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Tips for Buying Your First Sewing Machine

Whether you want to make your own clothes or home decor or just be able to mend and tailor the things you already have, a sewing machine makes it much easier. If you don’t have much experience with sewing on a machine, though, it can be daunting looking at all of the choices out there. While it really is up to personal preference, there are a few guidelines that will help you to find a solid sewing machine that meets your needs.

Determine your stitch needs

What are you planning to do with your sewing machine? For most sewing, you really don’t need a huge variety of stitches. Almost everything can be done with a machine that sews straight and zig-zag stitches, and has a button hole option. A blind hem stitch, an overedge stitch and a smocking stitch round it out nicely for garments and decor construction. If you plan to do decorative top stitching, then look for a sewing machine with decorative stitches you like.

Computerized sewing machine?

Honestly, I avoid computerized machines. A sewing and embroidery combo machine like my Brother SE400 (this is the updated version) is the exception. If you really want to do machine embroidery you will need a computerized embroidery machine. Otherwise, a purely mechanical machine is my recommendation. Even though my embroidery machine is also a regular sewing machine, I prefer to keep my embroidery machine for embroidery only and use another sewing machine for standard sewing. Computerized machines have more things that can go wrong, and I like to keep things simple.

Sewing and Embroidery Machine
This is my model of embroidery machine. It is computerized and scary, lol.

Presser feet

To me, having a variety of presser feet is more valuable than having a variety of stitches. While most things can be done with a standard zig-zag foot, a zipper foot makes sewing in zippers a lot easier. A rolled hem foot makes it easier to sew tiny narrow hems. Button hole and button feet round out the basic feet that make sewing garments easier and with more professional looking results. Those are many other presser feet available, and, while usually not required, they each make their specific task easier.

Most new sewing machines use a universal snap-on presser foot system, so it’s not hard to add more presser feet to your collection. Older machines use a thumb screw to attach the feet, but you can usually screw on a snap on adapter and use snap on feet on them, too. This page gives a good rundown on how to know if a presser foot works for your machine.

Vintage Sewing Machine knit foot
Vintage foot. I think it is a knit foot.

Construction

For a long-lasting machine, the less plastic the better. I prefer vintage machines for this reason. A good metal vintage machine will last forever if maintained properly, whereas machines with internal plastic gears and other mechanisms is more likely to break. If you buy a new machine, it’s more likely to have a lot of plastic components, but you can still look for quality. Check out the display model, if possible. Is there anything already broken just while on display? While the break may have just been a previous too-rough customer, it’s also likely a weak point. Do the knobs, levers and buttons operate smoothly and feel solid? How heavy is the machine? I personally would lean toward a heavier machine.

Used or vintage sewing machine

It’s not hard to find used sewing machines at thrift stores, garage sales or on sites like craigslist in the $20-$75 range. If shopping for a used machine, see if you can test it before buying. If not, gently turn the hand wheel to see if it moves smoothly. They usually turn towards the front. Don’t force it if it feels stiff or resistant. If it turns, are there any weird sounds like something hitting or rubbing that shouldn’t. Are the plug and visible wiring in good shape? Does it pass the construction tests previously mentioned?

With a used machine, you may not have the manual or attachments for the machine. Most manuals can be found online, but if you can, do a quick search for it before buying it. Things like presser feet and bobbins are easy to replace, unless it is a really old machine. Even then, there are still parts out there on ebay and similar sites, but try to check first.

It’s a good idea to get a used machine tuned up at a repair shop, especially if you’re not familiar with sewing machine maintenance. On average, a tune up runs $75-$100. If it turns out further repair is needed, then that will add to the cost. Depending on the purchase price and the solidness of the machine, though, even with the tune up cost, you may spend about the same as a lower end new model, but the machine will last a lot longer.

A word about Singer sewing machines

I personally haven’t owned a Singer. All of mine are either Signatures (Montgomery Ward brand), a Kenmore (Sears brand) or my new Brother embroidery machine. They all are low shank machines, so the feet are interchangeable, and, except for the Brother, the bobbins are the same. Older Singers have either a Singer-exclusive slant shank or, if I’m not mistaken, a high shank, which has deterred me from owning one. The older Singers are good, solid machines, though, so if you aren’t worried about being able to use the same feet on another machine, they are a good choice.

Newer Singers are another matter. I’ve had friends purchase a brand new Singer that had it break just after the warranty ran out. The cost of repair made it better to replace the machine. Looking online, the general consensus is that Singers aren’t made to last anymore. For low-cost, entry-level machines, Brother tends to have a better reputation. Again, I haven’t owned a Singer, but, from what I’ve heard, I would stick with vintage models and avoid the new ones.

Questions?

These are just a few basic guidelines. If you have any other questions relating to sewing machines, ask in the comments and I will answer them as best as I can. If you have your own guidelines to add, feel free to comment those as well.

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Tips for Going Gluten Free

Many people eat gluten free (g-free), either by choice or need. For those with celiac, eliminating gluten is an absolute necessity. Others find that, for one reason or another, they feel better when they avoid it. In my case, I kind of accidentally discovered that joint pain in my hands and feet go away and I’m less brain foggy when I avoid gluten. Other family members suffer from breakouts and rashes that flare whenever they eat something with gluten. I strongly believe that if you feel bad after eating something, you should probably stop eating it, so we do our best to avoid gluten all together.

Eliminating something that is such a big part of your diet is daunting at first, but there are a few things that can make the transition easier and less expensive. These tips focus on gluten, but many will also help if you need to eliminate other foods.

Start with real foods

Processed foods often have hidden fillers and ingredients, and specialty gluten free foods are expensive. In contrast, fruits, vegetables, meat, nuts, beans, eggs and dairy are naturally gluten free in their pure forms. Rice is a grain that does not contain gluten. Starting from scratch with real food ingredients that you know naturally don’t have gluten is often easier and definitely cheaper than scrutinizing food labels and buying special gluten free versions of normally wheat based foods.

Go simple with seasonings

For the most part, single herbs and spices are gluten free. Certain spice blends may have gluten, though. Making your own blends is the safest bet, but if you have a spice blend you love, most manufacturer websites list whether their products contain gluten.

While not technically an herb or spice, most soy sauce contains gluten. La Choy is a major brand that is made without gluten. Bragg’s liquid aminos are another form of g-free soy sauce.

Most vinegar is g-free. Malt vinegar is not. You’ll also want to check the label on flavored vinegar to be sure.

Cooking oils don’t have gluten unless seasoned with something containing gluten.

Find your current gluten free staples

Look at the foods that currently stock your pantry. What things that you buy are already gluten free? For us, we usually keep a box or two of cereal around for snacking or a quick breakfast. Most cereals are made with wheat and therefore have gluten, but some that we already bought, like Honey Nut Cheerios, Lucky Charms and Rice Chex are gluten free. Knowing that, I can continue to keep a box or two of cereal we already liked on hand.

Likewise, we keep tortilla chips on hand for snacking or nachos. Most tortilla chips don’t have gluten and inexpensive. Since gluten free crackers are both hard to find and usually expensive, tortilla chips are an easy cracker substitute as well.

Look for the easy substitute

Like substituting tortilla chips for crackers, there are other easy swaps. Corn tortillas usually don’t have gluten and can be substituted for flour tortillas. Rice is often a good substitute for pasta, or substitute rice noodles. If you have an Asian grocery nearby, you can usually find rice noodles there for cheaper than a mainstream supermarket, as well as leafy greens and spices for cheap.

Make it yourself

It’s fairly easy to find gluten-free flour now, so making your own gluten free cookies, pizza crusts, pancakes, breads, etc. is a good option. I love Bob’s Red Mill 1 to 1 gluten free flour. With it, I can continue to make my favorite deserts just by substituting it for wheat flour. There are other good gluten free flours on the market, too. The most important thing is to know if it is blended to be an exact 1 to 1 substitute or if you need to add something like xanthan gum to give it the stretchiness and rise that you usually get from gluten. For example, Bob’s Red Mill has an All Purpose Gluten Free Flour that is not the 1 to 1 blend. It is a little denser and does not have xanthan gum already blended. I like blending it with tapioca flour, which adds some stretchiness. That works well for things like gluten free flour tortillas. For things that need to rise, though, like cakes or breads, I also add xanthan gum if I’m using the all purpose and not the 1 to 1 blend.

When buying gluten free, shop around

Sometimes you really just want to get some gluten free penne pasta or a g-free bagel. More and more grocery stores regularly stock g-free pastas, breads and desserts, but they can be pricey. If you find them on sale, stock up and freeze the extras. Alternative grocery stores sometimes offer better prices, too. Aldi has a decent selection of g-free breads, pastas, and baking mixes at a lower price than most other stores. I even found some gluten free donuts there recently.

Locally, we have a surplus/discount/closeout grocery store called Town Talk. They frequently have udi’s bread for around two loaves for $3.00. I periodically stop in and stock up when I can.

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Tips for going gluten free

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Tips for Saving Money on Food

No matter what our budget looks like, food is always a part of it. You have to eat, right? There are many thoughts on the best way to save on food. These are the things that work for me.

Eat at home

This one is probably the most important. If you eat out, regardless of whether it’s a dine-in or fast food restaurant, you are going to spend more than if you cook and eat at home. It’s fine to splurge once in a while, but if you’re looking to save, eating at home gives you the most bang for your buck.

Buy mostly ingredients

Prepackaged foods are sometimes quicker, but they are usually more expensive per serving. If it’s a choice between eating out and eating convenience foods from the grocery, it’s still usually cheaper than eating out, so if it’s a choice between KFC or a deli rotisserie chicken, bagged salad and prepackaged dinner rolls, the deli chicken is probably the cheaper and healthier option.

There are some convenience items that I find helpful, especially when life gets hectic. Jarred sauces, bouillon and frozen potatoes in various forms are things that I like to have on hand to help me get a meal on the table quickly. When there’s not time to make the sauce from scratch or I don’t have homemade broth on hand those can make it easy to still throw something together. They’re also usually fairly inexpensive, so I feel they are budget friendly convenience choices.

Buy in bulk where it makes sense

Don’t buy a ton of perishables like fresh fruit just because it’s on sale. If you have time to prep and freeze or can the fruit, then go for it. Things like canned goods, freezer staples and shelf stable items are great for buying in bulk, if you have the room. We have a small chest freezer, so I’m able to buy fruit on sale to freeze for smoothies or desserts and an extra ham or turkey when they are on sale for under $1 per pound around the holidays.

I also buy basmati rice in 20 lb bags because we prefer it over other types of rice and it is so much cheaper that way. To keep it fresh and manageable, I keep a small container of it in the cupboard and the rest goes into the freezer.

Shop creatively

It’s easy to have one or two grocery stores or box stores where you do all of your shopping. If you have farmer’s markets, discount groceries or ethnic groceries in your area, you may find better deals on some items.

For starters, if you have an Aldi nearby and haven’t given them a try, please do. I’ve found them to have a good selection of staples and they have a good guarantee on everything they sell. You won’t find many name-brands at Aldi, but with their guarantee, it’s worth trying and seeing if you like their store brands. They also carry a lot of gluten-free options, as well as dairy-free milk alternatives and a dairy-free mozarella cheese.

I also frequently shop a local Vietnamese grocery store. They have tons of fresh greens and other produce at really good prices. I also get a lot of specialty items, like things for making pho or sushi for sometimes half the cost or less of what I would pay at Kroger or Walmart. Bulk spices and rice are also cheaper there. For gluten-free pasta, rice noodles from there are cheaper than gluten-free options from Kroger and Walmart.

Find a method of meal planning that works for you.

Some people do really well with having every meal, every day planned out to every last detail. I prefer something more flexible that allows for changes based on last minute plans or whatever is on sale that week or whatever leftovers we need to eat. Regardless of the type of meal planner you are, have some sort of game plan in place.

Meal planning is one area where I need to improve, but I do have a basic game plan for meals that I’ll post on at a later date.

While you’re planning, don’t forget lunch. Leftovers are quick and easy lunches, so if you’re planning a dinner that reheats well, make enough for lunch the next day.

Keep staples for one or two quick meals on hand always

This is important in case you forget to plan, or something doesn’t work out with your plan. Whether it’s spaghetti and premade sauce, eggs, fruit and toast or some other meal you can throw together in under thirty minutes, keep the ingredients on hand for one or two backups that you like. Having a backup option makes it easier to eat at home when you might otherwise be tempted to eat out.

Eat real food

If you have to change your eating habits due to health or personal beliefs, it’s easy to try to substitute faux or “free” foods tailored to that diet. Price-wise though, it’s better to adapt your diet with real foods. Rather than faux meat burgers, try grilling portobello mushrooms or making your own patties with chickpeas. Instead of gluten free pasta, substitute rice or potatoes. Instead of diet drinks, flavor water, tea or soda water with fruit.

If you’re really craving cheese and you’re dairy free or bread and you’re gluten free, go ahead and splurge on the dairy or gluten free options. If you’re on a plant-based diet but desperately want something like a real burger, go for one of the faux meat patties. Just try to keep those splurges to a minimum and you’ll save money.

Find recipes for soups, stews and beans that you like

Soups, stews and beans are usually cheap, filling and can be a one pot meal. Having a few recipes you like and keeping the ingredients on hand can really help save money on food. They also are easy to make in bulk and usually freeze well, so making a bunch and having it for lunch or in the freezer for nights that dinner plans don’t work out helps prevent eating out. I love crock pots or pressure cookers for making soups and stews. It’s absolutely not necessary to run out and buy a slow cooker or pressure cooker, but if it’s something you’ve been considering, I love my electric pressure cooker for so many things.

Saving money on food.
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Easy fix for worn out denim jeans

A sick kiddo has kept me from blogging much this past week. Sunday was much better, so hopefully I’ll be back to my usual posting schedule. In the meantime, since last week’s post was on patching denim, I’m bringing back an older post on a different denim jeans fix I’ve used. This one doesn’t require an embroidery machine.

I have a pair of denim blue jeans that are still in good shape except for where my thighs touch. There they are really worn on one side and there is a hole on the other. Because of where the hole was located, I wasn’t comfortable even wearing them around the house, so I decided to try a simple fix.

Interfacing for support

First, I ironed lightweight fusible interfacing on the inside of the worn areas, making sure to completely cover all the worn out spots with the interfacing.

Reinforce with stitching

Once it fused and cooled down, I turned them right side out. Using a narrow zig-zag, I stitched back and forth over the hole and worn areas. This serves to secure the interfacing and add strength.

If you can, drop or cover the feed dogs on your sewing machine so you can move the jeans freely under the needle. The machine I used doesn’t have a way to drop them and I don’t have the special foot plate to cover them. Instead, I used a combination of repositioning and forward and reverse stitching to make it work.

Denim Jeans Fix

Depending on the location, you could use contrasting thread and decorative stitches to turn the repair into an embellishment.

Lengthening a slightly short pair of jeans

I also have a pair of jeans I love, but they needed a button sewn back on. They were also a little short, so I replaced the button and let out the hem while watching TV one evening. These heavy denim jeans are now ready for the coming colder months.

Buttons!

These have an obvious line where the hem was. They’re really cute so I don’t care.

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Easy denim jeans fix.
 

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Easy Instant Pot Chicken and Vegetable Quinoa

My kitchen is getting overrun with recipes needing organized. To help, I’m typing them here where they are easy to find and print, if needed. First up is a super simple chicken and vegetable quinoa recipe for an Instant Pot or other electric pressure cooker.

Chicken and vegetable quinoa

Instant Pot Chicken and Vegetable Quinoa

Instant Pot Chicken and Vegetable Quinoa is a quick, last minute dish that is great hot or cold. Customize it by swapping out the protein or vegetables depending on what you have on hand.
Prep Time15 mins
Cook Time1 min
Course: Main Course, Side Dish
Servings: 6 people
Author: Charity

Equipment

  • Electric pressure cooker, such as an Instant Pot

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp oil olive oil, coconut oil or preferred cooking oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 cup chicken breast, cut into bite sized pieces Could also use pre-cooked, shredded chicken
  • 1 cup frozen mixed vegetables
  • 2 cups quinoa
  • 2 cups chicken broth or water
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  • Turn the pressure cooker to "Saute" and add oil.
  • Add the onion and chicken if you are not using pre-cooked chicken.
  • Saute until the onion is translucent and chicken is browned.
    Sauteing Chicken and Onion
  • Press "Cancel" to stop sauteing.
  • Add broth, quinoa and vegetables to pot and stir.
  • Add salt and pepper, if desired.
  • Lock the lid and set cooker to one minute on high pressure.
  • Allow pressure to release naturally when done.
  • Fluff with fork and serve.

Notes

The great thing about this recipe is it is easy to customize. Try it with beef, sausage, tofu, or skip the protein and add more vegetables. If you have leftover chicken, shred it and use it instead of raw chicken breasts.
Clean out the veggie drawer and use whatever you have on hand.
Change up the flavor by adding soy sauce, hot sauce or your favorite seasonings.
It's easy to pack for lunches or take on picnics, too.

Instant Pot Chicken and Vegetable Quinoa is a quick, last minute dish that is great hot or cold. Customize it by swapping out the protein or vegetables depending on what you have on hand.

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Goodwill Finds and Refashion Ideas

Pink tunic after removing the lining.

This weekend, we visited a local Goodwill store. Unlike the other Goodwill’s in our area, this one has everything in big bins and they charge a flat, by-the-pound fee. Thrift stores always have unique items, but this one seems to have some really good finds, if you’re willing to dig.

In addition to a few household odds and ends, I found a couple of dresses and a shirt that need a little bit of refashioning, and a pair of skinny boyfriend cut jeans that are like new and fit perfectly. I also found a pretty floral vintage bed sheet. Vintage linens are somewhat in demand among crafters, and I rarely have luck finding them, so it was a nice surprise. 

 

Vintage Pink and Purple Floral Bed Sheet
Vintage Pink and Purple Floral Bed Sheet

Green Dress

The first dress is a casual, green knit dress with interesting cutwork and stitching at the neckline and hem.

Green knit dress
Green knit dress

Pros: It’s comfortable, easy to wear and chase after kiddos, and I like the color and detailing. Cons: It’s a size or two too big. This makes the underarms gappy and the waistline droopy. It’s too short to be a maxi dress, but not short enough to not be frumpy. I could wear it as is around the house, but I think I can make it into something better.

My plan: Separate it at the waist into the bodice and skirt. Tighten the bodice at the side seams. Reattach the skirt to the bodice after removing a few inches from the top of the skirt to make it somewhere between tunic and knee length. Add new, tighter elastic at the waist.

Long, Floral Shirtdress

The pretty blue and floral pattern is what caught my attention with this dress.

Blue, long floral shirtdress
Blue, long floral shirtdress

Pros: The print is very pretty, and there is a lot of fabric to work with. Cons: The fabric is a stiff, non-breathing 100% polyester. It’s a size too small through the middle.

My plan: I have a few ideas for this one. The top (bodice) fits pretty well. The only fit issue is right through the middle. I could separate the bodice from the skirt, raise the skirt so that a wider section that fits me better is at the waist and reattach. Factoring in the button placket might make it tricky, but not that difficult.

I’m not sure I would wear it enough to go through that trouble, though. Option two is to use the skirt portion to make a slip-style nightgown by shaping a neckline and cutouts for armholes, then adding bias tape trim and snaps. I would probably use it more this way, but I still worry about the feel of the fabric. I usually avoid things without at least some natural fiber content. Texas is hot and I need my clothes to breathe.

My final idea is to salvage the buttons and use the fabric for things like bag linings, makeup pouches or other accessories. I will probably try one of my first two ideas before this one. I can always use option three if one or two don’t work out.

Pink Tunic Shirt

I think the flowiness of the outer layer and the stitching around the neckline is what made me grab this tunic shirt from the bin.

Flowy Pink Tunic Shirt
Flowy Pink Tunic Shirt

Pros: Flowy, comfortable fit. Detailing at the neckline keeps it from being too plain. Nice, bright color. Cons: The top layer seems to have shrunk, exposing the lining layer. The lining is 100% polyester knit, which is stretchy and comfortable, but doesn’t breathe.

My plan: This one was so simple, I actually did it in about five minutes this morning. I thought about shortening the lining by a few inches. The top, gauzy layer didn’t really have to have a lining, though, so I decided to remove the lining altogether by simply cutting it out. This made it super easy, and now the tunic is lighter and more suitable to Texas summers.

Pink tunic after removing the lining.
Pink tunic after removing the lining.

It’s not the most dramatic refashion, but it fixed a problem and made it so much more comfortable to wear. I wore it Sunday over my new-to-me Goodwill blue jeans to The Modern art museum and then to Central Market with the family for a treat and playtime on their playground. Without the lining, the tunic was lightweight, and the drapiness of the fabric kept it from feeling frumpy. I totally see it becoming one of my new favorites.

Speaking of The Modern, if you’re on Instagram, I’ve shared a video to @subearthancottage of Thadd and Beckett having fun with the crazy acoustics inside the Vortex sculpture out front. It was so much fun to watch them play, as well as just about anyone walking by. Few people passed without stepping inside to stomp their feet or shout.

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How to make powdered laundry detergent

Laundry detergents have always been problematic for me. Certain brands irritate my skin, and I’ve never been able to pinpoint what ingredient is the problem. Even if I knew, most laundry detergents don’t exactly provide a list of ingredients I could check. Luckily, laundry detergent is easy to make. Doing it yourself not only allows you to control what ingredients are in your detergent, it also saves a ton of money.

My recipe uses four basic ingredients stocked by many supermarkets now, and one optional ingredient.

Ingredients:

  • 2 parts Borax
  • 2 parts Washing Soda
  • 1 part Grated Bar Soap
  • 0.25 part Baking Soda
  • Optional Fragrance Oil or Essential Oil  

Prep:

You’ll want a clean, dry, lidded container or bag to store your homemade laundry detergent. If the container isn’t air-tight, the detergent may clump from moisture in the air. Usually it’s easy to break it up, so this isn’t a big problem. If you don’t do laundry very often, though, you probably want to store it in something with a good seal.

The soap can be anything. Most people start out using a laundry soap like Fels Naptha. Once I started making my own soap, I switched to using whatever basic recipe soap I had on hand. You can grate it by hand with a cheese grater or with a shredding disk on a food processor. 

Make it:

Combine the first four ingredients in a large mixing bowl. If you’re not familiar with the “parts” measurement, it’s a simple way of making a recipe fit whatever amount you need by giving the amounts as a ratio instead of a specific measurement. You could substitute “cup” for “parts” if that makes it easier.  

Options:

Leave it unscented, use a scented bar of soap, or add your choice of fragrance or essential oil to the combined ingredients and stir to combine. I usually use about half an ounce of fragrance oil per batch. With essential oils, I usually start with 15 drops or so and see how it smells before adding any more. I’ve heard you could use your favorite cologne or perfume, but I haven’t personally tried it. 

Use it:

I use about two tablespoons per load in my top loading machine. You can use one tablespoon for lightly soiled loads, but with my family, every load is a two tablespoon load.

Laundry Detergent
DIY Powdered Laundry Detergent

 

DIY Laundry detergent