Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Mei-Ling Huang needs new drapes for the sliding doors to the deck of her Centreville home. Instead of buying them, however, she is using her sewing machine to make her own from yellow and green fabric.

A few years ago, she had a room in her basement remodeled as a sewing room. She has two machines, one of which can be linked to a computer.

“I would never get rid of my older machine,” Ms. Huang says. “I love it. It still sews beautifully. It’s 10 years old, but it does beautiful, beautiful sewing. If I have one machine in the shop, then I would have one still at home.”

Sewing machines have come a long way from the days of antique treadle devices. Today, with computer chip technology, many machines can practically sew all by themselves.

“I think there has been a recent resurgence in sewing machine use because of programs such as ‘Project Runway,’ and the DIY Network,” says Kathy Chengery, district manager for the mid-Atlantic region for Bernina of America, a sewing machine manufacturer.

Ms. Huang is the Bernina department manager at G Street Fabrics in Centreville.

“The media has given the sewing industry more exposure,” Ms. Chengery says. “People have a thirst for knowledge. They want to learn how to do some of the applications that they see on TV.”

Every week, a sewing pattern is posted on Craftzine.com, says Natalie Zee Drieu, associate editor of Craft magazine, based in Sebastopol, Calif. The patterns also can be uploaded to an IPod and printed out. The downloadable patterns allow anyone to customize their look, she says.

“The Internet and technology are bringing instant gratification,” Ms. Drieu says. “If I want to start sewing something right now, I can get the pattern right away on the Internet. I don’t have to go to the sewing store. If I have fabric already, I can go find a pattern specifically for the fabric.”

Technology has provided user-friendly sewing machines that allow for unlimited creativity, Ms. Chengery says. The machines’ capabilities range from basic sewing skills to advanced embroidery software applications used via a personal computer. Depending on the machine, the price can vary from $300 to $8,000.

Basic machines can be used for garment sewing, quilting, crafts, home decoration projects, straight stitches, decorative stitches and buttonholes. Additional accessories often come with the machines for more creative applications, such as advanced quilting techniques and garment sewing, particularly finishes for seams, hems and trims.

“You can sew on paper with decorative stitches and embroidery, or enhance crafting in various areas,” Ms. Chengery says. “Some people do their own custom stationery. They sew on silk, cotton, wool and leather.”

More advanced sewing machines have multidirectional stitching, advanced embroidery and software applications that can be used to customize embroidery designs, such as monogramming, she says.

Depending on the model, editing can be done from computer software, or possibly on the screen of a sewing machine. A motif can be imported into the computer through a CD or a memory stick or it can be downloaded from a Web site.

Even without a direct connection to a computer, designs can be imported directly into many sewing machines from a memory stick, and the machine can be programmed to sew the designs, says Nancy Jewell, publicity director of Husqvarna Viking, a sewing machine manufacturer based in Cleveland. Its sister companies, Pfaff and Singer, also sell sewing machines.

Many sewing machines come with large color touch screens and built-in instruction books.

“These are not your grandmother’s sewing machines at all,” Ms. Jewell says. “The sewing machine waits for you. If it runs out of thread, it stops. If the thread breaks, it stops. If it’s time to change color, it stops. You can program it, go for a jog around the block, and come back.”

Despite the level of technology, sewers should always “test drive” a machine before purchasing it, Ms. Jewell says.

“Test the straight stitch for superior stitch quality, a buttonhole for ease and quality, decorative stitches for fun and, of course, sew on various weights of fabric,” Ms. Jewell says. “Bring some fabric from home, perhaps from a project you are working on, to see how the machine handles. Try out the machine’s functionality from threading to winding a bobbin.”

Seemingly more insignificant technological advances also have made sewing easier. A machine that stops in the “needle up” position, for example, saves two minutes for every 10 minutes of sewing time, says Pam Smith, director of the sewing machine department at G Street Fabrics in Centreville.

“Now when you let your foot off the foot petal, it stops in the up position and not in the fabric,” Mrs. Smith says. “You don’t have to crank the hand wheel.”

At home, Mrs. Smith has a Bernina model 801 that she bought in 1978. She also purchased a Bernina 1260 in 1996. Her daughter, Amy Oliver, uses the older model.

It’s always good to have an extra sewing machine, Mrs. Smith says.

“Sewing enthusiasts go through withdrawal when they take their machine in for service,” Mrs. Smith says. “It’s like when you take your car in to the shop. When people are upset if their machine is in the shop for more than a week, I tell them to get Godiva chocolate. It usually helps with the withdrawal.”

In the past, women needed to sew to make clothes for themselves and their families, Mrs. Smith says.

“Most women today don’t sew because they have to sew,” Mrs. Smith says. “Women use sewing as a creative outlet. Some people call it therapy. It’s another hobby that allows you to express your creativity.”

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