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I am a mother, a 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 book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge was published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon



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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Handy sewing hint #15

As promised here are some thoughts on sewing machine feet.

To zoom out a bit, many of us struggle to perform a variety of sewing jobs perfectly at our own domestic sewing machine without fully realizing that in mass factory sewing industrial machines are all special purpose built to do only one function and to do it perfectly. It is to be expected that we have our difficulties trying to do so much more with so much less.

This fact really connected with me when I once complained to an industrial sewing machine technician that I struggled to produce identical pairs of welt pockets every time. 

He told me that in suit factories the machines that did welt pockets were often the size of ping pong tables and although the did an infinite number of perfect welt pockets, that is all they did.

Quite a change from the home sewer and her little multi-purpose sewing machine.

There is a point here to consider. 

There are devices that exist to extend and standardize the performance of any machine and many of these are available as attachments for you own sewing machine.

Here are some I have used and many I own:

  • Flat felling feet that turn under the edge of the seam allowance that needs to be topstitched from the right side evenly and holds it still so you can stitch it down a consistent distance from the seam line.
  • Feet that hold two pieces of lace together so they can be joined by zig zagging ( I once lost my mind and did some heirloom sewing - temporarily)
  • Feet that let you feed in rows of strung beads and stitch the down ( the 80s were weird man )
  • Button hole sewing feet that hold the buttons still so you can zig zag them on ( you are kidding, you haven't had the pleasure of sewing your buttons on by machine?) although often you can get the same result by snapping off your snap on foot and just lowering the shank directly onto the button to hold it.
  • Wide and narrow hem feet. Once these are mastered, and this does play a game on your nerves,  these feet roll tiny hems and feed them through under the needle more finely and accurately than you could ever do with an iron and your fingers. 
  • Pin tuck feet that do an outstanding job of sewing little pin tucks, again from my brief, but intense foray into heirloom sewing.
There are tons more speciality feet out there, do a surf or visit your sewing machine dealer. The right sewing machine feet can make the difference between a hard sewing job that sails right through your machine and one that makes you go back to crochet as a hobby.

You will note too, before we go any further, that I have not listed gathering feet here. 

If you want to speed gather you are far, far better in investing in a good serger gathering feet - these little miracles actually evenly gather and finish long lengths of ruffles (and if you are on the A team and practice a lot you can even serge the ruffle onto a flat piece too at the same time). IMO sewing machine gathering feet are not nearly as effective.

If it were me and say I was making some home dec thing that required a lot of ruffles, ike a bunch of dust ruffles for a bed,  I would invest in a serger gathering foot as soon as I could.

The sewing feet I have listed above are really useful and interesting if you want something job specific but there are a couple of more basic feet (some of which you might even already own and don't know how to use) I consider essential.

These are:

1. A satin stitch a.k.a. an appliqué foot. You might have two standard looking pressor feet (you can spell this presser btw, I got used to writing pressor, also correct I think) that appear identical.

Turn them over.

One of these two feet is probably totally flat on the bottom (this is a good thing, the more contact between the foot and the fabric, the more stable the stitching area and the nicer the straight stitch, so important when you are top-stitching) and one might have a ridge or cut away area on the underneath side. This second foot, the one with the tunnel on the bottom side, is a satin stitch (as you would use for applique) foot. The idea is that those closely packed satin stitches (closely spaced zig zags) need somewhere to go so they can slide out from under the foot.

If you have ever tried to sew a satin stitch, or even a button hole, and the stitches seem to stick under the foot, chances are you were using a foot that did not have this cut away area.

Note too that many of these satin stitch feet also have the toes set wide apart so you can see where you are going with your stitches - so important when you need to make sure you are covering a cut edge with the zig zag totally, centring it in the swing of that stitch.

Sometimes when I have something really nerve-wracking to sew I also use this foot because I like the visibility for tricky construction jobs.

A few pictures:

2. A straight stitch foot. A few handy hint posts ago I talked about how containing the stitching area improved straight stitch quality and talked about straight stitch throat plates. A lot of machines, particularly older ones, come with these plates. For most newer machines they are after market items and quite expensive. An alternative, and far more reasonably priced, is a straight stitch foot that actually has the small needle hole in the foot, rather than the plate. As quilters, those kings and queens of careful straight stitching, work with 1/4" seam allowances, many of these straight stitch feet are also narrow feet with the edge of the foot an exact 1/4" from the needle- pretty handy if you are going to spend your life trying to keep your seam allowances all 1/4".

Here is a picture:

Note the bottom of this foot is solid, not cut away, again adding to fabric stability and stitch quality.

3. An even feed or walking foot. These fix that annoying problem of having the top layer shoot forward of the bottom layer in a seam by introducing a set of "feed dogs" over the top layer of fabric too, in synchrony. 

There can be added to most machines in attachments like this:

It should also be noted that some sewing machine companies make machines with a walking foot built right in. 

For a long time, I believe 50 years, Pfaff had the sole patent on this, in their IDT integrated feed system, but that patent ran out about 10 years ago and since then a number of other manufacturers offer this feature on some of their machines. In all cases the built-in walking foot looks like a set of upper feed dogs that can be snapped down to walk along the top of the fabric behind the foot, eliminating layer slippage:

4. An invisible zipper foot. Listen IMO every new sewer should start to learn to sew zippers by inserting invisible zippers. They are the bomb.

Just think about it, the part that is invisible is your own stitches, that can be done over and over again, getting even and close to the teeth if you need to work on that, without any need to take out previous, maybe messy or mistake stitching. All this stuff will be hidden on the wrong side and no one is to know.

Compare this to the stress of trying to make sure both sides of the stitching on a centred zipper are even, or that the top stitching on a lapped zipper is straight.

Make it easy on yourself zipper wise. Invest in a decent invisible zipper foot and learn how to use it and you will thank yourself you for this for the rest of your life.

Would I lie to you about a thing like that?

Here is a picture:

So that's enough for one evening. 

I am sure I will think of more on this subject, say at 3:00 a.m. tonight, but it has been a full week what with mouse control and clean up and actually beginning some sewing, a pair of jeans and a blazer, more on those later.

I also want to thank you for you comments. 

So much. 

Both to the experienced sewers who contribute so much of their own expertise on the subjects that come up, and on the new sewers, like I was once, teaching myself to sew during nap time really resonated with me.

I want the new sewers in particular to know that I am taking note of requests for more on specific topics, fit issues is a good one for example, and I will return to these in future posts.

For the time being however, good night, and thank you. 

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.