Sunday, April 26, 2015

Reflections on Sewing Machines

Every time before March 26 when I used a sewing machine, I was always surrounded by others who knew how to use them. They had helped me to set up the machine and troubleshoot problems, so with their support, I managed to sew a few small projects successfully (for my Sailor Moon outfit, I only sewed the collar on a machine. A friend from Discardia sewed the skirt. The rest was either hand-sewn or purchased). This was the first time I had ever tried to use one on my own. And… it was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life! But even though I was “alone,” I ended up using many community resources after all, because successful sewing is impossible without them. More info after the break!

I had gone to Discardia’s Mending Day on March 14, where I had taken my own sewing machine for help in setting it up for the first time. After they did so, I sewed a practice project with some scrap fabric and decided on a stitch style for my real project. By then, Mending Day was over. But my sewing machine was all set up for more sewing, and I could just slip it out of its case and start my project anytime I wanted after that--or so I thought.

On March 26, the IU Creativity Labs met for our monthly Makeday, and I brought my sewing machine. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was not, in fact, ready to go. I tried to sew on some scrap fabric and ended up with a big mess of stitches all in the same spot. Apparently, the problem was that the top thread wasn’t catching the bobbin thread to pull it up from below. I asked for help from Lori, one of our Center’s admins who had some experience with sewing machines, but she hadn’t sewn in years and couldn’t figure out the problem. She suspected my machine was broken.
A sewing machine (not mine) catching the bobbin thread

So I switched to a machine owned by our lab. But after I went to the trouble of threading it, I realized it was having the exact same problem as my machine! It wouldn’t catch the bobbin thread! Magically, Lori was able to fix it this time. But then, another problem emerged: my top thread kept breaking. This time, Lori didn’t know the answer, and we checked the internet together. The problem, it turned out, was tension. The thread was on too tight of a setting for the thick fabric I was using.

After I got that resolved, I lost the bobbin thread again. I spent ages trying to catch it. Eventually I gave up and turned to Google again. I found the machine’s manual online and made sure the bobbin was facing the correct direction. But other than that, the manual could not help me solve my problem. However, it did tell me how to use the “stretch” stitches, which were perfect for the stretchy fabric I was using. Eventually I found a message board addressing my issue. It contained lots of possible solutions, some very dire and requiring significant machine repairs. I hoped that wasn’t my problem! This was a brand new machine! It shouldn’t have been broken already! So I tried the simplest solution suggested there: pulling the needle down slightly in its holder.

And guess what? That simple, tiny adjustment worked! I was able to catch the bobbin thread and (unevenly) sewed half of my project in the last few minutes before I had to leave for a meeting. In all, I think I spent at least 4 hours wrestling with sewing machines!

Here’s what I was working on: Changing the sleeves of my mom’s new nightgown from long to short sleeves, and hemming the new short sleeves

It was worth it, though. I learned a great deal about what it takes to successfully use a sewing machine. I learned why community is so important to sewers--most sewing machines have such a high barrier to entry that it’s almost impossible to figure out how to use one on your own! Even when I didn’t have my Discardia friends around to help, I relied on Lori’s experience and on sewing communities on the internet to help me resolve my problems. Knowledge distributed in the community is essential to apprenticing a novice into an expert in this field.

I also got a lesson in determination and resilience. Almost anytime you try something difficult, you will encounter frustrating obstacles more often than you will succeed at first. It takes a great deal of practice to get good enough at a skill to consistently experience success. My guess is that because sewing machines have such complex mechanisms, frustrating obstacles always plague sewers--it’s just that the experts know how to deal with them quickly and easily! Here’s hoping that by the end of the Re-Crafting project, I will be closer to that point!


  1. "This is just the information I am finding everywhere. Thanks for your blog, I just subscribe your blog. This is a nice blog. " best sewing machines for beginners

  2. This can be a fantastic striking twine. my partner and i are essentially happy through the amazing work. an individual placed really very practical information. Continue. Hold threatening. Planning in order to looking by the then article.