[For a story] What are the tricky parts of sewing masks for a newbie?
August 15, 2020 10:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a story about a character learning to sew cloth face masks. What are the difficulties they might run into? The character has never used a sewing machine before.
posted by SockISalmon to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (40 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Threading the sewing machine can be hard if you’ve never done it! Getting curves right is also tricky; a good mask fits your face well and that’s achieved by sewing with curves rather than straight lines.
posted by girlalex at 10:23 PM on August 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Threading the machine, like giralex said. Also, controlling the speed of the sewing — on most machines, a very slight pressure difference on the pedal brings the machine from “glacial pace” to OHMYGOD WAY TOO FAST. It takes a bit of practice to be able to control the speed precisely.
posted by mekily at 10:31 PM on August 15, 2020

Best answer: Oh god, the BOBBIN. Too tight? Too loose? How does it even??
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:32 PM on August 15, 2020 [11 favorites]

Best answer: If your fabric has sides (like one side is printed and the other is not), you can end up sewing the seams so that one or more of the sides of fabric are inside out to where they should be.

The tension of the threads on the sewing machine can be wrong, the sign will be stray loops of thread on one side of the fabric.

You can end up with snarls of thread and the edges of fabric getting jammed into the hole the needle goes into, I had that happen a few times with the pointier edges putting two pieces together.

If it's a more complicated pattern like this one with the nose wire pocket at all that jazz, when I was sewing those up, sometimes I would forget to sew the wire pocket part to the inside piece before joining the two sides of the mark and have to use my seam ripper to undo it so I can do it in the right order. (I'm not new to sewing, but it had been a bit for me when I started up doing masks.)
posted by foxfirefey at 10:35 PM on August 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nearly every sewing newbie makes the exact same mistake: when they thread a machine, they need to thread with the presser foot UP so that the tension discs are open to catch the thread. Then remember to lower the presser foot before they start sewing. If one of these steps is missed the thread can make a huge rats nest on the back of the fabric. This is probably the #1 troubleshooting question on sewing forums.

If they don't prewash cotton fabric it will look very nice when it's finished then the fabric will shrink different from the thread and it will get all puckered looking after it's washed.

If it's a cheap sewing machine then it will struggle when there are too many layers of fabric, like where straps or elastic go through a seam. They may not know they need to slow down or even hand turn and hand feed the fabric through when the machine isn't powerful enough.

For two-layered masks, they forget to leave a hole to turn the mask through to the right side (not that I made this mistake *cough cough*)
posted by muddgirl at 10:36 PM on August 15, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: After posting: the symptom for forgetting to raise the presser foot can be pretty subtle, on some machines. It can just look like the tension is way off but turning the tension dial doesn't do anything.
posted by muddgirl at 10:38 PM on August 15, 2020

Best answer: -Depending on how powerful the sewing machine is (i.e more of an industrial sewing machine), you can actually sew through your finger. When you’re guiding the material through the machine, if you’re sewing pretty fast, it’s easy to get a finger caught in there. It happened to a Project Runway contestant.

- Accidentally sewing the wrong sides of the fabric to the outside of the face mask.

-Not resetting the feature that winds the bobbin and wondering why the needle isn’t moving while pressing the presser foot.

-Not actually turning the machine on and wondering why it’s not sewing.
posted by Pretty Good Talker at 11:00 PM on August 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Not using an iron (or not knowing how to use it when sewing) makes it SO much harder to get a neat seam and a flat mask.
posted by third word on a random page at 11:16 PM on August 15, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: For a new sewer, I'd say they puzzle over the machine a bit, read the instruction manual and mask pattern, maybe get confused by terms like "wrong side" and "right side" (depending on the pattern), thread the machine the way they think is right but make one of the mistakes described above, not realize it, and then after a few seconds of stitching it feels like their needle is stuck, possibly in the fabric. They try to lift the needle and pull the fabric out but they have to tug really hard (which makes them afraid of breaking something) and possibly even give up and use scissors to cut the threads holding the fabric in. The underside of the fabric looks like this. Confusion and despair ensue. (Although today, given the internet, they should be able to find the answer pretty quickly, so less despair than back in the day when you had no idea what you'd done wrong or how to fix it.)

Also, they'll need some practice in sewing along a pattern line, and they might have no idea how to sew a certain distance away the edge of the seam allowance. Do they mark they lines they're supposed to sew according to the pattern? Is there some other way to be consistent? They won't know.
posted by trig at 11:22 PM on August 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: (Note that if they're using a brand new machine it'll probably come threaded right out of the box, which sidesteps a lot of potential problems. You could have them use an older machine, or let them get ambitious and decide to thread the machine themselves with a different thread color.)
posted by trig at 11:26 PM on August 15, 2020

Best answer: 100% sewing the wrong sides of the fabric together.
posted by gryphonlover at 11:26 PM on August 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, also they might not know to leave longish tails for both the bobbin and needle threads. So on their first stitch the needle thread might get pulled back up into the machine, and they'll sew for a few seconds and not understand why the stitches aren't appearing on the fabric (if you're not familiar with how sewing machines work: there are two threads, one coming from above the fabric and one from below, and they catch each other at each stitch. If one thread is missing, the other one doesn't have anything to hold it in place and no actual stitches are formed).

Even worse, the bobbin thread might get pulled back into the machine and twist around something it shouldn't and cause a rat's nest and/or stuck needle or wind up pulling the fabric into the machine.

The defining feature of early machine-based mistakes is confusion: they won't say "oh, I must have missed the tension disk while threading", they'll say "what the hell is going on?"
posted by trig at 11:37 PM on August 15, 2020

As someone who has never used a sewing machine, hasn't sewn except for home economics 20 years ago and was actually planning to sew some cloth masks, this thread is incredibly informative for me.
posted by NoneOfTheAbove at 12:26 AM on August 16, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: General sewing machine issues (as seen on sewing subreddits 20 times a day): finding a manual for a second-hand machine, top threading, bobbin threading, and then infinite assorted tension issues. All of the tension issues! Loops on the bottom; sometimes a huge snarl of thread that jams the whole machine. If the machine is a hand-me-down of unknown provenance, you can add all kinds of mysterious machine problems, or at least additional confusion -- if you can't get a machine serviced because it's the Plague Times, you may not be sure if you're doing something wrong, or if it's a problem with the machine.

Mask-specific: for accordion-style pleated masks, actually sewing through all the layers. Even if the mask fabric is thin, you have multiple layers of fabric, plus pleats (maybe multiple pleats overlapping), plus maybe folded-over binding extending into ties. This is the point at which some people discover that their cheap plastic machine is not powerful enough. Otherwise they may be using the wrong needle size or point type -- the needle could be too blunt to pass through the fabric effectively. Paradoxically, the needle may need to be thinner rather than thicker, for the same reason.
posted by confluency at 2:49 AM on August 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’ve been sewing for 20 years. In March I googled how to make a mask, and took the second or third hit. I followed the directions exactly and made 5 or 6 of them. They were all way too small, wouldn’t stretch across the face to hook comfortably behind the ears and kept flying off, including when I was at the checkout line in the grocery store, and it was still March when everyone was more tense and nervous. Had to start all over again.
posted by Melismata at 4:22 AM on August 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Omg muddgirl! Pressure foot up! Why on earth in over 40 years of occasional sewing did I never ever learn this? It probably explains those random can't-get-the-damn-tension right times.
posted by evilmomlady at 4:32 AM on August 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: For mask-specific sewing problems, seconding actually being able to sew through all the layers and pleats of an accordian style mask. It's the final step, the pleats can snag, and getting through those layers can break your machine, so it's an extra few levels of frustrating (ask me how I know).

For a drawstring mask, you can easily sew the string into the side of the mask even if you are trying very hard and paying close attention.
posted by moons in june at 5:15 AM on August 16, 2020

Best answer: Forgetting to leave a gap in the stitches to turn fabric right side out.

Getting frustrated by the folds/creases on a pleated mask. Maybe a needle breaks going over them. Maybe the folds are aggravatingly uneven, or there's somehow more pleats on one edge. (How?!)

Not knowing how to make the machine go in reverse (backstitch?) to secure ends. Trimming the ends of the thread too close, and the whole thing unravels.

Source: these are all things I did. And I thought I knew how to use a sewing machine! (I did not. But now I do.)
posted by Guess What at 5:40 AM on August 16, 2020

Best answer: All the sewing machine problems aside, making masks is SO FIDDLY. The small pieces of fabric, turning the fabric right side out, pressing the small seams, threading the elastic/ties through the side channels, or attaching elastic ear loops. I've been sewing for 40 years and found it challenging in the beginning. I think the anxiety of it had something to do with that.

And trying so many mask patterns and none of them were quite right.
posted by XtineHutch at 5:42 AM on August 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I made pleated masks, I mentally phased out during the step where you make and press the pleats, and forgot I was on my cutting mat rather than my ironing pad. So the cutting mat now has a nice melted spot.

Also — my machine doesn’t control speed through pedal pressure — it’s got a separate slider on the machine to control speed. I’m suddenly very grateful for that. (Amusing side note: the slider has no words on it, just a picture of a tortoise at one end and a picture of a hare at the other and some tick marks in between. I typically keep it about a quarter past tortoise.)

(I’d place my sewing skills somewhere around “14-year-old who’s taken home ec.” I successfully made a bunch of masks, both pleated and curved, but I made lots of mistakes, and it took me about an hour per mask.)
posted by snowmentality at 6:36 AM on August 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Aniola's post, she's a sewing machine mechanic, features a list of things that can go wrong and what to check before bringing your machine to the shop. All the machine troubles in one handy spot!
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:05 AM on August 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: As someone who has made different types of face masks (though not a sewing or machine newbie) the #1 annoying thing is sewing the pleated-style masks. I made those with multiple layers including a filter pocket, so going over three pleats on both sides of the mask was challenging. I broke a few needles that way. It may be that my machine is crappy though and isn't great sewing more than a few lightweight layers.
posted by methroach at 7:33 AM on August 16, 2020

Best answer: This still catches me up when I am zoning out/watching tv at the same time: forgetting to change the stitch width from zig-zag to straight after changing the presser foot.

Forgetting to hand rotate the wheel before every start so the thread take up thingie is at its highest position (so top thread does not pull out of the needle).
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:00 AM on August 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I hadn't touched a sewing machine since high school Home Economics, and I still have no real idea what I'm doing.

Needles need to be changed before they get dull. There's also different types of needles for different types of fabric and I guess also different effects?

The variety pack of thread I picked up from Target says "for hand sewing only", not sure why. Plus it turns out that thread has a shelf life and can be too old to use. Speaking of, I thought I needed different color thread for different color fabric, but the lady at the quilt store suggested I just use gray or beige for everything. This would not have occurred to me. Also your bobbin thread color doesn't need to match your spool thread color.

Some patterns expect you to add your own seam allowance, so if you cut your fabric to their template it'll be too small in all directions. Oh, also making sure that your template is printing out at the right size and scale.

Other difficulties: not having an iron, not having enough space to set up an ironing board, not having enough outlets for the machine and the iron, not having sharp scissors, not having a table/chair at the right height, the foot pedal sliding across the floor, not having pins/clips or a ruler/measuring tape.

And the jargon! Presser foot, tension disc, feed dogs? Newer machines have a lot of features which you wouldn't need for masks, but if the machine is set to one of the fancy stitches it might not be obvious how to make it just sew a straight line.
posted by mgar at 8:02 AM on August 16, 2020

Best answer: In lots of machines the bobbin is hidden inside the machine, nearly guaranteed to run out just when you’re doing a tricky bit and think it’s going well. And suddenly the needle is going along making its little row of holes and there’s no thread involved (the bobbin thread isn’t holding the top thread in so it just lies slackly on top).

This leads to Is My Bobbin Empty? anxiety and then irritation at all the quarter-full bobbins lying around.
posted by clew at 8:03 AM on August 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The stumbling block I faced when I first started sewing masks is that none of the tutorials were very specific about the pleats. Almost all of them just said “make three pleats” without giving any measurements at all.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:07 AM on August 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh and - there are some deep differences between even simple computerized machines and all the purely mechanical ones. I learned on a mechanical and naturally reach for the hand wheel for half-stitches or sewing slowly, but I have to not do that on my newer computerized one. I didn’t know that for years, not until doing the test-sew in a sewing machine shop after yet another service visit.

Because of this, helpful You Tube videos may not be so helpful. I’ve seen lots with fast order-of-sewing advice that depends utterly on a lock-and-snip feature my machines don’t have; I have to come up with a sewing order that minimizes beginnings and ends of seams. (For the complicated fitted ones, I then knot and bury the thread ends as though I were making clothes, because they’ll get washed as often and harder.)
posted by clew at 8:10 AM on August 16, 2020

Best answer: Newbies are likely to have terrible ergonomics, because ergo is hard and they’re probably hunching nervously over a table chosen for convenience. It mostly hurts your back, eventually your hands.
posted by clew at 8:15 AM on August 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Mask specific: getting the pleats sized nicely and EVEN. Arrrrgh.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:48 AM on August 16, 2020

Best answer: Oh, the most basic mistake: sewing over the pins even if they are placed perpendicular to the seam line. You’re gonna nick the needle even if you don’t break it. (A lot of mask tutorials recommend clips instead of pins to avoid leaving pinholes in the fabric but my feeling is that those close up when you wash them.) (I stopped sewing fabric masks inside out after the first one and just started zigzagging around the outside edges.)
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:44 AM on August 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You all are amazing, thank you for all of the suggested sources of frustration / confusion!
posted by SockISalmon at 10:53 AM on August 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When you do prewash the fabric, sometimes it’s very ravelly at the cut ends and you get a big fuzzy snarl of weft wrapped around the agitator. Then you wrestle it out and dry it on hot and don’t remember to whip it out at just-barely-damp and straighten it. Then you have wrinkles pressed into the material, and discover that a standard ironing board is considerably narrower than standard cotton yardage.
posted by clew at 11:12 AM on August 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When your machine is struggling, it seems like it would help to pull the fabric through from behind. This can break the needle or throw off the timing (making the machine sew poorly if at all).

If you push from the front, you tend to get puckers, which usually isn’t what you wanted.
posted by clew at 12:06 PM on August 16, 2020

Best answer: At the planning stage: picking a mask with a bunch of fiddly curved pieces rather than a simpler one. For example, the two piece Tom Bihn mask vs any other curved mask. More pieces means every single step will take longer.

Before the sewing part: pinning the pattern pieces to a single layer of fabric and laboriously cutting out each piece with sticky shears (or, worse, whatever random craft scissors are on hand). The fast approach is to use a cutting mat and rotary cutter: stack the fabric so you're cutting 2 or 4 layers at a time, weight the whole thing down with pattern weights or giant washers from the hardware store or cans of tuna or whatever, and then use the rotary cutter to zip around the pieces. This can go badly if your rotary cutter is dull or you forget to put the mat down and take a chunk out of your table.

When you get to the machine: sewing over pins can break the pin and/or the needle, causing pieces to fly across the room. (Learned this one the hard way.)

Cutting the elastic ear loops too short and sewing them into a whole batch of masks.

You'd have to try pretty hard to sew through your hand with an entry level home sewing machine, but you can bruise your fingers if you put them too close to the part of the machine where the needle is screwed on. If this doesn't make sense let me know and I'll take a picture of my machine. In my experience this feels like stubbing your toe (rather than, say, slamming a car door in your finger).

Investing too much of yourself in this project and not setting expectations with others. Two examples of this from sewing people I know: (1) Working so so SO hard to make something and then when you hand it to someone they're like, meh whatever. (2) Making a bunch of things for a friend's business and they give you a gift card in an amount that doesn't even cover materials before you can bring up compensation.
posted by esoterrica at 12:11 PM on August 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’ve been sewing for 20 years. In March I googled how to make a mask, and took the second or third hit. I followed the directions exactly and made 5 or 6 of them. They were all way too small

Especially in those early days when folks were coming up with mask patterns, a lot of the "printable" ones were just jpegs or pdfs that weren't necessarily formatted to automagically print out at the correct scale. It would be pretty easy to print a pattern, correctly pin in to the fabric and do everything, then run into this problem (not saying that's what happened to that user, but I know the pattern I ended up using had a little ruler as part of the pdf so you could check the scale, and because of that I know that the women's pattern did print to scale as long as I turned off "fit to page," while the men's didn't quite, despite using the exact same print settings).
posted by solotoro at 2:57 PM on August 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh! And also there was a run on elastic, so I had to make my own ties (which meant making my own bias tape, that was its own whole ordeal), which meant a lot of burning my fingers with the iron while holding quite small folds down, and having a very narrow piece of fabric that basically had to be top-stitched because give any margin and you were off the far side of the tie. Which as a fairly newbie (though not quite never-sat-at-a-machine-before level), I got very close to several times.
posted by solotoro at 3:03 PM on August 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just want to chime in with the technical term for the "rats' nest" on the underside that people have referred to. The technical term is "bobbin barf."
posted by Dolley at 7:45 PM on August 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I had the same experience melismata did back in March. One of the earliest popular patterns was way too small, and I had exactly the same pops-off-face experience. And while mis-scaling is a very real issue, that wasn't what caused this particular problem - the pattern/tutorial gave exact measurements in inches, which I cut with a cutting board, and also gave a seam allowance that I followed. It was just a bad pattern.

So in addition to the suggestions above: bad pattern selection. I knew the issue was the pattern, but a newbie sewist wouldn't. And there's a lot of bad patterns out there, or YouTube tutorials where the person showing the process knows what they're doing but doesn't explain really basic stuff like what seam allowance they're using.

Another one I don't see: using a knit fabric to sew up a pattern designed for a woven fabric, or vice versa. Patterns will generally work better (sometimes much better) with one or the other, and it can be v. frustrating to try to sew with the wrong fabric for the job.
posted by pie ninja at 7:58 AM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: OMG the run on elastic yes!! There was none to be had anywhere, and all my weekly email circulars (Jo-Ann’s, Walmart, Hobby Lobby [don’t buy from them], local places, maybe Mood but I can’t remember) kept saying “well we got in a little on Tuesday but it sold out in an hour, so we still don’t have any right now.” I was even getting random ads from places like Staples saying sorry we don’t have any! Luckily I had some left over from other projects.
posted by Melismata at 7:36 PM on August 17, 2020

Best answer: You'd have to try pretty hard to sew through your hand with an entry level home sewing machine

My sister did this, and had to have needle fragments surgically removed from her finger bone.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:57 AM on August 18, 2020

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