Tips for Buying a Serger

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One of the most common questions I am asked in my Craftsy class, Beginner Serging, is “What kind of serger should I buy?” It’s a question that doesn’t have a short answer, so I thought I’d share my ideas on the subject here, and get your thoughts as well. I have brands and models of machines that I prefer, but I encourage everyone to form their own opinions and to educate themselves on the available features before making a decision.

I am a firm believer that you should always try out a machine before you buy it. I don’t care if you get it from a store or buy it used off of Craigslist, always try it out first! You may find that you don’t like the way the machine sounds, how it feeds the fabric, or hey, you might discover it doesn’t actually even turn on when the posted ad said it worked fine!


With that said, I also believe it is best to buy a machine from a dealership. I know that you may think that you’re getting a great deal on a machine from Amazon, but what happens if a part breaks? Who will help you to find accessory feet or parts as your machine gets older? A big box store won’t help you out at all if you have a question about your machine. Stumped on threading or need some troubleshooting advice? A good dealer should happily help you and answer your questions, and if you ask, they may also offer a free class to go along with your machine.

Choosing a machine is a personal experience. Everyone likes different machines for different reasons. Try out as many machines as you can before you pick one to take home. Check out multiple brands, go for low-end and high-end, and you’ll see different features and be much happier with the machine you choose in the end. If you are completely stumped with where to start, look at different brand websites to get an idea of the capabilities of various machine models. You can often times download the manuals that go with your favorite models to review the stitches, features and threading paths. Don’t look at too many online reviews. It’s better to form your own opinion right from the start than to look at a certain machine with bias that you haven’t even tried out yet. Just because someone else has had a poor experience with a machine, it doesn’t mean that you will as well.

Bring your own fabric samples into the store and try out as as many different stitches as you can. Will you only ever sew with quilting cotton, or are you maybe into upholstery fabrics with much thicker weaves and threads? It’s important to know if the machine will be able to easily sew the fabrics (and layers) that you intend to sew with. Some machines will jam when 6 layers of denim are run through them, and others will cut through the thickness like butter. A dealer will have swatches for you to serge with, but if the samples aren’t anything like what you’d actually sew, then you don’t know how the machine will put up with your projects once it’s home.


Don’t buy a machine based solely on the price. I understand, completely, that a machine that’s on sale for $100 looks amazing. In fact, if you don’t have a serger and you’ve been wanting one, it may look as tempting as a chocolate cupcake after you’ve sworn off sugar for a week. You might get what you pay for though!

The biggest difference between higher-end machines and lower-end machine is on the inside. The materials used to make the mechanical parts is one of the most important aspects of a sewing machine or serger to consider. Many of the lower-end machines are made with a large percentage of plastic parts. When these parts are put under a lot of stress, or simply wear out, they snap. Most machine technicians will tell you the truth- it can be less expensive to go out and buy the same cheap machine over again than to pay to have someone fix it. A higher-end machine is made with metal parts. The machine should be heavy to lift. It will have drive and power to work thru your fabrics. I often recommend that students who are considering buying a lower-end machine, simply to have a “newer” model, don’t do that if they have an older, all-metal machine. It’s better to have the older machine serviced than to buy an inexpensive model with plastic parts that won’t last for as many years or have as much power.


What stitches are available on the machine and how easy is it to thread? Most machines these days can sew 2, 3, and 4 thread stitches, and some models can sew with 5 or even more threads. There are still models being produced that are 3/4 thread machines though, which means that they only sew with 3 or 4-threads. They cannot make 2-thread stitches, and if you sew with a lot of very delicate fabrics, you may want to have those stitches as an option. Be sure to ask the salesperson to demonstrate the threading of the machine for you, so that you can carefully watch and get a sense of whether you’d be comfortable threading the machine on your own.

If you sew lots of knits, and you want to have the option to create a coverstitch, then you will want to look at models that have this available. My personal choice is to have a separate coverstitch machine. I find that I am able to finish my projects much more quickly if I have my machines all threaded and ready to go, instead of switching a serger back and forth from serging to coverstitching.


Look over the accessories that come with the machine and see if you think anything is missing. I’m not trying to say that parts will be missing from your new machine, but there may be things you wish you had later on. Does the model you chose include a waste catcher, or will your sewing table be a mess? Does it have a nice big lint brush for cleaning out the fuzz? Take a look at the tip of the tweezers too. Some inexpensive pairs won’t hold on to threads because the tips hardly touch. While you’re at the dealer, stock up on needles too. Some serger brands require needle systems that are hard to find online and in fabric stores.

My personal preferences for machine features may be different from yours, but I thought I’d share what I can’t live without. My machine must have a waste catcher, needle threader, differential feed, adjustable tensions, LOTS of power, an easy-to-thread lower looper, any easy-to-read foot pressure knob, retractable stitch finger, at least 2, 3 and 4-thread stitch capabilities, and a cloth plate that opens up so I can clean as much lint out of the machine as possible. Now, that might seem like a huge list to you, but it doesn’t mean your machine has to have all of the features that I look for.

When I got my first serger, I was a very poor college student. I needed to have a serger at my apartment, so that I could still work on my projects when I wasn’t in the studio on campus. I found a White Superlock on Craigslist (yay $100 find!), and scooped it up. It turned out to be an okay machine, but I wasn’t that happy with it. It didn’t have a waste catcher, it didn’t open up easily and I could hardly see the lower looper to thread it. It also didn’t come with any accessories or a manual, so I had to figure it out on my own. I spent a lot of time being angry at that machine! I went thru a few other machines too, until I got my current model, a Bernina 1150MDA. I love my machine. I honestly don’t know that I’ll upgrade until there’s a new model that can make espresso while I sew. It’s very easy to use, quick to thread and I’ve never had any issues with it.


Don’t be scared of your new machine! The absolute best thing that you could do is learn to thread it from scratch. I promise that it’s not nearly as scary as people make it out to be. You learned to thread a sewing machine, and that was kind of scary at first, right? After you understand how the machine works, it’s easy to switch out your threads. The sooner you go for it, the quicker you’ll be a pro. I’m always happy to help you too! Here is a link for $25 off of my Craftsy class, Beginner Serging, if you’d like to come over and learn all about using your new machine. I promise that you’ll wonder why you didn’t buy a serger sooner!

Inspirational Stitching: A Guatemalan Huipil

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My neighbor has a very lovely collection of fiber arts from Central America. I’ve shared a few of her molas here before, and she recently asked me to work on another piece of hers, a huipil from Guatemala.

*You can click on any of photos below to bring up larger images and see more details of this piece.*

Huipil Front- Reallyhandmade.comShe has several of these garments, and although they are all beautiful and obviously made with care, my favorite one by far is this purple number. It is made of four sections of fabric, which have been hand sewn together along the shoulders and the center front and back. It has then been heavily embroidered by hand with a pattern of bright birds, purple rope, metallic thread and large pink flowers. The hole in the center is rather small, but it can just be squeezed over a head.  The neckline is crocheted with a very thick cotton embroidery floss.

Huipil2Huipil’s are usually worn by women in Central Mexico and Central America. They are very loose-fitting tunics that are rectangular in shape and often adorned with embroidery, ribbon, lace and and bits of fabric. They can be short, like this one, or they can go all the way to the floor. Many of them are made with hand woven cloth as well, and this huipil is an example of that, likely having been made by one woman from start to finish.

Huipil3When I think of the time it took to embroider this whole piece, I’m just in awe. Who was the woman who made it? How long did it take her to do it? Did she wear it herself before selling it?

Huipil4It’s interesting to me that some of the embroidery thread appears to have been twisted before being inserted back into the fabric. See the stems on the flower leaves? Did the maker do that to add a bit of texture, or is there another purpose for that technique?

HuipilWholeI carefully sewed up the sides of this huipil so that the owner could wear it to a party. I think it’s lovely that more people will get to see and admire the work that went in to this piece.

So what’s your guess? How many hours do you think it took to embroider this?

Spring Blooms and Budding Ideas

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Everything is blooming in Portland. The daffodils are actually on their way out, and the tulips are just beginning to show their bright colors. The flowering quince in our backyard is full of bright pink petals, and the neighborhood is awash in the soft snow of cherry blossoms.

Wow. I’m really sorry for anyone from the Midwest or Canada who just had to read that. In the PNW, Spring seems to come extra early. I was just saying to Rob the other day how I always thought I hated Spring. Slushy dirty snow, gray skies and mud was all I ever seemed to see in Indiana. Out here though, we’ve had plenty of sunshine and warmth, which I tease my mother with by texting her photos of flowers. It’s a wonder she doesn’t just block my number.


I’ve been laid low for the past two weeks with a pretty terrible cold. Thankfully, it finally let up a bit last week, so I could get back to teaching. The daily nap habit I started will be hard to break. Dax watches me carefully if I come downstairs around 2:00pm, eyeing the couch, hopeful for a cuddle session.

Speaking of Dax, did I tell you he had a third knee surgery? This time it was on his other leg. He snapped a delicate ligament while running like a maniac after a ball at the park. He is now part robot.


He’s healing really well and the vet said he should be back to normal in a few weeks. I’m glad, because the very short daily walks are doing nothing for his “must tell everyone what to do all the times” mentality. Usually he gets an hour of exercise a day. We’ve worked our way up to 20 minutes, but GOOD HEAVENS. He needs his treadmill back!


Duncan’s also doing well, but I think he’s addicted to Cat TV. For fun one day, I pulled a video of birds up on my computer when he was sitting on my desk. He watched them intently, and even tried to bite them. Now he often sits directly in my way when I’m working, until I pull up a video for him to watch for about 10 minutes.

Duncan-fishI’m creating monsters over here.

In between naps and vet appointments, I have been drawing a bit more and collecting ideas for things I’d like to make. I shared this on Instagram a while ago, but I haven’t picked up the fabric for the blocks yet. I have the plane colors planned out, but I can’t quite decide on a background color.

AirplaneQuiltOf course, the baby who this is intended for has already been born, but I don’t think his mom and dad will mind. I’m hoping to turn the block into an downloadable file for you to print off and use for yourself. I’ll share more about the block and its inspiration with you later, when I finish the quilt.

I didn’t get as much reading done when I was sick as I had hoped. Mostly I just slept, but I am making my way thru this hefty stack. I finished The Luminaries last night, and next I’m starting The Goldfinch. I’ve read half of Salt Sugar Fat and I now I have a nice big list of things I’ll never eat again. I’ll spare you the details and tell you to read it. Shocking!

MarchBooksI am starting back up on my Hexagon Illusions quilt, and I have a perfect gingham set aside for another Archer. Plus I have to… ehh…. finish Rob’s Christmas shirt? Whoops!

What are you working on or reading right now?

More Buttons, More Needles

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I have a weak spot for vintage glass buttons and needles. I know I’ve shared some of my finds with you before, but here are few new additions to my steadily growing collection.


These 1/2″ wide shank-back blue buttons are pressed glass with a rose motif in the center. The rose has a hint of gold paint brushed over it, and the edges are faceted. Most of the time when I find vintage glass buttons, they come in an odd number. I’m happy to have eight of these though.


I don’t know why I picked up these jeweled glass and brass buttons. Jewels aren’t something I usually go after. But, I think these could be stunning on a black dress to add a bit of unexpected shine. When am I going to either sew or wear a black dress anytime soon? Psssh. I have no idea.


I am in love with these tiny 3/8″ wide ruby red buttons. They need to be cleaned up a bit though. The dark build-up in the button crevices may be paint, but I can’t quite tell. It easily scrapes off, so I’ll probably clean it out with the head of a needle to make them look nicer. In a weird way, they remind me of strawberry Jell-O.

VintageButtons-redHglassThese red round buttons came in the same bag as the ruby ones, but the two sets obviously aren’t meant to be used together. There is a little bit of silver paint on one of the buttons, but I don’t think the ones with “H” motif ever had any silver on them.


So where do I keep all of these? Honestly, I put them all in a Ball jar, until my collection outgrew it. While Rob and I were looking in an antique store in Washington, I saw this cookie jar and knew it would work perfectly as a button jar. Now my hand fits in it and I don’t have to dump the whole jar to get to the buttons on the bottom!

Looking through old buttons reminds me of both of my grandmothers. I remember seeing their button tins and jars and wondering how on earth anyone ever came to collect so many buttons! My mother’s mother gave me her button collection when I was fairly young. It was in an old toffee tin, and many years before, my mother and her sister had used a needle to carve things like “Joni loves Rick” and “Susan loves Tim” all over it. I’ll have to see if I can get my mom to bring it with her on her next visit so I can add those buttons to my jar.

My brother knows I love old sewing notions, and he gave me two really amazing vintage needle books for Christmas, along with a beautiful sewing machine print.




For me, finding antique needles that are still useable is like finding gold. I’ve written about how different vintage needles are from modern ones before, so I’m very happy to have more of them available for hand sewing.


I really like this steam engine needle book. It’s printed with a silver paint, and even the needle books inside are coated with a shiny foil finish. Some of the larger needles are 3″ long and still very sharp!


Who out there collects sewing notions, and do you ever post about them? I love looking at vintage patterns and notions that other seamstresses find, so please let me know if you have any fun acquisitions to share!

How to Clean Antique Lace (and Other Delicate Fibers)

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I was recently gifted with a very large bag of antique lace. There are pieces of intricate tatting, lace hems, metallic lace made with the tiniest gauge of copper wire, ecru pieces, and also crochet and knit lace. I was having a lot of fun going through the bag, and I discovered that many of the pieces really needed to be cleaned before they began to deteriorate.

CleaningLace12I have seen vintage sellers online talk about cleaning lace and lace garments before, and it almost makes me shiver to see their cleaning suggestions. Bleach! Lemon juice! Salt! Eeeeeep! Noooooo! All of these things may quickly clean the lace and garment that it is attached to, but they will deteriorate and damage the lace in the long run. It takes a bit of extra work to properly clean any lace, but it is well worth it if it means not damaging the fibers.

Bleach is hazardous to lace because the harsh chemicals eat away at the fibers while they whiten them. It contains hydrochloric acid, which reacts with the molecular structure of a stain and destroys it. But bleach doesn’t discriminate between the stain and the fiber. When it oxidizes, it eats away at both. For many antique fabrics and fibers, this chemical reaction means that they will turn a deep yellow color, which is often times irreversible.

A lemon juice and salt mixture is another commonly used stain-fighter. Usually someone who recommends lemon juice and salt tells you to rub the juice and salt into the stain, and then set it out in the sun to brighten. Yes, it will work nicely on rust stains for some colorfast fabrics that you don’t care too much about. With an antique fiber, the lemon juice acid and the salt will keep eating away at the garment if it is not all completely washed away. Plus, vigorously rubbing lace in any way, especially when it is wet, will tear its tiny connecting threads.

Sunlight can be a good whitening agent, but think of what sunlight does to fabrics left outside for a long time. Exposure to ultra-violet rays breaks down chemical compounds, and even though it looks like the stains, smells and yellowing is the only thing breaking down, the fibers are slowly falling apart as well. Baking antique lace in the sun until it turns white is not the best idea for something that you are planning on saving or passing down.

Detergent and dish soap are two other common cleaners, but both of them can strip dye colors and weaken fibers. The softeners and fragrances that stay behind can be oily and deteriorate delicate laces.

The best solution for cleaning antique lace and other fragile fibers such as vintage quilts, antique or vintage clothing, and tablecloths or other home goods, is Orvus Quilt Soap. Quilters and professional lace restorationists swear by it.

CleaningLace1Orvus is sodium lauryl sulfate. It is a near-neutral pH solution that is biodegradable and contains no phosphates. It is used by some of the most famous textile archivists in the world, and is safe enough that you can use it to shampoo animals. You can find it in some quilt stores, online or even in farm supply stores, where it is often sold for cleaning horses.

Essentially, Orvus works by make water “more wet”. It allows water to connect with the fibers so that the oils and dirt lift and separate. It does not work as quickly as most other cleaners, and often times you will have to soak an item for several hours, and rinse and repeat until it is clean.


These were the lace pieces that I chose to soak. I did end up switching one of them out after taking this photo, because I realized I had a pair of lace cuffs that matched the large collar piece on the bottom of this image. I saved one of them and set it aside so that I would have a good “before and after” for comparison.


All that you need to clean small pieces of lace is a large glass or enamel coated bowl, hot water (around 115 degrees) and your lace.

When lace gets wet, it is extremely sensitive to weight. Pulling it up out of the water could result in tearing. If your lace is particularly delicate, then you should baste it between two layers of white mesh. When you baste the lace, be sure to use a white or ivory colored thread, to ensure that the thread does not bleed any dye in the hot water. Be careful not to put your needle thru any of the lace threads and break them. If you are washing a very large item, such as a tablecloth, then I would recommend that you read this article, which outlines basting the tablecloth to a large cotton sheet before soaking it. For small and strong pieces though, you should be okay to clean them without basting them.


Fill the large bowl with one teaspoon of well-mixed Orvus paste and at least a gallon of the hot water. Gently lower your lace into the bowl, being careful to not agitate the water.


Allow the lace to soak for at least 45 minutes. Once the time is up, place the bowl in the sink. Turn on the faucet, and using warm water, let it slowly run into the bowl and spill over the edges until the water around the lace is clear. This step may take a very long time. I sometimes hurry this up by holding my hand against the lace (softly) and pouring most of the water out of the bowl before letting it fill up again and again. The color of the water usually reminds me of a strong cup of tea.

Once the water is clear, lay the lace out on a clean white towel and let it air dry. Carefully block the shape of the lace on the towel, so that it assumes its previous shape. Make sure that no corners are folded under or stretched out.


This is what my lace looked like after soaking it two times. After it soaks, it will look a bit grey and dingy, but it dries to become whiter than it appears on the white towel. I soaked it two additional times after taking the above photo. The photo below, on the towel, is the color of my lace after soaking it a fourth time.


Once the lace was dry, it was considerably whiter. The collar on the top left has quite a bit of acid burn on it. It was probably never cleaned after being removed from the neck of a garment, so the body oils have continued to eat away at and discolor the fibers for many years. I will either soak it some more, or dye it a different color all together. CleaningLace10

Here is a comparison of the two lace cuffs to show you how dirty they were before soaking.


I’d say that’s quite an improvement!

* I was not endorsed or paid in any way to write about Orvus. I simply love the product!