Friday, May 14, 2010

New (old) Arrival - A short-ish post I swear!

Yeah, yeah, my posts tend to ramble on longer than most but I figure it's the only form of a journal I keep these days so maybe it's okay.

Anyway, after more than a year of looking I finally managed to find and acquire a particular sewing machine that I've had in mind for leatherwork for some time.  It's a Singer 29K172 long arm "patch machine" made at the Singer factory in Kilbowie Scotland in 1935.  It was used by cobblers (shoe repair dude in layman's terms) to do repairs and finish work on shoes and boots.  It can only sew about 1/4" of leather but a lot of the work I do is less than this so I don't mind.  The really cool thing about this machine is that it has a very long, very skinny arm that will allow you to get into tight spaces (such as the toe of a shoe) and it has a uni-directional top-feed foot.  Why is this exciting?  Well, let's say you wanted to sew a patch onto the sleeve of a jacket (c'mon, I know you've been dying to).  You just slip the sleeve over the arm and let the the foot walk all around the edge of the patch, changing directions and turning corners without ever repositioning the sleeve.  As far as I know, there's no other sewing machine in existence that can do this.  Any sewing enthusiasts out there are almost certain to think this feature is really cool.  For the rest of you staring blankly at your screen wondering how deep my dorkiness really runs, just trust me, it's COOL!

Even cooler, it's a totally manual machine.  You turn a giant crank by hand to operate it.  One turn equals one stitch.  Being somewhat prone to Luddite tendencies (look it up kids), this really appeals to me.  It stitches nice and SLOW allowing for excellent control.  I wish it sewed a little thicker material and could use thread heavier than size 138, but I'm pleased with it nonetheless.  It's first real job will be sewing some small knife sheaths with my Boy Scout troop as we work on the Leatherwork merit badge.  I think Sarah plans on making some leather baby shoes.

I had to make an 8-hour day trip to Fort Worth to pick it up, but the price was phenomenally low, like 10-15% of the cost of a similar "clone" machine made new in China.  A nice old gentleman with an orthopedic business used it as his personal machine at home and was clearing out his garage.  What a find!

Just Call Me "Omar The Tentmaker" - Manly Sewing Project #3

Okay, I didn't actually make a tent, though I might tackle some sort of lightweight tarp-type shelter someday like a zillion other outdoor enthusiasts who seem to think they've found some magical new configuration of ripstop nylon and a few poles which they proceed to hawk on eBay or in the monthly Boy Scout magazine that shows up at my door.

No, Manly Sewing Project #3 was not a tent, but it was a cover for my outdoor grill!  I sure felt like Omar the Tentmaker as I had to repeatedly cram nearly five yards of heavy fabric under the head of the sewing machine.

I can hear you saying "But Eric, you could have just bought a grill cover from any number of stores and for pretty cheap as well and without all that work!"  And you'd be mostly right, except that not all grill covers are made equal!  I tried to go buy one before I decided to make one and it went something like this:

  1. Go to Academy Sports and search for grill covers
  2. Find cheap grill cover for $7 that appears to be make of recycled plastic shopping bags thinly pressed and heat fused together at the seams.  I'm pretty sure this won't even make it onto the grill once without tearing somewhere
  3. Find slightly more expensive grill cover for $13 that has the same construction as the $7 one except that it has a backing sort of like quilt batting but much thinner and more cobweb-ish.  This one might survive the first use but I wouldn't trust it past about three uses.
  4. Give up at Academy and go to Wal-Mart
  5. Find NOTHING at Wal-Mart
  6. Refuse to go to Sears because that place really bugs me
  7. Refuse to go to some specialty grill store because I'm pretty sure it's far away and I'm absolutely positive that if they have anything better than Academy it will be obnoxiously overpriced
  8. Go home in frustration and look online
  9. Find better quality grill covers on eBay and online stores, but they're not an exact fit for my grill and they're about $80 or more.  Since I only paid $170 for the grill there was no way I was going to spend more than half of that just for a cover.
  10. Give up and decide to make my own.
Any why not?  I have an industrial walking foot upholstery sewing machine.  I'm married to a master seamstress who can free-hand wedding dress patterns in her mind's eye.  I'm pretty sure I can buy much better fabrics than even the expensive covers are made of.  I'm even pretty sure I can make it for cheaper (I firmly believe you don't have to count the cost of your time if it's a hobby you enjoy).  Best of all I can make it just how I want it!

I trolled eBay for fabric and finally settled on 5 yds 600D Polyduck canvas.  It's basically a 600D polyester canvas with a thin sheet of PVC bonded to the back.  Polyester has great UV resistance for outdoor use and in theory the PVC backing will make the fabric waterproof.  Unless you seal the seams the finished article won't be truly waterproof, but I'm not really concerned.  I just didn't want the grill "catch trays" filling up with water, and mostly I wanted to keep the dirt, dust, pollen, etc. off the grill.

I also got some killer deals on big rolls of 2" nylon webbing, 1" grosgrain ribbon for binding, and 2" velcro.  Actually, I bought a LOT of webbing and ribbon.  Like 200 yards of each!  I couldn't help myself, it was CRAZY cheap and I knew it would get used for other projects I had in mind.  Sarah looked at the giant rolls of webbing and ribbon with one raised eyebrow, and commented that it was a lot of material.  But to her credit she didn't actually ask me if I'd lost my mind, God bless her.

Sarah helped me figure out a pattern of sorts.  We draped the entire sheet of 60" wide fabric over the grill and determined that the front-top-back could be one big piece and we'd need two smaller pieces for the sides.  I cut out the the big piece and we draped it over the grill again, measuring the dimensions/shape we would need for the side pieces.  We could have gone with a design that was much more form-fitting but that would've been way more complicated and I doubt it would have improved the utility in any way.  With all three pieces cut out it was as simple as pinning everything together, sewing the seams with the grosgrain ribbon on one side, then laying the seam flat and stitching over the grosgrain ribbon for a nice flat finished seam.  The size 92 Kevlar thread I bought earlier worked great.  I also installed two handles in the top seams to make it easier  to lift off, and put a velcro webbing strap at each corner so you can gather up and secure the bottom of the cover.  Hopefully it will keep stormy weather from pulling the cover off.

Best of all, the total cost to make this was about $25-30, and I'm sure it's better quality than any of the ones I found online for 3-4 times the price.

With Sarah's patient help I also learned a lot of really useful things.  I suppose I might have been able to get the job done without her help, but it probably would've taken way longer and almost certainly wouldn't have looked as good.  Thanks Sarah!

I am MAN, watch me SEW!

No, wait! I meant:

I am MAN, watch me GRILL!

My bargain Craigslist find.  New cost about $600, I paid $170 used.  100% stainless steel frame, trays, burners, EVERYTHING!  Truly a metallurgists grill.

The finished grill cover.  I decided I wanted it loose enough that it wouldn't be a fight to get it on/off and so I could get at the tank/storage area underneath just by lifting up the bottom edge of the cover rather than removing it completely.

Handles on top for easier removal.  A length of small diameter vinyl hose was sewn into the handle to give it some bulk, shape and stiffness.

Bottom gathered up with velcro straps

Velcro straps on the back side as well

Sunday, May 2, 2010

An Ode to Chaco Sandals. Farewell, Fallen Friends...

After nearly 11 years of faithful  and trouble-free service, I finally threw out my old Chaco sandals.  The soles were worn through and the straps were starting to get pretty frayed in some spots.  Here they are moments before I tossed them in the big trash can outside.

So why is this worthy of a post?  Mostly because I was sad to see them go and I thought an online memorial service of sorts would ease the pain of their passing.  You see, I wore these things EVERYWHERE I possibly could for the last 11 years.  Well, except for 2 years while I was a missionary in England, but still, that's a long time!  Even when I lived back in Canada I wore them as long as the snow didn't cover the tops of my toes, which was usually from late April until mid October.  I've done yard work in them, forded streams in them, gone boating in them, hiked through Japser and Banff in them, walked miles around Paris and through the catacombs in them, and just plain sat around the house in them.  Like green grass and mosquitoes, the appearance of the famous Chaco zig-zag tan lines on my feet, like a solar mark of Zorro, were a sure sign that summer was in full swing.  They fit me almost as well as my own skin and never gave me a moments trouble.  They have become the standard by which I will judge all other footwear until such time as some other pair of shoes manages to last longer, trouble free, in perfect comfort, and with the same degree of utility (all of which is doubtful).  I thought I lost them once when we moved to Calgary for the summer and I was forced to buy an inferior pair of Nike sandals but they turned up when we moved again and we were reunited.  Throwing them out today was almost an emotional occasion.  I felt like I was betraying an old friend, like the kid who had to shoot Old Yeller.  I really wanted to keep them for their nostalgic value, but I kept thinking of those mentally ill "hoarders" on TV clutching bags of trash while brave interventionists try in vain to reason with them.  I suppose keeping on old pair of shoes doesn't guarantee I'll wind up a hoarder, but that's the trouble with slippery slopes.  They're slopes, not cliffs and they usually start off with the gentlest of declines.  Oh, and they're slippery.  Sorry, getting off track here...

My father thought I was crazy paying $105 (plus 7% GST, thanks much Mr. Mulroney)  for my Chacos back in 1999.  He gave me the same look he gave me when I told him I wanted a North Face backpack for school after destroying 2 cheap ones in 3 months.  I had to pay for it myself since it cost 3X as much, but it survived 6 years of abuse through high school, some university and summer construction jobs.  During a recent visit to see the grandkids, my father admitted he never thought my Chacos would turn out to be such a good value and wondered where he could get a pair.  It was a victory so small and quiet as to almost go
unnoticed, but a victory nonetheless.

I've already bought a new pair of Chaco sandals, and yes I suppose I'll have the chance to make some memories in them just like the last pair, but therein lies another sad story.  You see, my old Chaco's  were proudly made in Peoria Colorado in a small factory where craftsmanship and service were evident.  You could send your old Chacos back to the factory and they'd resole or otherwise repair them as needed.  Well, when I was shopping for a replacement pair, I discovered to my shock and dismay that since 2009 all Chacos were now produced in China like everything else.  The company's general manager said the decision was made to move to China because they can be produced cheaper, they have fewer defect rates, and the Peoria factory just didn't have the machinery capable of producing future designs.  Somewhere else I read that the savings per pair was only about $7, but maybe that's not true.  If in fact the move to China was necessary for the survival of Chaco sandals, then I guess I'm grateful, but it's a hollow sort of gratitude.  I'm not American, but there was something nice about buying a product that was made here.  Yeah, I'm sure their materials were purchased from overseas and it pretty much came down to assembly only in the Peoria factory, but it was something anyway.

I won't go into an anti-China rant or anything like that because I believe it's every consumer's fault that the vast majority of our consumer goods are made in China.  At some point, or perhaps gradually, North Americans decided they didn't want mundane factory jobs, but still wanted to buy stuff for cheap.  I guess that's why American universities have an abundance of useless degree programs filled with students who would be better served by good trade schools and it's also why the Chinese make all our stuff.  It's not like the Chinese held a firecracker to our collective heads and forced us to move production there.  We wanted more for less, and the Chinese provided it.  I shudder to think what will happen when the Chinese (and India, Taiwan, etc.) decide THEY want to be educated and have a higher standard of living.  Who will make cheap crap and shiny things for white trash?  When they don't have any competition, what's to stop them from raising their prices to raise their own standard of living?  And rightly so I suppose.  But I digress...

My new Chinese-made Chaco sandals look pretty much like the old ones.  I got black straps this time.  The footbed is a little thicker, the outsole tread is a little more aggressive and the straps are a little wider, but they're unmistakably Chacos.  Construction and materials look pretty much the same, so I guess I can hope they'll last as long as the old pair.  I'm disappointed to report that they still cost the same as when they were made in America, about $100.  Whatever savings were realized by moving to Chinese production certainly aren't being passed onto the consumer.  I hope you sleep poorly at night on a lumpy pile of filthy cash Mark Paigen, founder of Chaco.  As for me, I guess I'll march on, as it were, with new sandals that doubtless are functionally adequate if not special.  

So farewell American Chacos, you were one of a kind.  I'll try not to think of your slowly decaying soles lying at the bottom of a heap of common trash in some landfill in Texas.  If by some chance the resurrection of inanimate objects is permitted in the next life, my old American Chacos will be on the short list along with Linkin' Logs, the green blankie I dragged around everywhere as a little kid, and my 1992 Subaru Justy.