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Materials Monday: Sewing Machines for doll clothes

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Hand sewing is fine.  It's slow, but it's precise, and precise is the thing you need most with doll clothes. If you're reading this because you're wondering if you need a machine, the answer is NO.  You do not.

Machine sewing was developed to do the most common hand sewing techniques faster.  It started off with a straight stitch, which is about 95% of all sewing work at the time.  Later zig-zagging was added for knits, which was another 4% and then sewing machine designers started competing with each other to get that last 1%.  It only makes sense to get a machine if the time saved/product quality increase is worth the cost of the machine.

I didn't get a sewing machine until I needed to sew curtains, for my first apartment.   It was a vintage Singer, a loaner from a family member.  It did the job, though not without a good bit of screw-ups.  Bunched threads, having to help feed the thicker bits through when the feed dogs couldn't handle it, getting the curtain bits sucked down into the machine, etc etc. 

Since it was there, I also did some doll clothes on it.  My hand stitching is crap, so using a sewing machine made everything look nicer, though not necessarily take less time.  Tiny, flimsy doll clothes have their own sewing machine woes, and between fighting the machine to get my outfits back, having them stretched or torn by getting sucked into the machine, and seam ripping when I couldn't manage to sew as precisely as I needed, it wasn't much of a time saver.

But the clothes DID look nicer, so I decided to get a sewing machine for myself after I returned the loaner.

I did the recommended things for buying a sewing machine:

  • Get a machine from a dealer (the same machine can be made at different factories, and the best quality ones usually go to dealers while the worst go to Amazon and Walmart)
  • Sew on as many machines as possible at the dealer to see what you like

...It's not a long list.

I was pretty happy with my machine, a Janome DC3050.  It had fewer problems than the vintage Singer, and more functions (most of which I did not use).  I didn't sew a lot back then, I probably averaged a doll outfit a month.  Which was why I was kind of dismayed when, just a year into sewing more regularly on it via making patterns, the computer in it gave out rendering the whole machine useless.

Sure, I'd had it for 10 years, but doll clothes are NOT heavy duty labor, and I used it so rarely that it probably had less than 200 actual sewing hours on it.  WTF!  This was not in accordance with the "Buy a quality machine, look at it as an investment because it will last you a long time" line I had swallowed from sewing machine salespeople and elder sewists.  Things that had lasted longer (with more use) than that sewing machine: calculators, vacuums, game consoles, my first cell phone.  All of which cost quite a bit less.

I looked into a repair, but having the computer replaced cost nearly as much as a new machine. So I started shopping again, but this time with an expectation that a new machine would last 10 years or less now that I was actually using it, and adjusted my budget downward accordingly.

This time, I added to my list of recommended things:

  • Sewing machine needs to be able to sew precisely and handle 1/8" seams. 

Asking around about 1/8" seams is kind of hilarious.  In a sad way, because as soon as you say it, you get looks that translate roughly to: "Bless your heart!"/"What the f*ck is wrong with you?"  I have a book on sewing bras, where it is explained nicely by the author that 1/4" seams are really, really necessary for something as precise as bras, and while she knows it's REALLY hard, if we work at it and go slow, she believes in us!


Yeah.  So after being treated like a weirdo at a bunch of sewing places, I deduced the following:

All modern machines sew more or less the same at 1/8" seams, which is: not great. 

Sewing machines are designed for modern sewing needs, which are basically: quilting, clothes alteration/some light apparel making, and the occasional craft thingy like handbags.  There are plenty of people who sew for dolls, but they sew for dolls like American Girl, which have torsos about as big as a human baby, thus are more like human sewing where 1/4" or wider is just fine.

To get a modern sewing machine to sew doll clothes, you need to:

  • Go slow, ESPECIALLY on curves.
  • Use stabilizers for the really thin/soft stuff
  • Maybe hand sew instead.  Or use fabric glue!


Here's my recommendation for the modern doll-sewer who is looking for a machine:

    • Go to sewing machine shops, but ALSO look up anywhere nearby that services sewing machines or restores vintage machines (more about those later) and test out the machines yourself.
    • BRING YOUR OWN FABRIC.  Sewing machine shops usually have a couple of pieces of cotton for you to test out a sewing machine on.  It is a very sad sewing machine that can't handle a couple of pieces of quilting cotton.  Bring a bit of each of the materials you sew, especially the tricky things like thin stretchy materials.  This will tell you a LOT more about the machines you are considering buying.
    • Don't just sew straight lines.  Test your turning radius (as in, what is the smallest circle this machine can smoothly sew with a straight stitch). Below are the tightest curves my machines can produce:

      Sewing Machine Turning Radiuses
      Pretty easy to imagine how that would make a difference on a tiny sleeve or collar, huh?

      About those vintage machines....

      I mentioned vintage machines.  I currently have... 3.  A Bernina 830 that I picked up at a flea market which had been recently serviced (important), a Kenmore 158.1913 I picked up from Facebook, and a Necchi Nora I picked up from a local sewing machine restore/repair guy. 

      Last month I had 0.  How did THAT happen?!

      Bernina is a brand I've heard great things about, so I was willing to give it a try, thinking that it would be good to have another machine around for when my current machine, a Brother model, inevitably bites it.  I thought it would be hard because it's old so I have to adjust settings manually.  With the help of a downloaded manual it took about 15 minutes to figure out how to use, and within 20 minutes of sewing on it, I put my Brother away in its case and resigned it to 'backup machine'.  The vintage Bernina sews WONDERFULLY in doll scale, and is so quiet I don't need to turn up the volume to hear music or a movie playing in the background while I sew!

      So, being me, I had to investigate more.  Was the Bernina a fluke, or was the vintage Singer a fluke?  I read up on a lot of vintage sewing machines.  A LOT.  I know what features I want (good fine sewing, straight, zigzag, some functional stitches).  I found an old Kenmore of good-but-not-top-of-the-line quality that had not been serviced to see how a regular secondhand vintage sewing machine worked.

      After a thorough cleaning and oiling, the verdict was: about the same as the vintage Singer I started on: not great, and not better than a modern machine (surprisingly the best turning radius, but I think that has to do with how sloppy the stitch quality is).  That's OK. I'm a hands-on learner, so this is my version of a how-to book or video. 

      The Necchi I got because after all the research I did, it had the reputation for being excellent quality and had all the functions I wanted to try (has cams, can be treadled, came in pink and green *cof*) After working on the Kenmore, I had no doubts about the value of skilled service.  The Necchi is slightly less nimble than the Bernina, but much more powerful and with more functions.  This would probably be my #1 for any non-doll sewing project.


      Is a vintage machine better?

      No!  If you've been keeping score, it's this: 2 vintage machines of lesser quality than modern and 2 of better quality.  A modern machine is easier to get, and a vintage machine takes research and effort to track down a good one, or get one repaired into a good one.  For a newbie, a new machine makes sense.  The Brother is pretty idiot-proof.  It wants to sew a straight line, and even when you force it to sew an arc, it's a smooth arc.  It manages the tension without having to be bothered much by you.  You aren't supposed to oil it.  Ever. 

      However!  Once you learn about things like 'thread tension', have an actual idea of what you need a machine to do for what you make, and opening it up to oil once a week doesn't seem intimidating, a vintage machine can make sense. 

      A new, basic-bits sewing machine starts around $150.  "Good" ones for the non-casual sewer easily get into the thousands.  You can easily get a good used sewing machine and pay for it to be serviced to like-new mechanical condition (steel gears don't wear down!) for about as much as a basic new computerized one. 


      Don't forget about fun!

      There's also the fun factor.  I know people who think the most fun sewing machine is a straight-stitch treadle over 100 years old, and some who think the most fun is a high tech one they can hook up to their computer for any stitch shape they can imagine.  Which one is best for you?  No idea.  But you probably won't know either, until you try a few different ones.  The value of having a sewing machine that turns sewing from a chore you are willing to do to get nice stuff to something you enjoy and look forward to is at least as important as how much it costs :)