Sewing Machines

So I have a week to make a lower-middle class woman’s Tudor costume. I spend the weekend reading about it out of town, on MOnday I do real paid work (girl has to eat!) and then, Tuesday go and buy the fabric and start cutting it out. I’m a piece-by-piece worker, mostly finish the bodice, before cutting pieces to a new garment. Well I start with the smock- a simple T shaped thing- and halfway down my second side seam (no French seams), I overload my bobbin and the machine makes a weird noise.

I vacuum it. I do all the tricks, re-thread the thing, read the manual (!), etc. The symptoms change from not working to sometimes working, to issuing a strange noise, and finally, to not making a loop at all.

I call some better seamstresses, get their take- “Did you tune it up?” Uh, no. I’ve never oiled it either. I suck it up and realize I have to get it fixed. I call a place in Chinatown. After a few interchanges that prove I don’t speak Cantonese and he doesn’t speak English, he hangs up on me. I call a place in the Sunset and get a very nice guy- and hop in the car and drop it off. ($50 for fabric, $15 for gas now, total for costume, $45). He takes a millisecond look at it, rotating the manual crank, and says, “It’s the timing.” Which, from what I’ve read, and figured out, I agree with. $89. (So far costume is… $144).

During my non-machine time, I’m cutting and fitting. I’m hand-sewing pleats. I’m making decisions. There’s actually quite a lot you can do without a machine. I watch Project Runway, and read Project Rungay, for example.

So repair guy calls. In somewhat broken English full of correct idioms, he tells me that it’s not the timing, it’s the gears. Now, sewing machines are kind of simple engines, and the two gears that interlace here below the needle to market he stitches turn are pretty vital. It’s like your axle being broken on a car. It won’t go. He tries to upsell me on a trade in, and warns me it will take weeks to repair. When I admit it’s not mine, it’s my mother’s, and I’ll have to call her, he folds and says he’ll “drive to Oakland and pick up the part, and have it ready by tomorrow.” Whew, my kind of fake-out worked. Well, for double the price. ($200, total is now $344).

So I call around to see if I made the right decision- it is my mom’s, and she inherited it from her mom. My dad, on the phone that evening, reminded me that it was a thorn in his side, as his mother-in-law asked for a nice machine, and he got the top of the line Singer from his work, with a discount, and she still looked down on it. Emotional angst aside, I’m guessing it’s roughly from the early 70s, and he said he paid $200 dollars, what with inflation and the discount, that’s a pretty expensive sewing machine. My mom didn’t care- she told me to buy a new one. What I like about this machine are some of the decorative stitches, it runs really fast and evenly, and the bobbin loader (when you figure out how it works) is really automatic, also, it’s a touch system so it’s faster if you sew a lot. I figure out that it’s a $700 machine, or at least $500 with its features, and has lasted pretty well with *no* maintenance since the 70s, so I made the right decision.

Well, except that I only have 3 days to go and no machine, and 5 garments to make.

So I’m bitching to my mom, and she makes the very wise suggestion to use my sister’s. One of them is in Berkeley, but she drove to LA, so I’d have to break in… I mean, ask her neighbors for a key and get it. She already offered from her cell phone on the road a day before. OK, the other option is to drive to San Jose and borrow from my other sister (They all have machines! lucky.). I get back in my car ($20 for gas back and forth – now $364). I get down there, she lends me her machine, my brother-in-law heckles me, and I drive back, and remember I have a city friend with a machine. Doh! I get in a few hours of sewing – the smock is done, and the waistband and top of the skirt. Whew. 3:30AM, and I go to sleep comforted that some progress has been made.

Friday, wake up early in my own personal reality show, and with less than 48 hours before the event, and lots of sewing to do. I have very complicated sleeves coming up. I also have paid work to do. I get a phone call at 9am: “your sewing machine is ready!” I love my sister’s loaner but I’m a lot faster on my machine, so I drive over and pick it up, and get in a run, since I’m exhausted on 4 hrs of sleep and need some non-coffee energy! Back at home I figure out the automatic bobbin loading thing, and whip out some French seams on the skirt and a hem. I start with the crafty pinked and lined satin sleeves, the hardest garment.

Well long story short, finished by 7pm including doing paid work, and managed to make these “thank you” gift for my sister for her loaner, some felted wool packets for her sewing accessories:

Wool packets

I have new respect for a friend of mine who is a costume maker. Having to do this stuff on a deadline is stressful (and expensive).