How to use a sewing machine?
October 15, 2012 3:26 PM   Subscribe

Have sewing machine. Have kids that need Halloween costumes. Have no knowledge of how to use said sewing machine. Help!

I have a 1930s Singer Featherweight 221 (inherited). I've seen it in action in the not-too-distant past so I know its functional - but me, I've never used a sewing machine in my life.

I'm trying to help throw together some costumes for my boys for Halloween. Most of the props for their costumes I've already completed, but there are a couple of elements that I can't find for purchase and sewing is now unavoidable. What's the quickest way for me to learn the basics of operating a sewing machine? Any recommended books, web sites, etc.? Thanks!
posted by chicxulub to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of costumes are you hoping to sew? Basically, the basic steps would be to:
(1) Find a pattern online, or at a place like Jo-Ann's
(2) Cut pieces following directions on pattern
(3) Sew seams following directions on pattern

For tips on step 3, this website has instructions for how to thread the machine. You can even buy the manual. For more general instructions, Built by Wendy is a good start.

When you say that you've seen it in action recently--could whoever was using it teach you the basics? If possible, this path would really be the easiest because this person probably knows any little finicky things you need to do with this specific machine. If not, your local sewing machine repair shop might be willing to show you some things if you pay for cleaning/general maintenance.
posted by tinymegalo at 4:12 PM on October 15, 2012

Assuming it's in good working condition and nothing (like thread tension) is wonky, the hardest thing about basic sewing is threading the needle and bobbin properly. Beyond that, you put the fabric in, the foot down, press the pedal, and it will sew. It won't sew prettily. But it will sew. Muck around with some practice fabric, making the kind of hems you want, before working on the real thing.

This video will probably get you started.
posted by zug at 4:14 PM on October 15, 2012

I have this sewing machine. My mother has a gazillion-dollar Viking and swears the little Singer sews a better flat seam. It's a great machine, durable and beautiful.

Where are you located? Around here, if I were in your pinch, I'd drop in at a quilting shop during an off time (or during a scheduled Stitch & Bitch) with my sewing machine and beg a lesson.
posted by workerant at 6:15 PM on October 15, 2012

Buy the kids' costumes at the store and learn to use the sewing machine gradually. Sew their costumes next year.

It's so close to halloween already, and sewing machines (and sewing!) can be fussy, fiddly, and exasperating, and suddenly stop working for no reason you can determine, because you're using the wrong tension or the wrong needles or the wrong thread or etc., and then you find you've ruined your material and wasted a bunch of time... which is fine when you're learning on scraps, but less fine when you want an adorable costume, soon, for your super-cute kids.

Get beginner patterns and cheap material to learn on. By next year you'll have a much better idea of what you're capable of, what the machine is capable of, and how long you can expect a project to take (longer than the pattern says. It's always longer than the pattern says), and how many times you'll have to start it over again because something unexpected happened.

As for learning: if you can't ask your mom (or someone else's mom), try going to Sears; they have sewing machine courses, or check at your local fabric shop or community college to find beginner sewing courses. Failing that, youtube and Vogue sewing is your friend.
posted by windykites at 6:19 PM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, if you're really set on stickng with your existing costume idea, you might be better off hand-sewing. Do you know how?
posted by windykites at 6:22 PM on October 15, 2012

I learned to sew a basic flat seam in a 10 minute lesson and a little practice when I was in 8th grade. You can too.

If you can figure out how to wind the bobbin and thread it, practice some seams on scrap.

The footplate it typically etched with markers for seam width. Typical patterns are 5/8", which is pretty generous. You run your fabric with the seam edge riding along the 5/8" mark and you're doing great.

Learn to work efficiently. When you start off, you will use too many pins. It takes time to put them in and take them out. Once you get a rhythm going, you will wish that the machine could go faster on the straights.

If you have to do buttons, tape them in place with scotch tape and set the machine to satin stitch, no forward movement and adjust the width so that the needle goes through two of the holes in the button diagonally, step on it, then switch to the next two holes.

Don't underestimate hand-sewing. If you watch TV you can sew seams at a decent clip by hand. I did a stuffed bantha toy from the Star Wars craft book with my 3-year old son helping sew. Together, we could do a couple of feet per hour. Alone, I could do thrice that. Not as fast as a machine, but still not too shabby.

Michael's and other places often have drop-in time - it might be enough to do what you need to do.
posted by plinth at 6:59 PM on October 15, 2012

After the threading, two things that can really mess you around are the need of a good oiling and tension. Sewing machine oil is pretty easy to find and is probably necessary if it starts jamming often. Tension is controlled by knobs probably on the top, but google for info on your model. If it's wrong you'll get a mess that's too tight or too lose.

If you are just talking about simple geometric shapes, this should be fairly easy. If it's meant to fit a person closely, say a dress or a top or pants, I think you'll find that hard without getting some lessons.
posted by kjs4 at 1:22 AM on October 16, 2012

Thanks all! More info - my oldest son wants to be Boromir. This surcoat, or something reasonably close, is basically what we are shooting for. Already have the undershirt. We have a good sized piece of pleather that we'd like to use. My younger son wants to be Gimli. The sewing challenge there is to create what is basically a sleeveless bathrobe (We're loosely following the Gimli costume at Instructables here.) Neither of these two pieces need to be close-fitting or even reasonably well done. I anticipate doing the various trim pieces using hot glue, but I don't see getting around some sewing in order to come up with the basic garments.

Unfortunately, we have no nearby family members that know how to use a sewing machine. It was given to us by my wife's grandmother, who used it up until shortly before her death. My wife has put out an email to her friends asking for assistance/instruction so we'll see if somebody there chimes in to lend us a hand!
posted by chicxulub at 7:12 AM on October 16, 2012

I'd suggest not trying to use the sewing machine on the pleather - I'd suggest something like Loctite or another vinyl adhesive.

Do you have a Goodwill or Savers nearby? How about finding an existing garment that's close to what you need and altering it? It's waaaay less frustrating than trying to sew a costume on short notice.
posted by noxetlux at 11:23 AM on October 16, 2012

If you want to use pleather, have you considered glue?

I am a mediocre seamstress, though I could manage your project, and I'd be worried about breaking a needle sewing pleather. If you deide to pursue this, get the right needle.

If you were to find one that was flexible and "pleather safe", you could cut a long narrow strip to connect the two halves of the back (or reorient the pattern so the back is one piece). Your cuts will have to be super straight, if you're not hemming.

Its not impossible.

Good luck.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 2:34 PM on October 16, 2012

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