8 ideas on living (relatively) cheaply on organic food

So I’ve been getting weekly boxes of organic fruit and veggies, cooking healthy meals pretty much every day, and even making my own yoghurt and baking bread on a regular basis. Naturally I’ve been giving myself a big pat on the shoulder! How long will this eco/hippy/domestic goddess-dom last? Hard to tell… Actually, now that the dreaded school holiday is upon us again, I can see myself completely dropping the ball at some point over the next three weeks.

Whenever I enthuse about organic food, however, the number one response I get from people — even like-minded people — is that organic produce is too expensive. Well, that’s fair enough. It is more expensive. But in my recent bout of reading, I came across two compelling arguments about it that I wanted to share:

One – organic produce may be expensive up front, but conventional produce has a lot higher “hidden” cost you pay with your tax dollars. For instance, the cost of treating people falling illl from pesticide use, including a lot of farmers who become sick from being in contact with all that poison. (From  Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen by Anna Lappe)  Two – when you pay higher price for organic produce, you are using your voting power, with your money, to support sustainable, ethical farming over conventional. Much like donating money to your favourite charity, each time you buy local and organic, you are supporting that local farmer who might otherwise be taken over by a huge agricultural corporation who values profit over food safety. (From No Impact Man by Colin Beavan)

I think these are quite convincing arguments for shelling out money for local, organic produce. Don’t you?

But if you are still not persuaded, here are some of my suggestions for eating organic on the cheap side (in no particular order). What I mean is, eating organic food does not have to be expensive at all.

(1) Give up meat. We used to buy organic chicken, which is ridiculously expensive. After we gave up meat and became semi-vegetarian (we eat occasional seafood), our grocery bill got much more bearable. And you know what, fresh organic vegetables taste so much better than conventional ones, I bet you won’t miss meat all that much. A simple meal of vegetable stew like ratatouille tastes divine, full-flavoured, and it makes you swoon in happiness rather than poke around the dish in search of “point of interest” (as Mark would say, referring to meat or cheese).

I nearly shed tears when I saw my son eating organic broccoli for the first time, and asking for more – It was just plain, steamed broccoli with no sauce or salt. This is the boy who used to meticulously remove anything green from his dinner plate. Really, organic broccoli tastes that good.

(2) Use all vegetable scraps – With cheap conventional food, it is easy to forget about what you have in your fridge, buy more than you need, and let some food spoil. When you buy more expensive organic food, you’ll naturally cherish every bit of it like gold, so you’ll waste less food. No need to peel those carrots, too, because it’s pesticide-free. You can use the green parts of leek for making delicious vegetable stock. If you use up everything, you’ll naturally have to buy less to begin with.

(3) Bake your own bread – Organic bread is expensive. I used to spend $8 for a small loaf of organic bread that came in a plastic bag, and sometimes it wasn’t even fresh. Ouch. So now I make an effort to bake bread every 2-3 days. It’s quite easy once you get in the habit of it. It is nice to have a stand mixer or food processor (which can also knead bread for you), but you can knead by hand. Or there are “no-knead” bread recipes if you look around, which involves the dough sitting around for a long time, developing flavour. I posted a simple wholemeal bread recipe before, but investing in a good bread book or two (and maybe even a Kitchenaid mixer!) is a good idea. Now, with organic bread flour bought in bulk, a large loaf of organic bread costs me less than $2.

(4) Buy in bulk – By bulk, I don’t mean Costco-like gigantic portions. Even in smaller amounts, “bulk” is cheaper. I buy organic bread flour in a 12kg bag, which reduces the cost to about $2.5/kg — whereas if you buy a 1kg plain organic flour in supermarkets, it costs like $4/kg.

(5) Make your own yoghurt (and fresh cheese, etc) – I know, it sounds suspiciously like a hippy thing to do, but home-made yoghurt is wonderful. Just buy a small container of commercial yoghurt with live culture. Heat up a litre of organic milk till it nearly boils, then let it cool down to about 45 degrees (so it’s not too hot to stick your finger in). Mix in a tablespoon of yoghurt in it and stir (but don’t worry about little chunks of yoghurt undissolved), pour it in a clean jar with a tight lid, and keep it warm for about 6-10 hours. I wrap my yoghurt jar in a blanket and keep in in a warm spot in our house. And it costs… a mere $2.5 per a litre of organic yoghurt, as opposed to $6.50 or more that I used to buy in plastic containers!

(6) Avoid takeaways – Needless to say, eating out or takeaway is expensive. If you reduce these expenses, you’ll naturally have more budget to spend on organic produce. Again, home-cooked meal doesn’t have to be complicated. Simple recipes are really the best if you have fresh organic produce.

(7) Use inexpensive ingredients – Not all organic produce is expensive. Potatoes, pumpkins and carrots are relatively affordable. Dried beans are very affordable, even though sadly for me, organic rice is too expensive to buy. You can buy organic pasta in major Australian supermarkets, and they are quite affordable. Using these ingredients, you can make delicious and filling soups, dips, etc, that do not hurt your wallet.

(8) Grow your own vegetables – I can’t say my backyard farming is anything to be proud of… yet… but it does save a lot of money just having a few spring onions, lettuce, and herbs growing out there. Instead of buying a head of lettuce, using half and throwing the rest away when it gets too old in the fridge, you can pluck a few leaves at a time from your kitchen garden as you need it. Same with herbs. They may not be certified organic, but when you use organic potting mix and fertilizers, you know it’s safe. You can buy organic seedlings or seeds as well.

Well, I was going to try to make it to number 10 but I ran out of ideas. I’ll add more later if I think of anything else. I think I will also write a separate post on cooking vegetarian meals for your kids. Meanwhile, happy organic eating!


It’s nice to have a backyard

It’s been nearly six months since we moved to this house. But now that Spring is truly here to stay in Sydney, I am feeling a renewed sense of gratitude that we live in a house with a big backyard. Today was particularly a beautiful day, so the kids and I spent most of our day outside, going back inside only for meals and a nap.

I made an obstacle course.














We flew giant bubbles using “bubble wands” that we bought at a local school fare last weekend.

In the afternoon, I was suddenly in the mood to dig a hole for a sand pit. I found a spot under a mango tree, which remains shady for many hours a day. And dug.











Digging was the easiest part. Removing the soil from the pit required a lot more thought and energy. I filled all the spare pots we had (in the hopes of using the rich soil for planting more things) with soil, and still the hole is only about 5cm deep… What do we do with the rest of the soil?

Anyway, Miss M and Mr. A didn’t seem to mind that we don’t have white beach sand or anything yet. They had so much fun playing with the dirt… until they freaked out about the worms.










And of course the best part about all this outside play is that the house remains relatively tidy at the end of the day. Win-win all around!

Oh, and if you are wondering why my children are not wearing those pretty hats I make for my shop… well, here’s a proof that Miss M did wear one for… a few minutes… before she took it off. I can’t get a hat on Mr. A even for a minute. Children are so unreasonable.













Sleep is such a big, controversial issue in parenting. While parents are divided – often fiercely – on issues like sleep school or co-sleeping, most parents seem pretty united in their desire to have their children go to bed without a fuss at a decent bedtime and sleep through the night. Failure to reach this goal can cause untold misery and mental breakdowns to many parents, and ruin their joy of parenting. To make matters worse, healthcare professionals (at least the ones here in Australia) excel at making you feel like a big failure if your children don’t sleep though the night on their own.

Seriously, the issue of sleep resembles warfare: parents vs. children.

Well, I  just want to share with everyone here that in our household, we have officially lost this battle. The children have won, and we (well, mostly just me) have been defeated. Believe me, we’ve tried.











So this is how our kids sleep all the time… (oh, please ignore the sad sticky tape holding Mark’s poor broken glasses together). I don’t have a photo of myself sleeping with the children, but it’s mostly me who sleeps with the kids. Just imagine another child, a 3-year-old, occupying my other arm, pinning me down completely.

And you know what, once I admit failure and give up all ambition that our children would ever sleep on their own… it’s not so bad. I actually enjoy cuddling up with them at night, reading books together and talking, until we all fall asleep pretty much at the same time around 7:30, including myself. No crying, no drama. Most nights I manage to wake up in the middle of the night, sneak out for a couple of hours to do some work and enjoy some kid-free time…. until one or both children wake up to realise I’m gone, and start crying.

It may not be ideal, and Super Nanny would most certainly send us all back to sleep school, but my kids are not going to be little forever, and maybe sleep doesn’t have to be such a blood-shedding warfare after all, if we only lower our expectations a little, and embrace “failure” as a way of life.


Mathilda’s Market

It’s been a week already since the Mathilda’s Market, and I should have written about it earlier. I’ve been quite busy last week – not so much crafting, but gardening. Gardening meaning, mostly pulling weeds out of our junglified yards. We’ve been totally neglecting the yards, especially the front one, that upon removing long weeds I have discovered – surprise! – proper plants underneath that the previous owner must have planted. Our neighbours must be sighing a collective sigh of relief now that our house is no longer looking like the black sheep of the street.

Anyway, there was a lot of anticipation about the Mathilda’s Market, because it is a big crafting market with a big stall fee. They have markets in Sydney only about three times a year, and unlike the general weekend markets like Orange Grove, only have stalls selling baby and kids’ items — not necessarily handmade, but there are a lot of handmade stalls. This time it was at Sydney Cricket Ground / Fox Studios, and there were over 120 stalls! It was overwhelmingly big.

I got lucky that I had a stall space near the entrance with good lighting.























I went to Ikea the day before to get the white board and the coat stand.













My usual suspects of bags and backpacks.










Items I only sell at markets, like popcorn bags, toy magnets and keychains.

As expected, it was quite a different kind of market experience than the Orange Grove market. I had never seen so many pregnant women and mothers with strollers in one place. I had good sales, too, even considering the high stall fee. Plus, as ever, I got to meet a few other stallholders who were not only talented, but also mothers of small children who pursue their crafty passion with what little time they have left in their busy days. I very much enjoy that feeling of camaraderie at markets, as well as talking to my customers face to face.

Organic food delivery

Ever since we moved to a suburb far away from my favourite organic market, we’ve been slack about eating organic food. I still try to find organic produce in supermarkets, but here in Sydney, they are limited to basics like carrots, potatoes, pumpkins and if I’m lucky, apples.  So for everything else we’ve been buying conventional, including strawberries – which I knew had a lot of pesticides on them, but my kids love them so much, and organic ones are so expensive and almost impossible to find.

Then I started reading this book called Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, by Anna Lappe. Lappe makes a case for local, organic, sustainable food – in a non-dogmatic, doable way. She reminded me how conventional fruit and vegetables are laden with chemicals, especially for fragile items like strawberries, and that children are especially vulnerable to them (higher residue of chemicals found in children’s bodies compared to adults’, etc). Ugh. I’ve been bad. No more conventional strawberries for us!

Eating fresh local food is also best, Lappe argues, because by the time produce arrives from farms thousands of miles away, they are practially wilting, and their nutritional value has greatly diminished. I actually didn’t know about this diminished nutritional value thing. Well, now I know it’s no good eating old, dying food I find at the back of my fridge.

So yesterday, we received our first boxes of fresh organic food delivered to our doorstep (from Doorstep Organics).











The veggie box. They look fresh!











I love the fruit box – sadly no strawberries, but still such a great variety. Look, a pineapple! I hope it didn’t come from Hawaii or anything. I need to check… I’ve eaten mandarins, kiwis and pears so far, and they were amazing. Organic food does taste better, no question.

It was a happy day to have so much freshness coming to our doorstep. Now I have to try hard not to let these precious fruit and vegetables go old and wilty in the back of the fridge….

Industrial vs domestic sewing machines, part 2 – the Review

Following my last post on how I came to buy an industrial sewing machine, here’s my review of my industrial single needle, lockstitch machine. I thought I’d do this in a FAQ format.

What does the machine do?

Unlike domestic sewing machines that offer, even at entry-level, a myriad sewing options like zig-zag, button holer, and decorative stitches, most industrial machines are only capable of one thing only. Mine only does straight stitches. No zig zag, no button hole, no decorative stitches. The only thing you can adjust is the stitch length.

But that’s okay by me, because straight stitch is all I use for my Piggledee products anyway. Well, I also use an overlocker, but most domestic machines don’t offer this function, so you’d still need a separate overlocker. If I want to use zig zag or stitches, I can use my domestic Janome.

Is the industrial machine easy to use?

Yes, very easy. My Mitsubishi didn’t come with a users manual, and I couldn’t find any online. But the private seller of the machine showed me how to use it, and in 10 minutes I knew enough to start sewing.

Because my machine only does straight stitching, there is no complicated control dials or switches. On the body of the machine, the only control dial is for changing stitch length.









On top of the machine body is a “computer” control panel. This controls the auto back tack and auto thread trimmer options. Given that my Mitsubishi is an older machine, the control options are limited. For back tacking, I can choose to turn it on or off for the beginning / end of sewing, and can choose how many stitches to back tack. I can turn the thread trimmer on and off. It’s all very intuitive.










But isn’t it hard to change the thread, etc?

I admit I was a little intimidated by the threading at first. Compared to a domestic sewing machine, there are more loops and dials to guide a thread through. I asked the seller of the machine to have it delivered to me already threaded, so I can study it when it got delivered. For the first few days I only sewed with white thread, using my domestic Janome when I needed to use different colours.

But then I learned there was an easy way to change the thread. Instead of removing the old thread from the machine and re-threading from scratch, you cut off the thread at the top from the cone, tie a new thread to it in a simple knot, and ten gently pull it through all the hoops and dials to the needle, cut off the knot and just insert the new thread into the needle. This was much easier!

So, specifically, what are the things you like about the industrial machine?

Automatic thread trimmingI love this feature, although it doesn’t (as I hoped) eliminate all manual thread trimming. To use it, at the end of sewing a seam, you hit the foot pedal on your heel side all the way down (pressing the toe side sews stitches). The machine will make a loud “gachung!” noise, does a back tack if you are using it, and trims both threads in one automatic movement. Newer machines will also lift up the pressor foot in this same motion, so all you do is remove the fabric. But mine doesn’t. To lift the pressor foot, you move the knee bar with your right knee.

The machine trims the upper thread very neatly – not even 1mm of loose thread remains. On the back side of the fabric through, there is about 5mm of loose fabric is left untrimmed. I’m not sure if this is normal for other machines, or if mine needs service.

But the most amazing thing about this feature is you can start sewing another seam without touching the thread at all, and there is only a short thread hanging loose at the beginning of the stitch. What I mean is, with my domestic Janome, you have to ensure there is at least 10 cm of thread hanging loose at the beginning, or the thread will escape through the eye of the needle and I have to rethread the needle again. I hated this about my domestic machine.

With my industrial, when I auto-cut the thread at the end of a seam, there is about 2-3cm (1 inch) of thread hanging loose past the needle eye. When I remove the fabric, re-insert the fabric to sew another seam, and start sewing, the end of the thread does not magically disappears into the first stitch, but I’ll only have to trim about 2cm of of thread, if needed.

Needle up / down – Another great feature, though as with thread trimming, is also available in nicer domestic sewing machines. I find it particularly useful combined with the knee bar, when sewing around a corner, for example. Whereas with my domestic, I’d have to (1), stop sewing, and if the needle is not in the down position, (2) turn the wheel to bring the needle down, (3) use my hand to lift up the pressor foot, (4) pivot the fabric 90 degrees, and (5) release the pressor foot down, re-position hands around fabric and (6) continue with sewing — wow, that’s a lot of steps –, with my industrial, you just (1) stop sewing, hit the knee bar with your right knee while at the same time pivoting the fabric, and (2) release the knee bar and continue with sewing. So. Much. Easier.

At the end of a seam, when you use auto back tack, the needle stops at the up position.

Knee bar – At first I didn’t feel the need to lift the pressor foot by using your knee, because I was so used to lifting it up and down manually on my domestic. But now I appreciate it. It means you can use both your hands at all times to manipulate and shift the fabric as you sew.

Automatic back tacking – Instead of holding the “reverse” button on my domestic while sewing a few stitches back at the beginning and end of a seam, my industrial machine can do it for you automatically. I do love this function for the end of the seam, when I want to do a couple of back tacking and cut the thread. The machine does all this with one click of a heel.

I’m not using this feature for the beginning of the seam, however, because (a) the machine makes another loud noise when auto back tacking, and I want to minimise loud noises, because I often sew when my kids are asleep, and (b) the back tacking goes so incredibly fast, it’s easy for me to momentarily lose control of the fabric and keep the sewing line straight. But the large reverse bar on the machine (unlike the tiny button on my domestic), makes it very easy to manually do the back tacking.

Speed – Although this was one of my major complaints about domestic machines, the industrial machine is so fast, I rarely use it’s full speed. At full speed, I just can’t maintain the control to keep the stitching line straight. Thankfully, it’s very easy to use the machine at slower pace. The foot pedal is very responsive that way. I can go from sewing very slowly (around the curves for example) to pretty fast (when sewing long straight lines), then back to slow, with no problem and the stitch quality remains beautiful and consistent.

The best thing about sewing fast is that the machine doesn’t vibrate much. It’s not for no reason that the machine is so hefty (the machine head alone must weigh around 30kg). The fabric doesn’t wobble so it’s easier than domestic machines to maintain control when sewing at higher speed.

Stitch quality – The stitch quality is incredible! It’s beautiful, and consistently so, regardless of the speed I use, how often I vary the speed, or that there are varying degrees of fabric thickness in one seam. The finished product looks just looks a lot more professional. I didn’t know about this before buying an industrial machine, or I didn’t know it would matter so much. But now I know, I’d choose my industrial over the domestic machine for this reason alone, even if I didn’t have other nice features like automatic thread trimmer.

Ability to sew thick layers of fabric – Another reason why I chose an industrial machine, and my Mitsubishi doesn’t disappoint. I always slow down almost to a stop, by sheer habit, when approaching a thicker layer of fabric in a seam, but it’s not necessary. It’s like the machine doesn’t even notice there is a difference in fabric thickness – the needle effortlessly cuts through 4-6 layers of cotton canvas without skipping a beat. Love it.

And I don’t even know if my Mitsubishi was designed for a lightweight or medium weight fabric. Like other industrial lockstitch machines, the Mitsubishi comes in three variations for light, medium, or heavy fabric. All I know is mine is either the light or medium. In any event it sews both types very well.

Ability to sew lightweight fabric – I haven’t tried other, more tricky fabrics like silk chiffon, but the industrial machine sews super lightweight cotton, like Liberty tana lawn, beautifully. I can even start sewing at the very edge of the fabric, without the fabric getting distorted or the thread jamming – which is often what happens with my domestic machine.

Easy bobbin winding – I love how you can wind a spare bobbin as you sew other things. The machine comes with a thread stand that holds two cones of thread, one for the main stitching and one for the bobbin. You just thread one cone of thread to the bobbin winder attached to the right side of the machine, and your regular stitching motion winds up the bobbin! It automatically stops winding when the bobbin is full.













Oh another thing about thread. When I bought my industrial, I learned that you can buy one of those huge cones of thread (5000 meters) for $3 or so. Three dollars. They come in a rainbow of colours. And I’m not even talking about wholesale price. Call me ignorant or stupid, but for years I had bought those little Gutermann poly threads spools at craft shops, which sells for more than $10 for an 800-meter spool. I always thought it was expensive, and I hated constantly running out of thread. But suddenly realizing that, gosh, those little thread spools cost 20 times as much as those cone version? Doesn’t it almost seem like an unfair business practice to charge so much for such cheap thread?

But I only blame myself for not discovering this sooner. After all, I’ve used cheaper thread cones for my overlocker, without once realising that I can use those for my regular domestic machine as well. I have since tried using the huge cone thread on my domestic machine, and while I can’t secure it properly, it’s still usable.

What are the things you don’t like about the industrial machine?

Inserting a bobbin – I find it hard to insert a bobbin. The bobbin goes inside a bobbin case, and the whole thing goes into a little space on the lower left side of the machine under the table. I’m sure a seasoned seamstress can do it by the feel of it, but after a couple of weeks I still find it difficult to click it into the right spot. Often I need to tip the machine over, or crawl under the table, to see if I’m getting it right.

Speaking of bobbins, I find it rather strange that you need to keep filling those tiny bobbins even for an industrial machine. I believe this is true even for newer models. Wouldn’t someone have invented a machine by now that would feed straight from a thread cone directly? So that annoying problem I’ve had with my domestic machine – when I would sew an entire long seam before realizing that I haven’t actually sewn a stitch because the bobbin was empty –  it still happens to me with the industrial machine.

The weight / size – An industrial machine comes attached to a table (about 130cm wide). The motor is not part of the machine but is attached to the table underneath the machine head. The whole thing is extremely heavy (around 80 kg) and takes space. If we still lived in our old apartment, there was no way I could have bought the machine – or find anyone to move it upstairs for that matter! The size means, obviously, I can’t take it to my quilting class etc, so I’d still need my domestic machine.

Lack of stitch options – Because my industrial only does straight sewing, I still need my domestic machine for other stitches like zig zag. Personally I don’t use it much, but if you do, you might find it annoying switching back and forth between two different machines.

Lack of free arm – There is no “free arm” option for an industrial machine because the sewing surface is level to the tabletop. I was so used to using the free arm with my domestic machine when sewing around a hat or armholes, it took a while to get used to sewing without it. I still find it a little tricky sewing a round seam, and miss the free arm on my domestic machine.

Lack of built-in light – Industrial sewing machines, unlike domestic ones, don’t come with built-in light for the sewing area. Why not? I have no idea. It would be such a simple but lovely improvement. Doesn’t the sewing industry have a problem of sewers going blind? I bought a separate fluorescent lamp to go with my machine, that clamps on to the table. But it’s not as nice has always having a bright warm light for the sewing area.

Well, that’s pretty much it I think. I’ll update this post later if I come up with more pros/cons of an industrial machine.

I highly recommend an industrial machine for anyone who sews a lot and is considering an upgrade to a better domestic machine. Used industrial machines are a great value, considering high-end domestic machines can cost thousands of dollars. Spare parts are cheaper for industrial machines, too. I’ve only bought a binder/folder attachment I have yet to play with, but it cost only $28. I think pressor feet are cheap as well. It still pains me to remember that I paid like $80 for a walking foot for my domestic machine. I haven’t tried machine quilting yet with my industrial, but with the pressor foot capable of taking up to about 1.5 cm fabric thickness, and how wonderful the feeding of fabric is, I doubt I’ll have any problem machine quilting using the regular old pressor foot. But I’ll let you know when I have tried this.

Anyway, here are a couple more photos.









The servo motor








The motor, the knee bar, and the foot pedal











The machine tips over like this all the way. Inside is an “oil bath” to keep the machine well oiled. I know, it’s a little frightening at first to see a pool of oil just sitting there, but it doesn’t touch the fabric or anything.

Industrial vs domestic sewing machine: Part 1

A few weeks ago I bought a used industrial sewing machine – Mitsubishi LS2-1180, straight lockstitch machine that is more than 15 years old. I thought I’d write a review of it, and compare it to my entry-level domestic machine. But first, this post is about the background: what drove me to buy an industrial machine and how I found my Mitsubishi. Warning: this is going to be a long and technical post! If you are not a sewing geek like me, you’ll find it very boring….

Previously I’ve had an entry-level domestic machine, a Janome Sewist 521, which I bought about 5 years ago new for AU$250 or so. I also have a Brother domestic overlocker. As basic as it was, my Janome served me well for over 5 years without getting serviced once. I made everything with it – my clothes, kids’ clothes, bags and quilts. It was fine, and frankly I didn’t know any better. But after I started Piggledee and began sewing more and more, I began to notice its limitations, learned that there are better machines out there, and decided I wanted an upgrade.

The main features I wanted were:

(a) needle up / down – I didn’t even know some sewing machines offered such a useful feature. If I knew, I would have bought a different domestic machine 5 years ago. It’s so great to have the machine stop sewing with the needle in the down position all the time, so I can raise the pressor foot and pivot/adjust the fabric without having to sew that extra half stitch by hand-rotating the wheel.

(b) an automatic thread cutter – When I make things like drawstring backpacks or lunch bags with lots of little seams, I get an insane amount of thread ends hanging loose, and it frustrated me to no end having to cut them all off with scissors, and often I still find them loose in a finished product about to be shipped. Yikes! Nothing says “unprofessional” louder than loose thread hanging from a product.

(c) speed – Compared to my domestic overlocker, my Janome seemed to sew at a snail’s pace. So. Slow. When I hit the pedal at full speed, the machine would get very noisy and vibrated like crazy. Once the vibration loosened the needle, broke it, and it flew right past my eye as I was sewing!

(d) ability to sew thicker layers of fabric – My Janome really struggled with multiple layers of fabric, and I’m not talking about leather or anything. Just a few layers of cotton canvas when sewing a simple bag was getting too difficult, if not impossible. The machine would moan and complain, the needle would break, or just wouldn’t make any stitches, and when it did, the stitch length got uneven and unsightly.

(e) ability to handle lightweight fabric – My Janome also struggled with very lightweight fabric, like cotton lawn. Often the thread would get jammed or the fabric gets caught in the ditch below. Very frustrating.

At first I shopped around for a better domestic machine. I found that with features like automatic thread cutter, I would have to spend at least AU$800 for a machine like Janome 3160QDC, which, according to reviews, is a perfectly wonderful sewing machine. It’s lightweight and has great additional features like a one-step button holer. I seriously considered buying it.

Except it’s just as slow as my entry-level Janome. Because domestic machines, regardless of the price, all have the same speed – about 800 stitches per minute. So I’d be spending $800 for another snail. (Actually, there is a small class of semi-professional domestic machines that would sew twice as fast, but they were way too expensive for me.)

Around the same time, I was reading a lot about industrial sewing machines at one of my favourite sewing sites: Fashion-Incubator. Kathleen Fasanella, who owns and writes for the site, is a professional pattern maker and an industry expert. She has a clear preference for industrial machines and recommends them for their superior stitch quality, cost effectiveness, and ease of use. At first I was just curious, but eventually I was persuaded.

Unlike domestic machines, an industrial machine would sew at the speed of 4000 to 5000+ stitches per minute. That’s whopping five times faster than even a high-end domestic machine like Bernina. And while new industrial lockstitch machines are expensive in Australia ($2500 or so for a full-featured one), you can easily find a used one for the same amount I’d otherwise spend on a Janome 3160. Many used industrial machines come with features like automatic thread trimmer and back tacking as well, even though these machines are more expensive.

So I began looking and researching. I had trouble, though, finding much information on used (or new, for that matter) industrial machines online. I mean, unlike domestic machines, I found basically no reviews about different models or manufactures of industrial sewing machines. I only found rare technical specifications, which I found difficult to decipher. In the end, what helped most was visiting several shops in Sydney that sell used industrial machines, test driving a few, and asking a lot of questions to the friendly shop people.

From reading Kathleen’s site, I had learned the basics: that there are two types of motors with industrial machines: clutch and servo. Clutch motor is the older and noisy one and servo the quiet, newer one. Machines with automatic features like thread trimmer tend to come with the new servo motor. Most machines are made in China, but some older ones were made in Japan, and are likely to have better quality. Juki seemed like a popular and reliable brand.

When I visited industrial sewing machine shops in Sydney, I also learned that there are machines with automatic features that use clutch motors. They were more affordable than the ones with servo motors (say, $1000 as opposed to $1500), but it was somewhat dubious if those computerised clutch motors were repairable in the event they failed.

I found the clutch motor was not as noisy as I had imagined. It makes a whirring sound like a very loud computer tower or an old fridge. But you probably won’t even hear it from the next room with the door shut. The actual sewing sound is relatively quiet, especially at lower speed. What’s really loud in any machine, servo or clutch motor, is when you hit the foot pedal to use the auto back tack/thread trimming feature. It makes this loud “Gachung!” noise that I fear might wake up my children at night.

I also learned that, when it comes to industrial sewing machines, brand names didn’t really matter. They are pretty much all the same, and some factories in China make the same machines using the same parts for different brands.

I almost bought a 20-year-old Juki, with a clutch motor and automatic features from one of the machine shops. But at $1100, it was still a little too pricey. So, armed with my research, I looked for more risky private sales on eBay and free classified sites like Gumtree.

I found my Mitsubishi on Gumtree for $600.  It has a servo motor, automatic thread trimming and back tacking. A bargain! And the seller – a Korean family who had an impressive professional sewing operation set up in their home – was very kind, patiently showing me how to use and maintain the machine. Of course arranging for its transport (it’s super heavy at about 80kg) cost me another $200, but still, for the same price I would have spent on a new Janome 3160, I found a super workhorse of a machine. Here it is:








I know, not very pretty to look at, but I love it. Why? Stay tuned for my next post. But let me just say, I know it seems like an extreme upgrade to go from an entry-level domestic machine to an industrial one, like you are missing several steps in the middle, but to me it made perfect sense. The only hurdle was lack of information on the internet. If more information was available on the internet, I think more people, including hobby sewers, would consider buying them. Especially considering how expensive high-end domestic machines are. Anyway, I’ll write more in my next post.

Sun hats

The winter has been brutal here in Sydney this year. But just when I was bracing for another month of coldness, spring is suddenly upon us, catching me totally off-guard. In our backyard, a newly planted lemon tree is about to blossom. Strawberry flowers are already blossoming. And the sun is getting noticeably brighter. Soon it’ll be another skin cancer season…. It’s time to make sun hats.

Last summer I made a few sun hats for my shop, but I was not completely happy with the pattern I made. The brim was too slope-y and bucket-like, and as cute as it was, it interfered with the child’s visual field. So, I went back to the drawing board today.

Let me warn you first: I have no idea how a professional pattern maker would make hat patterns. So please don’t copy me or quote me if you are researching how to make a hat pattern properly. I just wanted to share how I did this.











As you see, I already have a pattern for the crown part. For the brim, I first drew a rectangle for the brim, with the length representing the circumference of the hat. If you use this pattern for a hat as is, the brim would come straight down over your eyes like a ski mask, and you will be totally blindfolded.

Next I arbitrarily divided the brim rectangle up into small sections. I then cut out the big rectangle, and made slits along these little lines almost till the end, leaving just a tiny bit uncut so the whole thing still held together as one piece. Then you can fan it out like this:











If you make a complete circle like this, and trace over the pattern, I’d imagine your brim will sit about 90 degrees from your face – like a shower hat (or how do you call those things you attach to your child’s head so you can wash her hair without the water getting into her eyes?).

I wanted a brim with a gentle downward slope, so I was aiming for something like a 45-degree angle.














This took a long time, ensuring that all the little pieces were spaced out evenly…. When I finally had them positioned where I wanted, I roughly traced around the whole shape, then smoothed out the rough edges into a nice curved shape.

Then I tweaked the pattern a little more to make sure the lines were smooth and the circumference matched with that of the crown. Then I added seam allowance.











The work-in-progress pattern above is for half a brim.

When the pattern is done, it’s Judgment Time – time to make a sample. Here, too, is where I am a total amateur. Instead of using muslin, I can’t help using a nice fabric for my sample sewing. Because I am eternally hopeful that, in the event it all works out perfectly the first time, I will have a lovely hat I can use straight away. Although I should know by now that things almost never work out perfectly the first time. That is why my children often wear crooked or ill-fitting samples. Because I’m too cheap to throw them away. See, I never seem to learn.

But today I got lucky! Yes the first sample had problems — the brim was too long and didn’t match up with the crown, and the angle was a little off. But after I ripped the brim off, I was able to salvage the fabric by re-cutting it using a revised pattern.


















A finished toddler sun hat in Miss M’s size. It’s lined with solid pink cotton. After yesterday’s apron-rejection fiasco, I didn’t want to argue with a three-year-old’s favoured colour choice. See, I need her to wear a hat – any hat – in this country of harsh sun and skin cancer.

I do enjoy making hats. Something about all these flat pieces ending up nice and round and 3-D – gives me a lot of satisfaction. Off to make some more for my neglected online shop and for the upcoming Mathilda’s Market.

Girl’s apron (or pinny) version 2

As promised, a craft-related post! So in my previous post about making a pattern from scratch, I made a simple apron for Miss M but was not totally happy with it. It was a little too wide, too short, and there was no fun design detail. So I went back to the drawing board, and here’s my version 2.






















I realized I had made a mistake about the girth in my first version – instead of 12 cm ease around the chest, somehow I had added 16 cm. Duh. So I corrected that mistake. I also lengthened it by 3 cm, to fall just below Miss M’s hips. Other changes were:

1. I shifted the dividing line between the top and bottom (how do you call this?) parts upwards, for a high-waisted position. I thought this might look more flattering. This meant I had to draw the patterns for the bottom sections, which are no longer just rectangles. But it wasn’t too hard.

2. I added a piping band along this dividing line (yay, a design detail!)

3. I added two patch pockets with the same piping fabric (another design detail!), and

4. for the back closure, I opted for loops and buttons instead of ties. I thought this would make the apron look more like a dress and wearable throughout the day like a jumper skirt. Here’s the detail view:











I wish I had prettier buttons, but I didn’t. Too lazy to go shopping, I just used vintage shell buttons from my stash. The fabric is from my stash as well. It’s very lightweight, perfect for spring.

This is what my amateurish pattern pieces looked like:











And the verdict? Well, I think the apron is cute for what it is, and it fits Miss M really well. Plus I learned heaps about making patterns. So I’d say mission accomplished. However, design-wise it looks pretty standard, and I’m sure I can find commercial patterns to make something like this anywhere. Hmm. I’ll have to try a little harder in that aspect for my next project…. I have a renewed respect for Project Runway contestants.

Here’s Miss M wearing the apron.















Can you tell how fake her smile is? She’s not happy with the fabric. That’s right, once again I managed to make something she didn’t approve. Oh well, at least I enjoyed making it and learned a lot from it. Besides, now I that I have the pattern, it’ll be a breeze for me to whip up another one in…. can you guess, pink. Yawn.

Easy sushi (or, how to turn boring ingredients into an exciting kids’ meal)

Being Japanese and all, I love sushi. Western people tend to equate sushi with raw fish, but that sort of sushi (called “nigiri”) constitutes only a small portion of the wonderful world of sushi. Besides, seafood is expensive, and sushi-grade fish even more so, so it’s not something we can afford to eat all the time. Which is fine, because other, more humble versions of sushi are just as delicious, and easy to make at home. And you know what? Kids love them.

Like these mini sushi rolls.











It’s the most humble of all sushi rolls, with nothing but cheese in it. But doesn’t it look fun and special, what with its mini size (yes I do like everything in mini size) with a little presentation going on with steamed carrot sticks and snow peas? My children, who keenly observed me plating the dish, actually started singing the “happy birthday” song, saying it looked like a cake.

And the best thing about it is that you can make it from boring pantry and fridge staples or leftovers. I always have rice, nori sheets and rice vinegar around in the pantry. I almost always have cheese and carrots in the fridge. The snow peas are from my little veggie patch in the backyard, which is handy to have when you tend to fear grocery shopping with two toddlers.

But isn’t it hard to roll up a sushi roll, you ask? Well, not if you practice a few times. It helps if you have the bamboo rolling mat you can buy at any Asian market. But even if you don’t have it, you can use a plastic wrap and a tea towel instead. Would you like to have a go? Here’s how I do it:

Step 1: cook some rice

For sushi, you want to use white, medium-grain rice. You don’t need an expensive packet of “sushi rice”; any normal medium-grain rice will do. But not long-grain, jasmine, arborio or basmati. You need the high moisture content of cooked medium-grain rice to make a nice, firm roll that doesn’t fall apart in your hands. Brown rice is also tricky, so it’s best to avoid it unless you are a sushi master. Which I am not.

Cooking rice is a no-brainer if you have a rice cooker. But don’t worry if you don’t, because you can still cook rice on stovetop easily. Here’s how: In a small pot with a lid, wash some rice (say, 2.5 cups for a family of four), changing water several times until the water is nearly transparent. Drain water.

As for the water-rice ratio, here’s what I do: Cover the rice with cold water and evenly spread the rice underneath. Gently insert your index finger straight into the water (90 degrees to the water surface), until your fingertip just touches the surface of the rice. The water should come up to the first finger joint, or a little less. This is the trick I learned — no, not from my Japanese mother or grandmother– but from a teacher at a French cooking school. Strange, I know, but it works every single time.

Cook the rice on medium heat, with the lid on. When the water boils, reduce heat to low, and cook gently for about 20 minutes, until the rice is cooked when you taste it. No need to stir the rice while cooking. Turn the heat off, and leave the pot there with the lid on for another 10 minutes or so.

Step 2: Flavour the rice with rice vinegar

When the rice is done, bring to the boil about 1/2 cup of rice vinegar (Mitsukan brand is good, available at most supermarkets now in Sydney) for 2-3 cups of uncooked rice. Transfer the cooked rice to a big bowl, pour the hot vinegar over the rice, and immediately start gently turning the rice over and over with a flat wooden spatula (or a large wooden spoon or kitchen spoon), while at the same time, using your other hand, vigorously fanning the hot rice with something like an A4-sized booklet (sewing machine instruction manual is good). You can also ask someone else to do the fanning. The point is to evaporate the vinegar liquid quickly while the rice is hot, so the rice will have the nice vinegar flavour without being soggy. You want a nice, fluffy, and shiny sushi rice.

I promise, it’s not as difficult as it may sound. If you feel a little intimidated, just use plain cooked rice. It’ll still be fun and tasty.

Step 3: roll it up!

For mini sushi rolls, cut a sheet of nori (again, available in most supermarkets in Sydney) in half with scissors. Place the sheet in the middle of your bamboo mat (or on a plastic wrap spread over a tea towel folded in half), and spread rice over it evenly. You only need a very thin layer of rice, and you want to avoid rice at the edges. As you spread the rice, gently squish it, because you are aiming for tightly packed rice. Then in the middle, lay long sticks of cheese. Like this:











Other quick and easy fillings are: steamed carrot sticks, avocado, cucumber sticks, omelette cut into long sticks, and tuna flakes (even better mixed with mayonnaise). It’s best if you don’t use multiple fillings for the mini version. The most common mistake people make is to overstuff a roll.

Then you roll it up. First, you roll the nori just over the filling, a little more than half way, and then you squeeze the roll evenly to tightly pack the rice. Sorry, this photo doesn’t help at all, but here it is anyway:










Then you roll it all the way to the end (there is a little overlap of nori). Squeeze the roll again to shape it and to make sure it’s all nice and packed. Ta-da.











Then you cut it gently with a very sharp knife. Or serrated knives like bread knife work well here. And again, have fun with presentation!

Why do kids love mini rolls? Because they can pop the entire piece in their mouth. If the piece is too big, moist nori sheet can be a little tricky for little ones to chew off.

Happy cooking, and I promise the next post will be craft related….