Reap What You Sew
Do Your Own Upholstery, Part 1: How to Thread an Industrial Sewing Machine
It seems we’ve mastered every part of the car-building process. When our engines wore out, we bought a book and rebuilt them. When the body shop gave us our first estimate, we learned how to paint. We figured out how to adapt air conditioning and we’ve even gone as far as buying the specialized tools necessary to rebuild an automatic transmission.
But there’s one component of car construction that makes most of us recoil in fear: upholstery. When diehards brag about how they built something, they usually do it with the following caveat: “Yup, I did everything … but the interior.”
A stigma exists about trim work, some of it warranted and a bunch of it not. Yes, upholstery requires some expensive specialty tools. But so does every other process in car construction. And yes, upholstery requires a pretty large piece of gear (sewing machine). But so does painting a car, and nobody ever bitches that their compressor is too big.
So why is upholstery so taboo? I’m going to go out on a limb here and hazard a guess: the act of sewing really intimidates us. And by us, I mean men.
No, really. Sewing has some baggage and we guys are suckers for buying into it. We’re taught early on that sewing is kinda girly. Your mom sewed patches to your jeans. Your sister sewed a dress in Home Ec. Plus a lot of us are afraid of sewing our fingers together. These fears foster a kind of noble ignorance: we’re intrigued but remain largely intimidated.
If you’re willing to overcome your fears then we have good news for you: more than fairly simple, sewing is actually really rewarding. Yeah, trim work is one of those things that’s difficult to master but at its heart it’s really not all that hard to learn.
And we’re going to show you how. And by we, I mean Jerry Glasgow at McFarland Custom Upholstery. He’s the ultimate teacher; before he took up working with award-winning trimmer Jamie McFarland, he taught would-be awardwinning trimmer Jamie McFarland how to sew. In fact Glasgow taught a lot of people how to sew when he instructed at Clover
Park Technical College.
Over the next few months we’re going to reveal the tips and tricks that can make even someone like you or me look like we know what we’re doing. These instructions will culminate with a few big projects but it’ll be by a series of baby steps.
Now if you’re still on the fence, here’s the part that may make it all better: to do this sort of work requires an industrial sewing machine. The kind of machine dear ol’ mom used can’t pierce multiple layers of upholstery-grade materials. While the machines are really no
bigger than a domestic machine, they have the power to plunge through plywood. They require a job-specific table that mounts a motor on the bottom side. People refer to them by various terms like walking-foot, unison-feed, or triple-feed. They all mean basically the same thing. Consult a sewing-machine specialist for more details. And get one that a local shop can service. Some brands come cheap because they have little support.
And while new machines can cost in the thousands, older ones turn up in the want ads for hundreds. You can even buy low-cost machines complete with tables and motors for $600. But don’t be afraid to splurge on a quality machine in known good condition; you can recoup most if not all of your investment when you’re done (provided you’re not hooked, which you may be).
We’ll jump right into this by explaining how to set up a sewing machine. It takes
thread (Glasgow recommends DB-92), bobbins (he recommends pre-wound), a diamond-point needle (consult your supplier), a sharp pair of scissors, and some inexpensive vinyl remnants.
The following is the way to thread this particular machine. While it’s close for most machines, it’s not the same for all. In fact, you’re best off consulting your machine’s manual (which is almost certainly available on the market). So why show how to do it? It’s a great hook; by seeing how simple it is to thread a machine, you’re more likely to actually take the plunge and get one. Seriously, it’s easy to pick up. Even easier than MIG welding.
There’s great incentive to learn how to sew. For one, you can save a fair bit of money. For another, you control the outcome. But most of all, learn to sew and you too can brag that you did everything … even the interior.
Rather than go directly into the machine, the thread passes through an eyelet in the thread stand just above Jerry Glasgow’s hand. The spool pin holds a thread spool on a homeowner machine but it serves as a guide on an industrial. Pass the thread...
Thread guides vary radically among makes and models but like the spool pin, it redirects the thread and maintains thread tension. In this case, enter both holes from the right, going top to bottom.
By and large, industrial machines consist of a machine built into a table (the woodgrain part) with a motor hung on the underside. There’s also a foot pedal below the table and a knee-operated arm that lifts the presser foot. Here’s how to thread one.
This machine has a separate assembly for the take-up spring. Begin by wrapping the thread around it so it compresses the spring.
Loop the thread over this grooved pin then pull it down to the right of the thread tensioner. The objective is to pull the thread between the tensioner’s discs.
It’s not necessary to disassemble the tensioner to thread but it’s a good idea to clean it every so often. Plus this shows how the thread wraps around the tensioner spindle and then loops over this small pin.