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Thread: Sewing Machine Setup

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Apr 2003
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    Mohawk Valley
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    Default Sewing Machine Setup

    I make much of my own gear, partly as a hobby, partly to save money but mostly so I can get exactly what I want. Designing and making gear is very satisfying and is a splendid addition to your set of skills. I can hand sew, but a sewing machine is faster and neater as well as more durable with a lock stitch.

    I’d like to have a commercial machine but those are heavy, bulky and fairly expensive – a used commercial machine runs around $500 and up. For most hobbyist uses a good household machine will do just about everything you need done at considerably lower cost.

    I favor Singer machines. An old black Singer was the machine my mother, an accomplished dressmaker and tailor, showed me how to use many years ago so I’m used to them. Singers, especially the older models with steel gears, tend to be fairly simple, durable, are readily available along with parts and accessories and have user manuals free for download for just about every model ever made.

    Other makes are certainly available and most are fine machines but before buying an old machine check the availability of manuals, parts and accessories.

    For the type of work I do I need only two stitches, straight and zig-zag (for bar-tacking). I prefer a bobbin that inserts horizontally and to have a reverse that sets, rather than a pushbutton that has to be held down when reverse sewing.

    My current battery of machines consists of a Singer 99K and a Singer 347, both bought used. Both machines are “short-shank” and use the same attachments, the same bobbins (Class 66) and the same needles, simplifying the inventory. Both also have steel gears and have no trouble pounding through multiple layers of canvas, Cordura, lining and webbing.

    The 99K is the classic black Singer portable (about 30 pounds of iron but still considered portable), made in the UK in 1956. It is my workhorse. This has straight stitch only though a zig-zag attachment is available. The motor on the 99 is external so easily serviced and replaced. When I received it the machine was dusty and missing a few small parts (the slide cover over the bobbin case, the presser foot and the presser foot screw) all available and easily replaced. The electrical parts were all in good shape so I cleaned and oiled it, installed the new parts and it was good to go.

    There are a lot of Model 99s around. This model was made in electric, hand-crank and foot treadle forms. There are cases, bases and cabinets available. There are feet molded into the base so you really don’t need a base to elevate the working parts on the underside, however I came across a wooden base that makes a neat looking unit.

    The old Singers are set up a bit differently from the new ones. Threading can be a bit tricky and a lot more lubrication is required. If you get one be sure to download the user manual – and read it.

    The 347 Stylemate is one of the early model zig-zag machines with straight, zig-zag and blind stitches. I use it primarily for light duty, to apply PALS grids, bar-tacking stress points, applying overlock binding and making small pouches. It also serves as my back-up machine. This one arrived in fine shape and gave me exactly what I wanted.

    I mostly use German-made Schmetz regular sharp needles Jeans/Denim weight in size12, 16 and 18 depending on the fabric weight. I use a lot of heavy canvas and Cordura so size 18 is generally on both machines.
    For sewing light leather and other non-woven material leather needles are available. Leather needles have sharpened edges to cut through the material and should never be used on woven fabrics since the edge will cut the threads of the fabric and weaken the seam. Most household machines will NOT sew leather heavier than 4 oz. (4/64”) or so – the motors just aren’t powerful enough.

    I like the metal bobbins. These are more expensive but also more durable so I use these for the heavy nylon thread while the plastic version is used for the lighter polyester thread.

    I have a small assortment of attachments that can be used on both machines.

    The low shank presser foot holder adapts the machines to use the modern snap-on presser feet and is more or less permanently attached to the 347. The snap-on feet are very quick to detach and attach and come in a wide variety of inexpensive special configurations. The most useful for making outdoor gear are the general purpose foot, the zipper foot, the roller foot (for “sticky materials like non-skid Hypalon and such), the binding foot and the roll hemmer foot.

    The walking foot adds a top feed to the usual bottom feed to help keep multiple layers of fabric together. Most seem to be less than $20.
    Virtually all household machines have two threaded holes to the right of the presser foot for an adjustable seam guide. This is usually in the included accessories but if it isn’t it sells for $5-6.

    One item you can make yourself is a fabric weight, a simple square bag about 3” x 3” filled with lead shot. This keeps fabric and patterns in place during the layout and cutting process.

    I generally use two types of thread. For most uses the #69 bonded nylon thread is the heaviest most household machines can use. This thread is sold by the pound (about 6500 yards/lb.) for about $28/lb in ¼, ½ and full pound cones. I keep this in olive, black and coyote brown. For lighter duty use and when I need other colors I use Gutterman’s polyester. These are excellent all-purpose threads with a novel spool design to capture the loose end of the thread. For use on outdoor gear stick with nylon or polyester, cotton can deteriorate quickly.

    The Gutterman’s spools sit on the standard spool pin, but the cones need a thread stand. You can make or buy one. I bought mine, used, with a heavy cast iron base, for $6. Adjust the thread guide to the height of the machine and run the thread from the spool pin through the normal threading sequence for your machine.

    I bind the edges of the larger packs and bags but have taken to using an overlock stitch on the edges of the smaller bags and pouches except sacks made from silicone nylon. The silicone impregnation prevents sil-nylon from unraveling.

    Although you can use the zig-zag stitch to run overlock binding a serger, designed for that specific purpose, does a better job. I don’t have one yet but will likely get the Singer Tiny Serger Overedging Sewing Machine. This small machine lacks some of the features of the larger and considerably more expensive sergers but for the light use I envisage it should do fine. The Tiny Serger uses three needles and three spools to form a tight overlock binding. Using threads of different colors makes the binding quite attractive. Gutterman’s polyester thread will do nicely for this purpose.
    A few other hand tools and supplies are needed.

    I use Fiskars Softgrip spring-action scissors – large tailor’s scissors, craft shears and small embroidery scissors. A pair of thread snips is also useful. A needle threader makes that task a lot easier, especially for those of us with aging eyes. There are many “notions” available at sewing shops, usually a wall full. Browsing this wall may reveal other odds and ends you may find useful – depending on the project in mind.

    Layout tools consist of a yard stick, a 12” ruler, and a few pieces of tailor’s chalk. A 6” sliding scale is also handy. I made a special template to help with laying out PALS grids from the heavy cardboard backing for a writing tablet. At the top is a 45 degree cut corner and the existing 90 degree corner. The top is marked with a 7” space with the centerline for placing the common loops for hanging pockets. The bottom corners are cut in arcs with 2” and 3” radius. Along one side are marks at 1” intervals for PALS rows, on the other side are marks and 1.5” intervals for PALS channels. One of the channel intervals is marked for the center. (PALS is the base grid of 1” nylon webbing required to handle MOLLE-compatible pockets.)

    A seam ripper is a necessity – you WILL make mistakes. The small size seems to work best. A bodkin is needed to run cord through the tunnel of drawstring bags. A small nail brush with stiff bristles works well for removing chalk marks.

    You need something to hold pieces together while sewing. For multiple layers of heavy fabrics dressmaker’s pins won’t do, you need ball-head pins. I also use small (1” or so) paper clamps. You can sew over pins but I usually remove the pins as I go along. The clamps, of course, have to be removed just before the material goes under the presser foot.

    I use 3M masking tape to hold webbing used in PALS grids. Cheaper tape doesn’t hold on the material that well. In theory you can sew through the tape but don’t do it. The 3M adhesive sticks under the stitches and is a tedious nuisance to remove.

    Many pieces for projects are simple rectangles so I don’t bother with patterns, just lay out the pieces with the yardstick. I use light poster board to make some patterns for more complex shapes.

    Never use any lubricant on a sewing machine that is not designed and marked for sewing machines. All sewing machines need oiling, some require a light grease. You use only a drop of oil on an oil point so a small bottle of oil will last a long time. The user manual will show each oil or grease point. Before lubricating use a lint brush to remove lint and dust from the working parts. A set of small screwdrivers is also handy.

    The user manual will also show you how to sew and it is a good idea to practice on scraps. Most places that sell craft and sewing supplies also offer sewing classes although these are commonly oriented toward clothing.

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  2. #2
    Join Date
    Mar 2013
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    Littleton, Co
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    Default Re: Sewing Machine Setup

    Ralph thanks for sharing this Ive been wanting to do this also to make my own gear. Its been a plan of mine for a while. We get a lot of folks here and on Rokslide that are doing it now. can you do a display of some of the gear you have made? Your Post gives me a good idea of what I should look for in a machine. Does it sew 1000 cordura?

    James

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Dec 2003
    Location
    DFW
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    287

    Default Re: Sewing Machine Setup

    Thanks for the info and pics. I can't see myself undertaking yet another hobby, but this was a fun read, and as soon as I saw the pics I realized that my Grandma and my Mom had those two machines. Thanks!

  4. #4
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    Apr 2003
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    Mohawk Valley
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    Default Re: Sewing Machine Setup

    Both machines handle 1000d Cordura just fine. The key is a good size 18 needle. As for stuff I have made, here are a few of the larger packs. I also have many sheaths, pouches, pockets and stuff sacks.

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    If you are just starting out I suggest stuff sacks are a good first project. If you are going to try something larger, pick up some cheap cotton muslin and try a model before cutting into expensive stuff like Cordura. You can also use old sheets that most housholds accumulate. The thinner, softer fabric also allows you to work up stitch details and methods without wrestling around with heavy materials.

    I started years ago with canvas and muslin. Finding materials and supplies was a real problem since these were specialty items not easily available in the small town I lived in. The Internet has changed all that. Specialty shops and easily available from your living room now.
    Last edited by Ralph; 11-08-2013 at 04:29 PM.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Mar 2013
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    Default Re: Sewing Machine Setup

    Ralph that is completely awesome. The 2 bag picture looks like a Scout and another kifaru pack. Thats great.

  6. #6
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    Apr 2003
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    Default Re: Sewing Machine Setup

    These are all my versions with detailing I wanted. I am influenced by Patrick's designs, of course, and he has seen many of them. From the top, left to right: a European-type rucksack, detail of a version of the E&E, large canoe pack with chest pack in front, my versions of the Scout and Tail Gunner packs, and detail of the back on a Zulu-type pack. All made of 1000d Cordura.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Apr 2013
    Location
    Litchfield County, CT
    Posts
    98

    Default Re: Sewing Machine Setup

    Wow! awesome work, your threads never cease to educate, amaze, and inspire me thanks for sharing.

    Motivates me to get started on a pair of reversible snow/ Multicam goretex mid-calf gaiters I've had designed in my head.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jul 2008
    Posts
    421

    Default Re: Sewing Machine Setup

    Ralph and a few others here gave me some confidence and inspiration to do my own mods and revisions. I never trusted my sewing abilities, but launched into a couple things. I took a 'naked' packframe and added 1" webbing and buckles in key locations to create a heavy-duty meat hauler. Sewing multiple layers of webbing by hand isn't easy, and I used a heavy crewel (needle) with upholstery thread to accomplish the bar-tacking. I've hauled heavy loads and stressed these straps to the max without any damage.Name:  Barney's 001.jpg
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    In any event, I've been looking at sewing machines for 2 years. Every time I'd get close, something would derail my efforts. There are so many vintage machines out there which are very strong and capable of sewing gear. I just wanted ONE, and I wanted a good one. I selected a Bernina Record 830 made in about 1980...Switzerland. It's not a powerhouse leather-stitcher like some commercial units, but I've sewn 8 layers of medium packcloth just to prove it could be done. I know I can sew light to medium leather if I wish, plus webbing and coated heavy materials. The key (after machine lube and timing) is correct needle, thread and tension. I searched long and hard; mostly on Ebay for a machine. In the end, I located mine on Craig's List and drove 4 hours one way to see it/buy it. That ended up being a very good thing, as the seller kindly spent hours with me explaining many things about the Bernina 830....things I wouldn't have gotten via an Ebay seller. My machine came with an original carry case, accessory box, many bobbins, tools, all the original feet, foot pedal, etc. It even came with an original Bernina walking foot, which commonly sells for over $100 alone. I am really happy with my new machine, and look forward to many years of use.Name:  bernina2.jpg
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  9. #9
    Join Date
    Apr 2003
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    Default Re: Sewing Machine Setup

    Good for you, Kevin. That looks like a fine machine.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Oct 2011
    Posts
    294

    Default Re: Sewing Machine Setup

    thanks ralph.my kid keeps thinking i'm gonna turn into Martha stewart by buying a machine, this will turn him!

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