Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sewing Lessons: Intro to Machine Sewing

Learning a new hobby can be so exciting. We can't wait to master our new craft and create the project of our dreams. Unfortunately, sometimes we get so eager to reach our end goal that we bite off more than we can chew, jump ahead, take shortcuts, and ultimately end up disappointed that our project falls short of our expectations. In the worst cases, our failure squashes our enthusiasm and we quit because it was "too hard." This is an easy trap to fall into, especially when making progress can seem so slow and building your skills takes time, but getting a great foundation built is the key to long term success.

When beginning to sew using a sewing machine I cannot stress enough the importance of learning how to use your machine! It is temping to see it as a magical tool that will automatically make your projects turn out perfectly, but anyone who sews can tell you that some of the greatest frustrations can come from not knowing why your machine is not doing what you want it to do!

So before we start, how can we get to know our sewing machines better?:
  • Talk to the former owner (if you are lucky enough to get a used machine!) She or he is probably a wealth of knowledge on your machine's particular quirks. She will probably be happy to guide you through threading and basic maintenance of your 'new' machine. You might also want to put her phone number on speed dial, just in case!
  • Familiarize yourself with your owners manual. You don't need to memorize it, but know generally what is in there so that you can refer back when you need to. If you don't have the manual, look online. Many models, even vintage ones, have manuals posted on the internet. Make a note of the type of bobbin, feet, and needles your machine uses. You can even write it down and keep it in your wallet. There are many machines that use different "universal" types of accessories, know what kind or if you need something special. Knowing this will come in handy when you want to buy more of these accessories.
  • Practice the mundane parts of using your sewing machine. Practice putting in the bobbin and taking it out – putting in the bobbin can be tricky, sometimes it seems like the thread has to go in the opposite direction it seems like it should. Practice threading your machine and winding your bobbin. Every model is different, so make sure you thread your machine according to the manual. Practice putting different feet on, if you are not sure what they are for, look it up, you might be surprised at the cool stuff it can do! Figure out what parts of your machine to clean/oil, if you are able to on your model. If someone is helping you, make sure you can thread your machine yourself, don't just watch! Practice it over, and over until it becomes second nature. You will need to use these skills every time you sew, so if you can't remember how, you will waste lots of time looking it up or asking for help which can be frustrating.
    TIP: More often than not, if you are having problems with your machine, the issue is with incorrect threading. If you are getting knots, jams, or skipped stitches, take the time to unthread and rethread your machine. This means both top and bottom, i.e. popping out the bobbin and putting it back in as well as rethreading from the spool. Even if you threaded it right at first, sometimes doing "naughty things" can jack it up. Yeah, it will take a whole minute of your time, but it will probably save you a lot of frustration. If you are still having problems, try changing your needle, if it is dull or damaged it will make your machine work improperly.
  • Figure out what all the knobs, dials, and buttons are called and what they do. There are basic parts on all machines, but if you have a super-fancy machine you might have more parts to learn! Sew some scraps with different settings to understand how the dials change the stitch style and length.
TIP: When you are a beginner, you don't need the latest sewing machine model with the built-in computer and 50,000 stitches. Really you only need a machine with a solid, reliable straight stitch. A zig-zag and a reverse would be awesome too. I learned on an antique treadle machine! Having a "stripped-down" mechanical or vintage model can actually be a benefit because there are less mechanisms to break down and you may actually be able to service your machine yourself for most of the normal maintenance rather than bring it in to a shop. You don't have use a simple machine forever either. When you are more advanced, you will be confident spending your money on a fancier machine because you will know what features are important to you.
  • Make sure your machine is in proper working condition. If you are unsure of your machine's provenance, it's been neglected for many years, or something seems to really be not right, bring it in to get it looked at by a professional sewing machine repair person. They can give it a check-up and tell you whats going wrong and how much it will cost to fix. Trust me, you will not have any fun sewing with a broken machine!
In the tip up above I mentioned "naughty things" that can mess up your machine. In no particular order these are:
  • Sewing over pins. Yes, most of us are guilty of this at one time or another but it is not only naughty and can bend your needle, it can also be dangerous, a broken needle flying toward your face is no good!
  • Turning the hand wheel backward. The drive wheel is generally meant to go in one direction, forward. If you wind it back and forth you can get your thread all knotted and jammed up under the throat plate. Try using the reverse lever/button on your machine to go backward instead.
  • Sewing or moving your fabric with the needle in the upright position. If you need to stop while you are in the middle of sewing a seam, always do so with the needle in the down position, plunged into the fabric. Some reasons you may stop are to lift the presser foot to pivot at a corner or to adjust your fabric. Keeping the needle down will stop you from accidentally pulling out extra thread that can loop, tangle, and jam your machine, as well as keeping your row of stitches straight and in line.
TIP: If you are ever sewing and your machine starts making weird noises, STOP. IMMEDIATELY. Mine will usually be making one of two noises: 1) A louder "Ka-Chunka-Chunk." This usually means that thread is starting to wad up underneath my project. Stop. Gently pull away your project, cut your thread, and rethread your machine. 2) A "Whirr" accompanied by the machine stopping dead even though my foot is on the pedal. This unfortunately means that you probably ignored the "Ka-Chunka-Chunk" and fully jammed your machine. If it is really jammed hard, don't force it by yanking out your project. If you need to, you can try to coax out some more thread by rocking the hand wheel back-and-forth without having the needle plunge into the fabric (I know I just told you not to do this, but this is an emergency!) and gently pull your project away. It should eventually come loose. There will probably be several threads coming from the throat plate if it is a bad jam, cut them all and clean out all the extra bits. Cut your threads and rethread your machine. If it is a horrible, awful, terrible jam and your fabric has gotten sucked down into the throat plate and won't let loose, you might need to cut your project away. This will likely leave a hole in your project and you will either need to patch it or start over. Moral of the story: Don't ignore weird noises!
  • Leaving too short of "tails" on your machine's thread ends. This won't mess up your machine, but it will frustrate you! When you cut your thread ends, make sure the thread take up lever (the part on top that goes up-and-down while you sew) is it its top-most position, and then leave about two inch tails of thread coming out of the needle and up from the bobbin. This will keep the ends from getting unthreaded or lost in your machine. The little bit of thread you "waste" will help you save tons of time. 
  • Conversely, leaving long thread ends on your project rather than trimming them off. Sometimes your machine can get confused and suck these long thread ends down into the bobbin compartment and make a nice wadded knot with them in your machine.
  • Pulling your thread out toward you. It is generally better to pull out slack by pulling the thread out backwards, away from you, rather than forwards. (Reminder: Make sure your thread take up lever is in its top-most position!) In my experience, the thread should pull out easier in this direction and put less stress on the needle.
  • Pulling or pushing fabric through your machine. Sometimes when you are sewing over a very thick seam you may need to gently encourage your fabric through the machine, but normally you shouldn't have to pull or push at all. Just gently guide the fabric through, let the feed dogs and presser foot do most of the work! Pulling can break or bend your needle or cause your stitches to be uneven and crooked. Pushing can put your fingers in danger of getting sewn over!
Ok, so this first post seems a bit dull and "Debbie Downer," but really, getting to know your machine will help you so much when learning to sew. Once you figure out your machine you can concentrate more on learning about sewing and the FUN parts of the hobby rather than the boring basics!

My next post will be an intro-project, a flannel pillowcase. We can put to practice what we've learned about our machines and actually get a project under our belts!

If you have any questions about getting to know your sewing machine, please put them in the comments. And, if you have any helpful tips to add, post those too!