09 September 2009

domestic weekend, part 2: travails with singers

I learned to sew a long time ago, and when I was little, my mom sewed a lot of my clothes (not that I appreciated it at the time). But I’ve been interested lately in starting up again and relearning the craft. My interest has come more out of a frontier-spirit-Little-House-on-the-Praire-make-your-own-clothes notion than out of any sort of Project Runway illusions. So I decided to buy a sewing machine.

After reading online reviews, I decided on the Singer Esteem II, a well-priced basic machine that got terrific user reviews on target.com. I bought it at the store, took it home, and followed all the various instructions that came with it. Loading the bobbin: check. Threading the bobbin: check. Threading the upper thread: check. Actually sewing: not so fast. It seems that the machine was dead-set on doing this awful thing I now know to be “birdnesting,” or putting big knots of thread on the underside of the sewed article.

Though I am a thorough online researcher and advice-seeker, my search for a solution to the sewing problem on the Esteem II put previous searches to shame. First, I had to figure out what the problem was called (hence the discovery of birdnesting), and then try to address it. This involved many searches on the Singer support site, a call and email to Singer (both of which they responded to very politely and thoroughly, though, as it turns out, not sufficiently to solve the problem), and the consultation of dozens of chat groups and how-to sites. But ultimately, after about two weeks of fiddling with every knob, rethreading the machine dozens of times, and looking for new online advice, I gave up on the Esteem II.

Lucky for me, Target is great about returns.

Though it was a bit more of a splurge, I am now the proud owner of the beautiful, extremely functional Singer Precision 7444. If we pretend for a moment that the Esteem II had worked for me and sewn stitches correctly, there would still be a world of difference. While the Esteem II sounded functional, like a reliable Toyota Corolla, the Precision purrs like a Ferrari. (Okay, not quite a Ferrari, but considering how rarely I am given over to automotive metaphors, the machine clearly makes an impression.). Powerful, precise, endless speed variation. On my first try, I got everything threaded correctly, the auto-tension setting perfect, and proceeded to run through nearly every stitch the machine offers (which is a lot). 
It also has a drop-in bobbin instead of the complicated case which, if you know anything about sewing, is much easier to deal with. The trade-up was definitely worth the extra $70, because I really look forward to using the new machine.

(Aside: I love Gretchen Rubin’s commandment to “spend out” on her Happiness Project Blog and I definitely believe in this. While I don’t think it’s wise to spend more than necessary on most purchases – for example, we happily drive a six-year-old Honda Civic, and have only one car for the household, when we could probably afford a nicer, newer or second car – I do think it’s worth spending a little extra if doing so will make me actually use what I’m buying. Invariably, if I pay full price for a nice pair of shoes, I wear those shoes a lot more than the $40 clearance rack shoes. Even the per-wear price is more favorable for the expensive ones. I think it’s the same thing now, with this new sewing machine.)

So armed with my new, highly functional machine, I set out to make my first garment, a flowy, jersey skirt with a foldover waistband.

This seemed like a reasonable project for a Saturday, especially with Mark playing in a beach volleyball tournament. But, it turns out, the question was not one of time, but space. Here are all the things for which one needs a lot of space when sewing:

  • Ironing the patterns, so you can cut them out precisely
  • Pinning the patterns to the fabric, and then cutting the fabric (the most space required)
  • Laying out the fabric pieces and pinning them together
  • Sewing the actual garment
  • Ironing the seams after they are sewed
My system for my first go went something like this:
  • Dining room table: ironing station
  • Kitchen table, folded out to full size (filling up the kitchen): pinning and cutting
  • Tray table in the guest room: sewing machine station

So actually creating the garment looked something like this:
  1. Go into the dining room to iron the patterns, and then hunch over to cut them out
  2. Go into the kitchen, lay out the fabric carefully, pin on the patterns, and then hunch over to cut the fabric
  3. Go back to the dining room to unpin the patterns and pin the pieces of fabric together (more hunching)
  4. Go into the office to sew the seams
  5. Go back into the dining room to iron the seams down
  6. Repeat the whole process for the second section…

By the end, my back was killing me! But, I had a not-too-awful-looking skirt that I might actually wear. In fact, I did wear it, to go to the Container Store to pick out shelving. (True, it was a casual errand, but I always like to look my best at the Container Store.) :-)

Since the first skirt was made of jersey, which is fairly tough, I wimped out and did not attempt to hem the skirt. Instead, I bought a rotary cutter, and just got a very clean line along the bottom. I will save hemming for the next project. But for now, I am officially a maker of my own clothes, and one step closer to the prairie.

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