Learning to Sew – The Sewing Machine

Today, we begin a new series of posts designed to help all of you who would like to learn to sew, or who have already begun taking small steps in that direction.  We will start with something very basic:  the sewing machine.

Maybe you are fortunate, and you have been given a sewing machine that someone no longer uses.  That’s wonderful!  Be sure to get the attachments and the operating manual.  And get the previous owner to show you how to thread it, make a bobbin, and make a stitch.

But if you need to purchase a sewing machine, you may feel a little overwhelmed when researching the variety of new machines available to the home sewer today.  And you may wonder if you will have to take out a second mortgage in order to buy a good sewing machine.  You can find new machines priced from $50 to $12,000!  The good news is that you can buy a good basic machine for not much money.

So here is our recommendation: the Brother LS-590.  Hancock Fabrics sells this nice little workhorse for $100, or a little less if you catch it on sale.  It’s a basic sewing machine with several built-in stitches, most of which you will never use.  But you will use the straight stitch, the zig zag stitch, the buttonhole setting, and a few others.


This is the machine that our students use in our Beginning Sewing classes here at Golden Needles Studio.  We have used seven of these for over a year now, and given them quite a workout. These little beauties will sew a variety of fabric weights without any problem.  Spend about a hundred bucks, and learn to sew.  You can always upgrade to something with more bells and whistles down the road, after you know what kind of bells and whistles you want.

Back when we were setting up our classroom, we we were prepared to spend between $300 and $400 each on basic sewing machines for our studio.  That was when I ran into a friend of mine who spends a good bit of her time teaching Haitian orphans to sew in open-weather tropical conditions; when I asked her to recommend a good sewing machine for our studio, this was it.  The Brother LS-590 is what she uses in Haiti.  That sold us, and saved us a lot of money.

The size of this sewing machine is about as small as you would want to go.  I’ve seen some smaller machines at Hancock’s.  Singer was one of the brands, I think, and they were a little less expensive.  But I would not trust a smaller machine to do the work that this one will do.

Brother has a few other models that look like they are almost the same as this one: XL-36001, XL-2610, XL-3750, and XL-2600i are all similar models in the same price range.  I feel quite certain any of these would be perfect for the beginner.

Below, see a short instructional video, explaining a few of the features of the Brother LS-590, which would also apply to other machines.  The video also shows how to thread the machine and how to make a bobbin.

So take the plunge.  Buy yourself a sewing machine.  Then meet us back here next time when we will talk about the basic tools you need for sewing.

Mock Serging

To all of you beginner sewers, or to those of you who have not found the money or inclination to buy a serger yet, I thought I would share my “mock serge” method.  This is the way that I finished seams for years, before there was any such thing as a serger for home sewers.

Now, I do have to tell you that I absolutely love my Baby Lock serger!  I would not want to go back to this method.  But the point is, sergers are not cheap.  Well, you can probably buy a cheap serger, but I actually would rather do this “mock serge” method than have anything besides a Baby Lock serger.

Sergers require three to four spools of thread to lock together to create a beautiful seam and finish all in one step.  But because of all of the thread spools that have to travel through a maze to get to where they are going, threading a serger can make one want to use unladylike language.  (Or ungentlmanlylike…is that a word?)

That’s where Baby Lock comes in, and that’s why they are worth every penny that you will spend.  Baby Lock sergers have this magic way of using air to swoosh the thread through the complicated maze with the downward push of a lever.  It makes me smile every time.

My Sweet Baby Lock

Maybe there is another company that uses magic to make threading easy; I don’t know.  But if you are considering anything besides a Baby Lock when you take the serger plunge, be sure you sit down in the store and thread the machine yourself before you hand over your credit card.  If not, you may be setting yourself up for frustration.  Or, you may decide to never change your off-white thread, even if you are sewing a Little Black Dress.  Those gigantic spools will last a long time.  But when they run out, I won’t be surprised to hear your serger went flying out of your sewing room window.  Accompanied by language that may ruin your reputation as a kind and gentle neighbor.

But let’s just say that you are not ready to buy a Baby Lock serger.  And let’s just say that even though you are new, or relatively new, to sewing, you still want to produce work that looks handmade but not home made.  Well, that requires finishing the seams of anything that is not lined.  And that is where my mock serging technique comes in handy.

This was serged by me and my Baby Lock

When you use a serger, you run the fabric through the machine at the seam line once, and you are done.  The mock serge, however, requires three steps.  But the results are pretty impressive when you take off your unlined jacket and your friends get a glimpse of your handiwork.  (Better yet, don’t wait for a chance opportunity to show off your skills.  Create an opportunity.  Either “accidentally” wear it inside out, or just yell, “Hey everyone, look what I did!” as you point to your finished seams.)

Here are the steps for creating a mock serge seam and finish, and it should look something like the picture below.

Step One:

Sew along your normal seam line.

Step Two:

Trim the seam to 1/4″ or 3/8″.  Don’t trim any close than 1/4″.

Step Three:

Set your machine to its widest zig zag setting.  Use a stitch length of about 15 stitches per inch.  (You will, of course, need to practice to get the length just right.  You don’t want a dense stitch length as this will create a ridge that will show and will be felt from the outside.)  When the needle is in the left position of the zig zag, it should be on your fabric.  When the needle swings to the right, it should be just off the edge of your fabric.  Stitch the raw edge in this manner, and you should end up with a nice seam and finish.

Of course, you will need to practice this a little to get good results.  Different weights of fabrics will require some stitch length adjustments, but always use the widest zig zag stitch your sewing machine allows.

The three-step "mock serge" seam and finish.

Okay, so now it’s your turn!  I’d love to hear how you do!

More Bells and Whistles

After sewing for years with a Singer Touch and Sew, I bought a basic Baby Lock.  (If you are interested, I wrote a little about that decision in a recent post called “An Old Friend and a New One.”)  But I knew when I bought my basic Baby Lock that I would be looking for something else in the not-too-distant future with a few more features.

So, one of my main purposes at the Original Sewing and Quilting Expo in Atlanta a couple of months ago was to look at every sewing machine on display, and decide which one would best suit my needs.  I was on a mission.  I tried Brother machines, Bernina, Viking, Janome, Juki, Baby Lock, and Pfaff.  I skipped the machines with embroidery capabilities; I didn’t want to spend the money required for a feature that I knew I would hardly ever use.

A funny thing happened when I got to the Brother booth and sat down to do a test-drive on their “Project Runway” model.  I felt like I had just sat down at home in front of my Baby Lock “Grace.”  The guy in the booth told me that Baby Lock sewing machines are made by Brother, and that my Grace and this machine were basically one in the same.  Alrighty, then.

But I was looking for more bells and whistles than what I had at home, so I moved on to the higher-end Brother machines.  After a morning of learning about a myriad of features on every brand at the expo, I narrowed it down to a Pfaff model and a Juki model.  I was really impressed with the Juki company, and with their well-made machines, but in the end the Pfaff Quilt Expression 4.0 won me over.  I bought it, put my boxed-up brand new treasure in my car, and then headed for Nashville with my family for my niece’s wedding.  (I’m trying to forgive her for making me cut my expo weekend short…)

After a really wonderful weekend in Music City, I unloaded my new machine as soon as I got home, set it up in my studio, and got out the all-important owner’s manual.  Almost three months later, I’m still pulling out the manual and learning new things.

While I am not a quilter, at times I need to be able to sew through a thick layer of fabrics without worrying about skipped stitches or stalled-out feed.  But I also want to be able to sew thin, delicate silks smoothly and accurately.  My new Pfaff has not let me down.  The IDT (integrated dual feed) system has been key.  It is a built-in option that is ready to go with one pull on the IDT, which stays tucked away when you don’t need it.

My Pfaff has a beautiful and reliable stitch.  Threading it and making bobbins is a breeze.  You can even make a bobbin through the needle, if if runs out in the middle of a project.  (This is the best news for someone who used a Singer Touch and Sew, with that fantastic automatic bobbin winder, for more than three decades!)  The buttonhole attachment, which I used for the first time last week, works like a dream and makes beautiful buttonholes.   So my old Touch and Sew, which I had set up with a treasured special attachment to use for making buttonholes after I bought my Baby Lock, is becoming more and more obsolete in my studio.

Other features I love are the automatic reverse, the automatic thread snips, and the pivot-height option on the presser foot.  There are so many more options I have not yet tried.  My Pfaff has a large graphic screen to display all the programmed info for a chosen stitch, and there are more than 200 decorative and utilitarian stitches.  I used number 49 this morning to create a decorative bartack to reinforce a pocket seam.

I would recommend this machine to anyone who sews a lot.  Although it is called “Quilt Expression,” it is not just for quilters.  Those of us who love to sew clothes need this type of versatility.  I don’t do much home decor sewing, but this Pfaff would be perfect for those who do, because of the same great features that make it so wonderful for fashion sewers and for quilters.

Okay, enough blogging.  I’ve got a lot of sewing to do!