Friday, September 19, 2008

bernina geekery

When I bought Vera Bernina I unknowingly bought membership into a bizarre underground subculture--the world of sewing machine groupies. All the major brands have their little enclaves--the Berninuts, the Pfaffsters, the Janomites. There are a few really hard-core users who will only use Industrial models, but they even scare ME.

All kidding aside, I am so in love with this machine that the cat has gone into a decline and even my husband has been dropping hints that maybe I should turn off the machine and come to bed.

I used to shake my head in bemusement at all the crazy specialized sewing accessories available, particularly the assortment of presser feet for higher-end sewing machines. Who could possibly need all those? I thought. There's not anything here that I can't do with a few pins, a pair of scissors, and a couple of feet.

Ah, but this was ignorance speaking. And perhaps a little envy, too, because for the last eight years, spending even $30 on a presser foot (most of the Berninas are $50 or more) was more than my budget would allow. Plus there weren't that many options for my crappy $100 White. But now I am selling to support my habit, I am the proud owner of "the best sewing machine Bernina ever made," and I find, to my delight and amazement, that those feet really do what they claim; they make everything faster, neater and easier than I could ever do the old way.

Bernina's website shows 66 different presser feet available for their high-end machines (some of them are too modern to work with mine) and they sell big expensive pornogr--ahem, manuals (for $60 and up, IIRC) that describe all the feet and how to use them.

My old 930 came with 11 original feet, I think, and for the first year I got by as I always had--with the 000 standard zigzag and the zipper/edgestitch foot doing all the work. In the last 3 months, however, increasing knowledge, decreasing time, and better expendable cashflow have prompted me to acquire:

  • A ruffling foot--I figured I'd use this on the roccoco dresses, and I did a little bit (on the green one), but the result was a bit more mechanical than I wanted. I didn't want them all to look alike. The foot I got is actually an aftermarket knockoff, and not as precise as it should be; the Bernina-made model is about $90 and I will get it some day. Still, it's cool to watch it work. I didn't touch the thing for weeks after I got it, because I was intimidated by it. But now I just zip the fabric in there and go. Shoddy piece though it is, it opened my eyes to the possibilities.

  • As I mentioned some weeks ago, the next major tool I got was a serger. This is the ultimate in sewing accessories. I call it an accessory because it cannot replace the sewing machine, but the few things it does, it does way better. It's ideal for handling the long stretchy seams in the Harley Quinn costumes; no longer do I have to worry about a seam popping because the client pulled the legs on too fast. The serger was an unplanned purchase. We happened to find an old Bernette at a good bargain at our local Bernina store and the SP got it for my birthday. The thing is a little tank. It will probably outlive me.

  • Although I was delighted to find the serger, it scared me even more than the ruffler had--I was completely ignorant and needed some instruction. So I did something I haven't done in years--I went to the library. I got a library card. I checked out two books--"Getting to Know your Bernina" and "Creative Serging." I felt like a real person again. And yes, I consider those books tools.

  • Once I had the serger running, and I was rolling my chair back and forth between it and Vera, I had no room or patience left for my old White. I had been using it only for installing zippers. Invisible zippers need a special kind of foot, and I didn't have one for Vera. I had a cheap plastic one-size-fits-all for the White, but it felt very sloppy and imprecise (though I must admit it was better than the one that preceeded it). So I called up my local Bernina dealers (miraculously there are two that I have access to--one is two blocks from my work and the other is maybe two miles from my house) and found out there WAS an invisible zipper foot for my older machine. A little pricey, but oh lord, what a dream it is. No adjusting the centerline. No wiggling presser foot. No creeping seam allowance. No fighting the zipper coil to keep it upright. Just stitch/stitch, zip/zip and I'm done.

  • Since I had agreed to make more PVC costumes I decided to invest in a non-stick foot to handle the topstitching on the hood and appliques. An ordinary metal foot sticks to the PVC and distorts it while you're stitching. So I bought a special foot with Teflon coating , which is supposed to glide like an eagle. I haven't tried it yet, but given the results to date I am optimistic. UPDATE: This thing ROCKS. It makes sewing over the vinyl as easy as sewing over muslin. The thing just GLIDES. One caution, tho, and they do say this in the instructions--you must not let the feed dogs contact the underside of the foot or they will scrape off the nonstick coating. I thought I was being careful about this, but then I realized, while turning tight corners, the center rear feed dog was scraping off the back end. The damage is slight, but I pass on my mistake for your benefit! Put a scrap piece of fabric behind your work and under the foot to protect it.

  • Prior to the Teflon foot I bought a leather roller foot, assuming I would use it on both the PVC and the heavier vinyls. It didn't hold tight enough for the PVC and I haven't had time to do any more vinyl or leather work lately, but it's still a very cool foot and I'm sure I'll have use for it in the future.

  • As I got more comfortable with the serger, I figured I'd better look around for the attachments that would let it do a rolled-covered hem (a/k/a a French rolled hem). My Bernette 234 is old enough it didn't come with a built-in attachment, and the research I have done about what the attachment looks like and how to use one has been inconclusive. I can do this type of hem on Vera, and I had been faking it for a while until I got the library book and learnt how to do it properly (using one of those original 11 feet I had been ignoring for a year). The serger, however, should be able to do it faster and with better-looking coverage because of the additional looping thread. Besides, by this point it has become a personal crusade to find the damn rolled-hem attachment. They are no longer being made, but I bought one on Ebay this week, complete with instruction sheet. Stay tuned.

  • Another thing I got on Ebay this week--a blind-stitch hemming foot for the serger. Again, Vera can do this, but the serger can do it faster--it can bind the raw edge of the seam and tack up the hem all in one pass. I have been extremely lucky to find these attachments for my very old, but still very reliable machine. The Bernette 234 is the one everyone describes as a "workhorse." Even after people buy a new one with more features, they tend to hang onto or hand down the Bernette. They stay in the family until someone dies and the person who cleans out the house has no interest in sewing.

  • My latest acquisition, as of yesterday, is a zigzag hemmer foot, for putting a fine, double-turned hem into a garment. I have been trying to fit a little black dress into my sewing schedule, using some fine black silk I got at a steep discount, and putting a hem into a bias-cut silk is a nightmare. To do it the old way, I used to baste a straight seam about a quarter inch from the bottom edge, turn twice, pin, use the basting seam to ease out the fullness, and press. With this truly amazing foot, you just run the hem edge into the metal curl of the foot, and stitch. Done. Clean. Professional-looking. Awe-inspiring. (The SP, by the way, is totally keen on these heavy little metal feet. He loves tools, and when he saw this new foot sitting on my sewing table he started pushing it around, making humming noises. "What's this one do?" he asked. He's thoroughly enjoying my geekery.)

  • The last new tool I ought to mention, though not machine-related, is still a minor miracle: a Dritz rotary cutter, and the largest cutting mat I could find. It hurt me to do it--those mats are expensive, but I'm already glad I did it. Cutting through spandex with shears is awful--the stuff is slippery, tough and dulls your scissors. You have to pin it like crazy to keep it from creeping while you cut, and every time you move the fabric it distorts the pattern. I used to cut a single layer at a time to save the wear on my hand and avoid nasty surprises--like a bizarre crescent cut out of the lower layer of fabric where it decided to bunch. A rotary cutter, however, will cut easily through both layers at once, and since I don't have to move the pieces around or slide anything under them, there's no layer shift. The rotary cutter actually works better if you keep pinning to a minimum, which saves all kinds of time. Plus, all the straight pieces can be cut against a ruler. Imagine cutting an 18-inch line in the time it takes to do one squeeze of your shears! Things got even better after a bought a plastic French curve, which is not only useful for marking pattern adjustments, but I can turn it against the cutting line as I go and never have to lift the rotary blade from the fabric. Worth every penny; I estimate this tool package reduced my cutting time by 40%.

So, that's my brag book. There are at least 6 other feet I'd like to have, but for now I need to catch up on the work I've already got, and maybe learn more about the tools I already have. A little learning is a dangerous thing--once you get a taste of how fine machining can make your life easier, you want one of everything. You find reasons to need one of everything. I now completely understand why my husband has so many planes and chisels.

And which leaves us with my final and best new tool--my sewing room is very nearly done. There's just a bit of trim work left to be done around the door, then another coat of shellac, and I'm in. I can't wait to organize. I may never come out!

ETA: Just when you thought it was safe to go in the Bernina store! Bernina Geekery II: The Addiction


Lisa Hurst said...

I can't believe I found your site. I also have a bernette 234 and am currently looking for the mysterious rolled hem accessories. I also have a crappy old white machine, on it's last leg, and a Pfaff industrial machine. Lots of different feet and doo-dads for all that I need to learn. Oh, also an old treadle machine with a whole box of "thingys". One is a ruffler. I'll be checking in to learn more. Thanks for a great blog.

Holly said...

You're welcome! Thanks for the feedback. You can sometimes find a roll-hem attachment on Ebay--I bought mine there. Be aware, there are 3 pieces to the attachment: a needle plate, the foot, and a tension-adjuster thingy that screws on top of the machine and holds the bottom looper thread. You need all three pieces for the operation to work.

Shira said...

This is more of a request than a comment - I have a Bernette 234 and love it. I have the rolled hem attachment but managed to lose the instructions. Any possibility you might be willing to scan and send to me? My main question is whether the lower looper goes through both the attached tensioner and the regular tension, or just the attached tension device.

Holly said...

@Shira--Short answer, the instructions say to thread through both tensioners. Though in practice, I often skip the top/attached tension unit. Probably depends on the fabric you're using and the result you want.

I don't have access to a scanner right now but I can take some pictures. If you send an email to holly at hollymessinger dot com I will reply with .jpgs attached.