Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Needle Me This!

Needles...an important topic when talking about using a sewing machine.

First tip, always use good needles that fit in your machine. I recommend Schmetz needles, a very reputable brand. I always stock up when the local fabric store has a sale on notions because the worst thing to happen is to hit a pin while sewing late at night and find you have no spare needles!!

In fact, tip number 2 is if you EVER hit a pin with a needle, replace the needle immediately even if you can't see any damage. And if you ever run into problems with the stitching looping or not stitching right, it is best to totally re-thread the machine first and if that doesn't fix it (it usually does...) then replace the needle. Sometimes you can feel a burr you can't see, but sometimes not.

Needles come in various sizes and types. The size designations usually have 2 numbers, for example 80/12. The first is the American size, the second, the European size. I will refer only to the American designation. The larger the number, the larger the needle size and the heavier the fabric you will use it on. The most common sizes you will use are 70 and 80. 60 would be used for very light fabrics (batiste or handkerchief linen); denim would need a 90, 100, or 100 depending on how heavy it is. Also the most common needle type you will use is the "universal" needle. It can be used on wovens and knits. Other types include: "stretch" which is used on very stretchy knits like bathing suit lycra/spandex. It is designed specially to prevent skipped stitches. "Jersey" and "ballpoint" needles have a ball point like a pen and allow the needle to slip through knits without snagging or breaking the knit fibers. "Leather" needles are knife-like and allow you to sew heavier leather. If you sew on leather you must be very careful as there is no ripping out and re-sewing without damage to the leather. These needles actually make holes in the leather and will make holes in other fabrics if you forget to change needles. (I suspect you won't be sewing leather any time soon, but then I didn't anticipate a quilt for Christmas, so who knows!!) "Jeans" needles are for sewing jeans and have a special point to go through thick denim (or other fabric...I think I used a denim needle to fix the Hobie's sail and the plane's cover!) with minimal problems. "Topstitching" needles are for topstitching...the decorative stitching you find on the outside of seams on jeans, for example. The eye on this needle is bigger to handle heavy or multiple threads that you might use with topstitching. There is also a "Metallic" needle for using with decorative metallic thread. Despite its longer eye, I still have some problems with breakage or shredding of the thread. When metallic thread works, it's very fun to use though. And another fun one is a twin needle. This type has two needles attached to one shaft. With a twin needle you use two spools of thread and one bobbin. The bottom thread zigzags back and forth between the two top threads and the resulting stitch is slightly stretchy which makes it perfect for hems on knit tops and such. Your machine manual will probably show you how to thread the machine to use a twin needle; the top two threads run parallel courses through the tensioners and end up at their own needle. Check your manual for the how-tos. (This needle also allows you to do two lines of top stitching perfectly spaced apart. That really looks professional.)

Another thing to know about sewing machine needles is that there is a flat shaft on the back which make is easy to insert properly into the machine. (You probably knew this, but in the interest of completeness, I needed to mention that.) Also, if you ever have trouble threading the needle, place a white index card behind it. That will allow you to have a little contrast and be able to get the thread through. Because I sew on different projects from quilts to fixing clothes and other strange things, I often don't remember which size or type of needle I have left in the machine. My solution to this problem is to leave the needle case for that needle underneath the presser foot when I shut down. When I come back, then, I know exactly which one it is. And a good rule of thumb is to change the needle with every project, especially when the projects are as large as a quilt! If you are interested http://www.schmetzneedles.com/ has a couple of interesting resource pages. One is Needles 101 and the other covers troubleshooting. And the final tip I will leave you with is to ALWAYS keep your machine clean. A can of air (can get at an office supply store) works wonders for cleaning the lint out of the bobbin area. If you are good at keeping that area clean, you will avoid many sewing problems and impress your repair shop when you take it in for the routine COA (clean, oil and adjust)!!

Happy sewing!!!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

In the Beginning, Part 2

I have taken a few sewing classes in my lifetime: in junior high when I made an apron with pockets across the bottom made from border fabric with puppies on it. Then there was the summer after junior high when I took a class at a sewing store. I made a jumper (sleeveless dress meant to be worn with a blouse under it...I don't think they make them anymore) and blouse. I misunderstood what the instructor meant when she told me to "sew the facing" to the jumper. Since I had already sewn the facing to the jumper, she actually meant tack it so it didn't show. I was marked down by a friend's mother who judged our "fashion show" at the end of the class. I was sorely disappointed and aggrieved that I be marked down for doing just what the teacher said...so I thought! The fashion show was also the first time I wore stockings. (Yeah, I am old enough to be part of the pre-panty hose generation. Sigh.) I also took Home Ec in high school and made a culottes, which is another obsolete term I realize, and matching vest. I have taken a couple of classes as an adult as well. It is always fun to get together with others who share your enthusiasm for sewing and to learn new techniques.

The one thread that ran through nearly every class was getting ready to start a project and preparation of materials. As far as prepping materials, universally I was told to treat the fabrics as I would treat them in the finished product before cutting the pattern. So, if I am making a quilt or garment that will be washed and dried in the dryer, I wash and dry the fabric first. That makes sure that any shrinkage happens before the the pieces are cut out. Three reasons for this: First is that it would be disastrous to find out that the garment you so meticulously made now doesn't fit after it was worn only once and then washed!! Second is that with a project that requires several different fabrics (quilt, for example) it is entirely possible that the fabrics may shrink at different rates which may cause some areas to pucker and others not. And third, is that some dyes will "bleed" and you want that to happen before you sew the navy piece next to that pure white piece!! (Colors that bleed are usually darker ones...red, green, navy and black.) There are exceptions to the pre-treat rule. If the project is one that will not be cleaned...a wall hanging, say, you can keep the crispness of the newly purchased fabric and be alright. Having said that, not washing the sizing and other chemicals out may cause you problems with adhesives like Wonder Under if you use it for applique.

A few tips for washing fabrics: For larger pieces you can zigzag along the cut edge to stabilize it so it won't unravel. A pair of pinking shears used on the edge will also help if you don't want to sew all the edges. For smaller pieces and, in particular strips and fat quarters, a mesh bag works wonders for keeping the fabric from both unraveling and tying itself into knots. :)

And, if you should ever venture into couture sewing and use specialty fabrics like velvet, for example, you might want to consider dry cleaning the fabric before proceeding. (Actually, it's always good to check the care label on the bolt...) Do you remember when I couldn't find an appropriate formal dress for a NATO function when we lived overseas? I took a deep breath, bought a length of velvet at an exorbitant price, hand-stitched lace to make the lace bodice and took it all to the cleaner to pre-treat it before diving in. It was the biggest (read: most expensive) garment project I have done and I was really nervous, but it turned out pretty nicely, if I must say so.

As an aside...Measure twice and cut once!! Someone told me to remind you of that maxim and it seems to fit here! You certainly don't want to make a mistake that you have to re-do, especially on expensive or hard-to-replace fabric! Enough for now...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In the Beginning....

My 20-something daughter is the new owner of my former sewing machine. She apparently has gone bonkers over sewing and made me a wonderful "I love you" quilt for Christmas (among many other projects.) Since she lives on the East Coast and I hang my hat in Texas it's really hard for me to relay, long distance, the information I have learned over the years. I thought I would start a journal of sorts for her to read to address questions as they come up and offer hints and tips as I think of them. So, with this first entry, I would like to pay tribute to MaMa, my kindred sewing spirit of the family I married into many years ago! She understood and shared our passion and enjoyment of sewing! We will always be grateful for her presence in our lives.