On Machinery, Stitches, and the 21st Century

July 4, 2013 - 4:49pm -- swingbug

I've been sewing on my grandmother's old viking for years now. Between she and I, it has some miles on it. I think it rolled off the assembly line a few years before I did, as evident by the bell-bottom clad models in the instruction manual photos, standing on impressively shaggy carpet. It's not a fancy machine, but sturdy, and has seen me through a great many sewing adventures.

I'm loathe to part with it, but that eventuality has been visible on the horizon for some time now. It's getting harder and harder to find parts for it, and I'm afraid even when its working well, it not quite what it used to be. When sewing the quidditch padding for last year's Halloween costumes this became inescapably obvious. Professor McGonagal would have taken quite a few points away from my house if she had heard the words coming out of my mouth at the eleventh hour on that project.

For my birthday, my husband gave me the gift of research. He talked to the guys in the sewing machine store, read brochures and tech spec sheets, and dove into online sewing forums harvesting information for me on the perfect machine. Armed with my new reading material, I went down to the sewing machine store and met an eager salesman.

The box he sat me down in front of had cruise control, literally hundreds of pre-programmed stitch patterns, and a digital display for controlling everything short of the weather. It defaulted to backstitching at the begining and end of every seam. It insisted on returning the needle to an upright position every time I stopped.

"Can you turn that feature off?" I asked.

The salesman said, "Sure, you can change it to stop at the bottom every time."

I rubbed my temples.

Damned thing had an on/off button, for christ's sake. The pedal was "optional" and about as responsive as a six-year-old told to stop playing video games to brush his teeth and go to bed.

"I already have a computer," I told the man. "I'm looking for a sewing machine."

He gave me that look. You know, that look. That look that says, "Lady, are you ever a pain in the ass, and your husband is far more reasonable than you."

Noted, and agreed. But now you're dealing with me.

"Well, this is the 21st century-", he began.

I cut him off right there. I am not a technophobe. Like many of my generation, I'm liable to walk into physical objects because I'm more focused on where I'm going on my iPhone than I am in real space. I am often the person called on amidst my circle of acquaintences to fix computers or their users. I speak Python well, know my SQL, and can passably get by with JavaScript, CSS, and HTML. Even a little Klingon.

I know what century it is.

     import datetime
     def getWithTheTimes():
       century = datetime.datetime.now().year/100+1
       return century

I also know a badly written user interface that treats said user like a moron, and I was sitting in front of one. I cast my eyes around the shelves and they fell across something metal with knobs and dials.

"I want to look at that one."

"That's a mechanical," he said dismissively.

"I want to look at that one."

That one was a Janome HD3000. It didn't try to set my tension without my consent. It also didn't try to make me coffee or tell my fortune.  But it did sew through five layers of denim evenly and without complaint. It's innards were made of metal and I could see this machine on my sewing table long enough to be potentially sewing halloween costumes for future generations. And it can do a buttonhole in one step which, once I had tried it, I determined was one piece of modern glitz that I wouldn't mind having at my disposal.

I tried a handful of different machines and a couple of different shops. I looked hard at the Bernina 1008. "Mechanicals", as the man put it, are hard to find in the current market which narrowed my search considerably. Even used; I imagine that's because those of us who swear by them never let them go.

Then I went back to the shops with fabric scraps from every project that drove me nuts in the last few years. I think the various salemen I spoke to were truly sick of me by the time I walked into the shop to put some money down on the table.

Eventually I selected the Janome HD3000 over the Bernina 1008, mainly due to the price difference ($500 versus $1800). And also, silly as it is, I really really liked that button hole.

The new machine is happily installed on my sewing table and already chugging along on a new project. It's already seen me through a couple of seams that my Viking flat out refused to attempt. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

So why am I telling you all this? Well, I have a new toy. Also there are a few of you out there who are actually interested in things like corded button holes and narrow hem presser feet. (Hey Carol-Anne. How's the east coast?) But this whole experience has got me musing over machines and computers and where they fit into our creative lives. When I sat in front of the wonder machine that wanted to do everything for me, and was going to do half of it wrong, at least to my way of thinking, it got me pondering what we give up when we hand over skills learned to boxes with brains. I don't mean this in a when-I-was-a-kid-I-walked-to-school-in-the-snow-and-it-was-uphill-both-ways kind of respect. It's just...

I learned to sew at my mother's knee. And so she learned from her mother. It's not a common skill anymore. Often enough, a friend will tug on my sleeve with a favorite garment in hand in need of mending. I don't mind. I know how to do this.

But if those of us who "know how to do this" let computers start and finish every seam for us, how long before we don't remember how to do it? The way we don't remember phone numbers anymore and can no longer spell properly unaided? And that fancy computer that knows how to sew? Is it really going to last 40 years? Or will it be sitting atop the landfill pile in 10. I wonder...

I know folks probably said the same thing 150 years ago, setting aside the latest Dickens novel to discuss the impacts the new Singer single treadle rapidly taking up space in middle-class homes. It's not a new question, but that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve a debate...

Related Topics: 


Submitted by Katy on

I am so with you! I don't mind the odd funny stitches, but after a bad experience (Viking) I ended up with a Behind which I love.

I really want to get my take machine (used add a swung machine table) up and running too...

Submitted by Ruth on

I grew up using my mother's old machine, which I wish I had been able to salvage from the wreck of my dad and step's marriage...it could hardly handle knit fabrics. :-). Sice then, I've been using a 30+ yr old fairly basic Singer....I honestly don't think I could live with. Non- mechanical....but, yes please! To a buttonholer that actually works!

Submitted by caanne on

Lol! When I read this post the first thing I did was look for the "Like" button! Must spend less time on Facebook...

All of my five sewing machines have been gifts (lucky girl am I). The one I cling to is the 1975 Kenmore from Sears. All metal. The button-hole attachment is four steps, but it's more reliable than the 2-step one on my plastic computer-run machine. I will do anything to fix it for as long as it lives. I like it so much I bought two more of them (a '76 and a '77 model) off of eBay over the years and gifted them to non-believing friends spending too much time cursing at their new machines.

51 days until DragonCon! Have you heard of the Ballad of Bilbo Baggins? That's the group costume this year. Shhh... it's a "secret" ;)