Friday, April 30, 2010

Kevlar is Kool! - Manly Sewing Project #2

Remember that half-finished leather project a few posts back?  It was a magazine ("clip") holster for my trusty Smith and Wesson .40 if you couldn't tell, and I finally finished it!

I wasn't happy with how it was turning out so I couldn't decide whether to toss it out or try and finish it.  One of the biggest problems was that I wasn't happy with the tread I used for stitching.  It was just size 69 bonded nylon upholstery thread and I really needed something bigger and (ideally) stronger.  As luck would have it I found some size 92 Kevlar thread on eBay last week and it arrived yesterday.  Kevlar thread is normally used for sewing fire retardant items, and is way too expensive for everyday sewing.  The usual price for a 1 lb cone of size 92 Kevlar thread is about $120.  I got mine for about $15!!!  I have no idea why such a low price, but it was cheaper than buying plain old nylon upholstery thread, so I got 4 spools of black and 2 of brown.  When it arrived, I realized just how much thread 6 lb is!  I flame tested the thread and sure enough it's Kevlar.  It sews and looks much nicer than the other stuff I was using and works great in the Juki walking foot.  My Necchi can handle the Kevlar thread as well but the bobbin side stitches just aren't as tight as they should be no matter what tension settings I use.  It's not really meant for use in home machines, but I figured it was worth a try.

Anyway, I finished sewing the holster, trimmed it to shape, added the belt loop holes, applied dye and top finish, and here it is:

I'm still not thrilled with the stitches.  I clearly need more practice doing tight turns with the machine, but I'm sure it will be perfectly functional even with wonky stitching.  In case you're wondering, I formed the leather over the magazines using a vacuum press.  I bought one of those vacuum presses they sell for making skateboards (no, I don't make skateboards) a while ago for leather work and possibly veneering.  It has a manual pump for now, but I scored a nearly-new free lab-grade vacuum pump awhile back (new cost is approximately $3000) that I think I'll adapt to use with the vacuum press bag.  Not sure when I'll get around to that, but watch for it in a future post I guess..

Sunday, April 25, 2010

First Manly Sewing Project - Tactical Tie-Down Strap Keeper

Most of us manly men own at least a few tie-down straps.  They're great for strapping down furniture on the roof of your Honda Civic, holding up dilapidated sections of fence in the back yard (you fixed the front yard fence properly, right?), "clamping" broken stuff together while the glue dries, hanging kayaks from the ceiling of the garage, or "securing" your car's trunk lid partly shut while you transport thirty-seven 8' two by fours home to make that crappy shelf you promised you'd build months ago.  Their utility is only limited by your imagination, kinda like zip-ties or duct tape, but for heavier jobs or jobs where you'd like to wallow in laziness a little longer and are looking for the peace of mind that can only come from a product with an 800lb breaking strength printed right there on the tag.

They come in various sizes and invariably end up in a tangled heap in the garage, your trunk or wherever.  Oh sure, you can neatly roll them up and place them lovingly on a shelf next to your wrenches, but the next time you reach for those wrenches if you so much as brush past one of those rolled up tie-downs it'll promptly unroll itself like it was spring loaded.  This in turn will set off the other three next to it and soon all four are making a dive for the spider infested gap behind the shelf and you end up with a blood-pressure-spiking aneurysm-inducing rats nest of multicolored nylon webbing with a few hooks and ratcheting mechanisms hopelessly trapped in the melee.  If you're particular about that sort of thing you'll probably stop what you're doing and dedicate 5 minutes to untangling it all and making everything pretty again.  If you're like me, you'll leave the mess and fix it later when you actually need a tie-down strap.  I suppose that's not what a good steward would do, but if I died that same hour I'd hate to think I spent 5 of my last 60 minutes on earth fussing over some straps I'd never use again.  Super lame...

So rather than risk a lame surprise ending to life, I decided to make a simple pouch for securely holding four rolled-up 1" tie-down straps.  It's made of black ballistic nylon, webbing and velcro and looks like it'd be at home on a tactical vest, so I decided it's a "tactical tie-down strap keeper."  I'm sure the US Infantry has a Light Armored Temporary Fixers Brigade somewhere who'd love this thing.

Best of all, it was my chance to test out the new (old) Necchi BU Mira sewing machine I recently bought.  Once I figured out the right tension settings and zig zag stitch length to use with the size 69 upholstery thread, it worked fairly well and happily plowed through 4 layers of 1050D ballistic nylon with no problem.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Japanese Workhorse and the Vintage Italian

Based on the title, I betcha didn't think this post would be about sewing machines, huh? If you're not disappointed, read on...

A while back I started learning about sewing machines. Why? I don't remember exactly, although I think it's at least in part because I've done leathercraft for years, making small fitted cases for knives, camping gear, etc. and I always stitched by hand, which sucks, so I wanted a machine that would sew heavier leather. Minor problem: a sewing machine for stitching heavy harness leather costs about $2500-4000+. Good news: I don't typically sew leather THAT heavy, so it turns out an industrial walking-foot upholstery machine will do most of what I need. New problem: industrial walking-foot sewing machines cost $1800 new, $900 used. Lucky find: a Craigslist classified ad for an unidentified Japanese-made Juki industrial sewing machine for $200. Although the picture in the ad was pretty crappy, I could tell from the paint scheme that the machine was not ridiculously old, and if I squinted just right I thought I saw a walking foot. I decided to go for it.

Turns out it's was for sale at some junk "emporium" south of Houston so I jumped in the Jeep, utility trailer in tow, and raced down to this place to have a look. Sure enough, it was a walking-foot upholstery machine that the guy purchased as part of a warehouse lot at auction. It had a few paint chips and some surface rust on a few exterior bits, but the insides were nice and oily with no signs of rust. I could see it would need cleaning/servicing and a few minor parts, but everything turned freely and the motor even ran. Sold! Good thing I moved quick because apparently there were three other people who also said they were coming right away to pick it up. There's something satisfying about literally racing to get a bargain.

Long story short I got it serviced, replaced the old clutch motor with a DC servo motor for better speed control, repainted the stand, and it works like a charm! If you can fit it under the foot, it will sew it, all day long. Truly a Japanese workhorse. Here's a few shots:

Behold the mighty walking foot:

Here's an example of what it will sew (it's clearly not finished but you get the idea):

There's only one problem with the Juki: it's a straight stitch only. Now admittedly, a straight stitch is all you ever need for sewing heavy leather, but I started to envision making other cool things like gear bags and camping stuff, out of heavy fabrics like ballistic nylon, canvas, tarps and seat belt webbing, and a zig-zag stitch is a must for that kind of work. I had no room for an industrial zig-zag and didn't really need one anyway, but I knew I'd need something with a little more grunt than Sarah's Bernina.

So I started trolling through vintage sewing machine forums and learned all kinds of cool stuff about sewing machines from days gone by. One machine in particular sounded just right for the job I had in mind. Enter the Vintage Italian: a 1950's Necchi BU "Mira". By all accounts the Italian-made Necchi BU Mira was a marvel of engineering and while not an industrial machine it could handle heavy stitching tasks that most home machines would balk at these days. Best of all, it has all steel components machined with nice tight tolerances and a healthy 1.1 amp motor. No plastic gears or internal timing belts to break. So I started keeping an eye out for one on Craigslist. It didn't take too long (sometimes it's handy living near a city of 4 million people!) before I found one that looked to be in decent shape and appeared to be in the original cabinet as well. I took a trip into Houston to check it out and it looked well worth the $80 asking price, so I took it home and started to clean it up, scrubbing years of old yellowed oil and grease off everything. I had to replace the old dried-out bobbin winder tire and un-seize the handwheel so the bobbin winder would work. The motor was in good shape, but all the wiring had deteriorated and had to be replaced. I converted the motor controller from a knee type to a foot type and replaced the 55 year-old belt with a new nylon cogged one. With a good oiling she runs as smooth and quiet as I imagine she ever did. Even the timing was still set correctly. Here's a few shots:

The cabinet has some dings and scratches but is fully functional:

Maybe you're not into the avocado green color and chrome but I think it's cool. The machine is nice and simple to operate too. There are three levers for needle position, stitch width, and stitch length. That weird contraption hanging off the front is a "Wonder Wheel" that can be connected to the needle position and stitch width levers to produce decorative stitches.

Why is it called the "Mira?" I dunno, but I guess it's as good a name as any for a hard-working Italian girl.

All steel, no plastic or belts!

Singer class 15 bobbin/hook. The green lever drops the feed dogs for embroidery/darning.

The other really cool thing was that the cabinet came crammed full of stuff! Extra bits and pieces for the machine, an automatic buttonholer, vintage sewing patterns, a tin full of buttons, and the original paperwork:

Apparently, a Mrs. Williams bought the machine in 1955 for the sum of $393!!! She traded in an old machine, put a little money down, and made payments of $10.62 a month for the next 2 years. I went to an online inflation calculator ( ) and found out that the purchase price of $393 in 1955 is like $3113.62 in 2009 dollars based on the Consumer Price Index. Crazy huh?

I haven't decided what my first project will be with this machine, but probably firewood totes or a barbeque cover.

Oh, and if any of you were thinking of calling me some kind of sissy for being into sewing machines, I'll refer you to the chainsaw post of 2009...