Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A New Sewing Machine?

Back in October, about six months ago, I was working on a quilt called “Moby Dick,” and my sewing machine broke. I hadn’t had any problems with it in a couple of years at that point, and felt that the need for repair was understandable, given the punishment it was taking.

I do free-motion machine quilting, where you drop the feed dogs and move the quilt in a meandering pattern as the needle sews. It is a challenge to keep the stitches the same length as you make curves, and it’s tricky to get the thread tension right. Mostly, it’s murder on motors. I waited to hear from the shop, but had to call them after about ten days. They claimed they had tried to reach me, maybe on my other number; I don’t have another number. Anyway, said the grumpy woman, my machine needed a new motor. I ok’d the work and chalked it up to being a quilting bad-ass.

And the thing didn’t still seem right after the motor replacement. It sounded different. There were new tension problems. When it seized up in the middle of quilting Sunday night, I struggled to even get the needle to come up out of the work.

I went to call the grumpy woman at the shop where the repair was done, and the number was no longer in service.

I found another place that services Bernina machines, and despite my car’s navigation system losing me in the worst parts of Poughkeepsie, I got it dropped off without incident. The drive home inspired me to think about finding a new sewing machine with a heavy-duty motor, just for tackling the punishment of free-motion quilting.

I did some research online, but mostly was frustrated. You can read advertisements, or blog posts about very specific models people own, but that high-level question of which machine is going to be able to take it? Not really addressed. And then there is the question of feel. One woman raves about the Janome and the next gave hers away. You have to sit down at a machine, put your hands on a quilt sandwich, and move it under the needle to know.

I found a sewing machine shop in New York City about a 15-minute walk from the apartment and gave them a call. I asked if they sold the Juki TL-2010Q. It seemed like the machine I was looking for. The man on the phone said they did. I asked if they had one in the store that I could try.

“Yes, yes,” he said. “He have a used one, and you can try it, and we can sell you a new one, in the box.”

I canceled my plans for the next day, and called the dog-sitter.

Winter is lingering in New York City. The sky persists in a bright gray-white overcast. The smokers on the street smell especially bad; they dally on the narrow sidewalks of Hell’s Kitchen, carelessly pointing their burning embers out towards other people. Greasy puddles linger where the sidewalks dip to meet the crosswalks, drowning cigarette butts, leaves, and disintegrating food wrappers.

My route to the shop has to avoid all the Lincoln Tunnel crap, and the Port Authority. I’ve forgotten to wear gloves. Block long lines of buses spew diesel exhaust. Concrete dust rises from the jackhammers of a constructions site, flimsily encased by a green painted plywood fence. People are stalking to work, collars up.

The shop is smaller than a residential suburban kitchen. It is crammed with sewing notions. A few new machines are out, but they aren’t plugged in or set up. One is still mummified in plastic. A large machine built into a table sits in front of the counter, taking up about half of the available floor space. The young man behind the counter and another man in a coverall with his name on it are conversing in a language I don’t recognize. This is how it is in New York. I can’t tell if the man in the coverall is a customer or another employee, but they aren’t talking to me until they are finished talking to each other. I wait.

Finally, I am noticed. I explain that I called yesterday, that I came down to the city specially to try a Juki TL-2010Q.

“I don’t think we have one of those.”
“I spoke to someone on the phone yesterday,” I say, peeved. “He told me you have a used one that I can try.”

He finds one on the repair shelf. It belongs to someone else, and has a note on it, describing the needed repair.

Back when my husband owned a Saab, I talked him out of getting a turbo model because whenever we went to the shop it was full of turbos. I assumed they broke a lot. Maybe it was really because they were all turbos. Who knows? They don’t even make Saabs anymore.

“We’re a small shop,” says the guy. Like I don’t know. “We don’t keep things like that in stock,” he admits. “Write down your name and number and I’ll have the owner call you about it when he gets in.”

The owner will never call. I don’t know why I bother to write down my actual name and actual number.  They lie on the phone and they lie to your face. This is what it is like in New York City.

Detail: Moby Dick, the quilt
By midday, the shop hasn’t called. I go to City Quilters and get a gentle salespitch about the full line of Berninas. All the Berninas. The latest Berninas. They have computer screens, and hundreds of decorative stitches. I have a Bernina; it is in the shop. It has some decorative stitches; I rarely use them. If you had a platter with a turkey painted on it, you might get it out once a year for Thanksgiving, but if you didn’t have it, you’d use another, plain platter. Those decorative stitches are, to me, like that decorative turkey platter.

I sit with a woman who is going to give me a demo on a top of the line Bernina. She pushes the buttons on the multiple screens of embroidery features. I am quiet. I do not care about embroidery features.

“What kind of sewing do you do?” she asks, as I drift away.
“Mostly quilts. Lots of free-motion quilting,” I say.
I show her a picture of “Moby Dick.”

She offers to show me the Sweet Sixteen, from Handi Quilter, a sit-down, long-arm free-motion quilting machine. Heavy-duty motor. It’s even American made.

Sweet Sixteen from Handi Quilter
There is a sample piece of a quilt sandwich in the machine, black, with variegated thread running through. With some gentle prompting I try it. It’s exactly like the feel of what I have been doing on my Bernina, but because the machine is set in the table facing me, I can put one hand on each side of the needle and move the quilt. I make a meandering pattern, smaller and smaller. It comes out exactly as I intended. I am very quiet.

It will be delivered in about a week.


  1. Congratulations on your new edition!

  2. My parents have one of those turkey platters with a picture of a turkey on it. One year we had Thanksgiving at my house, so I had custody of the platter for a while. It is safely back at my parents' house. I think.