Channeling my inner fashion designer
November 23, 2012 9:07 AM   Subscribe

What's the most cost-efficient way to hem and dart my shirts? What kind of sewing machine fits my urge to adjust clothing?

I've been hand sewing little alterations to my clothing for a few months now. I don't know much about sewing, but I know how to stitch a simple straight line with close together stitches that seem to hold up for lace collars and side seams to shirts! Problem is, it takes forever for me to hand sew a seam to take in a shirt. I usually just eyeball a garment and mark with a pastel crayon, then stitch along the line. Or, I'll glue stuff in place with E6000, then reinforce it with some stitching. Everything looks pretty good that way. I get compliments on my work, so maybe I have a knack for it?

I read some Mefi threads that don't advise tailoring your own clothing, but I do love to tinker around with the fit of my clothing and add little accents to it. I mostly just taper in the sizes of boxy t shirts and sweatshirts to make them more fitted, add pieces of lace or ribbon, and hem shirts or dresses. Ideally I would be able to create darts for dressier tops (button down and silk, flowy things). I was thinking a machine could save me money as opposed to taking these items to a tailor, but I don't want my alterations to look unprofessional. I would not be making any clothing from scratch - just adjusting store bought items.

Does this sound doable for a busy student, or would I be in over my head with a sewing machine? Is it much more complicated to sew things like darts than it appears to be?
posted by sunnychef88 to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Sewing machines are great and today, you can get a Brother at Wal-Mart for $49.

There's an adorable, wee machine at CVS which may fit the bill nicely. I may get one for myself.

Darts, hems, tucks, pleats are all very straight-forward and easy to do. If you like the way everything looks when you do it, you are doing it right.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:11 AM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

For these types of adjustments, which can be as simple or finessed as you like, you could easily get a vintage mechanical that would do you for a lifetime of hemming and such. Essentially you just need something with a reliable straight stitch. It will be lots faster than hand sewing.

You should check out the website: Pattern Review, for sewing machine recommendations. They also have lots of information on sewing techniques. When I got back into sewing a few years ago, this website became my mecca.
posted by nanook at 9:34 AM on November 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

a sewing machine will make your darts and tucks faster but not necessarily more 'professional' looking, especially if you get a cheap machine. if you think you'll ever go beyond basic alterations I'd recommend a vintage sewing machine (I have several Elna Supermatics from the 50s, but anything that is mechanical and has metal parts will be good) instead of a cheap new machine. I'm not going to overload you with the reasons why but it generally comes down to durability, ease of use, and ability of the machine. I went through at least ten cheap machines dying horrible deaths and making me painfully frustrated with sewing before I moved on to vintage, and I'll never go back.

However, that being said, in (fashion) school I was taught to do all hemming and the majority of alterations by hand. I've never gotten a pants hem, for example, to look decent on a machine. This is all dependent on your definition of 'okay' - I am a very critical perfectionist - but like a comment above, if you like the way everything looks when you do it, you're doing fine. If you're on a tight time and financial budget and aren't planning to move up to full garments then I'd honestly recommend you just focus on your hand sewing skills - it's cheaper, looks better, and gives you a bit of badass cred. (with sewists, I mean)
posted by par court at 9:40 AM on November 23, 2012

Those mini-sewing machines like the Sunbeam are often more trouble than hand-sewing, because they simply don't work for shit, and constantly ripping out skipped and bungled stitches takes up time and causes frustration.

That said, for what you're doing, most relatively inexpensive real sewing machines will work out fine. Consider an older used machine purchased from a reputable dealer (so it will have been recently serviced), as older machines (pre-1980s) were much better quality and can be had for the same price or less than today's low-end machines that are sometimes not so great.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:05 AM on November 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't know about a mini-machine, but for the sewing you're doing, all you need is a straight stitch. Better machines are manufactured better, and the tension and parts will function better, but not necessarily enough better to justify more cost.

People don't sew all that much these days. Post on and/or Craigslist free, and you may get one for free. They also turn up at Goodwill, but you won't know how well it sews until trying it.
posted by theora55 at 10:58 AM on November 23, 2012

Definitely don't get a super cheap modern machine--they are not reliable and will not produce high-quality work.

You basically just want a machine that can do straight stitching and maybe a zigzag, which are super-basic functions. You definitely want a straightforward mechanical machine (as opposed to the fancy computerized ones). If you already knew how to sew I would not hesitate to recommend a vintage mechanical machine, but I'm a little reluctant to do that since you don't know how machine sewing should go and you're not in a great position to try stuff out.

Pattern Review is a great website and a trove of information about sewing machines, so start there. I would also suggest stopping in at a sewing machine repair place to see if they have any reconditioned vintage machines that fit your price range.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 11:30 AM on November 23, 2012

I bought a $70 full-sized machine at Ikea when I started sewing. I don't expect it to last years and years, but it does a very good straight stitch, it's easy to use and fix, and it will do just fine until I'm ready to upgrade.
posted by third word on a random page at 1:25 PM on November 23, 2012

I sewed basic clothing items on my Kenmore model 52, which was from the sixties. It had a straight stitch and a zig zag stitch, and cost $8 at a thrift store. There are lots of great vintage machines out there that can easily handle basic alterations, but can also handle more advanced sewing if you get to that level. They're reliable, durable, and you can find them cheaper than new ones at thrift stores and on Craigslist.
posted by christinetheslp at 1:52 PM on November 23, 2012

You want a machine with a variable speed pedal; as in, when you press it down further it goes faster. Some cheap machines do not have this and it makes sewing so, so much harder.

Absolutely avoid machines with any digital or computerized stuff. That's just more stuff to figure out and more stuff that can break, mechanical is always the way to go. And DO NOT get one of those tiny handheld ones, they are awful.

If you decide you want one, don't be scared! If you can hand sew it, you can probably do it with a machine and it will be fine. I'm no expert sewer, but I managed to teach myself basic alterations. My mum used to alter all my party dresses, including ball gowns, and they always looked professional and nobody noticed so it can be done. Especially considering that seams on high street clothes nowadays seem to be completely basic anyway.
posted by stillnocturnal at 3:07 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I bought one of those handheld small ones like the Sunbeam, and it was awful. You had to fiddle with it to get the tension between the upper and lower thread just right, and it just wasn't very good even when you got it to work. Really don't recommend it.

I bought a full-size Kenmore via eBay, and I think I paid under $40. It's been super useful. I only did small things at first, but I use it a lot now. And for smaller alterations, it's completely perfect - like sewing darts, hemming, that sort of thing.
posted by gemmy at 4:54 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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