Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"I Would Sew But I Don't Have a Sewing Machine"

I grew up in a financially poor household, but we were rich with creativity. My mother spent hours and hours of every day at her sewing machine. She made fancy shirts for my father, summer dresses and camisoles for herself, pajamas for all of the kids, and fabulous day dresses for me. She used every scrap of leftover cotton and bias tape to make doll clothes for me, and she did some soft sculpture toy making. She even did a few commissioned projects when I was young. This is how I was exposed to machine sewing at such an early age.

Mom's first sewing machine was an old Singer. (I tried finding a photo online of the same machine but failed.) It was a simple machine with a pedal that seemed to go too fast when I'd step on it. It rested in a canvas-covered fiberboard box that was full of lint and bits of thread. I don't think you could remove the pedal. I was barely five when she let me sit in her lap and try to machine stitch with her. That machine didn't have the safety bells and whistles of modern machines, so I did most of my sewing by hand until I was ten. I loved teh sounds and smells of that machine. She made magic happen with that machine, and I wanted my own as soon as I could have one.

When I was eleven or twelve, Mom finally got a new machine -- another Singer. She gave me her old machine, and I used that until I moved out at seventeen. Sometimes I'd get to use the new machine, but I did my fair share of sewing on the dinosaur. I made clothing before I learned the importance of pattern layouts, and more toys than my siblings really needed or wanted. If I saw cool fabric, I could buy it and make something cool with it. I could also alter existing garments, like making a bra from a jacket lining and hacking Ralph Lauren Polo shirts to look cooler. I had the same magical powers as my mother.

I took home economics in high school and aced the sewing semester. I don't remember what machines we had in class, but I already knew how to do a number of things. I was bored by the sewing requirements for the class: a drawstring bag, a jumper or t-shirt. I made a stuffed rabbit with glass eyes and the teacher realized she couldn't grade me the same as the other students, forcing me to make the standard t-shirt. The football team hogged the serger, so I learned the joy of using the zig-zag stitch available on any machine to finish the inside edges. I whipped out the required project that had to be done during class within a few days.

I got my first brand-new Singer sewing machine for Christmas when I was seventeen. (I was familiar with the brand and had developed brand loyalty from my Mom's machines.)  I mostly used it to make dresses and Halloween costumes in the late 1990s, and I moved it with me from Arkansas to St. Louis to Los Angeles. I never cleaned it, never changed the needle unless it broke. I put it to use again in 2008 when I started making burlesque costumes, and it crapped out in 2009. I borrowed a friend's very old Singer to finish some projects, and returned it when I got a new machine in early 2010.

I grew up using Singer machines, but Brother had a great sale on Amazon when I got my new machine so I now have Brother machines. (I try to stick with one brand because it's easier to switch feet.) My 2010 machine is a Brother CS6000i and is a bit fancier than all the machines I had before. That one is on sale through Amazon for $145.44. It's usually a $450 machine. It's my primary machine. I use it for appliques and delicate sheers and corsetry, for gowns and alterations and daily wear. I've gotten it serviced twice since I got it, and I keep it clean.

When you get your first sewing machine, you don't need all the bells and whistles. All you need for most projects is a simple machine that does straight stitch, zig zag, and buttonholes. Amazon has the Brother LS2125i for $79.99. That's what I have for my second machine, and Andrew uses that one when my primary machine is dedicated to a specific project. I worked on a delicate robe with this machine, and I made a corset on it. It's louder than the primary machine, but it's a workhorse.

My serger is also a Brother and set me back about $200, thanks to an Amazon sale. I bought the one that was the easiest to thread. It's loud but it's fast. I use it on so many things, and it's really upped how clean my projects look.

When you get a sewing machine, keep these things in mind:
  1. Try to read the entire manual that comes with your machine, even if you read a bit at a time in the bathroom over a series of weeks. It's totally worth it to know what your machine can and cannot do. When you're done reading it (or if you don't manage to read it), keep it near your sewing machine so it's easy to grab when you have a question. Your machine may have a special stitch for buttonholes on knit fabrics. The manual will tell you what needle sizes to use with different fabrics. You can usually find error codes in the back for newfangled machines so you don't pay for unnecessary service calls.
  2. Change your needle every project or three, when it breaks, or when your fabric requires a different size needle. If you're working with fusibles for appliques or quilting, use a cotton swab and alcohol to clean your needle when it gets gummy; change that fusible project needle when you change projects.
  3. Learn to clean your own machine. It takes 10-15 minutes when you first start doing it, and you can get it down to five. There is a free class in sewing machine basics (including a lesson in cleaning) on Craftsy.
  4. Get a cover for your machine so it's less exposed to the elements. Ideal setup would be a sewing table where the sewing surface is level with the table top, and a case or soft plastic cover for the top. Protect it from dust and spills by at least throwing an old pillowcase over the top. Dust the machine with a Swiffer when you notice it's dusty or linty.
  5. Put a sticky note on your machine with the current needle size on it. If you aren't always working on something, it will help you remember if you have to change your needle before sewing jersey or silk.
  6. Don't throw away a part that comes with your machine if you don't know how to use it or you think you already have one. Some parts look incredibly similar to others. Some things you think you won't use, then you'll figure out what the free arm table is for when you start working on appliques and you'll need to dig that out because you were smart enough not to throw it away.
If you get a good machine and take care of it, you should get many years of fulfillment from it. If you are able to upgrade from an inexpensive, basic machine, clean up your training machine and keep it as a spare or sell it. Better still, give it to a young person who is ready for a creative outlet. :)


  1. UPDATE: I got an F4 error on my Brother CS6000i when Coca Carter got tangled in the foot pedal and yanked the machine around. You can find "E" errors in the manual, but you're supposed to take the machine to an official Brother repair shop if you get "F" errors. F4 deals specifically with foot pedal errors. You can read more about my solution at

  2. I needed this read! I've been having all the problems. One of my machines is in the shop as we speak.

    1. A good cleaning/servicing does wonders! I may be sending my serger in for service soon. It sees a lot of action.