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.