Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Buying a Sewing Machine: a primer for the overwhelmed and under-experienced

Whether you’re buying a holiday gift for a budding fashion enthusiast, outfitting one your kids for the years away at college, or setting yourself up for a new or resurgent pastime, here are some tips for making a painless purchase and a sound investment.

Who is using the machine?

The features of the machine need to be ones that are important to the user of the machine, not necessarily the buyer. For example, a 12 year old does not have the experience of controlling acceleration with a foot pedal, as all adult drivers of cars find second-nature. One feature some machines have is a control to adjust the maximum speed of the needle. No matter how hard you press the pedal, the needle speed will not go any faster than what you set it for.
Likewise, who will need to learn to operate the machine, and who will maintain it? Although sewing machines can be purchased from lots of places; a sewing machine shop or dealership, a big-box store, online, or from an individual, it’s best to set yourself up for success in terms of correct operation and maintenance.
Unless you’re intimately familiar with sewing machines already, and can troubleshoot , adjust, and repair one yourself, you’ll definitely either want to purchase it from a place that offers support, service, warranties and advice, or know where you can go for lessons (sewBoise) and service (Johnson’s Sewing Center).

What for?

It makes a difference what someone’s main sewing projects will be as to what features will be useful, and what level of quality can be produced by a certain machine. Many sewing machines come with hundreds, or even thousands of decorative stitches. To someone who does machine quilting, that’s a fantastic feature, but of the 100 stitches available on my Bernina, I use 4. Decorative stitches are of no use to me, because I sew almost entirely on garments. The features that are critical to me are a quality straight stitch, adjustability in my needle position and stitch length, and workhorse innards that will hold up to my many hours of sewing every single day. I also appreciate features like good visibility (which can be accomplished with after-market presser feet), a knee lift for hands-free presser-foot lifting, an upper feed dog for moving unfriendly material through the machine, a nice machine buttonhole, and an alarm that sounds when my bobbin gets low. Unless you are me, the features you care about most aren’t likely identical. Sure, everyone needs a quality straight stitch, but does anyone NEED a bobbin alarm? No. Just pay attention.
New sewists won’t know what features they like until they have experienced some of them. Go to a sewing machine dealership and test drive different models with common fabrics and projects to you. It’s important that you test the machine with the actual fabrics you’ll most frequently be using. A machine that is great on 2 layers of cotton might not be the best for sewing nylon webbing to a backpack or doing a narrow hem on silk chiffon (though the correct needle and thread combination and the right presser foot certainly come in to play as well). Don’t be shy about bringing samples into the store. A reputable dealer will happily demonstrate and let you test several machines.

What’s your budget?

Though there are always “deals” to be had, you should resist the lure of a “bargain” and buy the best sewing machine you can afford. 
The following analogies and cautionary tales are intended to warn you of the hazards of buying a sewing machine based on price alone.  A very common, unhappy decision is to buy a cheap machine at a big-box craft store or online. What can be purchased for $99 at these merchants is best described as a toy sewing machine. It looks like a sewing machine, but won’t act like one.
The better your tools are, the more enjoyable your work will be, and the better the result. Our couture instructor, Barbie, puts it this way, “Can you make dinner with an EZ Bake Oven? Certainly. But it’ll take forever, it’ll be smaller than you want it to be, and it probably won’t turn out as well as if you used a full-sized oven and an actual pan instead of a light bulb and miniature spatula.” 

sewBoise’s resident gentleman sewist, Frank, shares this anecdote about buying his first sewing machine.
One experience that is sometimes hard to appreciate second-hand, is the difference ease-of-use makes. I remember when I purchased my first sewing machine, I had pretty much decided against the model that was on the high end of my budget and had decided on a less-expensive machine that I was assured would give me the same high stitch quality. The (quilting store/machine dealership)  I was shopping at encouraged me to take a class there so I could use both machines before making my final decision. I used the more expensive machine first, and sat next to a lady that was using the machine I had planned to buy. During the first few activities of winding the bobbin and threading the machine, I noticed how hard every step was for her, and how easy it was on the machine I was using. Throughout that entire class I continued to notice the same thing…everything took so much extra work for her, and required help from the instructor. On my machine, everything was so intuitive and easy. Despite the higher price tag, it was clear to me after that night that I was going to buy the machine I used in class. I knew I was not going to appreciate having to learn all the special information needed to operate the cheaper model.

 All of this extra time, work and special knowledge is something that can impact how much you enjoy sewing. The frustration of a poorly engineered and designed machine can be enough to turn a new sewer away from sewing altogether.

Now that you’re fully preached to, let’s talk numbers.

The machines we use in the classroom at sewBoise are the Brother Innovis-40 model (Project Runway Edition). They’re a good middle-of-the-road machine. We find them adequate for most tasks and most fabrics, they have a good repair record, are incredibly user-friendly, and have a couple of invaluable features (like speed control and multiple needle positions). This machine costs about $400.
$400 is a pretty significant investment, especially if you suspect the machine’s recipient may not stick with sewing as a primary activity, but I again urge you to consider how much more enjoyable sewing on a good machine is than sewing on a bad one. It’s also true that a decent machine holds its value much better than a cheaply manufactured machine. Should the hobby fall by the wayside, a good machine can always be consigned at a dealership (yes, many take trade-ins, just like cars), or sold on craigslist. There is always a market for good, used sewing machines – and the only place suitable for a crappy, disposable machine when you’re done being frustrated by it is the landfill…and you have to pay to put it in there.
Obviously, even though a $99 Singer is no substitute for a $400 Brother, many budgets place a brand new sewing machine of quality out of reach. For those with a budget under $200, we highly recommend a quality used machine over a new machine. Again, try machine dealerships where people are trading-in and upgrading. If you are a savvy garage sale or craigslist shopper, have at it! Ask to test-drive the machine before you buy and have it looked over and tuned up by a reputable technician.
We always recommend Vern Johnson and Johnson’s Sewing Center in Nampa as a machine-shopping and machine-repair destination. Vern and his wife Teresa are friendly, honest and pretty much know everything about sewing machines and accessories. Their shop carries new and used machines, sells on consignment, and Vern is the repair and maintenance man for the entire sewBoise staff (I think there are over 35 sewing machines across 9 brands among us). 

If you’d like more specific advice about brands and models, we’re happy to help you at sewBoise, though we’ve obviously not had experience with EVERY machine out there. Give us a call or e-mail, or pop by when we’re open. Best of luck with your sewing machine shopping! You’re probably still overwhelmed, but at least now you’re (over) informed.

Happy Hollidays!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Perfect Summer Fabric- Linen!

Linen is a "natural" for summer!

Linen is made from the flax plant, and feels smooth and cool to the touch. Each fiber has a hollow core, so it wicks away moisture from your skin and releases it into the air. It can absorb up to 20 percent of its weight in moisture before it even feels damp. It's anti-static as well as lint-free. It even resists mildew and moths. Yes, there is the matter of its propensity to wrinkle, but my philosophy is, “who cares? Everybody will know it’s REAL linen and will therefore be jealous of your super-chic comfort.” Iron it once before you leave the house, and then let the world do its worst.

Linen is the oldest known fiber to man- samples of woven linen have been dated back more than 8,000 years, and both the ancient Egyptians and Northern Eurpoean cultures believed that linen was a gift to man from their prospective godesses (Isis and Hilda). Who can argue? Linen is an unarguably splendid thing and probably was flung down here by one kind deity or another. 

Linen is durable, strong, and machine washable (for a softer look) or dry cleanable (to preserve a super crisp look). Although it's commonly woven as a basic weave, it is readily available in many different weights--from sheer, light weight handkerchief linen, to heavy canvas weight linens. It takes dye quite well, and is available in a full range of beautiful colors and prints. 
And as an added bonus, it's easy to sew! It's tight weave and even hand makes piecing and stitching a breeze. It's perfect for showcasing seam details and topstitching. It presses like a dream (unlike plastic-propertied polyester knockoffs), and behaves itself in hemming situations.

Of course, we have the perfect class to get you acquainted with this addictive fiber. It guides you through making the Perfect Summer Sheath Dress! 
Sample of the dress made in the Summer Sheath class.
The class takes into account busy summer schedules and allocation of summer vacation funds--it’s just ten hours (with some easy homework, naturally), and allows some hybridization of couture techniques (underlining) with industry shortcuts (serging seam allowances). In addition to carrying a couple of bolts of linen in stock, sewBoise has linen samples in more than 50 different colors, and will be placing an order from our supplier this weekend. We'd love for you to take the class, but even if you don't, you're welcome to peruse our samples and place an order; the linen will be in next week.

Click here to find out more about the Summer Sheath class and to sign up.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Benefits of fashion sketching

Fashion sketching is not just reserved for costume designers or fashion design students; in fact, it can benefit anyone interested in expanding their sewing and design skill set. Professional artist, sewist, designer, and teacher Carol Kimball will be here April 27th and 28th, 2013, to teach two classes on fashion sketching and one on sewing ergonomics. 

Jumpstart your brain
  • Rather than just sitting at your sewing machine and hoping inspiration will strike, sketching can get you over the paralysis of beginning a project. It can break down that sew-er’s block and get the creative juices flowing.
Create a garment that is truly one-of-a kind
  • Why be constrained by the mundane offerings in commercial pattern books? You needn’t be restricted by that which already exists
  • Take a neckline inspired by a commercial pattern, sleeves like the ones on your favorite dress, and the piping you saw on that jacket Stacy London was wearing on TV, or imagine something completely new.
Save time, money and fabric
  • Sketching allows you to examine different combinations without making countless muslins.
  • Instead of just visualizing fabric and style combinations in your mind, you can see the design on paper and critique it before constructing or purchasing anything.
  • Sketching means you get the design right before cutting expensive or irreplaceable fabric.
  • You can experiment with fabric from your “stash.” Have enough for a dress or a jacket, but not both? Draw a quick sketch to figure out the best use of the fabric.
Recreate and reimagine existing garments
  • How would a major-remodel type of alteration change an existing piece of clothing? Is the time or money investment worth it? What if I (raised the waistline/removed the sleeve/added pockets)?
  • Make your wedding day special by refurbishing your mother’s gown. Figure out how it’s going to look before making changes that can’t be un-done.
If you sew for others, get on the same page
  • Your clients (or your daughters) need reassurance that you're paying attention to them. Why go to the trouble of making the pattern, sewing a muslin, and then finding you need to start over because it wasn’t what the client had in mind? 
  • For example, one of Carol’s clients, a mother-of-the-bride, had a definite design in mind for some lovely silk her late husband had brought back from Thailand. When she saw the workup of her "dream dress" she exclaimed, "It looks like a bathrobe!"
  • When you sketch with your clients, they are right there providing feedback. As they see their ideas worked out, the dynamic changes from master/flunky to fellow collaborators.
Find the most flattering look for the wearer
  • See quickly how design changes make an outfit look better (or worse) on the body it’s being designed for.
  • Determine what details, hem lengths, fabric combinations, and silhouettes are the most flattering on a particular person.

Minor modifications were made for a considerably more flattering look; neckline was lowered, pockets were slanted, double buttons traded for single button, armhole was raised.

Below are sketches done by students after the first day of Carol’s “Fashion Sketching for Any Body” class.

If you'd like to join us for Carol's classes, visit this link.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Making of a Dream Come True: Having a gown custom made

Having a gown custom made is truly a unique experience. Instead of hunting for the perfect gown, or settling for one that is close to what you want, you can have exactly the gown you’ve always dreamed of.

A custom gown is just that--it is customized to your desires, and to your figure. You can decide on any combination of sleeves, skirts, necklines, waistlines and hemlines. You can choose the colors, the fabrication, and the amount of embellishments.

And everything will be put together exclusively for your figure, so the dress will fit you perfectly. Proportion is taken into account, so YOU will take center stage--not your dress. This means that petite figures can wear big, fluffy skirts with a train without being overwhelmed. Broad-shouldered figures can have puffy sleeves without looking like football players. And rounder figures can wear fitted waistlines without looking pinched.

Party Dress by Barbie McCormick

To begin, you need to find a dressmaker you feel comfortable with.

References from friends are great, because they can tell you about their own experiences with the dressmaker. You can look in the yellow pages, online, or get references from a fine fabric store.

Call each of the prospective dressmakers and talk to them personally. You can get a good feel of your compatibility. Make consultation appointments with the ones you like. The face-to-face interaction will let you know whether it is a good match. The dressmaker needs to see sketches or pictures in person to be able to give a price range, and she (or he) will need to see your figure to estimate yardage requirements and determine proportion adjustments for the dress.

When you meet the dressmaker, you will want to see a portfolio of their work, and any dresses she may have so you can see the construction quality. If you have questions, ask now. If you are uneasy about the work or the answers, then you should probably choose another dressmaker.

When you find a dressmaker, the creation of your gown will begin.

Bridal gown by Barbie McCormick
First, the style of your dress will be decided. If you have a picture of exactly what you want, the dressmaker will work off of that. If you have a series of pictures or sketches, or just an idea, the dressmaker will create a sketch of the finalized gown to work from. Keep in mind that changes can be made along the way, but the dressmaker needs a starting point. Unless you have experience in fashion design and sewing patterns yourself, you should NOT pick out your own pattern from the fabric store. The dressmaker will pick out an appropriate one, or they will draft one.

The fabrication of the gown will be discussed. If you are unfamiliar with different types of fabrics, you need to trust your dressmaker to choose the best type for your dress. Dressmakers with a lot of experience will know what kind of fabric is needed to achieve the look you want. They may collect swatches for you to look at, they may have some fabrics in stock, or they may send you to a knowledgeable fabric store.

You will need to have whatever undergarments (bra, pantyhose, waist-cinchers, etc.) and shoes you plan to wear with the dress, since they can drastically change your posture and the shape of your figure. These will need to be worn at EVERY fitting, so the dressmaker may keep these items in her studio with your dress.

Your measurements will be taken, and a muslin (sometimes called a toile) of your gown will be made. This is a mock-up of your gown; usually made of plain, cotton muslin. The muslin will be fitted exactly like your dress, and will give a very good idea of how your final gown will look. Most of the detail placement will be determined, and necklines and hemlines will be adjusted at this stage. Any changes you want made should be completed in this stage. Sometimes additional muslin fittings will be needed, and sometimes additional muslins will be made.

When the muslin is exactly what you want, it will be taken completely apart and used as the pattern for your dress. Your next fitting will be your actual dress, out of the final fabric you’ve selected.

Bridal gown by Erin Retelle
Your gown is now well on its way to being done.
Since you will now be working with your actual dress, the final fittings will be made, and the smaller details will be tended to. The dress will be hemmed to its final length, and the bustle hooks will be placed, if needed.

Any beading or embellishments will be applied only after the final fitting is done (this means your weight must be stable until the event date), since they often would have to be moved in the event of further adjustments to the fit of the dress. 

A veil can be made to complement the dress in fabrication and embellishment. A small, coordinating handbag can also be made, and plain shoes can be embellished.

When the embellishments and accessories are finished, the lining will be carefully inserted into the dress, and you will put everything on together.
Modest silver bridal gown by Barbie McCormick

You will look into the mirror and see that the dress of your dreams has come to life.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Going to be a Bride? Barbie's Best Practices for Dress Selection.


You’ve finally found the dress of your dreams! It’s exactly what you want! Except, it doesn’t fit quite right... or at all. Now what?

Well, unless you have the exact proportions of the fit model used in the design and creation of the gown, you will need to have some alterations done. Even when your measurements are taken and the dress is ordered in “your size”, the dress will still need to be adjusted for your proportions.

Now, you don’t have to worry about the actual “size” of the dress. Let the salespeople determine that for you, according to the dress manufacturer’s size chart. When your gown is ordered, it must be ordered to fit your biggest measurement, according to that manufacturer's specific size chart. That means if your bust is a size 16 and your waist is a size 8 and your hips are a size 10, you will be ordered a size 16, even if you wear a size 6 when shopping at the mall. The only exception is if your hips are your biggest size and your dress has a full skirt. Then the bigger size between your bust and your waist will be used. It’s important to know that dresses can always be taken in, and while they can occasionally be let out at the sides, often any piping, beading or other trim that crosses the side seam cannot.

Some figure types are prone to needing more alterations than others:

If your bust is any size other than a B cup, you will need the bust reshaped. Most ready to wear clothing, including bridal, is made to fit a B cup. If you are smaller than a B, then you can either pad the dress, wear a padded bra, or have the curve of the bust line reduced. If you are bigger than a B, then the dress must be ordered big enough to fit your bust, then the areas of the dress above and below your bust will be taken in.

If you are petite (5’4” or shorter), you will need to have more alterations done than a taller person. Often the shoulders need to be taken up, hem and long sleeves (if present) shortened, and possibly, in the case of a short torso, the bodice will need to be shortened as well. If there is any lace or beading through these areas, it can be very expensive to alter properly. Always ask if the dress you want is available in a Petite size. Even if the cost of the petite dress is more, the proportions of the dress will fit you better than the regular size dress, thus saving you some alteration costs.

If you are over 5’8”, you may need to come up with some creative solutions to lengthen the skirt, the sleeves, and possibly the bodice, depending on your personal proportions. Decorative trims, borders or bindings can be added to the hem and sleeves, or lace or ribbon can be inset to add length where needed.

If you have proportions that are vastly different than the fit model, such as a large waistline with a small chest, or a large bust with small shoulders, then you will need extensive alterations to make the dress fit you properly.

In any of these cases, especially if you are under 5’ or over 6’, it is recommended that you get an estimate for the cost of the alterations and add that to the price of your dress to get the total cost. And don’t forget that just because you bought your dress somewhere that offers alterations, doesn’t mean that you have to use their alteration services. Call or visit reputable alteration specialists (such as sewBoise  :-) and get some estimates. Compare pricing and timelines, and if it's possible, obtain customer satisfaction information and samples/photos of bridal alterations work. Also, find out if the alterations will be guaranteed. Just because you buy the dress at a store and have it altered there, does not necessarily mean that they will guarantee the fit of your dress. Most of the local bridal shops do, but some of them do not.

If the price of the dress plus the cost of alterations seem to put the dress out of your budget, you may find that it would be a better solution to have your dress custom made for your figure. Talk to several different qualified dressmakers (like those at sewBoise :-) and get an estimate for your dress. Don’t forget to ask to see samples of their work, to make sure you are happy with the quality.  Keep in mind that all the proportions of the dress will be cut and fit specifically to your figure, so no extra alteration costs will be added. The dressmaker can also usually make your accessories to coordinate with your gown; like your veil, the ring pillow, a purse, or your garter. This would also be an opportunity to personalize your dress any way you want - any color or color combination, any fabric; like standard polyester duchess satin, silk satin, silk chiffon, rayon crepe, cotton batiste, velvet. You could even do something unconventional like polar fleece for a winter wedding, Lycra for a beach wedding, or denim or suede for a ranch wedding. You can also use personalized embellishments, such as having the beading of the dress done in the motif of your favorite flower, using a splash of lace or beads from your mother’s wedding dress, having  your initials or wedding date embroidered in the dress, or incorporating any shape or symbol that has special meaning for you. The possibilities are endless.

Here are some things to keep in mind when picking out your dress:

  • Order a size that will be easy to alter to your body
  • Add the cost of the dress plus the cost of the alterations needed to make it  fit you properly
  • Consider the possibility of having a dress made to your specifications
When you find your dress, or when you find out your dress doesn’t fit, there are solutions to make the dress fit you like a dream.