Most of us started in this business with the home sewing machine on which we made our family clothes. There is nothing wrong with using a good home sewing machine to make draperies. However, if you are serious about making good money with your business and producing top quality work, then wisdom dictates a move on to industrial grade sewing machines.
Industrial vs. Home Machines
The most obvious advantage of industrial sewing machines is speed. Once you have experienced an industrial machine, you will never want to return to the home machine. Here are more advantages:
The industrial machine will sew over much heavier fabrics and through more layers. This ability is necessary for many window treatments, from pinch pleats to swags and jabots to pillows.
The tables for industrial equipment are built for efficiency. By having the machine recessed into the tabletop (the blindstitch machine is the exception), the fabric flows easily from the table through the machine. You don't have to hold the fabric up to feed it through as you must with portable home machines.
The work surface of the industrial table generally is larger than a home machine table to hold all the yards of fabric involved in window treatments. Another feature of the industrial table is that it can be adjusted up and down to your comfort level. This is so important to help reduce fatigue.
Industrial machines give you an extra hand and increased efficiency in the form of a knee pedal that raises and lowers the presser foot. This pedal not only saves time in manipulating the presser foot, it allows you to keep your hands on your fabric when dealing with intricate designs.
Some older machines do not have a backtack feature. This is remedied by releasing the presser foot just a little with the knee pedal as you manually move the fabric back and forth under the presser foot to do a backtack. With practice, doing this actually is much faster than using the reverse feature.
Industrial machine motors are larger and are built to run continuously all day long. Even though most small workrooms don't use their machines that much, home sewing machines are not made for daily long, hard sewing on heavy fabrics.
Many industrial machines are self-oiling. This feature not only saves you time, but keeps the machine in good working order.
Industrial machines give a far more professional appearance. In the first place, the stitching is much more professional. Besides that, the customer automatically has a greater respect for the professionalism of a business when industrial machines are present. They perceive that you are serious about your business because you have made that investment.
Industrial and specialized equipment may help keep employees from leaving and starting their own businesses. Many would assume they would have to invest in such equipment to be successful and profitable, and they may not have the money to do that.
There are a couple of disadvantages to industrials over home machines. Unless you are knowledgeable about how a sewing machine works, you probably will have to find a mechanic to work on your machines. (Sewing factory mechanics usually moonlight). Also, the industrials are made to do one thing and one thing only. The home machine is usually a very versatile machine that does many functions. For that reason it might still be an asset to the workroom, but not a major workhorse.
There are three basic industrial sewing machines every workroom should have to start with: straight stitch, serger and blindstitch.
Industrial Straight Stitch or Lockstitch
Very high speed is the most outstanding feature of the industrial straight stitch machines. Depending upon the model, they can sew 3,500 to 5,500 spm (stitches per minute). The speed is controlled with the foot pedal. Experience allows the operator to adjust the speed with foot movements from almost slow motion stitching to so fast the needle is hot to the touch.
It is possible for the machine to be adjusted so it isn't quite so fast. One instance in which this might be desirable is if the machine was used only for sewing slipcovers. Because this kind of sewing is very intricate and requires mostly very short stretches of stitching, a slower machine needing less foot action would be desirable -- and less fatiguing to the body.
Generally, industrial straight stitch machines are self-oiling and literally sit on an oil pan. There is a wick that goes from the machine head into the oil to soak it up and transport it to the parts that need it. For the small workroom, it could be many months before adding oil is necessary. In the average small workroom setting, machines that need oiling should receive it at least once per week.
The home machine used in a workroom probably needs oiling more often. However, assuming you oiled the home machine once a week and it takes five minutes. In three months, one whole hour of time could be saved with a self-oiling machine!
One of the nicest and more enjoyable features of this straight stitch machine is the number of special "feet" available to make this machine more versatile. There are cord feet, zipper feet, gathering and ruffling feet, hemming feet and many more. Many come in a range of sizes and custom feet can be made as well.
Other options may be desirable for the basic straight stitch machine. A reverse control is probably the most popular feature, but a thread trimmer and needle positioner may also add efficiency to the machine.
Computerized machines are also available. Depending upon the model, they can be programmed to backtack automatically before starting and backtack and trim the thread when you are finished. When the thread is cut, the loose end is automatically sewn into the stitching so there are no tails.
On top of that, in just seconds, the machine can be programmed to sew only the number of stitches needed, e.g. four-inch stitches for pinch pleats. And with a turn of a button, the speed can be adjusted from slow motion to super fast. Of course these machines require a bigger investment, but the amount of time they save is much, much greater than non-computerized models.
The blindstitch machine also is called a hemmer, and it is one industrial machine that does have to be oiled. The unique characteristic of the industrial blindstitch machine is that it uses a curved needle. Many home machines have a blindstitch built into them, but they use a straight needle. There is a tremendous difference in the results from these two types of machines.
With the home machine, the hem must be folded back onto itself as it is fed through the machine. The needle stitches straight on the hem allowance and periodically takes a stitch into the body of the fabric. It is almost impossible to adjust the stitch width so the stitch won't be visible on the right side. It also is very slow and tedious. When the hem is finished and turned back, you have a crease in the hem that usually is impossible to remove depending upon the fabric.
With the industrial blindstitch, which is so much faster than the home machine (250 spm), you fold the hem as normal and run it through the machine wrong side up. By turning a dial, the curved needle can be adjusted to take a very minimal "bite" or stitch from the body fabric before going through the hem. The stitch is virtually invisible.
Another feature of the blindstitch is that it has no bobbin (saves time from winding bobbins!). Using only one thread, it does a chain stitch, which enables you to remove the hem instantly if need be. (Don't tell me you have never had to pick it out and do it over!)
Blindstitch machines sit up off the table, and because of this they have a workplate on the front on which to lay the fabric to feed it through to the needle. Machines with small workplates generally are used for making clothes, and the plate will swing out of the way for easier access to the needle. Larger workplates, which don't swing out, are better for making window coverings because so much fabric is fed through the machine. If purchasing a used machine that has a small plate, ask if the plate can be replaced with a larger plate. Sometimes it's possible.
A stitch regulator is another adjustment that not all blindstitch machines have. It gives you the option of having the needle pick up fabric with every stitch or every other stitch. Generally the latter is used, but if you are hemming a casement or lace with lots of holes in the fabric, picking up with every stitch is desirable. Blindstitch machines will do a marvelously professional job, but if you have never used one it may take a little practice to get the hang of it.
While the industrial serger does not have the versatility of the home machine, it is much, much faster (6,000 to 9,000 spm). It will sew through very heavy fabrics and lots of thicknesses and is self-oiling. In the small workroom, this machine will go many months without replenishing the oil.
The main purpose of this machine is for seaming. It will sew the seam, and as it cuts off the selvedge it overcasts the seam. If the serger is adjusted properly, it should not pucker the fabric as straight stitch machines do. A serger that sews only a 1/4-inch seam allowance is even more efficient for window covering fabrication. When used to seam around curves, as in shaped valances, this narrow seam eliminates the need to trim, notch or clip curves. However, it would not be easy to serge a sharp inside corner.
When shopping for sergers, the most distinctive difference between them is the number of cones of thread they use: three, four or five. The three-thread serger will only overcast the seam. Certain four-thread machines have a mock safety stitch. On one side of the seam it looks as if there is a separate row of straight stitching beside the overcast stitch. On the other side, it looks like an extra-wide overcast stitch. Since it is not a true lockstitch, it is called mock.
The five-thread serger does sew a true lockstitch separate from the overcast stitch. This seam probably is going to be wider than 1/4 inch. The operator could disengage the lockstitch or the overcast stitch to sew with two threads or three.
In window covering fabrication, this would be of no advantage. Actually the four-thread mock safety stitch machine is the best choice for the drapery workroom. Because window coverings get no real wear and tear after they are hung, it is not necessary to have a real lockstitch. However, the fourth thread beyond the overcast stitch is extra security.
When purchasing a serger, be sure it will be imbedded into the table so that the feed dogs are level with the tabletop. For drapery fabrication, it would a terrible disadvantage to have the machine above the table.
There is one addition that could be made to the serger to make it even more efficient for the drapery workroom. Adding a puller behind the needle will help move all the fabric that must be handled through and away from the machine. The puller makes it much easier, quicker and less fatiguing than continually pushing the fabric out of the way by hand. It also will keep tension on the fabric behind the needle to help eliminate puckering.
When you are ready to shop for an industrial machine, keep the following points in mind:
Shop at a local established company, if possible, in case service is needed. If there are no local dealers, do not be afraid to deal long distance. It's done all the time.
Be sure the company you are dealing with is reputable and offers good customer service! Don't just take their word for it. Try to find some of their past customers on your own (networking at trade shows and on the Internet are good sources). If you can't find your own references, you will have to ask the company for references.
Be sure the price you are quoted is for the head, table and motor.
Find out if sewing machines are a major part of the company's business. If not, it may not be able to handle problems you have later.
Does the salesperson understand your needs as a drapery workroom? Many do not. Then you must know what you need when you go in.
Take fabrics and samples of your work for which you know you will use the machine. Personally sew them on the machine. This is the best way to be sure it will handle the weight of the fabric and the layers.
If you are buying a new machine, look at it carefully. Does it look used? Be sure you are getting what you are paying for.
Be sure you get an instruction book written in English! Most machines are not American-made.
Be careful when dealing with private individuals. If you are buying a second-hand machine, does it look used? If it doesn't, then maybe it wasn't used because there is a problem with it.
Investing in dependable equipment that will save time and increase productivity is always a wise decision. Once the machine is paid for, its efficiency is pure profit. An industrial sewing machine will always work at its top speed if you desire and will always show up for work!
Information for this article was furnished by the following companies:
Juki Union Special, Inc.
201-633-7200 B&G Lieberman
Kitty Stein is a 20-year veteran of the drapery workroom field, having owned and operated her own business for 16 years and having taught classes on window treatment construction. Until 1990, Stein and a partner owned a workroom with nine employees. She since has opened her own smaller workroom, Workroom Concepts, that has just one employee. She also does workroom consulting, seminar speaking and is the author of Order in the Workroom available through Draperies & Window Coverings.