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What to look for in a sewing machine?
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Jeff Jeff
(TwoFortyJeff) - F
What to look for in a sewing machine? on 04/18/2009 18:13:22 MDT Print View

What features do I need and which ones are nice to have? I'll be sewing a few packs, stuff sacks, a quilt, and a bivy. Fabrics ranging from silny to nylong to taffeta to momentum to dyneema.

I know I'll need bartacks, single, double, and triple stitches. Do I need anything special for zippers or sewing mesh? What about the tenstion, adjustable or auto?

Any other tips welcome. I'm sick of sewing by hand.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: What to look for in a sewing machine? on 04/18/2009 21:29:09 MDT Print View

With one exception, any modern (second hand) sewing machine will do everything you want and more. The exception is 'packs'. If you are making silnylon packs, no worries, but if you are trying to sew 2 or 3 layers of 500 denier Cordura, then quite a few modern machines will struggle badly. They are just not designed for that. I use an old black Singer for my packs. Straight stitch only however.

Straight stitching and triple zigzag are usually enough for most things. Single stitch zigzag is available on any modern machine too, but it puckers light fabric badly. Bartacks are just single or triple-stitch zigzags with a very short stitch length.

Control over the tension IS REQUIRED. With silnylon I usually reduce the tension and sew with the fabric slightly stretched, to avoid it all puckering up. This is important. On the other hand, when sewing a couple of heavier layers I have to increase the tension to get a balanced stitch. You will need to experiment at first - stuff sacks!

Zippers and such are handled by having a zipper-foot. If the machine does not come with one, visit your local sewing shop.

Mesh - tricky stuff! It tends to skew under the foot. It can be handled with a bit of practice and the use of MANY fine pins. yeah - go buy 2 packets of the finest dress-making pins they have.

Needles: I use the smallest I can get away with. That is usually about 2 sizes thinner than some 'experts' recommend. They recommend big fat needles ONLy so you don't break them, but the fat needles damage silnylon and other fine fabrics.

Jeff Jeff
(TwoFortyJeff) - F
Re: Re: What to look for in a sewing machine? on 04/18/2009 22:44:58 MDT Print View

Really good to know, thanks! I'll probably make a few packs, but no 200+ D cordura or ballistics.

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: What to look for in a sewing machine? on 04/19/2009 07:37:52 MDT Print View

Straight stitching and triple zigzag are usually enough for most things.

Once again the not inconsiderable effort I put into watching BPL forums pays a dividend. Had never heard of triple zigzag but it kinda sounded like the "mending stitch" the sewing shop told me I might find useful when I bought my old Viking (a.k.a Husqvarna) sewing machine.

A bit of googling found this and sure enough, that's the stitch.

Thanks, Roger!

Edited by jcolten on 04/19/2009 07:38:59 MDT.

James D Buch
(rocketman) - F

Locale: Midwest
Old Sewing Machines (all metal) on 04/19/2009 10:11:51 MDT Print View

Many old sewing machines from the 1950-1970 era were built with strong motors and almost no plastic parts. One could call these "Heavy Duty" or "Near Industrial Quality" machines. Many such machines are so labeled and sold on eBay. This is often called "Hype".

Just the other day, I picked up a really nice "low mileage" Singer model 503 in wooden sewing machine cabinet for $40 from Goodwill.

I have a Singer zigzag model 328 (made in the 1950's) that I might unload for what I paid for it. Shipping these things requires good packaging so they arrive in good shape, and they do literally throw these heavy packages around or they somehow manage to fall during shipping. In some cases, shipping is more than the machine because of weight, size and double boxing/cushioning required to prevent damage.

Price would be $25 if you pick it up in the Quad Cities IA/IL area. I'd probably have to charge maybe up to $40 or more to get the needed boxes and packing materials if I were to try to ship it, and I don't feel that good about having to require that much for shipping.

A few of these "well hyped" units have been sold for almost $300, but most of them sell for $100 or less.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
agree with Roger on 04/19/2009 22:06:00 MDT Print View

What RC says be the truth! Sewing heavy stuff may require a conventional machine to slow down a bit to not break needles, but sewing the light and slick stuff is (for me) the hardest as it's so darn fussy.

Of course, I sew on a computerized embroidery machine which retails new for 6k. The auto bartacker is sweeeeeet, just set the length, lock the foot, and hit go!

Nia Schmald
(nschmald) - MLife
Sewing Machine on 04/19/2009 23:07:49 MDT Print View

As a newbie to sewing (I've made a bunch of stuff sacks and a nettent so far) the thing I've used the most is a walking foot. It made sewing silnylon much easier for me. An automatic button holer is also useful for cord eyes in stuff sacks.

Frank Deland

Locale: On the AT in VA
raised foot end on 04/21/2009 06:27:07 MDT Print View

For some applications like sewing sleeves or bags. It is nice to have the area under the needle raised, so that fabric can be pulled underneath. There must be some term for it. For example, you can take a tube shape like a sleeve or a bag and slip it into the "arm" of the machine. The top side will be under the needle for sewing and the bottom half is actually under the machine. As you sew the tube moves around, so you are sewing in the circle of the sleeve.

Yu should post your question at You will find many there who sew their own gear. You will also learn to use different size needles to sew different fabrics. It is not uncommon for a fabric store in a mall to be next to a business that sells and services machines.

Edited by rambler on 04/21/2009 06:35:34 MDT.

Kendall Clement
(socalpacker) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: What to look for in a sewing machine? on 04/21/2009 10:02:28 MDT Print View

Excellent question, Jeff. I'm also new to sewing. I got my sewing machine a couple of months ago and I'm just about ready to start. I had a couple of financial set-backs, but it looks like I'll be starting my projects in late april to early may. I have the same projects in mind as you. Maybe we could keep each other posted on our progress, challenges and triumphs in the forums along the way.

Roger, thanks for the silnylon sewing tips.

Frank Deland

Locale: On the AT in VA
new article on 04/23/2009 07:11:17 MDT Print View

Hey, did you see the new article on sewing here at BPL?