Back to (machine) basics

I am not an expert by any means.. but here’s what I know and what’s helped me over the years. It occurs to me that I’ve never written this stuff down.. and I have some tidbits that someone else might find useful. I also know that some of this stuff that I take for granted and feel silly for stating the obvious.. at one point it was not obvious.. so I’m going to state it outright to avoid the possibility of confusion.

Find your sewing machine manual and read it. It’s worthwhile to do it at least once to be somewhat familiar with all the bells and whistles of your machine (even if you think your machine has no bells and whistles). If you no longer have your manual you should be able to find it online. Google is your friend.

You should have your sewing machine and/or serger professionally serviced once a year. It’s totally worth it. Just do it. Ask Google for a local “sewing and vacuum” center and set an appointment. I ususally try to schedule this to coincide with hand sewing projects.

Your sewing machine manual will have instructions about how to lubricate your machine or your local sewing or sewing/vacuum place should be able to help.
If you use your machine weekly you should lubricate it monthly. If you use your machine only monthly then you should lubricate it every three months. If you use it less than at least monthly then I really have to question why you’re reading this article.

Keeping your machine in good service and conducting regular maintenance can save you from very expensive repair bills in the future.
Happy machines hum along beautifully. Keep it happy to stay happy.

Change your needle. Chances are good that you’ve used your current needle on your machine for far too long. Take it off and throw it away. You should change needles about ever 3 bobbin-fulls of thread (yes, that often) or at least whenever you change to a new project (not just when the needle breaks). Dull or worn needles make easy projects hard and make hard projects impossible. Needles are cheap. Change often.

Don’t run over pins when sewing a seam. Running over a pin (or pulling/tugging on fabric) is a good way to throw off the timing of your machine can lead to a VERY expensive repair bill.

Most of the time you should pin across the seam rather than inline with the seam you are sewing. Pinning across the seam will make it easy for you to remove the pins as you’re sewing (see prev mention about throwing off the timing of your machine by running over pins). About the only time I pin inline is when I am fitting a garment to someone. In that case I’m using the pin to mimic a seam so I will pin along the seam to get the fitting right. Once I’m done with the fitting I will mark the pin placement and replace these inline pins with cross ways pins before I begin sewing the seam.

When you’re pinning a seam.. put the pins in so that you start sewing at the most important part. For example, I’m sewing a skirt. It’s really important to me that the front and back waist seam is at the same place.. but it’s less important to me that the front and back match up exactly at the hem of the skirt. When I add the pins I will pin so that I’m starting at the top and working my way down. That way if there is some weird bias stretch I can push it down the skirt (to the less important place) rather than run the risk that the front/back waist seams won’t match OR that I’ll have to sprain a muscle wrestling uncooperative fabric.

You also want to pin so that the bulk of the project (the parts not currently being sewn) are not being forced through the very narrow sewing arm. It’s much easier to keep the bulk of your project outside of the sewing arm.

Now there will be cases where you have to violate these guidelines… just do your best and know that when you have to go against a guideline you may end up wrestling with an uncooperative project.

When you start a new project (or a new part of your project) run a sample through your machine. That is, if your project has two pieces which each have fashion fabric, interlining and lining, cut samples of these layers out of scrap of the same fabric, line these up just like you would for your actual project and run them through your machine. Then check your thread and bobbin tension and make sure the stitches look like you want them to look. This will save you frustration and anger later. Your sewing manual will help you to adjust the tensions until they look correct.

It is completely possible to sew any seam allowance you need by lining up you fabric with the correct line on your sewing faceplate and sewing it all together that way. That said…

When stitching I’ve always found it easiest to maintain a consistent seam allowance by having the edge of the fabric ride at the edge of my sewing foot. On my machine for the default foot this puts me at about 1/4″ seam allowance. This works very well when doing rectangular construction tunics using machined flat-felled seams but when I started working on more fitted garments I settled on using 1/2″ seam allowance.

I did this initially because of the magic ruler and lately because that is close enough to the seam allowance baked into patterns drafted with the bara method for me to be lazy and just default to 1/2″ seam allowance. At first I struggled to keep the fabric at the 1/2″ marks on the sewing face plate (it kept drifting back to the edge of the sewing foot). After I read my sewing manual (which you should totally do) I found out that it is possible on my fancy handy dandy machine to offset the position where the needle goes into the face plate. In fact I can nudge my needle all the way over so that the needle is almost exactly 1/2″ from the edge of the sewing foot. So once I adjust the needle placement I’m now able to keep the fabric edge at the edge of my sewing foot and still get the 1/2″ seam allowance

If you don’t have a fancy handy dandy machine it is also possible to by a sewing foot that has the edge of the foot at 1/2″ or, you know, to rough it and do without. Suit yourself.

Never start cutting fabric after midnight. Down that path lies peril and madness.
Sewing machines can sense deadlines. Beware.

What clever machine sewing tips and tricks have saved your bacon?

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