Evolution

It’s been more than half a century since I first got involved with computers. Back then the CDC 3600 computer used by the university took up an entire floor of the Computer Science center. The operator’s console looked similar to the helm of the Enterprise on the Star Trek series, filled with spinning tapes and flashing lights. Writing programs as a student required a lot of waiting, first to get access to a keypunch machine on which to prepare the program. Then we turned in our deck of cards and waited until enough student programs of very low priority got processed. Typically this was the next day.

As I sit here writing this on a computer with thousands of times more capability, it’s hard to believe how much has changed since I started. In fact I have three computers that far exceed what that university computer could do. One is in my pocket and one is strapped to my wrist. The evolution of technology has been fascinating to watch, even as it continues. I never could have imagined the world we have today, or the problems that have come with the progress.

Sewing has evolved to the point that just about anyone who sews is involved with a computer in some way. The first sewing software was developed for Microsoft Windows, mainly because anyone who actually had a computer had one that used Windows. In the nearly 20 years since the first computer connected machines arrived we now use mobile devices, in the form of phone or tablets. Tablets in particular have been adopted by Janome, with apps for the Apple iPad that can connect with some computer models. They still offer some software for Windows, and more recently for Apple Macintosh. Unfortunately you still need to have both a computer and a tablet to use all of the available software.

Windows has evolved as the computer hardware has gained in speed and capability. Each version comes with problems in upgrading older software, and there is new complexity with each update. Ironically, with the exception of embroidery digitizing, all of the functions that are needed for sewing can be accomplished by apps on a tablet. In fact, for most people, a tablet is all the computer they need. Worldwide there are still a lot of people that don’t own a computer, but 85% of the world has a smart phone. These phones would be better labeled as pocket computers, because they are fully functional computers in every sense of the word.

Tablet computers are now overtaking laptops in terms of capability and power. The recent updates to Apple’s iPad Pro line makes it a suitable laptop replacement for most people. In the sewing room a tablet is much easier to manage than a Windows desktop or laptop, partly because of the portability and also because of the ease of use. I have been developing apps for iPhone and iPads for 8 years now, and expect that I will see the day when just about any sewing software you need will be available on that platform. Even now we look back at the early days of floppy disks, and even CD-ROMs and marvel at how primitive they were. Once the machine companies catch up, it will no longer be necessary to spend valuable sewing time wrestling with the complexity of Windows.

I’m No Good With Computers

In the many years I’ve been involved with the technology used in home sewing machines, this phrase has come up a lot. Some of the same women who have uttered this have also gone on to create quilts of breathtaking complexity. Sewing involves mathematics, and the majority of those who practice it are women.

When a woman says she is “not a techie” I think what she is really saying is that she simply does not have any interest in spending a lot of time trying to figure out badly designed products and software. Almost all users of sewing machines are women, but they are designed mostly by men. Over our time as dealers we were repeatedly asked what features our customers wanted to see in new machines. Whatever feedback we provided, the actual feature set on new models was formulated by top level marketing and engineering men.

My initial foray into computers came at the very beginning of the industry. On a campus of 45,000 students there were 13 majoring in Computer Science. Only two of them were women. While that ratio has improved a little, the majority of people in information technology are men. The industry is trying to change this, but it has been a difficult transition. Women are still paid less than men for the same job, and have to put up with office behavior that would be out of place in a frat house.

After 50 years in the business, I would say that 75% of all software ranges from bad to appallingly terrible. That’s a conservative estimate! With 70% or more of the people producing that software being men, it’s tempting to see causation rather than correlation. I won’t make that leap, but I will say that writing good software requires a particular mindset that is not universal. It’s also not unique to men, as history has proven.

When you find that a particular machine feature or piece of software is difficult to use, don’t shrug it off or blame yourself for not understanding. Be vocal and let the producer know how it could be better. Spending half a century with someone who is “not a techie” has made me produce better software, and that feedback is so helpful.

If your daughter or granddaughter is interested in science or technology, encourage her. We need the best and brightest and it’s foolish to only look at 50% of the population to find them!

Software Updates

Owners of computerized sewing machines are accustomed to having the internal software of their machines updated from time to time, either to fix bugs or add new features. You don’t need to update your machine if you are not having any problems, and don’t care to have the new features. However on your computer, phone, or tablet the situation is a bit different. The operating system on those devices must be kept up to date in order to keep the software you use working correctly.

Updating is not necessarily optional on those devices. On computers there are legions of shady programmers working diligently to find ways to penetrate your computer for installation of malware. Keeping your computer up to date is essential to protect it from this, and keep your data from being stolen. Microsoft ended regular support for Windows 7 in 2015, but it is still under extended support. That means that any security issues will be fixed, but no new features will be added. However on January 14, 2020, extended support for Windows 7 will end. What does this mean?

If you are currently using Windows 10, it’s of no concern to you. However many people have continued to use Windows 7, due to software compatibility or familiarity. If you are still using Windows 7 after extended support ends you will no longer get updates. The bad guys will keep on looking for ways to get inside your computer, but Microsoft will no longer be plugging the holes. You can continue to use Windows 7, but you will be at higher risk of infection.

In the world of iPhones and iPads a similar situation is occurring. Apple will no longer accept apps for those devices if they are not based on iOS 12.1. Most iPhones get updated every few years, so this likely will not be a problem for phone users. If you have an iPad, though, you may not be able to update to iOS 12. The iPad 2, 3, and 4 are all stuck at iOS 9 and cannot upgrade past that. This includes just about all of the iPads that were given to early purchasers of the Janome Memory Craft 15000 in the US. If you have one of those, you won’t be able to get apps newly added to the App Store, though you can still get older versions of apps that are currently in the store. Fortunately Apple has just released some new iPads that are more affordable, so it may be time to give your existing iPad to the grandkids and treat yourself to a new one.

Needles – Part 2

Apart from your sewing machine, the needle is probably the most important factor in the success or failure of a sewing project. In spite of this, most people tend to pay little regard to the needle, much less than the attention given to thread, tension, and other considerations. Let’s look at the most important things you should know about needles.

We will begin by taking a close look at a needle’s anatomy. At the top is the shank, which is flat on one side. This part of the needle is standard across all types made for household use, and is the part that gets inserted into the sewing machine. It is critically important that it be placed with the flat of the shank toward the back of the sewing machine. Most modern machines have been manufactured to make improper insertion very difficult, but I won’t say it can’t be done!  

The bottom 2/3 of the needle is the shaft, which varies according to the size of the needle. The front edge of the shaft has a groove, from the shank down to just above the eye. That groove is where the thread goes when you are sewing, and it should not be smaller than the thread you are using.  

At the bottom of the needle is the tip. It varies between needle types, and in fact, defines how needles are sold.  On the back of the needle you’ll find the scarf, a dished out place that allows the sewing machine hook to pass between the needle and the thread to make a stitch. Without this, you can’t sew. By far the most common sewing machine problem is having the needle in backward, which puts the scarf in front, and causes the hook to either miss the thread or break it.  

Finally there is the part of the needle that we have so much trouble seeing, the eye. The size varies with the type of the needle. Because the eye is made by literally knocking a hole through the needle with a huge machine, it’s possible for a manufacturing defect to leave the edges of the hole rough. This can cause thread breakage. Since all of the needles in a package are likely to have been made at the same time, changing out a bad one may not seem to help. When all else fails, try a new package.N

Needle Types

  • Universal
    In this case “Universal” has a double meaning. This is the type of needle that most sewists use, and is what most companies pack in the box with their sewing machines. The tip of these needles is modified to be somewhat rounded. That makes it suitable for sewing both woven and knit fabrics, which is why they are called universal. A rounded tip tends to push between the fibers of the fabric, rather than through them. That causes less damage to the fabric, and is critical for knits, which can unravel if the needle cuts the fibers.
  • Ball Point
    Needles made specifically for knits have an almost blunt, rounded tip. While you can generally use a universal needle for knits like cotton interlock, those don’t work well at all on stretchy knits like Lycra. In that situation a ball point is critical. Ball points can also be helpful in sewing unusual items, such as Velcro fastener tape.
  • Microtex/Sharp
    The tip of these needles is very sharp, with no rounding. This is good for sewing on microfibers, silk and heirloom fabrics.
  • Denim (Jeans)
    These needles have a very sharp point, and the scarf is a little deeper to give the hook a little more room between a larger needle and a heavier thread. They are good for sewing on jeans, home decorating projects and other densely woven fabrics.
  • Leather
    Leather needles have a sharp 3-sided tip, designed specifically to pierce through the leather. They should not be used on synthetic leather, however. The Microtex is a better choice for those fabrics.
  • Embroidery
    Embroidery needles have a modified point that is neither sharp nor a ball. The eye is extra large, to allow decorative threads to pass very easily through it. If thread shredding or breaking occurs in dense embroidery, it may help to switch to a larger size so there will be a bigger hole for the thread to pass through. However if the stitches are very short, such as a narrow satin stitch outline, and you are using a size 14, you may do better by switching down to an 11 or 12. That’s because a size 14 is 1.4mm in diameter. If embroidery stitches are shorter than 1.4mm then you will have skipping, nesting, breaks, and similar problems. In very dense embroidery it is sometimes necessary to go to a much smaller needle, such as 8 or 10, and 60wt or smaller thread.
  • Quilting
    Made for free motion quilting techniques, such as stippling, these needles have a tapered shaft that helps minimize fabric damage when going through multiple layers of fabric and batting. Since it is impossible for a human to time the movement of the fabric perfectly, it’s a good idea to use larger sizes that will not easily be pulled and broken.
  • Topstitch
    These needles have a sharp point, with an extra large eye and groove to accommodate heavier threads. When embroidery or metallic needles are not available, these make a good substitute.
  • Metallic
    The tip is a modified ball, much like a universal. Both the eye and groove are greatly enlarged to allow delicate metallic threads to pass through easily. When a metallic needle does not seem to be working on a Janome machine, it’s often not the fault of the needle. Placing metallic thread on the horizontal spool pin causes the thread to twist as it comes off the spool. Frequently the twist will manifest itself as a kink when the thread gets to the eye, causing breakage. The solution is to stand the thread up vertically so that it rolls off straight, without twisting, or using a thread stand to extend the distance the thread travels to get to the machine.
  • Wing
    Wing needles are so called because of the large metal “wings” that come out on each side. They are designed to make a hole in the fabric, and are usually used in heirloom sewing. For best results, choose stitches that cause the needle to go through the same hole more than once. These are typically decorative stitches with a reverse cycle in them.
  • Twin
    When two needles are mounted on the same shank, it’s called a twin needle. Most often twin needles are used for topstitching or decorative techniques, such as pin tucks. The needles are sold by type and by the distance between the individual needles. Typically they vary from 1.6mm to 6mm apart. Note that the Twin Needle button added to many computer machines automatically limits stitch widths for the 1.6mm twin included with them. If you use a wider needle, like a 4.0, that button won’t protect you from breaking it!
  • Triple
    Often this needle is sold with its German name, drilling. It does 3 rows of stitching, and is used in the same decorative applications as twin needles. Use great care with these needles, as they are quite wide. If the stitch width is too wide you can break an expensive needle.

When using a wing, twin, or triple needle it’s a good ideal to turn the hand wheel of the machine through a full cycle of the chosen stitch. This lets you confirm that the needle clears the hole in the needle plate and will not be broken as soon as you start sewing.

Needle Sizes

Once you have determined what type of needle you need for your project, you need to decide on the size. There are two different systems used to specify needle sizes, and most are sold with both sizes on the package, separated by a slash. The larger number is the size of the shaft in 100ths of a millimeter, while the smaller is the number of the needle within the Singer sizing system, as set up a long time ago. So a size 90 needle (90/100ths of a millimeter) is the same as a Singer 14. The 90/14 needle is the most common size, and is packaged with most new sewing machines. Most sewing machine adjustments are made using a 90/14 needle.  This is especially true for needle threaders, which can lead to trouble with smaller needles. If using a size 10 or smaller needle, it is best not to use the machine’s needle threader, as the smaller eye can damage the mechanism. You should also not try to use the needle threader with wing needles, twin needles, or triple needles. It won’t work, and could damage the threader.

Needle Hygiene

There is a lifetime for a needle, and it’s not nearly as long as you might think. As a general rule, it’s good to start each project with a new needle. For embroidery, or sewing that’s not project-related, plan on a new one after 8-12 hours of sewing time. For specially coated needles, like Organ titanium, you can probably safely double that time, maybe even triple it. You can also get extended use from the chrome-plated needles that are now being sold. However these coated needles cost more, so there is a temptation to use them longer than you might use ordinary needles. That’s dangerous, because when they become dull they will not penetrate fabric well. That can lead to breakage, but because they are so strong they will usually damage the bobbin case or the machine when they break. If the needle hits something, but doesn’t break, change it anyway. Likewise, if the needle appears to be bent, change it. In fact, when in doubt, throw it out! 

Needle Brands

There are many different brands of needles on the market today, so you have a lot of choice in what you use. Most Janome owners are familiar with the blue tip and red tip needles that are included with their machines. These are made for Janome by Organ. The color on the shank indicates needle size. Blue tip needles are size 11. Red tips are size 14. They are good quality needles that work well for sewing and embroidery. Janome also has topstitch needles, leather needles, and a purple tip needle that has a tip that resembles the head of a cobra. The purple tip is recommended for quilting, and it also works very well for embroidery and regular sewing.

Schmetz is probably the largest needle manufacturer in the world, making both household and commercial needles. They have a huge variety of needle types for just about any sewing activity you can think of. Their needles are very high quality and last a little longer than other brands, at least in the non-titanium varieties. While many people use Schmetz needles, some Janome owners report that they don’t work with Janome machines that have automatic needle threaders. This is only reported by some Janome owners, not all. It likely has to do with how the needle threaders are calibrated. As previously stated, this is usually done with a size 14 needle, which can cause problems with smaller sizes, and perhaps other brands.

Many thread and notions suppliers also offer needles. These are mostly quite good, as they are manufactured by established companies like Organ and Schmetz. Good quality needles are also available online, often with substantial discounts for large quantities. If you cannot get high quality needles locally, you may be tempted to resort to the “Sewing Supply” rack in the local supermarket, or something similar in a “big box” discount store. That’s not a good idea. Those needles are made to sell for a low price. If they are sold under the Singer brand they may also be optimized for the Singer hook system and not ideal for other brands of machines. It’s advisable to get the best quality needles you can and change them frequently, even when there is no obvious damage. Regardless of what brand you use, you will find a lot of in-depth information on this website.

Needles – Part 1

Operating a retail sewing machine store for 25 years gives one a different perspective on sewing machine needles. We quickly learned that needles are misunderstood by most sewing enthusiasts, even those who have been sewing for decades. It also became apparent that the sewing business, like most others, had a shady side.

A customer came in with a machine that was misbehaving badly, breaking threads, skipping stitches, and generally not working. It didn’t take long to see why. The needle was in backward. We replaced it with a new needle, showing the customer how to insert it with the flat to the back, and the machine was immediately working perfectly. The customer then revealed that she had this problem with her machine many times in the past. Each time her dealer had diagnosed very serious problems and charged a lot of money to “repair it”. Sadly this practice was not uncommon at the time, and more than a few dealers did it. Our fledgling business gained a lot of customers quickly, just because we didn’t trick people that put the needle in backward.

These days machines have needle clamps that make it nearly impossible to insert the needle backward, but that’s not the only needle-related problem that we encountered. There was the machine brought in from years of storage in a barn, that was not working well. The needle was caked in rust. We said we would start with a new needle, which caused the shocked owner to say “Why? It’s not broken!”

Then there was the lady who brought her machine in for service. She had two or three needles loose in the machine, and asked us to be very careful not to lose the one currently installed, as it was “My favorite needle”. Apparently she had no idea that needles have a lifespan and need to be replaced on a regular basis.

By far, though, was the case of a new-to-sewing customer who bought the top of the line (at the time) embroidery-capable machine. She was a minor celebrity, having been on television a decade or so before; not someone you would recognize on the street, but enough of a celebrity that a sewing machine selling for more than $1,000 did not raise an eyebrow. As we did with all customers, we gave her a short introduction to her machine. When we started with bobbin winding her comment was “What’s a bobber? Do I need that?” Patience, and a request that she come to new owner classes, as well as beginning sewing, got her out the door with her new machine.

A week or so later she was back, somewhat despondent. She said “I need a new machine. I broke this one.” We were pretty incredulous, because it looked fine. As it turned out, what she broke was the needle and she was prepared to buy another machine as a result. A new needle and several classes later she was happily embellishing her wardrobe.

At the time our store was one of only two owned by women, having been started by my wife Diane. It was the attitude of the local “good ol’ boy” network that motivated her to open her store, and her honesty got her a lot of flack from competing dealerships. By the time we retired many more women had entered the traditionally male-dominated business and things were much better.

Next time we will discuss the obvious role of needles in the sewing process, and how to get the most from them. Don’t miss it!

Thread – Part 4

When Janome introduced the concept of machine embroidery to the home sewing market, there was suddenly a big increase in demand for embroidery thread. There are now many different brands of thread available for embroidery, in a variety of types. Choosing the best thread to use for a project can be challenging.

There are three primary types of embroidery thread: acrylic, polyester, and rayon. Other types exist, such as cotton and silk, but the goal of most embroidery projects is shiny, attractive, and colorful thread. When choosing the thread for your project, it’s important to consider how the embroidered piece will be used.

When Janome released the Memory Craft 8000, they introduced their own acrylic embroidery thread at the same time. Initially only 24 colors were offered, but this eventually expanded to the 78 colors now in the default Janome thread palette. This thread has a good shine and is relatively strong. It is color fast and washes and dries well. However at higher embroidery speeds it tends to fray, and it’s expensive compared to other types. As a result it’s not very popular now.

Rayon thread is smooth and has a beautiful sheen. It sews well at all speeds and is a good choice, unless the item being embroidered will be washed frequently. Rayon thread is not color-fast in bleach and does not hold up well with repeated washing and drying. If the project will not be laundered, then rayon thread can be a good choice for your project. It’s readily available in almost unlimited colors.

Because of the shortcomings mentioned, the most popular embroidery thread type is polyester. It’s very strong, inexpensive, and can be washed and bleached without losing color. These characteristics make it almost perfect, but not quite! The strength of poly thread makes it somewhat springy when coming off the spool, as it “remembers” the shape it had when wound. This can cause it to flex at an inopportune time, causing a skipped stitch. That will appear as a loop on top of the fabric. While a number of machine problems can result in loops on top of embroidery, a loop or two in a design containing many thousands of stitches is often due to the polyester thread. In most cases the problem can be dealt with by snipping the loop out of the design and using a hair dryer to heat the affected area. This will usually cause the cut ends of the loop to shrink into the fabric so they are no longer visible.

Embroidery thread is sold in varying weights, with 40wt being the most common. The weight is a measure of how many kilometers of thread are needed to weigh one kilogram. So 40wt means that 40,000 meters of thread will weigh approximately one kilogram. The smaller the thread weight, the thicker it is. Thread weight is very important in machine embroidery. If you choose, for example, to use 30wt thread in a design that was digitized for 40wt thread, the extra thickness can create stitch problems like thread breaks or loops, or embroidery that is what is often referred to as “bullet proof”.

By changing the weight of thread used, you can sometimes solve problems. An embroidery design that continually results in thread breaks, jams, or loops with 40wt thread may stitch beautifully with 60wt thread. This is one way to deal with designs that are overly dense, whether due to digitizing or reducing the size in the machine. As the industry has matured, finer threads are more readily available, with 60wt sometimes sold for micro embroidery.

Thread weight is critical when stitching freestanding lace. Most of these designs will work with 40wt, but you generally don’t want to use anything heavier unless the designer calls for it. Intricate lace designs do best with 60wt or finer.

Most sewing machine dealers carry one or more lines of embroidery thread that they have found to be reliable with the machines they sell. In search of a bargain you may be tempted to invest in unbranded thread. The Internet has an almost unlimited number of threads available at attractive prices. Before investing in these you should check with friends, online forums and groups, and even your dealer. The money you save by purchasing inferior thread can be dwarfed by the cost of machine repairs and frustration in trying to use it.

Thread – Part 3

Monofilament thread is used in applications where a match to the fabric is difficult. It is often used in quilting, where the top may have many different fabrics that no single thread can match. While it’s versatile, monofilament has a multitude of risks that can make it infuriating.

The common, cheaper form of monofilament is made from nylon. It’s not very different from fishing line and has many of the same characteristics. One of those is memory. As monofilament is pulled off the spool during sewing it tends to retain the loops that it developed when being wound. The wiry, springy nature of the thread can lead to it looping around things that it shouldn’t. It can also get caught up in moving machine parts. At most sewing speeds that means it will quickly wind into the machine until it has bound up the parts enough to stop the machine. This is a service person’s nightmare. Typically the thread is quite fine. Being transparent makes it very difficult to see. If the machine ran a long time before stopping, some of the thread may have gotten hot enough to melt. Extracting it can mean a lot of disassembly, leading to high repair bills.

A better form of monofilament is made from polyester. It has the same transparent qualities as nylon, but it is usually more expensive. You still need to be careful with it, but it doesn’t have the memory issues and is less likely to throw troublesome loops. Another benefit of poly monofilament is heat resistance. Ironing something made with nylon monofilament can cause the thread to melt, thus removing stitches!

Most sewing machine dealers and fabric stores will carry good quality monofilament. Get polyester (Sulky, Superior) when you can, nylon if it’s not available. DO NOT get Walmart monofilament. It is basically fishing line and has a very high degree of memory and spring.

Use great care when threading your machine with monofilament thread. It will be hard to see, and it’s very easy to accidentally have it loop around something like a bobbin winder that you don’t notice until you start to sew. This type of thread is very strong, and if it is caught and unable to feed, it can easily pull the needle so it hits the plate or bobbin case. When removing it, be sure to secure the free end of thread on the spool. If it was wound on the spool at high speed, having an unsecured end can cause it to “puddle” around the spool. If the free end gets pulled into the machine, disaster will ensue!