Wednesday, June 21, 2017

New Singer, Old Singer: Pillowmaking & Sweet Dreams

First day of summer ritual: I hauled out my newfangled Singer sewing machine and set it up on the outside porch. I needed to do a bit of mending, to take in several pairs of jeans that keep falling off my ass, and to make a flotilla of new down pillows from an old down comforter.

My old down pillows are literally falling apart, I can no longer wash them (another summer ritual) as the pillow ticking has rotted on the corners. The innards from one old pillow probably dates back to my childhood. (The replacement ticking is at least 30 years old—a world record). The feathers go flat as a pancake despite a monthly rousing resurrection round in the dryer. TIme to let it go. It's done lost its loft. No more spiff in its spoof.

Last time I made pillows was at least a decade ago. Maybe longer. It's been on my to-do list for many summers. Yeah, I know, most people just go out and buy pillows. But I don't like most commercial pillows. I can't use the polyester ones, an old whiplash precludes that. I wake up with blinding headaches. Nix to feather pillows either. Like sleeping on concrete. More headaches.

And the one down pillow I bought on sale from Ikea isn't satisfactory. It's fat, and poofy as a cloud, but when it comes down to it, it's a pillow of little character or substance. My neck hurts in the morning. My old down pillows were my first line of defense, I could wad them up to cradle my neck, however, the Ikea pillow makes a good base camp. But I needed more. 

I needed several new pillows. And I sure wasn't willing to spend a C-note per pillow. Enter the down quilt, a Freecycle find. Not only did it come with plenty of relatively new fluffy down feathers, it came replete with its own ticking too (not an easy thing to find in fabric stores—I mean who makes their own down pillows these days? You can't use any material, it has to be double-woven pillow ticking, or the feathers will escape.) 

I also needed to replace the small side pillows for my neck (neck fenders), as the commercial baby pillows I was using are way too hard and they give me headaches. One most favored makeshift down side pillow was stuffed with a shredded child's down jacket, but after a few years, it was no longer doing the job. Too many escaped feathers after a round of fluffing, meant it was more jacket lining than down. 

The old small square pillow I nicked from a first class French passenger train in 1972, was equally worn. Sharp pinfeathers were lining up and tunneling through the corner holes quill-end first, like escaping prisoners armed with tiny claws.

If you make a feather pillow, you have to choose a windless day, you can't be indoors, and even if you carefully move, or breathe too fast, feathers will escape, and you, and your yard (or house) will be flocked with what looks like freshly fallen snow. 

I've tried various tricks. I've tried moving dry feathers on a still day in plein air. Doesn't work. Too many escape artists. The slightest breeze, and... Then, there's the very real danger of sneezing... I've tried moving wet feathers in plein air. Doesn't work. They're like superglue. This time I tried spraying feathers with a mister to weight them down with rosewater. Nope. They merely roiled away like a fragrant fogbank on speed.

My favorite restuffing method is to take a huge clear plastic cleaner bag, put the old pillow and the new pillow casing inside, then put an elastic band on both corners of the plastic bag as baffles for my hands, and then transfer the feathers. Minimal feather loss, no down up the nose.

Don't forget to take scissors, needle and thread, a seam ripper. Once your hands are inside the bag, they're covered with down. You don't want to remove them until the end. Sweating won't do. Sewing up the open end of the pillow on the sewing machine is the tricky part. If the pillow burps.... 

In this case, I needed to start from scratch, as the bulky queen-sized down quilt wasn't going to fit into any plastic bag. So that was out. Finding new featherproof ticking at a fabric store (not a hot commodity) was also a challenge. So the idea sat on the back burner, or rather, in the closet for a few years. 

It takes me ages to come up with innovative ways to fix things. I run scenarios through my head until I come up with a viable solution. This particular idea of sewing twin seams directly onto the quilt took me a few years to formulate. In the end, it was so amazingly simple and elegant, I wondered why it took me so long to arrive. 

I directly sewed the pillow shape right onto the quilt, after stuffing lots of feathers into the new pillow rectangle, then I did a double sew job, making a thin corridor where I could cut the pillow away from the quilt, which meant I didn't have to handle the feathers. Wrestling with the yards of quilt in that tiny opening on the neck of the sewing machine was a biggest challenge.

Things went swimmingly, I shook the down feathers to one end of the quilt, and marked it off to sew. That's when things went wrong. The sewing machine decided it was going to be temperamental which drove me mental. The bobbin thread kept breaking every few inches, the tension thread slipping, the amazingly sluggish foot pedal kept stalling, and there's no way to manually force the machine forward over a thick seam, as Singer did away with the pulley wheel.

So far, I have managed to roundly curse the American inventor, Isaac Singer (even though my old friend Pam Singer is related to him), the software engineers who shepherded the Singer to the electronic age, all of Sweden, and the ship it rode in on, and Vikings, and the Volvos for good measure (even though my first car was a Volvo panel truck used for delivering Singers), for designing such a spectacular piece of crap.

Ill-thought out designing abounds, the modern day Singer sewing machine probably holds a world record for the most design flaws in one machine, from the needle threader, a plastic bobbin plate that's next to impossible to remove, and a bobbin design that constantly snaps the lower thread, uneven traction on the feeder dogs, to the sluggish foot pedal. I'm a four-on-the-floor driver, I like speed.

The zig zag feature is nice, when it works, but the other 69 embroidery stitches are mostly useless because the machine pulls unevenly, leaving an amateur mess behind. Forget the attachments. I want a machine that sews a straight stitch where the tension is even, and the bottom thread doesn't pull out. It's not like you have a lot of manual adjustment features on this machine, as it's fail-proof electronic. 

Also forget about the automatic needle threader, another bit of useless hardware that gets in the way of manually threading the machine. And the newly designed eye of the needle is super small. I have to flip the Singer on its side and angle it up toward the sunlight, and then if I manage to poke the thread through the eye, then there's a gauntlet of attachments in the way of the thread.

I haven't used the machine enough for it to need a tuneup, I should've returned it to Costco... it is so spectacularly bad, I sometimes envision dropping it off a freeway overpass, but then some unsuspecting car will clash with it. Give me an old school electric, or even a pre-electric pedal Singer sewing machine any day. I wish I could get a belt for my old cast iron and chrome gilded black enamel 1929 Singer. Now that's one awesome machine. Beautiful to look at too.

Neil caught me mid-swear, and made the mistake of asking me why I bought the sewing machine if it was so if I did that on purpose. Yeah, I deliberately chose a bad machine. WTF? A spectacularly inane question that garnered some additional misdirected purple prose.

But I persevered, and eventually managed to squeeze out a few fat down pillows, and two side fender pillows. I look like the princess and the pea, with my mountain of pillows. Sweet dreams. My neck is happy at night. No more blinding headaches. Other than from the sewing machine itself.

first draft:
Hauled out my newfangled singer, and have managed to roundly curse Isaac Singer, the engineers, Sweden, and the ship it rode in on, for designing such a spectacular piece of crap. Ill-thought out designing abounds, probably a world record for the most design flaws in one machine, from the needle threaded to the foot pedal. I wish I could get a belt for my 1929 Singer. Now that's one awesome machine.  I'll take that old Singer any day. The zig zag is nice, when it works, and the other 69 embroidery stitches are mostly useless because the machine pulls unevenly. I haven't used it enough for it to need a tuneup, I should've returned it to Costco... it is spectacularly bad. Neil made the mistake of asking me why I bought it if it was so I did that on purpose.

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