View Full Version : Sewing machine question

S/V Laura Ellen
05-23-2007, 01:56 PM
I thinking about getting a sewing machine so that I can make sail covers, seat cushions, awning, etc.

Will any commercial sewing machine do, or do I need a special feature?

05-23-2007, 02:11 PM
A walking foot is nice.

05-23-2007, 02:12 PM
Commercial sewing machines come in a bewildering variety of shapes, sizes and abilities. Better determine the type of stitch and material before you wander down that way.

S/V Laura Ellen
05-23-2007, 03:01 PM
Commercial sewing machines come in a bewildering variety of shapes, sizes and abilities. Better determine the type of stitch and material before you wander down that way.

What stitch, size and capability do I need to sew multiple layers of Sunbrella for typical boat projects such as cushions, awnings, winch covers, sail covers for a 37' sail boat?

Please help, I know nothing at this stage.

05-23-2007, 03:28 PM
This might be a good place to start ...


Todd Bradshaw
05-23-2007, 03:46 PM
You need a straight stitch that's about 4-5mm long and the ability to sew V-92 weight thread and a #18-#21 needle. If there is a place on a cover where you're having to sew through more than 4 layers of Sunbrella, there is probably something seriously wrong with the design in that area. V-69 thread will do (about 8lb.-10 lb. test per stitch when new) strength-wise, but the thicker V-92 will last longer in the sun because there is simply more of it. You could also go with one of the new Gore-Tex-based threads made for covers and awnings (slightly less initial strength and damned pricey, but they are basically UV-proof). The long straight stich is used because Sunbrella "needle-puckers" badly (sewn seams and edges appear to shrink as you make them because the needle is pulling yarns, rather than just breaking through them). On a 20' long single-stitched seam, you may notice 3"-4" of shortening once you finish sewing. Long stitches make fewer pucker-holes and the piece "shrinks" less (but you still need to allow for some shortening).

We've been over this before, but a sewing machine is only as good as the person who is going to teach you how to adjust it and fix it when needed. Without question, the Sailrite machines and service are the best available for serious home-based boat work.

Todd Bradshaw
05-23-2007, 03:57 PM
You'll know you're truly serious when you have a hole cut in your living room floor that fits the sewing machine....


Paul Pless
05-23-2007, 04:40 PM
Dude! Todd... that's awesome:eek::eek::eek:

S/V Laura Ellen
05-23-2007, 04:41 PM
Either Todd isn't married, or his wife is very understanding.

05-23-2007, 04:51 PM
or he does all the sewing for the family!

05-23-2007, 05:21 PM
Dude! Todd... that's awesome:eek::eek::eek:Guess it's a good thing I already know how to sew (thanks Mom) and that my day job has me dealing with a lot of comercial fabrics, stitches, seam strengths, UV resistance, chemical resistance, flamibility, stitch counts, thread weights, kneedle sizes . . .just to name a few.:rolleyes:

S/V Laura Ellen
05-23-2007, 05:27 PM
Guess it's a good thing I already know how to sew (thanks Mom) and that my day job has me dealing with a lot of comercial fabrics, stitches, seam strengths, UV resistance, chemical resistance, flamibility, stitch counts, thread weights, kneedle sizes . . .just to name a few.:rolleyes:

Katherine: Thanks for volunteering, do you have your own commercial sewing machine or do I still need to buy my own?:D

Dale Genther
05-23-2007, 08:16 PM
I have a Sailrite Ultrafeed LSZ-1 and am very happy with it. It can handle just about anything in the way of covers, bags, etc. I want to make. The service from Sailrite is very good. For the more serious work I have a Consew 101 straight stitch machine. It will go thru just about anything and it has a much longer arm than the Sailrite, which is nice. I bought the Consew at a yard sale fro $175.00. I gave it a "tune-up" and it has been great.

Todd Bradshaw
05-23-2007, 09:37 PM
Allan, about nine years ago I was at the point where I needed to either expand the business, hire some help, get a bigger building or rebuild the loft above my garage and fill in the work load by making boring, cheap white sails to compete with imports - or - down-size, eliminate overhead and concentrate strictly on more interesting custom stuff. We eventually decided that smaller fancier one-off stuff was the way to go. This allowed me to get rid of the 30' in-feed/out-feed tables that I used to use when building big multi-hull sails (which were a total pain to lug around) so talking my wife into cutting a hole in the living room floor was actually pretty easy.

She has her own sewing area with a couple machines in a spare bedroom upstairs and came from a country where teenagers had to make their own bluejeans, so she sews pretty well. She doesn't do sails and I don't do clothing, so it works out pretty well.

05-23-2007, 09:42 PM
Just a suggestion - I got a baby loc "pro line" when I made sail covers and awning (sunbrella) and redid all the upholstery on the last boat (some sunbrella, the rest heavy duty upholstery fabric with corded seams, heavy duty zippers, etc.). It was less expensive, portable (I took it with us when we "sailed away") and obviously does all the lighter weight fabrics as well. It comes with a walking foot attachment - not as good as the Sailrite, but ok if needed.

Do I wish I had a sailrite - walking foot/zigzag/long stitch - sure. But for the amount of boat work I need to do and for the investment, it just didn't make sense. The baby loc did and continues to do great.

05-24-2007, 06:24 PM
Very cool....but where do you sit? and how do you operate the foot pedal? :eek: :eek:

Nick C
05-24-2007, 06:54 PM
You need a straight stitch and a zigzag stitch. If you look at sails you will see a lot of zig zag stitching on them. It is also a good stitch of canvas work. You will also want to be able to adjust the length of the stitch to something like a third of an inch at times. A walking foot is pretty much the way to go.

PFAFF used to be the go to machine for this type of work. The last machine I bought was a Consew and it is a very relieable machine also. Used machines can often be found at bargain prices and often will still have a lot of years left in them.

Todd Bradshaw
05-25-2007, 01:14 AM
Where do I sit? I don't. Standard procedure is sail lofts is to cut a pit in the floor, behind and slightly off to the right side of the machine, about 2'-3' square by about 3' deep and to sit in the pit. This was actually considered and could have been done with the pit hanging down into the basement, but having a 3' pit in your living room has some rather obvious drawbacks. I have a nice, small oak plank that drops neatly into the existing hole and screws down when I'm not sewing and then my living room looks just like anybody else's.

Sails are rolled like a big scroll on either side of the seam you're about to sew and you need full-length support to keep from creasing the fabric while sewing. Back when I used the in-feed/out-feed trays, they attached to a big table-stand for the machine, but I never liked sewing while being off to one side. I used to sew standing up so that my head was right over the needle. It made for straighter feeding and ultimately straighter, better-looking rows of stitching....but it's pretty hard on your back.

These days, the sail stays on the floor, which prevents creasing. I kneel on one knee (left) work the pedal with my right foot and straddle the rolled sail as it feeds through. I wouldn't call it comfy, but it's not bad and my head is right over the needle so I have a good view of the seam. For soft stuff like covers or spinnakers that don't need to be rolled, I can always stick the machine back in the old table-stand if I want to sit down, but about all I make these days are mains and jibs, so that hasn't happened in quite a while.

I have a walking foot attachment, but hardly ever use it. A walking foot is great for feeding two layers of material through the machine that are not connected as it keeps the top piece moving through at the same rate as the feed dogs are pulling the bottom piece through. For sails and covers though, your pieces are almost always (or at least should be) basted together before the seam is sewn, so they're going to feed evenly, even without the walker.

A cover maker's best friends are a good hot-knife for cutting (Engel Type HSGO or even the Sailrite hot-knife, which ain't bad for the money and lasts for decades) and a hand-held stapler (plier-style like Bostitch models B8 and P3 or a Markwell MPL4). With a staple every six inches or so, you can baste a 20' long seam together in a couple minutes, sew it right next to the line of staples and then pull the staples out in a couple more minutes. Nothing comes apart and nothing moves or gets unevenly fed through the machine in the process. Of course, if your machine comes with a walker, enjoy it, but it certainly isn't critical for making a good cover and it's not a particularly good substitute for proper basting.

Back when I worked on balloons, the long-seaming machines often had "pullers" - gear or belt-driven wheels behind the machine that pulled the fabric through and kept the top and bottom pieces aligned. When properly timed, they work great. At other times, they can make a heck of a mess on a 100' long seam in two pieces of slippery nylon. You get to the end of one piece and there are still five or six feet left of the one that was supposed to match it. Oops.... just wasted $150 worth of fabric.

I'd buy a zig-zag if I ever wanted to build or repair sails, and again, there's certainly nothing wrong with having one if that's the way the machine comes. A nice straight line of straight-stitch perforations on hard Dacron sailcloth can create a substantial weak spot, which is why sails are sewn with a zig-zag, spreading the holes out as much as possible. On boat canvas though, it's not a problem and a straight stitch will do everything you need and usually make stronger seams. I'm not sure why, but over the twenty-five years or so that I repaired covers, old zig-zag seams always seemed more prone to damage from snagging and chafe than simple straight-stitched seams. Most combo (zig-zag plus straight-stitch) machines will also sew a better line and be less prone to skipping stitches when you end up sewing something thick if you do it in straight-stitch mode. The hook mechanism (on the bobbin cage underneath the feed dogs) that has to catch the top thread at the bottom of the needle stroke just does it better in the middle of the stroke than alternating from side to side to catch a zig-zag.

Don Z.
05-25-2007, 09:08 AM
Todd, no wonder you tell us your knees bother you!

Todd Bradshaw
05-25-2007, 11:09 AM
The sewing part isn't really too bad on my knees. It's the lofting, cutting and assembly that all have to be done while crawling around on the floor that does it. Maybe I need one of those flying harnesses like the guys at the North Sails 3-DL loft use to suspend them over the sail while working. I'm not sure my wife would go for building some sort of crane in the living room though. I think I used up most of my available credit when I tunneled through the kitchen walls from my office so that the trains could turn around where her biggest kitchen cabinet used to be. It's a good thing that we don't have any kids, because I'd have a lot less fun if I had to go around setting a good example.


Don Z.
05-25-2007, 12:42 PM
Seems to me that IS setting a good example...

Tom Robb
05-25-2007, 02:08 PM
The single guys here are probably wondering if your wife has an available sister:D

Tom Robb
05-25-2007, 02:10 PM
BTW, if she adapted to the sewing machine's port and the trains, a pit with a nice trap door to hide it shouldn't be a problem. Think of the savings in chiropractor bills and knee surgery.

Todd Bradshaw
05-25-2007, 03:01 PM
Sorry, but she's the only daughter in her family and I had to import her. Smart, too! As a junior in high school she won the Latvian National Science Olympiad. The prize was a fancy men's wristwatch because a girl had never won it before. She currently holds three patents for her work with Botulism toxins and grows a hell of a tomato in her spare time. She's the true boater's embodyment of an "Avon Lady".


Cleans-up pretty well, too. How she got stuck with a lunatic like me is a genuine mystery.


Clifford just hasn't been the same since we got hold of that bag of contaminated, radio-active dog food....

Tom Robb
05-26-2007, 02:39 PM
It always pays to marry up;)

05-27-2007, 09:59 AM
Botulism, huh, let's hope she doesn't take her work home with her.

05-27-2007, 11:40 PM
Isn't botulism toxin Botox? Anyway I was actually going to say I thought that was a trapdoor neatly hidden under the couch. A little dissapointed to find it wasn't so. Gotta see the pics of the train thingy though.

Todd Bradshaw
05-28-2007, 02:31 AM
Yes, the Botox cosmetic stuff is done with botulism toxin, but she's not working on cosmetic aspects. As I understand it (and believe me, I don't understand much of it) botulism toxin is a parylizing agent. They're working on developing ways of using it for pinpoint injections as a means of controlling the symptoms of disorders like Parkinson's Disease and involuntary muscle twitches. By targeting the specific places that are responsible for the shaking or twiching, they hope to prevent or diminish the spasms and improve the quality of life for people suffering from these things. One problem is that the toxin's effects wear off after a while. Her job is to develop ways to super-charge the stuff so that hopefully it can become a permanent solution.

05-28-2007, 02:40 AM
Back when I worked on balloons,

Another page from Todd's life we did not know about.

Todd Bradshaw
05-28-2007, 12:03 PM
I still have one that I scratch-built from left-over fabric, but at 17 lbs. lift per 1,000 cubic feet of volume it's going to have to grow some before it will fly. Looks like I need to iron it.


The top has a self-sealing parachute-like vent/deflation port that's controlled by a line that runs down to the basket, just like most full-sized balloons have. Here it is when activated.


05-28-2007, 07:41 PM
I can recommend a good sail reconditioning service

Todd Bradshaw
05-28-2007, 08:27 PM
I thought about that......but I didn't want it to come back shaped like this.....