Monday, June 26, 2006


I'd wanted a new sewing machine for a while. I didn't quite need a new one, as I've been getting by well enough with an awl and some bailing wire, but my old machine was a stripped-down "learn to sew" display model that I bought at a steep markdown, so it was made of plastic and didn't have a lot of features.

I've shopped a bit for sewing machines over the past few years, and haven't been real impressed with what I saw. Machines for home sewers have been extensively computerized in the past decade, and like home computers, home sewing machines tend to come packed full of extras that the average user will never need; they just add up to more expense.

For myself, I knew I wanted a machine that could handle heavy-duty vinyl and duck canvas, but could also handle delicate silks. I wanted an extended table attachment and a knee-lift lever for the pressure foot. And I needed a model that had plenty of accessories available, so I could get additional feet as I needed them.

What I didn't want was a lot of computerized geegaws. All those fancy stitches look pretty impressive in the store, but I'm unimpressed with their quality--the stitch never looks as tidy as the little icon in the instruction manual. And seriously, who really needs to sew her name into her creations? A real designer will have custom clothing tags made.

But as with computers, I was having a hard time finding the mechanical features I wanted without going to a higher-end model that had a lot of electronic stuff I didn't need or want to pay for. Furthermore, I had a sort of secret yen for a machine with metal innards, which is pretty much impossible to find in a home-use machine these days. Up until the seventies, sewing machines were all metal--cases, gears, and all--and they weighed as much as a Buick. I imagine that the high cost of gas and shipping made this uneconomical for the manufacturers; besides, the average home sewer doesn't have a place to keep her machine set up permanently, and it's a real chore to lug a forty-pound machine out of the closet and onto the kitchen table. I remember my mom complaining about it, and I remember being afraid to drop it on my foot when I was a kid. Still, there's no denying that the metal gears are stronger and more durable. I may not be a carpenter or an auto mechanic but I like my tools to be built solid.

So I went looking at sewing machines this weekend. I may have mentioned that I've got a lot of sewing to do right now; my tai chi uniform is mostly done but I still have my sparring partner's to do, plus a weapons case that I should've finished up in January. And my machine, bless its little plastic heart, is protesting the strain. I think I messed up its timing while I was sewing on the vinyl, and its cams have not disengaged cleanly for some time now.

I took my sparring partner along for the ride. He's a craftsman too, albeit a woodworker, so he has a general eye for quality and a shared admiration for tools that are substantial and hard to move. Also, he has this naive idea that once I get a better machine, he can pay me to tailor his shirts and pants. I told him that was fine, provided he didn't want to wear them while they were still in style.

The first place we stopped at sold Brother machines, which were adequate, and in my price range ($400-$700), but were lacking in the weight-and-substance column. The next shop sold Janome machines, which I've always rather admired; they are well-made and moderately high-dollar. Still made of plastic, but it was a better grade of plastic and I liked the feel of their operation. The model I really admired was $1200, but there was another for about $890 that would have suited. It was electronic and had a lot of stitches I didn't need, but it was the lowest-end model that still had the table and knee-lift attachments I wanted. Why is that? Why the assumption that only a serious sewer is going to want the convenience of those features, and why does a "serious" sewer need all that extra crap?

It seems to me--it has always seemed to me--that a really serious artist/craftsman needs fewer tools than anybody. It's like in cooking: forget all that Pampered Chef crap--a chef's knife, a wooden spoon and a heat-resistant spatula are about all you need. But Americans have too much disposable income and too much ego and advertisers prey on that--they convince you that to be really serious about your chosen craft/hobby/vocation you've got to have every conceivable gadget ever made--as if these gadgets will miraculously imbue you with an encyclopedic knowledge of spices and the ability to gauge when the bread dough is perfectly elastic. You wish.

I had pretty much decided I wanted the Janome, and figured I could check out some online sources and find one at a steep discount. Nevertheless, I like to be thorough, and there is a newly-opened Pfaff store in town. Now, I dislike Pfaff as a general rule. Pfaffs are like BMW's or Mercedes: well-made but overpriced, and if they break you've got to take them back to the dealer. Significantly, they are marketed to the wives of men who drive BMW's and Mercedes. If you go into a Pfaff store you quickly realize that the machine is only incidental to the cult you're buying into. When you buy a Pfaff, you automatically get classes. Not on how to sew, but on how to run the machine. They offer retreats. There are a myriad of "exclusive" accessories and publications and patterns to buy. And none of it will make you a better sewer. None of it will teach you how to design a dress, or fit a pair of pants, or draft your own patterns. It's just designed to make you spend more money and coo over the cute-but-useless wall hangings of your peers. It's an expensive variation on the "Quick-Easy-Fun!/Do It Yourself!" cross-stitch starter kits you see in Wal-Mart.

Anyway. The lady in the Pfaff store was breathtakingly patronizing. There was a "retreat" in progress when we came in, and she didn't seem to have time to wait on me. She asked me immediately what kind of sewing I did, and then my price range. I already knew I didn't want to pay her prices, so I said, "Doesn't matter." She immediately took me to the bottom-barrel "starter machine," which was still $1400 on sale. But she didn't want me to touch it--oh no. She wanted to demo everything, and she put special emphasis on the miracle of their dual-track feeding system, which apparently justifies the extra grand in cost. Then she leapt right into the closing--told me about payment plans and how they'll accept old machines in trade.

My S.P. was smirking, and I was rolling my eyes, because frankly I was not impressed with that dual-track feeding, and I didn't like the vibration of the thing, and it was still made of plastic. So I got a brochure from the woman and we beat it for the door, but on the way we were distracted by the bright gleam of sunlight on--could it be? It was!--metal.

Beside the exit was a rack of traded-in, refurbished machines, and smack in the middle was a thirty-five-year-old Bernina, solid die-cast aluminum at a guess, in mint condition. Now, Bernina is another high-end name, and this was a high-end machine in its day. They were asking $500 for it, which is probably what the thing retailed for in 1978 (i.e. about two grand today), but it was the home-sewing equivalent of, say, a 1978 Mercedes. And it looked barely-used.

I made my S.P. drag it out of the shelf and onto a display table, since it weighed about eighty pounds, and I made the snippy lady go back in the storage room and dig out the accessories. I'm guessing this Bernina was bought as a gift for some 70's rich housewife who never used it any more than the 2006 rich housewives will use their new Pfaffs, because the equipment looked barely touched. There was a knee-lift, an extended table attachment (which came off to allow free-arm use), and about seven extra feet, some of which I don't even know how to use, yet. Fortunately, the instruction manual was tucked inside the case, so I can learn. The machine itself was fabulously smooth and quiet, ran as precisely as a watch, and all the dials and switches had a real positive feel to them, gliding cleanly from one setting to the next with no resistance, no sound, just a palpable thunk as the gear slid into place. The stitch-selector on top is a thin metal tongue that shifts in and out of gear teeth just like the stick shift in a car. It's got about thirty different stitches, including overlock and blind hemming. And it all closed up inside its own carrying case.

I bought it. I don't like racking up extra debt when I'm trying to pay everything down, but I look at this as an investment. And considering that I got what I wanted for about a third of what I was considering spending, I'd say it was a good value.

I think I'll call her Vera.

ADDENDUM: Curiously, one of this same model, the Bernina 930 Record, sold on eBay the same day I bought mine. Only it sold for a good deal more than I paid....

Monday, June 12, 2006

I feel like a reserve-choice for Prom

In case you were wondering, "End of the Line" is still sitting on the desk of a prominent editor, who has been dithering since January over whether to include it in a prestigious and well-paying new market. Their interest has been consistent but uncommitted; my story has run the gauntlet of first-readers and other underlings and is now camped out on the editor's desk, hoping they'll have time, space and money to buy it. They're hanging onto it, but they tell me they are hopelessly overbought and won't be ready to make a decision on EOTL until October or so.

Ergo I'm pretty much stuck, unable to submit it anywhere else while they've still got it. And they know they've got me stuck because of the damnable length of the thing (very few markets will take anything that long) and because nobody else pays as much as they do.

Just to demonstrate how conditioned we writers become to abuse, my primary response is gratitude: at least this editor keeps me informed on submission status. If I were actually writing/submitting/marketing right now I might be more annoyed, but for now I only shake my head and keep listening to Goth rock. There's more than enough crap in my personal life right now to keep me distracted, and maybe some of my competitors, with more self-respect or better prospects, will get tired of the wait and drop out. It'd sure be a nice paycheck at the end of the year.