Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Review of My Futura Sewing Machine

The Singer Futura is a sewing/embroidery combo machine, and as an embroidery machine, it's a really low end one at that. It's not too bad as a sewing machine, though there are machines out there that are far better.

How is it for Embroidery?
My Futura was best with small designs using few
colors, but hooping baby clothes was a pain.
It works, but I found it really limiting. (Says the woman who decided to start an embroidery business.) It doesn't trim jump threads, and if you loose power in the middle of an embroidery job (one of your kids unplugs it), it doesn't remember what stitch it was on when the power went off - this, despite needing to be hooked up to a computer in order to embroider. You also have to re-thread it for every embroidery color change, but this is true with all single-needle sewing machine/embroidery combo machines. I don't really recommend the model I have for embroidery. However, my exact model of Futura has been discontinued, and Singer came out with a new one with some improvements. It may be that the new one has fixed a lot of the things that bugged me about my old one, but I wouldn't buy it again without a bit of research.

Any Singer made after the 1970s or 80s uses plastic gears inside. It makes the machine lighter, but it also means that the gears wear out more quickly than metal parts.  Computerized sewing machines came out in the 90s. According to my local sewing machine repairman, computerized machines often have fewer issues because they use a circuit board to control fancy stitches and have fewer moving parts. Though I think he may have been talking about machines with computer boards AND metal innards given that he was attached to a Bernina dealer (which uses plastic gears).

Either way, I haven't had any problems with my machine yet. Except for one or two occasions where I've allowed too much lint to build up under the bobbin case and it's messed up the tension. Cleaning and oiling the machine is easy to do at home.

Ease of Use? 
It's very easy to thread and use. It has a drop-in bobbin with a clear cover so it's easy to ensure you don't have the wrong color loaded in the machine before you start stitching. Bobbins are clear plastic too, so it's easy to see how much thread is left on the bobbin. It's also very clear what stitch you are on. If you turn the power off and on, it doesn't remember what stitch settings you were using during your last session, which has its pros and cons.

It doesn't have auto-tension, so it's good to test out what setting works best for your project before you begin. And on really delicate or lightweight fabrics, I recommend holding the bobbin thread for the first few stitches to help with the tension and to prevent any fabric from getting sucked down into the throat plate - though this is true for almost any machine.

Fancy Stitches?
There are a lot of built in stitches on the Futura. However, I pretty much only use the straight stitch, zig-zag stitch, and automatic buttonholes. I tend to break out the serger, the embroidery machine, or a specialized foot for my sewing machine before I use a fancy stitch. If you really like fancy stitches, there are other machines on the market that have far more than the Futura.

So If I Were to Buy a Sewing Machine All Over Again, What Would I Get?
To be perfectly honest, my mom has an old metal body 1970s Bernina. She always manages to load the bobbin wrong on it and doesn't use it. I plan on offering her a trade: my shiny, 2004 Singer Futura for her 1970s Bernina. I don't really use the Singer's fancy functions; I want the durability of the Bernina's metal gears.

You Want A Vintage Machine? 
Yep. A lot of people who sew frequently love the vintage machines and seek them out because they can be real work horses. I even know a few specialty sewers who seek out the REALLY old machines (think hand-crank or foot treadle) because they give the sewer more control over the timing of the needle penetrations, which allows them to get super-accurate sewing results. Once you figure out how to clean up and maintain an old machine, it can last for almost forever, and you can get a good 1980s Bernina even on a limited budget.

If You Must Have A New Machine
Ok, lets say that automatic buttonholes are a must. Or being able to do a fancy decorative stitch.  Or a machine that will thread itself because you can never seem to get it through the needle eye. See if you can go to a store or a dealer that will allow you to test drive your machine first. Here are some things to consider:

Being able to add embroidery is a great perk for a new machine.
1) Easy to use and thread? (including the bobbin, and how you raise/lower the pressor foot)
2) How does it handle different types of fabric? (try it out on really thin stuff as well as something really thick - you may need to supply this fabric yourself for a proper test)
3) Automatic buttonholes and other stitch functions?
4) Advanced features such as trimming thread for you, automatic tension control, or embroidery
5) Price (including that of any future repairs - Kenmore machines can old be serviced at Sears because Sears controls the supply of parts)

If you're not going to do much sewing, then anything that has the features you need ought to work. Get what your budget allows and feels natural to work with. Here are a few notes about some common brands.

If you need fancy features, such as computerized embroidery, the following three brands are considered the most advanced, reliable (and expensive):
* Bernina (considered most reliable)
* Huskvarna/Viking
* Pfaff

Based off my experience with their sergers and embroidery machines, I'd also be personally happy with the following company:
* Brother/Babylock

More Budget-Friendly Options:
* Elna
* Janome
* Kenmore (be prepared to take it to Sears for repairs)
* Singer

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

About Sergers

To make these Halloween bags, I used all three machines:
1) embroidered the orange canvas fabric
2) serged the raw edges
3) sewed in handles and the black and white lining  
What is a Serger? 
Sergers, also called overcast machines, finish raw edges. They are particularly useful for finishing the raw edges of knits. Look inside any t-shirt and you will see a serged raw edge on the sides as well as a bottom hem that has then been turned back and sewn down - probably with what's called a cover stitch. A cover stitch looks like two rows of parallel stitching from one side, and a zig-zag of several threads on the back. On an overcast seam, the machine cuts the fabric with a little blade and then does a sort of zig-zag-like stitch using 3 or 4 threads around the cut edge. Both seam finishes are designed to protect the seam from fraying or raveling. It's especially useful for knit fabrics of all kinds and woven fabrics that fray, shred, or ravel.

Some machines will only overcast, some machines will only cover stitch (though these are usually industrial machines), and some machines will do both. Most sergers will also allow you make rolled hems on lightweight fabrics - though they may need to be threaded slightly differently. Sergers are also less maneuverable than sewing machines. They do best on long, straight seams. On a sewing machine, you can easily turn on a dime and then go backwards, or go easily around curves. Sergers will go around curves and can turn sharp corners, but it can be a little tricky. And since sergers Industrial sergers (such as those made by Juki) are configured differently than home sergers, which allows them to get into tighter places.

Babylock makes sergers with auto-threading capabilities.
Originally, I was going to buy a less expensive serger, until I talked to my mom and a few other people. Sergers must be threaded in a very particular order or they simply will not work correctly. A lot of people I know have to reference their manual every time they need to re-thread their machine. (My mom, in fact, just gave up on hers and sold it to someone else while I was still a little girl.) From there, you may have to serge a few test strips on scrap fabric to get the tension right (depends on if your model has auto-tension). The Babylock machines have both auto-threading and auto-tension and can do both overcast and cover-stitching. I figured it was worth getting a machine where I could spend my time making items instead of fiddling with the machine's settings.
This pillow was made entirely with my serger. 

As an example of what a serger is really capable of, I recently made a pillow entirely with my serger. I used the cover stitch function to decorate a central satin panel. I used overlocking to insert lace to some dupioni silk, then attached them to the satin. I also added pre-made piping using a piping foot. On the back, there's a zipper (again, added with my Babylock serger). If I had wanted to, I could have easily ruffled the lace with my machine as well.

Sometimes I have trouble deciding whether I love my serger or my embroidery machine best.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Since Christmas

The holiday season is always crazy for me. There are craft fairs to go to. Gifts to make for my family (such as the sweatshirt my son is wearing). Gifts that various people ask me to make. And last-minute requests of all kinds in addition to all the usual stuff. Once the crazyness ended, I was able to enjoy a little bit more time with the kids and even remembered to grab the camera for a few shots.

Wearing one of my sweatshirts, of course.
You'll notice my yard consists mainly of dirt, weeds, and kid's tempera-splattered fence. You can probably blame Gavin for much of the current status of the yard. Gavin ...and the local shade trees, gravelly soil, the winter weather, and the fact that I found and removed an entire bolt's worth of buried weed block fabric when I moved in.

Once New Year hit, it was back to business. I feel like I've put in a ton of orders in the past two weeks:

* An order for more thread and stabilizer.
* A dedicated bobbin winder that can wind off of king cone spools for free standing lace.
* At least 4 separate shipments for blank shirts and totes.
* Customized catalogs that I can hand out to business clients.

Normally I don't have quite so many boxes arriving within such a short time frame. (Particularly since I thought that the beginning of January would be on the slow side.) In the past week, I've noticed that the UPS truck has at least 3 different employees that work my route, depending on the day. Is it normal to notice just how many UPS employees are working your street in a given week? 

It may sound odd, but I still get excited when I get boxes - even if those boxes are full of things that are ultimately going to go to someone else.  So every other day or so, it's been a bit like Christmas all over again. My most recent bit of excitement is a box I received with the following canvas totes:

The totes are really sturdy, have an inside pocket with a heavy duty metal zipper, and came in several different colors. Some are natural canvas while others are black, pink, or butter yellow; the trim/handles are generally navy, black, or charcoal grey. I'm trying to decide what to do with them. They strike me as a bit nautical somehow, but it might be best to reserve them for monogramming at fairs. The totes also come in two different sizes. The one at right is about the size of a typical purse, but I also got a couple that are a larger beach tote size.

Every now and again I'll get something to test it out and see what a given product is like so I'll know whether it would be worthwhile to recommend them. The totes above are a bit of a test. I also decided to test out a backpack, such as at left.

When I conduct tests, I do test small runs to verify quality. If the item proves to be popular, then I'll invest in more inventory. We'll see how much I create this next year.