Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Choosing a New Iron - Review

Black and Decker Digital Advantage $44
It took me several weeks to choose a new iron. It's not that I needed a new one. I have an old stainless steel Rowenta from Germany that still works great. But there are times when I need to bring an iron with me for a sewing workshop. I am possessive with my Rowenta and I don't like strangers using it. Because I had to teach a sewing class in my studio, it prompted me to get another iron for my class to use.

Enter the Black and Decker Digital Advantage. For $40, I couldn't resist. There were a couple of second choices.  One being the Oliso iron ($120+), and the Panasonic Steam/Dry iron with stainless steel plate ($38). For price comparisons, the Panasonic was the lead, but there seemed to be more complaints about breaking down within a couple of months use. But everything else was very comparable. Based on an overall analysis, most people seemed to be pleased with the Black and Decker, including Consumer Reports.

There were mixed reviews on the Black and Decker too...hundreds of them. But after using it during my sewing class and a day on my own, I can comfortably say that this little guy is pretty darn close to my Rowenta...with a couple of exceptions.

What did I just say? Yes, it's true, and when you add into the minimal cost factor, you've got yourself a pretty outstanding deal here. What do I like about it? It's easy to use, and the temperature indicators are clear even though it's digital, and I'm not a big fan of digital displays in general.

But the kicker is the amount of steam this baby pushes out. It might have a tad more steam power than my Rowenta (gasping upon admission). According to the company descriptions, steam comes out horizontally and vertically. I won't be putting my face to it to know for sure, but as far as I can tell, this is its best asset.  But there's more things I like about the iron.

It's heavy. Just the amount of weight I need to press open seams and difficult fabrics. I know some people commented on the weight of this tool as a negative, but I'm the opposite. If you're focused on a crisp, clean press, then a flimsy lightweight iron is not the tool to own.

When I first looked at the generous water tank, I thought it would save me refill time. I was wrong. Because of the amount of steam this guy produces, expect to fill the tank frequently.  I also found that leaving the iron on without using it can also waste water. This might be my only negative. The solution to this problem is getting another iron with the hanging water tank, but then I lose the portability factor. But look, either way, I'm going to have to fill a tank with water. I just have to remember to do it before beginning my projects, and make it a part of my prep work.

Another nice feature on the Black and Decker is the an off switch. It even gives you directions right on top of the button "hold/off."  Which translates into "hold this button down until it turns off."  My old iron doesn't have one. It's baffled me for more than a decade, trying to find the off switch. My Rowenta has an auto shut off (so does the Black and Decker after ten minutes), so I guess the engineers over there in Germany thought we don't really need a button for it since "off" is built in. I suppose this is engineer logic, but human nature rules here. I like to know that I have hit the "OFF" button when I'm done, and be assured that the backup "auto-off" feature is there when I do forget. I feel this way about every piece of electronic, because I was brought up to believe that electrical fires are real hazards. It's just me...but I suspect, a lot of people might feel the same way.

Complaints about the Black and Decker from online reviews includes the water tank lid breaking. This seems to be the number one complaint. Others were the digital screen being difficult to read, difficult to understand, and the iron being heavy. My water tank lid hasn't broken yet, but I don't use this iron that much, but knowing that it's a problem, I'm being gingerly with the lid.

In case you were wondering what my Rowenta iron model is, it's a P2 Professional Series. There are similar products that are newer models, but I don't think they are made the same. There's been mixed reviews. Mine does leak occasionally, especially right when you fill the tank, so I usually have to iron a pressing cloth to level out the steam. Other than that though, nothing has really broken on this machine. What makes this iron better is the narrow tip, and its ability to get into tight corners.  The Black and Decker isn't shaped as delicately for ironing crevices.

As much as I complain about the auto off feature of my Rowenta, it does shut off but not as quickly as the Black and Decker.  It doesn't have a motion sensor. The tank is smaller on the Rowenta, but I feel like I fill it up less often, and I'm still happy with the amount of steam I get.

In case some of you are wondering about the type of water I use on my irons...the Black and Decker states that it can use tap water. If your water is naturally hard, maybe that's not a good idea. I keep a gallon or two of distilled water in my sewing studio for the irons. It's probably best if you want your irons to last you longer and avoid mineral deposits, especially in the steam vents.

I bought my Rowenta more than ten years ago for $125. That was a lot of money back then, and they still cost about the same now. Given inflation, and the deflation of the dollar, how can the same quality iron be produced for the same price? Answer: it can't. It is a business man's curse and blessing to make something well and last at least a decade. Would I pay $250 for another perfect iron that will last me another ten years? Yes, I would.  During my iron research, I looked at the more expensive Rowenta irons, and they did not get more positive reviews. I am waiting to hear from someone that spent $250 on the perfect iron. But I guess I need to wait ten years to see if it's still working.

Happy Sewing!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How Many Sewing Machines Do I Really Need?

1955 Singer Featherweight 221
I would like to welcome our new granny to the family, weighing in at 12 pounds!  It's the best little vintage portable out there. I'm not a quilter, but I tend to like machines that have strength, speed, and a solid straight stitch.  This little vintage baby has all three.

I had been eyeing one of these machines for a long time. I didn't want a refurbished one, or one that had several owners before me. I wanted a Featherweight with some known history. I found this machine in pretty good shape. The original owner is 90 years old and retired from sewing. Her daughter inherited the Featherweight along with an older Kenmore. The daughter barely knows how to sew except the occasional mending task. Last month, she decided that she really didn't need this little lady.

It came with all the foot attachments, extra bobbins, the original oil can, and a button hole maker. The foot pedal is in excellent condition and does not show any fraying. The box that houses the machine is in good shape too. It's not as shiny, and the gold scroll on the bed is worn down. But it's okay. I probably paid a little too much for it...and I guess that's okay too because I got to test it before buying, and met the owner's daughter in person.

I virtually met a kind man named Ian on Craigslist selling a refurbished Singer 301, which is the big sister to the Featherweight, and is a more powerful machine. Ian also refurbishes Featherweights and sold a few in his day.  He gave me enough information about what to look for in a Featherweight, in regards to quality and pricing to make my decision. One interesting thing he said was that the pricing for these machines have really come down, and we should be able to pick one up between $200-300. After looking on eBay, where prices ranged from $200 and up, I thought it would take awhile for me to win a bid for under $300. Plus, who knows what kind of condition they're in. I paid $275 for mine, so it was within the price range.

I have toyed with the idea of repainting it, and getting the gold scrolling redone as well. I love the idea of refurbishing it to its original glory. But right now, I'm more concerned with learning how to clean, grease, and maintain what I've got. If it's too pretty, I might not want to use it. I might just have to run over to my studio in a minute and polish this little lady some more. I'm still giddy about the purchase.  I plan on bringing the Featherweight to my sewing meetings. But maybe I should test run it a bit longer to make sure I am comfortable with the speed.

Singer 301, the upgrade to the Featherweight. This gal weighs in at 16 pounds, and is still considered a portable machine. It also came with a really cute case that resembles a vintage suitcase. I might have to pick up one of these one day for the fun of it.
How about my other sewing machines? I own six machines if you count my two sergers.

After purchasing my Featherweight, my husband asked me why I needed another machine, that essentially did the same thing as my other four machines. Well, I guess for the same reason why he has multiple laptops and handheld devices...that's why.

I also own a really light weight Pfaff Smart sewing machine that I bought from a friend for $100. It was never used, and I thought it would be a fun machine to give to one of my daughters. Both have shown mental interest and one even accomplished a quilt two summers ago, but nothing since.  There's just a lot of talking going on but no sewing.

This Pfaff Smart is not a very strong machine, but it has all the basic stitches a person needs to make a garment. It's not meant for heavy duty sewing either. Because there is a drop-in bobbin, I don't expect the stitches to look as good as my Bernina. Drop-in bobbins are great for embroidery and such, but they don't have strong straight stitches. I learned this after switching from my drop-in old Kenmore to my current Bernina which has a vertical bobbin insert. I know the new embroidery Bernina machines also have a drop-in bobbin. The new Bernina 300s and 500s models are constructed like the classic Bernina.

I was told by the Bernina dealer that these machines were made by Janome for Pfaff.
I know they are all plastic, but it's really the light weight that I wanted. This is also around 12 pounds.
Writing about vertical bobbins verses drop-in bobbins is a great segue to my Bernina 1130. This is not a Bernina classic. The 700-800 models were really Bernina's prime mechanical machines with vertical bobbin inserts. I know this because my older sister had an old 800 that she loved and made every thing with. Bernina still makes a basic mechanical straight stitch, and something to consider if a person wants a basic machine without any electronics. This means you won't get the automatic buttonhole function. But that's really the only thing you're missing.  It's also a lot cheaper than the other Bernina machines, with a $1,200 price tag. These models are called 1008 "Classic Series." The name says it all.
1008 Classic Series Bernina.
Photo borrowed from Bernina.com
The 1130 (and 1030) was Bernina's first attempt at the electronic age, starting with the automatic button hole maker...a tool they still use on today's modern machines. There's also a little memory capacity, and the ability to mirror the few embroidery stitches. 

These machines are still being sold somewhere between $650+ on eBay. I was insulted when my local Bernina dealer told me it's time to upgrade from my old machine. Why? The new 300 or 500 series don't stitch any faster. They are all still moving at 900 stitches per minute. Sure there's a few more embroidery stitches.  If I really want embroidery, I would get an embroidery machine. I have tons of foot attachments for my old gal, and it's still in near perfect condition since the day I opened the box new 20 years ago. It's also one of the easiest machines to use. It has a genius yet simple threading system, and the lighted keyboard is easy to read. There is no confusion about what stitch you're setting.  If any of you are looking for a good machine without too many bells and whistles, consider an older Bernina model without the drop-in bobbins. You will never regret it. 

Bernina 1130 are all metal and are heavy. Not a machine to lug to a class.
Okay, okay, should this pretty lady ever break down to the point of no return, I would consider purchasing a Bernina 350. To me, it's pretty identical, except for the price: $2,000+. 
Bernina 350 Model
Photo borrowed from Bernina.com
My main sewing machine is really my Juki TL98E.  It's an older model but has all the same features except automatic needle threader and speed control.  These machines are a pain to thread (you have to thread from left to right). I love the speed of this machine, and the new ones are not faster. They all operate at 1,500 stitches a minute. Only machine faster is an industrial. I had one of those too, and sold it because it was difficult to maintain and move around. You can pick up used ones like mine for less than $400. What a steal considering what kind of workhorse these girls are. These are also metal machines with a vertical bobbin insert. This equates to "heavy."

I feel guilty to admit that I love this machine more than my Bernina simply because of the speed and the automatic thread cutter. It also sews through jeans, sequins, and vinyl without too much problem. My 1130 gets finicky with really thick fabric. My daughter made her entire first quilt on the Juki, and she did some freehand embroidery on it. Many quilters stretch these Juki machines and attach a long-arm quilting unit to it.

Juki attached to a Grace long arm machine.
Photo borrowed from Fiber Reflections Blog
One thing I don't like about the Juki but I've gotten used to is that the arm bed is not adjustable down to fit into sleeve holes. It's not a deal breaker either. For those clothing sewists out there, don't turn your back on this machine. It's not just for quilters. Brother, Janome, and even Singer make single stitch models similar to Juki and in the same price range. With the exception of the Brother machine, which has gotten some pretty good reviews, I'm not sure about the other two brands. Pfaff and Bernina have ones as well, but we're talking about more than twice the cost.

Here are all my machines (not including the Featherweight and Pfaff) set-up at my sewing station.
One big happy family!
Happy Sewing!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Making Old New Again

I taught a sewing class in July. I wouldn't really say teach, more like "oversee." There was much preparation involved, mostly creating space for three more sewists in my studio, and setting up another cutting and pressing area in the adjacent barn.

During the pre-class barn clean-up, I kept eyeing my old Baby lock serger (BL4-428), and remembered how the box fell off the truck during the latest move.  But it was packed in all its original styrofoam, so may be it's still functioning. Unfortunately, I don't have the manual. I think it's somewhere, but where after 20 years and a dozen different moves? I found one on eBay for $12.99. I think that's steep for a black and white, recopy.

After the sewing class was over, I took the serger out of the box to check its condition.  It was grimy, but maybe it was already that way when I placed it in storage. I decided right then and there that I could still use this machine and keep it set up with all four threads to do basic overlock seams.  I also have a new Baby lock Evolve which is capable of becoming a cover stitch machine. Even though it's not that big of a deal to convert the machine, why bother when I have two to work with right? Dedicated Baby lock cover stitch machines are $1,200. WOW! That's not even the full retail price.

Photo Image from Babylock.com

I decided to take both Baby locks and my Bernina 1130 into the shop for a tune-up. I paid $400 (three machines) in total to get everything done, and although all my machines came back mostly clean, I don't think they did much to any of them.  That's going to be another blog about finding a good technician that doesn't rip you off. Live and learn.

Last week, I started using my old Baby Lock and it worked great, until the presser foot started to spark and heat up. Then I remembered this was already a problem 20 years ago.  I found my friends over at Sewing Machine Parts Online, and emailed them about a generic replacement. Another $24, and I'll have a new presser foot too. But is it worth it? I'm on the fence.

I also remembered how I hated threading this machine, which was why I bought the new Evolve to begin with. I don't remember how to actually thread this little guy. The repair guy sold me an old beat up, original manual for $15. I think my misplaced manual is in better condition.

With the fear of starting an electrical fire, I did set up my new serger for four thread serging, and it did a great job. This has been my problem with the Evolve. I rarely use it. I keep forgetting how. I spend an hour or so figuring things out, and then a few weeks later, I forget again. If I were more experienced, I should be able to whip it into whatever kind of serger I need, which is what this machine is built to do. Don't ask me about a narrow-rolled hem. I haven't tried that yet. I spent a lot of money on a lot of machine, which doesn't get a lot of use.

How about my old Baby Lock? Did you know all the older Baby lock machines were made by Juki, using very similar industrial machine parts? This whole machine is metal, not plastic. It also uses industrial needles, which are more durable and last longer than home machine needles. It doesn't have differential feed, but I've never had much problem with the tension or fabric slipping.  As long as I'm not sewing things like sequined material, this machine does just fine. I think sequined fabric is a problem on all machines. This guy has really good bones, and should outlast some of those throw-away plastic machines.

What's the point of this blog? Well...if we have something useable, then use it. In my case, may be it's really time to just sell the little guy and focus on learning how to use my new machine. I'm also a little sentimental about the old serger. It made a lot of my children's clothes and t-shirts when they were small. Oh...sew many decisions.

Happy sewing!

Frida Kahlo Challenge

I didn't get as far as I had hoped with this challenge. I wanted to make a cloth necklace, and a flower head band as well as a blouse inspired by Frida. All I got to was the blouse, and it had a few glitches. But I did make some cloth flowers around the neckline. I used the same blouse pattern from the plaid blouse I made in Spring with the matching chicken skirt. I also recycled some of the scraps from that blouse to create the little flowers on the neckline

The flowers are made up of scraps from the eyelet blouse, and from my plaid top.
I intended to line the blouse with purple, but the top did not have enough ease.  I was a bit worried about the eyelet letting in too much skin, but after trying it on, modesty wasn't really a problem.

The redesign of the lining into a top felt more like an up-cycle project.  I did not want to waste this really nice cotton but the thought of trashing the whole idea did cross my weary mind.  I had completed the lace blouse on July 3rd.  But due to my school schedule, I didn't get to re-working the lining until last week.

The lining is 100 percent cotton, and has a wonderful weight to it and doesn't cling to the body.  Which is why I think it's perfect for linings, even though it's a bit on the thick side.  I used a similar piece, but different color on my chocolate lace dress. The lining on my lace dress was pink instead of purple.

There was a problem with the length of the lining, which was cut a lot shorter in order to fit in the original eyelet blouse.  I found some leftover fabric from my daughters quilt and added a piece to the bottom.  I added bias tape on the neckline and arm hole to create a nice contrasting effect.  After I was done, it looked like a short dumpy mini-dress.  The bottom was too narrow to actually walk comfortably.  I hated the look.

I made my daughter try it on, and she didn't like it either.  I chopped off the bottom and re-hemmed it. Now it's just a cute little sleeveless top.  I gave both the eyelet and lining top to my daughter.  Lucky her!

Before I cut the bottom.
After I cut the bottom.  Looks a lot better.

You probably can't tell, but it is not perfect. The blouse is slightly off around the edges, but the side seams match, so I can't really complain.

This is a great way to lengthen any blouse, or if you want to up-cycle an existing piece and change it by adding new binding to the edges.

Using bias tape is one of my favorite things to add on a garment.

Here's a close-up of the neckline with the custom-made bias tape.  You can barely tell that there's some purple in the blue fabric, but it's there, and compliments the rest of the blouse nicely.
For this project, I broke out my new one-inch bias tape maker that I picked up at Hart's Fabric this past January. It's manufactured by Clover. It took me a couple of tries, but once the fabric evened out, I created a couple of yards with the greatest of ease.

I also used my new wooden clapper to iron the bias tape fold. It really made a nice crisp edge. I recommend folks who create a lot of bias tape to invest in a clapper.
The wooden clapper is one of those tools that I never thought I needed until I actually started using it. It makes fantastic creases, and presses out my seams flat. I have started looking at collecting more pressing tools, and the next thing on my list is a proper sleeve horse. I had one attached to my ironing board, but it broke a while back. Next post will be more about some of the new tools I've collected this month.

Happy Sewing!