03 December 2009

Some first observations on sewing

The reasons why one takes up sewing are as numerous as the individuals involved.  For some this is a profession either of the individual fit sort, like a good seamstress or tailor making custom fit or custom adjusted clothing, or the individual works a larger firm where hand work is necessary as machines still can't do it all.  On the amateur side I wouldn't even venture to guess...

My reasons are relatively simple: I need some outdoor equipment custom made to particulars that are not available even at specialty stores online or offline.  As an example an interior waist pad that would fit above a standard MOLLE hip pad is not to be found, and yet for good weight distribution of a MOLLE frame on my back it is essential as my back is just a bit longer than average.  Similarly I have a Thompson WWII replica burlap carrying bag (found at International Military Antiques), but nothing suitable for modern hauling systems and lightweight material.  An Eberlestock Tactical Weapon's Scabbard is nice, very nice actually, but if I need to carry two or three long arms that can be made readily available, then I need a system to extract each on-the-fly.  Mixing and matching between WWII era equipment, Viet Nam war era equipment, ALICE system and MOLLE/PALS system means that I have a variety of adapters to get everything to hang together, but nothing fits exactly as it should or could.  Finally some equipment equivalents I can find are costly, very costly, and when I compare the cost to the cost of a sewing machine, thread, fabric, webbing, fasteners... the raw materials while still not cheap are cheaper than buying the few pieces I can find and then still not having the pieces I can't find.

Thus I'm not making clothing!

And the amount of skill I have at actual sewing on a sewing machine is relegated to truly distant memories and just learning a bit of the basics when I was a child, and zilch beyond that.  Yet my experiences in learning how to use equipment, be it radial arm saws, food processors, hand drills (manual/electric), planes, a dremel multi-tool for metal finishing, computer construction, and your basic hammer/screwdriver/wrenches, means that I am not afraid of actually learning how to do new things.  I am not always successful, particularly when little things crop up that prove to be insurmountable (like the amount of wiring I was trying to shove inside a tiny frame for my Pico-ITX project, and overcoming the obstacles is far more labor intensive than it is worth (as in the Pico-ITX project I'm just getting a small case and going forward with that).  That is always a hurdle to overcome, the unexpected, but when everything in a design is apparent from the start and only a few tool using issues get in the way, I tend not to turn pale with fear but just matter-of-factly start in on things.

I also lower my expectations as I don't expect professional results:  I'm not willing to pay for them, now, am I?

Sewing of equipment, particularly outdoor and military compatible equipment, turns out to be a land of many hobbyists and DIYers.  One of first places I  hit was MIL-SPEC MONKEY as it has a good overview of equipment, some of what it takes to customize equipment and a valuable list of places to get MIL-SPEC materials (fabrics, fasteners, webbing, etc.).  Picking up the terminology is yet another thing I tend to do well, and becoming familiar with acronyms, number/letter designations, and so on, is a past habit of my years working with computers.  Now THERE is a field with terminology attached to it!  After that one of the sites that is linked to, Outdoor Wilderness Fabrics, Inc., has a good array of materials but even better is their linkages to more generalized outdoor equipment modifiers and makers.  Top of the list from there, for me, was Specialty Outdoors and the most important thing I found was the Tips and Techniques  section on the basic 'how to' of outdoor equipment.  Before I even so much as bought a yard of fabric I learned what I was getting myself into, and the sites I hit after that were numerous, but Specialty Outdoors and Penny Schwynn still remains one of the touchstones of introduction to the topic that I recommend.

Of the first realizations I had by looking around was that getting an old sewing machine in good shape was just as good, and even preferable, to getting a modern one.  An older machine that had gotten its full suite of maintenance had definite benefits: you could find ones with more powerful motors (necessary for thick fabrics), they didn't have a plethora of options and outdoor equipment needs just a basic, solid, straight stitch with just a few minor times for zig-zags, having clearance between the feet and the feed dogs was essential, and the ability to handle higher tension thread is likewise essential.  As I was not doing embroidery nor any multi-thread work, I could eliminate entire classes of machine made for that work.  And as I understand the importance of standardized parts and replacement of same, getting a machine that was based on a well-known standard was critical: no off-brands with its own one or two year market presence.

That said an off-brand that was well made, kept to an industrial standard machine type and had a reputation for holding up well, meant that venue opened up for procurement.  And as I didn't want, of necessity, something modern I could haunt E-bay and other such sites, seeing what was available, how it was maintained and do some research at the same time.  Winnowing out the light duty home machines was a first priority, and anything that didn't have a 1 amp motor didn't make the cut.  A modern machine with all sorts of gearing could, in theory, do so, but the plastic gearing on many also made them non-starters.  In general I have nothing against plastic gears, and have used them, worked with them and appreciate them as part of modern equipment.  Something just does not seem right, to me, to see them on a sewing machine... even nice, hefty, thermoform plastic just doesn't sound right.  I would still keep one or two in my winnowing down list, but the lower the power the motor and the lack of telling me what was on the inside of a modern (post-1990) machine made me leary.  Also a real turn-off is when the sewing machine manufacturers started to change models every year or so and DIDN'T make their manuals and other materials readily available.  That bespeaks of planned obsolescence while I was looking towards long-lasting utility, and I was not buying for extras but just basic sewing.

I did consider some modern models by Janome and others, but passed due to pricing, lack of telling me what the specifics were on older models, and lack of power on the ones I could find specifics for.  Going back into the pre-1980 era meant fewer brands, more recognizable machines, better construction (often all metal) and decent power on the main motor.  I considered many different brands: Sears Kenmore, Singer, White, Husqvarna/Viking, Juki, and just about anything that looked to be in good condition, had recent maintenance or had my specific set of needs.  Ebay had a number of other machines, and many tended to be centered on the Singer Type 15 machine, which looked to be an industry standard for design and some parts that could be used by a variety of machines (bobbins come to mind).  The price range, for my needs, varied up to a $200 maximum and I read about many of the machines so I could get some familiarity with them.  One Ebayer had a nice White 565 machine and this article at Sew-Classic gives a good overview of it.  My deepest thanks to niftythriftygal at Ebay for her machines and the work of her husband to get them into top form, I can only say that a video demonstration of the machine sold me far more than just about anything else.

The machine, itself, is only part of the equation, and while it does come with all the essentials and almost every single accessory, I still needed my own supply of needles, thread, carrying case for the machine, fabric and webbing (also known as 'narrow fabric' although that may be a category that contains such things as ribbon).  Fabric and thread were top of the list and that meant looking for good suppliers.  MILSPEC MONKEY was used for some, but for others my personal experience buying surplus goods put me in good stead.  From that surplus list I was able to get Cordura fabric in various camouflage styles from the Barre Army Navy Store, and they had been my source for the stand-alone Tactical Weapon Scabbard some months before and are quite easy to work with, although their web interface is cranky, confusing and doesn't often do what you think it will.  Nylon webbing I've gotten from multiple suppliers, although Jon Tay comes out on top for MOLLE webbing, and I picked up some smaller lengths of other webbing from there, also.  For 'you take your chances with not fully examined surplus' I went to Colman's and the Billings Army Navy Surplus Store, both of which I had purchased a number of items during my emergency preparedness work.  I was happily surprised to find webbing at excellent cost at both and even if I did take a flyer from Colman's on the material (was it cotton or the preferred nylon?) their customer service has been superb with me and told me they didn't know and would just send it for my acceptance.  It was nylon and the cost was excellent.

Speaking of webbing, there is a distinct need to turn a lot of webbing into straps, and that requires buckles, sliders, ladderlocks, and a plethora of other bits and pieces that vary by what you need to do.  If have 'D' rings then snap ends that will allow the 'D' ring to get into the central area of the snap is required.  I decided to go easy on 'D' rings for carrying, although they do show up as a good way to slide webbing through them to then cinch a strap taught, thus stabilizing the piece the ring is attached to.  To that end was finding such across multiple venues, and it is a by no means complete listing as some items only came cheap through places I hadn't been to before, including Chinese overstock at Ebay which is, effectively, unknown sellers: Rockywoods Outdoor Fabrics was my choice for some Cordura and webbing supplies along with accoutrements, DIY Tactical where I picked up some good ripstop nylon and webbing odds and ends plus strapping components, Plastic-Buckle that has both metal and plastic webbing/strapping components, Country Brook Design for both components and looking at webbing,  A.H.& H. Specialized Outfitters and others.  The webbing/strapping components area also overlaps with the more generalized fastener category, and besides those mentioned, especially the last two in the components list, there is also Fasnap which has all the lovely grommets and snaps you could ever want for modern and even replica gear, and if 'lift the dot' fasteners were my thing I would start there for the necessary parts and hand equipment to make them.  If you need to retrofit older gear with modern fasteners, say to get rid of the old metal ALICE ladderlocks and put in Fastex plastic ones, then Supply Captain is one of the best places to go, and he also carries more generalized equipment making supplies generally in the clearance area when he has it.  I'm still looking for a decent zipper supplier and have a few places in mind, but the problem is (as with most of this stuff) that I'm buying on the retail level, not the wholesale level, thus for things like snaps and grommets getting the right size in under 100 pieces is difficult if not impossible.  There is a whole slew of folks willing to sell me thousands of yards of webbing, but less than 100 yards tends to be a bit of a bother to find.

Thread was not last on my list and #69 Nylon proved very easy to find amongst the various places mentioned already.  I will put in a plug for The Thread Exchange and Sportsman's Guide, and the latter's MIL-SURP area is one of the key places I've haunted for months for certain equipment.  Needles took me to Quilting-Warehouse which has an excellent selection of same for all sorts of needs, not just outdoor equipment.  Finally for notions, a walking foot for my machine, and a thread stand for the large spools of thread I was going to use, I wound up at All Brands, which has a decent selection for many machines and other areas of shopping I haven't checked out yet.

From all of that actually using the machine is easy once I spent about an hour winding some bobbins and then figuring out the thread path.

Winding bobbins.... the machine has its own, built-in, bobbin winding system... but... winding a tiny bobbin to put into a hidden compartment where you can't see the thread or the amount left on it?  The industry makes things so you get a lovely, tortuous path for the upper thread which goes something like this: Right to Left through this hole, Back to Front, Left to Right through this hole, Top Down Around Left to Right through the tensioner, Down Under then Up for this bar, Up and then Right to Left through this hole, Down through this hole, Down and a bit in for the next hole, then Down Front to Center through the next hole which has the thread go from Back Top to Front Down and then, and only then, Down to the needle and thread that Left to Right.  Yeah, all that for the main thread which you can watch, hand tension and play with and snarl to your heart's content.  The bobbin?  A hidden thing of mystery that suddenly runs out when you least want it to. Couldn't a second tortuous thread path from a separate spool be arranged for?  You know, one you could SEE and WATCH as it runs down?  Perhaps modern machines have that... no... wait... I see bobbins mentioned for those, too...

Apparently semi-automatic pistols, born about the same time as electromechanical sewing machines, got perfected faster for the end user than sewing machines have.  Still, I suppose that winding bobbins is the equivalent of loading a magazine.  I hate taking up range time loading magazines, too.  When I get to my last, full, bobbin, it is time to reload the others, I guess.

I love the light that shines down from the machine to the main plate area!  Can I get one that isn't so hot, please?  All these freaking 'green bulbs' and can I find one for a sewing machine?  For me it is getting rid of the heat, not saving energy.  I have a 1.3 amp motor on a sewing machine, the light bulb is definitely NOT about saving energy.

So how does my sewing look?  The first piece, that simple pad on the MOLLE frame looks like hell.  It does, however, do the job.  My first prototype for a Thompson 30 round mag with MOLLE isn't half bad, but I need a knife tip for my soldering iron to clean up the nylon webbing and the front snap isn't snapping.  For me looks are secondary, function is primary and over-riding.  I do know that good looks go along with good work and you get a better design, over-all, when you do good looking work.  I'm not there, yet, and will never be even a skilled amateur.  But if it does the job, I will be satisfied.

And that is yet another thing I'm doing in my time... sewing.

Isn't life grand?

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