What sewing machine should I get?
December 6, 2012 10:01 AM   Subscribe

What sewing machine would you recommend for a photographer?

I've decided to see if I can make better (or at least more customized) camera bags, lens holders and light modifiers than are available in the mass market. So, I need a sewing machine.

I took a two hour sewing class at the local fabric store. I'm now relatively confident that I won't sew my hand to the machine. This has given me the confidence to jump in and see what I can do, but I really don't know what I'm looking for.

I won't be do anything fancy, but apparently need one that's relatively powerful in order to punch through heavier canvas fabrics I'll be using. I'd rather not spend a fortune, but I'm a big fan of quality tools. I have no problem spending a little more money if that saves me from the frustration of using a poor tool. Any guidance and recommendations you can offer would be greatly appreciated.
posted by StimulatingPixels to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
High quality sewing machines are usually fairly expensive and would represent a large investment for what sounds like a single (or very very infrequent) use. Could you maybe arrange with the place you took your class to rent out one of their machines instead?
posted by elizardbits at 10:08 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

If I were looking to do a lot of these sorts of projects, I would look for a refurbished industrial sewing machine.

If I were looking to do just a couple for my own use, I would do as elizardbits suggests, and look for a sewing studio that has what you need and does workshop hours where you can come in and use their equipment for a small fee. You'll get minimal supervision -- they'll help you with the machines but not necessarily with your specific projects -- rather than class instruction, but unless you're planning to do a lot of this stuff, it'll be cheaper than buying your own heavy-duty machine.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:22 AM on December 6, 2012

I'm still an amateur, so take my recommendation with a pinch of salt and qualify it with what others on here recommend, but it might be worth seeing if you can get a vintage all-metal machine from the 70s (or earlier!). I have a Bernina 801, and my mom has a Bernina 800, and it has always seemed to sew through heavy material (layers of felted cashmere) like butter. They're horrifically expensive new, but you can get them used on Craigslist etc. for under $100, if you strike it lucky (as I did).
posted by UniversityNomad at 10:23 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Used industrial machines are the way to go. I have a used Juki DDL-555 that I got for $300. It's a workhorse! However, it only does one type of stitch. If you need multiple stiching options (zigzag, button holes, etc) you'd have to look at different options.
posted by Arbac at 10:33 AM on December 6, 2012

Best answer: Designing and sewing really good bags is serious business, there are a lot of structural and construction issues that present a challenge even for experienced sewers. It would be a good idea to sit down and make some bags from commercial patterns to get a sense of how the parts go together, construction principles, etc. It sounds like a fun project and I wish you luck.

You probably want a used industrial machine; expect to pay $500-1000 for a good one in working condition. They're large and messy and typically do just a straight stitch. Don't be fooled by "heavy duty" home machines. I have an awesome all-metal Bernina from the 60s and it's about as heavy-duty a home machine as you can get, and six layers of denim is about as much as it can handle.

Ultimately it's going to be a lot more cost effective for you to rent time at a studio or shop or school unless you're planning to produce lots of goods. Be warned that industrial machines are SCARY; they sew very, very quickly and have enough power to sew through bone. You'll want a little time with one before sitting down to sew something.

All that said, it's probably worth getting a home machine for testing out designs and familiarizing yourself some more with sewing. You can get more or less any used, refurbished machine from a good vac/sew shop and it'll be fine if they can show you how to use it. Good minimal mechanical machine ideas: Bernina Minimatic (707 or 730), Singer Featherweights, etc. For your purposes, older and heavier is better. Simpler is better (you won't even have zigzag stitch on the industrial machines you'll eventually do your real sewing on). Mechanical is better. Old Berninas and Featherweights will run you about $200-$300.

You'll probably run into issues sourcing hardware and the more esoteric supplies, buckram and foam and so on. Strapworks is good for webbing and plastic stuff. I've bought from BuckleGuy, too. RockyWoods sells lots of technical fabrics and hardware. If you're in a city, a trip to the garment district might be illuminating for zippers and upholstery materials. And depending on the style of stuff you want to make, the DIY forums over at Backpacking Light are really helpful for material sourcing and construction ideas.
posted by peachfuzz at 10:37 AM on December 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

Probably the most durable vintage machine I have is my 1973 or so Kenmore (very similar to this one) and this extremely ancient White (linked machine similar). The white is stronger but harder to use, with the bobbin cage and so forth.
posted by Medieval Maven at 10:51 AM on December 6, 2012

Do you want to sew other things in the future? If not, I'd check out Etsy for custom bags and inserts. I'm sure someone would be willing to make them to your specs if you can't find what you need.
posted by runningwithscissors at 10:52 AM on December 6, 2012

Response by poster: I should clarify on the bags a little. Really what I mean there is pouches. Most will be for single lenses. I'm also looking for simple cases for my light stands that are exactly the right size. So, nothing too complicated.

runningwithscissors: The Etsy idea is good, but I'm one of those hands on folks who wants to see what I can make myself.

As for finding a shop to work in, I'm an hour round trip drive from the closest place. That added to the fact that the main time I'll have to work on this stuff is at night means I won't really be able to do that. Plus, I'm sure it's going to take more than a few times to get something usable as I experiment and learn.

I've been doing some more looking around and found this video of the Janome HD1000 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAZZsClypH0). They are $300 new which looks to be about the price I'd pay for one of the older industrial used ones. In the first minute, it shoes going though 12 layers of denim. Then, it sews through a wood ruler.

Seems like that might get me started at least.
posted by StimulatingPixels at 11:08 AM on December 6, 2012

I too recommend an older 70s or earlier machine. They can be had for dirt cheap (I just bought one for $25 at estate sale for a friend) and are generally very sturdy.

I sewed a motorcycle jacket for my daughter out of 1000 dennier ballistic nylon (Cordura). The pattern was based on denim jacket, so there are places with up to 8 layers of fabric. My machine handled it just fine. The key is to go slow, not force it and be careful when going from 1-2 layers to 5-6 (there are tools to lift your presser foot.) I've also used it to sew a leather wallet which has places with 3 layers of fairly thick leather.

With the correct needles (heavy duty/jeans ffor canvas/denim, ballpoints for knits, sharps for fine fabrics) and presser feet (walking foot for tons of stuff, a zipper foot for zippers, a teflon foot for plastic things) you can sew most things on a home machine.
posted by vespabelle at 11:27 AM on December 6, 2012

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