Choosing a Sewing Machine For Your Makerspace

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Sewing machines are a marvelous creative tool to add to your STEAM space.  It can, however, be a little daunting when you try to decide which one to purchase.

There are many brands and price points to choose from.  I don’t claim to be a Sartor, but I have done a great deal of basic sewing; most of that sewing has been with elementary-age students.  No matter the age of your makers, most of what I have to share will still apply.

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General Guidelines:

Basically, any ‘real’ sewing machine will be fine.  I say ‘real’ because there are many ‘Jr.’ sewing machines out there marketed at kids and they are worthless.  They will cause you more grief than joy.  Don’t even bother.  I say ‘fine’ because if you only have one or two, you will only have a few students working on them at any one time.  If you are adding multiple machines, so that a large group can sew at the same time, you’ll want to read on.

Budget:

Sewing machines are like cars.  You can buy a sturdy Honda or a luxurious Tesla.  They both move you from point A to B.  How they do it and what creature comforts you experience along the way are what you pay for.  An excellent machine can be purchased for under $200, and some can cost more than $2,000.

Sewing Machine Diagram

Features:

More is better right?  Why would you go with the machine that has 259 stitches instead of 9? I believe in giving new sewers choices, but not many. If it has a switch, button, toggle or knob, it WILL be bumped, jostled and flipped during a sewing project.  That will mean a lot of seam ripping and frustration for both you and the sewers.

I recommend a sturdy machine that has very few knobs or dials and under a dozen stitches.  One feature that divides some experts is the front-loading vs. the drop in bobbin.  I’ve never sewn on a drop in bobbin so I really can’t speak to their ease. I learned to sew on the machine I bought my daughter a decade ago.  This machine had a front loading bobbin and I’ve stuck with it in subsequent machines. Another feature that some people swear by is the ‘self-threading’ needle.  My new machine has this feature, but I never use it.  I never seem to get it to work correctly and by the time I do, I could have easily done it by hand and so I do.

Brands:

There are many excellent options available today.  The big names are Singer, Brother, Janome, and Juki.  Each of these brands offers a variety of price points to choose from.

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Recommendations:

I have recommended the Janome 3128 to everyone who has asked.  I chose this machine because it is solid, simple and reliable.  I’ve seen it advertised on Amazon for anywhere from $99 to $175.  When we began our IDEA Lab, I purchased three at $99.  I quickly realized that three machines was not enough for a classroom project.  The next year I added 8 more.  Having 11 of the exact same machine saves time and frustration.  I know these machines inside and out.  It is easy for me to make tutorials and instructional videos for my students because all of the machines are the same.  The machine isn’t perfect. Getting the thread tension correct is a challenge, but that can be the case with any machine.  At this price point, it also makes it difficult to justify the service fee of $50 an hour for repairs.  After a few years now of using the machine, I have gotten pretty good at fixing and maintaining the machines.

Presser Foot Diagram

When the thread tension spring popped on one of our older machines, the only way to see if it could be fixed was to remove the plastic cover on the machine.  This wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.  In the end, I was unable to fix the tension knob, but I did create an amazing teaching tool!  Now, I can show the students how each of the parts of the machine actually works by showing them the ‘inside’ of the machine.  I think you’ll agree, it’s pretty fantastic!

Whatever machine you end up purchasing, the best and most obvious advice I can give is to sew with it!  If you do, you’ll encounter the same problems your students will and that will help you prepare for a real project with your students. 

No matter how much training you do with your students, they will need your help.  In the middle of a big sewing project, I feel like a member of a Nascar pit crew.  A student’s hand goes up and I slide in, flip open the bobbin door. Rip the bobbin case out.  inspect it.  Rethread and replace it.  Rethread the machine and the needle, sew a practice swatch. Hop up and send them on their way.  All under one minute!  This only happens through familiarity.  I’ve had many nightmares about bobbins spinning and hundreds of yards of tangled thread!

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Good luck!  I think you will find that the sewing machine will ignite new ideas in your students and teachers.  Just this year, every student in our K-4 school completed a sewing project.  After seeing the skills the students had developed the fourth grade team decided to take on an apron project that put all of these skills to the test.

Valentine’s Tutorial Part Two: Sewn Heart Cards

img_7127I’ve never been accused of taking the easy route.  That was especially true today!  I decided to try sewing with first graders today.  The project began with the idea of creating lacing boards.  I initially explored making them on our Carvey machine, but in the end, it took too long to be practical to make them for all of the first-grade students.  So, I started exploring other options.  To be clear, I have never done sewing with first graders, but I thought that they could do this project if they worked on concentration and focus.  So, I started by reminding them of these two words.  I’m actually impressed with how well they turned out given their lack of experience with the tools.

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I began by showing them a completed project; I just so happened to have made a few in preparation for today as gifts for my amazing library associate and my wife.

Step one is to trace the outline of the heart on a folded piece of cardstock.

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Step two is to use your needle to punch holes.  I showed the kids how to hold the section of the paper they are ‘punching’ with the needle over the edge of the table.  This helped them have control over the needle a bit more.  The second time I introduced this, I decided to have the kids space their holes apart by the width of their finger.

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Step three is to use the threaded needle (we pre-threaded a ton of tapestry needles to speed this initial stage up a bit) from underneath through the cardstock.  This lets the large knot at the end ‘stick’ on the back of the card.

Step four is to begin ‘sewing’ up and down through the various holes.  I did not tell them to do a set pattern but instead, let them choose.  It was interesting to see who struggled with keeping the thread untangled or remembering to go up and down not ‘around’ the card.  These are great lessons to learn on cardstock because you can easily ‘fix’ it by going back through the hole.

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Caden created a very interesting pattern with three different colors of thread.

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We folded the second piece of cardstock and glued it on the inside to ‘hide’ the stitching on the inside of the card.

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We couldn’t give the students really long pieces of embroidery floss because it was apt to get tangled, so we just tied off the floss underneath and then re-threaded the needle with their choice of color.  This ended up creating some beautiful contrasting layers.

All in all, this was a big success.  They now have an introductory project under their belts and when we learn all about buttons in our inquiry project, they’ll be ready to learn to sew their own 3d designed and printed buttons!

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NOTE: In later classes, one of the kids chose to stitch around the outside rather than across.  It turned out that in some ways that were easier for the kids to do.  So, we had our last class of the day start with that and then early finishers could add the cross stitching. Turns out that very few had time to add the extras and that was just fine.  A good example of ‘going with the flow’ for both kids and our parent volunteers.We also figured out that we could tape the end of the thread on the inside if it were too short to tie off.  This was a very handy thing because many kids ended up only having a tiny bit of thread left.

Valentine’s Day Projects Part One: Simple Felt Heart Sewing Project

I decided to try sewing with my third-grade students this year.  I was emboldened by taking the phenomenal free class on Instructables by Jessyratfink.

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If you want to know how to do just about anything, there is a tutorial for it on Instructables.  I was blown away how thorough and detailed this class was.  In addition to that, it was beautifully photographed with clear and concise instructions.  Well done Instructables and Jessy Ratfink!

 

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Image courtesy of https://www.instructables.com/member/jessyratfink/

 

We began by doing a very simple project: hand stitching together felt hearts.  Our school has an Ellison Die Cutter so I was able to pre-cut the hearts on the machine.  You could easily have students draw their own as we are limited in size by the dimensions of the machine.  I cut several colors and made many extras just in case.  I decided to use a thicker thread and larger ‘tapestry’ needles.  I chose the tapestry needles for the size of their ‘eye.’  In hindsight, the tapestry needles were a bit dull and it was challenging for those with weaker fine motor skills to be able to pierce the fabric.

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I taught the students to cut thread the length of their forearm and back.  We doubled the thread and tied a simple knot.  Next, we pinned the two pieces together to help keep them lined up while sewing.  I showed the students how to open the ‘felt sandwich’ and push the needle up and through one of the layers.  In this way, they were able to hide their knot.  The running stitch might not have been the ideal ‘first’ stitch to teach them.  Many of them began doing a ‘whip stitch,’ which students said felt more natural.

 

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Link to image source: http://www.shushanna.com/handsew.html

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Some students wanted to stuff their heart to make a pincushion or a heart pendant.  For those students, we stopped with enough room to stick our finger into the heart and used cotton batting to ‘stuff.’

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I ended up using my own model as a great pin cushion for the kids!

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The kids learned grit, resilience, and patience while learning a very valuable life skill.  img_6858

In the end, the kids were very proud of their work and eager to share their gifts!