Saturday, June 30, 2012

FMQ the Cheapo Way

FMQ =  Free Motion Quilting

There's a lot of chatter out there about free motion quilting and how to do it.

Here's the stone truth:  anybody who tells you that there is only one correct way to do it has proven to you that they cannot be trusted.  Machines differ.  Operators differ.  There are many variables: needles, thread, method of securing the layers, type of fabric, type of batting.

So why in the world would I voluntarily jump into this particular snake pit?  Because I hope I have something useful to say.  Key word: CHEAP.

But really this is my response to something I read online by an FMQ guru.  I'm not going to say who, her work is terrific, and if I live a million years I will never be that good.  But you DON'T, you really, really DON'T need a machine costing thousands of dollars.  Not even hundreds of dollars.  If I had a machine costing thousands, and she had my cheapo machine, she would still be terrific at FMQ and I would still be terrible at it.

First, the backstory
I stumbled into this because I am have a Pennywinkle quilting frame (more about this later) on which a regular sewing machine can be pushed around to do free motion quilting.  I'm moving along the steep upward slope of the learning curve with this system, and I have been auditioning machines on it. 

It's like a longarm setup, but with an ordinary size machine

Before hoisting the 40+ pound machines onto the frame, I try them out with a small sample of free motion quilting in a hoop.  This (and one ten-year old UFO) is the sum total of my experience with FMQ.  So this post is NOT about how to become a whiz at FMQ, it's about how to choose the right machine for the job and how to set it up.  The technical stuff rather than the talent stuff or the artistic stuff or the skill-acquired-by-hundreds-of-hours-of-repetition stuff.

Step One:  Buy a cheap Japanese Singer 15 clone
Gazillions of copies of the Singer 15 were churned out of Japanese factories in the 1950's and 60's.  Around here a reasonable price for a black one in perfect operating condition is $10.  These are straight-stitch only machines with class 15 vertical bobbins.

how to identify a Singer 15 clone in the wild

Why a clone rather than a Singer?  No reason, I just like them.  I've got a Singer 15-91 that I have not bonded with, but it probably just needs more TLC.  The clones on the other hand have all responded beautifully to a little cleaning and sewing machine oil.  They all turn sweetly and smoothly.  All seven of them. I have sworn off buying them more than once, then another $10 one places itself in my path.  And I will confess to having paid more for the pink and green ones, but not much more.

They also come in pretty colors.

Anyhow, they are so cheap and plentiful that you should look for one that turns reasonably smoothly and has good wiring.  No reason to waste your time and money rescuing a pitiful one.

Can you still call it a clone if it has had a fashion makeover?
Jazzy stitch length device, but it still works just like a 15

Step Two:  Clean and oil it.
There is a lot of advice about this in other places.

Step Three:  Test stitch.
Do a bit more than just stitch a few inches.  Run up a few quilt blocks with it.  Or make a tote bag.  Give it enough of a workout at under normal sewing conditions so that any problems will have a chance to surface.

Step Four:  Prepare the quilt sandwich
Layer your backing, batting, and top and then secure them.  I use a hoop and for something small (like a pillow top) I would only use a hoop.  For something larger I baste to hold things in position generally, but STILL hoop the portion being quilted.  The hoop keeps the layers from shifting and prevents tucks on the back side.  The hoop gives you something to grip to move the quilt around under the needle.  You can use a hoop twice as wide as the space between the needle of your machine and the machine pillar.

You want to hoop it so that the quilt sandwich is flat against the bed of the machine, not raised.  You will probably have to remove the presser foot to get the hoop into sewing position, but put it right back on again.

There are other techniques and they may work well for you.  This is what I prefer, but this is not the secret heart of the DragonPoodle method--that's coming up next.  So use whatever works for you to secure the layers together.

Step Five:  Reduce the presser foot pressure.
As you unscrew the pressure regulator, the pressure on the presser foot is reduced.  You want to reduce it to nothingness.  You want the presser foot to float right on top of the quilt sandwich.  Unscrew it to its maximum.  On two of my machines this worked.  On a third machine there was still a bit of drag on the sandwich, so I had to remove it completely.  Don't worry because a) you only spent $10, right? and b) it will screw right back in, so you have not ruined anything.

Put the presser foot lever in the down position--that's vital because it engages the thread tension.  Move your hoop or quilt sandwich around.  If it moves freely with no drag from the presser foot then you are ready to quilt.  The presser foot IS still working for you--it is holding the sandwich stable right at the point where the needle goes through it to meet and mingle with the bobbin thread.

And by the way, this is why you want a vintage straight-stitcher for FMQ rather than a zig-zagger. A zig-zag machine has a MUCH larger opening for the needle.  The fabric can be pushed or pulled into this opening, and there will be more play in the thread.  A straight stitcher reduces the potential problems. A single tiny hole just bigger than the tiny needle gives your machine the best chance to perform well under the unusual circumstances of FMQing where you are pushing the quilt sandwich through the machine in any direction you please and changing that direction regularly.  Of course some zig-zaggers come with a separate straight stitch throat plate, so if you want to try this technique with a vintage zig-zagger this would be the time to use it.

By the way, notice what you are not doing right now?  You are not spending more money on a special quilting/darning/hopping/embroidery foot.  I burned my way through more than one of these before I discovered the DragonPoodle method.  All you need is the original straight stitch foot that came with your cheapo machine.

feed dog drop

Step Six:  To Drop, Or Not To Drop:  That Is The Question
Here's the big joke:  it makes no difference.   Drop the feed dogs, don't drop the feed dogs.  In my trials it made no difference.  If you choose to leave them up, or if they are stuck in the up position on your machine, then just set the stitch length to zero.   I drop them because if I bump the stitch length lever (or completely forget about it) it won't matter.

Step Seven:  Have at it
You should always test FMQ on a sample first.  Adjust the tension as necessary.

They say it takes 200 hours of practice to rise to FMQ adequacy.  But you know what?  Normal people will not care if you are not a whiz.  They will say, in tones of awe "you made that?" or "you made that for ME?"  if you use cute fabrics and the batting is not hanging out of the seams.  So FMQ badly--and proudly.

Two more tips for how to FMQ badly
  • don't use solid colors--busy prints will help hide your stitches
  • use cotton batting for that wrinkly vintage look that will also camouflage the stitching

OK, so there was not much in the above that was truly original except for my guaranteed, patented, certified technique for removing the presser foot regulator and floating that straight stitch foot.  And that's probably not original either, there's a good chance I read it somewhere.  But hey, it's super cheap and for me it is working like a charm.  Why not give it a try?  Why not, in fact, have a dedicated FMQ machine ready to go at a moments notice?

If you do, please leave a note below and tell me how it went.  And feel free to send me the $4,990 dollars that you saved.  I take PayPal.

ps:  there are some great posts in the comments below, be sure to check them out!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Herd: Singer 306, 316G, and 319

I hope you are enjoying the pictures of the herd.  I always enjoy seeing other people's herds.  Eventually I plan to get them all into blog format, and then just update the posts as the herd changes.  It's useful to have a visual inventory.

Singer 306W

These are all 1950's cam machines and represent some of the earliest Singers to provide decorative stitches to the domestic sewing machine market.  Reason #1 why I love these machines:  I love decorative stitches.  I love cam machines because all you have to do is pop the cams in and out.  (Cam stack machines make decorative stitches also, but I always have to get the manual out to re-teach myself how to use them.  Not a problem if you only own one machine, btw.)

Singer 306W

They all use the flat black Singer cams, which sit on the front of the machine where you can watch them turning.  Reason #2 why I love these machines:  this is just adorable.  Not to mention that this is the easiest cam system to use that I have ever seen.

Singer 319, reviewed in more detail recently

They are all reported to treadle beautifully, and I have confirmed this on the 306s.  Reason #3 why I love these machines:  everyone needs a treadle-able machine that makes decorative stitches.  I know I do.

Singer 306K

They have the loveliest "song".  All sewing machines have their own song.  Sometimes they howl or growl if they are unhappy, and you had better pay attention to that.  Some just hum quietly to themselves.  Reason #4 why I love these machines:  This class of machine sings "tickety tickety tickety" and it is a very friendly sound, especially when treadling.

Are you ready to rush out and buy one?  Better think again...there are issues.

Issue #1:  The 306 and 319 both take a class 206 bobbin, which is readily available (see links to Jenny or Cindy) but you can't just run out to Joann's to pick some up.  To me this is no big deal:  once you have enough bobbins, you have enough bobbins.

Issue #2:  The 306 and 319 both take class 206 sewing machine needles (see the same vendors).  Also readily, but not inexpensively, available.  A much bigger deal, and one that prevents me from using either of these models as my "go-to" machine.  I'm not a tame and timid seamstress.  I break needles.  I'm willing to attempt to sew just about anything that I can shove under a presser foot.  And in my younger, much stupider, days, I even took the presser foot off at times.  Until I sewed through my thumb.

Fortunately, I discovered the German Singer 316 and it was love at first sight.   The first one I saw was a muscular black one, very masculine. I was lucky enough to buy a mocha and beige one from McKenna Linn, and although I paid more than I have ever paid for any other vintage machine, it cost no more than a low end plastic wonder.  Including shipping.  This is the great secret that vintage sewing machine owners know:  you can get fabulous machines, far better than the most expensive machines being made today, for a song.

Singer 316G, the love of my life

Her name is Brunhilde, the name of one of the Norse Valkyries, and it means "Battle Bright".  Very appropriate given the hand-to-hand combat nature of some of my sewing adventures.  So far she has handled everything I have thrown at her without a grumble, including a couple more pieces of soft sided luggage.  And Brunhilde, the 316, takes a regular class 15 bobbin and regular sewing machine needles.  And that adjustable light!  Gosh, real light, lots of it, and right where you want it, wherever you want it.  Sewing machine light heaven.

You can set the maximum and minimum width of the decorative stitches with the happy-face-elephant-nose thingy.  And it makes me smile every time I sit down at the machine.

Singer 316G in a Singer Hampden Court cabinet--look at all that drawer space!  Look at all that mess!
and now you know how the photo magic really happens.  Cut a tri-fold display board in half (think "science fair" board) and you will have two photo backdrops.

And the motor controller (aka foot pedal) is another wonder.  For the first time I truly understand the meaning of "controller".  I can sew at any speed, including so slow that it is really one stitch at a time, and the machine just tickety ticks along.  No grumbling.  No hesitation.  Ultimate, absolute, instantaneous control.  Kind of like cooking with a gas range after using an electric. 

She does, however, share with the 306 and 319
Issue #3:  the only way to access the bobbin is to tilt the machine back.  What WERE they thinking? 

This is the reason I installed a coil spring belt on my treadle.  When I have the 306 (or, later, the 319) in there I can tilt the machine back to change the bobbin without undoing the belt.

There is another potential issue with the 306 and the 319, and another reason to think seriously about whether you want one or not:
Potential Issue #4:  They may have been re-timed in order to take the common sewing machine needles.  Sounds good, yes?  No, THIS IS A BAD THING.  But it can be corrected.

What does this mean?  I barely understand it myself, but here goes.  A properly functioning sewing machine is a masterpiece of synchronicity.  Think about it:  You've got thread in a needle on the top, thread in the bobbin on the bobbin, and feed dogs pushing the fabric along, and they all have to work together PERFECTLY.  Timing, as I understand it, is the coordination of these three things.

So if you take a machine designed to work perfectly with a certain size of needle and disrupt that synchronicity, you no longer have a machine designed to work perfectly.  It has been messed up.  And sooner or later, you will pay.

If the machine comes with a needle, take it out and put it side by side with a regular needle.  Same length?  The machine may have been re-timed.  Shorter?  It's probably in the original condition. 

My lovely 319 has been subjected to re-timing and now she is sitting around waiting for me to either learn a new skill or spend money on taking her to a technician.  I have gotten as far as reading through the instructions in the service manual, and it sounds do-able.  Stay tuned to this channel for the next thrilling development.  But don't hold your breath while you are doing it.   There are dozens of machines here and I am easily distracted. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

How to sell a high-end vintage machine on CraigsList

I've done this three times now and thought someone out there might like to hear about it. In the last 6 months I have sold
A Singer 401
A Pfaff 1221
A Lady Kenmore 89

All of these are machines desired by some collectors.  All three of these were in very good cosmetic condition and perfect operating condition.  They need to be great if you want a good price.

Pfaff 1221 with cam stack and "integrated dual feed":  a built in walking foot

For the Pfaff and the Kenmore I had an original manual and a complete set of the original attachments.  For the Singer I put together a complete set of attachments and cams and a reproduction manual.  For all of them I then added as many additional goodies as I could find--more specialty presser feet, Greist hemmer sets, buttonholers, bobbins, a selection of needle sizes, etc.  I buy this stuff all the time very inexpensively at thrift shops, so I always have a good supply. 

My goal is to give the buyer as complete a package as possible.  The Singer 401 is slant shank, and the Pfaff and Kenmore 89 are both high shank, so you can't just run to Walmart or Joann's for attachments.  Adding as many extras as possible saves the buyer a ton of money.  I put the goodies in an attractive little box, too.

For the Pfaff and Kenmore I scanned the manual and printed it out at 8.5 x 11" size, which makes the illustrations much easier to read.  I used both of these machines as my go-to machines at some point, so I had done this for myself.

Lady Kenmore 89, made by Gritzner in West Germany

I begin with the price that I could reasonably expect to get on eBay.  You can search for completed listings for the model you are selling.  But a better approach is to set up a search and look every day, or at least weekly, add them to your watch list and see what they go for.  You need a good knowledge base to come up with a realistic price.

The classic Singer 401, considered by many to be the best machine Singer ever made

But that's the eBay price, not the CraigsList price.  eBay is a national market and you will get a higher price if thousands of people are looking.  So I knock $100 off of the eBay price (only $50 off during the Christmas season).  That might sound like a big reduction, but eBay and PayPal both charge fees and CraigsList doesn't.  With local CraigsList buyers you don't have to ship it.  And with CraigsList you can sell the cabinet with it.  Any vintage machine collector quickly becomes swamped with cabinets.

In the CraigsList ad I say "asking $xxx" and I don't say "or best offer".  Most people ask if I would take less.  My answer is yes, but only $50 less. 

I write an ad that describes the machine and all of its features and attachments in EXHAUSTIVE detail.  Good photos are a must too.  I write the longest, most detailed CraigsList ads I have ever seen.  I give advice about what to look for ("Always check the cam stack on a vintage machine through a complete rotation, looking for cracks.  This cam stack is flawless").  I reveal the slightest flaws such as tiny chips to the paint job.

You see, I am looking for the ONE knowledgeable person who knows what she is looking for.  The extremely detailed ad tells her what she needs to know.  And all three times I found her.  And she was delighted with the machine and the price.  And I was delighted to find a good home for it.  Not to mention making a bit of money.

And a bit is all I got.  In each case if you factored in the time I spent in cleaning and repairing the machines, I made about minimum wage.  But bringing vintage machines back to life is what I do for fun, so I got paid minimum wage for some vintage fun.

It's only the high-end collectible machines that I expect to make a bit of money on.  Most of the people I meet personally just want a simple zig-zagger, and I sell those to friends, friends of daughters, friends of friends, and people who become friends in the process. 

I include a manual if I have one, at the minimum a threading guide even if I have to create one from a photo.  I only include the attachments that I think the buyer will want, usually just an adjustable zipper foot.  Too many attachments can be intimidating.  What the heck are they?  What the heck am I supposed to be doing with them?

These non-high-end machines I sell for the exact amount of money that I have invested in them and don't add anything for my labor.

After all, the mission statement of DragonPoodle Studio is:
Saving History From The Scrapyard, One Sewing Machine At A Time.

Saving, not hoarding.  I want EVERYONE who sews to have a wonderful vintage machine.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Exterior Rehabilitation of a Singer 319

319 shown in the handy enameled metal pan that catches all the drippy oil
A nice young couple in Durham were moving and listed this on CraigsList.  She had learned to sew on a 319, now gone, and had been surprised and horrified at the quality of a short lived modern plastic wonder that replaced it.  So she bought this 319 used, meaning to "fix it up" but never found the time.

I did ask her, twice, if she was sure she wanted to get rid of it.  She was sure.  This time I did not try to talk her out of it, as I have done with other people before.

It was very grubby. 

The cabinet, not shown, had also seen better days.

I've been craving a 319 to play with.  Those "typewriter keys" are fascinating.

So here's what I did.  I'm not going to go into the exhaustive detail of a full tutorial, I just want to convey to newbies that this is an easy job to tackle.  Not quick, but easy.

The 319 is a good choice for the blog because on a pale green machine the dirt is easy to see and photograph.  Just try photographing dirt on black cast iron!

First, I take off everything that will come off and clean each piece as it comes off.

Not shown:  remove the bobbin case, bobbin slide cover, feed dog cover, and needle.  I also take off the upper thread guide and the bobbin winder guide on the bed.  None of these things will get "messed up" by removing them, although you will have to get the bobbin winder guide lined up with the bobbin winder (by winding a bobbin slowly and moving the guide it back and forth until it is lined up).  I don't mess with tensioners (yet, anyhow) and if you take one of those apart it has lots of pieces.  and springs.  The list of things that I recommend you remove all come off one way and go back on the same one way.  You won't mess up your machine.  Trust me on this. 

For anything that sticks, and the feed dog cover screws often do, use sewing machine oil and a hair dryer.  Make sure you have a screwdriver that fits the slot in the screw.  Repeat the oil and heat until it loosens and comes out.

For the non-painted metal bit (and those alone!)  you can drop them into a small container of rubbing alcohol to dissolve away the dried up old sewing machine oil, sometimes called "varnish" because that's what it looks like.  But that's not what it is.  You can let them soak.  Attack stubborn gunk on them with a soft toothbrush.

Non-pumice orange GoJo is a hand cleaner available at some auto supply shops and on Amazon.  Designed for auto mechanics, it is made specifically to melt greasy dirt away, in a skin-safe non-toxic way. 

Put the GoJo on with a soft toothbrush.  If you are my age or close to it, you are probably visiting your dentist and your periodontist at regular intervals.  They shower you with toothbrushes.  That's the only good thing about all those visits.  That, and not losing all your teeth, which is the fate they foretell for those that stop making those expensive visits.

At first the GoJo just sits there, but scrub it around gently and it will dissolve and dissolve much of the gunky greasy dirt along with it.

Once you are just moving dissolved gunk around, stop and just wipe it off with a rag.  It works amazingly well.

Take off the access covers and other large removable bits and clean them with the GoJo.  No need to rinse, there will be one more step that will remove any GoJo residue.

spool pin holder and back access port cover


Motor and light assembly--leave them connected to one another

 They come off as shown below

The motor bolt is immediately below the handwheel

Remove the spool pin holder and you will have access to the screw that holds the light fixture


bobbin winder screws
After you remove the handwheel, you have access to the screws that hold on the bobbin winder.
There's more about removing motors and handwheels and bobbin winders here.

Bobbin winder

In the cracks and crevices where a toothbrush is too large, a q-tip will do the job.  When the q-tip is too large, try a toothpick.

bobbin winder guide
My own personal goal is to seek and destroy every bit of visible gunk and to get the machine as clean as I possibly can, top to bottom.  I also always believe that each new machine is the love of my life, and that I will be sewing on it regularly--so I am really preparing each machine for my own personal use.  Then I sew on the same two machines that I always sew on. 

It's the little touches that make all the difference.  Getting the dirt out from under the upper thread guide and the bobbin winder guide is really only possible if you take the darn things off.

After the removable parts are clean I tackle the stripped down machine (shown clean below).  I clean both the interior and the exterior, but the interior on this one was very clean.  And this post will be quite long enough!

Stripped down
How does your finish look?  If it is chalky, chipped and/or flaking, then wipe it all down with a barely damp cloth and you are finished with the cleaning phase.  The TR-3 coming up next will be a complete waste of time.  I've got a chalky 306 that I worked over thoroughly and repeatedly with TR-3 to no effect.

If, however you have a nice glossy, or even just a decent finish, do everything except the bottom or underneath part of the machine again with TR-3.  I did tell you that this is not a quick job.

TR-3 is also available at the auto parts store.  It's original purpose is to safely clean and polish a car's paint job.  Apply it with a soft cloth, let it dry thoroughly (takes a while, as in: go do something else). Polish it off with a clean soft dry cloth.  This will both give you a nice gloss, or at the very least a nice glow, and it also leaves a protective finish. 

While the top is off, use a toothpick to remove old dried lubricant from the gears, followed by a good scrub with sewing machine oil and yet another soft toothbrush.  Oil the points that need oil, top and bottom, and lube the gears.

Put it all back together and bask in the glory.  This machine turned out to be a real peach. 

just like Alfred Hitchcock, I often make a cameo appearance.  In my case this is never planned however.

Can't wait to play with it. But the recently acquired Wheeler & Wilson No. 8 treadle, circa 1878, is calling my name even louder than this one is.  So many sewing machines, and, even with the leisure that comes with retirement, so little time.