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I am a mother, a new grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My first book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge will be published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon


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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Machines of integrity (in the mood for drama tonight)

You may or may not remember, that would depend on how long you have hung in with me on this blog, that last spring my husband and I put together a vintage Bernina Sport from parts on eBay. We got a good body and power cord from one seller and collected an extension table, feet, and bobbins from others.

I think the whole project cost us about $450.

We cleaned, downloaded manuals, and oiled and greased it.

Of course in my too-busy life at home I didn't have much of a chance to get to know this machine after all that trouble so I brought it down here to do just that.

Currently I am working on a very successful sheath dress from a new pattern (more on that later) and having a wonderful time with this machine.

This experience happens to coincide with some email traffic about new machines from several dealers.

Now listen. 

I have enormous respect for the hard work it takes to be a sewing machine dealer these days. They are caught between far too many large companies who pressure them non-stop to sell machines like it was 1960 and every woman is spending happy afternoons set up over the beige broadloom and sewing away making everyone's clothes, and the present.

Modern women should be so lucky.

Anyway the thing about sewing on this old Bernina is how great it feels. 

I don't care what you tell me about your new $12,000 top of the line but it has to feel right under my hands.

This machine does. The stitch is perfect and I can feel all those metal parts working away without a snag.

It feels like a well-oiled machine. Because that's exactly what it is. It cruises over those lumps and layers without an hesitation. I hold my breath when I am about to sew over a definite juncture, and I can let my breath out.

This is the way it is supposed to feel.

Now I have a couple of very good machines at home, including a former top of the line that does embroidery. It didn't get to go on vacation.

The sewing machine industry is in a dilemma. 

An economic crisis. 

With so many fewer hall closets these days hiding a necessary sewing machine somewhere under the tails of coats and the boots, the only way the companies can survive with so many fewer units sold is to amp up the price of the machines they do sell. And also there has to be a new and better model every few years. So suddenly we have machines with computers in them that can digitize, maximize, minimize, flip, reverse, mirror and advise on screen.

Machines that cost more than a second hand car and are about the size of the bathtub in a cheap hotel.

There are two problems with this approach:

1. The buttonholes are still often suspect.
2. You don't need any of this to actually sew clothes.

This whole new machine culture is starting to offer machines that, I hate to be really rude here, but they look like a bunch of guys designed them.

You know exactly what I mean.

You know when that male in your life, any age will do here, shows you something complicated, mechanical or electronic, but most of all new, and therefore apparently improved, and you are real patient and then you say "well when would you exactly use that?" and they look at you like you just told them there was no Santa Claus. Or Easter Bunny. Or no snow day and school is cancelled.

Well that is the mind I see behind so many of these new machines.

Here's an idea.

If I were to buy a new machine this is what I would want to hear:

This machine is the most carefully manufactured machine we have ever made. The stitch is impeccable, the buttonholes are the most beautiful anywhere. No one else has a machine of this quality. No where near.

Let me know if you hear anything like that.

On a less serious note I have three unique pieces of intelligence to share with you tonight:

1. If you leave the back door open in the evening in Florida, well, when you wake up there might be an extremely large toad in the middle of the living room floor. Extremely.

2. If you are making a dress and you are in a sewing frenzy and try it on and decide you need to move the darts down half and inch and you do that. Well when that dress is all sewn up and this time you try it on with a bra on, or at least a good one, well you are going to have to cross out those new markings you put on the pattern, because those darts need to be moved up half an inch.

3. And if you make tailor tacks, I do, and get fed up with ripping the paper over the markings, just make a puncture hole in the pattern where you are going to want to make that tailor tack. A golf tee works great if your pattern is lying on beige broadloom.

This is the life.


The Hojnackes said...

I'm in for a machine with that kind of advertising! These newer machines just don't work like the Bernina I grew up with. I miss the all metal construction.

Kathrynsb said...

Exactly why I keep a Bernina 610 (age unknown) in my house in Mexico. it sews beautiful stitches over anything and the local sewing machine guy can fix it if i can't which hadn't happened so far. it originally came to me from Canada via Ebay
Just clean, oil and grease the gears and its good to go. its not fussy or fiddly
I adore it
I also had a Bernina Sport I gave my DD
it does perfect 1/4 seams and she keeps that setting for quilt projects

Angela said...

I sew on a vintage machine for precisely these reasons. I think your arguments equally apply to stoves, irons, washing machines, etc. I am to the point where I do not want any computerized parts on any of these appliances.

Maureen Cunningham said...

I had never heard of a Bernina Sport before and yet there was one sitting on the 50% off table at the quilt store where we have our ASG meeting. It was $450 before the discount. I should run back there and pick it up, you think.

The Purkinje Ninja said...

the "designed by a bunch of guys" approach is one of my main issues when something needs replacing around the house - can't I just have someone that does the job without looking like a chrome-clad microwave? And that was just choosing a new sofa.

Anonymous said...

I bought a second hand Bernina 830 23 years ago. In that time it has been serviced 3 times, only because I felt guilty for not doing it, not because it had any problems. I have never had to adjust the tension. It's stitches are still perfect. The buttonhole could be a little nicer with more options but that is also done to user error ;) I will look forward to seeing your new dress and it was fun hearing about the Sport. Did you kiss the toad?

Anonymous said...

P.s. I would have bought a new Bernina if it was comparable to my 830 and passed the vintage one to my daughter. You should really be in charge of all sorts of stuff :)

Bunny said...

"they look like a bunch of guys designed them." Amen to that, sewing sister! I see these superexpensive machines and don't see that they do anything much better. I do need an automatic needle threader at this stage so I would add that to your list of requirements for a good machine. Your description does fit my mid seventies Kenmore. It weighs an absolute ton and makes the most perfect buttonholes.

annie said...

Last year I was in the midst of some repair issues w/ my Viking(s). I had bought the newer one b/c Sandra Betzina, while giving a class at my local fabric store, had demonstrated a perfect buttonhole on this Viking. I was pretty dazzled. Needless to say, the buttonholes on my machine are so far from perfect and you can only get the Viking repaired through an authorized dealer and the closest dealer to me is an hour away and she wouldn't listen to me when I told her what was wrong so I had to make several trips. Whew.

In the middle of all this you posted about your new Bernina. It reminded me of an old Kenmore I had. So I went online and found one. an 802, for $250ish. Then I bought a pack of bobbins for about ten dollars. I absolutely love this machine and use it almost exclusively. I have yet to master buttonholes on it but they aren't any worse than the ones on my high tech Viking.

So thanks Barbara!

Anonymous said...

Barbara, you are so right! Where are all the simple but well engineered and constructed products made from quality materials? Our choices now are badly made simple junk that's inexpensive, or no-better-made but expensive and elaborate products. The simple but good product has disappeared from the marketplace. Dishwashers, clothes washing machines, sewing machines, where did all the ones go that performed well, were reliable and long-lived, and didn't take a study course to figure out how to operate? Mary in Kamloops

Pattyskypants said...


Claire S. said...

I like computer as is a computer, not as is a stove, or fridge or sewing machine ! But yes, the guys definitely like the bells and whistles. When I needed a new stove, I wanted the basic one with knobs - did NOT want the electronic screen with push-buttons. You can guess which one was delivered ? Neither my husband nor the salesman (who I called to complain, with the instruction to pick up the d**m thing and send the one I ordered) could comprehend why I was not best pleased. 12 years later I still don't like it!

A toad ? seriously ? how'd you get it out ? LOL

Kim Nath said...

Loved this post! When my expensive, digital viking died a few years ago, I couldn't find one that "feel" to it so i bought a mechanical kenmore till i found one I liked well enough t shell out a months pay. I ended up never buying a new one becuase the cheap kenmore worked better than any of the new ones I tried. Give me a good buttonhole and a soft purr and I would pay just about anything....

Cleverclogs said...

Oh yes, when we are talking sewing machines I want fewer options and better quality. I think the advice I got ten years ago to go for the basic model in a more expensive brand was brilliant. My Elna has been serviced about twice in a decade, produces lovely stitches and good to OK buttonholes deoebding on the fabric. I don't miss the fancy stitches and optionsI haven't got. (I wouldn't mind a needle up/needle down option, but will live without it). When we're talking overlockers (sergers), however, I'm a sucker for whatever is the latest threading option that promises no need to squint at little hocks and disks! And when we're talking toads, flush the public toilets in outback tropical Queensland with extreme care - there's nothing scarier than seeing an indignant cane toad hop up onto the seat recently vacated!

Kathryn H said...

I'm so glad to read this column. In 1982 I purchased an Elna Carina to replace my high school Singer(circa 1967). I've been using that metal, mechanical Elna ever since and, really, it does everything I ask it to. Sometimes I look at the new machines but. . . They just don't feel the same. I do wish I'd kept the old Singer (with zig zag!) because it had an add on buttonholer by greist(?) and made perfect button holes. The elna makes decent buttonholes.
I still have the buttonhole attachement and now that I have room I'll buy back that style Singer when I find it.

SewRuthie said...

Hey there Barbara. I love your blog big time. Hang in there and post whatever you like!!!! Love Ruthie xxx

Lyrique said...

I'm looking forward to seeing whatever it is that you're sewing in that picture above. That's a pretty design in the fabric.

Melissa said...

This reminds me of a friend who told me once when she got a big bonus at work she bought a serger she had wanted for a long time. Then a few days later it occurred to her she had spend more on it that she had for her child's first car!

Audrey said...

I, too, have an Elna Carina that I've used to clothe three kids, curtain and drape 18 homes, and make countless items for me. It still purrs along without even a hiccup!