Updated Video

The Stitch Composer video in the My 15000 app has been updated to reflect the changes made in the Quilt Maker upgrade. These changes are all cosmetic. Basic functionality of the program is unchanged. Here is a summary of what was changed:

  • The simulated stitch function has been moved from the View tab to a new tab labeled SimulationAll the buttons still work the same way.
  • A new button labeled Highlight has been added to the right of the Point/Move button. When stitches are selected in the Stitch List, tapping this button will show the selected stitches as red circles. Tapping it a second time turns it off.
  • The Finish button has been relabeled as Lock Stitch. It works exactly the same, just with a new name. Note that even though a lock stitch is required to end a composed stitch, it not be done when the custom stitch is used in combination with other decorative stitches. Only the last stitch in the combination will be locked.

Perspectives: Dealers

My wife, Diane, was a Janome sewing machine dealer for 25 years. For 20 of those years I worked with her in various capacities. That’s given me a view of both sides of the dealer-customer relationship. This post is the first of a series examining that relationship with insights from my point of view.

In the beginning the dealer and prospective customer have different goals. The customer wants the best possible value for her money, while the dealer wants to make a sale with enough profit to sustain the business. Obviously the best outcome is when both parties feel that they have achieved their goal. Unfortunately it doesn’t always end that way.

Some buyers have no local dealer, having to travel a great distance just to find any dealer. Most commonly this is due to the buyer’s city being too small to support a dealer of a specialized product like a sewing machine. In the US many small towns have lost all small retail businesses once Walmart moves in. That’s one of the hidden costs of those “always low” prices.

A buyer that has to travel a long way is at a great disadvantage, because the dealer knows they are unlikely to get any repeat business from the sale. There is no incentive to offer any discount or other consideration. After sale support will also be problematic, so the best a buyer can usually hope for is a great price. There are exceptions to this, and some dealers go the extra mile for service for remote customers. However training is often unavailable.

The dealer situation in or near large cities is much different. Competition is intense and there are different ways of dealing with it. For the buyer it often comes down to simply looking for the lowest price. This is a mistake, as the lowest price is rarely the least expensive. To counter this, dealers will agree to either not quote prices over the phone, or to quote only manufacturer suggested prices, thus putting them all on a level playing field. The intent is to force customers to go to each local dealer to get their “best” price, with the goal of making that process too time-consuming and onerous, so the customer will just settle for whichever dealer is closest.

From the dealer’s standpoint, this is risky. They are engaging in a “race to the bottom”. As Seth Godin tells us, the problem with being in a race to the bottom is that you might win. Or worse, come in second. At the time of the purchase the customer is happy with the low price. Disillusionment soon follows. One remorseful lady who came to our store had bought her machine from an “always lowest price” dealer. When she wanted to know how a particular machine function worked, she was told “It comes with a book. Read it!”

Selling only on price is at once easy and very difficult. The easy part is that the dealer is essentially engaged in a reverse auction, bidding less and less until the deal is sealed. But expenses like rent and salaries are fixed and must be paid in a timely fashion. The only way to pay them is from the profit gained between the difference in selling price and machine cost. Some dealers counter this by putting no prices at all on machines in the store. A potential customer is sized up, and a price is offered that may be even higher than the manufacturer’s suggested price. If resistance is met, then the negotiation begins to find the price the customer is willing to pay, but lacking that, the customer may unwittingly subsidize the low prices that others have paid.

After the sale comes the reckoning. Dealers who sell solely on price will almost never have any sort of training or help after the sale. The machines of today are much more complex than those of a few decades ago. Staying abreast of them requires dealers to invest time and money to attend training from manufacturers. That can’t be done if the goal is to always get the sale by lowering the price.

When shopping for a new machine price will always be a consideration, but that should not be the highest priority. Evaluate the dealership first. Look at their class schedule. If there is no class schedule that’s a red flag. Ask friends in your sewing club for their recommendations and experiences. Look around the store. What is on offer besides machines? Lack of accessories or sewing supplies usually indicates that the focus is on machines alone. A dealer who is not looking for repeat business likely won’t be interested in after-sale support.

If you have no local dealer the process is different. Rather than looking for the lowest price, you may be seeking the closest dealer, or even an online dealer. Either way, a little research online can be very helpful. If you are looking at a dealer that is 100 miles away and can find nothing positive online, look further. Driving an additional 50 miles might be worth it to get a substantially better dealer.

Whether shopping locally or online, the Internet can be helpful. These days almost every dealer has a website. Are there pictures from the store on the website, either of merchandise on display or classes? If the only photos are “stock” pictures of machines that might indicate a lack of interest, and inventory, in accessories and supplies. Do a web search on the store. If the only results are links to the store website and auxiliary websites such as online Yellow Pages, that might be another indication of where the dealer’s priorities lie.

There are many online sewing groups, including ours. These can be helpful in getting first hand information on dealers, either local or remote. Most people are reluctant to take the time to leave reviews or ratings, but are far more willing to help people asking about for recommendations. If you have a great dealer, you can reward her by giving an honest opinion in response to requests like this.

Buying a sewing machine is very different from buying a toaster or a television. You will be in an ongoing relationship with the dealer. Choose carefully and it will be rewarding for both of you.

 

Maximize the Life of Your Machine

Regardless of which top of line machine you have, it was an expensive purchase. Sewing machines have come a very long way since the days when $200 would get all the machine you could possibly want. Of course you want to keep your machine in good running order. Even if you upgrade frequently, having a well-maintained trade-in can only help you get the best deal.

So how do you do that? As your mother no doubt told you, it starts with cleaning. Every 20-30 hours of sewing you should remove the needle plate and bobbin case so you can clean out the lint that has accumulated. If you have trouble tracking how many hours you have sewn, simply do this at the beginning of each new project. That’s also a good time to put in a new needle. You may be tempted to just blow everything out of the bobbin area with “canned air”, but that’s not a great strategy. What’s in the can is not air, in the sense that you really don’t want to breathe it. A much better option is to use a small handheld vacuum. These are readily available, many with tools that can be used to get into tight places. Vacuuming prevents adding even more lint to your sewing room, and it pulls the lint out of the machine rather than pushing it down inside.

While you’ve got the bobbin case out check it for damage. Needle strikes can put bumps on the bottom of the case, causing clicking while sewing. If the damage is not severe you can usually smooth out the bump with an emery board. Otherwise purchase a new case. Next look over the needle plate. It should be smooth, both on the surface and on the edges of the holes that the needle goes through. If it’s pitted from needle strikes you may be able to buff them out with a fine file or a stone, but again, if it’s not looking great you need to replace it.

Before you put everything back together, take a look at the hook race. That’s the metal “basket” that you took the bobbin case out of. It should be completely smooth, both on the sides and especially on the narrow little ledge that the bobbin case sits on. If there is roughness anywhere you should see your dealer. She has a tool that can polish out the burrs, and if necessary she can replace the entire assembly. If you ignore any damage here, you are sure to have big problems down the road – soon!

Do you use spray adhesive or sticky stabilizer? Either of these can build up a residue on the hook race, bobbin case, and needle plate. The build-up attracts lint and gives those parts a fuzzy coat. This inevitably leads to stitch problems, such as loops that suddenly start appearing on top of your embroidery. Use a solvent to remove the sticky deposits. Commercial products, such as Goo-Gone, work. I’ve also used rubbing alcohol and a favorite of the Internet, Williams ‘Lectric Shave. A word of warning – don’t let any solvent get near the painted lettering on your machine, as it could cause it to disappear! Before you put the solvent away, use a bit of it on a paper towel to remove the sticky gunk on the spool pin left by thread spool labels.

Spray adhesive can also mess up your machine’s exterior. You never want to spray it into the hoop while it’s attached to the machine. Instead put the hoop in a box that you saved from your last Amazon delivery. Spray it there (outside if possible) so that any overspray goes in the box. If it’s too late, and your machine already has a coating of ugly splotches, just use one of the solvents mentioned to carefully clean it off.

Now that everything is nice and clean you may be wondering about oil. Back in grandmother’s day oiling was an important part of machine maintenance. That’s no longer the case. Machines now are built with a process that infuses the moving parts with oil. No user oiling is required, as long as you have the machine serviced at least every couple of years. You may think that no service is needed as long as you keep the machine clean. However lint will fall down inside no matter how often you clean. That lint builds up, absorbs lubrication, and can cause premature wear of parts that are expensive to replace. Your dealer’s service technician will remove covers to get at the accumulate debris, as well as lubricate parts that need it. If you sew every day you should schedule a cleaning at least annually. If you use your machine in a business capacity it could be as often as every 6 months.

Machine maintenance is not nearly as fun as sewing is, but doing it on a regular basis will ensure that your machine lasts a long time. And, let’s be honest, it’s still better than housework!

 

Why are there bugs in software?

If you have ever used a computer you have probably encountered a bug in a program. Bugs range from annoying to catastrophic, rendering the program completely useless. Why are there bugs? They are clearly mistakes, so why are they called bugs?

The term “bug” came about in the days of the earliest computers. This was before the era of the transistor. Computers then were built using vacuum tubes and relays. (If you don’t know what a vacuum tube is, ask your mother!) Computers in those days were very slow and very expensive. Use of them was carefully tracked for budgeting purposes and breakdowns were common. One such failure was due to a moth that had gotten itself stuck between the contacts of a relay. The engineer who fixed it logged the failure as “Bug in computer”. To this day program problems are called bugs, even though there are no insects involved.

The big question is “Why are there bugs at all? Don’t they test the software?” Of course they test. In fact, at least 50% of the time spent on a software project is testing and debugging. All but the smallest software publishers have people on staff who do nothing but testing. In spite of this, there are always bugs. How can this be?

One reason is the very nature of programs. In a very simple program, one that makes only 8 yes or no decisions, there are 256 possible outcomes. Most programs being written today make hundreds of thousands of decisions, and there is simply not enough time to test every possible path. Because of this complexity, a lot of effort has gone into improving the programming process. Writing software is a combination of rules and art. A good programmer tries to be both disciplined and creative. That’s why they usually command a high salary. Such people are scarce, and that has led to a majority of them being mediocre. Companies that try to save money by hiring the cheapest programmers they can find often wind up paying much more in dealing with the inevitable bugs.

The bug fixing process is also perilous. An old programmer’s joke says “I had 99 bugs in my program. I fixed one and now I have 117 bugs in my program.” This is again due to complexity. Fixing a bug often has the unintended effect of creating new bugs. This is especially true for programs that have grown over time to be many millions of lines of code. Microsoft Windows, for example, is now so large that it is thought that there is no longer any person who understands it in entirety.

In practice, programming is not unlike quilting. Precision is critically important. A small mistake in one seam can lead to squares that don’t match. Of course a programmer can fix mistakes with keystrokes, where quilting problems may involve multiple attacks with a seam ripper. Eventually the quilter says “Don’t worry, it will quilt out.” For the programmer this comes from management who says “Stop debugging and ship it!” As long as human beings are creating, there will be imperfections. This truth is evident in the exquisitely beautiful Amish quilts, where the artists will make at least one deliberate mistake in a quilt to underscore the frailty of humans.

Once we accept the inevitability of bugs in our software, we have to develop a strategy for dealing with them. Software updates are a large part of that. Updates are released as often to fix bugs as they are to introduce new features. Some publishers will release an update with no mention of bugs being fixed, but the fixes are there. If the problems being fixed are many, there are probably new bugs in the update as well. At some point, in any large software program, the number of bugs becomes constant, due to new bugs being introduced while fixing old bugs. This should not deter you from installing updates. In fact, before looking for help with a problem, you should always first check to see if there are one or more updates available. Installing updates may fix your problem, but if not you have eliminated what is usually the first thing suggested by technical support personnel.

The cornerstone of your bug strategy should be backup. Keeping copies of  tax records, grandchild photos, and other irreplaceable items is critical. External storage is less expensive than ever, and there are numerous “cloud” options as well. We recommend following the 3-2-1 backup strategy. It’s the best way to ensure that you have protection from loss, whether it comes from software bugs or hardware failures.

With software or sewing, sometimes things just don’t work out the way we want them to. If someone points out a flaw in something you’ve made, just smile sweetly and tell them it’s intentional, to prove you are human!

Avoiding Oops

It’s fair to assume that the machine you are sewing on now is the most expensive one you’ve ever owned. Maybe it cost more than your first car. Clearly you want it to last as long as possible. For some owners, their current machine may be the last one they will ever own. Of course you need to keep your machine in good working order by having it serviced, but is that enough?

Here in the Northern Hemisphere we’re in the middle of summer. The days are warm, sometimes uncomfortably so, and it’s mostly sunny. A thunderstorm is not unusual and most of them come with lightning. Strikes from lightning are rare, but when they happen it can be devastating. A strike on your home can travel through the house wiring, destroying everything that is plugged in. You could prevent this by unplugging your machine at the first sound of thunder, but that isn’t practical. It’s especially impractical if you’re trying to finish a gift for the baby shower you will attend in an hour.

So you’ve installed a “surge protector” that you bought at the big box store for $10. It’s got 6 outlets on it and a light that shows it’s working. You’re good, right? Well maybe not. Most of the low cost surge protectors, if they work at all, are only good for one or two surges. The part inside that absorbs the shock is severely weakened by doing so. This part is cheap, which allows the product it lives in to be cheap. It doesn’t take a lightning strike to wear it out; in fact a lightning strike will likely jump right through it.

Lightning is not the only danger brought on by thunderstorms. Just your normal power can have surges and sags, all of which can happen without you even knowing. If part of your power grid goes out the company will switch distribution to keep your power on. When this happens you see the power go out briefly, then come back on. Sometimes this will happen several times in succession. Each time there will be a brief surge as everything powers up again. Those surges are invisible, but dangerous.

The most dangerous time for an electronic device is when it is first turned on. Once the ON switch is engaged electricity starts flowing through the parts at the speed of light. Any part that is just a little below par can fail from this first pulse. Imagine that when you roll out of bed in the morning, you are plunged into a vat of ice water. That’s how it is for your electronics. Power surges that happen over and over will stress devices, and at some point failures can occur. How can we prevent this?

To avoid an “Oops” you can use a(n) UPS. We’re not talking about the brown truck that brings your Amazon orders, but an Uninterruptible Power Supply. These devices plug into your wall plug and have some number of outlets for you to plug in the things you want protected. They monitor the incoming power. If it is too high or too low, they switch the power to your equipment from the wall power to power recreated from the storage battery inside the UPS. The switchover is typically very fast, so your devices never see a surge or a sag. When wall power goes back to normal the UPS switches again. That’s where the “uninterruptible” comes in.

Many of the high-end embroidery-capable machines made in the last 10-15 years have a “Resume” function that allows embroidery to resume at the point where it was when the machine was turned off. You may be thinking that this will protect you from power failure. It will not. When you press the button to stop embroidery, whether or not it is finished, your machine takes note of where you were in the design. If the machine is turned off with the switch or a power failure, you will resume at that point, not where you were when the power failed. The goal of using a UPS with an embroidery machine is not to keep sewing through the storm, but to allow you to push the STOP button yourself when the power has been cut. After the weather calms down you can resume with no problem.

UPS systems are available in my forms and prices. The main difference is the total amount of power that they can provide and the length of time they can provide that power before the battery is depleted. Power ratings are in VA, which is roughly the voltage multiplied by the total current used in amperes. So a sewing machine that uses 120 volts at 1.5 amps would be about 180 VA. Our machines are relatively low power, so even a 350VA unit will be sufficient. You’ll get 15-20 minutes of time before the battery goes flat, which gives you lots of time to stop, turn off your machine, and wait it out. Or keep sewing and hope! You do have to be mindful of how much you plug into the UPS. If you want to plug in the iron to finish up a project you will almost certainly blow the fuse inside. They are not made to provide that much power. This can also happen if you plug in your TV, 3 computers, your machine, and 2 phone chargers. Too much!

Other than the price, the main negative of a UPS is the battery. These are larger than your typical flashlight batteries, and they are lead-acid like the one in your car. That’s why a UPS is so heavy. Depending on how often the UPS switches to battery, they can last 2-4 years. Some of the UPS devices have a light showing the battery status, though you can’t always count on it working. I’ve had many battery failures that were not apparent until the power went out, and so did the UPS. When power came back the UPS would scream continually. Batteries are not that expensive, but I’ve found that the after-market batteries are usually much lower quality than the one initially installed in the UPS. Now I usually replace the entire UPS instead of just the battery. Whether you replace the battery or the UPS itself, don’t just chuck the discard into your trash. That’s very bad for everyone when the lead and acid hit the landfill. Most of the big box electronics retailers will recycle them for you for free.

Whether you need or want a UPS is up to you. If you live in an area where storms are rare you may want to assume the risk. For most of us it’s worth the cost for peace of mind to protect our machines. If you do get a UPS, after the first year I would suggest turning off everything plugged into it, then turn it off at its switch. Wait 10 seconds and turn it back on. If it powers up normally, green light, etc. then all is well. If it fails to turn on, or screams without stopping, the battery is likely gone and it’s not protecting you any more.

 

Evolution

When my wife Diane opened her sewing machine dealership in 1987 she ran it solo for several years. I continued writing software and doing computer consulting until I got burned out. She had grown the business to the point that she needed full-time help and I was happy to oblige. There was much to learn!

The first thing I learned was that to sell sewing machines you must be able to demonstrate how they are used. I had no problem just running a straight stitch down a piece of demo fabric, but when it came to demonstrating how to use the various feet I made a lot of mistakes. Proudly showing off the automatic buttonhole on the Memory Craft 8000, I failed to pull down the buttonhole sensing lever. Of course the buttonhole just kept going in one direction. (In spite of this, I made the sale!)

When we retired I decided to return to the world of computers, focusing on the Apple iPhone and iPad. Although I had been programming for 44 years, these devices were very different from any I had ever worked on before. Fortunately I had my oldest son to  mentor me as I developed the first version of FootBook. He made me start over no less than three times, as my first clumsy efforts were not acceptable! I’m not sure how much of that was payback, but it worked out for the best. Now, seven years later, I am very much at home with the devices and the software.

The art of sewing is a lot like that. My first attempts at free motion quilting were absurdly awful. Even now I am unable to do more than a couple of loops before the stitch lengths are completely random. Fortunately I no longer have to demonstrate my lack of skill. The point is, some things require a lot of time and practice to master. There are techniques that help you learn, but trying and failing over and over is the best path to success. With our videos we try to show the best way to learn techniques, with the goal of helping you master them as quickly as possible. The learning process is a lot more fun if you have a clear path to start with. As Henry Ford famously pointed out, there are no failures, only things that don’t work.

What computer should I buy?

This question has come up a lot over the years. It’s usually asked by the people who regard their computer as an appliance, and they want to maximize its useful life. Much more common is the person who considers their computer to be a necessary commodity that they have to have. Typically they buy the lowest-priced computer they can find from a “big box” store. Use it a couple of years and repeat.

There are a lot of manufacturers of Windows computers, which makes for fierce competition. Since they are all using the same software, and mostly the same hardware inside, the main tool they use to achieve market share is low price. Selling through chain stores sets up a race to the bottom – how low can they go? The result is computers that are made as cheaply as possible so they can sell for a price very close to the cost of the components inside. How can they do this and stay in business?

The secret is to load up each computer with “trial” versions of various software. The publishers pay to have this done. The purchaser winds up with a barely adequate computer, bogged down with a plethora of added software that will not be fully functional until more money is spent. These days laptops are more typically sold than desktops. They are made with very small parts, to keep weight down. This makes them very expensive to repair – impossible in some cases. Carrying them around leads to bumps and bruises on mostly plastic cases and in a short while it’s time to buy a new computer. Again.

While computers made for playing games are somewhat upgradeable, the same cannot be said for typical consumer-grade computers. Because of this, it’s less costly to buy more computer than you need so you can keep it longer. Here are some key things to look for:

  • Processor – the actual brain of the computer
    Although the processors keep getting more powerful, the increments of improvement are getting smaller. Chip makers now use multiple “cores” to improve performance, where each core is sort of a computer within a computer. When buying go for a minimum of 4 cores. Anything less is already on the way to becoming obsolete. Speed is not of particular interest as they are all pretty fast.
  • RAM – the working memory of the computer
    Every version of Windows is bigger than the last, with more and more features. A computer with 4 gigabytes of RAM may be adequate today, but the next version may slow it to a crawl, particularly if it’s loaded down with trial software. Consider 8 GB as a working minimum. More is better.
  • Storage – the place where all your stuff goes
    Hard drives get cheaper all the time. They are also the weakest link in any computer. The spinning platter inside will fail at some point, with cheap drives failing sooner, often in a couple of years. The new trend is for Solid State Drives (SSD) that have no moving parts. These offer several advantages. While they do have a working lifetime, they are designed to spread wear evenly over the drive. For most people a one terabyte drive (1,000 gigabytes) will last many times longer than a mechanical drive. Lacking a motor, an SSD is much less weight in a laptop. Bumping or dropping a computer with a conventional hard drive can cause the read/write heads to contact the spinning platter. This renders the computer broken and the data lost. That’s not a problem with SSD, since nothing in it is moving. Then there is speed, the most important feature of a SSD. SSD drives are faster than hard drives by a factor of 10 or more. This leads to laptops that are ready to use just seconds after turning them on, rather than minutes. SSDs are more expensive than hard drives, but prices are coming down. With all the advantages they offer, you should not consider any computer that does not have an SSD.

All of the above apply without regard to whether you are buying a PC with Windows or an Apple Macintosh. With Apple being one of the most profitable companies ever, it’s easy to argue that their computers are overpriced. I have been using only Macs for the past 10 years, and have purchased a number of them. Every one is still in use, either by me or a member of my extended family, making it well worth the higher price. Nearly all sewing software requires Windows, mainly because most people have a Windows computer. It’s possible to use Windows on a Mac, though it requires more expertise than knowing how to use a mouse and keyboard. We address the issues in this free PDF. It’s a little dated, but still relevant.

With the advent of the iPad there was a big shift in the world of computers. As Steve Jobs famously noted, computers are like trucks while iPads are like cars. Most people can use a car for all of their needs. Only professionals need a truck. The analogy is not perfect, but now that Janome has embraced the iPad with the Memory Craft 15000 and 9400 it opens the door to the possibility having only an iPad for sewing. We’ll cover that in our next post.