Converting a Singer 66 Back Clamp to Side Clamp

For the first few years that Singer produced the model 66 sewing machine, the machines had back clamping presser feet instead of the low shank side clamping feet used on their other machines. The back clamp feet are expensive and hard to find, and you are limited as to what feet and attachments are available, so it’s nice to convert a back clamp Singer 66 to side clamp if you plan to use it regularly. These sewing machines are so old they were made before zippers were used in clothing, so you probably won’t be able to find a back clamping zipper foot. After converting to side clamp, you can use those new-fangled inventions like zipper feet, walking feet, and buttonholers with your machine. You can also use a low shank snap on foot adapter with the machine so you can use modern snap on feet.

I found text directions for the conversion on the Treadle On site, but I couldn’t find any pictures of the process, so I’m writing up a tutorial on how I did it.

You’ll need a side clamping presser bar from a Singer 66 parts machine. You can find these on ebay sometimes, but I found it was cheaper to just get a whole parts machine for myself. I got mine on the shopgoodwill auction site. Just make sure you get one with a side clamping presser foot.

The conversion process is pretty simple, but you might run into problems due to old hardened oil and rust. If you have any problems with stuck parts, apply some penetrating oil (such as kerosene or Liquid Wrench) and let it sit for a bit, then heat the area up with a hair dryer, which does wonders to soften up hardened oil. I don’t like to get WD-40 near my sewing machines, but if you choose to use it, make sure to clean it off thoroughly before putting the machine back together. If left on the machine, it will eventually dry to a film that will glue the parts together.

On my rusty parts machine, in order to remove the foot pressure knob, I had to wrap the knob with a strip of leather, then grip it with locking pliers. I use the locking pliers as a last resort, though, because no matter how much I try to protect the knob from damage, I usually end up scraping it up. My presser bar was a bit rusty on the ends, but after soaking it in Evapo-Rust and polishing it with metal polish it looked pretty good.

The procedure for removing the presser bar from a donor side clamping machine is basically the same as for the back clamping version, so I’ll just show the steps for the back clamping machine.

This probably goes without saying, but clean all parts and rub them down with sewing machine oil before putting them back in the machine.

    1. Remove the needle, just so it isn’t in the way and you don’t stab yourself. Remove the presser foot and the screw that holds it in place. On a back clamping machine, also unscrew and remove the presser foot holder that the presser foot attaches to.
    2. If you have a thread cutter, remove that too. To remove it, wrap it in a rag so you don’t hurt your hand, then twist it back and forth as you pull down on it.
    3. Lower the presser foot lever. Clean the exposed portion of the presser bar. I use rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab to remove hardened oil (be careful not to drip any alcohol on the black finish – alcohol dissolves the shellac used on it). Rub some sewing machine oil on the bar after cleaning it.
    4. Loosen or remove the upper screw holding the side plate in place, remove the thumbscrew, and remove the side plate.
    5. Unscrew and remove the foot pressure knob.
    6. Remove the spring through the top of the machine. There should be a washer sitting on top of the spring, so be careful not to lose it.
    7. Loosen or remove the set screw that holds the presser bar in place. Remove the presser bar through the top of the machine.
    8. Insert the side clamping presser bar down into the machine. Turn it so the flat edge on the lower end of the bar is facing the left side of the sewing machine.
    9. Put a general purpose presser foot on the bar. Turn the flywheel (hand wheel) until the feed dogs are in the lowered position. Adjust the position of the foot so it is straight and down against the machine bed.
    10. Adjust the position of horizontal bar that the set screw goes in so there is about a 2 mm gap between the lower edge of the bar and upper edge of the presser foot lifting lever (this is just based on how my machine was originally adjusted – I don’t know what the official gap should be). Insert the set screw and tighten it. Raise the presser foot lifting lever, turn the flywheel a full revolution, and make sure the needle bar doesn’t hit the presser foot. If the needle bar hits the presser foot, lower the presser foot and adjust the horizontal bar up a little further.
    11. Lower the presser foot lever. Insert the spring down through the top of the machine. Place the washer on top of the spring.
    12. Screw the foot pressure knob back in.
    13. Put the side plate back on.
    14. Remove the presser foot and the screw that holds it in place. Slide the thread cutter onto the presser bar. I used a small flat head screw driver to pry it open a little as I got it started. Put the presser foot back on.
    15. Test out your machine and adjust the presser foot pressure. The pressure should be just enough to feed your fabric evenly and give you stitches that are all the same length.


Posted in Vintage Sewing Machines

Antique Iron Pattern Weights

I sew with treadle sewing machines, so if the power goes out, I can just keep on sewing. However, most of the time when I’m sewing I also need to iron, so I thought it would be nice to have a sad iron that I can heat up on the wood stove. I put off getting one, since it seemed silly to buy something I would only use once a year or so at the most, but then I realized that sad irons would also make perfect heavyweight pattern weights that I could use year round, so I went ahead and got some. Plus they are just fun to look at.

Most of the patterns I use are either pdfs printed onto printer paper or patterns traced onto butcher paper. Pinning thicker paper onto fabric doesn’t work well at all, so I hold down patterns with weights, then either trace around the patterns or cut around them with scissors or a rotary cutter. I like to use small weights around the edges of the pattern, but for large pattern pieces, it’s also nice to have a couple of heavy pattern weights that hold the pattern firmly in place so there’s no chance the pattern will shift.

sad iron pattern weights

I looked at new sad irons designed for off-grid users, and uh, no, I wasn’t going to pay that much for a single iron. Then I looked at antique sad irons on ebay, where there are some reasonable prices for sad irons (although shipping costs can be high), but also some sellers who seem to think that anything old is worth its weight in gold. I found my irons on the shopgoodwill auction site, and including shipping they ended up around $10 each, which is less than the prices I’ve seen for professional pattern weights.

I got the kind of irons with attached iron handles, since the old wood ones tend to break. I also ended up with two bases for Asbestos brand irons. They are a little hard to pick up without handles, but the detachable handles are where the asbestos was, which I of course don’t want, so I’ll just have to be careful when I use those ones as pattern weights. They are 4.5 to 5 pounds each, so I’d probably break a toe if I dropped one on my foot.

The small iron on the right in the photo below looks like it will be perfect for the type of pressing I do while sewing – mostly pressing seam allowances and pressing up hems.

five antique sad irons on pattern

Sad irons are made from cast iron, so they rust if they are not properly seasoned. They are seasoned with oil just like you would season a cast iron cooking pan. Most of the irons I got were in pretty good shape, but I did have to use a pumice stone and a wire brush to get some rust off of a couple of them.

If the seasoning is done properly, you end up with a hard non-stick surface on the iron. The first time I tried seasoning my irons I didn’t do things right. I looked up directions for seasoning cast iron pans, so I thought I knew what to do. I rubbed palm oil on the irons, then baked them at 450° F for an hour and a half. I ended up with a sticky, greasy mess. The thick brown oil residue rubbed off, leaving brown stains, which obviously wasn’t going to work for ironing fabric.

I did some more research to figure out what I did wrong, and found this blog post on seasoning cast iron pans. It turns out that most of the directions you will find online for seasoning cast iron pans are flat-out wrong. The key to success is to use a very thin layer of flax oil, then bake at a high temperature. To get a thick enough coating, you repeat the process several times. I scrubbed the greasy brown residue off my irons and tried again with flax oil, with perfect results. The coating on the irons is black, hard, non-stick, and doesn’t rub off.

I have cast iron frying pans that I rarely use because food sticks to them, but I think I might re-season them too now that I know how to do it right.


Posted in Sewing

Review: Janome 712T Treadle Sewing Machine

Janome 712T on treadle base

Janome 712T treadle headI’ve been sewing on treadle sewing machines most of my life, and I really don’t enjoy sewing on electric machines, so when I first saw the Janome 712T, which is a modern treadle head designed for the Amish and other off-grid sewers, I was curious about it. But it’s currently selling for $289 online, and that’s a lot of money to pay for a machine I couldn’t try out first. When I saw a barely used one for a quarter of that price, I couldn’t resist buying it.

As I was researching this machine and reading reviews, I noticed a lot of preppers are recommending this machine. Before I get any further, just in case you are a prepper and don’t read down to the end of this review, please don’t waste your money on this machine. It’s probably not what you need. More on that at the end of the review.

Janome 712T on treadle base.jpg

Lets start with what I like about this machine, since the list of things I don’t like is really long.

The manual is pretty good, and it was written or at least edited by someone who actually speaks English. If you’d like to look at the manual for more information on the features, you can download a pdf copy from Janome’s website.

The Janome 712T makes nice stitches, and has a decent selection of utility stitch patterns. The only stitches I ever use are straight stitch, zig-zag, tricot stitch (3-step zig-zag), blind hem, and stretch blind hem. I really like the feather stitch, but I’m not sure where I’d use it. Here’s a sampler of the stitches it can do. The upper edge was finished with a wide zig-zag stitch and the overcast foot. I think it finishes the edge better than the overcast stitch used on the lower edge. The stitch width on the buttonholes seems a bit narrow and is not adjustable – the stitches might not hold well in coarsely woven fabric.

Janome 712T stitch sampler top

Stitch sampler – right side

Janome 712T stitch sampler wrong side

Stitch sampler – wrong side

Compared to vintage zig-zag machines, the Janome 712T does really well sewing knit fabric. If you use the right type of needle, it will sew on any fabric without skipping stitches. It is not terribly picky about needle type or thread type for most fabrics. The ability to sew well on knits and elastic is probably the one thing that makes this machine worth keeping for me. All of my vintage machines tend to skip stitches on knit fabrics and elastic.

The extra-high presser foot lift is nice. If you push up on the presser foot lifter, it will raise up extra high to help you position the foot. It lifts higher than any of my other machines, and is really helpful when you are positioning the buttonhole foot.

It takes plastic class 15 bobbins, which are common and easy to find.

I like the clear bobbin cover and clear bobbins, so you can easily see how much thread you have left. I also like that there is a diagram showing the proper bobbin thread direction, since I use several sewing machines and they all thread a little differently.

Janome 712T bobbin cover.jpg

You can open up the machine with a phillips head screwdriver and oil it, so you don’t have to take it to be serviced for routine maintenance. The manual says that it only needs to be oiled two or three times a year if used constantly, but remember that your vintage treadle base needs to be oiled with sewing machine oil after every 8 hours of use.

The manual does not mention using twin needles, but you can use up to 4 mm wide twin needles with this machine. To thread the machine, either put a bobbin on top of your thread spool, or use two bobbins if your spool is too tall. To prevent thread tangles, position the upper bobbin so it is unwinding in the opposite direction from the spool or lower bobbin. Hold the ends of the threads together and thread the machine as if it was a single thread, except for the very last thread guide before the needle. The thread that goes through the left needle should go through the last thread guide, but skip the last thread guide for the thread that goes through the right needle.

Janome 712T Twin needle threading spool

Janome 712T Twin needle threading

Here are some views of the insides.

Janome 712T inside left angleJanome 712T inside leftJanome 712T inside topJanome 712T underside

The Janome 712T does have some nice features, but its main disadvantage is it’s REALLY HARD TO TREADLE. I don’t think Janome went to any special effort to design a low-friction machine here – I’m guessing they just modified a design for an electric machine to have a different handwheel so it could be used on a treadle base. There are plenty of vintage zig-zag machines that can be put right into a treadle base, and none of them I’ve tried have anywhere near as much friction in their inner workings as the 712T.

I first tried putting my Janome 712T on a Pfaff treadle base with a large 14 inch diameter drive wheel. It was so hard to treadle, I almost couldn’t keep the machine going. I had to lean forward and really push on the pedal. After just a few minutes my legs were burning. I needed a treadle base with a smaller wheel for this machine. For reference, I previously had my Singer 328K on the Pfaff treadle base, and I could sew all day on it without getting tired.

Smaller treadle drive wheels make pedaling easier, but the trade off is slower sewing. I have a couple of Singer treadle bases with 12 inch diameter drive wheels, but I’m happy with the machines I have set up in them and I didn’t want to modify the cabinets to fit this machine. To get the 712T to fit in a typical Singer treadle cabinet, you have to remove the metal piece that the belt goes through on the right side of the hole in the cabinet top. It is typically attached to a large spring that assists with raising and lowering the machine. Other reviewers have also mentioned having to cut or sand their treadle cabinets a little to get the Janome to fit.

Here’s how I ended up getting the Janome on a treadle base that worked better with this machine. I used an Elgin treadle base (a $25 garage sale find) with the table top from a Singer electric sewing machine cabinet. The Elgin drive wheel is just slightly smaller than a typical Singer drive wheel, which makes pedaling a bit easier (but still not what I would call easy – you are going to get some exercise using this machine no matter what treadle base you put it on).  The table top is one that fits a longer base Singer machine, such as a Touch & Sew, 328, 401, 500, etc.

Janome 712T on treadle baseJanome 712T lowered cabinet closed

Here are the dimensions of the hole in the table top:

Janome 712T table top dimensions labeled

I wanted the sewing machine to be able to fold down, and to do that you need about 7.5 inches clearance between the underside of the table and any obstructions on the treadle irons. The Elgin treadle bases (the same as “The Free” brand bases) have the wheel and a cross brace up pretty high, so to be able to lower the sewing machine I had to raise up the table about 2.5 inches. In my typical haphazard woodworking style, I screwed together some scrap wood into a frame and screwed it onto the top of the treadle base to raise up the table. I’m only 5’2″, so with the table raised up I have to sit on a tall stool to put the table at elbow height, but I think sitting up higher gives me more leverage to push on the pedal anyway, so I’m OK with it.

Janome 712T lowered in cabinet

If antique treadle cabinets or cobbled together frankentreadles like mine aren’t your style, you can buy some nice Amish made cabinets to fit your 712T (or any other sewing machine that would fit in a Singer treadle table). I wouldn’t mind having one, but they sure cost a lot. I’m guessing they are worth it, though, if you have the money, since they look well-built enough to last generations. Or if you have the skills and tools, you could make your own table top. Just a solid piece of wood with holes to fit the sewing machine and belt would work.

Here are some of things I don’t like about this sewing machine:

It requires a lot of effort to treadle. Did I mention that?

It’s not a heavy-duty sewing machine. Your legs will provide more power than a typical sewing machine motor does (at least at low speeds), but I don’t think this machine should be used for sewing jeans, for example. An occasional jeans hem might be OK, but make sure you hammer the seam flat before you sew it, and sew slowly. With my vintage machines, I can sew fast to get enough power to sew over the seam in a jeans hem, but I’d be seriously worried about breaking the Janome 712T doing that. Just because you can sew over thick fabric with this machine doesn’t mean you should. There are a lot of plastic parts inside. You’ll need an all-metal vintage machine or an industrial machine if you plan to sew heavy fabrics regularly.

Like most low-end to mid-range sewing machines made these days, it’s “disposable”. You use it until something major breaks, at which point it’s cheaper to buy a new machine than to have it repaired. For example, take a look at the timing belt as seen from the underside of the sewing machine. I’m not a sewing machine repair expert, but it looks like you’d have to disassemble half the sewing machine to replace that.

Janome 712T underside timing belt

It’s not good for sewing 1/4 inch seams. Janome does make a 1/4″ foot with a guide on the edge, but with the needle in the center position, 1/4″ to the right is right in the middle of a feed dog section, which might fray the fabric edge. I did figure out that you can put the needle in the left position and adjust the blind stitch foot (which comes with the machine) to get a 1/4″ edge guide. This would only work for sewing straight edges, though. I wouldn’t recommend this machine to quilters. Besides, when you are quilting, you will probably be sewing for long periods of time, and you will quickly get tired, because this sewing machine takes a lot of effort to treadle (I think I mentioned that . . .). A vintage straight stitch machine is probably the best option for piecing quilts, and requires almost no effort to treadle. If you want to have zig-zag stitches for applique, there are vintage zig-zag machines that you can treadle (more on that later).

Janome 712T quarter inch seam allowance

It doesn’t take standard snap-on presser feet or short shank feet. You have to buy Janome feet. Standard snap-on feet will attach to the machine, but the needle is a little over to the right of the center of the presser foot, so the needle won’t line up right with a standard foot. You can see this with my favorite quarter-inch foot. The needle hits the foot rather than going through the hole.

Janome 712T standard snap on feet do not fit

The zipper foot that comes with the machine is just dumb. Snap-on zipper feet are not good in general, but this one is particularly bad. Since the needle is a little to the right of the center of the foot, you really can’t sew close to the zipper teeth. I recommend getting an adjustable low-shank zipper foot. Because the foot is adjustable, the needle being a little off-center doesn’t matter. Just remove the snap-on foot adapter and screw on the zipper foot.

The presser foot pressure is not adjustable.

There is nowhere to attach a hand crank or motor. This machine can only be used with a treadle stand.

Janome 712T right side

There is a setting called “Auto” on the tension dial. This is misleading. This is just the default tension that works most of the time for most thread. The machine is not magically adjusting the tension for you. Adjust your tension as needed. For example, set it to 3 for machine basting or 5 or 6 for thick topstitching thread.

Here are some directions for attaching a treadle belt and getting started treadling. Use a 3/16″ leather treadle belt, or if you prefer you can use 3/16″ quick-connect hollow-core urethane belting and matching connectors. If you use a leather belt, prolong its life by slipping it off the drive wheel between uses. Since this machine takes a lot of force to treadle, I had to adjust my leather belt to be pretty tight and rub it with rosin to keep it from slipping. Also, instead of connecting my leather belts with the staple it comes with, I prefer to sew them together with heavy thread through the same holes you would use the staple in. After going through the holes several times, I tie off the threads and put fray check on the knot.

If you are new to treadling, the main thing you need to do is develop a habit of always using your hand to get the hand wheel going in the right direction every time you start sewing. The top of the hand wheel moves toward you on this machine (a few vintage machines turn the opposite way).

A lot of references on how to treadle a sewing machine don’t mention this, but it’s way easier to operate the foot pedal with one foot at the back edge of the pedal and the other foot on the front edge of the pedal. It doesn’t matter which foot is in front. Experiment and find the foot position that works best for you. The Janome 712T requires so much force to treadle (I know I probably mentioned that a couple of times) that proper foot position really matters. I also found it easier to treadle this machine while wearing shoes, although I usually sew barefoot or in socks on my other treadle machines.

My advice for preppers:

It really bothered me when I saw this machine being marketed to survivalists and preppers. I know the reason why this machine is being recommended – affiliate links. It’s not like you can link to a vintage machine on Amazon, right?

Since sewing is no longer a commonly taught skill, most people seem to be completely clueless about sewing machines these days, and I read a lot of things on forums that really made me cringe – the blind leading the blind in completely the wrong direction. If you want to see proof of how clueless the general population is about sewing machines, just go look at the sewing machine ads on Craigslist. I bet you can find a few ads where the seller only shows pictures of the back of the machine. Sometimes there are half a dozen pictures, and not a single one is of the front of the machine. Can you imagine trying to sell a car and only posting a picture of the back end?

If you want to be prepared for the future, you don’t sew now, and aren’t interested in learning, just pack up some hand sewing needles, thread, fabric scissors, a seam ripper, and a book that shows you how to sew basic hand stitches, and call it good. Hand sewing is fine if you just need to do a bit of mending.

If you are at all mechanically inclined and/or you sew regularly now and would like to be prepared to start a sewing business with treadle machines, you need to have machines that will last and know how to fix them yourself.

I would start by getting the Tools for Self Reliance Sewing Machine Manual (free download), sewing machine oil, and a set of special screwdrivers. Now get two machines of the same model – one of the models the TFSR manual covers (Singer 66, 99, 15, or 201, but not 15-91 or 201-2 – those two are gear driven). The Singer 15-88 (treadle), 15-89 (handcrank), or 15-90 (belt driven electric – when putting it on a treadle base you can replace the handwheel with a Singer 9-spoke wheel or just use the solid handwheel) would be my first choice, since they are common, versatile, and can stitch in reverse. Now go through the manual step-by-step and learn how to fix your sewing machines. You’ll have two sturdy machines in good working order, and if a part breaks, you can use parts from the other one. Of course, then you’ll start to want just one more machine so you can fix the one that’s now missing a part …

Honestly, unless they are missing parts, usually vintage machines just need to be cleaned and oiled, and maybe have a bit of rust polished off. Even a completely frozen machine can often be unstuck by just oiling it well and warming it up with a hairdryer (or leaving it next to the wood stove or heat vent).

I can’t mention working on vintage machines without warning you to never use 3-in-1 oil or WD-40 on a sewing machine. When these products dry out, they leave a film that will glue the moving parts together. If you need a penetrant, use kerosene or Liquid Wrench, then oil well with sewing machine oil after the parts are moving. Use only clear sewing machine oil to oil sewing machines – if it’s turned yellowish, the oil is old and it’s time to get some new oil. If your machine has gears, they probably need grease – Tri-flow synthetic grease is often recommended for sewing machine gears. The Singer 201 is one exception I know of – use oil, not grease, on its gears.

Also, I should mention that there are some new reproduction parts available for these machines. Since there were millions of them made, and they were made to last, there is still a demand for commonly missing parts like slide plates. Take a look at Sew Classic to see what’s available.

There is a lot of information on fixing vintage machines available on blogs these days, and there are forums and yahoo groups where you can find people willing to help with vintage sewing machine issues, too. You can also find some books on the subject or courses you can take if you really want to get into it.

Once you have some basic vintage sewing machine repair skills under your belt, get a vintage zig-zag machine and fix that up. I recommended Singers for your first straight stitch machines because they are good machines and they are easy to find and get parts for, but I don’t care for Singer’s early zig-zag machines. The Singer 237 is probably the only common metal Singer zig-zag machine I would recommend for treadling. It has a plastic race cover, but you can get a new replacement race cover. Get a replacement even if the old one isn’t broken, because those old plastics are at the end of their expected lifespan and can break at any moment.

There were many good treadle-able metal zig-zag machines produced in Japan in the 1950’s and 1960’s, sold under many different brand names. Some of them even take cams to make decorative stitches. Look for machines with an external belt driven motor, a hand wheel that sticks out past the base of the machine, and no other obstructions that would get in the way of a treadle belt. Look underneath the machine and see what you find. If you don’t see any belts or gears, there’s a good chance the machine will treadle easily. Usually all you need to do to treadle the machine is remove the motor (held in place by one large screw) and put it right into your treadle cabinet. You can use the original handwheel – there’s no need to try to replace it with a spoked wheel.

Buy machines locally if you can. Shipping is expensive, and most people don’t know how to pack a sewing machine so that it will survive shipping. Also, you can try the machine before you buy it if it’s local. I just checked my local Craigslist ads and there were over half a dozen metal zig-zag sewing machines priced from $30 to $65 that could be treadled. I could buy five or six of them for the price of buying the Janome 712T new, and they will most likely be in good working order 20 or 30 years from now when the Janome’s lifespan is up.

I have to warn you, collecting vintage machines is highly addictive. Once you have one in good working order and realize how well it works and how sturdy it is compared to new machines, you will see the value. It’s like there are all of these dirt covered gold nuggets lying on the ground, everyone else is passing them by and calling them dirty rocks, and you just have to pick them up because only you know how valuable they are.

If working on your own sewing machines sounds like too much work, check if there is a sewing machine repair place near you that will work on vintage machines, or buy one already fixed up from a reputable seller like Stagecoach Road Vintage Sewing Machine Restoration. The labor costs will be expensive, so you might pay as much or more than you would buying the Janome 712T, but if you keep your vintage machine dry, oiled, and run it once in a while, it will likely still be in good working order longer than you are.

Finally, I wouldn’t recommend the Janome 712T to preppers or quilters, so who is it good for? If you live off grid or have unreliable power, only sew for short periods at a time, you need to sew knit fabric and elastic frequently, and you don’t need to sew heavy fabric, this would be a good machine for you. It would also be fine as a second machine to use only when you need the special stitches or to sew on knit fabrics, as long as your primary machine is a good vintage straight stitch or zig-zag machine that treadles easily.


Posted in Treadle Sewing Machines, Vintage Sewing Machines

Coverstitch Alternatives

Hem on right side

I tried really hard to convince myself I didn’t need a coverstitch machine. I tried every method I could find to hem, topstitch, bind, and apply elastic to knit fabrics with a regular sewing machine. I wrote lists of pros and cons. I visualized all of the fabric I could buy with that money. Ultimately, I couldn’t stop obsessing about getting a coverstitch machine, so I saved up and finally just bought one.

Some of the conventional sewing machine methods I tried actually worked pretty well, though, so before I forget everything I learned, I thought I’d share them. Also take a look at my last post if you need some ideas for preventing skipped stitches while sewing knit fabrics.

There are four main tasks a coverstitch machine is used for on knit fabrics: hemming, topstitching, applying elastic, and binding. Here are some ways to accomplish these tasks with a conventional sewing machine. This is not a comprehensive list, just some of the things I tried.


I tried all sorts of methods to hem knits, but this first method is the one I used the most. It produces a strong, comfortable, stretchy hem on just about any knit fabric. From a functional standpoint, it works as well or better than a coverstitched hem; it just takes a little longer and doesn’t look the same. While I didn’t mind the look on my clothes, I thought the zig-zags looked too girly and/or homemade for something I’d sew for my husband or son.

Use a rotary cutter and ruler to cut strips of Sticky Solvy water soluble stabilizer the width of the hem. Peel off the backing and stick down the stabilizer on the wrong side of the fabric close to the edge to be hemmed. If you need to use multiple pieces, overlap them an inch or so on the ends.

Sticky solvy on edge of hem

If you have a serger, set your differential feed to neutral and serge along the edge with a 3-thread overlock stitch (a 4-thread stitch isn’t stretchy enough), guiding the knife right against the edge of the stabilizer. If you don’t have a serger, trim the fabric even with the edge of the stabilizer. If you think your fabric will ravel (most knits won’t), you can overcast the edge with a zig-zag stitch.

Hem edge serged

Fold up the hem and press it with a dry iron. Never get steam or moisture on the Sticky Solvy – it will shrink like crazy. Optionally, apply a thin stripe of washable glue stick on the stabilizer, fold the hem in place, then press it dry with your iron. Work on a small section at a time, since the glue dries quickly. The glue holds the hem in place so you don’t need pins, and is especially helpful on thin or stretchy fabric.

Washable glue stick

Position the hem wrong side up under the presser foot (but don’t start sewing) and put a hem guide in place. If you don’t have an edge guide for your machine, a stack of Post-it notes with the backing removed makes a great edge guide.

Position hem guide

Flip your garment right side up and start sewing. I found a wide, 1.2 mm long 3-step zig-zag produced a strong, stretchy hem. You could also use a regular zig-zag stitch or a twin needle. In the picture below, I tried pinning my hem in place rather than using glue stick, and the top layer of fabric rippled and stretched. If you don’t glue your hem in place, using a walking foot helps keep the layers together.

Hem on right side

Here’s a 3-step zig-zag hem from the front . . .

3-step zigzag hem right side

. . . and the back. It looks a lot better when you use matching thread!3-step zigzag hem wrong side

If you use water soluble stabilizer, either soak your garment and rinse it in plain water or put it in your washing machine on the rinse cycle before washing it, or the detergent may react with the PVA stabilizer to make a gooey surprise.

If you just have to have the look of a coverstitched hem, you can use twin needles. Wide twin needles will give you a hem with more stretch, but you’ll have less problems with tunneling using narrow twin needles. Just about every garment I hemmed with twin needles eventually ended up with popped stitches, so twin needles are not my favorite option.

Stretch twin needles

There’s all sorts of conflicting advice on how to use twin needles. Tighten your upper tension, loosen your upper tension, loosen your bobbin tension, use woolly nylon in the bobbin, etc. I found leaving my tension settings at the same settings I use for regular straight stitching worked best.

In order for the stitches to stretch, you have to have some of the upper threads pulled to the back, and the bobbin thread needs to form a zig-zag stitch, so use whatever tension settings produce that result. Stabilizing your fabric can help reduce tunneling (the two rows of stitching pulling together so the fabric forms a ridge).

Twin needle stitching front and back

I tried using hand-wound woolly nylon in the bobbin, but it caused more tunneling and made the bobbin thread more likely to break. The zig-zag formed by the bobbin thread already provides stretch, so I say skip the woolly nylon thread. Although here’s a post from someone who had the opposite results, so maybe I just wound the bobbin too tight? I found it difficult to hand wind the bobbin with even tension.

Other things I’ve tried, with varied results, are starching the fabric before hemming, using a walking foot, Wonder Tape, and fusing knit interfacing to the hem. I’m not a fan of any method that permanently stabilizes the hem, such as using knit interfacing or Steam-a-Seam. If you ask me, the hem on a stretchy garment needs to stretch! I wear my homemade clothes all the time, so they need to be comfortable and durable. I guess a stable hem would be OK on something like a full skirt, where it’s not likely to be stretched.

Wonder tape wash-away double sided tape actually works quite well to both temporarily stabilize your hem and hold it in place while you sew, and many people swear by it. I chose not to use it because the cost adds up quickly when you are sewing a lot of knit garments, and it seems to leave a sticky, fibrous residue. Maybe the residue goes away after multiple washings, and even if it doesn’t, it’s probably not hurting anything, but it still bothers me for some reason.

Another option for hemming knits is a stretch blind hem. My machine doesn’t have a stretch blind hem stitch, so I sewed a blind hem on some velour using the 3-step zig-zag stitch, and it worked quite well.


I have to admit, I never did come up with a great way to topstitch knit garments. Twin needles work pretty well if you can keep your fabric from stretching out too much as you sew. Since you are typically sewing through several thicknesses of fabric when you topstitch, there is more stretch in the twin needle stitching, and the threads are less likely to break than when twin needles are used on a hem. The previous stitching on the seam and multiple layers of fabric also help stabilize the seam so it’s less likely to stretch in the first place.

I’ve tried starching the seam before topstitching, but if you starch too much, the fabric threads end up getting cut by the needles since they can’t slide out of the way of a ball-point needle, and you get holes in your fabric.

Once, even when I was using a walking foot, my fabric stretched out so much I had to put strips of Sticky Solvy on the underside of the fabric. The Sticky Solvy kept unsticking and the whole thing was just a mess, but I eventually got my seams topstitched, and they mostly looked OK.

I’m just going to refer you to this twin-needle topstitching tutorial, and I hope you have better luck than I did.

Applying Elastic

Elastic is often sewn directly to a garment with a coverstitch, such as on a waistband or lingerie. The conventional sewing machine alternative is a no-brainer – just use a zig-zag stitch instead. Here is a good tutorial for applying lingerie elastic. When applying wide waistband elastic, I like to use two parallel rows of zig-zag stitching, then trim the extra fabric away.

Some people apply elastic with a twin needle, but I think the threads are less likely to break if you use a zig-zag stitch. If you stretch both the elastic and fabric as you sew, the twin needle threads won’t break later, but the stitches will look loose and uneven on the right side.


Knit bindings are applied commercially with binding attachments used with coverstitch machines. There are many tutorials out there for different methods of attaching knit bindings with your sewing machine. Here are a few:

How to bind knit edges: the ultimate guide

Knit Binding Tutorial

How to sew knit binding in the round

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Because I’ve discovered something really cool. You can use a coverstitch binder with your regular sewing machine! And unlike the bias tape binder you may have for your sewing machine, the industrial coverstitch binders work really well. Once you know what you’re doing, anyway.

There is a pretty steep learning curve for using a binder, but they are so worth it if you do a lot of binding. If you are considering getting one, the first thing you need to do is go and read everything Debbie Cook has to say about coverstitch binders:

The Basics

The Difference Between A & B Style Binders

General Binder Set-Up Info

Adjusting a Binder

I got the idea of using a coverstitch binder on my sewing machine after reading Sewing with Knits by Connie Long. There is a page in the book discussing using binders on knits, with a picture of a Bernina binder. The Bernina binder says it’s for unfolded bias tape, and the tape guide comes in at a 45 degree angle to the presser foot, not a 90 degree angle like coverstitch binders designed for knits, but apparently it works for knits, too. I don’t have a Bernina sewing machine, and I thought, huh, that binder looks a little bit like a coverstitch binder. Maybe I could just tape a coverstitch binder to my sewing machine? The generic coverstitch binders don’t cost all that much, so I thought it was worth a try, and if it didn’t work, I could use the binder on a coverstitch machine if I ever got one.

The binder in the front in the photo below was the first one I got. It is smaller than typical coverstitch binders and the description said it could be used on both home sewing machines and coverstitch machines. When I bought it, there were several sizes available, but as of now there are only 12 mm finish size binders left. I contacted the ebay seller, and they didn’t plan to restock these. You can’t adjust the fold guides on this binder, so you are probably better off with a regular coverstitch binder anyway.

The binder in the back in the photo below is a double fold coverstitch binder I bought on ebay. If you buy a binder, make sure you get one that attaches to the machine bed. If the description says “post mount” that is NOT the kind you want.

Coverstitch bindersThe smaller binder has a slot on the back that is supposed to be where it attaches with screws into the seam guide holes on the sewing machine bed. I found it works way better positioned further forward, so I attach it with painter’s masking tape, which keeps it quite securely in place. Don’t worry if you don’t have screw holes on your machine bed – you won’t be using them anyway.

To be able to put a binder on your sewing machine, you’ll either need a flat-bed sewing machine or a free arm sewing machine with a flat extension table. If you don’t have a flat area in front of the sewing machine foot, you won’t have room to hold the binder in place.

Below you can see how I positioned the smaller binder on my sewing machine:

Position binder on sewing machine

I tried just about every sewing machine foot in my vast collection, and none of them worked well with the binder, but I figured out that I could easily “modify” my standard presser foot to work better with the binder. I just wrapped a piece of tape over the front of the foot:

Presser foot taped to use with binder

Here’s a picture of the small binder in use. I just happen to have a spool pin on my sewing machine bed in the right place to set a spool wrapped with the fabric strip on it. It really helps to not have to constantly adjust the strip of fabric as it goes into the binder – you can just keep your attention on feeding in the fabric that is being bound.

Using binder on sewing machine

Below is the larger binder in use. It was too big for my machine bed, so I angled the right end out a bit, and it still works fine. The serpentine guide on the end can also be folded out of the way if necessary.

Position coverstitch binder on sewing machine

You can use a twin needle or zig-zag stitch to attach the binding. I haven’t had problems with threads breaking when using twin needles on bindings – just like when you use twin needles for topstitching, the extra thickness of the binding gives the stitches more stretch. A straight stitch might even work OK with fairly stable knit fabric.

Narrow knit binding sewing machine twin needle front

Twin needle binding – front

Narrow knit binding sewing machine twin needle backjpg

Twin needle binding – back

Binders won’t work with fabric strips made from thick fabric. Thin or stretchy knit fabric may need to be stabilized with starch or spray stabilizer before you cut out the strips.

When you get your binder, you will need to adjust the position of the fold guides. With mine, the fabric was bunching up and not folding right, and I realized that both guides needed to be adjusted out further to give the fabric more room. After that adjustment it worked perfectly.

Using a binder does take a bit of practice. Don’t expect perfect results at first. I cut up an old t-shirt, cut the bottom half into strips, and practiced binding the neckline over and over. I just kept cutting off the previous binding and trying again. Here are a few more binder tips that might help.


Posted in Sewing

Avoiding Skipped Stitches on Knits

I’ve been having problems with skipped stitches when sewing on all types of knit fabrics. I looked up tips for avoiding skipped stitches, and I thought I was doing everything right, but nothing I tried helped. I was starting to worry that my vintage sewing machines just weren’t up to the job, and maybe I needed a modern machine? I really don’t want a modern machine, though! I like being able to service my machines myself, and knowing my sewing machine can sew through just about anything without breaking.

Well, I finally figured out what I was doing wrong. Both my needle and thread choices were causing skipped stitches.

You know how everyone says to match your needle size to your fabric? Well, in my case, that doesn’t work for knit fabrics. I have to use a size 14/90 ball point or stretch needle regardless of fabric thickness, even on the sheerest knits. I do remember reading somewhere that vintage machines were designed to work best with size 14 needles, so if you have a modern machine, other sizes may work OK, too. I can’t test this, because I gave away the only modern machine I had!

I tend to use serger thread or cheap cone thread for most of my sewing. I do use stronger thread on high stress seams, but since I haven’t had any problems with my seams failing, I use the cheap thread for most things. As I was pondering my problem with skipped stitches, I remembered how my old serger would stop skipping stitches when I used thicker, high quality thread in the needles. I also remembered a relative complaining about how her expensive, high end sewing machine only worked with high quality thread, even after being serviced.

So I did some testing. These tests were done on my Singer 328K, using the needles and thread I had on hand. I started with a piece of nylon/spandex techsheen fabric and tried various thread and needle combinations. Here are the results:

knit stitch test 1

Row 1: Singer size 14/90 ballpoint needle with cheap serger thread.
Row 2: Singer size 14/90 ballpoint needle with “spun polyester” thread purchased on ebay from seller superiorsurestitch (I definitely won’t be buying more of that!)
Row 3: Singer size 14/90 ballpoint needle with Coats & Clark Dual Duty XP thread.
Row 4: Singer size 14/90 ballpoint needle with Gütermann thread.
Row 5: Singer size 14/90 ballpoint needle with Gütermann thread.
Row 6: Singer size 14/90 ballpoint needle with Coats & Clark Dual Duty XP thread.
Row 7: Schmetz size 14/90 stretch needle with Coats & Clark Dual Duty XP thread.
Row 8: Organ size 11/75 ballpoint needle with Coats & Clark Dual Duty XP thread.
Row 9: Schmetz size 11/75 stretch needle with Coats & Clark Dual Duty XP thread.
Row 10: Schmetz size 14/90 stretch needle with Gütermann thread.

From that sample, I can conclude that I need to use a size 14/90 stretch needle on fabric with spandex in it, and I definitely need to use high quality thread. Coats & Clark thread looks like it did a little better than Gütermann, but I’d have to do a larger sample to be sure. I think maybe black thread doesn’t work as well as lighter colors, too.

I made another sample on thin cotton jersey, this time using black Gütermann thread and only varying the needle type:

knit stitch test 2

Row 1: Singer size 14/90 ballpoint needle
Row 2: Organ size 11/75 ballpoint needle
Row 3: Schmetz size 14/90 stretch needle
Row 4: Schmetz size 11/75 stretch needle

The size 14/90 needles obviously worked the best, even though it was thin fabric. Since there is no spandex in this fabric, the ballpoint needles work fine – there is no need to use the more expensive stretch needles.

I picked out a couple of sheer knit fabrics to see if the size 14/90 ballpoint needles would still work. I tested 15 denier nylon tricot and 40 denier nylon tricot, and got no skipped stitches. The fairly large 14/90 needles seemed to work fine on sheer knit fabric, too.

knit stitch test 3

Note: You only need to use high quality thread in the needle. You can still use up your cheap thread by using it in the bobbin (if it is strong enough for whatever you are sewing).

So, when I sew knits, I’ll have to remember to use good thread and size 14/90 ballpoint needles for most knit fabric, or a size 14/90 stretch needle if I’m getting skipped stitches on spandex fabric. I’m glad I finally figured this out!


Posted in Sewing, Vintage Sewing Machines

Another Way to Re-Tip Underwires

When I first started trying to make underwire bras way back sometime early this century, I learned of two options for re-tipping shortened underwires: Beverly Johnson at that time recommended Household Goop, and the book Sewing Lingerie that Fits suggested dipping the tips in a two part epoxy like J-B Weld. I used J-B Weld, since I thought it sounded like the better option – that stuff is practically indestructible.

With the recent popularity of bra making, it seems like everyone is using heat shrink tubing to cover the tips of cut underwires, and I haven’t seen any tutorials for using epoxy, so I thought I’d throw this out there as another option. I can’t say how epoxy compares to heat shrink tubing, since I haven’t tried using heat shrink tubing. When using epoxy you have to plan ahead since it takes a day to cure, but I’m happy with the results, and I don’t have to worry about the tips ever coming off, so I’ll probably stick with this method.

Here’s my method for cutting and re-tipping underwires:

You need to use large, heavy duty wire cutters. Don’t try to use your typical household needle-nose pliers – you might hurt your hand or damage your pliers! I use fairly thin gauge underwires, so my 9-inch pliers work OK, although I have to squeeze them fairly hard. If you are cutting really sturdy wires, have weak hands, or shorten underwires frequently, you’ll want even larger wire cutters.

Wire cutters2

You’ll also need a metal file and some two part epoxy glue such as J-B Weld.


Before you get started, make sure you have a place prepared to hang the wires while they cure, since you won’t be able to set them down once you get the epoxy on them.

Place to hang wires

Mark your wires where you want to cut them.

Mark wires

Place the wire cutters on a mark and squeeze part way down, place the wire and cutters under a piece of fabric, then finish cutting the wire. Underwires are made of spring steel, so when you cut them the ends go flying across the room, which is why I cut them under cover – I got tired of hunting for bits and pieces of underwire all over the place. If you don’t cover the wire as you cut, make sure you are wearing safety glasses.

Next you need to roughen up about 3/8″ to 1/2″ (10-13 mm) on the ends of the wires. If your wires are painted, use a file to scrape off the paint on the ends. If your wires have a plastic coating, cut around the plastic on the end, remove it, then scrape the ends with a file. You need to remove any residue or metal oxide and roughen the surface to make sure the epoxy will stick permanently, so scrape the ends with a file even if your underwires are not painted or coated. You don’t need to try to round off the sharp ends – the epoxy will cover those just fine.

Squeeze out equal amounts of each epoxy component onto a disposable surface and mix them together.

Use a Popsicle stick or something similar to spread J-B Weld onto the ends of the underwires. Work quickly, since the epoxy gets harder to work with as it starts to cure. Make sure you get plenty over the sharp ends, but you don’t have to try to get it perfectly smooth.  The epoxy will smooth out a bit on its own, and you can easily sand or file off any extra lumps and bumps after the epoxy has cured overnight.

Jbweld on underwire

Hang up the wires to cure, and that’s it! Re-tipping underwires seemed like a lot of work the first time I tried it, but now that I’ve done it a few times, it doesn’t take me long.

hang up underwires to cure

Posted in Bra-making

Adventures in Bra-making Part 2: Epic Underwire

I finally did it! I made myself some bras! For the first time in my life, I have bras that ACTUALLY FIT! They provide good support and they are pretty comfortable.

Ready-to-wear underwire bras are not an option for me – the wires are too narrow. I was professionally fitted years ago, and although the cup volume was correct on the bra I bought, the wires dug in at both the center and sides. I wore that bra all of one day. I loved the support of an underwire bra, but ouch, I’m just not willing to suffer that much. I’ve been wearing soft cup bras, but it’s hard to find a non-wired bra in my size, so I get them with cups that are too small. My old bras are worn out, I got tired of falling out of my bra when I bent over, they really weren’t providing much support, and the bands cut into my sides, so I decided to give bra-making another try.

I’ve been trying on and off for over a decade to figure out how to make an underwire bra to fit me. I’d make a few bras, get frustrated and quit, then try again in a year or two. I tried making soft cup bras, and that didn’t turn out well either. I made a couple of semi-wearable soft-cup bras, but they didn’t provide much support and weren’t comfortable.

I finally had the time and motivation to make a successful underwire bra. It only took twelve muslins over two months to get the design and fit right. Every time I thought about quitting, I’d just think, what will I do if I quit now? It’s not like I can just go buy a bra, and I don’t want to go bra-less all of the time. I took breaks for a day or two when I needed to, but I made sure not to start any other sewing projects. After about the fifth bra, I entered a sort of zen state and I stopped being impatient with the process. There’s nothing like bra fitting to teach you patience.

I thought I’d “artfully” drape all of the bra muslins over my dressform and take a picture. When I had all of the bras on the dressform, I had to laugh. Yes, there is a dressform under there somewhere!

Bra muslins

I learned a lot and I want to document what I learned, but I just want to be done with bras for a while, so I’m going to jumble a bunch of stuff together into one long post. I’ve gotten some really good tips from other bloggers, so maybe something here will help you if you are making bras.

I looked at available bra patterns, and I almost bought the Pin-Up Girls Shelley pattern, but then I remembered what a nightmare it was the last time I used a commercial pattern. Not only are my breasts atypical in shape, but I have a flared rib cage and narrow bridge, so I knew I would have to significantly alter every single pattern piece. I decided it would be less frustrating to just make my own pattern. I briefly considered drafting a pattern from measurements, but I’ve had bad results drafting anything from measurements, so I decided to essentially drape a bra pattern over my old bra.

The first step, whether you are using a pattern or making your own, is to choose an underwire. I had a really hard time finding the right size and type of underwire. It’s not as simple as just holding up a wire to your breast. The wires flex wider when they are in a bra, and the wire gauge; underwire diameter, length, and width; tightness of the bra band; bra style; etc., all determine how much the wire flexes. The frame (and possibly cup) have to be adjusted to fit the flexed wire shape, so it’s an iterative process. I started out assuming the wire sprung out the recommended 1.5 cm. After making a bra, I bent a flexible ruler around my wire line while wearing a bra, and discovered the wire was actually flexing 2 cm, so I adjusted the pattern to match that shape.

The other reason I had a hard time picking a wire size is that I can’t tell where the sides of my breast tissue is visually. My breasts look like they gradually blend into my underarms. There is a definite edge to the tissue there somewhere; I just can’t see it. After wearing wires that are too narrow for a couple of hours, they started to hurt on the sides, so I kept going up a size until they didn’t hurt.

When I finally got the right wire size, all sorts of fit and comfort problems went away. The wires stayed in the right place instead of getting pushed downward. I’d been having to constantly readjust my bra when I had the wires too small, but now my bra “magically” stays put.

I started out with vertical (aka Bliss) underwires, because I thought they would fit my narrow bridge. They did, but I need really wide wires, which means they have to bend around the sides of my rib cage, so I eventually switched to the flexible Flex-Lite wires, which ended up fitting my bridge fine, too.

Flex-Lite wires are thin gauge spring steel wires with a plastic coating. I was really confused about them, since I couldn’t find adequate descriptions of them online. The description on the BravoBella site implies that they are not steel wires – they are steel, they just have a plastic coating so the edges aren’t so sharp. They will flex to bend around your body, since your rib cage probably isn’t a perfectly flat plane. They are easier to bend than other underwires, but still provide decent support. You just have to treat them gently so they don’t accidentally get bent in the wash or something.

Flex-Lite wires are sold on BravoBella and Sew Sassy, but the two sites label the same size wires with different numbers. Add 6 to the Sew Sassy Flex-Lite sizes to get the BravoBella size. For example, a BravoBella size 54 is the same wire as a Sew Sassy size 48. BravoBella also sells some smaller sizes that Sew Sassy doesn’t carry. I would trust the Sew Sassy sizes more, but go by the wire measurements when choosing a wire, not the bra size listed (and buy a wide range of sizes to try). The sizes listed on the BravoBella site assume you will bend the wires wider or narrower to fit. I don’t think that’s a good idea, and it didn’t work for me. There’s no way I could get two wires to end up the same shape, and I bent them back and forth so many times trying to get the right shape that I was worried the wires were ruined. I never did get the shape quite right, either. I needed the wire to curve more near the ends, but the wire wouldn’t bend there. Instead of bending the wires to shape, I’d suggest selecting the size with the right diameter, then shortening the wires as needed like you would any other wire.

Here’s how I finally found the right size wire. It wasn’t until bra #10 that I figured this out. I put Flex-Lite wires into my current bra muslin, bent the wires until they felt right when I was wearing it, then held up different sizes of wires to the bra until I found the curve that matched the bent wires. I was surprised at how large of wires I needed to avoid having wires dig into my breast tissue on the sides. I used different size underwires on my left and right sides, and I had to shorten both ends of the wires quite a bit. Short, wide wires don’t provide as good of support, so I made a full coverage bra and kept the wires as long as I could at the center and underarm.

To make the bra pattern, I put larger wires into the bra I still had from getting fitted years ago. It has stretchy seamless, non-padded cups, so it worked well to give me a fairly natural shape to work with. The band was too large, so I sewed tucks in it until it fit right. I also sewed a tuck in the bridge to make it narrower. While wearing the bra, I covered the cups with a combination of Glad Press’n Seal and tape. The Press’n Seal conforms to curves well, but additional tape, especially where there will be seams, keeps the pattern from stretching out when it is removed. I drew seam lines on the tape, then peeled it off and cut apart the pieces. I also traced the bridge and band.

Making bra pattern 1 Making bra pattern 2

When converting curved shapes to flat patterns, I kept ending up with cups that were too small, so I should have just graded up the pattern pieces right away. It’s easy to pinch out extra to make the cups smaller during fitting, but not so easy to make them larger.

Making bra pattern 3

For my first four bras, I tried making a partial band bra. Finally I realized that my wires were too flexible to work in a partial band bra, and I needed to make a full band bra. At least in my size, neither vertical wires nor Flex-Lite wires are rigid enough to make a partial band bra work. I started completely over with a new full band pattern for the fifth bra.

I made the second version (starting with bra #5) with non-stretch woven cotton for the lower cups and the powerbar side panel. The grainline on the side panel is vertical, and the two lower cup pieces are cut on the bias. I have a rounded upper cup, so I used two-way stretch knit fabric for the upper cup with the greatest stretch in the horizontal direction.

I started out with an angled seam between the upper cup and lower cup, but the non-stretch lower and side portion of the cups pushed my boobs to the center and gave me a weird bulge on the lower part of the stretchy upper cup. I switched to a horizontal seam, and the shape was much improved. The upper cup to lower cup seam is just above the apex so the woven fabric covers my nipples for a little more modesty – the knit fabric would outline every contour. I actually put the seam there by accident, but it worked out so well I’m pretending I did it on purpose.

I’m extremely sensitive to pressure and I don’t have much fat over my ribs, so I started out with thickly padded underwire channeling. It kept me from feeling wires cutting into my bones, but then the channeling itself was so thick that it made an uncomfortable ridge. I tried putting the wires into channeling sewn onto the outside of the bra, and that made a huge difference in comfort. I put non-padded channeling (really just folded bias tape) made from muslin on the inside to cover the seam allowance and the trimmed band elastic, then I topstitched padded channeling onto the outside for the wires. It looks a little weird, and it’s more work, but it is SO MUCH more comfortable. I don’t think I could tolerate wearing wires otherwise, but now I barely feel them.

Here’s the first bra that really fit me (bra #12). The wrinkling on the upper cup in the pictures below is not a fit issue. I used nylon tricot for the upper cup lining and stretchier fabric on the outside, so the lining pulled tight before the outside did. I’ll have to remember to make the outer cup a little smaller if I use that combination again. Right now I don’t care about the wrinkles, because THE BRA FITS. I can’t believe I can say that now.

Here’s the last bra I made (bra #13). Now I have two wearable bras. The lower cups on this bra are made from a remnant I had left over from the first dress I sewed as a teenager. There’s definitely a late 1980s look to that print. I think I’m going to have to make some bras with larger cups to account for monthly size fluctuations. The one below is pretty snug at the moment, but I can still wear it.

Here are some other random things I learned:

  • The only thing I learned from my second bra is that nylon tricot shrinks! A lot! I couldn’t even assess the fit of the bra, because I washed it to get glue out before wearing it and it shrunk at least a cup size. I drew a square on a piece of tricot, washed it on warm and dried it on low heat, then checked the size of the square. It took two wash and dry cycles to finish shrinking, and it shrunk 7% in each direction. Even the polyester fabric I was using to line the tricot shrunk 2%, so I’m going to pre-wash all of my fabric from now on, regardless of fiber content. Anything that shrinks a lot I will pre-wash twice. Even a tiny bit of shrinkage affects the fit of a bra. Lesson learned the hard way.
  • Nylon tricot stretches out significantly when wet. I used it for the upper cup on my final versions, but I wouldn’t want to rely on it for support on the lower cup. Imagine a miserable hot summer day, you start to perspire, and then your boobs sag.
  • Elmer’s washable school glue works well to stabilize nylon tricot and stop it from curling when cut. I mixed a teaspoon of glue in a cup of water, then sprayed it on the fabric. I dried it with a hair dryer, then ironed it. It’s much cheaper than the spray stabilizer you can buy, and works great.
  • I made non-stretch bra straps, but didn’t interface them. They stretched out. Duh.
  • Non-stretch bra straps with a section of adjustable elastic at the back provide good support, reduce bounce, and hold the bra in place while still allowing you to raise your shoulders. I make my straps adjustable, since I notice even a tiny difference in tension, and I like them to feel just right.
  • My sewing machine tries to eat my fabric when I start a seam on knit fabrics or lightweight wovens. To keep my fabric from getting chewed up, I start sewing on a scrap of paper, then place the fabric over the paper so there is paper under the first half-inch or so of the seam. The paper tears right off. It only works with straight stitched seams though, unless you want to spend an hour using tweezers to pick bits and pieces of paper out of a zig-zagged seam (AMHIK).
  • I tried stretching unmeasured plush elastic by eye as I sew like some people recommend, but after practicing on 10 bras in a row, I still had different lengths of elastic on the left and right. Now I pre-measure the underarm and neckline elastic, making it 90% of the length of the fabric edge (measured off the pattern). The band elastic length I determined by trial and error – it ended up just slightly shorter than the back band fabric.
  • Full band bras, even those with a narrow band, are much more comfortable and stable than partial band (frameless) bras. With partial band bras, the channeling tends to twist around, and if you don’t have really sturdy underwires, the wires bend outward too much. I’m not sure how to describe the difference, but as soon as I switched to a full band bra, the bra just felt like it was staying firmly in place instead of shifting around and the pressure from the wires was distributed better.
  • Firm powernet band fabric keeps the band elastic from digging into you as much. I found that a stretchier band initially felt more comfortable, but then after wearing the bra for a bit I noticed the elastic digging in.
  • I started out using what I thought was 1/2″ elastic on the lower band. It stretched out and stayed stretched out. I finally measured it and discovered it was actually 3/8″ elastic with 1/8″ scallops. It works fine for the upper band and cup edges, fortunately, so I don’t have to waste that pretty elastic.

    Next I went completely the other direction and tried some 1″ plush band elastic from my stash (purchased a while ago from Sew Sassy), and it was too firm (it went from too loose on one bra hook to rib-cracking tight on the next – my rib muscles are still sore from wearing that bra for a day or two). The 1″ elastic still stretched out a bit after an hour or two of wear.

    Then I bought good quality 3/4″ elastic from ArteCrafts on Etsy. It worked well, and it was so much softer and more comfortable than the low quality stuff that pills up and gets scratchy after you wash it. It is fairly firm, so I have to get the length exactly right, but it gives good support. Even a 1/4″ difference in length takes the band from too tight to just right on my short band. I think I’ll stick to ordering my band elastic from ArteCrafts. It’s hard to judge the quality of elastic from a picture, and quality varies so much from seller to seller. Low quality elastic really doesn’t work for the band. You can get away with cheap elastic on the upper edges, but not the band.

    I’m still not used to wearing a firm bra band, but I’m hoping my rib muscles will strengthen and I’ll adjust. Narrower elastic is stretchier, but I’m afraid narrow elastic will cut into me more and also have poor recovery. If I can’t get used to the 3/4″ elastic, I might try two parallel rows of 1/2″ elastic, or 1/2″ elastic on the bottom with 3/8″ elastic above it.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to for the last couple of months. I’m definitely ready to sew some other things now!

Posted in Bra-making, Patternmaking, Sewing
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