Friday, March 16, 2012

The Curse of Craigslist Strikes Again

As I've mentioned in earlier posts I've been giving a lot of thought to trying to make a living by sewing. I'm convinced it's in my blood. All my ancestors, who were tailors, whisper to me in the rustle of fabric. But from decades of corporate marketing I know there are only two ways for a business to establish a sustainable competitive advantage (read Michael Porter's book on the subject) : either be the lowest cost producer or find a niche market than one can dominate. I cannot be the lowest cost producer, at least not without a lot of capital and luck. I have hints of what niche I might find. There are certain aspects of sewing I am attracted to: apparel, costumes, and practical applications. My sense is that by combining all three, I'll find my niche.

I have great admiration for Peter Lappin's MPB. He has indefatigable curiosity of vintage sewing. He is fearless in buying vintage sewing machines, making vintage clothes, organizing sew-along events, and commenting on media personages. I do find some cautionary tales he veils in humor. I have two Singers,two Pfaffs, and an Elna that are consumer home machines. Of these, I use my Pfaff 2046 the most. These machine can grow like mushrooms in the dark recesses of one's home. Peter knows.

For me these machines have been great tools to explore the possibilities. As my focus on my niche has sharpened, I see clearly I have no interest in quilting. I would go mad stitching those little squares into the beautiful works I see so many women create. I see their passion and if I might say, their addiction to it too. I have no interest in embroidery. There's a lovely and brilliant lady, named Bee, at the Pocono Sew'n'Vac who with every breath exhales a million embroidery projects. And she has TENS OF THOUSANDS of data files.

Are we sewists a bunch of pack rats? We have our collections of patterns, our stash of fabrics, and an endless array of things we want to make. I fear falling into that black hole myself, so I'm trying to limit myself to what I can keep in a small highly organized room. Small is good, he tells himself.

I've come to realize that my Pfaffs and Singers won't take me further in the direction I want to go. For that I need true commercial machines. Last November I acquired the Sailrite LSZ-1 because I see people are making a living doing boat covers, cushions, canvas sails .. practical things. I've watched the wonderful videos on their website and have just received their DVD on upholstering. When my wife started attending a draping class at Centenary College, she found herself struggling with her curve stick, corner square, drawing pads. I used my LSZ-1 to make a vinyl bag for here that could strap to the side of her portable sewing kit.

Sewing that bag for her gave me one of the hints I was looking for in making practical accessories. Some friends have asked me to make boat covers. I will in time.

When I made the seven elf jackets, I realized my Pfaff 2046 didn't have the horsepower I needed to sew the tough welt weave polyester quickly. Sewing the last couple of shirts and working on the robe for Cabaret convinced me that I needed a true commercial machine. My wife has a Juki DDL-555, which is one serious machine for straight stitching. It first came with an enormous clutch motor. When she turned it on, you could hear the roar of the engine from the street. I feared it would blow every circuit in the house. She did a lot of research an discovered a new motor technology called DC Servo and bought a Reliable SewQuiet 5000. It's a tiny extremely quiet box with enormous sewing power.

Recently I learned from one of the professors at Centenary's Fashion School that her students were not strong in construction because they were afraid to sew on the clutch motored commercial machines. She was extremely impressed when my wife showed her the SewQuiet motor. The college is now buying new commercial machines, possibly equipped with DC servo motors. Will this lead to a new generation of designers who are proficient in construction? Who knows. Technology has changed art many times in the history of man.

It's been on my mind that I should get a commercial machine, heavier than the Pfaff 2046 and lighter than the Sailrite LSZ-1. I wanted something that could straight stitch and zig-zag stitch. In the world of commercial machines, this is not cheap. I happened to be surfing Craig's List looking at the commercial machines when I stumbled on a Bernina 850 for $300. It seems to be the exact mix I wanted. It also didn't have a motor or a table; just the head and some feet. My research on this vintage machine described it as an artisan's machine, or as a semi-industrial machine. I decided to take a chance and buy it.

The lady who sold me the machine gave me a bolt of heavy canvas with a nautical print done specially for the Mystic Seaport Museum. Though I made the Cabaret Robe in a doll size, I decided I want to make a full size robe before I sew the real deal out of the fabric the show's costume designer entrusted to me. Last night I cut both the shell and a liner, 5 yards each!

And today I found a guy named "Lou" on Craiglist who makes commercial tables at extremely attractive pirces. Before I could make up my mind, Lou made a table to my specifications, mounted a DC servo motor, a lamp, a thread spool holder, and a bobbin winder for another $300. Tomorrow, I'm going to Lou's garage to pick it up.

So now I have $600 invested. I didn't sleep well last night. Cognitive Dissonance, or buyer's remorse, is haunting me. Peter and his collection of vintage machines haunt me. But there is a rather curious bright spot. Bernina has an up-to-date version of the machine called the 950. Compare my 850 with the 950:

Yes, there are numerous safety improvements. I'm sure hidden away in the guts of the machine there are many more differences. The 950 also retails for $2,500. Yikes! If I can get this 850 running with Lou's help, I might have accomplished something special. I also will make my marine pattern robe on it and find out soon enough.



  1. Oh, how exciting, Tom (and thanks for the shout out)! I think it will all turn out well.

    The Bernina you purchased is gorgeous and you'll have a table to boot. Enjoy it and -- breathe! ;)

  2. Your "all in" price will be very good for a beautiful machine and a wonderful, fresh table with the servo. I have one machine with a servo (Juki 1541S) and it is a dream come true.

    I sold my industrial straight stitch machine (which also had a servo). Even though I have lots of portables, I just missed having a regular SM in an industrial table. So CL struck me too, and that's how I got the Pfaff 130 in the table. I think you are going to love your new setup. And you can use those expensive, fabulous Bernina feet!

  3. I'm anxious to hear a follow-up on your new machine.

  4. Unitek are manufacturers of automatic sachet packaging machines for the food and allied industry with 20 years of experiencePLC / Servo collar machine