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Jan 15, 2016

I Find Another Sewing Machine in the Trash



It's happened again!

But let's back up.

When it comes to sewing machines, I have very particular taste.

I've sewn long enough, and on enough different types of machines (mainly, though not exclusively vintage) to know what I like.  My favorites are the classic straight-stitch Singer models like the 15-91 and the 201, as well as my current love, the Elna Grasshopper.  I believe any vintage Kenmore zigzagger with 158 in the serial number (I personally own a 158.141 and a 158.140) is likely to be excellent and heavy duty.  Vintage Berninas, Pfaffs, and Necchi's are also fine machines and will sew through most anything.

I don't like plastic machines and I'm not interested in computerized machines.  I want an all-metal machine that I can maintain myself.  Since I'm not interested in complicated embroidery, I have no need for those kind of features.  Just to be clear: if you own a computerized machine and love it, that's great.  It's all about personal preference.

All that said, if the universe is going to gift me a machine by planting it my neighborhood trash (as it has many times) I'm not going to refuse.  I'm open-minded enough to take it home, give a whirl, and then decide what I want to do with it.

Yesterday evening, the universe did this very thing, right at the peak of my decluttering fervor.  What a tease!

The machine was directly outside the back door of my building, in an area where tenants leave larger items that aren't recyclable.  I was returning home, saw the beige plastic sewing machine case, and without even looking inside, carted it upstairs.  Inside was an immaculate Brother VX790, a zigzagger with a few stretch stitches.  It's mostly metal and I believe it dates from the 1980's. 





I plugged it in and it powered up, though there was a 66 bobbin in it instead of the required 15.  The VX790 is what I consider a beginner's machine: there are only a few available stitch lengths, and the longest isn't terribly long.  After some tinkering with the bobbin tension, I was able to get a well-balanced straight stitch.  (I also oiled the machine and replaced the needle.)





 



You can view two 15 second videos of the machine on Instagram, here and here.

This Brother can also make scallop stitches.  Pretty.



What this particular machine didn't want to do was a basic zigzag.  The needle zigged but the stitch on the left side wouldn't hold.  I don't know if this is a shuttle issue or something else.  Frankly, I rarely use a zigzag anyway (only to sew on buttons).  All you need for most garments is a solid straight stitch, especially if you own a serger and aren't zigzagging raw seam allowances.  The VX790 also doesn't allow you to adjust the presser foot pressure.

UPDATE: The machine DOES do a narrow zigzag now, up to the "3" setting in stitch width, but no wider.  Better than nothing!

A pretty sure sign this machine was barely used is that most of the accessories were still wrapped in plastic.  (I stole the double needle for myself.)



This machine would be adequate for a child, though, frankly, I think a child would do better with a fully-functioning machine that is easier to work with and sews flawlessly, like a vintage Singer 99 or Singer Spartan -- two models that are easy to find relatively cheaply.  There's something clunky about this Brother; it lacks refinement and doesn't feel precise.



As you might guess, the Brother comes with a generic foot pedal. 



So what's to become of this machine?  I'm not going to use it so I may return it to where I found it, but with a note saying that it works but doesn't zigzag.  Even if I weren't in decluttering mode, I wouldn't have room in my life for the Brother VX790.

Readers, do you agree that especially a beginner-level sewer deserves a simple machine that sews flawlessly?  A beginner would have no idea how to deal with the frustrations they'd likely experience with a crappy machine and probably blame themselves.  This only discourages people who are really interested in sewing, but lack quality tools.

What machine do you think a beginner sewer should learn to sew on?

Have a great day, everybody!

50 comments:

  1. You could sell the Brother machine on eBay. I agree with teaching someone to sew on a Singer 99 or 301. I taught myself to sew on a Domestic treadle with a vibrating shuttle.

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  2. I learned to sew on a Singer featherweight. I think this is a great machine to use for a beginner. It is simple, portable (small) and reliable. It does not do a zigzag, but has a great straight stitch.
    Victoria

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  3. Flea market. Just leave it, it will find a home.

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  4. donate it to the salvation army. it will go where it's most needed.

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  5. Any fairly modern machine ( lets say vintage from 60's for a ZZ, vintage from 30's on for straight stitch only) that does not make thread nests easily. That tangle thing leads to frustration.. avoid at all costs. Learning to put a garment together, understanding all the new terms, etc. is hard enough without having stitching issues. Simple machine, easy to wind bobbin (I favor top loaders for new learners) and no propensity to tangle thread = better chance of a new learner sticking with it. No wallyworld, chain store machines as there is no dealer support, get to know your machine hands-on session with the seller. Bricks & Mortar store for a beginner if there is not a loving pal/parent/aunty/uncle for coaching and encouragement. that was rambling... sorry!!

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  6. A beginner needs a reliable machine if they're to recognise which imperfections result from their skills requiring improvement rather than a machine that doesn't sew very well! One of the old mechanical Berninas or Pfaffs (especially if the latter has dual feed!) or one of the Frister and Rossman Cub range would be perfect as they'll tackle anything, will stand up to a lot of learner abuse and will last for plenty decades yet if looked after.

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  7. Like you, I favor older machines. My daily machines are a Singer 301 and a Singer 501. I have a Bernina 730 record as a backup, but I really favor the Singers. I think any of these would be great machines for new sewists. I learned on a Featherweight, and I often regretted the lack of a zig-zag stitch. I'm glad to hear you picked up a double needle for your efforts!

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  8. Considering the weather, maybe think about dropping it off at a charity donation center. It's certainly worth saving. The dropped zig zag might be a timing problem with the hook - the machine just needs a tune up. Unfortunately, professional tune ups in NYC can easily be $100. Still, it's probably a better machine than many of the new cheapos...

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  9. I learned on a buggy Brother in the 80s...what a mess. I recommend a Singer 301 or 401...they're workhorses.

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  10. The universe adores you!

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  11. Should one have a *first* machine, it should be new to them as it is new to use. A basic, but electronic machine (I know Peter would disagree!). It will help take out the frustrations of sewing and plant the seed of creation. If sewing becomes more than a fad for the beginner, then they can outgrow and get a machine that they would have sought out for the next step, or steps! When I started out I didn't know why machines would have thread cutters, but now I dream of genie!

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  12. I recommend that you donate it to someone or an institution (local school home economics department -- if one exists) that can fix it themselves. From what you've described, it's a very easy fix but it's not worth taking it to a professional and it's not worth your time as you have several machines that are far, far better. Sometimes the universe needs help giving stuff to the right person and in this case perhaps you're the one to help it along.

    As for whether a beginner should have a machine that works flawlessly so that they can concentrate exclusively on sewing, well, that depends. Learning basic repairs can be very helpful in producing the best stitching possible no matter the particular machine. If the new sewer is very young and/or has little patience or interest, a machine in perfect working order is likely what would best suit them. And although roughly 90% of a home sewer's stitching is probably in straight stitch, I strongly recommend a zig-zag machine for a first one -- a machine that will cover as many bases as possible without having to buy another for as long as possible.

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    1. Agree with poster's donation suggestion. NYC schools must have a need for a spare machine-what with prom coming up, there could be someone helping students out with sewing outfits...

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  13. Woodhaven Sewing Machine still exists as Sew Time Sewing in Bayside (Queens),NY. I bought my serger there last year. Suzie could probably help you with the zig zag issue over the phone! http://www.sewtime.com/history.html
    Since it seems to be an almost perfect machine for a beginner (or anyone doing simple repairs or alterations) why not try to get it up to speed an then donate it to a women's shelter or group home.

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  14. A slight timing issue which can most likely be easily fixed.
    The previous owner's frustration no doubt stems from having the wrong bobbin, which would have produced thread nests.

    Free-Cycle or Craigslist with the caveat. Hate for it to end up back on the street.

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    1. You're right about the timing I bet: I'm going to see if I can re-insert the shuttle and make this work.

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    2. Could be timing, but I have a feeling it is just old oil and needs more lubrication. I would try oil and heat and repeat before I would try to re-time it. Just sayin' But then I hate to time anything other than a Singer 66.

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  15. I agree wholeheartedly with your reasoning regarding beginning sewers and their machines. They do not deserve to learn to sew with anything less than a perfectly functioning, good quality machine.

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  16. I was recently gifted a brother computerised machine by the local street also. Runs perfectly, but there is no power cord (but there is the foot pedal) and I'm sure I have one downstairs. I think any machine is ok for a beginner... you learn with what you have and basically it's all the same... push a button or turn a knob. It'd be nice for the zig zag to run properly. I have a friend who is looking for a machine for her little business so I'll gift her this one when I have it running. Otherwise I'll give it to a church group that does sewing.

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  17. I smiled when I saw the picture, that model was my very first sewing machine that I taught myself to sew on. I sewed everything on it, inc my daughters christening gown. It only ever put a foot wrong when it began to wear out. The selector dial has a plastic component, which needed replacing eventually, (4 step buttonholes need a lot of dial turning). The replacement was not economically viable considering the age and initial cost.
    It lasted for nearly 20 year and cost me £89, but gave me a lot of pleasure. I would say, give it to somebody who will use it.

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  18. I recall you have a Brother serger. I ended up getting the same model as you have. When I got it, I was pretty dissatisfied with the plastic,flimsy, not-so-responsive foot controler. Then I remembered that I still had my very first sewing machine from the 1980's, which was a Brother.(I hated the machine, but I kept it....) I took out the foot controller, a metal and very sturdy one, and plugged it in to my serger (yeah, happened to be the same plug!) Oh, my. What a difference it made! Now my serger is very responsive to the foot controller and I'm happy that I didn't just toss my old Brother. Keep the foot controller and use it with your serger, if you haven't done so already! By the way, I always recommend Kenmore 158. to beginners who ask what type of machines they should look for. I love those straight-forward machines.

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    1. I did it: it really does seem to make the serger operate more smoothly!

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  19. SO true. Your machine is your tool and you wouldn't cut up veges with a blunt knife, or dig a garden with bent spade. It took me some time and watching my students on their various machines to see a rough correlation between quality of machine and ability. Very telling!

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  20. I'm a total beginner and I got myself an IKEA sewing machine. I'm learning by making many mistakes and seems that all my problems come from threading. I found your post today and it could explain why I always have thread nests: wrong bobbin? I didn't know about that but it could certainly be......

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    1. Hi Asteride, My sis got an IKEA last year, and its good but v limited. I have used it, and its fine BUT it doesnt like to go too fast. is getting thread nests on the underside of the fabric, try lowering the presser foot after theeading the machine and pulling the thread gently to make sure the top tension is correctly engaged (when the presser foot is up, the thread will pull freely, when the foot is down, it will have some resistance, as will the thread coming out of the bobbin case. I would always recommend an older metal machine for beginner sew-ers. even a hand-cranked one (we had them in our home-ec class). My main machine for the past 25 years is an 80s all metal singer. I since bought a 60s singer as a back up and given an old semi industrial brother - They are all great, the brother is a power horse and only best at straight stitch (zig zags odd). I bought an electronic embroidery machine for a special project (irish dance dress) and its good (and a bit of a novelty) but for tailoring I prefer the singers.

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  21. I love these posts of yours, it's kind of like reading your account of a first date, with all your friends chiming it about whether you should give this machine a second date or not. Love it!!

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  22. Good for you for getting rid of the machine! After 40 years in a 2-story house, my space is as cramped as your apartment. I've gotten rid of 5 machines in the past couple of years, and now view my "stuff" in terms of the cubic feet it occupies. In lieu of a knock down-drag out purge, my simple goal is to discard a cu ft per week--about two grocery sacks full. While searching for misplaced items, I stay alert for unneeded articles and pop them in a sack. When the sack is full, I set it by the back door. When I go to the car, I put it in the trunk. When I'm in the neighborhood, I swing by the donation center--but I DON'T go in to shop! Last year I exceeded my goal, as easy as breathing. Good luck!

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  23. Absolutely - a beginner needs a good machine that won't frustrate them. I happen to like a Janome best, but a good OLDER Singer or Kenmore from the 70's (but not the ones with cams) would be fine.

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  24. My first machine was a low-end, electronic Brother from Walmart and I used it for a good 4 years. It wasn't anywhere near as good as my second (and current) machine - the Husqvarna 190 - which is from the 70s and is entirely mechanical. But it worked well enough to keep me sewing like a banshee. The only thing it didn't do was buttonholes. It fucked those up every time (to the extent that I developed a complex about making them till I tried working on a vintage Singer, using an external cartridge, and on my 190). Beginners don't have any real knowledge or refined tastes, so I don't think it much matters, as long as they can use the machine adequately to improve. Eventually everyone goes mechanical, in my experience.

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  25. When I first started to sew in 1975, I bought myself the Kenmore 1347 (with cams). Loved that machine, but after five years, my husband bought me a Pfaff Tiptronic 1171 with an even-feed foot. Even though I still use my Tiptronic as my main machine, I've never liked the buttonholes it made. Nothing compares to the buttonholes my Kenmore makes.

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  26. Beginning sewing is frustrating enough without having to fight a sewing machine. If the goal is to quit sewing forever, get a crummy machine. Ask me how I know.

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  27. I agree that a beginner would do well with a solid, metal, no-nonsense straight machine that can maybe zigzag. They don't need fancy bits.

    That being said, many beginners start with a terrible plastic machine (myself included!). When you've been sewing untold hours on your beginner machine, you learn its quirks and foibles. You also learn that having quirks is a common thing for a sewing machine. I also think that everyone should actually take a lesson or two in how to sew, and have the teacher try out your machine. Having someone who knows what they're doing run a machine is very different from opening up the box and trying to figure it out as a beginner.

    My least favorite beginner machine? The Singer One. It's computerized enough to have opinions, and not computerized enough to tell you what they are. Also the simplified threading system makes me nervous because I can't tell what gets confubbled as easily as a normal machine. The plus side to the Singer One? Singer's hotline. Excellent service and very knowledgable.

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  28. Please don't set this machine back outside! You never know if someone is looking for one, they might really want it. I collect certain models which I've seen get trashed by others. You could donate it to a thrift store, list it for sale online or maybe give it to a senior center or community education? Please don't let it get destroyed!!!

    I would say a beginner should start with which a machine that inspires them. I love vintage machines from the 60's, 70's and 80's. I learned to sew on a 70's/80's Kenmore!

    That little plastic Brother might just inspire somebody... It is rather cool looking!

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    1. Oops, I miswrote "plastic Brother" even though you said it was metal. Wasn't thinking and couldn't read properly!

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  29. Donate it to a homeless shelter... it can be used to mend clothing.

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  30. Please donate the machine to a thrift store, Peter. There is definitely a demand for these basic, vintage machines.

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  31. Can you believe that I once found a perfectly functioning Singer Featherweight in the trash? All parts, even intruction manual was there. I already have a Featherweight, so I gifted it to my sewing friend. Best present in my opinion!

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  32. I learned to sew on abused crappy machines at high school and it didn't suppress my enthusiasm. 45 years later I still love it.

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  33. Peter I need to talk to you. Can you email me privately at knitmachinequeen@aol.com . TIA Rachelle Green

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  34. I'd say a beginner is better to learn on a basic, noisy machine. I learned on the basic, cheapest Brother I could find and when I finally upgraded 8-9 years later, all of the available machines felt great. I also found I could troubleshoot for just about anyone afterward.

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  35. At 51, I'm learning to sew on my mom's vintage Bernina! (thru trial and error, mainly error) And I'm only learning so I can make myself and my horse a show costume! Definitely makes me appreciate all my mom did for me.

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  36. I learned to sew on a 1960's Brother with a knee pedal; it never failed but did occasionally have bobbin issues. I own several machines, but my 1961 Singer Slant-O-Matic Rocketeer is my workhorse. I LOVE her! I agree with Peter; a mechanical machine is the way to go!! I also own a 1950's era White but haven't had a chance to really work on her yet; she has a belt but is a heavy metal machine. My new Janome is rarely used....I can just feel the plastic parts shimmy and rattle, and I can't stand the way it feels. I say any basic, mechanical machine for a beginner is the way to go!!

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  37. Each one teach one...find a 9 year old and give them the gift of a life time!

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  38. This is the machine I have and currently use most of the time. It used to be my mother-in-law's, but she sewed one item on it and gave up sewing completely, but not because of the machine. I agree that it isn't the greatest machine, but it does the job.

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  39. I learned to sew on a Featherweight. Was given an incredible lemon of a Singer; then discovered a vintage Bernina that was the love of my life. I think by "mechanical" many of you mean vintage quality mechanical--there are a lot of metal mechanical toys out there that are really, really awful machines. Some of the 1970s electronic machines have the best of both worlds, great feel and fine tuning. I have a New Home machine that is lovely to use. For beginners, simplicity is helpful, and reminders that proper threading is very consistent and often the key to happy sewing.

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  40. I frequently get asked by other moms if I could "sew with (their daughter's name)" so I have a list of places to take sewing lessons on file in my head. If it's a child in a non-sewing family I advise them to let the child take lessons for a year before buying a machine, because otherwise there's a machine kicking around making everyone feel guilty. Or get them one of those 5-pound "Sew Mini" machines for $50 that make pajama bottoms just fine, then upgrade if they get into it. Adults should also take lessons, then if they get hooked buy the best machine that fits their budget, new or used.

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  41. My daughter is learning on my Brother machine. It has three sewing speeds and she is learning on the slow one. It does loads of decorative stitches which she loves, and has perfect straight stitiching. I don't like vintage sewing machines, but that is my personal preference because they don't have what I need for my projects. I learned to sew on a treadle singer machine which had a rocket like bobbin. I did not like it at all. However, it was great for those who loved quilting. I do have a vintage Bernina which I gave to a relative and a Kenmore which my cousin uses. Both like vintage machines.

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  42. Peter,
    I learned to sew on a treadle sewing machine when home economics classes were part of the curriculum at my secondary school in Mexico (1978). My teacher, who I already forget her name; but I remember her very well, taught us during the first semester hand stitching. We had to make a sampler which took me forever to complete. I was very clumsy but I was 11 years old. I have that excuse. The following semester was dedicated to fabric and textile recognition, threads, measurements, and pattern drafting. (We were not allowed to use purchased patterns) so we worked in our patterns until they fitted. We started to use the sewing machine during the 3rd semester. I could never accomplish much because we had to share the machines with the other students, so I only had 10 to 15 minutes for sewing my garments. The fact that we shared the machines and they were in poor conditions brought me a lot of frustration. I was always behind in my projects because I did now own a sewing machine at home. I remember that other girls did beautiful projects and mine were not great, but in the end I pass the course. So I totally agree that some one who is learning needs a machine that works smoothly to avoid the frustrations of beginning a project and stop it to figure out how to fix the sewing machine.

    I wish a had found a sewing machine in the trash back then, though.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your memories, Anonymous!

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  43. As a sewing instructor, I had students come to class with a variety of machines that ran the gamut from useless (hello toy sewing machine!) to higher end (for the newbie with extra cash to burn).

    What I told them all at the beginning of class is this: I don't care what machine you buy/own. The bare minimum is a straight stitch and zig zag stitch with fully adjustable stitch width and length. All the other stuff is fluff and unnecessary.

    "But it has all these decorative stitches!" some would say with hope in their eyes. "I've been sewing for over 30 years and in all that time, I've used decorative stitches a handful of times", was my reply.

    I echo Peter's sentiment that a good, well maintained vintage machine is a great first choice, but if that isn't doable for whatever reason, then a more modern machine will have to do. I've owned a variety of machines from treadle-based to fully computerized embroidery machines (It's what I do for a living). I've found that you aren't going to get a really great machine that will last a while unless you spend some money.

    I've owned three "big box store" type machines: White, Brother Project Runway (purchased on the recommendation of a sewing instructor) and a Singer Esteem II for my daughter. Of the three, the last one is the only one worth it's weight. The other two were doorstops. The Singer Esteem II is around $130 at Target right now and it's what I call a decent entry level machine. No bells and whistles, but it does have an "automatic" buttonhole capability and fully adjustable stitch width and length.

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