It was bound to happen. Just as technology has changed industry after industry, it has now created a tectonic shift in industrial sewing machines.
Sewing is a skill that combines touch and sight and an almost uncanny ability to feel a sewing machine and make it do as you wish. Unchanged for over a hundred years, sewing machine operators perform their tasks day in and day out exactly as their grandparents did. Their value is defined by the combination of thought and skill needed to do the many different and ever changing operations correctly. Quality in apparel manufacturing really comes down to perfect sewing; the expected and planned operation is correctly executed by both the operator and the machine. It sounds easy yet of course turns out to be really hard to do. That's why technology stepped in.
Global apparel manufacturing has relentlessly searched to make product at the absolute lowest price in the least amount of time with the highest quality needed. The big companies that make industrial sewing equipment have realized they can take a lot of the guesswork out of manufacturing by computerizing the machines at the most basic level. Smart sewing machines already have some idea of what they're going to do, which takes a huge burden off the operator, whom can then be less skilled -- and lower paid. Declining cost and skill at the same time is a manufacturing double-double and just what the apparel industry needs as the supply chain moves to emerging labor markets that lack a robust apparel manufacturing sector. That includes the U.S.A.
Although mechanized sewing isn't new, it has always been difficult, expensive, and essentially unchangeable. Today's digital machines can quickly learn to sew a label on a pair of jeans or top stitch a five-sided pocket. They sew an exact distance, back up to reinforce the seam, cut thread, and lift the foot, all in a single operation. Different weights of materials are automatically compensated for as the feeding mechanisms self-adjust and the machines now time themselves, making technician visits less frequent. The new machines are inexpensive and will memorize and recall hundreds of different sequences, making a single unit very versatile. Modern servo motors provide the power while using a fraction of the energy of the old clutch motors. Servos are silent and more powerful, and the speed can be controlled easily by a novice, another big advantage.
We're lucky here on Colorado's Front Range to have a direct importer of industrial sewing machines. Ralph's Powersew in Denver has been selling and repairing machines since before the Broncos were a football team. The experts at Ralph's are so well respected that the huge Asian factory networks making sewing machines fly them over for consultation. Ralph's has industrial patents and a machine shop and 2 million parts in the back room. They have been the backbone of analog sewing in the region for a long time, and now they are putting smart sewing machines in their showroom. Sewing 2.0 is here.
This changes everything about small-batch apparel production in the U.S.A.
-- k gray
Kurt Gray designs technical clothing. His website is www.simplygraydesign.com. (Disclaimer: Mr. Gray used to screw up his mother's sewing machine all the time and still can't be trusted with needle and thread. The publisher, with reason, doesn't necessarily share his views. Send him a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.)