A stitch in time Sewing: High-tech sewing machines make the basic work easy and allow users to create elaborate designs

October 26, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

I am 7 years old, sitting on a cast-off dining chair that screeches like a banshee when it's pushed across the concrete floor. My feet do not reach the floor, but that's OK, because the sewing machine I am sitting in front of has a knee lever. Press it with your knee, and the machine sews. Press it harder and the machine sews faster.

The machine, my mother's old White, is black metal with gold scrollwork. I am making doll clothes. I don't like dolls, but that is how you learn to sew when you are 7; you make teeny tiny ball gowns.

Fast-forward a few decades. I am sitting in a brightly lighted shop in Towson, in an ergonomically correct chair that purrs when it rolls on the parquet floor. My feet reach the floor, and it's a good thing, because my knees are trembling slightly with anxiety.

The sewing machine I am sitting in front of is sleek, white, space-age plastic. The front is covered with buttons, indicators and lights. It has a large foot pedal that controls the speed and lifts the needle. It also has a knee lever that raises and lowers the presser foot (the part that press down on the fabric, holding it in place for the needle).

The machine is Swiss, it is computerized, it can remember 30 things, and it comes with seven hours of instruction. I am just about to learn how to operate it, and I am very much afraid that it is smarter than I am.

Welcome to the sewing world of the near 21st century. Twenty-dollar clothing patterns. Clubs and classes where you can learn anything from beginning quilting to highly complex and artistic "thread-painting." And sewing machines that seem only slightly less sophisticated than the space shuttle.

The newest machines are computers -- complete with a tiny LCD screen -- that have long memories and a repertoire of scores of stitches. They can be equipped with any of dozens of specialized presser feet that allow the operator to incorporate fabric and thread and trims to create simple monograms or complex embellished clothing. They can sew the long straight seams needed for draperies or upholstery, and they can do the tiny things, such as securing stitches at the beginning and end of a seam, or overcasting raw fabric edges or even sewing on buttons easily as well.

Back in the days when machines and knowledge were handed down from mother to daughter and "home ec" was part of high-school curriculums, most women could sew a seam and create a garment.

Today, with families and lives more scattered, it's the machines that are teaching women to sew -- machines, not hours of painful practice with grandmother, that are allowing them to embroider and embellish clothing and things for their houses.

"The two things we see here," said Mary Morris, book buyer and publications editor for G Street Fabrics in Rockville, "are people who start sewing to make their kids' Halloween costumes and for home decor." When they find out how easy it is, they go on to clothing and draperies, "and pretty soon they're really sewing."

"Certainly the embroidery features on the new machines have had a huge impact," Morris said. "Not only can you make your own designs and embroider them, you can take ready-made clothing and decorate it."

Morris said much of the new interest in sewing is coming from quilters, as more and more women (and a few men) discover the joy of working with fabric to create traditional or original designs that are both useful and decorative.

Morris said one area of change is in Baltimore album quilts, first popular in the 1840s and newly rediscovered. Each consists of a series of floral or architectural designs on white backgrounds, often with an elaborate central motif.

Embroidery in the center

In the past the quilts were made with extensive hand applique techniques, but, Morris said, "I've seen where someone has [machine-]embroidered a different design in the center of each block."

Those embroidery features are one element driving the sewing-machine business right now, said Martin Favre, president of Bernina America, based outside Chicago, which makes a wide range of machines for home sewing.

Bernina introduced an embroidery machine for consumers in 1994. Before that, machines that could be programmed to embroider elaborate figures in multiple colors of thread were available only commercially.

Companies used the machines to embroider team logos on uniforms or to sew monograms on sheets or shirts or handkerchiefs. The new consumer machines make all those embroidery features more affordable for a lot of sewers, Favre said. "It's the fastest growing segment of the market" over the past two years.

The machines can be programmed by cards or disks, or an enterprising sewer can buy digitizing software that will allow customizing or creating entirely new designs.

"You have only to thread the machine and push a button, and it does it all by itself. It's instant gratification."

The other element that has people rushing to buy new machines is that prices of machines with elaborate features are coming down, Favre said.

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