Servo Magazine ( August 2015 )

Not Your Grandmother’s Singer

By Bryan Bergeron    View In Digital Edition  

The current poster child of the DIY community is the 3D printer. However, from both a technological and market share perspective, the modern inexpensive sewing machine is the creative DIY tool of the masses. For the price of three or four spools of ABS plastic filament, you can purchase a computerized, self-threading sewing machine that can semi-autonomously create everything from button holes and decorative stitching to piping and rolled edges. Not only can these machines create a variety of stitches, but they can automatically adjust to materials of different weight and thickness. All of this automation translates to greater ease of use, a shorter learning curve, and more creative possibilities.

As with a typical 3D printer, modern sewing machines contain multiple motors — each under microcontroller control — and a variety of sensors. This means you can opt for full power at super slow speeds — great for learning or working with thick materials. Instead of changing print heads to handle different types of extrusion materials, you can change the small metal feet to work with different cloth, leather, or soft metals. For example, there are feet for making piping, for sewing on zippers, and for sewing especially fragile fabrics.

I learned to sew when computerized machines weren’t even on the drawing boards, which probably explains why my go-to machine for straight stitching is a 75 year old Singer 201-2. However, I’ve supplemented this 40 lb, US made chunk of iron with a modern, computerized (and mostly plastic) 1034D Serger by Brother. Together, I can handle just about any DIY challenge that lends itself to sewing.

My current sewing projects include developing wearable sensor networks, using conductive threads, waterproof sensors, and displays. I use the piping attachment on my Serger to create an insulated conduit for battery power and decorative metallic thread for short, direct connections. For microcontrollers and sensors, I use the Arduino family of wearable components from AdaFruit and SparkFun.

I’ve had good success with FLORA — the Arduino-comparable wearable electronic platform (Adafruit, $20). A few years ago when I started experimenting with wearable sensor networks, I used silver-impregnated thread to connect sensors to a predecessor of FLORA. This was problematic, in that I couldn’t wash the garment without increasing the resistance of the thread due to lost silver. Furthermore — even when new — the silver thread had considerable resistance. Anything over about a foot was simply an exercise in frustration. Today, I use stainless steel thread to connect the FLORA microprocessor to peripherals and battery power located anywhere on the body. Because it’s not insulated, I usually tuck the wire in vinyl piping or hollow tube that looks like normal trim to a casual viewer.

So, if you haven’t checked out a sewing machine in a few years, you owe it to yourself to play with one of the newest computerized models. Take a look at the Brother CS6000i — the best seller on Amazon. It offers an impressive array of features for less than $150. Who knows, you just might reenergize the DIYer inside you.  SV

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