Thursday, September 24, 2009

Not a Dress

But rather half of a World War II paratrooper outfit. Strict historical accuracy not demanded. Ability to withstand frequent laundering essential.

Trying to purchase a dark colored, long-sleeved, woven twill shirt in a boy's size is amazingly difficult. Seems so basic, but apparently not the variety of basic that retailers think we want this year. My young trooper was quite specific in his requests, and he seems happy with the result.

Except that now he wants the matching pants...on the double.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Director of Buttonhole Operations

"A Sewing Life is pleased to announce the promotion of Singer 128, originally of Elizabeth, New Jersey, from Mysterious Vintage Attachments Specialist to Chief Buttonholer. Mr. 128 has overcome a number of challenges in his rapid ascent with the operation, including musty smells, tension shortcomings and chronic snarling in the bobbin region. His triumph today over Bernina 160 and Necchi BU is made all the more impressive by his recent conversion to hand crank operation."

Many bloggers have posted helpful tutorials and videos on vintage buttonholers, but the one who posted the very morning of my successful first run was Brian. Thanks for the information and inspiration! One of Brian's insights was that using the provided feed dog cover can make for tight quarters underneath the buttonholer, and I found that to be very true. In the case of this wool jersey (Vera Wang, from, the attachment had no trouble moving the fabric around, but it was a bit nerve-wracking getting everything lined up without distorting the knit. Since Mr. Singer lacks a control to drop the feed dogs, using the cover was mandatory, but happily, everything worked out well in the end. For two of the buttonholes I used some water soluble stabilizer to smooth things along, but it simply added another layer to wrangle and didn't seem to improve the result.

Brian also showed using a center needle position buttonholer with a left needle position machine (in his case, a Kenmore). I bought a Kenmore-branded Greist high shank buttonholer that refuses to attach to my Necchi BU (the shape of the needlebar seems incompatible with the groove in the buttonholer?). Inspired by Brian, I decided to test the Kenmore buttonholer with another recent machine acquisition, a left needle position Japanese machine from the 1960s. All went well until we reached the top left edge of the buttonhole, when the needle hit the rim of the buttonhole opening (the rectangular area where the buttonhole is created) and broke. Too bad! Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The real investment in these vintage machines is not the purchase price (small), but the time in researching and testing the various combinations and settings.

Pending better light for modelled photographs (rain, rain, rain here in Western North Carolina for the last four days), here is a preview of the finished cardigan, from the 5-2009 issue of Ottobre Woman.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thrifty Guilty Pleasures

Yard sales: I have conflicted feelings about them. I love the thrill of a good find as much as the next person. And it is wonderful to get things we need from someone who no longer has a use for them rather than from a big box store. But it is still consumption, still buying and still stuffing our perhaps-already-overloaded storage spaces with yet more surplus.

There you go: conflicted.

My son loves yard sales, and they do make for some good entertainment. Yesterday, he came home with a large plastic pipe (for creating a bazooka), while I (the anti-consumer, you know) netted four pieces of fabric and a rolling cart.

The cart comes at a welcome moment. I've been eyeing rolling sewing machine cases. They look handy, well-designed for protecting the machine and very expensive! Not to mention quite glaringly unattractive. I had been turning over in my mind that there are many, many cases and carriers for all manner of baggage in our attic. How could it be that a solution didn't exist there already? I decided that the missing elements were a frame and wheels, in a configuration that could accept a sewing machine in a hard case. This American Tourister cart is sturdy, so I know it is up to the job. And only $2. Shown with the Capitol Deluxe rummage sale find of three weeks ago (ahem), and a divine piece of vintage wool plaid blanketing fabric from yesterday.

Probably the best fabric find was this Viyella. Only 36" wide, but nearly three yards, so enough for a blouse. Viyella is a wool and cotton blend of high quality.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sent from Lace Heaven

Inspired by this shirt from the Boden kids catalog, I went in search of stretch lace for trimming tees. I found myself in Lace Heaven. It was an exciting moment when that promising envelope arrived in the mailbox.

I would love to say Lace Heaven had every color my heart could desire, but my heart has many, many desires, one of which is stretch lace in a narrow width in chocolate brown. Didn't find that, but there were many jewel tones to compensate. I am excited about giving these a whirl on some fall t-shirts.

In the past week, I've completed a second version of the Ottobre Woman Pigeon Gray dress, this time in a black and white loosely woven sweater knit, as well as a quick pair of yoga pants in black Powerstretch to go with the dress and the other tunics I'm making. Look for them soon.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Simplicity 2614: The Knit Version

Using a knit fabric to make up a pattern designed for a woven has been on my list of things to try. Simplicity 2614 was the base for this dress, but the neck binding was inspired by Onion 5038 and the pocket is from design number three of the hot-off-the-presses 5-2009 edition of Ottobre Woman.

To make the blouse-length pattern into a dress, I simply added about twelve inches of length to the lower front panel, tapering out a bit more at the side seams in the hip area. All the pieces can be cut on the straight of grain rather than the bias, since the knit provides the stretch. For the back, I split the single back panel into two pieces at the same level as the empire seam in the front (adding a seam allowance to upper and lower piece). The lower piece I cut with a center seam and a swayback adjustment. I'm not completely convinced that this is the last word in how to best fit the back for me. I like continuing the empire seam around the whole dress, so that it functions like a waistline. On the other hand, using a center seam down the entire length of the back would allow for more control of the swayback curve. I can't see using the empire seam plus a center seam from top to bottom, creating a + motif in the middle of my back.

The hem was finished with a simple serger rolled hem, as I'm thinking of wearing this as a dress until the weather turns decidedly cooler, then shortening it to tunic length to wear over jeans and a long sleeve shirt for winter.

Love the way this turned out! I also made a three-quarter sleeve version in a black colorway of the same print (from Pictures will be forthcoming.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Necchi BU Review

Have you seen Zigzaggers? It's a very fun site for those of us interested in vintage sewing machines. I contacted Krista about reviewing some of my (growing) herd of machines, and she very kindly sent me the questionnaire. Since the Necchi BU is currently the alpha sewing machine around here, I'm starting with it.

Love it, hate it, or something in between?
Oh, I certainly love it, but that's no great endorsement, since I seem to love all of my machines. I first got interested in trying out a vintage Necchi when the circuit board on my Bernina 160 failed. I surfed the internet reading various reviews and just happened across a couple of glowing accounts of vintage Necchis on Pattern Review. Their enthusiasm led me to the Vintage Necchis Yahoo Group. After reading along on this group for a couple of months, I had to have one. What they said is true, there is a quality to this massive chunk of Italian machinery that is quite unlike any other sewing machine I had used before.

When did you buy this sewing machine?
Summer of 2008. I had to wait until the fall to actually try it out. Read on...

When was it manufactured?
According to the Vintage Necchis Yahoo Group, this model was manufactured in Italy between 1948 and 1953. The easy-to-spot differences between this model (BU) and its successor, the BU Nova are the VN (for Vittorio Necchi) logo on the machine bed, and the plain chrome face of the tension assembly. The later model had the newer cartoon-style N logo and a black face on its tension assembly.

The BU is a flat bed machine with an oscillating hook and manual zig zag (which I believe means you select zig zag by shifting the stitch width lever rather than pushing a button). Necchis designated as BC, BCJ or BF are straight stitch only. The BU was manufactured in black or green. It is a very simple, very heavy cast iron machine with no plastic parts whatsoever.

Where did you buy it?
I had been watching eBay for a vintage Necchi for several weeks. This machine was listed by a damaged freight company. As far as I could tell from the very indistinct photo, its spool pins were bent, and the plastic modern case it had been shipped in was cracked, but otherwise things looked okay. It turned out that it came with no power cord or foot pedal, or attachments other than the bobbin case, one bobbin and the all-purpose presser foot. I had ambitions of resolving the power situation myself, but in the end I took it to a local sewing machine mechanic who was backed up for seven weeks! The replacement foot control he provided is okay, but it does have a tendency to race. Since I sew clothing, I like to go slowly much of the time, and I find that I don't have the control I would like. I've heard of others with similar problems with replacement foot pedals. When the perfect treadle table comes along, I plan to convert this machine to treadle operation.

I don't have a base or a cabinet with hinge pins for it. For this heavy machine, the extra stability of one of those would help reduce vibration.

How much did you pay for it?
I paid $55, plus $30 shipping, which was a good deal, but then I spent around $100 for the mechanic's services and the foot pedal, and $40 for a set of attachments belonging to a BU Mira. My total cost was higher, and my gratification much more delayed, than if I had bought a complete outfit to begin with.

In hindsight, I would not recommend buying a machine over eBay in unknown condition as one of your first vintage sewing machine purchases! A complete setup from a local source, or a well-established eBay seller, might have been a better way to go. In the year that I've been on the hunt, I've only seen two Necchis in my state (North Carolina). One had a broken part that is no longer available, and the other was the same machine I have, but after I had already bought this one.

How many projects have you done on this machine?
Quite a few, but other machines have happened along since, so it hasn't been my only machine. I pieced a twin quilt top and made my son a pair of jeans as the first pair of projects. I have made a couple of denim skirts for myself, several cotton blouses, a rayon dress with piping and six very wide and long sheer curtain panels.

Describe the kind of work you've done with it. This machine is wonderfully well-suited to a wide variety of woven fabrics. It handles light fabrics just as beautifully as very firm and heavy fabrics. I am not sure, in all honesty, that it pierces heavier fabrics any better than my modern Bernina 160 (which I did have repaired, to the tune of $250!). And I have not had great luck at all using it on lighter weight knits, such as jersey.

What do you like and what do you hate about it?
The sewing experience on this machine is fantastic. The BU gives me the feeling that together we can push right through nearly any project. It handles thick topstitching or upholstery thread in the needle and the bobbin much, much better than my Bernina. I love that it has an adjustable needle position (left, center and right). My Bernina probably has 10 different positions from left to right, but I love the simplicity of the three, which turns out to be plenty for any need. I like that it has adjustable presser foot pressure, which two older Berninas I used to own did not. I like that the feed dogs can be dropped for free motion work, though I haven't explored that much yet. This machine is a high shank model, so it can use many industrial presser feet. These feet are rugged, very specific to a purpose and cost between $5-$10 per foot. Compare that to between $30-$60 per Bernina foot!

Somehow the visibility of the sewing surface and the ease of reaching it on this machine are both great. The "head" of my Bernina seems to be higher and come forward more, and I feel like I hunch over more when using it. The ergonomics of the Necchi are terrific for me. It's awesome to set the levers in one position and know that they will stay put until I change them. On the other hand, it isn't so easy to change back and forth between different settings on the fly.

I wish it handled knits better, and sometimes I wish it was a pink and cream Supernova with the circular needle plate and a full set of cams! This machine does straight stitch and zig zag, forward and back, and free motion work. That's all. That's enough.

I haven't seen a lot of discussion about the way the needle mounts on these vintage machines versus the more modern arrangement, but it presents an issue for me. The needle mounts with the flat side to the right. Threading goes left to right. This is not just Necchis, but actually all of my vintage machines. It's easy enough to thread, and easy to insert the needle once you learn which way the flat side goes, but it doesn't make two parallel rows of stitching with a twin needle. Instead the twin needle makes a sort of a shadow effect vertically. I like to use a twin needle for hemming knits, so I have to hold onto a modern machine for this purpose.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Vogue 9668, Take Two

Thank you so very much for your votes! In response to some gentle nudges at Pattern Review, I am posting a couple of additional photos. You were right, the previous photo didn't give enough information to really judge the length. If you vote today, please base your opinion on the photo from yesterday, to keep things consistent. So far, shorter is winning!

Above you can see the hem pinned one inch shorter than shown yesterday.

I also agree that these shoes look too clunky with the dress. They are my last remaining pair of Danskos, which I used to buy thinking they were a comfort shoe, but finally realized aren't even particularly comfortable for me.

But do you know what? The pictures don't lie, and I can't help but feel like the real problem is that this particular dress just doesn't flatter me. My fitting isn't great (especially the bust), and that could be worked on, but I am thinking it's maybe not worth it. The color is so blah, and the black piping just drags it down rather than perking it up. I don't wear cream or beige well. I thought the black would counter the cream enough, but I am just not feeling good about the result.

I had to narrow the sweetheart cutout by almost an inch on each side to enable me to wear a bra with straps (very much necessary), and that too detracts from the cuteness of the dress.

In a more cheerful vein, I must recognize the good photography work of my 10 year old son on today's photos. His pictures have so far worked out much better than either my mom's or husband's. I'm impressed!

So it sometimes goes in a sewing life...