Why You Should Own A Sewing Machine

This could probably be any of our grandmothers at work. George Grantham Bain Collection [PD], via Wikimedia Commons
This could probably be any of our grandmothers at work. George Grantham Bain Collection [PD], via Wikimedia Commons.
In our hackspace, we’ve opened a textile room in the last month. We have high hopes for it as a focal point for cosplayers and LARPers as well as the makers of wearable electronics and more traditional textile users. Putting it in has involved several months of hard work bringing a semi-derelict and previously flooded room that was once the walk-in safe for our local school authority to a point at which it is a light and welcoming space, but a surprising amount of work has also had to go into winning the hearts and minds of our community for the project.

Putting it quite simply, textiles aren’t seen as very cool, in hackspace terms. You know, Women’s stuff. Your mother does it, or even maybe if you are a little younger, your grandmother. It’s just not up there with laser cutting or 3D printing, and as a result those of us for whom it’s a big part of making stuff have had to fight its corner when it comes to resources within the space.

Yet not so long ago when I brought a pair of worn-out jeans into the space on a social night and hauled out our Lervia sewing machine to fix them, I had a constant stream of fellow members passing by amazed at what I was doing. “You can repair jeans?” they asked, incredulously. For some reason this prospect had not occurred to them, I was opening up a new vista in clothing reincarnation, to the extent that before too long in our new facility I may be giving a workshop on the subject as the beloved former trousers of Oxford Hackspace denizens gain a chance of new life.

The Oxford Hackspace textile room.
The Oxford Hackspace textile room.

One of the odd things about this seeming gulf between makers and textiles is that it works in both directions. Just as my hackspace friends had struggled to see the worth in textile work, so do my textile enthusiast friends often fail to bask in their level of technical achievement. Think about this from a hardware hacker perspective: their every project involves making a three-dimensional object in a flexible material that both fits an individual wearer perfectly and looks good on them, and all this by hand in a 2D medium using only tape measure readings and squared paper assuming they’re making their own pattern. Not a CAD package or rendered preview in sight! That’s 1337 levels of awesome, yet they take it for granted as something the’ve always done, because their mother or grandmother showed them how.

Now perhaps you’ll understand why we have high hopes of our textile space, these are people who can make anything, just the sort of members who’d be an asset to our space if we can attract them.

So you might be asking, that’s a description of textilists and one hackspace’s work in the field, what’s in it for me? Stick around, and we’ll take a look at the sewing machine not as your grandmother’s prized possession but as the original home machine tool, and maybe after you know something of how it works you’ll see why you should make space for one in your workshop.

Know Your Stitches

The most basic method of sewing involves doing it by hand, with a single needle and thread. The stitch you’d be most likely to create in this way is backstitch, in which you go back against the direction of sewing every other stitch to lock the line of stitches and stop it coming apart if a thread breaks. It’s very slow, and requires a considerable amount of skill to achieve a good result. It’s something you occasionally need to do even if you own a sewing machine, but unless you are making super-accurate recreations of historical clothing it’s not something you’ll use for a whole project.

An illustration of a sewing machine producing a lockstitch. NikolayS [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
An illustration of a sewing machine producing a lockstitch. NikolayS [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
The sewing machine can’t do a backstitch with a single thread as you might expect, it’s very difficult for a machine to pass the thread though the fabric in its entirety on each stitch. Instead it uses two threads to create a stitch called lockstitch, in which each thread stays on its own side of the fabric and interlocks with the other thread only through the holes made by the needle. The upper thread comes from a spool on the top of the machine while the lower one comes from a bobbin mounted underneath its operating surface. The action of making the lockstitch has been performed by a variety of mechanisms since the invention of the sewing machine, but in the majority of those you’ll encounter it is done through a rotating hook that surrounds the bobbin. This hook picks up a loop of the upper thread pushed through the fabric by the needle, and wraps it round the lower thread from the bobbin before the needle and upper mechanism pulls the upper thread tight back up through the hole. This produces reliable and consistent stitching that can be repeated at very high speed.

You can see that there’s a lot going on here: the machine has to supply the thread at the right speed and tension, hold the fabric in place, move it forwards at the correct speed, and keep the whole lot in synchronisation. Sewing machines are complex beasts.

Know Your Machine

A sewing machine has a needle mechanism over a flat surface, suspended from a horizontal arm to give enough bed width to position the work as necessary on either side of the needle. The overwhelming majority of machines have the horizontal arm coming in from the right, coming from a vertical arm that usually contains the motor and significant parts of the drive mechanism. On the extreme right hand side of the machine is a wheel on the outside that rotates as the mechanism operates, this might historically have had a hand crank or pulley for a treadle or external motor to power the sewing. It serves to allow the operator to manually advance the stitches very slowly, or to back off the mechanism. On older machines it will be a large metal pulley that harks back to the hand-cranked or treadle days, while on newer ones it will usually take the form of a plastic knob.

The various parts of a sewing machine. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The various parts of a sewing machine. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
To the left of the pulley are the two arms containing the gears, shafts, or belts transfer motion to the needle and down to below the bed of the machine. The controls to select functions and adjust stitch length, a bobbin winder, and a light are usually mounted on the outside of the arms, and the spool of thread sits on a pin on top of the machine

At the far left of the horizontal arm and the bed, we have the business end of the machine: the needle, and the bobbin assembly. We’ll consider these from the top downwards, as they are all roughly in a line in that axis.

On most machines you can remove the plate or cover on the end of the horizontal arm that conceals the mechanism. If you were to remove it and look at the end of the arm face-on you’d see the end of the drive shaft with a crank that drives the mechanism that raises and lowers the needle. This crank also operates the thread take-up lever which normally protrudes from the front casing, this has the thread looped round it and has the function of pulling the loop of thread back up through the fabric on each individual stitch. There will also be a thread tensioner, similar to a pair of washers clamping the thread with the force of a small spring.

The arm end mechanism of a classic Singer 185K. The tensioner and thread take-up lever are on the right, while the lamp and presser foot lever are on the left.
The arm end mechanism of a classic Singer 185K. The tensioner and thread take-up lever are on the right, while the lamp and presser foot lever are on the left.

Vertically the entire height of the machine at the end of the arm will be two bars. Towards the front of the machine will be the needle bar with the needle attached to its bottom, while behind it will be the presser foot bar. The presser foot at the bottom of this bar serves the purpose of holding the fabric down on the bed of the machine, and can be raised or lowered with a lever on the back of the machine.

Below the presser foot is the bed of the machine, and below that is the bobbin and hook mechanism described above. Either side of the needle are a pair of toothed dogs that act on a crank to “walk” the fabric past the needle.

If you have followed the description in the last few paragraphs you will now have a good idea of the working of a simple straight-stitch sewing machine. These were the standard from the middle of the nineteenth century until sometime in the 1960s when domestic machines capable of other stitches such as zig-zags or dual-row stitching appeared. These machines have an extra mechanism that allows the needle to move from side to side as well as up and down, something controlled at first by selectable cams but on more recent machines by a microcontroller.

Once you have a sewing machine, what might you do with it? Of course, like any other versatile tool or machine, the answer is limited only by your imagination or your favourite search engine. And there should be no reason for you to have to use if for making garments if that’s not your thing, there are a huge number of places a maker can find use for a bit of textile work in their projects if only they have the means to work in the medium. I make the occasional garment project and have been used for a few Halloween costumes, but by far the most use they see are in repairing and modifying things I already have. From fixing the frayed edge of my day pack to mending those treasured but past-it jeans and saving a caravan holiday when my friend’s awning was found to have a rip, they are as important tools to me as my multimeter or oscilloscope.

Finding The Machine For You

If you’ve made it this far and fancy looking for a sewing machine to grace your own bench, where should you start? Given that this is a product which has been in production for over 150 years, you have a huge array of machines to choose from.

It’s worth beginning at the end of the market that you might not expect us to tackle first, and look at new machines. A new machine might cost more than a second-hand one, but if you buy wisely you should be able to secure plenty of modern features without breaking the bank. Of course just like any tool it is possible to pay a four or five figure sum at the top end of the market, and if that’s the course you take you’ll get what you pay for in the form of a very high quality machine. But if that describes you then you probably won’t need our advice. We’re more interested in the other end of the market for the purposes of this article.

The Brother L14, a typical budget sewing machine from a quality manufacturer.
The Brother L14, a typical budget sewing machine from a quality manufacturer.

If you take a look at any department store website, you’ll find a range of budget sewing machines. At the bottom end of the price range, some of them are astoundingly cheap coming in at $50 or under. These are usually own-brand machines aimed at younger users, a sort of “My first sewing machine” product. It’s probably best to view these machines as having more in common with a toy than your grandmother’s trusty Singer, and avoid them. You can make all sorts of things with one, but do not expect it to be robust, or to last long when used for heavy-duty work.

Happily on the next step up from the toy machines are the base models from quality manufacturers. These share the metal components and reliability of their more expensive brethren, but lack some of the premium features. They will normally have a range of stitches, but their mechanisms will be entirely mechanical rather than computerised. If you have somewhere above $100 to spare they make an excellent choice for someone seeking a workaday sewing machine.

In the second-hand market you have that century or more of machines to choose from, and some machines can command eye-watering prices while others are almost worthless. It’s best to start with the more recent machines and move backwards in time to catch the sweet spots.

Oxhack's Jones, as it happens another Brother in disguise. Inexpensive and unfashionable, but loads of features and just as good at sewing as it was when it was new.
Oxhack’s Jones, as it happens another Brother in disguise. Inexpensive and unfashionable, but loads of features and just as good at sewing as it was when it was new.

Most premium machines from the late 1960s through to the 1990s have all the modern features of the day such as the range of stitches, and were depending on the manufacturer built to a very high standard. They are however quite heavy and extremely dated in their appearance, so can often be found in very good condition in the want-ads for not a huge amount of money. A quick scan while writing this piece finds a range of similar machines including ones from very expensive manufacturers advertised for similar prices to the toy machines mentioned earlier. Exchange rates are in a state of flux at the moment so it’s probably unwise to do a conversion, but £25 to £50 seems to get you a lot of features if you don’t mind a machine that’s sewed a few shoulder pads in its time.

Older machines come from an unbroken line stretching from the 1850s to the 1960s. They all perform very well the single task of stitching in a straight line, and by the early twentieth century their design had evolved to the point at which they were all fairly similar mechanically. The earlier models made before about the First World War are probably best considered for our purposes here as museum pieces, it is the later ones from the second quarter of the century onwards that should interest us.

Earlier machines like the one in the black-and-white picture at the top of the page were made to be objects of beauty in their own right. They were richly decorated, and there are collectors who buy them for this decoration. As with any field in which collectors move in their prices can thus climb to the point at which a buyer looking only for a usable sewing machine is priced out of the market for them.

A Singer 185K from the late 1950s. Brown was fashionable then.
A Singer 185K from the late 1950s. Brown was fashionable then.

The good news for us comes from mid-century fashion. In the 1950s the decorated machines with their curved castings were seen as ugly and outdated, and customers demanded clean lines with modern hues. Thus the manufacturers took the machines they had been making for decades and reclad them in more angular bodies painted with contemporary colours. Fashion is a funny thing, because these dull brown and green sewing machines are now unwanted and unloved, despite being mechanically identical to their curved and decorated predecessors. This is good news because it means their worth is much less, and persistence may well net you one for something close to beer money.

These 1950s and early 1960s machines are built to an extremely high standard, and will sew anything you can throw at them. They’ll probably outlast almost everything else you own. You do need to summon your inner weightlifter to heft one, and they don’t lend themselves to easy shipping. If you can do without any fancy stitches they represent something of a sweet spot, and we’d recommend them as a good place to start if you can get your hands on one.

Have you changed your mind about textile work reading this article, and are you about to scour your parents loft for your grandmother’s forgotten sewing machine? On a hardware hacker’s bench a sewing machine is just another machine tool, and it’s probably one you can’t afford to be without.

Header image: US patent US2430932A.

115 thoughts on “Why You Should Own A Sewing Machine

  1. My main problem is finding a good guide to properly set timing on a sewing machine. I seriously wish I could slap on an o-scope and then keep the screw tight enough to stay put. Out of timing means you get a massive snarl under where the bobbin is and none of your stitches actually go through that magical knotting process you see in the gif. That and setting the thread tension tight enough to not leave a snarl of loops on your design but loose enough to not snap the damn thread.

    1. I have the same problem re massive snarls, though mine are under the cloth where I’ve just stitched. Now I record all my settings for the different things I do (e.g. settings for hemming jean material). That doesn’t seem to be foolproof though. Must be a setting I’m not aware of — thread thickness?

      1. Sounds like sub-optimal tension for the material you are sewing. I get birds nests when I don’t have enough tension while sewing things like 10 layers of kevlar. If the fabric is too tight to pull the bobbins thread back tight then it will lay loose and can form all sorts of knots under the fabric.

          1. There are different kinds if needles, including one for sewing jeans. Check that the flat side of the needle is positioned correctly ( flat side to the back on most machines, to the side on old singers. I recommend an older mechanical machine or industrial machine for sewing on heavy fabrics.

      2. Just to chime along – it’s more likely the tension is wrong. The upper and lower tension need to match so the crossing of the threads happens in the fabric. Typically the tension on the bobbin is set to just hold the weight of the bobbin when given a little jerk – like you’d pull on a yo-yo. The upper tension is adjusted to set where the thread pulls tight.

        If it is bunching on the bottom then either the bobbin is far too tight or the upper is far too loose. You can usually hand turn so that you can see it happen in slow motion rather than letting it motor into a pile of garbage.

      3. Thread tension settings controls the thread on the opposite side of the fabric. As you set up to sew a new type of fabric, run a test stitch. Compare the stitches on both the top and bottom, make sure they’re even. As you sew, listen for changes in the sound of the machine and stop sewing if it sounds different.

        If you have loops or bird nests on the back of the fabric or beneath the stitch plate, the top thread tension is likely the problem. The tension knob may be set too loose; the top thread may be threaded along the wrong path or jumped out of the tension disks; or the tension disks could have foreign material between them and need cleaning (shredded threads, a stray drop of oil, etc.) You will also have this problem if you forget to lower the presser foot (oops!)

        If there are loops above the fabric, the bottom tension is likely the problem. This may be due to the thread being tangled on the bobbin due to a loosely wound bobbin; or bobbin thread exiting along the wrong path. Rethread the bobbin, rewind the bobbin if needed, and try again. Usually you won’t have to adjust the bobbin thread tension. Sometimes it’s just a piece of spring steel that has no simple adjustment.

        Frequently breaking threads could mean the tension is too tight, or that it’s mis-threaded; damage or burrs along any of the edges can cause thread shredding and breakage; or any of the other causes above.

    2. That’s because they don’t think of it as timing, they think of it as tension, and the human operator is supposed to provide the feedback compensation loop by observing the way the thread bounces (or doesn’t) out of the tension arm, and keeping in mind the bobbin tension that was preset.

    3. Don’t take it the wrong way, but it may not be threaded properly. If you don’t have the top thread all the way in the tension discs or in the right spot for the check spring, you will have a horrible back side stitch. New needle, rethread top and bottom will fix many issues. Source: I am a SM tech for 5 years now.

  2. I am only a man, so I am not allowed to call out the sexist elements of this article (because, as long as men are considered the stupids, retarted ones, it’s not considered sexistic, but realistic). But … I did learn how to manually sew and use a sewing machine at school. In MY days our teachers considered it “fair” that boys were able to fix their own clothing.

    It is true, however, that as a man I get hairy eyeballs at fabric shops and the likes (I am neither a LARP nor a C(r)OSPLAYER, I just prefer being able to take care of my stuff) when female shop assistants have to serve me. They usually consider me some kind of weird morone with the brains of a jellyfish on dope. IF they serve me at all, most will simply ignore me, waiting for my wife to pop up.

    1. They avoid me for different reasons, after questions like. “What’s good for headliner?”, “What do you have suitable for reupholstering a reclining chair?” and “Got any lightweight canvas suitable for a rooftop tent?”

    2. Conduct yourself with confidence and see your preconceived notions vanish. I have a singer 301a and never visit sewing shops as they don’t carry the right bobbins, thread, kevlar, spectra, HD canvas, cordura or S-2 fiberglass why the hell would you visit one anyway?

    3. Where did you see something sexist in the article? Can’t find it myself.

      When I grew up all had to take cooking, typewriting and both wood crafting and textile crafting (manual sewing, machine sewing, knitting) classes. Learned to wash clothes too :P.

    4. I dunno. On the one hand, I learned to hand sew at age 4 and machine sew at age 6.

      OTOH the makerspace I’m a member of has a really lopsided gender balance… and the sewing machine sits unused in a storage area with difficult/unsafe access.

      I use my machine at home a lot. It is a great tool. I haven’t had time for this yet, but I’d really like to experiment with laser-cutting the textiles and being able to use parametric patterns.

      In some cultures only men were traditionally allowed to work as tailors, so it is clearly a bunch of nonsense to hold gender stereotypes about it in the first place; clearly it is something that anybody can do. If more of the people interested in it are in one subgroup or another… who cares? The real reason the machine is in storage at the makerspace is that we don’t have enough room for all the tools.

    5. Please feel free to call out any sexist elements in this piece you like, by all means. I’m all ears.

      OTSO sewing shops, sadly very few are left here in the UK. Worth seeking out though, as IME though intimidating if you’re not in the textile world they’re friendly places.

      1. Two places I make use of a lot are Dunelm which has a wide variety of fairly cheap fabrics available off the role along with more general sewing items (plus shops all over the place) and John Lewis which, in Cambridge at least, has a haberdashery department which I find useful for finding the names of things when I only know what they look like :-)

        And something I just found out this morning, while searching what other haberdashery shops may exist in Cambridge: Husqvarna don’t just make chainsaws but sawing machines as well!

    6. A true feminist would say you are fine to point out that sexism. That a man who wants to sew should be treated the same as a man who doesn’t, after all it is usually men who belittle other men for “feminine arts” like sewing.

      The actual reason you probably get shut down is saying things like “C(r)OSPLAYER”.

      1. When I’m at the fabric store, at least 25% of the other customers are also male. So there is a difference in interest level, but nobody is at all surprised to see any of the other people there, it is just a bunch of people buying stuff to make something with.

        This might only even come up as an issue for people who are used to being around “alt right” people. They might not realize that it is actually a non-issue for the people doing the activity.

    7. “I am only a man, so I am not allowed to call out the sexist elements of this article (because, as long as men are considered the stupids, retarted ones, it’s not considered sexistic, but realistic). …”
      I am glad that other men have noticed this happening. I totally agree with this assessment!

    8. @Nitpicker Smartyass
      I don’t understand why so many men have trouble connecting the dots and realizing that the sexism that faces men is the flip side of the sexism facing women. The very same social norms behind “get back in the kitchen” are why mothers are favored in child custody cases. Men are frequently assumed not to be able to sew and cook specifically because those tasks have traditionally been seen as womanly: the woman is lazy if she lets the man take over; the man is weak if he debases himself with femininity. The phrase “toxic masculinity” is not an indictment of maleness, but a criticism of how we think of, express it, and wield it as a blunt instrument to enforce (often unconsciously) traditional norms.

      We all face the same larger problem, but some people seem hell-bent on using chromosome configuration as a basis for petty tribalism. It makes me sad. :C

    9. i have never experienced mistreatment at fabric or sewing shops as a man — in fact, quite the opposite. the women i run into in the shops are thrilled that not only am i interested in sewing but that i’m trying to learn more. i find that they are very happy to help me.

  3. I own several industrial sewing machines. I also own laser cutters and other similar “traditional” tools.

    The other issue with sewing machines is they are VERY labor intensive. It’s nice to be able to repair a $7 pair of jeans but why bother most of the time? You need proper walking foot machine to be able to repair any type of thick material anyway and these are not trivial machines to setup or operate. They generally require three phase power, an air compressor and proper setup and ongoing tweaks with very few to no sensors to detect anything being “off”. They also tend to cost over a thousand dollars, used for a decent industrial unit.

    So you have somewhat expensive and tricky to deal with machines that have to be used by a skillful operator and are also fairly slow. Also, pattern generation of clothing is extremely far behind the times unless you are using extremely specialized software packages. Combine that with the realities of sewing novel parts together by a human operator and it just doesn’t work well.

    Sewing, while a great tool to have for intermittent use like this, is not exactly the best for production work of variable data driven products. Even if you mix in a perfect storm of open source sewing oriented 3D design software that doesn’t really exist and also add in 2d pattern cutting tools, it is still a huge pain to go from idea to finished part. Maybe with all of those available and also having a sewing machine that is setup and “free” or low cost to you, it might be easier to make one off type of clothing or textiles but it’s far from being easy or trivial.

    That, more than a sexist approach to seeing sewing as less desirable because of what the author describes as it being seen as a “women’s activity” is what I think actually drives the reticence to actually use sewing machines. Put simply, they are not a very good machine to use when the rest of the pieces are not in place. Automation of floppy, sewn products is atrocious but there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of humans who are willing to operate these machines for very low wages either.

    1. I use a Singer Heavy Duty that was under $150 new, and it can repair jeans no problem. Actually, the idea that you need a special machine for jeans is pretty funny, any machine can do that; even one of the mini ones for children.

      You’d use a walking foot if you were making your own new jeans, because it keeps the material from separating; you don’t need as many pins. Without one, you just put lots of pins in. A little more work. But meaningless for repairs, the fabric won’t slip in the same way when it is just a portion of a seam, or a patch.

      Don’t make excuses; if you don’t like to sew, you don’t like to sew. Nobody actually needs a special foot attachment.

    2. My $150 Brothers machine claims that the only thing it needs for thick fabric or thin hide is a special needle; no need for three-phase or anything else not found inside the house. It wouldn’t stitch through 3 layers of motorcycle riding leather, but I haven’t need it to.

      What projects are you throwing at your machines that you need three-phase and compressed air?

  4. Father-in-law used to own a marina that did a lot of work for sailboats. They had an industrial sewing machine there that was so strong that you could sew two pieces of 1/8 plywood together with stainless wire. He kept a sample of just that pinned to the wall near the unit,

      1. He sold the business several years ago and the new owners have moved away from being a general marine service station and more towards being a dealership for a certain brand of powerboats. The old sail loft is now a basically a clothing boutique – that machine doesn’t seem to be around anymore.

      2. You may want to look into a Sailrite machine – they’re for modest to low end sail lofts/canvas shops and serious amateurs/cruisers (and cost like it – run ~$US650 – $US5000). A friend of mine runs a boat repair in Guatemala and has one running full tilt – all that stuff about three-phase power and compressed air? Nope, though his does require 240V. The smallest of them have hand-cranks for shipboard use.

        FWIW I’ve done sail repair and a good deal of upholstery/canvas work with a surplus machine that I got free from a school that was closing them out – an old Kenmore (Singer?) metal-gear/zig-zag machine and I’ve been able to sew 7 layers of marine vinyl with it and parts/fittings are easy to get. My experience in the local fabric shop is that I’m always asking for stuff that they have no idea about (typically marine/vehicle stuff)…I just treat it as comedy.

        Your Father in Law’s machine may have been military surplus – our local canvas guy had one (that he neither used nor would consider selling to me) that looked like it could stitch an M-1 tank.

    1. Ah, that reminds me of another place I do a lot of hand-sewing… sewing things together using needle and 30 AWG bare copper wire when those things are going to be subject to possibly more heat than thread can handle. I’ve drilled holes and then sewn aluminum plates to something (don’t recall what, possibly sheet metal). On instance was solar.related. I wonder what gauge of wire would work in my Singer sewing machine, 40 AWG? Probably would break too often.

  5. My brother spent a good long time as a professional threadworker, as he called it. He worked for an outdoor gear company called A5, building extremely robust packs and climbing gear. His daily driver was a seriously overengineered industrial-grade sewing machine, and along with a bunch of other climber dudes he sewed all day. I still have a few duffels he sewed. Wicked manly stuff, IMHO.

    My daughter sews and knits now, and I’m in awe of her abilities. I go with her to the fabric shop sometimes – I’m there mainly to transport my wallet – but watching her select the right type of fabric and then turn it into something useful is pretty cool. It may not have blinky lights or servos, but being able to make something out of nothing is a tremendous skill. Wish I could do it.

  6. No sewing machine is for sure worse than any sewing machine.
    But all but Bernina, Pfaff, Singer, Husqvarna -especially when not full metal- can’t be a real sewing machine.
    I own, service and operate two Berninas I die save from e-waste; they’re on the same line as my Tek scope, Weller soldering iron, Fluke DMM and Schaublin lathe.
    So yes, I’m a “sewing inclusive” man :-P

    1. i have a Singer 603E from the 1960s that is a beast. it was the last model they made that is all metal gear-driven — after that they switched to rubber belt driven and plastic gears here and there — and i can go through 6 layers of denim or leather with it. i love that dang thing.

  7. I have a Singer 466 bought many years ago used from a sewing store, originally for making curtains but mostly since for hemming pants. Off-hand I can’t recall where I’ve used it for things I’ve made though I’m sure I have. I’ve hand-sewn velcro to make a method for mounting a roboticized skull to a knapsack shoulder strap. That way I could put it on when needed. I also recently hand-sewed velcro onto the drive system for my BB-8 droid so that the batteries could be easily removed for charging. I didn’t know about backstiching. I just stitch in one direction until I’m done and then tie it off by 1st going through while leaving behind a loop of thread, and then coming back up and tying what’s still on the needle to that loop.

  8. I have owned a sewing machine for the last 30 years. I am 38 now. I learned how to use it when my dad and I were making kites. When I was a teenager (you know, riding mopeds, having dyed hair and listening to punkrock) I started making clothes for girls from my school. My friends were jealous- after all I was the person these girls went to, then undressed to their undies to let themselves be measured with a tape, all while maybe smoking some weed and listening to records. Afterwards they were proudly wearing something I had made for them. Good times!
    I have the highest regards for sewing machines and could never understand it when people where a bit confused by the fact that I know how to operate one.
    See it this way: it is a powertool. It helps you get things done. It helps you fix things, it helps you make things. Just last week I made a new seat for my BMW R65… I guess sewing machines are for boys and girls alike.
    F**k gender stereotypes.

    1. Definitely! That comment about “women’s stuff” was uncalled-for.

      It’s definitely worth talking about gender stereotypes in the hacker community, but not by belittling “women’s stuff” or suggesting that being interested in sewing is only okay once you justify how masculine it can be.

      1. Justification isn’t needed, but the reason behind it can be true. I have learned lace making techniques: tatting, bobbin, knit and crochet. Why? Topology! Tatted lace is a lovely fractal, and too many people think lace needs to stay flat; I say shrink the perimeter a bit and make curves, spheres, flowers, or klein bottles.

      2. Uncalled for indeed! It’s an article about using sewing machines, but by using the “women’s stuff” comment it became an article for men about why using a sewing machine is OK despite it being womanly. It assumes that the audience is entirely male, and assumes that the audience shares the opinion of the author about what a male should think. It also assumes that hackerspaces don’t use sewing machines and that the reason they don’t use them is that sewing machines aren’t seen as cool.

  9. You know what though, lots of these have shitty little universal motors on. What you wanna do is get one from the 60s or earlier that was overbuilt, make a torque beast of a brushless motor for it, and sew your own composite kevlar and leather multipurpose fetish/superhero suit.

  10. There is manual sewing also … Just put the thread through the needle and off you go. I had to learn that as we had mandatory classes in housemaking in the 1980-ies. Useful skills, all of them.

    1. Indeed. A local craft shop offers classes in a variety of craft skills, but not in manual sewing. I suspect I’ll have to teach myself embroidery to learn what I want to know.

    2. Junior high and high school in the 60s and 70s; guys took shop, the fairer sex took “Home Economics” or HomEc. Then a few school districts like mine offered HomEc for guys, re-titled “Bachelor Living.” Attendance soared.

  11. The article mentions Singer repeatedly because, for many decades, their name was synonymous with quality. I wanted to specifically warn away from their modern lines – anything built in the past 15 years, definitely. The brand was sold off to SVP Worldwide in 2004 and they’re now held to the same loose standards as all other low-grade sewing machines manufactured by that same company. The high-end industrial units are supposed to be decent but at that point you may as well buy a more reputable brand.

    If you’re willing to work with fewer stitch options you can find older Singer machines still in great condition – just avoid the modern crap they’re churning out.

      1. @RW I think the White Family Rotary I have falls into the same category. 1910-ish (last patent on the plate is 1905) working on patching the japanning with a cold-cure recipe.and rehabbing the original cabinet finish and recreating the carved drawer appliques.

    1. Funnily enough I have more than one Singer, and one of them is a new one. I have no complaints about the quality for the price I paid for it. Yes, they are not in the same realm as the high-end machines they used to be, but neither are they in the same price range as the high end machines of today. Mine is a perfectly good everyday sewing machine that does all I want of it for my everyday clothing creation and repair tasks.

      When I want to do some really heavy duty work I reach for my 1950s Singer 201K. After the apocalypse all that will remain are cockroaches, and SInger 201Ks.

    2. I presently own a Singer 500a. I have worn out several other machines over the years working canvas and duck (“Hey, Paul! He wants the stinky stuff!”) and repairing work clothing, making job bags, theatre prop storage bags, and so on. I love the thing. I haven’t tried any of the newer ones, as I have had no need. The 500a will outlive me. I would love to have an industrial machine, but I don’t have the need to spend the money when they come up. The 500a will do three layers of heavy waxed duck, and that is all I need.

      Coincidentally, I have done work in the singer factory (Elizabeth, NJ) several times since it closed and turned into leased spaces, and at a former job, we had machinery (lathes and other machines) that came out of the factory when it closed. Some of the finest machinery I have ever used. Well kept and precise, despite being used for 30, 40, 50 years turning out parts all day.

  12. I inherited my mother’s Singer embroidery machine when she passed. I’ve used it for many things, Costumes for my son and most recently working on a cloth cover for my pool broom to clean the bottom without damaging the vinyl liner. There’s nothing un-manly about sewing. It’s fabric construction. You work in theatre, you better know how to operate a sewing machine.

  13. Learned to sew… wait for it…. in the USMC.

    Basic hand-repair stuff in boot camp, more advance uniform and equipment repair in the fleet.

    Later learned to use a machine during college.

    1. Funny! I had a mid-range machine in my ALSE (aviation life support equipment — survival and other pilot stuff) shop in the army. Did quite a bit of side work there, repairing and custom tailoring of uniforms etc. The machine was there primarily to make/modify survival vests and aircraft kits.

      It was quite helpful that I had learned to sew in junior high school in the early 60’s in home economics class, which was a required course in those days.

  14. Weird that a decade that gave us such great designs as the ’55 Chevy and the Gibson Flying V gave us that monstrosity of a sewing machine – although it might look decent if painted seafoam green and white with a bit of chrome trim. :)

    My wife refuses to learn how to use a sewing machine – even though she’s sewn curtains for every room in our house and several dresses for our daughter. By hand. Kind of the fabric equivalent of the Hackaday readers who insist on making everything from the almighty 555. Me, I wouldn’t mind getting a sewing machine – especially if it could sew leather. My car could use some new upholstery.

  15. If you’re planning to get one for infrequent use, check Craigslist. Sewing machines are like sports equipment: people buy them to try out a hobby, use it once or twice, then stuff it in the garage for a couple years before unloading it in “like new” condition.

  16. Besides the standard type machine there are a couple specialist machines that are worth considering; starting with the tent or sailmakers machine. These machines are great for sewing large amounts of heavy fabric and are typified by having a “walking foot” to help move the fabric, a large motor and metal gears and frequently a long arm for bigger pass through. Think large scale and durable projects like automobile coozies and giant puppets. Next is the serger, sergers use 3-5 threads at a time and create a finished edge in a single pass, even on knit material. That chafing in your armpit is from an unfinished seam. Lastly, embroidery machines are the CNC of the sewing machine world, with the proper software you can take an image from any source and sew it into a piece of cloth. Merit badges, logo wear and tour jackets for your hackerspace are all within reach.

  17. I bought a refurbished Singer 4432 for around $100 and it has been great for relatively heavy duty sewing, like canvas and leather. It is quite heavy and seems to have a lot of metal in it. It is sold a s a heavy duty machine and, while it is not up to industrial standards, it covers a lot of ground for quite a small price. Every maker should include sewing amongst their skills.

  18. Nothing sexist about our family’s sewing projects. Our machine is a Sears model from about 25 years ago – one of the last ones with metal gears. My wife uses it to sew clothes from patterns. I use it for hacks – more often than not, costumes of my own design (pencils, lipstick, Mount Sinai and tablets – you name it) when the kids ask for them. I also do most of the hand sewing.

  19. I got to learn to sew in preschool, did use it for kite making and such.
    In middleschool I made seat covers for mopeds, and made some money from that.
    In the military I needed to fix stuff, and attach markings to my uniform, I helped others too and they did other stuff for me (like cleaning my gun or polishing my shoes) or payed a little cash.
    As I drove racecars I put on sponsor-patches and repaired my flameproof gear instead of buing new, I also helped others with that since I had the Nomex material and tread.
    And then for the longest period of time (years and years), I never did any textile work, until I realized that my flag was a shame and I didn’t have time to buy a new one in time for some holiday.

    I whipped out my trusty old Bernina, that I lugged around every time I moved, and I got it fixed in less then 15 min.
    It would have taken me an hour to go and buy a new one, and still it was my first idea.

    Now I’m planning to make my own lightweight SilNylon tarp/shelter/poncho-combo after an old military type that was made from heavy impregnated cotton tarp.

    SilNylon is really the magic stuff to make anything from nowadays.

  20. I second heavy 1950s/60s machines. My wife has a very modern machine which was not considered cheap when it was purchased, and has a number of metal parts in it. But it can’t sew thick materials (say triple-folded jeans) and it struggles on things like nylon strap. But like Jenny List said, my heavy old machine can sew through just about anything, and at full speed too. I don’t have to adjust the tension much per material, but the tension does need to be set correctly or it leaves a big mess on the back side of the fabric.

  21. Time to upgrade! We need the community to try using Demron!
    Demron (radiation shield technologies) is a carbon tube based textile.
    To bridge the gap, the demron was used with high energy weapons programs in Russia.

  22. I love my sewing machine. I actually have two of them. I got both of them non working for free. Neither one was really messed up badly. One needed a needle and the bobbin holder was cracked, the other just needed to be cleaned and lubed. I have done everything from patch my clothing to make nice rolls for sets of wrenches and punches.

    If you think yours is out of adjustment, have a look on youtube as there is a lot of good info out there.

    I have found a lot of the time the tensions are off. I have had good luck turning the tension knob all the way down and then up a couple degrees at a time and generally at some point in the knobs rotation the stitches start to look good If that point is way past the center in either direction you can try turning the “fixed” adjustment screw on the bobbin a wee bit to coax the adjustment of the main tension to be nearer to the center of it’s range. This setting will vary depending on what you are going through, but I like it to be near in the middle for what I consider average use.

    The trick with setting the machine up is going slow and making small changes.

  23. The problem is that you guys keep thinking that you need to repair clothes?
    No one does that these day, they get thrown away and new ones bougth.

    Still you need the knowledge of repair by sewing.
    A button drops of and your left with pants that just wont stay up?

    Dont put down sewing, its a part of your live.

    1. I repair clothes for the same reason I repair TVs or other electronics. Because I can, because not to do so when I can would be a waste, and because often it’s much quicker for me to fix something than it is to go to a shop and get a new one or wait for mail order delivery.

      There was a time when I repaired stuff because I couldn’t afford new stuff. Now I can afford new stuff I still repair stuff.

    2. | he problem is that you guys keep thinking that you need to repair clothes?
      |No one does that these day, they get thrown away and new ones bougth.

      And that is why professional repair technicians like myself have had to find other sources of income. People would rather throw away perfectly repairable items than get them fixed and corporations design things to fail – planned obsolescence.

  24. Another vote for the Husqvarna. I bought one after the sales-lady at the sewing shop demonstrated it sewing through 8 layers of denim. I’ve used it to repair motorcycle riding gear (heavy cordura nylon shell with multiple layers inside) as well as “normal” clothing. My model is the purely mechanical version: no computer control, it can’t do embroidery, just the usual zig-zag and simple button holes.

  25. | “You know, Women’s stuff. ”

    As an old-fashioned, alpha male myself, what with the typical hippie/biker look going for me and all, people are quite often amazed to find that sewing is one of my many talents. So much so (no pun intended!) that my girlfriend gets me to patch her jeans for her because I am better and faster than she is on the machine. And she took home-ec in school! I taught myself to sew by hand when I was a teenager, went on to teach myself leather stitching in my 20’s and finally taught myself to use a sewing machine shortly thereafter.

  26. For as old as my Singer is, hardware hacking is a must to repair and tune it from time to time. It may have had metal bevel gears at one time, but the abuse of hundreds (thousands?) of pairs of jeans required new Singer nylon gears- Still holds up pretty well and only struggles at six layers of heavy denim – then you just pull it by hand
    Singer Stylist 477– back when Singer also made typewriters, phonographs and TVs (all portables).

  27. Some years ago my mother-in-law gave my ex-wife a converted Singer. I don’t remember the model, but it was one of the elegant black designs. It was converted from treadle to an external electric motor, activated by a long, curved L-shaped metal arm, resting against your knee – moving your leg to the right switched on the motor. I set out to teach myself, and (with a little help from the ex) made casual trousers, t-shirts, and even a pregnancy dress. Then the ex decided she didn’t want it anymore and gave it away. She still has a Janome that she lets me borrow occasionally to make cosplay costumes for my daughter. Fun times.

    Around the same time, the Mother-in-law decided to give *me* her old Kenwood Chef mixer. 1960s vintage, with fruit juicer, blender, mincer, sausage stuffer, dough hook, and whisk. I’ve had it renovated, and still use it a couple of times a week. I like my MiL!

  28. I am married to a quilter, so I get to maintain and hack on all her machines. Its a craft and she is better than me at it so I tend to ask her if she can do jobs rather than spending years honing the skill of doing it myself. Before I met her I used to make my own teeshirts and seats etc, but not as nice a result as my wife can do. Its not deliberately sexist, we just have different skill sets that completement each other. She cant tig weld as good as me, and I can’t use a sewing machine as effectively. If I wasn’t married to her I’d have no problem doing it myself. Have to say when we first met she was a bit of a blind consumer wanting the latest most modern stuff but now is firmly switched on to the quality of older machines.
    I like the older quality machines because I have a thing for well engineered older things, she has several treadle singers, one converted to power but even the treadle machines sew perfectly still, and go to machine when out and about is a old singer lightweight, and if there’s no power she has a old portable hand crank singer that managed to sew up new seat covers for my car while we were sat in the garden in the sun.
    Because she runs a quilting club we often pick up unloved machines at yard sales and secondhand shops and clean decades of fluff out the innards and lube them up and get them sewing right and she takes them along to meetings for people who have only hand sewn to try their hand at machine stitching and have 10+ of these “spare” machines about. And then there’s the longarm machines, all her online quilting friends have plastic modern things that cost a fortune (4-5k on average) but I have steered her onto old mechanical noltings as they are just well engineered simple lumps without masses of plastic, although I have to make a stitch regulator for her one day. The quilting frames themselves always struck me as a bit rubbish, and so one day I constructed one myself from a welded tube frame with thick aluminium skinned top to give the rails rigid support, and that one is noticably easier to get good smooth results on than the gracie wood frame it replaced.
    Ive been procrastinating about cnc’ing a quilting frame with a cross xy setup for a couple of years too, but thing is its a craft, and doodling quilting with a computer isnt really very crafty, if we were quilting stuff for a living yes it would make sense but I have sort of hung off because I think it would destroy the sense of artistry and fufilment she gets from doing it by hand…
    Other machines of note are a 60’s cam equipped bernina, a modern computer controlled janomie embrodery machine, a modern brother high speed machine. Its worth noting the janomie has been in bits several times being repaired and needed new circuit boards and is a proprietory piece of rubbish in my opinion with bespoke overpriced software, and the semi industrial brother continually overheated and reset breaking the thread when ran at high speed on a quilting frame until I modified the motor circuit cover housing to permit more airflow. I believe she’s recommended the same fix to several other owners with sucess so its a design flaw ;)
    I was also going to lengthen a singer treadle machine to use as a quilting machine, it would need new shafts making on the lathe, and a segment welding but then another nolting came along for such a good price its been shelved as not required.
    I will say theres still treadle and ornate machines out there to be had for reasonable money, you’ve just not got to get into ebay prices mode and wait your time, which is basically what we do. Singers for one can be dated by features and serial numbers, and are things of ornate beauty as noted. The bernia is pretty bombproof inside too.

  29. One time I was asked to repair a sewing machine. I think it was Singer, one of the first Microprocessor controlled machines – from early to mid 70ies! It threw an overcurrent protection device. The man in a repairshop said: “These are for sure the ‘magnetic stepper motors’ which are not available anymore.” I asked him how to open the thing as I could not find any screws. It was just too easy, the lid was just clipped on. :-)
    Then at home I found no steppers, but voice coil servo-motors – with feedback potentiometers. And they seemed to be in perfect condition. The problem was a shorted – not dried out (!) – electrolytic cap in the PSU. After replacing it the machine worked again. Unfortunately I could see some plastic gears which started to develop stress cracks near the shaft. I fear, if they break, then there are really no replacement parts available any more.
    It was also astonishing, that the PSU used a probably very expensive really high precision tracking regulator in a metal can (like TO-3 but smaller and with more pins) for a +/-7,5V supply for the electronics including the computer chip. I think the servo amps run with unregulated (+/-12 to 14V) power.

    1. I’m lazy, I find a shorted cap, I blip it with some volts, see if it will self heal. (That’s also sometimes how things will go from brick to working after successive power cycles, eventually the surges burn out the short.)

  30. It had several power cycles and the thermal cutout gave it about 10-20seconds of power before it tripped (at least if it had time to cool before). On a 5600µF cap it is also a little difficult to produce a real current surge through the short. OK, I could have used an array of 20*10.000µF (or two of them) and dump the charge of 0,4F @16V into it, but I did not think about it. In the end the replacement cap was not that expensive, although now it is no “Singer” branded cap. :-) But it is just a linear PSU.

  31. Gender wars! yay!

    Even when you’re right you’re still wrong

    you’ll never understand

    you’ll always be part of the problem

    but only you can change the status quo

    but things will always be the same so don’t even try

    I don’t sew because I am happy to buy my clothes and never get so attached that when they wear out, I just toss them and haven’t ran into anything I’ve needed as far as something made out of textiles I just couldn’t buy, and if it was too expensive, I didn’t need it anyway. Cosplay is not my thing, LARPing is more nerdy than I will ever be and so I don’t give sewing machines a second thought. Gender has squat to do with it.

    My co-worker IS into LARP and he makes all his own armor and sandals and clothes and chainmail and weapon and he is so hardcore about it he sews it all by hand, because in his era of role playing, “there were no fucking sewing machines… But if there were, you know who would be using one”

    So piss all over gender wars…

  32. If you had grown up a country kid in the ’60s, you would know about repairing jeans. They had these patches you could iron on to cover holes. This was before “holey” jeans became the style.

  33. Definitely a useful skill! One I haven’t yet really picked up properly, but my brother and I have done some maintenance work on sister’s and friend’s machines and I’ve got an old Singer in the basement to refurb at some point… There used to be a cool howto/refurb guide at TFSR (.org), but they seem to have re-built their website and taken it down. :( Internet archive link for posterity: http://web.archive.org/web/20160425091023/http://www.tfsr.org/publications/technical_information/sewing_machine_manual/

  34. One of the best investments I ever made was a Sears portable I picked up at a yard sale in the eighties for $35. My mother was a real seamstress so learning to run a sewing machine was as natural for me as learning to swing a hammer was from my general contractor father. My mother owned a well used Pfaff (?) as well as a serious peel rubber commercial machine that I never quite mastered. When she got older I inherited her large cutting table as a basis for my electronics test bench.

  35. Hi Jenny,

    I’m glad that you mention purchasing used machines that have lasted for a long time. If you do this, it would probably be a good idea to take it to a quality sewing machine repair shop. This could give you the chance to fix any problems so that it’s in good condition. Taking your machine in regularly would probably help it last even longer and give you the chance to fix problems before they get to be an even bigger issue so that you can sew whenever you want to.

    Barbara Harris

  36. Personally, I like a sewing because it makes me calm and bring out the creator in me. And by sewing some really cool patterns on your tshirt or jeans will make your proud (it make me feel proud for some reason). Thank you for this awesome article.

  37. I would like to get a sewing machine that I can use at home for right now. Then if I get good at it, I’ll get one with some modern features that hopefully won’t make me go bankrupt. Perhaps I can find a used one first and then buy a new one later on.

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