Sunday, February 27, 2011

Two-Minute Smackdown: Straight Versus Zig-Zag

Bargello and Frodo

Why a straight stitch machine?  I have lots of other machines, all of which will make a straight stitch in addition to zig-zagging, making decorative stitches, and even doing embroidery. Simple answer:  straight stitch machines make better straight stitches.  If you are sewing miles of straight stitches, cutting them up and sewing them back together again (i.e. piecing a quilt top) precision sewing really helps prevent cussing and tearing your hair.

You can see the reason that straight stitch machines make superior straight stitches in a flash if you own both kinds of machine.  Do your own quickie smackdown (no sewing required).


Examine the needle (aka throat) plates of both machines (that's the whole two minute smackdown, by the way)
15-91 Needle Plate

  • The straight stitch machine has a tiny round hole for the needle to go through.  All of the rest of the fabric is being supported by the needle plate.  As the needle pierces the fabric, it pokes downward but the area of fabric that can get distorted is no bigger than that little bitty needle hole.
  • The zig-zag machine has an oval hole to accomodate the wider stitches, and it bigger in both width and length.  Bigger hole, more instability.
Singer 401 Throat Plates, Straight Stitch and Zig-Zag
If you only own one machine and it is a zig-zag, check to see if a straight stitch needle plate is available for it. Factor in not only the cost of the plate but the cost of all the needles you will break when you switch back to zig-zag and forget that the straight stitch plate is still on.  Can you see the needle strikes on the 401 straight stitch plate on the left above?

There may be other reasons for the superiority of straight stitch machines for straight stitching.  The needle isn't meant to jump around--it wasn't designed to move.  Also, the feed dogs are pushing on a lot more fabric on a zig-zag machine.  If you have any opinions on whether these make a difference or not, please chime in!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Smackdown Test #1: Wheel Alignment

Do you know the cheapo way of checking the alignment of the wheels on your car?  Find a nice flat straight stretch of highway with no other cars in sight, and take your hands off the wheel.  Does your car drive straight or pull to the right or left?

News flash:  sewing machines don't have wheels.  But when I was test driving the smackdown contestants one of them seemed to pull to the right, and the idea for this test was born.  No I didn't mention this in the first smackdown post.  Yes, I am making this up as I go.  So if you have any ideas for testing sewing machines, send them in!


Vintage sewing deserves a vintage dry iron, and I have a dandy: a Proctor Never-Lift.  This puppy weighs in at almost 5 pounds.  Irons and cooking pots:  the heavier they are, the better they perform.

This one has two feet that prop it up and a lever that locks them down.  You don't have to pick the heavy iron up in between passes, just pop the feet up and that gets the hot surface up off the ironing board.  No silly safety shut-off here:  when it is on, it stays on.  Forever.  Until your house burns down.

If you are tired of spending big money on steam irons that don't last, search the thrift shops for a vintage dry iron and use a spray bottle of water.

(Check the wiring carefully, replace the cord if necessary or just wimp out and buy a NEW dry iron.  But where's the fun in that?) 

I got tired of replacing Rowentas every six months.  Don't get me wrong, I really loved the massive steam of the Rowentas, that's why I kept buying them.  But they all eventually leaked and spit and enough was enough.  The Never-Lift cost $3 and should last a couple of decades, which should see me out.


I used the original straight stitch foot on each machine, but you can use any foot as long as you use the same type of foot on each machine.

Take an old sheet or other scrap material and cut or tear it into 12" squares. Fold each square in half so that you are sewing on two layers (to simulate actual sewing conditions).  Iron them flat.

Position the folded cotton so that it lines up with any visible straight line edge, like where the machine body meets the cabinet or carrying case base.  Start an inch in and hold on to the threads briefly to prevent any initial thread mess, but let go as soon as it takes a stitch or two.  LET GO OF THE FABRIC and put the pedal to the metal and sew full speed to the other edge of the fabric.  Compare your machines by measuring the drift to the right or left, if any.


Singer 15-91:  Pulled 1" to the right
Singer 99:  Pulled 4" to the right
Dressmaker 132:  Pulled 3/4" to the right.  THE WINNER OF ROUND 1.
ModernAge 250:  Pulled 1" to the right

You are probably not planning on sewing hands free!  So why this test?  Some sewing machines feel as if they are cooperating with you, some feel as if they are fighting you.  Some fight you tooth and nail.  This seemed like one way to assess the "fight-you" factor.

Three of them drifted just slightly, while the 99 sent the fabric off at quite an angle.  What does it all mean?  Beats me.  Do you have any ideas?  The secret must lie in the relationship between the presser foot and the feed dogs

The Winner:  Dressmaker 132

The Loser:  Singer 99

This is the shakedown cruise for the 15, the 99 and the ModernAge, all of which have been acquired within the last two months.  The 99 definitely has issues, which I will discuss in a future post.  I may retest it after fiddling with it some more.  The Dressmaker has been my go-to piecing machine for several years and I'll be singing its praises in another future post.  Not surprised that it won Round 1 of the smackdown.


The Cabinets:  Originally I hadn't planned on reviewing the cabinets, but as soon as I sewed on them side-by-side I knew that this would be an important factor to consider and I will review them here.

The Stitches:  I have started this, but soon decided that it would be a good idea to get a walking foot.  Jenny at Sew-Classic has them for straight stitch machines, and a zig-zag walking foot won't work properly on a straight stitch machine.  She explains why here.  I ordered one last night.

Disclaimer:  I have no relationship with Jenny at Sew-Classic except as a customer.  She sells lots of great stuff for vintage machines and she provides a wealth of free information on repairs, parts, machine comparisons, threading guides, and more.  She recently went out of her way to help me when I screwed up my order.  Money is power and I believe in supporting businesses that add positive energy to the world.

The Machines:  I will discuss each machine in some detail and describe how sewing machine acquisition is a similar to a love affair.  It's cheaper and easier to come by, won't ruin your life and is disease-free too.

The DH claims that he reads my blog.  Guess I will find out whether this is true or not!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Vintage Straight Stitch Smackdown

More sewing machines have followed me home since my last blog post.  It's on the edge of being ridiculous.  I do think about getting rid of some of them.  But I bought them either because I wanted to try a particular model, or because they spoke to me.

I now have five straight stitch machines, and will only use two regularly:  one upstairs and one down.  So I decided to run them four of them head to head in a Straight Stitch Smackdown.  (The fifth is a Singer 301 that I'm saving for travel or classes.)  It's possible that I will dispose of the losers of the smackdown.  Not very likely, but certainly possible.

Singer 15-91

Singer 99, a 3/4 size machine

Dressmaker, probably another 15 clone

ModernAge 250, an obvious Singer 15 clone


I have a stack of 100 9-patches, pieced from 2.5 inch scrap squares.  I wanted a solid color in between, and snagged some lovely magenta cotton from Leah Day at Day Style Designs when she had a sale at the turn of the year.  Each machine got a stack of 9-patches and plain squares which I will pair up and sew together.


In addition to testing the machines, I want to road test three quilting feet.

 From right to left:
  • A vintage low-shank gauge foot that showed up in a box of Singer attachments.  These originally had 4 or 5 gauges but this is the only gauge that came with it.  There is a lever in the back that allows you to adjust the gauge.
  • A generic low-shank snap-on flat quilting foot.
  • A Janome low-shank snap-on quilting foot with a guide on the right hand side.
Stay tuned for the exciting results of the smackdown!

Have more than one straight stitch machine yourself?  Why not join the smackdown?

There are no rules.

Just choose any project and sew on more than one machine.  Post comments here as we go along, or email me with comments and/or photos.  Since this blog only has a few followers, most of whom are non-sewing relatives or personal friends of mine, the chances are EXCELLENT that I will post your results here. 

I thought about making up a checklist but decided that a completely open ended approach would be best.  I'll sew on each machine and make notes of anything that seems important.  In future posts I'll describe the machines and the results I get from each one.

And yes, it has been a couple of months since the last blog post.  If you are one of the aforementioned family or friends, you know why.  If not, you probably have life interrupt your own sewing from time to time!   Life is behaving itself better now and shouldn't interfere with the
Vintage Straight Stitch Smackdown