This isn’t exactly the intended use of this space, but a bunch of people have been asking me for sewing machine reviews and tips, so here it goes:
For about 15 years, I sewed very happily with a very basic entry-level Kenmore machine. It had straight and zig zag stitches and a three-step buttonhole, and a couple of stretch stitches for knits. It was absolutely all I needed for a long time, and this review should be construed in no way as to say that anyone needs a fancier machine for the vast majority of sewing. If you’ve got a machine that does the above, you’ll be able to sew household goods, costumes, clothes, accessories etc. very well. I’d actually say that if you’re new to sewing, spend as little as you can on a basic machine from a good brand (even used, assuming you can try it out before you bring it home); upgrade when you know what it is you like to sew and what kinds of additional features and functions you would most like. There’s no point in spending a couple of hundred extra dollars on decorative stitches you’ll never use–or automatic buttonholes when you don’t like sewing clothes–or a quilt extension table if you discover you hate quilting.
And I’d likely not have replaced my Kenmore if it hadn’t been breaking down on me. After fifteen years of dedicated service I suppose it was destined to happen: if I selected the straight stitch, sometimes I’d get zigzag; if I selected the buttonhole stitch, sometimes I’d get a straight stitch. I’d end up faking a buttonhole with a very densely set zig zag stitch, overlapped a couple of times. The bobbin thread was forever getting tangled. It was loud. Also, Kenmores are decent machines, but they’re from Sears, and it’s not so easy getting support on sewing machines these days from Sears (my local store doesn’t carry sewing machines or supplies) which can make it difficult to get extra bobbins or accessories or different feet or, you know, repairs when the machine starts breaking down. I didn’t want to deal with that hassle, so I struck when the boxing day iron was hot and got myself a Janome half-price. (Looking at the Kenmore page, it wasn’t actually much more expensive than a similar Kenmore model–so there you go.)
Janomes are reputed to be the world’s most reliable sewing machines; Berninas are good too, if you have the money; Singers are inexpensive, but not as good as they used to be. Basically, Janomes are like Hondas: a really nice little machine at a reasonable price. Two things settled the choice for me: the recommendation of my local fabric store and sewing studio, which is completely stocked with Janomes for their sewing classes; and a recent bit in a sewing magazine, asking the issue contributors what machine they have at home and use most often. One person said Bernina. Every other contributor said they use a Janome.
If they’re anything like me, of course, they have more than one sewing machine at home: I have five right now, embarassingly, including my daughter’s, my old broken Kenmore, an antique Singer that I’ve been told works but which I bought for the sewing table it’s embedded in, the new Janome, and a used BabyLock serger that I also adore. I thought it quite significant that for almost all of the contributors, the one they used most often was their Janome.
The 2030 QDC was on sale, as I said; it also had a few features I was looking for:
a) automatic one-step buttonholes.
b) quilting accessories and a little extension table for quilts
c) lots of lovely additional feet, including a quarter-inch seem foot, a walking foot, a darning foot, a buttonhole foot, a zipper foot, a see-through foot for the decorative stitches–basically anything I could think I might want to use
That it’s computerized I didn’t really care about one way or the other. Indeed, the computerized part means it makes a bit of a hum when it’s on whether it’s in use or not, which may be annoying to you. At any rate, computerized models are not superior to mechanical models for most sewing.
I’ve now put it through four sewing projects–three patchwork/quilting projects and one piece of clothing–and I love it. It’s a great little machine.
First: patchwork pouch
Frances has now commandeered this for her personal use to corral part of her mountain of art supplies. The project came from 1-2-3 Quilt, a book of progressive learn-to-quilt projects. Threading the machine was completely intuitive, assisted by the autmoatic needle threader, and winding and installing the bobbin was really simple. The bobbin is installed horizontally beneath a transparent plastic plate, so you can see how much thread is remaining. You change feet with a button at the back of the foot holder–no screws!–which was fantastic, and the quarter-inch and zipper feet were super handy and very easy to use. The machine sews much more quietly than my old Kenmore. Janomes also can be operated with the use of a start/stop button on the machine itself rather than the foot pedal, and I played with that and found it pretty handy. I’m used to foot pedal operation, so I’m not sure it’s something I’m going to use often, but for someone shorter who has a hard time reaching a foot pedal or who hasn’t spent fifteen years sewing with one, I think it could be really great.
It also has a button to control whether the machine stops with the needle raised or lowered. Most of the time I use it with the needle raised, but lowered is great when you’re fidgeting with curves or corners and need to pivot frequently.
Second: table runner
There is only one reason I would sew a table runner. Well, ok, two. I might sew one for a gift, for someone else. But there is only one reason I would sew one for me, and that is as a learning project. It was my second project in the 1-2-3 Quilt book, so I made one out of leftover fabric, and god knows between craft supplies, sewing projects and homework, the dining room table will never be clear enough for it to be used. But it’s done. The quilting extension table came in very handy. It was great to have the project at the level of the machine; kept everything moving through in a nice straight line. I also used a walking foot for the first time ever, and once I got the hang of it, it worked great and made for nice quilting lines with no fabric puckering or pulling.
Third: patchwork tote bag
I know the handles don’t match the fabric, but it seemed silly to go out and purchase new cotton webbing for another practice project. Still, it’s cute, eh? And very sturdy. It carries a lot of books. I think I’ll keep this one at my new office for any midday errands I need to run. It didn’t really show me anything new about the Janome, though.
Fourth: the Fancy Shirt
aka, Vogue Pattern 1366 , an Anne Klein pattern I got on sale for $3, rated “average” for difficulty. I bought a really nice super-soft bright pink Italian cotton for it on Queen West a month or so back, and I was not looking forward to attempting a buttonhole in this gorgeous fabric with my wonky old Kenmore and it’s fickle buttonhole settings–and this shirt has a lot of buttons. You can’t see them in the picture, but take my word for it. Isn’t it pretty? Look at those cool sleeves!
(I made the pants in a test fabric a while back, and will make them again in a nice light wool, too. It’s a great pattern set if you’re looking for some nice work wear and don’t mind spending a bit of extra time fidgeting with the details. I will also say that unlike many brands, Vogue patterns are correctly sized for the body measurements included on the pattern envelope, so do not undersize yourself. I sewed up a size 16 and it’s just about perfect for me, pants and shirt both.)
This was where I really fell in love with my beautiful little Janome.
Automatic buttonholes! You put the button you want to use in the buttonhole foot, and it automatically sews the buttonhole exactly the right size with the push of a button! Once I got it all figured out (and I do recommend practicing on some scrap fabric pieces first), I put the placket underneath the foot, pushed the button, and got up and went to the kitchen to fetch my tea. And I came back and there was a perfect little buttonhole waiting for me. Just thinking about it I could go downstairs and give it a hug and a kiss right now. Apparently you can also use the machine to sew on buttons (buttons!), but I haven’t yet been brave enough to try that.
Overlock stitch! You know when a pattern tells you to sew once, sew again 1/4″ away, and then trim close to the second stitch line (if you don’t, it’s for seams with heavy use to reinforce them)–instead I stitched once, trimmed, and then overlock stitched 1/4″ away to get a serged effect without having to get out my serger. The seams inside this shirt are a thing of beauty, I tell you. They will last for 20 years.
No tangled bobbin threads; no skipped stitches. All of the accessories are stored in a little flip-down compartment at the front of the machine, so they were all to hand when I needed them.
Now, a lot of this is not unique to Janome, and I could have gotten automatic buttonhole features etc. with any number of different brands. But it’s smooth, quiet, makes lovely stitches, is a pleasure to use and designed to be as easy as possible–with things like the viewable bobbin and the button for changing feet, for example. One of the stitch settings automatically reverses at the beginning of a new seam to “lock” it; I haven’t used this yet, but again, I can see how this would be very handy for new sewists. I could have found something much fancier for a lot more money, but I frankly can’t see why.
I won’t say the new machine makes me like sewing even more (though I’m tempted to), but I will say that it has eliminated some not insignificant frustrations from my old machine, and I can’t wait to start on my next project (that’ll be the fifth since buying the machine last Friday). Pants or throw quilt? Throw quilt or pants? I suspect I will be lost in a fabric haze during all my spare time for at least a few months to come.