I want a MANLY sewing machine!
July 31, 2008 1:44 PM   Subscribe

Heavy duty sewing machines? What do I need?

I have a few things that I need to fix around the house after my dog ate them, and the plastic cheap-feeling sewing machine that I have access to (borrowed from neighbor) doesn't seem to have enough umph to do it. I also want to make my own UtiliKilt and I'd like to make and/or customize some bags for my camera and computer gear. If the only sewing machine I have access too won't do three layers of upholstery fabric without getting kinda warm and melty-smelling, I don't think it's going to handle four layers of 1550 Ballistic Nylon and padding...

Although I'm mostly a manly man, I'm not a sewing machine neophyte. I made my first few sewing projects in middle school and have since made a few small things like beds for my dogs and to do simple clothing and motorcycle luggage repair. The motorcycle luggage is where I found out about the accidentally-partially-melting-plastic-parts when sewing heavy nylon using my neighbor's machine... and now I have two futon covers, several pillows or pillow cases, a robe, and now some of these other projects that I want to try out, and they're ALL heavy and/or thick fabrics.

MetaMind, what do I need to sew heavy duty fabrics? I know that my mom does some of this kind of stuff and has a sewing machine and serger, but she even shrugged when I asked her about heavy duty nylon and padding... and her machines cost thousands of dollars, because my dad refuses to buy cheap tools.

I'm not going to be doing a ton of this stuff so I don't need an industrial machine with a thirty year lifespan, but I figure that getting a machine that will handle the weights of the fabrics that I'm going to need to work with is worth spending the money... keeping in mind that I live on a state employee budget. If only I could figure out what that was, and what I need to look for in the machines to know if it'll do what I want...

Do I need a serger? What is the difference between it and a normal sewing machine? How do I tell how heavy of a material can be sewn with a machine, or how thick the material can be (i.e. layers of fabric + padding)? What features do I need for basic, occasional but heavy use -- I don't need an auto-embroidery library or some of the electronic stitch selection tools that some of the high end machines have. And please, share your wisdom. I'm new to this and it's not really a man's world... give me a two-stroke or four-stroke engine and I'll have it in parts inside of a half hour, but I'm kinda lost here.
posted by SpecialK to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
You need a Juki. We had one in the leather shop where I worked - forward, reverse - big heavy duty clutch. Takes some practice - it's not as easy to use as your home machine - but it sewed through multiple, thick layers or leather reliably.
In San Francisco - we have a sewing store that caters to industry - check to see if you have something like this where you are.
You don't need a serger. They are most useful in high volume garment construction. Check out the seems on your clothes - a serger just gives you a more finished edge. You can finish seams a lot of ways with a regular sewing machine.
Sewing machines are a lot like engines. The more industrial - the more they are similar. The one in the shop had a clutch you had to engage and let out slowly or it would stall.
posted by Wolfie at 2:12 PM on July 31, 2008

You probably do want an industrial machine rather than a home machine. But you should be able to buy one used rather than new to save quite a lot of money on the purchase.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:22 PM on July 31, 2008

I grew up sewing. You do need an industrial sewing machine. Look for Paulsc's recommendations for Elgin machines in previous threads. You can find good, working machines on eBay for 2-400$.

You do not need a serger. A serger has a blade to the right of the stitch, and stitches what is basically an advanced zig-zag stitch which closes up cut ends of fabric. They are very handy, but totally unnecessary for the kind of work you're talking about. They're best for doing internal hemming or seamlocking on pillowcases or clothing.

I use a very sturdy Bernina 1130 to do the kind of work you want to do. I've sewn my own uniform with it, not to mention heavy bags and car interiors. I don't actually recommend the machine for you, though. Check out what is available for heavy, semi-industrial machines on eBay and you won't go wrong. A few hundred bucks into a well-maintained Elgin or other heavy machine will go a long way. And you won't gain anything by buying new.
posted by fake at 2:40 PM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I typically sew through six layers of vinyl at a time for my bags and I've found that my midrange Janome handles it well. I've always wanted an industrial machine, but I have yet to justify the cost. I demoed one at the sewing machine store and it went through leather like a dream, but I like the computerized models where you can raise or lower the needle at the push of a button. I'm a frequent sewer, so that feature saves me a lot of carpal tunnel. Jus beware of feature creep.

I would have to second going to a sewing machine store. Take samples of the things you intend to sew and put all of the machines to the test. See if the stitches are spaced evenly or if they check a little to the left or right. If they do that the machine you are using is not for you. Also, check the tension adjustment.

It will be tempting just to buy an industrial-level machine. While they will hold up to a lot of abuse, they are typically spare on features and cost a lot. Test with the heavier duty personal models and move up to the industrial ones only if they are found wanting. If you won't be sewing regularly it's not going to save you money in the long run.

Sergers are great, but probably not what you need unless you're worried a lot about edge finishes or want to work with fabrics that unravel a lot like tapestry fabric. I love my serger, but because it cuts as it sews it's not a real replacement for a sewing machine.
posted by Alison at 2:47 PM on July 31, 2008

What you need is an old Pfaff machine, or Singer if you can't find a Pfaff (pronounced "faff"). Those old cast-iron machines are pretty easy to come by at flea markets, antique stores, or online, and they were massively over-engineered. My Pfaff 310 is at least 50 years old and will sew anything that doesn't break the needle.
posted by cmoj at 2:57 PM on July 31, 2008

I agree with Alison. In my experience, the main characteristics that differentiate an industrial sewing machine from a consumer sewing machine are speed and simplicity. Heavy-duty-ness does enter into it, but not as much as you might think. If you buy an industrial, which are pretty pricey, you may find yourself wishing it had some of the features and variety that industrial machines sacrifice in order to be simpler to run and maintain. It will be able to handle the thick fabrics, but it won't be as versatile as a tough consumer machine.

I like cmoj's idea of an older metal consumer machine, especially if you're handy enough to figure out how to repair and maintain yourself. I learned to sew on my mom's old iron Pfaff, which was great until it broke. I'm sure it wasn't a complicated fix, but none of the repair shops around us wanted to bother with such an old machine.
posted by doift at 3:53 PM on July 31, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for the suggestions so far. You've given me an idea of brands and

OK, I've started perusing dealers and things like that. What I've found is that a lot of the "industrial" sewing machines seem to do straight lock-stitch. Is this what I want, or for what I'm looking to do, do I need to look at the zig-zag stitch machines? Are there heavy duty machines that do *both*?
posted by SpecialK at 3:59 PM on July 31, 2008

Response by poster: And Alison replied while I was AFK and I didn't refresh or preview... figures. Thanks, I think that answers my question. We have a local SewVac that will probably have what I want ... if not, I can start haunting church garage sales and the like.
posted by SpecialK at 4:00 PM on July 31, 2008

Before I get into specifics - Older machines that have no plastic parts (The case is metal, all the parts inside are metal.) and no computerised parts IMO are far superior. It's just a clutch/gearbox with a needle. Like every single other thing on earth - they built them to last for generations. Today they are designed to be replaced several times in your lifetime. (nuf said!) Plastic is not metal. It is cheap and weak. The only appeal it has to me is that it is lighter so the machine is not so heavy. But you're a Man! And a man's machine should have some balls about it, right?

Let's liken them to cars, it doesn't matter if you drive it or you don't you need to periodically check it's all in order, it needs oil ect. And just like with the introduction with EFI - that chip meant even mechanics couldn't fix your car let alone you being able to learn. Old machines/cars are not like that. I'm an intelligent capable person, I'm not going to pay someone to do something I can trust was done correctly if I do it myself...

So that's why I have no interest in new machines.
Now it seems the vast majority of your projects would best be done on an Industrial Machine (rather than a Domestic Machine). There are DMs out there that could handle your projects I'm sure. I have a Janome that I can ease through tricky stuff but any IM would just fly right through. You can pick up second hand ones for $500. (That's a good price, $500 and it needs a little work - you snap that bad boy up!) But if you had a budget of say $700 something good would come along before too long.

The trick with those is to not buy some obscure brand. Again like with cars - if you get something that is common as mud you can pick up the parts and accessories cheaply and easily. People know how to fix them, the parts are in the book and even in stock, if you know what I mean?

Overlockers/Sergers are pretty much mandatory for swimwear, knits ect. but they are awesome for stopping any fabric from fraying. They trim the frayed threads as you sew and create a neat stable edge using several threads rather than just two like a straight sewer. Pinking shears will achieve the same result (with most fabrics) though. As will bindings or french seams (which I feel look more professional anyway). So if you wanted to make knickers I'd say yeah you definitely need one - otherwise :) you should be to manage just fine without one.

IM are basic and will have everything you need. (Reverse, stitch length, maybe a zig-zag and some button holes. Different foot attachments for zips and stuff.)
**Important - some machines were designed by wankers. I was given a machine where the bobbin was such bullshit to get to. She had short fingers but even I noticed it, it was enough to make you really hate sewing... It's sitting in the bottom of a cupboard but I hesitate to give it away. If you're a beginner you won't be for long and if you can sew you'll wonder what you did to make me hate you? (It's a Singer!!) So you always want to sit down in a very relaxed way and really try it out and make sure it's nice to use ect.

**Never ever ever let someone else use it. Refer OP... :) (No but seriously that's why.)

**Clean it, oil it, get a fresh needle with the appropriate tip (some stuff needs a ball point rather than a sharp point) and lengthen your stitch length. Might help?

How to tell... Well the foot only raises so high - so if it won't fit under - it's too much. When you put your foot down slowly you can hear the stages involved in the needle beginning to run (like a car!!) there are healthy sounds and ones that make you cringe and go oh.. that ain't right. Just like with cars these vary a little but are pretty standard across the board.

That grinding/whine/labored sound is bad! Usually your needle is stationary and straining to move. Try to help it through by turning the wheel on the right towards you (or away if you're in reverse) just a lightly. If it's jammed hard and you're pretty sure it's not the fabric - it's inside somewhere. 'Cause it can only be one of two things. Mostly a whine is usually fabric and more of a (sustained) grind is inside. If it's inside it's either the top or the bottom. Usually the bottom, which is the easiest area to put right.

Give this a go?
Try turning the wheel (toward you) by hand. Look you're making stitches! :) Okay then very slowly put your foot down and see how it gets easier to turn and then just touch it so you can feel as it's doing it's own thing. Get familiar with that and then you'll know if it's straining too hard to get through anything. So when it protests and you instinctively reach out to work it through manually you will know whether it's just too hard to get through (there will be a slight give in it or just jammed up solid.)

Slight give - assess whether it's just being a pussy or you're asking too much?
If it's jammed solid take your foot off the pedal and rock the wheel back and forth. If it moves freely, make that stitch by hand and then carry on. If you can't, use the wheel to work the needle free, up out of the fabric... and work your way through the trouble shooting checklist :)

Phew! If you want to pick my brain some more (or my car (un)enthusiast SO's who rebuilt my current machine), you know what to do. Happy to help :)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 6:47 PM on July 31, 2008

With the projects you're considering, I agree with Wolfie--you need a Juki.
posted by Lycaste at 7:38 PM on July 31, 2008

An old machine that´s actually made out of metal should work. If you have too many layers of fabric meeting at the areas where seams intersect you may need to re-engineer how the seams come together to keep the number of layers down.

If you are sewing along and come up to an area where other seams meet up with the one you are currently sewing, the added thickness will keep the machine from going over this easily. As you approach this area, you will need to stop the machine, raise the presser foot, put a spacer (cardboard or folded fabric work well) under the foot, lower the foot, sew over the high spot with another spacer after the high spot, stop the machine before it sews into the spacer, and remove the spacer. You could probably make a spacer out of plastic that will simplify some of these steps, but it takes much longer to describe than to do.

If the needle gets stuck, stop sewing. Turn the hand crank/wheel (um, that´s not the technical name) backwards to release it.

I don´t know how thick this ballistic nylon is, but you should be able to sew something utilikilt-like with one of the old all metal machines. There are also new machines that claim they can sew denim, but I suspect that they contain much plastic and are wimpy.
posted by yohko at 9:06 PM on July 31, 2008

Response by poster: For those checking back in with this thread later, I ended up buying a Singer Confidence 7464. So far it's been successful, although I have some beefs about the bobbin winder and would prefer something with a clutch as opposed to the automatic transmission. On the other hand, I got it for $200 new from Joann Fabrics during a sale, and the clutch is good enough at saying "Danger, Will Robinson!" that I've done three projects so far with heavy fabrics and batting and have not broken a needle or stalled the machine yet.

Buying a 'weaker' machine has changed how I design some stuff, but you can follow along over at my sewing projects flickr stream... there will be much more there when the walking foot and some of the heavier fabrics I need arrive. I was waiting for the 1Q09 asset dumps before I really started shopping. ;)
posted by SpecialK at 9:56 AM on December 26, 2008

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