25 September 2008

Make the World a Better Place

Cathy and I have been increasingly discussing how we can make the world a better place. Y'know, we're nobody...what can we do?!? Well, the answer is nothing -- at least if you don't try. So, these ideas that we come up with; what can we do with them? We need to catalog them and share them and solicit other ideas from other people. So we are. Right over here.

Please feel encouraged to stop by, read, let us know what you think, suggest ideas to us or maybe even write a guest column. :)

Darning Jeans

I got a new sewing machine just after the Labor Day holiday, and I have spent the last week learning how to mend jeans using the buttonhole foot, and a special darning stitch. I set the machine over a hole and start sewing, and it moved the fabric evenly back and forth for me. See my previous blog post about the new machine (Janome HT2008), or read about it on the Janome site.

Note: You can click on any of the photos to get a closer look.

Not all sewing machines do it automatically the way mine does, but many Janome models do, and other brands probably do as well. If you have a sewing machine, check to see if your machine does something similar, and if it doesn't, you can do it freehand (you move the fabric back and forth by hand) using a straight stitch and an actual darning foot (mine is actually the buttonhole foot). But that takes more skill and practice than the automatic darning feature.

Darning is a bit different than just patching a hole, and shows a lot less than patching does. It actually uses thread to cover a hole - almost as if you've re-woven the missing fabric out of thread. And if you do it right, it's nearly invisible. The downside is that patching might be slightly more comfortable (though we haven't found that darning the jeans is uncomfortable).

There are a few key components to darning jeans:
  1. Matching the thread. You must get it as close as possible to the color of the jeans. If it's not the exact shade, getting a thread that is slightly lighter is better than if it's slightly darker. A small spool of thread costs about $2.50 USD.
  2. Matching the patch, if using. Bigger holes (larger than .7cm) require a small piece of fabric to support the new thread. The patch should ALSO be as close to the color of the fabric as possible, and as with the thread, going ever so slightly lighter is better than going darker. An eighth of a yard of fabric rarely costs more than a dollar or two.
  3. A washable fabric glue stick. You use it to hold the patch in place while you are darning. It costs around $3, and lasts a LONG time.
When patching jeans, you normally use double-sided fusible interfacing to glue the patch to the hole. You cut the interfacing around the hole so that the interfacing can't be felt from the back of the hole. It also prevents the edges of the patch or the edges of the hole from unraveling further. I didn't like using interfacing to hold the patches on, for a couple of reasons. It leaves the patch rather stiff. It wasn't really uncomfortable, but that spot never really conforms to your skin the way undamaged denim does. And when you darn across a patch, the darning also leaves the patch a little stiff - there's a LOT of thread being used. So when doing a darning job, I leave out the interfacing in the hopes that eventually the repair will eventually soften, something it won't do with interfacing. I figure the thread will prevent the unraveling well enough, and that's one less layer of stiffness to make the jeans uncomfortable.

Other, less important, but worth thinking about considerations:
  1. Match the thread type with the fabric. If you are darning cotton fabric such as denim, then use an all cotton thread if possible, rather than a polyester thread. That way, as the fabric continues to fade, so too will the thread, hopefully at the same rate. However, matching the thread color is more important to me, and if I can get the exact right color, but only in a polyester thread, then I use polyester thread.
  2. Match the fiber content of the patch, with the fiber content of the garment being repaired. In other words, if you are fixing cotton jeans, then use a cotton patch. This is for the same reason as #1 above. Again, matching colors is more important to me.
This sounds complicated, but it's really not.

I had 8 pairs of jeans to repair, and 3 of them were very faded blue jeans. I took the most damaged pair, and used the fabric to repair the other two. The rest, I took to Joanne Fabrics, and found matching threads and patching fabrics. I think the materials were about $15 to repair 5 pairs of jeans.

Then, follow these steps:

  1. Cut patches for the holes. I make the patches squares or rectangles only. Cut the patch so that it extends at least 1/2 an inch past any edge of the hole. Bigger is better than smaller, because if you don't make it big enough, it's easy to catch and scrunch up the edge of the patch, making a hard lump underneath the fabric. If the diameter of the hole is less than .7 cm, I skip this step entirely. That's about the same size as the width of my pinkie finger at the tip, and is the widest the darning foot will accommodate in one pass. I also do NOT trim the frayed edges if I'm skipping the step - the fraying fabric will help support the darn.
  2. Glue the patch behind the hole on the inside of the garment. I use a washable fabric glue stick. Avoid getting the glue on the center of the patch, where it covers the hole. Wait about 5 minutes for it to set.
  3. Darn the hole using the #9 stitch (shown) and the buttonhole foot. You open out the back of the foot as far as it will go, and you do NOT pull down the buttonhole size sensor for the machine. You position the needle so it's at the lower left corner of the hole, maybe 1/2 a centimeter away from the edge. Do as many passes as you need to, to completely cover the hole and edges of the hole. When done, you can turn it 90 degrees and go over it again, if desired. If the hole is small enough to not use a patch, I try and center it just so. You can also shorten the darning pass for smaller holes.
  4. Remove the jeans from the machine, and trim your threads close to the fabric surface. I then turn the jeans to the inside, and trim the edges of the patch close to where the stitching begins.
Not including the trip to the fabric store, the entire process takes no more than 10-15 minutes per hole. (Well, at least that's how long it took me after I figured out how to do it. The first few tries took longer). And as long as I've done a good job matching everything, the repairs are remarkably hard to see. Not invisible, but only noticeable if you are looking for the spots. I've also found that the process is more invisible on blue jeans, than on other colors of jeans. The reason is that blue jeans are made of two colors of thread in the weaving process - white in one direction, blue in the other, giving the jeans a slightly variegated appearance. That variegation does a better job hiding the repair work (Think about it, what kind of carpet shows all the dirt or crud on it - a matte style, or a speckled style?). Chris has pairs of jeans in black, brown, tan, and olive, and the threads used to weave those denims tend to all be one color. It's even MORE important to match your thread and patch colors when darning jeans that aren't the standard blue.

The step-by-step photos above document a mediocre thread- and patch-matching job. (It was because of that particular pair of jeans that I got MUCH more careful when choosing colors.) The repairs are clearly noticeable. But the poor choice turned out to be advantageous - the repairs do show up nicely in the photos. Below, are some examples where the thread matched nicely.

To put things into perspective - I put 6 pairs of Chris's jeans back into circulation. To have bought them new would have cost $35 x 6= $210. The cost of the sewing machine was $350. It hasn't quite paid for itself, but it has certainly helped. And there are cheaper machines available that can do the same thing. The cheapest machines wouldn't do this automatically, but you could still do it with a darning foot and freehand darning with a straight stitch (though that takes some practice to get right).

I got a new sewing machine

Back in the mid 1970s, my mother spent an ungodly amount of money on the very first electronic sewing machine. It cost about $1200, and was the Singer Athena 2000. Evidently it was the machine to have. As someone on a sewing message board told me, "I remember when she came out and was the absolute last word in a machine in her day. So revolutionary." I was 5 or 6 years old when Mom got it, and I even used it a little bit growing up - enough that I actually knew how to thread it, though I can't claim to have learned to actually sew.

Mom upgraded to a used Bernina when I was in my late 20s or early 30s, and I just couldn't understand why. What was wrong with the Singer? But, I wasn't going to complain, as she gave me the Singer. It sat around for years - maybe six years - without getting much use ... I think my husband and I dragged it along on two cross-country moves before I ever gave sewing a serious try. But, it came with a sewing table/cabinet and every conceivable accessory (Mom was an avid and talented seamstress), so I was hesitant about replacing it.

I started sewing, and have been sewing somewhat more seriously for about two or three years now. I've made a couple of nightgowns, three capes and Halloween costumes, a dress, and a shirt for my daughter, a bathrobe for my husband and several doll quilts. I've also made valentines for my kids - my daughter got a small puffy heart-shaped pillow, and I made heart-shaped juggling bean bags for my stepson (made from red, white and black bandanna fabric with hearts and flaming skulls).

But the Singer was giving me problems. First, it really handled slippery flimsy fabrics poorly, and to date, I've made two Halloween costumes out of that sort of fabric. Skipped stitches, distorted decorative stitches, you name it. It also had a terrible tendency to suck any kind of thin fabric down into the throat plate, despite using the appropriate needle, and a straight-stitch throat plate (for those of you who don't sew - the throat plate is the small metal plate under the fabric, with a hole in it. The needle goes up and down into that hole. A straight stitch plate has a tiny hole not much bigger than a needle. It's maybe 1 mm in diameter, and it's harder for fabric to be pulled down in there. An all-purpose plate has an oblong hole, maybe 8 mm across, to accommodate stitches like zig-zag stitches, where the needle comes down on the left side and then the right).

Then after 30+ years of often heavy use, the machine was no longer reliable. It would suddenly refuse to stitch anything without forming horrible knots, suck ALL fabrics down into the bobbin area, and jam, and nothing I did - from changing needles, threads, fabrics, and re-threading would make it work. So I'd haul it up to my sewing machine repair guy, and he'd tinker with it for a few minutes for free, get it working again, and I'd go home to start sewing again. This happened three times in a row, right at the beginning of new projects. My repair guy is a nice man, but frankly, I had to drive 30-45 minutes each way, and I was getting tired of it. He also warned me that if the circuit boards went bad, it would be either very, very expensive, or impossible to repair. The boards aren't made anymore, and haven't been for years, so repair guys collect the machines to use for parts. Repairs to that part would run in the hundreds of dollars, if they could be made at all.

A year or two ago, I had asked at a local quilt shop what kind of machines they recommended, and they had given me an unhesitating and wholehearted recommendation for a Janome, just about any Janome. She felt they were reliable and easy to use. I had never heard of Janome (pronounced Juh-NO-mee), but I found out later that they were a Japanese company. I was interested in a Bernina of course, as lots of people (including my Mom) consider them the Cadillac of sewing machines. But the Swiss-made Berninas that I could afford were either new and the lowest end mechanical models, or used but so old, they didn't have the modern features I wanted. My mom's machine was a used Bernina 1130, and it was a nice machine that I could have been quite happy with, but even a 20 year old model like hers (it was made in the mid 1980s) now retails for around $1000. That's just too expensive for me at this time.

When my Singer finked out AGAIN, a friend loaned me a $70 Brother purchased at Walmart. It wasn't a great machine, but frankly, it handled the slippery, flimsy fabric FAR better than my high-end, but old machine ever did. Like night and day. But it was loud, and had none of the more modern features that I wanted. I didn't put it through its paces, but I doubt it could handle multiple layers of heavy fabrics well. That was the last straw. I had found out what a joy it was to sew on a good machine (my mother's 20-year-old Bernina), and then when a cheap machine handled a fabric BETTER than the Singer did....

So, I did some research on Janomes and liked what I saw. No one really had anything bad to say. I also saw a model called the Janome HT2008, which was quite flexible - good for nearly any kind of sewing project - quilting, home decor, and clothing, and had plenty of modern features, and 50 stitches both decorative and utility. The average price paid was around $350.

The next day, I went to my repair guy, and brought him my machine, which he again tinkered with and got running again. I asked him point blank, "Can you make this machine reliable?" And he said "You can keep it running for a few more years, but no, not really." And I said "so what's the equivalent machine in a new Janome? And he said, "look at the heart machine." He didn't have any used machines that I wanted that were in my price range (they were all too expensive!), so I tried out the "heart machine." It's a Janome HT2008 (the same model I'd read about the night before). The HT stands for "Heart's Truth" and it's a limited edition machine meant to raise awareness of heart disease in women. I tried it out, and bought it on the spot. It was $350, but Kurt gave me $30 in trade for the Singer. To put the price in perspective, I saw one new Janome that retails for $8000. I also get unlimited free lessons on how to use the features the machine offers (I've had two lessons so far).

It's got lots of great features, which you can read about it here:
Janome's web page and Brochure.

So then I took it home, a bit nervous about what Chris would say. We usually talk to each other when making big purchases like this, and I hadn't talked about it with him at all. While it wasn't exactly a whim, it wasn't far from it! But he was really great about it. He felt that it was a good thing for the household to have, and so the household paid for 1/2 of the machine, and the rest is coming out of my allowance (we both get some money each month to spend as we like). He then gave me a wicked look, and handed me a stack of jeans he'd been saving for at least 6 years and asked me to patch the holes in them. Gulp. I couldn't well refuse since a) I have the time, and b) he really was great about me buying the machine, with money so tight.

I still have the cabinet that came with the Singer, and I'm currently using it with my Janome, which fits in the cabinet perfectly. However, I don't have a bolt that fits the bottom of the Janome, and one would have to be special ordered in the right size and threading. If I did that, I'd just drill a new hole in the bottom of the cabinet. No problem - it wouldn't even show. But, as I don't have a bolt, I can't collapse the machine into the cabinet when not in use. The cabinet has a platform that's below the surface of the table, so that the machine sits down below a bit, with the sewing surface itself flush with the table. Then, when you want to put the machine away, you lift up on the platform to release it, and it tilts down at 90 degrees, and the machine dangles on its side underneath (see why a bolt is needed?). Then you flip the extended table surface up and then down on top of the hole. It's open on the underside though, so if you crouch down under the table, you can see the machine.

This is a problem for two reasons:
  1. I have a cat named Squeaky that LOVES thread, and he will, if I leave the machine out with thread on it, grab the thread and spiderweb it all around the room, and also try to eat it. That's a health hazzard for a cat, and he's already been rushed to the vet once, to have his hind legs untangled from the thread he'd dragged out (he was OK, fortunately). But he was so freaked out, biting and scratching, that I couldn't release him by myself. The open bottom is unacceptably insecure, as it doesn't keep the thread out of his reach.
  2. The machine (like most sewing machines) has what is called a "free arm". You can take part of the base off, which makes it really small. This is great when hemming pants or cuffs. You put the fabric tube AROUND the base of the machine. I do use that feature. On the Singer, I had to collapse the sewing surface to access the free arm, but because the machine was bolted in place, I had to lift up the front panel of the cabinet, collapse the machine's surface, and then sew with my arms OVER that front panel, reaching behind and below it. It was like sewing in a hole. It was a pain in the butt. I suppose I could have unbolted it, and lifted it up to the top surface but that's a huge hassle, too.
Mom's new cabinet has a "lift". You push down on the platform supporting the machine and it lifts up on some sort of hydraulic mechanism, rather than swinging or tilting up. And it's got three positions - Machine fully below the surface of table, Machine partially up, so the sewing surface is flush with the table, and all the way up, so you can access the free arm. The cabinet also fully encloses the sewing machine when not use, protecting it from kitty curiosity and fur. I want one lots and lots, but it's another $350 for a cheap one, and I'm making do with the old one for now.

I'm terrified that somehow someone will hit the mechanism that releases the cabinet platform, and the machine will fall through, but I doubt it's likely. And to put the machine away, I have to either lift the machine up and out of the cabinet, and then collapse the cabinet and store the machine on the floor, OR I leave the cabinet open, and cover the machine with a hard plastic sewing machine case that I bought. I do the latter when I'm just going to pausing for a short time to keep Squeaky from the thread. I'll pack up the machine in the case, and fold up the table, when I'm on one of my longer sewing hiatuses.

I've been sewing on it for nearly a month now, and I really, really like the machine. It's quiet, far more powerful than my old machine and a joy to use. My only negatives are that I find the markings on the throat plate hard to interpret (all Janomes have this same problem - it has both centimeter and 1/8th inch markings, and it's hard to tell which is which), and the machine doesn't have adjustable presser-foot pressure (the one and only feature the old machine had that this one doesn't). I'll get used to the former, and the latter mostly doesn't matter. I didn't change the pressure all that often on the old machine either.

Oh, did I mention the Janome has a darning stitch? You use with the buttonholer, and it darns holes pretty nicely, and I've (as promised) repaired several pairs of Chris's jeans with it, and the repairs are nearly invisible. But that's a subject for another post!

11 September 2008

Spore: six hours in

I preordered Spore from Amazon in December of 2007. It arrived yesterday. I'm talking here about my impressions.

OK, first, I have only six hours of play time in on Spore, so really, these are just first impressions. I’ve played through the first three stages and am poised to begin the civilization stage. My review of it, I’ve come to realize as I wrote the below, is unapologetically positive. I realized, of course, that I was having fun playing, but now I realize that I love the game. It has shortcomings – the controls are hard sometimes, but overall, I’m really enthusiastic.

The creature creators – particularly once you get into 3D (i.e. everything after the cellular stage) are really fun to just mess with. There are game-play repercussions to the choices of what you attach and where, but even without that, just seeing what you can do is awesome fun. In the end – regardless of how Spore lives up to expectations and hype, just the creative acts alone will make it worth $50 if I honestly appraise things (time and money).

At each stage, so far, the game-play changes significantly. It both gets more complex as you advance and also changes how you accomplish things. I’m playing an herbivore and that informs the choices I have throughout play.

In the beginning I was just hunting bits of green stuff and trying to avoid being prey. The way you grow and level (up through strata of the tide pool? down? Or maybe just in that you’re aware of things at a different scale but in the same space?) is a nice gimmick and the play remains the same but the graphics are rich enough that even though there’s not much to it, it’s fun and rewarding just playing the light game and looking around.

When you advance from one stage to the next, you are presented with a history of your development which focuses on what all you accomplished during the last stage but includes the whole history. It’s fun. Just looking at how your body has morphed at each “generation” is kind of neat – particularly since you remember back to how you were making decisions.

When you crawl out of the sea, new parts – arms and legs most obviously, become available. And you gain a third dimension. You can fight or befriend other nests of critters and you have some basic missions to fulfill to gain DNA points (or whatever – the currency that allows you to alter your form). And you can (and must, I think) build a pack of companions that will help you make friends or eat foes. I stumbled upon gliding wings and found that increasing my flight ability made it fast and fun to get around (and out of danger) in this stage. This is also the first area where maneuvering with the WASD keys was hard. Turning is something I still haven’t mastered. The mouse-look doesn’t work like it ought, I think.

This brings me to another realization about Spore. They give you enough guidance to steer you along the right path, but really figuring out how to play has enough holes in it that you’re figuring stuff out. (Now that I think about it, maybe the manual tells more – maybe even too much, I dunno, I only read the first page.) But, so far at least, the figuring out is nicely in what Vygotsky called my Zone of Proximal Development – which means that the learning task is stimulating and not discouraging.

In the third stage your form is fixed and the creator aspect of play involves dressing your tribe; designing their costume. It’s quite fun. The game play was pretty dull real-time strategy play. Harvest food, domesticate pets – though I’m not sure how to use them yet, make babies, outfit your tribe and assign them tools – that sort of thing. And then you can either impress and ally with other tribes or destroy them. I think your strategy at the beginning of this stage depends on what tools you start with. If not, that kind of sucks, but oh well. I befriended two and destroyed three – even with the intent to follow as pacific a course as I could. Destroying enemies is hardish. If you want to figure everything out for yourself, skip the rest of the paragraph.............The strategy that I settled on was to equip my entire tribe with burning torches and just attack their main building. You get slaughtered but suck up tons of their resources. You want to have built up a food supply first because as you die, you’re laying more eggs. Probably you got wiped out, but reproduced faster than them. So now, you outfit the tribe similarly and repeat the attack. This time you win. I actually hope it’s not as formulaic as all that, but it worked like that for me on my first game.

That’s about all I can think of to say just now. I’m having fun with it.