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Pedal power

20 July 2015, 14:12

My main sewing machine is a JoAnn Sonata, and it has a bit of a history. It’s technically a vintage machine, I think, having been made in the early 1980s and then promptly forgotten by the entire world. Every now and then I get an email from someone who bought one at a yard sale, thanking me profusely for scanning and uploading the user manual, but for years the only Google hits for it were ones I’d written myself.

My machine, photographed in 2006

To complicate matters even further, my machine began life as my sister-in-law’s grandmother’s machine, which was gifted to me well over a decade ago when my mom brought it over as checked luggage on a flight from the States. So on top of being some random, vintage brand no one’s ever heard of, it’s also the wrong voltage (I run it through a voltage converter).

Considering the sheer volume of use it sees, the machine does so well, and I have no intention of ever replacing it so long as I can keep repairing it. I mean, I clean it fairly regularly, but I hardly ever oil it, and it only went in for its first ever service (during my tenure, anyway) last winter when the foot pedal stopped responding. My man at Maury Sewing was able to repair the foot pedal then, but advised that if it failed again, I should buy a replacement pedal from the States and just swap out the plug end (he looked into replacing the motor with a 220v one but couldn’t find one to fit the body on short notice).

The repairs lasted a good six months, but again recently, I found myself having to pump the pedal to get it to respond, and even then, it’d only go at maximum speed which isn’t exactly ideal. So I hunted on US eBay and found a really similar-looking vintage, metal food pedal in 110v wiring, with the thought of recruiting James to rewire the old plug end onto the new-to-me pedal.

The eBay replacement (top) and my original (bottom)

But our friend Alex happened to be visiting after it arrived, and said he’d be happy to have a look. He grabbed a screwdriver and opened them up and to our amazement, the pedals were actually identical inside!


The Sonata is Saved

19 January 2015, 12:32

My main sewing machine is a Joann Sonata, metal-body sewing machine, produced in 1984 and running on a voltage converter since my mom brought it over in her suitcase 12 years ago. It was a gift from my sister-in-law, having been in her family for the past 30 years, and it has been sewing like a dream through pretty much everything you’ve seen on this site since I started writing it in 2005.

The Sonata in 2006(?), pre-boatlife

In all that time, I’ve never taken it to be serviced, and – I’ll admit – I’m not the most regular oil-er, either. But everything was fine until a few months ago, when the foot pedal started to feel decidedly jerky. I’d have to press down quite far before the machine would respond, and then it’d be off at positively industrial speed.

This I could live with.

But then it started to continue sewing even after I’d left my foot off the pedal, sewing off happily into the beyond at lightspeed, leaving me to scream and kill the power switch. Obviously this could not really continue, so I begrudgingly rang up the Maury sewing machine repair shop I’d used a few years ago when my overlocker looper got bent out of shape. The shop isn’t that far away, but since the machine is heavy, I’d been dreading taking it up there, as I’d need James to drive me out on a Saturday.

I’m going to reiterate again that my machine is some random-ass brand no-one’s ever heard of, running on a foreign voltage. But he listened to the issue, and without even needing to open up the case to look at it, told me several ways he could fix it (he’d usually just graft on a new pedal, but with mine being 110v that’d be a long eBay wait). Plus I wanted a few other tweaks and a good oiling, and he said he’d give me a ring when he knew more. I should digress at this point to say that I also brought my overlocker along because I’d bought a replacement upper blade but didn’t have the special Bernina wrench required to take the &%^#% old one off. He swapped it over as I stood there (no charge!), then as we were leaving, ran out into the rain to tell me exactly which wrench to buy if I’d like to change it myself in future. What a dude!


How to change the presser foot on a JL Mini sewing machine

17 July 2014, 12:45

I do not work for John Lewis. Yet somehow, I know more about their sewing machines than the people who do, and I know this because I get a constant stream of emails and comments from people who find my review of the JL Mini basic sewing machine on Google and ask me questions about it.

By far, the Number 1 question is “How do I change the presser foot?” Apparently many John Lewis employees have told people that the feet cannot be changed. This is not true.

To change the presser foot, grab a Philips head screwdriver (the kind that looks like a +). Unscrew the screw to the left and above the presser foot (see photos below).

When the screw is completely loosened, you can remove the screw and the foot. You can now place any generic “low shank” foot on the machine (using that screw you just removed!), including a zipper foot, walking foot, rolled hem foot, you name it.


Temporary sewing

1 May 2012, 14:35

While our boat is in drydock for maintenance, we’re temporarily living on a very kind neighbour’s boat. Packing for a month (though possibly 2 weeks) was a challenge in itself, as you want to to give yourself choices (in clothing, entertainment, comforts, and cooking), but yet you’ve still got to physically move everything, so you don’t want to overpack, either.

I brought the bare minimum of sewing supplies, which for me means my JL Mini sewing machine, which is great for travel and beginners alike (speaking of, I have a friend who’s selling her identical red JL Mini as she’s upgraded to a fuller-featured machine. If anyone’s interested in buying it from her for £30, please leave a comment and I’ll put you in touch!).

I also brought a few patterns and the fabrics to go with them, and I set up a temporary sewing station in the bedroom we’re staying in:

I thought it was quite amusing that the only place in the boat that was suitable for sitting and sewing was a pretty dressing table, and my boudoir sewing station inspired me to start one of my transported projects last weekend – another Ruby Slip!

My first Ruby Slip was seafoam green with brick red lace and I loved it so much that I knew I’d be making another. If you missed the discussion then, Sherry offered a free pdf pattern and fantastic photo tutorials, which I highly recommend, even for beginners, as it’s beautiful and quite easy to sew (especially if you choose a thin cotton lawn).

To match my sewing station, I set up a pressing station in the kitchen, with a travel iron and mini ironing board which live on the boat.


Coverstitch binder attachment tips & tricks

18 April 2012, 13:35

Way back when I was making my first muslins of my new running gear, I realised that the methods I’d previously used to finish knit necklines (elastic, FOE, serged bindings, etc) were just NOT going to cut it on slippery exercise lycra. The results were awful and sloppy, so I allowed myself to be convinced by Pattern Review that a coverstitch binder was the way forward.

At £80 a pop, they’re not a purchase to be taken lightly, and they’re probably about the most expensive thing you can buy for your sewing room, short of a machine or a dressform! But I wanted to ensure the most hassle-free experience, so I went for a brand-name Janome attachment rather than one of the cheaper, much more hacky eBay jobs. I bought mine from Jaycotts and Janome shipped it directly to me:

Unlike a lot of the eBay binders, this comes with everything you need to get started – the big metal plate, the shorter foot, and a big set of instructions on top of the binder attachment itself. So it’s expensive, but you don’t need to then go and buy all the non-optional bits separately – but I can understand the allure of just buying the binder for your second or third if you’ve already got the plate, foot, and instructions!


Revisiting my John Lewis JL Mini sewing machine - a review for beginners

7 December 2011, 13:52

I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of talk online about sewing machines for beginners (especially with Christmas coming up!), and I’ve been asked several times online and in person about my opinion on the John Lewis JL Mini sewing machine and I realised I’ve never done a proper review of it.

I’ve had my JL Mini machine (in red – they change the colours a few times a year, but right now it’s offered in white, red, yellow, pink, blue, and purple) for nearly three years now and I’ve recommended it a lot for beginning sewers. On our moorings so far we’ve got my red one, a purple one, and a mint green one! I use mine as my travel machine (I originally got it when I was going into hospital so I could sew through my transplant!), but it’s a good, sturdy machine made by a good brand (Janome), and it has enough features that you should know in a year or two whether you’re into sewing or not and you can upgrade to a machine with more features. Or if you decide sewing’s not for you, you’re not out much money.


A beginner skirt sewing lesson

23 March 2011, 12:50

Sunday afternoon was Lesson Two for my beginning sewing ladies, following along from the first lesson a few weeks ago when they learned how to operate a sewing machine and make a shopping bag.

At the end of the last lesson, Holly, Ness, and Veda were all begging to learn how to make a skirt, so how could I refuse? I decided they should follow in my footsteps and learn with New Look 6843, which was one of the VERY first patterns I ever made (then remade over and over again with a few variations!).

They picked out their own fabric and zippers, with Ness choosing a navy corduroy (so we got to talk about nap!), Holly choosing a beautiful navy wool suiting fabric, and Veda going for a bright and cheerful Liberty print.

Here’s Veda sewing on her own purple JL Mini machine (like my red one!)

We talked through measurements, pattern layouts, what the symbols on patterns mean, and also how you don’t have to follow the directions if you don’t want to (since I thought New Look’s order of construction made it awkward to check the fit of darts, and their zipper insertion made things more difficult than they had to be!).


The loaner

15 November 2010, 12:01

Dateline – last week…

Wednesday: The new December KnipMode magazine arrived. OMG!! Best issue in a long time, holy crap! (It’s scanned and a preview is coming up very soon!)

Thursday: I traced out dress #11, where the centre front portion of the skirt comes up and around to form the collar, joining back on itself. The pattern pieces were massive and several needed joining together and extending, so it took me much longer than usual.

Friday: Pip convinced me that this absolutely must be in a solid, and since my longest solid knit was only 2m, I either had to run into the West End on Saturday (ugh), wait a week for an internet fabric order, or hope against hope that the lady at Bhopal Textiles on Brick Lane (just about the only non-wholesaler there) had any suitable jerseys, and was actually still open when I walked past.

And score! She was in the midst of closing up (she said she normally closes around 6 or 6:15, which explains why sometimes she’s open and sometimes she’s shut when I walk home) and had a fantastic navy blue cotton-lycra jersey for £3.50/m. So the 3m length cost me £10.50. At first I felt guilty for buying new fabric when I have such an overflowing stash from NYC, but then it occurred to me that I’m sure James spent more than that at the pub on the same night…

So I came home and laid out the fabric and cut out all the pieces, needing almost the entire 3m, even with Knip’s single layer layout! I went to bed with all my pieces ready to go on Saturday…


Quick and summery dotted top

1 November 2010, 13:51

Did you guess which knit top was my first off the starting block? Well, it’s not an obvious choice, but I already had KnipMode July 2010 #4 (upper left corner, in purple) traced out so it was easy to just grab it and go.

The dotty cotton/lycra knit fabric was an add-on from Chawla’s to get the minimum order value while I was buying the flannel underlining for my wedding gown. I bought one metre of it for £3.85 so this was a ridiculously cheap blouse, even for high street standards!

There’s a slight change from the tech drawing though – there’s a CF (centre front) seam on the band that’s not noted. It means the band and facing are cut on the fold so there’s no understitching, but the trade-off is that you get that seam.


Something old...

24 September 2010, 15:46

Check back on Sunday around noon (London time) for wedding dress photos!

Around the end of August, I got an MMS (photo text message) from my bridesmaid Pip’s boyfriend Rob of a brown case next to an assorted pile of clothes with the message “Saw this and thought you might be interested.”

I replied with “Ooh what’s inside? Have you got a model no or year? And does it work, or Need Love?”

To which he said “No idea at the moment. It’s in the window of a charity shop, I’ll check it out on Tuesday.”

And I said “Ah I can’t really justify a 3rd machine! But if it’s a vintage Singer I’m interested (I’ll pass on any others, so don’t spend too much energy on it!)”

And since I never heard anything further about it, I completely forgot about our conversation (conveniently still saved in my phone though!) until they presented it to me as a wedding gift!

It weighs a TON, but it’s got a great hard case:

…which opens with an altered Citroen car key! ha!

Front, left, and back views:


Patrones spring coat - hood and more...

19 May 2009, 09:59

On Saturday I went shopping for supplies with Johanna Lu while she was holidaying in town, yay! We hit up Goldhawk Road and MacColluch & Wallis so I was able to get the rest of the supplies I needed for the spring coat, as well as stock up on a few things I knew would be difficult to get online for the rest of the year, like quality interfacings (I knows it when I feels it, okay?). She had the forethought to bring a camera along shopping, so you’ll have to stalk her blog for the next few days to see us giddy in fabric mecca!

I was very disciplined on Goldhawk Road and only bought three fabrics (at the end of the list there) – grey corduroy, since I adore the cords at one particular shop there and I don’t think I’ll be able to go back before Fall, a red & white cotton poplin with stylised flowers that’s already earmarked for two projects, and my one impulse buy – a very cool lycra jersey with tons of overlapping stripes going every which way. Oh, and the lining for my Spring coat.

Speaking of that Patrones spring coat:


Pink flowered day dress

24 April 2009, 09:19

Thinking ahead towards summertime, I really like to wear casual day dresses around the moorings at weekends (and this year, during the week, too, I suppose). A few years ago my friend Jess bought me a really simple 70s day dress at a vintage shop, and I’ve worn that so much I realised I’d like a few more to fulfil the same function.

So for this day dress, I blended two similar dresses from the Feb 09 issue of KnipMode together into one! I took the top half of #15 (on the left) and the bottom of #18 (on the right) and joined them together at the waist seam to make a really comfortable, casual dress for lounging around the moorings.

The fabric is a really super soft cotton-lycra jersey from Totally Fabrics, but which has now, understandably, sold out (I looked a few days ago to see if I could buy more – it’s that good!). The neck and arm bands are just a bit of black lycra to give a bit of contrast to such a busy print.


Red JL Mini sewing machine bag

2 April 2009, 11:20

I’m so enamoured with my new tiny red sewing machine that I decided to use my time at the moorings crafty night on Monday to sew up a travelling case for it so I didn’t have to lug the box and styrofoam everywhere. There’s something almost perverse in using a sewing machine to create its own case, though. It just feels a bit cannibalistic somehow…

Anyway, I drew up some plans based on its measurements, and did a few calculations:

And then when I got to my neighbour’s boat I plugged it in, chopped up some spare red corduroy, and had a nice carrying case for it by the end of the evening (in amongst the traditional crisp and cake eating, of course).


Birthday sewing surprises

27 March 2009, 14:20

You may remember that last Fall I helped a friend test a bunch of budget sewing machines for a major newspaper, and one of the machines was a tiny, red John Lewis Mini sewing machine. John Lewis is a chain of high quality department stores in the UK (and the only one which still maintains a haberdashery and fabric department) and this is one of their own branded machines, though it’s actually a Janome under the hood. If you had any doubts – when you order these off the John Lewis website, it comes shipped directly from Janome UK!

Anyway I didn’t have much need for a tiny, portable machine back in October, but happily James’s parents thought I might like to do a bit of sewing in hospital and gave me this for my birthday!

As I knew before, it’s definitely got its limitations, but as a second, portable machine, it should do nicely for me. It is really tiny, and very lightweight – the instruction manual for it is printed on bigger paper than the machine itself, and even I can lift it with one arm! It doesn’t have any accessories, or a light, for that matter, but it sews well, and through denim, too, being a sturdy mechanical Janome.


Sewing Gift Guide

9 December 2008, 12:17

Christmas is coming up, and so I thought I’d offer a helping hand to all the friends, relatives, and significant others of the sewing obsessed looking for sewing gifts this holiday season. I’ve tried to roughly break this down into “beginners” and “everyone else”, but it helps if you can snoop around their sewing area first to have an idea of what they’ve already got before buying something off this list.

And if you’re reading this and are feeling truly overwhelmed, then:

  1. Print this page.

  2. Google for your nearest sewing or fabric store

  3. Give this page to a store clerk with a smile a “Can you help me please?” and let them show you what some of this stuff is…

For beginners

If you know someone who’s very new to sewing or is getting their first machine this Christmas, it’s a great idea to create a little bundle of all the necessary tools for someone just starting out. You can often find these pre-packaged at sewing shops, or to create your own for a new sewer, I’d recommend placing the following in a zippered pouch, box, or (if you yourself are a sewer) a sewn case:


Addicted to sewing

24 November 2008, 12:02

This weekend James and I took a trip out to Oxford to celebrate our friend Dori’s birthday. While we were there, she showed me her newest pride a joy, a “Jones” vintage sewing machine that she’d just bought from a charity shop for £4!

It’s a real beauty, with a sturdy wooden case with folding arm and attached wooden base, nice solid steel construction, and a compartment full of random accessories. She was a bit disappointed to learn that it only does straight stitches (no zigzag), but I assured her that straight stitch machines usually do that one thing really, really well and that she still got a bargain.

Included with the machine was a variety of machine feet which I was able to identify, but the true mystery was this tool, which to my eyes really looks like its purpose must be to inject thread straight into a vein!!


The Best Budget Sewing Machines

30 October 2008, 11:43

Are you a beginner looking to get your first sewing machine as a Christmas gift or do you know someone who’s in need of a budget starter sewing machine?

A month or so ago you may recall that I helped a friend test a bunch of sewing machines for an article in The Sunday Mirror newspaper, and now that it’s been published I can reveal our results!


Pucci playtime cowl neck top

30 June 2008, 12:56
This weekend I finally got a chance to properly play with my new toy and whip up a few knit tops to see what this baby could do!

First up was BurdaStyle's Sadie top (with the added cowl neck) using some lovely Pucci-esque printed knit which you may remember from last Spring's tunic top. I was really just keen to use up the stash fabric on something very quick and easy, and also in case something went horribly wrong on my first serger attempt and the whole thing became a wadder!

Luckily no such thing happened and I got a decent summer top after an hour or two...


Shopping Time

24 June 2008, 16:11

First of all thank you to each and every one for you for all the congratulations on our engagement! I should be getting the measurements and detail photographs for my Granny’s 1949 wedding dress in a month or so and I’ll share them then…

Meanwhile, I actually made a big purchase earlier last week, before I got the ring!

Yes, it’s a Bernina 800DL serger/overlocker! I have been lusting over this exact model for well over 9 months now, waiting for a still-delayed bonus, when I saw one come up on eBay for £100 cheaper than the cheapest retail price here in the UK. It was being sold by a lovely sewer who was selling her overlocker and coverstitch machines since she upgraded to a combine machine, and she kept ALL the original packaging and accessories – even the Bernina-branded needles!!


Not Much to Show For It

14 April 2008, 15:14

I spent all Friday evening and Saturday afternoon and evening sewing up a storm, making myself mentally exhausted in the process. Unfortunately I can’t actually say what I was so busy working on, but I should be able to by the end of the month. I know that’s a tease, and I’m sorry!

Anyway, if you recall, I was going through all my sewing machine feet earlier and I asked if anyone could help me identify some of them. Big thanks to Debbie for identifying the straight stitch foot, and also to Lis and Noile for telling me that the mystery notion in the upper right is a seam gauge:


No small feet

4 April 2008, 12:08

I was planning on next sewing up a long-sleeved linen shirt for James using BurdaStyle’s Jakob pattern, but having read through Shirtmaking: Developing Skills for Fine Sewing by David Page Coffin, I soon realised that all my previously sewn shirts were terribly amateur and that I’d learned SO MUCH in just reading the first ten pages that I’d now longer be able to go back to my own ignorant ways after eating from the tree of knowledge.

One of the things Coffin said is absolutely necessary is a felling foot for your sewing machine, which I don’t have. These seem to be a rare item for non-Pfaff machines in the UK, so I’ve had to buy one off American eBay (along with a rolled hem foot from the same seller, which Coffin also recommends).

Before I bought the feet, I had a quick rifle through my sewing machine feet box first to see if I already had them and just didn’t know what they were. When I got my sewing machine from my sister-in-law, she threw in a little plastic box full of feet and spare bobbin casings and screwdrivers and all sort of random pieces that she thought went with the machine. Some I’ve been able to identify, but others are still a mystery, so I’m hoping some of you will be able to help me out…

The A Team – the feet I use all the time! From left to right: the standard foot, the adjustable zipper foot, and the walking foot