How Do You Choose a Sewing Machine? PART 2 – The Reasoning

PART 1 of this series is information overload, amirite?

If you were to do all the internet searching and talking to all the people, PART 1 is basically what you would find. Now, I’m going to go over some basic issues people have, and the more you pay for a machine, the more of these issues are removed for you, and you can just get to sewing something cool, smooth sailing all the way. The less expensive the machine, the more the tinkering.

In my experience, the biggest frustration people have with their sewing machine, if you ask them, is the tension. Sometimes they’re right…but I find it’s like a catch-all phrase for people to say the tension or the timing is off, which can be an expensive fix if that is really what it is….or at least you’ll get charged for it, take it home, and shocking! You’ll have the same issues!

A few little things.

Thread.

Yes, you gotta use the right thread. You just want to sew something cool, I get it. It seems trivial, doesn’t it?When you’re starting, get 4 spools of Gütermann All Purpose 40wt in light tan, med gray, black, and white. That will blend enough for quite awhile. Worry about the finer details and “correct thread” as you get better.

My cousin called me. She was piecing a quilt and her machine was skipping stitches. Before she went and bought a new machine, she called me to go through everything, inch by inch. The first thing she said was she was using quilting thread. I took that to mean Gütermann, Mettler, or Aurifil 50wt, which is what long time, experienced quilters mean…heh. See my mistake? We then went through everything….and I double checked her thread type and one last time before telling her it was time for a new machine…I asked the BRAND. That’s when she said, “It says ‘quilting thread’ right on it…” OH. A spool of “quilting thread” means a thick, coated, HAND QUILTING thread. I’m not going to reinvent others’ posts on threads and types and whens, but, yeah. It matters.

Just get the 4 to start. That’s like <$8 with a coupon.

Singer Touch & Sew 626

Needles.

I haven’t seen any modern machine that requires a particular brand, nor have I run across a vintage machine that requires any special needles. I’ve used Singer, Klassé, Schmetz, Organ, Inspira…I don’t see a difference. There used to be different lengths/sizes or “Types”…but not anything you’re going to find without an antique dealer is going to require anything other than a basic Type AA needle. I’ve ripped an industrial needle out of a domestic machine. Don’t let anyone shove in an industrial needle…but industrial needles are specialty and you’re not going to find one easily.

DO make sure your needle shank, or the flat side, is facing the right way for your machine.

DO make sure your needle is all the way UP before you tighten down the clamp. This can cause skipped stitches if it is hanging down too low.

DO use the right type of needle for your fabric. Lots of posts out there about that. Start with a Universal 80 for wovens, and a Stretch 75 for knits; go from there.

Bobbins

Bobbins.

You will need to use the bobbins required by your manufacturer. This isn’t the place to save money. If Juki tells you to buy only Juki bobbins, then buy only Juki bobbins. If someone hands you a bunch of Class 15 metal bobbins and some story about how they’re better because they’re metal, but your machine takes plastic Class 15J, use the plastic ones.

The photo above is an open Janome top-loading bobbin case. I bought this machine for $25, and took out the metal Class 15 bobbin, the nest of thread, the tangles, cleaned it, put in the correct plastic 15J plastic bobbin, and now it runs perfectly.

Class 15J and 15

Here I have taken out the bobbin, the bobbin case, and the plate of the 1960s Singer. I want you to see how much of a tight squeeze it is:

The amount of area between the bobbin and the needle is in millimeters. This is how you can have a home sewing machine and not a factory industrial machine. This is also why you want to use the correct bobbin. There’s a millimeter of room between that needle and the outer part of the bobbin rotary mechanism. This goes around at a high speed. Use the correct bobbin.

When putting bobbin in your bobbin case, there are directions on where to pull the thread through. When you do this, hold the bobbin and pull the thread through taught. You’re pulling the thread through the tension spring – which do not look like traditional “springs,” and if you don’t pull it through, the sewing-motions of your machine will not always pull it into correct position for you, and you’ll get skipped stitches/bobbin thread nest. In a metal case, which sits perpendicular to the machine bed, the “spring” is that metal flap:

Some bobbins lay flat to the machine bed. My Janome version easily slips through the “channels” while my Viking needs the thread to “snap” into place. I need to give the thread a little tug…these are all idiosynracies of owning a machine. Add another point to dealer classes from PART 1.

You can PAY more for easier bobbin features. There are machines with bobbin sensors, bobbin thread cutters, separate bobbin motors for winding, auto-tension…or you can be more hands-on. How much money do you want to spend?

I’m not going to get into the housing around it, or shuttle vs rotary shuttle. That’s a bit more advanced. We just want to sew something cool at this point. I’m also not going to get into the bobbin tension – when you’re beginning, don’t mess with the bobbin tension, and it won’t get messed up. The point here is how hands-on do you want to be? The bobbin is the #1 user error. Which brings me to:

User Error

Let’s go through some photos of the thread take up lever and the bobbin case.

For the TOP thread to wrap around the BOTTOM thread and make a stitch, the TOP thread goes down with the needle, gets caught by the bobbin “HOOK”, thereby gets wrapped around the BOTTOM thread, and the needle comes up, pulling it tight to make a full TOP thread revolution AROUND the bobbin CASE and completing the stitch.

Thread the machine and adjust the tension knob when the sewing foot is UP, when foot is down, it engages the tension disks. There are machines with auto tension if you want to pay more. These take away the possible tension frustrations, for a price, and you can just sew.

Take Up Lever, and Tension Knob & Disks

Here is the open bobbin case again, with the bobbin removed, so you can see the relationship between the UPPER thread, the take up lever, and the bobbin:

#1 Beginner error is not taking up that lever ALL THE WAY when you want to stop and pull out your fabric. The thread must finish the revolution around the bobbin, which is missing in this photo so you can see the UPPER thread doing all the work.

Here the UPPER thread popped off the rotary because I took out a few parts, but you can see, the needle is coming up, but NOT up all the way – the UPPER thread is not done:

This is where the lever is positioned at this time:

If you try to take out your fabric at this point as I did MANY times when learning to sew, you will get this…and this is difficult to capture on my camera, but if you see 4 threads coming out the bottom of your fabric, and you can’t quite pull your fabric away…this is why:

The needle is UP and above the raised sewing foot! BUT it is not up ALL THE WAY. See the UPPER thread still wrapped around the bobbin? It’s a bit blurry, but see there looks to be 4 threads under the fabric? See the threads still wrapped around the bottom of the bobbin?

This is user error. This is probably #1 user error. If you don’t make this error, pat yourself on the back. Really. I’ve had countless phone calls and emails with frustrated new sewists and this is the most common issue.

Alternatively, get a machine with a needle up/down button for a price. This error is why the up/down button exists.

Easy Buttons

When I bought my Viking, I had already experienced the older, mechanical version, and the $$$ fancy computerized version. I just wanted to sew, and I knew I was committed to sewing, but I was NOT committed at the time to learning the mechanics of a sewing machine.

For a price, I opted for a few EASY BUTTONS.

I’ve got auto foot pressure, needle AND foot up/down buttons, temporary reverse options, speed options, knot-the-thread-for-me options…because I hated messing with the #1 Error above, and these were the things I wanted after using my mom’s fancy machine. The needle up/down removes #1 Error possibility.

What I didn’t get/couldn’t afford were: Auto-tension, bobbin sensors/cutters, ultra speed, heavy duty, super embroidery, etc. BUT I could just get to sewing cool things quickly and easily.

So, in the car analogy from PART 1, I got a entry model Acura. Once I learned how to drive and drive very well on my Acura, then I branched out and got some old Fords to tinker on. See what I mean? Much like how an entry level Acura isn’t going to go 4×4 driving, my Viking or my mom’s Janome will not sew leather, 4 layers of denim, waxed canvas to leather, and those Sew Sweetness bags I told you about in PART 1? That was an adventure. The computer in high-end machines will shut down your machine if you try to push the motor too hard. 

Tension

A quick word about tension. Sigh. And “timing” for that matter. Yes, timing can get off – the photos above of the UPPER thread making the revolution with the needle – that CAN get out of sync. Tension disks CAN “freeze up,” BUT in all the machines I’ve cleaned, repaired, tinkered with… I’ve adjusted 1 bobbin tension screw. Ever. I have good reason to suspect the previous owner lowered the tension on the bobbin for free motion quilting on a machine that wan’t necessarily built for free motion quilting – and that is a more advanced option when you’re ready.

I’ve “flossed” the tension disks on the GUNKIEST ancient machines that smelled of the worst smells…and have yet to find a “frozen” set. “Tension” and “timing” are often the knee-jerk reactions to simpler user-errors. I’ve had skipped stitches from the needle not being all the way up in the needle-clamp, or the bobbin thread not properly through the tension spring, but never because of timing or actual tension problems.

I’ve never worked on a modern $100-$200 big box store Singer or Brother. Maybe this is where the mysterious tension and timing issues pop up? I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I want to sew.

Bias

Yes, I have bias from my experience, as you will from yours. This is my 2 cents. I’m not a pro machine tech, nor do I want to be. I want to know enough to make this more approachable for you and enjoyable for me. I read dusty old books, tear apart gross old machines, read up on the latest embroidery software releases, and sew my heart out both for my love of it all and to be a helpful friend to other sewists. Every option has perks and caveats. Like with a car, mobile phone, laptop…anything. Pick what will make you LOVE sewing the most.

Any other questions, or details you want me to get into? Please, let me know. Both of these posts got far longer than I intended, and I’m afraid it’s a sea of word vomit…

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