Thursday, December 4, 2014

What sewing machine I use and why (updated)

2017 update: Since writing this post back in 2014 I have invested in a new machine (A Bernina Q20) so I have updated this post to include a bit of information about my experiences with this very different form of sewing machine. I hope you find this update useful. ~ Meredith

One of the most common questions I get asked about my work is "What sewing machine do you use?" People seem to assume that I have some wiz-bang-space-aged machine that does all of the thinking (and sewing) for me, but in reality I only use some of the most basic machine functions to allow me to draw with the machine. It is for this reason that my technique can be done on almost any sewing machine.

Quality is important
Not all machines are created equal and obviously some sewing machines are better suited to the job than others. Quality is always top of my list when it comes to the tools and materials that I use in my artwork and since the sewing machine is the main tool that I use it is really important that I have a good one. I run my machine hard and fast for hours at a time so I need a machine that is reliable and will handle the tough work-out that I give it.

I use, and have always used, a BERNINA sewing machine for my artwork. While I have used and even taught on other machines in the past I always go back to a Bernina, I just find them to be of exceptional quality. They are reliable, simple to work with and last forever.

My first sewing machine - a  BERNINA 810 from the 1970's
My first machine
My first sewing machine was an old ex-school Bernina 830, complete with its cute little red carry case. While my 830 is a bit rattly and clunky compared to younger machines I completed my university honours project on this little baby and really put it through it's paces. Although this machine was made in the 1970's it is still going strong and I recently handed it down to my mother who uses it as a day to day machine. When I was teaching in schools there were still plenty of 830's in classrooms, putting up with daily abuse from teenagers. If you have one of these old gals tucked away in your closet don't ever get rid if it, They are unbreakable!

My current sewing machine - a BERNINA 710
My daily sewing machine:
This year I was upgraded to a newer model Bernina - a fabulous machine from the new 7 series, the Bernina 710. While this machine has lots of fancy features and setting that I don't need for my work it's got a few features that make it perfect for my technique.
This is a powerful machine so I can run it really fast and for a really long time. The speed of the machine (1000 stitches per minute) is important to me because the quicker I can run the machine the quicker I can draw - which saves me hours of work when I am creating large complex pieces. This machine also has a really long free arm (25cm) so I have lots of space to work with. This becomes really important when I want to use a large hoop or I am working on a giant piece with lots of fabric. Another handy feature of this particular model is that it has a really big bobbin (almost twice the size of a regular bobbin) so I can sew for longer without refilling.

My workshop machine - a Bernina 430
My workshop machine:
While I love my 710 it is a big heavy machine and it's tricky to transport. So when I need to take a machine somewhere for a demonstration or a workshop I take my 430. This machine was my first big purchase once my art business started to take off a few years back. I have racked up over 29,000,000 stitches on this machine and have spent countless hours working with it - so needless to say it holds a special spot in my heart.

The Monster Machine (I call her Bernie):
In early 2016 I made the biggest investment in my art business to date and purchased a new Bernina Q20 long arm sewing machine. This machine is worth more than my car (which isn't really all that hard ... my car is a bit of a bomb) but I believe that this monster of a machine is worth every penny. After having worked with this machine (which I lovingly nick-named Bernie) for about a year now I can report that although this machine is designed for quilting it is absolutely perfect for what I do and has made my working days much more efficient and comfortable.

Despite it's impressive size this machine is really simple - making care and use very easy. This machine only does straight stitch freehand work, so if I want to do any zig-zag work (or any regular sewing for that matter) I have to pop back over to my 720. In saying that 99.9% of my work is done with a straight stitch so this is not an issue for me. This machine is again super fast and smooth and is a dream to work on. Some perks of the machine is that it has a really big bobbin (similar in size to the 710/720) so I don't have to keep stopping to refill the bobbin. It also has a built in bobbin winder which I hear is rather rare in a long arm machine. Another great feature of this machine is of course THE SPACE! It has a 20" (50cm) throat space and the wooden work table can be extended up to 2 meters long! So space is no longer an issue for me and I have so much freedom of movement now.

This is a huge, heavy machine and this weight certainly adds to it's stability and smoothness while stitching. This of course means that once you have this baby set up you can't easily move it and I obviously can't take Bernie to workshops with me. She is a studio only machine. The mechanic that installed my Q20 kindly installed some castor wheels on the table. These don't come standard with the machine but are a cheap and easy upgrade for the table to help me move it around the studio if I need to.

Probably the best thing about the Q20 is the ergonomics of the machine. I have always made sure that my work space is set up ergonomically however when I sew on a standard domestic machine I found that I would tilt my head at a bit of a funny angle to be able to best see what I was working on. After doing this all day, every day I developed some pretty serious shoulder and neck issues which not only made my working days painful but also limited the amount of time I could work at the machine before having to get up to stretch and move. The head of the Q20 is positioned much higher than other machines so I now have a much greater view of my work and no longer do that weird head tilt thing. This means that I can work comfortably and for longer. No more back and neck pain, and no more trips to the chiropractor.

So what machine should you buy:
as I mentioned you don't need much in a machine to be able to draw freehand, basically you just need to be able to put the feed teeth down and away you go. With sewing machines you really do get what you pay for so I would always suggest you purchase the best machine that you can afford - even if it means spending more than you originally planned. A good quality machine will last you a lifetime, so see it as a long term investment and it helps to justify the initial spending.

If you just can't justify spending thousands on new a sewing machine consider buying a second hand one. You can pick up some great older machines for a few hundred dollars and you will get a lot more joy out of them then the cheap nasty plastic machines that are available.

Maintenance and servicing for your machine:
Whenever I run a workshop the first thing I get people to do it oil and clean their machines. For most participants this is the first time they have done this basic maintenance and that always shocks me. It is such a quick and easy thing to do that makes your machine run so much smoother (and quieter). Basic machine maintenance that you can perform yourself is usually just a few drops of strategically placed oil and a quick brush out of the bobbin compartment. Your sewing machine manual or a quick Google search will tell you what you need to do to oil and clean your particular sewing machine model - so no excuses!

As a general rule you should have your sewing machine serviced by a professional machine mechanic once a year. A basic service will clean and oil all parts of your machine (not just the bits you can do yourself), as well as checking and adjusting things like the thread tension and timing of the machine. I service my machine at Thorpe & Co in Newcastle and they do a great job. I can not stress the importance of regular servicing and maintenance of your machine enough - it will ensure that you will have and love your machine for years to come.

I hope that you have found this post helpful. If you have any other questions that you would like me to answer in a post just let me know in the comments below.




  1. Thanks for your post. I really like your work and how you manage to put thread painting on a whole different level. I started two years ago or sow with home learning how to thread paint, and until today i still manage to put my grandmothers old Brother machine to follow my will :-). But yes, investing in a new machine because of some features, like speed, longer arm, automatic down needle position, auto thread tension and sow might not be a bad idea. thanks! greets Kat

    1. Hi Kus Kat,
      Thanks for your lovely comment, i'm glad you found the post helpful. Yes a new machine with a few of the modern conveniences makes for a much nicer sewing experience. The auto needle down feature is one of my favourites as well. :) Happy sewing.

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