Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sewing Machine tips from our live chat

Sewing Machines    


Chat Room Summary – Week of July 6th -10th

Our chat room was a buzz this past week with another lively chat, and this time it was about "sewing machines". When I chose this topic my intent was to find out what type of machine you use for sewing/quilting, and then find out what you liked best about your machine. This investigation into your sewing room was to help new quilters find out what's available today in the way of sewing machines and also to show them that quilting can be done on just about any machine at all. You don't have to spend a lot, or have a fancy machine to quilt.

What was revealed to me on the first day of the chat was something I did not expect. I was quite surprised at the number of you who own either treadle machines, or feather weights! This really did drive home the concept "that you really can sew on any machine, and you don't need a fancy machine to quilt". Treadles are one of the first sewing machines. No power required to operate these. And the feather weights were rather simple as well. Although they did offer the sewer a little more power as they were electric and had foot pedals similar to today's machines.

Let's explore these two machines a little closer

First let's look at the treadle machine. I would think that many of you may have seen a treadle machine at some point in your life. For me it was in my grandmother's house as a child. I would get to sit under the machine and push the peddle with my hands while moved the fabric through the machine up top. (Or at least until she got frustrated with my irregular movements, or too slow movements for her)

From the dictionary: A treadle [from OE tredan = to tread] is a part of a machine which is operated by the foot to produce reciprocating or rotary motion in a machine such as a weaving loom (reciprocating) or grinder (rotary).

Many of the early sewing machine were operated by a treadle mechanism linked to the machine by a leather belt.

Here you can see a treadle machine in the closed position. The machine would store neatly in the cabinet when not in use. What a beautiful piece of furniture this makes! The "pedal" at the bottom would be pressed back and forth in a rocking motion to make the needle move up and down with the help of a belt on the large wheel to the right of the peddle. There are many benefits to this type of machine beyond its obvious beauty.

The cabinetry was beautiful, but the machines were even more beautiful. Inlayed with gold, or mother of pearl was not uncommon.

Because this machine relied on your pedal power, it gave you total control of the speed. This is the ultimate speed control! You can sew as fast or slow as you want, by simply rocking the pedal faster or slower. Developing a rhythm is all it takes to gain control of this machine. Your legs will enjoy the work out too!

Beyond the control, there are no computer chips to break, or buttons to figure out this is as basic a machine as it gets. It is a straight stitch machine, but really in quilting the straight stitch will do the job just fine for piecing and quilting.

Featherweight machines

Feather weight machines were manufactured between 1933 and 1964 by a company named Singer. These were light weight and portable. Much different than the treadle machines which were in heavy cabinets which could only be moved around the home like any other piece of furniture.

The featherweights even had a foot pedal much like we use today. These machines were run by electricity and not by "man power". This gave the sewer freedom to pack her machine into a case and take it to class or to a friend's house if she desired.

Many of these machines had an extension on the bed that flipped up to give you more sewing space. The convenience of folding this extension up and down allowed to be packed in a small cubicle of a box to be tucked away when needed.

There are many attachments that can be purchased for these machines including walking foot, button holer, ruffle and even a zipper foot. It is a great machine for piecing and the manufacture doesn't recommend using it for machine quilting as it could burn out the motor. You cannot lower the feed dogs on this machine, making it difficult to free motion quilt. That being said, there are many people who say they have successfully used their machines for machine quilting. So my hat is off to all the ladies who are still sewing on either of these machines today.

Helpful links about treadle & featherweight machines

Treadle On – A helpful site dedicated to those who want to use "man powered" sewing machines.

Sewing Machine 221 Sale – Is a great place to start if you are looking for repairs or parts for your machines (old or new) Of course if you have a new sewing machine it is best to go to your dealer or the place of purchase if the machine is still under warranty, as going someplace else for repairs could void your warranty.

Planet Patchwork – Read this well written and detailed article on featherweight machines. It is very informative.

About.com – Here are some photos and facts found on this site on featherweights. The pictures are a great help if this is your first time learning about this type of machine.

Our chat also revealed more modern machines as well.

Some of the brands available today include:




Husqvarna Viking






Now there may be others, this is just the ones that I am familiar with, and names that I have heard in the chat and amongst quilters I have met. Each of these companies caters to the home sewer. There are many price ranges and features to choose from. Basic sewing and embroidery options can be found on many of the machines today. So how would you decide what is right for you?

What machine should I buy?

This is tough question to answer, and there is no right or wrong answer here. One thing I can tell you for sure is that you need to do your research. And here are some pointers as to what you need to ask yourself, and the shop owners.

  1. Ask yourself "What type of sewing will you be doing most?" General sewing, quilting (free motion or straight line). If you do craft or general sewing, what types of fabrics will you be working most.
    1. This question leads to the type of feet your machine needs to come with, and how does it handle the different types of fabrics, like denim verses cotton verses silks etc.
  2. What features do you like and what features must you have/or can't live without. Make a wish list here. Look online at the various machines and see what they have to offer.
    1. As you start looking at machines, and your wish list you may find not all features are available on all machines. So categorize them by highlighting the feature in order of importance to you and the type of sewing you will do.
    2. Do this research before entering the store. Once you get into the store, you may find a fast talking pushy sales person who will tell you anything to get the sale. So be sure you know what you want first. And the internet is full of great resources.
    3. Check the manufactures websites, and then see if you can find forums or online groups where you can ask actual owners of the machines you're interested in. You will quickly get a feel for who likes and why or who doesn't why.
  3. Ask about warranty and repairs. I know when you get a new machine repairs are the last thing you want to think about but this is an important one. You need to know if the shop does their own repairs or if they send the machine out. If they send it out, check out the reputation of the repair person or shop they send it to. Find out how long it takes on average to get it back for cleanings and repairs.
    1. Knowing how long can help you plan around your projects better. No one likes to be without a machine, but cleanings will help you keep it off the repair table or at least less often.
  4. Find out about classes. Do they offer them? How often and where do they hold them? Many shops hold basic or new machine owner classes, but what about more advanced classes or learning to use special feet and options your new machine came with?
    1. If you have questions about your machine, can you get free answers, either over the phone or in person?
  5. Make sure you can test drive the machines beforehand. And really try out the features you want on your machine.
    1. If you use specialty fabrics, then bring scraps in to try and see how the machine handles them.
    2. If free motion is what you do most make a quilt sandwich to test out. (a 10 to 14 inch sandwich should be good)
    3. Try out all the feet you know you will use.
    4. Try out the embroidery options if that is what you are interested in. Make sure you know how to hoop your fabrics, and how to adjust pattern sizes.


    As you can see there are many things to consider when purchasing a new sewing machine. With the cost of machines ranging from hundreds to several thousand dollars, research is important if you want to invest in the right machine for your type of sewing.


    Don't just buy a machine; make sure the company will be there to support you and your machine for the life of the machine. The company behind the machine is just as important as the machine it's self.


1 comment:

Debi R said...

Great summary, Chris, and just what I needed to read. I find myself in the market for a new machine and the tips presented here are wonderful. Thanks!

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