Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Workhorses, the Kenmore Snarlomatic, and the Bernina That Nags

Singer 328 K, a workhorse
I  was happy with my grandmother's treadle sewing machine. I was okay with my mother's 1957 Kenmore/White zigzag. And in 1968, I was truly thrilled with my secondhand Singer 328K zigzag, bought with the first wages from my job. When the timing on the 328K went skywoggle due to too much contact with NYC's unscheduled brownouts, I sent that machine off to be recalibrated and bought a top of the line Kenmore at Sears in 1980. I lived to regret it. 

The brand new Kenmore sewing machine was soon to be dubbed the Snarlomatic. It had 24 built in stitches, but wouldn't do any of them for longer than 12 minutes. It hated knits, demanding and getting special ballpoint needles for cotton knits, and micro needles for lingerie knits. It still sewed and snarled. Eventually I sewed only quilting cottons on it. I was sewing doll clothes, which demand a certain amount of accuracy, not human clothing, which forgives errors. Snarly was good for about 30 minutes of sewing before he said he'd had it and for me to go away and leave him alone. Not in so many words, but the bobbin seized up and nothing was possible.

The 328K returned and worked for about a month before I had to bite the bullet and recalibrate it myself. I took it partially apart and oiled everything that looked as if it might move. Following the manual, I tweaked the tensions. Endlessly, it seemed, but eventually the 328K worked beautifully. (But not silently.) I cleaned and oiled Snarly, but Snarly hadn't sewn enough to have much need for either cleaning or oiling. If what I sewed had to look good, if it involved corduroy or denim or upholstery fabric, I sewed on the Singer 328K. I stopped sewing for myself, but my new ability to tweak the tension of metal bodied sewing machines made me fearless. My mother acquired a Singer Featherweight at an auction, and spent some time swearing at it. I made it sew. Later, she acquired a 1940s Singer in original cabinet and I had fun with that. 

By 1998 I had read everything there was to read about sewing machines and decided that I wanted a Bernina. A pre-owned Bernina 1230, to be precise. This computerized sewing machine has a front plate that looks like a rocket ship control panel. It allowed me to program in names, to use series of decorative stitches. Best of all, it allowed me to sew for hours, and I could sew for myself as well as for 12 inch dolls. Its internal computer equalized tensions and pressures and turned out beautiful regular stitches on flimsies, cotton, denim, and heavier weight fabrics. It sewed with less noise than Snarly. At last I had a machine that let me say that all sewing mistakes were my own.

Oddly, the manual said to oil only one place, the bobbin race. I tried it on Snarly, and he was pacified. Snarly, with his plastic housing, sews silently compared to the Singer 328. Snarly has multiple built in decorative stitches. Joy unbounded. This meant I had three functioning sewing machines in the house. A machine and a spare is all one really needs. A machine had to go; Snarly went to a niece and apparently lives happily ever after.

Meantime, the sewing machine world had developed sewing machines that also embroidered.(It is possible to embroider with a straight stitch machine. Early Singers had instruction books full of examples. Women of the early 20th century had a lot more patience than I do.) Sewing magazines of the late 20th century offered downloadable motifs in various formats, and I wanted some of them.  I wanted to turn a plain fabric into an embroidered fabric. Yes, friends, I had sewing machine lust.

I acquired the Bernina Artista 180 during a flare of Chronic Fatigue. When I watched the video on how to make button holes, I suffered buyer's remorse (and horror, because a simple 2-step buttonhole now took 10 steps!) and tried to return the machine. The store owner informed me it was an "until death do you part" sale.The Artista sat reproachfully in my dining room for years until last week, when I felt I might be capable of reading and understanding instructions. A memory card supposedly included with the machine was not there, and there was no bobbin. Worse, it was a bobbin unique to that machine. I calmed down when I found that online sites were selling a dozen for $14. When I took the Bernina 1230 in for a tuneup, I bought a bobbin for the Artista.

That's when I learned what a nag it is. There's a little touch screen front and center, with 15 stitches on it. I threaded the machine without looking at the manual. It sewed 4 stitches, and the touch screen messaged me: check upper thread tension. I rethreaded according to the manual. Threading the Artista is not as intuitive as the 1230, and the bobbin goes in the opposite way. (A rave review of this model Artista complains about the bobbin. I'm not alone.) After several tries, I managed to thread the machine so that it did not nag me. It produced neat lines of stitching.Tomorrow, I sew. Maybe.