White, it's got more functions but the White seems more solidly built and the motor may be stronger on the White as well. On most sergers you have to carefully watch a hex screw on one of the looper arms, if that screw comes loose, the arm will go out of alignment and it's a 90 dollar repair to get it all realigned and adjusted. I wish someone had warned me about that flaw, it doesn't address it in the book for the White and that's what happened to my machine. I didn't want to spend that much on a 15 year old machine that could die completely next month so I bought a new one instead with a warranty on it for around $300.00 including the warranty.

Kenmore sewing machine:
I bought this baby about 30 years ago, it does just about everything I need it to with easily available accessories. It has adjustable stitch length and width and does straight, stretch, zigzag, smocking and a type of narrowly spaced zig zag that's good for overedging stuff that frays, it also does button holes. Love the machine but compared to the serger it's slooooowwwwwwww. It's also a fairly strong machine, I've had some fairly thick stuff through it with no issues. The last time I took it in for service the Sears guy tried to talk me into just buying a new machine (thinking I'd just hand the old one over to them for nothing (you get like 30 bucks trade-in if you get that much) I'm sure) I asked him why I'd want a new piece of plastic junk over an old all metal machine...of course he couldn't do anything but stare at me dumbfounded.

Singer sewing machine:
My Kenmore seized up on me in the middle of a project (the lubricant was all gummed up inside it from age) so I went to walmart and grabbed the most decently priced machine I could find, works great but it doesn't have the power of the Kenmore.

Camper's Tent Maker walking foot (stationary needle) upholstery machine:
This is an all metal machine with a fairly robust motor, it has two functions straight and zig zag stitch (forward and reverse). The bobbins it uses are standard and can be purchased cheaply at walmart, the machine has a bobbin winder on top like a regular sewing machine and has a regular speed controlled foot pedal and clutch that engages and disengages for bobbin winding. There are some extra feet available for it. The power of this machine is great, presser foot lift is one quarter inch and the walking foot easily feeds even the thickest of projects. This machine is a bit different in that the needle eye is 90 degrees from the from the front of the machine, instead of parallel to the front of the machine as with most home machines, this is because the bobbin case is mounted 90 degrees to the front of the machine.

I've made gambesons (thick cotton batting between two layers of canvas) and sewn leather gloves on this, I've also made puncture resistant fencing armor and hoods (4 layers of trigger or heavy cotton twill). This machine has a lot of power, needles make a lot of difference in how many layers it will sew. It uses industrial "console" needles size 18 and up. Like regular needles they come in platinum tipped and leather (cutting) tip as well.

I bought this machine off ebay for under 500 bucks. There are a number of walking foot stationary needle machines on ebay, a lot of them look like the same physical case so it's a good bet they're made in the same factory. Whichever machine you buy be sure to check the feedback. I hadn't heard about this company before but the feed back was good. The only machine on ebay I've found for sale elsewhere (where there was feedback) was the Reliable (which looks like the same machine in the picture). The seller was very kind about helping me with a couple of small issues (the threading diagram in the book is illegible but other than that the book is pretty good). Tech support can be a big deal with a new machine and parts and supplies can be bought through the seller as well. Fortunately I have a upholstery supply shop in my area for heavy duty upholstery thread and they do carry the needles as well.

Gemsy serger:
Bought this off ebay, it's a 5 thread serger and it was cheap. So far, not having a lot of luck with it and I've been dealing with the seller for a resolution, it's made in China, yep seems to be a piece o junk.

The Sum up: Pick your machine according to what you will be doing most. If you do a lot of straight stitch then you may want to look into a single function straight stitch machine versus a multi-function machine. Multi-function machines have more moving parts to control the functions and are generally slower than a single function machine. Avoid computerized or automatic anything unless you're willing to lay out the big bucks when something goes wrong with the electronics. Check the reviews and buy the best quality you can afford, generally avoid any machine made in China. Service plans are generally only a good deal if they include basic cleaning and maintenance so even if you use them for nothing else you are at least getting several free cleaning, lubing and adjustments out of the deal.

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