Machine Maintenance

My good old Baby Lock serger (shown far right) had been getting progressively looser in the stitch. I had named him Jonah Hex shortly after purchase on account of his retaining complete control over thread tension. He’ll do the job, he’ll do a damn fine job, and he’ll do it his own way. You don’t like it, tough.

The cool thing about Baby Lock sergers is the whole automatic tension thing and the threading with a gust of air. The bad thing about Baby Lock sergers is the whole automatic tension thing and the threading with a gust of air.

Having grown up with cars with manual window cranks, the increasing prevalence of automatic windows leaves me periodically nervous about ending up with a window emergency in a powered-off car. Like getting trapped in a car in a lake. Or that time in high school when I ran a lot of errands with a friend who had neither working power windows nor cranks nor A/C.

The front panel came off and is now propped in place by a thin strip of plastic, which I guess I should have seen coming after naming the machine after this guy:

Also, the blade, which immediately winds up going over a pin every freaking time I get it changed, and which had furthermore not been changed in probably about a year, had finally given up completely. After an extended period of iffy cutting, it was not longer even cutting this effectively:

So with all the work I had lined up and the heavy focus on serging, I decided to whip out my old serger. This is actually a fabulous serger (New Home HF504D, which is the last model in this series sold under the name New Home before they switched to Janome), and even after I had first bought Jonah, I was still using her the most because you can tell her exactly what you want her to do and she’ll do it without making you fight an alligator to get her agreement.

Which is why I’ve been referring to her as The Bitch for some time. This is not a particularly informative name, though, due to the double meaning. I can’t think of many characters who do whatever they’re told, so I’m not sure what to rename her. The first one who comes to mind is Jefe, who yes-manned El Guapo to the point of attempting to pretend he knew what a plethora was. But she’s not really a villain, and I’m not sure she’s got the bad attitude or stupidity to match Jefe, nor do I want her to get any ideas.  Perhaps a Disney princess? Snow White? She was pretty agreeable.

Anyway, back to the tale. Then someone with access to my studio while I was out of town used her in such a way that both loopers became twisted. I do not even know how this is possible, but there are some people who can manage to wreak havoc in ways you cannot fathom, and they should be cut from your life with the determination of Mr. Hex after a bounty before they wreak this havoc on your serger.

At the time I was going to a particular sewing machine mechanic who shall remain nameless, and who returned it to me “repaired” in such a way that the once-immaculate stitches were now pretty floopy. I tried to adjust it myself, but they were seriously irregular and that cannot be adjusted for by changing the tension. I also tried to get it to make its previously beautiful rolled hem, and that wasn’t any better.

I returned it to him, describing the ongoing problem, and received an insulting phone call pretty much explaining that I was too much of a moron to know how to use a serger properly or what tension-setting was for. He insisted that the reason the stitches were floopy was because I had changed the tension, which he had set perfectly to the only tension I would ever need. Furthermore, despite the fact that I had wasted his time by dropping the malfunctioning machine off for further/actual repairs instead of calling to ask him how my machine worked, he would graciously readjust the tension to straight 4’s all the way across without charging me, and I needed to stop messing with it.

There is a reason the tension is adjustable; it’s how you get different stitches, such as rolled hem or flatlock. Saying I shouldn’t change the tension on that type of machine is like saying that a sewing machine that can do decorative embroidery stitches REALLY only needs a straight stitch. Or that a stick shift car that’s stuck in 3rd gear is, on average, everything you’ll ever need, as long as you don’t get on the highway. Or come to a complete stop anywhere.

So anyway, I set that machine aside and exclusively used Jonah Hex for a number of years, and he was now coming to a point where he needed medical attention himself.

I checked them both over and after a brief wrestle with The Bitch, I determined that Jonah was the least malfunctioning, and lugged them both, as well as Jurgis, who had had a one-foot-high tumble off a cart onto concrete, to my favorite genius sewing mechanic: Antonio at Mr. Sewing Machine on Harry Hines, in the front section of the building they share with Golden D’or. (At this time on their website, you can get to a photo in which you can see Antonio’s ear by clicking on a link endearingly titled “Sarvice Department;” I love these people.)

I’d hoped I could get Antonio to work some sort of miracle to improve Jonah enough to tide me over until he could fix The Bitch, but he and the assistant mechanic were both out of town for a week to learn how to be even more awesome, and a backlog of broken machines was piling up in their absence.

I got Mr. Sewing Machine himself to replace the blade, then went home to see if I could figure out anything myself.

Here he is looking even more like his namesake:

From the side:

I blew the whole thing out with spray cleaner and an air compressor, then oiled everything that moved. Found some lint in various parts of the tension mechanisms.

Reassembled it all, tried it out. The needle tension is now passable, though it still needs some maintenance from an expert. Also, I ran over a needle with the blade.


Next round of velcro-on-Cartier-panels. This set is 330+ panels, so the new machine is pretty much broken in as far as sewing through glue.

I’ve been thinking about a name for the machine: perhaps a superhero, to go along with Jonah Hex, my serger. I considered The Flash, but I don’t think it would be readily clear that I’m referring to Wally, who dresses in red and wears a lightning bolt, rather than just something that is fast, without having to stop and explain to everyone:

Me: This sewing machine is called The Flash.

Other Person: Oh, because it’s fast.

Me: No, because it’s super.

Other Person: Oh, right.

I’m not sure that any other fast superhero has any clearer a name in regards to sewing machine nomenclature, so then I thought about naming it after the fact that it only does one thing, but it does it really well.

The Atom? But he’s also smart, and I don’t know how bright this machine is, after all. Elastic Man? That’s a big misleading.

The Green Lantern is definitely the one-trick pony of the Justice League; magic ring, and all he ever manages to imagine with it is a giant fist. I suppose he can also cut things when necessary, and that he can change his foot pressure.

If anyone confuses the name Green Lantern–

Other Person: Oh, like a decorative green lantern I would put in a yard or buy at Hobby Lobby in the perpetually half-off glass section?

–that’s their own fault, and I’m not explaining it. Though perhaps I should ask Larry what he thinks of the name before I christen it with a bottle of machine oil, as it is his sewing machine after all.

Wonder Woman is not amused. (Actually, this isn’t the Green Lantern I picture in my head, but I couldn’t find any handy shots of Jon Stewart making a fist, for some reason.)

Anyway, back to how Green Lantern handled the glue. Pretty well; the needle continues to not be particularly gummy. The bobbin case is only marginally sticky and it catches a very moderate amount of fuzz. The thread has a periodic tendency to break, and there seems to be some sort of intermittent issue with the tension, but complaining about that after getting 250 strips of sticky-back velcro into this project is pretty much complaining that my sewing machine isn’t magical.

And now I’ve created this horrible meme that will live forever on the internet.

Chinese New Year Sacks

Usually for these panels, I just stitch on the velcro, then someone else glues the fabric to the backing. This taffeta fabric chosen to decorate for the Chinese New Year was too thin and the glue left visible dark spots. So instead of wrapping the fabric around the styrene, we made the panels like bags with the styrene as an insert.

I laid the styrene panel on top of the fabric and traced around it, then stitched on the outside of the line with the fabulous new Speed Janome. (I need to come up with a better name for it–and don’t say it already has one. I don’t tell you to name your kids Tiny Human Jones; don’t tell me to call my sewing machine P1200.)

Snip the corners, turn it right side out, and poke the corners out with this corner-poking tool:

Press the pouch. Before:


Eek, I ironed off the velcro! No, it’s on the other side. I had you for a minute there, didn’t I.

Don’t worry; I’m not going to justify that “question” with a question mark.

Double-sided tape to hold the velcro in place and pull the back fabric taut:

I cut the raw edges fairly close, then folded them inside and pinned:

Larry made an extended table for the sewing machine, which was necessary for sewing something this stiff that had to be kept flat.

Here is a shot of it being slightly more visible:

I broke into the Chinese New Year panels for some emergency velcro-sewing on some regular panels. There is a gap between the back of the sewing machine bed and the extension because the base didn’t take into account the width of the knee foot-raising lever.

Which I also had a hard time remembering to take into account. The first several panels, I snipped the threads with a physical scissors instead of the auto-snip scissors button. Since I associate my hand (upper body) with raising the presser foot and my foot (lower body) with making the machine run, trying to associate my knee (lower body) with raising the foot kept messing up my internal autopilot; I kept mixing up making the machine go with the knee-raiser and pushing the pedal with raising the presser foot. Other times, I would raise the foot by hand and by knee at the same time or confuse the fact that the knee raises the foot temporarily while the hand lever raises it until you manually lower it.

We needed a couple dozen velcro strips, which wouldn’t truly test the new machine’s ability to handle the X-treme glue (no sic), but it could start to give an idea, as well as mentally prepare Speedy for his real full-time job that does not include hours of sewing on luxurious taffeta.

Here is what the glue looks like collected on the needle:

That’s the accumulation from just one strip.

So far it does not seem to be getting down into the bobbin case or sticking to the bottom of the presser foot. Or getting into the feed dogs or lining the bottom of the needle plate.

These needles don’t really have much of an indent running down the shank, so the glue doesn’t build up in there. The side-loading needle so far seems to handle the glue and keep the thread away from it better than the usual front-loading needle.

One sort of problem I’ve noticed with this machine is its ability to corner:

And again, to show that this is not an isolated incident:

Though in this one, you can see where it’s trying.

Coming up slowly on the corners–and of course coming to a complete stop, raising the presser foot, then turning the fabric–does not seem to have any effect on its tendency to Tokyo drift.

Anyway, back to the New Year panels:

Because the process involves so many steps, and because doing all of one step before moving on to do all of the next step takes less time than cycling through all steps for one or for a small group, I tried to production-line as many stores at once as I could. They’re all divided up by very specific quantities and sizes–down to a half-inch difference between the panels for one store or another. So here is the mess of multiple stages going on and being kept carefully separate.


New Speed-Janome!

I do quite a bit of sewing for Larry, which involves carting my machine or machines upstairs and downstairs, one shoe off and one sock on. So he called me up this morning and asked what machine I recommended, saying he wanted to keep one at his studio for me to use.

After calling around about options and immediate availability, we picked this baby from Thomas Sewing Center in Mesquite:

This is how ridiculously fabulous this machine is: it has a pre-tension thingy that prevents your thread from twisting BEFORE it gets to the tension knob. It also has the increasingly popular scissors button that takes the top thread to the bottom and snips them both in the back. It winds a bobbin WHILE YOU’RE SEWING.

The foot pressure dial on the far left, above the sewing instruction diagram allows you to switch quickly back and forth between normal with a lot of control to 0, which allows you to swing the fabric around willy nilly–I was doing loop-de-loops on a fabric-batting-fabric sandwich without bunching anything up. Also, there’s a knee-press foot-lifter.

My machine has to be dismantled and cleaned with rubbing alcohol and scrubbing at least twice per velcro job, and the needles have to be peeled twice per strip of velcro due to the velcro’s glue backing. The machines I’ve been using have front-facing needles and top-loading bobbins. This one has a side-facing needle and a side-loading bobbin, so we’re expecting that to handle the tough job better than my poor Princess and Idiot machines I’ve been switching out when one gets tired (not their official product names).

This machine is the mule love-child of an industrial machine and a home machine: fast and relatively lightweight. It does straight-stitch only, at high speeds–notice the speed dial has a picture of a turtle, a tired rabbit, and a flying rabbit, as opposed to the usual home-sewing range sweeping from dead turtle to mourning rabbit.

This machine will make the Chinese New Year panels as close to a breeze as a project this awkward can get. And I’m looking forward to finding out how it handles getting coated in glue.


Our Lady of Perpetual Machine Lubrication

I spent some time working for a sewing machine dealer and started getting into sewing machine repair. The two most common serious problems with sewing machines are when they need to be realigned and when they need new gears. I can’t do either of these things, but other than those, it seems that most seeming problems with machines are actually pretty minor. Basic maintenance, needle/thread choice, and giving the machine some love so it knows you appreciate it will fix many other problems.

Here’s me in my original Weirdery hat healing my friend Diana’s machine by the laying of hands, with an assist by Mother Mary in the background.

I found that Mary statue at on sale at Wal-Mart, obtained it, and set it behind a corner in Diana’s yard while she was out of town. It turned out to be perfect, as her arrival angle caused her to come upon it with a maximum of surprise.

Janome Sewing Machine: a rant and a ramble and some other stuff

In case the last picture in my previous post looked almost like an ad for the sewing machine in the background, it is not. In fact, the only reason I am using that machine is because the one I call Jurgis was knocked out of alignment after a fall of about a foot and a half and I haven’t gotten around to taking him to the doctor. The machine I call The Princess needs a new light bulb, and, in keeping with her name, she requires a certain kind of light bulb not to be found ANYWHERE. Plus, she’s been used to sew over a thousand strips of sticky-back velcro and while I cleaned the glue residue out well enough to keep her going through the marathon, I haven’t yet gone back and done a thorough job of it. Which is probably the reason she’s  periodically snapping thread.

(Warning, this entry is long and rambling. I have added pictures of my cat to keep the visual-oriented readers going.)

So in the meantime, I’m using the Janome convertible embroidery machine. I used to work for a Janome/ BabyLock dealer, and I used to work at Hancock Fabrics, which sells Janomes and at least once a year, has Janome staff come and demonstrate their machines, including the embroidery machines. That’s why I know what I’m talking about when I say do not buy a Janome embroidery machine.

The main problem is that, while Janome was the first to bring embroidery into homes, it seems to be riding on that, rather than keeping up with the market. They are one of the hardest to line up if you have to move the fabric in the hoop to have more than one embroidery on one piece of fabric. Even the demonstrator only showed us how to do that using a random-patterned, overlapping, repeating-rose fabric where the exact placement of the next rose wasn’t important.

They also have relatively small hoops–BabyLock’s were the biggest the last time I checked in.

As far as sewing machines go, Janome is fabulous. Usually. First a rant before I extoll the virtues of nearly every other Janome but this individual.

Most of its problems probably have to do with a flaw or damage in the computer. It randomly gets stuck on reverse. There is no way to tell in advance whether it is going to start sewing backward or forward when I push the pedal. This is potentially serious in fabrics that don’t heal well from needle punches or in places where it is hard to rip out stitches. It’s also time-consuming and frustrating. It’s like not knowing when you start your car whether it’s going to randomly reverse or go forward. There is no reason for any machine to do this. Pleeease tell me this is a computer error and not a design element.

When the bobbin gets down to about a two-thirds empty, it starts warning me that I need to change it. This means that when I push the pedal, the machine will, instead of sewing, beep several times and cover the screen with a warning sign. While this makes sense if I am starting a large piece of embroidery that will be ruined if it runs out of bobbin thread in the middle, it makes no sense when I’m sewing. Perhaps a different setting for sewing vs. embroidering? I can nearly sew a whole garment with the thread left on the “empty” bobbin it keeps warning me to remove.

Not only do I have to then push the okay button and wait a few seconds for it to contemplate my disagreeableness, but when it’s feeling really concerned about leaving me to my own ruinous devices, it will only sew about 6 or 7 stitches very slowly then stop, at which point I have to pump the foot pedal to get it going again. While it is in this mood, I usually can’t push reverse in mid-stitch, as it will just keep sewing forward; I have to come to a complete stop to reverse, stop, then sew forward. Sometimes it’s reluctant to even do that, and will attempt to completely ignore the reverse button.

Periodically the touchscreen will stop identifying touch, and I have to power off the machine in order to change stitches.

A lot of electronic machines have this annoying thing they do where when you take your foot off the pedal in the universal gesture for “stop,” they keep going 1 or 1.5 stitches. This is annoying. However, this machine keeps going 2-3 stitches. There is no such thing as precision sewing with this machine, and there is a lot of stitch-ripping.

I hate this individual machine almost enough to throw it out the window. I am going to assume all this stuff is a defect rather than any of it at all being a design flaw. So, as a machine in general, having a Janome embroidery machine as a sewing machine is approximately as nice as having any embroidery machine as a sewing machine. There are a huge assortment of built-in stitches that look like embroidery but are done while it is in sewing mode, including one font of writing.

In comparison to BabyLock, however, these features are really puny. The size of BabyLock embroidery sewing stitches is impressive; they also have three fonts you can sew with.

The Janome and BabyLock dealer I used to work for liked being able to sell the lower-end Janomes so we could have a broader client base than the expensive BabyLocks would allow, but didn’t want to have to be dishonest enough to push the embroidery machines. When Janome said we had to sell their machines at every price point, we stopped carrying them. That’s right, a dealer refused to sell them because he didn’t want to be responsible for that. The one embroidery Janome we sold was to someone who came in already convinced that that’s what she wanted.

On the other hand, as machines, they are fabulous. It is the same company as New Home and Kenmore, so if you see any of those names, there’s no difference besides branding. Every machine I use besides my BabyLock serger is marked with one of those three names. They are high-quality machines that are usually found at very reasonable prices. They often go on sale, and signing up for fliers at your local chain fabric store that carries them can help keep them within almost any budget.

One thing for a buyer to look for is a 4-step vs. a 1-step buttonhole. New sewers, as well as experienced sewers who assume that this is such old and obvious technology that it ought to come standard, should verify the buttonhole feature when buying. The lowest-end machines will generally have a 4-step. This stinks. I have seen a difference of $60 and up between machines that have only this difference. This stinks, too.

Most people will use a buttonhole at some point. I say that it is definitely worth it. However, in a tight budget, you might assess your planned garments and determine how often one would be needed. Some people love snaps. Then there’s always velcro. And zippers.

Not counting those horrible, horrible little toy sewing machines, which get as low as $20ish to $50, and are good for nothing but shot put, Janome is great at any price point. The sewing class held at Hancock Fabrics daily during the summer, and several times a week during the school year got heavy use from several children, and the class machine was the lowest end Janome (it sold for around $70 at that time; I don’t think it gets that low even on sale anymore, though). They held up well enough to seem nearly new over a year later.

There is a difference between buying a machine in a fabric store or from a dealer–they are much higher quality and have stronger engines when purchased from a dealer. They also tend to have better warranties, and better educated salespeople who can help you determine what features you need and who can show you how to use it. Getting quality sewing machine help at a fabric store is a lottery, and the odds are getting worse all the time. At one point, I went into Joann’s to buy a snack while I was waiting around at the laundromat in the same shopping center, got stuck in line behind a woman who had purchased a machine there a few days earlier and who was having trouble threading it. The cashier couldn’t figure out how to load a front-loading bobbin or tell her how to thread the machine, so I showed her how to do it and got her set up with the right needles and thread. Even if they hadn’t been understaffed, there wasn’t anyone there at the time who could have helped her with something so basic. Potential future sewer potentially lost.

Anyway, the difference in motors is a big enough reason to buy from a dealer. I got a 2033 from Hancock’s and was oh so impressed with it, got the job later at the dealer, and not only couldn’t really talk about the machine with them, as the model numbering is different, but saw what I was actually missing with my regular-price $400 machine (got it at cost at Christmas, so I didn’t cry too much).

For a non-connoisseur, the difference may not be important enough for what may be a significantly greater cost and/or hassle. The one place to NEVER buy a machine, however, is Wal-Mart. Even if you see a brand name there that you recognize, they are no more what they seem than a zombie is still your loved one. The teflon gears may be made from lower-grade plastic, etc. They have contracts even with reputable companies to make their products sub-par to keep the cost down. And probably so you’ll have to keep coming back and buying new ones. Once I learned this, it explained the string of useless vacuums I threw money into until I finally got so sick of it I went to the opposite extreme and bought a Dyson.

Janome/ Kenmore skillfully makes every other type of sewing-related machine except embroidery machines. I have one of their sergers and have been very happy with it. It has extremely regular stitches, relative ease in threading, and allows the user a lot of control and options. I also have a cover-stitcher by Janome, and while it’s a tetchy machine, that’s the nature of cover-stitchers, and I don’t think it’s particularly Janome’s fault. It takes some wrestling, but just when I’m about to give up on it, the tension starts working right, and it now has for the last several projects. It skips stitches, especially over seams, but I suspect the only fix for this is buying the industrial version. I have used this machine decoratively as well as functionally, and have repeatedly impressed clients with it, and, I believe, even gotten a job because I said I had one. It’s a great addition to any pro’s sewing machine family, and it’s the only effective way to topstitch on stretchy fabrics.

A note to all those who think they want to buy a Singer based on name recognition and a long history of value: sure, go ahead and buy those old all-metal machines. They are well-made buy people who care, and I have heard that some of the best of them are used by high-end bridal shops for topstitching, as they make beautiful stitches. They are eternally fixable, and the ones with metal gears are pretty much immortal; changing out old wiring can keep them going indefinitely without even having to replace any parts.

Singer has since gone under and now sells the name out yearly. Getting a new Singer is pretty much like playing Go Fish.

The one machine I will hands down, flat out, demand that no one buy is a White serger. I have no idea about their sewing machines, but their sergers are so bad, I suspect anything by that company of being guilty by association. If you wind up with a White serger, you should probably use it as a doorstop. Or as extremely expensive electric scissors. (Actually, that sounds facetious, but I mean it; using an unthreaded, needle-less serger as an electric scissors is an effective way to get a straight cut edge. The last time I accidentally looked at a White serger, it seemed to have an impressively effective blade. There’s that, at least.) They will not keep good tension and the stitches will come out looking like it was threaded by a meth addict or like you let children play with your knobs the entire time you were sewing. Without exception everyone I have met who has a White who has asked me why they have problems with it has been unable to accept my statements that it is a bad serger, and has decided that the real reason for the terrible quality of the finished products must be their own incompetence.

Anyway, Janome quality good, BabyLock better. Janome prices great, BabyLock a little higher. I don’t know much about other brands, as these are the ones I’ve used. My mom had a Husqvarna Viking thing that was around the house when I was a kid. I liked all the features the cams had, and I still remember the doll clothes embroidered with rows of hearts or ducks. A few years of no use caused a cam to get stuck in it (luckily, the basic utility stitches, so it was still a usable machine, but not near so fancy) and even the professional she took it to couldn’t get it out.

Whelp, that’s it. I rambled off into the night. Just trying to cover some of the stuff I tell people I know when they ask for buying advice. I’m not a broad expert, but I’ve been using machines for years, and I’ve had multiple jobs selling and/or fixing them, so there you go.