Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Search for the Perfect Machine, Part Four: Purchase

...And then we came to the end.

Before I reveal which one I ended up buying, I want to insert some information about one more machine: the Juki TL2010Q (formerly 98Q).
The amazing (AMAZING!!) Joanna of Applique Today e-mailed me and suggested I think about purchasing this one instead. She also gave me some very important machine-buying advice. I asked her if she used her Juki for both piecing and quilting, and here was her response:

Monet, I do EVERYTHING on that machine! It is amazing for piecing. I use it for piecing, quilting, making clothes, curtains, you name it I make it on it! I have a Janome with all the fancy stitches, but as a quilter, I never ever use them. It's sat in the garage for the last 5 years collecting dust.

The speed thing would be an issue for you for all of about 15 minutes. I've had so many people use my machine, even children, and they get used to it very quickly. You get a feel for the pedal and can go slow, a stitch at a time, or fast, 1500 stitches per minute. I know it seems counter intuitive, but it really is easier to get smoother quilting lines the faster you go. All it takes is practice...

Even if you don't go for the Juki, still check out some of the other semi-industrial straight stitch machines - you would never look back! I really really recommend getting a machine with a knee lift. It was life-changing to me! You never ever need to lift the foot by hand which is HUGE when you are machine quilting. And the automatic thread cutter is something I can't go without now either. And I don't mean a button on the machine - it's on the foot pedal, so you tap your foot. When you are quilting (and piecing!) the more your hands can stay free, the better.

...I think the people who benefit most from Berninas are those doing beautiful heirloom sewing. People who actually use all those lovely stitches...If you think you will, then great! If not, you need to get the best quality machine you can get with the LEAST amount of stitches! For me, that is one, the straight stitch. I think a zig zag would be nice, but honestly, I have never needed to use it bad enough in the last 4 years to pull my Janome out of the garage!

Also, you are not going to want to keep the same machine forever. Our mothers did because all they did was make clothes in the 70's. I remember! They weren't making works of art like quilts. Quilts require different things than clothing...

If you want to quilt your own quilts, and they are bigger than a yard square, you NEED an amazing dedicated quilting machine. So here is my list of what you should look for, regardless of the brand. They are things that in my humble opinion are the only things you need for quilting:

Big throat space
Big flat bed
Needle down
Automatic thread cutting
Fast stitching
Easy to lower feed dogs (flick of a switch)

So there you have it, from a truly amazing quilter who has really put her machine to the test! I thought about what she said and even found a dealer in this area (Reliable Sewing Machines in Stoughton).

But in the end, I had to go with...

The Janome 7700/Horizon. It was my mom who convinced me. I haven't even finished the draperies, shower curtain, etc. in my apartment, and my mother told me that she didn't think I should buy a machine without an automatic buttonholer when I still have home decorating to do. Did I need a machine with 11 buttonholes? Probably not. But they sure are nice to have...

I'll admit that the most convincing feature was the 11" of harp space (11 must be Janome's lucky number). Once you have sewed with that much harp space, you won't go back. I would recommend not trying it unless you are prepared to pay for it. I could stick my head under that thing. Not that I would. I'm just saying.

In the end, it came down to a feeling. People tell you that you will "bond" with a certain machine, and they're right. It just felt right to me to sew on the Horizon. I didn't feel that way on anything else I tried.

I haven't had much time to play with it yet (although I did watch the hilarious instructional DVD while I set it up), and I'll post as soon as I do. For now, I have to finish up my work so I can go pack for the BMQG retreat!!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Search For the Perfect Machine, Part Three: Post-test-drive

(The first and second posts in this series are here and here.)

The machines I test drove were at a dealer about thirty minutes away from me. The dealer sells the Bernina 350PE and 440QE, as well as the Janome 6600 and 7700. Four of the six in one place not far from home…hooray.

I brought the following things with me:

1. Four kinds of fabric I use frequently, including one type that my machine hates (KF Shot Cotton)

2. Four small quilt sandwiches (with single layers of cotton fabric and cotton batting) for testing free-motion quilting

3. One large quilt sandwich for testing how much the harp could accommodate and how the quality of FMQ was affected by having a great deal of fabric jammed into the machine. My sandwich was not an actual quilt top since it was being sacrificed to the quilting gods, but I did use a thick broadcloth fabric on one side and wool on the other to approximate the thickness of a pieced top

(Wild turkeys in the driveway this morning! I love them!)

Step 1: straight stitching/tour of basic functions

Bernina 350 PE. I eliminated this almost immediately because the machine seemed too basic for me (although I’m sure it is a very good machine). This is a great machine for someone who can afford to spend quite a bit of money to learn quilting, but it was obvious that its narrow range of functions and capabilities meant I couldn’t take my sewing much further than the level I’m on now. Next.

Bernina 440QE. I did a few rows of straight stitching with the saleswoman sitting less than an inch from me, which was nerve-racking. Does anyone else feel like quilt shop employees are always judging you? Then don’t ever sew in front of them. Anyway, I used the patchwork foot and did see that amazing Bernina stitch quality that people rave about right away. The 440’s stitches were perfect. The machine was remarkably quiet and soothing. The harp space didn’t seem quite as small when I was piecing on it, and I liked the attached extension table.

Janome 6600. This machine looks like you expect a solid sewing machine to look: parts poking out everywhere, huge stitch guide on top, large throat, thick foundation. It was a nice machine and I got to try it out for approximately thirty seconds before the saleslady pulled me over to the Horizon.

Janome 7700. As I said in my earlier post, I wasn’t excited about the Horizon when I began looking at machines. If it had been list price, I would not have even tried it. But when I got there, the machine drew me like a moth to a flame. It was animal magnetism. I tried some basic stitches with the ¼” foot (yeah, the original one that everyone hates, and it did skew to the left, for the record), and then stitched with the dual-feed function turned on. If you were drowning and you happened to be holding onto the end of a quilted tablerunner that was under the Janome Horizon dual-feed foot, it would save your life. There's some horsepower behind that.

Step 2: free-motion/advanced functions

Janome 7700. I asked the lady at the shop to put on the FMQ foot so I could try it out. She put on a standard, clear plastic foot, and I grabbed one of my quilt sandwiches and sat down. The top thread broke after five seconds of quilting and the stitches were barely distinguishable (see image above).

The fabric was difficult to manipulate, and the thread continued breaking…four or five times in a few minutes’ worth of quilting. One of the other saleswomen actually heard it snap from several feet away. The foot was bouncing up and down so much that I could barely see the fabric and it made me dizzy. I decided to open the manual and make sure it was the right foot. Of course, it wasn’t. The 7700 has a special adjustable, two-spring foot: a foot that could not be located anywhere in the shop. Here's another shot of how awful it looked (and yeah, I had to write on the fabric to keep track of the samples):

Bernina 440QE. It took the woman a good ten or fifteen minutes to figure out how to put the BSR foot on. I sat patiently…this was my moment! And the BSR foot, as has been said many times before, did not disappoint. Damn. That thing was amazing. My stitches looked professional [image]. Happy joy. But as I moved the large quilt sandwich around, I realized that I was quite uncomfortable. My worst fears had been realized: the small harp space was an insurmountable issue. I was not bonding with this machine.

Janome 6600. When I sat down to try FMQ on this machine, I also spent more time playing around with its other features. There is something so nice about using this machine. It’s very easy to use, the screen selections are more intuitive than other computerized machines, the stitch quality is great, etc. etc. The saleswoman (one of those people who has five or six different machines at home for different purposes) said she had one and she “would NEVER get rid of it,” which I highly doubted after seeing her stroking the Horizon gently when I wasn’t looking. So anyway, I had a hard time achieving proper tension when FMQ on this machine, but I’m sure I could have worked it out…and even with the poor tension on the back, it looked great from the front. I felt so comfortable working on the 6600:

Janome 7700, round two. I unearthed a proper foot for sale at the store, so I forced them to open it and stick it on the machine. I achieved MUCH, MUCH better results with the two-spring foot. The tension was off no matter what I did, though. The machine repairman came out and talked to me about it at length, trying to convince me that it was easily remedied. I felt concerned about it. I know that tension is an issue with every machine, but I still felt like such an expensive machine should be able to achieve proper tension after fifteen adjustments.

So anyway, my dealership ended up offering me a great deal on the Horizon. I decided to go home and think about it for a few days. I had made various people promise that if they knew I came home with a sewing machine on the first day I looked, they would force me to return it. I had discussed the issues people were reporting with the Horizon to the ladies at the dealership, and I was then subjected to numerous lectures that started with phrases like “You know, I just don’t trust the internet. Those people are probably lying, you know.” In the Janome 7700 Yahoo Group? “You just shouldn’t listen to the people on the internet.” Okay.

I’ll be back soon with the rest of my saga. Until then, I hope yall are having a nice Easter, if you celebrate! If you're still reading, you are a champ and have my eternal devotion!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Search For the Perfect Machine, Part 2: Pre-test-drive analysis

(The first post in this series can be found here)

In this post, I’m going to describe the features of each machine, share some reviews and my initial thoughts, and explain how I am testing them all out!

Before we begin looking at the machines, I want to mention that my gut reaction is to get a Bernina. I want to have my machine for 40 years like my nana had her Elna and my mother her Viking. Bernina has a great reputation and their machines seem to last a lifetime. They are expensive, but people say they are worth every penny. However, some features common to the Bernina machines that don’t cost 10K+ don’t fit with my needs; hence my broader search.

Two great sources for machine reviews are Pattern Review and the Sew, Mama, Sew machine review. Check them out if you're in the market!

The machines

1. Janome 6600

Price range: $1100 to $1400

Reviews: The reviews of this machine that I have read are universally positive, and a few of my friends own it and love it. There are too many reviews to list, so just look in the two sites above and you will find great reviews aplenty. I’ve heard that it could be better at free-motion quilting. However, a brief perusal through the catalog of submissions for this year’s MQX shows how many national-level quilters are using this machine for just that, so I’m a bit skeptical!

Pros: dual-feed system, large harp area (9”), presser foot pressure adjustment, number of stitches (very large for a machine in this price range)

Cons: none so far

2. Elna 7300 (Quilting Queen)

Price range: $1100 to $1500

Reviews: Every review I’ve been has been very positive, but I don’t know anyone who owns one (see here and here; Pattern Review reviews in this thread). This is exactly the same machine as the Janome 6600, according to one reviewer who actually contacted Janome to ask about this (Janome makes Elna now), except for a few modifications: there are two or three extra decorative stitches on the Elna and the Elna has a more powerful motor. Everything else I the same, so the same pros and cons above apply!

3. Bernina 350 Patchwork Edition with Bernina Stitch Regulator (BSR)

Price: I was quoted $1149 for the machine, and I know the BSR function costs an additional $900 (yeah, I know…that’s one expensive foot!), bringing the grand total to just over $2000

Reviews: This is a new machine, so there aren’t any reviews yet, which makes me nervous. But it is a more budget-friendly option for me than the 440, so I will seriously consider it.

Pros: Comes with all of the quilting attachments I need, is a very sturdy machine with fewer bells and whistles (and thus fewer opportunities to explode on me and leave me machine-less) than others

Cons: Small harp space, small number of stitches, isn’t really a lot of machine for the price

4. Janome Horizon

Price range: All seem to be at about $3000.

Reviews: Mixed, but skewed toward the positive (see blog reviews here, here, here, and here). Most forum posts about this are very positive. The negative reviews are almost exclusively from the first production of the machine, which Janome admits had some issues (and they subsequently fixed the issues). There is one lady who got one of these machines, hated it, and has since spewed as much vitriol as possible about the Horizon all over the internet. I’m not posting any of her sites here, but it should be easy to find if you’re curious. People have had problems with their dealers in relation to these machines, especially if the dealer is located outside of the US. A few of the negative reviews I read ended with the person getting a 440 instead and loving it (score one for 440).

Pros: automatic single needle plate converter (my machine has made me terrified of my fabric getting eaten, so this is a big plus for me), 11” of harp space, built-in organizational spots in the machine (I’m obsessed with organization), dual-feed system, automatic thread cutter, GIGANTIC extension table

Cons: the mixed reviews (I have bad luck and if something is going to break on someone, I guarantee it will be me)

5. Elna eXcellence

Price: $2500

Reviews: none yet…yikes!

Pros: 11.5” of harp space, wide range of stitches and functions

Cons: seems to be more geared toward garment sewing, though I wouldn’t say that is necessarily negative

6. Bernina Aurora 440QE

Price range: $2800-3500

Reviews: there are too many good reviews of this machine to list, but here are a couple. The reviews I have read for this machine are universally positive. Owner after owner calls it her “dream machine.” Nobody has even complained about the small harp space, which is my biggest concern. If I wanted to buy a machine on reviews alone, this is the one I would choose. But I don’t want to do that, obviously.

Pros: BSR, comes with great quilting attachments, and has a range of stitches I think I will actually use

Cons: small harp space (this is the biggest con for me as harp space is one of the main reasons I began looking at getting a new machine to begin with), price (absolute top of my range), small extension table, and it seems to be not very much machine for the money…I’m worried I’ll regret buying something this small

Now onto the test drive...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Search For the Perfect Machine, Part One: Background

If you aren’t at all interested in purchasing a sewing machine (or in the intricacies of the machines on the market these days, or in my personal quest for one), then ignore this post and I’ll be back with sewing projects later. But I have benefited so much from the online sewing machine reviews out there (though I haven’t even bought a machine yet), and I hope to help other people who are looking to buy make an informed decision as well. So here goes: the story of my quest for a machine.

I received my first sewing machine for Christmas about a year and a half ago. It was a mid-range Kenmore from Sears and in most ways, it is a very good machine—so good, in fact, that I had taken to saying that I was very “utilitarian” when it came to sewing machines, and I didn’t anticipate buying a new one anytime soon. Mine seemed to perform the basic functions that I needed: it sewed a straight stitch (if not very well), had the needle up-needle down function (which I love and now cannot live without), and I could free-motion quilt if I really wanted to and had lots of time to unpick lines of stippling. My mother, who sews professionally, told me that it was a good starter machine, and I could upgrade when I figured out what I loved doing and what features I needed to accomplish my sewing goals. I was like, “Whatever, Mom. Who cares about sewing machine features, as long as the machine works?”

It is an excellent machine for the casual sewer or quilter (check out the reviews here). Less than a year after I got the machine, however, I pebble-quilted a quilt that was less than 46” square. Quilting that pattern broke the machine, as well as did considerable damage to the quilt that took me days to fix. I also watched Criminal Minds the entire time I did it and had nightmares for weeks. I learned two good lessons that day.

My machine was deemed irreparably damaged by the terrifying Sears technician lady, and the company gave me a new one (after a LOT of arguing…NEVER EVER buy anything from Sears. They have the worst customer service on the planet). The “issues” that I did not realize were issues in my first machine are very problematic in my second one: the tension is horrible (I can’t ever achieve correct tension), the machine constantly sucks the fabric down into itself, I get nests on the back of every line of stitching, the bobbin winder doesn’t work, the harp is extremely small, etc etc.

And yet, I still wasn’t thinking about getting a new machine. My machine is special to me because it was my first real sewing machine and the best gift I’ve ever received (thanks, Mom!), and it does feel like a bit of a betrayal to get a new one.

But then one day I got to thinking about quilting either of my two recent (and large) projects on my machine. I knew it wouldn’t work. And I started to get so frustrated by the bobbin thread nests on the back of every piece of fabric I sew. And I realized it is somewhat sad that my machine simply cannot sew through more than four or layers of fabric without creating teeny tiny stitches that are impossible to rip out. And also…I should be able to sew through Shot Cotton or any slightly shreddy fabric without the machine eating it and trapping fibers in the bobbin race.

So it was time for a new machine.

Luckily, MQX took place two days after this resolution, and the very first machine I tried was the machine that had become my Ultimate Sewing Machine Fantasy: the Aurora 440QE. The Bernina Stitch Regulator feature was mind-blowing (see a great review/instruction guide on it here). The 440, however, is extremely expensive, and the harp space is narrower than I would like it to be.

Which brings me to now.

I have looked through every sewing machine forum and review and joined every Yahoo group imaginable. I have narrowed my search down to several contenders, which I have grouped together Final Four-style (matched in groups of two by price). The contenders are:

1. Janome 6600

2. Elna 7300 (Quilting Queen)

3. Bernina 350 PE with BSR

4. Elna eXcellence

5. Janome 7700 (Horizon)

6. Bernina Aurora 440QE

Come back tomorrow for a list of reviews and the features of each machine. I will do a side-by-side comparison of all of the features pre- and post-test-drive! Now off to the dealership to try a few of them out...

Friday, April 15, 2011

Mountains Beyond Mountains (with apologies for harsh lighting conditions)

Sewing has been on the backburner over here lately, owing to my incredibly hectic work schedule, but I sewed the final seam on this quilt top yesterday during my lunch break, and I am JUST. SO. HAPPY with it.

When I finally stepped away from the completed top and stared at it spread across the living room sofa, I felt like I had just scaled a mountain. Which doesn't really seem to require much, if you've been watching the Discovery show Everest, where people with terrifyingly little climbing experience (or common sense) pay vast sums of money to scale the mountain with the help of 43 sherpas and a team of yaks.

But back to the quilt.

There are one thousand and thirty-five triangles in this behemoth, which measures an acceptable 73" square. Not as big as I'd like, but still a usable size. This quilt would definitely not win any quilt shows; there are three or four (or ten) areas where the points just didn't match up, but the Quilt Police don't live near me, so I think I'll be okay.

Quilting, as always, is stalled...this time because the backing fabric I bought from (in my last ever purchase from them as their customer service is abominable) just doesn't seem to be very high-quality, and I would hate to ruin a quilt I love so very much with a poor-quality backing fabric. I know it will destroy my machine to do this, but I really want to use Minky on the that so bad?

Have a great weekend, everyone! I hope you'll all spend it sewing. I'm spending it making room in my sewing area for my new sewing table...

Friday, April 8, 2011

Stripes & Solids--the top and back

Just when I thought I would never have the chance to photograph this lovely top and back, we had a sunny evening in Boston and Amy left work early to help me hang them on the fence in the courtyard of my building (definitely a two-person job).

This is the second in my Amish quilts series. It was inspired by a quilt in an excellent book on Amish quilts, Amish Abstractions (you can see my review of it in that link. I'm trying write enough reviews to become a member of Amazon Vine so I'll get free quilt books. So far, I've written two).

Attaching the large borders to the center square in my incredibly small sewing area was difficult, but I persevered and am just so happy with the result. All I did was cut down the middle of several yards of fabric and attach it, so the borders are 22" and the center square is 44", for a grand total of 88" square.

Constructing the back was much more frustrating than piecing the top. As I said in my earlier post about this quilt, I got a little rotary-cutter happy and cut strips from three yards of fabric for the top. Of course, you don't use that much fabric in a 44" square, so I had quite a few leftover strips from which to piece the back.

Sewing them up was a complete nightmare. There are two parts of quilting I don't like: cutting (in general) and sewing long, thin strips. I bought an Accuquilt to deal with the first issue, but the second is unavoidable. So I created a battle plan and plunged in. Twenty 1"x88" strips later, I was finished...but I never wanted to sew a strip again. When we were photographing this yesterday, Amy (unprompted) said it looked hard to sew so many thin strips together. I informed her I was still having flashbacks about it. Luckily, I had had three seasons of Vicar of Dibley to get me through. Someone tell me I'm not the only person besides my grandmother who is obsessed with that show.

I do plan to quilt this on my own machine (gasp) and am actually in the process of looking for a new sewing table right now to make the quilting process easier on myself (in general...not just for this quilt!). I don't know if quilting it myself is crazy or not. Of course, I am considering going back to Laurena's to use her Sweet Sixteen because she has (much) more table space. But it's also free to do it at my own apartment.

I think I want to quilt it with concentric circles. I was planning to do a diagonal grid, which I do enjoy, but I've seen several quilts quilted that way in blogland over the last few weeks, and I'm already starting to get a little tired of the pattern.

I'm in Philly for the weekend doing something very exciting with a special friend of mine! I can't wait to tell you all about it when I return. Happy sewing!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Kindle case 3.0

I swear this will be the last Kindle case I post (even though I have a fourth in the works, haha). What can I say? It's an adorable and practical gift, and a good way to highlight some of my precious fabrics. The exterior fabric I used for this one was purchased as a special treat for myself (though isn't everything?) at the New England Quilt Museum shop. It was very expensive, but very worth it. I bought two fat quarters in different colorways. The interior fabric is a KF shot cotton, and I have no idea what color it is because it is at least a year old.

I used regular batting and lightweight interfacing this time, as well as exclusively cotton fabrics, and those choices made all the difference in the world. I really struggled with getting good points on the last ones, for which I used wool fabric, heavy interfacing, and wool batting. For the record, I also used the same pattern and made the same modifications for this one as for the last two.

This one is going to a good friend of mine who is in her last weeks of pregnancy and spending a lot of time sitting around at home (I am, of course, in the process of making a quilt for her baby). My only concern is that this case might be a little more muted than she would want, but hopefully she will pretend to like it.

And finally, I am really hoping to get some good photos of my Stripes and Solids quilt for my brother soon. It's difficult to find a space to photograph an 88" square!