A Stitch in Time – To Free-Arm or Not to Free-Arm

We Carry
by Sara Snuggerud in Archives

By Carol E. Meyer (Sara’s Mom)
When new features are introduced into the sewing machine world there is a lot of initial excitement and wonder at what this or that can do, or do for you. Then, if it turns out to be so popular eventually all sewing machine manufacturers produce that feature on their machines.

While many people reading this article can remember when sewing machines only did a straight stitch (and some of those machines did not even do a reverse stitch) most sewers today expect a sewing machine to have zigzag and at least a few variations of zigzag. There are a number of features today that are now standards in the sewing machine market place that we take for granted. Today we might wonder how sewers survived without what we have come to know as standard features, the free-arm being one of them. People who sewed without a free-arm did just fine.

From the beginnings of the lock-stitch machine, (machines that use two threads to form stitches) there were gears and rods connecting the flywheel to the hook and bobbin mechanism underneath the flatbed table part of the machine. These machines needed to be in a cabinet, or if they were portable the carrying case box kept those gears and rods suspended inside. There were always ways to maneuver the fabric without the need of a free-arm.

With the introduction of the free-arm those rods and gears are now encased, and the encasement sits up over a base, leaving space for fabric to travel around the arm. This feature also gives machines a new style of portability. Gone are those heavy, clunky boxes that those old machines had to sit in, or those cabinets that were required.

The free-arm’s great selling point is to be able to sew around cuffs and hems by slipping the fabric around the arm. This is certainly very handy as we have become used to that feature. However, if you are a quilter you may be one of those sewers that will never use your free-arm feature.

Quilters, piece-ers, and appliqué-ers all need the flat table sewing area. Even embroidery machines need a larger table area to support the embroidery work. Now, almost the only choice of a machine is a free-arm style. Some machines come with table extensions to make it a flatbed again. There are custom tables to add to any model of machine, giving the flexibility of free-arm or flatbed sewing.

When a machine is put into a cabinet today the machine sits in the recessed area with its bed level with the table top. Putting this machine in a cabinet to increase the table area requires a custom insert to fill the open space around the machine since the tables today have a standard size opening where the machine sits. To access the free-arm feature you simply take the insert out of the table. It is also very easy to make your machine portable again, with no screws or hinges to undo while performing a balancing act with a very heavy metal machine.

So what has happened is that machines advanced with the free-arm technology and gave us new ways to sew small or circular areas, and gave a new generation of portability. Some sewing machine companies recognized that some sewers would still want the large surface area so they provided a table extension that slides easily onto the machine. Custom table extension manufactures make it possible for all makes and models to have a table extension, and some are quite large. Cabinets were redesigned to accommodate the free-arm and portability features. We really do have the best of both worlds. What about the lady that never had a free-arm machine? She did fine, and there is always a way to sew everything, free-arm or not.

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