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Monday, October 29, 2012

A Basic Sewing Machine Primer

When it comes to sewing machines there are probably almost as many choices out there as there are stars in the sky.  Well, not that many, but there sure are a lot of them.  Whether you are thinking about buying your first sewing machine, or just your next sewing machine, there are so many options and so many things to consider that it can all become overwhelming quite easily.  So we are going to get down to the basics and walk through what really matters in a sewing machine.  I am not an expert in the field of sewing machines by any stretch of the imagination, but I have 3 decades of experience in what works, and perhaps more importantly, what does not work, when it comes to putting a sewing machine through its paces.  So I am here to share my knowledge and experience with you.

There are three basic types of home sewing machines; mechanical, electronic,  and computerized.  All home sewing machines will fall into one of these three categories, and each has its benefits and its draw backs.  Which one is best for you depends entirely on what you want to do with it.  I happen to have at least one of each type, so I am using my machines as examples.  

I do not have a "favorite" manufacturer, I have 10 sewing machines (including two embroidery machines), and 3 machines called "sergers" (which we will talk about later), and there are 9 different manufacturers represented among them.  I have found that the quality of today's new machines is more often determined more by the country of manufacture than by the name on the front of the machine.  If you can find one still made in Europe, buy it if you can.  To the best of my knowledge no one makes home sewing machines in the USA, I know there are a couple of companies who manufacture long arm quilting machines which are made in the USA, but they are the only ones I am aware of. 

Every article or post I have ever read about buying a sewing machine stressed the importance of buying it from a dealer who offered classes on its use.  And while I can certainly see the value in that if you are the type of person who would actually take the classes.  I am not one of those people.  I am much more comfortable just taking it home and figuring it out by myself. 

Okay, let's start with the mechanical machine.  Just like the name sounds, it is all gears and rods inside.  The best ones will have metal parts, inside and out.  All older machines are mechanical, the electronic and computerized ones are all relatively new in comparison.  This is my main mechanical machine below:

<<< Front Loading Bobbin Case

As you can see from the pictures there are limitations with the number of features on a mechanical machine.  There isn't a wide choice of decorative stitches, and it certainly won't thread itself!  But it is a work horse.  If you want to sew through heavy or thick  fabrics this is the best type of machine to use.  Sewing through denim, upholstery fabric, even some leather is absolutely no problem for a good mechanical machine.  That is why I have one.  I have been pretty brutal to some of my sewing machines with the projects I have put through them, and I have killed more than one over the years.  Having a dedicated machine for my heavy duty sewing needs has proven to be a really good idea, and this one is a work horse.  Something else I want to point out is where the bobbin is on this machine, that's why I added the 2nd & 3rd photos above.  This is called a "front loading bobbin" and it can be a real pain in the neck.

The next type of sewing machine is the "electronic".  This is probably the most commonly sold type out today.  They can have a much wider variety of decorative stitches than the mechanical machines, but they are generally much wimpier in return.  The machine below is a fairly cheap one my husband bought me at Target. 

This is my "Baby Brother".  It is light weight and portable and does a decent job of sewing most items.  I do NOT advise trying to quilt a King sized quilt on it, but it can be done.  There is no foot on the machine at the moment, I stole it for use on a different machine.  Many of my machines have fairly interchangeable feet, this is a great advantage when it works.  Just be careful when trying to use feet from different brands, make sure the needle doesn't hit the foot, other than that, if the foot fits, use it.  That's what I do anyway.

This machine has a "drop in bobbin" which is much easier to use than the front load one above, if you put it in right.  Most electronic machines today also have automatic button hole features which are totally awesome if you are wanting to make lots of buttonholes. Any cheap electronic sewing machine will fit the needs of the average home sewer.  I saw one today online at Walmart for $40 that actually looked like a fairly decent machine for simple hobby or beginner use.

Now, if you ever want to get "serious" about sewing, you can venture into the wonderful world of "computerized" sewing machines.  This is my main sewing and quilting machine pictured below.  She is a Viking/Husqvarna Sapphire 855 and I Love her dearly!  The reason I Love this machine has nothing to do with it being computerized though.  

The top picture shows the the most wonderful feature of this machine - all that room between the needle and the body of the machine!  Also know as the "throat space" this is one of the most valuable features in a machine for quilting.   The other greatest feature is the needle threader, this is an option I HIGHLY recommend whenever possible.  It makes life so much easier!  The second picture shows a close up of the control panel and the third is a close up of all the various decorative stitches the machine can make.  I rarely use those, but they can be fun to play with.

Speaking of fun to play with, there is a special type of computerized sewing machine called an "Embroidery Machine".  Again the variety of these available is becoming overwhelming, and I will probably do a few posts specifically for these machines in the future.  But for now, below is a picture of my "Big Brother", the largest of my embroidery machines.  It has a 6" x 10" embroidery field, and can be used as a regular sewing machine in addition to doing embroidery.

  I think that covers the basic differences between the types of sewing machines.  I am sure there are lots of details that I could add, and maybe I will write up more detailed posts later if there is an interest.  If you have any questions, feel free to ask. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Basic Potholder Instructions

Basic Potholder

Today's tutorial is for making a basic utilitarian potholder.  We use these on a daily basis in our house, saving the decorative ones for special occasions.  


I used 3 - 71/2"  squares of thick terry cloth toweling that I cut from an old towel, shown in the picture.  You could substitute wash cloths of similar size.  
For the binding I used a piece I had leftover from a quilt that started out at 2 1/4" wide and was pressed in half, but you can purchase binding, or make your own to match (I will post a tutorial on making binding in the future but there are probably lots of them out there on the internet if you search for them).  The binding needs to be fairly wide to wrap around all those layers.
 Thread to match
Having a stiletto, or similar tool, handy will make life much easier.  The wooden stick shown in the picture is a cheap bamboo skewer, it would work fine.    

Secure the three layers together.  I used a safety pin in the center because I was not really concerned about this one being perfect.  If you want all the corners to line up perfectly, then you should pin them each individually before you start.  Lay the binding strip on top of the three layers, lining up the raw edges and starting right at the top corner.  Don't worry about the raw edge of the binding at the top, it will be covered up later anyway.       

Sew the binding down, about 3/8" from the edge, making sure you catch all four layers all the way down the side. When you get about 3/8" from the bottom of the seam, stop.  Take a stitch or two backwards, and then forwards again to secure the end. 

Take the potholder completely out of the machine and lay it down flat on the table.  Fold the binding strip off to the right making a 45 degree angle, as shown below.  Finger press this fold down.

Now flip the strip straight back to the left over the top, making sure to keep the fold in place underneath.  Start stitching about 3/8" from the corner, securing with a couple stitches back and forth, but try not to sew through the fold underneath, just right up next to it, not through it.   Continuing sewing and repeat the same steps with the next two corners. 

When you get back to the beginning, fold the edge you started with underneath before sewing the binding straight off the edge of the potholder and continue sewingalong the edge of the binding strip for another 4 or 5 inches.  Remove from the machine and cut the binding strip where you stopped stitching. 

You should now have something looking rather like this.

Fold the binding strip back away from the corner and trim the three layers of terry cloth close to the stitching at all four corners.  You can trim the edges of the terry all the way around to make a nice smooth fit, but I didn't.  These are for using, they don't need to be perfect.

Now flip the whole thing upside down.  Turn each of the corners up, they should fold out pretty easily, if you managed to not sew through the fold like I said. 

That extra piece of binding sticking out the corner is going to be our hanging loop.  Fold the raw edge up along the stitching line and use your fingers to crease it there as shown above.

Now fold the top of the binding down, matching the two folded edges and enclosing the raw edge inside, finger crease along the top fold.  You could put a pin in to hold the edges together if you want to, but again, I didn't do that.

Now open out the end of the binding and fold the raw edge at the top to the inside and refold the binding around it.

 Start sewing along the short end, then turn and go down the length of the binding until you reach the edge on the potholder, then sew right on up over the top.  Make sure you pull the binding all the way around the edge of all the layers, enclosing everything inside.  Sew down the side to within a couple inches of the first corner.

When you get near the corner, stop.  Put the needle down into the fabric to hold it securely.  Fold the binding out at a 45 degree angle from the corner as shown above, then fold straight back up and over to form a perfectly mitered corner.  See how easy that was!  Took me years to figure that out!

This is where the stiletto comes on VERY handy.  Use the point to hold the fold in place as you sew up to it.  When you reach the corner, take one stitch onto the second side before pivoting the corner, keeping the needle down in the fabric as you turn the corner.  Continue sewing down the side and repeat for the next two corners.

When you get back to the beginning again, fold the extra binding back over the top of the corner and stitch securely in place to finish.

Now, Go Bake something and enjoy your new potholder!   

***** Remember - These are made with an old towel - they are NOT flame retardant!  Do not allow them to touch the element or flame in the oven!  They can, and will, burn if used improperly.  Again, use a little common sense please. **************

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Spooky Rings

Spooky Rings

Spooky Rings

I started making these little Halloween Rings for my kids about 15 years ago and they have always been a big hit with both the boys and the girls.  The picture above shows a few different options, but the possibilities are endless.  You could change out the Halloween symbols for a Christmas Tree and a Candy Cane at Christmas, or eggs and bunnies for Easter.  Super simple and super cheap, you can make a wide assortment of designs in a very short time!

Required Materials
Felt Fabric scraps (a 1" - 1 1/2" square piece is big enough for any single design)
1/4" wide elastic (you can substitute a child's pony tail holder)
permanent marker

Start with a 1" - 1 1/2" scrap of felt, it is much easier to cut the tiny shapes from a small piece than it is from a big one!  Cut out a rough ghost-like shape (or whatever design you choose).

Draw in any desired details with a permanent marker.  Use a dabbing motion with the pen, and be prepared, it will bleed through!
Draw in Details

Cut elastic to fit finger - NOT too tight!

Sew elastic into a circle

Attach Ghost

Now make a small circle of elastic to fit the child's finger.  NOT Tightly, just a loose fit, you don't want to be cutting off circulation!  You can use a child's pony tail holder instead if you happen to have one.  Sew the elastic into a circle, and then take a couple of stitches through the ghost (or whatever) and back down through the elastic to secure it.  Tie off and trim the string and you are done!

Finished Ring on Happy Kid!

 I don't have any patterns for the designs.  I free hand cut each one so I have never used a pattern.  Any simple shape will work.  If you are having the kids cut them out, you might want to give them an outline to follow, but tiny designs may be too difficult for small children.  You could do larger ones sewn to larger circles of elastic (or recycled rib-knit from a shirt sleeve) to make bracelets as well for younger children.

******* These Rings could be a choking hazard to very young children - use caution and some common sense please! ******