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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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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Handy sewing hint of the day #14


I have more or less settled in. As much as anyone who wakes up in the night and says "what's that noise?" can be. I have two versions of mouse traps on the go (just spring out of bed every morning to check the trap line I can tell you) some chemical warfare, that I don't really believe in, going on deep inside the joists, and some new gadgets plugged in to the wall that are supposed to emit radio waves that only little pink ears can hear and nothing outside the rodent bandwidth can. Philosophically I am more of a catch and release type girl but do suspect these mice have homing instincts.

You crossed the line kiddos when you decided to sleep on my pillow.

Normal life is resuming around this. All my bought in the U.S. fabric has been pre-treated.

I have also been thinking about what handy hint number 13 should look like.

In particular I have been thinking of sewing machines and of the new sewers I have watched in classes and what I would like to tell them.

There are so many things, where to start?

Maybe for this one a general list would work best.

1. Use your hands to steady the fabric on either side of the needle (I actually tend to stitch a hand length at a time, stop and re-position - this works really well when sewing knits or other mobile fabrics.) 

A sewing machine is not like food processor. You don't just push the button and wait for it to do it's thing. The machine's main job is to form the stitch (see previous post) and by the action of the feed dogs (those teeth under the pressor foot) move it along regularly. Your stitch length dial/setting controls how big the steps the feed dogs take, and consequently how long the stitch is.

Your job here is to control fabric wobble so the machine can do its job. This means hands on either side of the pressor foot, steading, not feeding or encouraging.

Pins of course help too but make sure you take those out just before you get to them. The real danger of hitting a pin is not just breaking the needle and bending the pin but that the shock of impact will knock the "timing," that precise synchrony of the up and down needle and rotating bobbin that meets in the stitch, out of whack. 

Resetting this all up again, a repair job known and "fixing the timing" is tedious to do and therefore expensive. 

Take out those pins.

2. You will notice I said steady the fabric not feed it through. 

The number one disastrous thing any sewer can do at the machine is to try to force feed the fabric through. 

Yes I know there is a thing called "taut sewing" that involves a hand to the front and one behind the needle but that really is an expansion of steading the fabric so it feeds well, not "helping" it through. Keep your hands beside the stitching area until you and the machine are totally fused as one spiritual unit and you can guide without interfering with the rhythm of the machine. 

A dead give away that you are force feeding your fabric, apart from uneven stitches and a general negative response from your machine, can be seen on the throat plate area just around the hole where the needle goes down into the bobbin area. If you can see faint scratch lines around this hole then what is happening is that the poor needle is being bent along as you try to override the feed dogs with your hands, leaving marks. 

To be honest if you find your machine doesn't go through your layers without "help" you might have already knocked the timing out, be using a too large and too blunt needle, or simply expecting your domestic machine to sew boat covers and car upholstery.

3. There are some things a machine does that is just not its fault. Right now, while I should be making dinner, I can think of four.

a. The fabric gets all jammed up and down into the bobbin area at the start of the seam. This is worst of course in thin fabrics. The issue here is back to the large wide hole in the throat plate that has been built in to accommodate the sideways swing of zig zag type stitches. The needle just pushes the softer fabrics right down this hole with the first stitch and usually you get a thread knot up too.

The fix is to move the cut edge back a bit, sew forward then back, then forward to start off so the needle never has a cut edge hanging over the opening for the first stitch (this is what I do), or start stitching on a scrap butted up next to the cut edge to achieve the same thing (what a lot of other really good sewers often do).

b. The beginning of the seam line has an ugly ball of messy thread in the first few stitches of the seam. This is partially caused by the famous mentioned above zig zag chasm and partially because those long thread tails you start with are unreliable and flop around and are vulnerable to getting tangled once the action starts. If you remember to hold both thread tails, top and bottom, to the side to keep them still once you start stitching you can make this problem go away.

c. When you turn a corner when you are top stitching, say around a collar, the stitches get all short and stupid looking and you have to force them to go around the corner (see point two on the issues with force feeding fabric). 

Again this is not the machine's fault. 

If you were to take a side view of the position of the pressor foot when you make the pivot at the corner you would see that the foot goes from the nice level incline it had on the straight path, same number of layers behind and same number in front, to a steep incline at the corner, with the toe up and the back of the foot much lower. 

What is happening of course is that the front of the foot is still on fabric and the back of the foot is now fabricless (at least until it can get a foot hold on the fabric again, which is why once you have negotiated that corner that the stitch gets nice again). This unevenness is exactly what you don't want to happen when you are trying to form a stitch - the more contact between the fabric and the throat plate, back to the steadiness principle- the better the stitch quality. To get this back what you need to do is put a little shim ( a carpenter term and very appropriate here) under the back of the foot to maintain the foot's levelness.

This shim can be anything you can reach that is as thick as the fabric layers you are working with. This may be a folded up scrap of the same fabric, a piece of cardboard, or if you want you can buy something made out of plastic called a hump jumper, doesn't matter, all does the same stuff.

So stitch up to the point of pivot. Needle down. Lift your pressor foot, turn your fabric. Put your shim under the back of the foot. Check the foot is level. Continue stitching in from the corner and once the foot moves off the shim remove it.

d. You pin what look like fabric pieces that are the exact same length together and when you get to the end of the seam one layer, invariably the top one, is longer. This is sort of inevitable unless you are using a walking foot (an add-on loved by quilters) , and even feed foot (some machines now have these built in) or are careful to sew hand length to hand length and pin.

All that is going on here is that the tiny teeth of the feed dogs pick up the bottom layer slightly as they move and the pressor foot, whose job it is to make sure the fabric layers are pushed well and evenly into the feed dogs so they can do their job, pushes the top layer ahead slightly. 

It's them not you. If you understand this and try to sew with some control beside the needle area you should be good, and in many cases the right attachment or foot can help.

Which leads me to what better be my next topic. Machine feet.

The fun never stops.


Julie Culshaw said...

We were overrun with mice two years ago. After having two exterminators in, I followed religiously the advice of the second exterminator. He told me that I had to eliminate them myself by coralling the mice into one area and then taking them out with sticky traps. At this point, there was evidence of mice on all three floors of our house. So every hole was stuffed with steel wool, to stop them getting into walls, etc. Then poison was dumped down into places in the walls. And sticky traps were placed in the kitchen behind fridge, stove, bookcase, etc. It took about 5-6 months, but finally they were gone. I think I had a total of 23 mice on traps. The exterminator told me that if I saw that many mice, we probably had in excess of 300 mice. They reproduce in three weeks, and inter-generationally. It took a lot of work, but I know now how to get rid of mice and don't have to pay anyone for something I basically have to do myself anyway.

Now how to get rid of the rats that have populated our neighbourhood because of the composters is the next problem we are all facing in the neighbourhood.

Carolyn (Diary of a Sewing Fanatic) said...

What US fabric did you buy? I need more than a sentence here!

Ellie said...

As a learn-it-the-hard-way beginner, I'm really appreciating this series of sewing tips! Thanks so much.

I'm not sure I understand your suggestion for preventing the top layer of fabric from getting longer than the bottom layer. What do you mean by "sew hand length to hand length" and "sew with some control beside the needle area"? Do you just mean stabilizing the fabric with your hands as you sew?

Thanks again!

mandy c said...

Such wonderful hints, a very informative post. I have been sewing for years but I still forget many points of sewing so it is great to be reminded. Good luck with the mice I know it took us ages to get rid of a rodent problem in one house, just horrible. Enjoy your fabric.

SuzieB said...

We are both having rodent issues. I cleaned out my linen closet today to rid it of droppings from the latest tree rat invasion. It's never-ending! Really enjoying the sewing hints posts & although I feel your pain over the mouse invasion, yesterday's blog was hilarious!

patsijean said...

A few years ago, I gave my grand-daughter one of my spare machines, a 150 stitch Kenmore, purchased in 1990, and a nice little machine; she was so tickled. I've been paying for servicing her machine and took it in for her a couple of years ago after she thought the timing was off. She had run over a pin and it broke the needle; been there, done that. As it turned out, the timing was not off, she just had not put in the new needle all the way up into the shaft. Lessons learned and the machine was all checked out and ready to go.

Barbara said...

Elle yes that is exactly what I meant. When you understand the fabric creep issue you can compensate for it as you go. If this is a real problem for you a walking foot is the ultimate fix.

LinB said...

You can even use the slight differential feed between top and bottom to your advantage, to ease in a seam without needing pins or thread basting. Put the longer piece of fabric so that it is on the bottom. Hold the leading edge of your garment piece UP, above the level of the machine plate. Holding both pieces of fabric up encourages the feed dogs to pull through the bottom piece a wee bit faster, thus easing in a wee bit of extra fabric. Holding only the top fabric up makes the feed dogs pull through the bottom at a greater pace, and you can ease in up to about 2 inches of extra length over a foot of seam length. Very helpful when easing in sleeve heads, and when adding sashing to a pieced quilt top.

Margaret Islander used to demonstrate this technique on Sandra Betzina's t.v. sewing program. I'm sure there are any number of video tutorials on-line to watch it in action.

Janome Gnome said...

I love these posts. They're so useful. It's this blog all over - just like the no nonsense, on the nail useful advice you'd hope for from a friend, and plenty of the fun you might expect as well.

Can we have a chat about unattractive sounding adjustments, please? I can absolutely see why most blog post about altering patterns seem to be about FBAs. All due credit and love, they often need doing and it's great. And if your 'problem' is deviating sumptuously from the standard pattern measurements in that regard, all power to you. But can I hear a shout out for sway backs and forward shoulders and so forth? You can find info on it if you really look, but following up on the theme of those of us mums sewing while kids nap who learn from the internet and often in isolation, I for one would really love some resources on these less immediately evident things in the current online sewing culture.

I mean, It's taken me four years of sewing at home with the internet to realise my adaptations of back darts just aren't cutting it and that this may, possibly, have something to do with the mild curvature of the spine those doctors mentioned. Not massive. Pretty common. But once I slapped my forehead (way late) and worked it out, it explains ev-er-y-thing...

I searched about a bit. It's pretty common and makes a great difference. And I think it's a well kept secret because it doesn't really sound that gorgeous. But gorgeous is the difference to the fit.

Cheers and good luck with the mice! Crafty buggers.