Issue 1: Welcome to the Machine

This is where it all happens: the masterpieces, the joy, the frustrations and the nervous breakdowns. If you’re going to be making kites, especially those with pesky ripstop patchwork/appliqué, you will be spending a lot of time at the machine. I suggest you arm yourself with a lot of patience and get luck on your side by taking the time to learn a few basics.

That is what this column is all about. My goal is to share with other kite makers the fundamental information, tricks, and techniques needed to make good quality, long lasting kites. I have never really believed in pre-made patterns–even when I cook, I can’t follow a recipe, so it’s highly unlikely that I will follow someone else’s pattern. I believe in making a kite when I feel I’ve learned enough about that particular style of kite to give it a try on my own. It’s not usually perfect on the first try, but I can correct most of the problems with a little time and some thought. The downside to this approach is that it takes more time, sometimes it even takes more materials, but what makes it all worth while is the knowledge that comes with experimenting. It doesn’t come in books or magazines; this knowledge is also learned in the field with a steady breeze, a persistent attitude and a kite that just will not cooperate. You can only develop problem solving skills by solving problems, and the kite flier that solves the most problems is often the most knowledgeable. Actually, they are probably the ones that made the most mistakes… isn’t that encouraging?!!!

Welcome to the Machine will not be the place to get pre-made, pre-chewed and pre-digested patterns, but it will be the perfect forum for trading ideas on how to put together the wildest ideas you might have. Hopefully, we will help each other with tips on how to construct kites faster, neater and better than we have dreamed possible in the past. YES this is an open forum and all your suggestions are welcome, especially if I can take all the credit for them… just kidding! But first things first. Let’s talk about the number one thing you will have to take into consideration: the sewing machine.

A quality sewing machine is a ‘must’ if you are going to make kite building your favorite activity. Remember, you want to enjoy the time you will take to make your sails and you want to enjoy the way your kites look once they are completed. If you are considering buying a new machine, be advised that a good basic machine will set you back approximately $800.00 U.S.. Oh yes, I’ve seen those machines at Costco… I have been to Wal-Mart too. Let’s face it, 90% of the sewing machines sold today are sold to people who don’t sew and want a machine to hem their new pants (as if they’re going to do that every evening after work). The sewing machine manufacturers know this and market budget machines that are designed to be used once or twice a year by a user who is already convinced that if things go wrong, it’s probably their own fault. Please don’t buy a budget style machine if you are going to make kites; remember that the amount of sewing that goes into one kite is probably more work than these machines were designed to do in one year.

If you are on a tight budget (most of us are…), you are much better off buying a good quality used machine (previously owned, to be politically correct) as opposed to buying a new $169.99 “special”. Remember, a good domestic machine (non-industrial) was made to work hard everyday for twenty-five years, especially the older “all steel” machines. Most domestic machines will never get to see half the action they were designed to handle. So the risk of getting a worn out machine is practically non existent. Another advantage of high quality machines is the availability of replacement parts. My Pfaff dealer can change the brushes or bearings when needed; a lower quality machine would require a new motor in either case.

So you’ve made up your mind whether you want to buy a new machine or a used one, now what features should you look for? Now I will discuss the specific features of two leading manufacturers: Pfaff and Bernina. These two brands seem to be favored most by veteran kite makers. While they are both top quality machines each has features that may influence your decision.

Common features to look for (these are ‘musts’):

– 3 Position needle: most machines today have this feature and I regard it as extremely important.

– Zigzag stitching: again most machines offer this; even more desirable is a model that features manually adjustable stitch width AND length (not in pre-selected increments)

– Three-stitch zigzag (also known as elastic stitch)

– Reverse (back up)

– Avoid machines in which the bobbin and bobbin case are positioned flat in front of the needle and grip.

Features particularly useful for kite making:

– Dual feed or ‘walking foot’ (not the attachment, but the mechanical one like Pfaff)

– Needle up or needle down stop position

– Low bobbin thread warning

– Knee-operated foot lift

– Ultra low sewing speed or two speeds

– Manual foot control

– Back up trigger close to needle

– Automatic needle threader

Bernina sewing machines have most of the “important” features, plus the knee operated foot lift and manual foot control options. These are great features but to me the Pfaff “dual feed” or walking foot is the single most important feature on a sewing machine if you are going to sew ripstop. Especially if you are a beginner, the dual feed will help considerably when you are not applying the perfect tension and guidance to the material going under the needle. To me it is as though Pfaff set out to make the perfect kite-making machine and hit the mark dead on. I must admit that I have seen kites made by kite makers who prefer Bernina machines and was completely amazed by the quality of the stitching. So it’s really up to you to try both brands and make up your own mind.

As you shop for a machine you will discover that the buzzwords in the sewing machine industry are “electronic” or “computerized”– remember that nylon and polyester produce a lot of static electricity. Again, I know of many kite makers who have had no problems with their computerized machines but I’m a skeptic, especially with regard to older, first generation electronic machines. My personal advice: buy the best mechanical model; don’t go too crazy on bells and whistles you will probably end up NOT using.

Another type of machine used by some kite makers is the “Industrial” type. If you are going to make kites as a hobby you are much better off with the flexibility of a domestic. Industrial machines are usually designed to do one job, to do it fast (up to 5000 stitches per minute) and to do it forever (the whole machine usually sits in a bath of oil). Only if you’re thinking of starting your own kite manufacture should you consider an industrial machine.

And finally, buy a machine from the most reputable shop in your neighborhood (one that does all its repairs in-house).

I hope this helps. I welcome any and all comments from kite makers. As I said before, the objective is to spread as much useful and reliable information around as possible. In my next column I will be talking about thread and needles; they’re the tires and gasoline we use with our sewing machines and, as with cars, bald tires and water in the gas tank can make a good car perform really badly…

You may want to check out Bernina’s web site at:, or at:, and Pfaff at

When it comes to kites, make less but make the best.

Richard Gareau