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.

Custom T-Shirt Stamp Step-by-Step on the Carvey

This year we added the Carvey to our maker ‘toolbox.’  Our makerspace is directly connected to our library with only a brick archway to separate us. For this reason, I was hoping the Carvey would be as quiet as advertised.Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 1.15.42 PM (They advertise it as being as quiet as a desktop printer, but depending on the material and the amount of ‘cutting’ the noise level can vary.  I have had to pause it a few times when there was a class being read to or a quiet activity was underway.)Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 1.16.01 PM

There is always a learning curve with a new tool and this is true of the Carvey as well.  However, that curve was pretty slight and within a few hours, we were creating all sorts of creations.  The designs, at least for beginners, are done with the web-based native software app called Easel.  It was very easy for this newbie to navigate and create my first few projects.  For this particular project, I wanted to create a ‘staff’ t-shirt for our student directors and producers for our school television studio: WGST (the World’s Greatest Student Television).  After designing the ‘stamp’ I had to flip it so that I would be carving out the ‘reverse’ for stamping purposes.

You can download the step-by-step PDF HERE.

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Here is how the stamp ‘blank’ turned out.

I glued the 1/8″ board to a larger piece of wood just to make the stamping easier.  To help me align the design, I added a couple of wooden spools to the back of the wood blank too.

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Next, I just needed somebody to help me make some shirts!  Thankfully my wonderful daughter was home from college and was willing to help me create the shirts for the students and adults who help with the broadcasts.

The process was pretty straight forward.  We placed a cardboard square inside each shirt to keep the paint from seeping through and also to give a little ‘resistance’ when the stamp was pressed down.  We used regular latex high-gloss interior paint.  It was applied using a foam brush and then carefully pressed on the shirts.  The ‘weathered’ look was perfect!  Each one is slightly different.

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 I think they like them!

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I look forward to finding ways to integrate the Carvey into our future projects.