Last week, I made mention of a needle and thread for the purposes of sewing a button. The more astute among you may have seen the dark clouds looming on the horizon -- at some point, you're gonna have to sew! Fear not, my Average Guys: sewing for you will be a Dark Art no longer, for I shall reveal its intricacies for you, right now. Don't panic -- deep breaths now -- it's not that hard, really.
I always think it's good to know why things work the way they do. There's a ton of really good source material on sewing machine mechanics, if you want to be a real gearhead about it... On the other hand, you don't need to be a microwave electrician to cook a burrito; and the world is full of little blue-haired old ladies happily sewing away without the foggiest notion of what's happening inside their Shiny White Box.
Sewing machine technology has changed very little since Isaac Singer's machine in 1850. They all do a simple two-thread lockstitch. All the modern computerized frou-frou of today's machines is totally unnecessary for basic sewing. Even a hundred-year-old machine will do a straight line and a zigzag, and that's all you really need. All machines share the major components: the thread comes off a spool on the spool pin, down to the tensioner, up to the take-up lever, and down to the needle. A second, smaller spool (called the bobbin) sits under the bed. Compare this illustration to my 1960's era Kenmore:
They look different, but the mechanism is the same. Look at the business end (called the head) and you can easily identify the basic parts. You can see the thread coming down to the tensioner at A, up to the take up lever at B, and back down to the needle at C. The needle jabs down between the 'toes' of the presser foot at D, and underneath the presser foot are the feed dogs at E. The feed dogs are little serrated strips that grab the fabric and scoot it along between stitches. The presser foot holds the fabric down so the dogs get a good bite. You can even adjust how hard the presser foot presses, using the silver knob at the top.
To get an idea of how it stitches, let's take off the silver bed cover and take a peek below decks. You can see the needle at the top, punching down past the feed dogs. The cylinder bit at the bottom is the bobbin case, where resides the bobbin full o'thread. I've taken the bobbin out, the easier to show the curved, dagger-like circular piece inside the bobbin case called the shuttle. In a really cool mechanically-choreographed ballet, the needle plunges down through the fabric, while the shuttle rotates around and back, taking the bottom thread and looping it through the top thread. The needle pulls back up, the feed dogs move the fabric along, and the take-up lever jerks upwards, pulling the thread tight. The top needle plunges down again, the shuttle stabs across, and the process continues.
Now let's crack open the top and peek in at the works. Out of frame on the far right hand side is the hand wheel (called the machine pulley in the non-electric days), and you can see the crankshaft to the left of it. Further to the left are some cam-followers that do the fancy stitchin'. The important thing to see is that all the moving parts have little cups and holes on top; each one gets a single drop of oil. (Most noticeable here on the crankshaft.) Everything that moves or slides should get a drop of oil every so often. How often depends on how much you use it. If you let your machine sit for more than a few months, or use it more than two days in a row, oil it. Better too much than not enough.
Here are the complex cams, levers, and slidey bits that coordinate the needle and take-up lever; everything has a little oil hole.
All the varieties of stitches any machine is capable of, is simply a combination of needle movement left or right, and feed dog movement fore or aft. The needle movement determines the degree of zig-zag in the stitch, and the dog movement determines the stitch's length. The action of the stitch itself is always the same. The "programming" of the stitch variations is (on any machine of any age) done with an analog mechanical computer comprised of of cogs, cams, pins, and followers, that control the needle and dog movements; not a circuit board in sight.
Mastering a sewing machine is no different that mastering any other mechanical device. Once you procure one for yourself, practice and play around with it; most makes have owners' manuals online if yours doesn't still have one, and of course, there are online resources to familiarize yourself with the details of the adjustment controls, so I won't get too technical on that aspect here.
And another shot, this time looking up from below. Don't forget the rods and levers down here, too! They are harder to get at, but just as important. The bobbin case comes apart for easy cleaning, and the outer surface of the shuttle needs oil too. The main reason to break this area down is to clean out the lint and dust that accumulates. More often than not, a sewing machine that is given away because it "doesn't work any more" only needs a good cleaning, oiling, and a new needle, and it's good as new. (Don't tell the seller that, though!)
Next, let's talk about what you'll need for the basics of sewing by hand. Again, not as daunting as you might think. There's a place for machine sewing, and a place for handwork, but all sewing needs thread: so we'll look at that first. It doesn't look basic when you find yourself staring blankly at a wall full of Technicolor thread at your local mega-mart, but trust me on this.
You'll notice that thread comes in different weights for different uses: for us, an All-Purpose or Dual Duty variety will do fine. Fortunately, we can ignore all the bright rainbow colors, and choose some neutral grey tones that will match 90% of your wardrobe. (Since our stitching will be hidden and not decorative, getting "close" will be enough for us.) I wouldn't go darker than Oxford grey or lighter than Flannel. That'll limit our palette to this section of the Wall-O-Thread:
See? Getting simpler all the time. Thread is inexpensive enough that if you wanted to match something exactly, you could...but you'd end up with endless spools you'll have no use for after one use. Trust me.
While we're in the mega-mart's sewing section, you'll need a box of Quilting Pins. These little babies are handy as heck for, well, pinnin' stuff together. The bright yellow heads make it easy for you to see them when you accidentally drop the box and send pins flying all over your carpet. (Again, trust me on this.)
You may not find these next few things at a general merchandise store ...you may have to try fabric or craft stores. Truthfully, it can be a little daunting if you've never frequented one, since you will be the only male there. (The blue-hair grandmotherly types will adore you, though.)
A tape measure of the flexible kind. Traditionally they were cloth; most now are vinyl or plastic.
Tailor's chalk. No, regular chalk won't work. Tailor's chalk is made with clay, sharpens well, makes a good sharp line, and brushes off most fabrics without a trace. Usually comes in triangular or bar form, in several colors. Handy stuff.