Needles in the Stacks: Fancy Machine Work and Sergers

serger stitchesWelcome back to another episode of Beth & Denise’s reviews of needle-oriented books in our stacks!  With the holidays ahead, it seems a good time to continue our series reviewing the how-to manuals collected in the library.  What’s on your Christmas list?

Encyclopedia of Sewing Machine Techniques, by Nancy Bednar and JoAnn Pugh-Gannon

4th Floor Art Reference and 5th Floor Main Stacks TT713 .B39 2007

This book is exactly what the title says it is.  It contains lots of unusual stitches and creative applications for a home sewing machine, beginning with explanations of different kinds of thread, needles, and kinds of feet.  It is not a “Here’s How to Sew” manual, though.  The idea is to take specialized machine feet and use them to apply different embellishments.  These techniques would be most helpful for people working with children’s clothing or quilting, since many deal with applique and embroidery detail work.  Many books like this come with really cheesy or outdated projects in the back, but these are still pretty relevant, even if rather casual.  We really recommended this book for machine whizzes or people who want to be.


The Art of Manipulating Fabric by Colette Wolff

5th Floor Main Stacks  TT705 .W54  1996 

This isn’t so much a book of sewing techniques as much as a challenge to the designer/reader to think about fabric in new ways.  It is organized by type of manipulation (e.g. tucks, gathers, smocking) and has great images of variations on these themes.  These are followed by black and white images demonstrating the techniques.

This is a book that would be most interesting to someone with a bit of a texture fetish.  The specialized fabric effects shown here suggest mostly couture applications.

wolff manipulated clothThe disappointing things with this book are that all the images are black and white, and all the demonstrations are drawings.  I suspect this lack of rich visuals is a product of publishing standards in the late-1990s.  The pictorial quality of many how-to books published in the last ten years has escalated dramatically (the result of new global production sourcing methods, perhaps?).  While this book should be a lot more visually sumptuous than it is, it’s still an inspiration for people who love working with cloth.



Singer: The Complete Photo Guide to Sewing, by Creative Publishing International

5th Floor Main Stacks TT 713 .C63 2005   

This is the Singer machine company’s version of The Basic Sewing Guide.  (We already reviewed the Reader’s Digest & Vogue versions, remember?)  This version has a lot of things to recommend it.  It covers basic machine construction techniques for standard garments, including knitwear, as well as some simple home decorating projects (that haven’t gone out of date yet).  The step-by-step instructions seem clear but concise.  This book stands out due to the quantity and attractiveness of the projects, which are basic enough to not get dated as quickly as those in other books; and the clarity  of the photographs which accompany the instructions.  While Denise is upset that the zipper section doesn’t include invisible zippers, as recent as this book is,  Beth really likes the attention paid to how to sew different types of fabrics.

The other standout of this book is the excellent (and rare)  attention paid to sewing machine and serger maintenance.  This book has great photos of stitch problems from both types and what causes them.  It’s not as detailed as the Gale Grigg Hazen (see next review), but it’s a good, clear beginning to working with one’s machine.


Owner’s Guide to Sewing Machines, Sergers, and Knitting Machines, by Gail Grigg Hazen

5th Floor Main Stacks TT713 .H38 1989

This book is a rare and valuable one.   Unlike most of the books I have (and will) look at, this one focuses on basic machine care for the tools we use.

This nifty book actually walks the user through the basic mechanical steps that our sewing machines, sergers, and knitting machines use in order to creates a series of functional stitches.  Better still, the book has diagrams and instructions for oiling and adjusting the moving components of the machines as described, thus saving me, theoretically, from spending the $$ I end up spending every time my machine goes out of time.  Which is nearly always right in the middle of one of my annual sewing sprees.   This book gives me the key to Figure It All Out and Do It Myself!  But no, I don’t own a knitting machine, so that part doesn’t help me.  But otherwise, I think we each need a copy.  Good Christmas gift ideas… Hmm!


Professional Sewing Techniques for Designers, by Julie Cole and Sharon Czachor

4th Floor Art Reference and 5th Floor Main Stacks  TT 705 .C65  2009

We have been looking at a lot of different sewing technique books, each with a different focus.  This one attempts to provide a ready reference of professional (machine-driven) construction techniques for people interpreting their own designs into cloth.  The book’s strengths include a chapter on stabilizing fabrics to align the weight of your fabric to its end use; detailed descriptions of many kinds of interfacings, facings and edge finishes.  It breaks down a garment by section: skirt, bodice, sleeve, pants-crotch, closures, thus helping a designer think through the steps in creating a finished garment.  It isn’t a basic sewing book, though, and the how-to is all done with drawings, not photographs.   Consequently,  we think this book might be a good companion for the Reader’s Digest Guide, once the designer has decided to create garments on his or her own, but probably shouldn’t stand alone on anyone’s shelf.  A lot of the techniques are more advanced (machine-centric) construction techniques of the sort seen in Garment-Center production sewing, not the more exacting hand-techniques of couture.


Dressmaker’s Handbook, by Rene Bergh

5th Floor Main Stacks  TT515 .B453 1998

This book contains a series of basic garment construction techniques, from the supplies list and description to the pattern corrections for the basics (pants, skirts, blouses) to finishing techniques for tailored ready to wear.  The author assumes that the maker will purchase a pattern, then use it to produce a well-made, even “couture” or fancily-finished garment.  The book attempts to illustrate garments constructed with both knits and crisp shirtings and suitings, which are very different conceptually.

Techniques are demonstrated in attractive watercolor illustrations, some of these seem a bit ambiguous. The techniques listed here are included in many other, better-presented and more-complete books (many of which we own), and this book in general is of less use to an FIT student, who presumably would be making his or her *own* patterns, than a home sewer or beginner out in the rest of the sewing world.

The rest of the books we’ll review today are focused on serging or overlock machines.


Sewing with Sergers, The Complete Handbook for Overlock Sewing, by Pati Palmer and Gail Brown (3rd edition)

4th Floor Art Reference  TT713 .B76 2004

This is a smaller format book, created with black and white drawings.  Sad to say, Denise and I find the book less helpful just because of that, despite the fact that the use of illustrations (instead of photographs) probably lowered the cost of the book.  It has a good section on machine features one can purchase and what they do.  And the instructions for maintaining the machine are excellent.  The book also presents lots of potential uses for serging, both to create new garments and to revise and update old ones.  But it is still difficult to understand the step-by-step construction as illustrated.  We wish they’d spent a little more money and used photos instead.


Singer: Sewing with an Overlock, by Cy DeCosse Inc., Singer

5th Floor Main Stacks  TT713 .S385 1989

This slim paperback volume uses photos to illustrate step by step instructions for using one’s overlock machine.  The book contains directions for pockets, collars, pants, seam finishes, dresses, hems, as well as a lot of info for working with knits.

This book depicts methods completely different from the sort of retro-centric couture-oriented fine finishing methods taught at FIT.  One section suggests a basting glue to hold a pocket together while stitching, a description which made Denise and I shudder!  Come to think of it, the FIT Way doesn’t espouse much of serger stitching at all, other than fine merrow-edged hems here and there.  Still, the overlock is the industry’s standard seam finish, and this book does a good job of teaching the machine’s use in basic garment construction.  The most valuable part of this book (speaking as a babylock owner) is the detailed listing given to troubleshooting and adjusting the threading,  tension and stitch easing using this machine.  This is important because these aspects are very different from working with normal home-sewing machines.


The Ultimate Serger Answer Guide, by Naomi Baker, Gail Brown, and Cindy Kacynski

5th Floor Main Stacks  TT713 .B335 1996 (Revised in 2011)

This book is not a serger how-to.  It is, instead, a troubleshooting guide to a complicated piece of machinery.  While many of the illustrations of problems are drawn, it combines photographs and detailed drawings to make the solutions pretty clear.  It seems incredibly thorough, addressing every part of the machine, and including photographs of the wrong vs. the correct final seam.  The other interesting info is that it includes detailed listings of the manufacturers that make sergers and the models they make, and the particulars of the care each type needs.  And a glossary of parts and terms.

I can come up with my own projects (which so many of the other books come with), but it’s difficult to find a machinery manual that works through problems for the non-technical consumer.  I think this makes this book especially valuable if one owns a serger.  Think of how helpful it would be to have a manual around for next time one’s serger coughs at one’s workpile!


The Complete Serger Handbook, by Chris James

4th Floor Art Reference  TT713 .J36 1997

This book begins with a detailed look at the variations in consumer machines and the range of parts available for them, and the tools useful to use with them.  The next detailed section examines the wealth of threads available for use with them, and the pros & cons of each.  It applies the same level of detail to the possible stitches, rethreading these difficult machines, and a combination of both basic stitches and more decorative advanced applications.

These are each useful features, and make this book highly recommended for it’s clarity and breadth of detail.  However, our real problem with this book is that both Denise and I are FIT-trained and we would just never ever serge a hem.  Or serge a seam.  The garment wouldn’t, in our minds, be well-made enough.

When one buys a new machine, one tends to want to thread and go.  The level of detail in this one is probably too cumbersome, and that’s why we think it probably went out of print.  Still, if one has a serger and uses it, we recommend this book.


 Simply Serge Any Fabric, by Naomi Baker and Tammy Young

5th Floor Main Stacks TT713 .B333 1990

Just to prove that every personal rule has an exception, this book, which is completely illustrated with drawings, that I feel actually conveys the most detail about the kind of sewing that sergers work best for.

Despite mine and Denise’s bias against serging as a construction tool, I have to admit that I like this book’s dynamic illustrations.  They walk one clearly through the easiest construction order for various cut-and-sew garments using this complicated piece of machinery.  This book contains less of the problem-stitch-troubleshooting contained in some of the others, and focuses instead on the types of fabrics that lend themselves well to this type of construction.  It offers descriptions of techniques for using a variety of fabrics, from suede to lace to lycra swimwear goods.  And it includes helpful tips for problem solving and streamlining one’s work.  And, of course, this book is completely out of print and impossible to find.  Except at the Gladys Marcus Library at FIT!

Happy holiday sewing, everyone!

Beth and Denise

Denise n Beth







This entry was posted in fashion, libraries and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Needles in the Stacks: Fancy Machine Work and Sergers

  1. Chris says:

    Liz: The Colette Wolff book was actually my first clue to the understanding of the patterned gathering seen in the gussets at the sides of 12th-century albs — something our mutual friend HRJ has developed further by constructing actual examples. (At first glance it looks like smocking, but it’s not, it’s quite a different technique.) This technique allows you to gather an incredibly large amount of fabric into a relatively small space AND make it look decorative.

  2. Pingback: Summer, and the reading is lazy… » Volumes & Issues

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *