Category: My first sewing machine

Mar 22

Mend It Better review and giveaway!

My! We are Giveaway Central at the moment! And this isn’t even the last one, so do stay tuned.

It’s an exciting day when the book you’ve contributed to arrives. You open it at your page to feel a surge of recognition followed by mingled joy and disbelief. Small wonder that authors often refer to books as their children; the parallels with gazing at your own baby for the first time are obvious. Though I’m not really the parent here. More of a distant cousin. Anyway, that happy day came a few weeks ago when my contributor’s copy of Mend it Better (subtitled Creative Patching, Darning, and Stitching) by Kristin M. Roach plopped onto the doormat.

I was delighted to be picked for inclusion in Mend it Better back in the spring of 2011 because mending is a subject very close to my heart. There are issues on which the world divides cleanly into two mutually exclusive halves. We have the lovers and the haters of marmite, the watchers and the non-watchers of The Apprentice, and then we have the menders and the non-menders. It seems that you either get the concept of mending, thrift, recycling, conservation etc or you don’t.  Long ago I had a very interesting discussion with a friend who didn’t get it at all; in fact, she found people who upturn their washing-detergent bottles (in order to extract that last little drop) positively repugnant: “cheese-paringly mean” was, I think, the term she used.  As a fairly compulsive bottle-drainer myself, I felt a little jarred by the strength of her feelings on this point. I can’t quite remember how the conversation progressed from there, but there was probably a tumble-weed moment.

The rift between the two camps can be explained (at least partially) by the moral high-ground implicitly adopted by the thrifty, possibly imagined by the non-thrifty and felt by them as an unspoken rebuke. Most of us really don’t like shoulds and musts and uncomfortable being-told- what- to- dos, even if they are not actually uttered. Sometimes the mere presence of people doing-the-right-thing is enough to set off the won’t-do-it-and-you-cant-make-mes. Back in the old days, we used to call this ‘conscience’. Me, I quite like conscience. I think it can be telling us something useful. But I digress.

Into the gaping chasm between the thrifty and resolutely non-thrifty ( I see it rather like the Grand Canyon!) Kristin M. Roach rides, cheerfully a-whistlin’ a tune. Her panniers are full of  jaunty calico iron-on patches, prettily painted darning eggs, shiny skeins of embroidery silk and boundless enthusiasm. With these she can charm the birds from the trees (or do I mean cacti?) and persuade even the most militant non-mender that mending might be OK. Fun even.

The first thing that strikes you about Kristin’s book is how neat and tidy it is. The small scale — just 18.5cms x 21cms — is genuinely handy, perfect to slip into the mending bag. It’s purse-friendly too at just $18.95/£12.99. The book is laid out very appealingly; check out the perky appliqué fabric-letter graphics and the vintage sewing effects peppered throughout. This pretty book functions beautifully as a call-to-mend, with joy and creativity the main flavour and just the subtlest hint of virtue as an after-taste. As Kristin’s site says, ‘With Mend It Better, every garment and fabric repair is a chance for self-expression and fabulous creations.’  Yeah, the creativity card might just win it!

Title page

And now for the nitty gritty:

Who is the author? Kristin M. Roach lives in Ames Iowa, is a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Northern Illinois University) and she started writing her blog Craft Leftovers in 2006 as a way of keeping on top of her craft supplies — using up what she had rather than buying new. It’s a great source of inspiration for making the best of what’s already to hand.

What’s in the book? After a sweet introduction (in which Kristin pays homage to the significant sewing females in her family) there’s a brief foray through the evolution of sewing (which is possibly extra to requirements but enjoyable all the same) before Kristin tackles the basics. How do you assess if a piece is worth saving? What do you need in your essential mending tool kit? This includes instructions for a mending bag and upcycled tool clutch (see below). What basic stitches will you need? – both hand and machine. These can then be practised to make a cute needle book.

Mend it Better contents page

Next come all sorts of inspirational projects, each setting out a particular method or type of repair. As well as showing her own makeovers, Kristin has curated often bold and inspirational mends from other crafters, including Susan Beal, Rachel Beyer, Deb Cory, Carina Envoldsen-Harris, Crispina ffrench, Jennifer Forest, Diane Gilleland, Pam Harris, Marisa Lynch, Francesca Mueller, Cal Patch, Stacie Wick and Sherri Lynn Wood. Additional contributors are Caitlin Stevens Andrews, Maja Blomqvist, Cathie Jo, Ágnes Palkó, Megan PedersonLeah Peterson, Jamie Smith, and Yours Truly. Areas covered include: patchwork (including Leah Peterson’s  gorgeous reverse applique shown below),  seam fixes,  secret pockets, clever ways to adjust hems, waistband repairs, darning (by hand and machine, and an ingenious way to make your own darning egg using a wooden egg and a Shaker-style peg), fasteners, zip replacements, handling fancy fabrics, and decorative embellishments (including applying beads round a moth hole to create a flower motif).

Who will the book work best for? Kristin has clearly worked hard to make this an inclusive book, and I think it will work both for the absolute sewing newbie (who needs guidance through even basic stitches) and the more seasoned sewist (who can flip past that). Because it’s aiming to appeal to a wide audience, it crosses into the territory of some broader sewing manuals (such as this excellent one from Ruth Singer), but mostly includes what is relevant. I fear that it would frustrate someone expecting to find a lot of fancy hand-stitches as the ones included are fairly basic. I love the first few sewing projects which include a bag to hold your mending (upcycled from a damaged tablecloth) and a mending kit to hold your scissors, needles, marking gauges etc (upcycled from a felted sweater). Kristin conceived it as a book you can dip in and out of as necessary, whether you want to sew on a button or fit a hidden pocket.

Most inspiring mends? For me, it’s the reverse appliqué patching. I also liked the machine-darned jeans on the opposite page. Both are beautiful. There are a few other mends featured which go well beyond the purely practical and are aptly described as devotional. I also loved the crocheted sock darning done with oddments of yarn. It looks stunning, appears to be very robust, and I can’t wait to give it a try.

Mends by Leah Peterson and Jamie Smith

I must mention in passing that though I really loved Kristin’s make-your-own darning egg project (using a wooden egg and that Shaker peg) which she includes because she says they’re hard to find in the US, darning mushrooms etc are fairly commonplace  over here in the UK. You can also buy vintage ones at a certain Etsy store.

My contribution to the book was a mended apron (which you can see over on my In Print page). It wasn’t done for the book  – can’t you tell? – but was a favourite of mine I’d fixed. It’s not what I’d call exciting but its mother loves it.  And that’s one of the points Kristin makes; unless very ragged, something is worthy of fixing if you happen to cherish it, for whatever reason.

We may be stuck with a pretty dodgy economy for some time, and I doubt that spending our way out of it will be the answer — wasn’t that what got us all into this mess in the first place? Most of us will have to tighten our belts and take our dose of thrift as palatably as possible. Happily,  Mend it Better helps the medicine slide down.

OK, I’m convinced. Where can I buy it? Look for it at your local bookshop, and please ask, if you can’t find it. If you’re within spitting distance of me, I have a few copies available so email me. If you’re a bookstore or making establishment in the UK and would like to stock copies, get in touch with Melia Publishing Servcies. You can also get a signed copy direct from Kristin.

And finally to the giveaway! I’m really thrilled that the nice people at Storey Publishing (here’s their Facebook page, by the way) have offered to send a FREE copy of Mend it Better to one of my fortunate readers. The offer applies to readers in the US and UK only so if you’re hoping to learn to mend elsewhere, I’m sorry to disappoint. To enter, please leave a comment below. You can tell me what you have that needs mending, if you wish. A detached button? A tear to a precious dress? The knees of your favourite jeans? I’d also love to hear about any encounters you’ve had with the non-mending, thrift-intolerant portion of the population. But there’s no right answer, and a winner will be picked entirely at random. Entries close at midnight on Sunday 1st April, and the winner announced here on the blog on Monday 2nd April. Good luck!





Jul 14

My first sewing machine #6: Faith Caton-Barber


Faith Caton-Barber of Something Fabulous

I’m truly delighted to introduce bespoke dress designer Faith Caton-Barber to my regular sewing-machine-memoir feature, My First Sewing Machine. Faith and I have had adjoining stalls at each and every It’s Darling! fair in Bath to date (the first one was a year ago), which has been a very great pleasure — for me, at least. I’ve coveted her rich, jewel-coloured silk slips, purses, capelets and corsages. She’s been so tolerant when my clutter has encroached onto her territory, and very generously offered me many a gem of sewing wisdom too (there’s always, but always more to learn) and I’ve been able to watch her painstakingly hand-sewing corsets etc during the occasional afternoon lull between visitors. If you haven’t been to an It’s Darling! yet, you’re in for a treat. The next one’s all set for Saturday 16th July from 9.30am-5pm in Bath’s Guildhall (head for the Brunswick Room off the entrance hall). The room is beautiful, and the event is relaxed, friendly, full of lovely stuff, and (even better) FREE to get into. Without further ado, on with the interview!

Scrapiana: Tell me about your first sewing machine, Faith. What was its make, model and colour? Did it have any distinguishing features?

Faith: My first sewing machine was an old black cast iron Singer, remarkably similar to many on display in the windows of All Saints. It had (and still does have) the lovely gold writing familiar to many.  The main distinguishing feature on that machine is that it had been converted and modernised at some point in the 1960s or ’70s with an electric motor and placed in a mildly unattractive bluey-grey plastic case.  It only does straight stitch, doesn’t reverse, but boy can it go at a rate of knots!  Long seams were a doddle and pretty much every pair of curtains in every home I lived in up to age 19 were made on that machine.

A very similar machine to Faith's old family Singer

Scrapiana: Was it gifted to you or borrowed? If you learned to sew on another machine, but then got your own, feel free to describe both.

Faith: My machine belonged to my mother who very generously shared it with me.  It was a friend to both of us, producing so many things from duvet covers to pretty party dresses.  It was such a familiar part of the furniture that no-one seems to quite remember when it arrived and where it came from.  There were so many women with sewing machines (and some men too) in my mother’s family and we have always been a swapping and sharing kind of clan, with various bits of furniture and sewing machines getting used and passed around, some losing their provenance and some gaining an almost mythical status.  For example, my maternal great-grandmother May had a big old cabinet treadle machine which she had upgraded in the 1930s with an industrial motor so that she could do even more sewing in her spare time to earn extra money.  This meant she was able to supplement her factory earnings enough to buy her own home, something almost unheard of in her class and generation.  It also meant that my grandfather and great-aunts and great-uncle had to lend a hand with hems and alterations too… you could say the sewing is in our blood!  That almost revolutionary sewing machine seems to have disappeared and yet my little anonymous Singer is still around, waiting patiently to be used again.

ScrapianaWho taught you to sew? Were they a good teacher?

Faith: My mother Helen taught me to sew although I don’t recall her sitting me down to teach me, I just remember us sewing together and her giving me tips as I went along.  Clearly she did a good job as she got me interested and it all felt perfectly normal to stitch.  I particularly remember her reminding me to leave a seam allowance, and to measure twice and cut once when I was trying to make doll dresses. I’d completely failed to do either.  The thought of the wasted fabric still makes me feel uncomfortable now, even though it must only have been small scraps from Mum’s sewing projects.  Mum often sewed my dresses and knitted all sorts of things so there was always a textile stash to rummage through.

When we did a sewing and embroidery project at school, aged 8 (I appliqued and embroidered a sailing boat which my mother still has in a frame), I was pretty confident and didn’t need much ‘teaching’ except when it came to French knots (who doesn’t need reminding about those from time to time?).  When I stayed with my grandparents in the holidays I do also remember sewing with Irene, my grandmother, although that was always by hand as I didn’t learn how to use her beautiful 1920s treadle powered machine (something I mean to change next time I visit).  Grandma used to have a cupboard full of fabric that I’d go through again and again imagining what I would make with each piece.  I still do that with my own fabrics, although I’ve got a lot more than a cupboard’s worth!

Faith's silk purses

Scrapiana: Oh, yes, I think I’d need a quick how-to reminder before embarking on French knots.What’s your earliest memory of using that first machine? What did you make? Do you still have any of your early creations?

Faith: I don’t really remember my first machined creations although I do remember making some summer dresses and a recreation of an 18th century bodice from one of Janet Arnold‘s books, complete with a patchwork diamond stomacher of my own design.  My textiles teacher didn’t think much of it, she seemed to want me to make cushions.  I find it difficult to part with anything that I make so I have all sorts of odd bits and pieces knocking around both in my flat and at my mum’s secreted amongst her sewing things.

Scrapiana: I’m pleased that you persevered, in spite of your teacher. Do you still have your first machine? If you got rid of it, did you give it away to someone you knew? Do you know where it is now?

Faith:  The old Singer is currently somewhere in the depths of Mum’s garage as it hasn’t really been needed since the advent of the Janome XC33 Special Edition with fancy computer beeps and 30 odd stitches and many interchangeable feet.  The Janome was such a good machine that in 2002 when I was in my final year at University, I got another one all to myself.

Faith's workspace: sketches & pictures of gowns, and her Janome machines

My mother and I may have matching machines of a similar vintage, but mine has been much more heavily used, and it shows, with scuffs and dents from being carried about for jobs as well as the many costumes, corsets, wedding dresses and whatnots being sewn together. I hate to think how many miles of sewing it has done in only 9 years!  I am very happy with it and there are only one or two points that mark it down for me.  I am going to reclaim the Singer as soon as it can be excavated from the garage so that I can get those long seams done in half the time.  The Janome is a great machine but the top speed is not great when, for example, making 1950s style ruffled petticoats with around 80 linear metres of seams to stitch and bind with ribbon.  It takes an absolute age.  Still, it’s faster than handsewing…

Scrapiana: What did your first machine do especially well, or especially badly? Did you like it or loathe it then? What do you make of it now, with hindsight?

Faith: The Singer didn’t have an arm which meant I could take fewer short cuts when making things (no machine finished cuffs on sleeves for me) so I learned from an early age about proper hand finishing of garments. I still stuggle to do what I call mass production finishes although I am learning that there is always a time and a place! I liked the Singer but it was pretty limiting only doing straights stitch. When the Janome arrived with the zig zag, blind hem stitch and automatic buttonhole (I could go on), life became a lot easier.

Scrapiana: What machine did you get next? And can you run us through your subsequent machines and their merits?

Faith: I have a Janome 9200D overlocker that I bought in 2009 which turned out to be one of those ‘why didn’t I do this YEARS ago?’ moments.  It’s easy to use and thread, it doesn’t take up much space, and has made working with both lycra and duchess satin, to name but two fabrics, much easier.  When I’m in a hurry or tired, it starts to play up and that’s when the threads continually snap and the tension won’t do what I want, but then all machines are like that aren’t they?

Over the years I have used many different machines both domestic and Industrial whilst studying and working in various theatres.  1970s and 1980s Berninas pop up a lot because they seem to be pretty good work horses but I’ve never had the urge to get one as I’ve heard the quality isn’t as good as it was and they are generally just plain ugly.  One machine I have used that is both pretty AND performs well is my dad Mike’s Brother machine.  He got it from some friends of his that clearly had barely used it since they bought it back in the late ’50s or ’60s.  It is baby blue, with lots of different useful stitches and still has it’s proper carry case and instructions.  It’s a dream machine and raced through the sewing I did on it whilst still maintaining a feeling of control.

One of Faith's bespoke dresses

One of Faith's bespoke evening gowns

Scrapiana: Do you have your dream machine? If not,what would that be, if you could wave a magic wand and money were no object?

Faith: In Warwick there is a fantastic sewing machine shop that has loads of beautiful old cast iron machines that I yearn to own. The man who runs the place said his collection had got so big he couldn’t justify not selling them although I imagine he is like a book seller who does everything he can to avoid making sales of his treasures!  He also had some amazing modern machines, that while not looking as beautiful as the machines that drew me in in the first place, could do some amazing things. I would love to have a machine that can do programmable embroidery although the four figure prices means I can’t justify it just yet. If money were no object I would like to say I’d get a fancy bespoke machine built for me but to be honest, I’m happy with a good old sturdy machine that can be relied upon.  If a fairy godmother gave me a sewing wish, to be honest, I might wish for a magic wand like hers because sometimes I really get tired of the back ache and eye strain that often come with sewing for hours.

Scrapiana: And finally, I have to ask this…have you named any of your sewing machines? Do you talk to them – or even swear at them if they’re behaving badly?

Faith:  I haven’t named my sewing machines and yet the close relationship between woman and machine suggests maybe I should, after all I’ve named my musical instruments whose ‘voices’ I hear less often. I wouldn’t want my trusty machines given names that associate with or suggest unpleasantness, weakness, tragedy or failure, that might be tempting fate when it comes to my sewing. Sewing rooms are often where I’ve heard the worst language and most awful abuse hurled at the poor machines. A poor workman blames his tools but bad days happen to us all sometimes.  Well, my self imposed anti potty-mouth rule really does become more of a flexible guideline. What’s the point of having a rich Anglo-Saxon based language if you can’t fully make use of it from time to time, when under extreme duress?

Scrapiana: Thank you, Faith, for sharing your sewing-machine stories! It’s wonderful that sewing has played such an important role in your family history; I can see it’s definitely in the blood. See you at It’s Darling!

Faith Caton-Barber can be found on Facebook here at her Something Fabulous page and over here on Twitter.


Faith and her glorious capelets at the Christmas It's Darling!





Jun 06

My first sewing machine #5: Ginny Farquhar

Ginny Farquhar

Ginny Farquhar, aka Sweet Myrtle

Ginny Farquhar is half of the collaborative sewing team Alice & Ginny. She has co-authored a couple of charming sewing books, Sew Fabulous Fabric (2008) and Home Sweet Sewn (2009), both published by David & Charles. Ginny and Alice, who first met while at secondary school, are both after my own heart, being passionate thrifters, recyclers and textile upcyclers. They also offer sewing workshops (details below). Ginny blogs and tweets as Sweet Myrtle, and it was on Twitter that I first became aware of her. I can’t wait to delve into Ginny’s sewing-machine history, so let’s begin.

Ginny's brooches

Upcycled brooches. See Ginny's shop for details.

Scrapiana: Tell me about your first sewing machine, Ginny. What was its make, model and
colour? Did it have any distinguishing features?

Ginny: Strangely, I remember the actual day in 1984 when I got my very first sewing machine though not the actual choosing or purchasing of it. My mother had driven me into town and with us we had £160 to spend. This amount was the life insurance money that my dad had saved from my birth and which he gave to me when I became 16. I believe my sisters had saved theirs but I decided that I wanted to use it to buy my very own sewing machine as I had been using the family machine up to that point; my grandmother’s classic old hand wheeled Singer.

We stopped at the post office first and I remember being mortified as my mum in her vague Wendy Craig way (remember Butterflies), joined the queue at the front! Sadly I don’t remember anything else about the day other than my teenage embarrassment of my mother!

Peony wreath

Peony wreath, featured in Home Sweet Sewn Photo: Sian Irvine

The machine I chose was a Frister and Rossman Beaver 3. On reflection it was an unattractive creamy colour and it had a brown vinyl dust cover which slipped over it completely except for the small metal spool pin which poked out the top in a rather pleasing fashion. I was as delighted with it. It was pretty sturdy except for the wee table attachment whose saving grave was a one drop down metal leg which created a little more stability and stopped it wobbling.

Scrapiana: Do you still have it?

Ginny: Sadly I no longer have the machine as I passed it on to as friend when I upgraded on my 30th birthday. My friend had been itching to start sewing and I am so pleased that my machine helped her on her journey. Years later she has joined an embroidery group in St Ives and passed the Beaver onto her daughter who used it through her art and fashion studies. I am unsure if it is still going now but delighted that it has been in continual use since 1984.

Scrapiana: How lovely to have helped two stitchers with one cast-off machine! Who taught you to sew? Were they a good teacher?

GinnyI cannot remember being taught to sew prior to secondary school needlework lessons, though I probably picked up a lot from my elder sisters whilst making clothes for our Pippa dolls and creating costumes from clothes and fabrics in our dressing up box. I took O-level ‘Dress’ at school so learned good sewing and dressmaking skills there. The teacher was strict and the approach was traditional and formal, but it was taught well and I am extremely grateful to her (can’t remember her name now) as it was a very good grounding in the subject.


Handmade ochre necklace: paper, wool felt & bead

Scrapiana: Pippa dolls! Happy memories! I still have my bungled attempts at making clothes for my Pippa: fiddly work as she was so small. What’s your earliest memory of using your first machine? What did you make? Do you still have any of your early creations?

Ginny: When I first got the Beaver it was in my final year of school so I must have used it to complete my O-level Dress pieces; a brown wool skirt and a very attractive (note the sarcasm) peachy asymmetrical blouse. I also used it to make a dress for my school  leavers do, which by today’s prom standard was nothing but a simple dress, although I do remember attaching the bodice to the skirt late in the evening at the dining room table, only to discover the next morning that I had attached the skirt with the seams on the outside!

At college I was into tie-dyeing sheets and whizzing them up into wrap skirts. I also used it to stitch detail onto paper fish for a mermaid costume I made whilst on my art foundation course. Thinking about it this machine had such heavy usage through its life with me as during my costume course and freelance costume making days it must have stitched through many different fabrics and created many costumes; the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe  for the D’Oyly Carte Opera company to a rubber condom costume for a female comedians sketch show in the 90’s.  I have also just realised that part of my wedding dress was stitched on the Beaver!

More flower brooches

More flower brooches

Scrapiana: Do you regret parting with it?

GinnyI sometimes feel it would have been nice to have kept the machine and been able to pass it on to my daughters though I am happy that  my friend and her daughter have made great use of it and I do believe that a machine is never happy stuck away in a loft!

Scrapiana: Very wise.What machine did you get next? And can you run us through your subsequent machines and their merits?

Sew Fabulous Fabric

Sew Fabulous Fabric

GinnyMy 30th birthday present, partially paid for by my husband, was my current machine, a Pfaff Tipmatic 6122. I especially like it as it has an integral walking foot, is of solid construction and it has stretch stitch options which at time of purchase was a real selling point as during this period I was making a lot of  lycra dance costumes. It has also become my workhorse these past 13 years firstly used for costumes and then for making products for the retail market from recycled and vintage fabrics for the small business called folkydokee handmade that I ran with Alice Butcher for 7 years.  All the projects that were created for our two subsequent craft books, ‘Sew fabulous Fabric’ and ‘Home Sweet Sewn‘ were sewn on either the Pfaff or Alice’s fantastic ‘vintage’ Bernina. I still use the Pfaff and my most recent sewn project is a kimono style top.

Ginny's Pfaff Tipmatic 6122: no pfaffing about with this baby

Scrapiana:  What machine(s) do you have now?

Ginny: In addition to the Pfaff, I own the following machines; a wonderful ‘vintage’ Bernina Minimatic (in a classic red case), inherited from my mother in-law, a domestic Bernina Bernette overlocker, which I have recently dusted off to complete a viscose jersey hem for a friend and a very inexpensive  Singer which has been useful for teaching purposes. My youngest daughter has a half sized Janome in her room and my mother has just passed on her modern basic Singer to us too.

Bernina Minimatic in its classic red case

I also have an industrial Bernina 950, which Alice and I bought when we had our joint studio space and were creating for folkydokee’ and exhibiting at Country Living and House & Garden fairs.  We purchased it from a local guy who dealt in industrials and also hired them out for films. He told us that it had been hired out and used on one of the early Harry Potter films, and this may have been true as it does seem to have a mind of its own! It gets little use these days but they is something comforting about having it, probably as it reminds me of my early working in days in theatre costume departments.

Bernina Bernette overlocker

Scrapiana: What an impressive array! Do you have your dream machine? If not, what would that be, if money were no object?

Ginny: I would be interested to try one of the all-singing, all-dancing modern stitch regulator embroidery machines. Also one which would enable me to design my own embroideries would be good. Having said that though, I do still love the honesty of a basic traditional machine, well made, solid and with great tension.

Small apron, photo by Sian Irvine

Small apron, featured in Home Sweet Sewn Photo: Sian Irvine

Scrapiana:  And finally, are you more likely to *give* your sewing machine a name or *call* it a name? – i.e. curse at it? My machines are named after deceased family matriarchs!

Ginny: I do not name my machines though I do feel it is essential to stroke them from time to time, so that they feel loved and will ultimately behave well for me.

Scrapiana: Thank you for your patience  in answering all these questions, Ginny. We’ve travelled with you all the way from the fairy queen to Harry Potter, so I can honestly say that it’s been magical!

Ginny's Sylko shot - typical of her beautiful photographic eye

Vintage stitch: an example of Ginny's photography

If you’d like the look of Ginny’s brooches and necklaces, do take a moment to look at the tempting selection available to buy on the Sweet Myrtle site. You can also view galleries of her other work there, including her beautiful and rather ethereal photographs.

You can book Ginny (and Alice too) for family, community and adult courses, workshops and demonstrations. One of their most popular, Kick Start to Sewing, happily focuses on using and getting to know your sewing machine and is really useful both for newbies and those wishing to refresh their skills. If you’re within striking distance of Surrey/Hampshire, here are Alice & Ginny’s upcoming workshop dates:-

West End Centre Aldershot – 01252 33004

Forever Young Sock Puppets Sat 18th June 10.30 – 12.30 £4/ person – family fun workshop

Textile fun Fri 12 August 10.30 – 4.30 ages  8 – 16yrs £25  – a day exploring decorative textile techniques

Farnham Maltings – 01252 745444

Learn to love your sewing machine Sat 11th June  10am – 4pm £45 – a sewing day for beginner sewers

Introduction to dressmaking patterns Sat 9th July 10am – 1pm £20 – a morning introduction to dressmaking


May 14

My first sewing machine #4: Abby Harris

Abby Harris of Bubs Bears

Abby Harris of Bubs Bears

I’m delighted to be able to present the story of Abby Harris‘s first sewing machine, another interview in my continuing series. Do check out my previously posted interviews with Ruth Singer and Julia Laing.

I met Abby when we were both running stalls at the It’s Darling! Spring Fair here in Bath. She was selling her lovingly hand-crafted Bubs Bears, which are often upcycled or contain vintage elements (such as some lovely buttons which she bought from yours truly). Leaving a small ecological footprint is clearly important to her. Abby also makes bespoke keepsake teddies, crafted from a customer’s personally significant textiles, such as baby clothes, wedding dress, or the garments of a lost loved-one. Some are patchworked from several special garments. She creates lots of other charming items including peg bags, lavender hearts, bags, cushions, button pins, magnets, hair clips and cards. Abby blogs, can be found on Facebook here and sells on Folksy.

More of Abby's makingsSome of Abby’s charming makings
Recycled sweater bear

Upcycled sweater bear

ScrapianaTell me about your first sewing machine, Abby. Can you remember its make, model and colour?

Abby: My first sewing machine was a Toyota, I don’t remember the model but it was a fairly basic one.

Abby's first sewing machine

Abby's first sewing machine: a Toyota

Scrapiana: Was it gifted or borrowed?

Abby: It was a joint birthday present for my 21st (I think) birthday from my then boyfriend and my parents.

Scrapiana: Nice gift! Do you still have it? If you got rid of it, where did it go?

Abby: I do still have my first machine as I only stopped using it last year after 15 years. At the moment it is on loan to my mother-in-law as hers is broken, but soon I hope to get it back so my eldest daughter can use it as she is showing a keen interest in sewing.

Scrapiana: How lovely that your daughter will be able to use it too! So, what’s your earliest memory of sewing? What did you make, and who taught you?

Abby: I remember doing a bit of sewing at school. I think we made and printed our own t-shirts; mine had yellow footprints on it. Other than that I learned mostly from watching my mum. She studied fashion at college and used to make all our clothes, as well as doing dressmaking and alterations for other people.

Scrapiana: At that time it was quite unusual to have your mother making all your clothes. I imagine she made a great sewing teacher, then. What was your first big sewing project?

Funky floral bear

Abby: My first big project was a dress for my daughter to wear to a wedding. It was a real challenge as it was a silky fabric and had two layers. But it fit her, and she got lots of compliments. I’ve never tried making another though!

Scrapiana: What did your first machine do especially well, or particularly badly?

Abby: It was terrible at keeping the correct tension, and kept jamming the fabric up under the foot. In hindsight I should have had it serviced regularly – when it finally got so bad last year that I had to take it in to be looked at, they gave me a good telling off when I admitted it hadn’t even been oiled in 15 years! While it was being serviced they loaned me an old Bernina. When I saw it my first thoughts were “oh my God, I am not going to be able to do my work on that!” It was ancient and I thought it would be awful. But I soon learned that it was the quietest smoothest machine I had ever used. I didn’t want to take it back!

Abby's borrowed Bernina

Abby's borrowed Bernina

Scrapiana: What machine do you have now? Is it your dream machine? If not, what would that be, if  money were no object?

Abby: I bought my new machine last year. My local shop gave me a great discount due to it being the old colour; the new machine with the new colour was about £200 more! It’s a Husqvarna Sapphire 850 and I love it! It has many functions which I’m still yet to learn how to use, but the fact that all I have to do is move my foot up and down and it almost does the rest for me is wonderful.It’s not a beautiful machine to look at, so if I could morph it with a pretty old black antique machine then I’d never want anything different!

Abby's new Husqvarna

Abby's beloved Husqvarna

Scrapiana: I have a strange confession, Abby, which is that I give each of my sewing machines a name (Josephine, Winifred etc), making them almost animate to me. Have you given any of your machines a name? And would you ever speak to your machine? – to encourage or to upbraid it, for example?

Abby: I haven’t named my machine. No, I don’t really speak to my machine. I might declare my love for it… though only when no-one else could hear me!

Scrapiana: Ah, just as I feared… it’s only me, then. Abby, thanks so much for taking the time to answer all my questions! It’s been lovely to hear the sewing-machine journey behind Bub’s Bears. Your business certainly has its heart (lavender-stuffed, of course) in the right place.

Stack of hearts, mid-construction

Stack of hearts await lavender stuffing


Apr 04

My first sewing machine #3: Julia Laing

I’m delighted to introduce another of my favourite makers to reminisce about her early sewing experiences in My First Sewing Machine. This time, Scottish artist Julia Laing of Materialised.

Julia Laing of Materialised

Julia Laing of Materialised

I first became aware of Julia’s exquisite embroidered brooches via Twitter (I think); her hearts with sometimes startling, emotionally charged adjectives and nouns caught my eye (see image below).  I was soon charmed by the rest of her delightful, tenderly embellished pieces: purses, pouches and textile art created from recycled and vintage textiles.

Julia’s sells via Etsy and will be selling in person at Glasgow’s monthly makers’ market, Byres Road, on 30th April. You can also keep up with her via her Facebook page.

OK, I’m settling myself into my interviewer’s chair, propped (if only in my imagination) against one of Julia’s adorable cushions (which you can still nab from her Etsy store, if you’re quick).

Scrapiana: Tell me about your first sewing machine, Julia? What was its make, model  and colour? Did it have any other distinguishing features?

Julia: The first sewing machine I ever used was a black hand operated Singer. Unfortunately, I don’t have an image of it, but that one on Flickr looks just like it. It was old but had been well looked after and the wooden case had a lovely patina. I remember the distinctive smell, as soon as the case was opened: a musty mixture of wax polish, oil, and dusty old threads. The key which locked the case had a piece of string threaded though it, which was always kept wound through the carrying handle for safe keeping. The string was worn through in places, which added to the well used and loved aura that surrounded the machine.

Scrapiana: Was it gifted to you or borrowed? Do you know its history?

Julia: The Singer had belonged to my gran, and after that my mum used it. I know some of it’s history. Mum told me stories of how, during the war her mother had taken suits apart, turned them inside out and painstakingly put them back together again – to get the maximum wear from the fabric!  I’ve seen faded photos of Mum as a teenager, wearing beautiful 1950s party dresses her mother had sewn with it. My mum was also a great dressmaker. She made loads of clothes for me when I was young, and dolls too. Eventually Mum upgraded to an electric model, which left the old one available for me to use.

Embroidered cat

Embroidered cat

Scrapiana: Do you still have it? If/when you got rid of it, did you give it  away to someone you knew? Do you know where it is now? Do you regret  parting with it?

JuliaI inherited another machine, from my other granny, so then my  sister used the old Singer, and I’m glad to say she still has it, although she’s now upgraded to an electric machine too. I wanted to take a picture of it, but it’s packed away, while her house is up for sale. I don’t regret parting company with it, because it served me well, but compared to a modern machine it’s capabilities are limited.

Scrapiana:So what’s your earliest memory of using it? What did you make?

Julia: My memory is hazy, but I remember using it to make sage green cord trousers for my favourite doll, and then I had a go at altering my own trousers. It was 1979, and I thought it was about time I had some new ‘drainpipes’ as my flares were so last Tuesday!  I was 11 and was experimenting really. I don’t even know if I’d asked permission to use the machine (probably not) but I was happy enough with the results to want to keep on sewing.

Scrapiana: Oh my! I have matching flare-altering memories, Julia! Who taught you to sew? Were they a good teacher?

Julia: Again, my memories aren’t crystal clear. I don’t remember being sat down and taught to sew, but because I was surrounded by a culture of making and doing at home (Mum was always knitting, baking, gardening and painting) it seemed natural for me to experiment. I’ve always been introverted, and was happy to spend hours on my own, drawing or sewing. If I had a problem with whatever I was making, Mum was on hand to help, but I’ve always had a stubborn streak so usually I’d just try to work it out for myself. We had compulsory Home Economics at High School, which included some sewing. I remember making a cushion cover, and then a cornflower blue, wool pencil skirt, which I teamed up with fuzzy purple knee high socks my gran had knitted for me…What was I thinking?!  At school the emphasis was very much on doing it ‘right’ and exactly by the instructions, which has always been a struggle; even now I find the instructions on commercial patterns pretty hard to fathom!

In 2002 my passion for sewing was rekindled when I began a City and Guilds course in Creative Embroidery at Telford College in Edinburgh. It was so liberating! there was a strong emphasis on design and I learned loads of new techniques, including free motion machine embroidery. Although I didn’t manage to finish the course because of the cost and time involved, the teaching I got there was top class. I can honestly say I learned more there, in several months, than I did in the four years I spent at art college. That’s when I became very enthusiastic about working with textiles, and I started my own crafts business in 2005.

Silk word-hearts

Heart brooches: to wear on your sleeve, perhaps

Scrapiana: What did your first machine do especially well or especially badly? Did you like or loathe it?

Julia: My old Singer machine was great to learn on. Because it was operated by hand you could sew at your own pace, so there was never any danger of it getting out of control and stitching through your finger! I liked how basic it was: it only did a straight stitch. If you needed to adjust the tension, it was just a case of twiddling a screw to tighten it, and because it was mechanical it wasn’t hard to figure out how it all worked. It was a wonderful design, which was hugely popular in it’s day. The only drawback was because you were using one hand to turn the handle it made it difficult to guide the fabric through the machine with much accuracy.

Dress brooches

Scrapiana: What machine do you have now? Is it your dream machine? If not, what would that be, if  money were no object? Here you can be fanciful: bespoke colour, extra fantasy features such as tea-making… OK, maybe not the tea-making.

Julia: The machine I use now is a Brother PS-31, which I’ve had for 9 years. I didn’t do a lot of research before I got it; if I had done, this probably wouldn’t have been the model I’d have bought! I was in a hurry when I went shopping because the machine I had been using at the time had an electrical fault. It was going to be expensive to fix, so I thought I might as well buy a new one. I went to John Lewis and the Brother was within my budget and available to take home on the day.

Julia's Brother PS-31

I’ve read reviews since which all agree with my experience – it copes badly with thick fabrics, in fact it often point blank refuses to sew. The tension is very temperamental, and it’s quite noisy. Having said that, it’s had a LOT of use, and is still going strong, more’s the pity! If it would just give up on me I’d feel justified in buying something better. I make a ritual of cleaning and oiling it regularly so that’s probably got something to do with it’s longevity. Reliability is the most important consideration because sewing is my livelihood. I don’t use most of the built-in stitches, mainly just the straight stitch and zig-zag. I often change the presser foot to a clear perspex hoop for free motion embroidery, but that’s quite straight forward. One thing that I’d like in a new machine is automatic bobbin winding, because with my Brother machine I have to take the bobbin out it’s casing, fiddle about with the thread, put it on a holder on top of the machine, turn a knob and then fill it up, which is tiresome if I’m sewing at full pelt! I’ll probably look for the best reconditioned machine I can afford next time around. I don’t have a lot of experience of sewing with other machines so it would be interesting to hear which brands other people would recommend for quietness and reliability.

Bunny brooches

Exquisite bunny brooches, sniffing the April air

Scrapiana: Thank you so much, Julia, for taking the time to share those evocative memories. I haven’t managed to winkle out precise model details for your original hand-cranked Singer, but maybe someone reading this will have one just like it and be able to tell us more about it. Guessing at the age of that machine, I’m assuming it’s possible that your grandmother had it from new? If so, how lovely that it’s remained in your family as a treasured possession! Thanks again.


Jan 23

My first sewing machine #2: Ruth Singer

I had such a good time writing up my first sewing machine experiences that I felt emboldened to ask some of the sewsters* I most admire to join me and reminisce about theirs. This should become a regular feature here on the Scrapiana blog. First up is, I’m delighted to say, Ruth Singer.

Ruth is a textiles designer and maker, and the author of a couple of sewing books (full details below) plus quite a few projects within other craft books and publications, including this one. A former museum curator (one-time medievalist at the V&A), Ruth’s historical costume interest is revealed by her choice of blog title: Mantua Maker. She now teaches workshops for all ages on everything from beginner’s sewing to advanced fabric manipulation, as well as taking commissions for one-off installations such as the African-inspired headdress pictured towards the end of this post. Do consult Ruth’s website for further details. I should just preface all by saying that Ruth is not related to the Singers of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, which is a pity as that would have made a fine story. OK, take it away, Ruth!

Ruth Singer with trusty Husky {Photo credit: Gillian Spraggs}

Most of my teenage sewing was done under the guidance of my step-mum. My dad’s partner was (and still is) a champion dressmaker who taught me dressmaking as a 12-year-old, and I soon graduated to a borrowed family Singer machine [below] on which I did most of my outlandish clothes construction. Once I had got the hang of the basics, I went straight to sewing patterns and whipped up some truly awful garments, gradually moving on to some rather nicer and more flattering things – but still with a few awful things thrown in. With me, it’s the actual clothes that stick in my mind more than the sewing of them. The machine hasn’t been used for years, but is lovingly oiled and cared for, and now back in my possession on long-term loan. I did love it’s little carry box and the test piece of fabric which has probably been with the machine for 40+ years.

singer 221K - 1

My step-mum's Singer {Photo credit: Ruth Singer}

The little machine was a real workhorse, small but sturdy. I remember having it set up on my bedroom desk, which was really a large shelf attached to the wall with brackets – fine for writing but not ideal for a sewing machine as it bounced up and down a lot. When I could get away with it, I used the dining table which was much more suitable, although the lighting in that room was not set up for sewing. At least I had young eyes, I suppose. Cutting out was done on my bedroom floor, usually with the ‘assistance’ of at least one cat. Our big cat liked to lie on the fabrics as I was cutting, usually with his tail just where I needed to snip, and he would steal the tape measure.

singer 221K - 2

Small but sturdy {Photo credit: Ruth Singer}

I got my own machine after my auntie died when I was 17, so it is tinged with sadness as well as excitement. It was a Singer, probably from the ’70s or early ’80s, and not one repair shop could ever find out anything about it – the model was very obscure and no manual could ever be obtained. A curiosity indeed.  It was a totally utilitarian beige plastic type, not awfully memorable, I have to say. But it worked, reasonably well. I used it for seven or eight years, making masses of clothes. I took it to university with me which caused consternation among my peers. Making your own clothes was seriously eccentric then.

I kept the Singer until I bought a fancier one with the aim of (eventually) becoming a professional stitcher (the machine preceeded the change of career by several years). I made masses of things with that machine, not least many medieval living history costumes, until I moved onto hand stitching for authenticity. So that machine saw miles of heavy wool and fine linen, as well as the fancier things I stitched for parties from hand-painted silk and velvet.  I have almost none of my teenage sewing, mostly because I lost or gained weight and cleared out my wardrobe regularly, disposing of the handmade as well as some amazing vintage stuff I wish I had kept (Horrockses dresses, anyone? I had dozens).

I finally gave that Singer away 10 years or so ago, once I had the new one – as moving house every year with two machines was getting a bit silly. I actually can’t remember who had it. My memory says it was my friend Robin who later moved back to New Zealand. I doubt it went with her, but I am sure it went to a good home and is probably still being used today.

I now have a Husqvarna Viking Lily which I bought second-hand from my local craft shop. It was a huge investment at the time, but I do love it. I’ve got a few others, used more for work, but this Husky is all I really need. It’s not pretty, it’s not fancy but it works really well, and hardly ever breaks down. Here’s a quick run-through of the features I love. Adjustable presser foot pressure, allowing easy sewing of thick & thin fabrics. Movable needle which makes zips super easy. I also like the machine blanket or overcast stitch a lot (good for dressmaking) and the 3-step zigzag and stretch stitch settings. I don’t use many of the decorative stitches but it does a satin stitch which I like to use sometimes, and the blind hemming stitch is WONDERFUL. I’m a big fan of feet too – blind hemming foot, rolled hem foot both good, I use the clear foot all the time instead of the solid metal, which makes life so much easier. The Teflon foot is great for leather. I wish I had a walking foot for this one, but I have one for the Berninas instead, which may have to change. I also like the foot with a gap underneath to enable top stitching. I’ve got a ruffler foot which I used a lot when ruffles were a key feature in my designs. There are so many amazingly useful feet; once you start to explore it’s like a whole new world of sewing excitement!

I also have an industrial Bernina which I don’t actually use any more. If I had the space I might because it goes like the clappers and whizzes through miles of straight seams in moments. Maybe that’s my dream machine – a domestic size but that goes fast! And maybe looks like an old black and gold Singer but works like a modern one. I think the key differences I noticed when I upgraded was the silence – the old one was noisy, so my dream machine would be stylish, fast and have a quiet motor.

Ruth's workshop Bernina

My workshop Bernina {Photo Credit: Ruth Singer}

I’m very fond of the old Bernina I use for teaching. It came originally from a London college, but I got it third-hand from an ex-colleague. It’s battered and basic but tough. I like that it is solid metal, like the little one I used as a teenager – not just the solidity but also the curves. Plastic ones are never so attractive.

The last sewing machine in my collection is Little Betty. She featured in my book Sew Eco, though in a purely decorative way. I bought her for 50p in a junk shop, just as a prop, and must admit that I haven’t actually tried sewing on her.

little betty sewing machine - 5.jpg

Little Betty {Photo credit: Ruth Singer}

Thank you, Ruth! That’s been a wonderfully comprehensive tour of your sewing-machine experiences. Before I forget, Ruth’s books deserve a particular mention.

Sew It Up, published by Kyle Cathie Ltd, 2008

I have and really love  Sew It Up (published by Kyle Cathie) which can be purchased here. The fabric manipulation and Ruth’s sense of colour really hooked me. I could tell that Ruth really knew what she was talking about too; this wasn’t just a lot of pretty pictures which told you little as a crafter. Far from it. The book was given a different cover and title in the US ( The Sewing Bible ) and can be bought here. Ruth also has another book out, Sew Eco (published by A&C Black in 2010), which focuses more directly on sustainable approaches to sewing.

Sew Eco, published by A&C Black, 2010

Late last year I asked Ruth to be my first guinea-pig for My First Sewing Machine, and was thrilled when she agreed. I was even more excited when she said she could probably dig out her first machine from the family attic and take a photo. A few weeks later, when Ruth showed me a picture of the little 1967 celery-white featherweight 221k Singer, I almost fell off my chair. I was delighted to discover that it was one of my absolute favourite sewing machines of all time, and amused that Ruth hadn’t twigged the significance of the model: the 221ks have almost cult status. They are particularly prized by patchwork-quilters because of their reliable straight stitch and their petite size and minimal weight (cast aluminium) – all perfect qualities for toting along to quilting groups. And the celery-white ones are especially sought after over in the US where they are harder to find (they were all produced in Scotland). What a cool first machine!

It just so happens that Ruth is selling her industrial Bernina machine. If you’d like to check out details, zoom over to her blog now. You’ll have to arrange collection, probably by robust vehicle or van, and it will require two strong people to lift it.

Some of Ruth’s most recent work (including the machine-stitched head-dress shown below) can be seen now at the Figures of Africa exhibition showing at Pickford’s House, Derby – until 13 February 2011.


Headstrong at Pickford's House, Derby {Photo credit: Gillian Spraggs}

If you still have your first sewing machine to hand, do feel free to post a picture of it over on the My First Sewing Machine group page on Flickr.

[*sewster is a long obsolete late medieval Scottish word for a seamstress. If you happen to write limericks, it carries the added charm of rhyming with  ‘boaster’, ‘coaster’ ‘poster’ ‘roaster’ and ‘toaster’ – or even ‘Towcester’. I’ve adopted it in preference to the written ‘sewer’ which can so easily be confused for the liquid waste conduit.]


Nov 21

My first sewing machine

Singer 99k, 1946

Josephine, a 1946 Singer 99k

Meet Josephine. She was my mother’s sewing machine, the one I learned to sew on. I was nudged to dig her out of the basement and dust her off by this blog post.

Poor old Josephine has seen better days. Second-hand by the time my mother got her in the 1970s, she never struck me as especially pretty. In fact, quite the opposite. She’s led a hard life (witness scratches and scars), and was converted from treadle or hand-crank to electricity some years after manufacture; that’s when she acquired her clunky housing and cardboard case. I imagine some cowboy sewing-machine repairman performing this atrocity, a cigarette butt clamped ruthlessly between his teeth throughout the ordeal. Piling insult onto injury, I’ve neglected her and half meant to get shot of her for years – well, her charms aren’t immediately apparent, unlike her petite cousin, the 221k – but I’m beginning to change my tune. Especially as I know a little more about her now. I’ve even discovered her birthday.

Singer 99k 1950s case

1950s cardboard case

The joy of today’s internet is that you can look up serial numbers of yesterday’s Singers and discover when and where your machine was made, and the model type. The model type is very handy if  you don’t have the sewing machine’s original instruction booklet. Free pdf downloads of instructions can be found out there, so it’s worth searching a little. Otherwise, they can be had for a small fee. It’s useful to know how your machine is supposed to be oiled, how tension can be adjusted etc.

99k register number

Singer serial number

From a quick dip into the Singer site I’ve learned that Josephine was one of 30,000 99k machines registered on May 20th 1946 in Kilbowie, Clydebank, Scotland.  That date was when the entire batch was assigned, so I imagine she was still a lump of metal at that point and didn’t gain her final gleaming-gold-decal form for days, weeks or months. Anyway, it’s nice to have an anchoring date. Maybe next year I’ll bake her a cake and Singer happy birthday (ouch).

Singer 99k

Singer lettering

By the time Josephine came to us, she already bore the marks of a hard grafting life, the scratches of myriad pins passing by on miles of fabric, a thousand scissor-nicks from hurriedly clipped curves.  Her motor bears the installation date of February 1956. When we first got her, she had to be plugged into a light socket. This meant that every sewing experience was preceded by a perilous clambering above the dining room table to extract the bulb and insert her lead into the pendant fitting. I’m amazed that no-one was electrocuted in the process.

Singer 99k with Sylko spool

Hand wheel, bobbin-winder and the odd decorative flourish

The absence of ceiling  light made it pretty hard to see what you were doing, and eventually someone in the family changed her plug to a regular three-pin wall variety. It was slightly annoying that she had no light source of her own, but my fresh eyesight didn’t seem to mind that at the time, and I enthusiastically made up a lot of patchwork and a number of Laura Ashley dresses on this machine.  She worked reliably, until I got her out a couple of years ago and found, to my horror, that she ran manically without her foot control being activated; this seems to have been a simple case of ‘sticky pedal’, and I’m happy to report that she’s fine now.

99k decal

The scratches of hard use

My mother wasn’t an enthusiastic needlewoman, just a utilitarian one. Same with all handicrafts. It was my maternal grandmother who’d been the real crafter of the family, and perhaps my mother naturally rejected that role as one generation tends to react to the previous one. She’d gone to college and pursued more academic pursuits. She typed fast, played piano well, but the sewing-machine isn’t something I can picture her at. It was at school that I was instructed in how to operate a sewing-machine. Home Economics hadn’t been chased off the curriculum in those days, and we learned from rather joyless, stern teachers (“unpick that again”) on rows of hand-cranked machines. But that’s another story.

99k face plate close-up

Surprisingly fancy face plate

I’m seeing Josephine in a slightly different light now. A no-nonsense post-war workhorse from an age of austerity, her few redeeming features (such as her surprisingly decorative face plate, the pleasingly robust bobbin-winding facility, and the houndstooth-patterned paper inside her case) stand out all the more. One last detail: in the spirit of make do and mend, she still carries a piece of masking tape on her needle plate, marking some long-forgotten seam-allowance I once used. No fancy screw-on seam guide for her.

Now I’m wondering where all of Josephine’s 29,999 siblings are. These 99ks strike me as real survivors. How many are still sewing? How many have been melted down for scrap? Where are they now? If you happen to have one, I’d love to hear about it. I”m also wondering what your first sewing machine was like? Was it basic or luxurious? Do you still have it? What did you make on it? Show and tell.

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