21 January 2011

Back to basics #1- buying a sewing machine

One of the most important pieces of a sewing kit is the sewing machine. Boy is there a lot of choice out there, and when looking for a new machine even a seasoned sewer like me struggles to make a decision!

My first ever machine was very simple........

There is only one thread, no fiddly bobbin as this machine does a sort of chain stitch. It doesn't require any power, the wheel is turned by hand- a little hand, as this teeny machine is a toy and only about 6" high. I loved this machine, and made lots of dolls clothes and toys. The machine is based on the original singer sewing machine mechanisms. I outgrew this machine, and moved onto a vintage singer. My passion for sewing machines seems to have been inherited from my mum, who despite not really being a sewer had a massive collection of machines. I currently own 9 sewing sewing machines!

Many of us value established brands, and the singer brand is a great example of the success of an old trusted name. The modern singer uses the same logo and branding of the company created over 100 years ago, but it isn't the same company. Singer ceased trading several years ago, and was bought up by another company. The modern singer machines are not the incredible long-lived treasures of the past, they are inexpensively produced plastic machines, and rather disappointing.

When considering buying a new machine you should think of what you want to use it for. The cost of a machine varies from around £100 to thousands. If you are likely to only use your machine occasionally, then it's not worth splashing out on a top of the line machine. If you think you want to take up sewing professionally then it might be worth investing in a great machine like a Bernina to get started. If you're unsure of where your sewing will take you, then maybe invest in a mid range machine which you won't out-grow too quickly. It's a bit like buying computers- would you buy one for £1700 just to write an occasional letter?

I have worked in professional workrooms for most of my theatrical career, and worked on mostly industrial brothers and domestic berninas. When I started researching domestic sewing machines in 2009, i was amazed at how the domestic machine has progressed. I will confess that i was a bernina snob, i sold my semi industrial bernina machine to buy the domestic machines for the school, which was a wrench! What i wanted for the school, was a great mid-range machine suitable for teaching beginners on, that was also robust enough for me to use for my costume work. A bernina 1008 would have been perfect but at nearly £600 that meant a huge investment, and also i didn't want beginners to feel that they had to start out on such an expensive machine.

During my research phase, i'm surprised i didn't get barred from john lewis after endlessly getting them to demo machines. I called sewing machine sales people and got all the info i could, and i trawled sewing forums looking for reviews and recommendations. In brief here's what i discovered.

  • There is a massive difference between all the different brands aimed at the entry level sewer (£100 average) Frankly there are machines out there being sold to beginners that are little less than toys, and won't ever be able to sew denim
  • Several brands are trading on past good reviews and brand image despite the fact that the ownership has changed. Singer is now a company from Hong kong, Elna is no longer swiss, but has been bought by janome.
  • Manufacturers want you to get pleasure from your machine and have come up with lots of new innovations that make using a sewing machine a much easier experience
  • Shopping around online for the model you want usually means you get lots of great sewing freebies thrown in
The biggest difference between entry level machine, and a mid range machine is usually how the bobbin is inserted. A bobbin is a small spool of thread that goes underneath the needle, the thread that passes through the needle and the bobbin thread underneath loop together, which is how the machine sews. 
The more basic(sometimes cheaper) models have the older bobbin mechanism that involves removing a metal case, slotting the bobbin spool into it, and then putting the matal case back into the front of the machine. If you ever learnt to sew at school, you probably recall that this was a little fiddly to master. However this mechanism has been around a long time so don't be put off buying a machine because of this. The incredible Bernina 1008 at a cost of £575 has a front loading bobbin.
Mid range machines often have a top loading bobbin, there's nothing to remove, gravity helps keep it in place and beginners tend to find it easier
For both types of bobbin, you really do need to spend some time reading the manual. most sewing problems are due to bobbins not being put in correctly, so it'll save time in the long run if you practise

I'm a professional Costumier, and I rarely use more than 7 of the different stitches available on my machine- straight, zig-zag, triple stitch, stretch stitch, overlock stitch, blind heming and buttonholes.You may be seduced by a more expensive machine with "50" stitches, but unless you want to do embroidery the chances are you won't use them, so save the money for fabric!

Another feature that can really affect the cost is the type of buttonhole the machine can do. Entry level machines( and the bernina 1008) generally have a 4 stage buttonhole. Mid range machines do a 1 stage buttonhole. Again don't be put off by the 4 stage buttonhole, it involves a little more work, but still does a great job.

Entry level machines often come with only a couple of sewing feet(accessories for the machine) If you want to sew zips for instance you will often need to buy that foot separately at around £10. Mid-range machines often come with a good selection of feet as standard- thus saving you money.

I have to say that after all my research i bought Janome. They are considered the market leader in new innovations, including their magnetic bobbin cases which mean there's less catching/jamming. All new janomes feature an extra height lift, which means you can get thicker materials under the sewing foot. Their mid-range machines now have a feed dog with 7 tracks as opposed to the usual 3, this means that the fabric really does glide through. The instructions are very good, and the english actually makes sense...

I bought a janome 5018 to trial at the start of the school's life. I love it, it has so many great features, a really strong motor and lots of accessories included. After a couple of months i bought another 5 for the school. This machine is exclusive to the company i bought it from. Often independant sewing machine stores buy a large amount of one type of machine, which means they can guarantee  a continuous supply. This means they can offer deals that other shops can't. Sewing machines are a bit like fashion, once the season is up the product gets shipped to outlets to allow the new season to arrive- Mad!!

I personally recommend the companies i have linked to below- i don't get any benefit from doing so, but they have always provided me with excellent advice and service.

Entry level machines-

Janome SMD500 £99- a pretty standard basic machine. comes with a darning plate which is great if you fancy trying out some free-hand embroidery. You get some great freebies too!

Brother XL 5500SE £99- a very good value entry level machine. You get more feet with this one than with the janome. 

Janome SMD1000 £149- comes with a few more feet than the £99 version, and this one has a 1 step buttonhole, so it's great value

All 3 entry level machines come with a soft plastic cover which will keep dust out, but won't protect your machine from knocks if you're out and about.

Mid- range machines-

Janome SMD2000 £199- A great price and lots of good features including a one stage buttonhole stitch

Janome 5018 £239- my personal recommendation. Love this machine! Lots of ergonomic design so it looks nice, a great selection of feet. Easy to use storage. An extra long free arm and a good strong motor, and a one stage buttonhole stitch. This machine is bit heavier than the entry level machines, meaning it doesn't move about when sewing.

Pfaff 1132 £229- a very good machine, top loading bobbin. Simple to use and comes with a good selection of feet and a hard cover. The buttonhole is a four stage one but really easy to use.

Pfaff 1142 £279- this has all the same features as the 1132, but features a 1 stage buttonhole and a couple more stitches

The rolls royce of sewing machines-
The bernina 1008 is bernina standard. If you invest in one of these it will last a lifetime. I've not had a great time with their electronic machines, but i love this mechanical machine and am always excited when a theatre has one! john from Maculloch and wallis has sold me a couple of machines and services my vintage elna

Professional sewing machines-

This Janome only does a straight stitch but if you sew curtains for a living, and don't have space for a full industrial machine then this is a great machine. Sews twice as first as a domestic machine..

If you don't want to fork out hundreds for a new model, then a re-conditioned machine from a dealer that offers a warrenty is a great alternative. Most older mechanical machines were made to last, and provided they are serviced should give you many years of sewing. Make sure you have a go in the shop, and try and get one that does a zig-zag, or your sewing will be really restricted. I have a fantastic mini swiss built elna, that goes on tour with me and it's amazing. I bought it secondhand in 2000, and it still is my fav machine at work in the theatre. If you ever spot one of these definately check it out

These are some great dealers that offer re-conditioned machines with a warranty

Olympic sewing machines- very close to some great fabric shops- very knowledgable owner too

Wimbledon sewing centre

Tony's sewing centre- specialises in pfaffs and will match online free gift offers

London sewing in muswell hill

If you're looking to buy a machine, I do hope this has helped de-mystify it a little.

The next Blog post will be on threading up your machine and using the right needles

Happy stitching

17 January 2011

The sewing directory-a fantastic resource!

I returned from my Gambian holiday with the lurgy I left with. 2 weeks taking cold and flu meds is too much,so after a weekend of teaching that has left my sore throat even more sore, I am taking a day to rest and visit the doctor! Given my work schedule for the last 8 months I'm not surprised that my body is fighting back and making me rest up!

I am today feeling well,except for the painful throat and I like to be busy! So I am under a duvet,checking out the web and all my links to places I love. The sewing directory is one site I follow as a blog and on facebook and twitter-


I remember hearing about the launch of the sewing directory and thinking it was just another sewing/crafty site. In less than a year however it has become the place to get info in all aspects of sewing and crafty stuff. The website is not just a listings page however,there are articles, tutorials and book reviews along with fabulous competitions. I've just hopped off their facebook page and realised that I've come to rely on this fabulous site for finding great suppliers. I've discovered several fabric shops through the sewing directory,and just today I discovered a site selling Japanese craft and textile books. Japanese textiles is a passion of mine,and having been lucky enough to tour japan I am a little obssessed by it!

Fiona, who runs the sewing directory seems to have discovered the magical extra 2 hours a day. Seriously as a mum to a toddler I don't know how she manages it all! Hopefully she'll send me her time management tips. I'm often inspired by the other new businesses I've discovered since I started my own,and many of them I found on this site. I think it's pretty amazing that in britain's economic downturn,women have gone out and started such aspirational new businesses like the sewing directory.

So if you love sewing,knitting or anything crafty then bookmark this site! It really is the ultimate resource for all crafty folk

Happy browsing!

13 January 2011

Our throw away culture

I am blogging today from The Gambia in west africa. I walked through a craft market on route to the internet cafe, and was struck by the sight of around 7 tailors sitting sewing in the sunshine on Singer pedal operated machines. It harks back to an era when electricity was unheard of, yet hear in 21st century Africa they still sew on machines that are 100 years old. It's made me think however that these fabulous machines are still working and doing the job for which they were created. How many of the modern tools we use today will be around in 100 years? Even my lovely new sewing machines will not stand the test of time. The tailors here in the gambia can keep sewing even when there is a power cut, the mechanics of the machines are simple and with regular cleaning and servicing would probably survive another 100 years!

I had a pedal sewing machine whilst training at the welsh college of music and drama, and yet despite it serving me well when i had a power cut the night before a deadline, i couldn't wait to upgrade to a shiny new electronic machine. I am still, to this day seduced by delicious shiny new sewing machines with more whistles and bells than my previous machine. I am not alone in this, our society as a whole worships at the altar all things new. Manufacturers don't make things to last, because we don't really want them to last, we move onto something new long before the product becomes unusable.

So do i think that you garments being made on these old singers are as good as any made on a modern machine? Sadly the singers have only a straight stitch, so the seams are either left unfinished or pinked or have seam binding attached. This makes them unlikely to withstand the rigours of modern washing. They aren't suitable either for stitching modern fabrics like jersey or lycra which requires a stretch stitch.

Although the sight of the singers being pedalled in the sunshine is deeply nostalgic, I will not be returning home and swapping all my new janomes and pfaffs, and elnas for vintage singers- i do like all the fabulous advancements that have been made since the pedal singer, and could not do my job without them. I will however keep using them until they can no longer be repaired, and not trade in for a shiny new version in a year or so.

My morning was spent leisurely reading Making magazine- a luxury i rarely have with my busy schedule back home. Sewing in the west is seen as a primarily female occupation. The tailors working outside in the sunshine are all men, and in fact the tailoring industry in the uk is still very male dominated, so i wonder how come it seems that sewing is viewed as such a female pastime? Maybe it is still a remanant of the victorians where nice ladies sewed purely decorative objects like samplers, whilst only men cut patterns and produced the functional things. -Interesting thought... i will think on this some more.

Back to the beach for me- this time my reading is a crime book, another rare treat...

10 January 2011

Is being "Thrifty" the same as being mean?

Back in 2009, when I began thinking of starting a small sewing school, I struggled with finding a name. There are lots of cliched sewing names, and I didn't want to go in that direction. After playing around with some names, I hit on the name Thrifty Stitcher. The name seemed to fit what I do- my theatre work is all about keeping beautiful costumes beautiful, and usually on a budget. Theatre costume can be all smoke and mirors, we make the ordinary seem extraordinary. I have actually made alpine maid's costumes from the scraps of fabric left over from the front of house curtains.

Using the word Thrifty however prompted missed reviews from my friends and family. Thrifty living it seems, can be viewed as a poor living, Thriftyness is often seen as meanness.

In terms of learning to sew, is being thrifty un-glamourous?

In our current economic climate, whilst we are all embracing the make do and mend fever that is sweeping the country, most modern women don't want to use or wear things that are too " home-made" I don't want cushions for example that don't look gorgeous, or fit my style. Can I be thrifty without compromising design integrity?

As a Costume maker I collected beautiful fabric. When cutting up a gorgeous piece of indian silk I found on a weekend away, I was as thrifty with it as I could be. I wanted to get the most from this lovely fabric, so I cut out my dress after fitting a toile so i didn't waste any in excessive seam allowances. I laid all the pieces out several times on the fabric to get the largest bit of spare fabric. The spare fabric was carefully stashed away, and contributed to several other projects until there wasn't enough left to cover a button.
The dress I made was delicious, unique and a perfect fit. It didn't look "homemade" and yet it was very Thrifty.

At our classes we encourage our sewing students to use things they love to create their designs. If you see vintage curtains in a charity shop, use them as fabric and make anything you can. If you spot some delicious liberty fabric buy it! For us being thrifty is about using everything you can and making things the best way you can.

At our studio we have a large selection of unique fabrics, ribbons and haberdashery. As costumiers we are given Fabric "scraps" left from shows. Some of these fabrics are specially printed and shipped from all over the world, and once we use the last scraps that's it- there is no more! I love seeing how our students mix up our fabrics and create all the amazing pieces that come from our studio.

So Be Thrifty, and be unique!

Happy Stitching

8 January 2011

Invest- My last aspirational word for the year

My final new year word is "Invest"

This year i will be investing in my business both financially and emotionally. I had some administrative systems set up at the end of 2010, which dramatically improved the amount of time i spent managing the business. I will be continuing to invest in making the business operate more smoothly.
I am developing some interesting new collaborations which will add a new twist to our classes, all with exciting experts in their field..... watch this space.
I'm developing some exciting products to sell alongside the classes too, again i'm afraid that's a watch this space....

I'm going to be investing in my education, i've learnt an awful lot about business in the last 18 months, but there is so much more for me to learn, and i'm going to get stuck into some business training. I may also sign up for a masters in theatre costume, although not sure how i will fit it in.

The Thrifty studio is a great space, a real artisan studio with lots of lovely light. 2011 will see some investment in re-organizing the space, and making it more fluid and cohesive.

2010 saw lots of great new TV shows come to our screens, and i missed most of them. when you work at night there's not much chance to watch TV, and really there's only so much you can record. I will be investing time catching up on Mad Men, and Supernatural. Both are shows i've heard so much about but not really followed. So if you try and get hold of me in january, and can't it's likely i'm watching back to back mad men!

2011 is the year i am seriously thinking about my future- i will be investing in my personal financial security. This is the year i accept that i'm not going to marry a millionaire, and crack on with making my own future secure. Financially it's a year to get my head out of the sand...

Every day-    bit tough this one so i'm gonna take a pass on the daily act!
Every week - Learn something new, watch something new...
Every month - Put my latte habit into some savings...I drink a lot of lattes!
Throughout 2011- I'd like to live more cautiously, become a saver and not keep throwing caution to the wind

So that's it for my new year aspirations. Can't wait to see what this new year brings!

Happy stitching

7 January 2011

Love- my second word aspiration for 2011


Wow this is a big word, and yet it's part of the everyday fabric of life.
This year i'd like more love in my life, i'd like to stop more often and appreciate those that i love, and those that love me. Too often when we're busy we get onto auto-pilot. Life becomes a blur of duty, and obligation. To do lists are great, and i write a lot of them, however i often forget to remember to tell my loved ones how i feel. So this year i aspire to rectify that, sorry to all my friends and family if i become a bit more gushing!!

I'd also like to give myself permission to love me a bit more. Anyone who knows me personally will know that i'm a perfectionist. i work really hard at getting things right, and often i am very self critical. I'd like to see myself more as others see me, and accept all that's good and bad. As with many women, i am a bit sad about how i look phsyically- i struggle with my weight, i constantly wish i could be thinner. Well this year i am going to stop procrastinating and take charge of my body. I don't aspire to be super thin, but i want to get a bit leaner, and fitter. I managed to quit 20 fags a day, so now i need to crack on with my body. I will try to Love the me i am now though, as it's so destructive to only think about the thiner me i could become. To Love myself, i need to be more in the moment.

I have 2 parallel lives- One as a Sewing Teacher, and one as a Theatrical Wardrobe Mistress. My two lives occupy much of my time, and many hours a week. Many of the activities i love have fallen by the wayside, and yes i probably have neglected the love of my life too. So I hope to start cooking again, not because i have to, but because i love it. I hope to start getting out again in 2011, and not always staying in because i'm so exhausted. I hope that i will do these things with my man, and that we can share some laughs together.

Hmmm.... lots to do here..

Every day -  I will tell someone who is special to me, that they are special to me
Every week- I will commit to some pilates/cardio not to be thin, but because i love myself and want to stay alive!
In the next few month- i will have a dinner party, and cook food that i've never cooked before

See you tomorrow for my last word of the year- Invest

6 January 2011

Create-Word number one of my new year challenge

So instead of new year's resolutions,I have picked up on picking 3 words that sum up my aspirations for 2011.

The first of my words is "Create"

I would like to get more personal creativity back into my life. My theatre work and my teaching inspires others to be creative,but mine has slipped by the wayside! I'd like to make the following things for myself by Easter-

1- the underbust corset that i bought from sew curvy corset kits last august,and that still languishes in it's box!
2- the hot patterns faux wrap dress-it looks so delicious and I have rediscovered wearing dresses
3- copy my favourite monsoon shift dress and make a few more!

Create for me isn't just about doing things, I'd like to "create" a little more space in my life so I can enjoy doing nothing again,just chilling/reading staring at the sky!

I want to continue " creating" a network of thrifty stitchers

Some of my aspirations will take time,and so I'm not disheartened I have a few little things I'd like to get done in snaller chunks

Every day- create half an hour to take time out to daydream
Every week -read a book that's nothing to do with work
Every month-create a space in my life to get together with my girlfriends!

Fingers crossed that it's not too unachievable!

Tomorrow's blog is my second word -"Love"

Happy stitching

5 January 2011

Fab suppliers

Today I am truly over the moon,that I can actually blog from my I phone! Something I couldn't do before,which restricted my blogging as I am always away from my computer! Just as well I can use my phone to blog,today I have retreated back to bed with my poorly chest!

At this time of year,many of us are in s reflective mood,and today I'd like to mention a couple of great new suppliers I discovered last year!

Fabric shops-some really yummy ones


Some interesting ladies that sew!


Scrumptious ribbons,buttons and beads


Millinery supplies


So I hope you enjoy discovering some of the products these companies sell as much as I did! If you attend a thrifty stitcher class you receive a bonus little black book of sewing suppliers packed with more links like these.

That's me for the day.

See you tomorrow!

4 January 2011

2010- a big year for The Thrifty Stitcher

2010 was a big year for The Thrifty Stitcher. The business only launched late 2009, so last year really was our first year of trading properly. It was a roller coaster ride....

The year started with a bang, so many people wanted to attend our sunday beginners classes that we doubled their frequency.

March saw us launching our first intermediate soft furnishing class- making roman blinds.
April showers accompanied our Fascinator class launch.
In May the business stopped being a partnership, which left just me running it....
We teamed up with a cookery school in june, offering creative crafting and cooking classes for children.
July saw a reduction in class frequency as i began a very heavy theatre job that meant I had to work all over the weekends.
August- Nov were a blur of juggling the business and my theatre job. Made a whole new set of friends though at my networking group and on twitter
December saw us crafting for fairs and running new christmas workshops.

So here i am in 2011- this year I hope to get time to do more personal sewing.
We are launching a few new classes this year- the first being an intermediate cushion class "Beyond Beginners" This class focusses on inserting and using zips, and mastering the box cushion.

Looking forward to a great Thrifty Stitching year....