So now that you are keen to get started on sewing – great! Now you probably want to get a sewing machine, which is a useful thing to have. Here is a couple of my thoughts on what sewing machine you might need, and where to get it from.
Thought 1: A basic model will do just fine
Domestic sewing machines of reputable quality starts around $200 in Australia, and goes up to all sorts of fancy computerised quilting or embroidery machines costing upwards of thousands of dollars. If you are just starting to sew, and your aim is to make a few household items, simple clothes, and maybe a quilt or two, believe me, you just need an entry-level machine.
Because all you need is basically two types of stitches: straight sewing, and zig zag. Even the most basic machine would come with way more than these two stitch types.
If you are considering extra features, and you want to make clothing, the one feature I recommend is a buttonholer. The cheapest machines normally have a “four-step” buttonholer, which does its job. It’s not as nice as a “one-step” version, but it may not warrant the at least $100 in price difference.
But what about quilts? Wouldn’t you need a special sewing machine for quits, you ask? Well, you don’t. My old quilting teacher had a basic little home sewing machine, and did all her quilting on that machine. What you may want to buy though is a separate “walking foot” for quilting or sewing bulky layers (and maybe a “darning foot” for free-motion quilting, if you’d like to give that a try), but you can find these feet to fit most basic machines.
Eventually, after sewing for a while, and deciding you like to sew a lot (or start a sewing business), you may want features like automatic thread trimmer and needle up and down option. I discussed more about these features earlier regarding how I upgraded, after five years, from a basic home sewing machine to an industrial one. But for occasional home sewing, you really don’t need these high-end features.
Even if you have, say, $800 to spend on a sewing machine with nice extra features, I’d still recommend a $200 basic machine (or perhaps a $400 machine with one-step buttonholer) – and buy an overlocker with your remaining budget. Because while an overlocker is not a necessity, it is a very nice thing to have for professional-looking finish.
Thought 2: Try to get a cheap (or free!) second-hand sewing machine
I confess to having a dark past of mindless consumerism, but these days I am a big fan of frugality and recycling. Especially when it comes to sewing machines — just how many sewing machines would you guess there are in this world, stowed away in attics and storage, gathering dust?
Perhaps you can start out by borrowing an unused machine from your mother, grandmother, or mother in law. Make her a gift of something pretty, like a patchwork potholder, and chances are she’d let you keep the sewing machine for good! If your family does not have a spare sewing machine, I bet someone else you know does – ask around your friends, colleagues and neighbours. Check out Freecyle in your area to see if anyone is offering a sewing machine for free.
Secondhand sewing machines are everywhere and good ones are easy to find. Check out sites like Gumtree (the last time I checked, I found a basic Janome for $25), eBay, and the Trading Post for good deals.
Thought 3: Newer doesn’t necessarily mean better
I am no expert, but the basic function of sewing machines has not changed much in many, many years. Unless you have a need for shiny computerised sewing machines with fancy features (which most of us don’t), a 20-year-old sewing machine you find on eBay will do just as well as a new machine you’ll find in shops today.
It is even possible that a vintage sewing machine is better made, with better materials, and will last much longer than newer machines made with flimsy plastic. My beloved industrial machine is probably around 30 years old, and still works perfectly.
Sure, newer machines might be lighter and thus more portable than 30-year-old machines. But if you are just sewing at your home, does it really matter? So my point is, don’t be put off by how old a sewing machine is, when you find a free one sitting in your grandmother’s attic. As long as it still works – sews straight and zig zag stitches – take up on it!
My next post will be on where to find fabrics.
So if you are interested in learning to sew, but are a little hesitant to actually get started, here are my reasons why you shouldn’t wait any longer, and just do it.
(1) Sewing is about self-sufficiency
In the old days, everyone (well, maybe most woman) sewed because they had to. Someone had to make quilts to keep themselves warm at night, or mend torn clothes because they could not afford to throw them away and buy new ones. You might think those days are long gone (thanks, Walmart!), but you know what, I have a feeling those good old days are coming back.
The days of $5 shirts and $10 sweaters made in China will be over soon. The world is running out of oil. The price of cotton is on the rise. Long-suffering garment workers in third-world countries are demanding better pay and working conditions (as they totally should). Soon, it’ll be a matter of economic necessity for us to stop and think before tossing that pair of toddler jeans in the bin just because there is a hole in the knee area – or that once-pristine white bib that now has a patch of spaghetti sauce stain on it that doesn’t come off.
That’s where your sewing skill comes in handy. How hard is it to mend torn jeans, and maybe apply a faux leather patch to make the jeans cuter than it was before? Not hard at all. Or appliqué a little heart-shaped fabric over the spaghetti stain on the bib? You just saved yourself a lot of money and made your kids happy. And you didn’t even need a sewing machine. Same idea if you lose a button on your skirt, or buy a dress that should be 5 inches shorter. Being able to sew is like being able to change a lightbulb yourself and not call an electrician. It’s empowering.
(2) Sewing saves you money
It is related to my first reason above, but sewing does save you money. Especially if you are in an anti-“made in China” (pro human rights) mindset, or if you have a taste for having beautiful things around your house (luxury items are always expensive!)
Here is a stack of double gauze handkerchiefs I made last night (yes, in one night). I was inspired by necessity, as usual, because the kids and I all have a cold and are in constant need to wipe our noses. Sewing skill required: minimal. Money saved: ??? I think I’ll list these handkerchiefs in the shop for about $10 each… See, I hope you don’t buy them and start making your own instead!
(3) If you sew clothes, you’ll wear clothes that fit you better.
Do you find it difficult to find ready-made clothing that fits you well? People come in all sorts of shapes, so it’s no wonder that most people won’t fit into standardized sizing of ready-made clothing. For instance, I always have trouble finding pants and skirts that fit me – if it fits snugly around my waist, it is too tight around my hips. If it is just right around my hips, the waist is too loose. Same story with the tops and dresses, because I suppose an average size 4 mannequin would come with a bigger bust than I do.
So when I first took up sewing, I made a few skirts. They were not very well made — the supposedly “invisible” zippers were very visible, and I chose wrong fabrics (I used a lot of quilting cotton for wearables, which was a mistake — but more on this in a later post). But I wore them all the time anyway because they fit me. And it’s such a joy to wear clothes that fit you properly. These days I don’t have much time to sew my own clothes. So even though I can probably make better-looking skirts now that my sewing skill has much improved, I still wear those wonky skirts I made years ago because they are so comfortable.
And the problem of fit isn’t just with grownups. Children come in all sizes and shapes, too. If you knew how to sew even the simplest garments, like summer shorts and simple dresses, your children will thank you.
Here’s an example. I made these wide shorts for my two-year-old son , who has a lovely curvy bottom. Combined with a bulky cloth nappy he was wearing at the time, I had a hard time finding pants that would fit him (and not be a mile long). So I found a pattern for wide shorts, and cheap cotton seersucker fabric I found for $5 a meter, and made several pants like these. Each took less than an hour to make. My son loves them, and wears them all the time even on freezing cold days.
(4) If you have kids, they would LOVE the things you make
It’s true. I know I’ve written about Miss M’s famous inclination to reject the clothes I lovingly make, but deep down she really adores that I make things for her. I know this because when she goes to daycare of preschool, she proudly tells everyone “Mommy made this!” (Or this, or this….) Kids know that you are taking the time to make them something special. And even if it is a really small thing, like an appliqué on an old bib, they feel the love and appreciate it – even when they don’t quite like the way it looks.
(5) And finally…. sewing can be fun.
Sewing is fun for me, and for a lot of hobby sewers. It offers a creative outlet in an otherwise-hectic life filled with mundane chores — be it a nine-to-five office work or taking care of little ones day in and day out. You don’t have to be a “creative” person to begin with. I believe for a lot of people, like me, creativity comes with practice. There are lots of beautiful fabrics in the shops, and easy-to-follow instructions or patterns. At first all you do is just blindly follow the instructions, and that’s totally fine. Because when you end up with something you created, it’s very satisfying. Over time, with practice, I bet you’ll find that you are a creative person after all, and may start making your own patterns, modifications, and even fabrics.
Well, I rest my case for now. My next post will be how to find a cheap sewing machine.
As promised in my previous post, I made a sample reusable shopping bag over the weekend.
The fabric of choice: 55% hemp, 45% organic cotton canvas in natural, stone colour. I love this fabric. I know, I know, how could I just tuck away all those adorable new Japanese prints, and spend a weekend fondling this plain beige fabric instead? Is Piggledee having an identity crisis, you wonder? But before I answer that question, let me show you more of this bag first.
I used an orange cotton facing to finish the opening edge of the bag. The pretty bird fabric is actually a big pocket – which is mostly decorative, but is still useful to hold a few lightweight things like an envelope.
A view of the inside. Simple . I topstitched the side seams, encasing all raw edges, so it looks neat and tidy inside. I used to love my overlocker, but of late the overlocked finish has been bothering me. It looks too factory-made and not pretty to look at. Encased seams exude quality, I think. Beauty is all about details.
This bag wasn’t meant so much for grocery shopping – even though you can of course use it anyway you like. Personally, I already have a dozen reusable grocery bags I bought from supermarkets, which are cheap and ugly but lightweight and functional. Besides, if I’m doing a grocery run, I don’t really care what I look like much. But for other kinds of shopping — craft supplies, books and magazines, clothing — that might involve a leisurely stroll through an upscale mall (or not), it gets depressing having to carry those unsightly grocery bags.
So with a pretty bag like this, I can reduce consumption of disposable bags I’d otherwise accumulate from the shops (did you know disposable paper bags are just as evil as plastic ones?) while looking pretty cool.
Now, to answer your presumed question about whether Piggledee is going schizophrenic, well, I don’t think so. I’m not giving up using cute Japanese prints for making children’s accessories. I’m just trying to incorporate more and more sustainable materials in my children’s items, like blankets, washers and towels, without sacrificing the “aw… so cute” element. Because in my opinion, sustainable items should look good as well. Unfortunately, those cute Japanese children’s prints do not come in organic cotton…
At the same time, since most of my customers have young children, I’m also making a few earth-friendly products for their daily use, like this shopping bag. Because, after all, parents of little ones are in a peculiar position to be most concerned about our environment, aren’t they? It’s the children who are most vulnerable to pollution or pesticides, and parents are the first to watch them suffer. Even the most selfish of parents must be concerned whether there will be any habitable planet left, at this rate of pollution and abuse, on which their children could live long happy lives.
Anyway, to summarise my point, it’s all about integrating “pretty” and “sustainable” in a fun and non-dogmatic way in everyday parenting. It’s my lifestyle that’s showing in my products, and it’s not schizophrenic.
I just listed this bag on my madeit shop here.
So what’s next on my to-make list using sustainable materials? I think something fun and pretty for kids’ mealtime. Cloth napkins, place mats and maybe aprons. Because all too often, mealtime with little ones is anything but fun. Stay tuned!
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!