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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sewing with Oilcloth


(Oilcloth camera or gadget cases available at my shop,

Who doesn't love oilcloth- the colorful, water-proof vinyl table covering material that so many people remember from their mother's or grandmother's kitchen table. 40 years ago, women would re-cover the table once or twice year; it was a thrifty way to spruce up the kitchen. There has been an oilcloth revival in the past couple of years and you can find it for sale in lots of shops and websites. Sewing it is a challenge and should not be attempted by inexperienced stitchers. I will give you some tips that have helped me.
(Oilcloth makeup bags available at my shop

Oilcloth is available in a wide variety of colors and prints. I prefer Oilcloth brand product because it is heavy and durable and comes in vintage prints that are actually from the 50s and 60s. There also are a lot of knockoff oilcloth brands popping up; I dislike some of them because they have a thinner, cheaper feel to the fabric, but others have really cute patterns that are tempting.

One thing you should realize about oilcloth is that even if you order several types from the same company, they may not all feel the same, and therefore will not sew the same. When I began making my oilcloth bags I bought several colors, and discovered that some felt rubbery, and stretched when I made efforts to sew them, making my job way more difficult- I now avoid those particular prints. Other prints were thinner and more plastic-y and sew up fairly easily.(Oilcloth camera or gadget case available at my shop

I am going to walk you through the process of sewing oilcloth on a sewing machine:
1. Change your machine needle to a leather needle. You may be able to make due with a denim needle, but a leather needle is better because it is shaped like a triangle and punches a hole each time it hits the oilcloth. This helps your machine feed the fabric smoothly- you have to remember, you are going to be sewing on slick plastic which is fairly thick and tough.
2. Raise your thread tension. I raise mine by about 1- in other words if my tension is normally 5, I make it a 6. This may not be necessary- you will just have to experiment on a scrap until your stitches look good. In other words, the top thread and bobbin thread should stay on their own respective sides of the fabric (especially important if you use a different color thread and bobbin thread).
3. When sewing oilcloth it is VERY important to use pins to hold the work together. If the pieces are not well-pinned together (and even sometimes when they are) they will slide, stretch, or crease. If you use a walking foot on your machine this will also help. If you use cheap pins, as I sometimes do, you may notice that as you pull out the pins, they are breaking because the oilcloth clings to the metal so hard that the head comes off in your hand. This is annoying but unavoidable and will likely spur you to spend a little more next time for quality pins.
4. So you have cut and pinned your pieces, set up your machine, and you are ready to sew. Begin slowly, and if it doesn't want to feed right away, you may have to backstitch and pull on the thread ends to get the piece started feeding. Leave the pins in until they have almost reached the foot- no need to pull them out earlier than you absolutely have to. Now even if you are super careful, the fabric may start to buckle or bubble. If this starts to happen, especially if you find yourself "chasing" a bubble on one piece that keeps growing as you go, it is time to STOP and go back. Once a bubble starts it only gets worse, trust me. So if you seen a sign that the pieces are sliding or stretching you need to stop right away, rip out stitches, re-pin, and try again. A lot of time it really helps to stitch from the other side, if that is possible. In a worst case scenario you could always hand-baste the pieces together and then stitch them on the machine.
5. Pressing oilcloth? Not with the iron, unless you want a melted mess of plastic on your hands. You do have some options though. Your secret weapon is your blow-dryer (for hair). Hit a seam with a blast of hot air from the blow-dryer for just a few seconds, to soften it so that you can press it open. You can also use your steam iron to do this, just be careful to never touch your iron to the fabric or it will leave a nasty mark. If you need a seam to be pressed super-flat, you have one more option- lay out the fabric piece flat on your ironing board and cover the area to be pressed with a piece of heavy cardstock or a manila folder. With your iron on "synthetic" or "silk" setting, put iron on top of cardstock for several seconds and it will press through to the oilcloth without marring it. Do not leave your iron in one position for more than 10 seconds.
6. When you complete your oilcloth item you may notice the pins have left a few tiny holes in the fabric. Usually a blast of steam from the iron will make these holes shrink up and disappear.
7. Step back and enjoy your oilcloth creation! It may have cost you some sweat and tears, and a little bit of your sanity, but it was worth it right? And now you can say you know how to sew oilcloth.
(Oilcloth makeup bag available at my shop