New sewing machine for canvas and Cordura?
September 12, 2012 8:48 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to upgrade from hand-stitching, and buy my first sewing machine. I'm only interested in sewing bags (mostly messenger bags), and I'll be using Cordura and natural canvas. What sewing machine will do the job? I don't want to fork out a lot for an industrial machine, because that's just too much of a commitment for something I only dabble in. And I don't have enough space for those antique Singer cabinets.
posted by Xere to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Cheap modern machines are crap. Good quality new machines start at several hundred to over $1K depending on specs.

European-made sewing machines from 30+ years ago are a great cheap way to go if you can find one. I have an Elna from 1972 and it sews better than every cheap modern machine I've tried.

An adjustable height foot is going to be an important feature if you're going to try to sew through multiple thicknesses of heavy materials without an industrial machine.
posted by slow graffiti at 9:08 PM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

(my machine does not have a cabinet btw and is quite small, although very heavy because it has no plastic parts, only metal)
posted by slow graffiti at 9:09 PM on September 12, 2012

You are really going to want an industrial machine :[ You can kind of hack it with a decent home sewing machine, but that's not what they're for, and you will be frustrated and break a lot of needles in my experience. And that wear on the machine can't be good.

If you keep an eye on Craigslist you may see one -- my boyfriend makes bags and canvas stuff on his, and got his old Juki for a song, and it also makes an interesting piece of living-room furniture.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:13 PM on September 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, yeah -- I should mention, I did have a White from the '60s that could handle material like that, and it was a tank, but I was forever fixing the tension on it, and I broke so. many. needles.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:14 PM on September 12, 2012

I don't know how much "a lot" is for you, but if if you're sewing through multiple layers of thick fabric you want a walking foot machine, which moves the foot and needle to mirror the action of the feed dogs. They allow you to sew multiple layers of thick, unpinned material with minimal slipping and without breaking your needles as they hang up in the moving fabric. I haven't been paying attention recently, but good-quality used machines generally run from a few hundred up to under a thousand dollars. Brands to look for are Consew, Juki and Sailrite (portable, intended for the sailmaking market).

Before you dismiss them as unaffordable, consider that they're much more durable than consumer sewing machines, are generally very repairable, and there is a vigorous aftermarket. I know an upholsterer who bought a used Singer in the 1960s, used it for his entire career, and will (probably) sell it when he's through taking in part-time work in his retirement.
posted by pullayup at 9:21 PM on September 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

leather and canvas? yeah, a home machine isnt going to cut will go kablooie eventually (soonish)...but, for really cheap, you can pick up a sailmakers awl...they are sort of a sewing machine that fits in your hand...slower than a sewing machine, to be sure, but a lot faster than regular hand sewing once you get the hang of it...(comes with complete (simple) instructions)
posted by sexyrobot at 9:23 PM on September 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

Agreed. You really need an industrial machine to work well with these materials in the layer thicknesses you'll need to make a bag; any other sort will end in tears, frustration, and wasted money.
posted by anonnymoose at 9:25 PM on September 12, 2012

seconding slow grafitti's suggestion of an old Elna - I have a small collection of Elna Supermatics from the '50s and have sewn leather and multiple layers of heavy denims with zero problems. They are usually available on ebay for less than $200; I have multiple machines mostly because I wanted the feet and cams and other accessories, which can be hard to track down on their own.

You could also look for a machine that specializes in sailmaking or 'marine use' - they're new machines, but made of metal parts like the vintage machines. I've used one before and found it to be very similar to my Elna's, just more stripped down (no cam system for different stitches) and specialized for working with heavy fabrics (some of them have a built-in walking foot, which you might want. but there are attachments to make that happen with machines that don't have it natively, also).
posted by par court at 9:35 PM on September 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've got a Pfaff 230 treadle machine that I inherited from my Grandmother. She bought it new in 1955, and it still sews through at least eight layers of jeans fabric or 12 layers of regular cotton without any problems. A friend of mine has the same machine with a motor attached (maybe a little younger than mine), and it is very sturdy as well. I don't know if they're available in the US, but keep your eye out on Ebay. A used machine like this is going to be much sturdier and work better for your purpose than anything you could buy new.
posted by amf at 1:58 AM on September 13, 2012

N'thing an old mechanical machine. Older machines are of better build quality than any of the over-featured 'pro-sumer' machines out there today, and they can go on forever. Cheaper too. I've recently replaced an old Elna with a Bernina 930 from about 1984, and I couldn't be happier.

If second hand is not your cup of tea, you might consider a mechanical machine from the Pfaff Select range. No-frills, inexpensive, hard working machines. People seem to like them, and models 3.0 and above have the famous built-in Pfaff walking foot.

Whatever you have in mind, be sure to check the sewing machine reviews at sewing.patternreview for a second opinion.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 7:48 AM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you decide to look for an older machine, you may want to try a sewing machine repair shop or retailer, as they often have machines they got as trade-ins for newer models. I bought my refurbished machine from one and it has sewn like a champ for 7+ years. The folks there can advise you if the machines they have will do what you are looking for. Mind you, brick and mortar repair shops are getting scarce, but it's worth a try.
posted by sarajane at 1:06 PM on September 13, 2012

If you don't have room for an old machine in a cabinet, you definitely don't have room for an industrial machine.

I sewed a motorcycle jacket for my daughter our of (lavender!) 1000 denier Cordura on my 1973 New Home machine without problems. The trick is to go slow and not push it.

I also have a 1930s Singer K99 that I've sewn leather and denim on without problem.
posted by vespabelle at 1:30 PM on September 13, 2012

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