View Full Version : Do It Yourself Sewing - Advice

Kevin Dill
10-01-2011, 07:11 AM
I'm looking to do some of my own sewing and fabricating...mainly to customize my gear. I'd like to be able to stitch heavier materials like pack cloth, nylon webbing (including seat belt grade), leather, etc. For example: I plan to create my own meat-hauling cargo sling using heavy fabric and 1" webbing...or possibly creating it from a "basket weave" of seat belt webbing, stitched at the crossing points. Here's my question:

Are the heavy duty sewing machines I see (on the internet auctions) sufficient to do this type of sewing? I'm seeing brands like Brother, Singer, Kenmore, Necchi, Toyota and others. Any particular recommendations on the brand or features?

Thanks for any advice you may offer!

10-01-2011, 07:26 AM
I can get through 4 layers of webbing with my $50 singer i picked up at a pawn shop. It's no heavy duty machine. I use a denim needle.

10-01-2011, 08:41 AM
My Singer 1120 ($80 at WalMart) sails through multiple layers of Cordura, packcloth and webbing. use a heavy-duty size 16 needle and #69 nylon thread (the heaviest most household machines can take). The only stitches you need are straight and zig-zag (bartacking and overlock binding). Most machines come with a useful assortment of attachments. Pick up a yardstick, good scissors, some extra bobbins, a seam ripper and a thread clipper and you are pretty well set. Useful supplies are straight pins, tailor's chalk, small paper clamps and good quality (3M) masking tape.

Kevin Dill
10-01-2011, 09:01 AM

So the "lighter" machines have the necessary strength and endurance to sew thicker webbings, heavy wool...maybe leather?

10-01-2011, 09:31 AM

So the "lighter" machines have the necessary strength and endurance to sew thicker webbings, heavy wool...maybe leather?

Ralph is right, a lot of the household machines can handle the job you describe, but you need to have the right set up as far as proper size needle, etc. The strength of the motor has a lot to do with it too. I have an industrial machine (Pfaff) that will just about sew through gravel, but I've used my lighter household machine (Bernina) to make many pairs of leather chaps. The lighter machine can do it, but the industrial machine does it easier. If you're sticking to mostly cordura & nylon straping, you'd be fine with a lighter household machine as long as you use the correct needle, etc. In my experience, you'd be better off to find a good older (ie. mostly metal) machine than buying a cheaper newer (ie plastic) machine. I've not been impressed with the Singer or Brother machines in the under $400 category for quite some time (used to sell them where I worked). Had a 40 yr old Kenmore that ran extremely well and made me a lot of money before I bit the bullet & bought a computerized Bernina.

Kevin Dill
10-01-2011, 09:50 AM
I was actually watching one of the older Kenmore all-metal units...from the '60s. 1.2 amp motor and just gorgeous condition. Heavy built all the way. $200 - $400 is a chunk for a 50 year old sewing machine. I don't mind spending up to $300 or so...just want to get a unit that's tough, and easy to use. My projects will be simple in scope...and usually just for my purposes.

10-01-2011, 10:08 AM
One thing you may want to do is poke around to find the local sewing machine repair shop. They usually have older machines for sale. The old black iron Singers have a lot to recommend them - if you can find one with a zigzag stitch (bartacking is highly desirable) or has a bartack attachment. The machines using the external motor mount and rubber drive belts are the easiest to maintain - or to install a heavier motor on. Another source is a local second-hand store. The old black machines are usually fairly inexpensive since they don't have that sleek, modern look or have fancy stitch capability.

Tracy is right. Many of the household machines will handle lighter leathers with the right needle but you won't be able to sew heavy (6 oz. +) cowhide. An average price for a used commercisl machine is around $400-600 and most are single stitch - that is, you need a second machine to do bartacking.

I know a lot of folks seem to have trouble with inexpensive household machines so my 1120 may just be a good one but so far it has done everything I needed done. I sew heavy leather by hand using a saddle stitch. Takes longer but both effective and neat.

Kevin Dill
10-01-2011, 12:18 PM
Sounds very good to this point. I know that I just want ultimate simplicity and function...with strength. Although I've heard the term many times, what is bar tacking by definition?

GOT IT.....Google answers everything.

Kevin Dill
10-02-2011, 10:49 AM
Final question for now: Any reason I should NOT consider purchasing one of the heavier built units from the '60s era? I have found some very clean name brand machines with excellent histories. All-metal bodies. Stout motors and gearing. Zig-zag, reverse and straight. These seem ideal for simple work like making vinyl covers, tool bags, pack work, repairs, medium leather, and multiple webbing layers. I care not what the machine looks like (except not beat up or damaged), but like the simplicity factor these seem to offer.

10-02-2011, 11:56 AM
No reason not to buy one. Those machines will quite likely do a fine job for you - in fact, they sound ideal. Be sure you get the accessory kit along with the machine (these sometimes get separated). As a minimum you will want the standard and the zipper pressure feet, a spare light bulb, and some bobbins.

10-03-2011, 10:34 AM
You might keep your eyes open for a used Juki after studying their product line. They are about the only machine you'll see in a commercial drapery workroom, although most "real" commercial machines are single purpose machines, i.e. sergers, blindstitchers, straight or locking stitchers. See if the Kifaru folks will tell you what types and brands of machines they use, then look for a used one of those. If you use a consumer model I'd look for an older one and understand motor output ratings.

Three main differences between a commercial machine and a consumer model: Power, speed, and single purpose vs multi-purpose. On a consumer model, the older uber fancy ones required regular visits to the repair shop, not so much with the new computerized models.

Kevin Dill
10-03-2011, 01:57 PM
I was closely studying a 50 year old Kenmore in fabulous shape. I grew feathers and passed on it...$230 delivered. I just didn't want to buy the first unit that looked good. I see the classic Pfaffs, Singers, Adlers and such. Juki, Bernina, Necchi, Toyota (White), and others. I'm guessing they're all good. Maybe the answer is to trust the seller who has a 100% + feedback rating and only sells used sewing machines.

10-03-2011, 05:34 PM
I just picked up an older Pfaff 1212 machine on craigslist for 85 bucks. I sent it in to get tuned up, so it will end up costing me a bit more. I'll report back when I get some sewing done with it....

01-04-2012, 06:39 AM
I picked up a couple of the see-through sewing rulers, one 6" x 24" and one 4" x 4" and have to add them to the must-have list.
They are invaluable for layout (PALS grids are a breeze) and cutting
After doing a couple projects with them they are indespensable. I'm probably going to pick up an 8X8 too.

On a related note, do we have enough members and interest for the forum to add a DIY section ?

Kevin Dill
01-04-2012, 08:28 AM
"On a related note, do we have enough members and interest for the forum to add a DIY section ?"

Pretty darned good idea, especially for a site which has so many inventive/creative minds. How nice would it be to go search the DIY forum for how-to advice?

Note: I still haven't bought my first sewing machine. Currently watching a Singer Slant-O-Matic at auction. My biggest problem is figuring out the trio of 1) uncomplicated use, 2) strong stitcher, 3) good condition and ready for service. My uses will primarily be on heavier materials like canvas, duck, pack cloth, webbing, wools and some leather. Searching....

01-04-2012, 08:32 AM
I've got a slantomatic 403 special made in 1968. I *love* the thing for sewing garment weight stuff. Bombproof. It doesn't work well for heavier stuff though. Maybe I have the wrong foot or table setting on it though.

01-04-2012, 10:45 AM
Note: I still haven't bought my first sewing machine. Currently watching a Singer Slant-O-Matic at auction. My biggest problem is figuring out the trio of 1) uncomplicated use, 2) strong stitcher, 3) good condition and ready for service. My uses will primarily be on heavier materials like canvas, duck, pack cloth, webbing, wools and some leather. Searching....

The singer will probably handle two layers of pack weight cordura... the slants draw big bucks because of collector appeal...suggest you pass if you really want to work it

For leather or many layers or other material, you'd best lay out the $$ for a real walking foot machine. Also...lesson learned... have a pro do the intial setup, be there to watch and ask questions if possible...what a pain in the arse it is to learn the whole machine solo...the manuals are completely useless...

01-04-2012, 10:52 AM
forgot to mention..

I’m on my fourth machine… each one more investment than the last (Juki is my latest). I now keep each setup to do something different and I’ve found this to be worth the effort. I would suggest that once you‘ve got your ‘workhorse’….keep watching craigslist…. I bought an early 70s era singer with metal works for $15 which is probably the one I use the most….for odd jobs and quick little stuff (repair jeans, patch rips, reconnected my daughters school ruck shoulder strap when the dog chewed it…etc)

01-04-2012, 05:12 PM
This discussion really comes down to how serious a person is about building his own gear. Buying an industrial machine can be considered an investment rather than a casual purchase to support a hobby. One of the problems with home machines, even with “heavy duty” models, is the internal parts. Some manufacturers highlight the power of the motor and the stitch speed of HD models. However, the main concern one should have with a home machine is the drive gears. Most modern machines (post 1950’s) have nylon gears. Using these machines to consistently sew heavy materials like 1000D nylon and webbing can wear out the drive gears. The gears cost around $80 to$90 (new) and can cost another $50 - $100 to install. In some cases it’s cheaper to throw the old machine away and buy a new one. While some home machines will sew heavier fabric and accommodate #69 nylon threads, that is not what they were designed for. That said there are some manufactures like Bernina who sell machines with metal gears. I have a Bernina 1008 I use for labels and small jobs that works great.
Buying an industrial machine will give you many more options which will help you to be more productive, efficient and improve quality. For example: industrial machines sew faster and more consistently, there are more application options (binders, walking feet, double needles, etc.). Industrial machines are designed for heavy use and heavy material. Additionally, there are options such as servo motors that allow you to vary the sewing speed. Bar-tacking is a different matter. A mil-spec bar tack consists of 42 stitches per inch. A correctly sewn double bar-tack can hold 250 pounds. However, the machines that sew a bar-tack are big, heavy and expensive. My first bar tacker was a Juki, and it was almost 40 years old; still cost me $1,400. I still use it almost every day and expect “Old Bessie” to last another 40 years with the proper care. New bar tackers are automated with various stitch options but can run from $5,000 up to $40,000. I’ve seen bar tackers on Craigslist for under $1000 but be advised, maintenance can bite you. To echo some of the other advice on this thread, if you plan on buying a used machine check with a local repair shop first. If it's in their shop they’ve probably already serviced it and can tell you if it will do what you want it to do.

01-04-2012, 06:15 PM
All of the above is very true, but there are other considerations if you are modifying or making gear for your own use rather than making products for sale. High-speed production machines are fine for high-speed production, but if it takes a few minutes longer to sew up a few stuff sacks, who cares? A household machine with a zigag will not produce mil. spec. bartacks, but if you are not selling to the army, who cares?

The point is, if you have the space for large, industrial machines and the money to buy them, by all means, do so. But don't let the lack discourage you from the pleasure of designing and making your own gear. You can do a lot with simple, inexpensive equipment. I make gear, mostly for myself, but sometimes do some small chores for others. Kifaru gear is, IMO, the finest in the world, built to carry loads in excess of 100 lbs. and to survive abuse that would destroy most equipment. I do not build to that standard because I lack the specialized equipment; I am, by nature, quite gentle on my gear and I will *never* carry 100 lbs. on my back. I'm an old, retired guy with a modest income. I will not be spending $1,400 for a sewing machine. I have been making things all my life but no longer have the full workshops I had in my younger years, and am not likely to, lacking both space and the $$ to equip one. I do have the space for a small sewing machine and the related hand tools needed.

Kevin Dill
01-04-2012, 06:49 PM
Ralph...I'm more in line with your thinking on this. I absolutely understand why a $2,000 machine is much better than a $200 bargain, but I'll never sew enough to justify that expense. I'm not retired, but some days I feel old...and my income is modest, too. I only want a good machine capable of doing small customizations and repairs on some heavier fabrics. I don't need fast, but I do want good. I don't have a sewing machine shop with 75 miles of me, so I need dependability. I definitely don't want a machine that has parts availability issues. I want a damned good basic sewing machine!

Speaking of: Wow! How in gawd's name does one look at 5,000 machines on Ebay and begin to understand which one is a good one...in good condition? I hear stories of "got it for $50 and still using it"....and "spent $300 but sent it out for complete service". There are so many flippin' 'industrial sewing machines' out there, and half look like a plastic bake oven. I wish I could bump into an authority on this who would say, "This (X) machine is a great heavy-duty unit. It can sew a hanky or a pack-strap. It's dependable and relatively easy to learn. You won't go nuts trying to get nice results. You can get one for $350 or less. I know several people who use them, and they are very pleased with them".

I have searched out the Singer 401A (Slant) and it gets consistently high marks. All metal gears. Tough built by appearances. Over $350 back in the late '50s. I've watched videos of them easily stitching nylon webbing, 6 layers of denim, soft-tanned leather, 4 layers of canvas tarp, etc. I see them sold by sellers who have 100% ratings on thousands of sewing machine items. My gut and my brain tell me these are stout machines. Not a harness machine, but wouldn't balk at stitching webbing on to pack-cloth. I just can't find a fault with them, but if anyone KNOWS of a definite issue, I'd like to hear about it. For that matter, I'm all ears on what machine you like and why. I'm not going to burn $800 or more into a machine that gets used a few times per year, though. I don't mind vintage, but I'm not interested in a restored antique. The guts matter so much more than the skin...but skin can tell a story for sure.

I'm about frustrated to the point of pulling nose hairs.....

01-04-2012, 07:50 PM
PM Tracy... or maybe she'll chime in on this thread. She is the authority that you're looking for Kevin.

I don't know sewing machines other than the ones I've got. The first one Scot and I went in together on when we wanted to make leather saddlebags for our motorcycles. A decent pair of bags costs $300 - $400, so a completely rebuilt 1912 Walking foot singer for $600 was a no brainer. We came out ahead within a couple weeks of buying the machine. It came from a shop in Seattle that did repairs and also rebuilds of older machines like ours. Buying from a shop that would back their refurb work that was a 10 minute drive away made it easy. Buying one on ebay does sound dicey.