Sew What: Learning to Love Sewing Machines

singer

A reader recently pointed out that this article had gone out of print. So here it is revived from 2014, and I think still worth a read!

I used to squirm when people asked about the stitching on my little sailboat. “Did you make that?” they’d ask, looking at the sails. Yes, there’s a lot of canvas, cloth, leather, and Dacron sewing work on Row Bird, but I wasn’t entirely responsible for it.

“Well,” I’d always say, “if the stitches are straight, my friend Andy sewed it; if they’re crooked, I did.”

My introduction to sewing began few years ago, when Andy, a former professional sailmaker, offered to help with the sails for Row Bird. Each time he came over, we transformed my living room into a sail loft: we’d move the couch, push the coffee table into a corner, and shove back the dining room table, in order to create as much open space as possible.

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Then we’d haul in Andy’s sewing machine. I called it the Beast. It weighed about a hundred pounds and took two of us to set it in its stand.

The first time he prepared to operate it, Andy warned me about the power of the Beast. Narrowing his eyes, like a mean guy boasting about his guard dog’s ferocity, he said, “This thing can sew through a piece of plywood.”

I’m a handy kind of guy, comfortable operating woodworking, computer, and landscaping tools. But sewing machines have never been part of my skill set. My wife owns one, a shiny black and gold Singer from the 1950s that belonged to her grandmother.

“Sure, sure,” she always agreed, whenever I asked for a lesson. But somehow, she never got around to teaching me. After awhile, I began to suspect that she enjoyed possessing the one machine in the house that only she could operate.

So when I approached the Beast that first day, it was with all the apprehension of a neophyte. I watched in awe as Andy effortlessly joined fabric together. When it was my turn to try it out, I started gingerly, afraid of doing something wrong, like sewing my fingers together. But over the ensuing days, as I cut pieces of Dacron and fed sails through the machine alongside Andy, I began to lose my fear.

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After a while, I started to enjoy sewing more than I would have anticipated, even if my lines of stitching were crooked. I liked the mechanical click-clack of the needle, the hum of the motor, and most of all, the challenge of figuring out how to create stuff I need for my boat. Soon, under Andy’s tutelage, I was using the Beast to make sail bags. Seeing how much I liked my new skill, my wife relented and gave me a tutorial on the Singer, which I promptly used to sew a cockpit tent.

One year later, I’m hooked on sewing. The satisfaction of making a piece of equipment exactly the way you want it is unbeatable. And unlike boat building or repair, you can stop anytime, fold up your project, and pick it up again, regardless of the weather. So this winter, don’t just sit there dreaming of sunny days. Head over to Craigslist and pick up a used sewing machine (on any given day you can find a dozen decent models for around $100). Make yourself a tiller cover, sew some bags, or repair gear that’s been languishing in your lockers.

Don’t fear crooked lines, just smile and when folks ask, tell them “I made it myself.”

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