So, You Want to Sew…

by December 3, 2009 12/3/09

IMG_4435As I’m sure ITS readers understand, having the right gear for the mission is absolutely critical. The problem is, sometimes the right gear just isn’t out there.

We’ve all had that moment. One day inspiration strikes and you’re sure you’re sitting on the latest, groundbreaking design for a magazine pouch, plate carrier, backpack, whatever. It’s time to give it a shot and start sewing!

First Step

First thing’s first, you need a sewing machine. You can’t sew through multiple layers of Cordura and webbing with just any home use machine, though.

For professional work, we use heavy duty, industrial sewing machines that can cut through layer upon layer of heavy fabric and webbing like butter. Unfortunately, these machines will usually run you in the thousands of dollars.

This is quite an investment to make just to try out a new hobby. Lucky for us, while the plastic wonders of today are far too weak, older models are surprisingly capable.

Back in the day they built these things like tanks! Better yet, those venerable old Kenmores and Singers are cheap and easy to find.

What to Look For

The machines you’re looking for will be old, used, and made of metal. That’s about all you need to know.

Seriously, though, the best way to find out if the machine is powerful enough is to simply try it out. Grab some scraps of the materials you will be using, the biggest needles you can find (size 18 or 20, the bigger the better) and give it a whirl.

Trial and error is the best method here. When testing your machine, consider the designs you will be attempting and how many layers of fabric and webbing you will need to be able to sew through.

If you’re not sure, just try adding a couple layers at a time and see how well the machine handles it.

Where to Look

The best place to start looking is with your own family and friends. Let them know you’re on the lookout for a used machine and I guarantee that you will have a free sewing machine in a month or less.

If you have no friends, your next best bet is to try searching garage sales. There is bound to be at least a few unwanted machines in your area.

You can also try sites like Ebay, although this can potentially be the most expensive route since you can’t test the machine before you buy and shipping will be expensive for such a bulky item.

What to Do With It

This is only a brief overview! You’ve got a lot to learn and the best way to go about that is to try it.

Patience and careful planning are critical skills here. If you’re really stuck or just looking for inspiration, check out the forums on DIY Tactical.

On DIY you’ll will find all kinds of fantastic information on tools, techniques, material selection, and more. The forums are populated by a great group of experienced individuals who are more than willing to help a fellow tactical stitcher.

We’d like to thank Joel of Zulu Nylon Gear for the great introductory article on sewing, let us know what you think, and if you’d like to hear more about this topic in the comments!


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Seb
Seb

I've always wanted to learn how to sew. My mom picked up a "cheapo" pink walmart machine, but never really showed me how to make stuff. Since then, every time I go to thrift stores and garage sales I've been looking for a machine but could never find a good one... until recently, down the road, a family was moving out and throwing away a whole bunch of stuff, and in that stuff was a sewing machine! A Kenmore Ultra Stitch 8. I picked it up, cleaned it, and started learning by myself... and I love it. The machine is old, heavy, but it works perfectly, and the best thing, it was free!

Cyberdragon2
Cyberdragon2

A couple of machine recommendations for getting started. The first is the kenmore 148. It was made in the early 60's. Mine will sew 8 layers of heavy blue Jean denim. Not fancy, sews straight, zig-zag, bar tack, serge edge, and 4 fancy stitches.

The second of my machines is an older machine. It is an Elna "Supermatic" type 722010. It can do some fancy stitches due to it's interchangeable cams. It's only down fall is the rubber drive wheel that wears out after 30 or 40 year.

Both machines are heavy, made of cast iron, and old. You can find both machines in yardsales, craigslist and eBay for reasonable.

Hope this helps.

Cyberdragon2
Cyberdragon2

A couple of machine recommendations for getting started. The first is the kenmore 148. It was made in the early 60's. Mine will sew 8 layers of heavy blue Jean denim. Not fancy, sews straight, zig-zag, bar tack, serge edge, and 4 fancy stitches. The second of my machines is an older machine. It is an Elna "Supermatic" type 722010. It can do some fancy stitches due to it's interchangeable cams. It's only down fall is the rubber drive wheel that wears out after 30 or 40 year. Both machines are heavy, made of cast iron, and old. You can find both machines in yardsales, craigslist and eBay for reasonable. Hope this helps.

TheNance
TheNance

Thanks for all the comments everyone! Combined with all of these tips any beginners reading this should be well prepared to start sewing!

Ridge
Ridge

This is a really good article.

I would like to see more on the subject. Now I gotta start looking around for a sewing machine.

Ridge
Ridge

This is a really good article. I would like to see more on the subject. Now I gotta start looking around for a sewing machine.

Reddog
Reddog

I picked up a Pfaff 130 light industrial machine at a garage sale from a guy who had outgrown doing what I was planning to do, basically make stuff that he needed/wanted/dreamed up. It is called a light industrial because of the size of the motor (kinda small, by their calculations). The machine is the same as their HD industrials. Mine is a 1954 model, and while a good deal of the paint is worn off in wear areas, the insides look new. I have gone through 10 layers of 10 oz cotton canvas several times on corner seams. The only thing that slowed it down was getting all that fabric under the foot. A great machine at $15.00. I may splurge and get it cleaned and timed just to keep it in good shape. (another $65) Still less than the Walmart/plastic machines.

Michael
Michael

Hey guys, a good technique to learn to sew is to draw up a grid of 1" lines that head down, right, down, left, down and then repeats to the end of your fabric. All you do is sew down, finish on the end with the needle plunged, lift the foot and turn and then continue. You will stuff it up the first few times but it gets easier. This will help teach you foot control and stop you "running over" your work especially when sewing PALS bars and trying to maintain a gap in the center between bars. A lot of machines will run away on you, place a nerf ball or similar under the foot so you can sew slower. Tension is critical to sewing, if you have loops in your thread on the underside you need to tighten up your top tension (should be a round knob that will sit on a spring and 2 plates that the thread passes through) vice versa for loops on top, you should have a 2 small screws on your bobbin case, tighten the one closest to the thread to tighten this up. If you can see the thread is being pulled through more on one side, should look like small raised pimples in the stitching you have to much tension on.

The most important thing is to practice, don't throw the baby out with the bath water when your first 4-5 jobs turn tits up. We all had to start somewhere.

Michael
Michael

Hey guys, a good technique to learn to sew is to draw up a grid of 1" lines that head down, right, down, left, down and then repeats to the end of your fabric. All you do is sew down, finish on the end with the needle plunged, lift the foot and turn and then continue. You will stuff it up the first few times but it gets easier. This will help teach you foot control and stop you "running over" your work especially when sewing PALS bars and trying to maintain a gap in the center between bars. A lot of machines will run away on you, place a nerf ball or similar under the foot so you can sew slower. Tension is critical to sewing, if you have loops in your thread on the underside you need to tighten up your top tension (should be a round knob that will sit on a spring and 2 plates that the thread passes through) vice versa for loops on top, you should have a 2 small screws on your bobbin case, tighten the one closest to the thread to tighten this up. If you can see the thread is being pulled through more on one side, should look like small raised pimples in the stitching you have to much tension on. The most important thing is to practice, don't throw the baby out with the bath water when your first 4-5 jobs turn tits up. We all had to start somewhere.

Brian P
Brian P

I started sewing my own gear last year. After wrecking 2 home machines I bought a Juki with a heavy duty Efka servo motor. It's amazing how much easier it is to create when your not fighting your machine the whole time. Now my biggest problem is finding people to split orders with, I don't always need 1000 yards of 4" Velcro :)

Tony
Tony

You bring up another couple of good points. A good industrial machine comes built into the table, allowing large jobs to be moved around easily. The clearance between the needle and machine body (not sure what the industry term for that is) is much larger than a home machine - my clearance is ~7" which makes getting pack straps through there interesting while trying to keep the job straight.

The other advantage of having the machine built into the table is this - One of my biggest issues in terms of sewing accuracy (getting the lines straight, curves right etc) is the fact that the machine stands higher than the table - the plate is maybe 2-3" high. When putting a job through, the fabric will droop. With a single layer this is not an issue, but with multiple layers of fabric, you can end up everything shifting out of alignment. Its happened to me a number of times!

I guess the moral of the story is, if you have to start with a home machine, try and move to an industrial as soon as you can - it will make your life a lot easier!

Tony
Tony

You bring up another couple of good points. A good industrial machine comes built into the table, allowing large jobs to be moved around easily. The clearance between the needle and machine body (not sure what the industry term for that is) is much larger than a home machine - my clearance is ~7" which makes getting pack straps through there interesting while trying to keep the job straight. The other advantage of having the machine built into the table is this - One of my biggest issues in terms of sewing accuracy (getting the lines straight, curves right etc) is the fact that the machine stands higher than the table - the plate is maybe 2-3" high. When putting a job through, the fabric will droop. With a single layer this is not an issue, but with multiple layers of fabric, you can end up everything shifting out of alignment. Its happened to me a number of times! I guess the moral of the story is, if you have to start with a home machine, try and move to an industrial as soon as you can - it will make your life a lot easier!

fastmover
fastmover

My buddy's wife JUST bought a 2000 dollar machine to start a home girl stuff bizzness. We just sent this to her...she don't know yet, but she is making us stuff.

Tony
Tony

I started my business with a White machine that my wife bought many years ago (From Wal-Mart I believe). It has no trouble punching through 6 layers of 1000D Cordura, although for most of my designs the maximum it has to deal with is 4 - I don't make true tactical gear, just gear for shooting. The biggest issue with this machine is not its capacity to handle the fabric in terms of getting the needle through it but in terms of getting the fabric under the foot. Clearance is my issue. I was working on a mod for an Eagle chest rig earlier this week - no problem sewing as such, but big problems getting the fabric in place under the foot!

kenpojitsu
kenpojitsu

Funny you posted this article. My Girlfriend wants a sewing Machine for X-mas, but I told Her if I got Her one that we should get a decent one so I could at least sew some of My stuff. But she wants a foofy Martha Stewart one. Looks like Im going to have to Hit some old thrift stores it looks like.

Im always sewing patches onto my Jackets & Martial Art uniforms. I have a few things I'd like to put some webbing on for MOLLE pouches & those Damn Double weave Jujitsu uniforms are a bitch to hand sew a patch on. Keep the Info coming Fellas, Happy Holidays!

kenpojitsu
kenpojitsu

Funny you posted this article. My Girlfriend wants a sewing Machine for X-mas, but I told Her if I got Her one that we should get a decent one so I could at least sew some of My stuff. But she wants a foofy Martha Stewart one. Looks like Im going to have to Hit some old thrift stores it looks like. Im always sewing patches onto my Jackets & Martial Art uniforms. I have a few things I'd like to put some webbing on for MOLLE pouches & those Damn Double weave Jujitsu uniforms are a bitch to hand sew a patch on. Keep the Info coming Fellas, Happy Holidays!

Cervantes
Cervantes

Have you tried to mod a jig to level the work space around the sewing machine? I can see multiple options with maybe 3 sheets of plywood, laminate material, and a few 2X4's.

TheNance
TheNance

Absolutely, foot clearance can be another big issue. This is especially true when you start to deal with padding or large projects like bags and packs where you're moving a whole lot of material around underneath it.

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